How to Enjoy a Bird Walk—Finally!

Debbie Blicher is Senior Producer of Talkin’ Birds.

If you are a Talkin’ Birds listener who hates bird walks, you are not alone. Until recently, I did too. But then I went on a bird walk that I loved—at last. Here’s what happened.

I have been on nature walks since childhood, and I’ve even led a few. But I went on my first genuine bird walk only four years ago, at the 2016 L.L.Bean & Maine Audubon Birding Festival over Memorial Day Weekend. Ray, Mark Duffield, and I went to Freeport a day before the broadcast so we could straighten out any technical glitches. When we were done, Ray asked Mark and me whether we’d like to join him on a guided walk at Wolfe’s Neck Farm. The guide would be some dude named Doug Hitchcox. Neither the place nor the name sounded familiar to me, but Mark agreed to go, so I did too. “Why not?” I thought, “A walk outside on a lovely day? How could I not enjoy it?”

But it would not be a nice walk outside on a lovely day. It would be staring at every tree and bush and fencepost and bit of rocky shoreline and waiting for forty people to take their turn at a spotting scope while Doug explained everything anyone has ever known about every species we were looking at. But I didn’t know that when we set out.

We arrived late. Wolfe’s Neck Farm is a lovely recreational area that includes fields, forest, and some shoreline. It does not include much parking. Ray parked where he hoped he wouldn’t block traffic, and we scrambled out. He grabbed his binoculars from the trunk; Mark and I had none. We also had no sunglasses, no sunscreen, no outerwear, no water, and no snacks. Worst of all, we had no idea how long this bird walk would last.

We found the group easily enough: about forty people had arrayed themselves in a long line looking at a field. A young guy with dark hair and large binoculars was standing by a spotting scope and talking about Bobolinks. This was Doug Hitchcox—not “some dude” but Staff Naturalist at Maine Audubon. As in, “some dude who really knows his stuff and can make it interesting to anyone.” Ray and Mark, being taller than I, could see what he was pointing at, but I couldn’t. We were too far away to hear him. Ray offered to share his binoculars, but they didn’t help because all the tall people seemed to be in front of me. Eventually I pushed through the crowd and peered through the spotting scope. I saw a bird. Sitting still. In a field. What was so interesting about that? I watched for a few seconds and then let Mark have a turn.

The afternoon wore on like this. Doug would see a bird, and we’d stand in one spot for a long time while he said things I couldn’t hear and everyone tried to see the bird. I could never see it. I got thirsty. I got cold because I didn’t have a jacket; Mark got cold even though he did. The sun burned my nose and the back of my neck. Ray stayed nearby and kept offering his binoculars, but I didn’t want to hog them, so I said no. Mark quietly walked away and sat down on a rock. My feet started to hurt. After Ray enjoyed the walk for a while, Mark and I let him know that we were ready to leave.

This year, at the 2019 L.L.Bean & Maine Audubon Birding Festival, I hadn’t planned to attend Doug Hitchcox’s walk at Wolfe’s Neck Farm, but I had come up to Freeport on Saturday afternoon on my own for the technical check and I needed something to do afterwards. I had binoculars, a jacket, sturdy shoes, sunblock, and water. I had some idea of the terrain. I even had the Merlin Bird ID app on my phone in case I couldn’t hear or see what Doug was talking about. So I decided to go.

I arrived at Wolfe’s Neck Farm early and parked out of the way. I grabbed my gear, adjusted my new binocular harness, and followed some other folks wearing binoculars who looked like they knew where they were going. We coalesced around three L.L.Bean employees who had us sign waivers. And then we were ready.

Once again, there were about forty people. Once again, Doug Hitchcox saw birds high and low and set up his scope so we all could look. Once again, he engagingly explained everything about the birds, their lives, and their larger role in the ecosystem. But this time I stayed near the front of the group so I could hear him. If I couldn’t see the birds he pointed out, I asked for help, and then I turned around and helped others. When Doug softly demonstrated bird sounds over his phone, I went to the back of the crowd and played the same sounds softly with Merlin so that we all could learn them. I didn’t get sunburned. I drank when I got thirsty. My layers kept me warm. My feet didn’t hurt. I had a great time and saw my first Yellow Warblers, Semipalmated Plovers, and Semipalmated Sandpipers. And now I want to go on more bird walks.

So here are the lessons I learned.

  1. A bird walk with even the very best guide can be boring if you’re not prepared.

  2. Even though birding isn’t a vigorous activity, treat it as if it were. Dress for the weather and bring the right gear and plenty of water.

  3. Help others. Everyone on a bird walk wants to learn. You don’t have to be knowledgeable—just kind.

My First Great Backyard Bird Count, Part 2: The Count

Debbie Blicher is Senior Producer of Talkin’ Birds.

I registered for the GBBC (Great Backyard Bird Count) in early January. (See previous blog entry to find out how.) My materials arrived in early February, about two weeks ahead of the count. They included a handbook, an identification poster, a tally sheet, a calendar, and instructions. (See photo below.) They also included my registration number.


I immediately created an account on the Project Feederwatch website with my registration number. That number will remain with me for all future GBBGs. Kind of like a driver’s license, but without the terrible photo.

As the GBBC approached, my family sprang into action. My teenage daughter left the country, my teenage son made plans with friends, and my husband suddenly came up with a work commitment. I’d be on my own. But no matter: I’d have my handy chart with me, plus our household field guides and Merlin Bird ID.

It took me a little while to get used to the protocol for counting. To prevent repeatedly counting the same individual bird, you’re supposed to report the greatest number of birds of the same species that you see at your feeder at the same time. Doing this makes it impossible for you to report the same individual more than once if it keeps flying away and coming back.

So here’s what my tally sheet looked like. The first photo shows my count early on the first day. The second photo shows my count at the end.

Tally sheet early Saturday

Tally sheet early Saturday

You’ll note that, in addition to the species counts, there are places at left to indicate the amount of time I spent and the weather, and at bottom to record any interesting interactions I saw.

Tally sheet late Sunday

Tally sheet late Sunday

On Saturday, I watched the feeders for 20 minutes in the morning and 30 in the afternoon. I sat at the dining room table with a cup of tea and the tally sheet, the chart, the field guides, and Merlin Bird ID. I wished my family were home so I could ignore them for the sake of science.

When I was finished, I logged in to the Project Feederwatch website and logged my data. And I was DONE. Having submitted my data electronically, I did not need to mail in my tally sheet.

So that was it! I had contributed to science by sipping a cup of tea at my dining room table while watching bird feeders. You think I could apply for a grant to do this full time?

My First Great Backyard Bird Count, Part 1: Registration

Debbie Blicher is Senior Producer of Talkin’ Birds.

I know what you’re thinking. “You’re Senior Producer of Talkin’ Birds and you’re only NOW doing a Great Backyard Bird Count?”

Um…yeah. But in my defense, I’ve been a little busy, okay?! You have no idea what it’s like to work with—um, never mind. (Sorry, Ray!)

But seriously: I had three very good reasons for not doing the GBBG until now—and maybe you have the same ones. First, I didn’t know what it was. Second, I didn’t know when or how to register for it. And third, I thought I wasn’t skilled enough to participate. The good news is that I did it anyway, and I had so much fun that I’m going to give you the resources to do it with me next year.

So—here were my first three questions about the Great Backyard Bird Count, plus the answers.

1. What is it, again?

The Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC) is a citizen science project under the auspices of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Each February since 1988, people all over the world have counted bird species coming to their feeders and reported their findings. These days, more than 160,000 people participate in the project, most of whom enter their data online. Together, we create an annual snapshot of species distribution.

Here’s Ray discussing the GBBC with NPR’s Scott Simon on Weekend Edition Saturday, February 16, 2019.

You can read more about the GBBC here, on the official website.

2. When and how do you register?

You can register any time, even during the GBBC. However, I recommend that you register in early January because it takes a few weeks for the materials to arrive in the mail. Register here, at the GBBC website. Bonus: Once you register, you keep your registration number from year to year. You still have to sign up for each year’s count, but your number stays the same. Me, I like to be efficient with my time, so I’d rather forget a number once than have to forget a new number every year.

3. How skilled do you have to be?

Excuse me while I laugh my head off.

(whew) All set. Honestly, if I can do it, so can you. I’m okay identifying my neighborhood birds, but I need help with many others. The packet from Cornell comes with a poster of common feeder birds; one side with eastern species, one with western. I used the poster plus Cornell’s smartphone app, Merlin Bird ID. So—you know that nightmare we all have about taking a final exam when you haven’t studied? (Or doing a radio interview when you don’t know what you’re talking about? Right, Ray?? ) It’s not like that at all.

I’ll write again soon about how to do the actual count and upload the data. For now, why not go to the GBBC website and register for next year?

Engineers are Studying Birds' Nests

Debbie Blicher is Senior Producer of Talkin’ Birds.

When Talkin’ Birds Senior Producer Debbie Blicher was in fourth grade, her class was challenged to design a vehicle that would allow an egg to survive a two-story drop without cracking. She and her partner had both watched birds build nests, so they cradled their egg in loosely packed, shredded paper—a sort of spherical nest—inside a paper lunch bag (even then, Debbie recycled!). Theirs was the only egg that survived the drop.

In view of this triumph, Debbie is pleased to learn that Dr. Hunter King, a University of Akron experimental soft matter physicist and assistant professor of polymer science and biology, has received a three-year, $260,000 grant from the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Division of Civil, Mechanical and Manufacturing Innovation to study “the collective mechanical interactions of disordered, randomly packed elastic filaments.” In other words, twigs packed together. In other, other words: birds’ nests.

Birds’ nests have to withstand weather changes, swaying trees, repeated impact from birds sitting on or entering them, and other mechanical factors—all without damaging the eggs they contain. As King puts it, “Nests are lightweight, soft, flexible and shock-absorbent, but made up of hard, durable components – properties which are ideal for packaging materials.”

In the abstract submitted to the NSF, King and his collaborators from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (Illinois) state that they’re investigating how birds’ nests hold their shape as a “result of a subtle interplay between geometry, elasticity and friction” and point out that this question has not yet been thoroughly studied.

King’s graduate assistant Nicholas Weiner is conducting a series of experiments to analyze the behavior of randomly packed filaments in response to various perturbations. The collaborators at Illinois will attempt to duplicate his findings through computer simulations

Understanding how nests work could fuel advances in civil engineering and architecture, among other disciplines—not to mention packaging.

King plans to collaborate with the Akron Zoo to set up cameras and record birds building their nests: the original engineers at work.

So the next time a kid you know is participating in the “egg drop” challenge, think of birds nests and Dr. Hunter. And who knows? Maybe the kid will grow up to get an NSF grant. (Or to be Talkin’ Birds Senior Producer.)

When Land Changes, Wetlands Provide for Insectivores

Debbie Blicher is Senior Producer of Talkin' Birds. 

As human population increases, we need more food. To increase food production, we often claim wild grassland and make it into farmland, which means treating it with pesticides, fertilizers, or both. When we treat the land, insect populations diminish and become less diverse, which affects all animals that feed on those insects—including birds. In fact, aerial insectivores—birds that hunt for insects on the wing—are declining across North America. A forthcoming study in The Condor: Ornithological Applications takes a closer look at precisely how Tree Swallows are affected by agricultural practices. 

In 2012 and 2013, Chantel Michelson, Robert Clark, and Christy Morrissey—all researchers at the University of Saskatchewan—monitored Tree Swallow nest boxes at agricultural and grassland sites. To find out what the birds were eating, they collected blood samples and measured isotope ratios. (Measuring certain chemical elements in tissues is an established way to glean diet data.) Tree Swallows usually eat aquatic insects. Since water receives pesticide runoff, the researchers expected that the swallows living near cropland would be forced to eat more land-based insects than the swallows living near wild grassland.

What the researchers found surprised them. The Tree Swallows at both locations ate more aquatic insects than expected. In fact, in 2012 the birds at agricultural sites ate more aquatic insects than the birds at the wild sites. In other words, even though the agricultural sites had been treated for farming, the swallows still preferred the insects there to the insects living by the water. The researchers think this might mean that wetlands provide some cushion for birds against changes brought about by farming.

One other surprising finding: The swallows living at agricultural sites weighed less than the swallows living in wild grassland. They were healthy, just smaller, which might mean they had a harder time finding food. But in both locations, adult swallows seemed to rely on aquatic insects for themselves and their young, illustrating the importance of wetlands for bird survival.

The Cuckoos are Coming: Alaskan Birds, Wise Up!

Debbie Blicher is Senior Producer of Ray Brown's Talkin' Birds. 

As you may know, the Common Cuckoo and Oriental Cuckoo are brood parasites. That is, they lay their eggs in the nests of other birds, leaving their chicks to be raised by the unsuspecting foster parents. A cuckoo chick in the nest reduces the likelihood that the original chicks will survive, because female cuckoos time their egg-laying so that their chicks hatch first...and then shove the other eggs out of the nest. 

In areas where brood parasites are common, host species often develop coping strategies. Some birds hide their nests, or nest at different times. Some attack the brood parasite before she lays her egg or abandon the nest once she's laid it. Others pierce the parasite's egg and toss it out of the nest.

But what about birds that live where brood parasites aren't common? A new study from the University of Illinois and the University of Tennessee, Knoxville shows that an invasion of cuckoos from eastern Russia might cause significant losses among Alaskan birds. Professors Mark Hauber and Vladimir Dinets led the study to learn what Alaskan birds do—or don't—know about coping with brood parasites.

Common Cuckoos and Oriental Cuckoos are occasionally sighted in Alaska. Most likely, they've gotten there from Beringia in eastern Russia. While there isn't solid evidence that cuckoos are breeding in Alaska, Hauber says "it's likely already occurring."

Researchers put two types of fake eggs into the nests of more than two dozen songbird species in both Siberia and Alaska. (The fake eggs resembled varieties of cuckoo eggs.) Common Cuckoos and Oriental Cuckoos have advanced into Siberia and now breed near the Bering Strait; in comparison, Alaska is new territory. The researchers made sure to test each nest with each kind of egg. After the usual losses from predation, they had data from 62 nests of 27 bird species. 

Fourteen out of 22 Siberian nesting pairs rejected the fake eggs, but only a single one of the 96 Alaskan pairs rejected the fakes. Hauber suspects this result indicates that Siberian songbirds have encountered cuckoos long enough to develop coping behaviors, but he's worried about Alaskan songbirds. "The North American hosts have no defenses against invading cuckoos. They will be parasitized."

We hope that future ornithologists will follow up to find out how the Alaskan songbird population distribution has changed—and whether any of them have wised up about cuckoos. 

Want to see the original article? Click here. 



Using Feathers To Describe the Health of Australian Wetlands

Debbie Blicher is Senior Producer of Ray Brown's Talkin' Birds.

When the Australian floodplains fill with water, wetland birds gather there to mate. But when the wetlands dry up, where do the birds go, and what’s it like there?

There are the questions asked by Dr. Kate Brandis, a research fellow at the University of New South Wales’s Center for Ecosystem Science. To answer them, she has turned to a surprising source: feathers.

In Australia, banding birds hasn’t worked well. The birds that would be most useful to track have a high mortality rate, and many bird species live in areas where they are simply too difficult to catch for banding. So, two years ago, Dr. Brandis embarked on a citizen science project to help her understand where wetland birds hang out when they’re not breeding and whether they’re getting what they need there.

Dr. Brandis sent out a public call for people to mail her feathers of wetland birds along with records of where they were found. She has received thousands of feathers from about 480 locations across Australia. 

Back in the lab, Dr. Brandis’s team analyzes each feather for evidence of its former owner’s history. Feathers are made of a protein called keratin—which is present in most animals’ hair and nails, including ours. Keratin from a small section of feather can yield information about what its owner ate while that feather was in use. Chicks tend to grow up in one place, so their feathers provide a good picture of the diet available in a single wetland. The feathers of older birds can be compared against these known locations to show which wetlands a bird visited and how healthy those places were. 

When Dr. Brandis releases her results, they will help bring unhealthy wetlands to the attention of managers. Since 1971, 65 Australian wetlands have been designated as “significant” under an international conservation treaty known as the Ramsar Convention. As Dr. Brandis explains, her feather data “[will put] even more pressure on wetland managers to get it right.” 

Do you have a feather you’d like to send? Would you like to know more about this study? Click here! 


A Link Between Bird Brains and Our Brains

Debbie Blicher is Senior Producer of Ray Brown's Talkin' Birds.

When we call someone "bird-brained," we might be right. New research indicates that the brains of birds, primates, and even some reptiles may have evolved from cells that started out the same.

In mammals, the outer layer of the brain—called the neocortex—is where most higher-order processing happens. When we move, use spatial reasoning, or speak, we're using our neocortex. In birds, a region of the brain known as the dorsal ventricular ridge, or DVR, is responsible for higher-order processing. But rather than being a thin layer on the brain's surface, it consists of clusters of cells called nodes. The avian DVR is so different from the mammalian neocortex that scientists figured that there was little relationship between them, if any.

Odd as it may seem, embryos of most vertebrate species start out looking similar. Birds, primates, reptiles--anything with a spine--all look alike in the early stages of development. Now, new research from the University of Chicago indicates that some of the cells in the neocortex and the DVR start out as the same kind of cell, growing in the same region of the embryonic brain. (This means that, before each of us was born, we had brain cells that could have grown up to belong to birds.) (Or, if you're Ray, maybe they actually did!)

In 2012, Dr. Clifton Ragsdale and his team of researchers at the University of Chicago discovered that certain genetic markers in brain cells of the mammalian neocortex matched with genes in the cells of several bird DVRs. A new study at Ragsdale's lab, led by graduate student Steven Briscoe,  found that other neurons in the DVR share molecular signatures with a kind of communication cell in the neocortex called an IT neuron. These IT neurons help the neocortex communicate among its various layers and from one side of the brain to the other. 

"The structure of the avian DVR looks nothing like the mammalian neocortex, and this has historically been a huge problem in comparative neuroscience," Briscoe explains. "Our identification of IT neurons in the bird DVR helps to explain how such different brain structures can give rise to similar behaviors."

Dr. Ragsdale sums up the study this way: "What this research shows is that [birds are] using the same cell types with the same kinds of connections we see in the neocortex, but with a very different kind of organization."

In fact, it suggests the possibility that birds and primates evolved intelligence independently, starting with the same cell types and developing different brain structures.

The original article includes data on alligators too! Want to read it? Find it here: "Neocortical association cell types in the forebrain of birds and alligators," Current Biology (2018).

Birds, Like People, Suffer from Loud Noise

Debbie Blicher is Senior Producer of Ray Brown's Talkin' Birds.

A new study in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences indicates that birds respond like humans do when exposed to constant loud noise. Researchers found that adults and nestlings of three species in the wild showed signs of chronic stress caused by human noise pollution. 

