A World of Feathers

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Ildiko Szabo, Assistant Curator of the Cowan Tetrapod Collection at the Beaty Biodiversity Museum, is passionate about birds. We welcomed her to the Bloedel Conservatory as a special guest speaker for a Walk in the Tropics talk titled “A World of Feathers”.

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“Feathers are actually quite simple in structure: there is a centre strengthening shaft and on either side are the vanes or the feathery bits. When we look at the shape of the feather – one side versus the other – the ratio of width and narrowing, we can tell where on the bird it came from”. Primary, secondary and tertiary feathers were explained as well as growing and molting patterns in different types of birds.

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Casey, the Amazon parrot

Ms. Szabo continued the fascinating discussion with coloration. The colours in feathers are formed in two different ways – either from pigments or from light refraction caused by the structure of the feather. In some cases feather colors are the result of a combination of pigment and structural colors. For example, the greens of some parrots are created by yellow pigments overlaying a blue-reflecting characteristic of the feathers, as can be seen on Casey the Amazon parrot pictured above. Pigment in birds comes from three different groups: melanins, carotenoids, and porphyrines.

Melanins occur in both the skin and feathers of birds and can produce colors ranging from the darkest black to reddish browns and pale yellows. What’s really interesting is that feathers containing melanin are stronger and more resistant to wear and tear than feathers without it. White feathers – those without any pigmentation at all – are the weakest. Many otherwise all white birds have black feathers on their wings or black wingtips. The melanin that causes the tips to appear black also provides extra strength. For example, the Pied Imperial or Torres Straight Pigeons, are powerful and agile flyers crossing large bodies of water between coastal islands, so very strong feathers are needed.

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Pied Imperial Pigeon

Carotenoids are responsible for the bright yellows while porphyrins produce a range of colors, including pink, browns, reds, and greens. Porphyrins are found in some owls, pigeons and pheasants. They can also produce the brilliant greens and reds of touracos, like the one pictured below. Blue feathers, on the other hand, are almost always created by the structure of the feather rather than pigment. Tiny air pockets in the barbs of feathers can scatter incoming light, resulting in a specific, non-iridescent color.

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Guinea touraco

Special thanks again goes out to Ms. Szabo for an insightful and fascinating talk! The Beaty Biodiversity Museum is located at 2212 Main Mall, south of University Boulevard on the UBC Point Grey campus and is Vancouver’s natural history museum.

Don’t miss the last Walk of the year! Be sure to mark your calendars for Sunday, November 17th at 11am for the next inspiring Walk in the Tropics “Since the Beginning of Bloedel”. Join Park Board Commissioner John Coupar on a historical tour of the Bloedel Conservatory. As the son of Bloedel’s first Garden Director, Charles Coupar, John will share stories and little known facts about the people, the mission, architecture, construction and development of Bloedel since it was built in 1969. Registration is a must! Visit bit.ly/1fmweyD for more information.

Bloedel Conservatory under construction.

Bloedel Conservatory under construction in 1969.

Meet Ruby and Kiwi!

The Bloedel Conservatory has adopted two new parrots!

Meet Ruby

Kiwi

and Kiwi

Ruby and Kiwi are Eclectus parrots. They arrived at the Bloedel Conservatory a few weeks ago and are settling in very well.

Eclectus parrots are very unique. First, they are the most colour dimorphic parrot in the world! The males of many other bird species tend to be more colourful than the females, take for example a peacock or a pheasant. This lets females stay camouflaged so they can care for their young. For other species of parrots, only DNA testing can determine whether a bird is male or female.

For the eclectus parrots however, the females are more brightly coloured with red, blues and sometimes violet and lavender while the males are mostly emerald green. Also notice Ruby’s black beak compared to Kiwi’s “candy corn” orange and yellow beak. The range of this sexual dimorphism is so great that for years, experts thought they were two completely different species!

The other main differences of eclectus parrots to other parrot species is the structure of their feathers. The structure is so fine that it actually resembles hair rather than feathers. They also tend to have a more quiet and calm demeanor than other parrots. Kiwi tends to be the better talker of the two and may send out a gentle “hillooooo” when you stop by. Actually, his voice sounds a bit like Dustin Hoffman’s character Ray Babbitt in the movie Rainman when he gets going.

Eclectus parrots can live up to 50 years of age and are native to the Solomon Islands, New Guinea and Northeast Australia.

Why not plan a visit to the Bloedel Conservatory and meet Ruby and Kiwi in person? Or better, come in and meet all the birds, then wander through the quarry gardens at QE park to find your perfect picnic spot. Now that summer is here, it’s a great way to spend the day!

Quick Guide: Birds of Bloedel

With Summer Hours now in place, you have more time to enjoy the Conservatory! Monday – Friday  9 am ~ 8 pm;  Weekends  10am ~ 9pm

It’s easy to recognize the larger parrots at the Bloedel Conservatory, but the smaller free-flying birds are a bit harder to name.  Some of these little guys only show themselves occasionally, so it has been tricky getting portraits of them all. This post will be updated frequently as more photos are collected. If you can spot every bird on this list, you are fortunate indeed!  Enjoy! Leave us a comment and let us know which birds are your favorites!

