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Maps revealed that North American hummingbirds, like the Calliope Hummingbird, migrate along different routes each year, possibly in response to food variability. Photo by LAP75 via Birdshare.

By Jennie Miller

Imagine circling the Earth twice on foot while drinking your weight in flower nectar each day. That’s the human equivalent of what Calliope Hummingbirds do, by wing, twice a year, in their migrations between Washington and Mexico. How such small birds travel such immense distances has puzzled ornithologists for decades because hummingbirds are too tiny to wear GPS tags for tracking. Now finally, through the use of citizen science, researchers have mapped the daily movement of migrating hummingbirds, and outlined a path of hope for the species along the way.

Using data from the eBird citizen-science project, researchers patched together hummingbird sightings from more than 300,000 checklists across North America to track the central hub of migration over a five-year period. Based on the number of eBird sightings at different locations, researchers calculated the average location of hummingbird populations for each day. For example, of the estimated 2 million Calliope Hummingbirds in North America, some individuals were recorded by eBird participants during the study period from 2008 to 2013. Researchers used these sightings to then find the average location of all Calliope Hummingbirds each day and visualize overall movement of the species throughout migration.

“We could not have surveyed the entire United States 365 days a year,” explained Sarah Supp, a postdoctoral fellow at Stony Brook University and lead author of the study. “Citizen-science data gave us that.” The research team also included the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s research scientist Frank La Sorte and was funded by NASA’s Biodiversity Program. Their study focused on 5 hummingbird species that migrate up to 2,500 miles across North and Central America: the Calliope Hummingbird, Black-chinned hummingbird, Broad-tailed Hummingbird, Ruby-throated Hummingbird, and Rufous Hummingbird.

Published in the January issue of Ecosphere, the maps revealed that the birds hopscotched between different stopover sites each year. For instance, over the five-year study, Calliope Hummingbirds shifted their central path of migration as far as 320 miles east or west between years, switching from routes focused around Tucson, Arizona, to Albuquerque, New Mexico, and from Bakersfield, California, to Las Vegas, Nevada.

According to Supp, this year-to-year variation suggests some “wiggle room” in hummingbird decision-making. The birds could be choosing sites with high-quality food, such as flowers with nectar to fuel their fast-paced metabolism. Such versatility may enable hummingbirds to respond as the rising temperatures of climate change alter the timing and location of flowering plants.

“Under climate change, one of the things we’re concerned about is mismatch in timing for migrating species,” said Supp. “If hummingbirds come north and the plants are already done flowering at the location where they’re expecting food, then that could be a problem.”

North American hummingbirds are especially vulnerable because they are so small, weighing the equivalent of two or three paperclips, and have such high metabolic rates, the fastest of all warm-blooded animals. These limitations prevent them from packing on large quantities of body fat to last them through migration. As a result, they feed continuously as they migrate, requiring frequent access to flowering plants with nectar throughout their route. “For some birds, going for extended periods without food means they get skinny or stressed,” said Catherine Graham, a principal investigator on the study based at Stony Brook, “but for a hummingbird, it could mean death.”

As climate change alters the availability of flowering plants, bird feeders may become an increasingly important source of food for migrating hummingbirds. “Feeders serve as a supplement to natural food for birds,” explained Emma Greig, project leader of the Cornell Lab’s Project FeederWatch. “Especially in extreme climate situations, like a harsh winter, feeders could play an important role in helping hummingbirds survive.”

With 10% of all hummingbird species worldwide threatened by extinction, the study offers optimistic news on the long-term survival of these beloved birds. Says Supp, “It tells us that hummingbirds will be flexible to a certain degree because they are potentially able to sense when it’s time to move, and that time may be different from year to year. It gives us some hope.”

For more on hummingbirds and bird migration:

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H_is_for_Hawk_cover450By Tim Gallagher, editor of Living Bird magazine

Last fall, a remarkable memoir called H is for Hawk, by Helen Macdonald, took the United Kingdom by storm, winning two prestigious awards and rising to the top of the bestseller list. It’s just been released in the U.S. and promises to do the same here. Last fall, our own Living Bird magazine published a review that highlighted Macdonald’s lyrical writing —but as a lifelong falconer I also give her high marks for providing a window into the minds of falconers and their birds.

On the surface, H is for Hawk is a falconry book chronicling the training of a Northern Goshawk, and yet it is so much more. It is a brilliantly written memoir of the darkest time in Helen Macdonald’s life, as she struggled to cope with the sudden death of her father, noted photographer Alisdair Macdonald. The two had been close her entire life. Some of her fondest childhood memories are of hiking through fields together, with binoculars hung around their necks, as she looked at birds and he at airplanes.

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Macdonald was devastated by the sudden loss of her father, Alisdair Macdonald, with whom she had shared a love of nature as a child. Photo courtesy Helen Macdonald.

