The original kiwi: Interview with a kiwi bird

kiwi

Photo by tara hunt. Kiwi Encounter. (photo of a model kiwi because the real thing is very elusive and park rangers don’t want you taking photos). CC. https://flic.kr/p/495oR2

 

Amelia: Here I am on Stewart Island in New Zealand, the place I’m most likely to get a glimpse of the secretive, nocturnal kiwi. I’ll be hiking in this coastal rainforest for three days, so I’m guaranteed to see one, right?

Kiwi: I wouldn’t bet on it.

A: Are those the dulcet tones of a kiwi I hear?

K: Hardly. My call sounds like a little girl screaming.

A:  Finally! I’ve been up all night waiting to see you. Would you mind coming a bit closer?

K: I’m fine right here, thanks. As an endangered bird, I’m not taking any chances.

A: But I don’t want to hurt you-I won’t even take a picture. I know the park staff are pretty strict about that.

K: Nope, not doing it. Humans have done too much damage to our species. I don’t owe you anything.

A: What did we do?

K: Well, as a flightless, ground-nesting bird who evolved on an island without any natural predators, I was toast when your ancestors decided that New Zealand’s rainforests needed to be turned into English countryside. Not only did you destroy our homes under the trees, you decided to introduce rats, opossums and stoats. Our chicks grow slowly, and it takes about 3-5 years before they can fight off a ravenous stoat. Domestic dogs and cats also make easy meals of our young ones.

A: Aren’t those predators a problem for adults too? You may be the size of a large cat, but you’re still pretty helpless looking.

K: That’s what you think. I can beat up a stoat easily.

A: Really? You’re a hairy bird with no wings. How do you manage it?

K: With my feet! We pack a pretty powerful kick, and we don’t put up with any nonsense from predators.

A: So at what age can you start laying those gigantic eggs you’re so famous for?

K: You mean the ones that takes up most of my insides and squishes all my organs into my sternum? The one I carry for 30 days and weights half a kilo?

A: I can see this is a sore point

K: Just a little. We can lay eggs once we’re four years old. We’re generally solitary, but during the mating season we’ll pair up. Generally we mate for life, which can be up to 40 years if we’re lucky.

A: Wow, that’s old for a bird!

K: Well when there’s no natural predators, life’s a walk in the park

A: What’s the secret to such a long partnership with your mate?

K: Once I lay that monster of an egg, it’s my partner’s job to sit on it for 80 days. My bit is done.

A: Wow, that’s a long time!

K: Yep. The upside is that the chicks are nearly independent when they’re born. After two weeks we chase them out of the nest, and they’re on their own.

A: That’s incredible! I’ve been hearing some sneezes coming from your direction. Is everything alright?

K: Yep. It’s a side-effect of having nostrils at the very end of my beak. I look for bugs by plunging my beak deep into the soil. This means that I constantly have dirt up my nose, so I have to sneeze to clear it out. My keen nose doesn’t do me any good if it’s full of dirt. My long whiskers and the sensor on the end of my bill also spot vibrations in the soil.

A: Wait, you have whiskers? Isn’t that a bit weird for a bird?

K: I’m no ordinary bird. There were no mammals on New Zealand before you introduced them, apart from bats. I adapted to fill a mammals’ niche, because obviously they left it open. I have hair-like feathers, solid-marrow bones and live in a burrow like a rabbit.

A: I’m sure you get this all the time: have you ever eaten a kiwi fruit?

K: Um, no. We are the original kiwis. The fruits are actually Chinese Gooseberries that were re-branded in the 1970’s in an effort to get New Zealander’s to buy them. I guess it worked.

A: Thanks for sharing your story with me. I’ll leave you alone now.

K: That’s all I ask.

References:Te Papa museum, various interpretive posters in NZ bird sanctuaries

 

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Underwater torpedo: Interview with a Common Loon

Common loons are voracious predators as well as being beautiful singers. Photo by Gary J. Wege,USFWSmidwest.Common Loons. CC. https://flic.kr/p/7SVDNK

Common loons are voracious predators as well as being beautiful singers. Photo by Gary J. Wege, USFWSmidwest.Common Loons. CC. https://flic.kr/p/7SVDNK

 

Me: I feel like I’ve been paddling this canoe forever. Oh, look a loon! It’s standing up and flapping its wings at me, how welcoming.

