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Saturday, November 23, 2013

Can You Hear Me NOW?

by Sharon McInnes

I know the Spotted Towhee isn’t actually talking to me. Yet I can’t help but talk back. Maybe it’s a character flaw. Possibly. 

Same with the Steller’s Jays who wait for peanuts every morning, quite patiently, on the back deck. “Good morning,” I say, as if this regular visitor is there to greet me, and not my peanuts. Sometimes he does make a little noise, one that seems rather un-jay like, and I wonder.

Some birds do ‘talk’, of course, if talk equals mimic. Ravens, for example, can learn to mimic the human voice. And mockingbirds, starlings, crows, Northern shrikes, gray catbirds, and magpies, mimic other birds as well as sounds in their environment. Recently, the blackbirds of Somerset England have stirred up a lot of attention by incorporating all kinds of new sounds into their repertoire – sounds like ringing cell phones that no one ever answers (how irritating is that?), and ambulance sirens, and car alarms. Good grief. Are these just blackbirds with a wicked sense of humour? Or are they bored, wanting a little variety in their staid British lives? Or maybe they just enjoy learning! Who knows? The more I learn about wild birds, the less certain I am about any of the many theories that abound. 

Whatever their motivation, though, the Somerset blackbirds may, perhaps inadvertently, be setting themselves up as desirable mates, avian Lotharios, since female blackbirds prefer males with experience. And in the world of blackbirds (and many other birds) song variety is related to maturity: the more sounds a blackbird has in his repertoire, the more attractive he is as a mate.  (I’ve heard of lots of less sane ways to pick a mate!)

Other urban birds are responding to their environments in unique ways. According to the work of Hans Slabbekoom  of the Netherlands, Little Greenbuls, Great Tits, and European Blackbirds are changing the sound frequency of their calls in order to be heard above the din of the city. And scientists at the University of Sheffield have discovered that, after millennia of singing at daybreak and onwards, some European Robins living in big cities have begun to sing only at night! It’s just too hard to make themselves heard during the day when they have to sing loud enough to be heard above the noises of vehicles and people. 

European Robin.
Photo by Pierre Selim. CC license. 

And in Berlin, nightingales now sing louder on weekday mornings than on weekend mornings, when the streets are quieter. (Study by Brumm of the Berlin Free University – now there’s a concept!)

But it’s not just the songs of birds that are being affected by us humans, it’s also their stress levels. Well-meaning birders who use smartphone apps in the field may be doing the very birds they love a serious disservice. Birders who use apps (such as Audobon Birds and iBird Pro) in order to identify an unfamiliar bird song and/or to lure a bird out into the open for a photo shoot may be creating undue stress for the bird whose call they are playing, and maybe for other birds listening in, especially in the spring. Graham Madge of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds explains: “… when birds hear their song played over and over again, they are likely to think it’s a rival male encroaching on their territory and fly out to see what’s going on. While that might make for a great photo, it also means that the nest is unprotected and vulnerable and the bird is stressed.” Indeed, especially during nesting season, when the chores never end (building the nest, brooding and feeding the babies, eating and preening, keeping the nest clean, watching for predators, and on and on) the last thing a wild bird needs is the stress of thinking some other bird is after its territory!  

But back to the towhees and jays in my backyard that I “talk” to. Now I’m wondering if I’m stressing them out when I mimic their songs, or even when I address them in my human language? I sure hope not, because, honestly, I doubt I can stop myself.

This article first appeared (without these pics and with a few small changes)
in The Flying Shingle newspaper on November 4 2013

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Our Thanksgiving Barred Owl

by Sharon McInnes

No, we didn't have him for dinner! We just enjoyed his presence as he sat on the eave of the garage in the late afternoon, looking around. For mice, presumably.

Barred Owl watching me.
Photo by Sharon McInnes. 

Barred Owl ignoring me, looking for mice.
Photo by Sharon McInnes

I'm delighted that he hung around long enough for me to sneak outdoors (in the middle of making turkey dinner) and snap his photo! What a lovely Thanksgiving surprise.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Those Spunky UCal Juncos

by Sharon McInnes

Many birders consider juncos to be a little less than exciting, LBJs, ho-hum. It's like that when there are 630 million of anything hanging around. 

