Saturday, September 24, 2011

The Vulture Tree

Last week, we were in Utah near St. George and Bryce and Zion National Parks. There are a few small towns in this area nestled in a valley surrounded by mountains painted with various shades of red and orange.

I was thrilled to find my familiar friends--lizards, Grackles, and vultures--as well as a new little creature that I still have not identified. It is a small rodent, as small as a chipmunk, but the head looks more like a rat. It's tail flips up over its back. It is very fast and the only pictures I was able to snap off are blurry as it is also exceptionally fast!

We were driving down a side street when I noticed one of the largest venues of vultures I have ever seen. This is one close, happy family! As they slowly circled around the sky, enjoying their play on the warm currents of air, I counted 90 before I lost track.

Then they started to land, one by one. As they flew lower, I could see that they were Turkey Vultures (Cathartes aura). Turkey Vultures can be found from Canada to South America. Although Turkey Vultures will join with Black Vultures or other scavengers, and allow scavengers to join their families, this family in Utah appeared to be only Turkey Vultures.

I was with my husband, who was driving. We assumed they were landing in a field of dead trees, so we followed in our truck. Their path led us into a residential area, down a few side streets, and in front of a house where a huge, old tree stood on the corner of a property. It was not a dead tree, which is generally preferred by vultures, most likely because of the size of their wings--with a six-foot wing spread it is certainly easier to land on a bare branch. The tree must be hundreds of years old. Five adults, holding hands, might be able to circle its trunk.

We parked the truck and I jumped out with my camera, watching as the vultures circled around and landed, one by one, inside the tree. It was difficult to see them all because of the thick blanket of leaves, but the first ones to fly in landed on the top branches and politely posed for photographs, sometimes spreading their wings wide. Vultures will do this after they have eaten so the sun bakes the flecks of food left on their wings and the food drops to the ground. It is easy to tell if a vulture has eaten recently and had not had the opportunity to dry its wings as clumps of food still cling to the dark feathers, looking like large flecks of dust.

Suddenly, the tree seemed to come alive. As one bird flew in, another was leaving with a constant flow of movement circling the tree. They were silent except for the occasional flapping of wings when one of the birds tried to gain its balance. Once, a vulture flew in from behind and surprised another bird who stumbled forward, lost its grip and fell onto another branch. I thought it was injured at first as it left its wings spread wide. One wing appeared to be snagged on a branch. Eventually, though, the bird hopped to the right and freed its wing, then closed them tight against its side.

We spoke with one of the neighbors who said they were not happy with the birds in the local community. Apparently, the venue of 100 or more vultures had used that same tree for resting purposes every night for many years. Apparently, the neighbors are concerned that the urine from the vultures falling to the ground is creating an unsanitary condition in the neighborhood. I tried to explain that the urine of Turkey Vultures is so sterile it could be used as an antiseptic, and started to explain that they pee on their legs to sterilize their legs after eating, but I began to suspect this might be too much information for someone who is obviously not crazy about vultures!

In many communities, vultures are recognized as nature's cleaning crew, keeping the community free of disease. In fact, scientists have discovered that the vulture's stomach acid is so sanitizing it will even destroy anthrax when vultures consume animals that have died from this disease.

Regardless of their appearance, and their reputation unfairly gained from their use in horror films, Turkey Vultures, and their habitats, are protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, so it's best just to let them do their job as God intended. Should they decide to move into your neighborhood, either leave them alone, or admire them for the important role they place in the circle of life.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

It's an Opossum! It's an Opossum!

We are watching through the window now. It's a huge Opossum. He is chewing up the sunflower seeds, then spitting the shells back out as the little grass balls I wrote about last night. That's why the birds pick the seeds back out and eat them--they're not picking at poop!

Opossums look like big rats. They're the size of a cat with long snouts, black ears and silver-tipped fur. They are not unattractive, just different. They make their home wherever they can find food and water, generally in dead tree stumps near food sources. I suspect this one lives across the street in the forest.

Opossums will lie down, close their eyes and let their tongue droop when frightened so they look dead, but the one outside my window is just watching us. Apparently, we don't frighten him! They also like to hang upside down by their tails.

