Multi-Tasker

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.]

Headbanger

 

Male downy woodpecker (Picoides pubescens)

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

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

Or so I thought.

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

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

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

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

drawing of a woodpecker's tongue

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

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

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

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

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love-earthThis blog, like so many activities that foster support and appreciation of the natural world, is a labor of love. If you’ve enjoyed learning about the creatures who share our built environment, consider becoming an NDN Benefactor with a donation of any amount you’re inspired to give. If you’d like to find a little Next-Door Nature surprise in your inbox just click the Subscribe!  button in the upper right-hand corner of this page and receive notifications of new posts!

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

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)

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I’ve never been much for following trends and this week was no exception. I’m writing from an altitude of 10,000+ feet and, as I fly west-to-east across North America on my way home from a conference in Fort Collins, Colorado, millions of birds are winging from south-to-north along time-honored sky routes.

warbling vireo (Photo: Eric Bégin, Creative Commons license)

Warbling vireo, warbling

Spending time west of the Mississippi flyway provided me with a chance to get reacquainted with some favorite species from when I lived in New Mexico. I got a heads-up on who to look for using a great resource—the e-Bird Migration Forecast. For example, the pace of this record-breaking early return of migratory birds is expected to slow somewhat during the last gasp of March due to unfavorable winds, but Bell’s and warbling vireos (Vireo bellii and Vireo gilvus, respectively) began to arrive out West a couple of weeks ago. By the time I get back home to the southeast there’s a good chance any number of wood-warblers will already be there including one of the more easy-to-identify species, the black-and-white warbler (Mniotilta varia). e-Bird’s experts predict it shouldn’t be too long before blue-gray gnatcatchers (Polioptila caerulea) come to my neighborhood since they’ve been spotted as far north as Maryland already.

Sadly, one of the best places to see a diverse array of migratory birds is at the base of tall buildings. This is also one of the worst places because the birds you’ll find are likely to be dead or injured. Others are simply too exhausted to fly any further which makes them very vulnerable to the scavenging 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 fatigue.

blue-gray gnatcatcher (Photo: Jerry Oldenettel, Creative Commons license)

Blue-gray gnatcatcher

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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Start your day with a little Next-Door Nature—click the “subscribe”  link in the upper right-hand corner of this page and receive notifications of new posts!
© 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).

Village voice

white-crowned sparrow by KaCey97007, Creative Commons license

A white-crowned sparrow trying to get a date (Photo: KaCey97007, Creative Commons license)

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seagull (Photo: Dani_vr, Creative Commons license)How can one small voice cut through the cacophony of modern metropolitan life? A recently published study, combined with some earlier work, suggests that contrary to what you might assume, the secret to city communication isn’t shouting.

Urban background noise is heavily weighted toward the lower sound frequencies of 20 to 200 Hz—think diesel engines (50-60 Hz).  That’s not to say there aren’t a lot of higher frequency noises in the concrete jungle but, compared to say, the rain forest’s tenor voice, cities sing baritone… and with enough projection to reach the last row of the balcony. Depending on the location and the time of day, your city may be belting out it’s theme song at anywhere from ~45-90 decibels (dB). Ever try to tweet over a lawn mower (and I don’t mean with your smart phone)?

People who haven’t yet experienced any hearing loss can detect activity in the 20 to 20,000Hz range. The faintest sounds we’re likely to hear register at about 0 dB. By 120 db we begin to experience discomfort or even pain. Now, as someone who loves to listen to nearly every kind of music, laughter in all its forms, Japanese prayer bells playing with a breeze, and rain bouncing on a tin roof, I’d be the first to agree that the human ear is a marvel. But compared to many of our fellow Earthlings, it’s… well, it’s pitiful. My wire fox terrier puts me to shame, easily picking up sounds from 40-60,000 Hz. The super-sensitive hearing of a bat, used for echolocation, ranges from 20-120,000 Hz.

