Birds

Pneumatic Bones: Bones that Breathe

Penguin skeleton (Photo: Wiki Commons)

Pneumatic Bones in Birds and You

As a birder and naturalist  I love it when I learn new information that not only helps me understand the avian world but also my own, thus the post this week. Most of us learned long ago that birds have hollow bones. We learned in grade school that it helps the birds be lighter so that they can fly. However, there's something more to unpack in the story that I think is pretty neat, they can breathe with those hollow bones.

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How an Owl Hears: Five Key Facts

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Owl at night (Photo: Wiki Commons, Martin Mecnarowski).

Owl Hearing Explained

Nature never does anything without a reason and there’s a reason for everything that birds do, such as why hawks and eagles hunt during the day and most owls hunt at night.  In ecology lingo it’s called “habitat partitioning,” which means using different parts of the habitat at different times or in different ways and not overlapping. This allows predatory birds like eagles and hawks to avoid conflict, and mice to be terrified 24 hours a day (it’s rough being lowest on the food chain).

Hunting at night isn’t nearly as simple as hunting during the day. Night hunters can’t use their eyesight very well (except during times of the full moon), prey animals can hear them coming (because it’s more still), and they have to land on a scampering wee beastie that is moving lightning fast (in, under, and around things) on the forest floor (or flying) with accuracy. Not much to ask eh? Owls are spectacular hunters, and I’ve come to appreciate their adaptations for catching prey, in particular their accuracy and hearing. That's why I thought I'd do a post on how an owl hears.

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What's the Best Bald Eagle Cam?

Eagle cam from the National Arboretum (Photo: American Eagle Foundation).

Eagle cam from the National Arboretum © 2016 American Eagle Foundation, EAGLES.ORG (Photo: American Eagle Foundation).

Bald Eagle Cam Suggestions

Living in the nation's capitol comes with a certain panache of patriotism, and with that DC has gone bald eagle crazy for the latest round of chicks that have hatched at the National Arboretum. You can watch every move of mom and dad eagle, every pip of the eggs hatching, and the woozy wobbling of the young in real time on their eagle cam (short for camera). It's fascinating, and unpredictable. I would also venture it's something like watching fish in a tank, it is relaxing and lowers blood pressure too. In light of this I thought it would be useful to list some of the best live eagle cams on the web.

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How Can I ID a Feather?

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Feather identification (Photo: Wiki Commons).

Quick Tips for IDing a Feather

If you're like me, you hike through the woods looking around for neat rocks, stones, shells, and feathers just like a magpie. I have a reason to collect, because I teach with what I find, so I don't just pick up stuff (and my institution has a permit for whatever I collect). However, for many people they just like to look for neat things in the woods as they hike or seek solitude. One of the most popular posts on this site has been about the US Fish and Wildlife Service's Feather Atlas. I'll include more information about that particular resource, but I wanted to start with a quick  primer on the parts of a feather, and what you should be looking at when you find a feather and how to ID it.

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What is Mistletoe?

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Mistletoe berries from the UK (Photo: Wiki Commons).

The Irony of Mistletoe As the "Kissing Plant"

Evergreens have long been a symbol of winter and holiday celebrations around the new year. Evergreen boughs are brought inside, holly trees and their red berries seem festive, and even Christmas ferns are used for decorations. There's one evergreen that has especially stood out over the years, and that's mistletoe. Today's post is all about this unique plant, and why it's ironic that this particular evergreen is associated with lovers and "kissing under the mistletoe" traditions.

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Short-eared Owls and Their Winter Visitation

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Short-eared owl (Photo: Flicker Sharing Rick Leche)

Introduction to the Short-eared Owl and What To Look For

Most people are pretty familiar with at least some of the owls of North America, including barn owls (big, white pretty owl), barred owls (the ones that say "who cooks for you" when they hoot), great horned owls (the really big ones that make characteristics hooting), screech owls (cute little fuzzy things that sound terrifying, like whinnying horses), and of course snowy owls (made famous by Harry Potter). However, there's an owl that is just as common that few people know about, and it is currently coming down from Canada and the Arctic, visiting all of North America. It is the short-eared owl. In this post I'll tell you what to look for and where, so you can start to keep an eye out for amazingly beautiful owls, because they're actually easier to see than most other owls.

