Archive for the ‘Ecology’ Category

Bird Irruptions

January 8, 2014

By The Fat Finch

When I first heard this term I had a vision of little birds spewing out of a volcano. But we’re not talking about that kind of eruption.

In the avian world, a bird irruption is a term scientists use to describe unusually large numbers of non-migratory northern birds that move out of their nesting range, typically in North America’s boreal forest. The birds leave the vast, wild expanse of forest, tundra and wetlands that span the width of Canada and Alaska to spend the winter farther south than normal. The irruption occurs because of changes in food supply.

The species that most commonly engage in irruption behavior are northern owls, such as the Great Gray Owl and Snowy Owl and certain grosbeaks including evening grosbeaks. In irruptive years, large numbers of these species may move down into the United States.

This  winter there is an irruption of snowy owls coming down into the United States as far down as Kansas and northern Colorado. And this event is causing another kind of eruption—photographers and birders are swarming into these areas to photograph and view these magnificent birds.

Several springs ago a very large number of western tanagers migrated through my area of the world (New Mexico) and stayed for approximately three weeks before heading to their normal summer homes. Was it an irruption? No, it was simply a normal migration of birds who occasionally stay in larger numbers for a longer period of time before moving on. It was a lucky and enjoyable event—I didn’t get much work done because I was staring out the window constantly looking at these gorgeous birds. They also ate 20 lbs of grape jelly off my oriole feeders during those three weeks.

Bird migration is a familiar and predictable seasonal movement of birds. Species that migrate do so every year at approximately the same time, traveling in a predetermined pattern, often to exactly the same destination time after time. Migrations are closely related to the breeding season and the arrival of spring in the breeding range. In contrast, irruptions are unpredictable. It’s all part of the wonderful and amazing world of birds.

Bird Poop Coffee

December 26, 2013

ImageThis bird may be to coffee what pigs are to truffles.  The “Jacu” bird  is the name given to a family of birds—the Guans. Found in the forests of Latin America, there are 15 species. It turns out that these birds have quite the “nose” for good coffee. They eat only the very best of coffee beans and because their diet is vegetarian, their poop is not contaminated by animal proteins. Organic coffee growers are paying workers extra to find and extract the beans from the Jacu’s poop. The beans are then cleaned and peeled by hand.

Time to run out and buy a pound?  Not so fast.  It costs about $24.00 a pound.  Maybe we’ll ask Santa for some next year and post our test results on flavor.

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

10 Ways to Help Migratory Birds

December 2, 2013

From the National Wildlife Federation

ImageFrom the American Bird Conservancy: top 10 things you can do in your home or yard to help declining migratory birds

The American Bird Conservancy (ABC) often gets asked how people can help birds during this time of year. Toward that end, ABC has identified the top ten things people can do to aid or protect migratory birds in their homes and yards.

1.  Keep your cat indoors—this is best for your cat as well as the birds, as indoor cats live an average of three to seven times longer. Even well fed cats kill birds, and bells on cats don’t effectively warn birds of cat strikes. For more information, go to http://www.abcbirds.org/cats.

2.  Prevent birds from hitting your windows by using a variety of treatments to the glass on your home—check out ABC’s tips at http://www.abcbirds.org/abcprograms/policy/collisions/glass.html

3.  Eliminate pesticides from your yard—even those pesticides that are not directly toxic to birds can pollute waterways and reduce insects that birds rely on for food.

4.  Create backyard habitat—if you have a larger yard, create a diverse landscape by planting native grasses, flowers, and shrubs that attract native birds. You will be rewarded by their beauty and song, and will have fewer insect pests as a result.

5.  Donate old birdwatching equipment such as binoculars or spotting scopes to local birdwatching groups—they can get them to schools or biologists in other countries who may not have the resources they need.

6.  Reduce your carbon footprint—use a hand-pushed or electric lawnmower, carpool, use low energy bulbs and Energy Star appliances. Contact your energy supplier and ask them about purchasing your energy from renewable sources.

