Monday, April 15, 2013

The small signs of spring

Tundra Swans against a WNY backdrop
Spring can have as many personalities as a good cast of actors, and we never do know how it will approach. Sometimes it is slow, quiet, and gradual. Sometimes winter seems to endure for ages. Sometimes spring explodes around us violently. Here in Western NY, the year is gradually waking up of spring, as the winter is not ready to sleep just yet.

Not long ago I received word that my mother's friend has a nearly annual stopover on her property of Trundra (Whistling) Swans. We were invited to visit and see them, and so took a drive down into the river valley and into the fertile floodplains. A cornfield with some wet pooling areas had attracted the swans... along with a parade of Canada Geese, Mallards, Wood Ducks, and even a single pair of Northern Pintails.

A close look will reveal Tundra Swans, Canada Geese, Mallards, and Wood Ducks.

The swans were stopping over on their spring migration. It is likely that they overwintered in the south, perhaps in the Carolinas, and were taking a break before continuing northward, to their eventual destination of the arctic or subarctic tundras... where they will nest. It was a real treat to see these beautiful native swans in the wild, as they are not particularly a common sight where I live.

Interesting contrasts: White swan, black crows
It is curious to see their strong preference for the cut corn fields over any other local habitat. Some reading on this species offers that they seem to be growing increasingly depending on human agriculture. A shy bird, they are driven more and more from natural waterways where they would naturally forage, by development and pollution.

When I observed these birds it was clear that they didn't want anything to do with me at all. I was fortunate to have brought a long lens with me and it was the only thing that allowed me to capture images of them at all. To the naked eye they were actually amazingly hard to see; white birds on white snow, with a bright atmospheric glare. My eyes watered against the intense light as I'm photosensitive, but I watched them from afar as long as I was able.

One pair of birds was foraging very nearby when we first arrived, much to the landowner's delight. As soon as we stepped out of the vehicles they'd had quite enough though, and removed themselves to the interior of the field, which was littered by far more bold Canada Geese.

The swans were shy and marched away... The geese couldn't be bothered.


On the same outing, I scouted the local crick (creek, for those that are not familiar with our native tongue..) and encountered a pair of Common Mergansers. After a few moments, it was determined that my presence was offensive, and they flew off. Because they are heavy-bodied diving ducks, they cannot leap into the air like mallards can. They must have a "runway" and takeoff is not graceful at all.

A Common Merganser Drake.. taking off... eventually.

Several days later, while surveying a portion of our land, we witnessed several bonding displays between a
There's always a branch in the way when I photo these guys.
pair of Red-Shouldered hawks. My husband and I call these "Screaming Hawks", as they are very vocal, and we joke that they need to scream in order to stay aloft. They use scream-powered engines. I may have mentioned this in a prior post about blue jays... I digress. The pair hunted throughout the afternoon, and fed one another prey items. Then the (male, I suspect) preformed a breathtaking and entirely over the top aerial display, full of steep diving and crazy spiraling. The second hawk watched on from a considerable altitude. We have always had Red-Shouldered Hawks every year but this was the first that I saw the displays.

Interestingly, this species is the one hawk that we have not observed taking any wild birds as prey, nor have they ever 'stalked' our chickens. All other local hawk species that we've had on our property have been witnessed to do one or the other... both, in the case of a Sharp-Shinned Hawk. I think that the Red-shouldered hawks are capable, and truly much more happens in nature than we ever see with our eyes, but they do seem to prefer rodents. The wild birds do not react strongly to their presence, either.

Of great excitement are our most local arrivals... the bluebirds. Bluebirds are a bit of a family joke. They are the state bird of NY, however my mom has never seen one. I, an active birder, never saw one until I was 25.
They seem to be blue ghosts of our open areas and always elude my family. I have had bluebird houses put up since the moment we moved into this house, and every year so far I have caught glimpses of these tiny blue gems, and distant warbles of the male's sweet song. Last year, to my delight, they chose a box and began nesting, but disappeared soon thereafter. I mourned their nesting failure as if it was my own; what had I done wrong? The box placement is not ideal, as my yard is narrow and long and by necessity the boxes are somewhat near the woodline.

