This month bird photographer friends Steve Gosser and Cris Hamilton have not taken many pictures of wild turkeys in western Pennsylvania but they have certainly found photogenic ring-necked pheasants. As Steve said on Facebook:
The last two weekends I’ve been driving around everywhere trying to find some of the rare winter finches currently moving down through our area, but all I keep finding are Pheasants.
Males pheasants are bold and colorful with blue head feathers that they can raise like horns (click here to see).
The females are brown but not boring. Both sexes perk up when a human appears on the scene, pausing and staring as if to say, “What is that person doing?” Sometimes they run.
Native to Asia, ring-necked pheasants (Phasianus colchicus) were introduced as game birds in Europe, North America, Hawaii, Australia and New Zealand (see map). They’ve never become invasive because the pen-raised birds lack the survival skills they need to make it long term in the wild. Pausing to stare is probably their downfall.(*)
Why are ring-necked pheasants so plentiful in western PA? They’re stocked every year by the Pennsylvania Game Commission. Here are some high counts of ring-necked pheasant releases in 2019:
1,470 at SGL 203 in Marshall Twp Allegheny County
3,640 at SGL 95 (The Glades) in Butler County
1,920 at SGL 284 (Schollards Wetlands / Pennsy Swamp / Black Swamp) in Mercer / Lawrence County
West Nile Virus arrived in North America more than 20 years ago and spread across the continent in just five years, killing native raptors and songbirds in its wake. When it struck Pittsburgh’s bird community in 2002 it was fairly common to find dead crows. That was a long time ago and I don’t see dead crows anymore so I thought birds were now able to survive the virus. Instead a 2015 study found that West Nile Virus is still wiping out birds in North America. It affects each species differently.
Some such as wild turkeys, chickens and house sparrows had a die-off when the virus arrived and then recovered with apparent immunity. Others never developed that resilience. The virus ravages their bodies so quickly that they die without reproducing.
The birds in the slideshow above are some of WNV’s most devastated victims. Every year their populations decline in a downward spiral. Greater sage-grouse and yellow-billed magpies have such restricted ranges that WNV may push them to extinction. This explains why I haven’t seen so many warbling vireos, purple finches and American goldfinches as I did a decade ago.
In 2016 the PA Game Commission studied the plight of the ruffed grouse and found that birds never exposed to WNV had only a 10% survival rate. This 9-minute video tells the whole story.
On my way to meet friends at Moraine State Park last Friday, I stopped to check a few coves for tundra swans. My first stop was better for bird behavior than for waterfowl. As I drove away a ruffed grouse chased my car!
Naturally when I saw a grouse in my rearview mirror, flying after my car, I parked and got out to look. By then he was perched in a tree, strutting and turning his head in an apparent territorial display. I took his picture with my cellphone. He was further away than he appears.
Was he tame? Was he habituated to humans and cars? Was he stocked by the PA Game Commission?
At my next stop I told Linda Crosky and Dave Brooke about my experience. They later went to find the grouse and Dave took photos of his Life Bird (at top).
Dave also did some research and found out that, no, the PA Game Commission probably doesn’t stock them at Moraine but yes, grouse sometimes act this way. Birds like this are few and far between. They are not tame. They are hyper-territorial.
This spring PA Game Commission Ruffed Grouse Biologist Lisa Williams made a video of her visit with a so-called tame grouse. He tried to take a bite out of her.
If “tame” ruffed grouse were the size of T. Rex we’d all be dead.
p.s. Want to see more? Click here for a 2017 video of a “tame” grouse approaching two men in Pennsylvania.
(photo at top by Dave Brooke; second photo by Kate St. John)
Eurasia is home to wild rock pigeons (Columba livia) where people domesticated them for food and fancy (Columba livia domestica). 10,000 years later there are a thousand different breeds. Some are pets. Some are messengers. Some are racing pigeons. But have you ever heard of stunt pigeons? Birmingham rollers? They were news to me last week.
