Wednesday, December 17, 2008

A Christmas Bird

How many Christmas cards have you received showing bright red cardinals standing out against a snowy background or black-capped chickadees perched on a snow covered pine branch? It seems these two species of birds have cornered the market as the epitome of Christmas birds. But we don't have cardinals and black-capped chickadees on the Central Coast. So what bird can qualify to take prominence on our Christmas cards? I nominate the white-breasted nuthatch.

All nuthatches have something in common with spiders and flies – they can walk upside down and they are popularly known as the "upside-down" bird.

On the Central Coast more than one kind of nuthatch resides. Along with the white-breasted is the red-breasted and pygmy nuthatch. Each of them can be found in wooded areas where oaks and conifers grow. Parks and urban woodlands are also good places to look for them.

Of the three only the white-breasted is a true year-round resident. The red-breasted are often abundant in winter months but can be totally absent in some years. Pygmy nuthatches, as indicated by their name, the smallest of the three, are common only in the Cambria woodlands and are rare anywhere else in the county.

So how do these birds defy gravity on the trunks and branches of the trees? They have strong toes and use their claws to grip the bark and venture up and down tree trunks and large limbs, often even hanging upside down on the underside of a branch. Birds such as woodpeckers use their tails to help balance and prop them up on the sides of trees but the nuthatch has a short tail which doesn't come into play in their foraging techniques.

The white-breasted and other nuthatches feed mostly on insects that are hidden in the crevices of tree bark. This ability to walk down a tree makes it easy for the birds to spot their prey.

During winter months when insects are not available the birds change their diet and consume mostly seeds. Their habit of stuffing a seed or nut into a crevice in tree bark and then hacking or "hatching" away at it is what gained them the name nuthatch.

White-breasted nuthatches may mate for life. Their courtship display consists of the male spreading his tail, drooping his wings and swaying back and forth, bowing deeply. The female builds the nest in a tree cavity sometimes utilizing old woodpecker holes. They often use a crushed insect to sweep the inside and outside of the nest site. It's thought that the chemical secretions in the insect might deter predators.

Five to nine eggs are laid and while the female incubates them, the male brings food to her and feeds her. The nestlings are fed by both parents and generally fledge no later than 26 days from hatching.

While there are subtle differences in the plumage of the three western nuthatches, their most distinguishing feature may be their different vocalizations. Calls can vary regionally even among the same species. Pacific white-breasted nuthatches call with soft, slow nasal notes that sound like "whi-whi" or "wahwahwah" and can end on a high but descending note. Interior birds also have a nasal tone but call in a rapid series of notes "yidi-yidi-yidi."

So this Christmas season if you take a walk on a chilly morning through our local wooded areas keep an eye out for our very own Christmas bird, the white-breasted nuthatch.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

A Christmas Goose

In merry olde England the Christmas table contained many delicious platters like plum pudding, roasts, codfish cakes, peas porridge and fruit pies. But the epitome of the holiday dinner had to be the main course, the Christmas goose. I suspect, although I don't know for sure, that this bird was the domestic variety, grown solely for the purpose of consumption. In North America there is a bird that migrates southward for the winter and is often depicted on our holiday cards and wrappings -- our Christmas goose, the Canada goose.

This bird is probably the most widely distributed and best known wild goose. There are 11 races or subspecies listed in the Audubon Society's Encylcopedia of North American Birds. Several of these spend time in California every year. All of the races look alike except for size, with a long black neck and head, white cheek and chin patches, brown-gray body and wings, pale underparts and white undertail coverts.

The largest of these birds, weighing up to 24 pounds, is known as a "Honker" thanks to its characteristic "ah-honk" call. This bird is the giant Canada goose measuring up to 48 unches long with a wingspan of 75 inches. The "Lesser" is a bird about the size of a snow goose, 26 to 31 inches long, weighing approximately six pounds. "Cacklers" are the smallest and darkest of all the Canada geese, weighing about three to four pounds and just a bit larger than a mallard. These three varieties inhabit our ponds, lakes, grasslands and fields from the coast to the central valleys.

Geese mate for life so within any large flock are family groups of pairs and their young of the year. These groups can be distinguished by careful watching of their habits for the families stay together while feeding or resting. In the spring, the young return with the parents to their breeding grounds where they are finally driven off by the gander. Yearling groups are formed that move several hundred miles from their breeding parents.

There is a pecking order amongst geese that keeps mated pairs without families separate from those with young. this behavior extends downward from mated pairs to single adults and then yearlings, each segregated from the other.

Conversations take place among the birds with their own special language. Scientific study finds that the geese use up to ten different vocalizations responding to certain situations. While the large honkers call is the "ah-honk" or "ahnk" sound, lesser Canada geese give a higher pitched honk that is less resonant. The small cackling geese make an "ank" or "lek-luk" sound.

Canada geese breed throughout Canada and Alaska and in spots throughout the lower 48 states. In recent years these geese have become something of a public nuisance in cities and towns. The problem is not so much the geese as it is the habitat. In planning and designing open spaces and parks, cities have inadvertently constructed environments that are geese friendly. The birds are drawn to the large, open areas of turf grass located near water. In many areas officials are using lethal means to correct the problem when changes to the landscape would more naturally control the numbers of birds. Modifying the habitat by reducing landscape features that geese find attractive and putting in features that make the area unsafe or inconvenient for them will either reduce or completely eliminate the birds.

Another factor contributing to the overabundance of these birds is that people like to feed them. The public needs to be educated that giving handouts to these wild birds can affect their well being and increase conflicts with humans.

Nature affords us many thrilling events and one is beholding flocks of Canada geese flying in v-formations, honking greetings to each other.

Author's Note: Since writing this the gods of bird identification have made changes regarding the species and sub-species of Canada geese, particularly in reference to the cackling goose. For the best information on this change see and remember, there are no Canadian geese -- they are Canada geese!