Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Mourning Warbler

When the "southern loop," a major electrical transmission project, tore its slash across our southern Vermont hills, a few suggested that there would be benefit for grassland and transitional bird species. They may be correct.

This morning on Putney Mountain Road in Brookline, I stopped where the power lines cross the road. Alerted by a neighbor, I was looking for a Mourning Warbler, an uncommon and shy bird that skulks in thickets.

When the sun finally reached the top of the bushes, I heard him singing. The handsome male was vigorously defending territory. Previously, I have had mere glimpses of this bird. This morning he posed beautifully.

Good birding!

Monday, May 30, 2011

New Photographic Warblers

This has been  a difficult Spring for photographing birds, but given the weather that many in the country have experienced, I have no complaints.

One week ago in southern New Jersey along Jake's Landing Road, there were brief moments when the overcast lightened and I added two warblers to my photographic collection.

First a parenthetical comment. In some birding hotspots around the country, such as southern New Jersey (Cape May) or southeastern Arizona, birding locales are so well known in much of the birding community, that identifying specific places, such as "Jake's Landing Road," provides others with information which may assist them in their birding, confirm what they have seen, help them plan a future trip, or elicit a "Darn, how did I miss that?!"

Blue-winged Warbler ...
Blue-winged Warbler
Blue-winged Warbler
Pine Warbler ...

Pine Warbler
Pine Warbler
Good Birding!

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Coffee for the Birds

Note: Photographs accompanying this column are all tropical birds which migrate to North America to breed. Photographs were taken in Belize in March, 2011.

Magnolia Warbler
Most of our North American birds are NOT our birds. They are tropical birds which come north for a few months to take advantage of the rich protein which our temperate climate produces in the summer. This largely insect protein feeds parents and their young during their brief and intense breeding period. Then they all head back home to Central and South America. This includes nearly all of the warblers, vireos, flycatchers, thrushes (including the Hermit Thrush, Vermont’s state bird), and other song birds. These long distant migrants face daunting challenges on their travels, challenges made even greater by habitat loss, migratory obstacles (like radio towers), and pollutants. Those challenges are present before a massive oil spill is thrown into the mix, with its long-term effects.

When the migrants return home to the tropics, the challenges are even more daunting, for in many places their home habitat has been devastated. Can we do anything to help? Scott Weidensaul in his comprehensive summary of bird migration, Living on the Wind (North Point Press, 1999), summarizes in this way: “So many ecosystems are under assault in the tropics, so many seemingly inexorable pressures are working against conservation, that it is easy to despair. But one of the more intriguing ways to save migratory songbirds, and many tropical plants and animals with which they coexist, may also be the simplest: Have a cup of coffee. Strangely enough, this global addiction is both responsible for considerable environmental destruction and capable of reversing some of the damage.”

Purple Martin
For hundreds of years, cultivation of coffee consisted of little more than planting the shrubs in an existing forest, a practice which was remarkably compatible with wildlife, especially birds. Research has shown that migrant species are abundant in the slightly disturbed habitat of the traditional coffee plantation; the overall biological diversity is second only to undisturbed forest.

Now the bad news. In 1970, a fungal blight appeared in Brazil. Panicked farmers, with government encouragement, switched from shade-tolerant varieties to a dwarf coffee shrub which grows well in full sun. However, these sun-coffee farms are biological deserts; researchers found 90 percent fewer bird species on such farms. Weidensaul summarizes: “The coffee bushes grow in neat, orderly rows, packed close together and devoid of tree cover. Deprived of companion plants and organic mulch that foster soil fertility and prevent erosion, the farms must be augmented with synthetic fertilizers, and the coffee shrubs ... must be soaked with liberal applications of insecticides, herbicides, and fungicides, usually applied by workers with little training or protective clothing.”

Black-and-White Warbler
Brazil, the leader in world coffee production, has converted almost all of its farms to sun-coffee. A third of the coffee land in Mexico and Central America has been converted. “The vast majority of commercial coffee - the mass-produced stuff sold in cans on grocery store shelves - comes from [sun-coffee] farms in Brazil and Columbia.”