Birmingham rollers are popular domestic pigeons that were first bred in Birmingham, England for their tendency to do backward somersaults in flight. Some of them spin so rapidly that they look like a plummeting ball but they recover and continue flying. Pigeon fanciers enter them in competitions with high points for multiple birds tumbling at the same time.
Much of this video is in slow motion show you can see how the pigeons move.
Some pigeon breeders have taken things a step further by selecting to the point where the rollers cannot fly, merely tumble backwards on the ground. Clearly these birds would not survive in the wild. (Compilation video includes footage from the one above.)
Knowing peregrine falcons as I do, I can imagine what one thinks when it sees a Birmingham roller in flight. Mmmm hmmm!
p.s. Thank you to Scott Young for telling me about Birmingham rollers.
(photo from Wikimedia Commons; click on the caption to see the original)
If you’ve ever visited Key West, Florida you’ve noticed that feral chickens roam the streets. Nicknamed gypsy chickens they are descendants of domestic jungle fowl brought to the islands in the 1800s and 1950s for meat and cockfighting. Some of their ancestors escaped captivity but many were released when cockfighting was outlawed in the 1970s. They are doing so well that their population periodically explodes.
However, one thing goes wrong for them. When people feed them disease spreads easily through their population and many chickens die. That’s what’s happening this fall as described by Key West Animal Rescue:
While it’s common for the wild chickens to get sick this time of year due to natural occurring bacteria in the soil, the City of Key West posted, “there is a larger than usual outbreak of botulism killing the birds, and feeding them can be lethal.”
As with many well intentioned things feeding the chickens ends badly for the birds. They get poor nutrition, disease spreads in the flock, they start fighting, and they lose their normal nomadic ways. It’s all described on this local poster.
Please don’t feed the gypsy chickens.
(photo from Wikimedia Commons, poster from Key West Chicken Rescue on Facebook; click on the captions to see the originals)
Wild turkey flocks are going through changes, declining here, expanding there.
In Pennsylvania their population declined 24% in the past two decades. At their peak in the early 2000’s there were 280,000 statewide. This year there are only 212,200. The graph below shows the turkeys’ rise and fall, 1995 to 2013, carefully tracked by the PA Game Commission (PGC) because turkeys are a game bird.
Negative habitat changes: mono-culture farms, invasive plants, less food (fewer insects, acorns, beech nuts, etc), and less cover (declines in shrubby cover).
Unpredictable weather and extreme weather events when poults are young
An increase in predators, especially in poor cover areas.
In response to the downward trend the Game Commission lowered the harvest limits so there is less hunting pressure on the birds. They are also studying whether any disease has had a significant effect.
Wild turkeys are especially abundant on Cape Cod where there’s plenty of food and cover and very little hunting. Flocks roam the neighborhoods, scratch for grubs in grass and gardens, and challenge small dogs and people when they feel threatened.
Wild turkeys have pretty much taken over. Here’s a flock in Bob Kroeger’s yard during a Nor’easter in March 2018.
If you’re missing turkeys here in Pennsylvania, I know you’ll find them there.
(photos taken on Cape Cod by Bob Kroeger, graph from the PA Game Commission; click on the caption to see the original)
Alaska Birding Tour with PIB: Nome vicinity, 22 June 2019
Willow ptarmigans (Lagopus lagopus) are ground dwelling birds that live where it snows about half the year. They’re also the favorite prey of many species so they need to be able to hide in place.
Their plumage provides camouflage but it has to be clever because the ground changes color from white in winter, to mottled during snow melt, to brown in summer. Ptarmigans solve this by molting continuously from April to November.
Their basic plumage is winter white to match the snow. It allows them to stand still and disappear …
… or burrow in the snow with only their heads exposed.
In April the snow starts to melt and the ptarmigans start to molt. The male looks like a snow patch as he begins his courtship clucking.
In June the male and female are incubating eggs. They still match the ground; they’re brown.
Their chicks match the ground, too.
By late summer they look patchy again. Their plumage gets ready for the first snow.
In November they’re back to winter white.
Ptarmigans change with the seasons.
(photos from Wikimedia Commons, and Dan Arndt via Flickr; click on the captions to see the originals)