7.  Buy organic food and drink shade-grown coffee—increasing the market for produce grown without the use of pesticides, which can be toxic to birds and other animals, will reduce the use of these hazardous chemicals in the U.S. and overseas. Shade coffee plantations maintain large trees that provide essential habitat for wintering songbirds.

8.  Keep feeders and bird baths clean to avoid disease and prevent mosquitoes from breeding.

9.  Support bird friendly legislation both locally and in the U.S. Congress.

10.  Join a bird conservation group—learn more about birds and support important conservation work.

According to ABC, birds need our help now more than ever.  In addition to the ongoing threat of loss of habitat that is becoming magnified by global warming, millions of birds are directly killed due to a number of different human-related causes.
Scientists estimate that 300 million to 1 billion birds die each year from collisions with buildings. Up to 50 million die from encounters with communication towers.  At least 11 million die from car strikes.  Another 1 million may die each day from attacks by cats left outdoors.

Some of these deaths occur year-round but many occur during the peak spring and fall migrations. Some studies suggest that perhaps as many as half of all migrating birds do not make it back to spring and summer grounds, succumbing to various threats on either end of the journey.

“Protecting and helping birds is not only the right thing to do, it is also good for the economy and the future of our environment. Birds are invaluable as controllers of insect pests and as pollinators of crops, and also generate tremendous economic revenues through the pastimes of bird feeding and birdwatching,” says ABC President George Fenwick.

A recent federal government study reports that over 20 percent of the U.S. population – 48 million people – participates in birdwatching.  Of that total, about 42 percent (20 million people) actually travel to see birds. Birders spend about $36 billion annually in pursuit of their pastime.  The top five birdwatching states by percentage of total population are: Montana (40%); Maine (39%); Vermont (38%); Minnesota (33%); and Iowa (33%).

Photo of Scarlet Tanager by Brian Tang

PERMALINK: National Wildlife Federation

Brazilian Logger Turned Birder Aims to Turn His Community into Bird Sanctuary

December 2, 2013

From SustainableTrip.org

sustainableTripIn the heart of the Brazilian Amazon is the Rio Negro Sustainable Development Reserve, an area that is rich in biodiversity and home to several small communities that depend on natural resources for a living. Pousada Garrido is the only hotel in the Tumbira region, and it is owned by a former logger and community leader named Roberto Mendonça.

Pousada Garrido has become a source of income for Mendonça as well as several other local families who offer tourism services to visitors. The inn also uses solar energy (as does the entire community), recycles, supports local artisans with reusable materials, and purchases foods from local producers. This year, Pousada Garrido earned Rainforest Alliance verification for sustainable tourism.
Tourists are drawn to Tumbira for the richness and exuberance of its forests, including the many bird species that abound there.

Mendonça partnered with a local tour guide named Cleudilon, whose nickname is Passarinho, or “little bird” in Portuguese, because he can perfectly imitate 32 types of birds! (Scroll down to see an awesome video of Cleudilon calling to birds in the forest.) The two recently undertook a project to make the inn into a perfect site for bird watching. And you can help make it happen! Visit the community’s crowdfunding page, to help them turn Tumbira into a community-based ecotourism center.

Paula Arantes of Garupa, the NGO helping Mendonça and Cleudilon raise money for the project, tells us more about the initiative.

Question: What is the plan for the money you hope to raise?
Paula Arantes: Roberto and Cleudilon want to turn their community into a birding and community tourism center. To get started, they intend to adapt the infrastructure of Pousada Garrido to sustainably accommodate more guests and provide what is needed for birding. They also want to publish a guide to the local birdlife as a reference for tourists and an educational resource for the children of the community.

Q: Why are Tumbira and Pousada Garrido such special places for bird watching?
Arantes: Though you can see birds everywhere in Amazon, Tumbira is special because its pathways make it easy to see many varieties of birds, and the area is easily accessible by land or by boat. Furthermore, Cleudilon’s incredible talent for imitating birds and really enhances the birding experience.

