The Crimes and Violence of Birds

Reddish Egret, Egretta rufescens

It’s a fairy tale or fake news to believe all is sweet and peaceful in the world of birds. We are enchanted by their melodious tweets and beautiful plumage, and are often found among them in seemingly peaceful natural settings, but don’t be fooled. Their world is one without constables or arbiters of justice. There are no rules, other than “might makes right”, “survival of the fittest”, and “it’s okay if you can get away with it”.

Blue Jay, Cyanocitta cristata

Their crimes range from petty theft to rape and murder. We birders are onlookers into this world which is similar to our old Wild West, and are grateful for our, albeit fragile, institutions of justice. As we bird we are witnesses to many of these crimes and often wonder what it would be like living in their world. Occasionally I’m even tempted to intervene on behalf of a victimized bird, but usually hold back and let nature take its course and toll.

American Wigeon, Anas americana

Many of their crimes are mere misdemeanors. This would include the holes the Red-bellied Woodpecker is making in my sister-in-law’s cedar siding. The crows, jays, and gulls are perfecters of the art of petty theft. The former two are attracted to shiny objects, while the latter steals food, literally from the mouths of their careless victims. This usually results in a chase, sometimes resulting in a maimed fish dropped back into the ocean with no party getting any satisfaction.

Red-bellied Woodpecker, Melanerpes carolinus

A somewhat more onerous and significant crime is the practice of brood parasitism as I’ve discussed in prior posts. This disgusts our human sense of fairness and personal responsibility, but evolution has apparently blessed it as a successful tactic among many bird species. The initial crime is the stealthy planting of the itinerant egg in the nest of the unsuspecting parent-to-be, but the atrocity is magnified when the robust hatchling pushes the other weaker step-sibling out of the nest.

Brown-headed Cowbird, Molothrus ater

Many avian disputes are over territory and nesting rights, somewhat similar to those issues which crowd our human court dockets. The Red-winged Blackbird claims his territory with a beautiful song, but don’t let that fool you. He’ll attack any other bird, even a larger foe, that dares interlope into his nesting sphere of influence.

Bald Eagle, Haliaeetus leucocephalus

My friends Andy and Sam were accidental witnesses to a spectacular avian air battle between an adult Bald Eagle and Osprey. Andy was even dexterous enough to grab a camera and snap off a shot or two to document the event. Unfortunately, in cases such as that one shoots the pictures first, and checks camera settings later. It seemed like the smaller Osprey got the better of that fight. It was probably a territorial spat with the eagle getting too close to the Osprey’s nest. As you know, Bald Eagles are opportunistic scavengers, often feasting on the killings of others.

Red-shouldered Hawk, Buteo lineatus

Hawks and owls, on the other hand, are merciless killers, always on the prowl to feed themselves and their offspring. Often their victims are other birds, but small mammals are also unsafe around a hungry bird-of-prey. In my yard Accipiters have become good at patrolling the bird feeders, flying in fast and low to take an innocent, unsuspecting passerine. We can take some comfort in that such killings are a necessity of life for the raptor.

Tundra Swan, Cygnus columbianus

In my last post I reported the rape of a Muscovy Duck. I will hazard a completely uninformed guess and venture that most sex among birds is consensual. I may be completely wrong about this, but do point out that many birds do mate for life. That lasting bond would be hard to imagine if it began with a rape, but admittedly I’m anthropomorphizing. Those ducks, however, did seem to cross a line, with no avian justice in sight.

Reddish Egret, Egretta rufescens

I was recently chasing a rarity Iceland Gull on Fort Myers beach, unsuccessfully, when I snuck up on a Reddish Egret and was rewarded with my closest shots ever of the great bird. Suddenly a second egret swooped in and I witnessed a prolonged battle; or was it courtship and copulation? I find it hard to differentiate these with the birds.

So with all the violence, what is the mortality rate among birds? In this year of the pandemic our human death rates are plastered on the headlines daily. A few things are clear in the avian world. Larger birds live longer than smaller birds, but why is this so? Perhaps it’s because the larger birds are near the top of the food chain and less often preyed upon. Banding data has reported some longevity record life spans: Red-tailed Hawks and Brown Pelicans, 28 years; American Robin, 14 years; Eastern Bluebird, 10 years; and Ruby-throated Hummingbird, 9 years. Most birds, however have much shorter lives.

Ring-billed Gull, Larus delawarensis

It’s estimated that 80-90% of birds do not live to maturity. This is a striking number, but when one remembers the numerous eggs laid and multiple broods per year created by a mating pair, it makes perfect sense. If they all survived we would be inundated with birds, just like an Alfred Hitchcock film. It’s also said that the mortality rate of birds is six times higher during spring and fall migrations. Travel is risky, as we all know.

Anna’s Hummingbird, Calypte anna

It’s difficult to determine how many birds die at the hands or feet of other birds, or from avian diseases. Data regarding bird deaths caused by us humans is more readily available. Collisions with buildings and glass claim an astounding 600 million birds a year; collisions with vehicles, 200 million, and electric wires, 25 million. Six million birds succumb to electrocution each year and one such case was chronicled in my post of 17 November 2019. Our pesticides claim another 72 million per year, and who knows how many die from their loss of habitat. But all these numbers pale next to the 2.4 billion birds killed yearly by domestic and feral cats. That shocking number is hard to believe.

Great Blue Heron, Ardea herodias

How can I conclude such a morbid post of avian crime and death? Perhaps by showing you two Great Blue Herons in love, or by simply stating that these are observations of life on our planet as it is, and not as we wish it to be. It’s merely a description of both the beautiful and fair, right along with the ugly and unjust.

Trash Birds

Herring Gull, Larus argentatus

 

These are the birds no one loves.  They’re numerous, obnoxious, and ubiquitous.  We often do not even tick them off on our eBird lists; why bother?  Most do not migrate; we’re stuck with them all year long.  Monthly the National Audubon Society scares us with a growing list of near-extinctions, but these birds never make the list.  Despite our efforts to pollute and destroy habitats, these birds thrive.

House Sparrow, Passer domesticus

But, “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure”.  If you don’t believe this just watch a couple episodes of the Antique Roadshow on PBS.  A little research can reveal beauty, wonder, and maybe even some monetary reward in even the most unlikely of candidates.  With this in mind this post tries to uncover a few redeeming qualities in my list of trash birds, at least in the beauty and wonder departments.

