Happy Lunar New Year!

It’s the first day the Lunar New Year. Known as the Spring Festival, the Lunar New Year occurs on the second new Moon after the Winter Solstice. Although Lunar New Year is celebrated in many Asian countries, the most popular version of this celebration is Chinese New Year.

An important part of the new year is the Chinese Zodiac. The Chinese zodiac is a repeating 12-year cycle. Each year is represented by an animal and its characteristics. The 12 animals (in order) are: Rat, Ox, Tiger, Rabbit, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Goat, Monkey, Rooster, Dog, and Pig. 2018 is the Year of the Dog, and 2017 was the Year of the Rooster.

Luck plays an large role in Chinese culture. Many Chinese believe in surrounding themselves with lucky symbols and objects to increase their prosperity and joy. It’s said that you are unlucky during your animal year, but there are things you can do to increase your luck.

We have one bird in the Chinese Zodiac: the Rooster (last year’s animal). The Rooster is a lucky bird because it sound similar to the Chinese word for lucky, or . Roosters represent loyalty, courage, confidence, honesty, and being hard working. These birds also epitomize the Sun God, since they crow every morning when the Sun rises.

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Rooseter By Žiga (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
Here are a three more important birds in Chinese culture:

Phoenix:

In Western cultures, the mythical phoenix rises from the ashes and exemplifies rebirth. However, the Chinese phoenix is not related to the Western one. In Chinese culture, the phoenix is the king of all birds. They are messengers of happiness and only appear in times of prosperity and peace. The phoenix consists of the wings of a golden cockerel, the head of a peakcock, and the body of a swan. The name of phoenix, feng hunag, means “male bird, female bird”. As a result, the phoenix represents the union of masculinity and femininity, or ying and yang.

The phoenix is often pictured with another important mythical Chinese creature, the Dragon. These creatures together represent the Emperor and Empress. This bird is also extremely docile and signifies high moral standards.

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Fenghuang (Image via ficspecies.wikia.com)

Crane:

Cranes are one of the culture’s most favored birds, second only to the phoenix. They represent longevity, wisdom, purity, and peace. Two cranes together means a wish for a long marriage and a crane flying towards the Sun means social advancement or ambition. Cranes also signify authority, so cranes were embroidered onto the robes of Imperial officials. According to Chinese legend, cranes carry departed spirits to heaven.

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Red-crowned Cranes (Image via tumbler)

Mandarin Duck

Mandarin Ducks are said mate for life, so they represent long term love and marriage. They also symbolize happiness, especially if lotus flowers are depicted along with the ducks. These birds are very common on wedding gifts and cards.

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Mandarin Ducks (Image via factzoo.com/birds)
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Image via christmas-new-year-quotes.com

 


The birds listed above are only some of the many important bird symbols in Chinese culture. If you like this topic, let me know and I can highlight some more of them. 

 

 

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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)

 

Ready to Count Some Birds?

Are you ready for the Great Backyard Bird Count? It’s only a few days away!

The 21st annual Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC) is Friday, February 16 to Monday, February 19. This worldwide citizen science project is organized by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology in partnership with the National Audubon Society.

Participating is easy as 1-2-3!

  1. Pick any location.
  2. Spend at least 15 minutes in that location and count as many birds as you can.
  3. Submit your findings on ebird.org

And voilà! You just had tons of fun and helped scientists at the same time!

Wait…how did you help scientists?

The data that you submit on eBird is used by scientists to keep track of  bird populations in real time. The count takes place in February so ornithologists can see where birds are before spring migration occurs. The data collected also helps them understand how weather/climate change/diseases affect the timing of migration and  to observe the avian biodiversity in different habitats around the world. As data builds up each year, scientists are able to compare how populations have been influenced over a longer period of time.

In 2017, birders from over 100 countries reported more than 6,200 species of birds in the 4-day period. That’s over half of the world’s bird species!

I can’t wait to see what the 2018 GBBC brings. I will be reporting the findings of our bird count throughout the weekend as I have done in past years. I hope you’ll join me and the thousands of other birders this weekend for this awesome event!

Find out more at gbbc.birdcount.org. Let me know in the comments if you plan to participating!

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Photo courtesy of the gbbc.birdcount.org

 

 

 

 

Starting Right at the Light

Dave and I took our first Barnegat Light trip of 2018 on Sunday, February 4. It was a chilly, windy, and overcast day. We left right before the afternoon rain started to fall, but we did see a decent amount of species.

On the jetty we came across this young gull with a sea urchin test. A test is a skeletal structure made of calcium carbonate. It contributes to the sea urchin’s five-fold symmetry and helps protect the internal organs. After a minute or two the gull dropped the test and flew away, since it turns out that it was already empty.  As far as the gull itself, I’m going to venture and say 2nd winter Great Black-backed Gull, but I’m not 100% (don’t quote me on it, I’m still studying my gulls! They’re tricky to id lol).

gull with test

Other birds found on the jetty included other Great Black-backed Gulls, Herring Gulls, Ruddy Turnstones, and Purple Sandpipers.

Dave took a few pictures of a Purple Sandpiper taking a bath on one of the rocks.

In Barnegat Inlet we watched Common Loons, Red-breasted Mergansers, Common Goldeneye, Common Eiders, and Harlequin Ducks float and feed.

On the beach there were a few American Crows and a small flock of Snow Buntings zipping around.

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Snow Buntings (Image by David Howoritz)
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American Crow (Image by David Horowitz)

It was a nice way to start off our Barnegat Light trips for 2018.

E-A-G-L-E-S Eagles!

I’m not much of a football fan, but I do have enjoy watching the Super Bowl. Many bird sites like to post about SuperbOwl Sunday,  but this year the Philadelphia Eagles are in the championship game. I live close to Philly, so I’m right in the middle of Eagles country. So in honor of the fact that the birds are in the Super Bowl, here are some fun facts about Bald Eagles, the team’s mascot.

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Bald Eagles (Image by Pasquale Gabrielli via picanimals.com)
  • Bald Eagles are known for their distinctive white heads/tails, dark bodies, and yellow bill/legs. This is actually the adult plumage. Juvenile eagles are all brown and mottled on their body to various degrees. Each year they gain more white feather until the reach their full adult plumage around the age of 5.
  • Fish is the main staple of the Bald Eagle. They are opportunistic and will eat carrion, as well as birds, mammals, amphibians, and invertebrates. They will also try to pirate food off Ospreys or fish-eating mammals.
  • The Bald Eagle has been the national emblem of the United States since 1782.
  • Mate selection begins around the age of 4, and breeding pairs will stay together for life. Both sexes will contribute to making a nest, with the female focusing on stick placement.
  • Bald Eagles construct some of the biggest nests in the world. They can be as tall as 2-4 feet and as wide as 5-6 feet. An eagle pair use the same nest for many years, often adding sticks to it each year.
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Juvenile Bald Eage (Image by CleberBirds via allaboutbird.org)

 

  • The record for the largest Bald Eagle nest was 9 feet, 6 inches in diameter and 20 feet deep! It was located in St. Petersburg, Florida.
  • Bald Eagles are usually solitary birds. In the winter, they will congregate in large groups, especially if there is a salmon spawn.
  • Bald Eagles are known for one of the most dazzling mating displays. A pair will lock talons and rapidly descend to the ground in a dizzying spiral. They will release their talons before hitting the ground.
  • While diving, eagles can reach speeds of up to 100 miles per hour.
  • Bald Eagles represent one of the greatest success stories in bird conservation. In the 1978, these birds were added to the Endangered Species Act, mainly due to exposure to the harmful chemical DDT.  After DDT was banned, populations began to rebound through the 1980s. By the 1990s breeding populations started to become more established. They were removed from the Endangered Species List in 2007. However, they still face threats from overdevelopment, lead ammunition, and collisions with vehicles.
  • Alaska is home to the highest number of Bald Eagles in North America, with a population of around 70,000. Other states with high Bald Eagle populations include Florida, Wisconsin, and Minnesota.

Here’s hoping the birds win! Either way, Bald Eagles are still majestic and amazing birds. Fly, Eagles, fly! 🦅

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Bald Eagle By AWWE83 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

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!