Posts Tagged ‘birds’

Parisian Pigeons

October 20, 2008
Rue de Rivoli, Paris sometime between 1940-44 by Andre Zucca

Rue de Rivoli, Paris sometime between 1940-44 by Andre Zucca

During the German occupation of Paris in World War II the food supply steadily dwindled.  As the war dragged on and Germany began to run out of food, the occupiers thought nothing of stealing French food and sending it home to Germany.  Rationing in Paris was severe.

A.J. Liebling, the New Yorker’s war correspondent, was a Francophile.  He loved France, he loved french food — which, eventually killed him because he ate so much of it — and he loved Paris.  He was in Paris in 1940 and stayed as long as could, leaving only a matter of hours before the German Army arrived.  He returned to Paris with the Daydaybay (the French 2nd Armored Division) only a matter of hours after the Germans left in 1944.

Liebling had been living in the Hotel Louvois in Paris prior to his hurried 1940 departure and he returned there the day after the Liberation.  The Hotel looked out on the Square Louvois, a small park which before the war contained 14 trees and innumerable pigeons.   Liebling was delighted to find the hotel still in business after the Occupation.  When he got there one of the first things he did was count the trees; fourteen still stood.  Writing years later he remembered, “The pigeons, of course, were gone but I can’t say at that moment I really missed them.”

The pigeons were gone because, during the rationing, Parisians ate pretty much whatever they could get their hands on.  That included the city’s large population of pigeons. By August, 1944, none were left.

Hotel Louvois

Hotel Louvois

Liebling was again at the Hotel Louvois in the mid-1950s, writing Normandy Revisited, his memoir of the war years.  Here is what he had to say about the pigeons then,

Pigeons roost in the trees of the Square Louvois; even when the temperature is near zero, they seem none the worse for it, and no less amorous.  The pigeons are collateral descendants of those I used to see there in 1940, the latter having been eaten during the Occupation.  (The same people who treacherously devoured those birds now try to make it up to their successors by feeding them crumbs of croissants left over from breakfast.)  “My God, those pigeons were tough!” says Fernand, the old night porter. “Real Athletes! And with the rationing, we were hardly strong enough to chew them.”

But times change and what was once yesterday’s necessity becomes today’s luxury; we learn from Maureen Dowd that the discredited, disgraced executives of AIG — after we taxpayers bailed them out — traveled, in a private jet costing $17,500, to a partridge hunt at a British country manor where they paid another $17,500 on the food and rooms.  The food included pigeon breast.



Arizona’s State Bird

October 15, 2008

In our continuing series of brief examinations of the state birds of the United States we move today from Alaska to Arizona.  This progression is completely random and the fact that we’ll probably cover Illinois and Delaware next is in no way connected to the current political campaign in the United States.  Pure coincidence.

Arizona’s state bird is the Cactus Wren.  It builds several nests, sometimes as many as seven.  They use some as homes and some as decoys, although because the Cactus Wren builds its nests in thickly thorned cacti, it is unclear why it needs all those nests.  One likely reason is that adult wrens allow their children to use some of the nests which gets the kids out of the way.  In good years as many as three broods of wrens may fledge. Moreover, the male Cactus Wren, like a fighter pilot, mates with more than one female.  All the nests separate the new broods and the females from one another.  Reminds me of the old Royal Navy toast, “To wives and mistresses, may they never meet!”

It is unknown whether the males remember how many nests they have. Or, for that matter, how many mistresses.

Cactus Wren range

Cactus Wren range

Noisier and larger than any other wrens in their range, Cactus Wrens live in the Chihuahuan, Mojave, and Sonoran Deserts.  Like Louis L’Amour’s Apaches and desert heroes, these wrens are well adapted to the desert.  They are most active during the sunrise and sunset hours when the desert has its mildest temperatures.  During the heat of the day they hang out in shady spots, doing as little as possible.  Because of the scarcity of available water, they evolved as xerophiles, animals which do not need free water but who acquire all their water from their food.  Insects are their primary food.

By the way, insects have taken over the world, so it is a good thing that birds and fish eat them for us.  Insects originated, on dry land, about 400 million years ago.  (By comparison, humans have been here less than 2 million years.)  At least a million different species of insects exist.  According to E.O. Wilson, about a billion billion insects are alive on the planet as you read this.  These insects weigh, if you put them all together — and please, don’t — about one trillion kilograms, more than all the humans on earth combined. “Insects,” according to Dr. Wilson, who has spent his lifetime studying them, “can thrive without us, but we and most other land organisms would perish without them.”

