Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Wednesday, July 1, 2020

Blast from the Past: Nighthawk Caeca

Fred the Common Nighthawk
In the early 1990s, after I'd been a wildlife rehabber for several years, I started working on my ill-fated Ph.D. program, under one of my heroes, Dr. Gary Duke, founder of the Raptor Center. One old For the Birds program explains why I was puzzled about nighthawks, and how that led to my going back to grad school. Here's the updated transcript:

When most people ask me about birds, they first apologize, believing I'll think their questions are stupid. But the stupidest question I ever came up with turned out to have a pretty interesting answer.  

The day I got my first injured nighthawk to take care of, I discovered that he produced two completely different kinds of droppings. Most of the time, they were like normal bird droppings: brown fecal matter with white uric acid excreted from the kidneys. But once a day, he produced a yucky, smelly brown liquid that looked like diarrhea, which didn't jibe with anything I'd seen in other birds. I thought he had some sort of intestinal illness or injury, but after I'd cared for several nighthawks, I came to realize that the two different droppings types are typical of the species. I was curious about it, but somehow the issue of droppings didn't seem like a fitting topic for investigation.
 
But the more I handled these handsome and gentle-spirited birds, the more I wanted to learn about them, and it slowly dawned on me that nobody else knew anything about their unique digestion either. Injured nighthawks that can't feed by catching insects on the wing are difficult for people to keep alive in captivity because they must be hand-fed, many times a day, so it was hard to find anyone who had observed what I saw. I wrote to one scientist who had raised nighthawks in captivity after learning that Poor-wills hibernate. Joe T. Marshall wanted to know if he could induce hibernation in nighthawks. When I asked him about their droppings, though, he said he never noticed, and suggested, accurately if a little oddly, that perhaps I noticed because I had children in diapers. 

Then I decided I was approaching the question from the wrong direction, and I started reading general ornithology textbook chapters about bird digestion. That's when I learned that "some" birds have structures called caeca. Just in case your memory of general biology is no better than mine, the caeca are a pair of intestinal offshoots branching out where the small intestine meets the large. In humans, the appendix occurs at the site of our caeca. Ostriches, chickens, Ruffed Grouse, and some other birds have very well-developed caeca. The descriptions of a chicken's caecal droppings matched exactly what I saw in my nighthawks.  

So what I first needed to confirm was whether nighthawks also have well-developed caeca, which seemed like the kind of basic question I could surely find an answer to somewhere. But none of my textbooks or reference works on birds, or specifically about nighthawks, had any itemization of whether they have caeca. Finally, I went to the UMD library and found a book by Beddard published in 1898, titled The Structure and Classification of Birds.   

It turns out that early ornithologists used the caeca as one of the primary pieces of evidence in establishing the taxonomic order of birds, much of which is still accepted today. This now-122-year-old book explained that the reason ornithologists originally concluded that owls aren't related to hawks and falcons is that owls have large caeca while other birds of prey have none at all. 
 
Although I had an intuitive sense of the relationship of owls to nighthawks because of their excellent nocturnal vision and soft, pencilled plumage, it turns out that internally these two groups are even more similar, sharing virtually identical digestive systems. Some ornithologists believe that owls were originally insect eaters that eventually adapted to taking bigger prey. So wondering about nighthawk droppings ended up leading me to the explanation of why nighthawks are illustrated near owls in field guides (though in 2020, based on DNA, they are no longer considered quite as closely related), as well as giving me some insight into the work ornithologists were doing a hundred years ago. 

After confirming that nighthawks do indeed have caeca, my next question became why? In Ruffed Grouse, the caeca grow huge in late fall and early winter, as the birds eat more and more aspen buds. Their smelly caecal droppings are the result of bacteria that produce an enzyme, cellulase, that breaks down the cellulose in woody tissue, allowing the grouse to get nutrition from their winter diet. As they switch to insects and softer foods in spring, the caeca atrophy.  

The diet of nighthawks is 100 percent insect, without a speck of cellulose to be found, but suddenly I realized that nighthawks do eat something equally indigestible, in the hard wing covers of beetles—chitin. I wondered if in fact the bacteria in nighthawk caeca produce chitinase to break that down. So I called one of the world authorities on bird digestion, Gary Duke at the University of Minnesota, and asked him. 

Gary hadn't thought about it at all, but got excited by my simply framing the question, and right there on the phone, he asked me to figure out the answer with him as his Ph.D. student. I was going to be his first Ph.D. student ever to do all my research without sacrificing a single bird—we'd work out ways of figuring it all out without hurting anyone. 

I had to work slowly, because my children were still little. We pretty much confirmed my guess, but also that nighthawk caeca also serve an osmoregulation function, but I wasn't close to finishing before Gary developed early Alzheimer's disease. I was heartbroken losing him, but not so very sad about my Ph.D. All I really wanted anyway was the answer to my stupid question about smelly nighthawk droppings. 

