About Chris Bosak

Bird columnist and nature photographer based in New England.

Back to school special: New England’s smartest birds

With many schools throughout New England opening this week, I figured it would be appropriate (and fun) to explore the region’s smartest birds.

We all know crows and other members of the corvid family (blue jays and ravens among them) are intelligent birds, but what other species have the gift of intellect? Parrots, of course, can learn and repeat human phrases, but they aren’t exactly New England birds.

I think an argument can be made that all birds are smart because they utilize various strategies to survive in the natural world. According to various sources (which will be named appropriately) found using simple internet searches, however, here are New England’s honor students. As a disclaimer, this is an utterly unofficial list and not to be used in academia.

I’ll credit the top two species to a National Geographic article printed in 2018. The article ranks ravens as the smartest with crows a close second. Here’s the article, which explains the rational.

 

The corvid family is widely recognized as the most intelligent family, so third and fourth will be the blue jay and Canada jay. The Canada jay will come to people’s hands for food, which may not seem like a brilliant idea, but they know an easy meal when they see it.

Corvids usually edge out parrots on the intelligence scale in the studies I have seen. As I mentioned earlier, we don’t have parrots in New England, but we do have monk parakeets. They are not true New Englanders, but they have established sizable populations throughout the region, so I’m giving them the number five spot. Monk parakeets are social and adaptable and were popular as house pets for their ability to mimic human speech. Here is more information about monk parakeets from www.ecohealthypets.com.

 

Here’s where the list gets really unofficial as much of it is based on my opinions, which immediately discounts it from academia. It is a back-to-school special post, after all, so I figured a little critical thinking would be welcomed.

I put the northern mockingbird as number six for the obvious reason of its incredible vocal ability. They can mimic dozens of other birds and even some mechanical sounds to use in their repertoire. Many people, I’m sure, have screamed “Shut up, you dumb bird!” at mockingbirds singing late into the night, but mockers clearly are not dumb at all.

 

Gulls come in a number seven. Not only are they aggressive beggars on beaches, but what really impresses me about gulls is how they eat clams. I enjoy watching gulls drop a clam from a certain height to see if it will crack open. If it cracks, they eat it. If it doesn’t, they grab the clam and drop it from a bit higher. And so it goes until it cracks. If they started from a great height, they would run the risk of the clam splattering and ruining the meal. Pretty smart, if you ask me.

I almost hate to say it, but brown-headed cowbirds take number eight. Love them or hate them, you have to admit that laying your eggs in the nest of other birds is a pretty good strategy, especially for a bird that traditionally was very nomadic. They also keep watch over the invaded nests to make sure the parent birds are treating the egg properly.

 

For its ability to use tools, I’m putting the green heron at number nine. I have never observed this behavior myself, but I have read that green herons will use bread or something similar to lure fish to the water surface. Any bird that uses tools deserves a spot on this list.

The 10th spot goes to — and again I almost hate to say it — the European starling. Think what you want of these invasive birds that are outcompeting native species for nest sites, but they are very smart birds. They are accomplished mimics and have even been known to “talk.” They also adapted so well to the U.S. that their numbers are estimated in the hundreds of millions. Can’t argue with that.

Honorable mention goes to the brown thrasher and gray catbird for their abilities to mimic, to woodpeckers and nuthatches for ability to cache food and find it later, to chickadees and titmice for working together to find food and warn of predators, and ruby-throated hummingbirds for their ability to fly their tiny selves to Central America and back and remember specific flowers on both ends of their journey.

To recap: 1. Raven; 2. Crow; 3. Blue Jay; 4. Canada Jay; 5. Monk Parakeet; 6. Northern Mockingbird; 7. gulls; 8. Brown-headed Cowbird; 9. Green heron; 10. European Starling.

I hope you enjoyed this very unofficial list of New England’s smartest birds. I have no doubt whatsoever that I left some good candidates off the list. Feel free to comment or send me an email with your nominations.

