U of M Bird Collection – Part Two

SO…the Cassowary.

DSC_0485 Cassowary (2)This large, flightless bird is still alive (well, not this particular one, but the species in general) and kicking.  And when we say kicking, that can be taken literally, for this bird has been known to do serious damage to people with those powerful legs.

DSC_0485 CassowaryTake a close look at the feathers, and wings.  The feathers are really almost hair-like…coarse hair.  And the larger bits you see in the photo below are all that remain of the wings/wing feathers:  very stiff…whatevers.  It’s like the rachis without any of the rest of the feather attached.

This bird belonged to PT Barnum – he was given it in 1874.  The U of M acquired it many years later when one of their bird collection staff saw it in a back room collection of Mr. Barnum’s things. Upon saying “we don’t have one of those” he was offered the bird.  Et voila – here it is today.

DSC_0488 We saw this poster on one of the cabinets, so we wanted to see the birds…did they really look like this?

DSC_0521Well…sorta.  These are Pittas, a family of passerines (perching birds) from tropical Asia and Australasia.

DSC_0491Many of the males have spectacular iridescent plumage.DSC_0495 DSC_0499

The Hoatzin is this funny chicken-like bird from South America.  I saw these when I visited the Amazon, gosh, 14 years ago!  They are famous for the claws the babies have on their wings, which enable them to climb back up the tree to the nest if they fall out.  It was once thought that this was proof of a missing link between modern day birds and their dinosaur ancestors.  This theory is no longer in vogue.

DSC_0509 hoatzinAnother bird many of the group wanted to see was the Resplendent Quetzal, which hails from Central America.  As you could guess, it gets at least part of its name from its glorious feathers.

DSC_0530 Resplendant Quetzel (5)The Shoebill, or Whalehead, is a large bird that is named for its rather obvious bill, which resembles a wooden clog.  Although often likened to storks, this African native is not related to storks at all.  Today it is believed that this bird is more closely related to pelicans and has thus been reclassified into the pelican family of birds.

DSC_0540 SHoebillJanet pulled out another large African bird for us to see:  the Secretarybird, named for the long stiff feathers on its head, which are reminiscent of writing quills.

DSC_0546 Secretary bird (3)Some people may wonder what the purpose of a collection of birds (or any other animal) like this would be, other than a look at what once was.

Specimen collections are important in many aspects of scientific study, but for our group they served two purposes.  One, we got to see birds many of us would never see otherwise.  Two, collections can help people learn how to identify species.

DSC_0552For example, this selection of thrushes…

DSC_0506 Various Thrusheswas beneficial to one of our group in learning to tell wood, swainson’s and hermit thrushes apart.  Some details are only easily seen when the bird is in the hand.


This collection of yellowthroats …

DSC_0403helps the viewer see the differences that can occur within a single species.

DSC_0404Being able to look at similar species up close can really help train the eye to see  differences that are often very subtle.

DSC_0503After about two hours with Janet and the birds, we took our leave and thanked our gracious host.  On our way out of the museum, we zipped around some of the other exhibits to see what else was there…

like these dinosaur bones!

DSC_0560Every kid loves a dinosaur.  Some of us never outgrow dinosaurs.  I loved this huge eel-like skeleton – what was it?  According to the sign, its a Basiliosaurus, a precurser to the whale.

DSC_0561Mammoths!  Or are they Mastodons?  Or both?  I didn’t get a chance to look at them up close…next time.

DSC_0558There are some terrific dioramas at this museum.  I really liked this one with all the baby opossums in the bottom!

DSC_0567And right now the big draw to the museum is this:

DSC_0572it’s a replica from a fossil that was found of a snake eating a baby dinosaur!  Complete with eggs from the dinosaur nest!  This fossil was found in western India in 1981.  We will never know who would’ve won the battle, the dino or the snake, because they were both covered with silt before the snake could catch the dino or the dino could get away.  Apparently snakes were quite rare during this time period, so this find was simply incredible.

If you find yourself in Ann Arbor with some spare time on your hands, make your way to the U of M’s Museum of Natural History.  It’s free ($6 donation suggested) and well worth a tour.  I know that I will be going back to see more of what they have to offer!

You are also invited to join our Tuesday Group!  Anyone can come out with us.  We meet every Tuesday morning at 9:00 here at Dahlem.  Most of the time we are outside looking for birds, bugs, plants and other critters.  Sometimes we study geology.  Sometimes we travel to other sites to see new and exciting things.  If you are interested in natural history, come on out and join us!

