Readers’ wildlife photos: weekend miscellany

January 18, 2014 • 9:59 am

Two photographers have contributed to today’s melange of shots, and they’re very good (click the photos to enlarge ’em). The first is by a regular—Stephen Barnard, who takes pictures on and near his property in Idaho. It’s the black-billed magpie, Pica hudsonia.  He notes:

This is one of the most difficult birds to shoot around here — very spooky. In the suburbs they’re bold.

The blue tinge of wings and tail can’t be seen in this shot, but if you do some Googling you’ll see that they’re not jet-black.

This species is in the family Corvidae, along with crows and ravens, so you know it’s gonna be inquisitive and smart.  As Wikipedia reports, they also cache food, and appear to have a “theory of mind” (my emphasis):

Black-billed Magpies are also known to make food caches in the ground, in scatter-hoarding fashion. To make a cache, the bird pushes or hammers its bill into the ground (or snow), forming a small hole into which it deposits the food items it was holding in a small pouch under its tongue. It may, however, then move the food to another location, particularly if other magpies are in the vicinity, watching. Cache robbing is fairly common so a magpie often makes several false caches before a real one. The final cache is covered with grass, leaves, or twigs. After this the bird cocks its head and stares at the cache, possibly to commit the site to memory. Such hoards are short-term; the food is usually recovered within several days, or the bird never returns. The bird relocates its caches by sight and also by smell; during cache robbing, smell is probably the primary cue.

Here is their range, from the Cornell Bird Lab:pica_huds_AllAm_map

I also got a passel of photos from reader Joe Dickinson, and have chosen a few of the best.  First, an acorn woodpeckerMelanerpes formicivorus.

Acorn Woodpecker 1 2

What a lovely bird! This is a very cool species, with a complicated social life and breeding system, and an amazing ability to store gazillions of acorns, as the one is doing above. The Cornell Ornithology Lab presents some “cool facts” about this bird, and I can’t help but reproduce most of them:

  • In 1923, American ornithologist William Leon Dawson called the dapper Acorn Woodpecker “our native aristocrat.” Dawson wrote: “He is unruffled by the operations of the human plebs in whatever disguise…Wigwams, haciendas, or university halls, what matter such frivolities, if only one may go calmly on with the main business of life, which is indubitably the hoarding of acorns.”
  • The Acorn Woodpecker has a very complicated social system. Family groups hold territories, and young woodpeckers stay with their parents for several years and help the parents raise more young. Several different individuals of each sex may breed within one family, with up to seven breeding males and three breeding females in one group. [JAC: since I’m not an ornithologist, I’m not sure whether all of the groups comprise related individuals, which would imply kin selection for this unusual social behavior.  If they are completely unrelated, one might invoke group selection or, perhaps, some kind of individual selection based on the advantages to an individual of breeding in groups.]
  • All members of an Acorn Woodpecker group spend large amounts of time storing acorns. Acorns typically are stored in holes drilled into a single tree, called a granary tree. One granary tree may have up to 50,000 holes in it, each of which is filled with an acorn in autumn.
  • The Acorn Woodpecker will use human-made structures to store acorns, drilling holes in fenceposts, utility poles, buildings, and even automobile radiators. Occasionally the woodpecker will put acorns into places where it cannot get them out. Woodpeckers put 220 kg (485 lb) of acorns into a wooden water tank in Arizona. In parts of its range the Acorn Woodpecker does not construct a granary tree, but instead stores acorns in natural holes and cracks in bark. If the stores are eaten, the woodpecker will move to another area, even going from Arizona to Mexico to spend the winter.
  • In groups with more than one breeding female, the females put their eggs into a single nest cavity. A female usually destroys any eggs in the nest before she starts to lay, and more than one third of all eggs laid in joint nests are destroyed. Once all the females start to lay, they stop removing eggs.

An Anna’s hummingbird, Calypte anna, found on the west coast of the U.S. and Canada. Here’s its range from the Cornell lab:


Anna’s have an unusual courtship behavior, involving whistling and dive-bombing by males. Here’s Wikipedia’s description:

Unlike most hummingbirds, the male Anna’s Hummingbird sings during courtship. The song is thin and squeaky. During the breeding season, males can be observed performing a remarkable display, called a display dive, on their territories. The males also use the dive display to drive away rivals or intruders of other species. When a female flies onto a male’s territory, he rises up approximately 30 m (98 ft) before diving over the recipient. As he approaches the bottom of the dive the males reach an average speed of 27 m/s (89 ft/s), which is 385 body lengths per second. At the bottom of the dive the male travels 23 m/s (51 mph), and produces a loud sound described by some as an “explosive squeak” with his outer tail-feathers.

