Friday, November 16, 2007

What About Nuthatches? Plus the Melon and Dove Updates.

This Red-breasted Nuthatch, Sitta canadensis, has been around for some time but I'd not gotten a photograph of him. For ID note the black line that runs through the eye, white line above and a rusty anterior. But today, when I dumped the chunk of ice out of the bowl and put in liquid water. The bowl then had more than 60 visits from numerous species in the first half hour and so I was able to photograph him. The birds were thirsty.

The Bird Water Public Service Message: Supplying liquid water to wildlife is important in freezing weather. (Besides you'll see many more species of birds that way. Particularly if there is a shortage of drinkable water nearby.)

Yes, birds can conceivably get their own water.

They can fly a distance to find open water. Which is no doubt further away than it used to be because we've drained so many wetlands.

Little birds can wait for a Blue Jay to rap a crack in the ice if there is liquid underneath. I'm assuming the wait is longer these days with the dearth of Blue Jays.

They can eat snow when there is some. But they have to eat a good deal of snow in order to get enough moisture and it chills them.

So make it easier for everyone and get a bath warmer or just be sure to make the liquid form available everyday.

And now back to Nuthatches.

As I was saying this Red-breasted Nuthatch has been around for some months. I've been hearing his squeaky-toy call most days in the back yard. Though I didn't see or hear him during breeding season.

They like to winter in conifers and the yard has several. As far as I know though there aren't any breeding cavities within the yard so that rather explains that.

I'd thought it interesting that though the White-breasted Nuthatch is more numerous I hadn't seen one here. That was until I made fresh water available today---

And there he was, a White-breasted Nuthatch, Sitta carolinensis, sitting on the edge of the bowl seeking a drink. Nuthatches have always reminded me of chunky woodpeckers. But as it turns out they aren't closely related at all. They've seemingly evolved somewhat similar characteristics through separate lines, to suit their similar foraging styles. Nuthatches go both up and headfirst down trees while the Woodpeckers only go up headfirst.

All Nuthatches have a slight up angle to their beak position. Somewhat like the angle on a swordfish, which they aren't closely related to either. In fact Nuthatches don't vary all that much anywhere. All North American species are in the same genus. In fact 24 of the family's 25 species worldwide are in the same genus-- Sitta.

So to ID this species, you'll note in the White-breasted's case there is no black line through the eye. He's larger than the Red. His little black eye looks smaller than the Red-breasted's and his undertail coverts are chestnut. Go ahead, take a peek under his tail.

Yes, this is a male. NO, no, there is no obvious difference in genitalia. In fact you can't see any genitalia at all. You were looking for the chestnut area for possible help in identifying one someday, remember? Just in case the only view you have is under his tail. Right.

Now if the bird were female, she would have a grey cap as opposed to the black one, and her back would have more of a grey cast to it as well.

Terrific you say, but how about getting to the important part? Just why are these birds called Nuthatches?

I've always wondered that myself and I finally got around to looking it up. Though I've read it in several places the commonly held answer is a little, well, possibly a little bit of a stretch.

Nuthatches stash food. Specifically they jam hard food like sunflower seeds and nuts into bark crevices.

They stash nuts so that's the first part of the name. I can go for that.

Now things get a little dicey in my opinion. Nuthatches store food by hacking (hatching) or we would say jamming nuts into the crevices in bark. But if we said jamming, they'd be Nutjams and that just wouldn't do. Think of all the field guides that would need to be reprinted.

In fact one species of Nuthatch uses tools. The Brown-headed Nuthatch holds a little piece of bark in his beak to pry off other sections of bark in order to get at the invertebrates underneath.

Getting on now, I'm told that Nuthatches don't usually migrate but White-breasted Nuthatches may, in poor food years. When this occurs it's called an irruption and it seems to happen not all that infrequently. Sometimes Whites make it as far down as Texas. So is this one a migrant? That could be why I hadn't seen him around before.

By the way speaking of irruptions, I hear from folks in Minnesota that the Owls are coming down again in a major way as they did the year the Boreal Owl showed up in Central Park. So keep your eyes peeled. It could be a very good year for owls.

