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The British may have lost North America but their native house sparrows have successfully colonized the continent.

The British lost North America but English house sparrows have colonized the continent.

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It seems to happen once each century. In 1775 the Redcoats showed up in Boston, the Beatles made a big splash about 200 years later in 1964, and in the sweet-spot in-between the House Sparrows (Passer domestics) arrived.
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It’s difficult to believe, given current controversies and political grandstanding, but for a long time America had a very open-door immigration policy that allowed almost anyone—human and non-human—hassle-free entry. For example, no one batted an eye when my paternal ancestors washed up here after being kicked out of Scotland during the Highland Clearance to make room for sheep… but I digress. In the 1850s, when Brooklyn Institute Director Nicholas Pike purchased 8 pairs of house sparrows from England he didn’t have to sneak the birds past a Customs agent—the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) hadn’t been created yet and wouldn’t be for over 100 years. Nor did Pike need permission from the New York Department of Environmental Conservation to release the birds. It didn’t exist.
. Introducing these Old World sparrows to North America was not done on a whim. Some sources suggest the birds were imported to control a serious canker-worm (Alsophila pometaria or Paleacrita vernata) infestation threatening New York City’s trees—a somewhat misguided notion since house sparrows are granivores (seed-eaters), not insectivores, although they do feed insects to their nestlings.  Pike reportedly paid $200 for the pairs’ passage across the Atlantic, which may not sound like much but according to one relative-value calculator it’s equivalent to $5,000 today.
.feeding the sparrows
Like many immigrants before them those first settlers didn’t do all that well in their new home. Not dissuaded, Pike purchased another 25 pairs the following year and released them along the East River. This cohort proved hardier, or perhaps more adaptable. Another 100 pairs were ordered in 1853 and released at the Greenwood Cemetery, Central Park, Union Square Park, and Madison Square Park. Americans have a history of Anglophilia so it should come as no surprise that soon the former colonies were all a-twitter about these chatty, cheerfully social birds.
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male house sparrow by Eric Bégin, CCLHouse sparrows aren’t closely related to native North American sparrows and you can see it in their physique—they’re a bit heavier, with a deeper chest, a more rounded head, shorter tail, and a less delicate bill. Six inches (15 cm) long from beak to tail-tip, and weighing in at about 1.4 oz (40 g), the male house sparrow cuts a dashing but not flashy figure; he’s British, don’t forget, and all business. Bright blues, greens, and yellows are not his cup of tea; rather, he wears a neutral palette of black, gray, and chestnut, with a touch of white to sharpen up the entire female house sparrow2ensemble. Female fashion preferences are appropriately tweedy: tawny-brown with darker striping on top, oatmeal-tan or gray below. More Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson than David Bowie and Amy Winehouse, nonetheless, house sparrows were a trending novelty that went viral.
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Entrepreneurs recognized a market opportunity and became breeders.  Citizens in Maine, Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Pennsylvania all followed Pike’s lead, and by 1870 this pioneering species had spread south to Texas, north to Montreal, and past the Mississippi River to Iowa. A West Coast population was established with releases in California (1871-1872) and Utah (1873-1874), and in the subsequent decade house sparrows expanded their range from less than 1,200 mi2 to over 500,000 mi2. By the turn of the 20th century the space between eastern and western fronts had nearly filled.
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Why have house sparrows thrived while other species—including some natives—have failed? Here are the keys to making it in America:
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Get lucky.  House sparrows couldn’t have wished for better timing to facilitate their successful acclimation. Steam and internal combustion engines were coming on strong but horses and cattle were still the primary means of facilitated transportation. Working herbivores need more calories than grass and hay alone can provide so corn, barley, oats, wheat, and rice are common additions to the diet. Hoof-stock “exhaust” has a fair amount of undigested “fuel” and resilient city sparrows weren’t picky about where they got their vittles. Additionally, urbanites raised livestock and poultry and a small bird could easily slip in and out of pens and stables to pinch a bite or two. Enterprising sparrows even hitched rides on those new-fangled locomotives and their boxcars filled with grain.
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Grow up fast, breed early and often.  House sparrows eggs hatch after 10-16 days of incubation, nestlings fledge at 14-15 days old, are independent 7-10 days later. One study suggests they may reach sexual maturity as early as 4 months of age—time to find a mate and get busy! Females produce 2-5 clutches of 3-7 chicks per breeding season; that’s an average of 20 chicks per season, per breeding pair. Do the math and there’s your answer.
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Stand up for yourself and your kin.  House sparrows will form loose nesting colonies, are strongly territorial, and will aggressively defend nest sites and feeders. They’ll attack both intruders and potential intruders, and have been known to destroy the eggs and nestlings of competitor species.
. Be smart, adaptable, and adventurous.  Many bird species follow a strict set of guidelines when it comes to choosing where to raise a family.  Sparrows, on the other hand, sparrow nest by gingiber, CCL are willing to at least consider nearly any property when scouting for real estate. You’ll find them nesting in a wide range of locations—nest boxes and tree cavities, of course, but also signs, architectural features, drain pipes, dryer vents, and anywhere else that offers a large enough entrance.  When a potential nesting site has been identified they’ll use every means at their disposal to make it work.  They can even learn how to trip automated door sensors to access food and shelter from the elements and predators. When young house sparrows are old enough to leave the nest they’ll readily disperse 5 miles or more to find new feeding and nesting areas and quickly learn how to claim and exploit available resources.
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Have friends in high places. If you’re a wild thing, having H. sapiens on your side is the equivalent of a royal patronage. In the mid-19th century people trapped house sparrows from one place and released them into new territory cleared of predators and outfitted with nesting boxes.  That, my friends, is what’s called “choosing sides.” Is it any wonder house sparrows are now found in all 48 contiguous states and Hawaii’i (where they were introduced from New Zealand in 1871)? The kindness of human strangers has also allowed P. domesticus to claim much of Canada, all of Central America, most of South America, southern Africa, and eastern Australia.
dark green = natural range light green = introduced range