Napoleon Weaver Finch

Napoleon Weaver Finch

Napoleon Weaver Finch (male)

Napoleon Weaver Finch (female)

Napoleon Weaver Finch (female)

The Napoleon Weaver is native to south central Africa. They build their nests by anchoring vertical palm fronds to a branch and then weaving horizontal palm leaf strips in and out of that structure. If you look carefully around the Conservatory in the Spring and late fall (November), you might see one building one of these intricate nests. They are slightly more yellowish than the Orange Bishop Weaver finch. 

Orange Bishop Weaver Finch

Orange Bishop Weaver Finch (male)

The Orange Bishop Weaver is VERY similar to the Napoleon Weaver. The easiest way to tell the males apart is by their tail and forehead colour. The Orange Bishop has a black face AND forehead, while the Napoleon Weaver tends to only have black cheeks. The Orange Bishop is also a deeper orange with an orange tail. The Orange Bishop Weaver builds a hanging globe for a nest. The females will inspect all the nests and select the best architect as a mate. When you see them carrying strips of palm fronds, you know it’s nesting season. Orange Bishop finches are native to the grasslands of east Africa.

Zebra Finch

Zebra Finch

These adorable little finches love to eat often throughout the day and can usually be spotted at the feeding station in the Subtropical area of the Conservatory. These little guys have ‘fawn’ spots on their wings and unmistakable orange cheeks. Zebra finches eat seeds and are just over 3 1/2 inches in length. They are native to Australia and are very good singers. In fact, an interesting study at McGill University studied the complexity of the song of the male Zebra finches. The research found that the little guys with the most intricate song were also better foragers for food – making them a better ‘catch’ for the ladies!

Japanese White Eye

Japanese White Eye

The Japanese White Eyes, also called Mejiros, are extraordinary song birds. The name White-eye was given because of the silky white rings around the eyes. They are native to Japan, but today can be found across Korea, India, Pakistan, Ceylon, Burma, and the Philippines. Japanese White Eyes were introduced to Oahu in 1929 and can now also be found throughout all the Hawaiian Islands. These little birds tend to eat insects, but fruit is their favorite food. They are easily tamable and quite sociable. Along with their beautiful songs, this makes the Japanese White Eye a favorite household companion.

Canary

Canary

Canaries are actually part of of the finch family, but they are far less social. And yep, you guessed it, they are native to the Canary Islands. There are a number of colour mutations that have appeared over the years including bronze, white and red. Did you know that only male canaries sing and are very territorial? This is the only way you can tell them apart from females!

Strawberry Finch

Strawberry Finch or Red Avadavat

The Strawberry Finch is also known as the Red Avadavat or Red Munia. This is the only finch where males go out of colour when not breeding. During breeding season they become bright red with small white spots showing up along the neck, breast and sides … very much like a strawberry! They can be found throughout India and Asia in the wild.

Red-winged Laughing Thrush

Red-winged Laughing Thrush

These birds are native to southwest China and northwest Vietnam and are part of the Old World babbler family (Timaliidae). Laughing thrushes are approx 10 inches long (27 cm) and tend to travel in pairs or small groups close to the forest floor. Look for them smoothly hopping though the low ‘under growth’ at the Conservatory. They can be quite ‘talkative’ in the late afternoons, making loud whistling songs.

African Superb Starling

African Superb Starling

These beautiful birds have deep metallic blues, purples and greens in their plumage. This bright colouring is due to iridescence which is actually derived from the structure of the feathers rather than pigment. They are quite social birds and have a wide range of vocalizations, sometimes including ‘humanized’ sounds like car door alarms in their songs. There are many species ranging throughout the world from the Arctic to the Equator. The Starling family is closely related to Myna birds.

Budgerigar (Budgies)

Budgie (male)

Do you know how to tell the difference between a male and female budgie? It’s the colour of the “cere” which is the area above the beak that surrounds the nostrils. Boys have blue cere’s (of course!), for females it is tan or brown while juveniles of both sexes will be purplish in colour. Budgies are native to Australia and have green plumage in the wild. Domestic birds range in colour from white, blue, yellow and green. A healthy budgie needs lots of room to fly so the Conservatory is a great home to the flock of residents who live here. Some people call budgies ‘parakeets’, but this is actually a ‘catch-all’ name used for many smaller species of parrots.

Yellow Grosbeak

Yellow Grosbeak (female)

The Yellow Grosbeak is a medium-sized seed-eating bird in the same family as the Northern Cardinal. They are usually found on the Pacific side of Mexico from central Sonora to northwestern Oaxaca, and in southern Chiapas and Guatemala. The Grosbeak is a forest or woodland bird that can be found as far north as Arizona, California, New Mexico, and sometimes even Iowa, in the summer months. It is considerably bigger than its North American relatives, the Black-headed and Rose-breasted Grosbeak.

