Aug 13 2015
Throw Back Thursday (TBT):
(photo by Time Vechter)
Aug 13 2015
Throw Back Thursday (TBT):
(photo by Time Vechter)
Aug 11 2015
In mid July, Mary Ann Pike had an unusual experience with wild turkeys in her back yard in Washington County, PA. She wrote:
We have had a flock of turkeys wandering around our property for a week or two. I’ve usually seen 3 hens and 6 chicks, although my daughter says she’s seen twice that many. Last night my husband went out on the porch to start the grill for dinner and his sudden appearance scattered the flock into the woods. Suddenly, the air was filled with this sound:
The South Carolina DNR web site refers to it as Kee Kee, the call of lost young turkeys. It was incredibly loud, and it sounded like there were 20 of them in the woods less than 100 feet behind our house, but it was probably only 6 or 8 of them. We have never heard anything like it.
Click on Mary Ann’s link and you’ll hear the sound of lost turkeys. Did you know their calls change as the birds get older?
Baby turkeys are precocial when they hatch so as a safety mechanism they imprint on the first thing they see — their mother — and listen for her instructions. As the family forages together they use sound to keep in touch and announce danger.
At first the babies make peeping sounds but by seven weeks of age the peep becomes a whistle which they use to make contact after being scattered by a predator. Later the whistle drops in pitch (the kee-kee-kee call) and later still they add a yelp (kee-kee-run call). Adult turkeys drop the kee and merely yelp to assemble the flock.
If you hear the kee-kee calls in summer, chances are it’s some lost young turkeys calling their mother. But be careful if you hear it in Pennsylvania in May or November. Those months are turkey season when hunters use turkey calls to attract their prey.
p.s. Check the PA Game Commission website for exact turkey season dates by region.
(photo from Wikimedia Commons. Click on the image to see the original)
Mar 04 2015
I love the title but … What the heck is Selective Attention and who cares about it in chickens? (Don’t worry, there’s fun at the end.)
Selective attention — the ability to focus in the midst of distractions — is something we humans do well. For instance, we can listen to one person in a crowded noisy room and focus completely on what they’re saying, tuning out everything else. This is useful!
Selective attention has been studied extensively in primates. Do birds possess this skill?
Anecdotally, I’d say “Yes.” I’ve watched red-tailed hawks keenly focused while hunting next to busy roads. They tune out all the traffic and successfully catch their prey. Unfortunately some are way too good at ignoring traffic and are struck and killed by vehicles.
No one had proven selective attention in birds until researchers at Stanford University’s School of Medicine gave chickens quick visual cues to see if they would peck outside the (virtual) box. Published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in 2014, “The results show that chickens shift spatial attention rapidly and dynamically, following principles of stimulus selection that closely parallel those documented in primates.”
Watch the chicken peck the X in the middle. Then a quick flash of light attracts his attention. Birds and primates both inherited this cognitive skill.
And now a quiz for you: Remember how I said red-tailed hawks are sometimes hit by cars because they’re focusing so much? Watch this video to test your own selective attention.
… and you’ll understand the red-tail’s problem.
(chicken photo by Luis Miguel Bugallo Sánchez from Wikimedia Commons. Click on the image to see the original.)
Feb 19 2015
Throw Back Thursday (TBT)
Unlike many birds, mourning doves are prone to frostbitten toes. Can they do anything to avoid it?
Last Sunday morning when it was 2o F, two mourning doves flew in to stand on the dry patch in my heated bird bath. They were warming their feet!
This morning it is zero degrees Fahrenheit so I expect they’ll be back.
Here’s why they need to warm their toes in an article from January 2010: Cold Feet.
(photo by Marcy Cunkelman)
Nov 27 2014
Today while we enjoy the domesticated bird the wild turkeys dance.
(Click on the screenshot to view the video on YouTube)
Nov 07 2014
Watch the video and you’ll hear this bird say his name.
The plain chachalaca (Ortalis vetula) is the same size and shape as a female ring-necked pheasant but unlike the pheasant it lives in forests and scrublands from the Lower Rio Grande Valley to Costa Rica.
The chachalaca’s call has been described as “loud and simply indescribable,” deafening, ear-splitting, and “ranking with the call of the howler monkey” for shear loudness. (*Descriptions are from this link at Birds of North American Online)
The video shows only one bird calling so you might wonder, “What’s the big deal?” To really understand the sound click here to hear a flock calling just after sunrise in Starr County, Texas.
At the beginning of the recording you’ll hear high falsetto calls. The females and immature males have high voices while adult males have deep ones because their tracheas are more than twice as long and wider in diameter. Young males, like human teenagers, have to wait for their voices to change.
Chachalaca’s do their loudest whooping in the spring, so I won’t have to cover my ears when I encounter this bird … But I may have to wait for the rain to stop before he puts in an appearance. (It’s been raining in South Texas for 3 days!)
(video posted by Robert Straub on YouTube)
Aug 15 2014
Lest we think that peregrines are the only birds that fight, take a look at this slow motion video of dueling sharp-tailed grouse from Cornell Lab of Ornithology.
Though they don’t have meat-tearing beaks and sharp talons these grouse are doing some damage to each other.
You won’t see this in August, even if you’re at the northern grasslands they call home. Fighting is an activity that sharp-tailed grouse reserve for springtime courtship. The males gather at the lek (courtship stomping grounds) and mix it up to prove who’s best.
Click here for a larger view of the video.
