Let's face it, bird taxonomy is currently a shit show.
Let's face it, bird taxonomy is currently a shit show.
Gulls get a guy banned from a hotel for 17 years.
If guys flirted like birds...and vice versa.
There was an interesting article about the politics of posting owl locations recently. Each winter I find myself more irritated when large numbers of owls show up and people go bonkers on the Internet arguing about whether or not the locations should be posted, if people are getting too close and whether or not they should be baited. When it comes to snowy owls, I figure this is a bird that nests on the ground and can live where there are polar bears, foxes and wolves. It's learned to live with bigger threats than a photographer. Also I shake my fist and wish all the snowy owls would just go back home.
And my attitude is a shame because...owls are cool. When you get started in birding, finding your first owl is a triumph of the human spirit! And with some practice you can find them more often than not.
One of the things that I love about where I live now is my birding patch. We have a wetland that is an easy 2 mile loop from my back door. I've eBirded the spot so much that it's now a hot spot. It's not the most exciting spot in winter, but I'm always hopeful that one winter I will get a northern saw-whet owl back there and I always watch for them. Last winter when we were having a balmy February, I biked past some cedars and saw the telltale small owl sign: copious amounts of owl poop and pellets.
I pulled to a stop and carefully looked over the pellets under the pine tree. I could see some sporadic poop under the cedars but the most accumulation appeared to be under a nearby pine. I tried looking up high in the pine for more poop or even an owl but didn't see anything. Not seeing an owl I thought I would go in and collect the pellets. As I hunched over to avoid bumping into the lowest branches...BAM... perched in an old robin's nest on the lowest branch was an eastern screech-owl. The bird had stretched upward, looking quite skinny and branch-like. I know this is a defense and camouflage posture but the owl's faced almost looked accusatory, "How DARE you come in here!!"
Before I could help myself I said, "Oops, sorry," and hightailed out of there, feeling bad I disturbed it. The owl didn't fly away and I was grateful for that.
I biked by the next day and could make out it's shape in the thick tangles of the branches. This went along for a few more days and I decided to take Non Birding Bill with me and try and get a photo. There was no easy way to get a picture, the bird seemed to have found the perfect spot to communicate, "I don't care to be observed."
I found the one hole among the branches where you could make out the face of the owl about twenty feet away...where trucks typically park to unload packages for the local businesses. The bird stared at me the entire time I was there (about three minutes). Since the owl didn't seem to relax around me, I kept it brief with a documentation shot.
The next day I biked past and didn't see the screech shape on the usual low branch. I looked around some more and noticed that the bird moved to one of the cedars and was much higher up in the tree. Noted, screech, you don't like the paparazzi, I will leave you alone and keep your location on the down low.
As winter transitioned to the breeding season, the owl disappeared. Late in summer I found a screech in a mulberry bush right over the trail. I was excited that my neighbor was still around and then realized that the tufts on the bird were downy--screech-owl offspring!
Later in the fall while biking I saw the telltale poop in the pine with the cedars and sure enough, there was the low-roosting screech. I took a moment to welcome it back and noted that once again it chose the roost that was surrounded by the most branches.
All of this bird's behavior has made me reluctant to tell anyone about the screech location. I was reluctant to even enter it in eBird. When screeches have been reported near me, they can attract a lot of photographers. Some don't seem to mind: roosting next to busy tennis courts or streets, but this bird keeps choosing impossible to photograph perches and on the days I bring a scope or a friend, it chooses a much higher roost the next day makes me think that it is not in the mood for disturbance.
But then there's my neighborhood barred owl. This bird is a bit more...chill. I first noticed it late last summer. NBB has taken to showing movies on our sun roof at night when the weather is warm enough. One night two barred owls flew right over the roof above our heads while we were watching Airplane. Later in the fall I was walking home from the patch and a barred owl was trying to take a grey squirrel off the trunk of a tree. And in early January, I was walking home from the grocery store on the bike trail behind our home and a barred owl flew out of the trees and cruised along the trail towards me. I was excited that it was going to pass by me until the split second I saw the talons start to lower and realized it was going for my grocery bag. I shouted and it veered off to my left. Nothing like an owl about to fly into you to get your adrenaline pumping.
I'd been trying to suss out where the barred owl has been roosting and I found some pine trees near some railroad tracks that gave me a clue. I found an accumulation of chalky-textured poop and old pellets. It wasn't in any of the places where I'd seen the screech-owl and it matched up to all the places where I've seen hunting, including the time it tried to kill my grocery bag. The interesting thing is that the roost was right over a social trail people had made in order to get access to the bike trail. I made a mental note of the spot and decided to include it on my walks. And sure enough on a single digit temperature day, I found it in the roost.
The owl took note of me and then went about roosting in the sun. There was a fat tire bike rider slowly moving along the bike trail behind me. They started coughing and that got the owl's attention. The situation reminded me of a quote I saw last year from Andrew Baksh about viewing and photographing owls: "I have had some lucky encounters and in each case the Owls were chill, I was chill."
This owl is very different from my neighborhood screech, it is quite chill. It hunts along a heavily used trail, it roosts over places people walk with their dogs and it doesn't seem to mind the occasional train.
So for me, when it comes to reporting owls I'll take it on a case by case basis. Some can handle people and some can't.
Birdcast has live migration maps this spring!
A hot mess of an article about birds, National Parks and climate change.
Urban barred owls give very few ducks.
The closing of the Lodge and Spa in Pico Bonito National Park is covered in a bit more detail over at This Birding Life.
Bird sperm fundraiser. Yep. That's what I typed.
EDIT: added the correct audio file. Whoops! -nbb
Oxpeckers sleeping around giraffe "armpits" and testicles.
Thanks to searching for poop on NASA images, we found some penguins.
The obscure 80s movie called Looker.
One of the risks of traveling for birding is that sometimes you are going to see birds in cages and it's going to gut you. One of the most brutal examples for me was in Honduras. We had spent the morning in arid and remote habitat looking for the Honduran emerald, a hummingbird only found in Honduras. We saw several other species, but the day was hot and we couldn't get enough water. Because we were far from out lodge and all the villages nearby were small, arrangements had been made to have lunch at a local rancher's house. His wife prepared us a hard meal of chicken, salad, rice, beans and freshly squeezed juice. Her home was lovely and we ate indoors, while her kitchen was outdoors.
Afterwards we were allowed to wander the yard, take pictures of her kitchen or nap in her many hammocks. I grabbed a few photos of her stove and then settled in a hammock. I had a vague awareness of her animals around the property, most notably chickens but then I noticed a bird cage leaning against a tree with three white-fronted amazons inside. I tried to will myself to not pay them further attention and to let myself fall into a nap. Then I overheard two women from my group discussing the birds. "Oh, look at that! Mom, dad and a baby!" My brain snapped awake.
"They're not babies," I called over and the women looked confused. I walked to the cage and noted the overturned water dish, the empty food dish and complete and utter lack of toys for the birds to chew. I noted the bark of the tree that the cage leaned against was covered in chew marks. And I noted two birds hunkered together while a third--the odd man out had chewed most of his body feathers away. "That's not a baby, that is a bird bored with it's captivity that is chewing it's feathers because it has nothing to do."
I could feel rage and frustration coming over me...followed by the inevitable welling of tears. We'd seen these parrots throughout our trip living in the wild. There's nothing like seeing the parrot brain and beak navigate in the wild. They're so smart at figuring out how to crack open hard nuts for finding food and establishing long term pair bonds. After seeing them in the wild that morning and now to see three bored in a cage was gut wrenching. I noted the chickens freely roaming the yard--soon to be food. The food chickens had a better life than the three birds living in bored torture that were kept out of love.
I walked around the yard trying to force the emotion back. This was a birding tour, not my time to be some white lady telling a woman trying to get by in Honduras on how to raise her pets. But I also thought of the bird I had at home and how miserable he'd be in cage with nothing to chew and no water on a miserably hot day.
I went back into the home and grabbed a napkin from my lunch to try and hide what I'd been thinking. I decided to force myself back to the cage and confront the situation. I wanted to look the plucked bird in the eye and just acknowledge that I see the life it's living and I know that it sucks. As I looked at the plucked bird, it walked over to where my hands were and its beak reached through the bars toward my hand holding my slightly damp napkin...it wanted to chew it.
My Spanish is terrible so I asked my local guid to ask the woman if she'd mind if I gave her bird a napkin to chew. She nodded it was ok. I brought it forward and the bird greedily snatched the napkin away and started tearing it apart. Its cage mates came down to explore as well.
I asked my guide to translate for me. "This bird needs a job. This bird sees how hard you and your family works and it wants to work too. Because it has nothing to work on, he gets bored and plucks his feathers. If you give him some rope or coconut husk to chew on, it might stop chewing its feathers and be beautiful again."
She seemed to consider the suggestion, but I have no idea of it worked and left embarrassed that I'd gotten emotional in front of the group. I especially don't enjoy being the person visiting and learning about another country and telling people how to live their lives. I've built a thick skin when it comes to nature. Life in the wild is brutal. Most animals don't die quiet deaths in their sleep, they're eaten alive, they can live for days starving after receiving a crippling injury, babies are plucked from their nests...it's horrifying. When I see animals in awful domestic situations I try to remind myself that life may not be much better for them in the wild. But a parrot that can live for decades sitting bored in a cage...that torture seems far too long.
And this doesn't only happen to parrots. It happens to birds we can see in our backyards..
Our first day walking around Old Havana, I heard an indigo bunting singing. It didn't seem to be the right habitat but maybe it was a bird caught in the city during migration. We looked for the source of the song and found a balcony covered in bird cages full of illegal birds: Cuban bullfinch, indigo buntings and painted buntings. We would end up seeing wild birds illegally kept in cages every day. The most common was the painted bunting. To learn more about the bunting trade in Cuba, read this fascinating article the bunting black market.
Part of our trip included a visit to a tobacco farm. As the farmer explained his process for trying leaves, a painted bunting new to captivity frantically flitting around the cage looking for an escape. We also passed a mocking bird which sat with its foot tucked, a relaxed posture. It had seemed to accept its place in a cage. The farm was huge and there were several other buntings in cages.
I took our cultural guide aside and said, "Look, if you are going to bring birders here, you should maybe tell the farmer to at least hide his illegal birds."
She looked surprised and I explained that even in Cuba, buntings were not allowed as pets. I also explained that while our group was chill, some birding groups would raise a big fuss and get angry at seeing that. Our guide marched right up to the farmer and started yelling at him. He smiled, answered her and walked away.
"What did you tell him," I asked.
"I told him that birds do not belong in cages and he needs to let them go," she said angrily.
"What did he answer," I asked.
"He said how can he see them otherwise," she replied.
Indeed, how could he? The concept of watching birds in the wild as well owning binoculars and spotting scopes is not a thing in Cuba--yet. And when the painted bunting are there, they are secretive, hidden in grasses feeding. Not the flashy bird on a perch singing his beautiful song.
That night at the bar we were having drinks with our ornithologist guide Hiram. We were discussing all the illegal birds and in cages. I mentioned how it was clear from the bunting's frantic hopping in the cage that it was a recent capture, but the mockingbird had clearly accepted its captivity. It seemed very relaxed and even at one point tucked its foot--something birds do when completely relaxed.
Hiram said that it's custom to take mockingbirds from the nest when they are young and then teach them the Cuban anthem making them a beloved bird. The Cuban people love their birds. They want them nearby and singing all the time. Hiram also mentioned that people have tried caging the Cuban trogon and it dies in captivity...which is why it's so beloved and a national symbol. Like the Cuban people it cannot be contained. It prefers death to life in captivity.
These are not problems I can fix. People love birds. Sometimes that translates into living conditions that aren't the best for the birds. This is not a problem that can be fixed today, next week or even next year. Maybe over time with some education this might be minimized. But for the current time many of the bird species we know face odds and dangers we can't imagine.
Ovenbird vs a garter snake. OMG those birds are surprisingly badass.
It's winter so of course we talking about owls. Here's an article that I did for Audubon with tips on how to search for Northern Saw-whet Owls. The politics of reporting owls...there are definitely more northern species of owls in the northern US this year, but the locations are being kept on the down low this winter. Even eBird has put owls on the sensitive species list so you can't use it for exact locations.
Vogue did an article about bird watching...and it isn't terrible...
Non Birding Bill's other podcast: Aging Poorly.
One of the reasons we stopped podcasting is in this post. It's hard to have a snarky birding podcast when the news is often terrible. But we're back for now. Thank you for your patience.