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Thursday, August 28, 2014

Vic the Vulture Comes to Visit

This delightful juvenile Turkey Vulture has been visiting a Gabriola Island yard regularly for the past few weeks. Read the whole story here: BirdCanada

Vic the Vulture sunning in yard. 
Photo by Carol Baird-Krul. 


Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Is Your Yard Bird-Friendly?

I was looking out the front window, watching the bird activity in the front yard and eating my morning granola. Between the slats of the wooden blinds, I could just make out a female Purple Finch pulling seeds, one by one, from a dandelion puffball. She’d stretch her neck way up, grab a seed, then chomp, chomp, chomp, all the while scanning the area for predators. I had two thoughts: too bad she can’t just relax and eat without worrying about being grabbed up by a hungry hawk; and maybe I should give up on my war with the dandelions. Normally I try to pull the yellow heads off their stems before they go to seed, but seeing that finch feasting, with such gusto, on that “weed” made me think,  did I want to create an inviting habitat for birds and bees - or not?

Male Purple Finch.
(Photo by Cephas - CC license)

For years I’ve been letting thistles grow tall and bushy behind the garage for the American goldfinch to harvest for the lining of their nests, and leaving buttercups for the bees and wild strawberries for the robins, and a massive brush pile at the back of the property for the birds to use as shelter.  Why not leave dandelions too? 


Thistles for American goldfinches to use in their nests

Wild strawberries for the robins

It was while I was in this contemplative mood that the Cornell Lab or Ornithology (the Lab) posted another YardMap item on FaceBook. Although I always read their posts, I’d never checked out the program in detail until recently. And I’m impressed! Gardeners who like birds will love YardMap. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZqshO97yco4A new citizen science project from the Lab, YardMap is designed to help you create great bird habitat, whether in our own yard or in the community. You can start by mapping your yard (using a YardMap tool and Google Maps), then sharing your habitat data with Lab scientists and YardMappers across North America. Or you can just sign up and use the free site as a wealth of information. It has sections on everything from bird-friendly vegetable gardens to creating “rain gardens” to incorporating weed patches for the birds to maximizing pollination and food sources by planting a combination of perennials and annuals in your flower beds. One app, called Don’t Be An Ecological Trap, explains how to create a “source habitat”, as opposed to a “sink habitat”.  A “source habitat” is one that provides enough resources (food, water, structure, space, safety) to support successful nests, one where more birds are born than die every season. In a “sink habitat”, on the other hand, deaths exceeds births every year because of, for example, excessive predators (including outdoor cats), destruction by human activity, or insufficient food or water. (Find this app under the YardMap LEARN tab.)

Although still in production, another app, Which Bird, Which Plant (also under the LEARN tab) has the potential to be invaluable. You click on a photo of a bird that lives in your area, narrow down the food types you’re interested in, and find ideas for native shrubs, grasses, and trees that you can plant to attract a diversity of birds. I learned, for example, that in addition to ants, Northern flickers like wild strawberries and the seeds of clover and grasses, and that Chestnut-backed Chickadees like pine seeds and the fruit of Western Thimbleberry.

Western thimbleberry - just try and stop it once it gets started!

One of my favourites, Downy woodpeckers eat wild strawberries, serviceberry, dogwood, and mountain ash. And you know that chickweed that’s impossible to eradicate? A favourite food of Spotted Towhees.

"I love chickweed!"

Creating habitat that supports both resident and migrating birds is critical as climate change accelerates. Many species are gradually moving northward, ‘following the climate’, but a recent study shows it can take up to 35 years for habitat to catch up with other changes caused by climate, probably because the specific vegetation birds rely on shifts so slowly. But we can help, especially since we live on the Pacific Flyway, by planting native plants whose flowering coincides with migration and by making fresh water and shelter available for even a few of the billion birds that travel from South America and Mexico to the Boreal Forest and back, every year, via the flyway. Oh, and we could (if we were so inclined) leave the dandelions alone.  

A version of this article was first published in
The Flying Shingle newspaper on July 14,2014

Friday, July 4, 2014

Sick birds

In the last few months I've heard from several islanders who have sick birds in their yards. A few of them appeared to have conjunctivitis, also known as 'House Finch Eye Disease'. Birds with this bacterial disease have crusty, red, swollen eyes. Sometimes the eye appears completely shut. Here's the FAQ page from Cornell about this condition: HOFI Eye Disease

House Finch with early (?) conjunctivitis. Notice swollen eye, half-shut.  

