While inspecting the status of the BPRC’s recently burned meadows (doing very well, thank you), came upon these. Turkey vultures who have adopted the Raptor Center as their favorite hangout space. And why not? Water is good and handouts of partially consumed carcasses from the mews and hospital provide an easy lunch. They also are not easily spooked.
Last year about this same time (late June), I wrote an article entitled Screech Owls in Suburbia describing our (their) success in raising four chicks. This year we, 2020, had another pair but with quite different results. All material, from this year and last, including 98+ videos for 2020, is available as links from http://crcamp.com/owls.
I had so much fun last year (and learned a lot along the way) that I decided to improve the setup before anyone new showed up by adding a nest cam in each box. The intent was that if they came back in 2020, I wanted to capture what was going on in the box on a continual non-intrusive basis rather than by getting a ladder out, opening the side of the box up (thereby scaring off the attending mother and frightening the kids) and snapping a quick photo of a non-natural event in their life.
So after a lot of dithering and spec sheet reading I finally settled on the Birdhouse Spy Cam Hawk Eye HD from Amazon. It’s a color camera with built-in Infrared (IR) lighting that switches on automatically in the dark. It’s 1.75” x 1.75” x 1” and fits nicely in the corner of the two owl boxes I have. I bought the first one in May, 2019 and discovered that it puts out standard Audio/Video via RCA jacks so I had to also order a Hauppauge 610 USB-Live 2 Analog Video Digitizer that would allow me to record movies or snapshots onto my laptop.
The downside of the nest cam is that I took almost no photographs inside the box and few outside. But I did record and upload a *lot* of videos (with audio) of behavior that I had NO idea was happening during courting and incubating although I’m sure it happened in 2019 as well. But, obviously, almost all of it happens at night and without the IR camera it would be invisible. Things began on New Year’s eve at 4am, I was reading and became aware that I was hearing a familiar trill (the weird gurgling background noise is a fountain running).
We had an owl! But it could only be heard. Based on my understanding of the annual pattern I’m guessing that this was the male (we named him Curious George or just George for short).
Two days later we noticed there was an owl head watching us from the front nestbox. It quickly ducked back in but then at 5pm it was on the side box watching us through the kitchen window and trilling every 30 seconds or so. It watched me walk up and down the front walk; watched an Amazon Prime delivery and then the delivery person and me talking for a few minutes. Then watched me walk back into the house.
The next day, the 1st, I waited until it was in the side box late in the afternoon and I sneaked the ladder around to the front box to make sure it was empty. I clattered the ladder up to the tree and scrabbled on the side of the box on the off chance we had two and to give anyone inside a chance to vacate. Nothing. I pulled the latching pin out and eased up the side door and was startled to see the *back* of a much larger reddish owl. It moved a little when the door went up, I only saw the back side, and I gently eased the door back down and put the pin back in. It stayed in the box.
Soooo …. We apparently had both a red morph and a gray morph in our boxes. Based strictly on behavior and based on the way the side owl is comfortable with and interested in us walking around the kitchen, I believe it’s the same male we had last year. But the one in front is new! With the apparent size difference and the fact that the front box was where the nesting took place last year, it was pretty obvious that it’s the female inside.
A couple of days later, taking a chance that it was empty, I got all the cabling for the front-box camera buried and protected from squirrels and it looked pretty good. The yellow streak in the center is where sun is shining through the opening. I could see the entire bottom of the box and it wasn’t any too soon – that night, while I was testing the IR camera, the male dropped in to practice his call. He starts off with a barking sound that gradually gets faster and faster until it turns into the trill we’re used to hearing. Sort of like an opera soprano warming up her throat. It sounded really loud, but that’s because the microphones are in the box with the camera.
