Blinded by the light

black-and-white warbler (Photo: Friends of Mount Auburn, Creative Commons license)

Black-and-white warblers are just one of hundreds of species and millions of individual birds currently making their way southward… and running into some major obstacles (Photo: Sandy Selesky, Creative Commons license)

.[This post from March 2012 bears repeating as we enter the Spring migration season.]

I’ve never been much for following trends. I’m more of a swim-against -the-current kind of gal. For example, I wrote this post while flying north-to-south across North America on a Delta jet, while at the same time millions of migratory birds were flying south-to-north along ancient sky routes.warbling vireo (Photo: Eric Bégin, Creative Commons license)By the time I get back home to southwestern Virginia there’s a good chance that wood-warblers will already be there, including one of the more easy-to-identify species, the black-and-white warbler (Mniotilta varia). And it shouldn’t be too long before blue-gray gnatcatchers (Polioptila caerulea) come back to my neighborhood. How do I know this? I’ve been using a great resource to help me figure out what to watch for—The Cornell Lab of Ornithology provides a wealth of information, including real-time bird migration reports and forecasts.

Sadly, one of the best, and worst, places to see a diverse array of migratory birds is at the base of tall buildings. The birds you’ll find are likely to be dead or injured. Others will be too exhausted to fly any further, making them very vulnerable to the scavenger species who have learned that migration season in the city means food is literally falling from the sky. One expert estimates as many as 100 million birds die in collisions with buildings every year. Songbirds are particularly susceptible to this hazard.

At night, migrating birds seem to be strongly attracted to artificial light and once inside the neon and fluorescent glow they’re reluctant to return to the darkness. High-rise glass and light are a deadly combination for these travelers—those that don’t collide with the buildings fly around and around as if caught in a sci-fi tractor beam until they drop from gnatcatcher (Photo: Jerry Oldenettel, Creative Commons license)In some cities, bird-loving volunteers organize rescue teams who arrive before sunrise to beat gulls, free-roaming cats, raccoons, coyotes, and others to the survivors. The injured are transported to wildlife rehabilitators for care, the dead are collected and counted.  The Chicago Bird Collision Monitors have reported finding an average of 5,000 birds on the streets and sidewalks during the annual spring and fall migrations. In Toronto alone the Fatal Light Awareness Program (FLAP) has documented bird-building collisions for over 140 species.

No one wants to add to his or her birding life list this way.

Thankfully, FLAP has some simple suggestions for reducing the carnage:

  • Turn off the office lights and close the blinds when you leave at the end of the day, and ask your co-workers to do the same.
  • Talk to the building’s maintenance supervisor and cleaning staff to explain their critical role in creating a bird-friendly building.
  • If you notice dead and/or injured birds on the ground around your building, consider organizing a group of coworkers to serve as rescuers and team with wildlife rehabilitators in your area.
  • FLAP recommends keeping a supply of paper grocery bags on hand for rescues. Once a bird has been placed inside the top can be folded over and stapled shut. This does not create an air-tight seal so there’s no need to poke air holes in the bag, and the darkness inside the bag will help calm the bird so it doesn’t injure itself further.

Before you forget, why not leave a reminder on your computer screen or near your office door? If you make it just a little harder to see migratory birds in the urban jungle you may end up making it just a little easier to continue seeing migratory birds in the future.


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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. Just ask.). Thanks to these photographers for making their work available through a Creative Commons license: Sandy Selesky, Friends of Mount Auburn (black-and-white warbler); Eric Bégin (warbling vireo);   Jerry Oldenettel (blue-gray gnatcatcher); and Joe Penniston (downtown Chicago at night).

Nutcracker suite


No, not Tchaikovsky. These are avian nutcrackers (left to right): northern cardinal, rose-breasted grosbeak, and red crossbill. (Photos: ehpien, Conrad Kulper, and Eugene Beckes, Creative Commons licenses)

[A seasonally appropriate reprint from December 2011. New posts are coming for the new year, I promise.]

