Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Wednesday, April 14, 2021

Hand Feeding

Mark Roser's Tufted Titmouse "Wink." © 2021 by Mark Roser

A couple of weeks ago, a podcast listener named Mark Roser, who is working on a small guide to hand feeding birds, wrote to me, attaching an adorable photo of a Tufted Titmouse he calls Wink because the little bird has what looks like an extra eye patch on one side. Mark writes:  

Tufted Titmice are gems.  When hand feeding with me, they much prefer to lurk 10 feet away and wait for a chickadee to push a nut out of the hand and onto the ground, so they can swoop in and out quickly.  :)   Wink is a funny guy - he will approach me and wait 3 feet away, and then pause to reflect on whether the nuts he sees are worth the awkwardness of jumping closer to a human hand.  But that goes out the window as soon as another bird also lands nearby, at which point he jumps right in because his competitive spirit would not want to take 2nd place to anyone else :)   

When we hand feed birds or watch them closely at a window feeder, we get close enough that we can’t help but notice how individual each bird is, expanding our understanding of avian intelligence as well, as we realize that these little guys are guided by a heck of a lot more than the simple, almost robotic instincts some people once believed.   

This week I got an anonymous comment on a blogpost from 2013 that I’d titled “Chickadee Day.” They wrote:  

I loved reading this. I recently put up a bird feeder and a bird bath right outside the window of my home office and have been getting tremendous enjoyment watching a variety of birds each day. But none have captivated my heart as much as a little Chickadee that has starting landing on my window and tapping at it over the past few days! This same little fellow also likes to sit on top of the bird feeder pole and watch me. How utterly endearing! Thank you for writing about them and sharing that one has done the same at your home. Do you have any tips on how to get them to eat from your hand? I see you mentioned mealworms - I will definitely buy some of those but would love any tips on how to encourage hand feeding. Thank you!  

Black-capped Chickadee peeking in my window waiting for mealworms 

Even as some of our birds learn to associate us with keeping the feeders full, they're usually still reluctant to come to our hands—that seems risky, and why take that risk when plenty of food is available in feeders? I did have plenty of feeders out when I first started hand-feeding, but the only place I offered live mealworms was in my small home office window feeder, and because starlings could make short work of them, I only put out a few, and only when I noticed the chickadees were about. I’d whistle the chickadee song as I cranked open the window each time. This was in winter, and even with plenty of sunflower seeds and suet, live mealworms were especially delectable, so within a few days a whole flock of chickadees would fly in the moment they heard the whistle. And then one day, during a blizzard, the moment my mealworm-laden hand emerged from the window, a chickadee who was either exceptionally bold, impatient, hungry, or all three flew straight to my hand, grabbed a mealworm, and flew off. The next time I filled the feeder, a couple of chickadees grabbed their mealworms straight from my hand before I could fill the feeder, and soon the whole flock was coming to my hand all the time.   

I can’t wait to see what Mark Roser writes about hand feeding. Meanwhile, this year I’m whistling to get the chickadees to come to the feeder for mealworms so I can be holding Walter up to the window to watch them come and go. As rich as my delight when chickadees alight on my hand and look into my eyes, watching Walter’s eyes light up to see them so close is even richer. 

Handfeeding mealworms to a Black-capped Chickadee

Tuesday, April 13, 2021

April Update

Brown Creeper

After more than a year of social distancing and being extremely careful to avoid Covid-19, I’ve been going a little stir-crazy. We had a crazy influx of Pine Siskins last fall, along with a nice smattering of White-winged Crossbills and redpolls, but they were just moving through. The big winter invasion happened in a lot of places other than Duluth, and I've seen virtually no finches here at all in 2021. But finally, now that we’re in April, birds, including finches, are starting to appear, every day in bigger and bigger numbers. On Saturday, one lone female redpoll showed up, feeding on the ground with juncos, and on Sunday, I had one lone male Purple Finch. Even better, on Wednesday April 7, a handful of Evening Grosbeaks turned up and stuck around the next day, too, even occasionally visiting the window feeder. Those two days, we had rain and powerful east winds, which blow directly into my east-facing home office window, so my photos are pretty marginal and mostly through rain-spattered glass, but I did get a nice 8-minute sound recording.  

