Friday, July 3, 2015

This week in birds - #163

Image of Bald Eagle courtesy of Yellowstone.trip.com.

The Bald Eagle, emblem bird of the United States, is majestic in its appearance although sometimes less majestic in its behavior. It often feeds on carrion, including fish that wash up on shore, and it steals food from Ospreys and other smaller birds. It is also known to sometimes take the chicks of Ospreys from their nest. It was these less than savory habits that made Benjamin Franklin deplore the adoption of the eagle and wish that what he considered a more noble bird, the Wild Turkey, had been selected as emblem of the country. Nevertheless, for better or worse, over two hundred years later, we accept the Bald Eagle as the symbol of our country.

Bald Eagles are a member of a group of birds known as fish eagles. Fish eagles are found all over the world except in the American tropics. They usually live near water and often grab fish from the water's surface. Although other species from the group sometimes stray onto the continent, the Bald Eagle is uniquely North American.

The Bald Eagle usually first breeds at age 4-5 years and may mate for life. The nest is generally high up and near water. The main item in their diet is fish whenever it is available, but they are opportunistic and will take other prey or feed on carrion when available.

Bald Eagles, like many of our raptors, were declining rapidly during the middle of the last century, but after the outlawing of DDT and getting the protection of the Endangered Species Act, the bird started making a comeback. Today, Bald Eagles nest virtually everywhere in the country and their numbers are rising. Their recovery has been so successful that they have been taken off the Endangered Species list. Though the actions of people almost caused the demise of our national symbol, it appears that the actions of government have saved it - at least for now.

  
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Duke Energy, the largest electrical utility in the country, was prosecuted under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and, in 2013, pled guilty to the deaths of more than 150 protected birds, including 14 Golden Eagles, at two of their wind farms in Wyoming. They were fined $1 million. After the verdict, they went to work, contributing massive amounts of money to friendly legislators and lobbying Congress to weaken the law that had cost them money. Now they have seen the fruition of their efforts. A pliant House of Representatives passed an appropriations bill that prohibits the use of any Department of Justice funds in prosecuting or holding liable any person or corporation for a violation of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. If their action becomes law, it means that anyone could kill birds - including Bald Eagles - with impunity without risk of jail time or fines. It would destroy one of the most successful pieces of conservation legislation in history.

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Mark your calendars: National Moth Week is coming! It will be held July 18-26 and this year has been designated as Year of the Sphingidae. The Sphingidae, otherwise known as hawkmoths or, sometimes, hummingbird moths, are important pollinators in many areas of the country.

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Monk Parakeets are another escapee from the pet trade that made good. They have now established themselves and are breeding in many parts of the country.

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Birds that nest near reservoirs sometimes suffer in times of flooding. They may lose their nest. However, a new study indicates that those that survive seem to benefit from less predation and other factors related to the flood. 

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California's Ridgway Rail is a shy bird of the salt marshes. Its existence is threatened because of the loss of those salt marshes. For example, about 95 percent San Francisco Bay's once abundant salt marshes have been lost to development. This is the recurring theme everywhere along the coast.

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BP this week agreed to pay $18.7 billion to settle claims from the ecological and human disaster it caused with its three-months-long spill of oil into the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. It's a big figure, but, frankly, some of us would say it still isn't enough. 

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"Bug Eric" posts more helpful information about how to use the Internet to get unknown insects identified.

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The Supreme Court's decision regarding the EPA's regulation of mercury emissions from coal-fired power plants was widely reported as having overturned those regulations, but that's not exactly the case. The court said that the EPA must consider costs up front when formulating plans to regulate. They must do a cost-benefit analysis first. I'm not sure how they will put a value on lives and health lost if these emissions are not regulated, but that should certainly be a part of the "costs." 

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The Tricolored Blackbird of California continues its lonely fight for survival. The population has dropped precipitously in recent years and some are calling it California's Passenger Pigeon. At one time it was the most numerous bird in the state, but there are fears that within 20 years it may be extinct.

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Another new report has warned, as several before it have also, that global climate change is increasing the risk of extreme weather, along with the property damage and loss of life concomitant with it.

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As the oceans warm, Elegant Terns are more frequently abandoning their ancestral nesting grounds on the Gulf of California to move farther north where the seas are still somewhat cooler and fishing is better.

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Another introduced non-native species is causing harm to native animals. This time it is a fish - the striped bass. It has been introduced in many areas because fishermen want to catch it and eat it. But it competes with native species and sometimes destroys them. Thus, it has become an unwanted invasive in some areas.

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Birds get a new set of feathers each year, as their old ones get worn and less effective. It's called the molt, when they lose the old feathers and grow their new ones. It is a vulnerable time and the timing of the molt is crucial. For example, migrating requires a full set of feathers for maximum efficiency, so it is important that the bird finishes its molt before it sets out on the migratory journey.

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Happy Independence Day to all! Have a safe and joyous Fourth of July weekend.

4 comments:

  1. Great info about the Bald Eagles, Dorothy. I wish I saw one;they are becoming more abundant near home.

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    1. They are turning up everywhere these days. Soon they'll be as common as Red-tailed Hawks.

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  2. Glad to hear the eagle is making a comeback. I've still to see one around here. Have a great Fourth of July!

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