Today’s photos are from New Zealand and taken by Chris Taylor. The captions are indented, and you can enlarge the photos by clicking on them.
In response to your request I’ve been looking through my photos for some you might be able to use. To start off with, here’s a set of photos from New Zealand, from a trip I made to the North Island a few years ago.
First, a panorama of the active volcano Mt Tongariro. It looks peaceful enough, but you can see steam issuing from two vents in the volcano’s slopes.
Grey Duck or Pārera, Anas superciliosa. Although known in Australia as the Pacific Black Duck and Grey Duck in New Zealand, there is almost no black in the plumage. It is very closely related to the Mallard, and will interbreed with introduced birds.
Red Billed Gull or tarāpung, Larus novaehollandiae.Also called Pacific Silver gull in Australia.
Pied Stilt or Koaka , Himantopus himantopus . Two photos taken at the Hell’s Gate Thermal area near Rotorua.The birds were feeding in the warm water of the springs, and it was a couple of minutes before I saw the chicks – they were quite camouflaged against the volcanic rocks!
Photos from the Pūkorokoro / Miranda shorebird reserve. Flocks of Bar-tailed Godwit/Kuaka Limosa lapponica , Turnstone Arenaria interpres, Wrybill/Ngutuparore Anarhynchus frontalis and others. I was there at low tide, not the best time to see the birds! This is looking out across the flats and the Firth of Thames to the hills of the Coromandel Peninsular. This is a vital area for many of the migrant species that arrive in New Zealand, as they can feed here to build up their bodies after the rigors of their flight. The Bar-Tailed Godwit or Kuaka is the world champion when it comes to migration, traveling from NZ to Alaska and back each year. The Northward flight usually goes via Indonesia and China, but the southward return to Pūkorokoro is often done non-stop. Last year, one bird known as 4BBRW, was fitted with a tracker and was observed to make a 12,050km non-stop flight.
Silver Fern, Alsophila dealbata, in Rotorua. One of the Floral Emblems of New Zealand.
House Sparrow, Passer domesticus. Introduced by the British after colonisation. This one was flying around as we sat having coffee at a cafe in Whitianga.
I put a question mark in the title because although the evidence for cultural evolution in Australian sulphur-crested cockatoos (Cacatua galerita) is pretty strong, the authors are missing a crucial piece of evidence. Read on.
The paper below (click on screenshot, or find the pdf here) was just published in the prestigious journal Science, and got tons of airplay in the media. And I can see how the observation of cockatoos learning to open garbage bins, and then other cockatoos imitating the first ones, leading to learning and then diffusion of the behavior rapidly around Sydney, is cool. After all, it mimics how humans learn and transform their culture by imitating others. And, like humans, cockatoos in different areas modify the learned behavior, with different populations opening the bins in different ways.
But given the previous literature on cultural evolution in animals, and in birds, I was surprised that this paper got so much publicity. The authors do have rapid evidence for cultural spread of a trait in only a year, but no direct evidence that the birds learn to open bins by watching and imitating others. (Another theory—admittedly less likely—is that birds see open bins and, noticing that there’s food inside, learn to open other bins on their own. That could also lead to rapid spread of the trait, but not by watching and imitating others.)
But already in the 1950s there was a similar observation from the UK: several species of tits learning to peck open milk bottles delivered to doorsteps, and then drinking the cream from the top of the bottles. That behavior, too, spread rapidly (see below) but there’s not the mathematical-model evidence to suggest spread through cultural learning. However, in that case there were direct lab experiments showing that one tit can indeed learn to open the bottles by watching another: the kind of evidence not cited (and apparently missing) in the cockatoo paper.
In none of the journalists’ reports on this phenomenon have I seen any reference to the much earlier work on tits (several species of them), despite its similarity to the present study and the direct evidence of imitative learning. I ascribe this lacuna to journalists’ ignorance of the scientific literature. For the study of Fisher and Hinde on tits opening milk bottles is very famous among behaviorists, ornithologists, and organismal biologists (it’s cited in the new Science paper, but just as a number without comment). In those days, though, it was published in more obscure journals like British Birds, though there were two short News and Views pieces in Nature.