Fred the Common Nighthawk

Sunday, June 28, 2020

Blast from the Past: Eagle Poop!

Bald Eagle

I’m still archiving transcripts from old "For the Birds" programs (I'm up to 2,900 programs with transcripts available through my webpage!), and last week I came upon one from April 14, 1997, that seemed worthy of a new look. I wrote:  

Last week I had to drive to Chicago, and half-way through Wisconsin, I spotted a Bald Eagle flying high overhead in the sunny blue sky. Eagles are one of the lovely elements of Wisconsin scenery, one of the reasons I enjoy life in the Northland. And early April is the time of year to see them. One of the best treats is to find two eagles in the blue spring sky. A mated pair does all kinds of lovely aerial courtship displays. But this particular eagle was all alone, and as I drove directly beneath it and lost sight of it, suddenly I heard a sound like a gunshot as an enormous splat of eagle poop hit my windshield. The car's speed combined with the eagle dropping's terminal velocity caused an awesome noise, and I was actually grateful that my windshield survived.   
 
Eagle poop is a messy, dark liquid, and this big job ended up right in the part of the windshield I actually need to look through. So I turned on my wipers and used a generous helping of washer fluid to clean it up as well as I could, but it mainly just smeared. I had to sit up very tall and erect and head for the next exit to really clean up the mess.   
 
I poured about a gallon of water and used my snow scraper on the mess, and at this close range I discovered that eagle poop is every bit as much an olfactory treat as it is a visual one. Eagles eat dead fish, and this time of year, fish are often well-decayed before the eagles sink their beaks in. Also, eagles specialize on other forms of carrion, like road-kills newly exposed by melting snowbanks. Their food smells bad enough going in, so imagine it coming out again! Fortunately, it was a breezy day and the job was quickly done.   
 
I thought that would be the end of my eagle poop adventure, but a few days later it rained. As soon as I started my windshield wipers, I discovered that the acidic dropping had eaten away the blade until it was nothing but tattered shreds. Birds in the hawk family have extremely strong digestive acids, capable of dissolving most bones and fur, and so small wonder the droppings had such a powerful effect on three-year-old rubber. But it was a powerful reminder to me of how lucky we are that we so seldom end up standing or driving in exactly the wrong place at the wrong time in eagle country. I had to rush to the nearest gas station to buy new wiper blades.  
 
My relatives in Chicago were extremely impressed by my eagle adventure. Being city people, they never get to see Bald Eagles at all, and think being pooped upon by an eagle is a rare and novel distinction. My sister, an alert listener to a good story, was shocked that I had actually cleaned up the mess, and asked if I wasn't going to get in serious trouble with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. After all, isn't cleaning up eagle droppings a clear violation of the Endangered Feces Act?

Bald Eagle 

Friday, June 26, 2020

The Chipmunk Stalker

"Dad" the Cornell Great Blue Heron
"Dad," the male Great Blue Heron who nested in Sapsucker Woods every year from 2009-2014.
This is the last photo I took of him, in 2015.

In 2009, during the time I worked at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, a pair of Great Blue Herons built a nest in a long-dead white oak in Sapsucker Woods Pond, and successfully reared 4 chicks. That January, I’d bought my first DSLR camera, so I was spending all my breaks and lunches walking around the pond taking photos. I got hundreds of photos of one extremely cooperative heron as he preened, fished, and stood stock still as if posing for me. One of my favorite photos, though also one of the most tragic, shows an adorable little fish in its last moment of existence, mid-air between the heron’s huge mandibles.   

Great Blue Heron and fish

I started being able to verify that virtually all these photos were of the same individual, because he was missing a hind toe and a front claw. When I started photographing the nesting herons, I realized the male was the very heron I’d photographed so often. I grew inordinately fond of him.  

GRBHER_LauraErickson_edit

Watching the heron nest from even the best vantage points in the building or outside, we couldn’t see how many eggs were in it, if any, and had no clue when they hatched until we saw a tiny fuzzy chick head. A day or two later, we saw two at the same time, and then three. They all had to be standing tall at the same time for us to get a count, and it was over a week more before we saw all four. After they were big, we could easily count the four of them until they fledged. After that, we could still check up on them because the parents fed them only in the nest. It took a while for them to learn to find their own food, so one or two might fly up to the nest occasionally in the daytime, and all four gathered before nightfall to sleep up there. I started walking to the Lab from my apartment every evening, only able to sleep well after I’d made sure all “my” babies were accounted for. 

Great Blue Heron

Visitors and contributors to the Lab were enthralled with the photos of the Sapsucker Pond Great Blues, so I suggested they put a nest cam there before the next season—this was at the peak of popularity for the Decorah Eagle cam, and no one had ever set up a cam for a really close look at nesting herons before. The guy in charge of managing such things mansplained to me why that was utterly impossible, but of course in 2012 when the Lab did construct a nest cam, he got all the credit. So it goes.  