Living in the desert has its advantages. For instance, because it is warm year round, there is no need to migrate and Cactus Wrens don’t.  Better yet, the beetles, ants, moths, spiders and ants don’t freeze or go dormant, so food is constantly available.

The downside for the wrens is that many other animals also like desert living.  Predators such as snakes, roadrunners, and Loggerhead Shrikes are undeterred by the thorny cactus in which the wrens live.  Curved-bill Thrashers compete with them for territory.  Worse — for the wrens — humans also like the warmth of the desert.  We build cities and bring our pet cats along with us and the cats are a significant cause of mortality among Cactus Wrens.  We also destroy their habitat and that is now the leading cause of death for Cactus Wrens.

Of course, we’re not xerophiles and it is a desert. The Cactus Wrens might outlast us.


Many of the facts in this post came from Proudfoot, Glenn A., Dawn A. Sherry and Steve Johnson. 2000. Cactus Wren (Campylorhynchus brunneicapillus), The Birds of North America Online (A. Poole, Ed.). Ithaca: Cornell Lab of Ornithology; Retrieved from the Birds of North America Online:  You should not blame the scientists for any liberties we may have taken.  The photo was taken by Mark Wagner.

Sandhill Crane Migration

October 12, 2008

We live beneath a Sandhill Crane flyway and have been waiting for their trumpets to sound this year.  So far, we haven’t heard any although some may have flown over while we were asleep or otherwise engaged.  But it may be a little early.  We didn’t hear the first until October 27th last year.

But they are on their way.  The USGS has satellite transmitters on at least three this year.  They left Alaska and are at least as far south as the state of Washington.  You can follow their progress on the USGS crane migration page and other birds on the main page.

You can also follow their migration here.  We’ll report when we hear the first.  It is one of the autumn rites of passage that make up for the absence of Hummingbirds and the coming of winter.


Sally King was the photographer.

4 New Books

October 11, 2008

The New York Times Science section this week reviewed four new books which explore the intersections of art and ornithology.  Rather than wait for us to order them and review them ourselves, we thought you might like to see what the Times had to say.  Don’t miss the slide show.

Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Missing Bees, Part III

May 30, 2008

(Editor’s Note: This is our third riveting installment in the serial about the missing bees. You can read the first installment here and the second part here if you are new to the spine-tingling mystery.)

Chapter Five

After checking in at the hotel, Holmes and Watson went to the bar.  They ordered a pint of bitter.  No one had a clue what they were talking about. So, they got sarsparilla.  “Watson, this tastes like brambles!” exclaimed Holmes.

Watson called the bartender over, “I say, my good fellow, haven’t you got something that tastes better, like beer?”

“Well of course we have beer.  Why didn’t you order one?”

“We thought we had.  Terribly sorry, old chap.”

“I’m not old and these are jeans I’m wearing, not chaps.”

Holmes drained his beer. “Another glass, Watson!”

“It is a good beer, Holmes.”

“A remarkable beer, Watson. The bartender has assured me that it is from Franz Josef’s special cellar at the Schoenbrunn Palace. Come, let us strike up a conversation with that man on the sofa over there.”

Holmes and Watson walked over to the sofa.  Noticing that a crossword puzzle was available, Watson moved on to a table where he could work on it.   The clue for 1 across was “A five letter word for fish.”  Dr. Watson was an expert fisherman and knew the answer was “trout.” Of course, the hotel was a trout-fishing resort so it wasn’t difficult.  6 across was also easy, “A red-necked assertive hummingbird.”  Watson filled in, “Rufous.”   11 down was a scratcher though, “Famous fictional English detective.”

In the meantime, Holmes said to the man, “My name is Sherlock Holmes.  Do you mind if I sit here?”

“Of course not.  I am Bill Jansen.  Not from around these parts are you?”

“No,” replied Holmes, “but I perceive that you are a unmarried right-handed lawyer, fisherman, and bee-keeper.”

Jansen flushed, “How do you know that?  I am.”

“That you are right-handed is clear from the callus on your right middle finger where your pen rests when you write. That you are a fisherman I deduce from the callosity beneath the inside of your right-hand ring finger which means you cast with your right hand.  There is no ring on your left hand which indicates that you are unmarried.  That you are a lawyer is evident from the briefcase by your side and that you are a bee-keeper is apparent from the welt on your neck, obviously caused by a bee sting and also the fleck of honey in your hair.”

“You are very quick at observing.”

“That is my trade.  Tell me, have your bees been disappearing?”

Jansen looked downcast.  “Why yes, they have.  Over the winter, I lost almost all of my hives.”

“But not all?” inquired Holmes.