Junco hyemalis, one of the most abundant birds on the continent,
are considered  'rock star study organisms' by scientists

Dark-eyed Juncos at the University of California demonstrated
rapid evolution driven by urbanisation.
(Lovely photo by Garry Davey)

Over 30 years, even the DNA of the juncos that stayed
on the U Cal campus changed!

This is a Gabriola Island junco. (Not the technical name.)
The now-famous U Cal juncos have less white tails and less black heads.  

It's an amazing story! Read all about it here:
Then check out “The Ordinary Extraordinary Junco”, a fascinating 88-minute video series produced by biologists and filmmakers from Indiana University.
Here's the trailer: 

The series is free - like so many good things in life. 

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Monday, September 9, 2013

Birding 101

by Sharon McInnes

You glance out the kitchen window to discover an unfamiliar bird perched in a tree in your backyard. Or you're walking along the beach and see a colourful dabbling duck you've never seen before happily paddling away, not ten feet away. Maybe you're driving down the highway when an unknown avian creature lands on a lamp post. (That's the worst. Talk about driving while distracted.)

Do you know how to find out who the enchanting stranger is? If not, check out my September Just for the Birds column about bird identification in The Flying Shingle. Just click here >

Then you can take the "Who Am I?" quiz ...

Hint: my initials are GBH

I'm probably a give-away. If not, did you notice my thick bill? 

Hint: Sharon took my photo at Queen's Park in New Westminster.
I'm a rare bird!

How'd you do??

Friday, August 30, 2013

The Skinny on Cowbirds

Here's my Flying Shingle July column on Brown-headed Cowbirds - instigated by the BIG baby cowbird and its overworked, unpaid LITTLE chickadee "mother" in our yard.

Waiting for "Mom" to deliver

Fun with Steller's Jays

Well, fun for us. Maybe not so much for them?

See the whole ridiculous tale here:

Monday, July 15, 2013

Summer Visitors - Photo Gallery

My July column in The Flying Shingle, Summer Visitors, is about the birds that come north from Central or South America to breed on Gabriola or that pass through on their way from another northern breeding location. Since the paper publishes only one photo per column (space issues) I thought I'd post photos of all the birds mentioned here. The photos are mine unless credited to another photographer. To read the column, go to:

Turkey vultures can sniff carrion from two miles away!
Photo by Brie McInnes.

Rufous Hummingbirds arrive in March. Many have already started their return migration.

The Varied Thrush song reminds me of a far-off referee's whistle.

Although less striking in appearance than its cousin (above), the song of the Swainson's Thrush
is a beautifully haunting series of ascending notes. Much prettier than a whistle!

Violet-green Swallows nest in the eaves of the FolkLife Village
boardwalk, near the library, every year.

Tree Swallows nest near the water.
Public domain photo. Author unknown. 

American Goldfinch breed when the thistles bloom.
They use the down to line their nests.

They also like sunflower seeds!

Red Crossbills.
Image courtesy Elaine R. Wilson,

Male Black-headed Grosbeak.These birds are one of the few species that eat Monarch butterflies
while wintering in Mexico because they can tolerate their toxins.

Unlike most species, the female Black-headed Grosbeak sings.
Rose-breasted Grosbeak, rare in BC.
Photo by Mike's Birds. CC license.
Western Tanager in the front yard last year.

Olive-sided Flycatchers sally out to catch insects on the wing.
This one's song is said to sound like 'Quick! Three beers!'.
Photo by Dominic Sherony. CC license. 

One islander has been enjoying the aerial acrobatics of the Common Nighthawk.

Thanks for looking. Enjoy the birds!!

Sunday, June 30, 2013

Do you know our provincial bird?

The answer is here: in my monthly guest blog for Plus you'll see a few photos of our hilarious Red squirrel.  Enjoy!

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Sick Siskins and Other Sad Stories

