A cardinal of a different color

A male Northern Cardinal with a rare mutation has become an Internet sensation!

Former shelter kitty Lucky Wilbury, who is currently recovering from a life-threatening bladder blockage.

To commemorate this avian celebrity (and gently rib certain curmudgeons in the birding community), I created this homage to Andy Warhol’s colorful silkscreen portraits of celebrities. It’s now available in my Mountain-Gem Arts store on Zazzle on men’s, women’s, unisex, and kids’ T-shirts, sweatshirts, hoodies, and more in a variety of bright, medium, and dark colors, including many bird-friendly options. A cropped version including the left and center panels is available for your wall and as a 2-inch square button to adorn your Tilley hat or birding vest (or as one of your minimum 15 pieces of flair).

Proceeds from sales of this design (and everything else in my Zazzle shop) will help defray the cost of recent lifesaving veterinary treatment for my indoor-only rescue kitty, Lucky Wilbury.

 

Talking hummingbirds on Arizona Illustrated

I recently appeared on the public television news magazine Arizona Illustrated to talk about hummingbirds and the Southeastern Arizona Bird Observatory‘s field studies on them. Watch the interview here:

Arizona Illustrated: Hummingbirds Among Us

Mountain-Gem Arts Cyber-Monday update

No Gila Monsters were harmed in the making of this pendant.

I’ve been busy this fall, but more with art than birds.

Mountain-Gem Arts now has a permanent URL—www.mountain-gem-arts.com—and new stuff! I’m most excited about the new Gila Monster series (right), inspired by a request from a friend in New Mexico, but there are new additions to the Heart of the Woods and Rainbow Ripples lines plus new nature-theme earrings: Ornithophily, Kelp Forest, Autumn Leaves, Blue Lagoon. You can also browse a gallery of recent work.

I’ll be exhibiting at the Cascabel Community Fair next weekend, so at least some of the items available now on the Web site will have new homes by Sunday. If you see something you love, better grab it before someone else does.

There’s be more to come soon. If you’re looking for a gift and can’t decide, e-mail me about a gift certificate.

Future additions will include reproductions of some of my 2-D art and links where you can purchase my e-books (in progress).

Thanks for supporting small businesses and independent creators!

Search of the Week: “what birds are protected in arizona”

Virtually all of them, and most by federal and state law.

The Migratory Bird Treaty Act was enacted to protect America’s native birds, including the elegant Snowy Egret, from commercial exploitation.

Almost all birds native to the United States, whether migratory or not, are protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. This includes songbirds, hummingbirds, woodpeckers, roadrunners, birds of prey, waterfowl, wading birds, shorebirds, seabirds, etc.

State laws can be more restrictive than federal but not less, so the MBTA represents the minimum level of protection for the native birds it covers—and it’s one of the strongest wildlife laws in the world. It was enacted in response to the wholesale slaughter of egrets, herons, and other charismatic birds for the feather trade. (It also put an end to market hunting of native birds, but this came too late to help the Passenger Pigeon.)

The MBTA allows the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service to issue permits for managed recreational hunting of most traditional prey species, lethal control of “nuisance” birds, and live capture and possession of raptors for falconry (in states where falconry is legal), but commercial exploitation is strictly prohibited. That means you can buy a state hunting license and federal and state “duck stamps” and legally shoot your limit of waterfowl, but you can’t sell them or any part of thereof (including mounted trophies). With some exceptions for migratory gamebirds (including captive-bred ornamental waterfowl and the aforementioned taxidermy), you also can’t keep protected birds in captivity (even for altruistic reasons) or have their feathers, bones, nests, or eggs in your possession without a scientific,  educational, or religious/cultural permit.

Native “upland/nonmigratory gamebirds” —quail, grouse, Wild Turkey, and (in Texas only) Plain Chachalaca—are under state jurisdiction. States often regulate hunting of introduced game species such as pheasants and partridges, but most nonnative species—House Sparrows, European Starlings, Rock (Domestic/Feral) Pigeons, Eurasian Collared-Doves, Indian (Blue) Peafowl, feral chickensferal parrots, escaped (but non-breeding) domestic* or pet birds, etc.—have little or no legal protection anywhere in the U.S. except whatever might be afforded by county or city ordinances (which may have priority over state ordinances).

Disclaimer: IANAL. This is just a brief summary of common situations where the MBTA applies. It’s up to you to read federal, state, and local laws and understand how they apply to your situation. If in doubt, consult the appropriate government agency for advice.

* Special regulations apply to Mallards and Muscovy Ducks, since they exist in the U.S. as both domesticated (captive and feral) and native wild birds.

Einstein was not an entomologist

Male Squash Bee in pumpkin flower

Squash Bees are among approximately 4000 species of native bees (and thousands of other native pollinators) in North America.

If the bee disappeared off the face of the globe then man would have only four years of life left. – Albert Einstein

The quote above, as the caption to a photo of a honeybee, is making the rounds on Facebook. While I appreciate the environmental sentiment behind it, there are several serious problems:

  1. There’s no evidence that Einstein actually said or wrote this. It wouldn’t be the first time someone tried to bolster a statement’s credibility by misattributing it to a famous dead person.
  2. Even if he did, he was a physicist, not an entomologist or pollination ecologist. Being a genius in one field doesn’t make someone an instant expert in another. I’d be far more impressed if this quote was attributed to Steve Buchmann, but regrettably few people have heard of the University of Arizona’s eminent bee ecologist.
  3. “The bee” suggests that the quote refers to the honeybee (Apis mellifera), as we would understand that “the horse” refers to domestic horses and “the dog” refers to domestic dogs. There are thousands of other species of bees, and many of them are important to agriculture. North America’s native flora and indigenous agriculture got along quite well before European colonists introduced the honeybee, thank you very much.*
  4. I’m going to belabor the previous point, because I find it really annoying when people use “the [generic singular noun]” to make sweeping generalizations about large and diverse groups, e.g. saying “the hummingbird is the world’s smallest bird,” when many hummingbirds are larger than many small songbirds. AARGH!**

It’s hard to overstate the importance of pollinators, but too many people obsess over the honeybee without understanding their dark side. Yes, the decline in honeybee populations in North America is causing problems, mostly for beekeepers, the farms that use their services, and people who eat a lot of honey. From environmental and public safety perspectives, however, the decline isn’t necessarily a bad thing. As important as they are to agriculture, honeybees take food out of the mouths of native pollinators and present a real danger to people, pets, and livestock.

From most of the southern U.S. through Central and South America, the feral (“wild”) honeybee population carries genes from highly aggressive African strains that have earned them the nickname “killer bees.” Though virtually indistinguishable from pure European honeybees, Africanized bees attack en masse when they sense a threat to their hive. Even a single sting from any honeybee can be fatal to those allergic to their venom, but Africanized bees often sting their victims hundreds of times. You don’t have to be allergic to die from such an assault, and many people have. They also defend a larger area around their hives and will chase perceived predators farther than their European cousins do. Where these aggressive bees are known to occur, it’s prudent to assume that any feral honeybee hive is Africanized and give it a wide berth.

Native bees are excellent pollinators and nowhere near as dangerous to people and pets as honeybees. They already do much of the pollination work in our gardens, as long as some natural habitat remains nearby to support their nests and other ecological needs. If farmers are going to make effective use of native bees’ services, they’ll need to reduce field sizes and pesticide use and create mosaics of cultivation and native vegetation, and that’s also a good thing for thousands of other insect species plus birds, mammals, reptiles, etc. that can’t survive in our current agricultural wastelands.

References:

Bugguide.net: Native Bees of North America

Science Daily: Bees, Fruits and Money: Decline of Pollinators Will Have Severe Impact On Nature and Humankind

Science Daily: Honeybees May Not Be as Important to Pollination Services in the UK, Study Suggests

Science Daily: Native Bees Could Fill Pollinator Hole Left By Honeybees

Science Daily: Wild Pollinators Support Farm Productivity and Stabilize Yield

Montana Wildlife Gardener: Build a Mason Bee House in 5 Minutes

* Even if all bees of all species disappeared, we’d still have thousands of other pollinator species that fill similar ecological niches, including wasps and flies. Also, loss of pollinators wouldn’t directly affect crops that don’t need pollination: wheat, corn, rice, and potatoes come to mind.

** A FB commenter tried to defend the quote by claiming that the quotee was using “the bee” to refer to all pollinators(!). If so, why wouldn’t the quotee just say that explicitly? In fact, the history of the quote per Snopes.com suggests that it originated with French beekeepers, which supports the assumption that “the bee” in question is the honeybee.

HOAX: Gum does NOT kill birds

BOGUS: Gum does not kill birds

This blatantly manipulative hoax keeps going around and around and around Facebook, and I’m beyond sick of it. One version currently has 8,725 shares, even though people have debunked it over and over in the comments. It’s frustrating as hell to see a debunking comment followed by a string of “aw, poor birdie” comments, then another debunking and another string of… well, you get the idea.

No one seems to be taking credit/blame for this garbage, but the originator is an idiot who’s needlessly upsetting goodhearted people.

There are three huge problems with this image:

  1. Wildlife biologists and rehabilitators don’t report birds dying from gum clogs (Google it).
  2. Birds aren’t so stupid that they can’t tell gum from bread (which they shouldn’t be eating either).
  3. The birds in the photo are swallows, which eat only insects, and the dead one has been hit by a car.

There are valid reasons to toss chewing gum in the trash instead of on the street, but saving birds isn’t one of them. Please don’t “like” these posts, don’t share them, and inform any friends who share them that they’re perpetuating a hoax.

Alaskan island now rat free, but not without collateral damage

A poisoning program on an island in Alaska’s Aleutian chain, intended to save native birds from introduced rats, led to the death of more than 420 of its avian residents, including 46 Bald Eagles.

The effort was devised and conducted by Island Conservation, an organization that I mentioned in my post on the Quelili. According to a report by the Ornithological Council, the group applied the rodenticide brodifacoum at rates higher than recommended by experts in island restoration and possibly above the legal limits set by the Environmental Protection Agency. Glaucous-winged Gulls died from eating the bait, and Bald Eagles died from scavenging their carcasses.

The poisoning campaign freed “Rat Island” of its namesakes, which will greatly increase the productivity of its nesting birds, but the report indicates that the eradication could have been accomplished with far lower mortality of some of the species it was aimed at protecting.

Read the full story at Nature News.

“Out the Window” preview

Here’s a teaser from my “Out the Window” column in the January/February 2011 issue of WildBird magazine:

Hi, my name is Sheri, and I’m a sparrow-phobic. I used to get queasy at the mere thought of identifying those “little brown jobs.” For the first three decades of my birding career, the sparrow section of my life list would have been almost blank if not for towhees, juncos, and the “skunkheads” (White-crowned and White-throated).

I was finally forced to admit that I had a problem when I moved from the relatively sparrow-free Huachuca Mountains to the sparrow-infested desert…

Not a WildBird subscriber yet? This link to Amazon.com will get you six colorful, information-packed issues (a full year), and your purchase will also benefit the conservation and education programs of the Southeastern Arizona Bird Observatory. Single copies of Wildbird are also available at newsstands and bookstores.

You’ll find WildBird and other birding magazines plus field guides, feeders and accessories, seeds for hummingbird-friendly plants, and more at SABO’s online shop, The Trogon’s Nest, powered by Amazon.com.

Search of the Week: “why don’t hummingbirds get diabetes”

A male Broad-billed Hummingbird threatens an intruder in his feeding territory.

A male Broad-billed Hummingbird threatens an intruder in his feeding territory.

This week’s featured search topic has been addressed on LB&E previously here and here.

Type 2 diabetes, the disease people are thinking of when they ask such questions (because they’ve been told, wrongly,*⇓ that sugar consumption causes diabetes), is largely a modern human affliction. We eat too much, including highly processed foods full of easily digested simple carbohydrates that flood our bloodstreams with glucose. We exercise too little, contributing to getting fat and staying fat. Our bodies may continue producing insulin to aid in utilization of the glucose in our systems, but over time our cells may stop responding to it.

These issues weren’t much of a problem for our pre-industrial ancestors (even those with a genetic predisposition to diabetes), and they’re still not much of a problem for people living labor-intensive lifestyles and eating traditional diets high in complex carbs, fiber, and other good things.

They’re also not a problem for hummingbirds. More than 40 million years of evolution have adapted these tiny, hyperactive dynamos to a sugar-rich diet. To maintain some of the highest metabolic rates ever measured, hummingbirds must take in enormous amounts of energy. The most energy-dense food available to them is flower nectar. Without it, the tiny, hovering jewels we know and love would never have evolved.

You might say that hummingbirds show three classic symptoms of diabetes: they eat a lot (polyphagia), drink a lot (polydipsia), and pee a lot (polyuria). Of course, these “symptoms” are simply consequences of a high metabolism and water-rich diet. They also have very high blood glucose levels, high enough to cause serious complications in humans, but their absorption and utilization of the sugars in their diet are so efficient that almost none ends up in their urine (as it does in human diabetes patients).

Medical researchers would love to know exactly how hummingbirds avoid the short-term and long-term complications of high blood glucose, but it’s clear that their ability to do so has been honed by natural selection. Any hummingbird that had a serious defect in its ability to absorb and/or metabolize sugar would be dead within days, weeded out of the gene pool.

Here’s an in-depth examination of the issues from the perspective of human health:

Adipose energy stores, physical work, and the metabolic syndrome: lessons from hummingbirds

* Since this post was written, new research has persuaded many members of the medical community that there’s a more direct link between sugar consumption and Type 2 diabetes than decades of propaganda by Big Sugar would have us believe.

Feeder Solution Evolution Part I: The basics

The posts lately have been hummingbird heavy, but you can blame the time of year. Both southbound migrants and a few remaining locals—Rufous, Broad-tailed, Black-chinned, Anna’s, Broad-billed, an occasional Calliope, Costa’s, or Violet-crowned, and our yard’s first Lucifer—have been shrieking and jousting outside my living room window every daylight hour, so it’s hard to think about anything else (which makes it hard to get any real work done but also keeps my mind off things I’d rather not dwell on).

This is going to be a heavy post, so I’m dividing it into three parts. If all you’re interested in is what you should/shouldn’t put in your hummingbird feeder, you needn’t read any further than the end of this installment. If you’re curious about how these recommendations came about—the science and history behind them—I hope you’ll come back or click through to read the second and third installments.

Let’s kick things off with something happy. Happy, happy, happy. No stress, no angst.

A young White-eared Hummingbird drowses in the sun

A young White-eared Hummingbird drowses in the sun.

Okay, down to business. At the request of my friend and colleague Laura Erickson, who writes and edits for the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, I’m finally tackling this long-neglected and often controversial topic. Here is what you need to fill your hummingbird feeder:

1. White sugar.

  • Sucrose (a.k.a. white table sugar) is the main sugar in the sap of plants and also in the nectar of hummingbird-pollinated flowers (1). We squeeze sugar cane and sugar beets to get our sucrose, and hummingbirds drink nectar, sap, and properly made feeder solutions to get theirs. It does not give them diabetes. It will not rot their teeth.
  • If ordinary granulated sugar doesn’t dissolve fast enough for you, and you don’t mind trading cost for convenience, buy superfine baker’s or caster sugar instead (but not powdered sugar, which contains anti-caking agents).
  • Though pure cane sugar is often recommended over pure beet or blended sugar (which is usually labeled simply as “sugar”) based on the perception that it tastes better to the birds, it takes sophisticated testing for food scientists to distinguish between them. Sugar cane yields somewhat more sugar per acre than sugar beets but uses much more water, displaces more biodiversity, and has to be transported farther (at least in U.S. markets), so beet sugar may be the “greener” choice.

2. Good-quality water.

  • If there’s any reason that you don’t personally drink your tap water (too many minerals, has a funky taste or smell, tested positive for pollutants, etc.), don’t make your hummingbird guests drink it, either. If it’s discolored by iron, you definitely shouldn’t use it to make feeder solution (see the second bullet point under the “don’ts” below).
  • Researchers have determined that hummingbirds’ kidneys are incredibly good at getting rid of water without losing their bodies’ electrolyte salts (2), which clears the way for feeder solutions made with water purified by reverse osmosis or distillation. Water softened by ion exchange is high in sodium, and overloading the birds on sodium may not be a good idea.

Sugar. Water. That’s all you need. Really.

The list of things you should not put in your hummingbird feeder is a wee bit longer:

  • Honey. It’s a natural food, but only if you’re a honeybee. Bees start with the nectar of flowers not typically used by hummingbirds, modify it with digestive enzymes, then barf it back out and evaporate off most of the water. The final product contains less palatable sugars plus stuff you seriously don’t want to feed to hummingbirds. Once diluted to feeder strength, honey becomes an ideal food for a variety of microbes, including some that can cause disease. Honey-water diets have been linked with fatal yeast infections (candidiasis) in captive hummingbirds (3), and similar infections have been reported in wild ones. Honey belongs on your biscuits, not in your feeders.
  • Brown or even brownish sugar. The color derives in part from iron, for which nectarivorous and frugivorous birds have a very low tolerance (4,5). Even a little extra iron over time can build up to lethal levels in the birds’ bodies. Refined white sugar has had the trace iron removed to make it a more attractive product, which incidentally makes it safer for hummingbirds. Unfortunately for those of us who try to shop green, organic sugar is typically not fully refined to pure sucrose, so it’s not safe. Rumors of problems at tropical feeding stations may be related to the use of lightly refined turbinado (“raw”) sugar containing iron, but these reports have yet to be substantiated.
  • Artificial coloring. The vast majority of hummingbird flowers put the color on the outside, not in the nectar. FD&C Red #40 and #3, the dyes used in most “instant nectar” products and the food coloring in your pantry, are like nothing the birds would ever encounter in nature. They may not be dangerous at human consumption levels, but hummingbirds can drink more than 5 times their weight in liquid in a day. Medical research has linked large dosages of these dyes to a number of serious health problems. Backyard comparisons also suggest that the birds don’t like the way these dyes taste. If colorless sugar water just doesn’t look right to you, use a few drops of fruit juice concentrate to tint it.
  • Artificial and non-nutritive sweeteners. This includes saccharin (Sweet’N Low®), aspartame (Equal®, NutraSweet®), sucralose (Splenda®), stevia (Truvia®, PureVia®), monkfruit or lo han (Nectresse®), acesulfame potassium (acesulfame-K), erythritol, and xylitol. Hummingbirds need the calories. If they get fat, it’s for a good reason, and they won’t stay that way for long (unlike us big sluggish primates.)
  • Commercial “instant nectar” and “hummingbird food” products. Most contain unnatural additives such as dyes, preservatives, and/or flavors that, despite what manufacturers and retailers may claim or imply, have never been tested or approved as safe for hummingbirds. Those products without additives are basically overpriced boxes of extrafine white sugar (see the second bullet point under “White Sugar” above).
  • Nutritional supplements. The nectar of hummingbird flowers is little more than sugar water anyway (1), and anything else you add can cause premature spoilage and other problems. This includes commercial diets for captive hummingbirds, protein powder, fruit juice (except a few drops of concentrate to add a little color), Jell-O, Gatorade, Mountain Dew, vanilla extract, and strawberry daiquiri mix. Hummingbirds are really efficient hunters, even in winter, but if you want to supplement their protein/vitamin intake, raise fruit flies in jars or start a compost pile. For minerals during nesting season, offer clean ashes from natural wood (no synthetic logs, paper, trash, etc.).

See this post for a more comprehensive list.

Now that we have the two ingredients, the next step is determining what proportion to mix them in. Though opinions about feeder solutions vary slightly within the hummingbird community, most hummingbird experts still endorse this recipe:

4 parts water

1 part sugar

Good old 4:1 has proven itself safe and effective over more than four decades of use, it’s well within the range of sugar concentrations found in the nectar of hummingbird pollinated flowers (1), and, like a one-size-fits-most garment, it leaves enough “wiggle room” to accommodate some challenging environmental conditions without short-changing the birds on either energy or water. Hardcore hummingbird fanatics may have sound reasons for using slightly stronger or weaker solutions, but all the average hummingbird host needs to remember is 4 parts clean water + 1 part white sugar.

Stay tuned for part II, the science behind hummingbird feeder solutions.

Resources for this post:

1. Nicolson, S. W. and P. A. Fleming. 2003. Nectar as food for birds: the physiological consequences of drinking dilute sugar solutions. Plant Systematics and Evolution 238(1-4):139-153.

2. Lotz, Chris N. and Carlos Martínez del Rio. 2004. The ability of rufous hummingbirds Selasphorus rufus to dilute and concentrate urine. Journal of Avian Biology 35(1):54–62.

3. Orr, K.A. and M. E. Fowler. 2001. 18: Order Trochiliformes (Hummingbirds). In Biology, Medicine, and Surgery of South American Wild Animals, Murray E. Fowler, Zalmir S. Cubas Eds. Iowa State University Press, Ames, Iowa.

4. Frederick, H., Dierenfeld, E., Irlbeck, N., and S. Dial. 2003. Analysis of nectar replacement products and a case of iron toxicosis in hummingbirds. In Ward, A., Brooks, M., Maslanka, M., Eds. Proceedings of the Fifth Conference on Zoo and Wildlife Nutrition, AZA Nutrition Advisory Group, Minneapolis, MN.

5. Ketz-Riley, C.J. and C. Sanchez. 2015. Chapter 26: Trochiliformes (Hummingbirds). Pp. 209-213 in Fowler’s Zoo and Wild Animal Medicine, Volume 8, R.E. Miller, M.E. Fowler eds. Elsevier (Saunders).

Related posts:

Search of the Week: “if refined sugar is so bad for us, then why do we feed it to hummingbirds?”

Search of the Week: “is molasses ok to feed hummingbirds”

Beet juice in hummingbird feeders? NO!

Search of the Week: “can I give hummingbirds mountain dew”