12 ways to keep birds safe

Chick in nest

There are many things people can do to keep birds safer. Photo courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Published April 30, 2008, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “12 practical ways you can help keep birds safe.”

2014 Update: American Bird Conservancy is a good resource: http://www.abcbirds.org/. The current website for Audubon at Home is http://athome.audubon.org/.

By Barb Gorges

All winter our relationship to wild birds is confined to observation and, perhaps, feeding them. But now with migration and breeding seasons intersecting with an increase in human outdoor activity, we need to think about bird safety.

1. Litter – The cigarette stubbed out in the driveway disappears, but probably blew onto the neighbor’s lawn where, if it isn’t picked up, it will, like other loose trash, break down and its unnatural components will pollute soil and water. Before that is able to happen, litter could end up in the digestive system of curious babies, puppies and other animals. And remember all those photos of birds hampered by fishing line and other plastic debris.

2. Windows – If you are dreading the annual cleaning chores, skip your windows and tell people dirty ones are not as dangerous for birds. If you do wash your windows and find that one is particularly prone to getting messed up by birds thumping into it, you need to put some stickers on the outside. Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Student Conservation Association and Wyoming Public Radio send me those nice static cling type stickers every year so I can advertise my affiliations at the same time.

3. Cats – Nasty winter weather made it easy to keep your cat indoors. Just continue to keep it in and buy a harness and leash for little excursions or build an outdoor pen with a screened roof. If you put a bird feeder outside a window, your indoor cat will be very happy. Just make sure the window screen is strong enough to withstand your cat’s aborted bird attacks. If you don’t have a cat and are tired of the neighbor’s eating the birds that come to your feeder, borrow a cat trap from the animal shelter or get a dog to scare it off.

4. Feeders – Cold winters are marvelous for keeping bacteria in check around feeders. Don’t quit feeding now in warm weather when migrating birds will make feeder watching even more interesting. But be sure to clean your feeders and feeding areas with a mild bleach solution every few weeks. If you see any lethargic house finches, perhaps with warty growths around their eyes, quit feeding for at least a week so the healthy birds don’t come in and get infected.

5. Water – If you provide a bird bath, make sure it has sloping sides or a sloping rock in the middle so birds can wade in. Brush the scum out every day when you refill it. Think about disinfecting it periodically. If you have tanks for watering livestock, make sure they have bird ramps to avoid drownings.

6. Pesticides – If toxic chemicals are sprayed on your lawn, you can keep small children and pets off for the necessary period of time, but birds can’t read those cute little signs. Plus, pesticides wash into ground and surface water used by people and wildlife. Instead, try non-toxic lawn and garden care. Talk to Catherine Wissner and the Master Gardeners at the Laramie County Cooperative Extension Service, 633-4383, or check out Audubon at Home, www.audubon.org/bird/at_home/IPM_Alternatives.html.

7. Mowing – So you bought the house with five acres of prairie, and a riding mower, and you can’t wait to get out there. Please relax, take a hike or go fishing instead, and let the ground nesting birds, including the meadowlarks everyone enjoys, get the next generation started. Give them till at least mid-July.

8. Dogs – During the crucial season for ground nesting birds, late April to mid-July, keep dogs on a leash so they don’t raid nests.

9. Nest Boxes – A birdhouse that is meant to be safely used by birds will have certain crucial features. The opening will be sized precisely for the intended cavity-nesting species: house wren, mountain bluebird, tree swallow, flicker, etc. There’s no perch sticking out below, where starlings can stand while reaching in to raid the nest. Some kind of latch allows the nest box to be opened for cleaning. The box is the right dimensions, has proper ventilation, is not painted a dark color and is situated at the right height. Check the library for a book with particulars or go to www.birds.cornell.edu/birdhouse/resources.

10. Baby Birds – Short of a catastrophe killing their parents, baby birds seldom need our help. It is best to leave them alone. If you watch long enough, you’ll probably see parents bringing food to the grounded fledgling until it gets up the gumption to fly. You can try setting featherless nestlings back in their nest or in a small bucket with twigs and grass hung somewhere safe near where you found them (but not if they are a ground-nesting species). Trying to feed baby birds yourself is usually not successful and deprives other wildlife species that depend on baby birds for their own food supply.

11. Shrubs and Trees – Cheyenne is in the midst of the grasslands and if we are to promote the welfare of the beleaguered grassland bird species which have lost habitat due to plowing and development, we shouldn’t promote planting trees and shrubs away from creeks and lakes. But up against our homes natural shade and windbreaks conserve energy, shelter migrating birds and attract birds we wouldn’t see otherwise out here on the plains. Choose native fruit and seed producing vegetation.

12. Energy – There is no energy source yet that doesn’t have some negative impact on wildlife. Remember, stuff you buy takes energy to produce so recycle and reuse, of course. And if you reduce the size of the house you need to heat and maintain and reduce the amount of stuff you buy that always seems to take additional energy and maintenance, guess what? You’ll save money and have more time to enjoy life and watch birds!

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Book reviews: beginning birding, songbird silence, falcon fever, extraordinary encounters

Finding Your Wings

Finding Your Wings, by Burton Guttman

Published April 2, 2008, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Authors explore our fine feathered friends.”

2014 Update: All four books are still available, though you may have to look online.

By Barb Gorges

Frequently, this winter I filled frigid weekends and long dark evenings reading four books about birds. And since we can still expect a few blizzards between now and June, I thought you might want to look for and read one of them yourself.

No matter your taste in literature, one will suit you. The first is a “how to,” the second a “what to do,” the third is historical/travel and the fourth, spiritual.

Finding Your Wings: a Workbook for Beginning Bird Watchers

By Burton Guttman, Houghton Mifflin, available March 2008, softcover, 75 color photos, 224 pp, $14.95.

This addition to the Peterson Field Guides series is not a field guide. It really is a workbook in which you are expected to write and draw. Drawing a rudimentary bird is a way to note distinctive features of an unknown bird to help you identify it later with a field guide.

Most of the workbook exercises require having either the “Peterson Field Guide to the Birds of Eastern and Central North America,” 5th edition, or “The Peterson Field Guide to Western Birds,” 3rd edition (1990).

An example is Exercise 5-18. “Baltimore and Bullock’s Orioles [E317 (eastern guide, p. 317) or W313 (western guide, p. 313)] are very similar and for a time were considered a single species. How do the wings of the males differ?” The answer is at the back of the book.

The three other kinds of activities are field exercises, such as studying crows in flight, quizzes and games.

Guttman, longtime teacher of birding workshops, wanted to write a book that will help people get to know and love nature so they’ll protect it.

He says beginners need to work on three goals at once: learn how to see as a birder sees, learn about the categories of birds, and learn as many of the easily identified common birds as possible.

My birding “sight” needs restoration after a long winter so I think I will work through the exercises myself.

Silence of the Songbirds

Silence of the Songbirds by Bridget Stuchbury

Silence of the Songbirds

By Bridget Stutchbury, Walker & Co., 2007, hardcover, 256 pp, $24.95.

A review copy of this book arrived in my mail last fall and it took me months to get past the ominous title and read it.

Stutchbury, a professor at York University, holds a Canada Research Chair in Ecology and Conservation Biology and divides her time between homes in Ontario and Pennsylvania.

Her book is a chapter by chapter description of songbird perils: deforestation, forest fragmentation, shade-grown versus sun-grown coffee, pesticides, lights, windows, cats and cowbirds. Adding her personal experiences highlighted by her animated prose style, Stutchbury explains exactly how each hazard affects birds. The facts are much more interesting than what the popular press has time for and the book is much more cohesive than a collection of journal articles.

Unlike other science writers, Stutchbury’s sentences do not need diagramming in order to extract their meaning. The citations for the underlying scientific studies are quietly listed in the back of the book, along with an index.

In the epilogue, Stutchbury reminds us how important birds are to people as pollinators, insect eaters, scavengers and nutrient recyclers.

Most importantly, helping readers avoid a feeling of hopelessness, she gives us a “to do” list: buy shade-grown coffee; buy organic if the produce is from Latin America where so many songbirds overwinter; and buy organic or try to avoid crops that are the greatest pesticide risk to birds: alfalfa, blueberries, celery, corn, cotton, cranberries, potatoes and wheat.

Also, buy wood and paper certified by the Forest Stewardship Council; buy toilet paper, paper towels and tissues made from recycled paper to protect the northern forests where so many songbirds nest; turn off lights at night in city buildings during migration; and keep your cat indoors.

