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Bird Digestion

Ruffed Grouse Unable To Seek Refuge in Snow Caves

1-29-16 ruffed grouse bed 049

Unlike much of the Northeast, central Vermont has only a few inches of snow on the ground. These conditions can affect all forms of predators and prey both negatively and positively, from exposed mice and voles to easily-satiated hawks and owls. In the case of Ruffed Grouse, which seek shelter on cold winter nights by diving into the snow, less than 10 inches of snow can spell disaster. In their snow caves they are hidden from view and well insulated (where it rarely drops below 20°F.).  A lack of snow can be life-threatening for grouse if the temperature drops too low for too long. Unable to create a sheltered cavity in the snow,  Ruffed Grouse bed down on top of it, often close to the base of a tree where there may be some shelter from the wind. Fortunately, most nights have not been extremely cold thus far this winter.

After the grouse departs in the morning, you often find scat where it bedded down. Grouse scat comes in two forms, one a dry, fibrous cylindrical pellet with a white-wash of uric acid at one end, and the other a softer, darker brown plop. The vast majority of a grouse’s diet (buds, twigs, leaves, catkins) goes directly through its digestive system and forms the dry, courser scat. Finer (and more nutritious) material such as the cambium layer of woody plants enters the caeca, two specialized pouches, before passing through the large intestine. The caeca contain bacteria which break down cellulose and produce the more digested, and therefore more liquefied, scat (see foreground in photo).

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Pileated Woodpecker Droppings

11-12-15 pileated droppings 015Pileated Woodpeckers usually defecate frequently during the day at their foraging sites. As they pry off long slivers of wood to expose carpenter ant galleries, the wood chips pile up on the ground. A substantial pile usually indicates that the woodpecker has been working long enough at this site for there to be some droppings in the pile.

Pileated Woodpeckers eat ants, primarily carpenter, and beetle larvae throughout the year. Fruit and nuts are eaten when available. The primary food shifts seasonally, with fruit mainly in the fall, carpenter ants in the winter, wood-boring beetle larvae in early spring, and a variety of insects in the summer.

Like humans, birds excrete metabolic waste products, mainly nitrogen, which remains after food is broken down. Humans excrete waste nitrogen as urea in urine, which is diluted with water. Birds, needing to be as light as possible for efficient flight, do not have heavy, water-filled bladders. They excrete nitrogen as a chemical called uric acid in a concentrated form with no dilution necessary. The white outer coating of bird droppings is uric acid. The insides of the droppings are the actual feces, or the indigestible parts of a bird’s diet. A Pileated Woodpecker’s droppings at this time of year consist of bits of carpenter ant exoskeletons and a surprisingly small amount of wood fiber (see insert). Birds simultaneously evacuate uric acid and feces from an opening just under the tail called the cloaca or vent.

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Mourning Dove Diet

1-28-15  mourning dove IMG_0746Seeds, including cultivated grains, grasses, weeds and berries, make up 99 percent of a Mourning Dove’s diet. Because they can find enough food to sustain themselves, Mourning Doves are permanent residents, remaining year round, even in northern New England.

These birds feed on the ground and in the open, consuming 12 to 20 percent of their body weight per day, or 71 calories on average. Mourning Doves swallow the seeds and store them in an enlargement of the esophagus called a crop. Once their crop is filled (the record is 17,200 bluegrass seeds in a single crop), they can then fly to a protected area where they can safely digest their food.

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Canada Geese Switch Diet to Berries & Grains

12-4-14  Canada geese2 IMG_5615During migration and throughout the winter, Canada Geese are highly gregarious, often gathering and feeding in flocks that consist of over a thousand geese. Almost exclusively herbivorous, they are efficient grazers, having serrations on their stout, flat bills. During summer they feed primarily on grasses and sedges. Considered a nuisance by many people with large lawns Canada Geese are attracted to these lawns not only because they can digest grass, but also because they have an unobstructed view that allows them to detect approaching predators. During and following migration, berries (especially blueberries) and agricultural grains including sorghum, corn and winter wheat make up most of their diet. When you see them in cornfields, they are feeding on fallen kernels as well as corn still on dry cobs — they are very good at removing the kernels.

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Contents of One Barred Owl’s Stomach

11-7-14 vole, shrews and mouse 027Fantastic guesses, given you had no measurements to work with. Very creative, indeed. Yesterday’s mystery photo was a packed version of the bodies displayed today.

Owls swallow small prey, such as mice and voles, whole, while larger prey is torn into smaller pieces before being swallowed. Once eaten, prey goes directly into the owl’s stomach, as owls have no crop, and thus no ability to store food for later consumption.

Like other birds, owls have a stomach with two chambers — one is the glandular stomach, or proventriculus, (yesterday’s mystery photo) which produces enzymes, acids and mucus and begins the process of digestion. (Because the acids are weak, only the soft tissues are digested.) The second stomach is the muscular stomach, or gizzard, also called the ventriculus. The gizzard lacks digestive glands – it serves as a filter, holding back bones, fur, teeth and feathers that are difficult to digest. The soft parts of the food are ground by the gizzard’s muscular contractions, and allowed to pass through to the rest of the digestive system.

Several hours after an owl has eaten, the indigestible parts remaining in the gizzard are compressed into a pellet the same shape as the gizzard. The pellet travels back to the proventriculs and remains there for up to ten hours before being regurgitated. Because the stored pellet partially blocks the owl’s digestive system, new prey cannot be swallowed until the pellet is ejected. If more than one prey is eaten within several hours, the remains are consolidated into one pellet. (In this case, one very large pellet!)

Update: I left the contents of the deceased Barred Owl’s proventriculus outside last night, and a resident Barred Owl recycled the Meadow Vole and Masked Shrew.

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Great Blue Heron Casting Pellet

great blue heron casting pellet 205Great Blue Herons swallow their prey whole, which means they consume not only flesh, but also bones and fur (if they eat a mouse or a vole). They are able to digest almost all of the prey that they eat due to acidic stomach secretions that are capable of softening even bones. However, they are not able to digest hair, or fur. This indigestible matter is formed into pellets which Great Blue Herons regurgitate – much like owls and many other birds.

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