Fast Food

When humans talk about making a breakfast, lunch, or dinner run, it’s understood that we’re speaking metaphorically. Truth be told, we’ll probably drive, not jog, to a local café, convenience store, or Kroger. The same cannot be said about the way greater roadrunners (Geococcyx californianus) grab a meal. Fast food is how these long-legged, long-tailed, long-necked North American cuckoos roll—make that sprint—through life.

I mean that quite literally. Roadrunners are feeble fliers but they can definitely beat feet. Angling the body forward to nearly parallel with the ground as they pick up speed, the tail is held flat, acting as a stabilizer during turns. Their unmistakable X-shaped feet, with two toes pointing forward and two toes pointing backwards, are better suited to life on the run than the typical three-one toe formation of perching bird species. And who needs powerful wings when you can leap skyward, as if propelled by a pogo stick, to grab a snack out of thin air?

If you grew up in the U.S. during the latter half of the 20th century, as I did, you may have some serious misconceptions about this fleet-footed bird, not to mention coyotes (Canis latrans). For example, roadrunners are quick but at top speeds of 43 mph, coyotes are more than twice as fast. Smarter, too.

Moreover, I think Warner Brothers animator Chuck Jones must have grabbed the wrong field guide when he started to sketch, because his roadrunner looks more like an ostrich (Struthio camelus) to me than the iconic avian of the American Southwest. I think you’ll agree that a side-by-side line-up provides plenty of evidence to back up that statement.

Roadrunners do have at least one thing in common with ostriches—both birds prefer more arid, savannah-like landscapes to damp, dense forests. That said, greater roadrunners have been expanding their range, moving east from southern California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas, into the juniper, pine, and hardwood stands of Oklahoma, Missouri, Arkansas, and even Louisiana. And while they won’t tolerate densely populated urban areas they are showing up in more open suburban developments.

Like so many desert species, roadrunners have evolved to survive in a low rainfall environment. This includes a gland near each eye that secretes a highly concentrated salt solution, reducing the amount of water lost through their urinary tract. The ability to efficiently use the moisture present in their food reduces the roadrunners’ dependence on scarce surface water supplies.

I have a few more bones to pick with Warner Brothers’ depiction of the life and times of coyotes and roadrunners. For one thing, those cartoon characters would have you believe one is a predator, the other prey. Well, my friends, that’s as wrong-headed as expecting a tiny Acme parasol to protect you from a falling boulder.

The real skinny is that roadrunners are predators, too. Their moveable feast includes just about anything they can catch, including insects, spiders, scorpions, frogs, toads, songbirds, bats, rodents, and lizards. They’ll even pair up to take on a rattlesnake—one bird distracting the serpent, the other sneaking up from behind to pin the head down, rending those venom-delivering fangs moot.

This chick is all business. I’m not kidding.

Once their prey has been dispatched, roadrunners swallow their food whole, so there’s no need to carry around silverware, a la Wile E. Before that hummingbird goes down the hatch, though, there’s an important food prep step that has to take place. Fair warning—the process will make you reconsider the sincerity of that two-dimensional speedster’s goofy grin. I’ll let my friend, fellow wildlife enthusiast, and long-time Albuquerque resident, Janelle Harden, deliver the play-by-play:

“Not everyone would appreciate this, but I know you will! I saw a roadrunner catch a house finch on my driveway the other day. Holding the dead bird by the head, the roadrunner proceeded to bash and thrash the carcass against the concrete curb. Once the skeleton was pulverized and the body limp as an al dente noodle, the roadrunner threw her head in the air, along with the finch, opened her bill, and let gravity do its thing. It was fascinating! Took about 6-8 big swallows, and I swear her eyes got bigger with every gulp!”

I have to admit, I do appreciate Janelle’s field observations, and her description of the roadrunner’s bulging eyes does sounds pretty cartoonish. It’s the kind of thing I could imagine happening to a certain famously incompetent but persistent wild canid. Maybe Chuck Jones wasn’t a total Looney Tunes after all.

Gotta run—that’s all, folks!

