Archive for the ‘Bird brains’ Category

Singing Sparrows

June 6, 2014

Chipping_Sparrow

From The New York Times we learn that chipping sparrows love their neighbors, but only if they are weaklings. Male intruders can invade and take over another bird’s territory and strong invaders are usually the winners. Male chipping sparrows will form a neighborhood coalition to defend their territories, but apparently only if the intruder is weaker.  And how do they know this?  By the intruder’s song.  If the intruding sparrow’s trill is weaker, i.e. slower, then that bird is less aggressive.  A faster trill indicates a strong invader.

Stick to those music lessons, little chippers!

Click here to read the New York Times article.

In a Bird’s Nest, an Animal Behavior Puzzle

December 11, 2013

From The New York Times

Sometimes the scientists who study animal behavior solve puzzles and other times they uncover new ones. The war between mockingbirds and cowbirds is a case in point.

Cowbirds are brood parasites, meaning they lay their eggs in the nests of other bird species, thus unloading the messy and demanding business of chick-rearing. They also peck holes in the eggs of the host birds, destroying as many as they can.

Mockingbirds are a favorite target of this plan, and it seems to make perfect sense for them to viciously attack cowbirds when they catch them in the nest.

But when Ros Gloag, then a doctoral student at Oxford, and her colleagues in Argentina looked closely at the war between chalk-browed mockingbirds and shiny cowbirds, they found something unexpected, as they reported in the November issue of Animal Behaviour.

They stationed small video cameras near the nests of 40 pairs of chalk-browed mockingbirds. Over two breeding seasons they recorded more than 200 attacks on intruding cowbirds.

They were surprised to find that these attacks, which their videos show to be quite vicious, did not stop the cowbirds from laying eggs. The cowbirds would hunker down and let the much large mockingbirds deliver hammer blows to the head, but in matter of seconds they would lay an egg and flee.

How could such a failed strategy persist in evolution?

The answer, according to Dr. Gloag, now a postdoctoral researcher at Australian National University, was that the attacks did prevent the cowbirds from carrying out the second prong of their plan, destroying the mockingbird eggs already in the nest.

So the mockingbirds managed to save some of their offspring. They still end up raising unwanted baby cowbird guests. But, said Dr. Gloag, once the eggs hatch, the larger mockingbird chicks compete very well with the smaller cowbirds.

PERMALINK + VIDEO: The New York Times

Shapeshifting and the New Crossley ID Guide to Raptors

March 12, 2013

“Faster than a speeding bullet! More powerful than a locomotive! Able to leap tall buildings at a single bound! Look! Up in the sky! It’s a bird. No, it’s a plane. No, it’s Superman!”

Image

Well, no. Actually it is a bird.

In fact, it’s the fastest animal on earth. While the cheetah plods along at 70 mph this bird can zoom through the sky up to 240 mph. Plummeting from the heavens and enduring G forces that would kill a person, this paragon of flight and vision, with eyes that see shapes and patterns humans can’t, entered mythology long before Richard Crossley wrote his marvelous new Princeton Crossley ID Guide to Raptors. Another Englishman, J.A. Baker wrote, “Evanescent as flame peregrines sear across the cold sky and are gone, leaving no sign in the blue haze above.” They are, these peregrines, the little brothers and little sisters of Eagle.

“What do they see?” wondered Anaximander of Miletus about these birds two thousand five hundred years ago. About the same time, the Native Americans of North America knew what they saw. Shapeshifting was easier then and many people, not just the shamans, could do it. Later, ordinary people lost the power of flight and only shamans could do it. Soon human flight became metaphorical flight and the idea of the soul as a bird was born. Then flight and intelligence joined. In the Hindu Rig Veda we read, “Among all things that fly, the mind is the swiftest.” Another ancient text proclaims, “Those who know have wings.” Calling someone a “bird brain” is a high compliment indeed.

crossleyraptorsA fine new book is on the way about peregrines and all the other raptors of the world. Princeton’s Crossley ID Guide to Raptors will soon be available and promises to be every bit as useful and as beautiful as the other guides in the series. You can pre-order from our store, The Fat Finch.

