People aren’t Birds (S.E.#4)

As a child I had a very limited knowledge on birds. This was probably because I was busy learning about trees from my father who is a forester. My first recollection of learning about birds was from my dad’s experience traveling around Madagascar in crowded buses. Long rides around the country always resulted in the much needed bathroom breaks along the way. From this came the common saying, people aren’t chickens (or birds), meaning unlike birds we need to pee.

This didn’t make any sense until my father explained that birds don’t urinate. Ok, so birds don’t urinate, but how is that possible. This is where my birding course comes in. It has helped me to understand a lot more about the physiology of birds.

Basic Physiology

basic difference between humans and birds is that while birds have combined two digestive channels into one, mammals have two separate channels that function for defecation and excretion. While for birds, defecation and excretion comes out as solid waste, for humans there is separate liquid and solid waste. It all comes down to how birds and humans make use of water in their bodies.

Birds are much more efficient with their water retention. To preserve water and because of their high metabolism rates, birds use a different method for excretion. While humans make use of water to dissolve their metabolic wastes, birds don’t dissolve their nitrogenous urea waste in water, but rather dispel a nitrogenous uric acid. This is what is commonly noticed as the white paste seen all over rocks. This is clearly visible in the set of images below.

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Just a few images of birds on the Farne Islands in North Cumberland, England 

On the other hand, birds’ defecation waste matter is a darker black. This is solid food waste. Interestingly enough, the need for defecation is not something that all birds have. This is especially true for sea birds, like the ones seen in the images above (Cormorants, Puffins, Terns, etc…). These birds almost completely digest all of their food (fish) and therefore only excrete the white waste matter.


Birding With a Chance of Fog

Do you sometimes wonder why birds just don’t seem to be out and about when its foggy? Well, ok, maybe you see some birds, but, for the most part, it is a struggle to find the ones you were hoping to see.

Thinking back to a field trip my Tweetspeak class went on last week, this was exactly what we were wondering as we scouted out the banks of a black swamp habitat. Early in the morning, it was so foggy that birds would simply disappear into thin air as they flew into the sky. Yes, we were easily able to spot the loud Canada Geese and the motionless Mallards out on the ponds, but where were all the other water birds we had hoped to see, like the Gadwall, Northern Pintail, American Widgeon, Green-wing teal, Canvas Back, Ring-necked duck, Hooded Merganser, Ruddy Duck, and American Coot.

Foggy Insight

My first reaction was that seeing fewer birds could have something to do with the poor visibility of the fog we were seeing. Kirk Janowiak, Wildlife Biologist & Educator, offers this piece of insight: Birds have a much keener sense of sight than humans do, so fog on its own does not necessarily pose as big a problem with visibility. Birds can still feed and fly even when it is foggy. Furthermore, if birds are familiar with the area, they don’t need to heavily rely on sight to get around. 

However, fog only poses a real problem when, of course, it really is too dense for birds to see through. When this happens birds may hunker down and rest until the dense fog clears up. This could have been the case for us that early morning. The few water birds we noticed were not too active but the ones that did fly only moved to bodies of water that were in close proximity around the swamp area. 

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Bird vision in fog

Kirk emphasizes the range of ability birds have in their keen sight. For example, many bird species can see into the ultraviolet range of light as they fly through fog. Others have retinas that have specific color-sensing cones for seeing different colors when looking upward, downward, and sideways. This is greatly beneficial for navigating through fog because of how light is refracted and reflected off of the water molecules in the fog.

Looking toward the future

If I were to go birding in foggy conditions again, I would have to keep in mind just how dense the fog is. If it isn’t too dense (visibility of about 1km or a little less), I could expect to see more birds if I look around and don’t stick to one location. However, if the fog is dense, I could try moving to locations where there is good visibility near the banks of the water’s edge. I could probably expect to see more action looking closer near the brush along these banks.  However, if I’ve learned anything from birding, is that you can’t totally rely on the weather for good birding experiences. You have to know where to look and be willing to go to where the birds are.

App Review- Chirp! Bird Song USA +

Considering the usefulness of ‘Chirp! Bird Song USA +’ a price of $3.99 is reasonable. Produced by nature specialists, iSpiny, this app is accessible on apple products (iPhone, iPod, & iPad). General features include listening to bird calls/ songs, bird song quizzes, and a slideshow feature. ‘Chirp!’ gives easy access to over 300 bird songs and calls from throughout North America. Birdcalls are advertised to be up to 34 seconds long. This app has notable credibility considering that it gets its birdcalls from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

One of the major challenges I face when birding is hearing many birds but not recognizing their sounds. This app allows me to quickly search for bird calls and see if I can find a match with what I heard in nature.The first step is finding your location to set up a bird list of local birds in your region.

Easy to use for Beginner and Experienced Birders

While useful for all birders, Chirp! is more specifically designed for beginner birders helping them to learn to identify various bird songs and calls. The main feature, ‘listen’ allows for easy navigation in being able to choose settings such as song style and bird group. Useful for beginner birders this feature is also able to sort birds from most common to least common. Other features: the slideshow feature allows you to choose different birds for you to get familiar with and the quiz feature gives you a chance to see how well you’ve mastered different birdcalls.

Being more oriented towards beginner birders, this app offers limited information about each bird. Even so, the descriptions of the birdcall and general geographical information are still useful. More information on the birds is offered through hyperlinks to Cornell and Wiki pages. One limitation to this, though, is that this requires Wi-Fi and thus is not a feature that can be used while birding (for iPads & iPods)

Nevertheless, the app can be useful for more experienced birders as well as ornithologists. The various birdcalls in this app can be used for calling birds towards you when you are out in nature. I can personally attest that this works, especially with perching birds.

Looking at the quiz feature, birders can improve their competency by taking harder and harder quizzes. Thus, both beginners and the experienced can benefit from the three difficulty levels and custom option.

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Criticism and Pitch

While all features are useful, I would say that the slideshow feature is my least used feature. The app description states that this feature can be used to choose birds and their bird songs, then let it play through each slide. While listening to these calls can be hands free, personally, I learn better seeing a picture of the bird when hearing the call.

As a testament to its practicality when birding and to its usefulness in improving my birdcall repertoire, I would recommend buying this app to any birder who struggles with identifying birds by sound.

Bird Feeders- not a one size fits all (S.E#3)

It’s spring break and I’m visiting my family. One thing that I’ve noticed here in my backyard, as well as at almost every other backyard that has bird feeders, is that there are almost always more than one kind of bird feeder present. Now that I’ve learned more about how birds fill different niches, I can understand why different types of birds prefer different bird feeders.

Not a one size fits all

If you think about it, birds don’t just get their food from up in trees. Many birds forage for their food on the ground. Also, birds eat more than just one type of food. For these reasons, it is important to use more than just one type of bird feeder. Using more than one of these six main types of bird feeders will help to attract a variety of bird species as you accommodate different types of birds and their diets: Tray/ platform feeders, hopper/ house feeders, window feeders, tube feeders, thistle/ nyjer feeders, and suet feeders.

Tray/ Platform Feeders

Courtesy of Cornell Lab of Ornithology

This type of feeder will attract birds that usually feed on the seeds that drop from elevated feeders. Such birds include juncos, doves, jays, blackbirds, sparrows, and towhees. Because of their preference to feeding on the ground, tray feeders that are closer to the ground are usually more effective. Platform feeders are simply tray feeders that have a roof.

Hopper/ House Feeders

Courtesy of Cornell Lab of Ornithology

House feeders, equipped with a roof and encasing for the seeds, allow good protection against water and bird droppings. While this type of feeder attracts a large variety of feeder birds (finches, jays, cardinals, buntings, grosbeaks, sparrows, chickadees, and titmice), it can bring larger birds like grackles that tend to take up more space. For this reason it may be convenient to use smaller house feeders to give more access to smaller birds.

Window Feeders

Courtesy of Lake’s Backyard Nature Place

Window feeders are conveniently attached to the window using suction cups. They are usually made out of plastic but can also make use of a tray. Not only does this provide an up close view of the birds, but it is also safer because it helps prevent bird-window collisions. Window feeders attract finches, sparrows, chickadees, and titmice.

Tube Feeders

Courtesy of Cornell Lab of Ornithology

Tube feeders, as seen in the image above, are long and cylindrical. This type of feeder is designed for smaller seed-eating birds that make use of the shorter perches: sparrows, grosbeaks, chickadees, titmice, and finches. However, longer perches can accommodate larger birds (grackles and blue jays) if need be.

Thistle/ Nyjer Feeders

Courtesy of Lantern Hill

Thistle/ Nyjer feeders are specifically designed to hold these types of seeds. It is made for birds that prefer to cling to trees or other objects while looking for food. These include American Goldfinches, Pine Siskins, and Common Redpolls. Like a tube feeder, it is cylindrical; however, it makes use of a wire mesh which allows it to be the least wasteful feeder of all types.

Suet Feeders

Courtesy of Cornell Lab of Ornithology

Suet feeders are made from beef or mutton fat placed in cages. It is a popular choice for woodpeckers, nuthatches, chickadees, titmice, jays, and starlings. It is much easier for larger birds to eat from these suet cages compared to most other feeders. They are usually placed hanging on trees, but can also be placed on other feeders or suspended in the air.


Now for some Fun!

Part of the fun of having bird feeders is being able to make them yourself.


 Courtesy of Eco Sapien 

Watch more educational projects on biodiversity here.

An Amazingly Adventurous day at the Aviary

On February 23rd, 2016 our Tweetspeak cluster visited the Pittsburg National Aviary. I had never been to an aviary before so I didn’t quite know what to expect. But before we even stepped into the building, I was thrown back in surprise when I saw this immense bird, the Andean Condor. Wow!!!

Our visit was full of amazing surprises: birds with strange beaks, the booming vocals of the Kookaburra, behind the scene visits, birds flying right over my head, and exhibit walk-throughs.

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While I didn’t have to take all of this in at once, it was still quite the experience. The educational value of this visit was definitely noteworthy, especially as we participated in a bird show that taught us about birds and the concervation efforts important to their survival.

The American Flamingo

I probably spent a good 40 minutes having fun observing my favorite bird from the Aviary that day, the American Flamingo. I just had never seen one up close before. I couldn’t help but ask all those dying questions, like “why does it stand on one leg?” or “why is it pink?” and “why does its beak look so strange?” All of these questions, I of course got my answers to. The first answer is for rest, the second is because of their diet of shrimp, and the third is because the beak specializes in filtering mud from water when they look for food underwater.

Fortunately, there was so much more to learn. Check out the video below to learn more about Flamingos and what it was like to visit the Pittsburg National Aviary.