Bird Migration Myth: Barnacle Geese

Bird Migration Myth: Barnacle Geese

Migrating geese

Where do the geese go?

When the seasons change, where do birds go? That question puzzled people for millennia, but it took a long time for us humans to figure out sensible answers. Before you scorn our ancestors, remember how little access they had to accurate information. People could see that the birds had left or the birds had arrived, but they could not know where they had gone. A migrating bird may fly halfway around the world; only in the past few hundred years have we been able to journey that with regularity. Even when sea travel reached the point where humans were circumnavigating the globe, not many seafarers were making rigorously scientific observations – Charles Darwin was the most notable exception – and when they did, how could they tell where individual birds had come from?

Still, we have to give credit to our ancestors, who were at least curious enough to wonder where the birds went in the off-season and who came up with creative explanations. Aristotle decided that birds hibernated during winter. As other species, e.g. bears, do hibernate, his pronouncement was not so unreasonable (Aristotle came up with good theories but didn’t always bother with finding confirmatory examples). Other people thought birds buried themselves in mud for the winter, which might have been an explanation for why they could not be seen hibernating.

My favorite story is the one about barnacle geese turning into barnacles for the winter. Even though the story has long been debunked, the name has stuck, rather like barnacles, to the geese.

Barnacles. From Wikipedia, photo by Michael N. Magg

We humans (or at least this human) tend to think of barnacles as growing on the hulls of boats. This is because this is how we most easily see the barnacles, as boats and ships bob in the water off some wharf and the barnacles are exposed for our human eyes to see. But barnacles have been living on the planet far longer than people have been building sea-craft, so barnacles have been attaching themselves to other hard surfaces for a very long time. Note that whale bellies also count as hard surfaces. Barnacles, after their larval stages, can’t move about on their own and they must appreciate ships and whale bellies for bringing them through nutrient-rich waters.

Barnacle goose

Humans believed that barnacle geese turned into barnacles long enough and with sufficient conviction for barnacle geese to be classed as “fish” by parts of the Catholic Church for the devout who were abstaining from meat for Lent, and was apparently acceptable for their old “fish on Friday” requirement. I think it’s strange that people didn’t seem to notice that the barnacles didn’t disappear during the summer. Maybe they believed that they stayed inside the barnacle “eggshells” during the winter and emerged for the summer. How a goose could make itself small enough to squeeze into a barnacle is beyond my comprehension, but there are so many other flaws with the argument I shouldn’t get stuck on that point.

Of course, with the inability to travel great distances, and no ability to identify and track individual birds (crows can tell us humans apart, but most of us have trouble distinguishing individual birds), knowing where a bird had been was almost always impossible, no matter how (un)reasonable the theory.

However, in 1822, in Germany, a stork died – a stork that had been pierced by an arrow that had been shot in Africa. This one case was enough to prove that at least some birds migrate great distances. The unlucky stork’s body (with the African weapon still piercing it) can be found in a museum in Rorstock, Germany.

The Rorstocker white stork, as displayed in the local museum

We humans learned a lot more about bird migration over the years. Rings around bird legs allowed us to be certain of the location of some individual birds, although this method also depended on there being a human finder and the finder being willing to send back the information. Of course, over the years, technology has evolved. Some people, using ultralight aircraft, have been able to accompany geese during their migrations. And now electronic devices are so light and tiny we can do much more. For example, we can accurately observe the paths of the Arctic tern, which avoids winter entirely, going from one polar circle to the other, spending its life in the summer and light.

Arctic tern on one of the Farne Islands

There’s much more to discuss about bird migration, such as how and why and which species do it; I’ll address some of these issues in other posts. In the meantime, remember that barnacles and barnacle geese have nothing to do with each other in reality.

From Hunters of the Feather:

“Food isn’t always so plentiful,” Mother warned them, as she grabbed a caterpillar off a leaf. “You hatched at the end of spring, when supplies are at their greatest – the insects, the fruit, even the water in the swimming pool. But in winter it’s cold, much colder than any night you have experienced, and often food is scarce. Many of the trees lose their leaves; there is less fruit and the swimming pool is empty. The sun, which is so hot now, offers little warmth, and the days are shorter, the nights longer. Just when you need more food to keep warm, less food is available.”

Lila tried to catch a butterfly, but it flitted away. “What do we crows do then?” she asked.

“Some fly south, where it’s warmer,” said Mother. “That’s why leaders of the local flock are meeting today, to discuss who should go and who should stay. The south is beautiful and warmer in the winter, but migration is hard and not for everyone.”

“It’s a Crime to Kill a Mockingbird” (Migratory Bird Treaty Act)

“It’s a Crime to Kill a Mockingbird” (Migratory Bird Treaty Act)

Northern mockingbird, Mimus polyglottos, Captain Tucker

Birders in the US are celebrating thanks to a court decision (thanks, U.S. District Court Judge Valerie Caproni!) on August 11, 2020 protecting the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA), an act that has been around since 1918 and involves not just the US but Canada, Mexico, and Japan. The MBTA was threatened, (surprise, surprise) by the current administration. We’re all pleased, of course, by Judge Caproni’s decision, but what does this mean exactly?

