Friday, September 25, 2015

A Charm of Hummingbirds

It's no secret. I love collective nouns. You might even say I collect collective nouns. (Hmmm....I wonder if there is a collective noun for a collection of nouns.) Anyway, a group of hummingbirds is called a charm. Because they are such popular birds, they actually have several options and are sometimes referred to as a shimmer or a glistening. But I like a charm.

I've been busy and the summer flew by without me writing a blog post. For that I apologize, but there's no better time to return than when hummers are charming my backyard!  One reason I've been too busy to post is that filling feeders and photographing the hummingbirds is a full time job during migration. Texas is in the Central Flyway, the major superhighway for birds migrating between Canada and Mexico so spring and fall migrations are very busy times.

Myth: If I don't take down my feeders, the hummingbirds won't migrate.
Fact: Healthy hummers will migrate no matter what. A few, maybe older birds or birds that bulked up too late to safely make the journey, may over winter in some areas. Prevailing wisdom says to keep feeders up for about two weeks AFTER you see the last hummer.

After spending the summer in Canada and Alaska, these tiny birds make their way to the coast. Here they bulk up on sugar water and natural nectar that they will need to sustain them for a 20 hour non-stop flight across the Gulf of Mexico. Remember that these tiny birds weight about the same as a  penny yet have to add up to 40-50% of their body weight in preparation for the long flight.

They fly alone, not in flocks, on their 500 mile trip. And that is after having made the journey from the north. Some hummingbirds will travel up to 2700 miles between their summer and winter homes. There is some evidence that they follow the same route (without the benefit of AAA or Mapquest!) so you may see the same birds year after year at your feeders.

Myth: Hummingbirds catch a ride on the backs of Canada Geese or other birds.
Fact: Hummingbirds fly at much lower altitudes than geese do. Also geese flying south don't end up in the tropics.

This past week was the Rockport-Fulton HummerBird Celebration. I was thrilled to get to see hummingbirds being banded and even was privileged to hold two for release after they were banded. The banding process allows scientists to gather data about sex, weight, health, migration patterns, and size. Banders can even tell if a female hummingbird hatched babies (the head feathers are raggedy from spending so much time in a tiny, thimble-sized nest). Banders must hold a federal permit and the birds can not be held for very long during the banding process. Only about 150 people are certified for banding hummingbirds (and at least 3 were at the Celebration)! Anyone can take a look at how many birds of various species have been banded in any state by searching the USGS map. It's unlikely the average person will spot a banded hummingbird but sightings can also be reported to USGS. And many birders do spot bands on larger birds, providing information on migration patterns.

The hummingbird is caught in a mesh bag that has been hung near feeders. Then the bird is banded. weighed, measured, sexed, and an estimate of body fat is taken. The bird is remarkably calm in its "sock." Once all the clinical stuff is done, the bird is placed onto the flat hand of an observer. After a moment, the bird flies off.

There is so much more to be said about these charming little birds, but I've got to go fill feeders and monitor the proprietary antics of my own little charm. They'll only be around for a few more weeks!

Thursday, July 2, 2015

The Sky Painter

Louis Agassiz Fuertes
(Licensed under Creative Commons)
Most of us have probably never heard of Louis Fuertes but if you have visited the American Museum of Natural History in New York you have seen his work. Inspired by John James Audubon, Fuertes became known as the Father of Modern Bird Art. Unlike Audubon and other artists of the time, however, who posed dead birds that they had killed, Fuertes painted living birds in their natural habitats. As a child he cared for injured birds and dreamed of being a bird artist. After learning to paint quickly to capture fast-moving subjects, Fuertes created a new form of bird art that showed birds in action and life in their eyes and feathers. His work appeared in many books of his time and he made many expeditions to "capture" new birds. In the 1920s collector cards featuring his art were included in boxes of baking soda. These cards and his art are credited with helping to turn bird-watching into the popular sport it is today.

The Sky Painter: Louis Fuertes, Bird Artist, by Margarita Engle and illustrated by Aliona Bereghci, is written in the first person and poetically traces Fuertes' life with minimal text. Pages are filled with watercolor and ink drawings of various birds, often labeled for identification. Bereghci doesn't try to mimic Fuertes style in her drawings, and in fact, we only see reproductions of his images in the historical note. The result is an amazingly beautiful book that will surely inspire artists of all ages.

