Archive for the ‘Birds On Campus’ Category

TThe Common Blackbird, الشّحرور

October 9, 2009

Turdus merula:

By Maha Khalil

The blackbird is a very special bird that has been resident in Egypt’s Nile Delta and Mediterranean coast since the 1980s. The adult male blackbird is all black with a yellow bill and eye-ring, while the female and young birds are dark brown. Adults have an aver

Photo: Maha Khalil

Photo: Maha Khalil

age length of 24 cm.

Blackbirds usually inhabit woodlands, gardens and plantations, and are quite common in Europe – more so than in the Middle East where they are found only in Turkey and countries of the east Mediterranean. The female lays bluish eggs with brown spots in a carefully prepared nest, and both partners care for the young. Blackbirds are monogamous and partners stay together usually their entire lives – the range of their life spans being 2-4 years.

Blackbirds are often seen on the ground as well as in the trees. In fact, it was on the ground that I saw my first blackbird and was able to photograph it. I was in the North Coast last June when I noticed an unfamiliar black bird in the backyard one afternoon. The (to me) mystery bird returned the next afternoon at almost exactly the same time. Determined to find out what it was, I waited for it every afternoon, sitting on the back porch with my camera and binoculars, silent and motionless, having asked family members to stay clear of the backyard for an hour! The bird kept following its daily habit and touched down in the garden every afternoon. I noticed that it always arrived when a certain amount

Photo: Maha Khalil

Photo: Maha Khalil

of sun was left in the garden, and I managed to take two photographs of it which I deeply treasure. I flipped through my Birds of Egypt book and reached the conclusion that my mystery bird must be a blackbird.

Just as my handy guide said blackbirds behave, my bird ran on the ground in short bursts, stopping to look for food – worms usually favoured. I was very excited because I had just found out recently that blackbirds have one of the most beautiful fluty birdsongs ever. I finally found out who the musicians responsible for the daily flute concerto I heard on my vacation were. The trees were full of them! The blackbird’s song is special because it is one of the very few birdsongs that actually compose varying and melodic musical tones rather than just repeating certain vocalizations.

Sadly, however, when I returned in early July to the same place, the flutes were silent and my daily visitor showed himself no more. It is true that blackbirds sing less in July, but since I did not even see any birds except the ridiculously common (though very cute) House Sparrow, my guess is that the start of the vacation season which is always accompanied by heavy spraying of powerful pesticides, has had a hand in driving the blackbirds away – hopefully not killing them… If you listen carefully – and if you are lucky – you may hear a blackbird on campus in the spring. It has been heard several times on Main Campus.

 

Sources:

Cottridge, David and Porter, Richard. Birds of Egypt and the Middle East. Cairo; The American University in Cairo Press.

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The Common Kestrel

October 9, 2009

By Mr. Richard Hoath

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There are no eagles on the New Campus, though the Steppe Eagle and Lesser Spotted Eagle could, along with other far rarer species, be soaring over this spring on their way from sub-Saharan wintering grounds. But we do have here in New Cairo their diminutive cousin, the Kestrel. This is related to, but different from the more boldly patterned American kestrel of the New World. The Kestrel Falco tinnunculus, also known as the Common or Rock Kestrel, is a small falcon. As is usual amongst the birds of prey, the female is larger than the male, up to 37cm in length.

       This size difference, termed sexual dimorphism, and common in the natural world, means that the sexes can exploit different food resources, the larger female, in this case, tackling larger prey that the male may not be able to handle. It is, courtesy of evolution, an eminently sensible arrangement. The female is warm brown above with a black spotted mantle, streaked below and with a grey rump. The male, smaller, is similarly patterned but has a grey head and with a distinct moustachial stripe. The claws in both are black an important feature as will become clear. Also listen out for its call, a raucous and utterly unmusical kee-kee-kee.