dark green = natural range     light green = introduced range

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I’m sure you can guess how this story goes, though. It’s been played out countless times in the media—print, broadcast, and social.  First they love you, then they love to hate you.  Americans adore a winner but as any reality TV star can attest, get too successful and fans will take equal pleasure in watching, sometimes facilitating, your fall from grace.
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Even as the house sparrow fad continued to grow, some conservation-minded folk had begun to notice the immigrants were not assimilating as hoped, or following local customs and expectations. Before long, civic leaders had deemed house sparrow nests “unsightly.” Their droppings were blamed for “besmirched” buildings and sidewalks.  They were tagged as thieves who pilfered valuable grain from honest, hard-working farmers. Worse yet, the foreigners were observed being downright inhospitable to the native avian community, including valuable insect-eaters. The nerve of those ungrateful little upstarts!!
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sparrow trap (Albert F. Siepert, Project Gutenberg License)Guides for trapping, shooting, and poisoning the birds were distributed free of charge. By 1883, state legislators in Indiana had declared the house sparrow an outlaw who should be killed on sight. Five years later, Illinois and Michigan had established a small bounty on “English” sparrows and children scrambled to exchange dead birds for cash to buy candy.
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Never mind the fact that human development was having at least as great an impact on native bird species as the house sparrow we had intentionally loosed upon the landscape. Forget that the effects of trapping and poisoning are rarely limited to the intended target species. Ignore the lack of conservation legislation that allowed “market hunting” to bring dozens of wild bird populations to the brink of extinction. The public was frightened and angry about the changes in their communities wrought by industrialization and human migration. Scapegoats were needed to pay the piper for society’s sins and transgressions.
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Many individual house sparrow were killed but despite the all-in extermination effort the species continued to thrive. While no longer hunted for bounties in the US., the bad PR stuck like glue—to this day they are generally resented or reviled. Unlike migratory species house sparrows are not protected in the U.S. and, in fact, the population has declined somewhat.
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save-sparrowFollowing the tried and true media script, the house sparrow is experiencing a rebound in popularity, at least in its native range. This is due to precipitous population declines in England, where this native species has been “red-listed,” Europe, Scandinavia, and India. The problem seems to be a lack of available food for their young—nestlings need the higher level of protein insects provide, only later changing to a grain-based diet. As Rachel Carson pointed out decades ago, our pesticide arms race takes a toll on many of the creatures we enjoy having around. Over the past 10-15 years, “Save Sparrows” campaigns have encouraged home-owners to decrease or eliminate insecticide use, choosing insect-attracting plants, and intentionally increasing nesting sites.
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I’ve yet to see anything in the scientific literature proposing North American as a possible source of imported house sparrows to repopulate their original range but there’s a nice full-circle appeal to that storyline.  Maybe you can go home again.
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love-earthThis blog, like so many activities that foster support and appreciation of the natural world, is a labor of love. If you’ve enjoyed learning about the creatures who share our built environment, consider becoming an NDN Benefactor with a donation of any amount you’re inspired to give. If you’d like to find a little Next-Door Nature surprise in your inbox just click the Subscribe!  button in the upper right-hand corner of this page and receive notifications of new posts!
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© 2015 Next-Door Nature—no reprints without written permission from the author (I’d love for you to share my work  but please ask). Thanks to these photographers for making their work available through a Creative Commons license (CCL) or Project Guttenberg License (PGL) (from top to bottom): Martha de Jong-Lantink, CCL (birds on a branch); Harper & Brothers, PGL (feeding the sparrows); Eric Bégin, CCL (male HOSP); Phil McIver, CCL (female HOSP); gingiber, CCL (HOSP nest); Cactus26, CCL (HOSP distribution map); Albert F. Siepert, PGL (sparrow trap).