And this week an islander contacted GROWLS about a sick Spotted Towhee that probably had Avian Pox, although this was not confirmed before the bird died. This viral disease, which occurs in the wild, has various forms but all are characterized by growths on the body. GROWLS conferred with Dr. Helen Schwantje, the B.C. Provincial Vet. She asks that any Gabriolans who see sick towhees try to get a photo then call the GROWLS pager at 250-714-7101

Avian Pox is not a known zoonose but anytime you handle wildlife, do wear gloves and be sure to wash your hands thoroughly afterwards. Here is a WILDLIFE FACT SHEET by Dr. Schwantje on Avian Pox: Avian Pox

For those with strong stomachs, here are two photos of a young eagle with Avian Pox that GROWLS saw in 2008. 


Young eagle with Avian Pox.
Photo by Bill Kalbfleisch

Close-up of young eagle with Avian Pox.
Photo by Bill Kalbfleisch

If you think you see a sick bird in your yard please be sure to call GROWLS. And if the sickness is confirmed, take down your feeders for several weeks and clean them thoroughly with a solution of water and bleach (9 to 1) before putting them up again. This will help stop the spread of the disease. Also, be sure to thoroughly clean the area UNDER the feeders where bird droppings carry bacteria.

Want to share your observations? If you're a member of Cornell's Project Feederwatch, you can report your findings there. See Track Sick Birds for information.


Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Protecting the Birds of the Salish Sea

On June 4 last year I submitted my concerns about Enbridge’s Northern Gateway Pipeline (NGP) to the Joint Review Panel of the National Energy Board (NEB). Here’s the part of my submission that focuses on birds:

Do you know how much oil it takes to kill a sea bird? One teaspoon. 


Oiled ducks after the Exxon-Valdez spill.
(Photo: CC license.)

And how many actually survive, even after cleaning? Estimates run from one to ten per cent. Yes, between 90 and 99 per cent die anyway. Some scientists have said it’s a waste of effort. This quote is from Spiegel Online International (May 2010): 

“ ‘Kill, don’t clean,’ is the recommendation of a German animal biologist, who this week said that massive efforts to clean oil-soaked birds in Gulf of Mexico won’t do much to stop a near certain and painful death for the creatures. Despite the short-term success in cleaning the birds and releasing them back into the wild, few, if any, have a chance of surviving, says Silvia Gaus, a biologist at the Wattenmeer National Park along the North Sea in the German state of Schleswig-Holstein. ‘According to serious studies, the middle-term survival rate of oil-soaked birds is under one percent,’ Gaus says. …. Catching and cleaning oil-soaked birds often times leads to fatal amounts of stress for the animals, Gaus says. Furthermore, forcing the birds to ingest coal solutions – or Pepto Bismol, as animal-rescue workers are doing along the Gulf Coast— in an attempt to prevent the poisonous effects of the oil is ineffective, Gaus says. The birds will eventually perish anyway from kidney and liver damage.” … 


“It’s a small world, and what happens on the BC coast will affect all those birds that use the Pacific Flyway as their migration route between South or Central America and Alaska and the Boreal Forest. To devastate the coast is to affect not just BC birds but all those that rely on a hospitable BC coast for their migratory journeys.


The Boreal Forest, which over half of North America's
300+ breeding bird species call home.

I was one of 1,161 people who submitted comments to the public hearing. Two commenters were in favour of the project; 1,159 were opposed. So it was distressing, to say the least, when the NEB approved the project, albeit with conditions. Then, today, Prime Minister Harper "announced" (via a press release!) that the project was a GO. This after the people of Kitimat said NO by referendum in April and after First Nations peoples said "absolutely not" and after thousands upon thousands of BC citizens consistently voiced their opposition to the pipeline through petitions and polls and letters and rallies.

Now I’ve been accepted as a commenter on the Kinder Morgan Pipeline (KMP) Expansion project. But what's the point? 

Still, I can’t shake the images of our beaches covered in oil, of herons, gulls, cormorants, and geese suffocating as oil clogs their pores. At least, if I submit by thoughts, they will become part of the public record. I will have spoken out on behalf of the birds whose habitat is at grave risk, but who cannot speak for themselves. 

