Sunday, March 27, 2011

An Optimistic Sparrow

The first day of spring is one thing, and the first spring day is another. The difference between  them is sometimes as great as a month. 
--  Henry VanDyke, 1899, in Fisherman's Luck.
On Saturday morning, officially the fifth day of spring, I was walking by the East River in Brooklyn Bridge Park wearing earmuffs, scarf, and gloves again, and I was freezing! The temperature was 32F, the wind from the bay was bitter, and the muskrat's pond was covered by a thin plate of ice.

A song sparrow perched conspicuously in a bare tree with his feathers puffed up against the cold. The wind ruffled his feathers but did not deter him. He was clearly ready for spring. For as long as I could stand the cold and watch, he looked around, threw his head back, opened his beak, and sang. Then he did it again. And again. Repeatedly announcing his claim on the territory and advertising his readiness to pair up with a nice lady sparrow.

The song sparrow, Melospiza melodia. 

The song started with three distinct notes and ended in a complex series of warbles and trills. They don't call these birds song sparrows for nothing; each has a repertoire of up to 20 different tunes and they improvise variations. They usually sing one a few times and then another. And they have dialects. Their songs vary over the song sparrow's wide geographic range, which includes most of North America. You may hear one sing a new song if you travel far from home.

Here are some of the birdwatcher mnemonics that have been made up to help identification by mimicking the cadence and syllable count of song sparrow songs:

Maids! Maids! Maids! Put on your tea kettle-ettle-ettle
Hip. Hip. Hip hurrah boys. Spring is here!
Madge. Madge. Madge. Pick beetles off -- the water's hot. 
Click here to listen to a song sparrow singing. 

Song sparrows are about 6 inches long,  streaked with dark brown, white underneath, with a brown stripe through the eye, and a brown cap with a pale stripe down the middle. They have a dark brown spot in the center of the breast.  The tail is rounded and relatively long as sparrow tails go. Males and females look alike. Song sparrow color varies a lot and can be anywhere from sandy pale to chocolaty brown. Thy eat seeds and fruits, supplemented with insects in season; they are often seen on the ground scratching leaves aside to turn up tasty treats.

They are found in almost any kind of habitat: pine forests, desert scrub, coastal marsh, suburban bird feeders, cities and roadsides. They are present year round in much of the United States, but many migrate south in the winter and north again to breed in Canada in summer.

And they seem able to find an exposed branch in any vacant lot in between from which to declare the imminence of spring.

Sunday, March 20, 2011


     Saturday was the last day of winter. It seems fitting that there were winter ducks in the East River -- some red-breasted mergansers and a pair of bufflehead ducks. The buffleheads were far from shore but their distinctive patterns make them easy to recognize from a distance.
The male bufflehead has a white body, black back, and a large dark iridescent head with a triangular patch behind each eye. (The bufflehead's genus, Bucephala, is from words that mean ox and head, referring to the big-headed look.)

The female bufflehead is mostly dark above, mostly grayish underneath, and lighter on the breast. A large oval white patch on the side of the face and a little patch of white near the back of the wings are usually visible from a distance. 
     When male and females of a species look different like this, they are called sexually dimorphic (di=two, morph=shape). Male and female buffleheads are about a foot long and both have small gray bills.

     Buffleheads, Bucephela albeola,  spend the winter throughout the United States. They migrate north to breed. The pair pictured here will probably find a nice lake in Canada and raise a family there. Somewhat unexpectedly, they make their nests in trees. And, even stranger, they almost always make them in holes excavated by woodpeckers in previous nesting seasons.

     Don't be surprised if a bufflehead you are watching disappears before your eyes. Buffleheads dive under water to find aquatic plants and insects, fish eggs, mollusks, and crustaceans. Whereas mallards and many other familiar ducks stay on the surface and tip over with their heads under water and their feet n the air, buffleheads go completely under the surface and can come up surprisingly far away.

One minute the bufflehead is rearing up and flapping his wings....

And the next minute there is nothing but a disappearing tail and a splash...

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Poor Sam Peabody Peabody Peabody

The white-throated sparrows will be singing soon!