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Why Does a Woodpecker Not Bash Its Brains In When It Pecks?

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Pileated Woodpecker (Photo: Wiki Commons)

Protections of the Woodpecker for Pecking

Have you ever seen a flicker or woodpecker pounding away at bark, or annoyingly on a tin roof, and wondered how in the world they can do that without bashing in their brains? After all, the force of that is measured at over 1,000x the force of gravity!  The answer is pretty complex, but you can break it down into some simple parts:

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How Birds Make Sounds

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Meadowlark singing (Photo: John Carrel, Flicker Sharing).

How Exactly Do They Make Notes?

One of the joys of walking through a forest is listening to bird songs. It's like meeting old friends when you can hear a song and know exactly what type of bird is singing. Have you ever wondered exactly how birds make sounds and notes? I've always been fascinated by this because there are some birds that can sing more than one note at a time. This is especially true of birds in the thrush family; and my favorite bird songs are those made by the wood thrush (hylocichla mustelina). Check out this video of a wood thrush singing. Close your eyes and see if you can hear the multiple notes that it makes at the same time.

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Book Titles For the Birds and Avian Humor

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A rather funny blue footed booby (Photo: Wiki Commons)

Bird Related Book Humor

Birders (those who bird watch) and naturalists often have very esoteric (strange?)  and earthy humor but it's uniquely paired with wit, which I love. In this blog post I want to tip my hat to a bird humor group that I joined called the "Facebook Bird Identification Group." This group prides itself in all the completely wrong and improbable identification makes that you could possibly every come up with about birds, in a fun and cheeky way. Recently one of the members posted a request for members to think of all of the bird-based novels they could possibly come up with, and the responses were amazing. I couldn't help but want to share these with the greater world because they are just that funny. So, without further ado here are Book Titles for the Birds, brought to you by the inspired minds of the "Facebook Bird Misidentifiers.

  • A Connecticut Warbler in King Bird’s Court
  • A Farewell to Terns
  • A River Shrike Runs Through It
  • A Room with a Smew
  • A Tree Sparrow Grows in Brooklyn
  • Ana Caracarinina
  • Ani
  • Are you there Godwit It’s Me Murlet?
  • Beauty and the Beaks
  • Blackbird Beauty
  • Bleak House Finch
  • Bonfire of the Chickadees

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Hummingbird Food Recipe: Without The Red Dye

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Ruby-Throated Hummingbird (Photo: Wiki Commons)

How To Prepare Hummingbird Food

Hummingbirds are one of natures miracles of flight. Here in the East our most common humming bird is the Ruby-throated hummingbird (Archilochus colubris). They are bright emerald green (the males) or a muted green (females) and are about 2-3" in size. The males have a patch of iridescent feathers on their throats for display. Amazingly Ruby-throats weigh about 2-6 g. To give you an idea of how light this is, the standard penny weighs about 2.5 g, so a hummingbird can be about 1-3 pennies in weight! Their wings beat so fast (up to 53x per second) that they make a humming sound. When they fly their wings actually make a figure 8 motion. Check out this slow motion video below.

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Predatory Bird Beaks: Featuring Tomial Teeth and Cranial Kinesis

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A Cooper's hawk with a tomial tooth for dispatching prey. (Photo: Taken at Smithsonian Natural History Museum)

Predatory Bird Adaptations for Dispatching Prey

When you hear the term "raptor", it sounds like something out of the movie Jurassic Park, but it's also another name for birds of prey. In Latin, rapere means to literally "seize or take by force", which is how they obtain their food. Birds of prey are apex predators and they eat other animals for their sustenance. Predatory birds include eagles, hawks, falcons, buzzards, harriers, kites, ospreys, true hawks, New World vultures (from North and South America), caracaras, secretary birds, and owls.