Long before people and animals lost the ability to shapeshift, the Apache Black Hactcin held out his hand and a drop of rain fell into his palm. He mixed it with earth and fashioned the first bird from the resulting mud. The bird flew and the Hactcin saw that that the bird needed companions so he grabbed the mud-bird and whirled it around his head, faster and faster. The mud-bird grew very dizzy and began to see many images as it whirled around. He saw hawks and eagles, other raptors, and song birds too. Then the Hactcin stopped whirling the mud-bird and those images became real birds. To this day the raptors created in that Apache’s whirl live in the air and seldom land on the ground because the rain that helped create them fell from the sky.

DIGITAL CAMERAHigh on the mountain in New Mexico known as Shiprock lived the bird-monsters that were eating all the people on the earth. This was before modern raptors. It is said that one of the Navajo Hero Twins, Monster Slayer climbed the huge rock and killed both of the bird monsters. Two fledglings in the nest were terrified, but Monster Slayer decided not to kill them. To the eldest he said, “You will give us plumes for our rites and bones we will use to make whistles.” Whirling the fledgling around his head four times he flung it high in the air and it became First Eagle. To the younger monster bird he said, “You will be an oracle to my people and foretell the future. Sometimes you will tell the truth and other times you will lie.” He whirled that bird around his head four times and, as he did so, the bird’s head became large and round and its eyes grew larger and larger until the bird became First Owl.

Once a water monster made war on the people and flooded the earth. Only one person survived, a young woman. As she was about to drown a great eagle — perhaps the one made by the Apache or maybe the Navajo one — flew over the young woman, allowing her to grab his talons. He flew with her to the top of a spire in the Black Hills where he lived in his aerie. It was the only dry place on earth. There they lived as man and wife and they had two children, a boy and a girl. When the waters finally receded these two children of an eagle and a human returned to the earth and founded the Lakota Nation.

From the Crossley Guide, used with permission

From the Crossley Guide, used with permission

Some scoff at these creation stories from other and older cultures, but doubters may remember that physicists have just found the Higgs Boson, the last remaining particle necessary to confirm the family of elementary particles predicted by the Standard Model of physics. That means one single electron can be in two places at the same time. In fact, it can be everywhere at the same time. It’s sister electron can be at the far end of the universe but it can communicate with her instantaneously, never mind the speed of light. Superposition is real. Nothing is certain. Matter is nothing but highly concentrated energy that shapeshifted into the mass that blurs in the sky above you as Eagle’s little brother, the peregrine, hunts.

The universe is a strange place and we all should remember Niels Bohr’s injunction to no less a person than Albert Einstein. “Albert”, he said, “perhaps your idea of reality is too limited.”

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This post is part of Princeton’s Blog Tour and we’re supposed to send you on to the next stop at The Flying Mullet. As they say in Spanish, que le vaya bien. (Travel well.) Thanks to Jessica Pellien of Princeton for organizing the tour. She has done good work.

The Elegance of Vultures

December 3, 2012

TV -1We had our first “up close and personal” meeting with a Turkey Vulture this weekend. She is a rescued bird who cannot be released into the wild and so is kept by our local wildlife rescue facility as an educational bird. We had a special shopping/fund-raising event at The Fat Finch over the weekend and the wildlife rescue folks brought several birds for our shoppers to see.

As is my custom when photographing portraits, I spent a little time getting to know her before hauling out my camera. (Knowing something about your subjects is critical if you are do them justice in a portrait.) Surprisingly, after watching her for a little while I realized that the word that kept arising in my mind to describe her was “elegant”.

Somehow most of us don’t associate vultures with elegance. But the grace with which she moves, the gentle brilliance of her eyes, and her centered calmness all add up to elegance. Think Cary Grant or Grace Kelly in feathers.

Of course, I’m not the first to note fine qualities in Turkey Vultures. Here is Edward Abbey,

Let us praise the noble turkey vulture: No one envies him; he harms nobody; and he contemplates our little world from a most serene and noble height.

