BirdNirdFoley Adventures

Science, birds, and conservation.


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Three Billion Birds Gone: The Conservation Crisis Continues

Kenn Kaufman couldn’t afford the boat ticket at Rockport, Texas, that would take him to see the world’s 49 remaining Whooping Cranes, so he thumbed a ride to the observation tower. From his vantage point, he could see the large, white birds far off in the distance. They appeared almost ghost-like against the dull brown of the refuge’s grass. Maybe their spectral appearance was the light, or maybe it was their brush with extinction. Thirty-five years earlier, their entire population had been reduced to only 28 birds. Recovering the species to a stable level was thought to be nearly impossible.

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Whooping Cranes. Photo credit: USFWS

The year was 1973. Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring had been published just a decade prior. Its publication precipitated the ban of DDT in 1972, a toxic pesticide that had decimated bird populations since its introduction in 1945. Pelicans, eagles, falcons, and ospreys were some of the hardest hit by the chemical. Eskimo Curlews, once the most numerous North American shorebird, hadn’t been seen in a decade, and Ivory-billed Woodpeckers and Bachman’s Warblers were both teetering on the precipice of extinction. And in the midst of this, a 19-year-old Kenn Kaufman was hitchhiking his way across North America in an effort to set a record for the most bird species in a single year.

“We thought we were going to lose them”, said Kenn, now a Field Editor at Audubon Magazine. “Brown Pelicans, Bald Eagles, Peregrine Falcons, Ospreys – their numbers were just so low in the 70s.”

Now, a paper published in Science reports a colossal loss of 3 billion, or 29% of North American breeding birds since 1970. The scale of this decline has been hinted at increasingly by the scientific community. Each year, incomprehensible numbers of birds are killed by cats, window and powerline collisions, and pesticides. The losses are staggering.

According to the Breeding Bird Surveys (organized bird surveys done by volunteers across North America since the late 60s) used in the study, birds that live in the prairies have experienced some of the steepest declines; over half of their total population has disappeared. The native grasslands they require for nesting are a composite of species that together create a structure much like a forest. It isn’t intuitive, but grasslands are not all the same. In a native prairie, there are short grasses, tall grasses, bunch grasses, single-stemmed grasses, and all of the wildflowers growing among them. A pasture planted with introduced grasses typically only has a couple of species, and a structure that is more like a planted pine plantation – sterile underneath the canopy – than like a thriving woodland. And unlike reseeding a lawn or a hayfield, a native grassland won’t just grow back over a summer. The grasses are adapted to dry conditions, and so they grow slower and less competitively, at least in the short-term, than invasive species. Once native prairie is tilled, it becomes exceptionally difficult and expensive to restore.

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Native prairie, SK, Canada. Photo credit: Gabriel Foley

The prairie is also one of the most agriculturally productive regions. Consequently, around half of grasslands have been cultivated, only about a third of native prairie remains, and 50-90% of wetlands in the same area have been drained. And much of this development is concomitant with pesticide application. The large-scale impact of pesticides on insect populations is hard for scientists to measure, but it can be seen in the birds that eat them. Aerial insectivores are birds that eat flying insects and, according to the same study, have declined by 32% since 1970. Different aerial insectivores use different habitats, nest in different parts of North America, winter in different parts of the hemisphere, migrate at different times of the spring and fall, but all of them eat the same food the same way. The guild-wide decline is a strong indicator that, while habitat loss, climate change, and land-use changes all have an impact, it is the loss of insects that is the primary factor for the loss of this group of birds.

“In ’71 or ’72 I was hitchhiking through southern Florida”, Kenn said, “and I called up a local birder, Allan Cruikshank, on a pay phone. I asked him where I could find the Dusky Seaside Sparrow. He told me where to go, and I found something like three singing males.”

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Dusky Seaside Sparrow. Photo credit: USFWS

The Dusky Seaside Sparrow, a species with a tiny range along the eastern side of Florida, never had a large population. Development of its shoreline habitat had reduced its population even further. Then, in 1973 taxonomists decided it was not distinct enough to be its own species and lumped it with the other seaside sparrows (Scott’s and Cape Sable) into a single species. The decision proved to be its death knell. Birders, no longer needing it for their species checklists, largely forgot about it. The few marshes it could still be found in were either flooded or drained, and its extinction was announced in 1990.

