WHO KNEW?

My most recent book purchase arrived on my doorstep today, and I immediately went into a flurry of browsing.  It’s wonderful!

This is Sibley’s most recent book, published in April, 2020. When I sought it out on Amazon, it was already back ordered!  Not being particularly patient, I ordered it on Kindle and started reading immediately. 

N.B. It’s better  as a physical book. For one thing, the illustrations are dazzling, and that comes across much better in hardcover. Sibley does his own paintings.

I recently learned that what I’d been calling a purple finch is actually a house finch, so went immediately to the finch section. There I learned that all red, orange, and yellow colors in songbirds come from the carotenoids in their diet, and therefore, the brighter the colors the healthier the bird.  What It’s Like to be a Bird  isn’t meant to be read straight through, cover to cover. And I, for one find it easier to flip back and forth in a physical book

Sibley is well known for his books on birds. His various guides are “must haves” for bird identification. These guides are organized, as most field guides seem to be, for the purpose of identification.  This isn’t my kind of nature book.

Which raises the question, “What is my kind of nature book?”  I easily plucked more than two dozen books off my shelves that, by my classification, are nature books. Here are a few of my favorites.

I acquired this book years ago solely because it was written by a colleague at St. Lawrence University. It is delightful! Robert DeGraaff styled The Book of the Toad as “A Natural and Magical History of Toad-Human Relations.” It’s an engaging mix of toad lore, symbolism, biology, use as hallucinogens, etc. The toad’s role in everything from art to witchcraft is in this book.

I have a similar book about rats. The Rat: A Perverse Miscellany is filled with fascinating (to me) tidbits about rats, including how they live and are treated around the world. You’ll find rats everywhere, in fables, literature gothic and modern, and in film. Of course, Barbara Hodgson included the role they played in plagues.

Having farms in my background perhaps explains why I picked up The Complete Chicken on a bargain shelf once upon a time. As a child, I was afraid to gather eggs for fear the hens would peck me. To this day, I can still “smell” the acrid unpleasantnesses of chicken droppings and the wet feathers of chickens killed for the table being scalded for plucking. But Pam Percy‘s book gave me a whole new appreciation for chickens rooting in trees, the best breeds for eating and laying, and the all-around appeal of buff orpingtons. If you tend to think a chicken is a chicken, browse the breeds around the world, from Australia to Zimbabwe.

Crows fascinate me. They’re smart. They learn from the older generation about which places/people/sites to avoid without ever experiencing them directly. They communicate. They avoid places where a crow has died. And they’ve adapted beautifully to urban living! Candace Savage, among her many other non-fiction works, wrote Crows: Encounters of the Wise Guys of the Avian World.

Given the current concern over the future of honeybees, and thus the world, you might want to pick up a copy of The Queen Must Die (not the young adult historical fantasy novel, though that also looks pretty interesting).  My copy of the book was discarded at some point by the Fond Du Lac Public Library in Wisconsin, and I have no idea how it came to be on my shelf.

According to author William Longgood, “Bees are more than a hobby; they are a life study, in many respects a mirror of our own society.” Longwood presents the life of bees as a “work or die” society, with only collective wealth (honey), each bee so dependent upon the whole that an isolated bee, even with the right food and temperature, will soon die. Lots of interesting (to me) bits of info, such as one hive filled with honey can weigh 80 pounds. Bees were studied and written about by the ancient Greeks.  A queen can lay as many a 2,000 eggs a day. And then she dies.

Perhaps you’ve noticed that the above books all deal with animals, and I guess that is a recurring choice—perhaps because they are animate, and thus more likely to have personalities.

But I’ve recently spent more time on flowers and plants than before, and I find there’s more to them than their looks and uses. One of my favorite finds was Who Named the the Daisy? Who Named the Rose? A Roving History of North American Wildflowers.

Here’s a quote from Mary DurantLUPINE, by its own choice, thrives on poor oil. But in ancient days the concept of cause and effect were reversed, and it was believed that lupine destroyed the soil, that it wolfed the nourishment out of the earth. Thus it was named after the wolf—lupus, in Latin. 

I’m now more interested in knowing what I am seeing. There are at least two free plant identification apps available for smart phones, as well as several subscription services for sale. I’m much more likely to snap a picture and find out immediately what I’ve seen than try to remember the details necessary to look it up in a guide.

Mary Roach, though she claims to “fake her way through interviews with experts she doesn’t understand,” manages to write fascinating non-fiction books a wide variety of subjects. The titles say all that is necessary about why virtually anyone would find these books entertaining as well as informative.

Then, too, I have books on earthly things, dangerous things, and invisible things. But this has gone on long enough. Suffice it to say, whatever aspect of nature catches your interest, there’s a book on that!

Before I wrote this blog, I’d never have characterized myself as a nature buff. But now?

ARE ANY OF YOUR CHARACTERS BIRDS?

Some people I know could definitely be harpies!

During more than fifty days of staying at home, I’ve become increasingly attentive to the flora and fauna in my yard.  Is this happening to you? 

Wild strawberry (Fragaria vesca) and mock strawberry (Potentilla indica or Duchesnea indica)

For the first time I bothered to identify the wild strawberries invading my flower beds as Indian or mock-strawberry, not the luscious Virginia wild strawberry. (Big clue is the white vs. yellow flower.)

Stanley jumps from the bayberry tree onto the bird feeder several times a day.

But in spite of Stanley, we are gifted with a wide variety of bird visitors, too. As I watch them day after day, noticing patterns is inevitable. (To all the bird lovers and watchers out there: I realize that this reveals a certain—shall we say—naiveté. But there are more of us around than you might believe.) Watching our feeder, one of the main characteristics I’ve noticed is, for want of a better term, sociability.

Bluebirds always come in pairs or with their young.
Catbirds come one at a time.
Goldfinches come in small groups.
And grackles, crows, and starlings tend to flock.

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Writers: Based on sociability, what sort of bird would your character be?

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Perhaps a King Vulture?

While finches are happy to share the feeding stations, and linger for communal eating, bluejays tend to chase other birds away, and they don’t settle. They dart in, grab a bite, go back to a tree, and repeat.

I’ve always been interested in birds in a casual sort of way. I have three daughters whom I’ve associated with white throated sparrow, goldfinch, and bluebird based on their coloration and behavior. 

My grandson is a cardinal, theatrical and flamboyant.  My older granddaughter is a crow, based on her black hair, her preference for wearing black and her keen intelligence. My younger granddaughter is a chickadee, based on her liveliness and sociability.

And my husband is a red bellied woodpecker, because that bird has red, black, and white markings and links the three grandchildren together.

So, I have my own personality profiles of various birds. Do you?

Although I’m convinced that birds—typically by nature of their species—have personality types, being a scientist at heart, I wanted a bit of authority to back me up here. But while searching online for bird personalities, again and again I came up with the same question—“Which one are you?” And the answer was a multiple-choice of four, the DOPE model: dove, owl, peacock, or eagle. 

So, writers, for what it’s worth, here it is.

Emerald dove

DOVES are associated with terms such as neutral, loving, and kind. Although passive in communication, they are highly emotional. Dove people exhibit a long list of personality traits, both positive and negative.

Laughing dove
  • Positive traits
    • Patient
    • Giving
    • Trustworthy
    • Introverted
    • Avoids risk-taking
    • Respectful
    • Honest
    • Reliable
    • Easygoing 
Mourning dove
  • Negative traits  
    • Dependent
    • Predictable
    • Follower
    • Gullible 

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Spotted owl

OWLS are perceived as logical and intelligent, but conservative, introverted and not communicative. 

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Great horned owl
  • Positive traits  
    • Calm
    • Meticulous
    • Just
    • Mindful
    • Determined
    • Detail-oriented
    • Careful
    • Curious 

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Barn owl
  • Negative traits  
    • Distrustful
    • Self-centered
    • Indecisive
    • Vindictive
    • Short-sighted

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Peahen with blue peacock

PEACOCKS are showy and outgoing, very active communicators—i.e., talkative—and possess high “emotional intelligence.” These are competitive, emotional birds. 

