What if chickens were wild birds?

Posted on September 2nd, 2009 – 4:06 PM
By Jim Williams

Yes, this is a barnyard chicken. It’s a bird, though, whether or not we think of it in the same terms as warblers and raptors. And it’s a beautiful bird. I’m partial to chickens. The chicken display at the state fair is a can’t-miss stop for me. Think of this bird as wild, uncommon in Minnesota, hard to find. Think of the pleasure of standing in a woods or prairie or wherever and hearing it crow for the first time. The guide book would suggest you be there at dawn. Think of your first look at this beauty: the shawl of feathers, the bright red comb and wattles. You’d be impressed and pleased, right? I would. I am.rooster-5-6505.jpg 

Great Lakes Nature Guide

Posted on September 1st, 2009 – 8:22 AM
By Jim Williams

On a nature hike or a picnic or a weekend at the cabin it’s hard to have at hand all of the books you would need to answer questions about the more usual living things you might see. If I stack up my favorite bird, mammal, herp, flower, and tree guide books, well, it’s a stack you could use for a doorstop. Lone Pine Publishing has solved that problem with a handsome, well-conceived book entitled “Great Lakes Nature Guide.” In 238 illustrated pages, authors James S. McCormac and Krista Kagume cover the birds, mammals, amphibians and reptiles, fish, invertebrates, trees, shrubs and vines, and forbs, ferns and grasses you are most likely to find in this part of the country. Each inclusion is covered in approximately 200 words of concise descriptive text that usually includes informative and entertaining factoids. The bird section, for instance, covers 105 species, a list that would meet more of your identification needs most of the time. This is a book that will go into the book box in our van. It’s going to be well used.great-lakes-nature-guide-cover.jpg

Major source of NA bird information

Posted on August 30th, 2009 – 7:14 PM
By Jim Williams

The most complete and accessible bird-information resource for North American bird species is now available to anyone with a Hennepin County Library card. Card-holders can access the wealth of life-history information, along with photos and sound recordings, for every species of bird that breeds in North America. My printed set, bought several years ago before its Internet access was available, includes 716 species. These life histories — distribution, food habits, sounds, behavior, plumage at various stages of life, courtship, breeding and nesting, food, predators, population status, and much more — have been written by a variety of professional ornithologists. This is an incredible resource. Answer to almost any species-specific question you can imagine can be found here. You need a library card. Go to www.hclib.org, search the words North American Birds, enter your card number when requested, and there you are. The cover of the monograph for Downy Woodpecker is shown (copyright The Birds of North America, Inc., Philadelphia, PA, A. Poole and F. Gill, editors). birds-of-north-america-cover.jpg

Mute Swans

Posted on August 26th, 2009 – 10:22 PM
By Jim Williams

Feral Mute Swans are collectors’ items for Minnesota birders, but birds of a different feather in Michigan. My wife and I rode the ferry today that travels across Lake Michigan between Muskegon, Michigan, and Milwaukee. We saw about four dozen Mute Swans in the Muskegon harbor. There are several thousaned of these birds in Michigan. This is an introduced species, native to Europe and Asia but not North America. Mute Swans are aggressive birds, driving native waterfowl from lakes they choose for their use. Loon populations have been impacted by the swans. Lake-shore property owners in Michigan often petition to have the swans killed because of their aggressive habits toward both man and beast, and because the swans soil docks and swimming rafts. The Michigan DNR authorizes such kills, sometimes to the dismay of people who don’t understand the problem non-native species can cause. The population of these birds in the Great Lakes area is reported to be increasing from 10 to 20 percent per year. In Minnesota, the birds are classified as a regulated invasive species. Introduction into the wild is prohibited, and possession of captive birds requires a game-farm license and containment.

Regulatory classification (agency): Mute swans are a regulated invasive species, which means introduction into the wild is prohibited (DNR). Possession of captive birds requires a state game farm license and fencing to contain them.

