Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Shades of Cimarron

Rough-legged Hawk. Photograph by Douglas Brown

Flash back to two years ago, December 13, 2006. The day dawned cold and dreary, matching my trepidation about what was to come. The old red-tail had been limping for some time, and although the vet assured me that it was just arthritis, I doubted his judgement. Now, it appeared that her foot was rotating inward and she seemed to be in pain. I feared the worst, the big “C”, which is what my gut said. As I was getting ready to take her in for yet another set of X-rays, the phone rang.

I heard the deep voice of a man who said, “I found this hawk alongside the road. It’s been in my garage for two days and a garage is no place for a bird. If you won’t come and get it, then I’ll take care of it myself.” He sounded both kindly and crusty, like an old rancher who had seen much. I knew that he meant every word. I asked where he lived and he responded, “Roy”, a four-hour drive from Albuquerque. Fortunately, Ron, our raptor biologist, was available, and offered to drive up immediately to see what the bird might be. When we get these types of calls, speculation is rampant among the staff as to what we will actually find.

I once got a call from a couple that had an injured ‘eagle’ in their urban back yard. Sure enough, when I arrived, they had it locked in a tin shed, in an eagle-sized box. However, the box seemed lightweight for such a large bird. We brought the box out into the sunshine, and I opened it to reveal – a common nighthawk, a very small insect-eating bird that weighs about a quarter pound. But, that’s another story. On this day, Ron and I both agreed that he would be picking up a Ferruginous Hawk, common on the plains of northeastern New Mexico. Ron drove off to the north at the same time as I drove south to the vet.

Indeed, the news was not good. It would be the old gal’s final day as this set of X-rays clearly showed the deteriorating, twisting bones, eaten alive by cancer. I tried to put on a brave face, but oh, how this hurt! She had been my first bird, the one that inspired me to pursue this line of work. Tears streamed down my face as I sat, typing at my computer waiting for whatever Ron would bring back to the office.

He arrived an hour after the red-tail was gone, not the expected species, but instead a majestic arctic bird, a Rough-legged Hawk. He had an elbow injury, an old healed wound evident in the set of X-rays. He would not ever be able to fly well enough to be released and he joined our staff of educational ambassador as soon as the federal permits were processed.

Rough-legged Hawks nest in tundra or taiga in arctic and subarctic Alaska and Canada, and migrate over the boreal forest to winder in southern Canada and the northern United States. In New Mexico, they appear only occasionally and not at all in some winters. Only when frozen conditions to the north limit food availability, do ‘roughies’ move this far south. And, they generally are observed only from December-February.

How could it be that the bird had been in New Mexico long enough to have been injured, healed and fortuitously found alongside the road? He would have had to arrive by about October, much earlier than expected for this species. He was plenty fat, and showed no evidence of recent trauma. Who would have cared for him so well that every feather was absolutely perfect? He also was an adult, and knew that he belonged in the wild. Yet, he was relatively calm around his human captors. Many mysteries shrouded the majestic northern hawk stranded in the Southwest, never again to see his Arctic home.

We now have two years under our belt, and our relationship has grown. Training a wild bird to a public life in captivity always has its challenges and he was especially wary. He already was an adult bird, had known life in the wild, and possibly produced offspring. Being condemned to a cage, albeit large enough for flight, and forced to interact with a human on a daily basis was hard for him. For my part, I just wanted to gain his trust so that I might someday get close enough to pick him up.

The first year was spectacularly unsuccessful, with little evidence that he would one day be calm enough to display in public. Our Fish and Wildlife Service permit requires that each educational ambassador complete a minimum of twelve programs annually, and I began to wonder if he would ever reach that goal. Each morning, when I would deliver food, I would stay near and talk, sometimes about nothing, sometimes just sing-song words, but always in calm tones. As much as possible, I tried to reassure him that it would be okay, that I would never hurt him, and that we had to make this work as there were no other options.

Then, on one momentous day a few months ago, he trusted me enough to lower his head and eat in my presence, exposing his vulnerability. It was just one mouse, but it was a new threshold. Today, I can sometimes lay the mice at his feet, but not always. At other times, I only can approach within about three feet. He still retains his spirit and his wildness. I am thrilled and humbled to be a part of his life. He’s completed his 12 programs in 2008, and perhaps you will get to see him one day at a presentation. We call him Cimarron del Norte, refugee from the north.

Monday, November 10, 2008

The Water Ouzel, an Ecological Indicator

American Dipper - Photograph by Tom Kennedy

We donned our cross-country skis at the East Fork of the Jemez River, expecting nothing much more than a glorious winter outing in a beautiful canyon. Brilliant sunshine belied the actual temperature as clouds of condensation fogged our glasses. The novice among us worried about the skill level required for the outing, as she clipped her spankin’ new boots in to her equally virgin cross country skis. As a winter wonderland, the Jemez back country is easy to access and provides a more solitary experience than the crowded trails of the Sandia Mountains. Only two more cars shared our space, an indicator of the near solitude that awaited.

As we neared the river, a flash of gray in motion caught my eye. A quick flit, and the bird disappeared behind the rocks. It was February, a month where our usual avian companions are the hardy ravens and Steller’s Jays. Most humans would not be expecting a birdwatching expedition but it soon became apparent that this outing would reveal special rewards. Cautiously, and as quietly as possible, we sneaked up to get a better view of the elusive gray bird whose plumage blended so well with the wet rocks. Only rippling, crystal clear water cascaded through the stream that drained the Valles Caldera. However, as we watched, a little gray bird popped up from beneath the surface with an aquatic insect firmly clutched in its bill.

First documented and christened “Water Ouzel” by John Muir, bird and stream once were considered inseparable. Present along fast-moving, clear, unpolluted mountain streams in the American West throughout the year, the American Dipper is almost exclusively associated with water. The behavior and biological adaptations of this aquatic bird are unique, combining aspects of songbirds with those of ducks. Their traits include and incessant dipping, hence the current name, and a blinking white eyelid. They appear frenzied as they dive into water, sometimes at near freezing temperatures, and use their wings to propel them underwater. They walk, swim and dive underwater. Their main foods are aquatic insects which they find under rocks and in crevices. Although insects are captured underwater, the bird brings them to the surface to eat.

Uniquely adapted to this special environment, dippers share many traits of waterfowl, including exceptionally dense feathering that allows them to remain dry and buoyant in the water. When swimming on the surface, they paddle rapidly with feet and wings. One account reports a dipper being swept over the brink of a waterfall in Yosemite. That bird emerged unscathed and flying at the base of the waterfall, only to return to the exact same spot where it had been previously foraging. Like ducks, dippers molt all their flight feathers at once, and are flightless from four days to two weeks. During this time, they are extremely secretive, taking short fluttering leaps and escaping predation by swimming above or below the water’s surface and hiding under logjams, tangled vegetation, or overhanging banks.

In fact, the very presence of an American Dipper in a particular watershed is an indicator of ecological stream health. As a free-flowing river, the Jemez meets the needs of this species, which requires unpolluted waters, free from agricultural discharges, and without clear-cut deforestation that opens habitat, increases water temperatures, and alters the entire aquatic food web. Upon removal of forest, soil becomes compacted, and erosion, silting, and runoff are accelerated.