The US Fish and Wildlife Service website explains what the treaty does: ‘The Migratory Bird Treaty Act prohibits the take (including killing, capturing, selling, trading, and transport) of protected migratory bird species without prior authorization by the Department of Interior U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.’ The website also has an Excel spreadsheet with a list of more than one thousand species that are protected. That’s a start, of course, but what does that mean?

Let’s take a look at the History (Audubon society).

  • 1800s: With essentially zero regulations in place, market hunters decimate U.S. bird populations, in part so that well-to-do women can wear hats adorned with ornamental feathers. By the end of the century, Labrador Ducks and Great Auks are extinct, soon to be joined by Passenger Pigeons, Carolina Parakeets, and Heath Hens. Numerous other species stand on the brink. Outrage over these alarming trends leads to the formation of the first Audubon societies, as well as other conservation groups.
Carolina parakeet, James St. John. Alas, this one is stuffed.
  • Much more history, not here because I won’t violate Fair practices. Several laws passed, expanding and refining the laws.
  • 1970s: For the first time, U.S. prosecutors begin charging not just hunters who violate the MBTA, but also oil and gas, timber, mining, chemical, and electricity companies. Though not directly targeting wildlife, these industries incidentally cause millions of bird deaths each year that could have been avoided with simple infrastructure modifications, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. In publicly available documents, the DOJ states that it will first notify companies of a violation and work with them to correct it. But if they “ignore, deny, or refuse to comply” with best management practices, then the “matter may be referred for prosecution.” 
  • 1972: An amendment to the MBTA protects an additional 32 families of birds, including eagles, hawks, owls, and corvids (crows, jays, and magpies). Even more species have been added since, bringing the total number to 1,026—almost every native species in the United States. With such additions, the word “‘migratory” in the act’s title becomes largely symbolic—many birds that do not embark on actual migrations are still protected. 

EcoWatch also has a good write-up‘The Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA) has for over 100 years offered protections to 1,000 different types of birds, instigating penalties for companies whose projects or infrastructure harm them. Yet, in 2017, the Interior Department’s Solicitor Daniel Jorjani, a former Koch Industries employee, advised punishing the oil and gas industry, construction companies, and others only if their work intentionally kills birds, effectively ending the spirit of the law that asks for the migratory patterns of birds to be considered when developing a project.

Two American crows in flight, by David Kaplan

The opinion freezes the MBTA in time as a hunting-regulation statute, preventing it from addressing modern threats to migrating bird populations,” Caproni wrote in a decision vacating the opinion, calling it “an unpersuasive interpretation of the MBTA’s unambiguous prohibition on killing protected birds,” according to The Hill.

From the Washington Post: ‘The changes made by the Trump administration largely benefited oil companies, which have paid most of the fines for violating the act, according to an analysis by the National Audubon Society.

In the administration’s view, even BP, the company responsible for the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico that led to the deaths of an estimated 1 million birds, would not be liable for punishment under the law. A landowner who destroys endangered owl nests without checking before building a barn or an oil company that fails to cover a tar pit that birds could dive into and be killed could not be held responsible as they have for decades.

Caproni determined that allowing the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service police to enforce the act only if officials could prove intent was a violation of the federal Administrative Procedure Act and vacated the changes. In striking down the rule change, she admonished the Interior Department with a passage from To Kill a Mockingbird, saying, “It’s not just a sin to kill a mockingbird; it’s a crime.”’

Tropical Kingbird, Charles J. Sharp

This was an important decision. I don’t know how the current administration is doing with respect to finding and penalizing those guilty of harming our feathered friends, but at least this court was still on the side of birdkind.

Mother said they could theorize about humans later. “For now, all you nestlings need to know is how dangerous they are.” – Hunters of the Feather

True Tales of the Great Flock

True Tales of the Great Flock

In my series, the Crow Nickels, the Great Flock refers to all birds, not just the crows or even the extended family of corvids. Lady Obsidian, the leader of the Sky Council, runs the Feathered Forum twice a year (on the solstices) to listen to reports from various species. Hunters of the Feather is fiction, but birds are doing more than many people realize. Here are a few true tales about various members of the Great Flock.

Whistling Kite by JJ Harrison (Wikipedia commons), Haliastur sphenurus 2 – Pitt Town Lagoon, New South Wales, Australia. One of the species considered a “firehawk”

In a report in National Geographic, we learn that birds are starting fires! “In interviews, observations, and ceremonies dating back more than a century, the indigenous peoples of Australia’s Northern Territory maintain that a collective group of birds they call “firehawks” can control fire by carrying burning sticks to new locations in their beaks or talons. …The idea is that these birds of prey use fires to help find food—making easy meals out of insects and other small animals trying to flee the blaze.”

Most people know about the terrible fires that have been happening with regularity in Australia and California, which are much worse because of the climate crisis. Having recently experienced the Bighorn Fire in Tucson – I could see fires outside my window; we had to be ready to evacuate at a moment’s notice; the smoke was terrible for weeks – I have a lot of respect for fire. But at least in Australia, we’re not the only species responsible for some of the raging flames.

Bighorn Fire just north of Tucson, view from my terrace. Victoria Grossack

Most people assume only humans use fire, but apparently it isn’t so (and the birds may be just as irresponsible, or even more so, than our species). What else are they doing?

