Pacific Wren: Small bird, big song
Sometimes the finest singers can be heard free of charge in the deep moist woods. This is certainly true of the Pacific Wren. Formerly referred to as Winter Wrens, in 2010 the species were split into Pacific Wrens along the Pacific Coast from Alaska to Northern California, east to Idaho, and Winter Wrens across central and eastern North America. Song differences between the two were part of the reason for the split.
Below the tall evergreen trees, along the stream banks, in and around the shrubs and woody debris, you will find them, singing their hearts out – especially when there is a glimmer of light. These little forest dwellers feed on a combination of insects, insect larvae, millipedes, spiders and the occasional berry.
After you hear their song, an elaborate combination of warbling trills that seems to go on forever, you feel like applauding. How can such a virtuoso singing performance come out of such a small bird?
At 3-4 oz in weight and 3-5 inches in length, you would not think that either Winter or Pacific Wrens could produce much of a song. In fact, Winter Wrens have the longest song of any North American bird species. The Cornell Lab’s All About Birds website refers to Winter Wrens as “small in stature and incomparably energetic in voice.” Per unit weight, the Winter Wren’s song is ten times more powerful than a crowing rooster. Their vocalizations have been referred to as “the pinnacle of song complexity.” Each song contains about 40 notes and can last from 10-40 seconds. Pacific Wrens have even longer and more varied songs than Winter Wrens.
In eastern British Columbia, the two species ranges overlap. Here, by the Murray River, there is an annual spring “battle of the wrens” sing-off. Males of both species sing within earshot of one-another. Meanwhile the female wrens listen closely. Female songbirds, including wrens, generally are the ones who select their mates. Based on DNA sampling, the female Winter and Pacific Wrens do select mates who sing their song. Thus, inter-breeding between these two species seldom occurs.
The Winter and Pacific Wren songs are as beautiful as the forests they inhabit. They provide yet another reason to save the mature forests that still remain. Their song is not to be missed in this lifetime by anyone who appreciates music – whether performed by a human or a tiny bird.
Sources: All About Birds, Cornell Lab of Ornithology website; Cornell Lab Bird Biology Handbook; I-Bird. Pro App; Sibley Guide to Bird Behavior by David Sibley.
Top : Turkey Vulture; Bottom: Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture
Sometimes when people don't understand or appreciate living things, they want to destroy them. Often they do this without knowledge of the species' value to the environment. Consider vultures and sparrows.
Vultures are ugly. They eat dead things and they roost in groups that resemble scary Halloween displays. They look menacing, but looks can be deceiving.
Vultures are valuable scavengers that collectively form a global natural sanitation crew. By consuming dead animals, they keep the environment clean. If the mllions (billions?) of carcasses around the world were left to rot and fester, we would have far more serious disease problems than we do today. Vultures prevent the spread of dangerous diseases like Rabies and Anthrax by consuming the carcasses themselves, and by leading other wild animals to them, so the clean-up occurs quickly.
The ugly head of vultures is actually a smart adaptation to their lifestyle. Their naked heads remain cleaner than they would if they were covered with feathers when feeding inside of carcasses. It's similar to doctors wearing rubber gloves for sanitation purposes.
Through a combination of an excellent sense of smell (which most birds don't have) and keen eyesight, vultures find and clean up carcasses all over the earth. According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, "The Turkey Vulture's heightened ability to detect odors - it can detect just a few parts per trillion - allows it to find dead animals (even) below a forest canopy."
Once vultures find dead animals, they not only consume them, but they sanitize them so they are not a disease threat. How? Ornithologist Van Harris wrote about this in his excellent 2012 column in the Memphis Commercial Appeal Vultures are Scary but Beneficial to Environment. "In fact, the digestive juices of vultures are so powerful that most bacteria and viruses are killed before they pass out of the birds' digestive tracts. Vultures actually help control diseases in the environment by consuming animals that die of those diseases. Fortunately, Black and Turkey Vultures are now protected by law and allowed to help keep the countryside clean." What vultures do for us is actually a fabulous free service. We should be grateful!
