Posts Tagged ‘Birds’

Gifts of the Crow

It’s easy to take the crows in our midst for granted.  We see them so often that they eventually fade into the scenery.  They’re in the woods, the yard, the salt marsh, on the roads and at the beach.  Yet I’ve seldom been inclined to fix my gaze upon them, let alone take their photograph.  They’ve always just been part of the background.  Until now.

Gifts of the Crow:  How Perception, Emotion and Thought Allow Smart Birds to Behave Like Humans opened my eyes to what remarkable creatures crows truly are.

They possess superior language skills, a proneness to delinquency, a capacity for insight, frolic, passion and wrath, risk-taking, and an awareness that’s well beyond what we might imagine.

Even those among us who would suspect crows of being crafty risk takers would still be surprised to learn that they’ve been seen luring unsuspecting animals onto highways so that these can be feasted upon after becoming roadkill.  They can also recognize individual faces, using that information to get an easy meal or avoid people who might harm them.  They’ve even been known to wreak vengeance with their droppings on vehicles.

Crows may look serious in their black garb, but they engage in play for play’s sake just like us.  Innovative, they’ll also employ tools such as sticks and work together to manipulate squirrels and seagulls to get their food for them.

‘Social Junkies,’ solitary birds will even befriend humans and pets for companionship if they have the opportunity.  Since the authors explain crows’ intelligence by pointing to their relatively large brains, could relatively large souls explain their emotional human-like qualities?  So much of their nature is still a mystery.

I wonder if the crow shown at the top of this post left a gift of one of its feathers for me on the bridge.

The authors make the argument that crows have all the qualities to make wonderful pets.   Due to their many gifts, at the very least, they deserve our respect and attention a little more than we’ve been inclined to give them in the past.

GIFTS OF THE CROW:  How Perception, Emotion, and Thought Allow Smart Birds to Behave Like Humans  by John Marzluff and Tony Angell
Publication Date: June 5, 2012


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downy woodpecker drumming

Whether you’re a professional athlete or a parent just trying to keep an active child safe, concussions are a growing concern these days. Post-concussion problems endured by football players and other brain injury survivors are not new.  However, concussions sustained by local hockey wonderkid Sidney Crosby have brought more attention to the potential danger of head injuries over the past year. 

downy woodpeckerRecently, researchers in China decided to answer a question asked by scientists and birdwatchers around the world:  Why aren’t woodpeckers harmed by their head banging?  They discovered that there were three factors that enabled woodpeckers’ brains to survive intact after repeated blows to their heads:

1.  The top and bottom parts of  a woodpecker’s beak are uneven in length, and the longer bottom beak deflects force away from the bird’s brain on impact.

2.  Unlike us, the woodpecker brain is encased in spongy plate-like bones.  These are arranged unevenly around the brain and leave no space between the brain and skull.

3.  A seatbelt-like hyoid bone connects the beak to the skull where it then surrounds the brain.

woodpecker drumming

Together, these factors ensure that the woodpecker’s brain is affected as little as possible  by the constant impact of head banging. 

Unfortunately, even if these factors were incorporated into the design of sports safety helmets, there is no way to get around the fact that human brains are separated from our skulls by a gap that is non-existent in woodpeckers.   And it’s the motion of the brain within this space that would still remain a factor in potential injuries.

So, unless you’re a woodpecker, the best way to avoid head banging injury to your brain is to not bang it in the first place.

For more information, see Why Do Woodpeckers Resist Head Impact Injury:  A Biomechanical Investigation.

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Canada geese may be just barely visible beneath a cover of marsh mist but their morning talk is unmistakable.  Their communication is not just limited to their signature honk but to a medley of sounds as they wake to another day in another marsh.

According to Ducks Unlimited, Canada geese may be only next to humans in their talkativeness.  Greetings, warnings and contentment are all communicated from the time a gosling is still in its shell.

However, as there are some humans who like to talk more than others, there are probably some geese who are also more talkative than the rest.  I wonder if some geese put their heads underwater to get away from the nagging chatter under the pretext of finding food.

geese talking

Don't even think of flying next to her today!

Considering the amount of effort that goes into planning a trip abroad for a large group, it’s probably the communication skills of geese that allow them to be so successful in their migrations year after year. 

Geese are known to share the responsibilities of leadership, especially in flight.  Also, if a member of the flock is injured, two will stay behind to nurse it back to health, rejoining the larger flock together after it recovers.  Any of these actions would require a great deal of planning and discussion.  No wonder they’re so talkative!

Once the geese have breakfast, make their flight plans and leave, quiet returns to the marsh until the next flock arrives to spend the evening.  

For more information about these beautiful and talkative birds, see Facts on Canada Geese at Ducks Unlimited.

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Avian Pox

The first time you see a bird ravaged by avian pox, it’s a bit disconcerting.  Accustomed to seeing pretty, fluffy-feathered birds at your feeders and birdbaths, one that looks more like a vulture than a songbird easily stands out from the rest.

Over the years I’ve frequently caught a  glimpse of blue jays afflicted with avian pox, but until this year, never managed to be quick enough to capture a photo.  They do tend to keep a low profile and seem more reticent than healthy birds.  The one at left was by itself, which is odd for blue jays, as they usually make the feeder rounds in pairs or small flocks.

Afflicted birds have no feathers on their heads.  Some may have nodules around their beaks, eyes and feet.  These may interfere with sight, breathing and eating.  Not only do these poor birds look miserable, they probably feel that way too.

A healthy blue jay visiting the same birdbath.

Avian pox can be transmitted from one bird to another directly or indirectly wherever birds share surfaces, such as birdbaths, feeders and tree branches.  Mosquitoes are also known to play a role in the transmission.  Once a bird survives a bout of avian pox, it acquires immunity for life and is no longer a carrier.

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‘We’ve been expecting you,’ the salt marsh sentinel announces from his roost at the top of the spruce.  It’s the first time I’ve seen great blue herons perched high on the treetops.   Though it all looks like business-as-usual in the marsh, there are always wonders waiting to be discovered.   It’s good to be back. 

‘We heard you’d been combing the beaches looking for us,’ the sea stars say collectively.  ‘We thought if we gathered together in one spot, you’d know how much we missed you and you missed us.  Why did it take so long for you to seek us here?’  

‘It’s a long story,’ I tell them, ‘one with lots of drama that didn’t involve me but nevertheless took a toll on my days.  Children suddenly needed me and caring for them took all of my energy.’

 ‘Tell me about it,’ another heron adds.  ‘We know what it takes to rear the next generation in an environment that seems more and more out of our control.’

‘I knew you’d understand,’ I tell them.  

A kingfisher ‘s compact body finds a stable position at the end of a dried twig.  I marvel at how expertly birds keep their bodies and lives in balance.  

In spring and summer their focus is on ensuring that the young ones survive to maturity.  No hardship or sacrifice seems too great as they provide sustenance and safety to the next generation.  But then, after giving their all for a season, they quietly revert back to concerns for their own well-being.    Could it be because they carry no burdens in their hearts that they are light enough to fly such long distances to warmer climes?

Thank you to all who sent emails or left kind comments asking where I was over the past few months.  It is good to be back 🙂


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Winter is beginning to overstay its welcome. The barren landscape at this time of year in Nova Scotia can seem so void of life. However, with just a fistful of sunflower seeds, you can liven things up by attracting a variety of birds to your backyard.  You never know who’s going to fly in for a nibble.

Blue jay fluffing its feathers to stay warm

Blue jays, chickadees, finches, nuthatches and mourning doves are all potential visitors at this time of year.  Despite the February cold, I’ve often noticed several species of birds waiting nearby for their turn at the feeder.

Mourning dove patiently waits for its turn at the feeder

The black oil seeds are easier for birds to crack open than the thicker-shelled striped ones and provide more nutrition for their weight. All you need is a fistful. If you put out too much at a time, it may not be eaten and get moldy or attract rodents.  A fancy bird feeder isn’t necessary.  Just a flat surface that is easily cleaned is ideal.

Black oil sunflower seeds are also a favorite of red squirrels.  If you don’t want them to get the lion’s share,  you might want to put seeds out for the birds before mid-morning when the squirrels begin to make their rounds.

Finch eating sunflower seed

Some of the birds you attract to your feeder in late winter may decide to nest nearby come spring.  In the meantime, you never know who’ll show up to take advantage of your hospitality and add some color to your backyard landscape.

Ring-necked pheasant looking for breakfast

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