Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Stokes Guide to Bird Behavior Vol. 1 by Donald Stokes

Stokes Guide to Bird Behavior Vol. 1 by Donald Stokes. Boston. Little, Brown and Company. 1979. 336pp. ISBN: 0-316-81725-2

Behavior is what real naturalists want to understand in the animals they are studying. Having the resources to go to Costa Rica or the Galapagos in order to witness a bird found nowhere else is more a field for dilettantes. Knowing the behaviors of a few birds is far more interesting than having a blurred photo of some exotic Amazonian bird to show off to friends.

Lyandra Haupt in her book about backyard birds makes this point well. Having the largest “Life” bird list is a little like collecting the most baseball cards every summer. This notion of understanding behaviors makes a volume like this one particularly interesting to this bird watcher.  

It begins with an overview of key things to look for when out in the field and then focuses on 25 wild birds, all of which can be found along the Atlantic sea board (as well as other places). This was slightly disappointing for my familiarity with these species. Having crossed the nation to re-locate in the Pacific Northwest, there are many new species to get to know and these were not listed in this book. Hopefully when volumes #2 and #3 are found, many of them will be highlighted.

It would be vain and untrue to indicate that the details that Stokes provided in this guide were already known to me. An interest in corvids, a profundity of house sparrows or Canada geese have always made observing them easier. A focused interest in actual behavior also points me towards knowing all my birds better. Stokes’ guide makes that easier.

It is a well-constructed manual meaning that it is both informative and a fluid read. From my own experience both in the field and in reading the literature there was nothing that I could argue with in this presentation.

Yet there is an issue with the age of the volume that I read. It is the 1979 version of the guide. The book is in very good condition suggesting that my copy is not old. In turn this suggests that it has not been updated unless very recently. A book about avian behavior that is 39 years old means that much of the information needs to be refreshed. In the chapter on the American crow for instance, Stokes indicates that there is much we do not know about some of their behaviors. While this is technically accurate, there has been countless articles and books written about crows. There are information sharing internet sites as well. There is always much more to learn but when this book was published there was far less known than today.

At any rate, I found this to be a useful tool and look forward to reading the ensuing volumes.

Saturday, June 9, 2018

A Crow's nest in Vancouver

A spring time Crow’s nest
I have blogged for several years about the Yellow Crowned Night Heron rookery above the Jones Falls River near Johns Hopkins University. I was a little disheartened to leave that project but I found a new one at least for this season.

While making a purchase at a local store I spotted a Crow with a beak full of twigs land near the top of a tree. That bird was building or fortifying a nest. Another Crow was on a limb nearby acting as if it were supervising this activity.

I was intent on following the progress routinely. However over the next few weeks I saw nothing. The parking lot where the tree is located is filled with Crows but I did not see any such bird attending to the nest and concluded that it had been abandoned.

Since I am in the area regularly I continued to eyeball the nest in order to see if activity would recur. On May 26 there was a Crow feeding something hidden deep in the nest. When I returned from a trip and on June 8th, the hatchlings were large enough to see.

They look to be big enough to fledge so I’ll check them out with more regularity to chart the progress.

It is good to have a replacement for the Yellow Crowned mentioned above. It keeps the mind and the hands busy and less prone to looking for less worthwhile activities.

Monday, April 30, 2018

Subirdia: Sharing Our Neighborhoods with Wrens, Robins, Woodpeckers and Other Wildlife by John M. Marzluff

Subirdia: Sharing Our Neighborhoods with Wrens, Robins, Woodpeckers and Other Wildlife by John M. Marzluff (Illustrations by Jack DeLap). New Haven CT. Yale University Press. 2014. 301pp. ISBN: 978-0-300-19707-5

While reading this book I wished I was across the table from Marzluff, drinking a beer or a coffee (for me the former but I am amenable to my guest’s wishes). That meeting is not likely to occur but I’ll tell the reader why I wished it would later in this review.

Marzluff’s book is essentially about changing ecologies of the places where we work and live. He uses local bird life as his main vessel for telling the story but he does include a chapter on other species and how they adapt to increasing human encroachment.

With the loss of natural environments, birds are finding ways of exploiting suburban lands for their own benefit. Murzluff describes the famous University of Michigan basketball sobriquet, “The Fab Five” to inform readers of the types of birds that have done well in suburban locales. They are: House Sparrows, European Starlings, Rock Doves, Mallards and Canada Geese. These are all regular habitués year round, nearly everywhere in this country. There are seasonal and migrating birds but those 5 are pretty much standard. They have adapted well to living amongst us.

