Poo-Poo Project Prevents Bird Deaths

 

LEOW_poopoo original
A very lucky, but unhappy, Long-eared Owl that was rescued from a vault toilet by the BLM. Once this bird has been cleaned, it should recover quickly. Many other birds are not so fortunate. Image courtesy of the Teton Raptor Center, Photo Credit BLM Lakeview District Office.

Anyone who has visited public lands in the west will be familiar with the boxy brown vault toilets stationed at trailheads and parking lots. These facilities provide welcome relief for trail-users and travelers while reducing the impact of human waste on the environment, but they have a hidden downside for birds.

The toilet’s ventilation pipe, which extends from the roof of the building like a chimney, can be a death trap for curious birds. Many species, including several types of owls, Kestrels, Flickers and bluebirds, nest in cavities. Typically, these are natural cavities, like holes in dead cottonwoods. But natural cavities are a limited and valuable resource, and cavity nesting birds will check out any hole, even man-made ones, that might make a suitable nest site.

A vault toilet ventilation pipe is one such cavity. When birds fly into the pipe, they can become trapped in the vault of the toilet with the human waste. Usually these trapped birds die due to stress and starvation. If someone happens to see them in the vault, and the facility’s manager is able to get them out, the birds can be cleaned, rehabilitated and released.

Wildlife rehabilitators at the Teton Raptor Center, located in Wilson, Wyoming, had

Laura Johnston
Laura Johnston holds a “Poo-Poo Screen” that can be installed on the top of a vault toilet ventilation pipe to prevent cavity nesting birds from entering it and becoming trapped. This screen is specially designed to allow for proper ventilation, even when covered by snow. Photo courtesy of Laura Johnston.

treated many birds rescued from toilets, and decided that prevention was the best medicine. They started the “Poo-Poo Project” in 2010 to find a practical solution to the problem. After trial and error, they designed a screen to fit over the opening of the ventilation pipe and found a company in Idaho Falls to manufacture them at a cost of about $30.00 per screen. The Poo-Poo Project now raises money to purchase screens and coordinate with local, state and federal land agencies to get them installed. As of 2017, about 5,000 “Poo-Poo Screens” have been installed in 29 states.

Grand Junction resident Laura Johnston led the Poo-Poo Project charge locally. Johnston works as a park ranger in Grand Teton National Park during the summer, which is where she first learned of the project. “I felt like for five months of my life, this concept of stewardship was front and center and then I come home and it just goes away. And I thought I need to have something that keeps this idea of stewardship going for me personally.”

When she returned to Grand Junction at the end of the summer in 2015, Johnston applied for and received a Rich Levad Research Grant from the Grand Valley Audubon Society to purchase “Poo-Poo Screens.” With this grant and donations from individuals, Johnston raised about $3,000 and purchased screens for vault toilets in the Grand Valley. She coordinated with the Bureau of Land Management, Colorado Parks and Wildlife, the

CPW screen
Trina Romero, Watchable Wildlife & Volunteer Coordinator for Colorado Parks and Wildlife, holds a “Poo-Poo Screen” about to be installed on a vault toilet on CPW property. Photo courtesy of Laura Johnston

Bureau of Reclamation and other agencies to get the screens installed. According to Johnston, all of these agencies were happy to install the screens on their vault toilets. “So far, we have installed 166 screens and the Grand Valley is done basically,” says Johnston.

Now Johnston hopes to get screens installed on all the public vault toilets in Colorado. She continues to volunteer her time to raise money to purchase the screens, and get them delivered and installed where needed. Thankfully, newer models of vault toilets on the market come with ventilation pipe screens. But there remain many older facilities that are yet to be screened. Thanks to the hard work of Johnston and the folks at the Teton Raptor Center, the toilets that provide much needed relief at the end of a long hike won’t lead to a very unpleasant end for local birds.

 

kestrel
An American kestrel, trapped in the vault of a toilet, finds an unpleasant perch. Photo courtesy Cameron Collins and Clay Stott/BLM

 

If you’d like to help Johnston purchase Poo-Poo Screens for facilities in Colorado, you donate to her effort via the Grand Valley Audubon Society. They accept donations for her Poo-Poo Project work on their website, audubongv.org or you can mail a check to the Grand Valley Audubon Society, P.O. Box 1211, Grand Junction, CO, 81502. Please be sure to write “for Poo-Poo Project” on the check. If you’d like to get in touch with Johnston about the Poo-Poo Project, you can contact her via the Grand Valley Audubon Society at gvas.executivecoordinator@gmail.com.

