Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Pigeon Watch

I was talking about pigeons. (Here)

The common pigeon -- the Rock Dove or Rock Pigeon familiar to city dwellers around the world -- is one of those ubiquitous creatures -- like crows -- that we see so often that we almost don't see them at all.  Not as flashy or charismatic as crows, they have been with us for a very long time.  Though most of us don't see them this way, pigeons belong to a select group of animals -- along with dogs, horses and possibly cats -- that have been companions of humans and contributors to our civilization for thousands and thousands of years. 

Ballard (Seattle, WA) June, 2009
Just consider this:  all the Rock Pigeons around the world are the descendants of domesticated birds. We know that, between five and ten thousand years ago, Egyptians were using pigeons to carry messages up and down the Nile. We also know that there were already feral pigeons living in the streets of ancient Rome, pretty much the way they do now. They were introduced into North America probably in the 1600's from Europe, and the Army was still using them to send messages as late as World Wars I and II.   Properly speaking, they are not wild birds; they are feral -- domesticated animals that have returned to the wild.  Sort of.  You don't find many Rock Pigeons out in the forest (where their wild cousins do still live -- in this area, we have Band-Tailed Pigeons and Mourning Doves for instance).  They are urban animals.  Or, if you prefer (I do), civilized.

Pigeons: The Fascinating Saga of the World's Most Revered and Reviled BirdMany of these stories, and much more, are related in Pigeons: The Fascinating Saga of the World's More Revered and Reviled Bird by Andrew D. Blechman.  I first read this book a couple of years ago, and have gone back to it many times to check on certain anecdotes or re-read certain stories.  It is a rich, fascinating popular science book that not only gives us the history of the bird, but also introduces us to the incredible cast of characters and subcultures that have grown up around pigeons in the present day.  From weird pigeon hunts to racers to oddball environmentalists to good old fashioned breeders.  The pigeon has inspired more hate and love than just about any other bird (People as diverse as Charles Darwin, who bred pigeons while developing his theory of natural selection, and Mike Tyson, who has been a lifelong lover of pigeons, raised them as a child, and reputedly had his first fight with an older boy who killed one of his birds.)

TheCornell Lab of Ornithology has a special "Urban Bird Project" and as part of that project they have "Operation Pigeon Watch".  Now, next to watching dogs play, and seagulls fly, and the endlessly inventive antics of crows, there are few things I find more entertaining than pigeons. (Okay, Jennifer Aniston, but that's a whole different topic.)  So when I found out about project Pigeon Watch, I was hooked.  As I've mentioned before, I have a resident pigeon at my house who I call Timmy.  I call him a special needs pigeon because he seems to be a little ... well, handicapped.  But he's a big, beautiful healthy looking pigeon none-the-less.   Lately, Timmy has been showing up with a friend.  I think of "her" as Timmy's girlfriend, but of course I have no idea of either of their genders.  She's smaller than Timmy, with darker colored wings. 

There are something like 28 "morphs" -- or different color patterns -- recognized for the feral Rock Pigeon, but Cornell's Pigeon Watch has narrowed it down to five.  Timmy, for instance, is a "checker" because of the checker like pattern on his wings.  Checker's can vary from light gray with a little black, like Timmy, to much darker patterns.  I believe that Timmy's friend (who is shier and harder to photograph) might also be a checker, but with much darker wing patterns than Timmy's.

Timmy's "parents", West Seattle, summer 2010
One of the goals of the pigeon watch program is to observe mating habits among pigeons and learn which morphs mate with which others (to determine if they show a preference).  I had a chance to observe Timmy's parents, when I first moved here -- the birds I assume were Timmy's parents because they were all sharing a nest -- and I believe I witnessed courting behavior several times.  Pigeons court throughout the year, although (according to Cornell and other sources) they are more likely to mate in late winter or early spring.  Once they mate though, they mate for life.  I don't have the opportunity to observe the rest of the family any more, as they are all gone.  But I will be watching Timmy and his friend whenever I get the chance.

If you like Birdland West, you might also want to check out our sister blog Books and Beasts, which focuses on reviews of books about animals and related topics.

