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!
Back to blogging again! I haven’t been blogging too much lately as I’ve been busy with a new job (I’m a wildlife biologist for an environmental consulting firm now) and I’ve been spending a lot of time working with this guy (the white/grey one):
Onto parrots: here’s a news article about Blue-throated Macaws out of Canada. Blue-throated Macaws look similar to the much more common Blue and Gold Macaws, but they are smaller, lack the green on the head, and have ‘blue’ beards instead of black ones. The feathers on the face are also blue on a Blue-throated Macaw (they are black on a blue and gold). Blue-throated Macaws are critically endangered and have a restricted range in the wild, as they are found only in north-central Bolivia.
I hope this release works out well. I admit I’d be very hesitant to release a bird that’s been living in captivity for 14 years into the wild. Perhaps they’ll wait and see which birds seem most suitable for release before letting them go? This is certainly a very generous move on the part of the breeder of these birds.
New life for endangered macaws from Cowichan
According to the World Parrot Trust, for every blue-throated macaw in the wild, there are 3,750 African elephants, 200 rhinos, 12 giant pandas, and six mountain gorillas.
That’s about to change, however slightly, with the release of 17 birds raised in Shawnigan Lake.
Those birds are among 27 who are leaving April Sanderson’s Shawnigan Lake aviary this week. Five breeding pairs will remain in Toronto, where African Lion Safari will take over Sanderson’s breeding program, while the majority will eventually head to Bolivia to be gradually released into their natural habitat.
It is the result of a lifetime with parrots.
“I’ve had parrots since I was a child,” said Sanderson, who will still have three blue-throated macaws – her pets – when all is said and done. “I got my first one when I was nine, and I’ve worked with them all my life.”
Sanderson started breeding parrots for the pet trade, but soon discovered that wasn’t a business she wanted to be part of, particularly since many pet parrots end up in unfortunate circumstances.
“A lot of people don’t know how to care for parrots,” she noted.
Not wanting to give up working with the birds altogether, Sanderson decided to breed them for the World Parrot Trust’s conservation program.
That has involved an extreme amount of permits and contracts, and the birds have all been quarantined at her aviary for the last five years, with no contact with other parrots or even other parrot owners.
It has also required at least three hours of labour a day, seven days a week, limiting family holidays, and cost hundreds of dollars a month to keep them fed and sheltered.
“It has been hard for my family to understand,” Sanderson admitted.
Sanderson’s five breeding pairs represent nine different bloodlines, probably one of the most diverse breeding groups in North America, which will help prevent inbreeding in the wild.
Parrot release programs are controversial, which Sanderson readily acknowledges.
“There are two teams,” she explained.
“One wants to protect the existing population, and the other wants to release more birds.”
The wild population of blue-throated macaws is estimated at around 125, within an area roughly the size of Vancouver Island. Breeding pairs usually have just one chick per year. The survival rates of those few chicks are low, and Sanderson believes releases are necessary.
“With numbers so low, I don’t believe they can recover without human intervention,” she said.
The efforts in Bolivia are modeled after the successful Ara Project, which has helped reintroduce two species of macaw in Costa Rica.
The birds are closely watched, and will begin their time in South America in huge aviaries, where they will be able to build their flight wings, transition to the wild diet, and get accustomed to the climate.
Despite all her hard work, and that of everyone involved in Toronto and Bolivia, Sanderson has accepted that there won’t be a 100 per cent survival rate once the birds are released, but still feels it’s worth it.
“They’re not all going to make it,” she said.
“I’m not being naive about it. I know some of them are going to die, but what are the species’ chances? Our generation could be the last one to see them.”
© Cowichan Valley Citizen – See more at: http://www.cowichanvalleycitizen.com/news/new-life-for-endangered-macaws-from-cowichan-1.1324494#sthash.DMPaZCoB.dpuf
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.
Back to blogging! I do want to write more about native North American birds here, but first I want to write about the most common and popular of the macaw species: the Blue and Gold Macaw (Ara ararauna).