Eurasian Tree Sparrow, Passer montanus

Take the House Sparrow, please.  Previously known as the English Sparrow, it was introduced to New York in 1851, and we are still wondering why.  This aggressive Old World sparrow is a native of Eurasia and northern Africa and has enjoyed phenomenal success in North America.  The lookalike cousin across the pond is the Eurasian Tree Sparrow.  Its strategy has been to seek out urban centers, crowded sidewalk cafes, and virtually any man-made structure.  You can’t say the male is ugly with its gray head, black beard, and brown and white highlights.  The female is just another difficult to identify LBJ, (little brown job).

Rock Dove, Columba livia

Speaking of urban-loving birds transplanted to us from Europe, Africa, and India, you can count the feral Pigeon.  In more polite circles they are known as Rock Doves.  We are partly to blame for their success, domesticating them for their homing tendencies.  As we all know they have taken over our park benches, school yards, and sky scraper ledges.  A few have attempted to return to their rural roots, nesting on coastal cliffs and mountainsides, but the vast majority still cling to us humans and our cities.  Their redeeming feature is the great variety of iridescent feathers and that striking red eye.

Boat-tailed Grackle, Quiscalus major

Next there are the Grackles.  Just the name reminds one of their irritating call that mimics a rusty gate desperately in need of oil.  They often travel in wolf-like packs, swarming the feeder and driving off the shier passerines.  They have single handedly caused me to shut down the feeders in the warm weather.  One can only afford so many bags of sunflower seeds on a fixed retirement income.  You have to look closely to reveal their beauty, also found in the iridescent plumage and piercing golden eye of the male Common Grackle.  The less common cousins, the Boat-tailed and Great-tailed, share similar assets and  liabilities.

Ring-billed Gulls, Larus delawarensis

Sea Gulls have lost the “sea” in their name and have moved inland following our human trash, dumps, waste water treatment plants, and McDonalds parking lots.  For a birder to become an expert observer of this confusing family of lookalikes, he or she must become gullible.  They’ll take you to some of the most acrid and non-picturesque places on the planet and your reward will be a squabbling colony of black, white, and shades of gray.  You’ll have to hope for the chills and thrills of finding a rarity amidst that flock of a thousand scavengers.

European Starling, Sturnus vulgaris

We could drop the “European” from the name of our only Starling in North America, but keep it as a reminder of where this “gift” came from in 1890.  It has taken over the continent with vast flocks forming in the fall and winter.  It crowds out other birds in both the urban centers and rural farmlands, competing with other more welcome cavity nesters.  They are persistent.  I’ve now removed their nest from my boat-lift motor six times this spring, the last time despite a new protective screen.  They pecked right through it.  On a sunny day, when I’m feeling upbeat, I can appreciate the metallic hues given off by their feathers, decorated with a sprinkle of dots.  The yellow bill of the summertime male adds a nice contrast.  I’m trying to be kind.

Brown-headed Cowbird, Molothrus ater

Remember the phrase, “a face only a mother could love”?  The maternal Brown-headed Cowbird must have forgotten it.  She just clandestinely deposits her eggs in another innocent passerine’s nest and moves on, without even gazing upon the face of her offspring.  These brood parasites have developed a successful policy of avoiding the hard work of parenthood.  You have to admire their audacity or perhaps find some pleasure in their contrasting brown and black coloration, but its hard to find anything good to say about them.

American Crow, Corvus brachyrhynchos

We’re frequently told that Crows are among the smartest of all birds, but intelligence is no excuse and protector from being on my trash list.  There is a reason that a flock of these birds is called a “murder” of crows.  When’s the last time you saw a crow sitting innocently on a wire, just enjoying life.  They’re always chasing or being chased, raising a raucous, or attacking a poor songbird.  Perhaps you can admire their energy, but they are a constant reminder that intelligence does not always breed contentment.

Herring Gull, Larus argentatus

So there you have it, my list of trash birds.  I suspect this post will find disfavor among my birding friends who find beauty in all the creation.  On a good day I am among their ranks, but lately my tolerance level has been tested.  Here’s to better days ahead.

Book Review: The Immense Journey, by Loren Eiseley

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Brown Pelican, Pelecanus occidentalis

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The Immense Journey by Loren Eiseley, published by Random House, copyright 1957, 211 pages

Since the virus pandemic I’ve been rereading many of the books in my library and came across this classic which I previously reviewed here in 2016.  If you’re looking for an escape from all this lockdown boredom, check it out.

People who are curious and inspired by our natural world can often look to another person, event, film, or book that first sparked that interest.  Candidates for books that potentially fit that bill include Walden by Thoreau (1854), the writings of John Muir about the Sierra Nevada around 1900, The Natural History of Selborne by Gilbert White describing in detail the geology, flora and fauna of his native southern England in the 18th century, and more recently Henry Beston’s The Outermost House (1928) chronicling a year on Cape Cod.  For me that spark occurred 50 years ago when I first read The Immense Journey.

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Bobolink, Dolichonyx oryzivorus   (click on photos to zoom)

Loren Eiseley was born to a homesteading family in Nebraska in 1907 and eventually rose to become the Head of the Department Anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania.  Much of his academic work involved searching for evidence of post-glacial man in the plains and mountains of the western United States which he describes so well.  “Some lands are flat and grass covered, and smile so evenly up at the sun that they seem forever youthful, untouched by man or time.  Some are torn, ravaged, and convulsed like the features of profane old age.”

His writings have been called the musings of an “imaginative naturalist” looking for some deeper meaning or message in the fossil record as well as in the contemporary natural world.  The book includes but is not limited to the history of our understanding of the evolution of man.  There are diverse and beautiful chapters entitled “How Flowers Changed the World”, “The Dream Animal”, Little Men and Flying Saucers”, The Judgement of Birds”, The Bird and the Machine”, and “The Secret of Life”.

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Roseate Spoonbill, Platalea ajaja

You might wonder what all this has to do with birds and a birding blog, but avian evolution and Eiseley’s bird encounters do figure in the story.  He describes southward migrating warblers passing overhead at sunset while he hunts fossils in the otherwise nearly lifeless Badlands.  There are the observation of the pigeons at dawn high on the rooftops of Manhattan and the surprising close encounter with the crow in the fog, described by me in the 4/7/2016 post, “Close Encounters of the Bird Kind”.  All these seemingly mundane episodes have some deeper significance for this author.

