This is an old blog from 2011 you might not have seen but I think it’s one of the funniest, so here it is.
A while back, I listened to a radio show (Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell
Me) and heard Wayne Newton being interviewed about his “Casa de Shenadoah”, a
42 acre ranch on which he maintains hundreds of animals, especially birds.
According to the Las Vegas Review-Journal, he has 100 peacocks, five penguins
and at least 75 other species of birds. He also just adopted 200 lovebirds from
some animal hoarders who voluntarily turned them over. Newton also has four
wallabies, a pair of sloths, and 54 horses on the property. Locals also throw
Easter rabbits and chickens over the fence for him to care for. Staff
caretakers and veterinarians care for the animals on the estate which is
apparently now open to the public.
Now, it’s hard to tell whether this is a refuge, a zoo, or whether
Newton himself is an animal hoarder. I appreciate the fact that he has
professional caretakers overseeing the care of these animals, but it seems to
me that 42 acres is far too small to hold this entire collection of animals in
any way other than being confined to cages and stalls.
What really got me interested in this is some comments he made
during the radio interview. Here is an excerpt with Peter Sagal interviewing
Wayne Newton about his property.
NEWTON: It’s about 50 acres. We have Arabian horses. We have penguins. We have
wallabies. We have all kinds of birds, swans…
SAGAL: I’m sorry, I stopped listening when you said penguins. You have
Mr. NEWTON: Oh, yes.
SAGAL: How do they like the climate?
Mr. NEWTON: They love it.
SAGAL: They do. Really?
Mr. NEWTON: Yeah, they’re from South Africa. And most people don’t realize –
and I know this is probably not the forum – but of the 52 species of penguins
in the world, there are only three species that are Arctic penguins.
Mr. NEWTON: All the others come from South America. They come from the
Galapagos Islands. They come from Chile. They cannot take cold weather.”
things struck me here. First, there are 17 species of penguins, not 52.
Penguins are distributed along the Antarctic, the southern coasts of Africa and
Australia, and the southern and western coasts of South America; the Galapagos
Penguin is the farthest north at the equator. Second, they all inhabit cold
waters- the Humboldt Current that flows along the western coast of South
America out to the Galapagos allows penguins to inhabit these waters. Third,
there are no Arctic penguins. The Arctic begins about 66 degrees latitude above
the equator – way far north. Newton apparently thinks that anything not in the
Antarctic is in the Arctic.
I certainly can’t fault Wayne Newton for not knowing much about penguins. He
certainly has top-notch showman skills. And I give him credit for taking care
of all these animals. I would like to see Casa de Shenadoah someday, though and
maybe meet the owner. I can tell him about penguins and he can teach me to
sing. Fat chance on the latter.
P.S. When I originally wrote this story I got an email from an entertainer who calls himself the Birdman of Las Vegas. He didn’t like me using his moniker. No disrespect intended.
I have had conversations with a few naturalists and philosophic minded folks who construe bird song anthropomorphically, stating that birds sing because they are happy and enjoy singing. I always hate to disabuse them of this interpretation, but as a scientist, I know natural selection rarely allows frivolous behavior. It’s nice to think that birds sing because they are happy, and we’ve created lots of songs and greeting cards to reinforce that view. Unfortunately, if there ever was any bird that spent time singing for pure enjoyment, it was removed from the gene pool.
If birds sang because they are happy, then half the birds in the world are depressed, I guess, because they are not songbirds and have no song. Then there are the songbirds like jays and crows and magpies who are apparently unhappy souls, merely squawking rather than singing.
The problem with the idea of a bird singing for pleasure is threefold:
First, it’s usually only the male singing; why not females? Are they unhappy? What about juveniles? Are they unable to express their glee? THere are exceptions. Female Northern Mockingbirds, Northern Cardinals, and Black-headed Grosbeaks have songs as complex as the males’. In the phalaropes, with reversed sexual dimorphism, courtship roles are reversed and the female advertises her presence to males with calls. After the female lays eggs, the male takes over the nest and incubation duties while the female seeks other males to mate with.
Second, singing is usually restricted to breeding season. Does that mean birds are not happy the rest of the year? Some do sing most of the year, so are they happier than birds that become reticent in the winter?
Third, singing advertises a bird’s presence, which is ok if a female notices, but risky if a predator does. So, in the non-breeding season, a singer would be telling predators he’s there for the taking. There are some exceptions such as the European and American Robins which hold winter territories and sing to defend them.
Singing has two major functions: to attract a mate and defend a territory. There has to be a balance between those purposes and making oneself known to predators. So singing “just for fun” is just not adaptive, it’s downright dangerous.
A common winter visitor is the White-crowned Sparrow. This bird nests all over northern North America and the western mountains, wintering in most of the lower 48 states and Mexico. It’s a common bird at bird feeders and in grassy and shrubby areas. The black and white striped head is distinctive although the immature have buff and brown head stripes. They feed mainly on seeds in the winter but will take worms and insects when available. You will usually find them in flocks, often with Golden-crowned Sparrows and Dark-eyed Juncos. When frightened or in bad weather you will find them looking for dense shrubbery. White –crowned Sparrows, because of their abundance an wide range, have been studied extensively.
Like many migrants, White-crowned Sparrows travel day and night, perhaps covering 300 miles a day. Alaskan White-crowned Sparrows migrate 2600 miles to southern California. Interestingly, the birds can travel at night and feed during the day with only three hours of sleep. Experiments with caged birds show that they can perform simple tasks with no decline in performance with less than one-third of their usual sleep time. If scientists can figure out how the sparrows do it, the results might be helpful to drivers, pilots, or others who experience fatigue on the job.
Well, if that isn’t fantastic enough, in 2008 a White-crowned Sparrow got lost, flew 3000 miles across the Atlantic and landed in Norfolk, England. The “twitchers” (British for avid birdwatchers) were so impressed, that they raised funds to create a stained glass window for their local church to commemorate the event.
The song of White-crowned Sparrows has also been studied extensively; hear it here. Observations on song have demonstrated that young sparrows are born with a basic framework of their natural song but they don’t develop the full song until they listen to adults sing the next spring, nine months or so after they hatch. If they are isolated in captivity they never attain the full song and develop an odd song, depending on what they hear after that nine-month gap. They might incorporate pieces of the song of a thrush or robin if that’s what they hear! Since the young birds migrate back to where they were born, they learn the song of their parents’ population, and birds a few miles away learn the song of their parents’ population. Given the variation in song, the two groups often have different accents, just like humans do and the birds on the edges of these populations often learn each other’s dialects so they can communicate.
Research into how cities, particularly human noise in cities, changes the way White-crowned Sparrows communicate could have larger implications for how species exist in urban settings. And lots more studies on the song of the White-crowned Sparrow are abstracted here from sciencedirect.com.
In addition to the sleep deprivation and song studies, it has been discovered that major changes take place in the sparrow’s brain at the end of breeding season. The part of the brain that controls song shrinks drastically in a period of only twelve hours and the part of the brain that controls migration expands, due to hormonal changes. If scientists can figure out how to expand and shrink certain areas of the brain, White-crowned Sparrows might make us smarter!
I’ve always known that birds’ eggs are pretty amazing structures. Encased in a shell with everything it needs to produce a new bird, an egg does so in 10 to 60 days, depending on the species. You can get an overview of the development of an egg here or a much more detailed discussion of the development of a chicken egg, with graphics, here.
One of the more remarkable attributes of the eggs is the strength of its shell. Occasionally I demonstrate this with a member of the audience of one of my lectures. I place a chicken egg lengthwise in the volunteer’s palm, and assuring the fingers bear no rings, instruct the person to try to crush the egg. They do so hesitatingly at first and then squeeze harder. In 40 years, only one person managed to crack the egg. Amazing, right?
I thought I knew a lot about eggs and always figured they were an elegantly simple evolutionary apparatus for reproduction. But I have recently learned that they are far more complex.
Which end of an egg, the narrow or wide end, comes out first? It varies among bird species, but in the chicken the wide end emerges first. Surprisingly, however, the shelled egg comes down the oviduct narrow end first and just before laying, turns 1800 and then emerges wide end first. On the other hand, guillemots lay their eggs narrow end first. Why the difference? Well, nobody really knows or maybe the answer is that it is just not that important.
Another mystery is the coloration of eggs. It was been assumed for many years that birds that nest in cavities such as holes in trees or tunnels in riverbanks such as kingfishers or woodpeckers, have white eggs because predators would never see them. But then there are pigeons and nighthawks and the Short-eared Owl that nest in the open but have white eggs. Lots of shorebirds, nesting on the ground, have cryptically-colored eggs to blend in with the environment. But what about the blue eggs of the American Robin or the European Song Thrush? Must be something else going on here that affects coloration. Could it be that bright blue eggs indicate to the male that the female is especially fit and that it would be beneficial to the male to help her incubate the eggs and/or care for the young?
A study of canaries found that each successive egg laid had higher levels of testosterone. Speculation is that the chicks hatching from the later eggs were more aggressive and thus better at competing for food as nestlings.
You would think ornithologists had bird eggs all figured out but there are still lots of mysteries surrounding these fantastic products of evolution. There is no way I can possibly explain in these short blogs the complexity of eggs, so what I am leading up to is suggesting a read of Tim Birkhead’s latest book, The Most Perfect Thing, all about eggs. He examines everything inside and outside of birds’ eggs, but clear explanations seem hard to come by in many cases. Much of what is known about eggs is truly amazing; but there are still considerable mysteries.
From NPR: The new Secretary of the Interior, responsible for the protection of our natural resources, is a former gas and oil lobbyist. Bernhardt says that responsible energy development on public lands is good for both American taxpayers and towns dependent on oil, gas or coal.
The Department of the Interior manages one-fifth of all the land in the United States, including the wealth of oil, natural gas and coal below the ground. Under the Trump administration, oil and gas leases on public lands managed by the department last year generated $360 million, an almost 90 percent increase from 2016. Late last year he erased a chapter on climate change from the department’s handbook. Ruch said Bernhardt also advocated for rolling back Endangered Species Act protections and relaxing methane rules for oil and gas companies.
The Migratory Bird Treaty Act, established over a hundred years ago, is also being challenged. The act provides sweeping protections for many species, making it illegal “by any means or in any manner” to “pursue, hunt, take, capture, kill, attempt to take, capture or kill, possess, offer for sale, sell, offer to purchase, purchase,” ship, or receive birds or bird parts, nests, or eggs from listed species without a federal permit. But the administration is now interpreting the act as a law to protect birds from intentional killing. In other words, polluting the water or air, spraying pesticides, putting up towers or lines, or anything else that endangers birds is just fine because it wasn’t done to intentionally kill birds. So an oil executive can’t be held responsible for killing birds due to an accidental oil spill. He’d have to go out and shoot the birds.
According to the Washington Post: The Trump administration made it clear this week that it is sapping the strength of a century-old law to protect birds, issuing guidance that the law would not be used as it has been to hold people or companies accountable for killing the animals.
In an opinion issued to federal wildlife police who enforce the rule, the Interior Department said “the take [killing] of birds resulting from an activity is not prohibited by the Migratory Bird Treaty Actwhen the underlying purpose of that activity is not to take birds.” For example, the guidance said, a person who destroys a structure such as a barn knowing that it is full of baby owls in nests is not liable for killing them. “All that is relevant is that the landowner undertook an action that did not have the killing of barn owls as its purpose,” the opinion said.
According to the Defenders of Wildlife: “This new interpretation flies in the face of what every administration since the 1970s has held to be true: The Migratory Bird Treaty Act strictly prohibits the unregulated killing of birds,” said Jamie Rappaport Clark, Defenders’ president and CEO. “Trump’s Interior Department has gone out of its way to turn the Act’s straightforward language into a giant loophole for companies whose activities routinely kill birds.”
Every time I think OK, the Trump administration has gone too far, the next day it gets worse.
