Birds in Art

On the road again, we stopped off in Wausau, Wisconsin to visit the Leigh Yawkey Woodson art museum and see their amazing exhibition of birds in art.  This place is definitely worth a weekend field trip, and in addition to all of the paintings, carvings, and sculptures to marvel at, there are classrooms and materials for creating your own bird art (primarily for kids).  A small sample of the pieces…

Outdoors, pieces are scattered around the extensive gardens.

Bird art at the Leigh Yawkey Woodson art museum, Wausau, WI

15 foot tall Sandhill Cranes greet you by the parking lot.

Bird art at the Leigh Yawkey Woodson art museum, Wausau, WI

A life-size sculpture of an ostrich

Bird art at the Leigh Yawkey Woodson art museum, Wausau, WI

Turkeys in bronze.  I like the way the bronze yields the same iridescence that turkey feathers do.

Indoors, smaller sculptures and paintings draw you over for a closer look.

Bird art at the Leigh Yawkey Woodson art museum, Wausau, WI

One of several rooms in the Leigh Yawkey Woodson art museum, Wausau, WI

Bird art at the Leigh Yawkey Woodson art museum, Wausau, WI

Metal sculpture of a Kestrel. It’s minimalist in construction, but captures the most important characteristics of the bird that make it instantly recognizable.

Bird art at the Leigh Yawkey Woodson art museum, Wausau, WI

A Bittern carving in tupelo wood and painted with acrylic, and amazingly life-like.

Bird art at the Leigh Yawkey Woodson art museum, Wausau, WI

The photo doesn’t do justice to this amazing wood sculpture of two skuas chasing a tern. There are no external supports for the free-flying forms, and the wings only touch in one small area. Instead the support is internal within the sculpture somehow.

how to eat a juniper berry

The fall harvest season is on:  it’s time to pick pumpkins and apples, the last of the field corn and soybeans; and if you’re a bird and you like fruit, it’s time to feast on the berries of the eastern red cedar, commonly known as juniper.  Actually to be entirely correct, these “berries” are actually just fleshy cones that surround a few seeds within.  They are covered with a waxy coating, which is also digestible if a bird has the right pancreatic enzymes to break it down.

Yellow-rumped Warbler eating juniper berries

Yellow-rumped Warblers love these juicy “berries”, gobbling them up whole.

Yellow-rumped Warbler eating juniper berries-3

Sometimes this large round nugget is a little hard to choke down, though, and the bird continually adjust the berry’s position in its mouth before swallowing.

Yellow-rumped Warbler eating juniper berries-5

Dark blue ones are the ripest, green ones the least ripe, and the birds seem to be quite choosy about which ones they take.  There are so many berries within reach, but this bird needs to stretch upside down to get the perfect one.

Robins eating juniper berries-4

Robins joined the feast, with three or four birds all foraging within a few feet of each other.

Robins eating juniper berries-2

Being a much larger bird than the warbler, the robins had no trouble downing the berries, one after the other.

Robins eating juniper berries-6

Robins toss their heads back as they swallow, and occasionally lose the berry in the process.

Catbird and juniper berries

A couple of catbirds got into the action as well, but they preferred to consume their berries in private, away from the camera lens.

Juniper berries are the only fruit/spice from conifers we use in cooking, and of course they give gin its characteristic flavor.  Beneath the waxy coating, green pulpy flesh surrounds a few seeds.  Fruit-eating birds normally quickly separate the pulp from the seeds in their gut, digesting the sugary pulp and converting it to fat stores rather quickly.  They then excrete the seeds as they fly off to other foraging areas, thus helping the plant spread into new locations.

But seed-eating birds might have a different strategy…

Female cardinal eating juniper berries-3

This female cardinal was systematically picking off berries and crushing them between her mandibles, squeezing the pulp and then discarding it.

Female cardinal eating juniper berries-5

It’s hard to tell whether she discards the pulp to get at the seeds, or discards the whole mass after squishing out berry juices.  

Seed-eating specialists probably have stronger gizzard muscles  that can crush the seeds to extract their nutrients, and seeds typically have higher fat and protein content than the sugary, pulpy mass that surrounds them.

Whatever the strategy, juniper berries provide a useful resource for migratory as well as non-migratory birds in the fall.

