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Better than a Zoo: Big Red and Ezra, the Red-tailed Hawks

Friday, May 10th, 2013

Zoos are no substitute for appreciating a wild animal in his or her natural habitat, and they usually mean cruelty, suffering, and death for the animals themselves.

Almost everybody loves watching wild animals, though, and we’re very fortunate to be in the 21st century, where technology is improving to the point that we no longer need to imprison them to do so.

Case in point: Big Red and Ezra.

Big Red and Ez

Ezra sits on the eggs; his mate, Big Red, returns to the light pole upon which they've made their nest, March 2013. (Screenshot: MV on Flickr)

Big Red and Ezra are two wild Red-tailed Hawks who make their home on the Cornell University campus in Ithaca, New York.  For two years now, researchers at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology have monitored the nests of these beautiful birds via remote HD cameras, broadcasting them live for all the world to appreciate.  The lens view can be zoomed in, moved out, and adjusted so as to get the best view possible–far closer than you could ever get in a zoo or even in the wild, and all without disturbing the birds.

An interactive chatroom staffed with bird experts and curious hawkwatchers add to the experience, as does the impressive FAQ page.


Handsome Ezra strikes a pose, April 2013. (Screenshot: elly012912 on Flickr)

Thanks to the cam, viewers can watch Big Red and Ezra throughout the entirety of the breeding season.  We see them build their nest, lay eggs, and take turns brooding and warming them, standing periodically to roll them so that the chicks develop properly.  We see Ezra bring prey to Big Red (for she is the one who does the majority of nest-sitting) and we listen to them communicate with each other in a series of chirps and screeches.  When the babies hatch, we are witness to the entire grueling experience.  (Hatching is a very tough process and can take up to 72 hours!)  We watch Big Red and Ezra taking turns feeding them and we see as the hawklets finally figure out how to tear food for themselves.  As they grow, we see them become stronger day by day, going from downy balls of fluff who can’t open their eyes or hold up their heads to fully-grown fledglings who leap off the edge of the nest for their first flight.

BR with eggs

Big Red examines her third egg just after having laid it on March 20, 2013.

An experience like this can simply not be compared to watching a captive animal struggling to live some semblance of a natural life in a cage.

There are also other wonderful nestcams at the Lab of Ornithology, including the Great Blue Heron nest.

You can join the journey of Big Red and Ezra now and as can be guessed from this blog post, I fully recommend it.

fuzzy hawklet

One of last year's hawklets gazes into the camera (Screenshot: KidGos on Flickr)

Leave baby birds alone!

Friday, March 1st, 2013


mythbuster-leave baby birds alone

Tell everyone you know!

As spring arrives and with it, lots of new baby birds, it’s time to talk about some misconceptions.  Every year, compassionate and well-intentioned animal lovers sap much needed funds from wildlife rescue groups (like the local Wildlife Rescue Association, for example) by picking up what they believe are abandoned baby birds and “rescuing” them.  Like the picture says, it is not true that touching a fledgling bird will result in her parents abandoning her.  In fact, most birds have almost no sense of smell at all.  If you find a baby bird on the ground and she is clearly too young to be out of the nest, put her back.  Do not take her to a rehabilitation centre, and absolutely do not attempt to raise her yourself.

How will you know if the bird is too young to be out of the nest?

Many young birds naturally come to the ground when they grow a little too large for the nest. This is called “fledging”. Depending on the species of bird, this period can last for up to two weeks. The young birds learn to forage for food and exercise their muscles for flight. While it can be dangerous, they also learn important skills such as predator recognition. If the bird has most of its feathers, is otherwise active and alert, and is moving around well on its feet, it is most likely a fledgling bird and should be left where it is. You can always gently “shoo” the bird to a bit of cover to help keep it safe from predators. (source)

Speaking of predators, this is also a great time to ensure that your cats are kept indoors, if indeed they aren’t already kept inside all year round.  Despite the fact that we love them, domestic cats kill hundreds of millions of birds annually and are in fact one of the biggest threats to their survival. (Cats are Birds’ No. 1 Enemy, New York Times)  Bells do little to nothing to help, as cats are incredibly talented hunters and generally learn to adjust to them; moreover, the tinkling of a bell is a useless warning to a baby bird who cannot yet fly.  (Need another reason to keep your cat indoors?  Evidence shows that he’ll live longer!)

Finally, it’s worth noting that a lack of a sense of smell does not mean that birds are indifferent to the presence of humans.  If you do find a nest, leave it alone!  While your scent certainly won’t be an issue, continued interference can be.  Some birds will abandon their nests if they feel threatened.  How will you know if a nest is really abandoned?  Learn here.

Happy (almost) Spring!

Don’t feed the birds!

Saturday, September 18th, 2010

A lot of people love to feed birds, and I can’t blame them.  It’s fun, right?  I used to do it plenty myself.

Note that I said “used to”.  I am a huge bird-lover, but the more I learn about birds, the more I realize how important it is that we leave them alone.  (The obvious exception, of course, is backyard birdfeeders.  If you’d like some advice on how to set them up properly, I’d suggest asking the helpful folks at Wild Birds Unlimited.  Tip #1: get your birdseed from a legitimate supplier; don’t buy it from the grocery store, etc.  You can also go to places like the Reifel Bird Sanctuary, which provides appropriate food for their semi-tame population of waterfowl.)

Tonight I found a dying gull in Stanley Park.  His crop (where birds store their food before it goes into their belly) was swollen and he was spasming, regurgitating great quantities of bread and possibly the remnants of a hot dog.  The Wildlife Rescue Association (my recommended go-to place for sick animals) was closed, so I called a friend of mine who works there for advice, then put on a pair of gloves and transferred the gull to a dark box.  (Unless you are a wildlife rehabilitator, you should always call the WRA or the BCSPCA for advice on how to deal with animals.  An unfortunate number of animals are accidentally injured or even killed by otherwise well-meaning people.)  I then contacted the BCSPCA, which was absolutely fantastic and came by to pick him up so that he could be taken to the 24 hour clinic.  Shortly afterwards, and before the BCSPCA could arrive, he died.

I spend a lot of time in the park, and unfortunately I see a lot of people feeding the birds.  Some feed them bread or crackers or popcorn, which is terrible for them.  It’s the bird equivalent of junk food — heavy on carbohydrates but bereft of other nutrition.  It also fills them up extremely fast, faster than they might realize.  The BCSPCA surmised that this is what happened to our gull — he’d gorged himself on bread and choked himself.

Other people, believe it or not, feed the birds with cat or dog food.  This is very unwise for a number of reasons, the first of which is that cat and dog food contains meat byproducts and taurine.  The ducks, geese, and swans who are most fond of taking handouts from people are either mostly or entirely vegetarian, and eating these things can make them sick and kill them over time.  That said, there really isn’t a kind way to feed these wonderful animals.  Cat and dog food is pretty terrible, but bread, chips, popcorn, and other “people food” isn’t much better.  They are wild animals, after all, and to force them to rely on hand-outs exposes them to dangers as they begin to consider human habitats their own.  We also cannot provide them with the nutrition they would actually eat in nature — the foods that their bodies need and are designed to eat.  They fill up on junk and as a result, suffer from malnutrition while at the same time, becoming too heavy to fly.  You can learn more about the dangers of feeding bread and other “people food” to birds at birding.about.com.

What about pigeons?  I used to love feeding pigeons — they are friendly, clever, and entertaining birds, and a particular favourite of mine –  but I don’t do it anymore.   You can buy seed mixes that are more-or-less healthy for them — they are grainivorous birds — though as we’ve seen they’ll eat plenty of other things.  So why not feed them?

Part of the reason that pigeons are so successful in cities is that they breed based on how much food they’re getting.  They can have one brood a year, or, if there’s enough food, they can have six.  And at any given time, one-third of the pigeons in any area are visitors, scoping out better feeding opportunities.

(Sidenote: This is why poisoning or otherwise killing pigeons is not just cruel but ineffective: when the number of pigeons drops, there is suddenly more food per bird.  The food supply has gone up, and so the pigeons start breeding faster.  In addition, the aforementioned visiting pigeons notice the increase in food per bird, so they come and bring their flockmates with them.  And so in a very short period, the population is back to normal, or even above normal!  The only way to reduce pigeon populations, as cities in Switzerland and Germany have proven, is to reduce the amount of food they get — not by starving them, but by cleaning up the human refuse they rely on, and by educating the public on the effects of overfeeding the birds.  More information here for those who are interested: http://www.picasuk.com/alternatives_to_lethal_bird_control.html)

And so I don’t feed pigeons because I am concerned about their population.  We will absolutely not hurt pigeons by feeding them less, but we might cause problems for them if we inflate their population excessively.  (Not everyone appreciates these wonderful birds–fortunately, in Vancouver the typical method of controlling pigeons simply involves putting up spikes in areas that they’ve settled.  This is completely humane, if  annoying to the pigeons. ) They have lived in our cities for hundreds and hundreds of years, because they are clever and adaptable and because our buildings closely mimic their original homes–high, rugged cliffs — and here they will stay.  But there’s no reason to overfeed them.