Po-or Sam Peabody Peabody Peabody...
Po-or Sam Peabody Peabody Peabody...

Birdwatchers make mnemonics to help them remember bird songs, mnemonics that mimic the cadence and count the syllables of bird songs. So black-capped chickadees seem to say chickadee-dee-dee chickadee-dee-dee. Brown thrashers sound like they are saying drop it, drop it, pick it up, pick it up. And chestnut-sided warblers politely repeat pleased pleased pleased to meet cha!

The white-throated sparrows that have quietly spent the winter scratching in the underbrush (and visiting my Brooklyn porch for seeds) are about to start singing. Although I see white-throated sparrows year round in New York City, they only come to my porch in winter; apparently it is a seasonal resort. (White-throated sparrows were featured in an earlier blog, here.)

White-throated sparrows sing Po-or Sam Peabody Peabody Peabody, though some think it is more like O-old Sam Peabody Peabody Peabody. And when you are listen north of the U.S. border they seem to say Oh sweet Canada Canada Canada. The song is whistled, loud, and noticeable: a long note, a lower note, a third even lower note repeated in two or three sets of three.

People come up to me and whistle this song, wondering what kind of bird they heard. Rachel Maddow even recorded it on her Blackberry while walking in the woods last year and played it on her news show, seeking identification. It is that kind of sound. It stands out.

The next sentence links to a nice YouTube video of a white-throated sparrow singing; click it to hear the song. When you hear this outside, spring has arrived! 

Sunday, March 6, 2011

New Muskrat in Town!

The muskrat, Ondatra zibethicus.
Nice weather allowed me to linger by the pond in Brooklyn Bridge Park last weekend. I was rewarded with a look at the resident muskrat. The pond was built last summer so this muskrat is a recent immigrant. It has moved into a trendy neighborhood just south of the bridge in view of lower Manhattan, New York Harbor, and the Statue of Liberty.

I watched the muskrat collect leaves and grass from the bank and carry them to the water, stop to rearrange the load just right in its mouth, paddle a short distance, and then disappear underwater. It resurfaced after a while and went on shore for another load. It did this for an hour and was still working when I left.

The muskrat is a rodent, but not technically a rat. It does smell "musky" and marks its territory with oil produced by musk glands near the base of its tail. Muskrats are one to two feet long from nose to tail tip; half of that length is tail. They weigh from about a pound and a half to four pounds.

Their tails are flattened vertically (opposite of the famous beaver tail shape). The muskrats waves its tail from side to side to propel itself forward through water.

The muskrat paddles its tail from side to side. 
Muskrats always live near water. In marshes they build lodges similar to those of beavers. Their city dwellings are more likely to be along the banks of rivers, ponds, and ditches where they build nests with underwater entrances.

You know how we always hear about invasive animal pests that have been introduced to the America  from Europe like pigeons, starlings, and house sparrows? The muskrat is just the opposite; it is a native American species that has invaded Europe! Muskrats were deliberately introduced to Czechoslovakia and a few other places in the early 1900s to try to establish a population to hunt for fur. One early report describes feeding the founder muskrats on carrots and potatoes.

The muskrats thrived and spread through Europe before their bad habits were discovered. Muskrats can weaken earthen banks and levees by burrowing. They contribute to floods, undermine embankments, and disturb fishing nets. They can go inland from waterways near agricultural fields and eat the roots and soft tasty tips of growing crops. Muskrats are now digging up banks and causing problems throughout continental Western Europe.

One of my favorite bits of gossip about muskrats is their history with Michigan Catholics. Although muskrats have traditionally been trapped for food in other parts of the country, they have a special status in Michigan. They were historically eaten on Fridays when church rules prohibited the consumption of meat. Although the origins of the custom seem to be lost in time, and the church has no record of any official dispensation for Michigan muskrat, the tradition is firmly established. It is echoed to this day in fire houses and VFW halls where feasts of muskrat are served with mashed potatoes and creamed corn. And there are still a few diners in Michigan that serve up a muskrat special. For a little more of that peculiar history from the Catholic News Service, click here.