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.]

Border battles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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There’s nothing quite like finding a little Next-Door Nature in your email inbox—click the “subscribe”  link in the upper right-hand corner of this page and receive notifications of new posts!
© 2012 Next-Door Nature—no reprints without written permission from the author (I’d love for you to share my work; all you have to do is ask). Thanks to these photographers for making their work available through a Creative Commons license: [starting from the top] Brian Peterson (on the fence); Jason Paluck (male & female; red-bellied); Laura Gooch (red-headed); Frederic Knapp (in nest); ehpien (rbw @ feeder).

Tangled up in blue

eastern bluebird 2 by Jason Matthews, Creative Commons license

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

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

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

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

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

Mountain bluebird pair

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

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

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

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

female eastern bluebird by Patrick Coin, Creative Commons license

Female Eastern bluebird

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

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

western bluebirds by Julio Mulero, Creative Commons license

Western bluebirds

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

But worth every penny.

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There’s nothing quite like finding a little Next-Door Nature in your email inbox—click the “subscribe”  link in the upper right-hand corner of this page and receive notifications of new posts!
© 2012 Next-Door Nature—no reprints without written permission from the author (I’d love for you to share my work; all you have to do is ask). Thanks to these photographers for making their work available through a Creative Commons license: Jason Matthews (male Eastern bluebird);  freeopinions (mountain bluebirds); Patrick Coin (female Eastern bluebird); Julio Mulero (Western bluebirds).

Wobbling waxwings

Cedar waxwing (Photo: Eve Fraser-Corp, Creative Commons license)

By the end of winter, the fruit upon which cedar waxwings depend can pack a real punch (Photo: Eve Fraser-Corp, Creative Commons license)

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I recently came across a report that cedar waxwings (Bombycilla cedrorum) have returned to Texas. Every time I hear someone mention this species I’m reminded of  my days as director of a wildlife center in Houston. For a few weeks every year the waxwings would show up by the cardboard box-full and the rehabilitation clinic would turn into… well, a different kind of rehab center.

With their handsome, distinctive plumage, even a newbie birder can easily recognize this species. Their yellow tail- and red wing-tips look as if they’ve been dipped in sealing wax—thus the name. With a range that covers much of North America, waxwings aren’t rare but they’re not as common as some of our iconic backyard birds, so it’s always a bit of a thrill when they’re in the neighborhood.

Cedar waxwing and chick (Photo: Alan Huett, Creative Commons license)They’re one of only a handful of avian species in the U.S. and Canada whose diet is composed largely (but not entirely) of fruit, a useful characteristic when one shares a breeding territory with brown-headed cowbirds (Molothrus ater) and other nesting parasites—females who don’t bother to build a nest of their own. Instead, they leave their eggs in the nests of other birds and the cowbird chicks are cared for like biological children. In fact, the foster nestling normally out-competes the surrogate’s own offspring when food is being passed out but the high-sugar diet provided by waxwing parents, while perfect for their own kids, causes the cowbird to waste away.

Waxwing adaptability has allowed them to benefit from the introduction of non-native fruit-bearing plants used in urban and suburban landscaping. For example, they seem to love honeysuckle… and it shows. The red pigment in the exotic vine’s berries can turn the bird’s canary tail-tips bright orange, a plumage change birders and ornithologists first began to notice in the 1960s.

Waxwing flock on pyracantha (Photo: Bob Muller, Creative Commons license)Waxwings travel in flocks that may include 40+ individuals, all searching for pyracantha and privet, choke cherries, mulberries, and any other tree or shrub that bears sugary fruit. Once they’ve gobbled up every last berry, they move along without a backward glance.

Unless the fruit is spiked.

It’s not a matter of someone trying to contribute to avian delinquency. From late autumn until plants have produced new spring and summer crops, last season’s berries, drupes, drupelets, pomes, and other sweet seed containers hang on, growing inceasingly less… fresh, shall we say. Temperature fluctuations and the presence of wild yeasts often will cause fruit to ferment in situ. Migration and colder temperatures make for voracious birds and the waxwings are carbo-loading as fast as they can swallow. They don’t seem to notice some of the snacks pack a punch. When you weigh slightly more than an ounce, the alcohol content doesn’t have to be very high to knock you for a loop. Next thing you know, birds are careening around on the front lawn like New Year’s Eve.

