This is a column where readers are encouraged to ask questions about birds-in-general, back yard birds/birding, bird feeding, bird health, bird banding, bird migration, bird ecology etc.
So, let’s get started with some questions.
The Feather Report – The Eyes Have It
By Carl A. Pascoe
Rachel and I have been fortunate to spend a portion of our lives with many birds and have been delighted to share some of these moments with you. Looking back on what we have already published so far, I discovered our close-up encounters with various raptors had not yet been covered. Today we wish to open a window into the lives of these majestic creatures with information about and photographs of raptors with whom we chanced to spend some time.
Raptors are a group of birds of prey whose diet consists of the flesh of other animals. In general, they are opportunistic hunters and feeders with a few which are specialists such as Osprey who appear to almost exclusively feed on fish. Many of the others are less finicky and will go after a wide variety of creatures from insects to small animals (including other birds) up to young deer. Evolutionary adaptions are crafting these birds into what I think is the pinnacle of efficiency in the ongoing war of predator versus pray.
First of all, the darn things can fly! I know this is obvious, but have you thought about how great of an advantage this gives them? Their ability to almost silently cover large areas in search of food or blend into their surrounding while perching inconspicuously awaiting pray to show up. Whether they are swooping down from above up to 200 miles per hour, exploding from concealment or aerobatic maneuvering through even dense foliage with skills that would be the envy of the best fighter pilots, these techniques yield an envious success rate.
Their phenomenal vision and acuity allow them to spot and identify prey from mind boggling distances. It has been speculated that some eagles may be able to detect small animals from up to a mile away. People have been fascinated by raptors vision and it was commonly believed that they may have telescopic vision which would enable them to zoom in and enlarge objects. This assertion has not been supported so we must wonder how well they can see compared to humans.
Some of the adaptations which make their vision so remarkable is that they can see up to 3 times better than an average person so that line you can read from the standard eye chart at 20 feet (20/20 vision) they could clearly visualize from 60 feet away. Unlike most birds they have binocular vison like us, so they have depth perception allowing them to pinpoint objects in space and accurately follow moving prey. The muscles which adjust the lenses in the eyes are enhanced so they can quickly adjust to changing distance as they rapidly change from far to near as they close in for the kill.
Additionally, the number and density of photoreceptor cells far exceeds those in our eyes. This lets them see everything in much greater detail like the difference between an old TV and a super high definition flat screen giving remarkable detail. Where you might see a field of grass moving in the breeze, they may be able to pick out a single blade moving differently indicating a possible meal.
But wait there’s more! Humans have three specialized photoreceptors which are sensitive to red, green or blue light. Our brain uses these three colours separately and in combination for us to perceive the shades and hues we see. A further enhancement for the raptors is a fourth set of photoreceptors giving raptors the ability to see much deeper into the violet/ultraviolet frequencies of the spectrum. This added layer of information gathered by raptors violet/ultraviolet sensitive cells must profoundly affect they see the world letting them perceive the world in much greater detail then us.
The shorter wavelengths of ultraviolet light should provide a much more detailed view of objects. Imagine looking over a lake whose surface is covered with ducks. Now add large waves and many of the ducks cannot be seen unless they are on the top of the waves. As the waves get smaller more and more ducks can be seen so the large waves provide less detail to what is on the lake then the shorter waves. Thus, our visual world is more like the lake during large waves and the raptors is like the small waves. In other words, they have a much more detailed (higher definition) view.
Humans will probably never be able to envision the world like they do because we are unable to interpret this extra layer of data. It would be like a person who is colour blind to red trying to understand your description of a male Northern Cardinal’s plumage. They will not be able see this bird as you. Even enhancing your ability to see the colors of some bright florescent objects under a blacklight is not the same as seeing ultraviolet. The glowing is still limited to what our eye can see.
Many raptors’ eyes change colour as they age. This and other data such as plumage and other measurements help bird banders age these birds. A great example of eye colour change is the Sharp-shinned hawk whose iris changes from light yellow in hatch year birds to an amber during their second year of life to a deep burgundy when they are three years old. Feather colours and patterns of feather replacement can help in aging birds such as the pattern of white feathers on the head and tail of Bald Eagles. The young Bald Eagles are dark overall and can be confused with the less common Golden Eagle. The Bald Eagle gradually takes on the well-known white head and tail and does not have their striking look until they are four years old.
Raptors have hooked beaks which is used to a great advantage for ripping flesh and tearing it off as bite size chunks. Most raptors do not use these formidable looking weapons to kill, except for falcons who have a notch in their beaks that is often used to break the neck and sever spinal cords. Many falcons catch their meals on the wing, so it makes sense that a quick killing and paralyzing coup de grâce to preclude their food from struggling while they are flying. Any raptor may use their beak for defense so careful handling by raptor banders does not elicit a biting response by most of banded birds. You can’t use gloves while banding because you need to be able to “feel” how the bird is doing and maintain control of their talons. A Red Tail Hawk can pierce through your forearm with its talons, so banders are very careful to keep control of these dangerous armaments.
These supreme predators’ talons are their ultimate weapons. Evolution has provided raptors with remarkable tools to capture and kill. Their legs, feet, toes and needle-sharp talons make an efficient combination to capture, hold and quickly dispatch any prey attacked. They possess powerful leg muscles, tendons and ligaments covered with hard scales to protect their legs, feet and toes from injury from teeth, claws or beaks. Many have specialized pads that allows them a better grip along with special ligaments which lock their talons until they consciously release their hold. The locking mechanism of wire ties is a good analogy for how this works. When a wire tie is pulled it locks in place and will not release unless you take an action to allow the locking tabs to disengage. Squirming food has little chance to escape.
These are some of the reasons Rachel and I find these apex predators extraordinary. Look for them soring high above, swooping down from sky or perch, on hydro wires or fence posts. Raptors can blend into their habitats, so you must look carefully and pay attention to what is going on around you. Did all the birds at your feeder suddenly disappear? If the answer is yes, there may well be a hawk in the area. We have had several occasions when we have watched Coopers Hawks and Red-tail Hawks chowing down on birds at our feeders.
As Rachel always says, “Keep looking up” and I would like to add keep looking all around.
The Feather Report – The Monarch Butterfly
By Rachel A. Powless
This is a tale of mystery, intrigue, love, uncertainties, and cooperation. It is a collaboration of three countries that began as early as 1937 with a then unknown graduate student named Frederick Albert Urquhart (1911-2002). Born and raised in Toronto and with an unquenchable thirst for studying insects, Dr. Fred Urquhart, CM decided his life-long journey would embrace the study of the Monarch Butterfly (Danaus plexippus). We are all so very happy he did.
His celebrated book, The Monarch Butterfly, 1960 ©, University of Toronto Press, Canada is the go-to scientific book on the monarch for all zoologists, entomologists, and lepidopterists even today. The phrase he coined and used intensely & proudly for the rest of us was “citizen scientists” that changed the world’s knowledge of the monarch. So many questions were answered in this book which many of us now take for granted. His drawings were impeccable. All the while, his wife Norah Roden Urquhart (1918-2009) by his side. By the mid-sixties, his remaining scientific hypothesis was yet to be answered: “Where do Monarchs go in winter?”
It is known that the Monarch Butterfly existed more than 10 million years ago. This magnificent butterfly was named by early European settlers, “King Billy’s” after William of Orange, a Dutch Prince who became King of England in 1689. In North America it is the most recognizable butterfly. And our ancestors? Many tribes revered all butterflies. North American tribes believed that the butterfly represented rebirth, regeneration, the life cycle, joy and beauty. While still others believed that placing a design or representation of a butterfly on cradleboards would bring sleep to the child and good fortune. Butterfly designs are found on regalia both in men & women. As we observe dance competition that takes place during powwow, we very often are captivated by the dancers’ regalia designs. It is said that the young women in Fancy Shawl Dance are mimicking the graceful beauty, strength, and force of the butterfly on their shawl-wings. A legend speaks of native children who are lucky enough to catch a butterfly. They should then whisper to the butterfly a wish. Since the butterfly cannot speak it is forced to carry its message to the Creator and the wish will be granted. We are then back to the question, “Where do Monarchs go in winter?” There is one native tribe who knew the answer but reaching these natives in mountainous regions 4,000 to 11,000 feet high was difficult.