Great Blue Heron

Having that wonderful up-close and personal look at the parents and chicks gave me so much understanding and appreciation for how herons raise their young. Each parent spent a lot of time away from the nest fishing. When the chicks were first hatched, often the parent returning to the nest would brood them or just sit on a big branch, taking up to an hour to digest before regurgitating a pile of stomach contents into the nest. As the chicks got older and more capable of doing their own digesting, the parents regurgitated the food more quickly, and some of the fish even became identifiable. One time a large gold carp was still alive when the male vomited it up—whenever one of the baby herons touched it, it thrashed for a few seconds. Somehow my brain turned off my empathy switch regarding the poor fish because the moment it moved, the almost-full-sized baby herons were so shocked that they all lurched back and stared in amazement. It had clearly never, ever occurred to them that food could be alive.  

But virtually the only animals in the regurgitated pile of baby food that the parent herons brought back were fish. A quite dead vole did appear in the pile once, but the suspicious babies would not swallow it, and finally one of them tossed it out of the nest. 

Meanwhile, the Lab had also placed a nest cam on a Red-tailed Hawk nest on campus. I didn’t like watching that one—it was one thing to watch herons regurgitating fish, quite another to see what the hawks brought home, which included a lot of chipmunks and rabbits, occasionally still alive. I’m just too fond of little mammals to watch that.  

As one of the monitors in Cornell's Heron Cam Chat Room who also fielded a lot of questions sent to the Lab, I started hearing people claim that some Great Blue Herons specialize on chipmunks. I had misgivings the first time someone told me a heron was coming and taking the chipmunks at her feeder, but after hearing more than a dozen accounts, I had to accept these accounts as truthful oddities.  

Then this week, Heidi Holtan at KAXE forwarded me an email from Lynn Hanske in Baxter, Minnesota, who wrote:  

Thought you might be interested to see this video I took in my backyard of a Great Blue Heron last Friday.  This was the 4th chipmunk in about 25 minutes.  S/He has been back every day since and we’ve seen him catch and consume 12 so far!  Once he gets one, he walks it quickly down to the lake, shaking it the whole time, then dunks it in the lake and swallows it in one gulp.
 
 Lynn kindly gave me permission to post the video on my blog. Tragically, Blogger says it's too large of a video file, but I can at least provide a link to the .mov file

I got nervous when I watched the start, with the heron walking directly toward a chipmunk eating some breakfast, but the little guy noticed and hightailed it out of there in time. When the heron got that one or another, the worst of it was hidden behind some ferns. It’s interesting, so if you aren’t too enamored of chipmunks, check it out.  

Then Lynn sent another, longer video wherein the first chipmunk the heron grabbed managed to get away; the video kept going, and the heron did get that chipmunk or another. Who knew the lives of chipmunks were so fraught with danger?  (Here's the link to that .mov file.)

Point Reyes National Seashore

One of my friends, Christina, mentioned that the herons at Point Reyes in California seem to feed mostly on rodents, and since the years of the heron cam at Cornell, I’ve heard so many other accounts of herons taking various rodents that it no longer surprises me, even though Lynn’s videos disconcerted me. Much as I love Great Blue Herons, especially since growing so very enamored of that one individual at Cornell, chipmunks are the adorable little guys who live in my own backyard. Predation is an important part of nature, and I’m appreciative of whatever Great Blue Herons do to thrive, but sometimes my best strategy is simply to avert my eyes.  

Eastern Chipmunk

By the way, Lynn Hanske is also seeing a family of Wood Ducks visiting her feeders, including one odd little duckling. Apparently a Hooded Merganser lost her own nest and had no other place to lay an egg ready to pop out, so she deposited it in the Wood Duck nest. That one little Hooded Merganser duckling has no clue what to do at a feeder. Unlike Wood Ducks, who eat acorns and other terrestrial food items, mergansers eat fish and aquatic insects pretty much exclusively. We’re hoping the little guy is getting plenty enough food when the mother takes the ducklings to the lake, and stays out of the striking zone of a certain Great Blue Heron. Lynn will try to keep track of how the little one fares.  



Thursday, June 25, 2020

YOU are invited!

Yellow Warbler

When: Wednesday, July 1, 2020, 7:00 pm CDT
Where: Laura's Zoom Conference Room
My Patreon supporters (and people who contribute back-channel) will get an email invitation automatically.
Anyone else: email me before June 30. First come, first served up to 100 people total.
Topic: Nesting Birds

At 7 pm Central Time on the first of every month, I'm going to be providing a free program by invitation only as a special gift for everyone who supports me via Patreon (or with back-channel contributions to me directly). I just launched Patreon a couple of weeks ago, and so far it's been going very slowly. I don't want to speak to a mostly empty house, and know that in this tricky time, many people have taken even bigger cuts in pay than I have and can't comfortably afford to give me money, so this time around, I'm inviting everyone who reads my blog or listens to my podcast to come for free. 