Q: What do you need to carry out the project?
Arantes: Investments need to be made to expand the inn without negatively impacting the environment. More equipment is also needed for bird watching, and Cleudilon needs resources to develop the bird guide. The goal is to raise around US$8,800 (20,000 Brazilian reales) to help cover building materials, labor, the development of the guide, and more.

Q: What progress has been made so far?
Arantes: Thanks to the Rainforest Alliance verification process, we’ve identified the appropriate areas for making investments and improvements in a sustainable way.

Q: How does this project benefit the community?
Arantes: More tourists means more sustainable income for the residents! Supporting community-based tourism is one of the best ways for travelers to ensure that their vacation is sustainable.

Q: How can people help?
Arantes: On the project page on the Garupa website, you can find more details about the initiative and make an online donation to co-finance this effort. Donors receive tokens of appreciation, such as photographs, the bird guide, and even stays at the inn, depending on the amount contributed. Donating any amount, no matter how small, and sharing our project with your friends and family is the best way to make Roberto’s dream a reality!

PERMALINK: sustainabletrip.org

Negative Effects of Road Noises on Migratory Birds

December 2, 2013

From Science Daily

A first-of-its-kind study by Boise State University researchers shows that the negative effects of roads on wildlife are largely because of traffic noise.

Biologists have known that bird populations decline near roads. But pinpointing noise as a cause has been a problem because past studies of the effects of road noise on wildlife were conducted in the presence of the other confounding effects of roads. These include visual disturbances, collisions and chemical pollution, among others.

“We present the first study to experimentally apply traffic noise to a roadless area at a landscape scale, thus avoiding the other confounding aspects of roads present in past studies,” said Christopher J. W. McClure, post-doctoral research associate in the Department of Biological Sciences.

“Understanding the effects of road noise can help wildlife managers in the selection, conservation and management of habitat for birds,” said Jesse R. Barber, assistant professor of biological sciences and one of McClure’s fellow researchers.

Beside McClure and Barber, researchers in the study include Heidi E. Ware, graduate student; Jay Carlisle, assistant research professor and research director of the Idaho Bird Observatory; and Gregory Kaltenecker, executive director of the Idaho Bird Observatory.

Researchers created a phantom road on a ridge southeast from Lucky Peak, near the Idaho Bird Observatory’s field site. Putting speakers in trees, they played roadway sounds at intervals, alternating four days of noise on with four days off during the autumn migratory period. The researchers conducted daily bird surveys along their phantom road and at a nearby control site.

“We documented more than a one-quarter decline in bird abundance and almost complete avoidance by some species between noise-on and noise-off periods along the phantom road,” Barber said. “There were no such effects at control sites. This suggests that traffic noise is a major driver of the effects of roads on populations of animals.”

PERMALINK: Science Daily

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.

Petrichor

June 24, 2011

Larry Glover

The southwest United States is burning up. According to my math the fires in West Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and Colorado have burned more than 900,000 acres as of this afternoon. The relative humidity outside the room where I write this is three per cent. That’s right, three per cent. (3%)

It is so dry here that I saw a Great-tailed Grackle fly to one of our little circulating fountains yesterday and dip a dead lizard in the water before flying off to eat the lizard. Apparently, even the lizards are too dry to eat without moistening first. (Either that or the grackle was pretending to be a raccoon.) Our chickens stand around their water dishes panting between drinks. Our hummingbird visitors are barely active during the day, it’s so hot and dry.

To paraphrase the Irish poet, Seamus Heaney, the prairies slice the big sky at evening and the smoke crusts the sight of the sunsets.

Smoke Encrusted Sunset

And that explains why I’ve been thinking today of a marvelous word: petrichor. (PET-ri-kuhr)It is a noun describing the wonderful smell of dry desert ground right after a rain. Coined by researchers I.J. Bear and R.G. Thomas it combines “petro” (rock) with “ichor” (the fluid that flowed through the veins of the Greek gods.)The science holds that the rain releases oils from vegetation, resulting in the odor. The more romantic explanation is that the dry, sere, parched earth is rejoicing.

I don’t care; I just want to smell it again. So do the birds.

