Archive for the 'Doves & Chickens' Category

Feb 04 2011

Anatomy: He Has a Beard


Even though this turkey’s chin is scruffy, that’s not where his beard is. 

The “beard” on a wild turkey is that cluster of long hairlike feathers sticking out of the center of his chest.  They average nine inches long. 

Generally only male turkeys have beards but 10 to 20 percent of female turkeys grow them as well.  This poses a problem for those ladies during Spring Gobbler hunting season when only bearded (i.e. male) turkeys can be hunted. 

Don’t worry about this turkey, though.  He’s probably safe all year long because he’s a regular in Cris Hamilton’s back yard.

(photo by Cris Hamilton)

3 responses so far

Jan 23 2011

Hiding in Snow


We just went through a very weird weather week that started and ended with snow but melted in the middle… and now it’s very cold!

Last month I mentioned that willow ptarmigan hide in the snow to avoid predators.  Here’s one nestled up to its neck, almost invisible except for his beak and eyes. 

It’s awesome that he stays warm.

I don’t think Pittsburgh has enough snow to hide a ptarmigan right now, but I bet the Laurel Highlands does!

(photo by from Wikimedia Commons. Click on the photo to see the original.)

One response so far

Jan 03 2011

Who’s In Charge Here?


On Saturday I counted birds in my neighborhood for the Pittsburgh Christmas Bird Count on the wettest, rainiest day we’ve had in a very long time.  The only birds that moved were crows, starlings and pigeons.

The pigeons caught my attention because they were so hard to count.  Just after dawn a flock of two dozen birds began their morning flight routine.  They started off slowly but as they warmed up they flew in tighter formation, faster and faster, closer and closer together, changing direction often.  I marveled at how well they stayed in sync.  They were very hard to count! 

At the height of their exercise I noticed the flock changed direction so quickly that the leader must have ended up in the back of the group.  How did they do this and still maintain their formation?  Who was in charge?

This question has puzzled scientists too, so last year a team in Budapest decided to find out more by attaching GPS backpacks to a flock of domestic homing pigeons.  The GPS units recorded the birds’ position every 0.2 seconds as they flew home or wheeled around the neighborhood.  The data was then used to plot the birds’ paths and figure out where each bird flew in relationship to the others and how quickly it changed direction in response to the rest of the flock. 

The results were quite interesting.  The flocks’ leaders almost always fly in the front and the other birds copy the leader’s movements within 0.4 seconds.  The low ranking birds fly behind and to the right but leadership can change and even low-ranking birds occasionally get the chance to lead.  This confirms my hunch that the leaders end up at the back of the flock sometimes.

Why do the low-ranking birds fly behind and to the right?  The researchers’ theory is that this position maximizes their ability to follow the leader.  These birds use their left eyes to watch the leader, left-eye information is processed by the right side of the brain, and the right side of the brain is best at quickly handling social responses. 

Why does the flock change leadership?  How does it hand off leadership so deftly?  The study didn’t answer all my questions but it’s a great start.  Read more about it here in Science Magazine.  

(photo from Wikimedia Commons. Click on the image to see the original)

4 responses so far

Dec 26 2010

Where’s Willow?


How many birds do you see in this picture?  If you were a gyrfalcon you’d know right away.

These are willow ptarmigan (Lagopus lagopus), a non-migratory grouse that lives in the open tundra and moorland of Scotland, Scandanavia, Siberia, Canada and Alaska.

Willow ptarmigan are masters of disguise.  In summer they are brown and speckled like the vegetation they eat and hide in.  In winter they molt into white plumage to match the snow, and between the seasons they’re brown and white like patchy snow and dirt.  Willow ptarmigan have to be well camouflaged because so many predators eat them including foxes, wolves, owls, peregrines and gyrfalcons.

How did willow ptarmigans get their name? 

“Willow” comes from what they eat in winter: the twigs and buds of willows and alders.

“Ptarmigan” comes from the Gaelic word “tarmachan” which means to grumble or croak and describes the sound these birds make.   Tarmachan has no “P” but in the late 17th century somebody put a P at the front of the word to make it look Greek and scientific.  By the early 19th century the P stuck and became the accepted spelling of the word.

