Featured

This Birding Life

This is the post excerpt.

BIRD BRAINS: Inside the Strange Minds of Our Fine Feathered Friends (ISBN: 978-0-7267-8755-5)

by

Budd Titlow

http://www.buddtitlow.com

 

Sage Grouse - Happy Hour on the High Plains
Male Sage Grouse fighting to defend their territories at sunrise on a “lek” in northwestern Colorado.(Photo Copyright Budd Titlow, NATUREGRAPHS)

 

Wild birds are my friends. I like talking to them. Nothing too deep, mind you. Just stuff like, “Well hello there guys. How are you doing today. Beautiful weather we’re having, isn’t it? Your feathers are sure looking nice and fluffy this fine morning.”

And here’s the best part. I think the birds actually listen to me. They often talk—or more correctly, call or sing—back at me while I’m standing there watching them.

In my 45 years as a professional wildlife biologist, I’ve watched wild birds do some pretty extraordinary  and—in some cases—just outright wacky things. I’ve seen sage grouse strutting like pimps in a clearing—called a lek—on a high plateau in the Colorado Rockies, marsh wrens bouncing merrily along the tops of cattails to celebrate the arrival of spring, blue-footed boobies diving like blazing skyrockets in Ecuador’s Galapagos Islands, and a great blue heron subduing and then swallowing a monstrous water snake in Florida’s Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge.

It’s my profound hope that some of my favorite stories about wild birds—posted here—will inspire you to take your family out and explore the natural world. Just for a while, leave your cell phones, computers, and other assorted electronic gear behind and join our great and revered naturalists of yesteryear—John James Audubon, John Muir, Aldo Leopold, Marjory Stoneman Douglas, Rachel Carson, and all the rest—in networking with nature. Watch, observe, introduce yourself, and even get to personally know the wild birds and other marvelous creatures with which we share this planet.

Text excerpted from book:          BIRD BRAINS: Inside the Strange Minds of Our Fine Feathered Friends, written by Budd Titlow and published by Lyons Press (an imprint of Globe Pequot Press). Photo credit:        Copyright Budd Titlow, NATUREGRAPHS.

Author’s bio:     For the past 50 years, professional ecologist and conservationist Budd Titlow has used his pen and camera to capture the awe and wonders of our natural world. His goal has always been to inspire others to both appreciate and enjoy what he sees. Now he has one main question: Can we save humankind’s place — within nature’s beauty — before it’s too late? Budd’s two latest books are dedicated to answering this perplexing dilemma. PROTECTING THE PLANET: Environmental Champions from Conservation to Climate Change, a non-fiction book, examines whether we still have the environmental heroes among us — harking back to such past heroes as Audubon, Hemenway, Muir, Douglas, Leopold, Brower, Carson, and Meadows — needed to accomplish this goal. Next, using fact-filled and entertaining story-telling, his latest book — COMING FULL CIRCLE: A Sweeping Saga of Conservation Stewardship Across America — provides the answers we all seek and need. Having published five books, more than 500 photo-essays, and 5,000 photographs, Budd Titlow lives with his music educator wife, Debby, in San Diego, California.

Sandhill Cranes

Blanketing the Sky & the Land

BIRD BRAINS: Inside the Strange Minds of Our Fine Feathered Friends (ISBN: 978-0-7267-8755-5)

by

Budd Titlow

http://www.buddtitlow.com

The brisk spring air was punctuated by a gusty wind as I stood in breathless anticipation beside the main gates. Once inside, we stealthily crept up the steps of the permanent wooden blind where we could see silhouettes of thousands of birds blanketing the riverbed’s shallow channels and naked sandbars.

The world’s oldest surviving bird species, the sandhill crane still appears curiously archaic. With legs dangling and bent in an awkward landing posture, and neck and wings extended, it is reminiscent of the ancient pterodactyl, the extinct flying reptile. Fossilized remains of the sandhill have been found in Nebraska sediments dating from the Lower Pliocene, some nine million years ago. This has led scientists to theorize that today’s sandhill crane has remained unchanged since that long-ago epoch.

A pair of Sandhill Cranes (Antigone canadensis) feeds in a marshy wetland. (Photo Copyright: Budd Titlow, NATUREGRAPHS)

In the United States, one of the prime places to see sandhills is along central Nebraska’s Platte River. Perhaps skeptical of its value, early plains explorers wrote of this river: “It flows a mile wide, an inch deep, and sometimes not at all.” This is still true today, and as such, makes the Platte ideal habitat for the masses of sandhill cranes—up to five hundred thousand birds—that stop and refuel before taking off again on the second leg of their thousand-mile migration between wintering habitat in the southern United States and nesting grounds in Canada’s high Arctic.

In the United States, one of the prime places to see vast masses of sandhill cranes is early spring along central Nebraska’s Platte River. (Photo Copyright: The Toronto Star)

During a typical spring day on the Platte, the sandhills leave the broad floodplain just after sunrise and head out into the abundant adjacent cornfields to gorge themselves on leftover grain. While in the fields, groups of cranes put on quite a show—their famous courtship routine known as “crane dancing.” During the dance, male sandhills do everything possible to impress the females, including leaping, bowing, and swirling in pirouettes in midair like ballet dancers. Then, just before sunset, they return en masse to roost for the night in the middle of the Platte’s broad, sheltering channel. It is during these early-morning and late-afternoon mass migrations that the sandhill crane spectacle reaches its crescendo.

As I stood in the blind in the Platte River’s Rowe Audubon Sanctuary, intently watching the floodplain show before me as small clusters of sandhills lifted off on ungainly wings. Then, drifting lazily in the gathering dawn light they used a variety of trilling and rattling calls—kar-r-r-r-o-o-o, kar-r-r-r-o-o-o, kar-r-r-r-o-o-o—trying to coax their earthbound brethren to join them in the air. But the vast majority of the birds opted to remain within the security of the river until after sunrise.

A pair of Sandhill Cranes “dancing” in a grassy field. (Photo Copyright: Budd Titlow, NATUREGRAPHS)

Almost at the exact moment that the sun’s orange-pink orb first appeared on the horizon, dawn’s quiet hush was replaced by a thunderous flapping of thousands of giant wings as the roosting birds all rose as one. As I stood in amazement, chevron after chevron after chevron of these massive birds crisscrossed the sky, practically blocking out the sun and creating an unparalleled cacophony of sight and sound.

A Sandhill Crane adult feeds its chick on the edge of a marshy swamp in central Florida. (Photo Copyright: Budd Titlow, NATUREGRAPHS)

As Nebraska naturalist/writer Jon Farrar wrote in his book Crane River, “Once man sensed a kinship with the river and its cranes and marked his own time by their comings. Today, a civilized world rushes by the river and its cranes, heedless of the flocks overhead. But for those who still listen for such things, the call of the sandhill cranes means that spring has come again to the Platte.”

Text excerpted from book:  BIRD BRAINS: Inside the Strange Minds of Our Fine Feathered Friends, written by Budd Titlow and published by Lyons Press (an imprint of Globe Pequot Press). 

Author’s bio: For the past 50 years, professional ecologist and conservationist Budd Titlow has used his pen and camera to capture the awe and wonders of our natural world. His goal has always been to inspire others to both appreciate and enjoy what he sees. Now he has one main question: Can we save humankind’s place — within nature’s beauty — before it’s too late? Budd’s two latest books are dedicated to answering this perplexing dilemma. PROTECTING THE PLANET: Environmental Champions from Conservation to Climate Change, a non-fiction book, examines whether we still have the environmental heroes among us — harking back to such past heroes as Audubon, Hemenway, Muir, Douglas, Leopold, Brower, Carson, and Meadows — needed to accomplish this goal. Next, using fact-filled and entertaining story-telling, his latest book — COMING FULL CIRCLE: A Sweeping Saga of Conservation Stewardship Across America — provides the answers we all seek and need. Having published five books, more than 500 photo-essays, and 5,000 photographs, Budd Titlow lives with his music educator wife, Debby, in San Diego, California.

Ruddy Turnstones

Beach Bullies

BIRD BRAINS: Inside the Strange Minds of Our Fine Feathered Friends (ISBN: 978-0-7267-8755-5)

by

Budd Titlow

http://www.buddtitlow.com

Our shorelines are being patrolled by a gluttonous bully that flips away large objects with impunity and intimidates everything that crosses his path—and he stands only a few inches tall. With its chunky body, bulky neck, wedge-shaped bill, and scrawny orange legs, the ruddy turnstone looks like it’s itching for a fight—and it often gets its wish, chasing birds much larger than itself. 

Watching ruddy turnstones feed is like seeing tons of heavy equipment—bulldozers, land graders, and backhoes—clearing a piece of land for development. Living up to their names, a line of turnstones will tirelessly push around and overturn everything in their paths, including rocks, pebbles, seaweed clumps, and shells. Every now and then one or more of these brazen shorebirds will stop to gulp down whatever they happen to uncover. And, as opportunistic feeders, they’re not really picky about what they eat, including everything from insect larvae to crustaceans, mollusks, small fish, carrion, and even discarded human food. Whatever they uncover usually goes immediately down the hatch as they continue to march along completely unfettered by anything else around.

A Ruddy Turnstone (Arenaria interpres) holds a small mollusk that he uncovered by pushing aside debris in a tidal zone. (Photo Copyright: Budd Titlow, NATUREGRAPHS)

This quote from John James Audubon makes feeding turnstones sound like weightlifters working out in Gold’s Gym: “They use not only the bill and head, but also the breast, pushing the object with all their strength and reminding me of the labor which I have undergone in turning over a large turtle.”

Many birders describe the turnstone’s supreme aggressiveness when feeding. They will not allow any birds—even other turnstones—to come near them. When another bird does get too close, a turnstone will rush toward the intruder jabbing repeatedly with its dagger-like bill until the other bird backs away. Birding guru Roger Tory Peterson described how a high-tide invasion of horseshoe crabs in Delaware Bay was matched by an influx of thousands of shorebirds, including huge flocks of turnstones: “The spectacle has been likened to an invasion of miniature armored tanks, with the birds acting as the counterattacking forces.”

When it’s not ravenously feeding or beating up other birds, the ruddy turnstone is also a champion traveler, wintering from the southeastern and Gulf coasts of the US and Central and South America—all the way down to Tierra del Fuego while nesting in northern Greenland, Ellesmere Island, Victoria Island, and other top-of-the-world spots inside the Arctic Circle.

So the next time you’re visiting the seashore and see a little bird with variegated feathers brazenly strutting along—picking fights and flipping over rocks—you’ll know you’re looking at a ruddy turnstone. 

Text excerpted from book:  BIRD BRAINS: Inside the Strange Minds of Our Fine Feathered Friends, written by Budd Titlow and published by Lyons Press (an imprint of Globe Pequot Press). 

