Posts Tagged ‘birds’

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.

Memorial Day 2010

May 31, 2010

Today the United States observes its Memorial Day, taking a moment to remember and honor all the Nation’s servicemen who died in our wars. Begun after our Civil War, it became official after World War I.

Wars are more than human tragedies of course. They are ecological disasters. Flora and fauna suffer as well. Here, from Wikipedia, is a photo of Chateau Wood during the third battle of Ypres, commonly known as the Battle of Passchendaele, which raged from June until November of 1917.

From the looks of the trees, bird song did not accompany those Australian soldiers on their walk. Birds withstand artillery barrages no better than humans or trees.


The photographer was Frank Hurley and the photo is in the public domain.

Birds and Windows, Part II

March 20, 2010

Spring arrived here today on the wings of huge, soft snow flakes but they are gone now leaving us wondering where the white went. Watching the snow fall this morning I noticed a mark on one of our windows that looks like a bird strike. Fortunately, no dead bird was beneath the window so we assume that bird survived the crash. Most don’t. As we’ve written before, astonishing numbers of birds die every year smashing into glass windows.

New Tower at the de Young Museum in San Francisco

Our species has moved indoors, but we don’t want to lose our visual connection with the outdoors, so we build with glass.  As a result, billions of birds are killed every year by hitting our windows. As far as the birds can tell, they are flying along, minding their own business, when suddenly the air crystallizes.  All the bird sees is a reflection of sky. Some crash into windows of tall buildings during migration, but many die as the result of crashing into home windows. For birds, glass is just like a mirror reflecting atmosphere and birds can’t tell the difference.  And, we can relate– who among us has not walked into a glass door?

We can do many things to help reduce the slaughter, some quite simple.  For instance, don’t wash your windows.  Birds can see the dirt and avoid the crash.  And you can tell your friends and neighbors that you’re not a poor housekeeper, you’re saving lives.

Bird's Eye View of a Window

A second simple remedy is put your bird feeders really close to the window.  They should be within three inches of the window. If startled while feeding, the bird won’t be able to get to full speed before colliding with the glass.  Anything further away allows them to get to full speed.  A feeder six inches away from glass will result in serious injury or death.

Less effective, but still helpful, are window decals.  Many are now made of material that is easily visible to birds but less so to humans.  (Birds see a wider range of light than we do.  That is why, for instance kestrels and owls are able to zero in on small mammals. They spot the tiny marks of dried urine, invisible to humans who can’t see those wavelengths.  Experiments are in progress now with coatings for glass in skyscrapers that would be invisible to us but which birds would clearly see.)  To be effective the decals need to be spaced leaving  2” horizontal gaps and 4” vertical gaps.  You needs lots of them on a window to them to work.

Attaching streamers, prayer flags, or pieces of cloth that flutter in the breeze will help too.  Even better, from the birds’ standpoint, is netting or screens.  They are taut enough that birds bounce off the netting and not the glass.  These screens come with mounting hardware and suction cups so installing them is easy and does no damage to your home.  The netting used to cover fruit trees also will work.   Your view will be degraded to some extent but not as badly as you might expect.  You may have many window screens on your windows already and you likely don’t  notice them when looking out.

You can also buy window film that looks like frosted or etched glass.

None of these solutions is perfect, but it is worth doing to help save birds, which already face so many other human-caused survival challenges. (When a bird does crash into one of your windows, about all you can do for it is put a box over the bird or gently place it in a shoebox and cover the shoebox. If the bird is going to survive, it will fly off when you release it.  Give it an hour or so before removing the cover.)

Cats, Birds, and Bird Feeding

November 12, 2009

Recently, we had two customers in the store who are cat lovers.  Seeing the cat bib we sell, designed to passively interfere with cats’ hunting, one of them seemed offended that someone would put that on a cat and she remarked, “ Cats kill birds, it’s nature!”


Egyptian Cat Mummy

That’s wrong, at least in all the world except North Africa and the Near East.  Cats are indigenous there but nowhere else. In North Africa and the Near East birds have been evolving defenses against cat predation since the Pleistocene. Elsewhere though, cats are newcomers, brought by humans; instead of having hundreds of centuries to evolve defenses, birds have had only a few hundred years. Birds in places like North America have not had time to develop defenses against cats’ deadly effective hunting skills.