Evening Grosbeak

Evening Grosbeak through a rain-spattered window

Considering how huge our Fox Sparrow migration was this past fall, I haven’t had many Fox Sparrows yet—the most so far being just four on a couple of days. But even just one male Fox Sparrow sounds wonderfully lovely. I’m back setting my good sound recorder in the yard when it isn’t raining or too windy, and I got a lovely recording on April 10 filled with Fox Sparrow song.  I had a Song Sparrow briefly on the 10th, and 2 or 3 American Tree Sparrows each day since the 8th, but other than that, the only sparrows I’ve had were juncos. A small flock wintered in my neighborhood, and on lucky days I’d see anywhere from one to eight, but starting on April 6, they’ve clearly been migrating. That day I got 15, and day by day the flock has been building until on Sunday I had 50. 

I had a single loon fly over on the 5th and the 6th. Loons work their way to Lake Superior and other large lakes little by little as ice goes out. Each morning they make exploratory flights carrying them closer to their breeding lake. If they don’t find open water, they simply head back to the open water where they spent the night. This way, they notice that their breeding lake is open the very morning the ice goes out. Temps have been in the 40s so I don’t usually have my window open and it’s too cold outside to be spending the day in the yard with my 7-month-old Walter, so I’m not seeing many migrating hawks or eagles, though they’ve been going through in good numbers. As of Sunday, April 11, Frank Nicoletti, Erik Bruhnke, and others have counted over 3,200 Bald Eagles and 1,400 Red-tailed hawks passing over their West Skyline Hawk Count area this spring. 

The Hawk Ridge counters have tallied almost 3,000 American Robins so far—the males on my corner of Peabody Street are back bickering over their territorial boundaries again. The females will return in a week or so, and what with all the rain we’ve had there will be an excellent supply of mud for nest construction. 

Other early migrants that are appearing both in my yard and all over north country include Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers, Northern Flickers, Brown Creepers, Ruby- and Golden-crowned Kinglets, and Yellow-rumped Warblers. 

Brown Creeper

My cardinals are singing every morning now, chickadees are courting, and a Red-breasted Nuthatch pair seem to be nesting somewhere near. My White-breasted Nuthatches had been courting great guns in one of my old box elders, but apparently a pair of starlings booted them out. I have very few starlings, but even just one pair wreaks havoc on the lives of my cavity nesters. 

And that’s my early April report. As soon as this rainy period ends, I’ll put out jelly for the first thrashers and catbirds—one Brown Thrasher has already turned up elsewhere in Duluth, and I sure want to welcome my own back. Through the rest of April and all of May, migration will be hopping, and if I have to spend just about every day at home, I want to make the most of it. I’ll be posting photos and recordings on my blog. Meanwhile, I hope you can be enjoying birds wherever you find yourself this spring. Stay safe and well. 

Dark-eyed Junco

Monday, April 12, 2021

Almost a Chickadee Nest

Black-capped Chickadees nesting in yard
My pair of chickadees excavating a cavity in our dead cherry tree. Notice how they both excavate, and both guard the nest when an American Tree Sparrow alights in the tree. 

Saturday morning when I was looking out my home office window, I saw movement in Russ’s old, quite-dead cherry tree, so I grabbed my binoculars. A chickadee was excavating a hole, and the moment it flew away carrying wood chips, another chickadee flew in. The two of them worked at it while I watched and took photos and videos, both from my window and then much closer in the yard. These two chickadees know me—they come to my whistle when I put mealworms in my feeder—and they kept working away, taking turns, while I watched. 

