Monday, June 3, 2013

Bird Pointers

Artistic freedom: the ptarmigan covey is flushed. A good bird dog would NOT do that, he'd just freeze on point
In the late eighties I studied circulatory adaptations in the brood patch of Ptarmigan in Norway. To find these secretive birds, I often relied on the sensitive noses and natural pointing instinct of bird dogs. Every family in Trondheim seemed to own a couple of Setters or Pointers.

Pointing Gambel's Quail family click for better video quality
To my surprise, I recently observed very similar pointing behavior not in dogs, but in Gambel's Quail. Coincidentally, these birds are close relatives of the northern Ptarmigan. Both species are galliformes,  chicken like ground dwellers with short wings, strong running legs, and strong family bonds that outlast the breeding season so you find them all year round in their typical coveys.

This morning I watched a couple with two fairly grown chicks at the feeding station in front of my studio window. They were long and thin with excitement, their necks stretched and their beaks pointing. They held this pose and focused on a spot on the ground that from my view point was obscured by a rock and an agave. Clearly the chicks were learning to fine tune their maybe instinctive pointing by this concerted effort. In social animals, learning and memory are facilitated by highly-emotional situations. These chicks were learning their lesson well.
But what was triggering the excitement? Different from most bird mobs these guys were quiet and the other bird species were not drawn into the melee. The Mourning Dove seems hardly interested, the Thrasher keeps eating, only a sparrow seems ready to chime in.

Diamondback Rattler
But I got up from my desk and got my snake stick knowing exactly what was hiding under the agave. A Diamondback Rattler was tightly curled, absorbing heat from the warm sand and the morning sun. It is now so hot during the day that he is most likely night-active. The feeding station is visited at night by rodents, so this is a popular spot for rattlers.

This one was a small guy and his rattle didn't make any sounds. The small ones tend to wander straight west from that location, right into our dog run. So we decided to move him several hundred meters north. When he resumes his journey next night, he will hopefully bypass our house and the dog beds.

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