Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Cuban Tody!

Cuban Tody!!

For more than a decade, I’ve been blathering on and on about todies. For a time, if you googled “Most adorable bird in the universe,” the first page you got was from one of my blog posts about the Cuban Tody. It really does live up to those words, but unless you’re an ornithologist or know enough Latin to recognize that todus means a small bird, you would likely have trouble looking up the word tody, because its homophone is in much more common use. I asked my iPhone what a tody is, and Siri said, “Tody means a person who behaves obsequiously to someone important.” When I asked her how to spell tody, she responded, “T-O-A-D-Y.” Every time I write the word tody using Microsoft Word, I’m told I’m misspelling it, and given the suggestions toddy, today, tidy, and toady, spelled the way Siri spells it.

That would be all well and good if I wanted to write about sycophants, but Siri is clearly not a birder. Tody in my world is spelled T-O-D-Y, and refers to a bird family, Todidae, in the order that includes kingfishers and motmots. This family includes just one genus, Todus, that includes five tiny species, all found only in the Greater Antilles, each endemic to one island. There is one tody each on the islands of Cuba, Puerto Rico, and Jamaica, and two on Hispaniola. They all have bright green on the crown, back, and tail, a brilliant red throat, and a pale underside. But unlike hummingbirds, these feathers are soft, the colors rich and shiny but not iridescent.

Each of the five todies has a unique combination of pink, baby blue, and/or yellow on the flanks and under-tail—only the Cuban Tody features all three of those colors, so its scientific name is Todus multicolor

Last look at the Cuban Tody

The head is oversized, the tail very narrow and not very long, and the bill is flattened and rounded at the tip, the lower mandible red. 

Cuban Tody!!

At 4.3 inches in length, the Cuban Tody is 10 percent shorter than our chickadees, but a lot of a chickadee’s length is in its tail, and a lot of a chickadee’s bulk is due to thick body feathers. The tody is all head and body, lives on Cuba where thick insulation is hardly necessary, and again, it’s related to kingfishers, so it’s muscular and rather heavy compared to the chickadee.

I’d never been to the Caribbean until this month, and so my only experiences with todies were reading about them and looking at photos and videos. The real thing was just as spectacular as the photos captured, and even more wonderful because it turns out the Cuban Tody is rather confiding. Our birding group of 13 didn’t faze the little birds at all. 

Cuban Tody!!

They’re busy little guys, sitting in one spot on a branch, usually just about eye level or even below, for several seconds up to a minute or so. Their feet may stay in the same spot, but even while sitting they’re rather animated, looking this way and that searching for insects. When I got one in focus in my camera, holding the shutter release down I’d capture several different poses within a single second. Todies don’t understand photography but they do understand hunger: feeding fairly constantly from morning until night.

Cuban Tody!!

Todies are not flycatchers, and seldom grab an insect in mid-air. According to the British Ornithologists’ Union’s wonderful A Dictionary of Birds, they capture insects and spiders from the undersides of leaves and twigs. “They sit quietly but alertly on twigs or branches, constantly moving their heads and eyes with rapid and jerky movements, and occasionally flick their wings. Typically the bird perches with its bill pointing upwards (at angles up to 45 º), and scans the lower surfaces of leaves above it. On spying an insect the tody flies up to the leaf, snaps its bill audibly, and continues in an unbroken arc to another perch.”

Cuban Tody!!

Todies excavate long, narrow burrows in banks, and road and trailside cuts, to produce their 2-3 eggs. Both parents incubate, but neither spends more than a quarter of its day incubating, and only in short bursts at a time, so it takes 3 weeks or more for the young to hatch. Suddenly the parents make up for their inattentiveness by feeding the nestlings at the highest rates recorded for any bird: up to 140 feedings for each chick every day. If a pair of todies loses their own chicks, they often help their neighbors raise theirs.

James Bond, the ornithologist whose name was appropriated by the birder Ian Fleming for his most famous creation, spent many years in the West Indies. After spending just a week on Cuba, I could appreciate exactly why. As wonderful as I expected the Cuban Tody to be, the anticipation was shadowed by the actual event.

