Archive for the 'Doves & Chickens' Category

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 are they 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)

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Nov 25 2010

Happy Thanksgiving

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

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Nov 23 2010


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)

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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)

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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)

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Jan 11 2010

Cold Feet

Mourning Dove in winter (photo by Marcy Cunklelman)
Yesterday a mourning dove landed 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 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)

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Nov 29 2009

Follow the Road Home

Rock Pigeon in flight (by Alan D. Wilson)

Today is one of the heaviest travel days in the U.S. so I thought it an appropriate time to tell you that the roads may be congested overhead as well.  That’s because birds sometimes use them for navigation.

This is not a new discovery.  People who race pigeons had noticed that their birds seemed to follow roads – big roads – when racing home.  It wasn’t possible to prove this however until 2004 when GPS tracking technology got small enough to put on the back of a racing pigeon.

They tested the theory near Rome where they released racing pigeons 20-80 km from their lofts.  Researchers found that the experienced birds tended to follow roads and railroad tracks until they were relatively close to home.  If a bird had flown the route before it was much more likely to use a road as a guide.  Some birds even went out of their way to stay on the road and turn only at intersections.

Why do they do this?  Perhaps because it frees up their minds for focusing on other things.

And why do we prefer expressways?  Perhaps for the same reason … except that our minds are very busy today because the traffic is so bad.

For more information click here for the online article.

(photo by Alan D. Wilson, in the public domain under the Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 2.5 license at Wikimedia)

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Nov 26 2009

Food For People… or From People?

Published by under Doves & Chickens

Wild Turkey (photo by Sam Leinhardt)
This wild turkey is smart.  She lives where people feed her instead of where she feeds people. 

She’s the biological ancestor of the domestic turkeys we’re eating today but she has nothing to worry about.  Way back when, the Aztecs domesticated turkeys for a ready supply of eggs and meat.  Since then turkeys have been bred to match our tastes, and our tastes have changed so much that most people don’t like the game-y meat of the wild bird.

Having turkey for dinner today?  “Don’t look at me,” she says.

(photo by Sam Leinhardt of a wild turkey who nested behind his backyard.)

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Sep 16 2009

Faster than the Internet

Published by under Doves & Chickens

Rock pigeons (photo by Chuck Tague)I am happy to report that this bird, the lowly pigeon, is faster than the Internet.  Yes, faster than broadband. 

An I.T. company proved it recently when users of South Africa’s largest Internet provider, Telkom, complained their ADSL broadband speeds were so slow it would be faster to deliver the information via carrier pigeon. 

Always up for a challenge the pigeons responded, “Bring it on!”   They deputized a carrier pigeon named Winston to fly a 4GB memory stick 60 miles from Howick to Durban.

As Winston’s owner released him on his journey, staff at Unlimited IT clicked on the download button to start transferring the same 4GB over the Internet from their Howick to Durban offices.

Winston made the trip in 1 hour 8 minutes.  Broadband delivered the data in nearly twice the time: 2 hours 6 minutes.

So if you want to deliver a lot of data quickly, hire a pigeon.

For the BBC video of this amazing feat, click here

(photo by Chuck Tague)

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Dec 10 2008

Pigeons in the Nation’s Service

Published by under Doves & Chickens

Rock Pigeon (photo by Chuck Tague)Until quite recently, pigeons had a noble reputation.  Their homing instincts made them critical message carriers especially in times of war.

Pigeons changed the course of history from the time of the ancient Greeks until the mid 20th century.  Armies on the move carried cages full of pigeons ready to send news to headquarters.  To deliver a message they tied a capsule to a pigeon and released the bird.  The pigeon immediately flew home.  Ta dah!

This was a great advantage for the first army to use pigeons, but it didn’t take long for both sides to figure out they could kill the birds and intercept the messages.

Pigeons were critical in the Franco-Prussian War and the seige of Paris when microphotography allowed one bird to carry up to 30,000 messages.  The birds were used extensively in World War I.  A pigeon even saved an American battalion that was trapped behind enemy lines and bombarded by friendly fire.  The soldiers released several birds but all were killed except Cher Ami.  Though seriously wounded, Cher Ami continued his 25-mile mission, delivered the message and stopped the shelling.  After he recovered, though missing an eye, he was awarded the French “Croix de Guerre.”

Pigeons continued to carry messages during World War II, especially for spying and situations that required radio silence.  They even carried cameras that took pictures behind enemy lines, a pre-satellite form of aerial surveillance.  Pigeons were considered so important that both the British and the Germans used peregrines to kill the enemy’s messengers.  This wasn’t totally successful because the peregrines didn’t ask whose side the pigeon was on before killing it.

The age of electronic communication put pigeons out of a job.  The last military use(*) of pigeons was in the 1970s when the U.S. Coast Guard discovered the birds recognize shapes and are much better than humans at finding people and equipment lost at sea.  This program never made it beyond the testing phase, though.  It ended during budget cuts.

Since then the pigeon’s reputation has gone sour.  Few people remember the glory days (I don’t) and most have little respect when they see large flocks pecking seed on the sidewalk.

But there’s a glimmer in this dark cloud.  Pigeons continue to help people through scientific research – from bird navigation to power napping.  If a pigeon helps find the cure for cancer, we’ll all be grateful.  Maybe then the glory days will return.

(photo by Chuck Tague)

(*) p.s. I take that back!  The U.S. military used pigeons as gas detectors in the early days of the Iraq War.

p.s. #2.   Just found a Dec 27th blog on this subject with additional information on the pigeons of war.

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