Red peacock
  • Positive traits  
    • Open-minded
    • Energetic
    • Charismatic
    • Social
    • Enthusiastic
    • Adventurous 

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Brown peacock
  • Negative traits  
    • Scattered
    • Selfish
    • Controlling
    • Dominating 
    • Power-hungry

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Golden eagle

EAGLES are bold, decisive, and aggressive. They have high logical intelligence and are very active communicators.  Within the general population (allegedly) 29% of people are eagles.

Black eagle

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  • Positive traits  
    • Charismatic
    • Honest
    • Initiator
    • Independent
    • Driven
    • Motivated
    • Compelling
    • Fearless 

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Philippine eagle
  • Negative traits  
    • Blunt
    • Unsympathetic
    • Egotistical
    • Controversial
    • Impatient
    • Pushy
    • Stubborn

You can take the 40-question, 4-bird, DOPE personality test online. Click here

Writers note: Be aware that any given personality trait could be either helpful or not, positive or not, depending on the demands of the situation.

Writers’ option: identify a bird of your own choosing and research it, finding how/whether it reflects one of your characters.

Why bother? Assigning birds to your characters helps keep them consistent and distinctive.

1:56 AM

And it hit me: I hadn’t written a blog! Where did the days go since Friday?

Fauna

Well, I spent a lot of time birdwatching, and was rewarded with titmice, chickadees, bluebirds, goldfinches, purple finches, house finches, grackles, bluejays, cardinals, red bellied woodpeckers, downy woodpeckers, mourning doves, white throat sparrows, wrens, brown thrashers, and—of course—robins. 

Today for the first time ever, I saw a pair of Eastern towhees! They’re usually very shy, but the males sing and show off their tails in flashy displays to attract mates in the spring. Remind you of any characters or real people you may have encountered?

I had a chance to enjoy the acrobatics of Stanley and Ollie at the bird feeder.  They’re better than a professional circus troupe, but without the spandex and sequins! (For more about their antics, check out an earlier blog I wrote about the behaviors and habits of squirrels in my yard and elsewhere.)

And a couple of days ago I spotted a five-foot long black racer coiled in a pussywillow tree behind my house. (Black racers are very common in the southern US, but they are not venomous or dangerous. Random fact — these snakes can vibrate their tails, making a sound very similar to a rattlesnake.)

Flora

Visiting yard plants is always interesting this time of year (sometimes a bit confusing). I found that a purple baptisia planted by the front door has migrated to a side garden near the back—clearly the work of fairies.

I have a single rose bud opening (although my neighbors’ roses are hanging heavy).

The rhododendron has its first bloom, and azaleas are going wild. Irises are so heavy-headed that they are resting on nearby azaleas. My peonies aren’t as far along as they were three years ago, but they’re showing lots of buds for the future.

The patio pots have flourishing mint, chives, oregano, thyme, sage, and—surprisingly—dill and parsley that wintered over.

I’ve walked in the park and along nature trails, finding wild rhododendron, a.k.a. early azaleas. Also spotted were Virginia bluebells, wood ferns, phlox, pink lady slippers, cinquefoil, dandelions, and creeping buttercup. 

Fiction

Then, too, there were writing tasks. COG Literary Magazine is preparing to print “Pawpaw” and I had to approve the page proof. “Running on About My Mother’s Body” received a second acceptance, so I needed to respond to that and offer a replacement piece. I even wrote the first draft of “Pandemic.”

And I’m involved with two critique groups on zoom and Google hang-out, both new to me.

Fraternizing

All of that doesn’t even touch on communications with family and friends.

I’ll try to get out of myself for Friday!

Bottom line for writers: Life happens.

Birds Here and There

birds here there
Keeping a nature diary has spotlighted how often I look for and at birds. Bird feeders just outside my kitchen provide many opportunities as I eat breakfast or lunch. Until now, my focus was mostly on beauty, dominance, and learning the names of the locals.