Sparrows to the unaware are drab, common, unimportant and unremarkable. China's former dictator, Chairman Mao Zedong certainly did not care for them. According to John Platt, a writer about endangered species for Scientific American "One of Mao Zedong's first actions after collectivizing agriculture was intended to protect the farms. Sparrows, he was told, ate a lot of grain seeds, so Zedong ordered the people to go forth and kill all the sparrows. During the Great Sparrow Campaign, as it has been called, hundreds of millions of sparrows were killed.
The problem with the Great Sparrow Campaign became evident in 1960. The sparrows, it seemed, didn't only eat grain seeds. They also ate insects. With no birds to control them, insect populations boomed. Locusts, in particular swarmed over the country, eating everything they could find -- including crops intended for human food. People on the other hand, quickly ran out of things to eat, and millions starved. Numbers vary, of course, with the official number from the Chinese government placed at 15 million."
One of the hardest things for humans to grasp is ecology: the inter- relationship between living things and the environment. Animals and all species are here for a reason. They have important niches and belong to this planet as much as we do. In the words of William Kittredge in his powerful autobiography Hole in the Sky, "We must define a story which encourages us to make use of the place where we live without killing it, and we must understand that the living world cannot be replicated."
Top to bottom: Rainy, windy park dedication event, wildlife tree (snag) on trail, park sign that actually says "birding!"
Jackson Park, a 200-acre golf course in northeast Seattle just got a band of green. This park, one of the largest-remaining green spaces in Seattle, was previously dedicated to just one activity: golf. Now it has value added for walkers, hikers, runners, birders, nature appreciators and more. An attractive new 2.2-mile perimeter trail makes all of these activities possible.
It took six years for this to happen, which in Seattle is lightning-fast. In 2007, the Seattle Parks Foundation rolled out its Bands of Green plan, authored by Tom Byers of Cedar River Associates, to encourage the city to connect its parks with more trails and boulevards. Loop trails are compelling as demonstrated by the popularity of Seattle’s Green Lake, Seward and Discovery Park trails.
When I was the Parks Foundation’s Neighborhood Parks Director, I presented the updated Bands of Green plan at community centers, including at the North Seattle Community Center. At each meeting, I highlighted Bands of Green projects in the geographic area where I was speaking. When I spoke to the North Seattle group, one person took my suggestion and ran with it. Her name is Renee Staton.
Renee called me in the office the next day and said she wanted to pursue a Jackson Park loop trail. Since then, Renee and other neighbors formed the Friends of Jackson Park Trail and successfully urged the City to move forward on this project. Now, six years later, it has been built, thanks to the tireless efforts of community members in collaboration with Seattle Parks Department and Seattle Parks Foundation.
The resulting 2.2-mile trail winds through woodlands and wetlands with frequent views of the rolling terrain, ponds and coniferous trees of the golf course. At times the trail feels remote from the city, surrounded by large Douglas Fir and Hemlock trees. At other times it crosses streams and wetlands. When I walked the trail twice this week, I encountered joggers and walkers who now have a place to seek exercise and natural beauty in their neighborhood. Although the trail is over two miles long, it does not matter whether or not people walk the entire loop. Even walking a portion of it can bring joy, exercise, peace and beauty to their lives.
A dedication event was held recently despite driving winds and rain. Some 25 hearty souls attended, including Eric Friedli, acting deputy director of Seattle Parks Department, Thatcher Bailey, executive director of the Seattle Parks Foundation, Garrett Farrell, Seattle Parks' project manager, Celeste Cooning, the artist who created a beautiful sculpture “Bounty” that fits in organically with the park, and community activists, like Renee Staton and Ellen Hale whose diligent efforts helped facilitate these improvements.
A 2007 Seattle Post-Intelligencer editorial “City of Green” said “Connecting Seattle parks with more trails and boulevards would bring the city greater beauty, more usable open space and fulfillment of longstanding visions.” One of these trails is now on the ground for people to use and enjoy. May there be many more in Seattle and elsewhere.
