Bison, Birds, and the Badlands

Dramatic scenery is the norm in these Badlands, where the antelope and the buffalo (and the sheep) roam. This was our morning view today.

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Along with the normal complement of bighorn sheep on the rocky outcrops, today there were a few of these.

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Merriam’s Wild Turkey is a western mountain offshoot of the eastern wild Turkey. They are much blacker, lack the colorful iridescence of the eastern turkeys, and have distinctive black and white mottled wing coloration.

Down in the grassy green valley floor beneath those imposing cliffs, we saw a few of these:

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And a few of these,

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The grassy meadows were lush, and hopping with quite a few prairie birds: meadowlarks, eastern and western kingbirds, horned larks, and lark buntings.

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The Lark Bunting is not related to Indigo Buntings, but is in the sparrow family.  However, it is very un-sparrow-like in the distinctive black and white breeding plumage of the males.  Non-breeding males and females have the typical brown and white mottled sparrow plumage. What makes this species so different from other sparrows? Female choice — the same female choice that drove male peacocks to display ornately ostentatious tails.

But in the case of Lark Buntings, it’s female choice with a twist:  what female lark buntings find attractive in a male varies from year to year, instead of the constant preference of female peahens for longer and more ornate tails. For Lark Buntings, what attracts females one year may not be the least interesting the next, in fact might be exactly the wrong characteristic the next year.  Such plasticity in selection of male mates keeps the gene pool highly variable and reponsive to changing environmental conditions.

The more we learn about bird behavior, the smarter they seem…

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