Silence

Silence: Kings Peak, Courtesy Wikimedia, Hyrum K. Wright, Photographer
Kings Peak,
in the High Uintas Wilderness,
Ashley National Forest
Courtesy Wikimedia
Hyrum K. Wright, Photographer
Licensed under GNU Free Documentation License

Silence is a rare commodity in the world we have created. Our senses are bombarded with all descriptions of sound to the point of sensory exhaustion. Likened to PTSD when violating a safe threshold, it may be time to find an escape.

Our avian friends are experiencing the same affliction.

As I was reminded on my early am canyon run, birds rely heavily on vocalizations to communicate. Lazuli buntings, warbling vireos, the barely audible blue gray gnatcatchers added pleasure to my uphill slog. But not singing for me, rather to attract mates, defend their territory from rivals, and warnings for predators.
The excess racket that humans contribute prompt some species to sing at different times and in different ways. In Mexico, researchers found that house finches raised the pitch of their lowest song notes in response to road noise, and also held them longer. A study published in Current Biology examined song changes of the great tit across ten European cities revealed that in each location the birds omitted the low-frequency portion of their call.
However helpful such biological tricks may be for some birds, the nearer one gets to a densely populated town or city, the less diverse the avian community becomes. Not all species have the ability to work around the commotion.

House sparrows, which have a significant low-frequency component to their songs, have suffered population declines of two thirds in Great Britain over the past few decades. A university of Colorado at Boulder study found that mourning doves and black-headed grosbeaks avoid nesting near sites where natural gas is being extracted, as they cannot tolerate the noisy compressors. Blood tests revealed that levels of corticosterone in birds closest to the gas compressors were far lower than normal. This initially came as a surprise to the researchers, because corticosterone is the bird equivalent of cortisol — the hormone that prompts the human body to release a flood of adrenaline, increasing blood pressure, and jolting our brain with sugar. Only 21 different species resided in the noisy sites, compared to 32 in the quiet ones.

Many of us have grown accustomed to the hustle and bustle of the 21st Century, perhaps to our demise, but the birds may have a lesson to teach us about the value of peace and quiet: just how frighteningly little of it remains. According to an audio ecologist study, fewer than five minutes go by before the average patch of wilderness is interrupted by the sounds of human interference.

After years of recording the natural environment in places all around the globe, Gordon estimates that fewer than a dozen truly silent places are left. It is not just the birds that are vulnerable, either. The breeding success of some Australian frog species is being impacted by traffic noise, and ocean noise pollution caused by boat engines. Who knows what variety of species may be affected? Noise might seem an unlikely player on the ecological stage, but further study is definitely warranted on impacts of the anthropogenic racket.

This is Jack Greene, and yes, I’m wild about Utah!

Credits:

Pictures: Courtesy Wikimedia, Hyrum K. Wright, Photographer
Sound: Courtesy Kevin Colver
Text: Jack Greene, Bridgerland Audubon Society

Additional Reading:

Leavitt, Shauna, Natural Quiet and Darkness in our National Parks, Wild About Utah, May 6, 2019, https://wildaboututah.org/natural-quiet-and-darkness-in-our-national-parks/

High Uintas Wilderness, Ashley National Forest, USDA Forest Service, https://www.fs.usda.gov/detail/ashley/specialplaces/?cid=fsm9_002443

Hempton, Gordon, SoundTracker.org, Atria Books/Simon & Schuster, Mar 2, 2010 (reprint), https://www.soundtracker.com/

Hempton, Gordon, One Square Inch of Silence, , https://www.amazon.com/One-Square-Inch-Silence-Preserve/dp/1416559108/

Herps

Herps: Long-nosed Leopard Lizard Gambelia-wislizenii Free Image, Courtesy PXhere.com
Long-nosed Leopard Lizard
Gambelia-wislizenii
Free Image, Courtesy PXhere.com
Everywhere we go, people want to know, who we are, so we tell them- we are the herpers, the mighty, mighty herpers!
Stumbling around the desert with fishing poles in hand. Hot, dry, no water within miles. A casual observer might question our sanity. But here’s the deal. We have full control over our mental faculty.

Our defense. First, our fishing poles are used for the capture and release of lizards. Remarkably fast and allusive, these rigs are the answer. A small slipknot noose using monofilament fishing line is attached to the end of the pole. The lizards often freeze as the line is dangled slightly in front of their nose and gently slipped over their heads. A quick upward flip and bingo (with a bit of luck) a lizard dances freely from the line’s end.
“I caught one!” alerts the others within shouting distance, and the crew soon assembles to view the prize. Photos are taken which includes GPS coordinates, then the victim passes multiple hands, and is released to resume its lizard business following the rude interruption.

Herps: Western Banded Gecko, Courtesy NPS
Western Banded Gecko
Courtesy NPS

This has become an April tradition for our USU Wildlife Society students with a keen interest in herpetology. We relish the Mojave Desert surrounding St. George with flowers in full bloom and bird song in full tilt.
Our desert ramblings have revealed many herp treasures- spiny lizards, spectacled rattle snakes, desert iguanas, desert tortoise, chuckwalla, canyon tree frog to name a few. Within the past two years, we have assembled well over two dozen different species. The Mojave is second only to the Sonoran Desert for biodiversity. I’m always amazed how this parched, desolate land can support such a remarkable abundance of life forms. The Mojave Desert hosts about 200 endemic plant species found in neither of the adjacent deserts.

I’m going to end with a brief description of my favorite little lizard that appears so delicate, like a desert flower, it stands in stark contrast to this seemingly inhospitable environment. In good light its paper thin skin covered with minute scales, allows one to see the interior workings of its slender body.
The western banded gecko is secretive and nocturnal, foraging at night for small insects and spiders, often seen, silhouetted against the black asphalt of desert roads. It is one of the few reptiles that controls scorpion populations by eating their babies. If captured it may squeak and discard its tail. As a defense mechanism, it can also curl its tail over its body to mimic a scorpion. Geckos also store fat in their tails. Being they maintain a reduced metabolism at low temperatures, their tail fat can sustain them for up to nine months. Because the western banded gecko restricts its activities to nights, it is often seen, silhouetted against the black asphalt of desert roads.

This is Jack Greene and I’m wild about the banded gecko, all its cousins, and this amazing land we call Utah!

Credits:

Pictures: Banded Gecko Courtesy US NPS
Pictures Leopard Lizard, Courtesy PXHere.com
Text: Jack Greene, Bridgerland Audubon Society

Additional Reading:

Strand, Holly, The Lizard and His Tail, Wild About Utah, June 11, 2009, https://wildaboututah.org/the-lizard-and-his-tail/

Repanshek Kurt, Western Banded Gecko, Wild About Utah, Feb 23, 2015, https://wildaboututah.org/western-banded-gecko/

Strand, Holly, Gila Monsters, Wild About Utah, Feb 4, 2009, https://wildaboututah.org/gila-monsters/

One Biota Network, Noosing Technique for Capturing Lizards, YouTube, May 25, 2018, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tkcOpPRfeug

Reptiles, Zion National Park, US National Park Service, https://www.nps.gov/zion/learn/nature/reptiles.htm

Reptiles, Canyonlands National Park, US National Park Service, https://www.nps.gov/cany/learn/nature/reptiles.htm

Species List, Arches National Park, US National Park Service, https://www.nps.gov/arch/learn/nature/species-lists.htm

Reptiles and Amphibians, Bryce Canyon National Park, US National Park Service, https://www.nps.gov/brca/learn/nature/reptiles.htm

Gulls

California Gull <i>Larus californicus</i> Farmington Bay Davis County, Utah 9 Feb 2003 Courtesy & Copyright 2003 Jack Binch, Photographer See UtahBirds.org
California Gull
Larus californicus
Farmington Bay Davis County, Utah
9 Feb 2003
Courtesy & Copyright 2003 Jack Binch, Photographer
See UtahBirds.org
“When it seemed that nothing could stay the devastation, great flocks of gulls appeared, filling the air with their white wings and plaintive cries, and settled down upon the half-ruined fields. All day long they gorged themselves, and when full, disgorged and feasted again, the white gulls upon the black crickets, hosts of heaven and hell contending, until the pests were vanquished and the people were saved.” Orson F. Whitney, June 6th 1848. Over a century later, the California gull, was selected as the state bird of Utah and a gull monument placed on Temple Square in SLC.

My first serious encounter with this bird occurred in the mudflats of the Ogden Bay Bird Refuge. On a date with my 3 young children and a lovely lady whom I later betrothed, we walked several hundred yards to a small island consisting of an outcrop of mica schist. As we approached, a white cloud of screaming gulls arose. We soon discovered the island to be covered with nests of young and eggs. Mesmerized by this remarkable display of turmoil and alarm, the gulls went on the attack by releasing offal from both anterior and posterior ports. The gulls won the day with our rapid retreat.

I’ve had many gull experiences since: being attacked by mew gulls in Alaska, who also attacked bald eagles that strayed into their territories; witnessing Franklin gulls returning to Utah landfills with a pink glow from gorging on brine shrimp; watching with amazement as western gulls opening clams and mussels by shattering them on rocks while backpacking on the Washington coast.

I’ve come to respect North America’s 28 species of gulls as graceful, intelligent, and skillful seabirds. The following gull trivia may win a few more admirers.

  • Gulls are monogamous creatures that mate for life and rarely divorce. As parents, they are attentive and caring, both involved in incubating the eggs as well as feeding and protecting the chicks until fledged. They also teach their young creative methods of hunting, showing the intelligent ability to pass skills to others.
  • They are one of the few species of seabirds that can survive drinking salt water, enabling them to venture far out to sea in search of food when necessary. This is made possible by a special pair of glands just above the eyes that flush the salt from their system out through their nostrils.
  • They are expert fliers, having mastered control of wind and thermals, sharp directional changes, climbs and dives.
  • They have developed many clever ways of stealing the catch of other seabirds using their flying skills to pluck fish from birds in flight, or fascinating maneuvers to pester them until they drop the food which the gull will catch before it hits the water.
  • So how is our state bird predicted to weather a shifting climate? Unfortunately not well, losing 98% of its summer range and 72% of winter range by 2080. Until then, I will continue to marvel at the great flocks following the plow turning up fresh earth and the hidden banquet they relish.

    This is Jack Greene and I’m utterly wild about Utah!

    Credits:

    Pictures: Courtesy & Copyright Jack Binch, Photographer
    Audio: Courtesy and Copyright Kevin Colver
    Text: Jack Greene, Bridgerland Audubon Society

    Additional Reading:

    Bingham, Lyle and Huren, Richard(Dick), Wild About Utah, August 19, 2009, https://wildaboututah.org/a-moment-to-think-about-our-state-bird/

    Bonaparte’s Gull
    https://www.mbr-pwrc.usgs.gov/id/framlst/i0600id.html
    http://www.birds.cornell.edu/AllAboutBirds/BirdGuide/Bonapartes_Gull.html
    Herring Gull
    https://www.mbr-pwrc.usgs.gov/id/framlst/i0510id.html
    http://www.birds.cornell.edu/AllAboutBirds/BirdGuide/Herring_Gull.html
    http://www.utahbirds.org/birdsofutah/BirdsD-K/HerringGull3.htm
    California gull Larus californicus
    https://www.mbr-pwrc.usgs.gov/Infocenter/i0530id.html
    http://www.birds.cornell.edu/AllAboutBirds/BirdGuide/California_Gull.html
    http://www.utahbirds.org/birdsofutah/BirdsA-C/CaliforniaGull.htm
    http://www.utahbirds.org/birdsofutah/BirdsA-C/CaliforniaGull2.htm
    Franklin’s gull Larus pipixcan
    https://www.mbr-pwrc.usgs.gov/Infocenter/i0590id.html
    http://www.birds.cornell.edu/AllAboutBirds/BirdGuide/Franklins_Gull.html
    Thayer’s gull Larus thayeri
    https://www.mbr-pwrc.usgs.gov/id/framlst/i0518id.html
    http://www.birds.cornell.edu/AllAboutBirds/BirdGuide/Thayers_Gull.html
    http://www.utahbirds.org/birdsofutah/BirdsS-Z/ThayersGull2.htm
    Ring-billed gull Larus delawarensis
    https://www.mbr-pwrc.usgs.gov/Infocenter/i0540id.html
    http://www.birds.cornell.edu/AllAboutBirds/BirdGuide/Ring-billed_Gull.html
    Mew Gull
    http://www.utahbirds.org/birdsofutah/BirdsL-R/MewGull.htm
    Glaucous-winged Gull
    http://www.utahbirds.org/birdsofutah/BirdsD-K/GlaucousWingedGull.htm
    Sabine’s Gull
    http://www.utahbirds.org/birdsofutah/BirdsS-Z/SabinesGull.htm

    Thoughts on Bird Brains

    CT image of a Bird Brain Golden Woodpecker, Melanerpes aurifrons https://www.nsf.gov/news/mmg/mmg_disp.jsp?med_id=79726
    CT image of a Bird Brain
    Golden Woodpecker
    Melanerpes aurifrons
    https://www.nsf.gov/news/mmg/mmg_disp.jsp?med_id=79726
    When I was a young lad being called “bird brain” was an indication that one was lacking in mental capacity.
    Over the years I’ve come to question this connotation, and might even consider it a compliment. I suggest that quantity of this gray matter might be outweighed by quality.

    Consider the hummingbird brain. Slightly larger than a bibi, it is very capable of feats beyond our imagining. Think unerring migration over hundreds of miles, efficient pollination while suspended in air, extraordinary flight capability, adjusting to extreme environmental challenges of cold, heat, predation, nourishment; exquisite nest design and construction, and so on.

    Clark's Nutcracker Courtesy US Fish & Wildlife Service Dave Menke, Photographer
    Clark’s Nutcracker
    Courtesy US Fish & Wildlife Service
    Dave Menke, Photographer

    Regarding memory, nothing has been found to match the recall ability of the Clark’s nutcracker, which can bury thousands of pine nuts in rugged mountain terrain, finding them with uncanny ability following months of absence. Of course they hoard far more than needed, allowing many to germinate into seedlings- an amazing keystone species responsible for planting millions of trees from Mexico to Canada – this “squirrel bird” of the Rockies.

    I’ve watched crows dropping nuts on roadways so they can be crushed open by passing vehicles, then flying down to eat the contents between oncoming traffic. And gulls dropping rocks on our pets to shoo them away from food dishes so they can have their turn at the table.

    An ice fisherman was puzzled by a thief who was stealing his fish by pulling the line out of the ice hole and removing the fish. The culprit was finally observed- a raven- who used its beak and feet to gradually pull up the line with fish attached- an easy catch!

    How about those mimics- parrots, corvids, starlings, gray catbirds, and the masterful mocking bird who can expand their repertoire of mimics to nearly 100 imitations without a pause.

    And let us consider the remarkable Peregrine falcon. How is it possible that this lovely bird can strike a fast moving, highly maneuverable target as it drops from the heavens at a speed approaching 200 mph? Eyes, muscles, and nerves woven in such a manner that allow it to perform this feat is beyond comprehension.

    I’ll conclude with perhaps my favorite bird attribute- their vocalizations. The more scientists learn, the richer their communications appear, possessing qualities once ascribed solely to the human language. Recent research has revealed that birds use syntax, which is altering the sequence of notes for variable meanings. Call order matters to them, much like word order does to us. The sound of birds calling isn’t just pretty. It’s full of meaning. I dare you to call me bird brain!

    This is Jack Greene and I’m Wild About Utah

    Credits:

    Pictures: Courtesy US National Science Foundation & Courtesy US Fish & Wildlife Service, Dave Menke, Photographer
    Audio: Courtesy and Copyright Kevin Colver
    Text: Jack Greene, Bridgerland Audubon Society

    Additional Reading:

    Bird IQ Tests: 8 Ways Researchers Test Bird Intelligence, National Audubon, Alexandra Ossola, 9 Dec 2015, http://www.audubon.org/news/bird-iq-tests-8-ways-researchers-test-bird-intelligence

    Bird Intelligence: Using Tools, Speech, Memory, Interactive Toys, and Emotional Displays
    Veterinary & Aquatic Services Department, Drs. Foster & Smith, PetEducation.com, Petco Wellness LLC, http://www.peteducation.com/article.cfm?c=15+1795&aid=3342

    Here’s Why ‘Birdbrain’ Should Be a Compliment, Simon Worrall, National Geographic, 15 May 2016, http://news.nationalgeographic.com/2016/05/160515-genius-birds-animal-intelligence-ackerman-ngbooktalk/