Monday, July 31, 2006

Woodpecker wingbeats without comment

Of interest to some --

I did some counting and created the following graph, which I present with no discussion other than describing how I made it and a bit about statistical significance. If it is truncated or too small you can right-click or ctrl-click on it to open it in a new window:

The Pileated source videos are the ones posted by Cornell and by David Nolin. I found a total of seven of these useful, wth between 2 and 15 wingbeats resolvable. I defined the beginning of each wingbeat as maximum upward wing extension. I counted in whole frames, so the temporal resolution is 17-33 ms depending on the source footage. For Luneau, I took the "extended wing" interpretation of the frame in which the bird first appears to the left of the tree trunk, not the CLO's "folded wing" interpretation. Thus, that is counted as the zero time point, the start of the first wingbeat. Using the other interpretation would decrease the Luneau times by 33 ms or less. I used only the first 10 wingbeats of the Luneau video, as they are the ones that are agreed to be clearly discernable.

All Pileated comparison videos are of perched birds taking off, as is the Luneau video. Only three sequences show the Pileated in frame and on the wing for 10 full wingbeats. This small sample size precludes any meaningful statistical analysis as to whether the Luneau bird is an outlier or within the expected range of variation of the Pileated, a fact that must be borne in mind while examining these data. A rigorous analysis would need many more Pileated videos in which the bird remains on the wing for 10+ wingbeats, prefereably longer. Ideally there would be multiple videos of Pileateds that remain on the wing in full flight for the full three seconds or so that the Luneau bird does.

I have presented the data in this format (total elapsed time versus number of completed wingbeats) because it gives the best resolution of the individual birds and it is the least sensitive to judgement calls as to which frame represents the beginning of any particular wingbeat. A plot of individual wingbeat durations produces a confusing jumble of overlapping lines.

A note about comments -- please limit to direct discussion of the wingbeat data and its interpretation, without abrasive or hyperbolic language. No anonymous or pseudonymous comments. Thank you.

The pastured poultry scam

Late in my second season of raising pastured poultry on a small scale, I have become aware of some fundamental, fatal conceptual flaws in the operation. The implication of these is that, unintentionally and without malice, pastured poultry producers are foisting a scam on their market. The problems stem from basic lack of understanding about what words like "sustainable" mean and to some extent from denial about the realities of chicken production, both industrial and on the small farm.

The two biggest unintentional lies are about pastured poultry's being environmentally friendly and its being humane. It is neither. In fact, I have realized that it is actually worse than a well-managed confinement operation in both respects.

Environmentally friendly, sustainable production of livestock is first and foremost a function of what and how the animals are fed. A sustainable farm animal is one that eats things people do not or cannot eat: grasses, bugs, wild range and pasture foods; and in some cases garbage, offal, etc. Feeding livestock on grains, soybeans, and other intensively-raised crops that are perfectly good human food is not "green," no matter how you do it. Even if these crops are raised organically, it is still a waste of food and farm resources to grow this high-quality food then feed it to animals that will turn 90% of it into waste and only 10% of it into human-usable protein and calories. The second concern for sustainable livestock raising is stocking (number of animals per acre). Sustainable animals are raised at low enough density that they do not degrade the pastures and rangelands on which they feed. Stocking rates need to be adjusted based on particular local circumstances to avoid doing this.

Pastured poultry fails on both of these. Producers will sometimes give the impression that our birds are dining on fresh greens and bugs. In fact, they are getting the vast bulk of their calories from conventional poultry feed. Even generous estimates are that the birds might get 20% of their nutrition from foraging; my experience suggests more like 10%. Add to this the extra feed waste in an outdoor operation from spills and weather, plus the lowered feed-to-animal conversion ratios during hot or cold spells, and the average pastured chicken probably has used MORE conventional feed than a factory-raised bird of the same size.

As for impact on the environment, pastured poultry are overstocked. How do I know this? Well two reasons. First, when, for some reason, I wind up with a pasture pen that has fewer birds in it than usual, those birds grow noticably faster than identical, same-age birds kept at the standard stocking rate. Second, pastured poultry producers have told me that they need to lime their fields from time to time to counteract the increasing acidity from the accumulated effects of manure. In other words, the fields are overstocked. An additional problem is that all this manure on the overstocked pastures represents one of those unregulated, unmonitorable, untrackable sources of non-point source polution for groundwater and stream water.

Another impression that pastured poultry producers like to give is that our birds are happy birds, treated humanely. But if our birds are treated so well, why are our mortality rates so much higher than those of conventional confinement operations? The chicken that is almost universally used by pastured poultry and conventional producers is the Cornish cross, a collection of hybrid strains bred for extremely fast growth rates and extreme laziness. These birds do not benefit from outdoor raising. Indeed, they suffer from it. They have very poor tolerance for heat and cold. They are terrible foragers. They are easy pickings for predators. Humane raising of a cornish cross chicken would be in climate-controlled confinement with a reasonable stocking rate. It is most definitely NOT outdoor raising exposed to the elements and the carnivores. Some other (probably just about ANY other) breed would be a better choice; but the market demands the big fleshy breasts and fat chubby carcasses of the cornish cross, so that is what we raise. It's true, we don't debeak our birds. We let the raccoons do that for us when they try to chew our birds' heads off through the sides of the pens at night. And well-run confinment operations do not debeak either.

The final marketing claim for pastured poultry is the quality of the birds. And it is true, a fresh pastured chicken has a juiciness, texture, and flavor that grocery store chickens rarely approach. But this is a function of freshness, not outdoor raising. Fresh birds that were raised in well-managed confinement also have this excellent quality. Much is made of the fact that our pastured birds are antibiotic and hormone-free. Well, no one gives their chickens hormones; not us, not Tyson. The Cornish Cross already grows dangerously fast (if overfed they tend to keel over from cardiac failure); hormones would be an extremely bad idea. Many pastured poultry producers DO feed medicated feed (with coccidiostats, technically not an anibiotic but still a drug) for the first 2 or 3 weeks of life, same as everyone else. And, again, a well-run confinment operation with good litter management can do without coccidiostats as easily as pastured birds can.

Pastured chickens are not green birds or happy birds, any more than the conventionally raised chickens are. A real green chicken could perhaps be raised; but it will not be a cornish cross raised in a little bottomless cage or open-air day-range pen out in an over-manured field.

Sigh... back to the drawing board.

Friday, July 28, 2006

She's not pregnant anymore

Ten puppies. Oy...

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Doggie dumping

Not all rural traditions are worth preserving.

Appeared in the orchard last week: one collarless young-looking black lab sort of dog (bitch, actually). She is next located under the house, acting suspicious and growly, eating the eggs that chickens had been stockpiling down there. A couple of mysterious chicken disappearances during this time are highly suspicious. On one of her skittish emergences from under the house, I notice (oh joy) that she is pregnant.

After a couple of days, I come around the corner and she is out from under the house. At first she is scared and growling; I decide to try sweet talking her. Almost immediately the ears drop, the growling stops, and she approaches me. Within a minute or two she is on her back in my lap having her very pregnant belly rubbed and letting me start pulling off a horrific number of ticks. No collar, but the faint smell of flea soap lingers on her. She is not malnourished. She is very accustomed to being handled and groomed. She obviously has been a family pet. She is also very young, perhaps no more than 8 or 9 months. Pregnant on her first heat while she is still a puppy herself. We drive her around to all the neighbors within a mile (that's only like 6 houses here), and no one has seen her before.

She is a dump-ee: the old tradition of just driving an unwanted dog far enough from home and chucking her out of the car to fend for herself. It's pretty obvious that she was dumped because she was pregnant. I can envision the kids at home weeping when daddy tells them their sweet little labrador girl "ran off," when in fact he drove her off, removed her collar, and dumped her because he was too cheap to pay for having her spayed and too lazy and irresponsible to deal with the inevitable puppies that result.

