December 31, 2008

A Feather in Your Cap

I am very proud to note that I exceeded the 1,000 mark this week for total site visits to Your Bird of the Week. Pretty great, huh? Yet, I felt a twinge of guilt as I looked at that number, because it certainly was not due to any consistent effort on my part. No, it was mainly due to random Google searches. Would you believe someone actually googled, "What Kind of Bird Are You Quiz"? I mean, I believe that. But, would you?

Sigh! I got busy at work a couple months ago and suddenly lost my will to blog. But in 2009, I have made a resolution to be better at Your BOTW. How hard is it? I used to do this daily! In an e-mail! I can keep this up weekly, right?

With this new, bold resolution, I feel like we should start with a bird that can only be described as cheerful during the most trying of circumstances. A bird that is a frequent winter visitor to bird feeders, and a favorite of bird geeks everywhere. It reminds me of a chubby little kid, all puffed up with a black cap to keep it warm. In fact, if I wanted to keep a bird as a pet, I think it would be this, Your BOTW (and the first bird of 2009), the black-capped chickadee.

Fact: The black-capped chickadee is a little bird, just about 6 inches tall, with white cheeks, a black bib, and (what else?) a black cap. Its back, wings, and tail are a dark gray, and the upper wing feathers are edged in white. As I mentioned: totally adorable.

Do you know what else is cute? Its little, cheerful voice. In fact, it's how the chickadee gets its name. Its call is a sharp "chick-a-dee-dee-dee. It also has a song of two or three high notes that sort of sounds like "Fee-bee. Fee-bee." You'll hear both on this little spectograph.

Fact: The black-capped chickadee eats caterpillars and bugs during the spring and summer and mostly seeds during the winter. The seeds it very often gets from bird feeders. In fact, nearly every video I could find of a black-capped chickadee was taken during the winter. You have to admit, they do look awfully cheerful for what is likely a rough time of year.

Fact: The chickadee gleans its insect meals by hopping around trees, even hanging upside down to do it. Once it gets a bug or seed, it will hold the food against a tree branch to peck at it.
Fact: One reason the chickadee may be so happy in winter is that it hides seeds and other food in individual nooks and crannies, and it can remember literally thousands of its hiding places. With their similar love of food storage, the Mormons should consider making the chickadee an official LDS bird.
Fact: The black-capped chickadee is also energy-conscious. It can actually lower its own body temperature on cold winter nights, entering regulated hypothermia to conserve huge amounts of energy.
Fact: As you probably noticed in the feeder video, chickadees gather in flocks in the winter. These flocks have strict social hierarchies. There are the cool kids who get to eat first and the weirdos who get to eat last. Some birds actually flit from flock to flock, and have established (and very different) places in each flock's hierarchy. (This is just a guess, but I doubt the cool kids leave their flock very often.)
Fact: Chickadee sex is a pretty tame affair. They are generally monogamous. They often pick out a nest site together (usually in a tree cavity or nest box), and the female gets busy building the nest. The female is the sole egg incubator, but the male will feed her and the nestlings after they hatch.
Fact: Even chickadee fights are sort of sweet. One aggressive display they make is called "ballet." As far as I understand it, two birds will face off on a tree limb and hop and pivot around each other. The winner ends up facing his opponent, while the loser usually ends up facing away? Yeah, birds are weird.

This has been Your BOTW.

December 26, 2008

O' Christmas Tree II

Hmm, looks like I'm not the only geeky bird decorator out there. Great minds think alike, I guess!

The Birdcouple



December 21, 2008

O' Christmas Tree

As a certifiable bird geek, I have allowed my avian obsession to creep into my holiday decorating. My husband, who is most definitely NOT a bird geek, has been pretty good about it all, even supporting my decision to have a "bird" Christmas tree. Bird ornaments actually are pretty easy to come by. Birds were popular tree decorations in Victorian times, and they've become pretty hip again in your average craft store and local Target. This year, I added ornamental berries to my tree. In my weird little way, I thought it helped "explain" why the birds were all over the tree. During winter, of course many species would flock to a tree that was bearing fruit, right? Right? (Tim is rolling his eyes now.)

I'm bizarrely proud of the ornaments I've managed to collect over the past few years, and I wanted to show them off a bit. I've got both identifiable species and decorative birds that are meant to be nothing but pretty.

Here are a few of my favorite ornaments:

Stellar's Jay. It's immediately recognizable to fellow bird geeks. And, it reminds me of my family's trip to Oregon a few years ago.

Nesters. I've got a few "couple" birds on my tree, but these two are my favorite. They look so domestic. (No actual species here as far as I can tell.) My faithful BOTW readers know by now that birds rarely nest in such monogamous bliss.

Pheasant. My mother- and father-in-law gave me this particular ornament. I put him low on the tree, as he is a ground-dwelling bird. Love him.

Bald Eagle. I didn't add our nation's proud avian symbol until just this season. Most of the ornaments I found were too, um, Palinish Republican. (Does that make sense?) This ornament was just right. He reminds me of Sam the Eagle on the Muppet Show. They both look grumpy, slightly cross-eyed, and adorable.

Owl. I have a few different owls on my tree, but I love this guy the most. He gets the highest spot on the tree, both for his size and his general awesomeness as a member of the owl family. Incidentally, if I were actually hanging him where he would naturally be, he'd be roosting next to the trunk. I have no idea what his friend is...I may ask my 4-year-old nephew, Ethan, to help name him. (He recently drew a picture of a bird species of his own imagination; Ethan called it a "one-eyed long neck." I can't wait to see one in the field.)

Birding Santa. My sister managed to find me last year a "Birding Santa." He looks all outdoorsy and carries both a cardinal nest and a cardinal perching on a bird cage. Perfect for sitting under a geeky tree like mine.

Merry Christmas everyone!

Home for Christmas

I first saw this video on the Birdchick blog. Kind of funny...and sort of creepy. But it was made by the BBC in the UK to help get attention for a good cause: providing wintertime food, water, and shelter for wildlife in your own backyard. I don't think they're talking about bears and moose. More like birds and squirrels.

My father-in-law, Dave, provides food and fresh water every single day to the birds in his yard. I know I'm anthropomorphizing here (like that's anything new), but the little sparrows seriously look so happy to find water that isn't completely iced over! Those birds, in turn, provide a source of winter food for local Cooper's hawks, which know the Haran fence is a good place to hang out and catch a meal. Ah, the circle of life!

