Jim Williams has been watching birds and writing about their antics since before "Gilligan's Island" went into reruns. Join him for his unique insights, his everyday adventures and an open conversation about the birds in your back yard and beyond.

More on weasels (and a bit on shrews)

Posted by: Jim Williams under Bird biology, Bird interactions Updated: March 10, 2015 - 11:17 AM

Several days ago we posted a story about a weasel in England that jumped a woodpecker, and soon found itself airborne aboard the bird’s back.


Weasels are very interesting animals. Almost every Google discovery uses the word vicious to describe them. There is another attack story from England, this time a weasel attacking a squirrel. Rabbits and pigeons also are prey. Weasels think big.


We have or had a weasel living here, seen in our yard last summer, but unfortunately it has not made a dent in the squirrel population. 


A Wisconsin web site lists weasels with badgers and wolverines when it comes top contenders for North America’s toughest mammal predators.  A couple of web sites list weasel as the smallest carnivore in North America. Not true. The short-tailed shrew has that honor. It is smaller than most mice, with a metabolism running full-tilt all of the time. The heart rate of a shrew at rest has been recorded at 750 beats per minute. It must eat prey equal to its own weight every day. 


Some years ago, in a rented garage, I had a rat problem. I set out a large wooden snap trap. It caught a mouse. I ignored it on first sight, coming back later to reset the trap. It was nowhere to be seen. I also had short-tailed shrews (sort of like a zoo, that garage). I found the trap under a cupboard, nothing remaining of the mouse but a shred of skin. I’m certain that a shrew, tiny little guy with that huge appetite, dragged the trap into that dark crevice to eat in private. The trap had to weigh 50 or 60 times as much as that tiny shrew, maybe more. I’ll bet a shrew could eat a weasel in the right circumstances (maybe after it fell from a flying woodpecker). 


Short-tailed shrews can be identified by the darkened tips of their front teeth. This shrew species also is one of the world’s few poisonous mammals, injecting prey when its bites.


That woodpecker was lucky its attacker was only a weasel.

Minnesota woodcock migration tracked

Posted by: Jim Williams under Bird biology, Bird migration Updated: March 8, 2015 - 10:03 PM

Three American Woodcock captured at Sherburne National Wildlife Refuge last fall are playing a major role in a project aimed at tracking the birds’ migratory moves. The three are among several woodcock carrying tiny solar-powered satellite transmitters that mark locations every 48 hours.


You can follow the birds’ movements both on wintering grounds and as they begin spring migration back to Minnesota. (That should be underway very soon.) Go to http://www.ruffedgrousesociety.org/woodcockmigration.


One of the birds was in southern Arkansas yesterday, Sunday, March 8, moving north from Louisiana, where it had spent most of the winter. A second bird was in western Arkansas, near the Oklahoma border. It, too, had moved north from Louisiana. The third bird was in northwestern Mississippi on March 4. On the maps, click on the colored dots to find and track the birds.


Project sponsors — multiple organizations including the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources — plan to have 45 birds carrying transmitters a year from now.


The transmitters are similar to those being used to follow migration of Purple Martins from nesting locations in North Dakota. The transmitters placed on Snowy Owls during the 2013-14 winter, including a bird that over-wintered here, are similar, but download information via cell-phone towers.


The transmitters on the woodcock must be recovered for the information to be secured.


This has nothing to do with the tracking project, but below is a photo of a woodcock head and bill. I found this last spring at a location where the birds had been preforming courtship displays. I’ve no idea how the bird lost its head. 


I found the bill interesting. The lower third of the bill contains sensitive nerve endings that help the bird locate earthworms, a major food item. Look closely for the tiny holes that I believe aid in prey location. The tip of the upper mandible can be opened while the bill is underground, allowing the bird to grasp worms and pull them from the ground. The bird’s tongue and the underside of the mandible are rough-surfaced to provide a good grip. The bird then sucks the worm into its bill.


Woodcock return to Minnesota from now through early May, with mid-April a migration peak. Warmer weather could advance the later dates. 






Weasel clinging to flying woodpecker

Posted by: Jim Williams under Bird feeding Updated: March 3, 2015 - 11:15 AM

If you're killing office time today by scanning the Internet for this and that, you've certainly seen the photo of a weasel clinging to the back of a flying woodpecker. This happened in England, captured on camera by an alert and extremely lucky photographer. The bird is a European Green Woodpecker, a fairly large fellow, a foot or slightly more in length. The weasel runs seven to nine inches. The woodpecker eats ants, which probably explains why it was on the ground when jumped by the ambitious mammal, which will eat birds. Weasels are known for ferocity and disregard of what might seem like odds-against. They can't fly, though. The news stories coming from England all mention that the woodpecker escaped, apparently good to go. Unmentioned is concern for the weasel, which fell off, its end of the story unknown. Just Google "woodpecker weasel." There is no end of coverage.

Teddy Roosevelt's White House bird list

Posted by: Jim Williams under Bird identification, Bird personalities Updated: February 23, 2015 - 3:39 PM

Vivid photos showing bird-window collisions

Posted by: Jim Williams under Bird conservation Updated: February 20, 2015 - 1:06 PM

Large photos of birds colliding with windows are featured in a new exhibit at the Bell Museum of Natural History, University of Minnesota. The images were created by artist Miranda Brandon who used dead birds collected from downtown Minneapolis streets after they collided with windows there. The show is entitled, “Impact — Birds in the Human-built World.” Brandon arranged the dead birds for her camera to show the moment of impact. The photos are far larger than life, making the death scenes very vivid. The twisted bodies of the birds leave no question about the force of impact and its result. The exhibit opened on Feb. 14. It continues until April 19. Brandon is a volunteer in the BirdSafe program working to eliminate or reduce hazards to migrating birds, particularly in downtown Minneapolis and St. Paul. Most of the bird deaths occurring in our two downtowns happen during spring migration. Birds fly into windows thinking the reflected image is reality. BirdSafe is a project of the Bell museum, Audubon Minnesota, and other partners. Also on display in the exhibit are various window treatments designed to warn birds away from collisions.

The photos above and below show two window-glass treatments designed to warn birds away possible collision.


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