Category: Birds


A Day In The Life

Godwits

Godwits on the beach. Image taken at Natural Bridges in Santa Cruz.

Godwits

Godwits on the beach. Image taken at Natural Bridges in Santa Cruz.

Godwits

Godwits on the beach. Image taken at Natural Bridges in Santa Cruz.

Godwits

Godwits on the beach. Image taken at Natural Bridges in Santa Cruz.

Godwits

Godwits on the beach. Image taken at Natural Bridges in Santa Cruz.

Godwits

Godwits on the beach. Image taken at Natural Bridges in Santa Cruz.

Godwits

Godwits on the beach. Image taken at Natural Bridges in Santa Cruz.

Godwits

Godwits on the beach. Image taken at Natural Bridges in Santa Cruz.

Shorebirds like these Godwits are fantastic to watch. It seems like they are in a constant ballet with the ocean, running back and forth trying to stick those long sensitive beaks into the watery sand to find food and yet not get caught in the waves. You can often find several species of shorebirds searching for food in one big group and sometimes they can be difficult to tell apart. These marbled godwits are easy to spot, with those two-color beaks that curve slightly upwards and long black legs. Often, these birds will be found in marshes and mudflats as opposed to beaches and they can only be found along the west coast in winter. Come breeding season, most of them will migrate towards the center of the U.S. and Canada, to the grasslands and wetlands.

When they are on their nests, they will often let you get surprisingly close before they fly away, if you can even find them. In fact, sometimes incubating adults can even be picked up from their nests. Perhaps that’s because they are relying on their camouflage to hide them and sitting still helps them camouflage. Or perhaps it’s just because they’re good parents and don’t want to abandon their eggs. Still, there have been documented cases of nests with eggs from more than one female during a severe drought, indicating that a female might be willing to push off the responsibility of raising her chicks to another female if times are hard enough. And yet marbled godwits are known to protect their young from all sorts of threats, including ravens, cranes, foxes and even bears.

To read more about godwits, I recommend the Audubon society’s marbled godwit page here, which has loads of information and suggestions on what you can do to help keep shorebirds like these safe.

turkeys

Wary turkeys spot me trying to photograph them. Image taken Somewhere in northern California.

Before America settles down for a nice Thanksgiving dinner, I thought it would be nice to appreciate the animal that will be providing most of us with lean, yummy nourishment.

Turkeys have been providing for humans long before the first Thanksgiving (which involved deer and not turkey anyway). Indians used turkey spurs as arrowheads, weaved feathers into clothing, made blankets from feathers and used bones for awls, spoons and beads. We know that for the Cherokee, only children hunted wild turkeys using darts blown through a hollow cane and they were expert turkey hunters by 10 years old. By contrast, the Apaches considered wild turkey a taboo food and never hunted it. We also know that the Pueblo Indians probably domesticated turkeys more than any other tribe, but they most likely didn’t eat them. Montezuma fed them to hawks, eagles and owls. Tribes in the north, where the turkeys were abundant, didn’t try to raise domesticated birds at all. Of course, what would be the point of that?

So, whether we’re talking about wild turkeys roaming North America or larger, fatter domesticated turkeys, these birds have been valuable for various reasons to homo sapiens for centuries. And they are pretty cool birds.

And so, in honor of the animal that has provided so much for us, here are 19 fascinating turkey facts for your Thanksgiving enjoyment:

1. Turkeys have an incredibly varied diet. There have been over 300 animal species and 350 plant species identified in the diet of turkeys.

2. Occasionally, domestic turkey eggs mature without fertilization! A hen that has never mated will produce eggs that in some cases hatch and produce fertile offspring, or sometimes the embryo will complete various stages of development, but never hatch. This is thought to indicate that they are a primitive bird group.

3. The earliest turkey fossils are from 11 million years ago.

4. Turkeys like to have a certain number of eggs in their nest. If eggs are removed from the nest as soon as they are laid, they will keep laying eggs.

5. Wild turkeys are sociable (except when breeding) and in the winter live in large flocks. In one subspecies (intermedia) up to 500 birds will flock together. These flocks are usually single sex and have a hierarchy system. Siblings team together when competing for dominance, so those with more siblings are usually higher up the dominance scale. But when mating time comes, only the most dominant bird will mate, unless they come across two females, and then the second dominant bird will get to mate. The other siblings will fight off intruders and when their more dominant brothers are done, they will participate in mock matings, mounting treading logs, dried cow manure or the ground.

6. They naked areas of their head can change colors between red, white and blue (a true American bird). It’s chromatophore changes that give it the various colors, which are used to convey messages.

7. Turkeys can fly, but do so only to roost or as a last resort to get away from danger. They prefer to run and can run from 15-18 mph. However, they are really strong fliers. They can fly up to 55 mph for up to 1 mile. Birds as young as 1 week old have been observed flying distances up to 50 ft. and at 6 weeks are capable of long flights.

8. Males and females have different plumage. When a male is castrated it still has normal plumage, but if you remove a female’s overies, she develops the plumage of a male.

9. Beards are special feathers that jut out from the middle of the breast and are usually found on males. They look like the tail of a horse. Here is a picture:

 

A turkey with a beard

This turkey has a beard, which are the feathers jutting from its breast. Image taken at the Oakland Zoo.

Although they are usually found on males, bearded hens are not rare. Those that have beards tend to have some male head adornments as well and tend to be more aggressive. But there is no reproductive difference between bearded and non-bearded females. Because the beard is the most obvious indicator of sex, in states where it is illegal to shoot hens but legal to shoot male turkeys, bearded females are often considered legal kills.

10. It is thought that turkeys might be able to predict bad weather, as it has been observed that right before a storm they are more active and feed intensely.

11. During the winter, turkeys can survive a week or more of severe weather without food.

12. Also in the winter, turkeys will follow deer and wild hogs which when digging up food from under the snow also dig up turkey food. The turkeys themselves can dig up to 1 foot deep in loose snow.

13. Golden eagles have been observed multiple times working together to catch turkeys. When the turkeys spot the eagles, they go running for cover under trees. One eagle will land and walk toward the turkeys, flushing them out into the open where the other golden eagle with make its attack.

14. Turkey chicks (called poults) can swim at only 1 or 2 days old, though not well.

15. Mom turkeys rear their young on their own. In some cases, when the mother dies the young are able to survive, but they never learn the appropriate fear of people and automobiles and so they usually aren’t seen for too much longer.

16. Like many birds that nest on the ground, turkeys will put on a “broken wing act” and flop around on the ground, imitating an injured bird to lure people or predators away from their nest and their young. If this doesn’t work, the female turkey will come back with her wings spread in a low crouch, which is her threat display. While she’s doing this, she’ll make a “putt” sound that alerts the chicks that there’s trouble. At this sound, the chicks will freeze-remain absolutely still and rely on their excellent camouflage to hide.

17. Turkeys defending their young have been observed killing rattlesnakes, water moccasins and kingsnakes and attacking crows and hawks-in mid-air! They have met with attacking hawks as high as 18 feet in the air and they have successfully fought them off.

18. Remember that hierarchy? Well, sometimes a dominant hen will steal poults from other hens. The young are more likely to survive under dominant hens because they are often more experienced.

And…

19. Benjamin Franklin, writing to his daughter, stated that the wild turkey would make a better national symbol for the United States than the Bald Eagle because it was “a bird of courage.” Given these last few points, I’d have to agree-plus is has a red, white and blue head and face. Come on now!

And there you have it. Happy Thanksgiving!

Black-crowned Night-Herons

Black-crowned Night-Heron

A Black-crowned Night-Heron. Image taken at the San Francisco Zoo.

The Black-crowned Night-Heron is one that you are likely to come across if you are interested in birding. Although they are usually nocturnal, they are the most common heron and can be found throughout 5 continents (the missing two are Antarctica and Australia). They are very adaptable birds and are known to eat everything, even garbage and organic refuse from land fills, although they primarily eat fish. In winter time they roost communally and during breeding season they nest colonially, each pair building their large nests in trees with several other pairs. In fact, they are thought to be too abundant by some, particularly owners of fish hatcheries. They like to nest nearby this wonderful abundance of food and are thought of as pests when they do.

