The Grey Partridge or Hungarian Partridge was introduced to Canada in the early 1900s, and now makes its home mostly in Southern areas of the Prairies, although it can be found in other parts of the country as well. These year-round residents nest on the ground and lay huge clutches of up to 22 eggs!
The most fascinating thing about these little game birds, however, is their incredible ability to survive the extreme Canadian Prairie winters. They manage this by feeding mostly on waste grain in cultivated fields. Undeterred by the snow, a group or ‘covey’ of partridges will burrow through the snow and feed on the leftovers of harvest, spending almost all of their energy on food procurement and predator avoidance. They leave a characteristic network of tracks or tunnels in the snow, an easily identifiable sign of their recent presence.
Fondly referred to as ‘Huns’, Grey Partridges are a popular target for upland game hunters, and are classified as a species of Least Concern in Canada. Relatively few partridges have been submitted to the CWHC over the years, but of those that have, most were trauma cases killed by vehicle collisions or predator attacks, which isn’t too surprising given their ground-dwelling habits.
Photo: K.Pitk via Wikimedia Commons
No matter where you live in Canada, doves are likely a part of your daily life. Urban or rural, Rock Doves (pigeons) are very good at taking advantage of food resources. This ability to thrive in human-dominated environments often leads to their demise, as Avitrol poisoning is a major cause of death in this species. Avitrol is marketed as a flock deterrent. It causes seizures and vocalizations from affected birds, which serve to scare away the flock. The substance does cause death in a proportion of affected birds, however, and improper bait mixing often leads to widespread poisoning of the flock.
Rock Doves are not native to Canada and are under no threat of population declines, but poisoning is not recommended for controlling populations. Not only is this method ineffective for repelling flocks over the long-term, but it will also kill other bird species that ingest the bait. Acute secondary Avitrol poisoning from feeding on contaminated carcasses is thought to be rare, but it has been documented in birds of prey. Canada Geese and Trumpeter Swans have also been submitted to the CWHC because of direct accidental or intentional Avitrol poisoning.
Photo: Muhammad Mahdi Karim via Wikimedia Commons
Last Christmas was a tough time for the Canadian poultry industry, with outbreaks of highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) beginning in late 2014 and continuing into the new year. Massive outbreaks were occurring in the US at the same time, causing the destruction of millions of domestic birds. Working with our provincial partners in British Columbia and Ontario, the two provinces involved in the outbreaks, the CWHC increased our surveillance activities for wild waterfowl during 2015, which resulted in the detection of highly pathogenic avian influenza in a wild duck in British Columbia.
No HPAI cases in domestic or wild birds have been detected in Canada since the last outbreak ended in early 2015. The CWHC continues to carry out a national wild bird influenza surveillance program in partnership with provincial and federal government agencies.
Photo: Woodley Wonderworks via Wikimedia Commons
Many birds vacate the Canadian Prairies before the frigid winter sets in, but there are many tough little residents and winter visitors that choose to brave the cold. A short walk outside of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan (home of our National Office and Western/Northern node) is guaranteed to bring the familiar calls of several species to your ears.
Black-capped Chickadee: Hardy and sociable, the Black-capped Chickadee survives the frigid temperatures by entering into a state of torpor, conserving energy by lowering their body temperature by up to 12 degrees Celsius, an uncommon ability amongst birds. They have a variety of calls including alarm calls that are used to warn others within their band of danger.
Common Redpoll: Part of the finch family, these intrepid birds are found in northern Europe, Asia and North America, including Greenland and Iceland. Although they can be found year-round in some areas, the southern and central Prairies are actually the wintering grounds of these birds. Their song is particularly musical, a trait common among finches. Salmonellosis is a frequent cause of death in this species and other common feeder birds. Proper and regular cleaning of bird feeders can help prevent the transmission of salmonella among wild birds and pets.
Bohemian Waxwings: Waxwings, both the Bohemian and Cedar are year-round residents. The sounds of their typically large flocks are unmistakeable as they swoop through urban and rural areas in search of food. These flocks are a particularly common sight in urban areas in the winter due to the presence of fruit bearing trees. Every year the CWHC receives several individuals, usually as a result of window strikes which may or may not be contributed to by varying states of intoxication from these birds eating fermented berries.
