The Hawk Who Mistook Her Mate for a Meal

Seriously, it could happen to anyone.

Well, any working mom operating on instinct and snap-judgements who needs to snag some groceries before she flies back home to those perpetually ravenous kiddos.

Okay… maybe it couldn’t happen to anyone. But every now and then, once in a very blue moon, some harried female Cooper’s hawk (Accipiter cooperii) will be scanning earth and sky for something to serve for supper, probably thinking about the million other things on her to-do list, and she’ll innocently, accidentally, absentmindedly, kinda-sorta… confuse her spouse for take-out.

At which point she becomes a single working mother.

Now, before you get all mommy-shamey (“I would never feed my children their dad for dinner, but maybe that’s just me…), at least hear her side of the story.

First of all, you need to understand that most predators have a niche, a specific go-to prey that’s based, at least in part, on their particular hunting skill-set. Coopers are no exception; as one of the world’s most adept and daring fliers, they’re capable of barnstorming through a tangle of tree leaves, twigs, and branches as they chase down some chow. Naturally, their aerial talents give Coopers an edge when it comes to the pursuit of other winged creatures. Sure, if the opportunity presents itself they’re not going to turn up their beaks at a frog, a chipmunk, or a bat but the Coopers prey of choice is birds.

When a Cooper’s prey drive kicks in, male and female alike, the only thing that matters in that moment is hitting the target. They don’t even give much consideration to potential risk to life and limb, it seems. According to the Cornell University Lab of Ornithology, a study of this species found nearly a quarter of the 300 skeletons examined had healed chest fractures, especially of the furcula (aka wishbone, analogous to the collarbones in humans).

Of course, just because you’re willing to endure some broken bones to get the job done doesn’t mean you wouldn’t welcome easier access to some eats. Coopers are savvy enough to recognize that a backyard bird feeder is the hawk equivalent of a drive-through restaurant. If they’re lucky enough to have one or more of these bistros in their neighborhood, they’ll cruise on over and hang out in some nearby foliage until feathered patrons stop by for a snack, then grab-and-go. The humans who stock these seedy establishments can get pretty judgemental about what they view as harassment, or even exploitation, of their preferred clientele but that’s the biological carbon cycle for you. Everybody’s gotta eat.

Which brings us back to the hawk who mistook her mate for a meal.

Like many raptors, female Coopers are quite a bit larger than their male counterparts—taller, heavier, longer wing-span, you name it.  But it’s not her size that puts him at risk; it’s his.

See, Coopers tend to focus their hunting efforts on pigeons, mourning doves, flickers, cowbirds, kestrels… in other words, avian species ranging in size between an American robin and an American crow. Ironically, at 14½ to 15¼ inches from beak to tail-tip, the male Cooper’s hawk fits neatly into his very own prey niche. Add to the issue of similar stature the fact that both predator and prey share, in many cases, a color palette of whites, grays, and rusts, and it’s obvious to the most casual observer how the daily chore of hustling up some grub for the family can easily turn into an unfortunate case of mistaken identity.

I guess blue moons and beleaguered female hawks aren’t as uncommon as one might think because male Coopers have a stereotypic strategy for dealing with a distracted but fiercely efficient domestic partner.  First, as he approaches the home-front, he flies in large, slow arcs and hollers out the hawk version of “Honey, I’m home!!”  Then he listens carefully for the female’s “all-clear” response call, signaling that she sees and recognizes him. When he arrives at the nest he’ll have a thoughtful gift in his bill… a little something for her and the chicks to nosh on, or a few home maintenance supplies. Cuz, you know, it never hurts to tip the scales in your favor.

Happy hawk wife, longer hawk husband life.


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© 2019 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 (from top to bottom): Hal Trachtenberg, Jenny, Chuck Roberts, Jeff Bryant, and Hal Trachtenberg.

The Jet Set

Everyone has their own personal markers of summer—the flash of a firefly, the pulsing hum of cicadas, the aroma of freshly cut grass… I’m sure you have a favorite.  To my mind, nothing says summer quite as definitively as the sight of chimney swifts (Chaetura pelagic) foraging overhead.

