Saturday, November 29, 2008

Permits Issued To Kill Woodpeckers

Ever wonder just on who's side the U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife Service is on? Check this out:

"ROSSMOOR (BCN) ― A controversy is mounting in the Walnut Creek community of Rossmoor, where two homeowner's associations have obtained permits to have up to 50 acorn woodpeckers killed.

The birds have damaged properties by drilling holes into houses to store food and homeowners have been in a "long battle" with the birds, said Maureen O'Rourke, a spokeswoman for Rossmoor.

Audubon California, part of the National Audubon Society, issued a release on Monday, expressing concern over the move to kill the birds.

"I know these residents feel they have tried everything to persuade the birds to not use residents' home, but they there are better options," Graham Chisholm, director of conservation for Audubon California, said in the statement.

Two of Rossmoor's 17 homeowner's associations obtained the permits to have the birds killed from the U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife Service in June, according to O'Rourke."
Ya know...this just boggles my mind. Sure, I was boggled earlier today with news of the tramplings (one to death) when the 5 am sale-doors opened at a Walmart yesterday. What is wrong with people?

You can find the complete story, including a video of the news story, here. While I sympathize with the homeowners...I rather prefer the Audubon people and the 'other' home builders: There's gotta be another way!

Lethal control is generally ineffective, as new birds (or about any so-targeted animal) will just move into the space vacated by the dead ones.

[UPDATE to the this article, click the link to read more information:]

Woodpeckers Reprieve:

A battle has been won, at least for now, following the meeting between MDAs members and Rossmoor yesterday. Let’s hope they can work together and come up with a solution they can both live with. Especially the Woodpeckers.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

This Just In From the New York Times

Fly up and be counted: A lovely piece that includes the story of Pedro, who became Pedro-Maria, the female Streak-backed Oriole visiting Colorado from Mexico. (No, it was not Trinidad where the bird was discovered, it was Loveland: read the story.) It was the first time such a bird was recorded here. You can find even more information and photos of this particular bird at Cornell's site.
The Streak-backed Oriole is a large oriole with mostly bright orange body except for black streaks on back. It has a deep orange-red head and breast which contrast with black face and chin. It's black wings have two bold, white bars and the black tail, white corners.

This photo shows a bird in the hand; where usually we see chickadees eating from our hands, this time it's a Red-brested Nuthatch. Hand feeding is mentioned in the Times article...I just wanted you to see birds really do do this!

Happy Thanksgiving everybody...

Photos from Wikipedia. Special thanks to Bill Schmoker for telling us about the NYT article.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Please let me be the first to say Thank You to the wonderful hosts at BESG. Not only were they gracious and absolutely delightful, but they were well organized with their Conference and ensured I knew my way around their grounds the day before the three-day meeting. It was a pleasure to meet them, as well as so many of my colleagues from all over the world, who had much to offer on such interesting topics.

Special thanks to YC at BESG, who ensured I didn't miss a thing and to Mike Bergin, of 10,000 Birds, Nature Blog Network, and of course, I and the Bird for suggesting I submit my piece in the first place.

Thank you all,

Sunday, November 23, 2008

An Ancient Murrelet in Colorado!

Last week, the day after my Pueblo trip, an Ancient Murrelet was spotted at the same lake where I’d been the day before. I missed it. Rick Clawges had his camera with him in his canoe however, and was able to get some photographs and has graciously allowed me to share them here.

Brandon Percival, my birding guru, tells me this bird has been found alive in Colorado three times since 1990; Chatfield Reservoir and Bear Creek Lakes being the other spots. He said while there have been other records of the Ancient Murrelet in Colorado, there are likely less than ten altogether.

I’ve read the birds get blown in on strong Pacific storms in the late fall, but can’t really live this far inland, as they are an ocean bird that only feeds at sea. Some Ancient Murrelets move south in winter as far as California, and odd birds are found inland in North America, carried by autumn storms. The most remarkable record of this relatively short-distance Pacific migrant was a bird found on Lundy, Devon in spring 1990. Even more remarkably, the same bird returned to this British island the following spring.

According to Ted Floyd’s Smithsonian Field Guide, it is the wispy white plumes on the otherwise dark head of a breeding bird is what gives the bird its name ‘Ancient’.

