Saturday, September 29, 2007

Big Ears, Doorstep, Friend, and a Clear Look at a Japanese Beetle

About a week ago, one of the local female squirrels appeared in the yard with four newly
off-the-nest youngsters.

Some days later I looked out and what should I see but the smallest young squirrel, the one who's ears hadn't quite caught up with her body, had her little squirrel lips around the nozzle of the hummingbird feeder. And "Big Ears" had been there for some time as there was quite a back up of ants waiting their turn. Usually the ants are in a busy line going to and from the feeder nozzle, not that day.

Big Ears notices us watching, unhooks herself, and stares. Flight or the comfort of sucking liquid sugar?

Uncertain, she lowers herself slightly but doesn't run. It's hard being weaned.

Suckling sugar wins and it's back to the nozzle she goes. The next time I look the feeder is dry. I fill it again. Today it was dry again and there she was, not at the hummingbird feeder this time but lying belly down on top of a bird feeder newly stocked with sunflower seeds. No self-respecting squirrel allows a stock of sunflower seeds to just sit there unless they are very very full or aren't really weaned at all to solid food. Silver and I kept an eye on her and in 45 minutes or so she leaned down and had a few. Good, she is getting the hang of eating something besides liquids. She'll be just fine, at least in the food area.

Finally, Doorstep Dove and Friend are seen together. At first I wasn't sure it was Doorstep because there looked to be too much blue around her eye. Then I realized she was molting. See all the pin feathers on her head? When they are fully opened the area around her eye will be more fully covered and she'll look more like herself.


Eleanor Tauber's photo of a Japanese Beetle complete with a clear look at its "bird foot" shaped antennae.
Donegal Browne

Avian Successes

Two Wisconsin Crows, who have been nosily up to something, suddenly light on branches and stare fixedly in the same direction. Though the population was not nearly as devastated as that on the east coast from West Nile Virus, this season they've rebounded with a vengeance. I'm out looking for the Thresher Park Red-tail and so far without success.

A flock of migrating Cedar Waxwings gobble choke cherries high in the newly bare branches of the three. Still no Red-tail.

When I first saw her, this Mourning dove was settled down and looked ready to roost with her head under a twig as Pale Male roosts with a branch above his head. She's afraid she might see a Red-tail perhaps?

Then to keep a better eye on me she turned round and began impersonating a branch. She truly did blend in. I went round to the edge of the wheat field where the resident Red-tail often hunts. No hawk. Wait, there she comes with a little bird hot on her tail chasing her into the woods. I wait. She doesn't come out.

And wonder of wonders, I actually was able to get the camera on a real live Bluebird. Not for long of course, not even to really focus, as two of them were having it out chasing each other through the branches. Now there's a success story for you. I went decades before seeing my first one and more years then I care to count before I saw another. But the population has rebounded , and this summer I've seen at least a half dozen.
I'm about to give up on the wheat field and forest edge, hunting area of the Red-tail, who before today I'd begun thinking of as a ghost or a figment of people's imagination, and walk up the hill towards the truck. Who should suddenly fly out the other side of the woods, but, you guessed it--the ghost Red-tail. She lands on a branch in a tree not at all far away. I stare, feeling the minute my eyes are off her for a second she'll be gone. I raise the camera and don't see her in the view finder. She's is gone and I didn't even see her go. Ghost hunting will have to wait for another day.
Sometimes I get the sneaky feeling that she's intentionally baiting me and doing the Red-tail equivalent of laughing up her sleeve--ah, wing.
Courtesy of the Associated Press
But the big success story of the day comes in a link from Karen Anne Kolling--the Rainbow Rimitara Lorikeet. (And what are the colors in a Rainbow?--red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet.

Donegal Browne

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Red-tail Signals Part 2 and More From John Blakeman

What was it I was looking at in yesterday's photographs? From the ground it is difficult to see what the hawks eyes are actually focusing on every second and as eye contact in birds is often taken as a sign of aggression, I'd incorporated that into my thinking and perhaps it was prejudicing my observations.

