Telephone

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

Drink your tea-hehehehe!…

 

 

 

 

 

Drink your tea-hehehehe!…

 

 

 

 

 

Drink your tea-hehehehe!

 

 

 

 

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

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

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


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

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

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.

Life is better 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!

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

Virtuosity

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

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

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

There are definite differences between these gifted songbirds, though.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

[Thanks to the following photographers for making their work available through the Creative Commons license: Dustin Gaffke, , Todd Van Hoosear, and Rachid H.  © 2017 Next-Door Nature. Reprints welcomed with written permission from the author.]

Oddly Normal

I don’t live far from the eclipse’s Path of Totality, but I decided to stay put just the same. I didn’t even order eclipse glasses. I know there will be plenty of great video to watch throughout the day, and since my sweetheart is a talented professional videographer, I feel like I’ve got that angle covered.  I want to focus on what’s going on down under, here on Earth.

In anticipation, I’ve been reading stories about how the event will impact wildlife. Every single one of these reports has focused on the “strange” animal behavior we can expect to witness as the day goes dark… and I find that very strange indeed.

What these experts are calling odd is considered completely normal activity when it happens each evening. And from the descriptions I’ve read about what to expect, assuming night is nigh would be a perfectly reasonable assumption for any creature—human or non-human—who doesn’t have a television or an Internet connection and, therefore, doesn’t know that the sun will be playing hide-and-seek with the moon for a little while today.

Humans tend to be less familiar with nocturnal species than the ones who are active during regular business hours. I think the eclipse is going to offer a chance to get to know our neighbors who work the night shift… kind of like a rerun of the National Night Out that took place earlier this month.

As the light begins to dim, creatures who are active during the day may start their usual bedtime routines.  Some diurnal birds will sing one last serenade to the daylight as faux-evening falls…

…some will hurry back to nests of eggs or chicks…

…others will congregate for mutual protection, as they do at the end of every day.

Birds who love the night life will wake, possibly feeling less than rested but still ready to boogie in search of an early breakfast (or late dinner, depending how you look at it).

Some wild mammals are active and visible during the day, including a fair number of rodents such as tree squirrels, groundhogs, prairie dogs, and chipmunks. I’m expecting the eclipse to be a great time to see mammals who are usually waking up just as I’m starting to wind down…

Insect musicians will surely want to set the mood with a tune or two.

Fireflies know a little night music calls for romantic lighting…

…and amphibians aren’t about to let the invertebrates steal the limelight!

As the skies brighten we’re also likely to have a second dawn chorus… but without needing to get up before sunrise! So don’t despair just because the eclipse will pass your part of North America by, or because you don’t know how to make and use a pin-hole camera (even after you Google’d instructions). There should be some amazing wildlife sights to see, right here on good ol’ terra firma.

 

[Thanks to the following photographers for making their work available through the Creative Commons license: Eric Kilby, Dan Dzurisin, Ingrid Taylar, Pat Gaines, Rachel Kramer, Will WilsonTony Oldroyd, Michael Eisen, Elizabeth Nicodemus, USFWStsaiian, David Huth, and Ingrid Taylar.  © 2017 Next-Door Nature. Reprints welcomed with written permission from the author.]

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.]

Spotted!

A spotted towhee caught on a fast-food run, and not particularly happy about it.

Supermarket tabloids love just-like-us features so they pay paparazzi top dollar to catch somebodies acting like nobodies. Today I’m focused on the Towhees. They like to keep a low profile but I’m a pro and I know how to find them.

First Rule of Papping: Ya can’t tell the players without a scorecard! It also helps to know the aliases they use to create confusion and avoid detection. See, for a long time all the Towhee’s identified as Team Pipilo. Several years ago, however, about half of them left (were removed, actually) to form Team Melozone. Maybe the rift was media-created (fake news, so sad), or maybe the less flamboyant Towhees felt overshadowed by their more colorful and fashion-forward cousins… who knows? Towheestas, as their fandom are known, love to argue over the distinctions between and relative merits of the two tribes, as well as who should be a P and who definitely qualifies as an M.

Currently,  Team P include the Collareds (P. ocai),  the Green-taileds (P. chlorurus), the Easterns (P. erythrophthalmus), and the Spotteds (P. maculatus), but not so long ago both the Easterns and Spotteds were using the tag Rufous-sided (the Easterns got full custody of P. erythrophthalmus). Spotteds are also referred to in some circles as The Avians Formerly Known as Oregon or Socorro.

