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

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Wild turkeys terrorize neighborhoods -- Should we cancel Thanksgiving?

Wild turkeys roamed this month in San Rafael, Calif. (Bill Disbrow/SF Gate/AP)

 From: The Washington Post 

Wild turkeys are causing troubles across the American suburbs.

The birds of late have been accused of cracking roof tiles outside Sacramento, dangerously disrupting traffic in western New York and “terrorizing” residents near Akron, Ohio. Reports of turkey aggression in the Boston area have spiked in the past three years, forcing authorities to use lethal force at least five times, the Associated Press found. When the Cambridge, Mass., city council took up the matter recently, one member told of a turkey that chased a child and her dog outside church, and another recounted coming face-to-beak with a bird outside a community gathering where the large fowl had been discussed.

“It was like the turkey was waiting for me,” Councillor Dennis Carlone said from the dais. “They’re clearly strategizing.”

But at the same time, the National Wild Turkey Federation and researchers say the U.S. wild turkey population is gradually declining, probably due to development that is carving up their habitats while also making life easier for predators, such as foxes and raccoons. In 2004, the federation says, wild turkeys numbered nearly 7 million; in 2014, that had dipped to as low as 6 million.

So which is it? Are turkeys trailing off — or taking over?
It turns out that both trends are true, to a degree. And both are related to the fact that wild turkeys in America exist mostly so that people can hunt them.

First, some history. European settlers who arrived on these shores centuries ago probably found a land brimming with wild turkeys, though the migrants almost certainly did not dine on the birds at the first Thanksgiving. At that time, these ground-nesting birds were likely gobbling up nuts, berries and snails across what are now 39 of the Lower 48 states. Soon, however, the colonists were gobbling up turkeys and razing their landscapes. By the early 20th century, the birds had vanished from 18 of those 39 states, and their population had dropped to about 200,000 animals found mostly in remote areas, according to the turkey federation.

Things changed after World War II, and wild turkeys are now viewed as one of the nation’s big conservation successes. Wildlife managers, alarmed at the near disappearance of a popular game animal, worked over decades with the National Wild Turkey Federation to bring back the birds, mostly by trapping more than 200,000 of them and releasing them in spots with turkey deficits. The birds are now found and hunted in every state except Alaska, proof of their ability to thrive in various landscapes and climates.

But the wild turkey population — which state agencies usually track by counting young birds, called poults, or by counting turkeys bagged by hunters — has dipped over the past decade. Mark Hatfield, director of conservation administration for the turkey federation, said his organization and state agencies are now “working collectively to try and figure this out, because we never want to go back to a restoration effort.”

The decline has been most pronounced in the Midwest, Northeast and Southeast, said Michael Chamberlain, a University of Georgia wildlife ecology and management professor who’s involved in studies that track wild turkeys in five states, most in the Southeast. The researchers, who strap little GPS backpacks on turkeys, are seeing what he called very poor “nest success”: Only about 30 percent of eggs hatch, and then only about 25 percent of chicks survive.

“The data very clearly show there’s been a long-term, well over a decade, decline in production across the Southeast,” Chamberlain said. The likely reason, he added, is that “in the last 20, 30, 40 years, we’ve taken broad expanses of forest and fragmented it and chopped it up into little pieces.”

How do those suburban turkey gangs fit into this? They don’t.
They’re not counted in wild turkey censuses, Chamberlain said, because wildlife agencies monitor rural turkeys — the kind that are hunted and help fund state budgets. Turkeys like the ones that recently stalked a police car in Bridgewater, Mass., aren’t hunted and are instead viewed as “nuisance birds,” he said.

“They’re really two different populations,” Chamberlain said. “I don’t know of any states that actually monitor the status of nuisance birds, except to deal with the problem . . . their interest is from hunters who are using rural, public lands, not subdivisions.”

If turkey-human conflicts seem to be increasing, Chamberlain and Hatfield argue, it’s because urban and suburban birds are not hunted and so do not view humans as threats. Also, turkeys are generalists that can get by quite nicely so long as they have trees to roost in at night and space to strut — particularly in the spring, when males woo females with a show that requires a sizable stage.

“They want open areas. Well, lawns and golf courses? All of these are great open spots for wild turkeys,” Hatfield said. “Suburban areas are pretty good habitat.”

Problems can bubble up in the fall, when hens return from a summer raising poults and reunite with their families, Hatfield said. But relations with people are most tense during spring breeding season, when toms are amped up on testosterone, ready to challenge any perceived competitor and often travel in sibling groups that include a few males. A bird gobbling in the back yard is “gobbling to establish dominance,” Hatfield said. A turkey that charges a car — or crashes through the window of a Rhode Island orthodontics office — might be charging its own reflection.

“I would say, to get into a turkey’s brain, you’ve got to think very simple,” Hatfield said. “More than likely, these birds are trying to biologically exist, and we are somehow in their way.”

So if you’re a turkey hunter concerned about the overall population, you might consider advocating for more large wild spaces. If you’re a suburbanite worried about rogue turkeys on your turf, make sure you’re not feeding them — remove or clean up bird feeders, and definitely do not offer handouts. (Montana recently passed a statewide ban on feeding turkeys.) The Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife, which receives many calls about problem turkeys, also suggests removing shiny objects in which birds might spot their reflections, and scaring turkeys with yelling, brooms, hoses and even leashed dogs.

“Don’t let turkeys intimidate you,” a Massachusetts Wildlife handout says. “You can harass turkeys searching for food in your gardens.”

Not that everyone would be willing to do so. Wild turkeys, for the record, do have some fans.
Nicolas Gonzalez, a National Audubon Society spokesman, insists that birdwatchers enjoy spotting them and “submit lots of photos of gorgeous displaying males and groups doing interesting things like roosting together” during the society’s annual Great Backyard Bird Count. The traffic-stopping turkey in western New York has his own Facebook page, as does Kevin, a Colorado turkey who hung out in the parking lot of a King Soopers grocery store until recently. Kevin, it seems, was being fed, and he was in danger of becoming more nuisance bird than wild bird. Earlier this month, wildlife officials trapped him and released him in the woods, adding one more turkey to the rural population.

Happy Thanksgiving from the Backyard Birder!

Saturday, November 18, 2017

Bring birds to small yards and patios

Perky-Pet’s Daisy Vase vintage bird waterer is a space-saving option for patios. Find it at the Wild Birds Unlimited stores in Mission Viejo and Yorba Linda.

Here's my latest column that ran today in the O.C. Register. 

             Homes don’t have to back up to acres of open space for birds and butterflies to be regular visitors.  Small patios and even balconies can attract these beautiful creatures as long as there’s a consistent source of food and water available.
             But offering these in an efficient and attractive way can present a challenge for homeowners without a traditional back yard.
            “Even if you don’t have much of a yard, you can still enjoy bird feeding,” said Alan Barry, owner of Wild Birds Unlimited in Mission Viejo.  “We have a number of hardware solutions that work in confined spaces.”  For example, deck clamps and mounts can attach feeders to railings. And trays and platforms can be placed under feeders to catch seeds and control any mess.
            “When it comes to bird feeding, the smaller the space, the more homeowners are concerned about mess,” Barry said. “So instead of offering loose birdseed, many customers have been using seed cylinders, which are a solid block of seed.
            “They tend to last longer because it takes longer for birds to eat it,” he said.  “They have to work harder to get the seeds loose and less ends up on the ground.”
            Offering suet cakes are another way to feed birds without the mess. Suet is a high-energy, pure-fat substance that can contain fruit, nuts and even insects to attract a variety of birds.
            Those who would like to add a birdbath to their patio might consider tall pedestal types with easy-to-clean, removable glass bowls that don’t require a large footprint, he said. There are also colorful hanging birdbaths and bird waterers that can be positioned up and out of the way. Bird waterers, similar to those used for pets, use gravity to dispense water into a dish, or port for the birds.  
But for those who live in a development that prohibits birdfeeders, a colorful container garden is a simple way to attract bees, butterflies, hummingbirds, as well as a variety of songbirds.  
Garden expert Jerry Wang at the Green Thumb Nursery in Lake Forest suggested butterfly weed.  “It works well in pots and flowers almost constantly,” he said. 
Pentas are also an excellent nectar plant for a butterfly garden, he said.  Plants produce up to 20 clusters at a time and bloom continuously from spring to autumn. The nectar from the flowers attracts swarms of butterflies and hummingbirds.
“Grevillea is a beautiful potted plant,” Wang said. “It grows about 4-feet high and works well in a large pot.” It’s a native of Australia with tube-like blooms. “Hummingbirds go crazy for it,” he said.
Many California native plants also work well in containers, Wang said. These plants are particularly important because they are closely tied to the needs of the birds in our area.  These include Galvezia or Island-Bush Snapdragon, monkeyflower, penstemon and California fuchsia.
            Let flowering plants, such as salvia and sage, go to seed to attract American and lesser goldfinches. These bright yellow birds are attracted to the color yellow, so consider adding sunflowers, black-eyed Susan and goldenrod to your container garden. Lavender is also a draw for these showy birds. 

Happy Birding!

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Every bird counts -- Join FeederWatch

Two American goldfinches and a lesser goldfinch at a Nyjer feeder. Photo by J.J. Meyer
Grab your binoculars! Cornell Lab of Ornithology's FeederWatch starts Nov. 14. If you have bird feeders, you're watching the birds anyway. So why not count them for science?

Sign up at FeederWatch.org to support the scientific study and conservation of birds with your observations.

"Currently, we are tracking several range expansions in both the western and eastern part of the continent," says project leader Emma Greig. "We are seeing that Lesser Goldfinches, Anna’s Hummingbirds, and Bushtits are on the rise in the West, and we are still investigating the causes. Northern Cardinals, Red-bellied Woodpeckers, and Carolina Wrens are expanding their ranges in the East, and scientists think it may be due to climate change. We need everyone's observations to detect these kinds of large-scale trends in bird populations."

More than 20,000 FeederWatchers contribute their data by reporting the highest number of each species they see at their feeders during periodic two-day counts through early April.

For a $18 fee ($15 for Cornell Lab members), U.S. participants receive the FeederWatch Handbook and Instructions with tips on how to successfully attract birds to feeders, an identification poster of the most common feeder birds, and a calendar. Participants also receive Winter Bird Highlights, an annual summary of FeederWatch findings, as well as the Cornell Lab's printed newsletter,  All About Birds News. The fee is $35 in Canada.

Happy Birding!

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

The Enigma of the Owl

Yale University Press

          If you're an owlaholic like me, you might enjoy my next column scheduled to run in the Orange County Register on Saturday, Oct. 28.   

             Since ancient times owls have been mired in myth and superstition. Some indigenous people of North America considered owls to be the embodiment of ghosts and their nocturnal hoots an omen of evil. Others believed that owls transported the souls of the dead to the afterlife. 
It’s no wonder this nocturnal hunter has become associated with Halloween.
            The recently released book titled “The Enigma of the Owl,” (Yale University Press) by Mike Unwin and David Tipling captures the allure of owls.
            According to the authors, “Something about these enigmatic birds commands attention and fires the imagination, which is why owls have loomed large in human culture across the ages.”
            The authors explain this “something” may have to do with owls’ nocturnal, elusive nature “moving unseen in the darkness, betrayed only by their unearthly calls.” Other explanations could be that owls’ forward-facing eyes give these birds a human facial quality or that owls deploy their hunting skills in darkness with amazing stealth and precision.
The book is divided geographically into six bioregions, showcasing 53 species of owls from the smallest elf owl to the most powerful Eurasian eagle owl, along with a description of the appearance, distribution, behavior and cultural associations of each.  The more than 200 dramatic photographs, which were taken or selected by David Tipling, capture the essence of each species.  
Fascinating details can be found throughout the book. For example, larger owls have frighteningly powerful feet. The talons of the great-horned owl, a common species found in Orange County, can exert a pressure similar to a Rottweiler’s jaws and at least eight times stronger than a human hand.
Only a few species of North American owls can be found regularly in Southern California including barn owls, great-horned owls and Western screech owls. Ground-dwelling burrowing owls were once plentiful until development destroyed their nesting areas. Only a few burrowing owl sightings have been documented at the Bolsa Chica Ecological Preserve in Orange County and near Joshua Tree National Park in Riverside County over the past five years. A few isolated sightings of Northern Saw-whet owls and long-eared owls have also been recorded in Orange County in recent years.
Rare sightings of the elusive spotted owl were recorded within the past 10 years in a remote canyon along Orange County’s eastern border and in the San Jacinto Mountains in Riverside County, according to data on ebird.org.

