If it's alive and it lives wild, it's wildlife.

Kevin J. Cook                                              Kevin@WildlifeWindow.com

Species Profile

Species Profile

The Whistler


      The winter morning begins whistle cold and clear.  So clear the sky looks more like an artist’s conception.  So cold it takes two tries to fetch the morning paper.  And somewhere out there somebody’s whistling.

      It’s a single-note whistle clear as the winter morning itself.  Over and over again the whistle rings like the purest note ever blown on a flute.  Loud, bold, and monotonous, the note brings cheer to a deep-frozen morning.

      It’s a morning so cold the thermometer shivers, so cold the cat wears boots and mittens, so cold the home-delivered milk freezes to milkshakes, so cold the House Finches and Blue Jays don’t show up at the feeders until after my second cup of Earl Grey.  Yet despite the cold, the whistler’s out there practicing his single-note repertoire.

      Before the sun sits on the horizon like some shining ping-pong ball on some distant table, before the deep winter sky turns as blue as any sky ever gets, before neighborhood fireplace chimneys don their morning plumes of smoke, long before the Fox Squirrels begin traversing the telephone cables, long before the dog succumbs to need and consents to go outside, long before the night’s frost tumbles from twigs and melts from window panes, long before the first car engine struggles to life, the whistler greets the day.

      After the morning gets well underway, the whistling stops abruptly.  It is but a brief respite.  A few minutes later, the whistled note comes again but from a new location.

      And so the day goes.  A bit of quiet follows a spell of whistling, over and over again.  The whistler now here, now there; never too far to be heard, never so close as to be seen.

      With the day in progress, the whistler loses some identity.  The cars and trucks flow down the streets like water in a streambed.  They put up a steady din that throbs and pulses but never fades, and they drown out sounds more pleasant to the ear.

      Airplanes and jets overhead, trains following their tracks, screen doors slamming, garage doors and car doors opening and closing, dogs barking, children shouting, garbage trucks compacting, radios blaring, snow shovels grating arrhythmically against concrete, snowblowers whining.  They all compete with the whistler for space in the ear, for a little recognition in the mind.

      Not until stars replace the Sun do the sounds of humanity retreat.  The dark of night muffles all, even the hale and hearty whistler who worked until twilight.

      Next morning, he’s at it again.  Too late for the milkman, too early for the postman, too stationary for the paperboy.  Indeed, he’s more persistent and more single-mindedly talented than any person could ever be.

      He’s down from the mountains just for the winter, and he’s no person.  He’s the Townsend’s Solitaire.




The Six-Names-in-One Bird


      A once-popular stunt posed the challenge to see how many college students could squeeze into a telephone booth.  Some might argue that the stunt originated with cramming circus clowns inside a tiny car; but in reality, the stunt has been around much longer and probably originated with birds...with a twist.

      How many crab-apples can you stuff into one Bohemian Waxwing?

      Elegant birds admired for their sleek form and exquisite plumage, Bohemian Waxwings are famous for bringing good cheer to a potentially gloomy season.  That cheeriness may partly result from the Bohemians’ capricious appearances: some years we get them, some years we don’t; and in those years when we do, we may get two or three here and a half dozen there, or we might see them in flocks of dozens, hundreds, or even thousands.

      This behavior probably earned the bird one of its six names.

      In his famous 1758 book, Systema Naturae, Carolus Linnaeus classified and named this bird Lanius garrulus.  Though his work formally brought the bird into the spotlight of ornithological scholarship, Linnaeus unfortunately assigned the bird to a genus meaning “butcher,” an assignment that associated the bird with the shrikes.

      In 1808 Louis Jean Pierre Vieillot published his reevaluation of various bird classifications.  His work distinguished the waxwing as discreet from the shrikes, which he emphasized by assigning them to a new genus of his own making: Bombycilla.  Unfortunately, poor Latin scholarship influenced the coining of this name.  The root derives from Latin bombyx, meaning “silk”; but the “cilla” was misinterpreted from another usage and in fact is derived from nothing and means nothing, though Vieillot presumably understood it to mean “tail.”  Error or not, the rules of priority apply; so Bombycilla garrulus remains the valid Latin name.  Translated to American it would be “chattering silky...something.”

      A few years after Vieillot – probably before 1820 – the name “waxwing” came into general usage and has since become the standard American name.  The specific name “Bohemian” is remarkably convoluted.

      No clear documentation establishes when, why, or how the name was applied to this species, though it was in American use by the early 1800s.  At this point, nuances of language show their true importance.

      As a region, whether culturally or politically defined or as a naturally occurring geographic area, Bohemia occupies a western portion of what is now the Czech Republic.  As a geographic name, “Bohemia” properly takes an upper case spelling because it is a proper noun.  People or things that originate in, belong to, or come from Bohemia would be referred to as “Bohemian,” also upper case.