People supporting my work at any level, starting at $1 a month, either via Patreon or a comparable personal donation (email me to get my address) will automatically get an email invitation to my Zoom conference room (as long as you've signed up by June 30) and don't need to do anything more. I'll send the invitations out on June 30. 

And for this first program, I'm happy to invite non-supporters, too. Just send me an email with the subject line: Program Invitation.  

Since 1986, I have had zero financial support for "For the Birds" except for one year in the 1980s, when the Superior Radio Network got a grant to pay me $300 a month for the radio program, and the two years that I wrote a blog for an optics company. The other 31 years that I've produced my radio program/podcast, this blog, and my website, it's been entirely at my expense. Your contributions will help me cover the many costs involved in producing all this content as well as these new monthly programs. This year in particular, all my spring and summer speaking engagements were cancelled, cutting out my primary source of income for the year, and my writing income has had to be cut back, too. So your support will really be helpful!

I've set up Patreon to allow contributions starting at $1 a month. Patreon recommends starting at a higher level, and at that low level, my share is about 45¢, which isn't much. (The percentage I get is higher at higher levels.) But a great many of my friends, and people who are interested in birds in general, don't have a lot of discretionary income, especially these days, and there are a lot of worthy causes out there. That's okay—little by little, 45¢ contributions do add up. Of course, I welcome higher contributions as well, so I've set up six levels of support. 

Meanwhile, even if you don't or can't make a contribution, you're invited to that first program. I'll be talking about nesting backyard birds, with LOTS of photos! If you are wondering specifically about species in your own backyard, let me know. I won't necessarily have access with the rights to use photos of a lot of species, but I'll see what I can come up with. 

So far I have enough Patreon supporters to pay for my Zoom Pro account, which allows me to invite up to 100 participants for these online programs. I simply cannot invite more than that unless I've got enough supporters to increase my Zoom membership level (I have to pay $15 per month now to invite no more than 100 people. That would go up to $65 per month if I increase it to 500). On the off-chance that I get more requests than the 100 spaces I'm allowed to fill without enough contributions to cover the added expense, I'll send out those Zoom invitations on a first-come, first served basis.  

Black-capped Chickadee--fledging day!

Monday, June 22, 2020

Stress Marks

Checking for lice
This Cornell student, Carolyn Sedgwick, is examining this chickadee's feathers for lice, mites, and stress marks.

When I was a wildlife rehabber, I noticed that when I was brought nestlings or fledglings still growing in their feathers, they usually ended up with wing and tail feathers that had a weird section structurally weaker than it should have been. That section seemed wider in birds that had been injured or were cared for by someone without knowledge about proper baby bird diets.   

I worked out that during the period that that section of feather was developing, the bird must not have been eating properly or was otherwise stressed, affecting each feather right at the point when it had been growing. Sure enough, when I spent time with bird banders, I learned that they examine bird feathers for those very striations, which they called stress marks. Even in healthy adult birds, these marks can indicate a stressful environmental situation—drought or a long storm system that made it hard to get adequate nutrition—during the bird’s previous molt.  

Anyone looking at the human population right now might notice something that looks like stress marks in the plumage of some older individuals. Take me, for example. The hair growing in from my scalp is virtually all white, while before the pandemic hit, it was brown. Along my part, you can see what I’m calling a “skunk stripe,” which could easily be mistaken for a stress mark by a competent but too-narrowly-focused bird bander. 

Pip and I practicing Zoom.

My hair has never been anywhere near as black as a skunk’s fur, and in recent years it’s been a significantly lighter shade of brown, so I’m assuming that when passing people give me a wide berth lately, it’s because they’re social distancing to protect us from virus transmission, not because they’re misidentifying my species.  

Striped Skunk
These are my backyard skunks here in Duluth, Minnesota

Over the weeks, my skunk stripe has gotten wider and wider. Intriguingly, I learned last week from my good friend Erik Bruhnke, who is now living in New Jersey, that the white stripe of skunks out East is wider than that of our Midwestern skunks--I hadn't noticed that, though I took photos myself of skunks when I was in New York working at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.   

Skunk
This skunk was at the Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge in Upstate New York.

So as my skunk stripe widens, I’m apparently going to be looking increasingly like the Eastern subspecies. 

Like avian stress marks, this development, not at all unique to me, really is indicative of a sudden upheaval—in this case, nothing dangerous, but simply the suspension of professional grooming. As robins grow older, they often grow some white feathers, but like the normal growth of gray hair, this is a gradual process and those feathers are simply mixed in with their normal plumage. In several species, white feathers may grow in over damaged tissue—sometimes this happens in just the first one or two molts after an injury, but sometimes it’s permanent.  

On the opposite end of the spectrum from humans, several different kinds of birds go from white to dark. Many hawks and falcons start out with adorable, fluffy white baby down that will be quickly pushed out by their juvenal plumage. 

