Tuesday, April 23, 2013

April Volunteer Shout-Out

by Kara Kaczmarzyk

This National Volunteer Week, we give a shout-out to all Tucson Audubon volunteers and introduce you to two of them below.

The energy and enthusiasm that Abraham Moreno and Niki Szivek bring to volunteering with Tucson Audubon is inspiring. Niki and Abraham contacted me about volunteering at Tucson Audubon about a year ago. They had noticed volunteer postings in the Nature Shop on days when they visited the Historic Y to pick up produce from the CSA. These two “compadres” started volunteering at the Tucson Audubon Mason Center and have brought genuine gusto to many of our activities. Because the environment matters deeply to them, they are moved to give back and support conservation efforts in the area.

Niki (left) with volunteers sorting mesquite pods at the Harvest Festival (Abraham in far back)
It seems like Niki and Abraham enjoy everything outdoors! From hiking and biking to jogging and gardening, the two seem to be most at peace outside. They are both vegans, and have some recipe favorites from the book Born to Run. Abraham’s passion for local foods may trace to his grandmother, who would whip up tasty plates from the foods growing natively in her yard.  I have found that both are always eager to learn more and, reciprocally, to share new things they have learned.

Through experiences in the last year (like volunteering with Tucson Audubon!), Niki has found her passion in working outdoors, creating things with her two hands. As I write this, Abraham is probably studying frantically for spring finals at the U of A. In the little free time they both have, Abraham and Niki also volunteer with No More Deaths and for bike and marathon events.

Abraham sorts mesquite pods for customer at Harvest Festival

Last November, Niki and Abraham were the two steadfast volunteers who sorted and milled mesquite pods all day during the Mesquite Milling and Harvest Festival. They first got trained on the milling process through a training provided by Desert Harvesters in Phoenix. Both joined the Harvest Festival Planning Committee to help plan and present an even better Harvest Festival next November. In addition, they dig rainwater basins and plant native trees at Atturbury Wash and introduce new people to Tucson Audubon at offsite events such as the Summit Hut outdoor expo. Come to Birds and Beer on a third Thursday and you may get a chance to meet this stellar duo!

Image Credits (top to bottom): Doris Evans, Kendall Kroesen, Brad Steinagel

Monday, April 22, 2013

Birds Do It: a Short Guide to the Sex Life of Birds

Guest post by Bob Bowers
Originally appeared on Bob's blog, birdingthebrookeandbeyond.com

Monogamous Mates, the Curve-billed Thrasher (photo Bob Bowers)
Most of us can quote the most memorable lyrics from Cole Porter’s song, Let’s Fall in Love:  ‘Birds do it, Bees do it.  Even educated fleas do it.’  I’m not sure about the fleas, educated or not, but now that spring has sprung, bees are buzzing, birds are singing and it’s all about sex.  Or, as the owl in Bambi put it, ‘twitterpation.’

As it turns out, the sex life of birds is practically as complex and varied as that of humans, with strikingly similar, and equally aberrant, behavior.  There are happily monogamous birds, deadbeat dads, trashy moms, polygamous males, ménages a trois, male and female harems, prostitution and just about every other quirk and kink found among humans.  The difference, though, is that birds are driven by a single motivator, reproduction.

Most of our year-round resident birds are the faithful type, monogamous couples that share parental responsibilities and stick together long term.  Hummingbirds, on the other hand, are at the other end of the spectrum, whether resident or migratory, and the males epitomize irresponsibility.  Like self-centered jocks they hang out at nectar bars, pick fights with intruders and probably would watch football, given the chance.  But when their juices move, they make room for the ladies, flashing their iridescent feathers like a roll of c-notes.  They’ll share a nectar cocktail or two, and then make their move, which takes less time to consummate than to read about.  And no fond farewells, either.  The expectant mother is kicked out and left alone to build a nest, incubate the eggs, feed and raise the young, while deadbeat dad is bedding down everyone else in town.

Enraptured Roadrunners (photo copyright Bill George)
The Greater Roadrunner also belongs to the ‘wine and dine’ club, but unlike the hummingbird, the roadrunner actually cares about his mate.  While the female is preparing her nest, the male goes hunting for a desert dinner gift.  Returning with a mouse or lizard clamped in his bill, he proudly shows it off.  This is dinner at the Ritz-Carlton to Mrs. Roadrunner.  She jumps in front of her mate, raises her tail and trades her innocence for a 5-star mouse.  Her mate settles for take-out.

Male birds aren’t the only opportunists.  Consider the cowbird.  In spring, the arrival of Hooded Orioles from Mexico is coincidental with the arrival of Bronzed Cowbirds, but this is no coincidence.  The female cowbird may lay many eggs in a season while never building a nest of her own.  Cowbirds are brood parasites, laying their eggs only in the nests of other species, and the Bronzed Cowbird has a thing about orioles.  Not only are these females nymphomaniacal, they stop at nothing to give their young every advantage.  They spread their eggs around as many nests as possible, and will pierce host eggs as well as those from competing cowbirds in the process, murdering the unborn of both species.  If a host bird recognizes and disposes of the foreign egg, the female cowbird has been found to return to the nest and trash it, sending a Mafia-like message to the host.  Surprisingly, once the cowbird’s eggs hatch, the host birds typically feed and raise the foster kids like their own, even when the interlopers are bigger, look funny and sing a different tune.

Shunning single-parenting, widowed females of some species with a nest full of eggs will find an unattached guy and tempt him into sex.  She’ll then return to her nest, incubate the eggs and lay parental responsibility on the unsuspecting male.  Deceitful for sure, but effective, and the otherwise doomed young survive.  Male Red-winged Blackbirds, on the other hand, are into harems, often maintaining a territory of three or more females through the breeding season, sometimes helping with the young, sometimes not.  Red Phalaropes are more into role reversal than harems, and female phalaropes, supercharged with male hormones, have the bright breeding plumage and aggressive behavior normally found in males.  These liberated feminists choose their mates and lay his eggs, but then turn over incubation duties to the hen-pecked male while she goes looking for a second (and sometimes third) mister mom before migrating south on her own.

The Harris’s Hawk goes for menage a trois (photo Bob Bowers)
The ménage a trois is found in bird land, too.  Female Galapagos Hawks will live with two males, all three sharing familial duties.  This two-lover relationship can be life-long for the lucky lady.  Here in southeastern Arizona, we have a similar ménage with Harris’s Hawks.  The reason you often see three Harris’s Hawks hanging out together is because it’s a two male, one female liaison, with the alpha female often perched above the others.

This being a family newspaper, I decided to steer clear of the explicit mechanics of bird sex.  Suffice it to say that we’re talking quick and painless, like a kiss on the cheek.

(This article originally appeared in the April, 2013 issue of the Saddlebag Notes newspaper, Tucson, Arizona.)

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

A Penny from a Hummingbird

Guest post by Ernie Allison
A penny for your thoughts?

I was asked this question the other day, and I got to thinking about it. I opened up to the person who offered me that imaginary penny. Why? A penny’s not worth very much. On second thought, should I be offended that my thoughts are worth so little?

Of course, I knew that this was not the intent, but it got me curious about the history of the idiom. It turns out that it’s quite old, dating back to hundreds of years, when a penny could actually buy something. 

The idea behind offering someone a penny for their thoughts is to show them that their thoughts are worth something to you. This makes it more likely that they will open up and share what’s on their mind. This is often used when someone is feeling down or having a problem. The penny-offerer wants to be allowed to help, and show their willingness to do so by offering a (figurative) payment.

This got me looking up other sayings and facts about pennies. Unsurprisingly, a search on “facts about pennies” does not yield very interesting results, but as a birdwatcher, I do know that the weight of hummingbirds is often compared to pennies.

In fact, hummingbirds can weigh anywhere from 2-20 grams. A penny weighs 2.5 grams. So if a hummingbird gave you a penny, would it be worth more?

In weight, yes. And the effort that was given would be more than worth your random thoughts. But is a penny worth anything to a hummingbird? They can’t eat it. It can’t be used as shelter. Currency is worthless. So perhaps a hummingbird would not even think to offer a penny for your thoughts. Maybe they’d offer a flower petal, or a very small bit of nectar. Maybe they’d offer a piece of a nest. 

A hummingbird’s weight is not the only interesting thing about them. Their metabolisms are so fast that they eat up to 3 times their weight each day! Before migration they actually double their weight, which means a large diet increase. By the end of their trip, they’re back below average! This is why it is helpful to hang your feeders now, at the beginning of migration season, just in case some of your humming visitors decide to come early this year. Check out hummingbird migration tracking maps to see if there have been any sightings in your area yet.

In order to get all that nectar, hummingbirds have a pretty interesting tongue. Scientists used to think that hummingbirds used their tongues as straws to suck up nectar. But it turns out that their tongues are forked, the better to lap up nectar with. 

There is a very valuable printing of pennies from 1955 that is double imprinted. This error makes the pennies unique and therefore desirable. You can sell a penny, which isn’t actually worth what it costs to produce, for thousands of dollars because of this. Does the hummingbird’s double-forked tongue make them valuable? The flowers probably think so.

So, here’s where I offer you a penny for your thoughts. What do you find most interesting about hummingbirds, or any animal for that matter?

Ernie Allison loves nature. More specifically, he loves birds and wants to teach others how to appreciate them, too. When he's not sharing his stories with others, he's watching his hummingbird feeder and trying to get decent pictures of the quick critters.

Monday, April 1, 2013

Mason Center Through the Lens of Carol Palmer

Carol Palmer is the Volunteer Spotlight in the current Vermilion Flycatcher. You can read the full spotlight online at www.tucsonaudubon.org/vfly, pick up your copy at the Nature Shop, or get it mailed to you as a Tucson Audubon friend member.

Carol always brings her camera when she comes to volunteer at the Tucson Audubon Mason Center. Here is a small selection of some of the shots and a video she has taken around the Mason Center this spring and within the last year. For more of Carol's photos taken at the Mason Center, visit her Mason Center page on Flickr http://www.flickr.com/photos/15640112@N04/sets/72157629954391729/.

Tarantula hawk capturing its prey

Yellow-breasted Chat

Rufous-winged Sparrow

Desert globemallow

American Kestrel

Tarantula Hawk dragging its prey

Chain fruit cholla bud

Gopher snake

Wolf spider with egg sack

Early signs of spring