Scary-smart

Halloween raven

Ravens populate the mythology of many cultures throughout the northern hemisphere  (Photo: John North/iStockphoto, Used with permission).

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[I’ve been frighteningly busy throughout the month of October, so I’m reprinting this post from October 2011 in honor of Halloween, and ravens.]

Fright-night is lurking just around the corner. Frankensteins, mummies, zombies, ghosts, and golems will soon leave their lairs to roam freely through our cities and suburbs, searching for something to eat. Butterfingers, Baby Ruths, and brains—oh my!

poe's ravenReanimated but mindless creatures? HA! They don’t scare me. It’s the ones I’m not so sure I could outsmart that give me nightmares. You know… Hannibal Lecter. Patrick Bateman. Brilliant but mad scientists. Shape-shifters, tricksters, and ravens.

That’s right—it’s Poe’s gently rapping, tap-tap-tapping apparition, the common raven (Corvus corax), that keeps me up at night. Similar in appearance to the American crow (Corvus brachyrhynchos), but larger and more slender with a wedge-shaped tail and a heavy, arched beak—a santoku blade to the crow’s steak knife.

Now, understand that I’m not implying they’re evil. It’s just that there’s definitely something spooky about a massive, inky bird with a genius IQ and an inclination towards… exploiting opportunities, shall we say.  Humans have long considered these birds both charismatic and ominous, fascinating and frightening. Spread across much of the northern hemisphere, ravens have stained the mythologies of native people Valkyries by Emil Doeplerthroughout their range. In Scandinavian cultures, this feathered carrion-eater was associated with war, blood, and corpses and their Valkyries—goddesses who decide which warriors will die in battle and who will be granted an afterlife in Valhalla—often were accompanied by ravens. The Celts made a connection between ravens, war, and death as well; true to their inherent interest in metaphysics, though, they also credited these birds with the ability to see the future, to move freely between worlds and, oddly enough, to play chess (rook is the common name for Corvus frugilegus, a European member of the raven-crow clan).

Mythology aside, ravens have been judged by humans to be among the smartest of all birds. That may be damning them with too-faint praise. Various studies in and out of the lab have tested researchers intelligence and creativity while they attempt to test the raven’s problem-solving skills. The jury’s still out on which party finds these efforts more enlightening. Ravens have been observed applying an understanding of cause-and-effect to the problem of filling an empty stomach—they learn to associate the sound of a rifle being fired during hunting season with the presence of a carcass (similarly loud sounds are ignored). Not content to simply wait for a scavenging opportunity, ravens will work in pairs or even larger teams, using a distraction strategy to separate adult birds and mammals from their vulnerable children, to gang up on prey too large for a single bird to overwhelm, or to defend resources and territory against neighboring gangs. Nature, it has been said, is red in tooth and claw, and ravens are definitely a part of that gruesome heritage.

There’s more to the story, of course—isn’t there always? Ravens are a threat to any number of wild youngsters, but they are devoted parents to their own offspring, who remain dependent for longer than many other bird babies. Both male and female are involved in parenting and are thought to mate for life.

Ravens aren’t as social as crows—they would prefer to go trick-or-treating alone or in pairs than in a mob—but they aren’t loners in the stereotypical serial-killer sense. During winter months they will form a flock, a.k.a. an unkindness (who comes up with these names?!), to find food during daylight hours and stay warm at night.

raven playing with the windOne very appealing characteristic is their sense of fun. Ravens are audacious, acrobatic flyers who take obvious pleasure in practicing dives, rolls, and loops, or even flying upside-down. I’ve personally watched ravens play with the wind blasting up the face of a cliff or a tall building, a sight that never fails to make me long for wings of my own. A favorite game, particularly among young ravens, involves climbing high in the sky holding some object, dropping it, and then racing gravity to catch it midair.

I also learned that here in North America, ravens have been assigned a very different mythological role than in Europe. Pacific Northwest legend has it they take a kind of noblesse oblige attitude toward the human race. Grandfather Raven is portrayed as a devilish philanthrope, a Robin Hood figure who stole the Sun, Moon, Stars, Fire, Water, and even Salmon from various deities and gave them to the people. How would you like to find those treats in your goody bag on Halloween?

