Watchdogs

I heard sharp calls piercing the air, even before I noticed the compound of earthen dwellings, and knew that sentinels had spotted me and my canine companion.

Last autumn, I spent some time in New Mexico. I lived there, between Albuquerque and Santa Fe, for nearly a decade about 10 years ago, and I’d been feeling nostalgic for the high desert, with it’s technicolor sunsets and scents of piñon smoke and roasting chiles. So I packed up the car, settled Dash into his travel crate, buckled my seatbelt, and drove west. I wanted to spend some time catching up with friends over pozole and stacked enchiladas, making a pilgrimage to my favorite spa, and watching for urban wildlife species that are notably absent from my current home-base in Virginia’s New River Valley.

The terrier-boy and I were walking along a suburban easement one afternoon, behind a neighborhood of faux adobe Pueblo Revival style homes, when the cautionary cries began to fly. The barked alarms were not coming from man’s best friends—the backyard pooch patrol was decidedly silent. Maybe they were on a coffee-and-donuts break, or just taking a siesta. All I can say is, residential security companies and neighborhood watch associations could learn a thing or three about vigilance and civilian defense from the citizens of a prairie dog community!Based on old cowboy movies, you might think a drive far beyond the city limit sign would be required to find a prairie dog town, but these southwestern  hobbits have adapted admirably to humans and our sprawling developments. I guess that shouldn’t come as a surprise—after all, we have a good deal in common. Like H. sapiens, prairie dogs (Cynomys spp.) are social mammals. Like people, they can and do organize for the common defense. And, similar to their bipedal neighbors, they’ve developed a sophisticated vocal communication system.

Despite their common name and distinctive bark, these watchful creatures are not canines, but a type of ground squirrel native to North American grasslands. There are five different prairie dog species found in the U.S., Canada, and Mexico: black-tailed (C. ludovicianus), white-tailed (C. leucurus), Gunnison’s (C. gunnisoni ), Utah (C. parvidens), and Mexican (C. mexicanus). While best-known for their namesake call, this burrowing band is no one-hit wonder.

According to research by Constantine Slobodchikoff, Professor Emeritus at Northern Arizona University, prairie dog calls vary based on the type of predator (e.g., coyote or domestic dog, hawk, snake, or human). They even construct sentences, complete with a form of grammar, to convey specific information about the approaching menace, including color, shape, size, speed, and direction. Not a generic “Danger, Will Robinson!” SOS, but a detailed threat assessment along the lines of “Heads-up everyone! There’s a short, square-shaped, white-furred dog and a medium-tall human wearing a blue Marmot fleece jacket approaching on foot from the southeastern quadrant!”

How did researchers learn to decode Cynamysian? (Hey, if you have a better name for the language of prairie dogs, I’m all ears.) By presenting an imitation predator and observing the call and response. For example, the alarm call for “diving hawk” causes all the prairie dogs beneath the flight path to dive for shelter, while those outside the path calmly stand and watch. When a sentry sounds the “coyote or domestic dog” call, everyone above-ground moves toward a burrow, everyone below-ground comes to the surface, and then they all stand near the entrances, rubbernecking. “Human,” on the other hand, must be the equivalent of “CODE RED!” because the whole damn town runs for cover.

Dr. Slobodchikoff found that prairie dogs create new calls to communicate with one another about novel objects. They even engage in social chatter that has nothing whatsoever to do with existential threats to individuals or society. This small talk has been harder to decipher, but I suspect it includes all the gossip greatest hits—friends and family, crushes and break-ups, insults and resentments.

The social nature of a prairie dog town may explain a cultural phenomenon I think of as the Cynomys Wave. This conspicuous (and apparently contagious) behavior, also known as the jump-yip, begins when a single resident spontaneously stands on its hind legs, stretching up and back as if beginning a sun salutation asana. Instead of chanting OOOMMM, however, the creature let’s rip with a high-pitched WEE-OO, similar to the infamous yell that ended Howard Dean’s presidential aspirations . Then, in a scene reminiscent of a circa 1977 football stadium, the whole town jumps up to do The Wave, squealing like demonic dolphins.

