The Zebra Finches

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Just recently my niece produced a lovey little girl, the most amazing and exhilarating thing that can happen on a given day. The wee one was breech, which means that she was turned in such a way she would never have made it down the birth canal. So, the doctors suggested that my nephew call out to his daughter, coax her into position through the fabrics, skin and membrane. It would have worked if the wee-one was not so zaftig and had a bit more room to maneuver.  Mother and daughter are deliriously happy with each other now that they are physically detached from each other post the needed Cesarean procedure.

So while my niece and nephew were calling to their daughter to move her little-not-so-little body, zebra finches were singing to their eggs to prepare their chicks for  very hot and dry weather. Are the striped birds really preparing to survive global warming already while I have not even managed an energy audit of my house?

 I have no idea how birds possess the kind of knowledge that is needed to weigh all of the  potentials and possibilities, sensing the many what ifs that living in nature requires. And yet somehow, the birds know. Occasionally, we have a chance to absorb an example of this. At what point did the zebra finches decide that it was time to start to sing to their eggs? When was it hot enough that it required a change in their behavior?

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The science of this was released this past week. Take a look for yourself at  BBC’s wrap-up  or the article in the Science  Magazine http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2016/08/video-zebra-finch-call-prepares-their-eggs-climate-change.

The researchers learned that the parent birds sung to their chicks in order to prepare the babies for the type of development that ensured the best chance of survival. The chicks that had been sung to, did not develop as quickly, were smaller, did not eat as much, all general signs of a conservative development. Normally, these traits would not be viewed as a good thing for survival. Nature would encourage a baby bird to eat as much as it could and grow strong fast, but in an environment of less, that may not be an asset.

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While looking for the science behind this information, several other stories popped up about how birds sing to their eggs for other reasons; again all instructions and preparations. I remember when it became a ‘thing’ to play certain music to your child during the nine months, then there were suggestions of books to read aloud all in prep for the brain, lubricating something that was just developing.

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Birds learn the sounds of their parents while in the egg just as babies do. For the bird it is a matter of survival; the need to learn the sound of the parent voice to differentiate against predators. For a child it is the same. I am constantly amazed at how alike life is for all forms, when it is examined very closely.

Dry and Hot

In our area the summer has been unusually dry and hot. The forecast predicts that the warmer than normal temperatures will continue through late fall. The starlings are flocking together to discuss this information, you may have noticed the large amounts of black birds in your yards recently.

Many of us that feed the birds in our backyards have noticed the alarming rate at which the birds have been consuming seed and suet these summer weeks. Usually, summer feeding is an add-on, meant to satisfy those of us who are addicted to seeing the drama of the birds activities and do not have the flora and fauna to entice them. However it feels more like I am in the middle of a cold, harsh winter. As soon as a feeder empties, the stress level of the birds, in my opinion, seems to increase. Add to that, when the suet cages become depleted and the birdbath runs low, skirmishes develop among the birds.

Why have I become so important in a time of year when I should not be? Of course, I am only speculating to begin with but I have done a little research into what the experts are saying. Dr. David Bird (yes that is his real name) works with Brome company and has been gathering research about the decreasing levels of insects. Researchers are questioning if this is affecting the migrating birds such as hummingbirds, but also birds in general. In the summer months, arthropod-eating birds would normally be consuming almost all of their diet in insects.

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The lack of rain in my area has affected the amount of insects to the degree that anecdotally people report little to no mosquito bites thus far. We are much more aware of how the insects breed; we have better chemicals. The war on insects is ongoing and it is fierce. We are slowly depleting the bird’s source of food because it can be a danger and nuisance for us.  Dr. Bird speculates that migration patterns may change if the insect populations dramatically shift while climate changes are occurring. The birds do not like change, neither do we humans for that matter.

So feed and water those birds this summer. It maybe harder than we think for them to find good nutrition. Also, consider whether of not that pesticide is needed this year after all.

 

The Case of The Bald Ibises

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The Northern Bald Ibis is nearly extinct although it is a symbol of abundance in the golden sands of the Mediterranean. It has always been considered a holy bird with a linage linked to Noah and his ark; as well as Thoth, the scribe of the Greek gods; and featured in the labours of Heracles as written by Herodotus.

This strange, magnificent bird is large,  glossy black bird, 28–31 in long with a 49–53 in wingspan. The plumage is black, with bronze-green and violet iridescence, and there is a wispy ruff on the bird’s hind neck. But the face is dull red, clean shaven and looks as if it would feel like rubber. The males are a bit bigger than the females, or at least have a longer beak. In fact, it is considered more attractive to have a longer redder beak.