Perhaps ravens, like so many scapegoats before them, have been unfairly vilified.  We should never forget that the job of predators and scavengers is thankless, but a crucial component of healthy ecosystems. French author Andre Gide may have said it best, “There are very few monsters who warrant the fear we have of them.” I think it’s time to change my thinking.  From this point forward, I’m going to dream of playful, benevolent ravens and be frightened nevermore.

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© 2011 Next-Door Nature— no reprints without written permission from the author. Thanks to Ian Burt (Poe’s raven) and Ingrid Taylar (raven playing on the wind) for making their photographs available via a Creative Commons license. Walkyrien by Emil Doepler is in the public domain.

Waste management

American black vulture

American black vultures work hard to keep the environment clean  (Photo: Rusty One, CCL)

[This post was originally published on Apr 9, 2011.]

The air wasn’t filled with the thumping of Rubbermaid® recycling bins or the metallic squeal of a dumpster being lifted high above a clumsy automated truck, so the last thing I expected to see when I came around the corner was three members of the neighborhood waste management team standing in the middle of the street.

On their lunch break, no less.

Then again, if you’re an American black vulture (Coragyps atratus), feasting on freshly squished squirrel is one of your duties as a sanitation worker.

Rather than rummaging down streets and alleyways, black vultures take to the skies. Catching a thermal updraft to soar at altitudes that provide sweeping views of the landscape below, they rely more on excellent eyesight than a keen sense of smell to do their job.

It’s all for one and one for all in black vulture communities; when one bird hones in on area in need of garbage collection and begins to descend, the rest of the scrap-heap squadron will be on her tail, ready to pitch in.

black vultureEvery clean-up crew needs a uniform—something that hides stains while providing a little protection from the elements. Baggy-butt coveralls? No, thank you! Feathers provide insulation from both hot and cold weather, and how can you beat basic black for low maintenance and classic sophistication? Add to that a generous cowl neckline that can be pulled up to cover a bare pate, or down when it’s time to dive into a decontamination chore head first, and you’ve got a versatile and hygienic fashion statement.

They might not strike you as endearing creatures, but I have a soft spot for these scavengers. Back when I had wildlife rehabilitation permits and had an active practice, I received a black vulture nestling from the Texas A&M veterinary college. The little fellow reminded me of an old boyfriend—never mind why—so I christened him accordingly and, unbeknownst to my landlord, turned the kitchen of my one-bedroom apartment into a vulture nursery. These birds don’t waste time building nests, preferring to lay and incubate their eggs on bare ground, so my vinyl flooring must have seemed reassuringly familiar to the youngster.

Once he was stabilized, I began to look for a rehabilitator elsewhere in the state who worked with this species. Blacks are more social than turkey vultures (Cathartes aura), our other North American vulture species, so finding some siblings for this fuzzy beige only child was a high priority. Unfortunately—or maybe it’s a good thing—vulture chicks aren’t common patients at wildlife rehabilitation centers. I don’t know if this is because these birds have small families, or because they are cautious parents who raise their young out of the spotlight of human activity, or maybe people are simply less likely to rescue a bird they think of as a harbinger of death.

As a result, it took several months to find a new foster parent. During that intervening time, I learned there’s more to these dumpster-divers than meets the eye. For example, I discovered that vulture chicks investigate everything with an endlessly curious beak. Standing barefoot in front of the open refrigerator door, before long I’d look down and see that wrinkled black head delicately and determinedly shredding the cardboard soft drink carton, or I would feel a tickle and look down to see him attempting to pluck a loose thread from the hem of my pajamas. I would smile, charmed right down to the tip of my big toe, only to notice the chick was trying to exfoliate said toe, one hair at a time.

Eventually, it dawned on me that he was using me and my toe to practice for the day when he would apply that clever, hooked bill and tear open a carcass like an overstuffed Hefty® Cinch SAK, and suddenly a bedtime snack didn’t seem all that appealing. They give you nightmares, you know.

© 2011 Next-Door Nature— no reprints without written permission from the author. Thanks to Gregory Moine and Anita363, who made their photos available for use under a Creative Commons license, allowing us to illustrate the black vulture’s feathered cowl-neck attire. Rusty One’s photographer’s original photo can be seen here.