Injured waxwing (Photo: Churl Han, Creative Commons license)It can look rather comical but it’s no laughing matter. Many inebriated birds are seriously injured or are killed when they fly into cars and windows.

Good Samaritans across the county scoop disoriented birds into cardboard boxes and head for the nearest wildlife rehabilitation center. There, the birds are given a head-to-toe, beak-to-tail examination. Most of the patients are simply allowed to safely sleep it off in a warm, dark room before being released to continue their travels… although they probably set out with a doozy of a headache.


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 name for making their work available through a Creative Commons license: Eve Fraser-Corp (waxwing with wizened berry); Eve Fraser-Corp (waxwing with wizened berry); Alan Huett (waxwing adult and nestling);  Bob Muller (waxwings on pyracantha)’ and Churl Han (injured waxwing).

Mystery chef

barred owl with crayfish

Barred owls always want to know who prepares your meals, but they don't spend much time preparing their own dinners (Photo: Matthew Paulson, Creative Commons license)

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“Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you-all?”

With Thanksgiving less than 2 weeks away, that’s the question on everyone’s lips. Even those who don’t have lips, like the barred owl (Strix varia)—a species that seems to be innately, and oddly, curious about kitchen staffing.

If these owls had access to cable television I’m sure they would love The Food Network. Since they are a protected species and can’t be hunted they could watch Extreme Chef, Good Eats, and Throwdown with Bobby Flay without having to worry about seeing any family members on the menu. As long as a great horned owl (Bubo virginianus) doesn’t become the Next Iron Chef, that is—where their ranges overlap, our largest North American owl poses the greatest predation risk to our feathered foodie.

As far as their own palate goes, Thanksgiving with The Barreds is meat-centric. No cranberry sauce or green bean casserole, or even pumpkin pie. Turkey is less likely to be served than rodents, rabbits, bats, weasels, opossums, small-to-medium fowl (e.g., woodpeckers, quail, pigeons, and the occasional duck), reptiles, and amphibians. Oh, and don’t be surprised to find crawfish as the featured dish. They are favorite repast—so much so that the belly feathers of some barred owls may turn pink from carotenoids found in the shells.* To tell you the truth, I have a strong suspicion that Cajun and Creole cuisines would be a big hit with this crowd and that Emeril Live would be a guilty viewing pleasure.

You’ll find barred owls shopping for groceries in woodlands throughout much of Canada and down into parts of Idaho, Washington, and Oregon. They are also well established across the eastern half of the U.S., and their range has been expanding westward. They may be curious about who’s preparing your meals, but they put as little effort as possible into their own supper. Opportunist is a more accurate description that epicurean—why fly all over town to Whole Foods and Williams-Sonoma at the end of the day in search of exotic eats when you can hang out on a comfy branch, eyes and ears open, and wait for something edible to wander by? A little help from gravity as you descend toward dinner… and then—GULP!—down the hatch. No dishes to wash up afterwards, either!

A round face, large liquid eyes, and a general I’m-not-fat-I’m-fluffy appearance give the barred owl a gentle countenance, but don’t be fooled. You know how territorial even the most homey, hospitable people can get when it comes to recipes, cookware, and all things related to food preparation? Then it should come as no surprise to you that this seemingly mild-mannered bird can boil over like the host of Hell’s Kitchen when defending its turf against interlopers.  Aggression isn’t limited to their own kind either. Barred owls will shoo away the less assertive and near-threatened northern spotted owl (Strix occidentalis caurina) too, in parts of the Pacific Northwest where both species are found.

If you can’t stand the heat, as they say…

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* These same compounds are what give flamingos their signature South Beach hue.

