Sunday, August 31, 2008

Mary Steffens

When I was a little girl, my most important job was to take care of my little sister Mary. I did as good a job as a big sister could, but there wasn't anything I could do when she got Stage 2 breast cancer 13 years ago. And when it recurred 8 years ago, and metastasized to her lungs and bones and, finally, her brain, I was helpless. We talked on the phone at least once a week during the past year and a half, and every single day for the past several months. I'm very much at peace with our relationship--even when we were busy with children and other activities, we always made time for each other, and were never closer than during the past few years. But now there's a hole in my life, and in my heart, that can ever be filled. I spent this past week in Chicago--when I headed down there Saturday, I was pretty sure I'd be seeing her for the last time, but expected to be able to spend a week or two with her. But my nieces called me when I was just reaching the expressway and told me to hurry, and she slipped into a coma just a few hours after I arrived. She knew I was there--she squeezed my hand--but that was her last conscious act that I know of, and she died Monday afternoon. Several minutes after she died, her face relaxed into a smile. A genuine smile. After all her body had been through, she was at peace at last.

The nearest we could tell, there were about a thousand people at her wake, the church was very full at her funeral Friday, and all the stories I heard about her were amazing testimonials to a brave and loving woman who loved and whose love was returned by a great many people.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Bee problems? A novel approach

A few years ago, when my hummingbirds were trying to cope with a huge yellow jacket infestation, I ended up helping them by pulling out my trusty hand vacuum cleaner to noisily suck out the offending marauders. When some hummingbirds were blocked access to the feeders by the wasps, they actually started tapping at my window to get my attention, as if saying, “Hey lady, grab that vacuum and get to work!” It worked and my hummingbirds were happy again, though I felt a little guilty for dispatching so many wasps. And I honestly don’t know how I would have handled it if the problem insects had been bees. Right now honeybees are having huge problems throughout the world, so no way would I be willing to suck even one out of my feeders with a vacuum, or to use any kind of chemical that could be harmful to them on my feeders. With bees in real trouble, I’d also never use one of those yellow bee traps, which don’t distinguish between yellow jackets and honeybees.

But this week on the Oklahoma bird listserv, a thoughtful poster named Phil Floyd wrote about a great answer to dealing with bees and wasps—effectively protecting hummingbirds from them without harming the insects. He wrote:
Last year my wife came up with a solution that worked wonderfully. She filled another feeder with extra sugar content, and also sprayed the outside of that feeder with the stronger feeding solution. She hung it an area away from the other feeders. Then she went to the hummingbird feeders covered with bees, scraped several of them off into a jar, and took them to the new target feeder. She repeated this a couple of times until word among the bees spread and they all started going to the new feeder. We continued to keep the one bee feeder full of extra sugary water, and kept spraying the outside with that same sugar solution. The bees took only to that one. Problem solved!
Phil adds, “It's why I married her.”

This is far and away the best answer to either a bee or wasp problem I’ve ever heard of. The vacuum cleaner solution only worked for me because I was hard at work on a book, constantly at my desk, right at the window with the feeder. I’ve read about people coating the feeder ports with Skin-So-Soft, cooking oil, Vaseline, and insect repellents, but I’d be very concerned about these working their way into the feeder and contaminating the solution. Setting out bee traps will kill those bees that enter them, but meanwhile the bees that discover the feeder alert their hive members to the feeder, and they focus their attentions on that. Some people also recommend moving the feeders from one spot to another. When the feeder is moved, the bees are very confused at first, but then start searching out new food sources. It usually doesn't take that long for one of them to find the relocated feeder and tell its hive about the new food source. Soon you have as many as before. You have to be exceptionally vigilant to keep up with them, and the method simply doesn’t work for those of us with just one or two good spots near our windows to place our feeders.

So the technique Phil Floyd describes sounds just about perfect, keeping hummingbirds happy while keeping bees and wasps well away without hurting them. I for one am very glad he married his wife.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Well, DUH! Birds are smarter than we (or some of us) thought

In a really cool experiment, researchers have discovered, or at least finally noticed, that birds are self-aware.
Magpies are no bird-brains, mirror test shows

By Ben Hirschler Mon Aug 18, 8:03 PM ET

LONDON (Reuters) - Magpies can recognize themselves in a mirror, highlighting the mental skills of some birds and confounding the notion that self-awareness is the exclusive preserve of humans and a few higher mammals.