Cuban Tody!!

Monday, October 24, 2016

Of Cuba and Cubs: Sometimes dreams really do come true!

Pip in her Chicago Cubs shirt!
My dog Pip is a Havana silk dog: a breed that originated in Cuba.
She's also a life-long Cubs fan. Of course, being born in 2015, she has
never lived through a year when the Cubs did not make the postseason. 

On Saturday, October 22, 2016, in a single magical double play in the top of the ninth, my life was changed irrevocably. I’d spent my first 64 years and 49 weeks with the baseball team my Grandpa taught me to love while I was still a toddler never having won the World Series, or making it into the World Series. I loved the Cubs passionately despite their never winning, endured the slings and arrows of Twins and Braves fans’ ridicule for lo these many years, and then suddenly, magically, my dear Cubbies, in a decisive shut out, won the pennant. I’d spent all these years optimistically believing they would win it all during my lifetime, and my dreams for the future were at last proven to be substantive, not mere pipe dreams.

Grandpa and me
My Grandpa explained the intricacies of baseball to me when I was
very little. We loved the Cubs! The last two times they won the World
Series, he was 11 and 12. The last time they won the NL Pennant, he was 49,
and I was 6 years away from being born. 
October 2016 turned out to be a life-changing month for me in another way, too, fulfilling another life-long dream. When I was very little, one of my relatives gave my family The Illustrated Home Library Encyclopedia—I think getting a volume a week at the grocery store.

Sometime around my fourth birthday, I decided to teach myself to read with that encyclopedia. I read, or at least looked carefully at, every word in the A volumes, starting with Aardvark, and perhaps understanding one-one thousandth of one percent. Then I started the Bs, and got all the way to B-I-R-D, where I stopped cold. I read that Bird article, which was 9 or 10 pages long, over and over and over. Anyone who looked at our encyclopedia set on the shelf would know someone was fixated on the bird entry—hardly anyone in my family ever opened the encyclopedia at all, and so all the spines were in perfect shape, the gold leaf of the print shiny and newish, except for the B volume, where the gold was worn off and there was a clear crack in the spine. If you pulled the book out of the shelf, it automatically opened to Bird.

That Bird article was where I first read the word Cuba. It said the tiniest bird in the world was “the Bee Hummingbird of Cuba.” Being four years old, I had no idea that Cuba was a place, so I spent a long time searching the trees in my blue collar Chicago suburb neighborhood for that “Bee Hummingbird of Cuba.”

Bee Hummingbird
The Bee Hummingbird of Cuba

I was vaguely aware that Desi Arnaz, along with his alter ego Ricky Ricardo, was from a place called Cuba, and vaguely associated him with the Bee Hummingbird of Cuba without really understanding why. I also knew that President Kennedy sometimes smoked Cuban cigars, and though I wasn’t exactly sure what a cigar was, I aspired to own a box of Cuban cigars, again in part because I somehow associated them with the Bee Hummingbird of Cuba.

A box of Cuban cigars
A box of premium Cuban cigars! (Cubans also put warning labels on them.)

I was 9 years old in April 1961 during the Bay of Pigs invasion, and 10 in October 1962 during the Cuban Missile Crisis. I didn’t understand anything at all about either of those big news stories, and didn’t associate either event with the Bee Hummingbird of Cuba, maybe because the ominous voices on the news were scary—how could anything about the tiniest bird in the world be scary?

Bee Hummingbird
Bee Hummingbird: Not scary!

But somehow by then I had figured out that Cuba was a place that I wanted to go to very badly. Cuba and the Cubs—two words that are 75 percent identical, and two major lifetime dreams that I’m not sure I ever really believed would come true. And this month, after so many years, BOTH dreams came true! I saw my Bee Hummingbirds along with another long dreamed-for bird, the Cuban Tody, AND the Cubs won the NL Pennant!

Cuba: World Champions!
At least half the people who've seen my hat first read it as "Cubs"! 

So the last month that I’ll be 64 turns out to be the first month of a new chapter of my life—the month that proved that dreams do sometimes come true.

Where I went in Cuba

Monday, October 17, 2016

Home from Cuba!