He also described birds as falling into a couple of categories that are also easy to identify with, for all of us humans interested in doing so. They include “exploiters” who are able to make use of the constricted environments to their own advantage. Crows are obvious examples as are their cousin corvids. Blue Jays on the east coast are adept at figuring out ways to extrapolate food sources where other avian cannot. While living in the mid-Atlantic I watched a Blue Jay while preparing my garden one spring. The bird left its perch to grab a garter snake who was basking in the warmish afternoon weather.

There are also “adapters” who may prefer a different environment for eating, mating and nesting but have learned to change their preferred conditions and accept what can be provided in the suburbs and exurbs which keep expanding despite the tenuous relationship that exists between population growth, weather conditions and infrastructures required to accommodate the new conditions.

There are “avoiders” who essentially seek an escape from the environmental factors of suburban expansion. They would be in more perilous species conditions due to loss of their own preferred ecology.

Marzluff discusses the ability to stave off encroaching ecological doom-he, is pretty optimistic. He provided several options that humans can take in order to preserve conditions for the many bird populations that are affected by “Subirdia”. Some include preparing large windows with decals in order to keep birds who see those windows as flyways and then crash into them. He talks of culling over-grazing deer in areas where they have become problematic. Entire neighborhoods have become overtaken by expanding deer populations causing more problems than can be described here.

Having trained hunters thin the herds would alleviate many of the issues presented by deer but also would provide meat to programs for needy humans as well as leather for many uses. He suggests the biological poverty needs ecological restoration which is hard to argue with. He calls for an ecological Golden Rule-“do unto your land, and the natural web of life it sustains, as you would have the land do unto you.”

The book is pretty compelling for its information but also for style. There is not a lot of jargon required for papers and academic pursuits. The book is designed for interested party who does not have solid academic credentials in areas that the book is concerned with. He refers to the citizen scientist and the many programs available to them such as the back yard bird survey from Cornell University’s ornithological program. He also suggested the Public Library of Science’s (PLOS) citizen science web page as a source of information and techniques for improving the quality of life for animals as well as humans.

But the reason I wish I could talk to Marzluff face to face is that he brought up several things that are very personal to me. I’ll only include a few here.

The last house I lived at in Baltimore is located in an old suburban part of town. It was for many years, considered an Audubon Sanctuary and housed breeding grounds for Red Headed Woodpeckers which are harder to find every year. Several years prior to my being there the lot was halved, trees cut down and a monstrosity of a house built on the new lot. No more woodpeckers, far fewer trees (i.e. habitat) and no more sanctuary designation.

He discussed groups that are existing and cropping up new in all of North America to collect dead and injured birds in downtown areas of cities. These would be the results of window strikes. I was a volunteer for Baltimore’s “Lights Out Baltimore” and the work has many benefits. It is a public advertisement for making businesses aware of the problems for migrating birds who navigate the glass and lights of urbanity, too often at their own peril.

This activity not only informs its volunteers much about birds but it gives them the opportunity to safely transport injured birds to sanctuary sites where trained staff attempt to restore the bird to its natural state and return it to the wild. In the central Maryland area the success rate is well over 50% so a benefit is obvious.

Another benefit is the ability for dead birds to become fodder for scientific research spanning a wide array of studies. Ours were given to colleges and the Smithsonian (for legalistic reasons that were never explained, we were not to know where they were going or what was being researched) and those institutions were able to make use of the carcasses.

He also cited Maryland as an example state where streams were being studied for their current conditions as well as the viability of restorative measures that could be taken. I worked as a volunteer on such a project and learned much more about environmental conditions as well as potential needs to be resolved. It was a great experience for me though it would have been better were I in my mid-20s instead of being 40 years beyond that. Stream ecology in practice is for the young as I found out.

I would have loved to converse with the author about those things as well as many other notions that he wrote about the hit a cord with me. I would even treat.

Monday, March 19, 2018

Winter Birds at Mission Hills

Winter Birds of Mission Hill -2017-2018

As expected the winter does not bring too many new birds but while it was still winter in early March, migrants did start showing up and there were a few surprises to me during the cold months.
The expected residents included:

Dark Eyed Juncos

Song Sparrows-whose vocals are kind of plaintive squawks during the winter but as it warmed, they often turned to the pretty songs designed to woo potential paramours.

