The Handsome House Finch

House Finch (Carpodacus mexicanus) Photo by Nigel
House Finch (Carpodacus mexicanus) Photo by Nigel

The spectacle of spring is upon us- birds singing, flowers blooming, bees buzzing. And though you may not be aware, there are romantic dramas to rival the latest season of Downton Abbey taking place in your backyard.   Will Lady Mary choose Lord Gillingham or Charles Blake? If she were a House Finch, she would be flitting off into the bushes with whichever man had the reddest feathers.

 

Like Lady Mary, female house finches are practical. They are looking for a mate that offers concrete benefits to their potential offspring, not simply charm or good times. Though female House Finches are a drab brown, they size up potential mates by color. Male House Finches sport yellow, orange or red feathers on their head, breast and rump. In the eyes of the females, redder is better. Female finches, as well as biologists, consider the redness of a male house finch’s feathers to be an honest indicator of his quality. The red color of these feathers is due to carotenoid pigments, including the familiar beta-carotene. House finches cannot produce these pigments themselves, instead they must get them from the foods that they eat. The more carotenoid rich foods a male eats, the redder feathers he can produce. Males that cannot find enough food rich in these pigments will only be able to produce feathers that are yellow or orange, rather than fiery red. So the redness of a male’s feathers indicate his talent as a forager, talent that may be passed along to his offspring.

 

A male’s color also tells females about his immune system. House finches, like all animals, are infected by many kinds of parasites. (Not to worry, bird parasites are generally not transmissible to humans.) These parasites can affect a male’s ability to use the carotenoids in his diet to produce red feathers. If a male is heavily infected with parasites, the feathers he produces will be paler, even if his diet is rich in carotenoid pigments. So a male’s redness gives females clues about his health and ability to fight off infections. If a female mates with a redder male, her offspring may inherit his superior immune system.

 

Biologists have found that male color is important to female birds in many other species, including the American Goldfinch, which is also common at feeders in the Grand Valley. In the case of the Goldfinch, females are on the lookout for bright yellow males. Like the House Finch, Goldfinches get their yellow feather color from carotenoid pigments their diet- in this case yellow carotenoids, like lutein, rather than red ones.

 

So the next time you watch the goings on at your feeder, see if you can spot the most eligible bachelor. He’ll be the House Finch with the scarlet chest or the Goldfinch as bright as a dandelion. Then sit back and watch the show.

 

 Try This Trick at Home

 

If you want to have the sexiest House Finches on the block, you can try this little experiment: Put a little finely chopped carrot peel, shredded carrots or sweet potatoes out near your bird feeder. These vegetables are rich in the carotenoids House Finches need to produce redder feathers. Biologists have provided these foods to House Finches in experiments to increase their redness and apparently the birds loved them. The time to try this is in the late summer and early fall. That is when the finches are going through molt, dropping all their old feathers and replacing them with new ones. Dietary carotenoid pigments are most important when they are growing this new set of feathers. Once the feathers are produced, their color doesn’t change until they molt the following year.

 

An edited version of this post first appeared in the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel on Tuesday April 8, 2014.  You can check it out here: http://www.gjsentinel.com/outdoors/articles/the-handsome-house-finch

 

 

The Handsome House Finch

Got Kids? Get Ladybugs.

 

Photo from pdphoto.org
Photo from pdphoto.org

If your kids are anything like mine, they LOVE to catch insects.  A bug jar accompanies us on most walks and we know which spots on our usual routes are rollie-pollie jackpots. (Yes, I know rollie-pollies are not insects but bear with me.)  Then again, my children just spent 45 minutes playing with their pet earthworms at the breakfast table so they may be outliers.

 

Nevertheless, I am willing to bet that your kids love ladybugs.  How could they not?  Ladybugs are so dang cute, friendly and not slimy. But North America’s native ladybug species are in decline, possibly due to competition with other ladybug species introduced from Asia, and/or the ladybug diseases carried by the introduced species. (You can read more about that in this article, “Ladybug, Ladybug, Fly Away Home” on my blog, picahudsonia.com.)