Vault toilet ventilation pipes are not the only man-made cavities that can be hazardous for birds. Virtually any vertical open pipe can trap a curious bird. Once they fly in, tight confines prevent them from opening their wings, and unlike in natural cavities, the slick surface inside pipes prevents birds from getting a foothold to climb up and out. One survey of over 800 open pipes used as mining claim stakes in Nevada found the carcasses of almost 900 birds. A single defunct irrigation pipe in California contained the bodies of 200 birds. You can prevent unnecessary bird deaths on your property by capping or covering vertical open pipes. The cap or screen need not be expensive, as long as it is not easily dislodged by wind or other disturbance.

 

(This article was originally published in the March 25, 2017 issue of the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel, as Life-saving Screen)

 

 

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Poo-Poo Project Prevents Bird Deaths

A blast from the past

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This past Saturday started slowly as rainy weekend mornings often do. I sat at my kitchen table, answering an email on my laptop, drinking coffee and occasionally glancing out the window at the birds visiting the feeder. Then I saw a visitor that made me jump out of my seat– a White-throated Sparrow.

I have not seen a White-throated Sparrow in quite a while, but I spent a large chunk of my twenties stalking this bird in the black fly infested forests of Northern Vermont and trapping wintering sparrows in Texas. I studied this fascinating and frequently frustrating species for my PhD dissertation.

I currently live in western Colorado, on the edge of the red rock desert typically associated with Utah. White-throated Sparrows breed in the Boreal forest of Canada and far Northeastern U.S.; they winter in the Southeastern U.S., parts of the Midwest, and even the California coast. But not Colorado. They are recorded in my neck of the woods occasionally, and are usually just passing through during migration. I have lived here for 8 years and never seen one.

My almost five-year-old daughter heard me gasp and came to the window to check out the bird I was so excited by. Like many kids, when she looks out the window she usually feels the need to be touching it. The thwack of little hands hitting glass has scattered interesting birds more times than I can count. So my excitement quickly transitioned into desperate pleas for her not touch or get too close to the window. As is also typical with almost five-year-olds, I had to hiss this at her five or six times (No! Please no! Just look from there!) before I convinced her she could see the very cool White-throated Sparrow just fine without her nose on the glass.

Then I swung into flustered, scrambling action. I needed documentation! I grabbed the nearest camera- my phone and tried to get a photo. Total fail. “Stupid phone!” I scurried down the hall to my bedroom and started tearing it apart trying to locate my husband’s real camera. Cursing our clutter I found it and returned to the window. The sparrow was still eating seeds below the feeder! Yes!

No! “I hate this camera!” It never does what I want it to and there are too many settings. (It’s actually not that complicated, but I only attempt to use it maybe every other year. My husband has tried to teach me the basic operations but “I don’t learn well from him” Translation: stubbornly hate when he tells me how to do things, even if I have asked him to…)

Finally I manage to get an ugly picture but the sparrow’s key markings are visible. Proof! My daughter, who is the only family member home with me at the time, doesn’t really appreciate how cool this bird is. So, this being 2016, I take to social media to share my enthusiasm and solicit some affirmation from the science/birder crowd on Twitter.

In 120 characters or less I broadcast my excitement about my awesome bird sighting.

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I tagged the Twitter account CitSci WTSP (WTSP= White-throated Sparrow) which uses the handle @WTSPsong. I had followed this account awhile back because I am interested in citizen science and White-throated Sparrows are “my” bird, but I hadn’t really looked into what they were about. But I thought that if anyone in the “Twitterverse” would get why I was so happy about this sparrow, they would.

Well @WTSPsong was excited for me all the way from Canada. Turns out CitSci WTSP is a citizen science project based out of the University of Northern British Colombia and Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ontario. The project leaders, Ken Otter, Scott Ramsay, and Stephanie LaZerte are studying variation in White-throated Sparrow songs. They are asking citizen scientists to record sparrows in their area and submit the recordings to the project which will measure how the sparrows song change over the years and across the continent.

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“Ha!” I thought. This bird is NOT going to sing! It’s cold and wet, he’s migrating (if he even is a male) and there are no other White-throated Sparrows around to show off to. Shows you what I know.

Several hours later I was unloading groceries from the car and there it was! The pure whistled “Old Sam peabody peabody”if you’re a Yankee or “Pure Sweet Canada Canada” if you’re a Canuck. My head snapped around like

giphy

via GIPHY

The sparrow was in the neighbor’s crabapple tree across the street. I dropped the groceries and whipped out my phone. There was a surely a record function on this stupid phone somewhere, right? “F@#king phone, f*#k, f*#k!” Luckily I hadn’t found the record button yet, so my sailor’s mouth is not “on tape”. Finally I found the voice memo app and started sneaking up on the tree.