This is the largest and most distinctive murrelet at ten inches length with a wingspan of 17 inches with a gray back and white under parts extending up under the throat and sides of the neck. Its legs are set well back on the body, somewhat like a murre. The bill is short and thick and yellow; legs and feet are a pale blue. Because the legs are so far back, they do not normally stand upright on land, but lie forward on their belly. They must flap their wings to keep upright when running; they seldom walk. It can take off from water with little to no running, but often lands by diving in head first or belly flopping. It perches awkwardly in trees, often sprawling across branches; sometimes lies on its belly on large limbs.

For an auk it has a strong and maneuverable flight ability and can move surprisingly quickly through dense vegetation; darting its head from side to side to steer through branches. It can descend slowly, practically hovering, to land softly on flat ground. Like all auks, this murrelet uses both wings and feet for swimming underwater; being quite well adapted to underwater swimming. Chicks are able to swim underwater as soon as they reach the sea.

It lives on cold waters along rocky coasts of the Pacific Rim, from China to British Columbia; in the US from Alaska to central California usually in pairs or small groups at sea, sometimes forming flocks up to fifty birds. They feed on small fish, juvenile sand eels and planktonic crustacea and larger zooplankton, mostly along the edge of the continental shelf.

The Ancient Murrelet is the most abundant and widespread member of the genus Synthliboramphus, the only seabirds in which the young are reared entirely at sea. These birds normally breed at sea and then the pair digs a burrow in soft forrest soil in shallow holes under clumps of grass or in cavities formed by tree roots, occasionaly in rocky openings. They generally nest less than 300m from the sea, often on steep slopes. They avoid flat, waterlogged areas, loose soil and locations where chicks must travel uphill at any point to reach the sea. They prefer to dig a new burrow each year, so most colonies contain many unused burrows. Usually there is a bend to the tunnel, so birds can’t be seen from the entrance. Some birds pull vegetation across the burrow entrance behind them, so burrows appear unused.

Colony visits are nocturnal, generally arriving about an hour and a half after sunset and departing by an hour before sunrise. Incubation shifts are an astounding 1-6 days, but three is usual; both sexes develop brood patches and incubate eggs. The pair greet vocally for up to 45 minutes and spend several hours together, before the departing bird leaves just before dawn.

Upon hatching the chicks spend, on average, two days in the burrow before heading, in the dark of night, for the sea. They are not fed, nor do they defecate, in their burrows. Their first meal is at sea. It is apparently quite a remarkable spectacle, beginning after the arrival of the off-duty adult, generally two to four hours after sunset, that the youngsters pour down the hillsides in a beautiful, living flood to the sea.

Brandon also mentioned,
"The Pueblo Reservoir Ancient Murrelet is the 418th bird species to be found in Pueblo County. Pueblo County has the largest bird species list, than any other county in Colorado. This is certainly one of the most surprising birds to have shown up in Pueblo County."

All photos by Rick Clawges


Saturday, November 22, 2008

One last photo: Steller's Jay

I just had to share this beautiful bird with you. I found the photo on Colorado Birders, an informal, online community of folks who enjoy birding and sharing information and photos. It was taken by Klaus Girk...a self-taught photographer who's work you can see here.

I'm working on a woodpecker series, but also intend to continue the Corvid series with Magpies, Ravens and Crows...but first I have to count birds for a bit!
Enjoy your weekend!

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Corvids Part VI - Clark's Nutcracker

This is my sixth and final post in my series regarding the Corvids: the Jays specifically. I’ve decided not to include the Mexican Jay, as it is not likely I’d ever see it, even in way-south-central Colorado. Funny, when I look at a small map, Mexico just doesn’t look that far away; all my wishing isn’t going to bring them further up New Mexico, either. (They're really cool birds)

As stated, Jays 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; and they’re loud and every bit as impertinent as their name implies (Jay). Like other corvids, the Jays may even learn to mimic human speech. Jays are omnivores and eat about anything, though nuts and seeds are most important to their diet. However, 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 though, 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.

Clark's Nutcracker (Nucifraga columbiana) is ash-gray allover, with black and white wings and tail. Central tail feathers are black, outer tail-feathers white. There is a small, white patch at the trailing edges of the wings most visible in flight, on an otherwise black wing. Bill, legs and feet are black. Its primary food source are the seeds of various pines, especiall white pine, found in high altitude, cold climates. It nests early and moves to lower altitudes following the ripening cone crop of various conifers, especially pinyon pine. Nutcrackers also undergo sporadic irruptions into lowland areas…but only once every several years or more.

