Baby Blues

Fledgling blue jays begging Dad to make a pizza run [photo: christian lanctot, ccl]

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Identifying songbirds by their calls is not my forte.

Sure, I can distinguish most common backyard residents with distinctive voices, including mourning doves (Coo…. coo, coo), Carolina chickadees (Fee-bee-fee-bay or chickadee-dee-dee), American robins (Cheerily, cheer-up, cheer-up! Cheerily, cheer-up!!), red-winged blackbirds (Conk-la-ree!), and the northern cardinal (Birdie, birdie, birdie! Cheer, cheer, cheer! — no wonder the St. Louis baseball club chose this mascot). I can usually tell when a mockingbird is singing a cover tune because I realize the familiar song has a new arrangement.

The further afield I stray from my audio comfort zone, or the built environment, though, the more I rely on my eyes for ID.  That said, I have a niche talent, developed in the late 990s while I was running a large wildlife rehabilitation center in Houston, Texas: I can easily identify a wide range of bird species by the sounds their nestlings and fledglings make when a parent (biological or a stand-in human) arrives with food.

[photo: smilla4, ccl]

That’s how I found out it’s baby blue jay season here in southwest Virginia. I haven’t done hands-on rehab for a long while but as soon as I heard those competitively pitiful “Feed ME! Feed ME!” cries, I knew. Young blue jays used to come into the center by the shoebox-full so that particular call for attention is burned on my brain.

Adult blue jays aren’t the most popular wild neighbors. Jay parents will actively, even aggressively, defend their offspring and, well, there are always people eager to criticize the way others raise their children. Jays also have a reputation for eating the eggs and nestlings of other birds… true, but relatively rare. An extensive study observed this behavior in only 1% of jays. They certainly aren’t the only feathered folk who will help themselves to a snack from an unattended nest but jays, with their signature sapphire, white, black, and gray plumage plus that jaunty crest, are so recognizable they receive more blame than is warranted.

What’s less well-known is that blue jays are always on sentry duty, and when they spot a predator or other threat they shout an alarm call the whole avian neighborhood understands.

[photo: duluoz cats, ccl]

Mom and Dad have PR problems but their offspring are undeniably endearing. Jays are an example of true co-parenting. The female incubates a clutch of eggs for 17-18 days, and during this time and for the first 8-12 days after the nestlings hatch, the male provides all of the family meals. Blue jays can carry food in their gular pouch, an area in the throat and upper esophagus. Acorns are a favorite (which makes my throat hurt just to think of it!).  Once ambient temperatures are warm enough, and the kids are old enough to thermoregulate, the female will join her mate on grocery runs.

Every summer, young jays arrive in wildlife rehabilitation centers, veterinary offices, kitchens, and grade school classrooms across the species’ range. They’re an abundant urban bird so it isn’t surprising blue jays would account for a large number of rehab intakes, but there are other factors at play as well. Nestling jays often venture out of the nest and onto nearby branches several days before they fledge (take their first flight). Sometimes a storm or strong breeze will give gravity a helping hand and the branchers end up on the ground sooner than expected.

Mom and Dad aren’t going to give up on Junior just because s/he made an ill-advised decision. They’ll continue to feed and monitor their children — both the wanders and the cautious ones who wait for their feathers to grow a bit longer before taking the plunge — for up to 2 months after the nest is empty. While the fledglings learn to fly they’ll be left alone at times, albeit usually within watching distances of their keen-eyed supervisors. The young ‘uns don’t mind but well-intentioned humans may find it harder to accept. One of the downside of looking winsome is that when people see you sitting on the ground or perched on a low branch, seemingly abandoned, they really, really want to help.

You’ve may have heard this Good Samaritan tune before but I’ll sing it again…

First, do no harm.

If you find a baby bird and think it might have been abandoned:

  • Wait and watch for the parents to return. In the case of a blue jay, an adult may actually dive bomb before you get very close to their precious child but not all species or individuals are that confident so be sure to give everyone plenty of room to feel safe.
  • If the bambino is well-feathered, bright-eyed, and looking around curiously, give the parents at least 60-90 minutes to return.
  • However, if the little one is clearly injured, or very young (naked or barely feathered, eyes closed), then it’s time to take action.

[photo: katrina j houdek, ccl]

Permitted wildlife rehabilitators will never be able to match the skills of a wild parent but they are trained to provide the proper nutrition and environment wild kids need to grow up healthy and strong, knowing they are blue jays (or Cooper’s hawks, or squirrels, or deer, or whatever they are) instead of people, and capable of living in the wild once they’ve been released.

