The Night Before Christmas: Bird Edition

Because I haven’t blogged in a few months, I thought a good way to get back into action would be to write a bird-themed Christmas poem. This poem is about some of the birds who live at the World Bird Sanctuary, where I work as a naturalist. My position involves caring for birds of prey, which includes a lot of food prep and cleaning! I also get to play a part in some really cool work, such as training raptors for flight shows and working with a young raven named Mayhem. I did a couple of “Owl Prowl” shows recently and also had the opportunity to take a Bald Eagle to an Eagle Scout ceremony! If you are in the St. Louis area, come check out the sanctuary (Admission is free!). I hope you enjoy the pictures and the poem! Have a wonderful Christmas!

Twas the night before Christmas, and all through the site,

All the raptors were stirring as snowflakes took flight.

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Spending quality time with Reese the Great Horned Owl.

The food bowls were placed in enclosures with care.

The storks were quite quick to make their bowls bare.

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The parrots were talking, their voices quite loud.

Performing for peanuts in front of a crowd.

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The barn owls were nestled, all snug in their beds.

While visions of rodents danced in their heads.

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The falcons were chasing their food on a lure.

Their flights looked like dances, with wing-beats so sure.

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Zorro the Aplomado Falcon. Photo: World Bird Sanctuary.

The vultures were jumping, their food could not flee.

The hawks started screaming, one jumped on a tree!

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MacGuyver the Harris Hawk decorates a Christmas tree. Photo: World Bird Sanctuary

The owls started hooting as the sky became dark.

The eagles were cackling, oh how Max did bark!

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Working with Max the Tawny Eagle.

I heard Nemo exclaim as I walked past the Kite

“Merry Christmas to all, and to all a great night!”

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Nemo the African Grey Parrot.

 

 

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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

 

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!

Amazing Animal Engineers

Did you know that some animals are excellent engineers? Did you know that if a tree falls in a forest, a beaver hears the sound? Did you know that Spiderman is capable of being an awesome engineer? Did you know that some birds build stick castles for the ladies? Time to learn about some amazing animals!

This orangutan is also a good engineer. From Mechanix Illustrated, November 1950.

First up is the quintessential wildlife engineer – the beaver. Beavers have been building dams for a lot longer than humans. Using their large teeth, these large, semi-aquatic rodents are capable of chopping down trees and maneuvering large limbs to create dams and lodges. A beaver lodge is a home made of branches, sticks, and mud. Lodges often contain an underwater opening and are a good place to raise young. Beavers will usually eat bark, twigs, leaves, and other plants. Their tail looks like a large pancake (tastes good with maple syrup) and acts like a rudder while swimming. Beavers sometimes slap their tails against the water and create a loud signal that carries across the water and warns other beavers of potential danger. I’m not sure if that includes Justin Beaver.

Juvenile and adult beaver feeding on bark  American beaver felling a tree

Beavers create dams to control the flow of water and to protect their homes. Having fast-flowing water rip through your lodge would not be fun for a beaver. Some dam systems are quite intricate and include series of canals! As you might guess, beaver engineering affects the local ecosystem in a major way. By cutting down specific trees and diverting the flow of water, beavers can impact a variety of ecological processes, plants, and other wildlife. For example, the systems of pools and waterways created by beavers can reduce flooding and soil erosion. Some plants and wildlife can thrive in the small wetlands that arise from beaver engineering. On the other hand, beaver activity may negatively affect organisms which rely on flowing water, and beaver dams have hurt some farming practices and trout fisheries. The largest beaver dam on record, is located in Alberta, Canada and is over 2700 feet in length!! That’s over twice as long as the Hoover Dam! Interestingly enough, the dam was first located using Google earth and satellite imagery! Researchers suggest that several beaver families may have contributed to this natural wonder.

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Google Earth image of the largest beaver dam in the world.

Next up are spiders. Spiders are well known for creating intricate webs made of silk. If you are bitten by a radioactive spider, you just might gain superpowers and a strong desire to talk to yourself out loud. Spiderman normally uses his webbing to swing from building to building, entrap enemies, or break a fall. However, if he had studied engineering, he could create so many amazing things. On a side note, one of the most annoying things is to walk face-first into a spiderweb. During one morning doing bird surveys, I walked into about 50 spider webs and spent a lot of time pulling sticky webbing off my glasses. Anyway, Orb-weaving Spiders (Thousands of species in the Family Araneidae) design many of the familiar spiral webs to catch prey. There are usually circular sections of the web that are comprised of sticky silk, but the orb-weavers tiptoe across non-sticky lines throughout the web. When an insect (or occasionally something bigger!) gets stuck in the web, the spider comes out and cocoons the prey for a tasty meal. Many orb-weavers actually spin new webs almost every day! Many spider webs are quite beautiful, though people don’t often stop to appreciate them due to fear of creepy, crawly things.