A Female Eastern Bluebird arrives.
Soon, house wrens moved into one box, then another. I shrugged, and decided that I was happy to have a native species using the box, if the bluebirds were not. Little did I know at the time but the wrens had driven them right out, and I later found a little bluebird egg deep in the weeds under one box, with a little hole stabbed in it. By a wren's beak. Still, what was done was done, and I could not legally evict the wrens as they had already created an active nest. As the spring went on and turned into summer, I checked the boxes. One had wrens, wrens, wrens. The other had.. a weird nest. It didn't look much like a nest, but something had made it. It was really just an awkward pile of sticks, it seemed. Curious, I started to research... and yep. It was a wren "dummy nest". A house wren will often decide that it does not want to compete with other birds for nesting habitat (despite my boxes being >100 feet apart) and will fill any other nest sites it can find with twigs so that no one else may use it. What a jerk move! Surely, it makes sense from a survival standpoint, but my yard is rich with insects and I knew that it would support many bird families. Fortunately, these are not real nests, and can be removed legally. I did so, and the wrens re-built them daily. What a pain!

This year, I was ready... I hoped. I did my research and learned about wren guards. These are essentially baffles that make a nesting site less appealing to the wren. Wrens are less likely to approach a nesting hole from the side, and have a harder time getting their big stupid twigs in there that they like to use. Sometimes bluebirds don't like it either, though, and the recommendations I read suggested that one should apply a wren guard only after a bluebird has started to lay eggs and is therefore committed to the nest site. Well... I couldn't wait. My wrens are due back any time now and they know these boxes, and they love these boxes. I had to take a risk and put the wren guards up before the bluebirds started nesting. I was thinking I might write "NO WRENS" on the cardboard.. but I felt like perhaps I would just be tempting fate to do so. I don't think wrens read. Or care.

Oh goodness, please stay Mr. Bluebird!
So, you might imagine my surprise and delight to capture this sight the other day... a pair of bluebirds scoping out a possible house, and even going inside to check! The wren guard did not put them off of the box entirely. Oh, horray! I don't know if they will nest there yet, or not. I don't even know if the guard will stop the wrens (sometimes they do not). But it is the best I can to do help, for now. Go, bluebirds, go!

I nearly screamed when I saw her go inside with no problems.

And so spring creeps, sneaks, quietly enters... even while winter keeps whispering down the back of my neck with a cold zephyr.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

An Enounter with a Pileated Woodpecker



Last week, my husband and I were puttering around outside as we do every day that the weather is decent. I had the chickens out, letting them enjoy the last of the crickets before cold weather really set in.

While scanning the woods as I often do, I caught a flicker of movement on the ground. "Ah, a squirrel," I thought-- this is a very squirrely time of year, and they are foraging heavily for their winter survival. But no, something was wrong about the movement. I caught a flash of red; it was a Pileated Woodpecker! There was a tangle of brush and we couldn't see the bird very well-- certainly not well enough to merit running back to the house for my camera. We enjoyed the knowledge that they were still hanging around in "our" woods, and continued with our chicken time.

Some time later, my husband had to walk back into the woods a ways to check on a neighbor. I had forgotten all about the woodpecker, as I willingly admit that I am very easily distracted by Chicken Antics! I glanced over to see my husband returning through the woods, and another movement by him caught my eye. The woodpecker was still there! Amazed, as these birds are generally quite shy, I hurriedly sent him a message on his phone, letting him know he was not alone. Pileated woodpeckers are one of his favorite animals. He quietly watched it from where he was, mere feet away!

A Female Pileated Woodpecker.
I watched too, from afar, though admittedly I couldn't see much other than the movement and sometimes a smear of red. Surprised by the bird's nonchalance for my husband's presence, I regretted not having my camera and went to remedy that fact. Circling far around as not to disturb the woodpecker, I walked back to where my husband was.

