Archive for the ‘culture’ Category

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A Time For Turkey Vultures

September 3, 2010

In the same vein as last week’s offering, I’d like to expound stream-of-consciousness-style on the topic of Turkey Vultures.

Tomorrow, September 4th, is the Tour De Fat (TDF) in Fort Collins, an increasingly popular bike parade put on by the increasingly popular New Belgium Brewery. In it virtually all the riders wear costumes or other unusual adornments, thereby making it a spectacle to behold. Now, it also happens to be International Vulture Awareness Day (IVAD), which is a very recent addition to the calendar initially created a couple years ago for the preservation of threatened Old World Vulturine birds. The stars were thus aligned, and all I needed was a reason to conjoin these two disparate occasions.

I learned of an outrage in Sterling Colorado last July, where some cowardly stain on the human race decided to shoot Turkey Vultures there on three successive days and thus have three individuals sent to the Rocky Mountain Raptor Program (RMRP) to remove the shot and undergo chelation treatment to ease the lead poisoning. Maybe I was in a vulnerable moment – I have a lot of those lately it seems – but because of my interest in conservation and humane treatment of animal life, I am put on edge when I hear stories like the above, and something in me then clicked when I learned of the congruence of IVAD and TDF. Like the cosmic pas de deux of a solar eclipse, I realized that this was an opportunity to both participate in TDF as I had always wanted, and to do so serving a higher purpose – communicating the greatness of birds and in this specific case, Turkey Vultures. TuVus lack a syrinx and therefore are unable to speak for themselves in Northern Colorado – but you can bet your ass that I’ll be there to speak up for them tomorrow, in front of thousands of people in a way no one has ever seen before. I will be dressed up as a Turkey Vulture and ride in the parade along with 3 other similarly-bedecked companions, spreading the good word about TuVus as we make sure that at least in Fort Collins, these birds will continue to have a safe place to roost and forage every year.

So what is it with me and Turkey Vultures? When I first brought up my desire to participate in the TDF at a rounds meeting several weeks ago, I think people got the impression that I was a longstanding vulture afficionado, and that like some people I know, they were really my “thing”. It’s reasonable to think that, although I wouldn’t characterize myself that way, especially now that I know several people who in my estimation are true full-on, hardcore vulture-philes.

For me, my interest and appreciation of vultures stems largely from a couple personal relationships I have with vulture individuals, namely the “Old Male” and “New Male” educational Turkey Vultures at the RMRP. I’ve been a handler for the Old Male for over 5 years now, and the New Male for 3 or 4 (I’ve lost count). Before I handled either of these birds I used to think of Turkey Vultures as rather ugly creatures, much in the same way that the people I greet in public when I am handling will often tell me outright. I’d have thus agreed with them 5 years ago, but now when I hear those words, like say, “My god what an ugly bird!” I actually react in a bit of shock and revulsion. It crosses my mind that if I didn’t have that vulture in my care at that moment, I just might pop that knucklehead, be it man or woman, right in the jaw for saying that, as if they’d addressed that sentiment to a child of mine. Of course, in actuality I show much more restraint than that and merely offer a polite verbal counter to that suggestion. But now you know what I’m really thinking when I am responding so diplomatically.

So what changed between 5 years ago and now? Maybe it was just getting to know these birds not just as representatives of their species, but as individuals with distinct personality (orĀ  bird-onality?) traits. I can assure you that these birds are distinct from one another, and that even if their feet were obscured from view (the Old Male is missing a couple toes from an ancient bout with frostbite) I could tell them apart from a distance based on just their posture and body language. Over time I watched them closely, and noticed them noticing me in kind. I can’t say what it is they notice or remember about me from one time to the next, but the way they cooperate with me, respond to my voice and actions, and offer me those charmingly quizzical looks, suggests to me that their vulture minds are just as active and curious as my human one. I find myself simultaneously enchanted with both the things I know intellectually, abstractly about TuVus in general, and with these particular birds with their droll characters. Whatever ugliness they have has become invisible to me. The smell of their barf, well, that’s another matter, but in no way do I see anything hideous in these creatures anymore.