Peregrine Falcon nestling
Peregrine Falcon nestling


"Waters" the Peregrine Falcon
Peregrine Falcon a few days after leaving the nest.

Little Blue Herons leave the nest with adult-looking white feathers. They’ll molt out of them and into their dark bluish feathers in a few months. Reddish Egrets and Great Blue Herons both have a subspecies that is entirely white, but that condition lasts throughout their lives. 

Great White Heron
Great White Herons are sometimes easy to find on the Anhinga Trail in Everglades National Park. Scientists consider this a form of the Great Blue Heron. 

Like a baby Arizona Woodpecker, I started out entirely bald, but then my plumage grew in brown. 

Arizona Woodpecker

I noticed a few gray hairs in my 30s, and decided to get them colored, “just this once,” for my 40th birthday. My mother-in-law took me out to lunch that day and did not notice that I’d had it colored. I told her Russ would—I’d been complaining about going gray for a while—but she said husbands never notice such things. I bet her a quarter that he would, but when he came home and I asked if he noticed anything new, even actually pointing at my hair, he was oblivious, so I had to fork over the quarter.  

That would have been that, and from then on I’d have let the gray grow in gracefully, but right then our ten-year-old son Joey walked in the door and instantly exclaimed, “Mom! Your gray hair’s all gone! Oh, I’m so relieved!” That was the year my father-in-law had died, and it hadn’t occurred to me that after losing their grandpa, the kids were worrying about Russ and me getting older. For them, gray hair was a sign of impending doom.  

So the first time I colored it, my entire motivation was 40th birthday vanity, but for the next 28 years, I kept going back. At first I figured that when the kids were done with college I could stop worrying about their fears of mortality, but the last graduation was more than a decade ago. It turns out to be tricky letting it go gray after so many years of coloring it. Under that hair dye, at least 90 percent of my hairs are now white. Until I can get a haircut, the exact point where I stopped getting it colored will be obvious.  

Starting July 1, I’ll be hosting Zoom presentations for my Patreon supporters on the first of each month. I’ll be answering questions and will be able to show photos and videos—something I can’t do on the radio—as well as presenting some of my more popular speaking engagement topics. Zoom’s video component means that my guests will be able to watch what I’m calling my “mustelid transformation” as my skunk stipe get wider and wider. Before the pandemic, my hair was pretty much the color of a river otter, which, like skunks and weasels, is in the mustelid family. I gradually transformed into a striped skunk of the Midwestern persuasion, and am now more of an East Coast striped skunk. In a few months, when those of us high-risk people can start safely visiting our hairdressers again, she’ll help me make that final mustelid transformation, into an ermine. And forever after, I’ll be able to truthfully say that Covid-19 turned my hair white.  

This gorgeous photo was taken by my dear friend Erik Bruhnke. 




Sunday, June 21, 2020

Blast from the Past: Cestodes!

Nighthawk tapeworm

Little by little, I'm digitizing all the old "For the Birds" transcripts that I can still find. I produced quite a few programs over the past 34 years, and as of the moment I'm writing this, transcripts are available for 2,882 of them. One of the ones I just found, from October 12, 1992, was about a disturbing discovery I had just made about one of the nighthawks I was rehabilitating. I'll quote it as I originally wrote it. 

Last week, I made a startling discovery. One of my nighthawks, the one I call Snarfy, has tapeworms. I hadn't spent a lot of time looking at droppings as I clean up the newspapers every day, but all of a sudden I noticed a suspicious and repulsive white thing and brought it in for my veterinarian's technician to check out. She cut off a segment and looked under the microscope and voila! There were tiny tapeworm eggs, with the tapeworm embryos wiggling around, complete with hooks.  

Fortunately, Snarfy has maintained a very good weight and seems comfortable and in good health. And, even more fortunately, bird tapeworms have an indirect host lifestyle. The eggs simply cannot hatch in a bird or mammal. Some species depend on insects and some on earthworms to be their host when hatching. They cannot reach maturity in an insect and they cannot hatch and survive their first life stages in a bird. Snarfy must have gotten hers from an infested insect that she ate in the wild, and according to the authorities, she cannot pass the tapeworms to my other nighthawks, Sneakers the Blue Jay, my dog, my cat, my children, or me. Of course, none of those authorities are giving me any guarantees. I'm not sure how long tapeworms live, but eventually they should all complete their natural lives and die even without treating her.  

It must be singularly unpleasant to have a tapeworm hooked to your innards. I've never before had a nighthawk with the problem, and so far I haven't been able to find any information in the literature about parasites in the nighthawk family. But tapeworms are a major problem in some bird families. One tapeworm with earthworms as intermediates infests robins, several different tapeworms affect ducks, and fish-eating birds are especially vulnerable to a variety of tapeworms.  