“I knew the taxonomic change was happening while I was doing my Big Year and that it wouldn’t count, but I still went to see it. It was still a cool bird”, Kenn told me. “Now, I think about going to those Indian River marshes and getting to see this really distinctive form of Seaside Sparrow, and I feel a sense of melancholy that it’s no longer there.”

Of course, it isn’t all bad news. Waterfowl populations have increased by 56% since 1970. This can largely be attributed to, ironically enough, waterfowl hunters. Strategic conservation efforts for waterfowl by game managers and non-government organizations have led to overall waterfowl increases. Likewise, raptors have shown a dramatic increase of 200% in the same period. Brown Pelicans, Bald Eagles, Peregrine Falcons, and Ospreys were all removed from the Endangered Species Act within the last 25 years. And Whooping Cranes are now, remarkably, a growing population of over 500 individuals.

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Ring-necked Ducks. Photo credit: Gabriel Foley

“If you take a boat tour from Rockport now, you can see the Whooping Cranes on the edges of people’s yards!”, Kenn said, “The Whooping Crane, the Brown Pelican, the Bald Eagle, the Peregrine Falcon, the Osprey, the Kirtland’s Warbler, these are examples of the fact that a concerted conservation effort will work if we get there in time. And, sadly, the Dusky Seaside Sparrow is an example of something we didn’t get to in time.”

These successes show what might be. But if concerted action is not taken, declines will continue. Ecosystems will lose components, eventually breaking down to a non-functional state. Species will be lost forever. Habitat loss continues to be a major contributor to these losses, and infrastructure, invasive species (most notoriously, cats), pesticides, and climate change all compound to make surviving another season more difficult for birds. Organizations such as the American Bird Conservancy have been working to reduce these declines in both North and South America, The Nature Conservancy and The Nature Conservancy of Canada protect natural areas, Audubon has a strong network of hundreds of local chapters that provide a voice for conservation, and eBird and the Macaulay Library are online citizen science platforms that contribute data for monitoring bird populations and distribution. Supporting, joining, or participating in initiatives like these is a critical step towards turning the successes that might be into the successes that will be.


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How I Accidentally Won the Yellow-throated Lottery.

The southeast corner of Saskatchewan is a special place for the province, bird-wise. Several species of birds, including Chimney Swift, Eastern Bluebird, Eastern Wood-peewee, Black-headed Grosbeak, Yellow-breasted Chat, and Dickcissel are most abundant there. I had signed up for three Breeding Bird Atlas squares there; ten by ten kilometer squares where I would attempt to census the bird life within them. I drove to my first square; a block south of Carnduff butting up against the American border. The Souris River valley bisected it, and I was excited about what birds I might see there. I found a male Orchard Oriole singing, followed by a Turkey Vulture nesting in an abandoned schoolhouse. Not far down the road, a Grasshopper Sparrow sang his insect-like buzz from a barbed-wire fence. Along the wooded river valley, an Eastern Bluebird landed on a fencepost, his rusty-brown sides contrasting his sky-blue top.

 

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Grasshopper Sparrow. Photo credit: Gabriel Foley

 It had been a great day of birding, despite the wind’s best efforts. The valley had softened its gustiness, and I was able to make out most of the bird songs I heard when I stopped. I neared the end of the valley. The road curved upwards, leading me to the cultivated fields above. I stopped one last time and listened for anything that might be singing in the ash grove.

 

A song erupted from an ash near my head. I swung my head up, looking for the source of the song. It was musical and burry; Scarlet Tanager? No, too burry. Oh my gosh, Summer Tanager?!? No, not at all fast enough. Wait… could it be… a Yellow-throated Vireo?

 

Earlier that morning on the way to my atlas square, I had stopped at a lake where a Yellow-throated Vireo had been seen earlier in the week. Several vireos breed in Saskatchewan: Warbling, Red-eyed, Blue-headed, Philadelphia. But the most unusual, by a long-shot, is the Yellow-throated Vireo. They’re a sparrow-sized bird, white on the bottom, greenish on the top, and a bright yellow wash on their throat. They spend their time high in treetops, and they’ve only been confirmed nesting in Saskatchewan once before. I had never seen them here, so I had stopped en route in the hopes of a sighting. I had heard a single Red-eyed, and a pair of Warbling Vireos, but no Yellow-throated.

 

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Singing Yellow-throated Vireo. Photo credit: Gabriel Foley

I searched the top of the ash tree for the bird. There! A flash of movement. I focused my binoculars onto a small bird with a yellowish front. Unquestionably, a Yellow-throated Vireo. But then, unexpectedly, a second one came into view! A pair! As I watched them, I realized they were near a nest; a nest hanging from a small branch, exactly the way vireos tend to build their nests.

 

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A suspected Yellow-throated Vireo nest. Photo credit: Gabriel Foley

It’s difficult to describe the elation I felt finding this. I’ll return in a week or so, and see if the pair are still there and if they’re using the nest. If they are, it will be only the second time breeding by this species has been confirmed in the province. I can hardly wait.

 

[UPDATE]

 

I returned to the location I had seen the vireo pair two weeks later. The ash was more leafed out, so I had to walk back and forth a few times to reorient myself and find the branch I had seen the nest in. Finally, I saw it; a soft, woolly, hanging nest. I put my binoculars on it, and was delighted to see an adult in the nest. Confirming that the pair was indeed using this nest to breed in Saskatchewan meant that I had found just the second record of an occupied Yellow-throated Vireo nest in the province, and the first in nearly thirty years. I’m sure you can imagine my excitement, but if you can’t, let me assure you: it was palpable to say the least.

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A Yellow-throated Vireo sitting on its nest, the second record for Saskatchewan and the first since 1990. Photo credit: Gabriel Foley


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Larophilia

To me, there are two birds that signal spring. One is the Red-winged Blackbird, and the other is the gull. Here in Saskatchewan, Ring-billed Gulls typically arrive first but are closely followed by California Gulls. It’s late March and I haven’t heard any red-wings yet, but last Wednesday I saw my first gulls of the year when a flock of six flew overhead. Each evening since, I’ve gone down to Wascana park to watch as the gulls gather on the ice to roost for the night. There are now somewhere around 1,500 gulls, circling and clamouring nightly over the open areas of water. Most are Ring-billed Gulls, perhaps a third are California Gulls, and there are a couple of Herring and Franklin’s Gulls mixed in as well.

 

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A Laughing Gull flies overhead. Photo credit: Gabriel Foley

 

Gulls often get a bad rap. They’re everywhere, it seems, eating things that we have thrown away into dumpsters and landfills. And they’re boisterous, squabbling noisily over every scrap. They’re so commonplace, it can be easy to overlook them. But if you’ve ever stopped to watch them – really watch them – you may just find that they’re beautiful, fascinating birds.

 

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An evening gull roost at Wascana Park, Regina. Photo credit: Gabriel Foley

 

Adult gulls generally have white plumage topped with a grey back. They are excellent fliers, seamlessly soaring and twisting and diving through the air. They have adapted to most open environments, despite being so well suited for an aquatic life. They often form enormous flocks, and their courtship behaviours, in my opinion, are beautiful to watch. We may think of them as being an urban bird, but they breed throughout the continent, often in extremely remote locations. Some of the most difficult birds to see that breed in Canada are gulls, like the Ross’s Gull or the Ivory Gull. And that’s another thing: there is no ‘seagull’. Worldwide, there are fifty-six species and together they form one of the most taxonomically interesting groups of birds there is. When given the opportunity, many species of gulls will readily hybridize with each other, increasing the complexity of an already-difficult group of birds. Their moult cycles, propensity to wander, and subtle fieldmarks combine to make gulls a devilishly challenging group of birds to identify.

 

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A mixed flock of Ring-billed, California, and Herring Gulls. Photo credit: Gabriel Foley

 

Gull aficionados, or ‘Larophiles’, as they call themselves, are a subculture of birding unto themselves. A quick Google search will reveal several groups dedicated to nothing but the enjoyment and identification of gulls. You may not be quite ready to identify as a Larophile after hearing me extol the virtues of gulls, but I hope the next time you see one wheel overhead, you notice how swift and smooth its flight is and how striking the contrast of dark grey on clean white is, and that this enjoyment of a small part of our natural world makes you smile.

