Saturday, December 08, 2007

FINALLY--A Crow, 9:40AM

As many of you know, I've been making a big attempt for months to lure, befriend, or tempt a local American Crow to pause long enough on the Goodie Stump for me to get a good at her. Note that she's placed her foot on the portion of raw poultry in a possessive manner while making eye contact with me.

One of the things I wanted to see was the Crow's eyes. They blend so well with their plumage that it's nearly impossible to see their eyes, or where they are actually focusing, unless the sun causes a gleam. As I suspected the iris is a near perfect match to plumage. Attention to other's eyes is not only important to Red-tailed hawks as we've discovered in Central Park watching Pale Male and Company, but I've now begun to see that it's extremely important in cuing behavior for many of the bird species I'm watching.

I expected her to take off at eye contact but then realized that her sentinel partner in the Maple near the house hasn't made the five part time-to-bug-out caw signal perhaps that is significant in her staying put. The snow cover is complete. And the temperatures have been significantly low so hunger may also being playing a part in her willingness to put up with me watching her.

She checks in again.
While waiting for a Crow to let me watch her for a few minutes, I began reading up on them and their relatives. Due to some new science it's now thought that Crows and Jays started out with a common crow-like ancestor in the area of what is now Australia and then radiated throughout the world.
Corvids have strong and more than usually dexterous feet. And most of them, have scales on the front of their legs and feet but not on the back. Why? No one seems to figured that one out yet.
When it comes to intelligence Corvids are near the top of the avian pile. Some put forward the thought that Ravens are even more intelligent than top level parrots.

She eats some more and then seems to be eyeing the squirrels that are scampering around the yard.

Then she looks toward the camera again.
Check out her beak. American Crows have the archetypal Corvid beak, thick, strong, and slightly curved. And also like most of the other Corvids, Crows have bristly feathers over their nostrils. If the feathers over Downy Woodpecker cere are to keep the sawdust out, why do Crows have a similar adaptation? It's not a sawdust problem. They're so private that don't even want anyone to see their nostrils? Unlikely, I suppose. Any ideas?
(I can't believe she's stayed this long.)

(Famous last thought. ) A squirrel leaps up on the stump aggressively and the crow takes to the air accompanied by the five part danger caw of the sentinel Crow who's off the Maple and heading north. The squirrel leaps off. (Notice this is one of the visually challenged squirrels, though the left eye is now at least partially open.)

Then a second squirrel immediately leaps on, checks the stump for squirrel eatables, and finding none, leaps off.
The squirrels and Crows have a habit of leaping at each other, in I'm assuming an attempt to startle, and scare the other off. So far I've seen no true physical contact. One of the phrases used over and over for Crows beyond "gregarious and noisy" is "cautiously aggressive". Well they aren't foolhardy, now are they? But sometimes I get the feeling that the Crows get an almost practical joke kind of pleasure in the "gotcha".
Donegal Browne

Winter Woodpeckers

The male Downy stops in for some suet. This territory has both a male and a female. Downy Woodpeckers will join mixed flocks of foraging birds and travel around with them, then drop out as the edge of their territory is reached. They will also sometimes cache food beneath bark.

Ever wonder why they're called Downy Woodpeckers? Look at how fluffy his tummy is.
(But then does a Hairy Woodpecker have a hairy look to his belly feathers?)

Did you ever notice that you can't see a Downy Woodpeckers nostrils? They're feather covered. The common wisdom is that the feathers are there to keep the Woodpecker from getting sawdust up his nose. Handy adaptation that.

Earlier the Red-bellied Woodpecker had stopped by the suet, pecked vigorously, then he grabbed a glob in his beak and took off to cache it. Caching food is a regular part of this species winter survival tactics. Some Woodpeckers will also cache nuts. But typically cachers all except the Acorn Woodpecker, peel the hull off, break the nutmeat on a hard surface and then store the bits under bark .