Pale Male often bows his head upon landing on the nest with prey. I'd theorized that he was pointing the meal out to Lola, but also that he might be avoiding eye contact with her so as not to cue aggression. That is if aggression were a wired in response to eye contact no matter who was doing it. he then would look in various directions being vigilant and then he'd continue to keep his eyes down when his face pointed her direction. (See yesterday's photos in the next entry down.)

Note in the photo above that Pale Male points to the prey by focusing on it but Lola is still looking out, not at him or it.

After his vigilant looks around he is pointing/looking at the prey again and this time Lola is looking in his/the prey's direction. (Wish I could see which it was.)

After more vigilance, Pale Male is now looking at Lola as if to say,"You've seen it?" Now the question is whether her "answer" yes, is a look on her part at the prey as he looks at her or whether they actually make eye contact. There may also be signalling going on between them about her leaving the nest for a comfort break during this as he repeatedly looks out more often than the other directions---but one thing at a time.
And John Blakeman's response to my entry about Red-tail cognition--

First, I'm not really familiar with any of the signaling behaviors you have mentioned. And I don't think any other student of the wild red-tailed hawk is, either. None of us who study red-tails in the rural wild have the opportunity to so closely observe these behaviors. Out here in the countryside, we can see a red-tail nest, and often the sitting female. But the nest is usually tucked back into the foliage of the tree, and it’s typically three-quarters to the top of the tree. We haven't the convenience of an open nest on a building as you do in Central Park and other parts of NYC. Red-tail behaviors, curiously, are much more difficult to closely study out in rural areas.

The birds fly around on the edges and margins of the local forest or woodlot, contrasted with much more visually accessible flight and perch patterns experienced in Central Park. Frankly, it’s tough out here to observe all of what you describe.

I've mentioned before the unique and favorable opportunities for detailed studies of red-tail nesting habits in NYC, however adapted to the urban environment those might be. The intimations of behavioral signaling between Pale Male and Lola that you mention are, for me (and I would suppose most other red-tail scientists), unknown or undescribed.

For example, you and others have noted frequent food caching. This is well known for the falcons, but very poorly described for red-tails. Actually, I've never seen it with my wild rural birds.

But I'll bet it happens much more frequently out here than we would have thought. I think it probably occurs most often when prey animals are frequently seen and captured, as in Central Park. That may account for the frequency of this behavior in NYC. I may not have seen it out here because prey animals are less frequent and much harder to capture here. Captured animals are summarily consumed when taken. There is no surfeit that can be parked in trees for future or shared consumption.

None of this addresses, however, the question at hand. Do red-tails have more complex signaling or communication abilities than I've attributed to them? I've contended that red-tailed hawks are clever, deliberative, and opportunistic hunters, spending great amounts of time “calculating” how to hunt and capture prey. But I don't extend these higher intellectual powers to any of the species’ other behaviors.

I contend that everything else the hawks do is based upon very primal, ritualistic behaviors. Effectively, the birds merely “go through the motions,” following ingrained hindbrain reflexes or patterns. They are thinking, but not creatively or intuitively.

Do the birds of falconers have reduced intellectual powers because they were removed from the wild at an early age? I'm certain that this is not a factor. First, virtually no falconry red-tails are taken as eyasses from the nest. Falconers (and raptor rehabbers) are well aware that young red-tails simply don't make good falconry or captive birds. They too easily confuse the falconer or rehabber with their parents and fail to learn to hunt on their own. Falconry red-tails are taken in the fall migration, after they are no longer dependant on adults for food and after they have learned to hunt on their own.

I've released trained falconry red-tails back to the wild, and they survived and thrived well on their own. Their behaviors weren't warped or deficient. Most of the peregrines originally released to create today’s wild breeding populations were raised in captivity using falconry techniques. They've done well in the wild.

The degree of red-tailed hawk intellectual powers is still an open question. Too bad that there aren't any real red-tail behavioral studies being conducted on NYC pairs. The opportunities to parse out these questions is great.

--John Blakeman
(Folks, I haven't forgotten about the mystery bird that looks like a Magpie without black wings. We'll get there soon. And many thanks for the emails concerning her ID.)
Donegal Browne

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Red-tail Signals?

March 23, 2007- Pale Male and Lola look at the eggs in the nest.

The continuation of the conversation between John Blakeman and I about the level of Red-tail cognition in areas other than hunting...