Professor Urquhart was getting closer. By the early 60’s Fred & Norah had determined that Monarchs fly about 81 miles (130 kilometers) per day and fly during daylight hours only. Monarchs are a tropical species and cannot fly when temperatures are below 55°F. Sun is required to warm the body and wings. Dr. Urquhart designed a small red rectangle tag that folded over on top of one of the upper wings. Information was provided on the tags on who to contact but the rectangular shape made it difficult for the monarch to fly if placement wasn’t perfect. He turned to the company that gums our postage stamps during those years. It helped. His number of Citizen Scientists increased by the hundreds and it was only a matter of time.
My journey and love of the Monarch began back in 2000. Carl & I were writing a Ruby-throated Hummingbird classroom study booklet for an on-line site called Journey North. It is here where numerous creatures of Mother Earth that migrate are written by various scientists for children. The Monarch Butterfly was one such beautiful creature and we both became smitten and fascinated. In those early years, our bird banding endeavors included a small accipiter, the Sharp-shinned Hawk. We had received confirmation that one of our hawks was recaptured in Mexico. Our Spanish was non-existent. I reached out to a naturalist in Eagle Pass, TX who was part of Monarch Watch© along the Rio Grande. After her gracious translation, I asked her on that late October day if the Monarchs had arrived in good numbers. She replied as only one who as seen this phenomenon, “Rachel, I am looking out of my office window. For as far as my eyes can see in either direction, the sky has become a river of monarchs.”
Then in 1972, it was Norah that decided to send some Mexican newspapers a small piece on what the Urquharts were asking Mexican citizens to do and why. The Canadian & United States citizens had made leaps and bounds on sharing their knowledge of information for the Urquharts by their annual tagging in late August through September. But the search seemed to be stalled in Texas. An emergence of a funnel-shape developed with the locations of the discovered tagged Monarchs. This shape could be seen on a map which centered down to the State of Texas. Kenneth C. Brugger was an engineer by trade and an amateur naturalist living in Mexico as a textile consultant for a company in the U.S. Ken responded to the Urquharts’ inquiry in a letter dated February 26, 1973. “I read with interest,’ he wrote, “your article on the monarch. It occurred to me that I might be of some help….” Along the way, he married a Mexican woman, Aguado (Cathy) Trail. The Bruggers were relentless traveling from town to town with an old travel camper hitched to their truck. They were finding dead monarchs along some of the mountainous dirt roads. The Trans-volcanic Mountains of central Mexico held the key. They were treacherous & perilous yet inhabited by small pockets of Native Mexicans. Accessibility was limited and dangerous. The mountains were covered in a tree called the Oyamel Fur trees. For the Indigenous population, carving out a living meant cutting down the Oyamel trees and selling the trees to illegal tree-loggers. The poachers were unyielding and paid the residents very little money. The use of weapons by these poachers was not a myth.
On 9 January 1975, after nearly two years of searching for the Monarch Butterflies’ winter home, Ken called the Urquharts, “We have located the colony!” he said unable to control the excitement in his voice. “We have found them – millions of Monarchs in evergreens beside a mountain clearing.” The following year in 1976 on the exact day, 9th January, Fred and Norah Urquhart made the long arduous trip to an uninhabited area of the Sierra Madre Mtns. They met with Ken & Cathy. The last mile was climbing up the side of a mountain at 10,000 feet. The Urquharts were no longer young. As they both looked over a ridge of 1,000s of fir trees laden with millions of Monarchs the joy was evident, but another question came to mind: “There must be more of these over-wintering sites!” Back in 1975, Ken & Cathy did find another three sites. It was later revealed that Ken Brugger was color-blind. But it is safe to assume that the enormity of this discovery was overwhelming for both Ken & Cathy. In 1998, the Urquharts received the highest civilian award of Canada. CM stands for Member of the Order of Canada.
Today, there are now a dozen restricted ecological preserves in Mexico. In 2000, just six sites were known. I suspect that technology and the use of drones played a huge part in the identification of these additional sites. The area of this preserve is now known as a World Heritage Site and this world-wide known ecological habitat is referred to as the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve. Eco-tourism has brought money to the poverty-stricken inhabitants of this region. With such grandiose titles and notoriety comes great care, sensitivity, awareness and contribution.
In the last 30 years, much has been scientifically documented and internationally recognized then came monetary support for the monarch, but we seem to be between a rock and a hard place. The monarch population as with any other species on Mother Earth fluctuates constantly; which is to say there is no stability. We are asking three nations’ governments; Canada, the United States and Mexico to do something. Anything. But what?
We then must define weather vs climate change. Weather is local which includes rain, wind, and heat/cold. Weather conditions affect us daily, week to week and by the seasons. Climate Change is a pattern in global or regional locales dating back to the early 20th Century where climate change is attributed largely to the increased levels of carbon dioxide produced by using fossil fuels. The burning of the Amazon is a catastrophic event which in time will create long-term damage to our Mother Earth. The melting Arctic is yet another effect due to climate change. Climate change will influence the outcomes with severe consequences for many of Mother Earths animals, plants and insects: Our flora and fauna will be at risk.
The Canadian Government in 2008 placed the Monarch Butterfly on their Species of Special Concern under Canada’s Species at Risk. (SARA). A Species of Special Concern is defined as: “ A wildlife species that may become a threatened or endangered species because of a combination of biological characteristics and identified threats”.
The United States under the Fish & Wildlife was to decide on May 24, 2019 whether the Monarch will receive federal protection under the Endangered Species Act. An extension for the listing decision was postponed to December 15, 2020. A senior scientist at the Center for Biological Diversity has indicated that it would be highly unlikely that anything would be done. Why? I suggest that with the current President and his administration in the Whitehouse, this will regrettably not occur. The President does not have a sense of urgency with anything related to scientific research. He does not believe there is even wide-spread Climate Change due to the decades of use of fossil-fuels.
Then in Mexico, “The good news is that during the period (2015-2016), illegal logging declined by 40% due to a combination of enforcement by the federal government and financial support to the local communities by the Monarch Fund, WWF, and Mexican and international philanthropists and businesses.” Dr. Taylor, Monarch Watch © in his annual assessment of the Monarchs in Mexico also indicated extreme weather with violent winds cause deforestation by felling large sections of trees.
“Since the forests provide the microclimate needed for butterflies to survive the winter, illegal logging must be eradicated and degraded areas need to be restored,” said Omar Vidal, CEO of WWF Mexico. “This would help the monarch butterfly to better adapt to extreme climate events, and also provide local communities with sustainable economic alternatives.”
Every spring in the northern U.S. States and primarily the southern Provinces of Ontario & Quebec, cooler temperatures and rain will cause Monarch eggs and caterpillars to die; these pockets of disruption over time will create lower population counts in the over-wintering sites of Mexico. Sunlight and temperature in each stage of the monarch’s maturation from egg to caterpillar and finally the chrysalis help to determine size and health of the butterfly. If these same areas of disturbance rebound the following year, does it then balance out? Or do these weather conditions move on to other areas and raise uncertainty once again? The latter is more likely, but make no mistake, both scenarios could react erratically for years to come.
What about milkweed. Milkweed is literally the lifeline of this beautiful butterfly. The female will lay hundreds of eggs on the underside of the milkweed leaves. In our area, there are about 6-10 different species of milkweed. The caterpillar (or cats) will eat their way out of their pinhead-sized egg. Cats will eat milkweed until the time comes to create their jade-colored lantern called a chrysalis with specks of gold. This process can take 10-15 days depending on temperature. There are farmers & even city municipalities for one reason or another that will mow down milkweed. Livestock can have digestive issues if they would eat massive amounts of milkweed. And, what about insecticides? Are all three countries establishing regulations and/or perhaps protocols for an international precedence? Our ancestors used the tender leaves closest to the top of the plant for a medicinal tea, yet we all know that our heritage, ancestry and beliefs were to take only that which we need.