(video from Cornell Lab of Ornithology on YouTube)
Jul 23 2014
PABIRDS was a-buzz this month about a non-native species that’s rapidly expanding across North America. Though not yet established in Pennsylvania this bird has been seen in New York City. Will it get here soon?
Originally native to India, the Eurasian collared-dove (Streptopelia decaocto) is non-migratory but habitually disperses northwest when its population expands. It began its conquest of North America by human accident when a breeder released his flock of 50 birds in the mid 1970s after some escaped during a burglary in New Providence, Bahamas. As the population expanded in the Bahamas the doves looked northwest and found … Florida! 180 miles of ocean was not a barrier. Eurasian collared-doves were found nesting south of Miami in 1982.
By now the Eurasian collared-dove is resident from Florida to Seattle, from southwestern Canada to northeastern Mexico. The Northeast is the only chunk of the continent they haven’t conquered yet. Considering that they prefer urban and suburban settings with bird feeders and trees, it’s only a matter for time before they completely cover the U.S.
How do you recognize a Eurasian collared-dove? They’re similar to mourning doves, pictured below, but bulkier with a black collar, a squared-off tail and, unlike escaped turtledoves, gray undertail vent feathers. Here’s a photo of a Eurasian collared-dove in flight and here’s a mourning dove. Notice the difference in tail shape. The collared-dove’s three-coo song is different too.
Some worry that Eurasian collared-doves will displace mourning doves but it doesn’t seem to be the case — at least in Florida where Cornell Lab’s Project Feederwatch studied both species in 2011. Careful counts revealed that “Contrary to expectations researchers found that the abundance of native dove species was generally greater at sites with collared-doves than at sites without collared-doves.” Click here to read more.
What does the future hold for us? Eurasian collared-doves are resident to the south and west. They’re working their way up the coast and have made it to the Outer Banks of North Caorlina. This month Vern Gauthier saw a pair in Lancaster County, PA. They’ve been spotted in New York City.
Are they coming soon to Pittsburgh? We should start watching!
(photos by Chuck Tague … who lives in Florida where Eurasian collared-doves are well established)
Jul 17 2014
On Throw Back Thursday (TBT), a 2014 replay of something that’s happened only three other times since 2008…
Word must have gotten out that the Pitt peregrine nestbox wasn’t used much this spring. Some surprising new tenants stopped by last month.
On June 21 a pair of pigeons inspected the site for three hours.
“Wow, honey! Look at this perfect location. I’ve heard it’s dangerous up here but this area looks completely safe. What a cool place to nest. We could move in immediately!”
After three hours they began to wonder… “Did you hear something? I have a creepy feeling we’re in danger.”
The pigeons never moved in. 😉
(photos from the National Aviary snapshot camera at University of Pittsburgh)
Comments Off on TBT: New Tenants?
Jul 01 2014
Around the world, national birds are chosen from among large, distinctive or iconic native species. The bald eagle was chosen in 1782 for the Great Seal of the United States. He is naturally large and distinctive and, after hundreds of years of persecution (yes, people used to trap and kill bald eagles) the 1940 Bald Eagle Protection Act made him completely iconic.
Many national birds are not majestic. Austria and Estonia have both chosen the barn swallow and the U.K. has chosen the European robin. The U.S. could have chosen the large, native wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo). After all France, our great supporter during the American Revolution, chose the Gallic rooster (Gallus gallus) as their symbol but that was largely due to a play on words. Gallus is the Latin name for both the Gauls and the chicken.
Some say Ben Franklin preferred the wild turkey over the bald eagle as a national symbol but the real story is more nuanced than that. It’s a story of our first principles and the fight for independence.
Our basic reason for fighting the War of Independence was Americans’ desire to be freed of England’s hereditary aristocracy (the king) who imposed oppressive laws from afar. The leaders of our Revolution were not hereditary aristocrats. They were generally “commoners” who became successful on this continent. They resented being pushed around by the aristocrats overseas.
As the war was winding down in 1783, Major General Henry Knox proposed that the leaders keep in touch so they formed the exclusive Society of the Cincinnati and chose the bald eagle as their symbol. Open only to those who fought or lead the American Revolution and their descendants, the Society’s bylaws formed the first hereditary aristocracy on American soil.
This was offensive to Benjamin Franklin. What did we just spend eight years fighting for?! In a letter to his daughter he criticized the Society and pretty much “dissed” everything they stood for including their odd depiction of a bald eagle on their crest. He said that it looked like a wild turkey and then he let lose on the bald eagle and riffed on the turkey’s “better” qualities. It’s a great piece of writing and well worth a read (click here). By the way, Franklin is correct about the bald eagle’s rapacious habits.
Ben Franklin’s and judge Aedanus Burke’s distaste for the Society’s bylaws turned public opinion against them. George Washington threatened to resign as the Society’s president unless they removed the hereditary clause — which they did until the furor died down. Then they secretly returned to the rule of primogeniture, membership inheritance by the first-born males. (“Hmmm!” says this first-born female.)
More than 200 years later, the Society of the Cincinnati still exists but is so obscure that few of us have heard of it. Their lasting legacy is the name of Cincinnati, Ohio and the misconception that Ben Franklin preferred turkeys.
(photo of wild turkeys by Steve Gosser)
p.s. The Society of the Cincinnati has other lasting legacies but few of us know what they are. While writing this article I learned for the first time that Society members played a role in the development of Pittsburgh and that Arthur St. Clair (viz. Upper St. Clair) was a member. Who knew?