Friday, June 01, 2007

John Blakeman on CP Bunnies and Hawk Personalities

Pale Male looks down. There is expression on his face.

Baby Bunny hops away and there's a view of the famous cottontail from which the Eastern Cottontail Rabbit gets it's name.

Interesting how at least in the photograph, the cottontail and the mature dandelion head are similar. Does a bunny in a yard of seed heads have less chance of being noticed?

Actually why does this rabbit, a prey animal, have a bright white tail? Why does the White-tailed Deer, another prey animal with a bright white tail have one? There's an advantage somewhere without a doubt. There's a flash with every hop or stride. Is the adaptation similar to the white patch on the rump of some pigeons which studies show tends to pull the predators eye so that when the white disappears as it banks it puts the predator off it's mark? Or is it in the rear so the predator goes for the end of the animal where it might have a chance of getting away? Perhaps Mr. Blakeman who has many fascinating answers to the questions we pose has something to say about that? He has some very astute things to say about the last two posts.

Below find his email answering my question of yesterday, about just why all the Easter present bunnies released into Central Park haven't created a resident population of rabbits, plus a take on Pale Male's personality.


The "rabbits" that people raise in captivity (and then often dump into the wild, presuming they will be happy and thrive) are not rabbits at all. They are domestic European hares. Their abilities to survive on their own outside of a cage have been bred out of these animals over literally hundreds of generations. They have the form of a wild European hare (a species not native to North America), but not the genes or experience required to survive in the wild.

In most states it's illegal to keep the Eastern Cottontail Rabbit in captivity as a pet, or even to raise them. And because they are a wild species, they don't take to cages or living rooms with any ease. Therefore, it's highly unlikely that any real native cottontail rabbits have been released in Central Park.

And even if they were, the abundance of cats and dogs (and now, red-tailed hawks) would quickly consume the nesting rabbits. To be successful, a mother rabbit must carefully select where she will create her "nest," a shallow depression in high grass that will hold her several new-born offspring for a few weeks while she nurses them. The structure is lined with abundant fur and grass. Before leaving, the mother covers the entire thing with the fur and grass and unless you step on the structure, you can walk right by and never see it. The mother spends very little time at the nest, usually only a few minutes periodically through the night when the young nurse.

Predators such as dogs and cats often discover the rabbit offspring nestled silently in the nest. For a new mother rabbit who hasn't yet discovered all of a area's deep grassy hiding places, nest placement is problematic.

The chances of Eastern Cottontail Rabbits being established in Central Park upon the mere release of two or three naive newcomers is extremely remote.

About the personalities of hawks. Every falconer learns this with the training of his or her second hawk. The personality of the first one is presumed to be that of the species as a whole. But the quirky behavioral vicissitudes of the second bird demonstrate the wide variability of animal behaviors---personality---if you will. These creatures are by no means neuromuscular automatons. They are separate, unique individuals, with as many behavioral variances as dogs or humans. It was the near-the-edge personality of Pale Male himself which caused him to decide to occupy the typically aberrant environment of Central Park. "Normal" red-tailed hawks would have remained in preferred wild and rural habitats, not some strange and contrived turf-tar-and-trees habitat overrun with masses of humans and their associated vertebrates.

--John Blakeman

So I've been fooled all these years into thinking those Easter Hares were Rabbits. Scandalous. I've been a victim of false advertising. You can't even trust the Easter Bunny.

Speaking of personality when it comes to Red-tails, think about the differences among Pale Male , Junior, and Tristan. More on that to come.

Donegal Browne

Not in Central Park

Today the landscape is bursting with baby rabbits so small they could sit comfortably in the palm of your hand. Photograph: Donegal Browne

No there are no rabbits in Central Park. There are rabbits in Prospect Park in Brooklyn but none in Central Park. Doesn't that seem odd? Particularly odd as people do release unwanted "wild" pets into the Park. Therefore one knows any number of those endearing cute baby bunny Easter presents, now large and possibly nibby RABBITS have, without out a doubt, been released here. Why haven't they done the thing they are so famous for? You know, *&##ing like bunnies?

Grandpa Chipmunk lives under the steps in Harry's Yard. Dad Chipmunk lives under the garage and Mom and her brood, live under the woodpile. Photo: Donegal Browne

Nope. There's not one Chipmunk in Central Park.

(Nor are there Groundhogs. Though up until a few years ago I'm told, there was one left. What happened is unknown but this is the problem with small isolated populations. If there is some kind of species catastrophe, the population is not renewed. )
Today's factoid: How do you tell a Chipmunk from a Ground Squirrel? Chipmunks climb trees.

A frog rises out of the muck in the marshy section of Storrs Lake. Photo: Donegal Browne

Frogs? Are there frogs in Central Park? I don't know. There must be. But come to think of it, I've never seen one. But then again, I've usually got my eyes on the sky and the tree tops hoping to spot Pale Male or Lola.

