Monthly Archives: January 2013

Lumping And Splitting

In last week's Tenth Page I mentioned that DNA test results can lead to lumping, splitting and reordering of bird species in our field guides and checklists.  Sometimes this drives me nuts.

An easy example of lumping occurred in December 2005 when the ABA lumped the black wagtail (Motacilla lugens) with the white wagtail (Motacilla alba).  The black one became Motacilla alba lugens.  They're all the same species, just different races.

Splitting occurs more often as DNA analysis shows that birds we thought were a single species are actually two or more.  Some birders welcome the splits because they get new birds to chase for their Life Lists.  For me, it's confusing ... or exasperating.

Case in point:  Prior to DNA analysis the winter wren (Troglodytes troglodytes) was listed as a single species in Europe, Asia and the Americas.  In November 2010 the ABA officially split it into three (or more) species:

  1. Eurasian wren, Troglodytes troglodytes, in Eurasia. (new common name)
  2. Winter wren, Troglodytes hiemalis, in eastern North America. (new scientific name)
  3. Pacific wren, Troglodytes pacificus, in western North America. (new names all around)

Why does this drive me nuts?

Practically speaking you can only tell these wrens apart by range but in northeastern British Columbia "Winter" and "Pacific" overlap.  Can you tell them apart in the field?  Only by a slight difference in their call notes.  Can you tell them apart in a photograph?  No.  How to be sure which one you've found?  Test his DNA.

The changes are a bookkeeping nightmare.  The Internet is sprinkled with old and new names.  Some birds have changed twice: Baltimore oriole became "northern oriole" (lumped with Bullock's oriole) and went back to Baltimore oriole (re-split).

I can't keep up!  Arg!


(Photo of a winter wren by Steve Gosser taken in October 2010, only a month before the bird's scientific name was changed.
Inspiration for this Tenth Page is from page 70-73 of Ornithology by Frank B. Gill.)

The Peacock’s Whoop

Peacocks are very noisy during the breeding season, especially when they call with repeated penetrating screams.

Not only do they scream but the male makes a unique call just before he mates with a female.  As he dashes toward her he lets out a bell-like whoop.

This call intrigued Duke University biologist Jessica Yorzinski.  Why do male peacocks do this?  The sound gives away their location and could tell predators, "Hey! There are two very distracted peacocks over here."

She studied the whoop by playing back recorded bird sounds, including crow caws and the whoop, to wild peacocks in India.  The peahens ignored the other sounds but when they heard the whoop they actually walked toward the audio speakers.  Yorzinski also tried the playback with captive peafowl at Duke.  The result was the same.  The ladies approached the sound as if they were thinking, "There's a really hot guy over there.  I think I'll go see."

In the video above a lone male makes two kinds of calls.  He repeats the scream interspersed with a sound like the "whoop"  at time codes 0:22, 0:39, 0:56, 1:08, and 1:44.   Yes, I think he's faking it.  He seems to be pretending he's mating with a peahen and hoping the other peahens come to see.

When he mates with a female in this video he makes a softer whoop, the real one.

Click here for more information on this study in Science Daily.

(video from peacocklover27 on You Tube)

Portrait Of A Young Peregrine

This juvenile peregrine falcon posed for his portrait last summer in Downtown Pittsburgh.  He, or she, is probably one of Dori and Louie's "kids" from last year's nest on Third Avenue.  Perhaps the only one.

I learned about this portrait last week.

Logan & Logan's law offices are on the 32nd floor of the Grant Building in Downtown Pittsburgh.  Jim Logan's window faces north, overlooking the Courthouse and BNY Mellon.

On July 3rd around 12:30pm, Jim noticed the outline of a large bird on the sill outside his window.   He wanted to raise the blind but he feared the bird would fly away so he took this picture beforehand.


When Jim raised the blind the bird didn't leave.   "Hello."

What was the peregrine doing there?

My hunch is that this youngster was taking a break from the heat.  He's in the shade holding his wings out and has an open notch of feathers on his breast.   The combination of all three cooling strategies lead me to believe this windowsill was one of the coolest spots in town.

And it certainly was for Jim!