It had been thought only chimpanzees, dolphins and elephants shared the human ability to recognize their own bodies in a mirror.

But German scientists reported on Tuesday that magpies -- a species with a brain structure very different from mammals -- could also identify themselves.

"It shows that the line leading to humans is not as special as many thought," lead researcher Helmut Prior of the Institute of Psychology at Goethe University in Frankfurt told Reuters.

"After finding this kind of intelligence in apes, many people thought it had developed once in one evolutionary line with humans at the end. The bird studies show it has developed at least twice."

The discovery of self-awareness in magpies follows a 2002 study in which a crow stunned researchers with its tool-making skills, by twisting a wire into a hook to lift food from a tube.

Prior and his colleagues tested their magpies by marking the birds' bodies with a red or yellow dot that could only be seen in a mirror. They found the birds regularly scratched the mark on their body, proving they recognized the image in the mirror as themselves and not another animal.

To ensure they were actually seeing and reacting to the mark, and not just investigating what had been done to them, a "sham" black mark was used as a control that was invisible on the birds' dark feathers.

The result throws into question some basic ideas about how our brains work.

In particular, it had been thought that the neocortex brain area found in mammals was crucial to self-recognition. Yet birds, which last shared a common ancestor with mammals 300 million years ago, do not have a neocortex, suggesting that higher cognitive skills can develop in other ways.

Prior believes parrots, too, may yet show hidden mental skills -- but it is the crow family, which includes magpies and jays, that is the smartest.

"Crows have really huge brains compared to other birds," he said in a telephone interview.

The research was published in the Public Library of Science journal PLoS Biology and is available online at oi=10.1371/journal.pbio.0060202

(Editing by Mary Gabriel)

Why do I find this such a no-brainer (so to speak)? I used to have an education Blue Jay named Sneakers, and I also raised a baby Blue Jay named Ludwig. Both birds were very interested when they first observed their reflection in the bathroom mirror. In both cases, they were on my shoulder, and they kept looking back and forth from the mirror image of me to the reflected me, and when they looked at their own reflection, raised and lowered their crest and shook--and seemed to figure out very quickly that the image did exactly what they were doing. I remember for sure that Sneakers pecked at the mirror a bit, and that she was very interested when I opened the medicine cabinet to see if anything was behind the reflection. After just two or three encounters with the mirror, both birds pretty much lost interest in it.

Sneakers also loved to look at books with colorful graphics, but I don't think she necessarily recognized photos as representations of objects--she reacted no differently to photos of owls or snakes or other Blue Jays than she did to any other photos. And her favorite book seemed to be my organic chemistry book--she absolutely loved studying the colorful molecules. I don't think she ever quite grokked the Krebs cycle.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

It's Bulwer-Lytton Day!

Today is the jolliest day of the year! Because results of the annual Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest are in!

A Letter from Roger Tory Peterson

With the centennial of Roger Tory Peterson’s birthday coming this month, naturally I had to pull out the letter I received from him back in July 1987. This was right when Duluth’s Ring-billed Gull population explosion was making the news, but when people were still tossing French fries to them at every fast food restaurant. Duluth’s city council was trying to come up with strategies to deal with them—one proposal was actually to introduce wild pigs to the harbor to eat their eggs! I decided to write to Roger Tory Peterson asking what experiences he’d had with birds mooching for food, and received this delightful reply (click to see larger):
According to the biography Birdwatcher, Roger Tory Peterson’s wife Barbara wrote many of his letters, but by 1987, they were no longer married, and so this was actually written by him, and is one of my treasured possessions.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Whew! New podcasts!

I've got a new Mac, and have finally figured out how to post my podcasts with iWeb, though I don't know how to put it on my old site. So I've got a new podcast, which I'll need to get into the iTunes store, though that may take a while. Meanwhile, check it out and let me know if you have any problems.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Juggling acts

How does someone protect a plummeting population of Burrowing Owls between San Diego and the Pacific Coast, while also protecting endangered Least Terns (the Burrowing Owls have a real taste for their chicks) and endangered Snowy Plovers? Hugh Powell discusses another great paper at the AOU meeting about that juggling act. Check out today's blog post!

