Friday, November 7, 2014


You’ve doubtless seen the pigeons feeding in the city square or along the freeways roosting on light standards and nesting under the overpasses. These are Rock Pigeons (Columba livia), formerly called Rock Doves, and they are native to Eurasia but have been introduced all over the world, first as captive birds and then established in cities, towns and the countryside outside of captivity. They are rock-dwelling birds that nest on cliffs, and they see our city buildings and barns as just another kind of cliff.

However, we also have a bona fide wild pigeon in the Pacific Northwest, the Band-tailed Pigeon (Patagioenas fasciata). These are birds of the forest, birds that roost in trees and not on buildings. They are common west of the Cascades, occasionally seen on the east side. Many migrate south in autumn, but good numbers persist through the winter in areas where they can find food, both wild and human-provided.

We are fortunate that Band-tailed Pigeons are easily attracted to bird feeders with mixed seeds, as they are really quite attractive birds. They look something like Rock Pigeons but are slightly longer-tailed and rounder-winged, evident when they fly overhead. They are gray above, with more reddish underparts and a dark band bordered by a pale tip on the tail (thus the name). The bill and feet are bright yellow, and there is a white half-collar on the neck with an iridescent patch of feathers behind it.

These pigeons are vegetarians with a varied diet. Their range coincides with the range of oak trees throughout much of the West, and they eat a lot of acorns. But they also take pine nuts, fruits of all kinds, seeds of herbaceous plants, especially grains, and a variety of buds and flowers.

Band-tails build flimsy nests of twigs well up in trees, averaging about 10 meters but up to 50 meters above the ground. The nest is usually on a firm limb not far from the trunk. They lay a single egg, quite unusual among pigeons and doves, which usually lay two. The egg is incubated alternately by both male and female for about 18 days to hatching.

Both parents produce “pigeon’s milk,” a curdlike substance that sloughs off from the inner walls of the crop (production mediated by prolactin, just as in mammalian milk!); this is unique to pigeons. The young bird (“squab”) remains in the nest for three or more weeks and may be fed by the adults after it fledges.

There has been an uptick of interest in Band-tailed Pigeons in recent years. A group of researchers are committed to de-extinction of the Passenger Pigeon (Ectopistes migratorius), and they are moving rapidly toward that goal. Their method involves working out the genomes of both species and the systematic replacement of Band-tailed Pigeon with Passenger Pigeon genes: “converting viable Band-tailed DNA to viable Passenger Pigeon DNA.” They have now fully sequenced both species, so stay tuned!

On October 30, a juvenile Band-tailed Pigeon landed on the feeder right in front of me, and it looked just enough like a Passenger Pigeon, not seen alive for over a century, that a chill ran over me.

Dennis Paulson

Tuesday, November 4, 2014


Mergansers are fish-eating ducks. They are closely related to Buffleheads and goldeneyes, but because they diverged sharply from their invertebrate-eating relatives, their anatomy has diverged sharply as well. The main point of divergence is in the bill. Buffleheads have a normal duck-shaped bill, only 2-3x as long as wide.
 A merganser bill, on the other hand, may be 4x as long as wide. But more than that, the structure of the bill has changed dramatically. Duck bills have plates or lamellae, fine transverse ridges on the cutting edges that let water escape from the bill when prey is brought to the surface. In mergansers, these plates have been modified to produce a saw-toothed effect. These aren’t true teeth, lacking in birds, but they are very toothlike, analogous to the teeth of barracudas, needlefish and dolphins, other fish-catching vertebrates.

We have three kinds of mergansers in the Pacific Northwest. Two of them are in the genus Mergus, the Common Merganser (M. merganser) and Red-breasted Merganser (M. serrator). Both of them are large ducks, the Common one of our largest. Both have relatively long, slender bills the edges of which look like saw blades. These toothy bills are perfectly adapted for capturing slippery fish, and mergansers feed only on fish.

The Common breeds in rivers all over the Northwest and extends its range in winter to lakes and marine environments, especially deep channels with swift currents. The Red-breasted breeds in the Arctic and Subarctic and descends on the PNW in the winter, primarily on salt water. It is one of the common and widespread wintering ducks on Puget Sound.

Both of these mergansers move around the landscape looking for fish, especially fish in large schools that are easier to capture than the individual fish that the ducks encounter most of the time. Thus herrings and sand lance, two of our common schooling fishes, are often prey. Like other ducks, these mergansers may be in flocks.

The Red-breasted is perhaps even better adapted as a fishing duck than the Common, as its bill is a bit more slender and cylindrical. The bills of these two duck species have converged on those of other fish-eaters such as loons, grebes and cormorants, but none of the latter have the “teeth.”

The least modified and smallest of the mergansers is the Hooded (Lophodytes cucullatus). It is close enough to the goldeneyes (Bucephala) to have hybridized with both Common Goldeneye (B. clangula) and Bufflehead (B. albeola) and is considered intermediate between the goldeneyes and the other mergansers.

The bill of the Hooded is also intermediate, with the “teeth” rounded or square and nowhere nearly as impressive as in the other mergansers. The species may eat as many invertebrates as fishes, especially crustaceans such as crayfish and aquatic insects. It is much more confined to fresh water than the other two, but small numbers winter in protected bays.

