There are more than 338 recorded hummingbird species worldwide, and many birding enthusiasts would agree that they are top of the list as the most interesting little birds of the nearly 10,000 bird species found around the world. With their brilliant iridescent coloring, wings flapping in a blur and ability to dart in all directions, or hover in one spot, hummingbirds are extremely entertaining to watch.
Interestingly, the color of a hummingbird’s gorget (throat feathers) is not a result of feather pigmentation, but of light refraction caused by the structure of the feathers. They are unable to hop or walk, but can move sideways while perching. The smallest species is the bee hummingbird, endemic to the main island of Cuba and weighing only 1.6-2 grams with a length of 5-6 cm. Up to 30 percent of the hummingbird’s weight is in the muscles used in flight – the pectoral muscles. With wings that beat between 50 and 200 flaps per second and an average heart rate of more than 1,200 beats per minute, a hummingbird uses an amazing amount of energy and must consume up to half of its weight in sugar daily. They harvest nectar from flowers with fringed, forked tongues that lick 10-15 times per second.
The rufous hummingbird migrates a distance of more than 3,000 miles from its Alaskan and Canadian nesting grounds to its Mexican winter habitat – the longest migration of all the hummingbird species. Some hummingbird species such as the rufous, calliope, broad-tailed, Anna’s, black-chinned and Costa’s are known to inter-breed and create hybrid species, making the birder’s identification task more challenging.
Following the completion of a species status review in 2012, the US Fish and Wildlife Service is proposing that the Honduran Emerald hummingbird be listed as endangered. Endemic to five small valleys in the Central American country of Honduras, it’s estimated that the Honduran Emerald hummingbird population has decreased to fewer than 1,500. With loss of habitat being the primary cause of the decline in numbers, it is feared the decline will continue as land is cleared for establishing plantations and pastures for cattle. The good news for the brightly colored little bird is that the Honduran government is aware of the problem and has formed the Honduran Emerald Hummingbird Habitat Management Area which includes dry forest habitat suitable for the Honduran Emerald hummingbird and may very well turn the decline around.
Chosen in 1953 as the symbol of the National Audubon Society in the United States, the Great Egret (Ardea Alba) represents an inspiring conservation success story. Had it not been for the dedicated efforts of bird-lovers, this majestic bird would have been hunted to extinction – all in the name of fashion. In the 19th century, the snowy white plumage of the Great Egret made the bird a target for hunters who were supplying the fashion industry in North America. Records indicate that their populations plummeted by up to 95 percent before action was taken to prevent their extinction. Today, they are protected by legislation in the United States and are among the birds listed under the Agreement on the Conservation of African-Eurasian Migratory Waterbirds (AEWA). The Great Egret’s conservation status is now listed as ‘Least Concern’ on the IUCN Red List.
This elegant long-legged, startlingly white bird with its S-shaped neck is found throughout North and South America, as well as in many other parts of the world. They are typically found near both fresh and salt water as they feed in wetlands, tidal flats, streams and ponds. They stand still for long periods of time waiting for their prey to come to them, whereupon they snap it up and swallow it whole. Although they primarily feed on fish, they will also eat amphibians, mice and reptiles. These monogamous birds nest in trees near water, where both parents take responsibility for incubating and raising their young.
Feathers have long been used by humans as a fashion statement, features of traditional dress or in tribal customs. While examining the remains of a Neanderthal dwelling in the Fumane Cave in the region of Verona, Northern Italy, paleontologists discovered more than 600 bones of birds dating back some 44,000 years, neatly laid out in layers. Thorough examination of the bones revealed that they belonged to twenty-two species of birds, with clear evidence that the feathers had been cut off in a manner that would preserve them intact. While it may be easy to conclude that they had killed the birds as a food source, research reveals that the birds from which the remiges (flight feathers) had been cut, were poor food sources, and considering that feathered arrows had not yet been invented, it was concluded that the feathers had been used for decorative purposes. It’s a sobering thought that when killing or maiming birds simply for the purpose of using their feathers, humans today are displaying behavior in keeping with our Neanderthal ancestors.
Bird-lovers who want to make a positive contribution to the conservation of our feathered friends should contact their local Audubon Society.
Winter is setting in, and you absolutely do not know what to do. Your quail and pheasants have lost feathers and you don’t want them to get chilled. What do you do?
A common problem in blue scale quail is fright. Similar to when a lizard drops its tail, it is a clever defense mechanism. When a predator grabs the bird, a bunch of feathers drop out, leaving a live quail and an annoyed predator. When someone picks up the blue scales the same happens. A good way to prevent this from happening is to only handle these birds for check-ups or emergencies. If you have extremely tame quail and this only happens rarely, it is okay to handle them.
