Category Archives: Bird Behavior

Oh! No! Snow!

Ducks emerging from the barn at Sanctuary@SHO, Vermont (screenshot from video)

Every morning the ducks at Sanctuary@SHO in Huntington, Vermont burst out of the barn and run down to the orchard to feed. Their enthusiasm is infectious. It must be one of the favorite parts of their day (see video here).

On a recent November morning they ran out of the barn as usual and into the first snowfall.

Here’s their reaction.

Oh! No! Snow!

(videos and screenshots from Sanctuary@SHO in Huntington, Vermont)

A Murmuration Of Shorebirds

A murmuration of sandpipers, Washington state, Nov 2018 (screenshot from YouTube video)

When European starlings are frightened by an aerial predator they fly in tight formation in a giant shimmering blob called a murmuration. If you’ve never seen it, check out these two examples: Murmurations in Lorain by Chad+Chris Saladin and Murmuration a 2011 film on Vimeo.

Starlings aren’t the only ones who fly like this. Shorebirds are masters at staying in formation, flying high and low and sweeping between the waves when threatened from above.

In the video below, a shorebird flock flashes black and white at Ocean Shores, Washington in November 2018. Their backs are dark, their bellies are white, so they change color as they turn in the air.

The flock is doing this for a reason.

Watch a predator dive in at the 0:13 time mark. It looks like a peregrine falcon to me. 🙂

(screenshot from video by Peggy Dolane on YouTube)

p.s. Starlings and sandpipers have other similarities. Back in 2008 I mused about starlings as “Land”pipers.

What Swans Do With Their Heads Underwater

This week Britain’s BBO Wildlife Trust shared a glimpse into the underwater world of swans and ducks.

Mute swans have such long necks that they can feed on the bottom while floating on the surface. Ducks have to dive.

While the swan is feeding tufted ducks come and go, their bodies so buoyant that their feet must flap continuously to keep them submerged.

If this had been filmed in North America they would be our own species: tundra swans and ring-necked ducks.

(video from Jack Perks via BBO Wildlife Trust)

A Bird That Smells Like Manure

Hoatzin in Ecuador (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Here’s an amazing bird unlike any other. Found in the Amazon and Orinoco Basins of South America, the pheasant-like hoatzin (pronounced Watson, Opisthocomus hoazin) eats leaves as 82% of its diet.

Leaves are really hard to digest so the bird has a huge crop that ferments the leaves and makes adult hoatzins smell like manure. The breath of mammal ruminants — cattle, sheep, goats, deer — may smell sweet. Not so with the hoatzin!

The hoatzin’s huge crop allows little room for flight muscles, so the bird is barely able to fly but that doesn’t matter. No one eats a bird that smells this bad.

Hoatzin in flight (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Hoatzin nestlings don’t smell bad yet so they have to escape predators. During development in the egg, the young birds retain vestigial wing claws that all other birds lose during gestation. Before they can fly, hoatzin nestlings can climb back into their nests!

Read more about hoatzins and see video of a nestling crawling back into the nest at this vintage blog post: Watson, I Presume.

(photos from Wikimedia Commons; click on the captions to see the originals)

A Sampling of The Longest Lived

Laysan albatross named Wisdom with egg, Dec 2018, approximate age 68-70+ (photo by Madalyn Riley / USFWS Pacific on Flickr)

This morning I found a fascinating list of longest-lived organisms. Here’s a sampling, young to old.

The longest living bird on earth is Wisdom, a female Laysan albatross who was banded as an adult at Midway Atoll in 1956. Since her species cannot breed until it’s five years old and usually delays breeding until age seven or eight, Wisdom was at least 68 years old last November (maybe >70) when she returned to Midway to lay her annual egg, shown above. Like all of her species she spends most of her life at sea.

The longest-lived terrestrial animal is the Aldabra giant tortoise (Aldabrachelys gigantea) of the Aldabra Atoll in the Seychelles. An individual named Adwaita lived to be 225 years old at the Kolkatta (Calcutta) Zoo. Unfortunately this species is vulnerable to extinction. It is sadly ironic that they outlive us but may not outlast us as a species.

Aldabra giant tortoise (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

The world’s oldest living clonal organism is a stand of quaking aspens (Populus tremuloides), nicknamed Pando, that covers 106 acres near Fish Lake, Utah. The stand is a single “tree” whose trunks are shoots from a single clonal root. Pando is thought to be 80,000 years old but that’s the conservative estimate.  It may be as much as 1 million years old.

Pando, a clonal colony of quaking aspens 88,000 years old (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

And finally, for a really long life you can’t beat immortality. Hydras do not undergo aging so they’re considered biologically immortal. They can live forever, theoretically.

Image of a hydra, magnified (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

My husband’s grandmother once said, “There’s such a thing as living too long.”

For a list of the longest-lived organisms, see this link at Wikipedia.

(photos from Wikimedia Commons; click on the captions to see the originals)

The Whining Is Over

By the end of September the whining is over. Juvenile raptors, like this young red-tailed hawk, have left home to start life on their own. Now they hunt in silence. Loud begging scares their prey.

I miss the begging sounds of summer because they helped me find songbirds. The whining juvenile red-tailed hawk in the linked video below has attracted songbird attention.

Juvenile red-tailed hawk calling (click for the video by JustBirds)

How many songbirds can you identify in the background? (Hint: he was filmed in Michigan.)

(video from Cornell Lab Bird Cams, screenshot from JustBirds)

Sheltering From The Storm

Immature Cooper’s hawk sheltering in a garage in Boca Raton, 2 Sep 2019, 3:44pm (photo by Natalie Mitchell)

As Hurricane Dorian approached Florida on Labor Day afternoon and a storm band dowsed the area with wind and rain, my sister-in-law went into her garage in Boca Raton and found a bird, 15-18″ tall, perched high near the ceiling. She texted me a photo. “What is it?”

This immature Cooper’s hawk is too young to have seen a hurricane before, but he knows that the weather is bad and he can feel it’s going to get worse. If he’s a skillful hunter he’s already eaten a lot in anticipation of the storm and just needs a safe place to wait out the weather, so he picked the best available option. He came indoors.

Cooper’s hawks don’t breed in South Florida but they spend the winter there (see range map). This youngster arrived recently and is improvising in bad weather. So far so good.

Cooper’s hawk range map from Wikimedia Commons (orange=breeding, purple = all year, blue=winter)

The bird may have to wait in the garage for a while. Hurricane Dorian could take 24 hours to move out of the area.

When the storm is over this bird will be glad to leave.

UPDATE, 3 Sep 2019, 8a: The storm isn’t bad in Boca Raton. The hawk left.

(photo by Natalie Mitchell, range map from Wikimedia Commons)

Guineafowl At Work

Guineafowl at Aqualand Farm, Australia (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

On Labor Day let’s talk about working birds.

Guineafowl (Numididae) were domesticated for food but they work for us in other ways as well: They eat ticks and they’re great watchdogs.

When it comes to ticks, guineafowl perform a valuable service by reducing our exposure to Lyme disease. In the video below, a small flock is on tick patrol at Suffolk County Community College on Long Island, New York.

Their watchdog skills are important too, especially if a fox tries to get into the hen house. Guineafowl are quick to raise the alarm. They’re loud and they’re not shy about it.

But sometimes their idea of danger is not the same as ours. See the video below.

Guineafowl are so loud that it’s best to keep them where people don’t mind the noise.