Author’s bio: For the past 50 years, professional ecologist and conservationist Budd Titlow has used his pen and camera to capture the awe and wonders of our natural world. His goal has always been to inspire others to both appreciate and enjoy what he sees. Now he has one main question: Can we save humankind’s place — within nature’s beauty — before it’s too late? Budd’s two latest books are dedicated to answering this perplexing dilemma. PROTECTING THE PLANET: Environmental Champions from Conservation to Climate Change, a non-fiction book, examines whether we still have the environmental heroes among us — harking back to such past heroes as Audubon, Hemenway, Muir, Douglas, Leopold, Brower, Carson, and Meadows — needed to accomplish this goal. Next, using fact-filled and entertaining story-telling, his latest book — COMING FULL CIRCLE: A Sweeping Saga of Conservation Stewardship Across America — provides the answers we all seek and need. Having published five books, more than 500 photo-essays, and 5,000 photographs, Budd Titlow lives with his music educator wife, Debby, in San Diego, California.

Sage Grouse

Happy Hour on the High Plains

BIRD BRAINS: Inside the Strange Minds of Our Fine Feathered Friends (ISBN: 978-0-7267-8755-5)

by

Budd Titlow

http://www.buddtitlow.com

Sometimes Mother Nature provides a perfect microcosm of human life. 

Many years ago, I was invited to observe an annual ritual that had all the elements of happy hour at your favorite neighborhood bar. Totally full of themselves, all the males were strutting around in tight circles with their hairless chests puffed out. As they walked, they repeatedly made burping and belching sounds while aggressively posturing toward any other males that came too close to their domains. Meanwhile, all of the females skittered demurely in, out, around, and through all of the absurdly displaying males—acting as if the showboats didn’t exist.

Rather than watching patrons in a dark, after-work bar, I was driving along a Colorado high mountain sagebrush prairie at sunrise next to a “lek,” which is, appropriately enough, the Swedish word for “play.” And the clientele I was observing were chicken-sized wild birds known as sage grouse.

Male Sage Grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus) fight to defend their territories at sunrise on a lek in northwestern Colorado. (Photo Copyright: Budd Titlow, NATUREGRAPHS)

The largest grouse in North America, sage grouse live on the high plains of the American West—at elevations of four thousand to nine thousand feet—including populations in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana, South Dakota, North Dakota, Nevada, Utah, eastern California, and western Colorado. 

Like many wildlife mating rituals, the “dancing” of the male sage grouse around a lek is all about influencing female choice. Leks are circular open areas in dense stands of sagebrush where sage grouse have been performing every February through April for eons. Here, male sage grouse spend their time puffing out their large colorful breast sacs and proudly displaying their sharply pointed tail feathers while aggressively defending their territories—leaping high in the air with feet and spurs fully extended and striking out at their nearest competitors for feminine attention. While the female sage grouse pretend that they don’t notice, in the end, only the males with the showiest exhibitions—typically less than 5 percent of those trying—mate with all the females. After a few hours, the losing males skulk off to recoup their grouse-hood in hopes of faring better when the next day’s dances begin. 

Because they tend to be such show-offs, sage grouse are the subject of many tales—both tall and otherwise—told far and wide in the high plateaus of their Rocky Mountain homeland. Many western riders swear that sage grouse sit hidden in their sagebrush hollows secretly plotting the precise moment to burst up with wings beating wildly askew in front of horses galloping across the open range. The result of this supposed comic plotting is of course that the horses rear up, violently tossing their hooves and manes wildly and summarily flinging their riders—derrieres first—into the nearest clumps of sagebrush.

Text excerpted from book:  BIRD BRAINS: Inside the Strange Minds of Our Fine Feathered Friends, written by Budd Titlow and published by Lyons Press (an imprint of Globe Pequot Press). 

Author’s bio: For the past 50 years, professional ecologist and conservationist Budd Titlow has used his pen and camera to capture the awe and wonders of our natural world. His goal has always been to inspire others to both appreciate and enjoy what he sees. Now he has one main question: Can we save humankind’s place — within nature’s beauty — before it’s too late? Budd’s two latest books are dedicated to answering this perplexing dilemma. PROTECTING THE PLANET: Environmental Champions from Conservation to Climate Change, a non-fiction book, examines whether we still have the environmental heroes among us — harking back to such past heroes as Audubon, Hemenway, Muir, Douglas, Leopold, Brower, Carson, and Meadows — needed to accomplish this goal. Next, using fact-filled and entertaining story-telling, his latest book — COMING FULL CIRCLE: A Sweeping Saga of Conservation Stewardship Across America — provides the answers we all seek and need. Having published five books, more than 500 photo-essays, and 5,000 photographs, Budd Titlow lives with his music educator wife, Debby, in San Diego, California.

Red-Tailed Hawks

Hollywood’s Favorite

BIRD BRAINS: Inside the Strange Minds of Our Fine Feathered Friends (ISBN: 978-0-7267-8755-5)

by

Budd Titlow

http://www.buddtitlow.com

When it comes to ecological accuracy, Hollywood has a lot to learn. My wife and I love going to movies. Through almost forty years, our Friday “date nights” have provided us with a great deal of fun and long-lasting conversation. 

But as much as I love the movies, it really grates on me when I see something in the natural setting that simply doesn’t add up. Like autumn foliage on background trees during a spring wedding. Or outdoor flowers blooming when snow is falling during a Christmastime plot. Or a flock of honking geese migrating during a midsummer picnic in the park. Or lions and tigers running around in a South American jungle scene. 

My wife gets annoyed with me, saying, “Why can’t you just relax and enjoy the movie. No one else in the whole world even notices stuff like that.” Maybe so—but if people are paying attention, there’s a lot of ecological misinformation being conveyed via the big screen. 

My pet peeve among all Hollywood’s visual malapropisms is how, if there’s an outdoor scene, you invariably hear the same rasping scream that starts on a high note and then descends rapidly in pitch—keeeeeeeerrr. I know this wonderfully wild sound very well. It’s a hunting red-tailed hawk, the most common hawk in North America. You see them just about anywhere there’s open terrain, soaring in lazy circles above fields, farms, highways, and even city parks. 