The United States is the bastion of free market economy. You can be a good capitalist, an environmental activist, an advocate of social justice for farm laborers, and a birder committed to species protection by insisting that the coffee you buy is shade-grown coffee. Some of those terms may seem contradictory or incompatible. If you are offended by being a capitalist, focus on the activist and advocacy - or vice versa, if you prefer.

The fact is that how the beans in our morning cup of coffee were grown is more important to the long term diversity of our local bird life than the many dollars we spend on squirrel-proof bird feeders (there is no such thing) and those bags of bird seed. And don’t tell me you love watching the birds at your feeder if you are drinking cheap supermarket coffee out of a can. You are indulging yourself without being responsible.

Swainson's Thrush
When you buy coffee, look for three things on the label:

1) “shade-grown,”

2) “certified organic” - grown without the use of agrochemicals. Yields are lower than for standardly grown coffee, but not substantially so. It is also much safer for the poor laborers working the coffee plantations.

3) “certified fair trade” - With fair trade certification, coffee farmers band together into cooperatives and receive a set price for their coffee. The cooperatives must be democratically run and not practice discrimination.

Gray Catbird
Finding coffee which is labeled as “shade-grown” may be difficult. A good alternative is to look for certified organic coffee, since most organic coffee is shade-grown. The Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center (SMBC) does research related to the conservation of neotropical migratory songbirds and has established criteria for shade management in coffee farms. Coupled with third-party organic certification, SMBC promotes environmentally sensitive coffee production through the labeling of coffee grown in accordance with a defined set of criteria for shade tree cover conducive to forest bird habitat. A growing number of organic inspectors are incorporating the SMBC's shade criteria into their own farm evaluations.

Last week, I was in Philadelphia. I went to a large chain supermarket in an old working-class neighborhood to buy coffee. I was surprised to find a large section of the coffee aisle devoted to organic, shade-grown, fair trade coffee. Our local supermarkets don’t begin to compare to the offering I found in Philadelphia. Here in southern Vermont, we pride ourselves in being “green,” eco-conscious, and socially responsible, but we have been lazy toward our local coffee retailers.

Orchard Oriole
Shade-grown and/or organic coffee is more expensive than the supermarket canned stuff. But add up the extra cost of buying responsible coffee with the cost of bird seed for the year. If you can’t afford both, go for the coffee. Our local feeder birds can survive without our bird feeders. Our tropical migrants need a place to live winter after winter, if they are going to return spring after spring and fill our woods with their songs.

I harbor hopes that in a few years I will be able to take grandchildren into the woods for lessons in the language and life of birds. I hope they will be confused, initially, by the abundance of the songs and sounds they hear - rather than easily learning a few scattered songs. That initial confusion will mean that the neotropical migrants are surviving their long journeys and finding good habitat along the way.

I hope I can give grandchildren the pleasure of good birding. In a small way, I going to help by having a cup of coffee - shade-grown coffee, organic, and fair trade. Please join me.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

No. 565 - Curlew Sandpiper

Posting Revised: Please see posting on June 4 for more on the Curlew Sandpiper and photos

I was in Philly last week attending to family affairs. In spite of poor weather, I kept thinking about how close I was to the great birding in Cape May and southern New Jersey. Finally on Sunday, I headed to the Delaware River Bay, and a good trip it was. I broke my ABA life list drought on Sunday when I "collected" a Curlew Sandpiper at Matt's Landing in southern New Jersey. Although I am not a rabid life lister, I do know what I have seen, and that I had not seen a new life bird in North America since November, 2009.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Summer Songster

I usually see our summer songster at the top of a tree along a woodland edge, singing his cheerful, finch-like doublet song - a dark spot on the tip of a branch. On and on he sings, proclaiming his rule, serenading his mate, or perhaps caroling just for the sheer joy of it.

She is no where to be found. She is on her tightly woven little nest in a bush near the ground. She is incubating, and when her eggs hatch, she will feed the young. Eventually he will come down from his high perch and assist with the young. On a couple of occasions I have happened upon these busy parents as they are tending their fledglings. He has little time to sing then, so maybe that’s why he sings with such persistence when he is able - as long as a half hour from the same perch before he flies across the road to a new perch atop a different tree where he reprises his aria.