Cycle of Life
This is the 28th Anniversary of Monarch Watch©. In 1991, Monarch Watch© under the tutelage of Dr. Chip Taylor, University Kansas, Lawrence, Kansas became North America’s premier website on the Monarch Butterfly. Dr. Taylor changed the shape of the monarch tag to round which dramatically increased the number of tagged Monarchs found in the Trans-volcanic Mountains. Even children as young as 4 yrs. old would volunteer to tag a Monarch. While I sat down, I’d point to the center discal cell of the butterfly while gently holding the Monarch Butterfly on my thigh. With their tiny fingers and very thin fingernails, a small child could quite easily pick off the round sticker & place it exactly where it should be. If it was a little off-center it didn’t matter since the round tag would keep the butterfly in balance.
In mid-August, when the ‘last generation” of monarchs begins to exhibit directionality, it will take a single monarch from southern Ontario to the Mexican mountains about 5-8 weeks to reach their wintering site. The trip is an astounding 2,500 miles. These pollinators are sometimes referred to as the Super-Generation. Because this group of monarchs have such a difficult journey ahead, they are not sexually mature. Their metabolism concentrates on travel and not reproduction. Monarchs are attracted to the nectar of flowers and especially species of Goldenrod and New England Asters. They will taste with their feet first then uncurl their proboscis which acts like a straw and sip on the nectar. Dr. Chip Taylor through the years, has created a mathematical calculation for counting the number of Monarchs in the Biosphere Reserves. Not all reserves are used by the monarchs in any given year. Factors include determining the number of Oyamel Fur trees within each square hectare (mile) where the monarchs are roosting. Then he must approximately determine the number of monarchs on each tree. As you can see, factors included would be logging, the previous year’s Monarch population in key areas of Ontario, Quebec, Minnesota, Michigan and still other factors such as 2-3 hard freezes in the mountains. This must be updated annually. When his final numbers are presented it is enumerated as such: 2.48 hectares, 6.25 hectares which really means: approximately 2.48 million monarchs or 6.25 million monarchs and recalculating these numbers to miles. Each year is different and laborious. His numbers are not always an absolute. Reading Dr. Taylor’s conclusions are like reading War & Peace. He knows how difficult this is for those of us who are not in tune with his methods, but we’d rather have this information than not.
The wintering monarchs will stay in the Mexican Sierra Madre Mountains and hibernate. This dormancy state will last until January or February. Then the butterflies will become sexually active, mate and begin the flight back north. The females will lay eggs along the way. This last generation will die but since the milkweed is already blooming in Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas the first stage of the monarch cats (instars) begins. The molting of the larvae skins will go through 5 stages in as little as 10-15 days due to the warmer temperatures in that area. The chrysalis forms and it will take 9-15 days for the monarch to split through and emerge and is referred to as an eclose.
“A tagged male monarch (Danaus plexippus), released by Donald A. Davis (Canada) at Presqu’ile Provincial Park near Brighton, Ontario, Canada, on 10 September 1988, was recaptured on 8 April 1989 in Austin, Texas, U.S.A., travelling an estimated 2,880 miles, making this the World’s Longest Butterfly Migration.” Keeper of the Records, Guinness World Records Ltd.
And, finally what about those Native Mexicans living in the Sierra Madre Mountains at altitudes between 5,000 – 11,000 feet high? These peaceful, easy-going indigenous Mexicans have celebrated Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead for hundreds of years. The locals call the returning Monarch migrants “las palomas”, which translates as “the doves” or the “souls of the lost children.” These Natives of the Trans-volcanic Mountains in southern and central Mexico celebrated their phenomenal marvel and why wouldn’t they? It remained a secret for hundreds of years but now, Day of the Dead, is shared by most of Mexico as a 3-day event, beginning 31 October to 02 November. Traditions of the Natives Mexicans such as creating private alters or ofrendas are covered with Aztec marigolds, favorite foods and drinks of the departed souls are included. Possessions of the departed are often left at gravesites. It is a happy time for relatives & friends. They share stories, relive moments in time, laugh and pray. In Native Mexican culture death is viewed as a natural part of the human cycle. There is no sadness, only joy because their loved ones awake and celebrate with them.
Mictēcacihuātl is an Aztec goddess and her role is to watch over the bones of the dead and preside over the ancient festivals of the dead. The Day of the Dead has introduced this holiday as a unifying national tradition based on indigenous traditions. And, it raises awareness of the plight of these beautiful creatures we call the Monarch Butterfly. Keep looking up.
- Urquhart, A., Ph. D., The Monarch Butterfly, © 1960 University of Toronto Press
- Urquhart, F. A., Ph. D., National Geographic, “Discovered: The Monarch’s Mexican Haven”, VOL.,150, No. 2, August 1976
- Schappert, Phil, Ph. D., The Last Monarch Butterfly: Conserving the Monarch Butterfly in a Brave New World, © 2004 Firefly Books (U.S.) Inc.
- Lasky, Kathryn, Monarchs, © 1993 Harcourt Brace and Co.
- Taylor, Chip, Ph. D., Monarch Watch © Website
- Rosenblatt, Lynn M., Monarch Magic! © 1998 Williamson Publishing Co.
And, countless other professionals, with conversations on-line over the years: Dr. William Calvert, Dr. Lincoln Brower (1931-2018), Dr. Karen Oberhauser, Don Davis, Biologist, Toronto, and Ro Vaccaro, Friends of the Monarch.
Photos of all Monarchs and their cycle life were taken by me, throughout the years we decided to rear Monarchs at home in a condo.
July 2019 – AMRO
Question: Are robins here all year? I’m seeing more and more during all seasons.
Answer: If the winter is mild, the American Robins may stay throughout that year but if the winter is harsh not so much. Scientists call them semi-migratory which means they go where the food is available and flying south during severe weather is the best outcome. During any winter, even if it is a particularly average winter, robins live primarily on berries and they often become intoxicated while gorging on tree and shrub berries. If we have a couple of hard freezes, sugars in fruit ferments and then converts to alcohol. When the leaves are falling, the cold air bites at our ears and the sweater is just not enough, robins flock to your juniper berries like a well-orchestrated clamor of crows. It’s time to party!
Cedar Waxwings, Eastern Bluebirds, Mockingbirds, and Gray Catbirds are preferential toward berries just like the American Robins. The birds will become disoriented, unable to balance on branches and may even fall to the ground. This temporary behavior doesn’t seem to have any long-term effect. I am not advocating bird intoxication but merely passing along information that will allow those bird lovers a chance to increase the species and number of birds in their yards.
Here is a list of the most common berry trees & shrubs that many species of birds love year-round:
Dogwood trees and shrubs
Holly trees & shrubs
Native Juniper trees and shrubs
Sumac and elderberries
The robin’s diet in warm weather is all about the earthworm and this is what is fed to their hatchlings. The jury is out on the robin’s most familiar behavior ; Some scientists believe the cocking of the head on your front lawn is because they can hear the movement of worms. Other’s indicate the robin is looking for that yummy worm above ground. I believe since his feet and toes are both long and strong, the robin can feel movement coming through to his foot and toes. During breeding season, robins can have as many as 3 broods with 4-6 eggs in each brood. Weather can reduce these numbers in both broods and number of eggs per brood. Keep looking up and enjoy your summer.
June 2019 – The Common Yellow throat Warbler
Question: I live down the road from a small marsh. I know the Red-winged Blackbirds nest there but what is that small yellow bird?
Answer: The Common Yellowthroat Warbler is anything but common yet because their breeding range includes the entire U.S. and most of Canada, it then becomes ordinary. I’m ok with that. This tiny warbler is all of 5 inches but fearless. Mostly he is spastic while curious, discerningly curious and with attitude.
He is often hidden within the reeds & cattails protecting the female while she sits on her nest of up to six hatchlings. But once he hears an unfamiliar sound, he frantically bursts out of his concealed territory like he’d been shot out of a cannon and makes his presence known. “Damn the torpedoes and full speed ahead!” He has a rattling-raspy and a scolding call-note that is quite inspirational as it is unsettling. It makes one wonder if he will attack?!
If you are undeterred by his bluster and circumstance you might try to pish. This will confuse the mighty-might because he really doesn’t know if you are friend or foe! If you pish repeatedly, he will possibly see you as an amorous conquest. His song is: Wich-e-tee, wich-e-tee, wich-e-tee. He repeats and begins again & again. His day is spent chasing-off Red-winged Blackbirds, Marsh Wrens and the occasional Sora. In birding circles, because of his black band of feathers across the face and eyes he is nicknamed the Bandit or for us older folks, The Lone Ranger.
Years back, there was an incident on a long boardwalk with a marsh on one side. Common Yellowthroat Warblers were already in nesting mode. Carl and I were taking a leisurely stroll during late spring migration with binoculars in-hand. I began to pish and this peculiar scenario was set in motion. The male Common Yellowthroat secretly followed me down the boardwalk serenading me as he exploded past several other birds’ territories creating substantial wreckage. I didn’t know whether to be impressed or shocked. Carl was a bit more than bemused: hysterically laughing comes to mind. Carl indicated he could see a cartoon character with his red shaped heart pounding, nearly out of his chest: kur-thump, ker-thumpty thump and glazed over eyes. As the distance between his nesting female and me both expanded and intensified, his inner-bird familial instincts took over and without warning, he darted back to his territory and the female sitting on her nest. Bird behavior can become human-like or at least mutually tolerable. Keep looking up.
May 2019 – The Black-and-White Warbler
“If you don’t feel right, if you don’t feel good, just go outside. Take care of your flower bed and forget about everything else.” Amy Hill Hearth
Question:My friend says there is a summer bird that sounds like an old squeaky wheel?
Answer:This is what we hear: weesa. weesa, weesa, in addition to 8 or 10 more repetitious monotone notes. Repeat. Repeat. This early migratory warbler sounds like a squeaky wheel needing some WD 40. A high piercing long repeated two-element phrase is often the reference used in describing this trunk-creepers song. The Black-and-White Warbler is tiny but with more of a squeak like a field mouse; for the record – it is not piercing. You will look for a child with a wagon or a tricycle and give up, the first time. The second time, you’ll find the weesa, weesa, weesa, attached to a tree trunk. The Black-and-White Warbler has a long downward curved bill that will probe and suck-up insect larvae like a Dirt Devil. If he finds a sap-well left by the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, he will take advantage of the small insects attracted to the sweetness as he prods and pokes.
The Black-and-White Warbler takes on larger tree trunks and larger limbs like a mountaineer takes on Denali, an Athabascan word meaning, “the high one”. Why does he prefer the taller and larger trees? Nobody knows for sure. His probing bill with strong legs and large feet and toes can travel upward and downward face-first. He can adjust by moving to the left or right all the while searching and penetrating various species of trees. Their exploring habitual character allows this warbler to migrate north much earlier than most warblers even when spring has yet to appear here in Ontario. They will winter in S. Florida, the Caribbean, Mexico, Central America and some areas of north west South America. The Black-and-White Warbler has a stiff tail like woodpeckers, nuthatches and the Brown Creeper; better to help him balance. This small warbler as he squeaks his way into your heart, will move farther into the bush or woodland areas where nests are built at the base of trees or under small shrubs. He probes, eats and squeaks as he moves about the tree trunks. Keep looking up.
April 2019 – Woodcock
Question: Why is the woodcock sometimes called a bog sucker?
Answer: This time of year, a very peculiar bird makes his presence known. One of his definitive skills is that he plunges his probing 3.5 in. bill into moist woods, soggy thickets, and bogs then yanks out his very favorite food: the earth worm. This is the American Woodcock or sometimes referred to as the “bog sucker”.
Most of this game bird’s behavior could be described as atypical, unusual or even weird. They are crepuscular which means the woodcock is primarily active at dusk and dawn. Once the male establishes where his territory will be in spring, he then proceeds to dazzle the females with his Sky Dance. His early evening courtship display begins with a nasal, buzzy beent, beent which he repeats many times and in each direction. He then begins his ascent upwards all the while twittering. It becomes evident that this crazy little bird is creating a spiraling image of a tornado. As he spirals wider and upwards to 300 feet, the bird will then drop in a zig-zag overture. His fluttering wings creates a whirling sound before he touches ground where he started! Whew. If a female responds he will fan his tail and mating may occur. The woodcock will continue like this for an hour or more then repeat at dawns early light.
This bird looks prehistoric; it can be traced back to 5.3 – 2.58 million years ago – the Pliocene Epoch. It has a “plump” appearance due to the incredible number of feathers surrounding an unconventional bone structure. Thousands of feathers on woodcocks keep these game birds dry in their wet habitats. The mandible is nearly half the body size and it’s tactile; the top is pliable and feels warm to the touch. This helps in detecting bugs, slugs and earth worms. The legs are extraordinarily short, yet its feet and toes are uniquely long; everything seems to balance out in the end.
This bird can cut a rug, boogie or strut its stuff. Yes, I am indicating that these rotund game birds dance in the sky and on the ground. Their ground boogie is an example of form = function. The American Woodcock lifts one over-sized foot and thrusts it forward while the long toes of that foot wiggles into the soft ground. The entire body shakes, rattles and rolls. The back foot keeps everything in equilibrium: that back foot then moves forward and the process repeats. Why? The woodcock’s toes sense movement underground. They can then forage through the leaf litter, soft sand or moist woodlands for food.
Leaf litter is the darling of all female woodcocks. They look like leaf litter as do the males. This litter gives the female a place to hide while she sits on her nest made of leaf litter. On reserves in Ontario including Six Nations, the American Woodcock begins to arrive in April. The brushy swamp areas and the edge of marshes along with our moist woodlands makes the perfect habitat for these harbingers of spring. Quite simply; American Woodcocks make me smile.
Please remember if you intend to hunt these gamebirds in mid-September always report your migratory game bird bands just as you would with duck bands. We appreciate this because it gives us more information that leads to further study and the conservation of this amazing bird. Nya:wen and keep looking up.
March 2019 – Brown Creeper
Question: I’ve seen this funny looking brown bird creeping up one of my tree trunks then over to the next? What is it?
Answer: You have named the bird simply by your description. It is a Brown Creeper – no kidding. This tiny bird is a mere 5 ¼ inches but what a beak and tail it has. The beak is both curved and long; this reminds me of the Muppets character, Gonzo. Their tail feathers are so stiff that it gives them leverage and helps in balance when extracting bugs, larvae & eggs underneath the bark with that sickle-like bill. The Brown Creeper color blends with tree bark like camo-gear blends with the woodlands around us. Since the Creeper has short legs but long feet with surprisingly long toes and nails this makes them perfectly poised and steady. With these adaptations, the Brown Creeper can only skulk upwards as it gleans the cracked or peeled bark.
This industrious bird will always start at the bottom of the tree; either spiraling up and around or head straight up, then off to another tree bottom. Trees where you might find this uncommon bird are oak, pine, maple, cottonwood, hickory and even apple trees. This skill of slink and search has benefits during cold weather. Many cache hiding birds like the nuthatches, chickadees and woodpeckers will hammer-in their protein & fat laden nuts in fall while the Creeper comes along & steals the stash in winter! The diligent creeper is known to occasionally visit your suet. It is partial to nuts with peanut butter & beef laden suet.
Their high pitched tsee-tsee-tsee is soft and can be difficult to hear. The Brown Creepers spend much of their time in and around bark. Is it no wonder that the female during nesting season will select a tree with a piece of bark separation big enough to create a nest. This will enable her to fill up the bottom with soft fibers, then wrap longer tree fibers in and throughout the bark to hold it together. Keep looking up. In this case look down where the tree meets the ground, then up.
Question: This winter and last winter, I am not seeing as many birds at my feeders. What’s going on?
Answer: Our weather is changing. In winter it is not unusual to find temperatures between 35°F – 45°F. If these milder days are consecutive, then most accumulation of snow will melt. Birds are resourceful and will forage. They will find food where it is visible. Our local birds are then able to lift leaves on the ground and unearth edible food-stuff. Tree bark becomes softer so birds can then find bugs & grubs underneath the bark. And, those that cache their food during the fall season will now find some of those hidden morsels.
Bone chilling temperatures make us feel irritable and gloomy yet for our backyard birds, feathers keep them incredibly warm. Feathers trap heat within the body when needed and disperse heat in hotter weather. They are then able to keep a constant temperature most of the time. Long-term cold or heat will take a toll.
When wind chills become intolerable it can be problematic. At 15°F with a windchill of 20 mph can make it feel like an excruciatingly painful sub-zero -37°F for us. For our backyard and woodland birds trying to move from one tree to another this becomes an event. Lack of food not cold weather kills birds. So, keep your feeder just half way filled but have suet available as much as possible. Suet has a high level of protein & fat which is critical for survival. Because of this higher level of protein/fat, the best seeds for birds in winter are black oil seed & nuts.
Our winter weather has frequently been known to flood us with the “dreaded-mix”! This assortment of treachery can include; rain, freezing rain, sleet, graupel, and snow. We have difficultly navigating this nightmare. Now, image what our birds are going through. Suet seems to fair better during these icy-wet problems, but seed can remain wet. Birds will sometimes become finicky and go to other feeders, like your next-door neighbor.
Enjoy your winter backyard birds. One of my favorite winter birds is the Northern Cardinal on a tree with limbs covered in snow; beautiful. Keep looking up!
Question: We’ve had a hummingbird feeder up for a couple of years. Do we have more than one species of hummingbirds here on our reserve or in other areas of Ontario? I’m seeing many with different colors.
Answer: There is but one species of hummingbird breeding in Ontario: The Ruby-throated Hummingbird.
So, where are these “other” colors coming from if we only have one species of hummingbird? It is called iridescent coloration. All species of hummingbirds are iridescent. It is a somewhat multifaceted process that is worth mentioning. All of us do know that the male Ruby-throated Hummingbird’s throat can range from an iridescent light yellow-orange, deep orange, ruby-red and even black. This is due to the suns brightness. shade trees, rain or a myriad of lighting effects. What most birders do not know is the iridescent tail color of the male Ruby-throated Hummingbird is violet! Yes, that’s right – violet. I have seen the tail when it is black, magenta, egg-plant purple or violet as I hold the bird in my hand. It is quite difficult to see the tail feathers because they are generally closed when perched or a quick glimpse as they maneuver through the sky.
The most thorough examination of feathers is a book entitled, National Geographic Bird Coloration, by Geoffrey E. Hill, PhD., Ornithologist & Professor of Biology Auburn University; “Iridescent Coloration is produced by multiple thin layers of light-producing substances within the barbules.” These are the side-branches of each feather that come off the main shaft. These hundreds of barbules (soft & thread-like) of teeny-tiny pieces of microstructures are like our keratin. Once the barbule is sliced in half one can see both an outer keratin and an inner keratin core. Next to this inner core are melanin granules (dark spots). These multi-layers of granules bounce light off each other like an old pin-ball machine. This is how their feathers create such magnificent color – bouncing light after light after light. What is extremely abstruse is just how one spectrum of color is created in one section of the bird. Dr. Hill indicates that there is much to learn about structural coloration. In other words, more study is needed.
In late fall during migration, the Rufous Hummingbird who nests in the Canadian Rockies has been known to wander into parts of Ontario, Michigan, Ohio & along with other States and Provinces east of the Rockies. The Rufous can tolerate colder temperatures due to their ability to nest in higher altitudes. Reports of the Rufous continue well into December. These robust hummingbirds often return to the same site each year after nesting season ends & some stay into January. Leaving your feeder out until the first freeze may produce a Rufous Hummingbird. Have a hummer of a summer.
Q: Is this a fool’s tale or can it be true? I have heard that woodpeckers will drill holes in trees then hummingbirds will fly over and drink the sap as it drips down the tree.
A: It is not a fool’s tale. This woodpecker species is a migrant & one of the very few woodpeckers that is a true insectivore. Once the weather warms and insects reappear in Ontario, so does the Yellow-bellied Sap-sucker. It travels north from Florida, Texas & the Caribbean. Favorite trees for the sap-suckers are the birch, maple and aspen.
One might even suggest that the sap-sucker is obsessive/compulsive. When they arrive in early spring, the birds cling to the trunk and will begin to drill holes an inch apart in a straight line completely around the tree. The holes are both circular and oval. The sap runs down the trunk collecting along the way insects which become trapped in the sticky dribble. This gummy ooze becomes both a treat & much needed protein for the woodpecker. Enter the Ruby-throated Hummingbird. Many- times in early spring the sap & bugs are a welcomed source of food after cooler nights. When the availability for protein becomes limited, hummers and warblers alike will visit the sap-running trees. The woodpeckers will drill another line, then another until the sap eases. The sap-sucker will select yet another tree and another throughout the summer. By fall, the holes have healed and does not appear to affect the trees well-being.
And, what about that name: The Yellow-bellied Sap-sucker?! If you grew-up during the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s, you were familiar with Looney Tunes. Saturdays we tuned into the cartoons on American channels. How can we ever forget Daffy Duck, Fog-Horn Leg-Horn, Tweety Bird and Sylvester along with Yosemite Sam and Bugs Bunny. Oh, how we remember Yosemite Sam with pistols in each hand as he entered the local saloon looking for trouble & yelling: “I’m the roughest, toughest hombre that ever-locked horns with a rabbit. Any one-a-you lily-livered, bow-legged varmints care to slap leather with me?” And, Bugs leaning against the bar with brash confidence would say,” Ah, what’s up Doc?” This would infuriate Yosemite Sam and he’d bellow, “You yella-bellied sap-sucker!” It wasn’t until I was into my early teens that I found out the Yellow-bellied Sap-sucker was a real bird and not just an expression created by the Looney Tunes writers. Keep looking up.
Question: Can spring be here? I have had a couple of Red-winged Blackbirds and Grackles at my feeders.
Answer: As we know, our ancestors utilized the blackbirds as a harbinger of spring. It became their omen or notification in time to plant corn, squash & beans (our three sisters). Hundreds of years ago the skies of our people were black for days as the spectacle of feather-flight during migration lasted from sun-up to sun-down. Now, Mother Earth has become choked with man-made gases. Bird populations have remained stable for the most part, but we have lost more than we can ever expect to recover.
Common Grackles, Red-winged Blackbirds, Rusty Blackbirds, Cowbirds & several species of sparrows arrive on our reserves and throughout Ontario beginning in mid-March into April. Why these birds you might ask? These birds are hardier and withstand colder temperatures. Their range during winter months are driven by their ability to find food. Often referred to as “semi-migrating” birds, if temperatures remain mild in places such a southern Ohio or even Indiana, these birds can be seen throughout these mid-western states. This year this area of the U.S. became a snowbelt, so the birds flew farther south and southwest seeking out grubs under bark and insects hiding underneath leaf litter.
We know our weather during spring is erratic at best: the dreaded lake effect snows of the Great Lakes will dump six to seven inches of snow in one area and miss another. American Robins are a species that many times can be seen throughout the entire winter season. If the robin can find winter berries on shrubs and trees, then survival in an area of cold can increase their survival in an otherwise inhospitable winter environment. All species of our Mother Earth learn to adapt.
Question: I’m not seeing any Blue Jays lately. I thought these birds stayed in Ontario all year?
Answer: This is yet another complicated and perplexing examination of bird migration. The Great Lakes generates a movement of Blue Jays that is unprecedented anywhere else in North America. Why? We are not completely sure. First, many jays do stay throughout the year but not in numbers we expect after nesting season. Hundreds of thousands are seen in mass migration in fall. We know that the lakes create sustenance, shelter & support. Maybe this force of nature creates a pathway. Originally, due to our banding of migrants, field ornithologists have documented mostly hatch-year birds & therefore like other species we believed that these newly hatched jays were seeking their own territories. After years of documentation it is proving otherwise. There is a significant number of older birds making that migration south or at least to areas where food is more abundant. We have yet to determine if the juvenile jays return to their birth-site in consecutive years. More study is needed.
Many Native American tribes have negative opinions about Blue Jays because of their noisy, aggressive behavior. In legends, Blue Jays often play the role of the meddlesome gossip, bully, or selfish thief. But in some Northwestern tribes, the Blue Jay is a more ambivalent trickster character– still selfish, greedy, and mischievous most of the time, but also clever, entertaining, and helpful to humankind.