(Many of the original photographs featured on Birdland West are available for sale as art quality prints.  You can check out all of our offerings at  If you see an image here that does not show up on our Imagekind site please contact me directly and I'll let you know about availability.)

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Game Show Pigeons and Ball Playing Dogs

You have to bear with me for a second, but this will get around to birds, I promise.

Timmy, my resident "special needs" pigeon.
Over at (possibly the coolest domain name ever), Davide Castelvecchi, who is a physical sciences and mathematics editor at Scientific American, has been stirring up controversy recently by revisiting what's known as "The Monty Hall Problem".  If you're not familiar with it -- where have you been?  It's been discussed over the years everywhere from hard science magazines to Car Talk.  It's derived from the problem that Monty Hall often presented to contestants on Let's Make A Deal.  You have three curtains.  Behind one of them is a car, and behind each of the other two is a worthless gag gift (like a donkey).  (I know, I know -- who says a donkey is worthless?  But that's not the point of the problem).  You have to pick one of the curtains.  Let's say you choose number One.  After you make your choice, Monty reveals what's behind one of the other curtains, and the one he reveals is always a donkey.  Let's say Monty opens number Two. Then, he offers you a choice.  Do you want to keep the curtain you chose, or do you want to trade?

Monty's problem (not my photo, obviously).
For most of us, our intuitive guess is that it doesn't matter.  We had a one in three chance of picking right the first time and that hasn't changed.  Or, conversely, since there are now two unopened curtains, we have a fifty-fifty chance.  Either way, switching can't increase our odds.

It turns out though, that isn't true. Statistically you are always better off switching.  In fact it almost doubles your chances. I'm not good with this sort of math so I'll just refer you over to those who are -- and if you want to argue about it (as a lot of people do, judging by the comments section) you can argue with them.  Proving the solution isn't really my point here. (Check it out here.)

The reason this came up again at Scientific American, though, is because of an article they published back in January of this year.  John Allen Paulos, a mathematician at Temple University, noted that pigeons didn't seem to have the same difficulty with the Monty Hall Problem that humans do.  On the contrary, pigeons (being good empiricists, as Paulos says) learn the best strategy after only a few tries.  (You can see the article here.)

A few years ago another scientist -- Tim Pennings, a Professor at Hope College in Michigan -- was playing fetch with his dog, throwing a tennis ball into the water for the dog to retrieve.  The dog, Elvis, would run along the shore and at some point plunge into the water toward the ball.  What Pennings found was that, in most cases, Elvis was choosing a path that closely approximated the optimal path (the path with the shortest travel time) to the ball.  The path can be worked out using fairly complicated calculus equation -- but Elvis seemed to be doing it "in his head" and "on the fly". (Again, I'm not going to try to explain the math -- you can look into it more here if you're interested.)

Precision landings almost every time.
These kind of remarkable abilities are everywhere in nature.  The small songbirds in my yard routinely land on the thin perches of a bird feeder that is swaying in the wind -- and they do so coming from across the yard, setting their trajectory as they approach. Only a couple of times have I ever seen a bird have to pull up and come at it again.  Squirrels leap from the rail of my deck to the cherry tree nearby, and catch the thin branches, which again are often swaying in the wind.  Birds also fly through the cherry tree despite its dense branches and (at this time of year) leaves.  They can fly straight through and out the other side.  Imagine trying to write a computer program to pilot something the size of a chickadee through such a complex space, complicated more by ever changing light conditions, wind turbulence, and so on.  The amount of calculation that it requires is staggering.

The catch looks easy, but try writing a program to do it.
But let's not leave humans out.  Ichiro Suzuki does the same thing nearly every day.  When an outfielder hears the crack of the ball leaving the bat and starts to run, he has time for almost no conscious thought about where it's going or how to get there.  Again, it's a complex mathematical problem solved on the fly -- timing his leap to catch the ball just before it goes over the wall.  And I've seen dogs playing with Frisbees or tennis balls who were as good as any major leaguer.