According to some they may be making art. And I don’t just mean the art of bower birds, used to attract mates, which you could argue has evolved and is purely instinctual:

Bower bird construction, decorated with what appears to be blue straws and blue bottle caps

The way that bower birds adapt their decoration to available supplies seems like a sign of intelligence to me!

Stuart Dahlquist: Crow art?

Stuart Dahlquist wrote on Twitter how his family had been feeding a family of crows – and in thanks, the crows left them some can tabs threaded on pine twigs. Now, crows and ravens have long been known to leave little gifts of gratitude for human feeders, and even to find trinkets for humans who lost things – but this looks like art to me.

Sometimes birds perform better than people. And not just at things like flying, where they have an obvious advantage. From a Harvard study:

What happens when an African grey parrot goes head-to-head with 21 Harvard students in a test measuring a type of visual memory? Put simply: The parrot moves to the head of the class.

Harvard researchers compared how 21 human adults and 21 6- to 8-year-old children stacked up against an African grey parrot named Griffin in a complex version of the classic shell game.

So how did the parrot fare? Griffin outperformed the 6- to 8-year-olds across all levels on average, and he performed either as well as or slightly better than the 21 Harvard undergraduates on 12 of the 14 of trial types.

African grey parrot, Wikipedia Commons, L. Miguel Bugalio Sánchez (not Griffin)

And sometimes birds help other species. This crow in Latvia is getting a hedgehog off of a busy street.

We have seen the use of fire, creative art, putting Harvard students to the test, and a good dose of compassion. Maybe bird brains are more developed than many acknowledge.

Sol wondered from what kind of eggs humans hatched. They had no beaks; how did they break through their shells? With their little noses? How long did it take for their eyes to open?Hunters of the Feather

Tucson Wildlife Center: Rescuing, Rehabbing & Releasing Friends with Feathers and Fur

Tucson Wildlife Center: Rescuing, Rehabbing & Releasing Friends with Feathers and Fur

Young phainopepla being cared for at the Tucson Wildlife Center

For this post I spoke with Angéline Fahey, the Education Program Coordinator at the Tucson Wildlife Center, who has been working at the organization for the last three years.

Victoria: Hi Angéline! Tell me about the people at the Tucson Wildlife Center.

Angéline: We have two wildlife veterinarians, one vet tech, and six to twelve other employees, depending on the season. We also have about 180 volunteers with shifts ranging from four to eight hours. We are located in Tucson, but we actually serve eight counties in southern Arizona. We are overseen by Arizona Game and Fish.

Victoria: What sort of animals are helped at the Tucson Wildlife Center?

Angéline: We help lots of different animals. For example, here’s a white board with a critter count:

Tally of Animals at Tucson Wildlife Center on July 6, 2020

So on July 6, 2020, we had 425 animals on-site. 12 animals are permanent residents living in sanctuary; the rest are in rehabilitation. 

We have rescued 3,402 animals so far this year (which is a huge increase from last year at this time). Last year we rescued a total of 4,060 animals for the entire year. 

Victoria: Do you accept all animals?

Angéline: There are three types of mammals we don’t accept. We don’t take in bears, mountain lions, or deer, as we don’t have permits to rehab them; also deer may have wasting disease. However, we take in many other mammals: bobcats, coyote, raccoon, skunk, javelina, rabbits, and many more. These days, we even take in some snakes. We don’t help spiders, although we have gotten calls for them!

Editorial note: Chronic wasting disease is a prion disease, like mad cow disease, and is contagious among deer, elk and moose.

Some javelina that didn’t need rescuing. Yes, I like this picture. Johann Rafelski

Victoria: If someone finds an animal that needs rescuing, what should that person do?

Angéline: You should call the Tucson Wildlife Center at 520-290-9453; we have people who answer the phones around the clock. If the animal is young, such as a fledgling, we will almost always tell you to leave the animal alone. The parents are generally close by and will take care of it as soon as you leave.

Victoria: What happens to an animal after it comes to the Tucson Wildlife Center?

Cooper’s hawk getting an exam by wildlife veterinarian, Dr. Kramer

Angéline: First the animal’s condition is diagnosed. Often it’s just a matter of rehydration and restoration, but sometimes the injuries are greater. We have three different ICUs: one for larger birds; one for larger mammals; then another for small birds and mammals. We have digital X-ray, which can be important. A bird was once brought in with what appeared to be a broken wing, but it turned out it had been shot.

After a bird, for example, leaves the ICU, it needs to get its strength back. We start this rehab by putting it into a small enclosure, but with enough room to stretch and flutter about. Later, when a bird is ready, it’s moved to a much larger enclosure where it can really fly and its strength can be observed by the vets. Is it ready to go back out; can it take care of itself? For example, with an owl, is it flying silently?

The goal of Tucson Wildlife Center is to rehab and release, as close as to where the animal was found so it can rejoin its family. Sometimes treatment is just a matter of water and food and then taking the animals back to where they were found. Animals that cannot be rehabbed are usually put down. We need permission from Arizona Game and Fish to make an exception, as was done for a Harris’s hawk.

Harris’s hawk, Wikipedia Commons

Victoria: Can you tell me about some of the birds the Tucson Wildlife Center has rescued?