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Wood Stork, Mycteria americana

Eiseley’s writing style is rich and contemplative.  He is an evolutionist but not dogmatic.  He asks many more questions than has answers and openly wonders about “a ghost in the machine”.  His science of accumulating and cataloging specimens and testing hypotheses is supplemented by moving passages about the meaning of it all.

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Great Blue Heron, Ardea herodias

Many of my favorite sections describe his field work hunting fossils, often working alone in the central plains.  He relates an episode of floating on his back down the shallow Platte River, melding with the eroding sands of mountains making their way to the Gulf.  Another scene describes his capture of a male sparrow hawk for a local zoo as its mate escapes his grasp.  After a night of guilt and contemplation Eiseley releases the male in the morning who flies joyously to join his mate, still soaring high overhead in anticipation of such a reunion.  All these events become grist for the imaginative naturalist’s prose.

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California Towhee, Pipilo crissalis

In one section he explains that evolution is not done and not complete with us or other life forms.  “There are things brewing and growing in the oceanic vat.  It pays to know this.  It pays to know there is just as much future as there is past.  The only thing that doesn’t pay is to be sure of man’s own part in it.  There are still things coming ashore.  Never make the mistake of thinking life is now adjusted for eternity…then you miss it all.”

Eastern Bluebird

Eastern Bluebird, Sialia sialis

Eiseley describes with amazement the relatively rapid evolution of man and his brain.  “For the first time in 4 billion years a living creature had contemplated himself…”, but in the chapter called “Man of the Future” he cautions, “The need is not really for more brains, the need is now for a gentler, a more tolerant people than those who won for us against the ice, the tiger, and the bear.  The hand that hefted the ax, out of some blind allegiance to the past fondles the machine gun as lovingly.  It is a habit man will have to break to survive, but the roots go very deep.”

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Prairie Warbler, Dendroica discolor

Don’t you hate it when someone recommends a book using the superlatives such as “classic”, “best ever”, “greatest one I’ve ever read”, etc.  I hesitate to do that with this book, but just remember, I have read and reread it countless times over 50 years.  That says something.  In one of Loren Eiseley’s other books he describes perching on his father’s shoulder and watching in wonder the passage of Halley’s Comet in 1910.  He hoped he would live long enough to see its return again in 1986 after its long celestial orbit.  Unfortunately he didn’t quite make it as he died in 1977.  If its any consolation to him, his writings survive and continue to inspire.

Bird Sleep

 

Just after sunset, with fading light and falling temperature, wave after wave of Canada Geese circled our cove and gracefully landed.  They joined a raucous flock of geese, perhaps 500 or more, apparently judging the cove to be a safe haven for the night.  But with all the honking I wondered if any, myself included, would ever be able to fall asleep.  With darkness, however, they did quiet down, except for the occasional honk from a vigilant sentry goose proclaiming all is well.

Canada Geese, Branta canadensis

As one ages sleep patterns become an issue, and sometimes even a topic of conversation and concern.  Being a curious birder I decided to do a little research, emphasis on little, as to the sleeping habits of our feathered friends.  What’s their sleep pattern, how much do they need, where do they go at night, can they sleep while flying, etc.?  I also scanned my photo archives looking for pictures of sleeping birds.  Unfortunately I usually delete pictures of birds with their eyes closed, but did find a few suitable for this post.

Eastern Screech Owl, Megascops asio

On my bedside nightstand there is a fascinating book by Matthew Walker entitled “Why We Sleep”.  It’s mostly about humans but does include a great chapter about the evolution of sleep.  According to the author a biologic sleep requirement must have evolved very early, as all animals, even insects, demonstrate sleep cycles.  You can confirm this with the characteristic brain waves on the EEG’s of sleeping animals and by periodic cycles of non-arousal of small insects.

Yellow-crowned Night-Heron, Nyctanassa violacea

Although all animals require some sleep, the amount and style vary considerably.  Walker states that the length of the restorative sleep requirement is determined by the complexity of the animal’s nervous system.  Both the length and type have evolved separately for every species and are balanced by the equally important need for wakeful hunting, eating, nest-building, and blog writing.

Dunlins, Calidris alpina

We are all familiar with the two types of sleep, REM and non-REM, identified by their characteristic brain waves.  It’s interesting that REM, the shallower sleep stage associated with dreaming, only occurs in mammals and birds.  It is, therefore, a later creation in the evolutionary sequence.  I consider it an “eye opener” to think of birds actually dreaming.

Common Nighthawk, Chordeiles minor

Although there are similarities between avian and human sleep, there are also many differences.  Birds demonstrate hemispheric sleep, the amazing ability to let half the brain sleep while the other half stays wide awake, perhaps as a defense for lurking predators.  At some point this split reverses and the other half falls asleep.  It’s interesting that this hemispheric sleep only occurs with non-REM sleep; REM for some reason, requires total brain participation.

Barred Owl, Strix varia

Frigatebirds are amazing seabirds that can stay aloft without landing for up to two months.  They have one major deficit–they cannot swim.  If forced to land at sea they quickly become water-logged and drown.  So curious Niels Rattenborg and others from the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology figured they would be the perfect bird to evaluate for in-flight sleep.

Magnificent Frigatebird, Fregata magnificent     photo by A. Sternick

Rattenborg fastened EEG leads to the skulls of 15 frigatebirds and attached a device to monitor flight speed.  The study confirmed that birds do indeed sleep while flying, but not in the expected manner.  They slept only in short bursts of 10 seconds and only for a total of 45 minutes each day, a much shorter duration than their sleep cycle on land.  They also only used hemispheric sleep while flying, and only slept while gaining altitude in a thermal.  They were completely awake and alert in every gliding descent, perhaps to avoid a lethal crash landing at sea.

Black Skimmers, Rynchops niger

Birds assume many different sleeping positions on land, but I’ve not yet seen one on its back with feet pointing heavenward.  Shorebirds sleep standing up, often on one leg, and usually facing into the wind.  Night herons, owls, and woodpeckers sleep  perched upright.  Their leg muscles in a relaxed state result in a clenched claw, firmly grasping the branch.  Many birds such as the nighthawks sleep horizontally, while some parrots sleep hanging upside down in a bat-like manner.  Many cavity nesters seek out a vacant cavity for the night.