Black-capped Chickadees nesting in yard

That dead tree is pretty much riddled with holes, but I’ve not noticed any birds ever actually nesting in it. Unfortunately for my chickadees, just three or four inches below the hole they were working on was another hole bored into the center of the tree. Suddenly I realized that when they hollowed out their cavity down to that level, which they of course would because they construct their nest several inches beneath the entrance hole, they’d come to that big opening and move on to nest elsewhere.  

Russ and I decided to cover up the lower hole in hopes that when they dug through to that level, they’d keep going. So he got a chunk of bark and duct-taped it to the tree. 

Black-capped Chickadees nesting in yard

He worked expeditiously while the birds were nearby, and when he walked away, they seemed suspicious of the change for at least a half a minute, but then got back to work, keeping at it all day, until their whole bodies could fit inside, and then until less than half of the tail stuck out the hole as they worked and backed out again. It was fun watching them take turns at this. 


This was the classic example of counting your eggs before they hatch or, in this case, before the nest is even constructed. I was figuring it might take another day for them to finish excavating the cavity exactly as they wanted it, and then the female would start constructing the actual nest—unlike woodpeckers and Wood Ducks, chickadees construct a lovely woven nest at the floor of their nest cavity. The male may not help with nest construction, but he plays an important role bringing food to her so she can stay focused on finding soft materials and building. She may need anywhere from 2 days to 2 weeks to finish; she'll start laying eggs a day or two after that. She usually lays 1 egg per day until the clutch of 6–9 eggs is complete. 

During egg laying, she may fuss a bit over the nest, adding material, and both the male and female will guard the nest, but she won’t start sitting on them until the next-to-last egg is laid. She incubates usually for 20–25 minute bouts, sometimes as short as 6 minutes and sometimes as long as 60 minutes, and is off the nest an average of 7–8 minutes between, but sometimes returns after just 2 minutes and sometimes stays away up to 23 minutes. During cold spells she stays on the nest longer than average. 

Incubation lasts 12–13 days, with the full clutch hatching out within about 12–30 hours, usually in the order they were laid. Parents carry away the eggshells to eat or drop some distance from the nest.

The mother broods the young chicks while the male feeds the whole family. The babies start peeking out the entrance hole 12 or 13 days after hatching. If frightened, they may fledge as early as 12 days after hatching, but if left undisturbed, not until day 16—the longer they remain in the nest, the higher their chances of survival. 

So I was counting on at least 40 days of nest watching, bringing me chickadee joy well into late May or even June, but on Sunday morning, the chickadees didn’t come to the tree at all. I figured they must have reached that lower hole and the sudden widening troubled them and they decided to find a safer place. But then they showed up a little before noon, working in short bouts. It was rainy, so that may have changed their focus for the day.

I won't be sure they're using or not using the cavity for a few days at least. If they do move to another site, I'll try to figure out where. Meanwhile, they keep talking to me and coming to my window for mealworms. Who could ask for more?


Sunday, April 11, 2021

Salmonella Outbreak

Pine Siskin

Last week, the New York Times reported that salmonella outbreaks related to bird feeding have sickened 19 Americans between 2 months and 89 years old; 8 have been hospitalized. These cases have been reported in Washington, Oregon, California, Oklahoma, New Hampshire, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Mississippi. Dogs picking up sick birds have also gotten sick. The main birds appearing at these feeders are finches, especially Pine Siskins. 

Birds get salmonella at feeders every year, but this is the first I’ve read of people getting sick, too. I probably should have expected it. Beginning late last summer, there’s been a huge movement of finches, many to areas with far milder winters than here in Minnesota and Wisconsin, and many to areas these finches don't usually visit. A lot of people would naturally be unfamiliar with such huge flocks of birds and would never have heard the annual warnings about keeping feeders clean. 

Common Redpolls at my window feeder
Common Redpolls and other finches crowd together in feeders and on the ground below.

Pine Siskins winter in California every year, but this year’s numbers are much larger than usual. And because of the pandemic, more people have been paying attention to backyard birds and starting up bird feeding stations—again, novices who are unlikely to have learned the basic principles of feeder sanitation. 