The neighbors, who just moved in this week and don’t know me from Adam, doubtless wondered why this strange woman was standing on the sidewalk, in the drizzle, pointing her phone at their crabapple like a ray gun for 15 minutes. Welcome to the neighborhood! You may have guessed from the ceramic woodpecker affixed to our house and the owl sculpture in the garden– here be birders! Don’t be alarmed, we’re not trying to catch a glimpse of you exciting the shower with these binoculars! We just want a look at that Blue Grosbeak in your bushes.

Despite a lot of background noise, and a measly smartphone recording, I managed to get something the White-throat Song project could use, their first recording from Colorado. Yay science! That yellow dot in Colorado is me!

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So check out the White-throat Song Project  and help them fill up this map with recordings. White-throated Sparrows have a beautiful and easily recognizable song. You can listen to recordings of songs from across the U.S. and Canada here on xeno-canto.org.

Get outside, get data!

A blast from the past

Brainy Birds

Common Ravens, public domain
Common Ravens, public domain

At one time in my life, I was a (very minor) celebrity. I had only a handful of fans, but they were loud, devoted… and covered in black feathers. If they had spoken English, they would have cried out at my arrival: “She’s here! It’s really her! It’s the mouse lady!”

I was working at a facility that housed birds, including 3-4 Common Ravens in large outdoor aviaries. The aviaries were huge and enclosed on all sides with heavy wire mesh that kept the birds in and predators, like cats and hawks, out. Because predators were excluded and there was an abundance of bird seed and other goodies on the ground, the aviaries were a haven for mice.

Mice can carry Hanta virus, and will even eat disabled birds, so they were not welcome in the aviaries. I decided to put a dent in their population using snap traps. Every morning I collected a grisly pile of mouse corpses from my traps. It was disgusting. A few days into my mouse eradication campaign, I decided that instead of tossing my dead mice in the trash, I would give them to the ravens.

Common Ravens will eat just about anything, but they love carrion. I thought the captive ravens might enjoy a treat, so I pitched the day’s mice into the ravens’ bowl. The next morning they were gone, only some leftover dog kibble remained.

After a couple of days of receiving mice, I noticed that the ravens got excited whenever I arrived. They flew from perch to perch and croaked excitedly when I appeared. The other people that worked in the aviaries never got this greeting, not even the woman that fed the raven their daily ration of dog food.  The ravens seemed to recognize me, regardless of what coat I was wearing, or if I had a hat or sunglasses on.

While I liked to joke about how the birds knew and loved me, scientists have recently shown that the Common Raven’s smaller cousin, the crow, does indeed recognize individual human faces, and it is likely that ravens can too. In fact these birds are capable of some impressive intellectual feats.

Bernd Heinrich, a biologist who studied raven behavior extensively and wrote the book Ravens in Winter, devised a clever test of raven intelligence. He tied a long piece of string to a branch and attached a piece of meat to the end of it. When a raven perched on the branch, the long string let the meat dangle of out reach below the bird.

But the raven solved the problem. The bird would reach down, pull up a length of string, lay it against the branch and step on it to hold it.  Then it would pull up another length of string and hold it, effectively reeling in the sting until it could reach the meat. Heinrich tested multiple adult ravens and they not only solved the problem, they did it without using trial and error. The birds appeared to study the situation, think through possibilities and then quickly reel in the meat.

Ravens also have a good memory. They cache, or hide, food to eat later and because they have a lousy sense of smell, they need to remember where they put it rather than sniff it out. Young ravens will practice caching by hiding inedible items, they also practice another favorite raven trick– stealing each other’s caches.

Through a series of careful experiments, Heinrich and his colleagues were able to show that ravens can learn which individuals make a habit of stealing caches and they will wait until the thief cannot observe them before hiding their treat. Ravens can also attribute knowledge to other individuals and predict their actions. In other words, Rick the raven knows that Betty also saw where Cindy hid that tasty bit of rabbit. Some animal intelligence experts believe that the raven’s smarts are comparable to those of chimpanzees and dolphins.

So if you ever get the feeling you’re being watched by your neighborhood ravens, you’re probably right. They know your face and they probably know that Wednesday is trash day and that the Walkers have usually have roast chicken on Tuesday so there will be good leftovers in the bag at the top of the can.

This article was originally published in the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel on October 25, 2015

Brainy Birds

How to Speak Chickadese

Black-capped Chicadee, photo by Alain Wolf (Wikimedia Commons)
Black-capped Chicadee, photo by Alain Wolf (Wikimedia Commons)

Last week, I watched as a sharp-shinned hawk made his daily foray through my yard, trying to nab one of the birds visiting my feeders. The birds dashed for cover and the hawk missed his target and alighted on the fence to plot his next move. Meanwhile, 3 black-capped chickadees that had reached safety in the branchy crown of the willow began a furious chorus of their characteristic “chicka-dee” call. But why were these tiny birds drawing attention to themselves while a deadly predator sat less than ten feet away? If you learn to speak a few words of “Chickadese,” you might be surprised at how much they were saying.

