Friday, September 19, 2008

Central Park Turkey Alert! Plus Scruffy Cardinals and Hummingbirds in Hurricanes

Photograph by Robert Schmunk of

Hedda Gobler of Morningside Park

As many of you know from Katherine Herzog's note about him not long ago, a new young turkey has appeared in Central Park.

No, not Hedda up there, she's been around for years in Morningside Park waiting for a mate to show up, but she gives you a general idea about the coloration of a wild turkey as I don't have a photo of the one in Central Park.

Our new turkey, possibly a Tom which is very exciting because so far our resident Wild Turkeys have been hens, is dangerously tame as we also learned from Kat's note.

And now what we dreaded has happened.

I got calls from Stella Hamilton and Kat Herzog today. Both longtime hawk watchers and guardians of wild creatures, and both fit to be tied, that the young Tom was suddenly missing his entire tail and great patches of his breast feathers. Or as Kat put it her special way, "He looked like he'd been run over by a lawn mower."

Kat having seen Vivian Sokol, one of our local wildlife rehabilitators in the park, took off to find her and brought her back to look at Tom. As there were no wounds as might have occurred with an interaction with a raccoon or a dog, Vivian indeed surmised that Tom had been grabbed by humans causing the feather loss. And that Tom was now even more vulnerable to humans and dogs as he would not be able to fly up into a safe tree without his tail feathers.

Vivian did not attempt to catch Tom, she's older, lives in a Manhattan apartment without turkey accommodations, and as he wasn't bleeding, decided against protective custody.

I've emailed Bobby and Cathy Horvath as they do have more space out on Long Island, reporting Tom's condition, for their take on the situation.

In the meantime, do try and keep an eye on Trusting Tom as much as you can until he is less vulnerable. He is often seen around the Maintenance Meadow, Azalea Pond, and other woody areas. There have already been numerous episodes where birders have had to intervene to help poor Trusting Tom avoid injury and abuse.

One good thing, though Tom can't retreat to trees any longer he still has a spur on each leg, albeit small at his age, to fight with, if he is sorely pressed. It might not save him altogether but his previous attacker might think twice before grabbing him again.

Got a few minutes? Track down Trusting Tom, and do a little Turkey sitting.

This is how we expect a Cardinal to look, right? But Sally of TN has some in her area that she's a little worried about.

Dear Donna,

Since you are such an observant birder maybe you have seen what I have this fall. I have two very scruffy cardinals coming with the group. I have assumed they are young but they are not begging like some are. They seem to be stuck in a horrible half-molted stage. Their chests and tails are bright red, but head and back buffy brownish like the females. Young male cardinals? But why so scruffy? I have adult male and at least two females. The juveniles won't molt again until next year, will they? I really don't know much about plumage changes in songbirds, except the goldfinches I observe going dusky in the fall each year.

Just curious. I don't remember having these scruffy guys last year. I hope it isn't a disease of some kind, but they seem otherwise active and healthy.

And where DO hummingbirds hide in tornadoes and hurricanes? Mine have fortunately survived the recent hurricane-force winds from inland Ike that have incapacitated Louisville since Sunday.


Right before I left Wisconsin I saw a scruffy young male exactly as I think you're describing so it is the season for it. I've noticed them before. Yes, bright red tail and head with disaster in between. Part of it, at least in the Wisconsin model is that the feathers look streaky and washed out in the brown sections on the wings and back. Then add a bit of brownish red that doesn't look much better bleeding through and toss in the fact that many of these young males have molting raggedy head crests and they look downright grotty. The bird I saw was begging, to no avail I might add. His father was not about to give in as it was high time he was weaned. Your two had no doubt already learned their lesson on the weaning issue.

In my experience these birds are just fine. It seems in the case of young male Cardinals that you aren't allowed a graceful transition molt between your juvenile feathers and looking like Dad without a very awkward stage. Rather like the acne of some teenage humans as they transition into adults. Looking grotty for awhile is just part of the process. And it's always the males. I'm assuming as the juvenile feathers of young females are much closer to their brown mothers that the transition period goes largely unnoticed.

But then again being female perhaps their preening and hygiene is better. (For the humor challenged that was a joke.)

What do hummingbirds do during hurricanes? Sally it's a really good question and no one seems to have a definitive answer. My first thought was that because they couldn't get out and forage in a hurricane, they must go into torpor, the depressed basal metabolism state where their temperature goes down a good thirty degrees to save calories, and perhaps wedge themselves in somewhere so they don't blow away.

I didn't say they were completely sensible thoughts just first thoughts.

Hummers are such incredible light weights, many weigh no more than a nickel, torpor makes them unconscious which didn't seem optimum in a hurricane, and I wasn't at all sure that they could just go into torpor without the necessary drop in air temperature anyway so that scenario just wouldn't do.

So I started digging around. Though I never found someone who'd done a study and could give The Answer, there were some clues. It was observed down on the coasts that between storms some hummingbirds, though fewer than originally seemed in residence, whipped out and fed like crazy. No torpor then, as there wouldn't have been enough temperature change in the air for them to suddenly come out of it.

It then occurred to me that perhaps such severe inclement weather, reduction of photoperiod, added to the down drop in barometric pressure might cue another interesting metabolic response of hummingbirds, hyperphagia--gluttonous eating. And not only do they eat like mad, but they put on a special form of yellow fat, stored specifically in the neck and the areas of the torso around the legs, that makes it possible for them to fly long distances without having to forage every few minutes to keep themselves alive.

Also we do know that many birds will fly before a storm. They know it is coming and get out of Dodge in front of it. So perhaps those hummers who were fat enough when they got the warning in whatever way birds get it that a hurricane was coming, had left before the storm arrived. The others stuck it out, went into hyperphagia or just plain gluttony while the getting was good, stored up some calories, perhaps yellow fat isn't totally necessary as they aren't doing a full migration, and got out during the lulls.

Sorry, Sally, that's the best I can do at the moment but I have whipped off a few emails to various people who may know more in hope they can give us a few more clues that might help unravel the mystery. Keep your fingers crossed.

Though one of the great things about digging around is that you never know what nifty bit of research has surfaced lately that you don't know about. I like this one.

People with hummingbird feeders hanging outside a window or patio door would now and again notice that if the feeder wasn't up and ready come Spring that sometimes a hummingbird would hover outside the glass and stare inside as if to say, "Okay where's the red juice?" And these people wondered if those birds peering in at them might have been customers at the feeder the previous year and had come back and really were looking for the feeder.

Typically they were laughed at for being so gullible as to believe that would happen. Come on, a hummingbird is going to show up a full year later, recognize the place, recognize you, and stare at you so you'll put the feeder back up like it was last year.

Eventually a bander took up the challenge, and indeed hummingbirds absolutely do return to the same feeders year after year.

Donegal Browne


Karen Anne said...

I've seen that hovering at the kitchen window and looking in when I was slow replacing my hummingbird feeder out in California.

Please let us know how Tom turkey is doing, I know you will. It's a good thing people aren't arrested for thoughts, only actions, or I would be in jail right now, probably for homicide (of humans).

If the Horvaths can help him, maybe he can be released to Morningside Park?

Donegal Browne said...

Karen Anne,

Exactly my thought about about a possible somewhat safer place for Trusting Tom Turkey, up in Morningside Park with Hedda. Though I'm not sure if Hedda is still up in morningside, so I'm checking into it. She conceivably could have moved her stomping grounds.