Montana Audubon

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On Birding

Birds, Natural History, People & Nature

Prairie Falcon

By David Cronenwett

Often, it is the charismatic and spectacular that draws people to nature. When wildlife is depicted onscreen for example, we’ll usually see images of large mammals and skillful predators; bears, wolves, lions, bison, elk, all doing their thing amidst some gorgeous and wild landscape. Birding is no different, with raptors garnering much of the public’s awe and attention. This shouldn’t be surprising: hawks, owls and eagles are majestic predators that have been honored by human cultures for millennia, appearing in art, literature, oral histories. For many birders though, it is the falcons that hold a special place among birds of prey.

There are five falcon species regularly observed in Montana; Gyrfalcon (winter only), American Kestrel, Merlin, Peregrine and the Prairie Falcon. These birds can be differentiated from hawks and others in flight by their strongly tapered wings that terminate in a point, an adaptation which serves a single evolutionary purpose: speed. The falcons are well-known as the fastest animals on earth, and one in particular, is uniquely tied the American West.

Prairie Falcons (Falco mexicanus) live solely in the Americas, ranging from northern Mexico to southern Canada, inhabiting huge swaths of the Great Plains. The bird is a medium-large raptor with dark underwing coverts, which when viewed from below, appear as very distinctive “dark armpits” and is their most reliable field mark. Its overall brownish appearance is an adaptation to the vast deserts, sage and grassland environments where it is most commonly found. They are also capable of using high alpine meadows and tundra habitat provided food resources are adequate.

Many of these raptors are year-round residents of their breeding ranges, but some will make short- distance migrations if food availability requires it. Male and female markings are virtually identical, but as with most birds of prey, the females are significantly larger. Rocky cliffs and outcrops are used as nest sites. Genetic analysis has shown that the Prairie Falcon is a fairly close relative to the better known Peregrine Falcon. A split began about 3-5 million years ago as evolutionary pressures honed an ancestral Peregrine to adapt to the open, dry landscapes of the West. The two species will occasionally interbreed where they overlap.

Arid ecosystems are unforgiving, difficult places to make a living for any creature and require special adaptations for survival. In these low prey-base environments, a smaller, lighter body enables the Prairie Falcon to get by on fewer calories more efficiently than raptors of similar size, while also allowing them to be more heat-tolerant than a bulkier bird. They use a variety of hunting styles including the well-known “stoop” (rapid diving attack) on airborne bird prey; a fast, low-altitude ground cruising tactic; or a line-of-sight ambush from high perches. The bird has evolved to become an especially aggressive and opportunistic hunter and will swiftly attack anything from grasshoppers and sparrows to an array of rodents, to creatures as large as a goose or Greater Sage Grouse. All have been taken by the nimble Prairie Falcon, which are also known to cache excess food as a hedge against lean times.

The hunting prowess of this raptor was impressed upon me while guiding a birding workshop in northcentral Montana several years ago. We arrived at an area of wetland and prairie midmorning, and began to scan the area for grassland species. A few nighthawks and Wilson’s snipe immediately drew our attention but before long, a frantic, persistent calling from somewhere in the grass dominated the morning soundscape. After a few moments of listening and searching, members of the group were able to zero in on the culprits; about fifty yards from us was a pair of Marbled Godwits, both birds freaking out, alarm calling and trying to corral about four chicks which were difficult to see due to their tawny camouflage.

We scanned the area but saw nothing that should have set these birds into such a tizzy, so we slowly approached them for a better look. One adult flew to a nearby fencepost, and the other stayed close to the chicks and what may have been their nesting area. All of these godwits were on high-alert and it was clear that they weren’t reacting to our presence but something else. I began to look for the cause and glassed a low sandstone ridge a few hundred yards away. Bingo: a Prairie Falcon, nearly invisible, was perched on a small rocky outcrop and seemed barely interested in the whole affair. Scopes were set on the bird and our group studied it for a few minutes while the godwits continued their disturbing alarm calls.

After a time, this Prairie Falcon had had enough: it quickly focused its gaze toward the sound, raised its wings and shot from the ridge in the probably fastest movement I have ever witnessed in nature. Hitting the nest in the virtual blink of an eye, the falcon instantly removed one of the chicks while human birders stood in awe, eyes and mouths wide open. Some in the group were visibly disturbed by this unvarnished act of predation. Alas, it is what makes the world go around in nature, everywhere, all the time.

In this case, a bad morning for Marbled Godwits meant a good one for Prairie Falcons.

Chicken And Eggs

by David Cronenwett

Taking a breather from a very hot backyard sauna one recent drizzly evening, I find chickadees and nuthatches playfully flitting about my friend’s cottonwood. Nick and I are sitting by the door of his new wood-fired creation, steam freely pouring off our skin into the night’s cool air. The wooziness brought on by too many rounds in the heat leaves us both silent in this elemental moment of gentle rain and twilight.

And suddenly, we hear a soft clucking.

Peering over toward a penned off area of the yard, there is movement low to the ground; a familiar, jerking here and there punctuated by an unmistakable barnyard voice. The sublimity of heat, rain and evening light is quickly squelched, as it would seem, by the incongruous and uninvited appearance of Nick’s chickens. “They’ll eat damn near anything…including each other if they could.” Standing there in the rain with nothing but a towel and a glass of Malbec, he philosophizes further, positing, “We rarely let them out into the yard, since they’d probably chow on dog waste, and you really don’t want that stuff in your morning omelet.”

As I struggle to erase this delicious image from my mind, the question of these large, avian garbage- vacuums gets me thinking. How long, I wonder, have we kept these odd creatures in our care and when did they become such a mainstay of the global diet? We both hop back into the cooker for another round of steam and pain, and the hens go on about the business of eternal consumption in their enclosure.

The domestic chicken, Gallus gallus domesticus, is categorized in the taxonomic order Galliformes along with grouse, pheasants and other largish, mostly ground-dwelling birds. Current genetic science identify the earliest, wild relative of the chicken as the Red Jungle Fowl (Gallus gallus) still found in tropical Asia. While this bird looks strikingly like a modern chicken, there were probably additional species included in the early domestication process, such as the Gray Jungle Fowl and others. Estimates range from 7,000 to 10,000 years of active domestication, though it is believed that the species that became G. domesticus was not originally kept for food production, but for entertainment. Males are notably aggressive towards other males, a quality that produces regular brawls amongst them. Cockfighting was widespread in the ancient world and remained so across multiple cultures, to the present. Though banned in many countries today, it remains a popular, underground blood-sport in the third world.

The interest in chickens as a mass food source probably wasn’t realized in a meaningful way until the Egyptians developed a method of artificial incubation, which was a very labor-intensive enterprise in ancient times. Chicken eggs will only hatch if kept under a constant temperature between 99 and 105 degrees Fahrenheit, a relative humidity around 55 percent and each egg rotated by hand a few times per day over a three week period. The birds and their eggs could now be produced at scale throughout the Mediterranean civilizations, eventually including the Roman Empire, where chicken cuisine became culturally established and by whom dishes such as the omelet were created.

With the collapse of Rome, the elaborate methods of fowl production were lost and the chicken as widespread table fare declined greatly. Over centuries since then, the bird remained present in the human diet but only as a minor player, until about the 1950s. At this time, a quantum leap in poultry production was made when chickens were integrated headlong into the massive, industrial farming apparatus; some facilities today are capable of rearing a quarter million birds at a time. This scale of production certainly raises ecological concerns with regard to waste management and more but had the ultimate effect of turning chicken into a mainstay chow of the world. In the early 90’s for example, chicken surpassed beef consumption in the United States and has only seemed to flourish in other countries and cultures.

In recent years, interest in locally raised food, often viewed as an alternative to the industrially-produced variety, has led to a surge in backyard chickens coops nationwide: even in urban environments, chickens kept for eggs or meat have become very common. In a place like Montana however, this can present unique and dangerous challenges.

Bear management specialist Jamie Jonkel said in a 2011 interview, “Chickens are the new garbage. There are so many chickens on the landscape that it’s like having garbage cans with wings just tempting the bears.” And it is true; bears, especially grizzlies, find the frenetic, scurrying fryers to be irresistible and must appear like a convenient paddock full of feathered McNuggets. Unfortunately, some hobby poultry farmers do not adequately protect their birds, which in grizzly country is best done with a good electric fence. Many bears have been relocated or euthanized because of people’s unwillingness to do so.

