Ornithology 101 in South Texas: A Learn-About-Birds Workshop Oct 28—Nov 02, 2016

Posted by Denver Holt

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Denver Holt

Denver Holt is a wildlife researcher and graduate of the University of Montana. He is founder and president of the Owl Research Institute and the Ninepipes Wildlife Researc...

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We had a great time on our second Ornithology 101 Workshop. Our group size was smaller than in 2015 and, consequently, more manageable and focused.  After incorporating the suggestions from the 2015 workshop participants, we took the next step in developing a unique, educational workshop.

We began each morning with a PowerPoint program and discussion on bird biology, ecology, and evolution. We then ventured into the field to discuss these topics as we identified birds. Co-leader Barry Lyon brought a wealth of knowledge on Texas birds and their identification, migratory habits, and bird topography, and gave a detailed overview of feather identification.

We covered the evolution of birds as suggested by the fossil record, morphology, and recent molecular techniques. We discussed current theories on the evolution of feathers and bird flight. We paid particular attention to the diversification of birds into the world’s habitats, as birds attained the ability of sustained flight. Throughout the course we were emphatic in pointing out how flight gave birds the ability to access every habitat type in the world, and how habitats influenced the evolution of many bird traits. Indeed, from flightless ground dwellers such as Ostriches, to the somewhat terrestrial tree-climbing chachalacas, to the ocean-soaring albatrosses, to the high-soaring raptors that slip over the world’s highest mountain ranges, and to the underwater “flying” penguins, there is no habitat or niche that birds have not called home.

In conjunction with the occupation of the world’s habitats, the next significant trait of birds was the evolution of an astounding diversity of bills. It is the evolution of this incredible assortment of bills that has enabled birds to obtain or capture the diverse food resources needed to survive. Bills serve in maintenance, protection, and sexual selection, among other uses. On this tour, our choice of visiting a diversity of habitat types allowed us to see the many examples of the extraordinary array of bill shapes and sizes that birds have evolved.

We also spent considerable time discussing bird plumage color. We discussed how feather structure and light provide the many examples of iridescent colors, as seen in hummingbirds, and the blues in bluebirds. We talked about the chemical makeup of some foods and how the natural pigments found in certain food types influence color pigments, as in cardinals and orioles. We also delved into the complicated color patterns of Green Jays and other species that can use both structural and biochemical influence to achieve color. A Common Pauraque provided a superb example of subtle but effective camouflage color and patterning.

We had great opportunities to discuss different flight methods such as thermal soaring in cranes, hawks, and vultures, dynamic soaring in albatrosses and shearwaters, and the powered flight of falcons and grouse.

In each of these and many more topics, we used data from current research in a host of avian topics to explain the life of birds.