So, it is not “nature” nor is it “natural” for cats to be killing birds in North America, South America or Europe. Humans interfered with nature when we brought the cats.

And have we brought cats.  In the United States alone more than   150 million cats are alive as you read this, their ancestors brought here by humans. More than 82 million are kept as pets and the number of feral cats probably exceeds 70 million. And all of them are killing birds whenever they get the chance.

Here is the grim fact:  Cats kill millions of birds every year.  Pet cats don’t kill them for food, they kill them because cats are hunters.  Their hunting instinct is independent of their urge to eat and they hunt whether they are hungry or not. Feral cats kill many more.


Kitten Eating a Rabbit

We’ve written in this space before about the well-intentioned efforts of cat lovers to trap, neuter, and return feral cats.  (TNR) Now comes yet another piece of scientific evidence that it doesn’t work.  Biologists recently studied a feral cat colony in Tucson, Arizona, and discovered that local coyotes were eating them. And, another anecdotal piece of evidence arrived in our in-box:  At one feral cat colony in Southern California, coyotes discovered the cats and killed most of them.  Then, the coyotes kept coming back to eat the cat food set out by the people maintaining the colony.

We doubt that our customer who thinks that cats are just being true to nature when they kill birds would be as blase if a coyote kills one of their pet cats.  But, just as cats hunt birds, coyotes hunt small mammals. And the coyotes are indigenous.

cat bib-1

Bird-Saving Cat Bib

Because this slaughter of birds by cats is human-caused, we ought to do as much as we can to lessen the impact on wild bird populations.  Here are some suggestions:

1.  Keep your cats indoors.  This is the most humane solution, indoor cats lead longer and healthier lives.

2. Hang birdfeeders out in the open and far enough away from trees so that cats can’t hunt them from underneath or inside  a tree.

3. If you live where cactus grows, surround the birdfeeding station with cactus.

2.    The best recent invention we’ve seen for preventing cats from killing birds is a catbib.  Invented by a backyard, bird-feeding, cat lover, the CatBib (a thin neoprene bib) disrupts the cat’s hunting skills, without interfering with any other kitty activities. It acts as a barrier between cat and prey by getting in the way just as the cat strikes out for the bird. Because birds see in color, it also functions as a colorful visual warning to the birds. Birds can see the cat coming. The best part about the catbib is that it doesn’t interfere with the cat’s ability to eat, drink, run, etc. and enjoy being outdoors. Cat owners who have used it report great success. (By the way, bells on cat collars don’t work. Cats can creep along stealthily and hunt without the bell ever ringing. Like we said, they are great hunters.)

And everybody should neuter their pet cats. Over time, that would even help reduce the number of feral cats.

Waldo-1Full Disclosure: Until a few weeks ago, when his time to die finally came, we had shared fifteen years of our life with a cat.  Waldo wasn’t much of a hunter in his final years because his eyesight faded and he was content, as an old cat should be, to sleep in warm places. And we had him pretty well trained to stay in the front yard and out of the back yard where the bird feeders are.  But he no doubt killed many birds in his younger days and we didn’t always follow our own advice of keeping him indoors.  We miss him, but we’ve decided to forego further cats. Responsibility for ameliorating this human-caused slaughter of birds starts at home. Besides, our next door neighbor has upwards of ten cats so, anytime we want to hold a purring cat, we can go to her house.

The latest TNR study, Observation of Coyote-Cat Interactions” by Grubbs and Krausman is in the July 2009 issue of the Journal of Wildlife Mangement.

The number of pet cats in the U.S. comes from  “Market research statistics – U.S. pet ownership“. American Veterinary Medical Association. Last visited November 10, 2009.

For more on feral cats see,  Mott, Maryann (2004-09-07). “U.S. Faces Growing Feral Cat Problem“. National Geographic News, Last visited November 10, 2009.

The photo of a feral kitten eating a rabbit is by Jake Berzon and the Egyptian cat mummy photo was taken by E. Michael Smith.