Some scientists have hypothesized the jump-yip has a territorial function, as in “Mine, mine, this magnificent mound of excavated soil is MINE, and don’t you forget it!” Others suggest it’s related to alarm calls, serving as an “All clear!” once a crisis has pasted. A definitive diagnosis remains elusive but, regardless of its true purpose, it is certainly attention-grabbing.

Humorous antics aside, not all humans are happy when prairie dogs move into the neighborhood. For example, the sort of person whose self-worth is tied to an manicured, emerald green lawn of putting green smoothness is unlikely to put out the welcome mat for any subterranean species.

Nevertheless, prairie dogs do provide an accidental altruistic service to the larger environmental community, including people: they act as khaki-furred “canaries in the coal mine” for a very specific zoonotic disease. When there’s a sudden die-off in the local prairie dog population, it’s a strong indication that plague (of bubonic fame) has come to town. In some states, Health Department personnel regularly visit prairie dog communities, sampling the burrows for fleas, which carry the Yersinia pestis bacterium. The blood-sucking insects are then tested for plague as a proactive management strategy.

The development of modern antibiotics have lessen the impact of plague on human populations but the disease remains devastating to prairie dogs, inflicting far more damage to the community than mammalian, avian, or reptilian predators. Knowing this, I can’t help but wonder if Dr. Slobodchikoff’s team ever discovered a unique alarm call for fleas.


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© 2018 Next-Door Nature. Reprints welcomed with written permission from the author. Thanks to Alan Howell of Star Path Images for granting permission to use his photo, and to those who made their work available through the Creative Commons license: Josh MoreLarry LamsaToshihiro Gamo, Thomas, and William Currier.

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.]

Treehuggers

I’ve been called a treehugger more than once in my life, and while I know the comments weren’t intended as such, I always take them as compliments. As a sobriquet it’s both true and false: true, because I do spontaneously hug exceptionally handsome or venerable trees; and false, because compared to the practiced professionals who scamper up and down tree boles every waking hour of their lives, my embraces are too amateurish to qualify as authentic hugging.

Sure, as a kid I would climb trees and hang from the larger limbs by my knees. We had several sturdy silver maples in our yard and I loved spending time in these leafy hideouts. But there’s more to being a treehugger than practice. I simply don’t have the body to become world-class, or even marginally proficient. To compete with the Eastern gray squirrels (Sciurus carolinensis) in my neighborhood, whose arboreal acrobatics would make a Cirque du Soleil gymnast green with envy, I would need a significantly different anatomy.

For example, I would need to lose enough weight (and height) to allow the friction created by the pressure of my paws gripping a small branch to overpower gravity’s bullying attempts to push me rudely onto the ground.

A better sense of balance would also be necessary if I were to have any success as a legitimate treehugger. I’m not saying I trip over myself on a daily basis but, as friends and family can attest, when I do fall it’s Charlie-Brown spectacular… and usually on my face.

Tree squirrels, in comparison, are masters at controlling their center of gravity. This can be attributed, at least in part, because they can hold on equally well with both hands and feet.  Here again I’m disadvantaged, and I place full blame on evolution, my DNA, and whichever hominid ancestors of mine, after climbing down from a tree on an African savannah, decided that standing upright and using feet almost exclusively for the precarious task of bipedal perambulation was a much better way to go than remaining quadrupedal.

My filed and brightly polished toenails would have to go, replaced by strong, sharp claws that could easily pierce porous bark or hook onto an uneven edge (completely impractical for someone who wears socks and sleeps under a blanket, though). Whereas humans, including me, need at least three points of attachment when climbing, this adaptation allows squirrels to secure their position with only two attachment points, and to grasp new surfaces at angles most animals would find impossible.

Most important of all, I would need feet that can pivot on a swivel joint, allowing my ankles to rotate backwards so I could hang from nearly vertical surfaces.

