With On Birding, we feature a bird-of the-month or musings about birding. Enjoy! Thanks to naturalist and writer David Cronenwett. Visit David's blogspot: A View from Aerie Mountain.
More bird essays from David (2010-2011) can be found here....
Common Raven -- May 2013 -- by david cronenwett
Most of us can easily recall our encounters with rare or uncommon birds. Species that are especially striking or that show up in unusual circumstances are memorable. I can think of neat experiences over the years with Godwits, Ferruginous Hawks and others as if they occurred yesterday. But the more prosaic species, the ones that regularly accompany our lives, become difficult to recall in the same way. When we think of birds that are not only common but often the target of our derision, then likely we have no attention to spare and little capacity for their remembrance at all.
The Common Raven (Corvus corax) certainly falls into this category. In Montana, they are generally considered vermin; a big, black, carrion-eating monster. Like its cousin, the magpie, ravens are rarely praised by anyone but the most thoughtful of birders. However, this one-dimensional view of raven-as pest is a fairly recent cultural phenomena; if we look more broadly, the human opinion of them is far more nuanced and complex. The raven is one of the largest passerines (songbirds) on earth and probably the most widespread bird species that exists. It thrives in diverse habitats across enormous swaths of Eurasia and North America. In the West, it is rarely mistaken for anything but its close relative, the American Crow. Ravens are generally larger than crows, have a noticeable “ruff” about the neck and are less gregarious. The most certain way to differentiate the species is by observing them in flight; Common Ravens have a diamond-shaped tail whereas crow’s are fanned. They can be found in almost any habitat in our state.
Corvids are famously omnivorous, taking advantage of any foods, in any condition, wherever found. People often judge wild animals by their eating habits and hold a special prejudice, at least in modern culture, towards opportunistic scavengers like ravens. As with magpies, some of this distain was probably established in feudal Europe when ravens eagerly showed up to the seemingly endless battlefield banquets on offer. As society urbanized, ravens took full advantage of roadkill, garbage dumps, grain fields, dog spoor and any other waste material with caloric value. In wilder habitats, they will likewise eat anything and when necessary, use other creatures to their own advantage. Because ravens lack an ability to access the flesh of thick skinned carcasses like elk, the birds will follow predators such as wolves in the hope of benefitting from their hunting activities. They are also known to “call in” bears and coyotes toward found carcasses for the same purpose.
Ravens are capable of complex vocalizations, from croaks, caws and gurgling pops to sounds so weird, it is difficult to believe they emerged from a living animal. If you hear a freakish, unexplainable sound while walking through the woods, there is a good chance it was produced by a raven. Captive birds have to be taught to imitate human speech. What is more remarkable is the species’ ability to use its vocal prowess to engage in what linguists call “displacement”; that is, the intentional communication about objects or events distant in time and space. This idea, that ravens have an understanding of past, present and future and an ability to communicate it to others, brings into question our own intellectual uniqueness. Study birds have been presented with increasingly difficult problems to solve. In some cases, ravens were able to creatively identify solutions with no trial or error-type experimenting. This suggests reasoning, insight and creativity. It is becoming clear that ravens not only think, but they seem to think like we do.
The association between our kind and the Common Raven is very long indeed. Their intelligence and complex personality, which has been described as playful, devious, selfish, demonic, and tender, is universally recognized and described in many cultural narratives. They were the first animals to be released into the post-flood world from the Ark of the Old Testament. Used extensively as a literary symbol of foreboding and dread, the bird can be found in the works of William Shakespeare, J.R.R. Tolkien, and of course, in the immortal eponymous poem by Edgar Allen Poe. But our deep entanglement with Raven goes further.
During the Pleistocene epoch, when much of our evolutionary development as a species occurred, we were frequently in the presence of the birds. A mutualistic relationship probably existed, with ravens and men sometimes leading each other to living or scavenge-worthy prey. It was during this long arc of time that our full understanding of Raven’s personality emerged. Archetypal qualities of cunning, playfulness, intelligence and occasional treachery were observed by countless generations of humans. In addition, the bird is considered by many traditional peoples today as something of an intermediary between the living and the realm of the dead, as evidenced by its joyful scavenging.
Among the Koyukon people in Alaska, Raven is the “trickster-creator” of the world. Many animist-hunting cultures of the North share a similar view. While acknowledging the bird’s spiritual power on the one hand, there is a recognition of its unpredictable and sometimes unsavory nature on the other. Anthropologist Richard K. Nelson describes it this way; “While the Koyukon give deference to ravens, they also use them as the measure of impudence and trickery. The raven is a magical clown whose great power is mediated through an affable scoundrel.” Across a large swath of the North, people understand the many sacred and profane energies of the world incarnated as Raven.
Once I was walking in an unfamiliar area of woods and came across a large black wing, suspended from a wire turning slowly in the breeze. I’d stumbled upon a decommissioned bobcat trap, of which the raven wing was a visual attractant. I rarely get freaked out by finding animal parts in the woods, but something about this sent a chill up my spine. I’d never seen a dead raven before or been this close to its feathers. The dismembered wing sucked up my attention and breath in a way I’ve never experienced. I turned to leave quickly, and heard an unmistakable croaking in the distance. Never far and always watching it seems.
David Cronenwett is a Writer, Naturalist and Wilderness Survival Instructor from Choteau, Montana. He can be reached at: email@example.com.
AmericAn Robin -- April 2013 -- by david cronenwett
Despite the predictably-unpredictable weather this time of year, spring is in fact, upon us. For me, one of the simple joys of the season is during early morning, when Robin song often sifts in to my dreams. It is a lovely and humane means of greeting the day. Throughout it’s range, robins are frequently the first to begin singing before dawn and the last to stop in evening’s twilight. The American Robin (Turdus migratorious) could be the most well-known and regularly observed native bird in the country. Robins were named early on by north American colonists who saw a resemblance to the European Robin. However, the two birds are not closely related; ours are members of the thrush family and the European version is classed with the Old World chats and flycatchers. Both species do sport a rusty breast though, which accounts for the misplaced association long ago.
It would be difficult to find another bird more strongly associated with spring. The arrival of the first happy robins in our yards is always a welcome sight, but it may surprise you to know that most observed in Montana are actually year-round residents. In the warmer months, robins are aggressive and highly visible ground-foragers, but as winter approaches they will spend most of their time high in the trees. This behavior is so pronounced that many people assume the birds leave the region entirely. During winter, robins rely heavily on whatever berries are available for their survival and this means a lot more widespread foraging across the landscape. As soil temperatures warm, the insects and other invertebrates that robins thrive on become more available.
Part of the reason for the near universal distribution of American Robins across the country is the American lawn. This ecologically simplified habitat is often well-watered, conveniently shorn, loaded with prey and incredibly ubiquitous. While “lawnscapes” can expose robins to predation by domestic cats as well as chemical hazards like fertilizer and herbicides, generally it has become a huge asset to the species. About forty percent of the bird’s diet is composed of invertebrates, which includes earthworms. Rarely, they have been observed killing and eating mammals like mice and or the occasional small snake. While the peculiar “head-cocking” behavior robins demonstrate when hunting suggests they rely on hearing to locate prey, their keen vision seems to be the most reliable method. Though the bird is at home around our yards and communities, they are just as adept at living in wilder habitats like forest and prairie.
Under favorable conditions, robins can produce up to three successful broods per season. Females site and constructs the nest; any soft, fluffy material is used and pressed into a cup form. Mud, often from worm castings, is sometimes employed to reinforce and further insulate the structure, which are quite durable. Females exclusively tend to the three to five egg clutches which incubate for about two weeks before hatching. Robins are highly adapted to defend their nests from parasitism by brown headed cowbirds; they seem to possess an uncanny ability to immediately identify any rogue eggs and eject them.
