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.]

Roadside attraction

wildlife and roads, wildlife watching, wildlife habitat

Roads are both a blessing and a curse for wildlife (Photo: Colleen Greene, Creative Commons license)

.

Ever dreamed of going on a safari? Then fasten your seat belt, start the engine, and hit the road. Any road. I’ll bet you dollars to donuts—take the time to look and you’ll spy enough wildlife to satisfy, Bwana.

Sure, some of the creatures will be easier to spot than others… for the simple reason they’re no longer moving.  But I’m not proposing a road-kill road-trip. Trust me, the city streets, shady neighborhood boulevards, highways and byways offer plenty of opportunities for wildlife watching. Naturally, the species on display depend on the size of the road, its location, the season, time of day, and the speed limit.

wildlife and roads, vultures, wildlife watchingLet’s say your motoring down a divided highway, a conduit to and through the all-American suburbs. The big stuff (aka megafauna), such as deer, elk, moose, bears, and even coyotes, can be seen at 65+ mph (although not always in time to either admire or avoid them). Certain birds of prey, red-tailed hawks in particular, can be seen at both speed and distance due to their habit of hanging out high on handy utility poles to scout for snacks. Anything more petite will be visible only if it’s on the shoulder or trying to cross the road. Scavengers looking for a free lunch can be seen out on the open road day (crows, ravens, vultures) and night (opossums, coyotes). That meal ticket can quickly turn the diner into dinner for someone else… and so on.

wildlife and roads, wildlife watching, groundhogBeyond mowed blacktop borders, in the woods and taller grasses, you’ll find rabbits, foxes, raccoons, skunks, and groundhogs. Based on my own non-scientific observation, to improve your chances of seeing these meso– (medium-sized) species as well as small but brightly colored male songbirds in situ you’ll have to ease up on the gas pedal and let the speedometer drop to 35-45 mph, tops.

A bicycle (or even a horse if you have access to one) would probably set the right pace for a rider to notice mice and voles, lizards, turtles, frogs and toads, as well as female songbirds (who tend to have less flashy wardrobes than their ready-for-the-disco menfolk). The truly diminutive critters—insects, spiders, snails and slugs—are hard to spot at more than arm’s length so it’s best to set off on foot and plan for a leisurely pace if spineless quarry is your goal.  A general rule: the slower you go, the more you’ll see—that’s what makes the backroads more appealing for this kind of trip than a superhighway.

In poetry, novels, song, and cinema people often speak of the allure and romance of roads—the ones that calls us, the ones less traveled, the ones that go on forever, choosing between high ones and low ones. Wild animals rarely have access to books and mp3 players and RedBox kiosks, though, and I’ve never found them to be all that interested in popular culture… so what’s the attraction?

To build a road through a previously undeveloped area, the first thing that happens is clearing a swath of the existing plant community, be that trees and shrubs or grasses or cacti. Once the project is completed (or even while it’s still in progress) new plants begin to colonize the bare soil, creating a plant community that’s different from the surrounding landscape along with an edge where new and old meet.  Disturbing the soil stimulates the germination of seeds that may have sat dormant for a long time waiting for the right conditions. Soil may be brought in from somewhere else as part of the construction process along with seeds from plants that are completely novel in this setting.

wildlife and roads, wildlife watching, wildlife habitatSince the plants predict what kind of animals will be found in any ecosystem, the new habitat creates opportunities certain wildlife species will exploit… but in most cases it won’t be the species that were living happily in the pre-construction habitat. Edge species will colonize the area, often using the right-of-way as a travel corridor before and after the road is completed. Some organisms will hitchhike to their new home on and in the bodies of larger animals or even motor vehicles. Birds, bats, and flying insects will drop in from above. Wild things are always jockeying for space and there’s no such thing as a vacant lot in nature—at least, not for long.

wildlife and roads, wildlife watching, pronghornMake no mistake—roads are a significant cause of habitat loss and their presence is detrimental to many types of wildlife. For others, though, the resulting edge provides exactly what they need to thrive. This includes our most familiar next-door nature species. In fact, the reason blue jays, robins, white-tailed deer and other edge-loving species are so common in human communities is because Homo sapiens is also an edge-loving species. Our roads are simply one very conspicuous example of that fact.