Healthy dipper populations on upland rivers througout the world indicate healthy river ecosystems. Along the Jemez River, I’ve observed dippers at East Fork, Jemez Falls, and Soda Dam but only during the times of year when the river receives reduced recreational use. During the times when the river receives heavy use, the birds inhabit those areas that are less accessible to humans. At any rate, each dipper observation, regardless of the time of year, tells us that we are doing something right in managing the Jemez watershed.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

On the Wing, Over Prairie and Sea

Peregrine Falcon. Photo by David Powell

They’re coming soon, to a forest or shrub stand near you! In fact, many are already here. September is just about the best month to look for migrants winging their way south toward their wintering grounds. It is an especially good time to look for those uncommon species, like Yellow, Canada, Prairie, or even Chestnut-sided Warblers that nest in the northern forests, but winter in Central or South America.

The good news is that huge numbers of migrants can be found in any area with a good supply of insects, often in mixed flocks that just might include that target bird on your wish list. Just about anywhere with good stands of shrubs beneath the cottonwood canopy should host more than enough birds to satisfy your birding appetite. Just find a likely patch and stop and listen. Shortly, you should begin hearing the little chips that tell you songbirds are around. At this time of year, only one thing is on their minds – food! Their entire focus is to add as much fat reserve as possible to help them survive their long migration.

Just as all species look and sound different, their feeding styles vary too. Yellow-rumped and Wilson’s Warblers are very active feeders, flitting about at all levels from ground level to canopy tops. Watch for motion in the leaves that indicates a songbird is actively feeding. For others, like MacGillivray’s Warbler and Common Yellowthroat, a forceful chip note arising from near ground level in dense vegetation reveals their presence. Still others, like our resident Virginia’s and Grace’s Warblers, tend to skulk in the vegetation, moving slowly and deliberately, often evading detection. And, lastly, there are those that never make a sound, like Warbling Vireo. Luck has to be on your side to detect them.

Although the songbirds moving south through New Mexico have a land-based migration, many species in eastern North America have evolved to migrate over the Gulf of Mexico. Their southbound journey exactly coincides with hurricane season. Have you ever wondered how birds cope with the wrath of Mother Nature at her most ferocious? So far in 2008, Gustav, Hannah, and Ike have affected an already perilous journey, one in which there is no natural respite for an exhausted bird.

It is clear that hurricanes have a devastating effect on migrants caught in the storm, with some estimates of hundreds of thousands dead as a result of a single powerful hurricane. Seabirds, in particular, have nowhere to seek shelter on the open waters. Birds caught up in these storms are blown far off course, often landing in inhospitable places or simply arriving too battered and weak to survive. Although the toll may be extreme on individuals, healthy bird populations are able to withstand such losses, and have evolved to do so. However, severe storms can have devastating consequences for endangered species. Such was the case in 2007, when all 18 endangered Whooping Crane youngsters drowned in their protective cage in the lowlands of Florida following an unexpected storm surge.

There is evidence that birds are sensitive to changes in air pressure and instinctively take shelter. A sharp drop in barometric pressure indicates a big storm is on the way. Some birds fly away from the storm’s path, while strong-flying birds, like the Peregrine Falcon, fly ahead of the storm. In 1998, a second-year, female peregrine was captured in Virginia, and fitted with a satellite transmitter. Scientists monitored her migration southward to Venezuela, including during the extreme weather created by Hurricane Mitch. The peregrine initially followed a track that would have taken her island hopping along the eastern Carribean. As Mitch’s winds altered the normal southerly flow that aids migrating birds, she was pushed toward the west into the open waters of the Gulf. Suddenly, over open water, the falcon appeared to stop for nearly two hours, apparently taking refuge on a ship. For the next three days, she moved against the prevailing winds in a direct line toward Galveston, at a speed of ~10 miles per hour, again presumably on a ship. She rested near there for six days before departing in a southeasterly direction, again possibly hitching a ride on a ship based on her average departure speed. She arrived in Venezuela approximately five weeks later after a sojourn in the Yucatan Peninsula.

Although, much has been published about the effect of Hurricane Katrina, little has been written about its impact on avian migrants. One study, conducted by U.S. Geological Survey scientists, used radar ornithology to measure the effect of the storm on migrant use of lowland forested wetlands of the Pearl River and upland pine-dominated woodlands near Slidell, LA. Their study used archived Doppler weather radar data to measure bird use of this particularly important stopover location. What they found was that for the 3 weeks following Katrina, when virtually all vegetation had been stripped in the wetlands, the birds foraged in the less heavily damaged pine uplands. However, about five weeks after the storm, when much of the surviving forest in the Pearl River bottoms began to sprout new foliage, a corresponding increase of migrant use of the lowlands was documented.

Ultimately, the real threat to birds may not be from Earth’s natural forces, but rather human alterations to the planet that reduce or eliminate surge-protecting coastal wetlands and warming ocean waters that generate increasingly more powerful storms.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Those Darn Jays! And one of their cousins.

Steller's Jay. Photo by David Powell

Seems like they are everywhere, and into everything. Just watching their antics brings a smile to most folks. Their raucous call is the first sound I hear when I pull into the drive at my Jemez home; the sentinel loudly proclaiming the arrival of the source of raw peanuts, one of their favored foods at my place. Steller’s Jays are the most common in the ponderosa pine forest, but several other species also reside in the Jemez valley and mountains including Western Scrub-jay, Pinyon Jay, Gray Jay, and Clark’s Nutcracker. Each fills a unique niche, and all reside in slightly different habitats. Some species are absent from, or highly inconspicuous, in the Jemez for at least part of the year.

All jays are members of the Corvid family of birds, which includes crows, ravens, magpies. The source of many legends and myths, they are the largest of the passerines, or perching birds, and as a group are considered to be among the most intelligent birds. Conspicuous in their presence, they are bold, active, noisy and aggressive. They are survivors in the avian world!

Those that are most frequently seen in the New Mexico highlands, the Steller’s, Pinyon, and Western Scrub-jay have noticeably blue plumage, almost iridescent in some light. Interestingly, there is no blue pigment in their feathers; the color is a purely structural effect dependent on the fine colorless framework of interlocking barbs in their feathers, and why the color varies relative to sunlight.

All jays are omnivores, eating a wide variety of plant and animal foods including insects, nuts, seeds, berries, fruits, small mammals, and eggs and young of smaller birds. Most jays also cache food such as nuts, by pushing it into crevices in the ground, or in the bark of trees. They loosen the soil with their bills, and sometimes even dig a small hole, insert a single food item, and then cover it with soil or vegetation. Interestingly, they can indeed return to the stash later to collect the hidden treasure.