common blackbird (Photo: Oystercatcher, Creative Commons license)

common blackbird

According to the ever-useful Birder’s Handbook, we have more auditory commonality with birds, whose ability to discriminate between frequencies and degrees of loudness is on a par with our own. So perhaps we would be well served to take a page from the songbird songbook when trying to be heard in our rapidly urbanizing modern life. Researchers at the Universities of Copenhagen and Aberystwyth found that great tits (Parus major) living in urban habitats sing at a significantly higher frequency than their rural relatives. This finding coincides with previous studies reporting the same phenomenon for house finches (Carpodacus mexicanus), song sparrows (Melospiza melodia), white-crowned sparrows (Zonotrichia leucophrys), dark-eyed juncos (Junco hyemalis), and common blackbirds (Turdus merula).

European robin (Photo-Steve Harris, Creative Commons license)

European robin

Of course, going all Bee-Gees isn’t the only way a guy can get some attention from the talent scouts.  A 2007 study from the University of Sheffield found that European robins (Erithacus rubecula) living downtown changed their performance times, from doo-wopping during the day to crooning almost exclusively after sundown when the din dies down a bit. In Berlin, nightingales (Luscinia megarhynchos) take the less subtle approach and just turn up the volume, at least on weekdays. But there’s a price to be paid for setting the amps to 11—a greater metabolic demand and more attention from predators. By broadcasting on a different frequency, some city songbirds have stumbled onto a low-risk solution to a major challenge of city life.

song sparrow (Photo: TC Davis, Creative Commons license)

song sparrow

There’s incentive for avian adaptation (let’s not call it selling out) to make it onto the airwaves. You see, in the bird world the divas are all, um… divos. No, they don’t wear red plastic wedding cake hats and ill-fitting 1980s MTV fashion—that’s Devo. Let me put it another way: boy birds are the rock stars, girl birds are the groupies. Males warble (or learn to shred the guitar, or maybe groove a bass line) to get noticed by the ladies. If a gal likes a guy’s song she’ll hook up with him and probably become his baby-mama. But there’s a lot of competition out there and before you can score, you’ve gotta get heard.

Hey, singing falsetto to some chick may not be the most macho thing a fellow can do, but it beats spending Saturday night getting drunk at the karaoke bar with your buddies and going home alone.

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Start your day with a little Next-Door Nature—click the “subscribe”  link in the upper right-hand corner of this page and receive notifications of new posts!
© 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:  KaCey97007 (white-crowned sparrow); Dani_vr (seagull); Oystercatcher (common blackbird); Steve Harris (European robin); and TC Davis (song sparrow).

Oasis

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

American robins and other wild creatures have to get creative if they want to quench a winter thirst (Photo: Ingrid Taylar, Creative Commons license)

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Which season comes to mind when you read these words?

parched

desiccated

shriveled

arid

sere

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)Come January, February, and March, 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) 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, such as what’s been going on in Texas the past year, 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. [Be warned, 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.”] 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!

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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 Taylar (thirsty robins); David Grant (thirsty squirrel); JDB Photos (thirsty goldfinch); and Rob & Jane Kirkland (thirsty bluebirds)..

Running start

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American Coot Takeoff (Photo: Matthew Paulson, CC license)

Some birds, including the American coot, need a long water runway to get airborne (Photo: Matthew Paulson, Creative Commons license)

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Hard landings. Anyone who’s a frequent flyer has experienced a few. Always disconcerting, occasionally dangerous. My most memorable touchdown was a trip from College Station, Texas, into Albuquerque on an Embraer ERJ-XXX. I forget which number, but it was one of those 3-seats-across models. One by one, passengers ducked through the doorway and tried to return to their full upright position, only to be temporarily twisted by the low ceiling into a fair approximation of Dr. Frankenstein’s personal porter, dragging themselves down the narrow aisle behind carry-ons in an ungainly but oddly synchronous choreography until each Igor found his or her assigned row.