These small, sleek birds have belonged to the feathered Jet Set since way back. They’re trendsetters, not fad followers. For example, fashionistas trade angora sweaters and down anoraks for bright floral sundresses and tropical guayaberas as the calendar flips past March, April, and May, but swifts stick to a classic all-season, all-purpose ensemble in understated hipster tones of sooty charcoal accented with an ash-gray ascot.  Très chic! Moreover, chimney swifts really don’t need a cold weather wardrobe; when the temperature changes swifts change their address. They winter in Peru, Brazil, Ecuador, or Chile, not St. Barts or Dubai, and they always summer east of the Rockies. They simply love, love, LOVE the U.S.A and Canada, dahling.

Every chimney swift would be a platinum-status frequent flyer if they weren’t all pilots themselves.  Their cigar-shaped fuselage and narrow, curved wings are built for speed and acrobatic maneuverability, so you won’t find them shuffling through airport security headed for the first-class lounge. Commercial flights are so… pedestrian. Anyway, these birds are rarely ever seen standing still.  Their Latin family name—Apodidae—means “footless,” and while that’s not strictly true their legs and feet are not their strongest feature.  Swifts don’t perch; when forced to land they cling to vertical surfaces, including the walls of those eponymous chimneys.

Which brings us to another characteristic that sets swifts apart from the globetrotting glitterati. Long before Airbnb matched adventurers and accommodations, chimney swifts were bypassing 5 star hotels in favor of host families. It all started when Europeans arrived in the New World and began building houses and fireplaces. The local swifts, who had been housekeeping in hollow trees for more generations than anyone could count, saw an opportunity to make a killing in real estate. They seized the day and the rest is history. Now swifts are North America’s summer house guests, albeit usually uninvited and sometimes unwelcome.

It’s not because they’re inconsiderate. Swifts mostly mind their P’s and Q’s. They don’t monopolize the bathroom taking long, hot showers—a quick splash in a puddle or pool, followed by a thorough mid-air shake, does the trick.  They never raid the family fridge—thousands of in-flight protein-rich insects snacks each day provide nourishment. They don’t expect a chambermaid and fresh linens—using found objects, such as small twigs, and glue-like saliva they fashion temporary fire-resistant DIY berths on the chimney wall to cradle their offspring.

Actually, it’s their kids that cause most conflicts with the conscripted landlords.  Chimney swifts rear 1-2 broods of 3-5 young while visiting the Northern Hemisphere.  The chicks, who snuggle up quietly together while napping, turn into the very definition of sibling rivalry each time a parent arrives at the nest to deliver a meal. The hungry mob push and shove for position, stretching wobbly necks to the heavens. They open their mouths wide and scream their heads off so Mom or Dad will notice and reward them with a juicy morsel. Those high-pitched squeals for attention amplify as they bounce down the open chimney shaft, past the damper, and out into the room below. Multiply that acoustic event by hundreds of feedings per day and the human residents can begin to feel as though they’re being strafed with sound.

There’s a simple solution to live and let live.  A thick slab of Styrofoam™ (aka expanded polystyrene) from the local craft store, cut to fit snugly inside the hearth opening, will reduce the chatter to a tolerable decibel level.

Meanwhile, it can help to remember that their parents are scouring the skies above your humble abode for mosquitoes, making summer evenings outdoors much more pleasant. Plus, it only takes 2-3 weeks for the youngsters to progress from hatchling to flying away, which is pretty impressive you have to admit.

Still, if you’d rather not play innkeeper to international travelers you can turn off the Vacancy sign by installing a chimney cap.  This relatively inexpensive device will not only exclude all manner of wild things from moving into (or falling down) the flue, the cap will also stop downdrafts, prevent sparks and embers from landing on the roof, and block rain, leaves, and branches.

Keep in mind, though, that once a chimney swift family has moved in you can’t legally evict them.  The Migratory Bird Treaty Act gives swifts and most other wild birds a kind of diplomatic immunity so you’ll have to wait until they jet back to South America to pull up the Welcome mat.


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© 2016 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 (from top to bottom): Jim McCulloch, Chester A. Reed (public domain), Greg Schechter, and Jim McCulloch.

