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

 

Advertisements

Sticky tongues and feather nose-plugs: Interview with a Downy Woodpecker

The Downy Woodpecker is the smallest woodpecker in Canada. Photo by Kelly Colgan Azar. Downy Woodpecker. CC. https://flic.kr/p/9sMxyK

The Downy Woodpecker is the smallest woodpecker in Canada. Photo by Kelly Colgan Azar. Downy Woodpecker. CC. https://flic.kr/p/9sMxyK

Me: Hey there, can I speak with you for a moment?

Downy woodpecker: Aaah! You scared me with your super-loud voice. I spend my time listening to insects crawling around in wood, remember?

Me: Sorry, I’ll whisper instead.

D: Much appreciated.

M: How do you get the bugs out of the tree once you find them?

D: I have a long, sticky, barbed tongue, kind of like a chameleon. After I drill a hole in a tree, I’ll shoot my tongue inside to scoop up the insects. When I’m not using it my tongue sits nestled around the back of my head between the skull and skin.

M: That’s kind of weird. Do you get headaches from hammering trees all day?

D: Nope. We have thick skulls and neck muscles to keep our brains, such as they are, un-addled.

M: I see that you’re currently drilling holes in thin, tiny branches. Wouldn’t you be better off looking on the trunk, where most of the other woodpeckers hang out?

D: Why would I follow the crowd? As the smallest of the 13 woodpecker species in Canada, I can find food where no one else can. I can make holes in branches less than 10cm in circumference, which gives me a lot more options than birds with bigger beaks and gangly bodies. Small is beautiful, if you ask me.

M: Maybe so, but small also means more things can eat you.

D: Touché. Small birds of prey like hawks and Kestrels are our main enemies. They like to snag us while we’re flying, but if we’re on a tree we’re usually safe. If something scary comes along we’ll use the branch as a shield, darting to the other side like squirrels do.

M: Aren’t you damaging the trees by making all those holes?

D: Maybe a little bit, but we’re also eating the pesky insects that damage the tree’s insides. Wood boring beetles that kill trees? We got those. We also eat insects that spread diseases like Dutch elm disease. Anyway, we don’t usually drill holes in perfectly healthy trees. We prefer diseased, dying or rotting trees.

M: Why are you called the “Downy” woodpecker? Were you named after the toilet paper?

D: Why would you even think that? Downy refers to the beautiful strip of soft white feathers down my back. They set off the little red pompom on my head wonderfully, don’t you think?

M: Um, sure. How’s the winter treating you so far? You don’t migrate, right?

D: That’s correct. We’re found all over Canada except in the far North. If there isn’t enough food in our northern Alberta and Ontario range we’ll move south, but generally we stay put.

M: Do you have a good stash of food to keep you through the winter?

D: Stashing food? Please. That’s just lazy. Unlike some birds like chickadees, we don’t hide food. There’s tons of sleepy insects hiding under tree bark to keep us full all winter.

M: Are insects the only thing you eat?

D: They’re about three quarters of our diet, but I won’t say no to fruit.

M: What’s in store for this spring?

D: Oh, it makes my head hurt just thinking about it.

M: Why’s that?

D: I’m responsible for hollowing out the nest each year. That’s two to three weeks with my head stuck in a 20-30cm hole in a tree. Thank goodness I have feathers over my nostrils to keep out the sawdust. Otherwise I’d be sneezing for months!

M: I want to sneeze just thinking about it. Does your wife help make the nest too?

D: Not really. She claims she’s ‘protecting our territory’ while I have my head in the tree. Her job is to chase other woodpeckers away from our prime nesting site. I say she’s just trying to avoid the grunt work. Sometimes she has the nerve to change her mind about the nest mid-drill, and guess who has to start another hole!

M: That does sound trying.

D: Tell me about it! I’ll drill non-stop for 20 minutes at a time, throwing the lose chips over my shoulder. I’m so tired at the end of the day that I usually sleep in the unfinished nest.

M: Does your mate join you for some cuddling?

D: Oh no. She needs her own space. Even when it isn’t breeding season, we have our own sleeping holes. Anyways, she snores, so I prefer sleeping alone.

M: What’s it like when the babies show up?

D: We’ll take turn guarding the doorway of the nest. The opening is so narrow that most predators like squirrels can’t get into it, but snakes are more than happy to sneak in and snatch a baby. Our chisel-like beaks are pretty good at making them change their minds.

Thankfully, the kids grow up fast, by 17-18 days they’re full grown. Then they crawl up the cavity wall and peek out. At this point they are eating so much that we have to bring them meals every three minutes. Eventually my wife and I get fed up and start bringing less food. This encourages them to lean out of the nest wondering where the heck we are with the next grub, and often they fall out and fly.

M: Why do you bang on metal lamp posts and wood siding? There’s no insects in there, you know!

