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.
Imagine: You watch a friend get into a heated argument with someone. Afterward, you think your friend must be feeling bad, so you spend some time consoling him in the hope of making him feel better. Scenarios like this probably seem commonplace to you, and you are likely not surprised that such behavior occurs. But many people are astonished to learn that a goose or monkey might display similar behavior. It was long thought that people were the only animals that could understand the minds of others and respond as if they knew what others were thinking or feeling, a trait often dubbed empathy. Scientists have devised studies to demonstrate this ability in nonhuman animals and have shown that we are not the only ones that display empathy. Many of these studies featured our closest relatives, chimpanzees and other primates, but researchers have found intriguing evidence that birds have this ability as well.