Mr. Not-so-beautiful

This is the time of year we see beautiful and dramatic color changes in the vegetation, but that is just one of many fall transformations.  Gaudy male ducks that shed those brilliant colors right after donating their sperm to the next generation last spring and became pale, cryptic versions of their previous selves have recently begun the transformation back to splendid technicolor.  It’s like a before and after makeover for Mallard Ducks at the local reservoir this week.

molting mallard ducks

In the summer, male Mallards look just like their females, with mottled brown plumage that blends in nicely with the dappled shade in which they spend the day.  The male of this pair (in the back) is just beginning to acquire the lustrous green feathers that will eventually cover his entire head.

Most ducks undergo two feather molts during the course of one year:  one in the spring/summer after breeding in which they replace all of their feathers, including flight feathers (resulting in the basic/female-type plumage); and one in the fall/winter in which they replace just the body feathers to regain the colors of the breeding (nuptial) plumage.

mallard plumage sequence-illustration by Patterson Clark

Mallard plumage sequence-illustration by Patterson Clark (Washington Post, Aug. 30, 2011).

This process of feather replacement ensures that birds acquire a new set of flight feathers before making short or long-distance migrations in fall or spring. More importantly, it ensures that gaudy male ducks, who would be conspicuous targets for aerial predators (like Bald Eagles) can protect themselves with better camouflage while they are flightless and molting a completely new set of wing feathers.

molting mallard ducks-

He’s sort of an ugly duckling at this stage of feather replacement, hence Mr. Not-so-beautiful…

Fueling this feather replacement not only demands additional energy intake per day, but a higher quality of protein in the diet, and so ducks will start feeding on more invertebrates and less pond scum, as they drop old feathers and grow in new ones.  It has been estimated that ducks need to ingest about 100 grams of protein to replace the 60+ grams of body feathers during a whole body feather molt.  That means they need to ingest more than 3 grams of protein per day over the 30 day molting period, and that translates to about 31,000 invertebrates eaten over the month!!!, according to the folks at Ducks Unlimited.

mallard-drakes-

Soon, the local ponds and lakes will have congregations of brightly colored males swimming around the few females (lower right corner) in attendance.

mallard-males-displaying-

And as spring rolls around again next year, the brightly colored male Mallards will begin to play “who’s the prettiest” again.

a beautiful riverside wildflower garden

What a surprise to find a lush wildflower garden growing in the damp soil at the edge of the St. Croix river at the Arcola Bluffs trail.  A trail along the river’s edge led me through dense clumps of Cardinal flower, Blue Lobelia, Obedient plant, and Prairie Ironweed.

cardinal flower-Lobelia cardinalis-

There were hundreds of individual Cardinal flower stems growing here in the semi shade and moist forest soil along the St. Croix river.

cardinal flower-Lobelia cardinalis-

With this many attractive red flowers, you would expect to see hummingbirds, and sure enough they showed up right as I began noticing the dense flower patch.

ruby-throated-hummingbird-on-cardinal-flower-1

Shot earlier in my backyard wildflower garden, but Ruby-throated Hummingbirds do love this plant.

white cardinal flower-Lobelia cardinalis

Among the hundreds of individual plants, there was one genetic mutant, a white form of the Cardinal flower.

White mutants of brightly colored animals or plants are usually genetic recessives, and are rare in the population. I imagine hummingbirds might skip over the nectar resources in this plant (wrong color to attract them), so it might not set much seed, which further contributes to its rarity.

Blue Lobelia - Lobelia siphilitica-

Another Lobelia species, the Blue Lobelia, was also growing in the riverside wildflower garden, although in much lower density.

Obedient plant - Physostegia virginiana-

I spotted just a few individuals of Obedient plant in this “garden”, although this plant is usually an aggresive colonist of open spaces in my backyard wildflower garden.

Prairie Ironweed - Veronia fasiculata-

Prairie Ironweed seems to like the wet river bottomland as well as it does the open prarie habitat. It’s large flowerheads were particularly attractive to honeybees.

Prairie Ironweed - Veronia fasiculata-

Has this lovely wildflower garden always been here? Did I just happen to hit it during its peak flowering? Other wildflower enthusiasts have reported lush blooms of cardinal flower along the backwaters of the Mississippi and St. Croix recently (late July-early August), so maybe I have just never discovered these little patches of colorful diversity along the rivers.

a different look

This is the time of year we begin to see birds migrating back to their southerly winter homes, but many of them look very different than they did when they arrived here in the spring ready to breed.  Most birds have two outfits in their wardrobe:  a non-breeding basic plumage that may be drab but serviceable for all-around activities, like migration and over-wintering; and a brightly colored (in the case of males) alternate plumage that is meant just to show off their stuff in the breeding season.  In some cases, bills, skin around the eyes, feet, etc. may also be brightly colored, only during the breeding season.