When we think about bird sounds we usually think about their songs. But birds make different sounds for different reasons, and in some cases, ornithologists have figured what these sounds mean. Songs are a vocalization that birds make when trying to attract a mate, or tell neighbors that this is their territory and “get off my lawn!” When chickadees sing it sounds like a clear whistled “fee-bee” or “fee- bee- bee.”

Chickadees also make what is described as a “gargle” call, but to me sounds like a super-speeded up recording of someone talking. This call is used in aggressive encounters between chickadees and seems to mean something like “get out of my space bozo!” The gargle call is apparently also used frequently between members of a mated pair—I am not sure what this says about the state of chickadee marital relationships.

When danger is near, say a predator is on the attack, chickadees will make a high pitched “seee” alarm call. High pitched, “thin” sounds like the “seee” call are harder to localize- many species of birds use similar sounds as alarm calls. Ornithologists believe these types of calls allow birds to warn others without giving away their location to the predator.

The “chicka-dee” call is used in multiple situations, but it is frequently used as a “mobbing call.” Birds use mobbing calls when they want to attract attention to a predator. Most predators need the element of surprise. If the prey spots the predator before the attack, the predator usually gives up and moves on. When chickadees are mobbing a predator, their chickadee call is essentially saying “Hey guys! There’s a hawk over here! Let’s go yell at him so he knows we see him!”

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About a decade ago, ornithologists at the University of Montana noticed that sometimes the “chicka-dee” call has just a couple “dee” notes at the end: “chicka-dee-dee,” and sometimes it has more: “chicka-dee-dee-dee-dee-dee.” They presented chickadees with a variety of different predators and discovered that the number of “dee” notes in the call corresponded to the level of threat the predator posed. So if chickadees were mobbing a great horned owl, the calls would have fewer “dee” notes, i.e. “chicka-dee-dee” because great horned owls hunt small to medium sized mammals, rarely chickadees. Whereas if the chickadees were presented with a perched merlin, a falcon that specializes on small birds, they would add lots of “dee” notes: “chicka-dee-dee-dee-dee-dee.” Chickadees that heard mobbing calls with more “dee” notes responded with more intensity.

When the chickadees in my yard started calling in response to the sharp-shinned hawk, I started counting. Sure enough, their calls had 4-5 “dee” notes, very similar to what the ornithologists recorded in response to high threat predators. A sharp-shinned hawk is definitely a big threat to a chickadee, if he can catch the bird unaware. But these bold little chickadees were having none of that. They agitatedly hopped about in the willow tree, “chicka-dee-dee-dee-deeing” with all their might. “We see you! We see you, you dangerous hawk! Now scram! You can’t surprise us!” I swear if chickadees could hold flaming torches, they would have been waving them at the hawk, they were such an angry mob. And after a few minutes of this, the hawk seemed to shrug his shoulders and then flew off to hunt somewhere else.

This post originally appeared in the March 15 issue of the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel.  You can read the original research paper on chickadee alarm calls here: https://hocking.biology.ualberta.ca/courses/zool407/uploads/winter07/lecture/Templeton%20et%20al2005.pdf

How to Speak Chickadese

Tiny Terror

A Sharp-shinned Hawk devours a starling it has captured. Photo by Laura M. Eppig. Check out her excellent nature photography at http://laurameppigphotography.smugmug.com
A Sharp-shinned Hawk devours a starling it has captured. Photo by Laura M. Eppig. Check out her excellent nature photography at http://laurameppigphotography.smugmug.com

Feeding the birds is typically associated with peaceful domesticity and little old ladies singing “tuppence a bag.” But when you feed the birds, you invite nature into your backyard and as Tennyson put it, nature can be “red in tooth and claw.”

In the wintertime, one of the regulars at my backyard feeder is not there for the birdseed, but rather for the seed-eaters. A Sharp-shinned Hawk, North America’s smallest hawk, visits almost everyday and occasionally makes a meal out of one of the sparrows, finches or doves that come to dine. A visit from a bird-eating hawk is not unusual during the winter. Nic Korte recently wrote about hawks visiting his backyard feeders in the “Birds and More” blog. Typically, you only see Sharp-shinned Hawks in town during the winter, because they spend the breeding season in dense forests, such as those on the Grand Mesa. They move to forest edges or suburban areas in the non-breeding season.

The idea of a hawk in your suburban backyard may seem odd because we usually think of hawks as large, soaring birds like the Red-tailed Hawk. These birds are usually seen perched on a telephone pole or soaring high above grassland. But the Sharp-shinned Hawk is a different kind of hawk all together.