The Acorn Woodpecker on the other hand drills an acorn sized hole in trees, wooden electrical poles, light poles, posts, stumps, you name it, and then jams the acorn into it. If you see a cache there will be row upon row of holes. They're called granaries. This you might suspect leads to many battles with squirrels who attempt to steal the nuts. But the Acorn Woodpecker has an adaptation to help guard against that. Acorn Woodpeckers live in groups and communally store and defend their granaries. Granaries can be huge and examples have been found that have hundreds of thousands of acorns stored in them.

Speaking of the Red-bellied Woodpecker, here he is earlier in the season. Be patient that picture is here for a reason.

The other day someone asked if Woodpeckers ate seed? The answer is that Woodpeckers are primarily insectivores but depending on the species they also have been known to have the occasional seed, nut, or even fruit. Though I had to admit, that though suet has seed and I've seen them at the suet feeder, I'd never seen one frequent the seed only feeders. But that was before today.

Today I looked out and there was the Red-belly gobbling away at the cylinder feeder. My apologies for the photo quality. I just grabbed the point and shoot and clicked. This guy is fast and its the only shot I got off before he whisked away.

Can you find his tail? Look at his belly in the photo where he's at the bird bath. Now look at his belly at the feeder. That skinny little perch doesn't seem to be very convenient for him. Is his tail hanging straight down? Or does he have it tucked up like a hinge using it for balance on the perch? Perhaps it is straight down after all but obscured by the backdrop of the dried sunflower stem.

Donegal Browne

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Feeding Up Before the Storm, and What's That Hawk Doing in the Parking Lot?

The House Sparrows spent time at the cylinder feeder today. Something that isn't usual.

Then for the very first time, a Dark-eyed Junco, they are inveterate ground feeders, flew up and began eating out of one of the feeders. The two hens of different species ate quite awhile on opposite perches. The Finch looks almost chatty while the Junco hen looks a little nervous. Whatever the case they were both eating as fast as their beaks could go.

It became clear towards the end of daylight that with the severe cold last night and more snow expected that the birds were breaking all kinds of barriers. Not only were the invisible boundaries of the individual feeders ignored but today near sunset there were more than 20 Mourning Doves in the feeding area. Forget territory today. We must eat voraciously to survive so all bets are off.
The Tree Sparrow is back, on the left in the line of Juncos. The male Downy, the Red-belly, and the Red-breasted Nuthatch all made appearances at the suet. Oh, another place a Junco appeared where one never had before. The Suet.

It was 11 below zero last night. Having had a second snowstorm on the first's heels, a third storm is on the way. The citizens of Wisconsin shoveled out, and motivated by yet more snow to come, they put on their boots and trooped to the grocery store in droves.

It isn't as if the cupboard is bare. Oh no, not here. There's hardly a household that hasn't at least one freezer and an extra fridge in the basement, with a side of beef or pound after pound of venison and turkey sausage waiting frostily for consumption. Cellar shelves sag under bright shiny quarts of summer's bounty, row after row of stewed tomatoes, sauerkraut, green beans, watermelon pickles, pears, peaches, cherries, beets and succotash. Burlap sacks full of walnuts, pecans and hickory nuts hide in out of the way closets. But you never know, and to be without the staples of milk, bread, eggs, potato chips, jello, and Mountain Dew--things could be, well, uncomfortable. And who needs that?

Therefore, when I pulled into the Woodman's parking lot in Janesville, parking spaces were at a premium. I opened the truck door, stepped out and--Holey Moley! There's a Cooper's Hawk zooming three feet off the ground through the very busy parking lot then curving up and perching stock still in a small tree growing in the median between parking rows. I look around excited with the urge to smile at others who've seen it too. But not another soul has noticed.

It's a very weird feeling and just feels wrong. How do people not see a hawk, we're not talking sparrows here, we're talking about a reasonably big bird that swooshes by just two feet from their waists? I've had the feeling before and the strangeness doesn't lessen with repeats.

