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Posts Tagged ‘birds’

On overcast nights in Chicago, the sky is orange with light pollution. A few nights ago, the snow-covered roof of the gym was as orange as the clouds above it, but for the dozens of crows huddled in rows formed by the roof tiles, like sheet music lain on its side at the end of rehearsal.

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Friday morning, before the weather warmed up and the rain started, there was fog in the air and a foot of snow on the ground. On the lakefront, you could turn your back on the freeway and see only the ice-covered beach to one side, dark bare branches to the other, and, just barely, the silhouette of a jetty across the frozen bay. The nearer shore, built up with limestone blocks, was encased in eerie bluegrey icicles like a row of ghostly fangs. These dripped onto jagged, jumbled slabs of ice that bordered a dark and uninviting ring of slushy water—inhospitable except for the sewage pipe outlet, where a couple of mallards huddled.

The lake beyond this was a flat expanse of white all the way to the distant point where the ice blurred into the fog. But right in front of me, right in the middle of the little bay, was a black spot on the ice. A falcon—was it a falcon, or a hawk? Does it matter?—was tearing at a carcass, alone on the frozen lake. The gulls flying above seemed to give it a wide berth. A swath of feathers, and maybe blood too, but all colour had drained from this winter landscape, dusted the ice in an arc around the solitary bird; a few of them began to dance away from shore on the wind. The falcon, unruffled, focused on its prey.

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One thing you certainly don’t expect to see in a North American city known for its cold winters is a thriving population of parrots. Nonetheless, noisy flocks of them can be seen all over my neighbourhood. Monk parakeets, also called quaker parrots, have been breeding in parts of Chicago for at least 40 years.

How did they get here? Urban legends abound (one persistent story has them escaping from a crate at the airport, though their nests were first reported far from there), but all that’s known for sure is that they arrived via the pet trade. The long-tailed, greenish, pigeon-sized birds are native to southern South America, where they are agricultural pests, especially in fruit orchards.

Shockingly, these birds manage to stay through the Chicago winter. Though they’re native to the subtropics, and thus more tolerant of cold than the average parrot, they never encounter freezing temperatures in their original range. However, monk parakeets use their nests* year-round, and the massive structures (they breed communally, with several pairs building many-chambered nests that are often used for years) are well-insulated against the Windy City’s worst weather. But they rely on help from humans, too: they’re almost entirely dependent on backyard bird feeders in the winter.

Locals seem to have mixed feelings about the birds. Initially, the US Department of Agriculture was concerned that the parakeets would damage crops, as they do in their native range, and tried to remove them. They met with opposition from residents who liked the splash of tropical colour the birds provided. Though some birds were destroyed, the population rebounded, and so far the threat to crops hasn’t materialized.

However, other problems have: the parakeets began nesting on utility poles, posing a fire risk and causing occasional blackouts. The nests are removed, but the birds rebuild them in the same place. They also crowd out other birds at feeders, potentially threatening native birds**. On the other hand, some admire the parakeets’ adaptability and all-around pluck: they’re immigrants who help each other through tough times and start over in the face of setbacks. They’re not (yet?) a serious bioinvader, not like house sparrows or starlings. Perhaps we should learn to coexist.

But are they so benign? For now, maybe, but there are feral monk parakeet populations in New York City***, Spain, southern England, Japan, and many other places. A similar conflict between the perceived agricultural threats these birds pose and the feelings of local residents who welcome the birds simmers in many of these places. Like starlings, parrots are gregarious and extremely noisy—potentially another nuisance. And, dare I say it, perhaps climate change will allow further expansion of these populations. Just as we favour cute and fuzzy endangered species for our fundraising, are we also favouring the more ornamental invasives?

*In fact they’re the only species of parrot to build nests rather than use tree cavities.

**Granted, they’re mostly crowding out house sparrows, another, less-pretty, exotic species. In fact, in Brooklyn, New York, home to another feral population,  the parakeets are encouraged at Greenwood Cemetery because they drive out pigeons, whose guano damages historic buildings (apparently the parakeets’ guano is less caustic!).

***Fascinatingly, there’s also a probably-spurious escape-from-the-airport tale about the origin of the New York population.

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Southern Louisiana. For the next three-plus months. I’m a field tech for a project that’s studying the long term effects of oil spills on seaside sparrows and marsh rice rats.

So far (I’ve been here a week), I’m more or less high on all the zany wildlife that are commonplace here: pelicans, egrets, herons, ibises, armadillos, dolphins, anoles, tree frogs, anhingas…Expect lots of gushing and many exclamation points in upcoming posts.

Here, have a bird picture (it’s a savannah sparrow):sparrow

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To whomever

To the field biologist (apparently studying vermilion flycatchers?) who sent in this image to Postsecret:

Postcard includes a torn picture of a bird, a point count data sheet, and the text “My depression skews my data. I feel like a bad field biologist.”

I feel for you, whoever you are. Please seek help, and know that mental illness doesn’t make you a bad person, let alone a bad biologist.

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Wood Thrush nest, by Genevieve Jones. From "Illustrations of the Nests and Eggs of the Birds of Ohio" by the Nelson E. Jones family. Source: Smithsonian Libraries Online.

Wood Thrush nest, by Genevieve Jones. From “Illustrations of the Nests and Eggs of Birds of Ohio” by the Nelson E. Jones family. Source: Smithsonian Libraries Online.

Genevieve (Gennie) Jones was a talented young woman whose family, like many in nineteenth century America, fostered a passion for natural history. From an early age, she helped collected bird nests, eggs, and other natural wonders for the family’s curiosity cabinet. But Gennie noted the lack of an authoritative guide to identifying nests and eggs without seeing the adult birds. Inspired by Audubon’s famous book The Birds of America, published forty years before, she decided to compile such a a guide.

She planned to illustrate the nests and eggs of all 130 species of birds then breeding in Ohio. She and her friend Eliza Schulze created the images from nests and eggs that her brother Howard collected; her father Nelson provided start-up funds and even build a special addition to their barn that got enough sunlight to work by. The plates were lithographs—the image was etched onto a smooth stone surface, then coated with ink and transfered to paper—and the women planned to hand-colour all 100 copies of their initial print run. Creating a single plate could take days. The book would published by subscription, with a set of three illustrations issued periodically. Ex-president Rutherford B. Hayes and then-undergraduate Teddy Roosevelt were among the subscribers.

But after only one month of work, with 15 plates completed, disaster struck: Gennie contracted typhoid fever and died at the age of 32.

Field Sparrow nest, by Virginia Jones, from "Illustrations of the Nests and Eggs of the Birds of Ohio". Source: Smithsonian Libraries online.

Field Sparrow nest, by Virginia Jones, from “Illustrations of the Nests and Eggs of Birds of Ohio”. Source: Smithsonian Libraries online.

Gennie’s family decided to memorialize their lost daughter by completing her book. Her mother Virginia, teaching herself about natural history and scientific illustration, took on the monumental task of drawing the other 120 or so species, hiring three local women to help colour the prints. Howard continued to collect nests and wrote much of the book’s text. It took them seven yearst to complete Gennie’s project, entitled Illustrations of the Nests and Eggs of Birds of Ohio. This book is now extremely rare, but librarian Joy M. Kiser has brought it to light with the publication of America’s Other Audubon. It reprints all of the colour plates with excerpts from the original text, and is among the most beautiful natural history books I’ve ever seen.

Regular readers of this blog will know that I’ve recently worked as a nest-searching technician for several avian research projects, so bird nests have a special place in my heart. Each life-sized image is painstakingly detailed and accurate but also manages, through some combination of the birds’ skill and the artists’, to be aesthetically wonderful. The text describes both the particulars of the location and structure of the depicted nest and the range of variation within the species. It also features some classic wry, Victorian anthropomorphization. Take, for instance, these words from the description of the Great Crested Flycatcher (Myiarchus crinitus):

The Great Crested Flycatchers are very quarrelsome and tyrannical among themselves, or at least they appear to be, as they are continually scolding and complaining to each other and engaging in fights. This, however, may all be in fun, and their notes, which are so harsh and grating to the human ear, that when once heard are never forgotten, may convey to each other very pleasant and peaceful ideas.

The story of the Jones family’s labour of love is inspiring, but no less so is the author’s quest to bring this story to light. The book’s self-effacing preface describes this quest, from the intrepid librarian’s first encounter with The Nests and Eggs to the present publication. While nest-hunting may not be as common a pastime as birding (indeed, collecting or otherwise disturbing nests is illegal in both the U. S. and Canada), nest and egg identification can be a useful tool for birders and an essential skill of students of natural history.

Further reading:

Joy M. Kiser’s homepage (also links to places where you can buy the book)

Smithsonian Libraries’ online exhibit about The Nests and Eggs of the Birds of Ohio, including high-resolution scans of many of the plates and more of the text of the original book (America’s Other Audubon has only short excerpts)

A writeup about the book on the blog Brain Pickings, where I originally heard about it

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Autumn colours IV

Superstorm Sandy, or whatever we’re calling it now, didn’t quite make it to my neck of the woods, but did send us nearly a week of wind and rain. Even though most of the trees had lost their leaves completely before the bad weather hit, the change resulting from the storm is incredible. It suddenly feels more like the beginning of winter than the end of summer. The mulberry trees (Morus alba, the invasive counterpart to the rare native red mulberry and the same plant that silkworms feed on), which had kept their bright foliage til now, are almost completely stripped, with just a few clumps of yellow leaves withstanding the wind. These leaves can be simple serrated ovals or almost maple-like and lobed.

An interesting note about the naming of trees: many Latin names for trees are feminine but have first declension (i.e. typically masculine) endings. Morus alba looks like it should actually be Morus albus. I’ve never learned the reason for this masculine/feminine superposition.

Mulberries are also dioecious—they have separate male and female plants—and the females bear juicy, black berries in early summer, attracting a ton of birds and leaving purple stains on the ground. The two large mulberries in my yard are popular with winter birds, too, because they’re the closest large trees to my neighbour’s bird feeder. Here is a mourning dove hunkered down in one on the worst day of the storm:

On the first sunny day after the rainy streak, I went back into the woods and flushed a woodcock (Scolopax minor), an unexpected sight (and sound! Their wings whistle!) here. While I used to see them in this area when I was younger, their woodland habitat has been decimated, and I suspect this bird was just stopping by on its migration. Part of me hopes, though, that it’s a resident that’ll breed here next year.

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