Anna Hummingbirds which I did not expect to see in winter but they were plentiful 

Great Blue Heron-despite the lack of good feeding in the pond, show up once in a while I suppose to test the potential. I saw one on January 4th and again on February 28th.

Crows-who love living around humans for the eating potential we leave in our tracks

Scrub Jays-apparently are here all seasons though somewhat less plentiful during the cold. I saw a few with some regularity all season though.

Steller Jays-like their smaller relatives, are around all year but are returning in troves as March progresses. They appear to be nesting just north of the complex but stray onto Mission Hills routinely.

Red Tail Hawk-I had not seen any of them for a while but I think I just wasn’t looking. After January 16th I’ve seen them several times a week.

House Finch-they seemed to show up in large numbers in mid-January and the males are getting redder as the weeks go by.

Robin-the first one I saw this season was on March 7th and they are pretty routine here now.

Mourning Dove-I had not noticed this common bird during the season until March 2nd.

Winter Wren-I only saw one this season and it was in the pond area of the garden on March 2nd

Kestrel- this small falcon showed up in a tree on February 13th. The day was very overcast and the photos I got of it do not display its many colors very well. Hopefully that one or other ones will show up on the grounds because they are quite attractive.

Mallard- a mating couple descended on the pond area and I first saw them on March 4th. Now they are regular habitué of that area and its plentiful feeding possibilities

Monday, January 22, 2018

Gifts of an Eagle by Kent Durden

Gifts of an Eagle by Kent Durden. New York, Simon & Schuster. 1972. 160pp. ISBN: 978-06712-1285-8

Around a hundred and ten years ago several American naturalists bristled at what they referred to as “Nature Fakery” John Burroughs wrote extensively about this problem as did Theodore Roosevelt for the Atlantic Monthly. The issue at hand was the anthropomorphism that predominated true stories and fiction. Animals were depicted as having the same emotions as humans. They used reason in order to determine their next action. Had they written sixty years later they would have listed this book in their enmities.

Not only did the author attribute human drives to the subject-a golden eagle, but he did it inconsistently. Throughout the book he used as many adverbs as he could think of to describe the motivation of this bird. Yet on occasion he dropped back to say that the bird was acting on instinct. For instance this bird could not feel love as that is an emotion reserved for humans.

Well it was not just anthropomorphism that was the problem with his tale. It was disingenuous and badly written. It is not the first bad book written in the field of ornithology. The idiotic and vanity riddled Kenn Kauffman book about his year of traipsing around America collecting bird sightings as if they were valuable baseball cards was one such book. Another was Elizabeth Rosenthal’s hagiography Birdwatcher: The Life of Roger Tory Peterson. All three of these books are amongst the worst bird books written in the last fifty years.

So the story is about the 16 years that a family held captive as a pet, a golden eagle which is on the endangered species list. Ostensibly they would be using this eagle-which they stole from its nest as a fledgling, for the interests of science and education. They were given a state permit to own the bird and when Federal law superseded California state law, they were grandfathered into the new permit. Neither father nor son (the author) were scientists unless the author simply failed to mention their credentials in the book.

The few tidbits of any science were feeble little briefs of testing its cognition. In their problem solving experiments there is no mention of controls or historical test of a similar nature. The bird’s nurturing skills were often discussed and it involved steeling the eggs of wild geese from nests and having their bird incubate the eggs and feed them until they could take care of themselves. They fed the goslings meat which the author indicated was unnatural. They prevented their bird from mating which he also indicated was unnatural. Then they stole six golden eagle eggs for a movie. There was no mention as to whether they had an eagle egg stealing permit from the Federal government.
There also was no mention of what became of these many geese and eagles once they were no longer in need of nurturing. Did they get dumped into the wild without a clue? Were they put into an animal penitentiary called a zoo?

So that apparently was the science part of their story. Much of the rest of the book was about fun times with their pet eagle. But this was not solely a family pet. It also was a money maker. Amongst the many stories of selling film footage of the eagle was the stories of working on Disney nature movies. That is a classic example of an oxymoron. Disney did not make nature movies but rather anthropomorphic movies about animals that were designed to warm the cockles of the pre-Christmas Ebenezer Scrooge.

Another significant and profitable venture was to use the bird several times on the Lassie show. Like Disney productions, Lassie was hardly a source for understanding wild life behavior. It did apparently work for the author however, in order to defend the efforts to possess an eagle and be committed to the Federal guidelines.