The natural world is never static; it’s always in flux and each day there are new winners and losers.  Are roads good or bad for wildlife? It depends on the species. But there’s no doubt they are a boon for wildlife watchers.

.

Life is better with 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 first.). Thanks to these photographers for making their work available through a Creative Commons license: Colleen Greene (black bear); e_monk (black vulture); Matt Reinbold (groundhog); MoDOT Photos (edge habitat); Allan Harris (pronghorn).

Nutcracker suite

cardinal-grosbeak-crossbill

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

.

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

Bird Beaks by Shyamal and Jeff Dahl, CC

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

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

The northern cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis) is a familiar and popular resident of cities and suburbs, possibly because it’s so easy to spot and identify. It’s so popular, in fact, that seven U.S. state legislatures have chosen this species to be their avian poster child.  At  8½—9” (21—23 cm) from jaunty crest to tail tip, it’s a medium-sized songbird with a stereotypic nut- and seed-busting beak—short, stout, and cone-shaped. Cardinal beaks can crush more than seeds, as I can personally attest. From time to time a cardinal would find its way, with the help of a kindly Samaritan, to the Houston wildlife rehabilitation center where I used to work. When this happened, I would stand at the intake desk, teeth clenched, trying to muster enough courage to open the shoebox in my hands.  Now, I like cardinals as much as the next person—I’m from St. Louis, after all, where you can walk down any street in the whole town and know you’ll see someone wearing a shirt adorned with a bright crimson bird perched on a baseball bat. You’d think that would make me an insider of sorts, an honorary member of the family who’s entitled to a few special perks. Hardly. Every time him and her cardinals by Steve Wall ccI’ve held a cardinal in my hand, no matter how gentle the exam or treatment, I was rewarded for my efforts with a throbbing blood blister on my palm, administered by a tiny but furious red vice-grip. Who would have guessed you could feel empathy for a sunflower seed?

The rose-breasted grosbeak (Pheucticus ludovicianus) is slightly smaller (7—7½” or 18—21 cm) with a pale, conical bill reminiscent of the cardinal’s, only more zaftig… a chestnut to the redbird’s hazelnut. Of course, it’s natural for kin to resemble one another, and the RBG is, in fact, one of 17 species known as the “cardinal-grosbeaks.”* Grosbeak—from the French grosbec (gros thick + bec beak) is a bit of a misnomer for this striking black and white bird with a cherry cravat (the females prefer a more sedate, sparrow-like wardrobe). Compared to the schnozzes sported by some members of the Cardinalidae clan, the RBG has a proud but modest snoot. Although not as common as its stop-light colored cousin, human development—and the fire suppression policies that accompany it—have caused forests to sprout where once only grasses grew, allowing the RBG to expand its breeding and migration range westward (although the Rocky Mountains have proven to be a tough nut to crack).  They’ve become a more frequent visitor to backyard bird bistros, where they like to snack on safflower, cracked corn, and black-striped sunflower seed. Insects and fruit are part of their diet as well, but seeds account for the majority of their calorie intake, especially during winter months.