TV 2-1And I shouldn’t have been at all surprised with her down-to-earth elegance. I’ve spent many happy hours in my life watching vultures soar on thermals high with hardly a feather stirring as they ride on outstretched wings. Elegantly.

But they are the eaters of death and I suppose that is why we don’t usually associate them with elegance. We have a New Yorker cartoon refrigerator magnet in the store that shows two vultures sitting on a tree talking to one another. One vulture says to the other, “Of course dead is important but taste matters too.”

And I must say that after meeting her I agree entirely with Abbey who, before dying, made arrangements to feed his death to the vultures. He wrote,

If my decomposing carcass helps nourish the roots of a juniper tree or the wings of a vulture–that is immortality enough for me.

Calmly Facing Tribulation

August 1, 2011

Given all the bad news in the world and the dysfunctional U.S. government, we recommend this thirty-second  video of a stoic bird teaching us patience.

Toe Dusting

December 10, 2010

We met a Barn Owl this week. We liked him, but he didn’t care for us. As a matter of fact, when your author walked in to our store where the local animal rescue people had brought it for educational purposes, the owl lowered its head and shook it in the universally recognized shake of disapproval. The rescuers of the owl told me not to take it personally, but I knew better. That owl was rescued after an encounter with a high voltage electrical line which it would not have encountered were it not for humanity’s insatiable desire for electricity. He had no use for me or any other of my fellow Homo sapiens, except possibly for those who rescued him and now care for him.

The rescuers assured us the owl was “toe dusting.” Fairly new to its role as a teacher of humans, the owl was stressed and toe dusting was the physical sign of that stress. Ornithologists hold that Barn Owls lower their heads and shake it over their talons, either as an aggressive signal or as a defensive behavior.

Toe Dusting

I don’t believe it. They do it as a message of disapproval, just like that herbaceous Mountain Goat on the Olympian Peninsula in Washington State a few weeks ago when it gored a man in the leg and then stood over the man until he bled to death. The animals are getting angry with us and who can blame them?

But even if it was threatening me, that owl has the softest eyes of any bird I’ve ever seen up close. Mind you, if I were a field mouse or a vole scuttling across a snow field on a cold, crystalline night and looked up when that owl’s shadow crossed the snow I doubt that I would find anything soft about those eyes. I would see the eyes of a minister of death. And that shadow I would see the instant before my death would be the first clue I had that an owl was anywhere nearby: Owls are about the only land-dwelling animals who never make a sound they don’t intend to make.

But I was in no danger from the owl, and I loved his eyes. They reminded me of Edward Howe Forbush springing to the defense of Barn Owls in his magisterial Birds of Massachusetts and Other New England States. Defending them from unjust persecution, he called them “benefactors to mankind.”

Like Forbush, I may be susceptible to emotional projection and may have mirrored my own consciousness when I looked in those eyes, but I don’t believe that either. Those were the wise eyes of an old soul looking out at me.

Merlin

The rescuers also brought a Merlin with them. Nothing soft about a Merlin’s eyes I can assure you. Falcon eyes put one in mind of Yeats’ horseman,

Cast a cold eye

On life, on death.

Horseman, pass by!

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Here is our post on identifying Barn Owls and here is more on Barn Owls and Halloween. George Orwell also wrote about Barn Owls.

Bird Cages

September 20, 2010

After another week in the mountains, we bought the jays a new platform feeder. Coming to the top of the car just did not suit their independent nature. The tray feeder was eventually accepted, but not until Oregon Juncos and White-breasted Nuthatches did the reconnaissance work. Here is one of the jays, checking things out from a nearby tree.

Spending a little time watching them reminded us of the words of Isak Dinesen (pen name of Karen Blixen).  She wrote,

If only I could so live and so serve the world that after me there should never again be birds in cages.

Artistic Pigeon

August 30, 2010

Artistic Pigeon

We have, from time to time, leapt to the defense of the lowly pigeon. Messengers in war, food in war, lovers of cities – these birds have a close affinity to their distant cousins, humans.