D: We’re not looking for food, we’re communicating. Why waste your voice when you can bang on things? We hammer our beaks on hollow structures like tree stumps, stop signs, drainpipes or chimneys. We usually do it in early spring, to attract a mate and protect territory. This kind of drumming is more annoying to people than damaging to your infrastructure.

M: What can people do if they don’t like you drumming on their house?

D: Well, if they want to scare us away, we’re not a fan of mirrors, reflective tape or streamers.

M: Thanks for the advice, and see you again soon.

D: You certainly will! As one of the most common birds in Eastern North America, our population has only increased in the last twenty years.

References
http://onnaturemagazine.com/ontario%E2%80%99s-woodpeckers.html
http://www.birds.cornell.edu/wp_about/biology.html
http://www.birds.cornell.edu/wp_about/insects.html
http://www.hww.ca/en/species/birds/downy-woodpecker.html

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

Crimson chanteuse: Interview with a Northern Cardinal

Female Northern Cardinals are one of the few female birds in North America that sing. Photo by William Klos, Northern Cardinal (Female) CC. https://www.flickr.com/photos/wjklos/11610478/

Female Northern Cardinals are one of the few female birds in North America that sing. Photo by William Klos, Northern Cardinal (Female) CC. https://www.flickr.com/photos/wjklos/11610478/

When I moved to Ottawa from Calgary, Northern Cardinals were one of my favorite birds to discover! I mean, they’re brightly coloured, they sing beautifully, what’s not to love?

Even though Northern Cardinals are around all year, I only notice them in the winter and spring. Their red plumage is easy to spot against white snow or an icy blue sky. In the spring, their whistling song is one of the first things I hear in the morning (other than my alarm clock and the buzz of the refrigerator). I was lucky enough to find a female sitting on her nest this morning and decided to ask her some burning questions.

A: I love to hear male cardinals sing in the spring! Why do they do it?

C: Hey now, the men can’t take all the credit! I sing too!

A: Really? Isn’t that unusual for songbirds?

C: That’s right, we’re one of the only songstress birds in North America, and we’re proud of it!

A: I can see that. Okay, so why do you sing? Are you trying to attract a mate, or guard a territory like the males
do?

C: Goodness no! Our songs are much more subtle than the guys’. I often borrow phrases of my husband’s song and add my own flavour. That way he knows it’s me.

A: Where is your favorite place to sing? In the shower?

C: Um, no. I don’t take showers. I sing quietly on my nest. After all, I don’t want to attract every predator within 20 metres.

A: Okay, so why do you sing?

C: A lady can have her secrets, can’t she? Maybe I’m saying “I’m hungry” or “I’m full” or “There’s a predator nearby” or “The kids are driving me crazy!” or even “Where is that grasshopper pizza I ordered?” Let’s just say that I’m telling my husband to bring me food, or not bring me food. If that handsome red guy came by every minute, he might lead a predator right to our nest. Singing to him can cut down on unneeded trips.

A: So your husband brings you food? That sounds like a great system. I wouldn’t say no to breakfast in bed every day.

C: He is quite sweet. But let me tell you, when the babies are demanding food every few minutes, he gets quite a work-out! He only brings me food when I’m nesting in the spring and summer. In the fall and winter I go back to getting my own food.

A: What kind of food does your husband bring back to the nest? You mentioned grasshopper pizza?

C: I was joking, but if you know a joint that makes grasshopper pizza let me know. He brings me seeds, fruit, and berries. My favorite are the sunflower seeds you fill your birdfeeders with. Mm-mm! When we have babies in the nest he’ll bring them lots of insects, like beetles, flies, centipedes, butterflies and crickets. They also like spiders. It must be all those legs.

A: Ugh, that’s an unpleasant image! It seems to me like your husband is doing all the work. I mean he defends the territory and brings home the bacon while you sit on a nest all day.

C: I resent that! Sitting on a nest is not as easy as it looks. I’m protecting my kids from becoming a predator’s snack. And let me tell you, there are lots of animals that love to snack on young birds. It’s a stressful job. The babies in 4 out of every 5 nests don’t survive to adulthood.

A: That’s awful!

C: Yes it is, but we move on and try harder next year. Every spring I go house-hunting with my husband, scoping out good nest sites in tangled vines or bushes. We like to nest close to the ground, but unfortunately that makes it easy for predators to get at the nest.
I work really hard on that nest. Each one is a 4-layered feat of engineering! I bend twigs into a circle, then add a layer of leaves, a layer of grapevine bark and then finish it off with some cozy grass and pine needles. Each nest takes 3-9 days to build! And for the next batch of eggs, I do it all over again. If conditions are good,
I’ll build two nests a year.

A: Okay, so it sounds like you’re working hard too, and work is pretty equally distributed between you and your husband. But there’s something that doesn’t make sense to me. If you’re on the nest all the time, how do predators ever get at your babies?

C: Well, I’m not on the nest every second of the day…

A: I feel like there’s something you’re not telling me. Want to get it off your chest?