Ultimately it was a tale of father and son who loved a bird they had stolen from its mother. We were informed of the darling care provided to stolen birds. We also learned that filming a majestic eagle can be profitable.

After sixteen years in captivity, the eagle flew off with a male conspecific. It was not love though for the reader already knew that this emotion driven animal could not feel love.

Monday, December 25, 2017

Autumn Birds at Mission Hills

Autumn Birds Spotted at Mission Hills Apartments
This was my first fall living in the Pacific Northwest so I was not sure what to expect. Unfortunately within the geographic limits of Mission Hills I found a dearth of birds that either perched here or flew over. There are several possible reasons for the lack of birds here and in 2017. The most obvious is that this area is not a place of interest for layovers by migrating birds. Another is that the commotion resulting from the re-building of 18th Street was too much for the travelers. Perhaps the long and dry summer changed some migratory decisions. I do not know the answer to any of those questions.

 Anyway, here is what I did see:

Crows and plenty of them.

Scrub Jay I only see a scrub jay here a few times a week. In the wooded area just north of our gate and south of the Elementary School there are many and easy to see any day.

Fox Sparrow By about October 1 I did not see any

Steller Jay like the scrub jay though in lesser numbers, they fly into the leaf clusters at crepuscule so are hard to find. In the wooded area mentioned above they are more plentiful and visible.
Dark-eyed Junco as the season grows into winter we will see many of these.

Canada Geese I haven’t seen a single one land on the ground at Mission Hills but they fly overhead routinely and have used the adjacent property for resting. On November 30th thousands flew towards the southeast shortly before nightfall. I’m sure many residents heard them if not seeing them.
Great Blue Heron On October 12th at around 11:00am, there was a lone Heron in the pool of the garden area. It startled as I approached and flew into one of the large fir trees where it perched for many minutes. In the late afternoon it perched on the roof of the management building for over an hour.
Red Tail Hawk the family that flew from the trees just east of the complex seemed to have migrated. I saw a lone hawk (probably the summer ’17 offspring) soaring above as late as December 14th.
Black Capped Chickadee One often hears “Chickadeee-deee-dee” before seeing them but they flit around the residential trees and shrubs daily.
Song Sparrow These little birds hang close to Dark Eyed Juncos and feed with them.
Northern Flicker This largish woodpecker is pretty common in the woods and I have only seen one here in the garden area but I had a camera with me on the day I saw it in early October.

Ring Billed Sea Gulls These can be seen flying overhead and in the adjacent property field pretty regularly. I have not seen one land at Mission Hills and I am actually only guessing that they are Ring Billed based what I have seen of other gulls perched in the general area.
House Finch These were pretty prevalent in the summer but I did see a single one as late as December 12th.

Saturday, November 4, 2017

Good Birders Still Don’t Wear White Lisa A. White and Geffrey A. Gordon editors

Good Birders Still Don’t Wear White Lisa A. White and Geffrey A. Gordon editors. New York, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 2017. 256pp ISBN: 978-0-544-87609-5

This collection of 37 short anecdotes is a follow up to the original Good Birders published several years ago. Any compilation of this many pieces will have several intentions and sentiments. This one could be viewed as having three broad themes.

This first is a grouping of articles that are essentially “feel good” and “please be nice” stories. What the authors are trying to inform the reader of is that we should enjoy birding at several or one level. We should impart what we’ve seen and know without taking an air of superiority. They tend towards the syrupy and with too much cliché. Nine of the articles have the word “love” with in the first three letters of the title.

This is not to say that revealing one’s passion is wrong or that reminding the reader that many species are imperiled or that they don’t make nature like they used to. It is all true but the presentations were pretty cloying.

Another theme is more technical. Several of the articles provide some “how to” along with reasons for why. Within this grouping are articles that are more appealing to my own interests. For those of us who cannot go to the Galapagos or Siberia we make do with what we can more locally. That means being less concerned with how many different species we can chart to our “Life Birds” and more about the behavior and habitat of the birds around us. Bird listing reminds me of collecting baseball cards. Becoming more knowledgeable of the birds around us is thrilling to me.

Finally there were a smattering of articles about the science of birds. This would include some anatomy, geography and evolutionary history for example. These also were more to my liking because they address some of interests described above. Knowing the geography for instance, provides an understanding of ecological niches which in turn allows the reader to not only locate certain birds but also to understand how they adapt.

Several of the writers are on the staff of Bird Watchers Digest and many others are regular contributors. This is obvious when reading the book. It is similar in style and structure to that nearly whimsical periodical.