Gray Jay: Okay, to see this species you may have to walk a bit farther outside Saskatoon. And you may see them before you hear them, as Gray Jays are the quietest cousins in the Corvid family. A frequent sight throughout the Canadian boreal forest, the Gray Jay happens to be our CWHC ambassador, representing the national scope of our organization and our hardy, but not flashy, nature. These uniquely Canadian birds are well-adapted winter residents that survive through their opportunistic nature, feeding on berries, seeds, insects, scraps of meat, and anything else they can get their hands – er, bills – on. They spend most of the summer hoarding food for the winter and are frequent visitors to campsites and traplines, where their boldness and cunning have earned the nickname “camp robber”.
Photo: Frebeck via Wikimedia Commons
Bird banding (or ringing) has been an important tool in monitoring wild bird populations for over a century (with reports of the practice as early as four centuries ago). Environment Canada works with the United States Geological Survey (USGS) to jointly administer the North American Bird Banding Program.
Birds are captured using a variety of trapping techniques, after which a uniquely numbered, usually metal, band is placed on an individual’s leg. When the bird is recovered or sighted, the number is reported and information about the bird is collected. Banding can provide information on migration routes and distances, life span, population size, reproduction, and nestling survival. Some researchers also use coloured bands to visually identify marked individuals without having to recapture them.
There are a few bird species that can’t be banded at all. New World Vultures, of which the Turkey Vulture is the only species found in Canada, cannot be banded around the leg due to a behaviour known as urohydrosis. These large carrion-eaters defecate on their legs as a way to cool them off. The buildup of excrement around the band causes corrosion and eventually leg damage. Researchers switched to wing tags to mark Turkey Vultures when the issue became known in the 70s.
The CWHC carries out banding of waterfowl in conjunction with avian influenza testing of live birds. In this video, you can see the banding and swabbing processes as well as the baited funnel traps used to capture the ducks.
Photo: Christina Nöbauer via Wikimedia Commons
Snow Geese are one of the most abundant species of waterfowl in North America. Once protected in the early 1900s after their numbers dropped to low levels, the species had fully recovered by the 1970s. Snow Goose populations are now considered by some to be too high. Huge flocks of Snow Geese are an impressive sight during the spring and fall migrations, but these flocks run into conflict with humans because of their tendency to overfeed cropland and habitats important to other species.
Snow geese are commonly affected by seasonal outbreaks of avian cholera. The bacterial disease can kill large numbers of birds very quickly once an outbreak is established, as was seen in a March 2015 outbreak in Idaho that killed over 2000 Snow Geese.
Last month, CWHC Western/Northern investigated an avian cholera outbreak near Rosetown, Saskatchewan. After receiving a report from a member of the public about dead geese, CWHC staff notified Saskatchewan Ministry of Environment of the report. Ted Glass, Conservation Officer based out of Kindersley, SK, visited the site to investigate. He collected and submitted 78 geese for examination and testing, a combination of Ross’s, Snow, and Greater White-fronted Geese. Avian cholera was confirmed shortly thereafter as the cause of the outbreak.
Photo: Hamilton Greenwood
Canada is home to three species of swans: the native Tundra and Trumpeter Swans and the non-native Mute Swan, introduced from Europe and Asia in the 1870s. Once endangered, Trumpeter Swan populations in Canada are recovering from over-hunting that nearly led to their demise in the early 1900s. These birds are still vulnerable to habitat loss and are particularly susceptible to lead poisoning because of their feeding habits.
Swans dip their heads and necks to feed on leaves, tubers and roots from the bottom substrate. On water bodies heavily hunted with lead ammunition, swans accidentally ingest lead shot, which then breaks down in the gizzard to release lead into the bloodstream. Swans and raptors have been the focus of many programs educating hunters on using non-toxic, rather than lead-based ammunition.
Photo: Hamilton Greenwood
Hmm, birds…milking…where’s the connection?