Comeback

The great egret has made a spectacular comeback from near extinction.

The great egret has made a spectacular comeback from near extinction.

Heat and Humidity have resumed their annual one-upmanship contest here in Arch City. Being outdoors mid-day can be unpleasant, so my canine companion and I have been trying to beat them to the starting blocks by heading out for our daily constitutional as early as possible.
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lafayette square row houses by paul sableman, cclWe stroll two blocks, past grand Italianate manors and restored Victorian row houses, to a handsome mid-19th century city park—the oldest in the Louisiana Purchase Territory. Paved pathways meander through 30 acres of enormous shade trees and lovingly tended flower beds, past fountains, a graceful bridge, and a gazebo, all within the protective embrace of the original cast iron perimeter fence.  There’s even a lake, complete with fish, semi-aquatic turtles, a small flotilla of Canada geese (Branta canadensis), mallards (Anas platyrhynchos), and a scattering of former Easter ducklings. And what Victorian-era water-feature would be complete without a few imperious mute swans (Cygnus color)?
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The park is a hub of activity in afternoon and early evening. The sound of vehicles, emergency sirens, construction and commerce seep in from the surrounding streets, combining with the squeals of children blowing off steam at the playground,  flag football players shouting audibles, or a crowd cheering at vintage baseball game, depending on the season. Fiercely determined joggers make their appointed rounds. Dogs check messages on trees and bushes while their humans check smartphones. Families gather ’round a grill, young lovers picnic on hand-me-down quilts, wedding rings are exchanged, friends play frisbee, and there’s even the occasional free open-air concert or movie night under the stars.
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lafayette park garden path by John, CCLMost mornings, though, it feels like a quiet private garden. The park has become a favorite since my homecoming a couple years ago. GPS may pin my location as near the center of a bustling city but the dappled stillness of this urban oasis, complimented with the music of dancing water and splashes of birdsong, sets an unhurried tone. By the end of our walk I’m ready to step off of cobblestones onto the Information Highway and into my 21st century life.
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great egret by VisitCentralFL, CCLDuring a recent dawn stroll around the lake, I spotted a slim solitary figure standing still as a statue at the water’s concrete edge; a great egret (Ardea alba Linnaeus) doesn’t exactly blend in with the surroundings. There’s simply no point in trying when you’re a 3’ tall bird with a serpentine neck, clad in your breeding season best: extravagant lacy white plumes, a saffron bill, lime-green lores, and long jet-black legs and feet.
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My heart leapt—not because the bird was beautiful (although it was), and not because I didn’t yet have one on my life list (I’ve seen many). No, it was seeing a great egret in this place that brought tears of joy to my eyes.
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bird hat - public domainWhen Lafayette Park was first dedicated, it would have been a rare sight indeed to see those elegant courtship aigrettes on anything other than a lady’s hat.  Great egrets were hunted almost to the point of extinction to satisfy fashion’s dictate that a proper, self-respecting adult female must never be seen in public without a pile of millinery fabric, lace, ribbons, flowers, feathers, and bird body parts balanced on her head. Egret plumes, in particular, were all the rage.
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Concern over the looming disappearance of this and other bird species allowed a fledgling U.S. conservation movement to take flight in the early 20th century.  By 1918, the National Audubon Society and others successfully pressured Congress into passing and funding the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. It was our first serious wildlife protection legislation, and by any measure the Act has been a spectacular success. Many species on the verge of extinction 100 years ago are now doing quite well.  And while hats and “fascinators” are currently experiencing a small uptick in popularity after a decades-long fall from favor, albeit without the wild bird feathers that graced predecessors, their numbers pale in comparison to the great egret renaissance. Although exact population numbers are hard to find, the species is now classified as “common,” numbering in the tens of thousands of breeding pairs, at minimum.
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On this morning, though, it was just a solitary great egret, a noble wire fox terrier (Queen Victoria herself kept one as a pet), and me, the least pedigreed of the group, standing at the intersection of past, present, and future.
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great egret fishing by Alan Huett, CCLI spent a long moment contemplating the significance of a stately creature’s return, and my own, to this historic midwestern park, watching as the bird gazed intently into the water, meditating on the play of light and liquid.
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Or perhaps something both deeper and more practical. Like breakfast.
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Brought back to the here and now by a nudge from my own stomach, I turned toward home. But not before saying over my shoulder, “It was great to see you again—come back anytime!”
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love-earthThis blog, like so many activities that foster support and appreciation of the natural world, is a labor of love. If you’ve enjoyed learning about the creatures who share our built environment, consider becoming an NDN Benefactor with a donation of any amount you’re inspired to give. If you’d like to find a little Next-Door Nature surprise in your inbox just click the Subscribe!  button in the upper right-hand corner of this page and receive notifications of new posts!

