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.

All The Birds You Cannot See

Red-headed Woodpecker, Melanerpes erythrocephalus

 

I had foolishly promised we would see the Red-headed Woodpecker at the Blackwater NWR, a site where I had seen it on almost every prior visit.  That is, until my last trip there just a few weeks ago when it was nowhere in sight.  eBird was also reporting a sighting a month ago, but none more recently.  The woodpecker was a nemesis bird for Andy.   He and his wife flew down from New York to spend last week with us on the Chesapeake and seeing that bird was high on our birding agenda–the pressure was on.

Blackwater NWR

We all have nemesis birds; unchecked boxes on our life lists of birds we should have seen but somehow have slipped through the cracks.  As we age that list shrinks for our local patch and the surge of excitement of seeing a bird for the first time becomes less frequent.  But a few birds, some of them quite common in Maryland and Florida, have avoided my detection.  I’m somewhat embarrassed to reveal that personal list:  Snowy Owl, Puffin, all the Rails, Worm-eating Warbler, and Mangrove Cuckoo among others.  The cuckoo hides from me despite my living among the Florida mangroves for a good part of the year.

Bald Eagle, Haliaeetus leucocephalus

There’s some good-natured competitive chiding between Andy and me over our unseen birds.  He does not hesitate to show me his exquisite photos of Snowy Owls which frequent his patch in Upstate New York, or his Puffin shots from Iceland, while I counter with my best Red-headed Woodpecker poses.  But it’s all in fun and I truly hoped for him to finally check that box at Blackwater last week.  We failed.

Wildlife Drive at Blackwater

But Blackwater never fails to impress the first timer with other features; the great vistas of tidal grasslands, lowland pine forests, and of course the soaring Bald Eagles.  Near the beginning of Wildlife Drive there are numerous snags and Loblolly Pines covered with woodpecker holes.  We saw Pileated, Downy, Red-bellied, and Sapsuckers, but no Red-heads.  Big disappointment.  Now I understand the pressure a bird guide must feel when he fails to deliver target birds to his paying customers.

Belted Kingfisher, Ceryle alcyon

Blackwater did seem less “birdy” that day.  Maybe it was the unusually warm weather or perhaps the prolonged drought.  Or perhaps we had just missed the songbird migration to the south and were early for the waterfowl from the north.  Even so, we did see 37 species and will never feel cheated by a trip to this phenomenal refuge on the Eastern Shore of Maryland.

Great Blue Heron, Ardea herodias

We detect birds by eyesight, but also by birdsong.  As a novice birder I always thought this was cheating; checking a box when never spotting the singing bird, who was often identified for me by a more seasoned birder or guide.  I’m still loathe to claim a life bird solely by song, but readily tick the common birds by song on my routine outings.  But there remain far too many songs that I have not yet matched with a bird.  It’s frustrating.

Greater Yellowlegs, Tringa melanoleuca

Birding by ear is an advanced skill that is slowly acquired over the years.  I’m impressed with some local birders that recognize an extensive repertoire of birdsong; some can even reproduce the song by mouth, hoping to coax the bird out of seclusion for visual verification.

Northern Harrier, Circus cyaneus

I’m working on my audio skills with the help of Larkwire, a helpful cell phone app of birdsong, complete with quizzes.  There are even apps that can detect and identify birds in the field, similar to Shazam, the app used to identify popular human song.  Among others these include Song Sleuth and ChirpOMatic.  I cannot vouch for their accuracy but their names are catchy.

Mallard, Anas platyrhynchos

I’ll never forget the beautiful haunting and repetitive birdsong I heard near Mount Fuji several springs ago.  Hoh…hokeyo, hoh…hokekyo.  The bird was clearly close by, first to the right and then the left, but skillfully avoided my visual detection for days.  Finally on the day of departure I caught a fleeting glance of the elusive source.  It was a small, plain Jane bird with a gorgeous voice.  On the flight home I played various songs on my laptop, finally matching bird to song.  It was Uguisu, the Japanese Bush Warbler, a secretive bird known to frustrate birders, but also a welcome harbinger of Spring.

Blackwater NWR

The great consolation and inspiration for us birders is that there will always be more new birds to see and hear, right up to our dying day.  More than ten thousand beckon us;  I have just scratched the surface.  That rush we get form a new sighting need never grow old.  Even Phoebe Snetsinger, may she rest in peace, and Noah Strycker did not see them all.  We may need to travel further, dig deeper for airfare, and hire more guides, but the quest will never end.

Chasing the Red-cockaded Woodpecker

RCW

 

Technically a birder does not chase a Red-cockaded Woodpecker (RCW), but rather finds the typical old growth pine forest that they prefer and waits; patiently waits.  A sighting is more a test of one’s patience than his endurance, but if you frequent the proper habitat and are lucky, you’ll find this small endangered woodpecker as Andy and I did this spring in southwest Florida.

Common Ground Dove, Columbina passerina

Our first attempt ended in a smoky failure.  E-bird was reporting a RCW in the Picayune State Forest near Naples several days in a row.  But we were taken aback as we pulled into its parking lot.  There had been an extensive controlled burn there since our prior visits and the air was currently smoke-filled, apparently from several new uncontrolled fires caused by recent lightning strikes. A ranger advised us to not venture too far from the car.  Our only sightings that day were a single Red-bellied Woodpecker and two Common Ground Doves, all ignoring the smoke.

Smoke and fire at Picayune SF

I had previously seen a RCW once but only had poor photos of it, taken in my early photography days when I still stubbornly clung to my point-and-shot camera.  I wanted better pictures and Andy yearned for a new life bird, so we headed to the 80,000 acre Babcock/Webb WMA, a good bet for seeing this bird about 75 miles north, near Punta Gorda.  It turned out to be a great decision and a five-woodpecker day.

Red-bellied Woodpecker, Melanerpes carolinus

RCW’s are finicky birds and this has cost them dearly.  Their numbers are down 99% from the 1880’s due to habitat loss in the eastern US.  They insist upon nesting in cavities in tall, old growth pines, preferably living long-needled trees, and trees standing in areas of limited understudy growth due to frequent fires.

Red-cockaded Woodpecker, Picoides borealis

The birds were declared endangered in the 1970’s and currently number only 14,000 survivors.  All the more reason for us to see it now before it shares the fate of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker.  Visit Ralph Costa’s article for an in-depth discussion of the RCW and the efforts to save both it and its specific habitat.  http://scholarworks.sfasu.edu/forestry/426

Babcock/Webb WMA

RCW’s are nonmigratory.  When they find a suitable territory they stay put.  They also have an unusual social system.  An extended family composed of a breeding pair and several younger birds, usually males for some reason, stay together and all assist in incubation and feeding the new chicks.  The nests are all in cavities in living pines that have ample sap.  The birds create resin wells in the bark around the cavities to trap the sap, apparently to help ward off predators such as snakes.  The sticky yellow resin near the hole is a good indicator of an active RCW nest.

RCW cavity with yellow resin

Before you credit Andy and me as being hardy explorers, risking life and limb, trudging miles through snake infested forests looking for a rare bird, let me dispel those thoughts right now.  The rangers at Babcock/Webb have conveniently painted white rings around all the trees that contain RCW cavities and have even reinforced some of these holes with PVC pipe.  The designated trees are often just a short walk from the gravel road. All the birder has to do is plant himself amongst the circled trees and wait.

Downy Woodpecker, Picoides pubescens

The Red-cockaded Woodpecker was inappropriately named by Alexander Wilson in 1810.  A cockade was an ornament commonly placed on a hat in that era but the red cockade is rarely seen on the woodpecker.  Instead look for the large white cheek patch and the laddered black and white bars on the back. It does not have the elongated white stripe seen on the backs of the Hairy and Downy Woodpeckers.  It also has an unusual and distinct call that finally led us to our birds.

RCW

Even with all these aids the RCW’s remained elusive.  We stood among the white circled pines in several locations but saw nothing but a Black Vulture and a Great-crested Flycatcher.  I could tell that Andy was losing patience when the conversation turned from birds to politics, the stock market, and Syracuse University basketball.  I convinced him to try one more location, I think the same place I saw my first RCW several years ago.

Pileated Woodpecker, Dryocopus pileatus

I saw the bird fly in first.  It was clearly a small woodpecker but could not see it well among the pine needles.  I was able to get off a few poor shots with the camera but they were also inconclusive.  Andy insisted it was just a Downy, while I favored a RCW–wishful thinking.  We chased this bird several hundred yards into the pine stand, still debating its ID when Andy heard the characteristic call of an RCW coming from elsewhere.  The Downy had led us to not one, but two RCW’s, likely a breeding pair, foraging and singing in fine light.  Success!  Hundreds of photos later we were still enamored and loathe to leave.

A happy birder with new life bird at Babcock/Webb

Along with the RCW’s and Downy, we also saw a Northern Flicker, Red-bellied, and Pilated Woodpeckers, all in the same stand; five of the seven woodpeckers possible in the area.  We were only missing the Hairy and Yellow-bellied Sapsucker for a perfect woodpecker day.  On the triumphant trip home we could help debating who actually saw the RCW first.  No conclusion was reached, but both agreed that the RCW is an extraordinary bird and the chase was well worth it.

Staccato Summer

Red-bellied WP

Red-bellied WP, Melanerpes carolinus

 

I was under the mistaken impression that everyone loved woodpeckers with their striking black, white and red plumage, and distinctive behavior.  My sister-in-law has taught me otherwise.  She has a Red-bellied that keeps her awake at night by its drumming and drilling on the side of her cedar shake home.  Countless holes through the siding and sheathing and even into the insulation have caused mounting repair bills.  She now hangs gaudy Christmas tinsel year-round on the corner of the house to scare them off, all to no avail.  I’m afraid that more lethal interventions are now being considered.

Downy Woodpecker, Picoides pubescens

Downy WP, Picoides pubescent  (click on any photo to zoom)

Despite this I remain a strong admirer of the Picidae family of birds.  There are 25 species of woodpeckers in North America and 220 worldwide.  They vary widely in size but all have relatively short legs, long toes, and strong tails to support them upright against the tree trunk.  Their flight is rather slow and undulating.  The Flickers and Sapsuckers are migratory, depending on insects year-round, but the remainder are sedentary with a more diverse diet.  Woodpecker vocalizations are rather primitive, but loud and distinctive, often described as a descending rattle.

Red-headed WP

Red-headed WP, Melanerpes erythrocephalus

But where they really excel is with their staccato drumming ability–sorry sister-in-law.  I used to think that this was just the sound made by the bird’s search for food in the bark.  In reality it is a much more sophisticated communication tool used also for staking out breeding territory, attracting a mate (and maintaining the bond), and general communication–“I’m on my way home with more bugs.”

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, Sphyrapicus varius

The cadences are somewhat species specific.  Flickers and Sapsuckers have random, discontinuous patterns sounding like Morse Code.  The large Pileated has a loud, deep sonorous drumbeat that slowly diminishes in amplitude as it increases in frequency.  The Red-bellied drums at 19 beats per second, the Downy at 17 bps, while the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker starts with a short roll, pauses, and ends with two brief rolls of 2-3 beats each.  I guess I’ll have to consider adding a stopwatch to my birding paraphernalia.

Pileated WP

Pileated WP, Dryocopus pileatus

The force that a woodpecker generates by banging his head against a tree trunk is many times the maximum force that a human head and brain can survive.  There are a number of adaptations that make this possible.  The bird’s skull is thick and highly trabeculated, the neck muscles are strong, and the beak itself is slightly flexible, all helping to dissipate the force of the blow.  They also have a third inner eyelid to keep the eyeball from popping out at impact.

Nutgall's WP

Nuttall’s WP, Picoides nuttallii

The Hairy has the most bizarre adaptation.  This bird has a very long and sticky tongue to reach deep into the tree.  The tongue is retractable via an elaborate system of pulleys and muscles into a long tunnel which extends from the throat, encircling the base, back, and top of the skull, finally ending in the front at the base of the upper mandible.

The neat Sapsucker rows; apparently it doesn't harm the tree

The neat Sapsucker rows; apparently it doesn’t harm the tree

The Sapsuckers peck hundreds of perfectly parallel holes, encircling the tree and creating “sap wells”.  The birds feed on the sap but also on the myriad insects it attracts.  The endangered Red-cockaded also thrives on the sap of the large live pines of the South.  In fact I found this uncommon bird in Florida by first locating the large hardened resin patches on its preferred trees and then waiting patiently for the bird to show up.

Acorn WP

Acorn WP, Melanerpes formicivorus

The Acorn is a communal clown-like bird appropriately found on our “Left Coast”.  It forms small breeding flocks of several males and females along with some non-breeding young adults, all sharing in the incubation and feeding duties.  The bird is famous for the precisely drilled holes, each packed with a single acorn hoarded for future consumption.  These “granary trees” have been known to hold up to 50,000 acorns and are jealously defended by the commune.

IMG_2338

Ivory-billed WP, Campephilus principalis               by John James Audubon

I suspect all birders are familiar with the Ivory Woodpecker story. The last sightings of this large, glorious bird were in the bottomland forests of Louisiana and Arkansas in 2005.  But you’ll notice that all the extinct designations are qualified by “presumed”, “probably”, and “likely”.  Whenever I’m birding in the forests of the deep South and a Pileated flies by, I always take an extra glimpse of the bill color.  You just never know.