If you really love birds, please admire them without feeding them.  It doesn’t do them any favours.  In places like Stanley Park, you can usually get a very good look at birds up close.  And if they’re not close enough, I suggest getting a pair of binoculars — there’s no better way to enjoy birds without bothering or harming them!


Help Animals Affected by Oil Spill pt. 2

Monday, June 7th, 2010

Just a quick link: Gene Baur of Farm Sanctuary has published a great blog post about the impact our eating decisions have upon the environment, including our overconsumption of oil.


I wrote about the oil spill about a month ago, when it had just happened.  Of course, the oil is still flowing today.  Sigh.

Pigeons and Teamwork

Wednesday, January 13th, 2010

Once again I must post about the frequently overlooked pigeon, described in this DailyMail article as “among the most intelligent of all the bird species.”

After waiting for the fountain to be free, one bird jumped on the lever and pushed it down to fill up the bowl, while another kept watch and the third splashed in.

When it had drunk its fill and cleaned its feathers, the third pigeon hopped up to the handle and let his friends have a go.

Pigeons have been proven again and again to be quite smart–something that shouldn’t surprise us considering their remarkable ability to adapt to cities after thousands of years living on the remote cliffs of Europe and Asia.  I’ll admit that in all that I’ve read about pigeon intelligence, though, I’ve never seen anything quite like this!

Are you a bird-lover like me?  Learn more about these gentle doves here.

Reading: a bunch of links from the past week

Sunday, November 8th, 2009

Here is a batch of links from the past week or so, for your reading pleasure. Sorry to get to it so late. The biggest story was probably the HSUS veal slaughterhouse investigation, but I’ve only included one link to a story about it below. I’ll try to do a recap post about that story sometime this week.

NPR: For Foer, Meat is Murder …And Worse

New Yorker review of Eating Animals

Wolves, moose and biodiversity: An unexpected connection

Hearts on Noses pig sanctuary fundraiser at Karmavore

HSUS veal slaughterhouse investigation

Poultry giant Tyson sued by the state of Oklahoma

Meat loving cowboy is still vegan

Supervegan: Does it matter that Jonathan Safran Foer isn’t vegan?

Digging through the dirt: ‘Bones’ Features Factory Farm, Slaughterhouse Footage

VegNews interview with Jonathan Safran Foer

Change.org Animal Rights blog: There Is No Such Animal as “Seafood”

Animal Place: Divine Turkey Talk

The Vegan Dietician: No Need for Vegans to Give Up Fat, Gluten, Soy or Cooked Foods

International Vulture Awareness Day

Saturday, September 5th, 2009


Today is International Vulture Awareness Day, and because I am a huge bird lover, I was excited for the opportunity to participate.  Vultures are finally getting the respect they deserve after years of being viewed as a creepy symbol of death and decay.  Of course, their unsavoury scavenging habits are actually an important part of a healthy ecology; without them, corpses are left to rot and infections are more easily spread.

There are about 20 different species of vultures, and the majority of them qualify as rare, threatened, endangered, and even extinct.  In honour of IVAD, I’m going to discuss one of the most famous endangered vulture species.

In North America, of course, that species  is the California Condor, a magnificent bird who is extinct in the wild with the exception of 172 captive-bred, released birds.   (There are another 150 living in captivity. ) This is a remarkable number considering the fact that in the mid-1980′s, there were 3 left in the wild and 22 in captivity.  Environmental groups have been working hard to monitor the success of these 322 individuals.

Condor_in_flightWhat happened to cause these amazing birds–who happen to have one of the largest wingspans in the world, and the largest in N. America, at close to 10 feet–to become so severely endangered?  The largest factors have been poaching, DDT poisoning, habitat destruction (largely due to animal agriculture), and lead poisoning.  The last occurred as a result of eating the corpses of animals killed with lead bullets.   It took until 2008–yes, last year–to require hunters to use non-lead bullets in the condors’ range, but my understanding is that the majority of them have been fairly cooperative.

I would be lax in discussing the California condor without also mentioning that not all environmentalists were in favour of capturing the last 3 wild birds–for this is what was done–and attempting to revive the species in captivity.  I am against zoos and keeping animals in captivity in general, and I am unsure about this situation.  I feel that perhaps it would be reasonable and logical if we were eliminating the major threats that face California condors, but we haven’t.  The released birds continue to be threatened by the aforementioned habitat destruction, power lines, (captive-bred condors have been trained fairly successfully to avoid human beings and power lines, but for how long can this be done?) , and hunting.  Yes, people continue to kill these birds in the most direct way possible.

Obviously this is a massive, massive topic and I have blabbed about it long enough, but if you want to learn more about California condors I would suggest checking out the Wikipedia page, which is particularly informative, and Vulture-Territory.com, which brings up the interesting idea that perhaps the condors hit their evolutionary peak hundreds of thousands of years ago and were on their way out anyway.

If you are interested in helping the condors out, though–or any endangered animal, for that matter–check out this page from the Toronto Vegetarian Association and learn about the undeniable link between animal agriculture and the destruction of wild habitats.  (Hey, even the U.N. says that it’s “one of the major causes of the world’s most pressing environmental problems.”)

Thanks for reading and happy IVAD!

Building for animals, continued

Thursday, August 27th, 2009

I just watched this report from a year ago about building over- and underpasses for wildlife so that they can get from one side of the highway to the other.

A wildlife overpass

A wildlife overpass

When we build highways or towns it very often divides an animal’s natural habitat. These people are trying to come up with solutions that protect the animals and allow for us to live and travel.

How else could we lighten our footprint or enable animals to live within and around our habitat? Is our habitat as important for our survival as particular habitat is for bears, elk, caribou, etc.?

Pigeons are survivors

Thursday, August 20th, 2009

One of my favorite people, David Eby – who is a tireless advocate for the homeless, the poor, and people on the fringes of society – posted this entry on his blog yesterday about the remodeling of Pigeon Park in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside (DTES).

In case you don’t know about it, the DTES is one of the poorest postal codes in Canada, with a disproportionate number of marginalized people living on the streets and in run-down single occupancy rooms. Pigeon Park is really just a wedge of widened sidewalk on one corner, with some benches and a couple of trees.

Here’s how David describes it:

There’s this park, a crappy little triangle of a park, located at the corner of Carrall and Hastings Streets in the DTES. Nothing much to speak of. Some interlocking brick, some concrete planters, a large wall of plywood beside an empty building, and several benches.

Such is Pigeon Park.

It is probably, per square foot, the most heavily used park in Vancouver. There’s always lots of people hanging out. Some are drunk. Some are high. Some are not. All are sitting, or standing, or talking, or whatever the hell they want. It’s a park for the people of the Downtown Eastside.

Most other people wouldn’t bother making the connection to the Park’s namesake, but David does:

Everyone knows it’s Pigeon Park, and for a park name, it’s probably the most fitting park name in the world. Pigeons are birds that have managed, despite all odds, to survive in the urban environment. Pigeons are survivors.

Pigeons are also hated. Called nuisances. Fenced out, chased out, kicked when they’re down. Probably a story that, good and bad, sounds all too familiar to many of the folks that use that park.

I love how he brings the story of pigeons in to the story of the park and the people who use the park. Intersectionality in action, eloquently put. His whole post is good, please check it out.

Thanks David, for all the great work!

[Sorry for the lack of posts over the past 2 weeks. Between work and rebuilding our kitchen, I haven't had a lot of time to write. Sorry also for the shortness of this post. I saw David's post yesterday but only got to it today. And I have approximately 7 million other things to do this morning.]

Penguins at risk – what can we do?

Saturday, July 25th, 2009

Emperor Penguins

Scientists have stated that the magnificent Emperor Penguin may be extinct within the century due to loss of ice caused by climate change. As the earth warms, we are going to start seeing more and more animals becoming extinct.

What can we do to help? One of the easiest and most effective ways that we can reduce our greenhouse gas emissions is to switch to a plant-based diet. It is far more effective than even switching from a car to a bicycle or buying all local meat, milk, and eggs.

The UN reported that animal agriculture is responsible for 18% of greenhouse gas emissions. That’s several percentage points higher than transportation.

The demise of the Emperor Penguin may not be so much caused by your SUV, but rather by the burger on your plate.