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Thanks to Larry Glover of Wild Resiliency for permission to use the photograph of the fire  burning in the Sangre de Cristo mountains outside Santa Fe, New Mexico. Weather Bureau radar confirmed that the smoke plume in that photo was 27,000 feet above the surface or 34,000 feet above sea level.

A New Albatross for Midway

January 28, 2011

 

Short-tailed Albatross -Photo coutrtesy of Jlfutari at en.wikipedia

The New York Times reported a bit of good news this month. A Short-tailed Albatross was born on Midway Atoll. Midway, the atoll about half-way between San Francisco and Tokyo – and near where the Battle of Midway was fought during WWII – is now a wildlife refuge protected by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Midway is the home base for millions of Laysan Albatrosses, but very few Short-tailed Albatrosses.

 

That’s because Short-tailed Albatrosses were almost extirpated from the earth in the late 19th century. People liked their feathers, you see, and hunters killed them in vast numbers to supply the market.

 

Midway Atoll in 1941 (U.S. Navy Photo)

They were not the famed “Gooney Birds” of Midway that caused so much trouble to airmen stationed on the Atoll during WWII. By the early 1930′s short-tails were known to breed on only one Japanese island and, by the end of the War, were thought to be extinct. However, a few hardy birds wisely spent WWII at sea, survived, and returned to the Japanese Island in 1949. Until this month, not one pair was known to have bred on Midway, despite the fact that millions of its cousins Laysan and Black-footed Albatrosses do breed there.

 

Around the same time humans were mindlessly hunting the short-tail version into extinction, we also began laying the first undersea cable between North America and Asia. Some of that work was done by an American cable-laying consortium which set up an outpost on Midway. Its workers promptly brought many non-native species to the Island to “improve” it. They improved it with canaries, cats, dogs, deciduous trees of all kinds, and – best of all – cockroaches, termites, and centipedes. When we humans set about improving a place, we do the whole job, not just a part of it.

When this “improvement” of Midway was brought to President Theodore Roosevelt’s attention, he promptly sent twenty-one marines to Midway with orders to hold the atoll for the United States and stop the “improvement” before it killed all the birds. After almost a century of use as a Naval air station, the atoll became a national wildlife refuge in 1988 and is now safe for the albatrosses.

 

Improving Enewetak Atoll

 

It is fitting that the United States protects Midway and has now hosted a new short-tailed baby. Short-tails used to breed on another Pacific atoll, Enewetak. We touched off forty some odd nuclear bombs on that 2.5 square mile atoll where the Short-tailed albatross once bred. We took care to remove all the people, but I imagine a great many birds were turned into elementary particles during the time we used the atoll to conduct nuclear tests. We’ve improved it too. We scraped off as much radioactive soil as we could, buried in a big hole on the atoll, and covered with a huge concrete mound. People have returned but, if I were a bird, I’d be hesitant to believe that we’re through with our improvements. Besides, as you can see, the concrete bunker doesn’t leave many good nesting sites.

Enewetak Today ( DOE Photo)

So, welcome to a new citizen and may he or she have a long life soaring over northern Pacific waters, knowing it will have a home on Midway to come home to in a few years when it’s time to breed.

 

Backyard Ecology

January 14, 2011

WARNING: GROSSNESS ALERT – What follows could be considered gross by any rational human being. Feel free to skip this post and come back next week.

________________________

We’ve never had a problem with seed falling to the ground from our bird feeders. Yes, the songbirds drop a lot of it but we have a few pigeons – and we don’t mind pigeons; in fact, we rather like them – and the dogs love to vacuüm the seed.  They eat a lot of the fallen seed, but they don’t actually digest much of it. Most of it comes out from the other end the next day. Still it is a means of collecting the spilled seed that compacts it and makes it easier to pick up.

But this week we discovered that the pigeons don’t want any seed to go to waste. Here is the photographic proof:

The Ecology of Efficiency

Yes. That is what you think it is. A photo of pigeons picking seed out of the dog poop. We warned you it was gross, but you have to admit: It’s efficient.

 


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