Photo credit:

November 25, 2008

Gobble It Up

As you all sit down to your Thanksgiving meal this week, give a thought to the bird sitting in the middle of the table. That delicious Butterball is a descendant of the North American wild turkey, which once wandered throughout the United States and was an important food source for Native Americans.

We white people came along and ruined most of that, of course. (It's what we do best; just ask the passenger pigeon.) But through conservation and repopulation efforts, wild turkeys are once again roaming through most of the states, including Utah. So, let's learn a little bit about the other white meat, shall we?

Your BOTW is the wild turkey.

Fact: The wild turkey is a large, dark bird with powerful legs, a long neck, and a fan-shaped tail. Its body feathers are an irridescent brown, and here in the West the tip of its tail is white. It also sports bumpy facial skin and a bare head and neck (which is often blue in the male).
Fact: The male wild turkey often sports a beard, a long trail of feathers extending from its chest (see picture). Some females also have a small beard but face unfair pressure to get it waxed.
Fact: If you forget what a wild turkey looks like, put your hand down on paper and trace around it with a crayon. Add a beak to the thumb and make the other four fingers multi-colored. This should really help you identify a wild turkey in the field.
Fact: The wild turkey is big, with males weighing in around 18 pounds and females more than 10 pounds.
Fact: The wild turkey typically flock together in small groups. Here in Utah, they live in areas with ponderosa pine and aspen trees or pinyon pine, often near grassy meadows. At night, they usually roost together in trees for safety.
Fact: The wild turkey eats pine nuts, acorns, seeds, and greens. It also eats some bugs during breeding season.
Fact: While the wild turkey typically walks to get around, it can run and fly quite quickly. While it can only fly in short bursts less than a mile or so, the wild turkey has been observed flying as fast as 60 mph.
Fact: Even more suprising, the wild turkey can swim. I like to imagine one showing up at a bird triathlon. All the skinny shorebirds and raptors snort at the bald fatty. Then he stuns them all with his speed and swimming skills. Is there a children's book in this somewhere?
Fact: Let's talk about the stuff that won't make it in my Newberry award-winning book, shall we? It's turkey sex time. To begin, the male attracts one or several females by gobbling and "strutting."
Fact: Strutting just means the male puffs up his chest, fans out his beautiful tail feathers, and prances around the females to show how truly bad he is. This video shows two males strutting. You'll also hear a great gobble toward the end. (That screeching in the background is apparently a raptor of some sort.)

Fact: If the strutting works, the male copulates with one or more females, who then lay eggs and raise the chicks alone.
Fact: The Birds of North America Online made reference to those males who aren't picked by females. Apparently, some of them have been observed "pseudocopulating" with cow pies. This is the kind of stuff that attracts Germans to my blog, huh?
Fact: I think we've learned enough at this point to properly appreciate our Thanksgiving meal. So, now I will leave you with the wise words of Benjamin Franklin, who wrote to his daughter that he thought the turkey more apt a national emblem than the eagle. It's stuff like this that makes me love Franklin:

"For my own part I wish the Eagle had not been chosen the representative of our country. He is a bird of bad moral character. He does not get his Living honestly. You may have seen him perched on some dead tree near the river, where, too lazy to fish for himself, he watches the labor of the Fishing Hawk; and when that diligent Bird has at length taken a fish, and is bearing it to his nest for the support of his mate and young ones, the Eagle pursues him and takes it from him...For the truth the Turkey is in comparison a much more respectable bird, and withal a true original native of America . . . He is besides, though a little vain & silly, a bird of courage, and would not hesitate to attack a grenadier of the British Guards who should presume to invade his farm yard with a red coat on."
This has been Your BOTW.

November 12, 2008

That's a Purdy Picture

As a bird lover and habitual reader of the New York Times online, I can't believe I missed the paper's article last month on the history of birds in art. They also included a cool, little slide show of some art and photographs from recent books on the subject.

Thanks to the Round Robin blog for pointing it out.

November 7, 2008

Red & Black

For all of you Ute fans out there--congratulations! Last night's win over TCU was even exciting for me. (And I don't really care that much about the U or college football.) Why don't we celebrate with a brief look at a bird that would have fit right in at the stadium last night?

Your BOTW is the vermilion flycatcher.
Fact: The male vermilion flycatcher has a dazzling red head and underparts, set off by blackish wings, tail, and nape. The female is totally inconspicuous. Gray with more gray, and just a hint of salmon under the tail. (When the only color you're wearing is salmon? Yeah, you've got a problem.)
Fact: The vermilion flycatcher is quite small, just 5 to 6 inches tall.
Fact: As you might imagine, the vermilion flycatcher catches flies. Like most flycatchers, it sits on an open perch, locates a bug, and then shoots out to grab it. (See video for an example. Most of the action takes place right at the beginning, so if the video has already rolled, start it over.)

Fact: Large insects, like grasshoppers, are brought back to the perch and beat against a branch to kill them.
Fact: Bugs are a flycatcher's only currency, so it makes sense that when the male vermilion flycatcher really wants to impress a lady, he presents her with a showy butterfly or other colorful insect. "A moth?! For me? Oh, you shouldn't have!"
Fact: "It's really nice, but can you at least put it down first?" According to The Birds of North America Online, males vermilion flycatchers have been observed still holding the colorful butterfly as they copulate with the female.
Fact: The male vermilion flycatchers is also known for its spectacular courtship flight. Its flies 10 to 30 feet above the trees, singing all the way.
Fact: Vermilion flycatchers live mainly in the south and southwest, so you likely won't see one around the University of Utah campus. But, if you're a true Ute fan, you'll look for one on your next trip to St. George.

This has been Your BOTW.

On an unrelated note, I was a little chagrined recently when I learned from SiteMeter that at least two people (one from Germany) had found my blog by googling "goose penis." Am I running a trashy blog without even realizing it?

Photo credit: Charles & Clint

October 30, 2008

The Bird of Doom!

Imagine walking alone across a meadow at dusk. The light is getting increasingly dim, and you still have a few lonely miles until you reach home.

Then you hear it. A sharp, hissing screech that abruptly ends just as goosebumps rise on your arms. Suddenly, a pale, ghostlike figure swoops into view. You find yourself mesmerized by its dark, soulless eyes...