 

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The ibis starts breeding at three to five years of age, and pairs for life. The male chooses a nest site, cleans it, and then advertises for a female by waving his crest and giving low rumbling calls. Once the birds have paired, the bond is reinforced through bowing displays. The northern bald ibis lives for an average of 20 to 25 years in captivity (oldest recorded male 37 years, oldest recorded female 30 years). The average age in the wild has been estimated as 10 to 15 years.

Unless there is a war and the birds are shot. Or the ground itself, the very surface of the earth where these birds forage for lizards and vegetation, is contaminated to the point that it is deathly to the birds. Then the lifespan is nil.

Syria keeps it’s Northern Bald Ibises in a very special camp. Turkey rounds up as many as they can each year before the birds ready themselves for migration, moving the birds to enclosures for the season. images.jpg

There are so few Bald Ibises left that each country in this war torn part of the world, protects it’s small contingent of the holy bird of abundance.

Irony upon irony upon irony.

But what of these birds who are meant to soar through the sky, perch on dry cliff edges, wade on the side of the river? As humans we take so much away from our environment and when we try to save what we are in the process of destroying, it is like watching ice cream melt on the sidewalk on a cool day.

 

 

The Dog Days Of Summer

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On top of everything else that is happening in the avian world, the birds have begun to molt. The loss of feathers is devastating; how can the proud blue jay scare away other birds with such a small head? He looks old, lost, and confused like a king that needs to be shuttled to his next appearance.

On a practical level, the molting process is crucial for proper flight and good insulation. Feathers are made of  90% protein so it is important that the birds consume insects, meal worms, peanuts, suet, and tree nuts to grow a strong new quill.

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Grackle in molt

The process of molting can take up to eight weeks and will drain a bird’s overall energy. I have been watching the activity at my bird feeders; even though the temperatures are so very hot, the birds are as active as when it was sixty-degrees colder.

Some of the birds have decided they still have time for another brood before the fall sets in. So it’s molt a feather, drop an egg. Yikes that is tiring.

 

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Cardinal in molt

 

All birds molt at least once a year although for some birds it is less noticeable, a feather here or there and the job is done. Some birds prefer to stay hidden in the trees, foregoing the usual banter around the bird feeder while the worst of the molt is taking place.

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Male Goldfinch molting from summer to winter plumage

But when it is all over, the bird is ready for migration, or winter, or whatever is ahead for the next many months.

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*You will be happy to note that if you love butterflies, you can join in with the NABA and help count them. I am afraid to hear the results as most of us just need to look around to get an idea of what is going on there.North American Butterfly Association

*Blackbirds are flocking and appearing at feeders: that would include the starlings and grackles.

*First brood of immature hummingbirds begin to show up at nectar feeders.

* Fall migration starts with returning shorebirds.

 

Happy Bird feeding and bird watching. There is nothing better for the soul.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Neglect? Or Just Overwhelmed?

I think it is because so much is said during the day that there is little else for this page; can that be it? Maybe the speed of everything has overwhelmed me, I can only stand back with my mouth open catching flies. But finally, it is truly summer. Last night a strawberry moon on the solstice night as storms broke somewhere in the distance, surely that means something of importance, as I have been knocked out of my reticence.

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I want to tell you about what is happening with the starlings now; they have been making more and more of themselves to drive everyone crazy, out of their minds and over the edge. The babies are large and lighter in color than the parents; they squawk in a grating, demanding sound that reminds me of a garbage truck slamming on it’s brakes from stop to stop. Very unfortunate. The past month, so many starling fledglings have popped up, that people I know have elected to take down feeders to avoid the cacophony of the birds.

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As the summer moves along, the starlings will migrate to the fields to pick at whatever crops are ripe. The backyard bird feeders get a break and the farmers steel themselves for the usual fight.

So, during weeks of ‘We Hate Starlings’, it became so universal that I was tempted to pen a song that could be handed out to be screeched in moments of despair. But as always, I can not take a position against any living thing, especially a bird so instead I talked of Shakespeare and why he loved starlings. I found the people who have taken the time to bridge the gap between human and avian so we might have a better appreciation for this irritation. Have a look at the over achievers while understanding that all starlings have this ability.

Thank you for your patience as I found my voice again.

 

The Namesake

So what are the starlings doing now? I have neglected the namesake in favor of the show of color and sound. The birds have not left, everyone I run into is still trying to figure out how not to feed them or encourage the party-like atmosphere that ensues every time starlings get together. A bar fight usually is the end result.

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But what is really going on behind the scenes. One guy told me how the starlings used to make a point of removing the trash from their nest, a  small white bundle tied with a string, and promptly dropping it into his father’s clean, sanitized pool. This went on and on. Trees were removed and shots were fired; strong, strong words were passed . The birds relocated but the bundles always found their way back into the wet waste fill. Waging war on nature never goes well.

