Monthly Archives: January 2011

Gyrfalcons and Ptarmigans: The Link

About the size of a red-tailed hawk, gyrfalcons are the largest falcon on earth.

They live in the Arctic around the globe in Scandinavia, Iceland, Greenland, northern Canada, Alaska and Siberia.  Even in darkest winter adult gyrfalcons stay up north, though individual juveniles may winter as far south as the Chesapeake.

Gyrfalcons eat many things but ptarmigan are their favorite prey.  Studies have shown that their breeding success is tied to the abundance of ptarmigan in their home territory and that their population fluctuates in synch with the ptarmigan’s 10-year population cycle.

How closely are gyrfalcons tied to ptarmigan?  This dramatic video shows a gyrfalcon hunting for ptarmigan, something it’s especially skilled to do.  (Don’t watch if you don’t like to see birds hunting birds.  The gyr catches a ptarmigan.)

Now the Arctic’s climate is changing.  The ice is melting.  Ptarmigan peak populations do not rebound as high as before and gyrfalcon breeding success has declined.

What will happen to gyrfalcons and ptarmigan as the arctic warms?

That’s the subject of a three-day conference this week in Boise, Idaho entitled Gyrfalcons and Ptarmigan in a Changing World.

Convened by The Peregrine Fund, Boise State University and the US Geological Survey, the conference will explore the future of an arctic keystone species — the ptarmigan — and an indicator species — the gyrfalcon.  When the conference ends, the Peregrine Fund and their partners will develop a strategy for monitoring the gyrfalcon and, if need be, acting to save it.

I hope that saving it won’t be necessary.

Click here for information on the papers to be presented at the conference.  Click here to read about The Peregrine Fund and view the excellent video on their home page.

p.s.  “Gyr” is pronounced “jerr.”

(video from YouTube)


Everyone knows I love wild birds so I often receive gifts with birds drawn or sculpted on them.  Inevitably I try to identify the bird the artist used as a model.

Most products are made overseas nowadays, so the models could be real Chinese birds or inaccurately drawn from photographs of North American or European species.  I rarely assume they are totally fictional.

However, if I’d never seen a male painted bunting I’d think the artists invented this bird.

Definitely painted!

Chuck Tague photographed this one at a feeder at Merritt Island, Florida.

(photo by Chuck Tague)

Talk to me

Meet Disco, a budgerigar that speaks in complete sentences. He may be the most famous talking budgie but he’s not the only one who can do it.

How and why do parrots learn to speak?

Birds sing using their syrinx, a fancy two-sided voicebox with muscles that can control each side independently.  This allows the bird to sing harmony with itself, something that wood thrushes are especially good at.

Songbirds, parrots and hummingbirds(!) learn their songs.  The rest make appropriate sounds but don’t improve upon them.

Most songbirds learn during a sweet spot of time while they’re growing up.  In white-crowned sparrows this is at 10 to 50 days old, and then they’re done.  Mockingbirds, on the other hand, learn new songs throughout their lives.

Birds learn by listening to and memorizing the phrases and song traditions of adults in their area, though they don’t practice them at first.  After they’ve memorized the audio template, they begin practicing out loud to match it.  Studies on the brain waves of zebra finches show that they think about their songs while asleep and practice in their dreams!

Because parrots are social birds, they learn and practice the song traditions of their flock in order to become part of the group.  For pet birds, their flocks are the members of their household so they learn the phrases they hear and repeat them when the flock is happy together or when they want attention (as in “Flock, come here!”).

Even so, it’s impressive when a bird speaks in complete sentences.  Disco is a virtuoso!

(video from the BBC on YouTube)


Yesterday I mentioned that birds eat rose hips.  In case you don’t believe it, here’s proof.

Last week Cris Hamilton found a flock of nine eastern bluebirds at Crooked Creek feasting on multiflora rose hips.  She captured this one with open beak. 

Lucky birds!  The thorns don’t bother them at all.

(photo by Cris Hamilton)

Winter Weeds: Multiflora Rose

This is a real weed.

Ask anyone who studies native plants and they’ll tell you Multiflora rose (Rosa multiflora) is a scourge.

Brought here in the 1800’s as a potentially healthy graft for ornamental roses (which didn’t work, by the way) and then promoted as a “living fence” and erosion control, multiflora rose is now federally listed as an invasive species.

It spreads easily, thrives in disturbed soil, and quickly outcompetes native species.  And it’s hard to get rid of!  It grows into a dense shrub up to 15 feet tall that’s covered in very prickly thorns.