Thanks to Jim Logan for sharing this glimpse of Dori and Louie's 2012 success.

(photos by James Logan of Logan & Logan Law Firm)

Why Don’t They Just Move?

When bird habitat disappears some people say, "Birds can fly.  They should just move and they'll be fine."

A new study published last month in Ecology Letters shows why that idea doesn't work.

Oxford University scientists, lead by Dr. Alex Pigot, studied the ovenbird(*) (Furnariidae) family in South America.  They found that closely related species who evolved similar feeding strategies do not live in the same area.  This isn't just a local exclusion, it's regional.

Feeding strategies are often characterized by the shape of the bird's beak and Furnariidae have some amazing ones!  This bird, the black-billed scythebill, pulls insects out of bark, bamboo and bromeliads.  The large range of his close relative, the red-billed scythebill, barely overlaps.  Each species has its niche.

What happens to displaced birds when habitat is lost?   Obviously, the homeless birds find a new location but other species are already there and successfully exploiting the niche the new birds need.  Out-competed by locals, the new arrivals may not survive.

Thus the study suggests that the effects of climate change will not be a simple shifting of bird populations but new layers of competition in a changing world.

Read more about this study of beaks and ranges here in Science Daily.

(photo of a black-billed scythebill in Brazil from Wikimedia Commons.  Click on the image to see the original)


(*) Furnariidae are not related to our ovenbird warbler though both build nests that look like little Dutch ovens.

Scarce Loggerheads

Still on the theme of South Florida birds...  last month when I visited Wakodahatchee Wetlands I noticed that a formerly common bird was missing.

I used to see loggerhead shrikes out there, but this year I didn't see any. As I drove around the area I could see why.

On my first visit to Wakodahatchee in December 1996 the site had been newly transformed from an open sewage treatment facility to a man-made wetland complete with boardwalk.  Back then the site was still embedded in farmland, Jog Road was only two lanes wide, and the road grid from Delray ended nearby.

Since then Wakodahatchee's habitat proved its worth for birds and made the area more appealing to people by removing the sewage smell.  Now, 17 years later, the farmland is gone and the wetland is surrounded by housing developments, shops, parking lots, and a widened road grid.  The last bit of open habitat, Green Cay Wetlands, was preserved by Ted and Trudy Winsberg when they sold their farm to Palm Beach County Water Utility.

The suburbanization of western Palm Beach County eliminated the open habitat required by loggerhead shrikes and probably reduced the insect and rodent population they feed on.  When their habitat disappeared, the shrikes moved elsewhere.  Unfortunately, both the loggerhead shrike and their favored habitat are becoming scarce.

And so, this year I didn't see any loggerhead shrikes at Wakodahatchee.  I am not surprised but I'm not pleased.

As Joni Mitchell sings in Big Yellow Taxi, "Don't it always seem to go that you don't know what you've got till it's gone. "

(photo by Chuck Tague)

Fortuitous Fulvous

As I mentioned yesterday, I've been to Wakodahatchee Wetlands so often in late December that it's pretty hard for me to see a Life Bird(*) there, but bad weather did me a favor.

Our Florida vacation was supposed to end on the day after Christmas but if you remember the weather on December 26 a winter storm was wreaking havoc on everyone's travel plans in Pittsburgh.  Our flight was canceled.  We were forced to stay in Florida one more day.

Of course I went birding.  I tried to find razorbills at Boynton Beach Inlet but the big flocks had already left for the Gulf Coast.  (Read here about the razorbills' amazing invasion in Florida.)

On the 27th I had just a few hours to absorb birds so I went to Wakodahatchee.

Among the flocks of adult and juvenile black-bellied whistling ducks there was a bird that didn't match.  I checked my field guide and behold!  A Life Bird!  A fulvous whistling-duck.

If I hadn't been there that morning I wouldn't have seen him.  Too bad I had to spend an extra day in sunny Florida.  😉

(photo from Wikimedia Commons. Click on the image to see the original)


p.s. Some definitions:
A "Life Bird" is a species I've never seen before in my whole life.
Fulvous is a color -- the color of this duck.

Trying To Fit In

I missed him the first time.

Over the Christmas holiday my family had a mini reunion in Boca Raton, Florida.  Between bouts of happy socializing and overeating I went birding at one of my favorite places, Wakodahatchee Wetlands.

On December 23 I spent five hours there and didn't even notice a very special bird.  Perhaps that's because he was trying to fit in and, to my untrained eye, he succeeded.

The next day I read the Florida "Birdbrains" bird reports and found out I'd missed a neotropic cormorant hanging out on the double-crested cormorants' nesting island.  He'd been there a while, had a predictable perch, and was easy to see.  I just hadn't noticed him.

What a disappointment!  He would have been a Life Bird (a species I'd never seen before).  I went back to Wakodahatchee at my next opportunity and this time I knew what to look for.

Neotropic cormorants (Phalacrocorax brasilianus) range from South America to Texas and Louisiana but are rare in Florida.  They're very similar to double-crested cormorants except they're slightly smaller, sometimes paler, and have a white line where the lower beak meets the chin.  You can see this in Dan Irizarry's photo above (double-crested on left, neotropic on right) but it's not particularly noticeable when he's one bird preening on a crowded island of similar birds.

On my next visit I found him.  He was blending in with the larger birds and able to regain his favorite perch even when a double-crested cormorant used it in his absence.

As a bird out of place, he was trying to fit in.  In my opinion he did a pretty good job of it.

(photo of double-crested and neotropic cormorants at Apopka, Florida by Dan Irizarry)

Unlikely Relatives

If you were looking for the flamingo's closest living relative it's unlikely that you'd ever pick a grebe, but it's true.

As DNA testing became perfected in the late 20th century, scientists naturally turned their attention to birds.  What does bird DNA show about their relationships?  The studies told us more than we bargained for.

Pictured above are a pied-billed grebe (Podilymbus podiceps) and an American flamingo (Phoenicopterus ruber).   Based on DNA research (van Tuinen, et al, 2001) the families of grebes (Podicipediformes) and flamingoes (Phoenicopteriformes) are each other's closest living relatives.  Studies indicate they have a common ancient ancestor which is now extinct.

This finding was only the tip of the iceberg.  In many cases DNA testing confirmed previous taxa but in some cases unrelated birds were shown to be related, previously related birds were pulled asunder, taxonomic order had to be revised and scientific names were changed.

This makes for an ever-changing array of new field guides with new names and new orders.  The black-bellied whistling duck is now the first bird on the ABA Checklist.  Years ago the common loon came first.

I love all this new information but renaming the warblers was more than I could bear.  I wish they'd tossed out Setophaga and named them all Dendroica.

(Inspiration for this Tenth Page is from page 70-73 of Ornithology by Frank B. Gill.    Pied-billed grebe photo by Chuck TagueFlamingo photo by Aaron Logan on Wikimedia Commons)

Bird Tales, January 6

LATE BREAKING NEWS (1/4/13 at 4:30pm)!  We had trouble with the show archive so WQED will not run Bird Tales at 5:00pm on January 6.  Instead we will re-run Opposable Chums.

Bird Tales Review:

Why are we so inspired by birds?  How can we inspire others?

The answers will come this Sunday when WQED airs Bird Tales, a program that follows a dozen educators in the U.S. and Nicaragua who describe their fascination with birds and their enthusiasm that inspires others.

  • Sarah Zuccarelli teaches visitors at a bird sanctuary in Center Sandwich, New Hampshire.
  • Don Kroodsma records birdsong and teaches us to listen.
  • Abraham Hunter is a young artist whose paintings of birds have gained national acclaim.
  • Bob Gerson is a prison inmate in New Jersey whose lifelong love of birds has prompted him to write.
  • And through it all we're inspired by educators from the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center and teachers in Washington, D.C. and Nicaragua who are "Bridging the Americas" by uniting their students through education and conservation of migratory birds.

Birds link us to each other and to nature.  In Washington and Nicaragua, the children share the same birds who spend summers up north and winters in Central America.  They learn to treat nature with respect; some will inspire the next generation.  Along the way we're treated to the sights and sounds of the birds we love.


(screenshot from Bird Tales by NHPTV. Click on the image to watch a preview)