On one of my initial trips to Central Park to watch Pale Male and Lola, I watched Lola flying down the path from the Boat House toward the Model Boat Pond, once again just three feet off the ground. (It must be stealth level.) And also on the same path, her ears plugged into some kind of musical device, walked a young woman. Still at waist level, Lola swerved past her, I was surprised the walker wasn't grazed by a wing tip, then Lola continued down the same path. The woman never noticed. All I've ever been able to figure out is that if people don't expect to see something, they don't.

So feeling a little disappointed at not being able to commune with other shoppers, I walked toward the Hawk in the tree. Her back was turned so I figured I might get close enough to get a good look. So far so good, then she turns, I keep looking, then have to look down to step up a drift. And once you look away, Whoosh, again at elbow height she's off , a Starling flushes from the tree in front of the Big Bagel shop. She doesn't pursue. She curves up once again, lands, again does the "I'm invisible" perch. Not one human glanced her way this time either.

Hawk may have avoided human interest but then I hear Crows. There are three and they've seen the hawk and are spreading the news. Several small flocks of sparrows use the crow cover to flee in a rush in our direction and away from the Cooper's.

The Crows choose two parking lot light poles near the gas station and a high drift in front of the Lighthouse Bookstore to scream in the hawk's direction, when I look again she is gone.

No one looked at the Crows either and they weren't in stealth mode. There's a skirmish going in a war between species nations that's been going on for thousands of years. Now most of us, being hawk watchers are geared to see hawks. We've found them things of wonder and we've trained ourselves.

Just think, perhaps-- on second thought not perhaps, but likely, there are any number of things, things of wonder we've missed because we never noticed them enough to train ourselves to look.

I won't stop looking for hawks, that's now so automatic I couldn't stop if I wanted, and I do notice other things of wonder tangentially, but today I began to wonder what I might be missing. What passes by me in the way a Cooper's Hawk in the grocery store parking lot passes by dozens of other people without so much as a glimmer?

What are the things I don't expect to see, so I don't ?

How about you?
Donegal Browne

Wednesday's Catch

I don't know about you, but I'm not sure I've ever seen a Chickadee straight on for more than a half a second They are always on their way to someplace else. Their metabolism is cooking constantly. No doubt the reason for their preference for the available foods high in lipids, suet and Sunflower seeds.

Yes, he does has snow all over his face. The fluffy snow is still sticking to the branches of the trees in little drifts.

So after checking the perimeter, Black-capped Chickadee, will nab a sunflower seed, and zip off to a high branch in the Maple Tree. He'll then get the seed under his foot, which will be in snow today, hence his face, crack it open, eat the inside, and flash back for another.

Alright, look at those teeny toes. They really are the cutest ever. These guys spend virtually no time at all on the ground.

Often in the meantime, a second Chickadee will have come to the feeder for a seed while the first is eating. She'll then take off with hers to an eating spot and the first will come back for another .

In this case I'm not sure if it's the same bird or a different one. I admit it. I can't tell them apart yet and they aren't currently talking back and forth to alert me that there's two of them.

Is she checking the air space or deciding on which seed she'd like?

Either way, she has to stick in her entire head in order to get the sunflower seed she's after. Then she whips off again to perch in a tree to eat it.

That's Doorstep on the bath and if you look at the top of the vignette, well, that's Friend's tail. Friend started to land on the bath, startled, perhaps he'd forgotten about the "snake", decided he'd over reacted, braked, and went down on the goodie stump a few feet away. There was a good six inch drift on the top of the goodie stump in which he half disappeared. At the same time one of the House Finches started to land a few inches past Friend, saw the drift, and like a cat that realizes almost too late she's about to leap into a bathtub full of water and looks to be using the surface tension to bounce out again, House Finch threw his weight back enough so that instead of disappearing into the little birdie snow bank, landed squarely on the half submerged Friend's back. Needless to say, Friend having just stopped himself from totally freaking out about the bath warmer, went WAAAAAH, and took off for parts unknown. Doorstep watched placidly.

Even the Blue Jay was around today. Just when he is no longer needed to crack the ice so everyone can have a drink.

I looked out and there wasn't a bird in the feeding area. Or so I thought. Suddenly Mr. Junco walked out of his snow fort with a seed in his beak. Notice how his white belly blends completely with the snow. That effect completely changes his silhouette to something less bird shaped. Especially the case when they go into a ground freeze when a predator passes over.

And into the evening, as a flock of Geese regroup after taking off , I'm assuming, to get out of town. More snow is expected tomorrow. Today it was 8 degrees F.

And the answer to yesterday's Mourning Dove Question: How many Doves were there in the photograph? 10. We're up 3.

Donegal Browne

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

John Blakeman on Squirrels and the Germ, Plus Crow Games and Fleeing Migrants.

John Blakeman explains succinctly, what the "heart" in the parlance of Wisconsin or the "germ" in more general speech, of a kernel of corn is. And just why the squirrels stick to that portion only.


Squirrels eat only the "germ" portion of a corn kernel, leaving the rest for other creatures.

The part they eat has the embryonic plant for growth after germination. It also has a moderate concentration of lipids (oils and fat) and proteins, all of which are used during seedling growth.

The rest of the kernel is mostly starch, which the squirrel doesn't need much of. The rodent wants to concentrate on packing in energy- and nutrient-dense foods. For an ear of corn, that's only in the germ, so the rest of the kernel is cast aside.

--John Blakeman

And here, an example of the field corn the Squirrels have been eating. The white tip of the kernel holds the germ, the portion the squirrels eat.

What's field corn? Field corn is the kind of corn fed to cattle or used to produce ethanol as opposed to the kind people consume undried and eat as corn-on-the-cob. That's sweet corn.

Here is an example of a squirrel consuming said field corn. Consuming it on the Cobbs-A-Twirl which unfortunately is not a twirl. At this point there are eight squirrels consuming various kinds of food in the feeding area. Tsk, tsk, the squirrels aren't sharing. Therefore, I throw a couple of handfuls of unshelled peanuts out away from the feeding area in an attempt to distract the squirrels.

And who did I catch gleaning peanuts? A Crow. She walked over and instead of flying off with a peanut in her beak or breaking it open and eating it on the spot, she somehow pushed one into her throat. Which due to its size made her neck bulge and caused her beak to gape open slightly. Then she picked up a second peanut in the tip of her beak.
At that point she saw me and flew up into one of the Maples. When I leaned and saw her a scant few seconds later, her head was behind part of the tree trunk.

Ten seconds later when her head came out and looked at me, there was no peanut in her beak. And as her beak is closed there isn't one pocketed in her throat either. She's stashed them, I think, in an old Robin's nest that is attached to branches behind that tree trunk. Therefore, when she saw me she didn't just fly off to just anywhere up the tree that was handy to get out of my view. She specifically went to that spot to immediately cache the peanuts.
After seeing that I was still watching, she went up even higher in the tree. I had to get onto all fours to get her in view again.

There she was waiting. Watching to see if I'd reappear.

She then turned, gave me a last look, and took off to the south. I opened the door, looked south, and saw her curving back east to perch across the street high in a neighbor's tree. I'm betting she waited a few minutes, then came in over the roof where I wouldn't spot her, retrieved her peanuts, and took off with them.
Crows often make food calls when they discover food. The extended family then flies in from where ever they are in the area to share in the bounty. In this case she didn't call. Was it because there weren't many peanuts or are peanuts a personal favorite and she'd decided not to let her group in on her favorite treat? Or more likely perhaps she isn't working in a communal group at the moment.
Earlier in the day when I'd gone out to refill the bird bath, I heard Chickadees making alarm calls and a squirrel whining two yards away. Then Crows started a cacophony to the west. I looked that way and there was a Red-tail hot winging it across the park with four Crows in pursuit. Half way across the park the Crows all perched in the top of a deciduous tree and continued making their racket but didn't continue the chase. Was it the invisible edge of their territory? Was there a second Red-tail waiting in the wings over there, which might have made continuing the chase dangerous?