Gallus gallus domesticus, while eagerly munched by people worldwide in a multitude of cuisines, has many associations that are culturally distinct, such as when we refer to a person’s cowardice as “being chicken” or panicked behavior as “running around like a chicken with its head cut off”. The running joke, “it tastes like chicken” is used to describe nearly anything of mild, unobjectionable flavor and of course, the “chicken and egg syndrome” has been around for centuries to describe issues of causality and origin. It should also be remembered that in a real way, chickens ease the suffering of humanity with the development and production of critical vaccines in labs, using millions of their eggs each year for this purpose.

Despite our deep love of wild birds, the species we interact with most frequently and meaningfully   is the humble Gallus. From southern fried to salads, scrambles and General Tso, the bird and its products are never far from our lives. Nick’s backyard layers continue to stir about in the evening drizzle as he and I begin to trudge inside. “Want to stay for dinner?” he asks, “We’re having pot roast.”

David Cronenwett writes this column on behalf of Montana Audubon, a statewide wildlife conservation organization ( Cronenwett is a writer, naturalist and Audubon staff member who can be reached at [email protected].

On Birding: Our Public Lands Remain At Risk

The many values of our public lands are revisited in January’s On Birding column. Click here to read in the Helena Independent Record.

On Birding: Refuge

By David Cronenwett

The most important character in the long story of the American West has always been the landscape itself. Though human beings have played a significant role here since the last ice age, there is still a powerful sense, particularly in Montana, that the elemental forces and natural beauty of the place somehow outweigh the influence of people. Much of this feeling is derived from the ability to physically experience mountains, forests, prairies and rivers intimately and more or less how we choose. The conservation movement in the United States began in earnest well over a century ago, fueled by two groups of individuals passionate about wildlife and the landscapes they inhabit. It was hunting and birding organizations, outraged by unregulated pillage of wildlife and other natural resources that galvanized the idea of conserving species as well as places where human beings can enjoy nature on its own terms.

Lands began to be set aside for conservation in the West, like Yellowstone in 1872 and as subsequent “Forest Reserves” and game sanctuaries followed, a Public Commons emerged as the physical manifestation of America’s most important and egalitarian concepts. A system of vast public holdings became powerfully representative of personal freedom, wildness, sustainable use, conservation, natural beauty and more. This era, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, saw the creation of the first national parks, national forests, grasslands, monuments and national wildlife refuges.

For many Montanans, outdoor pursuits rank as among the most important reasons for living, and it should be remembered that much of our ability to partake in that life is due in large part to an abundance of federally-owned and managed, public lands. In addition to providing critical “ecosystem services” like clean water and diverse habitat for wildlife, these landscapes offer a multitude of outdoor experiences for all American citizens regardless of socioeconomic background. It is impossible for me to conceive of a Montana without that vast public estate of mountain woods, grass and waters to get lost in. We must always remember that in addition to the conservation of native flora and fauna, these national lands provide a lasting refuge for our souls.

Alas, there are misguided individuals in the world who would see to it that this inheritance is undone. While conflicts will always exist between the public and the government as how to best manage national lands, a seditious, armed takeover is not a productive way to resolve problems. The current standoff at Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon is a criminal act aimed, according to the militia occupying its headquarters, at turning the nearly 190-thousand acre refuge and nearby 1.4 million-acre Malheur National Forest over to county control. Collaborative efforts between local communities and federal agencies to find solutions to complex land management issues occur throughout the West, including at Malheur, but seem to have no meaning to Ammon Bundy and his followers. Their way is to sidestep compromise or reform and head straight for armed insurrection.

However this circus ends, its perpetrators, who have demonstrated no regard for the rule of law or the value of our public estate, must be held accountable for their actions. Still, even as the Oregon standoff has dominated the media, the more quiet and sinister threat to our legacy of public lands goes largely unreported.

