Posts Tagged ‘Birding’

Thought for this March Day

March 29, 2008

Snow Geese

One swallow does not make a summer, but one skein of geese, cleaving the murk of a March thaw is the spring.  A cardinal, whistling spring to a thaw but later finding himself mistaken, can retrieve his error by resuming his winter silence.  A chipmunk, emerging for a sunbath but finding a blizzard, has only to go back to bed.  But a migrating goose, staking two hundred miles of black night on the chance of finding a hole in the lake, has no easy chance for retreat.  His arrival carries the conviction of a prophet who has burned his bridges.

- Aldo Leopold -


March 25, 2008

“I now belong to the higher cult of mortals,
For I have seen the Albatross.” Robert Cushman Murphy

Wandering albatross

Much to my chagrin and regret I’ve never seen an Albatross. Probably comes from being born and raised on a desert. Albatrosses avoid deserts. Not enough water I suppose. Or perhaps it is the thermals. Albatrosses skim along barely above the surface of the Southern Ocean over which they fly and so would be unused to desert thermals which could shoot them up 15,000 feet in a wingbeat. They would get nosebleeds.

I grew up suspecting Albatrosses were, like the Phoenix, mythical birds. Whoever heard of a bird that could spend almost all its life in flight, not seeing land for weeks at a time. It simply defied belief; like electricity or white zinfandel wines.

Actually, to be precise, I should say that I haven’t seen an Albatross in this lifetime. It is possible that reincarnation, like the Albatross, is for real and that I have been here in earlier lives. If so, I was in the Royal Navy during the Napoleonic Wars. I would have seen Albatrosses from my ship (I was a Post Captain. Here is one of my ships running before the wind in the Roaring Forties. That is me on the larboard side of the quarterdeck).

Me commanding ship of war
We often sailed in the Roaring Forties and Furious Fifties where Albatrosses fly regularly. We needed those consistent winds to get from England to the Far East or to get around Cape Horn and into the Pacific. (We stopped at the Galapagos once, in 1802, as I remember. Remind me sometime and I will tell you some things I noticed about the Finches there.)

The Roaring Forties, the Furious Fifties and the Screaming Sixties were the names we sailors gave to the Southern Latitudes where the Westerlies blow almost non-stop. Few land masses exist in those south latitudes so nothing breaks the winds. It is the windiest place on earth. It is also where most species of Albatrosses live.

Wandering Albatrosses, along with Royal Albatrosses, have the longest wingspans of any bird on earth. (Ten feet and longer) Because of their immense wings, which they can lock in place, their metabolic rate is hardly higher when they are flying than the rare times they rest on solid land.

Recent studies have confirmed a thing I noticed back in my Royal Navy days: Males are slightly heavier and have slightly longer wingspans than females. Thus the wing loading (weight divided by wing area) of males is significantly greater than females. This means that males need higher winds to soar. The further south one sails in those latitudes, the higher the winds; which probably accounts for the fact that we saw more male Albatrosses than females the further south we sailed.

Some things are too sublime for words:

Prostitution, For the Birds?

March 18, 2008

Normally we here at the Fat Finch leave current events to other bloggers.  We’re more interested in the long term which birds and nature so often and so well exemplify. But today we make an exception to mention the former Governor of New York, Eliot Sptizer.

In today’s New York Times Science section is a column by Natalie Angier about Spitzer’s prostitutorial flings.  The entire column, which is here, is about the rarity of complete life-long monogamy in nature.  Apparently even prostitution is not unheard of:

    Even the “oldest profession” that figured so prominently in Mr. Spitzer’s demise is old news. Nonhuman beings have been shown to pay for sex, too. Reporting in the journal Animal Behaviour, researchers from Adam Mickiewicz University and the University of South Bohemia described transactions among great grey shrikes, elegant raptorlike birds with silver capes, white bellies and black tails that, like 90 percent of bird species, form pair bonds to breed. A male shrike provisions his mate with so-called nuptial gifts: rodents, lizards, small birds or large insects that he impales on sticks. But when the male shrike hankers after extracurricular sex, he will offer a would-be mistress an even bigger kebab than the ones he gives to his wife — for the richer the offering, the researchers found, the greater the chance that the female will agree to a fly-by-night fling.

There is some dispute about the Great Grey Shrike and whether it is the same bird known in North America as the Northern Shrike which, to add to the confusion, may or may not be the same species as the Loggerhead Shrike.  The confusion results from the Bering land bridge of the Pleistocene and the fact that these birds breed in Alaska, Canada and Siberia.  We leave that discussion for another time.


