Sunday, December 31, 2017

Porgs are Puffins!

The cutest creatures in The Last Jedi are the Porgs. Personally, I thought they looked a bit like my cat, Maggie and I was repulsed by the idea that Chewie had barbecued one. He eats one and then is friends with the others! The Star Wars films are filled with odd aliens but Porgs don't seem to serve any purpose. So why are they there? The reason they exist is really pretty practical. Skellig Michael, also known as the island where Luke Skywalker lives, is over run with puffins! Since the filmmakers couldn't get rid of the puffins (even though they do actually hunt and eat puffins in Iceland and some other areas, Skellig Michael, off the coast of Ireland, is a wildlife preserve so the puffins are protected) and it would have been near impossible. and unbelievably tedious, to digitally remove them. So puffins became Porgs!

Tufted Puffin (Alaska)
Puffins are tiny and elusive and hard to photograph. Although we saw some in Alaska, this is the best photo I could get. I had hoped to see many in Iceland but Hurricane Harvey canceled that trip so I have to be satisfied for now with my far off sighting. Some aquariums, including Biodome in Montreal, have puffins, like the one I was able to photograph in captivity (but that doesn't count for birders). Still, they are interesting to watch up close.

Atlantic Puffin in captivity
There are four species of puffins: Atlantic, Tufted, Horned, and the Rhinoceros Auklet which is anatomically a puffin, although it looks quite different. Porgs are based on Atlantic Puffins. They dive for fish, using their feet as rudders so that it looks like they are flying underwater. They burrow between rocks on sea cliffs, using their bills to cut into the soil and their feet to push it away. Puffins don't begin to breed until they are about 5 years old and can live to be 20 years old. They use body movements to communicate and the wider their beak is open the more upset the puffin is. In addition to Wookies and humans, their greatest predators are Great Black-billed Gulls. (Just kidding about the Wookies.)

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Turkeys are Birds, Too!: Thomas Turkey's Terrible Tricks

After all of the other turkeys on Felicia's farm have disappeared, Thomas is afraid he is about to become Thanksgiving dinner. To distract the farmer from adding him to the meal, Thomas resorts to tricks and enlists the help of his barnyard friends to drive Felicia away from the farm. Reed's art is whimsical and a little quirky, almost childlike, and very colorful. The humor in Thomas Turkey's Terrible Tricks, and the ingenious animals, will appeal to readers who love Click, Clack, Moo: Cows That Type by Doreen Cronin.

After being out of print for several years, Lynn Rowe Reed is reissuing a new version of her Thanksgiving book. The art work was totally redone for Thomas Turkey's Terrible Tricks but the text is virtually the same as in Thelonius Turkey Lives! Although Thomas is a domesticated turkey, readers do learn a bit about the bird in Reed's story. One reason I especially like the story is that it has a compassionate ending. Jim and I are vegetarians. I stopped eating birds when after someone pointed out that we kill millions of birds a day; but we call them chicken or turkey. We haven't eaten turkey at Thanksgiving in over 25 year so it's great to find a book that shares what we know: it's the friends and the side dishes that really make the meal special!

(Copyright Lynn Rowe Reed; used with permission)
Benjamin Franklin wanted the turkey to be our national bird instead of the bald eagle because they are intelligent. Their heads also can change colors varying between red, white, and blue, when excited. Wild turkeys are upland ground birds that are very different from the bird that many Americans eat on the 4th Thursday in November.  Easily recognizable by their distinctive plumage and bare heads, their gobbling call is also very familiar to anyone who spends time in the habitat. They travel in flocks and roost in trees at night. Although hunted to near extinction in the 1930s, more than 7 million wild turkeys now roam throughout North America.

(Copyright Lynn Rowe Reed; used with permission)
Fun Facts to Consider:
  • The average wild turkey has 5,500 feathers.
  • 18 feathers give the male his distinctive tail.
  • Their powerful legs allow them to run up to an average speed of 25 mph.
  • Turkeys are omnivorous but mainly eat grains, mixed with a bit of berries, insects, and small reptiles.
  • The average wild turkey lives 3-5 years.
  • The wild turkey is one of two birds native to North America that has been domesticated for food. The other is the Muscovy duck.
  • Although native to North America, the turkey probably got its name because the British confused it with an African guinea fowl that made its way to Europe via Turkey; hence called a  "turkey bird."
  • Wild turkeys were domesticated in Mexico and exported to Europe before being brought back to North America.
Wild Turkey, Choke Canyon, 2016

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

The Hawk of the Castle: A Story of Medieval Falconry

Although I admit to never having watched a single episode of Game of Thrones, I know that its hunk star carries a falcon around. That has to have increased interest in falcons and falconry! Falconry is also popular in a lot of other fantasy novels and young readers might like to know more about how hawks and falcons have been used historically.

Hawk of the Castle is a sophisticated picture book that follows a young girl as her father trains the bird of prey that lives in their castle. The story line is featured on one page, with each short stanza ending in "castle" to create a lyrical pace. Inset boxes provide factual details about the birds, the time period, and hunting with falcons and hawks on the opposite page. Beautiful realistic illustrations have the feel of architectural renderings. A two-page author's note explains that the author's father was a falconer and provides some history of falconry from China and the Middle Ages to the present. Suggestions for further reading for both children and adults, along with appropriate websites, provide for additional information on falconry. This is a fine example of informational picture books that are intended for older children and adults to enjoy.

Note: I received a free copy of the book from the publisher. It will be donated to our local kid's birding team for their classroom collection.

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Make Your Own Bird Food

A lot of people are into DIY, do-it-yourself, so it's no surprise that some birdwatchers would want to make their own bird food. Not me, but maybe you. Make Your Own Bird Food by Mark Golley offers a variety of recipes, mostly simple, that can help you entice our feathered friends to feed. The recipes are arranged in broad categories: Seeds and pulses, breads, fruits and vegetables, and suet. Note that the book was originally published in Great Britain so American readers may need to look up some ingredients. Pulses, for example, are seeds that can be cooked, like beans and lentils. Other ingredients, like treacle, may require a trip to a specialty market or a substitution.

Most of the recipes require just mixing ingredients, although a few use pasta and beans that must be cooked (although you can use leftovers from last night's dinner). The introductory information discusses the importance of providing food for birds and each section indicates some of the birds that will be attracted to the meals in that section. Often the birds mentioned are European varieties, like Greenfinches, but the food should be the same as would be fed to other members of the family. I can't say that making your own bird food will always be cheaper but I think it would be a lot of fun, especially for kids.

Golley is a regular contributor to birding magazines and is co-writer for several bird identification guides.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Birds Make Nests

It's nesting season and we are getting a lot of baby birds in Rockport. Birds Make Nests by Michael Garland provides a quick look at the various types of nests birds build for their eggs and nestlings. Each page is filled with magnificent woodcuts depicting a variety of birds from the pileated woodpecker on the cover to the red-tailed hawk on the back jacket. For some birds both male and females are shown. Whether shaped like cups (hummingbird), on the ground (ostrich), or hanging from a tree (Baltimore oriole) the nests protect eggs and babies. Common names are provided on each page. One of the final scenes has a group of children watching an American Robin feeding three chicks. The book will have children and adults looking to see what nests they might find, as well as watching for the young birds to leave the nest. As an added feature, a teaching guide for the book is available online.
Baby American Coot (Port Aransas, TX)

The only thing I think is missing is an afterward with information on what to do if you find a baby bird out of the nest.  If kids go out looking for nests they may stumble on birds in need of help--or not. Often the parents are nearby and no intervention is needed. If you are sure that the bird has been abandoned, qualified rehabiltators can raise the baby bird until it fledges and can survive on its own.
Young grackle ready for release (Rockport, TX)

Baby Cardinal being raised by a rehabiltator (Rockport, TX)

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Little Home Bird

It's been awhile since I posted anything. In fact, it was during the autumnal migration. So I guess this, the time of spring migration, is a good time to talk about Little Home Bird.

This picture book by Jo Empson is both an endearing story about migration but also a good book about moving, a potentially upsetting experience for any child. Little bird, first see in his comfortable nest, loves everything about where he lives. But as the winds begin to blow colder and the leaves are falling, Little Bird's big brother starts to talk about flying south for the winter. Little Bird is concerned because he doesn't want to leave his favorite things behind. As the birds gather for their long journey, Little Bird follows, taking all of his possessions with him. Along the way he has to lighten his load, much to the delight of dog who gets LB's favorite branch, porcupine gets his favorite food, and other people and animals benefit from what Little Bird no longer can carry. Eventually the birds reach their destination and Little Bird discovered new favorite things. And it feels like home to him. Although the bird species is never identified, a final note briefly explains migration and a map shows the migration from the United Kingdom to the west coast of Africa.

While there is not a lot of information about migration, the general idea is covered in a way that will appeal to young children and can reassure them if they are facing a move. The illustrations are soft and show a lot of interesting textures related to birds.