Did you find three birds in this picture?  If so, you probably followed their tracks.  Ptarmigan know their tracks are a dead giveaway so they sometimes fly directly to a hiding place and burrow into the snow.  Then it’s really hard to find them and you’ll certainly be wondering, “Where’s Willow?”

(photo by Ansgar Walk from Wikimedia Commons. Click on the photo to see the original where you can also see wing marks in the snow.)

4 responses so far

Dec 24 2010

Are you the “Partridge in a Pear Tree?”

Red-legged partridge (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

The Twelve Days of Christmas repeats the refrain “A partridge in a pear tree.”  What species is it talking about?

The song comes from England, so shouldn’t the bird?  Unfortunately it’s more complicated than that.  The words were published in England in 1780 but they are older and probably French.  So the partridge could be either French or English.

Here’s a partridge that’s both:  The red-legged partridge is originally from France but was introduced in England in the 1770’s.

Now about the pear tree…

The gifts in the Twelve Days of Christmas are fantastic and extravagant.  (Imagine receiving eight maids-a-milking!)   “A partridge in a pear tree” is fantastic too because partridges are terrestrial birds who rarely perch above the ground.  But of all the partridges in England the red-legged partridge is the most likely to do it.

Despite this convincing argument musicologists say the pear tree might be an English mangling of the French word for partridge — perdrix.  In French the ending consonant is often silent. Say perdrix three times fast and it begins to sound like “pear tree.”

Are you the partridge in the perdrix?

 

(photo from Wikimedia Commons. Click on the image to see the original)

7 responses so far

Nov 25 2010

Happy Thanksgiving

(Wild turkeys in the snow. Photo by Marcy Cunkelman)

2 responses so far

Nov 23 2010

Timeshare?

Published by under Doves & Chickens

 

Much to my amazement a pigeon has been frequenting the peregrine falcon nest at the University of Pittsburgh.  The Aviary’s snapshot camera took his picture as he moved around the nest on November 15th and 19th.

The resident peregrines, Dorothy and E2, are at the Cathedral of Learning every day but not often at their nest.  Apparently they aren’t paying attention to this corner of their domain.

Or maybe they’re in a timeshare agreement and this pigeon bought the third week of November? 

Who knows?  He just better be careful not to be at the condo when the real owners return or they’ll have him for dinner.

Click on the pigeon’s picture to see Dorothy and E2 at the nest earlier this month.

(photo from the National Aviary snapshot camera at University of Pittsburgh)

5 responses so far

Sep 16 2010

Bruce, The Fabulous


This is a Life Bird, the first spruce grouse I’ve ever seen.  The fact that I saw him and even have his picture is thanks to Naomi and Jim Honeth of Portland, Maine.

Now you may wonder, how did I manage to vacation in Maine for 27 years and never see a spruce grouse?  Well, I’m from Pennsylvania and I wasn’t thinking.  I assumed spruce grouse behaved like Pennsylvania’s state bird, the ruffed grouse, which hides in the oak forest until the last minute and bursts skyward in an explosion of sound and feathers.  Silly me.  I would never have found a spruce grouse without a guide.

I first met Jim and Naomi on September 7 on Campobello Island as we watched birds, whales and seals in the turbulent water where Passamaquoddy meets the Bay of Fundy.  We were pleased to see so many sea birds from land: greater and sooty shearwaters, phalaropes, razorbills and murres.  The next day it was foggy and by afternoon I was casting about for a place to find birds when I saw the Honeths in South Lubec.  We compared notes on what we’d seen, then Naomi said, “Do you want to see a spruce grouse?”  You bet!

We drove to Boot Cove Reserve.  Jim brought his camera and Naomi led the way down the narrow path in the mossy forest.  She whispered instructions on where to look and told me the male spruce grouse at this location was nicknamed “Spruce Bruce.”  I wondered why.  My Gore-tex pants made swishing sounds.  I was afraid we’d scare off the grouse. 

At the Bog Path junction we stopped to discuss what trail to take.  By this point the Honeths had expected to see the grouse and were worried he wouldn’t appear.  Naomi said, “He is usually more cooperative.”  I wondered what “cooperative” meant in terms of a grouse.