The greatest ball player I've ever known.

Paulos warns against the mistake of thinking that these abilities reflect some kind of conscious knowledge on the part of animals.  Of course, they don't.  They represent the problem solving ability wired into brains over billions of years of evolution.  (And in the case of dogs -- and to some degree pigeons -- of tens of thousands of years of intense breeding).  Corgis, for instance, are herding dogs, whose job was to keep livestock moving in one direction.  The ability to foresee the movements of a sheep and set your own course to intercept it effectively is not all that different from what Elvis was demonstrating on the beach.  

If you want to drive the unconscious nature of these faculties home, I invite you to walk into a room sometime and ask if anyone there is good at calculus.  When almost everyone predictably says no, toss a tennis ball to one of them.  Almost certainly, they will catch it, and when they do you can show them (with the help of a mathematician friend, if you're like me) the equation that describes what they just did.  We're all better at math than we think.

The furor over the Monty Hall problem does show, however, that for us humans our conscious thinking sometimes gets in the way.  I learned this a long time ago in art school.  One of the reasons why it's so hard for many people to learn to draw is because what we "know" about objects (say the size and form of a table) gets in the way of what we actually see before us.  Most people asked to draw a table will draw an abstract representation of a table instead of the object they see before them, which is skewed by perspective and point of view and really looks nothing like our idealized notion of "table".

 Oh, and I wanted to get back to pigeons.  More on that very soon.

If you like Birdland West, you might also want to check out our sister blog Books and Beasts, which focuses on reviews of books about animals and related topics.

(Many of the original photographs featured on Birdland West are available for sale as art quality prints.  You can check out all of our offerings at  If you see an image here that does not show up on our Imagekind site please contact me directly and I'll let you know about availability.)

Monday, July 18, 2011

A Flock of New Books for Birders

Birds of the Puget Sound Region (Regional Bird Books)When I first got into birding, not that long ago, I did what I usually do with a new interest:  I read obsessively.  And quickly discovered that birds and birding are subjects about which much (unbelievably much) is written.  The first things I checked out were Field Guides, since they're everywhere.  Someday soon maybe I'll write a little about Field Guides and my experience with them.  For now, I'll just say that the guide I use most is Birds of the Puget Sound Region by Bob Morse.  It works nicely for almost all of the birds I commonly encounter and is a little more wieldy than some of the bigger regional guides.  I am very pleased with it and consult it almost daily.

But if there's one thing I love as much as birds and wildlife, its books.  So here are some of the best new birding books I've come across this summer:

The Joy of Birding: A Beginner's Guide (The Joy of Series)The Joy of Birding: A Beginner's Guide by Kate Rowinski is a book I would have eagerly welcomed when I stared out -- and it's still very rewarding now.  This is one of the best single volume introductions to birding I've seen.  She begins at the  birth of our fascination with birds, and with a perennial question:  Are you a Birder or a Bird-Watcher?  From there, Rowinski goes on to give us an introductory course in understanding birds, their behavior, habitats, food sources, calls, the basic families of birds and how they differ -- it's like Ornithology 101 with a passionate, knowledgeable and always entertaining teacher.  My one disappointment here was that her list of "25 Backyard Birds You Should Know" was slanted somewhat toward the eastern United States.  A lot of the birds she describes I will never see in my Seattle yard.  But she goes on to cover feeders, recipes for special bird treats (Passerine Power Bars and Christmas Brunch Bark, for instance), ideas for turning your yard into a sanctuary, creating your life list, and even bird photography.  (And as much photographing of birds as I do, I found her section very helpful.)  This is a book not just for the bare beginner, but for all of us who have become involved in birding and bird watching and are now ready to explore new possibilities.  Because it provides a good introduction to so many areas, I suspect that a lot of us will find something here to broaden and deepen our relationship to birds.