Of all the large macaw species that are available as pets in North America, the Blue and Gold Macaw is the most common. This is likely because they breed well in captivity (if set up and cared for properly), they can often talk quite well, and they are beautiful. They are not globally endangered and many were imported into North America until the early 90s.
The Blue and Gold Macaw is the quintessential parrot – big, bold, colourful, and talkative. In the wild, they can be found in the northern half of South America and southern Panama in a variety of lowland habitats, including city parks. They feed on fruits, nuts, and seeds and their powerful beaks can crack open very tough shells.
Wild blue and golds are often seen in small flocks, and outside of the breeding season, they will often sleep in groups. However, even within a group, it can be very evident which birds constitute breeding pairs, as pairs will typically fly and feed close together, even outside of the breeding season. When I was in Brazil, I noticed most of the macaws I saw seemed to be paired off. Even within flocks, it wasn’t hard to tell who the couples were.
Macaws as Pets
As far as their suitability as pets goes, Blue and Gold Macaws can be either phenomenal companions or a pet owner’s worst nightmare. It all depends on the owner’s expectations. Due to their size, loud voices, and powerful beaks, macaws are generally considered to be high maintenance pets.
First, because of their strong beaks and curiosity, macaws cannot typically be allowed to freely roam in a house without supervision. Thus, a cage is needed and a suitable macaw cage will often cost $1000 or more. However, a macaw should never be confined to a cage for its whole life, and thus macaw keepers often must invest in a large parrot stand (or two) for the bird to perch on when outside of the cage. Even with access to interesting bird stands, many macaws will roam around a house. An outdoor cage or aviary is also a nice thing for a macaw to have.
I recently (a year and a half ago) got a twenty-three year old Blue and Gold Macaw named Pteri. She is the bird in all of the pictures accompanying this article. Her cage is in the living room of the house, but she is generally out of her cage if someone is home to watch her. She has a big parrot stand downstairs to perch on and a few places to perch upstairs. Her parrot stand also has chew toys hanging on it. However, she still likes to walk around the house and climb on the bannisters. She sometimes climbs up the bannisters and slides down them. She’s quite good about not destroying things she shouldn’t but will sometimes try to chew furniture and walls. If she does that, she is given something more suitable to chew on. If she’s really bored, she’ll climb on the curtains.
Speaking of chewing, macaws do need things to chew on. Pteri does like to chew on wood, baskets, pine cones and other similar items and her cage is generally stocked with safe chew toys. She has some store bought toys, but macaw toys are generally quite expensive (especially considering their purpose is to be destroyed). A lot of her chew toys are natural items from outside. Note that it is important to be sure that natural plants given to parrots are nontoxic and have not been sprayed with pesticides.
One question that nearly all parrot owners are asked is “does s/he talk?” Blue and Gold Macaws are often very good talkers. Pteri can say hi, good morning, water, what, apple, popcorn, corn, pasta, cat, hot, and parrot, and she can laugh and bark like a dog. She also uses a few words appropriately. For example, she greets people who come in the house with an enthusiastic “Hi!” and she says “water” when ever I change her water or give her a spray bath. She also says “Good morning!” in the morning. She uses other words at random and doesn’t appear to know what they mean.
Although many macaws I know can talk, not all macaws speak well and even macaws that can talk will often make a lot of loud screeches and squawks. Pteri often talks to herself when no one is around and she will also screech periodically. Her screeches are high pitched and extremely loud. Such vocalizations can often be minimized using behavioural modification techniques, but it takes patience and it’s unreasonable to expect a macaw to be a quiet animal. I also tend to tell people who want a parrot primarily because a talking animal appeals to them to rethink their decision. Not all parrots talk, and some who can talk only learn a few phrases. And as I always say, the novelty of having a talking bird will wear off!