Common Loon: Idiot, this is a territorial display! What are you doing on my lake?

Me: Well, I’m camped just over there…

L: Is that an outboard motor I see?

M: No, this is a canoe.

L: Planning on doing any fishing with lead weights?

M: Um, no.

L: Okay, I guess you’re not a direct threat at the moment. You can stay.

M: Um, thank you. What do you have against lead fishing weights?

L: Well, unlike you humans I don’t have any teeth. Instead I have a muscular pouch behind my stomach called a gizzard that I fill with pebbles to chew my food. I’ve had friends die of lead poisoning because when they dove to grab some pebbles off the lake bottom, they also swallowed a fishing weight. It isn’t a good way to go.

M: That’s awful. What do loons eat, anyway?

L: Fish! Especially small ones like perch and sunfish.

M: But how do you catch them if you don’t have teeth? Aren’t fish slippery?

L: We thought of that. The tongue and the roof of my mouth are covered with backward-facing barbs that grab fish and force them down my throat.

M: How do you catch these fish in the first place? They’re pretty fast.

L: Not as fast as I am. I’m a specially designed killing machine.

M: Really? I find that hard to believe.

L: There’s more to being a loon then singing mournful songs on a lake.

M: Fine. Tell me about fishing.

L: I find my prey by sight. This means I need to hunt in clear, unpolluted lakes during the daytime so I can see them. Once I spot a fish, I get ready to dive. My body is specially designed for diving. Unlike most birds, my bones are solid so I can sink in the water. I also force the air out from my lungs and from between my feathers to go even faster. My feet are at the very end of my body, and push me down like a propeller. All this means I can dive very deep, up to 60 metres or 200 feet. I can even change direction underwater quickly to nab a darting fish. My heart even slows down to conserve oxygen when I dive. I’m basically a diving machine.

M: Okay, you’ve convinced me. You’re a top predator. When you can’t find fish, do you eat anything else?

L: I will eat snails, leeches, crustaceans and insect larvae in a pinch. But only if I have to.

M: I don’t see you on the shore very much with the ducks and the geese. Why not?

L: My feet are perfect propellers, but they aren’t good for walking. I spend all of my time in the water, except when I’m on the nest.

M: Aww, nesting! Your babies are such cute little balls of grey down. I love to see them riding on your back.

L: They’re demanding little balls of fluff. Our family can eat up to 30 kilograms of fish in a week. That’s a lot of diving!

M: This is an awkward question, but do loons mate for life?

L: Well, it depends on how long we live. Our average lifespan is between 9 and 30 years, and a pair bond usually lasts five years. You do the math. One day my mate won’t return to this lake, and I’ll find another black and white hottie.

M: Return from where? You don’t stay here all year?

L: Goodness no! We only come to Canadian lakes in the spring to breed. Frozen lakes do not make for good fishing. In the fall we migrate and spend the winter on unfrozen water, often in coastlines and estuaries.

M: Okay, back to nesting! Who gets to choose the nest site?

L: The male does. He tries to find somewhere sheltered a hidden on the lake shore. An island is perfect. Lots of animals would love to eat our eggs and young, like turtles, raccoons and gulls. We’ll generally only lay two eggs in a season, and take turns sitting on them for 30 days until they hatch.

M: What happens then?

L: Well, unlike other birds which are born blind and naked, our babies are super mature. In fact, they’re swimming only a few hours after they’re born.

M: That’s incredible!

L: Yep, they’re pretty awesome. That being said, we can usually only stand them for about 12 weeks. Then we take off for a migration honeymoon and leave the kids to their own devices.

M: That seems cruel. How do they know where to migrate in the winter?

L: Oh, they find a flock of other youngsters and figure it out together. Once the kids reach the ocean they’ll stay there a full two years going back north. Even so, they usually don’t start having chicks until they are 6 years old. If they haven’t already been eaten by sea otters or birds of prey, that is.