Life is better with Next-Door Nature—click the “subscribe”  link in the upper right-hand corner of this page and receive notifications of new posts!

© 2018 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: Anita Ritenour, Photo KentTeddy Llovet, Alan Harper, LDELD, Jo Zimny, and Nick Chill.

Vice Squad

I was just trying to help, I swear.

In fact, the primary directive in wildlife rehabilitation is: First, do no harm. But the indignant male northern cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis) I had just lifted out of a shoebox clearly interpreted my attempts to do a thorough but gentle intake exam as disrespectful. He spat a curse at me, and before I could blurt out an apology, he clamped that bright orange vice-like beak down on the webbing between my thumb and forefinger with more force than seemed plausible for a creature that weighed less than 2 ounces (57 g). 

There we stood—me holding him and trying not to squeeze, him holding me and trying to squeeze with all of his might. I watched a blood blister forming beneath his pincer but there wasn’t much I could do about it. Any attempt to pry him from my hand risked adding to his injuries. I could only try to remain as still as possible, take deep breaths, and wait for him to let go… even though he appeared firmly cemented in place.


Cardinals are year-round residents in much of the continental U.S., from the East Coast westward into Nebraska, Kansas, Texas, parts of New Mexico, Arizona, and southern California. Familiar and conspicuous, with an easy-to-recognize crest and stop-light bright plumage, even in winter, this species is a perennial favorite of backyard feeder enthusiasts and beginning birders. This species is known to be a courageous defender of both offspring and territory, which may be why it was chosen as the mascot for a couple of national sports teams, and for seven different states.

Songbird beaks often provide a clue, or a blatant disclosure, of the owners’ food preferences, especially if the species is a fussy eater—for example, primarily nectar, or meat, or in this case, seeds. There’s more than one way to crack a hard shell and evolution has equipped other granivores with distinctive but equally effective beak shapes. Even so, the cardinal’s short, thick, cone-shaped bill is typical of an avian seed-eater.

Which is not to imply that these black-masked bad-ass birds demand a solely grain-based diet; approximately 10% of their calories come from fruits, flowers, maple sap, and invertebrates. Moreover, their young are fed insects almost exclusively until they’re old enough to leave the nest and digest seeds.

Hatchlings cardinals don’t start life equipped with the same vice-grip their elders wear on their faces (rather than in tool belts at the waist). Given the sibling rivalry for Mom and Dad’s attention whenever they bring home groceries, it’s probably for the best that the youngsters don’t have access to pinching pliers until after they fledge; pushing and shoving are dangerous enough when the nursery is a twig cup perched precariously in the crook of a tree branch.

Eventually, the baby redbirds bills do morph into their final adult size and shape, although for a while the their adolescent nose may look out of proportion to the rest of their head. Hey, being an awkward teen is all part of growing up. It builds character, or so they say. 

With daily compulsory practice (at least if they want to eat) it doesn’t take long before those gawky bills are wielded like a finely crafted tool that quickly converts a feeder full of sunflower seeds into a pile of empty shells… or, very nearly brings a well-meaning wildlife biologist to her knees.


Back at the rehab center intake desk, the good Samaritans who had handed me the shoebox—a young mother and two small children—watched as I stood stock still, a bright red songbird pretending to be a pair of locking forceps stuck to my hand, struggling to hold back tears of pain (and four-letter words).

It’s been 20 years since I worked at the TWRC Wildlife Shelter in Houston, Texas. I’m not at all sure how long it took for the cardinal to release his grip… what feels like least a half-hour in memory was probably less than 3 minutes in real time. Luckily, there’s no scar on my hand, but my cardinal encounter did leave a lasting mark; the memory of that fierce feathered vice is riveted to my brain.

Life is better with a little Next-Door Nature—click the “subscribe”  link in the upper right-hand corner of this page and receive notifications of new posts!

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[Thanks to the photographers who granted permission to use their photos, and to those who made their work available through the Creative Commons license: John Flannery, Fred Faulkner, Sasha Azevedo, Kenneth Cole Schneider, and John Flannery© 2017 Next-Door Nature. Reprints welcomed with written permission from the author.]