Here’s a mating display. Watch closely or you’ll miss the male!

The whistling, as noted above, is produced not by the bird’s vocal system, but by its tail feathers, which is remarkable. A report in Science (watch the video at the link, too) explains how it works (several related species make these sounds):

Hummingbirds may be some of the squeakiest fliers. Male Anna’s hummingbirds (Calypte anna), which look as if they’re wearing bright-pink scarves, swoop at speeds over 20 meters per second, emitting a shriek like a startled rodent. In 2008, Christopher Clark, a physiologist now at Yale University, and colleagues first identified the source of the noise: the birds’ tail plumage. When his team plucked the hummingbirds’ thin, outermost tail feathers, the boisterous animals became as silent as stealth bombers.

But it still wasn’t clear how the hummingbirds’ plumage sang. So in the new study, Clark and colleagues put tail feathers from 14 species of “bee” hummingbirds—a rowdy group that includes the Anna’s hummingbird—into a wind tunnel. At gentle breezes, the feathers just ruffled, but when the winds sped up to around the birds’ normal dive velocities, about 7 to 20 meters per second, something strange happened: The feathers started to ripple rhythmically, much like the Tacoma Narrows Bridge, which famously began undulating and then collapsed in 1940 when winds hit it at just the right speed. But unlike that infamous Washington State roadway, the feathers emitted sometimes-piercing noises when they vibrated, Clark and his colleagues report today in Science.

Many feathers whistled in harmony, too, Clark says. When placed side by side, for instance, some of the Anna’s hummingbird’s middle tail feathers started to mimic the vibration of those on the edge of the tail, producing a much louder but also uniform noise. The orange-throated Allen’s hummingbird, which sounds a bit like a chirpy machine gun, has two sets of tail feathers that each whistle separate notes. This nimble flier also makes a trilling noise with its wings before it dives, Clark says. “You can think of a bird as being a one-man band,” he says.

And some mammals for good measure.  First, the fawn of a black-tailed deer, a subspecies of the mule deer found in western North America (Odocoileus hemionus columbianus):

Black-tailed Deer 2

One of my favorite urban mammals, the raccoon (Procyon lotor).  They’re omnivores, and (as I think I’ve said before), when I lived in a place with a cat door a mother (and sometimes her babies) would squeeze in and wreak havoc.  One of them ate an entire pound of Christmas chocolates! But these little burglars are cute. Here’s Joe’s photo of one of them using a storm drain as a shelter:

Raccoon uses storm drain as safe house 2

A striped skunk (Mephitis mephitis), an animal I once had for several years as a pet. They are tame, omnivorous, and unduly feared, for they squirt only under extreme duress. This animal is in remarkably good condition for a wild skunk, and I’m wondering if it’s a pet:

Striped Skunk 2

Finally, Joe labeled this photo as a “Western Gray Squirrel [Sciurus griseus] defeating my squirrel-proof bird feeder”. What a magnificent tail! Ceiling Cat loves squirrels and has placed them all under His protection. That is why they are able to defeat all bird feeders.

Wester Grey Squirrel defeats my squirrel-proof feeder 2

30 thoughts on “Readers’ wildlife photos: weekend miscellany

  1. I remember seeing that very memorable Tacoma Narrows Bridge film back in the 60s in physics class and I did remember that there was a dog. Didn’t the guy and the dog jump into the water?

  2. Wow that squirrel looks like he’s in great condition too with that bushy tail! I don’t think I’ve seen a squirrel with such a bushy tail!

    1. Running recently in Central Park, on the bridle path circling the Reservoir, I spotted a large crowd standing, looking up in the air. Some of the trees in Central Park are truly majestic, even spectacular. Usually it’s bird-watchers in the Park who spent their time with their noses up towards the sky.

      But the attraction was not the tree, nor a rare bird on his way to Mexico that time. On a big branch, looking intently back at his curious audience sat, or crouched, a large raccoon, with its beautiful black and white markings. A raccoon in the Park is always a sure crowd-pleaser in Manhattan. It is still an astonishing sight.

      In fact raccoons have become more and more frequent, and the Central Park management takes no special measures against them, as they are considered natural residents. The same policy extends to skunks, which have also appeared and are slightly more annoying in their confrontations with dogs, squirting them and driving the owners nuts. Apparently the smell is powerful and very hard to dispel.