Hawks are divided by biologists into two groups: the large, soaring hawks with long wings and relatively short tails are buteos; while the smaller, shorter-winged hawks with longer tails are accipiters. Accipiters are build for speed and maneuverability in order to catch their main prey- other birds. While a buteo will typically dive down on an unsuspecting rodent from high in the sky, an accipiter engages in high-speed ambush and pursuit to catch a bird.

Slide1There are only three species of accipiter in North America and the Sharp-shinned hawk is the smallest- less than a foot high. It is easily confused with its cousin, the Cooper’s Hawk, which has virtually identical markings, but is larger and in flight, you can see that the end of its tail is curved rather than straight. (Here’s a trick to remember “Straight = Sharp-shinned, Curved = Cooper’s.”) Sharp-shinned Hawks are also sometimes confused with Merlins, another very small bird of prey with similar markings. However the Merlin is a falcon, built for high speed with very pointy wing tips. If the Sharp-shinned Hawk is fast and agile like a Porsche, then the merlin is a fighter jet.

Maybe you will think me ghoulish if I admit that I enjoy having the Sharp-shinned hunt in my yard. It’s always easy to tell when the hawk is around: in a flash, the birds disappear into the nearest dense cover and start giving a high-pitched, soft “chip” call- a warning to their fellows. My kids and I immediately start looking for the “Sharpie” as we call him. Usually he misses and perches in the tree right across from our kitchen window to plot his next move. Occasionally, he will succeed and fly off with a hearty breakfast clutched in his talons. And if we are lucky, he will enjoy his meal in our yard while we watch and talk about how we feel bad for the little bird, but the hawk has to eat too. After all, nature is not gentle, and bird feeding is not always for the timid.

This post originally appeared in the February 15, 2015 issue of the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel http://www.gjsentinel.com

 

 

 

 

 

Tiny Terror

Why Does the Three-toed Woodpecker Have Three Toes? (Or: Questions that distract me from things I ought to be doing)

Three-toed Woodpecker (Picoides dorsalis) by Luis Agassiz Fuertes
Three-toed Woodpecker (Picoides dorsalis) by Luis Agassiz Fuertes

Yesterday I got out for my first cross-country ski in an embarrassing number of years. The occasion was a birding field trip on the Grand Mesa organized by my local Audubon Society chapter- the Grand Valley Audubon Society. The weather was overcast with light snow falling- it made for great skiing conditions, but the birds were lying low. We heard some chickadees in the distance and got a glimpse of what might have been a junco darting into the base of a spruce. I only got a good look at one bird, but it was a great one: an American three-toed woodpecker.

This woodpecker gets its name because it has- you guessed it- three toes. Most birds have four toes- three toes pointing forward and the first toe, or hallux, pointing backward. This arrangement of toes is called anisodactyl. Most woodpeckers also have four toes but in a slightly different arrangement. Their first and fourth toes typically point backward with the second and third toe pointing forward. This arrangement is called zygodactyl. But the American three-toed woodpecker has lost the first toe over the course of evolution and has only the fourth toe pointing backward with the second and third pointing forward. Okay, but why does the three-toed woodpecker only have three-toes?

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As a former ornithology TA, I felt like I should know the answer. After all I had enjoyed torturing undergrads with just this kind of trivia. I had other, much more pressing, work that I needed to be doing today, but my obsessive little mind kept circling back to Google search and dig around through old ornithology studies to find an answer. I feel I should share the answer I pieced together with the world. I am sure, somewhere out there in the vastness of the Internet, someone else’s freaky little mind is obsessing over the same question.

According to my informal investigation, American three-toed woodpeckers are not the only woodpeckers with only three toes. There is a Eurasian three-toed woodpecker that was once thought to be the same species as the American three-toed, but is distinct (Zink et al., 2002.) There is also one other species of woodpecker in North America that has three toes, the black-backed woodpecker. Apparently the first toe has been “lost” over the course of evolution in multiple lineages of woodpecker, but why? For a bird that makes a living clinging to the side of a tree with its feet, you would think losing a toe would be a disadvantage. Not so according to an analysis by Walter J. Bock. Bock (1999) used the “Method of Free-Body Analysis” to determine all the physical forces acting on the clinging bird. According to his analysis, the first toe does not supply much support in the clinging woodpecker. Even in woodpecker species that have not lost a toe, one of the rear toes usually points sideways when the bird is climbing, not backwards. The zygodactyl arrangement of toes is ancestral and is advantageous for perching with the foot wrapped around a twig rather than clinging to the side of a trunk. For instance, parrots, old-world cuckoos and some owls all have zygodactyl feet and they do not typically cling to the sides of trees. When a bird is clinging to the side of a tree, the toes doing most of the work are those that are opposing the force of gravity- the forward facing ones (or toes two and three.)

