The Nature Writers of Texas

The best nature writing from the newspaper, magazine, blog and book authors of the Lone Star State . . .

Wednesday, October 30, 2002

Photo by Mary Curry
Birds and Beyond
Bird Personalities
Claire Curry, October 2002, Wise County Messenger, © 2003

If you’ve spent time watching the behaviors of different birds, you know they each seem to have their own idiosyncrasies. For example, Eastern Phoebes have a nervous twitch. At times, it appears all their energy is devoted to catching insects, and twitching their tails. Other birds have habits just as unique. Here are some of our local birds, and a few of their interesting traits.

Gnatcatchers are hyper little fluff balls that frequently give out buzzy call notes. They seem like they’ve had way too much coffee and soda and ate far too many sweets, and are all wound up as a result. Hopping around, flicking their tails this way and that way, gnatcatchers seem nervous, excited, and a bit upset all at once.

Another small, active bird, the chickadee, is not only nervous, but lets the whole world know about it. Their relatives, titmice, are just as vociferous. These cute little birds are always miffed at the world in general and still manage to not act grumpy.

The Downy Woodpeckers that come to my suet feeder don’t chatter near as much as the chickadees. However, they look both cute and rather fierce, holding their heads high even when the bigger birds chase them away.

If you really want to talk about tiny and mean, just try and mess with a hummingbird. Even though hummers are only a few inches long, they have been known to attack hawks. I sometimes hear about people wondering what they can do about bullying hummers taking over their feeders. Well, if you somehow made the one leave, another just as determined would take over. Sit by a hummingbird feeder, and you will know why. The charming little fellows fight, clash bills, and zip back and forth with vim and vigor, each struggling for complete dominance of the valuable sugar water. It’s a wonder that I’ve never seen two hummers with their beaks stuck clear through one another!
Pine Siskins are another tough but diminutive bird. They look like slightly daintier, streaky versions of the American Goldfinches at our feeders. Unlike the goldfinches, they will occasionally chase off the larger House Finches to get a choice perch. The goldfinches are content with fighting among themselves and with birds their own size.

All of the aforementioned birds are generally considered pretty. Vultures, however, are usually not. How attractive can a naked-headed, carrion-eating bird be? When soaring, vultures float through the air with the confidence of an eagle, rarely flapping a feather. I also happen to consider both species of vultures to be quite elegant birds. When perched, despite a wrinkled head with little stubbly feathers, vultures have a quiet dignity. Laugh if you want.

None of these behaviors I’ve described are defining field marks. They are a bit more intangible; something that doesn’t seem, to me, very useful to the bird. It’s more of the essence of the bird; something that adds to the personality of a species. Besides, what fun would bird-watching be if field marks were the only things which made each species itself?

Sunday, October 06, 2002

A Bizarre Encounter Between a Cottontail and a Snake
Ro Wauer, October 6, 2002, The Victoria Advocate, © 2003

Now everyone knows that cottontails are gentle creatures that are prey for a wide variety of predators. Those predators can range from large mammals, such as foxes and coyotes, to a variety of avian raptors, such as large owls and hawks, and even large snakes. Everyone also knows that cottontails are rabbits that reproduce in large numbers, making them favorite prey, and also that they are commonplace along our roadsides and in our pastures. They often live in close association with humans, so long as there is nearby cover.

My yard that backs up to a fairly large semi-wild, brushy area seems always to be inhabited by a pair of cottontails. They most often appear at dusk, suddenly hopping into view to feed on new grasses. They also spend an amazing amount of time chasing one another about; frolicking would be the best term for that behavior. And occasionally one will even appear in the middle of the day to either feed or to dust-bathe in one of the small bare spots in the backyard. Over the years, Betty and I have thoroughly enjoyed cottontail-watching.

But the other evening we experienced a totally different occurrence that can only be described as bazaar. A single cottontail suddenly appeared in the front yard, about 50 to 60 feet away from where we were sitting watching the Texas football game. The grass in the yard was fairly tall; it needed cutting. As always, the cottontail was cautious, looking about with ears erect, listening for danger. Our first indication that something was amiss was when it suddenly ran in a tight circle. But instead of continuing a playful run, it appeared to have circled a snake. For the snake suddenly struck at the cottontail, that jumped high in the air and ran a short distance away. But instead of running off, as we assumed it would, it returned, apparently to get a better look at the snake. The snake struck again, and this time the cottontail actually kicked the snake with its hind legs.

