5 November 2018 – a pile of feathers and fruits

In a corner of the main north entrance to the Noble Research Center, I encountered this mystery today:

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And I’m all like:

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So let’s get to work on this.

First, this wasn’t here on Nov. 3 (Saturday), I did not check yesterday (Sunday), and when I found it today (Monday, the 5th) it had already been scavenged. I count examples like these as scavenging/removal on day 0.

Okay, so there’s a feather pile and a fruit pile. The fruit pile is on top of the feathers. The fruits show no signs of digestion, other than some of them having been opened and the pits are exposed. There is a single large pit inside a small fruit that is round and black with a highly glossy finish.

After much reading, comparing, consulting, etc., I’m pretty well convinced that these are chokecherries, Prunus virginiana.

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Paul Wray photo, Iowa State University

My guess? I think our bird gorged itself on chokecherries before undertaking a migratory flight that, sadly, ended at a stupid window. The scavenger burst the bulging crop of this poor bird but had no interest in the fruits (in turn, feeding my opinion on the scavenger). So the remnants of this event are a pile of feathers and a pile of chokecherries.

Ah yes – the scavenger!

Well, we know that on campus we have skunks, foxes, opossums, raccoons, and feral cats as the most likely scavengers. The most likely of those to turn up its nose at a pile of chokecherries? I’d say cat. A cat scavenger would also be pretty well supported by the clean shearing of the flight feathers from the wings, visible here:

So what’s the bird? Well it’s clearly a meadowlark, but whether Eastern or Western takes some additional work. As with the fruits, I’ve spent a lot of time reading, consulting, and comparing. Perhaps the best resource for this task was a blog post from Kevin McGowan ca. 2000. (I also couldn’t get the USFWS Feather Atlas to load.)

Everyone knows that Western Meadowlark shows a yellow malar and in Eastern Meadowlark this is whitish. Without the bird’s head this character was of no use to me, however. In fact, there were just three feathers in the pile showing any yellow at all. Two other character differences are more relevant. First, both species have white outer tail feathers, but on Eastern the outer two are fully white and the third is mostly white. On Western the white is less extensive and even the outermost feather isn’t always fully white. In addition, Western looks paler overall than does Eastern, with the pattern on its tail and in the folded wings over the back appearing lighter brown/gray with blackish stripes. On Eastern, those same areas are darker brown with thicker blackish stripes often joined at the center of the feather creating a fern-like shape instead of distinct stripes. What do you think of these?

I’m leaning toward Western Meadowlark as the original owner of these feathers.

So I’m reporting today a pile of feathers that I think was Western Meadowlark, scavenged by a mammal I think was a cat, and that the cat showed no interest in what I think was a pile of chokecherries in what I think was the crop of the meadowlark.

Challenges, thoughts, etc? I welcome any and all!

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10 July 2017 – Eastern Meadowlark

Monday dawned bright but soon turned sombre when I encountered the study’s first meadowlark (61st species; presumably Eastern) at the northeastern alcove. Worse, it was a baby: HY-U.  Worse still: it was alive but mortally wounded and suffering greatly.  It was having spasms, was unable to hold its head up, panting heavily, and bleeding through its bill, which was bent at the tip from the collision.

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This is the reality of the catastrophic but not immediately fatal injuries that millions of birds endure every year. For those of us who dedicate our time to count them, we must be prepared to come face-to-face with some of our favorite creatures sometimes in the throes of a horrible and painful death.  Sometimes we are even faced with the decision to intervene and usher in a more swift and merciful death than the one being endured. So that’s how my Monday morning began: euthanasia via thoracic compression of a baby meadowlark enduring unimaginable pain and fear.

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The meadowlark did not recover from its window collision today, and I’m not sure I will either.

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