Unleashing its classic downward-spiraling scream, a Red-Tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) goes into a power dive. (Photo Copyright: mallardg500 / Shutterstock.com)

The problem is that Hollywood directors play the scream of a red-tailed hawk no matter what bird is shown flying around. A bald eagle soaring overhead? In the background, we hear keeeeeeerrr. A blue jay lands in a tree? We hear keeeeeeerrr. A wolf goes trotting past? We hear keeeeeeerrr.

Red-tails are popular outside of Hollywood as well. In New York City back in the mid-1990s, a male red-tail dubbed Pale Male and his mate built a nest near Woody’s Allen’s penthouse patio and repeatedly left pigeon entrails on the bio-phobic (“I am two with Nature”) director’s patio. While Woody didn’t complain—he actually liked seeing the hawks—some of his high profile neighbors did and the city removed the nest. The ensuing howls of protest from the legions of New Yorkers who had been following Pale Male’s activities for years was so deafening that when the hawks rebuilt their nest the city had to leave it alone. Then, after years of courting and breeding futility, Pale Male and his mate finally successfully produced a brood of young red-tails right there in the middle of Manhattan. Marie Winn told the whole story in her book Red-Tails in Love. Maybe that will be a movie some day, with a perfectly appropriate background sound—keeeeeeerrr.

Text excerpted from book:  BIRD BRAINS: Inside the Strange Minds of Our Fine Feathered Friends, written by Budd Titlow and published by Lyons Press (an imprint of Globe Pequot Press). 

Author’s bio: For the past 50 years, professional ecologist and conservationist Budd Titlow has used his pen and camera to capture the awe and wonders of our natural world. His goal has always been to inspire others to both appreciate and enjoy what he sees. Now he has one main question: Can we save humankind’s place — within nature’s beauty — before it’s too late? Budd’s two latest books are dedicated to answering this perplexing dilemma. PROTECTING THE PLANET: Environmental Champions from Conservation to Climate Change, a non-fiction book, examines whether we still have the environmental heroes among us — harking back to such past heroes as Audubon, Hemenway, Muir, Douglas, Leopold, Brower, Carson, and Meadows — needed to accomplish this goal. Next, using fact-filled and entertaining story-telling, his latest book — COMING FULL CIRCLE: A Sweeping Saga of Conservation Stewardship Across America — provides the answers we all seek and need. Having published five books, more than 500 photo-essays, and 5,000 photographs, Budd Titlow lives with his music educator wife, Debby, in San Diego, California.

Wilson’s & Piping Plovers

Threatened Dune Lovers

BIRD BRAINS: Inside the Strange Minds of Our Fine Feathered Friends (ISBN: 978-0-7267-8755-5)

by

Budd Titlow

http://www.buddtitlow.com

For decades, a war of sorts erupted every spring across our Atlantic and Gulf Coast beachfronts when greedy beachfront developers and unthinking beachgoers collectively wiped out thousands of acres of critical dune nesting habitat for shorebirds—especially the Wilson’s and piping plovers. 

One of this war’s principal battles took place at Sandbridge Beach, Virginia, a fragile five-mile-long strip of land nestled between the Atlantic Ocean and Back Bay on the very southern tip of Virginia’s coastline. Sandbridge was developed in the 1950s in the worst possible way. The largest houses were built across the foredunes, leaving no natural protective barrier from nature’s wrath. Construction of these beachfront mansions wiped out most of the nesting habitat for Wilson’s and piping plovers and they quickly disappeared from Sandbridge Beach. 

This same scenario has played out time and again on ocean shorelines up and down our Atlantic and Gulf Coasts, causing dramatic overall declines in these two plover populations. Because of this wanton destruction of its habitat, the piping plover was designated as one of the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s “showcase” threatened and endangered species in 1986. 

Piping plovers are, in general, cute little birds about the size of a sparrow. They get their “piping” common name from the plaintive bell-like whistles they make when the males are setting up territories and looking for mates. They typically bounce merrily along through their dune habitats, running in short spurts then stopping to look around, then running a little further. In her book The Bluebird Effect, naturalist Julie Zickefoose describes plover chicks as “looking like dust bunnies blowing across the hot sand.” 

Proudly patrolling his sand dune home, a Wilson’s Plover (Charadrius wilsonia) stops to admire his tidal surroundings. (Photo Copyright: Budd Titlow, NATUREGRAPHS)

With their prim and proper feathering and posture, male Wilson’s and piping plovers remind me of little old men in top hats ambling along, stopping every few feet to doff their hats to a lady. However, if the “lady” plovers are anywhere around, they’re certainly well hidden—perhaps they’re actually doing something productive while the male birds are hobnobbing through the dunes.

There is some good news on the development front: For the past twenty years, we’ve been doing a much better job of designing our beachfront communities and protecting plover habitats. Along northwest Florida’s Route 30A—the Emerald Coast Highway—a string of new sustainably designed communities has left the foredune systems completely untouched. In fact, the foredunes are featured as key visual amenities for marketing these properties. 

Elsewhere, wildlife managers are routinely placing wire cages and fences around plover nests, creating “exclosures” that allow the adult birds and chicks to go in and out but keep ground predators, roaming pets, free-ranging ORVs, and traipsing beachgoers away. Most national seashores and other public beaches now limit beach and dune access to pedestrians and ORVs throughout the plover’s spring nesting season. As a result, the overall population of piping plovers has been steadily increasing since 1991. 

