Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Joshua Tree National Park Revisited

Two years ago this week, Mr. Nature Geek and I visited Joshua Tree National Park. We had an amazing experience there, some of which I blogged about here. While we were there, I not only took lots of photos and videos for myself, but I also created a video for my Master's thesis on the birds of Joshua Tree and how they cope with life in the desert. And this week, I want to share that video with all of you! Enjoy!

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Feathers: Form Fits Function

Last week, I wrote about how to improve the lives of your pets through enrichment. I showed examples with the animals where I work, but I never introduced you to my own pets! I have two pets, a male and female cockatiel.

This is Peanut, my little man:

And Tucker, my "lemon chicken" girl:

Right now, Tucker is in what I call a "super molt," something she goes through about twice a year. In the wild, birds replace their feathers twice a year: once in the spring, and again in the fall. This not only keeps them looking fresh and sexy for the ladies (or gents in the case of polyandrous birds), but also ensures that their feathers are in tip-top shape for flying. Birds in captivity, like wild birds, will lose and occasional feather here and there, but also go through periods where they molt large amounts of feathers at a time. During Tucker's super molts, she can sit preening (cleaning her feathers) for 30 seconds on the couch and this happens:
My house becomes littered with feathers, rolling across the floor like little tumblefluffs. But no matter how many super molts I've been through, I never get tired of seeing all the different shapes and forms Tucker's feathers come in. Birds' feathers are an amazing testament to form fits function, with each feather uniquely sculpted to fit a specific purpose.

Peanut wanted to contribute to this post too, so his feather is showcased at the left. Remiges are the flight feathers on the wings; the classic quill feather. These feathers are stiff and strong and are inserted directly into bone instead of skin like most feathers, and so are able to push hard against the air in order to achieve flight. In actuality, all a bird's feathers have a role in flight, but if a bird loses too many remiges, it will be rendered flightless. The narrow side of the central shaft is the leading edge of the wing. Because of this, we can tell this feather came from Peanut's left wing. 

Not as stiff as remiges, retricies are a bird's tail feathers and are also inserted straight into bone, in this case the last tailbone called the pygostyle. These feathers are responsible for steering in flight. A bird also steers with its wings, true, but holding its wings perfectly still, a bird can make a slightest twitch of its tail to turn. They can also spread their tail feathers to slow their flight, or tuck them in nice and neat when performing a swift dive. The feather on the left is one of Tucker's central tail feathers, as can be told by its perfect symmetry. Feathers from the left or right side of her tail look slightly different, like the beautifully patterned one on the right. Using the same guidelines as with the remiges, can you tell which side of the tail this feather came from?

No covert operation here, just feathers whose job are to protect the flight feathers on the wings and tail. This feather is one of my favorite of Tucker's, a tail covert, aka "buttvert." Just look at the cup to fit her little feathered butt, people. And it's so fluffy I'M GONNA DIE. Nobody likes a cold rear end, and birds are no exception. All that fluff at the base of both the retrices and their coverts makes for a nice, warm, fluffy behind.

Contour Feathers
The majority of feathers you see on a bird are contour feathers, whose function is to not only keep the bird warm, but to give it its aerodynamic shape. The colors of the contour feathers also perform roles in attracting the opposite sex and camouflage. Most contour feathers have a slight curve, lending their shape to the overall curve of the bird. But look at the contour feather on the right. This feather is thin, perfectly flat, and almost rectangular. It's a wingpit feather! This feather is perfectly shaped to fit tightly up against Tucker's body beneath her wings. The last thing you'd want as a bird (besides a cold butt) is feathers that get in the way of your wingbeats. These feathers perfectly fit that need, protecting her body, while not getting in the way.

Other specialized feathers
There are all sorts of other little specialized feathers to be found on a bird's body, like tiny filoplumes...
which can be found at the base of almost every contour feather and are sensitive to air movement and vibrations. This allows a bird to feel the place of every feather on their body, and know when one is the slightest bit out of place and needs attention.

There's bristles:
which look like tiny whiskers between Tucker's eyes and beak but are special feathers stripped down to their central barb. Bristles like Tucker's help keep dirt, insects, and other foreign things out of her eyes and nostrils. Bristles on some birds, like nighthawks, help them to sense when insects are near their mouths when feeding. And on birds of prey and vultures, bristles mixed in with the contour feathers can help keep blood and gore off of the contour feathers.

And finally since we're talking about cockatiels, we have to mention the fabulous crest feathers:

For some feathers, their form is their function. That is to say that some feathers are fabulously shaped for the sake of being fabulous. For a cockatiel's crest, not only can they attract attention, but they are incredibly expressive, like little birdy eyebrows. You can even literally see Tucker thinking, as her crest goes up and down as she's really puzzling over how to steal food off of my plate. However, crest feathers are probably the most awkward thing to happen as they loosen during a super molt.
Poor, poor, unicorn Peanut.

Tucker's super molt is slowing down, meaning there are less feathers being dispersed all over my house. But whenever I pick one up, I can look at its shape and tell exactly where on Tucker's body the feather came from, thanks to nature's excellent design of form fitting function. 

Monday, March 10, 2014

Keeping Captive Animals Wild through Enrichment

Those who know me personally are always hearing of my crazy, humorous, and sometimes disgusting exploits as the animal curator at Briar Bush Nature Center. And many tell me I should share these stories on this blog. Today, I thought I would give you a short behind-the-scenes look at just one aspect of what it means to care for a collection of captive animals, and how you can do the same at home for your pets.

