Archive for August, 2012

Farewell Martha

At times everyone feels somewhat alone. But Martha was truly alone, all alone. Living in the Cincinnati zoo, Martha was the last Passenger Pigeon remaining on earth. Her parents were dead. She had no living brothers or sisters. No relatives or friends. No one. She was the last of her kind. When she died at age 29 almost a century ago (September 1, 1914) Passenger Pigeons ceased to exist.

Zookeepers rushed Martha’s lifeless body to the Cincinnati Ice Company. Held by her feet, she was lowered into a tank of water, frozen upside down into a 300-pound block of ice and shipped to the Smithsonian Institution where her lifeless corpse remains on display today. A simple sign reads: “Extinct”.

Larger than a typical urban pigeon and weighing twice as much as Mourning Dove, Passenger Pigeons preferred forestland to crowded city streets and parks, and congregated in very large flocks. Their name came from a French word, passage, meaning “to pass by”.

The most abundant bird

And when they did pass by, their numbers were impressive. Less than 100 years before Martha’s death, the Passenger Pigeon was the most abundant bird in the country. Reliable estimates place their total number at up to 5 billion individuals, more than 30% of all birds, possibly the most abundant bird that ever lived on earth. Ornithologists reported flocks over one mile wide and 20 miles long that literally “blacken the sky”. Audubon observed a migration flight so enormous it took two days to pass. A single roost site might contain 5-7 million birds.

An old adage maintains that there is strength in numbers. Larger groups tend to have advantages over smaller groups. Winning generals deploy more troops than their enemies. Successful politicians gather more delegates.

With such a massive population the possibility that Passenger Pigeons might become extinct was inconceivable. Yet in less than a century, they were gone. From 5 billion individuals to Martha, to none.

How did 5 billions birds disappear?

How could a species so incredibility abundant become extinct is such a short period of time? What caused their dramatic decline? If you suspect humans played a lead role, you are on the right track. Although there was no single cause, man tipped the balance of nature. Loss of habitat and food combined with extensive hunting were major contributors.

As vegetarians their primary food source was “mast” — a general term for the seeds and ripening fruit of hard wood and fruit bearing trees. They loved beechnuts, acorns, and maple and elm seeds. A large flock could quickly strip a small woodlot of all edible food. Then the flock would move on. Pigeons were semi-nomadic, constantly on the move to find food. Fortunately, different types of mast matured at different times during the year. But only a fairly large forest could produce enough mast to satisfy a huge army of pigeons.

The eastern half of the country was originally heavily forested. However, as human population mushroomed, civilization moved inland and westward from the coast. Forests were rapidly cleared for farming, industry and cities. As these forests shrunk in size, finding ample food became more challenging for Passenger Pigeons.

Greater danger

Loss of food sources was not the only peril. Hunting was a more lethal danger. Early settlers quickly learned that pigeon meat was tasty. And pigeons were plentiful and easy to kill. Subsistence hunting to feed the farm family was not the major problem. Rather it was professional trappers and market hunters who killed pigeons in sufficient quantities to feed an entire city.

One throw of a net into a sleeping roost could capture hundreds of birds. A single shot might kill 5, 10 or more. The supply seemed inexhaustible. In 1874 at one roost in Michigan, a group of market hunters bagged 25,000 birds a day for 28 straight days. In 1771 Boston markets sold 50,000 pigeons per day. Pigeons were an inexpensive source of meat protein.

Squab (the young pigeon nestling) was particularly flavorful and highly prized. Pigeon hunters raided roosts taking all the squabs. As a result, few young remained to produce future generations of pigeons. Adults that did survive the hunters eventually died naturally. Reproduction rates were drastically reduced and population numbers plunged into a downward spiral toward zero.

At one time the total number of passenger pigeons was far greater than total number of sparrows and starlings combined today. Their numbers were almost unimaginable. Yet large numbers did not help them survive. Can you imagine today that starlings might be in danger of extinction?

The total population of all the currently endangered species (California Condor, Whooping Crane, Kirtland’s Warbler and others) numbers in the hundreds of birds, not thousands or millions of individuals. If 5 billion pigeons could disappear, so could today’s smaller populations if things don’t change.

Since human activity contributes to the decline of a species, changes in human activity can reverse the trend. The banning of DDT halted and reversed the threat to Bald Eagles and Ospreys. California Condors are flying free in the wild again. All the result of direct help from caring humans.

Still, in the last two centuries, five species have become extinct in the U.S. Currently the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service lists about 50 species and subspecies as “endangered” in the continental US.

Current populations of these endangered species are very small. But as the plight of the passenger pigeon vividly demonstrates, sheer numbers do not guarantee future well-being. The most common birds in your backyard could also be at risk. Careful attention to what is happening in your yard, your city and your area can prevent another bird, maybe that cheerful Robin on your lawn, from joining Martha on display at the Smithsonian.