So if over the millennia a woodpecker were to be born without a first toe, it would not be at a disadvantage. Perhaps it might even be advantageous in some way? Weight reduction perhaps? This three-toed mutation could be passed on to its offspring and eventually become the norm for the species. Losing a digit has happened many times and by various mechanisms in the evolution of vertebrates (Cooper, 2014.) Perhaps someday humans will be exploring a future version of the Internet minus a pinkie finger. Of course, in the distant future (if we haven’t driven ourselves extinct, or become enslaved by artificial intelligence) we probably won’t need fingers at all- we will control everything with our freaky little minds.

Bock, W.J. (1999) Functional and evolutionary morphology of woodpeckers. Ostrich 70 (1): 23-31.

Cooper, K.L. et al. (2014) Patterning and post-patterning modes of evolutionary digit loss in mammals. Nature 511: 41-45.

Zink, R.M. et al. (2002) Holarctic phylogeography and species limits of three- toed woodpeckers. The Condor, 104(1): 167-170.

 

Why Does the Three-toed Woodpecker Have Three Toes? (Or: Questions that distract me from things I ought to be doing)

Airports + Solar: A wise use of space, but how do birds factor in?

Solar array with airplane near Prescott AZ_WS_David Bergman
PV array near Prescott, AZ. Photo by David Bergman

Solar power may seem like an environmentalist’s dream energy source, but it is not without its caveats. Chief among them is that large photovoltaic arrays (solar farms) require space, and frequently the price of that space is a reduction in wildlife habitat. Solar engineers are coming up with creative solutions to this problem such as the solar panel bike path outside of Amsterdam or transparent solar cells (currently in development) that could be fitted over windows. In a recent paper in the journal Landscape and Urban Planning, Travis DeVault and co-authors examine another idea- installing photovoltaic arrays at airports.

Airports are one place that environmentalists and industry agree is it best to keep wildlife, especially birds, away. Airplanes and birds are not a good mix. The famous “Miracle on the Hudson” emergency landing of a jet on the Hudson River was the result of the plane hitting a flock of geese soon after take off. According to the FAA, more than 243 aircraft have been destroyed by birds strikes since 1988, killing over 250 people. A plane may manage to land despite injuries but the bird probably never survives the encounter. Most airports employ active wildlife management programs to deter birds and other wildlife from the airport area to avoid these types of accidents.

Airports also comprise a lot of open space, usually grasslands, necessary for the safe movement of planes. DeVault and colleagues estimate that when all of the airports in the contiguous 48 states are considered together they contain a total area of grassland that is larger than the state of Rhode Island. That is a lot of space. Could that space serve a dual purpose and generate solar power? If this land is already deemed unsuitable for wildlife, why not put photovoltaic arrays here and save good habitat elsewhere?

Sounds like a good idea, but wildlife does not always respond as expected to man-made structures. There is evidence that large photovoltaic arrays might even attract birds that mistake their reflective surfaces for water. So DeVault and his co-authors examined how birds use solar installations at airports. The researchers designated 10 study sites in Ohio, Colorado and Arizona. Each site comprised a pair of locations: an airfield grassland and a nearby PV array installation, so that both the airfield and PV array could be assumed to host similar bird communities. The researchers then conducted surveys to determine bird occupancy and calculated a Bird Hazard Index (BHI). The damage that a bird strike can do to an aircraft is primarily determined by the body mass of the bird and how many birds hit the aircraft. One starling is not as dangerous to a plane as one Canada goose, so simply comparing numbers of birds at airfield grasslands vs. PV arrays would give a false picture of bird strike danger. BHI is calculated by multiplying species body mass by number of individuals observed per hectare and summing across the species for each location.

DeVault and co-authors found no significant difference in BHI between airfield grasslands and PV arrays, suggesting that installing PV arrays in airfields will not increase bird strike risk to aircraft. However the authors point out that their methods likely underestimated bird occupancy in airfield grasslands. In addition, they found that BHI at PV arrays was greatest in the summer when smaller birds used perched on the arrays in their shade. The researchers suggest that if commercial anti-perching devices were installed, they might reduce BHI at PV installations further. These factors, combined with the fact that smaller-bodied birds tended to use PV arrays suggest that PV arrays may actually reduce bird strike danger at airports. Given that airports have a lot of open space and their buildings and other infrastructure use a lot of electricity, installing more solar panels at airports seems like a wise use of space.

Airports + Solar: A wise use of space, but how do birds factor in?