The International Wildlife Rehabilitation Council website can help you access assistance, and if you’re based in the U.S. there’s a free app for iPhone and Android called Animal Help Now. You don’t even know be able to identify the bird, by sight or by sound, to make the call.

 

© 2017 Next-Door Nature—no reprints without written permission from the author (I’d love for you to share my work  but please ask).

Near and Distant

[Photo: Steven Crane, CCL]

African elephants (Loxodonta africana) aren’t usually considered an urban wildlife species but I’d come a long way and wanted to see them while I was in South Africa. The built environment just doesn’t have the amenities Earth’s largest living terrestrial mammal needs to feel at home.  Africa’s elephants prefer dense forests, woodlands, deserts, and even the transition zones between these biomes to urban canyons and suburban savannah. Lucky for me, this study abroad excursion included several days at the Shamwari Game Reserve near Port Elizabeth in the Eastern Cape.

[© Gil Sinclair 2013, used with permission]

I also had the good luck to meet some relatives of the elephant while in Cape Town.  The rock hyrax (Procavia capensis) has found it much easier to adapt to city living than its country cousin.  I suppose concrete looks pretty familiar when boulders are your preferred abode. It also helps when you look much less threatening to the human neighbors throughout the hyrax’s Middle Eastern, sub-Saharan, and southern African range than their towering relatives.

Up on Table Mountain, which overlooks the city, hyraxes were everywhere: scampering along the pathways, basking on benches, happily whistling to one another, and enjoying the sunset from rocky precipices. Ignoring humans while living alongside them can be a good survival strategy for urban wildlife, and the hyraxes showed little interest in the two-footed visitors… unless some tourist with a camera decided to force the issue. Attempts to get the affable-looking creatures to pose were met with low “bug off!” grunts.

[© Gil Sinclair 2013, used with permission]

The family resemblance certainly isn’t obvious at first sight but keep in mind that the genealogical tree branched out millions of years ago.  Let’s start with stature:   adult elephants stand 10-13 ft (3-4 m) tall at the shoulder and may weigh over 8 tons, while an adult hyrax measures up at about 8-12 in (20-30 cm) and tips the scales at a whopping 8-9 lbs (4 kg).

Elephants have very little hair while hyraxes are covered in short taupe fur and long guard hairs that function like a cat’s whiskers.  With their small round ears it’s easy to see how they could be mistaken for a large guinea pig (rodent) or pika (cousin to rabbits and hares). Maybe that’s why they have so many aliases; in South Africa they are called dassie (Dutch for badger) or klipdas (Afrikaans for rock badger), Swahili speakers know them as pimbi, and in the King James Bible they’re referred to as coney (Middle English and Anglo-French). Even “hyrax” is misleading, originating from the Greek word “hyrak” or shrewmouse.

Taxonomists know you shouldn’t judge a book, or a beast, by it’s cover. Look beneath the binding and you’ll find a different tail. Make that tale.  For example:

  • [Photo: Andy Withers, CCL]

    Hyraxes don’t have trunks but they do have small pointed tusks and can deliver a ferocious bite when cornered.
  • Like elephants, hyraxes have flat, hoof-like toenails rather than curved claws.
  • Both are social mammals; elephants live in herds of up to 100 individuals, hyrax colonies can have up to 50 members.
  • Both have long gestation periods (22 months for elephants, 7-8 months for hyraxes) and offspring are slow to reach maturity.
  • Elephant and hyrax newborns are precocial, relatively mature and mobile shortly after birth.
  • Both species employ cooperative care for raising young. Elephant calves are tended from birth by both their mothers and other females in the herd; and hyrax pups are greeted and sniffed by the entire colony the day after they’re born.
  • Females stay with the group their entire life; males disperse.
  • Male elephants and hyraxes don’t have a scrotum; their testes remain in the abdomen even after sexual maturity.

The differences between elephants and hyraxes are more than skin deep, too.

  • Elephants must drink up to 50 gallons of water per day; rock hyraxes can survive for long periods on just the water they obtain through their food (although they dehydrate quickly in direct sunlight).
  • Neither animal is a ruminant, but hyraxes have a complex three-chambered stomach; elephants have a simpler but less efficient digestive system.
  • Hyrax stomaches are filled with symbiotic bacteria that help break down plant material; elephants have to consume up to 300 lbs of food per day, in part because they aren’t able to extract much nutritional value from what they eat.
  • [Photo: Abri du Plessis, CCL]

    An elephant spends a good portion of each day filling its stomach with food and water; rock hyraxes are world-class loafers who are inactive 95% of the time.
  • Hyraxes have poorly developed thermoregulation compared to other mammals so they need to sunbathe for several hours each morning to warm up and won’t venture out of their shelters on cold or rainy days. Elephants have to work at staying cool; they don’t sweat or pant but their large ears help to dissipate heat and they’ve developed a temperature regulation strategy that involves storing heat during the day and releasing it at night, similar to camels and desert rodents.
  • Elephants have a sixth “toe” and their feet have large subcutaneous cushions that distribute weight and absorb mechanical forces; hyraxes have a more flexible foot with a rubbery pad in the center that can be raised to create a suction-cup for clinging to rocks and moving across slick surfaces without slipping.
  • African elephants have no natural predators as adults (they have a decided size advantage) but their calves are vulnerable to attack by lions, crocodiles, leopards, and hyenas. Hyraxes have many predators and, as such, they feed in a circle formation, heads facing outward, eyes scanning for danger.

I’m told that most tourists who have a safari on their bucket list focus on the iconic African Big Five — elephant, rhinoceros, Cape buffalo, lion, and leopard.  I’d be the first to agree they’re all worth seeing in their natural environment, with no bars or moats to limit your view. Or theirs. 

But I find celebrity tours less interesting than exploring on my own.  I like to switch to hyrax-time, wander through neighborhood, sit at a sidewalk cafe or bask on a park bench and watch the residents, human and non-human alike, go about their day. Taking note of what makes us different and all the ways we’re related, despite the distance. 

© 2017 Next-Door Nature—no reprints without written permission from the author (I’d love for you to share my work  but please ask).

Town Crier

Hartlaub’s gull [photo: Paul Barnard Fotografie ccl]

My flight into Cape Town landed early last night, just before 9p. That was fine by me since, by that point, I’d been on the plane about 11.5 hours, and in transit from Blacksburg for about 31 hours.  For the next 10 days I’ll be co-leading an international field experience for some of my students in Virginia Tech’s Master of Natural Resources program.

The shuttle pulled up to the hotel and I stepped out into a well-lit courtyard. Then, less than one hour into my first trip to the continent, I had my first encounter with the urban wildlife of South Africa.

I could hear but not see birds overhead. Lots of them.  It sounded like some kind of Corvid, squawking as if they’d just spotted treasure in the form of an untapped dumpster or fresh roadkill.

I checked in at the front desk and headed up to my room on the third floor with every intention of proceeding directly from the door to under the covers. Actually, I detoured to the shower, then bed.  I wasn’t expecting to continue hearing an avian play-by-play going on outside the window but, of course, now I was closer to the commentators’ booth. Still, tired as I was, I knew a few birds weren’t going to keep me awake. I figured the din would die down as soon as everyone settled in to dine.

Boy, did I flub that call.

The birds were still going strong when I woke up this morning so I decided to see for myself who had stayed up all night talking.  Not crows or ravens, as I’d thought. Gulls.  I’d forgotten that the hotel overlooks Table Bay.

[photo: Harvey Barriston, ccl]

Gulls are notoriously difficult to identify to species. They often have several years of varying adolescent plumage before they reach adulthood and stop trying out different looks. For that reason I wasn’t expecting to get a definitive answer when I did a little research on the gulls of South Africa, even though I could see some of them quite well  as they stood preening in the morning sunshine on the roof across the courtyard. Identification turned out to be a snap, though, as there aren’t that many different kinds of gulls here. The urban birds who welcomed me to Cape Town under cover of darkness were Hartlaub’s gulls (Chroicocephalus hartlaubii).

The Hartlaub is a small, non-migratory gull found along the coasts and estuaries of South Africa and Namibia.  Also known as the king gull, and once considered a subspecies of the silver gull (C. novaehollandiae), this urban homebody doesn’t stray far from land, and nearly half of the species’ total population rarely leaves the Cape Town area.

Primarly white with a gray back and black-tipped gray wings, the usually white head is hooded in very pale lavender gray during breeding seasons. The traditional chick-rearing colony is Robben Island, infamous as the place where former South African President and Nobel Laureate Nelson Mandela spent 18 of the 27 years he was imprisoned prior to the abolishment of apartheid.

