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Saturday, August 11, 2012

Don't worry about ugly birds this time of year

molting Blue Jay
molting Cardinal
About this time of year, many people see scruffy-headed, bald or patchy birds. It's not their finest hour, cosmetically. But they aren't seriously sick, they don't need your help, and it's only temporary. Most likely it's molting;  a normal occurrence for many living things that live outside.

Birds constantly replenish their feathers when they become worn out. The head feathers, however, molt and regrow all together (so the head often looks much worse than normal). Also, birds often pick up microscopic, parasitic feather mites.

They're not a serious problem and birds usually get rid of them by preening their feathers with their beaks. But they can't physically get to the mites in their heads, so the feathers there get disheveled sooner. When cool weather arrives, however, the mites will die and the birds' feathers will have regrown.

IT'S JUST A THEORY   Woodpeckers have huge brains, relative to other birds. A recent gathering of the American Ornithological Union backed this up with measurements.

Nobody's certain why their brain is so big, but a leading theory has to do with their trait of hammering on wood. With the constant hammering, some of the woodpecker's brain cells are bound to be damaged, so woodpeckers are endowed with bigger brains to make sure they'll have enough left over in old age. (Sounds good to me!)

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Does corn demand more than its fair share of space?

The unique topography of the Great Northern Plains was formed over 10,000 years ago, when ice-age glaciers scoured the terrain and, when retreating, left behind thousands of indentations, many of which can be called lakes. Today the area is known as the Pothole Prairies region. For many centuries, it has been the nesting and breeding grounds for millions of birds, including many that we see in north Texas during the birds' "off season".

The region covers the Dakotas, Iowa and Minnesota, plus bits of several other states. It also includes portions of Alberta, Saskatchewan, Ontario and Manitoba in Canada. But it's being diminished in size, due mainly to corn growing.

Tax subsidies promoting corn-based ethanol are hastening the area's destruction. Source: a recent study released by the National Wildlife Federation, with data gathered by researchers at the University of Michigan.

More than 3.2 million acres of the Prairie Pothole region in the U.S. have been plowed under in order to make room to grow more corn. Much of that corn is grown to meet America's questionable need for ethanol, an ingredient in fuel that allegedly creates cleaner combustion and lowers emissions when blended into real gasoline.

Eastern Meadowlark
Grasshopper Sparrow
The habitat's conversion to corn growing, however, comes at a very high price. In some areas the decline in bird populations has reached 30% - and it's still climbing. Seriously declining species include Meadowlarks, Upland Sandpipers and Grasshopper Sparrows (you can occasionally see a Meadowlark near Lake Ray Roberts Park, but it's rare).

The USDA provides corn-growing incentives, such as tax breaks, crop insurance and low-interest loans which virtually guarantee a grower's profit regardless of the crop yield. If the demand for ethanol remains steady, an additional 10.6 million acres of corn could be planted in the next year. Grower's will reap a profit without taking any risk, and bird populations will keep declining.

NOTE: I've used the term "grower" instead of "farmer" because most entities that now grow corn are corporations.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

The close-knit world of Bats

A ton of myths surround bats, mostly due to old Hollywood movies and the absence of a fact-checker.  Fact is, a single, mature bat can eat about 5,000 mosquitoes per night. So they're great to have around, unless you like mosquitoes.

CORRECTED MYTHS:  There are absolutely no vampire bats on this continent. Bats do not get tangled in your hair. Bats constantly groom themselves, making them one of the cleanest animals in the world. Bats are not blind - they're "nocturnal" which is totally different. Bats are not rabies vectors, though a few (under 1%) get it; (if one gets the disease, it dies within about 24 hours, so it's unable to transmit it.).

Bats leaving Congress Ave. Bridge,
Austin, every night at sunset
I hope you'll forgive me for posting this blog a little late;  Nancy and I were down in Austin visiting relatives (and seeing bats).

There are over a million Mexican Freetail Bats in the Congress Ave. Bridge - all female. They all hunt and eat every night. We went on the Lone Star Riverboat Tour, which we heartily recommend for their knowledge and environmental concern. (And there were NO mosquitoes!)

HIGH-TECH BIRDING!   Times have changed!  Within the search area of the elusive Ivory-billed Woodpecker, a biologist discovered a large woodpecker feather. Cornell's Laboratory of Ornithology was able to analyze the feather's DNA and compare it with an Ivory-bill's that they have on file. Unfortunately it was from a Pileated Woodpecker but it's amazing that the analysis was even possible!