One-Note Wonder

Machaeropterus eckelberryi. Image: Andy Kratter/Florida Museum of Natural History

It was the manakin’s simple song that gave it away. Rather than the two-note chirp of its close relatives, the striped manakins from other areas of South America, the tiny bird with the red cap trilled out only single syllables.

A research team from Louisiana State University and the Florida Museum of Natural History first found the manakin in the remote Cordillera Azul region of Peru in 1996. But it is only now, twenty years later, that the newly named Machaeropterus eckelberryi was classified as a species separate from other Machaeropterus relations. Why?

The new species song could only be compared to other species once vocalization samples from other manakin groups had been recorded. It was only then that researchers were able to hear that M. eckelberryi song was so different from other manakin species. When they dug deeper, they found other defining characteristics as well.

Comparison of plumage of some taxa in the Machaeropterus regulus complex.
Source: Zootaxa

Attention to detail, patience, and research funding led to this new identification.

But more than that, even before the manakin was revealed to be a new species, the researchers’ revelation of the spectacular biodiversity of this habitat led to the creation of one of Peru’s largest national parks. The Cordillera Azul National Park covers 13531 km² (522 m²) and is home to a remarkably untouched variety of flora and fauna.

What other discoveries, what unique songs, lay in wait in collections around the world?

Should we call them discoveries, or should we call them revelations?

Click here to listen to the song of the painted manakin.

Dry Wall

Our friend's house in a less-weeded state. The house won a 2009 Green Building Award. Bay Area, California

The Skillman Residence.
The house won a 2009 Green Building Award. Bay Area, California

A few years ago, I spent a couple of peaceable afternoons with a good friend atop her California roof, weeding the landscaped grasses of her sustainably-built home. When we started, the large roof was an overgrown lawn; when we finished, the sweeping lines of the grasses and succulents were restored to their usual beauty. We agreed that roof-weeding was a perfectly pleasant and productive way to pass the time among friends.

Living wall of Hotel Modera, Portland, Oregon.  Photo: Mike Davis/The Oregonian

A nice example of a living wall – Hotel Modera, Portland, Oregon.
Photo: Mike Davis/The Oregonian

One thing I learned from this experience, however, is that living roofs and walls require maintenance in the same way that my garden and window boxes need tending. Left to their own devices, they do what most neglected gardens do: they either dry up, or become overgrown. And I’ve thought, for larger urban buildings, that this is an entirely new and unaccustomed area of building maintenance activity for most businesses.

I found an example that confirmed my suspicion, the living wall on a large home supply and hardware store in our area. This wall was installed around three years ago, and I remember driving by it and being impressed. Now it looks like this:

Desiccated vertical garden, Thoiry, France Photo: PK Read

Desiccated vertical garden, Thoiry, France
Photo: PK Read

Living walls can now be purchased in prefabricated modules, and can be installed to encourage storm-water absorption, insect, bird and bee populations, and function to clean air and cool large buildings.

But they require water-tight insulation on the inner building wall side, and just as importantly, irrigation and regular care on the green side. Things we aren’t accustomed to doing on the outer walls of buildings. In construction parlance, ‘dry wall’ usually means a wall built of a prefabricated material (as opposed to wet plaster). Technically, this wall would qualify, even if it no longer fits the builder’s original intent.

It's likely that this modular garden could be 'replanted' with new modules - for the time being, dozens of noisy birds and at least one beehive have taken up residence, so it still counts as a 'living wall', I guess. Photo: PK Read

It’s likely that this modular garden could be ‘replanted’ with new modules – for the time being, dozens of noisy birds and at least one beehive have taken up residence, so it still counts as a ‘living wall’, I guess.
Photo: PK Read

Just because the requirements of green, living walls bring new challenges, doesn’t mean we can’t learn to adapt.

I’m hoping this will be a new job description for large cities: Wanted: Building maintenance expert. Must be an experienced vertical gardener.

Wall of Sound

Common Blackbird (Turdus merula) Image via:

Common Blackbird (Turdus merula)
Image via:
Listen to a blackbird sing here.

It started raining today after a few days of sun, and the birds outside in the garden are berserk with spring joy. There’s a symphony of birdsong that I can hear even through shut windows. The chorus changes, rises, falls, and is (rarely) silent for just a moment, as if all the birds are catching their breath at an agreed pause in the music.

The calming effect of birdsong has always been known. In our technological age,the effect we could usually only get by being outside, or having a window open where birds are singing, is being implemented in a variety of ways. Our human predisposition, won over the millennia, is to assume that when birds are singing, we are safe – it’s only when they all stop singing that we need to be concerned. Birdsong heralds the dawn, when birds slowly fall silent in the evening it is time to rest.

I noticed when flying through a few airports recently – in the UK and in the United States – that birdsong filled some of the corridors upon arrival. I thought it was a funny but oddly pleasant choice of background noise, but as it turns out it was calculated and intentional. Researchers and marketers are figuring out how to implement birdsong soundscapes to do everything from calm frazzled travellers, raise office productivity, relax patients in doctors’ offices and improve sales.

Some birds, like songbirds and parrots, are able to alter and modify their vocalizations, learn new tunes. According to Erich Jarvis, a researcher in neurobiology at Duke University, “Vocal learners all have a connection, or pathway, between neurons in the forebrain — a brain region that helps control vocal learning — and neurons in the brainstem, which control the muscles involved in producing innate vocalizations.” These birds share this type of pathway with a few mammals, including humans.

I’m not sure what this means for our ability to communicate directly with our avian friends.