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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).

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).

Social network

next-door nature, urban wildlife, wasps, yellowjackets

Love Facebook? You might want to thank a paper wasp (Photo: roadsidepictures, Creative Commons license)

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Mark Zuckerberg would not be one of 100 wealthiest and most influential people in the world without the help of wasps. I mean the six-legged kind (whether or not two-legged WASPs should get any of the credit is something for attorneys to discuss and will not be addressed here).

It’s a lengthy timeline but easy enough to follow*:

wasps to Facebook timeline

There you have it—no social insects, no social primates and, therefore, no need for a social network. When you think about it, Facebook isn’t just an online community. It’s a kind of virtual hive. You and Mark owe more to wasps that you may have ever realized.

next-door nature, wasps, mud dauberNot all wasps are gregarious, mind you. The majority of species, including mud daubers (Sphecidae), pollen wasps (Masarinae) and potter wasps (Eumeninae) are solitary. You know the type… quiet, poorly developed interpersonal skills, keep to themselves, rarely cause much trouble. A lot of them don’t even have stingers and they take the term “wasp-waisted” to extremes. We’ll respect their privacy, at least for now, and come back for a visit some other day.

Meanwhile, here in the U.S. we have two basic types of social wasps: paper wasps (Polistes spp.) and yellowjackets (Vespula spp. and Dolichovespula spp.). The two groups are often lumped together under the “hornet” tag, but the introduced European hornet (Vespa crabro) is the only true member of that Family found in North America.

With a few exceptions, wasps have two pairs of wings and can be distinguished from bees by that narrow waist (aka petiole) between the thorax and abdomen. The ovipositor (an organ used to prepare and position eggs) of a fertile queen becomes the stinger of an infertile worker females; males are not capable of stinging. Unlike honey bees (Apis spp.), wasps do not leave their stinger behind and are able to deliver multiple injections of venom.

Adult wasps feed on nectar and, as a result, can be classified as pollinators. Some social wasps are omnivorous, feeding on fallen fruit as well as carrion; yellowjackets are especially attracted to open garbage cans and dumpsters, drawn perhaps to the sweet, sticky spillage from nearly empty soda cans and bottles as well as other types of decaying leftovers.

next-door nature, wasp, yellowjacket

yellowjacket (Vespula germanica)

Wasps come in a rainbow of colors, including vivid yellows, metallic blues, and bright reds (keep this helpful rule of thumb in mind when interacting with insects—flamboyant wardrobes usually serve as a “don’t touch!” warning, backed up with some kind of poison or venom). Because they often share a brown or black and yellow color scheme, paper wasps are often misidentified as yellowjackets. I don’t want to encourage you to get up close and personal to make the identification and, luckily, there’s no need. The easiest way to tell them apart is by their nests.

Paper wasps and yellowjackets will nest in trees, under building eaves, in walls, and just about any other place that offers some protection from the elements. Both types of wasp use chewed wood fibers as the main construction material, even when building underground, as yellowjackets often do.

next-door nature, wasp, paper wasp, wasp nestPaper wasp combs attach with a single filament and consist of one tier of adjacent papery hexagonal brood cells for developing larvae. Each cell is open on one end  so you can actually see the contents, if you choose (but please keep a safe distance. Better yet, just look closely at the opening photo above). Typically, a mature nest contains 20-30 adults and rarely grows to more than 200 cells. Paper wasps usually attack only when they or the nest is threatened, but they are territorial. As an interesting aside, the northern paper wasp (Polistes fuscatus) has extremely variable facial patterns and recent research suggests their facial recognition abilities are similar to those of humans and chimpanzees (Pan spp.). Obviously, individuality affords some benefit, even among drones—so much for faceless anonymity.

Yellowjackets prefer to raise their young in a kind of fortress that looks more like what we would think of as a hive, with layers and layers of brood cell combs. The whole structure is completely enclosed with the exception of a single entrance hole. Queens establish new colonies each spring, often returning to the site of a previous nest (the location is identified by a chemical scent marker recognizable even to a first-year queen). However, if the structure is particularly well-protected from the weather—in the wall of a house, say—it may become a perennial nest, populated year-round. Yellowjacket hives may range in size from several inches (at the beginning of the colony’s history) to enormous structures measuring six feet or more and housing as many as 20,000 adult workers.