So now we have a pregnant foster bitch for the next two months, until the welps are weaned and grown enough to try to place in homes. Just in case we didn't already have enough critters here to take care of. City folks think we farmers have an infinite capacity for absorbing their excess animals, it seems. The local humane society (a woefully underequiped and 100% volunteer organization) is able to ship some adoptable dogs north to Wisconsin, where thanks to good spay and neuter programs they actually have a shortage of pound puppies. So long as the pups don't come out looking like daddy was a pit bull, we can hopefully get them and momma all in the program. If not, well... the options are limited.

We're calling her "Nursie" after the character from Blackadder II: "Can someone help me with my udders?"

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Another rara avis from the archives

This one I appreciated the rarity of from the first instant.

On a sunny morning in August, 1991, birding through the old spoils area in my neighborhood in Georgetown, South Carolina. The spoils had grown up into a thicket of brush and weeds which was an excellent migrant trap, so I visited it many mornings. At 7:30, as I passed through the dense chinaberry grove near the entrance, I spotted some big dove-looking thing on a snag not 30 feet from my head. I raised my binoculars, and was practically nose-to-nose with South Carolina's first-recorded Band-tailed Pigeon!

I studied the bird in extreme detail, recording a vivid mental image in case this proved to be the only encounter, then lept back on my bicycle to get to the phone as fast as I could pedal. This was the pre-internet, pre-cell phone era, of course. I called the statewide RBA and Robin Carter (hard-core birder who lived three hours away), dug through to find a camera and the longest lens in the house (only a piddly 135 mm), and went back to relocate the bird. Fortunately I did see it again three times that day and got adequate photos. The RBA was updated almost immediately, but only one chaser (Bobby McCutchen) managed to make it there that afternoon and see the bird. Alas, Robin coudn't get there until the next day, which evidently was too late. The pigeon never reappeared.

Years later, when the SC rare bird committee reviewed the sighting, I was a bit bummed that they rejected the record based on concerns about the bird's wild origins. Personally, I disagreed with this. The date and location fit an established pattern of eastward post-breeding vagrancy, the bird was in good plumage and not at all tame. The proximity of my first encounter was a matter of surprise, not tameness. But, of course, I made no protest. I wasn't on the review committee and I understood the "when in doubt leave it out" conservative approach they needed to take. I did my job: find and document the bird; the rest of the process falls into other hands. And, of course, the committee had accepted the species ID unequivocally, only questioning the bird's origin. I understood that some future checklist committee might well reconsider the record, note the continental-scale context, and chose to elevate it to full status.

It seems this may be exactly what happened. As part of archiving my old notes, I've been checking up on the "official" status of some of the rarest sightings. It seems Band-tailed Pigeon is now considered a full-status species in South Carolina, and my bird appears to still be the only record. I've always like these big, speedy pigeons, and I'm quite happy to have one of them be my only found-it-all-by-myself First State Record.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Probably the rarest bird I have ever found...

...and I didn't even know it at the time. Reminded of this while going through my old notes.

A sunny afternoon in March of 1986 while on a trip to Big Bend, sitting with a few non-birding friends around a lovely pool and waterfall. Bobbing around the pool was a Dipper. We watched it for a while, I told my friends about all the bird's peculiarities, and then we hiked on.

Later on, scribbling notes on a copy of the Big Bend bird checklist, and I can't find American Dipper on the list. Hmmm.

At the end of the trip, do a little research, and discover that there are only four previous records of Dippers for the entire state of Texas! Pause for significant "wow" moment. A fifth state record for Texas?! And I had no clue; I didn't even bother pulling out my camera. Fortunately I had taken extensive mental notes while pointing out every little detail of the bird and its behavior to my companions, so I was able to write a thorough description for the rare bird committee. Thank the gods it wasn't a first or second record! In that case, a mere sight record, no matter how detailed, would have landed in the peanut gallery of the provisional list rather than on the official list.

I've seen first state records for other states, and even found one once. But none of this really compares to having found, all my myself, a fifth record for Texas, one of the most heavily birded of all states.

P.S. The sighting was accepted by the TRBC, record TRBC #1986-8:

Friday, July 07, 2006

Home-based birding project

A little task I have set for myself, since i started putting data into e-bird...

On those little bar-graph seasonal lists that it will generate for you, it requires a minimum of 5 data points per week to produce a bar of variable thickness indicating abundace. With fewer data, you just get a little green dash to indicate "presence." So, my task for the next year:

Try to get 5 lists from my homestead each week, so I can get a full year's bar graph for it. Plus, I want to have at least one of these lists each week be an actual mini-birdcount rather than just the presence/absence list of everything I found in the course of the day while going about my farming chores or sitting on the front porch.

Since late April I'm doing pretty well. Go to e-bird ( and pull up the bar graph for Lewis County, Tennessee. Almost all of that data is mine.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Easy lifer

Along with thousands of my fellow birders, I got a life bird this evening while sitting at home at my desk. The latest AOU checklist supplement splits the Blue Grouse into the Sooty Grouse of the Pacific forests and the Dusky Grouse of the Rocky Mountains. The long reign of the splitters continues! I especially like it when they resurrect forms like these that were once recognized as distinct but then got lost in the great waves of 20th Century lumping and the birding fixation on the Full Species Only. My first encounter with the Sooty was at treeline on Mt. Dana in Yosemite in the fall of 1980; the Dusky first showed itself to me in Yellowstone on a June evening 1982.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Three decades of retroactive e-bird

A few months ago, I pulled some of my older field note books out of their storage chest, and found them damp and mildewed. This kinda freaked me out, ya know? They're my main record of 32 years of birds, with no consistent or organized backup. So, I have undertaken the quasi-herculean task of entering my entire life's birding into e-bird, to give me an independent, off-site backup. Thus far I've got about 20 years completed. It's actually a fascinating task, going through all my old notes one bird at a time and reliving every day and every bird of it. Plus I get to generate graphs and such from my sightings. Perhaps most fundamental, it puts all my individual records in a growing collective database, where they help the blurry pictures of American avifauna slowly come into sharper focus over time and space.

Overrun with babies, real and imaginary

peep peep peep

In the last few days, the various hens (so far all Buff Orpingtons) that have gone broody and started stashing eggs all over the farm have begun reemerging with chicks in tow. So far, it's been three hens and a total of 22 chicks. The mommas vary enormously in their maternal instincts. The first one, with eight chicks, didn't evidently have these very strongly. She kept stepping on the babies, and on the second night a predator got most of them. After that incident, she abandoned the survivors. I rounded up the two I could find and moved them to the brooder to raise myself.

Considering the fate of that first clutch, we decided thet we should consider just taking chicks away from the hens preemptively. But the second momma turned turned out to be a whole different kettle of feathers. She is fiercely protective and attentive. Anyone who approaches too closely gets attacked. So we've let her keep her four babies. The third momma just turned up with ten chicks this afternoon. She seems intermediate in temperament, so I took four of her young to the brooder and am letting her try her hand at bringing up the remaining six herself.

Because we have roosters of four different breeds, the chicks are a multicolored lot. The parentage seems pretty clear from the look of them, especially since the mothers are all Buffs. Purebred Buff is classic yellow puffball, Buff X Black Australorp is solid black, Buff X Auracana are various shades of yellow or tan with assorted spots and stripes, and Buff X Dominiker is a smooth mousy brown with a pale forehead, echoing the shades of charcoal and grizzling on purebred Dom chicks.

They sure are adorable, those big yellow momma hens with those flocks of multicolored balls of down following them around.

And in the meantime, psycho bitch (Ruby the Rhodesian Ridgeback) has reached the zenith of her regularly-scheduled false pregnancy. She is insane, whimpering and pacing, out of her head with worry over the welfare of her imaginary whelps. Sigh.. just another week or so, I hope.

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