My conclusion, stated in advance: the cockatoo work a cool study, but I’m not sure why it got so much attention in light of the earlier work, and am puzzled why the journalists ignored the earlier work and the authors of the cockatoo paper don’t describe it.
On to the cockatoo study: click on screenshot. I’ll try to be brief:
Before 2018, there were sporadic reports of the cockatoos opening trash bins near Sydney to get food. Here’s a photo of one bird that’s been marked with paint for identification. (By the way, these birds have been described as a cross between a bolt cutter and a car alarm.)
The behavior involves at least five separable actions, as shown below.
But although they have to be performed in sequence, each behavior save “pry open” and “flip” can be done in several different ways, so the number of sequences are many. A given bird tends to open the bin in a characteristic way. Here are the sequences:
And here’s are two different birds holding the top in different ways, the first one with the beak and the second with the foot and the beak.
This plot shows the rapid spread of the trait around Sydney. See the caption for explanation, but realize that this is only within a few years (the color of the bars show the number of bin-opening observations).
The spread, as with the tits drinking milk, was documented by reports of citizens and ornithologists. In the case of the cockatoos, there were 1396 reports of which 338 in 44 suburbs described bin opening. Multiple birds were present in 93.3% of the openings, suggesting the possibility that the cockatoos were learning to open bins by watching others.
To determine if the behavior spread by culture and imitation, the authors combined the known times of bin-opening observations with their geographic location and compared a model in which the birds independently learned to open the bins with one involving imitation and geographic spread. (One would expect, for instance, that in the latter model observations of bin opening would be more geographically contiguous as the behavior spread from bird to nearby bird.) Sure enough the “network models with social transmission” got overwhelmingly stronger statistical report than any other model, implying learning by imitation and spread by flight.
A few other points. As I said, individual birds tended to use a characteristic sequence of bin-opening moves; that is, the variance among openings within individuals was less than the variation among individuals, even from the same area.
Second, different geographic populations tended to develop different ways of opening bins, though it was no means uniform within a location. And the farther the regions were apart, the more different the behavioral sequences of bin-opening. This is just like human culture. Languages, for example, developed in exactly this way: individuals migrated and, over time, people’s imitations of others’ way of speaking led to characteristic linguistic differences between regions—up to the point of mutual unintelligibility.
Finally, unlike the tits (see below), it was largely the male cockatoos who opened the bins (89%), and those birds who succeeded tended to be higher in the dominance hierarchy than those who failed or who didn’t try.
The results are impressive, but to complete the experiment the authors need to actually show that cockatoos learn to open bins by watching others. While the presence of other birds at Grand Openings suggests this, the authors need to do an experiment in which birds are trained to open bins, and then exposed to naive birds in the laboratory to see if the naive birds learn to open bins faster in the presence of these “tutors”.
That experiment was in fact done for the blue tits in a very clever experiment by Aplin et al. (see reference at bottom), using containers sealed with either foil or paper (just as milk bottles were sealed), but containing waxworms instead of milk.
On to the famous observational paper by Fisher and Hinde from 1949 (reference and link at bottom, click on screenshot to get pdf).
Great and blue tits opening milk bottles to get the cream was a behavior first described in 1921 in Southampton. The birds would either pry up the lids or, if they were foil, peck a hole in them to drink the cream. Here’s some adorable pictures given in the paper:
There’s a cute anecdote described in the paper:
The bottles are usually attacked within a few minutes of being left at the door. There are even several reports of parties of tits following the milkman’s cart down the street and removing the tops from bottles in the cart whilst the milkman is delivering milk to the houses.
A few birds drank the cream so eagerly that they stuck their heads too far in and drowned!
The authors note that the trait spread rapidy throughout Britain, and give maps of reports of milk-drinking tits from several years. I show just three: 1939, 1943, and 1947. Each dot is a bottle-opening observation:
Here the authors made no mathematical models of the spread, but adduce two arguments that this is due to learning through observation. First, very few cases were reported in isolated areas, where individuals would learn it for themselves (tits don’t fly very far). Second, most observations made after 1930 are near the pre-1930 localities or occur in regions where isolated openings were first observed earlier. Further, the observations increased much more rapidly over time than expected if each bird was learning to open a bottle by itself. As the authors say, “This does seem to support the view that, when the habit has been acquired by one tit, it can then be spread through the population by some form of imitation or learning.”