Spotted!

A spotted towhee caught on a fast-food run, and not particularly happy about it.

Supermarket tabloids love just-like-us features so they pay paparazzi top dollar to catch somebodies acting like nobodies. Today I’m focused on the Towhees. They like to keep a low profile but I’m a pro and I know how to find them.

First Rule of Papping: Ya can’t tell the players without a scorecard! It also helps to know the aliases they use to create confusion and avoid detection. See, for a long time all the Towhee’s identified as Team Pipilo. Several years ago, however, about half of them left (were removed, actually) to form Team Melozone. Maybe the rift was media-created (fake news, so sad), or maybe the less flamboyant Towhees felt overshadowed by their more colorful and fashion-forward cousins… who knows? Towheestas, as their fandom are known, love to argue over the distinctions between and relative merits of the two tribes, as well as who should be a P and who definitely qualifies as an M.

Currently,  Team P include the Collareds (P. ocai),  the Green-taileds (P. chlorurus), the Easterns (P. erythrophthalmus), and the Spotteds (P. maculatus), but not so long ago both the Easterns and Spotteds were using the tag Rufous-sided (the Easterns got full custody of P. erythrophthalmus). Spotteds are also referred to in some circles as The Avians Formerly Known as Oregon or Socorro.

Similarly, and to keep things even-steven, Team M also has four members: the Aberts’ (M. aberti), the White-throateds (M. leucotis), the Canyons (M. fusca), and the Californias (M. Crissalis). Oh, but the Canyons and the Californias used to be one big happy tribe, the Browns, even though the Aberts’ and the Californias are probably closer relatives.

Got it all straight? Yeah, it’s a complicated family tree — that’s show biz. Try keeping track of the rest of the Sparrows, not to mention the Barrymores, the Fondas, and the Coppolas.

Second Rule of Papping:  Zoom in on the habitat. Finding out where your luminary lives is a crucial datapoint.  Some Towhees prefer to be on the right side of the continent (Easterns), some are Westerners (Californias, Green-taileds, and Spotteds), and there’s some who meet in the middle. Others Towhees prefer the Southwest (Canyons and Aberts’), or even south of the border in Mexico (Collareds & White-throateds).

Towhees do household chores, just like us!

When it comes to choosing a home base, the Easterns and Spotteds will always opt for a ground-floor unit, if available, ideally tucked in next to a log or of clump of grass to provide some privacy, but they’ll tolerate the higher perches (shrubs) preferred by the Californias, Canyons, and Green-taileds. The Aberts’ are the only Towhees who like to live in a tree-top high-rise. Not much is know about where the Collareds and White-throateds homestead because they’re a secretive bunch who’ve put down roots far from the limelight’s glare, in the more rural setting of Mexico’s mid-to-high altitude subtropical and tropical pine-oak forests. They’re a rare and lucrative shot but too remote for run-and-gun photography.

A Spotted spotted at the spa.

Improve your chances by becoming a regular at all of the places your subjects like to eat, including the local hipster farmers markets and upscale grocers, where they shop for household supplies, as well as favorite watering holes and spas. If you can get a neighborhood exposure you’re golden because that’s where life gets real. As the playground K-I-S-S-I-N-G song tells it, first comes love, then comes marriage, then comes baby in a $700 Bugaboo carriage. Actually, these days marriage is an option, not a certainty. Regardless of the parents’ living arrangements and legal status, or lack thereof, nest/crib beta is pivotal for a paparazzo because editors drool when there are kids in the picture — Mommy & Me outings are always Money Shots.

A California towhee takes her mini-me out for lunch.

Third Rule of Papping:  Know your subject inside as well as out. In other words, not just their look but the idiosyncratic behaviors that will tip you off to their presence, even when they’re not wearing breeding plumage. For example, you’ll want to know that all the Towhees like to forage for food using a unique two-footed backward hop, followed by a pert bend-and-snap. Well, I assume this includes those camera-shy Collared and White-throateds but who the hell knows. If the pickin’ are slim, or maybe too predictable, Spotteds will scan the shrubbery for snacks, and the Aberts’ have been known to poke around under the bark near the bottom of tree trunks for some grub.