Kestrels are predators preying largely on small mammals but also reptiles and large insects. With predictable reports of mice here it should be welcomed. I have seen a Kestrel take a bird only once, a Goldfinch just north of Saqarra. And it is the method of hunting that makes the Kestrel so distinctive. It hovers, seemingly motionless in the air before diving down on the victim. But it is not true hovering flight. That is the mastery of the New World hummingbirds and our own Pied Kingfisher, the bird in The Guinness Book of Animal Records as the largest species capable of true hovering flight. What the Kestrel does is orientate itself with the presiding breeze and fly into it with just enough force to make it static. This mode of hunting has perhaps been described best, not by scientists but by the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins in The Windhover.

Other falcons are far remoter possibilities. The Lanner Falco biarmicus is a much larger raptor recorded from Wadi Degla to the south and throughout the Eastern Desert. It is darker with pale cheeks and rufous nape. As Spring approaches the Lesser Kestrel Falco naumanni will be passing through Egypt on its way to European breeding grounds. The male is, to my mind, the most elegant bird of prey, similar to the male Kestrel but with an unspotted mantle and plain dove grey head. The female is almost indistinguishable from the female Kestrel but has white as opposed to black claws. It is more gregarious than the Kestrel and one of my favourite birding memories from Egypt is coming across a flock of these raptors on the Ain Suhkna road, just a few kilometers from our New Campus, and close enough to get those diagnostic claws.

 

References:

Carwardine, Mark. The Guinness Book of Animal Records Enfield: Guinness, 1995

Gardner, W. H. ed. Poems and Prose of Gerard Manley Hopkins Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1978

Mullarney, Killian et al. Bird Guide London: Collins, 1999

The Pallid Swift

October 9, 2009

By Mr. Richard Hoath

 

One of the most common birds on campus is also probably the least observed. Actually it is more over campus than on campus. Large flocks of Pallid Swifts Apus pallida can be seen wheeling and circling over Tahrir throughout the year and their screaming cries can often be heard above the traffic. Watching them is only really a matter of looking up. In spring love is quite literally in the air as they will be courting and mating, and like with virtually all Pallid Swift activity, this will be done on the wing.

Swifts are amongst the most aerial of birds. The only thing that ties them to the ground is nesting. Between fledging last year’s brood to building this year’s nest it is quite likely the swifts will not have landed. They quite literally eat and sleep in flight. Indeed their legs are almost entirely useless, the Latin name for the swift family Apodidae means “without legs”, though the feet are strongly clawed for clinging at the nest site. Though they do nest in natural sites such as cliff faces, in the city cracks, crevices and  ledges of buildings have been readily adopted as cliff substitutes. The tiny nest is built of aerial flotsam grabbed in flight and glued together with saliva.

Swifts are generally drab birds so it comes as some surprise that their closest relatives, indeed members of the same Order, are those brightly-hued avian jewels, the hummingbirds. The Pallid Swift is typical of the group, some 16cm long, slim with slender sickle-shaped wings and a forked tail. It is uniform beige brown in color with a pale throat. It is an insect eater, catching minute insects and invertebrates, aerial plankton if you like, in flight. Though the bill itself is small, the gape is enormous, ideally designed for catching its tiny prey.

Much has been argued about how fast a swift can fly. Watching them career over Tahrir Square the impression given is that of very quick indeed. The record of a flock of Brown-throated Spine-tail Swifts in India flying at 320 kmph is now largely discredited though the more modest claim of 170 kmph for the Alpine Swift, a close relative of the Pallid Swift is more widely accepted. Built for speed, swifts can undoubtedly fly very fast.

In Spring the hurtling flocks of Pallid Swifts are worth checking out for migrating Common Swifts heading north to European breeding grounds. It is very similar to the Pallid but uniformly darker. The rare Alpine Swift, also a migrant, is much larger with a clean white belly and throat. Egypt’s fourth swift is the rarest, the Little Swift easily told by its white rump. There have been very few sightings in Egypt but it could just make it onto the campus bird list as one of those records is from just across the river in, or rather over, Zamalek.

 

Carwardine, Mark The Guinness Book of Animal Records Enfield: Guinness, 1995.

Goodman, S. and P. Meininger The Birds of Egypt Oxford: OUP, 1989.

