Naturalist Sheds Light on Unique World of Birds

Naturalist Dr. Scott Shalaway answered a variety of bird-related questions – from the logical to the bizarre – during a Lunch With Books appearance at the Ohio County Public Library in Wheeling Tuesday, April 1.

The Cameron resident addressed some of the common, strange and bizarre questions posed over the years. In response to one of the common inquiries, “Why do you hate cats?” he responded, “I don’t hate cats. Cats make great indoor pets.” But cats that roam outdoor kill “billions” of birds, he said.

Citing outdoor dangers that felines face, he added, “Indoor cats live years longer than outdoor cats … Being an outdoor cat is a very dangerous way to be.”

The biologist and birding enthusiast said people have asked why so many snowy owls have been seen from Minnesota to the East Coast and as far south as Florida and Bermuda this year. Last summer was a great year for lemmings in the tundra and, fed by this food source, snowy owls bred prolifically, producing 10 to 12 eggs. When winter arrived, the overabundance of owls headed south in search of food. Many landed at airports and on the Great Lakes because those sites resembled the tundra, he explained.

Transmitters attached to 22 snowy owls have produced a large quantity of data, he said. Only one of the 22 did not survive. That bird was trapped at Philadelphia International Airport and released in Lancaster County, Pa., in late December. Three days later, it was back at the airport. “It literally followed the Pennsylvania Turnpike,” he said. The owl’s luck ran out Jan. 24, when it was killed in a collision with an airplane.

Most of the owls are now headed back home to the tundra, he said, adding that the eruption in population probably won’t be seen again in our lifetime.

As for a strange question, “Do hummingbirds ride on the back of geese?” Shalaway answered, “No. That is one of the most persistent myths.” Hummingbirds fly to Mexico under their own power, he said.

Nectar feeders for hummingbirds should be put up in mid-April to mid-May and taken down in mid-October. “It’s good to have it up when they come back. They will hover where the feeder was last year,” he said.

On another avian note, he said blue herons have built big nests in sycamore trees by Middle Creek Elementary School. He said the blue heron rookery is “the best I’ve ever seen” and the “most accessible.”

To the bizarre question, “Is it true eagles fly to mountaintops at age 40 to grow new beaks and talons and live another 40 years?” Shalaway responded, “Hogwash.” This “most egregious” myth of the Internet age demonstrates how gullible people can be, he mused.

Asked “how do little birds stay warm in winter?” he explained, “They eat all day long. The colder it is, the more frenzied they eat. They eat enough to make it through the day and into the night.” Birds’ feathers also provide insulation.

In general, backyard birds won’t die from a lack of food, he said, adding that feeding birds has been a practice only in the past 100 years. However, he said, “Ice storms are severe killers.” In such conditions, “it’s important to keep feeders full. Otherwise, they do quite well,” he said.

Baby birds that have fallen out of open nests before they can fly should be returned to the nest or placed on a tree limb. “If you don’t, they’re going to die,” he said.

To a related question, “Why don’t I ever see baby pigeons?” he replied, “They don’t leave the nest until they can fly.”

The best places to see birds, he said, are Magee Marsh, Ohio, near Sandusky; Point Pelee, Ontario; Presque Isle State Park, Erie, Pa.; Cape May, N.J.; Dry Tortugas, Fla.; Galapagos Islands; Ecuador; Panama and Pico Bonito, Honduras.

On another topic, Shalaway said coffee grown in shade, in truly forested settings, is the most “bird-friendly” coffee. When coffee is planted in sun, fields are clear-cut and pesticides are applied, resulting in few species of birds being able to survive, he explained. He urged people to buy coffee marked “100-percent shade-grown,” rather than blends of shade- and sun-cultivated varieties.

Taking questions from the library audience, he said swans and geese are monogamous for life, while “a lot of birds are monogamous for a season.” Hummingbirds, however, are promiscuous.