If I’d been born a flamboyantly fluffy-tailed rodent then maybe, just maybe, I could latch on to a wrinkle in the tree rind and hang by my toenails while enjoying a leisurely acorn snack. Alas, ’tis the fault in my stars to peer ever and enviously skyward, my feet with their simple-hinge ankles planted on the firmament at the base of the trunk, and looked down upon with curiosity and pity (I assume) from the higher-ups.

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[Thanks to the photographers made their work available through the Creative Commons license: Mr.TinDC, Artful Magpie, JoeInQueens, and Jed Sheehan.  © 2017 Next-Door Nature. Reprints welcomed with written permission from the author.]

Wingsuit

Southern flying squirrel (Glaucomys volans), © 2014 Peter Harrill, used with permission

Is there any non-human skill people covet more passionately than the ability to fly?

Understandably, early aviation experiments centered around mimicry of birds, complete with flapping arms that were usually covered in feathers. The Greek legend of Daedalus and Icarus is a familiar example, but plumage continued to be part of the trial-and-error approach through the first years of the 19th century, when a tailor named Albrecht Berblinger constructed an ornithopter and then took an ill-fated plunge into the Danube. Those daring young men with their dreams of flying machines… they just didn’t understand the concepts of thrust, lift, and drag, and they couldn’t let go of the idea that soaring requires feathers.

I guess Saturday mornings with Rocky and Bullwinkle were not a part of their childhood.

Skip ahead in the history books about two hundred years, during which heavier-than-air flight went from foolish fantasy to fleetingly airborne, to semi-reliably aloft, to acrobatic enough to decide the outcome of a World War, to commonplace as ~30,000 commercial flights per day in the U.S. in 2017.

And yet…

Aviation advancements and inventions during the greater part of the industrial age were about balloons and dirigibles and planes, i.e., aircraft; human beings remained firmly planted on terra firma unless they could climb inside or hang from some kind of apparatus.

It’s hard to point to a specific aeronautic adventurer as the first to see a flying squirrel, recognized the similarities with their fellow mammal, connected the dots, and think, “Eureka! A wingsuit!” But no one lucky enough to have seen one of these big-eyed nocturnal windsurfers could fail to notice the resemblance to the modern flying suits that have finally allowed human beings to fly free as a bird squirrel, unencumbered by gondola, scaffolding, or fuselage.

Of course, strictly speaking flying squirrels don’t really fly, and neither do the people wearing a wingsuit.

They glide.

The wingsuit mimics a flying squirrel’s patagium—loose folds of skin that span the space between forelimb wrist and hindlimb ankle on either side of the body. Spreading those limbs into a jumping jack X, the furry membranes stretch into a rectangular shape that allows the tiny BASE* jumpers to propel themselves into the air and then slide down the sky at a 30-40 degree angle controlled fall.

© 2008 Steve Collins, used with permission

A long, flat tail is critical for controlling that fall. Serving as a rudder, it allowing 90 degree turns around mid-flight obstacles. The tail is used for landing, too; on the approach, the tail is raised to an upright position while, at the same time, all four limbs move forward to form a kind of patagium parachute. Together, these actions create enough drag to tip the animal’s head and body up as it prepares for impact with a tree trunk or branches, a bird feeder, or a building.

Northern flying squirrel (Glaucomys sabrinus) © 2015 Jukka Jantunen, used with permission

The New World is home to three species of rodent flyboys and flygirls: Northern (Glaucomys sabrinus); the recently differentiated and designated Humboldt’s (G oregonensis); and Southern (G volans). There’s some range overlap between Northerns and Southerns, but the two species are relatively easy to distinguish. Northerns are larger, but the belly of the beasts provides a much more notable difference; the underside of a Southern flying squirrel is creamy white, while Northern flying squirrels are beige below with darker roots.

Humboldt’s flying squirrel

There’s range overlap between Northerns (found from Alaska to Nova Scotia down to Utah and North Carolina) and Humboldts’ (whose limit their travels from British Columbia down into southern California) as well. However, the two are close enough in physical appearance and behavior that it took an examination of their DNA before scientists realized earlier this year (May 2017) that they were looking at not one species, but two. Humboldts’ have been described as smaller and darker than Northerns, but the fact that it took so long for the former to be recognized as distinctive (Southerns were first described in 1758, Northerns in 1801) suggests to me that one would have to do a mighty up-close-and-personal examination to make a positive ID.

All three varieties of Glaucomys have one important feature in common: they’re more risk-averse than you might have assumed. Riding the wind wearing a wingsuit is a dangerous activity for humans — one severe injury for every 500 jumps, according to one study, despite advances in materials, design, and training — but it’s just another day in the life of a flying squirrel. That’s not to imply they never miscalculate a distance, or botch a landing, or are immune from injury (or worse), but they do have concerns beyond thrust, lift, and drag, or changes in wind speed and direction.

Which is why, immediately after sticking the landing, a flying squirrel will scurry quickly to their nest hole, or the other side of the tree, or at least toward a deeper shadow. BASE jumpers and skydivers rarely have worry about avoiding predators waiting in the wings.

[Thanks to the photographers who granted permission to use their photos, and to those who made their work available through the Creative Commons license: Richard Schneider, and Barbogast. The painting of Icarus and Daedalus is by Charles Paul Landon, and the drawing of a New World flying squirrel is by Charles Henry Dessalines d’Orbigny, currently in the University of Washington’s Freshwater and Marine Image Bank; both images are in the public domain. © 2017 Next-Door Nature. Reprints welcomed with written permission from the author.]

*BASE is the acronym that stands for the four categories of fixed objects from which one can jump: building, antenna, span (bridge), and Earth (cliffs).

Long-stemmed

Daddy longlegs are the jazz cats of the arachnid world!

This realization came to me as I watched a single backlit note poised on a broken music staff bebop across the asphalt path in front of me. A soundtrack of jazz piano greats immediately began to play in my head — Willie “The Lion” Smith, Thomas “Fats” Waller, Art Tatum, Thelonious Monk, and Dave Brubeck, to name but a few. Chill dudes whose spider-like fingers strode, slid, bounced, and stomped across the keys.

Jazz has evolved and diverged from it’s start in the late 19th century as  ragtime and Dixieland into a genre so diverse it can be difficult to define, or even to list all the variations: Swing, Cool, West Coast, Modal, Free, Fusion, Funk, Cu-Bop, Post-Bop, etc.

The harvestmen, as daddy longlegs are also known (that even sounds like a 1950s jazz band, doesn’t it?) have an even longer and more impressive history. They’re a vast, improvisational set that spans millions of years and many taxonomic octaves, with over 6,500 named species worldwide (experts estimate there may actually be more than 10,000). And while not all the players in this big band have long legs, the ones who hangout in my neighborhood— eastern harvestmen (Leiobunum vittatum)— are definitely long-stemmed.

These invertebrate daddy-o’s are arachnids but they are NOT spiders; they’re more closely related to mites and scorpions.  Harvestmen don’t have a spider’s tiny waist… or venom… or silk (so no webs)… and they have only two eyes instead of eight.

Jazz musicians need to maintain their instruments to get the best sound; piano hammers need to be voiced, strings tuned, reeds moistened and valves lubricated.  Daddy longlegs are similarly serious about the tools of their trade, cleaning each leg after a meal by threading them through the pincers by their mouths.

Harvestmen are a gregarious lot who periodically congregate in the hundreds or even thousands. Scientists have suggested these spontaneous jam sessions might occur in response to climatic conditions or provide some protection against predators… but it’s pretty clear they aren’t making music (that can be detected by the human ear, anyway).

