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Occasional posts - from the quirky to the momentous - on the life and times of the Methow Conservancy.
(What you won't find in E-News)

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Snowy Owls!

Snowy Owl in the Rendezvous by Mary Morgan
A snowy owl is quite a sight, and a rare one in the Methow.  In the last couple of weeks, Methow-ians have seen a snowy owl in the Rendezvous and on Studhorse.  Snowy owls are regular residents of Arctic regions, and only rarely venture south to our state.  However, last winter and this current winter, snowy owl sightings have been more common in Washington State.  Birders consider snowy owls in our area to be in an “irruptive phase”.   (No, the birds are not erupting out of any volcanoes, although this image did give us a laugh at our staff meeting today.)  In the birding world, an “irruption” is generally considered to be a dramatic increase in the number of birds in areas where they aren’t typically found.

The Magpie seems to think the owl took his spot (Mary Morgan)
According to BirdWeb, an irruption of snowy owls takes place after a large lemming population stimulates a high rate of owl reproduction.  With an increased Arctic snowy owl population, the less dominant birds, generally the immature males, are forced farther south.  Others ornithologists state that a shortage of food (apart from any changes in the owl population), typically lemmings, up north, forces the owls to move farther south in search of food.  It may be that a combination of a lemming boom, followed by a snowy owl increase in reproduction and crash of the lemming population, explains the owls’ movement south.

Snowy owl irruptions generally occur every 10 years or less.  The last such irruption in Washington state was in 2006.  When several species irrupt to the same region in one year, it is referred to as a “superflight”.

Happy winter and good luck finding Hedwig.  
(And, if you are interested in even more amazing photos of the Methow's snowy owl(s?), check out Teri Pieper's blog:

Written by the Methow Conservancy's Conservation Biologist, Julie Grialou, who has eagle eyes when it comes to spotting cool wildlife!

Friday, December 7, 2012

Gifts of the Crow - Notes from the December program

By Bob Herbert, Methow Conservancy Volunteer
The Methow Conservancy’s Dec 4th Holiday Social and “First Tuesday” proved to be a very interesting evening for all those who attended.  The barn was packed with about 350 people for John Marzluff’s enlightening discussion about corvids. (See the end of this article for more details about John Marzluff).  The Methow Valley is filled with these highly intelligent and social creatures, and this family of birds includes crows, ravens, magpies, jays, and nutcrackers.  The area of the world we live in is rich in lore and native art depicting the raven.  The American Indians of the Pacific Northwest revered the raven as the creator and they believed the raven was responsible for bringing the light of the sun to the people of earth.

John started the evening with a short video of a crow attempting to lift a small pail of food out of the bottom of a 6” deep cylinder.  The crow started by using a straight piece of wire that it held in its beak, but it quickly realized there was no way to hook the handle of the bucket.  The crow then applied leverage in order to bend the end of the wire into a hook.  With the help of the newly fashioned tool, the crow was able to snag the handle and remove the pail of food.  It was an impressive show of intelligence, and John was filled with many more interesting stories that displayed the wide range of corvid’s abilities and emotions.

Corvid’s brains are larger than any other birds’ brain when compared to their body size, and they are not far from the brain to body weight ratio of primate, including humans.  Their brains are split into two hemispheres, like humans, and PET scans show that different areas of their brains are stimulated depending on if they perceive a threat or a reward.  Their brains create dopamine, endorphins, and testosterone, and the birds can live up to forty years.  Because of their longevity and highly developed brains, corvids are able to learn from their mistakes, remember faces and voices, teach one another, speak through mimicking (like parrots), mourn for their dead, give gifts, and defend their territory in large, organized groups. 

John told us about one Washington resident who fed his neighborhood crows every day with cooked chicken.  One day while refilling the feeder he complained to one of the nearby crows that their situation seemed one-sided.  He was doing all the giving and the crows were doing all the receiving.  Later that day, he went outside to check the feeder and he found a valentine heart candy in the empty feeder and the message read “Love.”  After that, the crows continued to bring him a variety of “gifts.”  Another person in the mountains of Colorado watched ravens pick up small, flat pieces of wood or bark with their claws, and then use them to surf in the wind.  Perhaps they were inspired by watching snowboarders!  John went on to share detailed and unbelievable stories of crows and magpies speaking like humans
We are lucky to live in a valley filled with so many of these wonderfully playful and bright creatures.  Corvids mate for life and they are smarter than most people realize, so the next time a corvid flies over your head, take a moment to say hello.  John’s program proved that you never know what you may receive in return.

More about John Marzluff:
Dr. John Marzluff is Professor of Wildlife Science at the University of Washington.  His graduate and initial post-doctoral research focused on the social behavior and ecology of jays and ravens.  He was especially interested in communication, social organization, and foraging.  His current research brings this behavioral approach to pressing conservation issues including raptor management, management of pest species, and assessment of nest predation.  His book, In the Company of Crows and Ravens from 2005 blends biology, conservation, and anthropology to suggest that human and crow cultures have co-evolved.  This book won the 2006 Washington State Book Award for general nonfiction.  With his wife, Collen, last year he published Dog Days, Raven Nights, which combines reflection with biology and the recreational pursuit of dog sledding to show how a life in science blooms.  John’s latest book Gifts of the Crow applies a neurobiological perspective to understand the amazing feats of corvids.  He has led studies on the effects of military training on falcons and eagles in southwestern Idaho, the effects of timber harvest, recreation, and forest fragmentation on goshawks and marbled murrelets in western Washington and Oregon, conservation strategies for Pacific Island crows, and the effects of urbanization on songbirds in the Seattle area.  Dr. Marzluff has authored over 120 scientific papers on various aspects of bird behavior and wildlife management, and he is a member of the board of editors for several academic journals.  His research has been the focus of articles in the New York Times, National Geographic, Audubon, Boys Life, The Seattle Times, and National Wildlife.  PBS’s NATURE featured his raven research in its production, "Ravens," and his crow research in the film documentary, "A Murder of Crows."  (Watch the full episodes at these links!)  He is currently leader of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Recovery Team for the critically endangered Mariana Crow, a former member of the Washington Biodiversity Council, and a Fellow of the American Ornithologist's Union.

The Methow Conservancy also gave its annual Conservation Awards and thanked all of the individuals and businesses whose donations make programs like this possible.  Go here for details about the awards.

Have a safe and happy holiday season everyone!