Black-headed heron'
(Licensed under Creative Commons)
Parents and teachers should visit Margarita Engle's website for an activity kit to use with this beautiful book.

Note: I received a copy of the book from the author

Monday, June 1, 2015

Could a Penguin Ride a Bike?

I missed World Penguin Day this year (it was April 25). That's approximately the day that penguins begin their northern migration. Penguin Awareness Day is in January (the 20th) and I missed that one, too. But I don't want to wait any longer to share this book, which takes a humorous look at those funny birds, and specifically the king penguin.

The format of Could a Penguin Ride a Bike has king penguins interacting with children in silly ways that will appeal to young readers. However, while they are laughing, they are also learning about penguins. The tone of the writing is a little reminiscent of Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus!as a situation is presented followed by the things that are wrong and flows easily. But after the laugh, correct information is provided.

 "What if a baby penguin came for dinner? He might try to eat everything!"

"An adult penguin eats about 50 fish a day, but a chick needs to eat about 200!"

King Penguin Biodome
(photo by Jeanette Larson)
The final double-page spread shows a very large map of the world. Kids will need to look closely to see where king penguins live. Of course there are seventeen types of penguins, and a few do live in places other than Antarctica, home of the king penguin. While the facts, and the funny stuff, pretty much hold true for other types of penguins, the emphasis on the king penguin is not always made clear. The last page includes a postcard, featuring real penguins, offering greetings from Antarctica. This is a nice touch since the illustrations are more cartoonish. I think it would also have been nice to include some links for penguin sites.

Fairy Penguins
(Photo licensed under
Creative Commons)
Of course most children will only see penguins in aquariums, like the king penguin I saw in Montreal's Biodome, I was fortunate enough to see fairy penguins in their natural habitat in Australia,
and someday I hope to see penguins in Antarctica. I can dream! In the meantime check out this book and some of the penguin cams available, like the one from the Audubon Aquarium of the America.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Prairie Chicken Little

Okay, this book has NOTHING to do, really, with prairie chickens but there are several prairie chicken festivals coming up this month so it seemed like a fun book to read right now. In Prairie Chicken Little, Texas author Jackie Mims Hopkins retells the classic story with a prairie twist. Back when the bison roamed the area, a prairie chicken decides that a stampede is coming and rushes off to tell the other animals to run away "lickety-splickety." I won't tell you the real source of the rumblin' and grumblin' and tumblin' she heard but the ending is delicious. Among the animals, Hopkins includes a meadowlark, a bird more easily seen than most prairie chickens.
Eastern Meadowlark
The illustrations by Henry Cole are very realistic looking and feature plenty of Texas icons, like bluebonnets and cowboy grub. A fun read-aloud that is colorful and fast-pace and may also pique interest in prairie chickens.

Some prairie chickens are more common than others but the Attwater's is near extinction. Once found in abundance along the Texas and Louisiana coastal prairies, today their very low numbers make them one of the most endangered birds. The males perform an elaborate courtship ritual that includes inflating yellow air sacs to release a booming sound that can be heard across the grasslands. It's very hard to see the Attwaters at the refuge near Eagle Lake but Fossil Rim Wildlife Center is working to breed chickens for re-introduction to the wild and you can often catch a glimpse of the Attwaters on their behind the scenes tour.

Attwater Prairie Chicken Festival is held the second weekend in April (unless it falls on Easter weekend) in Eagle Lake, TX. Other locales hold celebrations for other types of prairie chickens, including the greater and lesser prairie chickens, throughout the spring.

Note: I received a review copy of this book from the publisher, Peachtree Publishers.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

On the Wings

Birds come alive through the poetry of David Elliott and the illustrations of Becca Stadtlander. From the tiny ruby-throated hummingbird to the massive Japanese crane, short poems highlight the majesty, music, and merriment of seventeen birds from around the world. Most, like the oriole, the woodpecker, and the crow will be easily found in the United States. The meticulous gouache illustrations include landscapes and foliage that show where the birds are found. Children and adults will pore over details, like the difference in coloration between male and female cardinals while enjoying the clever words that clearly synthesize some of the birds traits. ("He's a hotshot/ valentine./ She's a Plain Jane./ But one without/ the other.../a song without refrain.") Young readers will learn a bit about birds but also find inspiration to try their own hand at writing poems about the birds they see in their

I do wish that a few facts had been included as back matter in the book. Kids will need to look elsewhere for additional information, ranges, and characteristics for the birds that intrigue them.

Note: I received a review copy of this book from the publisher, Candlewick Press.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Fire Birds: Valuing Natural Wildfires and Burned Forests

This book offers something a little different for anyone interested in birds. Most of us are very frightened by fire. I still remember my father making me go into the crawl space attic of our house to see if there was smoke or fire after a small kitchen mishap! No way was I going up there! Jim and I declined buying a wonderful house in a canyon in California because of the potential for wildfires and limited exits out of the area. We all watch in jittery awe as blazes consume forests and homes. And, of course, we believe 
Courtesy Nevada Div. of Forestry
Smokey Bear when he tells us that only we can prevent forest fires. Wrong! Many fires are natural and Smokey's message needs to be updated.

Natural wildfires, those not set by pyromaniacs and firebugs and that are not burning down houses, are actually a beneficial part of the natural cycle. Sneed Collard clearly shows how these natural fires benefit the bird population. As he points out, the "eerie landscape of charred, blackened stumps and snags" is filled with wildlife. Fallen trees create nesting areas for more than 15 species of birds in the Western U.S. that thrive in burned forests. While these birds are also found elsewhere, they are abundant in burned forests.

 Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons
The book follows the work of  Richard Hutto, a biologist who became interested in the connection between forest fires and wildlife the same year that Yellowstone National Park burned. The book is filled with striking photographs of birds living, feeding, and nesting in burned out areas. One bird, the Black-backed Woodpecker,is the ultimate fire bird, is found almost nowhere other than in burned forests. Although it is not just about birds, other animals also thrive where the birds are doing well, many birds like the dark-eyed juncos, house wrens, northern flickers, western tanager, and others are prevalent in burned forests.
 Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons 

Another biologist, Dr. Vicki Saab, focuses her work on figuring out how to manage burns to support wildlife. The decisions made regarding public lands and fire management "are often driven by politics, money, and the public's negative attitudes toward wildfires." But there is beauty and life in the burned out ecosystems. So next time I'm in a burned out area, I'll be looking for birds that I've never seen elsewhere.

Friday, January 30, 2015

A Bird Is a Bird

I have to admit that this book had me at the cover, which features one of my favorite birds, the Black-necked Stilt. Okay, I admit, I have a lot of favorite birds and many of them are included in A Bird Is a Bird.

Lizzy Rockwell uses short, poetic lines of text and simple, yet realistic,
illustrations to explain how birds are distinguished from other animals and the many ways we can categorize birds, juxtaposing different species to make her point. A bird can be tall or short, fancy or plain. They use their beaks to consume different types of foods. Despite any differences, a bird is a bird because it starts out as an egg and they have feathers.

The text is simple enough for a beginning reader to read alone and the story ends with a little girl watching a Rock Pigeon from her window. I appreciate that the book concludes with a child enjoying a very common, and frequently maligned, bird. These common birds, more so than my beloved Roseate Spoonbill or the elusive Eastern Screech Owl are what most kids will easily see at home and that will get them started as birdwatchers. Most of the examples are birds that children would find somewhere in the United States, although the Toco Toucan might be in an aviary and the penguin only in an aquarium, allowing the book to act as a sort of checklist for observations.

For classrooms or extended reading time, pair this book with An Egg is Quiet by Dianna Hutts Aston, which looks at one feature of a bird (the egg) and how many other animals also start out as eggs. Other thematic options for paired reading are two of Rockwell's earlier books, A Nest Full of Eggs, written by Pricilla Betz Jenkins, or Our Yard is Full of Birds, written by her mother, Anne Rockwell.