Showing posts with label Birds. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Birds. Show all posts

Sunday, December 19, 2021

Silent Fall -- A Question About Songbirds

There was a question earlier this fall about the scarcity of songbirds on birdfeeders. Casey, whom I've known since our days on the Princeton Environmental Commission, wrote me on October 21:

"I am curious about the lack of birds - any birds - in our yard and on our feeders. It has been a couple of days now since I've seen any at all. Even walking down on the boardwalk across from the Great Road was silent yesterday. Clearly worrisome. Do you have any thoughts or theories? I figure if anyone does it will be you!"

Well, though I am out in nature a lot, I'm pretty absorbed in plant life and don't tend to notice birds unless they make themselves heard or seen. Our backyard is full of native plants to offer seed and berries, but we don't get around to stocking the birdfeeder. There are times, though, this summer and fall, when I've wondered if past years had been so quiet. 

I reached out to some friends who are close observers of birdlife, and got contrasting responses. This from neighbor Pat Palmer, who is a keen observer of birds in her backyard:

"We have a variety of birds, but far fewer than in previous years. It is migration season, so I think we are not seeing as many migrants as in previous years, but may only be seeing our resident local birds (due to our feeder).

Two (I think) years ago, there were so few birds in fall that we were in despair, but some came back by winter and it has been moderate since then. I would say last year was more (in fall) than the previous year. And this year is less than last year.

There is no doubt in my mind that this is a sign of declining numbers of songbirds. Just about the saddest thing I can imagine. We diligently feed and groom our yard to be good songbird habitat, and still so very few. 

We have two bird houses that used to fully occupied 365 days a year. They sometimes have sparrows, sometimes wrens. This year, no occupants. That is ominous. We did have a wren but it was just passing through. We have a few sparrows but they don't use the houses.

We are watching the natural world start to suffer from all the pollution in the environment, as well as climate change, I think."
Laurie Larson, who maintains the website for Princeton's birding mecca, Rogers Refuge, sent a different take on the situation: 
"I have people asking me about that as well. This summer’s weather was good for growing natural bird food… In years of abundant fruit and seed production, birds prefer natural foods over feeders. Wait until the berries and rose hips are gone, and the birds will probably return.

And have you noticed a lot of Blue Jays this year? Not at feeders, but in the woods. Some parts of the state are enjoying a huge acorn crop, and that always attracts Blue Jays."
I don't see these two responses as contradictory, but as part of a larger phenomenon driven by the supercharging of the atmosphere with carbon dioxide--a 50% rise in CO2 concentration since the beginning of the industrial revolution. The warmer weather allows us to work outdoors deeper into fall and winter. Some species are benefitting from the abundant summer rains. And yet along with this autumn comfort and productivity there is a dread, a sense of foreboding, at the radical changes being unleashed. 

Tuesday, October 05, 2021

What to Think of Black Vultures?

The other day, I was thinking about how much I love chipmunks, and how much my sister hates them. How do we reach opposite opinions about the same animal? Are the chipmunks that now run amok in her vegetable garden the same chipmunks I fondly remember from childhood, scampering over rocks, their cheeks puffed out with their latest gleaning of nuts? 

Vultures also tend to get mixed reviews. Some find them creepy; others laud their soaring skills and their ecological role of cleanup crew. There are two types in Princeton--the common turkey vultures and the less common black vultures that have been expanding their range to the north over time. Many people look up, see a bird soaring, and think it must be a hawk. More often it's a vulture, usually a turkey vulture, which is black with a feint streak of silver along the back of the underside of its wing. Black vultures' wings from below appear to be tipped with silver.

For years, black vultures have perched on the chimneys of the Veblen Cottage at Herrontown Woods. At first we considered them a bad omen, but then as we learned more about them we gained respect and began to appreciate their presence. The photo is by Julie Tennant, a neighbor to the preserve who has taken an interest in the birds. The vulture still has a ring of fluffy immature feathers around its neck.

Each spring a pair of black vultures raises its young in the corncrib next to the cottage. People of course want to take a peek inside to see the chicks, but we worry that loose dogs and too many visitors could ultimately scare the vultures away.
It looked like that had come to pass this summer when the vultures disappeared for awhile, but then we saw a chick out for a walk on the cottage grounds, its plumage very much in transition.
Four years ago, one of the two chicks was slow to mature, causing the family to linger far longer than usual, often perching on the chimneys of the Veblen Cottage. We were won over by the patience the parents showed as they waited for the second chick to mature.
It was odd, then, having learned to care about the vulture family, to encounter an article in the NY Times entitled 
"Black Vulture Attacks on Animals May Be Increasing." Ranchers out in the midwest are claiming they are losing newborn livestock to black vultures that have been moving north into new territory. 

It's not clear from the article whether the ranchers are losing healthy livestock, or if the vultures are moving in on calves that were stillborn or dying. 

We're used to thinking of animals as occupying distinct categories. Predators kill, scavengers do not. But it would be interesting to explore how much overlap there is between the two roles. I've been struck by how black vultures's bodies look more raptor-like than the bodies of turkey vultures. And there's a bird we'd see along roadsides in Patagonia called the Chimango caracara. By its appearance it looks like a hawk, and yet it more often plays the role of a scavenger.

American black vultures are also expanding their range in Patagonia, potentially competing with Andean condors for food. Articles like these could work against the trend of our feelings about black vultures, which in Herrontown Woods have evolved towards affection. For us, they are fascinating birds, wild and yet drawn to live on the edge of our world, raising their young, and perching on the roof of nearby All Saints Church. (photo by Peter Thompson)

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

The Saga of the Black Vulture Family Continues

Now we know what the Muppets creators used as a model for Big Bird. This is one of two black vulture fledglings born this summer at the Veblen farmstead in Herrontown Woods. In this photo, it's perched on the first story roof of the Veblen Cottage, which almost got demolished this summer, but it looks like we'll now have a chance to save it. There are many ways in which culture intersects with and complements nature at Herrontown Woods, and this is one of them. "Big Bird's" parents--black vultures mate for life and are unusually attentive parents--have been seen around the farmstead for years. Our attention being on other things, this is the first year we've actually witnessed their young.

The farmstead's version of Big Bird is the weaker of the two fledglings, which two days ago were together perching on the cottage, with the healthier one on top of the chimney. That Big Bird somehow found the flying capacity to make it up on the first floor roof is a new accomplishment.

The reason for the parents' absence was made more clear the next morning, when I received an email from birder Laurie Larson. She had just passed by a roadkilled deer near the intersection of 27 and River Road, on the lawn of the Princeton Church of Christ. Some people are ambulance chasers. Taking an interest in vultures means becoming a roadkill chaser, at least for a day.

There were seven black vultures and 3 turkey vultures performing their custodial function on the carcass.

Just getting out of a car 100 feet away was enough to send most of them flying up to ornament the church's cross.

A few continued eating, though. This photo contrasts the heads of a turkey vulture and a black vulture. Turkey vultures are better at soaring, and have a keen sense of smell that allows them to detect dead animals beneath dense tree cover. The black vultures are more dapper, with keen eyes but lousy sense of smell. They often depend on the turkey vultures for finding the food, then shoulder their way in to share in the feast.

Though no juveniles were partaking of roadkill (do they need to lose their facial fuzz first, for sanitation purposes?), the stronger juvenile was missing from nearby Herrontown Woods. In its place was one of the parents, which might have brought some food back for the still stranded juvenile to enjoy, via regurgitation.

Interestingly, the vultures are much less skittish at the cottage, watching us calmly as we watch them from down on the ground. With a good zoom lens, it's possible to inspect the odd growths on their beaks, which seem like they could be a way of telling them apart.

We'll see if Big Bird gains the wherewithal to fly. Clearly the parents haven't given up.

There's lots of interesting info about vultures on the web. New World vultures are not closely related to Old World vultures, but have evolved to similar forms to perform similar ecological functions. One website, with "16 Things You Might Not Know About Vultures," at, works to save rhinos and other endangered species. I've emailed them to see if they know Esmond Bradley Martin, who we discovered is a descendant of Andrew Carnegie's childhood friend and business partner Henry Phipps, Jr, and a grandstepson of the builders of Veblen House who has devoted his life to saving rhinos and elephants from extinction.

The adventure of discovering and learning about all the characters associated one way or another with Veblen House and Herrontown Woods continues.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Black Vultures Close Up--A Photoshoot and Princeton History

Black vultures four--who could ask for anything more? Okay, there are just three in this family photo. We'll get to the fourth one in a minute. This past Sunday, prior to a work session clearing invasive shrubs in Herrontown Woods, and equipped with better cameras, we returned to Veblen Cottage to check in on the black vulture family mentioned in a previous post.

I guess family values aren't the first thing that comes to mind when people think of vultures, but these black vultures are a tight-knit group. That's mom and pop on the right, with the wrinkly skin on their heads (best not to sully any feathers when dipping one's head daintily into rotting carcasses). Hard to know which parent is which. Vultures don't flaunt their sexual identity. And that's a fledgling on the left, still with baby fuzz on the head.

Family means something for black vultures. On this AllAboutBirds site, they are described by the writer as "one of my favorite birds." He describes their characteristic flight pattern: a few beats of the wings followed by a glide." "Highly social birds with fierce family loyalty," he says, "Black Vultures share food with relatives, feeding young for months after they’ve fledged." It may not be coincidence that, in this serendipitous photoshoot, the parents gave their fledgling the top perch on the chimney.

As we snapped photos from below, the birds were surprisingly cooperative, adopting various poses, from noble, to domestic, to nobly domestic.

Laurie Larson, longtime birder in Princeton who has tracked population numbers over the years as part of the Christmas Bird Count (her data and stories below), suggested the fledgling bears a striking resemblance to Voltaire. People have long suspected a ghost residing in the rather disheveled Veblen Cottage. Was it Veblen himself? Einstein? Now we know.

While the three vultures were preening for the camera up on the chimney of the cottage, another fledgling, looking a bit down and out, was hiding in the corn crib. It didn't seem to be able to fly up to join its kin on the chimney.

When I approached, it shuffled out of the corn crib and hid in the brush.

Laurie's Voltaire comparison is spot on, but I also see something of Art Garfunkle here.

As an aside, given that the photos were taken at the Veblen Cottage at Herrontown Woods, Oswald Veblen died on the brink of the 60s era, but Garfunkel, who performed last year in Princeton, shares Veblen's broad interest in math, architecture and great books. Garfunkel initially majored in architecture, and completed coursework for a PhD in math education while part of Simon and Garfunkel. His interest for numbers expressed itself early on as a fascination with the rise of hits on the pop charts. He has kept a full and public accounting of books he has read, including Voltaire in 1969. He also has that second banana status, which Veblen knew well from living, perhaps contentedly enough, in the shadow of his more famous uncle Thorstein and science icons like Einstein and von Neumann. Part of the joy of the Herrontown Woods project is rediscovering the value of forgotten buildings and legacies that have long flown beneath most people's radar.

Here's the farmstead's little barn and corncrib, whose impending demolition earlier this year by the county, along with all the other Veblen buildings, seemed unstoppable until so many people in the community spoke out to support an initiative by Friends of Herrontown Woods ( to save them. Fortunately, for the black vultures as well as the history of Herrontown Woods, Princeton town council swooped in, raptor-like, and snatched victory from the jaws of defeat. FOHW is now working on an agreement with the town to repair and sustain the buildings, while, of course, continuing habitat and trail work, and snapping photos of the local wildlife.

It's funny about the black vultures. They've provided a somewhat haunting presence around the farmstead for years. Not sure what to do with the connotations they carry, we tried to pay them little mind, preferring to talk about the flashy pileated woodpeckers and the elusive great-horned owl. But maybe it's time to give the vultures their due. They are a cleansing force in the universe. They deal with stuff no one else wants to deal with. They find sustenance in unlikely places, and extend the food chain one link further. They're faithful and diligent parents.

I liked this pose, two generations on a branch.

In the distance, you can see the other parent perched on the chimney of the cottage. This was just before they assembled for the group shots on the chimney.

The vultures appreciate the Veblen Cottage's classic design with a chimney at either end. If they knew, they'd appreciate its "balloon" construction, too, meaning the studs extend from the foundation all the way up to the roof. Balloon construction, according to one builder I spoke to, explains why the cottage is still standing, after so much neglect.

Any good photo shoot includes grooming behavior. The parents groomed the juvenile; the juvenile groomed the parents.

One adult aimed for the noble raptor look, confirming the AllAboutBirds writer's view that these vultures are "almost dapper."

Things got downright statuesque here, with the juvenile taking the parents under its wings.

Five days later, we were standing in the Veblen House driveway in late morning when we heard a great ruckus in the treetops behind the barn, not far from the cottage. My friend was giving me advice about fixing up the Veblen House. He didn't have much time, and what he was saying was important. I dismissed the ruckus in the treetops as small birds hassling a crow or hawk or owl. I continued to listen to my friend as the calls reached a blood curdling frenzy. Life was on the line, be it a bird or squirrel. We headed over to take a look just as a large black bird flew off down the hill, the noise fading behind. It looked large enough to have been an eagle.

We walked over to the cottage, and found the second juvenile had been hiding in the crawlspace. It came out and walked ahead of us around the corner,

then hopped onto the old kitchen sink and spread its wings, looking our way, as if to impress us, then hopped down and headed towards the corncrib.

Later, I grew concerned about what might have transpired in the treetops. Who was the aggressor and who was the victim? Eagles are one of the few predators of black vultures, which in turn occasionally prey on weak or injured animals. Was that large dark bird that flew off a vulture, and had it been on the attack or defending its own fledgling? Black vultures lack vocal organs, so the mortal cries must have been generated by something else.

It occurred that the reason the vultures had been so patient with our photoshoot five days prior was that they were lingering at the cottage to guard the weaker fledgling, hoping it would find the strength to join them in flight.

I returned to the Veblen Cottage the next day to find the vultures gone. After years of trying to ignore them, I suddenly felt their absence.

Thanks to Laurie Larson for the additional info below on black vultures in Princeton. The black vulture, according to another member of the Friends of Rogers Refuge who keeps careful records, Tom Southerland, was first seen in Princeton on March 2, 1980, as part of a general expansion of range northward into the northeast. He noted that they "sleep in later" than the turkey vultures. Vultures in general have a good excuse for sleeping in, given that the thermals don't get going until the sun's a good ways up.

One of the great draws of Princeton for vultures in general back then was the Winant Farm, later preserved with a conservation easement in 2002 as Coventry Farm, between Mountain Lakes and the Great Road. Mrs. Winant in particular loved vultures, and provided a place where police could leave roadkilled deer for the vultures to eat. Roadkill back then was a steadily increasing problem, as the deer population continued to climb until professional culling was finally begun in 2000 under Mayor Marshand. The dramatic circling of dozens (hundreds?) of vultures over the Winant Farm drew a lot of attention to the birds back when black vultures were first arriving on a scene long dominated by turkey vultures, and led to some careful documentation of their numbers, which Laurie provides, below.
Here is everything I know about Princeton Vultures. I was fascinated with them back in the day. The Coventry Farm roost built up during the 1980s. Originally it was all Turkey Vultures; Black Vultures first appeared in 1984 and their numbers rose steadily, although on our Christmas Bird Counts the Turkey Vultures were always in the majority. The all-time high count of Turkey Vultures for the Princeton count circle still stands at 615, in 1986, which was one of the years Jim Williams and I counted the Coventry Farm vultures. That year, Black Vultures were at 79; the first appearance of the species in the Princeton count was just 2 years earlier at 38, and they peaked in 1994 at 102, with 257 Turkey Vultures, still in the same area/same counters.  The present high count for Black Vultures is now 116, from 2008; I was the compiler at that time. I believe that was a composite of several roosts, including two in Kingston/Griggstown and others around the circle. The roost at Coventry farm didn't exist any more by that time. I moved to Montgomery in 2001 and others began covering the northwest-Princeton territory. It has gone uncounted in recent years except for someone who does Mountain Lakes.
Vultures aren't necessarily easy to count. We worked hard to get exact numbers during that period when the Black Vultures exploded into NJ. Coventry Farm was an excellent indicator site and we tried to census it the same way each year. You are correct that there was a field on the northeast corner of the farm away from the road where the police put road killed deer; this was the time when the deer population exploded and there was not yet any control plan. That was probably the trigger for the creation of the vulture roosts in that area. There were at least three interrelated roost groves -- Coventry Farm itself, North Road/Pretty Brook Road, and the corner of the Great Road and Mountain Avenue. These are all in sight of each other (we used to stand by the road in the new development at Mountain Ave./Great Road to count). All are planted groves of large spruces or hemlocks. The birds shifted around among the three, making it hard to count them. We would try to get an estimate at the end of the day (3-4:30 PM or so) of the vultures going into roost. Also, for comparison, we arranged to visit Mrs. Winant on Count day at 8 AM each year, to count the birds in the pines around her barns before they started to rise and soar for the day. I used to make an appointment every December by sending a note to tell her when we'd be coming.  She would lock up her dogs and come out to greet us and then dish out can after can of dogfood right on the driveway for the vultures. The Black Vultures were much more aggressive and would come right up to the food, pushing the Turkey Vultures aside. I don't know whether she did this daily, or whether this was a special effort for us on the Christmas Count. She was not a native English speaker and a bit hard to understand; but she was devoted to animals. A friend of mine drove up with a van full of birders on a field trip he was leading; he actually recruited her as a NJ Audubon member, when she found out they had come out of their way to see "her" birds. She also rescued burros and emus and various other critters, which I don't suppose are still around either. It was quite an adventure to visit the farm and I remember those Christmas Counts in great detail.
I am not sure of the date that the Black Vulture nest was found at Cradle Rock. I believe it was around 1990. I hiked in with a friend after hearing the report, and we found a smelly cave with an adult Vulture, standing on a rock, which hissed at us. We did not want to disturb things further and didn't see a chick at that time. 
Here are the numbers from the Princeton CBC:

The only other thing I can offer about Princeton Vultures is that they used to love to sit on the water tower that was behind the YWCA and Merwick, on Paul Robeson Ave. They caught the morning sun in winter on their outspread wings. Promptly at the Spring equinox they'd disappear until next fall. My assumption has always been that the equinox was their trigger to start looking for a nest site. When I lived at Stanworth I enjoyed seeing them every day and took note of their disappearance. These guys were probably close enough to also be a splinter group from the big Coventry roost.
PS Vultures were not the only "good" birds from Coventry farm. In 1994 a flock of gulls was attracted to the barnyard on CBC day, and Jim and I were astonished to find the count's first Lesser Black-backed Gull among them, as well as only the third Iceland gull ever.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Fledgling Black Vultures at Herrontown Woods

A pair of vultures has long hung out around the Veblen Cottage, up along the red trail in Herrontown Woods. They can seem a bit creepy, perched on top of the chimney, haunting the building with their symbolism of decline and imminent demise. But I've also seen vultures perched on restored buildings, and over time I've stopped investing them with negative connotations.

These are black vultures, as opposed to the turkey vultures that are frequently mistaken for hawks as they glide deftly above Princeton's treetops. Turkey vultures have red heads, and can be distinguished overhead by the silver that lines the back half of the underside of their wings. Black vultures have grayish heads, and silver only on the tips of the wings.

This quote from the Cornell Lab's Birds of North America site suggests that Herrontown Woods' pair of black vultures has a deep and lasting relationship, and has been finding what they need there, year after year. Perhaps they've been raising their young in the corncrib all this time, unbeknownst to us.
"Black Vultures do not build a nest. Instead they lay their (usually two) eggs on the bare ground in a cave, hollow tree, abandoned building, or other dark recess. Pairs will continue to use a nest site for many years as long as breeding is successful. Black Vultures are monogamous and maintain long-term pair bonds. The pair associate closely year round and may feed their young for as many as eight months after fledging. This prolonged dependence of the young on their parents may, in part, be responsible for the strong social bonds with kin that Black Vultures maintain throughout their lives."

A couple days ago, I was walking by the cottage and noticed a strange site. Up ahead, standing outside the barn door, was one of the black vultures, its fluffy neck feathers all a'jumble. Another vulture was perched in a low branch behind the cottage. Neither flew away as I approached.

The vulture on the ground looked embarrassed, its head down. It walked into the barn and stood there, as if deeply sad. They were either juveniles or molting adults.

Later, I remembered that last year in August a friend had noticed that geese had disappeared from Mountain Lakes. Some research showed they had gone off to molt at an undisclosed location.

I asked some birders with the Friends of Rogers Refuge if vultures molt this time of year, after finding nothing about it on the internet. Laurie Larson replied:
"I know they molt wing feathers during the summer, after their young fledge, and it would be consistent with most other species of birds to molt the rest of the body at the same time. This time of year most birds have less demands on their energy than they would during migration, winter, or when rearing young, and food is relatively abundant, so it’s the time of year to put energy into growing feathers. Embarrassed-looking vultures… interesting thought!"
After seeing the photos, however, she wrote back:

I think the vulture by the door in your photo is probably actually a fledgling. The adults are bald - their heads have bare skin. I’ve never seen a vulture so young, so I didn’t know they had black fuzz on their necks. It’s also possible that the reason it didn’t leave is that it isn’t yet a very good flyer. (It’s hard to tell whether the second bird, sitting in a tree, is another juv. or an adult). Wikipedia does have a portrait of a juvenile, which seems to be somewhat older than yours. It has a fully feathered neck rather than the bare whitish adult skinhead look. Yours is just growing those feathers. Congratulations; this would seem to be a rare look at a very young vulture.
The timing is right as well. Local nesting starts around April 1. Wikipedia says the eggs hatch in 28 - 41 days; and after hatching the young require 75-80 days to grow to be flying independently. That puts it around August 1.
As you may know, Black Vultures have expanded their range north through New Jersey rather rapidly and now are being seen throughout New England to southern Maine. When I started doing the Princeton Christmas Bird Count in 1982, I was assigned the territory including Mountain Lakes and Woodfield Reservation. Black Vultures began to show up in the huge roost that existed at Coventry Farm during the 1980s (the elder Mrs. Winant, rest her soul, used to feed them dog food every morning) and the numbers increased rapidly until the roost was dispersed after her death. One of the first nests in the state was found in a shed in Monmouth County, while locally an early nest was on the Princeton ridge in a cave near the bouldering area called Cradle Rock, up behind Woodfield. The area had not yet been developed with all the huge houses along Drakes’ Corner Road.
I would not be at all surprised if the vultures have been nesting at Herrontown for years. I hope the corncrib is going to remain undisturbed for these gentle and interesting birds to continue to live in, even as your project to protect and repair the house has succeeded. Congratulations on that as well!

So, it sounds like we have some fledgling vultures at Herrontown Woods, and an additional reason to save the little barn and corncrib as part of the 1875 cottage farmstead that mathematician Oswald Veblen used as his study before giving it to the county in 1957.

The question of whether and how vultures molt is still up for grabs. And I wondered if molting birds are as down-in-the-mouth-looking as the fledgling vulture, standing there in the barn. Does a molting bird know it will soon regain the ability to fly, or might the bird, stripped of its identity, fall into an existential crisis that ends only when new feathers grow? And is that feeling anything like what people and other sentient beings will feel tomorrow, when the sun seems to molt, high above us?

Friday, March 03, 2017

A Thousand-Eyed Grackle

With the temperature reaching 74 on February 25, I looked out our back picture window to see that our usually peaceful backyard had come alive with motion. The lawn was astir with the hyper black-winged commotion of hundreds of grackles. Their iridescent necks flashed blues, greens and purples as each probed the ground for food, with not a second to lose. Five or six stalked about on the edge of the fillable-spillable minipond, angling for a sip of water. I grabbed a camera and crept towards the window, eager to document their spectacular numbers and energy. But even my barely perceptible movements were caught by one of a thousand eyes, and off they went in a flash, a winged unison where a moment before each had been absorbed in its own pursuit of food and water. They crowded the high branches of a nearby pin oak while somehow collectively plotting their next move. Had I seen 500 birds? Or had it been one bird with 500 mouths and 1000 wings?

Thursday, February 02, 2017

Chickens and the Origins of Flight

Observing all the different uses our free-range chickens put their wings and feathers to has led this week to some speculation about how flight evolved. Chickens are particularly instructive in that they are not capable of full-fledged flight. They are, however, capable of wing-assisted hops--to reach the top of a fence, or to flutter upwards from branch to branch as they climb to their favorite roosting spot. And in the morning, when they descend, they use their wings to break their fall to the ground. Back when we were picking the chickens up and holding them, it was a delight, and convenient, to just toss them into the air and let them flutter softly down.

Their wings provide adjustable warmth, fluffed to varying degrees to match the cold of a particular night. That capacity to manipulate their feathers for warmth translates well to any micro-adjustments feathers make to optimize flight. As mentioned in a post describing a hawk attack, the strong quills of a chicken's wings also provide an incredibly light-weight, multi-layered armor, any portion of which can be shed so that a predator, thinking it has a firm grasp on the chicken, finds itself instead holding only a feather or two while the chicken escapes. That multilayered defense serves as well to shed the rain. Feathers also are mobilized for a powerful display, spreadable to make the chicken look bigger to potential predators, or more attractive to a potential mate.

After observing a chicken, flight can seem like an afterthought--a bit of serendipity that came to pass after wings and feathers gradually developed for a host of other purposes, each adaptive use enabling another in a positive feedback loop that ultimately led to the purity of flight.

Monday, January 30, 2017

A Loon Visits Carnegie Lake

Thanks to Melinda Varian for sending her husband Lee's photos of a loon that's been visiting Carnegie Lake. "We were standing on the footbridge that goes across where the (Millstone) river goes under the canal into the lake. A man we talked with said that he has been seeing it in the lake for about a week."

Another local birder, Laurie Larson, who keeps tabs on bird populations, said she could recall "one or two records over 30 years. It certainly is not “common,” although it is a Common Loon! I’m glad it’s finding Princeton hospitable."

One has to be quick to photograph a loon. A more common shot catches the tail feathers as it dives in search of a meal.

For fun facts about loons, check out this Cornel site, which explains that loons have solid bones rather than hollow, in order to be heavy enough to hunt effectively underwater. As a result, "Loons are like airplanes in that they need a runway for takeoff. In the case of loons, they need from 30 yards up to a quarter-mile (depending on the wind) for flapping their wings and running across the top of the water in order to gain enough speed for lift-off."

Because of this need for a long aquatic runway, loons can get stranded in small ponds, or on wet pavement that they mistakenly land on, thinking it to be water. Our visiting loon chose its lake well, as Laurie explains: "Fortunately if the weather freezes up, there’s plenty of water for the long wind-up and take-off that loons need, and this one can head for Cape May."

Update: It's a bit disjointed in this video to see all the scenes packed together, but loons play a starring role with Kathryn Hepburn and Henry Fonda in On Golden Pond.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Starlings, Passenger Pigeons, and the Uneaten Acorns

Acorns, anyone? It's called "flooding the zone"--a technical term commonly used by botanists who grew up playing sports. Some people see it as a mess, and curse the trees. An alternative target for cursing, just to put it out there, would be the tree-phobic landscape of concrete and lawn that we impose beneath the trees. A forest floor is far more accommodating of arboreal excess. There, a tree can let it all hang out, let it all fall down--seeds of all sorts, leaves, branches--and the forest floor will shrug, take it all in, and turn it into wildflowers.

In town, the blanketing of acorns turns into a blanketing of oak seedlings, few if any of which have any prospects of reaching maturity. The seedlings seem to be saying, "Move me to an opening along the street where I could shade some asphalt", but it doesn't look like people are listening.

For some people, a love of trees is layered with deep resentment of this fecundity. For me, looking for logic in nature's ways, the question is not "What to do with it all?", but "What's missing?" Past posts about osage orange and honey locust ask the same question, and suggest a missing herbivore that would have consumed the abundance in the past. Botanical abundance has lost a once complementary zoological abundance.

A partial answer came this past Nov. 10, when masses of starlings swept through, congregating in the pin oaks behind our house. A closer look revealed they were gobbling down acorns. Minutes later, they were gone, having left our pin oaks a little lighter.

The starling is not native, though, so doesn't speak to what would have consumed the oaks' abundance historically. And starlings appear too small to deal with the larger acorns of other species such as red oak. Still, it's behavior suggests that the spectacular fecundity of oaks might once have fed a complementary fecundity in the avian world--some highly mobile species, large enough to deal with a broader range of acorn size, that could make quick wing across eastern North America, swooping in to feast and move on.

Enter Ectopistes migratorius, a.k.a. the passenger pigeon, a bird of spectacular mobility and historical numbers. The photos are from a wonderful NJ State Museum exhibit two years ago.

A fine writeup on the Smithsonian website says "the mainstays of the passenger pigeon's diet were beechnuts, acorns, chestnuts, seeds, and berries found in the forests." They may also have swept in to feast on the seeds of our native bamboo, Arundinaria, which at one time covered large areas in the southeast and, like other bamboos, typically bloomed only once every several decades.

It can be tempting to say that the starling is providing a service by partially filling the void left by the extinction of the passenger pigeon. A few books have come out in recent years that claim invasive species like starlings aren't a big problem after all. The books in turn embolden news editors to publish articles and opeds with a similarly seductive revisionism, showing the same willingness to cherry pick evidence and rush to conclusions. I've written detailed critiques of various of these, including one recent article that mentioned starlings.

It would be interesting to explore to what extent the massive numbers of starlings have filled the niche left empty by the extinction of the passenger pigeon. Though feeding habits may overlap somewhat, one big difference is likely to be nesting behavior. Starlings compete with native birds for nesting sites, while the passenger pigeons appear to have built nests on branches, where they would not have displaced birds seeking tree cavities.

Saturday, January 07, 2017

Charismatic Chickens Explore Their Wild Side

For a long time, our chickens stuck to the straight and narrow. They lived as everyone expected them to, spending their days scratching and pecking at bugs and worms in the yard, nibbling seeds off the grass, turning all that foraging into eggs, then dutifully returning to the coop each night to sleep, or whatever trance-like state chickens attain while roosting.

We in turn would dutifully feed them, open and close the coop door each day and night, and gratefully, somewhat guiltily, make off with the eggs. My respect grew for these gentle Araucanas, going about their days, so purposeful, so competent, so giving in their convenient repackaging of nature's abundance. When arctic air swept through, they would roost in the unheated coop as always, then step spryly out of the coop the next morning, impervious, as if antifreeze coursed through their veins.

