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A New Year's cuckoos gift!

A TAIL OF TWO CUCKOOS


Mexico is home to twelve species of birds that are in the cuckoo family. Where I live in the Western Central Highlands of Michoacan occur two of those family members, albeit strikingly different in appearance and behavior, the groove-billed ani and the lesser roadrunner. One, the more common, less elusive, and less reclusive anis I get multiple “great looks” of virtually every day on the trails near my home while the other, the roadrunner, I only can get a quick glimpse of about one in ten times when I do my daily birding. Nonetheless, both are a thrill to observe and appreciate.

These two species of cuckoos only have two major physical characteristics in common. Like all cuckoos, their feet are zygodactyl meaning unlike songbirds that have a three-toes-forward and one-toe-back arrangement, they have a two-toes-forward and two-toes-back arrangement. Their only other important external anatomical similarity is that they both have long tails whose outer feathers are shorter than the inner, giving the tail a rounded look. Other than that, these cuckoos are well beyond being birds of a different feather!

Approximately 13" long, the groove-billed ani is a medium-large sized blackbird with a sometimes hard to discern iridescent blue and green sheen on its head and breast. An odd bird in both looks and demeanor, I like to describe them as displaying both a “serious” and “whimsical” appearance. Along with a curious slicked-backed crown these anis have a large thick curved rounded beak which has parallel horizontal grooves. Consequently, to some observers they “look like grackles with somebody else’s head.” In flight they flap their wings and then gracefully glide to where they are heading all the while their tail appears as if it is on a hinge as it swings in all directions in a pendulum-like manner. Oftentimes, I see them “sunbathing” similar to anhinghas or cormorants as when perched they spread out their wings at “weird” and varying angles.

These tropical birds range from Southern Texas through Mexico, Central America, and into Venezuela, Ecuador, and Peru. They inhabit open and partly open country-pastures, savannas, orchards, and fields. Where I live, these ground foraging cuckoos are typically seen cutely yet ungracefully hopping around in small groups of 5-8 amidst similarly minded cattle egrets near grazing or resting cattle in their pursuit of stirred up insects-they also eat seeds and fruit. Additionally, I see them hanging out with cattle egrets at the municipal dump where carcasses of animals along with chicken feathers are discarded as that is a prime territory for their locating and consuming their insect prey.

Extremely social, they are known to intriguingly breed in pairs of 1-5 and share communally one nest where all group members in a highly territorial fashion incubate and then care for up to 20 babies. Also part of their social and cooperative nature as it relates to preserving the safety of their group, are the anis many vocalizations. Easy to identify in advance of seeing them, I have heard all of their known “voices” ranging from their frequent sharp, high whistles to slurred whining, squeaks, pips, squeals, and even “growls.”

Conversely, their distinctly different cuckoo brethren, the lesser roadrunner, is the antithesis of social. Of the dozens of the fleeting sightings (none lasting more then 15 seconds and most much less) only twice have I ever seen more than one of these 16-20 inch primarily terrestrial birds at a time- although when not solitary, they will be in monogamous pairings perhaps for life. With their long legs, powerful feet and with their “cocky” crested head with its oversized dark beak and its long tail both in prototypical road runner fashion held erect, when I see them its normally on trails as they skitter/run a few feet and then fly barely off the ground a few feet and then suddenly disappear into the dry semi-open field or scattered brushy chaparral. Moreover, perhaps I have heard their call as they are hidden away in the brush, but I am not sure, as their sound is said to be a series of low moaning dove-like coos but somewhat louder.

You see (however briefly), these non-migratory, short-winged roadrunners who are capable of running 18mph/30km are ground dwelling cuckoos who in pursuit of their prey (or during any other daily living activity) much prefer to sprint rather than fly; only to get their streamline dark brown with tan and white streaked bodies over obstacles like short walls or to escape predators will they fly any distance at all. True omnivores, lesser roadrunners while on the ground will pursue and eat insects, scorpions, frogs, and small reptiles (including lizards and small rattlesnakes that will be consumed whole). Unlike their cuckoo counterparts, the greater roadrunner which inhabits the Southwestern USA and Northern Mexico, the lesser roadrunners are endemic to Southwestern Mexico, a tiny segment of the Northwestern Yucatan Peninsula, and Northern Central America.

Fortunately, both of these cuckoo family members who are a joy to behold even though they are largely disparate by looks and habit, are listed in terms of their evaluation status as being of “least concern,” meaning they are not close to being considered endangered or even at-risk. Even though in my area, the last couple of years some of the nesting habitat of the groove-billed anis has been destroyed by the property owners of the cattle grazing lands, somehow they remain delightfully and abundantly viewable. As for the far less frequently seen lesser roadrunners, I really wish that when birding with my wife, Maria, who is fluent in both English and Spanish, as sometimes I am looking at another type of bird, when seeing a roadrunner would get my attention by spontaneously saying “roadrunner” or “correcaminos,” instead of what she always excitedly does by going “look, look it’s a ahh, ahh, ahh.”