The Mess Factor
Macaws (along with cockatoos) are among the messiest birds one can keep. They of course poop a lot, but they can also make a mess with their food and toys. Pteri loves nuts so her diet does include some walnuts, pecans, hazel nuts, and almonds in the shell. She sometimes receives Brazil nuts as well. She always somehow manages to get the shells outside of her cage, so I have to clean that up. The woody debris from her chew toys also ends up outside of her cage as well. Still, she isn’t as bad as Mitri, my Lesser Sulphur-crested Cockatoo, who actually kicks food bits, wood, and paper outside of his cage.
That Huge Beak…
A lot of people find macaws to be very intimidating. That’s not completely unreasonable, as macaws do have large, strong beaks. A large macaw can slice through a walnut or hazelnut shell like it’s butter. Macaw bites are painful.
However, there are steps one can take to minimize the likelihood of being bitten. Macaws are not subtle in their body language and will often give warnings before they bite. An agitated macaw will likely lower her head, pin her pupils and erect her head feathers. Don’t ever try to touch or pick up a macaw who is giving such warning signals. Some macaws will also lunge and shriek before biting. Pteri does that, but she only rarely actually bites.
Training a macaw from a young age to step up on an arm or a hand-held perch can also make her easier to handle. Parrots trained with positive techniques are less likely to become biters than parrots trained with force. A macaw is also less likely to become a “one-person bird” if handled by multiple people. I’ve met many macaws – primarily blue and golds and greenwings – who have remained quite friendly to even strangers into adulthood.
It’s quite important that a potential macaw owner not be intimidated by the bird. Macaws often become very difficult when their owners become afraid of them. What can happen is that the bird will lunge or bite once, and the owner then becomes afraid of the bird. As the bird is handled less frequently, she will become more unsure of people and will become more likely to nip. That results in less handling, and the frustrated macaw may become more bitey and noisy. Macaw owners must be comfortable around large birds so that doesn’t happen.
Macaws are very social birds and they can be quite demanding of attention. A macaw is not the type of bird that can be left in a cage all day. Most will want to be with their people. Pteri seems happy as long as she’s perched near me or my husband. She talks back to people who talk to her (although her responses don’t always make sense) and she will yell to be let out of her cage if she feels she’s been in there too long. Macaws are also quite capable of learning tricks. In short, they are very interactive, high energy and demanding pets.
Most macaws will do well on a good pelleted diet supplemented with nuts, seeds, fruits, vegetables, and other healthful ‘people’ foods.
I noted a few times above that macaws respond well to training using positive reinforcement. A few books about parrot training are available and include The Parrot Problem Solver by Barbara Heidenreich and Clicker Training for Birds by Melinda Johnson.
The best book written about macaws is, alas, out of print. It’s called The Large Macaws: Their Care, Breeding, and Conservation and it’s by Joanne Abramson (author), Brain L. Speer (author), Jorgen B. Thomsen (editor), and Marsha Mello (illustrator). Used copies are not cheap, but if you don’t have hundreds of dollars to spend on a book, try finding a copy at a library. I had to use an inter-library loan to get a copy to look at.
There are a couple of basic macaw care guides available from Avian Publications as well.
Part of my job this summer as an interpreter in a national park involves doing “point duties.” This means I set up information displays about specific topics at popular spots in the park and answer people’s questions.
This week, I was set up in front of a popular waterfall. Standing on the rocks in the creek the waterfall flowed into were two small, noisy grey birds. They were bopping up and down while making very loud beeping noises. Another grey bird would would eventually arrive and feed them.
These birds were hard not to notice and of course people wanted to know what type of birds they were. What puzzled people is that these weren’t the typical sorts of birds that are usually seen by water. They weren’t ducks or herons but looked more like songbirds.
They were dippers! More precisely, American Dippers (Cinclus mexicanus). Dippers are in the order that contains the songbirds (Passeriformes) but unlike other songbirds they are largely aquatic and inhabit fast-moving streams. Dippers are in the family Cinclidae, which contains five species. Only one species is found in North America, and the rest occur in South America, Europe, Asia, and the Atlas Mountains of Morocco. In Europe, they are called “Water Ouzels.”