What makes H is for Hawk special is how Helen Macdonald chose to deal with the grief she felt after her father’s death—by dropping out of human society and spending months alone, training and hunting with a hawk. This is not as strange as it might sound to a non-falconer. She had been working with raptors since childhood and was already an accomplished falconer. She knew that the kind of concentration required to train a hawk would be the best possible distraction for her. What is interesting is her choice of bird: a goshawk—one of the wildest, most difficult to train of raptors.

Macdonald is fascinated by falconry’s ancient roots, and she covers its history and lore excellently in parts of H is for Hawk and an earlier book, Falcon. It’s a fascination I share. As a 12-year-old, the first book I ever read about falconry was a translation of De Arte Venandi cum Avibus (On the Art of Hunting with Birds), by 13th-century Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II. It felt almost like Frederick was speaking to me from across the centuries, guiding me in my earliest falconry endeavors. Many years later, I traveled across Italy, visiting important Frederick II sites—where he was born, where he lived at various times, where he died—and wrote about the experience in my book Falcon Fever. I ended my journey at the cathedral in Palermo, Sicily, leaving a pair of my Peregrine Falcon’s bells at the foot of Frederick’s sarcophagus—alongside the fresh flowers that people still leave there all these centuries later.

I’ve always felt a strong connection with falconers in centuries past. What I learned from Frederick and other authors was how different the training of a raptor is from any other kind of animal training. Hawks are not social animals like dogs or horses—or people. (Only a handful of species—such as the Harris’s Hawk—has any kind of social structure beyond the pair.) Most raptors are loners. There’s no warmth there. They come together as pairs to breed, but for most of the year they lead solitary lives. If they weaken; if they fall ill or become injured, they die. That’s it. There is no pack mentality. No dominance and submission. No hierarchy of power.

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“All of the accipiters can be difficult to train, but the goshawk is the worst, because it’s so big and strong and fierce. There’s even a falconry term called ‘yarak,’ which refers to a state of bug-eyed, murderous intensity goshawks get into sometimes.” Photo of Mabel the goshawk in her first year, courtesy Helen Macdonald.

So punishment doesn’t work with hawks, only positive reinforcement. You feed them. You care for them. You must show them only kindness, no matter what a hawk might do to you. If it bites you, claws you, or grabs your bare hand, sinking its talons deep into your flesh, you must remain impassive, and wait—sometimes for a long time—until the bird deigns to release its hold. You must be a model of patience and gentleness with a hawk.

This is something I find endlessly fascinating about falconry: the fact that even if you’re a mighty king, or an emperor like Frederick II, you must come to your hawk, hat (or crown) in hand, like a supplicant. It’s an unusual relationship, the height of self-denial, perhaps most akin to that of a medieval monk, clad in a hair shirt and sitting alone without comfort of any kind in a cold stone cell.

The early stages of training a hawk (especially one that is wild-trapped or was raised in a free loft) are all about getting the bird accustomed to being close to a human. Sometimes it’s difficult even to get them to sit on your fist, let alone feel comfortable there. And you can’t even look at them, because, in the fang-and-claw world of predators, a fixed stare often precedes an attack. So you must look away, casting your eyes downward through most of the training process.

I remember all too well my early experiences in training a fresh-trapped Cooper’s Hawk—a mid-sized cousin of the goshawk—when I was in my teens. It was a lonely process—for the first two weeks walking back and forth late into the night with the bird on my fist: first in my room, then in my yard, and finally in the field, where I trained her to return to me when I blew a whistle. I’ll never forget the first time she caught wild game, a common House Sparrow, just three weeks after I trapped her. My mind filled with doubt. Would she let me approach her and pick her up from her kill? Or would she fly off with the bird she had caught and resume her life in the wild? She could easily have done that—but she didn’t. Instead she stepped easily up to my fist, finished her meal, cleaned her beak, and shook her feathers—called a “rouse” in falconry parlance, a sure sign of contentment.

At that moment I knew that all the hard work had paid off, and we were a team. I flew her for the rest of the season, during which she caught many more birds and a few rabbits. I released her back to the wild the following spring. This was an ideal situation for the hawk, which got through her difficult first winter—when a majority of young raptors die. And she was released in the mildest time of year.

All falconers are stoics—or at least we try to be. We train ourselves to hide our innermost feelings. We have to, or we’d never get anywhere in the training of a hawk. To these birds, we must always present ourselves as an unshakable rock—an impassive, immovable presence in their lives. Emotions make raptors nervous. They’re the only ones in this relationship who can show their feelings. Unfortunately, I think we falconers sometimes carry this impassivity into our human relationships, holding our feelings in check, hiding our emotional and spiritual anguish from everyone in our lives. In the darkest nights of our soul, we all too often stand alone—with a fierce, unloving raptor on our fist.

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Macdonald isolated herself after her father’s death, conquering her despair by spending months alone training “Mabel.” Photo by Christina McLeish.

This is where Helen Macdonald was mentally and emotionally in the months following her father’s death. Even in the heart of Cambridge, she was cut off from her friends and family, by her own choice. But she did have two soul mates in this endeavor—a wild-eyed goshawk named Mabel and the ghost of author T.H. White, who had trodden this same path in the 1930s. White, famous for writing The Once and Future King, The Sword in the Stone, and other classics, dropped out of human society, moving into a hovel of a cottage in the English countryside to train a goshawk. It was an utter disaster, ending ultimately with the bird’s escape. White’s book, The Goshawk, chronicles his misadventures in great detail. I remember reading it as a teenager and cringing at times at his ineptitude with the hawk. And yet, his writing was so brilliant, I couldn’t help but read it again and again.

White never really stood a chance of succeeding with this hawk. He was a complete novice—had never even handled a bird of prey previously—and yet here he was, trying to train the most difficult raptor of all. This is something that a non-falconer reading The Goshawk or H Is for Hawk might not get. There’s a world of difference between, say, a falcon and an accipiter (such as a Northern Goshawk, Cooper’s Hawk, or Sharp-shinned Hawk). I’ve flown enough falcons and accipiters to know that they are vastly different animals. (It didn’t surprise me when DNA work revealed that falcons are more closely related to parrots than to accipiters.)

All of the accipiters can be difficult to train, but the goshawk is the worst, because it’s so big and strong and fierce. There’s even a falconry term called “yarak,” which refers to a state of bug-eyed, murderous intensity goshawks get into sometimes. They definitely have a reptilian edge to them. If birds are truly dinosaurs, perhaps it’s not difficult to imagine the goshawk’s distant kinship with Tyrannosaurus rex and Velociraptor! White should never have attempted training a goshawk until he’d had some experience flying easier birds. (He did later go on to become an accomplished falconer, successfully flying a goshawk and a number of Peregrine Falcons and other birds.)

Helen Macdonald could certainly have taken the easy way out and spent that season of despair flying a well-tempered Peregrine Falcon or a Merlin, but she didn’t. She had demons to conquer—both hers and T.H. White’s. I won’t spoil it and tell you how things went with Helen and Mabel, but instead encourage you to read the book. H is for Hawk is a courageous tour de force of writing—emotionally honest and harrowing in its intensity. I’m grateful she was willing to share her story.

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Tim Gallagher at age 14. Photo by Janet Gallagher

Tim Gallagher is the editor of Living Birdthe Cornell Lab’s member magazine. He’s pictured here at age 14, with a Red-tailed Hawk and its jackrabbit kill.

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It takes a big painting to do justice to the phenomenal history and diversity of birds. To create a tribute to the 375-million-year evolutionary history of birds and to the more than 10,000 bird species alive now, the Cornell Lab and Ink Dwell studio combined efforts on a mural project 40 feet high and 3,000 square feet in size. It covers one entire wall of our visitor center.

The mural’s title, “From So Simple a Beginning,” tips its hat to Charles Darwin and a passage he used to sum up his view of evolution, in The Origin of Species:

                             “There is grandeur in this view of life,
with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one;
and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity,

from so simple a beginning,
                                                                 endless forms most beautiful

and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.”

Charles Darwin, 1859

One Planet, 243 Families, 375 Million Years

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Concept drawing for From So Simple a Beginning mural, scheduled to be completed in late 2015. Image via Ink Dwell.

“From So Simple a Beginning” provides a visual journey through the many epochs of birds’ evolution from fish to dinosaurs to the present day. The mural features one species from each of the world’s 243 extant bird families painted in bright color and vivid detail. To trace the evolutionary journey, the mural also depicts extinct birds and dinosaurs in monochrome. Everything is painted life size, from dainty songbirds to all 10 feet of a Wandering Albatross in flight, to an extinct Pelagornis with a 19-foot wingspan.

Painting began in 2014 and is scheduled to finish in late 2015, with the artists needing to complete one bird portrait per day on average to meet their goal. Here’s more about the project and its vision, from artist Jane Kim:

 More Than a Mural

In its marriage of art and science, of gorgeous birds painted in exacting detail, the mural invites viewers first to marvel at the diversity of birds and then to contemplate the evolutionary forces that brought them into being, spread them across the globe, and led to their dazzling variety of forms and colors.

To carry the mural’s message beyond those people who come to the Cornell Lab visitor center, we are building an interactive mural feature as part of our All About Bird Biology project. Viewers will be able to explore the mural through high-resolution images, learn the basics about each of the bird families of the world, and explore collections of some of the most impressive and outrageous birds in the world.

Be Part of the Project: Sponsor Your Favorite Bird

In mid-2015 there will be a special opportunity to become part of From So Simple a Beginning: an auction to support individual paintings on the wall. Imagine claiming your favorite bird, family of birds, or even dinosaur with a modest donation. Winning bidders will be acknowledged on the mural website or on the mural wall itself. As donations to the Cornell Lab, bids are valuable contributions to help further our work to interpret and conserve the world’s biodiversity. The auction will happen in Summer 2015—sign up here and we’ll send you an email when the auction begins. Or, if you choose, you can make a gift to the mural project now.

Progress on the mural is well under way—this slideshow depicts some of the stunning details of individual birds. Follow Ink Dwell studio on Facebook and Instagram for regular updates.

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(Images by Danza Chisholm-Sims/Ink Dwell.)

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By Charles Eldermire and Hugh Powell

Birds are doing a lot more than just feeding when they visit your bird feeder. They are coming and going and interacting with each other in a well-established social pecking order. At first it looks like just a flurry of activity—but watch closely and you’ll start to see the daily struggle of dominance playing out in your backyard. The slow-motion video above walks you through one example to show you what to look for.

At your feeder, watch for when one bird changes its posture in the presence of another, or how some birds fly away altogether. Here’s a quick primer on three common dominance-related behaviors you might see. [Note: The videos in this post have been slowed down to one-half or one-quarter speed—things will happen a lot faster at your home feeders.]

Displacement. One of the most common and easiest to see behaviors, displacement occurs anytime one bird leaves to get out of the way of another bird. Displacement also plays out when one bird waits nearby for another bird to finish eating before flying over to a feeder. Within the same species, generally speaking, males tend to dominate females and older birds dominate younger ones. Feeder hierarchies can also involve birds of several species, with the larger species usually winning out over the smaller. In this example, a female Northern Cardinal lets a couple of White-throated Sparrows know when they’ve gotten a little too close to “her” sunflower seeds.

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A White-breasted Nuthatch gives a wing-spread threat display to try to scare off a House Sparrow. Photo by Pat Taylor.

Threat Displays. Sometimes a dominant bird doesn’t need to displace a subordinate to exert influence. Watch for specialized threat displays designed to convey aggressive intent, such as the chickadee’s bill-up display in which he tilts his bill straight up. A dominant White-breasted Nuthatch performs a wing-spread display in which he sways side-to-side in the direction of the subordinate bird.

Appeasement. Dominant birds aren’t the only ones that signal their intent through behavior. Subordinate birds make appeasement displays that are the opposite of threat displays. Often, subordinates de-emphasize their size by showing a sleeker, smaller posture that seems to shy away from interaction. Watch for birds that deliberately lean or look away from a newly arrived bird, often while crouching or folding their wings in. When the dominant bird leaves, you may see the subordinate bird resume its normal posture.

Watch the posturing as these three Black-capped Chickadees work out their positions at the feeder. There’s some squabbling at the beginning, but notice how one chickadee ends up getting pushed to the windy, snowy side of the feeder and leans or edges away from further interactions. The two chickadees on the sheltered side seem to tolerate each other well and may be mates. (We also love the curious Northern Cardinal who seems to be observing the interactions almost as closely as a behavioral scientist would.)

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Does Dominance Matter? When a dominant nuthatch occupies a feeder and forces the others to wait until he’s done eating, it’s more than just birdy bullying—it can be life and death. Research has shown that dominant birds forage in safer spots and at safer hours of the day (when there’s less predation). Accordingly, they get eaten by predators less frequently, are able to maintain a better body condition throughout the lean winter months, and have higher survivorship.

This last video helps illustrate another fact of biology: rules are rarely cast in stone, and birds often surprise you. Here, a Tufted Titmouse pushes a Black-capped Chickadee away from the favored side of the feeder—until a new arrival sends both birds packing.

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Avian Sociability Index

You may have noticed that some birds at your feeder are more pugnacious than others. Some species seem to have different temperaments and regularly behave in either aggressive or submissive manners. Here are three examples:

RBNuthatch300-PhilFeisty and Ready to Fight. Red-breasted Nuthatches are notoriously aggressive. While they’re about the same size as chickadees, Red-breasted Nuthatches will completely dominate chickadees whenever they get the chance.

CWren300-MikePSocially Unaware. Carolina Wrens appear to be utterly oblivious to other birds while camping out at a peanut feeder. They don’t move until they’re good and ready… unless a Blue Jay comes along.

CWaxwing300-KirchenHappy Campers. If you’re looking for some good examples of avian dominance, don’t watch Cedar Waxwings. Entire flocks of 30-plus waxwings appear to get along swimmingly while feasting on the fruits of a crabapple tree.

 

Resources for bringing birds into your backyard:

Images via Birdshare: Red-breasted Nuthatch by JanetandPhil, Carolina Wren by Mike P, Cedar Waxwings by Roger P. Kirchen.

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