A bird of the high mountain regions of the American West, the Clark's Nutcracker is specialized for feeding on large pine seeds. Its behavior, annual cycle and even its morphology are closely tied to this diet. Like some other jays, this one has a special pouch for carrying seed long distances. Surplus seed is stored, usually in the ground on exposed slopes, in caches of five to ten seeds spread over a territory of something less than about fifty acres. They store more than they usually need, as protection against theft, but thereby also perpetuating its own food supply…as some of this seed sprouts to become new trees. Seed dispersal by Clark’s Nutcracker has resulted in a commonly occurring tree cluster growth form in 3 of these pines and has altered their genetic population structure in comparison to wind-dispersed pines. This storage behavior is associated with all jays’ remarkable memories; they are able to locate seed caches with remarkable accuracy; even six months later and burried under three feet of snow. When collecting seeds to cache, a bird can store as many as 90 seeds in a pouch behind its tongue. When full, the pouch forms a large bulge at the throat.

The Clark’s Nutcrackers eat much the same diet as other corvids; insects, berries, small animals and eggs…peanuts and suet from bird feeders are a favorite. They are especially adept at extracting food from pinecones by holding the cone in their feet and hacking it open with their strong bills. They locate large grubs in rotten logs in the same way and flip animal dung, again like other corvids, in search of insects.

These birds are monogamous and form long-term pair bonds. Pairs stay together on their territories year round. They begin nesting in late winter; relying on the food they have cached to raise their young. They typically nest in a conifer tree, generally in a fork at the outer branches. Both members of the pair help build the nest, which is a platform of twigs and bark, with a well-insulated cup made of bark strips and grass, with pine needles on top. The Clark's Nutcracker is one of very few members of the crow family where the male incubates the eggs. In jays and crows, taking care of the eggs is for the female only, but the male nutcracker actually develops a brood patch on its chest just like the female and takes his turn keeping the eggs warm while the female goes off to get seeds out of her caches. Almost all juveniles become independent by the time the new seed crop is ripe, making their own caches.

Populations fluctuate, but may be increasing in some areas. Declining pine species in some areas, due to cattle ranching and/or climate change, may lead to reduction in nutcracker numbers.

And again, this jay’s voice is extremely varied and it can produce many different sounds. However, the most frequent call of Clark’s Nutcracker is commonly described as khaaa-khaaa-khaaa or khraa-khraa-khraa, usually in a series of three. Listen here.


Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Happy Penguin

Okay, so the music sucks, but this video is awesome (submitted by Antarctica. SRSLY). What a surprise the folks in the boat got; I’d have feared the rest of them might have joined the one who got out of the water. Those were some big lunkers giving chase!

This is a Gentoo penguin, significantly smaller than the Emperor or King penguins that live farther south. (South Pole or Antartica…where all Penguins live!)

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

A Few Birds of Pueblo, CO

Allrighty then! Brandon Percival came through again…and sent me the list of species he and others saw on Saturday. I didn’t see every single bird, as he was birding before we arrived at 8 am, and continued near his home later in the afternoon with some of the folks going that way.

I was a bit off (trying to be conservative…I should just give that up!)…most of the group saw most of the 67 species Brandon names here. Where a number is not noted, we saw several of that species. Lordy, can you imagine? So many birds in what is really a fairly small area: Pueblo, Colorado…

Snow Goose-1, Cackling Goose (Richardson's), Canada Goose, Wood Duck, Gadwall, American Wigeon, Mallard, Canvasback-3, Lesser Scaup-3, Bufflehead, Common Goldeneye-2, Barrow's Goldeneye-1, Hooded Merganser, Common Merganser, Red-breasted Merganser, Ruddy Duck, Scaled Quail, Red-throated Loon-1, Common Loon, Pied-billed Grebe, Horned Grebe, Eared Grebe, Western Grebe, Great Blue Heron, Sharp-shinned Hawk-1, Cooper's Hawk-1, Red-tailed Hawk, American Coot, Bonaparte's Gull, Ring-billed Gull, California Gull, Herring Gull (American), Great Black-backed Gull-1, Eurasian Collared-Dove, Great Horned Owl-1, Belted Kingfisher, Yellow-bellied Sapsucker-1, Downy Woodpecker, Hairy Woodpecker-1, Northern Flicker, Black Phoebe-1, Loggerhead Shrike-2, Blue Jay-1, Black-billed Magpie, American Crow, Black-capped Chickadee, Bewick's Wren-1, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Eastern Bluebird-1, Mountain Bluebird, American Robin, Curve-billed Thrasher-4, European Starling, American Pipit, Yellow-rumped Warbler, Canyon Towhee, American Tree Sparrow, Field Sparrow-1, Song Sparrow, White-crowned Sparrow, Dark-eyed Junco, Lapland Longspur-1, Great-tailed Grackle-2, House Finch, Pine Siskin, American Goldfinch-1,
House Sparrow.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Birding at Pueblo, Colorado

