Alaska bird behavior intrigues

Gulls form a white edge on the beach at the Sitka National Historical Park in Sitka, Alaska, in early October on a rare sunny day. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Published in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle Nov. 10, 2019, “Alaskan bird behavior intrigues birdwatchers.”

By Barb Gorges

            Our family lost its guide to Alaska in October. My husband Mark’s brother Peter, a Catholic priest in southeast Alaska for 51 years, died at age 84.

            Peter was an inveterate explorer, from his days growing up in the Bronx a block from 1,146-acre Van Cortlandt Park—larger than Central Park—to voluntarily relocating to Alaska. His extensive foreign travels with parishioners took him many places the last 20 years.

            Whenever we visited, Peter was our tour guide: Ketchikan, Sitka, Juneau, Skagway, Haynes, Fairbanks, Denali, Anchorage, Homer (search “Alaska” at https://cheyennebirdbanter.wordpress.com). Like his father and three brothers, he was a fisherman and camped and hiked. But he also was interested in botany and Native cultures. He didn’t just reside in Alaska. He knew the state’s history, political and natural.

            Peter became more interested in birds after he retired. It’s hard to ignore them in southeast Alaska. For instance, Sitka Sound, opening onto the Pacific, has an abundance of gulls, ravens and bald eagles that mingle with Sitka townsfolk and summer cruise ship visitors.

            Spend time among ravens that walk within ten feet of you unafraid and you will never mistake a crow for a raven again: enormous bills, bushy cowls of neck feathers, bouncy landings, deep croaking voices. And you know they are staring at you, calculating if you might share food.

            One raven I met after the memorial mass for Peter accompanied me to the Sitka National Historical Park parking lot. It chose a dark blue car and fussed at its door, all the while looking over at me hoping I had a key to food inside.

            I’ve been reading John Marzluff and Tony Angell’s book, “Gifts of the Crow.” Marzluff’s study on the University of Washington campus revealed that crows remembered the faces of researchers that captured and banded them and mobbed them whenever they saw the researchers again. Luckily, the researchers wore masks. The original crows taught subsequent generations to recognize the masks.

            Crows have many human-like behaviors because their brains operate in ways very similar to ours. The book is full of technical explanations. Crows especially, and the other corvids to some degree, jays, ravens and magpies, have developed a relationship with people. The local indigenous people, the Tlingit, divide their clans into two groups, Raven and Eagle/Wolf (there’s a north-south divide for the second group).

            Because ravens and crows do not have bills strong enough to break the skin of other animals, they are known to lead predators, including hunters, to prey and then feast on the leftovers.

            Perhaps the parking lot raven updated the tradition, finding park visitors have food. I think all the other cars in the lot were white National Park Service vehicles because the visitor center was closed. And you know that the agency forbids feeding wildlife in its parks, so that’s why the raven chose a blue car. And maybe it picks out people who aren’t wearing park service uniforms.

            Southeast Alaska is not particularly cold, but it is darker in winter than the lower 48, and much rainier, so everyone has enormous windows to maximize natural light. From Peter’s rooms at the rectory he had a panoramic view of Crescent Bay and its resident bald eagles.

The pilings by the breakwater on Crescent Bay are a favorite perch for Sitka, Alaska, bald eagles. Photo by Mark Gorges.

            Sitka’s bald eagles are not as chummy as its ravens, but they have their favorite perches around town. One is a piling outside the marina breakwater. On our last day, Mark and I walked the waterfront out far enough to look back at the rocky structure and I caught a glimpse of something in the distance swimming towards it.

            Neither of us had binoculars, if you can believe it. Mark didn’t have his camera with the zoom lens either. I have better than 20/20 distance vision but still, all I could tell was some brown animal was swimming. But it wasn’t a consistent movement forward like the usual animal paddling. More like the jerkiness of the breaststroke.

            Then there was a flash of white. Hmm, maybe a bald eagle? Have you seen any of the online videos of bald eagles catching fish too heavy to fly to land and instead swimming, using their wings like oars on a rowboat?

            We waited and sure enough, the brown animal climbed onto the rocks and it became an eagle, white head and tail visible—but not what it beached. At least one raven flew over to inspect it. I wonder if Peter ever observed this behavior.

            I don’t think this will be our last trip to Alaska, now that two generations of our family reside nearby in Seattle. But we will have to find a new guide—or do more homework.

Owls are among us

Great Horned Owls

What the crows fear most is that Great Horned Owls will move into the neighborhood and raise a family that needs a constant supply of prey. Courtesy USFWS.

Published Jan. 5, 2014, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Owls are among us. Here’s how to tell if the elusive bird is lurking in your Cheyenne neighborhood.”

2015 Update: And spring brought reports of owlets, including three celebrities from a nest in Lions Park.

By Barb Gorges

In late November, Mark and I became aware that a flock of crows, also known as a murder of crows, was convening just before sunset in a neighbor’s big spruce tree.

They were very loud, very raucous, as if they were a lynch mob yelling for noose justice.

Our double-paned windows are somewhat of a sound barrier, but when we let the dog out, we were bombarded with enough noise to overwhelm a backyard cookout.

Was there an owl roosting in the spruce? It’s a big tree, probably planted when the neighborhood was new 50-60 years ago, so you can’t easily see inside, even when standing beneath it.

Or had the crows decided to establish a roost in our neighborhood? That was an unbearable thought.