Here’s a look at how this works in a small diving “duck” (not really a duck) called the Pied-billed Grebe, whose basic, non-breeding plumage gives no trace of the pied bill.

pied-billed grebe-basic, non-breeding plumage

Pied-billed Grebes were diving among the lily pads looking for small fish or crayfish lurking there.

pied-billed grebe-basic, non-breeding plumage

No trace of that characteristic marker of the broad black stripe on the bill though.  The one at the bottom of the image still has the faint head stripes of juvenile plumage.

pied-billed grebe juvenile

Typical juvenile plumage in the Pied-billed Grebe

pied-billed-grebe-breeding adult

A few months earlier adults looked like this, with a more definite black stripe through the pale, silver bill.

Pied-billed_Grebe_and young-Audubon

Earlier in the breeding season, both adults and youngsters looked quite a bit different than they will during the non-breeding season. Photo from Audubon field guide.

Of course seasonal changes in the grebes are far more subtle than those in some of the warbler species that take on completely different colors and color combinations between basic and alternate (breeding) plumages.  For example, gorgeous red Scarlet Tanagers molt to a green-gold plumage in the non-breeding season, making them look like a completely different species.

scarlet tanager plumage molts

good morning, little blue bird

Indigo Bunting

His tail looks a little worse for wear, but he has maintained the deep blue color of his body feathers throughout the summer.

I was barely out of my car at the Old Cedar Road parking lot when a beautiful Indigo Bunting hopped up on a tree nearby, posing briefly in the bright sunlight before flitting off into the forest.  What a nice treat for the first bird of the morning.

Indigo Bunting

In fact, he is a surprisingly uniform blue.

In the next few weeks, this colorful male will molt into its winter plumage and become drab brown, like the female, before migrating to its winter home in Central America. Indigo Buntings, like most other bird species, replace their feathers twice a year, but these brightly colored males take at least two years to become completely blue.

the not-so-secretive Sora

Soras are a type of marsh bird that I rarely see because they are usually tucked away deep in the vegetation, obscured by tall stems and leafy plumes.  But this morning, a couple of Soras ventured out into the open water on the edges of the Mississippi marshes to forage, seemingly oblivious of the much larger ducks and geese around them.

Sora

Soras are a type of rail related to coots, moorhens, and gallinules.  They have a distinctive triangular shape, yellow bill, black mask, red eyes, yellow green legs with long toes, and usually carry their short tail feathers straight up in the air.

Sora

Mottled, rich brown feathers on their back help them blend into the edge of the marsh where they forage and nest.

Soras typically grab insects or seeds from the top of the water, occasionally probe into soft mud, walking quickly through the water and vegetation.  The adventurous Soras I watched this morning walked right up to and around resting ducks, paying no attention to their greater bulk, as they searched for hidden food items.

Sora and molting Wood Duck

The molting male Wood Duck seemed wary of the Sora though.

Sora and molting Wood Duck

Sora

Sora, just passing through…ducks don’t care

Sora

Long toes, with webbing between them, help Soras cruise through muddy muck of the marsh.

During the breeding season, we often hear the high-pitched descending notes of the Sora’s whinny call, but rarely seen them.  They are busy producing a lot of little Soras in a nest that might hold as many as 18 eggs, stacked in rows on top of each other.  Since the Soras start incubating before all the eggs have been laid, they hatch asynchronously, and the first youngsters to hatch jump out of the nest join one of the parents while the other parent continues to incubate.

Rumble.com produced an excellent video of Sora and Virginia Rails in their native habitat:

morning at the marsh

It’s amazing how much you can see early in the morning before the cyclists and hikers have hit the trails around the local marsh.  And it always amazes me to find such a diversity of wildlife inhabiting a small wild oasis in the urban landscape! I’m sure if I had spent more time on this hot, humid morning, I would have seen even more.

floating island-

Dense mats of cattails float around the marsh propelled by the prevailing water flow.  They attract a wide variety of wildlife that may hunt from their edges, nest in their stalks, and hide within small crevices from the peeping eyes of photographers.

great blue heron-

Great Blue Herons are often found along the shoreline, usually obscured by the vegetation.

great blue heron-

Another heron was making its way down toward the shoreline — perhaps the mate of the other one?

great egret-

I can always count on seeing a Great Egret or two foraging near the edge of the marsh.

green heron-

What else is hiding here in this vegetation near the shore? A Green Heron pops up to see if I’m a dangerous predator.

green heron-

A less nervous juvenile Green Heron hunted in the shallows.

common loon-

Out in the water, a Common Loon swam by.

double crested cormorant-

Nearby, a double-crested Cormorant surfaced from its dive, and took a look around.