Turkey Vulture, in Key West, Florida, 16 December 2005.

A few taxonomic and natural history notes: Turkey Vultures (Cathartes aura) are members of the rather small avian family known as Cathartidae. This strictly New World family also includes the Black Vulture (Coragyps atratus), commonly seen in the southeastern US and in southern Arizona, as well as the condors, the endangered California Condor (Gymnogyps californianus) and the South American specialty Andean Condor (Vultur gryphus). There is also the King Vulture (Sarcoramphus papa), a strikingly plumaged and strictly tropical species, and two other less well-known close cousins of the Turkey Vulture, the Greater and Lesser Yellow-headed Vultures (Cathartes melambrotus and Cathartes burrovianus respectively). Greater and Lesser Yellow-heads are in fact so similar to Turkey Vultures structurally that you really need to get a decent close-up view of their heads in order to tell the difference. You will only find the Yellow-heads in the tropics and subtropics however. For example, I had the pleasure of seeing a number of Greater Yellow-heads in the Manu Biosphere Reserve in Peru back in 2005.

All the Cathartes vultures possess extraordinary olfactory powers, and experiments have shown them capable of locating hidden carrion from miles away. The other vultures are not thought to have as much ability in this department, and instead probably rely more on visual location or just looking for where the Turkey and Yellow-headed Vultures are going to find food.

On a naming note, local naturalist Kevin Cook has said the Cathartids should commonly be referred to collectively just as “condors,” to distinguish them from the Old World Vultures. Confusingly, the birds we call “vultures” here in the states include both the Cathartids and the Old World Vultures, with the latter being closely related to hawks and eagles and are thus Accipitrids. In the Old World, Accipitrids are sometimes referred to in the common vernacular as “buzzards”, which here in the US is a term applied to, yes, vultures. Clear as mud, yes?

But anyway, back to Turkey Vultures and Tour De Fat. I hope to have some photos to post in the coming days of my costume and participation in what I’ve christened Tour De Vulture. I don’t know if this will be an annual phenomenon, although I hope it will. During my travels next year, I hope to photograph all the aforementioned Cathartids, and help further the enlightenment of the world about these essential and fascinating birds.

The Old Male Turkey Vulture and me at a recent exhibit in Fort Collins

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Swainson’s Hawks – A Meditation

August 25, 2010

[Note: this is a slightly-modified version of a posting I made originally to the Rocky Mountain Raptor Program listserv]

If you attended rounds last night or just read Joelle’s Rounds Notes, you know that this promises to be a great day, as 16 Swainson’s Hawks, many of which have spent an entire year or more in our care, will be released to take part in one of the great natural spectacles that our world has to offer. I will be tagging along for the release today, helping where I can of course, but also there to catch a glimpse of the birds which will depart in the next month for the pampas region of northern Argentina, a one-way trip of nearly 5,000 miles. Along with migrating Broad-winged Hawks, Mississippi Kites, and Turkey Vultures, they fly over places like Veracruz, Mexico on their way south in astonishing numbers – the so-called “River of Raptors” in Veracruz in the fall regularly documents as many as 50 THOUSAND Swainson’s Hawks flying through a *day* during fall migration. The total number of raptors passing overhead there in a season is over 3 million.

Now, if you’ve been with the program for any length of time, and helped with any of the programs or exhibits or just overheard the handlers talk about our educational birds, you’ve likely heard the stories about the Swainson’s Hawks and their epic migration. You may already know these birds spend their summers in North America, largely in the American West ranging from northern Mexico up into southern Canada, from as far east as the high plains to as far west as the Central Valley of California. Starting around now they begin to assemble into larger and larger groups, as recently-fledged young disperse from their nesting locations. The young however need to find these groups, because they don’t know the way to go. Apparently past experience with rehabilitating first-year Swainson’s Hawks has shown this to be the case. It’s quite a testament I think to how some birds, even those who we tend to think are not very intelligent or socialized, actually DO use their brains, cooperate at least in some way, and have the ability to be very receptive to new knowledge.