The animals we have at Briar Bush are mostly surrendered pets, with a few non-releasable wildlife species, such as Henry the opossum, whom you met last month. No matter what the species of animal, from the wildest owl to the tamest rat, all captive animals need to exercise both their bodies and their brains, because a life in captivity is not as engaging as a life in the wild. In the wild animals spend their time looking for food, defending their territories, and engaging with others of their species. In captivity, food is always in the same bowl, the territory is established, and not all pets have someone around all day to interact with, human or otherwise. When we stimulate the brains of our beloved animals, it is called enrichment

What does enrichment look like? Many of you already have enrichment for your pets: that Kong for your dog, the catnip mouse for your cat, and even that plant in your fish tank all enrich their lives. The best forms of enrichment mimic some sort of behavior that is natural for that animal in the wild. Cats like to hunt, so we give them toys to pounce on. Parrots use their beaks to manipulate objects for food, so we give them complex toys. (For great enrichment ideas for parrots, check out Bird Geek Michele's blog rats like to make nests, so we give them cozy places to hide and things to shred.
Sisters Spot and Starr, enjoying their cozy hammock. 
They like to stuff it with shredded newspaper I provide to give it that extra homey touch.

At Briar Bush, a lot of the enrichment I provide centers around the natural behavior of foraging, or looking for food. Instead of just placing a plate or bowl in front of them, I trigger their natural instincts to find their own food. Enrichment for a leopard tortoise named Torti looks like this:
A pesticide-free lawn on which to dine! As an added bonus, Torti is receiving much-needed vitamin D and UVB from the natural sunlight as she grazes. And as an added bonus to the homeowner, she provides a mowing and fertilization service!

Enrichment for a turkey vulture named Ralph looks like this:
I call it RATBALL.

Ratball works off of a vulture's natural tendency to stick its head and beak inside of things in order to get food. What you may not know about vultures is that they are extremely intelligent. You've gotta keep uping your game to keep a vulture occupied! 
Ratball version 1.0 was just a mouse placed inside the ball. 
    Child's play (or rather chick's play). 
Version 2.0: a large rat that I had to really work to stuff inside the ball. 
    Apparently it wasn't work to remove it. 
Version 3.0: A rat burrito-wrapped inside a piece of bed sheet.
    Silly human, just pull the rat out of the end of the burrito.
Version 4.0 (seen above): Tie the rat inside of the sheet like a little drawstring purse inside the ball.
    Now we're getting somewhere! 

This one took Ralph a while to figure out, but eventually he used his powerful beak to just rip a hole right through the sheet to extract the rat, much like he would rip open a carcass in the wild. Today I am up to Ratball version 6.0, in which the bed sheet has been replaced with a much tougher washcloth.

And enrichment for a pair of red-eared sliders looks like this:
Yes, enrichment for the turtles meant death for the goldfish, but red-eared sliders don't eat turtle pellets in the wild, they eat living things. And whenever these two are fed live prey, they move faster and are more active than I ever see them at any other time. Suddenly their days go from boring and mundane to exciting and purposeful. That reptilian brain kicks in to hyper drive and they love every minute of it. Well maybe the male slider a little less, as he didn't catch a single one of the 8 fish. Pellets are more his speed.

Providing enrichment for the animals under my care at work and for your animals at home isn't just entertaining for us humans, but it's a matter of physical and mental health for our furry, scaly, feathery, slippery, and exoskeletony friends. And as you've seen with the case of Ralph the turkey vulture, providing enrichment can be a challenge for your brain as well! This week put your brain to the test to challenge your pets at home with some enrichment. Don't forget to share the video of your enrichment on my Facebook page...the internet loves cute animal videos.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Everything in (Not So) Moderation

This week the Food and Drug Administration proposed changes to nutrition labels on food for the first time in 20 years. The changes, they say, would give a more realistic idea of what we are stuffing in our mouths. What?! Three Oreos is TOTALLY a realistic serving size! Said no one ever. I have long chuckled at serving sizes. I am not an over-eater for the most part (except when it comes to popcorn), but calling a can of soup or a 20 oz. soda two servings each is rather ridiculous. I'm all for the revisions, though I think I might suffer from a heart attack from seeing what I'm actually eating, regardless of how much sodium is in it. This week, let's look at some serving sizes and nutrition content in the animal kingdom, shall we?

If you were a blue whale, this is what your daily intake of krill would look like. Krill are tiny crustaceans that are capable of planking on a fingertip like this:
A blue whale consumes 4 tons of these little buggers a day, which is enough to fill a dumpster. Pretty cool to think that one of the largest animals in the world subsists on one of the smallest animals in the world.

"Leche de Foca" translates to seal milk, and in this case, Northern fur seal milk, specifically. Young fur seal pups need to drink milk like any other mammal in order to grow, but their mothers spend a lot of time hunting, and not a lot of time nursing. As a result, the pups have to get a lot of nutrients in a very short time. A female fur seal's milk is 46% fat, which is comparable to heavy whipping cream (36% fat). Sure makes our whole milk of 3.25% look not so bad, doesn't it?

As you may recall from a previous blog, short-tailed shrews have some of the highest metabolisms in the animal kingdom. While it may sound good to be able to eat whatever you want (even seal milk) and still stay slim and trim, consider that they can starve to death in just a manner of hours. Because of their high rate of calorie use, a short-tailed shrew consumes between one to three times their own body weight a day. If we were to look at this from a human perspective, it would mean that the average 180 pound man would need to consume 180 to 540 pounds of food a day, or roughly somewhere between this...

and this....
every day. 
Our refrigerators would have to be a whole heck of a lot bigger.

These are just three of the nutrition labels you'd expect to see under the new Food and Drug Administration's revisions that reflect accurate and realistic serving sizes and nutrition content. Hey FDA, speaking of revised serving sizes, here's what I'd suggest for my own popcorn serving size, ok?
That should just about do it.