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.
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.
A male yellow-bellied sapsucker (Photo: Patrick Colin, Flicker Sharing).
How are Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers Beneficial to the Environment?
Outside of the fact that they have an awesome name, yellow bellied sapsuckers are an amazing type of woodpecker that acts sort of like nature's equivalent of the convenience store keeper of a 7-11. How does this work? Let's start with what they look like and how they are built.
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.
Just out of college I began hawk watching for fun, and worked with Hawk Watch International through the forest service. I moved on to hawk watching at the Grand Canyon for a season, then later to the shores of Delaware and now Maryland. I like to encourage all beginning birders to start with raptors because they are charismatic and fairly easy to learn. No matter where you go in the US, raptors are there and they are magnificent birds to watch and enjoy. When I first started learning about raptors I was given a set of books that have stayed with me on all my journeys. Now, there are even more resources than when I started, including free online guides. However, I also like to encourage beginning and intermediate hawk watchers to stay low-tech and use paper based-field guides. I've already written a post about how to choose the best bird field guide, but I want to provide you with a list of hawk ID guides that you can use to prepare for hawk migration or for IDing hawks you're already seeing.
Often times, when walking in the woods, or tending a garden, you'll see a bird nest, but no bird, only eggs or hatchlings. Adult birds are quite savvy about spotting approaching humans, and often fly off and observe their nest from a distance, making it hard to identify which bird belongs to which nest. This post is a rough first start at identifying some common Eastern US bird nests, and some resources you can use to help you with your identification.
Before you begin looking:
Before you begin trying to figure out the bird nest that you have found, a few words of caution:
Predators can smell you. Even though smell is not as integral to our lives as predators like cats, raccoons, skunks, and foxes, it's still something to be aware of. When you walk to a nest, or around it, you are leaving a scent trail, which is an open invitation to predators. Try to avoid going directly up to a nest, touching a nest, or walking around it to lessen the danger to baby birds.
If you can, watch the nest you find from a distance. Use binoculars to check it out, and try to keep away. If you inadvertently come upon a nest, then walk around in circles, and keep moving away from the nest. Stop at other random places, and try to leave a scent trail that does not stop at the nest. When doing bird research I would even take off my smelly shirt or socks and rub them on trees and rocks, well away from the nest, and walk on.
Do not reach into nests or remove eggs or fledglings. It's a myth that birds can actually smell you, or will abandon the eggs if they smell a human. However, the stress of having a predator touching and handling the eggs or young, may cause the parents to abandon the nest, so don't do it!
Predatory Bird Beaks: Featuring Tomial Teeth and Cranial Kinesis
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.
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.
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. mandibulartomia) 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.
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 tomialindentations 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.
Introducing the American Woodcock, or Timberdoodle, the True Sign of Spring
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).
How Do Birds With Long Necks Keep Their Feathers Clean? The Answer, Pectinate Toes with Built in Combs In Their Toenails
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.
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.
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."
Picking a Feather off the Ground May Get You Jail Time
Migratory Bird Treaty Act Makes Collecting Bird Feathers Illegal, the Feather Atlas from USFWS Can Help
Often times when leading hikes I see visitors in my programs pick up bird feathers and want to know if they can take them home. I have to answer that by law, it's illegal. Most people are shocked to find out that picking up bird feathers, moving bird nests, or taking carcasses for stuffing is illegal. This is because of something called the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918.
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.