Sunday, December 14, 2014

Bird News!

There is big news in the bird world this week. For the last four years, hundreds of scientists in an international group called the Avian Phylogenomics Consortium have been sequencing bird genomes. They sequenced the DNA of 45 extant birds and a few crocodilians, and combined that with three previously sequenced bird genomes and then analyzed that huge mass of data. The results just released show the best reconstruction of the evolutionary relationships among the orders of birds that we have so far. And there is lots to marvel at: falcons are more closely related to parrots than to eagles and vultures, and flamingos are a sister group to grebes. To look at the tree of relationships, click here.

The results of the study were published in a special issue of Science Magazine; eight research articles from the study can be accessed by clicking here. Another 20 papers were published elsewhere; read them on the Avian Phylogenomics Project website by clicking here. 

Some of the high points revealed by the study are that bird genomes are near a third of the size of mammal genomes, and lack gene clusters present in many other vertebrates. There are analogies between vocal learning genes in birds and humans. Coolest, and possibly explaining the house sparrows' attitude issues, the ancestor of all land birds, including giant monster sized "terror" birds now extinct, was probably a big predatory bird. An even older ancestor lost the genetic code for growing teeth. This study produced data that will be mined for years to come.

Click on the photos to enlarge. 

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Spring Birds in Winter

Remember the polar vortex winter we had last year? This robin came to my window every cold morning of it with his feathers so puffed up he looked downright chubby. I fed him raisins for breakfast straight through until spring. He's back! He (or someone who looks just like him) started looking in my windows a few weeks ago and is back in the habit of breakfasting on raisins at my place. 
Robins eat worms and insects and fresh fruits and berries when they can get them. We typically see robins stalking worms in short grass all through summer. When winter comes and the insects and worms hole up, robins change to a diet primarily of dried fruit. Some robins migrate to warmer places, but some just disappear from lawns and form winter flocks that travel to different kinds of foraging areas. 

White-throated sparrows are behaving differently in deference to winter, too. They have started to show up on my porch where I haven't seen them since last winter. I see them in the neighborhood all year, but they only visit the porch in winter (even though they would likely find a snack of seeds in any season). Click to enlarge.
New York City's northern mockingbirds tend to stay put during the winter, but it might seem like they have gone south. We are used to their flashy wing-waving and tireless singing; in winter they become relatively quiet. They visit my porch for raisins. 
I usually hear my favorites, the blue jays, before I see them. I give them peanuts in the shell. They make repeated trips until they have gathered them all. But they have to share with...
Northern cardinals that always seem happy to pose in the snow in return for peanuts... 
and Brooklyn squirrels! 

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Thanksgiving 2014

As the Thanksgiving festivities draw to a close, consider the wild turkeys  of New Jersey, a few of which are pictured above. Wild turkeys had been extirpated in New Jersey by the mid-1800s. In the 1970s a few birds were reintroduced. That population caught on, and wildlife managers captured and released them more broadly around the state. Now, about 40 years later, turkeys are a common sight all over New Jersey. Too common a sight, some say; there are thought to be about 23,000 of them out there! Click to enlarge. 
This looks like a lovely autumn lake in the country, doesn't it? Nope. It is in Prospect Park in Brooklyn -- about as urban as a place can be. The designers did a great job of creating an illusion of remoteness, didn't they? There's no population of wild turkeys here yet, but you can see one big old male wild turkey in the Prospect Park Zoo. 
Wishing you all another year filled with things to be thankful for! 

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Pretty Pigeons

I walked around my Brooklyn neighborhood today, scouting for handsome pigeons. I am partial to the piebald ones that have patches of iridescence. Although pigeons rarely seem to stay still for long (at least when I am trying to photograph them), some paused long enough for these portraits. Click to enlarge. 

Two-toned bill! 
And a poem -- 
Pigeons by Richard Kell

They paddle with staccato feet
In powder-pools of sunlight,
Small blue busybodies
Strutting like fat gentlemen
With hands clasped
Under their swallowtail coats;
And, as they stump about,
Their heads like tiny hammers
Tap at imaginary nails
In non-existent walls.
Elusive ghosts of sunshine
Slither down the green gloss
Of their necks in an instant, and are gone.

Summer hangs drugged from sky to earth
In limpid fathoms of silence:
Only warm dark dimples of sound
Slide like slow bubbles
From the contented throats.

Raise a casual hand -
With one quick gust
They fountain into air. 

 A puffed up pigeon on my porch celebrated the relatively warm day... 

With a nap. 

Sunday, November 16, 2014

200,000 Pageviews!

 The Urban Wildlife Guide just passed 200,000 pageviews. I am taking the day off to bask in the glow...

p.s. Stay tuned for the upcoming gallery of Brooklyn's most beautiful pigeons.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Gull and Crab

Can you find the crab in this picture? It's like a hidden object puzzle to me. Click to enlarge. 
No problem for the herring gull, though. The bird, Larus argentatus, is in adult winter plumage. 
Crab dinner. 
This poem comes to mind -- A Green Crab's Shell, by Mark Doty, 1953

Not, exactly, green: 
closer to bronze
preserved in kind brine,

something retrieved 
from a Greco-Roman wreck,
patinated and oddly

muscular. We cannot 
know what his fantastic 
legs were like -- 

though evidence
suggests eight
complexly folded

scuttling works 
of armament, crowned
by the foreclaws'

gesture of menace
and power. A gull's
gobbled the center,

leaving this chamber
--size of a demitasse--
open to reveal

a shocking, Giotto blue. 
Though it smells
of seaweed and ruin, 

this little traveling case 
comes with such lavish lining! 
Imagine breathing

surrounded by 
the brilliant rinse
of summer's firmament. 

What color is 
the underside of skin?
Not so bad, to die, 

if we could be opened 
into this -- 
if the smallest chambers

of ourselves,
revealed some sky. 

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Friendly English Herons

Here are a few more things I saw while birdwatching in Kensington Gardens in London this past summer.
The horses on the carousel had names. One was called Perrin. 
Some of the pigeons were common wood pigeons, Columba palumbus -- big pigeons with bold white neck patches. 
The park's great blue herons, Ardea herodias, were uncharacteristically friendly. At home, I usually see great blue herons hunting alone in marshes, often, like this one, in litter-strewn marshes. Click to enlarge. 
But in Kensington Gardens there were several great blue herons among the hordes of swans, geese, and ducks soliciting handouts of food from passing humans. I had never seen a great blue heron do that before (although I have seen a flock of white ibis go from door to door for snacks in suburban backyards in Florida).