Snowy Owls’ Shiny Feathers Say “Back Off”
It turns out that the bright white plumage of snowy owls is not just for show. In fact, it is a warning signal that tells rival birds to back off, according to recent findings in the International Journal of Avian Science.
Over 10 winters, researchers from the University of Saskatchewan in Canada and the Museum of Natural Sciences in Spain watched the behavior of snowy owls and learned that owls with the whitest feathers reflected the brightest signals over long distances to protect their territories.
Researchers observed owls rotating their bodies to face the sun from their perches. Whiter birds maximized their signals from the snow-covered ground, while spotted white owls kept a higher perch.
“The birds constantly shift throughout the day and even change the height of their perch depending on the sun,” explained lead researcher Gary Bortolotti.
Photo Credits: Alan Carey/Corbis | Barrett & MacKay/All Canada Photos/Corbis | iStockphoto/Thinkstock |
After a 60-Year Absence, Harpy Eagles Return to Nest in Belize
One of the largest and most powerful predatory birds in the Americas has returned to Belize for the first time in over 60 years. Scientists recently confirmed the sighting of a Harpy eagle nest in the Maya Mountains with as many as five birds, in an area where the birds had become extinct due to human activity. This may be the most northerly breeding Harpy pair, signaling a comeback for the species in Central America.
“We were out doing our regular counts and observations when we heard a Harpy eagle calling,” said William Garcia, technician project leader of the Belize Foundation for Research and Environmental Education team which made Harpy nest discovery. “It seemed to be fixed in one location, flying occasionally but returning to the same tree.”
Harpy eagles have nearly seven-foot-long wingspans and can take down prey as large as monkey and sloths. Their hind talons can be up to the size of grizzly bear claws and can carry about half their body weight.
Photo Credits: Gary Vestal/Getty Images | W. Perry Conway/CORBIS | Kevin Schafer/CORBIS |
Girl Chimps Like to Play “Dolls”
Just like many human girls, young female chimps like to mimic mothering, according to a recent study in the journal Current Biology. Primatologists observed that young females in one group of African chimpanzees used sticks as dolls more than males, treating the wood like a mother chimp caring for a baby. The study supports the controversial view that gender and society determine girls’ and boys’ choices in toys.
According to Sonya Kahlenberg, of Bates College in Lewiston Maine, and Richard Wrangham, of Harvard University, young male Kanyawara chimps sometimes used sticks as dolls, but they mostly chose to fight with the sticks, a behavior rarely seen among young females.
“These new data suggest that sex differences in how children play may go way back in our evolutionary lineage and predate socialization in human cultures,” says anthropologist Elizabeth Longsdorf, director of the Lester E. Fisher Center for the Study and Conservation of Apes at Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago.
Photo Credits: Anup Shah/Thinkstock | Anup Shah/Getty Images | DLILLC/Corbis |
When Teeth Go Bad, Leaf-cutter Ants Call It Quits
Scientists have a better understanding of the division of labor in leaf-cutter ant colonies, according to a recent report in the journal Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology. Leaf-cutter ants are born with razor-sharp mandibles designed to cut leaves from trees. As they get older and their teeth dull, they retire from their leaf-cutting duties and switch to leaf collection, leaving the cutting to younger sharper-jawed ants. Researchers believe this ability to change jobs may lead to longer life spans in social insects, and point to the value of all members of society.
Researchers from the University of Oregon and Oregon State University guessed that the “worn-out teeth” of older ants lessened the rate of harvesting by a half.
“Much of the cutting is done with a V-shaped blade between teeth on their mandibles,” explains the University of Oregon’s Dr. Robert Schofield, who led the study.
“This blade starts out as sharp as the sharpest razor blade that humans have developed.”
Photo Credits: Solvin Zankl /Getty Images | iStockphoto/Thinkstock | Kevin Schafer/CORBIS |
It’s raining (dead) birds
In what could be straight out of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds or something creepy from Edgar Allen Poe, hundreds of dead and dying red-winged blackbirds and European starlings are raining and falling from the sky, littering roadsides and yards in an eerie scene.
