Saturday, July 1, 2017

Odd plumages and abnormal feather growth

Birds with abberant plumage are one of the more common oddities we see at the Rouge River Bird Observatory. Abnormally-colored feathers are fairly frequent, and some examples are below. One example has its own page: a stunning white-breasted American Robin.

Plumage that is abnormally white

An an abnormal reduction in the deposition of pigment in the feathers is known as leucism. Some leucistic birds appear entirely washed out or pale if the reduction of pigment is roughly equal in all feathers (some authors now call this “hypomelanism”). More often, pigment is absent in only some feathers, and this is known as pied leucism, or “partial amelanism.” Causes include genetics, or injury, disease, or malnutrition.

Once or twice a year, we see an American Robin (Turdus migratorius) that has several white feathers or patches of white feathers. This one was photographed by Darrin O'Brien on 29 Apr 2009 at a Dearborn office complex.

This unusual American Robin was banded on 7 Oct 2007. It was an adult female undergoing its fall molt. The breast feathers were normal. However, nearly all of the incoming feathers on the wings, tail, and body that are gray in normal robins were full or partially "frosty" looking. Typically when abnormal white feathers are seen on birds, the entire feather is white, as in the first example. Partially white feathers like this are something RRBO encounters only rarely, and not to the extent found on this bird. The bird was re-sighted the following week.

A leucistic Yellow-rumped "Myrtle" Warbler (Dendroica coronata) was found at the on campus from 15 to 17 May 1997. The wings and tail of this bird were entirely white. Soft yellow was visible where most yellow-rumps have bold yellow on the flanks. The back and head were pale gray, and some pale gray streaking replaced the prominent streaking of normal-plumaged yellow-rumps. This bird appeared to be a male. While relatively common in some families of birds, abnormally pigmented individuals are rare in the Parulidae (wood warblers). This sighting was documented in the following paper: Craves, J. A. 1997. Extreme leucism in a Yellow-rumped Warbler (Dendroica coronata coronata). Michigan Birds and Natural History 4:199-200.

Plumage that is abnormally orange

Carotenoids are the pigments responsible for most of the red and yellow colors in birds. They cannot be created by birds without dietary input. Thus, the pigments in what birds eat can influence the color of their feathers. If a bird consumes particular deep red pigments while feathers are in active growth and also has yellow plumage, some or all of the yellow feathers may turn out to be orange. This is most frequently seen in the terminal tail bands of Cedar Waxwings (Bombycilla cedrorum), which are normally yellow. About 5% of the Cedar Waxwings banded by RRBO have had orange terminal tail bands (right). It was first noticed in the 1960s, and it has since been confirmed that it is due to waxwings consuming the fruit of introduced Morrow's Honeysuckle (Lonicera morrowii), which contains a red pigment called rhodoxanthin. This honeysuckle is common at UM-Dearborn. 

A number of other bird species have been recorded with orange or reddish feathers in place of yellow feathers that could be attributable to ingestion of rhodoxanthin. The White-throated Sparrow (Zonotrichia albicollis) at right was banded by RRBO on 27 September 1998. This bird has orange-colored lores rather than yellow. Subsequently, RRBO has banded two more White-throated Sparrows with orange lores, and this phenomena has also been reported by other banders. The first record was documented in the following paper: Craves, J. A. 1999. White-throated Sparrow with orange lores. Michigan Birds and Natural History 6:83-84.

Further reading:

Tricks Exotic Shrubs Do: When Baltimore Orioles Stop Being Orange (pdf) by Tom Flinn, Jocelyn Hudon, and Dan Derbyshire -- article from Birding magazine.

Diet explains red flight feathers in Yellow-shafted Flickers in eastern North America. Hudon, J., R.J. Driver, N.H. Rice, T.L. Lloyd-Evans, J.A. Craves, and D.P. Shustak. 2017. The Auk: Ornithological Advances 134:22-33.