C: Okay, fine, I’ll tell you! I’m having an affair with the next door neighbor! He’s just so….red!

A: Okay, that explains it. Does your husband know?

C: I’m sure he suspects it. At any given time a tenth to a third of chicks in my nest are not his, and he can tell. Anyway, he cheats on me too. Everybody does.

A: But you’re still a couple?

C: Yep, we’re completely devoted to each other. I’m the only female he feeds and takes care of. We drift apart in the winter, but usually get back together in the spring. That sweet song of his gets me every time.

A: Do most couples mate for life?

C: Goodness no! About 1 in 5 relationships won’t last the winter.

A: Speaking of winter, how do you like the cold here? I always seem to see you frolicking in the snow.

C: I hate it. I’m not frolicking, I’m desperately trying to stay warm! But we like the neighborhood, and there’s plenty of food here so there’s no point in migrating.

My ancestors were tropical birds who came to Canada from the US in the 1800s. They were following Europeans who were cutting down forests, creating the open bushy spaces that we love. We love living in backyards and parks and forest edges, so our numbers have only been growing as the numbers of humans living here grows.

What a hunk! Photo by Flyn Kynd, Northern Cardinal, CC.  https://www.flickr.com/photos/79452129@N02/14025876635/

What a hunk! Photo by Flyn Kynd, Northern Cardinal, CC. https://www.flickr.com/photos/79452129@N02/14025876635/


A: Very interesting! One last question. Why are cardinals red?

C: Because we eat red berries. Duh. Just like flamingos get pink from eating shrimp, we get red from eating berries. Any bird you see that is red, orange or yellow is eating something that colour. We can’t make those pigments by ourselves.

A: Fascinating! Thank you so much. Best of luck with those eggs!

C: Thanks! My pleasure.

References

http://www.highparknaturecentre.com/2014/01/colourful-cardinals/#respond
http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/northern_cardinal/lifehistory
http://curiousnature.info/A1-Cardinal.htm
http://eol.org/pages/1052070/details

There’s a bat on my doorstep!


I find wild animals fascinating. I was raised on PBS Nature documentaries. Some of my earliest memories involve cheetahs chasing down and disemboweling gazelles. I donate money to save polar bears, and gasp with delight when I glimpse a deer in a National park.

However, a wild animal on my property is a different story.

As I stepped out into the bright sunshine with my laundry this morning, I noticed a brown shape huddled on my doorstep. It was a bat. A bat that was obviously in trouble. There were bloodstains on the concrete. His wing was crumpled. He wasn’t moving.

I assumed he was dead.

He wasn’t. That became clear when I tried to pick him up with a plastic bag.

He struggled lethargically. He extended his good wing. He opened his mouth to reveal tiny teeth and an amazingly pink throat.

I was hit with a number of emotions at once:

1) Wonder. I had never seen a bat outside of a zoo, and I was fascinated. I’ve often wondered what it would be like to live upside down, and to see not with your eyes but with your nose and ears. It was amazing to see this creature up close.

2) Grief. It was gut-wrenching to see this animal suffering. His broken wing was glued to the ground so he couldn’t move.

3) Responsibility. Because I was the one who found him, it was up to me to deal with him. I had no idea what to do next. Part of me wanted a neighborhood cat to come along and solve the problem for me.
So I did what most people do these days when they don’t know what to do. I Googled it.

I learned that the Ottawa Humane Society is the organization to go to if you find injured or sick wildlife. (http://ottawahumane.ca/wildlife/injuredsickwildlife.cfm)

I also learned that you should never touch bats. Bats that are sick can also infect humans. Oops. (http://www.ottawahumane.ca/wildlife/batfaqs.cfm)

It was a relief to call the professionals. I was asked to put a recycling box over the bat to contain him. They would do the rest.

Forty-five minutes later a Humane Society van was leaving my driveway with the injured bat. He was no longer my responsibility.

As I watched them drive away, I thought about how we humans generally interact with urban wildlife. It is amazing how many animals live in cities without us ever seeing them. I’m always surprised how seldom I see rats, mice and raccoons. This is either because they are nocturnal, or very good at hiding.

It seems we only encounter these animals when they are dead on the side of the road or living somewhere we don’t want them to live, like in our attic. As a result, we mainly see them as pests and nuisances, albeit cute ones. Which is unfortunate. They are so much more than that. Raccoons and rats are amazingly intelligent, persistent and curious, qualities we admire in other humans. However, our expectation that urban homes are free of animals often brings us into conflict with them. It would be nice to see more public education about urban wildlife, so that an animal control website isn’t the first place we learn about our four-legged neighbors.

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Follow lab bench to park bench on WordPress.com

Previous Posts

December 2017
M T W T F S S
« Jul    
 123
45678910
11121314151617
18192021222324
25262728293031

Archives

%d bloggers like this: