January 5 is National Bird Day!

Today is National Bird Day. Did you know? And, if not, you might be wondering what all the fuss is about. Why is there a day to celebrate birds?

National Bird Day seeks to raise awareness about birds. It is that simple. It began fourteen years ago in the United States and spread. So today, Canadians, too, are shouting out the love for our feathered friends. Everyone is joining together to find ways to enrich the lives of these, the closest living relative to the dinosaurs, better. And why should we care? Well, there are lots of reasons but let me begin with the fact that we have over fished the oceans, made the waters toxic and decreased the amount of fish that was present at the end of the nineteenth century by 80%. We have populated the world and allowed cities to sprawl, taking away the normal territory of the birds to hunt prey and survive. We spray our lawns so they are green, use toxic pesticides, construct buildings with gorgeous winds that are not strike proof (they could easily be), while driving fast and well, quite honestly, some people go out of their way to do harm. The coffee we drink, for 94% of that grown, comes from crops grown in direct sunlight. Yes, drinking coffee causes deforestation! So part of today is to examine how we can deal with these issues and offer protection and survival to our feathered friends. Did you know that 12% of the 10,000 bird species are in danger of extinction? There is a doctor from Studio City, California traveling the world to try and photograph every species of hummingbird before they are gone. Her name is Carole and she runs Hummingbird Spot, a bird cam and chat on youtube to raise awareness.

Kakapo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

So what can you do to help? You might think about bird adoption. I am particularly fond of the work that the Kakapo Recovery do to help the only remaining 208 kakapo. Have you ever heard of the kakapo?

The kakapo is also called the ‘owl parrot’. The forage around on the ground of the forests in specific areas of New Zealand. They do not fly! And they are extremely endangered. Every Christmas the Kakapo Recovery issues certificates for adoption. You get a photo of your kakapo and a plushie along with other swag. The purpose of the adoption is to help fund the Kakapo Recovery. Cost of adoption ranges from $100 to $500 NZD. The birds wear transmitters that require annual or semi-annual changing of batteries. Those transmitters allow the researchers on the islands to find the birds and check their health. Today, there are only 207 Kakapo. Their existence was compromised due to habitat destruction. Today, they are threatened by disease and intruders. Don’t want to adopt a kakapo? why not buy a great beanie that comes with a really beautiful Kakapo pin?

If you have been one of the millions enjoying watching wildlife make their nests, lay their eggs, and raise their young, you can donate to the wildlife cams that make this happy. You can donate just as much as you can afford. Cornell University runs a multitude of bird cams partnering with others around the world. They monitor the lives of Osprey, Royal Albatross, Red Tail Hawks (my favourite), along with countless other species living in manmade cliffs in Bermuda to fruit eating birds of Panama. Check them out! The bird cams are free! In 2020, during the pandemic, millions watched and discovered great empathy with these beautiful feathered creatures. They also learned many things. Did you know that the parents of the Royal Albatross chicks being incubated talk to their young before they hatch? Did you know that a damp nest can cause disease killing the young? If you have ever watched any of these birds feeding their young, you will marvel at how those big beaks can get such tiny pieces of food into the nestlings mouth! You will marvel at how they grow and you will come to imagine that humans might want to be so focused at the dining table. One of my favourite falconers, Laura Cully, thinks that every human should have to watch hawks raise their eyases before the humans commit to having children. Bird cams are wonderful but along with the joy there is also sadness. The norm is that only 1 out of 3 juvenile birds will live to see its first birthday. Those watching the camera of the pair of Red Tail Hawks, Big Red and Arthur, at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York were thrown in despair this past summer when the big beautiful female, who had recently delighted everyone with her baths in puddles, was killed when she flew into the window of a building. And those who watched the two White Bellied sea eaglets growing in the nest in Sydney Olympic Park, WBSE 25 and 26, learned what determination was. SE26 had its leg broken shortly after hatch. For over a month it could not stand. It would scoot on its ankles. But, the eaglet persevered and forced itself to walk despite the pain. It branched, learned to feet itself, and fledged. SE 26 returned to the nest six days later much to the delight of everyone who thought they would never see her again.

Last photo of WBSE 26 I took off the screen.

Many who watch the bird cams contend with their own physical issues and it was very easy to identify with SE26. Everyone hoped that when she had overcome everything to fly that she would be able to be a real sea eagle living in the wild. The day after this photograph, WBSE 26 was found on the balcony of a condo, 22 stories up. She was taken into care. It was determined that she was in a lot of pain, there was scar tissue on her feet, injuries to both from overcompensating only using the left leg, and the break had not healed properly. She was euthanized. It broke everyone’s heart. If anyone were to suggest that the life of a bird is one of fun and freedom, I would have them watch a bird cam for awhile.

What else can you do in your own area? You can donate money or items to your local wildlife rehabilitation centre. The one near Winnipeg is Wildlife Haven. Check their website for what they need. Take a drive out and see their resident Bald Eagle who was found in NW Ontario and who now is one of their ambassador birds. You can attract birds to your back garden. You can add feeders and bowls of water. They will thank you immensely. Crows and Blue Jays love grapes, dog kibble, hard-boiled eggs which are good for them. Avoid feeding birds bread. It is like Junk food to them. They love it and will fill up on it but will ultimately die of starvation. If you see plastic mesh bags or the plastic tops that hold cans, cut them and put them in the garbage. Avoid the use of balloons at all cost. Birds die from getting tangled in them. And last, three ideas. Coffee. Do you drink it? Do you know where those coffee beans come from? 94% of the world’s coffee is grown in the sun with only 6% grown in the shade. Coffee grown in the shade does not destroy the habitat of birds and animals. In Canada, you can order ‘bird safe’ coffee from birdsandbeans.ca It is not any more expensive than some of the other leading brands and if you order $45 worth, the shipping is free. It is also delicious, organic, and fair trade.

Only one of the signature blends at BirdsandBeans.

If you live in the United States, you can order directly from the Smithsonian who certifies the coffees that are grown in the shade.

And if you really want to get into the politics of wildlife, then go and read the website of the Albatross Task Force. You might never eat factory fish again! Lobby your government to make these fishing trawlers comply with standards so that there is no bycatch. What do I mean by bycatch? Sea birds are attracted to the fish used as bait and they get caught on the industrial hooks if they are not protected. A Wandering Albatross is decapitated every five minutes. The goal of the Albatross Task Force is to get every industrial trawler to use bird scaring lines, fish at night, and add weight to the long lines. These are inexpensive remedies meant to save 80% of the bycatch and protect the growing number of endangered sea birds.

Get a friend to join you! Have your children enter many of the bird contests. Join in on Bird counting days. Read about birds and nature. We need to protect the birds and their habitat so that they can help protect us.

Teaching nestlings the value of food

By the time the three Red-tail hawks have fledged off the light stand at Cornell University, many of you might well be tired of listening to my natterings about the good parenting of these amazing raptors. Every day there are new lessons or repeated ones for the eyasses so that they can live a full and healthy life without relying on their parents. Isn’t that what all of us really want for our children? To sit back and smile knowing that they can take care of themselves if we are not there?

Today’s lesson involved a pigeon.

Just before the nestlings bedtime (around sunset), Arthur, the tercel (male/father) delivered a pigeon right in the middle of the nest and fledge area.

Arthur delivering the plucked pigeon.

Food to the nest has been dispersed sparingly as the nestlings approach the time they will fly off the natal nest. From morning til about 6pm, each had something to eat. And now it is right before bedtime. This is an easy snack! Their dad even plucked it for them. But the nestlings go about playing and picking up sticks and dreaming of flying and ignore the prey.

One of the nestlings near the prey but it shows no indication of being hungry or ready to eat.

Big Red (the mother/formel) comes to check on the state of the pigeon about ten minutes after it has been delivered. Ten minutes after this she comes with a branch and does some nest reconstruction. The youngest chick starts chirping wanting to be fed and the other two approach her as if she will fed them. Big Red has other ideas.

In the real world of hawks off the nest, prey can be scarce and young fledglings have to learn to eat when food is available, not ignore it. That was the lesson for today. Big Red looked around for a bit, picked up the pigeon with her talon and with nestlings chirping, she left with it. She does not bring it back even if they beg. It is gone. Too late. Too bad. Adios.

It’s Nearly Mother’s Day and I tip my hat to Big Red, a 17-year-old Red Tail Hawk for “Mother of the Year 2020”

If my mother were alive, I hope that she would understand why I am so adamant that a Raptor Formel should be nominated for Mother of the Year 2020.  It was, after all, my mother who carried the duck my father had given me to my grandmother’s every day on her way to work.  There the duck lived in a specially designed ‘cage’ or stayed in the hen house.  On occasion, the duck would join my grandmother and me for a swing on the porch. I know that my grandmother would approve as she had a fondness for all living creatures, as did my dad.

2020 is a very unusual year.  Since the end of 2019, the international community has been paralysed by COVID-19 that has killed nearly three million people as I type this.  Many are without jobs or health insurance.  Entire countries and cities have been under various levels and length of lockdown.  The funeral homes cannot handle the number of dead.  Hospitals have run out of protective gear for healthcare employees.  And there remains uncertainty from world leaders on how to continue to manage this virus.  Is it safe for people to be outside amongst one another?  or should we be locked down longer? When will a vaccine be available? When will people be able to travel? When will schools open? Will people have jobs? Will there be enough food?  The level of anxiety, coupled with the number of people working from home, has caused people to seek solace in cooking, reading, and learning.  Many have turned to nature with the number of individuals watching bird cams sometimes more than five times the norm.  I am one of those people.  I have a fondness for hawks ever since I first stood about a half metre away from a female Sharp-shinned hawk in our garden three years ago.  That moment had a transformative impact on my fondness for these regal birds of prey.

In early March I began following the exploits of a pair of Redtail hawks with their nest on the ledge outside the office of the President of New York University.  They were Aurora and her new mate, Orion.  Having laid three eggs, the pair took turns incubating them so the other could eat.  On the morning of March 26, Aurora did not return.  She did not return that evening nor the next day.  Everyone was in tears and devastated beyond belief.  That pair of hawks symbolised hope for the people watching who were living in the hardest-hit area of the United States at the time.  The virus was so harmful and so many people were dying that the parks were being turned into field hospitals and temporary burial grounds.  One of the members suggested that we switch our attention to the Bird Cams run by Cornell University.  And that is how I met “Big Red.”

Big Red is specifically a Buteo jamaicensis.  Technically this is the order Accipitriformes, and the family is the Accipitridae.  Leaving the fancy language aside, Big Red belongs to one of the most common hawk families in North America.  There are approximately two million.  The birds, along with their nests, eggs, and feathers are protected by treaties on migratory birds throughout the Americas.

Big Red was born in 2003 and was banded in Brooktondale, New York that fall.  When you look at pictures of her, you will notice that she has a large dark red head, nape, and throat and the most magnificent red tail feathers.  She currently resides on the campus of Cornell University in Ithaca, New York with her mate, Arthur.  Redtail hawks mate for life.  Arthur was born and fledged in 2016, making him a whole thirteen years younger than Big Red!  Arthur and Big Red completed their first breeding season in 2018; this is their third year for successfully raising chicks.  Arthur has a real pale head, chest and nape, not unlike the notorious Pale Male from Central Park in New York City.  For the last two months, this pair of hawks taught me so much and inspired so many others at a time when the world needed something beautiful.

Big Red is the epitome of dogged persistence and dedication to the task of taking care of her nest, incubating her eggs, brooding and feeding her chicks, and being a model for them for their successful life as raptors.  Since the first records at Cornell in 2012, Big Red has successfully raised twenty-one chicks!  There could be almost that many more uncounted – before the cameras – from 2006 (?) through 2011.

Big Red and Arthur are often seen in the late fall inspecting their nest which is eighty feet above the ground on a lighting tower on the campus of Cornell University.  Hawk nests can get very quiet high and wide as the couple continue to refurbish and redecorate annually. Typically, hawks have one nest, but Big Red and Ezra actually have two. For the last couple of years, they have favoured their current nest.

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Sticks and twigs ranging in size between eight inches and fourteen inches are carried from the ground to the site in anticipation of eggs being laid.  Redtail hawks lay between one to four eggs depending on the local food supply.  Typically, Big Red has a clutch of three eggs. Redtail hawks usually incubate their eggs from 28-35 days although in 2012 Big Red sat on her eggs for 35-38 days with the longest being 42 days in 2013.

Observing the weather in Ithaca, New York made me quite happy, actually, to be living in Winnipeg.  There were quite a few days where it was frosty with snow, but on April 17, Big Red found herself encased in ice and snow as she incubated her eggs, ensuring the survival of her chicks.

Below are the three eggs in the clutch. Big Red laid egg number 3 at 1: 23 pm on March 24.  She immediately “told Arthur” and began incubating the clutch.  Both Big Red and Arthur take turns sitting on the eggs until they hatch.

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There are several things to notice in this image.  The first is the nest bowl which is lined with soft materials.  Big Red and Arthur will continually maintain the nest bowl, making sure that it is big enough to hold the checks and that they cannot harm their tiny legs and talons.  Second, notice the pine.  The hawks bring these into the nest in preparation for the hatching of the chicks.  They help keep flies and their larvae away and protect the chicks from disease caused by flies.  And third, the bottom left egg has a pip, and the chick is beginning to use its body to crack the shell.  Pipping is when the chick first breaks through the shell with its “egg tooth”.  Sometimes it takes the chick up to twenty-four hours to completely break out of its shell.

pipping red tail hawk

It takes a lot of energy to hatch, and the newborn chicks are often tired for the first day of their lives.  Before long, however, their feathers will have dried off, and they will be covered with white fluff.

J1 hatching and J2 pipping

At first, the chick’s eyes do not focus well, and they do not quite understand what “food” really is and who is feeding them.  There is an awful lot of pecking and bonking that goes on with the siblings.  This settles down after about four or five days.

The chicks are not given names.  They are assigned letters of the alphabet.  In 2012, when Cornell University first installed its hawk cameras, the chicks were given the letter C after Cornell.  In 2013, the chicks were given D and so on until 2020 when the chicks have been given the letter J.

In the image below, the first hatched chick, J1, is trying to take a bite out of J2’s head!

Two chicks

J1 and J2 tiny fighting over a small piece of meat

3 chicks

It is up to Arthur to bring food for Big Red and the chicks.  Arthur’s territory is abundant.  Until the chicks fledge, he will bring chipmunks, squirrels, pigeons, Starlings, snakes, voles, and rabbits to the pantry.  There is never a shortage and viewers have been surprised – shocked even – at the plentiful supply of animals and at the talents of both Arthur and Big Red at hunting.  She has, in fact, brought some meals back with her when she has gone off the nest for a bit.

Arthur filling up pantry on May 1

These chicks have a lot of food security, thanks to the excellent hunting skills of Arthur and Big Red.  The rails to keep them in the natal nest are made out of their dinner.  Pine is scattered about to keep away the flies, and sometimes you could see the chicks sleeping with their head on a furry pelt.

all the food

Big Red fed and kept her chicks warm during a period of dangerous wind and heavy rain on May 1. I don’t think anyone slept that night and there was certainly a lot of emotion, even tears.

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wet2

And she has patiently made sure that each and every chick, from the first to hatch J1 to the tiny J3, is fed.

Here the three of them are lined up for an afternoon meal.  Little J3 is front and right with J2 front left.  J1 is behind both.  The trio managed to eat an entire chipmunk!  That was just one meal.  Big Red is feeding them a lot.  She still spends the night brooding, keeping those chicks toasty warm.  Soon they will sleep on their own at night.  Eventually, they will jump and flap their wings, preparing to fledge.  By then they will also be eating on their own, and Big Red and Arthur will courier food to the nest throughout the day.

3 lined up for a feeding

By the middle of June, all of the 2020 chicks will have fledged.  They will spend the summer learning how to hunt, and by fall they will be gone to find their own territory.  At the age of two, they will get their distinctive red tail feathers, and by three, they will have families of their own.

In the meantime, Big Red and Arthur will enjoy being empty nesters, and by late fall they will again repair their nest on the Cornell campus in preparation for 2021!

All of us who have gotten to know this hawk family and to learn a little about raptor behaviour have been inspired by the sheer dedication Big Red has maintained during the most horrid of weather.  We have watched J1 grow to be four times the size of “Little J3”. We have worried that the little one might be left out.  This was decidedly not the case!  J3 is right up there, and Big Red makes sure each is fed well, that they are safe and warm.  She is currently teaching them to preen their feathers and by observation, J1 today began flapping its wings.