Feathers are composed primarily of a protein called beta (β) keratin. Keratin proteins are found in the skin, scales, and hair of many animals. However, there are structural variations among different types of keratin. The β keratin molecules found in bird feathers are shaped like pleated sheets while the alpha (α) keratin molecules found in mammal skin and hair are helix (spiral) shaped. However, bird β keratin is quite similar to the β keratin found in reptile skin. β keratin is also found in bird claws, scales, and beaks, but the β keratin found in feathers is more elastic than other types of β keratin.
Mature feathers lack a blood supply and are therefore ‘dead’ structures that cannot be naturally repaired if damaged. Newly-growing feathers, however, are living structures with a blood supply, and as such are sometimes referred to as “blood feathers.” However, as a growing feather matures, the blood supply in it will start to recede. In large, shed parrot feathers, it is frequently possible to see remnants of the blood vessels that supplied the feather with blood as it was growing. These remnants (called ‘pulp caps’) will be present as thin bands that stretch across the inside of the hollow shaft of the feather.
New, growing feathers are coated in a waxy sheath that will flake off as the feather matures. Birds remove these sheaths by preening, but because birds cannot preen their own heads, single birds that do not have a partner to preen them may retain the sheaths on their head feathers a little longer than normal. Many parrot owners will preen pin feathers on their birds’ heads, but only do this when the sheaths are dry and flake off easily.
As feathers can become worn through daily wear and tear, they are molted and regrown at periodic intervals. As parrots kept in captivity will experience different patterns of light and dark and may be fed different diets, the timing of the molt can vary among captive parrots. A parrot that has not undergone a molt for a long time (i.e. over a year) may have quite a bit of damage on the tips of its feathers. There may also be some black or brownish marks on the feathers, especially at the tips.
As feathers are made primarily of protein, parrots need sufficient protein in their diets to grow strong, healthy feathers. Pelleted diets generally contain sufficient protein (and amino acids), as can mixtures of grains, cooked beans, peas, quinoa and corn.
Most of the feathers that are visible on an adult parrot are contour feathers. These include the tail feathers (also called “remiges”), the flight feathers (also called “retrices”), and the outer (visible and usually coloured) feathers on the head and body. The contour feathers have several functions. The flight feathers allow the bird to fly and the tail feathers help the bird control its flight path. Contour feathers also provide some insulation and waterproofing, protect the body from dust and debris, and can play an important role in communication. For example, cockatoos have erectile crests on their heads that they can raise and lower in order to express anger, surprise, or excitement. Hawk-headed parrots also have a ‘headdress’ of feathers on their heads they can erect. Even parrots without such specialized feathers can erect the contour feathers on their heads and napes if agitated or alarmed. Additionally, many parrots will fan out their tail feathers if alarmed or excited.
Contour feathers are the most structurally complex feathers on a parrot. They are composed of a long, central shaft that has a flat ‘vane’ on either side, except at the base. The base of the central shaft is hollow and will lack a vane. This part of the shaft is called the ‘calamus.’ The upper part of the central shaft, which has a vane on both sides, is called the rachis.
If you take a shed feather and pull the vane apart, you will see that there are many thin, hair-like structures branching off of the rachis. These are called barbs. Many contour feathers have two types of barbs, which are called plumulaceous barbs and pennaceous barbs. Plumulaceous barbs are located near the base of the feather and are white, loose, and soft. Some flight feathers have few or no plumulaceous barbs. Pennaceous barbs are located above the plumulaceous barbs and are firmer. In the pictures of blue and gold macaw feathers accompanying this article, the pennaceous bars are blue.
The structure of pennaceous barbs is quite complex. Each barb will have a central shaft called a ramus. Each ramus will then have two rows of structures branching off of them called barbules. These will appear as ‘fuzz’ on the ramus to the naked eye. The ends of the barbules on one side may be covered in little hooks called barbicels. The barbicels can neatly wrap around the barbules on the barbs above. When all of these little hooks are wrapped around the barbules above them, the feather will have a very smooth and neat appearance. However, when a bird goes about its daily activities, the hooks can become dislodged from the barbules.
Birds can restore the structure of their feathers by preening. When preening, a bird will run his feathers through his beak and this will rehook the barbs on the feathers back together. You can try this with a shed contour feather – pull the barbs apart and see if you can “zip” them back together with your fingers.
Remiges and Retrices
The remiges (tail feathers) and retrices (flight feathers) are the largest and stiffest feathers on a parrot and they provide little insulation but are critical for flight. They differ from other feathers in that they are generally attached to bones, instead of being anchored in the skin.
The primary flight feathers (the flight feathers at the end of the wing) provide forward thrust when a bird flaps its wings downward. These feathers are attached to a bird’s manus (‘hand’) bones and the bones of its second digit. Parrots have ten primary feathers. The secondary flight feathers are also critical for flight and they help provide a great deal of lift. These feathers attach to the ulna (“arm bone”) of the wing. Most parrots will have ten secondary feathers but this number varies from 8-14.