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© 2015 Next-Door Nature—no reprints without written permission from the author (I’d love for you to share my work  but please ask). Thanks to these photographers for making their work available through a Creative Commons license (from top to bottom): Helen Haden (white on black); Paul Sableman (Lafayette Square homes); John (Lafayette Park garden path); VisitCentralFL (strike a pose); Public Domain (woman wearing bird hat); and Alan Huett (fishing).
next-door nature, urban wildlife, suburban wildlife, barn swallows

The barn swallow is a spectacular aerial acrobat (Photo: Eugene Beckes, Creative Commons license)

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WITNESS astounding tricks of precision flying!

THRILL to the sight of daring aerial capers!

Come one, come ALL!

The FLYING CIRCUS is winging its way to a backyard near YOU!!

 

next-door nature, urban wildlife, suburban wildlife, barn swallowCritics are raving about this summer’s must-see event. Word to the wise, though—in addition to a lawn chair you’ll definitely want to bring some binoculars. That’s because the stars of this air show have an average wingspan of about 12 inches (30 cm). We’re not talking F/A-18 Hornets here, or even a Cessna 152. Think sparrow-sized, not Sparrowhawk.

Barn swallows (Hirundo rustica) epitomize the principle of “form follows function.” Combine a slender fuselage with long, tapered wings and a deeply forked stabilizer (aka “tail”) and you’ve got a bird made to spend the majority of waking life with wheels up. They even wear a uniform appropriate for fly-boys (and girls)—glossy chrome blue above and buff-to-rust below; similar to the colors of a U.S. Air Force Blue Angels jet.

Barn swallows are found far beyond U.S. borders, though.  You might even go so far as to call them jet setters. Six officially recognized subspecies are found in North and South America, Europe, Africa, and Asia. Generally speaking, the species breeds in the Northern Hemisphere (as far north as the Arctic Circle) and takes winter R&R in the Southern Hemisphere. Ornithologists have recorded barn swallows traveling over 7,000 miles (11,000 km) from Europe to southern Africa, and those based in the Americas cover similar distances.

next-door nature, urban wildlife, suburban wildlife, barn swallowWhether cruising inches above land or water or performing barrel rolls, loop-the-loops, spins, and stalls in mid-air, these agile flyers are crowd-pleasers. They aren’t grandstanding, though. A barn swallow’s life consists of more than playing with the physics of flight. Like the post-WWI stunt pilots of the 1920s, they’re trying to make a living.

It takes fuel to fly and the barn swallow go-juice of choice is winged insects—primarily high-octane flies, but also beetles, bees and wasps, next-door nature, urban wildlife, suburban wildlife, barn swallowmoths and butterflies, ants and termites.  Eating on the fly really comes in handy during long missions, including migration. Quenching one’s thirst, bathing, dating, and defending the home territory—they’re all done on the wing.

Historians disagree as to the origin of the term “barnstorming,” but one popular explanation is that pilots would fly through an open barn door and out the other side (they hoped) as a demonstration of their prowess and to drum up joy ride business.  Barn swallows have been known to fly in and out of barns as well—hence the common name. It’s a lot less risky for the birds, though.

Even daredevils like to have a place to call home, a chance to raise a family.  Before permanent man-made structures became commonplace, barn swallows built nests in caves or on the face of cliffs. Long tolerated by humans for reasons  both practical and aesthetic, today only one North American population holds to this tradition, in the Channel Islands off the coast of California; the rest of the fleet hangar in the rafters of open buildings or beneath porches. Bridges, especially those that span water, are particularly popular due to their proximity to crucial building materials.

next-door nature, urban wildlife, suburban wildlife, barn swallowGathering mud by the bill-full, mated pairs make countless supply runs to construct a neat cup or half-cup, depending on the location, then line it with grass, feathers, hair from the livestock living under the same roof, and any other soft, insulating materials they can find.

Once there’s a home base in the crosshairs, the bombardier gets the go-ahead to drop her payload of 3-7 eggs. The pair begin a series of aerial fueling attempts and in about a month’s time they’ve got themself a squadron of next-gen aviators.