I think Red-tails could use a little more credit. What about the adult Red-Tails communicating by signaling to each other? For instance when Pale Male stashes food for Lola while she’s on the nest, he communicates its location to Lola. I know there is circling involved in the signal but there might be more complexity to it that I don't see or hear as all I can see is the circling from my position at the Hawk Bench.

Circling plus an add on signal might alert the receiving hawk to variations in the communication, or perhaps the receiving birds ability to contextualize the signal makes it specific.

Signaling of some kind may be used when Lola wants to switch off the nest and have Pale Male tend it when there is an intruder. Does she decide whether she needs to deal with the alien or whether she'll let him tend to it? Or does he signal a need for her to take over or is it her final decision?

I believe that Pale Male and Lola do most probably communicate/signal strategy while warding off visitors. Possibly they cue one another in some way which may bring up previous successful patterns, but no interaction is ever exactly the same so decisions are being made on the spot which entail cognitive non-wired responses.

They never look like they miss a beat in their pas de deux of defense. Therefore I’m hypothesizing that they do communicate by some kind of signal.

Our opinions differ and the reason my be our differing experience with the same species. Is it possible that as Red-tails used for falconry are removed from the nest before they've been through training by their elders and therefore certain cognitive functions are never developed? They are unnecessary so the individual doesn't develop them.

The three most often watched bonded pairs in Central Park have worked out different ways of dealing with similar situations and with each other. Therefore decisions between behavior choices must be being made to adapt to a specific mate and with variations in circumstances. Which to me denotes a reasonable level of cognition.


Having said all that, I thought I'd better look a little closer at their behavior. I then went back to my photographs of Pale Male and Lola on the nest in March of this year. I found something I hadn't expected at all and realized I may have been erring in the possible meaning of certain physical positions of Pale Male while on the nest. I hadn't been looking for certain kinds of signaling so I didn't see all of them perhaps?

Check out the eyes of the birds in the sequence of photos. What do you see? I'll tell you what I think I'm seeing tomorrow. (It's won't exactly be earth shattering to most people but an extension of something that some people have noticed.)


2:59:13PM Lola leaves the nest.

3:06:10PM Lola returns to the nest.
Donegal Browne

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

John Blakeman Answers Questions

Quicksilver looks outside at the trees.

(My response and some questions stimulated by John Blakeman's email published on the blog, Sunday, September 23rd.)


I was thinking there might be danger to Silver, I'm glad you validated it so I didn't get lulled into a false sense of security and leave him out for "just a second" while I went in to get something from the house. Particularly as he is asking relentlessly to “Wanna go trees”. Greys are built for clambering around in trees: heavy bodies, short legs, long toes. Possibly he's wired to “want” to be in trees and the cues are all here.

No question if Cooper's will take Quicksilver's size bird that he'd be in danger as earlier in the season near dusk, two Cooper's were predating the bird feeder. Cooper's migrate, yes?

What would happen if a Red-tail was raised as Silver has been, I wonder? If she were hand fed from three days and lived in the house. (One certainly wouldn't want any pets or small children in residence.) How socialized might a Red-tail become to humans. Red-tails are social with their mates during breeding season so there would be a kernel to work with.

I was just looking at "The Friends of Jemima Parry-Jones" website and it seems when she raises owls for educational purposes, she carries them around with her and they live in the house along with her six setters and the rest of the menagerie. One of these domestically raised owls allows blind kids to feel her all over. Of course not all members of the same species are created equal.But I do remember when Jones did the demo in Central Park that the two owls seemed to be making what I'd say were begging sounds before they flew to the bait.

What do you think Red-tail parents are doing/thinking when they stand on the nest and stare fixedly at their eyasses.

And John Blakeman's response to me--


No. Resident, established Cooper's are likely to stay for much of the season, if not the entire winter (at least here in northern Ohio; perhaps they move out of Wisconsin in winter -- but for now, they are certainly going to be on the hunt ion both areas).

Red-tails raised domestically from eyasses soon become an uncorrectable problem. They become extremely aggressive and attack anything they believe has food, or could be food. They make no distinction between the person and any food the owner might be clutching. Simply, they just attack. There are many cases of this by unknowing citizens who find (or steal) a brancher or fallen eyass. After just a few weeks of attempted care, these birds must simply be put down, as there is no way to resuscitate their normal psychology.