Backyard Birding: Using Natural Gardening to Attract BirdsAnd if your interest is primarily in backyard bird watching and how to turn your yard into a haven for feathered friends (and other wildlife too, possibly) a very good next step would be Julie Zickefoose's wonderful book Backyard Birding:  Using Natural Gardening to Attract Birds.  (This book was written along with the editors and writers of Bird Watcher's Digest).  As someone who knows very little about gardening -- or about plants for that matter -- I was a little bit intimidated by the prospect of this book.  My own efforts at gardening have been small and inconclusive so far. (Check it out here).  However, this is a delightful book, well organized, beautifully laid out and illustrated, which I think will appeal to both experienced gardeners who want to make their efforts more bird friendly and to birders, like myself, who might not know much about gardening, but want to attract more birds.  Zickefoose packs this book with a wealth of information about layers of habitat, kinds of feeders and food, seasonal variations, bird friendly plants (and discussions of the importance of native plants), and even a little philosophy about living more harmoniously with nature.  This is a great book to follow up the previous selection, going more in depth about these particular topics.  Whether you want to go all out in creating a sanctuary or just want to add a few plants and features that will make your yard more attractive to birds this book is a trove of ideas.

Hummingbirds and Butterflies (Peterson Field Guides/Bird Watcher's Digest Backyard Bird Guides)Along the same lines, but more specialized, Bill Thompson III & Connie Toops have written Hummingbirds and Butterflies (also a Bird Watcher's Digest book and part of the Peterson Field Guides series).  It's a wonderful overview of two groups that seem very distinct -- hummingbirds, or course, are birds and butterflies are insects -- but that appeal to us for many of the same reasons and are attracted to the same kinds of habitat.  I know a little bit about hummingbirds and almost nothing about butterflies (although now I'm getting interested, and in another year or so I may have these authors to blame for igniting a new obsession) but I was absolutely enthralled by the information provided on both groups -- as well as the beautiful photography.  I think I learned as much about hummingbirds here as I have from any other source I've consulted.  And since I was a total ignoramus about butterflies, I got to gorge myself on new information (always one of my favorite forms of binging.).  In addition to all this, though, they have species guides that provide wonderful information in a format that will be familiar to anyone who uses field guides.  The book is probably a little too heavy to take into the field comfortably, but since it (like the previous books) focuses a good bit on creating an environment that will attract these beauties to your yard, it is an excellent home reference.

Kaufman Field Guide to Advanced Birding (Kaufman Field Guides)Moving from the easier to the more advanced, I'd like to round out with two books that really push the edges of my competence as a birder and a reviewer.  The Kaufman Field Guide to Advanced Birding, by Kenn Kaufman, is an incredibly rich, dense collection of expert information on identifying birds.  Recognizing that birders today have a huge amount of information available to them in books, on the internet, even over their phones, Kaufman hasn't tried to produce another species by species guide -- rather, he has focused on learning the principles of identification that can make us expert birders.  He begins with the general, the principles and approaches that are common to all birding -- avian physiology, terminology, general techniques for recognizing types of birds, bird calls -- and then he proceeds to apply the same approach to almost every category of bird, showing us how to apply these principles in field situations, what to look for, where the common pitfalls lie, and how to overcome the challenges.  This is definitely not a book that you sit down and read straight through.  This is a book to be studied and re-studied over a long period of time.  Much of the information he presents is totally beyond my current level as a birder, but I've already found his ideas and approaches affecting the way I observe birds.  I'm sure this is a book that will continue to teach me and influence my birding for years to come.

Bird Feathers: A Guide to North American Species (Birds Ornithology)And finally, the most esoteric of the books I've looked at recently.  Bird Feathers:  A Guide to North American Species by S. David Scott and Casey McFarland.  This book was first recommended to me by a friend who is an expert tracker, and it definitely falls into the advanced category.  Last month, I reviewed Feathers: The Evolution of a Natural Miracle by Thor Hanson (you can see the review here) a book I enjoyed immensely, and this present volume would have been nice to have around for reference while I was reading that book.  The introductory section of Bird Feathers provides a great overview of feathers, their different forms, structures and purposes.  It also has a great section on flight -- the different styles of flight of various groups of birds and how their wings and feathers are adapted to that style.  It is one of the best general overviews of these subjects that I have ever seen, and if there was nothing else in the book, it would still (to me) be worth the price.  The latter part of the book, however, eludes me.  Not because of any faults in the book but because, quite frankly, I'm just not ready to make use of it.  This is a detailed field guide to the feathers of most North American species, with measurements and descriptions.  It would take a lot of study and experience for me to learn to make use of this part of the book, and many birders probably aren't ready to go that deeply into such a specialized pursuit.  For those that are -- or for those like me who just want a good overview of how feathers and wing shape and flight are adapted to the lifestyles and behaviors of different birds -- this is a great book.  And who knows, it might still inspire me to pursue feather identification more seriously.

