Category Archives: Doves & Chickens

Where’s Willow?

White-tailed ptarmigan, Highwood Pass, Highway 40, Alberta, Canada, Nov 2017 (photo by Dan Arndt)

This photo looks odd until you see a bird in it.

White-tailed ptarmigans (Lagopus leucura) hide in plain sight by blending into the landscape.  They're speckled brown in summer and white as snow in winter.  They virtually disappear when they close their eyes.

In late November Dan Arndt found these birds in the snow at Highwood Pass, Highway 40 in Alberta, Canada.

White-tailed ptarmigan, Highwood Pass, Highway 40, Alberta, Canada, Nov 2017 (photo by Dan Arndt)
White-tailed ptarmigan, Highwood Pass, Highway 40, Alberta, Canada, Nov 2017 (photo by Dan Arndt)

How many ptarmigans do you see?

Willow ptarmigans hide, too. Practice finding them in this 2010 article: Where's Willow?

 

(photos by Dan Arndt)

Warned By A Feather

Birds use alarm calls to warn each other of danger but pigeons are generally silent.  What sound could a pigeon make to signal danger?  The crested pigeon (Ocyphaps lophotes) of Australia uses his 8th feather.

Crested pigeons make a whistling sound when they fly -- a high note on the down stroke, a low note going up.  Researchers found out that the eighth primary feather is the source of the high note and that the speed of the low-high modulation provides the warning.

When a bird flaps slowly the whistle repeats slowly, so other pigeons decide the bird is not afraid.  When the sound repeats rapidly it sounds like the pigeon is fleeing, so the other birds do, too.

Watch the video or read about this discovery here in Science Magazine.

 

p.s.  Mourning doves (Zenaida macroura) make a similar whistling sound when they fly.  I wonder if it functions as a warning sound.

(video from Science Magazine)

Happy Thanksgiving

How do you tell a wild turkey from a domestic one (ignoring the fact that they're in a pen)?

In my experience, wild turkeys walk away from you. Domestic turkeys walk toward you and they try to get as close as they can.

And then they make you laugh.  😉

Happy Thanksgiving.

 

(YouTube credits: Produced in Cooperation with NasenNews Location: Turkey Farm in the wonderful Odenwald, Germany)

The Best Snood Wins

Wild turkeys displaying (photo by Cris Hamilton)
Wild turkeys displaying (photo by Cris Hamilton)

Here's some trivia for Turkey Day.

Did you know you can determine a male turkey's health and his success with the ladies by the length of his snood?

What's a snood?

On humans it's a large-mesh hairnet worn by women, or ...

Women workers wearing snoods, 1942 (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Women workers wearing snoods, 1942 (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

... a beard snood worn by men.

Beard snood sold by Creeds, UK (image from Creeds UK)
Beard snood sold by Creeds, UK (image from Creeds UK)

But on turkeys the snood is the piece of flesh that dangles from the male turkey's forehead and droops over his beak.

Here's a Wikipedia diagram of the male turkey's anatomical ornaments:
1. Caruncles, 2. Snood, 3. Wattle (Dewlap), 4. Major caruncle, 5. Beard

Diagram of a turkey's head and chest ornaments (image from Wikimedia Commons)
Diagram of a turkey's head and chest ornaments (image from Wikimedia Commons)

The two wild turkeys at top are displaying to females.  Which one has the best snood?  I can't tell but the females can.  Click here to see how the ladies reacted.

 

(photo credits:  two wild turkeys by Cris Hamilton; women wearing snoods from Wikimedia Commons; man wearing a beard snood from sales page at Creeds UK; wild turkey diagram from Wikimedia Commons. click on the images to see the originals)

Could We Bring Them Back?

Passenger pigeon specimens at Carnegie Museum of Natural History, 2016 (photo by Kate St. John)
Passenger pigeon specimens at Carnegie Museum of Natural History, 2016 (photo by Kate St. John)

A new DNA study of the passenger pigeon brings up an interesting question:  Could we bring the species back from extinction?

Genetic engineering now makes it possible to transfer genes across species boundaries.  Using these techniques a group named Revive and Restore is working to modify the genes of the passenger pigeon's closest living relative, the band-tailed pigeon (Patagioenas fasciata), to make a new bird that resembles a passenger pigeon.

Band-tailed pigeon, Sonoma County, CA (photo by Ingrid Taylar on Wikimedia Commons)
Band-tailed pigeon, Sonoma County, CA (photo by Ingrid Taylar on Wikimedia Commons)

If successful, they'll release the new bird in the wild to repopulate eastern North America.

But a new study published this month in Science may throw a wrench in their plan.

Researchers gathered DNA from the toepads of passenger pigeon museum specimens and sequenced the full genomes of four birds.  In doing so they discovered that passenger pigeons were extremely diverse at the ends of their chromosomes but had low diversity in the middle.  Most animals, including the band-tailed pigeon, aren't like that.  Most animals are diverse all the way through.

This trait may indicate that the passenger pigeon in its final form had evolved to live in enormous flocks.