On Saturday I went birding with Polly, a neighbor of mine, and the Colorado Field Ornithologists group out of Denver, led by Brandon Percival of Pueblo. I’d do more of this, if only such hikes were just the sixty miles or so we drove (one way). We hit a familiar spot, Pueblo State Park and spent most of the day wandering around Lake Pueblo (Colorado's largest body of water), the nearby Valco Ponds and Pueblo’s City Park. I got to visit with some neat folks I’ve met on previous outings, as well as some new folks, of course. Polly is a quilter, and I found it lots of fun that she ran into another quilter and ‘talked shop’, not birds, through lunch. Neat!

The day started off a bit chilly, someone said 16 degrees, but soon it was a typical fall day in any Colorado park; green grass covered inches-thick with leaves from dozens of deciduous trees, blue skies and warm temperatures, in the seventies by afternoon.
Perhaps most folks were tickled to find the ‘promised’ Red-throated Loon, Gavia stellata, that Brandon had found there the previous weekend. Personally, all I saw was a duck-shaped blob on the lake; as it was at least a couple miles away. Those who know loons however, noted its small size (for a loon) and its short, somewhat up-turned bill. Right… Of course, this being winter-plumage time, the bird didn’t even have a red throat; but they were thrilled, non the less, and excited to add the unusual bird (for Colorado) to their life lists. Polly, having more experience birding than myself, with Loons in particular, watched it long enough to feel comfortable adding it to her list…but for me: it could have been a Penguin. Sheeshhhhhhhh

My favorite life-bird of the day (as a new birder, I have lots of these) was the Canyon Towhee, Pipilo fuscus, which we spotted in the parking lot. I had some nuts in my pocket, and broke a few up to toss towards them; one came immediately and scarffed ‘em up. There were several, hopping and searching for bugs under the low walkway to the pier; delightful to watch. They looked a lot like plump, long tailed, earthy-brown robins with rufus crowns. Usually somewhat skulky, these few were almost gregarious. I couldn't find a decent photo to post here (free), as the ones I saw had a lovely, wide rufus crown-patch that was really quite stunning.

We also spotted another new bird for me, the American Tree Sparrow, Spizella arborea, a medium-sized sparrow foraging in the low brush. Those who know it were alerted by its melodious call. Adults have a narow, rusty cap and grey underparts with a small dark spot on the breast. They have a rusty back with lighter stripes, brown wings with white bars and a slim tail. Their face is grey with a rusty line through the eye and their flanks are splashed with light brown. They are similar in appearance to the Chipping Sparrow.

This bird's song is a sweet, high warble descending in pitch and becoming buzzy near the finish. Polly insisted they were giving us ‘the raspberry’…which is exactly what it sounded like! I’ll never forget that.

We found a favorite bird of mine and got to watch it for some time: the Black Phoebe, Sayornis nigricans. It had positioned itself on a naked branch along the river from which it regularly salied, hawking insects; only to return to the same spot over and over again. Nice bird!

The Black Phoebe is North America’s only small, black-and white flycatcher. In many areas, natural nest sites; such as sheltered rock faces, streamside boulders, and hollow cavities in trees, have largely given way to artificial nest sites provided by human-made structures. Such artificial sites have greatly increased breeding densities of this species in habitats where the lack of suitable nest sites once limited breeding. So if you think offering bird houses is silly; think again …especially if you have a pond or live near water.

Black Phoebes are monogamous and frequently raise 2 broods of young during a breeding season. Their adherent nests are composed of a mud shell lined with plant fibers, typically placed over water and plastered to a vertical wall within a few centimeters of a protective ceiling.

For such a small bird, I find it astounding that individuals are known to snatch small minnows from just below the water’s surface. Rarely, they also eat small berries. In this time of interest in combating mosquitoes without poison…flycatchers, like bats, are extreamly important. I'm pleased to say I believe I've seen one in my yard.

