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Fascination with Birds
People for thousands of years have had an enduring fascination with birds. Whether this attraction centered on the symbol of the Golden Eagle for the earliest inhabitants of the North American West, or the totems of the Bald Eagle and the Raven for those living in the Pacific Northwest, or the sacred ibis in Egypt, or the Roc and Phoenix of Arabian mythology, birds have held a special place in all phases of human life.
Besides the early appeal as a religious and political symbol, birds often provided a reliable and easily harvested food source. In North America this sometimes led to the extinction of the species, as in the case of the Great Auk, the Labrador Duck, the Carolina Parakeet, and the Passenger Pigeon. Unfortunately, this has often been the case throughout the world. So, while various birds may have been treated with special reverence, there are others whose association with humans has been less charitable.
Much of our interest in birds comes from their special physical characteristic of having feathers and, for most of them, the ability to fly. Because they possess a wide range of physical capabilities, with most sharing the gift of flight, birds are able to inhabit almost every corner of the earth. They are the consummate traveler. One of the long-range travelers, the Arctic Tern, journeys from the Arctic to the Antarctic and back each year, and, in the process, probably spends eight months of that year in constant daylight. As a consequence, it probably sees more sunlight than any other species.
There are approximately 9,000 species of birds spread around the globe. They inhabit the densest cities, the coldest climates, and the driest deserts. They range in length from the eight-foot-tall Ostrich to the Bee Hummingbird about the size of a thumb; the twelve foot wingspans of the wandering Albatross, and the under water speeds of the "flightless" Penguin that approaches 20 miles an hour in short bursts. Migration flights are amazing examples of the varied capabilities of birds. The Pacific Golden Plover flies from Alaska to Hawaii in one hop. Not only does it make the 2,500 mile flight, it has to do some errorless navigation. Although small and seemingly incapable of such a feat, the Ruby-throated Hummingbird makes an annual fall trip across the Gulf of Mexico to South America in one night. And it doesn't do this on the back of a goose as some people erroneously think! The Blackpoll Warbler flies for three days straight to reach the north coast of South America from its staging area in Nova Scotia.
Feathers and Flight
While birds are warm-blooded like the mammals and lay eggs like the reptiles, it is their feathers and flight that sets them apart for most of us. The earliest record of a birdlike fossil is that of the Archaeopteryx, a transitional species between reptiles and true birds. Its feathered tail and forelimbs, plus opposable toes, suggest a very primitive bird. Besides flight, the feathers provide one of the best insulating materials known. Light and strong, the feathers help keep the bird's body temperature in the comfortable range as well as providing the lift necessary for flight.
The bird's skeleton is very lightweight and strong, with many hollow bones uniquely braced. The large keel (an extension of the sternum) provides a suitable anchor for the powerful and much used flight muscles. A hummingbird, for instance, regularly beats its wings 225 beats a second, and the Rufous Hummingbird often records beats of 200 per second during its courtship displays.
Because of the vital role flight plays in the life of birds, nature has further "lightened the load," so to speak, by providing for the eggs to be incubated outside the body. This allows for continued flight if necessary, as flight would be difficult, if not impossible, if embryos had to be incubated internally. Eggs vary greatly in size and number laid, with a hummingbird's egg being about the size of the nail on your little finger and various members of the grouse family laying clutches of 15+ eggs.
Because of the importance of the feathers for insulation and flight, birds spend a lot of time caring for them by passing the feathers through the bill to clean and straighten them. This process is called "preening." Most birds also have an oil gland just above the tail to aid in the cleaning process and to provide some waterproofing. While watching the gulls along the shore at Point Lobos, one will notice that they spend a good deal of their roosting time putting their feathers in order. The wings of the cormorants have wide spaces between the individual feathers allowing them to become waterlogged, reducing the bird's buoyancy and helping them get into deeper water in search of food. To dry out these feathers one can see them perching on the coastal rocks with their wings outstretched in the sun. Despite the care given to their feathers by the birds, they become worn by exposure to the elements of nature. Because having feathers in sound condition is so vital to their well-being, the birds shed and replace their feathers at least once a year. This process is called "molting." Some birds such as the Western gulls here at Point Lobos, have two molts a year; a partial one in the spring and another in the fall where all the feathers are replaced. Most birds that only molt once a year do so in the fall when they have finished breeding and before migration. Birds usually molt over a period of time in order to keep enough feathers for flight and warmth. However, most waterfowl molt all their flight feathers at one time, leaving them flightless and vulnerable to predators. While workable for water birds, such a molting strategy obviously wouldn't work for a small land bird like a sparrow.