Most birds exposed to constant loud noise will simply leave an area; this study looked at what happens to the birds that stay. Lead author Nathan Kleist conducted the research while a Ph.D student in evolutionary biology at the University of Colorado-Boulder, along with co-author Rob Guralnick, associate curator of biodiversity informatics at the Florida Museum of Natural History.

The research team, led by Kleist, set up 240 nesting boxes at three specific distances from gas compressors on property in New Mexico. The team tested levels of the stress hormone corticosterone in three species: Western Bluebird, Mountain Bluebird, and Ash-throated Flycatcher. The researchers found that the louder the noise from the gas compressors, the lower the birds’ baseline corticosterone levels in all three species.

Christopher Lowry, study co-author and stress physiologist at CU Boulder, explains: Although it seems odd that the corticosteroid levels would be low, lab studies of chronic stress in humans have shown that low corticosterone can signal stress so intense that the body has to reduce baseline levels of the hormone to protect itself (so that there's room for it to shoot up if needed). In fact, when these birds experienced sudden stress, their corticosteroid shot up high and came down only very slowly, like it does in chronically stressed humans.

In the noisiest environments—the ones closest to the compressors—nestlings had smaller body size and reduced feather development. In Western Bluebirds, the species that showed the greatest noise tolerance, fewer eggs hatched than expected.

“These birds can’t escape this noise," says Guralnick. "It’s persistent, and it completely screws up their ability to get cues from the environment." For example, adults rearing chicks can't tell whether it's safe to leave the nest for food. Guralnick explains, "Just as constant stress tends to degrade many aspects of a person’s health, this ultimately has a whole cascade of effects on their physiological health and fitness.” 

Since noise at natural gas fields is not unusually loud compared with human noise in many other parts of the country, this study has implications for protecting wildlife and even human health. The researchers suspect that if other species react the way these species did, bird populations could decline if we humans become noisier.

“This study shows that noise pollution reduces animal habitat and directly influences their fitness and ultimately their numbers,” Guralnick said. “By doing so, it makes it harder for animals to survive. Taken together, that’s a pretty damning picture of what human-made noise can do to natural populations of animals.”

Whose Fault is the European Starling?

Debbie Blicher is Senior Producer of Ray Brown's Talkin' Birds.

If you live in North America and you love the European Starling, most folks say you can credit Eugene Shieffelin. If you hate the European Starling, they say you can blame the same guy. It's Shieffelin who is largely credited with introducing 60 starlings to New York City's Central Park in the year 1890 and another 40 in 1891. As we all know, they thrived. And thrived. Today, they number around 200 million in North America, with a range all across the continent, and are considered one of the most invasive species on the planet. So if you love them, you can thank Mr. Shieffelin for the huge flocks of noisy, speckled black birds.

Shieffelin didn't act alone, however. He belonged to the American Acclimatization Society, an organization founded in New York City in 1871 whose goal was to introduce to North America useful species from other countries. In retrospect, we 21st-century types think "useful" was defined rather loosely. After all, the starling isn't especially useful—unless, as is rumored about Shieffelin, you have such a thing for the birds of Shakespeare that you want them all to live right near you. (There actually is not much evidence for this popular story.)

So how did the American Acclimatization Society come to be? Well, for that we can blame the Société zoologique d'acclimatation, founded in Paris in 1854 by naturalist Isidore Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire. He encouraged the French government to import and breed species that would help feed France and control pests. He encouraged other countries to start similar chapters. 

By 1877, the American Acclimatization Society was going strong, and Shieffelin, a drug manufacturer from the Bronx, was its chairman. We imagine he must have thought, "How pretty those starlings are! How intelligent and entertaining! What harm could they do?" What harm indeed! They have crowded out countless native North American bird species, interfered with agriculture, and even been a primary cause of airplane bird strikes. 

Some bad ideas that seem fun at the time are pretty harmless, such as shaving half your beard or adding extra hot pepper to your chili. But importing non-native species? Not harmless. So let's enjoy European Starlings, but let's also try to educate humankind about invasive species so we don't make such mistakes in the future. The fault? Quite simply, it's ours. 


Bird Food Source Alert: Declining Insects

Debbie Blicher is Senior Producer of Ray Brown's Talkin' Birds.

In recent years, we've seen well-documented declines in domesticated honey bees, monarch butterflies, and other insects that attract a lot of attention. But we haven't really noticed the moths, beetles, and other insects that flitter and crawl through our everyday life. Birds, however, probably notice their decline a lot, since they're a major food source. 

A recent story in the journal Science documents a new set of data gathered mostly by amateur entomologists in western Europe. These folks have tracked insect abundance at more than 100 nature reserves since the 1980s, and the news is not good.

This group of amateurs, named the Krefeld Entomological Society (after their location in Germany) has seen the insect catches in their traps fluctuate every year. This is normal. But in 2013, they noticed that one of their longest-running sites showed a decline by mass of almost 80%. The numbers were just as low in 2014. In fact, the group found dramatic declines across more than a dozen other sites, even in reserves where plant diversity and abundance had improved. 

The group has installed more traps each year since 2013. They've also begun working with university-based researchers to look for correlations with weather, changes in vegetation, and other factors. Unfortunately, no simple cause for the decline has yet emerged.

If you don't like bugs, you're probably asking, "Why does this research matter?" The answer is that other creatures eat insects—such as birds. Dave Goulson, an ecologist at the University of Sussex in the United Kingdom, explains, "If you're an insect-eating bird living in that area, four-fifths of your food is gone in the last quarter-century." No matter what your opinion of bugs, this is important news.

No one knows what this research in western Europe means for insects elsewhere. But we at Talkin' Birds think that anything that affects the food chain for birds anywhere is worth investigating for the good of us all. 

A male hoverfly on a Bermuda Buttercup. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons; author: Alvesgaspar.)

A male hoverfly on a Bermuda Buttercup. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons; author: Alvesgaspar.)

The Connecticut Warbler: Migration Marathoner

Debbie Blicher is Senior Producer of Ray Brown's Talkin' Birds.

The Connecticut Warbler was our Featured Feathered Friend on a recent show. We described it; pointed out how a Sean Connery character misidentified it in a major motion picture (Finding Forrester); and talked about the fact that the bird is named for a state where it’s not often found. But we’ve since learned something new and amazing about the Connecticut Warbler, thanks to a story in the August issue of BirdWatching Magazine. The story quotes bird biologist Emily McKinnon about new evidence that the Connecticut accomplishes feats of migratory flight similar to those of the Blackpoll Warbler, which is a North American migration champion. The new research shows that, like the Blackpoll, the Connecticut Warbler travels long distances non-stop over the Atlantic Ocean on its journey to its South American wintering grounds, flying for at least 48 straight hours over the bounding main—and that’s only part of the trip! Check out the article for all the details. 

Connecticut Warbler.jpg

Barn Owls: The Secret to Great California Wine

Debbie Blicher is Senior Producer of Ray Brown's Talkin' Birds.

Before you get worried, we'd like you to know that no owls are harmed in the making of fine California wines. In fact, they get paid well — in rodents. 

Rodents like to eat grape vines, and Barn Owls like to eat rodents. Many Napa Valley wineries control rodents by putting up nest boxes to establish Barn Owl populations. Researcher Sara Kross from the University of California Davis says that more than 99% of prey items in barn owls’ diets on the farms she studied were agricultural pests — mice, voles, and pocket gophers. Fewer of these pests means easier growing for grapevines.

Welcoming Barn Owls allows wineries to reduce or eliminate the use of rodent poisons. It's important to note that, if poisons must be used, they should be used with care, since an owl that eats a poisoned critter will ingest the poison, too.  

Intrigued? You can read more about Kross's research here, including where to get nest boxes of your own. 

Wildlife Biologist Carrie Wendt says, "When it comes to wine making, owls are part of the whole process, because they’re rodent-devouring machines."

Wildlife Biologist Carrie Wendt says, "When it comes to wine making, owls are part of the whole process, because they’re rodent-devouring machines."

An Elusive Bird Heard and Seen in Venezuela

Debbie Blicher is Senior Producer of Ray Brown's Talkin' Birds.

The American Bird Conservancy reports that an international team of researchers has solved one of South America's great bird mysteries: that of the elusive Táchira Antpitta.  It's a small, brown bird that had not been seen since the 1950s, listed as Critically Endangered and even thought to have gone extinct.

Antpittas are reclusive birds that are easier heard than seen. Unfortunately, the team had no sound recordings, so no one knew what to listen for. They did know where to search for it, though. Eventually, they picked up the distinctive sound of an antpitta that they had never heard before, deep in the mountainous forests of western Venezuela, and were then able to identify the bird from previous descriptions.

Similar habitat can be found nearby in Colombia, and the scientists think the species might also occur there. They’re now working to determine the bird’s full range and habitat requirements, and how best to ensure its continued survival.

Click here for the full story. 



Flowers that Attract Hummingbirds Confuse Bees

Debbie Blicher is Senior Producer of Ray Brown's Talkin' Birds.

Flowers pollinated mostly by hummingbirds seem to have evolved to confuse bees rather than to attract hummingbirds. So says a recent paper in the journal Ecology, "'Hummingbird' floral traits interact synergistically to discourage visitation by bumble bee foragers,"

Here are some starter facts. Flower preferred by bees ("bee" floral variants) tend to be upright and have blue or purple coloration, since bees have trouble seeing the color red. "Bird" variants, meanwhile, tend to be horizontal with red or orange coloration. Also, bee flowers yield small amounts of concentrated nectar, while bird flowers give pollinators larger amounts of dilute nectar. 

Robert Gegear, assistant professor of biology and biotechnology at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI), wanted to understand how flower characteristics combine to influence the decisions bumblebees make about which flowers to visit. In other words, What kinds of flowers encourage or confuse bees? 

For the first step of the study, Gegear and his team of students trained bees to forage on arrays of paper flowers that all had the same color, orientation, and type of nectar reward. The bees learned that every color and orientation combination yielded the same reward.

The team then gave the bees arrays in which flowers of one color/orientation combination contained nectar and the other combinations contained distilled water. Gegear and his students recorded how long it took the bees to learn which flowers were worth visiting. 

The bees took longer to learn about certain combinations than about other combinations. That is, fake flowers that would favor birds in real life were more confusing for bees than fake flowers that would be better for bees in real life.

Why? Gegear explains, "These data suggest that the reason bee-to-bird evolutionary transitions are often accompanied by a floral shift to classic 'bird' trait complexes is because bees have a particularly difficult time combining red with other sensory traits, including nectar rewards." In other words, bees have a hard time recognizing red flowers, so any trait associated with red flowers is not worth their time to learn, even if learning would mean a greater nectar reward.  

Then where do hummingbirds come in? Well, if bees tend to ignore flowers that are difficult for them, then other pollinators, such as hummingbirds, make their move. Gegear says, "In the case of the two species of Mimulus, the costs associated with bird combinations are much greater than the costs associated with bee combinations, so bees avoid them to increase their foraging efficiency....When you put all this together, you find that 'bird flowers' are really 'anti-bee flowers' that function by exploiting specific sensory and cognitive limitations." That is, hummingbirds forage where bees don't bother to forage. 

Like most pollinators, bees are not genetically programmed to visit only particular flowers; instead, they seek to gather the most nectar in the least time however they can. In other words, they're generalists. From the plant's perspective, however, the best pollinator is a specialist in that plant. (Think of a building toy, like Lego, that clicks only with itself, which forces shoppers to buy only that one brand of building toy.) By combining particular floral characteristics, plants manipulate pollinators to become specialists because generalizing becomes a waste of time. In Gegear's words, "From an ecological perspective, an ideal pollinator is one that always forages on flowers of the same type so pollen is transferred effectively. In reality, pollinators are generalists and they should simply forage randomly. So the big question has been, how do plants get the pollinators to do what they want?"

Gegear suggests that most hummingbird-pollinated flowers once had bee-pollinated ancestors. He says his study shows that at least two floral characteristics had to change for the bird flower Mimulus cardinalis to evolve from the bee flower Mimulus lewisii, and that those changes served to discourage bees.  

Regardless of the flower, we can be kind to pollinators by avoiding pesticides in our gardens and by providing shelter and water for pollinators.

Do Power Lines Help Birds?

Debbie Blicher is Senior Producer of Ray Brown's Talkin' Birds.

A team of researchers in New Hampshire and Maine are investigating whether birds move into land that has been cleared along the route of a power line or has recently been logged. “Our goal is to get a better understanding for how these habitats function in our landscape,” says wildlife specialist Matt Tarr of the University of New Hampshire Cooperative Extension.

The study is being funded by the federal Natural Resources Conservation Service. A more controversial source is the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation’s New England Forests and Rivers Fund, to which the utility Eversource is a contributor. The controversy is that Eversource has proposed the Northern Pass energy transmission project, which entails building a 192-mile electricity transmission line from Pittsburg to Deerfield, New Hampshire. Property owners and tourism officials, among others, have criticized the project. 

Tarr explains that the study isn’t intended to find benefits in building a transmission line. Rather, it's to help determine how birds use the forests that emerge after such a project is built. Tarr's research could help inform policymakers as they work to create more young forests for birds and other species. It will focus on 24 transmission line rights-of-way and 12 logged areas in southeastern New Hampshire and southern Maine. “We might find these rights of way aren’t used as we think they are for mature forest birds," explains Tarr. "That would be important for us to know.”

Starting in late May, Tarr and his colleagues will catch songbirds and band them, then track them over the next two years. Tarr says as many as 40 songbird species nest in young forests, and another group nests in mature forests. Additional evidence suggests young birds that have just left the nest will often live in young forests while their development finishes. In some parts of the country, these younger forests have been found to provide food sources and protection for birds. 

We here at Talkin' Birds are all for the peaceful coexistence of humans with birds and other creatures. We appreciate careful research that leads to wise decisions. We wish Matt Tarr and his team good luck and clear results. 


Quiet, Please: How Human Noise Affects Wild Places

Debbie Blicher is Senior Producer of Ray Brown's Talkin' Birds.

People better at birding by ear than by eye can find it maddening to try to hear songs and calls over traffic noise. We wait for the bird to raise its voice once the rattling trucks have passed--only to discover that someone has fired up a leafblower nearby, drowning out everything the way radio static drowns out music.