March 14, 2008

Spring is coming to the Northern Hemisphere. We know this for three reasons. First, the great northward migration has begun and, in Europe, begun early. The first Barn Swallows arrived in Cyprus in early January and the first White Stork in Poland the first day of February. These birds, arriving from Africa, are taking quite a chance getting to Europe this early. It is still winter, especially in Northern Europe. Here is the news story.

White Stork

We also know that Spring is coming because we saw Chuck, our Greater Roadrunner and his lady friend today. Chuck had a leaf in his mouth and declined hamburger to fly off with the leaf which we think must mean the two of them are working on their nest. Or perhaps they are remembering Neruda, “I want to do with you what spring does with the cherry trees.”

Finally, it must be Spring because we put out the hummingbird feeders. We know it should be at least another two weeks before any arrive. No matter. We’re ready should they decide to come earlier. A weather system is predicted for the weekend with winds blowing from the south so it is possible a few will grab a ride on those winds.


Thanks to Mindaugas Urbonas for the photo of the White Storks.

Bird Sex, Part III

March 1, 2008

Dr. Olivia Judson, an evolutionary biologist who has a blog on the New York Times web site, recently asked one of the burning questions of modern science: Did Tyrannosaurus rex have a penis? Or two as some modern lizards do? Or, like most birds, none? (You can read her post here.) Modern birds may know the answer.


We know this question has been keeping you up nights and we’re happy to answer it.

Wait. Not so fast. First we need to set the stage. Five times in the known history of the planet mass extinctions wiped out most forms of life here. The biggest — the Permian-Triassic — happened about 251 million years ago, last Tuesday. (251 mya) The most well-known mass extinction was about 65 million years ago. (65 mya) This was the famous one, the Cretaceous Extinction, probably caused by an asteroid hitting the earth’s atmosphere somewhere above what is now the Gulf of Mexico. The resulting explosion vaporized everything nearby and sent up a cloud of dust so thick that it was decades before the sun shone through again. In the meantime almost all terrestrial life had starved or frozen to death, including the dinosaurs.

Not all life forms were wiped out. Obviously some survived; otherwise insufficient time would have passed for evolution to reach its pinnacle — the blogger.

A few bird ancestors lived through it. Specifically, two “superorders,” the Palaeognathae and the Neognathae. (There will be a test. ) Frankly, we know very little about how they came to exist before the extinction or how they survived it. About all we know for sure is that modern birds came from the two superorders, both of which came from dinosaurs. As Judson tells us, “Birds are more closely related to T. rex than they are to any living form.”

While we are fairly confident that birds evolved from dinosaurs we are not sure from which dinosaurs. One theory holds that birds evolved about 230 mya from Thecodonts. Another argues that birds developed from Theropods 150 mya. (Remember, there will be a test.) Still another asserts that birds arose from Dromaeosaurs about 110 mya. Which is correct depends on how dinosaurs learned to fly. Did they start by soaring or jumping or running after insects? More on that in a later post. Today we are concerned with sex, not flight.

As we discussed in our earlier posts about bird sex, which are here and here, most birds do not have penises. Procreation occurs when male and female birds touch their cloacae to one another. Only a few bird species possess penises. Some waterfowl and large flightless birds do. So do male crocodiles which, like birds, have cloacas; but also have a penis down which sperm passes on the outside, which is true for penis-owning birds as well. Crocodiles too descended from dinosaurs.

We’re close to the answer now. But first, we need to remind you that the fossil record does not answer the question about T-rex’s genitalia. The reason is simple: Except in a few mammals, penises consist of nothing but soft tissue which does not fossilize well. No fossil record of dinosaur penises exists. Which is why we look to birds for the answer.

Here is Dr. Judson’s answer:

The palaeos comprises the big flightless birds such as ostriches, emus, rheas, and cassowaries, as well as kiwis and an obscure (but flying) group of south American birds, the tinamous; the neos covers everything else. The palaeos have penises; like crocodiles, they keep them tucked into their cloacae. Again like crocodiles, the organ has an external groove for sperm. What’s more, the lineage leading to the other endowed birds, the ducks, geese, and swans, appears to have split off from that of the other neos relatively early.

This strongly suggests that the ancestor of all birds had a penis, and that at some point early in the evolution of the neognathous birds, the penis got lost.

Now you can get some sleep.


Part I of this series.

Part II of this series

Spotting Scope Review

February 26, 2008


Before Christmas we did two posts — here and here — on buying binoculars but have not yet done one about spotting scopes. In the meantime, the winter edition of Living Bird arrived in our mailbox. It has a good article with ratings of 36 spotting scopes. Better even than that, you can read the article for free here. The author does a fine job and there is no reason to think that any manufacturer is favored over any other. As we said in our posts about binoculars, there is a subjective component to optics that no one can quantify; the advice for scopes is the same as for binoculars: Look through as many brands and types as possible, price is a good indicator of quality, and buy the most expensive one you can comfortably afford.