Raptors are adapted to catching, dispatching, and consuming their chosen foods. To be considered a bird of prey, they must have strong feet and curving talons for gripping prey, a curved beak for ripping apart their food and/or dispatching it, and strong eyesight (vultures are a special exception to most of these, but they are still categorized as a bird of prey due to genetic classification).   Today I want to focus on the beaks of birds of prey; in particular, falcons, kites, and some accipiters (namely, sharp-shinned and Cooper's hawks). I also want to introduce you to some interesting avian terminology.

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A peregrine falcon with a clearly defined tomial tooth (Photo: Taken at Smithsonian Natural History Museum)

Raptor beaks, like all bird beaks, have an underlying boney support system for both the upper mandible  (maxilla) and lower mandible (mandible), that is super light and hollow like their bones. These boney structures are covered in keratin, which is similar to your hair or nails. This keratin is "keratinized", or layered, to make it very hard. The keratinized layer of bird beaks is called the RHAMPHOTHECA (Ram-theka), which is thought to be a modified version of reptile scales. Many sea turtles that feed on vegetation also have rhamphothecia.

In the beak, there are both melanin and carotenoids which provide coloring. This is why some beaks are dark and some are light. Birds breathe through their NARES, or nasal openings, which are usually found on the top mandible. Falcons have a slightly tubular opening on their nares (see picture above), which is speculated to be to slow airflow into their nose and act as a foil when they are in a dive. Bird breathing is a very fascinating topic that I'll cover later because it's complex.  It is very much like the circular breathing of didgeridoo players.

I'm not going to go into all the details about the boney structures and supports that attach the beak to the skull. You can read about that in more detailed ornithological texts (I particularly like Manual of Ornithology by Proctor and Lynch). However, I do want to focus on two key features of some raptor beaks that make them adapted for dispatching prey. The first adaptation is something called CRANIAL KINESIS.  This is simply the movement between the upper jaw and the brain case through joints that are supported with tendons and muscles. Cranial kinesis is present in fish, reptiles, and birds of all kinds.  It is not present in modern amphibians such as crocodiles, turtles and mammals,  though it was in ancient amphibians.  This means that reptiles, amphibians, and mammals don't hinge their jaws in the same way that birds do.

Most birds exhibit a form of cranial kinesis called PROKINESIS.  This means that their upper beak hinges at the the base of the beak and at the naso-frontal hinge. The beak moves up and down from the brain case using a flexible set of ligaments. The advantages of this are that the birds can increase the angle at which their mouth opens, they can raise their upper jaw but keep their head and lower jaw still, and it provides a faster jaw closure on the hinge system. Parrots have the most extreme prokinesis because they have to use their beaks to crack very hard nuts.

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Notice the clearly defined tomial tooth on this Sharp-shinned hawk (Photo: Smithsonian Environmental Research Center collection).

Raptors use their prokinesis for a variety of functions ranging from ripping and tearing meat to dispatching prey, which leads me to the second feature of raptor beaks.    Found in falcons, kites, and accipiters,  the TOMIAL TOOTH (pl. mandibular tomia) is  the outer, or cutting edge of  of the beak.  This "tooth"  is the protrusion that extends from the tomial edge of the beak and is thought to be used to deliver the killing blow to prey. The tomial tooth of the upper mandible is often matched by a mandibular notch, or divot, in the lower mandible. Look at the picture of the Cooper's hawk above to see these.

This tomial tooth system is important because not all raptors rely solely on their muscular feet and talons to dispatch their prey. Birds like falcons may grab their prey and then use the lever-powered beak to sever the spinal cord of the prey that they catch. They slide their beak over the neck of their prey and use the upper and lower mandible to sever the spinal column. This sounds cruel, but it's quite efficient and puts the prey out of discomfort very quickly.

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American Kestrel (also a falcon) with a clear tomial tooth for dispatching insects and birds. (Photo: Smithsonian Environmental Research Center collection).