If you feed the birds, you’re bound to see a sick one at your feeder or a dead one under your window at some point. Birds die for a myriad of reasons including old age, accident, and disease. Hummingbirds, for example, can acquire a deadly fungal infection. Hummingbird tongue fungal infection causes the tongue to swell, making it impossible for the bird to eat. You might see the hummer sitting at a feeder with its swollen tongue just hanging out of its mouth. Eventually it dies of starvation. Since sugar-water is conducive to the growth of pathogens, the only remedy is a preventative one: CLEAN feeders. Be sure to use only white sugar (never honey) when you make up your sugar-water solution (1 part sugar to 4 parts water, boiled) and please avoid the red-dyed commercial preparation!
Anna's at feeder
To clean your hummingbird feeder, empty and thoroughly wash the whole thing in hot water using a bottle brush to scrub the interior glass. Clean all removable parts with a toothbrush and/or Q-tip. Make sure every speck of foreign material is removed and it’s clean enough for YOU to drink from. As a maintenance routine, I recommend the 1-2-3- rule. In the hot summer, clean once a day. In spring-like weather clean every two days. In the winter clean every three days. If your life is too busy and this cleaning regimen is too onerous, you can still enjoy hummingbirds by planting fuschia and flowering currant and many other kinds of brightly-coloured native plants in your garden. If you plant it, they will come!

Speaking of sick birds, again this year I've had several calls from islanders about fluffy, docile little birds perfectly content to just sit at their feeders all day long, guzzling seed.

Sick Pine Siskin

They don't even bother to fly away when a human gets very close. Unfortunately, these little Pine Siskins that seem so tame are actually suffering from salmonella, which is shed in bird droppings then ingested. Pine Siskins are particularly susceptible to this bacteria, especially during irruption years (such as 2012 and 2013), partly because they are highly social, travel in flocks, and eat together.

Healthy Pine Siskin
Some people believe these bacterial outbreaks are nature's way of correcting the population imbalance. “While it is upsetting to see ill birds at your feeders, it is nature's way of correcting over-populations and is a natural process.” (Surrey Wild Birds Unlimited website.) Salmonella also occurs in other finches, Evening Grosbeaks, and Brown-headed Cowbirds. Also cats that kill and eat sick songbirds can become sick, as can people. So be sure to wash your hands thoroughly after handling a sick or dead bird or cleaning your feeders since salmonella is the bacteria associated with food poisoning in humans.    

If you’re seeing sick siskins in your yard, you might consider taking down your feeders for a while until the birds leave the area. If not, please be hyper-vigilant about keeping them and the area underneath them SQUEAKY CLEAN. Plastic or metal feeders are easier to keep clean than wooden ones. Clean them every week in a solution of 10% bleach or white vinegar and 90% clean water, then rinse thoroughly and allow to dry naturally before re-hanging. Also, rake under the feeders every day and put the old seed and droppings in a bag in the garbage – not in recycling. You can spread the feeders out to discourage crowding. Birdbaths can also carry the salmonella bacteria, so be sure to change the water every few days to get rid of regurgitated seeds and feces.
House Finch posing on birdbath bought at GIRO

Scrub your birdbaths every week with a plastic brush to remove algae and bacteria, then rinse well. Make sure you allow the brush to dry thoroughly following each use. And, by the way, NEVER add chemicals of any kind to a birdbath. Because salmonella bacteria can live for months on unclean feeders and on the ground, and can also be brought into your back yard from the wild, it's very hard to eradicate once it hits. Some wildlife rehabilitation workers report that it's almost impossible to save the life of a Pine Siskin once it's infected. At that point all you can do is try to stop it from spreading. So let's all do that.
This article was first published in The Flying Shingle newspaper on Monday June 3, 2013
To read it there, click here:

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Big Noises in the Night?

Did you hear a cacophony of noise emanating from the trees after dark last night? Sounded kind of like dogs barking or howling or squawking or squealing? If you live in my neighbourhood (near Brydie and North Road) you probably did. It was pretty hard to miss. Plus my neighbour, who shall remain nameless, added to the fun with his own hooting and howling, thinking maybe some kind of aggressive mammal was on the loose. He wanted to scare it away - far away. We had as much fun listening to him as we did listening to the BARRED OWLS involved in  a courtship performance.

Barred Owl. Photo courtesy of USFWS.

The Cornell Lab All About Birds page refers to this raucous behaviour as "Pair Caterwauling" and says "During courtship, mated pairs perform a riotous duet of cackles, hoots, caws and gurgles." You can listen to a subdued version here:

Our neighbourhood owls were much noisier!!

Monday, May 20, 2013

Black-headed Grosbeaks on Gabriola

Lately, a pair of Black-headed Grosbeaks have been visiting our back yard and singing their complex lilting song (sometimes described as like that of a tipsy robin) in the trees behind our house. I love spring. Here are some photos of the male.


These stunning birds spend the winter in Mexico and migrate north during the spring to breed. As far as raising the babies is concerned, grosbeaks have an egalitarian relationship: the male and female share nesting duties. Here's a photo of the female.