Thanks to all these protective measures, Wilson’s and piping plovers are finally winning a few battles.

Text excerpted from book:  BIRD BRAINS: Inside the Strange Minds of Our Fine Feathered Friends, written by Budd Titlow and published by Lyons Press (an imprint of Globe Pequot Press). 

Author’s bio: For the past 50 years, professional ecologist and conservationist Budd Titlow has used his pen and camera to capture the awe and wonders of our natural world. His goal has always been to inspire others to both appreciate and enjoy what he sees. Now he has one main question: Can we save humankind’s place — within nature’s beauty — before it’s too late? Budd’s two latest books are dedicated to answering this perplexing dilemma. PROTECTING THE PLANET: Environmental Champions from Conservation to Climate Change, a non-fiction book, examines whether we still have the environmental heroes among us — harking back to such past heroes as Audubon, Hemenway, Muir, Douglas, Leopold, Brower, Carson, and Meadows — needed to accomplish this goal. Next, using fact-filled and entertaining story-telling, his latest book — COMING FULL CIRCLE: A Sweeping Saga of Conservation Stewardship Across America — provides the answers we all seek and need. Having published five books, more than 500 photo-essays, and 5,000 photographs, Budd Titlow lives with his music educator wife, Debby, in San Diego, California.

Pileated Woodpeckers

Woody Lives!

BIRD BRAINS: Inside the Strange Minds of Our Fine Feathered Friends (ISBN: 978-0-7267-8755-5)

by

Budd Titlow

http://www.buddtitlow.com

Whenever I’m fortunate enough to see a pileated woodpecker flying high through the treetops, all I can think about is the screwball Woody Woodpecker character of cartoon fame. The extra-large pileated even acts like Woody, constantly creating havoc and mayhem by flying around making an insane ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha sound while smashing his head like a jackhammer into tree trunks—tearing away chunks of wood—just to get at the insects hiding inside the bark.

Excluding the possibly extinct ivory-billed woodpecker, the pileated, with its nearly thirty-inch wingspan, is the largest woodpecker in North America. Pileateds live throughout the eastern US as well as along the northwest Pacific Coast. Highly adaptable, they can be found in any areas with large trees—older urban and suburban areas, conservation open spaces, parks, and even the fringes of golf courses.

A Pileated Woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus) doing its best Woody Woodpecker imitation. (Photo Copyright: Deb Campbell/Shutterstock.com)

Within birding circles, pileateds are well known as ecosystem engineers. Using their feet and long tail feathers as balancing fulcrums, they hammer out large rectangular cavities in tree trunks up to a foot long and several feet deep. Their enthusiastic drumming as they dig is so loud that it can he heard several hundred yards away. Like all woodpeckers, pileateds also drum on wood—or any other hard substance that is handy—to attract mates and announce the boundaries of their nesting territories.

Pileateds may excavate as many as sixteen holes in a tree to use as escape routes from predators. They also peck the bark away from around their primary entrance hole—this allows the sap to run and prevent predators—such as black rat snakes—from entering their nesting cavities. Since pileateds only use their nest holes once, all their abandoned holes provide shelter and nesting space for a host of other birds and mammals, such as swifts, owls, wood ducks, pine martens, raccoons, and opossums.

Using their long barbed tongues, pileated woodpeckers are able to extract their favorite foods—carpenter ants and the larvae of wood boring beetles—lying deep within the wood of tree trunks. Many other birds also feed in their excavations, after the pileateds have eaten their fill and left to do something else for a while.

Because of the extensive damage their persistent jackhammering can do—especially to smaller trees—pileateds are considered undesirable by some homeowners. But they more than offset any structural damage they do to trees by controlling populations of harmful, wood boring insects.

In eastern North America during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, logging of mature trees in their forested habitats led to sharp declines in pileated populations. But as farms were abandoned in favor of urban and suburban lifestyles after World War II, forestland—and pileated populations—made a significant comeback in most eastern states. 

So now anytime you’re out for a stroll through an eastern deciduous forest with mostly mature trees, keep your eyes on the canopy. You just might see Woody Woodpecker.

Text excerpted from book:  BIRD BRAINS: Inside the Strange Minds of Our Fine Feathered Friends, written by Budd Titlow and published by Lyons Press (an imprint of Globe Pequot Press). 

Author’s bio: For the past 50 years, professional ecologist and conservationist Budd Titlow has used his pen and camera to capture the awe and wonders of our natural world. His goal has always been to inspire others to both appreciate and enjoy what he sees. Now he has one main question: Can we save humankind’s place — within nature’s beauty — before it’s too late? Budd’s two latest books are dedicated to answering this perplexing dilemma. PROTECTING THE PLANET: Environmental Champions from Conservation to Climate Change, a non-fiction book, examines whether we still have the environmental heroes among us — harking back to such past heroes as Audubon, Hemenway, Muir, Douglas, Leopold, Brower, Carson, and Meadows — needed to accomplish this goal. Next, using fact-filled and entertaining story-telling, his latest book — COMING FULL CIRCLE: A Sweeping Saga of Conservation Stewardship Across America — provides the answers we all seek and need. Having published five books, more than 500 photo-essays, and 5,000 photographs, Budd Titlow lives with his music educator wife, Debby, in San Diego, California.

Peregrine Falcons

Hacked On

BIRD BRAINS: Inside the Strange Minds of Our Fine Feathered Friends (ISBN: 978-0-7267-8755-5)

by

Budd Titlow

http://www.buddtitlow.com

In the history of the world, there have been few more widely revered and respected birds than the peregrine falcon. Living up to its “wandering” name, peregrines live on all the world’s continents except Antarctica. They thrive in just about every type of habitat -from tropics to deserts, tidal flats to tundra, and sea level to twelve thousand feet. 