Angéline: This sharp-shinned hawk was found on the ground rolling on his back, due to cactus needles embedded in both feet. He was rushed to our wildlife hospital where veterinarians removed more than fifty needles from his feet during the first sitting, and hundreds more during the next few days. X-rays revealed that hundreds of needles had broken off below skin level, so the hawk was given daily Epsom salt foot baths to help coax out the remaining needles (pictured). After the final remaining needles were successfully removed, he was moved to a larger enclosure where he gained his strength back in flight. After a few more days of rehabilitation and a dozen foot baths later, the sharp-shinned hawk was brought back to the wild for release.

Sharp-shinned hawk who had an unfortunate encounter with a cactus

Victoria: That poor bird! Any others?

Angéline: A burrowing owl was seen attempting to fly in a Walmart garden center with his left eye closed. When Tucson Wildlife Center volunteers arrived to rescue the owl, he was in the parking lot. Our team swooped into action and safely rescued the feathered cutie. Upon rescue, an eye exam revealed a minor scratch, which was treated with eye drops. Although lovable, the owl was feisty and attempted to escape his enclosure frequently. In a few days the owl’s eye was healed, and he was returned to the wild.

Burrowing owl. Yes, this bird uses abandoned burrows of prairie dogs. Although it can fly, it’s also an excellent runner.

Victoria: I read at your website about a rescue of a pelican!  That seems strange for southern Arizona, as it’s so far from the ocean.

Angéline: Occasionally a young brown pelican, probably buffeted by winds, gets off course and then gets horribly lost. The pelican then sees a road, which can shimmer in the sunlight, looking like water. Because it thinks it’s heading to water, not road, the landing can be pretty hard. Tucson Wildlife Center received several calls about the pelican, and we sent out people after police blocked it off. It’s good to have animal experts as capturing a pelican isn’t easy; they have long sharp beaks and can peck out an eye. After taking the pelican back to the Tucson Wildlife Center, we rehydrated it and fed it (pelicans are expensive to feed; they need fresh fish). Once we make sure the bird was healthy, a volunteer drove it to San Diego and released it near the ocean.

Brown pelican (in Florida, not Arizona), Wikipedia, photographed by Terry Foote

Victoria: Why do you think people try to rescue animals? Why do you do it?

Angéline: So often the reason these animals are in distress is because of us, because of people, you know. The animal may have been hit by a car. It may have been poisoned by someone. Or it could be stuck on a glue trap. A glue trap is put out to capture unwanted animals, such as pack rats who have set up a home in an inconvenient spot. But glue traps can trap all sorts of other animals, too.

People feel guilt; people feel responsibility. Also, many people who work at Tucson Wildlife Center have a deep love for animals.

Victoria: I think doing what we can to preserve biodiversity is so important! Anyway, as you know, there’s been a big fire in the Tucson area during June and July. What impact does this have on the wildlife and what does Tucson Wildlife Center do and recommend?

Bighorn fire, picture taken June 30, 2020, NASA

Angéline: Tucson Wildlife Center does what it can to help. During the Aspen fire back in 2003, we had people out near the hotshot crews in order to rescue the animals. However, conditions were so severe most animals didn’t make it. We recommend that people who live near the fire zones but who are in their homes remember that many animals have been displaced. People should consider putting out water for the wild animals, but give them space. They’re refugees.

Editorial note on the Bighorn Fire: The bighorn fire was started on June 5, 2020, by a lightning strike and as of this blog has burned about 120,000 acres. My husband and I were both in a zone that had to be ready to evacuate at a moment’s notice. We packed our bags but we never had to load them in the car and drive away, even though we could see flames on nearby ridges and the air was fouled by smoke.

Victoria: Thanks, Angéline, for telling us about the Tucson Wildlife Center and all that you do! For more information about them, visit their website. You can also leave a question in the comment section below.

Gambel’s quail. There are a lot of quail at the TWC, because there are a lot of quail in southern Arizona

“Young crow, you don’t solve a problem by avoiding it.” Lord Onyx, in Hunters of the Feather

Tucson Parrot Rescue

Tucson Parrot Rescue

Carol Klamerus and Goffin’s cockatoos

Victoria: For this blog, I spoke with Carol Klamerus, who runs Tucson Parrot Rescue (see www.tucsonparrotrescue.com). Carol, how about a few words about your organization?

Carol: The mission of Tucson Parrot Rescue is to rescue parrots in need of new homes, no matter the reason, and to improve the lives of companion birds. One of our main goals is to increase humans’ knowledge of what to expect from parrots and how to care for them properly.  

Tucson Parrot Rescue also assists in reuniting lost birds with their families, helps birds with issues so birds may remain in their homes, and arranges adoptions of unwanted birds into caring homes with educated caregivers.  

We offer a personalized education program, which is held in your home (adaptations may be made during the pandemic). Each class is an individual-based course, which includes instruction in the general care, nutrition, proper housing, well-being of each bird, health, and household hazards.

Victoria: That sounds impressive! Carol, how long have you been running Tucson Parrot Rescue?

Carol: I’ve been running this for about 6-7 years. Before that I was part of Tucson Avian Rescue Association (TARA), but it turned out that many people don’t understand that the word “avian” means bird. So we got a lot of calls to rescue other animals, such as javelinas.