AND NOW FOR THE UPDATES: First off, remember in Battle of the Bath 3 when Mr. Junco was attempting to bathe and was double teamed by the two above who drove him out of the bath. They tried double bombing in again today but he ignored them this time and now they are standing there trying to figure out just what could have gone wrong.

Secondly, why do a Goldfinch and House Finch hang out together all the time? I don't know, but they seem to be best friends. And their goal in life is to hassle Mr. Junco at the bird bath. A finch winter sport?

Ah ha, that's it! If the birds had to go further for a drink they'd be tired and they
wouldn't need winter sports and Mr Junco could bathe in peace. Or not.

Here's part of the flock and you'll note the two Mourning Doves up near the grass. No that's not a third dove up there. That's a chewed gourd.

There is a third though. Doorstep was sitting below the step by the door out of frame. I figure if it gets just a touch colder that she'll be back up on the doorstep getting some warmth through the crack under the door. The doves are coming back after their fright, though they haven't congregated on the bowl at sunset for a couple of days now. Probably for the best considering.

And remember how I was going to see if Fluffy the Possum came back for a second helping of squishy melon? Well, I suspected that a diurnal animal might take a shot at the melon so I got up slightly before dawn to check it. Fluffy hadn't been there. But a bit later in the day, a squirrel destroyed the study specimen. That's nature for you. The variables are everywhere.

Donegal Browne

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Looking Like Winter

Red-bellied Woodpecker, Melanerpes carolinus
He just flew in and was perched on the edge but when he startled the bather he leaned back. Now he's sitting in the archetypal Woodpecker position with his tail bracing his body. Notice he has whitish feet to match his belly. Which yes, though he's named Red-bellied his belly actually looks grayish white. But if you look very carefully at the photo there is a very very slight blush in the feathers below his neck.

Two American Goldfinch, Carduelis tristis, drop in for a drink. One is alert while the other drinks and then they switch. The visiting raptors have made all the usual visitors quite wary. Though they did visit today, as opposed to yesterday's very sparse population.

Mr. Cardinal ventures out of the Spruce in a cold high wind. He checks out the environment and then goes right back into the Spruce.

A House Finch vs Junco standoff at the bird bath. The Junco won. He's smaller but feistier.

One Eye is ready for winter the size of his hindquarters have almost doubled.

A House Finch pair stare in the direction of a flock of twenty migrating Crows who are calling as they fly over. The current local Crows have situated themselves on the wires and are calling back. I don't speak Crow so I'm not sure if they're exchanging news or trading insults.

Fluffy was back last night though I missed his visit. How do I know? (This also answers Edna M.'s question as to what that melon was doing lying in the middle of all that birdseed.) The melon was one that hid from me during the season and therefore became slightly squishy from the cold. When I found it, I moved it to the patio in hopes that Fluffy the possum would munch it and I'd know he'd been around. Ta da, the melon gave him away. Why he only ever eats half I'm not sure. He doesn't ever seem to come back later and finish it . We'll see if it only seems that way by leaving it out there to give him a chance at a second helping.
Doorstep Dove was the only Mourning Dove to visit today. No Friend, and no progeny were seen. She sits in her protected spot, with crisscross branches around her which I assume helps deter predators.
She waited until the very last rays of sun lit the area before coming down to the bowl. (The photograph has been brightened.

She was still sitting there as the sun disappeared. No other doves appeared and as it became truly dark she flew away to roost.
By the way, I don't believe that the raptors have gotten all the other doves. I would have seen something or at least found feathers. I'm assuming the others have just become frightened and have gone to another feeder in the neighborhood. And when the predators show up at that feeder, they doves will be back and perhaps learn to make the rounds of the feeders so their whereabouts will be more unpredictable.
Donegal Browne

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Blakeman on Cooper's and Kestrels Plus a Krideri Update

American Kestrel, Falco sparverius
Raptor-man, John Blakeman takes on some of my questions concerning Cooper's and Kestrels.

The Cooper's Problem is a severe pressure on kestrel populations in the East, South, and Midwest, where both species tend to coexist. Until recent years, Cooper's were wary and tended to stay in uninhabited forests and woodlots. In the 20th century, there are virtually no records (except in the last decades) of Cooper's ever breeding in cities and villages.

The bird has changed. Natural selection has disfavored the naturally wary birds. After DDT disappeared in the environment, Coop's resumed producing 4-5 eyasses each year out in the deep wilds. As with the red-tail, they saturated remote breeding territories, and a few callous ones drifting into cities, where, lo and behold, they discovered a Cooper's hawk feast in every backyard.

It's birdfeeders that have changed everything. They concentrate dickeybirds, allowing Coop's to simply pluck off the day's calories with remarkable ease and consistency. Twenty years ago, a few bold hawks started to disregard humans, cars, cats, dogs, and everything else and errantly began to nest in cities. Everything else is now history. The bird has self selected for urban habitation and human tolerance, making the Cooper's hawk population a literal order of magnitude greater than ever before.

And they find kestrels just out of the box, little so-called "branchers," the easiest of all protein sources. In Ohio, we are finding virtually no immature survival in areas with resident Coop's. And we also think they take an occasional adult. Our kestrels survive only out in wide open row-crop areas where Cooper's don't hunt.

Frankly, it's all caused by backyard bird feeders.

The exact same thing happened in the 19h century, with red-tails in the East and Midwest. In presettlement times, RTs were found only in savannas and forest edges that overlooked large open uplands. The conversion of eastern North America to farmlands made them into open savanna-like expanses, into which the red-tail invaded and has lived well ever since.

Your Coop's are likely to stay for the winter. Will those with bird feeders stop feeding the dickeybirds in winter? As long as the birds are their, the Coop's will hang around, unless you are way up in the boreal parts of WI. It's the kestrel that more likely to head south, if and when winter snows hide the voles.

And here's something to watch for. From Ann Arbor and Detroit south, into my northern Ohio, a moderate number of kestrels stay for the winter. At higher latitudes, they all leave.

But in these northern fringes of the winter range, there is a marked high proportion of kestrel males, just like in your photos. When I was doing my undergraduate kestrel studies, I noticed about a 3 to 1 male to female ratio in winter. In Kentucky, it's equal, or slightly in favor of the females. Why?

I think it's this. Females are just a bit larger than males, about 120 to 130 grams or so. Males are 95 to 110 grams or so. I prognosticate that the females will need to consistently catch two voles a day to survive, whereas a male can persist on an average of one vole, or so. Now it may be 3 and 2 voles, I'm not sure. But at the southern WI and northern OH latitudes, with our shortened winter day length and deeper and longer-lasting winter snows (which hide the voles), the big females just can't always capture enough voles over time to stay healthy. They get hungry and head south. The smaller males, in a week's average time, need just a fewer voles to survive, and they are able to capture them. Hence, the curious winter sex ratios at our latitudes.

And yes, kestrels cache their food, especially voles caught in the afternoon or late in the day. When they wake up, they will eat an entire vole. But the second or third one can be too much, so they save it for breakfast.

Sincerely,John A. Blakeman
My thought about bird feeders is that they've become the replacement for hedgerows, unmown road verges, pastures, plowed prairies, rows of crops without herbicides and the areas where seed heads used to mature and where winter birds, the voles, all the rodents, used to feed themselves. For without winter residents who subsist on seed, and take cover in scrub, there too go those creatures that are supported by them.
Of course this is no more than an untested hypothesis, at least as far as I know, so more data needs to be collected.
Already the Loggerhead Shrike, who's habitat consists of open country with scrub is declining in many areas and is endangered in numerous states. It is more wary of feeders and therefore is less likely to find prey in the manner of the feeder haunting Northern Shrike who's populations are not declining as rapidly.
Plus, there was another sighting of the Krider's Red-tail. Rushing off to the lawyer's office, I heard the train whistle and by the time I made it to the long line of cars waiting at the track, there the Krider's was. Flying from the rear of the train over the top as the train went into the distance, she flapped towards the trees. She headed straight for a large tree adjacent to the Dollar General and inside of going under, over, or veering to the side, at the last minute I taught she might have been going for a perch at top speed, she turned sideways and zoomed through the branches without touching a one and then continued to flap to the refuge of the woods. It was an amazing piece of flying
Donegal Browne

