A few years ago I went with my husband up the Dalton Highway to Prudhoe Bay. We stopped a few different places including a storage yard and former state camp called Happy Valley where I found one of the most wonderful things I’ve ever happened upon… a raven’s nest in a mounted rack of moose antlers with two babies in it!
The one on the left has red combs above its eyes so we know it’s a male (click it for a better view). I’ve seen quite a few spruce grouse over the years but never have I seen the courtship display. The National Geographic Feild Guide to Birds says “In courtship strutting display, male spreads his tail, erects the red combs above his eyes, and rapidly beats his wings; some males also give a series of low-pitched hoots.” This would be something to see!
The male on the left is standing next to the Trans-Alaska Pipeline and my husband and I saw at least 10 or 20 when we were driving the pipeline access road for a couple of hours. The spruce grouse is a game bird and hunters can take them throughout Alaska except during the months of May, June & July (with a few exceptions). It is somewhat common to hunt them for food. To me, this is a necessary evil. I’m a birder and I consider myself an environmentalist but I think that hunting has a role to play in a healthy diet. As long as the bird dies quickly and the meat is used for food I am not against this. I have had ptarmigan myself, but never grouse. It was delicious. Eating a bird that has had a ‘happy’ life is better for everyone, and for the world, than one who lives in tiny cages or in huge flocks in warehouses.
Residents of Alaska can also kill cormorants, crows, and Snowy Owls, as long as they are taken for food or clothing. It sounds cruel but there are Alaska Native traditions that involve these birds and their feathers and this must be respected as long as the birds are not endangered.
The spruce grouse on the right, and its chick, were spotted on a trail about a mile off the Steese Highway north of Fairbanks, back in 2006. You can see the female has a reddish-brown stripe over its eye, reminiscent of the male. I don’t remember exactly what time of year I took the photos but it was probably early June or late May. (I’m not sure exactly what to call the baby since it seems bigger than a chick and smaller than a juvenile. It’s more like a ‘tween. 🙂 )
Hard to believe but this bird subsists mainly on spruce needles! They must have powerful digestive systems. They can stuff their crops full of the equivalent of 10% of their body weight, to be digested later, and their gizzards grow by 75% during the winter when their energy needs increase.
As someone who lives in interior Alaska year-round, I’m quite impressed with a bird that can live here in the winter. Along with ravens and chickadees, they have adapted some clever ways to make it.
Here’s to a mild winter for us all!
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.
To lead me away from her nesting site most likely!
It’s not too hard to find Lesser Yellowlegs in interior Alaska during the summer months if you get a ways out of town near some water. And you’ll know you found one when you hear that mind-numbing “TU TU TU” alarm call. (You can hear it here.)
The Greater Yellowlegs – a larger version of this bird – also visits Alaska in the spring and summer, but doesn’t come this far north. In the winter, Yellowlegs sandpipers can be found in Mexico and the coastal and southern edge of the U.S.
They eat aquatic insects, snails, & small fish, nest in depressions in the ground in bogs and treeless tundra, and give birth to 4 eggs which when hatched are precocial which means they can fend for themselves as soon as their natal down is dry.
It’s hard to believe, but people used to hunt sandpipers like these! These skinny little birds were game species and apparently market hunters nearly wiped out many types of shorebirds before they were protected in the early 1900s. Thank goodness!!!
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.