Ever wonder why hens’ teeth (and any other kind of avian teeth for that matter) are rare? It’s because teeth are heavy. That’s a problem if you live life on the wing but can’t use a knife and fork to cut your meals up into easy-to-swallow morsels.  A bird’s beak (aka bill) is an adaptation to flight that serves most of the same functions choppers handle in Earth-bound creatures… but without the high metabolic cost of carrying around a set of pearly whites.

Bird Beaks by Shyamal and Jeff Dahl, CC

Figure A. Beak shape and size offers a clue as to what the owner likes to eat.

The beak is a sheath of tough skin on the upper and lower mandibles. Wild birds exploit a wide array of feeding resources and niches, and they are aided in this task by a startling diversity of beak morphology (see Figure A). For example, nectarivores (nectar-eaters), including hummingbirds, usually have long, straw-like beaks that reach deep into flowers. Insectivores (insect-eaters) tend to have narrow, slightly curved beaks that can reach into the small crevices where their prey try to stay out of sight. Piscivores (fish-eaters) have a sharp hook, serrated edges, or both, that help them hold on to their slippery supper. Some of the most distinctive beaks, though, belong to nutcrackers.

The northern cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis) is a familiar and popular resident of cities and suburbs, possibly because it’s so easy to spot and identify. It’s so popular, in fact, that seven U.S. state legislatures have chosen this species to be their avian poster child.  At  8½—9” (21—23 cm) from jaunty crest to tail tip, it’s a medium-sized songbird with ahim and her cardinals by Steve Wall cc stereotypic nut- and seed-busting beak—short, stout, and cone-shaped. I like cardinals as much as the next person—I’m from St. Louis, after all, where you can walk down any street in the whole town and know you’ll see someone wearing a shirt adorned with a bright crimson bird perched on a baseball bat. But my affection is somewhat tempered by the fact that their beaks work equally well at crushing seeds and human skin, as I can personally attest. Who would guess you could have empathy for a sunflower seed?

The rose-breasted grosbeak (RBG, Pheucticus ludovicianus) is slightly smaller than a cardinal (7—7½” or 18—21 cm) with a pale, conical but more zaftig bill… a chestnut to the redbird’s hazelnut. Of course, it’s natural for kin to resemble one another, and the RBG is, in fact, one of 17 species known as the “cardinal-grosbeaks.”* Grosbeak—from the French grosbec (gros thick + bec beak) is a bit of a misnomer for this striking black and white bird with a cherry cravat (the females prefer a more sedate, sparrow-like wardrobe). Compared to the schnozzes sported by some members of the Cardinalidae clan, the RBG has a proud but modest snoot.

Although not as common as its stop-light colored cousin, human development—and the fire suppression policies that accompany it—have caused forests to sprout where once only grasses grew, allowing the RBG to expand its breeding and migration range westward (although the Rocky Mountains have proven to be a tough habitat nut to crack).  They’ve become a more frequent visitor to backyard bird bistros, where they like to snack on safflower, cracked corn, and black-striped sunflower seed. Insects and fruit are part of their diet as well, but seeds account for the majority of their calorie intake, especially during winter months.

As the name suggests, red crossbills (Loxia curvirostra) are true specialists. At first glance you might think this is a bird in dire need of an orthodontist, but that oddly shaped bill allows them to force open conifer cones and extract the tasty nutmeat inside. The muscles that allow birds to bite down are stronger than the ones used to open their beaks. But unlike cardinals and grosbeaks, who can clamp down with great force on tough-hulled sunflower seeds (and tender, well-meaning human hands), the crossbill can wedge the slightly opened tips of its bill between the scales of a tightly closed pinecone and then bite down, pushing the scale up to expose the kernel.

The red crossbill is extremely dependent on conifer seeds—wildlife biologists refer to animals whose very existence depends on a narrowly-defined habitat or food sources as obligate species. Most granivores (seed-eaters) start their lives eating protein-rich insects, making a dietary change once they reach adulthood, but crossbills feed on seeds from nest-cradle to grave. Of course, there are risks associated with being a specialist… we’ve all been warned against “putting all your eggs in one basket.” But as long as long red crossbill by eugene beckes ccas you follow the advice of Mark Twain and “watch that basket!” there are benefits as well. For example, red crossbills can raise young any time of the year—even during winter—as long as the cone crop is abundant. I guess some nutty looking adaptations are really quite useful.

