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WHY IS THERE A BIRD NAMED AFTER A COW? (People, beef, climate change and grassland birds)

By Nic.Korte
Sunday, August 31, 2014

In my last blog, I discussed how grasslands have changed drastically in the past century and a half. I mentioned the many birds whose populations have suffered enormous declines as a result. But, as always, “it is an ill wind that does nobody good.” Winners in this change of landscape are cowbirds—our local variety is called the brown-headed cowbird.

Now is a good time to discuss cowbirds because we will soon be seeing large flocks of birds—often dismissed as simply “blackbirds.” Although uncommon here in winter, flocks we will be seeing may contain thousands of cowbirds. The breeding population, confined to the US and parts of Mexico and Canada, is estimated at 120 million birds ( 

(male brown-headed cowvbird by Jackson Trappett)

In the old, old days, this species was mostly restricted to the prairie and followed the buffalo. Their feeding habits involve eating whatever insects large animals kick up as they graze. They will also land on the animals and pick off whatever insects inhabit their coats. I recently saw a couple of cowbirds perched on some horses in a field near Collbran. 

Buffalo were nomadic. How could a bird that lays eggs in a nest raise young and follow wandering buffalo herds? Nesting seasons are too long. Cowbirds solved the problem by evolving into brood parasites. They don’t build a nest. They don’t rear their young. They lay their eggs in the nests of other birds. Typically, cowbirds hatch first and completely out-compete and kill their typically smaller nest-mates. 

The buffalo are gone, but cows make an excellent replacement. Any large livestock will do, and so will feedlots. Now that expansive forests are gone; large livestock and cowbirds are everywhere. Many species that did not evolve with cowbird resistance are in such serious trouble that cowbird control (trapping and shooting) has been necessary to stave-off extinction (

An example of an endangered species thought to be especially vulnerable to cowbird parasitism is the black-capped vireo. Black-capped vireos are neotropical migrants that nest in the US and winter in Mexico.  This bird was mist-netted in January in the Mexican highlands (

(black-capped vireo, mist-netted in Jalisco, Mexico-January 2014)

Unfortunately, the raising and feeding of cattle brings more to this story than the creation of habitat for brown-headed cowbirds. It might surprise you to learn that many scientists believe if you want to reduce your personal greenhouse gas emissions, the best thing is to stop eating beef—the combined fossil fuel input for beef production may be the single biggest contributor to carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and the greenhouse effect (

The reason for the high fossil fuel input is that most beef cattle aren’t grazed. They are fed feed derived from grains--grown on dwindling grasslands. That means farm machinery emissions, fertilizer use and production, emissions from cattle themselves, and soil erosion—all contributors to climate change. Marginal grasslands, that is, those that are too rocky for a plow or where irrigation isn't feasible, well, they can be used for direct grazing (perfect for cowbirds) and much of this land has been overgrazed (

I hate for this to sound so dire, so let’s not be pessimistic. I suggest there's another approach. It seems to me that having wildlife to view and having nice habitat for hunting, hiking, bike-riding etc. transcend politics and economics. We as a species, need to practice some restraint (See the previous blog to this one.). Cowbird over-population, declineof grassland birds, human consumption of beef, and climate change are intertwined. We can restrain ourselves. We don't have to eat beef every day or maybe every week. That will help!

This post provided by Nic Korte, Grand Valley Audubon Society. Send questions/comments to [To learn more and to participate in the activities of Grand Valley Audubon, please see our website at and “like” us on Facebook!]



By Nic.Korte
Monday, August 18, 2014

"#%## $&#-&$#%," old Mel said to me, "Rome wasn't built in a day." I had just embarked on my summer career (all through high school) of helping "make hay" on Illinois farms. Having been admonished by my mother to work hard, I guess Mel thought I was overdoing it.

We went to the rusty old well to pump some cool water for a drink. With the tractor engine off, it was quiet...except for the birds—especially the sweet call of the Eastern Meadowlark.