Bonaparte Gull, Larus philadelphia

Birds, like humans, are susceptible to sleep deprivation.  Walker reports that the U.S. government has spent millions investigating the sleep pattern of the lowly White-crowned Sparrow.  If you deprive this bird of sleep during the season it would normally be migrating, it experiences no ill effects.  But similar sleep deprivation at any other time results in catastrophic physiologic brain and body dysfunction.

White-crowned Sparrow, Zonotrichia leucophrys

I’m not sure how they deprived the little bird of sleep; perhaps with bright lights and continuous Barry Manilow songs at high volume.  In any case, this bird has apparently evolved some protective mechanism for sleep deprivation that the U.S. government would love to uncover.

Black-crowned Night-Heron, Nycticorax nycticorax

Have you noticed how difficult it is to sleep the first night in a new hotel and bed?  I now believe this is a throwback to my evolutionary past.  Is there a Sabre-toothed Tiger lurking in the bushes or a Wooly Mammoth lumbering past my cave?  Just like the birds I require safe sleep, but haven’t yet mastered that hemispheric trick.  I guess I need that sentinel goose, standing guard and signaling all is well.

Birding Florida in August

Tricolor Heron, Egretta tricolor

 

In early August I spent a week in south Florida.  No, I’m not crazy.  I had some indoor painting to do there, and own a perfectly functioning air conditioner.  It makes one wonder what people did in the South before AC.  And more importantly, how do the birds handle this heat?  Instead of watching the paint dry I  ventured outside to do a little summertime birding and to solve this mystery.

White Ibis, Eudocimus albus

The August humidity in Florida is oppressive; just get used to being damp while doing anything outside, including birding.  We sweat in an attempt to cool our bodies through evaporation.  Remember your high school thermodynamics; water going from liquid to gaseous phases requires energy and draws heat away from your skin.  But birds don’t sweat; they do not have sweat glands.  Despite this they still like to stay wet in the hot weather to take advantage of evaporative cooling.

Fish Crow, Corvus ossifragus

Birds have also developed other behavioral and physiologic mechanisms to deal with extreme heat.  They have a much higher metabolic rate than humans and a higher baseline temperature, as high as 108F degrees for some birds.  Ninety degree days, therefore are not as critical for a bird as for us humans, however extreme temperatures can be a problem.  Their behavioral adjustments to the heat strike me as just common sense, like things your mother would tell you.  “Stay out of the hot mid-day sun, feed and play in the early morning or evening, bathe often, and drink a lot of water.”

Brown Pelicans, Pelecanus occidentalis

I understand that soaring birds soar even higher on hot days, seeking cooler air.  If all else fails, the birds can always consider an earlier fall migration or relocation to habitats at higher elevation.  Indeed the ranges of many birds are expanding northward as the climate warms.

Osprey, Pandion haliaetus

Avian physiologic adjustments to heat are interesting.  Birds can increase their respiratory rate and breathe with an open bill, just like a panting dog.  Think of the bird’s lungs as a heat exchanger, with heat passing from the hot blood to the relatively cooler air.  Some birds take this thermoregulation to a higher level, by including a rapid vibration of the moist throat to enhance evaporation.  This is called “gular fluttering” and can be seen with cormorants, night hawks, and doves.

Yellow-crowned Night Heron, Nyctanassa violacea

Feathers, such vital insulating structures for cooler weather, work against the bird in the hot summer.  Luckily birds also have some vascular featherless body parts, (legs, feet, bills, eye rings) that can also function as cooling heat exchangers.  The huge bills of the tropical Toucans are very vascular and a good example of this cooling technique.  When the temperature finally falls the blood flow to these parts decreases to maintain warmth.

Green Heron, Butorides virescens

Vultures, as you might expect, lead the way with the most disgusting cooling method.  Urohydrosis is the sophisticated term for these birds urinating on their feet and legs to foster evaporative cooling.  The drying white urate salts also better reflect the sun’s rays than the darker clean legs and feet.  I’m told that multi-colored birds perch with their lighter and more reflective plumage toward the sun in hot weather, but have not observed this pattern myself.

Black Vulture, Coragyps atratus

Some of these cooling methods were evident while birding the Pelican Bay berm along the mangroves and further inland at the Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary.  The birds were hiding from me and the heat, especially the passerines where only a few were active in the deep shade of the cypress forest.  There certainly was no shortage of water as the ditches and ponds were all full from the daily monsoons.  The Florida waders were out in force, but I only saw one shorebird; a Willet frolicking alone in the Gulf surf.

Yellow-crowned Night Heron, Nyctanassa violacea

Anhinga, a juvenile night heron, and a vulture were all seen holding their wings out, away from their bodies.  This is for drying and evaporative cooling, but also to keep the insulating wing feathers away from the body.

Corkscrew’s Lettuce Lake

Don’t forget the birder who must also adapt to the heat.  Sunscreen, hats, water bottles, etc. are obvious, but I wasn’t prepared for the severe Florida humidity.  The air temperature was similar to that of the Chesapeake region this time of year, but the humidity was brutal.

Great Blue Heron, Ardea herodias

Dripping sweat clouding glasses and lenses was a constant battle, but on the plus side, there were no throngs crowding the birding hotspots.  I made the 3 mile loop on the Corkscrew boardwalk and saw only two other birders.  There were many more guides than patrons.  The Pelican Bay berm and beach were almost empty with no joggers or bikers to dodge.  If you prefer to bird alone, Florida in August beckons.

Gulf of Mexico

August is our yearly lull on the birding calendar for more reasons than just the heat.  The excitement of breeding, nesting, and feeding hatchlings is subsiding.  Birds are lying low, molting, and building up reserves for a possible long fall migration.  For the full time residents of Florida, both avian and human, its just a time to relax, try to stay cool, and wait for the inevitable surge from the north, soon to begin.

Black Birds

Smooth-billed Ani, Crotophagia ani                                   photo by A. Sternick

 

Blackbird singing in the dead of night

Take these broken wings and learn to fly

All your life

You were only waiting for this moment to arise

 

Blackbird singing in the dead of night

Take these sunken eyes and learn to see

All your life

You were only waiting for this moment to be free.