Golden orb spider on web Related image

Recent studies and explorations have led scientists to claim that the largest web in the world is produced by the Darwin’s bark spider. As is the case with many spiders, females are larger than males. Females are generally between 15 and 20 mm long, while males are around 5-6 mm long. Despite their tiny size, Darwin’s bark spider have been recorded creating webs over 25 meters across! The material of these webs is said to be stronger than steel or kevlar, which is used in bulletproof vests! The silk used in the webbing is also extremely elastic and resistant to breaking.  Hmm . . . maybe I should create a vest out of spider webs so that I can fight crime. By spreading out tough webs over rivers, the spiders can catch insects that frequently use the water, such as dragonflies and mayflies.

That's no washing line (Credit: Matjaž Gregorič) A Darwin's bark spider (Caerostris darwini) (Credit: Matjaž Gregorič)

Left – bark spider web spanning across a river (photo: Matjaž Gregorič).                         Right – Darwin’s bark spider (photo: Matjaž Gregorič)

I hope you find the creations of beavers and spider fascinating. Try to remember that most spiders are harmless and actually help control insect populations. Hold a pet tarantula if you need practice overcoming a fear of spiders. These animals really are amazing engineers! My next blog will spend time on bowerbirds and their efforts to create nests to impress! Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to slap some water with a tennis racket and spin a bulletproof web to catch some dinner.

Adorable Animals That Can Kill You

After spending time in a few blogs emphasizing how snakes are interesting creatures that should not be feared, I’m here to write about dangerous animals that can destroy you. Please note that all of these animals should be appreciated for their awesomeness and most of them will never attack you. Time to look at some cute animals that can be deadly!

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Poison Dart Frogs were the subject of one of my recent blogs.

Blue-ringed Octopuses . . . yes, ‘octopuses’ is preferred over ‘octopi’ . . . are small cephalopods that live around coral reefs in the Indian and Southern Pacific Oceans. They are commonly found near Australia and actually consist of several species. If these octopuses become agitated, the blue rings appear to glow due to the stimulation of chromatophores. Blue-ring Octopuses are about the size of a golf ball and may contain enough venom to kill over a dozen humans! That said, they rarely attack humans unless stepped on or handled. Blue-rings munch on crabs, shrimp, and occasionally small fish (think Goliath Grouper). They tend to hide among the sand, shells, and coral, preferring to ambush their prey. Their venom contains powerful neurotoxins which can cause respiratory problems, muscle weakness, and paralysis. Interestingly enough, these same toxins are found in a variety of other organisms, such as pufferfish, snails, and crabs. The key ingredient to producing the toxins appears to be the symbiotic bacteria associated with these creatures. This means if you want to become more deadly, you should develop a close relationship with toxin-producing bacteria.

Southern blue-ringed octopus swimming    Southern blue-ringed octopus, head detail

Next up is the Giant Anteater, which can grow to 7 feet long and weigh over 100 pounds! If you’re an ant, this could be the most terrifying creature you ever face! Even Antman would probably run for his life! Anteaters do not have teeth, but they do have a sticky tongue that may extend up to 2 feet and can rapidly lap up thousands of ants and termites.  They also have sharp claws for tearing into anthills and termite mounds. Though not naturally aggressive, Giant Anteaters are capable of fighting off large predators such as jaguars! They are extremely unlikely to attack humans, but if cornered, they could certainly maim a person! Giant Anteaters are primarily found in South America, but their range extends up to the southern portion of Mexico. As you might imagine, this species is important for controlling insect populations, especially considering some South American ants are quite dangerous in armies and can kill large animals and overrun villages! 

Giant anteater running  Giant anteater female and young

Now it’s time for an adorable creature that you will want to hug, but shouldn’t.

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Photo: Wikipedia user מינוזיג

What?! You don’t want to hug an adorable scorpion?! This is the Lifeignorer Scorpion. Just kidding. This is the Deathstalker Scorpion. Deathstalkers live in desert regions in Northern Africa and the Middle East. These scorpions have highly potent venom that can do a lot of damage. Interestingly enough, medical researchers have used toxins isolated from deathstalkers to develop methods of fighting cancer and regulating insulin! Check out a cool story about a venom-based paint that can identify brain tumors by clicking here!