Feathers, of course, come in many colors. Most of the color is found in the pigments produced when the feathers are formed. However, the color blue found in the Scrub Jays and Steller's Jays at Point Lobos does not come from pigment but from the structure of the feather and how it reflects light. Similarly, the iridescent color of the "gorget" feathering found on the throats of male Anna's and Allen's Hummingbirds that breed here at Point Lobos State Reserve also is caused by the structure of the feathers and not from pigment.
While not unique to their order, with birds the marvel of migration is brought to its full fruition. Whether it's the lengthy movements of the Arctic Tern mentioned previously or the shorter trips made by some of the North American sparrow like birds, the strategy is used in some fashion by many of the birds throughout the world as well as those at Point Lobos State Natural Reserve. Point Lobos has about 50 resident breeding birds; i.e., birds that live on the Reserve year-round and nest each year. Yet, over 200 species have been observed at Point Lobos since 1981. This suggests a lot of migrant movement. This includes species coming in the spring to nest on the Reserve, those coming to spend the winter, and those just passing through.
Just as it happens over the rest of the world, most of the spring movement is north to longer days and abundant insect life, and south in the fall to warmth and an assured food source. At least the birds hope the food source will be there. There is developing evidence that their winter habitat (rain forests, wetlands, etc.) is rapidly disappearing under relentless human pressure. Also, breeding habitat is being continuously strained here in North America.
We know a good deal about the who, what, when, and where of bird migration, but very little except conjecture about the why of migration. Why do some birds expose themselves to the hardships of a trip of often thousands of miles, sometimes over long stretches of water, twice a year, when other birds just like them stay put in their tropical or temperate homes? Whatever the complete answer is to the question of "why migrate," the fact that the birds seem to find it worthwhile suggests that it is a successful survival strategy. If it isn't, then many species of birds have selected a very poor course for reproductive success that may lead to their extinction.
Niches and Needs
The Point Lobos State Natural Reserve, with its diverse vegetation of oaks and pines, coastal scrub and meadows, plus its rocky coast, pocket sand coves, offshore islands and ocean water, offers a very likely spot to attract the regular as well as wandering migrant. In May, a check of one of the sand beaches or shoreline rocks often catches migrating shorebirds as they pass through on their way north. Their stay is short, often just a few minutes, but it is a stop that is repeated year after year. In the summer and fall, a bit of scoping offshore should bring into view some of the hundreds of thousands of Sooty Shearwaters that pass through this area on their long journey from their nesting grounds in Australia around the Pacific Rim. With the arrival of the wintering birds, a check of the forest should bring the identifying calls of the Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Townsend's and Yellow-rumped Warblers, while a glimpse offshore usually provides a look at at least one of the three wintering loon species.
With all this movement of bird species throughout the year at Point Lobos, it should be no surprise that birds are "making their living" in all parts of the Reserve, from the forest canopy high in the trees to the ocean waters framing this ecological sanctuary. A walk through the Reserve at various times of the year might yield Pygmy Nuthatches, Band-tailed Pigeons and Pine Siskins high in the trees, with Chestnut-backed Chickadees and Brown Creepers checking for insects at mid-level, and California Quail and Tufous-sided Towhee working on the forest floor. A check of the coastal scrub could offer a chance to see its resident denizens Anna's Hummingbird, Wrentit or White-crowned Sparrow. Along the shoreline a glance at the rocks or just offshore should give you an opportunity to observe the resident Pelagic Cormorants, Killdeer or Black Oystercatcher, Western Gulls, or, during spring and summer, a Pigeon Guillemot in its striking breeding plumage.
The Avian World
All of these birds are "making their living" in the niche provided by nature. Since each niche is different, each bird is different. As such, each adds to the diversity and scope of avian life. It is this uniqueness and complexity that draws people to this universal fascination with birds and bird study. With a little bit of patience you too can enter this compelling avian world. And where better to encounter this exciting part of the natural world than here at Point Lobos State Natural Reserve, with its varied and protected habitats? It is an appropriate place to follow Samuel Coleridge's counsel that...
"He prayeth well who loveth well
Both man and bird and beast."