[photo: Derek Keats, ccl]

Common in its range, the Hartlaub is nonetheless a relatively rare species in the global gull panoply. They’re known for being quite social and talkative in the fall and winter months–that’s right now in the Southern Hemisphere (I can vouch for that assessment). I’ll admit, I felt exonerated for making a faulty ID last night when I read that this gull’s call has been described as “crow-like.”

Hartlaub’s gulls readily habituate to the presence of humans and have learned to exploit our built environment so well they’re considered a nuisance in Cape Town, and a hazard at the local airports (I could have easily waited to learn that nugget of information until after I’m back home).

© 2017 Next-Door Nature—no reprints without written permission from the author (I’d love for you to share my work  but please ask).

Border battles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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© 2012 Next-Door Nature—no reprints without written permission from the author (I’d love for you to share my work; all you have to do is ask). Thanks to these photographers for making their work available through a Creative Commons license: [starting from the top] Brian Peterson (on the fence); Jason Paluck (male & female; red-bellied); Laura Gooch (red-headed); Frederic Knapp (in nest); ehpien (rbw @ feeder).

Tangled up in blue

eastern bluebird 2 by Jason Matthews, Creative Commons license

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

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

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

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

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

Mountain bluebird pair

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

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

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

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

female eastern bluebird by Patrick Coin, Creative Commons license

Female Eastern bluebird

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

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

western bluebirds by Julio Mulero, Creative Commons license

Western bluebirds

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

But worth every penny.

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© 2012 Next-Door Nature—no reprints without written permission from the author (I’d love for you to share my work; all you have to do is ask). Thanks to these photographers for making their work available through a Creative Commons license: Jason Matthews (male Eastern bluebird);  freeopinions (mountain bluebirds); Patrick Coin (female Eastern bluebird); Julio Mulero (Western bluebirds).

Wobbling waxwings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Unless the fruit is spiked.

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

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

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


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© 2012 Next-Door Nature—no reprints without written permission from the author (I’d love for you to share my work; all you have to do is ask). Thanks to name for making their work available through a Creative Commons license: Eve Fraser-Corp (waxwing with wizened berry); Eve Fraser-Corp (waxwing with wizened berry); Alan Huett (waxwing adult and nestling);  Bob Muller (waxwings on pyracantha)’ and Churl Han (injured waxwing).

Village voice

white-crowned sparrow by KaCey97007, Creative Commons license

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

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

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

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

common blackbird (Photo: Oystercatcher, Creative Commons license)

common blackbird

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

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

European robin

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

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

song sparrow

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

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

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Start your day with a little Next-Door Nature—click the “subscribe”  link in the upper right-hand corner of this page and receive notifications of new posts!
© 2012 Next-Door Nature—no reprints without written permission from the author (I’d love for you to share my work; all you have to do is ask). Thanks to these photographers for making their work available through a Creative Commons license:  KaCey97007 (white-crowned sparrow); Dani_vr (seagull); Oystercatcher (common blackbird); Steve Harris (European robin); and TC Davis (song sparrow).

Snow birds

snowy owls (Photo: winnu, Creative Commons license)

Record numbers of snowy owls have ventured south this winter, creating a not-often-in-a-lifetime opportunity for bird-lovers in Canada and parts of the U.S. (Photo: winnu, Creative Commons license)

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Sometimes you just need a change of scenery.

Most years, snowy owls (Bubo scandiacus*) are homebodies, satisfied to stay put in the sweeping, flat, treeless tundra, even as calendar pages flip past the holidays and into a new tax season.  Most of their snowbird neighbors take off each winter to visit second homes in warmer latitudes, but snowy owls prefer staycations. What’s not to like? The mosquitoes, midges, and biting flies disappeared with the first snow. You’ve got the place all to yourself so there’s less competition for a table at the best places to eat and hang out. Not to mention, traveling can be such a headache these days—choosing your route, navigating national borders, weather delays. By the time you reach your destination you’re more exhausted than when you left!

And yet…

snowy owl in flight by pat gaines cc

… every now and then there comes a year when the snowies watch with those enormous cadmium-yellow eyes as everyone else heads for the flyways, and beneath that placid, nearly expressionless exterior, wanderlust begins to stretch its wings… then flutter… flap… and soar.  Big Pharma claims to have the prescription for cabin fever (aka, seasonal affective disorder, the winter blues, February funk), but it’s a lot more fun to head south in search of adventure, and some landscape variation definitely provides relief.

Let’s not forget, the opportunity to try some new regional cuisine alone must be a huge tourism draw when you’ve been eating lemmings, day in, day out. I mean, just because everyone else is happy dining from the same menu all year long doesn’t mean you have to run with the crowd… right over the cliff. So to speak. Not when there’s bacalhoada in Baltimore, sushi in Seattle, oie rôtie in Quebec,  fagiano alla contadina on The Hill in St. Louis (my own hometown), hasenpfeffer in Philadelphia… the possibilities are vast as the Arctic landscape.

Whatever the reason, the travel bug spread through the snowy owl population this year like a flu epidemic. Thousands of these large, unmistakable owls have been observed from coast to coast in the U.S., and as far south as Oklahoma, delighting bird fans who never dreamed of adding this species to their lifelist.

snowy owl on a telephone pole (Photo: Todd Radenbaugh, Creative Commons license)If a snowy owl visits your town, word will likely spread fast. Weighing in at 3.5—6.5 lbs (1.6—2.9 kg), 2 ft (0.6 m) tall with a wingspan of about 5 ft (1.5 m), this heavy, northernmost North American owl is instantly recognizable and easy to spot. For one thing, it’s diurnal, meaning active during the day (most, but not all, other owls are nocturnal or active at night). Secondly, snowies aren’t shy and retiring, preferring to spend most of their time on a prominent lookout, waiting patiently for their next meal to make a move. Of course, if the surrounding countryside is covered in a blanket of white, they aren’t as conspicuous as when the ground is bare. That’s because snowy owls are a charcoal sketch on a clean, gessoed canvas—their eyes are the only deviation from grayscale. Even their legs and feet are feather-covered, not yellow or orange as is the case for many other avian species.

snowy owlet (Photo: Steve Brace, Creative Commons license)Snowy owlets begin life resembling human toddlers packed into warm down snowsuits, and they’re just as wobbly. As they develop, a heavy mantle of barred dark gray, taupe, and white feathers emerge. Females retain some of this dark scalloping even as they mature. Males, on the other hand, grow lighter with each molt until, while stoically seated, they resemble a snowman (not the three-perfect-spheres kind you see in cartoons and moviesthe fireplug-shaped ones made by real kids). Their demeanor changes dramatically when they take flight, however, from cuddly stuffed animal to sleek, efficient hunter.  Silent, too. Their primaries—flight feathers along the outer edge of a bird’s wing—look as if my hairstylist sister had textured the edge with her razor, so they don’t slice through the air with the same sharp-edged, audible signature of a hawk or eagle.owl vs hawk feathers

The 2011 breeding season produced a bumper lemming crop and, subsequently, larger owl clutch sizes and owlet survival rates. Biologists suspect this may explain why so many of these normally non-migratory birds have hit the road.  The Owl Research Institute  says the irruption (a sudden, unpredictable mass migration) of 2011-2012 is “unbelievable” and “the most significant wildlife event in decades.”

During my undergraduate days I did an internship at the World Bird Sanctuary, where I had a chance to work with snowy owls and other birds of prey. Sadly, I don’t expect to see any snowies myself this year unless I travel back home to Missouri in the next month or so. I live too far south now, even during an irruption of epic proportions, for snowy owls to darken my door. But if you live or travel in North America anywhere above the Mason-Dixon line (that’s the 39th parallel north for all you non-Southerners), keep your eyes peeled for snowmen perched on telephone poles.

Seeing is believing.

[Want to know if snowy owls are spending the winter near you? Check out this range map from eBird.]

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* The International Ornithological Union (IOU) once considered snowy owls the only member of a unique genus, Nyctea scandiaca, but DNA analysis, published in 2002, revealed they are closely related to the great horned owl and other members of the Bubo clan, so their official name was changed.

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Start your day with a little Next-Door Nature—click the “subscribe”  link in the upper right-hand corner of this page and receive notifications of new posts!
© 2012 Next-Door Nature—no reprints without written permission from the author (I’d love for you to share my work; all you have to do is ask). Thanks to these photographers for making their work available through a Creative Commons license: winnu (identical owls); Pat Gaines (owl in flight); Todd Radenbaugh (owl on telephone pole); Steve Brace (snowy owlet);  BastienM (long-eared owl  feather, public domain); and David DeHetre (hawk feather).