The Chehalis Nation of Washington State in their “How the Sun was Stolen”, see the Blue Jay as a loud, smart trickster. The Chinook Tribe see the jays as a cunning liar who dances on its head creating trouble and mayhem! Indeed, the jay creates chaotic behavior yet many times it is acknowledging danger. And, this bird can deceive any self-respecting birder into believing they have just heard a Red-tailed Hawk, Catbird, Mockingbird or many other bird species. As First Natives, our behavioral studies based on observation for the sustainability of all Mother Earths creatures is always with perception, reflection, skill & honor. Shared knowledge is a legacy of endurance for Our People. Have a peaceful & healthy Holiday Season and keep looking up.
Question: My “Snowbirds” or Juncos have arrived. Why do we call them Snowbirds & where do they come from?
Answer: The Snowbird or the Dark-eyed Junco is a common visitor to our Reserves and SW Ontario throughout fall, winter and early spring. We often refer to them as snowbirds because of their arrival come the colder weather and the noticeable outer-tail feathers which are as white as snow. There are six sub-species of Dark-eyed Juncos. Our winter resident is the Slat-colored Junco. Several of these sub-species are known to interbreed which makes a positive id difficult at times.
Juncos nest on the ground under conifers & the mixed deciduous boreal forests of the north as far as the arctic. Year-round residents can be found in pockets of eastern Ontario and west along the southern border of Manitoba. Smaller areas of year-round residents can also be found in parts of the Appalachian Mountains from New York State down to Georgia.
As our neo-tropical songbirds fly south to warmer weather in fall, the juncos seem to relish the colder climates. These shy skittish sparrow-like birds prefer finding their food on the ground & underneath your feeders. Juncos are successful survivors in harsh weather in part due to their little jig. Yes, they dance to their own drummers. Snowbirds like other ground feeders will jump-up, lurch forward then as they land, scrap their claws backward to unearth food from the decomposed vegetation; many refer to this raking motion as the “double-shuffle”.
Inexpensive millet can be scattered close to bushy areas around your yard or placed in feeders. The juncos will gather on the ground under the feeders as well as areas where they are close to cover. Keep looking up.
Question: Does the Flicker migrate?
Answer: The Northern Flicker or as it is often referred to by us older folks; the Yellow-shafted Flicker, is a regional migrator. These magnificent large woodpeckers (length: 12.5 inches) do not travel huge distances. Most often it is the hatch-year birds that migrate to other areas where food is more plentiful. The adult birds can & do stay year- round. In winter, their diet consists of seeds along with berries on trees & shrubs.
It is the Flicker who has a summer diet preference like no other woodpecker; ants. You may notice these unique birds digging into your lawn and wonder why. Flickers are attracted to ant mounds. Ants are the primary diet of Flickers during warm weather. Like all woodpeckers, these birds have very long tongues that wrap around the inside of their skull when not in use. With the Flicker, it has a tongue two inches longer than its already long bill. The tongue has a curvature and tiny barbs at the end that make it a tool of destruction for ants.
Placing leg bands for research purposes on this species is not as daunting as one might think. All other species of woodpeckers are combative and it takes a firm grip and courage. The Flicker remains accommodating for the most part except for one instrument of passive aggression: flickers scream like banshees. This annoying and down-right piercing scream is embarrassing. It is the type of human-like shriek that if anybody were near-by would likely believe awful transgressions are taking place! Consequently, when dealing with flickers we tend to work as fast as possible and send them on their way.
The upside is that I love the colors and patterns of this bird. There are none like it! After placing a band on the bird & taking measurements and weight it settles down. Then the flicker allows me to capture the exceptional depth of beauty. I admire and respect the Northern Flicker. What an extraordinary bird. Keep looking up.
Question: Where are my wild canaries? They seem to have disappeared.
Answer: Many of us still refer to our beloved American Goldfinches as our wild canaries’ due to their bright canary-yellow color. On our Ontario Reserves canaries are a year-round staple due primarily to the plethora of seed. Goldfinches are the very last species of songbird to nest and do not start nest building until mid-July in Ontario. Why so late, you might ask? They will wait until their favorite edibles have gone to seed.
Their love of seeds is legendary: thistle-head, sunflower seed, goats beard & teasel. Niger seed from our tube feeders & socks is another favorite. Small tree seeds such as elm, alder and birch are other options. Goldfinches are the closest to pure vegetarian songbirds. They only eat insects as incidental when feeding on seed.
As we often see along the roadside, these acrobats will balance on flowerheads to feed off the seeds then pull the soft fibrous silk like that from milkweed pods to line their nests. They will even pull dandelion wisps for their nests.
When I was introduced to the world of birds many, many years ago, one old sage referred to the American Goldfinch as, “Chip & Dip”. As these small groups of bright yellow skyrockets fly away, first you hear the chip then you see the dip. Your canaries will return soon with their fledglings. Keep looking up.
Question: Who is that little brown bird that sits on my porch banister & never stops singing?
Answer: Yes, and when the House Wren stops singing with his very loud bubbly tunes it is his flip-side raspy scold which he uses to threaten and bully. Bully? Really? This plump tiny cantankerous summer visitor to our reserves has a scientific name of Troglodyte – a hermit who lives in a cave. This is not entirely untrue. All wren species prefer cavity nesting but our Reserve curmudgeon is not particularly selective in finding a cave-like abode. A pair will nest in conspicuously unusual containers: shoes, boots, high-top sneakers tied & tossed over a hydro-line, door wreaths, shoe box, any small box, vase, coffee tins, hanging flower baskets and yes, nesting boxes are but a few house choices. And, if our House Wren is not quite sure where to nest, not to worry. It is the male who seeks out nesting sites and will build several in anticipation that the female may not be captivated by his first construction. Can we say, “high maintenance”? He will pursue another domicile for a second brood but may not go back to any of his previous sites for fear of rejection.
The feathers of the House Wren are dense & its legs and talons are quite strong for such a slight bird at a demonstrative 4.75 inches! Because of the wrens’ compact body with an elongated slightly curved bill, the tail is often seen raised high in the air to counter balance its very quick actions.
This wren has a huge geographic area. Its summer breeding range covers most of the U.S. and the southern portion of Canadian Provinces bordering the States. This bird with his fearless demeanor weighs about 10.5 grams or the same as two quarters. It winters in the southern states, Mexico & central America. We can find it all year-round in every country of South America. The global breeding population in 2015 was estimated to be 160 million with 5% of that population attributed to Canada.
William Blake, British Poet (1757-1827) once said of the wren:
He who shall hurt the little wren,
Shall never be beloved by men.
Keep looking up and enjoy your irritating yet endearing North American idol.
Question: Is there a blue bird other than the Eastern Bluebird in our area? I’m seeing a smaller all-blue bird.
Answer: During warmer weather on native lands, bird species increase by as many as 100 because of neo-tropical spring migration & the nesting of these species along with other migrating/nesting birds. There is a bright tropical blue sparrow-like bird who visits the mud puddles in our driveways for a quick drink and even a bath. It is the Indigo Bunting. Indigo is a misnomer since it never really reveals the darker India ink-blue unless its cloudy. This darker blue is only around the head area close to the black masking around the eyes.
Have you ever seen those picture-perfect post card photos of Caribbean Seas with palm trees swaying and white sandy beaches? The multi-color blue seas of the Caribbean are the hues of this bird. A very beautiful pale green-turquoise and every conceivable shade of tropical blue can be seen within these feathers. Ironically, this bird spends the winter months on the islands of Caribbean and central America.
As secretive as this bird often is, native territories encourage this behavior simply because reserves have perfect habitat that becomes irresistible to these summer residents. What do they love? Dirt road edges, open woodlands, brushy pasture and weedy old orchards. The female hides in her cup-like nest built within shrubby vegetation not far from the ground. Her feathers are a mix of camouflage light browns so she “like” blends. During the banding process, a closer look will expose some of the feather edging on her wings which has a turquoise cast. Indigo Buntings will visit your thistle feeders. Keep looking up.
White-throated Sparrow, May 2017
Question: In early spring large numbers of brown birds can be seen on the ground around feeders, in bushes, along forest edges and in woodlands. Can Ask The Birder help to identify one of the possible species?
Answer: We will try to assist by telling you about one of the possible species who fit this pattern of behavior. The White-throated Sparrow is in a group birders call LBJs or Little Brown Jobbies because there are a lot of similar looking small brown bird species. The White-throated Sparrow does not get much press but we find it an underappreciated bird.