Almost every year since we moved to Duluth in 1981 (except this one, so far), we’ve had a surge of redpolls and other winter finches as the snow starts to recede in late March and early April. Winter finches are flocking species that feed and roost in very close proximity, and also are ground feeders, many eating on the ground as others eat above them in the feeders. This lifestyle usually works just fine, but not when that seed on the ground gets moldy or contaminated by pet, rodent, and wildlife droppings. 

Educated humans understand the importance of protecting our food supply at all levels of food production from farm to kitchen. But in our backyards, thanks to dogs, squirrels, rabbits, mice, deer, and all the other mammals and birds that wander through, seed on the ground can easily be contaminated with salmonella, E. coli, and other pathogens—this is why it’s important to keep the ground beneath feeders kept tidy. When quail, doves, sparrows, finches, and other ground-feeding birds are visiting, it’s critical to offer only small amounts that will be consumed that day—that prevents seed from getting moldy, plus any leftovers attract the rodents whose droppings are implicated in many salmonella outbreaks for humans as well as birds. 

Common Redpolls and Pine Siskins

Thanks to the current pandemic, we humans have figured out how important social distancing is when there are disease organisms about. Indeed, with mask-wearing and social distancing, the number of cold and flu cases this year are way, way down. But tragically, we haven’t been able to convey these important public health concepts to birds. 

Here in Duluth, every year I hear of a few cases of sick birds, and I explain to people why it’s important to keep the ground beneath feeders clean. When a sick bird does show up, it’s important to close down the feeder until the bulk of the finches move on in hopes that the larger flocks will break into smaller groups. And then thoroughly clean the feeders before setting them out again. Except for one time when I saw a sick redpoll, I just use a stiff brush and hard spray of water to clean my feeders a few times a year. I clean my bird baths every two or three days because I also want to keep mosquitoes from breeding in them.

To prevent further cases of salmonella, the C.D.C. recommends cleaning bird feeders and bird baths at least once a week or when they are dirty. They recommend that people avoid feeding wild birds with their bare hands, and that they wash their hands with soap and water after touching a bird feeder or bath, or after handling a bird. I’ve never worn gloves to deal with my feeders or birdbaths, and not when I hand-feed chickadees either, but I am careful about hand washing. All the public service announcements about hand washing when COVID-19 first hit reinforced that. 

Now I’m hearing people say how dirty birds are, when birds are getting sick because our feeding stations are dirty. We Americans expect the restaurants we visit to meet public health standards, and expect that when invited to a friend’s for dinner, they’re using good hygiene, too. How can we judge birds harshly for expecting the same? 

American Goldfinch


Monday, April 5, 2021

First Robin of Spring!!

Robin at bird bath

Last year, 2020, was a bad year no matter how you look at it. The pandemic started making birders stay close to home starting in late February or March, but I’d had to start that on January 3 when I had a heart attack. By March, I was getting terribly restless and anxious for spring migration to kick in. And fortunately, many birds obliged. My first robin showed up on March 16, singing away, and within a day or two, others were singing here, too.  

This year, I saw and heard my first robin on March 17, just a day later than last year, but this time around, I didn't hear a single song. He made some cranky vocalizations at mid-morning, and that was the last I saw of him. I didn’t hear one singing this year at all in March, which was disappointing enough, but my friend Erik Bruhnke’s had one singing in his yard, less than three miles away, for a couple of weeks. And when he told me about it, he didn’t just say it was singing—he said it was caroling, evoking enough loveliness to stir envy.  

But finally, on April 2, a couple of robins were calling from tall trees in my yard, and come morning on the 3rd, one was singing away. I set out a couple of my bird baths on Saturday, and a male was soon drinking and bathing away.   