UPDATE: We did it!  Thanks to everyone who helped me to achieve my goal of reaching 10,000 hits on the NDN site by the end of this 1-year anniversary week. We made it over the top on Tuesday, November 15 — 3 days to spare! Thanks also for all your positive feedback and support during this past year. It has, and will continue to be, greatly appreciated.  ~ Kieran

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

Where the Livin’ is Easy-er

Young raccoon

Everyone needs a room of their own, and a little wild-proofing goes a long way to keep everything, and everyone, in their own place.\ (Photo: Alan Howell © Star Path Images, used with permission).

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Sinatra was wrong.

I’m sorry Ol’ Blue Eyes, but the line that says if you can make it in a big city you can make it anywhere doesn’t hold true for everyone. For a lot of wild species, especially those who can tolerate living close to human beings, Gotham—and nearly every other town and suburb—has some significant advantages over small-town and no-town life.

Such as…?

Let’s start with the basics. All living creatures need, at minimum, four things to survive: air, water, food, and space. Air is equally available in most habitats (generally speaking), so one place is about as good as another when you’re looking to put down roots. City mouse, country mouse—neither has an oxygen advantage. Call it a draw.

pigeon at a drinking fountainHowever, finding something to fill your stomach and quench your thirst can be a full-time job in undeveloped areas, while living near people pretty much guarantees that #2 and #3 on that list will be plentiful. Parched? Even in arid regions, even during a drought, water is much easier to find in the city. Think birdbaths, hoses, fountains, sprinkler systems, swimming pools, park ponds and lakes. Chalk one up for the city critter.

opossum foraging in a trash canHungry? You’ve got your birdseed, your suet, your stale white bread—people hand that stuff out like there’s no tomorrow. Then there’s the never-ending supply of second-hand snack dispensers, available in medium (trash cans), large (dumpsters), and big-gulp (landfills). Plus you’ve got your “repurposed” vittles—garden produce, fruit trees and bushes, grass seed, expensive landscaping plants, pet food… and pets. Advantage urbanites.

The one thing that’s hard to come by for both human and non-human city residents is quality real estate.  Actually, it’s the fact that food and water are so bountiful that creates the wild housing crisis. In “natural” habitats, these resources are finite so the creatures living there vigorously defend access to them by establishing territories to exclude new residents, especially during breeding season. In the built environment, as illustrated above, food and water are, for all practical purposes, limitless. The carrying capacity of an urban or suburban landscape is much higher than surrounding undeveloped habitat, in large part because food, in all its myriad forms, is removed from rural areas and trucked into the city on a daily basis.

European starling exiting a pipe gapMore food = more critters… but the space available for nesting and denning sites doesn’t expand at a similar pace. In fact, development removes many natural denning and nesting sites, so finding a nice traditional home takes more effort. Is it any wonder that urban wildlife—comprised primarily of the most adaptable of species—start thinking creatively about dryer vents, chimneys, attics, garages, decks, and sheds?

fox under shedThink of it from a wild perspective—with a little behavioral flexibility, they and their loved ones can be warm and dry, while someone else pays the heating bill!

Now, most of the people I meet fall into one of two major camps regarding wildlife: “love-love-love-it,” and “live-and-let-live.” It’s only after a human-wildlife conflict of some kind has occurred, usually resulting in an expense for the human, that people start bad-mouthing their furry, feathery, and scaly neighbors.

Prevention is the best conflict resolution strategy I know. Autumn is when many animals begin to look for a place to hide out from old man winter, and sunny fall days are also a great time to get outside and tackle those wild-proofing maintenance and repair chores around the house and garden. Once you’ve made it more difficult for squatters to move in, staying on friendly terms with next-door nature is a breeze. There’s a nice little bonus for doing your chores, too—by sealing up all those potential entryways you’ll keep out the cold winds, reducing your heating bill and your carbon footprint. Such a deal!

squirrel under the eavesHere’s your to-do list:

