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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.
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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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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).

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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.

[This post was originally published in January 2011. Hope to have a new installment ready for prime-time soon.]

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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

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next-door nature, urban wildlife, suburban wildlife, barn swallows

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

.

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
.There’s nothing quite like finding a little Next-Door Nature in your email inbox—click the “subscribe”  link in the upper right-hand corner of this page and receive notifications of new posts!
© 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).
Barn swallows in flight:
Modern day barnstormer performing aerial acrobatics:

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red-bellied woodpecker on fence (Photo: Brian Peterson, Creative Commons license)

Robert Frost said, “Good fences make good neighbors” but embattled red-bellied woodpeckers must find other ways to protect their territories. (Photo: Brian Peterson, Creative Commons license)

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Last Sunday morning I unexpectedly found myself sitting ringside for a brief but furious brawl. Two male red-bellied woodpeckers (Melanerpes carolinus) were having a boundary dispute that started with an argument over some shrubbery then escalated into a full-on aerial assault. Colliding mid-air, they grasped one another by the feet and were so intent on punching, pecking, and plucking, the adversaries flew thoughtlessly over the nearby road directly in front of my car. Luckily, I was making my way slowly along the otherwise quiet suburban street, so I was able to stop and watch.

With my windshield serving as an impromptu HDTV, the smackdown aired for all of 45 thrilling seconds and then, as if in response to a referee’s break command… it was all over.  Each fighter retreated, shouting insults over his shoulder as he returned to his corner.

male and female RBW by Jason Paluck, Creative Commons licenseRed-bellied woodpeckers (let’s just shorten that to RBWs, shall we?) are a medium-sized bird—just over 9” (24 cm) from chisel beak to stiff tail tips with a 13-16” (33-42 cm) wingspan. Like many North American woodpeckers, they wear a black-and-white houndstooth jacket, but their bright red Mohawk (males sport a full forehead-to-neck cap while females wear an abbreviated version) sets them apart. It’s also the reason these birds are so often misidentified as the similar-sized red-headed woodpecker (Melanerpes erythrocephalus), although once the difference is pointed out the mistake is rarely repeated. RBWs take their name from a subtle scarlet stain on their buffy belly.

red-headed vs. red-bellied woodpeckers by Laura Gooch and Jason Paluck, respectively (Creative Commons license)Year-round residents in U.S. wetlands, river bottoms, woods, and wooded suburbs from the Midwest east to the Atlantic coast, RBWs are omnivorous, consuming all manner of  insects, nuts, seeds, sap, and fruit. They store surplus food in various nooks and crannies and, since they don’t migrate, their larders come in handy during winter. This species employs gender-specific foraging strategies—males search for sustenance primarily along bole while females spend the bulk of their time on the boughs.

Biologists don’t often venture out on a limb to officially identify any non-human behavior as play, but I’ve notice the profession has loosened up a bit on this issue over the past decade or so, thankfully. One example of this trend was a description of RBW behavior I read recently. This species will periodically engage in swift, nimble, and unpredictable forest flights, complete with many direction changes to dodge trees, and accompanied by constant excited chatter. The author of this resource was quick to explain that the activity probably has a practical application in that it helps youngsters practice evasive maneuvers that would come in handy should predators be lurking about. However, and surprisingly, the expert also admitted the birds seemed to be having fun.

male red-bellied woodpecker in nest (Photo- Frederick Knapp, Creative Commons license)RBWs are monogamous—for the extent of a breeding season, that is (so perhaps it would be more accurate to say they are serial monogamists)—and both are actively involved in raising young.  They nest in hardwood and pine trees, along with the occasional fence post, by excavating a cavity or stealing one from other birds. What goes around comes around, though—or so says a timeworn adage; RBWs often lose their precious nest holes, in turn, to European (aka common) starlings (Sturnus vulgaris).

Assuming the pair can hang on to their home, the female lays two to six white eggs on a cushion of wood chip construction debris and incubates them for 12 days. The hatchlings are altricial, meaning they begin their lives naked, blind, and helpless. They don’t waste any time growing up, and are ready to leave the nest for a first tentative flight when they are 24—27 days old. Depending on the region, the adults may raise from one to three broods in a season.

red-bellied woodpecker at feeder (Photo: ehpien, Creative Commons license)Defending the homestead is a top priority during the child-rearing seasons, especially if the ‘hood includes a well-tended feeder (a gold mine for species able to digest seeds or suet). Even though most bird nestlings can’t tolerate seeds and need a diet composed largely of insects, when Mom and Dad can grab a high-calorie meal from the avian equivalent of a fast-food restaurant, they have extra time to hunt for the more illusive foods their offspring need to develop properly.

Since RBW territories range from 3 to 39 acres protecting the perimeter is far from a simple task, especially when feeding yourself and your family is a full-time job. So, naturally, breaches occur… but everyone trespasses and is trespassed against.  Border skirmishes are common but they rarely result in bloodshed. Research tells us that’s due, in part, to the fact that the intensity of defense behavior tends to decrease as an animal moves away from the center of its territory. Put another way, property rights become less important the farther you are from home. In most cases, both combatants throw in the towel long before there’s a knock-out.

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There’s nothing quite like finding a little Next-Door Nature in your email inbox—click the “subscribe”  link in the upper right-hand corner of this page and receive notifications of new posts!
© 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: [starting from the top] Brian Peterson (on the fence); Jason Paluck (male & female; red-bellied); Laura Gooch (red-headed); Frederic Knapp (in nest); ehpien (rbw @ feeder).

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