M: Sea otters, really?

L: Yep. They’ve been seen grabbing us from underneath and then wrestling us underwater.

M: Why don’t you fly away?

L: Well, first it’s a sneak attack, and second, taking off isn’t that easy. We need to run along a stretch of open water 27 to 400 metres long to generate enough speed to take off. This means that if we land in lakes that are two small, we’re stranded there. Flying isn’t something we can do instantaneously, but once we get going we can fly highway speeds of 100km or 70 miles per hour.

M: One last thing: What are those wild calls all about?

L: Our wail is to find a missing mate or defend territory, and the one that sounds like human laughter is to defend territory or chicks.

M: Great, thanks for taking the time to talk to me.

L: Thanks for not polluting my lake.

References

http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/loon/
http://www.britannica.com/animal/loon-bird
http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/common_loon/lifehistory
http://animals.nationalgeographic.com/animals/birds/common-loon/
http://seaotters.com/2012/08/did-you-know-sea-otters-can-eat-birds/

Symbol of love? Not so much. Interview with a snarky swan

This trumpeter swan has a bone to pick with us. Photo by Rick Harris. Swan [1]. CC. https://flic.kr/p/BAzX9

This trumpeter swan has a bone to pick with us. Photo by Rick Harris. Swan [1]. CC. https://flic.kr/p/BAzX9

Me: This Valentine’s Day I decided to talk to the most romantic bird of all: the swan.

Trumpeter swan: If you get any closer I’ll break your arm with my wing.

Me: Whoa, that was uncalled for! Not to mention unattractive, coming from the symbol of beauty and faithful love.

Swan: Hey, I never asked to be a symbol of anything. I’m just an animal like any other that eats, breeds, poops and dies.

Me: But you do mate for life, right?

Swan: Yes, most of the time. If the egg-laying thing doesn’t work out, we’ll generally split and find another hot swan who’s more fertile.

Me: That’s kind of harsh.

Swan: Well, get used to it. Life is harsh. Speaking of harsh, if we’re such an important symbol of love, why did you hunt us nearly to extinction? In 1933, there were only 77 breeding pairs of Trumpeter swans left in Canada. So much for love and compassion.

Me: That’s awful! But I can’t say I’m surprised. We’re pretty good at hunting things to extinction. Dodo, passenger pigeon, you know.

Swan: Yes, I’ve heard. We used to live across Canada, from the Yukon to the St. Lawrence River. The indigenous peoples ate our eggs and meat and used our feathers, but at least they did it sustainably. Then some dumb Europeans came and decided to kill most of us for meat, skin and feathers. I guess they thought they deserved to wear our feathers more than we did.

Me: I said I was sorry, okay! What does your population look like today?

Swan: Fortunately for us, some 1916 tree-huggers decided make hunting us illegal under the Migratory Birds Convention, an agreement between the U.S. and Canada. Little by little, by feeding us during the winter and reintroducing us to places we once lived, we bounced back. Now there are about 16,000 wild trumpeters in North America, and we’re no longer in danger of extinction.

Me: Yay!

Swan: Oh yes, whoopee. We’re a little bitter, as you can see.

Me: Do you have any other predators?

Swan: Besides humans? Not really. Eagles, owls, coyotes and mink may take a baby on occasion, but as adults we’re pretty big birds to kill. Much like the Canada goose, not much out there is big enough to eat us. We’re also really strong. I wasn’t kidding about breaking your arm with my wing. I fight off coyotes and dogs that way.

Trumpeter swans are the heaviest bird in North America. Photo by Emily Carter Mitchell. Trumpeter Swan. CC. https://flic.kr/p/qD9eKK

Trumpeter swans are the heaviest bird in North America. Photo by Emily Carter Mitchell. Trumpeter Swan. CC. https://flic.kr/p/qD9eKK

Me: I’m just noticing now how huge you are.

Swan: Yep, largest waterfowl in North America. I may have a three-metre wingspan, but I’m a lightweight, only weighing 10-12 kilograms.

Me: I guess a lot of that bulk is feathers, right?

