Common Raven – an oxymoron?

Photo by Omar Runolfsson @Creative Commons

Photo by Omar Runolfsson @Flickr Creative Commons

My only up-close encounter with a raven was several years ago while hiking to the top of a mountain. Stopping to sit on a rock and rest, I looked over and saw one of these super-large black birds perched, not 20 feet away, on a limb jutting out over a cliff. From its high perch, the raven could see the Maury River and the surrounding valley below. We watched each other for several minutes, neither uttering a sound, until his curiosity was satisfied and he launched himself from his perch and soared out over the valley.

Even now, many years later, one of the greatest pleasures I get to experience living in the Blue Ridge is watching a raven flying overhead on easy, flowing wingbeats, filling the empty spaces of the valley with an echoing croak. Surveying its domain, from the Alleghenies to the west and the Blue Ridge to the east, and all the ridges and valleys in between, the raven is master of the skies.

Perhaps no bird is so widely recognized or enters our consciousness as permeated in legend or folklore as the Common Raven. Native Americans of the Northwest revere ravens as being the creator of earth, moon, sun, and stars, but also regard it a trickster and cheater. Poets and authors of Western cultures have used the raven to symbolize death and evil and portrayed them as harbingers of doom. Other than possibly the American Crow, no other bird is steeped in so much mystery, myth, and misinformation.

In reality, ravens are curious, playful, and clever. Thanks to the efforts of researchers and ornithologists, we now know a lot more about this secretive species, and one thing is certain – there is nothing common or ordinary about the Common Raven. Wonderful books have been written about ravens that give us new insight into their habits and social dynamics. Books such as Mind of the Raven: Investigations and Adventures with Wolf-Birds (Bernd Heinrich), Bird Brains: The Intelligence of Crows, Ravens, Magpies, and Jays (Candace Savage), and In the Company of Crows and Ravens (John M. Marzluff ) allow us to peek into the complex world of the raven.

Even the most devout bird watchers don’t often realize that the raven displays ability in problem solving, as well as other cognitive processes such as imitation and insight. One experiment designed to evaluate these processes involved a piece of meat attached to a string hanging from a perch. To reach the food, the bird needed to stand on the perch, pull the string up a little at a time, and step on the loops to gradually shorten the string. Four of the five Common Ravens used in the test succeeded. (source: Wikipedia.org)

Ravens also have a playful side that few of us will ever get to see because of their shyness around humans and preference for roosting and nesting in inaccessible areas. There are reports of them making their own “toys,” breaking off twigs to play with other ravens. Their play often involves inventive behaviors such as sliding down inclines on their belly, repeatedly dropping sticks while in flight then catching them in mid-air, hanging upside down by one or two feet, snow “bathing,” giving vocal monologues, and playing “tug-of-war” or “king-of-the-hill” with other ravens. (source: Cornell Lab of Ornithology).

Last week I noticed two ravens flying overhead that were engaged in behavior I hadn’t seen before. One bird bumped into the other bird, which fell off to the side, then returned to bump the first bird. It went back and forth like this, the two birds jostling each other until they were out of sight. At first I thought it was a raven chasing an intruder out of its territory, but usually such altercations are over rather quickly. I now believe the two birds were a mated pair or family members just having fun doing what ravens do.

Ravens, like their crow cousins, have a reputation for being noisy. In fact, I usually hear their raucous calls before I see them when they leave their roosts in the morning and fly out over the valley in search of food. Most times, I see only one raven, but if flying with a mate, the pair will exchange calls back and forth while hunting.

National Park Service photo

Ravens always seem to have a lot to say. – National Park Service photo

Common Ravens have the greatest variety of calls than perhaps any other animal in the world except human beings. Most of the 30 categories of vocalization recorded are used between pairs and their offspring and include alarm calls, chase calls, and flight calls. Non-vocal sounds include wing whistles and bill snapping. If one of the pair is lost, its mate reproduces the calls of its lost partner to encourage its return. They can mimic other birds, and when raised in captivity can even be taught words. (source: Cornell Lab of Ornithology)

It seems an unfortunate injustice indeed to choose the word “common” to identify such an extraordinary creature as the unCommon Raven.

Wisdom begins with putting the right name on a thing.
(Old Chinese Proverb)

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Hey, I thought the snowbirds were ground feeders!

The Dark-eyed Juncos (also known as “snowbirds”) that show up as winter sets in throughout most of the eastern United States are known for being primarily ground feeders. According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, when foraging, Dark-eyed Juncos hop (rather than walk) on the ground, pecking or scratching at the leaf litter, or flit very low in underbrush gleaning food from twigs and leaves. Typically, they are seen in small flocks underneath bird feeders eating the seeds that fall.

Juncos aren’t particularly adept at clinging to vertical surfaces, so it took me by surprise when I looked out the window and saw two juncos stuck to the side of a tree intent on getting to the suet feeder.

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Hey, you sure about this ?

I’ve seen juncos getting suet when the feeder was hung close to a branch they could perch on, but I’ve never seen them clinging to a tree trunk. I guess when it’s cold and the birds are hungry enough, the proverbial rules go out the window and good old ingenuity kicks in.

I feel like I'm gonna fall...

I feel like I’m gonna fall….

Just hang on like this!

After a few moments of clumsily moving around the trunk, their persistence paid off and they were able to get some suet before a brassy blue jay chased them off.

Birds and other wild creatures have strong survival instincts and those instincts often push them to adapt to changing conditions, as in this case, to deviate from their normal foraging techniques to take advantage of a food source. That’s what “survival of the fittest” is all about.

First snow

A couple of days ago, we had our first snow of the season. The precipitation started as an icy mix, but quickly changed over to snow. Activity at the bird feeders had been high all morning so I knew the storm was coming. Birds have a special middle-ear receptor called the Vitali organ, which can sense even small changes in barometric pressure. By the time snow began falling, dozens of birds had converged on the feeders.

Dozens of birds
female cardinal

A Yellow-bellied sapsucker, a bird I saw quite a bit last year, but not so far this year, showed up at the suet feeder – I guess his natural food sources had been adequate until now, but the snowstorm had pushed him to come to the feeder.
Yellow-bellied sapsucker

The feeding continued heavily throughout the day as multitudes of birds jockeyed for position at the feeders or waited below to gobble up whatever fell to the ground. It was fascinating to watch the pecking order in action as bigger birds dominated smaller birds, males dominated females, and females dominated younger birds.

Still, it was clear that two Northern blue jays were at the top of the pecking order, at least for the time being. They chased off other birds and grabbed chunks of suet and sunflower seeds, eating them on a nearby branch or flying off to cache them.
Northern blue jay

Cardinals are often the last birds I hear at dusk after the other birds have gone up to roost, their lonely chip calls piercing the quiet of the evening. By now, the other birds were gone, but this solitary male stayed until darkness forced him to leave.
Northern cardinal

Moments later, all the birds were gone. Not a sound could be heard and the only movement was the softly falling snow.
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Each moment of the year has its own beauty, a picture which was never before and shall never be seen again.
~ Ralph Waldo Emerson

Winter as seen through the eyes of my fellow bloggers

Sometimes winter can seem gray and dreary, but as the old saying goes, beauty really is in the eyes of the beholder. There is subtle beauty to be seen even in the starkness of winter if we take the time to look closely at the landscape around us. We see it in the splash of red of the cardinal, the sparkle and shimmer of frost on a withered leaf, the play on the light of frost and sunlight, or the exquisite design of a single snowflake.

Some of the most visually stunning photographs of winter scenes I’ve ever seen appeared over the past few weeks in the posts of fellow bloggers – and that’s what inspired me to do this post! I obtained permission from four nature photographers in my little corner of the blogosphere to use their exceptional portraits of winter to showcase the season’s beauty. I hope you enjoy them and they inspire you to get outside and see more of what nature has to offer.

Snö på torkade blommor stor

“The never ending snow”
Take a walk on the wild side

Comforting

“Comfort and Joy”
Life in the Bogs

Frosty tree

“Frosty Tree”
Still Life and Silence

SerenityOfNature
“Serenity of Nature”
Photo Nature Blog

Snowy tree trunks
“The never ending snow”
Take a walk on the wild side

Mr. Cardinal watches as the snow starts to fall.
“Beautiful blizzard”
Continue reading

Complex calls of the chickadees and titmice

Many birds fly south in winter to escape the cold and scarcity of food, but Black-capped Chickadees and Tufted Titmice, members of the family Paridae, are year-round residents. In Virginia, after the breeding season ends, chickadees and titmice form loose winter foraging flocks with other species that often include White-breasted Nuthatches, Downy Woodpeckers, and Brown Creepers. The “follower” species travel with the chickadees and titmice because these two “leader” species are excellent food-finders and alert sentinels that help to create a safer feeding environment for the flock.

Downy Woodpeckers and Black-capped Chickadees often show up at the feeder together

Downy Woodpeckers (left) and other species that forage with Black-capped Chickadees (right) rely on the chickadee’s ability to find food and spot predators.

These parids share a unique call system to communicate with flockmates — a nasal, mechanical chick-a-dee call. According to an article in American Scientist (Sept-Oct 2012), the chick-a-dee call is one of the most complex signaling systems documented in non-human animal species. The calls are used to communicate information on identity and recognition of other flocks, the finding of food, contact with flock members, and predator alarms. Amazingly, subtle variations of the call even communicate information about the size and risk of potential predators. According to Cornell Lab of Ornithology, the more “dee” notes in a chickadee-dee-dee call, the higher the threat level. The call also serves as a rallying call to summon others to mob and harass the predator.

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Tufted titmice (left) use a variation of the chickadee call, a scratchy “tsee-day-day-day”.

The parids are intelligent, adaptive, resourceful, and curious. They are often the first birds at the feeder in the morning and are entertaining to watch as they interact with other birds. Especially in the drab days of winter, the cheery chickadee-dee-dee call is music to our ears.

Morning winter walk

Bill and I went for a walk around the farm a little earlier than usual this morning because the wind is supposed to pick up later today. We could feel heat from the sun on our backs and it felt good.

As soon as we got out a bit into the front field, I turned around and snapped a picture of the snow on top of the mountains behind the house. We didn’t get more than a dusting in the valley. The higher altitudes got more snow because of the colder temps.
Snow on the mountains

The pine trees in the front field that just a few months ago were nearly hidden by the tall grass are now very visible.

Young pine trees

There are a lot of hunters in our area, but we still have plenty of deer as evidenced by all the fresh tracks.
Deer tracks

Most of the Eastern hemlocks in our woods are dead or dying. They are under attack from the woolly adelgid, an aphid-like insect introduced into this country from East Asia that feeds on the sap of the hemlocks. The insect has infested hemlocks on the Blue Ridge Parkway for about 10 years and in Shenandoah National Park since the late 1980s. In these areas as many as 80 percent of the hemlocks have died due to infestation.

Here’s a hemlock on our property (in the very center of the picture) that is just starting to show the effects of infestation. Trees generally die within four to 10 years after infestation.
Infested eastern hemlock

Wingstem covered the fields with their yellow blossoms from late summer well into the fall. Now the dried stalks, reaching six feet into the air, are all that remain.

Wingstem stalks
Time to head back where cutting and splitting firewood is on the agenda and, of course, football playoffs. Callie was not excited about going home because she hadn’t finished checking out all the field mouse and vole hiding places. As usual, she brought up the rear as we headed home.

Callie coming home

An early morning walk is a blessing for the whole day.
~ Henry David Thoreau

A-hunting I will go

Yesterday I saw a bird flying across the front field, but it was too far away to make an ID. A few minutes later, the bird landed on top of an electric utility pole a hundred yards or so away. I pulled out the binoculars and saw that it was a male American Kestrel, a first sighting of this species on our farm.

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You’ll have to pardon the lousy picture – I don’t have adequate zoom on my camera to get a clear picture. His feathers are fluffed out to buffer him from the wind and cold. I don’t know if the hunt was successful, but he was still there 30 minutes later.

A better picture of an American Kestrel, courtesy Dave Menke, US Fish and Wildlife.

The American kestrel, often called the sparrow hawk, is the smallest and most colorful falcon in North America. They are commonly seen perched on telephone wires where they are frequently mistaken for mourning doves. With long, pointed wings, members of the falcon family are the fastest flying birds. Streamlined birds with a nimble, buoyant flight, kestrels are capable of hovering on rapidly beating wings when they spot prey on the ground. There are seven subspecies of kestrels, only one of which, Falco sparverius, is found in Virginia. The kestrel population grew as the state’s forests were cleared for agricultural uses.

But in recent years, migration counts reveal significant decreases in the falcon’s populations in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic regions. Autumn migration “hawkwatch” counts in Cape May, New Jersey are down more than 40 percent below the 30-year site average for kestrels; similarly, counts at Hawk Mountain, Pennsylvania are down 30 percent.

In the last few decades, open habitats used by kestrels for hunting have been developed or returned to forest, resulting in less available habitat, not only for the kestrel, but also for other “open country” birds such as the eastern towhee, another species on the decline in Virginia. As habitat is lost, so are the dead trees that provide nesting cavities for “secondary cavity-dwellers” like kestrels and many other birds that use abandoned woodpecker nesting holes. Increased predation by the larger Cooper’s hawk, a chief predator and a species whose populations are rising, is also thought to be a factor.

I was happy to see this little falcon because having them around is a positive environmental barometer. A top-of-the-food-chain predator, the kestrel’s presence indicates that the insects, amphibians, and small birds that it needs are plentiful and pesticide use probably low. When I wrote an article on the decline of the American Kestrel for Virginia Wildlife a couple of years ago, my husband built a kestrel nesting box. We have procrastinated in putting it up, but you can bet this spring, that box is going up!