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Frozen in Time

Tuesday morning started off rather overcast, but great things lay ahead, for the Tuesday Morning Group was headed to Ann Arbor to visit the University of Michigan’s Museum of Zoology, specifically to take in the bird collection.

I was early on my way to meet my carpool, so I detoured out to the fields where the snowy owls have been seen.  I did see two large white birds fly into the treeline here, but if they were snowies remains unknown.  They could’ve also been hawks…or a hawk pushing a snowy.  One of these days I will have my binocs and camera with me when I see something and will be able to make a more positive ID!

DSC_0382Soon, however, the caravan was headed up Route 94 on the way to the museum.  This natural history museum is a wonderful place that everyone should visit.  To begin with, it has some beautiful architecture – check out the ceiling in the lobby!

DSC_0386Our destination was the third floor, where Janet Hinshaw is the manager of the Bird Collection.  Ah…there’s nothing like an “old school” critter collection.  You can just feel the years of research in the place.

DSC_0389DSC_0392But not everything is old.  In fact, all the specimen cabinets are new, state-of-the-art cases, which are hermetically sealed against humidity, bugs, and people!

DSC_0396Our group was eager to start looking at birds!

DSC_0390 Janet had placed some trays of warblers, a selection of falcons, and a variety of thrushes out on the tables for us to view as she did an introduction to the collection.

DSC_0402I was drawn to the big fella in the back corner, though.  This is an ostrich skeleton.  Impressive.

DSC_0399In a case up on top of shelves, was a skeleton of a Great Auk, a bird I know from stories and history – now extinct.  It was much smaller than I expected.  Sadly, it’s height above the floor, my less-than-statuesque height, and the reflecting lights on the display case’s glass resulted in poor photos:

DSC_0406 DSC_0407 Great AukThis was the first of the extinct birds we were to see this morning.  Janet took us down an aisle of cabinets, unlocked one, and inside were the birds that we now only know from books, some rare films, or study skins like these.

First up, the Carolina Parakeet.

DSC_0413 Carolina ParakeetCan you imagine, truly, trees full of flocks of these spectacularly colored birds?  Once their flocks spread across the United States, from the east coast to the midwest, where they fed on a variety of fruits and seeds.  When settlers moved out west, and started to convert forests and the plains to agricultural lands, the birds lost habitat and food sources.  As a result, they started to feed on the commercial crop, with the predictable outcome:  slaughter by irate farmers.  By 1860 the Carolina Parakeet was rare;  it was extinct by 1920.

DSC_0414Probably the most famous extinct bird, besides the dodo, is the Passenger Pigeon.  Like the Carolina Parakeet, the Passenger Pigeon existed in large flocks.  In fact, the flocks were enormous!  They could be miles long!  But when settlers came to this continent, they saw these large flocks as a source of food.  It was the beginning of the end.

The demise of the Passenger Pigeon has been called “the most spectacular example of avian exploitation in human history” – rivaled only by the collapse of many of our ocean fisheries.    Entire railroad lines were built specifically to take advantage of the massive flocks of Passenger Pigeons in the midwest.  Market hunters would take the trains out to where the birds were roosting and feeding, and as the birds settled in the hundreds and thousands on the ground, they’d fire huge nets over the flocks and catch them.  Hundreds of tons of these pigeons would be loaded on the trains and shipped to market.

As the population declined, it plummeted.  Some suspect that the birds needed to have such huge flocks in order to locate the massive amounts of food they needed to survive.  It is also known that the birds stopped breeding – not necessarily because they couldn’t find mates, but again because their numbers were so low.  And, the hunting pressure exceeded the replacement rate.

What a shame.  And what a beautiful bird (it was).  Love the iridescence on the neck.

DSC_0419 Passenger PigeonNext Janet pulled out the woodpeckers.  As you’d probably expect, this one is the Ivory-billed Woodpecker – male and female.

DSC_0422 Ivory-billed Woodpecker (5)The Ivory-billed had two subspecies:  the North American subspecies, which was endemic to the lowland forests of the southeast, and the Cuban subspecies, found, as you would expect, in Cuba.

The primary cause of loss for these birds was hunting, although habitat loss was right up there.  In fact, it is believed that there is no longer the right kind of forest to support these birds any more.  Ivory-bills hit the news in 2004/2005 when reports came out of Arkansas about a sighting.  Teams of birders and ornithologists hit the flooded forests in search of these birds, but no conclusive evidence was found.  Might they still be there?  It’s possible, but the probability is low.  There has been no conclusive evidence since 1940.

DSC_0429 female ivory-billedThe largest woodpecker in the world was the Imperial Woodpecker, and Janet showed us a male and female of this bird, too.

DSC_0433 Imperial WoodpeckerAlso known as the Mexican Woodpecker, it was found in the forests of Mexico.  The last confirmed sighting was of a female in 1956.  I read about what happened to these birds and it just about made my blood boil.

These birds were targeted by logging outfits in the forests where they lived.  They told the locals that these birds were destroying the valuable timber that was to be logged, so in order to help the logging industry, the logging people gave poison to the locals to smear on trees where the woodpeckers were known to be searching for food.  When this happened, the population plummeted, as you can imagine.  What makes this so infuriating is that woodpeckers do not feed on live, healthy trees; and loggers do not harvest diseased, dead trees.  Was there really a conflict?  NO!  Arrrghh!

What stands out as really cool about this bird is the flipped up “do” on the female.

DSC_0440Here’s a peek inside the drawer of extinct exotic birds.  I believe the reddish ones are a honey creeper from Hawaii.

DSC_0447This fella is the Dusky Seaside Sparrow, listed as extinct in 1990.  I remember hearing about this bird when I was in college – just prior to its listing.

These sparrows were officially declared a subspecies in 1973, although they had been described as such about 100 years before.  They are (were) closely related to the Scott’s Seaside Sparrow, and depending on whether one was a lumper or splitter, the Dusky was the same (or not).  DNA testing was not held as 100 % reliable, but eventually it was determined that these two birds split ways between 250,000 and 500,000 years ago.

Duskies lived in a very small habitat area, so they were subject to the perils of “island” effects, where it doesn’t take much to wipe out a species.  In the 1940s, DDT (sprayed for mosquito control) took a huge toll:  breeding pairs dropped from about 2000 to 600.  Then the area was flooded, again in an attempt to control mosquitoes.  This resulted in the loss of nesting habitat – the population dropped again.  Next, the land was drained to enable the construction of a highway, resulting in further habitat loss.  What did in the Dusky Seaside Sparrow?  A combination of pesticides and pollution are commonly cited as the cause.

DSC_0443 dusky seaside sparrowThis pretty little bird is the Bachman’s Warbler.  Very little was ever learned about its behavior.  It was a southeastern bird, last seen in Florida in 1977.  The last confirmed US sighting was in 1988.   These little birds overwintered in Cuba, and the hurricane that struck there in 1933 devastated the population.  It is believed they became so rare that they were unable to find mates and breed.  Poof.

DSC_0451Bachman's warblerThe Labrador Duck is another species that went extinct before we knew much about it.  It is believed that the population was never large to begin with.  “They” believe that the duck’s bill indicates that is sifted through silt and shallow water for shellfish and crustaceans; this highly specialized diet/niche may have also contributed to the bird’s decline and eventual extinction, as did its lack of fear of people.  The last confirmed sighting was 1878 in Elmira, NY.

DSC_0463The Eskimo Curlew – in the 1870s huge flocks of this bird were seen all along its range, especially when it came in to forage on blueberries and other heath fruits.  When Passenger Pigeons became harder and harder to find, the market hunters turned their attention to the Eskimo Curlews.  By the late 1800s their population was in critical decline, a condition that was compounded by excessive hunting and loss of spring food sources (especially the Rocky Mountain Grasshopper) due to conversion of land to agriculture.  In less than 20 years, Eskimo Curlews were also extinct.


DSC_0475 Eskimo CurlewThe chicken-like bird below is a Heath Hen.  It’s a subspecies of the Greater Prairie Chicken, which can still be found.  The Heath Hen was once fairly common along the eastern US, and some believe that it was these birds that graced the first Thanksgiving table, not turkeys.  Regardless, they were extremely common during Colonial times.  By the late 18th century, these birds were so common, and so commonly eaten, that they eventually became known as the poor man’s meat – cheap and plentiful.  I’ve even read that some employment contracts that included meals dictated that the employee would not be served passenger pigeons for more than three meals a week because they would get sick of it.

As you might guess, over-hunting was the primary cause of the bird’s decline.  Soon the only population that remained was on Martha’s Vineyard, where, for the first time, laws were put in place to protect them.  For a while it looked like the protections would work, for the population rebounded and did fairly well, but then the island effect took hold again, and between disease and weather, the population suffered irreparable losses and it became extinct in 1932.


