Monthly Archives: February 2015

Rain Birds

From “On the Wing” February 6, 2015

Rain Birds – Birds don’t like getting rain-soaked but they like the way the rain softens the ground so they can get a bite to eat. Thrushes especially like to poke in the soft soil and eat buggy things. Varied Thrushes, those colourful robin-sized winter birds, need more nutrients than seeds can provide although they will eat them when the ground is frozen.

American Robins, also members of the thrush family, will be coming through soon. They usually show up in big numbers around the third week in February. They appear suddenly on golf courses and meadows on island to munch on those nutrient packed invertebrates to get them further north. Although we don’t seem to expect robins to migrate as they seem to be here all year, they do. Those that nest here have migrated in from somewhere else.

Rain softens the ground for sparrows as well. Our small cement walkway to the house kept getting covered with leaves a few days after being swept. I thought perhaps that the wind must have kicked something up so swept it again, Next day, all along the edge, small patches of soil and litter darkened the path again. Song Sparrows! As they scrabbled in the flower-bed for bugs they spread their diggings over the walkway.

If you’ve walked through the forest on a quiet day and heard strange rustlings in the dead leaves, it could be a Fox Sparrow. They dig industriously with their long toes through the leaves and soft earth. It is their métier. Pacific Wrens too, those small dark, perky, ground-dwellers need soft earth to get at their food even in the chilliest times. Most birds suffer in the cold, but wrens seem particularly vulnerable.

Many of the forest birds here are darker than those in the interior.  When colour change relates to environmental factors, “Gloger’s Rule” applies. He was a zoologist in the 1800’s and he found that birds in more humid habitats tended to be darker than their relatives in more arid regions. Recent studies have shown that this might happen because “feather-degrading bacteria from the plumage of sparrows (i.e. Song Sparrows) in the humid Northwest degraded feathers more rapidly and more completely than feather-degrading bacteria from sparrows of the arid Southwest. Dark feathers are more resistant than light feathers to bacterial degradation (Burtt and Ichida 2004).” It is buggy country here, and the island sparrows have evolved so that they are darker and not so vulnerable to all that stuff out there in the forest that eats away at their feathers. We’re back to rain, bugs, soft soil and the good green earth.


Herons, Eagles and the Nature of Nature

On the wing – Margo Hearne

A heron stands silently in the shallows and pretends not to be there. When a fish swims into its shade, thinking that it has found shelter, the heron spears it, eats it and waits for the next one. It’s the nature of nature.

Does the heron feel the slightest twinge of guilt?  Hardly. In that wonderful book “The Philosopher and the Wolf” author Mark Rowlands says that wolves have no sense of evil, only humans do. Wolves kill because they must, not with any malice aforethought, but because they have to. So do herons, and to apply any motive other than hunger does it and all wildlife a disservice. It’s pretty radical stuff actually. Rowlands says that evil is not spoken about often enough; it’s brushed under the carpet, or excused away, even rationalized. But, and I quote, “true human goodness can manifest itself, in all its purity and liberty, only in regard to those who have no power…the true moral test of humanity lies in its relations to those who are at its mercy, the animals.” All animals, cats, dogs, owls, herons, wolves, bears, salmon, whales. So how do we rate? Not very well. And now I’ll go and look in the mirror and leave it at that. When it comes to our treatment of the wild world, as Pogo would say, ‘we have seen the enemy and he is us.’

Great Blue Herons stand in the shallows throughout the islands and when disturbed take off with a prehistoric rasp. They are odd creatures. They roost in trees, feed in streams and lakes and somehow you’d expect them to nest near water, but they nest high in trees, preferably in old-growth forests. Their numbers are low here but in other places in BC they are in large, noisy colonies, flying around and making a lot of noise and smells and generally being what they are. They annoy the folk that move in on them and build high rises and town houses where the herons once lived in relative obscurity.  Being who we are, we want them to get out of our way. Herons are now on the endangered species list, but there has been one or two feeding in Masset Inlet right in front of us for over forty years. It’s a generational thing. Long may they remain.

Another big, obvious bird is the Bald Eagle. They have also lived here for millennia. Mainly fish-eaters, they prefer to scavenge on the beach or seize fish from the water when they’re near the surface. The other day a shoal of herring spun around in a shallow bay and suddenly over 30 eagles appeared and dove into it. They dipped their talons into the water and flew off, eating on the wing, as we might eat a handful of fries when in a hurry. Herring are fairly small prey and large eagles need more than a talon-full so they circle back to stock up again. It’s all very dramatic, especially when loons, ducks, murres and gulls join the fray and they all dart and dive and fly and dive again until the herring ball dashes off to deeper water; that is, those that survived.