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President’s Message – March 2017

Birds vocalize for myriad reasons – warning off adversaries, locating food sources, staking territorial boundaries, and mate attraction. Many master birders “bird by ear” and so learn all the variation of calls and songs of the avian world. Pointing in a direction, a master birder may call out a species hidden in foliage but revealing its presence only by its melodic tune. I have not learned many bird vocalizations but appreciate the ones I do know, and I can usually tell the difference between a bird’s warning us to stay away or trying to attract a mate. Of all the sounds a bird makes, their songs of spring are the ones that take our breath away. Take the Swainson’s Thrush  whose song is one of the most beautiful in June when it arrives in woodlands here, or the Pacific Wren Pacific Wren which has the longest and most complex song of all birds. Each of these stops us in our tracks, commands our attention and makes us pause. Wonderstruck, we are moved purely and simply by the beauty of their song. Many begin early in the morning. A study on warblers done in Puerto Rico in 2015 by behavioral ecologist David Logue found that the earlier in the morning birds “warmed up” their 30 or so song repertoire, the better their changing of pitch in their trills later as the morning wore on. The result was that those who started practice early, really early, fared better in the competition for mates. So there has been selective pressure on the males of many species to break out in song earlier and earlier in the day. Can you imagine the struggle to begin your regimen earlier than your neighbors each ensuing day? Relish these days of spring and the songs from field and forest. (from Mar/April 2017 Echo newsletter, by Deb Nickerson)

Burt’s Birds (March 2017) – Yellow-rumped Warbler

As winter leaves and we again start to enjoy spring weather, the thoughts of bird-inclined people naturally turn to the myriad of wonderful breeding birds that we enjoy so much. Particularly those of us who have spent much time in—or who grew up in—the eastern half of North America are inclined to remember the joys of spring migration and especially the waves of passerines that arise from the Gulf area and spread northward. Then some of us may recall the absolute joy of standing in a rich woodland in the midst of a “warbler wave” as the birds tumbled through the trees and bushes around us, nourished by the fresh bounty of insect food, always pushing northward, and perhaps creating in a few wondrous hours a major share of our life lists. Yes, of course, other wonderful birds arrive with the spring, but warblers hold a special place in the heart for many; and as a representative of the Parulidae, let us again remember the Yellow-rumped Warblers.

Ornithologists have for a long time played a kind of science game called “Split and Lump” that may baffle the general public as some established species are formally split in two or as similar species are lumped into a single one. The game uses the classic definition that a sexual species includes all the individuals that are actually or potentially capable of breeding with one another. (That “potentially” just makes the game more challenging.) When I was growing up in Minnesota, we had two species: the more easterly Myrtle Warbler, with its white throat and pale supercilium, and the more westerly Audubon’s Warbler, with a yellow or yellowish throat and no supercilium. But some ornithologists studying these species eventually decided that all the forms interbreed with one another and should be considered a single species. (Darn! Cheated out of a life bird by science!)

In fact, many yellow-rumps remain with us through the winter, flashing their rumps at us as they flit through the trees; though widespread, they are primarily birds of the conifers. All warblers are basically insectivorous, but yellow-rumps also feed on the berries of many plants such as bayberry and wax myrtle, having the enzymes to digest the wax coverings on such fruits. Thus, they extend their winter range northward while other warblers are forced to migrate south for the winter. They may also give the impression of being nuthatches, as they cling to tree trunks and branches, and they may leap flycatcherlike into the air to catch flying insects. An item in the latest issue of Living Bird, from Cornell, notes that yellow-rumps in the mountains of Mexico may flutter up against oak trees to pick glistening droplets from fine hairs protruding from the bark; insects that live in the bark drink sap and extrude the droplets through these hairs. Most remarkable feeders, indeed!

Yellow-rumps are very sociable birds, both when migrating and foraging. Kenn Kaufman notes that during courtship the male accompanies the female everywhere while calling and displaying. Their nest, constructed by the female, is made of the usual mix of vegetation but lined with feathers and hair so that it curves over to partially cover the eggs and young. A unique nest for a unique species!

(from Mar/April 2017 Echo newsletter, by Burt Guttman, photo – Andy Reago & Chrissy McClarren)

Using Native Plants to Fight Climate Change

Click on pic to link to Audubon site.

As most of you know, the National Audubon Society considers climate change to be the number-one threat to birds; its scientists predict that global warming could result in the extinction or dramatic range-restriction of nearly half of North American birds by 2080. As birds in Western Washington face this danger, we are at risk of losing more than 40 species, such as Gadwalls, Hooded Mergansers, Northern Harriers, Varied Thrushes, and Brown Creepers. Most of the birds will decline due to loss of suitable summer habitat, although Red Crossbills and Black-headed Grosbeaks will primarily lose winter habitat.

For some time now, National Audubon has called upon all of us who cherish birds to do all we can to fight climate change’s progression. This is now more important than ever, as our new president has repeatedly stated his skepticism that climate change is real, and he made support for coal a major campaign theme. On his first day in office, the federal Climate Action Plan was removed from the White House web page; the EPA is under a gag order, and he has ordered that agency to freeze all grants and research funds. In light of these actions, it is exceedingly difficult to imagine that the federal government will maintain any significant efforts to combat global warming. It is imperative, then, that each of us take up the fight by making our views known to our elected officials—federal, state, and local—and doing what we can to reduce our own carbon emissions and to mitigate the effects of global warming on birds and other wildlife. As I have stressed many times, planting native gardens, and hence reducing reliance on lawns or exotic plants, is one productive way to further this goal.

Click on pic to link to Audubon site

A wonderful new resource available on the Web is National Audubon’s “Plants for Birds” Initiative, which will help you rework your yard into a site to help birds weather climate change (pun intended) and habitat loss. National Audubon’s goal is to encourage 1 million new native plantings across the nation, mostly in private yards. Their position is that “each patch of restored native habitat is just that—a patch in the frayed fabric of the ecosystem in which it lies. By landscaping with native plants, we can turn a patchwork of green spaces into a quilt of restored habitat.” The rationale for the “native plant push” will sound familiar to anyone who has been following our own For the Birds! Project. Native plants thrive in their natural locations, and they do not require supplemental watering, mowing, or fertilizing. Birds have co-evolved with these plants and so have become adapted to efficiently make use of them for shelter and food, including the insects they entice. In other words, native plants are ecologically-sound choices.

Click on pic to link to Audubon site.

The Plants for Birds portion of the Audubon website contains many useful pages. You can, for example, find information on planning your garden and preparing it for new plantings. The tips, which will be most useful to novice gardeners, include thinking about the mature sizes of plants, the amount of sun each part of your yard receives each day, and when to plant and water. The most valuable part of the site, in my opinion, is their Native Plant Database. Typing in your zip code directs you to a page that provides both a complete list of native plants suitable for your location and a smaller “best choices” list. The plants on the latter list are the ones most easily found at local nurseries and most readily grown in the local conditions. This part of the site also lists local resources for buying native plants: this is important because few “regular” nurseries stock many natives.

Furthermore, you can filter the lists for certain types of plants (such as trees or vines) or those that have particular features (such as berries or nuts); you can also zero in on the birds you are most interested in attracting (such as orioles or grosbeaks). When I entered my zip code, the site named 192 plants with 38 of best choice, accompanied by brief descriptions. Since I want some new shrubs and am terrifically fond of nuthatches, I ran a second search with these filters. I was rewarded with the names and photos of 55 native shrubs that I could grow, 16 of which were best choices. Easy! Now, of course I’ll want to do a little more research to find out when each type flowers, which like damp soil, and which I think are aesthetic, but I feel like 90% of the selection work has been done for me.

I urge you to check this page out. Information on our BHAS website can also help you make your yard bird-friendly and find other ways to reduce your carbon footprint. (See pages “I’m For the Birds” Challenge Activities Checklist and Climate Change Initiative Resources). Who knows? With all the free time you’ll have when you’re freed from watering and mowing, you might even find a free minute or two to write the President, your senators, and your legislators, asking them to enact policies that will reduce climate change.

(from Mar/April 2017 Echo newsletter, by Kim Dolgin)