As a handler I’ve often heard other handlers refer to the juvenile Swainson’s Hawks as “young and dumb”, and I wouldn’t necessarily argue against that, having seen how they behave in their flight cages. But think about it — after these birds have completed an annual migration cycle, where they’ve paid attention to landmarks along the way, and having been guided by seasoned adults, they are then in subsequent years able to do the trip themselves, and even lead the way for the next generation. That’s called LEARNING. That means they have good memories, that they were paying attention to where they were, to whatever other sky phenomena they may use to guide themselves on this remarkable journey through vast desert, urban, rainforest, and savanna biomes. How is that any different from how WE are? Who among us is so inherently brilliant to have mastered so many life skills without the guidance of at least someone at some point? Well, maybe a couple of us, I don’t know, but certainly not me. For my part, I can say that in this specific way, I identify with the Swainson’s Hawk. Inasmuch as the birds we are about to release today are going to embark on the epic journey that will define the rest of their lives, I salute them and admire them for what they are about to do, and for the symbol of freedom, exploration, and determination for survival that it represents. What better demonstration of the capacity for growth and change and self-improvement is there, than to answer the call of one’s inner nomad like this?

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This weekend I helped out at New West Fest, and on Saturday we had the female Swainson’s Hawk on display at the booth. At one point, I was relating the great Swainson’s migration to a booth visitor, describing the migration route they take. I told him that they assemble in North America, fly together in enormous kettles through Central America (Honduras, Costa Rica, Panama, etc.) and then reach the Darien Gap which connects Panama to Colombia and the rest of South America. I then said that after that we don’t really know where they go next, just that after another couple weeks they are in northern Argentina.

But I was mistaken. We now actually DO have a pretty good idea about where they go. Take a look at this map:

Swainson's hawk migration route. Data from USGS, Snake River Field Station, from 30 birds fitted with satellite tracking devices.

This is a map compiled recently from a study involving the fitting of satellite tracking devices onto migrating hawks. What is astounding to me is how, once they arrive in South America, these birds take as direct a route to their wintering grounds as possible. They’re not spreading out over the vastness of the Amazon, lost or confused or distracted – no, they know exactly where they need to go, and they’re not messing around. And don’t be misled by that little bend they take in their path around central Bolivia – that is a strategically smart detour they take, because that allows them to not waste energy flying over the unforested high Andes and the resource-sparse altiplano. It’s brilliant really, but it’s only in the past few years that we now have the scientific data to demonstrate just what these birds do on their southbound trip.

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Back to the booth this weekend. I got to give my own Swainson’s spiel of course, but also listen to other handlers’ spiels, which was very interesting to me. In general, and this applies for any booth experience, people are initially confused by the mere name “Swainson’s Hawk”, as most laypersons have never heard that name before. Handlers tend to then explain, myself included, that the bird was named after someone named Swainson, which seems true enough, but then also add in, only half-jokingly perhaps as a way to bond or connect with the person we’re talking to, that Swainson must have had a big ego to name a bird after himself. After hearing that apocryphal explanation several times that afternoon, I got to wondering, what’s the real story there? Did Swainson really name a bird after himself? So, that night after I got home I did a little research…..

There was indeed in the early 1800s a British man named William Swainson. He was one of many amateur naturalists in that era who essentially were professionals, once they had a regular source of income that could pay for the time it took to collect specimens and participate in nature societies like the Linnean Society, of which Swainson was a part. In his case, he “retired” young on a military pension, and spent the rest of his life indulging his real passion, which apparently was studying animals and making illustrations. He became quite accomplished at making lithographs. He was one of the first if not *the* first person to make pictures like this, and I encourage you to do a Google image search on “Swainson’s lithographs” to get an idea of the kinds of illustrations he made. John J Audubon was an admirer of his, for good reason. Swainson worked with another naturalist named John Richardson and in the late 1820s they produced a volume called Fauna Boreali-Americana, which featured hundreds of Swainson’s excellent depictions of birds observed and collected by Richardson in North America. From what I can tell, Swainson himself never visited North America, although he did spend a fair amount of time in Brazil.

