The view out my window on a recent morning was solid white. I was looking at four inches of what the weather folks called “it may or may not snow, and surely there won’t be much accumulation.” Schools were on a delay, temperatures hovered in the mid-teens, and visibility was nil. Yup, I wouldn’t be driving anywhere to go birding that day.
There we were, a gaggle of pre-adolescent girls approaching puberty, giggling as we shared the details of the recent talks we’d each had with our mothers. Apparently, the parents had gotten together and decided to synchronize their lectures about the birds and the bees. That was smart on behalf of the parents—armed with the facts, we wouldn’t be sharing misinformation.
I thumbed through the field guide. Let’s see… a Red-tailed Hawk is 19 inches, head to tail, with a wingspan of 49 inches. A Rough-legged Hawk is a couple of inches longer, 21 inches tall with a 53 inch wingspan. And a Ferruginous Hawk is larger still, 23 inches tall and 56 inches across. Or, it could be a Northern Harrier, checking in at 18 inches by 43 inches. So which hawk was it sitting on that pole, silhouetted against the sky? I was glad that there were only a few real options in eastern Colorado at this time of year. I flipped the page to a Golden Eagle, 30 inches in height, wingspan of 79 inches. No, surely I’d be able to tell if the bird was that large! It had to be a hawk.
Last week I wrote about how birds get their colors—and that had me thinking about what birds do with all those colors.
What’s the first thing you see when you look at these birds? For me, it’s their incredible diversity of color! And it’s not only tropical birds—even cold climates produce blue Steller’s Jays, red House Finches, yellow goldfinches, and pink rosy-finches. Or consider the ruby gorget on a Broad-tailed Hummingbird, flashing its iridescent hue when the sunlight hits it just right. How can feathers be all these colors? It varies.
We have hands. Birds have beaks. Have you ever noticed how useful a beak is? While lacking our manual dexterity, birds have no problem securing their dinners and stuffing said meal down the gullets of their young. Beaks are used to manipulate objects and preen ragged feathers. Some birds use their beaks to impress potential mates, or to scare away intruders. Beaks can even be used as weapons. Have you ever tried to steal an egg from under an irritated hen?
Beaks are also useful to birders, as their size, shape, and color are all helpful when it comes to identifying bird species. In fact, the more attention I pay to birds’ beaks, the better birder I become.
With gorgeous scenery, fascinating geology, and a zoo’s worth of wildlife, a visit to Yellowstone National Park is always a delight. And in spite of the weather (cold, snow, and sleet on the first day of summer?!), last week’s trip was no exception.
I was wandering through the forest in western Washington when I heard a series of high-pitched, whistling bird calls. As I peered into the foliage, I finally made out the Cedar Waxwings that were making the sound. Another time, I was in southern Texas, along the Rio Grande border. Again, I heard birds singling some very high notes. In this case, they were followed by a series of lower notes and a distinctive two-tone call. I realized that I was surrounded by a number of Ruby-crowned Kinglets.
We ooh and aah over their colorful plumage. We adore their antics. We marvel at their ability to soar, turn, and plummet. But how often do we admire birds for their intelligence? Read The Genius of Birds, and you’ll realize that being called a “bird brain” can be quite a compliment.
From fascinating behaviors to the minutest details of neurophysiology, author Jennifer Ackerman takes us on an incredible adventure into how birds think. Meet Alex, the African Grey Parrot who had a vocabulary of hundreds of English words, and knew how to use them. What’s more, he understood the concept, not only of numbers, but of zero.