Thursday, December 24, 2009

Single sighting - Prairie Falcon

I hope you'll forgive me this one - this bird, as well as the Cooper's Hawk, were actually found in Saskatchewan.  We had some great birding on that trip, which has been my only birding trip out of Manitoba.  The Cooper's (?) Hawk and this Prairie Falcon were both found in the Moose Mountain area during an overcast day.

Some people have great stories about finding birds, I'm afraid this isn't one of them!  We were driving along the road, I saw something in a tree, and stopped for photos!  When processing the photos when we got home, I initially assumed this was a Merlin.  Left the images in a folder for Hawks with no ID.  Then I saw a Merlin, at home.  And looked at a few photos. Prairie Falcons aren't very common in Manitoba, so this was a lucky sighting!

Why is this a Prairie Falcon, and not a Merlin?  The mustache mark is much more pronounced than on a Merlin.  The streaking is much finer, especially along the belly, which, along with the underside of the tail, is much whiter - almost unmarked.  This bird was also larger than a Merlin, with different proportions (longer body and tail)

Why is this not a Peregrine Falcon?  The mustache mark is much *less* pronounced than on a Peregrine.  This bird is very much brown-and-white, and the breast is streaked, not barred.  The breast of a juvenile Peregrine may be streaked, but it is usually dark brown on tan, not brown on white.

Here are some excellent Peregrine Falcon photos

Here are some great Prairie Falcon photos

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

That bird is a partial albino!

(Photo from Wikipedia Commons)

Um, no it's not. 

The wild bird sphere utilizes some odd terminology.  A bird that is more white (or just lighter) than usual used to be called albino, or partially albino.  More recently, the term "leucistic" has sprung up.  None of these are particularly useful, or even correct.

Why the insistence on using such generic terminology?  Am I missing something?  Why has the knowledge of color genetics gained through other research on other animals (including birds) not gained regular usage amongst birders?   

I spent a lot of time researching color genetics in horses, and in Peach-Faced Lovebirds, with minor forays into the color genetics of dogs, cats, other parrots, and chickens.  I have gotten started on a degree in genetics (just some first and second year courses under my belt). 

Albinism is a particular condition, a complete absence of pigmentation.  No, you can't have a partially albino individual.  They either are albino, or they aren't.  Partially albino is a useless, antiquated term.  In addition, if the bird is completely white, with dark legs and eyes, it is NOT an albino.

Within domestic bird populations (and occasionally wild birds), the first color mutations to occur are usually reduced pigment (dilution genes) and random de-pigmentation (spotting genes).

Small genetic mutations allow for different colors.  These mutations do occur in wild populations (Budgerigars, in Australia, for example - blue birds are occasionally seen in the wild) but these individuals do not usually live long enough to pass on their genetics.

The actual mutations of the genes involved do not occur more often in captivity than in the wild (as far as I know however, this hasn't been studied).  The difference is that they are usually disadvantageous in wild individuals (again, leading to a lessened chance for survival), but are almost always selected FOR in captivity.  Why do these small mutations occur then, if they don't translate to an advantage in wild animals?  That's that little "evolution" thing, you know, small changes in genetic code, some of 'em work, some of 'em don't. 

Most "off-color" or "aberrant" wild birds are not diluted - they have white patches in their plumage, which is otherwise normally colored.  Sometimes, this can be caused by injury - say a small bird is hit by a hawk but escapes.  It may acquire scar tissue, leading to some white-colored feathers.  However, most of these aberrant wild birds have much more white coloring than we would expect from an injury, such as an all-white head, or the Pigeon at the top of this post.  These individuals have a spotting gene.  Just like pinto horses, and Border Collies.  :)

I would very much like to see a better term applied to these birds, "leucistic" being much too general.  Click here for a  very brief overview of the word.  The most important point is that it is a VERY general description of a phenotype, indicating *nothing* of the genotype.  If the phenotype is visible enough to make enough of a distinction to label the bird as "leucistic", it's likely visible enough to say whether the individual is diluted, or spotted. 

Here's an example.  Pictured below are, left to right, a bay, a buckskin, and a bay pinto.


