I like to keep track of my pigeon friends, and lately, this guy — I call him Spec — has been hanging around my porch a lot.

Spec (Copyright 2012 by Alex Washoe)

(The usual disclaimer:  I have absolutely no idea if Spec is male or female, as I am a dolt when it comes to sexing pigeons.  The use of “he” is purely for convenience sake.)

His color makes him very distinctive.  In a crowd of pigeons — even the oddball pigeons who hang around my yard — Spec stands out.

It seems that maybe Spec stands out to the other pigeons too.  I have frequently seen him being bullied or chased off the rail.  He is frequently the last to eat, and when he does show up to eat, he is usually alone.  I’ve taken to putting food in other locations, or leaving some of the feed I spill on the steps when filling the feeders, so that Spec can eat there if the others chase him off the rail.  Obviously, I have a weak spot for misfits — it was my “special needs” pigeon Timmy who got me interested in the local group to begin with.  So Spec has caught my attention.

Spec, short for Speckled, but also Spectacular. (Copyright 2012 by Alex Washoe)

I have a theory — based entirely on casual, anecdotal observation — that pigeons sometimes “pick on” the oddly colored members of their group.  I’ve seen it around town, and now I’ve been watching it with Spec.  I don’t have nearly enough data to confirm this hypothesis or even to strongly support it — it is entirely possible that the instances I’ve witnessed were coincidence.  That the “bullying” of the birds in question was a natural part of pigeon life, having to do with status or rank or something else entirely, and that their coloration was irrelevant.  But I’ve seen it enough times to make me wonder.

City pigeons come in many colors or “morphs”. (Copyright 2009 by Alex Washoe)

The Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology has a project called Pigeon Watch, which allows amateur ornithologists — bird watchers, in other words — to contribute data to the study of these birds.  City pigeons are unique in many ways.  To begin with, they are feral birds — not exactly wild, because they are all the descendents of domesticated birds.  As I’ve said before, pigeons were one of the first animals domesticated by humans — only dogs and maybe horses have been around longer.  They were using domesticated homing pigeons to send messages about floods up and down the Nile many thousands of years ago.  And according to reports, there were already feral pigeons living in the streets of ancient Rome.

One of the main questions the Pigeon Watch project seeks to answer has to do with the different color patterns — or Morphs — among feral pigeons.  Pigeon breeders identify many different Morphs — some say as many as 28 — but the Pigeon Watch has simplified that, for their purposes — into seven.  The basic pattern is called “Blue Bar”. As the Pigeon Watch site describes it: “Blue-bars generally have a dark head, neck, and chest with some iridescence; a light-gray breast and belly; a black band at the end of the tail; and two black stripes or bars on each wing.”  This is by far the most common color pattern among pigeons, and is the color of the original wild pigeons of Europe and Asia from which feral pigeons are descended.  (And not so different, except for the wing stripes from the native Band-Tailed Pigeons in the Pacific Northwest.)

Young Cooper’s Hawk (Copyright 2009 by Alex Washoe)

But despite the fact that feral pigeons have been living in our urban environments for hundreds of years (at least 400 years in North America, and much longer in other parts of the world) many different color morphs still survive.  In wild species, there is usually a culling process that takes place — those individuals who stand out too much are more likely to be targeted by predators — which might be one basis for an instinctive fear of different individuals, if it really does exist — the fear that they attract dangerous attention.  In the city, pigeons don’t have a lot of natural predators — there are Hawks around, like the Cooper’s Hawk who frequents my neighborhood, and who took a pigeon right off my porch a few months ago — but urban pigeons are much more protected than their wild cousins.  Also, food is plentiful, so dominant individuals and groups can’t monopolize the supply like they might in the wild.  Both of these factors could lead to greater diversity.

The Pigeon Watch is interested in how these color patterns effect breeding.  Are birds more likely to breed within their Morphs, thus ensuring that the patterns are passed down and survive.  Are a certain percentage of birds naturally attracted to individuals of other Morphs?  Pigeon Watch allows all of us to make observations and submit that information to the study, to help solve these questions.

Along with the questions about mating, though, I’d be interested in knowing about “bullying”.  Are certain Morphs naturally dominant?   Is it simply a matter of numerical superiority?  Dominance of individual birds?

Timmy! (Copyright 2011 by Alex Washoe)

In my own yard, I know that the bird who most frequently seems to bully Spec is a very large individual who fits into the Morph called “Spread” — birds who are almost entirely dark grey or black.  This bird seems very aggressive and frequently attempts to bully other birds, including Timmy and his partner.  (Again, I have no idea of the genders; I’m just using the convenient pronouns).  However, Timmy and Friend usually combine to chase him off.  Timmy and his friend are both “Checkers” under the Pigeon Watch classification, because they have a checkerboard pattern on their wings.  So none of this really fits the pattern of the dominant – most common – morph excluding others.

Something interesting has happened in the last few months, though.  Since I’ve been feeding Spec, he seems to have grown more confident.  When the “pigeon smack downs” happen lately, Spec is more likely to stand his ground, and often succeeds in holding his position.  (Although, not with the largest bully.)  Is it because he feels this place is his now?  Because he’s better fed?  Or perhaps he was young and is growing into his adult confidence?  I don’t know.  But I’ll keep watching, and reporting what I see to Pigeon Watch, and in this blog.