If you like Birdland West, you might also want to check out our sister blog Books and Beasts, which focuses on reviews of books about animals and related topics.

(Many of the original photographs featured on Birdland West are available for sale as art quality prints.  You can check out all of our offerings at  If you see an image here that does not show up on our Imagekind site please contact me directly and I'll let you know about availability.)

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Fledglings in Seattle, Gulls in New Jersey

The beautiful summer weather that we had over the Fourth of July weekend has given way again to the cool, cloudy days we've been accustomed to this spring.  The yard is quiet, not much going on.  The dogs are restless and not happy about being inside.  I've been spending too much time at the computer and not enough time outdoors.

Hose Sparrow fledgling.  His gape flanges are still visible at the corners of his beak
But the big excitement continues to be fledglings.  Day before yesterday there was a loud, insistent chirping in the cherry tree outside.  (The cherries are starting to ripen, and when that happens we'll have all kinds of excitement around here for a couple of weeks.)  It sounded almost like the demanding voices of baby birds in the nest.  Working at a wildlife rehabilitation center, where the baby birds have to be fed constantly throughout the day, I've learned to recognize that sound.  But I was pretty certain there was no nest in the cherry tree.  It took me a long time, moving around on the deck and in the yard, to actually see the guys who were causing all the commotion.

House Sparrow fledglings in the cherry tree.
This is the second batch of fledgling House Sparrows that I've seen.  If you remember, about a week ago, I posted a picture of a slightly older HS.  These guys are even younger.  According to my naturalist friend, Kevin, if you look closely you can still see the yellowish "gape flanges" at the corners of their mouths.  The fellow I photographed before didn't have any remaining gape flanges.  So far this year the House Sparrows are by far the most prolific (or at least the most obvious) breeders around.

Slightly older House Sparrows form the week before.
Summer is also the time baseball heats up.  This year the Seattle Mariners are up and down, but they're managing to hang in the division race, which is a lot more than any of us expected.  I love baseball.  Safeco Field, which is the Mariners' home, opened in 2001 (the season the Mariner's set an American League record for most games won and Barry Bonds broke the single season home run record) and there is really nowhere better to be on a beautiful summer day in Seattle.  It's a beautiful park, and there is literally not a bad seat in the place.

Seagull impatiently waiting for the crowd to leave at Safeco Field.
Seagulls love baseball too.  Or at least, seagulls love Safeco Field.  I guess they aren't really interested in the game, though, because they usually don't start showing up until about the eighth inning.  They seem to have some sense of how long the game lasts, or else they're picking up on other clues, like fans starting to sneak out early to beat the traffic.  I would imagine that once the people are gone the gulls have quite a feast on spilled and discarded food.

Ichiro in Yankee Stadium, May 2008.  The Mariners got pounded.
Laughing Gull, Atlantic City, NJ.  May 2008
Back in 2008 (the last hurrah before the bottom fell out of the economy and my business) I took a trip back east to see the Mariners play at Yankee Stadium.  That was the last season the Yankees played in the old stadium -- the House That Ruth Built -- and the baseball lover in me couldn't stand to let them tear it down without seeing it once, in person.  I saw one game of the last series the Mariners ever played in that stadium in May of 2008.  The Yankees creamed them by the way.  Since I had to fly back -- and since it costs a fortune to stay in New York City (see how good I am at rationalizations?) I decided to spend a few days in Atlantic City, rent a hotel room there, and then drive up to New York to see the game.  It worked out like that (more or less -- I wasn't really prepared for driving in the Bronx).  I spent four days in Atlantic City, playing poker at night and hanging out on the Boardwalk in the day time. 