The beak says it all—red crossbills (Loxia curvirostra) are true specialists. At first glance you might think this is a bird in dire need of an orthodontist, but that oddly shaped bill allows them to force open conifer cones and extract the tasty nuts inside. The muscles that allow birds to bite down are stronger than the ones used to open their beaks. But unlike cardinals and grosbeaks, who can clamp down with great force on tough-hulled sunflower seeds (and tender wildlife rehabilitator hands), the crossbill can wedge the slightly opened tips of its bill between the scales of a tightly closed pinecone and then bite down, pushing the scale up to expose the kernel. The red crossbill is extremely dependent on conifer seeds—wildlife biologists refer to animals whose very existence depends on a narrowly-defined habitat or food sources as an obligate species. Most granivores (seed-eaters) start their lives eating protein-rich insects, making a dietary change when they reach adulthood, but crossbills feed on seeds from cradle to grave. Of course, there are risks associated with being a specialist… we’ve all been warned against “putting all your eggs in one basket.” But as long as long red crossbill by eugene beckes ccas you follow the advice of Mark Twain and “watch that basket!” there are benefits as well. For example, red crossbills can raise young any time of the year—even during winter—as long as the cone crop is abundant. I guess some nutty looking adaptations are really quite shrewd.

The Clark’s nutcracker (Nucifraga columbiana) uses the same reliable food resource—conifer nuts—to expand its breeding season. But this member of the Corvidae family (jays and crows) takes the idea even further. It is a hoarder, storing surplus pine, spruce, and hazelnuts. They actually have a special pouch under their tongues to clark's nutcracker by Jamie Chavez cccarry seeds over long distances. A single Clark’s can hide as many as 300,000 pine nuts over the course of a year, and they use this cache crop to feed themselves and their nestlings. Research has shown they have a phenomenal memory and can find most of the seeds they’ve stashed, even months later. Most… but not all; some of the hidden seeds germinate, re-establishing the bird’s favorite trees in areas cleared by fires or logging operations. It’s a sustainable harvest practice, however accidental, and a form of basket-watching that would make Samuel Clemens proud.

 .

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

.

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

New perspectives

brown-headed nuthatch

The brown-headed nuthatch spends much of its life upside-down (Photo: Vicki DeLoach, Creative Commons license)

.

Since relocating 2 months ago I’ve met most of the folks who share my new building, in spite of having been on the road quite a bit during that time. Travel has hindered my ability to meet my non-human neighbors, though. Oh, I’ve spied a familiar wild face here and there while transporting cardboard to the recycle bin or driving to the grocery store, but I’ve been on the lookout for a chance to get up close and personal with some of the local color.

So, last Sunday, when the weather-heads predicted a halcyon day, I decided to turn my back on an always too long to-do list and make a break for it… for a little while anyway. Closing my laptop quickly, before responsibility reared its ugly head, I slipped into some high-tech socks and comfy hiking shoes, hustled my canine companion into his travel crate, and set a course for a nearby state park.

Ah… there’s nothing quite like a change of scenery to give you a new perspective. Case in point: watching a brown-headed nuthatch (Sitta pusilla) bustle around a tree trunk, seemingly unaware of any difference between up and down, it occurred to me that concepts like ascending and descending may not be equally important to every earthling. Depending on your perspective, M.C. Escher could be considered a Realist.

I’d never before met this non-migratory species, found year-round in pine forests throughout the southeast. However, while living in New Mexico I had a chance to became acquainted with some of the bustier members of the clan—the white-breasted (Sitta carolinensis) and red-breasted (Sitta canadensis) nuthatches*— so I immediately saw a family resemblance. Male and female brown-headed nuthatches share the same plumage—a handsome, understated pallet of topaz, slate and chalk. They are curious creatures, bolder than you might expect from a bird smaller than an index card, and not at all intimidated or shy around people. The voice is larger-than-life too, often sounding remarkably like an oversized rubber ducky. Disconcerting, when you’re not soaking in a tub of warm bubbles.

Based on its diminutive size and highly-caffeinated demeanor, you may assume this bird is a fragile creature.  But first impressions can be deceiving—better take a second look. Change your point of view. Then watch that sharp black chisel of a beak slam repeatedly through steely seedcases and ask how long your own head and neck could handle such an assault. Delicate? That’s right. Like a jackhammer.