Family comes first for the Canyons and Green-taileds, who have a reputation for forming long-term, monogamous pair-bonds. If a Green-tailed mom senses danger, she’ll bravely flee from home on foot with a conspicuously raised tail to attract and distract the predator’s attention from her children.

A California fascinated with its reflection in a window.

It will probably come as no surprise, that the Cali Crew has an ongoing love/hate relationship with their image — you’ll see them in front of a freshly washed window, handy car mirror, or any other reflective surface checking out their visuals or talking to themselves in a very critical, territorial tone. They’re not crazy, just a little left of center. They like to chill in stands of poison oak, feeling all cutting edge because this hangout hasn’t been “discovered” yet, gobbling up the pale berries as if they were caviar.

Last, but not least… shut up and get the shot. Sure, the relationship between some celebrities and the paparazzi is symbiotic— they get publicity, you get residuals. Towhees don’t play that. If you want to be successful with this dynasty you’ll stay quiet, blend into the scenery, keep your eyes open, and your finger on the trigger. Be the early bird that catches the worm. Not that Towhees are worms. Far from it. Truth is, they’ll eat that worm for breakfast… and you could get it all on film (or a memory card).

[Thanks to the following photographers for making their work available through the Creative Commons license: Dawn BeattieCalypso Orchid, TJ GehlingDoug Greenberg, Scott Heron, Lucina M, Mike’s Birds, Jorge Montejo, JN Stuart, Ingrid TaylarUSDA, Francesco Veronesi, and Yutaka Seki.  © 2017 Next-Door Nature. Reprints welcomed with written permission from the author.]

Baby Blues

Fledgling blue jays begging Dad to make a pizza run [photo: christian lanctot, ccl]

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Identifying songbirds by their calls is not my forte.

Sure, I can distinguish most common backyard residents with distinctive voices, including mourning doves (Coo…. coo, coo), Carolina chickadees (Fee-bee-fee-bay or chickadee-dee-dee), American robins (Cheerily, cheer-up, cheer-up! Cheerily, cheer-up!!), red-winged blackbirds (Conk-la-ree!), and the northern cardinal (Birdie, birdie, birdie! Cheer, cheer, cheer! — no wonder the St. Louis baseball club chose this mascot). I can usually tell when a mockingbird is singing a cover tune because I realize the familiar song has a new arrangement.

The further afield I stray from my audio comfort zone, or the built environment, though, the more I rely on my eyes for ID.  That said, I have a niche talent, developed in the late 990s while I was running a large wildlife rehabilitation center in Houston, Texas: I can easily identify a wide range of bird species by the sounds their nestlings and fledglings make when a parent (biological or a stand-in human) arrives with food.

[photo: smilla4, ccl]

That’s how I found out it’s baby blue jay season here in southwest Virginia. I haven’t done hands-on rehab for a long while but as soon as I heard those competitively pitiful “Feed ME! Feed ME!” cries, I knew. Young blue jays used to come into the center by the shoebox-full so that particular call for attention is burned on my brain.

Adult blue jays aren’t the most popular wild neighbors. Jay parents will actively, even aggressively, defend their offspring and, well, there are always people eager to criticize the way others raise their children. Jays also have a reputation for eating the eggs and nestlings of other birds… true, but relatively rare. An extensive study observed this behavior in only 1% of jays. They certainly aren’t the only feathered folk who will help themselves to a snack from an unattended nest but jays, with their signature sapphire, white, black, and gray plumage plus that jaunty crest, are so recognizable they receive more blame than is warranted.

What’s less well-known is that blue jays are always on sentry duty, and when they spot a predator or other threat they shout an alarm call the whole avian neighborhood understands.

[photo: duluoz cats, ccl]

Mom and Dad have PR problems but their offspring are undeniably endearing. Jays are an example of true co-parenting. The female incubates a clutch of eggs for 17-18 days, and during this time and for the first 8-12 days after the nestlings hatch, the male provides all of the family meals. Blue jays can carry food in their gular pouch, an area in the throat and upper esophagus. Acorns are a favorite (which makes my throat hurt just to think of it!).  Once ambient temperatures are warm enough, and the kids are old enough to thermoregulate, the female will join her mate on grocery runs.