I am a bit melancholy as I write this because I recently returned to my home town for a funeral. A lot has changed. My hometown is two and a half times larger. Old Mel's farm is now a subdivision. And the grassland birds of my youth, the Meadowlarks, Bobwhite Quail, and Dickcissels...well, they aren't so easy to find anymore.
It doesn’t matter where you are, birds of the grasslands and prairies are declining everywhere—as is true for Colorado’s Bobolinks, Grasshopper Sparrows, and Western Meadowlarks. (All but the latter are classified as Common Birds in Steep Decline by Partners In Flight: (

(Western Meadowlark by Jackson Trappett)

Compared to the steeply-declining Eastern Meadowlark, our Western Meadowlark is doing all right, even though its population has also generally declined for the past 50 years.

(Bobolink-photo from Routt County)

Much of the decline is a result of population increase. Where is it easiest to put a subdivision? On the flat former prairie. Not on hillsides or rocky soils.

Some of the decline is cultural. Truly, the sound of an Illinois summer, as I was reminded on my recent visit, is the sound of a mower. While at my parents’ house, I decided to walk around the nearby pond and baseball fields where there were some trees and adjacent farmland. Well, both areas were being mowed.
So, I thought I’d walk the other way, down a nearby hill to the City Park. Immediately, I noticed some birds moving along the hillside as I walked down the road. I stopped to watch—only to have a large tractor appear behind me at the top of the hill. I walked to the other side of the road to let the tractor pass. But it stopped. A mechanical arm extended—with a mower—and proceeded to mow down all of the vegetation along the steep hillside.

At the City Park, they weren’t mowing. They must have done the job day before. There was a small stream. They had mowed so close to the surface, that the mower had ripped into the soil on the streambank—not only removing any potential riparian habitat, but exposing the soil to erosion as well.

This all reminded me of another farmer I had worked for besides old Mel. This farmer had some land in the Conservation Reserve Program. He was a hard-worker with a prosperous farm...known for a modern milking barn. He was of German extract as is nearly everyone from my hometown area. He was so neat and orderly; he was almost a caricature of how precise and neat Germans are supposed to be.  That fallow land bothered him. His farm didn't look neat because of that field. He wasn't supposed to cut it--after all, he was being paid by the government not to farm it. What did he do? Well one evening while I was working for him. He said, “Let’s go out and mow it at dusk. There aren't many people on the road and no one will see us.” So we did. We mowed it all down so his farm would look neat. I didn’t know then, what I know now. The countrywide decline of grassland birds was part of this farmer’s desire to be “neat.”

(Grasshopper Sparrows can be found on Colorado's Eastern Plains)

The great conservationist Aldo Leopold suggested many years ago that a key to saving our wildlife was saving fence line and streamside habitat. Obviously, his suggestion not to plow one more row and leave a border of native plants mostly fell on deaf ears where I grew up. 

When Old Mel said, “Rome wasn’t built in a day,” he could have been referring to the former prairie we were standing on. Prairie soils are incredibly productive for agriculture. It is safe to say that it is a “waste” to use them for houses. But, it ought to be a crime to let them wash away. It is said that “it takes a 1000 years to build one inch of topsoil,”—a generalization to be sure. Nonetheless, those Illinois prairie soils did take thousands of years to form. The associated wildlife, such as the birds, took equally as long. We are squandering this heritage. 

Increasingly, our wildlife can only be saved by what happens on private land. We have to save whatever we can. I like the exhortation of one prominent politician who says the answer is "restraint." We don't have to plant or build on every acre of grassland. If we restrain ourselves we can preserve what is left and start to restore other areas. Won't that take too long? Well, that isn't an excuse, “Rome wasn't built in a day.”

This post provided by Nic Korte, Grand Valley Audubon Society. Send questions/comments to [To learn more and to participate in the activities of Grand Valley Audubon, please see our website at and “like” us on Facebook!]



By Nic.Korte
Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Later this month the Colorado Field Ornithologists ( will be holding their annual convention. I'm bummed. Because of other commitments, I won't be able to attend this year. What do you think happens at a convention of birders? The same thing that happens at other conventions. Beers are drunk. Toasts are made. Friendships and contacts are formed. And, at this one, there are many field trips. This convention is being held in Sterling because there are many wetlands, prairies and lakes and the timing coincides with the peak of shorebird migration--those birds that we see only in the spring and fall--many of which nest in the Arctic and winter in South America.

 (Marbled Godwit--a shorebird that might be seen at this year's CFO convention.)