 

birds here there
Now, it seems I have a very narrow window on birds of the world: there are approximately 10,000 different species worldwide! They have a few things in common, however: they have feathers, wings, lay eggs, and are warm-blooded. They are thought to have evolved from theropod dinosaurs. They have hollow bones which help (most of them) to fly. (Kiwis are an exception. They are flightless. And, FYI, they lay the largest eggs relative to their body size.)

 

About 20% of bird species migrate long distances every year. And birds have the same five senses as humans: sight, hearing, touch, taste, and smell.

 

But amid these commonalities are enormous variations.

 

Sight: birds use sight for flight, evading predators, and finding food. They are especially good in perceiving motion and detail—2 to 3 times better than humans. Those with more widely positioned eyes have a wider field of vision, including being able to see directly behind themselves. (Think evading predators and evading attacks.) They have an inner eye membrane to help protect their eyes and clean them often. During flight they often spread their wings to protect their eyes, and when attacking they go for the eyes of their adversary. The owl, famously, has to turn its whole head to see.

 

ostrich head
The ostrich is the largest bird in the world, and they have the largest eyes of any land animal. They are approximately the size of billiard balls, and are actually bigger than their brains. Also, FYI, ostrich eggs are the biggest and they have the fastest maximum running speed (97 kph, just over 60 mph).

 

But in spite of eye size, other birds (e.g., murres) have been shown to see, and recognize, it’s partner several hundred meters away out at sea.

 

peacock eye
Compared to mammals, birds have relatively large eyes. In general, bigger eye means better vision. In fact, bird eyes are bigger than they look, because all but the pupil is covered with skin and feathers.

 

Diurnal birds that become active at dawn have larger eyes than birds that become active later after sunrise. Nocturnal birds (with the exception of kiwis) have relatively larger eyes.

 

People have three types of photoreceptors in the retina: red, green, and blue. Birds have these AND ultraviolet—which they use to find food as well as partners.

 

Birds use their right and left eyes for different tasks. Domestic chicks use their left eye to approach their parent. Male black-winged stilts are more likely to direct courtship displays toward females seen with their left eyes. When peregrine falcons hung, they rely mainly on their right eye. New Caledonian crows show individual preferences for one eye or the other when constructing tools or prying prey out of crevices. The stronger the preference for one side is, the better the bird is at problem solving, foraging, etc.

 

So far it is know that songbirds, ducks, falcons, and gulls can sleep with one eye open. A study of mallard ducks showed that those sleeping in the center of a group were more likely to have both eyes closed, whereas those on the edge were more likely to keep the eye facing outward from the group open.

 

There is also evidence that birds can sleep on the fly, e.g., swifts and glaucous-winged gulls.

 

Hearing is the second most important sense. Their ears are located behind and below the eyes and are covered with soft feathers for protection. The ears are funnel shaped to focus sound. Here again, owls are special. Their face plates (facial discs) help direct sound. Surprisingly, so called “ear tufts” of owls and other birds have nothing to do with hearing.

 

barn owl
Birds’ hearing is much more acute than humans  for sound recognition, though with a smaller frequency range than humans. They are especially sensitive to pitch, tone, and rhythm changes. They use this sense to recognize other individual birds, even in flocks. Birds use different sounds, songs, and calls in different situations to identify predators, mark a territory, or offer to share food. FYI: owls simply devour small prey whole (think insects, mice, etc.) and regurgitate indigestible bits like bones and fur.

 

bat san diego zoo
[Source: San Diego Zoo]
Bats and oilbirds (and perhaps others I haven’t read about) use echolocation. Bouncing chirps and clicks off solid objects is used to navigate through dark caves.

 

Touch is more important to people than to birds. Even so, birds are very sensitive to changes in air temperature, pressure, and wind speed, changes which are transferred down the feather to nerves in the skin. Some have special feathers around their bills that seem to serve a purpose when feeding.

 

Mutual preening—which involves manipulating one another’s feathers—is important in courtship for many bird species. On the other hand, they have fewer nerves in their legs and feet, which makes them less sensitive to extreme cold. Shore birds have extremely sensitive touch receptors in their bills, aiding them when feeding through mud, water, etc.