Blackfeet people traditionally viewed the bird as a symbol of peace; if robins were discovered at a new camp location, it was considered to be safe and secure. When the birds “disappeared” in the fall, the people considered it a sorrowful departure. Many birders have a lowly opinion of robins. Personally, I am amazed at how often this species can be mistaken for other birds. When light and other factors play tricks on our eyes, robins easily “shapeshift” in to all manner of species, to the frustration of many.
When a critical mass of robins congregate in the yard, we know that spring is inevitable. Even with the occasional wayward snowstorm or April cold snap, they continue to sing, ushering the season of renewal into the country.
David Cronenwett is a Writer, Naturalist and Wilderness Survival Instructor from Choteau, Montana. These views are his own. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
FEED THE BIRDS? -- MARCH 2013 -- by david cronenwett
One of my earliest memories of visiting a National Wildlife Refuge when I was young was a conspicuously placed sign along the trail; “Please do not feed the wildlife.” It’s self -evident message instantly made clear to my nine year old mind. A visitor to any National Park or other agency-managed natural area is quickly greeted with similar proclamations. Feeding wildlife creates dependency, can negatively alter behavior, sicken animals and in some cases seriously endanger people.
Deliberate feeding of wildlife then, is universally frowned upon, or is it? One notable exception of course, is the feeding of wild birds. Long ago, this pastime became a fully sanctioned, culturally enmeshed practice across society. One would be hard pressed to find a Euro-American community that is opposed to feeding birds, which brings avian beauty into the intimate reach of people for study and enjoyment. But as we are learning, even our most innocuous-seeming interactions with Nature can have unexpected results.
An estimated 550,000 tons of bird seed is intentionally set out each year by bird enthusiasts in Europe and North America and only recently have scientists begun to examine the issue. Part of the challenge of studying the ecological effects of supplemental feeding is simply trying to locate control populations without access to such food. Some of the results have been remarkable; aside from confirming a few common assumptions such as the transmission of disease and encouraging fatal window collisions, in some environments feeding birds is altering reproductive behavior and evolutionary trajectory.
A 2010 study in the UK demonstrated that males in some songbird populations with access to feeders tended to delay or completely forgo early morning singing during the breeding season. This behavioral shift has a direct impact on male paternity and overall reproduction since predawn singing is the primary way to attract females. Some ornithologists in Britain now suggest ending all supplemental feeding at winter’s end.
A more incredible example comes from new research in Germany. The Eurasian Blackcap Warbler population is splitting into two distinct groups; those that migrate north to the United Kingdom and those that go to ancestral wintering grounds in Spain. The “English” birds survive almost exclusively on food provided by humans and now exhibit consistently rounder wings and narrower bills better suited to access seed from feeders rather than traditional winter fare of olives and other Mediterranean fruits. Also, because the migration to and from the British Isles is much shorter than that of those wintering in Spain, when breeding season returns, the English birds return much earlier and tend to mate only with their own kind. In about thirty generations of blackcaps, early speciation due largely to human feeding is well underway.
This study raises profound questions about the human role in the natural world. Can the new population of blackcaps still be considered wildlife or do they now fall into the spectrum of human domestication with cats, dogs and cows? Do we now have an obligation to feed this emerging species “forever” if their survival depends on it? There is much we don’t know and haven’t bothered to think about but clearly, new questions raised of how feeding birds affects them is worthy of rigorous study and ethical reflection. We might begin by asking ourselves why we do it in the first place.
Human ecologist Paul Shepard was fond of using the term “The Others” to describe non-human life. Its double-entendre captures the notion that animals like birds inhabit the world with us, but also that their “otherness,” their profound differences from humans, makes them simultaneously unknowable. This paradox is worth keeping in mind when we decide how to interact with wildlife. Our overwhelming desire to be close to birds and other creatures, an impulse stemming from a sense of both kinship and love, may not always be the best thing for them. It is well established by history that we sometimes harm what we adore.
On the other hand, the close observation of birds can often lead to greater appreciation for them and ultimately, their conservation. Perhaps we will end up deciding that in some instances, even with possible deleterious impacts, the overall benefits of feeding wild birds outweighs the negatives. But a case needs to be made for further study and honest examination of the results as well as our own motivations. Indeed, the more we learn about Nature, the more we know we don’t know; so infinitely complex is our world.
David Cronenwett is a Writer, Naturalist and Wilderness Survival Instructor from Choteau, Montana. These views are his own. He can be reached at: email@example.com.
cats, dogs and wildlife -- february 2013 -- by david cronenwett
A recent study detailing the effects of domestic cat predation on wildlife has caused an uproar among the animal welfare and conservation communities. Researchers from the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), in a report entitled The Impacts of Domestic Cats on Wildlife of the United States, determined that the little felids kill a median of 2.4 billion birds and 12.3 billion mammals per year, most of them native species. This paper represents the most thorough attempt to date at quantifying such predation. It’s results astonished everyone since they are about three times higher than previously assumed mortality figures. Our cats are tremendously efficient predators, and now we have a better picture of just how much so.
This research elevates house cats to the single greatest, direct anthropogenic impact to smaller-bodied wildlife; more than roadkill, collisions with windows, poisonings, you name it. It is a damning indictment and responses both supporting and refuting the paper’s findings were swift and emotionally charged. Conservation organizations such as the American Bird Conservancy felt the research bolstered their position that all cats should be kept indoors at all times. On the other side, some animal welfare advocates feel that the study will create a public “backlash” against feral cats, which are hugely abundant in some urban areas. Whether domestic cat predation is causing significant impacts to threatened or endangered bird populations on a large scale is doubtful, but this does occur in specific instances. Florida Keys National Wildlife Refuge Complex recently authorized the trapping of feral cats to protect native wildlife. The USFWS justifies its actions by recognizing cats as an exotic species, controllable under its Pest Management Plan.
For many years, birders have understood the negative impact of cats on the feathered. But lest dog owners begin to feel smug, the hounds are not off the hook either. A growing body of literature is beginning to illuminate the many unseen ecological effects of dogs. Wildlife advocates should be especially concerned with this issue because while cats tend to stick closer to human settlement, dogs are frequently brought into wildland-urban interface zones and backcountry areas as companion animals. Research in Colorado, Montana and Utah has demonstrated significant wildlife displacement due to pervasive scent marking by dogs as well as outright wildlife harassment. Different seasons in the northern Rockies present different problems; Fido in ungulate winter range can severely stress deer, elk and moose when they (unlike your dog) have no calories to spare. In spring and early summer, newborn creatures from ground nesting birds to elk calves are little more than playthings for an enthusiastic dog. Also, there are known instances of domestic dogs transmitting diseases to and from wildlife and dogs are now considered to be effective vectors for the spread of noxious weeds.
It is no surprise that some people become defensive about this issue, since relationships with our pets are often as profound as with others of our own kind. The growing problem of “pets vs. wildlife” essentially comes down to the ancient practice of domestication, that is, the human penchant for shaping the behavior of other living things to benefit ourselves. The case of cats and dogs is interesting because it represents instances where both species demonstrate a degree of willing “self-domestication” by initially approaching and tolerating humans. The resulting relationships proved to be very long lasting and beneficial for all involved.
Our cultural bond with dogs and cats is complex and deeply rooted. Archeology puts the earliest known domestication of canids at over 33,000 years, but our association with them is likely older. Though difficult to believe, all modern breeds, from the sled-hauling malamute to the foot-warming Cavalier, are directly descended from wolves. Dogs aided Pleistocene humans in hunting, were used for protection, as beasts of burden and quickly became close companions. Some native peoples in Alaska consider dogs to be something of a bridge between the wild and domestic worlds which is fitting since they are likely the first organism intentionally used and shaped to serve humankind. A new theory suggests that dogs gave Homo sapiens a devastating hunting advantage over Neanderthal culture and significantly contributed to our ultimate survival as a species. In 2011, ritual burial sites of domestic dogs with mammoth bones deliberately placed in their mouths, were found at Predmosti in the Czech Republic, dated 27,000 years before present. Clearly, the relationship was a spiritually meaningful one.