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The starling female is persistent. She has no compunction about laying eggs in another nest if she hasn’t found a mate yet. A matter of pride and biology takes over as the weather screams ‘Now!’. She will sneak into some one’s home site, and deposit one, maybe two of her own bundles of joy then scuttle back out again as if she had just been adjusting the drapes.

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As for the male; I think he is a good guy in general. He chooses the nesting site and builds it up, then he finds a mate. She will take out half of what he did, (sound familiar?) and revamp things to her liking adding feathers and grasses. They both sit on the eggs, feed the little ones, clean the nest. The male, in particular, has a harder time letting go and often will hang around longer with the awkward juveniles, probably telling them stories about the time he took down a hawk.

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Family life is important to starlings which is the reason a lot of  people have a hard time putting up with the the birds in their yard. When you invite one to have a nibble, you often get twenty; and every bird has an opinion that can not be staunched. If we could only understand what they were saying, maybe we would be more tolerant. Starlings are amazing mimics; they can learn other bird’s calls, as well as the sounds of machinery. I have met a woman who is teaching a starling to talk and will soon arrange lectures for him so the bird can make his case in front of audiences. Finally, the truth come out.

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Starlings are from an old family and a very large genius of birds so they are not going away anytime soon for all those people that just don’t appreciate the bird. And, I submit, thank goodness for that as we had enough loss in the avian world with rumors of more to come.

 

 

 

 

 

Keeping Up With Nature

I have been captivated. It happens every year at this time. I feel as if I am holding my breathe as nature spreads out her blanket all around me. I stop and watch, is that enough of an excuse for neglecting this blog?

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Spring tells us that everything is possible and that we must try once again to do the things we began to doubt we could do. Run that race, hike that trail, put in that garden, pedal along the outline of the lake. Imagine that; nature’s biggest creatures are imitating all of the others as they go about the business of basic survival.

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A busy feeder attracts more and more birds. Simple and yet the secret to seeing the most possible species that are in the area. I speak with many kind, yet frustrated people who would rather not feed this bird or that bird due to the habits and character of the species. To an extent one can affect this by choosing certain seed selections. But in general, lots of activity will bring more  variety of birds for you to see. Often the Starlings and Grackles provide the flock numbers seen from the sky for the migrating birds to know there is food below. Birds that are new or migrating, are much more skittish, and it helps to blend in with a flock of other birds eating, using the warning call of the Blue Jay when a hawk is around is a benefit for all the birds.

The young squirrels have traveled down from the nests to begin learning life on land. I watched a little one endure a cold heavy rain, his/her meager tail like a cheap umbrella, all I could think was that the little guy wished to be back in the warm nest.

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We shall all overdose on color in the coming weeks but it has started so subtly so to gently work us up into it. Maybe that is why the male hummingbirds came and went so quickly, glancing around, deciding we just were not ready and flying north. (As if the north part of the state will be more conducive, I snort) But, no matter, there are Orioles, Red Breasted Grosbeak, Warblers, Brown Thrashers, Flocks of Migrating Blue Jays- all of these birds have added to our yellow Goldfinches, red Cardinals, rose House finches, purple Finches, Blue Jays, black Starlings and Grackles. I am forgetting all of the smaller subtly colored birds.

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Happy spring and happy watching as there is so much to see as you are frantically trying to keep up with nature.

 

 

 

 

 

 

meditation on beauty

What is beauty meant to be for? The other day, after a very good sleep, deep and restful, filled with fun, playful dreams that would rival any 15 screen cinema, I stumbled to greet the day and my husband. “Good morning” he said with a musical note to his voice that usually meant I was trailing something ridiculous behind. “You look like David Cassidy today.” Aww- no not really I protested and he meant it as a compliment because David Cassidy is a pretty guy. Yes, but he is a guy and I am most decidedly am not.

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Does it matter? This discussion is happening on the national stage to consternation of many people in regards to bathrooms. We can not get our minds around the idea that the lines we draw between this and that culture, community, sex, etc., are so very fine.

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In the bird world, often the males are prettier than the females; there are so many examples that I find it almost easy to paint the sex as egotistical and pompous, good for one thing only. The female bird, in her work boots and dungarees, patiently accepts the fantastic displays. Or perhaps it is the same old story; the plain girl is wooed with flashy colors, maybe a dance, or a nest lined with soft bits. Then, a fifty-fifty chance he will be gone by the morning and she is left with the responsibility and worry of the young chicks. He is off to find another plain girl to sing and dance to.

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Or he stays, if mother nature has deemed it so, as the cardinal couple. The male will pass a precious seed or two to his chosen every year during the mating season, no matter what transpired previously in the harsh winter months. The he and she will raise the brood together, each sharing responsibility for the care of the little ones.  And it reminds me of people I know; some are natural parents while others I could not imagine staying in one place long enough to see a child’s tooth come in straight.