Time to put on a show!

next-door nature, urban wildlife, suburban wildlife, barn swallow
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Barn swallows in flight:

Modern day barnstormer performing aerial acrobatics:

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love-earthThis blog, like so many activities that foster support and appreciation of the natural world, is a labor of love. If you’ve enjoyed learning about the creatures who share our built environment, consider becoming an NDN Benefactor with a donation of any amount you’re inspired to give. If you’d like to find a little Next-Door Nature surprise in your inbox just click the Subscribe!  button in the upper right-hand corner of this page and receive notifications of new posts!

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© 2012 Next-Door Nature—no reprints without written permission from the author (I’d love for you to share my work; all you have to do is ask). Thanks to these photographers for making their work available through a Creative Commons license: [from the top] Eugene Beckes (wings tucked; wings open); Julio Mulero (drinking); Dan Wilson Photography (nestlings); Eugene Beckes (swooping); Bill Lynch (muckraking); Mikael Dusenne (parenting); Pat Gaines (missile).
Mexican free-tailed bat

Bracken Cave, in the Texas Hill Country, is home to the world’s largest colony of Mexican free-tailed bats. (Photo: © Merlin D. Tuttle, Bat Conservation International, http://www.batcon.org. Used with permission)

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When Doppler radar first arrived in the area known affectionately to Texans as The Hill Country, local television station meteorologists were understandably eager to show off the weather forecasting capabilities of their newest toy. Unfortunately, they got off to a less than impressive start. Night after night that summer, evening thunderstorms were forecast but failed to appear. This created distrust within the populace and confusion among the weather men and women. Eventually, someone figured out that Doppler couldn’t tell the difference between a microwave reflected by water droplets in the atmosphere and Mexican free-tailed bats (Tadarida brasiliensis) emerging from nearby Bracken Cave.

How many bats does it take to confuse Doppler radar? About 20 million.

Hundreds of Austin residents and visitors gather at the Congress Avenue Bridge every summer night to observe 1.5 million bats emerging to feed (Photo: © Merlin D. Tuttle, Bat Conservation International, http://www.batcon.org. Used with permission)

Several times in my life, I’ve had the privilege of watching, with barely contained glee, as Austin’s famous Congress Avenue bats poured out of the expansion slots below the bridge deck. With 1.5 million bats in residence, the city is home to the world’s largest urban bat colony. But the Bracken Cave colony dwarfs its city neighbor. It’s the world’s biggest, as well as the greatest known concentration of non-human mammals. Modern Americans will never have a chance to witness hordes of bison churning up the prairie or enormous flocks of passenger pigeons darkening the skies, but Bracken Cave—where it takes 4 hours for all the adult bats to stream out of the cave mouth and drift like smoke over Texas to feed—evokes some sense of what has been lost.

While in Austin a couple of years ago to attend the International Urban Wildlife Management Conference, I finally realized a long-time dream to witness this event with my own eyes. I was not disappointed. Bat Conservation International (BCI) owns the cave and the 697-acre buffer zone that keeps development at bay. The organization, which limits the number of visitors, graciously agreed to lead a group of conference attendees to the property, located near San Antonio.

During a brief orientation we learned that Bracken Cave bats migrate to Texas each spring from their winter home in Mexico, a distance of approximately 1,000 miles. The roof of the cave collapsed at some point in history, forming a perfect amphitheater from which to view the resulting entrance. Members of our group settled in twos and threes to watch, using small boulders as chairs and loveseats while we waited for the day to end and the main event to begin.

Bracken Cave is a maternal colony—no men allowed in this sorority—and soon after the females arrive, each gives birth to a single pup. Mexican free-tailed bat babies are not raised as only children; their mothers park them in a communal nursery set apart from where the adults hang out during the day. With as many as 500 babies per square foot of cave wall, the naked infants generate enough warmth to keep themselves cozy, freeing their mothers to leave each evening to cruise for calories. The downside of this arrangement? When it’s time to feed the offspring, Mom has to find her child somewhere in the mob—a task most human parents would find daunting.

The cave is not a home people would consider sweet. Millions of bats digesting millions of insects from March through October results in an annual deposition of 85 to 100 tons of bat feces, known as guano, on the cave floor. Experts estimate the guano may be 70 feet deep at the very back of the cave (and how one becomes an expert at estimating guano depth is beyond my ability, or desire, to imagine). As part of its stewardship of the site, BCI schedules periodic off-season “mining” of the guano—a practice that goes back to the late 1800s—which is currently sold as organic fertilizer.

