An online resource based on the award-winning nature guide

Birds

Barred Owls Fledging (But Not Flying Yet)

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If you heard Barred Owls calling this winter, and have occasionally spotted one in the same vicinity this spring, now is the time to start looking up at the canopy to see if they produced any young owls. Having spent four or five weeks in a tree cavity being fed and cared for by their parents, Barred Owl nestlings get the urge to spread their talons (and eventually their wings) and leave their nest about this time of year. It will be roughly another month before they begin short flights; until then the fledglings are referred to as “branchers,” as that is where you will find them, perched and begging for food from their parents, who will continue to feed them until late summer or fall. (If you know a youngster who is captivated by owls, they might enjoy reading Otis the Owl by yours truly!)

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Common Ravens Fledging

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Amazingly, there are birds that are fledging from their nests this early in the spring, among them Common Ravens. The intelligence of this species is well known, but perhaps less familiar are their antics, especially those of young birds.

Common Ravens have been observed “sliding down inclines on their belly, lying on their side grappling sticks, dropping and catching objects while in flight, hanging upside down by one or two feet, snow “bathing,” giving vocal monologues, caching inedible items, playing “tug-of-war” or “king-of-the-hill” with other ravens, and pecking predators on the tail.” (Birds of North America Online) If you hear their guttural call from above, be sure to look up and enjoy the show. (Photo: Common Raven fledgling. Thanks to Erin Donahue and Charlie Berger for photo op.)

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Changing of the Guard

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In approximately 85% of bird species, both the male and female of a mating pair contribute to the feeding and guarding of their offspring. Red-bellied Woodpeckers are of this ilk. Both members of a pair help excavate a nest cavity, incubate the eggs, brood the young and feed the nestlings for up to 10 weeks after they fledge. As seen in this photograph, when tending to their nestlings, one member of a pair wastes no time in departing as soon as its mate appears.

Thanks to the extension of the Red-bellied Woodpecker’s range northward, even northern New Englanders now have the opportunity to observe the nesting behavior of these medium-sized woodpeckers. (Photo: female Red-bellied Woodpecker leaves nest as food-bearing male arrives. Note continuous red crown on male, which is broken in female.) (Thanks to Sadie Brown for photo op.)

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Common Grackles Nest-building

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Common Grackles are hard to miss and hard to mistake for any other bird, with their yellow eyes, iridescent bronze or purple plumage and long, keel-shaped tails. Most of the spring migrants have reached their breeding grounds, and courtship, mating and nest-building are underway.

Because grackles begin reproduction so early in the season, conifers are the nesting site of choice due to the cover they provide. Females tend to choose the actual site for a nest, and in so doing can be quite fickle, often abandoning partially constructed nests and selecting alternative sites. They earn this right, as they’re usually doing all the construction work, although males have been observed with nesting materials, helping to build and repair nests.

Look for their 6-8”-diameter, large bulky nests near water, agricultural fields or near human habitation. They are usually built four to twenty feet above the ground. If you find a bird on the nest, it will most likely be an incubating female (slightly less glossy than male) – males not only do not have a brood patch and do not participate in incubating the eggs or brooding the young, but roughly half of the males desert their mates during this time. Those that do remain participate in the feeding of their young nestlings.

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Tom Turkeys Strutting Their Stuff

3-19-18 wild turkey IMG_7081Congratulations to Penny Jessop, who submitted the first correct Mystery Photo answer!

In the Northeast, male Wild Turkeys begin gobbling and strutting in late February. Their courtship ritual usually starts before females are receptive, and continues into late March and early April, when mating typically takes place.

At this time of year males are bedecked with blue wattles (flap of skin on throat) and snoods (fleshy piece of skin that hangs over beak), and bright red major caruncles (bulbous, fleshy growths at the bottom of the turkey’s throat). Displaying these adornments while slowly gliding around a female, the male fans his tail, lowers his wings with the primaries dragging on the ground/snow (these primary wing feathers are responsible for the parallel lines either side of the trail of tracks), elevates the feathers on his back and throws his head backward the female. If she is receptive, she lowers herself and crouches on the ground, signaling to the male that he may mount her.

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Birds Keeping Warm

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Birds utilize a number of behavioral adaptations that afford them some protection from frigid air such as we have been experiencing lately. They include sunning (turning their backs to the sun, exposing the largest surface of their bodies to the heat), shivering, tucking (placing one foot up inside feathers while standing on other leg, or squatting to cover both legs and feet with feathers; tucking their bill into their shoulder feathers and breathing air warmed by their body), roosting together in small groups (often in a small cavity, so as to conserve heat) and, most obvious of all, fluffing themselves up (creating air pockets that are warmed by body heat).

While feathers serve many purposes, from helping to attract a mate to providing camouflage, one of the most important jobs they have in winter is to keep a bird warm and dry. A bird’s body heat (the average bird’s body temperature is 105 degrees Fahrenheit), warms the air between its feathers. Birds fluff up in the cold to trap as much air in their feathers as possible, as the more trapped air, the warmer the bird. They can appear two or three times larger than they appear on a 32 degree day. This insulation is effective because it also is a barrier to water. The oil that birds apply to their feathers when they preen serves to waterproof the feathers. (Photo: Dark-eyed Junco)


Avian Evacuation

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To start with the basics, both the excretory anatomy and the consistency of bird droppings are different from those of most mammals. Birds have one opening, a cloaca, which serves as their intestinal, reproductive and urinary tract. Everything from mating and laying eggs to voiding waste takes place via the cloaca.

Instead of releasing waste as urea dissolved in urine, as we do, birds excrete it in the form of uric acid, which is the white liquid we associate with bird droppings. Why is it white instead of brown? This is due to the biochemical reactions that take place in processing the waste so it can be safely excreted with minimal water loss.

If you look carefully at a bird’s droppings, you’ll usually find a small dark solid blob amongst all the white uric acid. Both acid and solid waste are evacuated from the same opening at the same time. Because they come from two different bodily systems, they don’t have much time to blend.

Most people are not great fans of bird droppings due to the damage (and mess) they can cause. However, some ingenious soul took advantage of this property and concocted a skin exfoliator for sale that consists of nightingale droppings, water and rice bran.

(This post is dedicated to my sister who didn’t quite believe I would actually write a post about this subject much less use this Snowy Owl photograph.)