Cats do not show a pronounced association with people until the arrival of agriculture. The practice of storing large quantities of grain inevitably brings with it the problem of rodents. Wild cats were probably attracted to granaries by the predictable abundance of vermin and early farmers quickly realized how beneficial this relationship could be. Cats were later culturally venerated by empires in Egypt and Persia. It isn’t a stretch to imply that domestic cats had a significant role to play in the establishment of agriculture and eventually the civilizations it enabled.
In the present however, we are beginning to understand how our pets can adversely affect native habitats and wildlife. Because of long entangled histories and the personal relationships we develop with cats and dogs, there is a tendency to sometimes deny or ignore their ecological impacts. Better pet management will certainly result in more abundant wildlife. Some communities in the US already have ordinances restricting cats entirely indoors or leashed outdoors. It may also be time to examine if some especially sensitive habitats should be designated as domestic dog-exclusion areas. Though a challenging issue to address, more responsible pet ownership would go a long way towards furthering the conservation of native wildlife.
David Cronenwett is a Writer, Naturalist and Wilderness Survival Instructor from Choteau, Montana. These views are his own. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
snowy owl -- January 2013 -- by david cronenwett
Because flight enables unfettered movement across vast landscapes and diverse habitats, it is sometimes said that birds remind us of interdependency in nature. Spring and fall migration are much anticipated seasons for birders in Montana since some species occur in our state only briefly during these times. But migration implies a certain predictability and there are many instances when birds end up in unusual locations due to other factors. During winter, many people understandably become enthusiastic when sightings of Snowy Owls (Bubo scandiacus) are reported. These iconic birds, North America’s largest owl by weight, do not arrive in Montana by conventionally understood migratory behavior; they do so because they are nomads.
Snowy Owls are for the most part, strikingly white but females and juveniles tend to possess varying degrees of black or brown “flecking.” Many northern animals are white for at least part of the year, which speaks of their long evolutionary history amidst snow and ice. Snowies are ground nesters that breed on the high Arctic tundra; probably earth’s most intact but imperiled terrestrial ecosystem. They are agile, diurnal hunters capable of plucking songbirds from the air and although they will consume a wide spectrum of animal protein, the great majority of their diet during the summer months consists of a single species; the humble lemming (Lemmus spp.).
To know Snowy Owls and their ecology, including why and how they sometimes end up on our doorstep, we must understand the unique relationship they have with lemmings. These vole-like rodents are known for their dramatic boom and bust cycles as well as a powerful instinct to disperse in large numbers when population density begins to strain resources. Because of this tendency and the lemming’s ability to swim (and occasionally drown while doing so), myths of “mass suicide” still erroneously persist. Regardless, population fluctuations of these creatures hugely affect their Arctic predators, including Snowy Owls who may consume around 1,600 of them annually.
In years of strong lemming reproduction, there is often a corresponding increase in owl hatchlings. However, more predators put more stress on the prey base and competition for it. When this pressure is sensed, the birds will disperse during winter in search of easier food. Because Snowies are adapted to be highly nomadic, it is difficult to generalize about where and when they might appear. A 2008 study found that some individuals actually head farther north, onto the sea ice, possibly in search of pelagic birds in the near total darkness of winter. Others stick close to where they were born and significant numbers head south in search of habitats that resemble the familiar Arctic tundra.
This species holds a special place in the hearts of many birders and in the culture at large as evidenced by their mystical representation in popular films such as the Harry Potter series and more recently, The Big Year. The symbolism of owls generally, across human cultures, is unique. The Chauvet cave system, discovered in 1994 near the river Ardèche in southern France, contains the oldest known Paleolithic art on earth. In its deepest recesses, among the thousands of shamanic images of long extinct beasts, is a representation of an owl, thought to be a Long-Eared, carefully etched into limestone over 30,000 years ago. At Grotte de Bourrouilla in the Pyrenees, the bones of 53 individual Snowy Owls were found intentionally modified, probably for ceremonial purposes, by nomadic hunting peoples near the end of the last glacial maximum. Owls are utterly silent in flight, possess large, intense eyes set into a head that can rotate 180 degrees. When you add the color white, which has archetypal associations with purity, death and the realm of the spirit, this large diurnal raptor instantly becomes worthy of a special reverence. They seem to fulfill the role of “messenger from elsewhere.”
And of course, they do come from a remarkably different world, unlike any most of us can relate to. Alas, it is also a world that is changing exponentially, before our eyes. In many places, the more southerly boreal forest is invading tundra habitats which is certain to displace species unaccustomed to living in those environments. Creatures at the far margins, like those of the Arctic, tend to be more behaviorally specialized which will likely make adaptation to rapid climatic upheaval very difficult. It has already been observed that winters with unpredictable warm spells can melt and then refreeze snow near the ground into an impenetrable ice barrier. This can have widespread and potentially devastating effects on creatures such as lemmings and caribou that must access plants beneath the snowpack.
After years of passively looking for them, I finally spotted a Snowy Owl at Freezeout Lake this November. It was a female, perched atop a pile of riprap not far from the highway. After a few minutes of appropriate gasping, I was overcome with a feeling of how vulnerable this individual bird was as well as the unknown world far to the North, that shaped and gave life to it. There just aren’t simple, feel-good answers to what is happening now, with the chemistry of our planet so fundamentally changed. We may be faced, in our lifetimes, with a profound and tragic loss of Arctic species as well as the human cultures that interacted with them. And who knows how far this will go, since all ecosystems are bound to strain. I begin to think that this white bird represents all of us in a way; life, its adaptations and its limits.
David Cronenwett is a Writer, Naturalist and Wilderness Survival Instructor from Choteau, Montana. He can be reached at: email@example.com.
Black-billed magpie -- december -- by david cronenwett
Hunting this fall, I rounded a bend and flushed a gaggle of magpies from a deer carcass. I was clumsy and sleepy in the twilight but immediately knew what the commotion of black and white birds meant; stop what you are doing, wake up and look around, immediately. The streamside forest was incredibly dense and a known travel corridor for grizzly bears and other toothy beasts. This wasn’t the first time I’d been warned by magpies to pay attention, and I’m always grateful for the heads up. In this instance there was no big predator in the area but the event did get me thinking about the birds.
The Black-billed Magpie (Pica hudsonia) ranges from south central Alaska down through the American southwest but strangely, does not extend east of the Mississippi. Reasons for this are unclear; however, literature suggests that oppressive heat and humidity may play a role. The species is not known to be migratory. While it is possible for pairs to mate for life, there are many populations where “divorce” is known to happen, with some regions consistently showing higher rates than others. Magpie nests are large, elaborate “domed” stick constructions that both sexes build. The nearly three-foot diameter structure has two entrances and a soft interior lining, which the female maintains. Young are born altricial (relatively helpless) and are fed carrion almost exclusively. This may be an adaptation to provide the substantial calories needed for the development of large brains that magpies are known for. In Montana, they will use grassland, riparian and various open-forest habitats across the state.
These birds are large, unmistakable and often noisy members of the family Corvidae; crows, ravens and jays. I am always struck by the propensity of visiting birders from the East who remark about the beauty of magpies with their black-white-iridescent green coloration, stunningly long tails and gregarious nature. But the same cannot be said for many people who occupy habitat alongside magpies. Working with school groups from around the state, I’ve heard many accounts from young kids about shooting, poisoning or otherwise harassing magpies for varying reasons and often just for something to do. Even some birders loath the magpie for its habit of occasional nest predation and the perceived cruelty of this in our minds.