 

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A California Gull’s dark eye imparts them with a ‘don’t mess with me’ attitude. Photo credit: Gabriel Foley


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Cardinal chase

Last Friday, I was working in Saskatoon. I stayed overnight, and was planning to do a couple hours of birding in the city before I headed back to Regina. I woke up and groggily checked my email. There, in my inbox, was a notification of a Northern Cardinal in Prince Albert. The cardinal’s range is ordinarily about as far northwest as Minneapolis. Past that, they’re a bit unusual. In Saskatchewan, there have been under 70 records, most of those since the early 90s. Most of these birds likely hatched earlier in the year and are looking for a place to breed. Just one pair has been confirmed successfully nesting in Saskatchewan, and that was in Prince Albert in 2011.

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A Northern Cardinal in the snow. Photo credit: Jordan Rutter

This particular individual, a male, had been seen at a feeder and had likely overwintered there. I decided to forego my Saskatoon birding and instead make the trip up to Prince Albert and see if I could find this cardinal. By mid-morning I was cruising slowly through residential Prince Albert, doing my best not to appear too sketchy. I parked my truck so I could walk around a bit, but before I could even get out, I saw a flash of red. A long-tailed, vibrant bird flew into a shrub across the street. He perched there for a moment, making distinctive, flat zinc zinc calls. I fumbled for my binoculars in the passenger seat and focused him into view. His bright orange bill and deep red crest filled my field of vision. I stared wondrously at this beautiful bird. Maybe he was bolder than other cardinals, and had gone exploring. Or maybe he had just been turned around at some point and gotten lost. Either way, I appreciated that our paths had crossed. Then he was gone, the quivering branch the only indication something had ever been there.


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Too Many Dudes on the Dance Floor

Saskatchewan is home to four species of grouse, including our provincial bird, the Sharp-tailed Grouse. Grouse can sometimes be difficult birds to find, particularly in the forest, because they’re quiet and rely on camouflage to avoid detection. But a drive in early spring looking for Sharp-tailed Grouse can be rewarding. Not only can detecting sharp-tails be easier because vegetation has been flattened, the trees are bare, and snow patches still remain, but sharp-tails gather in large groups at this time of year for one reason: a dude dance-off.

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Sharp-tailed Grouse. Photo credit: Gabriel Foley

Males gather at a site – usually the top of an open, grassy knoll – and begin to boom, cluck, stamp, and rattle their way across the dance floor. Sharp-tails may look drab and ordinary, but once they find their way to the local dance floor, they fan their wings, point their tail in the air, and inflate their pink throat sacs. They dance for hours a day, all with one purpose: impressing the females. Females show up at the dance site and watch for the male who dances best. He occupies the center of the dance floor, and he will be the father of the majority of that season’s chicks.

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Sharp-tailed Grouse dancing. Photo credit: Gabriel Foley

These dance-offs occur in several groups of birds worldwide, but in Saskatchewan only grouse exhibit this behaviour. In biological parlance, it’s referred to as ‘lekking’. A ‘lek’ is a site where a group of males gather to perform a display for females. The females each choose the male who is performing the best display, so for males it is a high-risk, high-reward scenario. If they expend an enormous amount of energy being the season’s best dancer, they will copulate with the vast majority of females. But most males will fail to be the best dancer, and subsequently fail to copulate at all despite spending all that energy dancing. It’s a fascinating system, and equally captivating to watch.

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Sharp-tailed Grouse on a lek. Photo credit: Gabriel Foley

I highly recommend that you take a drive and try to find a lek this spring. And as always, when you find a lek, be sure to keep your distance. Sharp-tailed Grouse are declining in Saskatchewan and, like any wildlife, don’t need disruptions at their leks. But with a decent pair of binoculars, this won’t be a problem and you will be in for a substantial treat.


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Stuck – as a passenger!

On Friday last week, I took the day off work to go ice fishing with friends. James, Jordan, and I decided to meet in Moose Jaw and drive down to Fife Lake together. Fife Lake is about two hours south of Moose Jaw, near the tiny town of Rockglen. The lake is fairly large, is home to Rockin Beach (did not make that up), and is situated within a spectacular Saskatchewan landscape. Jordan is from DC and hasn’t had the opportunity to see a lot of Saskatchewan yet, so ice fishing seemed like a great opportunity to show off the province. As we headed south of Moose Jaw into the Dirt Hills, we passed flocks of Horned Larks and Snow Buntings in the roadside fields. The topography, 300 meters higher than the plains to the north, was created by ancient glacier action and features ridges, moraines, and kettles. As we dipped into yet another of the highway’s valleys, James told us to prepare for a view. And right on cue, the landscape opened up into a stunning panorama of rolling, snow-covered hills.

 

 

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The Dirt Hills, south of Moose Jaw. Photo credit: Jordan Rutter

When we neared Fife Lake, we began looking for a grid road to get us there. Eventually we found one that seemed to be more plowed than the other grids, and we turned our half-ton onto it. We followed the grid until the drifts grew too high for the truck. We parked the truck and pulled our snowmobile off the trailer. Since it could only handle two people at a time, I went first with James and the ice fishing gear. Once on the lake, I drilled holes, set up a hut, and waited for James and Jordan to return. And waited. And waited. An hour later I began the long walk back across the lake, only to be interrupted halfway by a sled bombing towards me. As it turns out, James had sunk into a particularly large, soft snowdrift and getting it out had proved to be a challenge for the two of them.

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Jordan’s first time out on a frozen lake. Photo credit: Gabriel Foley

Once we were all back together, we didn’t waste any time. We got our lines into the water and began to fish, but not before James reminded me that he and I were currently two for two. We had been on two drives together this year and had gotten stuck twice this year. I didn’t reply out loud, but in my head I snarkily reminded him that both times he was the driver, and I was just along for the ride.

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Jordan ice fishing in a hut on Fife Lake, SK. Photo credit: Gabriel Foley

We didn’t catch any fish, although Jordan did manage to lose a lure, then accidentally catch it with a second hook – an impressive feat for a first-time ice fisher-person. But we did have an outstanding time as a trio of friends enjoying a remarkable landscape – more than enough incentive for us to plan a return.


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It’s SuperbOwl time!

This weekend was the Super Bowl, but since the Saskatchewan Roughriders weren’t involved that’s about all I can tell you about it. I’ve never been a huge sports fan; I like playing hockey, but haven’t watched a game in years. And the only reason I know anything at all about football is because I live in Saskatchewan, and, well, Go Riders!

If you’re on social media, you may have seen the hashtag #SuperBowl used by folks to talk about the game online. But perception is about perspective, and my perspective, along with many others, is birds. So, when we see the #SuperBowl hashtag, we don’t see #SuperBowl. We see #SuperbOwl. And who could disagree with that? Owls are indeed superb birds.

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A Barred Owl preens itself on a trail in the Everglades, FL. Photo credit: Jordan Rutter

Let’s take Snowy Owls, a fitting bird for the current cold snap. Snowy Owls are mostly white with variable amounts of brown mottling, and most people would recognize the species if they saw it. It also has some pop culture fame, since Harry Potter’s owl, Hedwig, was a Snowy Owl. It’s also huge. Weighing in anywhere from 1.5-3 kilograms, it’s North America’s largest owl. In the Arctic, where it breeds and sometimes winters, its main food source is lemmings and it may eat as many as 1,600 of them in a year. That’s astounding. They have large clutches of eggs too. Many raptors only have a couple of eggs – Great Gray Owls, another large owl breeding in the north, typically only have 2-4 eggs in a nest. But Snowy Owls routinely lay 9-10 eggs when food sources are plentiful. The chicks grow fast too. In 40 days they gain almost 2 kilograms. Snowy Owl population estimates have always been high – roughly 300,000 were thought to breed in the Arctic. But then researchers realized that distribution was far from uniform. They redrew the estimates and found that they were about twenty times lower – only 14,000.

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The first Snowy Owl I ever saw, outside Sault Ste. Marie, MI. Photo credit: Gabriel Foley

If you live in North America and you’d like to see this extraordinary owl, you’re probably out of luck. The Snowy Owl’s range keeps it out of reach of the average North American’s eyes. It takes a special trip for someone to see a bird that has flown farther south than normal, or an even more exceptional trip to see the bird at the extreme northern latitudes where it is most abundant. But every winter in Saskatchewan, we receive an influx of Snowy Owls right in our backyard. If you’re lucky enough to live in Saskatchewan, all you need to do is take a drive down a grid road in some open country and look for large, white lumps on the top of power poles. Saskatchewan has the highest density of wintering Snowy Owls in North America! Pull over – safely, of course – and stop to enjoy this wonderful bird. But be respectful! If the owl looks like it wants to fly away, you’re too close. Disturbing them causes them to expend energy and increases their chances of colliding with a vehicle, a leading source of mortality. When you’re at an appropriate distance, soak it in. You’re looking at a sight few people are lucky enough to enjoy.

 


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Unflinching Support

This week, my brother, Isaiah, was sworn in as a member of the Canadian Armed Forces. He’s almost 21 (so that makes him the sixth-oldest child of the family, and the third-oldest brother). He’s kind, clever, and sends way too many memes to our family group chat. While a few of us had reservations when he told us he was considering joining the military, when he told us, after thinking about it for several months, that he was sure of his decision, we unequivocally joined together to support him. And when he drove to Kingston, Ontario, for his swearing-in ceremony, the entire family piled into the van and joined him.

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Isaiah was sworn into the CAF this week. Photo credit: Jessalyn Foley

Well, the entire family except me. This isn’t unusual for me; my family has accepted my role as the absentee sibling. I haven’t been home for three Christmases. I missed my sister, Jessalyn’s, wedding. Then I missed my sister, Avery’s, wedding. Then my brother Ethan asked me to be his best man, which I was thrilled to accept. And then I promptly missed his wedding.

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Family photo from Avery’s wedding in Sept. 2015. Photo credit: Alabaster Jar Photography

It’s not that this is how I like things, or that I try to avoid my family. I love coming home and visiting with everyone. Every time I have to miss a holiday or an event, it cuts deep. There is nothing more important in life than your loved ones, and any time spent with them is time well-invested. There have been times when I’ve dropped everything to drive 10 hours to spend an evening supporting the people I love most, before turning around and driving back. But sometimes, life and distance get in the way and missing things is unavoidable.

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Family road trip to Kingston. Photo credit: Jessalyn Foley

So, when the family group chat exploded on Tuesday with pictures of my siblings all together, exuberantly supporting Isaiah in a pivotal moment of his life, it made my heart smile. Everyone jam-packed into a van brought back a rush of memories of family trips. We didn’t often drive far as a family, but when we did it was…memorable. We all had assigned seats in the van related to our age, maturity, and general ability to cause trouble. I still find myself heading to the rear-most corner of any van I climb into (yes, that’s right, I had the seat furthest from Mom, directly indicating that I was the best child). My dad would produce a non-stop barrage of always hilarious dad jokes, Ethan’s personal-space bubble would be interrupted whenever possible, Jillian would fall asleep, Elijah would cause as much trouble as he could muster, Isaiah would be the first to ask for a bathroom stop, and, without fail, someone would get carsick. And of course, all of this was replicated on their most recent trip to Kingston; some things are a reliable constant.

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Foley family photo, following Isaiah’s swearing-in ceremony. Photo credit: Helpful Stranger

It’s memories like these that we laugh about whenever we get together. I am incredibly fortunate to have a family so full of love and laughter, but especially one that has proven their unflinching support, even when a decision isn’t fully understood or agreed with. I’m proud of each of my siblings for who they’ve become, and I’m proud of Isaiah for his thoughtfulness, determination, and commitment. So, here’s to the people who love and support us, no matter who we choose to be or how we choose to live.

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Foley family selfie from Aug. 2016. Photo credit: Gabriel Foley

 


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The Most Basic Thing

If you follow pop culture – or even if you don’t – you probably know that the Kardashians are pretty famous. Since you’re reading a nature blog, I bet you’re also disappointed that you just heard me say “Kardashian”. But don’t leave just yet!

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Kylie Jenner’s former record-holding Instagram post.

Kylie Jenner – who is Kris and Caitlin Jenner’s daughter, and a member of the Kardashian family – had a baby girl last February that they named Stormi. Their Instagram post announcing Stormi’s birth received the most likes ever for an Instagram post: over 18 million. Someone in London, England, saw this a couple weeks ago and decided they could beat it. With an egg. A brown chicken egg on a white background. And they did! Over 47 million likes later, a plain old chicken egg has received more likes, by a lot, than any other post on Instagram.

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The current record-holding Instagram post.

The account’s creator decided to use a chicken egg to beat Jenner’s because it was, in their words, “The Most Basic Thing”. But is it The Most Basic Thing? I recently finished reading a book about eggs entitled, coincidentally enough, The Most Perfect Thing.

The book, written by ornithologist Tim Birkhead, is engrossing, down-to-earth, and conversational. Birkhead uses a career’s worth of experience studying murres – a kind of seabird – in England to frame the eggs’ story. He explains their development, the intricacies of how eggs function, and the behaviours adults use to care for them. Despite describing complex physiological processes, he largely avoids the use of obtuse jargon.