 

Taste is not well defined in birds. Depending on the species, they have fewer than 50 or as many as 500 taste buds, compared to 9,000-10,000 in humans. Birds can taste sweet, sour, and bitter, and can identify suitable and most nutritious food sources—but this is less important than sight and hearing. For those of us who hope to discourage squirrels and raccoons from a particular food source, birds are impervious to spicy-hot, as in cayenne pepper infused birdseed.

 

Smell is the least developed bird sense. They have small olfactory centers in their brains. Therefore, some claim this debunks the myth that nesting birds will reject a fledgling that has been handled by humans. In fact, songbirds cannot detect the human scent.

 

That generality aside, vultures, kiwis, honeyguides, albatrosses, petrels, and shearwaters all use keen senses of smell to locate food, often from treat distances or when the odor is not noticeable to humans.

 

And now to some interesting (to me) facts about birds.
 
  • Hummingbirds can fly backwards. The Bee Hummingbird is the smallest living bird in the world, with a length of just 2 inches. Larger hummingbirds, on average, weigh less than a nickel. The smallest ones weigh closer to a penny
  • Chickens are the most common species of bird in the world.
  • Homing pigeons are bred to find their way home from long distances, and have been used as messengers for thousands of years. During WWI and WWII, Pigeons were used in this way, but also for reconnaissance.
  • Pigeons can learn to play pingpong, among things.
  • They are excellent at visual signal detection and other similar tasks.
  • A great tool-making bird is the crow. Not incidentally, they (along with ravens and rooks) have large brains compared to other birds. They mainly make probes out of wood, twigs, or wire to catch or impale larvae. But crows are among the only that create their own tools.
  • Tool use in other birds is mostly shown in intricate nest building.
  • Although not making tools, other birds use them. For example, a parrot may use a tool to wedge to crack nuts. Gulls often drop shellfish in front of cars to crack them open.
  • Although parrots are renowned for being able to talk, ravens in captivity are even better at mimicking human speech, as well as the sounds of car engines revving or toilet flushing. In the wild, they sometimes imitate other animals, such as wolves or foxes as a way to get them to make carcasses bird edible.
acorn woodpecker
  • Acorn woodpeckers store acorns in holes they drill in trees or other wood items. They have been known to store up to 50,000 acorns (each in its own tiny hole) in a single “granary” tree
  • While on the water, the black and white coloring of penguins camouflages them both from above and below by blending with the surround.
cardinal
One bird I especially like is the northern cardinal. It’s one of the most popular birds in the U.S. Indeed, the cardinal is the state bird for seven states: Ohio, Virginia, West Virginia, Kentucky, Indiana, Illinois, and North Carolina.

 

Although male cardinals are brighter, females have more elaborate songs. One cardinal may have more than two dozen song variations. Both sexes sing, and sing year round.

 

Cardinals are territorial—the territory defended against competitors by the male—and are noted for trying to fight their reflections in mirrors, windows, and other reflective surfaces. Cardinals are monogamous while together, and may mate for life.

 

They eat various seeds, fruits, berries, grains, and insects depending on what’s available.

 

bluebird
Another favorite is the bluebird.  They can be found throughout North America, including my back yard. Bluebirds, too, are monogamous throughout a breeding season, and may breed together for more than one season. Also like cardinals, they are territorial. The male tends to defend the outer territory while the females defend the nest.

 

A bluebird can spot caterpillars and insects in tall grass at a distance over 50 yards. They especially like live mealworms.

 

In my experience, bluebirds tend to come to the feeder in pairs—sometimes more than two pairs at a time. I think of them as family birds.

 

My backyard aviary is alive with goldfinches, purple finches, titmice, mourning doves, robins, grackles, starlings, house finches, and sometimes mocking birds, hummingbirds, crows or hawks. Right now, I know less about many of these birds. Sufficient unto the morrow.

 

Bottom line for writers: Nature writing can enhance any genre. Consider bird details for your next story.