A Peregrine Falcon (Falco peregrinus) surveys the sky-scape for smaller birds that it can power dive on and take on the wing. (Photo Copyright: Holly Kuchera/Shutterstock.com)

Regularly reaching speeds of more than two hundred miles per hour in their hunting stoops, peregrines are renowned as not only the fastest bird but the fastest animal on earth. For eons, the peregrine’s speed and hunting prowess made among the most valuable birds in the world, especially to the privileged families that practiced the royal sport of falconry.

All of this made it difficult to understand how the North American population of peregrine falcons could be allowed to decline so precipitously that they were declared an endangered species by the US Fish and Wildlife Service in 1970. The problem started after the end of World War II with the widespread use of the cruelly poisonous pesticide DDT on agricultural lands throughout the United States. 

Here’s what happened: Peregrine falcons feed primarily by soaring high above other medium-sized birds, then plunge-diving down and plucking their targets right out of mid-air. Many of the birds that served as primary peregrine prey species were eating mostly insects that were contaminated with DDT. This meant that the falcons were constantly increasing the buildup of DDT in their own bodies every time they decided to take to the air for a meal. Then when the peregrines nested and laid eggs, the DDT buildup caused their eggshells to thin and break, greatly reducing overall chick survivability. As a result, peregrine falcon populations in the United States declined precipitously during the 1960s to the point that they were no longer found in the wild in the eastern United States. 

Thanks in large part to the public outcry generated by Rachel Carson’s landmark environmental publication, Silent Spring, in 1962, DDT was finally banned from the US in 1972. At about the same time, Cornell Lab of Ornithology (CLOO) Professor Tom Cade started a remarkable program to restore peregrine falcons throughout North America. Working through an organization called the Peregrine Fund, Cade hatched, raised, and bred captive peregrine falcons in what was known as the Hawk Barn at the edge of CLOO’s Sapsucker Woods Sanctuary.

The accomplishments of Cade and his army of falcon enthusiasts were incredible. They designed an effective reintroduction strategy called “hacking” in which captive-bred young peregrines were released to cliff sites where they historically nested. The group also created artificial nesting towers for the fledgling falcons and even released them into urban areas where the predation threat was greatly reduced. In total, The Peregrine Fund and other collaborating groups released more than six thousand peregrine falcons in thirty-seven states and most Canadian provinces.

Today, worldwide recovery of the peregrine falcon population has been nothing short of phenomenal. More than 1,600 peregrines now nest across North America, from east to west and north to south. The peregrine recovery was so complete that the bird was removed from the US endangered species list on August 25, 1999. This handsome and fearsome raptor is now often seen wreaking havoc on pigeon populations in many of our major East Coast, cities where they have established nesting sites on ledges of skyscrapers.

Text excerpted from book:  BIRD BRAINS: Inside the Strange Minds of Our Fine Feathered Friends, written by Budd Titlow and published by Lyons Press (an imprint of Globe Pequot Press). 

Author’s bio: For the past 50 years, professional ecologist and conservationist Budd Titlow has used his pen and camera to capture the awe and wonders of our natural world. His goal has always been to inspire others to both appreciate and enjoy what he sees. Now he has one main question: Can we save humankind’s place — within nature’s beauty — before it’s too late? Budd’s two latest books are dedicated to answering this perplexing dilemma. PROTECTING THE PLANET: Environmental Champions from Conservation to Climate Change, a non-fiction book, examines whether we still have the environmental heroes among us — harking back to such past heroes as Audubon, Hemenway, Muir, Douglas, Leopold, Brower, Carson, and Meadows — needed to accomplish this goal. Next, using fact-filled and entertaining story-telling, his latest book — COMING FULL CIRCLE: A Sweeping Saga of Conservation Stewardship Across America — provides the answers we all seek and need. Having published five books, more than 500 photo-essays, and 5,000 photographs, Budd Titlow lives with his music educator wife, Debby, in San Diego, California.

 

Ospreys

What a Comeback, Nesting Platforms for All!

BIRD BRAINS: Inside the Strange Minds of Our Fine Feathered Friends (ISBN: 978-0-7267-8755-5)

by

Budd Titlow

http://www.buddtitlow.com

Near the end of a warm summer day in early June, a stop for dinner on North Carolina’s Outer Banks turned into one of the most memorable birding experiences of my life. 

As my wife and I walked across the parking lot of the seafood restaurant, I stopped briefly to watch an osprey soaring high above the building. Little did I know what awaited when the hostess escorted us to our window seats overlooking a coastal saltmarsh. Just outside the huge window was an osprey nest overflowing with three fledgling-sized chicks. 

Photo Copyright: Budd Titlow, NATUREGRAPHS

For the next hour, we ate a sumptuous coastal clambake dinner while the adult ospreys took turns flying in to feed the chicks, whose bodies overhung the sticks and twigs of their giant platform nest. As I sat there stuffing my face with great seafood and snapping wild bird photos with my camera—stuff, chew, click, repeat—stuff, chew, click, repeat—I had a sobering thought. 

An osprey demonstrates its hovering technique before plunging straight down to grasp its piscivorous quarry. (Photo Copyright: Budd Titlow, NATUREGRAPHS)

Next to peregrine falcons, ospreys are the most widely distributed birds of prey—also known as raptors—in the world. They occur on every continent except Antarctica. But in her 1962 landmark environmental book, Silent Spring, Rachel Carson warned the world that our wanton use of the insidious pesticide DDT was about to wreak havoc on the environment, most notably raptors—especially exclusive fish-eaters like these ospreys. Of course, Ms. Carson’s dire predictions came true a lot quicker than anyone anticipated and as a result North American osprey populations, along with that of many of our other great birds of prey, were threatened by extinction from the face of the earth. As natural history writer and illustrator Julie Zickefoose describes in her book The Bluebird Effect, “Ospreys became bellwethers for the health of bird populations overall, as their nest failures due to eggshell thinning from pesticides were so spectacular and unequivocal.”