Every summer, young jays arrive in wildlife rehabilitation centers, veterinary offices, kitchens, and grade school classrooms across the species’ range. They’re an abundant urban bird so it isn’t surprising blue jays would account for a large number of rehab intakes, but there are other factors at play as well. Nestling jays often venture out of the nest and onto nearby branches several days before they fledge (take their first flight). Sometimes a storm or strong breeze will give gravity a helping hand and the branchers end up on the ground sooner than expected.

Mom and Dad aren’t going to give up on Junior just because s/he made an ill-advised decision. They’ll continue to feed and monitor their children — both the wanders and the cautious ones who wait for their feathers to grow a bit longer before taking the plunge — for up to 2 months after the nest is empty. While the fledglings learn to fly they’ll be left alone at times, albeit usually within watching distances of their keen-eyed supervisors. The young ‘uns don’t mind but well-intentioned humans may find it harder to accept. One of the downside of looking winsome is that when people see you sitting on the ground or perched on a low branch, seemingly abandoned, they really, really want to help.

You’ve may have heard this Good Samaritan tune before but I’ll sing it again…

First, do no harm.

If you find a baby bird and think it might have been abandoned:

  • Wait and watch for the parents to return. In the case of a blue jay, an adult may actually dive bomb before you get very close to their precious child but not all species or individuals are that confident so be sure to give everyone plenty of room to feel safe.
  • If the bambino is well-feathered, bright-eyed, and looking around curiously, give the parents at least 60-90 minutes to return.
  • However, if the little one is clearly injured, or very young (naked or barely feathered, eyes closed), then it’s time to take action.

[photo: katrina j houdek, ccl]

Permitted wildlife rehabilitators will never be able to match the skills of a wild parent but they are trained to provide the proper nutrition and environment wild kids need to grow up healthy and strong, knowing they are blue jays (or Cooper’s hawks, or squirrels, or deer, or whatever they are) instead of people, and capable of living in the wild once they’ve been released.

The International Wildlife Rehabilitation Council website can help you access assistance, and if you’re based in the U.S. there’s a free app for iPhone and Android called Animal Help Now. You don’t even know be able to identify the bird, by sight or by sound, to make the call.

 

© 2017 Next-Door Nature—no reprints without written permission from the author (I’d love for you to share my work  but please ask).

Town Crier

Hartlaub’s gull [photo: Paul Barnard Fotografie ccl]

My flight into Cape Town landed early last night, just before 9p. That was fine by me since, by that point, I’d been on the plane about 11.5 hours, and in transit from Blacksburg for about 31 hours.  For the next 10 days I’ll be co-leading an international field experience for some of my students in Virginia Tech’s Master of Natural Resources program.

The shuttle pulled up to the hotel and I stepped out into a well-lit courtyard. Then, less than one hour into my first trip to the continent, I had my first encounter with the urban wildlife of South Africa.

I could hear but not see birds overhead. Lots of them.  It sounded like some kind of Corvid, squawking as if they’d just spotted treasure in the form of an untapped dumpster or fresh roadkill.

I checked in at the front desk and headed up to my room on the third floor with every intention of proceeding directly from the door to under the covers. Actually, I detoured to the shower, then bed.  I wasn’t expecting to continue hearing an avian play-by-play going on outside the window but, of course, now I was closer to the commentators’ booth. Still, tired as I was, I knew a few birds weren’t going to keep me awake. I figured the din would die down as soon as everyone settled in to dine.

Boy, did I flub that call.

The birds were still going strong when I woke up this morning so I decided to see for myself who had stayed up all night talking.  Not crows or ravens, as I’d thought. Gulls.  I’d forgotten that the hotel overlooks Table Bay.