I know this is technical jargon, but for naturalists, it's quite fascinating. The tomial tooth is found mostly in birds of prey that eat other birds or insects, and that needed to kill them quickly, perhaps, even in flight. Other birds of prey may show some slight tomial indentations but not to the extent that falcons, kites, and accipiters do. When teaching about raptors, this can be a fun talking point to engage students with raptor beaks and their associated adaptations.

 

What To Do If You Find a Baby Bird

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Rescue or Not To Rescue, That Is The Question

It's that time of year again, with birds courting, laying eggs, and soon to be hatched fledglings hopping everywhere. This is the season I dread the most because it's when people start calling about baby birds and often dump the babies on my doorstep. For this blog post I thought it would be timely to cover what to do if you find a baby bird.

Before we begin, I want to caveat this post by saying that it's always best to leave wildlings in nature if you can, even if it means their demise. I  know this is a hard thing to hear. After speaking with rehabilitators I've come to accept that survival during and after rehabilitation for most species of birds is very low. They just can't endure the stress of captivity. Put yourself in the shoes (over-sized feet?) of a baby bird bird. You're captured by giants, shoved into a cave with bars, fed food through a plastic syringe, you expect to be eaten by said large predatory giants that have taken you, your family is gone, and you are surrounded by new smells in a frightening environment with people oogling you. It makes sense for something as fragile as a 6 to 10 day old baby bird to be stressed to death. By leaving baby birds in their environments and providing some minimal amount of help if necessary you are giving the bird its best chance at survival. If it gets eaten or passes on then it becomes a part of the cycle of life, as food for something else, and its genes are not passed on. This is how nature works. For those of you with children this may be a bit difficult to convey without lots of tears but I'd suggest the story book "Everybody is Somebody's Lunch" by Cherie Mason. I do want to stress that I have great respect for bird and animal rehabilitators. They are under-paid and truly are wonderful people that are dedicated to wildlife. They do a great job when called upon.

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Baby sparrow in the nest (Photo: Wiki Commons)

On that note, let's discuss what you can do to help you asses the situation when you do find a baby bird. First, what did you find? Often times you'll see baby birds in various stages of feathering that have either fallen out of the nest, been pushed out by their more aggressive siblings, or jumped out on purpose. Begins with these steps;

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Introducing the American Woodcock, or Timberdoodle, the True Sign of Spring

American woodcock flicker tombenson76

Timberdoodle Natural History

One of the sure signs of Spring in this region is the "speent" of the American woodcock (Scolopax minor) calling at night, and their silhouetted flight with spiraling sing song wings as they ascend and descend against the slowly falling dusk. The American woodcock has many  names but the most popular is the timberdoodle. These birds are stocky brown and mottled to match leaf litter coloring, about the size of a pigeon but with a rounded stocky body and broad chest with a tapering and barely noticeable tail. They are actually shorebirds that have converted their hunting methods from using their short necks and long curved beaks to probe in the mud for clams, to probing in the mud for worms, insects, and other creatures in leaf litter. Their beak is flexible and can bend slightly to allow it to move around in worm burrows and under ground (check out "speenting" video below, you can see the beak flex slightly while the male is calling).

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An Introduction to the Teaching and The Citizen Science Website Journey North

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Journey North, a Citizen Science Website for Everyone

Journey North is a Citizen Science Website That Tracks Phenology (life cycle changes in plants and animals) and Seasonal Changes

Spring weather has briefly visited us this week, though the cold is coming back soon. But invariably we're seeing the first signs of Spring everywhere. This weekend the first osprey was spotted locally, geese are migrating, red-winged blackbirds are singing out their territories, and I heard a lone spring peeper. With thoughts of spring it's a good time to make you aware of a wonderful resource for citizen science. The website Journey North is designed as a tool for individuals and classrooms, as well as informal educators, to use for tracking seasonal changes and migrations. The term for tracking the seasonal life cycle changes of plants and animals is called phenology. This website provides the tools to track the phenology of robins, humming birds, whales, barn swallows, worms, first leaf-out, eagles, flowers blooming, caribou, whooping cranes, and so much more. They also specialize in providing tracking maps and information for recording seasonal changes in sunlight and weather.

