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.

Nature Blog Network
All About Birds: Free Bird Guide and More