Helicopter Parent

As the most literal of helicopter parents, a ruby-throated hummingbird mom (RTH, Archilochus colubris) takes hovering to a whole new competitive level.

In the case of this feathered sprite (2.8 – 3.5″ long, including bill, and just over 1/10 of an ounce), though, the word “hover” has more to do with the ability to fly than with over-protective child rearing. Which is not to suggest that an RTH mom is neglectful. Far from it… she’s just a bit Type A.

Both male and female RTHs winter in Central America or along the southern tip of Florida, but from the moment a gal returns to her summer stomping grounds in the eastern half of the US or southern Canada, she’s all go-go-go… because her biological clock is ticking like a stopwatch.

Barely hesitating to catch her breath, the first order of business is to find a baby daddy. She’s not looking for ever-after; Mr. Right-for-Now will do as long as he’s strong and handsome. Since the males of her clan aren’t the slightest bit interested in becoming a Mr. Mom this arrangement suits everyone just fine. With barely a look backward by either party following their four-second assignation, he jets off to find another hookup, and she speeds away to shop for flower-down to line the bassinet.

It takes about six days for this mom-to-be to fashion a nest barely wide enough to hold a bottle cap, and tether it to a foundation with strands of spider silk. RTH nests are most often built on a tree branch but unusual alternatives, including loops of chain or extension cord, have proven acceptable in a pinch. Darting back and forth, the female will weave bud scales, lichen, hair or fur, and other creatively repurposed found objects into a cup-shaped cradle. Next, she’ll adorn the nest with lichen and moss, finally lining the interior with a soft, insulating layer.

Once the nursery has been prepared and decorated, 1-3 eggs the size of your pinkie fingernail will appear, and then… a pregnant pause.

Think about it. The longest stretch this single mother ever sits down, during her entire life, is to incubate a clutch of future hummers. Imagine, if you will, the kind of patience, willpower, and elevated estrogen levels it takes for a creature who has lived on the wing, perpetually flitting hither and yon since leaving her own natal nest, to STOP…  settle in… and then just…

……………………sit…

…………………………..for 12-14…..

……………………………………………..long…..

………………………………………………………….idle…..

……………………………………………………………………..days.

During this time, the newly stationary creature will leave her nest only for brief breaks to stretch or grab a bite to eat. She’ll anchor there, day and night, rain or shine. No baby shower, no friends stopping by to say hello; they’re all brooding their own nest eggs. No television, even though this would be a great time to binge watch David Attenborough’s The Life of Birds. No smartphone at the ready to check email, take selfies, and whine to everyone on Facebook that she is bored beyond reason.

Heck, when I manage to stop and meditate for ten minutes two days in a row I feel like a Zen Master.

Once the chicks hatch it’s back to her normal hyperactive life… and then some. RTH nestlings are naked and wobbly-headed, with an appetite that dwarfs their bitty bodies. For the next few weeks, Mom will need to make 1-3 grocery runs per hour,  from dawn to dusk, regurgitating the food she’s foraged and hauled home in her belly into the beseeching beak of each precious child.

Once the babes fledge at 18-22 days old they’ll disperse among the branches… not too far away from the nest or each other initially, but spaced out enough to make dinner deliveries much less efficient for their harried mother. As the kids grow stronger and bolder, they’ll spread out further, testing their own wings… and Mom’s ability to be everywhere all at once.

Oh, and somewhere in that frantic schedule, this solo parent also needs to down enough calories to keep her own metabolism running on all cylinders.

Luckily, she flies like a super-charged, hyper fuel-efficient, über-nimble helicopter. Hummingbirds have been known to reach speeds of nearly 35 mph (55 kph), which is certainly impressive. Not record-breaking among the avian set, though. The difference is that most of the planet’s fastest feathered fliers reach their top speeds in a dive, asking gravity to add a significant boost to their velocity. Acrobatic RTHs can fly straight and fast, too, but it’s their ability to achieve what those avian missiles can’t—a true hover—that sets them apart.

This isn’t using a thermal to save energy, like vultures, ravens, petrels, and other long-winged birds do. That’s soaring. Hummingbirds move their wings in a figure-eight pattern at over 50 beats per second, allowing them to stop on a dime or adjust their position up, down, forward, or backward. That frenetic rhythm is also creates the humming noise that’s the source of their common name.

