Book Review: Baby Birds

Baby Birds: An Artist Looks Into the Nest by Julie Zickefoose is a fantastic account on how baby birds develop in the nest, as well as a beautiful work of art. From 2002-2015, nature artist Julie Zickefoose set out to learn how baby birds develop and depict the amazing process through watercolors. In 13 years she painted 17 different songbird species. Many of the nests she found in her own backyard, an 80-acre sanctuary called Indigo Hill in Ohio. Some species were sent to her in pictures by friends who found interesting bird species in their yards.

Baby Birds: An Artist Looks in the Nest by Julie Zickefoose

From the day the young hatched, Zickefoose would select a chick (usually the oldest) and bring it into her art studio to paint. She would repeat the process each day of the nestling’s life until it seemed like it was ready to fledge. In certain instances Julie was able to continue to observe the birds after they fledged. Each species she encountered offered a unique and many times surprising experience. Zickefoose’s journey was not without its challenges though. She was not opposed to interfering when she felt it was needed. She rehabilitated some chicks, dealt with nest parasites, and warded off predators in order to help with their survival (although a few times these efforts did not pay off).

There are two types of baby birds: precocial and altricial. Precocial birds are born more developed, usually with down feathers and the ability to walk on their own. They are able to leave the nest within hours of hatching and can find food for themselves. Waterfowl, galliformes, and shorebirds are precocial. Altricial birds are underdeveloped upon hatching and require care from the parents for an extended period of time in order to survive. Examples of altricial birds include raptors, pigeons, and passerines (perching/songbirds). Julia focuses strictly on altricial birds in order to closely track their development.

The tone of Baby Birds is very casual; much of the book reads as if you are reading directly out of Zickefoose’s journal (which is some cases you are). Each species account begins with a spread of Julie’s painting with her fields notes. In a glance you can see what the bird looked like as it developed. As you dive into the chapters, Zickefoose breaks down what occurred each day and what milestones the chick reached. Next to each day is a larger version of the painting you see on the beginning spread.

I really enjoyed Julie’s style. The illustrations/paintings are very detailed and beautiful. She really captures the essence of each chick and the paintings look life-like. Peppered throughout her personal experiences are interesting facts about the species that she learned from research. Some species that Zickefoose painted include Eastern Bluebird, Carolina Wren, Chimney Swift, Ruby-throated Hummingbird, Indigo Bunting, and the only cavity-nesting warbler, the Prothonotary Warbler. My favorite was the Yellow-billed Cuckoo.

I found it interesting that Julie included 3 species that many people consider pests: the House Sparrow, European Starling, and House Wren. Although she was originally against letting these birds nest and would remove any nests of these species she could find, sometimes the birds had other plans. She did ended up appreciating the experience to learn about these birds that people usually shun. In her chapter about House Sparrows, Julie notes that in some of their natural range of Eurasia, these sparrows are rapidly declining. It’s interesting that people in the sparrow’s natural range are scrambling to try to save their beloved bird, while people in the United States want them eradicated for stealing nesting spaces from native birds. In regards to this idea Zickefoose remarks, “Take no bird for granted, no matter how abundant.” It’s a sentiment that I agree with. Each individual bird is important, especially today in the midst of climate change and a rapidly changing world.

I would recommend Baby Birds to anyone with a love for nature, birds and/or art. Julie Zickefoose cleverly mixes art, science, and her personal experiences to captivate her audience and leads us on a fascinating journey into the life of baby birds.

Back to NJ

Hi everyone! I took a little break from blogging since the move to New Hampshire. The transition has been a little rough, but it’ll get easier over time. Since I last wrote we went back to Chincoteague, VA, added Maine to our birding map, and added a few lifers to our list. I’ll catch you up on all of that soon, but this past weekend we visited family back in New Jersey and of course made some time for birding. I was able to visit some of my old stomping grounds: Palmyra Cove Nature Park and Haddon Lake Park.

Palmyra Cove Nature Park, Palmyra, NJ

I really missed Palmyra. Even in the heat of the day, we still observed 34 species. Highlights included a Yellow-billed Cuckoo, American Redstarts, Chimney Swifts, 2 Ospreys, and Wild Turkeys. We also saw a nice variety of butterflies and dragonflies, some turtles, and a groundhog.

Haddon lake park, audubon, nj

The ducks at Haddon Lake are now in eclipse plumage. Waterfowl undergo a simultaneous wing molt, meaning they are rendered flightless for about 20-40 days. Therefore, males, who are usually much more colorful than the females, molt their head plumage in order to blend in. I also learned (thanks to a helpful person on Instagram) that there was an American Black Duck amid the Mallards. We also saw a Red-winged Blackbird fledgling being fed by its parent.

Green Heron (Image by BirdNation)
Red-winged Blackbird juvenile

Yellow Northern Cardinal?

There’s been quite a buzz the last few weeks in the bird world about this picture:

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Yellow Northern Cardinal (Image by Jeremy Black)

Nope, that’s not Photo-shopped. That is a real yellow Northern Cardinal.

The story of this cardinal began back in January, when it was spotted by birdwatcher Charlie Stephenson of Alabaster, Alabama. She was looking at her feeder when she noticed a yellow bird, but did not realized right away that it was a Northern Cardinal.

So she contacted ornithologist Geoffrey Hill of Auburn University and her friend, photographer Jeremy Black, to take pictures of this rarity. The cardinal stuck around Stephenson’s yard for a few weeks. At the end of February the photo of the cardinal went viral on Facebook.

So how exactly did this Northern Cardinal, which is normal red, become yellow?

Pigments are found in both plants and animals. In birds, pigments are found independent of feather structure. There are three pigment groups found in birds: carotenoids, porphyrines, and melanin.

Carotenoids are responsible for pigments found in birds that are yellow, red, and orange. Since carotenoids are produced by plants, birds with these pigments get them by ingesting plant material or something that ate the plant material. The quality of a bird’s diet plays a role in how brightly-colored feathers are. Birds with a poor diet will be paler in pigments than a bird with a richer diet. A theory from some scientist and birders is that diet as well as environmental factors may be affecting this cardinal’s color.

Ornithologist Geoffrey Hill believes that the yellow cardinal has xanthochroism. This is a genetic mutation where the carotenoid pigments being drawn in by the bird’s diet are yellow instead of red. Xanthochroism has been seen in other birds such as House Finches, Evening Grosbeaks, and other Northern Cardinals.

Whether the cardinal’s color is due to genetics, environmental factors, or diet, it really is quite beautiful. It’s certainly a very special and lovely sight to see.

Have you ever seen a bird that was a different color than it was supposed to be? Tell me about it in the comments. 

Mind. Blown.

I read a fact the other day that blew my mind.

I was reading an article on Audubon’s website called “Who Wins the Feeder War?” by Nell Durfee. In this article, Durfee explains about a new study in feeder hierarchy. The author then presents 5 “duels” you may observe at a feeder along with some facts about each bird. You can read the article at http://www.audubon.org/news/who-wins-feeder-war.

I am reading and enjoying this article and get to Mourning Dove vs. House Sparrow. I click on the Mourning Dove and read a really crazy fact. And I quote:

“Store large amounts of food in crop (record is 17,000-plus seeds in one dove)”

17,000-plus seeds?! Woah!! Mind blown.

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Mourning Dove at Amico Island (Image by BirdNation)

So of course I needed to investigate this amazing fact further. I stumbled upon a Washington Post article from January 2012 called “Mourning doves: Gluttons of the bird feeder” by Patterson Clark (you can read that article here).

In one day, a Mourning Dove can consumes as much as 20% of their own body weight. In order to do this, they need to store food in a crop. A crop is a specialized area that is found in some bird species. It is an enlargement of the lower esophagus that aids in food storage so that the bird can move safely. The food will stay in the crop until the bird is ready to either pass the food into its stomach or regurgitate it to its young. In some birds, cells in the crop lining will help produce a “crop milk” that is rich in lipid to feed to their young.

It’s fascinating that this record-setting Mourning Dove fit over 17,000 seeds in its crop! The avian body is amazing. Mourning Doves love seeds and will happy devour as much food as possible from your feeder. They prefer platform feeders, ones with a perch, or just simple flat ground.

Next time you check your feeder, keep a careful lookout for the gluttonous Mourning Dove. They might try to eat you out of house and home using their crops!;-)

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Mourning Dove at my feeder (Image by BirdNation)

 

Birds of a Feather

What do you imagine when you hear the word “feather”?

It’s likely that you imagine a tail or wing feather. But did you know there are 6 major types of feathers on a bird’s body? Each of the major types has specific form and function.

Let’s start by defining two important terms in regards to feather structure. A feather is either pennaceous or plumulaceous. Pennaceous feathers are what most people imagine to be a “typical” feather. Pennaceous feathers are flexible and consist of the following parts:

  • Vane-  the flat surface of a pennaceous feather
  • Barbs- hundreds of stiff filaments that attach to a rachis
  • Rachis- a relatively solid structure that extends down the middle of the feather
  • Ramis- a central shaft which has slender branches on either side
  • Barbules- the slender branches on either side of the ramis.
  • Barbicels- tiny hooklets that attach the barbules together and create the flatness of the vane

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Anatomy of a feather (Image via Birdtricks.com)

Plumulaceous feathers have barbs that are loose and fluffy. Their barbs have rami that are less stiff and the barbules are usually either reduced or thinner. As a result, plumulaceous feathers cannot hold anything except a delicate, rounded form. When you see a chick with down, you are seeing an example of plumulaceous feathers.

Feathers grow out of and remain attached to a feather follicle in the epidermis. If you’ve ever seen the bumps on a plucked chicken, then you have seen feather follicles.

Now that we’ve discussed the basics of feather structure, let’s examine the 6 major feather types.

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Major Feather Types (Image via Bird Academy/Cornell Lab of Ornithology)


1. Down Feathers

These feathers are entirely plumulaceous, making them soft and fluffy. Down feathers act as insulators that allow birds to manage their internal body temperatures by thermoregulation. There are 3 types of down feathers.

  • Natal Down temporarily covers the entirety of a hatchling’s body. Birds that are precocial (able to feed/tend to itself immediately after hatching, therefore not relying on a parent) tend to have more natal down since they have to maintain their temperatures on their own. Altricial birds (who rely on a brooding parent) have sparse natal down since they receive heat transferred by a parent.
  • Body Down lies under the contour feathers of many adult birds. These are more common in waterbirds such as penguins, loons, and ducks. Ever see a duck or goose line its nest with feathers? These are body down from their breast.
  • Powder Down are unique because they grown continuously and disintegrate at the tips to produce a keratinous “powder”. They help make feathers waterproof, and are only found in certain kinds of birds, such as pigeons and herons.

2. Contour Feathers

These feathers give a bird their characteristic shape and make up its exterior. The top section of these feathers are pennaceous, while the bottom section is plumulaceous. Many birds can use oil from the uropygial gland at the base of the tail to help their contour feathers repel water. Contour feathers have a variety of functions including aiding in thermoregulation, streamlining the body during flight, and social displays.

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Great Egret showing off its nuptial plumes (Image by BirdNation)

3. Flight Feathers

Flight feathers make up the majority of the tail and wing feathers. They are almost completely pennaceous. The anterior and posterior edges of flight feathers are asymmetrical. The leading edge (a.k.a anterior edge) is typically thinner than the trailing edge (a.k.a posterior edge).  This feature allows flight feathers to stabilize under the pressure of air currents during flight. These feathers are usually the stiffest and largest feathers on a bird. There are 2 types of flight feathers:

  • Remiges originate from the wings and attach to the bone. The feathers of the outer wing are called primaries and the feathers of the inner wing are called secondaries. The number of primary and secondary feathers vary by bird, but typically a bird can have between 9-12 primaries and 8-32 secondaries.
  • Rectrices  form the tail surfaces/airfoil of a bird. The central pair of rectrices attach directly to the tailbone. Like remiges, number of retrcies vary by bird size, but is typically between 6-32.

Coverts are smaller contour feathers that overlap the wing and tail feather and create the streamlined shape that is important to the aerodynamics of flight.

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The rectrices and remiges of a Bonaparte’s Gull (Image by BirdNation)

4. Semiplumes

Semiplumes are the intermediate form between the contour and down feathers. Their barbs usually lack hooks, so their vanes are not pennaceous. They occur at the edges of contour feather tracts and complement the insulation of down feathers.

5. Bristles

Bristles are highly specialized and lack barbs along most of its length. Their rachis are very stiff and they are almost exclusively found on a bird’s head. The most common type are rictal bristles, which commonly project at the beak’s base. Many birds that are insectivores, like flycatchers, have rictal bristles.

6. Filoplumes

Filoplumes are hair-like feathers and are the smallest of all the feather types. They have a rachis but few or no barbs. They’re usually hidden underneath the contour feathers. Instead of feather muscles, they have sensory receptors in their skin near the follicles. Filoplumes aid birds in detecting changes in feather position caused by body movement or wind.


Feathers are an amazing adaptation that is unique to birds. Knowing the types of feathers helps us appreciate how complex and special birds are.

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Hooded Merganser preening (Image by David Horowitz)

Strange Ducks

Imagine you are at your local pond and all the ducks are out and about. You scan through a flock of Mallards with your binoculars.

Mallard…mallard…mallard…wait, what is that?

You spot a duck that looks…strange. It kind of looks like a Mallard, but something is not quite right. It’s possible that you found a hybrid.

Hybridization is common in birds, but especially so in waterfowl. When two birds of different species mate they can produce a hybrid offspring. The hybrids will usually display characteristics of both parents to some degree. Two of the most common hybridizing species in North American waterfowl are the Mallard and Wood Duck. In fact, scientists have identified around 400 different waterfowl hybrid combinations.