“No.  Two survived.”

“Was it an unusually warm winter?” Holmes asked.

“No.  It was about normal.  We had a lot of snow.”

A beautiful woman walked over and told them that dinner was being served in the dining room.  Holmes remarked to her, “ You are named after an American Robin, I perceive.”  The beautiful woman stared at him. “How do you know my name?” she asked.

“Your voice reminds one of the bright, rich call of a robin,” said Holmes. “Surely your parents noticed this and named you accordingly.  That they changed the spelling is of no account.”

Chapter Six

After beating him up for no apparent reason, the guards at the Nonsanto Ranch released Tonto.  He noticed a man being dragged toward a dungeon.  Tonto decided to rescue him.  Tonto hauled himself on his horse and charged the guards.  The man grabbed Tonto’s outstretched hand and swung himself aboard the horse as Tonto raced by.  They galloped towards the mountains with the guards close behind. It was an exciting chase with lots of hair-breadth escapes but we don’t have time to tell you about it. In the end, they got away and rode into the Lone Ranger’s camp.

The Lone Ranger said, “Well Tonto, who is that you have with you?”

The man walked up to the Lone Ranger and said, “My name is Bond, James Bond.”

A Scrub Jay called. This was Colorado and part of its year-round range.

Gardening is for the Birds

May 27, 2008

Hummingbird Mix

We bird feeders know of a hidden cost in the rising price of oil and gasoline: The cost of bird seed is going through the roof. Nyjer (thistle), imported from India and Africa, has tripled in price this past year. Black oil sunflower seed, home-grown for the most part, has doubled in price.

We’ve made a bargain with wild birds. We agree to supplement their diet with various seeds from constantly stocked feeders. In return, they provide us joy. They would survive without us feeding them. We would survive without the joy. But the world would be a poorer place. The lives of millions of wild birds would be harder and the lives of millions of humans less happy.

So, we’ll keep feeding wild birds and they’ll keep eating. But there are some things we can do to lower our costs while improving their diet.

One way of feeding your visitors less expensively is to plant bird-friendly gardens. They’ll have nectar, pollen, and insects to go with the seed you provide. You’ll benefit because the new mini eco-system you create will lure new bird species to visit. If you have a big yard, get rid of some of that grass and replace it with some bird-friendly plants. Manicured lawns provide little food or habitat for birds. (Lawns also have to be mowed, fertilized and watered and watered and then watered again, ad nauseam.) If, on the other hand, you live in an apartment or condo with only a small balcony or porch, plant a few pots.

Here are some tips for creating a bird-friendly garden.

Buy a few bags of pre-mixed specialty seeds. There are some excellent mixed seed packets, selected especially for the birds. Coincidentally, we sell these seed packets in our web store. Here are the links for the three varieties pictured in this post. Hummingbird Haven,Hummingbird Habitat Garden,Bird-Lovers’ Flower Garden. Click on them and through the magic of the internet, you will be whisked to our store where you can buy them from us.

If you have the space, plant your own sunflowers. Give your birds cut up oranges, grapes or raisins. Save your raw egg shells, then bake them in the oven for 20 minutes when you are preparing a meal, crush them and put them out for the birds. They are almost pure calcium and wild birds need calcium.

After your seeds start to grow, skip the pesticides. They poison the birds and pollute our water. Instead, buy some lady bugs. If you can’t find them at your local garden shop, you can actually order them. What the birds don’t eat, the lady bugs will.

And, as we always tell you, birds are attracted to water. In fact, water may be the best wild bird lure in the world. Birdbaths and water saucers will bring them to your new bird garden faster than greased Peregrines.

A bird garden: If you plant it, they will come.

Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Missing Bees, Part II

May 21, 2008

(Editor’s Note: This is our second installment in the serial about the missing bees mystery. You can read the first installment here if you are new to the spine-tingling thriller.)

Chapter Two
Great Horned Owl
A Great Horned Owl called softly as the Lone Ranger rode into camp. He found Tonto reading a little blue book by the light of the campfire. The book had golden letters on the cover. “What are you reading, Tonto?” he asked.

“A little book with a long title, Kemo Sabe, ” said Tonto. “It is called The Practical Handbook of Bee Culture with some Observations upon the Segregation of the Queen. Someone named Sherlock Holmes wrote it. He is from England. I thought it might have some clues for us about the bees disappearing.”

“Holmes,” mused the Lone Ranger, “That name is familiar but I can’t place it just now.” He poured himself a cup of coffee and sat down. “Tonto,” he said, there is something strange going on at Nonsanto’s place down in the valley. I don’t know what to make of it.”

“I suppose you’ll want me to ride in and take a look,” said Tonto.

“Yes, Tonto, I think we have to get to the bottom of this before all the bees disappear. Does that book you’re reading have any ideas that might help?”

“Well, Kemo Sabe, he says that this colony collapse disorder could be caused by a lot of things; fungus, virus, corn syrup, nosema , nicotene based pesticides, antibiotics,radiation, or something called ‘genetic modified crops.’ And then he says it might be something to do with the climate changing.”

“That’s not much help Tonto. I don’t understand half of it.”

“The author says he needs more data. Says it is a ‘capital mistake to theorize before one has data.’ ”

With that, Tonto got up, mounted his horse, and headed for the Nonsanto Ranch.

Chapter Three

Goldfinger and James Bond

Meanwhile, back at that ranch, an industrial laser was slicing through a metal table to which a man was securely strapped. Dr. Nonsanto was leaving the room when the man shouted, “Round Up!”

Nonsanto returned to the table and looked down at his captive.
“Bah,” he grunted, “Words you overheard and which can have no possible meaning for you, Mr. Bond.”

“Are you willing to bet the ranch on that, Nonsanto?” said Bond.

Nonsanto thought for a minute as the laser drilled closer and closer to Bond. “Turn it off and take him to the dungeon. We may need him to convince his friends that everything is all right.”

Just then, one of Nonsanto’s henchman came in. “Boss!” he cried, “We just caught an Indian hanging around.”

Nonsanto replied, “I don’t have time to deal with him. Beat him up and send him away.”

Chapter Four

Anna\'s Humingbird

Meanwhile, not far away, a train pulled into the station at Wagon Wheel Gap. Two men got off the train. One of them walked to the station master and said, “I say, old chap, is there a decent hotel in the vicinity?”

“Not from around these parts are you, fella?” said the man.

“Why no, we’re not. However could you tell?” Watson responded.

“Elementary. Your wearing tweed. And your friend there is wearing a funny looking hat and smoking a pipe. No pipe smokers around here. And yep, there is a hotel just up the creek there. I’ll give you a lift in the buckboard it you want.”

As they headed up the little canyon to the hotel, Holmes asked the driver if he had noticed anything out of the ordinary lately. “Just the bees being gone. And it seems like we don’t get as much snow as we used to and it melts earlier and earlier. Oh, one other thing too. The birds are coming back earlier every year. We got us an Anna’s Hummingbird — that’s a picture of one back up the page there — and they don’t hardly ever get this far north.”

“What about the flowers?” inquired Holmes.

“Funny you should mention it. That field over there ought to be full of wild Iris right about now but they all wilted off and died just yesterday. You should have seen them last year. I got a picture right here taken by a Mr. Galen Rowell. This is what they looked like last year. Now, they’re all dead. Makes a man want to cry.”

Wild Iris

Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Missing Bees

May 13, 2008

(Editor’s Note: In the old days of Victorian England, serials were popular. Most of Dicken’s books were first published as serials as were the Sherlock Holmes stories of Conan Doyle. Today, we borrow the idea. Here is the first installment of a brand new mystery. The second installment will come sometime next week.)

Chapter One

“I shall have to go Watson.”
“Go, Holmes? Go where?
“To America, of course. Somebody has got to find those bees.”
“Holmes! You astonish me! How did you know that I was just thinking about that?”

Holmes frequently astounded me with observations that seemed to come out of the ether. We were sitting in our rooms at 221B Baker Street in London and I had been considering the mystery of the disappearance of the honey bees in North America. Since Holmes had been studying bees for most of his life, his interest in the subject did not surprise me, but reading my mind did.

“Elementary, Watson. You see but do not observe. You are sitting by the window where you always sit to read the papers. The stain on your left thumb is newsprint of a type only American newspapers use which means you’ve been reading one of their papers. You had honey rather than marmalade on your breakfast toast which I deduce from the spot of honey on your right index finger; so naturally you were thinking about bees when you sat down to read the papers. And the American papers which came yesterday included the Sacramento Bee so the inference was obvious to the trained mind which sees and observes.”

“Holmes, you amaze me. I was thinking of the American bees. Their disappearance could be catastrophic for the world.”

“Yes Watson, I know. Bees pollinate almost every plant in the world that the birds don’t. And without the Western honey bee, which are the ones used in commercial farming, there would be no food crops. The birds can’t do all the pollination. In fact, without bees, birds won’t have enough to eat themselves and pretty soon neither will humans. We must get to the bottom of this ‘colony collapse disorder.’”