[photo: Harvey Barriston, ccl]

Gulls are notoriously difficult to identify to species. They often have several years of varying adolescent plumage before they reach adulthood and stop trying out different looks. For that reason I wasn’t expecting to get a definitive answer when I did a little research on the gulls of South Africa, even though I could see some of them quite well  as they stood preening in the morning sunshine on the roof across the courtyard. Identification turned out to be a snap, though, as there aren’t that many different kinds of gulls here. The urban birds who welcomed me to Cape Town under cover of darkness were Hartlaub’s gulls (Chroicocephalus hartlaubii).

The Hartlaub is a small, non-migratory gull found along the coasts and estuaries of South Africa and Namibia.  Also known as the king gull, and once considered a subspecies of the silver gull (C. novaehollandiae), this urban homebody doesn’t stray far from land, and nearly half of the species’ total population rarely leaves the Cape Town area.

Primarly white with a gray back and black-tipped gray wings, the usually white head is hooded in very pale lavender gray during breeding seasons. The traditional chick-rearing colony is Robben Island, infamous as the place where former South African President and Nobel Laureate Nelson Mandela spent 18 of the 27 years he was imprisoned prior to the abolishment of apartheid.

[photo: Derek Keats, ccl]

Common in its range, the Hartlaub is nonetheless a relatively rare species in the global gull panoply. They’re known for being quite social and talkative in the fall and winter months–that’s right now in the Southern Hemisphere (I can vouch for that assessment). I’ll admit, I felt exonerated for making a faulty ID last night when I read that this gull’s call has been described as “crow-like.”

Hartlaub’s gulls readily habituate to the presence of humans and have learned to exploit our built environment so well they’re considered a nuisance in Cape Town, and a hazard at the local airports (I could have easily waited to learn that nugget of information until after I’m back home).

© 2017 Next-Door Nature—no reprints without written permission from the author (I’d love for you to share my work  but please ask).

Flight School

A Canada goose squadron flying in tight formation.

A new Canada goose squadron takes wing!

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The 2015 class of Canada geese (Branta canadensis) naval aviators started flight school this week!

I’ve been watching these youngsters on daily dog-walks in the park since early May. When they first showed up I noticed their resemblance, in size and coloration, to the yellow puffball flowers of the American sycamores (Platanus occidentalis) towering above. There were about 8-10 adults living in and around the lake and two pairs successfully hatched large clutches, the second batch about 10 days after the first. The whole flock pitched in to keep the cautious but curious brood within a protective circle, long black necks and heads swiveling like periscopes scanning the horizon for imminent threats.

downy canada gosling by Ingrid Taylar (CCL)

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Every morning’s stroll includes a peek into the classroom, watching as the new recruits move through basic training.  First lesson: water = safety. Mandatory swimming lessons for all sailors! Initially, members of the new crew were skeptical, needing some strongly worded encouragement from a drill instructor to take the plunge.

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drill sergeant by rachel kramer, ccl

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In no time at all, though, they had their sea-legs and formed a flotilla.

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gosling flotilla by Eric Bégin, CCL

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Next, the unit practiced how to parade. The slow, unhurried pace set by the adults was clearly intended to convey respectability and prestige, and they pulled it off with stately ease. The trainees were another story entirely. Try as they might to imitate their elders, casual dignity is mighty difficult to achieve when your growing body hasn’t quite caught up to your oversized feet—ask any 12 year old boy wearing size 11 sneakers. The slightest break in concentration and the whole company piled up like dominos.

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big feet by Pam P Photos, CCL

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There was so much to learn! How to keep their uniforms squared away…

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preening by Tjflex2, CCL.

…calisthenics to strengthen those important pectoral muscles…

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flapping gosling by Jeremiah John McBride, CCL

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…choosing the right mess hall…

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grazing gosling by Ray Morris, CCL

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…not to mention growing by leaps and bounds. Before long, it was time to strap on the black aviator helmet and take off!

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gosling chin-strap by Eric Bégin, CCL

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Their first flights were brief and aquatic; buoyant new pilots seem to find over-water touch-and-go’s less intimidating. What’s the worse that can happen? You ditch, you get wet.  A bruised ego heals a lot faster than broken bones.