In general, many hybrid offspring are infertile. This is not always the case. Sometimes a hybrid can reproduce, but usually with not as much success as a pure-breed duck. This may occur in species that are more closely related in the same genus. The more evolutionary distant two species are, the more likely their hybrid will have low fitness (relative success of an individual in passing along their genes) or be sterile. Female hybrids are more likely to be inviable than males, due to the fact that sames have two different sex chromosomes and males have two of the same sex chromosomes (the opposite of mammals).

Hybrids actually tend to be rarer than people think. This is because there are many barriers to reproduction between unique waterfowl species. Examples of these barriers include songs/calls, habitat preference, physical attributes, and courtship behaviors. However, when everyone arrives at the breeding grounds and all those hormones get going, well….just about anything can happen.

It’s pretty interesting seeing a hybrid duck. It’s fun to try and figure out what species the parents were. Although interesting, unfortunately sometimes hybridization can lead to a decline in population of a species. Let’s use our Mallards again as an example. Over time, habitat changes in some duck species has led to Mallards expanding their range. In the case of the American Black Duck, their shrinking range has been encroached by Mallards and since these species interact more often,  they result in more American Black Duck x Mallard hybrids. Species threatened by Mallards also include the Mottled Duck of Florida and the Hawaiian Duck.

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American Black Duck x Mallard Hybrid (Image by BirdNation)

Other common duck hybrids include Mallard x Northern Pintail, Gadwall x American Wigeon, Eurasian Wigeon x American Wigeon, and Wood Duck x Mallard.

There’s also the good possibility that the odd duck you saw at the pond could be a domestic duck. It’s not uncommon to find domestic ducks mixed into the waterfowl flock. If a strange duck seems comfortable with/approaches people or has large white patches where you don’t expect it, then it is most likely a domestic duck. We have seen plenty of these domestic ducks at Haddon Lake over the years.

 

And last but not least, my favorite: Puff Duck ( aka “Puffy”, R.I.P. You can read his story, “The Tale of the Three Amigos”, here).

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Puff Duck and friend (Image by BirdNation)

Keep an eye out for strange ducks! Happy duck watching!

Eclipse Plumage

Today, August 21, 2017, was a big astronomical event: the first total solar eclipse seen over the United States since 1918. The path of totality went through 14 states from the Pacific to Atlantic Coast, while the rest of the states could view a partial eclipse. Here in New Jersey, we could only see a partial eclipse. I didn’t buy special eclipse glasses so I couldn’t watch it directly. I did however, watch a live stream of the eclipse from South Carolina State Museum, which happened to be in the totality path. It was extremely cool to watch.

Although the eclipse happened at a specific time today, many people don’t realize that an “eclipse” of sorts has been occurring the last few weeks. Have you gone to your local lake or pond and notice that it seems like the male Mallards are “missing”? Many ducks molt their feathers twice a year, one of these times being mid/late-summer. At this time they go into dull-colored basic plumage, or what is referred to as eclipse plumage. For reference, a male duck is called a drake and a female duck is called a hen. In eclipse plumage, drakes take on a hen-like appearance.

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Drake (male) Mallard in Eclipse Plumage (Image by BirdNation)

All birds molt their feathers at some point during the year. For many birds, this takes place after breeding season and before migration. Molting is when old worn out feathers are replaced by new feathers. Many species undergo was is called a sequential molt. During a sequential molt, birds lose one flight feather at a time from the innermost primary feather to the wing tip. This allows the bird the ability to still be able to fly. Waterfowl, however, undergo what is referred to as simultaneous wing molt. As a result, waterfowl loses all their flight feathers at the same time and therefore lose their flying ability. This period of being flightless can last between 20 and 40 days depending on duck species.

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Wood Duck male in Eclipse Plumage (Image via wikimedia commons by Meidosensei)

Eclipse plumage acts as a camouflage for these flightless drakes. The drakes molt their bright colored plumage first, which is replaced by dull brown feathers. This gives them the hen-like appearance. When it comes to Mallards, it could be hard to tell whether you are seeing a hen or drake in eclipse plumage. The trick is to look at the bill. Drakes have yellow bills while hens have orange bills with black markings. Eclipse plumage only happens for a few weeks. After eclipse plumage Mallards will  go into “alternate”  plumage for the fall/winter.

So even though the total solar eclipse is over, you can still see some eclipse plumage with the ducks at your local pond.

Have you been seeing any eclipse plumage drakes lately? And did you watch the solar eclipse? Tell me about these things in the comments!