I’ll finish off the blog with an array of cute but dangerous animals.

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These cubs might not seem so cute when the mother is around.

Juvenile chimpanzees hanging in branches

Chimpanzees in the wild have been known to kill monkeys by bashing their heads with rocks! Adults are quite strong and capable of crushing a human in a wrestling match.

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Slender Loris bites, though extremely rare, have been known to cause swelling, irritated skin, and even anaphylactic shock!

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Many blowfish/pufferfish contain neurotoxins which can prove harmful for potential predators. Nevertheless, fugu (prepared pufferfish) is considered a delicacy in Japan and other countries! Chefs must undergo rigorous training to be qualified to prepare this dish.

Hopefully you’re starting to realize that looks can be deceiving! These are really cool creatures that should be appreciated. Remember that most of these animals won’t attack humans unless threatened or cornered. Please do not attempt to take animal selfies with a bison, bear, or wildcat, no matter how cute they look. I recently read a story about a bear that broke into a car and destroyed a lot of things. Feel free to let a deathstroke scorpi . . . sorry about that Green Arrow, DEATHSTALKER scorpion crawl on your face, because it most likely won’t sting you. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to grow some bacteria on blue ring pops, spread the mixture on my arms, and terrorize some crabs.

Snake Week

Every summer, one week is devoted to celebrating sharks. Shark Week is designed to teach the public about the interesting world of sharks and encourage people to see these predators in a new light. My question is, why stop with sharks? How about having a snake week? Wouldn’t you like to learn more about venomous snakes and the good that they do? Wouldn’t you like to start conquering your fear of snakes? Wouldn’t you like to read some really bad snake puns? Today you will learn that you can have your snake and eat it too – just start with an easy-snake oven.

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Did somebody say Snake Week?!

The Timber Rattlesnake (Crotalus horridus) is endemic to the eastern U.S. and can grow to over 6 feet long. They occupy a wide range of habitats, including forests, mountainous, and riverine areas. When temperatures are cool, rattlesnakes may group together in a den or cave to hibernate.  Like many Americans, Timber Rattlesnakes love to catch some sun rays and will often remain motionless while basking in the heat of day. They primarily hunt small mammals, such as mice, rats, voles, squirrels, and rabbits. They aid in regulating mammal populations within an ecosystem and can help reduce pest populations in agricultural systems. Unfortunately, like sharks, rattlesnakes are often seen as scary and dangerous creatures. Some people shoot them with shotguns, smash them with shovels, or even purposely run over them while driving. The truth is, rattlesnake attacks are rare, as rattlers will usually rattle to send a warning and will only strike if threatened or cornered. Because many venomous snakes try to save their venom of prey, they are unlikely to bite except as a last resort.  Try to find a way to let the snakes alone and they will help control pesky rodents! If one has taken up residence in your house, then call a local wildlife officer to capture and release it elsewhere. Also, don’t run around sticking your hands in brush piles and rock crevices!

Timber rattlesnake, close-up rattlesnake

The picture on the right was of a rattler I encountered in Indiana. Why did the snake cross the road? Probably because the heat emanating from the asphalt felt good.

The Eastern Coral Snake (Micrurus fulvius) is beautiful creature that is generally found in scrubby woodlands and marshes in the southeastern U.S. Because they must chew on their victim to completely inject their venom, attacks on humans are rare. According to National Geographic, no human has died from an Eastern Coral Snake bite since the antivenin was developed in the 1967 (http://animals.nationalgeographic.com/animals/reptiles/eastern-coral-snake/). They spend much of their time underground and are not often seen, except during the breeding season. They can grow to lengths of 2-4 feet and will eat lizards and other snakes. Now for the interesting part. Other snakes, such as Scarlet Kingsnakes (Lampropeltis elapsoides) use mimicry to take advantage of the coral snake’s reputation! Let me explain. Predators, such as raptors and coyotes, learn to associate the color patterns of coral snakes with their dangerous venom and tend to avoid attacks. Kingsnakes have evolved to mimic the patterns of the coral snakes and so this means that predators will usually leave them alone! Now you might be wondering how you could tell the difference. The rule for distinguishing between these snakes (and I don’t know of any exceptions to this rule) is set to a rhyme. Red on black, friend of Jack. Red on yellow, dangerous fellow. In other words, look at the banding patterns. The coral snake has red touching yellow bands, while the kingsnake has red touching black bands.

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Left – venomous coral snake (photo: http://wildlifetrappersandrescue.com/nuisance-animals/snakes/snake-photos/easterncoral2/). Right – non-venomous scarlet kingsnake .