We think of a parasite as an organism that lives on or in another organism and derives its food from its host. That’s the common definition, but in use it’s generally broader. Your brother-in-law who constantly borrows money and doesn’t pay it back could be considered a parasite.Among birds, we have what are called brood parasites – those birds that put their eggs in another bird’s nest and let that bird raise the parasite’s young. There are about 100 species of birds that are considered brood parasites, including indigobirds, whydahs, cowbirds. Long-tailed Shrike, some laughingthrushes, European Roller, some magpies, ravens, and starlings, laughingdove, some bulbuls, and the Black-headed Duck, at least 100 species.
In North America, all we have in this category is the Brown-headed Cowbird, which lays its eggs in the nests of about 225 species of birds. Cowbirds don’t specialize on any one particular species, but an individual female usually does. The female cowbird watches a nesting host and when the coast is clear, flies to the nest, removes a host’s egg and replaces it with one of her own, all in a matter of seconds. The host bird unknowingly raises the young cowbird, which usually outcompetes the other young in the nest because the cowbird has a shorter incubation time and grows more rapidly than the host young. A female cowbird might lay as many as 40 eggs in a season. Having a great need for calcium to produce their own eggs, female cowbirds will eat snail shells as well as the shells of eggs in the nest they parasitize.
Red-winged Blackbird nest with two cowbird eggs.
Although the cowbirds make have a detrimental effect on some species, especially those that are threatened or endangered, cowbirds are certainly less harmful than habitat destruction and climate change.
Not all host birds make good parents. Some recognize the cowbird intruder and eject the egg, destroy it, cover it with another nest, or abandon the nest altogether. Others simply ignore the cowbird chicks and let them perish.
Since cowbirds do not build their own nests, their reproductive behavior is different than the typical songbird. Males will display to females with spread wings and a song and pose aggressively towards other males. Brown-headed Cowbirds are not monogamous and both males and females might have several mates in one season. When the young leave the nest (fledge), they are still fed by their foster parent. The young cowbirds often form groups of juvenile birds where they apparently learn to socialize the cowbird way.
Being raised by another bird, they are not exposed to the song of their parents. But after they leave the nest and begin their adult life, the young cowbirds are especially sensitive to the song of their species and learn it that way. Watch and listen here.
The males are black with a brown head and the females a dull brown. They are called cowbirds because at one time they used to follow herds of buffalo, eating the insects that the bison stirred up along with seeds. Today they follow horses and cattle. The scientific name Molothrus ater means “full black greedy fellow.”
Part of my job as a professor and ornithologist was managing the university’s vertebrate museum. Students and faculty used stuffed specimens for teaching or research and the general pubic would come in asking various questions about what they had found (including some guy who wanted to me to confirm that the bunch of hair he had in his hand was from Sasquatch). State Fish and Game and Federal Fish and Wildlife agents would ask me to identify vertebrate parts such as claws, talons, feathers and beaks confiscated from poachers. Usually I could but occasionally I was stumped by a single feather. Who can identify some random breast feather down to a particular species of bird? Roxie could.
Some years ago I went to an American Ornithologist’s Union meeting somewhere on the east coast. During a lunch break in a cafeteria I took my tray and sat down with an older woman I did not know but she was alone and an attendee at the meeting so I thought we could share a lunch conversation. I looked at her nametag, Roxie Laybourne. The name sounded familiar and it was only a few minutes before I realized that I had recently read an article about this woman. She was a feather identification expert at the Smithsonian, having previously been employed at the United States National Museum from 1944 to 1946 and the Bird and Mammal Laboratories of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service from 1947 to 1974.
During her career, Laybourne learned to identify dead birds from their feathers to learn what birds struck planes. Her skills in forensic ornithology helped solve thousands of cases of bird-related airplane crashes. In 1960, a plane crashed upon takeoff from Logan Airport in Boston, killing 62 people. Turns out that a flock of starlings was sucked into one of its engines. Ms. Laybourne was able to identify the feathers by ex
amining them microscopically. Her work gave plane builders information they could use to help a plane fly after such collisions. She was instrumental in making aircraft engines safer, developing military fighter canopies, and the creation of bird management plans at airports.
She also solved crimes. In one case Ms. Laybourne matched the down in a pillow used to silence a gun in a murder to the feathers found in the suspect’s pant cuffs. She also caught poachers who had the feathers of endangered species on their clothing. The Smithsonian Institution Feather ID Lab is based upon the work of Roxie Laybourne. More about the Feather Lady at Audubon News.
I have bumped into a few other famous scientists over the years including Konrad Lorenz and Francis Crick, both Nobel laureates, and the very well known Roger Tory Peterson, ornithologist and artist, but those were very brief moments. I more savor the long conversation Roxie and I had many years ago.
If you want to try your hand at identifying feathers, start with the Feather Atlas of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
According to Science Daily, May 23, 2019, warm blooded animals – birds and mammals – are getting smaller. That seems bizarre until you put some pieces together.
Scientists have known about Bergmann’s Rule for many years. This “rule” is actually a general ecomorphological concept which says that as the environment gets colder, the body sizes of birds and mammals within a species or population gets larger. The reason for this is that as an animal gets larger, its volume increases faster than its surface area. That is, the inner bulk of the animal gets bigger faster than the outside skin. What this means is that the part of the animal that generates body heat, the inside, increases faster than the part that loses heat, the outside – the skin.
1″ on a side
Look at this cube, six sides, all one inch in length. Each side is thus 1 square inch and the total surface area 6 square inches (6 sides x 1 square inch). The volume is 1x1x1 or one cubic inch. Now, double the size of the side of the cube to 2 inches. Now we have 4 square inches per side and a total surface area of 4×6 or 24 square inches. The volume is 2x2x2 or 8 cubic inches. Notice that the surface area has gone up by a factor of 4 while the volume has gone up by a factor of 8.
2″ on a side
In summary, larger warm-blooded animals are more adapted to cold weather because their volume/body mass is larger and their surface area smaller than smaller animals. In other words, larger animals lose less heat than smaller animals and are thus better adapted to colder environments. Conversely, smaller animals of the same species are more adapted to warmer environments because they are able to lose excess heat with their larger surface to volume ratio.
Why is this significant? Well, the world is warming. Hot environments are getting hotter and cold environments less cold. The evolutionary pressure to adapt to the environment then means that animals will get smaller as the environment gets warmer. Even in 2011 we were aware of this phenomenon. See Live Science.
It’s not necessarily a negative that animals are getting smaller, but it is a definite sign that things are changing. What will happen when birds are smaller? Well, their diet will change – they won’t be able to capture and eat insects or seeds as large as they did before. Maybe their nests and eggs will be smaller. Perhaps they won’t be able to defend their territories as they did previously. On the other hand, they might be able to handle smaller food items, hide from predators, and use smaller nesting holes. We can only speculate.
The Fox Sparrow, found on the west coast of the U.S. from central California to northern Alaska, shows an increase in body size. There are other rules as well. Allen’s Rule says that appendages get shorter with colder temperatures, for the same reason as Bergmann’s Rule. Gloger’s Rule says that birds get darker in more humid environments. I’ll let you read Wikipedia to get the explanation for that and wonder how global warming will interact with that rule.
I just returned from a fishing trip to northeastern Montana with two biologist friends from graduate school. Impressive scenery. I expected it to be flat and cold. Well, it was cold, but the topography – mountains and valleys and canyons made for an attractive background. We fished and talked biology for 10 days. Not being drinkers or smokers, we spent our time looking for new birds when we weren’t fishing. I only saw one new bird for my lifelist, the Chestnut-collared Longspur. We looked and looked for longspurs for hours in obvious places with no luck until we saw two males perched on the tops of vegetation. They were not close, but close enough to identify. Five minutes later, one landed on a fencepost five feet from our car so we got a great look. There was the possibility of finding the other tree species of longspur – McCown’s, Smith’s, and Lapland, but no luck. We also made a search for a Mountain Plover, which none of us have seen. After eight hours or so of wet and muddy roads, no luck here either. We listed nearly 100 birds that day, nothing particularly unusual except for the longspur. We did see a couple of Golden Eagles, one being chased by a shorebird we couldn’t identify. And some Red Crossbills. We watched them feeding on the cones of lodgepole pines.
Crossbills are pretty cool. Not many birds have bills like this. According to Wikipedia, “Crossbills are characterized by the mandibles crossing at their tips, which gives the group its English name. Using their crossed mandibles for leverage, crossbills are able to efficiently separate the scales of conifer cones and extract the seeds on which they feed. Adult males tend to be red or orange in color, and females green or yellow, but there is much variation. In North America, nine distinct red crossbill variants (referred to as call types) differing in vocalizations as well as beak size and shape are recognized. Each call type evolved to specialize on different species of conifer.”
Red Crossbills (male)
Red Crossbills breed like other finches in response to photoperiod and food supply, but being dependent on one food – pine seeds- they have to wander around to find the best supply. So one year in one area you may see an abundance of crossbills and the next year none, because the crop of pine seeds is not consistent from year to year. And they nest opportunistically from the early spring to the late fall, whenever they find an appropriate food supply. They feed their young a mash of partly digested pine seeds.
According to Audubon “These stubby little nomads are often first detected by their hard kip-kip callnotes as they fly overhead in evergreen woods. Red Crossbills in North America are quite variable, from small-billed birds that feed on spruce cones to large-billed ones that specialize on pines. Scientists have long puzzled over how to classify these different forms. New research suggests that there may be as many as eight different full species of Red Crossbills on this continent. Slight differences in call notes are apparently enough to keep them from mixing, and several kinds may occur in the same area without interbreeding.”
I had forgotten how interesting these birds were until I saw them again in Montana.
Bhutan is a landlocked country in the eastern Himalayas of south Asia. It is a peaceful country with little corruption, but still undeveloped. The country’s landscape ranges from lush subtropical plains in the south to the sub-alpine Himalayan mountains in the north, where there are peaks in excess of 7,000 metres (23,000 ft). Gangkhar Puensum is the highest peak in Bhutan, and it may also be the highest unclimbed mountain in the world. The wildlife of Bhutan is notable for its diversity. There are 680 species of birds, only two of which have been introduced (red Junglefowl and Rose-ringed Parakeet). This number, in a country slightly larger than the state of Maryland at 14,000 square miles, is pretty amazing. If we stretch things a bit and count everything, North America has 993 species of birds in 9.5 million square miles. If we do some silly math here, that’s one species of bird in North America for every 9566 square miles while Bhutan adds one species for every 20 square miles! That’s not how it works, of course, but it tells you the enormous diversity of birds in this small country.
According to the Convention of Biological Diversity, “Bhutan is located in the Eastern Himalayas which have been identified as a global biodiversity hotspot, and counted among the 234 globally outstanding eco-regions of the world in a comprehensive analysis of global biodiversity undertaken by the World Wildlife Fund (1995-1997). Bhutan has six major agro-ecological zones corresponding with certain altitudinal ranges and climatic conditions (e.g. alpine, cool temperate, warm temperate, dry subtropical, humid subtropical, wet subtropical). The country is endowed with vast forest cover, comprising 70.46% of the total land area, that is relatively well-preserved, as well as tremendous inland water resources, consisting of an extensive network of rivers, rivulets and streams arising from a high level of precipitation, glaciers and glacial lakes. Bhutan is also characterized by strong species diversity and density, with about 5,603 flowering plant species, under 220 families and 1,415 genera, close to 200 species of mammals (which is extraordinary for a country which is one of the smallest nations in the Asian region), 800 to 900 species of butterfly and 50 freshwater fish species (with overall fish fauna not yet properly assessed in the country). Also, according to herpetological survey training conducted in the Royal Manas National Park in 1999, 23 species of reptiles and amphibians exist in the country. In particular, the country is enormously rich in bird and crop diversity, with 678 bird species recorded, 78% of which are resident and breeding, 7% migratory and 8% winter visitors. Crop species is quite impressive, with about 80 species of crops known to occur in the country, including cereals such as rice, maize, barley, millet, wheat, and buckwheat (pseudo cereal); fruits such as apple, orange, and pear; vegetables such as potato, bean and cabbage; and spices such as chili, cardamom, garlic and ginger. ”
Im writing about Bhutan not because I went there but because some friends of mine did. The photo of the Blood Pheasant is theirs. They saw 241 bird species, 215 of which were life birds. One more trip on my bucket list.