Part of a squadron of javelinas at a knocked-over garbage bin; much more piglike than birdlike. Johann Rafelski

After TARA closed, I started Tucson Parrot Rescue, but even now the name causes some misunderstandings. I don’t just help out birds in Tucson, but in most of southern Arizona. Also, the word “Parrot” means the parrot family, which includes many different species.

Editor: According to Wikipedia, the Parrots – also known as Psittaciformes – have 387 different living species. These include true parrots, but also cockatoos and New Zealand parrots. Parrots come in many sizes, from the parakeets (budgerigars/budgies) native to Australia to the hyacinth macaws that hail from South America. They have strong curved bills (hook-bills) and two toes going forwards and two toes going backwards.

Hyacinth macaw, Wikipedia commons

Victoria: What makes parrots so special?

Carol: Parrots, such as African greys, are some of the world’s most intelligent birds, which means they need stimulation. They can also live a long time – from 50 to 80 years – unlike dogs and cats, parrots often outlive their humans. Also, their innate wild nature make their needs greater than most people can meet.

Parrots, like many birds, need to belong to a flock. If you are your bird’s only companion, it will get upset and start calling if you leave the room. That’s why it’s usually better to have more than one bird, as long as the birds don’t attack each other. For birds to get along, it’s better if they’re at least from the same part of the world, such as both from South America or from Australia.

Even in captivity, after so many years of being bred by humans, they are not domesticated. Put some budgies together and they know how to flock! In the wild, they do murmurations of thousands! Editorial note: a “murmuration” is a flock of birds, most often applied to starlings.

Budgies flocking

Victoria: How do people, sometimes inadvertently, treat their parrots poorly?

Carol: Many pet parrots are malnourished, because their owners feed them only seeds instead of a well-rounded diet. Seeds are mostly fat; they don’t contain enough vitamins. Even if seeds advertise that they are fortified with vitamins, these vitamins are sprayed on the outside of the seeds and don’t always get absorbed by the bird. Parrots need much more variety, such as veggies and fruit, in their diets, but you should check with your vet that the other foods are OK before giving it to your bird.

Another common problem is that birds don’t get enough exercise, because people don’t let the birds out of their cages enough. Often cages are too small. Wider cages are more important than taller cages. (Editorial note: Tucson parrot rescue may have the right cage for your bird. Their website also has information about what makes a cage suitable – or not.)

Moluccan cockatoo

Besides bad diets and insufficient exercise — problems common to us humans – birds, because of the way their lungs and air sacs work, are especially sensitive to certain chemicals. The gasses released when you cook with a Teflon pan can kill your parrot. New carpets can also be dangerous. If it smells funny to you, it’s probably bad for your birds.

Victoria: Hmm, if Teflon kills birds it’s probably not good for people.

Carol: No.

Victoria: I think I’ll change my cooking habits. Anyway, I see why it’s good to get some coaching before bonding with a bird.

Carol: I need to do a home visit, to make sure that the place is safe and that people are prepared to let a bird or two into their homes. Of course, these days that’s not always possible.

Victoria: Can you tell us about any parrots that you have rescued?

Yellow-collared macaw (not Petricia). Wikipedia commons

Carol: Yes, I recently rescued a yellow-collared macaw. It was dumped outside a local Petco; the people there called me, and I picked it up. Unfortunately, the macaw had a wing with painful nerve damage and it had to be amputated so she wouldn’t be in pain. Petricia is living with me now.

Victoria: Thanks, Carol, for a fascinating and informative interview! Note to readers: you can learn more about Tucson Parrot Rescue at their website, www.tucsonparrotrescue.com. At any given time they may have 10 to 20 birds available for adoption, pandemic permitting, ranging from tiny lovebirds, budgies and cockatiels to majestic amazons, macaws and cockatoos. Remember, however, adoptions are not free and you have to be prepared to bond with a bird.

“Family before flock,” Mother said. “Flock before all other birds.” Hunters of the Feather

Crows are watching your language, literally

Crows are watching your language, literally

This is one of the sites I follow regularly for my background research for Sol, Abner, Ava, and all the rest of the crows.

That crows can recognize humans faces (and other physical attributes) has been a staple of our experiences with them for thousands of years. It’s part of what has allowed them to take such a prominent place within our cultures, and it’s what keeps us refilling our pockets with peanuts or kibble, anxious for the chance to be recognized, to be seen by a wild animal. If, like me, you’ve been committed to such a relationship, you probably found yourself wondering about what it is they’re saying all the time. Although we still have more questions than answers, it’s not for lack of trying;in fact parsing crow “language” is still a hot topic in corvidology. But forall our efforts to understand what crows are so often going on about, have you ever thought much about what they make of what we’re saying?

DSC_1974 Calling American crow

Ask any crow feeder about…

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Tips to Better Birding

Tips to Better Birding

Common Gallinule, photo by Luke Safford

This post interviews Luke Safford, who works for the Tucson Audubon Society. On Wednesday mornings, pandemic permitting, Luke guides birders on a field trip around Tucson’s Sweetwater Wetlands. I wanted to speak to him and ask for tips on how to spot birds better.

Victoria: Hi, Luke! How long have you been guiding birding tours for the Tucson Audubon Society?