  • Remove overhanging tree limbs that serve as bridges to your attic and chimney
  • Ask a professional to cap your chimneys (and while s/he is up there, might as well have them do a little sweeping to reduce the chance of a flue fire)
  • Cover all attic vents with caps made of ½” mesh hardware cloth
  • Replace any loose shingles and rotting soffit and fascia boards (great time to check for evidence of termites, too)
  • Fill any hole ≥ ¼” in diameter with calk, hardware cloth, or galvanized sheet metal
  • Seal gaps around window air conditioners, cables, and pipes
  • Remove firewood and brush piles from next to buildings

For more helpful instructions, along with a wealth of information on humane methods for preventing and solving all sorts of human-wildlife conflicts, I highly recommend a book titled Wild Neighbors by John Hadidian of the Humane Society of the United States, available new and used from all the usual online booksellers.

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P.S.  Homes are but one venue where human-wildlife conflicts occur. To hear about a few others, check out last week’s With Good Reason broadcast/podcast, Beyond Campfires and Cookies. The focus of the second feature story is none other than yours truly.

© 2011 Next-Door Nature— no reprints without written permission from the author. Thanks to the following photographers for making their work available: Alan Howell/Star Path Images (raccoon, used with permission); SP8254 (pigeon, Creative Commons license); Jason Ahrns (opossum, Creative Commons license); John Haslam (European starling, Creative Commons license); David Ginsberg (fox, Creative Commons license); and Joel Down (squirrel, Creative Commons license).

Scary-smart

Halloween raven

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Appalachian Spring

American robin

Considered an emblem of spring, the American robin is a year-round resident in some parts of North America (Photo:Di Qiu, Creative Commons license)

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Walking near the central drill field on campus earlier this week, I happened upon the beginning of a mid-afternoon performance to celebrate the arrival of spring. The American Robin Ballet Company had taken their places on the lawn, dark taupe cloaks and carmine waistcoats vivid against the peridot-and-buff turf. They appeared frozen in place, waiting for the orchestra’s opening chords. Then all at once they began to move, not in sync but each using the same choreography.

Step… step… step… then a brief, brisk run… pliérelevé. Repeat.

Adagio (step… step… step)… allegro (step,step,step)… pliérelevé.  Repeat.

bird skeletonActually, if you think about it, it’s natural to see robins and other songbirds as dancers. For one thing, they are almost always on at least demi pointe—what you and I might call being on our tippy-toes. That’s because what we think of as the bird’s foot is actually only toes, and what we might initially think of as the knee is actually the ankle.

But for the corps de ballet in this show, function is as important as form. It may look like a dance but in fact it’s a hunt… or a very stylish way to shop for groceries. Take your pick.

The appearance of robins is considered by many to signal the arrival of spring; however, in some parts of North America robins are year-round residents. In winter they may form enormous nighttime roosts of over a hundred thousand individual birds. There is strength—and warmth—in numbers.

In spring and summer, after pairs have formed for pas de deux, males and females participate in the care and feeding of their offspring. However, females sleep on the nest, warming eggs or nestlings, while the males continue to gather each evening to sleep at the roost. As young robins gain their independence, they leave the nest and join the males at night.

Robins are territorial, but unlike many birds, males are more protective of their mate and nest site than of feeding grounds, which often overlap. So while cardinals and even hummingbirds are known for aggressive intraspecies defense of food resources, it’s not unusual to see groups of red-breasted dancers on a single grassy stage, even at the height of breeding season.

When a robin stops suddenly, stands stock still, cocks its head to one side, dips slightly, then rises for another series of steps, the audience may assume the bird is listening intently. But ornithologists believe robins are actually looking for signs of digging that reveal the location of a worm. They—the birds, not the ornithologists (well, maybe some of the ornithologists)—consume other invertebrates, such as snails and insects, and a wide variety of wild fruits. Exactly the kind of high-protein, high-fiber, low-fat diet ballerinas and danseurs need to remain light on their feet. I could almost hear Martha Graham…

Places everyone… and five, six, seven, eight… GRAND JETÉ!

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© 2011 Next-Door Nature— no reprints without written permission from the author. The bird skeleton drawing, from Illustrations of Zoology by W Ramsay Smith and J S Newell (1889), is in the public domain.