As you approach the cave from a staging area near the property entrance, the distinctive, acrid smell of bat waste is hard to miss. Consider, if you dare, what it’s like underground. In winter, when the gals head south of the border to hook up with the guys and have the bat equivalent of a “Girls Gone Wild” experience, the cave is a comfortable 68°F; during the summer months, heat generated by all those bat bodies brings the ambient temperature inside to 108°F. Dermestid beetles are so abundant the floor writhes. The beetles feed primarily on guano, but any infant or injured bat who has the bad luck of falling is swarmed and consumed in minutes. Ammonia gas, a by-product of beetle digestion, fills the cave; levels inside are high enough to be fatal to humans so researchers must wear breathing apparatus to enter when the bats are there.

Personally, this is not the kind of place I’d choose to spend the summer. I lived in Texas for nearly 20 years and I have to say, the heat, humidity, and insect life above ground in July and August is as close to hell as I care to experience.*

Thankfully, during our field trip the air outside the cave was much more refreshing. It was a beautiful, clear, and blessedly temperate May evening, and before too long we began to see movement near the mouth of the cave. This show featured aerial acrobatics that would be the envy of any Blue Angel pilot. Bats were climbing, diving, banking, and stalling, making literally hundreds of mid-course corrections to avoiding collisions, while also attempting to evade the grasping hands of raccoons that gather near the mouth of the cave and the sharp talons of hawks circling above. It’s a dizzying scene, and the bats are both predator and prey.

What began as a small shower of bats quickly turned into a storm, with thousands of leathery wings mimicking the sound of a downpour. As their numbers continued to grow, they swirled and pulsed like a tornado, spinning in seemingly endless circles within the bowl of the sinkhole. Only after I raised my eyes from the dervish before me did I see a dark, smoky trail of bats stretching off beyond the horizon. And still the deluge continued all around us… bats, and more bats, and still more bats.

If, as Doppler radar would have us believe, bats are indistinguishable from raindrops, I’d have been drenched. And singin’, just singin’, in the rain.

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NOTE: Why are these bats called “free-tailed”? Because, unlike many species, the tail is not completely surrounded by a membrane, known at the patagium, that stretches between the animals’ legs—its at least partially “free” (see illustration below). The patagium also stretches between the fingers and connects the front and rear limbs to form the wing.

bat tails

Mexican free-tailed bat (left) and a Townsend’s big-eared bat (right)

*ok, I’ll confess to some hyperbole for the sake of the story. I actually enjoyed living in Texas, although less so during the summer.

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love-earthThis blog, like so many activities that foster support and appreciation of the natural world, is a labor of love. If you’ve enjoyed learning about the creatures who share our built environment, consider becoming an NDN Benefactor with a donation of any amount you’re inspired to give. If you’d like to find a little Next-Door Nature surprise in your inbox just click the Subscribe!  button in the upper right-hand corner of this page and receive notifications of new posts!

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© 2011 Next-Door Nature— no reprints without written permission from the author. Thanks to Bat Conservation International for granting permission to use their photos. The drawings used above are open-source content.
gray catbird

Once it begins to sing, any mystery about the source of the catbird’s name is solved (Photo: by Jerry Oldenettel, Creative Commons license)

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Because the semester was winding down, I wasn’t all that surprised to hear a soft, kittenish mewing coming from the small wedge of remnant wooded habitat between my apartment parking lot and the highway. I used to live in a complex near the Virginia Tech campus and, sadly, it’s common for a new crop of outdoor cats to appear as the students disappear. This is not unique to any particular school—it happens in college communities all across the country. People often believe cats are more independent and able to live on their own than dogs… that misperception may have something to do with the lack of guilt they seem to feel over abandoning their once-beloved pet.

But as I scanned the underbrush looking for the source, thinking of what I might use to coax a frightened feline to come out, come out, wherever it was, I came to the happy realization that I wouldn’t be making a trip to the animal shelter after all. It had been a long time since I’d heard a gray catbird (Dumetella carolinensis), and never was I more thrilled by a tune in the trees than on that Sunday morning.

Their call may be the world’s easiest to recognize. Once you’ve heard that “meow,” you won’t wonder another minute how the catbird caught its moniker. Like their relatives, the  mockingbirds and thrashers, these birds are able to copy other sounds and string them together to create a clever mash-up. But their signature song isn’t a case of mimicry—its all their own, shared by every member of the species.

Once my ears were retuned, I heard catbirds calling all over town—another reason to be happy, because this species, which is pretty common in most of its range, has been in decline recently in the southeastern U.S. You’d never know it in Blacksburg, though, where it can sound as though litters of catbirds have been turned loose in the woods.