OK, maybe I shouldn't leave my corporate writing gig for horror novels just yet. But I did my best to describe your very special Halloween BOTW, the barn owl.

Fact: The barn owl is a medium-sized owl, standing around 14 inches tall with a wingspan of more than three feet. It has white undersides and a caramel colored back. Its white, heart-shaped face is marked by opaque eyes. Look at the picture: it's just plain creepy looking!
Fact: The female barn owl is significantly larger and more colorful than the male barn owl. She has many more spots all over her breast.
Fact: These black spots may serve as a stimulus for the male. According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, which gives me the majority of my awesome facts, studies have shown that a male barn owl will feed his nestlings less when his female mate has her breast spots artificially removed.
Fact: The barn owl flies with deep, somewhat slow wing beats. Its flight is noiseless, which helps it hear its prey. This video gives you a decent idea.

Fact: The only thing creepier than the barn owl's empty eyes is its screech. It sounds like a woman possessed by an evil, hissing spirit. Click here to listen to it again!
Fact: The barn owl hunts at night, and, as you might imagine, it can see very well in the dark. However, its ability to hunt by sound alone is the best of any animal ever tested. It has caught mice in the lab in complete darkness, and it finds rodents in the wild underneath snow and heavy vegetation.
Fact: If you haven't caught on yet, barn owls eat mostly rodents.
Fact: The barn owl is one of the most widely distributed birds on the planet. It is found on all continents except Antarctica. It's most common in areas with marshes, meadows, and fields, where rodents are typically found.
Fact: The barn owl has long had a sinister reputation in mythology and folklore. William Wordsworth called it the "Bird of Doom."
Fact: California Newuk Native Americans believed that virtuous people who died became great horned owls, while wicked souls were doomed to become barn owls.
Fact: One English folk cure called for barn owl eggs to cure alcoholism. Children who were fed raw owl eggs were thought to have a lifelong protection against drunkenness.

This has been your very special Halloween BOTW!

October 24, 2008

Are We There Yet?

The bar-tailed godwit is making news this week for the longest, non-stop migration ever measured. We're talking 9 days, more than 7,000 miles, without taking a break for food or water. They gorge on worms and clams in Alaska and then take off for a huge flight to the coast of New Zealand, losing half of their body weight during the migration. They get sleep, of a sort, by shutting off one half of their brain during flight.

Below is one very short TV story. If you want to be a star BOTW student, though, you should listen to this NPR interview with the biologist who led the study.

Birds are awesome!

October 16, 2008

Rats With Wings

Have you ever been at a birthday party filled with hyper, giddy children, and then focused on one hyper, giddy child in particular, and thought to yourself: “You’d be sort of cute if there weren’t so many of you”?


Well, then, you may not understand my feelings about Your Bird of the Week, the Rock Pigeon.

The rock pigeon is that feral urban bird you see mobbing lonely old people in parks across North America. If you’re like me, you’ve probably quoted Woody Allen at some point in your life, referring to pigeons as “rats with wings.” But I wonder if we saw these birds alone, rather than perched in huddled masses on freeway overpasses, if we’d feel a little differently about them. Take the time to focus on just one and you might realize, they really are kinda pretty.

I thought about that during my whirlwind trip to New York City this past week, where I saw plenty o’ pigeons. And, I figured it was time for us to learn more about them.

Fact: This is usually where I describe the bird’s distinguishing characteristics. Rock pigeons are pretty cool, though, because they don’t all look the same. Some are bluish gray, some are bluish black, a few are rusty red, and a tiny fraction are a grizzled white. Want to know more? Check out this chart on color morphs at PigeonWatch!
Fact: Whatever their color, you can generally count on a dark gray bill, a white rump, a rounded tail, and broad wings with somewhat pointed tips. Most rock pigeons also sport beautiful, iridescent neck feathers.
Fact: The rock pigeon is actually not native to the United States. It was introduced to this continent in the early 1600s by European settlers. Today, rock pigeons are considered “feral,” which basically means that they have reverted to their natural, wild state.
Fact: The overpasses and building ledges that feral rock pigeons generally use for roosting sites mimic the rocky cliffs used by wild pigeons in their native habitat.
Fact: The rock pigeon is found in cities and towns throughout the United States. And if you need me to tell you where to find them, well, you’re grossly unobservant.
Fact: (Sigh.) Fine, take the southbound 3300 South off-ramp on I-15 in Salt Lake City. At the light, look up.
Fact: Wild pigeons eat things like seeds and fruits. Feral pigeons in cities largely subsist on the crap that humans eat—popcorn, bread, peanuts, French fries, and Twinkie crumbs.
Fact: Ah, rock pigeons are romantics. They mate for life.
Fact: The rock pigeon bonds with his mate through an extensive display that starts with bowing and cooing, in which the male stands tall, inflates his crop (or throat area), fans his tail, struts in a circle, and bows his head and neck while cooing. You can see why the female might be impressed.
Fact: What comes after bowing and cooing? Why nibbling of course. First the male nibbles the female. Once an appropriate amount of time has passed and she doesn’t feel too trampy about it, the female will nibble the male.

This may not be the best video ever made of pigeon courting, but I thought it was pretty funny with the Al Green backup. You can just watch for a minute and get the picture.

Fact: I’ve been accused of getting a little too obsessed with the bird sex on this site, so we’ll pass by that part of the story today. (It wasn’t all that kinky anyway.)
Fact: Once the not-so-kinky mating has happened, pigeons must have a nest for their eggs. To build one, the female picks out an appropriate site and makes a specific nesting call. The male will then search for a single twig, stem, or pine needle and bring it back to the female, who will place it around her breast or flanks. This is repeated again and again and again for four or five days until a decent nest is built.
Fact: Rock pigeons are equal opportunity incubators. Dad sits on the eggs from mid-morning to late afternoon. Mom sits from late afternoon to mid-morning. They take a similar schedule for raising/feeding the chicks after they’ve hatched.
Fact: Though they are modern parents, rock pigeons do not put a high price on sanitary conditions at home. Because they do not remove the feces of their nestlings, the nest turns into a sturdy, potlike mound that gets larger month by month. Unhatched eggs and mummies of dead nestlings may also get cemented into the nest, but the parents will usually use it the next go round.
Fact: Rock pigeons may seem pretty comfy in the local park, but they do have a few predators to worry about. Cooper's hawks, peregrine falcons, merlins, and cats will all make a nice meal of them. And, apparently, there is at least one pelican in the world willing to eat pigeons as well (not even sure if it's a rock pigeon, but still). Note: this video is pretty gross. You'll see why pelicans should stick with fish.