I was too late to investigate this one, but I'll try to find out during the next interlude of Red-tail vs Crow hostilities.
I then turned back to the house, and remembered I was attempting to find ways to make the squirrels share. I marched into the house and put together a taller pole for the cylinder feeder. In the cylinder feeders case, it wasn't just that my squirrel friends weren't sharing but one of them had chewed a perch off. Bad form.

Ta da! I'm figuring that as the feeder is the same that it won't take long for the little birds to find it.
It's then I hear a goose call from the sky, then another responds, and then a group calls. Looking up I can see nothing but white. I realize that the cloud cover is remarkably dense. The geese must be calling so they can stay together. Amazing, of course, it makes perfect sense. Yesterday, Harry Studebaker, a gentleman born in the wrong time, he's a mountain man in a modern world, told me he heard Sandhills migrating through again. Flock after flock of birds, some even migrating at unusual times of day attempting to stay ahead of the oncoming weather.

It's now late enough in the day for the squirrels to have gone to their nests. The birds have the feeding area to themselves. How many Mourning Doves can you find in the above photo?

In no time, the House Finches have found the cylinder feeder and are making up for lost time.

I look out and the other birds have flushed. This little hen has stuck and looks taken aback. Or is she just leaning back looking at something?
Then I looked up as well. Wind is tossing the branches. I realized it had begun to snow, heavily, yet again

I think of the birds still in flight, their beating wings, their labored hearts, breathing in chilled air, calling to one another, trying to stay together, navigating through pure white, using everything they have, straining. Flying before the storm.
Donegal Browne

Monday, December 03, 2007

New Additions

(Sorry about the screen, this window was the only spot where I could catch the action. Besides the screen I had to kneel on the kitchen sink so we're both suffering a little for the view.)
The squirrels discovered the Squirrely Gig. And being squirrels, big on food and high on opportunity, they've nearly stripped it of corn. The wheel is so stiff that it's no challenge at all for them. The spokes stay in one place, while the squirrels scoot along them, remove a cob of corn, hop to the ground with it, and chow down.
A little idiosyncrasy of squirrels is that they only eat the heart out of the corn and leave the rest. I'm assuming that the the crow that's heading for squirrel sitting in a pile of heart-less corn doesn't mind the subtraction at all.
Not the second squirrel to the right at the base of the tree. The Crow is in a squirrel sandwich though I'm not sure he realizes it yet.

Crow makes a sharp left.

And true to Crow reconnoitering, he takes a few steps and then starts the curve of a circle. Crows, being opportunistic like squirrels but also extremely suspicious almost invariably circle a possible food and check it out.
Squirrel doesn't seem the least bit intimidated but he does keep snatching looks at the Crow and his whereabouts. The second squirrel comes leaping across the yard toward the cylinder feeder and the crow veers away from completing his circle towards the corn.
Suddenly he's very interested in something near the pole feeder. He leans forward then leaps back, starts a small circle, leans forward, leaps back. By this time I've changed from the window to the glass door. Big mistake, he sees me, starts screaming, and two other Crows I'd not noticed in the trees, pick up the call and all three fly away towards the park. Every beastie in sight takes cover.

As the eight squirrels, that's right eight squirrels have returned and are monopolizing the feeders near the house, one of the Mourning Doves is eating the seed knocked off the bird seed plants by the storm.
We're barely over 20 degrees today. Take a look at the thick many feathered layers that protect the doves' belly, keeping her core body heat from escaping into the snow and cold air. Another wonder of bird feet that can tromp around in this weather and not have the toes fall off, is the direct pipeline of arterial blood that comes directly from their warm core to the naked feet to keep them from freezing. I've seen Pale Male in snowstorms, perched on a branch, feet covered with snow, looking perfectly comfy.

The other new addition is the warmer for the birdbath. I put it into the bath hours ago and no one as yet has stopped in for a drink. It's that snake looking thing that is coming out of the water. It's new and a scary shape so we'll see how long it takes before someone gets thirsty enough to try it.
A dove flies to within a foot of the bath, WAAAAH, veers off, does an immediate second fly-by, has the same reaction. No takers yet.

