Jack Considers 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
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/

 

Peru

I just returned from two weeks in the Peruvian Andes conducting field work on high elevation wetlands and how they were responding to impacts from livestock grazing in a changing climate. We were in the Huascaran National Park, the highest part of the Andes with many peaks soaring above 20,000 feet. Our Colorado State U. group was joined by students and faculty from 4 other campuses and the international Mountain Institute. These wetlands, or bofedales in Peruvian jargon, are essential in providing quality water for the thousands who reside below.

Kings Peak Highest Peak in Utah 13,528 feet ASL Courtesy USDA Forest Service
Kings Peak
Highest Peak in Utah 13,528 feet ASL
Courtesy USDA Forest Service
Having spent many forays into our magnificent High Uintah Mountains, I found myself reflecting on ecological and cultural parallels. Although our highest Kings peak at 13,528 feet was far below Mount Huascaran’s 22,205 foot elevation, its bold loftiness provides a similar experience as would standing on the Huascaran’s summit. A departure results from the highly glaciated Huascaran. Our Uintahs lost their glaciers around 8000 years ago from a warming climate. Unfortunately, Huascaran’s glaciers are following suit having lost nearly 30% over the past three decades. These changes were being compounded by poorly managed hordes of livestock which had overgrazed much of the landscape.

Wild Flowers in Tony Grove Meadow Courtesy USDA Forest Service Teresa Prendusi, Photographer
Wild Flowers in Tony Grove Meadow
Courtesy USDA Forest Service
Teresa Prendusi, Photographer
Our primary focus was on changing vegetation, invertebrate populations, and water quality. At the peak of Peru’s dry, winter season, I wasn’t expecting to see much in bloom. To my delight, I recorded nearly 30 species of flowers in both woody and herbaceous form. Tomorrow I will be leading a nature hike in the wetlands and uplands of Tony Grove Lake here in our Bear River Range where I expect a like number in bloom combined with a plethora of butterflies and birds.

Although virtually all of the Andean flowers were new to me, there were similar families and genera. Of special note was a shrubby form of lupine growing to 5 feet, and another, exquisite columnar form approaching 6 feet found only in this national park. “Taulli Macho” is the local name for this splendid plant. “Macho” is a great descriptor!

Birds and butterflies were no less baffling. All were new to my life list- Pona ibis, Andean Condors, giant coot, tufted duck, Andean flicker, giant humming bird, on and on. Senses overwhelmed. I missed the familiar sights and songs from our mountain birds- Clark’s nutcrackers, Steller jays, Cassin’s finch, pine siskins, violet green swallows, mountain bluebirds to name a few.

Grazing at Fishlake in Utah Courtesy USDA Forest Service
Grazing at Fishlake in Utah
Courtesy USDA Forest Service
I did a bit of research on our High Uintahs and found some parallels related to climate change and livestock management. Although not as profound as calving glaciers in the Andes, or hordes of free ranging livestock, a continued loss of our snow pack and resulting changes in hydrology compounded by certain livestock grazing practices are under close scrutiny by agencies and others. A recent publication “Assessment of Watershed Vulnerability to Climate Change for the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache and Ashley National Forests, Utah” published by the United States Department of Agriculture has much to offer.

This is Jack Greene, and you guessed it- I’m Wild about Utah!!

Credits:

Images: Courtesy USDA Forest Service, Photographers noted, where available, for each image
Text:     Jack Greene

Sources & Additional Reading:

Rice, Janine; Bardsley, Tim; Gomben, Pete; Bambrough, Dustin; Weems, Stacey; Leahy, Sarah; Plunkett, Christopher; Condrat, Charles; Joyce, Linda A. 2017. Assessment of watershed vulnerability to climate change for the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache and Ashley National Forests, Utah. Gen. Tech. Rep. RMRS-GTR-362. Fort Collins, CO: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station. 111 p., https://www.fs.usda.gov/treesearch/pubs/54330

Slots, Els, World Heritage Site for World Heritage Travellers, https://www.worldheritagesite.org/list/Huascaran+National+Park

Huascarán National Park, UNESCO World Heritage Sites, http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/333

Decreasing the Habitat Risks of Utah’s Southern Sage-Grouse

Decreasing Habitat Risks Utah’s Southern Sage-Grouse: Juniper Grouse=grouse in a marginal area pre-treatment. You can see where one tree has been mulched. There is little sagebrush or grass to provide cover for the grouse. Courtesy and copyright Nicole Frey, Photographer
Juniper Grouse = grouse in a marginal area pre-treatment. You can see where one tree has been mulched. There is little sagebrush or grass to provide cover for the grouse.
Courtesy & © Nicole Frey, Photographer
In the past decade, over 45,000 acres of land in southern Utah have had conservation treatments by removing the encroaching pinyon-juniper forest and allowing the native grasses and sagebrush to return.
With the use of GPS units, scientists and manager are able to witness the positive impacts these treatments are having on Utah’s Greater sage-grouse population. They monitor the movement patterns of the grouse and determine how the birds use their seasonal habitats throughout the year.

Decreasing Habitat Risks Utah’s Southern Sage-Grouse: Hen on a nest. This is what a nest looks like in good habitat. You can see that the brush gives cover from the top and the grass and forbs provide cover from the sides Gourtesy and copyright Nicole Frey, Photographer
Hen on a nest. This is what a nest looks like in good habitat. You can see that the brush gives cover from the top and the grass and forbs provide cover from the sides
Gourtesy & © Nicole Frey, Photographer
Female and male grouse have similar habitat needs during the winter, but choose different landscapes when their needs change during the nesting and chick-rearing seasons.

Wildlife managers call the grouse a “landscape species” because they have to manage a variety of different communities for the grouse to thrive.

During the months of January and February when the habitat is at its coldest, females and males have the same needs – to stay warm, find food, and avoid predators.

Fortunately, sagebrush provide the resources to meet all these needs.

While grouse huddle under the brush for protection from frigid winds, deepening snow and roaming predators, they avoid having to search for food since the bulk of their nourishment comes from the leaves of the sagebrush. The grouse simply reach up, nibble on the leaves, and remain safe in their protective sagebrush tent.
When they have consumed all the leaves from one bush, they simply move to another sagebrush.

Decreasing Habitat Risks Utah’s Southern Sage-Grouse: Little Grouse Family=hen and chicks in treated habitat. It has healthy sagebrush and a grasses and forbs provide food and visual cover Courtesy and copyright Nicole Frey, Photographer
Little Grouse Family = hen and chicks in treated habitat. It has healthy sagebrush and a grasses and forbs provide food and visual cover
Courtesy & © Nicole Frey, Photographer
In the spring, the needs of the females change dramatically. Once their chicks have hatched the females search for a moist place where the chicks can eat a variety of bugs and green vegetation to receive the necessary nutrients for fast growth.

By fall, the chicks are grown and the adult females return to the dry sagebrush habitat and prepare for winter.
The biggest struggle sage grouse have in the southern region is a fragmented habitat. They have to fly dangerous distances to reach the variety of habitats they need.

Decreasing Habitat Risks Utah’s Southern Sage-Grouse: Grouse with a GPS transmitter Gourtesy and copyright Nicole Frey, Photographer
Grouse with a GPS transmitter
Gourtesy & © Nicole Frey, Photographer
Nick Frey, extension associate professor in the Department of Wildland Resources at USU, has researched sage grouse for the past 13 years. She explains this struggle, ”To get to the next tiny pocket of habitat [the grouse] have to fly over forests and high ridges, which endanger their lives. Prior to the treatments, it was difficult for me to have a bird stay alive for an entire year, now I have birds I have tracked for more than three years…They’re able to find better resources and healthier habitats without putting themselves at risk so often.”

One of the first conservation treatments occurred in Sink Valley in 2005.

Prior to this, female Greater sage grouse in Sink Valley would spend the summers in the agricultural fields south of Alton, which were laced with danger. A couple of times grouse got bailed up and researchers would find the transmitters in a hay bale. At other times, an eagle would carry off birds and the transmitter would be found with a hole in the side from the eagle’s claw.

Within two years after the Sink Valley treatment, researchers stopped finding females anywhere close the agricultural fields. The sage grouse were now able to find grasses and forbs in close proximity to their nests.
Rhett Boswell, Habitat Biologist at Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, who created management tools using Frey’s GPS data explains, “With this GPS [data] we have learned so much, it keeps opening up new opportunities to refine our management prescriptions. With this best available science, we can identify which management treatments have the greatest positive impact and create resource selection models to plan future management.”
In other words, the future of Utah’s Greater Sage Grouse is looking bright.

This is Shauna Leavitt and I’m Wild About Utah.

Credits:
Photos: Courtesy & Copyright © Nicole Frey Department of Wildland Resources, Quinney College of Natural Resources, Utah State University
Text: Shauna Leavitt, USGS Utah Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit, Quinney College of Natural Resources, Utah State University

Sources & Additional Reading

To learn more about Utah sage-grouse conservation, please go to www.utahcbcp.org.

Leavitt, Shauna, Greater Sage-Grouse in Utah, Wild About Utah, June 12, 2017, https://wildaboututah.org/greater-sage-grouse-in-utah/

Leavitt, Shauna, South Canyon Sage-Grouse, Wild About Utah, January 22, 2018, https://wildaboututah.org/south-canyon-sage-grouse/

Riparian Zones

Riparian Zones: Clear Creek in the Spring Courtesy & Copyright Holly Strand, Photographer
Clear Creek in the Spring
Courtesy & Copyright Holly Strand, Photographer
Summer’s heat has turned on. It was evident in a dramatic fashion as I ran a ridge in N. Utah where the early am temps were near 70 degrees, flowers had faded, and the absence of bird song. As I descended to the canyon bottom the temperature dropped a solid 20 degrees and bird voices returned where yellow warblers were competing with lazuli buntings for top songster. I had entered the riparian, or river side biotic community- from the burnt brown of cheat grass above to the lush “green zone” below supporting abundant life in our desert state. I won’t be running ridge tops any time soon!

Throughout the Intermountain West and Great Basin, these givers of life are critical areas for water, wildlife, agriculture, and recreation. About 80 % of all animal life is dependent on stream side habit sometime during its life cycle. As a birder and botanist, this is where I spend much of my time documenting and enjoying the abundance.
On a recent, brief bird survey along the Logan River golf course trail, I recorded 33 species with another ten or so known to nest in this river corridor. I’m planning to prepare a bird checklist for golfers to add more “birdies” to their score card.

Many of these special places have been seriously degraded through invasion of exotic species, agricultural practices, various forms of development, and channelization. But help is on the way.

The Logan River Task Force is one excellent example. Launched in 2016, the task force is well on its way to restoring a much healthier, biologically rich river system. Replacing crack willow, a Eurasian non-native tree, with native cottonwood and willow accompanied by a rich understory of shrubs, will significantly enhance the biodiversity along the floodplain. Another major change is underway as they replace the straight, channelized portion of the river to its meandering original channel. This will create more pools for fish, wetlands for flood control and filtering, while improving aesthetics and recreation opportunity.

In an earlier WAU reading, I mentioned the good work being done by western boxelder ranchers reintroducing beaver whose dams will assist with maintaining stream flow and water quality along with improved fish and wildlife habitat. I’m aware of the same occurring on a Mink Creek ranch in SE Idaho.

The world appears to be awakening to the many values of these critical wildlife and water quality riparian zones, as I awoke to the same on my early morning run.

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

Credits:

Images: Holly Strand
Text:     Jack Greene

Sources & Additional Reading:

Wheaton, Joe, Beaver Restoration Assessment Tool, Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, http://etalweb.joewheaton.org.s3-us-west-2.amazonaws.com/Downloads/BRAT/UTAH_BRAT_Management%20Brief.pdf

Riparian Zones, What is a Riparian Zone?, Water Quality, USU Extension, https://extension.usu.edu/waterquality/learnaboutsurfacewater/watersheds/riversandstreams/riparianzones