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Predators at the Feeder Part 1

November 11th, as I sat inside by the glass door, a movement caught my eye. I looked up and there was a Red-tailed Hawk sitting in the tree next to the house. Perching as Pale Male often does at about 10 feet above the ground, scoping the patterns of the local fauna. So here of course this hawk was staring at the bird feeder. Yea! An RT in the yard! Eeek! He might eat Doorstep Dove. I grabbed the camera and but being a country hawk, as soon as I moved, he flapped out of sight. The above photograph is the swing shot with the camera as he left.

Therefore on the afternoon of November 12th, I went out to the far back yard, set up, and decided to see if the Red-tail would make a return visit.

I didn't even get the camera set up before I heard a squirrel making a warning whine, I started looking up at the trees in an attempt to find him. Every bird in the place took off like a shot.

3:34:53PM Central--Then I heard a tussle, wings flapping, the sticks in the brush pile quivered. Instead of a Red-tail, a Northern Shrike was attempting to nab one of the House Sparrows on his way to cover. The Shrike disappeared into the pile of branches. Then he was on top of the pile. Then he took to his wings.
(For a look at a Northern Shrike, go to--

I looked around and there was the whining squirrel in the Maple.

No House Sparrows were yet visible coming from the depths of the brush pile.

3:45:47PM As usual at a warning, the House Finch zoom into the front yard Spruce. A lone male House Finch sits sentinel.

3:48:27PM A number of the females are still taking refuge high in the Maple tree nearest the feeder.
The Dark-eyed Juncos with the flash of white in their tails have dispersed toward all three Spruce in the backyard. Their flight paths and white flashes a way to disrupt the focus of the predator.

They've taken quite a fright and still aren't back. Of course perhaps the Shrike or the Red-tail may still be around and I just haven't spotted them.

3:51PM A squirrel reappears and begins to forage.

3:52:57PM the House Finch begin to land on the feeder.

3:53:07PM The birds start to seriously flock in.
3:53:17PM The small birds scatter leaving two female House Finch alert but in mid-chew.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Predators at the Feeder! Part 2

Predators at the Feeder was intended to be one post but an "error screen" now appears when I attempt to load a photo. Therefore here is the second half. I'll get the first half up as soon as it's possible. Sorry. D.B.
All times Central.

Right Finch is alert, but she stays and keeps herself on the far, dark side of the feeder.

Left Finch is unseen on the far side of the feeder by the door and Right Finch is hiding up near the roof of the house.

3:59:11PM She comes down for some seed.

4:02:23PM All the birds are hiding.
4:03PM One returns and stays near the picnic table ready to retreat under it.

4:08:58PM A squirrel begins it's anxiety danger whine. The squirrels run for trees and birds flee for cover in the evergreens or maple branches.
5:11PM I get distracted by the bright red leaves of the bush that the Cardinals nested in earlier in the year. Suddenly there is a startling loud metallic bang.
4:13:33PM BANG! The birds and squirrels flee. The wash tub is butted up against the brush pile on it's right side. The bang came from this direction and sounded exactly like something thumping a wash tub. Is the Shrike back and chasing sparrows around in the brush pile again?
5:14:29PM The Juncos first return to the neighbor's feeder as there is a good sized bush immediately next to the feeder that the small birds can flee into.

The Brush Pile--It should probably be closer to the bird feeders.
5:16:32pm The Juncos in a line near the picnic table. The two males alert while the females feed.
4:27 PM Though getting quite dark, the Juncos continue to feed. Now that Dad Chipping Sparrow has gone south, it's the Dark-eyed Juncos who feed into the evening.

Circa--1AM, Saturday. Guess who's back foraging? It's Fluffy the Opossum.
Donegal Browne

House Finch Conjunctivitis, John Blakeman, and Whooping Cranes.