If not for that distinctive call, you might not even notice these secretive birds. They don’t like to cross open areas so they stick to the thickets, moving in quick hops and short flights through dense vegetation as they search for insects and berries. At first glance, a catbird’s plumage is unremarkable. But look again and you’ll see that slate gray gives way to a jaunty black cap and tail. Look even more closely and you’ll see a rich rusty-orange patch just beneath the tail. That bright flash of pigment always takes me by surprise and makes me laugh—it’s like catching a glimpse of a colorful thong or boxers peeking out of a staid gray flannel suit!

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An example of the gray catbird’s diverse playlist — the first “meow” call is at about the 13 second mark.

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love-earthThis blog, like so many activities that foster support and appreciation of the natural world, is a labor of love. If you’ve enjoyed learning about the creatures who share our built environment, consider becoming an NDN Benefactor with a donation of any amount you’re inspired to give. If you’d like to find a little Next-Door Nature surprise in your inbox just click the Subscribe!  button in the upper right-hand corner of this page and receive notifications of new posts!

© 2011 Next-Door Nature— no reprints without written permission from the author.
male american goldfinch

A male American goldfinch glows in sunshine or shadow (Photo: Dale Kaskey, Creative Commons license)

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There’s been a marked decline in the number of sunspots over the past decade or so. That’s what NASA scientists say, and I have no reason to doubt their research findings. Luckily, I haven’t observed any reduction in the terrestrial version of this phenomenon. Hardly a day has passed lately when I’ve not been blinded by the solar flare of a male American goldfinch (Carduelis tristis) as it escapes, briefly, the gravitational pull of a remnant patch of forest.

Actually, woodlots have a fairly loose grip on goldfinches, and they regularly venture out beyond the edge. It’s just that the male’s lemon-colored plumage glows against the inky green shade of conifers and summer hardwood foliage, or a cornflower blue sky, making them even more eye-catching than when the backdrop is amber waves of grain… or weedy native grasses. The undulating flight pattern only adds to the illusion of a plasma flash.

Found throughout the majority of North America for at least part of the year, and in about a third of the continent year-round, these smallish (4-5”) birds are regular visitors to backyards. In fact, suburban sprawl, which has proven so harmful to many wild species—neotropical migrant birds in particular—has been a boon for these devoted granivores. Goldfinches flock to places where thistle, sunflower, dandelion, cosmos, and aster seeds can be found, and development creates the perfect habitat for them and their favorite foods. The popularity of bird feeders hasn’t hurt either, since they provide seed-eaters with a competitive edge over birds that prefer other dining plans.

female american goldfinchAlso known as the wild canary, this species is sexually dimorphic, meaning gender can be distinguished by some physical feature—in this case, plumage. As is so often the case among wild birds, the female American goldfinch’s wardrobe is understated compared to her mate. The sunny palette is still present, but her hue of choice is a dull or olive-tinged yellow, and her wings are a shade or two lighter although similarly marked.

Boy or girl, the gold in those feathers comes from carotenoid pigments in their diet. It’s the same process and components that causes flamingo (Phoenicopterus and Phoenicoparrus spp.) feathers to be pink, coral or orange (the wild ones get their color from the red algae and aquatic invertebrates they consume, while captive birds rely on fortified flamingo chow). Without carotenoids in their diet, flamingos would become a much paler version of the iconic plastic subspecies, and goldfinches would go from 24 to 10 karat.

You are what you eat, you know. So are goldfinches. And even though it’s converted into an amazing variety of forms—thistle seeds, bluegrass, brussel sprouts, mangos, caviar, cheese, chicken chests, and hamburgers—when you get down to basics, we’re all eating sunshine. It just shines more brightly through some of us than others.

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love-earthThis blog, like so many activities that foster support and appreciation of the natural world, is a labor of love. If you’ve enjoyed learning about the creatures who share our built environment, consider becoming an NDN Benefactor with a donation of any amount you’re inspired to give. If you’d like to find a little Next-Door Nature surprise in your inbox just click the Subscribe!  button in the upper right-hand corner of this page and receive notifications of new posts!

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© 2011 Next-Door Nature— no reprints without written permission from the author (I’d love for you to share my work but please ask first). Thanks to Arthur Chapman for making his photo of a female American goldfinch clinging to a feeder available through a Creative Commons license.

Goodness knows

Caption (Photo: OakleyOriginals 2008 Creative Commons license)

For this intrepid youngster, a cicada is good for a smile on a hot August day.

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Kindergarteners swarmed around the khaki-clad naturalist, squealing with excitement, shouting out questions and jockeying for a better view. The adult volunteers on this field trip were a tougher audience.

“I’m glad they’re having fun but I don’t see why anyone should care about some bug,” one 30-something mom confided to another, adding, “What good is it, anyway?”

