Posts tagged “winter

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!

 


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.


Image

Raven, in the winter sun

Raven in Tree


Spruce Grouse, not hunted

Spruce GrouseThe spruce grouse is a very common bird in interior Alaska.   It’s one of several species of grouse that live in this state.

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!Spruce Grouse, female

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.

Spruce Grouse next to the Trans-Alaska PipelineThe 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 Spruce Grouse, chickreddish-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!

 

 

 


Bird Congregation

I don’t think this is a very common sight on the coastal plains of northern Alaska (or anywhere?), but as my husband drove in to Prudhoe Bay last spring, he spied this unusually large gathering of various birds.

Raven, Rough-Legged HawkThe rough-legged hawk and raven seem to be acting as sentries over the vast flocks, but they are watching for sinister purposes.

Rough-legged HawkYes, watching carefully.

Rough-legged hawk eating a duckSure enough,  a hawk has gotten herself a meal.

Rough-legged hawk But really, how can you blame her?

Short-eared OwlA short-eared owl perches nearby.

Kind of hard to believe that little twig can hold him up.  He must be all fluff.

And life goes on….


Redpoll Baby (and it just stopped snowing!)

Redpoll Baby

I’m happy to say my husband caught the birding bug!  He took this photo of a juvenile redpoll.  I would even go as far as calling it a baby redpoll.  It’s hard to tell how tiny it is, but he said just a couple inches, really small.  The short tail feathers probably enhance the tiny effect.

We’re a bit surprised that there are fledged redpolls this early in the spring.  It stopped snowing less than 2 weeks ago!  And now it’s 70 degrees, go figure.  Either way, my husband said this little guy flew away,barely, so maybe he or she will have a fighting chance.


“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 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.


Puffed Up Pigeons

Pigeons in Fairbanks during 30 below zero (F) weather

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 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.


To Feed or Not to Feed

Junco that just hit the window

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.

Junco that hit the windowMy 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.  Redpolls eating seed outside windowI’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.


A Snow Bunting at Pictured Rocks

I saw a snow bunting once before, in Prudhoe Bay, Alaska.  In its summer garb.  But this one I spied on a gravel road in Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore in Michigan in its winter plumage. My husband and I were in the middle of a 6 week long road trip that started and ended at our home in Fairbanks, Alaska, but that took us through 4 Canadian provinces and at least 14 states.  And of all the amazing times we had this snow bunting was actually pretty special because it was one of the few close encounters with birds that I had over the whole 6 weeks.

Michigan’s scenery, little did I know, is astoundingly beautiful!  I had no idea there were sand dunes in the Midwest!  Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore (on left) is a must-see part of North America.

As is Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore on thePictured Rocks National Lakeshore - Michigan Upper Peninsula of Michigan.  You can see red-orange sandstone that is 500 million years old in the photo on the right.  This cliff has been beautifully sculpted by the waters of Lake Superior.  The interesting part is that even though the rock that makes up the landform is hundreds of millions of years old, the cliff itself that you see jutting out into the water is only a few thousands of years old.  No landform around this area could be older than 12,000 years old because that’s when glaciers retreated at the end of the last ice age.  But this land is rising.  It has risen far enough up since then, and been sculpted by the forces of erosion, to give us a spectacular view of rock formations that used to be buried.

So as my husband and I are visiting this most scenic of places, this snow bunting is pick pick picking at bits of something along a gravel road, letting me get closer and closer with my camera.

He must have just arrived from more northerly climes, smartly getting busy eating as many seeds and insects that he can before the coming winter.  Snow buntings spend the summer in Alaska and northern Canada and before winter fly to the Midwest of America, southern Canada, and the coastlines of Alaska.  Males have darker heads in the winter and more black on their wings, like this little guy.

I know all this about snow buntings now because I have my handy birding books around me.  But when I was taking the photos I thought maybe it was a sparrow of some kind.  To my delight, when I finally got home and looked it up I found out it was a snow bunting which is not a sparrow.  I would have never recognized it because the one I saw in Prudhoe Bay was in it’s June breeding plumage which is mostly white.  Moral of the story:  take at least one birding book with you on your road trip!

Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore

Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore

Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore

Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore


Running out of suet, after a long cold winter…


Pine Grosbeak – Oct 2011

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.

Pine Grosbeaks are plump colorful finches about the size of robins and they live in Alaska all winter.

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!


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!