It begins to arrive in our area around the middle of April through mid-May from their wintering grounds throughout the eastern, central and southern USA. They breed throughout Ontario building their nests on the ground or sometimes up to 10 feet high in trees.
Lets concentrate on its field marks because once you learn them you can pick it out of the crowd. It is a medium sized bird usually seen feeding on the ground scratching for seeds. A plump looking sparrow with mostly rufous brown wings and a long tail with a white throat (hence the name) and a gray breast. The white throat is usually outlined with black and there is a white to tan stripe above the eye along with a yellow spot above the eye and behind the bill.
Just to make things more interesting (fun?) there are two colour phases for the species. The first is the white phase which has bright white contrasting with vivid black markings. Next is the tan phase and the areas of white have more of a tan colour and the black marking are a dark brown. This can make the tan phase more difficult to distinguish from the other LBJs. Learn to pick out the white phase first and then progress to the tan phase and amaze your friends.
Question: Are Red-winged Blackbirds a sign of Spring?
Answer: Our ancestors would reply a resounding, “yes”. They relied on these boisterous & flashy birds each spring. In the mid-18th century it was noted that our descendants trusted the Red-winged Blackbird in determining when to plant their crops. An account of a Mohawk farmer reports how the skies turned an ominous black for three consecutive days from sunrise to sunset. We no longer have these massive numbers of migration due to climate change, drought and loss of wetlands. None the less, blackbird migration is still significant and signals change. Today, I often refer to them as a FIFO bird – First In First Out and my favorite moniker, Fancy Dancer. These showy males whirl & twirl much as our young men dance today and throughout our history during pow wow. For the Red-winged Blackbird, this behavior or mating display is two-fold: it attracts the females and scares-off other suitors. Coincidence? Our predecessors were masters of observation and mimicry. The circle of life continues. One thing to note about male plumage: the red epaulets of his namesake do not completely occur until his third year. He must suffice with yellow-orange for his first two years of life which the females are not as receptive to – color maters. The female is rather drab which allows her to hide while nesting in the marsh.
Question: I’m hearing a bird singing outside my home. Isn’t this early? Who might it be?
Answer: Some of our local birds do begin courtship behavior and nesting sooner than the influx of spring migratory warblers & other songbirds. Part of that courtship begins with singing. Northern Cardinals are one of the first birds to make their voices heard. Both male & female sing. It is a singular clear whistle-like note with varying intensity & speed: whoweet, whoweet, whoweet. Courtship feeding is a unique behavior display where either bird will split a seed, take out the meat then place it in the bill of its partner. Cardinals are monogamous and can have up to three broods per year. The male will continue to feed & care for the first brood while the female builds yet another nest and lays more eggs. I have often indicated, that cardinal pairs remind me of an old married couple.
Question: Two woodpeckers are coming to back-yard suet feeders during the winter that appear to be identical except for size. Are they the same bird?
Answer: Short answer is:these woodpeckers are not the same bird. There are subtle differences that make the Downy & Hairy Woodpecker unique and therefore separate species. As noted the size is apparent. The Downy is about the size of a House Sparrow (6.25 in. or 15.6 cm) while the Hairy Woodpecker (9.50 in. or 23.6 cm) is as big as our American Robin. Here on Six Nations as with most Reserves in Ontario, the Hairy Woodpecker is a common occurrence due to our undisturbed large areas of woodlands. In non-native suburbia, this stunning woodpecker is rare; its requirements are more to the liking of our lands. The Downy Woodpecker is the ubiquitous woodpecker of N. America. Our smallest drummer has adapted to the suburbs & every place in-between. Other notable differences for these woodpeckers:
- The Hairy has a bill nearly the size of its head & is chisel-like while the smaller Downy has a pointy bill about a third of the size of its head
- The outer tail feathers of the Hairy are white while the Downy is white with black spots
- Drumming of the Hairy is fast & buzzing about 25 taps per second & the pause between drums can be 20 seconds. The Downy is about 15 taps per second and pauses are just a few seconds between each drum.
Watch as each bird flies away from the feeder. The Hairy takes long more powerful, undulating wing beats with stronger purposeful dips.
Question: How do our winter birds survive each winter?
Answer: Adaptation, feathers, feathers & more feathers.
Our winter denizens have adapted throughout the centuries as do all species of birds. Let’s look at Black-capped Chickadees, Nuthatches and Downy Woodpeckers. These birds are similar in many ways. Each species has short, pointy bills that gives them considerable leverage in pounding bark on trees with the intention of finding grubs & insects hidden within. These inhabitants all have very thick legs and long thick toes with sharp claws which allow them to cling & grip areas of trees that other birds cannot. Acrobats they are! Also, something unique to these devils of delight are their brains. Yes, their brains. These three species have an enlarged hippocampus which is a specific portion of their brain that is primarily associated with spatial navigation and memory. These “brainiacs” can remember where they hide their stash. The name to this compulsive behavior is to cashe. Cashing is the ability to store food and retrieve it at a later date.
Feathers are amazing. For many years now, I have been taking extreme close-ups of a birds feathers prior to release after the banding process. The average songbird has approximately 3,000 feathers. Feathers are very cool adaptions & yes plumage keep birds cool in hot weather but also store heat during subzero temperatures throughout prolonged winters. How? The layers & different texture of feathers (down being the most desirable) enable each bird to maintain a constant body temperature by trapping air. Feathers have both the unique combination of strength & lightness. Birds manipulate their feathers & preening is a process that not only adjusts feather placement but creates a waterproof barrier. The preen gland is located at the base of the tail & the bird will spread this oily substance with their bill throughout their feathers.
(Slide mouse over image to see name of bird. Click on image to view larger version.)
Question: Seeing lots of bird movement. What is migration?
Answer: Migration is the regular seasonal movement of birds for mating and food availability. Migration generally takes place in the spring and then again in the fall. Not only birds migrate but many species throughout the world spectrum migrate including but not limited to; whales, Monarch Butterflies, salmon, zebra, wildebeests and caribou.
There are more than 2,000 species of birds in North America while about 350 are considered long distance migrators. Songbirds such as warblers, flycatchers, vireos, orioles and sparrows are currently migrating south. These songbirds which are primarily insectivores need protein for themselves and during nesting. As the climate becomes colder so does the availability of insects. Migration therefore becomes a necessity.
How do birds know when to migrate? Daylight plays an integral part in this decision. Once days start to shorten, the brain triggers the endocrine system which cause hormonal changes. Both adult and fledglings molt their feathers. Fresh, stronger feathers are replaced and they begin to build-up fat deposits. Each species has a different time frame when these transitions take place.
Migration by songbirds for the most part occurs at night. This way it gives the birds an opportunity to rest and feed during daylight hours. Interestingly, with the technology of Doppler Radar and other similar weather tracking devices, large flocks of bird species migrating during the night can be seen on track.
Keep looking up.
(Slide mouse over image to see name of bird. Click on image to view larger version.)
Question: Where have my hummingbirds gone?
Answer: There are certain questions we expect to hear every year and this is one of them. If your hummingbird feeders are close to your house such as hanging from an s-hook on your porch,
under your eves, suctioned to your kitchen window or visible from your path to your car on a long 5-foot shepherds hook you notice things. You notice as they squawk, fight, whip past your ears as they make silly incredible acrobatic moves that make you laugh out loud. You notice when the activity stops. You really, really do notice. We do, too.
From the very beginning of the arrival of your Ruby-throated Hummingbirds in April and May, the dinner bell has rung and the red-rockets keep coming. The big ruckus in April-June has leveled. The playing field is more sedate for the females because nesting becomes a priority. The males are still their randy selves and the only two objectives while maintaining their summer territory is to chase away other males while attempting to mate with as many females as possible. The
males weight drops because he has no time to seek out much in the way of protein sources. He has a spot in a tree close to the feeders where he hides in wait before he dive-bombs any other male and all females.
Whatever you do, don’t panic. The females are sitting on their eggs & soon will have to feed two ravenous newbies. They are solely responsible for finding a suitable nest site, building the nest, sitting on the eggs & feeding both herself & the two nestlings. These dedicated moms will spend more time looking for small soft-bodied insects in many of the tube shaped flowers within their territory and catching tiny insects on the fly. Native Territories are a wonderful habitat for hummingbirds with an irresistible amount of tree leaves for gleaning, tree bark nooks and crannies & wild flowers to explore. Oh those wild flowers. A whopping two thirds of a hummingbird’s diet consists of protein. Protein is vital to her diet and the nestlings. The sugar water then becomes a quick energy source for her sustainability while seeking nutrient rich proteins for long term survival. She no longer dawdles at the feeders. Her instinct is to get back to her nest.