The “divestiture movement” which aspires to transfer millions of acres of federal land to state or county control, has unfortunately been gaining political traction. In recent years, many bills have been introduced in the legislatures of Western states calling for some implementation of this dark vision, ostensibly it seems, to promote local economic development. Various groups and individuals are pushing this agenda, which gravely threaten landscapes that we Montanans love, work and recreate in. Many of these places form the background of our lives and are viewed from our windows on a daily basis. Neither counties nor states have the capacity to manage millions of acres of mountain, forest and grass or the natural resources they support. The selling of these lands to offset the cost of their management, is rightly cited as an inevitable consequence of divestiture by public lands supporters.

Poll after poll, including the recent “Conservation in the West” paper, published by Colorado College, demonstrate strong popular support for maintaining federal ownership and management of public lands; this study showed 59% of Montanans polled opposed any land transfer. Yet there remain legislators, industry groups, wealthy individuals and in the Malheur case, unbalanced and armed fanatics who continue to call for a wholesale disposal of federal lands. It starts to look more like a handout and tragic giveaway when all the implications are considered.

If you cherish national public lands, let your legislators know; hunters, birders, walkers and outdoor enthusiasts of all stripe should do so. And we should each be ready to rally support for our favorite piece of ground and the larger Public Commons, a spiritual refuge for many, when the time comes and as many times as it takes.

Birding While Hunting

by David Cronenwett

The big game season is now winding down in Montana. I came home this year with a small buck early in the day, my first day afield, which was a major stroke of good fortune. Anyone who hunts understands that it usually requires a lot of focus, patience and luck to be successful. In the long hours of stalking and waiting for prey to appear, the hunter experiences a state of greatly heightened awareness, noticing small details of animal sign, smells, anything unusual or out of place on the land. At least, that’s how it is for me.

The visceral sense of being an active player in the web of life (rather than simply an observer), is one of the more important, compelling reasons given when people explain why they hunt. For some individuals though, there is an unresolvable conflict between pursing and killing prey on the one hand, and simply enjoying the presence of wildlife on the other. I respect each view and it should be remembered that the conservation movement in North America, an incredible success story by any measure, was initiated by both hunting and birding organizations.


Why Birds?

We all have a bird story. It would be hard to find a person on earth who doesn’t. I’ve had some spectacular ones, like watching a pair of golden eagles lock talons and spiral from the sky to the prairie, but most are more mundane, as when a chickadee quietly visits the feeder by the window. One of the most visible groups of animals on earth, birds have made their way deep into human culture and everyday experience. Wherever we live, urban, rural or wild, there are birds to accompany us. For a moment, I’d like to consider some of the many ways birds help us become more human.

Modern life can be stressful and difficult to cope with at times and from a conservationist standpoint, it is often downright depressing. We confront challenging and seemingly insurmountable problems on a daily basis; climate change, invasive species, subdivision of habitat, declines in wildlife populations….you name it. An effective way to deal with this despair is by taking the time to enjoy what we endeavor to conserve. Getting outside and mindfully watching birds in their habitat is an effective and reliable way to gain perspective and relieve stress. Observing wildlife going about their lives has the power to trigger memories, be instructive in some way, evoke a sense of wonder within us, or all of these at once. A host of intellectual-emotional responses are possible by paying attention to wildlife and almost all enrich us.

People naturally gravitate to certain kinds of nature appreciation, but I’d argue that because birds are accessible to nearly everyone, they remain an especially important catalyst to instill a lifelong love of the natural world. Many friends of mine involved with natural resource management, conservation and outdoor education began their respective journeys by watching birds as youngsters. Birding itself can be either a highly social or completely solitary activity, depending on our mood, is a relatively inexpensive pastime and can be pursued nearly everywhere at any time of year. Careful observers often feel more connected to seasonal changes and ecological cycles by noting which species appear on the landscape at a particular time. What northern spring isn’t made more vivid and luminous by the loon’s wail or the curlew’s call?

Since they can travel great distances and use a variety of habitats during the winter, breeding and migratory seasons, many birds are studied as indicators of greater ecosystem functioning and health. This is especially true in recent years; as global warming reshapes the planet, bird populations are responding by altering migration and feeding patterns, which can help predict how natural systems might change in the coming years. The regular accessibility to birdlife creates a strong sense of kinship in many people which seems to enhance a desire to learn more about birds and nature in general. According to some research, birders tend to rank fairly high in their knowledge of natural history and ecology compared to some other outdoor recreationists.