This one, for instance, is a lover of fine art. Accordingly, it chooses to live at the Chicago Art Institute. It is itself an artist. Notice this bird’s use of color.   Red legs, orange eyes, juxtaposition of white and brown feathers, its brilliant choice of green and blue for its background, and its acute sense of composition. (Click on the photo for a larger version.) We found it in the courtyard, next to the pond with the male mermaids who are a little too “R” rated for us to post a photo of them.

Chicago doesn’t want us to feed the pigeons and  politely posts signs around the city asking us not to feed them, but I suspect many humans ignore the request. Otherwise, the pigeons wouldn’t live there in such numbers.  Or put up with the EL trains rumbling overhead, as this one does.

EL Pigeon

When it comes to a city: If you build it, they will come.

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We’d like to thank our loyal readers for sticking with us this summer. Posts have been few, but we’re back on track now. Even this particular post had to wait because WordPress decided it “had a problem” with some of our content. That was a mystery. This is a blog about birds and birders for goodness sake. We don’t do porn, we don’t do politics, we don’t even do windows.  But they fixed the problem and we appreciate it. WordPress is one of the wonders of the modern world.

The Superbowl – The Magpies v. The Crows

February 15, 2010

The Stadium

While most of America spent Superbowl Sunday watching the contest between the Saints and the Colts, we took our annual Superbowl bird outing. Superbowl Sunday is always a fine day for birding in the U.S. because one hundred million of us stay indoors watching the game, leaving highways and trails relatively deserted.


Actually, we spent the entire Superbowl week birding in one form or another. The Fat Finch had to go to market and market was in San Francisco and so part of our birding consisted of looking at seagulls out the window of the Buena Vista Cafe where, purely coincidentally, Irish Coffee is served.

Even though we missed the football game, we watched an athletic contest between the Magpies and the Crows. The stadium was a tree in which several crows were sitting about idly and minding their own business, as far as we could tell. But they upset two Yellow-billed Magpies who determined to evict the crows. The magpies were on a grassy slope some distance from the tree but clearly believed the tree was in their territory.

Kicking off

Yellow-billed Magpies live only in Northern and Central California valleys. Why they evolved yellow beaks instead of the regular black beaks sported by all their other and larger magpie cousins is a mystery, as is the variable yellow eye patch. The valleys of Northern California must demand a certain extra elegance. At any rate, that is in only place you’ll find Yellow-billed Magpies.

Magpie ancestors arrived in North America three to four million years ago. The Yellow-bills probably got isolated from Black-bills due to subsequent ice ages and the uplifting Sierra Nevada. By the time of the Pleistocene, they were on their own. Recent mitochondrial DNA analysis proves that Black-billed Magpies are far closer relatives of Yellow-bills than of the similar looking Black-billed Magpies of Eurasia and North Africa.

The Contest

Magpies, by the way, along with Scissor-tailed and Fork-tailed Flycatchers, are the only land birds in North America whose tails are longer than their bodies.

A Loser Departing the Stadium

Magpies and crows are both Corvids and, one assumes, about equal in intelligence. In other words, both are smart. Crows have a size advantage but the magpies make up for that with faster aerial acrobatics. The contest was noisy but the two magpies routed six or seven crows, claiming the tree for their own. After the game was over and the crows departed, both magpies returned to the grassy slope and continued pecking their way across it. No victory parade followed.

The Victorious Return

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For more on Yellow-billed Magpies, Pica nuttalli, try this from UC Davis and this from the Magpie monitor organization. BNA, subscription required, has a detailed entry as well. For suggested places to see Yellow-billed Magpies, go here.

For a humorous take on the anthropology of the Superbowl, go here.

While the two Yellow-billed Magpies we watched rout the crows got no victory parade, they are no strangers to communal rituals including funerals. We’ll be back with more about that another time.

Click on the photos above for larger versions.

Geese Brains

January 5, 2010

Our readers know that calling someone a “bird brain” is no more an insult that calling that person a “bright bulb.”  But if you know doubters who somehow missed the science about avian intelligence, you can send them this.  Apparently the owners thought a couple of scarecrows would keep the Canada Geese off their lawn.  The geese were not amused.


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