The Clark’s nutcracker (Nucifraga columbiana) has also used the reliable conifer nut to expand its breeding season. But this member of the Corvidae family (jays and crows) takes the idea even further. It is a hoarder, storing surplus pine, spruce, and hazelnuts. They actually have a special pouch under their tongues which they use to clark's nutcracker by Jamie Chavez cccarry seeds over long distances. A single Clark’s can hide as many as 300,000 pine nuts over the course of a year, and they use this cache crop to feed themselves and their nestlings. Research has shown they have a phenomenal memory and can find most of the seeds they’ve stashed, even months later.

Most… but not all; some of the hidden seeds germinate, re-establishing the bird’s favorite trees in areas cleared by fires or logging operations. It’s a sustainable harvest practice, however accidental, and a form of basket-watching that would make Samuel Clemens proud.


* The grosbeak taxa is a conglomerate of distantly related songbirds known as a polyphyletic (“of many races”) group that we’ll explore in greater detail in future NDN posts.


© 2011 Next-Door Nature—no reprints without written permission from the author. Thanks to the following photographers for making their work available for use through a Creative Commons license: ehpien (northern cardinal); Conrad Kulper (rose-breasted grosbeak); Eugene Beckes (red crossbill); Steve Wall (male and female cardinals); Trisha Shears (2nd red-breasted grosbeak); Eugene Beckes (2nd red crossbill);and Jamie Chavez (Clark’s nutcracker).  Figure A was made available through WikiMedia by Shyamal and Jeff Dahl.  Bird song mp3s files are in the public domain.


The Nissan Watering Hole (Photo: Ingrid Taylar, used with permission)

[This piece was originally published on January 29, 2012.]

Which season comes to mind when you read these words?






If you’re a wild thing, the answer may well be winter.

Sure, the heat of summer can make any body feel dry as dust. But wild animals, especially those species who can tolerate living near people, usually have an easier time finding some moisture when the mercury rises than when it falls.

In cities and suburbs, April brings more than just spring showers. The return engagement of automatic lawn sprinklers turns every pampered landscaping leaf and each blade of carefully tended turf-grass into a diminutive drink dispenser. Fountains splash and spritz and spray. Swimming pools drop all pretense of modesty and shrug off their winter coats. Hoses report for car-washing and child-cooling duty, turning streets and sidewalks into ephemeral streams. Birdbaths and pet bowls brim with cool, clear water.

Squirrel lapping water from window (Photo: David Grant, CC license)During the winter months, however, creatures have to get creative and a bit brave to quench their thirst, at least in northern climes. Those of us with easy access to indoor plumbing may not realize it, but for wild animals, dehydration is a bigger threat to winter survival than starvation. Even when the clouds are feeling generous, the precipitation they deliver is often in a more or less rigid—and much less quaffable—form. Personally, I like to think of sleet, snow, and ice as the H2O equivalent of hibernation. Unfortunately, water’s winter vacation means more work for those who depend on it.

And that’s everyone. No exception. Animal, vegetable (no, not mineral)… if you’re alive, you not only need to consume water, you are water—60 to 80% water. Even critters who sleep away the short photo-period months depend on water to stay alive, same as the rest of us. They simply tank up pre-torpor and then use the water tucked away in their extra reserves of body fat.

American goldfinch drinking from an icicle (Photo: JDB Photos, CC license)Active animals need water for basic metabolic functions, including proper digestion. This is especially true for seed-eating birds—a group that tends to hang around all year rather than migrate to places where insects and fruit are still on the menu. That’s because there isn’t much moisture in their meals. In fact, it takes extra water to digest high fiber foods.

What happens to birds and mammals who can’t find a source of unfrozen surface water when they need it? The problem is far greater than simply putting up with a dry mouth until you can stop at a convenience store for a bottle of Aquafina. How long an animal can go without water depends on many factors, including their species, weight, physical condition, and parasite load, as well as the weather. Generally speaking, though, it doesn’t take long for life without liquid to get unpleasant. Lose one or two percent of total body water (TBW) and your dehydration is classified as “mild”; however, anyone who’s experienced it (that would be me) is sure to argue that the resulting headache is anything but. The definition of “moderate” dehydration is five to ten percent of TBW… the situation is getting serious now, as your skin dries out and loses turgor (the ability to snap back into place when pinched) and your eyes begin to sink back into their sockets. Over ten percent TBW loss is “severe” enough that you’re unlikely to recover without medical intervention.

