Tag Archives: molting

The Circle of Life: An Avian Point of View

30 Apr

I broke my ankle last Wednesday, but am on the mend. I was quite housebound the first couple days, and by the weekend had had enough. I slung my camera around my neck, picked up my crutches, and made it as far as the backyard. I had ordered Jon Young’s book What the Robin Knows and though it had not yet arrived, I was inspired to go outside, sit, prop my leg up, and observe the birds in our yard. Better than observing them from the sofa….

Of course, my hobbling around on crutches, dropping them, and banging them and my camera case against the picnic table greatly limited the avian activity at first, but after I settled down, the birds very slowly ventured back to inspect the bird feeders. The male cardinal was easy to spot, as was his mate; they maintained constant communication via “chip” calls, which made it easy to find them. Here is the male:

Male cardinal
Male and female cardinals remain paired for the entire season (and possibly for several seasons, or longer) and keep tabs on one another at all times. I have not yet seen our male cardinal feed his mate, which is common during the breeding season and is meant to show the male can be a good partner and father, but am hoping to have the chance. Does the female crave a certain kind of food during this time? I don’t know–but good on the male if he goes and gets it for her.

While I was outside, another flash of red caught my eye: a male House Finch. This photo isn’t the best, but that Finch was quite speedy:

Male House Finch
Like the Cardinal, the (male) House Finch gets its red coloring from the food it eats during the molting period (specifically from carotenoid pigments, mostly in fruits). In fact, males gravitate toward redder foods during this time. Why? Because the redder their feathers, the better–as far as the ladies are concerned. For female House Finches, there is a clear link between coloration and the male’s health and nutrition. Bright red plumage signals a male who can reproduce well, defend his territory, and be a good parent.  The male House Finch in the photo looks cut out for the job.

The last bird I saw before I went back in (ok, the last bird I saw that I was able to actually take a relatively non-blurry photo of) was a Robin, the subject of the aforementioned book.

Robin
I just started reading the book last night, and will undoubtedly learn a great deal about this copper-chested visitor to our yard. But already, I know that the Robin knows far more than I do when I’m outside. It can tell the difference between dogs, cats, and lunatics on crutches who aren’t fooling anyone with their cameras. And it can communicate with the other birds. When a song- and chatter-filled interlude abruptly transitions into instant and total silence by mutual agreement of all avian parties, something is up.

As it was earlier this evening. It has been raining torrentially, but even so, there was a lot of bird activity each time the rain let up. During one of those moments, all bird sound ceased and was immediately followed by several odd but alarming squeaks that had me wondering what possible kind of bird could be making them. I looked out an upstairs window and saw a large crow in the garden, pecking at a small, young rabbit laying prostrate on the wet earth. The rabbit had made the noise. The crow saw me at the window and flew away; but as I watched, the little rabbit shuddered several times and then was absolutely still. I grabbed a crutch, hobbled down the stairs, and went outside in a futile attempt to see if there was anything I could do, but in that short (-ish) amount of time, the crow had returned and claimed its prize. I think the heavy rain had forced the rabbit out of its burrow, with tragic results.

I was sorry for the rabbit and wanted to be mad at the crow, but it was doing what it had to do. At this time of year, it, too, has mouths to feed–big  and hungry ones–and so it will catch whatever it can to ensure the survival of the one brood it produces per season. Its booty can include the eggs and young of other birds– hence the total silence in our yard at the arrival of the crow. The alarm system worked well for the birds, but not for the rabbit. But that’s the circle of life.