In August, peace & tranquility comes to your hummingbird feeders to a certain extent. I often describe this time of year as motivational chaos. All of the hummingbirds are bulking up. There is a sense of urgency and their objectives are identical. The adult males’ metabolism changes in preparation for the journey south. They begin to put on weight and are not so much interested in the females. The females have each fledged 1-2 young & the increase of activity at feeders is notable. The migration of hummingbirds from farther north also begins to trickle down to our reserves in southwest Ontario. And, so this particular cycle of our beloved hummingbirds will come to a close. Enjoy your hummingbirds and keep looking up.
Question: Do I need to continue feeding my backyard birds in the summer?
Answer: There are two schools of thought: Some believe that birds during the summer are able to find enough food and therefore feeding your birds is not necessary. Still others believe maintaining feeders and suet can give the female and her eggs much needed nutrients. Once the eggs hatch, protein can play a significant part in keeping the nestlings healthier & mother stronger. Mortality rates in hatch year birds can be as high as 80%.
Question: Will suet purchased in retail stores go rancid during hot weather?
Answer: Make sure you look at the label prior to purchase. All suet doughs are formulated for summer use and will remain solid & stay viable. Some winter suet will melt with continuous days of heat but still remain edible. All woodpeckers, Black-capped Chickadees & Nuthatches love suet all year-round.
Question: Why am I seeing so many robins this spring?
Answer:American Robins, like many of our local birds have cyclic years referred to as irruptions or invasions . This means that there will be years of abundant food sources and warm weather conditions in cold weather. When this happens, American Robins can have more than one brood in the upcoming spring and summer months. It is not unusual to have two broods and even three broods per robin. Robins are what we call local birds that really do not migrate hundreds of miles but will locate to different areas of within their domain to find food especially when winters are harsh. Trees and shrubs with berries that remain throughout the winter will keep your robins in the neighborhood.
Question: How do I make my own hummingbird juice and should I include red dye?
Answer:1 to 4 ratio which is one cup of water to 1/4 cup of sugar. Bring mixture to a boil for a minute or two. Place juice in refrigerator then place in feeder when chilled. This can be prepared in advance and kept in the refrigerator for 2 weeks. Large batches can be made in advance. I usually mix 8 cups of water to 2 cups of sugar. We do not recommend using any kind of dye in your hummer juice or purchase hummer food that has a red dye. This can be harmful to your hummingbirds.
Question: Our Ask- A- Birder staff wants to know if our readers are seeing all yellow birds near the forest edge.
Answer: If they have recently arrived with the other spring migrants, they are very likely Yellow Warblers. They vocalize a melodic “sweet, sweet, sweet” and are one of the early arrivals from the south. They build cup shaped nests in bushes and small trees.
Question: We also wonder if anyone is seeing small birds with yellow throats and black masks in reeds and marsh areas.
Answer: These would be Common Yellowthroat Warblers. Gregarious little birds you can see them pop up from tall reeds and cattails to proclaim their territories, ward off rivals and attract the ladies. Their bright yellow throats and black masks are great field marks. The mask has earned them the nick names of “bandit” or “Lone Ranger”. This is a wonderful time of year for birding so go out for a walk and enjoy spring migration.
By Carl A. Pascoe & Rachel A. Powless
We wish to thank The Turtle Island News for sponsoring the 2016 Earth Day festivities on April 22. They graciously bring together educational, environmental and cultural exhibits to Six Nations on the Grand First Nation to raise awareness of the diverse is-sues and share knowledge with the residents of Six Nations and visitors. Ac-cording to Wikipedia Earth Day was first celebrated in 1970 to encourage ecological education and environmental protection. These diverse April 22nd events are now held in more than 140 countries worldwide.
This annual event has helped promote an under-standing that we are all connected and even small things we accomplish can have far reaching impacts. Thanks to the photographs taken by the Apollo astronauts beginning in 1968 which revealed the first views of the entire planet by humans, our perspective has expanded to include the entire globe. See the NASA wed site for the Apollo photographs. These pictures showed there are no national borders and changed our views forever. I believe these photos were a turning point for many of us and helped inspire those who initiated the actions which started Earth Day.
In 1970 Bald Eagles & Peregrine Falcons were on the Endangered Species lists, the Whooping Cranes population was almost gone in the wild, air & water pollution was severely impacting local and global ecosystems and trash filling our landfills was not being recycled. We have made some important progress such as the near recovery of the Bald Eagle & Peregrine Falcon numbers, improvement in the air & water quality in many areas and dynamic recycling programs. The Whooping Cranes are making slow progress but are still on the edge of extinction susceptible to a single catastrophic environmental and/or man-made disaster.
Earth Day is a catalyst each year for us to assess what we have accomplished so far, determine what has been working, what has not produced results, plan strategies to deal with identified problem and look into the future to try and understand the implications of our interventions. We have amassed a staggering amount of data on the causes and effects of changes in local, regional and even global ecosystems. The tremendous leaps in technology since the first Earth Day has progressed far beyond our wildest speculations at that time. The computers used to launch those Apollo missions filled rooms and, to help put the changes in perspective, I have more computing pow-er on my laptop then they had in those rooms full of hardware.Carl with Charle Brown a 3 year old Bald Eagle in rehab due to injury.
Our belief during those early decades of Earth Day was that technology would be able to provide solutions for all of our problems. It turns out that the complexities involved required not just technical intervention but governmental, industrial, local and most important individual commitments to make progress. These human based interventions have ebbed and flowed over the years dictated by the crisis of the moment. This short term and myopic (near sighted) views of our environmental problems has caused the suppression of the development of the long term perspectives required to deal with our issues.
It is a long held belief of many Native Peoples that we must all think and plan 7 generations ahead. Every individual, their actions, their in-actions, interactions with family, friends, neighbors, and communities should take this perspective into account to help make good decisions. Do you need to clear all the trees to build your house or can some be left untouched? How large an area of lawn do you really need with all the fertilizer and maintenance required? Can you leave some areas for native plants especially around the edges of ponds, lakes and rivers to offer a haven for wild-life and as a buffer to help natural filtering of fertilizers before they can run off into the waters? Can you and your neighbors get together to set up naturalized areas along property lines to develop corridors for the safe dispersal of wildlife? Go outside and look around to see how you impact your local ecological system. Be creative and innovative.
Probably the most important technological innovations have been the spread of the internet into a resource of unrestrained information available to almost anyone and the explosion of social media. Unfortunately, the inter-net and social media applications are also the repository of an astonishing amount of misinformation and disinformation requiring those seeking valid data to engage in critical thinking so they determine for themselves the truth of what they are reading and/or hearing.
An unforeseen consequence of this electronic revolution is that it is separating people by substituting media interaction for actual human contact and the exchange of ideas involving face to face communications. This is also causing a profound disconnection from the natural world and an emersion into a “virtual” substitute for reality. The proliferation of the selfie phenomenon is a prime example of the narrow and egocentric version of our place within the greater scheme of things that is pervasive in our society. Does a social media posting of your everyday activities or 130 character limited dissertation of an individual’s opinion regarding some trivia have any impact on our world?
Please do yourself and your children a favor by spending some time out-side with the phones and other media turned off. Look up into the sky at the clouds, observe the birds gracefully performing their aerobatics and try to imagine their view from above. See the trees in all of their majesty and then walk up close looking at the detail of the bark and all of the other organisms’ dependent on this micro ecosystem. Can you relate the insights of the inter-dependency of tree bark’s environment with all of its flora and fauna to those of the bigger picture of your home, yard, neighborhood and community? Try taking a magnifying glass with you to help in discovering all of the small things normally hidden from casual observations. Take photographs of the plants, flowers, birds, animals and insects which surround you which you may have taken for granted. You may discover insights and a greater appreciation of all the things around while increasing your motivation to protect our remarkable planet. We have no other place to live and must protect the Earth.