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Les........thank you for a very informative and enjoyable post about these two species of cuckoo. Any bird sporting a long tail is quite interesting to me, bright plumage or not.

As the temperatures plummet here to 15 below zero at night, I wonder how all the little birds who winter here survive such cold, when being outside for human beings is downright dangerous. I know the birds fluff up, find shelter, lower their metabolism, and often gather in numbers to press together to conserve body heat, but those little things seem so ill equipped to deal with such arctic cold.

"Five English sparrows, defying the weather,
There in the pathway a conference hold;
Ho! merry midgets in doublets of feathers!
Why do you rally out there in the cold?"

~Taken from poem Winter Birds by Andrew Downing


Debbie Grejdus
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Thanks Debbie for the birdy cold weather report! Some of you may want to check out a short but information packed article on the Backyard Bird Center by Mark McKellar titled How Do Birds Survive the Winter to discover the varying means depending on the species in which those remarkable sentient beings "rally out there in the cold" "defying the weather."

As stated in that article I find it remarkably fascinating that "cold temperatures are survivable by most birds, it is the covering of the food source that is the main problem. Ground feeders and waterfowl know that their food sources are going to be covered up quickly, but arboreal (tree dwelling) species like evening grosbeaks and crossbills can ride out the same 'cold' conditions that juncos and snow geese had to abandon."

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From the aforementioned Mark McKellar article, I found the following most interesting especially about the pluses and minuses of birds being in the state of torpor: "Hummingbirds and a few other species can drop their body temperatures drastically. This condition is known as torpor. For species, like hummingbirds, with extremely high metabolic rates, this is the only way they do not 'starve to death' while sleeping. Hypothermia and torpor do not come without hazards. A bird in torpor can't take off and fly if danger approaches, in fact, it can take up to an hour for a bird to regain full muscle control."

For a more romanticized perception of birds surviving in the cold, the following is from The Snowbird by Caroline Spencer:

He sits in winter's sleet, and the snow is round his feet,
But he cares not for the cold;
For his little cheerful heart thinks the snow as fair a part
As the summer's green and gold.

On the branches bare and brown, with their crystals for a crown,
Sits the tiny winter bird;
In the dark and stormy days lightening the lonely ways
With his constant cheery word.


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Do you think we help birds in the winter by putting birdfeeders out? Do you think it helps some birds stay for the season who would otherwise leave? Does it make them more dependent on us? If the supply of feed stops will it put the birds at risk?

I wonder.....


Debbie Grejdus
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Originally Posted By: Debbie-SpiritualityEditor
Do you think we help birds in the winter by putting birdfeeders out? Do you think it helps some birds stay for the season who would otherwise leave? Does it make them more dependent on us? If the supply of feed stops will it put the birds at risk?

I wonder.....


Me too???????

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As for the question should any birds be held in captivity???????


Northern Cardinals Should Be In the Wild But…

My reasons for obtaining Rojee el Bandido/Red the Bandit were primarily twofold. Having lived in Mexico for about one year, my menagerie of “pet” birds had grown to exclusively include more traditional “captive” birds: four budgerigars, a cockatiel, and a West Mexican orange-fronted parakeet aka a half-moon conure. Although I thoroughly enjoyed being the primary caregiver for those members of the parrot family, I wanted to experience being trained by a less traditional “pet” bird. Just as compelling, if not more so, when I saw Rojee, a male Northern cardinal in a way too small cage with many other cardinals for sale being fed a diet of only seeds and believing that I could provide for him an environment far superior to that of most Mexicans who would only desire him for his beauty and singing ability and not offer the emotional and physical care that he deserved, I decided to “rescue” him from his present and probable abysmal long-term fate.

You see, in Mexico, as are all songbirds, it is legal to purchase Northern cardinals as “pets.” In the U.S., they are extremely popular and well-regarded as evidenced that they are the state bird of seven states-Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, North Carolina, Ohio, Virginia, and West Virginia. However, unlike Mexico where they commonly are kept in captivity and in Europe where they are a very popular aviary bird, in the U.S., along with approximately 800 species of birds, their sale as caged birds has been banned by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918.

Purchased when he was about four months old, for more than five years, Rojee has been part of our household. He is housed in an extra large cage that is equipped with at least nine natural perches placed at varying heights and angles, both lengthwise and widthwise, from which during daylight hours when he is not eating, actively, he is virtually perpetually hopping back and forth, up and down. During the day for at least eight hours, weather permitting, he and all of the other birds are in our open courtyard.

As much as possible, albeit without the insects that make up a considerable part of an omnivorous cardinal’s diet in the wild, the food that is provided for him daily is somewhat representative of what he would be eating if he were out in nature. Since he is a grosbeak with a heavy conical bill that allows him to eat a wider variety of seeds than birds with smaller bills like finches and sparrows, in addition to mixed seeds and the stalks of field seed that I gather after the local crop is harvested, he gets and easily devours sunflower seeds. Of all of my birds, Rojee receives and consumes the most fruit and typically gets a minimum of five fruits daily; his favorite fruits are those that are either red or dark in color such as red prickly pears, strawberries, watermelon. red grapes, red or purple plums, red or yellow guavas, mangoes, pappaya,and peaches. For snacks that he seems to look forward to receiving regularly at 3PM, he particularly enjoys unsalted peanuts and unsalted popcorn. Additionally, he enjoys millet, steamed brown and white rice, corn and flour tortillas, tostadas, bread, and steamed corn. As cardinals are often ground foragers, all of his food is placed on the bottom of his cage.

Unlike many male cardinals that I have seen in captivity whose red color have declined, Rojee’s has remained appropriately vibrant. There are two major reasons for this. One is his diet (although sans insects and spiders) from which he is obtaining many of the necessary carotenoids that lend his species its famous red color and the other is the fact that he is outdoors a good part of the day.

From what I understand and have observed, Northern cardinals, like finches, are not known in the least as being “interactive” with their human caregivers. This was particularly true with Rojee, as for the first year or so he was so “reticent” or “shy” (anthropomorphically speaking) that he waited for me to be out of his range of view before even eating, or in season, singing. Yet, over time, perhaps as a result of my respecting his boundaries, our “relationship” has radically changed. Now, he seems to look forward to my talking to him, singling him out for praise or additional attention, and, especially, to “our time together” when I mimic his frequent verbalization of “teet-teet-teet” and he comes as close as possible to me while verbalizing. Most surprisingly and atypically, as related to me by my wife, Maria, who only provides care to him and the other eight birds when I am off on a birding trip somewhere in Mexico, is that Rojee will stop his singing while I am away, but when I return home he resumes those wonderful and natural vocalizations; somehow, he and I have formed a special bond.

Interestingly, in the wild the lifespan of a Northern cardinal, mostly due to natural predation, averages three years. Yet, in captivity, if properly cared for, they may live fifteen or even twenty years. With much conflicted and ambiguous feelings, it is beyond my capacity to say if Rojee or any Northern cardinal is “better off” in captivity.

However, what I do know and feel is this. A while back, when birding in a ravine less than ten minutes from our home in the western central region of Mexico, I had a millisecond glimpse of a bright red bird foraging in the dense underbrush. Could it have been a rarely seen in our area male summer tanager? To my utter surprise, although widespread in Mexico but not known to occur in my adopted state of Michoacan, when he came out of the brush and perched ever so briefly, it was apparent that the bird was, unmistakably, a brilliant red, black masked, orange billed and large crested male Northern cardinal. Although extremely unlikely, could Rojee somehow gotten out of his cage? In a semi-panic, I rushed back home to see. Was I ever relieved and glad to view Rojee, naturally or not, hopping back and forth, back and forth, back and forth, all the while “teet, teet, teeting”…

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I am coming back as Rojee Shulman in my next life! Lestie says. For the fruit to be sure! Smile now as I am for a fine post and discussion and all and all. Cheers.


Lestie Mulholland
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Zesty Lestie, Rojee extends you his teet, teet, teeting enthusiastic best vibing wishes that you live a long and prosperous life as he is well aware that one cannot live on carrots alone. Lance B. says nice to see that you are at your formatting best now and that you will hopefully soon be avatarizing!

Tomorrow early in the AM, as I also did last week, I will be venturing off by bus to the small town of Zinaparo (Zinapo being the local word for obsidiana) which is 10 kilometers from Churintzio.

There, instead of "killing two birds with one stone" (even acknowledging that idiom's figurative meaning, I wish killing could be substituted by a more bird friendly word),I will be experiencing the following: I will be visually/and or aurally appreciating up to a couple of dozen species of birds, a mother lode of multiple types (black, brown, mahogany, rainbow, silver sheen and gold sheen) of world class obsidian, along with artifacts made from that volcanic material, many gorgeous free ranging horses, and outstanding scenery/vistas while on my four hour or so hike.

In a decidedly non-killing sense, in that dry, hilly, and chaparral terrain my target birds will be spotted wrens, lesser roadrunner(s), common ravens, blue-grey gnatcatchers, and, of course, vermies.

Where you bird, are you able to multitask and, if so, what are you able to kill, er, I mean appreciate?

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I would be a single-minded early birdie and the one that got the worm!


Lestie Mulholland
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