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.

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. 🙂 

  1. Fulmars were known as the “foul gulls” to the Vikings, since they would vomit the oils from their food as a defense 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 gull 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.

The Warbler Guide

Dave and I were getting ready to go on a birding trip. We were going to Hawk Mountain, so I wanted to bring our small Canon camera instead of the DSLR since it’s easier to carry around. Dave usually keeps the Canon in his sock drawer, in the left corner right on top. I opened up the drawer, but the camera wasn’t there. I started pushing socks around.

And then there it was. Nope, not the camera. The Warbler Guide. The book that Dave and I were looking at in Barnes and Nobles a few weeks earlier.

My first thought was Oops. I found my Christmas gift.”  I felt slightly panicked. Then my second thought was one of excitement: “He bought me The Warbler Guide!” . I realized I had to try and act cool to pretend that I didn’t find the book. So I quickly closed the drawer said “Hey Dave, I can’t find the camera, can you help me find it?” I started petting our cat Jenny who happened to be sitting nearby to try to take my mind off of what I found. It was hard to contain my excitement. I guess I did a pretty bad job of it because a few minutes later Dave asked, “Did you see something in my drawer?”

I admitted that yes, I did find the book. He told me that I could have it early since he planned on getting another thing for Christmas too. Dave and I can never actually wait until the holiday to give each other gifts anyway (we get too excited and can’t keep the secret) so we always give gifts early. I’ll consider it a Thanksgiving gift lol :-).

The Warbler Guide is amazing. Written by Tom Stephenson and Scott Whittle, it won a National Outdoor Book Award in Nature Guidebooks in 2014. If you are serious about learning to identify North American warblers, then this is the book for you. This guide is extremely detailed. I am already in love with it.

warbler-guide

The first section of the book is called “What to Notice on a Warbler”. This section focuses color and contrast, behavior, the face, the body, and the undertail . There are many pictures to help explain the key identification points. One of my favorite parts of this section is “the face”, where the authors goes deeper into significant facial features such as eye rings, cheek patches, superciliums (a.k.a the “eyebrow”), and more.

Another section is titled “How to Listen to Warbler Songs”. This section explores the elements that create warbler songs. The authors use audio spectrograms (a.k.a sonograms) to show harmonics, song stucture, and phrases. This chapter explains in detail how to read the spectrograms, but later in the book you can explore the spectrograms of each individual species in this book.

The largest section of this guide is the individual species accounts. Instead of putting the warblers in taxonomic order like other field guides, the authors decided to put the birds in alphabetical order. They explained in the beginning of the book they did this because the taxonomy of warblers has significantly changed recently, and some of the warblers in question are still not settled. The authors also felt it would be easier to find the warbler you need if the birds were listed alphabetically.

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Example of a Species Account (Tom Stephenson and Scott Whittle, published by Princeton University Press)

Each species accounts are about 3-6 pages long with numerous pictures. Information provided includes physical descriptions, range maps, photos of distinct views/many additional photos, comparison species (with photos), aging and sexing, and spectograms (with comparison to other species). There are a few features in each account that you usually don’t see in other field guides such as undertail patterns, preferred habit in trees (high canopy, understory, ground, etc), a color diagram, and behavior icons. All this information is easy to read and well organized.

Other great features of this book include quizzes to test you id skills, habitat and behavior charts, a taxonomy chart, descriptions and diagrams of flight patterns, silhouettes broken down by region, and species accounts of similar non-warbler species.

My favorite feature is the “quick finder section”. The quick finder section are all illustrations. The “quick finders” include faces, side views, 45 degree views, under views, seasonal plumage views, types of undertails, and song finder charts.

The Warbler Guide has a wealth of information for serious birders. It’s well organized and has hundreds of great pictures to show key identification parts. There’s a website listed in the back of the book where you can access additional resources. You can also purchase for iTunes the audio tracks that are featured in the book, so you can study the spectograms while listening. I think it’s an essential book for anyone who wants to explore the wonderful world of North American Warblers. I can’t wait to devour the information in this book.

And who knows, this may be the perfect gift for the warbler lover in you life. Just make sure you hide it better than Dave did :-P.

Living on the Edge

“Does losing one more bird matter?”

This question was asked by author Deborah Cramer in her book The Narrow Edge: A Tiny Bird, An Ancient Crab, and an Epic Journey.

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(Image via amazon.com)

In The Narrow Edge, Cramer explores this question through documenting the journey of the Red Knot, a tiny shorebird. She focuses on Calidris Canutus rufa, one of the six subspecies of Red Knots worldwide. The rufa species uses most of the Atlantic Flyway for their migration route from South America to the Arctic. It’s an extremely long journey – around 19,000 miles round trip- and a dangerous one. Cramer sets out to learn about the obstacles the Red Knots face by traveling the migration route with them.

The journey begins on the beach of  Bahía Lomas in Tierra del Fuego, located at the southern end of South America. She refers to this place as the first “rung on the ladder” for the Knot’s epic migration. From the start, the population of rufas is lower than in the past. They continue up the coast, briefly stopping in Brazil to refuel before landing in Delaware Bay.

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A Red Knot at Delaware Bay (Image by Bill Dalton via conservewildlifenj.org)

Although our trip started with Red Knots, there is another creature involved. Enter the horseshoe crab. Considered “living fossils” by some, they have changed very little in the last 445 million years. Red Knots rely eating the horseshoe crab’s eggs to help them complete their migration to the Arctic. However, horseshoe crab populations on the East Coast of the United States have been decimated over the years, due to being used as bait, fertilizer, and for biomedical research.

Horseshoe crab’s blood is copper-based (and therefore blue), as opposed to our iron-based blood. Scientist learned that horseshoe crab’s blood is highly sensitive to endotoxins. Amebocytes from their blood is used for the endotoxin  detector LAL (limulus amebocyte lysate). Humans rely on the crab’s blood to make sure medicines and devices such as IVs are free from harmful bacteria.

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© Hans Hillewaert via wikipedia.com

Delaware Bay use to overflow with horseshoe crabs and shorebirds, but the last few decades have been much quieter. Cramer discovers this is having an impact on how many shorebirds make it to the Arctic, a region already threatened tremendously by climate change. Cramer spends 3 1/2 weeks with a team of scientists tracking shorebird nests in the Arctic, then heads back south to James Bay, Ontario. This is where she ends her migration trip, but journey continues for the Red Knots.

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Red Knots and Horseshoe Crabs in Georgia (Image by Brad Winn, Manomet via shorebirdscience.org)

The Narrow Edge is a fascinating book. Cramer presents the struggle of the Red Knots and horseshoe crabs by combining history, scientific evidence, and personal stories (from herself and other). She doesn’t just focus on Red Knots and horseshoe crabs, however. When she asks if losing another bird matters, she reminds the reader that every species is interconnected, a notion that many humans tend of forget.

She goes on to say, “The loss of a bird can reverberate through a food web, touching its many strands in ways we have only begun to measure.”

The loss of any species, whether or not they are birds, can have a negative impact on the rest of the ecosystem in which it lives. So many animals and plants in the natural world are living on the edge, just like the Red Knots and horseshoe crabs that Cramer writes about. She brings up many ecological and conservation issues, such as the value of the natural world to humans, ocean acidification, global warming, and habitat loss. The solutions to these problems are complex, and although Cramer alone cannot offer solutions, she presents what we already know and what is currently being done.

Cramer wants us to remember that humans are interconnected with nature as well.  Our actions do have an impact on all forms of life, from the Red Knots to the tiniest insects to the largest mammals. Although the stakes are high, horseshoe crabs and Red Knots continue to persist the best they can. Through Cramer’s cautious warning, there is a glimmer of hope. If conservation of all life becomes more of a focus, maybe someday we can persist like the Red Knots and create a healthier Earth.

(If you want more information about the Red Knots and climate change in addition to the book, you can check out an article written by Deborah Cramer for the May/June 2016 issue of Audubon Magazine. It’s called Red Knots are Battling Climate Change- On Both Ends of the Earth.)

The Most Perfect Thing

I am a pretty avid reader, and as you might guess, I spend a lot of time reading about birds. I decided that I wanted to share these books with you. So today is the first BirdNation book review. If you read this blog I assume that you have an interest in birds, so I thought you may find some worthwhile reading material through this feature.

I just finished reading The Most Perfect Thing: Inside (and Outside) a Bird’s Egg by Tim Birkhead. Tim Birkhead is a British zoologist and works at the University of Sheffield as a professor of behavior and evolution. He has written numerous book about birds and their behaviors, including the popular Bird Sense in 2012. In this book, Tim Birkhead takes you on a journey of how the egg is developed. The journey begins in late 19th century England with oologist (a scientist who studies bird eggs) George Lupton. George Lupton had an extensive collection of Common Guillemot eggs, which are now in the Natural History Museum in Tring, Hertfordshire, England. Birkhead refers to George Lupton and Common Guillemots as his prime example throughout the text. Along the way we learn about other scientists who made contributions to bird biology and egg production, as well as learn about the eggs of numerous bird species.

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The Most Perfect Thing by Tim Birkhead (Image by BirdNation)

Birkhead starts with the outside of the egg and work his way in. The first few chapters talk about the structure and physical appearance: egg shape, shell thickness, and color. There are two chapters concerning color. Birkhead first talks about how eggs become the colors they do and then talks about why.

The middle chapters of the book are about what happens inside the egg and focus on the albumen and the yolk. The albumen, also know as the “egg white”, forms around the yolk. It provides nutrients for the embryo and protects the yolk. The albumen is mainly 90% water and 10% proteins. The egg yolk is the primary food supply for the embryo. Birkhead goes into detail about these subjects and there are detailed diagrams throughout the book to help the readers visualize these features.

The final sections of the book are all about laying, incubating, and hatching. Topics explored include how the egg leaves the oviduct (where eggs travel from the ovaries to outside the body), incubation lengths of different species, and the process of how the chick leaves the egg (which is not as quick as you would think!).

The Most Perfect Thing is a fascinating book. Although everyone is familiar with eggs, many people don’t know about the process of egg formation and hatching, so it’s an eye-opening and amazing process to learn about. I would recommend this book to anyone who is interesting in learning about the science behind eggs. It is not a leisurely read, however. Besides the history portions about Lupton and other scientists/studies, most of this book reads like a text book. One thing I like about Tim Birkhead is his ability to make these scientific studies accessible and easy to understand to casual readers as well as more science-minded individuals. Even if you are a casual reader, I recommend this book if you are into learn about bird biology and want to know more the science of eggs. There are so many amazing thing to learn through this book. I’m sure by the end you’ll agree that the bird egg is as close as you can come to The Most Perfect Thing.