Holmes was off on a didactic dash. “Watson, bees pollinate 80% of all fruits and vegetables. When the plants flower, if the bees aren’t there to move the pollen to other plants, the plants are sterile. At least one third of all crops in the United States are pollinated by bees. Almonds, peaches, soybeans, apples, pears, cherries, raspberries, blackberries, cranberries, watermelons, cantaloupes, cucumbers and strawberries are just some of the crops bees pollinate. And blueberries, Watson, blueberries! Watson, more than a million bee colonies died this winter! 35% of all their colonies, gone!”

“But Holmes,” I cried, “What is the cause?”

“Ah, Watson, that is the question, isn’t it? We shall go to America and examine the clues. Perhaps the dog did not bark in the nighttime.”

Meanwhile, back at the ranch in America, The Lone Ranger sat his horse, high up in the Rocky Mountains. Below him lay the pristine and remote Nonsanto valley. A Blue Jay squawked at him. He was just below the tree line. He knew not to skyline himself. He had read the Louis L’Amour books; the good books, the old books about the days when a man’s gun was more important than his flag pin. “Men who skyline themselves don’t last long in this land,” he thought. The Lone Ranger was a thoughtful man and he was thinking. About bees. He too wondered where the bees had gone. The Lone Ranger didn’t know much about bees. He and Tonto were bird watchers, which is why he knew that bird hopping around on the ground over there was a Mountain Chickadee. Bird watching was what they did in their spare time when they weren’t fighting a never-ending battle for “truth, justice and the American way.” “No,” he thought, “That’s Superman. We’re the “Champions of Justice!”

Tonto and the Lone Ranger both knew that in nature everything is connected to everything else. No man is an island and all that. If the bees were disappearing, the birds could not be far behind. And mankind would surely starve to death without the birds and the bees. Of course, without the birds and the bees, the species would soon die out anyway.

“Something strange going on down there,” he thought. From where he sat he could see the ranch in the valley bottom. Little men in white coats were scurrying around the buildings. “I’ll have to send Tonto down there to see what he can learn about what they are doing.” The Lone Ranger sent Tonto into towns and ranches since his disguise depended on being rarely seen. Besides, somebody always got beat up and, being a thoughtful man, the Lone Ranger thought it was better for Tonto to get beat up than him.

“I’d better get back to camp and warn Tonto,” he thought and, with a whispered “Hi Ho Silver,” the Lone Ranger rode off. A Western Bluebird watched him go.

Had the Lone Ranger known what was happening in the ranch house at that very moment, he might have decided to ride down there himself, six-guns blazing. In one of the ranch buildings was a man; spread-eagled on a metal table, looking up at a strange device boring a hole in the table, coming straight at him. Tied tightly to the table by rawhide strips, the man could not move. There was nothing he could do but talk.

“Do you expect me to talk, Dr. Nonsanto?”
“No, Mr. Bond, I expect you to die.”


(Editor’s Note: The next installment of our exciting serial has been posted. You can read it here.)


April 19, 2008

Spring arrived in our little corner of the universe this week. After several days of plodding through the paperwork of tax time here in the U.S. we were ready to get outside for awhile and the weather cooperated.

Our yard has become home to two species of birds which did not join us last year. Two Red wing Blackbirds and four Inca Doves have joined the menagerie, at least for now. “Now” is a key word when one spends anytime observing birds or nature. Nature, by nature — if you will forgive the pun — is not controllable by us. Those Red winged Blackbirds which are here today, may be gone tomorrow. Some or all of the little Incas may spend the summer or move on. Grasping at the hope they will stay will not keep them here any longer than they choose to be here. All that can possibly be done is enjoy them while they choose to stay.

And enjoying Red wing Blackbirds is not a difficult thing to do. Here is a brief video of a male calling. Blackbirds tend to flock and, in our experience anyway, enjoy large fields which we do not have around the house. Since we have never had any here, we lack confidence they will stay but are hopeful. And, for “now” we have them and their song.

What is more, on April 16th, the day after we paid our American dues, the first hummingbird of the year arrived. It is a Black chinned Hummingbird and currently has six feeders all to itself. Now there is a bird which is enjoying its “now.” Soon it will be sharing with many more hummingbirds and we’ll get back to our pseudo-science of trying to count them all. (You can read about methods of counting hummingbirds here, here and here.)

But, for now, it is “now” in our yard and it is good.

Other Birds

March 24, 2008

This article about recent discoveries of new planets outside our solar system raises the question: How many species of birds exist out there? Our life lists may seem paltry one day when it is necessary to travel to other planets to bird. What will their Hummingbirds look like?  What will their crows and ravens be able to do?

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