A Male House Finch, Carpodacus mexicanus, bright eyed and seemingly healthy. That is if the scuzzy stuff below his eye is feeding debris and not bits of matter from his eye
My apologies for not being more clear about bird conjunctivitis for those who were unaware of it or didn't know what it looked like. And thank you to reader Marian Anderson for pointing that out.

Here's a closer look at our guy. The eye is clear as is the skin around the eye. There is no matter staining and gumming his feathers together around the eye. Remember having "Pink Eye" as a kid? Same deal only the human version. (Trivia Bit: Humans can transfer their pink eye to their cats.)

This female House Finch has Mycoplasmal conjunctivitis. At the moment her left eye is gooed shut, though that is not always the case. The slit of the eye is just before the bird's head goes out of frame. Sorry about the photo. She was keeping her good eye towards me most of the time in order to make sure I didn't get too close so the diseased eye was tough to document.

Here she is from the other side. Note the feathers sticking up stiffly on the top of her head. The matter spreads into feathers and makes them stick together, that's a clue to investigate further.
Goldfinch are also quite susceptible to the disease. Some other species of Finches are less susceptible.
The Cornell Lab of Ornithology has been running a Citizen Science project for some years tracing the geographic progress of the disease, collecting numbers on sick birds, and collecting survival statistics from people who note the disease at their feeders. Their site is extremely helpful and informative.
If you see a sick bird, it is well worth your time, in hopes of understanding the disease, to report your sightings to Cornell.
Here's their Blurb---
"The House Finch Disease Survey is an unprecedented opportunity for you to help researchers track the spread of an infectious disease in a wildlife population. The survey is easy to do: participants record the visits of House Finches and American Goldfinches at their feeders and the occurrence of diseased birds, and then send their data to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. In doing so, they help scientists document the occurrence and spread of mycoplasmal conjunctivitis in the United States and Canada (view map showing the prevalence of the disease since it was first observed). Your observations are needed so that we may better understand this avian disease. "
Also on Cornell's site are photos of House Finch with bad cases of the disease for those who wish to investigate further and educate themselves. I did not publish the photos of the bird that was very ill in my area and did die. They aren't for the sensitive. I tried to catch her to try and nurse her through the disease but she was able to fly to the end. Birds can live through the disease. It doesn't always kill them. It is the lack of ability to compete for food and care for themselves that can lead to their demise beyond the infection itself.
Disinfect your feeders and bird baths very frequently. I clean my bird bath daily with vinegar, a scrub brush, and lots of water. I was cleaning the feeders once a week, and now do it every other day. I throw the feeders into the heavy duty cycle of the dishwasher at night and then hang them again the next day.
If disease becomes too endemic some suggest removing feeders for awhile and dispersing the flock. I've always wondered about that because wouldn't that just send sick birds to the neighbor's feeders where more birds may be infected? So far cleanliness has kept things from going that far in past years.

And from John Blakeman who did research on the seasonal caloric demand of Kestrel's in his salad days--
Just great birds, however small. Their personalities are not so small.

Today in Ohio, we have only a fraction of the kestrels of three decades ago. Cooper's hawks are really nailing them. Glad you got those superb photos.

And that's exactly how kestrels eat a vole. They consume it very slowly, in small bites. If they get filled up, they will often take the uneaten remains and cache them in a tree or on a pole top somewhere, to be eaten the next day.
I was pleased to get collaboration from Mr. Blakeman about Kestrels and the stashing of food. Therefore perhaps when Mr. Kestrel took off with his retrieved vole yesterday on my last sighting of him, he wasn't going off to eat it but rather perhaps he was going to stash it in the still leafed tree.
I've inquired as to why Cooper's seem to be taking more Kestrels than they did previously. We'll see if John has a theory.

Also, something I failed to notice yesterday about the Kestrel's ploy to hide his lunch. Yes he's scrunched down on it, but he's also spread his tail to further obscure the vole. Check the photo above.

And from wonderful blog reader and contributor Karen Anne Kolling--some delightful links so you'll be able to follow the progress of the Whooping Crane migration.

Short video of baby whoopers learning to migrate:

Where they are today on map:

Daily journal of migration:
Donegal Browne