The Seabird’s Cry Book Review

Seabirds are some of the most fascinating creatures on Earth. Over millions of years, these birds have mastered life on the open ocean. Seabirds are an elusive group; it’s hard to study them because they only come ashore to breed.

A seabird is any bird that spends the majority or part of its life out on the open ocean. While the term “seabird” can describe a wide variety of birds, this group is most often used to describe the orders of Procellariiformes and Suliformes. Procellariiformes include petrels, albatrosses, shearwater, and storm-petrels, which are more commonly known as “tubenoses”. Suliformes include cormorants, boobies, gannets, and frigatebirds. Gulls, jaegers, skuas, auks, and penguins are also seabirds.

I recently read The Seabird’s Cry: The Lives and Loves of the Planet’s Great Ocean Voyagers
by Adam Nicolson. This beautifully-written book explores the lives of 10 species of seabirds. For each species, Nicolson explores not only how these birds live from a scientific standpoint, but how they touch the lives of people in emotional and spiritual ways. I particularly enjoyed reading some of the myths that native cultures tell about these fascinating creatures.

It’s clear that Nicolson loves the subjects he writes about. Adam Nicolson was born in England. During his childhood his father actually bought the Shiant Islands in the Outer Herbrides of Scotland, where Nicolson would watch puffins, fulmars, razorbills, shags, kittiwakes, and other seabirds breed. The Seabird’s Cry offers intimate accounts of the specie’s life, but also reminds us how fragile their lifestyles can be in an ever changing world of climate change.

I learned so many interesting facts in this book, so I wanted to share some of them with you. Below is one fact from each of the 10 species. You’ll just have to find out the rest when you read The Seabird’s Cry. šŸ™‚ 

  1. FulmarsĀ wereĀ knownĀ asĀ theĀ “foulĀ gulls”Ā toĀ theĀ Vikings,Ā sinceĀ they wouldĀ vomitĀ theĀ oilsĀ fromĀ theirĀ foodĀ asĀ aĀ defenseĀ mechanism.
  2. An adult puffin raising a chick will dive between 600 and 1,150 times per day to get sandeels, sprats, or capelin.
  3. Kittiwakes are the most populous gull, with approximately 18 million individuals in the Northern Hemisphere.
  4. Some gullĀ species have black heads instead of white heads. Studies found that gulls with black heads/faces actually scare other gulls, most likely to space out the breeding territory. Therefore, when black-headed gulls mate, they face away from each other to show their white bodies and use other senses during courtship such as smell and touch.
  5. A Newfoundland study found that “extramarital affairs” were fairly common among guillemots. However, females who had these affairs would typically end up being less successful breeders than males who had affairs.
  6. Cormorants and shags are most likely the closest in lifestyle and body-type to the first fossilized seabirds from about 100 million years ago.
  7. Shearwaters, like other “tubenoses” have large olfactory bulb and therefore a strong sense of smell. Phytoplankton, which is eaten by the shearwater’s prey krill, emit dimethyl sulfide (DMS). Young shearwaters are exposed to DMS in the burrow, so they are able to locate krill by smell when they go foraging. Unfortunately, plastics also emit DMS, so seabirds are accidentally eating plastic not because it looks like prey, but smells like prey.
  8. Gannets regularly fly over 350 miles or more while fishing.
  9. Razorbills are the living representatives of the largest seabird that ever lived in the Northern Hemisphere, the extinct Great Auk.
  10. Albatross have a lifespan of 60-80 years depending on the species. (Not from this book, but Wisdom, the 68-year-old albatross, laid an egg in December!)

What’s your favorite seabird? Tell me in the comment section! Mine is the Laysan Albatross.

Book Review: The Shorebird Guide

As birders, we’ve all been there: you’re at a beach or marsh and there’s a large group of shorebirds in the distance. You scan the flock with your spotting scope. There is definitely variation between the birds, however they seem similar. Are you seeing one species or a mixed flock? What’s a birder to do?

Consult The Shorebird Guide by Michael O’Brien, Richard Crossley, and Kevin Karlson. This guide is a fantastic resource for learning ways to identify shorebirds.

As the book begins, the authors explain that out of 217 shorebird species, about 50 are found regularly breeding in North America. Most birders will encounter about 35-40 of these species per year, so you’d think that it would be easier to learn to identify these species. However, many birders find shorebirds notoriously hard to identify. Plumage variation within a single species throughout the year depends on age and breeding status, which can be quite challenging. In addition, many times shorebirds are found at far distances, making it difficult to see their details.

O’Brien’s, Crossley’s and Karlson’s approach is not about the details, but the overall impression of the bird. Yes, plumage details are important, but in order to become better at shorebird id, one should first start with general size, shape, voice, and behavior. These characteristics are fundamental and less variable than plumage, so the more you practice birding by impression, the more accurate your identifications will become.

This field guide is split into four main sections. The introduction gives basic information about shorebirds in general, such as families, population threats, topography, molting, aging, and more detail about their identification approach.

I find the second section to be the most valuable: Species Photos. The top of each account shows a range map, the scientific name, size, structure, behavior, and status. There are 870 beautiful full color photos included in this guide. The variety of photos for each species is quite impressive. For each species there are close-ups, plumage variations, age variations, flocks at a distance, species in flight, and mixed species photos. Each photo has captions that go into detail about characteristics to look for, as well as some quiz questions to test your knowledge.

The third section is Species Accounts. This section has no photos. It includes information about status, migration, taxonomy, molting, vocalizations, and more details about behavior.

The final section features the appendix with the quiz answers and a glossary. I like that back cover contains silhouettes that are intended to be used as a quiz so you can practice.

I would highly recommend The Shorebird Guide to anyone who is interested in improving their shorebird identification skills.

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 aĀ 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)Ā 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,Ā  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.

hybrid duck 1
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).

puff duck and friend 1
Puff Duck and friend (Image by BirdNation)

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

Happy Owl-o-ween!

Happy Halloween everyone! Or should I say happy “Owl-o-ween” instead? I apologize that I didn’t have time to write an Owl Wednesday last week, so I wanted to make it up with a special owl post for Halloween.

Owls are mainly nocturnal, so many people associate them with darkness and mystery. At this time of year it’s not uncommon to the see owls in scary movies/shows and on Halloween decorations. It’s easy to see why people would find an owl in the night menacing. They have large glowing eyes, bellowing calls, and heads that they can make turn up to 270 degrees. Since ancient times, owls have fascinated cultures around the world and have become part of their folklore and superstitions.

Here are few spooky Halloween superstitions:

  • Owls and witches are often associated with each other. Some people believed that owls were used as messengers by sorcerers and witches. The Romans believed that witches could turn themselves into owls and swoop onto newborns to suck their blood.
  • The Hopi Indians believed that Burrowing Owls, calledĀ Ko’ko,Ā were the protectors of the Underworld and the gods of death.
  • Many cultures have associated owls with death. An Appalachian mountain legend states that if you hear an owl call after midnight then death is coming. Many European plays and poems use owls as the symbol for destruction and death. However, a British Isle legend states that if you find an owl feather, you can use it to repel the negative forces that seeing an owl can bring.
  • Owls are often connected with sorcery in parts of Africa. If an owl is tied to a house, then it’s said that a powerful shaman dwells there. Owls also help shamans communicate with the spirit world.
  • In England, an owl screeching on a cold night meant that there was an impending storm.

Not all legends about owls are negative though:

  • The Aborigines from Australia consider owls sacred and think they are the spirits of women. Therefore, if you see an owl on the way to harvest, it will be good year for crops.
  • Some Indian cultures, such as the Dakota Hidatsa and Lenape thought of owls as protective spirits and guardians, especially for brave warriors. The Tlingit tribe would go into battle hooting like owls to strike fear in their enemies.
  • Athena, the Greek Goddess of wisdom, choose the owl as her one of her favorite birds after banishing the mischievous crow. Her owl was the Little Owl (Athene noctua)Ā and they lived in abundance throughout the Acropolis.Ā Ā It was believed that owls had an “inner light” that gave them abilityĀ  to see in the dark. Athena’s owls were a symbols of guidance, protection, and wisdom. It was said that if an owl flew over a Greek army, then victory would be forthcoming.