As annoying as unwanted human noise is to us, it's devastating to other creatures. For example: if birds can't hear one another, they can't alert one another to approaching danger or attractive mates or good food sources. Prey animals can't hear predators in a noisy environment, which means more of them get eaten, affecting the ecological balance. Human noise pollution affects plant reproduction by scaring away birds that help distribute seeds, according to a recent paper in the Proceedings of the Royal Society of London B.

Rachel Buxton, an acoustic ecologist at Colorado State University, succinctly explains the essential problem with noise: “It really doesn’t have any boundaries.” Buxton and her colleagues reported recently in the journal Science that noise from humans at least doubles the background sound levels in most protected areas in the United States. “When we think about wilderness, we think about...going to see outstanding scenery,” says co-author Megan McKenna. “We really should think about soundscapes, too.”

Buxton and McKenna and their team used a model for predicting noise based on sound measurements taken all over the country by the National Park Service. Individual scientists hiked in to more than 400 listening stations to set up the equipment, each of which included a sound level meter and a recorder. Each recorder ran for 30 days, collecting every sound. The recordings were then analyzed by acoustic specialists. The researchers then constructed a model for predicting noise by figuring out which sounds were associated with geographic features such as elevation, annual rainfall, proximity to cities, highways and flight paths. By subtracting out natural sound sources, the scientists estimated the amount of noise pollution for each specific wilderness area.

The findings were mixed. Protected areas did show much lower levels of human-caused sound than the "buffer zones” of unprotected land near them, suggesting that these buffer zones really do insulate parks. But 63 percent of the protected areas showed an increase in sound levels of at least three decibels caused by noise pollution. Since decibels are logarithmic, three decibels indicates a doubling of background noise. More than a fifth of protected areas experienced 10 extra decibels of human noise. Sadly, the majority of areas considered “critical habitat” for endangered species were among the regions that dealt with the worst noise.

McKenna said that parks are taking steps to reduce human sounds, such as implementing shuttle systems to reduce the number of cars and posting library-style “quiet” signs. But the problem of pervasive traffic sound—all those low-frequency rumbles from ground and air—is not so easily solved. Buxton suggests that parks look into “quiet pavement” to muffle the sounds of rolling tires and establish noise corridors to align airplane flight paths with highways.

We here are Talkin' Birds plan to drive as little as possible in protected areas, opting instead for quieter transportation such as foot and bicycle. We'll try to keep our voices down, too. And we would never dream of playing a radio in the wilderness, not even to listen to our own show. We would rather not disturb the symphony of life around us, nor its musicians. 

Want to listen to a news story on this research? Click here for a piece from NPR's Morning Edition

Ravens Act Sneaky, Like People Do

Debbie Blicher is Senior Producer of Ray Brown's Talkin' Birds.

Think humans are the only creatures who can be sneaky? Think again: ravens can, too.

Imagining that others might have thoughts different from our own had been assumed to be a distinctly human ability. But new research from the University of Houston suggests that ravens can not only imagine what others are thinking but also change their own behavior according to what they imagine. Experts found that ravens hiding food were able to understand that they could be watched, even without seeing another bird, and behaved sneakily as a result.

Before you read on, you need to know that ravens hide food for later, a behavior called "caching." When they feed from an abundant source, they take some of the food with them and put it away, often in the ground, so they can return to it when times are lean. 

Researchers placed a raven in a room adjacent to a room in which someone (um, a human) pretended to prepare food. These two rooms were joined by a window and a peephole. 

When the window was closed and the peephole left open, the birds behaved as though they were being watched by a competitor: they hid their food quickly and did not return to a previous stash (which would reveal its location). When the peephole was closed, the ravens didn't hide food as quickly, and they'd use the stash multiple times. They would remain this unconcerned even when the researchers played raven sounds behind the closed peephole. In other words, the test ravens behaved differently only when conditions indicated that they were being watched.

This research matters because it demonstrates that ravens might be able to imagine what others are thinking. Until now, only animals closer to humans—such as chimps—had been shown to have this ability. 

Professor Cameron Buckner, assistant professor of philosophy at the university, says the study gives important clues to the ability of animals to engage in abstract thought and indicates that we humans are not the only creatures who understand that others have a conscious mind. 

If you'd lie to read more, here's a link to the study. 

New! Talkin' Birds Podcast-only Extras!

Can't get enough Talkin' Birds? Good news! We're launching podcast-only "extras" to help tide you over.

Sometimes we have stories we'd love to share with you but that we just can't fit into the weekly broadcast. So now we're sharing them anyway—via podcast. How do you hear them? Easily. 

1. If you already subscribe to our weekly show as a podcast, you'll receive these "extras" in your feed without any effort. 

2. If you don't subscribe to our weekly show podcast, you can listen directly from our Archive. It's as easy as reading this blog. On our website, click "How to Listen," then "Archive." Scroll around (or simply search on "podcast"), click, and enjoy.

Any questions? Please ask! Meanwhile, click here for our very first podcast extra.