DSC_0476Now we branch into some of the interesting extinct birds from outside the US.  This is a pair of Huias, a bird that was found in New Zealand.  The female is the one with the really curved bill, while the male has the shorter, stouter bill.  He would whack away at wood to excavate it for insects, while she could reach further into the wood to extract a meal.  This particular example of sexual dimorphism is unusual – mostly with birds what you see is a difference in coloration or size between the sexes, if there is any difference at all.  Over-hunting for skins to mount in museums and for tail feathers to use on hats, and habitat loss (deforestation) led to the extinction of this bird.  It lived in ancient forests – complex ecosystems, that once logged, could no longer support this bird.  The last Huias were seen in the 1960s.

DSC_0468 This little fellow is the Laysan Rail.  We were all surprised to see a rail that was so small!  It was a flightless bird from the northwester Hawaiian island of the same name.  It was noted for its speed as it ran across the ground, using its wings to maintain its balance.  You can see footage of this bird here.  It’s loss was primarily due to the introduction of rabbits to the island.  The Laysan Rail ate a varied diet of invertebrates, leaves, seeds, eggs and seabird carcasses, but when the rabbits arrived, these voracious herbivores stripped the island bare of vegetation, leaving a virtual dust bowl in their wake.  The loss of plants was devastating to the birds, and not just the rail – two other species also went extinct.  In 1910 the island was at K, which is the carrying capacity of a habitat; for the rails that meant there were about 2000 breeding pairs.  By 1923, there only two left on the island.  The last Laysan Rails were seen in 1944 on the island of Midway.

DSC_0448 L aysan Rail It really is so very sad to see these losses.  And to know that they are just the tip of the iceberg.   These were just a handful of specimens from one cabinet in one collection.

The tragedy of these losses should be a lesson to everyone.  And yet, extinctions continue, often in the name of “progress.”

From this one cabinet, we moved on to other birds, ones that still exist, like the Cassowary:

DSC_0485 Cassowary (3)Tune in tomorrow to learn more about this bird (it was from P.T. Barnum’s circus) and the rest of the birds we saw this day.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Bird Banding

It was a rather cold morning when a local cub scout pack came out to Dahlem this month for their Blue and Gold awards outing.  For their program, they brought in Allen Chartier, who is a Michigan bird bander.


Earlier in the week Allen had come out and set up mist nets around our bird feeding station, and had put out three traps, in order to acclimatize the birds to these unusual structures.  The birds readily adapted to the new items at the station, so that morning, the nets were opened and the traps set, and soon we had birds to band.


Mist nets are very fine nets that the birds cannot see.  When they fly in to feed at the feeders, they hit the net and fall into a “pocket” or drape in the netting.  Once caught, they usually lie there pretty still, waiting to be rescued.  As quickly as possible, Allen was out there untangling the birds,


pulling them out of the traps,


and popping them into cotton bags (one bird per bag).  Being in the bag usually calms the bird down and keeps it from hurting itself.  Allen was surprised at how many birds we caught and how quickly.  In about an hour we had 39 birds and had to close the nets and traps.

The bagged birds were brought inside and hung up on hooks to await their turns at being recorded for posterity.

DSC_0231Bird banding requires both state and federal licenses, as well as years of training.  The leg bands come in a variety of sizes, each size just right for each species of bird.

DSC_0289Very quickly, Allen would select the correct band, open it, and then clamp it around the leg of a bird from one of the bags.


Blowing gently on the head, Allen would then age the birds based on the ossification of the skull (had the sutures on the skull closed or not).  He’d also check the bird’s sex, if possible.


Wing and tail measurements were taken,


each bird was wrapped up in a bag and weighed,


and all the data were recorded in Allen’s records, to be sent on later to the bird banding authorities.


After each bird was successfully banded and recorded, it was carried outside and released.  Staff and visitors got to help release some of the birds, which were more than happy to get back to their routines.

DSC_0282DSC_0315 DSC_0320We will have Allen out again at the end of March for a public bird banding program.  Look for it in our March/April issue of PawPrints.   He will also be out during the annual Birds, Blooms and Butterflies Festival in August, when he bands hummingbirds.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Snow Fun in the New Year!

Happy New Year, Everyone!  And how lucky are we to not only finally get some snow, but to get some marvelously fluffy snow, and to have a gloriously sunny day today in which to enjoy it during one of our Winter Break Programs:  Snow Fun!