Despite being easy to find, if you see a tree with nesting birds, it’s a good idea to admire them from a distance. For one, the young are known to be exceptionally aggressive and will defecate and regurgitate on humans coming to close. (Unfortunately, I was not aware of this when my best friend and I stumbled upon a tree of nesting birds in Chile and let’s just say I was the lucky one.) This is actually quite a fortunate circumstance for scientists who are researching the composition of the birds’ diet. Personally, I have to love those that are so driven by the excitement of answering a question that they’ll enthusiastically dig through baby bird vomit. ūüôā The other reason to steer clear of nesting birds is that despite them often being found relatively near humans, if a human visits a new nest or a recently laid egg, they will often abandon it. If there are frequent visits by human pests, it will also discourage late nesting herons from settling down. So it’s not good for you or the parents-to-be if you’re hanging around.

A Black-crowned Night-Heron

A Black-crowned Night-Heron at the San Francisco Zoo.

Once they do settle into a nest, though, these birds are thought to be monogamous. The male performs a courtship display for the females (who are usually rejected at first) and the female of choice is eventually allowed into the territory, where they’ll preen each other and rub beaks.¬† You can tell when a happy couple has paired because at the time of pair formation, their legs turn pink! Like most birds, the pair will work together to take care of their young. If other chicks are placed in their nest, say by a mischievous researcher, they will also brood young that are not their own.

Also, not on night herons, but the Belize Zoo was recently hit hard by Hurricane Richard. There was major damage to the facility and they are looking for help to put them back together. There are images of the damage they suffered and a link to make contributions here. This little zoo has rescued many animals and participates actively in research, conservation and education programs.

Anime Owl: The Real Deal

 

darwin

Darwin, a Northern saw-whet owl. Image taken at the San Francisco Zoo.

 

Alright, remember this little guy? Darwin? I promised a while ago that I would write more about saw-whet owls once I got settled up here in Oregon. No more teasing, here’s the real deal.

I mentioned before that Darwin is with the San Francisco Zoo because he was hit by a vehicle. You’ll notice that his left wing hangs low because it healed incorrectly. This is not uncommon. Birds of all sizes are hit by vehicles more often than most people realize.

Anyway, Darwin is a full grown Northern saw-whet owl. While the females are a bit bigger than the males, this is about how large they get and you can see by the hand he’s standing on, that’s not very large. He was the only raptor at the Animal Resource Center (ARC) that was so small, we couldn’t handle him while wearing a glove because his tiny feet would have trouble gripping around a thick glove. Including his equipment, his weight hovered around 85-95 grams. So, while this isn’t the tiniest species of owl, they are pretty small.

 

 

darwin

Darwin stepping off of the scale after being weighed. Image taken at the San Francisco Zoo.

 

It’s probably because they are so small that I have a hard time imagining them as the serious predators that they are. I have a hard time imagining little Darwin catching full grown mice or voles. But that is in fact what they eat. (Although they catch adult mice, they usually can only finish about half a mouse in a sitting, so they just cache the other half until later.) When there is an abundance of mice, these guys are all business. They will catch up to six mice in a row, one right after the other, without stopping for a bite. Then they will just cache the excess food in safe places for later. Imagine this little owl catching six mice in a row! Now if it’s winter, all of this stored food might freeze. So, when they are ready to eat it, they thaw it out by “brooding” it, or sitting on the frozen carcass like they would an egg!

And yes, even when with a piece of mouse flesh hanging from his mouth, Darwin is still ridiculously cute.

 

Darwin

Darwin, eating a piece of mouse. Image taken at the San Francisco Zoo.

 

Look at those eyes! I mean seriously, here it almost looks like he’s holding a heart:

 

Darwin

Darwin eating. Image taken at the San Francisco Zoo.

 

Still, during the mating season this little hunter will take it up a notch. The female in the pair will brood the young and incubate the eggs and clean out the nest. She will leave the nest only for a few minutes each night. The male’s job is to bring her and their young food and he will often go overboard in his duties. During egg laying, the female might have up to 24 surplus carcasses around her. One of the reasons these birds don’t reuse the same nest is because of the rotting prey remains that are still there after the young have fledged. So when I said earlier that this little bird is a serious hunter, I was not exaggerating.