Wasp control is dangerous, especially for people who have heart conditions or known allergies to the venom, so it’s important to know what you’re dealing with before you take action. There’s a huge difference between avoiding 20 winged assailants and outrunning 20,000.  Moreover, yellowjackets tend to be more aggressive—they don’t give up the pursuit as quickly. [For more information on how to safely manage wasps, download a fact sheet courtesy Drs. Mike Merchant and Glen Moore of my alma mater, Texas A&M. Whoop!]

Don’t be too quick to declare war on wasps, though. In addition to their important role in plant pollination, nearly every pest insect species has at least one wasp species that preys or parasitizes it, making wasps a critically important natural biocontrol that benefit agricultural and even home gardeners. If that’s not enough to convince you to live and let live with wasps, when possible, image your life without social media!

I’m serious—next time you see some wasps congregating around your front porch, take a moment to say thanks… just before you blast the nest with with the hose, knock it down with a broom handle, and then grind it into the sidewalk with your shoe to be sure there are no survivors (don’t act all innocent with me—I can see that can of Hot Shot® behind your back).

When you’re finished, don’t forget to post about it on Facebook!

 

*NOTE:  As new discoveries are made, scientists continually discuss, argue, and refine our understanding of the evolutionary history of life on Earth.  I realize this timeline is simplistic but it is based on currently available research. My intention was to create a captivating introduction to a post on wasps by illustrating a connection between Zuckerberg, social networks, and the Vespidae Family. If you have a nit to pick about my portrayal of the fossil record and its accuracy—cut me a little slack, okay? I’m a writer and an urban wildlife biologist, not a taxonomist. Plus my beloved MacBook Pro died last week so I’m way behind schedule, stressed out, and in mourning (I did pull myself together long enough to purchased a new MacBook Pro and, I must say, it has been incredibly supportive as I struggle overcome my grief.)

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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] roadsidepictures (paper wasp on nest); Malcolm Tattersall (mud dauber); Richard Bartz (yellowjacket on leaf); Bob Peterson (paper wasp nest in situ); and Jason Hollinger (yellowjacket nest).

Border battles

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).

Tangled up in blue

eastern bluebird 2 by Jason Matthews, Creative Commons license

A male Eastern bluebird personifies happiness, whether he’s happy about it or not (Photo: Jason Matthews, Creative Commons license)

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Happiness is a shy little bird. Hiding from sight in life’s nooks and crannies, impossible to find if you look but then it darts out and lands on your shoulder just when you least expect it. It sidles up beside you like a pickpocket on a crowded street, soft and silent as wings brushing against your lapel. Hardly even noticed until something or someone causes it to flush in a flurry of feathers from beneath your jacket, taking with it a sizeable chunk of your heart. Try to grab hold as it flies away and the thief proves as elusive as dreams upon waking, slipping through your fingers like a shadow, like quicksilver.

The concept of happiness has been flitting in and out of my brain and my life for a couple of weeks now. My birthday earlier this month may have provided the initial impulse. This wasn’t a major milestone year, I’ve got too much on my plate these days to leave much room for cake, plus I’m living in a new town and don’t know many people yet… but I did take a little time to acknowledge the day and do some thinking. December 31st may be the culturally accepted time to contemplate one’s short- or long-term past and make plans for the year to come, but my inner-Pagan knows the vernal equinox is the true start of a new trip around the sun. Besides, I’m not much for following the crowd. I was the kind of kid who would disassemble all the board games in the house, shuffling the tokens and cards to make up my own game with my own rules.  So I like the idea of a personal calendar that begins in April, and a personal New Year’s Eve for reviewing said year is also appealing. Later that same week, two unanticipated events provided additional incentive to ponder the nature of happiness.

