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/

 

Beaver Creek Greenback Cutthroat Trout

Beaver Creek Greenback Cutthroat Trout Courtesy US FWS Bruce Roselund, Photographer
Greenback Cutthroat Trout
Courtesy US FWS
Bruce Roselund, Photographer
In 2009, officials from the US Division of Wildlife Resources who were out searching for isolated populations of Colorado River Cutthroat Trout found something better—and far more perplexing. Within a 1.2-mile stretch of Beaver Creek, which runs down the eastern flank of the La Sal Mountains near Moab, Utah, surveyors discovered a small, but genetically pure population of a subspecies of Cutthroat Trout known as the Greenback. The fish is not only rare among its fellow Cutthroats; it was heretofore unknown to Utah waters.

The natural history of the Greenback Cutthroat is fascinating! As a member of the genus Oncorhynchus, Greenback Cutthroat Trout trace their lineage back about 2 million years to Salmonid ancestors that chose to forego their return to the Pacific Ocean and instead pursued habitat further and further up the Columbia and Snake River drainages into the Green and Yellowstone River Basins. From here, cutthroat predecessors diversified into subspecies we know today: the Alvord, Bonneville, Humboldt, Lahontan, Yellowfin, Yellowstone, Colorado River, and, among others, the Greenback Cutthroat.

Greenbacks took a particularly arduous path to what is now their native home range. About 20,000 years ago, during the Pleistocene Epoch’s glacial maximum, Greenbacks hitched a ride via advancing ice sheets and their runoff, crossing eastward over the Continental Divide. And, historically, that’s where they’ve been found—east of the continental divide. However, in a 2014 summary report of a meeting among experts on the Greenback Cutthroat Trout’s whereabouts in Colorado, the US Fish and Wildlife Service says this about the fish’s home range: “Until recently, delineations of subspecies of cutthroat trout in Colorado were believed to follow geographic boundaries within the state, with greenback cutthroat trout on the eastern side of the Continental Divide and Colorado River cutthroat trout on the western side.” That seems to have changed.

Beaver Creek Greenback Cutthroat Trout were found in Beaver Creek in the La Sal Mountains
Greenback Cutthroat Trout
were found in Beaver Creek
in the La Sal Mountains
Experts are at a loss as to how Greenbacks came to occupy the waters of Utah. Speculations abound from rogue fishermen stocking their favorite backwaters with favorite species from the Colorado Front Range to a remnant population of an ancient strand that may have ridden the glaciers all the way to La Sal runoffs. What’s even more perplexing is the population’s pure genetic makeup. Cutthroat Trout hybridize easily with other fish; but the Beaver Creek population hasn’t. One reason may be the creek’s inaccessibility. Disease and non-native trout haven’t threatened the resident Greenbacks; and so they have lived on undisturbed, unadulterated, and, until about a decade ago, unknown to their human counterparts. This gives the wildlife conservation community some hope for the fish’s viability moving forward.

Greenbacks currently only occupy roughly 1% of their historic native range and were once thought to be extinct altogether. This hardy and adventurous fish refuses to call it quits, though. Who knows, maybe the valiant reclamation of its old territory has already begun along so many other inaccessible and unadulterated creek beds.

I’m Josh Boling, and I’m Wild About Utah!

Credits:

Images:
Greenback Cutthroat Trout, Courtesy Fish and Wildlife Service, US Department of the Interior, Bruce Roselund, Photographer
Beaver Creek, LaSal Mountains, Courtesy Utah Division of Wildlife Resources,
Audio: Includes audio provided by Friend Weller, UPR
Text: Josh Boling, 2018

Sources & Additional Reading

Georg, Ron, Rare trout found in La Sal Mountains, The Times Independent, Moab, UT, May 14, 2009, http://moabtimes.com/bookmark/2560140-Rare-trout-found-in-La-Sal-Mountains

Prettyman, Brett, Greenback or not wildlife officials work to expand cutthroat population, The Salt Lake Tribune, Nov. 19, 2010, http://archive.sltrib.com/article.php?id=50632061&itype=cmsid#gallery-carousel-446996

Thompson, Paul, A lifelong passion for native cutthroat trout, Wildlife Blog, Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, April 10, 2017, https://wildlife.utah.gov/blog/2017/a-lifelong-passion-for-native-cutthroat-trout/

Greenback Cutthroat Trout, Western Native Trout Initiative, http://westernnativetrout.org/greenback-cutthroat-trout/

Greenback cutthroat found in Utah for first time, KSL/The Salt Lake Tribune/The Associated Press, May 1, 2009, https://www.ksl.com/?nid=148&sid=6338134

Spring Testosterone

Spring Testosterone: Male House Finch Courtesy US FWS Gary Kramer, Photographer
Male House Finch
Courtesy US FWS
Gary Kramer, Photographer
Love is in the air! While shoveling snow, it seems a bit ludicrous to say “spring has arrived”, but here it is! I first noticed it 3 weeks ago when a burst of house finch tumbling notes filled the vapors. That was followed by a robin dusting of some rusty phrases which will soon be heard across the mid-latitudes of N. America.

What is one to think of such outrageous behavior as the snow continues to fall and the thermometer dips well below freezing? In one word-testosterone! This magical chemical is surging once again entirely dependent on the ratio of daylight to dark which has changed to such a degree that life helplessly submits to the urge for love.

Boxelder at Court of the Patriarchs,  Zions National Park Courtesy NPS Amy Gaiennie, Photographer
Boxelder at Court of the Patriarchs,
Zions National Park
Courtesy NPS
Amy Gaiennie, Photographer

Even plants are getting in the mood due to hormonal change in response to increasing length of daylight. If I were still teaching science at Logan High we would be tapping a spile into a box elder tree to catch the dripping sap and boil down on the Bunsen burner to delicious maple syrup. When we began this activity 32 years ago March was the month. It gradually changed to mid-February as the winter season shortened.

Death Camas Bryce National Park Courtesy US NPS
Death Camas
Bryce National Park
Courtesy US NPS
I’m guessing the tiny pink flower of stork’s bill geranium and yellow of biscuit root is already blooming beneath the snow on south facing slopes. Death camas leaves are beginning to poke through moist soil.
Snow geese and tundra swans are beginning to populate our open waters with sandhill cranes and many other species of waterfowl soon to follow.

Mountain Bluebird Pair Courtesy & Copyright Milt Moody, Photographer Utahbirds.org
Mountain Bluebird Pair
Courtesy & Copyright Milt Moody, Photographer
Utahbirds.org
In the heavens you may see golden eagles performing their talon locked tumbling courtship death plunge, and paired ravens cavorting in mid-air. Outrageously beautiful Mountain bluebirds begin decorating fence posts in the countryside. Clark’s nutcrackers are beginning their migration to ridgetops for nesting activities.

Great horned owls present a special case. Their hoots reached a fevered pitch during their January courtship period. Nesting begins in February but no nest building needed. They take the easy out by occupying other raptor nests, especially red tail hawks, crows, or a handy ledge. They are fierce defenders of their young and have caused injure to clueless humans who approach to near. The family unit will remain together into the fall season.
Coyotes and fox are in full courtship mode showing overt affection. Parents of both of these wily canids help with den preparation and rearing pups born a few months later. Both are common in native legends for the cunning and trickery.

“If the day should ever come when one may camp and hear not a note of the coyotes joyous stirring song, I hope that I shall long before have passed away, gone over the Great Divide.” Earnest T. Seton, American naturalist, author, activist and father of the Rocky Mountain N.P.

This is Jack Greene and I’m Wild about Wild Utah!

Credits:

Images:
    Male House Finch, Courtesy US FWS, Gary Kramer, Photographer
    Boxelder at Court of the Patriarchs, Zions National Park, Courtesy NPS, Amy Gaiennie, Photographer
    Death Camas, Bryce National Park, Courtesy US NPS
    Mountain Bluebird Pair, Courtesy & Copyright Milt Moody, UtahBirds.org
Audio: Contains Audio Courtesy and Copyright Kevin Colver
Text:     Jack Greene

Sources & Additional Reading:

Körner, Christian, Plant adaptation to cold climates, National Center for Biotechnology Information, U.S. National Library of Medicine, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5130066/

Have BoxElder Maple Trees? Make BoxElder Syrup! Quirky Science, https://www.quirkyscience.com/make-boxelder-syrup/

Ron Describes Exotic Invasive Species

Ron Describes Exotic Invasive Species: Teaching About Invasive Species Used by permission, Tim Grant, editor & publisher
Teaching About Invasive Species
Used by permission,
Tim Grant, editor & publisher

Exotic invasive species. “Exotic”, sounds rather alluring, but “invasive” implies something completely different and undesirable.

Basically, we are referring to any species that is not native to that ecosystem, it can survive and reproduce there, and by its introduction can cause harm to the environment, the economy, wildlife, and human health. And this doesn’t mean just plants. There are also invasive animals and even microorganisms that can disrupt the balance that maintains natural ecosystems.

They usually have some means of dominance over native species, such as superior reproduction or faster growth success. They may also have unique forms of defense against native predators. Being newly introduced to an area, they may not even have any competition from similar species, or natural predators may not exist in their new area at all. Their advantages can outcompete native species at alarming rates and result in a reduction, or elimination, of biodiversity in huge areas. And research has proven that having a diversity of native life forms improves the health of ecosystems.

Organizations dealing with agriculture, forestry, fisheries, wildlife and waterways estimate that the annual costs to try to control invasive species in our country exceeds $120 billion dollars. And, whether you are a supporter of the Endangered Species Act or not, a quote from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service states “More than 400 of the over 1,300 species currently protected under the Endangered Species Act,…..are considered to be at risk at least partly due to displacement by, competition with, and predation by invasive species.”

In Utah, there are 596 invasive plant species, 28 invasive insects, and a few mammals too. I’ll simply mention a few and why they are so problematic: In the water we are plagued with Quagga and Zebra Mussels, Carp , and plants like Purple Loosestrife. One adult Zebra Mussel can produce one million larvae that mature in one year.

Africanized Honeybees have been sneaking into our State, and they can be very aggressive.
Some of the more common invasive plants include: Russian Olive, Field bindweed, Dyer’s Woad, Russian and Canada thistle, Stinging Nettle, Tamarisk, …..even Kentucky Bluegrass is on the list. The yellow Dyer’s Woad plant that covers many of our hillside grazing lands, is prolific and may produce 10,000 seeds per plant

The European Starling and English House Sparrow are two birds that don’t belong here, but have been extremely successful by inhabiting all 50 States and occupy nesting sites and deplete food sources of our native American songbirds.

Mammals include the Red Fox, Muskrat, White-tailed Deer (which might excite some hunters), and the adorable Raccoon which may be one of the best examples of the problems invasive species can cause. Raccoons can damage homes, fruit trees, and gardens, kill chickens, cats, migratory birds, pheasants, ducks, quail and grouse. They can also spread disease to other mammals as they eat out of garbage cans, carry fleas, ticks, lice, distemper, mange, and blood tests have shown that 80% of them have been exposed to rabies as indicated by the presence of a rabies titer.

For more information, search online for the topic of interest, plus Utah State University. Or get the book “Teaching About Invasive Species” edited by Tim Grant.

This is Ron Hellstern, and I am Wild About Utah.
 
Credits:

Images: Courtesy & Copyright Tim Grant, GreenTeacher.com
Audio: Courtesy & Copyright Friend Weller, UPR.org
Text: Ron Hellstern, Cache Valley Wildlife Association

Additional Reading

Leavitt, Shauna, The Invasive Phragmites, https://wildaboututah.org/invasive-phragmites/