I spotted something white way out in the middle of the marsh, swimming quickly away from me, and grabbed a quick shot of a Trumpeter Swan family with their two, seemingly newly hatched, cygnets.

trumpeter swan family-

It’s a bit late to find these newly hatched chicks; perhaps the first nesting failed and these are result of a second nesting attempt. The chicks have a lot of growing to do before they reach the body size of the adults which can weigh more than 20 lb.

trumpeter swan family-

the distraction lure

Some bird mothers go to great lengths to distract predators away from their nest and/or fledgling chicks.  They feign injury, flapping like they are wounded but can’t fly, chirping loudly to attract attention to themselves and away from their chicks.  I’ve seen Kildeer do this many times, as they lead me on a merry chase away from their nest.  For example…

But I’ve never heard of small songbirds using this strategy, until I saw it in action today when a female Indigo Bunting led me all over the backyard as I tried to find her nest and her chirping chicks.

indigo bunting-female feigning injury

Here I am, look at me, I’m helpless with my broken wings.”

Wings fluttering, hopping sort of helplessly through the grass, chirping continuously, and flying weakly from spot to spot, this female Indigo Bunting put on quite a show.

Moving around in the underbrush of the wildflower garden, I discovered two of her chicks, also chirping loudly, but hidden from view until one of them tried to cross a patch of grass.

indigo bunting-fledgling

Bunting chicks may fledge (leave the nest) after only 8 days, and can hardly fly more than 10 feet, so they tend to stay hidden in low, dense vegetation.

indigo bunting fledgling-

Not a very adept flyer yet…

indigo bunting-fledgling

The chick is not even fully feathered yet, has short stubby wing feathers, and no tail. It would be easy prey for a wandering cat…

Meanwhile, its mother is still chirping away at me, from all over the garden.

indigo bunting-female

first here…

indigo bunting-female

then here… (see that faint tinge of blue on her shoulder?)

indigo bunting-female

and finally right out in front of me.  Older females may be much bluer than this, with streaky blue patches on their shoulders, back, and tail.  But their overall drab plumage helps camouflage them while they care for the chicks.

indigo-bunting-male

A brightly colored male Indigo Bunting would attract way too much attention if he were feeding chicks in the nest.

Fun facts:

  • although Indigo Buntings are about the size of a Goldfinch and the female sort of resembles a female Goldfinch (but lacks those distinctive wingbars), they are actually members of the Cardinal family.
  • the blue color (especially evident in males) does not come from a blue pigment, but is due to special reflective particles in the feathers that scatter light and reflect blue wavelengths.  Read more about blue coloration in animals by clicking here.

following Mom

A common sight in lakes and ponds this time of year is a brood of little ducklings paddling very close to their mother.

mallard hen and ducklings

A mallard hen escorts her newly hatched brood across the pond to better foraging habitat.

wood duck hen and brood

Wood duck hatchlings have to paddle fast to keep up with their mom.

Mother Duck’s large body moving around the nest was the first thing the newly hatched ducklings saw, and within a day’s time, they imprinted on her, meaning their brains became wired to follow that object faithfully until they mature to full independence.

wood duck hen and brood

Whatever mom does, the ducklings do. When it’s time to rest after hunting for bugs, the ducklings take a break with their mom.

There is a critical period for this type of “filial imprinting” to occur — usually within 24-48 hours of hatching.  Whatever large, mobile object the hatchling sees, it follows — even if it is a human.  This type of imprinting is of obvious survival value to precocial birds, those that are mobile immediately after hatching, as they learn survival skills and are protected by at least one parent.

Konrad Lorenz and imprinted geese

Konrad Lorenz, an early 20th century behavioral biologist, studied imprinting in Greylag Geese by attending to them immediately after hatching.  From then on, they followed him faithfully wherever he went.

You might wonder if imprinting only occurs in birds.  The answer is NO, but there are different types of imprinting, even in birds.  Social and sexual imprinting are key to making sure an individual associates with members of its own species.  Keith Kendrick* cross-fostered sheep and goats immediately after birth (i.e., goats mothered the lambs and sheep mothered the kids), and found that male offspring (but not females) were subsequently irreversibly attracted both socially and sexually to their foster mom’s species more than their own.

animal-imprinting-in sheep and goat (Kendrick, 1995)

Sheep and goat buddies.  From How Stuff Works.

Sort of makes you wonder about Tarzan being raised by apes…

*Kendrick et al. 1995. Mothers determine sexual preferences.  Nature 395: 229-230.