The Kinder Morgan Pipeline runs from Edmonton to the Westridge Marine terminal in Burnaby BC, where tankers are loaded before they make their way through the First and Second Narrows, Vancouver Harbour, English Bay, Georgia Strait, the active channels of the Southern Gulf Islands, Haro Strait, and the Strait of Juan de Fuca. If the KMP is expanded, approximately 400 giant oil tankers will travel these waters every year.


The Salish Sea carbon corridor.
(Thanks to the Wilderness Committee.)

To make matters worse (much worse), two internationally-recognized Important Bird Areas (IBAs), Burrard Inlet and Active Pass, lie along this route. These IBAs provide key habitat for nesting, wintering, and migrating birds.

Active Pass is a biologically-rich feeding area for fish-eating birds during the spring, fall, and winter and also supports significant populations of Pacific Loon and Brandt’s Cormorant in winter and Bonaparte’s Gull on migration. 


Brandt's Cormorant.
Photo by Teddy Llovet - CC license. 

Burrard Inlet supports the Western GrebeBarrow’s GoldeneyeSurf Scoter, and Great Blue Heron as well as the Purple Martin, Pelagic and Double-crested CormorantOsprey, and Bald Eagle


Barrow's Goldeneye.
Photo by Donna Dewhurst - CC license


Purple Martins.
Photo by Don Wigle.


Great Blue Heron.
Photo by Sharon McInnes. 

So I'll probably participate in the Public Hearing. But one thing I know for sure: commenting publicly won’t be enough. 



A version of this article was published 
in The Flying Shingle (www.flyingshingle.com) on June 16 2014


Thursday, April 24, 2014

My (new) Favourite Hummer Feeders

To feed or not to feed? It's a question we need to take to heart. Today I'm going to talk just about hummingbirds but the question applies all species of birds. 

I started feeding Rufous hummingbirds six or seven years ago. Since then, they've provided me with untold hours of amusement and fascination every spring and summer in return for my keeping the feeders stocked and clean.

Rufous hummingbirds trying their darnedest to share

Then, two years ago, an Anna's showed up. That changed things. No more just 'fair weather feeding'. Believing that Anna's (we have a pair now) rely on human-supplied nectar to get them through the coldest days of winter, my responsibilities increased. Now, when the temperatures plummet, I monitor the feeders to make sure the nectar doesn't freeze before I get outside (sometimes donned in boots and snow gear) to replace it with fresh nectar. For weeks this winter my days revolved around the status of the hummingbird feeders. (Good thing I'm officially retired!) 

Female Anna's

I'm more than willing to continue this routine, and even to call on my wonderfully obliging friends and neighbours to take over for me during the winter when I have to be off-island for a while. BUT ... and this is a big BUT ... I don't want my penchant for feeding the hummers to put them at risk. One of the risks is disease, especially a fungal infection known as 'hummingbird tongue'. An Oregon blogger wrote about this infection here: Sick hummer

What to do? It seems to me there are two options:

1. Stop feeding the hummers entirely. Let nature take its course. Maybe plant more hummingbird-attractive native plants in the garden.

2. Keep feeding them (or just feed the Anna's in the winter) but be VIGILANT about keeping feeders CLEAN and EDUCATE neighbours to do the same.

For now, I'm choosing the second option. To make it easier, I've bought two new feeders that are much easier to keep clean. The base of these comes apart. No more fiddling with Q-tips!! Here are my two new feeders:

I bought this feeder, by Perky Pet, at Cultivate Garden & Gift in Parksville.
They had LOTS of styles, many of which were easy-to-clean.

I like the size of the feeder above for the spring and summer when there are so many Rufous around. The top holds 32 ounces and the top is a Mason Jar that can be replaced by any same-size Mason jar if it should break. It did take the hummers a few hours to get used to their new feeder (the other one had a red base) but they're fast learners, obviously!


Although slightly smaller, the base comes apart easily for easy cleaning.
Note: the glass is red. The nectar inside is clear - just water and sugar. No dye!!
Also by Perky Pet. 

The hummers went for this one right away! Red is clearly their favourite colour.

There are lots of other issues to explore in the "to feed or not to feed" debate: the increased risk of predation, window strikes, feeding hummers Rogers sugar that may be GMO ... and the list goes on. More another day. Thanks for visiting.