Paul  McCartney

Boat-tailed Grackle, Quiscalus major

At first we thought it was just another Boat-tailed Grackle.  Common things are common, but we simultaneously called out “Ani” after getting a better look through the binoculars.  A little more in-depth birding identified it as the Smooth-billed Ani, not the rarer Groove-billed cousin.  All black bird with long tail and bizarre oversized bill with a small rhino hump on top.  The cat-like whining call nailed it down.  What we didn’t know at the time was that the sighting was the first eBird record of the bird at this hotspot.

Red-winged Blackbird, Agelaius phoeniceus

The walk in Eagle Lakes Community Park in Naples, Florida was intended to be for exercise.  We had recently arrived from the frigid north and needed to attend to the extra layers of insulating fat acquired over the holidays.  Our spouses, true to the mission, took off at a power pace, but Andy and I got hung up counting coots at the gazebo.  At least I had left the camera home–Andy had not.

Smooth-billed Ani, Crotophagia ani      photo by A. Sternick

When will I learn?  Always bring the camera.  You never know when you’ll see something unusual, a new bird, a flight or feeding shot, etc.  I had only seen the Ani in Panama, and never in south Florida.  It is much more common in the West Indies and South America with a declining population in Florida.  Our theory is that recent Atlantic storms may have blown it in from the Bahamas.  In any case it was a great find and was posted on the eBird rarity alert for the county, triggering a lot of frenzied birders’ visitations to Eagle Lakes.

Anhinga, Anhinga anhinga

I don’t usually publish other birder’s pictures, but Andy graciously lent me these two to document the sighting, (he only took several hundred shots of the bird).  That’s another plus of digital photography.  When you have a good bird or pose, just start snapping away; check your settings after the first 10; readjust and keeping snapping.  Post-processing and deleting is done later at home.

Black Kite, Milvus migrans

Photographing a dark or back bird is not easy, and practically impossible if the subject is backlit.  Even with the sunlight behind the camera you’ll need to raise your exposure compensation settings several steps.  The goal is to resolve the subtle shades and textures of the dark feathers, even bringing out some of the irridescence often seen in the male grackles and starlings.

Phainopepla, Phainopepla nitens

The wide range of bird feather coloration is caused by either of two factors:  pigmentation, or the microscopic structure of the feather, or a combination of both.  The three pigments of note are the carotenoids (giving vivid yellows and oranges), the melanins (giving black and browns), and porphyrins (resulting in a variety of pinks, browns and red).  In each case the resultant color is due  to the reflected wavelength, the other colors and wavelengths are absorbed by the pigment.

Raven, Corvus corax

The other color-determining factor is the microscopic structure of the feather’s keratin proteins.  These layered proteins refract the incident light to varying degrees with our eyes perceiving the resultant composite wavelengths.

Brown-headed Cowbird, Molothrus ater

It’s interesting to note that there is no blue pigment.  The blue coloration of blue birds is entirely due to refraction.  The iridescent feathers seen in some birds, including many hummingbirds and some black birds, is also do to this refraction of light by the prism-like protein layers and the viewing angle of the observer.

Black Vulture, Coragyps atratus

Black birds are black primarily due to melanin pigments which absorb all the incident wavelengths of light.  White birds on the other hand reflect all wavelengths of the visible spectrum and absorb nothing.  It interesting to note that melanin pigments also add strength to the feathers.  This may well be why some of the white birds have black wingtips, edges, and other sites of wear and tear.  The White Ibis and Wood Stork are good examples of this.

White Ibis, Endocimus albus

When talking about black birds, especially the Corvids, the topic of bird intelligence invariably comes up.  Corvidae is a large family of blackbirds including crows, ravens, rooks, jackdaws, jays, and magpies, all known for their mental capacity.

Pied Cuckoo, Clamator jacobinus

People who know and measure these things put Corvid intelligence right near the top of the animal kingdom, surpassed only by man and some other higher mammals.  Their brain-to-body mass ratio is similar to that of the Great Apes and whales, only surpassed by Homo sapiens.  Observation of their feeding habits, memorization skills, use of tools, problem solving, and organized group behavior all speak to this higher level of intelligence.

American Crow, Corvus brachyrhynchos

I’m not generally a paranoid person, but these days, whenever I hear a “black bird singing in the dead of night” I’ll wonder what he’s saying and what he’s thinking.  Is it just an innocent song of aspiration, or could he be hatching some nefarious plot?  While walking through the woods, if a cawing murder of crows passes overhead, I’ll keep an eye on them, just in case.  They’re smarter than you think.

The Flight of Birds; Fair or Foul?

I was minding my own business at the desk by the window when WHACK, a Cardinal crashed into the glass.  I rushed outside to look for a body in the hedge, or at least a stunned bird, but found nothing, not even a red feather.  He must have survived.  It got me thinking about flight.  It’s marvelous and amazing and we terrestrial-bound species are jealous of the birds, but it does come with risks and at a price.  What are the risks and what exactly have the birds given up when they evolved this specialized skill.

Northern Cardinal, Cardinalis cardinalis

I count five groups that have acquired the ability to fly, (omitting the gliding frogs and squirrels).  They are the myriad insects, the extinct dinosaurs–Pterosaurs, the mammalian bats, the birds, and Homo sapiens, since Kitty Hawk.  You must admit that at least with insects and birds, flight has been a successful strategy, with Aves flying around for 150 million years since Archaeopteryx, and insects for even longer.  This compares with a meagre 20 million years for Hominids on earth, with flight mastered by us just 115 years ago.

Brown Pelican, Pelicans occidentalis

There are, of course, obvious advantages of bird flight.  They can get from point A to point B quickly, whether its to find food, escape a predator, or chase a prospective mate.  The destination may just be across the yard or a migration of thousands of miles. Their flying skills include, hovering, take-offs and landings, on either land or water, soaring, gliding, and high speed dives.  They can catch a fly on the wing and even copulate in mid-air.  Very impressive.

Red-shouldered Hawk, Buteo lineatus

There are, however, obvious physical risks to flight.  My office window, multiplied by millions is an example.  Add to that the glass of towering skyscrapers, burgeoning wind farms, and power lines, and you have some real flight hazards.  Fall migration itself takes a huge toll on the young birds.  That’s why the spring migration is less crowded, returning to us just the survivors.

