Posts tagged “animal

Redpoll: Adapted to Gorging

Common Redpoll - Fairbanks, Alaska

These redpolls, and many more, are coming to our feeder lately in droves.   I’ve started putting seed out one or two times a day instead of letting them gorge themselves at the feeder nonstop.  I don’t want to test it out but I would be willing to bet they could empty the  entire contents of the feeder in only one day. (It’s on the small side but can still fit at least a quart jar’s worth of sunflower hearts.)

It’s unbelievable how much they can eat.  My guess as to how many birds visit the feeder per day is perhaps 30 to 40, though it could be upwards of 100 or more stopping by once a day (or less often).

Actually, they aren’t eating most of the seed.  Apparently they store it in their “esophageal diverticulum” and regurgitate it later to eat in peace.

Redpoll - Fairbanks, Alaska

These two”on-alert” fine fellows might actually be females (lack of red on their chests).

Once late May and June arrive, the birds practically disappear, so even if they are acting like little piggies at the trough right now, we still enjoy them!


A chubby Redpoll can’t stop eating

Fat Redpoll

A few years ago a chubby Redpoll visited our feeder.

This antique dish had broken and I couldn’t part with it, so I put seed in it, and the redpoll adopted it.  He (or she) sat right in it and ate and ate and ate.  Like his full switch never got flipped.

He moved quite slow.  My husband and I figured that he was missing some kind of instinct or characteristic that gives birds their fast-twitch, jumpy nature.  Probably something that they need to survive.

He’s puffed up too because of the chilly weather, but this bird was quite unusual in that he was fatter, slower, and never flew away intermittently like the other birds.  He was totally content to eat continuously, rarely looking up.  This was the very last photo I took and out of at least 20, this is the only time I got him looking up.

After watching hundreds or even thousands of birds at the feeder over the years, this little guy’s behavior was profoundly different than all the others.


Chipmunks at Athabasca Falls (not a bird to be seen)

My husband and I are presently traveling from the north of the United States – Alaska – to the south of it – North Carolina.  I have gotten some unbelievable photographs of wildlife, including a close encounter with a grizzly bear that was digging up roots alongside the Alaska Highway (you can see them here).

Jasper and Banff National Parks in Alberta, Canada were spectacular.  Surrounded by sunlit mountains, we drove through the parks with our mouths agape, peaks above us and streams meandering through valleys below us.  And though we saw barely a creature but tourist’s dogs in the parks, I did catch a few up close photos of scurrying chipmunks at Athabasca Falls in Jasper.

Canadians definitely have their national parks figured out, if these two are representations of them as a whole.  Athabasca Falls had wooden stairways interspersed between towering rocks – sometimes you have to duck to or go single-file to get through.  Lots of concrete walkways in different viewpoints of the falls, accessed by sun dappled paths with views of game trails through the moss.  A peaceful and necessary stop, and in our case at least, not too crowded.

The only large wild mammal we saw in the parks was Bighorn Sheep.  A group of 6 or 7 were nibbling something on the rocks (my husband says they were ingesting minerals from the rocks).  The chipmunks were also nibbling, moving with rocket speed over the concrete and moss, not too scared of us big hulking humans except perhaps to be caught underfoot.

So, no birds this time.  The only ones I’ve managed to capture with my camera are swans and ravens, back up in the Yukon Territory.  But that’s a post for another day.   Until then, best wishes to you all…

Don’t forget to click for larger images! 


A Lovebird in Alaska

Let me tell you a story about a little lovebird.

About 10 years ago, her and her mate were adopted by my mother, myself, and my sister.  We make up a small real estate office, and they were given to us by one of our clients who was moving out of state.  The lovebird pair became a fixture in our office.  We bought them a large cage, toys and whatever else we thought could make them happy.  They had several broods, which were adopted out, with any left being brought to the local pet store for a credit in bird food.

After we had them for about 5 years, the male died.  He seemed sick and groggy one day, then the next morning someone found him stiff on the bottom of the cage.  A sad day, and we were all worried about the female since everyone told us that lovebirds need a mate or they will die.

By then though, we had adopted another bird, a parakeet.  In the course of showing an apartment a few months before, a tenant who was moving out said he was going to let his kid’s parakeet out into the wild so that in its last days at least it could have some freedom.  Malarkey, I thought, that bird will be terrified.  It will die of shock and lack of food in no time, or some ravens will kill it.  So luckily, our lone female lovebird had a friend by the time her husband died, already set up in a small cage next to her big cage.

They chirped at each other, inches away but separated by 2 sets of bars, conversing continually and seemingly very happy.  It makes me wonder, were they speaking the same language?

I didn’t name them.  Birds to me are animals that belong in the wild, along with all other exotics like snakes, lizards, turtles, etc.  Unless you can create an ecosystem that is so near to being like their natural one, with all the animal’s social needs met as well, then fine.  But otherwise, I can’t support it.  There are probably some exceptions such as animals that can bond with humans – like some birds and mammals, but not reptiles.  My nieces owned rats for a time and those little creatures seemed truly thrilled with their highfalutin’ lifestyle.  So with some exceptions my feelings about exotic pets are on the skeptical side although I recognize this is a complicated issue.  I try not to be judgmental, but a snake or lizard just simply cannot be happy in a glass terrarium.  And furthering the trade of exotics – whether illegal or not – is just wrong.

So with these feelings in mind, it was with a huge amount of regret that I purchased a replacement parakeet buddy for the lovebird when the adopted one died.  I was so concerned that she would live a tortured existence without a friend, dying alone and sad.  I actually tried to get one that looked exactly the same as the old parakeet, thinking I could fool her.  So silly, I think now.  She is way too smart.

Over the years I have observed her observing me.  I’ve seen her peer intently at every move I make in or around her cage, changing her bathing water, her drinking water, her food.  We are tentative friends.  I’m sure I’m not one of the scary ones, like children of clients who make loud noises or poke fingers in her cage.  When someone talks loudly in front of her cage or appears suddenly she always retreats to the far corner, behind a big wad of hanging toys. She is shy and reserved and I don’t blame her for being that way at all.

A few days ago my mother was cleaning the cage when the phone rang and she accidentally left the cage door open.  When she came back after some time, she exclaimed to the young people sitting there waiting for their parents that the bird could have gotten out of the cage since she had left the door open!  She did, the kids said.  They explained that she had flown up to perch on the cubicle divider for a little while, and then flew back into her cage!

So I hope that means she likes her roomy cage, and that she feels safe there.  And I know she is smart.  I believe any animal that has curiosity must have some sort of intelligence.  One time my sister was changing her bathing water and the slider got propped open accidentally, and when my sister returned she was peering out through the hole at the world without bars in between.  That takes awareness and observation.

So when we call someone a bird brain, I really don’t understand why that is an insult.  The people who came up with that phrase had it wrong.  Their whole idea of intelligence is based on human-centric thinking that says we are the pinnacle of nature, the only worthy creatures on earth.  But aren’t we the ones polluting our world to point where we’re concerned for the future?  If smarts are based on foresight and planning for the future, humans are not all that smart.

Critiques on the state of human affairs aside, this post was inspired by a video on pbs.org about Alex the parrot and Irene Pepperberg, his researcher and best friend who taught him to communicate with her.  It’s a must watch for people who see that animals have intelligence.  This is proof, plain and simple.

When you see how the parrot is able to answer questions that take insight and intelligence, it makes me think that this world and it’s inhabitants need more care and consideration than humans give them presently.  That they deserve more respect.  At the very least, we should not automatically assume other living things are emotionless unintelligent creatures.

Thanks for reading!


The sun came out just long enough for me to shoot a vole (with my camera, that is!)

Interior Alaska is having a big vole year!  This should mean large populations of birds that prey on them right?  Like owls and falcons.  I’m seeing a Merlin falcon around our house every couple of days, and if this vole thought he was safe just sitting right out in the open like this one did yesterday, then the falcons will have a successful season.  Maybe he was curious of me, or more probably he thought he was being sly by not moving.  And for the poor eyes of humans, unlike falcons, we will often be fooled.

Nearly every woman I know wrinkles her nose when voles are mentioned.  But I think they’re adorable.  Not quite as cute as the typical mouse, but close.  Though maybe the ladies are right to be suspect – voles have lots of parasites and can even infect humans with the protozoan Giardia.  They are also notorious for eating garden plants and ruining whole crops.  They might be able to turn me against them if they start finding an appetite for the precious cabbage or squash seedlings I doted on from seed, and that are now in the garden trying to adjust to rain, cold and wind.  (Then again, moose eat my cabbages every fall and I still love them.)

I’m quite sure this is a northern red-backed vole.  Apparently they live only about a year but multiply quickly because they start reproducing as early as 8 weeks old. Gestation length is 3 weeks, each litter can number from 2-11, and one female can have up to 6 litters in one year!

According to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, voles are “staple foods of weasels, marten, foxes, coyotes, all owls, most hawks, inland breeding gulls, jaegers, and occasionally great blue herons, domestic cats, northern pike, and other voles.”  (!)  This little guy will eat lichen, fungi, seeds, grasses, fruit, insects, and meat.

If you’re wondering how big (or little) he is, my estimation is 3 inches long.  The green on the ground next to him is moss growth because of a wet spring, and we’re seeing the make up of a scant bit of organic matter on the silty ground.  So he is tiny.  In the photo below, you can see that his little front paw blends perfectly with the dead grass.  And perhaps evolution has dictated he have a red back to blend in with the orange-ish dead leaves on the floor of the forests that he inhabits.

Thanks for reading and here’s to hoping we get some well-deserved sunny hot weather in Fairbanks really soon!


A Merlin Hits our Window

I was only a few feet from the window when this Merlin flew into it with a jarring thud.  As you an see, he is quite stunned in the first photo.  Poor guy.  He’s about a foot long, a pretty small falcon.  At first I thought he was an American Kestrel since I had never seen a Merlin.  Didn’t even know they were in interior Alaska.

This one is either a female or a juvenile (or both).  No doubt he was drawn to the multitudes of Juncos and Chickadees at our feeder (actually in the summer we don’t use a feeder but just put sunflower seed hearts on the deck railing so they don’t gorge themselves).  So this little guy was hunting our lovely resident birds, hmm.

Turns out the Taiga Merlin is quite common in Alaska and Canada and their populations are stable.  There is also the Prairie Merlin that is increasing in number – apparently it’s getting quite used to city life where it overwinters, feeding on rodents and birds.  The Black Merlin lives in the Pacific Northwest (it’s numbers are also stable).  (There is also a Eurasian Merlin that is a separate species, having ceased to interbreed with the North American Merlin at least a million years ago, and their numbers are less certain.)

Nearly all of Alaska’s Merlins migrate.  They may winter in North America or South America, often along coastlines feeding on shorebirds.  No vegetarian meals for this carnivore – the smallest thing it eats are perhaps dragonflies plucked from the air as it’s soaring over the trees during migration.

The Merlin is a tough little falcon, it will attack anything and teams up with its mate to cooperatively hunt.  It even takes birds larger than itself, like pigeons; it is known as a “pigeon hawk” in many areas.

Instead of tedious nest-building Merlins use old crow or magpie nests, or they make due with a cliff outcropping or scrape in the gravel.  The female lays 3 to 6 eggs and sits on them for a month, both feed the little ones for another month, and then the fledglings continue to beg for awhile longer.

Here is a photo of the powder he left on the window.  He really hit it hard.  Many birds have a light dusting of powder all throughout their feathers.  It comes from down feathers that grow and disintegrate.  Since feathers are made of keratin that’s what the dust is made of, and it actually causes allergies in some people who keep birds indoors.  For the bird, it’s crucial to waterproofing and cleaning.

My husband and I have tried various things to prevent birds from hitting our windows, like hanging shiny objects over them, but I haven’t found anything yet that is attractive and easy to clean around (and effective for that matter).

The Merlin eventually flew up to a railing, then off into the woods.  I hope he remembers how painful our windows are so he doesn’t fly into them again.  More than just his ego was bruised I’m sure.


An Ode to Summer

That’s what this blog is, an ode to summer.  Alaskans worship summer and in January or February we start getting a bit disenchanted.  So this bird blog is self-administered therapy.  A reminder that the darkness and frigid temperatures will subside.

This blog is therapy in another way too…a way to take my mind off of things like politics, greed, pollution, disaster.  Stuff like that.  For some reason I believe that we should pay attention to the bad stuff in the world as much as the good stuff.  So you can imagine, I need a bird blog to take my mind off of it.

The first bird I’m going to blog about is a flying squirrel… yeah, not exactly a bird but, you see, it’s my spirit animal

Supposedly seeing a flying squirrel is somewhat rare, but the darn things just won’t leave me alone!

All spring, summer and fall they frequent my bird feeder.  For several months in the summer they are as regular as clockwork, arriving about 1am and gorging themselves on sunflower seed hearts.  I say “they” because I have no way of telling if it’s the same squirrel or several different ones. Only one time did I see two at once, making a ruckus in their frantic search for the feeder that had been moved to a different location.  Since then, my husband and I have nixed the bird feeder and just regularly put a small amount of seed out on the deck railing.  No need for gorging since sunflower hearts are not a natural food for chickadee or squirrel.

These photos were taken May 29, 2010 in the wee hours of the morning.  It hardly even gets dark at that time of year, although I did I have to lighten the photos somewhat.

The real clincher that convinced me the flying squirrel is my spirit animal is that one jumped on my face inside of my father’s home.  Yes, that’s right, on my face, inside a house.

My father lives in Minnesota and during a visit, as I was walking into the bathroom, I noticed the cat was looking at something and twitching its tail.  Not something that would alarm me.  But as soon as I entered the bathroom a small furry thing landed on my face, blocking my vision.  My very first thought was, how did the cat get on my face!?  Almost immediately it jumped off, landing on the floor and scurrying away. (The flying squirrels down there are about half the size of the one pictured here.)  My cries of alarm brought family members and even though my father said to kill it, my husband captured it and set it loose outside.  My hero.

Turns out, flying squirrels get inside my Dad’s house on a regular basis.  One was even found dead.  It landed on a cactus and got stuck there and died.  Who knows how long it was there before they found it.  True story.  That dusty museum has a lot of stories, but never before had a flying varmint landed on someone’s face.  (Yes, it did scratch my face just enough to draw 3 tiny drops of blood, after which being wiped off you couldn’t tell where they had been.  And no, I didn’t seriously consider rabies shots.)

Such an intimate encounter is bound to pique the curiosity so I did some research on the flying squirrel.  Little had I known it eats truffles, a type of fungus, as its main food, found in the ground and around rotting trees.  Lichen, insects, buds, flowers, scavenged meat, berries and tree sap are other dining options when they can be found.  They often cache lichen and seeds when supplies are scarce, and steal red squirrel caches when the poor saps are hibernating.

These 2 photos were taken July 24, 2011.  You can click on the one on the left and it will enlarge quite a bit.

Flying squirrels do not hibernate and are active all winter, though they do enter torpor, a deep sleep, as long as it’s about 40 degrees below zero F or colder. They often share nests, most commonly 2-5 individuals who suffer the frigid cold huddled together inside tree cavities in summer or witch’s brooms in winter.  Witch’s brooms are dense snarls of branches that occur when a fungus attacks spruce trees. Squirrels hollow them out and line them with moss, lichen, feathers or anything they can find that could make their slumber that much more comfy. 

Sometimes I feel like I enter torpor in the winter too.   I defintely sleep more when its 40 degrees below zero or colder.  I’m nocturnal and prefer small groups or being alone, just like the flying squirrel.  I identify with the little guys, and am fascinated by them.  So it’s decided, the flying squirrel is my spirit animal.

And now, on to the birds!