I’d be interested in hearing your observations too.


Familiar (but welcome) visitors

The nice weather this month has brought out a lot of activity in the yard.  I was on the deck yesterday and I noticed this couple on the feeder.  At first glance, I mistook the female for a Pine Siskin.  They’ve been so common this spring that I just expected to see them.  But then I caught a flash of red on the male, and when I looked closer I saw that both birds were too big to be Siskins, and they had shorter, heavier beaks.

I don’t know if this is the same House Finch couple that hung around most of last summer — or if this is perhaps the young male Finch who was also here last year.  As I understand it, House Finches often form new couples each year, so either or both of these birds could be new.  It’s good to see them though.  I’ve added a finch feeder since last year, so we’ll see if they visit that too.

Speaking of familiar faces, this handsome House Sparrow was also hanging out in the cherry tree.  There are a lot of sparrows around — House Sparrows, Song Sparrows, and one Golden-Crowned Sparrow (that I blogged about recently).  I’ve noticed a lot of sparrow squabbling this year.  One day a tangle of three sparrows whirled right past my head as I was walking my dog.  Lots of excitement.

As I mentioned above, the Pine Siskins have been everywhere this year.  I got this photo of a small flock of them working the feeder.  

A friend of mine at the PAWS Wildlife Center told me that they have been seeing a lot of cases of salmonella in Pine Siskins this year.  So if you have Siskins around it’s important to be very vigilant about cleaning the feeders.  Washing them out regularly with a weak (about 10%) bleach solution is ideal. 

Bewick’s Wrens are infrequent visitors to my yard, and usually they move too fast for me to get a decent photo.  I caught this one hopping around yesterday though and was able to capture him before he disappeared.

Finally — it just wouldn’t be Birdland West without frequent visits from our Pigeon Friends.  Here is one of mine waiting on the roof for the dogs to go inside so he can come down and eat. 

Our dog Lulubelle loves to bark at the pigeons and seems to take great pleasure in scaring them off.  But they always return, usually as soon as she goes inside. 

If you like Birdland West, you might also want to check out our sister blog Books and Beasts, which focuses on reviews of books about animals and related topics.
 Many of the original photographs featured on Birdland West are available for sale as art quality prints.  You can check out all of our offerings at http://AlexWashoe.imagekind.com.  If you see an image here that does not show up on our Imagekind site please contact me directly and I’ll let you know about availability.)

Hawks and Hounds

Today I just have a few quick photos to share.

Recently, I wrote about the death of one of my pigeons.  By “my pigeons” of course, I mean the pigeons that hang out in my neighborhood and eat in my yard.  My naturalist friend Kevin was pretty confident that the killer was a hawk — even though I wasn’t able to get any hard evidence at the time.

Well, now I have.  This last week, after something spooked and scattered all the birds in my yard, I took this picture of the culprit, perched in a tall tree across the street.  That day he flew straight threw my yard, even pausing for a second in the cherry tree by my front deck.  Since then, we’ve seen him perched on the post of our front steps.  He’s definitely staked out the neighborhood as his hunting grounds.  With breeding season coming, I suspect the crows are not going to be happy about that.

Earlier this month, I attended the Seattle Kennel Club Dog show, and spent several hours watching my second favorite sport — Canine Agility.  I love watching the dogs run the course, and one — this Afghan — was especially striking.

If you like Birdland West, you might also want to check out our sister blog Books and Beasts, which focuses on reviews of books about animals and related topics.
 Many of the original photographs featured on Birdland West are available for sale as art quality prints.  You can check out all of our offerings at http://AlexWashoe.imagekind.com.  If you see an image here that does not show up on our Imagekind site please contact me directly and I’ll let you know about availability.)