For about a week they alternated boxes off and on but then gradually the red morph took over the front box. Oddly, under IR she looks almost like an albino, but in daylight she’s as russet as she can be. The female, who we named Hunter, spent a lot of time redecorating and clearing mulch out of the bottom of the box down to the lumber floor when she wasn’t out hunting. She may have been just looking around but sometimes it looked like she was aware of the camera as a ‘thing’ in her home – but everything I’ve read and researched says at the most it would appear as a dark dull red if it was visible at all. She was probably just bored and checking everything out.
Hunting wise, two or three times a night, George will bring her a grub or a Katydid or sometimes a gecko (the size variation and IR coloration of the two owls sexes is really apparent in this clip – she’s the large white one). If she’s not there, he’ll hang around calling for her – but if she shows up, he bails pretty quickly. She usually snatches whatever he brings right out of his bead and snarfs it down. But occasionally she will refuse it – about half way through this 2-minute video, he brings what looks like a piece of flattened rat road-kill. She is absolutely not interested and although he tries several times to get her to take it, he finally hauls it off. She’s very protective of the nest though and continues to shuffle stuff around. Hunter’s first egg showed up on February 27, 2020.
At this point, she stopped hunting and pretty much sat on the four eggs which arrived one every other day. She depended on George to bring several food drops nightly. She only left the nest at dusk and every 3-4 hours until dawn for nightly potty-breaks, staying away 15-20 minutes each time and checking the eggs out when she returned before settling down on them. All this time, George has been spending days on an oak branch almost invisible in a cluster of leaves. He takes off at night but spends the days within about 15 feet of the nest, facing it to watch? By April 10, the eggs were over due by a week.
On April 11th, when she was out on her dusk potty-break, I raided the nest to check on the egg conditions. One was definitely broken and had oozed yolk onto the other three. I removed the broken one and returned the other three to the nest after adding another handful of mulch to get them up off the hard lumber floor. Hunter came back about 7:20, hopped in and immediately and somewhat frantically hopped back out – I’m guessing she was startled by the new king-sized bed in her house. She went over to a nearby tree-limb and watched me come out and look for her. After another 10 minutes or so she tried again and immediately settled down on the three good eggs. Candling the bad egg showed it was ¼ full of a watery fluid.
The next time I saw her, it was about 10am on Easter morning. One of the eggs had been separated from the other two and was way over in a diagonal corner opposite the other two she was sitting on. She didn’t sit on it or pay any attention to it all day. After she left that evening, I opened the box and snagged that egg, intending to candle it as well. No need. It was just an empty shell – no fluid, no meat. Nothing. It was definitely not like that last night when I put the three back in the box. I’m wondering if she ate it.
I candled one of the other two eggs and it appeared to be half opaque and half translucent. None of the detail I was expecting. Don’t know what that means. In any case, she was busy sitting on the remaining two, turning them every couple of hours and acting like they are going to hatch. Given that it’s been 39 days since they were laid and the average hatch time is 26-30 days, I doubted it.
On the 15th I removed the remaining two eggs and candled them – both were the same ¼ full of watery liquid and I destroyed them. Hunter noticed the two eggs were gone immediately, rooted around for a very short while then settled in. She continued to return to the nest box during the day for a couple of days and then was gone. The last I saw of her was on the 20th. Both she and George had disappeared and I figured it was over. A small swarm of Scout Bees invaded the box the next day and hung around for a couple of days. They left when I propped the side door open.
But… on April 23rd Hunter and George both showed back up again and we started all over. I guess a clutch lost to predators (me in this case) is not uncommon and there was still time for a second try.
It was the same pattern as before with three eggs this time being laid on the 4/27 through 5/1. The first egg arrived on April 27 (exactly one month after the 1st clutch) after lots of lovey-dovey sessions with George, a last inspection by both of them and absolute dervish-like frenzies of nesting behavior.
George continued to hang around on his branch and bring food, but it seemed to me like not as much as before and she was definitely out hunting at night for 1-3 hours at a time. Another change is that she’s liking the rats that George brings now. George visits occasionally while she’s out and checks out the eggs like “What the hell are these?”
During the day she sleeps mostly except for turning the eggs occasionally and, once, scaring something off. During the day she sometimes makes odd vocalizations. They seem to occur more frequently as time goes on and the eggs, again, don’t hatch on schedule. She begins staying away more often as if she’s aware that the eggs may be bad or damaged.
Hunter left the nest on June 3 when she left on her first dusk potty-break of the evening and never came back.
On the 6th, when she’d been off the eggs for three days, I candled the three eggs and all were half filled with a stiff gel. I destroyed them (again) and cleaned out/hosed down the nest box next day .
There was a huge ant nest under the mulch in one corner – lots of eggs, pupa and small ants that I terminated with extreme prejudice. I’ll do a good dusting with Diatomaceous Earth next time and go back to a thin layer of mulch.
I was really looking forward to raising a clutch of baby owls and seeing what went on during their day and nights as they fed. And how many were red morph vs gray morph. And other stuff. But nope. They gave it a good 2nd try but whatever was wrong with the 1st batch was also wrong with the 2nd batch. Maybe it was their first try at nesting and they didn’t know the ropes. Maybe it was the weather. Maybe one or both of them ate something that damaged them reproductively. Maybe they were sterile to begin with.
No one will likely ever know and I’ll give it another try next spring.
With us all hunkered down at home, there has been a worldwide spike in eBird.org observations by citizen scientists. If you’re one of those staying home with more time to gaze out the window, wander in the yard, or play in the garden, consider starting your own list of yard birds and contribute to the eBird database of avian observations.
Have a look at “Discover the Birds in Your Yard and Garden” (https://ebird.org/news/discover-the-birds-in-your-yard-or-garden).
Here are some additional tips…
- Report all the birds you could identify. And don’t report the ones you couldn’t. That’s perfectly OK. All of us see or hear birds we can’t identify for a wide variety of reasons.
- Select the “Stationary” observation type if you spent time focused only on birding and you didn’t wander more than about 30 yards.
- Select “Incidental” type if you were focused on another task, like gardening or working on a project, but you want to report the birds you saw and heard.
- Select “Traveling” if you were focused on watching birds, but wandered more than 30 yards, like when you were taking a walk.
Photos courtesy – Erich Neupert
An impressive percentage of our BPTMN tribe volunteers at the Blackland Prairie Raptor Center which has taken positive measures to keep the center in operation and the volunteers safe through modified schedules.
As of June 18 Raptor Center rehab has treated 275 birds.
Now here is the fun. Who can tell us what the abbreviations stand for.
HINT that will help: https://bpraptorcenter.org/
Under Rescue – Raptor Med
Sixty-three have been released but many are in flight activity areas learning to catch their own prey, which is the requirement for releasing.
Release rate? 80 percent.
Greg Tonian – Ovenbird
Jim Dulian’s Quiz Submissions
Jim Dulian’s Heron Chicks
Jean Suplick – Once a Collector always a Collector
Terry Comingore – Think Skinks
Rick Travis – Milkweed Project in the Wetlands Update
Bird birthing updates, Duane’s cool labyrinth, news from a New Mexico naturalist you may know and grass and forbs contest ready for viewing. Keep the info coming folks. You are making many people very happy by sharing your time in nature.
Terry Comingore – Proud Grandpa of Heron Chicks
Jim Dulian – Backyard Heron Nest
Greg Hayden – Greetings from New Mexico
Duane Mortenson – Lockdown in Backyard Oasis
Clyde Camp WildLife Blog
Jim Dulian’s – Grasses & Forb Quiz
The response and number of hits to the site from our members has been remarkable, y’all. Keep the experiences and joys coming and remember that if you have some needs we can meet, give us a holler. What you have continued to accomplish during this unfamiliar part of our journeys is amazing!
by Lisa Runyon
This is not a book review of David Welky’s A Wretched and Precarious Situation: In search of the Last Arctic Frontier. I carried that beast to my hotel room every night on my spring break trip through south Texas’ World Birding Centers, fully intending to read and write a review for this newsletter. Instead, I lost my heart to an unexpected treasure I found in a gift shop in Harlingen’s Arroyo Colorado World Birding Center.
The tall, stark white spine with the title Bird Brains caught my attention among the myriad of field guides. Bird Brains? Is that an insult? I pulled it out and was met with a striking cover featuring a close-up of a bird so black it was almost blue. It was then that the subtitle gave it away: The Intelligence of Crows, Ravens, Magpies, and Jays. Who among us has not had an encounter with these birds? Loud to the point of obnoxious, aggressive, beautiful, yet kind of scary thanks to Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds. I never thought of these birds as anything special, let alone intelligent. This book has changed my mind!
Beyond any field guide, Bird Brains by Candace Savage, is part coffee-table book with its stunning photographs and 10×10 format and part meta-analysis of scientific research with a dash of engaging sidebars recalling the influence of crows and ravens in literature throughout the ages. Classified as members of the genus Corvus, there are 113 species of crow-like birds in the world. This group, known as corvids, includes our local American Crow, Blue Jay, and Common Raven. A handy graphic included in the book illustrates typical corvids, provides a brief description of the bird and map of their territory. Go most anywhere in the world and you will find a corvid who has adapted to that area. The author makes the point that in many parts of the world, corvophobia is a sad reality. Some folks think that corvids are “vermin that need to be eradicated.” However, keep reading, and I bet you will start to see corvids in a new light.
The main thrust of the book is building a case for the intelligence of the corvids. While lacking an elaborate cerebral cortex you’d find in mammals, these birds have a well-developed hyperstriatum within their brain, the largest among any birds. In fact, their brain-to-body ratio equals that of dolphins and almost our own! Ok, brain size is one thing, genetic programming is another, but do these birds make conscious decisions? Problem solve? Learn?
Ms. Savage, the author, explores the scientific evidence for corvid intelligence from studies involving nest-building, mating, and communications, to name a few areas. She is careful to differentiate between instinct and demonstrations of higher intelligence. Yes, the data is convincing – corvids do exhibit higher intelligence! For example, consider the language of corvids, one of the most studied areas. Caws, croaks, screams, pants, and chatter vary between species, regions, and moods. Ravens, which “probably produce a greater variety of sounds than any other animal except ourselves” has up to 64 different sounds which convey a variety of meanings “subtly altered by the individual’s emotions and its circumstances.” While you may or may not be convinced by the scientific findings, you will be able to relate the facts to your own observations and think about the corvids in a different way.
So, the next time you are cawing to that crow and the crow sizes you up and caws back, think about it. Would you get the same response from a house sparrow? A dove? After reading Bird Brains, I understand what authors throughout history knew all along – there is something special about corvids worth writing about!
by Jodi Hodak
It’s been years since bobwhite quail have been spotted or heard through their distinct “bob-white” call at Connemara Meadow in Allen, TX. But that’s all about to change thanks to a group of determined BPTMNs being led by Bob Mione, a BPTMN and Connemara’s Meadow Manager.
In September, the Meadow Committee approved the concept of using bobwhite quail “call back” pens as the next step in attempting to restore bobwhite quail to the Connemara Meadow and Montgomery Farms. If all goes according to plan, BPTMNs will have built a call-back pen in the meadow that about 15 young birds will call home before Christmas. The timing for the effort is focused on a period when one of the major predators of the bobwhites–snakes–are hibernating and the outdoor temperatures are more conducive to success.
“The project will be fun and full of opportunities to learn a great deal about bobwhite quail, other ground nesting birds, native supporting habitat, predators and more,” Bob said. “It will also be difficult and filled with set backs, disappointments and frustrations, similar to any restoration project. After all, if it were easy, it would already be done.”
A species in flux
Northern Bobwhites (Colinus virginianus) are one of the most common species of quail in Texas. Both sexes look very distinct, with a mottled brownish back and wings. The males, also known as cocks, have a white throat and face, while the females, or hens, have a buff-colored throat and forehead stripe.
While some reports issued by conversation and environmental groups say bobwhite populations have been on the decline since 1980, others indicate the quail population in some parts of Texas, as well as in Kansas and Oklahoma, are on the upswing.
The leading cause for both the population decline and upswing seem to point to changes in the quantity and quality of habitat. At Connemara meadow, BPTMNs will build the call-back pen close to an area where prairie restoration is well underway, where there is existing habitat provided by shrubs and small trees and a water source is nearby.
In addition to gaining as much knowledge as possible from local experts before moving forward with the project, the team will obtain the appropriate permits from the State.
How the call-back concept works
Since bobwhites love companionship, they are perfect candidates for the call-back pen concept. Bobwhites instinctively want to stay together. Part of the reason for this is safety, and another part lies in the fact that the bobwhite is one of the few bird species that roost together on the ground. While this can be very hazardous in the wild, it makes them an ideal species for the call-back pen.
Here’s how we think the concept could work at Connemara. Each day, volunteers will let a majority of the birds out of the call-back pen so they can explore their surroundings and get acclimated to their home in the meadow. The ones that remain in the pen will eventually call out to the birds on the outside and encourage them to come back through a funnel that is just the right size to ensure predators will not be able to get in. The bobwhites’ natural instinct to convey with the other birds will lead them back to the pen.
Another reason the birds will come back to the pen will be an ample supply of food and fresh water. Volunteers will make sure the birds have food and water available in the pen so they will have the ability to survive during the winter months. All of the birds will eventually be let out of the pen permanently when they are ready to survive in the meadow on their own.
With a lot of hope and a positive attitude, we have decided to embark on this exciting journey. If you would like to join us as a volunteer, contact Bob Mione at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Ah, fall. What a lovely time of year! The leaves lose their chlorophyll (which means they turn pretty autumn colors), the air becomes brisk, and animals start storing foods in various places. You’re probably questioning my title for this snippet of juicy animal/plant facts. Why on Earth would anyone put these two things together? Well, the answer is quite simple. Okay wait, it’s actually not that simple. Prepare yourself for learning!
During all times of the year, birds eat food. Pretty obvious, huh. Some birds, like the Eastern Phoebe and the Eastern Bluebird, like to eat native fruits of Texas. These birds will take the fruit and fly off to eat and enjoy its snack. After a while, it defecates. The seeds of the fruit will then be dispersed in a different location from before, helping the tree populate an area. Although, many birds eat the Mistletoe plant believing it is delicious, only to have -um- a very bad case of tummy trouble. This is how many fruit trees and/or trees with seeds get spread around.
Another way trees get planted by birds is by the help of the very smart, and very flashy Blue Jay. Once they have found an acorn or a nut of some sort, they will fly around and find a good location to hide it. They use their gular pouch (a pouch of extra skin in the bird’s upper esophagus) to carry the nut while they use their beak to dig a little hole in the dirt. They will then hide the acorn and come back to eat it later! Unfortunately for the birds, they bury too many for themselves to ever eat. So, the acorn will grow on its own into a beautiful tree.
Many foods are actually poisonous to birds, so here is a list of some common household foods you should not feed your pet bird: acorns (only some birds can eat these, it is mostly wild species), almonds, apple seeds, avocado and alcohol. Pet birds do tend to live a long time, especially parrots. If you want to get a pet bird to accompany you on your wildlife exploration, make sure to research your preferred species. Parrots and other bird species can live up to 50 years in captivity, and lots of people just release their bird out into the wild.
Never release an animal that has been a pet for its whole life into the wild. The animal will not know how to find food or take care of itself. It will also scare the heck out of someone if a big ‘ole parrot landed on their shoulder. I have seen a conure in Texas, and it was trying to fit in with some pigeons. Don’t make your pet bird feel left out, just make sure you really want a bird and know the responsibility that comes with it.
Remember to look out for birds on their mission to find food! Many birds like seeds and fruit, so set up a bird feeder, and watch the birds fly with the autumn leaves.