Saturday, December 23, 2017

Bird Ornament Detective

Happy Holidays nerds! One of the nicest things about the holiday season for your amateurnithologist is the prominent placement of birds in decoration and festive embellishment around this time of year. Whether they're adorning your Christmas Tree, Hanukkah Bush, or your Kwanzaa Kinora, these birds embody the spirit of peace and love the holidays are meant to represent.

But what are they though? A question only asked by the most compulsive of birders, sure, but one still worth considering, at least academically. Could a bird ornament be IDed? It turns out there's a lot of variety in how much veracity these ornaments have. The core philosophies of creation seem to range from extremely intentional recreation of a specific species to "make a bird". Today we're going to be looking at a couple of examples. Pull a cozy chair up to the fireplace and sip your hot cocoa as you join us for this pedantic holiday exercise.

As a fun bonus we're going to be running the very impressive Merlin Bird ID app through its paces to see if it can offer any additional insights beyond my own arcane system.

Key Features: Drab coloration, rufous crown, brown streak across chest, sparrow-shaped
Best Guess: Bachman's SparrowMerlin says:  Brown Thrasher
illustrated images copyright

I feel it's clear they were going for a certain type of bird at least, but how much further they went than that is anybody's guess. There are a few defining features that could be used for identification, but sadly most of them rule out real birds. The yellow eye is most damning, but the small black beak also doesn't help. At this point it's worth noting that many bird ornaments don't have feet, but rather flexible wires, which to my knowledge is not consistent with any known bird species. Still, the red crown and brown streaked breast make me fairly confident of my identification. This raises another question however- why would anyone make an ornament that looks like a Bachman's Sparrow?
Ornament Rating: 🐦🐦🐦

Key Features: Prominent red coloration, black features including crown, chest, eye stripe [left]
Yellow head, black, curved bill, blue wing spot [right]
Best Guesses: Cardinal [left] Yellow-headed Blackbird [right]
Merlin Says: Northern Red Bishop [left] Yellow-throated Toucan [right]

Terrible, just terrible, in both cases. The red bird, to me, is clearly meant to represent a Cardinal (the crest really gives it away), a really Christmas-y bird. However, it's got these needless features that make it completely incompatible with any real bird. If you were already 90% of the way to making a serviceable cardinal, why would you make a black crest and eye stripe? The other bird is just as bad, having a combination of colors and body shape that make it mostly impossible. The most prominent feature is the yellow head and dark body, which rules out pretty much everything other than the Yellow-headed blackbird all by itself. You could be extremely generous and assume that the blue wing is a kind of opalescent sheen that you can sometimes seen on black birds. I did find some examples of budgies with yellow heads and blue bodies, but the tail and beak take this too far away from the essential shape of the bird to be what they intended.
Ornament Ratings: 🐦 (each scored half a bird, together they get 1)

Key Features: Owl shape, prominent white mask, black eye ring, dark wings
Best Guess: Northern Saw-whet Owl
Merlin Says: Northern Saw-whet Owl (We got one!!)
"What if Bratz, but an Owl" a criticism of this ornament (which may or may not be a promotional item from the ill-fated owl adventure, Guardians of Ga'hoole) might go. But then you remember that a Northern Saw-Whet Owl is actually a thing, and that this looks almost exactly like it. While I'm not fully convinced that they thought they were making anything other than a cute owl, this ornament gets high marks for accuracy. Needs a little more streaking and a lighter breast, but the face is pretty darn close.
Ornament Ratings: 🐦🐦🐦🐦

Key Features:  Bluish back, yellow belly, white eye mask, upturned tail
Best Guess: Blue Tit 
Merlin says: Bananaquit (?!)

Blue Tit Body Illustration
This is really close, in my opinion, to a real Chickadee or Nuthatch of some type. The only issue is really the shape of the white eye mask. The shape of the bird is just right, and for the most part the colors are all within throwing distance of the real thing. In fact the ornament's so detailed that I'm almost feeling like my ID is the problem, and there's some real bird that looks just like this.
Ornament Ratings:🐦🐦🐦🐦

Key Features: Silvery-grey, prominent tuft, black beak, darker wing
Best Guess: Black-crested Titmouse
Merlin Says: Black-crested Titmouse!