He is the Indigo Bunting. Silhouetted against the sky, he looks black. But when he comes to the ground to feed, forage, court, or chase a rival, he is blue. No - to call the Indigo Bunting blue is to do him a disservice. He is “indigo blue” - rich and sparkling blue, like the treasured blue dye of the plant genus Indigofera which the classical Greeks and Romans imported from far distant India (hence the “indigo.”)

When he comes down from the tree top so that a closer look is possible, he is stunning. Breathtaking. So indigo blue! - except for his gray beak, and a dark tinge on his wing and tail feathers, or possibly some traces on brown.

Through most of the breeding season, it is rare to get leisurely looks at the Indigo Bunting, but during migration, if you are lucky - maybe. When spring is in full flower, or in August when breeding is complete, the Indigo Bunting may visit backyard feeders. Usually those visits are brief, and he is wary and skittish. But not always. And for me, not this year.

This year I did not have one Indigo Bunting - I had three. The first arrived on a Sunday morning, to be joined by two more the next day. For ten days they were regular visitors to my yard, taking seed from the feeder and the platform, scratching through the grass, perching briefly atop the plant hanger or quince. One morning through my bedroom window, I watched the three males feeding among the crab apple blossoms, spots of deep indigo-blue animating the profuse pink branches.

Occasionally as I walked through the yard, I would hear an Indigo Bunting sing, but it was just a warm up song. They were not quite ready to begin the breeding season in earnest. At least, I assume that is why the two or three males were able to feed together with only brief hints of hormonal rivalry and why the songs were still brief ones rather than the extended arias heard in mid-June.

Opportunity for rivalry was certainly present. At least two female Indigo Buntings enjoyed my bird feeder largess along with the three males, but there was none of the wild antics among the males or between the sexes usually associated with pairing and mating. That would come soon - the task for which they had come north.

The Indigo Bunting is a tropical bird. Passerina cyanea (from Latin, pertaining to a sparrow, and dark blue) was once classified in the finch family - seed eating birds generally characterized by large bills.

More recent studies have refined the classification and it is now a member of the family, Cardinalidae. Other New England species in this family are the Northern Cardinal and the Rose-breasted Grosbeak.

An aside is in order: never assume that there is a relationship among birds which share name elements. For example, the Painted Bunting (a southern breeder which occasionally strays north to New England) shares Family and Genus with the Indigo Bunting. But the Snow Bunting (a winter visitor) shares neither; it is a sparrow family member.

Common names, so it seems to me, reflect the observations of common people. Hence, a very large beak might result in a common name containing “grosbeak” - big beak, even though the scientists later determine that relationships among various “grosbeaks” is distant.

In the case of the Indigo Bunting, the “indigo” part of the name is obvious. The bird is a dramatic “indigo blue.” For the “bunting” part of the name, we need to dig deeper. It has nothing to do with flags or decorations. “Bunting,” as applied to birds, comes from a Middle English word that meant “a plump or thickset person or creature.” The first recorded use of the word, bunting, for a bird is found in the early fourteenth century and applied to the plump Corn Bunting of Europe (this according to Lockwood in The Oxford Dictionary of British Bird Names, 1993.)

When I stumbled upon this bit of derivation trivia, it was revelatory. I have always thought of the Indigo Bunting as a neat and compact little bird. However, during their recent stay in my backyard,  I took batches of photographs through my kitchen window. Many of those pictures show a decidedly plump bird on my feeder platform. The Indigo Bunting is a plump bunting - a redundancy, as you and I now know.

For all of the beauty of the male Indigo Bunting, his mate is as plain as can be. She is a dull, drab, brown little bird with just the slightest tint of blue among the wing feathers. You can only see that touch of blue on her when she is close up, and almost none of the bird guides show that blue in their illustrations or refer to it in their descriptions. Her inconspicuousness goes with her breeding role; she is almost a single parent in the raising of her young.

Audubon knew the Indigo Bunting as an abundant breeder east of the Mississippi, and in some areas it may still be one of the most abundant songbirds. It does not particularly like urban areas or places of intense agriculture, but in brushy rural areas it does well. It prospers is in spite of the fact that it is often parasitized by cowbirds. Thirty years ago I saw my first male Indigo Bunting in northern Michigan; he was busily feeding a fledgling half again as big as he was - a cowbird.