Then again, maybe I’ve had happiness on my mind because the bluebirds have returned.

mountain bluebird pair (Photo: freeopinions, creative commons license)

Mountain bluebird pair

This year, I’ve been watching eastern bluebirds (Sialia sialis) each morning while my terrier-boy practices his soccer moves on a squeaky red rubber ball. At other times in my life, while living in other parts of the U.S., I’ve watched spring come to town on the wings of both western and mountain bluebirds (S. Mexicana and S. currucoides, respectively).  A feathered piece of sky flashing across the landscape on shallow wing beats can lift a heavy heart and lighten my mood.

Members of the Turdidae family (aka thrushes), bluebirds are related to that other famous spring harbinger, the American robin (Turdus migratorius). All three Sialia species are easy to spot and identify even though, as fruit and insect eaters, they don’t visit seed-filled feeders. The males are clad in some combination of blue with red and/or white; their mates wear less conspicuous versions of the same plumage.

Efforts to ensure this popular bird’s continued breeding success began with the recognition that they were struggling in the face of competition from introduced species such as the European starling (Sturnus vulgaris) and house sparrow (Passer domesticus), as well as reduced access to nesting habitat. Happily, by building, installing, monitoring, and maintaining special nest boxes, handy men and women across the U.S. have proven crucial to the species’ recovery.

Bluebirds have long symbolized cheerfulness, health, prosperity, and renewal, although I’m not sure why. Their lives are far from easy or free of conflict. Males battle over breeding territories, chasing one another at breakneck speeds, grabbing each other by the feet in mid-air, smacking opponents with their wings as they try to pull each others feathers out with their beaks. They must defend nest cavities or boxes from a host of other birds, many of which are substantially larger. Once a nest site has been established, a mated pair may produce 2-4 broods per season—a task that requires foraging non-stop during daylight hours to find enough food to keep themselves and their offspring fed. If that were not challenge enough, bluebirds undertake an exhausting and hazardous migration of up to 2,000 miles each autumn and spring.

female eastern bluebird by Patrick Coin, Creative Commons license

Female Eastern bluebird

Despite these hardships, some sources claim the connection between blue birds and happiness is global (albeit focused on bird species indigenous to each country or continent). One thing is certain—the notion, however it began, has been perpetuated by Hollywood and on the radio. I have to wonder if any other bird has been as popular with songwriters and singers, starting with  Bluebird of Happiness, a hit song in the early 1930s that may have ushered this phrase into the popular vernacular.  Judy Garland probably helped things along when she sang of bluebirds flying Somewhere Over the Rainbow. For those who like both their birds and their grass blue, there’s Lester Flatt’s Bluebirds Singing For Me. Paul McCartney, Buffalo Springfield, Bonnie Raitt and, more recently Christina Perri and Adam Green all feature bluebirds on their playlist. Sara Bareilles’ poignant Bluebird tells of a kind of migration, but my own favorite blue bird tune, Birdhouse in Your Soul by They Might Be Giants, transports me to a happy scene, sitting at the kitchen table of a remote lake house in a faraway forest.

Emotions can be tricky to articulate and color can help paint a clearer picture. I get that. If a friend says she’s in the pink or he’s green with envy, you know the score even without the details (although you may still want to hear them). Red is, of course, the color of both anger and passion (maybe that’s why one so often leads to the other). Blue is happiness—at least, that’s what a little bird told me. But is it? If I say I’m feeling blue you’re not likely to picture me in your mind’s eye singing in the rain ala Gene Kelly.

western bluebirds by Julio Mulero, Creative Commons license

Western bluebirds

How did a single color come to represent both sides of the spectrum, sadness and joy? I wish I knew, but I’m not sure it matters in the long run. I do know this: happiness prefers an open palm to an iron grip. It doesn’t do well when caged; like a wild bird, it needs to be free to come and go as it chooses. A full life requires both kinds of blue plus all the other colors and creatures, winter and spring, parting and reunion. If you want to have happiness in your life you must be willing to risk losing it, trusting that it will return as surely as bluebirds in April. That’s the trade-off, the price you pay for the flutter of wings in your heart and stomach.

But worth every penny.

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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: Jason Matthews (male Eastern bluebird);  freeopinions (mountain bluebirds); Patrick Coin (female Eastern bluebird); Julio Mulero (Western bluebirds).