Best kind of birding

Posted on August 25th, 2009 – 6:35 PM
By Jim Williams

My all-time favorite kind of birding is done on boats on oceans. I’ve taken several trips off the California coasts, but until a couple of days ago only one Atlantic trip, that out of North Carolina. Pelagic birding cannot match whale-watching for popularity, so one day last week Jude and I boarded a whale-watching vessel in the Gloucester, Mass., harbor, and hoped for birds. The chances were pretty good. The whalers go out as far as 35 miles, depending upon where the whales are feeding. That’s a lot of water. We saw five species of pelagic birds: Greater, Cory’s, and Sooty shearwaters, and Wilson’s and Leach’s storm-petrels. The shearwaters are bigger birds, their slender wings almost four feet tip to tip. The storm-petrels are the size of Purple Martins, but with longer wings. They’re all gorgeous
flyers, usually no more than a foot or two off the water, riding the air currents created by wave movement. Pelagic birding guides chum, tossing bits of fish overboard to attract gulls which in turn can bring the true ocean birds within viewing distance. Whale-watching captains don’t chum. You takes your chances. It turned out to be a good day. It would have been even better two days later when the storm named Bob blew by. It surely carried with it birds usually seen to the south. But no tourist boat filled with tank-topped adults photographing whales with their cell phones was going to do that. (There’s something odd about taking pictures of whales with cell phones.) The bird pictured is a Sooty Shearwater, one of two of our five pelagic species generous enough to sit beside the boat for a few moments. Usually, you’re doing your ID work from 300, 400, 500 feet away.


Musings on the end of the story

Posted on August 23rd, 2009 – 9:11 AM
By Jim Williams

John Tierney wrote in a recent edition of “The New York Times” (science section) about climate change, and the fat chance we have of a sincere political solution. He is not optimistic. Me neither. There is no political will to bite hard on the issue. We beat around the edges of things, pasting impressive titles on weak efforts. Mr. Tierney suggests we consider moving ahead with engineered solutions — improving the reflectivity of clouds to bounce some of the sun’s rays away from us, removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere not by preventing its creation in the first place but by simply removing it. We’re not close to any of this, but then we’re not close to anything else meaningful either. If legislation was proposed that cramped our style in serious ways, well, look at the health-care “discussion.” If you don’t understand it or don’t like it, lie, and if that isn’t enough, lie loudly. Political philosophy is not necessarily pertinent to all issues. Neither is noise. Yes, I believe the world’s climate is changing. Even if I didn’t believe in change, the possibility is there. You can bet against that possibility, but if you lose the loss is enormous. If you bet on change, and support your wager with climate solutions, well, sure you could lose, all of that effort and money for naught. But the two possible losses are hugely different. We buy insurance for everything, protecting ourselves against unacceptable outcomes. Even the slightest possibility of climate change is acceptable? I won’t live long enough to turn the page on the end of this story, or even get to its last chapter. I do like to know how things end. In this case, though, maybe not. (Right — I should go birding and cheer up.)

Jack Pine Symposium and festival at Reinaissance Fest

Posted on August 21st, 2009 – 6:44 AM
By Jim Williams

Kirtland’s Warblers had a wonderful 2009 breeding season in Wisconsin, a continuing successful expansion of their historically restricted breeding territory in Michigan. April 25-26 in Odanad, Wisconsin, near the Michigan border, to talk about the season, the birds, and how to continue this incredible effort. The program is aimed at foresters, ecologists, land managers, biologists and others working or interested in the jack pine ecosystems of Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Canada. For complete information go to http://www.uwsp.edu/conted/conferences/mjps/

Durng the recently concluded breeding seasons researchers in Wisconsin documented 12 each male and females Kirtland’s Warblers, 11 recorded nesting attempts, with seven or eight or those successful, and from 23 to 30 young fledged. It’s an amazing expansion of a bird population that has since its discovery in Michigan has numbered only a few thousand.

