Category Archives: Queen Charlotte Islands

Haida Gwaii’s old name

December 11 2015 – Salting the Highway; a death trap for birds

December 11 2015 – Large flocks of small birds swing over the fields then land and nibble on alder catkins. It might be one of those years when members of the finch family come down from the north and spend the winter. Pine Siskins make up most of the flocks, small, cheery energetic birds that fly in a weaving wave as they dip down to feed upside-down on seeds. They swing away again, bright balls of energy in the dead of winter. They are small and striped, whitish underneath and darker above, with yellow wing-bars and yellow tail-streaks. They often nest within a few metres of each other and forage in small flocks.

Pine Siskins are nomadic; that is they move around in response to the availability of seeds. Its why one year there are none on island and the next year the sky is full of them. According to the experts it’s hard to assess their population numbers because they are so nomadic but Breeding Bird Survey and Christmas Bird Count data suggest that there is a long-term decline in their numbers.

Stormy day on Haida Gwaii

Stormy day on Haida Gwaii

Siskins and other finches unfortunate fondness for salt and sand on the highway in winter (to supplement mineral intake and aid digestion) leads to many deaths from automobile collisions and potentially sodium poisoning (Brown 2013, Erlich et al. 1988). We estimated that, in January 2014, tens of thousands of siskins died on Highway 16 between Smithers and Prince Rupert. They flew up from the side of the road when we passed and, although we slowed down and tried to avoid them, we did hit one or two. When we got to Prince Rupert we plucked ten dead birds from the grill of one parked car that had passed us earlier on the highway. It was only one of many that had overtaken us both coming and going on our journey.

Siskins are not only killed from hitting vehicles but are also poisoned by ingesting the salt. It’s an issue for other finches as well including Red Crossbills and Pine Grosbeaks that sometimes winter over on Haida Gwaii. Some parts of the world have stopped using salt on the highway completely and have found other methods to melt ice. A paper “Road Salts and Wildlife – An Assessment of the Risk” written by Brownlee, Mineau and Baril for Environment Canada in 2000” is recommended reading for those who salt the highways.

December 4 2015 – Of Doves and Hawks

December 4 2015 – There were no doves. Now there are lots of them. They come to feeders, get taken by hawks and one recently lost its tail completely, possibly from a hawk attack. The dove escaped and flew into the trees after a night’s rest. It will probably survive. Most birds will survive the loss of tail feathers or even a leg but they won’t survive the loss of a wing. If they can’t fly they can’t forage.

Eurasian Collared Dove

Eurasian Collared Dove

Doves are hardy birds and seem to occur in most parts of the world that have a moderate climate. In Hawaii, tiny Zebra Doves pitter around outdoor cafes waiting for handouts and in Florida Mourning Doves call a mournful woo-woo, hence the name. Here, Eurasian Collared Dove numbers are increasing and every day a flock of twelve or more swoop down to our feeder and take off with the scattered seeds. They are generally harmless, they just flap down in a flurry and scatter away again. Originally released in Florida from Eurasia in the 1980s, they have now spread throughout the continent. They arrived here within the past seven years. People seem to think they’re cute so they bring them from the mainland and let them go where they shouldn’t be. Who knows what impact increasing numbers of these doves will have on the local species? Where once the resident birds had the place to themselves, now they have to contend with increasing numbers of aggressive Starlings and now, Eurasian Collared Doves as well as the almost daily loss of nesting habitat.

What’s the difference between doves and pigeons? Hard to say, the names are almost interchangeable. I thought it had something to do with size, but no, the Band-tailed Pigeon that appeared on island recently is almost the same size as the two or three Rock Doves in ‘Charlotte. ‘Pigeon’ is from the Latin ‘pipere’ meaning ‘to cheep’ and ‘dove’ is from the Old German ‘dubo’ the bird’s early name.

Rock Doves can be multi-coloured, they were ‘selectively bred for exotic variations’ but the originals are grey with a greenish head, not all that different from the Band-tailed Pigeon which was never messed around with and has kept its initial colours. So now we have doves.

Goshawk Photo by Mary Helmer, Haida Gwaii resident g

Goshawk Photo by Mary Helmer, Haida Gwaii resident

There was some speculation that the Cooper’s Hawk, of which there have been only one or two sightings over the years, might follow the collared doves here. Sure enough, a few have shown up recently. Cooper’s are members of the accipiter family, those swift and wary forest-dwellers that slice through the understory in a brief blur. In size they slot between the large Goshawk and the smaller Sharp-shinned Hawk. A Goshawk probably took the tail off the recently released dove so the wild world continues as it should.

There are now two Northern Shrikes along the dunes at Skonun. One circled overhead as neat as anything and plucked a fly from the air. The other landed on the very tip-top of a spruce and waited for an unsuspecting sparrow to dash from the underbrush. Nothing moved so off went the shrike with that lovely soar and dip flight they are so good at.