Aside from being a fearsome predator, Darwin also has a few things in common with all owls in general. Here are a few facts about owl biology:

-They actually have 14 bones in their neck (twice as many as people or giraffes do). This is why they can swivel their head 270 degrees in either direction! Since their eyes are so large, they can’t shift their eyeballs around in their sockets like we can, so in order to see to their sides and behind them, they have to rotate their whole head, and they can.

-They’re the only birds that lower their top eyelid when blinking, which to me makes them look like the old Chuck-e-cheese singing robots. It’s a very distinct movement and they often do it when they are swallowing.

-Looking at their eye biology, they have a lot of rods (which detect light) and not a lot of cones (which detect color). This means that they are one of the few birds that probably don’t have great color vision. They can see well in low light though.

-Since they are nocturnal, it probably makes sense that they have an excellent sense of hearing. Their ears are actually located on the exact opposite sides of their head, except one is slightly higher than the other. This allows them to triangulate exactly where a sound is coming from, even if they can’t see it.

Now, just one more picture of adorable Darwin:

 

Darwin

Darwin, focused on a piece of food nearby. Image taken at the San Francisco Zoo.

 

Anime Owl

Darwin

Saw-whet owl, Darwin, with his heart-breaking stare. Image taken at the San Francisco Zoo.

Unfortunately, I don’t have much time to write about saw-whet owls right now. I promise I will tell you more about these guys later. I just thought I’d have a picture of Darwin here so his big eyes can break your heart and warm you up for the next time.¬† Darwin is with the San Francisco Zoo because he was hit by a vehicle and as you can clearly see, his wing didn’t heal correctly.¬† He is a ferocious little owl, but since he’s so small, it hardly makes a difference. Adorable. Once again, I appreciate your patience with the shorter posts while my husband and I are transitioning to a new state. We’re officially leaving on the 19th, after which my normal posts will begin again.

Pirates and Boobies

Peruvian Booby

A Peruvian Booby preening its feathers near its chick on a small rocky island. Image taken off the coast of central Chile.

Boobies really do get the short end of the stick when compared to other seabirds. Even their common name shows a complete lack of respect for the bird. The name booby comes from the Spanish word bobo, which means clown or stupid fellow. There are a couple guesses as to why they were called this. Possibly because these animals were not easily scared off by humans and so were easy to catch by sailors looking for dinner. Another thought is because they have a really funny looking courtship dance, where they walk around lifting their feet up really high and throwing their heads back and clacking beaks. Whatever the case, no respect for the boobies.

Boobies are actually fantastic divers. Peruvian boobies will dive from 15 meters (~50 feet) in the air down into the sea. They dive so deep that they usually pass the fish they are hunting on the way down and instead catch them in their beak on the way back up. Because they dive so deep, they have access to fish that other sea birds can’t reach and so they are frequently the victims of piracy, or having their food stolen from them. In this case, the pirates are other sea birds that can’t dive as deep, such as gulls or pelicans, and are usually juveniles that aren’t very good at foraging yet. And frigate birds are some of the worst pirates as well. The scientific name for the behavior of stealing food from another animal is kleptoparasitism. Isn’t that the best word ever?

Boobies even get trouble from other boobies. Sometimes these birds will chase other boobies around until they regurgitate and then the chaser can steal the meal. Even when they’re chicks they have to worry about other boobies. And not just strangers, but their own kin!¬† Since boobies lay their eggs a few days apart, one chick is usually much larger than the other and in some species, the larger chick will eject its sibling from the nest, essentially killing it. What’s interesting is that blue footed booby parents will prevent their older offspring from killing the younger, while the masked booby does not. Scientists believe it’s parental supervision that is the difference because if you put blue footed booby chicks in a nest with masked booby parents, one chick will kill the other. And if you put masked booby chicks in a blue booby nest, the siblicide is not allowed. For the record, boobies are not the only birds that engage in siblicide.

The Early Birds: American Robins

American Robin

An American Robin with a mouth full of yummy worms. Image taken at the San Francisco Zoo.