I crammed my gear under the seat in front of me and strapped myself in right above the left-side wheels, although I was unaware of that fact at the time. It was an uneventful flight with no turbulence to speak of and a clear, bright blue sky. We made our approach, descending slowly as we grew closer and closer to the runway… then over the runway… then

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BAM!!

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Well, I guess the pilot got impatient, or maybe the end of the landing strip was coming up faster than expected, but we dropped to the pavement like a bowling ball falling out of the back of an unzipped travel case. I thought the landing gear was going to come up through the floor and imagined the plane careening along the concrete on its belly in a shower of sparks.

Instead, after a long, pregnant pause, the flight attendant simply welcomed us to New Mexico as we taxied to the jetway. But the cabin, previously humming with friendly chatter, went completely silent and stayed that way until the captain turned off the fasten seat belt sign.

Eared grebe glance (Photo: Jack Wolf, CC license)

An eared grebe in winter plumage.

I was reminded of this experience last month, when I heard reports that 3,500 migrating eared grebes (aka black-necked grebe, Podiceps nigricollis) mistook a snowy Walmart parking lot in Cedar City, Utah, for a lake. The grebes came in prepared for a water landing and, as anyone old enough to walk (and to fall) knows, asphalt isn’t as forgiving as H20. For over 1,500 birds it was a fatal error—some died immediately upon impact, others shortly after. For some who lived long enough to be found by wildlife rehabilitators and good Samaritans, euthanasia was the only humane option.

Even the ones who escaped injury needed help. They were found rowing across the landscape using their wings as oars, getting nowhere fast but too aware of their vulnerable position to do nothing but wait for a predator or scavenger to spot a dark bird struggling against a snowy white background.

6 of 6 Pacific Loon in Distress (Photo: Mike Baird, CC license)

The Pacific (Gavia pacifica) and other loons are true water birds, diving and swimming after fish with speed and grace. But out of water they are unable to take flight, and find walking difficult.

There are a large number of bird species associated with water who need a running start across a watery runway to become airborne, even for short flights; they include grebes, loons (Gavia spp.), rails (Rallidae), diving ducks (Aythyinae; aka pochards or scaups), and many sea ducks (Merginae).

The Utah stranding was unusual primarily for the number of birds affected, but similar groundings happen with some regularity during both the spring and fall migration as well as other times of the year. When I was the director of a wildlife rehabilitation center in Houston, every now and again an American coot (Fulica americana) would be ushered through our doors in a cardboard box. A single bird, usually, or at most two or three. In this case, it wasn’t snow that caused the optical illusion but heat. During Texas summers, hot asphalt roads apparently shimmer like water, at least to avian eyes, so a highway looks like the perfect place to stop for a little lunch and a quick dip, not to mention a long, straight liquid launchpad when it’s time to wing away again.

Canceled flights are such a pain in the neck… and other places, too, at times.

Merganser taking flight 2 (Photo: Mark Dalpe, CC license)

Under the right conditions, some species of waterfowl such as this female common merganser (Mergus merganser), can mistake fields and even roads for water.

Surprisingly, most of these water-walkers did survive their fall to earth. Once grounded, however, they had to hitch a ride to our center. There, we would tend to their cuts, scrapes, and bruises and then give them a helping hand back into the sky by dropping them off at an appropriate body of water. A quick look around to get their bearings and they were on their way, pedaling across the water as furiously as the pilot of a Gerhardt cycleplane but with much better results.

The snow that seduced so many birds into a making a pit-stop in Utah may actually have lessened the devastation by providing a bit of slip and slide to cushion the crash. Happily, International Bird Rescue reports that approximately 2,000 grebes were rescued and released the same week—that’s about as good as it gets in these situations, I suppose.  With any luck at all, they’re now enjoying some R&R and a little southern hospitality.  May they have friendly skies and tail winds for their return flight.