Fact: Rock pigeons are known for their “homing” skills, basically being able to navigate home from a distant place. This is sort of an odd skill for these birds to have, as they don’t really migrate. But, wild rock pigeons would frequently travel from their nest sites on cliffs to distant fields to eat. They would then use the sun and the earth’s magnetic fields to get back home. The birds we usually see in the U.S. don’t necessarily need those skills anymore, but they’ve got ‘em!

This has been Your Bird of the Week…er, month…sorry.

September 28, 2008

The Dangerous World of Puppetry

ATLANTA, Sept. 22 (UPI) -- A hawk mistook a bird puppet for the real thing, swooping into an Atlanta parking lot and attacking two puppeteers, the victims say.

Jeff Domke and Alan Louis, who work for the Center for Puppetry Arts in Atlanta, said they were outside the building taking pictures of a puppet designed to look like a brown thrasher when the red-tailed hawk struck, WSB-TV in Atlanta reported Monday.

Domke said the feathered predator hit his hand and head before figuring out the thrasher was a fake.

"I suppose the hawk paid us a compliment on Jeff's design," Louis told the station.

Such hawks can reach speeds up to 120 mph in a dive, ornithologists say.

September 26, 2008

Being a Bird

I came across this Creature Comforts video on YouTube about "Being a Bird." If you've never watched a Creature Comforts short, they interview regular people about, say, flying on airplanes. They then take edited versions of those interviews and pair them up with animation of animals. (Their first video was about animals in the zoo, but the interviews were people in housing projects and retirement homes.)

The British are so clever.

Anyway, it's a little long, but some of it is pretty funny.

Have a good weekend!

September 18, 2008

Strike a Pose

So, a couple posts ago we discussed the misprinted federal Duck Stamp, which I am now referring to as the “Tramp Stamp” (thanks, Rachel, for coming up with that). While the Tramp Stamp made me cringe as an editor, it also made me excited as a proud Bird Geek to tell you about the beautiful bird it features.

Your BOTW is the northern pintail.

Fact: Some of the Web sites I read this week said the northern pintail was “the greyhound of the air.” That’s nice, I suppose, but I think “the supermodel of the marsh” is more appropriate. Take a look at your field guide (you've all got one, right?) and you’ll see words like “lean, graceful silhouette,” “long, slender neck,” and “distinctive coloring.” Even its name evokes a nonexistent rear end. (Like all good supermodels, I’m sure pintails swear they LOVE to eat.)
Fact: The male northern pintail sports a chocolate brown head, white neck and underparts, and very long central tail feathers that look like a sharp little point extending from its black rear end. Hence the name pintail.
Fact: While the female pintail got screwed as usual in the coloring department (brown with more brown), she does sport the beautiful pintail shape, minus the extra-long tail.
Fact: The northern pintail eats grain, seeds, weeds, aquatic insects, and crustaceans (especially during breeding season). It picks food from the ground and also feeds on the surface of the water.
Fact: The northern pintail will also upend itself in shallow water to reach food on the bottom. I think the pintail boasts two advantages over competitors (aka mallards) in this arena: Its long neck helps it reach food in deeper waters. And its fabulous pintail looks so much better for what is basically a butt shot. (For an example of a not-so-fabulous butt shot, please refer to the video of me chasing geese.)
Fact: The Great Salt Lake has one of the world’s largest wintering colonies of northern pintails. You can look for them while driving a quiet 55 mph on Legacy Highway.
Fact: Pintails are one of the first ducks to arrive on breeding grounds in the spring. They breed throughout Alaska and Canada. They actually form pairs, though, during the fall and winter before they reach the breeding grounds. So, we'll probably have pintails hooking up right here in Utah soon. Ahh.
Fact: Pairs are often formed through long “chase” displays. One or sometimes an entire group of males will chase in flight after an unattached female. Whichever male refuses to give up the chase wins.
Fact: The act of copulation generally takes place on water. The male swims up behind his mate and bites her neck feathers to hold on.
Fact: While doing research for this piece, I learned about “forced copulation,” which is rather common in pintails and other ducks. Forced copulation is basically just like it sounds, but it usually takes place on land instead of water. Different kinds of ducks are known for doing it to each other. Biologists speculate forced copulation might be one of the reasons there are so many weird duck hybrids out there.
Fact: Once on the breeding grounds, the female will scrape out a nest bowl in the dirt. She does this by dropping on her breast and pivoting in a circle while scraping her feet. I’d like to see Kate Moss do that!
Fact: Dear old dad does not stick around to help incubate the eggs or see them hatch. But as the supermodel of the marsh, he probably has more important things to do.

This has been Your BOTW.

picture: Wikimedia Commons
Second picture: Flickr

September 17, 2008

Hungry Birds = Bad Neighbors

So, I promise a real BOTW (the northern pintail) is coming soon. I don't have any excuses for not posting it besides just really getting into Fall TV and suffering from a dysfunctional DVR. (Love the CW, by the way, and I don't care if that puts me in the company of 13-year-old girls.)

Anyway, I noticed this news story on Live Science today and thought it was pretty interesting. I'm not sure about using the word "murder" in the headline (can animals really murder each other?), but it sounds like food shortages can bring out some pretty brutal behavior in bird parents. Although, history tells us it gets nearly as nasty when humans are under similar circumstances.

Food Shortages Drive Birds to Murder Chicks

by LiveScience staff
Photo credit: Kate Ashbrook

Adult seabirds in Scotland have launched brutal attacks on chicks in nearby nests, sometimes pecking to death the fledglings or just flinging them from cliff ledges. The ferocious attacks were documented in a study announced today.

"The attacks were brutal and usually involved more than one adult as chicks fled from the initial attacking neighbor," said lead researcher Kate Ashbrook of the University of Leeds in England.

The cause of the peck attacks can be traced to food shortages in the area where the common guillemots live, the study scientists suggest. Common guillemots (Uria aalge) are attentive parents, rearing just one chick during the breeding season.