Artificially constructed nesting platforms are a key component in bringing ospreys back from the brink of DDT extinction to healthy populations throughout the United States. (Photo Copyright: Budd Titlow, NATUREGRAPHS)

Now here I sat, giddily chowing down next to a nest full of ospreys within arm’s reach of my table. This happy circumstance was due to a combination of facts. First in 1972, came the ban of production and application of DDT in the United States. Second, the nation’s fish and wildlife agencies constructed wooden nesting platforms—designed specifically for ospreys—throughout most of our coastal estuaries and marshlands. As a result today, osprey populations in the United States have made an incredibly strong recovery. In fact, their comeback has been so successful that now, near any sizable body of water, you can expect to see several of these magnificent avian warriors circling on thermals, hovering over prey, dive-bombing feet-first into the water, and pulling up with large fish carried headfirst in their talons. 

After we finished our meal, Debby and I walked outside along the deck of the restaurant to watch the setting sun. As we strolled, the young ospreys in the nest above our heads gently cheeped and chirped as if to say, “So long, thanks for coming, it was good to see you.” Yes—right back at you my fabulous feathered friends, it certainly is good to see you—still here on the planet with us!

Text excerpted from book:  BIRD BRAINS: Inside the Strange Minds of Our Fine Feathered Friends, written by Budd Titlow and published by Lyons Press (an imprint of Globe Pequot Press). 

Author’s bio: For the past 50 years, professional ecologist and conservationist Budd Titlow has used his pen and camera to capture the awe and wonders of our natural world. His goal has always been to inspire others to both appreciate and enjoy what he sees. Now he has one main question: Can we save humankind’s place — within nature’s beauty — before it’s too late? Budd’s two latest books are dedicated to answering this perplexing dilemma. PROTECTING THE PLANET: Environmental Champions from Conservation to Climate Change, a non-fiction book, examines whether we still have the environmental heroes among us — harking back to such past heroes as Audubon, Hemenway, Muir, Douglas, Leopold, Brower, Carson, and Meadows — needed to accomplish this goal. Next, using fact-filled and entertaining story-telling, his latest book — COMING FULL CIRCLE: A Sweeping Saga of Conservation Stewardship Across America — provides the answers we all seek and need. Having published five books, more than 500 photo-essays, and 5,000 photographs, Budd Titlow lives with his music educator wife, Debby, in San Diego, California.

 

Northern Mockingbirds

Magical Mimics & Neighborhood Bullies

BIRD BRAINS: Inside the Strange Minds of Our Fine Feathered Friends (ISBN: 978-0-7267-8755-5)

by

Budd Titlow

http://www.buddtitlow.com

Most everyone agrees that mockingbirds are the world’s most talented songbirds. They have been revered for their musical prowess since the United States was founded. Yet their serenading ability almost led to their demise in several colonial cities during the nineteenth century, when scoundrels regularly took mocker chicks right out of their nests and trapped adults, which they then sold as caged birds. In 1828, a sweet-singing mockingbird fetched the then-princely sum of $50. 

A Northern Cardinal (Mimus polyglottos) sings his incredibly varied songs while perched high in a shrub thicket. (Photo Copyright: Budd Titlow, NATUREGRAPHS)

No fewer than four US presidents—Thomas Jefferson, Rutherford B. Hayes, Grover Cleveland, and Calvin Coolidge—kept caged mockers in the White House. Fortunately, federal legislation put a stop to this practice.

Mockingbirds have a vocal repertoire of as many as two hundred different sounds, including songs learned from other birds, non-birds, and even electrical devices like doorbells, telephones, and car alarms. The total number of songs a male sings increases with age, making him all the more attractive to females that are looking for a mate. 

Through even the hottest days of the year, these indefatigable songsters keep at it from their rooftop perches. Unattached males even sing all through the night, often to the consternation of nearby humans who are trying to sleep.

Watching mockingbirds feed on lawns is always fun. They continuously hop around while popping up their wings to display their bright white patches. Many biologists believe that they do this to scare tasty insects out of their hiding places. 

I believe that mockers are also the most pugnacious birds in the animal kingdom. Male birds establish their own distinct territorial kingdoms where they’re convinced they have total dominion over anything that dares to violate their personal space. 

Any human who has come close to a mockingbird nest hidden deep within a landscaping shrub can attest to the result: A mockingbird will rocket down off the peak of a building roof and make a beeline for the interloper’s head, often dive-bombing and hissing until the person has moved completely out of his territory. The highly intelligent mockers even remember people who trespass in their territorial space and attack them even more aggressively if they show up again.

Mockingbirds are especially tough on domestic dogs, tree squirrels, and feral cats—they will soon have a cat batting at the air and spinning around in circles until it becomes a blurry whirling dervish of hissing fur and flying claws. I’ve even seen a mockingbird repeatedly attack an adult red fox, just barely avoiding the fox’s snapping jaws each time the bird swooped in and delivered a swift peck to the canine’s unprotected backside.

While mockers now nest and live throughout much of the United States, they will always be considered a special southern species. Ornithologist Oliver Austin writes that the mockingbird is “as symbolic of the Old South as magnolias, hominy, chitlins, and mint juleps.” It follows that mockingbirds are prominently featured in the works of a host of writers—James Fenimore Cooper, Henry David Thoreau, Harper Lee, Walt Whitman, and John Burroughs among them. Appropriately, the mocker is also the state bird of five southern states—Florida, Mississippi, Texas, Arkansas, and Tennessee.