It also helps that the lady’s jet fuel of choice is syrup. Flower nectar, to be more precise, accounts for approximately 90% of an adult hummingbird’s daily caloric intake. RTHs and other hummers have a large surface-area:body-mass ratio, which means they lose a lot of heat in the normal course of living. Plus, their metabolism is so high they have to enter a torpor once a day, between sunset and sunrise, just to make it through the night without having to recharge.

Unlike the sugar-water mixtures backyard bird enthusiasts cook up to fill hanging feeders, blossom juice consists of more than just sucrose (from which plain white table sugar is derived). Flowers also produce fructose and glucose, as well as amino acids, antioxidants, calcium and other trace minerals, lipids, phosphates, and some protein. Other sources of protein include insects that have found their way inside the flower’s throat, where they are slurped up along with the nectar. Hummingbirds will also glean aphids from plants, pluck spiders from their webs, and nab flying insects mid-air. During breeding season, female RTHs spend a lot of time catching insects because nestlings need a high protein diet to grow and develop properly. Once they mature they’ll gradually switch to the high-carb diet of an adult.

As befits a fast-paced life, in barely the blink of an eye (or the wing-beat of a hummingbird) summer is over. Male RTHs often head south first, in early August. Females tend to delay departure until late August or sometime in September. After months of feeding others—our feathered Supermom may have raised as many as three broods in a single season—the time has come to focus on self-care, and on building enough fat reserves to power through an 18-22 hour non-stop flight across the Gulf of Mexico.

The last of her children have left the nest and are, hopefully, ready for their first migration. RTHs are solitary migrators so Mom’s helicopter parenting days are over… until next year.

Because a mother’s work is never really done.


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© 2019 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 (from top to bottom): Dan Pancamo, Steve Rider, TCDavis, BudOhio, ssemone, BudOhio, and Henry T. McLin.

Telephone

This university town is always less crowded during the summer. Most students are at home or on summer internships, faculty and graduate students are using the break to slip away for some R&R or doing research at field sites, and there are no home football games to bring in alumni and supporters of the opposing team.  While I enjoy the school year, and recognize how much Blacksburg depends on the university and related personnel, I do my best to pause and catch my breath from mid-May to mid-August.

That includes plenty of walks with my wire fox terrier, Dash, along a leafy section of the Huckleberry Trail, a former railroad easement. Tt’s rare for Dash and I to have the Huckleberry trail all to ourselves, at least not for very long. Usually we share with cyclists, runners, and other dog-walkers.

But one mid-July day was an exception. I guess we must have left a bit later than usual, but regardless of the reason, the trail and surrounding suburban backyards were quiet enough for me to hear a feathered fellow shouting his heart out from the power lines above.

I peered skyward and saw the black, white, and terra cotta of an Eastern towhee (Pipilo erythrophthalmus)). I’ve read descriptions of this bird’s call as “Drink your tea!” but to my ears it sounds like, “Drink your tea-hehehehe!”

I stood still for as long as Dash could stand it, enjoying the sight and sound of a serious sparrow with a major case of the giggles. Then we picked up the pace and continued walking.

 

 

Several minutes later… more giggling. Were we being followed? Most likely is was a different individual; it was breeding season, after all, and males tend not to stray far from home base and the Mrs.

 

 

 

 

Further down the trail… more tea, more giggles. I felt like I was hearing a musical baton passed from one bird to the next in an auditory relay…

 

 

 

 

Drink your tea-hehehehe!…

 

 

 

 

 

Drink your tea-hehehehe!…

 

 

 

 

 

Drink your tea-hehehehe!

 

 

 

 

I can recognize a game of Telephone when I hear it! In this case, though, all of the players were excellent listeners who repeated the phrase exactly, with perfect fidelity and zero degradation. Since garbled messages are the whole point and fun of Telephone, I wasn’t sure why all these towhees were laughing.

I’ve heard recorded birds calls I couldn’t distinguish by ear but the sonograms (graphical representations of sound) showed clear variations my hearing wasn’t sensitive enough to notice. Maybe if I had Towhee ears I’d be in on the joke.

