downtime with the birds: courses and sightings

birdcollageMY SPADE AND RAKE REMAIN IN COLD STORAGE, but the birding binoculars have been getting quite the workout. So it goes on winter days here at A Way to Garden, when I count on (and simply count) things avian to keep me from going mad. Do you perhaps need a distraction, too? Join me for some bird-watching, virtual or otherwise.

BEST BIRDS PHOTOS: Never mind its name (which is not G-rated, but what the fu-k?). This wonderful site powered by Tumblr blog technology is packed with photos of birds I could just spend all day looking at. And sometimes do. I hope you enjoy Fu-k Yeah Birdwatching (as in: yup, I’m a bird watcher) as much as I do.

WATCHING WITHOUT INFERENCE: I just completed an online bird-behavior course with the Cornell Lab of Ornithology called “Rivalry and Courtship in Birds,” taught by the noted ornithologist Ken McGowan (his world-class work on crows is ongoing since 1988). Amazing videos from the Lab’s unrivaled collection combined with online reading and interactive quizzes to form the curriculum, and extensive “classroom” discussion (actively moderated by the instructor) took place on sophisticated forums each week.

“Thinking of animals like people is misleading and unhelpful,” McGowan “said” in the class forums. “Thinking of people as animals with the same survival goals can provide profound insights into what we do.”

Learning to observe but not infer was therefore a primary thrust of his teachings, and once you start looking at things more matter-of-factly, it changes everything.  We learned to identify what McGowan calls “suites of ritualized behavior” (like tail-shaking and rhythmic head-pumping that helps some duck pairs coordinate their activity for mating).

Those of you who read this blog regularly know I am a serial anthropomorphizer of not just animals (think: frogboys) but even plants. Not very scientific, and of course I know better. Mea culpa. I should therefore resist saying that Jack the Demon Cat found it frustrating to hear birds calls emanate from my laptop when I was “in class,” but I cannot.

The next five-week session begins today, then March 31 and May 12; registration is $255 for Lab members of the Lab, $295 otherwise. Class is open 24/7 during the semester; work at your convenience.

SECRET LIFE OF CROWS: Ever wonder what all the squawking is about? This month-by-month explanation of crow habits written for laypersons, also from the Cornell Lab, makes it all begin to fit together. Crows are the most common “cooperative breeders” in North America, meaning that one breeding pair may be joined by up to 15 individuals—mostly older brothers and sisters, last year’s fledglings, who help Mom and Dad raise the new brood. Talk about an extended family.

LEARNING TO FLY, TURNED ON ITS HEAD: Did birds learn to fly from the trees down (the long-held theory) or the ground up? At the annual conference of the American Ornithologists’ Union recently, bird-flight expert Kenneth P. Dial of the University of Montana-Missoula challenged the conventional wisdom. Maybe those earliest birds-to-be, certain small-winged feathered dinosaur ancestors of the flyers we know today, were not flapping to soften the landing from on high, but instead trying to get up and away from predators using “wing-assisted incline running”? Research videos from the Montana lab show how the studies are undertaken (click on the thumbnails to play them; the one of the bird and plank, and the bottom one, two below that, interested me most). A fast PS: I just love that Dial is a pilot, too.

1, 2, 3 CHICKADEES: The four-day Great Backyard Bird Count ended Monday; nothing out of the ordinary to report here, except a crafty Cooper’s Hawk who used a coniferous shrub just outside the back door as a blind of sorts, and tried to score the songbirds I was tallying.  Remember the one who met his death in the garden when he his a tree while in pursuit of a meal last year? Do you do the GBBC or Project Feederwatch?

Any good sightings in your neck o’ the woods lately?

Categoriesbird sh-t
  1. Johanna says:

    So when my Pekin duck Ari Duckass bobs her head at my Cuckoo Marans rooster Egglebert, she might be inviting him over for a drink and a swim??!! Uh oh!

