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Saturday, December 28, 2013

This week in birds - #94

A roundup of the week's news of birds and the environment:

Photo by Tom Middleton, courtesy of the American Bird Conservancy.

Feathered from beak to toe tips, the Snowy Owl, the American Bird Conservancy's Bird of the Week,  is well-equipped to survive on the frigid, high Arctic tundra. Its thick feathers make this bird North America’s heaviest owl, typically weighing about four pounds.

Some Snowy Owls remain on their Arctic breeding grounds year-round, while others migrate in winter to southern Canada and the northern half of the United States. In years when food is scarce, Snowy Owls may stage “irruptions,” traveling far south of their usual haunts in search of food, to the delight of birders and nonbirders alike. This has definitely been one of those irruptive winters, with Snowies making an appearance all over the Northeast and Midwest.

The Snowy Owl loves open areas such as coastal dunes, prairies, fields, and airports. Its attraction to airports often brings it into fatal conflict with humans. The population of this charismatic bird is declining, most likely due to loss of habitat.  


And still more about Snowy Owls. Some well-meaning bird lovers, fearing that the irrupting birds are starving have attempted to feed them with live mice purchased for the purpose. In fact, there is no real evidence of widespread starvation, and this seems to be another example of uninformed and misguided interference with Nature.

Here are some pictures and videos of Snowies around the country, some of which feature their encounters with Peregrine Falcons that appear to resent the invasion of the big white owls into their territories.


And speaking of raptors, have you ever noticed that movies and TV shows, even those that should know better, almost invariably use the sound of the call of the Red-tailed Hawk to stand in for any raptor or a large bird of any kind? I have noticed it and been annoyed by it over the years, but I never knew that other people noticed as well. I felt vindicated by the article.


Grasshoppers exist in a great variety of forms. Proof of that fact is found in this collection of photographs of the grasshoppers of Florida.


The U.S. Fish and Wildlife service has announced that it has designated as critical habitat for the Franciscan manzanita 230 acres of open space in San Francisco. This shrub had been thought to be extinct for decades until its recent accidental rediscovery.


Something is killing Bald Eagles in Utah. A mysterious fatal illness has struck at least 16 of the birds since the beginning of December. Wildlife personnel are attempting to discover the cause of the illness and find a way to stop it.


The largest predator in South America, the Orinoco crocodile, is in danger of extinction. Venezuelan wildlife officials have mounted a last ditch effort to try to save animal. 


The Conservation Reserve Program pays farmers to allow some of their land to be planted in native grasses or sometimes trees in order to provide natural habitat for wildlife, but now more and more acreage is being taken out of the program due to government budget cuts and a failure by Congress to appreciate the importance of maintaining this habitat. This is proving detrimental to the welfare of the animals that depend on such habitat.


One of the beneficiaries of restoring native grassland habitat is the Monarch butterfly. Such areas that allow for the growth of milkweed, the plant on which the Monarch's survival depends, are absolutely essential to the effort to prevent the extinction of this species.  


Dolphin deaths along the coasts of our country continue to soar. Those that occurred along the East Coast particularly during this past summer were related to a virus, but there is some evidence that those happening along the Gulf Coast may be related to the continuing effects of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion in 2010.


Around the backyard

Here are some more visitors to my backyard this week.

This female Downy Woodpecker and her mate are daily visitors to the suet cakes at the backyard feeder system.

The Tufted Titmice are probably the most frequent visitors (beside the House Sparrows) to my feeders these days. I often see four or five at a time at the feeders. They are usually accompanied by Carolina Chickadees.

Another constant visitor is the Pine Warbler. This is the female of the species, who is much more drably colored than her sometimes gaudy mate.

And, yes, I did finally observe a visit by my favorite dove, the Mourning Dove. I'm sure they have been here all along. They just weren't around when I was looking.


  1. As a former Houstonion now living in western PA, I have enjoyed those irruptive years. I saw a snowy owl recently and in previous years have seen pine siskins, crossbills, redpolls.

    1. We get Pine Siskins here in some years - the last two, for example - but I haven't seen any this year. And I've never seen crossbills this far south, although I have seen them in other places. I confess I have never seen a Snowy Owl live in the feather, so I am very envious of you! Congratulations on your sighting of this magnificent bird.