The Indigo Bunting is one of the joys of our temperate summers. Forbush captured the joy which this tiny bird brings to our summer landscape: “The male seems to delight in singing during the hottest part of the summer day, when other birds are resting in the shade. He will sing his way from the bottom of a tree to the top, going up branch by branch until he has reached the topmost spire, and there, fully exposed to the blazing sun, he will sing and sing and sing.”

Good birding!

Monday, May 16, 2011

Book Published

I hope regular readers will forgive a moment of commercialism, because ....

I am excited to announce that a collection of my essays has been published. Written over a number of years, the 52 essays interweave the experiences of watching birds and the adventures of finding birds with their life histories: their biology, environment, survival challenges, and folk history.

More information about TAILS OF BIRDING ($19.95) can be found on the Pondville Press website, including Table of Contents and a sample chapter.

Secure Order for TAILS OF BIRDING - $19.95 - can be placed at the Pondville Press website, or right here: Secure Order for Tails of Birding.

(Secure ordering is provided by CreateSpace, a subsidiary of Amazon.com)

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Fat Energy

Yellow-rumped Warbler
At the Herrick’s Cove Wildlife Festival two weeks ago, biologists from the Vermont Center for Ecostudies (VCE) gave visitors an opportunity to see close-up one of the ways in which scientists study birds. Bird banding uses light weight mist nets that are stretched across likely songbird routes. A bird fliesinto the net and becomes entangled. The biologist carefully removes the bird and takes it to the banding station. There the bird is weighed, measured, and examined to determine its general state of health. By blowing lightly on its feathers, the biologist can see if the bird has remaining fat reserves and whether it is male or female. The bird is then fitted with a tiny, numbered leg band. If it is ever recaught, the band will tell something of its travels, habits, and age.

For example, VCE researchers study Bicknell’s Thrush. On Stratton Mountain, they banded a male, and renetted the same bird over two dozen times for the next ten years. Birds banded on Stratton have also been recaught in the Domincan Republic where they winter.

At the Wildlife Festival, they netted and banded a male Yellow-rumped Warbler. The bird was healthy. It had enough visible fat reserves, the onlookers were told, to make the rest of its journey, possibly to the Canadian boreal forest. Once it reaches its breeding territory and begins singing for a mate and defending a territory, it will use up those remaining reserves.

I have heard or read that sort of information before, but this time it woke me up. In the last two weeks, I have been watching the returning birds with a new appreciation and a new perspective.

Yellow Warbler
Early this week, I walked the causeway at the Hinsdale setbacks. The bushes which line the causeway are favorites for Yellow Warblers, and the boys were busy claiming their territory. Male Yellow Warblers have reddish streaks on the breast. They also sing. I only saw males. They foraged. They sang. They foraged. They chased other males. They sang. They foraged. They chased.

On several occasions three males contested the same alder bush. They dashed about with lightning speed. When the claimant to the alder bush had successfully driven off intruders, he sang his full throated, “Sweet, sweet, sweet, I’m so sweet” - which is the mnemonic used by many birders to describe the song, even though there is nothing at all sweet about the serious conflicts taking place.

These birds had just completed a long and energy-expensive journey from their wintering grounds. Now they engaged in energy-expensive territorial battles in the quest to obtain breeding rights to a female who would critically evaluate the quality of the territory each claimed plus the genetic quality exhibited in his song and his demeanor.

Not to short-change the female: when she arrives and begins her evaluation, she will also have completed a long and energy-expensive journey. She will then expend energy reserves in nest building and in energy-expensive production of eggs. She needs a mate who knows how to find and keep a territory with abundant food to replenish her energy needs and to feed her young.

As a bird watcher watching all of this activity, I am a rather self-indulgent, dilettante. I am there for the fun of it. But the birds pursue a very serious goal - extending their genetic life.

Golden-winged Sunbird
How energy expensive is this breeding season for the bird? We get an idea of how expensive it is for our Yellow Warblers from a study done on an African bird, the Golden-winged Sunbird, a species somewhat like a hummingbird. (“Economics of Feeding Territoriality in the Golden-Winged Sunbird.”) When the bird was at rest, it burned “x” number of calories to maintain its bodily temperature and bodily functions. When the bird foraged for food, it used 2.5 times the number of calories as it did when resting. When it was defending its feeding territory, it used 7.5 times the number of calories as when resting, or 3 times the number of calories as when it was foraging. That spike in energy consumption means that it needs good and abundant food sources to stoke its energy needs when it is defending a territory.