Members of Order Opiliones are exceptional even among arachnids. They can swallow small pieces of solid food, whereas their cousins are limited to a liquid diet. Conversely, daddy longlegs sip oxygen through their legs into a trachea, while other arachnids respirate through a gas exchange organ called a book lung. That’s probably just a warm-up, though. Like jazz, daddy longlegs are both familiar and mysterious. Little research has been done on these species… and who can say why? Maybe they’re a bit too avant garde to have a large fan base among researchers.

Or it could be the hours they keep and the dives they frequent. See, eastern harvestmen have more in common with jazz pianists than an impressive hand (or leg) span. Say what you will about the pleasures of sitting outside at a warm summer evening festival, lounging on a blanket in the grass while listening to a live performance — you’ll hear no argument from me. But to my mind, jazz is an urban art form, and the smokin’ hot licks happen in basement clubs. An intimate corner, low lights, insulated from street noise, maybe just a little damp…

Now that the kind of gig daddy longlegs’ dig.

 

[Thanks to the following photographers for making their work available through the Creative Commons license: Rob Swatski, Leslie Bliss, Rob SwatskiLuis Fernández Garcia, and schizoform.  © 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.]

Lonesome Doves

It’s a fine world, though rich in hardships at times. ~ Larry McMurtry

There’s a sweetness in the lament of a mourning dove (Zenaida macroura) that makes the sorrow bearable, and believable. Theirs isn’t an pop tune about a hookup with a hook, or a power ballad tale of infatuation, thrill, and transitory heartbreak. When mourning doves call I hear a country-western melody about spacious, isolated landscapes and complicated lives composed of joy and calamity, love and betrayal, not to mention good and evil that can’t be easily differentiated by the color of someone’s hat.

Country music has had it’s share of singers who could wail with convincing anguish on stage, then party ’til the cows came home once the show was over… so I have to wonder if the mourning dove’s high lonesome yodel —coo-OO, COO, coo — is simply part of the act. After all, that grievous angel cry is replaced by a jaunty whistle of wings every time they launch skyward.

Plus, doves are rarely alone and don’t seem to have much time in their lives to feel lonely. The whole clan is known to grow up fast (reaching sexual maturity at about 85 days old) and then pair up into monogamous ’til-death-do-we-part couples who take the directive to be fruitful and multiply seriously… as in up to twelve chicks in a single season serious (six broods of two chicks each). Both Mom and Dad are doting, active parents who share grocery shopping and child care equally, rarely leaving their babes unsupervised by at least one adult at all times.

The end of the lovey-dovey breeding season shouldn’t bring on the lonesome blues either, because that’s when the community flocks together in a big way. They go on group picnics, gobbling up seed in open fields or from the ground beneath backyard feeders until their crops are full, then settle onto fences, or walls, or telephone wires to digest the meal and the days events. They go drinking together, although for doves that means sipping water from puddles and bird baths rather than throwing back with Jose Quervo at the neighborhood saloon.

The community even sleeps together— literally, not euphemistically — roosting in trees and other protected areas. Comforted by the safety of numbers, they’ll drop their heads comfortably between raised shoulders rather than tucking in beneath a wing or over the back as so many other birds do.

Despite all the social network support, there is a darker side to the life of a mourning dove that may explain their doleful song — they often end up on the wrong end of a gun. Mourning doves are abundant, with a population estimated to be comprised of nearly 500 million individuals, but they are classified as a game bird and are the most frequently hunted species in North America. As many as 70 million are shot by hunters each year. Those who dodge the bullet still have to contend with the threat of lead poisoning from shot picked up from the ground while feeding.

Despite what their name implies, though, when one of these doves becomes a widow or widower they don’t spend a lot of time in Brokenheartsville bemoaning their newly-single status. In fact, they pair up again pdq. After all, ya can’t be fruitful all by your lonesome.

 

[Thanks to the following photographers for making their work available through the Creative Commons license: Sarah Richter, Chuck Roberts, George Thomas, Tina :0), Edward Peters, and Patty Myrick.  © 2017 Next-Door Nature. Reprints welcomed with written permission from the author.]

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.]