They spend most of their time at sea except during the breeding season when the adults relocate to rocky coastal cliffs or offshore islands. On land, the white-bellied birds stand upright like penguins and reach a length of about 16 inches (43 centimeters).

Since chicks are vulnerable to attacks from predatory gulls, guillemot parents rarely leave their single chick unattended, taking turns heading out to find food. However, a decline in prey in recent years has forced both parents to search for food at the same time.

Ashbrook and her colleagues focused on a large established colony of guillemots that inhabit the Isle of May in Scotland. They reported almost half of all chicks were unattended at some point during the day. And the researchers observed hundreds of adult guillemots attacking such nests. The attacks often involved repeated jabs to the head and body, the researchers noted.

And even though food shortages sparked the attacks, the researchers said the guillemots clearly were not attacking the chicks for food, but rather as acts of aggression.

"More than two thirds of all documented chick deaths in the sample area were caused by attacks from neighboring parents," Ashbrook said. "Yet this particular colony has been monitored for almost thirty years, and in that time chick attacks have been very rare occurrences."

The findings, published online today in the journal Biology Letters, indicate that social harmony, as can be the case in such long-established colonies, can break down when conditions get tough.

The study also highlights a parental dilemma in the seabirds when starvation looms: They must choose between both parents foraging for food and possibly finding enough to feed their family or keeping one parental in the nest even if it means less food for the chick, the researchers say.


September 4, 2008

Hot, Sexy Ducks

I'm the managing editor for a creative group that puts out hundreds of publications, product labels, and Web pages every year for a customer base that expects nothing but the best. So, let's just say that I know how it feels to discover an error on something you've published. It sucks. And it's amazing, considering how glaring some mistakes can be, that somehow 15 sets of eyes can all miss it. Then, someone says those fateful words, "Yep, go ahead. Start the presses!"

So, I'm feeling the pain this morning of whatever designer/editor/proofreader was ultimately responsible for a little error on the federal duck stamp this year. See below the story reported by the Minneapolis Star-Tribune this morning.

Duck Stamp Includes Phone-Sex Number
by Paul Walsh, Star Tribune

The federal government says it has no choice but to reluctantly keep distributing to millions of waterfowl hunters a toll-free phone-sex-service number that features a breathy woman promising callers that they can "talk only to the girls who turn you on" for $1.99 per minute.

About 3.5 million federal "duck stamps," featuring artwork by a Plymouth artist, are affixed to a card that bears the misprinted number, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said Wednesday.

All waterfowl hunters age 16 and older must buy and carry the current Migratory Bird Conservation and Hunting Stamp, commonly known as the duck stamp. Sales of the stamp, which is produced by the U.S. Postal Service for Fish and Wildlife, raise about $25 million each year to fund wetland habitat acquisition for the national Wildlife Refuge System. The agency annually sells about 120,000 federal duck stamps in Minnesota. The stamp isn't valid for routine postage.

Rachel Levin, a Fish and Wildlife spokeswoman, called the misprint, which connects callers to a phone-sex service, "an unfortunate typographical error" that her agency "really regrets." She adds that the agency will keep selling the $15 stamps with the naughty number because reprinting the card would cost too much.

The correct number, 1-800-STAMP24 (1-800-782-6724), is for people wishing to order additional duck stamps. Levin said two digits of the phone number are transposed on the card that holds the self-adhesive version of the stamp. That incorrect number, 1-800-872-6724, translates to 1-800-TRAMP24. Callers to "Intimate Connections" are warned that they must be 18 years or older before proceeding.

Levin doubted that the digits were purposely transposed. "As far as we know," she said, "it was just an error."

The stamps were produced by Ashton Potter Ltd. of Williamsville, N.Y. Messages left with Ashton Potter's executives were not returned.

Levin said reprinting the cards would cost about $300,000, and "that's a lot of money we could be putting into" conservation.

"The stamp is perfectly usable," she said. "It will just be a lot more interesting for people now."


"More interesting" is right. I think I'm going to use that excuse the next time we find a major error (which I'm really hoping won't be today). I can hear myself telling my communications director now: "That incorrect Web site I missed? Oh, won't it be a little more interesting and fun for our customers to figure it out on their own?" Yeah, that's going to work.

Oh well,
it's an amusing story. And, you never know, the stamps might become collectors items and sell out, which would be good for waterfowl habitat.

Even better, the bird depicted on the stamp reminded me that we've never discussed one of my favorite waterfowl species, the Northern Pintail. So, stay tuned for your very late Bird of the Week!

August 17, 2008

Mock Me All Night Long

In Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus tells his children that they can have all sorts of fun with their new pellet guns (it was a different time, huh?), but they can’t shoot something beautiful and simple like a mockingbird. In fact, it’s the one thing Scout can ever remember her father calling sinful.

And, the mockingbird is beautiful and innocent…until it decides to sit outside your apartment window every night at 1 a.m. and sing to its ADHD heart’s content. Then, even the most loyal of bird lovers (that would be me) might wish for Scout’s pellet gun.

Of course, I did not shoot that little mockingbird outside my apartment window—that would be a sin (and illegal). And now, with a couple years of more restful sleep between me and the guilty bird, I am ready to tell you about how awesome it really is.

Your BOTW is the Northern mockingbird.

Fact: The Northern mockingbird is a medium-sized songbird with a long tail and legs. It is a pretty, pale gray above and white below. It has two white wingbars set against darker gray wings. And big, bright white patches can be seen while it is in flight.
Fact: The Northern mockingbird is best known for its talent of mimicry. A male’s song is long and complex, incorporating the songs of several other birds and sometimes the sounds of barking dogs, meowing cats, or machinery.
Fact: As I discovered in Victorville, the Northern mockingbird often sings well into the night, especially around a full moon.
Fact: It is believed that most of these nighttime singers are unmated males. I like to think of them as adolescent boys who will try any come-on to impress the girl.
Fact: The Northern mockingbird often combines its elaborate songs with wing flashing displays, jumping a short distance into the air and showing off its bright white patches. You’ll see the bird do just that right at the beginning of this video.

The Northern mockingbird is also known for harassing cats and dogs. Scientists debate whether it’s a form of play or actual nest defense. Whatever it is, I can’t believe how many videos there were on YouTube of mockingbirds teasing cats. This cat seems way to calm, by the way.