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Common Murres in Alaska. Photo credit: Gabriel Foley

One of the most fascinating portions of the book was on brood-parasite mimicry. Several kinds of birds, such as cuckoos, avoid the hassle and expense of raising their own chicks by laying their eggs in the nests of other birds, such as weavers. Of course, the unwitting weavers don’t benefit from raising the cuckoo’s chick – often weaver’s chicks are killed by the foster cuckoo chick. So, any individual weaver that avoids the cuckoo’s brood-parasitism by learning to identify the unwelcome egg will be at an advantage and – all other things being equal – raise more offspring. Eventually, this will put the cuckoo at a disadvantage because the weavers will know how to identify and reject its eggs. But, if a cuckoo has a mutation that changes the colour of its egg to match the weaver’s egg, the weaver won’t be able to recognize the cuckoo’s egg, starting the process over. This creates an arms race between the host and parasite and, spectacularly, that is exactly what was observed in southern Africa. Over the space of a few decades, the egg colour of parasite and host from the same region changed to match each other. It is a stunning example of natural selection at work.

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An image from The Most Perfect Thing by Tim Birkhead. Photo credit: Jordan Rutter

The book also describes the largely obsolescent and nauseously destructive hobby of egg-collecting. George Lupton, a British lawyer from the early 20th century, was obsessed with amassing murre eggs and collected thousands of them over his lifetime. Lupton failed to record any data and his collection was so scientifically worthless a museum nearly tossed the eggs. While the author acknowledges the overwhelming damage that egg-collecting has caused to bird populations, throughout the book he appears oddly fascinated with the hobby and with Lupton, his pet collector. Uncomfortably, Lupton features prominently throughout the book in a largely positive and admirable light.

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The Most Perfect Thing. Photo credit: Jordan Rutter

Nevertheless, the book left me solidly convinced that eggs are indeed wondrous products of nature and itching to learn more about them. If you’ve ever taken a second look at an egg, I would heartily recommend reading The Most Perfect Thing.


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Somewhere more… ‘interesting’, please.

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The new host of The Prairie Naturalist, Gabriel Foley. Photo credit: Jordan Rutter

I have to admit, I haven’t always been a prairie person. I grew up on a small farm in southeastern Ontario, bass fishing and tapping maple trees. I was the eldest of 15 children – yeah, 15! – and we didn’t travel much. I was under the impression that Saskatchewan was basically a giant wheat field and had little interest in going there. I went to college in Sault Ste. Marie for fish and wildlife conservation, and soon after I was offered a job at the Nature Conservancy of Canada, here in Saskatchewan. I’m embarrassed to say it now, but I was hesitant to accept the job because I wanted to work somewhere ‘interesting’. Of course, I did eventually accept the position and shortly thereafter I was sent to do some fieldwork on native prairie.

The moment I first saw native prairie was unforgettable. Ask anyone who knows me and they’ll tell you it must have been astounding because my memory is shorter than the grass in an overgrazed pasture. It was mid-May. Patches of snow lingered in the shade of draws and shrubs. The grasses were dormant, waiting for the early spring sun to grow warmer. The leaf buds on aspen trees peeked out. Hardy purple crocuses bloomed. Horned larks sang overhead in an overcast sky. I walked down the gently sloping walls of a wide coulee, reveling in what I was seeing. It was the shape and the form of the grass that most captivated me. Like a series of waves that stretches to the horizon, the grasses melded together to create a rippling scene of connectedness.

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The Nature Conservancy of Canada’s Wideview property, in southwestern Saskatchewan. Photo credit: Gabriel Foley

Ever since that moment, I have been involved in a love affair with the prairies. I stayed here, and completed a bachelor of science degree at the University of Regina. After doing my honours, I worked in the same lab on my masters degree, researching how Common Nighthawks use habitat. In between my academic work, I’ve done wildlife surveys in the arctic, the desert, the boreal forest, the rain forest, on mountains, and, of course, on the prairies. I love the outdoors, am especially enthralled with birds, and have a passion to conserve the natural world.

Fittingly, things have come full circle, and I have just begun working for the Nature Conservancy of Canada once again. And as your new host of The Prairie Naturalist, I look forward to bringing you stories of science and conservation and discussing them in the context of the beautiful and fascinating prairie region.