Text excerpted from book:  BIRD BRAINS: Inside the Strange Minds of Our Fine Feathered Friends, written by Budd Titlow and published by Lyons Press (an imprint of Globe Pequot Press). 

Author’s bio: For the past 50 years, professional ecologist and conservationist Budd Titlow has used his pen and camera to capture the awe and wonders of our natural world. His goal has always been to inspire others to both appreciate and enjoy what he sees. Now he has one main question: Can we save humankind’s place — within nature’s beauty — before it’s too late? Budd’s two latest books are dedicated to answering this perplexing dilemma. PROTECTING THE PLANET: Environmental Champions from Conservation to Climate Change, a non-fiction book, examines whether we still have the environmental heroes among us — harking back to such past heroes as Audubon, Hemenway, Muir, Douglas, Leopold, Brower, Carson, and Meadows — needed to accomplish this goal. Next, using fact-filled and entertaining story-telling, his latest book — COMING FULL CIRCLE: A Sweeping Saga of Conservation Stewardship Across America — provides the answers we all seek and need. Having published five books, more than 500 photo-essays, and 5,000 photographs, Budd Titlow lives with his music educator wife, Debby, in San Diego, California.

Northern Cardinals

Persistent Reflection Fighters

BIRD BRAINS: Inside the Strange Minds of Our Fine Feathered Friends (ISBN: 978-0-7267-8755-5)

by

Budd Titlow

http://www.buddtitlow.com

In the bird world, just as in the human world, persistence usually pays off in success. Even when the methods just don’t seem to make any sense at all.

When I lived in Durham, North Carolina, I used to sit in my office watching a male northern cardinal repeatedly flailing himself against the window panes behind my desk. Smash-retreat, smash-retreat, smash-retreat! On and on and on this went, day after day. 

A Northern Cardinal bathes in a cool stream in southern Georgia. (Photo Copyright: Budd Titlow, NATUREGRAPHS)

The bird was fighting off his own reflection, thinking it was an interloping male trying to weasel its way into his territory. I even stuck hawk silhouettes on the window panes, but nothing helped. The seemingly possessed bird just kept going at it, like a prize fighter trying to land a knock-out punch. Fortunately, the persistent reflection fighter never seemed to really hurt himself—he just never gave up his battle. My aunt tells a similar story about watching a male cardinal repeatedly attack the side mirror of her car parked in her Vermont driveway. Same deal—the bird would fly into the mirror, flailing its wings wildly, fall back, then come flailing away again—time after time.

While both male cardinals my aunt and I were watching thought they were aggressively defending their territories from suspected intruders, they were really just wasting their time and energy. But the intensity and persistence with which they going about their tasks shows that male cardinals, in general, are very successful at defending their territories from intruders of both their own and other bird species. 

This is why cardinals are such a widespread and successful species, so much so that no fewer than seven states—North Carolina, West Virginia, Ohio, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, and Virginia—have designated the cardinal as their state bird. Plus think about all the sports teams, college and pro, nicknamed the Cardinals, from baseball in St. Louis to football in the Arizona desert to basketball in western Kentucky.

As so appropriately stated by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s “All About Birds” website: “The male cardinal is perhaps responsible for getting more people to open up a field guide than any other bird. They’re a perfect combination of familiarity, conspicuousness, and style: a shade of red you can’t take your eyes off of. Cardinals don’t migrate and they don’t molt into a dull plumage, so they’re still breathtaking in winter’s snowy backyards.”

Drinking from a conveniently located sprinkler, a Northern Cardinal displays the brilliant colors that make it responsible for getting more people to open their field guides than any other bird species. (Photo Copyright: Budd Titlow, NATUREGRAPHS)

The cardinal’s spring song variety is also a source of backyard revelry for all who have endured long, depressing winters. And since female cardinals are one of the world’s few girl songbirds, the listening pleasure is doubled when these birds are around. In fact, the female cardinal actually sings longer, louder, and more complex songs than the male, especially when she is sitting on eggs in her nest.

One reason for the popularity of the cardinal’s song is that it’s easy for humans to imitate—even for those of us without a speck of musical talent. Just repeat these words in a loud, sweet descending whistle: birdie, birdie, birdie—or—cheer, cheer, cheer—and you’ve got it!

Text excerpted from book:  BIRD BRAINS: Inside the Strange Minds of Our Fine Feathered Friends, written by Budd Titlow and published by Lyons Press (an imprint of Globe Pequot Press). 

Author’s bio: For the past 50 years, professional ecologist and conservationist Budd Titlow has used his pen and camera to capture the awe and wonders of our natural world. His goal has always been to inspire others to both appreciate and enjoy what he sees. Now he has one main question: Can we save humankind’s place — within nature’s beauty — before it’s too late? Budd’s two latest books are dedicated to answering this perplexing dilemma. PROTECTING THE PLANET: Environmental Champions from Conservation to Climate Change, a non-fiction book, examines whether we still have the environmental heroes among us — harking back to such past heroes as Audubon, Hemenway, Muir, Douglas, Leopold, Brower, Carson, and Meadows — needed to accomplish this goal. Next, using fact-filled and entertaining story-telling, his latest book — COMING FULL CIRCLE: A Sweeping Saga of Conservation Stewardship Across America — provides the answers we all seek and need. Having published five books, more than 500 photo-essays, and 5,000 photographs, Budd Titlow lives with his music educator wife, Debby, in San Diego, California.