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Blog Birding #164

It’s hard to get away from Snowy Owl related items. The birds are coming down in numbers in places where there are lots of birders. David Ringer at 10,000 Birds takes a different tack though, explaining why they probably shouldn’t be in the genus Bubo.

And this is a classic morphologist-vs.-systematist problem. Do you trust our ability to analyze the genes (which is still developing and thus prone to all sorts of shortcomings, including potential convergence), or do you trust our ability to analyze the morphology and imbue it with systematic meaning (which has tripped up brilliant scientists time and time again because the truth is often stranger that we can imagine)? We certainly do know from birds and other organisms that the most closely related organisms are not always the most similar physically, if one member of the pair has experienced strong adaptive pressure.

Nathan Pieplow at Earbirding continues his fascinating series seeking to clarify bird vocalization patterns in ways we can all understand. This time up, tone qualities.

Nothing has created more confusion about how to describe sounds than tone quality.

Tone quality is the distinctive voice of a sound — the thing that allows you to tell the difference between a violin and a trumpet when they’re both playing the same note. It comes in very handy when identifying birds by sound, but people have tended to differ in their notions of how to describe it.  Today, we’re going to break sounds down into just seven basic qualities, which in combination make up the huge variety of sounds that birds can create.

We talk a great deal about open-country species losing out to development, climate change, and irresponsible management. Sometimes it’s nice to hear about a success, however minor. Ted Lee Eubanks at Birdspert writes of a winner.

Sparrows are an acquired taste (to watch, not to consume). Most birders prefer the pimped out warblers, tanagers, orioles, and their kind. Warblers are gaudy; sparrows are dreary.

Dull sparrows live in dull habitats. They are dull for a reason. A grassland sparrow such as the savannah dresses like grass. Brown, beige, tan, and ocher are a sparrow’s palette. Forget the vibrant reds, yellows, and oranges of a warbler for a grassland bird. Bright in a forest gets you a mate and a territory; bright in a grassland gets you eaten.

The ubiquitous House Finch is found coast to coast nowadays, and they’ve taught us a lot about how an invasive species can spread and what diseases can spread with it. Hugh Powell has more at Cornell’s All About Birds blog.

Microbes may be tiny, but that doesn’t stop some of them from causing major destruction. Even supervillains like Lex Luthor or Doctor Doom were never able to pull off as much devastation as the bugs that cause bubonic plague or malaria. Comic book supervillains come with a backstory, but what is it that turns some microbes into monsters? Until recently, all scientists could do was make educated guesses.

It turns out it’s hard to find a good opportunity to study harmful, contagious diseases. It’s just not safe. One option is to study an epidemic that doesn’t affect humans—but then it’s hard to track the disease, since animals don’t check into hospitals. Fortunately, some scientists have an extensive network of dedicated citizen scientists to help them.

Not specifically bird related, but this is the time of year to keep an eye on fruiting trees for the birds they can attract. Red and the Peanut‘s Kelly Riccetti showcases a great one, the gorgeous Staghorn Sumac.

Staghorn Sumac fruit helps birds get through the dead of winter. When all the other softer and more desirable berries of late summer and fall have been consumed, and the bushes and trees are all stripped bare, Staghorn Sumac fruit is still viable. The fuzzy fruit becomes an important source of food in the late winter and early spring for overwintering birds such as wild turkeys, Eastern Bluebirds, American Robins, Northern Cardinals, Mockingbirds, woodpeckers, chickadees, Brown Thrashers, Cedar Waxwings, Bobwhite Quail, grouses, and Hermit Thrushes. Staghorn Sumac “berries” are technically called “drupes” (a drupe is a fleshy fruit that surrounds a single seed in a shell; e.g., a cherry or a plum), and the conical cluster of drupes is called a “bob.”

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Nate Swick

Nate Swick

Editor, Social Media Manager at American Birding Association
Nate Swick is the editor of the American Birding Association Blog, social media manager for the ABA, and the host of the American Birding Podcast. He lives in Greensboro, North Carolina, with his wife, Danielle, and two young children. He is the author of Birding for the Curious and The ABA Field Guide to Birds of the Carolinas.
Nate Swick

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  • Hugh

    thanks for covering our House Finch stories Nate! Just want to set the record straight—that post was written by Cornell senior Andrea Alfano, not by me. She did a great job with both the virulence story and the “origins” story. Thanks again for the link.

  • Kelly

    Hi Nate. Thanks for mentioning and linking to my sumac post!

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