1st photo: Hamming it up on a birding and natural history trip; 2cnd photo: Some birders pay no attention common birds like this Glaucous-winged Gull
“It’s just a (common) bird," or worse yet a “JUNK BIRD” or “TRASH BIRD”. Ever heard these irreverent remarks? They are typically made by droll, serious birders. These birders are so jaded that they sometimes fail to realize that they are in glorious places watching beautiful, athletic birds.
All birds are special, miraculous creatures, so why not show some respect for them? In addition, shouldn't we be encouraging other people to get excited when they see birds -- all types of birds -- so they become interested in them and in their conservation?
This raises an important issue in the world of birding, and one that does not get talked about often: snobbery. Some birders, bird organizations and even birding tours have found ways to be elitist, exclusive and snobbish. This is bad for birding, for birds themselves, and for conservation. We need more, not fewer people to care about birds, and a whole lot more people to care about conservation.
People often ask me when I’m out birding if I’ve seen any “good” birds lately. When I reply that all birds are good, they usually scowl or harrumph and then move on. Others demean birds by calling them junk birds, trash birds or even “Euro-trash.” The latter moniker is ironic because it could also refer to millions of human beings in North America including me. Bird bigotry like human bigotry is counter-productive.
And then there are the snooty birders who only care about rarities. For them, marveling at, or learning about the behavior of something like an American Robin or a Dark-eyed Junco, is a waste of time. Their cup is always more than half empty. It’s a hell of a way to live life, being disappointed most of the time.
Thankfully, not all birders are like this. Instead, many of us are appreciative, joyful, excited, and even have a sense of humor while birding. After all, these creatures are flying miracles that exhibit beauty and amazing behavior on a daily basis. Many migrate from far-away places. They sing incredible songs, eat prey ranging from seeds and fruits, to worms, fish, small mammals and copious quantities of bugs. Birds enrich our lives in countless ways. They inspire us. Shouldn’t we be reverent toward them? I think so.
Wolves cool off after unsuccessful elk hunt (1st two pictures); aftermath of pack's failed hunt for bison calf (3rd picture) - Hayden Valley, Yellowstone National Park
Few species elicit such a mixture of love and ire as the Gray Wolf. In recent history, The Gray Wolf was extirpated (removed from a part of its range) in the Northern Rockies. In 1995-1996, the fate of the wolves was reversed by the re-introduction of 31 wolves from Canada and the northern US in Yellowstone Park, and 35 into the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness in Idaho. Today an estimated 1,700 Gray Wolves live in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (GYE), which encompasses Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks, seven National Forests and three National Wildlife Refuges – almost 20 million acres of contiguous public lands.
Far from celebrating the recovery of Gray Wolves, the three states surrounding the GYE - Montana, Wyoming and Idaho - have delisted wolves from their former endangered status. In addition, they have re-instituted hunts and trapping that have so far have resulted in the killing of 1,100 wolves in their respective states. You might call this a backlash, backsliding or just plain backward. It has elements of all three.
When one of my participants from U.K. on a Naturalist Journeys tour of Yellowstone Park heard about this, he was incredulous. Why would the U.S. invest in wolf recovery aided by the Endangered Species Act and public opinion, only to have the entire effort sabotaged by a few rogue states through delisting and hunting? It was and still is a good question.
Two tour groups I guided this summer had the pleasure of seeing wolves in Yellowstone National Park. It was pure magic watching a small pack of four wolves alternately resting, then splashing across the Yellowstone River to first hunt a Bison calf and later a juvenile elk (both hunts unsuccessful), prior to cooling off and drinking in the river. This slice of wolf life took place in the Hayden Valley for an hour, enchanting at least 100 onlookers. For some, including all in of our group, this was a highlight of their trip.
None of us should take this experience for granted, nor should future wolf-watchers. As Kathy Lynch wrote in The Wildlife News article Yellowstone Still the Best Place for Watching Wolves despite Many Killed in Hunt, “With only around 70 wolves in Yellowstone National Park, watchers hoping to see a wolf in the wild must be very patient and also very lucky.” Apparently, we were both.
Tourism, like the kind my groups engage in, is big business for the three states that opted to shoot and delist wolves. Consider these statements from each of the three state’s websites:
· “Tourism is Montana’s fastest-growing industry, supporting 37,000 jobs and 7% of the total state workforce.”