Fact: Song obviously plays an important role in the life of the Northern mockingbird. Not only does the bird establish territory and pair up through song, males actually sing before, during, and after copulation. (Females are a bit more genteel about the whole act, but they do quiver their wings afterward.)
Fact: The Northern mockingbird is also known for its “boundary dance,” where two males square off along some unseen territory boundary and basically try to “dance” each other away. I've never seen this before, but I like to imagine it’s a lot like the movie You Got Served.
Fact: The Northern mockingbird isn’t the only mimic from the bird world. In fact, its skills seem pretty amateurish when you watch this video of the lyre bird from Australia. (Sorry, embedding isn’t available for this BBC video.) It’s worth watching until the end; you won’t believe some of the sounds it can make.

This has been Your BOTW.

August 7, 2008

Yellow Fellow

With just a couple of weeks before my company's big international convention, I am ready to pull my hair out. (As are my coworkers, who make up the majority of my blog readers.) So, I thought I'd post a very special Bird of the Week that my husband, Tim, wrote a few months ago. It's great for two reasons: One, I don't have to take the time to write it. Two: it's short and funny, so you don't have to take much time to enjoy it. Everyone wins!

And while this special bird is familiar to all of us, you might learn a few things!

Your BOTW is Big Bird.

Fact: Sesame Street’s big yellow bird can roller skate, ice skate, dance, sing, write poetry, draw, and ride a unicycle.
Fact: Big Bird has a teddy bear named “Radar.”
While Big Bird is generally thought to be a canary, when he visited the Neighborhood of Make-Believe in Mister Rogers' Neighborhood he shared with X the Owl that he is a Golden Condor. (Highly endangered.)
Fact: Big Bird's birthday is March 20.

This has been Your BOTW.

Ah, gotta love Big Bird. Now, I could end this with a cute little video of the big yellow guy so we could all reminisce about our younger days watching Sesame Street. But we're all stressed and tired and probably mad at someone in another department, so I thought an angry spoof about Big Bird catching bird flu would be more appropriate. Enjoy!

August 3, 2008

Snowbird Blues Festival

Tim and I went to the Snowbird Blues Festival this weekend with my parents. Granted, the only connection between the festival and birds is the name of the ski resort where it was held. (OK, I saw a couple robins and swallows while I was up the mountain.) But the talent at the festival was amazing, so I looked up some YouTube video of my two favorite performers.

Paul Thorn of The Paul Thorn Band charmed me right from the beginning with his story-telling. Every song had a hilarious southern story behind it (including a bird receiving mouth-to-beak resuscitation). His songs were a great combination of blues, country, and rock, and they were all delivered with a cute little smirk. This song is one of my favorites from the evening.

Ruthie Foster sang earlier in the day, and she stole the show as far as I'm concerned. (It was just sad that more people weren't there to hear her sing.) Her soulful voice is incredible, and she combines it with an easy-going stage presence that just instantly connects her with the audience. I turned to my mom halfway through one of her gospel-inspired songs and told her that if I knew I would hear something like this on Sunday morning, I would be the first one to church. The festival emcee and Ruthie were both a little shocked when the audience almost rioted for an encore. Loved her. This video shows off her vocals in a big way. She's also a talented guitar and piano player.

July 28, 2008

Wild Goose Chase

Several weeks ago, my dad sent me an e-mail inviting me to join him for a day of goose banding with Utah Division of Wildlife employees.

What is goose banding? And, why would I want to do it?

Well, I can answer the first question. But the second will remain a mystery to all of us, especially my husband.

Each summer, between mid-June and late July, Canada geese shed and re-grow their outer wing feathers, also known as primaries. During this four- to five-week molting process, geese cannot fly. This flightless period presents the perfect opportunity for biologists to catch the geese and place a small metal band on one of their legs (see picture). The bands have unique numbers etched on them, which will help wildlife experts years from now learn about any geese that are caught, killed, or found dead. Basically, a biologist could trap one of these geese two years from now in Canada and by looking up the number on its band find out that it is a 3-year-old male born in Utah.

There are several methods used by the Division to catch geese during the molt, but I was invited for an especially exciting day, when the geese are chased down by airboats in shallow water (we’re talking two feet). The geese dive to get away, but by hanging off the edge of the airboat you can basically scoop the geese right out of the water.

It’s sort of like COPS, but with birds.

How could I pass that up? So, I took the day off work, got up early, and met my parents for a day at the marshes just outside of Corinne, Utah. When I got there, I discovered that I wasn’t the only son or daughter invited by a Division employee—but I was the only one over the age of 13. This bird stuff can be tough on the ego at times.

My embarrassment subsided a little, though, as soon as we took off from the shore. The day was absolutely gorgeous, and seeing the marsh from an airboat was spectacular. We flew by avocets, stilts, herons, and grebes in our search of the geese. Actually catching a goose took some practice, though. Hanging off the airboat, I consistently managed to touch the birds, but I lacked the nerve to get a really good grip on one. I was terrified of hurting one and nervous about falling off the boat. But after watching Seth, a 6th-grader, handle geese that were almost as big as him, I realized I needed to man up.

With a little practice, I soon was hauling 6-pound geese out of the water. I got smacked in the face several times by flapping wings, but the geese and I seemed to survive it all without any major injury. The only clip I could manage to post is a little long, but you can get the picture within the first minute or so. (Thanks to Timothy for figuring all of this stuff out for me.)

Once our boat’s crates were full of geese, we headed toward shore where the geese had a couple more indignities in store—sexing and banding.

Sexing is almost as dirty as it sounds. Basically, Division employees flip the geese over, hold them between their legs, and then turn their cloaca inside out. Now, surprisingly we haven’t gotten into the cloaca on Bird of the Week yet, considering how much we talk about bird sex. The cloaca is basically a multi-purpose organ, used to poop, have sex, and lay eggs. For birds like Canada geese, which do not differ in gender by color or size, you have to actually look at the small sex organs located within the cloaca to determine whether they are male or female. A few helpful Division employees tried to show me the difference between a goose clitoris and a goose penis, but to be honest with you, they all looked the same to me.

Once a goose’s age and sex were determined and a band was placed on its leg, it was released back into the marsh. I wasn’t surprised to see a few geese hang back to honk their disapproval at the lot of us. Don’t get me wrong, banding serves a real scientific purpose and can help determine all sorts of information that ultimately helps birds. But you put yourself in their situation for a minute, and you can’t help but feel a little sorry for them.