Apologies for the very bad photo, call this one a #worstbirdornamentpic. To be honest, this ornament is just about perfect. The only criticism that I'd make is that as a group of birds, the titmouse family is not particularly distinctive, with really only the crest and overall shape being what clues me in.
Ornament Ratings:🐦🐦🐦🐦

Key Features: White, crested, black ring around the neck, spotted wings, striped tail
Best Guess: Leucistic Bluejay
Merlin Says: Mourning Dove

This is undeniably a leucistic Bluejay, and was clearly made either by someone with an obsessive knowledge of birds or someone who was trying to make a bluejay, but ran out of blue dye. That black necklace really is what gives it away. Either way, a brilliant post-modern deconstruction of our ideas about the bird ornament genre.
Ornament Ratings:🐦🐦🐦🐦🐦

There you have it birdfans. Now you have all the example you need for how to irritate your friends and relatives by flailingly 'identifying' the birds hanging on your own tree at Christmastime. And I was pretty impressed by Merlin as well, although it's got a long way to go before I can start using it to identify pokemon and stuff.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Cactus Wren

Cactus Wren
Cabo San Lucas, Baja California Sur, Mexico
November 2017
Member of the Wren Family
§A Chime of Wrens
State Bird of Arizona

Favorite Cactus: Saguaro

~Loves to build nests in cacti, using their naturally spiky nature to defend their roosts. They build tons of them, way more than most birds. Some of these appear to be decoy nests, meant to distract predators. Others they just sleep in. Some males might use them to start secret second or third families. Shady behavior to be sure- it's not wonder they've got such a contentious relationship with Curve-billed Thrashers, who they often share the neighborhood with.

Gets into all sorts of trouble with the law
Sensitive to spicy foods, even though you'd expect her to be into them
Always spoiling for a fight

Saturday, December 2, 2017

Curve-billed Thrasher

Curve-billed Thrasher aka. Cuitiacoache (lit. Songbird) aka. The Default Desert Bird... wait, what?
Big Bend National Park, Texas, USA
July 2017
Member of the Mockingbird and Thrasher Family
Apparently there is §No Name for a group of Thrashers§ May I suggest
§A Shred of Thrashers§?

Favorite Cactus: Chola

~true bird fact~ Just hates the Cactus Wren. The Wikipedia article states that our Thrasher here "will usually destroy any nest of cactus wrens." It's been a while since we've gotten a good Avian Rivalry on the ol' blog. Although now that I'm thinking about it, I certainly should've named that feature Avian Adversaries. Oh well, literally no way to fix it now! So why do they hate cactus Wrens? One could assume it's because they're competing ground-foraging species who live in the same area, but maybe it's more personal than that.

Honestly this Wikipedia article has a number of pretty bananas quotes about Curve-billed Thrasher, perhaps indicating that the world's only person who is truly passionate about Curve-billed Thrashers authored it. Literally every other resource I visited had like zero to say about Curve-billed Thrasher, but the wiki was filled with tidbits like the aforementioned dubious nickname and animosity towards Cactus Wrens. It also mentions editorially that the Curve-billed Thrasher's "...voice is regarded as more pleasant" than the Northern Mockingbird's. Also, there's this: "The demeanor of the curve-billed has been described as "shy and rather wild", but it allows humans to view it closely". Ok bud, cool normal observation there.

Shy, and rather wild
A hot sauce connoisseur
Sure, she can sing, but what she'd really prefer to do is rap battle

Monday, November 27, 2017

Mystery Birds from Texas

Birds. They're so mysterious. Sometimes it's literally impossible to tell what they are, even with access to amazing new technologies and a wealth of personal knowledge. I encountered an unusual number of difficult birds on my Big Texas Birding Adventure. Chihuahuan/Common Ravens, all sorts of Flycatcher trouble, and the birds bellow. Maybe these are juvenile, or rare variations, or unusual migrants, or maybe I've discovered some new bird species. It's not like I usually have any trouble identifying birds, so it must be one of those possibilities. Let's check these birds out now, shall we?

All birds are from Big Bend National Park and surrounding areas, taken in July 2017
 Best Guess: Red-winged Blackbird
 Likes spicy candies. Weird

Best Guess: Ladder-backed Woodpecker
Always insists on treating at meals

Best Guess: Brown-headed Cowbird
Really sneaks up on you

Best Guess: Summer Tanager
Gets nervous when handling delicate things

Best Guess: Bullock's Oriole
Sentimentally wears accessories from family members

Best Guess: Black-billed Magpie
Laser-like focus

Phew, that was a lot of birds I couldn't identify. Do you know any of them? Maybe don't tell me because I'm feeling very self-conscious about my bird identifying skills. Or maybe do, and let me know in the comments.