Similarly, and to keep things even-steven, Team M also has four members: the Aberts’ (M. aberti), the White-throateds (M. leucotis), the Canyons (M. fusca), and the Californias (M. Crissalis). Oh, but the Canyons and the Californias used to be one big happy tribe, the Browns, even though the Aberts’ and the Californias are probably closer relatives.

Got it all straight? Yeah, it’s a complicated family tree — that’s show biz. Try keeping track of the rest of the Sparrows, not to mention the Barrymores, the Fondas, and the Coppolas.

Second Rule of Papping:  Zoom in on the habitat. Finding out where your luminary lives is a crucial datapoint.  Some Towhees prefer to be on the right side of the continent (Easterns), some are Westerners (Californias, Green-taileds, and Spotteds), and there’s some who meet in the middle. Others Towhees prefer the Southwest (Canyons and Aberts’), or even south of the border in Mexico (Collareds & White-throateds).

Towhees do household chores, just like us!

When it comes to choosing a home base, the Easterns and Spotteds will always opt for a ground-floor unit, if available, ideally tucked in next to a log or of clump of grass to provide some privacy, but they’ll tolerate the higher perches (shrubs) preferred by the Californias, Canyons, and Green-taileds. The Aberts’ are the only Towhees who like to live in a tree-top high-rise. Not much is know about where the Collareds and White-throateds homestead because they’re a secretive bunch who’ve put down roots far from the limelight’s glare, in the more rural setting of Mexico’s mid-to-high altitude subtropical and tropical pine-oak forests. They’re a rare and lucrative shot but too remote for run-and-gun photography.

A Spotted spotted at the spa.

Improve your chances by becoming a regular at all of the places your subjects like to eat, including the local hipster farmers markets and upscale grocers, where they shop for household supplies, as well as favorite watering holes and spas. If you can get a neighborhood exposure you’re golden because that’s where life gets real. As the playground K-I-S-S-I-N-G song tells it, first comes love, then comes marriage, then comes baby in a $700 Bugaboo carriage. Actually, these days marriage is an option, not a certainty. Regardless of the parents’ living arrangements and legal status, or lack thereof, nest/crib beta is pivotal for a paparazzo because editors drool when there are kids in the picture — Mommy & Me outings are always Money Shots.

A California towhee takes her mini-me out for lunch.

Third Rule of Papping:  Know your subject inside as well as out. In other words, not just their look but the idiosyncratic behaviors that will tip you off to their presence, even when they’re not wearing breeding plumage. For example, you’ll want to know that all the Towhees like to forage for food using a unique two-footed backward hop, followed by a pert bend-and-snap. Well, I assume this includes those camera-shy Collared and White-throateds but who the hell knows. If the pickin’ are slim, or maybe too predictable, Spotteds will scan the shrubbery for snacks, and the Aberts’ have been known to poke around under the bark near the bottom of tree trunks for some grub.

Family comes first for the Canyons and Green-taileds, who have a reputation for forming long-term, monogamous pair-bonds. If a Green-tailed mom senses danger, she’ll bravely flee from home on foot with a conspicuously raised tail to attract and distract the predator’s attention from her children.

A California fascinated with its reflection in a window.

It will probably come as no surprise, that the Cali Crew has an ongoing love/hate relationship with their image — you’ll see them in front of a freshly washed window, handy car mirror, or any other reflective surface checking out their visuals or talking to themselves in a very critical, territorial tone. They’re not crazy, just a little left of center. They like to chill in stands of poison oak, feeling all cutting edge because this hangout hasn’t been “discovered” yet, gobbling up the pale berries as if they were caviar.

Last, but not least… shut up and get the shot. Sure, the relationship between some celebrities and the paparazzi is symbiotic— they get publicity, you get residuals. Towhees don’t play that. If you want to be successful with this dynasty you’ll stay quiet, blend into the scenery, keep your eyes open, and your finger on the trigger. Be the early bird that catches the worm. Not that Towhees are worms. Far from it. Truth is, they’ll eat that worm for breakfast… and you could get it all on film (or a memory card).

[Thanks to the following photographers for making their work available through the Creative Commons license: Dawn BeattieCalypso Orchid, TJ GehlingDoug Greenberg, Scott Heron, Lucina M, Mike’s Birds, Jorge Montejo, JN Stuart, Ingrid TaylarUSDA, Francesco Veronesi, and Yutaka Seki.  © 2017 Next-Door Nature. Reprints welcomed with written permission from the author.]

Roadside attraction

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

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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.

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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

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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)

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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.

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* 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.

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© 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.