Welcome to drshalaway.com. I'm a certified wildlife biologist, ornithologist, birder, and nature writer. My degrees are in entomology (University of Delaware), biology (Northern Arizona University), and wildlife ecology (Michigan State). I've written a weekly nature column for newspapers since 1986 and have hosted a weekly nature-themed radio show since 1992. Feel free to visit frequently and tell your friends about this resource. I try to add new material at least once a week.
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Scott Shalaway, Ph.D.
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July 19, 2015, Summer Reading
Whether on a beach, a cabin back porch, or even a hammock at home, nothing beats relaxing with an entertaining book on summer vacation. For the last 20 years I’ve favored mysteries and thrillers with conservation themes.
It began with Gator Aide, the first in a series of wildlife mystery thrillers by Jessica Speart that I discovered almost 20 years ago. Over 10 years (1997-2006), Speart’s heroine, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Agent Rachel Porter, investigated crimes involving endangered species, from parrots to grizzly bears to tortoises. And most investigations involved a murder or two. What makes these books so compelling is the time Speart spent in the field with real wildlife agents to prepare for each book. This series taught me a lot about wildlife law enforcement, and I’m still hopeful that someday one of them might be made into a movie.
After retiring Rachel Porter, Speart turned her attention to nonfiction. Winged Obsession: the Pursuit of the World’s Most Notorious Butterfly Smuggler (2011) is a riveting account of how a rookie U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agent goes undercover to catch the world’s most infamous butterfly smuggler. If the story wasn’t true, it would make a great Rachel Porter mystery.
Recently I googled “birder murder mysteries,” hoping to find some authors who combined two primary areas of interest. The results overwhelmed me, but they led me to Jan Dunlap’s Bob White Murder Mystery Series. The titles alone hooked me – Murder on Warbler Weekend, A Bobwhite Killing, A Murder of Crows, Falcon Finale, Swift Justice, and the soon-to-be published Kiskadee of Death. Bob White, the perfect name for a sleuthing birder, is a high school counselor and avid birder with a penchant for finding dead human bodies. These are light, fast, fun reads – perfect for summer vacation.
The most recent birder murder mysteries I’ve come across is exactly that – a “Birder Murder Mystery” series by Steve Burrows. A Siege of Bitterns (2014, Dundurn) features ex-pat Canadian detective/birder, Domenic Jejeune, working as a detective in an east coast English town. He connects the murder of an environmental activist to birding. And we get lessons in the differences between birding in America and Britain.
A Pitying of Doves, the second in Burrows’ series, was published in May. This time the victim is the director of a bird sanctuary.
Another author I’ve been reading for years is Nevada Barr. Her Anna Pigeon series follows the adventures of a National Park Service law enforcement agent who solves murders that are usually related to conservation issues. Barr draws on her experience as a seasonal ranger with the National Park Service. The first of the series, Track of the Cat, was published in 1993 and received an Agatha Award for “Best First Novel.” Subsequent Anna Pigeon novels have taken readers to Yosemite, Isle Royale, Big Bend, and Glacier National Parks, to name just a few.
For readers who might prefer more of a Marlboro Man type hero, I suggest C. J. Box’s Joe Pickett novels. Pickett is a Wyoming game warden doing his best to thwart poachers and killers. In addition to telling great stories, Box paints vivid descriptions of the mountain west. The most recent in the Joe Pickett series, Endangered, was published in March.
If your tastes run to nonfiction, even while on vacation, try Feeding Wild Birds in America: Culture, Commerce & Conservation (2015, Texas A&M University Press) by Paul Baicich, Margaret Barker, and Carroll Henderson. Using a decade-by-decade approach from the late 1800s, the authors trace the rise of backyard bird feeding from a casual activity to a multi-billion dollar annual business. One of the book’s many take-home lessons is how America’s love for nature spawned a new industry. This is by far the best and most thorough summary of bird feeding as both a pastime and a business.
How to Raise a Mealworm Colony
Rapidly growing nestlings and fledglings require the high protein diet insects and other invertebrates provide. And adults eat insects, in part, simply because they’re so abundant.
Take advantage of this seasonal shift in diet by offering a daily handful of live food -- mealworms, the larval stage of harmless darkling beetles -- in a shallow tray. Woodpeckers, chickadees, titmice, nuthatches, and even cardinals love ‘em. And many birds that don’t eat seeds come to feeders stocked with mealworms. Bluebirds, catbirds, mockingbirds, robins, wrens, warblers, and vireos are among my warm weather feeder birds.