There are of course, many ways to interact with and experience the natural world. For me, chasing birds is only one way but often in combination with plant identification, looking for sign of other wildlife or merely sitting back and allowing myself to be moved by the elemental power of a beautiful landscape. But while there is sometimes a dearth of flowers, mammalian wildlife or good weather…there almost always seems to be a bird at hand. We are all collectors of bird stories.

A great way to learn about Montana’s diverse birds and their habitats is by attending the Wings Across The Big Sky bird festival in Helena from June 5-7. The event is sponsored by Montana Audubon and Last Chance Audubon and attracts birders, wildlife enthusiasts and conservationists from around the region. Activities include field trips, presentations, raffles and a silent auction. Noted author and naturalist Scott Weidensaul will give the keynote address on bird migratory patterns. The event is a great way to share the joy of birds, other wildlife and the incomparable landscapes of Montana with others.

Another Side of Nature

I came home one day recently to find a mess of mud and straw-like material on the front steps. Looking up, a partially constructed nest was taking shape in the eaves over the front door. A robin had decided to use the location to shelter and rear her young. Since the nest was only partially constructed, a tough decision had to be made as to allow her to finish it, or to remove the bundle. We decided to let the bird use the spot, but whether she’d tolerate all of the coming and going through the front door was another matter.

A few days later, the nest was a solid fortress tucked beneath the awning. Despite being continually scared off, even with great care taken to quietly use the entrance, this robin was determined to stay. She became more accustomed to our presence and was a comforting fixture on that nest by the doorway. One day however, we returned to a disturbing sight; mangled grass loosely hung from the eaves and blue egg fragments littered the stoop. I stepped back and tried to look at the scene objectively. It was obvious that something violent had occurred. The robin was gone and her nest and eggs destroyed. Given the spot where the nest had been situated and the fact that our yard is well-fenced, house cats were an unlikely culprit. Robins average 3-5 eggs per brood and we’d only seen evidence of a single one. The picture was now clear; this was an avian assault and magpies were probably responsible.

At this juncture, it would be easy to condemn the magpies and other nest predators. These raids are frequently seen as a “cruel” or mean-spirited act by those who assign human standards of morality to the behavior of other creatures. However when we actually see nature for what it is, we find that predation of all kinds is everywhere. Our tendency, especially among birders and some wildlife enthusiasts, is to seek out what we want to see in the natural world, which generally means only the harmless or aesthetically pleasing.

The other evening while walking through downtown Helena, I noticed an unusually large number of pigeon feathers along several streets. Then, on the sidewalk near a local eatery I spotted a larger pile of feathers and a bloody, ping pong ball-sized heart. I was surprised to see it since organs are generally consumed by pigeon-predators, in this case, likely a merlin. As we continued, my son found a single pigeon talon and a set of mostly intact wings attached to a spinal column a few streets away. Whenever I find mortal carnage like this, whether in an urban or wild setting, I experience what might be called a “startling fascination.” While it can certainly be gross to come across a dismembered carcass in your travels, for me, any aversion is offset by the chance interpret the predatory encounter as well as learn more about animal behavior, ecology and anatomy. And our birds, it should be remembered, are predators all.

The gentle birds at the feeder, even those who specialize in consumption of plant seeds or nectar, are insectivorous and most are not beneath a scavenging opportunity should one present itself. Many specialize in hunting small mammals, fish or other birds. So-called generalist scavengers can and will eat insects, and occasionally kill rodents and nestlings of other species where they find them. Focusing on the beauty of birds and nature’s beauty in general gives tremendous meaning and solace to our lives…but that beauty is but one part of a highly complex system. The evolutionary pressure imposed by predation over time is largely what created and continues to shape much of the wildlife we love. What humans appreciate about ungulate species like elk—their vigilance, fleet-footedness, phenomenal endurance and other qualities—arose from a long and bloody relationship with predators such as wolves.

Often, our initial response to an act of predation is to put ourselves in the place of the prey and to view the predator as uncompassionate. While predatory events can be brutal and seem cruel, it is worth remembering the need for wolves, golden eagles, grizzly bears and others to care for themselves and their young and to recognize their critical ecological roles. There are those whom, for whatever reason, view nature as either “good” or “bad” and tend to look for events and circumstances to reinforce their argument. Some of my Buddhist friends for example, are keen to point out this “realm of suffering” of which all life is a part. While there is truth in many perspectives, I find nature’s unvarnished reality to be far more interesting, as a complex mosaic of suffering, joy, brutality and beauty, qualities that can be found across the landscape at any given time. One creature’s agony is often another’s salvation, as when a starving coyote comes across a wounded hare at just the right moment.