Found in the higher elevation coniferous forest, particularly in ponderosa pine, Steller’s Jays are the largest of the western jays, and distinctive in their blue plumage and black crests, used for social interactions combined with a variety of postures and vocalizations. They habituate readily to humans, and are common at bird feeders and picnic areas. Possessing an extensive vocabulary, they also are mimics, and imitate raptors calls as well as those of other birds and mammals, including chickens and roosters, and dogs and cats. I once chased a Northern Goshawk through the forest, only to find a very vocal Stellar’s Jay at the end of my quest. Normally non-migratory, they will sometimes move to lower elevations during the winter months. They are monogamous, and pairs maintain a territory year-round. Independent young remain with their parents as a family group into the winter following hatching.

The Western Scrub-jay is generally found at lower elevations than the Steller’s Jay, and in more arid scrub and dry woodlands, including pinyon and juniper forests that are generally more open. I do; however, occasionally see them at my place. This medium-sized jay lacks a crest and has a long tail. It can be easily recognized by the dull blue upperparts with a patch of gray in the mid-back, and grayish-buff underpart. They also habituate easily to humans, and I often seem them near residences along the valley floor. Bold and confident around we two-legged featherless types, scrub-jays seem largely unaffected by our activities, and indeed their populations seem to be healthy in the western U.S. Monogamous pairs defend permanent, all-purpose territories, and share in territorial defense.

The behavior of the medium-sized Pinyon Jay differs considerably than either of the previous two jays. It is a highly social, cooperative-breeding, seed caching bird that often lives in permanent flocks that may contain 500 or more individuals. Although it is omnivorous, its ancestors evolved in close association with pine trees. Modern day Pinyon Jays are highly adapted for foraging on pine seeds, and have a number of adaptations that enable them to do so. Their bill is relatively long for removing seeds from cones, and they also possess an expandable esophagus, for storage of seeds. Individuals have an excellent memory that allows them uncanny accuracy when digging up hidden food stores months after caching them, and even beneath snow. Highly monogamous, divorce among this bird is extremely rare (< 3%). Extended family members, usually sons that were hatched the previous year, assist the parents with feeding, nest sanitation, and nest guarding. Pinyon Jays maintain large home ranges, and range widely throughout these areas year-round, always in a flock. Finding a flock is much like locating the proverbial needle in a haystack, thus limiting our ability to adequately assess numbers of birds as well as populations trends. They are primarily dependent on pinyon-juniper habitat, which is among the least appreciated of western woodland types, and is often targeted for removal or conversion to grassland. Additionally, the bark beetle infestation of the previous two years, that has killed a large number of pinyons may have an effect on populations.

Found in boreal and sub-alpine conif erous forest, the Gray Jay, is only rarely seen in the Jemez Mountains and only in the highest of elevations, generally during the winter months. Its range extends southward only into northern New Mexico. Adapted to a life in a hostile environment, it employs an unusual food storage behavior. Copious, sticky saliva, is used to fasten food items in trees, which are retrieved throughout the year.
Clark's Nutcracker. Photo by David Powell.

Also a pine seed specialist, the annual cycle of the Clark’s Nutcracker, is based on the availability of fresh and stored pine seeds. They begin consuming unripe seeds at high elevations in July, and by September are storing ripened seeds. In the fall, they often switch to new seed sources at at lower elevations, and by mid-winter, I find them at my suet feeders. Populations fluctuate between years, primarily in response to food availability, making this another difficult species to monitor. Their grating, noisy call is occasionally my reward at the end of a challenging, uphill hike to the escarpment of Virgin Mesa, which makes the sight of them at my water pan in winter ever more exciting.

Other larger cousins of these birds such as Black-billed Magpie, American Crow, and Common Raven also belong to the corvid family, and they are equally fascinating but fundamentally different than jays.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Rainbow Bird - The Common Raven

Common Raven. Photograph by Gail Garber

Once upon a time, there lived a bird more beautiful, smarter, and braver than all the others. He had iridescent feathers of many colors and was admired by all for his many attributes. One day the Earth began to grow cold, and snow began to fall. The animals, who had never before seen snow, were not afraid. However, as the white blanket grew deeper daily, and food became limited, they asked their beautiful and smart friend to visit the Great Sky Spirit to stop the snow. Rainbow Crow volunteered to take the dangerous journey, calling out to the others in the sweetest voice of all, “I will go; I will stop the snow.”

The Great Sky Spirit had never before heard such a sweet song, as Rainbow Crow asked for help. Although he was powerless to stop the snow, he gave Rainbow Crow a stick with a bit of fire on the end and told him to hurry back home before the fire disappeared. On the first day, the fire blackened Rainbow Crow’s tail feathers. On the second day, the fire burned brighter on a shortened stick and covered all of his feathers with soot. On the third day, the fire was so hot and the smoke so thick that ash blew into his mouth and his once beautiful voice became harsh. As he returned home, the fire warmed the Earth and melted the snow, and the animals were happy. Rainbow Crow flew off alone and wept. He could no longer sing, was no longer beautiful and his rainbow feathers were gone forever.

The Great Sky Spirit heard Crow weeping, and came down from the sky to soothe the black bird. “Soon, the two-legged will walk the Earth, but because you are brave and unselfish, I will give you the gift of freedom. You will never be hunted for your meat tastes like fire and smoke; your feathers will never be taken because your rainbow colors are now black, and you will never be captured because your voice is broken and harsh. Your black feathers; however, shine and reflect all the colors of the Earth, if you take the time to look closely.”

One of my favorite legends, the delightful children’s, “Rainbow Crow”, by Nancy Van Laan, was based on a tale of the Lenape Indians. Crow, also known as Raven, probably has as many myths and legends associated with it as all the other birds combined. Native Americans of the northwest, revere ravens as being the creator of the earth, moon, sun, and stars, but the bird is also considered to be a trickster and a cheater. To some, the bird symbolizes death, wisdom, or danger.

Members of the Corvid family, the common raven is the largest of the passerines (or perching birds), strong and powerful, highly intelligent, playful, daring, and funny. Unappreciated by many, these remarkable birds are assuredly survivors in a human dominated landscape. It is one of the most geographically widespread, naturally occurring birds in the world. It is found throughout most of North America, and in all terrestrial land types except for rain forests. Although in some areas the population is rapidly expanding,is considered a pest, and programs are in place to reduce numbers, in other areas precipitous declines in population have lead to reintroduction efforts. It is listed as an endangered species in some states. They evolved with the great bison herds and wolf packs of North America. Now, they are resident wherever they occur, even in the high Arctic, although they wander during the winter.

They are the acknowledged leader in avian intelligence, with numerous stories about their cerebral prowess. A raven trapped in a wire cage was freed by wild ravens. From outside the cage, they dug a hole under the wire while the trapped raven dug from the inside, eventually making an opening large enough to crawl out. They have been documented using tools and making use of human equipment, such as bathing in sprinklers. Extraordinarily playful, they are inventive in their quest for fun. A few of the many reported behaviors include sliding down a snow-covered hill on their bellies, dropping and catching objects while in flight or passing them among each other, hanging upside down by one foot, playing tug-or-war, and harrassing other animals by pecking on their tails. In one instance a pair of ravens played an endless game of tag. One raven strutted close by a cat that gazed intently at the bird, apparently anticipating an an easy snack. In the meantime the other bird would quietly approach from behind to pull on the cat’s tail. As the cat turned to see what was tugging on it, the other raven would then pull on the again unprotected tail. This game went on four hours until the exhausted cat crawled off.