Opossums are the oldest mammals in Texas. They have remained completely unchanged for fifty million years. It is believed they acquired their names from Captain John Smith of the Jamestown Colony.

Unfortunately, they have a very short life span because they have many predators. Most die because they are hit by cars, though. They become frightened, lie down, pretend they are dead, and the car hits them. They are also eaten by owls, dogs, and coyotes. Opossums are also immune to rattlesnake venom and they eat snakes!

They're intelligent creatures and can easily locate and remember where they've found food--that's why he keeps coming back here night after night. He knows I'll leave food for him. They also like peanut butter!

He's so cute!

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Another Mystery--Beautiful Brown Dove

I heard a dove in the backyard yesterday while I was waiting for the dogs. I couldn't see it at first--it was very high in the trees. It didn't look like the white winged doves I normally find in the backyard so I ran for my camera to see if I could get a closer look.

This is, indeed, a mystery. The bird is clearly a dove. It has the same blue-rimmed eyes of the white winged doves and scarlet legs, but its wings are a deep chocolate brown and its chest and belly are rust-colored. So lovely!

I saw it in the tree again this morning, sitting alone, watching me. I wonder who it is, and how it ended up in my backyard. Searching for water in a drought-stricken state? Or seed? I haven't noticed a mate. I searched and searched, but was unable to make a positive identification. If anyone recognizes this beautiful bird, please let me know!

A Mystery in the Seed Dish

We have a mystery in the seed dish outside the bedroom window. Each morning, when I check the seed level, I find these little balls of seed and grass. They resemble feces, somewhat, but not really. They're more like hay rolls with seeds mixed in. To be honest, I don't have a clue what they are.

I do have other clues. They only arrive at night. I remove them all during the morning, and check the seeds throughout the day because the water dish is beneath and I like to make sure that the birds have clean water when they need it. I don't see the little grass balls, though. So, obviously, whatever it is that is leaving the little grass balls in the seed tray, they only do it late at night.

At first, we only noticed one or two. My husband pointed them out to me when he was leaving for work. He scooped them out with a leaf and tossed them onto the sidewalk. Later that day, I checked the sidewalk--it appeared as if the birds had broken it apart and eaten the seeds the way some birds will pick at cow manure. Gradually, more little grass balls appeared. This morning, there were so many that I had to scoop them up with a box lid from the trash--they completely covered the tops of the seeds. They do not smell like feces, and the seeds underneath are not clumped together as if something had gone potty on them. It's just such...a mystery!

I close my blinds when it's dark because the birds go to bed and stop visiting the tray, so I'm not really sure what happens after dark in that corner of the house. It is a little secluded, even though it faces the street. This is intentional. I have two crape myrtles in pots beside the seed tray waiting to be planted in our new house. I placed them by the seed tray so the birds would have a place to land. I also have a Wisteria branch in a pot that is growing strong and vining around the seed table. The Wisteria was uprooted at our old house during straight line winds that came through in the spring. In front of the tray I have potted plants. I set it up this way to protect the birds from the many stray cats in the neighborhood--who of course come for the dish of food I keep on the opposite side of the house, in case they cannot find food of their own.

This seclusion became particularly important this spring when a father and mother cardinal arrived, then slowly, one by one, they started bringing their babies down to the seed dish to feed them and teach them how to eat seeds. It was a wonderful adventure. Yesterday, I saw the mother, father, three girls and boy baby birds all on the back patio at once. The babies are no longer babies. Even in the spring they were the size of their parents. They still look a bit awkward as their adult feathers continue to fill in. Nevertheless, with their bright colors and funny habit of hopping around each other and skipping across the bricks they are beautiful gifts from God to our yard.

So, now I have these strange little grass balls in the seed dish. Tonight, instead of closing the blinds when it get dark outside, we will leave them open and wait. There isn't a light in the bedroom in that corner, so it will still be dark enough that the creature should not be frightened away, and I'm usually awake until two in the morning, writing. Odds are good that the mystery will be solved tonight.