Bad Birds

June 30, 2009

This blog is for the birds.  Really.  If something relates to birds, we think you might be interested in it.  We certainly don’t waste your time talking about such silly things as the sexual peccadillos of politicians.

David and Bathsheba

David and Bathsheba by Jan Matsys

Nonetheless, Governor Mark Sanford’s recent extramarital activities reminded  of us of a myth involving a bird.  Sanford, in one of his “apologies” last week compared himself to King David of the Old Testament who, Sanford said, fell as mightily as has Sanford.  Presumably Sanford was referring to David’s adulterous liaison with Bathsheba.

You will recall the story.  David sees Bathsheba without clothes on and is so smitten that he ends up arranging to have her husband killed off so he can marry her.  He does and is soon visited by a prophet who foresees many calamities as a result of his philandering.

Now on to the bird myth associated with the story.  In the story as told by the Midrash, Bathsheba is hidden behind some kind of screen, and is not visible to David.  But Satan wants to create trouble, so he comes to earth disguised as a bird which David tries to kill, perhaps with a sling shot.  The bird/Satan easily dodges the missile which then hits and knocks over the screen behind which the naked Bathsheba is standing.  The rest, as they say, is history.

Satan Cast Out of Heaven by Dore

Satan Cast Out of Heaven by Dore

This is not the first time we’ve come across Satan disguised as an innocent little bird.  Why was he trying to give birds a bad name?  They don’t deserve it, not even the pigeons.  David may also have learned that gratuitously trying to kill birds isn’t such a good idea either.

Birds, Burritos, and Bookstores

June 10, 2009

We are connoisseurs of birds, bookstores, and breakfast burritos.  Since most of you who read this blog love birds, we don’t need to explain that attraction.

bacon, green - smothered

bacon, green - smothered

Breakfast burritos may need a word though.  A breakfast burrito, for those unfortunate enough not to live in the southwestern United States, consists of scrambled eggs, bacon or sausage, hash browns, and chile; all rolled up in a flour tortilla.  Note the spelling: It is “chile” not “chili.”  Only cretins spell it with a final “i”.

If you eat the burrito in your car on the way to work or take it home, the chile is only inside the tortilla.  But the best way to eat one is at the restaurant so you can have it “smothered” in chile.  Personally, we prefer green chile, but it is not irrational nor immoral to order it with red chile.

The world’s best breakfast burrito comes from Casa de Benavidez in Albuquerque, New Mexico.  If you pass through town, get one.  Your order will be taken by Mike Hertzog who is a professional.  You need not waste words telling him that you want “a breakfast burrito with bacon and green chile.”  All you need say is, “bacon, green.”  He’ll take care of the rest.  If you are dining in, you can add “smothered.”  Other than that, save your breath.

The second best burrito can be found at Tia Sophia’s in Santa Fe, New Mexico.  Unaccountably they make you order the individual ingredients, which is like telling a bartender you want a “gin martini.”  Since there is no other proper kind of martini except one made with gin, it is redundant to order a “gin martini.”  Rather like saying, “The Rio Grande River.” E.B. White called the martini, “The elixir of quietude.”

Which brings us to books, another elixir of quietude, and the world’s best bookstores.  There are more of those than breakfast burritos and it is not possible to objectively rank them.  It is a subjective exercise.  Everyone has their favorites and every community of any size has one. And think of places like New York City, the greater Boston area, and London.  You could spend a lifetime in all the great bookstores in just one of those cities.

burrito-2But, like everyone else, we have our favorites.  Notably, all are small and locally-owned. Many are close by.  Bookworks in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where stacks of books are always on the floor, a sure sign you are in a world-class bookstore; The Collected Works in Santa Fe, Moby Dickens in Taos, and our best used-book store, Coas Books in Las Cruces.  Our favorite used-book store is, of course, Powells in Portland, Oregon. Going to Powells is like going on a camping trip into the wilderness: You should always let someone know where you are going and when you expect to return so help can be sent if you fail to come out.  Coas Books is much smaller, but has a nice selection of old birding books.  We went there on a raid just last week and sitting on the desk right now are two old Roger Tory Peterson books, a Golden Guide to Gamebirds, and a book of Eliot Porter’s bird photography.

At the top of our list of bookstores, especially since the demise of the Chinook in Colorado Springs, Colorado, sits Rakestraw Books of Danville, California.  Rakestraw is where you go to make discoveries.  The owner and staff read voraciously but with discrimination.  Then they stock the store with good books that you might not find otherwise, especially in this time of crisis in the book business and the near extirpation of book reviews in newspapers.

We suppose there might be a bad book in the store somewhere but we’ve not found it yet.  And if there is a “best-seller” in the store, it’s because it actually is a good read, not because some publisher paid for the shelf space.  The nature/birding section is small, but useful — the store’s strength is fiction, books that you take with you when you travel and don’t put down.  And, if you need books for children and don’t have the time to keep up with children’s literature, they have the best.

Yellow-billed Magpie

Yellow-billed Magpie

If all that isn’t enough reason to travel to Danville and go to Rakestraw’s, here is one more: It’s less than an hour to Yellow-billed Magpies which live only in Northern California.  You can add a Lifer and take home some good books too.

Rakestraw’s only drawback? You can’t get a decent breakfast burrito within 1,000 miles.

Charles Darwin and Abraham Lincoln

February 14, 2009
Darwin in 1860

Darwin in 1860

Although we wrote about Abraham Lincoln and the birds on the 200th Anniversary of his birth, we did not forget that the same day was also the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin.  If Lincoln read The Origin of Species the fact is not recorded in his Collected Works nor is Charles Darwin ever referred to by name.  In fact, the word “evolution” appears only once,  referring only to the evolution of war in a document that Lincoln may not have written himself. The Origin of Species was published in 1859 – soon after Darwin learned that Alfred Russel Wallace independently had come to the same basic conclusion about the importance of natural selection in the evolution of species –  so it is possible that the book came to Lincoln’s attention, but no record exists that we know of.  We do know that both men shared a hatred of slavery, although Darwin’s outpaced Lincoln’s.

We’ll write a post about Darwin and the birds soon.  Much more can be said about his relationship with birds than Lincoln’s.  Darwin will even help us in our defense of the lowly pigeon.

In the meantime, here is Dr. Olivia Judson writing on the occasion of Darwin’s 200th.

We leave you with this thought from Darwin:  The difference in mind between man and the higher animals, great as it is, certainly is one of degree and not of kind.

St. Dominic and the Sparrow

January 22, 2009
Male House Sparrow

Male House Sparrow

House sparrows, like pigeons have a bad reputation. They are often reviled because there are so many of them around human habitations.  Like pigeons, they are synanthropic, meaning that they do well when living in close proximity with humans.  If you build a city, they will come.  Native to Europe, North Africa and parts of Asia, they are an invasive species in the Americas.  100 were released in Brooklyn in the 19th Century and they spread almost immediately to most temperate habitats in North America.

We’ve written before about what Chairman Mao thought of them.

They will drive you nuts if you live in bluebird habitat.They drive bluebirds out of their nests with regularity and, so far, no one has devised a bluebird house that is also sparrow proof, although we will test a new design this Spring as soon as the bluebirds return. The sparrows never leave.

St. Dominic

St. Dominic

Their reputation today is not as bad as it was in the days of St. Dominic.  Saint Dominic, you will remember, was the founder of the Dominican Order in 1217.  He preached and lived in voluntary poverty, his followers exhorted to live and behave with charity and humility.  Rumors about his involvement as an inquisitor in the first medieval Inquisition have never been established.  And even if he was one, he died in 1221, thirty years before Pope Innocent IV got around to authorizing torture in 1252.  (In his defense, Pope Innocent did not allow torture methods which resulted in bloodshed, mutilation or death.)

St. Dominic didn’t trust sparrows.

Readers with a faint heart will want to skip the next paragraph. St. Dominic may not have tortured humans but sparrows were a different story.

