It’s shaping up to be a very busy summer in the forest for this blogger, which helps explain the scarcity of posts lately. So much going on, and so little time to write about it! But I can’t resist sharing yesterday’s birdy encounters, as well as the fact that my life is increasingly dominated by birds (more on that below).
Starting with the poor beleaguered owl in the opening pic, I would never have seen it had a crow not been screaming at it from ten feet away on the same branch. It was perched very high in a large hickory tree, in the traditional territory of the Great horned owls for as long as I can remember, up on the ridge near the open meadows of Creason park. (If you’ve ever seen “My neighbor Totoro” you’ll notice the resemblance). Always pay attention to crow and bluejay vocalizations, if they seem excited – this may be your chance to see a hawk or an owl.
The bird above is most certainly not found in our forest, but it looks eerily similar to a bird that likely did live here as little as 150 years ago. It’s a White bellied caique, relative of the extinct Carolina parakeet Conuropsis caroliniensis, and it’s one of the eight pet birds ruling my life right now.
This pet Caique is named “Squeak”, and he’s recently been joined by a young female companion and partner in crime (picking at the pomegranate). Seeing the two of them squabbling, screaming and playing as the very social caiques do, is a poignant reminder of that other long lost bird. Carolina parakeets lived in large noisy flocks, and as with the Passenger pigeon, this was a big factor in their undoing. Read my post 11/28 Once and Future Parrot for more background on the Carolina parakeet, once the most northerly of New World parrots.
For a long time I’ve been fascinated by the story of the Carolina parakeet, which was gone before its life history could be well documented. Living with two mostly free range (in the house) caiques allows me to experience what they may have been like. The boisterous social behavior of Conures (genus Aratinga, the Carolina’s closest living relatives) is much like that of my birds – intelligent, inquisitive, active, and emotional. Caiques, genus Pionites, are part of the family tree though not as closely related as Conures.
Judging from the feeding behavior of my Caiques, Carolina parakeets were great seed dispersers. The floor below the caiques feeding area is littered daily with fruits and veggies they have ripped apart. Flocks of Carolina parakeets used to descend on orchards and peck at the ripening fruit. It was a behavior that hastened their demise – as you might imagine, farmers fought back.
The seeds of native Cocklebur Xanthium strumarium, were another favored food. Though seriously seriously poisonous to most animals, the parakeets were adapted to eat them with no ill effects. This fascinating account by John James Audubon describes their feeding habits very well.
Some Carolinas were kept as pets, but apparently no attempt was made to breed them since they were for a long time so common in the wild. The family relationships of Carolina parakeets have now been sequenced genetically by researchers, and can be viewed in this fascinating article. “Extinct Carolina parakeet gives glimpse into evolution of American parrots” https://www.theguardian.com/science/grrlscientist/2012/sep/19/1
The extinction story of the parakeets, while different in its details, is sadly familiar in many ways. No single factor can be pointed to as the cause, but a cascade of detriments eventually took its toll. The one common thread with so many other (non-island) extinctions is habitat loss – the logging of the vast eastern forests. Though these cavity nesters foraged in a range of habitats, including crops and orchards, they had to have old trees with suitable holes to raise the next generation in.
My last birdy story is the most surprising – while cutting Bush honeysuckle resprouts in an open brushy part of the forest, a very large bird blustered up right in front of me. She’d apparently been waiting till the last minute, hoping I wouldn’t come too close. And there at my feet was a turkey nest with fifteen eggs.
I’ve never seen one anywhere before, let alone in this forest. Apparently our lonely heart remaining wild turkey has found a mate. I left the area after taking this pic, and will not work near it for several weeks since the incubation time is 28 days. Only time will tell if the eggs survive predation, and if the habitat is healthy enough to support turkeys. Though the Carolina parakeet will never return to this forest, maybe turkeys can.
And now I need to go check on my caiques to see what trouble they’re getting into!