Posts tagged “science

Raven yanks another raven’s tail

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!

 

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Black-Capped Chickadee Beak Deformity

Chickadee with beak deformityI 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.


“Planned Pigeonhood” in Waikiki

Pigeons in WaikikiIf you’ve been fortunate enough to visit the beautiful island of Hawaii you’ve probably visited Honolulu.  And if you’ve visited Honolulu that means you’ve probably been to Waikiki.  And if you’ve been to Waikiki that means you’ve seen the pigeons (a.k.a. rock doves).

Lovely birds, as special as any living creature, but not very popular with the tourists.

Hawaii is a common destination for Alaskans in the winter.  With an almost total lack of sunshine from November to February we pledge to ourselves that this winter we are getting out!  Hopefully it happens.  And there is nary a more direct route to full-on sunshine then the quick five or so hours from Anchorage to Honolulu.

Pigeon missing footThe pigeon on the very left is looking pretty mangy (click on the photo to see it larger).  There are so many pigeons in Waikiki, with no natural predators anywhere in sight, that they over breed and become a danger to themselves and people.  The photo on the right shows another pigeon from Waikiki, this one missing a foot and walking around a restaurant hunting for food scraps and somehow managing to avoid being clobbered.

So when I saw this posting by the Human Society about OvoControl, a contraceptive-laced food that property owners can feed pigeons, I was thrilled.  It describes how the manager of The International Marketplace, one of the most popular tourist destinations in Waikiki, chose to take a chance on the product and saw a 60% reduction in pigeons after 12 months. (It costs $9 a day to treat feed/treat 100 pigeons.)

Talk about an ideal non-violent and humane solution!  Maybe this will catch on in communities that are fed up with the overpopulation of this city-loving bird.


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!


Say’s Phoebe on Rosie Creek Trail

I spotted this sunbathing beauty near Rosie Creek Trail outside of Fairbanks in August 2009.

Maybe it was migrating south.  Or maybe it was spending the last couple of days surveying its territory, waiting for a Crane Fly to wander by.  Either way, doesn’t it look more majestic than its humble 4 or 5 inches?

The Say’s Phoebe is named after Thomas Say, a naturalist who named hundreds of new species at the beginning of the 1800s.  He identified over 1,000 species of beetle alone, and over 400 other insects.  He saw and described the Say’s Phoebe during an expedition to the Rocky Mountains in 1819.

But isn’t it kind of silly to associate this enigmatic little creature to a man from the 1800s?  And what did Native Americans call the Say’s Phoebe?  … What is in a name anyway?

… Alas, we must communicate.

 

You might have noticed that this spruce tree has a lot of cones.  Apparently, the year after a conifer goes through a period of stress – such as drought – the tree produces a crop of cones that is much larger than normal. The dark ones are immature.

This is a Black Spruce (there are no naturally occurring pine trees in interior or northern Alaska though spruce trees are often mistaken for them).  Black Spruce is looked at with disdain by a lot of Alaskans because it represents unbuildable wetlands fraught with frost lenses and mucky tundra.

But this mucky tundra is the Say’s Phoebe’s living room for the summer.  It spends its years flying between an arctic paradise and a tropical paradise.  To the Say’s Phoebe, this fair-sized Black Spruce (12-15 feet tall) is the perfect perch for hunting mosquitos, unbuildable wetlands and all.

 

 


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!