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
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