    Seriously, last autumn I moved my bird feeders to give me a better view from inside in the winter. I’ve especially enjoyed watching the downy and red-bellied woodpeckers feeding off the suet blocks.

    Am off to check out your links. Love watching the birds!

  2. Todd says:

    Oh this is such a great post! The F-k Yeah Birdwatching website is an instant classic and I will be telling all my bird loving friends!

    I love birds so much I have a crow and chickadee tattooed on me…..
    But the Juncos, Chickadees and Nuthatches are our favorites! We love that they come flying above as soon as we are about to fill the feeders. Singing and chirping for their reward.

    I still need to try and hand feed the little dee’s one day soon!

  3. Todd says:

    Yes Margaret, I have a chickadee in mid flight on my chest, and an Audubon crow perched in a Hydrangea paniculata ‘tardiva’ on my right arm….

    They are me two favorite birds, besides chickens of course… :)

  4. Mary Zwolinski says:

    Do huge screaming seagulls count?
    This has inspired me to finally take a look at my Project Feeder stuff which has been sitting on my desk for about 6 months-thanks Margaret!

  5. chris says:

    thanks for the crow link! have plenty of crows and their cawing…now i can at least empathize (they are probably dealing with teenagers too!)

  6. Providence Acres Farm - Sheryl says:

    A cute little nuthatch has started coming into my porch lately. I put out some shelled sunflower seeds and peanut butter for him. He ate the seeds but not the peanut butter, yesterday.

    I am an anthropomorphizer too, animals and plants as well.

    1. Margaret says:

      @Sheryl: Here, too, the nuthatches and chickadees and the occasional wren come under the porch overhang and seem to explore incessantly. I had not tried offering treats, but now you have me thinking…my fellow anthropomorphizer. :)

  7. Gloria says:

    Live purely.
    Be quiet.
    Do your work with mastery.
    Like the moon, come out from behind the clouds!
    Could this be a message from the garden Buddha?

  8. Ann says:

    For fascinating insight into bird behavior from super thoughtful observation, read Berndt Heinrich’s books — he has written two on ravens and a more general one on geese that has Beaver Bog in the title.

  9. elizabeth says:

    If you want to know anything about turkeys, read “Illumination in the Flatwoods”, A season with the wild turkey, by Joe Hutto. Amazing book.

    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, Elizabeth. One thing I miss in the 10 years since I have been fenced in here (to keep deer out) is the fact that the turkey flocks don’t come in much to drink at the frogponds and such like they used to. Occasionally some will fly in, but mostly I just see them in the distance, walking along as they do, looking for acorns and bugs and all the rest of their diet. Nice to see you, and don’t be a stranger.

  10. dean says:

    I can hardly believe how much chirping and calling I hear in the mornings now. A week ago, silence. Today, music. I sat on the porch steps, drinking coffee and soaking up the sun. We may yet get two feet of snow, but “gardening,” in a sense, has begun. Today I’ll scatter poppy seeds.

    1. Margaret says:

      @Dean: I know what you mean. This morning a chipmunk awoke and bolted for the bird feeder — first food in months I guess — and then for the frogpond to wash it all down. Hilarious. So much activity suddenly. Someone is living under one shed the last few days and there are footprints in the snow like mad where all was quiet for so long. Uh-oh. Here we go.

  11. Maria says:

    I also hear much chirping and calling in the mornings where not so long ago there was only quiet. Probably look a little peculiar and definitely unlady-like standing knee deep in snow in my bathrobe with a look of rapture on my face listening to my feathered friends! Think I’ll scatter some poppy seeds to complete the picture!

    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, Dawn. Glad to meet you. The birds are waking up here a bit (as is the gardener). Sounds like spring will be here before too long. But first, a little more winter weather to endure… See you soon again, I hope.

  12. dean says:

    Six inches of fresh snow, and counting. So much for sipping coffee in the sunshine. Oh, well, my poppy seeds are getting watered-in. I’m gardening.

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