Confirmation of the last view came in 2013 by Aplin et al. in a complicated experiment involving capturing wild birds, training some to open foil compartments containing waxworms (a favorite treat) and others to open compartments covered with cardboard, as some milk bottles are. They then exposed naive birds to the “demonstrators” by having the naive ones watch the acquisition of waxworms by a “demonstrator” in an adjacent cage.
The results were conclusive: not only did the naive birds learn to open the compartments much more quickly and efficiently than naive birds not watching the demonstrators, but they opened them the same way the demonstrators did: piercing the foil covers and flipping the cardboard ones. Here’s a photo of the apparatus from the paper. Bird (a) is being trained on foil, bird (b) on cardboard:
Clearly the wild-caught tits, at least in the lab (they were released after being tested) learn to pry open lids by watching other tits. This strongly implies that the spread of the trait described by Fisher and Hinde involves a considerable amount of “social learning.” Curiously, it was the female tits who were best at learning, and the subordinates more than the dominant birds—the opposite of the cockatoos.
The upshot: Birds are clearly capable of learning through imitation and spreading what they’ve learned to others, especially when the object is to get food. In the cockatoo paper there’s indirect evidence for social learning from a mathematical model, while in the tit experiment there is direct evidence for social learning from lab observations (but not, like the cockatoos, in “nature”). The cockatoo experiment also shows geographic variation in culture, while I don’t recall any mention of geographic variation of how tits open milk bottles, though that may well be present if in some areas the bottles tend to have cardboard lids while in others they use foil.
What bothers me most is the many reports about this in the press, reports that neglected cultural learning and spread not only in other species but in BIRDS—the tits, which is a remarkably similar study of learning by imitation to get human food in an urban environment. The lesson: science writers need to dig deeper into their stories or, preferably, have a degree in biology.
Today’s Sunday, ergo we have a themed bird post from biologist John Avise. John’s notes and IDs are indented, and you can enlarge his photos by clicking on them.
Avian Sexual Dichromatism
Sexual dichromatism is a difference in plumage coloration between males and females, typically due to sexual selection via male-male competition and/or female preferences during mate choice. Many bird species are sexually dichromatic. Ducks (including Jerry’s beloved Mallards) offer great cases-in-point. In most ducks, breeding drakes are brightly colored whereas hens are dull brown and well camouflaged. But many other kinds of birds are sexually dichromatic too. This week’s post highlights several species in the taxonomic order Passeriformes in which males are much brighter than females. I took these pictures near my home in Southern California.
We are down to the wire on photos, folks. If you have some good ones, send them to me, lest this feature go the way of the vaquita.
Today’s set comes from Susan Harrison, Professor and Chair of the Department of Environmental Science and Policy at the University of California at Davis. Susan’s caption is indented, and you can enlarge her photos by clicking on them.
These photos are from a single day (April 30, 2020), in fact a single period of around 2 hours, spent at the South Padre Island Convention Centre (yes, they use the British spelling) on Laguna Madre of South Padre island, near the southern end of the Texas gulf coast. It’s a famous location for watching the spring migration, and we were mainly there to see warblers and other songbirds, which were there in abundance. But more surprisingly, the boardwalk at the convention centre yielded close-up sightings of just about every long-legged and long-billed marsh bird you could imagine. Here are the ones I was able to photograph, including 4 rails (including the sora and gallinule), 6 herons (including the bitterns), and a few others. Boy, I would hate to be a frog or small fish in the Laguna Madre!
Our tank is running low, and I’m afraid we’re down to readers who sent in one or a few photos. That’s fine, but I must group them together, as I will today. Please send in your batches (10-15 if possible) of good wildlife photos. This is an urgent call for photos!
Contributors’ captions and IDs are indented; you can enlarge the photos by clicking on them.
First up is reader Michael Hart, with two photos.
My wife’s stargazer lilies (Lilium sp. hybrid) went wild this year. It has been hot here in Vancouver – I guess lilies must like the heat. This one (photographed at night) is >2 meters tall.
It took a couple weeks, but the flowers have finally been colonized by crab spiders. This may be Misumena vatia, but I’m not sure because it lacks the pink racing stripes on the opisthosoma that I see in some of the field guides. Maybe others will know the ID.