Together, we watched the bird for quite a long time. Being close enough to see it well, it was clear that it was an adult female and possibly one of the pair that we'd been seeing glimpses of for the last three years. She was working a fallen Ash Tree, chiseling away at it for buried grubs and ants at an amazing rate. Over the course of an afternoon, she demolished some six feet of the 9-10" diameter log.

Watching her work left me with a deep appreciation of the importance of her place in the ecosystem, and how she depended on the ecosystem in turn. When a tree is dead or dying in this type of forest, it is not long before boring insects set in, such as beetles and carpenter ants, that work into the wood and start slowly decomposing it. Their holes are also inlets for bacteria and fungus to better take hold and aid in the process. When a woodpecker discovers these insects, the woodpeckers greatly accelerate the decomposition process by essentially chipping the log, and also help to keep insect populations in check. This is especially important for boring-type beetles, for they attack live trees as well, and when populations get out of check there can be a lot of forest die-off. The now quickly decomposing log returns its nutrients to the loamy forest soil, so that new populations of trees can benefit.
She was very skilled with her chisel-like beak.

In the Northeast, Pileated Woodpeckers once were greatly diminished, and at one time, a population of 1 pair per 10 square miles was very lucky. Clearing of the ancient Eastern forests due to clear-cut logging, cutting of trees for tanning, and huge forest fires in the 1700s and 1800s harmed their population greatly. A great deal of land was cleared for agriculture by individual farmers as well. After the turn of 1900, as forestry practices became more regulated, and more responsible, the woodpeckers have slowly made a comeback. Most of the individually owned farms are now gone, being driven out by time and industrial farming to the west, and the cleared land is turning into early successional forest once again.

Complicating things these days is the new type of habitat fragmentation; that is, development of homes, industry, and shopping locations. Pileated Woodpeckers can survive fragmentation of habitat to some level, and have adapted to human habitation as easily seen by the frequency of suet-feeder visits as long as there are stands of mature trees in the area. Unfortunately, what is an eyesore to many people is vital habitat for woodpeckers, and it is common practice to remove dead or dying trees, cut them up, and remove them entirely. Dead tree removal has been an especially big problem for Pileated Woodpeckers in the west, where entire stands of forest have dead trees and material removed to help reduce fire hazard and intensity. If you have dead or dying trees on your property, consider leaving them standing if they do not present a hazard to health or home. If you need to cut, consider leaving the logs in an out-of-the-way area, though not too close to your home (you don't want to needlessly attract carpenter ants to your dwelling!). Small gestures like these can really make a difference for local wildlife.

A closer look at the zygodactyl (two toes forward, two back) foot of a Pileated Woodpecker.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Glimpses of Life and Death



Today while I was out giving my chickens long, loving, motherly hugs (and oh, how Moa the hen does enjoy being pet!), there was a sudden commotion in my gigantic lilac bush. Hearing the warning calls of all the little songbirds, and the thrashing of wings smacking into the branches, I knew that there was a hawk within.

I couldn't see it to tell what species it was, or if it was a threat to my chickens, so I gave a "bwaaaah" to the girls-- which in chicken language, is the same as a guardian rooster saying "Danger from above- hawk!"... which is entirely different from "gweeeh--eeeeh--ehhh" which is "Danger from the ground!"... I.. I see that I will probably need to write about this in another entry, soon.. You laugh, I know, but it works... and they all skooted under the coop within their protected run.

Just after the kill. Click the photo to see larger
I tiptoed inside to grab my camera, then wiggled my way back outside, to see what drama I might see. There, sitting in the bush, was a Sharp-Shinned hawk, Accipiter striatus, actively hunting. The chickadees were scolding him boldly, flitting around in the bush's canopy. The adult hawk's attention was on the ground, and I saw a field mouse squirt into the stonework next to my patio. I couldn't get a photo from my angle, and wasn't about to ruin the hawk's hunt just to get a snapshot. Though tempting, it would be irresponsible.