What is causing this mysterious event? That’s a question on a lot of people’s minds. In Beebe, Arkansas moe than 1,000 dead birds fell from the sky and littered the ground on New Year’s Eve. Biologists have tested some of the birds and discovered internal organ damage that looked like blunt force trauma, leading some to question whether fireworks spooked the birds and they ran into cars or buildings. Some birds experienced blood clots. But if it is fireworks, why have we never seen this phenomenon before? So far, scientists do not think poisons or disease are to blame. Stranger still, in an apparently unrelated incident, 83,000 dead fish washed ashore in the same Arkansas town.
And then, what seemed to be an isolated incident has happened again today. Approximately 300 miles away from the Arkansas incident, another 500 birds fell from the sky, littering the highway and other parts of the countryside in Point Coupee Parish, Louisiana.
Although it may take some time to untangle the mystery, the likeliest culprit so far is some strange intense high-altitude weather phenomenon, and interference from fireworks has not been ruled out. But blackbirds are considered a pest and it is legal to kill them. Blackbirds and starlings occur in great flocks of up 100,000 individuals, which is why the great numbers of dead ones is not as bizarre as if it occurred with a bunch of unrelated songbirds all at once.
Whatever the cause, seeing a bunch of dead birds on the roadside is far from comforting.
Wildlife and the Changing Seasons
This week’s guest post is from Catherine Schmitt, author of Maine SeaGrant’s Coastal Companion. Below is an excerpt from the “December” section of the book, which reveals what the fish are busy doing as winter progresses in the coastal environment.
As the temperature of the ocean drops, some fish move offshore to deeper waters where the temperature does not fluctuate, and others move inshore to shallow waters that warm in the pale winter sun. The winter skate moves into shallow areas of gravel or sandy bottom, from Canada to North Carolina. Winter skate is one of seven species of skates occuring along the North Atlantic coast (the others are the barndoor, clearnose, little, rosette, smooth, and thorny). Winter skates (Leucoraja ocellata) are large animals that can live up to 20 years. Skates are responsible for mermaid’s purses—the hard, black, leathery egg cases with long horns on each corner that wash up on the beach like so many tiny sleds entangled in dried rockweed strands.
Another fish only just arriving is the Atlantic tomcod (Microgadus tomcod). The tomcod ranges in coastal nearshore waters from Labrador and Newfoundland to Virginia, preferring the mouths of brackish streams, estuaries, and muddy harbors. Tomcod are also known as frostfish, because they run up rivers to spawn during the frosty months of December through February. They feed mostly on small crustaceans (especially shrimp and amphipods), worms, small mollusks, squids, and juvenile fish. The anadromous (sea-run) tomcod lives in the chilly shadow of its more famous marine kin, the cod.
At six to eight inches long, rainbow smelt are the smallest of Maine’s anadromous fish, and now they are moving into estuaries where they will spend the winter. Ice shacks may appear on the ice above them, as fishermen begin this traditional winter harvest of Osmerus mordax. Come spring, the smelt will chase the thaw upstream to spawn in freshwater rivers. Smelt feed on zooplankton, shrimp, worms, and small fish; they in turn are eaten by striped bass, bluefish, and birds. They travel in schools in shallow water less than a mile from shore. Commercial landings of smelt peaked in 1966 at 360,000 pounds, with the majority being landed from Maine waters.
Pollock begin spawning in shallow waters of the Gulf of Maine, especially along Jeffrey’s Ledge and the eastern slope of Stellwagen Bank, at the mouth of Massachusetts Bay, and north to Isle of Shoals and Casco Bay. The young pollock (Pollachius virens) that are born in the winter sea will disperse throughout the Atlantic, from the Gulf of St. Lawrence to New Jersey, occasionally as far south as North Carolina. The name of the Passamaquoddy tribe of Native Americans means “those who pursue the pollock,” and their tribal home of Passamaquoddy Bay between Maine and Canada is the “pollock-plenty-place.” The pollock is deep olive-green with a silvery white belly and a sharp silver line running down each side. Also called Boston bluefish, saithe, coalfish, or green cod, the pollock is an important food fish caught in the same nets as cod and haddock. While it is often grouped with these “groundfish,” pollock live anywhere from rocky bottoms to near the ocean surface, and they will gather by the hundreds in great schools. Pollock are voracious eaters, hungry for small fish, shrimp, and other crustaceans. As they move closer to shore for spawning this time of year, they are more frequently caught, and are a favored target of sport fishermen. Oceanographer Henry Bigelow noted their capacity to fight, and that they will take an artificial fly (“silver body with white wings of hackle or hair is good, especially with a touch of red”) or bite on clams or small baitfish.
Like the tomcod and winter skate, the smooth flounder (Liopsetta putnami) breeds in estuaries in winter, a habit that earned it the nickname of Christmas flounder. Perhaps these fish have evolved to release their eggs during the cold winter months to give their offspring a jumpstart on life.
All the World Loves a Penguin
This week’s post is by Fen Montaigne, senior editor of Yale Environment 360 online magazine, and author of the newsly released book, Fraser’s Penguins: A Journey to the Future in Antarctica, which chronicles the author’s five months spent in the frozen continent, working alongside Bill Fraser and the endearing Adélie penguins he studies (Photograph Copyright Fen Montaigne).
One of Antarctica’s legendary explorers, the Englishman Apsley Cherry-Garrard, had it right when he said, “All the world loves a penguin.” And few penguins are as beloved as the classic, tuxedoed species, the Adélie — the knee-high creatures who comport themselves, Cherry-Garrard noted, “like old men, full of their own importance and late for dinner, in their black tail-coats and white shirt-fronts.”
Not long ago, I was fortunate to spend five months working on the field team of well-known penguin expert and ecologist Bill Fraser, who for 35 years has been studying Adélie penguins and other seabirds along the western Antarctic Peninsula, a 900-mile finger of land that juts toward the southern tip of South America. I came away deeply impressed by the instinctual intelligence of the Adélies, who migrate hundreds of miles in spring to reproduce in the same colonies where they were hatched or mated the year before; often reunite with their mate from the year before; rear their chicks in less than two months; and spend the rest of the year surviving in the coldest place on the planet, spending their winters on sea ice.
The bond between man and Adélie penguin — which originates, no doubt, in the dignified, upright bearing of the Adélies — dates back to the 1820s, when U.S. and British seamen first came to Antarctica to slaughter fur seals. There they encountered the aristocratic Adélie and two related species, the chinstrap and gentoo. In the summer of 1820-1821, one shipwrecked sealing crew was living in a tent when a pair of penguins — very likely Adélies — waddled in and took up residence in a cask with the ship’s cat. Even closing the tent flap could not keep out the penguins, which still found a way to wiggle under the canvas and get inside to join the cat in the barrel. Captain Robert Fildes reported that the penguins “neither mind[ed] the people in the tent or the Cat, or the Cat them.”
After Antarctica’s most famous explorer, Ernest Shackleton, and his men had spent the winter of 1915 locked in the ice in their ship, the Endurance, they were gladdened by the sight of Adélie penguins in spring, swimming in the leads between ice floes. When three Adélies marched solemnly up to the ship, one crew member pulled out his banjo and began playing “It’s a Long Way to Tiperary,” which Shackleton reported “the solemn-looking little birds appeared to appreciate.” The bagpipe, however, was another story, and when a Scottish member of the expedition began to play the national instrument, the Adélies “fled in terror and plunged back into the sea,” according to photographer Frank Hurley.
Adélie penguins entertained and amused Antarctica’s early explorers, who treasured the birds’ company on a continent with no human inhabitants and no land mammals. “No matter how melancholy a man may feel,” wrote W.G. Burn Murdoch, a member of the 1892-1893 Dundee Whaling Expedition, “if he sees one of these jolly little fellows he cheers up.”
Antarctica’s penguins also fed its explorers. The Norwegian Roald Amundsen, who in 1910 became the first man to reach the South Pole, discovered on an earlier expedition that he could play a trumpet to lure penguins in for the kill. “It seems,” wrote Amundsen, “that penguins are musical animals.”
Bill Fraser has been coming to Palmer Station, a small U.S. science base on the Antarctic Peninsula, since 1974. In that time he has developed a deep respect for the Adélies, which he calls “the toughest animals I’ve ever encountered.” Once, Fraser came upon a female Adélie that had been grievously wounded by a leopard seal. The seal had ripped open the penguin’s chest, and Fraser could peer inside and see the Adélie’s lungs. Despite her injuries, the penguin recovered and managed to continue rearing two chicks.
Now, however, Adélie penguins in the northwestern Antarctic Peninsula have encountered an obstacle they can’t overcome: rapid warming, which has deprived the Adélies of a vital feeding platform in winter as sea ice melts. Populations of Adélies in Fraser’s study area have plunged from more than 30,000 breeding pairs in 1975 to 5,600 today. The long arm of man has reached down to Antarctica in the form of global warming, posing a threat to the continent’s two ice-dependent penguin species — the emperors and Adélies. “Here you have this unbelievably tough little animal,” says Fraser, “able to deal with anything, succumbing to the large-scale effects of our activities.”
Want to try a Heritage Turkey?
In honor of America’s Thanksgiving holiday this week, I’m reprinting last year’s post on Heritage turkeys – something a lot of folks may have never heard about. If it’s too late to order one this year, at least it gives you something to think about for next year!
For Thanksgiving, have you considered something other than a traditionally farm-raised turkey? Most families eat the standard “large white” or “broadbreasted white” turkey; 48 million get consumed every Thanksgiving, 99% of which are traditional factory-farmed birds. Those turkeys get raised just to be eaten. That means they can’t even run, fly, or mate – takes pretty much all the fun out of being alive doesn’t it? They are engineered to grow plump quick, and often pumped with antibiotics and hormones. Christine Heinrichs, author of How to Raise Poultry and publicity director for the Society for the Preservation of Poultry Antiquities, also has a great post about the various labels you might encounter on her blog post, Thanksgiving turkey
Huffington Post featured several farms that raise heritage turkeys – a great option if you want to support small farms, organic, local and/or ethically raised animals. Hope this provides some ‘food for thought’ if you want to explore other options for your Thanksgiving meal! Most of them require you to pick up the turkey from the ranch, so if you don’t live in these areas, try searching for heritage turkeys in your region.
Three generations of three families run Maryland’s 67-acre Springfield Farms which sustainably raises four types of turkeys including heritage varieties as well as traditional white turkeys. They’re free range during the grass growing season, and do not get fed or injected with anything synthetic like hormones or antibiotics.
In California, the Slow Food USA Russian River Heritage Turkey Project has turkeys you can order online for pickup near Santa Rosa. Slow Food USA partnered with the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy (ALBC) in 2001 to encourage local farmers to start raising heritage varieties that were perilously near extinction. The project has had great success. When they began their project, ALBC estimated only 1,200 breeding heritage turkeys of eight varieties lived in the U.S. and by 2004 that number increased to 4,000.
In Tampa, Kansas, the Good Shepherd Poultry Ranch raises heritage turkeys and their website says, “Birds are grown on outdoor range using vegetarian feed with the highest animal welfare standards.” Texas has the Rehoboth Ranch, near Dallas, that grows heritage turkeys that raises tuerkeys on organically managed pastures “untainted by pesticides, herbicides, or artificial fertilizers,” and their animals are never given hormones or steroids, and fed organic grains. Narragansett and Red Bourbon heritage turkeys can be purchased online from Kirschbaum Family Farm through Local Harvest, or you can pick up turkeys from the farm in Kewaskum, Wisconsin.
Huffington Post highlights another company, Mary’s Free Range Turkeys highlighted in a Discovery Channel How Stuff Works video . They take seven months to raise these birds. No doubt the conditions here are far better than those in traditional factory farms, but also different than conditions on small farms where birds that can truly roam to their heart’s delight. Small farms can’t produce as many turkeys, though, so it’s a tradeoff. Kaynak: (http://animal.discovery.com/ )