The Yellow Warblers were clearly expending a great deal of energy as they sought to establish and defend a breeding territory.

Blackpoll Warbler
For all of the tremendous energy that birds expend, they are unbelievably efficient energy consumers. Ornithologists studied the Blackpoll Warbler which flies over the Atlantic Ocean nonstop from New England to South America in about 90 hours. They suggest that the flight “is equivalent to a human marathon runner competing in 50 consecutive 26-mile (42km) races without consuming any food or water en route and without losing speed from the first to the last leg ... if this tiny bird were burning gasoline instead of body fat, it could boast a fuel consumption rating of about 720,000 miles per gallon.” (Prius, eat your heart out.)

Birders often try to bring a bird into sight by pishing - “Pisshh, pisshh, pisshh.” Increasingly, modern technology allows birders to carry all bird songs in the field in a small, fit-in-the-pocket electronic gadget. The bird song can be played in the field. A singing Yellow Warbler does not know that it is hearing an electronic device; it thinks another male is intruding on its territory and quickly comes to investigate.

I confess that I pish, and that I sometimes play a recording to attract a bird. I do so less and less. As I come to understand the energy-expensive activity in which the birds are engaged, I realize that I am not helping the bird one bit by arousing or agitating him. It amounts to harassment; it results in a bird spending energy unnecessarily. Reluctantly I come to the conclusion that the use of electronics to attract birds, and probably pishing as well, is in a very gray ethical realm, and may be outright indefensible.

Yellow-rumped Warbler
So, why do so many birds make the expensive, and dangerous, journey from their tropical homes to the temperate forests of Vermont. To oversimplify, they make the journey because for two or three months out of the year, our climate is virtually tropical, we have under utilized habitats, and the food resources are abundant. We like to joke that the reason there are black flies in Vermont (nasty, biting pests) is to remind us that we are not in heaven yet. For the birds, those black flies are heaven - along with the gnats, mosquitos, web worms, and every creepy crawly on the underside of leaves, in bark crevices, and wherever.

The neotropical migrants - the warblers, vireos, tanagers, thrushes, swallows, flycatchers - can make the expensive journey because they can fill empty habitat niches rich with protein to raise young and quickly rebuild their own reserves.

Yellow Warbler
I know those Yellow Warblers were burning energy in their fast and furious chases. I know the Yellow-rumped Warblers now singing in the treetops are burning more energy than they are taking in as they leaf-glean and fly-catch. Since the ice sheets retreated and the forests came, these northern forest have provided abundant resources to offset the costs of getting here and back. By summer’s end, the Yellow Warbler and the Yellow-rumped Warbler will have raised young and replenished fat reserves. They will then return home to the tropics.

It will continue to be so, if those bipeds on the ground don’t screw it up.

Friday, May 13, 2011

My Favorite Warbler

Note: It appears that blogger somehow deleted this posting from yesterday, hence a repost, and re-tweet.

The Prairie Warbler, my favorite warbler, has returned for the second year to Old Ferry Road in Brattleboro. Going east toward Windham Waste Management facility, there are storage buildings on the left (across from C&S). At the east end of the storage facility, the Prairie Warbler is singing in bushes along the cyclone fence and immediate surrounding area. (This species was not recorded in Windham County during the Breeding Bird Atlas survey.) Photos are from this morning ...

Prairie Warbler

Prairie Warbler
In many places this morning, I saw and heard my favorite warbler - the Chestnut-sided Warbler ....

Chestnut-sided Warbler

Chestnut-sided Warbler
 Also this morning, I saw and heard on Black Mountain my favorite warbler - the Black-throated Blue Warbler.

Black-throated Blue Warbler
Ahhh ... MAY!! - pleasant temperatures, blossoming bushes, singing birds, and warbler neck!

Good birding.

Monday, May 09, 2011

White-eyed Vireo, et alia

From what I can gather from the Vermont bird list maintained by the records committee, the White-eyed Vireo has been recorded in Vermont often enough so that it does not need a rare bird report to be filed. Even so, most Vermont birders have not seen the bird within the state's borders. One is currently hanging out in the alders of an old beaver pond near by home, first found by a neighbor. The vireo's distinctive song finally led to some decent photos this morning. I can only hope that he successfully attracts a mate, but since he is well north of the usual range for this species, his chances of breeding may not be very good. As healthy and enthusiastic as he appears, I can only wish him good luck.

White-eyed Vireo

White-eyed Vireo
In Vermont, winter is a constant present. The last patch of snow disappeared from behind the barn on April 26. Nine days later, I began preparing for next winter by stacking the first delivery of fire wood. But at least the task was attended by bird song, and all the habitats are welcoming the return of the migrants. Just a few images of the past couple of days.
Rose-breasted Grosbeak

Northern Flicker

Northern Rough-winged Swallow

Hermit Thrush

Saturday, May 07, 2011

Birds Do It

Boat-tailed Grackles displaying
“Maybe I’m a prude,” she said to me, “but it seems that you write a lot about sex.”

Well, yes. Sex, and reproduction, dominates the life and activity of birds for a few months during the year. We are currently into those months, and the drive to breed and reproduce is what makes birding so great in the Spring and Summer.

During the most of the year, the main activity is to survive. Sex cannot get in the way. The gonads (ovaries and testes) are not needed. It costs energy to carry them around, so they shrink almost to nothing.

When the time approaches that conditions are optimal for the survival of young, the gonads  increase in size by a hundred fold. The testes of the male American Goldfinch, a late nesting songbird, are largest in mid-July when their nesting peaks.

All of this is complex and there are many variables. Exceptions are rampant. Even so, here is a brief overgeneralized description of what happens: As the length of the day increases, the gonads also increase many fold and send hormones flooding into the system. Studies of songbirds have shown that the region in the brain that controls singing behavior also undergoes large scale change in volume and neuron number, stimulated by the hormones.

Ovenbird singing on his territory
With the brain stimulated, off they go - on migration, territorial defense, courtship, and mating. Bird reproduction takes place when the environmental conditions are most favorable to the successful raising of young. In our temperate northern climes, longer day length (Spring and Summer) also means abundant protein resources essential to raising young. In different climates, the time of the year will be different. Young birds have to be fed by their parents (altricial - e.g. songbirds) or they have to be able to forage and feed themselves soon after hatching (precocial - e.g. waterfowl and shorebirds), with parents teaching and protecting.

For mammals, it is very different. The female nurses her young. The male is only needed for one thing, and once he has made his contribution, he is superfluous. A mother bear with fat reserves can give birth in the middle of winter, nurse her newborn in her den while the snows fly, and emerge in Spring with her offspring ready to learn how to feed itself.

Many mammals have evolved particular seasonal breeding patterns. In others, females are receptive (in heat) at variable times. Years ago we had a male mongrel mutt. Several times during the year, he went berserk when one or the other of the neighborhood females was in heat, even if she was blocks away. Crack a storm door with a lapse in attention, and he was through it and gone. Hours later he would return and spend a day sleeping off his adventures. When we had him neutered, it calmed his response, but did not entirely rewire his brain. A year after he was neutered, a neighbor called, threatening him with a paternity suit.

You’ve heard the old expression, “In Spring, a young man’s fancy turns to love.” It is true for birds; it is not true for a young man. His fancy can turn that way any time of the year. Humans are unique in that - using the biological terms - sexual receptivity, mating, and breeding can occur at any time and in any season. There may be spikes in the fertility rate during power outages, but those outages are random in nature. Sex does not depend upon any season. Whenever the power goes off, and we can’t watch television, we find something else to do. Our sexual uniqueness in the animal world means that we can be thinking about sex at any time on any day.

Male Chestnut-sided Warbler singing on territory
Our birds think about sex seasonally, and when they do, they are totally consumed by sex and its consequences. They are not distracted by television. Their attention may waiver in the presence of a predator, but that distraction is related to their purpose. Survive to breed. Protect your young, but not at your own fatal expense.

Among the birds, sex has little to do with pleasure. They have no external sex organs. There is a single opening, the cloaca, which serves the intestinal, urinary, and reproductive systems. When mating, most birds touch this organ in what is known as the cloacal kiss. During the touch, semen is transferred from the male to the female. The cloacal kiss is brief, lasting mere seconds, if that long.