Monday, April 14, 2014

The Sex Life of Crows

By Sharon McInnes

If the title of today’s column made you sit right up and take notice (that was, I admit, my goal), I should warn you that for crows, getting to sex isn’t simple. It involves a lot of planning, preparation, and patience. As Kevin McGowan explained in the webinar “The Secret Life of Crows”, before a crow can land a mate, he has to find a suitable breeding territory. (Scientists call this ‘acquiring breeding status’.) That can be a big job.


American Crow
Photo by Kevin McGowan


Here’s how it works. Let’s say you are, for example, a male crow and you live in the city. Unlike most other species of birds, you could stay home for up to six years, helping to raise your brothers and sisters. Your tasks would include helping with nest-building, feeding, and chasing predators away. (A lot of male crows do this; females tend to leave home much earlier.) Called ‘cooperative breeding’, this strategy is almost as advantageous to your extended family – and to crows in general – as having your own offspring. McGowan says of crows that practice cooperative breeding: “Some of these families are amazing. One marvellously successful crow family lives at St. Catherine’s Church in Ithaca – a breeding pair and up to seven generations of siblings live on or next to the home territory there.


A Family of Crows
Making dinner plans? Discussing a territorial dispute? Gossiping about a neighbour?
Photo by Junior Libby - CC license. 


And there are substantial rewards for staying home to help. One is that you’re more likely to inherit your parents’ territory when they die. In the meantime, they might allow you to use part of their breeding territory to raise your own family. But don’t get excited too quickly. You won’t be getting started in that venture for a while: the average age of initial breeding in McGowan’s study was 4.9 years.

If the ‘one big happy family’ scenario doesn’t turn you on, you have options! One is to find your own territory. Since you live in the city you’ll need about 10 acres. (Country crows tend to have much larger estates.) Of course it needs certain attributes. For one thing, it has to be available. You don’t want to have to battle another crow that’s already set up house there. And it must have plenty of food nearby. (I know – you’re a ‘city crow’ and you’ll eat anything. But your babies need nutritious food – the same kind they’d be getting if you lived in the country.) 

No? Well, if trying to establish your own territory sounds risky, you could join an already established group. This has potential, especially down the road. For example, when the male adult of the mated pair you join dies, you could simply replace him. No need for the widow to go hunting for a new guy when you’re there, ready, willing, and able, right? Or, in another scenario, they might both die, and you could inherit their territory.

Or maybe one of your older siblings has already struck out on his own and would welcome your help?  Or maybe a friendly neighbourhood crow? However be aware that neighbours – especially helpful ones – are known to be philanderers. So if you decide to share the territory of a neighbour, there’s a chance (up to 20 per cent) that at least one of your babies might look more like him than you. Then again, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that the same hanky-panky is known to happen between relatives. So you can’t necessarily trust your woman with your brother or cousin or uncle either.  And I hate to even bring this up, but if you and your lady stay together for a few years, and have a few babies, there is a chance that she and one of your sons will get together one night. BUT of all the philandering that goes on amongst crows (scientists refer to this behaviour as ‘extra-pair copulation’) only 3.5 per cent of it is between mother and son. That’s heartening, right?

Still, there’s a good reason for sticking close to home to raise your family: crows that do are more ‘successful breeders’. Compared to robins, for example, which have a 25 per cent nest success rate, the American Crows that McGowan studied had a 60 per cent success rate. Those are pretty good odds, for a bird.



This article was first published in The Flying Shingle (www.flyingshingle.com) on April 7 2014

Big Clean Windows, Little Dead Birds

Most of us know about the "Bird Strike" problem. A bird sees reflected scenery (in a window) and flies into it. Hits the glass. Thunk. Broken neck, dead bird.

Sometimes the bird is "just stunned" and eventually "recovers" but often dies later of internal injuries or other injuries that render it less able to survive in the wild.

There ARE solutions! One is BirdTape from the American Bird Conservancy. I just ordered some to install on the windows of our new Garden Room. It's inexpensive and research-based.


To read about ABC Bird Tape (and order it) click here

For more on the seriousness of the problem, check out this article in the Birds on the Brain blog. Even though this piece is about Duke University in the States, the problem exists EVERYWHERE, even here on little old Gabriola Island!