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

Invisible Birds

 

A murmuration, or flock, of European Starlings  Photo by Walter Baxter
A murmuration, or flock, of European Starlings Photo by Walter Baxter

The human mind gets bored easily. When you smell something for long enough, you stop noticing it. We are equally inattentive to things we see routinely- our eyes see them, but our brain doesn’t pay much attention and we sort of look right past them as though they were invisible.

The same holds true for common species of birds.  I am willing to bet that on most days that you step outside in the Grand Valley, or even look out your window, you see at least one of the following three bird species:  House Sparrow, European Starling and Pigeon.  These birds are commonplace around cities, suburbs and agricultural settings.  Some birders call them “trash birds,” because they are like visual trash that your eyes have to sort through to pick out the unusual or desirable birds.  I am starting to think that term is a little unfair.  I now like to think of them as “invisible birds”- they are so common you look right through them.

These birds deserve a second glance.  Like them or not, their ability to adapt to the habitats that humans create has allowed them to hitch a ride with us as our settlements expand around the globe.  Now House Sparrows are the most widely distributed bird species on the planet. The European Starling, first introduced to this continent about 120 years ago, now ranges across North America and numbers over 200 million.  Pigeons are now so associated with cities, that when we see them in places like the Colorado National Monument they may seem out of place- even though their natural nesting habitat is cliff faces rather than tall buildings.

Many bird-lovers dislike these species for more legitimate reasons than simple commonness.  House sparrows and European Starlings prefer to nest in cavities, such as tree holes or nest boxes.  Cavities are a limited resource and these two introduced species often displace struggling native birds.  Bluebird lovers may despise House Sparrows in particular as these birds will destroy nests and forcibly evict bluebirds from the nest boxes the birders install for them.   I don’t believe pigeons directly compete with any native species, but many city dwellers, perhaps annoyed by their droppings, refer to them as “flying rats.”

Personally I would prefer a pigeon to a rat any day.  Were it not for abundant pigeon prey, Peregrine Falcons may not have made a comeback and established themselves in many large cities.  Even here in Grand Junction, I have seen Peregrines perched on the tower on the corner of 8th and Main Street.  European Starlings may be a dime a dozen, but take a moment to listen to them.  These relatives of mynah birds are accomplished mimics, and can do convincing impressions of hawks and other birds.  The cheeky House Sparrow is easy and fun to watch as it squabbles over nest sites, and takes dust baths.

It is easy to disregard these “invisible birds” because they are common or to dislike them when they displace native birds.  But don’t blame them.  After all, we brought them here and created the conditions that have allowed them to thrive.  Take a moment to admire the boldness that allows them to live amidst a large, noisy  creature like humans.  Or the cleverness that allows them to exploit new food resources like French fries, and habitats like highway overpasses.  Have a little empathy for these immigrants whose fate has been so tied up with our own.

Pigeon Photo by Alexander Gamauf
Pigeon   Photo by Alexander Gamauf

Pigeon (Columba livia)

Domesticated pigeons were introduced to North America by European Settlers around 1600 and some then established feral populations.  These birds have been bred by humans for over 5,000 years for meat, as a hobby, and to carry messages.  Carrier pigeons have served militaries for hundreds of years.  In WWI, a pigeon named Cher Ami was awarded the French Croix de Guerre for carrying a message through enemy fire that saved the lives of 194 American soldiers.   Pigeons may have served in war as recently as 2008, when the New York Times reported that they were being used by Iraqi militia.

Male House Sparrow  photo by Joaquim Alves Gaspar
Male House Sparrow   Photo by Joaquim Alves Gaspar

House Sparrow (Passer domesticus)

The House Sparrow has long been associated with humans and agriculture.  It spread from Middle East, where agriculture originated, into Europe and North Africa and was later introduced to the Americas, Australia, New Zealand, Japan and other islands.  It is now the most widely distributed wild bird on the planet.  European immigrants, who wanted to see birds from their homeland, introduced the birds to North America in New York City in the early 1850s.  It was also believed that the sparrows might help control insect pests.  It is now considered an agricultural pest in many places, but in Britain where it is a beloved native, its numbers are declining as farming practices change.

449px-Toulouse_-_Sturnus_vulgaris_-_2012-02-26_-_3

European Starling   Photo by Pierre Selim

European Starling (Sturnus vulgaris)

Starlings were brought to New York City in 1890 by a Shakespeare fan who wanted to see all of the birds mentioned in Shakespeare’s plays introduced to the U.S.  The Starling’s talents as a mimic are mentioned in the play Henry IV.  Starlings get their name from their appearance in flight where their short pointed wings and short tail make them look like a four-pointed star.