The robin’s nest is gone now, but the magpies are as social and squawky as ever. We will always gravitate toward and celebrate nature’s beauty, which is entirely appropriate. However, it is also important to reflect on and accept the greater reality of the natural world with all of its profound contradictions and harshness.

Birds perishing due to California drought

National Geographic reports a disturbing trend as shorebirds perish from a lack of fresh water on the Pacific Flyway.

Another Side of Nature

By David Cronenwett



I came home one day recently to find a mess of mud and straw-like material on the front steps. Looking up, a partially constructed nest was taking shape in the eaves over the front door. A robin had decided to use the location to shelter and rear her young. Since the nest was only partially constructed, a tough decision had to be made as to allow her to finish it, or to remove the bundle. We decided to let the bird use the spot, but whether she’d tolerate all of the coming and going through the front door was another matter.


Why Birds?

By David Cronenwett

We all have a bird story. It would be hard to find a person on earth who doesn’t. I’ve had some spectacular ones, like watching a pair of golden eagles lock talons and spiral from the sky to the prairie, but most are more mundane, as when a chickadee quietly visits the feeder by the window. One of the most visible groups of animals on earth, birds have made their way deep into human culture and everyday experience. Wherever we live, urban, rural or wild, there are birds to accompany us. For a moment, I’d like to consider some of the many ways birds help us become more human.


Long-Billed Curlew

By David Cronenwett

Long-billed_CurlewAmong the many avian rites of spring on the Rocky Mountain Front, and across much of Montana’s open country, is the return of our Long-Billed Curlews (Numenius americanus) to their prairie land breeding grounds. It’s a less gaudy event than the typically massive snow geese migration, but spectacular in its own way. Sometimes these creatures can be found “staged up” on the grass in concentrations of nearly a hundred as they come into the country. It doesn’t last long though; they will quickly pair up and become territorial during the nesting process. Long bills are the largest sandpiper in North America and one of the largest on earth. The females are significantly larger than the males and have noticeably longer bills. These birds return to Montana’s grasslands between April and May from coastal or inland valley wintering areas in California, Central America and the Gulf of Mexico. Curlews are ground nesters; a small depression is created in exposed areas of short-grass prairie and lined with available soft material. Four-egg clutches are most typical. After a nearly 30-day incubation period, the precocial young are born and ready to move.


Brown-Headed Cowbird

By David Cronenwett

Brown-headedCowbird_PairThe human tendency to favor certain species of wildlife over others should be a topic of interest for thoughtful conservationists. It is natural for us to admire or identify with particular animals; our Pleistocene ancestors regularly paid homage to them in cave and rock shelter pictographs over the millennia. Various species of bear, lion, mammoth and many others (including at least one owl) are powerfully represented in a manner that can only be regarded as respectful of their spiritual power. This tradition is carried on in the modern age as well; specific organizations work to further the existence of a particular species or class of animals. Birds, elk, mule deer, wild sheep, trout and many others have powerful advocates in their corner and much good work has been done to foster conservation of these creatures and their habitats.


Moving On

By David Cronenwett

Late one recent evening, the wind blew in hard and suddenly from the north, rattling me from sleep. It was one of those disorienting moments when I really wasn’t sure where I was; wind had been a major feature of life in the place I’d called home for many years so I was used to abrupt, violent events like this. But now, something wasn’t quite as it should be. For the rest of the night, I lay there in a state of sleepy confusion. By morning, a local family of magpies squawking and traipsing on the metal roof pulled everything back into focus. It was still breezy on that cold, gray morning and looking through the window with bleary eyes, I quickly realized that I was no longer in Choteau. After thirteen years living in rural Montana, moving to a larger and more urban community like Helena has been an ongoing adjustment, a fact which this episode drove home.


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Support Reintroduction of Beaver in a Remote Site Near Dillon

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Center Activities and Updates- June 2018

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