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.
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.
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!"
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...
Fog begins to lift above the Golden Gate Bridge
I'm standing on the coastal trail just west of San Francisco's Golden Gate. Fog obscures most of the famed structure, though now and then a blazing patch of red is revealed as a gust of wind pushes aside a corner of the low-lying cloud. If I were asked to choose a mascot to represent this grandiose landscape, the brown pelican would have no rivals. To the inexperienced observer this might seem an odd choice. Weighing up to eight pounds, with a wingspan greater than 7 feet and a curving neck that culminates in an improbably long, hooked bill, brown pelicans look like make-believe creatures from a child's storybook: gangly, disproportionate, and comical. Yet airborne pelicans are the epitome of grace—flapping with slow ease; making fast, steep plunges in pursuit of fish; flying in long, curving formations that follow the breaking lines of waves.
Adult brown pelican in non-breeding plumage
"Beauty has as many meanings as man has moods.
Beauty is the symbol of symbols.
Beauty reveals everything, because it expresses nothing.
When it shows us itself, it shows us the whole fiery-colored world."
In the early morning hours I stand at the kitchen window, alone with the silence and my thoughts. The last few stars fade overhead as a pale glow touches the treeline across the lake.
To my surprise, a late-feeding bat appears over the meadow, making a wide sweep at canopy level. The bat passes just a few meters in front of the window. Suddenly it lurches to the side, down, then rapidly forward. Such maneuvers make bat flight appear haphazard
May 15. That's the date on my 2009 phenology calendar marking the arrival of ruby-throated hummingbirds in our yard. The timing is fairly consistent from year to year, with a little variation accounted for by late-arriving winter storms that hold the migrants down south a little longer. Once in a while I'm fortunate to see a male hummer in April, three or even five weeks ahead of schedule. These precocious fellows ride the heels of yellow-bellied sapsuckers, a variety of migratory woodpecker that makes the rounds of our yard in the earliest days of spring. Sapsuckers drill wells in the bark of maple trees to access their welling sap. Small insects throng to these puddles of sticky sweetness, and hummingbirds gobble up this free source of body-warming protein to get them through the lingering chilly nights. There is always the risk of an unexpected storm or freeze. The male hummingbirds that survive the trip have a distinct advantage: early arrival in their summer range and access to a wider choice of breeding territories.
Once the females appear, I often hear chittering calls among the trees. But it takes sharp eyes and patience to see the birds firsthand. Adult ruby-throated hummingbirds seek insect prey to feed their miniscule but voracious young, making only rushed visits to the nectar feeder for their own refreshment. I stop to look for them when I first come downstairs in those still-dim minutes before sunrise, or when the evening shadows are long over the feeders.
A female ruby-throated hummingbird ducks in to drink from the feeder, but drinks without perching--it's a fast-food operation during the nesting season.
As the fledglings become independent in late summer, everything changes. Throughout the day males, females, and juveniles zip
Rain or shine, subzero or sweltering, around 2:00 p.m. each weekday some internal alarm prompts me from my chair toward the kitchen. Although this is a short migration, it involves a radical shift in habitat. My office is tucked on the north side of the house and flanked by an Entish pin oak tree. Those with an aversion to low light might find the room too solemn, but I enjoy its cool, shady attitude. It feels as though I have my own little bower among the branches of the house. I work here for hours at a stretch, cocooned in a silence that is conducive to concentration but not oppressive. There’s a palpable shift in my awareness when I enter the kitchen, which is flooded with light throughout the day and in all seasons. Wide windows on its east and west walls, and exposure from the south through an adjoining mudroom, make the kitchen open and lively. This is the real heart of our home. Even a quick infusion of its light, color, and space gives me just the dose of energy I need to remain focused through the afternoon. A cup of tea doesn’t hurt, either.
Teatime is not a fancy affair. I don’t prepare food, and never even sit down. But there is a ritual associated with this break. I take down two mugs from the cabinet. One is chosen randomly, though it can’t be too large. The other is my favorite mug, made of thick, cream-colored ceramic with a handle that looks like a twisted twig. Across its surface are painted two of the birds that commonly appear in our yard: the Baltimore oriole and the blue jay. The style of painting looks somehow old-fashioned, like it belongs in a dusty field guide you might find tucked away in your grandparents’ library. I choose a bag of good black tea to go in the first mug. Something fruity or spicy goes in mine—but no caffeine allowed. Finally I fill the burnished metal teakettle and place it on the burner. Now begins my favorite part of the routine. Until the kettle sings I have a few free moments, with nothing more important to do than watch.
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.