But seriously, what could be more harmless than a 10-gram puff of down and feathers? Not much, as long as you’re a human. But if you were an arthropod, you might see that beneath that innocuous exterior beats the heart of an assassin who spends each day ruthlessly combing the piney woods for six- and eight-legged targets, carrying a small bark shiv to pry victims out of cracks and crevices when they refuse to surrender to their fate.

Like I said, it’s all a matter of perspective.

.

© 2011 Next-Door Nature— no reprints without written permission from the author.
*Technically speaking, only mammals have breasts; if the truth in advertising rules were strictly enforced, KFC would be selling chicken chests.

Sunspots

male american goldfinch

A male American goldfinch glows in sunshine or shadow (Photo: Dale Kaskey, Creative Commons license)

.

There’s been a marked decline in the number of sunspots over the past decade or so. That’s what NASA scientists say, and I have no reason to doubt their research findings. Luckily, I haven’t observed any reduction in the terrestrial version of this phenomenon. Hardly a day has passed lately when I’ve not been blinded by the solar flare of a male American goldfinch (Carduelis tristis) as it escapes, briefly, the gravitational pull of a remnant patch of forest.

Actually, woodlots have a fairly loose grip on goldfinches, and they regularly venture out beyond the edge. It’s just that the male’s lemon-colored plumage glows against the inky green shade of conifers and summer hardwood foliage, or a cornflower blue sky, making them even more eye-catching than when the backdrop is amber waves of grain… or weedy native grasses. The undulating flight pattern only adds to the illusion of a plasma flash.

Found throughout the majority of North America for at least part of the year, and in about a third of the continent year-round, these smallish (4-5”) birds are regular visitors to backyards. In fact, suburban sprawl, which has proven so harmful to many wild species—neotropical migrant birds in particular—has been a boon for these devoted granivores. Goldfinches flock to places where thistle, sunflower, dandelion, cosmos, and aster seeds can be found, and development creates the perfect habitat for them and their favorite foods. The popularity of bird feeders hasn’t hurt either, since they provide seed-eaters with a competitive edge over birds that prefer other dining plans.

female american goldfinchAlso known as the wild canary, this species is sexually dimorphic, meaning gender can be distinguished by some physical feature—in this case, plumage. As is so often the case among wild birds, the female American goldfinch’s wardrobe is understated compared to her mate. The sunny palette is still present, but her hue of choice is a dull or olive-tinged yellow, and her wings are a shade or two lighter although similarly marked.

Boy or girl, the gold in those feathers comes from carotenoid pigments in their diet. It’s the same process and components that causes flamingo (Phoenicopterus and Phoenicoparrus spp.) feathers to be pink, coral or orange (the wild ones get their color from the red algae and aquatic invertebrates they consume, while captive birds rely on fortified flamingo chow). Without carotenoids in their diet, flamingos would become a much paler version of the iconic plastic subspecies, and goldfinches would go from 24 to 10 karat.

You are what you eat, you know. So are goldfinches. And even though it’s converted into an amazing variety of forms—thistle seeds, bluegrass, brussel sprouts, mangos, caviar, cheese, chicken chests, and hamburgers—when you get down to basics, we’re all eating sunshine. It just shines more brightly through some of us than others.

.

© 2011 Next-Door Nature— no reprints without written permission from the author. Thanks to Arthur Chapman for making his photo of a female American goldfinch clinging to a feeder available through a Creative Commons license.

Patois

rufous-collared sparrow

Male rufous-collared sparrows know how to put just the right spin on a tune to woo the local girls (Photo: Dario Sanches, Creative Commons license)

.

One of the things I like best about traveling is hearing different accents, turns of phrase, the variations in cadence and rhythms of speech unique to a specific place. Now that there’s a Starbucks on nearly every commercial district corner, and big box stores are shading out the retail undergrowth, it can be easy to forget you’re away from home until you exchange verbal pleasantries with a local.