The scenario I’ve just described may sound like an environmental disaster waiting to happen… and in cases of actual drought the impact is rather grim. Under more normal circumstances, winter water is difficult but not impossible to find, and this scarcity offers an opportunity for nature lovers. Want to make wild lives—and wildlife watching—a little easier? Turn on the spigot.

I mean that literally. Providing water can be as simple as letting your outside faucets drip. You probably already do this to protect your pipes from bursting when The Weather Channel warns of freezing temperatures. Perhaps you can afford to do it once a week, or every other day, regardless of the forecast.BluebirdBath (Photo: Rob and Jane Kirkland, CC license)

If you’d rather keep the water bill low, and the wild ones a little further from the house, birdbaths are a simple way to offer refreshment. They’re easy to maintain, plus you can add an electric, battery, or solar powered heater/de-icer to insure that everyone can wet their whistle on even the coldest days. Hard-core backyard habitat aficionados will drool over the possibility of installing a pond or artificial stream. Whatever floats your boat—you’ll find both ends of the water-feature spectrum, and everything in between, at your local watchable wildlife retailer or gardening center.  I promise you, the sound of water is irresistible music to non-human ears. New resources will be found and greatly appreciated.

What’s more, water is an effective wildlife attractor all year long. When you offer seed, you get seed-eaters (e.g., cardinals, blue jays, house sparrows, and squirrels) and some omnivores (e.g., opossums, raccoons, the occasional deer or black bear)—and probably a lot of hulls and other waste that needs to be raked up and thrown away. Feeder maintenance can be an expensive and time-consuming habit.* Landscape with native plants and you should be able to coax some fruit and nectar fans to visit as well. Few homeowners are willing to do what’s necessary to invite insectivores to dinner, at least intentionally.

But offer everyone something to drink and suddenly your crib is a coffee house, local pub, and hot new club, all rolled into one. Just add water!

*You may also inadvertently lure in some species who like to feast on the feeder regulars. If you find it disturbing to look up from your morning coffee to see a sharp-shinned hawk scattering goldfinch feathers hither and yon, you may find it helps to think of this as progressing from “having a feeder” to “having a food-web.”


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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—just ask). Thanks to these photographers for making their work available through a Creative Commons license: Ingrid TaylarDavid GrantJDB PhotosRob & Jane Kirkland, and James Marvin Phelps.


Two male turkeys audition but fail to impress the judge (Photo: Teddy Llovet, Creative Commons license)


[An alternative to the trussed and roasted turkeys featured as the unlucky guests of honor on tables across the U.S. this week, reprinted from November 2012.]

I don’t know what American grade school kids are being taught these days—I left Oakville Elementary a couple of decades ago (okay, fine—several decades ago) and since I haven’t had kids of my own I don’t have access to 21st century homework assignments. But I’ll go out on a limb here and bet that most of them know the bald eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) won the 1782 version of American Idol, and that it did so by edging out celebrity judge Benjamin Franklin’s favorite contestant, the wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo).

That long-ago contest had little in common with the popular modern day version of reality TV. For one thing, neither bird has great pipes. Citizens were never asked to call or text in their votes. Also, the bald eagle has held on to national fame longer than fellow white-headed winner Taylor Hicks, while the turkey hasn’t exactly proven the voters wrong by, say, winning an Academy Award, Jennifer Hudson-style.

On the other hand, we don’t set aside a day each November (or any month, for that matter) on which the eagle takes center stage.  So in honor of Thanksgiving, I’d like to briefly sing the praises of the runner-up… and not just as the star performer at a holiday dinner.

Shortly after Congress immortalized the eagle on the Great Seal of the United States, Franklin shared his disappointment and misgivings over their choice in a letter to his daughter. Given the sparse pelt on his own pate, one might expect ol’ Ben would view the bald eagle as a kindred spirit, or at least harbor a bit of sympathy. Instead, his criticism was as harsh as any doled out by Simon Cowell, describing our new national symbol as “a Bird of bad moral character” who “does not get his Living honestly,” preferring to sup on rotting fish or, worse yet, stealing fresh seafood from more industrious raptors like the osprey (Pandion haliaetus). What’s more, Ben argued the eagle is cowardly, evidenced by how easily it can be driven away by much smaller birds defending their nests and offspring. Not exactly the role model image our fledgling country hoped to cultivate.

The turkey, according to Franklin, is “in Comparison a much more respectable bird,” a “true original Native of America” and a “Bird of Courage” who “would not hesitate to attack” any invader and defend his home turf.

This description might not square with your expectations after years of holiday stories featuring dim-witted, less than inspiring  Butterballs-to-be but the domestic turkey is but a pale and passive imitation of the real-deal.

Wild tom turkeys (as the males are called) will most definitely defend their breeding territory against potential rivals. Large and heavy, they are unexpectedly agile flyers, aggressive fighters, social, sometimes playful, intelligent, and adaptive.  To my knowledge they’ve never been accused of theft or caught dining on carrion (their omnivorous diet consists primarily of acorns and other nuts, seeds, fruit, buds and leaves, insects and the occasional small reptile or amphibian).

As far as moral character goes… well, you know rock stars. Toms strut their stuff in a flamboyant palette of iridescent red, green, purple, copper, bronze, and gold feathers worthy of Adam Lambert. No piercings or tattoos, but oozing cool with a Beat-worthy statement beard of stiff bristles starting just above the wishbone, wattles (flesh hanging from the head and/or neck), caruncles (fleshy growths on the head), snoods (long fleshy object draped across a tom’s beak), spurs and other body art. Their ladies, in keeping with general avian fashion trends, tend to be more conservatively dressed but they can strut like a runway model  when warranted, complete with long legs and outlandish makeup. Out of the spotlight, turkey hens are attentive mothers to their precocial offspring, in contrast to the menfolk, who are polygamous absentee fathers.

(Male bald eagles, it must be said, are actively involved in their children’s upbringing; given his own reputation, Ben might have been well served to heed the old saying about people who live in glass houses before he cast the first stone.)

Like the bald eagle, wild turkeys experienced a perilous decline in their numbers during in the last century, due to overhunting and habitat loss (rather than DDT exposure, as was the case for so many of our birds of prey).  Game agencies took action to protect the species and have been successful in helping the population rebound. So much so, in fact, that turkeys have not only returned to rural fields, pastures, and woodlands but have begun to tour in many major metropolitan areas as well.  In some parts of the country spotting a flock of wild turkeys foraging near a highway, hanging out downtown, or feasting at a backyard bird feeder is no longer a novelty.

That means a growing number of Americans now have a ticket to see  this national treasure up close and personal more than once a year, and at venues other than a serving platter.

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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. Just ask first.). Thanks to these photographers for making their work available through a Creative Commons license: Teddy Llovet (cover); keeva999 (turkey in flight); Mic Stolz (plumage); Peter Patau (men).

Still Life

Great blue heron

The great blue heron is a patient angler.

[I’m working on new essays this week so I hope you’ll enjoy this reposting from March 26, 2011]

Racing past a nearby pond, I mistook the bird for an art installation.

I realized my error quickly enough once I downshifted. Then again, there’s just something so painterly about a great blue heron (Ardea herodias). The graceful, sinuous lines; the aqueous blues and grays; the plumage, evocative as a brush stroke. The unhurried disposition that creates a pose of every posture. The stippled scene was realism and impressionism all at once.

Slow, prehistoric wing-beats call to mind the cave paintings of Lascaux and Altamira. The great blue is one of the more easily identified birds in flight, partly due to its size—a 6-foot wingspan is hard to miss—and partly because of its silhouette, reminiscent of a textbook pterodactyl: neck folded back on itself in a compressed S; a contrail of long, slender legs.

Statuesque as an adult, the stalk-and-strike hunter spends much of its life standing still as stone.  Balanced as bronze armature, this is a kinetic sculpture that moves imperceptibly, and yet, as you watch… you can feel the potential energy of that cocked, cursive neck building in your own musculature, grown taut with anticipation.

Patience personified…




and THEN

…the spring detonates with blinding speed, blasting the javelin bill through the water’s surface and into the target!

The spear is dragged back from the depths as a squirming fish-kabob. Or, perhaps, a canapé of frog, salamander, crab, or crawdad… would you prefer a vole, garter snake, duckling, or a dragonfly. Heron menus include far more than seafood.

On occasion, large prey will be consumed bite by bite. A tedious process and, as every angler knows, if you want to increase your catch you need to keep your line in the water. So, more often, there’s a flip of feathered head and neck, then dinner is swallowed whole.

Or not. That narrow neck can accommodate a surprisingly wide load, but in the hurry to put the catch in the creel, herons have been known to choke on a too-big meal.



I know the feeling. I gobble down the items on my to-do list—even tasks like “take a walk.” I channel surf when I should take the time to savor the canvas before me. Taking a deep breath, I tried to quiet my mind, and settled down to watch… and wait.  Dining, fishing, or appreciating a living, breathing work of art—these are pastimes that can’t be rushed.


[Thanks to the following photographers for making their work available through the Creative Commons license: S Pisharam and Len Blumin. Blumin, who is responsible for the “catfish dinner” series, reports that in this particular heron’s eyes were NOT bigger than its stomach, or its throat, and it lived to fish another day. © 2011 Next-Door Nature. Reprints welcomed with written permission from the author.]

Oddly Normal

I don’t live far from the eclipse’s Path of Totality, but I decided to stay put just the same. I didn’t even order eclipse glasses. I know there will be plenty of great video to watch throughout the day, and since my sweetheart is a talented professional videographer, I feel like I’ve got that angle covered.  I want to focus on what’s going on down under, here on Earth.

In anticipation, I’ve been reading stories about how the event will impact wildlife. Every single one of these reports has focused on the “strange” animal behavior we can expect to witness as the day goes dark… and I find that very strange indeed.

What these experts are calling odd is considered completely normal activity when it happens each evening. And from the descriptions I’ve read about what to expect, assuming night is nigh would be a perfectly reasonable assumption for any creature—human or non-human—who doesn’t have a television or an Internet connection and, therefore, doesn’t know that the sun will be playing hide-and-seek with the moon for a little while today.

Humans tend to be less familiar with nocturnal species than the ones who are active during regular business hours. I think the eclipse is going to offer a chance to get to know our neighbors who work the night shift… kind of like a rerun of the National Night Out that took place earlier this month.

As the light begins to dim, creatures who are active during the day may start their usual bedtime routines.  Some diurnal birds will sing one last serenade to the daylight as faux-evening falls…

…some will hurry back to nests of eggs or chicks…

…others will congregate for mutual protection, as they do at the end of every day.

Birds who love the night life will wake, possibly feeling less than rested but still ready to boogie in search of an early breakfast (or late dinner, depending how you look at it).

Some wild mammals are active and visible during the day, including a fair number of rodents such as tree squirrels, groundhogs, prairie dogs, and chipmunks. I’m expecting the eclipse to be a great time to see mammals who are usually waking up just as I’m starting to wind down…

Insect musicians will surely want to set the mood with a tune or two.

Fireflies know a little night music calls for romantic lighting…

…and amphibians aren’t about to let the invertebrates steal the limelight!

As the skies brighten we’re also likely to have a second dawn chorus… but without needing to get up before sunrise! So don’t despair just because the eclipse will pass your part of North America by, or because you don’t know how to make and use a pin-hole camera (even after you Google’d instructions). There should be some amazing wildlife sights to see, right here on good ol’ terra firma.


[Thanks to the following photographers for making their work available through the Creative Commons license: Eric Kilby, Dan Dzurisin, Ingrid Taylar, Pat Gaines, Rachel Kramer, Will WilsonTony Oldroyd, Michael Eisen, Elizabeth Nicodemus, USFWStsaiian, David Huth, and Ingrid Taylar.  © 2017 Next-Door Nature. Reprints welcomed with written permission from the author.]


