Wild Tracks

On behalf of the world's wild species

Category Archives: Birds

Featured Tee: Night Owls


Night Owl T Shirt

What better color for a t shirt featuring these hunters of the night? This black owl tee has 5 North American owl species on the front. 100% preshrunk cotton. Adult size M, L, XL. Item BT004. $15.75 US

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Eco Tuesday: Burrowing Owl Conservation

Do you know there are owls that live in the ground?

The Burrowing Owl is about 7 – 10 inches tall with a wingspan of 21 – 24 inches, and weighs 4 1/2 – 9 ounces. Unlike most owls, the male bird is slightly heavier and has a longer wingspan than the females.

Burrowing Owl by Pat Bumstead

This owl is found in dry, open areas with low vegetation such as grasslands, deserts, farmlands, rangelands, golf courses, and vacant lots in urban areas. They hunt while walking or running across the ground and by swooping down from a perch or hover, and they will catch insects from the air.

Young owlets have a remarkable defense mechanism. When threatened, they emit a noise that sounds just like a rattlesnake. Burrowing owls are known to “decorate” entrances to their nest burrow with manure from cows, horses, and/or dogs. Although the exact cause of this behavior is unknown, theories as to the reason include protecting the nest by masking the scent of the owls from potential predators, and attracting dung beetles and other insects to the burrow for an easy snack.

The greatest threat to burrowing owls is habitat destruction and degradation caused by land development and ground squirrel/prairie dog control measures. Despite their protected status, burrowing owls are often displaced and their burrows destroyed during the development process. Burrowing owls are also at risk of predation from coyotes, birds of prey, and feral cats and dogs.  Because of an increase in urban and suburban sprawl, hazards now include automobiles.

The Burrowing Owl Conservation Network advocates for the protection and restoration of the Western Burrowing Owl and promotes the preservation and careful management of habitat to prevent loss, foster healthy populations, and maintain intact natural communities for an ecologically sound future. Their ultimate aim is to reverse the current trend that is promoting extirpation of the Western Burrowing Owl.

Combining hands-on conservation efforts with advocacy and outreach, The Burrowing Owl Network educates individuals, garners land owner cooperation and support, installs artificial burrows, champions progressive burrowing owl and habitat management policies and laws.

Learn more about these appealing little owls, and read how you can help them on The Burrowing Owl Conservation Network website.

Penguin Elegance

Feathers are wonderful things.

They are lightweight yet powerful enough to allow birds to soar through the air. Their bright colors, crests and plumes are vital to breeding success, as the females choose the most visually appealing mate.

It stands to reason that something that important should be regularly maintained, and in the bird world, that is done by molting or shedding of the feathers.

Over time, feathers wear out and must be replaced. Most birds lose just a few feathers at a time which are replaced by healthy, shiny new ones. The ducks and geese however, chuff off all their old feathers over a short period, leaving them unable to fly and vulnerable to predation during the summer molting period.

Ralph in his spiffy new suit.

Ralph in his spiffy new suit.

Apparently one young Humboldt penguin in Marwell Zoo in the United Kingdom, has taken molting to a new level. Most penguins molt over a period of 4-6 weeks, but Ralph lost ALL of his feathers in one day. He’s completely healthy in all respects, and zoo staff have no idea why they ended up with a bald penguin.

Feathers also provide insulation against the sun’s harmful rays, so Ralph was in danger of severe sunburn, and would have had to be kept indoors until his feathers grew back. Not being able to swim with your buddies for three weeks just didn’t seem fair, so the zookeepers put their heads together.

The result was a rubber penguin wetsuit. Now Ralph has a spiffy new set of clothes to cover his featherless-ness and he can act like all the rest of the penguins. Apparently the flock gave his new duds a quick once over, then decided it was no big deal and lost interest.

This is yet another example of how nature is always surprising us. If Ralph lived in the wild and lost all his feathers in one day, he would not have survived. Why it happens at all is a mystery, but thanks to some very resourceful zookeepers, a new penguin fashion statement has saved the day!

Pileated Woodpecker Video

At a height of 17 inches, pileated woodpeckers are the largest woodpeckers in North America (unless someone finds a live Ivory-billed woodpecker). They are found throughout Canada, and in dense mature forests in the eastern half of the USA.

Rarely seen, they are a birdwatchers delight when they are spotted.  If you’re looking for them in the woods, look forthe long rectangular or oval holes they have excavated. Both males and females have the red cap, but that of the male is more extensive.