Designed for children ages 7 to 10, we had plans to do all sorts of fun outdoor stuff in the snow.

First, we made snow angels.

DSC_0235 DSC_0237

And then we gathered some natural objects to freeze into sun catchers.


Next, we wanted to see what would happen when one blew soap bubbles when the temperature was below freezing.  Would they freeze?

DSC_0257The ones we blew into the air didn’t…not really.  Most dropped right to the ground; some caught an updraft and blew away.  When they popped, there was a brief shower of frozen suds.  But Bailey discovered that if you blew them right onto the snow, they would freeze:

DSC_0280Soon our hands were frozen from all the soap bubble solution, so it was time to go inside to defrost a little bit and start to make our Snow Ice Cream!

We started with about 8 cups of fresh snow, added 1/2 cup sugar, 1 cup milk and 2 tablespoons vanilla.

DSC_0290 DSC_0291

Stir stir stir, and then add about 2 more cups of fresh snow.  Stir some more.

DSC_0293You will end up with very soft ice cream.


It met with our chefs’ approval.

DSC_0298 DSC_0299Next we had to check our sun catchers – were they frozen yet?  Good enough!

DSC_0300 DSC_0301 DSC_0305And we wrapped up the afternoon with some hot cocoa and Bird TV.

DSC_0313It was a good day.

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

New Elements added to Nature Playscape are a Hit!

Eagle Scout Candidate Trevor Tarantowski organized and installed three new elements in our Nature Playscape: a Zig-Zag Balance Beam, a Wobbly Bridge, and a Sod Chair. We are asking folks to not use the Sod Chair until spring, so some roots can get established, but the balance beam and bridge are already a big hit.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment


You just never know what you might encounter on a walk out here at Dahlem.

Every Tuesday morning, Gary leads a nature walk, usually on our property.  While his specialty is birds, the topics covered range from birds to mushrooms, flowers to amphibians.  Whatever they encounter will likely be discussed.

Well, this week Tuesday was a rather gray and grim morning.  A bit drippy, a bit cool…hey, it’s November.  But the group sallied forth and boy did they get a treat!  Gary writes:

“On the hike around Dahlem on Tuesday morning the group was treated to watching a Great Horned Owl clutching a opossum being mobbed by 20 to 30 crows. As we watched this nature event play out a Red-tail Hawk swooped in to steal the opossum. He was unsuccessful but a great try anyway. Hawk departed heading west chased by some of the crows. One never knows what is lurking around the corner in nature.

We also had a Brown Creeper near feeding stations and a good size flock of American Tree Sparrows and Dark-eyed Juncos at south end of Glacial Pond [both indicators that winter is on its way]. “

Wow!  I sure wish I had been on that  walk!  What a great sight – nature red in tooth and claw.  And, of course, no one had a camera…ain’t it always the way!

Are you looking for a little excitement in your life?  Come on out to Dahlem – as Gary says, you never know what might be lurking just around the corner!


Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Goblin Walks 2013

Halloween may still be in the wings for many of you, but here at Dahlem we celebrated this last weekend at our annual Goblin Walks!  We were so happy that the weather cleared, with the rain holding off and the wind dying down…although it was brisk under those star-lit skies!

Over 550 visitors came out this year – a new record!  And, another new record was the number of pumpkins our friends and volunteers helped us carve to light the trail:  over 300!

DSC_0234 DSC_0235 DSC_0254 DSC_0256 DSC_0261 DSC_0280 DSC_0275 DSC_0298 DSC_0297

Here’s what it was like walking down the pumpkin-lit trail:

This year we had five not-so-scarey nature-themed skits along the trail:  Bear, Raccoon and Chipmunk (how animals survive the winter); Scarecrow, Raven and Crow (migration); Robins in the Hood (a hip-hop look at how robins forage); Baby Owls (owl biology and physiology); and, of course, the ever-popular Roadkill Cafe, starring Turkey Vulture and Opossum.

After the last skit, visitors walk to the Pavilion where the Friends of Dahlem serve cider (hot and cold), coffee (hot) and donuts, while a singer/storyteller entertains.  There is also a toasty warm fire going at the fire pit, where folks can warm up.

If you missed Goblin Walks this year, be sure to sign up early next year.  We start taking reservations in September, and they go fast!  Usually by early October the only spaces available are after 8:00 on Friday and Saturday nights.  If you wait to call the week before, you will likely be placed on a waiting list.  So, plan ahead – we hope to see you for Goblin Walks 2014!

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment