A Song About Vultures

Vultures are often misunderstood. Commonly called “buzzards” (which are actually hawk species in Europe and Africa), and sometimes dismissed as trash birds, vultures are actually cool birds that help the environment. When an animal dies, vultures often feed on the carcass. Their stomachs are equipped to break down bacteria and other dangerous elements that would harm humans or other wildlife. The spread of diseases such as anthrax are limited due to the effectiveness of vultures cleaning up decaying animals. This is a song about the life of a vulture. 

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Hanging out with my friend Desi the Hooded Vulture

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Turkey Vultures

Some cool vultures! Clockwise from top left – King Vulture, Egyptian Vulture, Indian Vulture, and Lappet-faced Vulture.

 

                                                          Carrion Out in the Sun

                       (Sung to the tune of Carry On My Wayward Son by Kansas)

Chorus

Carrion out in the sun
Tasty creatures that can’t run
I will clean up all this mess
Then I’ll find some more

Verse 1
Once I rose above the cars on the highway
Just to look at all the deer headed my way
I was soaring ever higher, rising in the sky
Though I have a beak I don’t call but just hiss
I’m a bird of prey that cleans up a carcass
I’m here to stop all the diseases, I will save the day

Chorus
Carrion out in the sun
Tasty creatures that can’t run
I will clean up all this mess
Then I’ll find some more

Verse 2
If you think I’m ugly there is a reason
All the baldness keeps me cool every season
And when my head gets really dirty, at least my feathers might stay clean
When the weather’s nice I bathe in the sunlight
Clean my feathers and I’m ready to take flight
The rising air means there’s a thermal; time to soar and save the day

Chorus
Carrion out in the sun
Tasty creatures that can’t run
I will clean up all this mess
Then I’ll find some more

Bridge
Carrion, I can puke when there’s danger
Carrion, get away from me stranger
Now my stomach’s feeling empty
Time to look for something new

Chorus
Carrion out in the sun
Tasty creatures that can’t run
I will clean up all this mess
Then I’ll find some more

 

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Fly Like a Butterfly

Butterflies are fascinating insects. They begin life as caterpillars, which creep along the ground and on trees with tiny legs. They then form protective structures called chrysalises and morph into fragile, but beautiful flying creatures that feast on nectar from flowers. You may know about all this, but did you know that some butterflies get drunk while sipping on rotten fruit? Or that there is a species that feeds only on peanut plants and tastes delicious with jelly? Time to learn about some butterflies!

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Purple-spotted Swallowtail

Perhaps one of the most famous species of butterflies is the Monarch Butterfly. Monarchs are known for their incredible migrations, which sometimes involve flying thousands of miles!! Most butterfly species can overwinter and survive winter conditions as larvae. Monarchs, however, are more sensitive to the cold and many will travel to winter in Mexico and southern California. So how do these small creatures migrate such great distances without getting lost? The answer seems to be connected to the sun. Monarchs are able to follow the position of the sun and keep track of the time of day through neurons located in their antennae and eyes. If you’re interested in learning more about this fascinating phenomenon, check out this short article.  Monarchs are also known for being poisonous. They lay their eggs around milkweed plants. When the caterpillars hatch, they feed on the milkweed and store toxins from the plant in their bodies which are retained in the adult stage. Viceroy Butterflies are similar in appearance to Monarchs and were once thought to be using Batesian Mimicry, which is where a non-poisonous species mimics a poisonous species to use to its advantage. Studies conducted by researchers in the 1990’s revealed that Viceroys actually taste unpleasant to predators as well, thus these butterflies and Monarchs may be using Mullerian Mimicry, where each species benefits from their visual resemblance. If a Blue Jay tries to eat a Monarch or Viceroy and experiences a foul taste from the toxins, it will probably be less likely to attack butterflies with that color/pattern in the future.

Left – Monarch Butterflies. Right – stages of chrysalis formation.

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Migration

Swallowtails are cool members of the butterfly world which even a novice like me can identify. Named for their forked tails, swallowtails comprise hundreds of species throughout the world and tend to be quite colorful. Among the common species in the eastern/midwestern portions of the United States are the Spicebush and Tiger Swallowtails. Spicebush Swallowtails are named because females will often lay eggs on the leaves of spicebushes, which provide valuable food for larvae. I’ve enjoyed watching the interesting flight patterns of these colorful species and often find them in the woods while doing trail work. Most caterpillars feed on the leaves of trees or shrubs, while adults drink nectar from flowers and also feed on fruit. Occasionally, butterflies will drink from fruit that are rotting and fermenting, resulting in some tipsy butterflies! They will also apparently drink from beer cans and wine bottles, according to this report by National Geographic.

Full-grown fifth instar larva of spicebush swallowtail, Papilio troilus L.

Spicebush Swallowtail larvae have eyespots to confuse predators. Photo by Jerry F. Butler, Entomology and Nematology Department, University of Florida.

The top two pictures are of Spicebush Swallowtails. On the bottom is a Tiger Swallowtail, while the 2nd picture from the top right is of a female with an alternate look.

I plan to make an effort to learn more about butterflies and how to identify them. There are many amazingly colorful species all over the world which I know hardly anything about. Perhaps I’ll be able to attract a variety of species by planting new wildflowers. Hopefully you have some flowers or a garden that attracts these interesting creatures. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to down a milkweed brew and mimic a tiger while flying erratically.

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http://www.allposters.ca/-sp/Butterflies-of-the-World-posters_i8933960_.htm

 

Trail Treasures

Do you enjoy spending time in nature and seeing cool animals? Many people are familiar with some of the wildlife that may be encountered during a hike in the woods. You might expect to see deer or turkeys or raccoons or squirrels. However, there are smaller members of the animal world that are quite fascinating and can be missed if you’re not looking carefully. There are insects that look like sticks, lizards that can lose their tails, and harmless butterflies that mimic poisonous species! I’m surprised there isn’t a Spiderman villain that was created from a radioactive butterfly bite. Believe it or not, the first female black superhero in the comics was called “The Butterfly”! Anyway, it’s time to learn about some trail treasures!

My current job at the World Bird Sanctuary involves managing the restoration of their trails. I’m engaging in the removal of invasive species and helping create an environment which fosters growth of native plants and attracts wildlife. The goal is to provide an enjoyable experience for the public and encourage them to walk the trails and interact with nature. One of my first steps in this process was to remove invasive bush honeysuckle, which releases chemicals into the soil that inhibits the growth of native plants and restricts biological diversity. While pulling out honeysuckle bushes, I often come across interesting little creatures in the forest understory. There are plenty of ants and spiders crawling across the leaf litter. Sometimes I find a turtle buried in the dirt or a frog hopping by a tree. I also occasionally find walking sticks, insects that actually look like sticks! Some species even have body parts which resembles leaves or twigs. These creatures are part of the Phasmatodea order of insects, and have a wonderful built-in camouflage system that enables them to escape detection from predators, unless you’re a predator that enjoys munching on sticks. Perhaps beavers occasionally eat walking sticks on accident?! Walking sticks are often colored brown or green to blend in with their surroundings and are quite widespread across the world. Members of the largest species can grow up to a foot and stretch out to almost two feet when you include the legs!

Walking sticks that I’ve encountered while doing trail restoration. The one on the left actually climbed into my shirt pocket!

The skink family is quite diverse, with over 1500 species spread across the world! Skinks are lizards that can often be found in forests, mountains, deserts, shopping centers, or even running around houses! One common species in the U.S. is the Five-lined Skink (Plestiodon fasciatus), named for the distinct pattern of lines across its back. Juveniles of this species (and some other species) have beautiful blue tails. Five-lined Skinks grow to about 5-8 inches long, and are generally found in forests or forest edges with plenty of natural cover, such as rocks, fallen logs, bark, and leaf litter. These skinks prey on a wide variety of insects, and will occasionally consume small vertebrates such as frogs and other lizards. Like many other lizard species, Five-lined Skinks can voluntarily break off segments of their tail in order to confuse or distract a predator! The tail will eventually regenerate and the skink may survive another day.

A tiny taste of skink diversity. Top left – male Five-lined Skink. Top right corner – Juvenile. Below that is a picture by J.J. Harrison of a Blue-tongued Skink in Australia. Bottom = Skilton’s Skinks.

Butterflies are interesting and colorful creatures. These animals start life as caterpillars and morphs into wonderful flying insects. My next blog will look at the often overlooked wonders of the world of butterflies. Be prepared to learn about poisonous species, species that use mimicry, and butterflies that get drunk! Hopefully this post has piqued your interest into looking for forest creatures like walking sticks and skinks when you hike in the woods. Sometimes these creatures can also be found in your backyard! If you see a small lizard running for cover across some rocks or around your house, you may be observing a skink. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a sudden craving for pretzel sticks.

Male Lord Howe Island stick insect

Lord Howe Island pretzel stick insect, sometimes called a “land lobster”.

 

The Wonderful World of Owls: Part II

In my last blog post, I wrote about owls that live underground and Snowy Owl chicks that grow faster than the national debt. Now I’m ready to reveal the world of ghost owls and talk about how young owls can climb trees. As usual, there will be no puns or ridiculous stories in this post.

Barn owl in flight at night

Barn Owl aka “Ghost Owl”

Barn Owls are sometimes known by the nickname “Ghost Owls” due to their white coloration, their nocturnal nature, and their raspy screeching. Barn Owls get their name from their tendency to hang out with nobles at large chain bookstores in barns. They are found almost worldwide, though they are in decline in some regions. Barn Owls stand around a foot high and generally weigh a little over a pound. These owls have excellent hearing, as their heart-shaped facial disk helps funnel sound toward their asymmetrical ears, creating a parabola effect which amplifies sound waves. Lab experiments have revealed that Barn Owls are capable of finding prey in total darkness! They are also great at controlling pests like mice and rats, as they often prey upon small mammals. Like other owls, they swallow prey whole and cast up pellets of indigestible parts, such as bones. Their call is a raspy screech and they sometimes produce low chittering noises. To be honest, we should probably name them screech owls, as the calls of actual screech owls sound quite pleasant.

Barn owl

Barn owl with prey

In my experiences working with Barn Owls up close, I’ve seen that they are wonderful fliers with beautiful buffy brown and white wings. The babies on the other hand, are balls of fluff with gray faces. I’m currently helping to raise a baby barn owl and two young barn owls that were born at the World Bird Sanctuary. The two youngsters are actually different races – Orion is American and Whisper is European. Orion is noisy and boisterous, often climbing around his enclosure, while Whisper is quieter and well-behaved. The baby is growing up fast and her feathers will soon start filling in.

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Orion and Whisper looking out the window.

So can young owls really climb trees? Yes they can! Owls that are not yet ready to fly need a mechanism to escape danger from the ground. Some young owls are able to spread out their wings and use their beak and talons to climb up trees! Check out this news article that includes pictures of a young Great Horned Owl that climbed up a tree after falling from its nest. You can also search for climbing owl on Youtube and see some short videos of owls in action! Below is a Barn Owl that decided to shimmy up a tree.

Juvenile barn owl climbing up tree using wings and feet

Now that you’ve learned about Barn Owls, maybe you can visit a nearby barn at night and find an owl! Though I’ve handled these owls, I’ve never actually seen one in the wild. Perhaps I will find one soon! Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to dress in white tonight and make raspy noises while climbing up a tree.

 

The Wonderful World of Owls

Did you know that a group of owls is called a parliament? Did you know that most owls use the nests of other creatures? Did you know that some owls live in underground tunnels? Did you know that young owls can climb trees? Did you know that there are “Ghost Owls”? Did you know that one of the most vicious gangster owls was Owl Capone? Time to learn about some cool owls!

Young burrowing owls

Owls are generally solitary birds, except during the breeding season. If you do happen to find a group of owls hanging out together, you’ve managed to find a parliament! Though they are more efficient at accomplishing tasks than many human parliaments, most owls don’t build their own nests, but use abandoned Red-tailed Hawk nests or tree cavities created by woodpeckers. Female Short-eared Owls will often form a nest in the ground and arrange feathers and grass around the mound, whereas Snowy Owls will hollow out depressions on the tundra floor. These owls choose their nesting sites so that the surrounding vegetation or hills will help conceal their nests. An exception to these examples is the Burrowing Owl. These owls utilize burrows created by badgers, ground squirrels, prairie dogs, or other creatures which dig underground tunnels. Sometimes Burrowing Owls will excavate their own burrows or even nest in PVC pipes! I guess you should be careful when constructing potato guns. Interestingly enough, some owls will place mammal dung at the entrances of burrows! Some scientists believe this is used to attract dung beetles, which will serve as food for the young. Other researchers suggest that the odor may deter potential predators. You probably shouldn’t try this at home!

Short-eared owl at nest with chicks

Female Short-eared Owl with chicks at nest. These owls get their name from the short tufts (which are not ears) that project above the head.

Burrowing owl peeking out from burrow

This Burrowing Owl appears to be auditioning for Angry Birds!

Burrowing owl feeding chicks at den

Parent feeding young Burrowing Owls.

Once the eggs have been laid, incubated, and hatched, the parents spend a lot of time hunting. Young owls grow very rapidly and needs lots of food to keep up with their high metabolism. The chicks of ground-nesting owls may eat close to their weight and increase in size by over 50% in a single day! This rapid development is important as owl chicks on the ground may be vulnerable to predators such as foxes and wolves. After they are about 2-3 weeks old, young Short-eared and Snowy Owl chicks begin moving away from the nest, though the parents still feed and care for them. Chicks are often fed rodents, and some owl species experience population explosions when there is an abundance of valuable food sources. For example, Snowy Owls sometimes experience population booms through large clutches of eggs when there are high numbers of lemmings in the summer. These irruptions may drive northern-dwelling owls further south than normal. I sometimes venture farther away from home if there is a good supply of delicious ice cream.

Clockwise from top left: 1. Snowy Owl chicks at nest, 2. Female with two owlets, 3. Female in flight, 4. Male feeding young. Females generally have more dark markings than males.

Well, I’m getting tired and tomorrow I have to help care for the raptors at the World Bird Sanctuary. Hopefully you’ve learned some interesting things about these amazing birds! My next blog will be about owls climbing trees and acting like ghosts in the night. I suppose that’s owl for now, but don’t worry, owl be back!

Great horned owl portrait

This Great Horned Owl is not impressed by my bad puns.

My Neighbors are Raptors

I recently began working with the World Bird Sanctuary on a project to improve their trail network. The sanctuary cares for many birds of prey and is located in the St. Louis area in Missouri. Check out their Facebook page to see cool pictures and videos! My work with birds began with an internship at the sanctuary in 2010. That experience stirred my passion for conservation and birds and influenced the career decisions I’ve made over the past 6+ years. From handling a Golden Eagle, to marching up to 12 miles a day in the hot sun along the Gulf Coast, to being held-up at gunpoint while doing bird surveys on a Navy base, I’ve had some interesting experiences working with birds. Besides, who wouldn’t want to spend their life working with birds after being bitten and scratched by ravens, hawks, eagles, owls, and vultures? Cleaning up bird poop and preparing fine meals by gutting fish, rabbits, rats, and venison is also a bonus.

Some of the raptors that I worked with during my internship in 2010.

I’m staying on site and my room is connected to a building which houses some of the raptors which are trained for education. Many of the raptors kept at the sanctuary either cannot be released into the wild due to injuries, or have been raised by the sanctuary for educational purposes. During the day, many of the birds here spend time outside in weathering areas, which allow them to get some fresh air and sunshine. At night, they are moved indoors and provided dinner. Seeing powerful birds up close and playing a part in their conservation is an awesomely rewarding experience! There are also a number of birds staying in mews, which are structures built to house raptors. Right now, my neighbors include Bald Eagles, hawks, owls, and vultures. There are also two young Barn Owls next door that will potentially become educational flyers and ambassadors for the sanctuary. Finally, there are two Thick-billed Parrots which like to pretend they are Laughing Kookaburras. As you might imagine, my “neighborhood” is not very quiet!

A few of my new neighbors. Clockwise from top left – Livia the Red-tailed Hawk, Patriot the Bald Eagle, Desi the Hooded Vulture, and Goblin the Barn Owl.

Last night, I had a very tiny visitor – a female Ruby-throated Hummingbird. There are a number of songbirds that live in the area as well as some groundhogs, possums, and a family of Raccoons! I’m fortunate to have such interesting neighbors and am looking forward to working closely with raptors again. As I’m finishing this blog, I can hear Orion (one of the young Barn Owls next door) making loud rasping noises. His roommate Whisper is quieter and rarely makes a sound. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go make a bunch of bird calls and eat some rats to fit in with my neighbors.

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The Bower of Love

Many birds are known for their melodic songs, bright colors, and courtship rituals, but did you know that bowerbirds can build stick castles? Did you know that some bowerbirds will actually paint their structures and decorate them with natural and man-made objects?  Time to learn about some amazing bird engineers!

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In the forests of Australia and New Guinea, there some birds that kick up the creativity and wow factor during courtship through structural engineering. Bowerbirds are comprised of about 20 species and are named for the elaborate “bowers” that the males build to attract females. I should point out that bowers are not nests and the male does not help raise the young. Male bowerbirds gather all kinds of materials to add to the grandeur of their castles. Males will arrange an assortment of sticks, leaves, moss, colorful flowers, rocks, coins, and even plastic bottlecaps or toys to impress the ladies! Constructing a good bower takes a lot of hard work! Sometimes male bowerbirds will use a theme when designing their bower. Presenting the petals of brightly-colored flowers is commonly done by flowerbirds bowerbirds.

Bower of a Vogelkop bowerbird decorated with natural and man-made objects Decorated bower of Vogelkop bowerbird

Image result for bowerbird  Vogelkop bowerbird male, in bower arranging ornaments with habitat view

Some male bowerbirds may add color to their bowers by chewing up berries! The birds use the juice to stain their bowers! Some species, like the Satin Bowerbird, even color-code their structures! Satin Bowerbirds seem to prefer blue and will collect blue items such as berries, feathers, flowers, insects, and shells. This means that male Satin Bowerbirds are quite annoying to face in Mariokart. After the males have finished creating their palaces, females will come up to the bowers and inspect them. If a female is impressed with the male’s work, she will mate with him and then move off to build a nest. If the male’s design doesn’t meet the female’s standards, she will move on to another bower. Males will sometimes attempt to encourage a female to visit by dancing and singing. According to researchers, some bowerbirds arrange their bowers to produce optical illusions that influence visiting females! Check out this link from BBC to learn more about this! Experienced males may win the affections of multiple females over the course of the breeding season. Occasionally, a veteran male may hire a group of young bowerbirds to help defend his bower from intruders while he gathers supplies. These defenders are called bower rangers. Ducks for cover.

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              Welcome to my bower!                                            Everything is blue

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           Must find more blue items!                                         Hey ladies! I’m rich!

I hope you found this small glimpse into the world of bowerbirds interesting! They are certainly unique and fascinating birds. If you’re interested in seeing them in action, check out the videos by BBC on Youtube. Did you know that a new movie about male bowerbirds and their quest to win females is coming out soon? It’s called Lord of the Wings: The Two Bowers. Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to find some blueberries to decorate my new log cabin.

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Look at me! I have a berry!