All three mergansers have nesting habits like the goldeneye group. Hooded Mergansers nest in tree holes like Buffleheads and goldeneyes, Common Mergansers, much larger, need much larger crevices in trees, but like Hooded, sometimes uses old Pileated Woodpecker holes. On the other hand, Red-breasted Mergansers nest on the ground, often in the shelter of rocks or fallen trees adjacent to their preferred breeding wetlands. With their northerly breeding range, there aren’t many trees big enough for a nest hole!

Dennis Paulson

Tuesday, September 23, 2014


During their first lab, I used to take the students in my vertebrate zoology class at the University of Puget Sound on a walk in the urban wilds. After we had walked a few blocks, I asked them to tell me why we weren't seeing any wildlife. When someone pointed out that we just saw a squirrel, I tell them that, sadly enough, this most obvious “wild” mammal isn’t native, nor are some of the “wild” birds we had seen.

But the answer is so obvious that eventually I always got the response I wanted:  “The habitat is so different from what it was.” They didn’t know the half of it! Not only do we cut down the trees, leaving a few token conifers, but we also wipe out the shrubs and herbs that make up the diverse understory of our forests. Each of those plant species has insects living on it, and all those insects disappear with their host plants. Guess the most important prey for our small wildlife species (amphibians, lizards, many birds and small mammals). That’s right, insects.

Don’t the cultivated plants we plant in the place of those we eliminate attract their own insects? Some of them do, but most aren’t native, and the insects that eat their leaves or pollinate their flowers may not occur here. And if they do appear, the typical response to them is a liberal application of pesticides. But it’s worse—most people favor evergreen plants such as rhododendrons and junipers that produce insect-deterring chemicals in their leaves and are thus relatively pest-free. Most evergreens fall in this category. And yes, I know honey bees aren't native, but they seem important in the pollination of many flowers, as our native bees have declined.

And the final habitat constraint most of us apply is instead of letting a great variety of (admittedly weedy) herbaceous plants become established in our yards, we literally mow ‘em down. If you watch your yard, you’ll see that the rare dandelions that go to seed are immediately attractive to any seed-eating birds in the neighborhood. But how many of us sanction this sacrilegious seed set? However we view them, seeds are the primary diet for many small birds and mammals.

So my answer is “Don’t do as your neighbors do.” If you’re like most of us and don’t live on a ten-acre lot with real habitat, do your best to simulate it. Remember two important food groups, seeds and insects. Plant native trees and shrubs, especially deciduous ones, which are more attractive to insects. Plant native flowers attractive to pollinating butterflies, bees and hummingbirds. Fruits are also important foods for many birds and mammals; plant plenty of fruiting trees and shrubs.

Don’t put any kind of biocides in your yard; save the aphids!

Leave a swatch of lawn unmown. Don’t rake up all the leaves and throw them away each fall; let them stay on at least part of your yard. Several of our wintering birds forage by turning over dead leaves, which shelter seeds from the summer before as well as a multitude of small arthropods and worms. Make a brush pile in one corner of the yard; songbirds love to shelter in it. Add a pond or fountain. You’ll be amazed at the wildlife habitat you’ve made.

Dennis Paulson

Tuesday, August 26, 2014


Most people have heard of albatrosses; few people have seen them. But every summer they are common offshore visitors to the Pacific Northwest. Boat trips out of Westport, Washington, and Newport, Oregon, go out 20-30 miles and can dependably find albatrosses and a host of other pelagic birds. Pelagic means “out of sight of land,” and there are a lot of pelagic birds. Because birds can fly, they roam all over the ocean’s surface in search of food.

Of course, all birds lay their eggs in nests on land or floating in freshwater wetlands, so you wouldn’t think they would wander far out in the ocean, but in fact they do. Many species fly thousands of miles when they are away from their breeding grounds for half the year or more. Black-footed Albatrosses breed in the Leeward Hawaiian Islands, but they roam to our coast, 3000 miles away, when not at home. Even more astonishing, when feeding young a Laysan Albatross may fly from the same islands up to Alaska’s Aleutian Islands, 1500 miles away, on a single multi-day foraging trip!

Sooty Shearwaters fly several tens of thousands of miles on their migrations from their breeding grounds in New Zealand to their wintering grounds in the North Pacific, taking an extended figure-8 path that has them flying counter-clockwise around the North Pacific. Meanwhile, Pink-footed Shearwaters make almost as long a flight from islands off the coast of Chile.

The Northern Fulmars that visit us, on the other hand, breed in islands in and around the Bering Sea, so they have to fly south to approach our coast. The Fork-tailed Storm-Petrels we see offshore come from much closer at hand, the string of islands that stretch along the outer coast from off Cape Flattery to off Point Grenville.

All of these birds are in the order Procellariiformes, called “tube-noses,” because of their tubular nostrils. Members of this group all take their food from on or near the ocean’s surface. Some of them skim the surface, others dive down to several meters or more. They all feed on fishes, squids, and planktonic crustaceans—the larger the bird, the larger the prey. And they all have an excellent sense of smell, which helps them find smelly prey at sea and their nest site back on their home island.

These birds are supremely adapted for flying very long distances. Their long, narrow wings are perfect gliding surfaces. With any air movement at all, the larger species surf the wind, rising into it with the lift it provides, then falling off to the side to gain speed to turn and rise up again. Watch them on a windy day to see their roller-coaster flight over the ocean. And if you’re seasick-prone, you don’t have to go out on a boat. At times in summer you can see Sooty Shearwaters from shore in astronomical numbers.

Dennis Paulson