Friday, October 31, 2008

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

What experience?

What was that I just saw? A McCain commercial stating things might get rougher (the entire clip is a film of choppy seas) and we can’t afford to chance an ‘untested’ president? Huh?

What I’d like to know is this:

How does a reckless boy, getting his plane shot down and being taken prisoner for five years, count as being tested? What about being a POW contributes to being a president? What about McCain has ‘been at the helm’? He’s been in politics for a long time…much of his success, like his military success, is due to family and friends…..well, and marrying money, of course.

But seriously…what about McCain is ‘a leader’? Really? Have you read his book? It’s disgusting. He’s an angry, nasty little man whose friends even say they’d hate to have him be the guy to answer that 3 am phone call. Ya know? I think the tone of his politicking says volumes about the man: small, nasty, so desperate to win (again) he will say anything?

Nope, not for me…I’d much rather the guy who pulled himself up by the bootstraps…refused to take a silver spoon (offered not because of where he came, but his own hard work and good grades (imagine that…a president with a GPA higher than a C!)) and instead gave back to his community. Really! Wow, a man who actually earned his own way?

I saw a thing the other day… here it is…it is so interesting, doncha think?
  • What if the Obama’s had paraded five children across the stage, including a three month old infant and an unwed, pregnant teenage daughter?
  • What if John McCain was a former president of the Harvard Law Review?
  • What if Barack Obama finished fifth from the bottom of his graduating class?
    (...894th out of 899...)
  • What if McCain had only married once and Obama was a divorcee?
  • What if Obama was the candidate who left his first wife after a severe disfiguring car accident, when she no longer measured up to his standards?
  • What if Obama had met his second wife in a bar and had a long affair while he was still married?
  • What if Michelle Obama was the wife who not only became addicted to pain killers but also acquired them illegally through her charitable organization?
  • What if Cindy McCain graduated from Harvard?
  • What if Obama had been a member of the Keating Five? (The Keating Five were five United States Senators accused of corruption in 1989, igniting a major political scandal as part of the larger Savings and Loan crisis of the late 1980s and early 1990s.)
  • What if McCain was a charismatic, eloquent speaker?
  • What if Obama couldn’t read from a teleprompter?
  • What if Obama was the one who had military experience that included discipline problems and a record of crashing seven planes?
  • What if Obama was the one who was known to display on many occasions, a serious anger management problem?
  • What if Michelle Obama’s family had made their money from beer distribution?
  • What if the Obama’s had adopted a white child?

You could easily add to this list. If these questions reflected reality, do you really believe the election numbers would be as close as they are?

This is what racism does. It covers up, rationalizes and minimizes positive qualities in one candidate and emphasizes negative qualities in another when there is a color difference.

Compare these educational backgrounds each of these four pursued:

Barack Obama:
* Columbia University - B.A. Political Science with a Specialization in International Relations.
* Harvard - Juris Doctor (J.D.) Magna cum Laude
Joseph Biden:
* University of Delaware - B.A. in History and B.A. in Political Science.
* Syracuse University College of Law - Juris Doctor (J.D.)
John McCain:
* United States Naval Academy - Class rank: 894 of 899
Sarah Palin:
* Hawaii Pacific University - 1 semester
* North Idaho College - 2 semesters — general study
* University of Idaho - 2 semesters - journalism
* Matanuska-Susitna College – semester
* University of Idaho - 3 semesters - B.A.

What does this say about our candidates?

And then there is ‘work experience’. Well, yanno…Obama doesn’t talk much about it (he’s too busy telling us HOW he’d bring change and WHAT his Policies are), but what about that Keating Five? What about the same ol’ same ol’ that’s going on up in Alaska? And just what are all those lobbyiests doing on McCain's staff?

I’m just plain ol’ overly tired of the ‘good ol’ boy politicking’…and ready for a REAL change! Google is your friend…well, where money hasn’t erased history. [sigh]…it happens, yanno.

I hope you join me in voting for Obama and Biden; together they make REAL leaders…Heads of State the whole world welcomes and would look up to…I’m ready for THAT change!

I also like that they're not bickering over who's in charge...but perhaps that should stay between you and me. Surely such in-fighting wouldn't affect leadership. Right?

Baffling Squirrels: an update

Well, so far the squirrels have not managed to get into the feeders atop the pole where I put my home-made baffle. So, for as long as it'll last, I suppose it'll do the job. Unfortunately, BosqueBill tells me, the duct-tape will degrade in short order! I can't have sharp objects out there where birds party! I'm not sure what I'll do. ...dammit! Winter is around the corner. Perhaps a good snow-storm will send the furry monsters into hibernation and, like Miss Scarlet, I can think about it tomorrow. [sigh]

In the mean time, I was reading and poking about a bit on Chas' blog and found another fun one to read called "Hunter Angler Gardner Cook" (my kinda person!). Anyway, just look his current post: about squirrels! Heh heh heh Thanks Hank!

But then...I found this:

All that spinning MUST spill some seed, huh? Didn't I see them feasting below the spinning feeder? Why else play acrobat over and over again? I'm soooooooo discouraged! Will nothing stop these monsters? Heck, even I know eating the little morsels will only bring larger litters next year! [another dramatic sigh]

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Corvids Part II - The Blue Jay

The Blue Jay (Cyanocitta cristata), belongs to the American (or ‘blue’) jays, which are not closely related to other jays (other than the Steller’s). Like other jays, this Corvidae is adaptable and aggressive; and is enlarging its habitat. It’s a medium sized bird, 9-12” long with a wingspan of some 13-17 inches. The color is medium blue to lavender on the crest and along the back, wings and tail while its face is white. Over a pale breast, it sports a thin necklace or ‘collar’ in black, which extends up and nearly around the head. Wing primaries and tail are barred in black, blue and white; eyes, strong bill and three-toed limbs are black.

Like other crested birds, it can raise or lower the crown of feathers. While feeding with other jays the crest is flattened to the head but if excited or aggressive the crest will be raised forward. It will bristle outward if the bird is frightened.

[edited to add: I just realized all photos are of birds with crests lowered! Thanks to Ecobirder's kind offer...I found a lovely shot of his...a Blue Jay with crest flying! NICE!!! Thanks again, Ecobirder! What a lovely little fluffy bird...must have been cold, huh?]

The Blue Jay occurs from southern Canada through eastern and central US, south to Florida and northeastern Texas. The western edge of the range stops about where the closely related Steller's Jay begins; though it sometimes hybridizes with that species. Recently, the range of the Blue Jay has extended northwestwards so that it is now a rare but regularly-seen winter visitor along the northern US and southern Canadian Pacific Coast, some stray birds may occur in California, now.

The Steller's Jay and the Blue Jay are the only New World jays that use mud in the construction of their nests. Many people dislike the Blue Jay because it is known to eat the eggs and nestlings of other birds. However, in an extensive study of Blue Jay feeding habits, only 1% of jays had evidence of eggs or birds in their stomachs. Most of the diet was composed of insects and nuts, but it can be aggressive towards other birds. They do not breed cooperatively, but conduct group social displays and mob predators and intruders, perhaps as members of a loosely organized neighborhood flock.

Tool use in birds is rare. Although no tool use has been reported for wild Blue Jays, captive jays used strips of newspaper to rake in food pellets from outside of their cages.