The snake, estimated to be about four feet in length, dropped back into the grass, disappearing from view. But then it raised it head again and approached the cottontail. It struck again, and for a second it actually had a grip on the cottontail. But the cottontail jumped away, and again did not run off. It stopped a few feet away, looked back at the snake, and then actually approached the snake again. The snake was able to strike again, and again without discouraging the cottontail that simply moved away a very short distance. And then the cottontail approached the snake, and even jumped about as if playing with the snake. At times it appeared that the cottontail was the aggressor.

At one point the cottontail moved away several feet and seemed to loose interest in the snake; it actually stretched and cleaned its paws. But then it again approached the snake. The snake, that I believe was a Texas rat snake, was hidden in the grass much of the time, but it seemed unsure of the situation. Apparently it realized that the cottontail was too large to capture, but also that it did not pose a threat. So the situation appeared to be a standoff. Both individuals remained within a few feet of one another, going about whatever business that had first brought them together. This interaction, which we watched through binoculars after the first few seconds, lasted 12 to 15 minutes.

As darkness took command of the day, the cottontail stayed in place, feeding on the grasses. The snake apparently crawled away. The tall grass hid it from view. The following morning, when I went out to fetch the newspaper in the driveway, the cottontail, apparently the same individual from the night before, was still present. The snake was not.

Such observations cannot help but counter earlier assumptions of what is normal in nature. I had never before witnessed such an encounter. Although we human beings usually interpret such interactions on an anthropological perspective, we have much yet to learn. I can't help but wonder how often wild creatures do encounter one another without either one suffering the consequences.

Thursday, October 03, 2002

Learning the Birds
The Mystery of the Great Horned Owls
Ruth Rogers Erickson, October 3, 2002, The Canadian Record, © 2003

For two summers now, the great horned owls have been doing something odd by the chicken house. I'll see one or two most evenings, lurking about, examining the acreage between here and the barn. Now and then, they pounce.

What's odd is they're not hunting from some lofty perch, as owls are wont to do, diving after hapless prey with their deadly talons. These owls are hunting on the ground - walking, running, even stumbling around in the dusk after something, and when they find it, they hop.

There's something slightly off about the proportions of an owl that you might never notice except when you watch them walk. Their legs are either too short or too long, I can't decide. But they seem to teeter like those inflated dolls that you can't knock down.

They lurch about, bent over, studying the ground - and then they hop. One ungainly fellow was so intent upon his purpose, he bumped headlong into a tree and tumbled over. For something as majestic as a great horned owl - well, they must really fancy what they're after, to sacrifice their dignity like that.

What would cause them to behave in such an inglorious manner? I don't know but it could be kangaroo rats. They're listed as food for the great horned owl, and I see kangaroo rats aplenty out here at night, hopping on their long hind legs down the road in the headlight beams. It seems appropriate, then, that the owls would be hopping after them.

Whatever it is, it puts the owls into a kind of trance, a type of concentration so intense they could ignore the presence of a crowd of people close by on the patio. Owls have a sense of hearing so acute, it's said they can hear the sound of a person's finger rubbing against another 50 yards away. We weren't half that distance - they must have heard us, they just didn't care.

Now lest you think I'm making mockery of a raptor of the highest order, let me tell you what I've learned of late, about the awesome owls.

Their eyes face straight ahead like ours do, but their eyeballs do not move. To improve their view and to better judge distance, they bob their heads up and down and side to side. This explains some of that wobbling around out there.

There's no truth to the rumor they can turn their heads all the way around. But they can turn far enough to look behind themselves, a flexibility that helps compensate for the fixed eyeballs.

Their ears are even stranger. Not those tufts of feathers that look like their ears - real owl ears are lower down. The strange thing is they don't match! Owl ears in most species are unequal in shape, size, and location. They might have a small ear near the top of their head on the left side, and a big ear lower down on the right. Their poor skulls look as though something went horribly wrong on the assembly line, but in fact it's all part of a wonderful plan: These asymmetrical ears allow an owl to locate sound on the vertical axis, a thing impossible for us. In other words, when those of us with matching ears hear a sound, we can identify the right and left of where it's coming from, but not the up and down. Only owls can do that.

Owl feet are notable, too. Their outer toe can rotate into several configurations: three toes forward and one back, two forward and two back- why those toes might be able to spell the alphabet, for all we know. Just know that you wouldn't want to see them coming toward you from above, especially if you're a kangaroo rat.

Now like I said, I can't be sure about the kangaroo rat as favorite food theory. But you've got to love whatever it is that takes up all that owl attention. With their mighty arsenal of adaptation aimed at tasty tidbits on the ground, these great horned owls perform an illuminating spectacle: the sight of a raptor in a rapturous pursuit.