The buckskin is a bay horse with a dilution gene.  The pinto is a bay horse with a spotting gene.  But both could, technically, be considered "leucistic bays", even though the two phenotypes are so totally different, and caused by completely unrelated genes.  How silly it would be to lump them together.

So why do we lump it all together with birds?  Even at a distance, a spotted Pigeon is clearly distinct from a diluted (think "Fawn-colored") Pigeon.  Aren't we as birders scientifically sophisticated enough to make this basic distinction?

 If you made it all the way to the end, I thank you for your time, and apologize for my long-windedness!

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Cooper's Hawk

Thinking that "pretty sure" isn't a good statement for what would be a new bird on the life list.  So here's the photo (click to enlarge), and my reasoning. 

Points for Sharp Shinned:  head looks small, possible white stripe above eye, body is wider towards the top (not tubular).

Points for Cooper's:  widest part of body is lower down (bird appears more barrel-shaped than narrow-waisted, although angle is awkward), tail appears more rounded than straight, white band on tip of tail is apparent, perching on fence post in the open, size (bird was definitely larger than a blue jay), eye is closer to beak (doesn't appear to be in the middle of the head)

Can't judge the legs or breast streaking, and since it appears to be a juvenile, can't use the nape color either.

These are the pages I used:

Identifying Cooper's And Sharp-shinned Hawks
Sharp-shinned and Cooper's Hawks

Inspecting this photo has made me question a yard bird we had a couple of years ago, which I thought at the time was a Sharp-Shinned, however it was also quite large.  I have no photos though, and my memory is sketchy!  So that bird will remain a "don't know".

Monday, December 21, 2009

Numbers, numbers, numbers...

Still obsessing with the numbering of my life list...  Am currently studying sandpiper photos, trying to decipher my poor blurry photos, most taken four years ago.  Feeding style?  I figure I'm doing well to remember where I took the dang photo!!  But I wonder about the numbering.  Would they go onto my list according to the date that I took the picture, or the date that I finally figured out what they were?  Sigh...  I think I've got the hawks figured out, anyways...  Got a bonus - had a photo where I couldn't decide,  had it in a folder for "no ID" but am pretty sure it's a Cooper's Hawk - one I hadn't added to my life list, so yay!

Friday, December 11, 2009

So many sightings, so few species

I'm almost finished reading "To See Every Bird On Earth", a story about birding, and a birder who has seen over 7000 species.  I also re-read "Birding:  Tales Of A Tribe".  Interesting to compare the two, the former is written by a non-birder who has been on many birding trips, and the second by a very keen birder. 

I don't see myself wanting to see that many birds...  I like birds, and taking bird trips, but that's extreme.  Whoa. 

It did make me curious for one thing - I wanted to have a chronological life list.  I want to be able to say what my 100th bird was.  I had a life checklist, but wasn't sure where it was.  Found most of my bird books and entered all the info I could find into a database.  Ended up with 2605 records.  For a piddly life list of 183.  Figured it would be at least 200.  Sigh.  I could increase it without birding if I could get some of my bad blurry photos recognized - my pics aren't good enough to say which peeps I've seen, so I didn't count any.  But that won't make it 200. 

It ends up being especially bad considering that my yard list is 75! 

Oh well, more excuse to go birding!

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Global Warming is a Hoax!

Apologies for the heading - this is NOT my opinion.  This "movement" of people who do choose to believe that global warming is a "hoax" baffles me completely.  And what is with the "evolution is still just a theory" crowd???  Good grief...  Don't start a discussion with somebody like this - it heads REAL quickly into "I believe".  Folks, that's not a rebuttal, that's a childish "you can't make me" retort.

Believe in whatever you want to believe.  But don't expect to be taken seriously if you've got nothing to back it up with.

The Wall Street Journal has a new article out, summarizing (and rebutting) most of the claims of the "I don't believe in Global Warming" crowd.  Just a synopsis, but handy.

Click Here for the Story

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Implications of feeding birds

This is a topic that always interests me - what effect do we have on wild birds when we put out bird feeders?  I worry almost constantly that I'm only helping the invasive House Sparrows and European Starlings when I put out bird food.

There's an article on BBC News (found on Birdchick) detailing the evolutionary changes underway within the Blackcap.

There's an interesting lack of opinion as to whether this is a good thing or a bad thing... Must nosh on these thoughts...