The relationship started to change, though, a year or so ago. Perhaps the four chickens had depleted our yard's supply of wild food. They discovered they could cross over the back fence, and find fresh gleanings in the town park. I began getting reports of the great delight they were bringing to kids and parents. Then they ranged farther afield, three doors up to our neighbors' backyard, where they could gorge on birdseed spilled onto the ground from the birdfeeder. They still dabbled in our tray of standard issue chickenfeed from the farm supply store now and then, but you could tell their standards had changed. They were developing new tastes, new friendships.

They continued returning each night to sleep in the coop, and continued supplying eggs. We thought ourselves so lucky, to be reaping the harvest of eggs and pleasant anecdotes these beneficent creatures produced. They were like salmon, feeding broadly, then returning with an uncanny homing instinct to feed us generously. But then one of the chickens stopped showing up at the coop at dusk. We worried that a hawk might have gotten it, but our neighbors would report seeing it during the day. Another chicken disappeared altogether, considered gone for sure until a neighbor on the other side of the park sent word that it had adopted her yard. She loved how it would come running to her when she brought it food and water. I tried to retrieve it, but the chicken clearly did not want to be caught.

The freedom of coopless living ultimately seduced them all. Our coop lay abandoned by the birds it was meant to protect. We'd spot them sporadically, in front yard or back, or up at the neighbors' as they made their daily rounds. No one knew where they were roosting, nor where the eggs, if any, were getting laid. We thought of catching them and closing them in the coop for a few days to get them back into old habits, but in a way they've outgrown that old domestic servitude, the grind of laying egg after egg to serve the master. They've discovered an old forgotten resourcefulness, awakened dormant capacities deep in their genes. It seems a dangerous life, unprotected at night, and yet they survive. It helps that the foxes don't get up this way, and raccoon sightings are rare.

Last week, I had been up very early and was just heading back to bed at 7am for a brief doze when I heard a blood curdling screech just outside our bedroom window. I ran outside with a coat over my pajamas and peered into the bushes. A coopers hawk burst out, flying right past me and up to a tree nearby. Such magnificent creatures they are. I peered more closely at the ground next to the house and saw the brown chicken, motionless in the window well. Surely it couldn't have survived such an attack, but then its head suddenly popped up. It jumped up out of the window well, gave me a quick look, then disappeared under the shrub. It had lost a few feathers, but otherwise looked fine. The feathers of a chicken, I'm realizing, provide not only magnificent insulation and some modest flying power, but also serve as a shield that confounds predators' attempts to penetrate it. The predator ends up with a feather in its mouth while the bird scurries away, and the rachis--that stiff central stem of the feather--serves collectively as body armor.

Of course, if I hadn't shown up, the coopers hawk would have ultimately had its breakfast, lunch and dinner, and we would have grieved. The chickens' choice of freedom comes with risks.

Just a few days ago, my daughter reported that the chickens were now roosting at night in an evergreen shrub at the corner of our house, eight feet up from the ground. It's comforting to know they are near. Each evening, I stop by to say hello,

and leave food nearby, under a recycling bin that got broken being used as a target for backyard lacrosse practice, then got partly consumed making trail signs for a local preserve, and now has a new life keeping rain and snow out of the chicken feed. There's collected rainwater to drink in the fillable-spillable tub in the backyard.

If a big snowstorm comes, we may pluck the sleepy chickens from their roost and put them in the coop for the night. We're letting them make up their own life as they go along, which may include a return to the coop. Yesterday, I saw the brown chicken walk over and disappear into the coop. Later on, I stopped in to find two fresh eggs, the first laid there in months. Maybe that's how a chicken says thank you if you save its life.

UPDATE: After six inches of snow fell, the chickens looked like they were going to stay up in the bushes all day, to keep their feet warm. We plucked them down and closed them in the coop for a couple days until the snow melted (this winter's like North Carolina, not New Jersey).

Any hopes that two days in the coop would rehabituate them to returning there each night were dashed, however. A few pecks at the cracked corn in morning light and they were back to their accustomed rounds,

then roosting again in the bushes next to our house for the night. It's interesting to see how they keep their feet warm while roosting, by squatting down so their feet disappear under the puffed up feathers.

Eggs from our "Easter egg chickens". In a new twist, the egg on the right has two shades of green.