Be brave, buy the book and read it. Through the York Foundation, Stutchbury is donating proceeds to support research on migratory birds. Or don’t buy the book and borrow my copy. Then with the money you save, make a donation to a bird conservation organization. Or spend it on organic cotton handkerchiefs and shopping bags.Falcon Fever: A

Falcon Fever

Falcon Fever by Tim Gallagher

Falcon Fever: a Falconer in the Twenty-first Century

By Tim Gallagher, Houghton Mifflin, available May 2008, paperback, 336 pp, $25.

The first thing you’ll recognize is that author Tim Gallagher is the one who recently wrote “The Grail Bird,” about his experience finding the ivory-billed woodpecker. However, you’ll get little insight into that venture here, even though the book begins in the autobiographical mode.

In mid-20th century in California, a 12-year-old Gallagher could read about falconry, roam the woods searching for hawk nests and meet adult falconers who generously offer to mentor him. In his teen years, reminiscent of Kenn Kaufman’s “Kingbird Highway,” he might escape home and drive a rattletrap with a friend to a national falconry convention a thousand miles away.

Despite this idyllic life (not counting a truly tough home situation), Gallagher longs to be a contemporary of Frederick II, 13th century Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire known for the quintessential book on falconry still consulted today. Frederick was once accused of letting hunting with his hawks interfere with attending to a crucial bit of warfare.

While the beginning of the book is autobiographical, the latter part is travelogue, in which Gallagher spends a year visiting other falconers and makes a pilgrimage to Frederick’s Italian castles.

One chapter of interest to Wyoming folks documents Gallagher’s visit to falconer and filmmaker Steve Chindgren’s hunting lodge near Eden to witness hawking sage grouse.

Chindgren’s name may sound familiar since his sagebrush/sage grouse movie was shown at the Cheyenne Audubon meeting in March.

Falconry is a very different way to enjoy birds. You’ll know much more about it by the end of the book–its centuries of history as well as its modern day incarnation.

 

Sightings

Sightings: Extraordinary Encounters with Ordinary Birds by Sam Keen

Sightings: Extraordinary Encounters with Ordinary Birds

By Sam Keen, illustrated by Mary Woodin, Chronicle Books, 2007, hardcover, 114 pp, $14.95.

Perhaps this book could be classified as a spiritual autobiography in essay form, in which Keen’s encounters with birds are the prompts for musings on the various elemental philosophical questions.

Keen is a former professor of philosophy and religion and now a lecturer, seminar leader and consultant. He is also a storyteller, evoking his childhood among staunch Presbyterians, as well as an historian. Consider this partly tongue in cheek sampling from the last essay.

“Careful observation has convinced me that birders, far from being just quaint old ladies in sensible shoes and nerdy zoology students, are involved in something strange, archaic, and clandestine–something more like a pagan religion than a hobby….I suspect that the growing number of enthusiastic birders are converts to an ancient cult of bird worship….”

And then Keen explains that bird worship goes back to the Phoenicians, Persians, Greeks and Egyptians. “There is speculation that prior to 100,000 BCE (Before the Christian Era) a culture devoted exclusively to birds existed in America.”

Things haven’t changed much. For instance, the miracle of spring migration is still celebrated. The more science explains it, the more awe inspiring it is.

Grouse geology: find grouse, find oil

Greater Sage-Grouse

The Greater Sage-Grouse lives in sagebrush, which almost always grows atop Wyoming’s best oil and gas drilling prospects. Photo courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Published April 2, 2008, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “How to get energy and save our sage grouse: Difficult task lies ahead to keep both resources valuable in Cowboy State.”

2014 Update: Accommodating sage-grouse continues to be a work in progress. The Audubon Wyoming office has now been rolled into the Audubon Rockies regional office in Fort Collins, Colo., http://rockies.audubon.org/.

By Barb Gorges

Is geology destiny? Geology is rocks. A particular weathered rock makes a particular kind of soil which, with water, grows particylar vegetation. Particular vegetation feeds and shelters particular animals.

Thus, a geologic formation rich in oil and gas can be associated with certain wildlife species.

Using overlays last month at the Cheyenne – High Plains Audubon Society meeting, Alison Lyon-Holloran, conservation program manager for Audubon Wyoming, showed Wyoming’s oil, gas and coalbed methane fields almost perfectly align with greater sage-grouse habitat.

The sagebrush ecosystem, on which the grouse is entirely dependent, stretches across Wyoming in a wide swath from the northeast to the southwest, avoiding the mountains in the northwest and the grasslands of the southeast.

If you have not driven across the state, it may be hard to believe that so many acres of sagebrush exist, from the ankle-high species on the dry hills to the small forests along riparian (stream) corridors.