Part of our magpie animosity may also have been inherited from Europe when the birds, along with other corvids, showed up on post-conflict battlefields, feeding on human dead (and near dead) in large numbers. Like all opportunistic scavenging omnivores, magpies will not refuse a meal no matter how distasteful it is to us. They have a long association with people wherever we interact; in Montana they were known to follow Native hunters across the plains to feed on entrails and other remains from buffalo kills.
Newer research shows magpies and their cousins to be some of Nature’s most intelligent creatures. Like crows, they have demonstrated the ability to recognize their own reflection (an awareness of self) as well as individual human faces over time. Their most notable behavior is the so-called “funeral procession”; when coming across a dead magpie, another of their kind will call out until a group is gathered. Each bird will take turns gently pecking the deceased and may gather grass, pine needles or other vegetation to lay near the fallen. After a few more minutes of silent vigil, the birds disperse singly. This kind of activity raises fascinating questions and suggests that emotions and sophisticated cognitive behavior is not the sole realm of human beings.
Like any other birder, I enjoy the unusual and rare species that occur in Montana. But I also hold a special appreciation for common ones like the Black-billed Magpie. Their scavenging lifestyle forces us to look at the more unpleasant aspects of Nature, which is sometimes cold and without mercy. The magpie in its humble way, demonstrates that there is a price to be paid for all of that beauty out there.
For more information see the Montana Field Guide - Black-billed Magpie.
Photo courtesy G. Kramer, USFWS
David Cronenwett is a Writer, Naturalist and Wilderness Survival Instructor from Choteau, Montana. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Blue Jay -- October -- by david cronenwett
The ashes and cottonwoods around Choteau are rapidly de-leafing. Although there is still some good color here, when the autumn winds begins in earnest, our broadleaf trees will become bare. This fall transition is one I remember fondly from my childhood, growing up around the deciduous woods of the East. Not only is the color-show breathtaking, but the openness of naked trees reveals more to birders. Because my community on the prairie is dominated by cottonwood, I occasionally get autumnal flashbacks to my youth, wandering through woodlots and easily spotting common birds like Northern Cardinals, Black Capped Chickadees and Blue Jays. Imagine my surprise one October about four years ago, when I spotted a Blue Jay (Cyanocitta cristata) perched in a clump of chokecherries here, in northern Montana.
On some range maps, the species does not even appear this far to the northwest. But today, my yard was a tumult of Blue Jay activity. Several of the showy, unmistakable birds were flitting about, squawking to each other, gathering food and caching it in my trees. Blues are one of two “crested” jays in North America, the other being the Stellar Jay of our coniferous forests. Where the two species share habitat, hybridization is possible. Both species use their crests for communication; erect, it demonstrates aggression and alertness while a flattened crest indicates a calm, relaxed bird. Blue Jays are members of the family Corvidae, (crows, magpies, ravens) and as such, are astonishingly intelligent. Their broad, relatively short wing structure indicates a species evolved for forested habitats, where maneuverability is of greater importance than speed. They are a highly social bird, tend to mate for life and demonstrate strong family bonds.
Blues are omnivorous and adaptable creatures. Most of their diet consists of berries, nuts and grain seed followed by insects and occasionally vertebrates such as the eggs and hatchlings of other bird species. Unfortunately, Blue Jays have received a bad reputation in some quarters for this infrequent habit of preying upon young birds; it is curious why we don’t demonstrate the same hostility to Shrikes, Goshawks and other avian predators. Blues, like their corvid cousins, possess a huge range of vocalizations and are known as excellent mimics; they sometimes imitate the calls of hawks and raptors, alerting others of their own kind to danger. However, the jay will often do the same thing to scare competitors of any species from their own territories, thereby improving its chances for food and potential mates.
Most corvids seem able to comfortably live in and around human settlement and this explains the dramatic Westward expansion of Blue Jays. Backyard feeders, the availability of food garbage and the creation of edge habitat across large swaths of the country have established favorable conditions where they can now thrive. Interestingly, some populations demonstrate seasonal migration patterns, making it the only New World jay to do so. Some individual birds head south one year but not the next. Large flocks of Blues are observed along migration routes at times, but significant populations overwinter in northern habitats. Despite being one of the most common and gaudy backyard birds in some areas, there are still many behavioral unknowns concerning Blue Jays.
I’m sitting on my doorstep now, looking at a bird species that probably migrated to this region of Montana just a few years ago. The conservationist in me quickly considers it from an ecological perspective; here we have a relatively aggressive, highly adaptable, non-native species that has brazenly set up shop in the country. What are the potential impacts? In this instance, we need to make the distinction between invasive and non-native; Blue Jays, a native to Eastern North America, are filling a niche mainly in areas dominated by human beings and our works. They do not appear to be negatively affecting native bird populations in any meaningful way. Nature of course, is in constant flux and we need to look at each introduced species individually and ask, does this creature reduce biodiversity or increase it? Certainly there are plenty of harmful, introduced birds we could do without (starlings anyone?), but in the case of Blue Jays it seems they are an innocuous, beautiful addition to our pantheon of natives.
The calls of the Jay and the striking color of its feathers transports me back to another time. It seems like an old friend has finally found me after an absence of many years, and it gladdens the heart.
Snow Goose -- September -- by david cronenwett
It has grown quiet up on the Front recently. Although still ridiculously warm for the most part, diminishing hours of daylight and cool nights have chased many of our bird species far to the south. Still, the Big Event won’t happen for a while yet; the autumnal migration of Snow Geese (Chen caerulescens) to their wintering grounds. We rarely imagine this bird as an individual, since their breathtaking migratory displays are how they’re usually observed. Our time with the geese in Montana is rather short; a stunning but brief event that punctuates the transitional seasons here. And one day they mysteriously leave, just as we’ve become accustomed to their presence in the country. To many birders there is something disheartening about missing the migration. The seasonal changes feel somehow incomplete if we haven’t seen the biannual spectacle.
Migration itself is a strategy for dealing with the hardships of winter. Animals deal with the cold in different ways; some work frantically to store food, yet remain active all winter. Some retain calories on their bodies and enter dormancy like bears and many rodents. Others such as elk and moose work hard to endure the season however they can. Snow geese simply take flight to warmer climes. Each of these strategies has benefits and risks. With migration, many of those risks involve timing; for example, adequate food resources must be available when birds arrive to nest since there is no turning back.
Snow geese spend more than half of every year engaged in the task of moving from overwintering habitat to summer breeding grounds and can do so in impressive flocks of thousands. Birds that pass through Montana have several stopover locations, the best-known of which is Freezeout Lake Wildlife Management Area. The energy required to fly the 3000 miles for each vernal and autumnal migration is significant, so feeding done during the winter and post-breeding periods must be substantial enough to fuel their great journeys.
By the early twentieth-century, there was concern over the continued existence of the bird, which, like most wildlife had greatly diminished from unrestrained habitat destruction and overhunting of the day. In 1916, harvest bans on snow geese were implemented in large swaths of the U.S. and remained in place until 1975. Since then, the North American snow goose population has grown by about 300 percent. Researchers believe that greater food availability from grain fields in the bird’s wintering habitat coupled with a rapidly warming climate has allowed the species to flourish in a dramatic fashion.
There is now the serious problem of geese annihilating their nesting habitat due to great numbers living and feeding on the fragile Arctic tundra. In a strange twist to climate change, the consistently earlier breakup of sea ice is bringing hungry polar bears into contact with large colonies of nesting snow geese. The bears, who are losing the ability to hunt ringed seals from ice platforms, are now regularly observed searching for other sources of food. Approximately eighty-eight goose eggs is the caloric equivalent to one seal, so at least in the short term, this newly available resource should buy the polar bear some time. Also, egg predation will help reduce the bird population to levels more in line with the carrying capacity of its tundra breeding habitat. Still, the future of Arctic-dependent species of all kinds is very uncertain.