Over at the city park, Brandon found a Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Regulus calendula, a very small songbird. Both the male and female have olive-grey plumage with a thin, black bill and short tail and stocky little, round bodies. The male bears a red crown which gives the bird its common name. They have white wing bars and a white broken eye ring. The adult male has a red patch on his crown which you will only see if he is agitated.

These birds forage actively in trees or shrubs, mainly eating small insects and spiders and their eggs, some berries and tree sap. During breeding season they feed same as in winter except no vegetable matter eaten. They may hover over a branch while feeding and sometimes fly out to catch insects in flight; hawking like a flycatcher.

This Kinglet, one of North America’s smallest songbirds, has a loud, complex song and, with up to 12 eggs, lays the largest clutch of any North American passerine for its size. Males and females are nearly identical in plumage…except for that red (rarely yellow or orange) crown-patch.

They are in constant motion…regularly flicking their wings like some sort of hyperactive youngster. These kinglets prefer to stay low, flitting in and out of deciduous thickets and trees where it especially likes the outer branches.

We also saw dozens of Robins and a couple Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers, Sphyrapicus varius, which apparently winter there at the park. Brandon had found a youngster for us earlier this year, near Westcliff, but the female we saw this day was a delight.

Widely known in North American folklore for its amusing name, this woodpecker creates shallow holes (sap wells) in the bark of trees and feeds on sap that flows into them. Like other sapsuckers, the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker creates elaborate systems of such sap wells and maintains them daily to ensure sap production, defending the wells from other birds, including other sapsuckers. When feeding young, sapsuckers usually forage for arthropods, especially ants, but some of these prey items are dipped in sap wells, perhaps for added nutritional value.

Its habit of making shallow holes in trees to get sap is exploited by other bird species; especially the Ruby-throated Hummingbird which appears to be closely allied with sapsuckers. This sapsucker can be considered a "keystone" species, one whose existence is vital for the maintenance of a whole community.

At the Duck Pond at Pueblo’s City Park, we saw the most incredible Wood Ducks. I’d seen them before, but not so up-close and personal. Red eyes, green, white-lined heads with purple crowns, purple/mahogany chests and rear parts…chest spotted in white and sides, also lined in white, are golden. Males look an awful lot alike a paint-by-number bird…painted by someone under the influence of drugs. The brownish to gray female Wood Duck is distinguished by a pronounced white patch around the eye, white throat, and gray crest.

The Wood Duck, Aix sponsa, is a common bird of riparian habitats, wooded swamps, and freshwater marshes. It is also the most successful of the seven species of North American ducks that regularly nest in natural cavities. This species’ body and eyes appear well adapted to the wooded habitat it favors: its slim body allows use of Pileated Woodpecker cavities for nesting

In the duck pond, I had my first look at American Wigeons, Anas americana, commonly known as the “Baldpate,” is one of the most northerly dabbling ducks, breeding from the Bering Sea to Hudson Bay and from the tundra edge south to the southern prairies. They do look sort of ‘bald’ with that wide, light golden-white crown-stripe from bill to back of the head. This is a common and increasingly abundant duck that sounds like a exactly like a squeaky-toy when it whistles.

Mixed in with other ducks were some huge, wild-looking, fluffy-butted geese with gray necks and long waddles on the inside of their necks from under the bill, several inches down their necks.

We also saw Canada Geese and their recently split cousins Cackling Geese which look much the same but are considerably smaller. [BosqueBill has written a wonderful new piece regarding Cackling Geese here]

One lone Snow Goose, totally dwarfed by the exotic escapees, was also on the little lake.


Photos from Wikipedia

Thursday, November 13, 2008

To Protest or Not?

I live in a rural area and travel the little highway
between home and work. Along the way is a large pond that, on a quiet day, reflects the mountains behind it. I have stopped there many times to watch birds or just enjoy the beautiful sight.

Twice, I have (badly) photographed swallows there. I don’t have a long lens for quality pictures, but tried to shoot the birds as they daubed mud under the eves, obviously building nests. And twice, I have returned days later to find no swallows and the entire building scrubbed clean; barely a shadow of mud where the nests had been remained.

