The average adult raven is about 2.5 pounds and it’s hard to tell adults from juveniles. The below video shows a power struggle between ravens at a food source. At the very beginning you can see a raven on the far left grab another raven’s tail feathers with his beak and pull him or her away from the food. Another seems to join in. (By the way, if the video is blurry find the settings in the bottom right hand corner of the player and change it to a higher resolution. Youtube automatically chooses a low setting so it will download faster.)
After reading Ravens in Winter, a book by Bernd Heinrich, I’m inclined to believe that the commotion going on in the video has to do with a power struggle (to gain access to the food) between the juvenile birds and the adults. According to Heinrich, adults are usually silent at carcasses (dead animals in the wild), and juveniles are very noisy. The juveniles “yell” at kills and make a commotion, possibly to attract more juveniles to the kill, in order to compete with the adults and gain access to the food.
Heinrich “proves” through observation and careful note-taking that ravens actively recruit other ravens to food piles. He speculates, after studying raven behavior for many years, that this recruitment is not necessarily altruistic, or done in order to get the favor back some day. Instead, it is probably related more to “gaining or maintaining access to the food than to sharing the wealth.”
Juveniles actively recruit, in order to overwhelm by sheer numbers, the adults at the carcass, so that the adults will give up defending the carcass, which they do when they are just too outnumbered.
So if we can extend this power struggle at carcasses in the field to city food (trash) then it’s possible the squawking raven in the video, the one being pulled from the food by his or her tail feathers, is likely a juvenile, being bossed around by the adults, who are not as vocal.
I strongly encourage any bird lover to read Ravens in Winter. This bird that I see nearly every day of my life is actually quite mysterious and Heinrich helps us understand their possible and likely motivations.
Thanks for reading! Happy New Year!
I made this little animation to show how this poor chickadee was being bothered by its beak deformity. Every so often it would rub its beak against the edge of the bird feeder like this. It appeared relatively healthy so it must have been able to eat satisfactorily, but apparently this deformity causes it to be obsessive about trying to scrape off the excess beak.
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.
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!
It’s amazing that any pigeons at all make it through our frigid Fairbanks winters.
This year we saw several weeks of sustained 30-40 below zero (F) weather and they are still flying around! (This photo was taken when it was about 30 below.)
They perch at night in attics and eaves, and sometimes in trees. Some nice people throw seed on the ground outside their homes throughout the winter, and the birds congregate in those places during the day. Not so much different then me feeding little redpolls and chickadees I suppose!
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.
This junco hit our second story window and sat stunned, but alive, here on the ground last summer. Juncos are sweet little birds that we see from May to September all around our house pecking at seeds on the ground. They visit our feeder during this time but mostly stay on the floor of the deck or on the ground under the feeder, hopping around picking up fallen sunflower heart pieces and birch seeds. They can leave so late in the season, I believe, because they are only flying as far as the southern coast of Alaska where it doesn’t freeze so hard in the winter.
My husband and I immensely love watching our feeder birds: redpolls, juncos, chickadees, and hairy and downy woodpeckers. He often places small amounts of bird seed on the snow mounds that cover the deck railings and flower pots in the winter so that redpolls don’t have to mob the feeder and so that we can see them closer. We stand at the window and marvel at how they can live at 30 below zero, and at their quick movements and little arguments.
But I wonder that having a bird feeder is the best thing for the birds. Many birds hit our windows, but by far most of them end up alive (though certainly a bit damaged afterwards). After they hit the windows as they sit stunned until they are able to fly away, they are undoubtedly vulnerable to predation. There’s a neighborhood cat that I fear visits in the wee hours of the morning in the summer and I have no idea if it uses the feeder as a baiting station. I have no evidential reason to believe this but am concerned. Other than that cat our neighborhood totally lacks outdoor cats as far as we can tell. This one we’ve only seen twice in our 5 years here. (And our two cats don’t go outside without being chaperoned.)
Feeding birds seems on the surface not a bad idea. But is it good to get them reliant on what we provide? So that they lose just a little bit of their natural foraging skills to their eventual detriment? What about the seed itself… are there pesticides on it, or fungicides? Is it even good for a redpoll or chickadee to eat that much sunflower heart instead of what it would normally find in nature? Could there sometimes be mold on the seeds that would be dangerous to the birds? Is feeding birds related to the sickness of chickadees that results in 6-10% of them having beak deformities? I’ve read up a bit on this topic and there are not a lot of answers to be had (although plenty of guesses and opinions).
So unfortunately, I’m not convinced that feeding birds is the absolute right thing to do, but I’m unwilling to give it up unless I see direct evidence that it harms them more than it helps them. The only way I know for sure that it harms them is when they hit the windows. I’ve went to great lengths to try to prevent it, such as wiring and beads that I once strung across our largest window for a few years. The thing is, I know that they would hit the windows even if we didn’t purposefully draw them here to our house with food.
Alas, it would be a sad sad day for my husband and I if we were to decide that the harm to the birds outweighs the benefits (to us and the birds).
You can see here the redpolls chowing down today on the seed my husband has strewn on the snow in front of the window. The temperature gauge doesn’t go colder than 20 below – it’s about 30 below zero (F) right now. I can’t imagine those poor little guys can’t use some extra food at this temperature!
But am I justifying? This summer I plan to try something else on the windows: CDs strung on wires or string. I’ve also switched out the bird feeder when it was just too hard to clean anymore. Any tips are welcome! Thanks for reading.
The Sandhill Crane has a lot of personality. From their rattling call to their long legs and red banded eyes, you can’t mistake one. Especially given it’s statuesque 4 foot height… good thing they don’t want to get too close to us because they would probably be quite intimidating!
The one on the left popped up at a pond my husband and I like to visit near our house. In May, full of mosquitoes, but an unexpected sweet birding spot. This bird wanted us to remove ourselves quickly. I presume it was spreading its wings in an attempt to make itself look bigger and more menacing. It was having a private moment, who are we to interrupt!? So we snapped a couple shots and skedaddled. (Although I don’t know that this would be a safe place to make a nest because of neighborhood dogs or other wandering animals like foxes.)
The photos on the right are from Creamer’s Field, an awesome place in Fairbanks to see migrating cranes, geese, and ducks. (I’ll do a post on it in the future.) The pair on the right must be a parent and offspring, since the one hasn’t attained adult coloring of gray and red face. If you want to see a short video of this pair click here, but if you do, keep an eye peeled for the Canada Geese in the background waddling through the grass.
The splendid artwork on the left was found driving through North Dakota or thereabouts, and if I remember right they were celebrating a crane festival. Apparently, I’m not the only one who finds Sandhill Cranes to be extraordinary creatures! —————————
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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!
First seen in the winter of 1991-92, Black-Capped Chickadee beak deformities are now quite common, according to the Alaska Science Center. To date, there have been over 2100 reports of chickadee beak deformities in Alaska, and only 31 outside of Alaska. In the photo above, you can see that the chickadee’s beak is at least twice as long as it should be, and the bottom part is crossed and curved up.
The Northwestern Crow suffers from this malady as well, with an astounding 17% of adult birds in Alaska exhibiting some level of beak deformity (as opposed to 6-10% of adult Black-Capped Chickadees).
Other birds with reported beak deformities are the Black-Billed Magpie, Red-Breasted Nuthatch, and Stellar’s Jay – although none of these reports come anywhere close to the high number of sightings of the Black-Capped Chickadee. Other species of chickadee have been seen with the problem too but they number under 10 total. Whatever the source of the problem, Black-Caps are especially vulnerable to it.
This map (from alaska.usgs.gov) shows locations of Black-Capped Chickadee beak deformity sightings. At first they were centered around Bristol Bay and the Mat-Su Valley but they soon spread to Fairbanks (where I live) and elsewhere. There are plenty of sightings in remote locations so the problem does not exist only in populated areas.
The poor creatures with deformed beaks often have a very hard time eating – it’s actually kind of amazing that they do get by at all. The one on the right kept rubbing the elongated portion of its beak on the wood of our feeder, as if attempting to rub it off. No doubt feeders and even garbage help to keep them alive but mortality is undoubtedly higher among them. Normal preening is greatly disrupted. And though many of them do find a mate and breed, fewer eggs hatch to a pair in which the female is deformed and fewer young survive when the male is deformed.
Possible causes are contaminants, nutritional deficiencies, disease, genetic abnormalities and parasites. Read more about those at http://alaska.usgs.gov/science/biology/landbirds/beak_deformity/causes.html
On the left is an example of a normal beak.
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.
My most recent “new bird” was the Pine Grosbeak, which came to the sunflower seed hearts laid out on our deck railing on October 13th 2011. When you first start being interested in birds it’s like every one you see is a “new bird” to you. And though Pine Grosbeaks are not uncommon here in Fairbanks, I never came across one until now even after 6 or 7 years of birding.
This one is either a female or immature male; adult males are bright red. Their vocalizations are quite melodious. This species is not endangered – it is somewhat common in northern coniferous forests. It does venture down into the midwest and eastern states in winter sometimes.
Pine Grosbeaks are generally monogamous, forming pairs before arriving at their breeding grounds. The female builds a nest, lays 3 or 4 eggs, and the male brings her food while she sits on them for about 2 weeks. When they hatch, both parents feed them for another couple of weeks while in the nest, but they continue to beg for food even after leaving the nest. I’m guessing this one is a young male, possibly searching for a flock to join because except for during breeding time they are usually seen in large flocks. My husband and I enjoyed seeing this bird during an early snow with a dollop of snow on the tip of its beak. Hope it found some friends!