Thursday, August 7, 2008

AOU Meeting

It's August, that time of year when the American Ornithologists' Union holds their annual meeting. This time it's in Portland, Oregon, held jointly with the Cooper Ornithological Society and the Society for Canadian Ornithologists. I wish I could be there for all the paper sessions and interesting events, but if I have to miss it, I at least have the next best thing, Hugh Powell's Round Robin blog. We at the Cornell Lab are redesigning our website, and to get ideas from the people who actually use the website, Hugh has been keeping a blog. This week while he's in Portland, he's been posting about interesting papers.

On Monday, he gave an overview of the meeting. On Tuesday he first wrote about the distressing news from Hawaii that the Hawaiian honeycreepers are fading fast. He attended a paper by the Smithsonian's Rob Fleisher about the tragedy of malaria killing the native birds on Hawaii--of the original 110 species of land birds on the islands, there are now only 31 remaining, and 20 of them are endangered. Interestingly, the form of malaria that is wiping them out is overall not a virulent form for humans today, though it did decimate the native Hawaiian humans when mosquitoes were introduced by ships during the late 1700s. Hugh also talked about how the native birds must live at elevations above where mosquitoes are, meaning that global warming is impacting them as mosquitoes advance higher with warming temperatures.

Tuesday he covered several topics. In his first post, he summarized one paper that discussed possible reasons why woodpeckers have larger brain sizes than similar sized birds. Then he talked about the all-day symposium about the effects of cats on birds. About one paper, Hugh writes:

Pete Marra, of the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center, followed Gray Catbirds around three neighborhoods in Washington, D.C., and Maryland. His team, including a network of nearly 300 citizen-science volunteers, put tiny tracking devices on about 100 young catbirds just as they were leaving the nest. In a cat-free neighborhood in Bethesda, 65 percent of these nestlings survived their first two months in the outdoors. But in two DC suburbs with high cat populations, roughly six out of every 10 fledglings died over the same period. Most were eaten by cats – fieldworkers often caught the cats in the act, Marra said.

Deaths among the just-out-of-the-nest crowd add up. Standard ways of gauging a population’s health (whether it’s increasing or decreasing) base their estimates on how often nests are successful – but they ignore the differences in a young bird’s survival prospects. When Marra factored in the effect of cats, catbird populations that had appeared to be increasing were revealed to be declining.

Then, on a literally lighter note, he talked about one paper regarding American Goldfinch male plumage. The more brilliant yellows come from the carotenoid pigments in their food, but apparently there is a cost to this brilliance--high (but natural) levels of the pigments have a bad effect on goldfinch livers and muscles.

Then he summarized some interesting posters, including one about lead levels in eagles and ravens in Yellowstone National Park increasing dramatically right after hunting season opens in Wyoming. Birds are picking up lead bullet fragments as they eat carcasses and entrails left by hunters.

Yesterday he wrote about an interesting hour-long talk by Dr. Rosemary Grant regarding Darwin's finches still evolving, and hybridizing, and about two short sessions, one about bluebirds evicting Brown-headed Nuthatches from nestboxes, and about what happens when Alaskan King Eiders mingle with eiders from Siberia.

Hugh's an interesting and fun writer--his blog is really worth your time!

Friday, August 1, 2008

Ironies abound

Wow--it's already August first! This is (at least so far) the first year since 1985, when I had two toddlers and was pregnant or with a newborn, when I haven't added a single lifer--ironic when it's the first year I've worked at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, huh? But that's because I've been adjusting to a whole new routine and getting used to living in a splendid new area--at least I've added lots of new New York birds!

But last night I learned that not only wasn't I adding a lifer this year--I was actually LOSING one! The new AOU supplement, which the ever-wonderful Rick Wright summarized on his blog, has lumped Common Black-Hawk and Mangrove Black-Hawk. They jettisoned the hyphen on what was known as the Green Violet-ear. I sort of liked that one, since when you put it into one word, it sounds like a purple tear to me (Violetear). But sadly, they still seem to be keeping those gawdawful hyphens in names like Black-Hawk and Sage-Grouse. This seems to me unfortunate because you then can't find them in normal indexes under hawk or grouse. Oh, well. Serving on that committee has to be the most thankless job on the planet.

But I'm going to have to do something QUICK if I'm going to not end up with a net loss in my birds this year. I'm hoping to get to go to the ever-fabulous Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival in November. It has to be one of the most fun and rewarding festivals ANYWHERE. I was an invited speaker several years ago, but although my talk was well-received, it was extremely poorly-attended, so I haven't merited another invite. Oh, well. It's still a grand festival! And if I'm lucky some cool bird will show up that I still need.