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The ornithologists speculate that the males need to be lovely to attract a female for mating. The ladies in the bird world, do not need to be pretty just fertile. As the weather warms, I see many very pretty young woman emerging from their winter bundles, smiling and sparkling, while the guys saunter by assessing behind half closed lids, scruffy and slouching. It seems familiar and different; cyclical and new.

But I really do not look like David Cassidy.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Pile of Grey Feathers

A brown thrasher, two male towhees, a pile of grey feathers, a pair of ducks. Migration and nesting season means that I never know what I will see when I look out the window this time of year. As it has been cold and dreary, winter’s icy fist has not released and so the magnolia tree’s blossoms are now brown tissue paper frou-frous, dropping to the frozen ground, dreams unfulfilled.

The Brown Thrasher scrapes at the earth like a gardener with a hoe; more specifically this would be a gardener with a purpose to get that piece of ground broken up now- at this moment- no delay. This bird has a reason to work so quickly because it has over 1100 songs to sing, repeating each once before moving to the next. The Thrasher is fierce so if it nests in the shrubs or low growth in my backyard, and I come upon their nest, him and her will have no compunction about stabbing me in the hand, foot, whatever with their beak. And I will get the message, you can be sure.

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The towhees are a one-off I am sure. Here and gone, on their way to someplace else, Traverse City perhaps or maybe all the way to Canada. I just hope the birds remember to visit on the way back south. I do not mind that I might be viewed as a way-station, only fit for a couple nights stay. Sigh.

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We have come to the moment of quiet, the pile of grey feathers, probably  the remains of a morning dove, the slow moving large ground feeding pigeon-like birds. Our backyard has attracted several small hawks that can maneuver through the trees and houses. The Cooper’s Hawk or the Sharp Shined Hawk have both been known to hunt the birds at feeders causing many backyard bird feeders to question if they are doing the right thing by offering available seed in the open. In the winter, it is particularly a stark situation with the bare trees, the white ground, and the moving, sometimes colorful birds. I have seen the older hawks perch on tree branches near the feeder and wait patiently. I have also witnessed juvenile hawks perch at the top of the feeder pole on the off-chance he will catch a bird coming for dinner.

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But on the day in question, our morning dove did not move fast enough and was the hawk’s meal which was eaten in the backyard, at least partially. That is a dilemma for back yard bird feeders; can you accept that you are altering nature in a small way? By feeding the birds, I am changing patterns, creating patterns. But I have already done that a million times over and over. I do not know the answer; we humans are such a big, long lived species.

But here’s the good news. The pair of ducks that seem to be making a home in my backyard knew what to do with that pile of grey feathers. Seems those feathers were perfect for nest building. And thus life circles around and around.

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Synchro and the Starlings

Do you find yourself trying to keep pace with the natural world around you? Perhaps you do not even notice that is what you are trying to do? Everything is bursting from within to get out. Look at the magnolia trees, children trying to hold smiles in.images.jpg

Then the weather changes, and I feel encouraged to sit in front of the fire with a warm toddy waiting for the snow. Speed up, now slow down. Quick, quick, slow. I was never very good at dancing no matter the style or genre, not all of us have a sense of rhythm.

A couple weeks ago, I watched women flying on the ice together in orchestrated waves of movement. The group were called the Rockettes, and I understand there are competitions all around the nation for this type of ice dancing. The girls start young, as one would expect, learn the movements until, if she lasts that long, she is ice flying, one arm linked on each side with another ambitious like minded soul.

I saw what happened when the link was broken; the floundering confusion to regroup, reattach, re-link. I also saw and felt the frustration when a misstep  was made, and then, the loss when the line moved on, without the girl, the distance growing wider very fast as she struggled to regain her footing and reach an arm hold. It felt like life in general, watching these girls trying to make it look easy, the lovely red smiles on their faces so gentle something went wrong. Then, nothing is right and all the moves are uneven, clumsy; the smile is no longer pretty but harsh, too much color. Yes, now that looks like life.

 

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But before these Rockettes, came the starlings (and yes, everything in this blog eventually comes around to the birds). The starlings created the patterns that we copy on the ground. For us, it is all about beauty and perfection. It is more elemental for the birds, the speculations ranging from the need to gather as many as possible for warmth, pass information, deter predators. The Murmuration is the air dance before the roost, and the starling flocks can grow to up to 100,000  as birds join the ballet.

Please watch this beautiful video even if you have seen another as it will take your breath away. Murmuration (Official Video) by Sophie Windsor Clive & Liberty Smith

Then watch this video of the 2015 World Synchro Champs Team: 2015 World Synchro Champs SP Team Canada 1

If I were in the audience for both performances, I would say the starlings were  far more confident and fearless. There would be little doubt in my mind that the birds own the sport of gliding and twirling, but we have made strides in our efforts to copy them.