The primary and secondary flight feathers differ from contour feathers on the body in being asymmetrical, as the leading vane will be narrower than the trailing vane. Both primaries and secondaries are asymmetrical, but the primary flight feathers are typically longer and more pointed than the secondary flight feathers.
Parrots have twelve retrices (tail flight feathers), which also have asymmetrical vanes. The central retrices are attached to the tail bone (pygostyle). Tail feathers play an important role in steering and braking.
Underneath the contour feathers are down feathers. They provide lightweight and effective insulation and they are white and have a simpler structure than contour feathers. They either lack a central rachis, or have a very short one. If there is a rachis, the barbs will be much longer than it. The barbs can have small projections on them, but they do not hook together the way pennaceous barbs on a contour feather can.
Cockatoos, African gray parrots, and Mealy Amazons also produce large numbers of specialized down feathers called powder down feathers. A few other groups of birds, including herons, also produce powder down feathers. The barbs of powder down feathers slowly disintegrate over time and produce a white talcum-like powder that will coat the bird’s feathers. Unlike other types of feather, powder down feathers grow continuously and are not molted.
There are feathers that appear to be intermediate between a down and a contour feather. These are called semiplumes. Unlike down feathers, they have a central rachis, but the barbs are white and fluffy, like the barbs on down feathers. They are usually hidden underneath the surface contour feathers and likely help with insulation.
Filoplumes and Bristles
Filoplumes are inconspicuous feathers that are hard to see and are somewhat hair-like in appearance. They are composed of a central shaft with a few short barbs at the top. They are associated with contour feathers, especially those on the wings and tail. They have a sensory function and monitor the movements of the contour feathers. When feathers associated with filoplumes move, the filoplumes move too. Because filoplumes have many sensory cells at their bases, their movement allows the bird to sense movement in his feathers.
Bristles are also simple in structure. They are short and have a central shaft with a few barbs at the base. On parrots, they are often located around the eye and nostrils where they presumably have a protective function and keep debris out.
Preening and the Preen Gland
Parrots spend a lot of time preening their feathers in order to keep them smooth and clean. A small gland just above the base of the tail also plays an important role in preening. This gland (the uropygial, or “preen” gland) secretes a mixture of chemicals, including waxes, fatty acids, fat, and water. When parrots preen, they often nibble at the preen gland (to get preen gland oil on the beak) and then rub their beaks along their feathers. That applies the preen gland oil to the feathers. They may also rub their heads against the gland and then rub their heads on the feathers.
It is not completely clear what the function of preen gland oil is (particularly in parrots), although it generally appears to help with waterproofing feathers and maintaining their elasticity. In addition, the preen gland oil of chickens contains vitamin D precursors, and many books and articles on birds state that when ultraviolet light hits these precursors after they are spread on feathers, they are converted to vitamin D, which the bird can then ingest as it preens. Thus, preen gland oil may provide a vitamin D supplement. However, some parrots, including Amazons and Hyacinth Macaws, lack preen glands but do not generally suffer from vitamin D deficiencies.
Parrots preen themselves to maintain the integrity of their feathers, and they also need baths or showers to keep their feathers clean and healthy. Some birds prefer showers, and such birds should be sprayed with water a few times per week. Others may prefer to bath, and such birds should be offered bowls of water for bathing purposes. If a parrot really enjoys water, it’s fine to bath or shower him or her every day if desired.
Back to blogging again! My life has been very crazy during the past couple of months. I was offered a new job working as a biologist specializing in birds that required me to move to Fort McMurray, Alberta. The job started in May and my husband and I decided that I would move up first with five of the parrots and Micro the Maltese, while he stayed behind with the rest of the pets to prepare our house for sale.
The five parrots to come with me were Pteri (Blue and Gold Macaw), Mitri (Lesser Sulphur-crested Cockatoo), Ripley (Red-lored Amazon), Chiku (Green-cheeked Conure mix), and Dip (Rose-crowned Conure). Sadly, Peggy, my Jenday Conure (who I named this blog after), had passed away in November, 2015. Otherwise, she would have come with me as well. Dip is a new bird I got in December 2015.
I moved up April 30 and during the evening of May 1, I noticed a huge cloud of smoke coming up from the south of the city. I later found out that a forest fire had started there, and that it had started to spread very quickly.
Most of the city was extremely smoky on May 2 and a few communities in the southern part of the city were ordered to evacuate but I wasn’t affected. On the morning of May 3, everything looked quite clear but the city fire chief noted that this was deceptive, as the smoke from the fire was staying near the ground due to the weather conditions. He warned people that the fire was not under control.