Swan: You got it. Our down is five centimeters thick, and makes minus 30 feel balmy. Your fancy Canada Goose jacket has nothing on us.

Me: All that soft down would make for nice cuddling, wouldn’t it?

Swan: There you go getting all touchy-feely again.

Me: So what are you doing these days?

Swan: Well, in the winter my main job is to not starve to death. My favorite thing to eat is plants covered in water, so I have to find places where the water isn’t covered in ice. British Colombia is pretty good for that, because salt water estuaries don’t freeze. There’s also some hot springs in the mountains that stay clear of ice all winter.

Me: What kinds of things do you eat?

Swan: We eat roots that we pull out muddy river bottoms. I can’t think of a less sexy eating habit.

Me: Spring nesting must be romantic, though.

Swan: I guess. We build our nests in the middle of water, often on old beaver lodges or dams or floating vegetation. My partner and I use the same nest year after year. No romantic gestures there, just simple practicality. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

Me: How many eggs do you lay?

Swan: Generally five to six. I sit on them for 32 days. 32 days of sitting on bumpy objects and not being able to fly because I’m moulting. I can’t think of anything less romantic.

Me: I’d love to come see your babies in the spring!

Swan: I wouldn’t do that if I were you. I can get pretty aggressive.

Me: More so than today?

Swan: Touché

References
http://nandugreen.typepad.com/chasing_the_wind/trumpeterswans.html
http://www.hww.ca/en/species/birds/trumpeter-swan.html
http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/swan/
https://suite.io/rosemary-drisdelle/205j27t
http://www.abbeville.com/blog/?tag=trumpeter-swan

Interview with a black-billed magpie

Photo by Rhonda. There's more to this noisy scavenger than meets the eye. Black-billed Magpie. CC. https://flic.kr/p/dB4gav

There’s more to this noisy scavenger than meets the eye. Photo by Rhonda. Black-billed Magpie. CC. https://flic.kr/p/dB4gav

When I lived in Calgary, I saw black-billed magpies on a daily basis. Now that I live in Ontario, I miss these noisy, flashy birds. While I was home for Christmas I took the time to interview a female magpie.

Amelia: Hello, nice to see you again!

Magpie: The pleasure’s all mine, I’m sure.

A: How’s the winter so far? Any trouble finding food?

M: Please darling, I’m a scavenger. I always find food.

A: Yes, about that. Did you make holes in our garbage bags?

M: What do you expect when you throw out perfectly good food? We learned a long time ago that humans are great sources of food. For thousands of years we followed the aboriginal people who hunted the plains bison, and ate their leftovers. But then some Europeans decided “hey, let’s shoot all the bison.”

A: Yah, not one of Canada’s proudest moments.

M: Not good for the bison, and not good for us. Magpies and bison were pals. We would sit on their backs and eat all the bloodsucking ticks they couldn’t reach. It was a win-win relationship.

A: Wait, you eat ticks? I thought you just ate dead animals and garbage.

M: Sweetie, I’ll eat just about anything. Some call me a scavenger, but I prefer opportunist. If there’s something on the ground, I’ll eat it. Seeds and fruit? I’m there. Worms or other bugs? I’ll slurp that up. Rotting meat? You betcha. Hey, if scavengers like us didn’t clean things up, we’d be knee deep in rotting stuff. You may think we’re gross, but we do an important job.

A: I guess so. But I’ve heard you also eat eggs and baby birds. That’s mean!

M: Okay, so I occasionally snack on baby birds. But it’s a rarity. Why would I want to waste energy killing something when I could eat something that’s already dead? Domestic cats kill far more baby birds than we do, and you still cuddle with them.

Baby magpies are prime food for cats. It's up to the parents to protect them. Photo by Philippe Henry. Baby Black-billed Magpie. CC. https://flic.kr/p/Q53nE

Baby magpies are prime food for cats. It’s up to the parents to protect them. Photo by Philippe Henry. Baby Black-billed Magpie. CC. https://flic.kr/p/Q53nE

A: You have a point there. I’ve also heard that farmers don’t like you. Why is that?