It’s hard to believe sage-grouse are so dependent on sage, from hiding their nests in a straggly old stand to grazing on the buds while keeping an eye out for predatory golden eagles.

It’s hard to believe a chicken-like 6-pound male or 3-pound female is so shy and easily distracted that the U.S. Bureau of Land Management’s drilling stipulations provide, on average, a 2-mile buffer zone around a lek during breeding season.

Those leks are collections of as many as 50-150 males, each spreading spikey tail feathers, popping white-feathered neck sacs and defending small territories. The females stroll through, looking for the best genetic material which, Alison said, may be the same one or two males for all of them.

Someone in the audience asked how sage-grouse are doing. Fine, Alison said, away from the energy development areas. Two wet years have really made a difference in what was a general decline during drought years. However, despite the moisture, they are not doing well in energy areas. It’s too crowded and noisy.

Several energy companies have committed millions of dollars to provide offsite mitigation for wildlife and other land users who have lost the use of lands now in oil and gas production.

It would be nice to think that people could enhance sagebrush habitat away from all the wells, but Alison, who studied sage-grouse for her master’s thesis and has been immersed in the research and issues for the last 10 years, said there are no studies showing how to produce scraggly 100-year old sagebrush stands.

The millions of dollars in mitigation money cannot be used to study why some sagebrush is not attractive to sage-grouse and what can be done to improve it.

It is conceivable, said Alison, that the few remaining healthy sage-grouse leks in Wyoming could be compromised, forcing the birds to be listed as either threatened or endangered—something neither energy companies nor environmentalists want to see happen.

If sage-grouse become threatened or endangered, it would mean more development restrictions for energy companies and much more work for the environmental community.

Of Wyoming’s total 62 million acres, the federal government owns, and BLM manages, 41 million acres of minerals below the surface (and 18 million acres of the surface).

So far, 14 million acres of federal minerals have been leased for oil and gas. Don’t forget state and private oil and gas leasing because 45 percent of Wyoming’s total oil and 37 percent of its natural gas production comes from them. See BLM’s 2007 annual report at www.blm.gov/wy.

In the old days, environmental groups would be preparing lawsuits. Instead, Alison and Audubon Wyoming executive director Brian Rutledge came up with the Greater Sage-grouse Species Survival Plan. They have hired Kevin Doherty, who studied sage-grouse for his PhD, to give the issue the necessary rigorous, scientific statistical scrutiny.

The National Audubon Society has taken notice also, and has made sagebrush one of its top conservation concerns.

Key players from federal and state government have been working with energy and environmental groups to figure out how, in the melee of fluid mineral development, we can have our energy and our grouse, too, here in the state with the most grouse habitat of any in the country. And there are other sagebrush species that will benefit.

The highlight of Alison’s presentation was the Steve Chindgren film, “It’s Just Sagebrush,” a half hour un-narrated look at wildlife in the sage over a year’s time. It was filmed mostly between Farson and Pinedale.

If you haven’t yet traveled a two-track, sagebrush tickling the belly of your pickup, pungent sage smell (not the garden variety) wafting through your open window along with a fine wind of dust as you bump over badger holes and glimpse heavy-bodied sage-grouse taking flight, lumbering like World War II bombers, you should see the film.

And then you’ll be interested in Alison and Brian’s plans to begin an e-list to keep you up to date on this issue, letting you know how and when you can be an effective voice for the well-being of an ecosystem.

Contact Alison at aholloran@audubon.org.

So, is geology destiny? Yes, I think so. While geology (and climate) makes some states suitable for farming, geology has made Wyoming rich in fossil fuels and sagebrush. We just have to choose how to keep both resources valuable.

Duck diversity identified

Mallard

A Mallard drake has a bright green head during the breeding season, bright orange legs and a bright yellow bill. Photo courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Published April 18, 2007, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Duck diversity: How to separate those mallards from shovelers.”

2014 Update: We’ve also seen Wood Ducks in Cheyenne now for several years, but only occasionally. Newspaper style does not allow for capitalizing bird names, except for proper nouns. For this article the editor allowed the capitalized names in quote marks so that the names could more easily be distinguished from the descriptions. Cheyenne-High Plains Audubon Society continues to offer spring birding classes. For photos of other birds mentioned, go to http://www.allaboutbirds.org.

By Barb Gorges

Spring is a wonderful time to learn to identify ducks because all the drakes (males) are in full breeding plumage. No matter how old they are or where you see them, they look just like their pictures in the field guides–which you can’t say about many other bird groups.

Plus, ducks are large and easy to see, especially here on Sloan’s Lake in Lions Park. A spotting scope is handy to have, but the lake is small enough you can see important field marks with binoculars.

First, let’s dismiss all the geese, the large gray birds with the black necks and heads that are here all year round. Be sure to impress your friends with the knowledge that this species is properly named “Canada Goose,” not “Canadian Goose.”

Next, let’s sort out all the brown ducks. These are the females of all duck species. Without inspecting their body shape and particular wing feathers, the best way to identify them is to see with which males they swim.

Then, let’s review the field marks of the “Mallard,” the most abundant, most recognizable local duck here year round. Many no longer migrate because they’ve figured out misguided people will feed them.

The mallard drake has the bright, iridescent green head (except when molting in the fall), bright orange legs, bright yellow bill and a tail that curls. There are many other features that could be described, but these field marks distinguish the mallard from other ducks we see locally.

Also, they are the only ones, along with the Canada geese, that will approach you for a handout.

Northern Shoveler

Northern Shoveler has a wide bill like a spatula. Photo courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Another duck with a bright green head, the “Northern Shoveler,” has an elongated body shape ending in a black bill that looks like a shovel or spatula. Its breast is bright white and its sides are chestnut brown.

Two species of ducks have plain red heads, as in the brightest brown chestnut color of red hair. One, aptly named “Redhead,” has a nice rounded head like the mallard’s, with its bill jutting out at about a 90-degree angle to its forehead. The other, the “Canvasback,” has a sloping forehead continuous with the slope of its bill–what the field guides like to call a “ski slope.”

Green-winged Teal

The Green-winged Teal is named for a green patch on its wing, but the green marking on its head seems wing-shaped. Photo courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

A third red-headed duck, the “Green-winged Teal,” has a section of green feathers that can be seen when it extends its wing, but it also has a green, wing-shaped marking that encircles each eye and extends to the back of its neck.

American Wigeon

The American Wigeon also has a green patch over its eye, but has a wide, white stripe over its forehead. Photo courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The “American Wigeon” has the same green wing shape over its eye, but it has a spectacularly wide white stripe from the top of its bill to the back of its head.

A white stripe up either side of its neck distinguishes the “Northern Pintail,” an otherwise grayish bird. The stripes are easier to see than the long, pointy tail.

A white crescent on either side of its face, between eye and bill, sets the “Blue-winged Teal” apart, since many other ducks also show a blue speculum (section) on their wings.

If a duck is all chestnut red, and shaped like a mallard, it is the “Cinnamon Teal.” If it has a tail that sticks up stiffly, and it sports bright white cheeks and a bright blue bill, it’s a “Ruddy Duck.”

There are several black and white duck species, two of which we see in winter, “Common Goldeneye,” and “Bufflehead.” But by spring, you are most likely to see the “Lesser Scaup.” Its head and tail ends are black and its middle is white. The “Ring-necked Duck” looks just like it but with good optics, the black tip on the blue and white bill is noticeable.

The “Gadwall” has the distinction of being the plainest duck, just a sort of fine, tweedy gray, but it is the only gray duck solidly black under the tail.

Common Merganser

The Common Merganser has a dark green head, like several other ducks, but the bill is long and thin. Photo courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

It is possible to see mergansers on Sloan’s Lake. All three species, “Common Merganser” being most likely, have long thin bills for catching fish. They have small heads with feathers that sprout like a bad hair day.

Not all birds that can swim are ducks. The “American Coot” doesn’t have webbed feet. It has a compact, all-black body shaped like a rubber ducky and a distinctive bright white bill.

The grebes are not ducks either. The “Western Grebe,” a larger gray bird with a long, white-fronted neck, will be back soon, entertaining us with its water-dancing mating rituals.

The “Pied-billed Grebe,” small, short-necked and brown with a black and white bill, is not as noticeable. Horned and eared grebes are more likely on larger reservoirs.

And then there are the big, dark brown “Double-crested Cormorants” that float low, as if waterlogged, or fly overhead looking like sticks with wings.

There are a couple unidentifiable ducks at Sloan’s Lake that are the offspring of domestic white ducks mating with mallards. You’ll know that’s what they are because they have the mallard shape, if not size and colors, and they hang out with the mallards.

Also, there are all those other swimming birds that make surprise visits: pelicans, swans and unusual gulls and terns.

I meant to make this a simple guide to the most common ducks to be seen at Sloan’s Lake this spring, and already I’ve mentioned 16 and referred to a dozen other water birds. At least it will make it easier for you to choose what birds to study in your field guide.

If you want more help, sign up for the beginning bird class at Laramie County Community College. It includes two, 2-hour, Thursday evening classroom sessions and two, 2-hour, Saturday morning local field trips May 3-12.

I know it’s hard to believe that so many kinds of ducks can show up on a lake in the middle of town, surrounded by people walking dogs. But that’s the magic of migration. All you have to do is look.

 

Pup retrieves wonders of backyard wildlife

Puppy

Puppies love to explore the backyard. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Published April 26, 2006, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Pup retrieves backyard of wonders.”

2014 Update: Sally is 8 years old now, and still vigorously exploring nature.

By Barb Gorges

We had no idea so much of our backyard was edible. Euell Gibbons, author of “Stalking the Wild Asparagus,” would be proud of us. Grass, leaves, sticks, weeds—of course I’m talking about edible from the perspective of a 3-month-old puppy.

Our yard is only about 100 feet wide by 50 feet deep but it is amazing how many microhabitats it has as examined by the nose of a puppy.

First there are all the dead leaves under the shrubs. Sally dragged out some really disgusting looking black specimens which turned out to be dried mushrooms. Maybe I should take her to France to look for truffles.

Then there are the ants, which she licks up. I never knew golden retrievers had anteaters in their lineage, but I guess she provides a natural way to control their population.

The pile of composting leaves by the garage is proving irresistible. Sally flings herself on them, like any child, tunneling to dig out choice bits of decaying roughage.

Wind-blown leaves scuttling across the patio also attract her notice. One such leaf took a sudden turn and as it blew closer it became a little brown mouse intent on making it to its home in the corner of the raised bed only 10 feet from where we sat.

I’m out a lot now supervising Sally and I’ve discovered backyard bird life is more interesting from outside than from a window.

The robins are not perturbed by us at all. One fearlessly marched on the bird bath—even though a panting puppy watched from a pounce away. The squirrels, however, seem to be avoiding the yard. This means a respite for the trees they’ve been gnawing, especially this last dog-less year.

Also, without the squirrels to antagonize them, a pair of blue jays has decided to build a nest in the spruce tree. They don’t hesitate to come down into the yard for whatever bits they need while we watch.

Our cats are avid window birders and Sally seems to have the same avian interests. She noticed a flock of noisy gulls sailing over the house, though she hasn’t tuned in yet to the whistling wing beats of the occasional mallard.

Walking the backyard with Sally half a dozen times a day lets me observe the pattern of sunlight and shade and the chronology of snowmelt. Each day the ratio of green to brown in the lawn improves, tulips emerge a little farther and leaves grow.

The dawn chorus steadily increases. I can pinpoint the day the mourning doves added their calls, April 9. The singing of grackles, house finches, starlings and house sparrows increases in frenzy daily. On the other hand, the juncos seemed to have departed the yard for the mountains April 10, but I won’t know if it’s for good until we get the next snowstorm.

This year the Eurasian collared-doves are even more abundant in the neighborhood. There must be some nesting nearby since I can hear their croaky cooing almost every time I’m out.

Will our usual spring visitors be as tolerant of a puppy and still show up in mid-May?

I’m on the lookout for the spotted towhee, green-tailed towhee, white-crowned sparrow, western tanager, rose-breasted grosbeak, lazuli bunting and indigo bunting. I hope to find the yellow birds too, goldfinches and different kinds of warblers.

Our dog before last was also a golden retriever which Mark took bird hunting. We’ll see if Mark wants to get back into it and if Sally proves adept.

Someone asked me if we could hunt birds and still be members in good standing with the National Audubon Society. Of course. Audubon is not an animal rights group. There is no more honorable way than hunting, short of raising it yourself, to put meat on the table—Vice President Dick Cheney’s canned hunts not included.

If all bird species had always been given as much thought, management, study and funding as game birds, Audubon could become a mere birdwatching club. But interest in non-game birds continues to increase so some day there may be parity.

Sally, to her discomfort, has discovered not everything in the yard is safely edible. We were surprised to see juniper and chokecherry on the Cheyenne Pet Clinic list of plants toxic to pets. So we’ve put the sheep fencing back up.

But even while accompanying a sick dog, there is something beautiful about the backyard on a spring morning at 4:30 a.m. That particular morning there was only the slightest breeze and it was warm enough to stand barefoot. The full moon was setting behind the neighbor’s trees and the Big Dipper was visible overhead. Sleepy robins could already be heard.

With Sally’s taste for wood products, I’m thinking maybe I can train her to walk next to me and carry my bird field guide.

She can walk next to me as we explore the world beyond the gate.

Sharp-tailed grouse keep dancing

Sharp-tailed Grouse

Every spring, Sharp-tailed Grouse males gather at leks on the prairie and dance to attract females. Photo courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Published April 27, 2005, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Sharp-tail trip seeks out the other grouse.”

2014 Update: Habitat Extension Bulletins are all available online now, http://wgfd.wyo.gov/web2011/wildlife-1000616.aspx.

By Barb Gorges

As the driver of the last car in the caravan, I expected whatever the attraction was that had caused the lead driver, Bill Gerhart, to pull over to the side of the gravel road would be even with or ahead of him.

The goal of our Audubon chapter field trip was finding sharp-tailed grouse north of Hillsdale. In the dimness before sunrise this calm, mid-April morning, I searched the pasture ahead for any movement on the lek.

Leks are dancing grounds, where males come back every year to congregate, display and compete for females. Females hang out at the periphery. When I finally caught a flash of movement, it was even with my car. How nice for my passengers who had never seen sharp-tails before.

Mention grouse around here lately and most people think immediately of the sage grouse. Technically known as “Greater Sage-Grouse,” it is in the news as a declining species in the way of oil and gas drilling.

The image of the sage grouse male in full display appears in wildlife publications regularly. He has two large, yellow-skinned, inflated air sacs embedded in a drooping white neck ruff and a fan of spikey tail feathers.

The sharp-tailed male, on the other hand, has just one spikey point to his tail, and no white ruff, though he does have small purple air sacs on either side of his neck.

Because sharp-tails don’t make the news as often as their relatives, I asked Kathleen Erwin, a wildlife biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service office in Cheyenne, about them.

Though their population has declined, they are not in as much trouble as sage grouse, she said, except for the Columbian sharp-tail, a sub-species that prefers mountain shrub habitat found in south-central Wyoming and other western states. It is being petitioned for addition to the list of threatened or endangered species.

As so often is the case, the changes to native habitat are a problem. However, sharp-tails will adapt to using cropland more so than sage grouse. We saw two fly over fresh green shoots of winter wheat on our field trip.

Bill, a Wyoming Game and Fish Department wildlife biologist as well as one of our trip leaders, said the Conservation Reserve Program started in 1985 encourages the reseeding of cropland with grass species for erosion control and provides a good base for sharp-tails to rebound.

Drought is a factor right now, Kathleen said. The grouse need enough vegetation to hide their eggs from predators. Their nests are mere scrapes on the ground. Drought also cuts down on the number of insects available to feed the young right after hatching, before they convert to an adult diet of mainly seeds, buds and leaves.

The development of native prairie habitat also brings new predator species that the birds aren’t used to, said Kathleen. Converting prairie to houses brings domestic cats and more skunks.

And then there’s the competition. Ring-necked pheasants brought in by game bird farms will push sharp-tails out, said Kathleen. Later on our trip we had an excellent view of two cocks of this Asian species fighting on the side of the road.

Sharp-tails are a resident species in southeastern Wyoming as well as grasslands extending north into Canada, which means you should be able to see them any time of year, but they are a lot easier to find in spring on leks.

The six or seven sharp-tails we found were completely oblivious to us as we watched from our vehicles.

The males held their pointy tails erect, stretched their stubby wings horizontally and with head down, stepped rapidly in little circles or advanced on their rivals or retreated. The white underside of their tails was the only contrast to the dry grass landscape or to the rest of their feathers that are also the color of dry grass.

With our windows open we heard tail feathers rattling and the weird cooing sound made when males deflate their air sacs. When the orange globe of sun slipped over the uncluttered line of the horizon, all the photographers were happy.

This particular morning it was we who left first, rather than the birds, to search out other leks. Often, the shadow of a passing hawk sends all grouse airborne. While a hawk in flight is often favorably compared to a fighter jet, flying grouse are the epitome of short-winged, big-bellied bombers. They prefer to flap and glide, and never far from the ground.

In late April, we are now part way through the pageant of spring migration. The snow geese have come and gone and the warblers and shorebirds are just now showing up. If we miss the ducks, we’ll see most of them again in fall migration. But the grouse show is mostly finished. Many people view sage and sharp-tail leks every year and some, wildlife biologists as well as volunteers, perform surveys.

Every year we hope they find good news. Otherwise, it could forecast the future demise of something more important than just another roadside attraction.

For a copy of Habitat Extension Bulletin 25, “Habitat Needs and Development for Sharp-tailed Grouse,” call Wyoming Game and Fish Department, 777-4600.

Book review: Singing Life of Birds

Singing Life of Birds book

“The Singing Life of Birds” by Donald Kroodsma.

Published April 5, 2004, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Singing Life of Birds, the Art and Science of Listening to Birdsong.”

2014 Update: The book is still widely available.

By Barb Gorges

The Singing Life of Birds, by Donald Kroodsma, Houghton Mifflin, c. 2005, 496 pages, includes CD of bird songs.

The Singing Life of Birds, subtitled The Art and Science of Listening to Birdsong, has just been released by Houghton Mifflin at this most appropriate season. More birds sing in the spring than any other time of year. The drawback is birdwatchers will be out in the midst of migration rather than reading a book. And it’s a big book, 496 pages. The good news is that author Donald Kroodsma is a storyteller as well as a scientist.

There are about 10,000 bird species world wide. Some have their songs encoded in their DNA and some learn their songs.

Writes Kroodsma, “Of those that learn, some do so early in life, some throughout life; some from fathers, some from eventual neighbors after leaving home; some only from their own kind, some mimicking other species as well. Some species sing in dialects, others not. It is mostly he who sings, but she sometimes does, too….Some birds have thousands of different songs, some only one, and some even none. Some sing all day, some all night. Some are pleasing to our ears, and some are not. It is this diversity that I celebrate.”

Kroodsma, professor emeritus at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and a visiting fellow at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, uses thirty bird species to illustrate the different aspects of “avian bioacoustics” as the field is known. His research is often opportunistic, taking advantage of travel over the years to compare the repertoire of different populations of the same species or similar species.

In 1968, as a senior at the University of Michigan, he was introduced by famed ornithologist Olin Sewall Pettingill to the bird then known as the rufous-sided towhee. It has since been split into two species, the spotted towhee, found here in the west, and the eastern towhee that includes what Kroodsma heard in Michigan singing its distinctive “drink-your-te-te-te-te-te-te-te-te.”

In grad school at Oregon State, he found the spotted towhee sang the tune differently, leaving off syllables at the beginning, and had twice as many variations.

You might think telling if a towhee has eight rather than four different songs is a subjective exercise in frustration. But it isn’t for Kroodsma. After 30 years’ experience, what he tapes with his parabolic dish microphone he can practically see as a sonogram before the computer spits it out. The sonogram is like the musical staff, or a graph showing the pitch and duration of sounds.

But why did the Oregon towhees have more songs, and why did they share songs with their neighbors, even matching them as if in reply, and the New England towhees, with which he became familiar with, don’t? Kroodsma attributes this difference to the Oregonians being on their territories year round while the others are migratory and may not have the same neighbors from year to year.

Kroodsma tested his hypothesis in 1987 while visiting Florida where the white-eyed variation of the eastern towhee, a year round resident, had as he predicted, a large repertoire shared by neighbors. Someday Kroodsma hopes to get to the Great Plains where both spotted and eastern towhees are migratory and see if they both sing like the birds in the northeast.

Kroodsma hopes we will all learn to listen to birdsong more closely. In Appendix II he describes the equipment needed to record. Thanks to the digital age, it is now quite reasonably priced. To help us train our ears, for every fascinating story he tells, there is at least one sonogram printed with an extensive caption, and a track on the CD included with the book.

This might limit where you sit and read to places within reach of a CD player. Conveniently, in Appendix I you can read commentary while listening to each track and find the page number of the corresponding sonogram.

Then I discovered the Notes and Bibliography at the back of the book. This is where you find Kroodsma’s footnotes, the citations for studies mentioned as well as more commentary. While many of the references cited are from professional journals that are probably incomprehensible to anyone but ornithologists, Kroodsma does have additional reading recommendations for the rest of us.

But first I plan to digest what he’s written. By following his instructions, I might be able to recognize individual songs when the spotted towhees visit my yard next week on their annual spring tour.