Supreme aerialists, they are often the only species surfing the sky on a very windy day when even the eagles are earthbound. Although they seem to be fearless, in reality, they are wary around humans and other unfamiliar objects. They generally inhabit areas more distant from human concentration areas than their cousin, the American Crow. They are dependent on coyote or wolves to open the carcasses of large animals, and although they will approach the predatory mammals, it is with the extreme caution on which their lives depend.

Pairs remain together throughout the year, and in winter, groups of ravens often roost together, possibly to reduce the effect of extreme low temperatures and wind chill. In areas where winter foods consist mostly of deer or elk carcasses, flocks of 50-100 are common. In other areas where grain is a major food source, up to 2,000 ravens have been seen together.

Perhaps the word adaptable should be included in the species’ name. Whatever the challenge, they rise to the occasion. One of my favorite sights occurs daily in the Jemez if one cares to climb to the higher mesa tops to look down on this magnificent bird as it plays on the thermals, rolling, diving, and climbing, all the while croaking with the harsh voice that was left to Rainbow Crow. If you look closely at a raven feather reflecting in the sunlight, you just might see the remains of the former rainbow.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Just a Sparrow

Female House Sparrow. Photo by Dave Herr

It was a rainy afternoon in the monsoon season of New Mexico. After a long day at work, I rounded the corner onto my street, so close to home that I was almost relaxed. Then, I saw her, a little wet lump sitting exactly on the center stripe of the road, obviously stunned. It was just a sparrow. A House Sparrow to be exact, scourge of North America in the minds of many; an introduced exotic species that out competes our native birds.

A thousand thoughts ran through my mind in the blink of an eye. Foremost was, quite soon, someone would surely make that left turn into the McDonald’s parking lot, and it would be her final moment. Even though there are a lot of House Sparrows here, I couldn’t let that happen. I whipped my Explorer around into a garden center parking lot, looking through the car quickly for a jacket, towel, or something that I could use to try to capture the bird. There was nothing. Well, the wet, feathered lump was still sitting there, but at least still alive. Perhaps she would be stunned enough that I could just pick her up.

I should have known better. I dashed out into the rain, and tried to unobtrusively sneak up on the little sparrow. Although stunned, she was certainly not oblivious to the giant human now in hot pursuit. She perked right up, and tried to look as healthy as possible. One tiny little wing dragged and was clearly broken, but there was nothing wrong with her legs. Off she dashed across the street and right into the McDonald’s drive-thru lane. I skirted around and she raced off toward the shrubs. If I was worried about looking foolish before, it was nothing compared to how I felt as cars began to stop and look at the strange woman chasing a tiny bird through the parking lot. Ms. Sparrow made it to the juniper before me, but I arrived before she scrambled beneath what she viewed as safety. A quick flip of the wrist and I had the prize firmly in my wet hand. Returning to the car, I realized that I had no box or cloth with which to confine her for the one-block trip to the house. Nor could I drive, shift, and hold the sparrow. I stuffed her into the leftover McDonald’s bag that had held that morning’s breakfast burrito. Somehow, it seemed fitting.

The House Sparrow (Passer domesticus) is an Old World sparrow, not related to the American, or New World, sparrows that are native to North America. There are more than thirty species of native New World sparrows in our country, all of which are protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. While some of our native sparrows are abundant, for others there are serious conservation concerns, as well as significant threats.

However, when the word “sparrow” is mentioned, it is the ubiquitous House Sparrow that comes to mind. In 1851 and 1852, 100 birds were introduced in Brooklyn, New York to help control the canker worms that infested many of the trees in the parks. Ironically, this lowly sparrow, set free to control an insect pest, is primarily a seed-eating bird. There were no natural predators in our country for the little urban dwelling sparrow and they thrived in their new land. The House Sparrow is now one of the most abundant songbirds on our continent, with an estimated 150 million birds in North America. Although abundant, long term data indicate a general continental decline in the House Sparrow population.

Worldwide there is great concern about the survival of the species. During the 1950s, the Mao Tse Tung regime unleashed a campaign to rid that country of the House Sparrow, resulting in targeted and committed persecution of the bird. In the United Kingdom, populations have declined as much as 83%, without any known deliberate killing of even a single bird.

In the Netherlands, it is an endangered species. In 1995, the misadventure of one unfortunate sparrow that flew in through an open window and knocked over 23,000 dominoes incited the wrath of environmental groups worldwide. The ill-fated bird flew into an exposition center in the northern city of Leeuwarden, where employees of TV company Endemol NV had worked for weeks setting up more than 4 million dominoes in an attempt to break the official Guinness World Record for falling dominoes. The little sparrow was chased into a corner and shot by an exterminator with an air rifle.

The following day, the Dutch animal protection agency demanded prosecution, "Under Dutch law, you need a permit to kill this kind of bird, and a permit can only be granted when there's a danger to public health or a crop," said agency spokesman Niels Dorland. "That was not the case. I might add: Is it really necessary to kill a bird that knocked over a few dominoes for a game?" he asked. The story made headlines worldwide. Not since Cock Robin has the death of a tiny bird caused such emotion.

Eventually, the Dutch Bird Protection Agency reported that although it was a very sad incident, it had been blown out of all proportion. "I just wish we could channel all this energy that went into one dead sparrow into saving the species," Dorland stated.

In my case, Ms. Sparrow stayed the night, regularly breaking out of the box that held her on my kitchen countertop. She was transported to Wildlife Rescue the following morning, and at last report was doing just fine, living with all the other House Sparrows in the rehab center. Humans have interfered with her life since she before she born, from releasing her species into a strange world, to her encounter that rainy day with someone’s bumper. She is just one sparrow. But she did not die a lingering death in a parking lot, thanks to wildlife rehabilitators who care enough to put the time and energy into her recovery. And one determined lady who wouldn’t have been able to sleep that night if I had just driven on by.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Burrowing Owl Release, Santa Fe, NM

Fledgling biologist, Malcolm Kellermueller, releasing Burrowing Owls that were mitigated and relocated from a construction site in Santa Fe, New Mexico by Hawks Aloft, Inc. The owls were safely excavated from prairie dog burrows, and relocated to an adjacent lot that had an active prairie dog colony with vacant burrows for them to utilize.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Death of a Songbird

Western Meadowlark. Photo by David Powell

I caused the death of a songbird. Certainly more than one bird, and possibly a hundred or more, died because of me. I didn’t mean to do it. In fact, I was oblivious to their silent suffering and desperate demise. It was the winter fruits and vegetables that did it, those seemingly healthy foods that the doctor recommends. They make up a large part of my diet throughout the year. I have a particular fondness for grapes, bananas, asparagus, peppers, and that standard American staple, coffee.

One of the indicators of the changing season is the annual return of bird song. Many of us look forward to the return of our feathered friends from their wintering grounds. We take for granted that their song will fill the spring air with cheerful sounds. But, each year, as we continue to demand out-of-season fruits and vegetables, fewer and fewer songbirds return. Just as the Bald Eagle, Peregrine Falcon, and Osprey were the proverbial canaries in the coal mine that warned us of the dangers of DDT, and changed pesticide use in the United States, today’s songbird populations are an important environmental indicator.

Land management plans in North America now include provisions designed to protect migratory songbirds, including virtually all federal, and most state plans. Many land managers have changed the way they manage to allow for the needs of songbirds and other wildlife, and support research to develop methods to maintain healthy populations. Ambitious projects are underway to permanently protect large swaths of acreage for birds, particularly grassland and boreal forest species. Because of their role as environmental indicator species, avian conservation measures have become part of global efforts to protect biodiversity, not just for birds, but for all life.

Many of our summer residents winter in Central and South America, where highly toxic pesticide use has caused steep declines in bird populations. Pesticide use has increased 500% since the 1980s in Central America as these countries have increased their production of crops to fuel our demand for fresh produce during the winter. The chemicals include monocrotophos, methamidophos, and carbofuran, all of which are rated Class I toxins by the World Health Organization, are highly toxic to birds, and are either restricted or banned in the United States.

In some cases, the poisonings are indirect such as the 1995 deaths of 20,000 Swainson’s Hawks on the pampas of Argentina. Farmers had sprayed monocrotophos, an organophospate on their fields to control grasshoppers, the primary food item of wintering Swainson’s Hawks. Thanks to the efforts of the American Bird Conservancy and other organizations, Novartis (formerly Ciba-Geigy), a major manufacturer of this pesticide, has agreed to phase out production and sale of monocrotophos. Additionally, a major effort has taken place to educate farmers about the benefits of these insect eating hawks and other birds that help keep insect populations under control.

In other instances, birds like the Bobolink, meadowlarks, and other grain eating birds are viewed as pests as they feed on the crops intended for humans. They are directly poisoned to minimize crop damage. The Bobolink, in particular, has suffered a 50% decline in the last 40 years, according to the Breeding Bird Survey.

Americans, however, shouldn’t feel too smug about our environmental record when it comes to pesticides. On a global scale, over 5 billion pounds of pesticides are used annually for agriculture, forest and rangeland management, disease control, and on private properties. In the United States alone, we use 1.2 billion pounds each year. Many of the most toxic chemicals, including DDT, have been banned in our country. However, the U.S. continues to export DDT as well as other pesticides known to be hazardous to the environment and to human health. Conservative estimates place the of the number of birds killed in the U.S. each year due to pesticide ingestion at 67 million. This represents 10% of the 672 million birds annually exposed to pesticides in our country alone.

South of our border, human pesticide exposures continue despite workers’ improved awareness of the dangers. Most Central American countries have few regulations for effective controls for pesticide use, and in 1998, (most current figure available) almost 6,000 human poisonings were reported in Central America. Ironically, while we have increased our reliance on winter produce, Mexico, a major importer of that produce, has increased its dependence on pesticides. It is currently the second largest pesticide importer in Latin America.

We have effectively created a circle of poison in which pesticides outlawed in the U.S. because of documented toxicity are exported to Third World Countries that use them to grow the crops that are, in turn, sold to the American consumer. Testing by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration shows that produce imported from Latin American countries is three times as likely to violate Environmental Protection Agendy standards for pesticide residues., Some, but not all pesticide residues can be removed by washing or peeling produce, but tests by the Center for Disease Control show that most Americans carry traces of pesticides in our blood. We, however, show few if any signs of that oxicity. It just may be that our beloved songbirds might be the first indicator of threats to our health.

As American consumers, our most effective tool is our wallet. Next time you shop, buy locally grown foods wherever possible. Not only will you reduce your pesticide exposure, you will be purchasing food with a smaller carbon footprint.

Purchase organic, shade-grown coffer. Most mass produced coffee is heavily treated with fertilizers, herbicides, fungicides and insecticides. Shade grown coffee is grown beneath a canopy of tropical trees, which provide shade, essential nitrogen, and leaf litter for fertilizer.

Organic bananas should on your list. Although our pesticide exposure from bananas is minimal because we peel the fruit, bananas are grown with one of the highest pesticide loads of any tropical crop.

Purchase produce such as melons, green beans, tomatoes, bell peppers, and strawberries only if they are not grown in Central America.

The birds, and your great grandchildren will thank you for it.

The Bird that Walks on Water - Clark's and Western Grebe

Clark's Grebe. Photo by David Powell

Perhaps running on water might be a more appropriate term for part of the captivating courtship ritual of these two closely related, fascinating species. Not considered ducks, geese, or even waterfowl, these less commonly observed birds are considered just “waterbirds”, a somewhat ignominious term given their spectacular breeding season displays considered to be among the most complex known in birds. Those of you lucky enough to have witnessed the event will likely always remember it. Certainly, it is frequently shown on television nature shows. After a series of calls and posturing, the pair rises up on their feet, and with wings beating furiously, literally run across the surface of the water. A second ritual, “the weed ceremony” cements the pair bond. Beginning like the prior example, a weed dancing couple simultaneously dive to the lake bottom to gather a mouthful of vegetation, rise to the surface, and then rise on the their feet while holding the vegetation bill-to-bill.

Clark’s and Western Grebes are remarkably similar in appearance, with only subtle differences in facial pattern, bill color, and calls to differentiate the birds to our human eye. In fact, the two are so similar that from 1886 to 1985 they were considered to be one species. Highly social, they can be found on our larger lakes, particularly those with the marshy vegetation necessary for nesting during the spring. During winter, on open water, they may be found in large rafts of both species, where they hunt mainly for small fish and other aquatic animals, which are usually swallowed underwater, a seemingly impossible, if not illogical feat. Furthermore, each individual can consume up to a pound of fish a day, so large groups are capable of quickly depleting the food resources in a small pond or lake.

Superbly designed to efficiently ‘fly’ underwater, grebes have short wings and feet and legs that are positioned near the rear of their bodies, making them ungainly on land. In fact, most grebes rarely set foot on terra firma, except during the nesting process. Grebes almost never fly except during migration which occurs at night. Additionally, grebes, replace most of their feathers all at one time, rendering them flightless for much of their nesting period. This effectively restricts their range to the pond or lake that they selected for their nest site, and subjects the pair and their young to the perils of uncertain weather, water levels, and adequate food supplies.

Nestling grebes are able to swim and dive within 24 hours of birth, but are not terribly water-proof. Like loons, a closely related species, young grebes spend most of their early weeks riding on the backs of their parents. At this time of year, young grebes are independent of their parents and might be found in close company with others of their kind. Check out the lakes of New Mexico for a look are these rare and interesting birds! If you’re lucky you might even see the dance!