By the afternoon, I could see heavy smoke coming from two different directions, and bits of burned debris (including conifer needles) were falling from the sky. More parts of the city were ordered to evacuate, and I was starting to think that I would have to evacuate as well.
Unfortunately, my car was very low on gas, and by the time I was able to try to fill it up, gas stations in the area of the city I lived in had run out of gas. Luckily, I was able to get out of town with a co-worker and we were able to take a work truck.
Once the part of town I lived in was ordered to evacuate, I had to gather up my parrots and dog, and decide what to bring with us. I had no idea how long this evacuation would go on or where we would end up. I did have five carriers handy – one for each bird – but Micro would have to leave with just his harness and leash. When packing supplies, the first thing I thought of were the parrots, and I packed bags of parrot pellets, small bowls, several towels, newspaper, and several bottles of water. I also prepared a big Ziploc bag of dog food, which I ended up forgetting. This meant that Micro got to eat a lot of people food during his adventure. For me, I brought some toiletries (toothpaste, soap, etc), socks, underwear, my laptop, and a book. My co-worker picked us up in a truck and we headed out.
Getting out of town took a long time as there are only two roads out of the city – Highway 63 going north or Highway 63 going south. We were in the northern part of the city so we went north. All of the radio stations in Fort McMurray had stopped broadcasting so we listened to CBC (the national radio station) for updates.
There is only one hamlet north of Fort McMurray that can be reached by road, which is the First Nations community of Fort MacKay. The town did generously house many evacuees but there was no way it could handle the tens of thousands of people who had to flee north. This left various work lodges as potential evacuee destinations. There are many oil extraction operations north of Fort McMurray and there are a lot of lodges there that house workers at these operations. Some of them are huge and can house a few thousand people.
Numerous work lodges opened their doors to evacuees and a lot of the larger oil operations sent workers home to make room for evacuees. After several hours of driving north, we saw a person holding a sign saying that the Shell Albian Sands camp was open and had room for evacuees so we headed there.
It took us about eight hours to arrive at the camp. Under normal circumstances, it takes about 45 minutes to make the same drive. Because of the fuel shortage, some people had to abandon their vehicles at the side of the road. However, the police were patrolling the roads to help people who had run out of fuel. I also saw people heading north riding on ATVs.
Once we got to the Shell camp, we had to park the truck in a lot and wait in a line outside for a bus to shuttle us to the camp. The parrots were surprisingly calm given the circumstances and they attracted a lot of attention. Pteri in particular generated a lot of interest as she would say “Hi!” to people. I did have to warn people not to put their hands in the bird cages, as all the birds were tired and probably cranky. Micro, however, was happy to have attention and a lot of kids petted him. There were also a lot of other dogs waiting in the line, and even a few cats. As far as I know, all of the lodges taking evacuees were allowing pets of all types.
The shuttle bus arrived and luckily I had a lot of help getting the five birds onto the bus. They had never really ridden on buses before but they were very quiet. Once we arrived, we had to stay in a common area as the camp was saving rooms for people with small children or health problems. We were given a bunch of blankets and pillows by the staff.
I stacked the parrots by a wall and made sure they all had food and water. It was about 2 am by the time I got everyone settled. I also covered Pteri’s cage with a towel as she would screech when she saw people get too close to her cage. Having the towel over her cage seem to calm her down.
I tried sleeping on the floor. Admittedly I did not get much sleep as my dog was, understandably, rather agitated so he whined a lot. He was in a room with other dogs, a few cats, and many stressed and upset people. Many of these people had lost their homes and those who hadn’t were worried that they would. I had to take Micro outside a few times for bathroom breaks. At one point, I tied him to my heavy bag and tried to rest, but he backed out of his harness and wandered around the lodge. Someone found him and called my cell number (which was on Micro’s collar tags).
The next day, we were able to get a little room, which relieved me as I think the parrots were getting a stressed at this point. I was able to give each bird some time out of their cages to stretch their wings. We had a luggage cart they were able to perch on as well. They all seemed quite content once we got into a room. They were fairly quiet, and spent their time napping, preening, or eating.
The birds had enough pellets to eat, but I was able to get them some vegetables and fruit from the cafeteria. Evacuees were able to eat for free at the large cafeteria that is normally used by the workers who stay at the lodge.
We stayed at the lodge for a few days, but then they started to fly people out to either the Calgary or Edmonton airports. People and animals were being flown out at no cost from the oil sands aerodromes. A few of the oil sands mines have their own private aerodromes that they use to fly workers in and out and Shell is one of them. I signed up to fly back to Edmonton. All of my birds except Chiku (whose carrier would fit under the plane set) would have to fly in the cargo part of the plane but I was assured that they would be safe. I have to admit I was worried about them. I wrote each birds’ name, my name, and my cell phone number somewhere on each carrier.