Even though you can read the article for free, our unsolicited advice is to spring for a subscription to Living Bird. You’ll get a gorgeous magazine to hold in your hands and you’ll be helping that marvelous institution, the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology.

The Great Backyard Bird Count

February 7, 2008

Every year the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the Audubon Society run the Great Backyard Bird Count. This year’s is next weekend. Anyone can participate and it is no more difficult than looking out your window and counting the birds you see. You can do it all day long or for only a few minutes. All you have to do is spend a minimum of 15 minutes counting birds between February 15th and February 18th. Count the greatest number of any one or more species you see, write it down, then enter your results on the GBBC’s web page or mail the form and you are finished. It doesn’t matter where you count. If you want to get outside and head for a bird refuge, that’s fine. It is just as fine if you pour yourself a cup of coffee or tea and sit next to your favorite window and count the birds you see from the warmth of your home.

The data you will be asked for is on this form. You simply write the highest number of birds for each species you see that were together at any one time. For example, if you watched a feeder for 15 minutes and saw three House Sparrows, then five, then two, you report five house sparrows. You can either mail the form or use the on-line form here.

Not sure of all the birds known to be in your area? You can download a list based on your zip code here.

This is real science. An annual snapshot of birds gives scientists information about migratory patterns, global climate change, local weather effects on birds, and populations of endangered birds. Last year 11 million birds of more than 600 species were counted.

If you have unfrozen water out for your birds — and you should have, they need it –  maybe you’ll see what Charley Harper saw; an American Robin bathing.



February 5, 2008

We’re all ablog here at the Fatfinch this morning. We just discovered that this is our 100th post. To celebrate this arbitrary milestone, we’re going to take a bird walk. It snowed here last night so the world is white and fluffy and silent which will make the birds easier to see and hear. We’ll leave you a quote and a lovely bird.

What law, what reason can deny that gift so sweet, so natural
that God has given a stream, a fish, a beast, a bird?

Pedro Calderón de la Barca


December 27, 2007

Christmas in our house is a time for books. This year brought many and it will be many months before all are read and digested. Several are for the birds.

We’ve already read the first of those and it is a fine little book. Sightings. By Sam Keen. With lovely, not-to-be-missed illustrations by Mary Woodin. It is a little book about a large subject. Mr. Keen measures his life by numinous encounters with birds. Not “numerous”; “Numinous.”


Born into a family of Calvinists which, “shaped my psyche to be always anxious and striving, an easy grace descended on me whenever I escaped the embrace of my loving family.” His escapes were to eastern woods near his home and his first sacred sighting was on May 29, 1942. It was an Indigo Bunting. That sighting was followed by a Cardinal and a school teacher who also was a mentor and a birder. Since then Turkey vultures, Wild Turkeys, Mourning doves, and many other birds have opened for Mr. Keen vistas beyond birds. Birders, he asserts, are like other mystics, “. . .blessed with a special kind of vision of the world — the capacity to see eternity in a grain of sand or the presence of the sacred in the precision flying of a flock of blackbirds.” Birders are, “unusually susceptible to the emotion of awe.”

The book is a search for wisdom. Mr. Keen notes, “According to tradition the owl — the symbol of Athena, the goddess of wisdom — spreads its wings only with the arrival of dusk. Wisdom is the paradoxical art of seeing in the dark.”

His descriptions are precise. Here he is on the Wood Thrush. “You can identify the species by its eloquent dress. Think of a well-turned out English gentleman of the old school. The bird’s crown is tawny, passing into cinnamon brown on its back and shoulders, giving way to an olive-gray tail. It wears a contrasting polka-dot vest the color of clotted cream sprinkled liberally with blueberries.”


The best known member of the Thrush family is probably the American Robin but there are several more including all three Bluebird species found in North America. The Wood Thrush is a resident of the United States east of the Mississippi. At the end of the Wood Thrush’s chapter he writes, “Over the years, the Thrush’s shaman song has gradually transformed me into an enchanted agnostic. Unknowing. Amazed.” You can listen here (If you are taken to the main search page, type in “wood thrush.”)

Mr. Keen appears; however, not to be agnostic at all. Instead he seems religious. He efers frequently to the sacred, the numinous and, in an annoying affectation, to “G —” when he means God. Unless he is using the language carelessly, which seems unlikely given that he has been a professor of philosophy and religion, birds are for him a means to the sacred. An agnostic might accept “wondrous” or “awe” but not “sacred” nor “numinous.”