I found a blue jay feather this morning while I was out walking my dog, Dash. That isn’t remarkable — jays are a common species here, and because the color blue is relatively scarce in the natural environment (except for the sky) it’s eye-catching. I’ve started an informal collection, compiled on some shelves near my front door. I admire them on a semi-regular basis while running a Swiffer™ over household surfaces, and when I have to pick them up off of the floor because I’m cleaning like it’s a timed event.

As I ambled along, spinning the feather between my thumb and forefinger, I could feel it lift at the slightest breeze, attempting to return to the sky. I started thinking about the versatility of this keratin assemblage, this trinket both delicate and durable, this multi-tasker extraordinaire.

I’m well aware that researchers say multi-tasking is a myth, at least when it comes to the human brain. We only think we’re doing several things at once, the scientists tell us; actually, we’re just toggling back and forth from one thing to another, which reduces our mental efficiency and even lowers (temporarily) our IQ.  I’m mostly convinced by these studies but, full disclosure, neuroscience isn’t my field so I’m only familiar with what’s summarized and reported by the media… and by “media” I mean NPR. In light of all that has been reported, though, I find it even more fascinating and frustrating that handling more than one task is trivial for so many other, less admired, anatomical features. Wouldn’t you expect our much-lauded gray matter to be every bit as masterful at multi-tasking as, say, a feather?

Think about it…

First of all, feathers allow birds to fly — a feat humans have still not managed to accomplish, even though we reassure each other constantly that we have the largest, most amazingly intelligent brains on Earth (clearly, though, ours is not the most self-confident computer on the planet).

Now, before you think I’ve somehow overlooked the fact that thousands of human beings are flying from one global location to another all day, every day, and have been doing so for quite some time, let me interject that human beings have, without question, figured out how to make machines fly (with the aid of metallurgy and fossil fuels, of course). But we have never, not once, jumped up from the ground or launched from a tree branch to flap off into the wild blue yonder. Superman doesn’t count because he isn’t human, and wing-suits don’t count either because that’s gliding, not flying. Humans ride, birds fly, and they do it by flapping feather-covered arms, using renewable energy sources like insects, berries, seeds, and sugar water.

Next, consider that feathers also provide thermal insulation. This should come as no surprise because people use bird feathers to keep warm, too. We stuff clouds of down and feathers in-between layers of rip-stop polyester made from recycled plastic water bottles to manufacture vests and parkas. Then we slip on the garment, zip up the front, and head out into the elements to do some birdwatching.

Birds can waterproof their feathers with bio-oils stored in a convenient uropygial/preen gland at the base of their tail. This is handy because, having allocated their arms to flying, they can’t hold a spray can of Scotchgard™. Nor are they able to use hammers, saws, and other tools to build a roof overhead that will shield them from rain, sleet, and snow, or to build a boat when they want to go fishing.

But wait— there’s more! Bet you didn’t know that feathers are also an effective communication device. See, humans use an broad assortment of products, including designer label clothing, team-sponsored gear, our vehicles, digital devices, and jewelry to make nonverbal announcements about our group affiliations and availability.

Birds accomplish the same thing using their birthday feather-suits. The colors and patterns they wear say more than any Tinder profile or list of Who’s Who ever could.  Female birds assess a suitor’s sartorial presentation to determine if he’s her type, and male birds parade their plumage to show the ladies they’ve got the goods to be a quality life-partner. Or maybe just a handsome hookup, depending on how the species swings. Those same feathers can be used to warn a trespasser that this territory has been claimed, or warn a romantic competitor to back off.

Kind of puts the old uni-tasking cerebral cortex to shame, don’t you think? And all this time I’ve been under the impression that “featherhead” was an insult.


[Thanks to the following photographers for making their work available through the Creative Commons license: bagaball, Richard Hurd, Jonathan Fox, Ingrid Taylar, and Putneypics.  © 2017 Next-Door Nature. Reprints welcomed with written permission from the author.]



Male downy woodpecker (Picoides pubescens)

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

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

Or so I thought.

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

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

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

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

drawing of a woodpecker's tongue

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

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

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

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