Robin at bird bath

Robins have been an essential part of my life for as long as I can remember. I could see them in my grandpa’s yard in Chicago, and when we moved to a little working-class suburb in 1956, they were an everyday presence from spring through fall—running on our lawn, calling from shrubs and trees, and singing from our elms and maple trees. I didn’t necessarily recognize their song the way I did the cardinal’s song, I think because I taught myself to whistle an imitation of the cardinal’s song but the robin’s was just too complex for a child or, indeed, any mere human to do a credible job. Every now and then I run into a person who says he can do a great robin song, but it’s always a pale imitation of the real thing. The larynx in birds is vestigial—just a slight thickening in the trachea without any muscles to produce sound. They have a far more advanced vocal apparatus called a syrinx, located where the trachea bifurcates into the bronchial tubes. Those three branches provide three sites for sets of muscles that can be controlled independently to produce harmonies with the bird’s own voice.   


  

Except for gasps and a very few other sounds, all our human vocalizations—talking, humming, whistling, our own imitations of bird song, etc.—are produced as we exhale. Birds can use and control their syrinx as they breathe both in and out, not needing to pause for breath as they sing.  

The robin song sounds like long sentences composed of 2- and 3-syllable words. And it has lovely overtones that we don’t necessarily notice but that enrich the sound. I had never thought about those overtones, and so as my high-frequency hearing diminished, I didn’t realize I was missing them until I got hearing aids in 2015. Suddenly robin songs were SO much more beautiful again—just the way I’d been hearing them as a child and young adult.   

One of the mercies of our fading senses as we age is that it’s such a gradual process that we don’t usually notice what we’re missing. But just as my eyes suddenly were seeing vivid colors untinged with dingy browns and yellows after my cataract surgery, so my ears were hearing vivid robin song, with those rich high-frequency overtones, when I got my hearing aids. 

The first arriving male robins sing every morning once they settle in on their territory, but the songs won’t be very persistent, going on for hours, until the bulk of male robins are passing through and females are arriving. That is already happening south of here, and will begin here  in a week or so.   

I like knowing something of the biology and natural history of bird song, but I don’t know of a scientific explanation for what happens in my heart when I hear that first robin song of spring. This is the 70th spring I’ve been on this planet, and somehow that most ordinary, predictable, everyday sound that I’ve heard every one of those 70 springs—a sound you can still hear in big cities, in genuine wilderness, and many habitats in between, still has the power to enthrall. 

American Robin

Sunday, March 28, 2021

Tuesday, March 23, 2021

Florida: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, Part 2

Manatee at Sea World, 2005
Manatees at Sea World in Orlando, 2005

One of my favorite mammals on the planet is the manatee. Some of my best photos are of captive manatees at Sea World, but there are places where they’re pretty easy to see in the wild, too. I love watching these gentle giants, looking rather like swimming, oversized potatoes, even as seeing them virtually always breaks my heart. Just about every manatee I’ve ever had a good look at bore scars on its back from motorboats. 

Manatee
Manatee munching on algal slime on the breakwall at the Visitor Center at Flamingo in Everglades National Park in 2018. 

This winter has seen a major die-off of manatees, especially in the Indian River Lagoon where they seek warmer waters during cold spells. Many of the necropsies showed the animals were badly emaciated, almost certainly caused by the dearth of seagrass in the lagoon, due to runoff of agricultural and lawn chemicals. (See National Geographic news here.) 

Manatee at Merritt Island NWR

Florida’s sugar trade has exacted a shockingly heavy toll on the Everglades. Agriculture in general along with development for both the tourist trade and the housing explosion for retirees have wiped out a great deal of the natural beauty that makes Florida unique. I’ve usually driven to Florida, but have flown often enough to have noticed how, every trip, even more of the landscape has been scarred with highways and housing and farmland. From a jet, it’s impossible to look down on what should be vast, untrammeled Everglades or vast scrubland without seeing roads and housing and irrigation patterns. 

Despite its wealth of species unique in America, Florida has squandered much of its natural heritage as if it were infinite. They’ve not only damaged the vast majority of the fragile coastline and inland scrub habitat to development and pollution. They’ve also allowed the introduction of incredible numbers of invasive plants and animals that have exacted their own toll on Florida's unique native wildlife. A lot of news attention has been focused on two of those invasive non-native species. 