Anyway, one of the birds depicted in the book was indeed what we now call a Swainson’s Hawk, but of course it wasn’t identified as such in it. Richardson had described the bird as a form of Buteo vulgaris, which is now called Buteo buteo, basically the Common Buzzard of Eurasia. (The Common Buzzard is a close relative of all buteonine hawks, which if you aren’t aware, includes Red-tailed Hawks, Rough-legged Hawks, Ferruginous Hawks, Broad-winged Hawks, and many others.) A different naturalist some years later, Charles Bonaparte, noticed this and corrected this error. He knew that the bird in Swainson’s illustration was a different species, and it was he, NOT William Swainson, who was the first to give a scientifically correct description of it. However, he too was an admirer of Swainson’s work, and in tribute to his great lithographs, he named the bird after Swainson, Buteo swainsoni. And THAT is how the Swainson’s Hawk got its name.

In this manner, Swainson had other types of birds named after him too, including the Swainson’s Thrush, Swainson’s Warbler, Swainson’s Flycatcher, and Swainson’s Toucan (now usually referred to as the Chestnut-mandibled Toucan, although the scientific name still bears the swainsoni tag). From what I can tell, in that era of discovery and exploration in the 1800s it was actually quite rare for a naturalist to name a bird after himself – instead, he usually named it after someone else who he admired, or otherwise though deserved mention in some way. That’s still generally true I think.

That all said, I did also learn though that it’s not unfair to posit that Swainson probably did have a big ego. In an unrelated matter, Swainson later in his life moved to New Zealand, and a few years after that was offered a position as a “Botanical Surveyor” in Australia, based largely on his sterling reputation as a naturalist and illustrator. However, Swainson had little or no real experience with plants, and other more knowledgeable and experienced botanists of his day were more than a little annoyed at his simplistic and casual approach to describing new plants in Australia, where he took it upon himself to name hundreds or even thousands of species of plants, many of which weren’t really separate species in the first place.

In my book, that takes some cojones and an ego, to go into a field that you know you’re not an expert in and just go all willy-nilly on a naming spree, just because you can.

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The Fremont Street Experience

March 24, 2006

One other amusing bird-related experience we had in Vegas was the Fremont Street Experience, a block-long archway of lights over Fremont Street in downtown that act as a movie-screen for passersby on their way to casinos and shops. High-wattage speakers also line the street providing booming audio. One of their shows is called “American Freedom”, a 4-minute long rip-roaring, flag-waving bonanza to the music of John Philip Sousa.

At the conclusion of the piece, a Bald Eagle soars across the screen, and we got to hear the eagle’s call. Or rather, we got to hear what the vast majority of America seems to think an eagle call sounds like — an aggressive, extended high-pitched keeeeerrrrrrr, suspiciously similar to that of a Red-tailed Hawk.

I just think it would be hilarious if the audience could hear what a Bald Eagle really sounds like. Heads would explode from the cognitive dissonance of realizing that our majestic national bird emits whimpering cackles instead of a clarion screech. Of course, that realism would take away from the triumphalist image of the bird, so on we go, perpetuating Bald Eagle myths based only on its striking size and plumage.

Although, perhaps to its long-term benefit – you could argue that the species is well-served by Americans’ misconception of its call, which fits a preconceived notion of menace and thus makes the bird more sympathetic to Americans than it otherwise might be. Eagles get shot enough as it is, and there’s no need to reduce its stature in the eyes of a country with a history of killing these remarkable creatures.

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Seahawk = Steller’s Sea-Eagle?