In November of last year, I was fortunate enough to be in Helena one night, when large numbers of snow geese swirled above the city. Light reflected off their bodies brilliantly and it was impossible not to notice them. I’d never observed so many of these birds in an urban setting; they seemed to be confused by a combination of low clouds and light from town. We watched them churning in the sky with the urgency, joy, mayhem and cacophony usually associated with migration. I remember feeling a powerful sense of sympathetic movement, of wanting to get up and go with them wherever that was. Other people were opening doors and windows to see, pulling over by the side of the road and commenting to strangers. It was as if the whole community was collectively pulled away from whatever it had been doing to witness one of nature’s great displays.
This undefinable affection our kind has for long-distance migrators like snow geese inspires a special kinship with them. These birds mark the passage of time in such a beautiful, dramatic way, it is difficult to be unmoved by it.
For more information see the Montana Field Guide - Snow Goose
David Cronenwett is a Writer, Naturalist and Wilderness Survival Instructor from Choteau, Montana. He can be reached at: email@example.com
Feathers -- August Musings -- by david cronenwett
When we think of birds, the mind immediately turns to flight. That birds can fly and have adapted to a life of flying the world over is miraculous. Much of what allows the Aves taxonomic class to take to the air involves feathers. For a long while, the prevailing theory explaining the appearance of feathers among reptile-birdlike creatures of the Jurassic went like this; since flying was a way to avoid terrestrial predation, evolutionary processes selected feathers as a means to an end, that is, to support flight. This assumption was largely based upon the strikingly feathered Archaeopteryx specimen found in Germany in 1861. Newer fossil evidence beginning with multiple discoveries in China during the late-1990’s completely reversed this long held belief and demonstrated that flight was in fact, an incidental benefit of a feathered body.
The origin of birds (and their feathers) begins about 200 million years ago in the late Jurassic era within a class of dinosaurs called Therapods. Tyrannosaurus-Rex, Velociraptor and many other of the bipedal predators in this group shared characteristics that we would recognize today as strongly bird-like. They were endothermic (warm-blooded), possessed strutted, lightweight bones, three-toed feet, a “wishbone” (furcula) and frequently, feathers of one kind or another. Very early feathers were simple, tubelike structures. Over time, species diversified and we begin to observe more complex feathers that followed, like those in the Anchiornis genus.
The reason proto-feathers appeared in the first place was likely a function of thermoregulation and later, displaying. Feathers with defined shafts, barbs and flat planes (called “vane”) could effectively insulate the body from cold and heat, deflect rain, signal for mates or hide an animal with its camouflage. Evidence from the ancient past show that many Therapods were brightly colored and densely feathered. The astounding discovery in September 2011 near Lethbridge, Alberta of Cretaceous feathers preserved in amber demonstrated that several species of dinosaurs with varying developmental stages of feathers, coexisted and shared habitats.
As these animals evolved, especially as they became smaller and lighter, the potential for flight drew near. Much research and speculation has taken place over the question of specifically how birds developed the ability. One hundred-twenty million years ago, ancient birds and their feathers were not completely up to the task; many of the flight movements necessary for proper lift and the asymmetrical-airfoil shape of primary feathers were not yet honed by evolution. Current thinking behind primordial avian flight is that feathered Therapods were excellent tree climbers; after much flapping, leaping and gliding came a first propulsive flight. Successive generations forced the adapted perfection we see today in avian anatomy and flying.
The physical structure of feathers, their composition and architecture, is remarkable. Made largely of keratin (the same material found in mammalian nails and hair), they are water resistant, durable, repairable and replaceable. They can also be stunningly colored, which has drawn the eye of humans from our earliest beginnings.
Raptors, especially eagles, are still held as spiritually powerful by traditional Native Americans. Because the birds soar in the realm of the Creator, as well as the superior arrow-fletching offered by their primaries, eagle feathers became some of the most culturally significant objects for hunting peoples in North America. In the tropics, vivid plumages were valued for their brilliance and rarity; colors that occurred nowhere else in nature could be found among the birds. Headdresses, elaborate capes and other accoutrements were created for adornment and ceremonial purposes the world over. The feather seems to be universally embedded in the human psyche as representative of air, light, flying, beauty, spirit, eternity. Given the nature of birds, their incredible evolutionary trajectory and our long and intimate association with them, this honor seems entirely appropriate.
A more recent story of feathers, well-known by those familiar with conservation history, is the rapacious and unregulated consumption of them by the millinery industry. In the 19th and early 20th century, millions of birds including ibises, herons, egrets, and untold others were killed each year to provide feathers for elaborate women’s hats popular in Europe and the United States at the time. (Interesting to consider, since most of the feathers utilized were from colorful, male birds, whose plumage was in part, to attract females) The scale of the trade and its aftermath is inconceivable to us today and was one of the critical factors in the birth of the American conservation movement, which included an organization known then as the “Audubon Society”. Around this time, state fish and game agencies were just being set up to restore the great legacy of wildlife in North America and were backed by law. Political momentum was growing for the creation of a system of refuges modeled after those established by Teddy Roosevelt in 1903. It is important to understand that a significant piece of this history and thereby our conservation legacy, belongs to birds and the feather.
Thinking of the immense arc of time it took to perfect the great diversity of feathers we know today, we are reminded of the sky, the beings that have taken to living there and how much richer our world is because of them.
David Cronenwett is a Writer, Naturalist and Wilderness Survival Instructor from Choteau, Montana. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Birding and technology -- July Musings -- by david cronenwett
A pronounced trend in birding lately is the proliferation of handheld devices loaded with avian-specific software. For a while, I thought myself a pretty hip guide by using a sophisticated bird “app” on my iPod. With it, I could quickly reference a species including recordings of its songs, images, population information and other natural history data. Once, I even played a gag on a renown bird-nerd friend of mine, effectively convincing him that there was a Canada Warbler flitting around the willows of a high Montana valley.
After three years of using it in the field, I now have reservations about their casual employment in a birding context. There is scant data on how widespread electronic recordings alters bird behavior. However, it isn’t difficult to imagine locations where birds could be subjected to an onslaught of recordings each day. Birders (myself included) often use digital playback to lure species in for a closer look. Male songbirds are highly territorial, particularly during the breeding season, and interpret the song from one of its own kind as an indication that another male is challenging him for territory or mates. The response is that one bird will try to run the other out of the area, which takes significant energy. If birds are being assaulted by waves of recordings, they are spending calories to defend territories for no reason whatsoever.
There is probably little harm done in lightly visited habitats, so long as the technology is not abused. But there aren’t yet well-established or agreed upon ethical protocols to guide our behavior. In places where large numbers of birders gather, it is not unreasonable to describe the heavy use of recordings as a kind of wildlife harassment. Add to this our default tendency to think that our own actions with regard to such things are innocuous, and we have a real problem.
More research on impacts to birds is clearly needed but we should also consider what using bird apps is doing to us and our experiences in the field. There is software currently in development that can identify birds simply by their calls, not unlike apps that can identify a song playing on the radio. Likely, there will be programs before long that can do the same with the captured image of a bird. Obviously as a guide, I have a personal interest in this, since it could render my profession obsolete. But there is a deeper issue here; when a device simply hands you an answer to an identification problem, we are not forced to exercise our own visual/auditory acuity. We needn’t probe or exercise our memory about previous experiences with a bird, its habitat, or the others who were there with us. In effect, we don’t have to pay attention or be fully present.