      1. I find it interesting how some animals adapt to urban and suburban environments. Animals that are very shy here in my rural neighborhood, like magpies, raccoons, skunks, foxes, geese (the list goes on) can very tame and fearless to the point of being nuisances in more settled places. Some of my neighbors actively discourage predators that get after their chickens and lambs, and duck and goose hunting is popular, but I don’t think that’s the whole story. There isn’t wanton, illegal killing.

        1. Thirty years or so ago in S CA Black Phoebes were rural birds that were seen around the edges of ponds, and almost never in town. Now they’re common in town, wherever there are irrigated lawns.

          No one hunts them, so this seems to be a clear case of a bird adapting to a new habitat, not just settling into places where they’re not shot at (as for Canada Geese, etc.) Of course, lawns had been around for decades before the phoebes decided they had a use for them. Did a psychological mutation occur c. 1980?

        1. Tomato juice is an ineffective remedy for skunk spray. Much better, but not perfect, is a mixture of hydrogen peroxide, baking soda, and soap. I’m speaking from experience.

          1. I have recent indirect reason to think that Febreze is highly effective. At a recent family wedding, a cousin and his family were staying at his mom’s place. Said cousin’s mother’s dog mixed it up with a skunk…and the dog went and hid in the closet where my cousin and his family had all their clothes.

            Lots of washing only made the smell bearable. My Mom suggested they try Febreze; they did; the smell completely vanished.

            It’s at least worth trying….



  3. The skunk definitely is wild. He (she?) comes down from the forest behind our house, often on a regular nightly patrol to scarf up seeds dropped by messy birds (mostly jays). The squirrel is in good condition because he eats all of my birdseed!

    1. Very nice shots! I have skunks that are similarly plump and healthy looking in my yard from time to time. I’m surprised yours eat seeds — I thought they were mostly grubivores.

      Your squirrel bothers me a bit: as gray squirrels go, it’s not very gray. Is the color true as it appears here? Could it be some other species? I’ve seen a lot of gray squirrels, but never one that’s so yellowish. I know they’ve variable, but yours seems more colorful that the eastern species. I’m assuming this is an Aptos squirrel.

  4. Thank you for the valuable information on all those species. Interestingly there is a bird very similar to the black-billed magpie, found in Sri Lanka- Cpsychus saularis or commonly known as magpie robin!

    1. Copsychus is a) much smaller than a magpie and b) a muscicapid, not a corvid. But the colors are similar.

  5. And of course that isn’t a western gray squirrel. It’s either an eastern gray squirrel or, possibly, a fox squirrel. A western gray squirrel would have no trace whatsoever of reddish fur. Sadly, eastern gray squirrels are very common in all western urban areas. To see a real western gray squirrel you have to go some distance into the woods.

  6. I wonder what those pictures would look like if taken with colors as the animals would see them. The magpie, for example, may see more into the ultraviolet than we do, although perhaps not as far as some other birds.

    Hyperspectral consumer cameras should be a thing.

    1. Nagel, Thomas. “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?”, The Philosophical Review, Vol. 83, No. 4 (Oct., 1974), pp. 435-450. That was before he went off the rails with woo, but he had a point with that influential paper. Everyone who is interested in the conundrum of consciousness and dedicated to a materialist theory of mind should read it.

  7. I’ve seen hummingbirds do that soar-and-dive routine in person. It’s amazing.

    They’re fearless little buggers, and quite curious about people. They’ll fly right past your head at full throttle, or hover inches away and look you in the eye. I get the impression that they’re much smarter than should be possible with so few milliliters devoted to brain cells.


    1. Oh yes, they can be nasty little things. The dive bombing that goes on near my feeder is quite war like & they actually stab each other with their beaks.

      I’ve also seen them hover up to my window & check out flowers inside or look at me.

      I find it very cute when they squeak their little chirps in an attempt to scare me.

  8. Dear Peter, It would be great if your grandson could come with you to Avoca. Son Tom and his Chinese girlfriend (Tash) will be just back from Hong Kong and also my daughter (D3), Rebecca, who has been living in China for the last two years with her husband and family. She is now reasonably fluent in Mandarin and is continuing to study on the internet. Best wishes, HH

  9. That cute fluffy squirrel looks like an Eastern Fox Squirrel. Note the orange, especially on the underparts. Eastern Fox Squirrels have been introduced west, e.g. to Oregon.

  10. My mistake. It’s a grey squirrel and it’s certainly in the west (within a mile of the Pacific). Is it clear that these are good species? That there is no color variation in authentic western squirrels? That there is now no interbreeding?

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