Pheasants do not have large problems with picking. When it does happen, it is usually with ring-neck pheasants. These slightly aggressive birds will pick or attack other birds. This behavior is known for starting when they are still chicks and becoming more full-fledged (no pun intended) in juveniles and adults. They will even pick at pheasants of their own species. A good way to keep them from hurting flock members is keeping them separate from other pheasants (and other birds in general). If you have a flock of them, give them plenty of space, as well as something else to pick at, such as shoestrings or jingle balls made for cats or parrots.
If you keep your quail and pheasants with chickens, hang shoestrings from the wire or put toys or something inside to provide entertainment. On rare occasions chickens will severely maim their own species or other birds and have been known to engage in cannibalism. This is known to happen due to extreme boredom.
Mites are a very common problem. Remember to keep coops or cages clean at all times and put out dust baths occasionally for your birds.
Even if your birds do not pick it is a good idea to take them to the avian vet yearly. Make sure your birds stay healthy no matter what.
Any bird watching enthusiast would agree that watching a male bird of paradise Lawes’s parotia trying to gain the interest of a female is a breathtaking experience. Its colorful chest, displayed against his black plumage makes for a spectacular show, and scientists have been studying their plumage to discover the secrets of the male Lawes’ parotia’s mating dance. It seems that the shape and special features of their feathers holds the answers to the questions that have been intriguing bird lovers for years.
To get the full effect of his mating dance, the male Lawes’s parotia spreads his wings around his body, allowing his feathers to look like a ballerina skirt, and puffs his chest out to exhibit the colors. As he moves from side to side during his dance, he repositions the feathers on his chest, allowing them to catch the light and evolve into a color display of yellow, blue and orange. The fact that these birds are able to change the color of their chest plumage at such a staggering speed has always fascinated those who have witnessed it, and now there are some answers to this magnificent natural display. To find the secrets to this bird of paradise’s plumage, scientist began to study each feather on its own and found a feature that is unique to this species. The feathers do have barbules, just like any other bird, but the difference is in the shape of the individual barbules.
Usually in the cylindrical shape of branches, this species’ feather barbules are shaped in the form of a boomerang. This basically serves as a mirror ball, so to speak. As the light reflects off the centre of the barbules, the feathers appear orange and yellowish in color, and as the light catches the sides of the barbules, the colors dance between blue and green. It was also found that the barbules have twenty-five layers of melanin, with small spaces between pigments, and is then covered by a thin keratin layer. As melanin is actually brown in color, the keratin and melanin are used in conjunction to manipulate light and create the stunning colors the species is known for.
Nature most definitely has a way of creating unique and mysterious features for each bird that takes the combined efforts of scientists to unlock their secrets. One secret that is still held by the bird of paradise Lawes’s parotia, is how the female bird perceives this display of color, and it does not seem that she is eager to share all her secrets with the world.
Nature not only surrounds us with sheer beauty but also offers an abundance of fascinating new discoveries that continue to amaze us. Just when we think we know everything about an animal or bird, they seem to prove us wrong. More recently, birds have revealed that crests and beards are not merely used for finding a mate, but serve a greater purpose, allowing them to explore their surroundings as well. Research on birds, such as the auklet, has opened up a new door into the world of birds and their feathers.
Professor Ian Jones, St John’s Memorial University, and Dr Sampath Seneviratne, University of British Columbia, shared their insights and suspicions that certain feathers on a bird’s body could serve to heighten the sense of touch. When looking at birds, such as the auklet, which have intricate feathers on their heads, scientists found that by putting them through a simple navigational test, much was revealed in regard to the role that crests and head feathers play. Using a dark maze, as this breed tends to breed in dark crevices, it was found that when the birds navigated the test, they succeeded in completing the maze with less difficulty than when researchers flattened their head feathers. It was also noted that in general, if birds have ornamental feathering, they tend to be birds that are active at night.
Researchers then looked at bird species that do not feature elaborate feathering, including pheasants, kingfishers, parrots, penguins and owls. They suggest that even if some birds do not have crests and rectal bristles, longer wing feathers may also serve as a means of touch. Many birds use their feathers and coloring to show off their abilities and to either startle or camouflage themselves from their predators, but there is good reason to believe that feathers have various other functions that we have not been aware of until now. The new insight into facial feathers and flamboyant feathering could lead to further studies,to confirm these findings and the preliminary research. This use of their feathers for touch and orientation has revealed a more complex side to birds, and will have us gazing a little more intently whenever we look at these colorful creatures of the skies.