Certainly, there is a place for these tools; they are an excellent aid to learning bird songs for example. I often turn to my device to check on an unfamiliar vocalization; in this way it helps to cement new information in my mind. The danger is when we completely rely on the technology to remember for us. A growing body of evidence suggests that society’s move to store most information externally has begun to physically atrophy our brains’ memory system. It is well-documented with the use of GPS units in vehicles; people who rely on them have notably reduced spatial memory ability. There is some concern that an overall trend of “memory export” could be accelerating early onset dementia in the population.
Another interesting problem with digital playback: how can we be certain of what we are hearing out there? Is that really a rare bird in the forest, or someone else trying to call one in? Also possible: could it be a person trying to intentionally deceive? The potential for misidentification or skewed data collection is very real, especially given the growing numbers of devices in use out there.
Handheld devices present many problems that we are just beginning to identify and not just with birding, but with all aspects of life. They distract and enable addictive, compulsive behaviors. They can erode our focus and ability for deep, sustained contemplation. True, digital bird applications can be an aid to learning, but my fear is that while something is gained here, there is a danger that more could be lost and disturbing problems created. In our world of digital distraction and bombardment, perhaps our time on the landscape chasing birds should be consciously low-tech. Sometimes, appropriate use should mean leaving the electronics at home.
On Birding - June Musings by david cronenwett
While going through an old box of books recently, I re-discovered a fascinating paper entitled, “Bird nomenclature and principals of avian taxonomy of the Blackfeet Indians”. It was published in 1950 by Claude E. Schaeffer, and was a project for the Museum of the Plains Indian. My version is well-worn and because it appears to be a third generation copy, challenging to read in some spots. But when you delve into this work it is immediately engaging. There is a sense that Schaeffer, who at the time was interviewing Blackfeet elders in their 70’s, 80’s and 90’s, had an access to the deep past that no longer exists.
Species accounts in this study differ greatly from what one finds in a contemporary bird guide. In Schaeffer’s document, birds have names that reflect specific behaviors or unique aspects of their biology. The Osprey for example, was called “false thunder” because of the tremendous sound produced on some of their predatory dives. And there are onomatopoeic terms; birds named because calls, songs or other sounds produced that were thought to resemble expressions or words in the Blackfeet language. Interesting physical markings were noted too, such as “shoulder-bone-tail feathers” for the McCown’s Longspur. But the paper I dug up recently is also notable for what is not mentioned. There are only about 80 species of birds discussed. As of 2012, Montana Audubon lists 427 species known to occur in the state. Perhaps half of that number spend part of their life cycles on the Rocky Mountain Front, in Blackfeet country. Even accounting for looking at a single study and other variables, I find it pretty remarkable that so few bird species were well-known by Blackfeet in the past.
Why this disparity? There are probably many reasons but among them is certainly the fact that Native peoples of the northern prairies had no high-powered optics in the old days. Our understanding of bird diversity took a serious leap forward when reliable field glasses and scopes were developed. The number of distinct species and regional variants that we are aware of today continues to grow, especially when genetics are considered. But part of me is suspicious of this trend and the tools that have brought us to this point. Humor me please, while we think about binoculars.
For several years I worked as an interpretive guide on the Front. Nearly 20 weeks each summer was intensely devoted to looking at things and explaining them. Bird species were frequently the object of a client’s desire, and the pressure was on to find them. To locate birds, one simply had to have an exceptional eye (and ear) and good optics. By the end of the season however, the binoculars around my neck began to feel like a ball and chain. I distinctly remember the moment when this occurred and the confusing sense that although magnification can open certain doors to the natural world, it closes others.
Binoculars narrow and focus our vision but because of this, other things are necessarily excluded. We birders are sometimes, unfortunately, hyper-consumers who impatiently move from one species to the next. But in doing so, we seem to be sacrificing a depth of knowledge and intimacy more common in the past. Optics create in us the powerful sense that we are getting closer to the feathered, however, in our quest to seek only an image of another creature we lose the greater picture of its ecology and natural history. Indeed, to me there is something almost perverse about interacting with wildlife solely by binoculars. In the old days, being close to wild animals and observing them meant an individual would have to have great patience and the time to accommodate it. Not every species would be observed, but those closer interactions likely yielded deeper knowledge and meaning over time.
Finding the Schaeffer paper made me realize that in the past, there was no such thing as a “birder”. This kind of specialization, a person whose central interest in nature is devoted to one type of animal, is a product of the modern world. And there is nothing wrong with it...except for the fact that the practice tends to limit our overall experience and understanding. There is so much more going on in this world; interactions and connections beyond imagination. I suppose that I am trying to make a case for a generalist approach to our relationship with nature. By all means, pick up the optics and go birding. But also, get close, get your hands dirty, learn about botany, ecology and climate. Go hunting and gathering. Our appreciation for all of creation, including birds, can only benefit from a larger view.
Ferruginous Hawk - May 2012. by david cronenwett
Note: A better understanding of where in Montana this hawk nests would be helpful. If you locate a nest this summer, please report your finding to the Montana Natural Heritage Program (via various reporting options) or contact Amy to pass information along (where, when, who, etc.). Nesting Ferruginous Hawks are a concern at the Kevin Rim area where a new wind farm is being constructed.
Photo by Nikki Mann
The inevitable greening of the prairie in Montana now, warms the heart of this naturalist. Long-billed curlews, godwits and other species intimately tied to our grasslands have returned. One of these, the Ferruginous Hawk, (Buteo regalis) is a relatively unusual sight even when one knows where to look for them. This magnificent bird is the largest member of the genus Buteo and a cousin to Red Tailed and Rough-legged hawks. Like its relatives, there is a significant amount of variation in plumage from individual to individual. However, a “classic” bird will be covered with the rusty iron-like feathers for which they are named and the most striking will have a brilliant white breast usually flecked with this “rust”. Feathers cover the legs all the way to the feet, which under certain circumstances, can be a useful identifying feature.
Ferruginous Hawks prey on mammals as large as White-tailed Jackrabbits but ground squirrels are likely more common. One source claims that in parts of Montana, Western Meadowlarks make up a significant part of the raptor’s diet. The raptors winter in the American Southwest and into Mexico. The species is listed as Endangered in Alberta and as a Species of Concern in Montana. Conservationists attempted to have the raptor listed on the US Fish and Wildlife Endangered Species Act in 1991, but it was deemed unwarranted by the agency. Throughout their range however, Ferruginous Hawks are frequently cited as a sensitive or declining species, like many other grassland birds, generally because of habitat loss. It is important to understand that Ferruginous Hawks are closely associated with native grasslands, a type of living system that has given so much to humankind but since the dawn of agriculture thirteen thousand years ago, has largely suffered at our hands. In the past, Buteo regalis was known to make huge nests of buffalo wool and bones, and we know what happened to the American Bison.
Grasslands were always ideal places to grow grain, construct homes and build civilizations. Prairie will likely never hold the same place in the hearts of people as mountains do, but they should. The birder, botanist, and lovers of wildlife and space can appreciate its beauty. There is nothing hidden here and it is this exposed, uncluttered nature that is really destabilizing to some. In a way, grasslands, where sky and earth meet, are simply too raw and elemental for most people to hold close with any affection.
Literature suggests that only between 1 and 5 percent of all native, undisturbed grasslands remain in North America. Some of the best surviving habitat in the continental United States exists here, in Montana. Conversion of prairie to agricultural use is still a significant and detrimental practice from the perspective of ecology. Lately, energy development off all kinds poses great threats to these remnant ecosystems.