Some of my favorite legends from the Pacific Northwest tribes are about the Raven, a magical creature who is considered both a hero and a trickster. There is anĀ  Inuit legend about the Raven and the Snowy Owl. Here’s one variation of this tale: the Raven and the Owl were making clothes for each other. The Raven made the Owl a lovely dress of black and white feathers. In return, the Owl made Raven whale-bone boots and a white dress. Owl tried to fit Raven’s dress, but Raven could not stay still. Owl became so frustrated that she threw a pot of lamp oil at Raven. The oil soaked through the dress and that’s how the Raven became black.


The folklore I listed above is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to owl mythology. Owls have been both admired and fear of hundreds of years, but through scientific research we know that owls are a vital part of the ecosystems in which they live. One thing is certain: that owls have captured our imaginations and will continue to do so.

Happy Owl-o-ween!

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(Image viaĀ animals.desktopnexus.com)
 

The Cardinal Family

This post is not about Northern Cardinals, it’s about Cardinals.

Wait…what?Ā That was probably your reaction, but it’s true: this post is about Cardinals, not Northern Cardinals.

Let’s backtrack for a moment. What do you think of when someone says the word “cardinal”? You probably think of a handsome bright red male with a black face and red bill or a beautiful reddish-brown female with a red-orange bill. Right?

Cardinals-image-cardinals-36106940-425-300
Cardinal Pair (Image via fanpop.com)

The cardinal we’re most familiar with is the Northern Cardinal, of which I described above. But what if I told you that the Northern Cardinal is not the only cardinal around? Ā And that cardinals can have other names, such as Scarlet Tanager or Blue Grosbeak?Ā (Now you’re probably completely confused haha)

Many people don’t realized that the term “Cardinal” is used to describe a whole family of birds. The family name isĀ Cardinalidae,Ā which consists of 18Ā speciesĀ and 7Ā generaĀ (in North America that is. Worldwide there are 52 species in 11 genera).Ā This family includes grosbeaks, tanagers, and buntings, as well as the Northern Cardinal which bears the family name and its Southwestern cousin, the Pyrrhuloxia.

As with all families, members of the Cardinal family have similar characteristics. These include:

  • Bright and boldly colored males, females with brown tones
  • Small to medium-sized, with stock bodies and relatively short tails, with males being slightly larger
  • Stout conical bills (finch-like)
  • Being primarily found in woodlands, brushy areas, and hedgrows
  • Primarily feeding on fruits and seeds in the winter and insects and larvae in the summer
  • Building cup-shaped nests in shrubs of trees
  • Musical songs with whistled or warbled phrases, sharp and distinct calls (some females, such as the Northern Cardinal, Black-headed Grosbeak, and Pyrrhuloxia, sing too)

The following Cardinals are found in North America:

  • GenusĀ Piranga:Ā Hepatic Tanager, Summer Tanager, Scarlet Tanager, Western Tanager, Flame-colored Tanager
  • Genus Pheucticus:Ā Rose-breasted Grosbeak, Black-headed Grosbeak
  • GenusĀ Rhodothraupis:Ā Crimson-collard Grosbeak
  • GenusĀ Cardinalis:Ā Northern Cardinal, Pyrrhuloxia
  • GenusĀ Cyanocompsa:Ā Blue Bunting
  • GenusĀ Passerina:Ā Blue Grosbeak, Lazuli Bunting, Indigo Bunting, Varied Bunting, Painted Bunting
  • GenusĀ Spiza:Ā Dickcissel

So the next time someone says something like “Hey, did you see a cardinal? “ or “Do you like cardinals?” you can answer back with Ā “What kind?” (and really confuse them like I did in the beginning of this post). Then you can teach all your friends about the fascinating world of the family Cardinalidae :-).

What’s your favorite member of the Cardinalidae family? Tell me in the comments. (Mine are the Indigo Bunting, Scarlet Tanager, and of course, the beloved Northern Caridnal)