According to the blessed Cecilia, who knew him personally and preserved her memories of him when she was in her nineties, St. Dominic once was preaching to the sisters — from behind a grille —  in a convent, warning them against the Devil, who could take the shapes of animals at will, just to deceive pious Christians.  A sparrow suddenly flew into the chapel and hopped on the head of a sister.  She grabbed it at Dominic’s command and handed it to him.  Holding it in one hand Dominic commenced to pluck the feathers from the living bird, yelling that it was the Devil which had come to interrupt his sermon.  People in those days saw the Devil often and in myriad costumes. The bird screamed in pain as it was plucked alive. When Dominic finished plucking it, he pitched the poor bird, still alive, out the window telling it to fly if it could.  “Fly now if you can, enemy of mankind! you can cry out and trouble us, but you can’t hurt us!”

So, take pity on the lowly sparrow. They really can’t hurt us.

House Sparrow feeding a fledgling

House Sparrow feeding a fledgling


This is not the only story told about Satan as a bird.  Here is another.

George Orwell on Barn Owls (and Pheasants)

December 4, 2008


Although some of his political opinions have not worn well, almost everybody agrees that George Orwell was a fine writer.  What may be less well known is that he was an alert observer of nature.  Reading a newspaper article about the “ignorant” slaughter of Barn Owls and Kestrels, supposedly to protect pheasants, Orwell was moved to write in his own newspaper column of May 5, 1944,

Birds of prey are killed off for the sake of that enemy of England, the pheasant.  Unlike the partridge, the pheasant does not thrive in England, and apart from the neglected woodlands and the vicious game laws that it has been responsible for, all birds and animals that are suspected of eating its eggs or chicks are systematically wiped out.

Orwell was right, wild pheasants don’t do well in England.  But they are raised on farms for hunters.  By 1850 gamekeepers were rearing them for hunting.  Today as many as 30 million a year are released on “shooting estates” and those that are not killed by hunters seldom survive even a year in the wild.  Hunts consist of people who pay for “beaters” and gun dogs to flush the birds which are then shotgunned.
Orwell continued,

Before the war, near my village in Hertfordshire, I used to pass a stretch of fence where the gamekeeper kept his “larder.”  Dangling from the wires were the corpses of stoats, weasels, rats, hedgehogs, jays, owls, kestrels and sparrowhawks.  Except for the rats and perhaps the jays, all of these creatures are beneficial to agriculture.  The stoats keep down the rabbits, the weasels eat mice, and so do the kestrels and sparrowhawks, while the owls eat rats as well.  It has been calculated that a barn owl destroys between 1,000 and 2,000 rats and mice in a year.  Yet it has to be killed off for the sake of this useless bird which Rudyard Kipling correctly described as “lord of many a shire.”
Orwell kept a diary which is now being published as a blog.  The entries are posted 60 years to the day after they were written.  60 years ago Orwell was living near Marrakech, recuperating from pneumonia and the entries mainly concerned the number of eggs his chickens were producing.  But the blog will get more interesting as it approaches the onset of World War II.  Orwell was a perceptive observer of much more than nature.  Here is the blog. Sixty years ago today he only got two eggs.  Of course, it was winter and free range chickens aren’t as productive during the shortened daylight of winter.  We beat him though.  Our girls produced five eggs today.

New Godwit Migration Record

October 28, 2008
Map of Godwit Migration 2008

Map of Godwit Migration 2008

We wrote in this space last year about Bar-tailed Godwit number E-7, a female godwit who, according to the satellite tracking the transponder fitted to one of her legs, had just completed a 7,155 non-stop migration from Alaska to New Zealand, but she outdid herself this year, beating her own world record for non-stop distance flying; this year, as you can see from the map, she flew 7,242miles in eight days, garnering not only the distance record but her own Washington Post editorial plus more updates on the USGS site which tracks E-7and 22 other godwits on their semi-annual migrations; migrations which average about 18,000 miles of flying a year and upwards of 250,000 miles over an average Godwit life span which is more mind-boggling than the fact that we just told you about her eight-day trip this year in a single sentence the reading of which may put you in mind of how tired she must have been at the end of the trip.

Nobody knows for sure where the name “Godwit” came from.  It may be theological in origin or it may derive from the anglo-Saxon word for “good” and “animal” or “bird” because it was once considered a delicacy.  Ben Johnson could buy one for supper for a half a crown.  Two centuries before Johnson a Godwit cost twice as much in London as a Snipe, so don’t say you never learn anything useless reading our blog.

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