It costs me a lot to look up these spiders because I have a bad phobia. I like these little thomisids and the salticids, but I have to skip over the photos of the big hunting spiders. There is something about the size of my hand that lives in one of the boxes of garden tools (probably one of the Eratigena species), and I’m staying away from it. We found a dead mouse in that box last spring, and I’m concerned that spider has developed a taste for mammals.
From Larry LeClair:
As requested, I send photos of four fledgling Eastern Screech-Owls (Megascops asio) taken last week in a neighbor’s maple tree in Hamilton, NY.
From Robert Placier:
Long-time follower of your website, and finally heeding your call for photos. But I’m not very good at it: all these pics taken with my Android phone. I am, like you, retired from teaching. But for me, I was at a 2-year technical college, Hocking College, in Appalachian southeastern Ohio. Essentially a forest ecologist, I taught Dendrology and Ornithology in my last years to wildlife and interpretive naturalist students. I am a bird bander, so all bird photos are from my operations, mostly at my home, which I call the Palatial Woodland Estate. So here are a few, all from SE Ohio.
A photo from my home area, just outside Chillicothe. This is a view of the Paint Creek gorge, formed during the last glaciation. Ross County is where the glacial advance terminated. The ice blocked drainage of Paint Creek, forming a lake which spilled over a low spot in the hills. Virginia Pines (Pinus virginiana) frame the view, and Eastern Hemlocks are found in the gorge below this cliff.
Because of the heavily forested (>70%) nature of my home area, Vinton County, and my banding birds coming to feeders through the winter, I band more Pileated Woodpeckers (Dryocopus pileatus) than any other bander in central North America (2-4 per year, nearly 30 since 2009). They are tough to hold with one hand, and I work alone, so this is as good a photo as I can produce. And they often bloody my hands—I think a peck wound is visible in this photo. And I do recapture ones I have banded: the longest span between banding and recapture is about eight years.
I band a lot of Wood Thrushes (Hylocichla mustelina) here, some years over 100, during my Spring and Fall migration banding seasons. The total is over 1,000 since I began banding in 2006. They are regular nesters on my eleven forested acres, and I catch ones each Spring that have returned from their winter (here) sojourn in Central America.
A woodland species that has notably increased on my “estate” since coming here in 2005 is American Ginseng (Panax quinquefolius). And my understanding is that Wood Thrushes feed on the bright red fruit of this species, and are an important seed disperser. Perhaps some of the other thrushes, common migrants here, also play a part in dispersal.
Today’s photos are of DUCKS, contributed by reader Bob Fritz. His captions and IDs are indented, and you can click on the photos to enlarge them.
Some duck photos taken at Santee Lakes Recreation Preserve in Southern California. The preserve is a water reclamation center and park that provides camping, fishing, boating, hiking and other activities, including bird watching! This is the only location where I have regularly seen Wood Ducks.
Wood Duck (Aix sponsa) – male with closeup and female with closeup:
Today we have the special Sunday bird-themed collection of photos by John Avise. John’s IDs and comments are indented, and you can enlarge his photos by clicking on them.
In the scientific literature, “sex-role reversal” is defined as any situation in which the intensity of sexual selection is stronger on females than on males. Although the phenomenon is very rare in birds, it does characterize some shorebirds known as phalaropes. In these sex-role-reversed avian species, the following features are also present: brighter breeding plumages in females than in males (resulting from the intense sexual selection on females); active courtship and mating solicitation by females; polyandry, in which females often mate with multiple males but each male typically has only one mate; nest-tending and incubation duties are solely by males; and in general a reversal of what we typically might think of as “normal” roles for the two sexes. This week’s photos show the world’s only three phalarope species, but I’ve also included the Spotted Sandpiper because it too shows some behavioral (though not plumage) tendencies toward a milder degree of sex-role reversal.
Several plausible scenarios have been envisioned for the evolution of sex-role reversal in phalaropes. For example, under the “fluctuating-food hypothesis” the ancestral condition was biparental offspring care, but then, under the harsh tundra conditions where phalaropes breed, some birds faced severe food shortages such that females were physiologically exhausted after laying a clutch of eggs. Faced with an incapacitated mate, a male phalarope in effect would have no choice but to tend the nest and young. Males thereby became “captured” into a high-investment reproductive strategy. If food resources then improved, any rejuvenated female could perhaps maximize her genetic fitness by courting other males and laying additional clutches. Repeated over time, this process presumably eventuated in the evolution of sex-role reversal that we see today in extant phalarope populations.
The phalaropes are also of interest because of their peculiar feeding behavior, which entails rapid spinning on the surface of shallow water, thereby creating a vortex that brings up food items that they then pick from the water’s surface. All of my pictures were taken near my home in Southern California, where the birds were in migration.
Red-necked Phalarope (Phalaropus lobatus), female in breeding plumage:
Red-necked Phalarope, male in breeding plumage:
Red-necked Phalarope, non-breeder swimming:
Red-necked Phalarope, non-breeder flying:
Wilson’s Phalarope (Phalaropus tricolor), female in breeding plumage:
Wilson’s Phalarope, male in breeding plumage:
Wilson’s Phalarope pair (with female behind):
Wilson’s Phalarope, non-breeding plumage:
Wilson’s Phalarope, juvenile:
Wilson’s Phalarope, non-breeder flying:
Wilson’s phalarope group:
Wilson’s Phalarope, two females spin-swimming:
Red Phalarope (Phalaropus fulicaria), male in breeding plumage:
Red Phalarope, another view (a breeding female would be even brighter red):
Today’s photos come from young Jamie Blilie, but the captions and IDs (indented) are from his father Jim. Click on the photos to enlarge them.
Here’s another batch from my son, Jamie, the real wildlife photographer in the family. All of these are taken from our yard or within a couple of miles of our house. In the linden tree directlybehind our house, (Tilia americana), Jamie captured male and female Northern Cardinals(Cardinalis cardinalis), a Cooper’s Hawk (Accipiter cooperii) – tough job for the camera’s AF! and aDark-eyed Junco (Junco hyemalis). Not all at the same time of course. Cooper’s Hawks are frequent visitors, probably attracted by the heavy bird traffic behind our house. I have seenCooper’s Hawks take Robins (Turdus migratorius)and Mourning Doves (Zenaida macroura) over our back yard.
Next, we have a turkey (Meleagris gallopavo), taken in our back yard. Turkeys have become very numerous and aggressive in our area. I never saw a (wild) turkey until the 2000s. They have really made a comeback.
Next is our resident Muskrat (Ondatra zibethicus), taken this spring. You can still see some hunksof ice on the pond. We see him motoring around our pond nearly every day. He is a very endearing animal.
Next are some birds taken at a very nearby lake (Lake Vadnais) where Jamie likes to go fishing in the summer. First three shots of Common Loons (Gavia immer). An adult breeding pair and one baby loon. In one shot, one of the adults is giving the crouching posture, which is sometimes a prelude to the “yodeling” call. In another of the shots, the two adults are offering food to the baby.
Also at Lake Vadnais, some shots of one of your favorite birds: Mallards (Anas platyrhynchos). One mother with a nearly-grown brood of youngsters. In the other shot, a mother providing shade for her duckling.
Finally, our home beast Rascal (Felis catus), relaxing in spring sunshine. He is a very old beast, 14 or 15 years. But still going strong.
Jamie’s equipment: Nikon D5600, Sigma 150-600mm f/5.0-6.3 DG OS HSM
Keep those photos coming in, folks, and thanks to those several people who have answered my plea. But there’s always an aching need for more good photos!
Today we have another installment of the famous “Breakfast Crew” series from Doug Hayes of Richmond, Virginia. Doug’s captions are indented, and you can enlarge his photos by clicking on them.
Part 15 of the Breakfast Crew. Folks who enjoy feeding birds have had a bit of a scare the past few weeks. Birds have been dying in great numbers West Virginia, Northern Virginia and several states along the east coast. No one is sure if it is a disease or the result of people spraying to control cicadas. Folks were asked to remove bird feeders and clean them and bird baths with a bleach solution until authorities get a handle on what is going on. We got the OK to resume feeding birds last week as no signs of the mystery illness has been seen in our area. All of the Breakfast Crew are healthy, in fact, we have a bumper crop of cardinals, grackles and starlings this year. There are at least six cardinal fledglings new to the yard (I don’t think they are all from the same brood) and more grackles than I can count.