Saturday, November 18, 2017

Just a Bunch of Bird .gifs from Labyrinth

Hello blogfans. You know how sometimes you have a couple of busy weeks, and then the day before you go on vacation to Mexico you realize you haven't updated your bird blog in a while, and you feel kinda bad about it? And then how you remember that one of your half finished ideas is to post bird .gifs from movies? And you just watched Labyrinth starring David Bowie and a young Jennifer Connolly and holy smokes are the bird gifs amazing in it? Well, dear readers, if you do, in fact, know 'that feel', we have something in common this week. So here, presented hastily, and without further comment, are a bunch of bird .gifs I made from the movie Labyrinth. Part 1 of 1.

 Aw yeah, you know you're in for a wild ride when a movie starts like this. I knew at this point I would be .giffing Labyrinth. I would recommend using this .gif to invite people to a Labyrinth viewing party, or maybe if you created an actual labyrinth and wanted to welcome people to it.
 They really let you get a good look at that CGI owl, and it's a good thing too, cause it turns out that owl is very plot-important. Use this .gif if you're having any kind of owl-themed conversation.
 Seamless. This .gif might be useful for making fun of someone for rapidly changing on an issue. Or it could be like a 'me, heading into the weekend on friday' kind of thing, I don't know.
 Yes, the owl is David Bowie. Use this .gif to get all pumped for 80's night at the club, or maybe ironically for #relationshipgoals
 The other significant bird action is a little bit of high quality chicken action in the Magic Dance scene. You could use this .gif if someone online is mad, and you made them mad, thereby winning online debate.
 I don't think they kicked an actual chicken for this scene. If you look carefully you can see the real chicken directly to the right of the kicked object and a much more obvious puppet chicken to the left. Why does the goblin lair contain so many chickens? Anyway, this .gif is for when you've had it with someone's bullshit. (Sorry for the cuss)
Aaaaand also there's this. I think this is like a 'me, listening to my own dumb ideas' .gif. See you next week, hopefully with some great Mexican birds (pajaros)


Sunday, November 5, 2017

Summer Tanager

Summer Tanager
Big Bend National Park, Texas, USA
July 2017
Member of the Cardinal Family
§A Season of Tanagers§

North America's Only Completely Red Bird ...I guess that's something?

~true bird fact~ So you might've noticed above that this bird is called a Tanager, but is grouped taxonomically with Cardinals. So what's the deal with that? Basically there was a switch in families back in 2009, when scientists realized that he and his immediate family members had more in common with Cardinals than their previous categorization. Oddly, this means that Hawaii has a few birds that are called Cardinals, but are actually Tanagers, and the mainland has a few birds that are called Tanagers, but are actually Cardinals. This indicates to me that no one has any idea what they're doing wrt Cardinals and Tanagers, and maybe just generally.

~a second true bird fact~ Really good at eating bees and wasps and other dangerous insects. Summer Tanager can catch these guys mid air and then strike them against a tree to kill them. Then, before they can eat them, they dexterously remove the stinger by rubbing it against a branch. They're so good at hunting wasps that they can kill all the adults in a hive, then tear it open to eat the larvae as well. Brutal.

Has a good grasp on esoteric bureaucratic procedures
A manager
Spring is his favorite season

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Golden-fronted Woodpecker

Golden-fronted Woodpecker
Big Bend National Park, Texas, USA
July 2017
Member of the Woodpecker Family
§Descent of Woodpeckers§

~true bird fact~ A species that is, in many ways, mid-evolution. Golden-fronted Woodpeckers in the northern part of their range have begun interbreeding with Red-bellied Woodpeckers and are starting to look, genetically speaking, more closely related to them. Meanwhile, southern Golden-fronteds (which are, ironically, less golden and more red), are starting to look more like they ought to be a separate species. Bizarrely, this bird was once considered 4 different species before its current taxonomic form. No word on what this confusion does to the bird's sense of identity and relationships with his fellow woodpeckers. We may have a Professor Sylvester McMonkey McBean Sneeches situation here.

Always has a feeling like he's forgotten something
Prefers cake to pie

Johann Georg Wagler

Originally named this bird (usual caveat- for Western audiences). He was a lecturer and the assistant of an apparently much more famous and significant German biologist, who I've also never heard of. That would be Johann Baptist von Spix, who was well known for his work collecting and identifying Brazilian plants and animals, but also did some anthropological work on the native peoples there. Our man Johann Georg here never did visit the Americans, but he did extensive work of combing through and organizing the collection, and writing books with the other Johann about his discoveries. He was honestly more of a reptile guy. He died at age 32 when he accidentally shot himself while out in the field.