An edited version of this article appears in the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel’s Outdoors Section, February 17, 2013.  You can read it here at http://www.gjsentinel.com/outdoors/articles/urban-birds/

Invisible Birds

Listening to Spring

Photo by Alan Vernon
Western Meadowlark            Photo by Alan Vernon

(I wrote this short article about bird song for our local website Fruita Pulp.  Check out the local talent (poetry!) and information (mountain biking!) at http://www.fruitapulp.com/)

The temperature has finally clawed its way back above freezing (during the day at least), the sun is showing itself again, and in honor of Valentine’s Day the Eurasian Collared doves are putting the moves on each other.  If you squint into the distance, you can see spring meandering our way.  Finally.

In my opinion, one of the best things about spring is the way it sounds when you wake up in the morning.  Sound is seasonal- it is an important cue to time and place. When I first wake up, before my eyes even open, I start listening.  My brain is groggily trying to figure out where I am in time and space.  In my case, the first thing I usually hear is cries of “Mommy, Mommy!” but in between summons, I become aware of the background noise.  Cars starting, a passing train, but there are sounds that change with the seasons.  On a snowy winter day, all noise seems muffled by the insulation of the snow.  But if you hear exuberant birdsong, you know it’s spring.

For me spring always brings a burst of energy and ambition.  I want to take on new challenges.  Last year this involved putting in a garden and then starting more seeds than I would ever have room to plant.  This year I challenged myself to show restraint when placing my seed order.  If you are looking for a new challenge this spring, why not learn some bird songs?  Learning birdsongs will certainly help you become a better birder, because you can often hear more birds than you can actually see.  But even if you don’t plan to take up birding as a hobby, there is something about being able to give a name to things that allows you to notice.  I think we could all stand to do a little more noticing of the world around us in this age of distraction and hurry.

Learning birdsongs may appear to be an arduous task, especially to non-musical folks like me- but it doesn’t have to be a chore.  I used to be a teaching assistant for an undergraduate ornithology course.  This course involved a LOT of memorization and the students were often overwhelmed, so I only asked them to learn 10 of the songs most commonly heard on campus.  Ten songs are not a lot, but it can really open a door into the world of natural sounds. You may find yourself noticing sounds and creatures that have been around you, unseen, all along.    If you can identify these common songs, when you hear something that is not in your “top 10” you know it may be something unusual and worth tracking down for a better look. At the very least you can impress your friends, or embarrass them, depending on how cool a crowd you run with.

Here are Fruita’s “top 10” in no particular order.  (The birders who are reading this will surely quibble with my list, but trust me it was REALLY hard to cut down to only 10.) If you click each name, you will be taken to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s All About Birds website where you can listen to each species’ songs and other sounds and see pictures of them.  There will be a quiz on Monday (just kidding.)

  1. Eurasian Collared Dove– these large, pale doves breed pretty early here in the Grand Valley and have already started calling to mates- a classic “koo-KOO-kook.  They also make a really ugly “hwaah” call when alarmed that sounds like a cow in pain to me.
  2. House Sparrow– a commonplace but cheery “cheep, cheep, cheerup”
  3. House Finch– a jumbled warble usually with a slurred “zree” note somewhere near the end.
  4. Starling– an accomplished mimic, the Starling can impersonate other birds like Red-tailed Hawks.  Their song is complex and almost mechanical sounding.
  5. American Robin– the happy classic “cheerily, cheer-up, cheer-up, cheerily!”
  6. Northern Flicker– our most common woodpecker.  Listen for it’s loud “Keeeer!”  call
  7. Western Meadowlark – A beautiful, flute-like melody often heard in pastures and fields.  One of the best sounds of spring.
  8. Mourning Dove –  a softer “coo-oo”, than the Eurasian Collared-Dove, often mistaken for an owl.  (For a great musical tribute to this dove, check out the song “Mornin’ Dove” by Robinella and the CC String Band.)
  9. Common Raven – one of the most intelligent birds, they make a wide variety of sounds including a  loud“Croak!” which can be heard for more than a mile.
  10. Bullock’s Oriole – listen for these near large cottonwoods where they like to build their sock-like nests.  The Oriole’s song is a whistled melody that sounds a bit like the Robin, but has a richer tone and is less repetitive.

The Eurasian Collared Doves have already started calling to mates, but the rest of the gang won’t really get going until April- so you have about 6 weeks to study.  If you learn these, you may then be able to pick out a Lazuli Bunting along the river or a wash.  These small birds are a spectacular blue, orange and white and worth tracking down for a look.  Another bird you’re likely to hear nearby water is the bold Red-winged Blackbird.  Take a hike in McInnis Canyons and you may hear one of my favorites, a Canyon Wren, echoing from the canyon walls or a Black-throated Sparrow singing from atop a four-winged saltbush.  Close your eyes, smell the mud and the fresh leaves, feel the sun warming your face. Be still for a moment and open your ears.  You may be surprised what you can hear.

Listening to Spring