Wait! Did you know that some birds feed milk to their young? Crop milk is a nutritious substance composed of cells sloughed from the lining of the crop. Adult birds of both sexes feed the substance to their young for the first few days of life. Not all birds produce crop milk; only pigeons and doves, flamingos, and males of some species of penguin. Interestingly, although crop milk is quite different from mammalian milk, its production is stimulated by prolactin, the same hormone that stimulates milk production in mammals!
Photo: Andrew Atzert via Wikimedia Commons
There is nothing quite like the sight of the courtship ritual of the Clark’s and the Western Grebes. The ritual involves a variety of feeding, preening, and display behaviours and ends with a mating dance known as ‘rushing’, which involves the pair running across the surface of the water with their heads held forward and necks arched. This impressive dance is goes on for several seconds and ends with both birds diving into the water simultaneously. BBC Life highlights the courtship of a pair of Clark’s Grebes in this video.
Photo: Hamilton Greenwood
We all know that the days immediately following birth can vary tremendously among different species. Neonates, or newborns, are born somewhere in the range of completely helpless and requiring complete care, to quite mature and able to care for themselves shortly after birth. Species that give birth to helpless young are known as altricial (think humans…and Giant Pandas), whereas those whose young are mobile and mature (sometimes amazingly so) are known as precocial.
Most species of ducks and geese have precocial young, who, although still requiring parental care, can see, walk and swim almost immediately hatching. For cavity nesters such as Wood Ducks, this ability becomes very important soon after hatching, as ducklings must make their way from the nest to the water with no help from their mother. The day-old hatchlings must make a spectacular leap out of the nest, which is usually located in a tree cavity or nest box as high as 50 feet above the ground! This is all fine and good if the nest is located directly above the water, but that is not always the case. PBS Nature captures the great plunge on film:
And even more impressive, but not for the faint-of-heart, this video by BBC Life documents the unbelievable leap of a cliff-nesting Barnacle gosling. The video is gut-wrenching to watch, but it ends happily, I promise.
Photo: Kim Leblanc
Small, unassuming, but not to be underestimated, the Piping Plover inhabits shores and sandbars of water bodies in the Prairies and the Atlantic coast of North America. These little shorebirds nest in the sand, camouflaging the eggs with rocks and pieces of shell. Prior to breeding, males of this species scrape out depressions in the sand and perform courtship displays to attract a female. If the female approves of a scrape, she will mate with the male and build her nest in the scrape. Both sexes incubate the eggs and defend the nest against predators, sometimes aggressively. Because their sandy habitats are attractive for human recreation and development, habitat loss and disturbance have been major causes of population declines in this endangered species.
The CWHC, Atlantic Region has been collaborating with Prince Edward Island National Park since 1993 to determine the various causes of hatching failure in Piping Plover eggs. Most often hatching failure is caused by disruption of incubation due to high tides, storms and/or predators. However, other causes of hatching failure have been identified, including infertility, abnormal positioning of the embryo and congenital defects.
Photo: Mdf via Wikimedia Commons
If you spend much time in forested regions of Canada and parts of the US, you’ve probably heard a curious drumming sound as the winter months draw to a close:
The drumming starts out slow, but speeds up toward the end, sounding a bit like an engine starting up in the distance. This is the sound of the male Ruffed Grouse performing a courtship display. He beats his wings in the air, creating a thumping sound as the air rushes into the vacuum left by the wing movement. If all goes well, nearby females will be attracted by the drumming and will move in to briefly mate with the male.
This popular game bird is another perfectly-adapted winter resident. Ruffed Grouse can digest fibrous, woody plant material, a plentiful food source during even the harshest winters. They also roost in the snow, burrowing down to insulate themselves from the cold air. Perfectly camouflaged, they explode out of the snow if a threat comes too near, leaving distinctive marks in the snow and sometimes heart palpitations in unsuspecting passers-by.
The Cornell Lab of Ornithology captures the sound of the Ruffed Grouse drumming and provides a great explanation:
Photo: Hamilton Greenwood
Sound clip: Jonathon Jongsma via Wikimedia Commons