CSI: Pigeon Town

Not the bird from last week, a young Cooper’s Hawk from a nearby park last winter.
About mid-morning last Friday, while I was working at my desk in the back of the house, I heard a crow in the front yard screeching his displeasure at something.  It went on for several minutes, and I thought about going out to see what was bothering him — following the lead of agitated crows usually leads to something interesting — but this was only one crow, not a mob, and I was focused on the blog post I was writing, so I didn’t get up.  A few minutes later my roommate Dan called me, from the front yard.  He had just gotten home, and he was whispering into his cell phone, “Dude, get the camera.  There’s a small hawk in the tree outside.  Hurry.”
I got the camera (which is not stored conveniently on the table by the door any more, since my dog Zeke decided to chew up one of my lenses) but by the time I got to the window, the hawk had noticed Dan and taken off.  I didn’t get to see him.  However, Dan paged through the field guide and quickly identified him as a Cooper’s Hawk.  That made sense, because I know there are Cooper’s Hawks in this area.  I’ve seen them more than once in the park where I take Zeke to play.  I was mildly disappointed that I didn’t get to see him myself, since I’ve never actually seen a hawk in our yard.
A few hours later, we were getting ready to go shopping, and Dan took the dogs out before we left.  I followed him a few minutes later and he told me, “Don’t look over the side rail.  There’s been a death.”
My first thought was that it must be one of the rats that live under the fence.  I haven’t seen them in a while, and I’ve been a little worried about what happened to them.  But unfortunately, this was a death that hit even closer to home.
It was one of the pigeons.
Anyone who reads my blog probably knows that I am fond of pigeons.  I take care of the little collection of “misfit” pigeons who hang out in this neighborhood — mostly because they are centered around Timmy.  I have a history with Timmy, and feel some responsibility for him.  And I enjoy watching the pigeons when they come to eat (and often squabble) on my front deck.  They don’t hang around here otherwise — even Timmy has stopped hanging around much other than mealtimes — so they aren’t a nuisance to me or the neighbors.  I often see them perched on the power lines behind the house, watching.  When I put food down they begin to swoop in.
The “victim”, fortunately, was not Timmy or Timmy’s Friend.
The dead pigeon was not Timmy, or “Timmy’s Friend”.  (You can see my earlier posts about Timmy and the other pigeons here and here.)  In fact, judging by the wing patterns, it wasn’t a pigeon I was familiar with.  I examined the body and the “crime scene” — and I took lots of photos, which I’m going to spare my readers, since they are pretty gruesome.  Suffice it to say that the pigeon was apparently eating on the rail when it was attacked.  It looks like it was killed almost instantly, because it was on the ground just below the rail.  Its head was gone, and its crop was still filled with undigested seed which it had obviously just eaten.  There were blood and feathers around the body, and more at another spot a few feet away, under the stairs.
My first thought was that a cat was the culprit.  There are occasionally free roaming cats in our neighborhood, and any bird lover has to be concerned.  I put off bird feeding for many years because the area I used to live in — Ballard — was full of feral and semi-feral cats.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m not anti-cat.  But I am anti-outdoor cats.  At the wildlife center where I volunteer, a very large percentage of all the animal injuries that come in — especially birds — are cat attacks.  Outdoor cats are an environmental horror story.  But I’ll come back to that in a later post.
It didn’t even occur to me, at first, that the Hawk killed the pigeon.  But of course, that was the most likely scenario.  So I sent my crime scene photos off to my friend Kevin, who’s the staff naturalist at Paws WildlifeCenter.  Here’s what he said:
“From looking at the photos of the pigeon, I would say you are looking at the work of a hawk, rather than the work of a cat.  First of all, it looks like the pigeon’s tail and rump feathers are intact.  In almost all cat attacks you will see wounds over the rump and missing tail feathers because the cat attacks from behind as the bird tries to fly away.  Hawks usually hit much farther forward on the body.  Once they have a good grip on their prey, they kill it by biting through one of the cervical vertebrae at the back of the neck.  They then tend to eat from the head down.  Hawks pluck the feathers from the area in which they wish to feed.  This leaves a scattered pile of loose but completely intact feathers.  Cats bite into birds right through the feathers. Feathers are generally pulled away in clumps, usually with skin still attached, and the feathers themselves are often broken or otherwise damaged.  The loose feathers around this pigeon’s body all look like they have been individually plucked, again indicating a hawk rather than a cat.”
Sad news.  But on the other hand, I had a Cooper’s Hawk lunching in my yard.
If you like Birdland West, you might also want to check out our sister blog Books and Beasts, which focuses on reviews of books about animals and related topics.
(Many of the original photographs featured on Birdland West are available for sale as art quality prints.  You can check out all of our offerings at http://AlexWashoe.imagekind.com.  If you see an image here that does not show up on our Imagekind site please contact me directly and I’ll let you know about availability.)