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© 2012 Next-Door Nature—no reprints without written permission from the author (I’d love for you to share my work; all you have to do is ask). Thanks to these photographers for making their work available through a Creative Commons license: Matthew Paulson (American coot); Jack Wolf (eared grebe); Mike Baird (Pacific loon); and Mark Dalpe (common merganser).

Drummer boy

male pileated woodpecker by ucumari

The male pileated woodpecker may not have the most sophisticated sense of rhythm, but he's a stylish drummer nonetheless (Photo: ucumari, Creative Commons license).

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The holiday soundtrack, which retailers now begin to cue up before the Thanksgiving dinner plates have been cleared from the table, has a limited playlist. Even though the variety of artists covering these tunes is diverse, it doesn’t take long for the music to become little more than background noise. However, there’s one tune that always snares my attention—instantly I’m transported back in time to another Christmas… to a crisp, sunny afternoon on a favorite trail at the Houston Arboretum and Nature Center. That day, the sound of a tree-house being constructed high above my head caused me to  glance up, and I caught my first thrilling glimpse of a not-so-little drummer boy.

female pileated by Syd Phillips cc

The female pileated woodpecker doesn't have the red forehead and "mustache" of her male counterpart.

About the size of a crow (16-19 in. or 40-49 cm), the pileated woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus) is North America’s largest woodpecker (unless ornithologists can prove that ivory-billed woodpeckers (Campephilus principalis) still exist). At first glance, one might reasonably doubt my ability to determine that this was, indeed, a drummer boy. Adult pileated woodpeckers are easy to identify, but unless you look closely they don’t appear to be sexually dimorphic (males and females of the same species differ in appearance). But I was close enough to see the telltale signs of a male bird—a red forehead and “mustache” to go with the pointy scarlet gnome hat sported by both genders.

Since that first lucky holiday outing, I’ve had the good fortune to see many other pileated woodpeckers, but it’s always a bit of a jolt to the system. Perhaps it’s the combination of size and pointed head, or maybe its the wing-beat pattern during flight, but there’s something eerily prehistoric about this bird. Imaging you are ambling down a wooded path, enjoying the great outdoors but allowing your mind to wander where it will… when out of the corner of your eye your subconscious spots a pterodactylus!

It takes only a second or two for your conscious brain to recognize the error, but not fast enough to prevent your adrenal glands from springing into action, bathing your reptilian brain in fight-or-flight chemicals, turning your heart into a percussion instrument.

Human drummers display a assortment of styles—Afro-Cuban, blues, jazz, zydeco—and the same can be said for the avian set. But there’s not a lot of subtlety to a pileated groove. You can break the beat down into two sets—drumming and tapping.  To my ear, the drumming sounds most like an enthusiastic, albeit novice, carpenter: pound furiously for 2-3 seconds, less forcefully as muscles quickly tire… rest for a minute…  bash the next nail for 2-3 seconds… repeat. Tapping, which is slower and metronomic, often serves as a form of mated pair communication.

pileated foraging hole by Naomi Van Tol ccLooking for signs of pileated woodpeckers in your neck of the woods? It helps to live on the eastern side of the continent, although you can find them across much of Canada and down along a fair bit of the western U.S. coast. This species doesn’t migrate, and once a pair has established a breeding territory they defend it year-round (although they’re a little more relaxed about it during the winter months). So, assuming you’re in the right neighborhood, the next step for spotting this hammer-head is to look for squares. I’m not suggesting these rakishly attired birds aren’t hip—just that they have a stereotypic method of excavating the carpenter ants and wood-boring beetle larvae they like to eat. Unlike many other woodpeckers, pileateds don’t waste time drilling a succession of small holes into tree bark. They gouge out large, roughly rectangular chinks instead; a practice that can be quite damaging to small trees, but it’s beneficial to other bird species who come along and feed on left-overs after the bigger bird has flown the coop.

nestling pileateds by Larry McGahey cc

Pileated woodpecker nest cavities usually have more than one entrance.