Green Iguana

In recent years when cold nights are predicted, areas of the state actually issue warnings about falling green iguanas. Huge, beautiful, plant eating iguanas, native to Central and South America, Mexico, and a few islands in the Caribbean, have escaped to the wilds of Florida via the pet trade. Resort owners have been distressed about iguanas because they feed voraciously on expensive ornamental plants and then, during cold snaps when their cold-blooded bodies can’t function, they drop out of trees, putting any tourists below at risk. Ecologists are more focused on the already-endangered plants and tree snails the iguanas consume.

The other invasive species getting media attention is the Burmese python, another escapee from the pet trade. Pythons have decimated muskrats, raccoons, and swamp rabbits in the Everglades—one study showed that 77 percent of the swamp rabbits released with radio transmitters into the Everglades were killed by pythons. 

Swamp rabbit

These snakes also take out a huge number of wading bird eggs and nestlings every year now. In 2019, I got my first videos of adorable nestling Anhingas studying the world around them. I can’t watch them without shuddering to realize how many baby Anhingas and other colonial nesters see as their last glimpse of the world the huge maw of a python closing in.  

Anhinga chick

Anhinga chick preening, loafing, and moving about.

The first recorded python in the Everglades was caught near Everglades Safari Park on the Tamiani Trail in October 1979. More and more were being seen and reported in the park in the 1990s, but the Florida state Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission insisted they weren’t an ecological threat until 2000, when their first acknowledgement of the threat came with their admission that the python population was entirely out of control. 

Now, two full decades after that, the Florida state Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission is FINALLY closing the barn door, after all the animals have escaped. They voted 7 to 0 to ban possession and breeding of both the iguana and the python along with 14 other nonnative species. The ban will be phased in over three years to give businesses time to get rid of their breeding stock; it does not require a roundup of pets, whose owners can keep them for as long as the animals live, just not replace them.  

The law clearly cannot do anything about all the pythons already in the Everglades and is obviously something that should have been done decades ago, but it’s a start. It’s sad and frustrating to have spent my entire adult life watching people make starts like this, and then moving on and forgetting all about them, allowing ignorance and selfishness to whittle away at what little progress we make in protecting the environment. I have at the very most 2 or 3 decades remaining in my own lifespan, and can already feel myself slowing down a bit even as I’m feeling ever more desperate to do something about the world I’m bequeathing my children and grandchild.  

Ironically, the people of my generation most focused on the inheritance they’re leaving their children and grandchildren seem to understand how monetary capital grows even as they’re perfectly willing to chip away at our natural resource capital. If Florida Scrub-Jays and Wood Storks and Anhingas were assigned a monetary value, the diminished numbers of those living today versus when we were born could possibly open people’s eyes to how much we’ve squandered our own inheritance as well as that of future generations. If ignorance is bliss, we belong to the happiest of species. 

Green Iguana

Monday, March 22, 2021

Florida the Magnificent

Florida Scrub-Jay

My older son lives in Florida, so Russ and I have been making regular trips there for two decades. If I had one favorite bird there, it would be the endemic Florida Scrub-Jay, a species not found anywhere on the planet outside of Florida, but there are so many other favorites that I could never compile a top-ten list. I mean, Roseate Spoonbills! 

Roseate Spoonbill

Wood Storks! 

Wood Stork

Purple Gallinules!  

Purple Gallinule

Anhingas! 

Anhinga

Limpkins! 

Limpkin adult with chick

Mangrove Cuckoos in spring and summer! 

Mangrove Cuckoo

Northern Gannets in winter! 

Northern Gannet

The Great White Heron—either a unique Everglades form of our familiar Great Blue Heron or a different species depending on which evolutionary biologist you talk to, but a cool bird nonetheless. 