Mealworms are grown commercially for pet and bait shops, but they’re expensive. Two dollars buys a few dozen. Mail order sources such as www.grubco.com (search for others) are more economical -- 5,000 mealworms for about $25.00.
Better yet, start with a few thousand mealworms, then raise your own. It’s easy and cheap. All you need is a large plastic container (a sweater box works well) with a lid, a supply of wheat bran for food, several brown paper bags, and an apple. If you can’t find wheat bran, bran breakfast cereal, rolled oats, or corn meal will suffice. Or you can mix and match the grains.
Add about three inches of bran to the container. This is the mealworm food. For moisture, slice an apple in half and push each half, flat side down, into the bran until the cut face is level with the top of the bran. Add about 50 mealworms for each square foot of container. Now cover the entire culture with several sheets of brown paper. The mealworms will move about the layers of paper when not feeding.
Before putting the lid on the container, drill a grid of quarter-inch holes spaced about two inches apart. If condensation forms inside the lid, drill more holes. Both the mealworms and their food must be kept dry. Store the culture at room temperature.
Within a few weeks, some of the mealworms will begin to pupate. The pupae are fleshy, light colored and will ultimately transform into adult darkling beetles. The adults will then mate, and the females will lay eggs in the bran. Then the adults die. When the eggs hatch, the mealworm life cycle starts anew.
Check the culture every few days. When the apple is eaten, replace it. And every three months, clean the container and renew the culture. If you detect an unpleasant odor in the container, it’s time to clean it. A healthy mealworm culture has little or no odor.
For a virtually limitless supply of mealworms, start several cultures at monthly intervals. Each square foot of culture should yield more than 1,000 mealworms each cycle. And live mealworms can be stored in a refrigerator for several weeks to prevent pupation.
Though most birds relish live food, it is not an essential part of a warm weather feeding station. There are plenty of insects in the backyard. But if you want bluebirds, robins, warblers, and woodpeckers at your feeders, add live food to the backyard menu.
April 19, 2015 - Karma in the Woods, © 2015
If mice and other small rodents know fear, they would lead lives of constant desperation. Rather than live in fear, though, I think they survive through vigilance. If they fail to concentrate on their surroundings, they simply don’t live very long.
From above, hawks and owls are constant threats. On the ground, they are on the menu of virtually every mammalian predator. Shrews, coyotes, foxes, bears, raccoons, weasels, mink, fishers, skunks, and bobcats eat small rodents regularly.
Because predators pursue small mammals relentlessly, small prey counter by breeding almost year-round. Deer mice and voles, for example, breed continuously from February through late October to maintain a relatively stable population. Mice can bear as many as seven litters per year.
If I were a small rodent, I’d probably dread the threat of screech-owls most of all. They are common, eat small mammals and birds almost exclusively, and hunt under the cover of darkness. And like most owls, they fly silently. The soft edges of their flight feathers allow them to approach and attack without warning. At least their victims never know what hits them.
On a moonless night, a mouse may feel safe on the forest floor searching for food, but a fatal attack can come at any moment. When mammalian predators attack, there’s often at least a brief chase and a chance to escape. But when a screech-owl attacks, death comes quickly.
Keen vision, even in low light, and incredible hearing allow an owl to locate prey even from treetop perches. It takes off and glides quickly downward toward its victim. As the owl nears its prey, it throws its feet forward, raises its wings, throws its head back, and opens its toes. Each toe is armed with a icepick-like talon. Upon impact, the toes close, and the talons impale the prey. One of the talons is certain to hit a vital organ, so death is usually instantaneous. If not, a quick bite to the head finishes the job.
Presently, screech-owls are incubating clutches of four or five eggs. After 26 days, the eggs hatch in late April or early May. The owlets remain in the nest for about a month, so parent screech-owls need many more meals during the nestling period. Predator pressure on small mammals increases throughout the spring and early summer.
A screech-owl requires several tree cavities to conduct its daily business – one to eat in after making a kill, one to sleep in during the day, and one for the nest. Immediately after making a kill, a screech-owl must quickly take its meal to its dining cavity. A six-ounce screech-owl preoccupied with a fresh kill on the ground would be easy prey for a bobcat, fox, or coyote. So screech-owls carry fresh kills immediately to a cavity to eat in peace or feed young.
I suspect earth-bound predators would be a minor threat to a screech-owl. They would just have to happen to be in the area when the owl made its kill.
Great horned owls, however, use their powerful eyes and ears to survey the woods from high perches. Their domain reaches as far as their eyes can see. And they have no qualms about eating smaller owls. Taking a screech-owl that has just killed a mouse is like getting two meals for the price of one.
Sometimes a screech-owl’s hold on its prey may slip a bit after the kill, and it takes just a moment to get a better grip. BAM! That moment can be one moment too long.
Great horned owls kill with the same precision as their smaller cousins. Just as the screech-owl sailed in silently on the mouse, so too does the great horned owl sail in silently on the screech-owl. And just as the mouse never knew what hit it, neither does the screech-owl. Its life fades to black in an instant.
Life isn’t fair, especially in nature. What goes around, comes around. Call it karma in the woods.
May 3, 2015 - Some Days are Diamonds, © 2015
Earlier this week I attended the New River Birding and Nature Festival in southern West Virginia as a speaker and guide. Some years birders get great looks at birds they’ve never seen before (birders call these “life birds”), and some years the highlights are great views of more familiar species. For me, this year fell into the latter category.
I spent most of my outdoor time at Hawk’s Nest State Park, where the patio on the back deck provides an expansive view of the New River Gorge. It’s a great place to watch raptors soar overhead as thermal wind currents develop on warn sunny days.
Several times black and turkey vultures sailed by enabling birders to compare the TV’s red head with the black’s dark gray head. In flight, the TV’s wings are held in a shallow “V” or dihedral, compared to the black vulture’s flatter wing profile. Later that day a mature bald eagle soared past the observation deck.
Another highlight showed up at a feeder located along a bank of windows near the front desk. One day a newly arrived male rose-breasted grosbeak spent at least two hours on the feeder, which was only about 20 feet from the windows.
The next day a flock of pine siskins visited the feeders. These small, streaky brown finches have a sharp pointy bill and flashes of yellow on their wings and tail, so identification was easy.
The highlight of my time at the Festival came one morning during a pre-breakfast bird walk. Shortly after dawn, voices of all the usual suspects filled the air – robins, cardinals, blue jays, Carolina chickadees, tufted titmice, red-bellied woodpeckers, Carolina wrens, mourning doves, and crows.
Most beginners know the songs of common species, but it’s always a challenge to keep new birders interested as they learn new sounds. When I was a beginning birder, I did not appreciate trip leaders who simply pointed to a song and named the singer without finding the bird. I need to hear a new song many times before it registers in my brain. Good trip leaders try to get everyone in the group to see as well as hear birds they encounter.
Sometimes that’s easier said than done. Sounds can be loud and obvious, but the birds themselves can be elusive. On this morning, we were lucky. A song sparrow, a blue-headed vireo, and a yellow-throated warbler perched in view as they sang, and everyone got good looks. Seeing a bird sing its song helps me link the sound to the image. The warbler was a real treat because it was easy to spot and stayed in view for several minutes.
As breakfast time approached, we were still in the parking lot, and the best was yet to come. Several members of the group gasped when a male pileated woodpecker landed on the base of a small tree about four feet above the ground. And it was only about forty feet away. Everyone scrambled to get a good look because the woodpecker could only be seen in a window between two parked cars. As the group studied the pileated with binoculars, another leader (Pat Sutton from Cape May, NJ) focused her spotting scope on the bird.
Everyone waited patiently for a turn at the scope, which provided an amazing demonstration of the difference between 8-power binoculars and a 30-power scope. Surprisingly, amazingly, the pileated remained in the same spot for at least five minutes as it worked the trunk for grubs and ants. It was the best, extended look any of us had ever had of this magnificent woodpecker.
No sooner had the pileated departed than a northern flicker landed in another nearby tree. Pat got her scope on the flicker immediately. As if looking at a living field guide, the flicker’s brown barred back, spotted underparts, black crescent-shaped bib, and white rump were obvious. And again the flicker perched for several minutes as everyone enjoyed it through the scope.
As John Denver once sang, “Some days are diamonds, some days are stones.” This was definitely a diamond day at the New River Birding Festival.
Information about next year’s Festival will soon be posted at www.birding-wv.com.
As promised on my radio shows, here's my poem for Christmas:
The Morning of Christmas by Scott Shalaway, © 1988, 2014
(with apologies to Clement C. Moore)
'Twas the morning of Christmas,
And all 'round the house,
The feeders were empty,
Not enough for a mouse.
Each feeder was hung
From its perch with great care,
But on this frosty morning,
The cupboards were bare.
Tubes, trays and suet bags...
Too many to mention.
In the Christmas Eve rush
They'd escaped my attention.
The rising sun on the breast of the new fallen snow,
Accented the vacuum in the feeders below.
I couldn't believe it, I'd stayed up too late.
I'd forgotten my friends on this most special date.
A ravenous flock perched in dawn's early light,
Reminding me clearly of last night’s oversight.
Impatient, they perched in an old apple tree,
Famished and anxious, some scolded me.
Ashamed and embarrassed, I flew down the stairs,
I whistled and shouted like a big angry bear.
"Now Linda, now Nora, and Emma, you too.
We've got empty feeders, there's so much to do!"
I spoke no more words, we all went to work,
We filled every feeder, I’d been a real jerk.
The birds quickly forgave me and flocked to the food,
I knew in moment, they'd lost their foul mood.
Cardinals and grosbeaks and nuthatches, too,
Were first to arrive at my backyard bird zoo.
The sunflower seed disappeared with great speed,
I smiled contently, I'd fixed my misdeed.
Then finches and siskins sought the feeder with thistle,
They flew so intently, each looked like a missile.
Soon sparrows and juncos ventured onto the tray,
Hungrily joining the late breakfast fray.
Even the water dish pulled in a crowd,
The titmice and chickadees were certainly loud.
When woodpeckers finally found the fresh suet,
We were completely forgiven, the whole family knew it.
I began to feel better, I'd made up for my goof,
When suddenly a voice caught my ear from the roof.
(You may not believe this, but I swear it's the truth.)
From a perch at the top, sang a sassy Blue Jay,
"Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good day!"
May 4, 2014, The Language of Birds
The hills are alive with the sound of… birds. For the last week, migratory birds have been announcing their arrival each morning with a chorus of species-specific songs and calls. And yes, there is a difference between songs and calls.
Birds vocalize throughout the year, but the purpose of the sounds varies. Always, however, birds sing to communicate.
Short, nonmusical chips, chirps, and whistles uttered year round convey information about location, food sources, and social position. Other calls rally broods and indicate alarm, danger, aggression, and annoyance. Such “calls” are the sounds of daily conversation.
Calls may seem a dangerous way to communicate because sounds can lead hungry predators to tasty singers. But part of the beauty of a call is its ephemeral nature. Once uttered, the sound vanishes into thin air, so predators can’t use call notes to locate birds. When danger threatens, birds simply stop talking until the threat passes.
True bird songs are longer, more musical, and usually limited to the breeding season. Furthermore, songs are usually sung by males, though some females sing a softer, more subtle song.
Males sing to call attention to themselves. The message depends upon who hears the song.
Male birds sing to establish and defend a territory from other males of the same species. In this sense, song is a keep-out signal. Other males know that if they violate a territory’s boundary, they will be attacked. So they respect territory holders.
On the other hand, male song is also an invitation to females. It says, “I’m available. I can provide for you. Check out my territory. Be my mate.” It’s tempting to call it a love song, but biologists prefer to keep human emotion out of the discussion. Song is simply the crux of the pair-bonding process.
While teaching an ornithology class many years ago at the University of Oklahoma Biological Station, I wrote a poem to help the students appreciate the voices of birds. Class began at 5 a.m. two days a week. Until daylight, we relied on our ears to identify the birds we heard.
I had forgotten about this poem until I stumbled upon a yellowed hard copy while cleaning my office. Perhaps it will help you appreciate the language of birds.
The Language of Birds by Scott Shalaway, © 1982
Wherever we go, at all times of day,
We notice the birds, their songs and displays.
It takes only patience, sharp eyes, and/or ears,
To discover that birds are surprisingly near.
As moonbeams fade, and dawn begins breaking,
We shiver and huddle, we try to stop shaking.
After a night hawking moths, they’ve both had their fill.
In no time the sun rises, higher and higher,
AMERICAN ROBINS lead the loud morning choir.
A MOURNING DOVE coos, each note ‘bout the same,
While PHOEBES and BOBWHITE repeat their own names.
MOCKERS and CHATS buzz, scold, and chortle,
A BLUEBIRD contributes its soft gurgling warble.
A RED-EYED VIREO repetitiously preaches
While a neighboring OVENBIRD incessantly teaches.
Pairs of TITMICE and NUTHATCHES acrobatically feed,
Until a black rat snake approaches with need.
Upon seeing the snake, the birds sound the alarm,
With help from some BLUE JAYS, they all escape harm.
A PILEATED WOODPECKER hammers a snag, no attacks it.
An unruffled SCREECH-OWL blinks, what’s the racket?
CARDINALS and BUNTINGS sing through the day,
Striving to keep rival suitors at bay.
Loudly a RED-TAIL screams overhead,
A snake in her talons hangs limply dead.
When darkness falls, and CHUCK again sings,
He searches for insects on long, agile wings.
At moonrise a BARRED OWL, hoots out his call,
“Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you-alll?”
Look, listen; observe, see, and hear,
The language of birds is incredibly clear.