Biologists have known for some time that dialects aren’t limited to the human population. Many wild bird species have them too. It can be harder for the untrained human ear to hear, but spectrograms of bird songs show distinct regional, local, and individual variation.

Recently, I learned that a member of my own extended family-of-choice has been traveling to Ecuador to study the dialects of rufous-collared sparrows (Zonotrichia capensis). In the process, Julie Danner—the new wife of my non-biological sister’s nephew—has discovered something about Andean sparrows, as they’re also known, that made even the New York Times take notice: Sparrow chicas are more likely to hook up with homeboys than with chicos who don’t sound like they’re from the ‘hood.

Or, in the language of a scientific journal such as The American Naturalist, where Julie, her husband Ray Danner, and their colleagues at Virginia Tech published their research results, female sparrows “gave significantly more copulation solicitation displays in response to their local dialect than to the song dialects from a population on the other side of an Andean pass (25 km away).”

white-crowned sparrowThe rufous-collared sparrow is the only tropical member of this genus and a close relative of the white-crowned sparrow (Zonotrichia leucophrys) found throughout most of North America. Initially, Julie studied two groups of birds but later expanded to eight populations. Her research suggests as little as 15 miles is enough to produce bird “accents.”

Recordings of male songs were made at varying distances from a home territory, along with the songs of other bird species. Then Julie put individual females into a holding cage and played the recordings.

“I found out that females distinguish between dialects and prefer the local dialect,” she explains.

Bird dialects seem to be formed by individual birds making slight errors in reproducing the characteristic tune of their species. These errors are picked up by new generations of young males, who don’t know any better, when they’re learning to sing love songs.

Scientists are pretty good describing what is happening in the world (e.g., female sparrows prefer local males) but it’s much harder to explain why. Is there any benefit to females and their offspring when they choose the boy next-door? Julie doesn’t know, but she’s come up with an educated guess.

“A male singing local song could be better adapted to the local environment. He may have better resistance to certain local parasites. A local male may just do better in that environment.” If that’s true, it could increase the likelihood that a female’s offspring will survive.

What’s true for birds is not necessarily true for those who study birds. Julie, who started her doctoral work in 2006 and hopes to finish up next year, is a Connecticut native. Her husband was born and raised over 1000 miles away, in my hometown of St. Louis, Missouri.

.

© 2011 Next-Door Nature— no reprints without written permission from the author. Thanks to Jessica Merz for making her photo of an immature white-crowned sparrow available through a Creative Commons license.

Nocturne

northern mockingbird

Northern mockingbirds are known for their expansive song repertoires (Photo: Henry T. McLin, Creative Commons license)

.

The melody seeped into my REM cycle, making me just lucid enough to believe someone was singing a cappella outside my window. But my sleep-clouded brain couldn’t make out the words and I didn’t recognize the voice either. Besides, I wasn’t aware of anyone who might want to serenade me (although, you never know). Slowly, as I became more conscious, it dawned on me that although this was definitely a love song, I was not the target audience… or even the target species.

When awakened by birdsong, it’s natural to assume that it is actually dawn, even when it feels like mere minutes since your head hit the pillow, so as I surfaced from beneath the quilt I winced in anticipation of bright light.

The singing blared like a desert sun, but the room was dark as the inside of an acoustic guitar.

A moment’s confusion, followed by a quick glance at the alarm clock—1:40am—and I confirmed not just the identity of the vocalist but his predicament as well: a young male northern mockingbird with a lonely (or maybe just randy) heart.

Mockingbird men can’t rely on flashy plumage to catch a potential date’s attention because they share the same understated but distinctive grayscale wardrobe as their women. But the name, Mimus polyglottos, says it all—”mimic of many tongues.” Songbirds often have a brief window of opportunity during their youth when they learn their species soundtrack. The males later use that imprinted tune to practice their pickup lines, and the females recognize potential mates based on that childhood template.  Mockingbirds, however, are not one-hit wonders. These guys are dedicated to expanding their repertoire, learning as many as 200 songs over the course of a lifetime. And the dolls eat it up like candy… or make that cucumber beetles.

Adult northern mockingbird and two fledglingsA male leaves his winter habitat and begin tuning up in early February, attempting to establish a nesting territory before the gals arrive. Once he finds his seasonal significant other, he turns down the volume and his songs become shorter. Female mockingbirds sing too (a trait that’s fairly uncommon among songbirds), although not as loudly as the males and seldom during the breeding season. Raising small children is a all-consuming endeavor, or so I hear, that doesn’t leave little much time for recreational pursuits. Unpaired males, on the other hand, have both the time and the motivation to keep singing, almost to the point of obsession. They keep looking for love, and belting out ballads, until late in the season.

Which is exactly what was going on outside my window this morning. Now, normally, I’m not only a fan of birdsong, I’m a pretty empathetic individual as well, so my heart went out to that poor, single-minded, solitary soul.

My brain, on the other hand, wanted to have a word with that bird. “Happy hour is over, buddy, and the ladies have all gone home. Give it up. Tomorrow’s another day—DAY being the operative word here… get my drift?”

If this night music keeps up, I may have to strongly suggest he try a new approach. I could recommend a helpful online dating site.

.

© 2011 Next-Door Nature— no reprints without written permission from the author. Thanks to Melvin Yap for making his photo of an adult northern mockingbird feeding two fledglings  available through a Creative Commons license.

Meow mix-up

gray catbird

Once it begins to sing, any mystery about the source of the catbird's name is solved (Photo: by Jerry Oldenettel, Creative Commons license)

.

The semester is winding down, so I can’t say I was all that surprised to hear a soft, kittenish mewing coming from the small wedge of remnant wooded habitat between my apartment parking lot and the highway. I’ve mentioned before that I live in a complex near campus and, sadly, it’s common for a new crop of outdoor cats to appear as the students disappear. This is not unique to Virginia Tech—it happens in college communities all across the country. People often hold the misperception that cats are more independent and able to live on their own than dogs… that may have something to do with it.

But as I scanned the underbrush looking for the source, thinking of what I might use to coax a frightened feline to come out, come out, wherever it was, I came to the happy realization that I wouldn’t be making a trip to the animal shelter after all. It’s been a long time since I heard a gray catbird (Dumetella carolinensis), and never was I more thrilled by a tune in the trees than last Sunday morning.

Their call may be the world’s easiest to recognize. Once you’ve heard that “meow,” you won’t wonder another minute how the catbird caught its moniker. Like their relatives, the  mockingbirds and thrashers, these birds are able to copy other sounds and string them together to create a clever mash-up. But their signature song isn’t a case of mimicry—its all their own, shared by every member of the species.

Now that my ears have been retuned, I’ve been hearing catbirds calling all over town. That’s one more reason to be happy this spring, because this species, which is pretty common in most of its range, has been in decline recently in the southeastern U.S. You’d never know it here in Blacksburg, though, where it sounds like litters of catbirds have been turned loose in the woods.

If not for that distinctive call, you might not even notice these secretive birds. They don’t like to cross open areas, so they stick to the thickets, moving in quick hops and short flights through dense vegetation as they search for insects and berries. At first glance, a catbird’s plumage is unremarkable. But look again and you’ll see that slate gray gives way to a jaunty black cap and tail. Look even more closely and you’ll see a rich rusty-orange patch just beneath the tail. That bright flash of pigment always takes me by surprise and makes me laugh—it’s like catching a glimpse of a colorful thong or pair of boxers peeking out of a staid gray flannel suit!

.

An example of the gray catbird’s diverse playlist — the first “meow” call is at about the 13 second mark.

.

Do you have questions about wildlife? Email NDN and the answer may turn up as a future blog post. And don’t forget to “Like” us on Facebook!

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