If it makes you or the geese feel any better, I suffered my own indignities on the trip:
First, there was the whole "30-year-old kid with a bunch of actual kids" thing to contend with.
Second, the video of me catching geese can only be described as extremely unflattering. Really, no woman should be filmed with her butt as the primary focus, unless she is paid adult-industry wages to do so. (Being willing to post this video proves that I love birds a lot).
Third, I quickly discovered why it was pretty much all men and a few pre-adolescent girls doing the capturing when I looked down to discover my thin t-shirt was completely soaked and sticking to every part of my body.
Finally, if that weren’t bad enough, I brought a second shirt to change into after banding, but realized too late that it didn’t really work with a still-wet bra. I attended a post-banding lunch with my new Division friends with a look that can only be described as "lactating."

And now, I will end this very long blog with a couple of quick facts about Canada geese:

Fact: The correct name is Canada goose, not Canadian goose. Not sure why this is the case, but you will be corrected by obnoxious editors and bird aficionados if you say or write it incorrectly.
Fact: Canada geese feed on a variety of plant material, including grass and grains, as well as the junk people throw out to them in city parks.
Fact: Canada geese have become an increasing nuisance in cities. Many of them have stopped migrating and make permanent homes in city parks and golf courses, where they leave behind a lot of waste. (Which you now know comes from their cloaca!)
Fact: Canada geese take on child-rearing in a sort of hippie, communal way. It is quite common for adults geese to gather up all of the hatched goslings into one big group and help each other raise the young.

This has been Your BOTW.

P.S. Thanks to all the people who patiently waited for me to get the hang of catching geese, showed me the art of "sexing", and tried to ignore my sole entry in the goose-banding wet t-shirt contest.

July 26, 2008

For the Birds

See, even brilliant animators and computer geniuses at Pixar think birds are cool.

July 13, 2008

Bear River Evening

I found a gorgeous video on It was taken one evening at the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge in northern Utah. It's pretty amazing to realize the number of bird species that live or land in our inland state each year because of the Great Salt Lake.

The video is a little fuzzy as it's almost dark, but the sounds of thousands of birds feeding and communicating is just spectacular. I especially loved the eerie footage of the barn owl hunting (it looks like a ghost) and the Western grebe toting its chick on its back. You can't watch a video like this and not appreciate the beauty of birds! I had trouble embedding the video for some reason, but you can click here to view it directly on the Bird Cinema site. I promise it's worth opening a new window in your browser.

July 9, 2008

Who…who...who…is old?



Those are the sounds of my 30-year-old bones, people.

Yes, this week I left behind my wild and crazy 20s and joined the ranks of the sort of old. I realize that 30 is not ancient, and, if I’m honest, my 20s were never all that wild or crazy. But, I still can’t help but feel that life has changed. I rarely get ID'd anymore. I watch sports and am consistently shocked to realize that the athletes are YEARS younger than me. And Tums are no longer a foreign product.

It’s not over the hill, but it’s 100 percent in the adult world. Yikes.

Of course, there are some good things about being older. I can rent a car without too much hassle. I'm closer to fitting the market profile of Audubon Society and NPR members. And, there’s the whole wiser thing, right?

So in the spirit of acceptance for this, my fourth decade of life, I thought I’d highlight a bird that is often referred to as old and wise, but is also awesome.

Your BOTW is the Great Horned Owl.

Fact: The great horned owl typically has a brown and gray body with dark barring. It can be identified by its bright white throat. It has an orange facial disk with bright yellow eyes and a dark bill.
Fact: The great horned owl is named for its big ear tufts, which are widely spaced on its head.
Fact: The feathery ear tufts don’t cover actual horns (Do I need to specify that? You can never be too sure with this group.) They also aren’t actual ears. But I think we can all agree that they’re cool looking!
Fact: The great horned owl has exceptional night vision, but its hearing is even better. Its facial disk helps direct the slightest sounds to its ears.
Fact: The great horned owl has a wingspan ranging from 3 ½ feet to nearly 5 feet! Standing, it is almost two feet tall. Females are generally 10 to 20 percent bigger than the males.
Fact: The great horned owl is a bit of a bad ass.
Fact: It can take prey that weighs three times more than itself. It kills using its incredibly strong talons to sever the spinal cord of the prey in one quick squeeze. (I know I sound like Napoleon Dynamite.)

Fact: The great horned owl generally hunts at night and is particularly effective because it flies so quietly.
Fact: The great horned owl hunts rodents and rabbits, but is also known to take porcupines, raccoons, water birds, other owls, and even the occasional miniature pony. (Maybe not on that last one.) It is also the only animal known to regularly eat skunks.
Fact: Pet lovers beware. Great horned owls will be happy to take Fluffy or Roxy if given the opportunity.
Fact: The great horned owl will often eat its prey whole, crushing bones with its beak. Several hours after a meal, it will hawk up little black pellets of indigestible parts as well as the occasional entire skull. An owl can be found by spotting its pellets on the ground around a tree. Look up and you’ll often see the owl roosting silently above your head.
Fact: Great horned owls are extremely territorial when nesting. They will dive at your head with those nasty talons if they see you as a threat.
Fact: Speaking of nesting, great horned owls do not build their own nests. They take over abandoned nests made by hawks, crows, and other birds, and generally raise one to three owlets together.
Fact: Despite being bad asses (or maybe because of it), great horned owls often get mobbed by American crows. Crows really don’t like great horned owls roosting in their area, and when they find one they will gather up a big group and harass it until it moves on to quieter territory. See video.

Fact: Native Americans in the Sierras believed that great horned owls captured the souls of the dead to take to the underworld. So, now that I'm nearly over the hill, I should probably watch out for that.

This has been Your BOTW.

July 4, 2008

Piedmont Bird Callers on Letterman

Bird calls and Letterman, two of my favorite things!
If you watch all the way to the end, you'll hear that Dave likes great blue herons. This makes me strangely happy.

July 2, 2008

I Got the Blues

Before we get started, let me apologize to all seven of my loyal readers. I realize that I set up the Your BOTW blog with much fanfare and then disappeared for two weeks with not a single post. A tad bit rude. In my defense, though, I:

A. Went on a family trip to Yellowstone

Here we all are at a "bear jam."