Occasionally we have encountered Northern Cardinals (Cardinalis cardinalis) that are very vividly colored or with some orange plumage. The male on the right was banded by RRBO on 25 October 2000. It had patches of orange feathers, and several wing feathers that were orange. This abnormality may have been caused by a lack of some sort of dietary pigment that left the normally red feathers less intensely red. Dietary deficiency of certain carotenoids is responsible for orange- or yellow-colored House Finches (Carpodacus mexicanus). Perhaps some lack in the diet combined with ingestion of a red pigment like rhodoxanthin that contributed to the orange color as well as the crimson color of the red plumage.  Other orange cardinals have turned up in the literature and on the Internet, beginning in the late 1990s, lending some credence to the role of honeysuckles and rhodoxanthin in this plumage variation.

Further reading:

An 'orange variant' Northern Cardinal. (pdf) Hansrote, C. and M. 2000. North American Bird Bander 25:1-3.

And now, a white/pink cardinal! Ohio Birds and Biodiversity.

The yellow cardinal lives on. Ohio Birds and Biodiversity.

RRBO has banded a half-dozen Ruby-crowned Kinglets (Regulus calendula) with at least some orange crown feathers rather than salmon red, all since the year 2000. Examples of two individuals are shown below. This may also be due to a dietary deficiency.

Abnormally dark plumage

When birds have plumage with excess pigment, usually the dark melanin pigments, they are known as melanistic. This Mourning Dove (Zenaida macroura) was seen in the Dearborn yard of Julie Craves and Darrin O'Brien on 8 Apr 2006. The second photo shows it compared to a normally-colored Mourning Dove.

The first secondary feather on one wing of this American Goldfinch (Spinus tristus), banded 20 Aug 2010 was completely black on the underside, rather than having a white base. When melanism occurs, it seems that it typically affects all feathers. RRBO has not documented a single melanistic feather or patches of melanistic feathers on any birds, much less the thousands of goldfinches banded on campus.

More information on abnormal plumage coloration

Davis, J. N. 2007. Color abnormalities in birds: A proposed nomenclature for birders. Birding 39:36–46.

David Sibley's web site: Abnormal coloration in birds: Melanin reduction.

British Trust for Ornithology's Abnormal Plumage Survey page.

Abnormal feather growth

On several occasions, the Rouge River Bird Observatory has banded a bird that had an unusual tail.

The first was a young House Wren (Troglodytes aedon) banded on 1 Oct 2003. The tips of 5 tail feathers (rectrices, or “rects”) had unusual, spatulate tips which extended about 5 mm past the “normal” ends of the feathers.
The extensions did not appear to be formed by the wearing away of some of the feather barbs. This was the first time RRBO had ever seen a bird with a tail like this.

On 25 Aug 2008, a young Carolina Wren (Thryothorus ludovicianus) was captured that had a similar tail. This bird only had the odd paddle-like extension on the central tail feather. We recaptured this bird several times that season, and this feather was present each time.

On 5 October 2008, we banded a White-throated Sparrow (Zonotrichia albicollis). One central tail feather was around 10 mm longer than the other feathers. All the rects were fully grown in, so it wasn’t a case of the other feathers having not reached their full length.

Finally, there was the recent capture of a similar case. This adult Cedar Waxwing (Bombycilla cedrorum) also had two extra-long central tail feathers. As with the White-throated Sparrow above, all the feathers were fully grown. It was banded on 8 November 2011.

See more weird birds:

Friday, April 21, 2017

Winter Bird Population Survey 2016-2017

The 25th year of RRBO's Winter Bird Population Survey was completed in February.

It was another mild winter. It began rather snowy with temperatures close to average, but January and February saw less snow and temperatures well above normal. Surveys were conducted on 16 days (previous mean 14) with 26.5 hours total (mean is 27.7). For the third year, I was unable to survey anywhere along the Rouge River from Fair Lane Estate south due to it being fenced off for riverbank restoration.

A total of 41 species was two above the previous 24-year mean. Two new species for the survey were recorded: Field Sparrow and the female Pileated Woodpecker that has been present on campus since fall. These bring the cumulative total for the survey to 79 species.

Fruit-eating birds were scarce again. Robins were in low numbers. No Hermit Thrushes, Cedar Waxwings, or Yellow-rumped Warblers were recorded. These latter 3 species have become more and more scarce the last 5 or so years. Because they typically occur in fairly low numbers, I have not yet worked with their data. But the trends with robins might shed some light (see below).

Now that we are at the 25 year mark, I thought I would provide a little summary data and analysis.

Twenty species have been found every year: Canada Goose, Mallard, Red-tailed Hawk, Mourning Dove, Red-bellied Woodpecker, Downy Woodpecker, Hairy Woodpecker, Blue Jay, American Crow, Black-capped Chickadee, White-breasted Nuthatch, Brown Creeper, American Robin, European Starling, American Tree Sparrow, Dark-eyed Junco, Northern Cardinal, House Finch, American Goldfinch, and House Sparrow. Five more were found on 24 counts: Cooper's Hawk,  Ring-billed Gull, Tufted Titmouse, Carolina Wren, and Song Sparrow. These 25 species can be considered our core winter residents.

About a third of the species have only been recorded one or two years, and can be considered rarities in winter. Some of the more interesting ones include Northern Shrike (winter 1995-96), Long-eared Owl (2009-10), Rough-legged Hawk (1994-95), and White-winged Crossbill (2008-09).

Population trends take a little more time to work through, so I just did some quick calculations on common species to see if anything popped out. Not much obvious was apparent for most species using the limited analysis* performed. Perhaps the most interesting were the trends for the two most abundant fruit eaters, American Robin and European Starling.

Both species for many years were more or less stable, with increases starting around ten years ago. I suspect this would correlate with increasing average winter temperatures and decreasing snow cover, but I have not yet incorporated weather data into my analyses. Around 2010 (vertical line on graph) both species being to show declines. This was approximately the time when large-scale removal of invasive fruiting tree and shrubs began, which both bird species heavily utilize in winter. This may indicate a pitfall of removing an important food source without concurrent restoration. Indeed, an examination of robin fecal samples from 2009 through 2017 shows a 52% decrease in the proportion of samples containing non-native Common Buckthorn (Rhamnus cathartica) seeds, the first primary target of the eradication effort. A closer look at the fecal samples reveals another unfortunate result of removing a food source without replacing it with something more desirable.

Non-native Callery or Bradford Pear (Pyrus calleryana) and Border Privet (Ligustrum obtusifolium) have become naturalized on campus. Their seeds did not appear in fecal samples until 2013, but have been increasing every year since. These species are generally not favored by birds -- pear fruits are fairly large and mealy, while privets are dry and have large seeds and little pulp. These percentages are modest, but bear in mind that the vast majority of plant species are found in less than 3% of samples; samples are dominated by buckthorn, non-native crabapples, and non-native honeysuckles. The third species in the chart is non-native Oriental Bittersweet (Celastrus orbiculatus). While there is some native American Bittersweet (Celastrus scandens) here, Oriental Bittersweet is far more common. Birds seem to favor Oriental Bittersweet, perhaps because it has slightly smaller fruit and smaller seeds. Seeds of bittersweet have have greatly increased. Robins, at least, appear to be turning to alternative fruits, those that are less desirable or not as common as what has been removed. This creates an undesirable feedback loop: increased consumption will also lead to increased dispersal of these species.

One other bird species appeared to respond to the habitat changes that started in 2010.

Mourning Doves may be increasing due to the substantial clearing of the understory.

Over the past 25 years, two other events had an influence on bird population. One was the arrival of West Nile Virus in 2001 (vertical line in graph below). I have shown the dramatic decline in American Crows before, and they have yet to recover.

Blue Jays are related and also known to have been impacted by the virus. Their populations appear to have rebounded nicely.

Finally, the Emerald Ash Borer was detected here around 2002, and all our ash trees died within a few years.

While the modest increases might be due to extra food for woodpeckers in dead and dying trees, I don't think the data here indicate that the beetles had much of an effect on woodpecker populations. It might be due to methodology, but since "housing" is often the limiting factor for cavity nesters and the ash trees tended to fall over shortly after death and therefore did not supply more cavities, I think the overall impact on woodpecker numbers was modest.

