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Archive for August, 2012

What to do with an old coat? A new coat looks bright and crisp when you first bring it home from the store. But after a full season of wear, it no longer looks new. It starts to look somewhat frayed, slightly worn. Just from daily use. Eventually it looks shabby. You may donate it to Salvation Army and buy a new coat. Bird feathers also suffer from daily use. They show wear, maybe fade in the sunlight, feathers edges become ragged. Individual feathers may be bent or damaged, maybe fall out. Worn feathers are not as effective for insulation or as reliable for flight. But birds can’t go to the store to get a new coat. So they do the next best thing. They create a new coat by getting rid of their old, worn-out feathers and replacing them with new feathers. All North American birds go through the process, call molt, at least once each year. New feathers grow in and push out the old ones. They don’t lose all their old feathers at once. That would make them naked and vulnerable, unable to fly. A complete molt could take weeks. Different sections of feathers are replaced a little at a time. New feathers may give a bird a slightly difference appearance. Consider the male Am. Goldfinch who molts his bright yellow feathers at the end of summer and replaces them with a more drab looking winter coat of feathers. Same bird, but a much different look. Even starlings look different after they molt into new feathers. They appear shinny black with specks of bright gold. As winter weather takes it told and the new feathers become old and worn. The specks wear off leaving the black iridescent starling that we are all familiar with.

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WasWas Doug wrong? Or was I?
Asjdjdjdjdl it turns out we were both right. We were looking at two different birds. Both were about the same distance away, at the same height in a tree, both definitely herons. But one was on the right bank of the Bronx River, the other on the left side.
We both were sure the other was misidentifying the bird. We each knew what we were seeing and any other ID was wrong.
This situation illustrate the importance of being able to describe exactly where a bird is so that others can follow you directions. How many times have you heard: “It’s in that tree.” “On the big branch.” Both may be true but not helpful as directions.
Imagine someone saying “I saw a yellow bird. What was it?” Someone else says “a small bird, smaller than a sparrow, bright yellow with black wings, 2 white wing bars and a black cap” Now you have enough information on which to base a solid ID
More details are better in describing a bird or providing directions to find a bird. The more specific and detailed your directions, the faster others can find the bird. The tall maple tree to right of the shed. About 10 feet to the left of the trunk on the lowest horizontal branch.
Get in the habit of being precise in describing the location of a bird.
Was Doug wrong? Or was I?
As it turns out we were both right. We were looking at two different birds. Both were about the same distance away, at the same height in a tree, both definitely herons. But one was on the right bank of the Bronx River, the other on the left side.
We both were sure the other was misidentifying the bird. We each knew what we were seeing and any other ID was wrong.
This situation illustrate the importance of being able to describe exactly where a bird is so that others can follow you directions. How many times have you heard: “It’s in that tree.” “On the big branch.” Both may be true but not helpful as directions.
Imagine someone saying “I saw a yellow bird. What was it?” Someone else says “a small bird, smaller than a sparrow, bright yellow with black wings, 2 white wing bars and a black cap” Now you have enough information on which to base a solid ID
More details are better in describing a bird or providing directions to find a bird. The more specific and detailed your directions, the faster others can find the bird. The tall maple tree to right of the shed. About 10 feet to the left of the trunk on the lowest horizontal branch.
Get in the habit of being precise in describing the location of a bird.
Doug wrong? Or was I?
As it turns out we were both right. We were looking at two different birds. Both were about the same distance away, at the same height in a tree, both definitely herons. But one was on the right bank of the Bronx River, the other on the left side.
We both were sure the other was misidentifying the bird. We each knew what we were seeing and any other ID was wrong.
This situation illustrate the importance of being able to describe exactly where a bird is so that others can follow you directions. How many times have you heard: “It’s in that tree.” “On the big branch.” Both may be true but not helpful as directions.
Imagine someone saying “I saw a yellow bird. What was it?” Someone else says “a small bird, smaller than a sparrow, bright yellow with black wings, 2 white wing bars and a black cap” Now you have enough information on which to base a solid ID
More details are better in describing a bird or providing directions to find a bird. The more specific and detailed your directions, the faster others can find the bird. The tall maple tree to right of the shed. About 10 feet to the left of the trunk on the lowest horizontal branch.
Get in the habit of being precise in describing the location of a bird.

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A warm winter coat

When colder winter weather arrives I get out my winter coat. It is heavier and warmer than my fall jacket. And despite much colder outdoor temperatures it keeps me warm.

Birds do the same thing.

One ornithologist counted the number of feathers on common house sparrows in mid-summer (July). The average total was 3,150-3,200 feathers. Then he repeated his count again in mid-winter (Jan/Feb). In the colder temperatures of Jan/Feb the average number increased to 3,550-3,600 feathers, about 12% more feathers in winter than in summer. Most of the additional feathers were down feathers and, if you ever had a down jacket or used a down sleeping bag, you understand how down retains warmth.