      The culture of Bohemia became widely known for nonconformity to social, cultural, and political standards that governed the rest of Europe.  Unconventional views and behaviors, especially in a context of being somewhat antagonistic or deliberately contrary, came to be known as “bohemian,” a common noun usage that requires a lower case spelling.

      In a nomenclature system that regards species names as common nouns, such names would take lower case treatments except when proper nouns form part of the name.  Thus, “Canada goose” would take both an upper and a lower case treatment.  In a nomenclature system that regards species names as proper nouns, both names would be upper case: “Canada Goose.”

      If the bird in question lives in, comes from, or is named for the region in western Czech Republic and its name is spelled in a common noun treatment, the name would be “Bohemian waxwing.”  Alternatively, if the bird does not connect with the formally named geographic region in western Czech Republic but is, instead, named for erratic or unconventional behavior, then as a common noun its name would be correctly spelled with lower case: “bohemian waxwing.”

      However, a nomenclature system that regards all species names as proper nouns would treat both names with upper case: “Bohemian Waxwing.”

      No known literature explains how the name “bohemian” became attached to the bird called “waxwing.”  But where notes fail, biogeography triumphs!

      One of three waxwing species, the Bohemian naturally occurs from Scandinavia to far eastern Asia and from Alaska eastward through all or portions of seven western Canadian provinces.  The bird neither originates from nor normally occurs in Bohemia.  Ergo, the bird is not “Bohemian” and by default must be “bohemian.”

      Though the name “Greater Waxwing” was used for awhile, it did not endure and was eventually eclipsed by “Bohemian Waxwing.”

      Hence the history of six names, three each of Latin and American, and the significance of nuance.

      The bird, itself, is every bit as interesting as the origin of its names.

      During summer, when solitary pairs inhabit edges of boreal treelands including forests and taiga, the Bohemian Waxwing catches flying insects to feed itself and its nestlings.  It supplements the insect diet with a few seeds and some small fruits as available.

      During winter, Bohemian family groups coalesce to form flocks that wander, sometimes near and sometimes far but always erratically.  To survive, the Bohemian switches its diet from mostly insects to almost entirely fruits supplemented with some seeds and juniper cones.  Though it takes drupes, berries, and small nuts, pomes are its favorite; and this fruit type is unique to plants in the rose family: rowan (mountain-ash), hawthorn, serviceberry (they really are pomes and not berries), pears, and, of course, apples, especially crab-apples.

      Quite likely, some combination of factors such as aesthetic appeal when blooming, adaptability to various climates and soils, ease of growth, and low initial cost makes the crab-apple a popular yard tree in urban and suburban areas.  If a survey of urban tree species per acre were done, the crab-apple would doubtlessly be one of the most numerous.  And this concentration of food probably accounts for the high association of Bohemian Waxwings with cities and towns in winter.

      A Bohemian will sit on a branchlet and swallow two or three crab-apple pomes in quick succession.  It will then sit still in a characteristic slouching position.  After a few minutes, it will eliminate two or three fecal masses.  This allows all the food in the digestive tract to move down one organ, so to speak, which frees space at the upper end to swallow a few more crab-apples.  Such feeding may continue for a half hour or more, leading the casual observer to swear that this eight-inch, two-ounce bird can swallow a bushel of crab-apples.

      Exactly how many crab-apples fit in a bushel is probably as anachronistic as squeezing college students into a phone booth.  In an age of cell phones, who remembers what a phone booth is?  And what, precisely, is a bushel?  At least we know what a Bohemian Waxwing is.

      One bird, six names, and a whole lot of crab-apples: what a great way to smile on a cold winter day!

Bighorn Sheep




      You have doubtlessly heard American Robins sing and field-crickets chirp.  And surely, you have heard Elk bugling and Canada Geese honking.  Unquestionably, you have heard wind soughing through leaves and water babbling over stones.  Singing, chirping, bugling, honking, soughing, babbling: these are the words we use to describe how sound weaves through the fabric of life.

      If you have heard all of these and more, you are still lacking if you have not heard the unique sound of the mountains in November: Bok!

      Some days, it carries like loon yodels over still water; other days, wind muffles it into complete obscurity.  But on any given day, it’s out there.  Bok!

      A discretely monosyllabic sound, it has no quaver, no tremolo.  No stutters precede it; no rattles succeed it.  You will never hear it in a cadent series.

      It is a sound – Bok! – of the high country; it is a sound – Bok! – of deep autumn.  It is, of course, the sound of horn against horn, the sound of collision, the sound of two male Bighorn Sheep butting heads.


      This is their season.  The ewes of each herd come into estrous one at a time; and sensing a ewe’s readiness, the rams battle for the dominance that confers the right to breed.  As one ewe is impregnated, another comes into estrous, which extends the rams’ determination to battle, again and again and again.


      Combative rams assess each other then square off, sometimes quickly and sometimes after considerable posturing.  Wily old rams with experience try to maneuver above their rivals so that gravity assists their charge with downhill momentum.  When two rams of equal experience meet, the uphill maneuvering seldom works; and their charge is on equal ground.