Luke: I moved to Tucson, Arizona in 2015. I started volunteering for the Tucson Audubon Society, and in 2016, I joined the staff. On Wednesday mornings I guide a group at the Sweetwater Wetlands. In the summer months we can spot forty or more different species of birds. In the winter months that goes up to about fifty, and sometimes as many as sixty, different species.

Luke Safford guiding at Sweetwater Wetlands. Photo by Cory Michael Kennedy

Editorial Note: the Sweetwater Wetlands, owned by the City of Tucson and managed by Tucson Water, is a water treatment facility, but it’s also an urban wildlife habitat and an outdoor classroom. However, because of Covid-19, participation in the guided tours sponsored by the Tucson Audubon Society is currently limited. You can also go on your own but you should be aware that some services, such as bathroom facilities, may not be available.

Victoria: How long have you been birding?

Luke: I started birding when I was six or seven with my grandparents.

Luke Safford in a tree at Sweetwater Wetlands. Photo by Dan Weisz.

Victoria: Have you always been good at spotting birds? Or is spotting birds a skill you can get better at?

Luke: To get good at birding, you need to practice. It’s like learning a new language. Even if you have the best equipment, such as great binoculars, you’re going to need to practice.

If you’re not with a guide, try going outside and sitting quietly for an hour. Listen as well as watch for movements. It’s great if you can be in a place like a deer blind, where you can see the birds but they can’t see you. Once in a deer blind I could see black-capped chickadees much closer than usual.

Black-capped Chickadee, Wikipedia Commons

Of course, I know the Sweetwater area so I know where to look. I know where the birds are and I know where they aren’t.

Victoria: Even when I see a bird, I often can’t figure out the species. Can you give some identification tips to help us frustrated birders?

Luke: New birders tend to look at the color of feathers, but that isn’t always enough for figuring out a bird’s species. For ducks, I look at the bill, both the shape and the color. For gulls, I look at the color of the legs. Size and shape are important, too. Are the raptor’s wings wide or narrow? What’s the shape of the tail?

Another thing to observe is the bird’s behavior. If it’s scratching the ground, it might be a thrasher or a towhee. If it’s a waterbird, does it go entirely into the water or does it just dip its head, like a mallard?

Another important indication of the species is the habitat. Certain species can be found at Sweetwater, which, as it sounds, has plenty of water and attracts birds that need more water. You’ll find completely different species at Tucson Audubon’s Mason Center, which is twenty acres of Sonoran desert.

Luke Safford guiding at Sweetwater. Photo by Cory Michael Kennedy

Even experienced birders don’t identify every bird. Sometimes you don’t see enough to make an identification. Don’t stress about it. Birding is supposed to be fun.

Victoria: What does the Tucson Audubon Society do?

Luke: The mission of the Tucson Audubon Society is to inspire people to protect and to enjoy birds. We are separate from the National Audubon Society but we cooperate with them.

The Tucson Audubon Society has four main areas of activity. The first is Restoration for birds, which includes building nest boxes and removing invasive species.

The second is Conservation. This includes a lot of bird counts and bird surveys.

The third area of work is Advocacy, which means speaking out for birds and their habitats in Tucson and southeastern Arizona. The fourth area is Engagement, helping locals to get to know their birds, by doing activities such as leading walks at Sweetwater or Tucson Audubon’s Mason Center. We do other field trips, and these days, Zoom meetings.

Sweetwater Wetlands. Photo by Cory Michael Kennedy

Victoria: Here’s the link for the Tucson Audubon Society, where you can learn about the Sweetwater walks and the organization’s other activities. Of course, if you’re not near Tucson, check out your local chapter of the Audubon society.

Red-winged Blackbird. Photo by Dan Weisz

“Try, and again try, till you win or till you die,” Junkyard Abner, Hunters of the Feather

Hunting Photos of Feathered Friends

Hunting Photos of Feathered Friends

After admiring her photos, I asked Beth Waterbury, wildlife biologist – scroll to the end to read more about her and her profession – about how she manages to take such wonderful photographs. Here’s what she wrote. Thanks, Beth!

Keel-billed Toucan by Beth Waterbury. She writes: “This is a favorite because the presence of this rainbow-colored tropical bird seemed so incongruous with pine trees, which I associate with temperate and boreal forests of North America (my bias!).”

What sort of equipment do you need to take good pictures of wildlife?

A big question! Endless books and blogs have been written on this subject with wide-ranging opinions. I’ll give you my 2 cents, but I encourage you to read up on the many options. For starters, and stating the obvious, you’ll need a good digital camera and lens. But first, you’ll need to determine your price range and budget, as that will narrow down your camera choices.