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Li'l Red Devils

Rufous Hummingbird
Photo by David Powell

They’re Baaaack! All summer long, up until now that is, the two species of hummingbirds that nest in the Jemez Mountains have maintained a certain decorum in their daily activities with only occasional territorial squabbles. All that changes in the blink of a night, when the brash newcomer with the extremist lifestyle arrived on the scene in early July, confidently aggressive in his bright orange-red body, much like Lightning McQueen in the recent movie “Cars”. The “Ka-chow” of Lightning when he flashes his stickers is replaced by the time bomb-like “tick-tick-tick-tick” of the male rufous hummingbird as he twitches his head from side to side alertly watching and waiting. Suddenly, no feeder is safe from the stealth attack of Attila, the Hum, as he stakes out his favored feeder, and jealously guards it from unwary intruders.

The tiny rufous hummingbird breeds farther north than any other species of hummingbird, into southern Alaska and far from the equatorial tropics in which its ancestors evolved. If measured by its diminutive body length, the species has the longest known avian migration. Although the Alaskan breeding season is short, it has the longest day-length seen by any hummingbird. In fact the day length exceeds the needs of this bird, which requires 5-6 hours of rest each night.

Males breed with as many females as possible, and their only contribution to the reproductive success is sperm. Their elaborate courtship flight is described as a complete oval, which they pursue repeatedly in the presence of any female. I found one intriguing description of an individual attempting to impress a female with his prowess and superior physical attributes. After climbing to a great height above the female perched near ground level, the male reversed heading after entering a dive and then leveled out after passing the female. He uttered a series of short dit-dit-dit-deer calls increasing in pitch, followed by a few dull “plops” from using his tail feathers as a dive-brake. Very impressive, I’m sure. Another tactic is called whisking, in which the male flies rapidly back and forth at a consistent level in front of the female, much like a whisk broom. Perhaps this tactic wears down female resistance by its endless repetitions. When I consulted the references for actual mating activity, I found only a brief paragraph which stated, “After the dive display, a female joined the male in a swinging flight, which he thought included actual mating, but he was totally unable to see the birds except as a blurred streak of color. Further study needed.”

The nest is constructed by the female alone, who also incubates the eggs, and provides all sustenance for her young. Nesting in the far north, it’s a life on the edge for one of the smallest birds in the Western Hemisphere. Because the males finish their reproductive role early in the season, they are the first to arrive and that’s when chaos ensues in southern lattitudes. Males maintain territoriality at re-fueling stopover sites for 1-2 weeks at a time during migration. The more dense the flowers, or feeders, are the smaller the territory of individual males. One of the ways to reduce aggression at your feeder is to hang several feeders on opposite sides of the house out of the line of sight of an individual bird. However, often several territorial males set up a defense network around all of the feeders. Another trick is to make syrup with a mixture of one part sugar to three parts water for one feeder. The sweeter syrup may attract the rufous away from the other feeders. However, as part of the bigger picture of hummingbird conservation, the practice of hummingbird feeders is thought to have had a positive effect on hummingbird populations overall.

When the first Attila on the scene has enough fat reserves, he will move on, only to be replaced by a later arriving male, and then the females and juveniles. Soon, they also will be joined by the Calliope and Broad-tailed Hummingbirds that nest farther north as well. Experts recommend leaving your hummingbird feeders in place until about two weeks after the last hummingbird observation, or until about October 30 in this area. That last remaining feeder may mean the difference between life and death for America’s smallest bird, the last one to depart from his Alaskan summertime residence.

All About Baby

American Robin
Photo by David Powell

You might have heard the old myth, the one that says you can’t put a baby bird back in its nest because the mother will smell the human scent and reject it. Today, avian savvy folks know that this just isn’t true, as evidenced by solid data. We also know that branching is a normal stage for baby birds of all species. This is the time when they have left the nest, but are not yet able to fly.

At this time, the parents are still caring for their young, although many young birds run into problems at this time of their life cycle due to cats, dogs, vehicles, and human intervention.
Yes, it’s true. This is the time when well-meaning humans notice those unflighted youngsters, think they have been abandoned, and KIDNAP them. They gather up the avian equivalent of a toddler, put it in a box and begin calling rescue groups looking for help for their “orphan”. We, along with wildlife rehabilitation groups nationwide, receive loads of call each spring and summer from frantic humans looking for other humans to take care of baby.

Flash back to Memorial Day 2008. It had been a gloriously long, full day of hiking in the Ojito Wilderness Area with friends, but I was tired that evening. While I reclined on my sofa, watching the news, I heard frantic shouting in my Rio Rancho back yard. Puzzled, I arose to investigate the cause of all the commotion. A male voice shouted,

“Gail! Gail! GAIL!”

Neighbor John leaned over the fence looking very relieved. Seems he had found a baby robin running around in his back yard, and felt the need to rescue it. Shortly, he produced a small cardboard, holding a small, very confused fledgling robin. We talked about nature, and how it was best to leave them be, but John wasn’t having any of that! Proudly, he handed over the box.

I waited until he went indoors, and promptly opened the box to set the little one on the ground near some dense shrubbery. My logic was that since our yards were adjacent, surely Mama Robin would hear her baby only 20 feet further away in the next yard. But, the baby didn’t cheep, or beg, or do anything except stare at me. I hid behind the door, peeking out every once in a while. After 30 minutes or so, baby was no longer visible. A few minutes after that, a plaintive cheep, cheep, cheep arose from the shrubs.

It was about then that I began to doubt all the literature, as well as my hands-on experience, and the worry set in. It was windy that evening, terribly windy. What if Mom could not hear her little one calling? After all, I hadn’t seen a robin in my yard in days, nor had I heard one. What if I had made a terrible mistake? The cheeping went on; the wind kept blowing, and I knew that I had done the WRONG thing.

Just before dark, I heard an adult robin call. But the irrational worry didn’t end there. In fact, it continued for three days, even though I was now noticing robins foraging in my yard every day. But, there was still no sign of baby. Maybe one of the neighborhood cats got him.
Finally, three days later, when I looked out my back window, there he was, and quite proud of himself too. With a stubby little tail, and half-grown wings, he had climbed up to the lofty height of about 2 feet in a sand sage. He preened; he stretched; he exuded confidence as only the very young can. Mama Robin returned and stuffed a giant worm down his throat.

All was well. There was nothing to worry about! Really! I knew that it would work out just as I intended. Whew! I hope that particular issue doesn’t happen again anytime soon.

Speaking of orphans: Hawks Aloft has already placed one Cooper’s Hawk fledgling back into its nest at an apartment complex in Albuquerque. Its kidnappers had driven it all the way to the Wildlife Center in Espanola, where it spent four days in captivity while we coordinated its return to its natural parents. Coordination meant working together to get baby back to Albuquerque, as well as assistance from our friends at PNM who donated the use their bucket truck and crew. Fortunately, there were two other siblings in the nest so the parents were still in attendance. Baby settled in nicely and, when our biologist checked on it an hour later, all three were being fed by Mom. This particular hawk baby just got an early lesson in human avoidance.

If you find a feathered baby bird on the ground, observe it from a distance to see if it is being attended by its parents. If the bird is constantly begging and the parents are not responding, only then should it be caught and taken to a wildlife rehabilitation organization. If, however, you find a naked baby bird on the ground, try to return it to its nest. If that isn’t possible, line a berry basket or shallow plastic container with some ventilation holes punched in the bottom with paper towels or tissue to simulate a nest and securely fasten that to the tree as high as you can place it. If the nestling is in danger of being harmed by pet animals, then capture it and call a wildlife rehabilitator.