Owls are different altogether. When raised from eyasses they become friendly, personable, and non-aggressive. Owls are a different animal altogether. No comparison in any way to hawks, except that they also capture live animals to eat.

What are adult red-tails thinking when they twist their heads in apparent contemplation of their offspring in the nest? I don't think it's much. The only thing that red-tails really contemplate is hunting strategies for animals observed within the birds' respective viewscapes. On the nest, they aren't great thinkers. Their highest cerebral achievement is getting small bits of food torn off and dropping those into the gapes of the begging eyasses. That, for a red-tail on a nest, is a major intellectual feat.

My beloved red-tails are neither personable nor intellectual. If the parrots of recent interest have an intellect of, say 10, red-tails (at least on the nest) are perhaps a 1.5. When figuring out how to efficiently capture game, they, in their own way, would be a 10. For other mental challenges, they will score rather low. Falconers and raptor biologists are not interested in their birds because of their expressed intellectual capabilities. It's the hunting and capturing of food, the predator/prey thing.

--John Blakeman

(My response on this tomorrow.)

In the meantime, Eleanor Tauber, Central Park Photographer had sent me the photograph above taken near Turtle Pond in Central Park, asking if I knew what it was. It looked a little familiar, but I couldn't see the leaves well enough to look it up. So I sent it off to John Blakeman who directs numerous projects involving prairies and their plants to see if he recognized it.

John's response--Hard to tell what these really are. My only guess, and it's just that, that these are some sort of Eupatorium, maybe Eupatorium rugosum, the plant that causes milk sickness.

Milk sickness? I couldn't let that pass without finding out more.

John- Now that's titillating? What's milk sickness? The plant does something bad to cow's milk and if you drink it you get sick?

Then Eleanor, sent me this uncropped photo of the mystery plant with a full view of the leaves and I sent it on to John.

The same evening I received this email and photo from Blakeman.

Exactly. This was a somewhat common, albeit fatal, malady of settlers in the Midwest in the 19th century. Milk sickness killed Lincoln's mother.

Cows who were allowed to forage in savannas and woodlots first ate all the palatable vegetation, including big bluestem and other nutritious prairie grasses and forbs.

But after a while, the good stuff was often grazed away and the cattle had to consume less palatable plants, including white snakeroot, Eupatorium rugosum. This plant has a poison called tremetol. It accumulates in the muscles and milk of animals that eat white snakeroot and can be fatal to humans who subsequently consume the meat or milk of the animal.

Attached are two not very great photos of the plant (here in a local prairie savanna area).

John A. Blakeman

Bingo. And as you can see, he very likely identified it just from the blossoms.
Donegal Browne

Monday, September 24, 2007

Avian Cognition: How cognitively complex are the signals and the responses?

Photograph W.A. Commons
Cooper's Hawk sitting on a bird feeder waiting for lunch to appear using a rather upfront strategy--stillness and proximity. Or perhaps is there another Cooper's out of sight waiting for a panic reverse in flight causing vulnerability on the part of songbirds? These hawks are known to work in tandem, which conceivably involves "communication" between hunting partners.

Silver's species, African Grey Congos, are prey animals in the wild therefore he is ever vigilant outdoors and often in the house if there are unfamiliar people or things. He must decide with new people, new things, new sounds, what is dangerous and deserves a response and what doesn't. That involves cognitive decision making. He is wired to flee from hawks as having never seen one, when one passed the window he was sitting in, he flung himself to the floor.

Tristan and Isolde stare fixedly at their young for several minutes. Why? Are they "thinking"? Looking for something specific? "Enjoying" the sight of their eyasses?

The email conversation between John Blakeman and I about Red-tail cognition and Eleanor Tauber's mystery plant coming up tomorrow instead of today due to technical difficulties.

Two young Mourning Doves, possibly Friend's and Doorsteps, preening after a tandem bath this afternoon on the Goodie Stump.

One again around 7PM Friend and three youngsters sat on the birdbath for about 15 minutes. Where is Doorstep Dove?