Accepting the Birds that Come

It is currently 39 degrees and sunny in Seattle, but I’m sitting here at my desk in a heavy coat because my dogs want to have access to the front deck.  Sigh.
Long ago, when I was an art student, studying drawing and photography, I learned a valuable lesson:  don’t wait for the perfect subject, draw what’s in front of you.  It seems like an easy principle to master, but it turns out it’s one of those things you have to learn over and over again.
Starling and Sparrow, familiar visitors, in an uncommon mutual pose.
Take birds, for example.  As a birdwatcher, and as a photographer, I am always hoping for the next big, unexpected find.  For some rare (or at least previously unseen) bird to fly onto my yard list, or alight on the bushes at the dog park.  Of course, the definition of “rare” means that it’s something which very seldom happens.  So the artist who waits for “rare” subjects — unless he takes off for Tahiti like Gauguin — may have a long wait.  (I couldn’t come up with Paul Gauguin’s name to save my life just now, so I Googled “Tahiti Artist” and it was the first hit — I love the Internet.)  There are days when I take my camera outside and I think, “Nothing here but more chickadees, Juncos and pigeons.  I have thousands of pictures of them, why do I need more?”
Beautiful rich colors make this Junco stand out.
The answer is, “I don’t.”   But I need to take more pictures of them.  It’s not the end product, it’s the process.  That may sound like a cliche, but it’s true.  Most basically, because it keeps your skills and your eye sharp — the way practicing scales keeps a musicians hands limber and ears tuned.  But it’s also true for a couple of other reasons (that I know how to articulate).
First, is receptivity.  As an artist — photographer, writer or birdwatcher — receptivity is one of the most important traits you can possess.  (Reactivity is another, but I’ll write about that some other day.)  You could compare it to the chemical nature of film (remember film?  If you’re too young, Google it).  The chemicals on the film are sensitive to light and they react in its presence, creating an image.  Similarly, the artist has to be available to the “light” of the world around him, has to let it in and let it change him.  The inner film develops these images, stores them, and they become the raw material out of with art is created.  Standing on my deck, with my camera, I am at my best when I can cultivate a state of open receptivity.  If I was religious I could phrase it as, “Not my will, but yours be done.”  In other words, I will accept what comes. I’ll photograph what’s in front of me instead of complaining that I don’t get anything “new”.  Out of that openness comes possibility, the chance for something unexpected and creative to occur.  Without that openness, nothing is possible.
A distinctive mostly white Pigeon surveys the deck.
I love pigeons!
Henry James — not usually one of my favorite writing mentors, but you really can’t escape his influence — advised us to strive to be someone on whom nothing is lost.  The emphasis on striving (James said, “try” but it’s the same point) is important.  It’s a goal we can’t reach.  Still, it’s crucial.  As soon as I begin thinking, “Oh, they’re just chickadees, just pigeons, I’ve seen them a thousand times before,” then the doors of my perception are closed.  The world is being lost on me.  The chickadees that I see today may or may not be the actual birds I’ve seen before — it’s very difficult to tell.  (Actually, sonograms of the songs of individual birds can help you identify whether the particular birds in your yard are the ones you’ve seen before — another topic to get into later.)  With pigeons it’s a little easier.  I saw four pigeons on my deck yesterday and, because I forced myself for a moment to put down all the things I was worrying about and everything I “should” be doing, I got some really great photos of them.  Two of them I knew and two were really striking, mostly white birds that I’m not sure I’ve seen before.  I love pigeons, but familiarity can blunt even our greatest passions.  Only openness and receptivity — being the present moment without any certainties — can reignite that love.  My pigeons reminded me of that.
Like the Four Stooges having lunch.
And ultimately, the birds that I see today are not the birds that I’ve seen before — and I am not the person who saw them.  A photographer knows that from moment to moment the light moves and the image changes.  The photographer changes too.  No amount of clinging to my opinions or preferences will prevent that.  Tomorrow, the birds will be different and I will be different.  The tree will have a few less leaves, the monster dog on the deck beside me will be a little bigger, and the light will keep moving.
And the pigeons will have something new to say.
 I’ve been a little busy this month doing NaNoWriMo and other writing related activities.  So far, it’s been a pretty good year for writing.  If you’re interested, you can check out some of my other work.  Starting with our sister Blog, Books and Beasts.  Also, the Seattle Mariners Blog, Sodo Mojo has been hosting my posts every Sunday morning for a couple of months.  You can check out some of my pieces (and the great baseball analysis of the rest of the site’s writers) here
Many of the original photographs featured on Birdland West are available for sale as art quality prints.  You can check out all of our offerings at http://AlexWashoe.imagekind.com.  If you see an image here that does not show up on our Imagekind site please contact me directly and I’ll let you know about availability.)

The Island (Yard) of Misfit Birds

Things have been hoppin’ in Pigeon Town.
As I’ve mentioned before, I have a resident “special needs” pigeon named Timmy who lives (or at least hangs out most of the time, I don’t actually know where he roosts) around my house.  Timmy was briefly trapped in our attic last year when we evicted his parents and sealed up the opening.  We were sure everyone was out, but it turns out Timmy wasn’t, and was trapped in the attic for several days.  I’d feel even if I hadn’t noticed before that Timmy was a weird bird.  Special.  At least I know that the trauma we accidentally inflicted on him is not the cause of his oddness. 
Timmy’s Plus One
Timmy (who despite his behavioral issues is a big, beautiful and healthy looking pigeon) now has a friend.  Who I call “Timmy’s Plus One”.   Of course I can’t tell a male a pigeon from a female pigeon even if they’re dressed for the prom, so I don’t know whether Timmy is male or his friend is female, or the other way around.  They could both be males or both be females for all I know (not that there’s anything wrong with that).  But pigeons are known to mate for life, and these two seem to be a couple. 
(I’ve read speculation on how birds recognize each other and distinguish gender — in many birds it’s easy because differences in coloration or size are so striking — but in birds like pigeons and crows, who don’t show much sexual dimorphism, it’s more of a puzzle.  Mammals do it mainly by smell, and by visual cues in some species, for instance primates whose noses are not good.  Most birds have only a rudimentary sense of smell — so there must be other kinds of cues.  I would suggest looking at them more in the infra-red part of the spectrum, which we can’t see naturally but they can.  Could it be they have hidden patterns on them like some flowers do, or that the oils in their feathers show some difference in those wavelengths?  I haven’t been able to find any photos of birds in the infrared, but I’d be curious to know if anyone has explored it.)
Lately, there have been two other pigeons dropping by (I unfortunately do not have photos of them yet).  They are both unusual in their own way — mostly white with gray mottling.  One of them is almost albino. 
I have observed — and have also read — that pigeons sometimes seem to shy away from the “odd” members of their flock, and that unusual coloration may make a bird unwelcome. But I’m not totally sure that’s true.  The Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, as part of their Celebrate Urban Bird project has Project Pigeon Watch, a chance for citizen scientists to contribute their observations, and one of their goals is to study how different color patterns among feral pigeons effect mating.  Anyway, these two pigeons have been hanging around lately and I started wondering if maybe our yard was becoming a sort of island of misfit birds.  Like Timmy, these guys might be less at home in the big flocks that hang out down the road in White Center.  I’ve often observed the two mottled pigeons eating on my rail together, and I’ve seen them eating along with Timmy’s friend.  I’ve never actually seen Timmy eating with them though.
Saturday, I finally saw them together, and it got pretty exciting.  First, I saw Timmy’s friend on the rail with one of the white birds.   They were eating together like usual, and then suddenly a fight broke out.  Timmy’s friend and the mottle pigeon were going at each other up and down the rail for about a minute, and then they both flew off. 
I thought maybe the food was getting low and that sparked the argument.  So I went out and put more food on the rail.  A little while later Timmy and his friend came back and while they were eating the mottle pigeon showed up again.  This time, Timmy got into it with him.  It even looked like Timmy attacked first.  There was a brief squabble and then all three birds took off.  I was standing in the front door watching and one of the pigeons — I think it was Timmy — flashed by just a few feet from my face with a loud crack of his wings.  Timmy, who is by far the biggest of the pigeons that visit here, seemed to have things well in hand.
That wasn’t the end of the excitement though.  Timmy and his friend came back a little later.  I was watching from inside, under the window blinds.  I could see Timmy, clearly recognizable by his banded wings, and it seemed like there was another pigeon too — but a very small one.  I got closer to window and caught my breath.  It wasn’t a pigeon at all.
It was a Steller’s Jay.
This is the Jay that was eating with Timmy.