I overheard this question while visiting a nearby urban nature center but it’s just one variation on a theme I’ve heard throughout my life and career… a theme that opens the door to fascinating explorations of the ways human beings assign instrumental and intrinsic value to creatures great and small.  And I do so love engaging philosophical conversations.

My first, unfiltered instinct, however, is to hurl the question back at them like a boomerang: “What good are YOU?”

I catch myself—usually—before the words escape, gently reminding my outraged inner eco-warrior that choosing honey over vinegar improves our chances of winning both the battle and the war.

To successfully implement a honey-offensive, it helps to have an arsenal of sweet scientific research think-bombs at the ready. This is an arms race and, naturally, I’m always on the lookout for a chance to acquire the hottest new technology so I can blast misconceptions and prejudices to smithereens.

Imagine, if you will, my greedy glee when, last week, I stumbled on an amazing new trove of ammunition from a most unlikely source.

Theo's friend by Phlora 2007 CCLIs there a creature  more likely to inspire the value question than a cicada? (In those parts of the world where insects are not a significant source of protein in the human diet, that is.) How’s this for a life cycle? Hatch from your egg, drop out of your natal tree, dig in and spend 1—17 years (depending on your species) hanging out underground sipping root juice and metamorphosing through various awkward stages of puberty. Finally emerge from the soil, climb out of your skin one last time. Rest until your shiny new wings harden then hook up with a member of the opposite sex and get busy… or not. Depends on how long you can avoid being eaten by a squirrel, a bird, a dog or cat, a fish… and rest assured, you will be eaten at some point during those 1—6 weeks of halcyon summer days preceding your demise.  Unless you are transformed into a zombie slave by a cicada killer wasp (Exeirus lateritius) in need of a surrogate mother for its offspring, in which case you’ll still be eaten but it will take longer for you to die.

cicada killing wasp by Steve Krichten 2003 CCLOne could argue that if the nihilists are searching for a mascot, they need look no further than one of the 2,500   Cicadidae clan member species. Still, until the pointlessness of existence becomes a dominant meme in human culture even a potential poster-child gig is unlikely to satisfy a determined anthropocentrist who insists on asking, “What good is it? You know… for people?”

Turns out, Australia’s clanger cicada (Psaltoda claripennis, aka clear wing cicada) may end up doing quite a lot of good for people. Unintentionally, of course; insects aren’t known for their benevolence. But according to a recently published Biophysical Journal article cicadas may be an accidental ally in our battle against bacteria.

clanger cicada by Melanie Cook 2004 CCLChemical warfare is common in the insect world. Humans readily adopt the same strategy against both microscopic and macroscopic opponents (although, in most circles it’s considered verboten in human-versus-human conflicts). Funny thing about man-made poisons—they tend to deliver short-term success followed by long-term environmental headaches, especially when used against enemies with high reproduction rates. Insects and bacteria, for example. As a former defense secretary once said, though, you go to war with the army you have. We have chemicals. Lots of chemicals.

How refreshing, then, that according to a team of researchers from Australia and Spain, evolution has armed the clanger cicada with a vaguely medieval yet elegantly simple physical defense against infection.

Spikes.

Enough to make a punk rocker proud (and Vlad the Impaler SO  jealous). You see, clanger wings are covered in an array of sharply pointed nanopillars. When a hapless bacterium settles on this surface, it stretches and sags into the crevices between the spikes, like Jell-O on a bed of nails, until the cell membranes are shredded and the microbe is incapable of reproducing.

Scientists have already begun to investigate the potential of synthetic cicada-inspired materials. Think of it—in the not-too-distant future countertops, doorknobs, bus straps and subway poles, sinks and commodes, railings, surgical instruments and even money could be covered with a passive bacteria-killing surface that makes the ubiquitous hand-sanitizers obsolete!

Now, how could an invention like that possibly do a young mother any good?

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love-earthThis blog, like so many activities that foster support and appreciation of the natural world, is a labor of love. If you’ve enjoyed learning about the creatures who share our built environment, consider becoming an NDN Benefactor with a donation of any amount you’re inspired to give. If you’d like to find a little Next-Door Nature surprise in your inbox just click the Subscribe!  button in the upper right-hand corner of this page and receive notifications of new posts!

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© 2013 Next-Door Nature—no reprints without written permission from the author (I’d love for you to share my work. Just ask first.). Thanks to these photographers for making their work available through a Creative Commons license: OakleyOriginals (smiling face, 2008); Pholra (kitten, 2007); Steven Krichten (cicada killing wasp, 2003); Melanie Cook (clapper cicada, 2004)

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