To get onto a flight, I had to wait in a long line with the birds’ (in their carriers) on a luggage cart. Of course, they attracted a huge amount of attention. Pteri even delighted a group of people by saying “Good Morning” to them. Most of the time, though, I kept her cage covered with a towel, which seemed to reduce her stress levels. The other parrots were surprisingly calm.
We had to take another bus ride to get to the aerodrome but that went smoothly. Micro and Chiku rode in the passenger section of the plane and the other birds went to cargo.
All of the birds and Micro were fine after the flight and they got to ride in a taxi to get back to my place in Edmonton. I had a few spare cages there that my husband and I had intended to sell but hadn’t done so yet. The birds had to stay in these cages.
For a little while, I wasn’t really sure if all the things I had moved to Fort McMurray survived the fire. I saw on the news that several homes a couple blocks from my place had burned to the ground. However, I saw on a later report that my place was okay.
I wasn’t able to go back to Fort McMurray until June 3. There was no major damage to my place and I was able to move the five parrots back up there to their bigger cages. I was also able to retain my job up there. Sadly, many other people were not so lucky, as about 2500 homes were destroyed.
I had a place to keep my parrots while I was in Edmonton but not all evacuees had a place for their pets. One local parrot supply store, Meika’s Birdhouse, generously offered to look after parrots belonging to evacuees. There is a news story about this here:
I never really thought I would have to evacuate during an emergency. I’m glad I had enough carriers for my birds and that I was able to get them out safely.
The above example of camouflage in the the animal kingdom is courtesy of the Common Pauraque. A resting pauraque looks very much like a pile of dirt and leaves. During the day, they rest on an open place on the ground and remain very still so predators will have trouble detecting them. Females also build their nests right on the ground and rely on camouflage for protection.
The particular bird in the above picture was pointed out to me by a tour guide at Estero Llano Grande State Park near Weslaco, Texas. He roosts in the exact same place everyday, so has been photographed by many birders. I even saw his picture in the February 2015 issue of “BirdWatching” magazine.
The guide gave us a good tip on finding roosting pauraques – they often roost on the ground among shrubs where there are a lot of leaves. However, they don’t like to walk much (they have tiny legs) and their wingspans are about a foot and a half wide. So, they will generally be found roosting in spots they can get to by flight. Due to their wingspans, they will be found roosting in areas with suitable flight paths (over a foot wide) leading to them.
Common pauraques are in the nightjar family (Caprimulgidae), which is a family of nocturnal/crepuscular insectivorous birds that generally hunt their prey on the wing. Common Pauraques occur from southern Texas to central South America in woodland areas that have some open areas nearby for foraging. They do rely on their sight while foraging, so they are most active at dusk, near dawn, and on moonlit nights. They do most of their foraging on the wing, but can also jump from the ground to catch insects, and they may run a bit on the ground (despite their tiny legs) to catch insects.
Estero Llano Grande is a good place to see Common Pauraques. I saw a second one fairly close to the first one that was pointed out to me.
Estero Llano Grande is considered a birding ‘hotspot’ due to the wide variety of habitats found there. It’s also a good place for butterflies. Here are a few more pictures of wildlife I saw there:
There are several bird feeders around the visitor center, where quite a few different birds (such as green jays, inca doves, and black-crested titmice) could be seen. I managed to get a picture of a northern cardinal. They’re beautiful birds that I don’t get to see very often.
There were also plenty of hummingbirds visiting the hummingbird feeders. Most of them were buff-bellied hummingbirds, which can be found in the US along the Gulf Coast. In the US, they breed in southern Texas, but some of them migrate a bit north for the winter and stay along the coast in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama or Florida.
Hummingbirds can be very interesting to watch. Despite their tiny size, they can be quite territorial and often chase each other from feeders or flowers.
There’s a large viewing area by the visitor’s center where one can watch birds at a large wetland. Quite a large variety of waterfowl and wading birds can be seen there, including coots, ducks, ibises and egrets. The bird in the above picture, an American coot, looks somewhat like a duck but is actually in the rail family. Note the strange-looking feet – they are not webbed and the toes are lobed.
The ducks were also interesting to watch, as many species actually pair up on their wintering grounds, and a few males were already courting females. That’s what the Gadwall in the above picture is doing, although the female gadwalls are out of frame.
There were about seven Yellow-crowned Night Herons around “Alligator Lake.” And yes, I did see a few alligators:
Great Kiskadees were quite common. The only place to see them in the US is the far south of Texas, but they are very widespread and common in Central and South America. They can often be found perched on branches near water bodies, where they will repeatedly fly out to capture an insect or small fish.
Above is a Black Phoebe. Like the Great Kiskadee, they often perch on branches near water bodies and fly out from the branch, grab an insect, and then fly back to the same or a nearby perch.