This video gives a perfect view of the unique woodpecker body type, with their legs facing forward for gripping, instead of down for walking.

Vodpod videos no longer available.

more about “Pileated Woodpecker Video“, posted with vodpod

How Smart Is a Crow?

I knew members of the Crow or Corvidae family were smart, but this video blew me away! He tries it, thinks about it, then fixes the problem. Too spooky!

Vodpod videos no longer available.

more about “How Smart Is a Crow?“, posted with vodpod

Bone Bustin’ Birds

In the high mountains of southern Europe, Africa, India and Tibet lives a large bird that exists on a diet of bone.

The lammergeier, or bearded vulture, eats almost exclusively the bones of dead animals – up to 90% of their diet is bone. They are the only vertebrate in the world with this diet, and their extremely acid stomach allows them to digest entire bones overnight.

Lammerfeier or Bearded Vulture

Lammergeier or Bearded Vulture

This huge bird is 95-125 cm (37-49″) long with a 235-280 cm (91-110″) wingspan. Like other members of the vulture family, the lammergeier is a clean-up master.

They soar across vast areas to locate animal carcasses and skeletons. When gathered around an animal carcass, lammergeiers must wait until other species have eaten their fill. Unlike other vultures, these birds have feathered heads and do not dig deep into the carcass. They have to make do with the leftovers, and as a result have developed the specialty of bone-eating.

If the bones are too big to eat at the kill site, the vulture picks them up in his talons and flies to a favored bone-breaking site, when he either cracks them against a passing rock, or drops them onto the rocky surface. This bone-breaking action can be carried out as often as 30 times before the bones are small enough to digest.

Once the bone has shattered, their narrow, pointed tongue is an excellent adaptation for extracting the highly nutritious bone marrow. Lammergeiers weigh between 5 and 7 kg (11 and 15 lbs), and eat about a tenth of their body weight in bone every day.

As if a diet of 90% bone and bone marrow wasn’t unusual enough, researchers in Spain have found these birds select the bones with the most fat. Their study of bones left behind versus those taken, and the use of monitoring cameras set up at nest sites, determined the bones left had significantly less fat than those taken. Even in the nest, they sifted through the pile and took the richest bones with the most fat. These specialist birds extract about 13,000 calories per bite-sized serving, which provides plenty of energy for soaring over huge areas.

For an occasional change of diet, live tortoises are also dropped onto rocks to crack them open.

The Greek playwright Aeschylus was said to have been killed in 456 or 455 BC by a tortoise dropped by an eagle who mistook his bald head for a rock. This was thought to be a myth until someone sighted a bearded vulture dropping a tortoise from height onto rocks. If this incident did occur, the lammergeier must be a likely candidate for the “eagle”.

For a specialist eater, I’d say they’ve got the market cornered. It’s not like there’s a line up of other birds wanting to steal their yummy greasy bones.

Live Streaming Eagles

Adult bald eagle

Adult bald eagle

I’m sitting here at my computer in Alberta, listening to the occasional squawks of a bald eagle sitting on a nest in British Columbia, with American robins and frogs in the background. You gotta love the internet!

Hancock Wildlife Federation has set up a live streaming video of a bald eagle nest located in a high tree. The two cameras were installed before the birds arrived, and will be running until the fledglings are gone. At this moment, one of the adults is sitting on the nest, carefully watching the surroundings, and waiting for its mate to return.

Eagle fanatics around the world are glued to this website, waiting for the big event. The chicks should be hatching any day now, pecking their way out of the shells with a temporary pip tooth at the end of their beak. Once they have no further use for it, the pip tooth will fall off.

I’ve discovered that if I open seond tab on the internet, or another program on the computer, I can leave the eagle cam on in the background. When another bird gets too close, or the mate comes back, the eagle calls alert me to something happening, and I can quickly switch over. And in the bottom right hand corner of the video you can quickly switch to a full screen view. A word of warning, though.

Ooh a flock of Canada geese flew over the nest – that got the eagle’s attention. And just now the adults changed places. One of them has a black mark on the tip of it’s beak, and other doesn’t. Looks to me like there are three eggs in there.

As I was saying. A word of warning before you go to the site. If you have anything you have to get done over the next few days – do not look at the eagle cam! This thing is beyond addicting, and absolutely guaranteed to keep you glued to your computer.

On the bright side though, I guess you could get a lot of other computer work done while waiting for the eggs to hatch…And if you crank up the volume, you can even hear the eagle squawks when you’re in the next room – I checked.

