Wednesday, May 31, 2017

A Southern Belle in New York City

It’s been a rainy and very green May.  The parks and streets are alive with new life.  And this spring we have a special treat in Riverside Park near the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument.  The four American Yellowwood or Kentucky Yellowwood, Cladrastis lutea or Cladrastis kentukea, trees are in bloom with their fragrant and wisteria-like flowers. 

Photo of Yellowwood tree and Monument
I say it is a special treat because the flowers do not appear each year; they seem to be on a two-year cycle.  And this year they are in bloom. A few days ago, just before the Memorial Day commemoration that takes place in front of the Monument, I was walking my dog on Riverside Drive and saw the Parks Department trucks parked and a group of men apparently cutting the trees.  They were starting on the Yellowwoods and I thought they were going to cut them down.  I rushed over to ask them what was happening, and they explained that they were trimming the trees to prepare for the Memorial Day events.  There were cut branches with the long, droopy, exquisite flowers all over the sidewalk.  I asked if I could have one.  “Take as many as you want,” said one man. I took one home and drew the leaf and a bit of one of the flower stems.  Even though this looks like six leaves, it is just one because the leaves of the yellowwood are compound which means that the six leaflets all emerge from one leafstalk or petiole with one terminal, usually larger leaflet. They are pinnate which means that the shape of the leaf with its leaflets is feather-like.

Drawing of leaf and flowers

    “What kind of trees are these anyway?” the Parks Department man asked.  I told him “Yellowwood.  American or Kentucky Yellowwood, native to the southern part of the U.S.  Very special trees.  You don’t see them in this area that much,” I said.  “Not only that, but they only flower every other year.”  He picked up one of the branches and said, “Look.  You’re right.  The wood is yellow.  Makes sense.”  He showed it to one of the other men.  And so it was.  The actual color of the heartwood of the Yellowwood tree is yellow, especially when freshly cut.  According to the Department of Horticulture of the University of Kentucky, the root bark of yellowwood was used as a dye by people in the southern Appalachians.  The wood itself was once used to make gun stocks.  The flowers look like pea-flowers.  That makes sense because the tree is in the Pea Family, Fabaceae, it has a legume pod that ripens in the fall. 
   Just a couple of days later, my husband Alan and I went to the Memorial Day event.  It seemed especially appropriate as we stood out there in the rain listening to speakers, the playing of bagpipes and taps, and watched the laying of the wreaths, that we were surrounded not only by those remembering those lost in battles but also by trees filled with flowers and leaves that speak to both the past and to the future.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

House-hunting, any cavity will do

Female House Sparrow drawing
It’s spring and the House Sparrows, Passer domesticus, are raising young—you’re right they did it in the fall and they may do it again in the summer.  House Sparrows are exceptionally prolific in their brood production.  They are disliked by many birders partially because of their sheer numbers but also because they threaten other bird populations like the Purple Martin, Scarlet Tanager, and the Bluebird.  Since they nest virtually year-round, they take up the nest spaces for migrating cavity-nesting birds and although they are small, they can be nasty in defending their nests.

Here’s a little bit of House Sparrow history:  First, they are not really sparrows.  They are thought to have originally come from the Mediterranean area and are members of the Passerideae family, an Old World finch family.  They are not native to the U.S. and did not come to the U.S. on their own.  For some that is enough to make them unacceptable, but there is more to the story.  Eight pairs of House Sparrows were taken from England and brought to Brooklyn, New York in the spring of 1851 and released to deal with a caterpillar problem. It didn’t work but they did become permanent residents. Then between 1871 and 1874 additional House Sparrows from Europe were released in Cincinnati, Chicago, and other parts of the U.S.  Small numbers continued to be released in various parts of the country until they were everywhere.  They had no natural predator and they were very successful breeders, so their numbers kept increasing. Many think they have threatened the viability of other birds because of their fecundity.

But…on a cold winter day, it is enjoyable to watch House Sparrows on city streets and in parks.  And in the spring, we can watch as they make nests in just about every cavity they can find—from the crooks of the arms of statues, the eaves of apartment buildings, the tops of traffic signals, and just about every tree you can think of.  House Sparrows partner up in the winter and generally are monogamous throughout their lives although it is true that if a partner dies, they soon find another to take his or her place.  They are breeding machines.  After nest building, the male defends the nest so that the female can begin laying 4-6 eggs.  These eggs hatch in about 12 days and leave the nest in about two more weeks.  Both male and female feed the fledglings, but once they are out of the nest, the male takes over the feeding, and the female prepares for her next nesting cycle.  The House Sparrow I have drawn is a female; she has yellower beak than the dark one of the male and soft buff, brown, and cream coloring

House Sparrows are omnivorous; they eat just about everything from seeds, berries, insects, spiders, discarded hamburgers, and the photographer for our book, Field Guide to the Neighborhood Birds of New York City,  Beth Bergman even found one chomping on an old cigarette butt. This is also a factor in their success in the U.S.  Fast food is as tasty to them as a fine mosquito.  They can live just about anywhere, eat just about anything, and reproduce year-round.  They bathe in mud and have little or no fear of humans.  Sounds like they are perfect for the New York City life.   

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Make Way for Mallards

Drawing of mallard ducks in breeding plumage
   Mallards, Anas platyrhynchos, are found all over world where there are temperate and subtropical temperatures.  They are probably the most numerous of all the duck species. Mallards live in city parks, marshes, bogs, reservoirs, ponds, lakes and rivers like the ones I am drawing.  These mallards live in the Hudson River in New York near the 79th street Boat Basin.  There you can see several pairs and their ducklings.  They flock near the docks and the boats in the river.  Many residents of the Boat Basin feed the ducks and get to know them.  When Leslie Day lived on the Boat Basin, she had several mallard friends who would stop by her boat for their feeding of dog food cereal, which she pointed out is more nourishing than bread. 

Mallard ducks are in their breeding plumage now, so if you are near water, you can see pairs much like the ones in my drawing—the drake or male with his iridescent greenish blue head, grayish flanks and curly tail and the duck or female (also sometimes called a hen but that gets confusing) with her browns, tans, and creamy colored feathers along with her brightly colored speculum feathers.  This set of bright feathers occurs in both sexes but is not seen in my drawing of the male.  The difference in appearance of males and females is an example of dimorphism that is seen in many types of birds. 

Here are a few fun facts about mallards:  Mallards pair up in the fall and their courtship continues all winter. The pairs are usually monogamous, but the male has been known to pursue other females for generally consensual sex, but there have been cases of forced copulation, or alas dare I say it, duck rape. The female is the louder quacker; the male has a softer more raspy voice.  A clutch of eggs is usually from 9-13 eggs and incubation takes about 28 days.  During the incubation period the drake leaves and the family responsibility falls on the female. All the eggs hatch within the same 24-hour period.  Once the eggs have hatched, the mother duck leads the brood to water and they never return again to the nest being born with the instinct to feed themselves right from the start. But the family gets to hang out together in the water and sometimes on land as Robert McCloskey wonderful children’s book Make Way for Ducklings illustrates.  After breeding is over, there is a summer moult when the drake loses his colorful feathers and starts to look more like a female—this is called the eclipse phase.  During this time, the birds are flightless for about a month.  “All about Birds” the amazing Cornell website from which I have gotten much of this information says they are “secretive during this vulnerable time.” It made me wonder what a secretive duck would be like and what tales it might have to tell.