It'll take a while to catch up, but here are just two avian highlights.

Cuban Tody!!
Cuban Tody: Most Adorable Bird in the Universe!
Cuban Tody!!
Bee Hummingbird
Bee Hummingbird: Tiniest Bird in the Universe!

Sunday, September 25, 2016

The First Shall Be Last: West Peruvian Dove

West Peruvian Dove

Before every trip I’ve ever made to a new country, or a new state, a new wildlife refuge, a new garbage dump, or just about any other new place, I’ve always speculated about what the very first bird I’d see would be. I knew my first Peruvian bird would not be an Andean Cock-of-the-rock, a Marvelous Spatuletail, or an Andean Condor. It was equally unlikely to be a toucan or trogon. One of the common hummingbirds wasn’t entirely out of the question, but I arrived in Lima at midnight, spent that night in a hotel right across the street from the airport entrance, and had an early morning flight to northern Peru, so my first bird was obviously going to be an urban species.

Sure enough, the first birds I saw in Peru were on the tarmac at the airport in Lima. They weren’t House Sparrows, Starlings, or Rock Pigeons, the species I most often see at airports, and they also weren’t any of the gulls, though the likely gulls in Lima were species that would have been lifers. No, the very first species I saw in Peru was, appropriately enough, the West Peruvian Dove. I got a quick look before it flew off, so I'm sure that's what I saw—it had a plain back and a distinctive white edge to the wing. A few minutes later we found doves again, and I took some crappy photos through the window as we waited for our flight, but I was thrilled—pictures of my first LIFER in Peru!

Eared Dove

Unfortunately, when I got home and studied the pictures, I could clearly see little dark markings on the back and on the face that made the photographed birds Eared Doves—not a lifer at all! I'd already seen that species in Ecuador in 2006. I'm still certain that the first bird I saw at the airport was a West Peruvian Dove, and I saw plenty more later that day and the next, but am both disappointed that I don't have a photo of my lifer and disconcerted that I misidentified the Eared Doves in my photos.

If I’d gone to Peru any time before 1997, the West Peruvian Dove would not have been a lifer—it used to be considered a population of our own White-winged Dove, which I’d first seen in Texas back in the 70s, and have since seen in Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, Florida, and Kansas, as well as in Mexico, Guatemala, and Costa Rica.

White-winged Dove

The ones in Central America remain in the same species as the White-winged Dove, but those of the Pacific lowlands from southwestern Ecuador south to northern Chile were split into a separate species based on their song, some morphological differences, and mitochondrial DNA. The species is also called the Pacific Dove and, in Peru, the cuculí for its lovely and distinctive song.

Living up to the name, we only saw West Peruvian Doves on our first and second days in Peru, when we were in the lowlands west of the Andes, and our final morning in downtown Lima. Like our White-winged Dove, the West Peruvian Dove has adapted well to urban life, so it was very easy to see right in the city. That final morning, back in Lima after six spectacular and full days of birding, we strolled a quarter mile or so from our downtown hotel to an urban park overlooking the coast. From there, I added nine more lifers—Red-legged Cormorant, Peruvian Pelican, Peruvian Booby, Blackish Oystercatcher, Belcher’s, Gray-hooded, Gray, and Kelp Gulls, and Inca Tern. Those birds were all distant, and it was difficult and frustrating trying to get identifiable photographs of at least some of them in the low morning light. But two other birds, both lifers on our first day—the Scrub Blackbird and West Peruvian Dove—spent the entire time we were there walking about just a few feet from us. I took about 450 photos that morning, but the best ones were of those two nearby birds, and the last bird photos I took in Peru were of that one confiding West Peruvian Dove in downtown Lima.

Scrub Blackbird

West Peruvian Dove

Information about the species is pretty sparse: the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Neotropical Birds website has nothing at all about its behavior or much else except noting that it’s expanding its range south thanks to being so well adapted to agriculture and urbanization, so some individuals are now being reported as far south as Santiago and some have crossed the Andes to northwest Argentina. The authors speculate that this dove may spread in arid zones throughout the southern cone of South America.

Cornell makes it easy for birders and ornithologists to upload information, photos, and recordings about Neotropical birds, as does Wikipedia, but I suspect that most people working or birding in the tropics feel more urgency to focus their attentions in habitats and on species that are more vulnerable. The West Peruvian Dove is common and increasing, so easy to overlook, as even I noticed when I was taking hundreds of pictures of distant lifers but just a handful of the beautiful dove right in front of me—one that had been a lifer just six days before!  Even though I did not pay it the attention it deserved, it stuck around me more than I deserved. I’m very grateful that the beautiful little dove that was my first Peruvian bird was also my last.

West Peruvian Dove

Alimentary, My Dear Hoatzin!


One of the most peculiar of all the birds in the world is also one of the coolest. The pheasant-sized Hoatzin, a bird of the swamps, riparian forests, and mangroves of the Amazon and the Orinoco Delta in South America, is the only species in the family Opisthocomidae, named for the Greek, “Wearing long hair behind,” referring to the long feathers that form its funky, loose crest.


But where this unique family falls in relation to other birds is still disputed. Right now, the checklist the Cornell Lab of Ornithology uses places it in the order with cuckoos and roadrunners, but all kinds of factors, including DNA, keep this under dispute. Some taxonomists place it as the only member of a unique order, but even they aren’t sure where to place that order in relation to other orders. It may be somewhat related to those cuckoos, or to cranes, or to shorebirds, or to doves. The more evidence we gather about Hoatzins, the more it contradicts evidence we already had, and the more confused ornithologists grow.

Hoatzins are unique in several ways. Unlike virtually all birds, they efficiently digest leaves, which comprise over 80 percent of their total diet. Leaves are far more difficult to digest than just about anything, including fruits and seeds, thanks to the cell walls that distinguish leafy plant cells from animal cells.

Cell walls make leaves, by their very nature, harder to digest than fruits or, once you get through the outer coating or shell, seeds, or any part of animals. Mammals that digest grasses or other leaves have specializations. Those rodents that feed on grasses have special grinding molars; larger mammals that feed on this plant matter digest it through fermentation. Ruminants such as cows, sheep, goats, deer, and giraffes do this in their foregut, continually regurgitating portions of food called cud that they chew all over again. Ruminants have a four-chambered stomach. Hippopotamuses have a three-chambered stomach. Horses, rabbits, and rhinoceroses have a single-chambered stomach, but an enlarged and well-developed cecum—an offshoot of the intestines—where fermentation digests the cellulose. Then the food returns to the intestines to be digested all over again.

To allow flight, birds require a light digestive system both in terms of their internal digestive equipment and in terms of passing all indigestible food out of their systems as quickly as possible. Only a very few birds, such as turkeys, chickens, and grouse, have well-developed caeca where fermentation of leafy matter or woody buds takes place, and these birds have large bodies and fairly limited, short-distance flight. Nighthawks and their relatives also have well-developed ceca to help them digest the chitin in insect exoskeletons, but most of the insect matter they eat is more digestible. The anaerobic bacteria in any bird caeca make droppings that include caecal wastes extremely smelly.

Geese feed on grass as well as all manner of more easily digested plant and animal material. But they aren’t specialized for digesting grass, so most of it goes in one end and comes out the other, which is why goose droppings are so very noticeable wherever geese are found. People don’t realize how lucky we are that geese aren’t specialized for digesting all that grass, or those copious, slippery droppings would also be horrifically smelly.

Canada Goose
Baby geese can already digest some leaves, but eat more high-protein bugs at first.

Unlike all other birds, Hoatzins are specialized for digesting leaves in their foregut by fermentation, in a way fairly similar to that of mammalian ruminants. Instead of a multi-chambered stomach, Hoatzins have an unusually large crop, folded in two chambers, and a large, multi-chambered lower oesophagus. Their stomach chamber and gizzard are much smaller than in other birds, but their crop is so large that it displaces the flight muscles and keel of the sternum, making them extremely poor fliers. Fermentation in that oversized crop is smelly, giving Hoatzins their nickname, the stinkbird.

When I was working on my ill-fated Ph.D. studying nighthawk digestion, I took an avian physiology class in the University of Minnesota’s College of Veterinary Medicine taught by one of the world authorities in avian digestion, Gary Duke. Our midterm included a few essay questions, one about bird digestion. In a bolt of whimsy, I titled my answer, “Alimentary, my dear Hoatzin,” which tickled Gary’s fancy, so he gave me extra credit, making the Hoatzin even dearer to my heart.

If their digestive system weren’t enough to make Hoatzins exceptional, they are famous for the two claws that young birds sport on each wing. These well-developed claws help the awkward youngsters scramble through trees until they get more coordinated. The claws atrophy and disappear as the young birds mature.

In the tropics, most slow-flying birds the size of Hoatzins are endangered thanks to excessive hunting, but Hoatzins have a longstanding reputation for having bad-tasting meat due to the offensive odor of their digestive system. They also benefit from living in such wet habitat—deforestation in their range occurs in upland forests that can support heavy logging equipment, not the wetlands along the Amazon and its tributaries. So unlike many tropical birds in their range, Hoatzin numbers remain fairly strong.

Before this month, I’d seen Hoatzins three times, all in the area around Sacha Lodge in eastern Ecuador along the Rio Napo, back in February 2006. Hoatzins concentrate in the vegetation overhanging rivers, so we saw them only from boats. The huge birds stayed within the foliage, and in the unsteady boats, my only photos turned out to be exceptionally poor.

An awful photo of my lifer Hoatzin in Ecuador, near Sacha Lodge.

I was extremely hopeful about seeing Hoatzins in Peru, but we didn’t get out into any rivers by boat, and were only in Amazonia for one day, at the very end of the long dry season. Everywhere we were, the water levels were so low that the shorelines had retreated far from the vegetation. A half-hour before sunset on our final day, as we rode in our bus back to our lodge after our final birding spot, our guide explained why we hadn’t seen them on this trip. We were of course disappointed, but I was still basking in the thrill of having seen a Marvelous Spatuletail and one species we hadn’t expected but that I’d desperately wanted to see, the Andean Cock-of-the-rock. I reminded myself that it wasn't like the Hoatzin would have been a lifer. We were talking about how tricky birder expectations are when one birder glancing out the window saw not just one but a whole flock of Hoatzins! 

This was a narrow two-lane road, but our driver managed to turn the bus around and we piled out. And in the subdued lighting just before our final sunset in Peru, there they were—at least 20 Hoatzins who didn’t seem to mind getting their photos taken at all! What a magical way to end the final evening of a magical trip.

The Founder of the Feast



Monday, September 19, 2016

Peru! Traveling to Fight Climate Change

White-chinned Sapphire

Every year, two million people from around the world head to Peru specifically to visit Machu Picchu. Some of them want to see South American wildlife and enjoy a wonderful experience at one of the genuine wonders of the world, but their visits don’t require protection of anything outside of this area. Indeed, the sheer magnitude of them has required a lot of development of the area.

Andean Cock-of-the-rock

Meanwhile, every year barely three thousand people from around the world head to Peru specifically to see its amazing wildlife. This surprises me, because Peru, a little smaller than Alaska and not quite twice the size of Texas, is home to such astonishingly magnificent biodiversity. At current count, 1,824 bird species are found in Peru, almost double the number seen in all of North America north of the Mexican border! And some of those birds of Peru are wondrously amazing, including the national bird—the Andean Cock-of-the-rock—and the mind-boggling array of 123 different species of hummingbirds, including the Fiery Topaz and the Marvelous Spatuletail. I was shocked to learn that the number of people visiting Peru to see an archeological site is three orders of magnitude larger than the number who visit Peru to see this amazing biological wealth.

Golden-tailed Sapphire

Many people concerned about climate change of course see the relatively small number of birders visiting Peru as a good thing: airplane travel accounts for about 4–9 percent of the total climate change impact of human activity. For them, the fewer people flying to Peru, or any other place, the better.

It’s absolutely true that climate change is the hugest issue facing humans right now, and the birds that we treasure as well. The trick is that as serious as airplane travel is in the overall picture, tropical deforestation is at least equally critical, contributing at least 10 percent of the total climate change impact. And agricultural byproducts, especially from beef production, contribute over 12 percent.

My favorite cow

We talk about how horrible deforestation and large-scale cattle production are in the abstract without coming up with specific alternatives. People struggling to get by and just feed their families in impoverished counties often have no alternative but to lease or sell their land for logging and then for large-scale cattle or sun-grown coffee production until the soil is depleted. And the soils of tropical rainforests and cloud forests are singularly devoid of nutrients, which are locked up in the vegetation. When the forest is cut, the loss of vegetative-driven humidity in combination with the low-nutrient soils make regeneration slow—it can take centuries to replace a cut cloud forest, and many scores of years for even sparse ground cover to take over.

Meanwhile, local climate change effects due to the loss of the carbon-sucking, humidity-enhancing forest are exacerbated by patches of bare ground. Loss of relatively small amounts of rain or cloud forest leads to bigger losses in rainfall and cloud cover over a more widespread area, leading to more plant and wildlife deaths in a horrifying spiral. Many people don’t realize that the overall rainfall and cloud cover patterns in tropical forests are not mostly due to typical weather systems but are a self-generating set of local conditions because of the forest vegetation itself. When a tropical forest is cut down, climate change is exacerbated by more than the loss of carbon-sucking vegetation.

Katie on suspension bridge
The Monteverde Cloud Forest of Costa Rica, which I visited with my daughter Katie in 2001, grows increasingly less cloudy as more and more landowners cut down their own forests. It's the trees themselves that create this cloud cover.
Right now, poor people in the Peruvian countryside make what little money they can by logging and agriculture. Some wise, forward-thinking Peruvians have worked tirelessly to try to persuade them to feed their families with money earned from hummingbird feeding stations and other ecotourism ventures that protect rather than cut down the forests.

Some environmentalists think it’s mere selfishness for birders to want to conserve species for their own sakes in the face of the massive destruction climate change promises, but protecting cloud and rain forests is an essential component in the fight against climate change. And the only way to do that is to give the landowners alternative ways of making a living without logging. Some kinds of ecotourism really do that.

Marvelous Spatuletail

Several landowners in northern Peru have started promoting conservation just in the past couple of years, since they discovered that they can get more money, now and into the future, by letting birders see rare hummingbirds on their property than they can earn by logging their land. Now they take pride in getting more and more hummingbirds at their feeding stations,. Their hummingbird numbers are directly related to the quality of diversity in nearby forested land as well as their own property. So they are not only protecting their own land but also encouraging their neighbors to preserve their land, too—a win for birds and biodiversity, a win for birders, a win in the fight against climate change, and a win for the planet.

Long-tailed Sylph

The government-sponsored fam tour I was on this month was led by the co-founder of a fantastic small Peruvian company called GreenTours—their mission is embodied in their true commitment to their social and environmental responsibilities. They compensate for their own CO2 footprint via a conservation project of the Tambopata National Reserve, and are certified by the Green Initiative to be a carbon neutral company. The lodges and hotels where we stayed on our trip had softer impacts on the environment that the huge 5-star resorts near Machu Picchu. Genuine eco-tourism is an entirely different thing than tourism in general.

Rufous-crested Coquette

Ecotourism specifically by birders supports the people who are directly preserving quality cloud and rainforest habitat, which has an even greater impact in the climate change equation than air travel does. So visiting Peru to see its birds, even for purely selfish reasons, may be much more important for fighting climate change than sitting home.

Of course, those of us who understand some of the complexities know that even with respect to deforestation, travel is still a huge driver of climate change. To compensate for my own trip to Peru, I made a contribution to the Rainforest Trust, to ensure that the fuel burned by the airplanes and other vehicles transporting me around would be offset by reforestation to absorb that much carbon. But I feel good that the individuals who are protecting their land so that I and other birders can see those Marvelous Spatuletails and Emerald-bellied Pufflegs, Sparkling Violetears and Sword-billed Hummingbirds, have prospects of earning an income long into the future not by cutting down their forests, but by protecting them.

Emerald-bellied Puffleg