Bird brains

2016-02 Red-winged BlackbirdbyBarbGorges

Male Red-winged Blackbird. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Published in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle Feb. 28, 2016, “UW songbird brain studies shed light”

By Barb Gorges

We are used to thinking about many animals standing in for humans in studies that will benefit us: rats, chimps, rabbits. But should we add songbirds to that list? They apparently work well for studying how we learn to speak.

At the February Cheyenne Audubon meeting, Karagh Murphy, a University of Wyoming doctoral candidate in the Zoology and Physiology Department, explained how Bengalese finches help her study how brains learn.

Learning by example, whether bird or human, takes place in two parts. First the student observes, or in the case of male birds learning to sing so they can defend their territory and attract mates, they listen. Then they attempt imitation, practicing by listening to themselves and getting feedback.

What Karagh wanted to know is if HVC neurons in the birds’ brains are active at both stages, hearing and doing. It’s just a simple matter of plugging a computer into the right place in a bird’s brain.

First though, you have to wrangle your subjects, capturing them in the walk-in-sized aviary, and then get them used to having the wispiest of cables attached to the tiny instrument on their heads. Otherwise, they are too stressed to sing.

Karagh recorded the firing pattern of the HVC neurons, producing something like the electrocardiogram that shows heart beats, and compared it to the spectrogram, another linear graph of peaks and valleys that visualizes the frequencies of the song she played for the bird to hear, and then the song the bird sang. Both spectrograms matched the peaks and valleys of the HVC neuron pattern, essentially showing the neurons are used for both auditory and motor output, the action of singing.

Recently, something very similar has been found in humans, called mirror neurons.

The second speaker was Jonathan Prather, an associate professor in the department’s neuroscience program. While Karagh has been studying males learning to sing, Jonathan has been figuring out what the female Bengalese finches want to hear.

Female birds don’t sing. At most, they produce call notes to communicate. But they enjoy listening to males sing and they judge them by their song to determine which one is the fittest potential mate, which will give them the fittest young.

Jonathan thought there might be a “sexy syllable,” some part of the song that would get the females excited, measured by how often the females call in response. He measured their responses as he played back songs he had manipulated.

Or maybe it was tempo, so he manipulated the recording to go faster in some trials, then slower in others. Or maybe the female birds would react differently to songs at different pitches. That would be similar to human women who, studies have shown, are attracted to men with deeper voices (connected to higher testosterone levels).

Apparently, female finches are looking for quantity and complexity, for males who sing in the most physically (neuromuscular-wise) demanding way. That means sweeping from high to low notes a lot, and really fast. Think how opera stars singing the most demanding repertoire get the biggest applause. A bird that can sing well is well-fed, healthy and of good breeding—perfect father material.

The field of neurobiology is more about figuring out human brains, but when birds are used as models, birdwatchers find it intriguing. The questions from the Audubon audience reflected their familiarity with birds.

Our songbirds in Wyoming are only seasonal singers, so birds from equatorial locations that sing year round are used to make trials more efficient. Would there be a difference?

Are female bird brains different from the male brains? Yes, because learning songs increases one part of the male brain, however, females have other roles that increase the size of other parts of their brain.

If a young bird never hears another bird sing, will it eventually sing? Not really, it will only babble in an unformed way, as human babies do when they start out.

If a young bird hears only the singing of a different species, will it learn that song instead? Yes, although not completely perfectly—there is some genetic influence on bird song.

And what about the mimics? What about birds like starlings and mockingbirds that learn to imitate lots of other birds’ songs and even some human vocalizations and mechanical noises? Karagh broke out in a grin. That line of study could keep her busy for her entire career.

Wyoming Roadside Attraction: Miner’s Cabin Trail

3-Miner's Cabin

The Miner’s Cabin Trail circles remnants of mining history along the Snowy Range Scenic Byway between Centennial and Saratoga. Photo by Barb Gorges.


Published Aug. 15, 2010 in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle: Miner’s Cabin Trail is worthy stop on Snowy Range Scenic Byway

By Barb Gorges

The Snowy Range Scenic Byway between Centennial and Saratoga has many turnouts and small parking lots with views that give flatlanders plenty to photograph, but don’t neglect this one and the Miner’s Cabin interpretive trail.

Be forewarned there are no restroom facilities, so be sure to stop first at Libby Flats to the east or Lake Marie to the west.

If hiking at 10,000 feet is too much for you to even contemplate, this is still a worthwhile stop as the entire Snowy Range is visible and all the peaks are identified on an interpretive sign in the small parking lot.

The trail, barely three-quarters of a mile, may be encumbered with a few snow drifts as late as July. With plenty of signs interpreting the area’s mining history and natural history to stop and read you’ll never get too out of breath.

Besides the miner’s cabin, look for the picturesque remains of the Red Mask Mine built in the 1920s in hopes of making money in copper, gold and silver.

If you go:

Miner’s Cabin Trail, Snowy Range Scenic Byway

Directions: From I-80 Exit 311 at Laramie, take Wyo. State Hwy. 130 west about 35 miles. Distance from Cheyenne: about 90 miles.

Open: June – September, or whenever the road is snow-free.

Admission: Free.

Address: Laramie Ranger District, Medicine Bow National Forest, 2468 Jackson St., Laramie.

Phone: 307-745-2300.

Web site:

Attractions: Scenery, hiking, wildlife viewing, restrooms available at other turnouts.

Time: 20 minutes to 1 hour.

Wyoming Roadside Attractions: Lake Marie

2-Lake Marie

A view of Lake Marie July 4, 2010, from the east, shows some of the snowdrifts blocking area trails. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Published Aug. 1, 2010, Wyoming Tribune Eagle: Breathtaking views abound at 10,000 feet at Lake Marie

By Barb Gorges

The Snowy Range rises out of the Medicine Bow Range. Along the juncture, a series of lakes collect snowmelt.

Lake Marie, named by an early government surveyor for his wife who later became the first woman elected to the state legislature, is the most photogenic and accessible. Small parking lots on each end are connected by a flat, paved walk.

On the west end are the restrooms and the trailhead for climbing Medicine Bow Peak, elevation 12,013 feet. Following the trail a little way will give you some great views, but hiking the peak demands preparation, physical fitness and a very early start.

On the other side of the highway is a nice sample of the trail system alongside a mountain stream.

From the smaller parking lot on the east end you can find the trail up to the Mirror Lake Picnic Area for different views of Lake Marie. Mirror Lake is also accessible by vehicle from the next turnoff east. The trailhead there leads to views of more alpine lakes.

If you hike, leaving your dog at home is easier than following the leash regulation, and safer. Visit early in the day so you aren’t caught by thunderstorms and remember you’ll be out of breath just standing along the highway at 10,000 feet.

But the wildflowers are breathtaking, too.

If you go:

Lake Marie, Snowy Range Scenic Byway

Directions: From I-80 Exit 311 at Laramie, drive about 35 miles on State Hwy. 130 west through Centennial. Distance from Cheyenne: about 90 miles.

Open: June to September, whenever the road is snow-free.

Admission: Free.

Address: Laramie Ranger District, Medicine Bow National Forest, 2468 Jackson St., Laramie.

Phone: 307-745-2300.

Web site:

Attractions: Scenery, hiking, fishing with Wyoming fishing license, wildlife viewing, picnicking at adjacent Mirror Lake Picnic Area.

Time: 20 minutes to 2 hours.

Wyoming Roadside Attraction: Wyoming State Bath House

1-State Bath House

If you are passing through Thermopolis, stop by for a free, 20-minute soak in the mineral hot springs at the State Bath House. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Originally published July 10, 2010 in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle: “Take a free soak in mineral hot springs. The State of Wyoming will even rent you a swimsuit and towel for $1 each.”

By Barb Gorges

Bet you didn’t know you could rent a swimsuit from the State of Wyoming for only $1, and a towel, too, for another $1. And 20 minutes of soaking in either the freshly renovated indoor or outdoor mineral hot springs pools at the State Bath House in Hot Springs State Park is free year round.

You can bring your own suit and towel, but if you weren’t planning to spend the day playing on the slides at one of the two commercial hot pools in the park, or one of the Thermopolis motels offering naturally heated pools, it’s nice to know you can still sample the therapeutic waters. The Bath House attendant is very good at estimating your suit size.

Free soaking was a provision requested by the tribes signing the treaty in 1897 that gave the land to Wyoming. As many as 200 people take advantage on a summer day.

The shady park grounds are a good place for a picnic. Also check out the terraces of mineral deposits behind the Bath House and try out the swinging bridge over the Big Horn River.

If you go:

State Bath House, in Hot Springs State Park

Directions: From State Hwy 789/U.S. Hwy 20, look for state park signs at Park Street directing you east across the Big Horn River. The State Bath House is one block north, on Tepee Street. Distance from Cheyenne: about 300 miles.

Open: Monday – Saturday 8 a.m. – 5:30 p.m., Sundays noon – 5:30 p.m. Open on summer holidays, closed for winter holidays.

Admission: Free.

Address: 538 N. Park St., Thermopolis (park headquarters).

Phone: 307-864-2176

Web site:

Attractions: mineral hot springs, picnicking, boat docks, Volksmarch trail.

Time: 30 minutes or more.

Bird book reviews: Weidensaul and Cornell Lab of Ornithology

Published in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle Jan. 31, 2016, “Two books suited for winter reading.”

“Owls of North America and the Caribbean,” by Scott Weidensaul. Part of the Peterson Reference Guide Series published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, hardcover, 333 pages, $40.

“The Living Bird, 100 Years of Listening to Nature,” by The Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Gerrit Vyn, photographer. Published by Mountaineers Books, hardcover, 200 pages, $29.95.

By Barb Gorges

Two bird books of note were released last fall because they would make perfect holiday gifts, and now I’ve finally read them.

“Owls of North America and the Caribbean” is by Scott Weidensaul, whose previous book about migration, “Living on the Wind,” was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.

This book concentrates on a group of birds that he has spent nearly 20 years researching. Surprisingly, there are 39 owl species to write about. Half occur south of the U.S., in Mexico and the Caribbean. Twelve of the northern owl species are regularly seen in Wyoming.

The accounts of the Caribbean owls are each only three to four pages long since little is known about them. Our familiar, comparatively well-studied owls have 12-15 pages each.

This is not a field guide, though lavishly illustrated with wonderful photos. Instead, each account sums up what is known about a species: length, wingspan, weight, longevity, range map, systematics, taxonomy, etymology (how it got its name), distribution by age and season, description and identification by age, vocalization, habitat and niche, nesting and breeding, behavior and conservation status.

In a reference like Birds of North America Online, this information is reduced to tedious technical shorthand, but Weidensaul makes it readable, injecting his experience and opinion. Of the snowy owl’s description, he says, “If you can’t identify this owl, you aren’t trying.”

I’ll admit, I haven’t read this book cover to cover yet. I looked up the owls I’m most familiar with, learning new information, and now I’m curious about the others.

One drawback: there is a reference map naming the states of Mexico, but not the states of the U.S. or the provinces of Canada, or the Caribbean countries.

However, all the information presented makes owls more intriguing than ever.

The second book, “The Living Bird,” is a joint project of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and photographer Gerrit Vyn to mark the 100th anniversary of the lab.

In a 10- by 11-inch format, there is plenty of room for Vyn’s art, the heart of the book. Some birds portrayed life-sized practically step off the page. All of the 250-plus photos are available as individual prints through

It would be easy to ignore text of this book, except for the name recognition of the contributing authors.

If you missed CLO director John Fitzpatrick’s inspiring presentation at Cheyenne – High Plains Audubon Society’s 40th anniversary banquet in 2014, you can read it here as the introduction, “How Birds Can Save the World.” The age-old human attraction to colorful creatures that fly makes us notice bird reactions to environmental degradation. And in Fitzpatrick’s additional essay, in stories of rehab success, we find that when we help birds, we help ourselves.

The essay by one of my favorite authors, Barbara Kingsolver, hit home. She was a child forced to accompany her parents on birding field trips. But despite her best efforts to rebel, birds have come to be important to her, as I hope they have to my children, who attended many bird events in their early lives.

Scott Weidensaul also has an essay, more of a golly-gee-whiz list of cool things you might not know about birds (including some I didn’t), titled “The Secret Lives of Birds.”

The other major essayists are Lyanda Lynn Haupt, a naturalist and author who examines how birds inspire us, and Jared Diamond, an ardent birdwatcher who is famous as the geographer and author who wrote “Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies.” He projects what coming decades will hold for birds, after decades of population declines.

There are also three essays written by Vyn about his exhilarating photographic expeditions. Three short profiles include a citizen scientist, a researcher, and an audio recordist. CLO is known for its extensive library of recorded bird songs and other sounds of nature, thus the second part of the book’s title, “100 Years of Listening to Nature.”

After perusing the photos, I could still barely concentrate on the text. But afterwards I enjoyed the photos again and the photo captions. Written by Sandi Doughton, they add insight. The photos themselves are laid out in a thoughtful, coherent way.

Altogether, this is a book to enjoy, a book to inspire, and maybe it is even a book to cause you to take action.

Read now, before spring migration, when you abandon books for binoculars.

Up next, Roadside Attractions

Dear Bird Banter Readers,

Thanks for reading along as I archived 104 “Bird of the Week” mini essays with photos by Pete Arnold and others. The original idea was to feature birds I thought people living in the Cheyenne, Wyoming, area might actually see.

Some of you have been following this blog since the year before when I archived Bird Banter columns stretching back to 1999–a couple hundred 700-800-word essays.

So what’s next? I continue to write the Bird Banter column approximately once a month and will post each one as soon as it is published in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle. But since I want to help you transition from posts twice a week to once a month, I have a few “Roadside Attraction” articles that can fill in once a week on weeks without other posts. Maybe they can help you plan a Wyoming road trip.

Thanks again for being a Bird Banter reader,


P.S. You might be interested in my other blog, I post to it about once a month, as soon as the latest column is published in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle. Most of the garden advice is specific to Cheyenne, Zone 5 (feels like Zone 3-4), but you may find ideas that will work in other locations.IMG_0664