THE PALM DOVE

October 9, 2009

Streptopelia senegalensis

By Maha Khalil

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Possibly the second commonest animal on campus after the famous AUC cat, this red-brown-and –blue-grey dove is often seen walking fearlessly on the ground close to the hurrying feet of students, confident of its ability to fly out of harm’s way at the right moment. The palm dove (also known as the laughing dove) lives in towns and in open areas with scattered trees, and nests in buildings on windowsills or ledges or any other kind of manmade sheltered area as well as in trees and bushes.

            Palm doves feed on small seeds and bread crumbs, and are attracted to places where people would feed birds. They are often seen tapping the ground with their claws near the bamboo chairs on campus, feasting on the remains of a student’s meal in the afternoons or early in the mornings.

             Beyond AUC, palm doves, until the end of the last century, were found mostly in tropical Africa and east through southern Arabia to Afghanistan, Turkmenistan and India. Presently, they have spread and continue to spread in Asia and Africa.

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             The breeding season lasts throughout most of the year, reaching a peak in spring and early summer. The male courts the female by flying steeply upwards 10m while flapping his wings and then gliding in circles with the wings and tail outstretched. Palm dove pairs spend two days building a very simple nest together; the male brings the material and the female arranges it. Three days later, the female lays one egg and then lays another 24 hours later. Both hatch within 14 days allowing two blind, down-covered chicks to emerge. The chicks open their eyes after five days and are capable of flying two weeks later.

Source:

– The International Centre for the Study of Bird Migration. http://www.birds.org.il

The Barn Owl

October 9, 2009

By Richard Hoath, Faculty Advisor of The Biology Club

 

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Sometimes it can be truly amazing what the natural world can turn up within the very middle of a sprawling conurbation of 17 million human inhabitants. But if you happen to be on campus at night, take some time out to look up at the night sky and perhaps, if you are very, very lucky, you might catch a glimpse of the ghostly white form of a hunting Barn Owl. I’ve seen one on two occasions here, both times near the basketball court, and Dr. Andy Main helped rescue another that was found tangled in the netting that covered the trees in Fountain Court. It was successfully released.

The Barn Owl Tyto alba is a medium-sized owl, some 36cm long with a 90cm wingspan, the female slightly larger than the male. It is freckled sandy-brown above and, in most races, pure white below. It has a distinctive heart-shaped facial disk and, uniquely amongst Egyptian owl species, dark eyes. Owls have very good binocular vision but very poor peripheral vision. They make up for this in having a neck that can twist an astonishing 270 degrees. While it is true that owls have excellent eyesight and see far better than us in darkness, most prey is located by sound. The facial disk focuses sound to the owl’s sensitive ear openings that are placed asymmetrically. In this way the owl can very accurately home in on its prey even in complete darkness.  Owls also have specially adapted flight feathers enabling them to fly in total silence, all the better to hear their potential prey.

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Our urban Barn Owls will probably be feeding largely on House Rats, House Mice and Cairo Spiny Mice. They swallow their prey whole and then later cough up the indigestible parts such as hair and bones as a pellet. Researchers find these pellets of considerable interest as they not only tell us what the owls are feeding on but can be a major clue in assessing the distribution of small mammal species in particular. Indeed in Australia the Big-eared Hopping Mouse is known solely from remains found in owl pellets. It has never been seen alive! Biology Professors Dr. Jeff Miller with Dr. Hamada collected a great many pellets while working here, not just of Barn Owls but also Long-eared and Little Owls.

In Egypt the Barn Owl is largely confined to the Nile Delta and Valley and North Sinai. However as a species it has one of the widest global ranges of any bird nesting on all continents except Antarctica. It has some very rare relatives though, notably the Madagascar Red Owl and the Congo Bay Owl that has only ever been found twice in its central African forest haunts.

It is uncertain whether the Barn Owl breeds near or on campus but at least until recently there was a pair breeding just off Ibn Zanki in Zamalek. Indeed, for those who like their owl watching more upmarket, Barn Owls can sometimes be seen quartering over the terrace café outside the Marriott. 

Sources

Menkhorst, P. and F. Knight. A Field Guide to the Mammals of Australia. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2001.

Mullarney, K. et al. Collins Bird Guide. London: HarperCollins, 1999.