THE BEGINNING OF WHAT IS HOPED TO BE AN ANNUAL Twin Cities birding fair opens Saturday at the Reinaissance Festival in Shakopee. It will be located adjacent to the festival, one admission good for both events. Vendor booths and entertaining presentations will be featured. Stop by and take a look. Birds from The Raptor Center will be on display, along with artists who use birds as their motif. The Reinaissance event is located near Valley Fair.

Birds: what prose cannot say

Posted on August 20th, 2009 – 9:10 AM
By Jim Williams

My appreciation of poetry pretty much stalled early in grade school. I favor rhyming verses. And so, when given the book “Bright Wings, An Illustrated Anthology of Poems about Birds,” I approached this review with hesitation. In its favor was its editor, Billy Collins, who doesn’t rhyme often if at all, but whose wit and world view are charming. Also a plus were illustrations by the famed David Sibley, he of the best-selling bird identification books. In his introduction, Collins gives an example of the fresh look poetry can offer of the world. He uses a poem about swans by Ruth Schwartz. It is a fine poem, although it doesn’t rhyme. It does, however, have insight and a keen, offbeat sense of humor. Read this one aloud. The opening poem in the collection, by Stephen Vincent Benet, does rhyme, much to my pleasure, and is also fun to read aloud. Following that is an intelligent assembly of poems that takes us places were prose cannot go. Here is strong evidence that everything important about birds cannot be put in identification books or scientific papers. Sibley accompanies his black-and-white wash paintings with concise and sometimes eclectic comments on the species in this captivating poetic flock. (Columbia University Press, 224 pages, 54 illustrations, hardcover, $22.95.)


Why do some Red-eyed Vireos not migrate?

Posted on August 17th, 2009 – 9:43 AM
By Jim Williams

The Red-eyed Vireo is a ubiquitous bird species found throughout the eastern United States, across the northern tier of states to Washington and well into Canada. It is one of our neo-tropical migrants, arriving here in the spring to breed, migrating back to South America in late summer. It winters throughout northern South America. However, there is a population of the same species that is equally ubiquitous throughout South America. These birds don’t migrate to North America. They make short seasonal movements in South America, but do not leave the continent. So, why and how did some of these birds make their way, a long way, north while others found suitable nesting habitat for food for young with much less effort? I don’t know. The question came to mind while I was examining the excellent range maps in the book “Field Guide to the Songbirds of South America.” Written by Robert S. Ridgely and Guy Tudor, it was recently published by the University of Texas Press. While I have no plans to travel to South America where this book would be extremely useful, I found the range maps for those of ‘our’ nesting migrants that winter in South America very interesting. Guide books dealing with identification and range of North American birds often show only North American ranges. A peek at their winter distribution in South America is illuminating. The book, of course, covers hundreds of species we never see. It has 760 pages and 256 pages of color plates and range maps for more than 1,500 bird species. It’s yours for $49.95 paperback or $125 hardcover.


Latin names

Posted on August 14th, 2009 – 5:53 AM
By Jim Williams

Birds have common names and scientific names. Both offer valuable information, the latter often more informative and entertaining. I have a book entitled “The Dictionary of American Bird Names.” It was written by Ernest A. Choate, published by The Harvard Common Press in 1985. It’s both a useful reference tool and great fun to read. The House Wren, for example, has the Latin name Troglodytes aedon. Troglodytes refers to the wren family; all birds with this group name are members of the wren family. Aedon specifies a particular species, the one we know as House Wren. Troglodytes means cave dweller, given to wrens because they are cavity nesters. Aedon is from the Greek. Aedon, the daughter of Pandereus, was changed into a nightingale by the gods, but, as author Choate notes, into a wren by a fellow named Vieillot, who first gave the bird its formal name. House Wrens and nightingales share an ability to sing pretty songs. Sometimes that second or ‘trivial’ name honors a friend or associate of the person doing the naming. Lucy’s Warbler, for example: Vermivora luciae. Vermis is worm in Latin, voro Latin for eat: A family of birds that eats worms. Luciae is for Lucy Baird, daughter of an early and well-known ornithologist (Baird’s Sparrow is named for him). Below, Troglodytes aedon in song.