An hour or so earlier this Mourning Dove perched alone for some time on the glider. I couldn't see if it was Doorstep or not. I'll keep looking.
Donegal Browne

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Blakeman on Quicksilver and Cooper's Hawks, plus Guess Who Came To Dinner Tonight?

Quicksilver's expression after the fly-by of a Ruby-throated Hummingbird on her way to the feeder. I was sitting still; Silver was sitting still and so she seemed to take no notice of either of us. She zoomed right past Silver's face. As to his facial expression, I highly doubt he'd ever seen a hummingbird, not even on TV, and I imagine he's attempting to figure out which categories it belongs in. Generally whether it's dangerous or not and specifically just what kind of thing it is.

Who says birds don't have facial expressions?

Also note the raised feathers, a cue for strong emotion. Yes, I said emotion. I'm not sure what else to call what makes it happen. His feathers rise due to fear, aggression, surprise, sometimes even relief.

And below an email from Ohio Raptor Man, John Blakeman, with concern for Silver's safety when he's out of doors.


Nice discourse on Quicksilver. A really fine bird, indeed, one with quasi-human personality. My hawks have none of this. Raptors have "personality," but it's nothing human-like and is pretty narrow. Falconers and raptor biologists can take no delight in clever utterances or behaviors (except those regarding the cunning of prey capture).

I would caution you, however, regarding the somewhat remote (but not absent) chance of a predatory encounter with some neighborhood Cooper's hawk.

As I saw the photos of the parrot in the tree and out on the yard furniture, I cringed a bit when considering that any local Cooper's hawk would be attracted to the strange and partially sedentary behaviors of this bird. In a flash, a local Cooper's hawk could swoop in and nail the parrot before anyone could do a thing.

If you remained, as I presume you did, within 10 or 20 feet of the bird, it was probably safe. But if it ever sits outside unattended, for even a moment, it would be a Cooper's hawk target, I'm sure.

Be advised. Cooper's hawks (as you know) are everywhere these days and commonly prey upon birds of all sizes concentrated at backyard bird feeders. Cooper's hawks no longer restrain their activities to distant and deep forests. Today, they have adapted to the profuse avian offerings of American backyards, both urban and rural.


John A. Blakeman

(As usual when raptor cognition comes up, I have a wee friendly bone to pick with Mr. Blakeman about his opinion that "falconers and raptor biologists can take no delight in clever...behavior"--but we'll get to that tomorrow.)

John is correct in that I do stay within a few feet of Silver while he's outside as I did wonder if the Cooper's Hawks who were around earlier in the season might take a hankering to him. Though it's always good to have someone validate the fear so that I wouldn't sometime in the future be lulled into a false security and just go inside "for a second" to get something and end up with a few grey feathers where Silver used to be, for which I'd never forgive myself.

And because I was outside with Silver, and the other birds aren't really sure what he is and therefore don't hang around to be photographed, I started looking at the flowers. And as I was outside for some length of time, I began to think about how the context of the view of flowers makes a lot of difference. I daresay, a difference in the feelings, the visceral response of the viewer.

Looking with the vignette around the plants makes for distance and there is a pull to be closer perhaps? It's more mysterious, unknowable.

While zooming in, but not so much as to see the stamen, anthers, and the like for the biological view, there is, at least in this view (the camera position be identical to the one above) a highlighting of textures.

My feeling at least with the California Poppies is that the vignette in their case, highlights their simplicity. Of course, as this sort of thing is no doubt at least partially in the eye of the viewer, I'm not at all sure how the changes may strike other viewers.

Eventually I convinced Silver if were to have dinner, we had to go into the house.

And when we sat down to dinner, yes, Silver did trot over to the screen door and call, "Dinner, dinner", but he did not become nearly as agitated about the lack of response as he had yesterday though the audience was bigger.
At first I thought that Friend and Doorstep might have brought the kids to check out the weird bird yelling "Dinner" out the screen door, but on closer scrutiny, I realized it was Friend with three youngsters. And they all look to be close enough in their level of maturity to be from the same hatch.

Friend is standing in front. See the blue skin around his eye? The immature behind him does not have the blue and neither do the others watching from the bath.
Where is Doorstep? I'm not sure, but considering, she deserves a night off.
Donegal Browne