Bluebirds are charming and cheery. They're also the hardiest of our nesting birds, often arriving before the snow has fully melted and remaining until the blustery winds of early October begin to strip trees of their autumn-bright leaves. When the bluebirds head south, I know it's time to unpack the hats and gloves. Winter follows the bluebird's bright tail feathers to our doorstep.
As summer approaches, our suburban Minnesota yard is filled with birds. Many are old friends that remain year-round, eking out a living through the winter and fledging their young in our backyard by summer. Others fly hundreds or thousands of miles seasonally to access the best resources, which--it never ceases to amaze me--are found right here.
Of all these stunning songsters, few can outshine the indigo bunting. This year, the male bunting has appeared at my feeder almost every day. Sadly, this living jewel rarely sticks around long enough for photo ops. He is compelled to sing, and every few minutes heads off in search of a high perch. Encoded within the bunting's songs--which are learned in his first year of life by listening to neighboring males--are dozens of notes and complex phrases that broadcast his species and perhaps even his individuality, warn intruders from his territory, and attract unmated females. Perhaps even more than food, song sustains his life.
As you might surmise, the indigo bunting is named for his brilliant appearance. Researchers have been surprised to find the variety of means by which coloration is achieved in birds. Compare the feathers of an indigo bunting to those of a northern cardinal under the microscope. A cardinal's feather contains pigments. These red, orange, and yellow chemicals primarily come from the bird's food. You might have noticed that male and female cardinals are sexually dimorphic--they have different coloration. That's due in part to male cardinals' ability to convert certain dietary pigments to new forms, producing a distinctively bold red shading.
By contrast, you'll find no blue pigments in the feathers of indigo buntings. Instead, they contain a dark pigment called melanin. As light passes through the feather's many tiny barbs, short-wavelength (blue) light is scattered by air spaces surrounding the melanin granules. The exact shade of blue you see varies--from shimmering azure to deep ultramarine--depending on lighting conditions and the angle at which you view the bird. It's like seeing an old friend in beautiful new clothing at every meeting.
Observations of this phenomenon--called structural coloration--date back hundreds of years. Microscopist Robert Hooke and physicist Isaac Newton (in 1665 and 1704, respectively) independently published the results from their microscope studies of peacock feathers. Each noted the way "thin plated bodies" in the feathers interacted with light.
You can see evidence of structural coloration among other blue-shaded species such as bluebirds, blue jays, and kingfishers. This also causes the iridescence of hummingbirds. Nanoparticles (what Hooke referred to as "tiny plated bodies") in the feathers have even been identified in bird fossils approximately 50 million years old.
Every year in early April I wander the meadow to see what changes were wrought by the long, snowy winter. And every year I almost step in the hole that serves as winter den to the local population of garter snakes.
Some folks find snakes fascinating and beautiful. In others, snakes inspire an especially large measure of fear and loathing. Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson addresses this response in his essay, “The Serpent,” from Biophilia (Harvard University Press, 1984):
“What is there in snakes anyway that makes them so repellent and fascinating? The answer in retrospect is deceptively simple: their ability to remain hidden, the power in their sinuous limbless bodies, and the threat from venom injected hypodermically through sharp hollow teeth. It pays in elementary survival to be interested in snakes and to respond emotionally to their generalized image, to go beyond ordinary caution and fear. The rule built into the brain in the form of a learning bias is: become alert quickly to any object with the serpentine gestalt. Overlearn this particular response in order to keep safe.”
I have no intent to press those with established opinions about snakes. As Wilson points out, humans have “an innate propensity to learn such fear quickly and easily past the age of five.” But admittedly, it’s pleasing when kids respond with open interest to animals—especially maligned species that are actually beneficial. Last year my son and I were walking in the meadow and came upon this same den of emerging garter snakes. He’d never seen anything like it. Rather than recoiling, he stopped to watch for a long time, plying me with questions. I explained that it’s always wise to give wild animals space, but that these small snakes are generally harmless and helpful to humans—among other things, they eat worms, leeches, slugs, and a variety of insects. They congregate together underground during the winter, hibernating in groups for warmth. To the unfamiliar observer, the snakes may look like a living ball of twine, rolling and swirling as they emerge from the entrance of a hibernation den. This behavior, delightfully creepy to watch, is evidence of the other practical purpose behind garter snakes' communal hibernation: males and females have immediate access to each other in spring. After mating, each snake retreats to a separate domain around the area. Summer is not a time for sociability. This is not the last we see of them, however. Later in the season we will inevitably encounter slender hatchlings, which appear suddenly underfoot in the yard like animated blades of grass or take their turn to sun on the deck. Watch out garden pests—here they come!
Earlier this week we had a couple of warm days and a lot of melting. The sound—a steady drip and slap—overwhelmed even the enthusiastic songs of birds around the neighborhood. Water streamed from rooftops and soaked the trunks of trees. It flowed down driveways in sheets and converged on the street. Heading off to pick up my son after school, I walked between rivulets that slipped under piles of snow along the edges of the lane. Where winter ice had broken the asphalt, murky pools formed. But the pull of gravity was clear. Meltwater escaped through every crack, rejoining the flow and slipping westward toward the catch basin at the lowest point in our neighborhood watershed.
As I stood waiting for the bus, I unfocused my camera and took a picture of a spot where where tiny ripples swirled over the rough asphalt. The result is a patchwork of reflected light. I like the picture, but it leads me to something bigger. Water is in connection with the land as well as the light. What does that mean? Anything that lies on the street—leaves, dust, road salt, fertilizer, pest waste, and more—becomes part of the flow. Consequently, how we treat the land (and the air) affects the quality and quantity of water. It's a simple equation, but one we often forget.
Today is World Water Day. The United Nations cites increasing urbanization—the growth of population in cities—as a major influence on water resources globally. You'll use water many times today. When you do, stop to ponder this life-giving resource. Below are a few of the many available resources to help you learn how to protect it.
World Water Day from the UN
CDC announcement (with background and data)
Nine Mile Creek Watershed District
summary of the Clean Water Act
Renewing Earth's Waters, by Christine Petersen
This morning I took a series of photographs as a downy woodpecker and blue jay fed outside the kitchen window. I noticed that both birds spent some "down time" on their respective feeders, appearing to rest for a bit between bouts of feeding. When I later downloaded the pictures, I found several shots showing each bird with its eyes partially or completely "closed."
The birds weren't actually napping. I was lucky enough to get photographs of their third eyelids—what biologists refer to as the nictating membrane. The term is drawn from the Latin word nictare ("to blink"). Birds have paired eyelids, as we do. These close vertically (from the top and bottom) when the bird sleeps. The nictating membrane is a separate structure located between the eyelids and the cornea. It usually remains hidden at the inner corner of the eye. The nictating membrane has two primary purposes: to clean and moisten the surface of the eye, and to protect it from injury.
The blue-gray nictating membrane can be seen across the anterior portion of this jay's eye.
A bird's sail-shaped nictating membrane is firmly affixed by ligaments at two points (the top of the eye and the side closest to the bill). The third attachment is movable, allowing it to sweep sideways over the cornea in a motion something like that of a windshield wiper. As I observed, in a quiet moment the bird may flick the nictating membrane open and shut a few times as a sort of preening action. The membrane is also closed when the bird needs protection from environmental hazards.
This structure shows a lot of adaptive variation. Raptors have a nearly transparent nictating membrane, allowing them to see while flying but also protecting the eye from injury caused by twigs, branches, or struggling prey. Imagine the benefits of such protection for fast-flying or pelagic (sea-faring) birds, which otherwise face the drying effects of wind and abrasion from small airborne particles. Woodpeckers and nuthatches have unusually thickened, opaque nictating membranes that protect their eyes from flying wood chips.
Normally, the nictating membrane is folded up and hidden, as seen on this downy woodpecker. The two outer lids (upper and lower) appear as a scaly ring around the eye.