While we chatted we heard the whir of wings.  Jim was behind us and called, “There he is!”

The male spruce grouse landed on the path and walked toward us.  He stopped and stared.  Several times he flew to a tree branch, then back to the ground.  He decided to convince us that he owned the forest so he paused on the path, raised his bright red eyebrows, fanned his tail, puffed his chest and opened his wings. Wow!  He was so close I could see the dark brown iris of his eyes.  No wonder he has a name!

Eventually Bruce flew into the woods and we resumed our hike but soon had to stop because his lady (Betty?) was standing on the path in front of us.  She was a little shy but posed long enough for Jim to take her picture.

What cooperative birds!  Yes, spruce grouse are tame compared to ruffed grouse. 

Thanks to the Honeths I got to see the fabulous Spruce Bruce and his lady.  Click here to see Jim’s pictures of them.  (“Betty” is the brownish bird in the tree.)

(photo by Jim Honeth)

3 responses so far

Mar 22 2010

Thoughts of Love


In the spring, a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love Alfred Lord Tennyson

And so it is with birds. 

It’s really spring now.  The raptors are courting and laying eggs, robins are singing as they migrate home and pigeons are billing and cooing.

Pigeons?” you say.  I’m not a great fan of pigeons but they’re the urban peregrines’ major food source so I’m rather fascinated by them.  And they’re easy to observe.

Who hasn’t seen a male pigeon puff his throat, fan his tail and coo and strut circles around his lady?  Sometimes he drives (chases) her to separate her from the other males.  This seems promiscuous, but pigeons mate for life.  They’re just doing the ritual to “get in the mood.”

Mated pairs also preen each other in courtship and like many birds the male feeds his mate.  Columbids feed their young by regurgitation, so they touch bills to offer food.  When you see pigeons billing and cooing, the male is demonstrating he’s a good provider.

Pigeons also do a courtship flight display which you can hear.  The male flies out, clapping his wings three to five times on the upstroke (yes, he smacks the upper side of his wings together) and then glides with his wings in a V. 

Birds of North America says this wing-clapping is usually a post-copulatory display. 

I’m hearing it a lot lately.  Yes, the pigeons’ fancy has turned to thoughts of love.

(photo by Aomorikuma via Wikimedia Commons, GNU Free License)

3 responses so far

Jan 11 2010

Cold Feet

Mourning Dove (photo by Marcy Cunkelman)
Yesterday a mourning dove arrived at my feeder with a clenched foot, probably suffering from frostbite.  The temperature was 9oF when I saw him.  It had been 2o at dawn.

Even in severe cold weather we rarely see birds with frostbitten feet so we tend to forget that it’s possible.  Gulls and Canada geese stand on ice, cardinals and chickadees hop on snow, and we take for granted that their bare feet won’t be hurt as ours would be. 

For most birds this is because of a very special adaption that allows their feet to be cold in comfort.  Birds’ feet have fewer nerves and blood vessels and a unique circulatory system.  The veins and arteries in their legs are intertwined so that cold blood leaving their feet is warmed by the arteries delivering warm blood.  As Dr. Tony Bledsoe pointed out, “This operates as a counter-current exchange system, so that nearly all of the warmth in the descending blood is transferred to the ascending blood.”  

For some reason this system isn’t as effective in mourning doves and their feet are prone to freezing.  Since they’re a game bird (did you know they’re hunted in 38 states?) they’ve been studied extensively.  In one study, mourning doves with frostbitten feet were rescued.  They recovered from their injuries in six weeks but their damaged toes fell off.  They survived to a normal life span with fewer toes, but life is short for a mourning dove anyway.  Their average adult life expectancy is only one year. 

I felt bad for the bird at my feeder but I know that if he has enough to eat he’ll survive.  The real killer right now is lack of food and since mourning doves eat from the ground their food is repeatedly covered by snowfall. 

I’ll keep my feeders filled and hope for the best.

(photo by Marcy Cunkelman)

9 responses so far

« Prev - Next »

Bird Stories from OnQ