I was in Choteau recently, fueling my gas guzzling truck and watching a growing number of out-of-area oil company rigs cruise through town. I tell myself that I can’t be summarily against petroleum development. But so much has been invested in the Rocky Mountain Front to conserve its unique character and ecology that it seems to me a complete and lasting tragedy may be in the offing. Considering how new technology has enabled shale bed extraction to occur nearly anywhere and given the transformative oil boom in the other side of the state, it appears as though we are on the verge of something potentially momentous: I fear we are becoming an energy colony, and there is little we can do about it.
Overhead, a raptor circles low and it looks like a Ferruginous Hawk. At the moment, it appears to me an ambassador for the numerous creatures that won’t survive without native prairies. I list the many threats to this place in my head; subdivisions, wind and oil development, invasive plant species ,and our natural tendency to disregard the prairie as a place of ecological value and beauty. That this landscape has been identified as one that can produce oil via hydraulic fracturing in a meaningful way, does not bode well from a conservation perspective. If you are a person who loves the Front, its flora and peace and birds of prey, you might want to get up here and get a good look at it. Sooner is better.
For more information, see the Montana Field Guide - Ferruginous Hawk
merlin - April 2012. by david cronenwett
Often neglected among Montana’s pantheon of raptors is the Merlin, Falco columbarius. Part of our lack of appreciation towards them stems from difficulty in identification: Merlins usually don’t have the strong facial features of others in the Falconidae family and have an overall brownish appearance, problematic to ID under some circumstances. So, these guys unwillingly endure the moniker, “some kind of brown hawk” much of the time.
However, Merlins are not a hawk (which would be in the Buteo or Accipiter genera) but the second-smallest falcon in the state. This fact doesn’t appear to dampen their aggression in any way; they will harass and prey on other birds from sparrows to pigeons with great zeal. All falcons have the classic delta-shape wing and other adaptations for speed. It should be remembered that earth’s fastest animal is a falcon, the Peregrine, capable of 200 mile per hour dives. I find the most interesting evolutionary manifestations to be falcons’ neurological-optical systems, which capture, transmit and interpret images at a rate impossible for us to imagine and effectively slow down time for the raptors.
Merlins are year-round residents of Montana. Sexual dimorphism (differences between the sexes) is mostly in size, with females notably larger than males. This is typical in falcons allowing them to hunt different-sized prey, thereby increasing caloric intake while decreasing the necessary size of their territory. There are three subspecies of Merlin in North America; ours is the Great Plains variety, Falco columbarius richarsoni, generally a lighter version of the Northern and Coastal subspecies.
Like others of their kind, Merlins are highly adaptable in terms of habitat use and prey selection. While many guidebooks state some pretty specific requirements, the birds are capable of living nearly anywhere other than arid deserts or very dense forests. And, although birds make up the bulk of their diets, they are not beneath consumption of larger insects or smaller mammals. An example of Merlin-adaptation is their recent emergence as an urban hunter in several Montana cities. A keen birder will look for areas with plenty of roosting/nesting sites (buildings, parks, etc.) and an abundance of pigeons. An unlucky rock dove, or Eurasian Collared dove will stand little chance against a determined Merlin. The falcons will often attack from above, with the sun at its back, in a surprise maneuver. If they hit their prey at high-speed, often you can see the telltale “poof” of feathers upon impact, quickly followed by decapitation. Merlins use a notch in their short, powerful bills called a tomial tooth to sever the spinal cord and bring prey to the ground.
What I personally enjoy about seeing Merlins and other raptors in the city, besides their self-evident beauty, is how they make predation visible to us. Its common for people to think of nature and its essential or distasteful functions as existing “out there” in the mountains somewhere. But watching bird parts fall from the sky from a Merlin strike is an eye opening experience, especially in the urban environment. Indeed, the predator-prey relationship, one that drives biological systems, is always close to hand.
Walking to the post office the other day, I hear some animated “kee-kee-kee!!” calls, high in the old cottonwoods of Choteau. Stopping to look up, a Merlin descends quickly to the ground, grabs a large vole-like creature, and takes off...followed by two, very agitated American Kestrels. The birds fly four feet over my head and disappear into the canopy. Now fully roused from my morning stupor, I am inspired to look for wildness and beauty closer to home.
For more information, see the Montana Field Guide - Merlin
MOuntain Bluebird - March 2012. by david cronenwett
Around March 15th each year, I keep my eyes open, scanning nest boxes as I drive past the Ear Mountain trailhead on the Rocky Mountain Front. It is then, like clockwork that the first Mountain Bluebirds (Sialia currocodies) show up in the country. This month in Montana is mostly an extension of winter; blizzards, high winds and arctic cold snaps are common events. Yet there they are; vivacious, cerulean birds in a landscape that is still mostly dormant and lifeless. Their presence optimistically speaks to the imminence and renewal of spring. Three species of bluebirds spend part of their life cycles in our state; the Western Bluebird (Sialia mexicana) in the northwest and the Eastern (Sialia sialia) in the far southeast. But it is the “Mountain Blue” that dominates in Montana, both on the land and in the hearts of people.
These birds are a type of thrush, related to robins and are similarly gregarious and comfortable around civilization. Their breeding habitat ranges from northern Alaska, down the spine of the Rockies roughly to northern Utah, west to the Cascades and east toward the Dakotas. The overall coloring of the male can be best described as a reflection of the sky, an astonishing, brilliant blue, while females are more muted and subtle. They are a cavity nesting species; in the wild, the birds will search for an abandoned woodpecker hole and occupy it. But anymore, the human-manufactured nest box has become an important part of Mountain Bluebird ecology and survival.
In recent decades, the Mountain Bluebird has seen significant population declines due to a host of factors; the removal of standing dead trees which woodpeckers use for nesting, fire suppression in Montana’s forests has created unfavorable habitat conditions (too many small diameter trees, too close together) and competition for nesting sites with aggressive, non-native species like Starlings and House Sparrows began to take a toll on bluebirds. The bird’s habit of feeding on the ground has also made them particularly susceptible to predation by domestic cats. But the striking beauty of the species, their ease around humans and the fact that they will readily use nest boxes quickly inspired a culture of bluebird aficionados and led to a remarkable recovery.
Bud and Violet Olsen have lived on their ranch along the Teton River since 1949. They purchased the original 800 acres just a few years after Bud returned from the European theatre of WWII. And they are certifiable Bluebird advocates. About 20 years ago, Bud decided to pick up the cause and build nest boxes. He estimates he’s made about 150 or more of them, about 80 of which are in Teton County. A lot of thought went into Bud’s design; considerations for size, entry-hole diameter, drainage and ease of cleaning are all present as is the distinctive “Bench-Cross” brand he finishes each box with.
When I ask him “Why Bluebirds?” Bud, who is in his early nineties, responds with a smile, “They’re so vibrant.” It is easy to understand why this joy-inducing creature has inspired many organizations and individuals to action. There are several “bluebird trails” crisscrossing Montana; stretches of highway and rural routes lined with nest boxes. Many of them are maintained by volunteers; they are cleaned, repaired and information about nest success is recorded to track population trends over time. A portion of one such road, Montana 434 near Wolf Creek, was formally renamed in 2003 after Bluebird enthusiasts Tom and Pat Matsko, who founded the Mountain Bluebird Trails Club in 1980. Today, the organization maintains over 200 such trails in the state.
With such enthusiasm, the future of bluebirds, including the Mountain species, looks bright. I find one attribute particularly interesting about them: the color blue, which is so enchantingly vivid, is actually an illusion. This color is a result of tiny bubbles of air within the barbules of their feathers that refract the blue spectrum of visible light to our eyes. This is why on overcast days, the birds can appear more drab, as they do if backlit by the sun. Under magnification, the feathers of these birds are actually gray, a result of pigments called melanins. So, the brilliant color for which these birds are named and loved is actually something of Nature’s sleight-of-hand. But we are still universally moved when we see Mountain bluebirds, particularly in March; like joyful pieces of sky, in a landscape that is longing for spring.