This convention, which moves about the state annually, attracts approximately 150 attendees. In recent years, it has been held in Cortez, Trinidad, and before that, even in Grand Junction. While, it doesn't compare with JUCO, there's a significant economic impact of 150 conferees and their families--especially when the convention is held in smaller cities such as Alamosa, another conference town of a few years ago.

So, how many of your friends and neighbors are birders? CFO has more than 500 members. Besides their convention, their great website is the best online source for deciding where to go birding in our state. They also have a quarterly journal, maintain a state rare bird list, and manage all state records to determine which birds are really found in Colorado.
 (Many American Avocets will be seen at this year's convention.)

Locally, Grand Valley Audubon Society (GVAS) also boasts approximately 500 members. If you aren't a member, you should be. Although GVAS activities are open to everyone, members receive AUDUBON, the award-winning magazine. You can also receive the CHUKAR CHATTER, our local newsletter. You can subscribe to our list serve, Members and Friends of Audubon, and receive frequent examples of beautiful bird photography as well as notice of upcoming events such as field trips and monthly programs.

Perhaps most important is that as a member of GVAS, you will be supporting our education programs such as the upcoming (September 18 through October 10) month-long banding/education program for 4th graders. Students from all over the Western Slope travel to Connected Lakes State Park where GVAS volunteers help with capturing birds in mist nests.  A licensed bander, measures and bands the birds—both for the scientific information, and for the viewing and education of the students.
 (Students learning from the bander and educator at the GVAS banding station at Connected Lakes.)

Nothing is more important than giving our youth an appreciation for the natural world. More than 1200 students participated last year. Join GVAS and be part of these great programs (

This post provided by Nic Korte, Grand Valley Audubon Society. Send questions/comments to [To learn more and to participate in the activities of Grand Valley Audubon, please see our website at and “like” us on Facebook!]



By Nic.Korte
Thursday, July 24, 2014

It is that time again. Time to go looking for butterflies. Actually, birding in July is not the doldrums many people say it is. Birds are easy to see because populations are probably at their maxima because there are so many recently-fledged juveniles, and even a few migrants already headed back south.
Nonetheless, this is a wonderful time to look for butterflies. For extra excitement, you might even try to find some satyrs (!

Learning to be good at butteflying is the same as for birding. Simply pay attention. Just as we often pay no attention to a passing bird or their songs emanating from a nearby forest, it is easy to ignore a fluttering insect passing by. But take a close look. It may be worth it. You may see something as beautiful as this Milbert’s Tortoiseshell.

Looking for and identifying butterflies is great fun. What do you need? Well, just like birding, you need a pair of binoculars and a field guide. A pair of close-focusing birding binoculars, something like 8 x 42 will work well. Many birders use 10x rather than 7 or 8. Because butterflies are small and close, the lower power is a bit easier to use.

I would also add, “Take your camera.” Butterflies often permit a close approach. That way, when you arrive at home, you can compare your photos to those in a field guide. Because I’m such an amateur and often, in the field, cannot tell a fritillary from a checkerspot; the photos give me time to look for field marks and figure out what I’ve seen.

For a field guide, I like Butterflies Through Binoculars: The West by Jeffery Glassberg. I’ve also learned that the internet has many resources for identifying butterflies. Probably thousands of photos are available for you to examine. You can type in something as simple as “blue butterflies” and find many photos. Beware, however, the differences among species are often subtle and may require many minutes (if not hours) for proper identification of some species. (Indeed, I hope my IDs’ are correct. I would appreciate corrections from readers.)

In a previous blog (, I included a photo of a pale swallowtail, one of the most abundant, large butterflies in our area—so that’s a good one to know. Once you know one or two, your eyes will adjust to picking up more fluttering flights and you may see, for example, one of the several varieties of “Blues” that navigate Western Colorado. This is a Reakirt’s blue—photographed a few days ago in a mountain meadow.

My last photo shows both a Painted Crescent and a White Checkerspot.

These four species were all found in Mesa County. Seeing them, photographing them, and, finally, identifying them added to the enjoyment of some recent hikes.

