The Nature Writers of Texas

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

Sunday, November 30, 2003

Book Review
The Behavior of Texas Birds
Ro Wauer, November 2003, The Victoria Advocate, © 2004

This book - The Behavior of Texas Birds - is the first of its kind. It is a superb book! Anyone interested in birds, whether they are avid birders or only watch yard birds, will want to own this one. Written by Kent Rylander, Professor of Biological Sciences at Texas Tech University, this book will serve as an excellent resource for all of us that want to know more about bird behavior, beyond the basics included in field guides. It is very obvious that the author has acquired years of good data, and he has been able to compile that information into an easily usable reference.

Rylander begins by explaining the principals of animal behavior and illustrating how they can be applied to interpreting bird behavior in the field. Then he goes about discussing the behavior of more than 400 of our Texas birds. Each species account describes such behaviors as feeding, courtship, parenting, and other behaviors that are significant for that species. He also incorporates significant references, all of which are listed after the species accounts by bird groups.

To illustrate how useful this book is for my readers, here are a few examples. He points out that grebes feed principally on fish, but they also consume lots of feathers. They even "feed feathers to their young. It was formerly thought that feathers protect the intestinal walls from being injured by fish bones, but more likely grebes ingest feathers as a way of recycling oils and other nutrients." For wood ducks, Rylander explains that they walk erect on can even run on the forest floor "where they consume more acorns than any other waterfowl." He also explains why ducks possess a more complex courtship display than most birds: ducks usually select a new mate each year, and one way she is able to select a mate of her own species is not by the drake's appearance as much as by its unique courtship display.

Three raptor characteristics seemed fascinating: Bald eagles seem to play a good deal. "For example, several birds spiral high into the air while following a bird that is carrying a stick. When the bird drops the stick, another bird catches the stick before it reaches the ground, and then this bird flies up and drops the stick." Red-tailed hawk eyesight is remarkable, "capable of focusing on potential prey at 500 feet or more." And the mate selection of American kestrels is determined by the female that copulates with several males: "This behavior is sometimes explained by the mate assessment hypothesis, which maintains that birds assess the genetic potential of other birds by frequently copulating with them."

Did you know that our common Inca dove roosts in pyramids during cold weather? Rylander wrote: "Frequently, 50 or more birds flock together in winter. In cold weather a dozen or more perch on each others' backs to form a pyramid two or three tiers deep. They remain like this for about an hour during the day, evidently to maintain body warmth." And our little Eastern screech-owl brings live worm snakes to its nest. "These small, wormlike snakes are released in the nest's debris, where they burrow out of sight and eat insects and mites. Owlets in nests with these snakes grow faster - and have a lower mortality - than those raised without snakes."

The Behavior of Texas Birds is filled with such fascinating information. Rylander mentions that a pair of scissor-tailed flycatchers placed their nest on a working oil pump and "successfully raised their young in spite of the incessant up and down movements." And did you know that female cardinal (redbirds) "with brighter underwing plumage spend more time feeding their offspring than those having duller underwing plumage. This relationship supports the good-parent hypothesis, which proposes that color brightness signals to a potential mate how well she will care for her offspring."

This is an amazing book, filled with lots of fascinating tidbits. Published by the University of Texas Press, it sells for $26.95 paperback, or $60.00 library edition. In the Texas Coastal Bend, it can be purchased at Tricia's Antiques and Gifts, 117 John Stockbauer, in Victoria.

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