I’ve been told, however, that a friend’s cockatoo once landed on his knee, set her eyes on him beadily, and said, “I can talk.” “Yes, you can talk,” responded my friend. The bird clucked, then went on, “I can talk. Can you fly?”

Just in case you haven’t heard it in a while, you can test the effects of birdsong for yourself. Here’s an good hour of the stuff. The video has a nice discussion of the difference between bird calls and birdsong.


Jarvis Lab – Neurobiology of Vocal Communication article – Connecting Birdsong to Human Speech by Mary Bates

BBC article – The surprising uses for birdsong by Denise Winterman

Wonderful site of birdsong from around the world –

Flyways and Wetland Rotation

Flock of snow geese on unflooded farmland in Skagit ValleyPhoto: Mesa Schumacher

Flock of snow geese on unflooded farmland in Skagit Valley
Photo: Mesa Schumacher

Farmland gain across the world often means habitat loss of wetlands – important habitats for migratory birds. An interesting project proposed adding an old crop to the regular rotation on a number of farms originally won from deltas and estuaries: namely, the crop of water. I picture a watery mosaic in flux, with changing colors of visiting bird flocks instead of green grains. It’s easy to forget that less than a century ago, many of the areas we now associate with large farms were plains and deltas.

For some farms along well-known migratory bird flyways, farmers agree to let their fields flood as part of a yearly crop succession, rather than trying to keep the fields dry and/or irrigated year-round. The migratory birds are provided with link in a geographic chain, allowing them to land and feed. What’s interesting is that the farmers gain, as well. The flooding has led to increased nutrients in the ground, a reduction in weeds, and overall soil improvement.

The Nature Conservancy (TNC), which initiated the plan in cooperation with a consortium of partners, worked together with farmers in the Skagit Valley, Washington. In California’s Central Valley, TNC purchased farmland for the wetland experiment. The plan doesn’t work for all kinds of fields, crops or farmers; for example, it works best in grain fields, but orchards and vineyards that have taken over old flyway areas aren’t suited for annual flooding. Still, many farmers have reported no net loss in having a water crop in their rotation, and overall satisfaction with the routine.

In the Skagit Valley, Washington, over a dozen species of shorebirds have returned to land and feed on migratory routes lost to them during the course of the 20th century. Similar projects are underway elsewhere around the world.


The Nature Conservancy: Farming for Wildlife (Washington State)

National Geographic articles: Field flooding in California here and in Washington State here

Stranger in Red

Photo: PK Read

Photo: PK Read


I was sitting at my desk yesterday when an unaccustomed flash of red caught my eye out the window. The weather has been dismal these last few days – unbroken rain and fog, so the red stood out. It was a bird I am pretty sure I have never seen in these here parts, not in the garden, not elsewhere. I grabbed, not my large camera with the super telephoto lens, but the camera on my desk, a Sony Cybershot with a sassy zoom. The results aren’t great, especially since we haven’t been able to prune the plum tree due to weeks of heavy snow and frost (excepting, of course, this week’s downpours). The bird proved to be less nervous than many of the regulars, and just sat there calmly getting wet but refusing to budge from its unphotogenic perch.

When I looked at the images, blurry as they are, I was still pleased with myself. What would this stranger turn out to be? Some wanderer, lost and off-course, up here from Tunisia or Spain? An almost extinct refugee from the Jura range?

Obviously, I’m not a very experienced birdwatcher, because upon closer examination (three minutes of Internet searching), it turned out to be a male Bouvreuil pivoine, a Eurasian bullfinch (Pyrrhula pyrrhula). Apparently they travel and live in pairs, so I guess the female was on another, even less visible branch. Quite common across Europe and Asia.

Just a rarity in my neck of the woods.

A better bullfinch image Photo via

A better bullfinch image
Photo via

Snow Sparrows

Photo: PK Read

Photo: PK Read

We’ve had some heavy snowfall over the past couple of days, so heavy that the birds are careful around the feeders because of all the snow in the trees branches right overhead. There are six sparrows hidden in the image above, waiting their turn. The air outside is thick and cottony with the latest snow flurry, yet alive with birdsong. Mid- February in the foothills of the Jura Mountains.

Party in the Plum Tree

There’s a small plum tree outside my office window, on  the opposite side of our garden wall. It’s still lush considering the season, a blaze of bright yellow leaves almost the same hue as the long-gone fruit the tree bears in summer.

Over the past few days, the weather reports for the area have had bright suns happily shining down over Geneva, and I have no doubt that’s accurate once you get above the fog line, located at least 100 feet above our house. It’s misty, quiet, pale autumn weather. No wind.

So it was a shock to find the plum tree quivering and shaking in what seemed to be a highly localized little storm. Even the hedge right next to it was unaffected. It was just the tree, branches bobbing and jerking, leaves falling in a rain.

It took me a moment to register that it was that tree, and only that tree, caught in a vortex. All the other trees were still, their remaining brown leaves hanging quietly, gathering fog.

So I looked more closely. And it turned out that the wind source was a small swarm of birds. Not sparrows, and not all the same. Tiny redbreasted things, a few yellow-breasted, some a sort of grey-brown. I should know their names but I don’t.

There were 20-30 of them, and they were each landing on a branch, then inching up step by step, plucking out leaves as they went along and then dropping them. I thought maybe they were hunting for insects, but no. They were just tweezing the tree of its leaves. When a bird got to the top of a branch, it would flutter and move to another branch. I’ve never seen the birds do that before, and they didn’t do it today.

I went out this morning and raked up the rich circle of gold beneath the tree – if they start up again, I’ll have evidence, even if I miss the tweezing itself.