This post provided by Nic Korte, Grand Valley Audubon Society. Send questions/comments to]To learn more and to participate in the activities of Grand Valley Audubon, please see our website at and “like” us on Facebook!]




By Nic.Korte
Friday, July 11, 2014

It's July. I have seen rufous hummingbirds. That means summer is over. Birds are already migrating southward. (


My first encounter with rufous hummingbirds was on the Bluebird Ranch in Northern Arizona. It was an unforgettable sight--dozens of orange hummingbirds zipping about in a large patch of pink bee plant.

When I met my wife-to-be, I had no idea she had close ties to a pioneer ranching family. A small town in south Texas was named after an ancestor—an early banker and judge. Mary's Great Aunt Gertrude (known as Missy) and Great Uncle Bill owned 36,000 acres in Northern Arizona. You read that right...their ranch encompassed more than 65 square miles.

We were fortunate enough to visit them annually for about a decade before old age led to retirement...and I mean old age. Bill was still working in the branding pen well into his 80s. In those latter years, a cow stepped on him and he didn't obtain medical treatment. He was badly hobbled, but he kept on working his cattle. It was poor  land...with all of that acreage they ran fewer than 100 head most years.


They were frugal. Losing money most years. I remember a visit from a neighbor who had a new truck, a large collection of Navajo Jewelry, and a swimming pool. Some years later that ranch was auctioned from the courthouse steps. Bill and Missy's land eventually sold for millions.

Bill's daughter in law always called him Daddy-Bill, and that still brings to mind the old cowboy sitting at the end of their big oak table chewing slowly on his dinner---inevitably beef. Taciturn hardly describes his slow speech and the difficulty that it required to get a story started. I knew at the time, that I should be recording those rare stories...that I should take a leave of absence from my job and stay on the ranch for six months and write them all down. I will always regret not doing so.

For Bill, it required many years of working as a hired hand to earn enough to buy his own ranch, and by then he was nearly 50, but his own ranch was his dream and he accomplished it, and he lived on that ranch for 40+ years. If you can find a copy of the 1971 USGS topographic map for the Tolapai Spring quadrangle. You will see it... there on the map--The Roberts Ranch, along with the Bluebird Well.

Missy always reminded us she was a city girl and that ranch life wasn't for her. And yet, here she was, nearly 60 miles from anything but a small village. They didn't have a telephone, relying on a radio for outside communication.

Missy had been city-bred, but even in her family, there were frontier stories. One of her earliest memories was living along the border and having to sleep on the roof of the local general store for a time. Her family and the rest of the townspeople climbed up with guns and pulled their ladders up after them. The reason? There were rumors Pancho Villa was in the area and might raid their town. It is easy to understand why I was so enthralled with "the ranch," as we referred to it.

Having grown up in the Midwest, all I knew about ranching was from old TV shows. On my first visit, I noticed a bunch of planks floating in a stock tank. I asked Bill about them. "So the birds can get a drink," he said. Sure enough, I often saw mountain bluebirds alight on the planks and drink their fill while floating about in the breeze.


And now I wonder, Bill was a cattleman. I never saw him so excited as when “Old Jethro,” an old bull he thought had died, suddenly emerged from the brush and walked by the ranch house. Did Bill put those planks in the tanks to help out the birds, or to keep birds that might have drowned from fouling the water for his cattle? I will believe the former because this was after all, "The Bluebird Ranch" given the name by Missy, for the flocks of bluebirds flying about during the early winter when they moved in.

This was high desert pinyon and juniper...not that great for birding but I did retain a few memories besides floating bluebirds. I've already recounted the mystery of the bullbats ( But, as noted above, here is where I saw my first rufous hummingbirds. That vision of dozens flitting about on a sunny morning in a field of pink remains one of my most unforgettable sights in lifetime of nature watching.

Rufous hummingbird populations have dropped drastically since then. I can't guess if such sights are still possible. Bill and Missy are gone. The ranch is gone. It became part of the Navajo/Hopi resettlement if you recall that controversy. I heard the ranch house and buildings were dismantled. I hope someone still fills the stock tanks with water...and planks.

This post provided by Nic Korte, Grand Valley Audubon Society. Send questions/comments to To learn more and to participate in the activities of Grand Valley Audubon, please see and “like” us on Facebook!]

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