Her plumage is much less flambuoyant than the male's. But (unlike most other species) she does sing! You can hear several variation of the Black-headed Grosbeak song at

These birds are one of the few species of bird that eat Monarch butterflies while wintering in Mexico. Most birds cannot tolerate the toxins in the butterfly.

Monday, April 22, 2013

We conserve only what we love

by Sharon McInnes

This year, for the first time, a hummingbird sipped nectar from the feeder outside our kitchen window all year long. It was, of course, an Anna’s.

Anna's Hummingbird
The rufous hummers have returned too. Such abundance! These hardy 3 gram hummingbirds have the longest migratory journey of the world’s 300+ species of hummingbirds - close to 6000 kilometres from Mexico and Central America. 

Hungry Rufous Hummers

Now they're here, delighting us with their beauty and speed and remarkable ability to fly backwards, upside down, and hover in place like tiny magical helicopters. The territorial squabbling to stake out their place at the feeders, like impatient planes waiting to land at a busy airport, is in full swing. Luckily, they rarely damage their bills in these territorial battles because their instincts tell them to protect them. 

Once in a while someone asks me if it wouldn’t be better to let hummingbirds – or any birds, for that matter - get their food naturally, from native flowers and plants. In an undeveloped world, yes, I think it would be better; the hummers would not need artificial feeders to help them refuel after their gruelling migratory journey. But that's not the planet they inhabit. Given all the deforestation and pollution and other acts of violence against the earth humans have already committed, providing supplementary nectar is, in my opinion, the LEAST we can do.

The value of human-supplied nectar lies not only in its ready availability but also in its efficiency for the hummers. In a 2011 Dartmouth University study researchers confirmed that hummingbirds (unlike humans!) feed according to Optimal Foraging Theory. Basically, this means that their intent is to balance the energy spent finding food with its caloric benefit in order to maximize their chances of survival. (In human terms, they wouldn't bother eating sticky buns because the nutritive value isn't worth the time and energy spent to ingest then digest them.) Since the flowers from which hummers eat produce just enough nectar to allow them to be pollinated, the tiny birds have to expend energy flying from flower to flower to find sufficient nectar. Given their high metabolism and energy requirements, there is a point at which a cost-benefit analysis says 'this just ain't worth it'. That's why hummingbirds aim to choose the largest flower patches with the 'sweetest' nectar concentrations.

 There’s another reason, though, why I feed the birds in my backyard. It has to do with something the Senegalese environmentalist Baba Dioum once said: 
"In the end, we will conserve only what we love.
We will love only what we understand.
We will understand only what we are taught."
When I lived in the city (most of my adult life) I paid absolutely no attention to wild birds. It was only after moving to the island, and noticing them in the garden, then observing them up close, in my own backyard, day after day, that I became curious, started seeking information (almost obsessively) about which bird was which, and about why they behave the way they do, and about the complex web of interrelationships that get played out within each species’ habitat. Then, because I wanted to make sure they came back to my yard and brought their friends, I started feeding them and providing fresh water and choosing garden plants according to their attractiveness to birds. Over time - to use Dioum’s brave word - I came to love them. And loving them fired a commitment to do whatever I can to protect their habitat, including writing about the problems they face because of “us”. (See, for example: And often my intention is simply to try to turn the reader on to birds, to ignite a spark that just might lead him or her to fall in love too. Because "In the end, we will conserve only what we love.   

A version of this article was first published in
The Flying Shingle (
on April 8, 2013

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Watch eggs hatching!


This is a Red-tailed Hawk at Ithaca NY on her nest - LIVE. Over a thousand people were watching this morning as one of the eggs started 'pipping'. Now just waiting for the first egg to hatch!!

Warning: if you start watching now, you may never get that lawn mowed or homework done. It's highly addictive ...

Thanks to the Cornell Lab.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Come to the Nanaimo City Council meeting tomorrow - help protect 66 species of birds!

A Nanaimo citizen's group called Save Linley Valley West Side (SLVWS) is fighting pending development of a pristine wilderness in Nanaimo. Tomorrow Naanimo city council votes on the proposal and SLVWS is afraid it will go through - in spite of the fact that some 60+ birds nest in the area! Please sign their petition:

And if you can make it, PLEASE join me at the Council Meeting tomorrow at 4 pm at the Vancouver Island Conference Centre.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Join us for Birds on the Beach!