It turns out that the Boardwalk is home to a lot of seagulls -- mostly Laughing Gulls, which are different in several ways with the gulls we're familiar with here in Seattle. 

I spent more time photographing gulls, pigeons and the semi-feral boardwalk cats than I did at the casinos, which is good because as much as I love poker, I lost every game I played there.

If you like Birdland West, you might also want to check out our sister blog Books and Beasts, which focuses on reviews of books about animals and related topics.

(Many of the original photographs featured on Birdland West are available for sale as art quality prints.  You can check out all of our offerings at  If you see an image here that does not show up on our Imagekind site please contact me directly and I'll let you know about availability.)

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Identifying Fledglings

I totally blew the ID on this juvenile Dark-Eyed Junco
As I've mentioned before in this blog, I am pretty new to serious bird watching.  It was only after moving out to West Seattle last summer that I was able to put up bird feeders and really spend some time getting to know the local birds -- I've just experienced my first spring here.   I wrote in a recent post how I totally blew the identification of a juvenile Dark-eyed Junco.   Well, I've gotten several more trips to the plate since then, and my batting average is still low.

Happy to see the next generation of starlings in my yard.
First, here's one I got right.  Not too difficult, but I was pleased with myself.  The lighter colored birds in with the starlings are this year's fledglings.  They don't have the familiar colors yet because (I believe) their feathers are too new and haven't had time to wear down, which is what produces the beautiful spring and summer subtleties of starling attire.

There's a sad postscript to this sighting, however -- well, as is usually the case, how sad it is depends on your point of view.  The starlings around my yard have been very active lately, but the other morning I heard them raising such a ruckus that I ran outside to see what was going on.  Starlings were flapping all over the yard, hopping from tree to tree, screeching and hollering.  It lasted about ten minutes with me trying to get some pictures of them and failing because they wouldn't hold still.  Right at the end though, just before they fell silent and flew away, I spotted the likely cause:  a rat,  heading into the thick bushes with something large in his mouth.  I would guess he caught a young or injured starling and was headed back to the den with it.  If you remember, I wrote my very first post about starlings and rats squabbling in the yard.  They often eat in close proximity to each other on the ground beneath my feeders.  But this time the rat got an opportunity, and snatched it.

The rat got his chance and he took it.

Now, back to the happier side of Spring.  See if you can do better with the other two juvies:

Do you know who they are?

The hummingbird fooled me.  I have only identified Anna's Hummingbirds in my yard before -- they were here all winter, although they seem to have changed their routine for breeding season because I haven't seen much of them in the spring.  I thought this bird was smaller than the one's I'm used to seeing, but "smaller" and "larger" are relative terms when you're dealing with Hummingbirds.  If the difference is a millimeter and you're a hundred feet way, who can be sure?

This is a juvenile female Rufous Hummingbird

In this case I was right, however. (About the size:  I was totally wrong about the ID).  That is a juvenile female Rufous  Hummingbird -- I had to ask a more knowledgeable person, but you can tell by the rusty color on the flanks and the absence of iridescence. 

And the second one?  He (no idea of gender here) barely looks old enough to be out of the nest.  He is the offspring of birds I have written about several time -- you could go back and check my Invaders post, for instance.

This is a juvenile House Sparrow (gender unknown).
He's a House Sparrow.

My total so far this year is four fledgling species on my property (of which I've correctly identified one without help -- that gives me a .250 batting average, which is not great but will keep you employed in the major leagues, provided you don't make too many errors in the field).

And I'm still hoping to see fledglings from my House Finches too.

If you like Birdland West, you might also want to check out our sister blog Books and Beasts, which focuses on reviews of books about animals and related topics.

(Many of the original photographs featured on Birdland West are available for sale as art quality prints.  You can check out all of our offerings at  If you see an image here that does not show up on our Imagekind site please contact me directly and I'll let you know about availability.)