You can watch the eagle cam here – as long as you’ve got all your work done…

Whooper Alert

Growing up in northern Alberta, I distinctly remember flocks of whooping cranes passing over our house. It was a normal as the sun setting. Little did we know what the future held for these huge, whooping birds.

Whooping Crane

Whooping Crane

The whooping crane was designated as an Endangered Species in Canada in 1978. Low population numbers, loss of habitat, slow reproductive potential and questions about the stability of their winter range combined to drastically reduce the population. From a record low of less than 20 birds, protection and management programs have slowly increased the crane population.

At the end of March and early April, whooping cranes who have spent the winter in Texas begin migrating north to their breeding grounds in western Canada. Twice each year the birds make the 4,023 km (2,500 mi) journey up and down North America.

The only natural nesting habitat for these huge birds is Wood Buffalo National Park, a 16,895 km² wetland complex in the boreal forests of northern Alberta and southwestern Northwest Territories.

This past winter has been a particularly hard one for the whooping cranes at Aransas National Wildlife Reserve in Texas. Wildlife managers are worried that some of the cranes may be too weak and malnourished to successfully make their return to Canada this season.

Drought has affected the flock that spends each winter on the Texas Gulf Coast. The birds have had trouble finding food because low water levels have decreased the number of blue crabs, which make up 85 percent of their diet. Reserve staff have set up 13 deer feeders with corn, prohibited crab fishing in and around the refuge, and conducted controlled burns to produce new green plants.

Tom Stehn, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service whooping crane coordinator, said some of the birds, which are part of the only naturally occurring population of whooping cranes in the world, could die during the return trip to Canada’s Wood Buffalo National Park because they are so weak and malnourished. Most of the birds will begin the trip in early April.

The flock had a record number of 270 when it arrived last fall. Six adults and 15 chicks had died as of March 15, leaving the flock at 249.

Returning whoopers have already been spotted on their way north in Nebraska this month, and bird watchers along the Central Flyway are on full alert for more sightings.

If you’re in their migration range keep an eye out for these huge white birds. North America’s largest wading bird, they stand up to  4.9 ft (1.5 m) tall, and weigh  13-15 lb (6-7 kg). In flight, their black wing tips are visible, the neck is extended and their long legs extend beyond their tail. Their wingspan measures 6.5 ft (2 m).

Whooping Crane in flight

Whooping Crane in flight

If you see a Whooping Crane, please report your sighting to the Whooping Crane Conservation Association

Photo credits: Brian Johns, Environment Canada

Dead Meat Gifts

It’s spring at last! Today is officially the first day of the season, and in many areas it’s been a long time coming.

As a birdwatcher, my thoughts naturally turn to our feathered friends as the weather warms up. The popular press is doing the same thing, and the news posts today are flooded with articles about declining bird populations, critically endangered birds, habitat loss and the like.

Amongst all this doom and gloom, I found some positive news, and about a most unlikely species.

It seems Spain has a problem with starving vultures. Regulations introduced by the European Union in 2002 to stop the spread of mad cow disease made it illegal to leave dead livestock in the fields.

Spanish vultures in trouble

Spanish vultures in trouble

These meat-eating birds rely on dead animals for survival, so the new regs mean the vultures have lost an important source of food. The birds are so famished that farmers have seen them attack and kill cows and pigs to satisfy their hunger.

In just about any country in the world, I’m sure little attention would be paid to the plight of a bird that people love to hate.

However, in Madrid, the head of the regional government is modifying the rules to allow some animals that die of natural causes to be left in the countryside to rot. Before the new regulations, farmers could legally dump carcasses in designated areas, and the new legislation will allow them to do that again.

Am I reading this correctly? A government helping birds? Whatever next.

Vultures are very much like hyenas in peoples’ minds. In spite of the fact that these animals provide an extremely important function by clearing the landscape of dead animals, most people shudder when they’re mentioned.

Not only is the government in Madrid not shuddering, they’re actively working to protect the vultures. In the rest of the world, it’s nearly impossible to get any government to protect even the songbirds that everyone likes, never mind a bird with a negative image.

Maybe if we get lucky the conservation mindset of Spanish officials will spread to other countries around the world. But I’m not holding my breath.

Mystery Photo

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How’s your eyesight? Want to take a guess at what this is?

We’ll leave this photo unidentified for awhile, just to see how sharp our readers are. Drop us a comment with your best guess!