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Last evening I joined 15 other birders at the Chestnut Ridge Hawkwatch platform to observe migrating Common Nighthawks. Perfect weather. Cool, with low humidity. Not a single cloud. Ideal. Our total tally after 1.5 hours constantly scanning the skies was: Blue Jay and Titmouse, 2 of each. Nothing else. Nary a Nighthawk. (Although the official hawk counter spotted birds about 5 miles away.) It would be natural to consider the time spent staring at empty skies as an unproductive waste of time. But it wasn’t. It was overwhelmingly refreshing. Nothing to do but breathe deeply, search the horizon, chat with other friendly birders. When darkness finally filled the sky and I made it down the hill to my car, I was completely relaxed. Best I’ve felt in some time. I’ve got to do this again soon. Maybe next time I will even see some birds.

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Count your toes.

Q: How many toes does a bird have?

A: Most birds have four toes, usually arranged with three toes pointing forward and one (the hallux or big toe) pointing backwards. Woodpeckers, however, tend to have two toes forward and two backward which makes it easier to hitch vertically up a tree trunk.

Of course nothing is absolute in nature. There are always exceptions. Three-toed woodpeckers only have three toes. So do plovers, oystercatchers and sanderlings.

And just to be different, an Ostrich only has two toes

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I usually tell people that the peak hummingbird time here in Westchester is the first two weeks of September.  You will see more hummingbirds then than at any other time.  That is because all the hummingbirds that summer in New England and Canada have started their southern migration.  When the reach Long Island Sound they prefer not to fly over that expanse of water.  So they turn west and fly along the Connecticut coastline until they can fly south over land again.  And that is lower Westchester.

 But this year, a great number of people have come into the store excited because they had just seen a hummingbird in their backyard.  I’ve sold as many hummingbird feeders in the last 3 days as I have in the last month.  There is something about hummingbirds that really attracts people.  I’m not sure if it is their tiny size, or the rapid wingbeats, or their fast stop-and-start flights, or what.   But I do know they are a popular favorite.

 And they are showing up early this year.

 My plans for our monthly birdwalk this coming Saturday is to look for hummingbirds.  Based on the number of recent first hand reports I have heard, we should have success.



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Went on a walk with friends at Rockefeller State Park. Hot and muggy. And no birds. I always see swallows, bluebirds and woodpeckers. Today, none. Did see one female Am. Redstart and one Black-and-white Warbler. And flocks of Cedar Waxwngs were devouring berries. But most birdlife was scarce.

So I learned about turtles.

There are three common turtles in this area: Painted Turtles, Red-eared Sliders and Snapping Turtles.

Painted Turtles have a smooth, shinny carapace (top shell) without a central keel or ridge. The top shell is divided into large squares with a thin line between the squares and the squares basically line up in a straight line.

A Red-eared Slider has a flattened, bumpy carapace that has a flat, dull finish. There is long red streak on each side of the head.

Snapping Turtles are big and mean looking.

In general birds are more attractive than turtle, but if there are no birds around, you look at what you can find.

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Shakespear, a fairly well-know author, was meticulous in selecting just the right word. One of his famous lines was “What’s in a name?” Of course he used a reference to roses but his point can also apply to birds. A bird’s name may be somewhat misleading but the bird is still the bird.

The Common Nighthawk is a good example. First, it is not a hawk. It is a proud member of the little known nightjar family. It is a predator but hunts flying insects. That makes it closer to a swallow than a Red-tail Hawk. And its flight is similar a swallow with zigs and zags and erratic, quick changes of direction.

Secondly, Common Nighthawks are most active at dusk and dawn and don’t fly in the inky black of night unless the moon is full. You often see them at night baseball games chasing after flying insects that are attracted by the bright lights illuminating the ball field. I’ve only see one in mid-day once. It was stretched out on a horizontal branch sound asleep. Its coloring blended in perfectly with the tree bark.

And finally, it is not extremely common in this area except in late summer when they are beginning their southbound migration. Then you may see loose flocks numbering hundreds of birds.

I haven’t seen a nighthawk yet this year. But next week Bedford Audubon is hosting a hawk watch to look for migrating nighthawk. This will take place at the Chestnut Ridge HawkWatch platform high above I-684 on Thursday, August 30th from 6-7:00 PM. I’ve never tried this before and am looking forward to it.
I will let you know what we see and experience.

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Sitting Ducks

Sitting DuckBirds don’t molt all their feathers at once. That would leave them naked, vulnerable and unable to fly. A complete molt might extend over several weeks or months. It progresses with one small section of feathers at a time beginning on the head, face and throat and then moving backward to the tail.

Feather loss is usually symmetrical on both sides of the body. If feathers are lost on the right side of the bird, the same feathers on the left side are lost. This keeps the bird balanced.

You can often observe this symmetry by watching soaring hawks. If you notice a gap (a missing flight feather) on the right wing, there will be a corresponding gap on the left wing. This balance allows the bird to fly reasonable well despite missing feathers.

Waterbirds are an exception to the gradual molt rule. Mallards, for example, molt all their flight feathers simultaneously, usually in mid to late summer after breeding season. Without flight feathers they can’t fly and are vulnerable to predators so they spend countless hours floating in the center of a pond where they are reasonable safe from land-based predator. This is where the term “Sitting Ducks” is said to have originated.

You may have noticed that you do not see many male Mallards at this time. That’s because they go through a quick molt and change into what is called their “eclipse plumage.” Males lose their glossy green head feathers and look more like female Mallards. So at that time, you will see lots of “females” and no males. In early fall another molt brings back the classic male green head for the male Mallard.

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