There is no blue in blue birds. As with other blue-hued birds, the Blue Jay's coloration is not derived by pigment, but is the result of light refraction due to the internal structure of the feathers. If a blue feather is crushed, the blue disappears as the structure is destroyed. This is referred to as structural coloration.

Like other corvids, this jay may learn to mimic human speech. Their voice is typical of most jays in being varied, but includs whistled notes and gurgling sounds, and the high-pitched jayer-jayer call, which increases in spead as the bird becomes more agitated. The most commonly recognized sound is the alarm call, which is a loud, almost gull-like scream…a shrill, harsh decending ‘jaaaay’, for which it is named. Another call sounds like a rusty pump handle, and another sounds like a bell. Blue jays also make rattling sounds. In the spring you can hear very soft singing. Listen here.

Notice jays can raise and lower that crest:

Killer jays do not keep crests down, either: typical jay behavior (while nesting)

This is an interesting shot with both a Steller's and
a Blue Jay.


Photos from Wikipedia

Squirrelly Antics

I think this is where my squirrel worked before it retired... to my yard!

Monday, October 27, 2008

DIY Squirrel Baffle

Well, I thought I was pretty clever yesterday. I needed to do something about the *%$#@! squirrels that live in my neighborhood; they’re eating me out of house and home. But squirrel guards are just too darn expensive; heck…a little ol’ piece of metal curled around a pole? Sheeshhhhhhhhh ...highway robbery.

So…I made my own! Yup.

I bought a flat length of that duct-pipe stuff; thin metal that rolls into a cylindrical shape and sort of locks together along the seam. Before I rolled it, I carefully (read that VERY carefully; this stuff is so sharp one could loose a finger and not know it for five minutes!) cut about 3” cuts every couple inches along one edge (not the edge that locks).

Once I finished that…and figured out I had to make a few wedge-shaped removals, too (to make the bunch squished around the pole less bulky)…I used some thin pliers to bend each section twice…so that I effectively made one opening a lot smaller and had a place with which to attach my coupling. You know; those metal collars with the screw that is used to tighten it down smaller? I took the whole thing outside, slipped it over a birdfeeder pole and tightened it down. Worked like a charm and cost me about $5.00

Okay…it wasn’t that easy. I figured out right away I needed to wear heavy leather gloves or risk a serious injury. It’s hard to wear such gloves while doing intricate work. The first cuts I made were not deep enough and I didn’t have enough metal to fold the end closed and still have enough to wrap the collar around. So I had to start over and cut deeper and re-fold. Now it works.

I also made judicious use of good ol’ duct-tape and made sure there were no sharp spots accessible to little birdie-toes. I wrapped one length around the top of the thin pipe where my cuts stopped, just to steady-up the whole thing…and then wrapped several more pieces around the exposed cuts that might cause problems.

But hey…the duct tape matches the duct pipe; so the end result is not too hokey or garish. Now, I’m just waiting to see if I’ve outfoxed the blankety-blank squirrels! Heh, heh, heh. To tell ya the truth, I’m rather proud of my invention. I’ve heard stove-pipes work too…but they were too expensive for my budget.

Okay, I have no draw programs here…I did this in Word; but it gives a fair representation, if my text leaves you scratching your head. Not an elegant piece of artwork, but then, neither is the baffle! LOL Of course, the bottom doesn't taper like's the same diameter at the bottom that it is at the top, before it's bent to attach to the pole. (Common'...I used Word!) Oh, and it's about 3" in diameter and perhaps 2' long...and attaches about five feet up the pole.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Local Jay Birds and the Steller's Jay

Corvids, don’cha just love ‘em? I do…and just discovered the names ‘jay’ and ‘magpie’ are somewhat interchangeable. Who knew? I find that these birds have a distinctive walk; slow and purposeful and
sort of pigeon-toed.

They are considered the most intelligent of the birds having demonstrated self-awareness in mirror tests (Magpies) and tool making ability (Crows) — skills until recently regarded as solely the province of humans and a few other higher mammals. Corvids are found worldwide except for the tip of South America and the polar ice caps.

Corvidae family relationships are not well established; the all-black crows and ravens of the genus Corvus seem most closely related, while the various species of jays, including the Clark’s Nutcracker, are a mix-mash more closely related to magpies. I’ve seen Black-billed Magpies, Stellar Jays and Blue Jays at my feeders…but Gray Jays are around; I wonder if they’ve been in my yard. Also seen around these parts are Western Scrub-Jays, Pinyon Jays and Clark’s Nutcracker. There is a Mexican Scrub-Jay, as well…though I cannot find mention of it in the area. As stated, crows and ravens are also members of this family, but we’re only working on jays this time.

As is my habit, I’ll cover the birds I might see here…including as much ‘unusual’ information as I can find. I am no expert and include references below.

Jays, like the Steller's Jay to the right, are several colorful species of passerine, or perching bird. They are somewhat large for songbirds (as passerines are less accurately called), with sturdy, thick bills and strong legs; they’re loud and every bit as impertinent as their name implies (jay). Most passerines are small in size, but they have a larger learning ability than most birds; especially the corvids, which may even learn to mimic human speech.

Jays are omnivores and eat anything from insects to fruit to carrion though nuts and seeds are most important to their diet. Western Scrub-Jays and Gray Jays are just as apt to eat a spider as a french-fry, but some members of this diverse family, notably Clark’s Nutcrackers and Pinyon Jays, will undertake substantial movements in search of specific tree seeds. Most members do not migrate however, with the exception, primarly, of the Blue Jay.

Corvid numbers are healthy, in spite of losses to West Nile virus. Many are expanding their territories and in spite of hundreds of years of persecution as pests, clearly show no ill effect on their population. This species has long been known for cleverness but recent studies have shown they have even more intelligence than formerly known; even having the extremely unusual animal ability of recognizing itself in a mirror. Sexes look alike.

As I am wont to do, I’ve gone on too long and too far. I’m going to have to break this up; we’ll discuss seven jays over the next few days; one per post. We’ll discuss only jays I’m apt to see here; they will be Stellers’ Jay, Blue Jay, Pinyon Jay, Western Scrub-Jay, Gray Jay, Clark’s Nutcracker and the Mexican Jay…which I may or may not ever see. I’ll include at least one photo and try for a video clip of each bird.

Steller’s Jay

When I lived in the off-grid cabin a few years ago, at the edge of the San Isabel Nat’l Forest, I saw many more Steller’s Jays...though they do visit here, too. The cabin was at about 9000’ whereas I’m now at only 7000’. I live near the river surrounded by large trees with pasture land all around, so this jay, which lives in coniferous and mixed woodland with open areas, is happy here, too.

The Steller’s Jay, (Cyanocitta stelleri), is closely related to the Blue Jay and is native to western North America and has a long, shaggy crest. While its body is quite blue, it’s head and upper body are nearly black; though there is much regional variation. Northern birds have more blackish-brown colored heads while southern birds become more and more blue-headed. Against this dark crest the bird has light, vertical streaks, like eyebrows, on its forehead, a silvery-blue breast and with darker barring along deep, blue wings and tail. It is the only crested jay found west of the Rocky Mountains…but when identifying, note that this bird flattens its crest when flying.