This beautiful bird is a common one here in the United States. You can find them everywhere, but especially in parks or meadows. However they weren’t always so abundant here. These birds will actually roost together in winter in large groups of up to a quarter of a million birds. And like the passenger pigeon before them, these large roosts made hunting easy for those in the South who considered their meat a delicacy. However, as human numbers grew, their houses and buildings made great platforms for large robin nests and now they are protected under the US Migratory Bird Protection Act, so their range is expanding and they are doing quite well, although pesticides can still be a problem for them. These birds do eat insects as well as berries, but if they eat too many honeysuckle berries, they can get intoxicated!

Robins are usually the first to sing in the morning and they continue to sing through winter and fall. They are also the first to breed in a season (April-July) and will have 2-3 sets of young in a season. These guys are busy and have earned the well-deserved title of “the early birds,” which as you can see here…he he…gets the worms.

Robin with worm

An American Robin collecting earthworms. Image taken at the San Francisco Zoo.

It is believed that robins find their worms by sight and some thrushes are known to stomp on the grass to mimic rain patterns in order to make their earthworm prey come to the surface for easier catching.

Our early birds also have to deal with predators, especially blue jays and snakes, and they do so by mobbing them, meaning attacking in groups. Some thrushes also defecate on their would be predators, leaving them to scurry off in a sticky, defeated mess. Win!

Turkey Vultures

Toulouse

Meet Toulouse, a 38 year old turkey vulture. Note the see-through nostrils. Image taken at the San Francisco Zoo.

Toulouse, pictured above, is a cranky, old, arthritic turkey vulture who hates umbrellas, big wheels, big hats and balloons and likes sunny days and his turn to pick apart a rabbit head. ¬†I love this bird because at the end of the day, the bird knows what he wants. ¬†He’ll let you know it, too. ¬†Respect.

So today’s post is about turkey vultures. ¬†And not just because Toulouse is awesome. ¬†All turkey vultures are pretty cool. ¬†They are one of the few birds that have an excellent sense of smell, which helps them to locate the dead animals that they will rip apart and eat with that lovely sharp beak pictured above. ¬†Check out how large their nostrils are, too. ¬†You can see right through them! Points to any animal that you can see through the middle of their face. ¬† At any rate, most vulture species don’t even have a good sense of smell, so it’s a pretty unique characteristic.

In fact, it has been a pretty useful characteristic too.  How you ask?

If there was a gas leak in your house right now, the way that you would recognize it is by the smell. ¬†However, natural gas has no scent. ¬†The gas companies add the scent so that you will be alerted if there’s a gas leak and you can leave the premises and you know, not die. ¬†The scent they use is from a chemical called ethyl mercaptan, which is a smell decaying animals emit as well. Apparently, several gas workers, from different companies, have said that when there was a gas leak, they would look for the turkey vultures hovering around the pipeline to show them where it was. ¬†Apparently, they still do this to this day, even though they have the assistance of more “sophisticated” tools now.

It’s been helpful for other animals, too. ¬†The black vulture is known to follow turkey vultures to help them find where the food is. ¬†The cheaters.

Cool as they are, turkey vultures can seem pretty gross to some people.  Believe it or not, this handsome bird shown here will regurgitate his food if he gets scared.  In the wild, that food would be putrid animal flesh.  That has been partially digested.  And then thrown up.  Turkey vultures do this to be more light weight and to startle predators.  They might also play dead.  These birds are also known to defecate on their own feet, to cool off, and to use the acids in their waste to kill the bacteria on their feet that they get from walking on dead carcasses.  Yum Yum.

By the way, if you see a turkey vulture that looks like this:

turkey vulture

Toulouse the turkey vulture, with nictitating membrane over his eyes. Image taken at the San Francisco Zoo.

Run.  He is amassing his strength to strike you down with the sheer power of his mind.

A note on this post- the use of ethyl mercaptan by turkey vultures to find food is one that is under debate by scientists.  Here is one study that suggests that the amount of ethyl mercaptan emitted by the small decaying animals might not be enough to reach the turkey vultures that are foraging from high up in the sky.  There does seem to be a general consensus, though, that they are using their sense of smell.

Check here for some more fun facts about turkey vultures.