· “The mineral extraction industry and the travel and tourism sector are the main drivers behind Wyoming’s economy.”
· “Tourism is the #5 industry in Idaho, employing 47,000 people and accounting for 7% of its workforce”
Yellowstone and Grand Teton Park have four million tourists per year. Seeing wolves and other wildlife in these parks is a tremendous draw. One wonders where the disconnect is here in the three state’s wolf policies. Isn’t shooting wolves the equivalent of a collective foot-shooting of their state economies?
Beyond tourism, there are significant ecological values that wolves provide. These were brought into sharper focus by Oregon State University and Washington State University researchers who recently found that Yellowstone grizzlies consume more berries now that shrubs are starting to recover since the re-introduction of wolves, which reduce over browsing by elk herds. The vegetative recovery extends to other species as well. Removing wolves from Yellowstone Park in the early 1980s resulted in increased browsing by elk herds that led to the demise of young aspen and willow trees, shrubs and tall herbaceous plants. These trees and plants have since recovered, providing food and shelter for a wide variety of animals and birds.
The entire GYE is richer and more diverse with wolves in it. But what about the elk, you might ask? They are still numerous: 3,915 were counted in Yellowstone Park this winter according the Billings Gazette, down 6% from last year’s 4,174 count. This puts the Northern elk herd that spends summers in Yellowstone and winters in Montana squarely within the 3,000 – 5,000 objective of the Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks Department for maintaining it at a sustainable level.
Shooting wolves also has the obvious negative effect upon wolf family structure and packs. According to Michael Robinson of the Center for Biodiversity “Hunting wolves disrupts family bands, can leave pups to starve, and contribute to the dangerous genetic isolation of wolves in Yellowstone.” One of the packs we normally see on my tours in Slough Creek, Yellowstone National Park, has dissolved after its alpha male was fatally shot outside of the park in Wyoming’s newly legal hunt.
There is another side of this story. Wolves do predate on significant numbers of livestock – especially sheep. Not coincidentally, the three states - Montana, Wyoming and Idaho - with the largest numbers of wolf predations are the same states that have delisted Gray Wolves and legalized wolf hunts. The wolf-killed livestock numbers, however, are still small when compared to other causes of livestock fatalities. Carter Niemeyer, a former trapper and predator control agent in Montana puts wolf predation into perspective in his fascinating and insightful Memoir "Wolfer:" "It is a fact that wolves kill so few livestock that the predators barely register on the pie chart of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Agriculture Statistics Service. It's respiratory and digestive diseases, birthing problems, old age, poisonous plants and weather that cause most livestock deaths, although Coyotes can be hell on sheep." Niemeyer should know, because in his words "Between 1987 and 2000 I skinned every animal in Montana that the wolves were accused of killing."
Nonetheless, Defenders of Wildlife, one of the leading wolf advocacy nonprofits, has acknowledged wolf predation and has raised more than $1 million in payments over the past decade to compensate farmers and ranchers for wolf predation of their livestock. Defenders provides compensation when wolf predation is the actual, versus supposed cause of mortality. It used to be Niemeyer's job to determine this.
Wolf management is not a simple issue. There are legitimate claims on both sides. There is also hyperbole and mis-information being disseminated, sometimes by high-profile people. Butch Otter, the governor of Idaho has implied that wolves are a direct threat to humans. This is not supported by any factual or scientific information. As Jim and Jamie Ditcher of Living with Wolves wrote: “Since wolves were re-introduced in 1995, not one violent encounter between wolves and human beings has taken place anywhere in the lower 48 states.” Unfortunately, Little Red Riding Hood and the Three Little Pigs still influence societal attitudes toward wolves – especially in Idaho.
As we attempt to achieve responsible wolf management, let’s allow science and facts to inform the debate instead of fairy tales and rural legends. Second, let’s work with all parties involved, including environmentalists, ranchers and farmers, the latter who suffer livestock predation, and find ways to compensate/protect their herds. Wolves test our tolerance, compassion, ecological understanding and wisdom. Will we as a society move forward or lurch backward in our policies toward them?