An egret nesting colony is a nursery, a neighborhood, and a battleground all in one

Egrets are beautiful, especially in their breeding plumage, when they sport long curved plumes and dramatically colored faces.

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Great Egret displaying breeding plumes and a green face.

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Snowy Egret with similar plumes and a red face.

Those breeding plumes are so beautiful that demand for them—for decorating women’s hats—almost drove egrets to extinction, and concern for the heavily persecuted egrets is what gave rise to the bird conservation movement in the early 20th century.

Egrets earn those luscious plumes. Before they get to be adults in breeding plumage, egrets must survive a cutthroat childhood in considerably less impressive dress.

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Yikes, THAT’S what our chicks look like??

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Amendment: if you rescued a baby bird and it hasn’t died yet

While my previous post, grumpy as it was, is true, I left out some important things. If you find yourself in the possession of a baby bird, the best thing you can do is to get it to a licensed wildlife rehabilitator. There are a few cases, however, where this may not be possible. Some rehabbers don’t accept invasive species (pigeons, Common Starlings, House Sparrows) or domestic species (e.g. domestic ducks). Some places don’t have a wildlife rehabber anywhere nearby (although do check—you might be surprised!).

If you’re in this situation, the internet is your friend. You can find recipes for nestling bird diets and instructions on care posted by people who care for those invasive species. Don’t just try to go with your gut: your intuition is mammal-based, and will mislead you. Search for reputable-seeming internet sources, and ideally find ones where you can contact the people to get detailed advice. There is a community of starling-keepers out there who may be able to help (especially if you’ve found a starling; unfortunately, bird species do differ in the care of their babies).

The most important thing is do not try to force-feed your bird water. Birds have an opening in their throat that leads to their lungs, and it is incredibly easy to drown them. Put the bird somewhere dark and warm and do your internet research before trying to do anything else with the bird.

Also, if you do an internet search on my name, you will find my email address. I am not a licensed rehabber and am definitely not the best person you could contact, but I’d certainly prefer to be asked how to keep the bird alive, rather than asked why it died.

Please stop “rescuing” baby birds and then asking me why they died

Please, please, please do not “rescue” baby birds if they are covered in feathers. They are fine: they are hiding, and being fed by their parents, and growing, and soon they will be able to fly even if they can’t yet. If you find a naked pink baby bird, and can’t see the nest it fell out of and put it back, then please use the internet to find a local wildlife rehabilitator and bring the animal to them. They know how to keep baby birds alive. It is difficult. If you try to raise a baby bird yourself, without specialized knowledge, it will probably die. I volunteer at a wildlife rehabilitation hospital, and our care of baby birds is complicated, from determining the diet to the amount to the best way to house and eventually release them. We are constantly advised by trained veterinarians. This is not something you should be trying to do at home unless, for some reason, there is absolutely no way to get the animal to a rehabilitator (maybe you live on a tiny island in the middle of the ocean?), and even then, you should contact a rehabilitator and ask for advice. Don’t just try to guess. You will guess wrong.

I know you want to help. I know you mean well. But good intentions will not prevent you from killing a baby bird. And then you comment on this blog to ask me why it died, and I get so many of these comments, so many stories of people accidentally-but-avoidably killing birds, and it makes me dread checking the comments on this blog in case there is another one of these stories. The baby bird died because you are not a bird and not a trained wildlife rehabilitator. Let the birds raise their babies.

I covered this is in this older post, including ways that you can help birds.

This wildlife rehabilitator has a good article on how to tell if an animal needs your help.

Last (?) junco field work

I was supposed to be done with field work after summer 2015, but you know how it is. The birds call. You realize that a few more blood samples would put the patterns you’re seeing in context in an illuminating way. You miss those feathery little dudes.

DSC_0169The small amount of field work I did this year took place much earlier than my usual field work because I was sampling juncos at a much lower elevation. Down here, the juncos are breeding in mid-March. Up at my usual sites, they wait until late May. That early start happened to be convenient for me, since I needed to analyze any data I got in time to file my dissertation in mid-May.

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It took me 6 years to earn this lollipop

At UC Berkeley, when you file your PhD dissertation and everything is accepted—your committee signs off on the science; the administration confirms that your margins are the correct size—you get a lollipop.

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I assume at some point you also get a diploma, but no one ever talks about that. Everyone just wants the lollipop.

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If you had a lollipop that had taken you six years to earn, would you save it or eat it?

It’s all connected: birds, introduced trout, and talking trees

We all know about food webs—or we think we do. Herbivores eat plants, then predators eat herbivores, and if one part of the web is affected, other parts are impacted too. Seems pretty simple—except that the threads in those webs sometimes connect things you would never expect.

For example: trout and a songbird, the Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch, in an alpine habitat. The fish are in the water and the birds are on land—how connected can they be? If the birds were Bald Eagles or Ospreys or Great Blue Herons, sure, they would be connected because the birds eat the fish. If the birds were ducks, maybe the trout would be an occasional threat to the ducklings. But this is a Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch:

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Photo by Blake Matheson*

They’re not going to be eating fish, and their babies definitely don’t float about on the water.

The reason that we need to worry about what threads on the food web those trout might be tugging at is that the trout are introduced, nonnative species. Alpine lakes often don’t have any fish in them naturally. In the Sierra Nevada and many other mountain habitats, however, people have stocked these lakes with fish so that people can come and fish them for fun. This has been a problem for aquatic species such as frogs, which get gobbled up quite happily by the new fish, but nobody was particularly worried about the effects on songbirds.

It turns out that we should have been.

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Why it’s important to clean up fishing line

Anza_duckThis handsome bird is a male Ring-necked Duck, but not a happy one. I spotted him splashing in a small lake where a tangle of thin tree branches hung low over the water. A duck having a bath, I thought. Then, as he took a break from splashing and his head drooped so low that his bill went under the surface of the water, Maybe not.

His right foot was caught in a snarl of fishing line and attached to one of the submerged tree branches. The foot was bloody and, from what I could see, the leg broken, probably as a result of his attempts to free himself. There was absolutely no way he could have escaped the fishing line on his own: it was wrapped many times around his foot, the branch, and other branches. It probably caught his foot loosely at first, while he was diving for food; then, as he tugged at it, pulled tighter and tighter, until he was trussed to that branch and pulling against his own flesh when he struggled. Fishing line is made not to snap.

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