Steller’s Jays are normally nonmigratory, although populations that breed at high elevations typically move to lower elevations during the winter…but breed lower than do Gray Jays. Periodic irruptions of large flocks (mainly young birds) bring this jay into areas and habitats not normally occupied.

Like most jays, this one feeds from trees and shrubs and on the ground. Its diet includes a variety of seeds, nuts, berries, and fruit as well as smaller invertebrates…eggs and nestlings are hunted as well. Up to a third of their diet is animal-matter; they appear to be major predators of other species’ eggs. As one would expect, acorns and conifer seeds are a staple during the winter time. While somewhat more reticent than the Gray Jay, Steller's nevertheless quickly becomes accustomed to campsites and human providers. These intelligent and opportunistic birds are quick to take advantage of new food sources, including bird feeders, especially those full of peanuts. They cache extra nuts, making sure that the food is covered from all directions.

Steller's Jays form monogamous, long-term pair bonds. They remain together year round. They typically nest in a conifer, and both members of the pair help build the nest. The nest is a bulky cup made of twigs, weeds, moss, and leaves, held together with mud. The nest is usually lined with rootlets, pine needles, and other fine material, often with bits of paper adorning the outside.

The Steller’s Jay has learned to imitate the call of a Red-tailed Hawk as it approaches a feeding area, which causes other birds and prey creatures to vacate post haste. Clever bird! Generally its calls are varied and include rattling and guttural sounds too numerous to list. Notably, its alarm call is a harsh nasal ‘wah’, a rapid ‘shek shek shek shek’ or the most common very harsh, unmusical, decending ‘shaaaar’. Listen here.

Tell me this sweet little fat (indoor) cat doesn’t know exactly what it would like to do with this bird…hungery or not:

This is a better shot of just the jay…filling it’s craw for the trip home:
Photos from Wikipedia

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Please Help with Bird I.D.

I found my first wren yesterday. I’m sure it was a wren; small, with lighter under parts, short wings it kept flicking a bit (reminiscent of the American Redstart but to a much lesser degree)…and a tail it sort of cocked up. The bird was in my front yard, on the fence where the Virginia Creeper’s autumnal colors are fading as leaves fall, leaving bunches of dark, nearly black berries shriveling in the sun of a crisp, pre-winter day.

I watched the little bird for several minutes; quite sure I’ve never seen one like it before. I remember I saw it wag its tail up over its back in that classic wren posture. I thought it odd that the bird tried, without success it seemed, to remove berries from the vine. It must have been too light to pull hard enough.

I phished and clicked at the bird, it watched me for awhile, then went back to jumping from fence to vine, hopping through to hanging berries; tugging on one while jumping to a spot on the ground and then back up to the vine for yet another try. My impatient dog, rearing up like the pony he nearly is, became too rambunctious in his greeting to me and finally scared the bird away.

I didn’t have my glasses on, I didn’t have binoculars in my hands and I had arms full of groceries; no, I didn’t go chase the bird. But I did note as much as I could, hurried into the house, gave my dog a hug and went straight for Sibley’s book to discover wrens.

This bird’s tail was not overly short, and while I didn’t notice an ‘eyebrow’, I did note almost a speckling under its face. I think noticed the tail was darker than the back. And that the belly was decidedly lighter than the head and wings. There were no bars on the wings.

Having done my homework, I believed I saw a Bewick’s Wren…based on where I saw the bird, where I live, how it sounded (sharp little ‘spiks’ in answer to my pshing); but the length of the bill is troubling. So was the fact that that bug-eating bird was observed eating berries. Suddenly, I’m not so sure. Darn, I wish I’d had my glasses.

On a hunch, this morning I grabbed the binoculars and headed for the front porch. I found the bird!

I’ve posted two photos I quickly snapped through a window. One gives a fairly good picture of the bird, the other at least shows that ‘speckling’ I’d noticed under its chin. This is no wren, me thinks. But what; a warbler? A sparrow? Veros have eye-rings, but not speckled or streaked throats. It was more gray than brown…and quite small. To give you a perspective on size, the hog-wire fence, as its called, (which the bird is sitting next to), has a wire grid of 2” x 4”. The bird left when another showed up; the two mixed it up a bit and flew up to the trees. I’ll watch for more photo ops.

Your comments would be greatly appreciated!

[Addendum: I appreciate all the comments left here...and helping me determine exactly what the bird was that I'd watched that morning. As an update, I finally found an excellent photo of a Hermit Thrush, from from the digital repository of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, that I'm allowed to share here.]

What Do YOU See?

I was visiting David Silbey's Blog (yes...that Silbey), and found an educational clip he'd posted from YouTube. It is an Awareness Test...a test I'd advise all birders to take. As David many rare birds do we miss?

Thanks for this, David!

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Chewing the Fat

Last month I read a fascinating article regarding the Bearded Vulture, an Old World vulture and one of the rarest raptors of Europe.

This huge bird is the only vertebrate which predominately eats bone; marrow comprising 90% of its diet. While it can ingest bones up to 11 inches long and 1.5 inches wide, if the bone is too big to swallow, this bird will carry it high enough to break when it drops on rocks below. Mammal bones have higher energy content than muscle tissue, because of their high fat content…so a bone diet makes perfect sense. The article went on to state the Bearded Vulture will discard less energy-dense bones and choose only the bones containing the highest fat content both for its consumption and delivery to its young. You can find the entire article here.

I found this interesting when later I also read a piece regarding Great Horned and Snowy Owls which, when food is plentiful, become selective with what they choose to eat. Apparently, owls might raid a large colony of rats and choose to eat only the brains, leaving the rest of the head and body behind. (from: Owls, A Wildlife Handbook – by Kim Long 1998)

I wonder if brains are a lot like bone-marrow and are really fatty and high in energy. I’ve had marrow, and love the rich, buttery texture. I’ve had ‘brains’ too…but I understand they were more likely 'sweetbreads' ... the thymus gland. The etymology of the word "sweetbread" is thought to be of Old English origin. "Sweet" is probably used since thymus are sweet and rich tasting, as opposed to the savory taste of muscle flesh.

At any rate, while rich…I do not remember them being fatty; but then, they weren’t brains.

Perhaps this Red-tailed Hawk
is a gourmand as well…

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Ecobirder Shares All

This is a beautiful example of the
light-phase Great Horned Owl

There is a blog I thoroughly enjoy reading: Ecobirder which you will find in my list of favorite blogs, on the right. He is a spectacular photographer and insanely interested in dragonflies; which I admire. Ecobirder has a site worth visiting regularly…with incredible photos of birds, bears, bees, butterflies and yes, more dragonflies! I have learned more about dragons, as he
calls ‘em, than I ever imagined possible; by reading his blog.

The above bird is Samantha, and the photo…of which I only copied a small piece, is Ecobirder's. But…I have some excuses for my theft; one: this is a spectacular example of a light-phase Great Horned Owl and illustrates what I mentioned in my piece below and I just had to show ya; two: I really like the idea of ‘That’s My World Tuesday’…of which Ecobirder participated and three: this is a good excuse to share his blog with some folks who have begun following mine. Do go visit Ecobirder…which you can do by following the link at his name, anywhere in this post.