Ed Yong at The Atlantic interviewed the study's author, Beth Shapiro, and writes:

So, why did this superspecies die out? Shapiro thinks it’s because the bird specifically evolved to live in mega-flocks, and developed adaptations that became costly when their numbers suddenly shrank at human hands. “Maybe they were simply not adapted to being in a small population, and didn’t have time to recover,” she says. Maybe they hit a tipping point when there were just too few of them to survive, regardless of whether they were being hunted.

Would a small population of passenger pigeons be possible in the wild?  And could the birds survive in this century's altered and deforested landscape?  Revive and Restore believes the answer is yes.

Can humans bring back the passenger pigeon?  Should we try?

 

Read more in The Atlantic at:  What DNA Says About the Extinction of America’s Most Common Bird ... and its possible resurrection.

(photo credits: Passenger pigeon specimens at Carnegie Museum of Natural History by Kate St. John. Band-tailed pigeon from Wikimedia Commons; click on the image to see the original)

Learn From Working Birds

screenshot from PlantForAbundance

On Labor Day let's take a look at some working birds.

Chickens were first domesticated about 9,000 years ago in both China and India but the idea didn't really take off for another 2,000 to 4,000 years. Then it spread slowly westward to Persia (Iran), Egypt, Europe and Africa.  Chickens are now the most numerous bird species on Earth because humans like to eat them and their eggs.

Because of our close relationship to chickens we tend to forget that they are birds and we can learn from their behavior.

What does a hen do when she wants to lay an egg?  This video answers the question among a flock of free range chickens.

"What is my chicken telling me?"

 

(video by Plant Abundance on YouTube)

Count Turkeys In August

Wild turkey with juveniles (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Wild turkey with juveniles (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Silent songbirds and hot weather make birding less interesting in August.  Here's a project to get you going in Pennsylvania:  It's time to count wild turkeys.

Every August the Pennsylvania Game Commission conducts a wild turkey survey to determine breeding success.  Everyone from biologists to birders can help.  Two factors add interest to the count:

  1. Juvenile turkeys, called poults, are only half grown so you can tell (and count) the difference between adults and this year's young.
  2. You'll also get practice identifying adult males versus females. (You can ignore the adult/juvenile tail-clue because juveniles are just plain small in August.)

How to sex and age wild turkeys by sight (screenshot of PGC poster)
How to sex and age wild turkeys by sight (screenshot of PGC poster)

 

The guidelines for the survey are pretty simple:

  • Record turkey sightings during the month of August.
  • Count "big birds" (adults) and "little birds" (poults).
  • Record the sex of all adults.  Here's the full size poster that describes the difference between males and females.
  • For adult females, separate the count "with young" and "without."
  • Note where you see the birds. When you submit your observations (online here or download the app), click on the embedded map and the form will automatically fill in the location details.
  • Submit a separate report for each flock of turkeys observed, including those without poults, and lone turkeys.
  • Try NOT to report the SAME flock MULTIPLE times. Duplicate flocks bias the results.

Download the app to use in the field or click here for the Turkey Survey form.

 

Thanks to Mary Ann Pike for passing along this news.

 

(photo from Wikimedia Commons; click on the image to see the original)

p.s. Did you know you can sex turkeys by the shape of their droppings?  Learn more at PGC's Turkey Biology FAQ page.

Pigeon Of The Woods

Common Woodpigeon in Gdansk (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Common Wood pigeon in Gdansk (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

In Pennsylvania we have only one kind of pigeon and he isn't really ours.  He's the descendant of European birds named rock pigeons because they nest on cliffs.  This distinguishes them from another European pigeon that nests in trees, the common wood pigeon (Columba palumbus).

Wood pigeons used to be shy and stay in the woods but now they hang out in parks and cities and are the most numerous bird in London, even more numerous than rock pigeons.

When these two encounter each other you can see that "wood" is bigger than "rock."

Wood pigeon and feral rock pigeon (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Wood pigeon looks at rock pigeon (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

In some parts of Europe wood pigeons are migratory.  In winter large flocks browse in the fields as shown below.  Notice the bright white patches on their necks and white wing bars visible in flight.

When it's time to nest they're back in the trees ...

Wood pigeon with chicks at nest (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Wood pigeon with chicks at nest (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

... raising baby pigeons in the woods.

 

(photos and video from Wikimedia Commons; click on the images to see the originals)

Demonstrating Thoughts Of Love

Pigeons courting (photo by Aomorikuma via Wikimedia Commons)
Pigeons courting (photo by Aomorikuma via Wikimedia Commons)

In the spring a fuller crimson comes upon the robin's breast
In the spring the wanton lapwing gets himself another crest
In the spring a livelier iris changes on the burnished dove
In the spring a young man's fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love.

-- from Locksley Hall by Alfred Tennyson

 

Despite this month's cold weather birds are courting in western Pennsylvania.  In the cities, at the silos, pigeons are easiest to watch.

Learn how they demonstrate their courtship in this article from March 2010: Thoughts of Love

 

p.s. The story told in Locksley Hall is different from its most famous line. Read more about the poem here.

(photo by Aomorikuma via Wikimedia Commons. Click on the image to see the original)