I am a morning person. Up early, smile on my face, and toting one of my favorite morning phrases, “The early bird gets the worm”, I am off and running just as the sun is making its appearance over the horizon. Usually, this is a quiet time for me, watching nature come to life. I notice dew drops of moisture on the ground that twinkle in the sunlight. I hear birds chirping and bushy-tailed squirrels scampering about. I see the red fox taking the animal trail out into the deep woods, and Daisy deer showing up at the water tub for a long drink of water after a night of running about… or whatever it is that deer do at night!
Through my observations of nature in the morning, I have discovered the best time to photograph birds and most wildlife is between 8:00 and 10:30 a.m. It is then, when the sun is peeking over the tree tops, that the bird population bustles with activity. And it is this time of morning when I see all sorts of bird species in the woodlands around and below our home, and this time of year when I take note of the winter bird population.
Several years ago I began taking part in the “Oklahoma Winter Birds” survey, in order to better educate myself about the various winter species that frequent our area, and to learn more about their habit, diet and feeding behavior. Ultimately, my biggest hurdle was in learning to identify each species. At first, I often found that difficult. For instance, there are eight species of sparrows in Oklahoma during the winter months. To a birding novice like myself, comparing and contrasting traits of sparrows was confusing. I tended to get overwhelmed, unless I took a photograph where I could positively identify which sparrow I was looking at, and memorize it. After six years of participating in the survey, I still have to refer to the guide to identify many of the various sparrows.
One of my favorite bird species is the Tufted Titmouse. We see them year-round here. Their shrill and happy call alerts me even before I see their small, but stout bodies. The large eyes, short beak, and pointed crest of the titmouse makes it easy to spot them from a distance. So yesterday morning, as I headed down the slope to the canyon bottom below and heard the titmice chattering away, along with chickadees, robins, a couple of nuthatches, and a lone woodpecker in the distance, I was especially delighted. It appeared to be a busy morning at the corn feeder and water tub, and a perfect morning for photography!
As I have learned over the years, photographing wildlife requires a lot of sitting and waiting. To get beyond noticing the pain in my buttocks or my growing impatience at not seeing subjects all around me now, posing wonderfully for my camera, I try to concentrate on observing all that is going on around me, even the little things like insects, rather than focusing on how cold I am (especially this time of year). Yesterday, the weather was a bit breezy and chilly so I located a sunny spot in which to sit and lean against a tree. With no dew on the ground, moving around was noisy; the crunch of leaves and snap of twigs announced “human approaching” to all of the woodland creatures. But thankfully, my zoom lens allows me fairly close proximity to my subjects, even when I cannot manage getting near them physically.
This particular morning, I managed a few shots of various birds but nothing truly interesting caught my eye and I ended up with many disappointing shots. Birds moved around a lot, flitting from branch to branch, and tree to tree. They often turned and hopped and rarely presented an opportunity that offered the perfect pose. I would be lucky to wind up with anything that provides much detail and is sharply focused, much less beautifully posed.
After focusing on the various birds flitting about me, I got side-tracked for a time observing a little squirrel peeping out from just above me, tucked in a little knot hole in a dead tree. Then, far above me, I captured a different squirrel performing his acrobatic movements, as he flew through the air from one small branch to another. “My, these tree rats are entertaining!”, I thought. Then suddenly, I heard the flutter of wings nearby. A tufted titmouse had landed on a slender branch just next to me!
I carefully pivoted to my right for a better angle and quickly snapped a photo before the little fellow could fly away. It was through the lens of the camera as I framed this first shot, that I noticed a peculiarity. Something was wrong with the titmouse’s beak. I watched him for a short time as he darted about the area near me. He seemed to drink water from the tub just fine, maybe taking a bit longer than one might expect, but then I often observe birds taking their time and just resting at the bird baths. I managed several decent photographs before the little grey “mouse” finally flew away.
Afterwards, I chose to discontinue my quest to meander in the woods looking for additional photo opportunities. I wanted to go inside the house and research the oddity I had observed with the titmouse’s beak. I had many questions in mind about this beak deformity. Was it genetic? Could an accident have caused it? Was it due to a disease? Was it a common sighting? I just had to know!
Once online, it did not take me long to discover that what I had just photographed was not a rare sighting. Since the early 1970’s, several organizations have been conducting ongoing research into what is now called, “Avian Keratin Disorder”. It seems the affliction affects adult birds, not the young and, therefore, does not indicate a genetic problem. The deformity doesn’t seem to come from a virus or a bacterial source. The birds researched seemed to have a normal diet, and did not seem to lack in nutrients. Most afflictions show up regionally among certain species and, not being widespread, rule out disease as a cause. One might think an obvious indication would be environmental contamination, but research in that area has not yet identified a clear contaminant.
To gain a deeper understanding of the beak structure, I researched further; discovering that a bird’s beak consists of bone overlaid by a horny structure made of keratin. Keratin is the same protein that makes up hair, feathers, fingernails, and claws. Like nails, the horny material constantly grows and wears away. Deformities like the one I observed in my titmouse friend, result from a sudden acceleration in growth of the beak, in some cases nearly twice as fast as normal. Yet, the underlying bones show no evidence of abnormality. Various groups are currently performing testing and studies to pin-point the cause of what might be going wrong with the keratin-producing cells.
In my research, I also noted that the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s “Project Feederwatch” and the US Geological Survey are encouraging birding observers to fill out surveys and document sightings of birds with beak deformities such as the one I observed. So today, I did my part by filling out the observation reports and attaching photos of the tufted titmouse I had photographed. Still, I felt helpless in a way. I knew my little friend had learned to adapt to his strange beak during the summer months, somehow managing to capture enough insects to keep him alive. But, in winter, titmice tend to eat seeds, acorns, and small berries, using their beaks to break and pry them apart in order to get at the nutritious “meat” inside. How would he manage this in the cold winter months ahead, with such an awkward, curved beak as his primary tool? And what about proper preening of his feathers? Accessing the preening gland with a bird’s beak is essential in waterproofing feathers and keeping clean. Since feathers help to insulate from the cold, preening is a necessary activity. How would my little friend manage this task with a such a beak?
As always here on the ten-acre ranch, we will keep our bird feeders filled with seed this winter. We will keep the water tub filled in the canyon, and likely have a couple of heated bird baths at the back porch as well. I have also discovered a couple of easy-to-make recipes for homemade bird suet to help my feathered friends make it through the winter. And these things will provide my little titmouse friend easy access to food and water and give him the best chance at life in spite of his deformity… even though I know, ultimately, that his chances for survival are slim.
But what has hit home with me the most about all this, is the realization that our treatment of the environment has everything to do with the long-term survival of all living things. Reading the information put before me last night, it was apparent that decades of broadcasting pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers, not to mention other sources of widespread environmental pollution, is taking its toll on our earth and its occupants. Yet, we think little about the outcome of our hapless ways, the ill effects of “convenience”, and the utter ignorance of our decisions.
Freaks of nature and oddities do not always just happen or occur as coincidence. But, only briefly noticing these things in others, we keep on living as if we are untouchable and invincible. And so it is that I fear that nothing will change until we, too, experience deformity in our own species, and finally begin to understand their plight to survive. Or has this already begun…?
© Day by Day the Farm Girl Way…