A flock of house finches (Haemorhous mexicanus) mobbing the feeder.
A female house finch not about to back down from this young cardinal.
A common grackle (Quiscalus quiscula) giving me the evil eye. Most people consider them pests, but I enjoy watching them squabble among themselves over a place at the feeders, and their eyes are hypnotic!
A male eastern towhee (Pipilo erythrophthalmus) scavenging for seeds with a cardinal fledgling.
A female eastern towhee. She and the male are becoming regulars in the yard. Towhees usually prefer more heavily wooded areas.
A mourning dove (Zenaida macroura) in the garden across from the feeders. The neighborhood is full of these birds, and you can hear them cooing all through the day.
A Carolina chickadee (Poecile carolinensis) and a female house finch (Haemorhous mexicanus) share breakfast.
This female Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis) is keeping an eye out for hawks.
This northern mockingbird (Mimus polyglottos) really enjoyed the new bird bath. It was splashing around in the water and running along the rim of the bath for several minutes.
A house finch coming in for a landing
This barred owl (Strix varia) was hanging out in the trees at the end of the yard. There are several mated pairs in the neighborhood and at Pony Pasture Rapids, so they are a fairly common sight. If you are up and around near sunrise, you can see them returning to their roosts after a night’s hunting. Eventually a group of birds swarmed the owl and drove it off.
Chip Monk, the eastern chipmunk (Tamias striatus) hanging out under the fire pit.
Camera info: Sony A1 in crop sensor mode (A recent software update has made the bird eye autofocus even faster to acquire the subject and stay locked on!), Sony FE 200-600 zoom lens plus 1.4X teleconverter, ISO 3200 – 5000 depending on lighting conditions, 1/320 – 1/5000th second, f/11.
We are in serious trouble with the wildlife photos. I have about six contributions in the tank, but some are singletons or just a few photos. Please send me any good photos you have ASAP. Thanks!
Today we have photos from two contributors. Their captions and IDs are indented, and you can enlarge the photos by clicking on them.
Our first contributor is James Blilie:
I am not the wildlife photographer in the family; but I got this one this morning (this was sent in March). A White-tailed Deer doe (Odocoileus virginianus). She was casually walking along the edge of the pond behind our house eating willow leaves and other leaves. She was completely unconcerned with my movements 150 feet or so away.
Here is a dragonfly (species unknown) waiting on our Columbine plant for the sun to warm it up.
Seven (7) Painted Turtles (Chrysemys picta) on the “Turtle Island” I recently installed (anchored) in out pond behind our house. This is the third version of Turtle Island I’ve launched (the previous two eventually sank – Minnesota is hard on floating objects). I think I have it down now: The floats are garden kneeling pads which appear to be polyurethane foam. Gentle ramps on all sides for easy access. We enjoy watching the turtles basking in the sun. We have also seen Spiny Softshell Turtles (Apalone spinifera) in our pond and common Snapping Turtles (Chelydra serpentina) are also very common.
Equipment: Olympus OM-D E-M5 Mark III; LUMIX G X VARIO LENS, 12-35MM, F2.8 ASPH
Our second contributor is Art Williams:
Here are some shots of a bedraggled red-shouldered hawk (Buteo lineatus) that frequents the neighborhood. I hear him squawking nearly every morning and finally was able to get some decent photos. He was perched on a frequently visited dead pine tree, holding his left claw in a weird posture. When he took off, you could see his missing tail and flight feathers, as if he’d had a really rough week. I kinda feel for the guy ( I think it’s a male due to the smaller stature), with his sore feet and bedraggled appearance; hits a little too close to home.
I threw in a random shot of a Northern mockingbird (Minus polyglottos) in flight, leaping from a dense, tangled stage that seemed to amplify her mid-morning glottic reverie. They’re known to be very aggressive, mobbing cats, hawks and even postmen. I wonder if this one was off to harry the hawk.
The fawn of a white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) was left on its own by a hungry doe as is prescribed by their DNA. The little guy curled up in our day lily (Hemerocallis lilioasphodelus) outcropping, beside a well-traveled suburban street, and no one was the wiser.