Suddenly, a White-Throated sparrow (see previous journal entry) flushed and zipped across the yard. Oh, so unwise! I cringed. Why couldn't the field mouse have come back out?! Like a flash, the sharp-shinned hawk was after the sparrow. It tried to go into a brush pile I've intentionally left for the wildlife, at the lower edge of my yard, but it wasn't quick enough. Just as it reached safety, the hawk was upon it.


Taking a meal to the nest, most likely
Just that fast, it was all over for the sparrow, one of my most favorite little birds. Though hard to watch, it is an important lesson that the hawks need to eat too, and as this is a mature bird it probably has a nest with babies to feed. Though I was sad for the loss of the sparrow, I know that even a single meal can sometimes mean the difference between survival or not for the hawk's chicks, as hawks are certainly not successful in every hunt. It was also a humble reminder that even though predators take our beloved songbirds, human development, chemicals, and introduction of invasive species (outdoor cats, competing birds such as European sparrows/starlings) is responsible for a far greater death toll on these birds than hawks are.




These photos are not the greatest. This event unfolded a few hundred feet away, and I didn't want to disturb the hawk by approaching closer.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

My boyfriend might be a girl

I have a confession.

I am in love with White-Throated Sparrows.

What is not to love? They arrive in the spring, just when you are starting to get tired of mud and snow and the delicate brownish grey color that everything turns when it's dormant. Suddenly, these cheerful sparrows arrive (well, I don't know if they are cheerful. They're probably just hungry. I'm cheerful, though) and are singing delightful songs and wiggling their glorious yellow eyebrows (lores) at me. Oh, be still my heart.

They congregate in small flocks in late April and May, singing and singing, kicking through the underbrush for food, and milling around under my black oil sunflower seed feeders. Their ground locomotion is hopping, and the ones here are not shy about coming nearby as long as I am still and peaceful (more like oogling those crazy amazing eyebrows).

A particularly bright Tan-Striped
For a long time, when I had older birding books and guides, I thought I was seeing both immature, adult, male, and female White-Throated sparrows. I took delight in being able to tell them apart and continued to swoon over the ones with the brightest markings, and the most lovely yellow lores. I jokingly called them "My Boyfriends," which probably isn't fair. It's only a boyfriend if it's mutual, is it not? And certainally, the sparrows were not overly interested in me beyond "Hey it's the seed lady". So perhaps my 'secret crush' is more appropriate. It's true. I stalked the sparrows, like a creeper. I watched them eat and preen. My word!

You can imagine how my world came crashing down around my knees when I discovered that White-Throated sparrows are not sexually dimorphic. This means that the males and females are not visually different. My boyfriends might have been girls! This was getting complicated.

White-Striped
To add to the complication is the fascinating fact that White-Throated Sparrows actually have two genetically-linked color morphs. They are polymorphs! Some sparrows are the bright, boldly marked individuals that we are more familiar with; bright white stripes on the crown, dazzlingly handsome lemon yellow lores (eyebrows), and a more defined grey breast with a white bib. Those boldly marked sparrows are often referred to as the 'White-Striped" morph. On the flip side, there are the more drab (and female or immature looking) sparrows, that have far less defined markings on the breast, the crown stripes are tan, the lores are a desaturated yellow ochre, and overall they are more tan in appearance. These are, appropriately, referred to as the "Tan-Striped" morph.

Very curiously, in my observations the white-striped individuals seem to be far more bold... coming nearly to my feet when I am sitting outside. They are brash, and more quick to ire with other sparrows, chasing them and chattering angrily. The tan-striped birds are much more mellow, peaceful, and a bit more shy at times. This was one reason I truly thought that the brightly colored white-stripes were mature males, while the others were dour females or adolescents. Wrong! I did some reading and apparently this is such an interesting phenomenon that many scientific studies have been made on these finches, their society, and the color morphs. It seems that females of both colors prefer the more mellow and faithful white-stripes, whereas the males of both colors prefer the brightly colored white-stripes. Augh, my head is spinning! This sounds like a crazy sitcom, but it gets even better. Because the aggressive white-striped females are more pushy, they get their pick of the tan-striped guys, so the more meek tan-striped girls are more likely to choose a white-striped male because all the good guys are taken. White-striped males are boisterous and randy apparently, and are not very faithful to their preferred white-striped girls... so when hubby is away, sometimes a tan-striped male will come in and mate with the white-striped female. True stuff! Did I give you a headache yet? And you thought our society was bad when it came to relationships.
Typical Tan-Striped

All of that means that there is approximately the same number of white-striped and tan-striped offspring each year. All because my boyfriends are complicated birds, indeed.

Somehow though all of this, my husband likes me for some reason, and announces with a laugh that my non-"boyfriends" are in the yard. Still, I am not ready to renounce my love for these way cool little birds. I just have to admit to myself that love is complicated.

I've taken two short videos; one of a white-striped sparrow and one of a tan-striped sparrow, if you want to see them in action.

And a lovely video, not my own, of their wonderful song.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

A Tradition of Wild Leeks

Ah, wild leeks. Also known as "Ramps" regionally, they are the wonderful, smelly things. I love them.

Around here, Allium tricoccum are known simply as "leeks". Not to be confused with the leeks you'd buy at the market, which are Allium ampeloprasum var. porrum... an entirely different species! Super exciting trivia-- did you know that Chicago apparently is named after wild leeks? For real.

 This map shows where wild leeks occur, though in my experience it seems that their fame really varies depending on the locality and how much the locals like to eat them. Around here, they can grow in abundance in their favored micro-climates, and some people are really into them (much to the dismay of family, friends, and co-workers!). Locally there is even a festival for leeks. Stinkfest (honestly, this should be an indicator of how far I live from modern entertainment. Not that I mind). Which leads me to the smell.

Oh, yes.
Wild leeks taste like a complex blend between a green onion and garlic. All parts are edible and vary in their strength depending on growing conditions, age, size, and what part of the leek you are eating. They are delightful.
They also really make you smell.

Have you ever scented someone after a lovely, garlic-ridden meal? Ahh, the bouquet.
Sit back and close your eyes. Bring the scentful memory back to your thoughts. Hmm. Lovely, no?

Amplify this by twelve (at least) and you have an idea of what a leek-loving person smells like for days afterward. My father tells stories about how, back in 'his day', classroom sizes were small and child numbers few, and if a kid came in smelling like leeks they got sent right back home again for the day. I don't know if this is true or not, but as a kid it sure did encourage me to eat more leeks. I never got sent home, though.

The Valley. Of the Leeks.
Going to dig leeks has been a family tradition in April since I was a little child-speck of a Jennifer. We go to an area that we call "The Valley of the Leeks". It involves a walk, perhaps three miles one way, that starts on a ridge, goes down into a valley, across a gulley, across a roaring creek that is usually swollen with spring thaw, and up onto another ridge on the other side. Quite an adventure, and never uneventful! On our way in this time, we flushed two ruffed grouse. And once you arrive, you find yourself on a hillside with leeks growing as thick as grass. In the photo to the left you can see- all the greenery is not grass or other plants. They are all leeks. 180° of leeks-- uphill, downhill, sidehill, widehill. There is a Dr. Suess story in here somewhere, but I'm not so skilled as to pull that off.

I digress.

The boys (husband/dad) treading carefully through leeks
Digging wild leeks requires some care and finesse, especially if you are a naturalist at heart like me. When digging leeks, you remove the whole plant; leaves, stem, bulb, and roots. The entire thing goes in your belly, so because of this it's important not to deplete an area of its leeks-- not only would it be irresponsible management of your leek source, but it is ecologically poor form. By harvesting the entire plant, you are removing it entirely... thus, if many are removed, they will not be able to repopulate (or even repopulate to replace the leeks taken). Complicating this, leeks are biennial, meaning that they only flower in their second year. Leeks have actually become endangered in some areas of their native range due to over-harvesting, especially for things like .. yep... local festivals, where they are consumed in great quantities. Still, it is possible to responsibly harvest wild leeks if care and respect are given when doing so (if you cannot harvest wild leeks but live in an area that supports them, apparently you can buy them to grow! Note that they do best when mulched with hardwood leaves). The Valley has enough leeks to support our taking some.

Along with the leeks are other delightful spring plants. I wish I was clever enough to know all of their names, but I do not. Here are a few that I found today, though.

White Hepatica, Anemone acutiloba. I also found blue and pink varieties.



My favorite- Purple Trillium, Trillium erectum. 
We finished gathering leeks just as a spring rain moved in on us, lightly sprinkling. I gathered a few clumps of earth with leeks embedded to take back home with me; since we bought our home and property I have taken small groups of leeks home every year to transplant into my wooded areas in hopes of restoring the leeks that grew there long before my town existed (naturalist's note: please don't transplant things over long distances unless you know that it's safe and legal to do so-- invasive species are bad!). Burdened with many pounds of wet soil and a few of dug leeks, we trekked back out of the woods before it could downpour on us. On the way out, we were delighted to be witness to the thundering gobbles of a pair of wild turkey toms; the typical "gobble-gobble" many of us associate with a puffy Thanksgiving farm bird is much more haunting and wonderful to behold while deep in the wood.


Now I have to look forward to cleaning leeks for many, many hours. Some will be served fresh, while the rest will be frozen to as a far, far more flavorful onion-substitute in my cooking for the next year.

Pardon me, while I stink of leeks.

Leek leaves, with Hepatica flowers peeking up though. Guest appearance by some mottled Trout Lily leaves.




Friday, April 13, 2012

Introducing: Derperella

Anyone that knows me probably knows that I have chickens. Frankly, I just don't shut up about them.

Thus, Derperella needs little introduction to some. Truly, she already has some small measure of Internet Fame™; there is a thread just about her on Backyard Chickens that as of writing this today has over 62,000 views. That is over 65 times the population of the township I live in. That .... that's pretty intense, okay? It's just pretty intense for a chicken.


So what is Derperella?
Derperella was hatched on May 9th, 2011. She is a Faverolles chicken, and from the very start she was doomed. She suffered from many ailments, none of which are contagious but rather poor genetics at play and/or nutritional deficiencies starting with her mother hen when she was a mere egg. Regardless, little Derp arrived in my care with one eye glued shut, and unwilling to eat.

After un-gluing her eye, she looked like this.

Not eating was a very real problem for us. The only thing she'd take is a few drops of liquid at a time from an eyedropper for several days. I packed that warm water full of as much nutrition as I could, but it isn't the same as eating real food.

Finally, I was able to get her to start taking solids, as long as they were on the tip of the eyedropper. It was an improvement, and it was nearly an around-the-clock job. Derperella would peep-scream (you read that right) if I wasn't holding her. It was very trying. Thank goodness she was so cute.

Almost immediately upon eating on her own after a week, she impacted her crop. The crop is sort of a pre-storage area for food in a bird, and impaction means that nothing goes through it. It sits in limbo (and horrifyingly, can start to turn rancid in there). Oh.. oh goodness. Derp. Well, a lot of tiny chick massages later, it was fixed.

Then it happened again. Then it was fixed again. Then Derperella started spinning in circles (a condition called wry neck). Some expensive vitamins and a lot of stressing out later, that too was fixed. On and on, Derperella's issues went! This is commonly called a "failure to thrive", and very reasonably many people don't go too far out of their way to fix these problems if they keep coming and coming. It's nature's way of saying "Population check: this one isn't meant to make it. Put efforts into strong genetics instead."

Unfortunately, I am just way too stubborn to listen, sometimes. And lo, Derp survived.
And she continued to get weirder.

One day, I had family visiting, and had the chicks out with us. One of the other chicks had scratched her foot and, well, I was an overly worried mother and had to fuss and clean it up with a cotton swab. I put the swab up out of reach, intending to toss it in the trash as soon as I had the chicks put away safely.
Suddenly, my sister said, "I don't like the way that's sticking out of her mouth..."
Confused, I looked at the chicks. What on earth was she talking abo--.. Oh, what the everloving--

There was Derperella, with the cotton swab swallowed as far as she could get it... the rest sticking out of her throat. Runnning.. running around in circles, to keep the other chicks from stealing it from her. The other chicks, meanwhile, were so busy not caring at all that they didn't even notice.