Chipping Sparrow
I am certainly guilty of occasionally projecting our unique human approach and cultural attitudes about sex on the birds. But frankly, our cultural attitudes about sex do not apply to the birds. Sex among the birds has to do with each individual being driven by the encoded need to reproduce its genetic heritage. When the Chipping Sparrow male establishes his territory, attracts a female, and drives off intruding males, he is driven by internal wiring to pass along his genes. When he dashes off for a quickie with a neighboring female (and it is literally very quick) he does so in the encoded drive to produce more offspring, more genetic descendants. When his mated female slips away for a quickie with a neighboring male, she is hedging her bets. Just in case her mate is not quite the man she thought he was, she gathers genetic material from a second male; if his genes prove the better genes, then there is a greater possibility for her genes to be extended.

Red-winged Blackbird
The manner in which birds assess who will make the best mate is elaborate and complicated. Prove you can feed my young by bringing food to me, says a female tern to a male tern, or a female kestrel to a male kestrel, or a female Blue Jay to a male Blue Jay. Prove you can find nutritious food by being redder than your neighbor, says a female House Finch to a male House Finch. Prove you can protect me from raccoons by defending a cattail territory far from the muddy shore says a female Red-winged Blackbird to a male Red-winged Blackbird. Sing better, flutter wings better, flash a wider fan tail, be more colorful. The variations are as many as the species. What the subtle distinctions are which lead to the mate choice are imperceptible to us. Something that a male bird does triggers something in the brain of a female bird that leads her to say, that is the one I should choose.

What we see among the birds during the Spring and Summer is not really about sex. It is about individuals prolonging their genetic life. We get to watch it. We see their colors. We hear their songs. We watch the frenetic activity. And by gosh, it is fun. And if once in while we project our human sexual culture onto the birds by offering up a salacious snicker ... I say, so what. That is part of the fun of good birding.

Wednesday, May 04, 2011

Evening Grosbeaks Displaying

Evening Grosbeaks are a sought after species for many. I have what I am sure is the rare good fortune to have them in my yard every month of the year. They disappeared briefly during late winter, but they are back in force.

Yesterday in the late afternoon, I watched five males displaying for females. It appears to be early in the courtship. The displays did not have a lot of animation and the females did not seem to care much. But soon ...

The crest is raised - the wings are partly open showing off the bright white patches - the tail is slightly cocked. When a female shows some interest, or is in closer proximity, then the tail cocks upward much more dramatically, and the wings flutter ...

And then there are the eternal questions: Does she notice? Does she care?

Good birding!

Sunday, May 01, 2011

Bird Banding - Herricks Cove

After the snow a week ago, and the generally dreary weather which followed, Spring has finally come with mild, sunny weather, and the chance to be outside looking for birds.

I began the day at the annual Herricks Cove Wildlife Festival. The 7am bird walk included bird watching and hawk watching friends that I have scarcely seen since last Fall.

Among the many wildlife booths and displays was the bird banding demonstration by the wildlife biologists from Vermont Center for Ecostudies. With nets up early, and birds busy moving, there were good teaching opportunities on bird biology.

A Yellow-rumped Warbler is carefully removed from the mist net

Yellow-rumped Warbler

It is none the worse for being netted, measured, weighed, and banded ...
Yellow-rumped Warbler

... does seem to have a negative opinion about the whole experience.
Yellow-rumped Warbler

Experienced hands delicately untangle a White-throated Sparrow weighing only a few ounces.
White-throated Sparrow

Data is carefully recorded and the numbered band fitted on the leg.
White-throated Sparrow

The banding demonstration at Herricks Cove Wildlife Festival gives many people their first upclose and personal look at birds.
White-throated Sparrow

Once again, the opinion of the birds is sometimes not as positive as the wonder in a child's eye when seeing the bird, even though the bird has received a piece of jewelry that it can keep for a lifetime. There is no harm to the Gray Catbird, though it is trying to bite the hand that holds it.
Gray Catbird

One catbird caught this morning had already been banded, possibly at last year's Wildlife Festival. Such a record helps biologists understand the life of birds.

Good birding!


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