Like the Great Kiskadee, the Altamira Oriole is a south Texas specialty. They are striking, black and orange birds that occur in Central America, Mexico, and the far south of Texas. The above picture shows an Altamira Oriole nest.
I would have liked to see the actual birds but didn’t get a chance that day. However, on the last day of my trip, I went to the Rio Grande National Wildlife Refuge, and saw one just as I was walking back to my car. He was even nice enough to perch still so I take his photo:
In my last post, I wrote about Whooping Cranes and the trip I took to see them at the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge. The Whooping Cranes were the highlight of that trip, but the refuge is home to many other bird species. Here are a few pictures of birds and other wildlife at the refuge:
Both species of pelican that occur in North America were quite common in the area. The smaller Brown Pelicans are coastal species and occur in the area year-round and breed there. American White Pelicans, however, are generally migratory, although there are populations in Texas and Mexico that do not migrate.
These two pelican species have different foraging styles. Brown Pelicans will dive for their food, and I frequently saw them dive straight into the water from the air. American White Pelicans do not dive like that and scoop prey from the water. They will also steal food from other species, especially cormorants.
The above picture shows three adult and one juvenile Brown Pelican. The dark brown bird is the juvenile. Note also the white necks on the adults. Adult Brown Pelicans have white necks when they are not breeding, while during the breeding season, the backs of their necks will be dark brown.
The black bird in above picture is a Neotropical Cormorant. Cormorants are frequently seen in the company of pelicans and both Neotropical and Double-crested Cormorants occur on the south Texas coast. These two cormorant species are not always easy to differentiate, although the neotropicals are smaller, have shorter beaks, and have longer tails. The shape of the gular (throat) pouch also differs between the two species.
I actually took the above photo in Lethbridge, Alberta, but it shows one structural difference between breeding and non-breeding American White Pelicans. During the early breeding season, American White Pelicans develop a round, horny disk on the top mandible of the beak. This is lost after the breeding season.
I managed to see quite a few “lifer” birds on the trip, as I’d never been to the east coast. A “lifer” would be a bird that I had never seen before. The Gull-billed Tern (seen in the above photo) and the Neotropical Cormorant were lifers for me. It’s always exciting to see a see a new species, and ever better for me if I can get a decent picture.
Osprey were very common, but I also managed to see a Peregrine Falcon. Peregrines are well-known for having the fastest dive speed among birds, as they can reach speeds of 320 km/hour during a dive. The species was considered endangered in the United States during the mid twentieth century, and population declines were largely due to the use of organochlorine pesticides (primarily DDT). These pesticides caused females to lay eggs with thin shells. The species has since made a recovery due to DDT bans and the release of captive-bred birds.
Shorebirds are abundant on the gulf coast during winter, as many species that breed further north overwinter there. Shown above is a Ruddy Turnstone. They spend the winters on the Atlantic and Pacific coasts of the USA and breed in the high Arctic. Their breeding plumage is much sharper than their winter plumage.
Willets (one is shown above) are medium shorebirds that overwinter on the Atlantic and Pacific coasts and breed on the north Atlantic coast and inland in central Canada and the northwestern USA. They are rather plain shorebirds, but in flight, they are easy to recognize due to the sharp, black and white striped patterns they have on the undersides of their wings.
Herons were also quite common, and the above photo shows a Snowy Egret (which is in the heron family). Cattle Egrets, Great Egrets, and Reddish Egrets also occur in the area.
Dolphins were also quite common and often swam beside or behind the boat. I also saw several dolphins while on a boat trip off of South Padre Island.
I took the photo of the above bird (a Long-billed Curlew) in a field between Harlingen and Corpus Christi. A very large flock of curlews was foraging in the field. Long-billed Curlews often forage for worms in pastures and their long bills help them probe deep into mud. On coasts, where some birds overwinter, they will forage for shrimp and crabs and can often reach them in their mud burrows.
A Ferruginous Hawk and Sprague’s Pipit were also present alongside the curlews. These three species are declining in Canada (the Ferruginous Hawk is particularly scarce), so seeing all of them in one spot was quite thrilling for me. I couldn’t get a decent picture of the hawk (it was too far away), but here’s a photo of one I took near Mountain View, Alberta.
The Texas pictures were all taken with a Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ70 camera. It has a 60X zoom lens, so I didn’t have to get too close to the birds to get decent pictures.
Suddenly, across one of those glimpses of eternity, there flocked the forms of two majestic birds; and from them came a far croaking trumpet sound. By their long wings, long necks, long legs and snowy plumes, I later knew they were two white cranes, the noblest thing that flies, sailing on to their northern home, and the ring triumphant of that stirring trumpet call still echoes in my heart.
Ernest Thompson Seton, on the Whooping Crane, from “Trail of the Artist-Naturalist, 1940.
