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.

Beautiful Bananas!

Did you know that there are over 1,000 varieties of bananas in the world? Banana plants are not actually trees, but are the world’s largest herb! They are native to Indo-Malaysia and southeast Asia, but today can be found growing throughout tropical and sub-tropical climates around the world. There are 2 categories of bananas, those that you can eat immediately, often called “dessert bananas”, and those that need to be cooked called ‘plantains’.

“If sweet bananas are the dessert, then plantain bananas are the mashed potatoes”.1

Plantains are more starchy and lower in sugar than dessert bananas. They are used like a vegetable and in some countries are even preferred over potatoes or pasta. All bananas, regardless of type are in the genus Musa.

Bananas are fast growing plants. The plantains at the Bloedel Conservatory are approximately 18 months old. Once they flower and fruit, the plant dies, however new bananas sprout from underground rhizomes off the parent plant. Bananas shoot up leaves in a spiral arrangement reaching up to 30 feet in height. Leaves range in number from 6 to 20 or more and are fused at their bases to form a pseudostem or false trunk. The flower, sometimes referred to as a ‘bell’ or ‘heart’, grows from the end of the true stem. As the bud opens, each petal or bract lifts to reveal rows of yellow or cream coloured flowers. There are usually between 12-20 flowers per cluster. These are the flowers that develop into the edible fruits!

Plantains cannot be eaten raw, but can be eaten when they are green. They are usually boiled at this stage and then mashed like potatoes. Plantains are actually ripe when the skin becomes nearly black. They are delicious baked, grilled, sautéed, pan-fried or deep-fried. Check out these amazing recipes  including Caribbean Black Bean Salad with Sauteed Plantains, Sea Bass with Plantain Crust, and Cinnamon Raisin Ice Cream with Fried Plantains. Some grocery stores in Vancouver sell plantains, why not give them a try?

Birds like tanagers and touracos love to eat bananas too! In fact, bananas are the mainstay of their diets. Maybe you can spot the resident touraco at Bloedel! He loves to run along the high branches of the tall trees at the Conservatory. Touracos range in size from 15 to 25 inches in length (38 to 63.5 cm) and are spectacular in flight.

The Green-crested Touraco has vibrant red on the underside of his wings and tail, a prominent green crest on its head and a red wattle around each eye. Some species of Touracos are also called “Go-away” birds because their loud calls alert other game to run away when hunters are in the area. There are 19 different species of Touracos in the wild. They are part of a larger family that includes cuckoos and roadrunners. Touracos are native to Africa where they live in densely forested areas.

Bananas are very important economic plants for many cultures and are the fourth most important food in the world today2. They are used for food, beverages, medicines, flavorings, and fragrances. The leaves are used for shelter and cooking, while the fibre is used for paper, rope, cordage, fishing line and clothing.

Come for a visit at the Conservatory to check out the beautiful banana blossoms and see if you can spot the elusive touraco! Now that the rains have come and the temperature has dropped, it’s our tropical warm ‘get away’ at the top of Vancouver.

References:

1. Conjecture Corporation (2003 – 2011). What are Plantains? WiseGeek http://www.wisegeek.com/what-are-plantains.htm

2. Nelson, S., Ploetz, R., Kepler, A., (2006). Musa Species (banana and plantain), Musaceae (banana family). Species Profiles for Pacific Iland Agroforestry, ver. 2.2 http://docs.google.com/viewer?a=v&q=cache:nZ1C3KgJjb0J:www.agroforestry.net/tti/Musa-banana-plantain.pdf

3. Morton, J., (1987). Banana Musa x paridasiaca Horticulture and Landscape Architecture, Purdue University http://www.hort.purdue.edu/newcrop/morton/banana.html – Description

 

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

Top 6 Things to see at Bloedel

There is so much to see at the Bloedel Conservatory that it’s hard to pick the top six! However, after careful consideration, these things are a definite ‘must see’ when you go for a visit:

1. The Dome itself!

Yes, we know, obviously you are going to see the dome, but there are a few ‘tidbits’ that might give a greater appreciation on your next visit. Built in 1969, this triodetic dome is an architectural wonder and was created as the City of Vancouver’s 1967 Centennial project. Many people don’t know it was the first floral conservatory in the world (!) and won the Vincent Massey Award for Excellence in Urban Environment in 1972. The design of the dome was based on the principle of openness, one where the structure doesn’t compete with the rainforest experience by using center supports. It is 70 feet high at its apex and is constructed using 1,490 plexiglass ‘bubbles’ set into a 2,324 piece aluminum framework. The Bloedel Conservatory was listed as a Class-A Canadian Heritage building in 1993. Outside, Prentice Bloedel selected the the Henry Moore sculpture to work with the overall design of the fountain, the Conservatory and the entire plaza. His intent was to connect man with the inspiration and power of nature through art, architecture and lush garden ecosystems.

2. The Touraco.

If you can find him you are lucky indeed, but that’s half the adventure! Take your time, look up into the trees, be patient. It’s just like bird watching in a real rainforest! Now you see him, now you don’t … but worth the wait! He is one of the most unusual and exotic birds at Bloedel…. and sounds a bit like a gorilla when he sings! (Hint: he likes to hang out in the big magnolia tree above the waterfall).

3. The Cycad

The type of cycad at Bloedel is the Mexican Horncone and its species is one of the oldest on the planet! Seriously! It was around when dinosaurs roamed and you can see one right here in Vancouver.  Cycad fossils have been dated back 125 million years, and Cycad-like relatives go back 275 million years. The Horncone is really quite unassuming, blending in with all the other palms the way it does, but it is actually more closely related to pine and spruce trees. You can find it on your left, just over the bamboo bridge.

4. The Orchids! There are so many at Bloedel and they are always changing.

5. The Parrots of course!

How could we pick just one? Rosie, Art, Carmen and Maria, Nelson, Casey and Monty – all have their own unique personalities and usually have something to say. Nelson (the smallest macaw above) may even play ‘Peek a Boo’ (yep, he actually says ‘peek-a-boo’ and turns around to hide).  Be sure to ask Casey ‘What ‘cha doin’ ? when you stop by.

6. The Dragon Trees.

There are a few types of Dragon trees at the Conservatory.  The ‘Big’ Dragons however (Dracaena draco) can be found in the subtropical section of the Conservatory. These trees are native to the Canary Islands and grow very (very) slowly. In fact it takes about 10 years for a tree to grow 1 metre! Some are estimated at 650 years old.  The trunk branches every time the tree flowers and is one way to help determine its age. When the bark or leaves are cut, the reddish coloured resin has been referred to as ‘dragon’s blood’ which was used in ancient times as medicines, dyes, varnish and incense.

While these are a few of the highlights at Bloedel, there is so much more to see! What is your favorite thing? Leave a comment and let us know!

And a Quick Reminder: Please join the Friends of the Bloedel for A Little Night Music, champagne and tropical chocolates on April 28 at 7:30 at the Conservatory. All funds raised go directly to help Save the Conservatory!