Sometimes on a blustery winter day you will notice a chickadee that seems puffed up, much more plump than normal.  The chickadee has fluffed its feathers trapping more air between the feathers thus creating added insulation. A chickadee’s normal body temperature is around 104 degrees. When the outside temperature drops way below freezing all that separates its body from the frigid outdoor cold is ¼ inch thickness of feathers.

It seems very practical for birds to grow additional feathers in winter to provide greater insulation.

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Stylish Feathers

in the 1980s feathers were all the rage, not for birds, but for humans, especially woman. Feathers were the ultimate decoration for women’s clothing especially hats. A hat without feathers just was not stylish. The more feathers, the more style.

Frank Chapman, who was the ornithologist at the Museum of Natural History, led a memorable bird walk in Manhattan in1896  . He wasn’t looking for songbirds in Central Park or pigeons on the streets. He was looking for feathers on women’s hats. He observed 700 hats on women of all classes, 75% of them contain feathers. He spotted feathers from over 40 domestic species with feathers from Cedar Waxwings, Flicker, and Terns being the most common.

The use of feathers in the millinery trade grew and became big business. Originally molted feathers were picked up from the ground, but hunting was more profitable. In 1903 hunter received $32 dollars per ounce of feathers. The rate later reached $80. The long, snowy plumes of egrets and herons became very fashionable. As a results, egrets and heron were actively hunted and killed for their feathers.

Fledging Audubon organizations and other nature and conservation groups rallied in protest at the destruction of birds for their feathers. One of the first Audubon sanctuaries, a large rookery in Florida, was set aside to protect the birds. A park ranger was employed to maintain the sanctuary and prevent hunting. Unfortunately he was killed pursuing his duties.  As a result of his senseless death and many other efforts from conservations groups the use of feathers greatly diminished.   In 1900 congress passed the Lacy Act which banned interstate transportation of birds killed in violation of state laws.  At least, I hope, that common sense prevailed and that the diminishing was not just the end of a fashion trend.

Today it is illegal to have a feather in your possession. This law is intended to protect Bald Eagles and other large raptors. One exception is for native Americans to whom the feathers take on an almost religious significance. Without the law you could imagine hunters killing eagles just to get feathers for making Indian headdresses and other decorations to sell.

Simple feathers look good on birds and on people, but are better left for the birds.

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How many feathers?

Birds have a lot of feathers, more than you might expect.  The exact number depends on the bird.  Not surprising, smaller birds have fewer feathers than larger one.   A large swan, for example, has over 24,000 feathers, mostly on the head and neck, while a tiny hummingbird has 900-1000 individual feathers.

A 1000 feathers seems an incredible number for a bird that only weighs 1/8 of an ounce.  That quantity of feathers illustrates how important they are to birds.

“Light as a Feather” is important rule especially when any excess weight requires added energy for flight.  For most birds, feathers represent 15-20% of its total weight, whereas, the bird’s skeleton weighs less than one half the weight of its feathers.

If you have ever the opportunity to hand feed a chickadee you understand just how light they are.  All you feel is a gentle pinch from their toenails.  There is no sense of weight at all.  It seems more like a puff of air.

I use the postal analogy to illustrate the lightness of feathers.  For the cost of a single first class postage stamp you can mail 2-3 chickadees to anywhere in the country.  Each birds weighs about the same as a single sheet of paper.

Light as a feather.  Or as light as thousands of feathers

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Ask a group of young children what makes birds different from all other creatures on earth. Their enthusiastic response will be that birds can fly. That is true and being able to fly is kind of neat. But the ability to fly is not unique to birds. Other creatures also fly: bats, butterflies, moths, dragonflies, and other insects. There are even flying fish and flying squirrels. And don’t forget mosquitoes.

Another good guess is that birds lay eggs. That is also true but also wrong. Fish and frogs lay eggs, as do many insects, dragonflies, as well as butterflies and crocodiles.

What makes birds truly unique are feathers.  No other creature has feathers. Except maybe angels but you won’t see them in your backyard unless you are very spiritual.

Feathers offer many advantages for birds. First they are lightweight. Feathers are the symbol of lightness and weight is critically important for flying. Any extra weight requires extra energy. A typical sparrow may have over 3,000 feathers but still only weighs about ½ ounce. Despite being lightweight feathers are very strong and very flexible. If damaged or bent out of shape they can be easily repaired.

Feathers provide fantastic insulation. If you have ever owned a down jacket you understand how, despite the light weight, the jacket is incredibly warm. Feathers allow chickadees to survive sub-zero temperatures without a coat and allow ducks to swim for hours on the surface of a semi-frozen pond without getting cold. Feathers are quite waterproof. Water rolls off the surface of a feather without soaking in. This keeps birds dry in rain and snow storms and allows ducks and other waterfowl to float for hours without getting water-logged and sinking. And, of course, feathers help protect a bird’s skin from injuries.

More about feathers next time when I will answer the questions you are just dying to ask. Are their different kinds of feathers for different birds? How many feathers does a hummingbird have versus an eagle? Do birds have more feathers in winter? Do feathers wear out? What makes them so strong?

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Ernie Hammer passed along these photos that he took on our BirdWalk to Crestwood Lake

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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