Pileated pairs share child-rearing duties, and they prefer to use a different nursery for their offspring every year. That means each April the male carves a new nesting hole, leaving last-year’s crib vacant for other cavity-nesting creatures to use for many years to come. Biologists don’t really understand why some species exhibit nest site fidelity while others do not, but in the case of the pileated woodpecker, this philanthropic service improves the overall health of the ecological community.

All drummer boys—and girls—have a knack for gift-giving, it seems.

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© 2011 Next-Door Nature—no reprints without written permission from the author (I’d love for you to share my work; all you have to do is ask). Thanks to these photographers for making their work available through a Creative Commons license: Syd Phillips (female pileated); Naomi Van Tol (pileated foraging sign); and Larry McGahey (nestling pileateds).  Thanks also to Marty Stouffer’s Wild America Sound Effects Library for making the recording of a pileated woodpecker’s call and drumming available through a Creative Commons license.

Long winter’s nap

arctic fox by emma j bishop cc

There's nothing quite as contagious as a yawn* (Photo: Emma J. Bishop, Creative Commons license)

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Grab forty winks. Saw logs. For a species that’s habitually short on shut-eye, we humans sure have come up with myriad ways to talk about it. We also spend a lot of time and money studying sleep, or the lack thereof. Yet, in spite of decades of inquiry, researchers still don’t have a good fix on why we—and just about every other living creature—need to nod off.  We’ve had better luck trying to understand other unconscious states, especially those employed by certain non-human species to deal with hard times.

yawning prairie dog by SearchNetMedia ccWinter poses a critical challenge for animals who stay put rather than migrate to warmer climes. Thermoregulation requires calories, but many foods—especially fruits, nectars, vegetation, and insects—are scarce when the days are short. The ability to reduce one’s energy needs can be a life-saving adaptation. Hibernation does just that—it lowers an animal’s metabolic rate. If all goes well, this period of inactivity, which may last several days, weeks, or even months, depending on the species, will stretch stored energy reserves (aka body fat) long enough for the animal to survive until a greener season. “If” depends on many factors, such as the abundance of autumn food resources, the length and severity of cold days, and even the stability of the den site during repeated freeze-thaw-freeze cycles.

When a critter—let’s use the chipmunk (Tamias spp.) as an example—transitions into a state of hibernation, its body temperature drops to near freezing, breathing becomes so shallow as to be imperceptible, and the heart rate decreases dramatically, from 350 to 4 beats per minute.  Although we tend to think of hibernation as a season-long slumber, chippies and other hibernating rodents do wake up every few weeks to have a snack and take a potty break, even though these periods of activity, called interbout arousals, consume up to 90% of stored body fat. There are some champion nappers in this chisel-toothed group—including the groundhog (aka woodchuck, Marmota monax), who sleeps half its life away, setting the alarm for March when it heads to bed in September.

Other examples of sound sleepers include: insectivores like the European hedgehog (Erinaceus europaeus) and the tenrecs (Microgale spp.); the mountain pygmy possum (Burramys parvus)—the only hibernating marsupial; and the echidna (Tachyglossus spp.), a monotreme.  Biologist recently added the mouse lemur (Microcebus spp.) and the fat-tailed dwarf lemur (Cheirogaleus medius) to the hibernator roster; prior to this discovery, we didn’t have any examples from among the primates. Additionally, since winter temperatures in their native Madagascar may reach 86° F (30° C), it’s become clear that hibernation isn’t strictly associated with cold weather. Nor is it limited to mammals; a bird called the common poorwill (Phalaenoptilus nuttallii) snoozes through at least some of the snowy season.

yawning polar bear by Paul Davidy ccIronically, that most famous of North American sleep icons, the bear (Ursus spp.), is the subject of much debate. The question is whether or not they are “true hibernators.” Bears often spend far more time sleeping than the so-called “trues,” so what’s all the fuss about?  Well, this is going to sound like nit-picking, but here goes. First of all, a bear’s heart rate drops, but not quickly enough to suit some scientists. Also, while the number of heartbeats may go as low as 8 per minute, the average is closer to 50 per minute. Moreover, during this time the bear’s body temperature remains pretty close to normal. This is a handy little idiosyncrasy that, should the need arise, allows the animal to wake up fast… and often cranky—a fact Santa (and anyone else) should keep in mind when planning a mid-winter visit to the den.