I didn't have a camera ready, so I had to draw you a representation of what it looked like.

(The swab was safely removed. No Derperellas were hurt.)


And thus, the tone for Derp's life story was set. She continues to be truly strange in ways that I cannot quite describe (but I'll try anyhow). As she grew, it became clear that her skull itself was somewhat deformed, and twisted to one side. She turned a mahogany brown color instead of the cream and salmon that her breed should be. She is sweet and strange and a loaf of chicken bread. Did I mention her crooked face?

You can expect to hear more about Derperella in the future. She's everyone's favorite chicken, somehow. If you need more right now (who could blame you?) there are photos of her here.

So, now you know Derperella. And you'll continue to know her, along with a great deal of chicken enthusiasts on the internet. We're all a bit closer now in the circle of Derp.


Monday, April 9, 2012

The Trolling Blue Jays

I am delighted to say that my home rests on a parcel of about 14 acres of really varied habitat. There is a mix of yard (barely kept mowed enough that the neighbors don't utterly loathe us), lots of various brush and groundcover, a stand of hardwoods, and a goodly bit of very brushy swampy area. Excitingly, this means that there are no shortage of wild birds around.

One of the birds we commonly have visit are Blue Jays. My husband and I affectionately call these birds "Wamps" because...
Well.
They say "WAMP!"
(we also call Goldfinches "Potato chips"...)
I digress.

Blue Jays have had a rough time with their populations in the last decade or so. This area is NY state was hit pretty hard with West Nile Virus, and when I was interning with NY's Department of Environmental Conservation, there were a lot of studies and samplings going on. While official studies showed that 29% of the Blue Jays tested were positive for West Nile, the biologist I spoke to emphasized that most dead birds are never found and that even amongst those that were, many weren't tested. His opinion was that it was almost certainly wiping out a lot more than the study could prove. Regardless, the visits from Blue Jays in our backyards were more and more slim.

When I moved to our new home here, we were infrequently visited by a single pair of skittish, shy, nervous jays. They would scope out the feeders for 30 minutes or more, hop on to grab some food, and then were gone again in an instant. If they saw me peeking out a window to watch them, that was it. It was over. I wouldn't see them again for a week. My little eyeball squinting out from behind the curtain was just too much for them.
Then they had baby wamps  Blue Jays.
Out of necessity to fill the ever gaping, endless and bottomless crops of the baby jays, mom and dad Blue Jay started to come to our feeder more and more once the kids fledged. My peeking eyeball was still not okay, but it didn't result in a week without jays. Instead, my watching only caused them to depart for a few minutes before they were back again.
And thus, once the kids were grown, the next year they had their own baby Blue Jays.
Three generations later, and the jays are once again bold, noisy, and somewhat plentiful. They now allow me to be outside and working in the yard when they visit. My peeking eyeball is of no concern, as each new generation became more and more used to my presence. Finally, I have been accepted by the Wamps. *tear*

The reason I am explaining about the generations is that I have noticed something positively fascinating with the newest generation! But I will keep you in suspense for a moment more while I explain something else about Blue Jays.

Blue Jays make an amazing array of noises. They are fantastic mimics and not only that but they have a lot of their own noises, and have a fairly complex language to communicate very exact situations to one another. Now, I really need to make the disclaimer that I am not a trained avian behaviorist, ornithologist, or any other ologist. I have not done studies or tests or research papers. I've just watched the birds in my yard. But to observe them and say that they don't communicate very exact situations to one another would be silly.

Here is an actual conversion that I've had with many people:

Friend/relative/husband person: "Whoa! What is that noise? What bird is that?"
Me: "Oh, that's just a Blue Jay."
Other person: "That cannot be. That sounds like a (baby crying/cat mewling/crow/mockingbird/someone shaking a can full of quarters/hawk)*)
*these are all things that people have actually answered me.