Great White Heron

Parula Warblers in Florida nest in Spanish moss—those here in Minnesota nest in the sort-of-similar-looking but entirely unrelated “old man’s beard” lichens. 

Northern Parula

Those all sprung to mind instantly, before I even started to think about stunning Yellow-throated Warblers, Prairie Warblers, Red-cockaded Woodpeckers, Bachman’s Sparrows, Least Bitterns, Reddish Egrets, Loggerhead Shrikes, Boat-tailed Grackles. And oh, gosh—Swallow-tailed Kites!  

Swallow-tailed Kite

Florida’s birds are far from their only natural features so entirely different from what we experience in the Upper Midwest. Alligators are always thrilling to see, somehow even more so when we get to hear adult males bellowing. 

American Alligator

I’ve seen American crocodiles in Costa Rica and, in 2019, in Panama, and over the years, have seen with yearning warning signs about crocodiles down in the Everglades, but never had seen a wild alive crocodile in Florida until Russ and I were down in Flamingo at the southern end of Everglades National Park in 2018. This endangered species of coasts, mangrove swamps, and brackish lakes is adapted to high salinity, unlike its alligator cousin. 

Crocodile at Flamingo in the Florida Everglades

Everywhere you go in Florida, there are reptiles—lizards and geckos and snakes abound. The only water moccasin I’ve seen in Florida was basking on a rock near the Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disney World, but I heard rattlesnakes when I was walking along the Snake Bight Trail in the Everglades. The trail name isn’t spelled “b-i-t-e” but “b-i-g-h-t,” referring to a bay within a larger bay—the bay called Snake Bight is within Florida Bay. Actually, it was at least two different rattlesnakes I heard lurking in the leaf litter when I was hiking alone there in November 1988, plenty enough to make me stay carefully on the trail and keep my eyes directed to the ground around and ahead of me. On the way back, I came upon a huge alligator hunkering down completely blocking the trail. I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t want to step off the trail into that leaf litter to begin with, plus I didn’t know which end of the alligator would be the safer one to pass—the end with all the teeth or the end with the powerful tail capable of not just knocking a person over but breaking their legs on the way down. I knew Russ and the kids were waiting for me in the car on the road still a half mile ahead of me, and when I finally grew desperate, I tossed a few little stones on the alligator’s back. It lifted up on those squat legs and finally sauntered away.

Memorable as that experience was, something even more memorable happened on that walk along the Snake Bight Trail: I saw my lifer Mangrove Cuckoo! It was perched, holding stock still along a large limb. Because I was mostly looking down making sure there weren't snakes underfoot, I’d never have noticed it at all except that a flock of Blue-gray Gnatcatchers was mobbing it, scolding insistently. Even then, the cuckoo held so still that I wouldn’t have believed my eyes had I not clearly seen it blink a couple of times. 

I’ve had too many wonderful birding experiences in Florida to even begin to recount them. That 1988 Snake Bight Trail adventure happened long before I was photographing birds, but since 2005, I’ve been photographing and sometimes videorecording a lot of the creatures I’ve seen. Seeing Florida so often these past three decades has been both wonderful and heartbreaking. Next time: the dark side of Florida.

Mangrove Cuckoo

Sunday, March 21, 2021

Bird Envy

Ring-billed Gull

Ever since I learned about birds in college, I’ve been envious of their superior bodies. As a preschooler, I of course longed to fly as high as the clouds, where heaven and my beloved grandmother were in my imagination. But as my understanding of how bird bodies work grew, I appreciated them for far, far more than just flight.   

Bird vision is much keener than ours, with some species having an order of magnitude more rods and cones in the retina. Many have the ability to see in ultraviolet wavelengths, something we can only imagine by photoshopping in a shiny pinkish-purple glow—even our imaginations are boxed in by the limitations of our human eyes. The keen hearing of many species extends to higher frequencies than we mere humans can discern.  We know that birds somehow sense barometric pressure and the earth’s magnetism, though we have no human way of imagining how that must feel. All this I’ve appreciated for several decades. But as I get older, I appreciate more and more about bird bodies.  