Taking to one’s bed for months on end could be seen as a rather over-the-top response to a simple cold front. It smacks of swooning characters in English romance novels from the late 1700s. Frankly, it’s not everyone’s cup of tea, and many wild critters take a more measured approach. Torpor is the term commonly used to describe these shorter, less dramatic forms of dormancy, although, technically, hibernation and other types of suspended animation are really subsets of torpidity. Call it what you will, there are examples of “temporary hibernation” in all the Classes of vertebrate animals—mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, and fish—and it’s commonplace among the myriad spineless critters.

For some of the busiest bodies, torpor is a daily habit. Hummingbirds (Trochilidae), for example, have such a high metabolic rate that they need to ingest a steady stream of non-carbonated sugar water (i.e., nectar) during their waking hours or they’ll become hypoglycemic and are too exhausted to fly. Can’t fly? Can’t feed. It’s a vicious circle that will ultimately lead to the bird’s death without some kind of intervention. As you might imagine, this need to constantly refuel creates an enormous problem when night falls and these feathered perpetual motion machines must rest. Without some way to temporarily lower their metabolic rate, hummingbirds would never be able to get out of bed in the morning. Never fear—torpidity to the rescue!

rock dove yawning by Tatiana Bulyonkova ccSwifts (Apodidae), chickadees (Paridae), nightjars (Caprimulgidae), and doves (Columbidae) are just a few of the other avian species who go torpid under various conditions. Generally speaking, these birds are fruit-, nectar-, or insect-eaters, and they tend to be on the small side (less than 80g). The snowy owl (Bubo scandiacus), at 1600-2950g is one exception to this rule, and biologists recently added a second, when it was confirmed that the tawny frogmouth (Podargus strigoides) goes torpid during Australian winters.  Personally, I find these new insights into animal behavior thrilling, because they reassure me that what we know about wild creatures is still a drop in the bucket compared to what we don’t know—there are worlds upon worlds waiting to be discovered on this blue gem of a planet we call home.

yawning turtle by Michael Ransburg ccOf course, cold is not the only hardship wild things would rather sleep through. Periods of drought are just as serious a threat to survival, especially for aquatic and semi-aquatic species. When a lake, pond, or stream goes dry, the inhabitants need to dig in. Literally. Turtles and tortoises (Testudines), crocodiles (Crocodylidae), frogs and toads (Anura), salamanders (Caudata), and some crustaceans will aestivate (also spelled estivate)—a drought-driven form of hibernation. They sink down into the mud before it dries completely, sealing themselves in a mucous capsule until the rains come again. If ever there was a time to be glad you can absorb oxygen in the soil through your skin, this is it, because the air in your boggy bubble won’t last very long.

yawning snowy owl by Pat Gaines ccResearchers are intrigued by these alternate forms of sleep and how they might offer clues for solving a variety of human health concerns. Honestly, I understand their fascination but I don’t know how they stay awake long enough to collect any data. Just writing about dormancy has my eyelid feeling so… heavy. I guess it’s… time for…. me to turn… in.

…..Hit the  YAWN!  hay.

……….Catch some…..zzzzzzzzz

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*Pop Quiz:  How many times did you yawn while reading this? 😉

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© 2011 Next-Door Nature—no reprints without written permission from the author. Thanks to these photographers for making their work available through a Creative Commons license: SearchNetMedia (prairie dog); Pau Davidy (polar bear); Tatiana Bulyonkova (rock dove); Michael Ransburg (turtle); and Pat Gaines (snowy owl).