Dippers are the only type of songbird that dive and walk underwater. Despite being aquatic birds, they do not have webbed feet and instead have typical songbird feet, which have three toes pointing forward and one (the “hallux”) pointing backward. The term for that configuration is “anisodactyl.”
Despite the lack of webbed feet, dippers do have several adaptations that make them well suited for an aquatic lifestyle. Their preen glands (“uropygial glands”), which are situated above their tails, are extremely large for their size. In fact, they are about ten times as large as the glands seen in other similar-sized songbirds. Preen glands secrete an oily substance that contains a complex mixture of waxes and other fats. When a dipper preens, it will rub its beak on the preen gland and will proceed to rub the oil on its feathers. The oil helps waterproof the feathers and prevents the barbules from breaking.
Dippers also have flaps in their nostrils that prevent water from entering their noses. While foraging, dippers often repeatedly dip their heads into streams. This bobbing or dipping motion gives them their name.
Perhaps the most interesting facet of dipper biology is the fact that they often stay by mountain streams all year, even in areas where winter temperatures drop well below zero. I’ve seen dippers out foraging in -20 C weather. All they need is open water, and mountain streams in Canada may contain unfrozen parts in winter if they flow fast enough. Many dippers overwinter in northwest Canada and even Alaska, although they will move if their streams freeze over. Their highly waterproof feathers and ultra-thick coats of down contribute to their ability to tolerate some very harsh conditions.
Dippers need to be able to go long periods of time without breathing while they forage underwater. They can indeed go longer without oxygen (30 seconds) than other song bird species can. Thirty seconds doesn’t sound like long but it is for such a small bird. Dippers have higher concentrations of hemoglobin in their blood than do other songbirds. Hemoglobin is the pigment in red blood cells that carries oxygen and delivers it to tissues. Since dippers can carry a great deal of oxygen in their blood, they can spend a lot of time underwater. They feed primarily on aquatic invertebrates and must often submerge themselves to find them.
To forage underwater, dippers must be able to see underwater. Their irises actually have better developed sphincter muscles associated with them than do the irises of related songbirds. When a dipper goes underwater, the muscle will contract and allow the bird to focus its eyes while underwater. The iridial sphincter muscle is actually strong enough to alter the shape of the lens.
Many aquatic birds (such as ducks and geese) go through a molt at the end of summer that leaves them temporarily flightless. This is because they replace their flight feathers all at once. Although dippers are very distantly related to the Anseridae (family that contains ducks and geese) they do this as well. In late summer, dippers molt out their flight and tail feathers and become incapable of flight at this time. They can fly during the rest of the year, although I rarely see them flying far from streams. Their wings are quite short and stubby, and therefore function well as flippers.
So, if you’re ever hiking by a mountain stream in western North America, keep your eye out for dippers. They may look plain, but are quite tough and fascinating birds!
First, a link to an interesting article about the problem-solving abilities of cockatoos:
Goffin’s Cockatoos living at the University of Vienna were able to manipulate a complex lock to retrieve a nut. What’s extraordinary about this is that they were not trained to do that.
The fact that the cockatoos often explore their environment using their sense of touch seemed to help them solve the task. They would feel the nuts and bolts of the lock and learn how they worked by manipulating them with their tongues and feet.
My own Lesser Sulphur-crested cockatoo, Mitri, likes to play with nuts and bolts. He actually started to take his cage apart by removing nuts from bolts.
My husband had to replace the regular nuts with lock nuts (that Mitri cannot unscrew). Mitri is also good at escaping from cages.
The same research group at the University of Vienna also found that the Goffin’s Cockatoos could make their own tools to retrieve a nut out of their reach. Click the below link to find out more:
Mitri also uses tools, but not to retrieve nuts. He uses popsicle sticks to scratch himself.
One species of cockatoo, the Black Palm Cockatoo, uses tools as part of a courtship display.
Cockatoos are amazing birds.
On another note, I noted in my last post that I’m working in Waterton Lakes National Park this summer. I’ve been posting some of the photos I’ve taken there on flickr. Click the below link to see the album: