"I hope you love birds too. It is economical. It saves going to heaven."
Emily Dickinson

Friday, October 17, 2014

Gone bird: A story of how 5 billion passenger pigeons vanished

   In case you missed my column in Saturday's O.C. Register, here it is: 

     The story of the demise of the passenger pigeon reads like fiction. How could a species that once existed in the billions with flocks that blackened the skies across North America in the beginning of the 19th century be gone from the wild by the century’s end?
     “The Passenger Pigeon” by Errol Fuller (Princeton University Press; $29.95) tells the story. It’s been 100 years since the species became extinct. The timing of the book’s release last month marked the anniversary of the death of Martha, the last surviving passenger pigeon, who lived alone in a cage at the Cincinnati Zoo until her death on Sept. 1, 1914. Her remains are on display at the Smithsonian Institution.
     Fuller, a leading extinctions scholar, writes that his book was not intended as a textbook but rather as a memorial to a species that once was important to the ecology of North America and to bring awareness to just how fragile nature can be.
    “The Passenger Pigeon” details the species, its biology and its demise using illustrations, photographs, ornithological journals and historical accounts. According to the author, the passenger pigeon was a superb long-distance flier with strong muscles and aerodynamic wings built for speed.
They were nomadic birds in constant search of food. While the passenger pigeon resembled the much smaller mourning dove, DNA analysis suggests that its nearest relatives are within the genus of pigeons that includes the band-tailed pigeon.
     The book describes shocking tales of shooting and trapping thousands of birds daily over decades.  Overhunting the pigeons for their meat and feathers, along with the destruction of the forests the birds relied on for food and nesting, were among the contributing factors that led to extinction of the species.
      Fuller includes quotes about passenger pigeons from Mark Twain and John James Audubon.
      Beautifully illustrated, this easy-to-read book will appeal to anyone who wishes to understand the concept of extinction.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Project Feederwatch starts Nov. 8

Simply count the birds that visit your feeder and enter the data.  Photo by J.J. Meyer
Here's an easy way to get involved in citizen science: 

Project FeederWatch, sponsored by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Bird Studies Canada, is a winter-long survey of birds that visit feeders at backyards, nature centers, community areas, and other locales in North America.  Participates periodically count the birds they see at their feeders through early April and send their counts to Project FeederWatch. The data help scientists track broadscale movements of winter bird populations and long-term trends in bird distribution and abundance.

Anyone interested in birds can participate. FeederWatch is conducted by people of all skill levels.  Participants watch their feeders as much or as little as they want over two consecutive days as often as every week. They count birds that appear in their count site because of something that they provided (plantings, food, or water).

There is a $18 annual participation fee for U.S. residents ($15 for Cornell Lab members). Canadians can participate by joining Bird Studies Canada for CAN $35. The participation fee covers materials, staff support, web design, data analysis, and a year-end report (Winter Bird Highlights). Project FeederWatch is supported almost entirely by participation fees.

The count begins Nov. 8. Sign up at feederwatch.org.

Happy Birding!

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Fall is the best time of year to trim trees and shrubs

Workers take down a tree in South Orange County. Photo by J.J. Meyer
Breeding season is over, which makes fall the perfect time to prune trees and shrubs. If you haven't started, you better hurry, because it's a good idea to get it done before the Santa Ana winds begin to blow. It's the best time to prune summer-blooming shrubs and trim the browned-out top growth on dormant perennials.  But please leave enough foliage for birds to take cover. 

Keep in mind that hummingbirds will begin nesting the end of November. 

It's also a great time to plant trees, according to my friend Julie Bawden Davis, a master gardener. Check out her story in Parade.

Happy Birding!

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

The State of the Birds 2014

Statement from Audubon:

The State of the Birds 2014

Earlier this month, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Audubon, and other partners released the 2014 State of the Birds report. The report uses birds as indicators of ecosystem health by examining populations trends of many birds in a variety of habitats including grasslands, forests, wetlands, as well as birds on our oceans and coasts. The report contains a watch list of the 230 species of birds most in need of immediate conservation action. You can view the entire report at www.stateofthebirds.org.

Learning lessons from the 100-year anniversary of the extinction of the Passenger Pigeon, the report makes recommendations supported by Audubon to increase funding for a suite of programs including the Neotropical Migratory Bird Conservation Act and the North American Wetlands Conservation Act, and funding for other conservation programs managed by the federal government like the Land and Water Conservation Fund, Joint Ventures, and policies that reduce the impacts of climate change to help birds adapt.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Western scrub jays are known for brains and beauty

The Western scrub jay is a common year-round resident in So. California.  Photo by J.J. Meyer
In case you missed my column that ran in Saturday's O.C. Register, here it is:

             Toni and Jim McGivern hear the calls of Western scrub jays about 6:30 a.m. and know the birds want breakfast.  About 10-15 noisy scrub jays visit their home in Trabuco Canyon every morning for their favorite: unsalted, shelled peanuts.
            “One of the bolder ones sits by the window and waits for me to come out,” Toni McGivern said.
            The couple enjoys their coffee while watching the birds interact. A few of the birds will take nuts from the tray and fly off. Others prefer to knock nuts on the ground to scrutinize the selection, she says. They pick up a peanut, drop it then pick up another as if weighing each in their bills. The birds seem to know the heaviest peanut contains the largest nut.
            “They’re my favorite bird,” she said. “They’re so intelligent.”
            Jays belong to the family Corvidae, along with crows and ravens, which are known for their intelligence, memory and curiosity.
Western scrub jays are common year-round residents in Southern California. Western scrub jays include several sub-species that live along the Pacific coast, Santa Cruz Island and in the interior West. The Pacific coastal group, which includes Orange County, has a distinct blue collar and is brighter in color than those of the interior West.
Scrub jays are monomorphic, meaning that there are no differences in the physical characteristics between males and females.  They have deep blue wings, tail and head with light gray underparts and a distinctive white throat and eyebrow. At 11 inches in length, wingspans of about 15 inches and long legs and tails, they are larger than most songbirds.  Their rounded heads are not crested like its Eastern cousin the blue jay and the Steller’s jays that live in our local mountains, Northern California and throughout most of the Pacific Northwest.
Though scrub jays eat a varied diet that includes insects, seeds, berries, reptiles and small birds, they are known for eating and storing acorns.  They have been known to cache up to 6,000 pine seeds or 5,000 acorns in single autumn. The birds scatter the nuts in hiding places for later retrieval. When these acorns are not retrieved, they sprout into seedlings and replenish the forest.
These birds can be quite sneaky when it comes to their food. They will steal acorns from woodpecker caches and rob stores hidden by other jays, then look around to make sure other birds aren’t watching before hiding the food in a new location.   
             Other birds in our area that cache food include acorn woodpeckers, mountain chickadees and nuthatches.  

Happy Birding!

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

New hanging bird waterers are great for small patios

First Nature's waterers and birdbaths come in two styles.

Thought I'd share these clever new products by First Nature -- combination waterers and birdbaths. I think it's perfect for those without space for a standing birdbath or for those who would like to watch the birds without the mess of a birdfeeder. Perfect for apartment dwellers or condo owners.

The reservoir holds about 100 ounces of water and releases it into four pools on demand.  The water is replenished instantly as the water is consumed. Made in the USA.

There are two styles -- the lantern and blue globe. Both are available online at www.firstnature.net or at Wild Birds Unlimited in Mission Viejo.  About $25.99.

Happy Birding!

Friday, September 19, 2014

First white-crowned sparrow sighting of the season

A male white-crowned sparrow forages for seeds. Photo by J.J. Meyer

      It must be fall. The white-crowned sparrows have arrived! Yesterday was my first sighting--10 days earlier than last year.     
     White-crowned sparrows migrate to Southern California in the fall. Some travel from as far as Alaska to spend winter with us.
      Like most sparrows, they're ground feeders, and prefer to stay close to the safety of trees and shrubs. Though they may sometimes visit platform feeders for sunflower and other kinds of seeds, they're more likely to stay on the ground eating seeds dropped by other birds.
      Welcome our winter visitors by tossing black oil sunflower seeds, millet and cracked corn on the ground for them.
      Happy Birding!