It's cold so Doorstep Dove is back on the doorstep hunkered down, assumedly absorbing some warmth escaping from the house as she did last winter. She still pecks and eats the seed around her though. Friend sticks with one activity at a time

One of the kids appears, sees me, looks startled and the reaction startles Doorstep, who usually doesn't mind if I photograph her through the door.

Hey! It's the first bird to actually perch on the bath since the warmer went in. She is looking askance though.

House Finch is still checking out the "snake" and has yet to put her head down for a drink. While this Junco flies in, drinks deeply, and is gone.
The Junco on the other hand, lands, sees the cable and eeek! The feathers on the top of her head stand straight up. She freezes, watches, decides it's alright, and has a drink.
It's getting dark so the late birds are busy getting those last morsels before roosting. A late arriving Dove has decided to get serious about dinner herself. Something flushes them and the dove heads straight for one of the Maples.

Then I see why.

At least four of her relatives are already up there watching the sunset. Or are they thirsty and watching the birdbath instead? When it is almost completely dark, a Mourning Dove, I'm assuming it's Doorstep, flies down to the birdbath. She sits toward the right side, has a drink, and then stays. In a moment a second Dove, seeing she hasn't come to a bad end, comes down to the bowl to drink as well.
By tomorrow all the birds will have gotten over their fear of the "snake in the bath" and no one will go thirsty.
Donegal Browne

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Fluffy Sweeps, Then Eats.

Gusts- to 40 MPH
Wind Chill- 12F

6:01PM My, my, it's only an hour and a half after sunset and Fluffy is already browsing under the feeder. The patio light is on which must not bother him.

Fluffy could be a cat if you saw her out of the corner of your eye. Well, maybe.
I come up flush with the glass, doesn't Fluffy see me? Probably not opossums have very bad eyesight and poor hearing. I accidentally tapped the camera on the glass and she didn't even look up. Fascinating for the species to be so limited in t hose senses and yet continue as a species since prehistoric time relatively unchanged. A powerful sense of smell and a advanced sense of touch seems to have been enough. I supposed if you don't use two of your senses all that much if you accidentally loose that sense in an accident say, it doesn't put you at much of a disadvantage.
I wondered if the light interfered with her vision at all. As she's nocturnal and all, but the experts think not
What is she after?
I think she's looking for corn. See her tongue? Sometimes it comes out and retrieves things.
Fluffy tends to be an animal in motion. I realize that she is doing little sweeps back and forth with her head. I begin to think her sense of smell is the only sense to speak of that is leading her to the tidbits she's looking for.

Her head goes right,
Then left,
Then right again.

Her nose has found something; she leans forward, chewing.

Then left again,

And right.

Now she goes even further right in the arc. ( The gusting wind gives me a good view of her white undercoat and stiff outer gray coat.)
Then left and she pauses.
More chewing.
It strikes me that it looks like Fluffy is lying on someone's hand. Look carefully and you can see Fluffy's whiskers. I'm betting that as they sprout out of her entire snout in various directions that they are an important part of her navigation and food finding equipment.
She continues the arc,

Then back slightly towards the original apex.
Now back again. I'd say, she's attempting to pinpoint the location of the bread, down left. Her sweeps make perfect sense. She won't miss anything else while searching for the bread, and her nose going back and forth will cause the the bread smell to rise and diminish. Therefore allowing her to hone in on the bread if she can't see it.
That's what she's after! The bread slides in, I think on her tongue, and disappears in one smooth movement.
Fluffy comes right up to the glass with an expression that looks demonic to me. It could be a perfectly positive opossum expression but I haven't watched them enough to know.

Fluffy does register my presence. She moves away. No arc now. Look carefully at the photo. Fluffy is hissing at me.
Okay, okay, I'll close the curtain. Go 'head, and sniff out your dinner.
Donegal Browne