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Bird Family of the Week: Meet the New World Vultures

Turkey Vulture devouring carrion. An important part of the ecosystem, this vulture helping to clear road kill from a lawn (Photo:Connie Morgenstern)

Day 38 of 100 Days of Blogging

Vultures have kind of a negative public image, what with eating decaying meat and those bald heads can be kind of creepy looking. However, any negative image is highly undeserved since they play a vital role in the ecosystem. Hopefully, after reading this, the next time you see a vulture flying overhead you won’t be sorry it’s not a hawk and perhaps say ‘look, a vulture!’ and not, ‘Oh..it’s just a vulture.’ 

10 Things to know about Vultures

#1. The New World Vulture family Cathartidae contains 7 species of vultures, three of which occur in North America: The Turkey Vulture, the Black Vulture and the California Condor. The name “vulture” is derived from the Latin word vulturus, meaning “tearer,” and is a reference to its feeding habits.

#2. The California Condor is the largest North American land bird and extremely rare. It suffered severe population declines for a number of reasons, some in part due to relentless hunting by ranchers who wrongly believed Condors were responsible for killing their livestock.  In an attempt to save the population, the 22 remaining wild Condors were captured in 1987 for inclusion in a captive breeding program.The release of captive bred birds into the wild started during the 1990’s, and continues to date. More information about the California condor can be found on the US Fish and Wildlife Service website.

#3. The Turkey and Black Vulture are the two species found in our area, but the Black Vulture only occurs irregularly. The range of the Turkey Vulture is widespread throughout North America. It is found across  most of southern Canada and the US during the summer. It is a year round resident of the southern and southeastern part of the US. Northern populations move to the southern states and New England for the winter. The Black Vulture is found in the southeastern US and in the northeastern states to New York and Connecticut. It also occurs in southern Arizona, most of Mexico and southward to the Tropics. 

#4. While vultures have a somewhat creepy image and a reputation for being unclean and carrying disease, the truth is quite to the contrary. They perform a vital job in the ecosystem by destroying toxins that would be lethal to other scavengers. Their highly corrosive stomach acid make light work of digesting decomposing carcasses that might be infected with anthrax, cholera, botulism or rabies.

It pays to have a bald head! You can stick your head in a carcass and avoid all that mess in your feathers! (Photo Connie Morgenstern)
It pays to have a bald head! You can stick your head in a carcass and avoid all that mess in your feathers! (Photo Connie Morgenstern)

#5. Vultures have bald heads so that they can put their heads inside the carrion they are feeding on and avoid having all the bacteria in their feathers. The Turkey Vulture received its common name from the resemblance of the adult’s bald red head and its dark plumage to that of the male wild turkey. 

#6. Vultures do not have a syrinx (the lower larynx, which in birds serves as the vocal organ) and so the only vocalizations it can make are grunts or low hisses

#7. What it lacks in vocal abilities, The Turkey Vulture makes up for with a highly developed sense of smell. It is adept at sniffing out the odours of decaying flesh as it flies low enough to detect the gas (ethyl mercaptan) produced by the beginnings of  the decay process in dead animals.

#8.The Black Vulture, on the other hand, does not share this ability and must rely on eyesight. However, it also tends to follow around the larger Turkey Vulture, waiting for it to sniff out some food, then swoops in to try and take it away.

#9. New World Vultures use a process called urohidrosis to cool themselves. By defecating on their own legs, the evaporation of the water in their feces and/or urine cools the bird. As a result, the legs are streaked white from contact with the uric acid.

#10. Vultures spend their day riding thermals, scanning the ground for carrion. They feed on a wide variety dead animals, from small mammals to large grazers. They have a preference for recently dead carcasses and and avoid those that have reached the point of putrefaction. (Seems like a good choice to me!) 

Bird Family of the Week: Halloween with the Icteridae Family

The Baltimore Oriole from P. Taverner's 1921 ed. of Birds of Eastern Canada. A member of the Icteridae that makes a great Halloween Theme bird!

Day 31 of 100 Days of Blogging

With only two more days to go before you have to light up that Jack-o-lantern on your doorstep, the Icteridae, with their predominantly black plumage accented by orange, yellow or red, are the ideal Bird Family of the week. Being as common as they are, the Icteridae family may seem rather “ordinary”; but beware, these birds are far more ghoulish than you may suspect. Consider the following birds as you take your dusty crow and raven decorations out of the basement. Whether you like your Halloween celebrations to be on the ghoulish side or prefer more cute type décor, there’s something for everyone here! I’m surprised marketers haven’t picked up on this already!

 Bird Family of the Week #4

10 Things to know about the Icteridae Family

#1. Who exactly are we dealing with here?

This family of small to medium sized birds consists of 98 New World Species found across North America, the Caribbean and Central America. As a group they are referred to as Blackbirds because European settlers were reminded of the Blackbird Turdus Merula back home when they first encountered the more black-plumaged members of the group. Nevertheless, they bear no relation to the Old World Blackbird.

#2. Is there anything to worry about closer to home?

The PQSPB checklist includes 10 species of this family: the Bobolink, Red-winged Blackbird, Eastern Meadowlark, Western Meadowlark, Yellow-headed Blackbird, Rusty Blackbird, Common Grackle, Brown-headed Cowbird, Orchard Oriole and the Baltimore Oriole.

#3. Anything else I should know about these supposedly “scary” birds?

All except the Yellow-headed Blackbird and the Rusty Blackbird breed in the checklist area.

#4. Where do they hide?

They are found in a range of habitats, including scrub, swamp, forest, savanna and urban areas. Temperate species are migratory, with many species that nest in the United States and Canada moving south into Mexico and Central America.

#5. Ok, so far you’re not scaring me – is this all just hype?

Believe it or not, the song of the Red-Winged Blackbird is a rather on the ghoulish side! In North American Native culture, the bird’s song in the Lakota language (spoken throughout much of the bird’s range), is described as tōke, mat’ā nī  (“oh! that I might die”).

#6. I really don’t like the creepy side of Halloween

If your Halloween style is more on the “cute” side, the Baltimore Oriole is your bird. Colour wise the male is ideal, handsomely attired in orange and black. It also loves sweets like orange halves and grape jelly.

#7. These birds can make you have scary thoughts!

Bobolinks, Meadowlarks and Rusty Blackbirds are all at risk of disappearing and may one day only be ghost birds of Halloween’s past if conservation efforts fail. Enough to give bird lovers everywhere nightmares, one should think! (I confess, that was a shameless attempt to get your attention!)

taverner-cowbird
Illustration of the Brown-headed Cowbird from P. Taverner’s Birds of Eastern Canada 1921 edition.


#8. Look out! It’s the invasion of the Nest Snatchers!

The brood parasite among the bunch, the Brown headed Cowbird, lays its eggs into the nests of over 220 unsuspecting host bird species, some of which then rear the cowbird’s young along with its own. Or…. do they ? Unfortunately, the host’s own chicks may die as a result of the larger cowbird chick manipulating the attention of the parents while they are feeding the nestlings. The Cowbird chick may even throw its step-sibling out of the nest. There’s even more to this scary story. Doubting the Invasion of the Nest  Snatchers theory? Then consider this. Song Sparrow nestlings have been reported to imitate Cowbird chick vocal patterns so that parents think they’re all the same, and feed them equally. The Cowbird story is so scary it will require a complete post of its own coming soon!

#9. The Evil Wizard?

You’ve probably never thought of the Common Grackle as more than just, well, common. It is widely found across North America and locally is even a year-round resident. Sometimes we just don’t see what’s right in front of us. First of all, its Latin name, Quiscalus quiscula sounds like a spell right out of Harry Potter. Try it, say it out loud a few times: Quiscalus Quiscula! Quiscalus Quiscula! Coincidence? Secondly, it’s already dressed for Halloween with its iridescent purplish or bronze feathers, and oh those scary yellow eyes! Although it is unlikely known as one of those endearing Good Wizards. It will steal food from other birds, taking them by surprise as they rush forward and grab what they want, even if it means taking it right out of the beak of another bird! They’re considered pests across the continent, responsible for millions of dollars of damage to sprouting corn crops (Stephen King…Birds of the Corn anyone?). It is also a bit of a monster in bird terms, reportedly eating other birds’ eggs and nestlings, and on occasion, resorting to killing adult birds as well. Declining numbers may be attributed to population control measures.

#10. Creepy sounds in the dark

The Yellow-headed Blackbird, with a song described as sounding like a door swinging on a very rusty metal hinge, can this be anything but a Halloween themed bird?

Hope you are having a fun Halloween weekend so far! Beware…more Halloween-bird themed posts may be coming your way!

Bird Family of the Week: Meet the Wading Birds

Great Blue Heron at Parc des Rapides, Lasalle, Quebec (Photo: Connie Morgenstern)

Day 25 of 100 Days of Blogging

10 Things about Wading Birds

This week’s Bird Family feature includes the Herons, Night-Herons, Egrets and Bitterns, a.k.a the Ardeidae. The rather water-logged Great Blue Heron in the top photo happens to be from this mornings very rainy PQSPB field trip to Parc des Rapides on the LaSalle waterfront. Those who ventured out, despite the torrential rain forecast and weather only a mother duck can love, were still treated to some great views, a pleasant morning and, conveniently, a photo to fit in with today’s post! 

Bird Family of the Week #4

Herons, Night-Herons, Egrets & Bitterns

Order: Pelecaniformes     Family: Ardeidae

#1. The PQSPB checklist includes 11 species in this family. The 6 members of the Ardeidae known to breed in the checklist area are the American Bittern, Least Bittern, Great Blue Heron, Green Heron, Black-crowned Night-Heron and the Great Egret .  

Great Egret foraging in the evening at the Technoparc, Montreal. (Photo:Connie Morgenstern)
Great Egret foraging in the evening at the Technoparc, Montreal. (Photo:Connie Morgenstern)

#2. Several members of this family of birds are icons of the early bird conservation movement. The Great Egret was one of the hardest hit species, as millions of birds were slaughtered for their feathers during the 19th century craze for hats decorated with plumes. Read more about this era in the post about the early bird conservation movement here and here.

#3. Herons and Egrets are the larger members of this family and are commonly observed foraging out in the open in fresh or saltwater environments.

#4. The Great Blue Heron is the largest heron in North America. Read more about the Great Blue Heron in yesterday’s Fishy Friday feature.

#5. Bitterns are more secretive. They feed on amphibians, reptiles, insects, and fish.

#6, The Least Bittern is the smallest member of the Heron family and inhabits fresh or brackish marshes.

Black-crowned Night-Heron
Black-crowned Night-Heron in early morning displaying white lanceolate plume (Photo: Connie Morgenstern)

#7. The Black-crowned Night-Heron tends to feed between dawn and dusk, which is how it gets its name.

#8. The Black-crowned Night-Heron It is an omnivore that will even eat the nestlings of other birds. It can be observed during the day roosting in vegetation either alone or in the company of other Night- Herons.

Green Heron (Photo:Connie Morgenstern)
Green Heron (Photo:Connie Morgenstern)

#9. The Green Heron is somewhat solitary. It occupies wooded swamps, streams and ponds and feeds on small fish, tadpoles and amphibians.

#10. The Green Heron is one of the few birds known to sometimes use tools and has a rather remarkable method of luring a meal! These birds have been observed placing a piece of food or an object on the water to attract a fish, then striking the unlucky victim when it swims by to investigate.

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