Thanksgiving morning, while I was out sweeping up sunflower seed hulls from under our bird feeder and throwing the ball for the dog, the crows sounded even more agitated—gathered in a spruce even closer to our house. “There must be an owl within those thickly-needled branches,” I thought. “And he isn’t getting any sleep after a night of hunting.”

The next morning, just before sunrise, I lifted the window shade and saw a lump on the bare branch of our big green ash tree. Yep, a great horned owl. I told the dog she would have to wait a few minutes before she could go out.

The owl was perched about a foot away from a small squirrel nest made of dry leaves stuffed into a vortex of small branches. Leaving the kitchen lights off, I pulled out my binoculars and there was just enough light to see which way the owl was facing. It wasn’t surprising that it was facing the squirrel nest, bobbing its head up and down in a circular way, to get a better fix on a squirrel probably trying desperately not to be heard breathing.

There’s a bigger nest, or drey, on the other side of the alley. Ours looks like it is barely big enough for one squirrel, much less the three scampering around our yard every day, teasing the dog.

I was surprised that the owl didn’t just poke a taloned foot or sharp beak into that pile of leaves. But great horned owls prefer to feed in openings where they can perch and then wing after prey they hear or see, and pounce, pinning it to the ground. Eventually, this owl spread its wings and flew off.

No more mobbing crows here, however, owls have come up in recent conversations with two women I know, one living east of town and one on the northwest edge of Cheyenne. Both women were pretty sure their local owls were knocking off rabbits, the great horned’s favorite food. And both women seemed fine with that, noting that there seemed to be bunny abundance this year.

I’ve talked to my share of folks who complain when an avian predator grabs a meal, especially if the prey is a cute songbird or furry animal. So in addition to getting reports on owl activity, it was gratifying to hear people appreciate owls, even for their feeding habits.

If you are connected to any sources of birding news, you know that this winter there is another irruption of snowy owls, but in the Northeast and upper Midwest, rather than the Great Plains, as it was two years ago. Another shortage of lemmings in the Arctic, forcing them south, I guess.

Snowy owls like to be out in the open, being birds of the tundra, even if it’s the middle of the day, making them relatively easy to pick out when there isn’t too much snow acting as camouflage.

So how many great horned owls are among us, shrouded in a cloak of nocturnal invisibility or daytime coniferous cover? What about the smaller, less common owls of southeastern Wyoming: eastern screech-owl, long-eared owl, short-eared owl?

Is there a great horned owl in your neighborhood? Look for the signs: angry crows, the odd rabbit leg on the sidewalk, a large bird flashing through the beam of your headlights, and even the chunky silhouette, the size of Harry Potter’s snowy owl, in a tree or on a fencepost at dawn or dusk.

Don’t begrudge your dog’s request to be let out on a winter’s evening or just before dawn. Follow and take a look around.

Crows come home to roost

American Crow

American Crow, photo courtesy Wikipedia

Published August 2011, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle.

2014 Update: Young crows perched in our trees have been practicing cawing. It’s very repetitious.

By Barb Gorges

This summer, our street became the unwilling host to loud and raucous juveniles coming by at dusk and leaving messes in our driveways. They were young crows, coming home to roost in our neighborhood’s big trees.

Since they settled down shortly after sunset, I could live with the noise, but they were back at it at 5 a.m., as good as an alarm clock through our open windows.

Mid-spring this year I noticed crows flying with sticks. I think they made a nest in a neighbor’s spruce tree. It wasn’t too surprising in early July to hear inexpert cawing.

One evening three young crows put on a performance for us. Up on the cross arms of the utility pole they restlessly moved about, one having to flutter its wings every time it wanted to step over an obstacle. Another one, on the high wire, kept flapping crazily to keep its balance. All three kept up a conversation with inflections of babies learning their mother tongue.

With binoculars it was easy to see the young crows’ feathers weren’t fully grown out, but otherwise, their plain awkwardness gave them away. For a week or two, I could find four of them in our trees or somewhere on our street, walking together, inspecting lawns.

Walking out one day while an adult was with them I was suddenly the focus of a tirade of abusive adult language. What was the backstory? One should not daydream while walking the dog.

Last summer my bird dog quietly picked up a young crow out of tall grass on the side of the road while I wasn’t looking. It probably had been hit by a car. A study of banded nestlings in Illinois shows that the mortality rate within a crow’s first year is 57 percent.

The dog proudly carried the limp bird home and was all smiles all the way, even though the parent birds followed us, yelling. Was this current, irate parent one of the birds that followed me and the dog home last year?

At a recent meeting of the Cheyenne – High Plains Audubon Society we’d watched a documentary, “A Murder of Crows,” about researchers proving that crows recognize faces and will convey to their young who to watch out for. I guess I am a marked woman except it wasn’t me that killed the young crow last year. I only provided it with a descent burial so it wasn’t left on the side of the road for the foxes to find.

Crows don’t migrate seasonally in the middle latitudes of North America so I’m wondering if the family now roosting in our neighborhood will continue to noisily welcome the day an hour before sunrise, or if they will make friends with the flock I noticed last winter at the VA hospital. I sure hope they aren’t so hospitable that they bring home friends, especially ones coming down from Canada for the winter.

Twenty years ago, crows were hard to find in Cheyenne. And then, like so many other immigrants to our fair city, they’ve decided it’s a good place to raise a family.

We’ve planted trees on the prairie and made it inviting for crows, just as we’ve planted oil and gas machinery in sage grouse habitat, giving ravens, close cousins to crows, hunting perches and greater success preying on sage grouse eggs. But that’s a story for another day. I hope our crows only provide entertainment and a little extra fertilizer for our neighborhood.