The two largest rehabilitation groups in New Mexico are the Wildlife Center, Espanola, at 575-753-9505, and Wildlife Rescue, Albuquerque 344-2500.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Little Yellow Fellows

American Goldfinch
Photo by David Powell

In the world of birds there are no books; the language is unfamiliar to two-legged mammals, and self powered flight is almost a given. Of course, exceptions occur to most of the above phrases; birds don’t print or read books; some birds do mimic human speech and some humans can correctly interpret the meaning of bird sounds; and flightless birds, such as the Kiwi, the Weka, and the Emu, traverse the same paths as land-bound mammals. As with many apparent rules that govern our planet, the only hard and fast reality may be to expect the unexpected, and that the chaos theory is alive and well.

The question arrived via e-mail just the other day. In late June or early July, a Jemez resident had noted a bright yellow bird with a black cap, and wondered if it might have been a Wilson’s Warbler, a small songbird that primarily eats insects. Now, the books that determine where birds nest, winter, and migrate state that while Wilson’s Warbler travels through New Mexico during migration, sometimes in staggeringly large numbers in the fall, the breeding range occurs father north. Additionally, there are almost no recorded sightings of this species during the breeding season (June), another indication that the species nests elsewhere. However, New Mexico is a large state, and the Jemez region is definitely under-birded by the ornithological community. And, birds don’t read the books!

Among scientists, there is a theory that all bird life evolved in the tropics, lush habitat with few temperature extremes. In this Garden of Eden, food was plentiful and animal forms flourished, increasing their populations and evolving into additional species. Population expansion, in turn, may have taxed food resources, forcing animals to expand into nearby areas in search of sustenance and breeding territories with less competition. Birds, with the power of flight, could travel the greatest distance, easily reaching temperate zones. Here, these pioneer birds found abundant food, nesting habitat, reduced threat of predation and competition for resources. The limiting factor for temperate zone nesters was, and remains, weather extremes and the associated food shortages.

Perhaps the little yellow bird with the black cap was a pioneer, exploring new habitat, and searching for better nesting territory. Another well-documented pioneer set up shop along the Rio Grande in the summer of 2007, singing his heart out for a full six weeks. As of this writing, it remains unknown if the Chestnut-sided Warbler attracted a mate. If he did, and they were successful, then there is a good chance that they would return to the same area the following year, thereby expanding the range for their species. Range expansions for some species are well-documented, such as the White-winged Dove, and the Great-tailed Grackle. And just last year, in July 2006, Jo Wargo, US Forest Service Biologist, and I found a singing American Goldfinch along the Jemez River. With a bright yellow body and perky black cap, it might have been mistaken for a Wilson’s. Also out of range, this bird should have been to the north, in Colorado or beyond during nesting season. That goldfinch was well documented, and has been added to the reports for this species in New Mexico, although a nest was not found. In 2008, another American Goldfinch was observed in the same general area, perhaps representing a range expansion.

Our little yellow goldfinch of summer and cousin to the American Goldfinch, is the less common, and more range restricted Lesser Goldfinch. Like the birds above, its body is bright yellow, but the black on its head trails down the back of the neck (nape) and covers its back. His sweet song brightens summer days when most of the other songsters have finished their last aria. Like its cousin, it is one of the last to begin nesting, often not until the summer monsoon season, when its preferred foods, thistle, sunflower, and other weedy plants, set the seed crop that will easily satisfy the rapidly growing young as well as their parents. Uniquely adapted for seed-eating, their diet is almost entirely vegetarian, unlike most other birds. In fact, it is the goldfinch’s mostly vegetarian diet that makes them a poor host for the nest parasite, Brown-headed Cowbird. Although cowbirds do select goldfinch nests in which to deposit their eggs, the young cowbirds are unable to thrive on the seed only diet lacking in animal protein, and do not survive.

Both goldfinches adapt well to human activities and can be found in weedy fields, as well as in your own back yard. To attract goldfinches to your back yard, consider hanging a thistle, or niger, feeder. In New Mexico, you might just see the bright yellow Lesser Goldfinch during the summer, replaced by its northern cousin the American Goldfinch during the winter. At the higher elevations in mostly coniferous forest, thistle feeders will attract another finch with only a hint of yellow in its wings and tail, the Pine Siskin.

These hardy little birds are survivors in a human dominated world, and in fact, populations have benefited from our activities. The only threat reported in the literature is capture for the pet trade! While this is unthinkable within our country’s borders, our little yellow fellows spend at least a portion of the year in the tropics where there is little protection or understanding of the impact of poaching on wild populations.

The identity of the little yellow bird that was the subject of the question that motivated this article–what it mighta’ been, coulda’ been, but shoulda’ been–is anyone’s guess.

Monday, June 2, 2008

Brave New World

Golden Eagle Chick. Photo by Ron Kellermueller

Perhaps it was a tussle over a food delivery. Or sibling rivalry. Maybe it was an ordinary exercise session gone amok, the furious pre-flight flapping that strengthens flight muscles in preparation for the aerial maneuvers that will come later. We will never know the real cause of the eaglet’s premature descent from her lofty nest. The wise biologist who had been watching the nest all season knew, however, that there should have been two eaglets still inside the safety of the sizeable stick fortress in which they had been born. The biologist began his search, and easily located the large female chick huddled in natal position on the ground, a behavior common to most unfledged nestlings. With only half-grown flight feathers, she was definitely too young to be out, yet putting her back was a physical impossibility. She would not be flighted for another week or so. Her chances for survival? Reasonable, particularly because she was already quite large, and few animals would attempt to prey on a chick of this size, particularly with defensive parents in the immediate vicinity.

Great Horned Owls do not build nests. As the earliest nesting species other than eagles, they merely select their preferred nest, add a nest lining, and set up housekeeping. Unfortunately, they are not known for their ability to select structurally sound nests. Many disintegrate as the young begin to move around. Such was the case of the nest watched by the female biologist, but its demise was particularly early, when the nestlings were only about 2 weeks old, still covered in gray down, and far too early to expect survival of the young. Two diligent searches a week apart failed to reveal any evidence of survival and this nesting attempt was declared failed. One month later, however, a songbird biologist conducting a survey in the same area called to ask if there had been a Great Horned Owl nest because he had seen two fledged owls and their attentive mother. Interestingly, the sighted trio was within 50 feet of the original nest.

The transmission line that runs through Ted Turner’s Armendaris Ranch bears a special name, “Maternity Row”, bestowed by ranch manager, Tom Waddell. Nearly every transmission tower holds at least one nest, and on average, there is an active nest on one of every two towers. Most are ravens, but Swainson’s and Red-tailed Hawks also crowd into the premium high-rise district. Management practices on this expansive ranch, just east of Elephant Butte Reservoir, are intended to foster healthy populations of all wildlife. The Chihuahuan desert ranch positively teams with life in all shapes and sizes, from large ungulates including Oryx, pronghorn, and bison, to endangered turtles, prairie dogs, Burrowing Owls, bats, and cicadas. In fact, I had never before seen so many cicadas in my life. It was a smorgasbord of food, enough for everyone even the sizeable families of quail with golf ball-sized young speeding along on invisible legs.

We were there to look for a particular nest, one that held two very precious nestlings, the first of their kind in New Mexico – Aplomado Falcon – another species that does not build nests, but generally uses existing nests in oversized yuccas. However, when a bird is reared on a wooden structure, perhaps it views that as the most desirable nest location. One tower held a smallish nest, located in the shade of the crossarms above. It was insignificant in size compared to the others, but I got the scope out just in case. As I watched through the lens, one tiny white fuzzy head bobbed above the nest rim, soon joined by another. Precious cargo here, watched and loved by ranch management and biologist alike, a success story just one year following the first release of 11 young, by the Peregrine Fund in August 2006. Chances of survival for these two chicks are mixed. Birds that attempt nesting when they, themselves, are less than one year old, may not be sufficiently skilled hunters to provide for their young. Here, however, watchful human eyes keep a close, but distant eye on the nest, and food limitations are certainly not a problem.

The woman called to tell me that she and her family had discovered a nest with five featherless nestlings on their boat. She wasn’t asking for information, just telling me about her discovery. As politely as possible, I asked how they had handled the situation and suggested that the best thing to do was to either return the nest to an area very near where the boat had been or to transport them to a wildlife rehabilitator. Her response was to say that they had already driven five miles before the discovery and did not want to take the time to put them back. Instead, they had placed the nest on the ground under the shade of a tree (five miles away from the original location). The disastrous phone call continued as the woman went on to tell me that ‘these birds’ need to learn not to build their nests on people’s boats. So ‘these young’, species unknown, had no chance for survival, and indeed the woman reported that by the next morning only the centermost nestling was still alive. I still haven’t figured out why she felt the need to display her ignorance in this way.

Many chicks of all species end up on the ground before they can fly. It is a stage called ‘branching’ and the young are indeed quite vulnerable at this stage even though it is part of their normal life cycle. The parents continue to feed and care for their young, while at the same time, teaching them to find and consume appropriate food. Most baby birds, especially those that have almost all of their feathers do not need to be rescued.

Another myth is that a mother will reject a baby that has been handled by humans because of the human scent. This is not true. If you can find the nest, the best thing to do is to put the youngster back into the nest. If you cannot find the nest, which is probable because birds hide their nests for protection, then you can build a nest to hold the baby bird.

Find a margarine tub, or similar shape and puncture it with drainage holes. Line it with tissue for support and warmth. Nail the container to the tree as close as possible to where the bird was found, making sure that the location will remain shaded and protected as the sun moves. Watch for a parent to find the nestling and continue to care for it. Monitor for at least two hours. If you still have concerns, contact a wildlife rehabilitator. Two different groups are within an hour’s drive of Jemez Springs. The Wildlife Center, (505-753-9505) located in Espanola, takes all kinds of animals including bears, mountain lions, reptiles, bats, and birds. In Albuquerque, Wildlife Rescue (505-344-2500) takes all species of birds, as well as some small mammals. If you have an injured or orphaned raptor, Hawks Aloft (505-828-9455) will assist you in making sure that the bird gets to a rehabilitator.

Of the four vignettes above, three sets of young were not in need of human interference. Only in the case of the last incident, should humans have taken a different course of action.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Hairy Housepecker and Co.

Hairy Woodpecker photo by David Powell

Aah! A beautiful spring morning, about dawn actually. Jemez locals know only too well how peacefully quiet a mountain home can be at that time of the morning. It was perfect for a little extra snoozing, resting my weary body after a long hike the previous day. I snuggled deeper under the covers. Sheer bliss!

Bam! Bam! Bamm-bamm-bamm!

I tried to ignore the familiar sound, hoping it would go away. No such luck. Apparently my friend, Hairy, was an early riser. It sounded like he was going to drill right through the walls and into my bedroom! Maybe even into the side of my skull! In the spring, the ever increasing daylight brings out the lust in all things feathered. Male songbirds sing to attract a mate, while raptors engage in elaborate courtship flights.

Bam! Bam! Bamm-bamm-bamm!

But woodpeckers . . . well they impress the ladies by drumming! Obviously, the biggest noise is most impressive and the greatest measure of a male’s physical prowess, as well as his ability to provide for a nesting female and their subsequent progeny. I rose from my bed to see what was the object of such intense pounding. Sneaking quietly around the corner, all trees seemed to be devoid of Hairy. Then, I looked up. Surely, he was not actually attacking the house!

Bam! Bam! Bamm-bamm-bamm!

And there he was! Clinging to the protective screening on the metal chimney, this magnificent specimen was loudly proclaiming his virility, for he had discovered the ultimate magnification device - the metal stovepipe of my chimney top. I smiled as I chased him off, knowing that he would return to his drum of choice soon after I disappeared. He and others of his kind had been feasting on the suet cakes and black oil sunflower seeds that adorned various trees near the house all winter long, so they were quite familiar with this territory. The Hairy Woodpecker is the most frequent visitor in the Jemez, followed by the larger Northern Flicker, and the smaller Downy Woodpecker, a lookalike of the Hairy. During the winter, many woodpecker species comfortably coexist in mixed feeding flocks; however, come spring with its attendant raging hormones, battles ensue. Dueling drums reverberate throughout the forest. In the end, only the most dominant male and his mate remain for the breeding season, while others have to settle for less desirable nesting territories.

Woodpeckers have particularly stiff tails that enable them to balance on the sides of trees, and specially adapted feet with two forward- and two backward-facing toes that allow them to cling to the sides of trees. As a group, these birds fill several valuable niches in nature. Primarily insectivorous, they use their exceptionally long tongues to probe for insects in the bark and crevices of trees; some species also eat a variety of fruits and seeds, and occasionally even forage on crops such as corn. They rely on a number of adaptations to locate food, including searching visually, and probing with their tongues. They also find insects within the wood by listening. Most woodpeckers also cache, or store food during times of abundance for later retrieval. One species, the Acorn Woodpecker, drills regularly spaces holes for food storage in a granary tree, placing a single acorn in each hole. They are a communal, cooperative breeder, with groups of birds filling, using, and defending the granaries.

All woodpeckers are cavity nesters, excavating their own cavities in living or dead wood. A pair will often create two cavities, one for nesting, and one for roosting in the fall. In fact, these birds are the primary excavators of nest burrows in the forest. Abandoned woodpecker cavities provide important nesting habitat for other species that lack the ability to excavate. This includes many species of small owls such as the diminutive Flammulated Owl, the Northern Saw-whet Owl, and the Western Screech-Owl. Other birds that utilize these cavities include Western and Mountain Bluebirds, Violet-Green Swallows, and even Mountain Chickadees.

However, even an extremely beneficial species can be annoying on occasion, especially when they are engulfed in a hormone-induced noisemaking frenzy, not to mention the extra holes drilled along the eaves of the roof. Bam! I looked the other way, went back inside, and silently welcomed Hairy and Harriet for the summer.