Number 3 braces her tail and stretches her legs. Photo Eleanor Tauber
Not in Central Park? Of course they are. CP has a plethora of turtles. But there are very few in Wisconsin these days. While not so many years ago the place was crawling with them. It's surmised that all the recreational use of the water's edge here and the busy highways have decimated the population. Turtles aren't able to sprint out of a car's way after all. Though Number 3 looks to be warming up just in case.

Donegal Browne

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Who Says Birds Don't Have Personality?

Pale Male ponders the nest.
When it comes to personality there are few who have followed Pale Male's activities for any amount of time who would dispute he has personality. In fact he has so much personality it soars right up there into charisma.
But what about other birds and personality?
Many agree that personality is a determinant of behavior.
Okay, but just what does personality boil down to? Webster's says that personality is qualities or traits, as of character or behavior, that are peculiar to a specific individual.
Another says, consistent behavior patterns and intrapersonal processes originating in the individual.

Now when a Sandhill Crane becomes aware of a human that might be getting a little close, they give the human a very alert stare. In the Crane above he gave the alert stare each time but not before grabbing a piece of marsh grass in his mouth as part of his staring behavior. It was consistent.

Photograph by Eleanor Tauber
What about the independent Frick Duckling who spends much time by himself on the float in the Model Boat Pond?

Then there is Tristan's signature stance. All hawks will tuck a foot a one time or another but Tristan if perched for any length of time does it at least 90% of the time.

Photograph by Eleanor Tauber

What about the loquacious Blue Jay that dropped by to instruct Eleanor Tauber one day in Central Park. Seldom does a single Blue Jay scold without out all the others in the neighborhood coming by to do the same. Not this time, this bird was making an individual choice and whatever the choice was, the other Blue Jays found no reason to do the same.

Eldest was infused with curiosity that was satisfied by LOOKING. Whether it was staring at a group.

Staring up a pipe...

Or staring at a single photographer.

Now Emmie, loves a good game of peek a boo or hide and seek. He'll g0 to great lengths to get people to play.

Oh yes, the tremendously grumpy Tree Sparrow, mustn't leave him out. While all the other Tree Sparrows were busying themselves, foraging incessantly to feed themselves or their offspring, this individual was so cranky with the other birds and so cranky himself, that he sat for fifteen minutes on this popular perch, actively not letting others use it, nor eating the bug in his beak himself.

Ah, Tail-biter, this years Divine Eyass with a glint of the devil in her eye, who cannot, absolutely cannot resist biting Dad in the tail or the wing tip.

Last but not least, the Double Crested Cormorant at the Model Boat Pond who, though all the other Cormorants where diving, fishing, diving fishing, this individual popped out of the Model Boat Pond and stared for a good twenty minutes while I took photographs.
They all have personality in my book.
Donegal Browne

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Tis the Season for Baby Birds and Blooming Wildflowers

Heading towards the spigot in Harry's yard, with a bucket to get water, what should I see but a fledgling perched on one of Cousin Harry's many pieces of farm machinery, phone booths, bells, buffalo heads and the like that decorate his yard.
The young Robin gives me quite a look as I wheel the wagon with the bird water down the hill towards the Emu pen.

Instead of meeting me at the gate when I check on his food and water supply like usual. Emmie the Emu is behind his house bumping his chest into the fence. Harry, Emmie's owner has been in the hospital for some days and I wonder if Emmie is trying to get out and go look for him. In the meantime there are Barn Swallows zooming in and out of Emmie's front door. Have they a nest in there?

Yes, indeed! There is a Barn Swallow nest in Emmie's house and it's festooned jauntily with Emu feathers. Droppings clearly stand out on the edge. It is or has been in use. The adult Barn Swallows are chittering. One is perched on a bar inside and the other is circling above me.
Suddenly Emmie the Emu comes galloping at me from the corner of his house as I'm kneeling down peering at the nest inside. The adult Barn Swallows are scolding and whipping back and forth over my head and then here comes big Emmie with his long neck,stout beak, and gigantic feet...

It's definitely time to take off for the Wade Farm, the bird life is getting a little too rambunctious here in Harry's yard.

At the farm, several different species of swallows vie for airspace. Barn Swallows zip back and forth into the door of an out building and when I look inside there's a nest. No Emu feathers on this one. It has lots more grass being used than I've seen usually. It looks like it contains mud but something isn't quite right. What kind is it? Are there eggs or are there young who are hiding themselves?
What's that? Below the nest, a Barn Swallow fledgling perches near the open door, when abruptly a parent flies in, startles her, and she flings herself off the wire.
Where'd he go?
The fledgling works her way back up to safety.

Then it's into The Mule to see what else we can find. Christopher Red-tail's nest is now surrounded by bean seedlings. He's chosen wisely. The group of trees of which his nest tree is one, is an island in the fields, isolating them from visitors. Perhaps another day we'll have permission is walk between the rows. But until then we're off for other fish to fry. Perhaps Lake Lorraine holds some surprises.

I'd seen a female Red-wing Blackbird come to this spot repeatedly with a beak overflowing with insects. She'd be there nearly no time and then return with an empty beak. Focusing in, there he was. A little Red-wing chick watching mom collect goodies in the mowed lawn that abutted the marsh grass.