Limpkin, Aramus guarauna

But I’m more interested in the anatomic and physiologic adaptations that have evolved and made flight possible, and what price Aves have paid for this specialization.  The upper extremity of birds has reduced the five digits of its ancestors to three and these serve as the anchors for the primary flight feathers.  The wing is a wonderful and highly specific adaptation for flight, but useless for grasping a tool or playing the piano.  No matter; birds have evolved a flexible neck and versatile beak and tongue to partially offset these deficits.

Rose-ringed Parakeet, Psittacula krameri

What about size?  It does matter for birds.  Flight requires the birds to be relatively small and light.  When you double the length of a bird you increase its weight 8-fold.  Even though the large Golden Eagle only weighs 15 pounds it requires an 8-foot wingspan to fly.

Black Vulture, Coragyps atratus

The physics of flight applies to the birds, just as it did for the Wright brothers.  There must be air flowing over the wing or airfoil to create enough lift to overcome the drag.  Flapping adds greatly to the lift, but weight is still a limiting factor.  Just recall the spectacle of the heavy swan or goose, beating its wings while running across the pond, in its onerous fight to become airborne.

Osprey, Pandion haliaetus

Experts debate how the Pterosaurs and ancient birds “learned” to fly.  One camp suggests a “tree-down” approach, falling or gliding from a height, similar to flying squirrels.  Another group suggests a “ground-up” technique, running or leaping into the air, similar to our struggling swan.  I doubt we’ll ever know for sure.

Laysan Albatross, Phoebastria immutabilis

Birds have also solved the weight issue by their light, hollow bones, ideal for flight but lacking somewhat in strength–another compromise.  “Light as a feather”, the saying goes.  The evolution of the feather figures centrally in the history of flying animals.  Experts now believe feathers evolved long before flight.  Once we pictured dinosaurs as hairless, leathery reptiles, but now learn that some were actually adorned with colorful feathers.  The only question is whether their feathers were for insulation or for sexual ornamentation, but clearly they were not, at least initially, useful for flight.

Belted Kingfisher, Ceryle alcyon

The weight restrictions of flight also require that a bird brain remain relatively small, and surrounded by only a thin skull.  Most of its brain is devoted to eyesight, so highly perfected in raptors, and much of the rest to the regulation of basic functions and the intricate movements of flight.  Although much has been written about the intelligence of birds, (primarily the Corvids), don’t get carried away.  They will not be writing a Beethoven symphony any time soon, or even running for political office.

Prairie Warbler, Dendroica discolor

The warm-blooded, hyperactive, flying birds are massive consumers of energy.  Their high metabolic rates require a never-ending search for food (using energy in the process) for both themselves and their young.  It is a bird’s greatest mission everyday.  The avian respiratory system is also a unique and complicated adaptation of rigid lungs, multiple air sacs, and unidirectional air flow, all designed to supply richly oxygenated blood to meet their high energy demands.

Sandwich Tern, Sterna sandvicensis

It’s interesting that some birds have given up flight completely.  You wonder why.  For Penguins the rudimentary wings are now used for swimming, while the large Ostriches of the savannas of Africa use their downy feathers and wings for shade.  The flightless Dodo birds of the Mauritius Island in the Indian Ocean were doing just fine on the ground until discovered by Dutch sailors in 1598.  The vulnerable bird was easy prey for man and his contaminants and the Dodo is now extinct.  Unfortunately its name has become synonymous with naiveté and stupidity.

Wood Stork, Mycteria americana

So the birds have paid some price for their lives in the sky.  We humans need to keep this in mind as we stretch our frontiers upward, even to the Moon and Mars.  I consider Homo sapiens now a flying animal, similar to the birds.  We are part of nature and not just an outside observer looking in.  Never mind that our “wings” are metal and rivets and computers; they are merely our adaptations, the products of our brains, and our unique ticket to the wonders of flight.

The Wright brothers, Homo sapiens, 1903

 

Guano

Blue-footed Boobies, Sula nebouxii                                        photo by A. Sternick

 

August must be a slow month for birding since my mind has turned to the fascinating topic of bird excretions.  It may also be because of the daily reminder found on my dock.  Early in the season the dock was guano-free, perhaps due to the policing of the nearby nesting Osprey which mobbed any intruding gull.  But now the Laughing, Ring-billed, and Herring Gulls are back big time and the Osprey all seem to have given up the dock patrol, perhaps preoccupied with planning their upcoming long migration to the south.

Royal, Least, and Forster’s Terns, as well as an occasional Double-crested Cormorant are now all contributing to the mess.  The rotating gull sweep and wind socks help some, but I sense the Laughing Gulls are defecating on my poor plastic owl with vocal hilarity.

Laughing Gull, Larus atricilla

Seriously, guano is much more interesting than you’d think.  It represents millions of years of evolutionary success and has even caused wars among us enterprising and competitive humans.

Caspian Tern, Sterna caspia

All animals require dietary protein (composed of nitrogen-containing amino acids) for maintenance of body structure and function.  The metabolic breakdown products of proteins are a toxic nitrogenous waste that must not be allowed to accumulate.

Double-crested Cormorant, Phalacrocorax auritus (the first step in guano creation)

In humans and other mammals these wastes are excreted in the urine as urea, dissolved in large amounts of flushing water.  First dinosaurs, and later birds, have evolved kidneys that have the ability to concentrate these wastes as uric acid, requiring only 1/20th the amount of water needed by us humans.  It’s these uric acid crystals that give guano its distinct white color that daily spots my dock.

Masked Booby, Sula dactylatra                           photo by A. Sternick

When various berries are ripe the spots are a slightly more pleasing pink, red, or blue, reflecting the diets of my avian friends.  If you examine the guano closely you’ll see small piles of tiny bone and shell fragments, the remains of fish and blue crabs finely chopped in the bird’s gizzard.  If so inclined I could monitor the contents of the birds’ excretions and publish a significant research paper.  I’m not so inclined.

Herring gulls, Larus argentatus

The word “guano” is derived from “huanu”, coined by the indigenous Quechuan people of the Andes and South American highlands to describe bird dung.  For at least 1500 years these people recognized the fertilizing power of guano, later shown to be due to its high concentrations of nitrogen, phosphates, and potassium.  Alexander von Humboldt introduced guano to Europeans in 1802, forever changing their desire for this valuable fertilizer.  It allowed much more intensive farming with significantly higher yields per acre.

While some Americans headed west to stake their gold-mining claims in California, others headed south to the guano islands to make their fortune.  The U.S. Guano Island Act of 1856 gave exclusive rights of guano deposits to citizens staking their claims on any unclaimed island.  Some of these small islands in the Caribbean and off the west coast of South America had guano deposits 50 meters deep.  100,000 indentured servants from China came to the New World in the 19th century, specifically to become guano harvesters.  The “guano rush” was on.  Conservation laws were enacted to protect the valuable islands and the guano-producing birds.

Double-crested Cormorants, Phalacrocorax auritus

The “best” guano is found along the dry western coast of South America.  The control of this guano paid a key role in the Chincha Island War of 1864-6, fought by Spain against an alliance of Chile and Peru.  Peru and Chile later fought each other in 1879 for this same guano.  Some people speculate that it may have been guano from Mexico, infested with the Phytophthora infestans mold, that cause the severe potato blight and famine in Ireland in the mid 19th century.

Pelagic Cormorants, Phalacrocorax pelagicus

Things began to quiet down in 1909 when the process of industrial nitrogen fixation became the primary way to produce ammonia-based fertilizers.  To this day, however, guano is still used as an effective natural fertilizer, and is especially cherished by organic farmers and consumers.

Northern gannet, Morus bassanus

Knowledge begets toleration.  Tomorrow as I hose off the dock I’ll not be mumbling about all the b.s., but rather pondering the structures of urea and uric acid and the eons that evolved the differing kidneys that excrete them.  And how enterprising man found a use for the foul of the fowl, and even fought wars over the control of it.  I’ll also consider planning a trip to South America and the islands, and maybe even see a Guanay Cormorant, Peruvian Pelican, or a Peruvian Booby, the most prolific guano producers of all.

Bird Banding

Chipping Sparrow, Spizella passerina

 

When I told a friend I was writing a post about bird banding he immediately conjured up his musical past and famous bird bands:  the Eagles, the Dixie Chicks, and Sheryl Crow.  And don’t forget to mention Jay and the Americans, he quipped.  That’s how his clever mind works, but this is about bird banding, not bands.  Maybe bird bands will be a topic for a later day.

Common Yellowthroat, Geothlypis trichas

I was only too happy to accept an invitation from Gene & Mary, the hosts of the erstwhile nuthatch family, to accompany them to the Chester River Field Research Station (CRFRS), last month to observe a bird banding operation during spring migration.  I had previously witnessed raptors captured in baited nets and banded at Cape May, New Jersey, but had never seen songbird banding up close.  http://www.washcoll.edu/centers/ces/crfrs

Magnolia Warbler, Dendroica magnolia

CRFRS is in the River and Field Campus of Washington College, an extensive 4700 acres of mixed habitat along 2.5 miles of the Chester River, a tributary of the Chesapeake Bay.  The site includes riverine, freshwater ponds, marsh, grasssland and wooded habitats, all just a 10 mile drive from the main college campus in Chestertown, Maryland.

A long dirt road through the woods leads to a small clearing and humble white shed with a “James Gruber Birding Laboratory” sign posted proudly over the door.  Mr. Gruber himself and field ecologist Maren Gimpel greeted us warmly and gave an introductory explanation of the operation.  One immediately grasped that these were dedicated and knowledgeable ornithologists and teachers leading a small team of enthusiastic students and volunteers.  All were more than willing to answer our many questions about their work.

The interior of the “lab” itself was a crowded but efficient workplace.  The workbench by the windows was where the banding took place, with clipboards, calipers, scales, and other tools-of-the-trade apparent.  Along the rafters hung the small white sacs containing the captured birds from the last run, waiting to be banded, measured, and released.  There was a large bookcase containing records, textbooks, and bird guides (their favorite seemed to be Sibley’s).  On the wall hung large maps of the U.S. and Western Hemisphere with colored pushpins  marking the sights of origin of captured and previously banded birds.  A white board listed the spring arrivals for 2018.

The banding operation for the day started long before we arrived.    The fine mesh mist nets were hung along strategic pathways in various habitats at dawn and monitored at least every hour to retrieve captured birds.  The directors asked us not to photograph birds in the net for fear some might think the process cruel.  I can assure you that these people used the utmost of gentle care untangling the birds and released them ASAP back into the wild, none the worse for wear.

Wood Thrush, Hylocichla mustelina

Our knowledge of bird migration has been refined over the centuries.  Completely unaware of migration, Aristotle thought Redstarts turned into Robins, and Garden Warblers into Blackcaps each winter.  For years people thought Swallows hibernated and in the 16th century fishermen reportedly caught the torpid swallows in their nets.  In the 17th century Englishman Charles Morton decided birds must indeed migrate, but he claimed their destination was the moon!

Banding has enlightened us to the specifics of migration.  Audubon tied silver thread to the leg of an Eastern Phoebe to see if the same bird returned to his farm each year.  Hans Mortensen first used aluminum leg rings on Starlings in 1899, and Leon Cole  founded the American Bird Banding Association in 1909.  In 2017 CRFRS banded 14,757 birds of 128 different species.  Even though the recovery rate of banded songbirds is very low, (less than 1%), much can be learned about migration, shifting populations, and the health of the various species from this data.

Grasshopper Sparrow, Ammodramus savannarum

“Recovery” may take many forms.  It may be the netting of a hapless bird previously banded the day before, or a migrant returning to its breeding ground or just passing through.  It may be a bird banded elsewhere, hundreds or even thousands of miles away.  Some recoveries are by astute birders able to read the band numbers with a scope or telephoto lens, but often the recoveries are of dead birds, perhaps found as road kill, victims of window strikes, or even just old age.  A notable recovery of 2017 was an Osprey found dead in Venezuela, previously banded at CRFRS in June, 2003.

Indigo Bunting, Passerina cyanea

I found that walking the mist nets with the guides to be exciting, much like a child with “visions of sugar plums” on Christmas Eve.   You could see a netted bird from a distance and approached anxious to see it up close and try to identify it while the guide untangled and bagged the quarry.  An Indigo Bunting, Ruby-throated Hummingbird, Magnolia Warbler, and Wood Thrush at two feet are truly a marvel.  Even the common Gray Catbird has its own subtle beauty at that proximity.