Birds on the Beach: How Citizen Science Contributes to Bird Conservation
It all started with a dead mallard that Dennis and I found on Brickyard and 'processed' as part of our monthly Beached Bird Survey for Bird Studies Canada. 

Female mallard on Brickyard Beach

Part of the 'processing' involves putting a numbered metal tag on the carcass. But days later an observant beachwalker came across the tagged duck lying on the shore and wondered who had put the tag there - and why. (Was something sinister going on?) She called GROWLS. One conversation led to another until the mystery was finally solved. No foul play, after all! Just the opposite really - a citizen science program in action here on Gabriola. 

If you come to the presentation you'll find out why dead seabirds are tagged

GROWLS then asked me if I would come and tell them about the Beached Bird Survey. I could, I said, but the person you really want is Karen Barry of Bird Studies CanadaKaren, who lives in Nanaimo and is an avid birder, coordinates the Beached Bird Survey and the BC Coastal Waterbird Survey, helps coordinate the BC Important Bird Area program, and is knowledgeable about Project Feederwatch and eBird. At GROWLS' request, I invited her, and she kindly agreed to come to Gabriola to show us slides  and talk about these important citizen science programs.

Karen Barry

Please join us for Karen's presentation on Wednesday April 17 at 1:00 at the Rollo Centre. (No charge. Donations welcomed.) And please help spread the word - in person, by email, by phone, or on your FaceBook page.

For more info leave a comment below or email Hope to see you there!

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Birds & The Tar Sands

My guest post this month on is about the effects of tar sands development on birds. You can read it here:

It's not pretty, but it's information we really need to know. Maybe the hundreds of thousands of birders around the world will unite to become a combined force that tips the balance and leads to the transformation of our oil-based economy into a sustainable one?

Friday, March 8, 2013

Shakin' All Over!

Let me introduce you to the Gunnison Sage-Grouse in all its springtime mating glory:

This bird needs our help. Because of changes to its sagebrush habitat, its numbers have been falling drmatically. Now the US Fish and Wildlife Service is considering listing the species under the US Endangered Species Act (we need one of those north of the border!). Doing so would trigger habitat protections that could ultimately save this amazing bird from extinction.

Here's the news release:

Note: there are 4 days left to submit comments to the USFWS. Deadline: March 12 2013.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Red-flanked Bluetail still in NW

For anyone headed for the mainland in the next while, the Red-flanked Bluetail is still at Queen's Park. I took a drive out (from Steveston, where I am visiting) and was thrilled to see him. Or is it her? This is my original photo.
Here is a cropped version - a little fuzzy but ...

Red-flanked Bluetail in Queen's Park Feb 27 2013.
Photo by Sharon McInnes

If you haven't heard about this bird yet, and are wondering why I'm excited about this, it's because this is a RARE BIRD from Asia. Since it was sighted on January 13, people from all over the continent have been making the trek up to New Westminster to see it. You can read more here: 
and here:

Monday, February 25, 2013

Dumb animals and other myths

Raven on Salt Spring Island
Seals at Entrance Island. Photo by Brie McInnes

Black-tailed deer eating our plum tree

Are these animals dumb? Nope. Anyone who has paid close attention to animals in the wild will attest to their intelligence, and so will scientists who study animal IQ. This short article highlights the intelligence of just eight animal species ( but I'm confident that eventually the intelligence of every single species on the planet will be documented.

One scientist, though, has just released a study that suggests that we humans are getting dumber and dumber. "Dr. Gerald Crabtree, a geneticist at Stanford, has published a study that he conducted to try and identify the progression of modern man’s intelligence. As it turns out, however, Dr. Crabtree’s research led him to believe that the collective mind of mankind has been on more or a less a downhill trajectory for quite some time." ( Oh oh.

Crabtree posits that humans were at their most intelligent when “every individual was exposed to nature’s raw selective mechanisms on a daily basis". Today, when those of us living in 'First World' countries buy our food in the supermarket and rely on mechanical devices to complete our daily tasks and electronic ones to be our memories and to do our problem-solving, there's little opportunity for exposure to 'nature's raw selective mechanisms'. Read the article about the study here:

So ...  humans are getting dumber. Are animals, I wonder, getting smarter? Will the two trajectories cross paths at some point? Then what?