Secret information for blog readers:  Did you know that Sea & Sage Audubon Society offers owl prowls at the Audubon Starr Ranch Sanctuary in March when owls are nesting? Check the organization's website at Sea & Sage Audubon this winter to sign up. Spots fill up fast!

Happy birding!!

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Birds & Blooms October/November issue shares owl secrets

Did you know that owls are among the most specialized and highly adapted bird species? Their keen vision and hearing allow them to hunt at night for small prey, such as mice, voles and toads. Fringed feathers ensure silent flight. And sharp beaks and talons are perfect tools for hunting, killing and eating prey.

Owl feathers help camouflage them, so they can be difficult to spot. They're active at night but rest during the day. Grab your binoculars next time you hear the shreiks of crows and jays. They often mod together to run off a resting owl, thereby giving its location away.

A roundup of the most common owl species is included in this month's issue of Birds & Blooms. Go to birdsandblooms.com to order.

Happy Birding!

Saturday, October 7, 2017

White-crowned sparrows have arrived!

White-crowned sparrow  Photo by J.J. Meyer
     You know it's winter in Orange County when you see flocks of white-crowned sparrows hopping around your back yard. I spotted one yesterday and two today. Many people have reported waking to  their sweet song.
     They're easy to identify with their black and white striped head, pale beak and gray breast. Juveniles have a reddish brown stripe instead of the white.
     White-crowned sparrows are ground feeders and prefer to stay close to the safety of trees and shrubs. They'll visit platform feeders – though they're more likely to stay on the ground eating seeds dropped by other birds. 
    These small songbirds can travel as much as 2,600 miles to winter in Southern California. Welcome these visitors by tossing a handful of millet, shelled sunflower seeds or cracked corn on the ground and providing a source of fresh water.
    Happy birding!

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Shasta the bald eagle recently spotted in British Columbia

Shasta with adult white plumage, spotted at Glendale Cove, British Columbia, Sept. 4, 2017. Photo by Robert Higgs

Shasta, with juvenile plumage, in Laguna Beach, Calif., April 17, 2015. Photo by Adrienne Helitzer

I recently received a note from Robert Higgs, who captured the top photo on Sept. 4 at the estuary at Glendale Cove, Knight Inlet, British Columbia while on vacation. 

"I was with my wife, Jean, and the General Manager of the Knight Inlet Lodge, Brian Collen, when we spotted Shasta," Higgs said. "We saw her fly in and she settled high up in the tree. It was a few minutes before we noticed something orange on her wing – and it was only with binoculars that we were able to identify it as a tag – and the number 32."

Higgs discovered that the orange wing marker #32 belonged to a bald eagle named Shasta on the Institute of Wildlife Studies website. 

"Her feathers were smooth – and she looked to be in great condition – healthy, strong, very fine, elegant and regal," he said. "We watched her continuously whist she was perched in the tree, during which time, whilst she was clearly very alert, she appeared to be resting. After about 20 minutes of observing her we watched her fly away – and it was then that we noticed additional tags underneath."

Shasta hatched on Catalina Island in March 2013, which makes her about 4 1/2 years old. Bald eagles develop the distinctive adult white plumage on the head and tail at about age 4 or 5.

"Reflecting upon the jouney she has made, I now feel a strange, emotional attachment to Shasta," Higgs said. 

 The bald eagle was the focus of my column on April 30, 2015, read the complete story in The Orange County Register.

To report additional sightings of Shasta or other banded birds, go to reportband.gov

Happy Birding!