Banding an American Goldfinch, Carduelis tristis

Back at the shack the birds are fitted with the appropriate sized leg band, weighed, measured, and sexed if possible.  Breeding males often have a prominent protuberance at the vent, visible when feathers are brushed aside.  Age determination, (juvenile, first year, or adult) can often be determined by plumage.  Fat deposits on the breast are signs of a healthy well-fed bird.  All of this is painstakingly recorded.  A highlight for us observers is when the guides finally handed us a bird, light as a feather, to be released back into the wild.

Ruby-throated Hummingbird, Archilochus colubris

Two things stand out in my mind from the visit to CRFRS.  Its one thing to see these birds with binoculars and photography, but entirely different to hold these small gems in your hands or hear the rapid humming of the Hummingbird heartbeat in your ear.  The other lasting impression is of the knowledge and palpable enthusiasm that both the leaders and young students have for ornithology, and their obvious delight in sharing their expertise with others.  We were grateful beneficiaries of their mastery that day.

Book Review: Sea Room by Adam Nicolson

Published by North Point Press, copyright 2001, 401 pages

 

The ebbing tide over-powered her desperate strokes toward the island and carried the swimmer steadily and surely away from land.  Her distraught husband on the shore knew that her rescue was impossible.  It took two strong adults to launch the heavy scow pulled high up the beach and the only other inhabitants on the small island were their infant children, safely asleep in the cabin.  All he could do was call out his love, over and over.  She did the same until just a speck in the vast sea, finally succumbing to a cold watery fate.  “The sea invites and the sea destroys”.

The Hebrides                                    photo courtesy of A. Sternick

This, and many other accounts of life and death on the Shiants, three small isolated islands in the Hebrides off the western coast of Scotland, form the basis of this wonderful book.  The author knows of what he speaks since he owns the Shiants, inheriting them from his father, who bought them for a meager sum as a young man in the 1930’s, and then passed them on to his son 40 years later.  Who would want them, four miles from the nearest port across an unpredictable and dangerous passage, bordered by steep cliffs, rocky shores, and poor anchorages?  For the author these islands “at times…have been the most important thing in my life”.

Double-crested Cormorant, Phalacrocorax auritus

This book represents the author’s twenty year quest to uncover everything about the 550 acre Shiant Islands.  How were they formed and will they survive?  Who were their Stone Age, Viking, and more recent inhabitants?  Did they thrive or merely survive?  He sought to understand the flora and fauna, especially the birdlife with myriad seabirds nesting on the steep cliffs.  Although this is not a birding book per se, the birds figure prominently in the author’s love affair with the islands, “moated by the sea”.  Nicolson enticed archeologists, geologists, ornithologists, and social historians to help him reconstruct the island’s colorful past.

Atlantic Puffin, Fratercula arctic                            courtesy of A. Sternick

His initial excursions to the islands were on fishing boats but Nicolson needed his own boat, something in the Norse tradition, that he could sail single-handedly.  He found John MacAulay, a salty shipwright, who designed and built him “Freyja”, a sixteen foot, stout, open cockpit, rowable sailboat, perfect for his needs. The only problem was that the author did not know how to sail.  As a sailor, I shake my head in amazement as Nicolson relates his crash nautical education and solo ventures into the rip-tides and dangerous waters of the Minches.  History reports dozens of shipwrecks and lost seamen here, but the author and “Freyja” surprisedly prevailed.

Peregrine Falcon, Falco peregrinus

Birders will enjoy the descriptions of the abundant avian life of the Shiants.  The Skua are the “Viking birds, heroic, bitter northern, aggressive, and magnificent modern invaders whose nests are littered with bits and pieces of Puffin and Kittiwake”.  He describes the graceful headfirst dives of the sharp-billed Gannets, one piercing the floorboards and hull of one unlucky fisherman who was smart enough to keep the bird and bill plugging the hole until safely in port.  There are descriptions of Eagles, Ravens, Falcons, Guillemots, Shearwaters, and Fulmars, “the most effortless of all the seabirds” while the social wintering Barnacle Geese mark spring each year when they leave for their nesting grounds on Greenland.

Brant, Branta bernicla

The quizzical Puffins are the island’s avian stars, wonderfully portrayed by the author, whereas the Shag or Cormorants with their evil green eyes are his “trash birds”.  I’m somewhat embarrassed to admit that the Puffin is still one of my nemesis birds (a life bird yet to be seen).  This book has inspired me to head north, at least to the coast of Maine and the maritime Canada provinces to correct that deficit.  Someday I may even make it to the Hebrides, if not the Shiants themselves.  We’ll see.

John J. Audubon’s Puffins

The Shiants have many abandoned ruins of various ages.  The study and excavation of them allowed the author and others to begin to reconstruct the social history of the islands.  It’s amazing how archeologists can discern patterns of human behavior from mere fragments of pottery, tools, stone ruins, or a bronze age golden torc dredged up by a Hebridean fisherman.  A discovery of special importance was a loaf-sized stone found buried beneath the floor of some ruins.  Upon rolling it over the archeologists discovered it was a deeply carved four-armed cross with circular border, likely the work of a saintly hermit of the first millennium seeking shelter, solace, and peace on the island.

Buller’s Shearwater, Puffinus bulleri

Sheep herding and even cattle grazing occurred on the grassy plateaus.  At its peak some 50 people inhabited the Shiants but by the late 19th century only one family remained.  The Campbells were a hardy clan of father, deaf mute son, and two beautiful daughters who were the toast and envy of the Hebrides.    The staid and determined mother tried, but failed to guard her daughters from visiting fishermen.  Even the Campbells left in 1901, leaving the islands to the sheep and birds.

Common Murre, Uria aalge

This is a fascinating book about eons of birds, plants, and later humans including the author, all eking out a spartan existence in this beautiful but challenging land.  There is a somewhat melancholy conclusion as Nicolson’s trips to the islands seem to be numbered.  Will his young college-aged son accept and cherish his inheritance as his grandfather and father had?  What will be the effects of climate change and progressive civilization on the island’s ecosystem?  For me, the lesson of the book is the inevitability of change.  Nothing ever remains the same, but life in some form will cope and persist, even on the weather-battered Shiants.