Oh…I do hope he forgives me; I only took a tiny piece!... His blog includes the photograph of the whole bird and a bunch more raptors, to boot! Go visit Ecobirder to help pay for my transgression. Please! ...and you might tell him how much I thank him for his good work! (Besides, as I mentioned, he shares some lovely information about where he lives.)

Sunday, October 19, 2008

The Columbidae in My Yard

I have determined there are three different pigeons and doves (Columbidae) visiting my feeders. The dratted Eurasian Collared-Dove (seen to the right) visits in highest numbers, but also the Band-tailed Pigeon and the occasionally the sweet little Mourning Dove. I have observed Rock Doves (feral pigeons) in the area, but have not actually discovered them here.

In that the Mourning Dove was a recent visitor under the seed feeders, I thought the only other visiting Columbidae was that Eurasian Collared-Dove, until an acquaintance pointed out one day that we also have Band-tailed Pigeons (seen above) and how to tell the difference. I’m embarrassed at my cavalier attitude to these birds which inhibited my actually looking at them.

Here is about a most clumsy attempt at graphically showing what, for me, is the main field-marker for telling the Band-tailed Pigeon in flight, from the Eurasian Collared-Dove…which is similar size and at first glance and similarly colored. These are examples of their tails in flight. I find that noticing the green iridescence on their necks is dependent on the quality of the light available at the time. Besides, all these birds fly as soon as I open the door or even if they just see me move inside the house. But the tail tells all (for me); the Band-tailed Pigeon has a rounder tail and a wide, white band across the edge. The Eurasian Collared-dove has a more pointed tail with a bit of edging just at the outer edges.

Both birds are about 14” long, and sort of pale-gray, but the Band-tailed Pigeon has a lavender wash overall; making the bird appear almost rosy. Both birds have ‘collars’, too…though the Band-tailed Pigeon has a thin black line just below a broader white neck-ring at the back of the head. This bird also has a yellow, bblack-tipped bill. The Eurasian Collared-Dove has a dark neck-ring and dark bill.

The little Mourning Dove (seen to the right) is smaller, only about 12” and is darker and more slender. It’s overall gray-brown is accompanied by small black spots on it’s wing coverts. This bird has no collar and a long, very pointed tail.

The White-winged Dove has also been observed in this area, but I have not seen it. This bird is even smaller than the Mourning Dove, but is more stocky. It has broad wings and a short square tail. The upper wing coverts are white and form a narrow white edge along the folded wing. This bit of white makes a striking band in flight which contrasts with very dark primaries and blackish flight feathers.

Pigeons and doves are the only North American birds capable of suctioning water; so they can drink without the need to raise their heads, which allows water to run down the throat. These birds also have an unusual need for water, drinking up to 15% of their body weight each day.

Photos on this post from Wikipedia

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Great Horned Owls – Who Knew?

This post comes on the heels of one I made yesterday, with a blurry photo of a bird overlooking my feeders. Seeing the Great Horned Owl brought up a lot of questions regarding this fairly common, but totally regal bird. As is my nature, I had to do some research. This is what I discovered:

Most of us will easily recognize this large, ‘eared’ owl. One of the largest of North American owls, about the size of a Red-tailed Hawk (18 - 25 in, 2-5 lbs, wingspan 3.5 - 5 ft), they are very bulky with large heads, short tails and those long, widely spaced ear tufts. They are generally brownish on the upperparts, spotted with darker brown, black and whitish. The throat is white, contrasting with the darkly splotched upper breast. The brownish-buff underparts are paler toward the belly and are barred with darker, horizontal lines. The legs and feet are thickly feathered with only the talons exposed. The eyes are large and yellow.

Coloration varies both individually and regionally. While these birds exist in nearly all habitats throughout North and South America, the most northern birds and those from desert areas tend to be much lighter in color; so much paler, as shown here, as to be mistaken for snowy owls, but with gray faces. Birds in the west and from tropical areas are a richer color with dark reddish facial disks, and those from Central American can be a quite dark, chocolate brown.
These birds generally don’t migrate, but the owls living in the most northern part of the species' range may migrate south for the winter.

Those ‘ears’, which break-up the bird’s silhouette and help with camouflage, are not actually ears at all; but rather tufts of feathers that can be lowered and raised at will. They are used in communication between birds; much like a cat or dog uses its ears to convey information; often flat when irritated and upright when inquisitive.

Their soft, loosely packed feathers, which feel like fleece, is superbly insulating, and keeps them nearly silent when flying. The leading edge of their wings are serrated, which breaks up air-flow and helps wind pass over gently, keeping the bird's flight noiseless.

This species is a perch-and-pounce hunter; it perches and waits for prey, then glides down silently and hits from behind. Although its short, wide wings allow maneuverability among trees of the forest, the resulting high wing-loading makes aerial foraging less efficient. However, this same fact allows this bird to lift much more than it’s own weight.


Like many such preditors, owls have massive eyes relative to their body size. However, owls are not able to move their eyes within the socket and must turn their heads to change their view. They are equipped with extra vertibre which allows them to turn their head about 270 degrees; nearly full circle.

Contrary to popular belief, however, owls cannot see well in extreme dark and are able to see fine in the day

Although owls have spectacular binocular vision, they are probably not able to see as well close-up; they’re far-sighted and unable to see anything clearly within a few inches of their eyes. For this reason, they make use of special hair-like feathers, filoplumes, around their beaks and feet to ‘feel’ prey.

Owls have a third, opaque, eye membrane called the nictitating membrane. This membrane helps to clean the eye of material and protect the eye from the brightness of day or foreign objects at night.


The feathers of the facial disc are arranged like a shallow bowl. This shape acts like a satellite dish, to help funnel sound into the ear openings at either side of the head. Hearing in owls is highly sensitive and the ears are arranged in a way allowing the owl to localise a sound. Humans can tell whether a sound is closer to their right ear than their left; Great Horned owls use their assymetric ear openings to precisely triangulate the location and distance of sounds, thus enabling them to pinpoint the location of a noise. Scientists have discovered that owls can catch prey entirely by sound.

Owls have incredible senses of hearing, a trait that allows them to hunt at night. Their ears are located on the sides of the head, but are off-set, not symmetrical like human ears. These openings are also slightly tilted in different directions - often the right ear is longer and set higher up on the skull. Plus, owls have soft feathers that surround the openings which they can spread to make a funnel for sound to enter the ear. An owl's hearing is as good — if not better — than its vision.


Of all the owls, the great horned owl has the strongest talons, which take a force of about 30 pounds to open, and allow it to sever the spinal column of prey even larger than itself. These birds also have 500 pounds per square inch of crushing power in their talons. A normal man has about 60 pounds per square inch in his hands.

Like most birds of prey, the Great Horned Owl has four toes, two forward and two back. However, the outside, back toe is able to swivel forward; making a larger ‘mitt’ with which to catch prey. The middle toe’s tallon is especially sharp. The bird tears meat with its hooked bill, and pulls meat against this extra-sharp talon to slice it. Smaller prey, like mice are swallowed whole.


In fact, prey is quiet varried; from fat grasshoppers to mice, snakes, squirrels, and opossums. While they also catch smaller birds, they more often look for larger prey (which is more energy-cost effective) like hares and even porcupines. Like most birds, these owls have a poor sense of smell and are one of the few animals to regularly hunt skunks; to the point that their nests and the birds themselves often smell musky. Taxidermists sometimes have to deodorize them before mounting, because the bird smells so strongly of skunk.