Which brings me to the last one. Blue Jays mimicking hawks.

Surely this is not a new phenomenon, but the newest generation of jays in my yard are the only ones that I've heard doing it. They are also the most rambunctious generation, if that means anything.
Not only do they mimic hawks, but they mimic the one vocal species of hawk that we have here most commonly, the Red-Shouldered Hawk.
Not only do they mimic these hawks, but they do so unerringly well, and they do so in context.

Okay, I'll wait a second for you to consider that.
They mimic the hawks, in context.

Now, the hawks have their own sort of language. It's nothing as varied or complex as what the jays say, but the hawks seem to have pretty simple calls such as territorial calls and so forth. The jays have learned this language, which might not seem terribly remarkable. After all, a bird is a bird, right? But this is a misleading way of thinking.... Blue Jays are no more related to Red-Shouldered Hawks than a mouse is related to a lion. They are the same only to class, if you want to be technical. This puts their lingual accomplishment into a new light.

So what do the Blue Jays do with their new hawk language?
Well.. they troll other birds with it, of course.

I have observed the jays, sometimes singly, and sometimes groups of two or three, mimicking the hawk's territorial scream (specifically) from a tall tree on my property. Soon enough, a real Red-Shouldered Hawk hears it and comes screaming in to kick the tail feathers of the imposter hawk.
Only there is no imposter hawk.
There is a gang of Blue Jays that called the hawk in just to mob it and drive it away again. This is a game.

The second way that the jays troll is that they will freak out smaller birds. I've seen this one a lot. The scenario is this:

A jay or three sits in a neighboring tree, scoping out the situation at my bird feeders. They are usually all abuzz with activity from Juncos, Chickadees, Goldfinches, Cardinals, and various sparrows. Sometimes (oh and the jays love this) there are even Mourning Doves.
The jay will then make a soft "kree-ayyyh" that sounds amazingly like a Red-Shouldered Hawk that is in the distance.
All of the bird-feeder occupants become alert.
The jay(s) wait for a moment. They are playing their time. They know what to do for the maximum entertainment.
Suddenly, one or more of them will swoop down from the tree to the feeder area, full out screaming in perfect imitation of a Red-Shouldered Hawk. All of the feeder birds freak out, and fly for cover. If there are doves- what a delight to the jays!- they explode, turn inside out, pop out their eyeballs, and pretty much do everything they can to get away before the fake hawk eats them.
After blowing up all of the feeder guests, the jays will sometimes take a seed or two. It is somewhat clear that they didn't even do this so that they could have the feeders to themselves-- they seemed to genuinely delight in scaring the everliving beetleborgs right out of all the other birds. Sometimes they will hop from branch to branch with their crests up, all but laughing.


Saturday, April 7, 2012

Welcome to my Bll.. b.. journal.

This is an introductory post, though I suppose it's reasonable to guess that the first few people that find me here already know me, at least somewhat.

You know, I really don't like the word "blog". It has his mired feeling to it, like you are sinking into the muddy quagmire of my thoughts. The word is a bit like "bog" but the l makes it slippery (I'm a synaesthete, but we'll get into that later). Blog. It'd make a good name for a goblin.

So, who am I and what can you expect here? I'm Jennifer Miller, Jen, whatever you care to call me. I have an "explosive enthusiasm" for nature, and you can expect me to go on at length about it here. Nature, birds, my chickens, moss, gardening, trees, fish... you get the idea. There will be no politics, rants, "heavy issues", drama, or personal problems posted here. This is about you, me, and the things I stare at from day to day that bring me joy.

I do have one other (ugh) blog. It is my "Professional" face where I post my artwork and talk about it a bit. I've made this blog separate because honestly, I know that some folks don't want to (or simply won't) paw through pages of entries where I prattle on about plants and my lovely, lovely chickens... just to find a piece of art they want to look at.  On the flip side, I know that some of the followers of my art might like to know more about my daily life and what makes me tick, so to speak, and I can appreciate that (though it does make me feel very shy and small sometimes, oh gosh).

Here is some moss. It lives in my back yard.