As cool fall weather approaches and leaves begin to gather on the ground beneath the oak trees, you may notice something special if you look up into the treetops. Clumps of Pacific Mistletoe, known to scientists as Phoradendron villosum, are slowly being revealed in the canopy.
Sports teams have often branded themselves with animal monikers (hello, Duck fans!). Football teams borrow from our feathered friends—the Arizona Cardinals, Atlanta Falcons, Baltimore Ravens, Philadelphia Eagles, Seattle Seahawks. So it is sadly ironic that the massive football stadium under construction in Minneapolis will result in a large and unnecessary number of bird deaths. The new Vikings stadium, located on a migratory flyway next to the Mississippi River, features large expanses of glass (200,000 square feet) and is expected to kill thousands of birds if built as originally designed. Birds don’t see glass and will attempt to fly through the invisible barrier, only to be brought up short when they collide with the glass. The collisions are often fatal.
Spring is in the air—time to talk about the birds and the bees. Perhaps not “the talk” that first springs to mind, but rather the one about pollinators and how important they are to life on earth (not to mention their financial impact worth over $15 billion in crop value each year). It’s also time to consider why so many populations of bees and birds are in serious decline.
When I wrote about the Greater Sage-Grouse in the November issue of The Quail, I mentioned that a final decision on protection of the bird would come in 2014. The Bureau of Land Management has just released its draft plan and is receiving comments until February 20. As expected, the draft plan is not as strong as it should be in protecting the grouse.
“Birds of a feather flock together.” This old saying applies to both birds and humans. The benefits of flocking for birds are many: They use mobbing to chase off potential predators, even when the predator is larger than they are. They flock together when eating, roosting, and nesting. Who among us does not wish to be able to understand their communications when they gather for “information exchange?” Flycatcher pairs communally defend their nests from predators and issue alarm calls to rouse their neighbors for help. In one study, researchers prevented a flycatcher pair from aiding their neighbors when an artificial predator was placed in the area. When that pair alarm-called in the next round, the neighbors did not respond. Apparently, birds take note when others don’t pull their weight in a group. It pays to cooperate.
At one time, the Northern Spotted Owl was found in old-growth forests throughout the Pacific Northwest. Heavy logging and other developments over the last 190 years have reduced spotted owl habitat by 60%. As a result, owl numbers have declined by 40%–60% in the last 10 years, leaving an estimated 2,000 pairs in existence today.
It’s 6:00 a.m. and still dark when we arrive at the Millican lek, just east of Bend. Even in the predawn darkness of this early May morning, we can hear the “thump-gurgle, thump-gurgle” of the male Greater Sage-Grouse as they try to impress the females. The elaborate courtship display goes on for an hour and a half until the birds finally settle down in the full light of day, and it will continue every morning for another month as the sage-grouse work out their relationships.
This fascinating ritual is becoming increasingly rare in Oregon and across the West as development, livestock grazing, wildfire, and other environmental impacts reduce sage-grouse habitat.