The same bird, moments later, with the thick nictating membrane closed over its eye.
Nuthatches often cache seeds by wedging them under loose segments of tree bark. When the bird returns at a later date, rather than extracting the whole seed it chips away at the shell to reach the meat. The membrane protects the eye from dust and debris created while the bird feeds.
Like raptors, diving birds have a transparent nictating membrane. I'm very nearsighted and always appreciate the little bit of visual enhancement provided by goggles when I swim. I wondered if nictating membranes similarly improve the vision of birds swimming under water. Researchers looking at this question found that the membrane lies very close to the eye and has a curvature almost identical to that of the cornea (i.e., it is not faceted like my goggles). As a result, there is no significant refraction of light and no noticeable improvement to a bird's vision.
Nictating membranes are common in every vertebrate group except mammals, suggesting that the structure evolved in fishes and was lost much later by some mammals. Monotremes (the platypus and echidna, most "primitive" among the living mammals) have nictating membranes, as do marsupials. A few groups of placental mammals retain them, in particular those that are aquatic—seals and sea lions, manatees and dugongs, and beavers. For polar bears, nictating membranes serve the additional role of protecting against UV light that is so strong in the polar environment.
A tiny member of the loris family, found in West Africa, is the only primate with fully functional nictating membranes: able to clean the eye and move freely across it. But this structure has not been completely lost in other primates. Take a look in the mirror. See the pink, crescent-shaped blob at the inner corner of your eye? That is a nictating membrane—or what's left of it. Opthalmologists call this the plica semilunaris. It's often said to be vestigial, a scientific term for structures that have been retained through evolutionary time but lost their function. That's not an entirely accurate description in this case. Although the plica semilunaris has no ligamenture that permits movement, it still helps to clean the eye by producing fatty secretions to which pollen, dust, and other particles stick. These waste materials glom up and weep out. Nictare—blink, blink—and your eyes are cleaner. No goggles required.
From around the state I hear reports of the first migratory birds: sandhill cranes, hooded mergansers, and red-winged blackbirds. The numbers and diversity of birds-on-the-move will steadily increase through April and May, as longer days and warmer temperatures renew the availability of critical food sources. Stepping outside at night during the peak of migration, you can hear the sounds of their passing—distant contact calls, rustling wings, and a subtle wind that seems to carry spring behind it.
It's still cold enough to ruddy my cheeks and leave my gloved hands numb on a walk at Minnehaha Creek. But spring is emerging in subtle ways. Crows were chasing each other in loops over the treetops, and I could hear water swashing beneath the creek's surface layer of ice.
The burbling of chickadees makes a nice soundtrack as I head outside to shovel leftover snow from the deck and sidewalks. A group of three downy woodpeckers is not so happy with my timing. I am scolded after every aborted flight they make between the sugar maple and suet feeder: "Pik-pik-pik! You're too close!"
At the dramatic conclusion of the season's first thunderstorm, the base of a passing cloud takes on mountainous topography. Meteorologists use the term mammatus to describe these distinctive formations. Warm, moist air in the thundercloud rises in a typical convective updraft. It strikes a layer of cooler, dry air in the atmosphere above and spreads outward to produce an anvil-shaped cloud. Ice crystals fall to the bottom of the cloud where they sublimate, changing state directly from ice to water vapor. As this cool air sinks in pockets across the base of the cloud, localized, reverse convection currents are set up—the puffballs that give mammatus clouds their texture.
Great-horned owls are the first of our winter-resident birds to nest, and hooting becomes most intense just before the female lays eggs. Devoted mates, the owls form pair-bonds that endure for years. Rather than migrating, the pair establishes and maintains a permanent territory. (Localized winter food shortages may break this pattern, prompting temporary southerly movements, or irruptions, toward better food sources.) Territorial boundaries are reaffirmed...
is a professional writer, naturalist, and natural science educator who writes from her home in Minnesota—when she's not too distracted by the view out the window.