Your next big decision will be choosing between: 1) a digital SLR (single-lens reflex) camera (DSLR); 2) a mirrorless camera (point-and-shoot); or 3) a “bridge” camera (hybrid of #1 and #2).  https://www.digitalcameraworld.com/features/dslr-vs-mirrorless-cameras-how-do-they-compare   I have both DSLR and mirrorless cameras and I much prefer the DSLR. A DSLR camera has an optical viewfinder while the mirrorless camera has a digital display screen. I find it much easier to look through a viewfinder for both image clarity and to follow moving objects like birds. Often in daylight conditions, I find it hard to see a mirrorless camera screen, plus there is a “lag” or slower focus in the technology. And if you wear glasses, or need magnifiers for close work like I do, the DSLR viewfinder accommodates your “naked eye,” making it much more efficient and less frustrating than looking at a digital screen and juggling glasses while missing shots. Another important factor for me between DSLR and mirrorless is battery life. DSLR cameras have much better battery life than mirrorless cameras do. A DSLR will take up to 4,000 frames per charge to a mirrorless camera’s 350-400 frames per charge. If you’re out on a day’s adventure taking bird photos, you’re going to want that longer battery life.

Sandwich terns at Texas Gulf by Beth Waterbury. She writes: “I like the composition of this photo with the terns all pointing their yellow-tipped beaks out to sea. I also like the birds’ reflections in the wet sand beneath them and how their shaggy crests and postures give the impression that a stiff wind was blowing (it wasn’t).”

Other camera/lens considerations:

  • Autofocus (AF) – very important for bird/wildlife photography. Autofocus gets you efficiently focused in on a subject that isn’t going to sit there long! As a general rule, the more AF points a camera has, the better the Autofocus (but this adds to camera cost).
  • Low light performance – morning and sunset are some of the best times to view birds, but can mean challenging light situations. You’ll want a camera with a good image sensor (ISO). By increasing a camera’s ISO, photos become progressively brighter, helping you capture images in darker environments.
  • Lens compatibility – make sure your camera is compatible with different lenses. When photographing birds and nature, you will want to change out lenses for close-ups (macro) or distance (super telephoto). One reason of many why Nikon and Canon are my go-to cameras is because they carry so many compatible lenses (the ‘used’ selection is excellent as well).
  • Weight and size – important to consider if you’re frequently lugging a camera around! You want to be sure your camera is comfortable to use. DSLR’s are bigger, fatter, chunkier, more ‘grippable,’ and the settings are a bit larger so they’re easier to manipulate. Mirrorless are much smaller, lighter weight, but the controls are proportionally smaller, so it’s more difficult to change settings.
  • Fast shooting speeds – with birds, a lot can happen in one second! Opt for a camera that offers ‘high speed continuous shooting.’ Lower-priced DSLR’s can do 3 frames/second, but some of the better (nee expensive) cameras can shoot 10+ frames/second.
  • USB cable for charging – a portable, travel-friendly, and convenient method for recharging a camera battery. This is not a deal breaker, but I use the USB cable for charging all the time and not all cameras offer this option.
  • Warranty – it’s always helpful to know how long the warranty is effective and what it covers.
  • Lenses – arguably the most important part of your camera package. You want a lens that has adequate zoom (up to 300mm or higher), quality glass, and is durable. This takes a bit of research and $$$. Note that camera lenses are often sold separately from camera bodies.
  • Used equipment – consider buying a used camera and/or lenses (e.g., Nikon, Canon); this allows you to get more camera for your $$$. Also check out camera packages from Costco; they have some great deals on DSLR and point-and-shoot bundles that include 2 lenses, including a 75-300mm.

You might also want to invest in a sturdy tripod to mount your camera, especially when taking zoomed shots. It’s really tough getting crisp images when hand-holding a camera at full zoom.

Great Horned Owl by Beth Waterbury. She writes: “Example of a photo taken at last light in winter, giving the background mountains a dramatic purple hue. I think the photo works, even if the exposure on the owl is quite dark.”

Do you have any tips with respect to technique?

It’s hard to beat early mornings to maximize bird encounters; plus the lighting is lovely for photography. Sunset is also a good time; you get that flooded, angled light that can be so stunning. Try to shoot your subjects with the sun at your back, even on cloudy days.

When it comes to photographing birds and wildlife in general, closer is not always better. Too close and they will flush or become unduly stressed. Ethical bird photography is a thing:  first do no harm. Use distance to your advantage by using the background habitat to nicely compose your photos.

I don’t know if you have bird feeders in your yard (or if you have a yard!), but setting up a backyard feeding station is a very productive way to get great bird photos. Position your feeder(s) so your lighting comes from behind you. Set up a “blind” – in your house and shoot through an open, unscreened window, or set up a blind outdoors with a comfy chair and tripod. Position the feeder near natural perches with a good, level line-of-sight and a clean, uncluttered background (or adjust to a wide aperture so background is soft focus).

In the field, again be mindful of lighting making sure light is directly behind you when photographing birds. Find a spot to sit and observe quietly with minimal movement and patiently wait for some bird action. While walking along, keep your eyes scanning ahead of you for movement on the ground and the different layers of the canopy. When birds are spotted, approach slowly and quietly. Get to know some local areas that birds frequent at certain times of day, conceal yourself as best you can, and get your camera in hand ready for their arrival.

Green-tailed Towhee by Beth Waterbury. She writes: “This photo shows the subtle beauty of this bird’s plumage and how perfectly camouflaged it is in its native habitat. This towhee was nonplussed by my presence, which allowed me to approach for this ‘close up’.”

Key in on birdsong and approach songsters slowly and cautiously, stopping frequently with camera at-ready to photograph the bird. Taking video of birds in full-throated song is especially rewarding.