Red-vented Bulbul

Red-vented Bulbul

The Red-vented Bulbul is a member of the passerine family  (meaning perching birds). It is native to India, Sri Lanka and China and was later introduced to the Hawaiian islands and Fiji. Bulbuls feed mainly on petals of flowers, nectar, insects, and fruits making it an important bird for distributing the seeds of plants. This Bulbul was given the name ‘red-vented’ because of the red triangular patch under it’s tail. They are quite good singers.

Pied-Imperial Pigeon

Pied Imperial Pigeon

The Pied-Imperial Pigeon is also known as the Arboreal Dove, the Nutmeg, Torresian Imperial and Torres Strait Pigeon. In the wild, they are generally found in rainforests, eucalyptus woodlands, and along coastal scrubs, creeks, rivers, mangroves and islands. Did you know that pigeons are among the most intelligent and physically adept creatures in the animal kingdom? According to studies at the University of Montana, pigeons can recognize all 26 letters in the English language and differentiate different human beings in photographs. Because they can be taught to make complex responses in different sequences, they were utilized to save thousands of people lost at sea and during numerous rescue missions during times of World Wars  I and II!

Touraco

Touraco

The Touraco is one of the most exotic birds at Bloedel. There are a number of different species of  Touracos in the wild, this one is the Sierra Leone or Green-crested Touraco. He is elusive! If you can spot him you are lucky indeed! (Hint: he likes to hang out in the magnolia tree above the waterfall). Touracos are approximately 43 cm in length (nearly 12 inches) and are spectacular in flight.

Princess Parrot

Monty the Princess Parrot

Princess Parrots originate from central and western Australia but today are rarely seen in the wild. They are also known Splendor Parrots due to their pastel colouring. Princess Parrots are often described as very gentle and quiet with an endearing personality. If you look closely, they usually seem to be smiling. They are very social and tend to mimic whistles rather than talk. When Monty arrived at the Conservatory, he instantly fell in love with Casey the Amazon Parrot. She is never too far from his sight. When you find one, the other will be close by.

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References:

McGill Study on Zebra Finches: http://www.cbc.ca/quirks/archives/08-09/qq-2008-11-15.html

Budgie Information, Let’s talk Birds: http://www.letstalkbirds.com/budgie.htm

The Avian Web: http://www.avianweb.com/birdspecies.htm

University of Montana Research on Pigeons: http://www.avianweb.com/pigeonintelligence.html

Wikipedia: http://www.wikipedia.org

Honolulu Zoo: http://www.honoluluzoo.org/site_map2.htm

A Very Special Donation to Save the Bloedel Conservatory!!

“My name is Emma and I am 9 years old.

I collected Bottles and cans to help save the Conservatory
I love to visit and the birds are my friends especially Rosie
I would be very sad if it closed down.

Love Emma B”

Emma sent the Friends of the Bloedel a cheque for $238.00!!

And she didn’t stop there! As of June 16, Emma gave presentations to all the classes at her school and collected over 200 signatures on a petition which has been sent to the Mayor, City Councilors and Park Board Commissioners. The Vancouver Sun released the story today. Read it here: Nine-year-old does her part to save Bloedel Conservatory.

THANK YOU Emma for your hard work!

It warms our hearts to know so many people of all ages are so dedicated to saving the Bloedel Conservatory and everything that makes it such a special place.

This post is dedicated to you Emma and to Rosie!

Rosie is a Congo African Grey Parrot. African Greys are considered to be among the most intelligent of all birds, even ranking alongside dolphins and chimpanzees for their ability to associate human words with meanings, shapes and colours. Rosie typically makes a wide range of clicks, chirps, warbles and water drop sounds – with the occasional “Cuckoo” thrown in for good measure. She will often climb down off of her perch and come out to the pathway to say ‘hello’ to all the visitors, although this is not particularly safe for her because she is rather small. If she does not want to be picked up, she puts her beak down to the floor (or perch) to say “No, I’m not ready yet”.

Parrots age gracefully and can live to be up to 60 years old. African Grey Parrots eat seeds, fruits and palm nuts. Did you know that chocolate, peach and cherry pits, apple seeds and avocados are toxic to all parrots? Sorry Rosie, no guacamole for you!

The African Grey Parrot is listed on Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). Luckily, many countries have banned the importation of wild-caught grey parrots. In the United States, there are enough domestically raised birds to easily satisfy the demand for parrots as pets, so there is little support for black market illegally imported African Parrots. The Bloedel Conservatory works with a local non-profit organization called GreyHaven that specializes in parrot rescue, rehabilitation and adoption. All the birds at Bloedel have either been directly donated to the Conervatory from homes that can no longer keep them or have been adopted from the GreyHaven Sanctuary.

We are working hard keep the Bloedel Conservatory as a ‘forever home’ for Rosie and all the birds who live there. And for dedicated people like Emma who help make big changes in the world.