*Notes on methods: I looked at species seen every year that had an average of 5 or more individuals seen per survey day; I excluded waterfowl and added American Crow and Red-bellied Woodpecker. I used birds per survey day rather than raw numbers or hours because for most species that provided the strongest correlation. To smooth out data I used a 3-year moving average, which is why the graphs begin in 1996 rather than 1993. When I work on a full analysis, I will be more thorough and provide more details on methods, but for the purposes of this post, these methods should suffice.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

The forgotten Detroit River Ivory Gull

Over the years, the University of Michigan-Dearborn has hosted its fair share of rare birds, including the first state record of Virginia's Warbler. Earlier this month, the University's Flint campus had its turn, hosting an Ivory Gull, a charismatic and beautiful high-Arctic bird that was a life bird for many that saw it. Sadly, it was found dead a few days after its discovery -- a good article about the bird can be found here. That article notes that this bird was the second Ivory Gull "on record" for Michigan. It's true that this is a remarkably rare bird in the United States, and Michigan. There have been, however, multiple reports in the state.

As far as I know, the first documented Ivory Gull in Michigan was an immature bird seen on the Detroit River between Grosse Ile and Trenton on 12 January 1949. This short note was published in Michigan Audubon's The Jack-Pine Warbler (Vol. 27, No. 2) in 1949.

A little more on these observers: Laurel (not Lauren) Van Camp was a game warden for Ottawa County, Ohio (later with the Ohio Department of Natural Resources), a prolific conservation writer and bird bander, and the man who laid out the trails at what is now the Magee Marsh Bird Trail (read more in this piece from the Black Swamp Bird Observatory). Morgan Wilson and Fred Brint were both with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and worked in game management and Migratory Bird Treaty enforcement. John Anderson was a waterfowl and wildlife biologist and manager of the Winous Point Shooting Club in Port Clinton, Ohio. These were all professional biologists that specialized in waterfowl and thus also likely to be well-versed in gulls and other waterbirds.

At that time (of landline telephones and bulky, expensive film cameras) there was no formal avenue or protocol to report interesting birds. A regular record of birds was published in the Jack-Pine Warbler in its seasonal survey, and more compelling birds were written up and published, as above.

Nearly 40 years later, an organization of birders was formed to maintain the official state bird checklist, including by determining the acceptability of sightings of birds unusual to the state. Soon after its formation in 1988, the Michigan Bird Records Committee began reviewing historical records. Initially, all first state records had to be accepted by a unanimous vote. The Detroit River Ivory Gull was "not accepted" due to a 6-1 vote; the write up from the 1990-91 annual report is below:

In 1999, the Committee rules changed, and first state records could be accepted under same standards as other records (a vote of 7-0 or 6-1 in the first round of voting, or 5-2 or 4-3 in a resubmitted round). The Detroit River Ivory Gull status did not automatically change, although the original vote was 6-1. The record was re-evaluated and voted on again, and fared even worse than before, with 4 votes not to "accept." Here is the 1999 annual report:

Personally, although I have done quite a few winter waterfowl counts along this very stretch of the river, I have never seen a Rock Dove (pigeon) out on the river with gulls and ducks. Less unusual would be a white Rock Dove, but I can't say I have seen too many in my 30+ years of urban birding, and none with black legs as described (Rock Doves nearly always have pink legs and feet).

When Ivory Gulls are seen in the U.S. or southern Canada, it is not uncommon for several birds to be present, or for one bird to range widely throughout a region over the season*. On 1 January 1949, less than two weeks before the Detroit River sighting, an Ivory Gull was reported from Lake Michigan's Waukegan Harbor. The Illinois records committee report, published in 2003:

And just prior to that, from 28-31 December 1948, an immature Ivory Gull was present in at Port Burwell on Lake Erie, Ontario.

To my knowledge, the Detroit River Ivory Gull is the first report of this species in Michigan, and the only record from Wayne County.

*This winter, an Ivory Gull was seen on 29 December 2016 outside Columbus, Ohio, and another on 3 March 2017 in Colchester, Ontario; some people speculated the latter bird was the same one that showed up in Flint.

Friday, January 6, 2017

Dearborn portion of the Detroit River Christmas Bird Count 2017

The Detroit River Michigan-Ontario Christmas Bird Count was held, as it is each year, on January 1. This was the 40th year for the count, which is centered at I-94 and Warren Ave, and the 23rd year that RRBO has coordinated the field work in the city of Dearborn.

After a warm and late fall, the area experienced both a couple of very cold spells and one deep snow. All was gone by count day, however, and the weather was the most pleasant January 1 we have experienced in a long time. Flowing water was open, so waterfowl was not only not concentrated, but apparently largely elsewhere.  The Rouge River at the Ford Rouge complex usually has a decent variety of diving ducks, they were absent for the second winter in a row.  The complex is also an unusual but annual wintering spot for Black-crowned Night-herons. Only one was in the usual spot, with eight others along the river's open waters instead. This was a low number, as there are usually around 20 or so in this location.