Mom's coming, so he begins to beg mightily.

She's almost there so he tips his head up at the ready. In less than three seconds she deposits the many insects, who's wings are spilling out the sides of her beak, into her youngsters gullet and she's off again in a flash to collect more.
But this time instead of watching while he waits, he begins to get sleepy.

And then he is sound asleep. Mom must notice because she goes farther afield to forage in a flower bed, eating some insects herself.
What about the Wildflowers? For awhile the Phlox was the only thing that seemed to be blooming, then the Spiderwort joined in and now...
There is Anemone,
Wood Sorrel,

and Bladder Campion.

And as the Scouts have kept the invasives at bay, the roadside is a riot of Wild Geranium.
And while checking the marsh, suddenly we realize that the surface is literally covered with Water Lilies.
Far off in the distance, no babies in sight at the moment but just the fact that there is a bonded pair of rare Wood Ducks snugged onto the top of a muskrat house is a downright lovely capper for the day.
Donegal Browne

Monday, May 28, 2007

What is that yellow stuff on the Turkey Vultures faces?

See that stuff under the Turkey Vultures eye? To tell the truth the only Turkey Vulture I'd seen up close didn't have that and the other day when I watched a flock take off leaving one bird on the ground with a dead duck who was utterly unconcerned about my presence, I really wondered what was wrong with him. Did he have some kind of dread disease? Was he blind and that's why he seemed so unconcerned?
I perused the field guide, nobody looked like that.
Then yesterday there were a whole group of nine standing in a cornfield, just standing there, not eating, not doing a thing. I looked closely and they had the yellow gunk too. Is it an epidemic? Did the entire flock have it? I started panning.

No not everyone had a bad case. This guy looked even worse; he had black spots instead. Yeek!

When in doubt, contact a rehabber, which I did. The local rehabber, who wishes to remain anonymous, let me know that it was normal. Normal? But even if it doesn't look like pus, it looks warty or scrofulous. Yup, normal. No one knows whether it's genetic or what, or why this "adaptation" exists, but as most Turkey Vultures mature they get this change in the skin under their eyes. (The guy with the black spots is young. The "spots" are actually the black down that has been molting off a youngster.)
The Turkey Vulture, Cathartes aura, Latin for "cleansing breeze", who most humans don't find very pretty, has a great scientific name and a horde of marvelous adaptations but somehow even the adaptations are well--somehow unattractive to humans and they've had a very bad rep in the past.
For instance, they cool themselves by defecating on their feet. Quite handy actually but not something we'd like to try.
Then there is their job, the disposal of dead animals in a large territory by eating them. Yuck. But the Turkey Vulture, as I said has some marvelous adaptations that make it all work.
They've a special oil that is exuded from the skin on their heads so that none of their dinner sticks to it. Then the UV rays of the sun kill the bacteria on their skin. Wait, why would carrion stick anyway? One adaptation they don't have is any tearing equipment. (It's been discovered just lately that they aren't really raptors at all but flesh eating adapted storks, who knew?) No talons, no razor sharp beak, so if a meal has no breaks in the skin when they find it, they must stick their heads in an orifice and start from the inside out.
Vultures have often been accused of being disagreeable to each other. Turkey Vultures are not particularly disagreeable. When you see two, tugging with each other over a piece of flesh, they aren't being competitive they are helping each other tear swallow size bits off the big piece.
They're monogamous and mate for live which we tend to think is sweet. They will often use a nesting site year after year. Very homey. Unfortunately at that point it really begins to smell.
Speaking of smell, theirs is quite keen , particularly for carrion less than 24 hours old. They'd prefer to eat it within that time frame, but it doesn't always work out that way. Theirs is a kind of feast or famine kind of job therefore when there is food they pig out and when there's not they can last for sometime without eating.

Their digestion is iron clad and deals with toxins and bacteria so that what they excrete is quite clean compared to what goes in at the beginning.
They alert other members of the flock when they find food, which seems like a characteristic we'd find attractive--it's just the rest doesn't quite make up for it.
Though proved completely false, it's long been thought, and the thought is perpetuated by extermination companies to this day, that Turkey Vultures spread livestock disease. In actuality the exact opposite is true. They clean up diseased livestock and therefore the problem bacteria and therefore the disease, doesn't get a chance to spread.

Okay, if all is so normal why have all these Turkey Vultures just been standing in this field for hours?
Probably as they've most likely eaten recently and there aren't any thermals at the moment they are waiting for some to occur to help get them off the ground---so they wait. It's not like they're going to peak around for seeds or insects, they're not in the diet plan.
Eventually the earth will warm enough to create thermals. Then the birds will all jump in circling up higher and higher in stages. When they do that it's called a kettle, supposedly because it looked like boiling water to someone. And when they reach a height where they have enough elevation they'll disperse, floating along sniffing, looking for more food for the flock.
They truly are serving the public good. What if all that carrion just laid around? It would be far less attractive than we find them.
Donegal Browne