Great horned owls are considered to one of the most voracious of all raptors. They have a prodigious appetite: one great horned owl may ingest several mice each night, thus potentially dispatching over a thousand mice each year; a great boon to human society. Although mammalian prey typically comprise more than three quarters of the diet, more than fifty species of birds have been recorded as prey. In addition to hunting small songbirds, water birds (especially coots and ducks), can be important prey; as well as grouse, herons, Canada Geese, swans, hawks (including Red-tailed) and other owls. It is a serious predator on nestling Ospreys and the reintroduction of Peregrine Falcons has been hampered in some areas by owls killing both adult and nestlings.

Sometimes this bird walks along the ground hunting small mammels, insects and reptiles, and will even wade into water for frogs, other amphibians, fish and crustatians.

The Great Horned Owl is a regular victim of harassment from flocks of American Crows, as well as other smaller birds. Crows congregate from long distances to mob owls, and may continue shrieking and diving at them for hours. The antagonism of the crows may be well earned, however, as the owl is probably the most important predator of crows and their nestlings.

In northern regions, where larger prey that cannot be eaten quickly are most prevalent, these big birds may cache and let uneaten food freeze and then thaw it out later; using their own body heat…sort of ‘incubating’ a meal.


About six to ten hours after an owl has eaten, its stomach forms a packet of wrapped hard-bits. This pellet of fur, feathers, scales, exoskeletons, and bones is the indigestible parts of its meal. The owl then regurgitates or "upchucks" this pellet. Owls may have a favorite roost or perch spot where they both eat and cast out these pellets.

Scientists collect the pellets and gently pull them apart in their laboratories to see what the owl has been eating. Pellets of the GHO are very large, about the size of a man’s thumb; 3- 4" long 1.5" thick. Pellets are dark grayish-black and compact; tightly wrapped. Skulls as wide as 3 cm (1.2") are regurgitated whole.

An interesting gift one can offer budding naturalists, unable to find their own pellets to dissect, are various owl pellets: found here.


Great Horned Owls have a large repertoire of sounds, ranging from deep booming hoots to shrill shrieks. The male's resonant territorial call "hoo-hoo hoooooo hoo-hoo" can be heard over several miles during a still night. Both sexes hoot, but males have a lower-pitched voice than females. They give a growling "krrooo-oo" or screaming note when attacking intruders. Other sounds include a "whaaa whaaaaaa-a-a-aarrk" from disturbed birds, a catlike "MEEE-OWww", barks, hair-raising shrieks, coos, purrs, and a loud beak-snapping when agitated or trying to make an impression. Some calls are ventriloquial; softer or louder as if ‘throwing their voices’, making it difficult to find just from where the bird is calling. Most calling occurs from dusk to about midnight and then again just before dawn.

This is a wonderful site with several recordings of the Great Horned Owl sounds.

Their call is somewhat similar to Band-tailed Pigeon or Mourning Dove, but don't confuse it with the "Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you all?" hoot of the barred owl.

Breeding / Life

Throughout the winter, courting great horned owls will determine their nesting territory with nighttime hooting. They do not build a nest, but use an abandoned nest of a red-tailed hawk, crow, bald eagle, or heron. Sometimes nest boxes, squirrel nests, rocky outcroppings, cliff ledges, caves, hollow trees, man-made ledges and even the top shelf of a big-box garden center are used. A nest is rarely used more than once and any damage done to the nest is not repaired.

[Addendum…my gentle readers, with personal experience, have corrected that last statement to tell us (in the comments section, below) that owls often DO use the same nests; sometimes several years running. Thank you for the correction!]

Breeding season varies from December to July because of this owl's wide range; it tends to breed earlier than other owls in the same locality. Two to five eggs are laid on successive days with incubation beginning with the laying of the first egg. The eggs are incubated 34-36 days, on average. They raise one brood of young per year. Young remain in the nest for 35–45 days and are cared for by their parents for up to five months.

While both birds may incubate, it is the male who feeds the female during this time. Brooding is almost continuous until the offspring are about 2 weeks old, after which it decreases. Young hatch helpless and don’t open eyes and are quite helpless for about the first month. Young owls move onto nearby branches at 6 weeks (a behavior called ‘branching’) and start to fly about a week later. Sometimes, during this time, they may find themselves on the ground under trees, but they are not abandoned and are fed for another several weeks. By this time, the owlets are fully feathered and capable of short flights, but have not developed the hunting skills they need to survive. Fledglings do not fly well until 9 to 10 weeks old. The young are fed by both parents, and the parents fiercely defend their nest site against intruders.

The offspring have still been seen begging for food in late October (5 months after leaving the nest) and most do not separate from their parents until right before the adults start to reproduce for the next clutch (usually December). Birds may not breed for another year or two, and are often vagrants ("floaters") until they establish their own territories. All adult Great Horned Owls are permanent residents of their territories. Eggs, nestlings and fledgings may be preyed on by other raptors and larger birds, foxes, coyotes, and feral cats.

Fifty to eighty percent of young owls die in their first year. If an owl survives the first two years of life in the wild, it can live up to 14 years. In captivity, the owl may live as long as 30 years or more. The great horned owl reaches maturity at two years.

Families remain loosely associated during summer before young disperse in the autumn. Adults tend to remain near their breeding areas year-round while juveniles disperse widely, as much as 150 miles, in the autumn. Territories are maintained by the same pair for as many as 8 consecutive years, however, these owls are solitary in nature, only staying with their mate during the nesting season. Average home ranges in various studies have been shown to be approximately one square mile.

Protection / Aggression

When an owl is threatened, it increases its size threefold by puffing its chin feathers, flaring its wings, and expanding its chest.

Great Horned Owls are often said to be the most dangerous owl, and it is reportedly the only bird of prey that has been known to kill a human being, but it should be noted that these attacks are never predatory, and that the only known fatal attack was triggered by the victim, who was trying to steal eggs or chicks from the owl's nest.

The great horned owl is a fairly shy bird and normally stays out of sight and avoids people. However, if a person climbs to a horned owl nest that contains small young, the parents may become quite aggressive and dive at the visitor and strike him with their talons as they fly by.

This from Bent’s Life Histories of North American Birds:
"Donald J. Nicholson (in Oologist, vol.43, p.14) received …[rough] treatment when he climbed to within 6 feet of a nest containing eggs; he writes: “Swiftly the old bird came straight as an arrow from behind and drove her sharp claws into my side, causing a deep dull pain and unnerving me, and no sooner had she done this than the other attacked from the front and sank his talons deep in my right arm causing blood to flow freely, and a third attack and my shirt sleeve was torn to shreds for they had struck me a third terrible blow on the right arm tearing three long, deep gashes, four inches long; also one claw went through the sinew of my arm, which about paralyzed the entire arm.”

Nope, angering a Great Horned Owl is not recommended. But unless climbing a nest tree, people have little to fear from this magnificent predator. Unattended cats and small dogs may be a different story …and yet another reason to keep cats inside. ;)

Conservation Status

Despite the reputation that the great horned owl has gotten from angry poultry raisers, they are not as harmful as thought in the past. That they control pest populations has been recognized. Now, the great horned owl and other birds of prey are given complete protection in most states throughout the United States.

