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.

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...
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.