But this is quibbling. Mr. Keen did not write a book engaging in the great debate between Spinoza and Leibniz; he wrote a book about the wonder of birds, and he succeeded. It is a wondrous little book about wondrous birds and the joy they can bring to those attuned to them. We recommend it heartily. We’ll reread ourselves before our next birding trip.

Piping Plovers v. Feral Cats

November 17, 2007

By now you probably have heard about the criminal trial in Galveston, Texas in which the founder of the Galveston Ornithological Society was indicted and tried for shooting a stray cat that was about to kill a Piping Plover. pipingplover01.jpgThe jury deadlocked yesterday with 8 members in favor of convicting and 4 against. The District Attorney must now decide whether to try the case again. [1]If convicted, the birder could get up to two years in prison. Texas now outlaws the killing of any cat; but, at the time of the shooting, it was only illegal to kill a cat that belonged to somebody else. The deceased lived under a bridge in Galveston and the maintenance man there fed and named the cat although he had not purchased it; it did not live with him and he did not have it vaccinated.

No one knows how many feral cats there are in the United States. Somewhere between 60 million and 100 million. We do know about how many Piping Plovers are left. About 6,000. In the entire world. They are on the Endangered Species Act. The plovers are native to North America, the cats aren’t. Cats are an exotic species in North America brought and kept here by humans. Plovers are ground nesters and defenseless; having evolved in a North America free of cats.

The case caused an eruption among animal activists who are against killing feral cats. Wait. Before you birders stop reading, we’re going to say a couple of nice things about those people. They make two serious arguments, one of which is undeniably correct. And they profess to have pretty much the same goals as birders: the humane elimination of outdoor cat populations.

For instance, Alley Cats Allies, “. . . is dedicated to advocating for nonlethal methods to reduce outdoor cat populations.” The folks at Feral Cat Network believe:

the safest place for domestic cats is indoors; cats who are lucky enough to have a home should be kept strictly indoors. However, because of the overpopulation crisis, there are not enough available homes. The next best thing for homeless feral domestic cats born outdoors is a managed colony where food, water, shelter, and medical care are consistently provided.

Their first argument is: “Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR), the only humane, effective method to reduce their [feral cats] population.” They believe that an adequately funded program to trap all feral cats, neuter them and return them to their homeless outdoors will end feral cat colonies.

Science disagrees. Such programs have been studied in at least two Florida counties and one California program invested $9.5 million in managed cat colonies. Scientific studies demonstrated that less than five percent of feral cats were trapped and neutered. In the meantime, all the rest were doing what cats do, breeding. Cats, especially in warmer climates, breed year around; producing six to eighteen kittens each. For TNR to work, we would have to grab 60 to 100 million cats and neuter them all on the same day.

But feral cat lovers also argue – correctly – that the biggest single cause of the precipitous decline in bird populations isn’t cats, it is humans destroying bird habitats. If you don’t believe them, just look at this range map. piping_plover_na.gifPlovers used to live all over North America.

The Alleycats put the best face on this argument:

Considering the vast scale of human destruction of bird habitat, arguing about “cats-versus-birds” trivializes the critical issues facing bird populations today. Cat lovers and bird lovers can agree: the real danger to birds is humans.

The problem for the cats with this argument is that it overlooks the salient fact that the cats are a part of the human destruction of habitat. If Western Europeans had not colonized North America there would be no cats here in the first place. Not only are the cats killing the birds – and cats kill even when they are not hungry and do not eat their kill – they also kill other prey species which makes it harder for the birds to get enough calories.

Humans created this problem; it is up to us to fix it. Just because cats don’t kill as many birds as humans is no reason not to stop what killing we can. Nor should we overlook the fact that feral cats live short, brutish lives. No one argues that the status quo should continue. The status quo is not humane.

We should also note that feral cat organizations believe with birders that cats are lovely INDOOR pets which should stay indoors. Much of the feral cat population problem can be laid at the doorstep of lazy cat owners who let their cats roam free, do not neuter them and – in some instances – simply abandon them and their kittens.

The question is what can we do? Obviously one shooter in Galveston can’t kill 60 million cats. Especially if he is in jail for killing just one of them.


[1] We wonder: Of all the tourists who travel to Galveston each year and collectively spend millions and millions of dollars in the local economy, how many go to see the birds and how many go to see the feral cats? Perhaps Galveston’s District Attorney has decided not to continue a career in elective office? Why re-prosecute this case? Another hung jury is the most likely outcome. We doubt that local businesses are thrilled about his decision to prosecute this case amid national publicity and ridicule. It is not easy to irritate a birder but once you do, your tourism industry is in trouble.


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