Got milksnake?

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Pick up a tasty milksnake at your local Steak and Snake. Note that this species has red on black, meaning it is not venomous.

Do you feel any tremors? Because here’s an earthsnake!

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Now it’s time to look at one of the deadliest snakes in the world, the Banded Sea Krait (Laticauda colubrina). These beautiful snakes are usually found in warm, tropical waters near coral reefs and mangrove swamps around Australia and southeast Asia. Though their neurotoxic venom is about 10 times more potent than rattlesnake venom, human bites are extremely rare due to the docile nature of BSKs. Many divers have swam with these snakes without fear of harm. BSKs are amphibious, and will spend a decent portion of their time on land, especially when breeding. They generally hunt in the water, preferring to prey on eels and small fish. Females are usually larger and may hunt larger-sized prey than males. Believe it or not, there is a Japanese soup made with smoked sea krait.

Banded sea krait swimming beneath large shoal of fish Banded sea krait underwater

Hopefully you’ve learned about some interesting venomous snakes and can appreciate their beauty. Some of these snakes play a vital role in controlling rodent populations. Remember that most snakes prefer to avoid conflict and will rarely bite humans. If you  enjoy the rush of feeling scard by snakes, then I encourage you to look up dangerous snakes in Australia. What’s a snake’s favorite dance? The Mamba. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to wear red on yellow and carry a baby rattle. FEAR ME!

Snake News

Did you know that snakes can be very colorful? Did you know that snakes are vital to controlling pests in many agricultural and woodland ecosystems? Though some people get nervous or anxious around snakes, most species are non-venomous and tend to shy away from confrontations . . . except for all of the vicious killer snakes in Australia. Time to face your fears and slither into the world of snakes!

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Indiana Jones is not happy with my blog topic.

First up is a species commonly found in gardens, yards, and woodlands. The Common Garter Snake (Thamnophis sirtalis) has several subspecies (with a variety of coloration!) that inhabit ranges throughout the United States. One of the characteristics of garter snakes is their longitudinal stripes. Garter snakes are not venomous and are usually docile, though some will act aggressively when threatened. They are decent swimmers and will sometimes hunt aquatic prey such as fish, amphibians, and crayfish. They also eat small mammals, earthworms, and occasionally birds. During the mating season, large numbers of garter snakes may converge into a giant breeding ball!

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Left – Eastern Garter Snake I found while looking for birds. Right – California Red-sided Garter.

Next up are the racers (Coluber constrictor). As with the garter snakes, there are a few subspecies in the U.S. When I worked as an avian field technician in southern Indiana, I saw some black racers and blue racers, but not black-and-blue racers. As their name suggests, they are quite quick and agile, often zooming away before you can get close. If the Flash was bitten by a radioactive racer, he would probably become unstoppable. Racers are often found in woodland edges and near disturbed habitats such as areas that have been clear-cut. They eat a variety of prey, including many rodents, and are most active during the heat of the day. As with many other snake species, racers will seek cover such as logs, brush, or boards when temperatures are cooler. 

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Blue Racer (http://radiostudio111.com/archives/blue-racer-snake).

The largest snake in the world is the Green Anaconda (Eunectes murinus). Females are capable of growing close to 30 feet long and weighing over 550 pounds! These anacondas are primarily found in forests, swamps, and streams within the Amazon Rain Forest. As you might imagine, they move much slower than racers, and will often lay submerged in muddied water, waiting to ambush unsuspecting prey. Anacondas will eat wild pigs, capybaras, birds, small mammals, deer, turtles, and even caimans (small crocodilians) and jaguars! They are very loving, often cuddling their prey before crushing their bones. Though many species of snakes lay eggs, Green Anacondas are viviparous, meaning that they give birth to live young. The young are about 2 feet long and quickly become active after being born.

Green anaconda stifling white-tailed deer Green anaconda moving over sand

Yum, tasty deer steak.

Hmm . . . maybe showing pictures of giant anacondas that could crush you and eat you isn’t the best way to conquer your fear of snakes. How about some pictures of cute snakes to ease your mind?

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What?! You didn’t think those were cute?! Let me try again.

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Albino Ball Python

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Snakes will not usually attack humans unless provoked. Even the venomous ones will usually hiss, raise their head threateningly, or flee rather than bite. In my next blog, I’ll take a look at some of the venomous snakes, snakes that mimic venomous snakes, and provide a few ridiculous puns. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to race around the block, dive into some muddy water, and attack a helpless victim before heading to the nearest Steak and Snake.