M: Geez, peck out the eyes of one calf, and you’re branded for life! Farms are awesome places for food. Sure, we’ve gobbled up some grain, maybe eaten a few young chickens. But we’re also pest control. We love to eat crop pests like grasshoppers. We also eat the ticks off the back of their cows. Unfortunately some ranchers spray their cows with pesticides to keep the ticks away. Pesticides do nasty things to us.

A: I’ve also heard that people don’t like you because you steal shiny things, like engagement rings. Is that true?

M: Not a word of it! All we want is your garbage. Earlier this year, ecologist Dr. Toni Shephard peeked in our nests and didn’t find anything shiny there. She also put shiny objects next to food, to see if we would run off with them. We only touched them twice in 64 trials. So no, we are not thieves.

A: I’m glad we cleared that up. How come I don’t see you in Ontario?

M: It’s not part of our range, darling. We prefer the plains and prairies. You can find us from the Yukon all the way to western Manitoba. We don’t migrate, that’s for weaklings.

A: If you don’t migrate, how do you survive the cold?

M: We gang up. In the winter we hang out in large groups and forage for food together. I’m a social butterfly, really. If you see one magpie, there are likely others close by. We like to roost in pine trees, which keeps us safe from the wind and predators.

A: What kind of predators do you look out for?

M: Lots of things, hawks, owls and coyotes. Crows, ravens, raccoons, and cats will also eat my eggs and babies. If I let them, that is.

A: How do you protect your chicks from all this murder and mayhem?

M: It’s all in the nest. I build a little mud cup to hold the eggs, and my mate surrounds it with a scaffolding of branches. This keeps out unwanted visitors. The whole construction is around 50cm tall and 70cm wide, and takes us five to seven weeks to build.

Photo by Bryant Olsen. Magpies working on a nest. CC. https://flic.kr/p/4whb1w

Photo by Bryant Olsen. Magpies working on a nest. CC. https://flic.kr/p/4whb1w

A: Wow, that’s quite an investment!

M: Yep. Most nests will last a good four years. Even so, we build a new nest every year.

A: Why not use the old one?

M: Because someone usually steals it! Usually squirrels and other birds. That’s the price of building a solid nest, I guess.

A: I have another question. Why do you harass my poor cat?

M: Because she’s a predator! Over time we’ve found that offence is the best defense. If I see a predator like a hawk or coyote, I’ll call my friends and they’ll help me drive it away.

A: I guess that makes sense. Life can be dangerous for a magpie.

M: You bet! I only expect to live about two years. Males do a bit better with 3.5.

A: Gosh. I’m sorry, I didn’t realize.

M: Don’t worry your head about it. When I die, a huge crowd of magpies will perch around me, and call loudly to each other before flying off silently.

A: Yes, I’ve heard about that. Scientists don’t know why you gather around dead magpies. Care to share?

M: Nope. Magpie secret.

A: Fair enough. Okay, one more question. Why is your tail so long? It’s longer than the rest of your body.

M: Well, because it looks divine! More importantly, we use it as a rudder to make quick twists and turns in the air. We can’t fly very fast, so quick maneuvers are the only we can avoid being caught by a hawk or owl.

Magpies use their long tails like a rudder. Photo by Chuck Roberts. Black-billed Magpie. CC. https://flic.kr/p/aYnX7x

Magpies use their long tails like a rudder. Photo by Chuck Roberts. Black-billed Magpie. CC. https://flic.kr/p/aYnX7x

A: Makes sense. Thanks for speaking with me.

M: Anytime, darling. Just keep leaving those garbage bags out.

 

References

Devlin, Hannah. Aug 16, 2014. Experiment takes the shine off thieving magpie myth. The United Kingdom Times, p 20.

http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/magpie/

http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/black-billed_magpie/lifehistory

http://www.biokids.umich.edu/critters/Pica_hudsonia/

http://www.birdwatchireland.ie/Advice/FAQ/MagpieFAQ/tabid/374/Default.aspx

http://www.torontozoo.com/ExploretheZoo/AnimalDetails.asp?pg=546

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