January 31, 2006

I just learned from 10,000 Birds that a ‘Seahawk’, as in the Seattle Seahawks of the NFL in the Super Bowl, is a colloquial term for an Osprey. And all this time I thought it was simply some mythical composite bird.

But really, look at this bird – does that look like an Osprey to you? The bill is way too big, not to mention the colors are all wrong. I’m thinking it’s more like a Steller’s Sea-Eagle. Certainly as a football team mascot, Steller’s is more fearsome, even making the Bald Eagle look like a runt.

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Birder Envy

January 25, 2006

Time for a little birdblogger navel-gazing. One thing I’ve noticed a little bit lately is how it is almost anathema among birding company to admit to any human foible or confusion when it comes to bird identification. Some of this surely stems from the kind of credibility issue that BINAC pointed to some weeks back, but I think there’s something more going on here, although I’m not sure what.

A few weeks ago I mentioned at an Audubon meeting that while looking for an unusual bird early one morning in the area, I made a silly error when I heard some Cedar Waxwings in some nearby trees, but thought they were American Goldfinches for a short time. Of course, after about 15 seconds, I realized that I was in fact hearing waxwings, and saw them soon dart off to the horizon squealing as they do. I figured I was just plain out-of-it that morning, having just rolled out of bed and gone birding, and didn’t ascribe much deeper meaning to it than that. If anything I thought it was kinda funny. But when I casually mentioned it at the meeting, I got a comment from someone to the effect of, “I wouldn’t tell anyone that!”

Now, I make every honest effort to identify birds to the best of my ability, but I also feel unashamed of the occasions when I most definitely screw up. I figure that it happens to everyone – we’re only human, right? Sometimes, you forget what a particular species sounds like, and you may miss seeing an interesting bird because you assumed that you were hearing something more mundane or commonplace? Or on some other occasion you watch a bird high up in tree branches, struggle mightily to observe some characters, but when all is said and done (it flits away mysteriously) you still don’t know for sure what you saw, because maybe you focused too much on plumage and not enough on morphology or bill shape?

Or is it the case that, perhaps, of all the people who consider themselves avid birders, I am the only one who makes these kinds of pedestrian, embarrassing errors? Could that be?

I’m serious here. I make mistakes. Probably plenty. I do think I get it right most of the time, but I’m not so full of myself to want to hide the times when I mess up. I guess I’m a little surprised at the reticence of some birders to say what they do wrong. I find it especially odd because most of the time I find the people I bird around to be very cordial and pleasant. Must we be so concerned about maintaining our credibility and image that we suppress any inclinations toward honesty about our occasional failings?

Yes, I want others to take me seriously and believe me on the occasions when I tell them I saw an unusual bird in such-and-such place. But personally, I think it enhances my credibility to admit that there are times when I mess up, because if anything, it means that I am capable of questioning my own judgment, of recognizing when my initial thoughts or expectations have deceived me. It also means that I don’t mind learning that I was wrong, and that I am more beholden to the truth of the matter than I am to maintaining an image of personal rightness, which I could easily do in matters like this by just keeping my trap shut.

If, as birders, we value accuracy and at least some measure of objective reality, why not allow ourselves to admit our own mistakes – even the ones we made just yesterday? It shouldn’t be a secret. Birder envy just compounds the original faux pas.

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The Peabody Ducks

December 27, 2005
March of the Peabody Ducks

The famous ducks of Peabody Hotel, Memphis TN

Happy Holidays to everyone, by the way. I hope you’re all as fat and happy as I’ve become these past few days. I’ve been in KC visiting my folks, getting ready to head back to Colorado tomorrow on the 10-hour drive. Not much birding lately, although I did see a nice Carolina Wren on my mother’s back deck, presumably the same bird I saw here last summer.

During dinner tonight I learned the story of the Peabody Ducks, from my mother who herself heard the story on recent trip to Memphis, Tennessee. It’s a funny thing, I think, just in that it sorta goes to show how bemused we humans can be when seeing birds (in this case, ducks which are already rather comical) do what we do. Check it out.