Dwight G. Smith states in his book The Great Horned Owl that these predators are susceptible to secondary poisonings from applications aimed at reducing pests; anticoagulants for killing poisons and strychnine-laced grain for killing pigeons. Mercury contamination and other pollutions from waste repositories are also a huge issue. Like other predators on the top of the food chain, (Tuna is another good example), these big creatures tend to acquire greater toxic levels of these pesticides and heavy metals. As the predator lives, it accumulates more and more such poison in its tissues; eventually affecting basic physiology, altering behavior and finally proving lethal. Humans, being even further up said food chain, are advised to eat such creatures, like Tuna, on a limited basis; as we too, accumulate the toxic substances to our detriment.

Fun Fact

A group of owls has many collective nouns, including a "bazaar", "glaring", "parliament", "stooping", and "wisdom" of owls.

In addition, I have to say I throughly enjoyed this piece regarding 'what owls mean'.


Photos on this post are from Wikipedia

Friday, October 17, 2008

Great Horned Owl

I knew he'd come back! I wonder if this is the same bird who visited last year? I'm surrounded by tall trees, he was way up there. I told you I need a long lens to get these distant bird-shots, but this will have to do.

It looks nearly like he has a mouthful of feathers, but I think that's just his collared ruff fluffed up a bit. It was pretty funny, I'd been outside for something else but had heard some interesting bird sounds and went inside to get my binocs. When I came back outside it was all quiet. Hmmmmmm... I looked high and for unusually big bumps in the silhouette of tree branches and sure enough, I spotted him.

He let me watch awhile, I went elsewhere in the yard and tried to find other birds…to no avail. Finally I went in and got my little camera and tried for some shots of the pretty guy. I have discovered it is best to NOT try for a digital zoom, but rather a high-quality and large-format shot that I can then crop. Even so, the camera struggled for a good photo in the declining light and distant subject.

Still, it’s always exciting to find such a grand bird. And he's my October bird Number 21.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Update: Bottled Water is Polluted!

Yes, a new report released today by the Environmental Working Group, says bottled water is no cleaner than regular tap water…and most is downright polluted ...with Wal-Mart’s ‘Sam’s Choice’ leading the pack in contaminants. Ten popular brands were tested and found to containe 38 chemical pollutants altogether, with an average of eight contaminants in each brand.

Unlike tap water, which is regularly tested and results made public, the bottled water industry is not mandated to disclose their results…if any testing is done at all. Bottled water is not held to the same safety standard as tap water; all the beautiful images of high mountain streams and cool, deep springs doesn’t make it safer; nor do prices 1,900 times tap water. Instead, bottled water can contain disinfection byproducts, fertilizer residue and pain medication…not to mention the chemicals the plastic bottle off-gases into it. Chemicals such as phthalates or Bisphenol A, both with carcinogenic effects and now linked to obesity by triggering fat-cell activity.

To read the full EWG Report click here.

It would be so much healthier to put a charcoal-filter on your tap water and re-fill your own hard-plastic water bottle for the road. Do it; our land-fills are choking on throw-away bottles and our seas are filling up with garbage!

Click that last link or this one to discover two new 'continents' in the middle of our ocean (shown above) ...made entirely of plastic; 100,000,000 tons of it.

Consider this an update to my blog entry: Don't Flush Your Drugs!, More on Water Wars, and Bottle Your Own! Yeah, you could say I'm a little concerned about the water I drink.


Sunday, October 12, 2008

Every Litter-bit Hurts

Awhile ago Birdwatcher’s Digest published a piece regarding the surgery necessary on a California condor chick. It seems it was full of garbage people leave where they drop it. That just galls me; hiking anywhere and finding bottle caps, broken glass, pens, lighters, etc. Trash is more than dangerous.

From this single condor chick was removed:
  • 4 bottle caps and a screw top,
  • 3 electrical fittings,
  • 5 washers,
  • 13 22-caliber shell-casings,
  • 1 38-caliber shell-casing,
  • a shotgun-shell,
  • several pieces of plastic bags,
  • about a quarter cup of broken glass,
  • a similar amount of broken plastic,
  • a few small pieces of fabric,
  • 4 small stones,
  • a metal bracket,
  • a piece of wire,
  • and a few small pieces of rubber.

Read the full article here.

Trash tossed or absent-mindedly left behind is more than just unsightly. Trash, especially plastic, can entrap or suffocate mammals, birds, and fish. Small pieces can look like food and be ingested causing harm or death to the animal that eats it. Thousands of birds, fish, turtles and mammals die each year from entanglement in debris. Common items like six-pack rings, fishing line and strapping bands are mistaken for food. Numerous species ingest plastic, which causes them to feel full and die of starvation or poisoning.

Albatross photo: Cynthia Vanderlip, including more info

Remains of an adult Albatross with gut full of plastic (below). Notice the wide variety of bottle caps in this one. With smaller animals, more damage is done by smaller pieces. The plastic goes down the gullet quite easily. But since it is not digested, as in the original plan for all life, it gets stuck before exiting the stomach. There it sits to block the entry and digestion of legitimate food. Even the tiniest of pieces can cause blockages.

Probably the most disgusting thing I’ve read in some time is so absolutely shocking I can’t even talk. Go read it and let me know what you think. Good lord, if this is how our oceans look, imagine what our skies are going to be before too long. Sheeshhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh... Who knew?

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Project FeederWatch!

Project FeederWatch, the popular ‘Citizen-Science Project’ with Cornell’s Lab of Ornithology, starts next month! It runs November through part of April…just 21 weeks. More than 10,000 participants across North America have made Project FeederWatch part of their winter ritual…this will be my first time; having just begun ‘birding’ early this year.

It sounds easy; pick an area you can see from one spot where you have attracted birds with feeders or landscaping; I’ll pick the spot in my kitchen where the bay-window looks over my entire backyard…and count the birds from the same spot twice a week. The idea is to choose two consecutive days, scheduled in advance…and count the largest number of each species you see at the same time. If something comes up and you can’t count one day…it’s not the end of the world; but we’re not to change counting days. If we see an interesting bird on a different day, there is a way to make note of it, too…it’s all for the love of science, doncha know! (And no…one does not have to pledge a full day of counting.)

As far as how to count, they offer a tally sheet and instructions oh how to keep it simple. If you see six Juncos one time and ten another; the count is ten. They want the greatest number of individuals at one time, so the math is painless. There are suggestions for how to count large numbers and other tricky situations. One can enter data online or mail it in…it really IS super easy! Since 2005 Project FeederWatch has published an annual summary of results from the prior season in Winter Bird Highlights. There are several very interesting News Articles published and available for online viewing; including feature stories about specific sightings like the Streak-backed Oriole in Colorado and the Clay-colored Robin in New Mexico. Wow, I wonder if it was seen on my pal’s property down there.

Is it important to count? Does every bird matter? Does your count matter? Check out how FeederWatch data is used by Lab research in Scientific Publications.

There is also a very informative page where one can learn about feeders, food, plantings, tricky bird IDs, rare, diseased and other strange-looking birds…and some advice on how to ‘avoid’ unwanted visitors to your feeders.

Michelle, over at The Northwest Nature Nut started a Great Bird Count of October that several of us enjoyed. It was great fun to read all the diversity witnessed and humorous stories shared. You can see my (rather slow) progress on the sidebar here. I hope a bunch of us also participate in this Project FeederWatch…it seems to me that for very little extra work, our hobby can provide scientific data that will help the birds we are so interested in watching.
You can sign up for Project Feeder Watch, here!

All photos in this post from Wikipedia

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Shrike: a Butcher Bird

Shrikes are predatory songbirds. In North America, the only resident member of the shrike family is the Loggerhead Shrike. It is similar to the slightly larger Northern Shrike, a European/Asian bird (known there as the Great Grey Shrike) which breeds in Canada and Alaska. The Loggerhead breeds in southern Canada and south to Mexico and prefers somewhat open areas and fields with scattered trees and shrubs…especially those with thorns. In the southern range, it is a permanent resident, but northern birds migrate south. The bird has declined in the northeastern parts of its range, due to loss of habitat (it especially enjoyed the hedgerows popular on farms gone-by) and pesticide use. It is critically endangered in Canada, where an experiment of captive breeding and release has been undertaken.

The bird is a smallish (8-9”, a bit smaller than an American Robin) gray, black and white bird that prefers ‘edges’ of habitat; along roads, hedgerows and open fields; especially those dotted with the occasional tree or shrub. It is a predator and looks like one; with a hooked bill used to kill insects, lizards, mice and small birds. It has a strong notch or ‘tooth’ near the tip that helps kill and hold a meal. However, because its feet are small and talons not so strong, this clever bird impales its prey on thorns and barbs to hold the meal while it feeds. Sometimes it may wedge a meal into the fork of a branch so it might rip its prey apart.

It is called ‘Loggerhead’ due to the large size of its head; gray with a black mask which looks some what like a blindfold, beginning narrowly above the bill and extending across the eyes toward the back of its head. Under parts are white; wings are black with white wing-patches. The back is gray and the tail black, with white outer-feathers. Its hooked bill appears heavy and is dark in color. Again, the Northern Shrike is similar, but its mask does not extend across the top if the bill and it is a paler gray, overall; its breast is slightly barred. Unlike the dark bill of the Loggerhead, the Northern shrike’s lower mandible is light-colored and appears heavier. Male and female Shrikes are similar in size and color; younger birds are more drab.

When hunting, the Shrike waits from a perch, watching below until it quickly drops onto prey or pursues it until it is tired; when it quickly hits and stuns the prey, carries it in its bill to a ‘hanging spot’ and impales it on a sharp thorn or barb. Once the prey is dead, the bird tears and consumes small pieces. It is this habit of impaling food that has earned its moniker:
“Butcher Bird”. I understand these opportunistic birds sometimes build a ‘cache’ of food, like other birds of prey…storing available food for later use. The rather gruesome collection of hanging carcasses also contributes to its nickname. I personally watched a Loggerhead Shrike scuffle with a bird of a different species, running it off, and then pull a dead grasshopper off a twig and offer it to a mate. Perhaps, like so many other birds, this is part of the mating ritual.

Another interesting habit: a Shrike hangs poisonous prey, including monarch butterflies and eastern narrow-mouthed toads, for several days which allow poisons to break down.


Photos on this post from Wikipedia

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Don't Flush Your Drugs!

I like listening to NPR while I work or write or read. Saturday was a piece about the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) making this week “National Don’t Flush Your Drugs Week”. I can’t find the infomration online, but Google this, for half a million hits; you’ll get the idea. I must have water on the brain; since the piece regarding FLOW, I’ve been working on another I was going to call: “Pharmaceuticals in Water” I like the new title better …and I hope this important information isn’t lost in the length of this post! Please read this…there are things you can do to help.

A Growing Concern

A vast array of pharmaceuticals including antibiotics, anti-convulsants, mood stabilizers and sex hormones have been found in drinking water, according to the Associated Press investigation, which conducted an extensive investigation into the drinking water in at least twenty-four major American cities across the country. The amounts might be small, but scientists are worried about the long-term health and environmental consequences of their presence in the water supplies of some forty-one million Americans.

Concentrations are minute, but not unlike hormones and steroids given to cattle that show up in the milk we drink and the meat we eat, we have no idea what these percentages will do to us…over time. Who knew such science (again, Monsanto rules here) created to increase milk and lean-meat production would so effect our children?

Recent laboratory research has found that small amounts of medication have affected human embryonic kidney cells, human blood cells and human breast cancer cells. The cancer cells proliferated too quickly; the kidney cells grew too slowly; and the blood cells showed biological activity associated with inflammation.

In the same measure, science is affecting the very water we need to live. According to the AP investigation, there has been found in our drinking water:
  • 80+ pharmaceuticals or byproducts, including medicines for pain, infection, high cholesterol, asthma, epilepsy, mental illness, hypertension and heart problems.

  • Anti-anxiety, anti-depressants and tranquilizers

  • Sex hormones, steroids

  • Fertilizers and flame retardants were also found

According to Amy Goodman, of Democracy Now, the five-month investigation of sixty-two metropolitan areas and fifty-one smaller cities found that many drinking water suppliers, including bottled water companies, do not even test for the presence of drugs in the water. The utilities that do test for drugs often don't tell customers about the trace amounts of medications in their water. Goodman interviewed Jeff Donn, a National Writer for the Associated Press and one of the reporters who led the AP investigation. Donn pointed out that while only about half the water-utilities test for pharmaceuticals…but very few report or publish what’s detected.

- Rural and bottled water also unchecked

Many of America's wastewater treatment plants are not designed to remove pharmaceuticals and personal care products, the EPA says. Even users of bottled water and home filtration systems don't necessarily avoid exposure. Bottlers, some of which simply repackage tap water, do not typically treat or test for pharmaceuticals, according to the industry's main trade group. The same goes for the makers of home filtration systems. We need to keep this stuff out of the water system!

The AP Article reported The Stroud Water Research Center, has measured water samples from New York City's upstate watershed for caffeine, a common contaminant that scientists often look for as a possible signal for the presence of other pharmaceuticals. Though more caffeine was detected at suburban sites, researcher Anthony Aufdenkampe was struck by the relatively high levels even in less populated areas. He suspects it escapes from failed septic tanks, maybe with other drugs, and said septic systems are essentially small treatment plants that are generally unmanaged and therefore tend to fail.

There's growing concern in the scientific community, meanwhile, that certain drugs or combinations of drugs may harm humans over decades because water, unlike most specific foods, is consumed in sizable amounts every day. Our bodies may shrug off a relatively big one-time dose, yet suffer from a smaller amount delivered continuously over a half century, perhaps subtly stirring allergies or nerve damage. Pregnant women, the elderly and the very ill might be more sensitive.

Many concerns about chronic low-level exposure focus on certain drug classes: chemotherapy that can act as a powerful poison; hormones that can hamper reproduction or development; medicines for depression and epilepsy that can damage the brain or change behavior; antibiotics that can allow human germs to mutate into more dangerous forms; pain relievers and blood-pressure diuretics.