Ornithologists and invertebrate biologists are interested in tapeworms because certain groups of birds contain their own particular species. Some taxonomists can determine avian relationships and how long ago species diverged by the kinds of intestinal parasites they have, and tapeworms, or cestodes, are particularly helpful in this regard.  

Naturally, whenever I see something new in one of my birds, I have to research it all out, which leads me down unexpected pathways. It turns out that there are more unpleasant creatures living inside birds than I would ever have imagined. A survey of 3,400 ducks in Washington showed that 94.7 percent of them contained internal parasites. As many as 1,600 tapeworms of six different species have been found in a single duck. Seven different kinds of roundworms attack Ruffed Grouse in their stomach, intestines, gizzard, eyes, blood, or muscles. Apparently, some of these can be transmitted to predators, including humans, if partridge meat isn't thoroughly cooked. Everyday starlings have been reported to carry at least 81 different parasites of 51 different genera.   
All in all, when it comes to birds, it's not only a jungle out there—it's a jungle IN there. Walt Disney's classic short animated feature was right. "It's Tough to Be a Bird."

This transcript was the basis of the November 3 entry in my first book, For the Birds: An Uncommon Guide.

November 3 entry in For the Birds: An Uncommon Guide

That was the page Dave Barry referred to when he wrote a very nice recommendation for the book. 

Postcard from Dave Barry

I thanked him with an appropriate gift, and he was nice enough to write a cover blurb for my next book, Sharing the Wonder of Birds with Kids!  

Back cover of Sharing the Wonder of Birds with Kids


Saturday, June 20, 2020

Summertime, and the livin's not so easy.

Red-eyed Vireo

It’s officially summertime now, but the livin’s not so easy, at least not for the birds among us. We humans tend to think of winter as the hard season for birds—at least for those who stick around the frigid Northland—but the worst January doesn’t hold a candle to June when it comes to sheer exhausting work from sunup to sundown. Short winter days do make it tricky for birds to get enough calories to stoke their metabolic fires to stay alive over those exceptionally long winter nights, but once they fall asleep, they can rest easy through all those long hours until the next morning.   

Even during our shortest summer nights, birds are not resting easy. I’ve been recording my backyard birds every non-raining morning since April 29. No matter how early I start, even when it’s over an hour before sunrise, my robins are already singing, and House Wrens and chickadees are also singing up a storm way before sunrise. Robins take a break from singing as soon as they get enough light to search for worms, but even with family responsibilities, they have to break into song on and off all day long to remind their neighbors of proper social distancing rules.  

American Robin

Birds with young to raise spend these longest days of the year, from sunrise to sunset, searching for food for their little ones, or incubating eggs. Sitting on a nest sounds so restful, but birds burn a LOT of calories to hold those eggs at a steady hundred degrees or so. In some species where the female does all the incubating, the male does most of the baby-feeding when they hatch, so mom can get herself back into condition before they start all over again. While he waits for the eggs to hatch, he's busy singing to warn other males off his territory and to remind his mate that he's a pretty talented and sturdy guy.  

Yellow Warbler

Of course, not all birds have managed to find a mate and settle in yet. But those unemployed “floaters” are pretty darned busy searching for work. For a while in May, a couple of male Brown Thrashers turned up in my yard. One dominated and won the territory. He spent long hours singing his heart out but didn’t manage to attract a mate, so he moved on. If he hasn't found a mate, I am sure he's still singing and searching.  

Red-eyed Vireo

Red-eyed Vireos turned up in my yard now and then in late May, starting May 23. I made a 48-minute recording of a Red-eyed Vireo on June 16. Before that day, I hadn’t heard a vireo in twelve days, not since June 4. I suspect females shy away from this corner of Peabody Street because there’s a nearby crow nest—I’m pretty certain that crows raided last year’s nest to feed their chicks. Anyway, this vireo turned up on the 16th and broke into song that lasted for well over an hour and a half. Tragically, I hadn’t realized my 256-gigabyte memory card was getting low on space and my recorder shut down 48 minutes after his song bout started, so I don’t know how much of that solid singing bout I missed—he was still going strong for over a half hour after I discovered my recorder had stopped. I counted 416 songs one-by-one during his first 10 minutes, extrapolating to about 2,000 songs over just the 48 minutes I recorded. I’m betting he sang at least 4,000 songs in that single round of singing, and wish I could have documented it. If any females had been hiding out around here, they certainly had to realize that a strong, virile Red-eyed Vireo was available, but apparently none were. The next day I made sure to have fresh batteries and an entirely erased memory card in my recorder, but the male had moved on in search of a receptive listener of the vireo, not human, persuasion.  


These daily recordings are making it very clear to me that right when I think the birds in my neighborhood have settled in, many individual adults are still moving about trying to establish a territory and find a mate. Some may have arrived late; some may be immatures who are still learning the ropes, and some may have lost their first mate or young and they’re hoping to start anew.  

On June 20—the first day of summer, my recorder captured a catbird singing (I hadn’t heard one of those in four days), a Rose-breasted Grosbeak (last time I had one of those was way back on May 25, almost four full weeks ago), and a Great Crested Flycatcher (I hadn't heard one of them since June 12). None of them sang very long—if my recorder hadn’t captured the songs, I’d have had to be outside at the right moments to even notice.  

Anyway, it’s officially summer now, and whether or not they already are raising young, birds are all doing their part to ensure that there will be lots of birds in the future. Doing our part—making our windows bird safe, keeping cats indoors, avoiding lawn and garden pesticides, planting native trees, shrubs, and flowers, making sure our bird feeding practices do much more good than harm, and things like that—will not just help birds in general, Just as importantly, it will ease the lives of the very birds who make our own summertimes so richly wonderful.  

Don't forget Pip!

How do I know how old birds live?

Ruffed Grouse

I wrote a blog post about Ruffed Grouse in 2018, mentioning that the oldest Ruffed Grouse on record lived to be just 8 years old. Someone commented today, asking how I know that. We get information about each species longevity records from the USGS Bird Banding Laboratory in Patuxent, Maryland. Their website, where you can find this kind of information, is here: https://www.pwrc.usgs.gov/bbl/longevity/Longevity_main.cfm

Friday, June 19, 2020

Jennifer Ackerman Week, Part V: Love and Parenting

Ring-necked Pheasant

I’ve been blathering and writing about birds since I was in my 20s way back in the mid-70s. I took a couple of ornithology classes and a graduate-level animal behavior course starting in 1975, right when I was starting birding, so my wide-eyed wonderment seeing eye-popping delights that I’d never even imagined before was folded into my studying taxonomy and scientific names, morphology and physiology, and other such technical and ostensibly dry aspects to birds.   

Watching real-life Ring-necked Pheasants strutting about while studying how the gizzard fits in with avian digestion added to my appreciation of an extraordinary bird even as it satisfied my lifelong curiosity about that packet of innards included with store-bought turkeys and chickens. Seeing my first Bald Eagle and Kirtland’s Warbler in June 1976 gave me a greater appreciation for endangered species than the first Earth Day had—seeing and hearing these vulnerable birds in the flesh deepened my commitment to protecting them far more than just reading about pesticides and habitat requirements. Learning the local Madison, Wisconsin, Baltimore Oriole songs in 1976 and then hearing the different tunes migrants sang as they came through in 1977 gave me a more visceral understanding of bird dialects than book learning alone could have, but without that book learning, I’d have not understood what I was hearing.   

Baltimore Oriole

Because I learned all this as an adult, I vividly remember how confusing everything about birds was and how thrilling it was to start figuring it out, which I think is why I’m good at answering other people’s questions about birds. That’s why my first assignment when I was working at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology in 2008 was to write The Bird Watching Answer Book. It’s also why, in 1996 when I was writing Sharing the Wonder of Birds with Kids, intended for parents, teachers, Scout leaders, and naturalists, I included a whole chapter of basic information about bird bodies, so those adults would have enough understanding themselves to feel comfortable when kids asked them questions.  

Over the years, I’ve heard many of the same questions over and over and been struck by how very many people ask me about bird sex. I suppose it’s related to our expression “the birds and the bees”— bird songs and displays are rooted in courtship culminating in sex, and bird eggs are a universal symbol of fertility and reproduction. I’ll never forget, back in the 1980s after I’d given a presentation at a nursing home, a tiny woman in a wheelchair raised her hand. When I called on her, she said in a quavering voice, “I’ve been wondering something for 87 years. How do birds… how do they… well, you know. How do they … do it?” When I wrote Sharing the Wonder, I made sure to include the answer to that, which in a roundabout way is why a local librarian started calling me “the Dr. Ruth of Ornithology.”   

Those universal questions about bird reproduction, and the fascinating strategies different birds have for raising their young, were the entire focus of my 2015 book, Into the Nest: Intimate Views of the Courting, Parenting, and Family Lives of Familiar Birds and my forthcoming book, The Love Lives of Birds.  

I write and talk about some things over and over—people are gobsmacked to learn that ducks, unlike virtually all birds, not only have a penis-like organ, but that it can be over half the length of the bird’s whole body. A very few species, such as swifts, can mate in flight. In some species, males and females are both extremely promiscuous, including species in which mates seem absolutely devoted to each other, such as bluebirds. Only a handful of species, including swans, cranes, and Florida Scrub-Jays, are absolutely faithful.  

All that is simply to say, I’ve spent decades observing, researching, writing, and talking about bird sex and bird parenting, so I looked forward with special anticipation to the sections titled "Love" and "Parenting" in Jennifer Ackerman’s new book, The Bird Way. And she didn’t disappoint!    

Ackerman traveled around the world to visit some of the ornithologists breaking new ground in our understanding of birds, and seeing their subjects firsthand. I sometimes talk about the bizarre nesting habits of megapodes—Australian Brushturkeys and Malleefowl. The males build ginormous mounds into which females lay their eggs and leave. The males tend to the mounds, for months while the embryonic chicks are incubated by the composting process, the temperature closely monitored by the father. When the chicks finally hatch, buried deep down, they must spend their first few days in the dark, digging their way up and out. When they finally reach the surface, they run off and raise themselves—if their father notices them at all, he literally kicks them off his mound. I’ve read about this over and over. Jennifer Ackerman actually got to see some of it happen.   

I’d be envious of her firsthand observations of these and such other amazing species as fairy wrens and Australian Magpies and Japanese Red-crowned Cranes, that I'll never see in my life, if she hadn’t been so vivid in her writing—it feels like I shared some of her experiences.  

The Bird Way: A New Look at How Birds Talk, Work, Play, Parent, and Think was a delightful read from start to finish. I’m sure it’ll make the New York Times bestseller list as her splendid The Genius of Birds did. And unlike a lot of books, it’ll belong there.  



Thursday, June 18, 2020

Jennifer Ackerman Week, Part IV: Play

Common Raven

Back in the mid-1970s when I took two ornithology classes and a graduate-level class in Animal Behavior, there was no question about whether birds play—of course they don’t. We were taught as fact that play is limited to humans and a handful of very intelligent mammal species. As people documented various animals doing things that sure seemed like playing, many ethologists' definition of “play” became narrower to exclude those situations, maintaining the fiction that humans, or at least the few mammals that are undeniably intelligent (naturally all primates), are magically different from all other species. Ornithologist Millicent Ficken * wrote a seminal paper in The Auk in 1977, titled simply “Avian Play,” in which she gave an overview of what was actually known about birds playing. One of her conclusions was that:   
Of all animals, only birds and mammals play, and play evolved independently in the two groups probably because of similar selection pressures acting on the developmental process to produce flexibility of behavior and the perfection of certain motor skills.  
Jennifer Ackerman cites Ficken’s paper from back then, and visited several of the top ornithologists whose open minds have advanced our understanding of play in animals, and not just birds and mammals, by leaps and bounds. She went to Sweden to meet cognitive zoologist Mathias Osvath, who became famous for his 2008 study on great apes, when he found that chimpanzees can plan ahead, another of the many abilities our arrogant species believed were magically limited to humans.  

After this research was published, Osvath turned his attention to ravens, telling Ackerman that he thought great apes so human-like that studying them was “a bit boring…. Sometimes—as a scientist I should perhaps not say this—but sometimes ravens seem to be cleverer, at least in some ways.”   

The research facility he and his wife started building in 2008 is a spacious aviary with an observation window where he can observe the birds and they can observe him right back as he explores such questions as do birds play because they’re intelligent, or are they intelligent because they play?   

I would say that Ackerman’s chapter about ravens playing is my favorite if so many other chapters weren’t also so very fun and enlightening. But her visit to Orsath and her descriptions of his ravens were extremely evocative for me personally, because after rehabbing a couple of ravens in the early 1990s, I was so taken with how quickly they figured out that I was not trying to hurt them. Also, I’ve never forgotten when, in 1981, I lost my wristwatch on a walk in Port Wing, Wisconsin, and the next morning a raven flew over and dropped it at my feet. (You can read about that here.) 

In the Play section of The Bird Way, Ackerman also has a chapter about the Kea, a wondrously fascinating parrot of New Zealand.  

Ackerman closes The Bird Way’s final chapter, “A Last Word,” with a return to Mathias Orsath. She writes that Orsath believes corvids such as ravens are:  
at the brink of a cognitive breakthrough. They have been around for millions of years. We humans have existed as a species for at most a few hundred thousand years…a flash in the pan… But in the short time of our existence, crows, ravens, and other corvids have learned to use us as a source of food and shelter. If our species disappears and corvids lose this resource, there may be selective pressure among them to boost cognition… Their brains could double or triple in size, and with their superefficient signaling and tight packing of neurons, they might become the next big thinkers, dominant among animals… "Perhaps someday dinosaurs in the form of corvids will dig us up to figure out what happened to us."  
There wasn’t a single page of The Bird Way that wasn’t filled with intriguing food for thought like this. I myself have just written a book coming out in October titled The Love Lives of Birds, so tomorrow I’ll close what I’m calling Jennifer Ackerman Week with the sections of The Bird Way titled “Love” and “Parenting.”  

Common Raven

*Millicent Ficken was already a hero of mine because of her overview of avian play in that 1977 paper, and because she is an authority on my favorite bird of all, when I met her in 1992 at an American Ornithologists' Union meeting in Ames, Iowa. After we met, I felt bold enough to ask her to review the pages about chickadees for my first book, For the Birds: An Uncommon Guide. She suggested a few very important improvements. I named a nighthawk "Penny" after her (that's her nickname).