For more information, see the Montana Field Guide - Mountain Bluebird
PILEATED WOODPECKER - February 2012. by david cronenwett
On a recent visit to the Swan Valley, I’m mesmerized by the dense, lush forests of deep snow country. During one of those introspective moments, driving up highway 83, a large black & white bird wings over the road. It’s always funny how seeing a species out of context can cause one to hesitate in a moment of confusion before its name comes to mind. And at present, I’m seeing a bird in a different country from my home range, where this beast is rarely found to begin with. It is large, with an undulating flight pattern and unmistakable red crest: a Pileated Woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus).
Woodpeckers are classed in the family Piciformes and about 200 species are well distributed across the globe, except in Australia, New Zealand, Madagascar and the polar regions. Montana is home to eleven species, but none are as spectacular as the Pileated. Woodpeckers can be quite dependent on specific forest conditions to thrive. The decline and eventual extinction of the Imperial Woodpecker in Mexico and the Ivory-billed in the Southeast due to poor timber management, have made the Pileated the largest of its kind in North America. The State of Montana has listed the bird, which is sometimes used as an old-growth indicator, as a Species of Concern due to its sensitivity to industrial forestry activities. Pileated’s are found most abundantly west of the Continental Divide, but range maps show them as present in some east side ranges. On the larger scale, they are permanent residents of the Boreal north, Canadian Rockies and most of the hardwood forests of the East, South, and Upper Midwest.
The preferred food for this bird is carpenter ants. The Northern Rockies lack termites, so these insects are an important agent for breaking down cellulose. The ants seem to be especially abundant in the base of larger diameter trees that have begun to rot from within. This is where one can often find the very large, ovate-rectangular “drill holes,” diagnostic of the Pileated. Even given the bird’s substantial size, it is truly incredible how much damage they are capable of inflicting upon wood. Because they have no sense of smell, woodpeckers use their keen sense of hearing to detect insects. This may account for their habit of turning their heads to the side while clinging to trees; it may be that they are trying to get a better listen. Once an opening is created, Pileated’s use extremely long sticky tongues to extract the insects.
Research has shown that the amount of energy absorbed by a woodpecker skull from each “peck” is about one thousand times the force of gravity. In a person, exposure to this sort of abuse would quickly result in severe brain injury. But woodpeckers have come up with evolutionary answers to this problem. Pileated’s and their cousins have spongy-bone structures within the skull that help protect their brains. The brain itself has an elongated rather than round shape, which aids in diffusing energy. The angle that the birds use to drill and even slight variations in length between the upper and lower mandible, all influence their ability to withstand incredible amounts of stress. Researchers have been studying woodpecker anatomy in the hopes of creating better head protection devices for human use.
New nests are created yearly, and because of the large size of the Pileated, big trees, preferably standing dead ones, are necessary for nesting. Both parents will incubate eggs and rear the young. Woodpeckers perform a huge service to other species by excavating cavities that many other birds and even some rodents take advantage of for nesting sites. The iconic Mountain Bluebird, for example, experienced a serious population decline a few decades ago, partly because of the widespread removal of the large dead snags that woodpeckers prefer.
On the East side of the Rockies, I’ve observed plenty of Pileated sign but have seen far more unusual species of woodpeckers like the Three-Toed over the years. But one spring, with a group of about forty third graders, a Pileated decided to show itself amidst a stand of partly burned-over forest. It was one of those moments when you have to ask yourself, why now? I saw the bird not on one my many of solo excursions into the woods, not when intentionally seeking it out; but with a huge group of rowdy kids. Its appearance gave me the same rush that I get when spotting a grizzly; that involuntary exhalation of awe that says, “beautiful!” Even the kids paused for a moment as it swooped, perched and drummed. While relatively common in some areas of Montana, over here, its sighting is a rare joy to be savored. The Pileated, a word which means “crested,” is our most magnificent woodpecker.
For more information, see the Montana Field Guide - Pileated Woodpecker
Gray Jay -- Whiskey Jack - January 2012. by david cronenwett
There is so much snow here now, after the driest December on record, that its difficult to get my head around it. At the cabin, a foot is on the ground with a lot more on the way. The temperatures are respectable too, -22 this morning. Deep cold is punishing to wildlife, especially small-bodied creatures like birds. The relatively few species that winter in Montana must have adaptations to cope with dramatic weather events like blasts of polar air and attendant snowfall. Among the birds that stay are the Corvids; crows, ravens and jays. These are not species that many people hold in high regard for various reasons, but mostly, I think it is their commonness and comfort around humans that we resent. Our kind does tend to take the familiar for granted. However, these resident birds are some of the more interesting ones in Montana. Among the large-brained corvids we can observe in the forest this time of year is the Gray Jay or “Whiskey Jack” (Perisoreus canadensis).
Gray Jays range from the Canadian Maritimes to Alaska and down the Rockies to northern New Mexico. They are strongly associated with particular conifer species. In Montana, forests where Englemann spruce and Lodgepole pine are present provide the best habitat. It is thought that the configuration of their bark scales enable the birds to more easily cache food. Also, the antimicrobial properties in the resin and bark of these trees in addition to the cool temperatures of the subalpine environment, help to preserve food caches for long periods of time. Recent studies suggest that climate change may be affecting the southern range of the Gray Jay, in part because warmer average temperatures may be spoiling the bird’s caches. The astonishing memory capacity of the Jay enable it to revisit thousands of cache locations. They are omnivorous and will consume everything from berries to insects to live nestlings of other bird species.
Like other corvids, the Gray Jay has complex social and breeding behaviors. Because they inhabit subalpine forests year round, they are among the earliest to nest, which can be March or earlier in Montana. More dominant chicks will eventually force less dominant siblings to leave the nest, where many undoubtedly perish. In the following breeding year, dominant “stayer” chicks will help with the raising of their parent’s new young during the post-fledgling period. Generally, Gray Jays mate for life, although they will find new mates should their original one disappear or die.
The bird goes by many names to those of us who spend time in its habitat. “Camp Robber” is a popular one, due the critter’s propensity for helping themselves to human food. “Whiskey Jack” has more interesting origins. It is derived from the corruption of aboriginal terms for “Wiskedjak”. Native peoples across of the Great Lakes and boreal north have in their cosmologies a spirit-guide/trickster figure by this name, which is culturally attached to the Gray Jay. During the frontier period, settlers likely Anglicized the name, which is still very common in some regions, particularly in Canada.
The woods are utterly silent today. I’m on snowshoes atop two feet of new powder in a mixed-montane forest along the South Fork Teton. After a fresh dump like this and with ambient temperatures below zero, there is very little activity or signs of life out here. I’ve run traps in this forest before, camped here and interpreted the area for many people. Often too, I have been accompanied on my travels in this area by Whiskey Jacks, swooping down in their slow-motion way, to investigate and look for a handout. In the stillness, I can imagine the caribou hunters of the northern forests, missing the winter migrations and facing the bitterly cold silence of starvation. We know that some of these people, who hunted by snowshoe in small bands during winter, would sometimes be visited by Whiskey Jacks. The birds must have been welcome companionship to Ojibwe and Cree hunters. In good times, the people might leave scraps of caribou for the Jays, offerings for the worldly incarnation of Weskedjak. And in other times, the birds were gratefully trapped for survival.
I’m hoping to see Gray Jays now, waiting for their startling, gentle appearance. I wait, but there is nothing except silence in the forest today. There is nothing.
Gray Jays are already on the losing side of a warming world. Read about Gray Jays and climate change (takes you to a different section of our web site).
For more information see the Montana Field Guide - Gray Jay
More bird essays from David (2010-2011) can be found here.