- Medications not eliminated

Some drugs, including widely used cholesterol fighters, tranquilizers and anti-epileptic medications, resist modern wastewater treatment processes. Plus, the EPA says there are no sewage treatment systems specifically engineered to remove pharmaceuticals. The same article points out yet another issue: There is evidence that adding chlorine, a common process in conventional drinking water treatment plants, makes some pharmaceuticals even more toxic.

When communities flush their toilets, wastewater laced with traces of prescription drugs rushes through a series of pipes to the treatment plant. This flushing is the main pathway by which pharmaceuticals enter the environment. Hospitals and nursing homes routinely dump unused or expired pills down the toilet, and consumers have been advised to do the same; effluent from pharmaceutical manufacturers also ends up at municipal wastewater treatment plants…and eventually our rivers.

Such studies, on various rivers throughout our country, suggest the creeks carry the signatures of drugs consumed by anyone plumbed into the system. The effect of those drugs on the environment, and possibly on all those who drink water pumped from streams, is only beginning to be understood. Some experts say medications may pose a unique danger because, unlike most pollutants, they were crafted to act on the human body.

- Wildlife problems troubling

David Norris, an environmental endocrinologist, found that female white suckers outnumber males by more than five to one, and that 50 percent of males have female sex tissue. Similar intersex changes have been found in flat-head chubs and smallmouth bass. He says “You could have six chemicals below the no-effect level, but all together they are above the no-effect level."

In lab tests, frogs and rats have developed infections and deformities after being exposed to multiple pollutants at extremely low levels. Since exposure to only one compound is rare in the modern world, sorting out "mixture effects" is a daunting but critical research area. In the United Kingdom, hormones in the environment have been linked with lowered sperm counts and gynecomastia -- the development of breasts in men.

A Baylor University researcher found tiny amounts of Prozac in liver and brain tissue of channel catfish and black crappie captured in a creek near Dallas that receives almost all of its flow from a wastewater treatment plant. The creek also connects to a drinking water supply. A University of Georgia scientist found that tadpoles exposed to Prozac morphed into undersize frogs, which are vulnerable to predation and environmental stress.

The EPA reports that antidepressants can have a profound effect on spawning and other behaviors in shellfish and that calcium-channel blockers (used to relieve chest pain and hypertension) can dramatically inhibit sperm activity in some aquatic organisms. Even at extremely low levels, ibuprofen, steroids, and antifibrotics -- a class of drugs that helps reduce the development of scar tissue -- block fin regeneration in fish. According to a worldwide network of scientists and scientific institutions, more than 200 species -- aquatic and terrestrial -- are known or suspected to have experienced adverse reactions to such endocrine disruptors as estrogen and its synthetic mimics.

Pharmaceuticals in waterways are damaging wildlife across the nation and around the globe. Notably, male fish are being feminized; creating egg yolk proteins, a process usually restricted to females. Pharmaceuticals also are affecting sentinel species at the foundation of the pyramid of life -- such as earthworms in the wild and zooplankton in the laboratory. But that’s not all.

According to this article: The cumulative effect of trace amounts of pharmaceuticals and personal-care products in the water on humans isn't yet known, but the EPA is taking preventative measures. Pharmaceuticals have already been linked to behavioral and sexual mutations in fish, amphibians and birds.

Keep in mind the old canary in the mine-shaft; amphibians and birds are our red flags of problems to come. Also how the food chain works and why predators, including large birds and fish, suffer so from pollutants. Small birds eat worms and insects (affected by pollutants)…big birds eat small birds and become concentrated with said pollutants. Same goes for fish…ever wonder why we are cautioned about eating tuna (a big fish) too often? This is exactly what happened to our eagles and why we no longer use DDT. I wonder how many human lives that saved.


Allison MacKay, an environmental engineer who specializes in aquatic chemistry, says “I don't know about drugs, but pesticides have been reformulated to degrade faster and be less bioaccumulative in water-ways." There may be a tradeoff, but we must look into this. And, we must stop flushing our pharmaceuticals. Some cities and states have begun ‘take-back programs, where consumers bring unwanted or expired medications to an official collection site. Drugs are then either returned to manufacturers or disposed of by incineration; if we can do this with our printer-ink cartridges, disposable cameras and batteries, why not our prescriptions; why not our pesticides, insecticides, herbicides?

Jeff Donn also pointed out the French, for example, have had a program for some years where when you get medicine, you also get a prepaid mailer to send it back to the pharmacy if you don't use it, and that's eventually sent for incineration if it goes back to the pharmacy.

Since February of 2007, the federal government, for the first time, has put out guidelines for consumers, regular people like us, that, with the exception of a small number of medications that are particularly sensitive, asking we not any longer flush. Instead, to mix those medicines with something unsavory so pets or children don't get at it -- coffee grounds, cat litter -- and to put it in a bag and to throw it in your regular garbage. What happens to it then is another question, but at least it doesn't directly and immediately enter the water stream. [The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the American Pharmacists Association recently launched "SMARxT DisPOSAL," a public education project about this important issue. There is a short video clip regarding just how to dispose of drugs if you cannot find a collection center.]

Goodman asked Donn about landfills and how they leache into our water. There's not much study of exactly how that process is occurring, but the scientists presume that to some degree it is possible; that some of that pharmaceutical residue will leach from waste areas, from landfills, from dumps, and eventually end up back in the groundwater. And there is research that shows that these low amounts of pharmaceuticals do end up in aquifers, the underground groundwater, and not just in streams and rivers and surface waters.

Bottled Water NOT the Answer

Here's why bottled water doesn't help, according to Food and Water Watch:

  • 40% of the bottled water sold in the United States is tap water anyway.

  • EPA requires hundreds of tests each month on municipal water supplies, but the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which regulates bottled water, requires only one test a week on bottled water.

  • Only 40% of bottled water--that which is sold across state lines--is regulated by the FDA in the first place.

  • Plastic bottles in the United States require some 1.5 million barrels of oil to manufacture each year--enough to power 100,000 cars.

  • 86% of plastic bottles in the United States never get recycled.

  • Tap water costs about a penny a gallon and bottled waters costs up to $10 a gallon.

  • Chemicals that leach from plastic water bottles may affect our health.

  • If people abandon the use of municipal drinking water, then there will be no political will to ensure that we invest the necessary resources in the water infrastructure. The United States has some of the best drinking water in the world and we must work to keep it that way.

An Ounce of Prevention…

We have long used canaries to prevent unnecessary mining deaths; we already know marine life deformities and other health effects in wildlife occur as a result of PPCPs (as Pharmaceuticals and Personal Care Products have been dubbed)…we must pay attention if we are to prevent problems to our health and to the environment. Prevention should be our first line of defense.

  • Begin by reducing over-use and inappropriate use of pharmaceuticals and other PPCPs and by safely disposing unused products.

  • Consider purchasing only cosmetics that are phthalate-free and ask manufacturers of cosmetics you use regularly to publicly pledge to remove all chemicals linked to cancer and birth defects from their products, with labeling of all ingredients as an interim measure.

  • If you eat meat, eat organic…to reduce your intake of hormones and antibiotics and to support the green livestock & poultry industries.

  • Never dispose of unused and expired medications in the sink or toilet.

  • Ask your municipality and your pharmacy to encourage a program whereby prescriptions can be disposed of safely.

  • Click here for more ideas.