As is often the case, gulls were the story at the Rouge Plant. This year, a first winter Iceland Gull was a first for the Dearborn portion of the count, and a first record for Dearborn. This brings the Dearborn bird checklist to 264 species. The bird was found by the crew that has permission to bird in the plant: Mike O'Leary, Jim Fowler, and Dave Washington. Photos below by Mike and Dave.

Campus was well covered, and a Pileated Woodpecker that has been present in the area since fall was located -- not only the first recorded on the Dearborn portion of the count, but the first for the entire 40-year history of the Detroit River count.

Counters were prevented from covering the south end of campus controlled by Fairlane Estate, so a large portion of the open river and riparian areas were not covered.

A number of the Ford sunflower fields were either mowed or being used for construction. Two others were briefly covered. This is the first year Cooper’s Hawk was missed on count day in 21 years, and the first year since 2010 Peregrine was missed; lack of habitat for prey birds around the Ford headquarters was no doubt a factor.

The number of American Robins was the lowest since 1999. Eight American Crows was a comeback of sorts, as they were missed the last two years; there have been more than 8 crows only once in the last 13 years.

The most interesting non-bird observation of the day were the trees along the Rouge River across from the Dearborn Country Club that were being girdled by beavers. The largest tree was about 12 inches in diameter.

Older work.
Recent munching.
Very fresh tooth marks.
We ended the day with 41 bird species. The two new additions bring the cumulative total for the Dearborn portion of the count to 90 species. 

Monday, February 29, 2016

Winter Bird Population Survey 2015-2016

The 24th year of RRBO's Winter Bird Population Survey has been completed.

After two brutally cold winters, this one was much milder, less snowy, and generally more pleasant. Surveys were conducted on 13 days (one day fewer than the mean) and a little over 20 hours total (lower than the mean of 28). Access restrictions continued this year. I was unable to survey anywhere along the Rouge River from Fair Lane Estate south due to it being fenced off for continued riverbank restoration. Thus, no Belted Kingfishers or Rock Pigeons were recorded (for the latter, the first time in 24 years). Only a few herons, and not many waterfowl were counted. Heavy construction activity continued along Fair Lane Drive for the new science building, impacting bird activity along eastern edge of survey area.
Nonetheless, the 38 species tallied was right on average. Two new species for the survey were recorded: Sandhill Crane and Wood Duck. These early migrants came at the very end of the season following a very warm weekend with southerly winds. These bring the cumulative total for the survey to 77 species.

Other uncommon species included a Bald Eagle; this adult bird was first seen in late December and continued to be spotted throughout the count period along the Rouge River (mostly on the south end of campus and along the concrete channel) but was only seen on one survey day. Although eagles are almost annual here, it was only the second time one has been recorded on this survey. A (singing!) Fox Sparrow early in the survey period was the third recorded for the survey. One or two American Crows were found on 4 survey dates. These birds were at the far north end of the campus.

At the other end of the spectrum, 7 species were found on all 13 survey days. In descending order of abundance they were: House Sparrow, House Finch, Northern Cardinal, Blue Jay, Black-capped Chickadee, Downy Woodpecker, and White-breasted Nuthatch -- all feeder birds. House Finches and House Sparrows were recorded in numbers well above average. For House Finches it was a record year, with a 127% increase from average.

Once again fruit-eating birds were largely absent. Three Cedar Waxwings on the first survey day were the only ones of the season. No Hermit Thrushes or Yellow-rumped Warblers were recorded. American Robins were counted, when present, in single digits most of the period. Last year robins were generally scarce on regional winter bird counts. This winter numbers of robins reported to eBird in southeast Michigan were much higher than last winter.  This suggests that the removal of fruit-bearing non-native trees and shrubs that is being undertaken by the university the past few years has had an impact on these numbers. This seems to be substantiated by data recorded this year showing that only 30% of the robins recorded were in areas where this type of vegetation removal had taken place.

For all the numbers from this year you can visit the RRBO web site. The page includes past counts and the history and methodology of the survey.