B. Was struck down by an embarrassing skin disease caught while at Yellowstone (from a hot tub, grossly enough)

C. Served as matron of honor at the wedding of the season (while still suffering from said embarrassing skin disease)

Me at the wedding trying to look "matronly" with my husband.

It was a crazy couple of weeks. So, please forgive me (and feel a slight bit of pity for me). Now, back to birds.

While at Yellowstone, I was reminded of one of my all-time favorite birds. I saw this bird throughout the park, and proudly watched as its startling color and sweet voice caught the attention of even non-birding folks. And, when you’re competing for attention with wolves, bison, bears, geysers, and German tourists—that’s saying something.

Your BOTW is the mountain bluebird.

Photo Credit: Mac Knight

Fact: Mountain bluebirds are blue, brilliant blue. (The males, anyway.) When I look at them in my binoculars, I can’t help but think of Crayola words: Azure, Cerulean, Pacific, Indigo, Denim. Seriously stunning.
Fact: A male mountain bluebird is bright blue across its back, head, wings, and tail. The rest of its body is a slightly more muted blue. A female mountain bluebird is a brownish-blue overall. It’s pretty, but the male steals the show. (You regular BOTW readers should not be surprised by this.) See the video below. It's not super exciting, but if you watch long enough, you’ll see both the male and the female.

Mountain bluebirds can be found throughout the Western states, in high meadows, ranchlands, and even the occasional golf course.
Fact: The first pair of mountain bluebirds I saw in Yellowstone were copulating (that’s having sex, Patrick) over one of the Fountain Paint Pots. I felt a bit intrusive watching them, actually. Once satiated, they managed to charm a host of tourists (with whom I was happy to share my binoculars).
Fact: Speaking of sex, mountain bluebirds tend to be monogamous throughout the breeding season. (Although both sexes are known to do a little sneaking around if given the chance.)
Fact: Mountain bluebirds are cavity nesters, meaning they nest in holes they find in trees, buildings, and banks. Just the right cavity can be hard to come by, though, so more and more often they are making nests in manmade nest boxes.
Fact: Whether nesting in a natural cavity or a nest box, the female mountain bluebird gathers up dry grass, pine needles, dry bark, and even horsehair to construct a proper nest within the cavity.
Fact: Males mountain bluebirds rarely help in this nest construction. Oddly enough, they will pick up nesting materials while following their mate around, but they always drop it before reaching the nest.
Fact: Female mountain bluebirds get their revenge once the babies hatch, though. The first few weeks, the male is allowed to bring food to the nest, but the female will not allow him to feed or touch the hatchlings.
Fact: Mountain bluebirds eat mostly bugs (and occasional berries). They typically hunt insects and worms from a perch like a fencepost or tree limb. They are also known to hover above the ground before diving to catch insects.

This has been Your BOTW.

P.S. Stay tuned for a full report on my exciting day of Goose Banding!!

June 13, 2008

Israel's BOTW

The Birdchick blog posted this video, and I couldn't resist. I love Stephen Colbert. And, this bird sounds awesome!

June 10, 2008

Daddy Dearest

Growing up in the idyllic town of Ferron, Utah (insert your joke here, Kelly), I would wake up every school morning to a big, home-cooked breakfast of pancakes, French toast, or omelets. My schoolteacher mom reserved cold cereal for days we didn’t have to pay attention in class.

Not surprisingly, at some point mom started to feel a little frazzled trying to make breakfast, get herself ready for work, and send four children off to school. So, my dad agreed to get up and prepare breakfast for us.

This was an exciting time for me and my siblings. Not only was it unusual for us to have dad at the stove, we also found his food choices much more exotic! One morning we woke up to banana pancakes. Sure, they were a mucky gray and weighed in at about two pounds--but they were different!

Alas, this little “dad makes breakfast” experiment lasted about a week and a half, and mom was soon back in the kitchen. In all, she spent about 15 years making sure her little darlings had enough complex carbohydrates to power through math and spelling. Yet, what do my siblings and I tend to recall when it comes to school mornings? Those few days my dad made breakfast for us. Kind of sick, huh? In our defense, breakfast at my house was much like mealtime in the bird world (aside from the eating bugs part). When moms usually do the hard stuff, people take notice when dads take on a bigger role.

In light of Father’s Day later this week, I thought I’d tell you about one of those exotic fathers of the avian world. And it's a bird worth remembering. (Just don't forget about all of those hard-working, unsung mothers out there.)

Your BOTW is the Wilson’s phalarope.

Fact: The Wilson’s phalarope is a slender, medium-sized shorebird with long legs and a long, needlelike bill.
Fact: Among Wilson’s phalaropes, like all phalaropes, the sex roles are reversed when compared to most birds. Females are prettier, bigger, and more dominant.
Fact: Breeding females have a reddish-black stripe running from the bill down the neck, a gray crown, gray upperparts, and white underparts. Males lack the beautiful stripe, but otherwise look similar.
Fact: Female Wilson’s phalaropes court the males and will often mate with two of them. They’ll also throw down if other females get too close to their guys. (Sounds a bit like junior high, huh?) After laying two or three eggs in the sand, the moms take off, leaving dads to construct a nest, incubate the eggs, and feed the hatchlings.
Fact: The vast majority of female Wilson’s phalaropes end up at the Great Salt Lake in mid-June (they’re probably arriving as you read this). They settle in for several weeks of feeding on brine shrimp and brine flies to prepare for a non-stop, 5,000-mile migration to the Andes, where they spend the fall and winter. (The males arrive at the Great Salt Lake for the same reason in July, after ensuring their chicks are hatched and fledged.)
Fact: Hanging out and fattening up for a long migration like this is known as “staging.”
Fact: It’s estimated that during peak staging season in late July, there are more than 600,000 Wilson’s phalaropes along the Great Salt Lake.
Fact: Besides brine shrimp and flies, Wilson’s phalaropes feed on small bugs and aquatic plants. In shallow water, they are often seen spinning as much as 60 revolutions per minute, which is thought to help them stir up food lodged in the mud. To watch this, see my very first embedded video below. Exciting!

This has been Your BOTW.
P.S. My dad may have failed at taking on breakfast, but he rocked the late-night, waited-til-the-last-minute science projects. He also made me the proud bird geek I am today. Happy Father's Day, Dad.
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