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

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Birds change habits in chilly weather

Offering high-energy suet can help birds like this acorn woodpecker survive the cold. Photo by Susan Brown Matsumoto
Here's my next column, which is scheduled to run the Orange County Register on Saturday, Jan. 31.

      Do you know how birds survive in winter?
      In some ways it’s a lot like humans: they put on a down coat, hang with a group of friends, eat a lot and find a warm place to hunker down.
      Because birds are exposed to the elements, they rely on a variety of physiological and behavioral adaptations to stay warm. For example, certain species will grow additional downy feathers before winter to increase their insulation.
     “When goldfinches complete a full body molt in the fall, their feathers become more dense to help keep them warm,” said John Schaust, chief naturalist for Wild Birds Unlimited in Carmel, Ind. “Juncos are known to increase their feathers by as much as 30 percent in winter.”
     Other avian physiological responses to the cold include the use of muscle contractions to generate body heat. While similar to shivering, it doesn’t involve the same trembling motion seen when humans are cold.
     Chickadees, including the mountain chickadees that live in Southern California, use a mechanism called “regulated hypothermia,” Schaust explained. While they normally maintain a temperature of about 107 degrees Fahrenheit, they can lower this to about 86 degrees when their environment drops below freezing in order to survive the night. Hummingbirds can enter a state of torpor, in which their respiration and other body processes are slowed to conserve energy until their next meal.
     Birds also change their behavior when the weather is nippy. They start by fluffing their feathers to trap a layer of warm air against their body. Generally, they roost earlier in the winter because temperatures can drop quickly after sunset. Titmice, chickadees and bluebirds will seek shelter from the wind in old woodpecker nesting cavities and man-made nesting boxes when available. And bluebirds and bushtits often huddle together at night to conserve heat.
     When temperatures drop, all of our fine-feathered friends need to eat more to generate heat. “We promote high-fat, high-calorie foods,” Schaust said. These foods include black oil sunflower seeds, suet and mealworms, which help support birds’ high metabolic rate during winter.
     Studies have shown that bird feeders make a difference, he said. In severe cold, the activity at feeders increases because the birds need more calories to stay warm under these conditions.
     “An interesting fact is that pine siskins can pack enough seeds into their crops before roosting to survive five hours at -4 degrees Fahrenheit,” Schaust said.
     Trying to keep warm takes energy. And birds can expend calories, which are stored in the form of fat, very quickly.
     “This fat must be replaced every day,” he said. “As birds eat throughout the day, they’ll convert that food to fat. And they can store up to 10 percent of their body weight in fat. But they’re going to burn up all that fat overnight. Then they have to start that process over the next day.”
     In addition to keeping bird feeders full, it’s also important to replenish fresh water in fountains and birdbaths for drinking and bathing, he said. Though a cold shower may not sound appealing to us, birds bathe in winter because feathers have to be in good shape for insulation against the cold.
     While winter is a good time for tree trimming, consider leaving places for birds to take cover. Roosting in thick foliage is definitely warmer than being out on a limb.

Happy Birding!

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Bird songs of spring

A Northern mockingbird  Photo by J.J. Meyer
Ah, love is in the air.

A mockingbird was singing its heart out this morning, something I haven't heard all winter. Though it's a little early for mating season to begin, our fine feathered friends are establishing territory and looking for a mate through vocalizations.

Just a few days ago, I also heard the cooing of a male mourning dove. The song is vocalized mainly by unmated males from a conspicuous perch. It’s a soft coo-oo followed by two or three louder coos. To hear this song, go to Cornell Lab's All About Birds.

Happy Birding!

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Great deal for new FeederWatchers

Count feeder birds for science.

Special FeederWatch offer

Sign up for FeederWatch for the first time before the end of February and you will automatically be signed up for next season too. That means new members can participate for the rest of the 2014-15 season, which runs through April 3, and participate for the entire 2015-16 season for the single-season rate of $18 in the U.S. and $35 in Canada. Allow at least three weeks for instructional kits to arrive. 

Project FeederWatch is a winter-long survey of birds that visit feeders at backyards, parks and nature centers.  To participate, simply count the birds you see at your feeders during any two-day period and post your counts on the Project FeederWatch website.  Your data helps scientists track the movements of winter bird populations and long-term trends in bird distribution and abundance.

Project FeederWatch is sponsored by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Bird Studies Canada. To join, go to FeederWatch.

Happy Birding!

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Eagle appreciation this weekend in Southern California

This amazing graphic ran today in the Orange County Register. For a readable view go to Focus National Bird.

The bald eagle has been the symbol of the United States for more than 200 years. Although decimated by hunters and the use of pesticides in the 20th century, the species has recovered thanks to federal protection and conservation programs. Eight years ago, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service removed these resilient birds from the endangered species list.


Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Serve suet in cold weather

A scrub jay snacks on high calorie suet.  Photo by J.J. Meyer
Our backyard birds need high-calorie, high-energy foods such as black oil sunflower seeds, insects and suet to support their high metabolic rate during winter.  When temperatures drop, birds need to eat more to generate heat. Extra calories stoke their metabolic rate and add to their fat reserves to insulate them against the cold. 
            Suet is a high-fat food, which can help support birds in winter when insects are harder to find. It can be offered in a variety of feeders and cages.  It's an easy to maintain, no mess option for those homeowners who are prohibited from or prefer not to offer seed.  

Happy Birding!

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Half male, half female cardinal shows gynandromorphism

Strange half-male, half-female cardinal spotted in northwestern Illinois. | Brian D. Peer

Recent story from the Huffington Post:

     You don't have to be an ornithologist to know that red northern cardinals are male and brownish-gray ones are female.
     But what about a Cardinalis cardinalis that sports red feathers on one side of its body and brownish-gray feathers on the other? Why, that cardinal is half-male and half-female, of course--and just such a rare bird has been observed in northwestern Illinois.
     An example of a phenomenon biologists call bilateral gynandromorphism, the bird was observed for more than 40 days between Dec. 2008 and March 2010--and it certainly caught the attention of the scientists who spotted it.
    "It was amazing when the bird was viewed from one side it appeared as a normal male and from the opposite side it appeared as a normal female," Dr. Brian D. Peer, a professor of biology at Western Illinois University in Macomb and one of the scientists, told The Huffington Post in an email. "It wasn't until you could see both halves of the bird did you realize it was a truly unique individual."
    If the bird looked weird, it also exhibited weird behavior. As Peer and his collaborator wrote in a paper published in the Dec. 2014 edition of the Wilson Journal of Ornithology, it was never heard vocalizing or seen to pair up with another cardinal.
     "It never acted like a typical male or typical female cardinal," Peer said in the email.
The bird's bizarre plumage arose because its sex chromosomes didn't segregate properly after fertilization, according to New Scientist.
     The researchers tried to capture the cardinal to take DNA samples but were unable to do so, Peer said in the email. However, research on chickens has shown that gynandromorphs tend to have mostly male cells in the half of the body with male plumage and mostly female cells in the half with female plumage.
     Bilateral gynandromorphism has also been observed in butterflies, crustaceans, and other birds, according to Science magazine.
     Peer said there has been at least one other published account of a bilateral gynandromorph cardinal but its plumage was reversed--male on the right side and female on the left.

Story link: Huffington Post

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Video captures how hummingbirds drink nectar

Photography by Don Carroll
   Here's my column, which ran Saturday in the Orange County Register's Home & Garden section: 

     When you watch hummingbirds at a nectar feeder, it might appear as though these tiny birds are using their long bills as a straw. But the mechanism is very different.
     Hummingbirds trap nectar from flowers and feeders on a microscopic membrane located along their split tongues. Loaded with nectar, their long tongues move in out of their bills about 15 times a second.
     Don Carroll first noticed the long, bifurcated tongue of a mother hummingbird while filming her feeding babies in the nest she had built on a clothesline on their patio in Las Vegas.
     “Most people don’t realize how long their tongues really are,” Carroll said. “In North America, hummingbirds’ tongues come out double the length of the bill. Those in South America are even longer in order to reach into large trumpet flowers.”
      He started shooting still images of the tongue. “But because it moves in and out of the bill so fast, it was always a blur,” he said.
      So he and his wife, Noriko, embarked on a project to capture detailed images of this action using a slow-motion video camera.
     “We didn’t want to shoot in a lab or a cage, we wanted to shoot in the wild. No one has ever done this, so I had to learn on the fly,” he said.
     In 50 years of professional photography, this was his most challenging project, Carroll said. The high-magnification and extremely fast shutter speeds required extra lighting. So he devised reflective mirrors around a specially designed glass feeder. The effects of the mirrors added to the brutal summer temperatures that often reached 130 degrees in the sun.
     “We had to work with wet towels on our heads,” he said.
     The heat also created problems for the birds. The nectar, though placed in the feeder chilled, could heat rapidly to 150 degrees and therefore required constant changing.
     “In one segment you can see a hummingbird back away from the feeder and spit out the nectar,” he said. “I suspect it went sour or was way too hot.”
      The stars of the show include several Anna’s, Costa’s and black-chinned hummingbirds. More females than males took to the spotlight.
     “There was one female Anna’s that seemed fearless and came more often than the others,” Carroll said. “The hummingbirds in the our yard were already used to us because we’ve had feeders for a long time. Generally when the feeders are empty or too hot they will fly up to the window to let us know. They have a way of communicating once they become familiar with you.”
      The couple’s video, “Secrets of the Hummingbird Tongue,” was selected from among 600 entries to be featured at the seventh annual New York Imagine Science Film Festival in October and earned the People’s Choice Award for significant home scientific research.
      Segments from this video have been added as bonus footage to the Carrolls’ previous work, “First Flight: A Mother Hummingbird’s Story,” which chronicles the hatching of two tiny eggs to the fledgling of the babies. The video is available for $19.99 at local nature stores or online at hummingbirdstory.com.