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Examples of projects found on the Journey North website and "teaching" pages.

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How Do Birds With Long Necks Keep Their Feathers Clean? The Answer, Pectinate Toes with Built in Combs In Their Toenails

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Great blue heron feet (Photo: Judy Bissett)

A Short Description of Pectinate Toes

Nature is full of wonderful adaptations that answer questions that we as humans haven't even thought to ask, but that concern the animals they involve daily. One of those questions, that led to this blog post, was, "How do birds with long necks and beaks preen their heads to keep them looking good and the feathers aligned?" After a quick bit of digging, and checking out the stuffed and mounted great blue heron in our education center, I came up with the answer. They use their toes. More specifically they have what are called pectinate toes.

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Pectinate toe of a great blue hear, notice comb like structures (Photo: Karen McDonald)

Pectinate toes are usually found in birds of the Order Ciconiiformes and the family Ardeidae which includes herons, egrets, and bitterns. There are a few other species of birds that have pectinate toes, such as barn owls and night jars such as common night hawks. A pectinate toe is usually the longest forward facing toe on a bird's foot, and can be found on one or both feet. This toe has a special toenail with serration or ridges on the inner edge that closely resemble a comb. The comb is thought to help with preening, cleaning and straightening feathers, removing feather sheaths, and helping to keep the bird aerodynamic. I think it's probably also for a really good scritch on those itchy bits that are out of reach by the beak.

Photographing the pectinate toe, or even getting close enough to see one, is nearly impossible. However, if you can find mounted specimens of the birds or a friendly wildlife rehabber that doesn't mind showing you bird toes you might be able to sneak a peek. One of the best ways to see the toe in action is to watch the birds during a grooming session and see how they use their feet and toes.

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Pectinate toe of a great blue heron (Photo: Karen McDonald)

Check out Dan Tallman's Bird Blog for some more great pictures of pectinate toes on herons and a nighthawk. Check out Owl Foundation website for a picture of a barn owl pectinate talon.

 

Step By Step Instructions for Making Suet for Bird Feeders Backyardbirds flicker

Making Suet For Your Feeders is a Great Family Bonding Activity

This time of year many people choose to feed birds, which is a great way to support local native populations. I don't know about you, but the row after row of seed choices at the hardware store are intimidating. There are a wide variety of seeds available out there to choose from. Black oil sunflower is a favorite, but can be expensive. I've also found that the millet based seed is often just wasted. What you feed the birds really depends on where you live (an apartment manager may not like all the black oil shell husks) and the types of birds you want to feed. I'll cover choosing seeds in a later post, but for now here is a great reference page from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Today's post is all about suet, another form of food to feed birds.

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Yellow rumped warblers feeding at suet feeder. (Photo: Bobistraveling Flicker commons)

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Rose Mosco Captures Nature Humor and Art in Her Drawings

Educational Humor and Art for Nature Lovers

If you're like me you may find that your sense of humor is somewhat esoteric and "nature-nerdy." I can't help it, I find nature funny, from the giant eye spots of butterflies to the funky way that male turkeys strut and puff and their snoods get bright red (what's not to love about a body part called a snood?). I truly enjoy intelligent nature based humor, and how better to present it than in art and drawings? The artist and naturalist Rosemary Mosco has combined just these features to create wonderful nature cartoons. Her website is called "Bird and Moon, Science and Nature Cartoons."

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The Bird and Moon website logo.

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The Ruddy Duck: A Bird With Style

Ruddy Duck by Juan Pons

Male Ruddy Duck by Juan Pons

An Introduction to the Natural History and Identification of the Ruddy Duck (Oxyura jamaicensis)

In the winter a common visitor to our shores, and much of the South-East and Western US, is the Ruddy Duck (Oxyura jamaicensis). These ducks breed mostly in the ponds and marshes of prairies, fresh water wetlands, and lakes but they travel south each year from the Midwest and Canada to grace us with their elegance and the male's colorful attire.

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