The good news is that multiflora rose provides food and cover for wildlife.  Shown here are its fruits, called rose hips, which birds eat in winter.

Rose hips are small but packed with vitamin C.  You can make them into tea but you need up to 1.5 cups of ground rose hips for every one cup of water.  It’s a painful, prickly harvest that takes the fun out of what becomes a sour cup of hot water.

I’ve often wondered why they’re called “hips” so I looked it up.  Hip (pelvis) and hip (fruit) come from different words that now sound alike.  Hip (pelvis) comes from the word hop (jump).  Hip (fruit) comes from the Dutch word “joop” which means fruit.

Look for multiflora rose in winter and you’ll find it almost everywhere.  Look closely inside the bush and you’ll probably find a bird or two.

(photo by Dianne Machesney)

Well Equipped

To us a winter field looks empty but there’s food under the snow if you can hear it.

This snowy owl is standing on prey in Kingston, Ontario, caught in the act by Kim Steininger.

Kingston is known for the large number of snowy owls who spend the winter there — but not this year.  Kim and Paul found only one.

As Kim writes, “Paul and I went up there hoping to photograph Snowy Owls but we were only able to find one and we weren’t able to find her every day so we didn’t get many shots.  One day she was hanging out on the ground about a football field away from us.  After a couple hours of waiting for her to do something she flew about 40 feet away from us and caught a vole!!!  We were floored!”

Waiting for a great shot like this has got to be an incredibly cold endeavor.  I’m in awe of photographers and birders who can do it.

But it’s all a matter of preparation.  Snowy owls are well equipped to hunt under harsh conditions with their downy insulation and excellent hearing (they can hear voles moving under the snow!).  If I want to see snowy owls doing exciting things, I have to be well equipped too.

Or to put it another way… 

“There is no such thing as bad weather; it’s inappropriate gear.”
— words of wisdom from a Tlingit woman in Seward Bay, Alaska, thanks to Dick Martin.

(photo by Kim Steininger)

Quiz: Whose Baby?


Whose curly-headed baby bird is this?

Here are some hints:

  • He is on an island in the Pacific Ocean.
  • His species is critically endangered because 99.9% of them nest this island only.
  • His parents built no nest.  His mother laid his egg on bare ground.
  • It took two months for this baby to hatch, then six more months before he can fly.
  • His parents feed him regurgitated oil derived from fish, squid and crustaceans.
  • Sometimes he must wait a long time between feedings because his parents travel 6 to 60 miles to find food.
  • He is one of 22 species in this family of birds (species count from BirdLife International).
  • A famous poem tells us it’s very bad luck to kill this type of bird.

Do you know who he is?  Leave a comment with your answer. 

UPDATE at 9:45am:  Most of you guessed the family of birds correctly.  Can any of you guess the exact species?  Hint: This is a tropical island.


(photo by Deborah Acklin)

Hiding in Snow

We just went through a very weird weather week that started and ended with snow but melted in the middle… and now it’s very cold!

Last month I mentioned that willow ptarmigan hide in the snow to avoid predators.  Here’s one nestled up to its neck, almost invisible except for his beak and eyes. 

It’s awesome that he stays warm.

I don’t think Pittsburgh has enough snow to hide a ptarmigan right now, but I bet the Laurel Highlands does!

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

To Bathe or Not To Bathe

My heated birdbath is frozen today in 0oF weather, but when the sun came out last Sunday a small flock of starlings decided to take a bath.

It was 20o with snow on the ground that day, but they didn’t care.  At one point up to six of them splashed simultaneously.  The crowd was so large some perched at the edge to wait their turn.

Soon it was evident that getting wet in cold weather had some disadvantages.  The sun went behind a cloud and those still wet found it hard to dry off.  It was taking longer than they’d planned.

I went to another part of the house for a few minutes and when I next looked outside my window a red-tailed hawk was carrying a starling in his talons to a favorite dining perch.  One of those wet starlings was about to be lunch.

So I wonder if starlings ever ask themselves this question about winter baths:

“To bathe or not to bathe, that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The Slings and Arrows of dirty feathers;
Or to take a bath in a Sea of bubbles,
And by freezing end them: To die, to sleep
No more … ”

With a nod to Shakespeare, whose mention of starlings brought them to America.  (Click here for the real Hamlet soliloquy.)

(photo by Paul Brentnall at Click on the photo to see the original)