Last winter, and well into the spring, the Jays were frequent visitors to my yard.  They come swooping in with their wings spread wide, looking like a caped superhero and announcing their arrival with loud screeches.  I haven’t seen them in a while, but all day Saturday I kept hearing them.  When I was out for a walk with my dog Lulubelle, and when I took my “puppy” Zeke to the park, I could hear the Jays but I never saw them.  And now here he was.
So, fighting pigeons and then Timmy sharing dinner with a Jay — that’s lot of adventure for one Saturday afternoon.

For previous posts about Timmy and pigeons see “Around the Yard and Around the Web“, “Pigeon Watch” and “Timmy!”

You can also enjoy my recent article “Crazy Flickers” over at 10,000 Birds.  They have a great site, well worth checking out even if I wasn’t included.   

Birdland West readers will be interested in my review of Feathers: The Evolution of a Natural Miracle by Thor Hanson, which is posted now at Books and Beasts.   It’s a great book and a must read for all bird lovers.  Check out the review here.
 (Many of the original photographs featured on Birdland West are available for sale as art quality prints.  You can check out all of our offerings at http://AlexWashoe.imagekind.com.  If you see an image here that does not show up on our Imagekind site please contact me directly and I’ll let you know about availability.)

Around the Yard and Around the Web

Crows are geeks.
And if you have any doubt, let me offer some evidence.  This crow is clearly an “early adopter”.  I photographed him this weekend helping himself to cherries in the cherry tree. 
Even though the cherries are very ripe, most of the birds haven’t quite gotten around to feasting on them yet.  (Although, Saturday night, coming home from a monthly poker game, my roommate and I surprised a raccoon in the tree.  He — actual gender unknown — was pretty small, so I’m guessing he was one of this year’s crop.  I got to see his masked face for just a second before he vanished into the shadows. )  The crow however is on top of things, and getting first jump on the cherries.
It continues to be an exciting year for fledglings and juveniles.  At least one group of House Sparrow young’uns is coming of age around my yard.  I now have photos of them at several stages of development.  I suspect that there is more than one group though, because I took some photographs of slightly older fledglings a week or so before I caught shots of younger ones. (You can see those photos here and here.)  
Saturday morning there was a juvenile House Sparrow raising quite a ruckus in the front yard.  It went on for almost ten minutes with him flitting from bush to bush.  I never did figure out what he was so agitated about, and eventually he quieted down and went back to his normal routine.  But I did get some good shots while he was pontificating.

Timmy’s Friend
I also managed to get some good shots of my resident Pigeon Timmy, along with his frequent companion.  Timmy is the larger pigeon with the lighter colored wings.  I have also noticed a new pigeon in the neighborhood — a thin, mostly white pigeon that I haven’t seen until recently.  I’ll keep an eye on this new arrival and see if I can get some photos.
The great challenge of the season, for me, remains the House Finch fledglings.  The couple has been here almost all year, and I was pretty sure they were nesting nearby, but so far I have no definitive proof of juvenile finches.  I saw some birds recently on the rail that could have been the elusive youngsters, but I didn’t get a good enough look, and couldn’t get any photos.  Like Captain Ahab, though, I will continue to pursue them.

Updates, Follow-ups and interesting links

I was very happy to be included in the most recent Carnival of Evolution.  If you haven’t seen it (or don’t know what a blog carnival is — I didn’t until recently) it is basically a regular round up of  blog writing on a certain topic — in this case evolution, which is broad enough to include many things.  My recent post Game Show Pigeons and Ball Playing Dogs was included and I’ve been gratified to see a nice up-tick in viewings as a result.  If you’re interested in biology, evolution, science writing or any number of related topics I suggest you check it out.  It comes out monthly and is hosted on a different blog each time.  This edition was hosted on Lawrence E. Moran’s blog Sandwalk — which is, itself, well worth checking out.  (There’s even a musical interlude called “Cambrian Explosion” that you really have to see.)
There are blog carnivals, by the way, on all kinds of topics.  If you’re curious, you can check out Blog Carnival to get an idea of what’s out there.
One of the people who found my posting from the carnival was Roslyn Dakin, a PhD student from Kingston, Ontario.  Turns out, she also has an interest in the Monty Hall problem.  Her take is somewhat different than mine and well worth checking out.  In fact, her whole blog is very rewarding.  You can check out her Monty Hall article here, and her most recent posts here.
And, finally, there’s a great article in the Grand Forks Herald recently, by Herald editor/publisher Mike Jacobs.  “Target Species Enrich Birding Experience“, about the joys and expenses of having a birding wish list.  (I have a wish list — both local and more farfetched — which I’ll be sharing in the near future.)  
If you like Birdland West, you might also want to check out our sister blog Books and Beasts, which focuses on reviews of books about animals and related topics.
(Many of the original photographs featured on Birdland West are available for sale as art quality prints.  You can check out all of our offerings at http://AlexWashoe.imagekind.com.  If you see an image here that does not show up on our Imagekind site please contact me directly and I’ll let you know about availability.)

Pigeon Watch

I was talking about pigeons. (Here)
The common pigeon — the Rock Dove or Rock Pigeon familiar to city dwellers around the world — is one of those ubiquitous creatures — like crows — that we see so often that we almost don’t see them at all.  Not as flashy or charismatic as crows, they have been with us for a very long time.  Though most of us don’t see them this way, pigeons belong to a select group of animals — along with dogs, horses and possibly cats — that have been companions of humans and contributors to our civilization for thousands and thousands of years. 
Ballard (Seattle, WA) June, 2009
Just consider this:  all the Rock Pigeons around the world are the descendants of domesticated birds. We know that, between five and ten thousand years ago, Egyptians were using pigeons to carry messages up and down the Nile. We also know that there were already feral pigeons living in the streets of ancient Rome, pretty much the way they do now. They were introduced into North America probably in the 1600′s from Europe, and the Army was still using them to send messages as late as World Wars I and II.   Properly speaking, they are not wild birds; they are feral — domesticated animals that have returned to the wild.  Sort of.  You don’t find many Rock Pigeons out in the forest (where their wild cousins do still live — in this area, we have Band-Tailed Pigeons and Mourning Doves for instance).  They are urban animals.  Or, if you prefer (I do), civilized.
Pigeons: The Fascinating Saga of the World's Most Revered and Reviled BirdMany of these stories, and much more, are related in Pigeons: The Fascinating Saga of the World’s More Revered and Reviled Bird by Andrew D. Blechman.  I first read this book a couple of years ago, and have gone back to it many times to check on certain anecdotes or re-read certain stories.  It is a rich, fascinating popular science book that not only gives us the history of the bird, but also introduces us to the incredible cast of characters and subcultures that have grown up around pigeons in the present day.  From weird pigeon hunts to racers to oddball environmentalists to good old fashioned breeders.  The pigeon has inspired more hate and love than just about any other bird (People as diverse as Charles Darwin, who bred pigeons while developing his theory of natural selection, and Mike Tyson, who has been a lifelong lover of pigeons, raised them as a child, and reputedly had his first fight with an older boy who killed one of his birds.)
TheCornell Lab of Ornithology has a special “Urban Bird Project” and as part of that project they have “Operation Pigeon Watch“.  Now, next to watching dogs play, and seagulls fly, and the endlessly inventive antics of crows, there are few things I find more entertaining than pigeons. (Okay, Jennifer Aniston, but that’s a whole different topic.)  So when I found out about project Pigeon Watch, I was hooked.  As I’ve mentioned before, I have a resident pigeon at my house who I call Timmy.  I call him a special needs pigeon because he seems to be a little … well, handicapped.  But he’s a big, beautiful healthy looking pigeon none-the-less.   Lately, Timmy has been showing up with a friend.  I think of “her” as Timmy’s girlfriend, but of course I have no idea of either of their genders.  She’s smaller than Timmy, with darker colored wings. 
There are something like 28 “morphs” — or different color patterns — recognized for the feral Rock Pigeon, but Cornell’s Pigeon Watch has narrowed it down to five.  Timmy, for instance, is a “checker” because of the checker like pattern on his wings.  Checker’s can vary from light gray with a little black, like Timmy, to much darker patterns.  I believe that Timmy’s friend (who is shier and harder to photograph) might also be a checker, but with much darker wing patterns than Timmy’s.
Timmy’s “parents”, West Seattle, summer 2010
One of the goals of the pigeon watch program is to observe mating habits among pigeons and learn which morphs mate with which others (to determine if they show a preference).  I had a chance to observe Timmy’s parents, when I first moved here — the birds I assume were Timmy’s parents because they were all sharing a nest — and I believe I witnessed courting behavior several times.  Pigeons court throughout the year, although (according to Cornell and other sources) they are more likely to mate in late winter or early spring.  Once they mate though, they mate for life.  I don’t have the opportunity to observe the rest of the family any more, as they are all gone.  But I will be watching Timmy and his friend whenever I get the chance.
If you like Birdland West, you might also want to check out our sister blog Books and Beasts, which focuses on reviews of books about animals and related topics.
(Many of the original photographs featured on Birdland West are available for sale as art quality prints.  You can check out all of our offerings at http://AlexWashoe.imagekind.com.  If you see an image here that does not show up on our Imagekind site please contact me directly and I’ll let you know about availability.)

Game Show Pigeons and Ball Playing Dogs

You have to bear with me for a second, but this will get around to birds, I promise.

Timmy, my resident “special needs” pigeon.
Over at Sciencewriter.org (possibly the coolest domain name ever), Davide Castelvecchi, who is a physical sciences and mathematics editor at Scientific American, has been stirring up controversy recently by revisiting what’s known as “The Monty Hall Problem“.  If you’re not familiar with it — where have you been?  It’s been discussed over the years everywhere from hard science magazines to Car Talk.  It’s derived from the problem that Monty Hall often presented to contestants on Let’s Make A Deal.  You have three curtains.  Behind one of them is a car, and behind each of the other two is a worthless gag gift (like a donkey).  (I know, I know — who says a donkey is worthless?  But that’s not the point of the problem).  You have to pick one of the curtains.  Let’s say you choose number One.  After you make your choice, Monty reveals what’s behind one of the other curtains, and the one he reveals is always a donkey.  Let’s say Monty opens number Two. Then, he offers you a choice.  Do you want to keep the curtain you chose, or do you want to trade?

Monty’s problem (not my photo, obviously).
For most of us, our intuitive guess is that it doesn’t matter.  We had a one in three chance of picking right the first time and that hasn’t changed.  Or, conversely, since there are now two unopened curtains, we have a fifty-fifty chance.  Either way, switching can’t increase our odds.

It turns out though, that isn’t true. Statistically you are always better off switching.  In fact it almost doubles your chances. I’m not good with this sort of math so I’ll just refer you over to those who are — and if you want to argue about it (as a lot of people do, judging by the comments section) you can argue with them.  Proving the solution isn’t really my point here. (Check it out here.)

The reason this came up again at Scientific American, though, is because of an article they published back in January of this year.  John Allen Paulos, a mathematician at Temple University, noted that pigeons didn’t seem to have the same difficulty with the Monty Hall Problem that humans do.  On the contrary, pigeons (being good empiricists, as Paulos says) learn the best strategy after only a few tries.  (You can see the article here.)

A few years ago another scientist — Tim Pennings, a Professor at Hope College in Michigan — was playing fetch with his dog, throwing a tennis ball into the water for the dog to retrieve.  The dog, Elvis, would run along the shore and at some point plunge into the water toward the ball.  What Pennings found was that, in most cases, Elvis was choosing a path that closely approximated the optimal path (the path with the shortest travel time) to the ball.  The path can be worked out using fairly complicated calculus equation — but Elvis seemed to be doing it “in his head” and “on the fly”. (Again, I’m not going to try to explain the math — you can look into it more here if you’re interested.)

Precision landings almost every time.
These kind of remarkable abilities are everywhere in nature.  The small songbirds in my yard routinely land on the thin perches of a bird feeder that is swaying in the wind — and they do so coming from across the yard, setting their trajectory as they approach. Only a couple of times have I ever seen a bird have to pull up and come at it again.  Squirrels leap from the rail of my deck to the cherry tree nearby, and catch the thin branches, which again are often swaying in the wind.  Birds also fly through the cherry tree despite its dense branches and (at this time of year) leaves.  They can fly straight through and out the other side.  Imagine trying to write a computer program to pilot something the size of a chickadee through such a complex space, complicated more by ever changing light conditions, wind turbulence, and so on.  The amount of calculation that it requires is staggering.

The catch looks easy, but try writing a program to do it.
But let’s not leave humans out.  Ichiro Suzuki does the same thing nearly every day.  When an outfielder hears the crack of the ball leaving the bat and starts to run, he has time for almost no conscious thought about where it’s going or how to get there.  Again, it’s a complex mathematical problem solved on the fly — timing his leap to catch the ball just before it goes over the wall.  And I’ve seen dogs playing with Frisbees or tennis balls who were as good as any major leaguer.

The greatest ball player I’ve ever known.
Paulos warns against the mistake of thinking that these abilities reflect some kind of conscious knowledge on the part of animals.  Of course, they don’t.  They represent the problem solving ability wired into brains over billions of years of evolution.  (And in the case of dogs — and to some degree pigeons — of tens of thousands of years of intense breeding).  Corgis, for instance, are herding dogs, whose job was to keep livestock moving in one direction.  The ability to foresee the movements of a sheep and set your own course to intercept it effectively is not all that different from what Elvis was demonstrating on the beach.  

If you want to drive the unconscious nature of these faculties home, I invite you to walk into a room sometime and ask if anyone there is good at calculus.  When almost everyone predictably says no, toss a tennis ball to one of them.  Almost certainly, they will catch it, and when they do you can show them (with the help of a mathematician friend, if you’re like me) the equation that describes what they just did.  We’re all better at math than we think.

The furor over the Monty Hall problem does show, however, that for us humans our conscious thinking sometimes gets in the way.  I learned this a long time ago in art school.  One of the reasons why it’s so hard for many people to learn to draw is because what we “know” about objects (say the size and form of a table) gets in the way of what we actually see before us.  Most people asked to draw a table will draw an abstract representation of a table instead of the object they see before them, which is skewed by perspective and point of view and really looks nothing like our idealized notion of “table”.
 Oh, and I wanted to get back to pigeons.  More on that very soon.
If you like Birdland West, you might also want to check out our sister blog Books and Beasts, which focuses on reviews of books about animals and related topics.
(Many of the original photographs featured on Birdland West are available for sale as art quality prints.  You can check out all of our offerings at http://AlexWashoe.imagekind.com.  If you see an image here that does not show up on our Imagekind site please contact me directly and I’ll let you know about availability.)


When we moved into this house — last summer — there were pigeons in our attic.  
Timmy’s “parents” — at least the seemed to be caring for him when we moved in.
We didn’t know it was pigeons at first — we thought it might be squirrels –but observation soon confirmed a family of pigeons.    Sexing pigeons is way beyond my ability, but I assumed (because there were three of them nesting together instead of roosting with a flock, and because two of them seemed to be closer to each other) that it was mated pair and offspring. They were beautiful birds.  The pigeons out here in West Seattle look much healthier than the birds downtown.  Sleeker, more fit, and their colors are brighter.  They are also wilder.  Pigeons downtown are so acclimated to humans that they come right up to you like aggressive panhandlers — I once had a pigeon try to take a sandwich out of my hands.  But out here they keep their distance and act like wild birds (which they really aren’t).
These pigeons seemed like a couple, and seemed to be taking care of Timmy.
It was the third pigeon that was most interesting — the one I assumed was the offspring.  Like the others, he was a good looking bird.  But he was a bit odd.  In the evenings I often saw him flying around the house, sitting on the deck, approaching all the windows and trying to get in.  He would even peck at the glass.  I was afraid that he might fly into a window and hurt himself.  He seemed unsure about where he wanted to go or what he was doing.  And because he seemed a little — well, handicapped — we named him Timmy. (South Park fans will understand.)
But the pigeons were really a little bit of a nuisance.  They started raiding my bird feeders — which upset the chickadees, who would sit on the branches and scold them (or scold me for not stopping them, I’m not sure which).  Also, there were concerns about damage to the house and contamination — since they were nesting right over our kitchen.  We decided that the pigeons had to go.
So, during the daytime, when the birds were usually gone anyway, my roommate climbed up in the attic and made sure it was empty, and the landlord’s maintenance guy sealed up the hole.  After that, we didn’t see the birds anymore and I assumed that, finding their nesting place sealed, they had moved on.  (There are a lot more pigeons just a few miles south of here in the commercial area of White Center).  
Except, a day or two later (like something in a Poe story), we heard scratching in the attic again.  Could it be that there actually were squirrels up there, and they had another entrance?  Squirrels are much better and getting into small spaces than pigeons.  After about three or four days we called the maintenance man and he went up into the attic to check it out again.
And found Timmy.
Timmy is really a beautiful bird — just a little odd.
Somehow, we had missed the poor guy when we secured the attic, and he’d been trapped up there for almost a week.  We felt awful.  The maintenance man captured him and brought him down.  He seemed very confused and disoriented.  He stumbled around our yard for a while, then sat on the roof of a neighbor’s shed for several hours.  We put water up there hoping he would drink it.  I was preparing to try to capture him and take him to the wildlife rehab center.  But, finally, he flew away.
And we didn’t see him much all winter.
There really weren’t any pigeons around our neighborhood after that.  Every once in a while I would think of Timmy and hope he was doing well.  (For some reason, I didn’t worry about the other two — they seemed like capable birds to me.  I was sure they’d be okay.)  
And then, early this spring, Timmy showed up again.  He went back to perching on the drain outside the kitchen.  He was looking good, but he still acted a little odd.  Timmy seemed to be looking for his old home.  Pigeons, after all, are legendary for their homing skills, and even a — well, handicapped — bird like Timmy could easily find his way back to the place where he was hatched.
He’s been hanging around consistently ever since.  I don’t know if he flies off at night and joins other pigeons in the roost, but he’s frequently here late in the evening and early in the morning.  I’ve started putting food out for him on the rail (which is also popular with Juncos, House Sparrows, and House Finches and — I’m afraid — rats).  I’m trying to teach my dog, Lulubelle, not to bark at Timmy when he comes to eat.  She is dubious.  
For now, Timmy has sort of become part of our family.
Birdland West readers will be interested in my review of Feathers: The Evolution of a Natural Miracle by Thor Hanson, which is posted now at Books and Beasts.   It’s a great book and a must read for all bird lovers.  Check out the review here.
 (Many of the original photographs featured on Birdland West are available for sale as art quality prints.  You can check out all of our offerings at http://AlexWashoe.imagekind.com.  If you see an image here that does not show up on our Imagekind site please contact me directly and I’ll let you know about availability.)