 

But your kids, with a little assistance from you, can help researchers at Cornell University find native ladybugs species that are becoming increasingly rare, as well as monitor changes in the species composition of ladybug populations.  The program is called the Lost Ladybug Project and it’s super simple and fun.  You just catch ladybugs, photograph them, and upload the photos at the project website along with a little info about where and when you found the ladybug. Plus you may get to perform a cool little “magic” trick for your kids.  Normally, ladybugs crawl or fly pretty fast making good, close-up photography frustrating.  But, if you put them in a container in your fridge for a short period of time, they get chilled, slow down and are amenable to a brief modeling session.  Once they warm up they will take off unharmed.  Here’s the link to the project website again where you can find detailed instructions:  http://www.lostladybug.org/.

 

Through the Lost Ladybug Project, kids have already great contributions to the conservation of native ladybugs. Six-year-old Alyson Yates and her mother located a concentration of rare native lady bug species in Oregon, and a few individuals from their find were used to start breeding colonies of the native nine-spotted ladybug (Coccinella novemnotata.) And while the Lost Ladybug Project is ideal for kids because of its simplicity, they shouldn’t have all the fun.  Whether you are a gardener who is interested in beneficial insects or a photographer with a new macro lens you want to play with, this project is a quick, easy way for you to make a contribution as a citizen scientist.  So grab your camera, head out into your backyard and see what you can find!

Got Kids? Get Ladybugs.

Check out “The Citizen Biologist”

Slide1

Hello all!

I have started a new blog called “The Citizen Biologist” that will focus on citizen science projects in the realm of field biology.  There are two new posts over there.  If you have a minute please check it out:  http://citizenbiologist.com/.  Pica Hudsonia will continue, I have just gotten really excited about citizen science and I wanted to organize my writing about it in one easy to find spot.  I hope you enjoy it!

Thanks, Meredith

Check out “The Citizen Biologist”

Smart Phones for Science: Helping Track Hummingbirds and the Effects of Climate Change

Broad-tailed Hummingbird (Selaphorus platycercus) photo by Kati Fleming
Broad-tailed Hummingbird (Selaphorus platycercus) photo by Kati Fleming

Admit it.  You spend too much time messing around on that addictive little toy – your smart phone. Now you can use your phone to do something more productive than checking Facebook or playing Angry Birds. The good folks at Audubon have created a new citizen science project that lets you use your device to collect data that is vital for the conservation of hummingbirds.

 

Hummingbirds are nature’s little dynamos.  Weighing tiny fractions of an ounce they beat their wings up to 80 times per second allowing them to hover, fly backwards and travel great distances – some species migrate thousands of miles.  All of this zipping about requires frequent refueling with hummingbird’s rocket fuel of choice – nectar.  Hummingbirds’ metabolism is so fast that if they miss a feeding by just a few hours they can die.  The tiny birds must time their migrations carefully.  Arriving in the North before nectar-bearing flowers are blooming, and food is available, could prove fatal.  It is believed that hummingbirds use photo-period or day-length cues to time their migration.  When the days get longer in the spring, they know that northern flowers should be blooming and it is time to start heading to the breeding grounds.

 

But climate change threatens to “un-sync” the correlation between day-length and the blooming of nectar producing flowers. For instance, warmer temperatures could cause nectar-bearing plants to bloom early.  By the time the hummingbirds (who have scheduled their travel based on day-length) arrive, the flowers may have gone to seed leaving the birds hungry.  Audubon’s “Hummingbirds at Home” project aims to collect data on the timing of hummingbird arrival and the blooming of nectar-bearing flowers all over North America.  Not too long ago, you would need several tools to collect to this kind of survey: a GPS device, a timer and some way to record your data.  But these days many of us are carrying all of those tools around in our pocket everyday in the form of a smart phone.  Throw in a pair of binoculars and you are good to go.  Audubon has even created a nifty app for iPhones and Android phones that makes it easy to do your survey with the correct protocol.  Or, if you are a smart phone ascetic, you can enter your data on a computer. Plus, you can view everyone else’s data on a cool Google map.  Check out the program and download the app here:  http://www.hummingbirdsathome.org/

 

Here in Western Colorado the flowers are JUST starting to bloom, and I have my hummingbird feeder out.  I am planning on doing my first hummingbird survey tomorrow.  After all, the absence of nectar-bearling flowers or hummingbirds is an important data point too.  If anyone else out there is participating in this project I would love to hear about your experiences with it.  Now get outside and get some data!

Smart Phones for Science: Helping Track Hummingbirds and the Effects of Climate Change