Last post, I wrote about the parrots of the Rio Grande Valley in Texas. My main reason for visiting Texas was to attend the Rio Grande Birdwatching Festival. I chose this festival in particular because I would get to see wild parrots, and because one of the post-festival trips featured one of North America’s rarest birds: the Whooping Crane.
The Whooping Crane (Grus americana) came perilously close to extinction during the first half of the twentieth century. Populations had been declining due to hunting and habitat destruction, and by 1941, there were only 23 Whooping Cranes left in the world. Today, there are about 600 of them, with about 400 of those being wild birds.
Increasing the number of Whooping Cranes in the wild was a very difficult task for conservationists. The breeding range of last population was not discovered until 1954, well after it had become apparent that the species was in mortal danger. The species also has a low growth rate, as Whooping Cranes do not breed until age four (at the youngest) and pairs typically raise only one chick to fledgling each year. It helps that Whooping Cranes can be bred in captivity, but ensuring the survival of large numbers of released birds is difficult because they must learn their migration routes. To get around this problem, some cranes have been conditioned to follow ultra-light aircraft, which can then escort the birds on the appropriate migration route.
Today, there is only one self-sustaining wild Whooping Crane population, which is the one that overwinters on the Gulf Coast of Texas and breeds in Wood Buffalo National Park in northern Canada. There are also ongoing efforts to establish a non-migratory population in Louisiana, and a migratory population that overwinters in Florida and breeds in Wisconsin. The latter population has almost 100 birds in it.
Efforts to establish a “Rocky Mountain” population that would breed in the northern Rocky Mountains and winter in New Mexico was not successful. This is because the population was started by placing Whooping Crane eggs in Sandhill Crane nests. The Sandhill Cranes raised some Whooping Crane chicks, but as adults, the Whooping Cranes did not try to mate with each other but courted Sandhill Cranes instead.
There is also a small population of non-migratory Whooping Cranes in Florida (about 20 birds) and these are the descendants of captive-bred individuals that were released into the wild. No more captive-bred birds will be released into this flock as it has suffered from a high mortality rate.
Despite the difficulties inherent with conserving them, Whooping Cranes are no longer in imminent danger of disappearing and can thus be seen as a conservation success story (albeit one that is still ongoing, as they are still endangered).
I live in Alberta, and part of Wood Buffalo National Park, where Whooping Cranes breed, is in Alberta. However, the Whooping Cranes there are (apparently) very difficult to see and tend to nest in some very inaccessible muskeg areas. So, to have a chance at seeing these rare cranes, I headed to Texas.
The Whooping Crane tour group I was with stayed in the Rockport Area, and took a boat ride into the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge to see the cranes. It was a grey and chilly day, but that didn’t matter, as I managed to see 19 Whooping Cranes, including some juveniles. This year had been a particularly good one for the population, as at least thirty-two chicks were raised to fledgling.
The above photo shows an adult pair with their offspring, which is the one with some rust-coloured feathers. The young stay with their parents during their first winter.
That adult Whooping Cranes are territorial was apparent from seeing them in the wild. Each pair or trio (pair with young) had its own feeding area located at least a few hundred meters from other cranes. Birds would sometimes get too close to each other, which would result in some vocalizations and a threat display.
Cranes would sometimes erect their ‘bustle’ feathers (as seen above) and call out to each other. These calls presumably help the cranes maintain their territory boundaries. Cranes have unusual and distinctive-sounding calls because they have very long tracheae. In most birds, the trachea goes straight from the pharynx (back of throat), down to the syrinx (which is just above the lungs), and then it branches to form two bronchi that connect to the lungs. In a crane, the trachea is not straight, but forms a long, looping coil along the sternum (breastbone). Their long, coiled tracheae allow Whooping Cranes to produce resonating calls.
Occasionally, a pair of Whooping Cranes would engage in a courtship display, where they would open their wings and leap up and down, facing each other. It was a wonderful thing to get to see, and I managed to get a picture:
Sometimes, a bird would start a courtship display while its partner just foraged or gazed into the distance.
Although I did get to see their courtship displays, the cranes spend most of their time foraging. They are omnivorous, but eat more animal than plant matter. Blue crabs are one of the most important sources of food for them at the Aransas refuge, but they will also eat other crustaceans, molluscs, plant matter such as berries, and small vertebrates.
As can be seen in the above pictures, many Whooping Cranes have leg bands so that biologists can track the activities of individual birds. However, not all cranes I saw were banded, and biologists often avoid banding them now, as being captured and handled can be stressful for a wild bird. This does not mean that biologists cannot identify individual birds, as cranes can be identified by their voices. Cranes can be difficult to differentiate by just listening to them, but by recording their calls and making a digital ‘voiceprint’ for each crane, individual birds can now be recognized and studied.
