My daughter and grandchildren, for Christmas, gave me a book called The Genius of Birds, by Jennifer Ackerman.
Ackerman’s thesis is that “the misguided use of ‘bird brain’ as a slur has finally come home to roost.” Scientific evidence shows that birds exhibit “toolmaking, culture, reasoning, the ability to remember the past and think about the future, to adopt another’s perspective, to learn from one another.” In short, “many of our cherished forms of intellect–whether in whole or parts–appear to have evolved in birds quite separately and artfully right alongside our own.” (p. 11)
Like humans, birds have brains that are large in relation to their body size. Bird brains and human brains share many similarities in directing social behaviors, in brain activity during sleep, and in learning. When scientists, in 2014, sequenced the genomes of 48 Continue reading Bird Brains→
Our phoebes are back! Newly returned from their winter homes in the south, they are perching on tree branches or fences. Our human residents often forget to wear their name tags in public, but the phoebe says its name over and over in a two-toned song: “FEEE be.” You can hear them at https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Eastern_Phoebe/id.
You might also interpret this song as “FEED me.” Our phoebes need food for the hard work of building their nests, mating, laying their eggs, and feeding their young.
And what we need to feed our phoebes is—BUGS!
The eastern phoebe (Saynornis phoebe) is a “flycatcher,” though it also eats wasps, beetles, dragonflies, butterflies, moths, midges, and cicadas. Perched on a branch, low rooftop, or fence, in a yard or open woods, our phoebe will wag its long tail up and down restlessly, and Continue reading Bugs! We Need Bugs!!→
American Woodcocks are small, brown, woodland birds that you very rarely see. They hang out in shrublands, old fields, and young forests, quiet and shy, superbly camouflaged against the leaf litter, walking slowly along the forest floor, probing the soil with their long bills in search of worms and insects.
Except now, when the courting males put on quite a show. East campus residents have heard them behind Huckleberry and Mulberry. You can find them in wood openings and fields at dawn or dusk. Listen for their buzzing “peent” sound, and the whir of their wings as the males leap straight up into the air. Hear them at https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/American_Woodcock/sounds
At Lathrop, we human residents are mapping and flagging our wetlands so as NOT to build on them. If our plans involve wetlands, our town Conservation Commissions, backed by state and local laws, will require us to submit descriptions and diagrams, notify abutters, post a notice in the newspaper, and appear at a hearing.
Meanwhile, ignoring the flags and the paperwork, Lathrop’s red-winged blackbirds, early harbingers of spring, newly returned from wintering in the south, are busy building their homes in our wetlands.
The nest is what Habitat for Humanity would call a “woman build.” The nest site is low to the ground or water surface, among clustered stems of plants like cattails, alder, goldenrod, or blackberry. Our builder weaves stringy plant material around several close, upright stems to make a platform. Around and over this, she adds more wet Continue reading Building in the Wetlands has Begun!→
(First published in the Lathrop Lamp Post, October 29, 2016)
A few days ago, I saw a red-tail hawk (Buteo Jamaicensis) on the move: it dove for a songbird that was on the ground–and missed. The little bird shot away to the side, while the hawk pulled up like a plane whose landing is suddenly aborted.
Hawks have to be on the move to eat. Red tails circle or perch, then dive onto their prey with talons outstretched. Two hawks sometimes collaborate to catch a squirrel: one hawk swoops down on one side of the tree, and, when the squirrel scoots over to the other side of the tree, the other hawk swoops down and snatches it. Continue reading Lathrop Hawks on the Move–or Not→
Hmmm.A bird swooped into a tree behind our house on Huckleberry Lane.Dark back. Beak of a hawk or falcon. Smaller than the red-tail and red-shouldered hawks that also live in our trees,but not as colorful as another small falcon, the kestrel. The bird book identified our visitor as a merlin.
Our merlin is on the move, migrating from summer breeding grounds in Canada or Alaska, and heading south for the winter, perhaps as far as Equador.
Our merlin was drawn to our land, as many of us are, by the numbers and beauty of its songbirds. The merlin’s sharp eyes serve as its binoculars, but not for bird watching.Birds are almost the only thing a merlin eats. With rapid wingbeats and speeds of more than 30 miles an hour, it attacks horizontally or from below. Merlins may work in pairs: one flushing a flock of waxwings from below, and the other coming in a few moments later to take advantage of the confusion.
The European version of this fiercelittle falcon was called a “ladyhawk” in medieval times, and was used by noblewomen– including Catherine the Great and Mary Queen of Scots–to hunt sky larks.
Decimated in the twentieth century, the merlin has made a comeback due to a ban on DDT and the merlin’s ability to adapt to life around towns and cities.It likes open woods and fields (that would be us) but will also hunt in suburban yards and around bird feeders. It helps control the all-too-abundant invasive English house sparrow that has driven bluebirds from some of our residents’ nesting boxes. We went out on our deck and told our merlin, “Eat more house sparrows.”
Nature has its own balances, however.Our bird-eating merlin is also eaten–by bigger birds The red-tailed hawk that lives in these same trees behind our house, and the great horned owl that we hear in our woods will eat our merlin if they can. At Thanksgiving, our Lathrop land is a feast of (and a feast on) birds.