      Depending on how far apart they are when they initiate their charge, the rams may trot toward each other then rear up on their hind legs and advance several more steps; or, if closer together, they may immediately rear and trot forward several steps.  Either way, they time their approach so that they throw their bulk forward, coming down on their fore legs with necks extended and heads down so the horns jut forward enough to effect horn-to-horn contact, source of the Bok!

      The collision between 200-pound rams sends enormous energy surging into each other’s body.  This surge would cause serious and probably fatal injury, but the Bighorns are adapted to receive the impact.  The energy is significantly dissipated by the hind quarters elevating enough to allow the hind legs to fling up and kick back.

      One collision, one bok, one kick.  The animals recover, reassess, and for awhile, reengage.  Until one ram concedes to the other.

      In small herds one ram dominates and may mate all the ewes.  In large herds dominant rams may be so busy that subordinate rams may successfully impregnate some of the ewes.

      Once all the ewes are impregnated, the experienced dominant rams cease butting heads.  Quite typically, they have lost weight and sustained incidental injuries.  They are ready to rest and recover.  Young rams still learning the breeding protocols of their kind may continue the head-butting well into winter.

      Though the butting and the consequent boks wane as December ages, you might yet hear an occasional horn-to-horn collision while snowshoeing Bighorn country in January.  Whenever you hear it, pause, be still, and reflect.  It is not just a vagrant sound that echoes across the mountain canyons; it is part of the onomatopoeia lexicon by which we perceive the voice of life.



Out there, between November’s lead-colored sky and tin-colored water, float the birds of autumn; and among them – coot, grebe, duck, goose, and gull – rests an icon of the north: the loon!

Titillating both mind and spirit, the loon beckons equally to scientist and romantic.

From the standpoint of ornithological scholarship, loons have long presented a seemingly irresolvable challenge of classification: they don’t seem to be related to other birds in any clear way. The five loon species are, however, unquestionably related to each other based on many morphological features:

- compressed beak (flattened side to side) without terminal hook and with neither lamellae (parallel plates for filtering food from water like a sieve) nor serrations (straight or hooked points for seizing and holding prey);

- nostrils linear and perforate (lacking a dividing septum between left and right);

- femur (upper leg bone in the thigh) bowed and shorter than the tarsus (fused foot bones), and a tarsus shorter than the front toes;

- tarsus compressed and lacking feathers but covered with reticulate scales;

- palmate toes (two webs between front three toes and extending all the way to the end of the toe or nearly so), with small and narrow claws;

- and other shared features of skeleton and soft organs.

Fossils indicate the loons were established as an identifiable group in the Tertiary Period of the Cenozoic Era, about 55 million years ago, give or take a millennium or two. This ancient lineage coupled with a body form similar to even more ancient birds known only as fossils once suggested a classification position early in the family tree of birds; this position earned them status among North American birds as the first birds in the phylogenetic sequence ergo first birds in the field guides and checklists. But such placement was always presumptive and tentative pending new discoveries and better information.

Newer analytical techniques – one example would be the "mitochondrial clock" of genetics – have diminished but not resolved the uncertainty about loons’ phylogenetic relatedness to other birds, largely by clarifying the relatedness among other bird groups. Currently, best available information suggests the loons are most closely related to the tubenoses (albatrosses, petrels, shearwaters) and penguins. This tubenose-penguin-loon assemblage no longer occupies the front of North American bird phylogeny sequences; instead, this assemblage comes about two-thirds of the way through the phylogenetic sequence of major groups.

If the next generation of field guides follows ornithological scholarship rather than tradition, the sequence of birds in the book format will be radically different than what we now see. And watching the checklists will be interesting: will they precede the field guides in change of sequence or will they follow?

From the standpoint of aesthetics and interpretation of cultural imagery, loons hold icon status because they represent an untamed element of boreal wilderness. To see them, you must look beyond birdbath and feeder and visit the wild waters of distant treelands and tundra.

Or you must wait for a wanderer to visit during migration.

Early November hosts good numbers of loons as they pass through Colorado on their ways to somewhere else, mostly the Pacific and Gulf coasts.

All five species come here. Commons are most numerous and easily found with adequate searching. Pacifics visit every year but in variable numbers, sometimes quite scarce, sometimes in small groups. Red-throateds are third most common but not really common at all; several years may pass between sightings, though when one shows up usually several do. Yellow-billed loons are scarce, usually solitary birds that spend weeks or months on a single reservoir. Arctic loons are enigmatic here. Only one sighting is accepted as a verified Arctic Loon in Colorado; but quite likely, an occasional Arctic Loon visits unseen, another gets seen but goes unreported, and others get seen but misidentified as Pacifics. Or maybe the species really is that scarce here in Colorado.

Loons grace our waters – from Blue Mesa Reservoir in the Gunnison Basin to Prewitt Reservoir on the northeastern plains – from mid October into December; a few may overwinter. But right now is the season of their greatest abundance.

Go find yourself a loon!

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