Precocial Chicks and the Killdeer

by Dave Hanks

The Killdeer gets its name from its call – “KILL-DEE, KILL-DEE”. It is a very well known species because of its broken wing display, which will lead a predator away from the nest and its chicks. Killdeer young are precocial and come out of the shell running. But, they need their parents for protection and guidance; even though they are closer to independence than altricial birds.

Ducks, geese, upland game birds, and wading birds have precocial young. The killdeer is a medium size plover and in the wading category. Some newly hatched birds (like Killdeer) will stay close to the nest while others get as far away as possible. All precocial chicks have well developed legs and can run. Their eyes are open and bright, and they respond to stimuli with a high degree of nervous development.

Their downy feathers will dry in two to three hours. Precocial baby birds can control their body temperature better than altricial young, but some do need brooding. Their big egg tooth and uncolored mouth lining do not result in the stimuli necessary to cause their parents to feed them. The colorful linings of altricial chicks are constantly stuffed with food from hard working Moms and Dads. Some precocial young do need parental help in finding food while others can do very well on their own.

The greater time in the egg naturally results in greater development at hatching. Newly hatched precocial chicks are about as well developed as Red-Winged Blackbird young are after 10 days in the nest. The period between hatching and flight is critical and different species require different time periods for wing development. The flightless phase in upland game birds is shorter than that required by water-related birds.

Baby Killdeer always come out running, and these adorable chicks can be found from Alaska to Newfoundland and to the south in the lower 48.

A baby Killdeer – looking like a miniature adult

A baby Killdeer – looking like a miniature adult

Bird Body Language

by Dave Hanks

Body language, from one individual, will affect the behavior of another.There are several situations that affect a bird’s actions: courtship, aggression in order to maintain distance, appeasement to ward off a fight, begging for food, greeting one’s mate, and so on.

Courtship displays usually emphasize one’s feather colors in the most striking way like strutting or fluffing. Showing off special athletic abilities like leaping, aerial acrobatics, or prey catching ability, can be very appealing to potential mates. Mates may greet each other and strengthen their pair bond by pointing their beaks skywards or clacking their mandibles together.

Birds that are very territorial, like TOWNSEND’S SOLITAIRE, not only use song to warn away trespassers, but make threat displays to keep potential intruders at a distance. Distance between competitors prevents fighting that may result in injury to the combatants. Some threat displays include the raising of head feathers or crests, fluffing body feathers to look larger, or just jutting the head forward. Submissive behavior would be demonstrated by lowering the head, or turning sideways or away. This aggressive, long-tailed gray bird, that has prominent eye rings and rusty wing patches, is well named. It is a “loner”.

It summers in high western mountains where there is an ample supply of juniper trees. In winter it lives almost exclusively on juniper berries. Nests are usually on the ground, a decaying tree stub, or in a nook or hollow beneath some sort of overhanging item that shelters the nest from above.

This aggressive cousin of the robin is rarely seen in the presence of others of its own species, except perhaps in small groups during migration. This migration is from High to Low Mountain or latitudinally to where juniper berries are abundant.

The defensive nature of the solitaire makes viewing of it less frequent. We have also observed, that when showing itself, that it is usually in the dim light of early morning or dusk.

Townsend’s Solitaire – notice eye ring and small wing patch

Townsend’s Solitaire – notice eye ring and small wing patch

The Red-Winged Blackbird

by Dave Hanks

If you find yourself by a marsh or wet meadow and you hear something that sounds like a telephone ringing, you are hearing the call of a Red-Winged Blackbird. It is an easy call to identify, and this species is easily the most common blackbird in our locale. It is 7 to 9 inches long, which is slightly smaller than a robin, with a bright red shoulder patch that is trimmed in yellow. This is slightly different from its look-alike, the Tri-Colored Blackbird, whose red wing patches are trimmed in white. The female and young are heavily streaked with dusky brown – very different from the adult male.

Cattail marsh is their primary habitat, but they will also nest in woody swamps, hay fields, by irrigation canals and roadside ditches. Even though they nest in groups, they are very protective of their territory. They need some immerging vegetation to perch and sing from, and will do everything they can to be noticed. They can be very belligerent, and I have had them dive-bomb my head when I was too close to their space. They regularly mob any raptor in their vicinity – a common scene.

Red-Wings raise 2 to 3 broods a year and will build a new nest for each brood. This is a sanitation practice against a nest becoming infected by parasites that could kill the baby birds. They will feed on almost anything and can be a real nuisance at your bird feeders.

After the breeding season, they gather in huge flocks with other blackbirds and starlings. During migration, this bird can travel over 30 miles per hour.

It is so common that it is hard to appreciate, but when it displays, and you can readily see the bright red wing patches, it is an attractive individual.

Red wings on display on a Red-Winged Blackbird

Red wings on display

Wilson’s Phalarope: An unusual species

by Dave Hanks

A few miles south of Hill City (in the Camas Prairie) is the CENTENNIAL MARSH. In good water years, it is very productive in the springtime. In fact, it is one of the better Idaho marshes for viewing wetland bird life. The wild camas is displaying its appealing bluish bloom, and the flowers grace the waterways. Indians used to benefit from the marsh by harvesting the camas bulbs – a starchy food source.

An abundance of geese, ducks, raptors (especially Kestrels), and wading birds grace this wetland in the spring of most years. Phalaropes are here in abundance. I know of no place where WILSON’S PHALAROPE is more likely to be seen than here in the Centennial Marsh. The word phalarope means “coot-footed.” It’s a small, wading bird that is adapted for swimming. It swims to feed on the water’s surface. You will see them swimming in a figure “8” pattern. They are stirring up the food source – causing the edibles to rise to the surface.

It is an unusual bird in several ways. It is unusual for females to be more colorful than males. It is unusual because its plumage is brighter in winter than in summer. It is unusual because the female pursues the male in a role reversal. She lays the eggs in a ground nest, close to the water, but the male incubates them. The precocial young then feed themselves. Why the unusual plumage brightness variations? The summer incubating male suggests the reason for the switch: female to male reversal – winter to summer reversal.

We carefully drive the banks along the waterways. We listen for a “swirl”, “twirl”, “whirl”, “whirlgig” call that drops in volume; and we look for a small white-fronted bird with a rust-colored neck and a black eye stripe. We stay in our truck, and if we are careful, the vehicle serves as our blind.

A female Phalarope swimming in a figure 8

A female swimming in a figure 8

Stomach Comparisons

Homo sapiens have one stomach. It digests the foods that have a basic pH, such as meats and animal products. These foods remain in the stomach much longer and are a poor choice to ingest before strenuous physical activity. The acids in our stomach neutralize these basic pH foods so that enzymes can do their work of digestion. Acidic pH foods, such as fruits and vegetables, move more quickly into our small intestine. The basic pH nature of this organ neutralizes the acidic foods to allow these enzymes to fulfill their function.

Birds have three stomachs: the CROP, the PROVENTRICULUS, and the GIZZARD. Birds have no teeth and that is why you see them at roadsides picking up little pieces of rock or grit. This grit goes into the gizzard to act in a grinding action like teeth would. The crop (which most birds have) serves to moisten and lubricate that which has been swallowed – then into the true stomach (proventriculus) where enzymes are added – then into the gizzard. A cycle of contractions force the food back and forth between the latter two stomachs until it is ready to enter the intestines for assimilation. Some birds have two additional blind sacs branching off from their large intestine called CECA. These give additional help (through fermentation) to finish the digestion of heavy cellulose containing food stuffs.

Ruminants, which are a type of ungulate (hoofed), have four stomachs. These animals, when at rest, are always chewing their cud (a regurgitated food bolus). Their diets consist of feeds heavy in fiber – mostly grass, twigs, leaves, etc. This requires a more detailed process to accomplish digestion. Food enters the ¬RUMEN (1st) where bacteria attack it and start the breakdown process. It is then belched up and re-chewed before proceeding into the RETICULUM (2nd) to be further reduced. Then the OMASUM (3rd) works it down even further before it moves into the ABOMASUM (4th). This fourth stomach is the true stomach where enzymes can now go to work to complete the breakdown process.

The various adaptations of the great diversity of living things are most interesting!

(Dave Hanks)

Bighorn ram at rest and chewing his cud

Bighorn ram at rest and chewing his cud

The Common Nighthawk

First of all, this bird is not a hawk. It is a member of the Nightjar Family which includes the Whip-poor-will, Poorwill, Chuck-will’a-widow, and Pauraque. It is also called a “Bull Bat” or a “Mosquito Hawk”. It is a moderate sized bird with a large head, large eyes, and a tiny bill surrounded at the base with tiny sensitive feathers. Those feathers aid in prey location. Their combination of brown, gray, and black make a superb camouflage. They also have a small white patch on their throat and a white patch at the end of each wing.

They become active at dusk and dawn and sleep during the day – lying lengthwise on a branch. Their camouflage makes them extremely hard to spot because they blend in so perfectly with the wood. When in flight, they remind me of a fighter plane zipping through the air – the white wing patches resembling air force insignias. As one of the most graceful birds in flight, they can make sudden course adjustments, zig-zaging after flying insects which are taken in through the large gape of their jaws.

Trees interspersed with open areas or forest edges are preferred habitat. Gravel patches are also necessary for this ground nesting species. Courtship involves the male climbing high in the sky, then plunging earthward in a steep dive. This ends with a booming sound, as air rushes through his wing-tips when he pulls out of his dive. After an 18 to 20 day incubation, both parents then feed the chicks regurgitated insects.

This is a species that frequents Idaho in spring and summer – and then makes a long distance migration to South America. You might see them on an evening darting about in the sky, making their squeaky (“speek-speek”) social talk to others of their species. Whenever we are at the Hayspur camp site in Picabo, Idaho we experience them as it seems to be a preferred spot.

(Dave Hanks)

The Common Nighthawk at rest on a limb

At rest on a limb

Bird Symbols and the Ibis

Birds have played a large part in ancient lore. The plains Indians decorated their pipes: red feathers for war, or white feathers for peace. New England settlers thought the nighttime call of the Whip-poor-Will was the voice of a lost soul and forecasted death to someone. The hearing or sighting of certain species portended good or evil: an eagle for freedom, a dove for peace, a loon for madness, a raven was seen in both lights, and to see one magpie meant sorrow, but seeing two at once would result in joy.

Owls have especially caused much superstition. The wearing of an owl’s eye around the neck would keep witches away, or to actually eat the eye would improve one’s vision. The appearance of certain species foretold the coming of various weather phenomena.

The Egyptians held the ibis to be sacred – so sacred that ibis were embalmed, wrapped in cloth, and placed in tombs along with deceased royalty. Ibis are gregarious, long-legged waders, with long, slender, downward curving bills used for probing wetlands. There are 33 species of ibis in the world. Three types are native to the USA: White-Faced Ibis, Glossy Ibis, and White Ibis. Glossy Ibis and White Ibis are found in coastal salt water marshes. Glossy Ibis are dark also, but their dark feathers are more iridescent than the White-Faced plumage. White Ibis are larger and very distinctive. White Ibis populations have been counted in colonies of 600.000 to 800,000 individuals

White-Faced Ibis are fairly common in our general area. They are dark birds, with a narrow strip of white next to their beak that surrounds their eye. We often see them in large groups – either overhead or in wet meadows. The Bear River Bird Refuge by Brigham City, Utah is home to a large population of these birds.

(Dave Hanks)

A White-Faced Ibis stalking and probing for prey at the Bear River Refuge

A White-Faced Ibis stalking and probing for prey at the Bear River Refuge

Bird Metabolism

The term metabolism refers to all chemical changes that take place in the cells of the body. The speed and degree that these changes occur can vary greatly from species to species. Animals that fly have greater extremes in their metabolism. Normal body temperature in birds can be as high as 110 degrees – a temperature that would kill us. However, baby birds cannot maintain those high temperatures and so must be brooded until their bodies can adapt.

Flight also requires a faster movement of blood through the body. Bird hearts are large for their body size (Small birds have bigger hearts in relation to body mass). The oxygen and heat demands of flight are great. Ground dwelling birds have an average pulse rate of 70 beats per minute. This rate increases considerably from that low to 615 beats per minute in a hummingbird. Most birds, when active, triple their heart rates.

I have many times witnessed perched birds voiding their viscera just before taking flight. It’s like throwing all unnecessary baggage out before take-off.The tremendous amount of food a bird requires for flight energy makes lightening the body as often as possible a requirement. Also, birds cannot have the luxury of carrying a bladder. Most liquids are re-absorbed by the kidneys, and the rest is the white material passed with the solid wastes.

Flight also prevents the carrying of the extra weight that a fetus possesses. Therefore, it’s natural to construct a nest and deposit the next generation in it encased in hard-shelled eggs. Heat is required for embryo development, and so the eggs must be kept warm, usually by a parent who settles down and snuggles them against her brood patch.

The life styles of birds are a never ending source of fascination!

(Dave Hanks)

A Broad-Tailed Hummingbird – Metabolism at a fevered pitch

A Broad-Tailed Hummingbird – Metabolism at a fevered pitch

Bullock’s Orioles Nest at our Place

Each year, we look forward to the first week in May when our orioles appear. They are eager to get at the sugar-water we have set out for them. Their golden/orange, contrasted against black markings on their head and throat, along with black and white wings, is “breath taking”. The species is sexually dimorphic, with the males being slightly larger than the females and more brightly colored. She has gray/brown under-parts, and her upper-parts are a duller yellow with an olive crown. Immature birds resemble the females.

Bullock’s Orioles are seasonally monogamous, and we have had as many as four pairs take advantage of our trees to nest in our yard. You can’t mistake an oriole nest. It is like a sock that hangs down, suspended from a branch. Three to six eggs are laid, and both sexes cooperate to raise the young. I am always amazed at how tiny the young are when they are out of the nest, and how in a week’s time they have grown into large birds. Both sexes will sing – the males with the sweeter voice and the female’s voice more prolific.

This species is a western bird which migrates here, to nest, from Mexico. Its counterpart (Baltimore Oriole) is the eastern half of a species which is called Northern Oriole. Bullock’s will hybridize with the Baltimore where their ranges meet.

It is interesting to learn that it is one of the few species able to recognize, puncture, and destroy cowbird eggs (a nest parasite) – thereby limiting the spread of this objectionable species.

This bird is named after William Bullock, an amateur English naturalist.

Adding color to our yard

Flight Speed and Altitude

Migrants do not usually fly at their top speed, but fly more leisurely to conserve energy. That way they can maintain their flight for greater distances. Cloud cover can influence altitudes flown. Most, like airplanes, will fly above the haze. Flights over an ocean are usually done at lower altitudes, and songbirds seldom get above 5000 feet. However, the larger birds can get as high as 6000 to 8000 feet. When mountain ranges are in the path, birds can fly very high – high enough to get over the range, although most find it easier to take flight paths that miss obstacles.

Sandhill Crane can cruise along without flap-flying, once they have reached sufficient height and air speed. They can glide long distances. Tundra Swan can fly 250 miles at a stretch at 45 miles per hour. The Canada Goose can exceed that by 50 miles at the same speed. The fact that they can do 60 miles an hour closer to the ground, shows how energy and endurance is preserved once flying altitude is obtained.

The Canada Goose is very familiar to us all, as it is the most widespread goose in North America. It can be found in all kinds of water and is a familiar presence (and nuisance) on many golf courses. Their honking leaves a deep impression, as they fly overhead in their classic V formation during spring and fall migrations. Newly hatched young look like ducks, but in a week or two become a fuzzy gray. In nine to ten weeks they grow flight feathers and look like small versions of the adult birds. The webbed feet of this species will leave definite evidence as to their presence when one sees their tracks.

This is a very popular waterfowl for hunters, and their haunting calls add greatly to the autumn mystic.

Canada Geese: Long distance, top speed migrators