One Laysan Albatross on Midway Island, named Wisdom, is at least 10 months, and possibly several years, older than me. Her minimum age is 70, yet this year she’s again successfully negotiated courtship and produced a viable egg and is now raising a chick. I’m assisting in the raising of a human baby this year, but can definitely feel how much easier it was to pick up a 20-pound 7-month-old back when I was in my thirties than now when I’m almost 70. Long ago, birds sensibly worked out how to raise chicks without having to lug them around. Wisdom’s eyes haven’t been subjected to cataract surgery nor does she appear to need bifocals, and she clearly is not wearing hearing aids. I’m envious.  

But last week it hit me hard just how superior birds are when, in the same week, Walter was feeling pain and discomfort from a new tooth starting to grow in, and I was feeling even more pain and discomfort from a very old tooth reaching the end of its life, causing an abscess.  I suddenly started thinking about how birds are way too advanced to deal with teeth at any stage of their lives.   

All birds have a gene that deactivates the formation of teeth. In 2006, researchers at the University of Manchester and the University of Wisconsin proved that, manipulating a chicken’s genes to make it grow teeth. But when did birds stop having teeth? In 2014, researchers published a paper in Science tracing the gene that deactivates tooth formation back to a common ancestor of all modern birds, which lived some 100 million years ago.  They found that the development of the bird’s beak and the loss of the bird’s teeth appear to have happened at around the same time, but there were a few transitional species, such as Ichthyornis, which had a partial beak in the front of the mouth while it still had teeth in the back.   

BlueJayKatie01.jpg

When I was a rehabber and occasionally raised baby Blue Jays, I discovered that they were fascinated with my teeth. If I’d open my lips, they’d invariable peck gently at the front teeth and cock their heads trying to figure them out. I suspect they thought my teeth were delicious seeds I was hiding, just as they hide food items in their gular pouch. It was adorable watching them puzzle this out.   

It’s long been believed that birds lost their teeth to enable flight, but some flighted birds, such as Archeopteryx, had teeth, and our only flying mammals, bats, still have them. Some scientists speculate that beaks may be better than teeth for dealing with some kinds of plant food, but many birds don’t eat plants, so that doesn’t explain it, either.   

Me—after a lifetime of dental experiences, from grossing out my second grade teacher by pulling out my loose front tooth during reading class, painful drilling leading to fillings laden with mercury amalgam, oral surgery to remove impacted wisdom teeth, painful and grossly expensive orthodontia, and now an abscess leading to an extraction and a bridge—I look at photos of Wisdom the albatross and see my happy little backyard chickadees, nary a dental concern ever even momentarily clouding their minds, and realize that in the case of birds, evolution definitely worked out a better way. 

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Wednesday, March 17, 2021

Barn Owl eating an already-dead rat

I took this series of photos at the annual Owl Festival in Houston, Minnesota, in 2012—this is a Barn Owl from the Illinois Raptor Center, licensed as an education bird, who was most cooperative in allowing me to photograph the entire meal. Even though the rat was already quite dead, the owl first had to ensure that it was by biting it in the back of the neck. This is a safety precaution. If the rat was badly injured and maybe temporarily knocked out, but came to in the esophagus and started scrabbling, the owl could be killed. 

Barn Owl eating a mouse

Barn Owl eating a mouse

Once the owl was satisfied that the mouse was really most sincerely dead, it started swallowing it. Owls invariably do this head first, making it go down more smoothly. Not only is the narrowest part of the main rodent body the nose, but also the fur is sleeked down, lowering resistance due to friction as it goes down the throat and esophagus. The owl uses its beak to slowly ratchet it down. 

Barn Owl eating a mouse

Barn Owl eating a mouse

Barn Owl eating a mouse

Barn Owl eating a mouse

Barn Owl eating a mouse

Barn Owl eating a mouse

Barn Owl eating a mouse

Barn Owl eating a mouse

Barn Owl