Monday, August 31, 2009

First in farting!

Blue Jay
Originally uploaded by Laura Erickson
Back in 1965, a human named Alan Richard Weisbrod wrote his master's thesis at Cornell University titled "The Maintenance Activities of the Blue Jay, Cyanocitta cristata." The guy had absolutely no respect for Blue Jay privacy, but overall it's a pretty good thesis. Except WHOA! On page 47-48, he writes what may be the first description of a bird farting ever written!! Check it out:
An interesting phenomena [shhhh! He means "phenomenon." We jays would make excellent editors!] was observed on two cold days during December of 1963. These observations were made shortly after noon while I was looking through the window of the office into the flight in which captive jays are kept. Several birds were perched directly overhead and in front of me, at distances varying from one to one and a quarter meters. One of the birds in front of me defecated. A small puff of whitish gas was expelled along with the feces. The feces dropped from the bird while the gas wafted below and parallel to the slightly raised tail, until it dissipated rapidly into the cold air. The gas could be clearly seen against the dark-colored eave that hangs over the sheltered perches, upon which the birds were fluffed and resting. Several days later a bird perched in the same position was observed to defecate with the accompanying wisp of whitish gas.

It is common knowledge that mammals flatulate and that some food items seem to increase the frequency and volume of gas-expulsion from the lower intestines. Since birds feed on many of the same types of foods as mammals and their digestive metabolism is basically similar, there seems to be no theoretical reason why birds cannot also flatulate, but flatulence has never been reported in birds to my knowledge. In all probability, the observed whitish gas was mostly warm water vapor which was released as the bird defecated in the cold still air. Whether this gas was the product of the digestive processes or was simply condensation of moisture from the feces could not be determined.
Mark Twain once wrote, "It ain't no use to tell me that a bluejay hasn't got a sense of humor because I know better." And it's lucky we do, or how could we ever live that down!

On the positive side

Whooping Crane
Originally uploaded by Laura Erickson
There at least is the fantastic Operation Migration program trying to get other Whooping Crane flocks established in the wild. I love watching the crane cam to see how training of those young chicks is going!

I am so worried about my wild friends.

Whooping Crane
Originally uploaded by Laura Erickson
Read and weep.

Yeah, she's cute.

Originally uploaded by Laura Erickson
But keep her off the beach during the entire nesting season, please.

--Piper Plover

My personal nutcracker sweet

Herring Gull
Originally uploaded by Laura Erickson
This roof is ideal for dropping shells on--they eventually break so I can eat the yummy animals inside, and my friends spend more time by the road so aren't as likely to steal MY food here. I wonder if the people inside know just how gull-ible their house is.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

I'm not frowning!

House Wren fledgling
Originally uploaded by Laura Erickson
We little fledglings have a wide mouth to help our parents stuff food in. The corners may droop down making us look sad, but actually I'm quite happy right now. Daddy just fed me!

Okay. Pay attention.

Semipalmated Plover
Originally uploaded by Laura Erickson
"Semipalmated" means "half-webbed." We get the best of both worlds. The webs hold us up when water suddenly flows onto the sand we're standing in, but our toes have enough flexibility to grasp onto slippery stones or dig into the sand when a big wave hits. Of course, usually we just run to avoid the waves. Half-webbed does NOT mean half-witted!!

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Evolution at its best

Today's New York Times has a great and lengthy opinion piece by Robert Wright about evolution. Of course, even though it's a surprisingly open-minded review of the theory and about God, it still places human beings at the pinnacle. It's as if even the wisest people are incapable of noticing just how much more evolved we birds and even some other non-primate mammals are in ever so many ways, including our eyesight, hearing, ability to fly, more efficient respiratory system, and much more complex vocal apparatus. Yes, people like to tout their "superior" brains, but somehow they can't bring themselves to use those brains to see how whale communication, using their voices to hear one another thousands of miles away, sort of precluded the necessity of inventing Twitter or email. People spend whole careers trying to tease out what contexts avian vocalizations are given in, but hello? We speak a different language because our senses and our lives are so different from yours, not because we're simpler or stupider. The world is ever so much richer and more complex for us because our senses allow us to perceive that richness. Small wonder we have no need for television or video games. You guys will NEVER understand what we're talking about until you fly a mile in our shoes--which is impossible because even if you could fly, you'd still have no concept of how our more complex sensory systems even perceive the world.

We birds hardly ever come to blows when disagreeing--it would be a huge jump in human evolution for you guys to finally figure out how to define and defend your property not with barbed wire fences and AK-47s and well-armed police departments and military might, but with song.

The Times editorial says:
Is it all that unlikely that, even if humans had been wiped out a few million years ago, eventually a species with reciprocal altruism would reach an intellectual and linguistic level at which reciprocal altruism fostered moral intuitions and moral discourse?
Robert Wright clearly has not observed a chickadee flock or he'd realize that the time he's speculating about is NOW. We chickadees already have developed moral intuitions and moral discourse of a higher level than humans have. We have enough intuition to know which species to accept into our foraging flocks and which to avoid, not by mindless prejudices but by the knowledge of which birds are literally trying to kill us. We let everyone know about danger and good food resources, and are perfectly happy sharing a feeder. (Of course, we'll never understand those piggish finches who stand in the food rather than simply taking what they need and moving away so everyone else has a chance.) We join forces to scold and shun shrikes and hawks and owls, but even with nasty predators we have a live and let live philosophy and don't go out of our way to seek them out.

Humans are far more narrowly altruistic than us chickadees. Yes--even in the area of altruism, we're more evolved. You won't find a chickadee setting a roadside bomb, lobbing a grenade, flying an airplane into a building, dropping an atomic bomb on an entire city, shooting anyone, or watching starving children on TV and not doing a friggin' thing to help. We chickadees aren't into pretense and all that crap either. Breast implants?! Botox???? Plastic surgery? Give me a break!

This is a tricky world to negotiate as a moral being, but I think our chickadee moral system is far more evolved than that of humans, no matter how you look at it. Maybe if those human brains were less egocentric and more evolved, they'd see it too.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

My fine spring feathers

Scarlet Tanager
Originally uploaded by Laura Erickson
No way in hell am I going to let ANYONE photograph me while I'm molting. Have you guys no pride?

Friday, August 21, 2009

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Ahem, guys--The Bird Watching Answer Book is for PEOPLE

Tufted Titmouse
Originally uploaded by Laura Erickson
It tells people a lot of stuff about us birds, and helps them figure out ways of living near us that will make them happy without hurting us. I mean, what do you expect? How could even God write a book that would please both robins ("How do I protect my eggs and nestlings from Blue Jays?") and Blue Jays ("What's the best strategy for finding robin nests so I can feed my hungry babies?")??

Answer me THIS one, Bird Watching Answer Book lady!

Blue Jay
Originally uploaded by Laura Erickson
Okay--here's my question for The Bird Watching Answer Book. I live in northern Minnesota. One time I heard a tour leader telling a bunch of birders about how great our area is for finding "beautiful birds." I made my beautiful, musical squeaky sound and flew in with my most graceful movements. Everyone naturally looked up, but then the guide said, "It's just a Blue Jay," and turned his back. I mean, he didn't even lower his voice, as if I couldn't understand him or didn't have feelings or something.

Then not ten minutes later he and everyone were exclaiming and all jubilant and thrilled because they saw some dingy little Boreal Chickadee. I mean, come on! They're sort of cute in a drab sort of way, but are hardly beautiful, and the best sound they make sounds like a Black-capped Chickadee with a terminal disease. We Blue Jays are gorgeous, intelligent, sociable, fun, and we warn everybody, those Boreal Chickadees included, when there is any danger lurking. Mark Twain loved us--he said "It ain't no use to tell me a bluejay hasn't got a sense of humor because I know better."

My question--what makes birders turn their backs on us?

Here's MY question for The Bird Watching Answer Book

Great Blue Heron
Originally uploaded by Laura Erickson
The chickadees that zip around my marsh are always boasting about "bird feeders." They said that anytime you find a spot filled with an unusual and unnatural supply of food, it's free for the taking! They said a lot of people are really nice and put all that food out just for birds.

So if that's true, how come every time I find a little pond filled with colorful fish, people come running out yelling and waving their arms and chasing me off? One of my friends got SHOT for eating those colorful fish, and people have thrown rocks at me for the same.

Ain't I a bird?

--Sojourner Truthful Heron

Bird Watching Answer Book hardly has ALL the answers!

HAHAHAHA! Amazon says this book has "Solutions to Every Problem You'll Ever Face; Answers to Every Question You'll Ever Ask." Well, tell me Miss Know-It-All: my mate disappeared after a feral cat from one of those evil "trap-neuter-release" programs appeared in our territory, and then one by one so did our fledglings. What's your "solution" to my grief? How am I going to find another mate with his endearing quirks? And how will I find new babies to replace my lost ones?

--Rachel Robin, weeping for my children and I will not be consoled because they are no more

Monday, August 17, 2009

Itchy eyelids!

I hate this time of year. When the new feathers start growing in on my eyelids, they itch! If you click on the photo you'll see a larger version, and flickr members can view "all sizes" to look at the photo really close up. Then you'll see just what I'm going through.

I take a bath every night but I just can't make the process go faster. Molting sucks, but at least when it's over I look handsome in my perfect new feathers!

Check out the Cornell Blog of Ornithology!

Caren Cooper from the Lab of Ornithology attended the AOU meeting and wrote about the presentations regarding bird collisions. Windows are an enormous problem--they kill about a BILLION birds every year in the United States! I'm one of the lucky survivors, but boy did I have a headache after I hit this window. Read about the meeting sessions here.

Monday, August 10, 2009

It doesn't get any better than this!

American Crow
Originally uploaded by Laura Erickson
Take your wife and kid out for fast food. Well, in this case, the rabbit wasn't quite fast enough!

Bad hair day?

Archimedes molting
Originally uploaded by Laura Erickson
Nah, I'm just molting. But this is one reason we birds are happy that we never have mirrors.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Confused fall warbler

Common Yellowthroat
Originally uploaded by Laura Erickson
I don't think I'm confusing, and I'm certainly not confused about who I am--DUH! I'm a Common Yellowthroat! But I am confused about pretty much everything else. I'm new on the planet--what do you expect?

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Me and my shadow

Great Blue Heron
Originally uploaded by Laura Erickson
All alone and feeling blue.

Doncha just love August?

American Goldfinch
Originally uploaded by Laura Erickson
It's so romantic and filled with new life! At least for us goldfinches. Thistle flowers and, especially, thistle seeds are the stuff of love.