When Dash and I returned home I had the strangest craving for a cup of tea (strange because I don’t even like tea).


Who’s playing telephone in your neighborhood?  Share your experiences and comments below! And if you’d like a little Next-Door Nature delivered right to your inbox, click the “subscribe” link in the upper right-hand corner of this page to receive notifications for new posts!

[© 2018 Next-Door Nature, Sidewalk Zendo. Reprints welcomed with written permission from the authorThanks to the following photographers for making their work available through the Creative Commons license: Pat Gaines, Alberto_VO5, devra, Mike’s Birds, Amanda, Ken Schneider, marneejill, and Keith Carver.]

Fast Food

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gotta run—that’s all, folks!

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© 2018 Next-Door Nature—no reprints without written permission from the author (I’d love for you to share my work. Just ask first.). Thanks to these photographers for making their work available through a Creative Commons license: Anita Ritenour, Photo KentTeddy Llovet, Alan Harper, LDELD, Jo Zimny, and Nick Chill.

Vice Squad

I was just trying to help, I swear.

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Virtuosity

Maybe Bobby McFerrin was a house wren (Troglodytes aedon) in a previous life.

This thought popped into my mind when, after listening to On Being’s Krista Tippett interview the singer, I went out for a walk with my canine companion. We hadn’t made it too far down the sunny trail when we were suddenly drenched by a deluge of liquid notes. That vocal tsunami, pouring forth from an entirely disproportional feathered Dixie cup, stopped me in my tracks.

Like McFerrin, who is known for fluid, polyphonic singing and quick, oceanic octave jumps, the wren’s song bounced around like raindrops on pavement. I suppose that’s why the synapses in my brain connected the two muscians.

There are definite differences between these gifted songbirds, though.

For example, wrens and other passerine birds produce vocal sounds using an organ called the syrinx, positioned where the trachea splits into two bronchial tubes. Each side of the syrinx operates independently, so songbirds can produce a sweeping range of notes in fractions of a second, or two different pitches at the same time, or simultaneous rising and falling notes, all without stopping for a breath. Humans, by contrast, make vocal sounds by sending air from the lung into the windpipe, through folds (aka vocal cords) in the larynx, and out to the throat, nose, and mouth.

Admittedly, McFerrin often sounds as if he has a syrinx but, hard as it is to believe, he’s making all of those notes with the same equipment you and I have. It’s just that he’s playing every instrument in the orchestra, and we’re barely pecking out “Chopsticks.” His ability to switch pitch is inarguably stunning; however, even this virtuoso can’t match the speed of a wren running through the scales.

McFerrin has a rich and ever-expanding repertoire that includes pop, a capella, choralclassical, spirituals, and movie scores. Like any jazz artist worthy of the title, he is a master of improvisation; always learning, always expanding his technique, consistently creative and ready to try something new. Wrens, on the other hand, may sound like they’re jamming but they’re actually shuffling 12-16 stock syllables… kind of like a classically trained musician who learned to play according to the rules of the conservatory but wants to sound cool enough to swing.

You see, passerines begin their musical education when they are barely out of the egg, during a development phase known as the critical period. Listening to the adult birds around them, the youngsters tune in to the songs and calls of their own species. Once young wrens have left the nest they practice, over and over and over, dialing in the sounds until the song matches the memory. With the exception of mimicking species (e.g., mockingbirds, catbirds, and thrashers), there will be no extemporization. That’s because wrens choose a mate based on the ability to cover “their song” note for note. Some bird songs have geographic variations, sort of like regional accents, but chicks want a boy who sounds like he’s from the neighborhood, and will pass over anyone who sounds too exotic or experimental.

I’m much less discriminating, at least on that score. Bubbling, effervescent singing, whether it’s an improv by McFerrin or a house wren standard, always helps me tune out my worries… and that makes me happy.

[Play both videos at once so Bobby and the house wren can duet!]

 

[Thanks to the following photographers for making their work available through the Creative Commons license: Dustin Gaffke, , Todd Van Hoosear, and Rachid H.  © 2017 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.]