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water landing by John Benson, CCL

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Next, the flight instructors lead youngsters on low, circular cruises around the park, honking encouragement all along the way. Landing on turf requires more skill and daring..

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touchdown by John Benson, CCL

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… as well as greater maneuverability to avoid trees, lamp posts, power lines, and buildings. Practice makes perfect but there can be some embarrassing mistakes along the way. One missed turn can result in an unintended landing.

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roof goose by essayru, CCL

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Still, they’ve definitely got the right stuff: determination, focus, and drive. Whether they choose to become full-time Midwesterners or set off next year for northern climes to search for adventure and a mate, wild blue yonder here they come!

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early flight by J. Michael Raby, CCL

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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):  Gidzy (squadron in flight); Ingrid Taylar (downy); Rachel Kramer (drill sergeant); Eric Bégin (flotilla); Tjflex2 (preening); Jeremiah John McBride (calisthenics); Ray Morris (grazing goslings); Eric Bégin (aviator helmet); John Benson (water landingturf touchdown); essayru (missed turn); J. Michael Raby (morning flight).  Thanks also to Pam Parsons (big feet) for permission to use her photo.

British Invasion (Part I)

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.
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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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© 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).

Headbanger

 

Male downy woodpecker (Picoides pubescens)

The male downy woodpecker is a dapper urban resident (iStock, used with permission)

Rushing out the door, I went over the list in my head. Workout pants and layered tees—check. Running shoes—check. Coat, hat, gloves—check. Keys and sunglasses—check. MP3 player—check. Everything was in order as I pulled out of the driveway.

Or so I thought.

Fifteen minutes later I pulled into a parking space at the Power Valley Conservation Nature Center, a 112-acre oasis in suburban St. Louis created by the Missouri Department of Conservation with hilly trails perfect for raising my heart rate for 30-40 minutes. But as I stepped out of the car and began to gather my gear I realized with dismay I’d left behind a critical component—my earbuds.

The thought of a run without my workout mix, and without any caffeine in my system either, was disheartening. I need the motivation of a musical pulse. But I didn’t have time to go back to the house so I set off anyway, prepared to suffer.

About 10 minutes later I realized I was running to a faint drumbeat. At first I thought someone who had NOT forgotten their audio equipment had the volume on their iPod turned up to 11. Once I realized the thumping came from the woods themselves, though, it wasn’t too long before I spotted the drummer, dressed more appropriately for jazz than heavy metal in the stylish black-and-white houndstooth jacket and jaunty red cap of a male downy woodpecker. In spite of the bird’s diminutive size—no more than 6” from head to tail-tip and weighing in at an ounce or less—his wardrobe set him apart on that overcast day from the slate-and-silver hickory bark backdrop.

Downy’s are capable of making a noise disproportionate to their size. When a woodpecker is looking for a mate or claiming a territory, the sound of drumming needs to carry; building a nursery cavity using a beak as a jackhammer isn’t quiet either. But if you’re in the woods and the beat is more bongo than bass, hunger is probably acting as the drummer’s muse. A gentle tap, tap, tap betrays hollow spots beneath the bark where wood-boring insect larvae wait.

drawing of a woodpecker's tongue

Woodpeckers can really stick out their tongues (Florida Center for Instructional Technology, used with permission)

Once dinner has been detected, things get… interesting. That short chisel of a beak hardly prepares you for what’s inside—like many other woodpeckers, the downy has a barbed, sticky, and flexible tongue so long it wraps around the skull when at rest. If ever there was a bird ready-made for rock ‘n roll, it’s the woodpecker. Gene Simmons got nothin’ on these headbangers.

The whole tone of my morning changed in an instant. It’s so easy to carry a personal soundtrack wherever I go that I forget about everything I normally tune out when I turn up the volume. As a result of my oversight, I suddenly had a standing-room-only ticket to a great live performance, one I would surely have missed had this excursion proceeded according to plan.  My run could wait. I stayed for several encores and gave that downy an enthusiastic round of applause as he flew off toward his next gig.

© 2011 Next-Door Nature— no reprints without written permission from the author