Here are some great tools & techniques for photographing birds from the Audubon website:  https://www.audubon.org/photography/how-tos

Is there a good time of day to try to get photos?

I think I addressed this above, but to reiterate, early morning (sunrise to ~9:00am) and the couple hours before sunset are hard to beat for dramatic lighting and background. These times are hands down the most productive times for encountering birds, as they are actively feeding in preparation for the day or night.

Black rosy finch by Beth Waterbury. She writes: “One of my favorites because it’s such a rare bird. I also like the soft pink pastels of the winter background and tree which complement the beautiful pink plumage of this bird.

Is there any bird that you have wanted to photograph but could not? The one that got away?

Ah, yes – there are a few. Varied Thrush, Montezuma Quail, and Varied Bunting. They all got away. There are many, many more I’ve snapped lousy photos of that I’d like a do-over.

Which bird were you most satisfied to photograph? (Here I’m talking about the bird, not the photo.)

That’s a tough question, as there have been many that were fun, exciting, challenging, and/or satisfying to photograph. If I had to pick one, I think it would be the Bobolink. The combination of the male’s loud, bubbling song, its striking “reverse tuxedo” plumage, and the vibrant green of its meadow habitat have made for some extraordinary photography sessions.

Long-eared owl by Beth Waterbury. She writes: “In this photo, I felt lucky, first of all to spot this cryptic species; second, to get the owl in focus among all the vegetation. I like how the angle of the Clematis vines replicate the posture of this slender owl.

Your bio says you’re a wildlife biologist. What does that mean exactly? What do you do?

A ‘wildlife biologist’ collects and analyzes data about  animals (plants too) in their native environment, typically through fieldwork. This may include designing and conducting surveys or research; investigating the ecology, physiology, genetics, or behavior of a wildlife species; assessing the state of wildlife habitats; addressing human-wildlife interactions; making decisions and recommendations regarding wildlife management and policies; and communicating with different constituencies about nature conservation.   

The duties of wildlife biologists will vary widely depending on employer. Wildlife biologists are hired by federal agencies (U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, U.S. Forest Service, National Parks, Bureau of Land Mgmt., etc.), state agencies (e.g., Idaho Dept. of Fish & Game, Missouri Dept. of Conservation), municipal agencies (e.g., Parks & Recs, urban biologist), academia (e.g., research co-ops, professors), private industry (e.g., environmental consulting firms, energy industry), and NGOs (e.g., The Nature Conservancy, Audubon, Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation). Many of the wildlife bio’s in the federal agencies and private industry are what I call “mitigation biologists” – they basically write biological assessments on effects to wildlife from land management actions (often adverse to the species), such as timber harvest, livestock grazing, mining, fracking, utility installation, etc. Some of the key skills for this profession are communications, organization, writing skills, observation, data gathering, analysis, and use of the scientific method.

Common Nighthawk by Beth Waterbury. She writes: “I love the lighting and dark background of this photo, and, of course, the detail of the beautifully patterned plumage of this bird.”

I am recently retired but I spent my entire 33-yr. career working for the state fish & wildlife agencies of California, Oregon, and Idaho. In northern California I worked on mule deer research, collaring and tracking mule deer from winter ranges to summer ranges and restoring deer winter range habitat. In Oregon, I worked as a regional wildlife biologist focusing on wildlife habitat restoration, then managed a statewide habitat program to incentivize wildlife management on private lands. For Idaho, I worked 16 years as the ‘wildlife diversity biologist’ for the Salmon Region in east-central Idaho. This entailed surveys, studies, and management of wildlife species designated as ‘Species of Greatest Conservation Need’ – so think endangered, threatened, sensitive, and wildlife species for which little data exists. The critters in my purview were birds, amphibians, reptiles, invertebrates, bats, and rare carnivores like fisher and wolverine. I would typically conduct one or two new surveys each year (say for wetland birds, or a winter survey for wolverine) on top of annual monitoring of breeding bald eagles, ospreys, and peregrine falcons. All the time in between involved annual surveys for big game species (elk, deer, bighorn sheep, mountain goat, pronghorn), conservation education projects with various partners (interpretive signs, school programs, articles for blogs & newsletters), and the ‘mitigation’ duties I mentioned previously. By far, my favorite job was with Idaho where I felt I made a difference for at-risk wildlife, partners, and the public. A couple of the projects that gave me the greatest sense of accomplishment were being lead on the Management Plan for the Conservation of Wolverine in Idaho, rediscovering a rare grasshopper species thought to be extinct, and leading a statewide survey for monarch butterflies and milkweeds in Idaho. My research on monarchs/milkweeds led me to serve as the editor of the Western Monarch Butterfly Conservation Plan after I retired. Anyway, this gives you a flavor of how diverse the title of ‘wildlife biologist’ can be.

Common Yellowthroat by Beth Waterbury. She writes: “This is a good example of a blurred background, which accentuates the little warbler at the center.”

Thanks, Beth, for sharing some time with us! I certainly learned a lot. Note if anyone reading this wants to contact Beth Waterbury, contact me (Victoria Grossack) via the Contact page (see the menu above) and I will forward your message to her.

“Try, and again try, till you win or till you die.” — Junkyard Abner, in Hunters of the Feather.