Okay... it’s a motel. Even though it’s the far end of their building, I’m sure owners would prefer not to have a driveway full of guano greeting prospective guests. But…how do they get rid of the birds? I imagine pressure hoses…but when do they do this? Were the nests usable yet? Where there eggs in the nests? Where do the birds go after such an assault? Do the people poison them, I wonder; trap them perhaps?

This is a small town; I’ve been here only a few years. I realize tree-huggers are not the most welcome folks in many farming and ranching communities where herbicides, pesticides, and shooting anything deemed a problem is pretty common. And, who cares about a few hundred messy swallows?

What to do, what to do? Researching the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, I found this:

Birds protected under the act include all common songbirds, waterfowl, shorebirds, hawks, owls, eagles, ravens, crows, native doves and pigeons, swifts, martins, swallows and others, including their body parts (feathers, plumes etc), nests, and eggs.

‘Take’ is defined as "to pursue, hunt, shoot, wound, kill, trap, capture, or collect, or any attempt to carry out these activities." A take does not include habitat destruction or alteration, as long as there is not a direct taking of birds, nests, eggs, or parts thereof.

Activities which are most likely to result in ‘take’ of migratory birds on highway projects include, but are not limited to, clearing or grubbing of migratory bird nesting habitat during the nesting season when eggs or young are likely to be present, bridge cleaning, painting, demolition, or reconstruction where bird nests are present (for example, swallows). In anticipation of this situation, structures can be protected from nest establishment by various measures, such as netting or other means of interference with establishment of nests that does not result in death or injury to adults. Removal of inactive nests of migratory birds should not be accomplished prior to consultation with the USFWS office with local jurisdiction. A permit may be required for removal of inactive nests.

So, while I sympathize with motel owners and understand their need for a clean rest-stop…I wonder if what is happening is legal and handled in a way that is not detrimental to the birds. I also wonder if I’m prepared to be a Whistle Blower. If I were to complain, who does one complain to…about the possibility of miss-treated swallows?

What would you do? Please take the poll on the right
and/or leave a comment or suggestion for me.


Photographs from Wikipedia

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Corvids Part V - The Gray Jay

The Gray Jay, Perisoreus canadensis, occupies permanent all-purpose territories in climatically hostile territories made possible by its unusual food storage behavior. Copious, sticky saliva from enlarged salivary glands is used to fasten food items in trees, food that is used extensively by pairs throughout the winter and other times of the year.

Gray Jays often carry food with their feet in flight, which is unusual for songbirds. This bird is truly omnivorous, eating everything from live beetles to dead deer. Gray jays consume berries and a variety of insects, notably grasshoppers, caterpillars, bees, and wasps. During winter, they eat lichens, as well as carrion and even the occasional small, live rodent.

At only ten inches long, this is one of the smallest jays in the world, with light gray underparts, medium-gray upper parts, and a partial black cap on the back of an otherwise white head. On the Pacific coast of Washington and Oregon these birds have more extensive black on the head and noticeably darker backs with conspicuous white streaks. Individuals from the southern Rockies have black caps that don’t reach as far as the eye and a white forhead, giving that race a noticeably more white-headed appearance. The rather fluffy bird looks a lot like an over-grown chickadee with its dark crown and short bill. Until August, juvenile birds are a dark, sooty gray all over, though slightly darker on the head.

Most Gray Jays inhabit forests with black, white and Engleman spruce or jack or lodgepole pines. While they inhabit forests where temperatures are cold enough to successfully store caches of perishable food, they do not live in the seemingly idea Sierra Nevadas where no spruce or these two pines occur. Apparently it is the tree bark of the trees they prefer; pliable scales arranged in a shingle-like configuration that allows Gray Jays to wedge food items easily up into dry, concealed storage locations. Storage may also be assisted by the antibacterial properties of the bark and foliage of boreal tree species. There are exceptions in subspecies along the coasts of Washington and northern California and in the White Mountains of New Hampshire where the absence specific trees is matched by the absence of cold temperatures that necessitate storing food.

These jays live in pairs, each defending an area of about 50-250 acres against its neighbors. Often a pair is accompanied by a third bird, usually the dominant young from the pair’s own previous nesting, but sometimes it is an unrelated immigrant expelled from another territory. The pair or trio (rarely quartet) moves through the forest in a loose group, scanning the surroundings for food and keeping a sharp eye out for predators.

They do not migrate, but may move down-slop during winter. What they eat is similar to other jays, however they cannot open cones and do not rely on boreal seed crops. While some food is eaten directly, many individual items or pieces are coated with sticky saliva and ‘pasted’ in thousands of individual hiding places up in the trees, often in bark crevices...generally above snow-level. These food stores make it possible for Gray Jays to avoid the hazards of migration and to have an annual adult survival rate that is much greater than for most other comparably small birds; nearly eighty percent. Surprisingly, most Gray Jay deaths occur not in the harsh and apparently foodless boreal winter, but in the summer; probably due to migratory raptors.

Gray Jays readily capitalize on novel food sources. They have learned that humans can be an excellent source of food: not only stealing the bait in traps or food left out at camp sights, they will come to an outstretched hand to take bread, raisins or cheese. This tameness can also lead to the pilferage of food not offered, and is responsible for it earning several nicknames: meat-bird, camp robber, venison-hawk, moose-bird and, most notable of all, ‘whiskeyjack’ a corruption of the Native American name, variously written as wiskedjak, whiskachon, wisakadjak; a mischievous prankster.

While Gray Jays are widespread in boreal and sub alpine habitats only lightly occupied by humans, we may have a significant impact on these birds through climate warming; which plays havoc with food storage; perhaps the most singularly important factor in late winter nesting. And these birds do nest in late winter, but oddly only nest once.

The reason might be that, while nesting at a seemingly hostile time of year, their cached food supplies insures success in spite of the seeming lack of food sources. Because of their stored food supples, Gray Jays are able to successfully raise young and have nesting over and done with before most birds even return from migration. This gives them a jump on storing food for the next winter. All in all, because of their cached food supplies, they are able to produce more young more often than if they re-nested or nested only once later in the season. Climate change is affecting this success.

When young Gray Jays fledge, they huddle together for warmth at the start and eventually begin foreging through the forest as part of the family group. However, at about 55 days, about June, the dominant juvenile will expel younger siblings from the territory. The dominant young bird, occasionally two, will accompany parents for the following fall and winter; benifiting from their experience and protection. While some are able to hook up with pairs that were uncessfully at breeding that year, some eighty percent of the banished birds die. So why doesn’t this banishment happen later in the year?

One reason may be that young birds are most likely not very good at caching food for their first winter. Though they start this behavior quite young, they require their parents help to survive that first year; and it is likely most adult birds would not be able to subsidize more than one, or possibly two, extra birds.

Another interesting fact is that Gray Jays while these birds begin nesting again in February or March, they will not tolerate that dominant juvenile’s assistance. Many birds, particularly tropic species and notably including jays, help feed nestlings and participate in defending them from predators. Such help has been shown to improve the production of surviving young and since the helpers are usually non breeders with the same genes, the helper-bird increases their own genes in the next generation…just as if they had bred themselves.

Keeping a nest inconspicuous is one way to avoid predators, so it might be advantageous to disallow help from the previous year’s youngsters. However, while the breeding pair will not tolerate help feeding nestlings, it will allow help once the young have left the nest and can fly a bit. This makes sense as, once they can fly nestlings are more easily able to avoid predators. This is supported by the fact that, while in the nest, even the parents help keep the nest inconspicuous by bringing maximum amounts of food at each visit and later make more frequent feedings with smaller food loads.

Calls are generally soft, husky or whistled notes in a short series; "cha-cha-cha-cah." or a clear whistled "whee-oo." Listen here.

Sources include:

Pictures from Wikipedia

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Leucistic Golden Eagle - Update II

On July 12, 2008 the Nature and Raptor Center of Pueblo admitted a very unique patient: a leucistic Golden Eagle. Leucism, sometimes called (incorrectly) ‘partial albinism’, is a genetic condition where the creature's cells contain pigments, but not all of the pigments are turned on. In albinism, the animal has no pigmentation at all; to the degree its eyes appear red. Leucistic animals have some pigment; either all-over lighter than normal, or a blotchy-white patch or two…and dark eyes. You can view photos of leucistic creatures here.

For the past several months, the young eagle (ID# 08-4082) has been convalescing from a soft tissue injury to the left shoulder, extensive damage to its feathers and a heavy parasite load. The eagle’s feathers were literally shredded. Some of them were just shafts; the webbing had been worn away. Others had been damaged from a type of lice that eats the feathers. The Center estimates that some 70% of his feathers were dam­aged to some degree. His recovery will take some time and there is no projected release date. For now he still needs rest, good food and more time to heal. Because the Golden Eagle is under rehabilitation care, he is not available for public viewing.

However, I just spoke with the caretaker at the center and discovered the eagle is doing very well; though he has good days and bad. His shoulder has healed and he was flying the length of the cage in which he has been held these past months. Due to some work at the Center, the opportunity was taken to move the bird to a larger flight-cage where he continues to improve. He continues to replace feathers, and has gained weight he lost when unable to fly.

It appears this Golden Eagle is 1-2 years old…that he has survived that long is a testament to his ability to take care of himself; generally only about 30% of eaglets survive as long. While the lack of pigment makes feathers weak and prone to faster wear and tear, #4082 has molted and his new feathers are coming in somewhat darker than they were. It is possible the UV rays will bleach them lighter again…we don’t know for sure what to expect.

He continues to improve; it is possible he will be released in the future…perhaps to a more remote location where he will be safe. Because he is a young bird it is not necessary to return him to the location where he was found. It is most likely that, if he is able to be returned to the wild, no announcement will be made…until after the fact. Again, these precautions are all about keeping the bird safe.

Be sure to visit the Nature and Raptor Center of Pueblo; you can read their newsletter online and even view some of the birds by remote camera…as soon as they hook it back up; the birds are getting a new roof!

Just for fun, here's a cool site with lots of beautiful white birds

Friday, November 7, 2008

Corvids Part IV - Western Scrub-Jay

The species formerly known as "Scrub Jay" has been broken into three separate species, of which theWestern Scrub-Jay (also known as the California Jay or Long-tailed Jay), is one. This species can be devided into three additional forms…which may or may not be separate species; the Mexican Jay is one.

This jay’s tail is noticably longer than the Steller’s and it lacks a crest. It is dark blue overall with pale grey or whitish underparts and a dark grey cheek and bright blue necklace. Internally based species are more pale than island species and costal species. There is a narrow whitish line over it’s eye.

In addition to urban gardens, Scrub-Jays inhabit areas of low scrub; especially pinyon-juniper forests, oak woods and sometimes mesquite bosques where, feeding in pairs and family groups, they feed on frogs and lizards, eggs and young birds, insects and in wintertime, grains, nuts and berries. This bird is non-migratory and
will come to bird feeders and campsights where it can become quite tame.

Western Scrub-Jays, like many other corvids, exploit food surpluses by storing food in caches scattered within their territories. In the process of collecting and storing this food, western scrub-jays have shown an ability to plan ahead in choosing cache sites to provide adequate food volume and variety for the future. Because of their excellent observational spatial memories, they will steal food from other birds caches. To protect their caches from potentials thieves, they implements a number of strategies to reduce this risk of theft.

The Western Scrub-Jay has been used in laboratory studies of its ability to hide (cache) and remember seeds. Jays that had stolen the caches of other jays noticed if other jays were watching them hide food. If they had been observed, they would dig up and hide their food again. Jays that had never stolen food did not pay any attention to whether other jays were watching them hide their food.

The Western Scrub-Jay feeds on parasites on the body of mule deer, hopping over the body and head of the deer to get them. The deer often help the jays by standing still and holding their ears up. Oddly, Western Scrub-Jays in areas where acorns are abundant have deep, stout, slightly hooked bills. Those in areas with lots of pinyon pine have long, shallow, pointed bills. The shape of the bill helps the jays open their preferred foods: a stout bill is good for hammering open acorns and the hook helps rip off the shell; a thinner, more pointed bill can get in between pine cone scales to get at the pine seeds.

While the Western Scrub-Jay’s broad diet of mainly arthropods and nuts is similar to those of its sympatric relatives, it tends to frequent drier, hotter, and more open habitat and is typically found at lower elevations than the other species. Birds in interior populations are paler and more shy than coastal birds, which are darker in color and more bold in behavior.

Western Scrub-Jays are typically monogamous, and nest in shrubs or low trees. Both members of the pair help build the nest, which is a thick-walled cup made of grass, twigs, and moss, lined with soft rootlets and hair.
The Western Scrub-jay, Aphelocoma californica, with several of its current subspecies and hybridizations is possibly more than one distinct species; a Pacific species of the west, and another east of the Rocky Mountains (including Florida); with each group containing several subspecies more genetically distinct. (See Systematics here.)

Another nice video clip here.

Sources include:
    • Pictures from Wikipedia