Good luck to all the students this school year and congratulations to all the parents who get back their day-time peace and quiet.

Photo by Chris Bosak   Canada jay on snowy bough in Pittsburg, N.H., Nov. 2018.

 

 

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Classic For the Birds: Much learned; much to learn

Here’s a For the Birds column from 15 years ago. Yes, I’ve been writing it for that long, and even longer. Enjoy …

Photo by Chris Bosak A Snowy Egret looks for food in Norwalk Harbor.
Photo by Chris Bosak
A Snowy Egret looks for food in Norwalk Harbor.

It’s funny how things that seem so difficult at the beginning eventually become so easy.
It can be said of just about any hobby, but it certainly applies to birdwatching.
I can remember struggling with differentiating great egrets from snowy egrets. It seems somewhat silly now. Great egrets are markedly larger, have yellow bills and black legs and feet. Snowy egrets, aside from being much smaller, have black bills and yellow feet.
The differences are clear and obvious now. But, as a beginner, I saw only tall white birds and telling them apart was a challenge.
Similar experiences occurred with wood thrushes and hermit thrushes, downy and hairy woodpeckers, black ducks and mallards, house finches and purple finches. Now these are all fairly easy to differentiate.
But just when you think you’ve got this birding thing down, there’s something to knock you down a peg or two to show you how much more there is to learn.
Sure, wood thrushes and hermit thrushes are easy now, but what about if you throw in Swainson’s thrush and gray-cheeked thrush? What about northern waterthrush and Louisiana waterthrush? Common tern and Forster’s tern? Least sandpiper and semipalmated sandpiper?
Unless you are an expert or have a special birding gift, there will always be something to learn. There will always be something to throw you for a loop just when you start feeling a little too confident.
It’s easy to get frustrated when that happens. “Semipalmated sandpiper or least sandpiper? Geez, I should know that by now. What’s wrong with me?”
When frustration sets in, it’s important to look back on how far you’ve come, even though that’s not so easy when the frustration is at its peak. That’s good advice for anything in life, really.
I thought about that the other day as I watched a lone great egret and lone snowy egret hunting the same hot spot along the Long Island Sound.
As the waders crossed paths and briefly stood right next to each other, the differences were glaring. The great egret towered over the snowy and the snowy’s yellow feet glowed like beacons.
I love watching egrets. I slow the car when I see them along the roadside, and take time to enjoy them when I’m birdwatching or simply taking a walk. Seeing egrets reminds me of how far my birdwatching skills have come.
There are plenty of reminders out there about how far my skills still have to go, so I may as well cherish the ones that show the progress I have made.

For the Birds: Bald eagles and the Endangered Species Act

Photo by Chris Bosak
A bald eagle at Bashakill NWMA, summer 2019.

Here is the latest For the Birds column …

There is something magical about seeing bald eagles. Thankfully, that magic is being felt more and more lately as the eagle population has rebounded dramatically over the last few decades.

Not long ago, bald eagles were rare sightings. You pretty much had to visit a place where you knew they were nesting or overwintering to see them. Now, bald eagle sightings — especially flyovers — can come from almost anywhere. Last winter, I saw a young bald eagle perched on a snag within a few hundred yards of a busy shopping mall in New England.

A few weeks ago, I took a canoe ride at the Bashakill National Wildlife Refuge in New York and saw two adult bald eagles. I spoke with a man in the parking lot after the ride and he said the pair had fledged two young eagles that year. Scenarios like that becoming more and more common, which is terrific news.

The bald eagle rebound may not be as striking as the osprey recovery, but it’s very impressive nonetheless. According to the American Eagle Foundation, the species was nearly extirpated from the lower 48 states and only a handful of pairs nested in 1963. From 1963 to the early 2000s, the bald eagle population rose gradually, but steadily. The last five years, however, have seen steep climbs in the eagle population to the point where there are now nearly 15,000 nesting pairs in the lower 48. Alaska, for the record, has more than 30,000 nesting pairs.

New Hampshire has seen a similarly dramatic increase in recent years. I remember canoeing on Lake Umbagog not that many moons ago and seeing the state’s only known nesting pair. A few years later I met up with Meade Cadot of the Harris Center and others to inspect a new eagle nest on Nubanusit Lake. It was an exciting time.

As of 2017, according to N.H. Fish and Game, there were 59 territorial pairs in the state and 38 of those were successful in fledging young that year. Since 1988, 427 bald eagle chicks have fledged from nests in the state.

In somewhat recent memory, New Hampshire has gone from one nesting pair to 59. That’s dramatic and those involved with the recovery on the federal, state and local levels deserve a lot of credit. Because of the impressive recovery, bald eagles were removed from the state’s threatened and endangered lists in 2017.

Similarly, the bald eagle has been delisted from protective acts on the national level. In 1995, the bald eagle status changed from endangered to threatened. In 2007, it was removed from the Endangered Species list.

Which brings us to the news that broke last week about the changing of the Endangered Species Act, an important piece of legislation that has been protecting animals in peril since 1973. The changes essentially put a price tag on the habitat needed to save certain species. If land needed for an endangered turtle, for example, was deemed to be extremely valuable as a drilling or logging site, then the land could potentially be used as such. 

I don’t like putting a price tag on animal species and I don’t like politics being involved with decisions on whether or not to protect an endangered species. I can foresee money winning out and crooked politicians getting rich in the majority of these cases, even as the announcement made last week said decisions will be made solely on the “best scientific and commercial information regarding a species’ status.”

I do, however, understand the need for upgraded and additional infrastructure as the U.S. population grows. I can also see how Washington would want to take a look at the Endangered Species Act and make modifications to match today’s needs, but the changes announced last week reek of fraud potential. Money talks, after all. 

The Endangered Species Act has helped to save many animals, some of which were on the brink of extinction. The majestic bald eagle is among them. I’m not against opening up the books to make modifications to the Act, but I hope any changes truly reflect the words of U.S. Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt, who said: “The best way to uphold the Endangered Species Act is to do everything we can to ensure it remains effective in achieving its ultimate goal—recovery of our rarest species.”

Stranger Things: Hummingbird moth

Photo by Chris Bosak
A hummingbird moth sips nectar from a butterfly bush in New England, summer 2019.

I’ve been seeing a lot of photos and videos this summer of these fascinating creatures on Facebook and other social media. Many of the posts include the question: What is this???

No, it’s not a hummingbird, even though it resembles one, creates a humming sound with its wings and hovers around flowers like a hummingbird. It is a hummingbird moth, so named because … well, you can figure that out, I’m sure. Although it’s hard to tell without a side-by-side comparison, hummingbird moths are smaller than hummingbirds. A hummingbird moth is about two inches long and a hummingbird is a bit longer than three inches, but also much more bulky.

Look for hummingbird moths at the same flowers you’d expect to see butterflies and hummingbirds. Butterfly bush is a backyard favorite for hummingbird moths.

A hummingbird moth sips nectar with its long proboscis, a tongue-like sucking organ, which can be double the length of the moth. The photo below shows the proboscis rolled up.

Photo by Chris Bosak
A hummingbird moth sips nectar from a butterfly bush in New England, summer 2019.

For the Birds: Dragonfly fun facts

Photo by Chris Bosak Meadowhawk dragonflies mate in Selleck's/Dunlap Wood in summer 2014.

I’m a big “fun facts” guy. Thankfully, the internet is filled with these interesting tidbits of information. 

You could find amusing information on just about anything you can think of: politics, art, sports, human biology, libraries, history. You name it, it’s out there on the web.

The animal world, of course, is no exception. Fun facts abound on the internet about earthworms, cicadas, robins, moose, musk ox, and countless other fascinating members of the animal kingdom.

I wrote recently about a few hot-weather walks I took through New England meadows. I focused that column primarily on butterflies, but I want to turn the attention to another common sighting I had on those walks: dragonflies.

These large insects have fascinated people for as long as people have been fascinated by things. Dragonflies can arouse amazement, fear or curiosity in humans. For me, it’s a combination of amazement and curiosity. I used to fear them when I was a kid due to a lack of understanding about them. They may be intimidating-looking, but they are as harmless as they come in the insect world — at least the ones we have in New England. (See, I snuck in a fun fact without even setting it up.)

OK, now for the set up: Dragonflies arouse curiosity in people for many reasons, such as their menacing appearance, aerial acrobatics, and ability to eat copious amounts of mosquitoes. Here are some other facts about dragonflies that you may or may not have known previously.

Dragonflies have two eyes, but each compound eye is made up of up to 30,000 ommatidium, or facets. The eyes make up most of a dragonfly’s head.

Dragonflies can fly in any direction and can hover for long periods of time. They can also fly upwards of 30 miles per hour.

That flying ability makes dragonflies excellent hunters, eating large amounts of small flying insects, but they can also be the hunted. I’ve seen birds such as green herons and purple martins snatch dragonflies out of the air.

Dragonflies are insects and therefore have six legs, a head, thorax and abdomen. They also have four wings, and the fore wings and hind wings are controlled separately, hence their awesome aerial abilities.

Dragonflies can be monomorphic (male and female look alike), dimorphic (male and female look different) or polymorphic (much variety even among males and females.) The most common colors for dragonflies in New England are blue and green, but there are also red, amber and white dragonflies here.

There are only a handful of dragonfly families that occur in New England (such as skimmers and darners), but there are about 200 species among those families in our region. The largest dragonfly in New England is the green darner, which is more than three inches long.

Dragonflies live all over the world, although most live in warm climates.

Eggs are laid in or near water and larva live for about a year in the water. After emerging, dragonflies live for only a few months as adults, if they are not eaten by something else sooner than that.

A group of dragonflies is called a swarm. They are multi-generational migrants, meaning the ones that fly south are not the same ones that return north.

Dragonflies make for interesting photo subjects. They often return to the same perch over and over, making it easier on photographers. 

What’s your story about dragonflies? Let me know at the email address below.

Bald eagles steal the show

Photo by Chris Bosak A bald eagle at Bashakill NWMA, summer 2019.

Savanna and I decided to venture outside the friendly confines of New England and take a short drive to the Bashakill Wildlife Management Area. It’s a beautiful area teeming with wildlife, great scenery and surprises around every bend as you paddle along the narrow serpentine river. It is a New York state Bird Conservation Area and located between the Shawangunk (“Gunks”) and Catskills mountains.

I discovered this gem of a place when I worked for a short time in Middletown, N.Y. about 20 years ago. I’ve returned now and then ever since, but it had been quite some time since my last visit. So one day last weekend we strapped the canoe on the car the night before, rose before dawn and headed west.

Other than my usual access road being closed due to construction, everything was as I remembered it. The water channel was a bit more narrow than usual, but that’s because it was August and it hadn’t rained in quite some time.

Wood ducks, as usual, were the dominant species. There must be thousands there and we must have seen a few hundred of them. Red-winged blackbirds and a lone kingfisher were other usual sightings. At one point we saw a bush in the distance in the swamp that was literally bursting with swallows. The swallow migration has begun and this bush looked like a Christmas tree covered with live ornaments.

But the most memorable sightings were of the resident adult bald eagles. We saw the male first and then the female. As with most birds of prey, female bald eagles are larger than males. A man we met in the parking lot later — who identified himself as the “local eagle guy ” — who said there were two young eagles that year, too, but they like to stay hidden in the woods away from the open swamp. It was good to hear that the adults continue to have breeding success there.

Bald eagles are making a strong comeback throughout the U.S. and New England and nearby N.Y. are no exception. Just like the tremendous comeback of the osprey over the last few decades, it’s nice to witness another iconic species on the rebound. Now, let’s just keep it that way.

Photo by Chris Bosak
A bald eagle at Bashakill NWMA, summer 2019.