That these graceful and stately birds can still be seen living in the wild is due to the hard work of multiple generations of conservationists, both amateur and professional. I am very grateful that I had the opportunity to view them in the wild, and I hope that future generations will be able to as well.
I recently traveled to Harlingen in south Texas to attend the Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival. One of the highlights of the festival (for me) was getting to see wild parrots, both with one of the festival tours and on my own.
People attending the festival could sign up for a ‘parrot tour’ of Harlingen. There are Mexican Red-headed Amazons (AKA Red-crowned Parrots, Amazona viridigenalis) and Green Conures (AKA Green Parakeets, Aratinga holochlora) living right in the city. During the parrot tours, three vans would head out in search of the parrots and the first van to find the parrots would let the other two know where they were. The festival occurs outside of the parrot breeding season, which means the roosting flocks would be quite large. When parrots are breeding, they will roost in or around their nests; thus they won’t form these huge flocks.
The tours started at 4 pm, which is when the parrots begin forming large roosting flocks. The parrots often forage and rest in smaller groups during the day but before nightfall they congregate in large groups. This is a very noisy process – the parrots will start calling noisily, and once a flock is assembled, they would all fly around, calling, until it was dark and they had found a suitable spot to sleep for the night. The parrot flocks would roost in slightly different locations each night so a bit of searching was needed to find them. The searching was done with the windows of the vans open, as conures and Amazons are very noisy, which makes them easier to find. The conures and the Amazons stayed in separate flocks.
The groups first went out in search of the Green Conures. The tour group I was with located a flock of them quite quickly. Most of the conures were perched on power lines, although a few were up in palm trees. Most were calling to each other and a few pairs were busy preening each other. Even though it was outside of the breeding season, mated pairs would stay close to each other.
A few of the Green Conures had some red feathers on their heads, but that is normal for the species. Green Conures do breed in the Rio Grande Valley so the population is self sustaining. They begin breeding in March. It is unclear whether the population was established from birds who dispersed in naturally from Mexico or from pet birds who escaped or were released (or both). As Green Conures do occur in northern Mexico, it is certainly plausible that they occur naturally in the Rio Grande Valley. The same is true for the Mexican Red-headed Amazons.
After locating the Green Conures, the groups went in search of the Amazons. When I did the tour, the group of Amazons was located along power lines and in trees in a residential neighbourhood. Their loud calls helped us find them. Tour leaders brought out spotting scopes so we could get better looks at the birds, and many people took photos, including me (although mine did not turn out very well). At one point, the entire flock of birds (about eighty or so) flew away as though something had startled them. We did later find the flock perched on power lines next to a church.
I later headed out to the Valley Nature Center in Weslaco (about a 20 minute drive west of Harlingen), as I read that parrots can be found in that area. I looked through the nature center and took a walk on the trails. I asked one of the staff if parrots frequent the area and she told me to stick around the park by the nature center at 5:00 pm or so because a large flock of Amazons generally roosts in the area. At about 5, I drove around the area (with the car windows open) and found a very large flock of Amazons about a block away from the nature center. This flock was composed primarily of Mexican Red-headed Amazons, but I did count about five Red-lored Amazons in the bunch. There was also a Double Yellow-headed Amazon with them.
The flock was incredibly noisy and more and more birds kept arriving from all directions. The birds would call, preen themselves, preen their partners, or squabble over positions in trees or on the wires. They were very amusing to watch.
At one point they got up and flew to another location about a block away. They settled there for a bit and then the entire flock circled around the neighbourhood before settling to roost in some large trees in someone’s front yard.
I enjoyed watching them so much that I returned to Weslaco a second time to seek out the flock. Again, I had no trouble finding them – I just drove around the neighbourhood until I heard the flock. I also stopped at the Frontera Audubon Center and did some birdwatching on their trails. Several turkey vultures were circling above the trails and I managed to get the below picture of one:
I also got a few more pictures of the Amazons:
Stay tuned for more blog posts about my birding trip to south Texas. I got to see some extremely rare birds and I will be sharing pictures of them!
Where I live (Alberta), the bird diversity decreases quite dramatically during the winter. Warblers, flycatchers, thrushes, shorebirds, and most waterfowl head south for the winter. However, the birds that do stay behind include chickadees, creepers, woodpeckers, nuthatches, waxwings, ravens, grouse, most owls, jays, and magpies, so the birding is still good. Some finches, merlins, juncos and kinglets stick around too. Common Goldeneyes, Mallards, and Canada Geese will also tough out the winter in areas where there is open water, such as where treated sewage effluent keeps areas of rivers and lakes warmer than normal. A few Bald Eagles will stick around and hunt the waterfowl, and eagles hunting ducks and geese can sometimes be seen right in Lethbridge, Calgary, or Edmonton.
There are also some species that show up in Alberta only in the winter and they make winter birdwatching quite interesting. These northern birds nest in the Arctic and often head south in winter in search of food. Such birds include Snowy Owls, Rough-legged Hawks, and redpolls. Redpolls are members of the finch family and there are two species: the Common Redpoll and the Hoary Redpoll. The two species look alike, although hoaries are paler overall and have white rumps.
Redpolls are birds of the north. Common Redpolls breed in Alaska, Nunavut, the Northwest Territories, the Yukon, and northern Ontario, Quebec and Manitoba. In Nunavut, they breed on the mainland and southern Baffin Island. Hoary (AKA Arctic) Redpolls nest even further north, in northern Alaska, Greenland, and the northern parts of Canada’s three territories, including northern Baffin Island and Ellesmere Island (the northernmost of the Arctic islands). Common and Hoary Redpolls also occur in northern Europe and Asia.
Many redpolls do head south in winter, not necessarily to escape the cold but to search for food. Many spend the winter in central and southern Canada. However, some still overwinter as far north as central Alaska, the Yukon and Northwest Territories. In years where redpoll numbers are high and there is a lack of small tree seeds (such as birch seeds) up north, they may start to show up as far south as the central United States in search of food. These influxes of redpolls into the central USA are referred to as “irruptions.”
When and where the redpolls show up varies from year to year. While many migratory birds breed and overwinter in the same areas each year, redpolls are wanderers. A redpoll that overwintered in the north one year may head thousands of kilometers south the next year and some will fly thousands of kilometers in one year. For example, a Common Redpoll banded in Belgium was later captured in China, 8350 km away. Another Common Redpoll banded in Fairbanks, Alaska during one winter was recaptured 5000 km away in Montreal, Quebec the next winter – a very impressive journey for such a small bird!
Redpolls will happily visit feeders and they particularly like black Nyger (or “Niger”) seeds. So, if you live in Canada or the northern US and want to see redpolls, try putting out a feeder stocked with Nyger seeds in winter. If there aren’t any redpolls in the area, you may still attract other finches, such as Pine Siskins. Like redpolls, Pine Siskins are finches that wander North America and migrate in response to varying food supplies.
Redpolls are very tough birds and can tolerate extremely low temperatures. After all, temperatures can dip to -45 C even in their ‘southern’ winter ranges. This is particularly impressive since these birds are small – without the feathers, they’re about the size of a human thumb. They also have to go twelve or more hours without eating during long northern nights. Most small birds need to eat frequently because of their high metabolic rates. So, how do redpolls withstand northern winters?
First, to help them make it through long nights, redpolls have an extra pouch in their throats (besides the crop) to store seeds in. The seeds can then be used as a fuel source throughout the nights. A redpoll can store up to 2 g of seeds in its pouch, and considering that redpolls are only 10-12 g, that is a lot of food! Besides Nyger seeds from feeders, they often feed on birch, alder, or aspen seeds.
Redpolls and other northern finches can also reduce the amount of energy they use at night by undergoing a process called ‘controlled hypothermia.’ During the night, redpolls with low fat reserves may also undergo a drop in body temperature by about 10 °C. Chickadees and House Sparrows do this as well. The reason they drop their temperatures is to conserve energy. The birds will use less energy to maintain a body temperature of ~ 30 C than a body temperature of ~ 40 C. The disadvantage is that they cannot move around well with such a low body temperature, but that doesn’t matter too much when they are sleeping.
Redpolls and many other small northern birds will also ‘clump’ together in tree cavities – or snow tunnels – to conserve heat. Redpolls in particular often tunnel into the snow to stay warm. On very cold days and nights, the ‘subnivean space’ (area under the snow) may be many degrees warmer than the area above the snow. Ptarmigan and grouse will also rest underneath the snow to stay warm. At rest, redpolls will also fluff up their feathers to trap air between them. The extra air trapped between the feathers does add some extra insulation. Additionally, redpolls will grow very thick coats of down before the winter season.
For me, redpolls mark the coming and going of winter. They tend to show up where I live in December, and head out by March or early April. I usually manage to see some every year and some years they absolutely inundate my backyard feeders. They definitely make winter birdwatching much more interesting as they can only be seen in the winter in many areas.
(Jan. 12 2014 edit: This year does not seem to be an irruption year. Very few redpolls showed up on bird counts in Alberta and some regions had none at all!).
Groth, J. 2001. “Finches and Allies.” In: The Sibley Guide to Bird Life and Behavior.” Elphick, C., Dunning, J. B. Jr., and Sibley, D. A., Eds. Alfred A. Knopf, New York, NY.
Newton I. 2006. Advances in the study of irruption. Ardea. 94: 433-460.
Reinertsen R. E. 1983. Nocturnal hypothermia and its energetic significance for small birds living in the arctic and subarctic regions. A review. Polar Research 1 n. s. 269-284.