Monday, October 16, 2017


Big Bend National Park, Texas, USA
July 2017
Member of the Verdin Family (known outside the Western Hemisphere as the... Penduline Tit Family)
§No Name for A Group of Verdins§

His cavalier attitude worries his older, more responsible brother
Never really had a career goal
Young enough to still feel invincible

In addition to being the only member of his bird family in the new world, Verdin is quite an accomplished nest builder. That means it's time for another episode of Bird-er Homes and Gardens, featuring a Verdin's nest.

So these buddies build nests, like, non-stop. One pair was observed to construct 11 in a single year. They have nests for breeding and nests for roosting. As you can see from our intrepid builder here, the rooting nests have a soft, downy interior, which insulates the nest in winter. In the summer, they build the nests with the entrances facing a breeze to make them cooler. Smart little guys, and another bird in our current series on surviving harsh desert conditions.

Usually the male builds the hard stick exterior and the female does the lining, which makes our male here out front a little unusual. Or maybe he has just gathered the lining for the lady, who may be inside. Who knows. I'm not about to judge this Verdin for embracing a non-traditional role in homemaking.

Wednesday, October 4, 2017


Pyrrhuloxia aka. Desert Cardinal
Big Bend Ranch State Park, Presidio, Texas, USA
July 2017
Member of the American Sparrow Family
§A Radiance of Cardinals§

{Etymology Corner} So, that name, huh? As you might guess, it's origin is Greek. Pyrrhuloxia used to be part of it's scientific name, but fell out of favor I guess, when we moved to the standardized binomial system, replaced by the much drier Cardinalis sinuatus. Pyrrhuloxia is the combination of Pyrrhos (Reddish-Orangish) and Loxos (Oblique), referring to the color of the bird and the shape of its bill, respectively. Information that I could not find anywhere, however, was why on earth we are still calling this bird such a bizarre name, when Desert Cardinal is right there. It seems to fly in the face of convention, convenience, and standardization. What's your take on the name, reader? Charming? Baffling? Oh, and it's pronounced pir-uh-lok-see-uh.

~true bird fact~ Pyrrhuloxia have been observed using an inventive technique for surviving spiking desert temperatures. They hang out around houses with open doors or windows with their air-conditioning on. This behavior has been seen in several desert birds, including cactus wrens and loggerhead shrikes. Take that, people who say we've made the environment worse for birds!

Gives you the impression that he could do something absolutely insane without warning
Always knows how to deal with 'desert problems'
Sort of a fatalist
Surprises you with an artistic side on occasion

You know, maybe one factor that might explain his weird name is that he was first described (to Western audiences) by...

Charles Lucien Bonaparte
1803 - 1857

A real international type, Charles was born in Paris and raised in Italy. He was, in fact, the nephew of the most famous Bonaparte, Napoleon. He moved to the United States at age 19, having already discovered a new warbler in Italy, and was so big on bird-discovering that he found a new species of storm petrel on the trip over. During his time in the states, he worked on finding new birds, publishing accounts of them, and boosting for his buddy John James Audubon in equal measure. The edition of American Ornithology that he edited contained over a hundred** new species discovered* by him. All this in only 4 years, after which he returned to Europe.

He continued to work on the scientific classification of animals, but was also active politically, helping establish the Roman Republic and defend it from the armies of his cousin, Napoleon III. And the weird names? That was definitely a theme. He named a whole genus of doves after his wife, and a bird of paradise after the concept of the republic. All things considered, Pyrrhuloxia got off easy. He had 12 kids, and died at 54. Busy guy.

*- Author's note- I always find it a little bit conflictual to describe an animal as having been 'discovered' by some European guy, when in reality it existed among whatever indigenous populations lived in its area for centuries beforehand. We'll give Charles partial credit, given that he brought knowledge of these birds to a large audience and published accounts of them, which is still something. Assume the same caveat for future descriptions of 'discovered' birds.

**- AN2- Whenever something is described as 'over a hundred', I wonder exactly how many we're talking about. I assume it's something like 103, since if it were significantly higher, you'd just say the number, right?

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Black-throated Sparrow

Black-throated Sparrow aka. Desert Sparrow
Big Bend Ranch State Park, Presidio, Texas, USA
July 2017
Member of the American Sparrow Family
§A Meinie of Sparrows§

~true bird fact~ Like many desert birds, these fellas are uniquely adapted to their hostile habitat. In the case of the Black-throated Sparrow, they can go for unusually long periods of time without water, instead extracting maximum moisture from their diet of seeds and bugs. It sounds like a thirsty life. On an unrelated note, this is one of those birds that occasionally comes up where there's like, zero interesting facts about him. He sure is sharp looking though.

Lover of dried fruit - cranberry, cherry, apricot, mango, you name it
Acts decisively
Might sometimes accidentally hurt your feelings with a pointed comment
Feels driven to create a 'legacy'

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Gambel's Quail

Gambel's Quail
Big Bend Ranch State Park, Presidio, Texas, USA
July 2017
Member of the New World Quail Family
§A Battery of Quails§

~true bird fact~ A bird suited to life in their home in the Sonoran Desert, these Quails have a life cycle that mimics the desert landscape that surrounds them. In exceptionally dry years, few chicks are born and they just kinda hang in there, but in years with a good wet season, they thrive and their numbers increase dramatically.

Constantly creates a dramatic soundtrack to his own life
Prefers to drink his meals when possible (smoothies, shakes, etc)
Easily becomes jealous of the success of others
Hates/fears bugs

William Gambel
1823 - 1849

Hometown- Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He got his start in naturalism going on collecting trips with his mentor, the well-known Thomas Nuttall at the age of 15 (!). By18 he set off on his own, traveling all the way west to California, taking a more southerly route than previous expeditions had. His birding contributions include this Quail, Nuttall's Woodpecker, and the Mountain Chickadee. He was the first trained naturalist (well... let's say trained in the European tradition) to spend significant time in California. He continued to explore the American West until he died at age 26 from typhoid while crossing the Sierra Nevada. Couldn't find an image of young William, but below is his final resting place, Rose Bar on the Yuba River.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Vermilion Flycatcher

Vermilion Flycatcher aka. Common Vermilion Flycatcher aka. Darwin's Flycatcher aka. Galapagos Flycatcher
Big Bend National Park, Texas, USA
July 2017
Member of the Tyrant/Flycatcher Family
§An Outfield of Flycatchers§ (I show you this stupid name, dear readers, only to illustrate the injustice that somehow this is a thing, but not my wonderful suggestion for a group of chats. The mind boggles)

~true bird fact~ As debonair in personality as he is in appearance, the male Vermilion Flycatcher woos females with a colorful bouquet (usually a butterfly or other interesting looking insect).

Born with a silver spoon in his mouth and a trust fund to beat the bank
Lives a globetrotting life of excitement
Since he's done it all already, it's hard for him to get excited for much anymore
He's not really a bad guy intrinsically, but he has trouble connecting with people in a sincere way

*record scratch*

*fancy classical music starts playing*

First Described by...

Pieter Boddaert
1730 - 1795
This guy over here. He was a Dutch doctor and naturalist, and his main claim to fame seems to have been that he knew a lot of other better known naturalists and thinkers. I want to rag on the guy, but honestly, being a very good friend to a lot of famous people is a good historical niche to find yourself in. He corresponded extensively with our pal Linnaeus, for example. When he published a series of illustration plates from the blockbuster french encyclopedia Histoire Naturelle he added his own scientific names to the animals, thus christening them. What a sneaky way to get into the history books, good on you Boddaert. He stayed in the animal encyclopedia game, publishing Elenchus Animalium (A Directory of Animals) where he named even more stuff.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Painted Bunting

Painted Bunting aka. Nonpareil (fr)
Big Bend National Park, Texas, USA
July 2017
Member of the Cardinal Family
§A Palette of Buntings§

{Etymology Corner} The scientific name of this bird is Passerina ciris. Evidently, it's named after the Greek Mythological character, Princess Scylla. She is turned into a bird after betraying her father in favor of an invading King Minos, who she has fallen in love with at first sight. She subsequently drowns while attempting to swim after her fleeing love, who wants no part of this whole thing. It's a wild story. It's also a pretty bad name for this bird, since she was supposedly transformed into a seabird, which this is not. I can agree, however, that this looks like a bird brought into the world through magical means.

~true bird fact~  As anyone can see from looking at it, this bird is incredibly colorful. This has made him a frequent target of poachers. In the 1800's, the were trapped in the thousands and shipped back to Europe for heavily marked-up sale as caged birds. This kind of trade is now illegal, happily, but has not been entirely eliminated. I know it's probably none of you dear readers, but please stop buying wild animals.

How endangered are they? They are listed as Near Threatened by the IUCN. Now I don't want you to panic, because they are till a fairly common bird, with an estimated 13 million adults out there. The rating is probably the result of a dramatic 60% dip in their population that took place between 1966 and 1995. Numbers have seemed stable since then, but you can never be took careful with a bird like this. The pressures on their population seem to be habitat loss from development and the aforementioned poaching.

Musically inclined
Despite his outwardly confident appearance, he's been the subject of a lot of pressure throughout his life
You can tell how he's feeling very easily- 'wears his hear on his sleeve'
Always laughs at your jokes