Article by Chris Harris, Environmental Physiology Technician at the University of Windsor
It is never difficult to tell when a rose-breasted grosbeak is being banded and processed in the banding lab. What begins as a mysteriously unremarkable bird bag immediately begins squeaking like a particularly angry dog toy when it is picked up. New banders learn that carelessly rummaging in that bag can result in an unexpected role-reversal when the grosbeak’s seed-eating bill grabs them first, suddenly leaving the bander as the one squeaking instead. With a bite that reminds me of my sister’s pinching phase during her preteen years, rose-breasted grosbeaks provide my favourite style of lesson in proper songbird handling techniques: painfully memorable, but ultimately harmless.
Aside from testing the toughness and commitment of new ornithologists, their abundance, tolerance of humans, and eye-catching appearance has made the rose-breasted grosbeak a frequent introductory species into the world of birds and birdwatching. The spring arrival at a backyard feeder of a black and white bird with a pinkish red throat and underwing has sent many rushing for a field guide to find out what this new bird could be that looks so striking and different from the familiar, year-round resident species they’ve watched all winter. Hopefully, once the new birdwatcher identifies that their feeder bird is a male rose-breasted grosbeak, they will continue reading about this species as it is the perfect ambassador for all birds.
First, when females arrive a few days later, the new birdwatcher will very quickly learn about sexual dimorphism given that females look completely different with their streaky brown and white plumage and yellow underwing. They may also notice a juvenile male and learn about molt and plumage maturation since juveniles retain their first flight feathers and juvenile males usually look mostly like a female but with a few male features such as pink in the throat and underwing. Rose-breasted grosbeaks are also long-distance migrants. A quick look at their range map will show that the first male arriving at the feeder was wintering in Central America or northern South America only a month prior. While breeding, both sexes sing, incubate, brood, and feed. It is rare for so many broad, core concepts of birds to be demonstrated so obviously in a single species.
A second reason the rose-breasted grosbeak is a perfect introduction to birds is that they exemplify the contradictions and complexity of relationships between humans and wildlife. They are considered by some to be beneficial for eating several agricultural pest insects and yet by others as a pest since they also eat buds, flowers, and fruit themselves. Their abundance and large breeding range in deciduous and mixed forests throughout eastern and central North America has led to them to be considered a forest edge species resistant to human impacts and disturbance and of little conservation concern. However, a recent series of studies suggest their breeding success may be sensitive to forest patch size and that many of the individuals that we see breeding in edges, backyards, and gardens face numerous threats and have too low a success rate to replace themselves. What appears as a common and widespread breeder comfortable in disturbed habitats may instead be a population that relies heavily on a few core, high-quality breeding areas. This demonstrates both a big limitation of using presence and abundance alone to measure population health and an all-too-frequent mechanism of sharp population decline in other species.
The last reason why they are a perfect example songbird is that, despite being a common and well-loved feeder bird, they are not well studied and there are a great many things we don’t know about the species. Very little is known about crucial details like survival rates, nesting success, time budgets, nestling diet, wintering, and migration. Much of what we do know is built upon anecdotal observations of a few individuals many years ago. For example, the knowledge that their diet is composed mainly of insects, seeds, and fruit, and even that they eat both crops and crop pests, comes mainly from a study of stomach contents from 1908 and a few supporting anecdotal observations in the intervening century. In the last 50 years, there are only a handful of studies on behavior, hybridization, and the impacts of forest management on breeding. Surprisingly, we often know even less about many other species of birds. So, whether you are just discovering birds or becoming reacquainted with an old favourite, take some time to look a little more closely at the rose-breasted grosbeak, they always have something to teach you.
Dear members and friends,
The busiest and warmest season of all has arrived at Ruthven Park! Our grounds are greener than ever with the rain and the mansion and grounds continues to be a draw for visitors from far and wide.
We hope you enjoy reading the End of June 2018 Newsletter, which can be downloaded by clicking the link in this post below.
We would like to wish you all a very Happy Canada Day! We are open Canada Day 9:30am-5pm.
Ruthven Park staff
Check our our news letter June 2018 Newsletter
Dear members and friends,
We seem to have skipped over spring pretty quickly and gone straight to summer! It’s hard to believe it’s still 3 whole weeks until the summer solstice, but we can hardly complain after the never-ending winter that just passed.
With the change of seasons has come our change in hours and beginning of mansion tours in our beautiful 1840s Greek Revival Mansion. Our summer opening, new building update, introduction of our summer student team, announcement of our first “Behind the Scenes” tour, and plenty more can be found in this month’s newsletter.
You can access the PDF of the May newsletter on your device by downloading it when you click here: May 2018 Newsletter
Enjoy reading its contents, and please tell us what you thought when you visit us next!
Ruthven Park staff
Staff of Ruthven Park National Historic Site are thrilled to announce that the Site is officially open for the 2018 summer season as of 9:00am today, Saturday May 19, 2018.
Our summer hours (from today until Labour Day Monday) are Monday to Friday, 9:00am to 5:00pm and Saturday to Sunday, 9:30am to 5:00pm. Tours of the Thompson Family Mansion take place on the hour, every hour starting at 11:00am and with the last tour leaving at 4:00pm. Regular admission rates apply to mansion tours; visits to the grounds only are by donation.
2018 is a special year as it marks the 20th anniversary of Ruthven being declared a National Historic Site by the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada and given its official plaque. You can see the plaque during your next visit where it still stands today at the front of the Thompson Family Mansion.
Ruthven achieved National Historic Site status for several reasons, the most key being as follows:
- It is the location of an exceptionally fine example of Greek Revival architecture, as represented by the Thompson Family Mansion.
- The property and the events that occured here represent the transition of Canada from a “settler” to a “settled” society.
- The landscape of the grounds open to the public is in the picturesque landscape design, a type that originated in England and was brought over to North America via the United States.
- The family who made Ruthven Park their home – the Thompsons – took part in and made contributions to many significant aspects of and events in Canadian history, such as local and federal politics, the War of 1812, the dramatic arts, World War One, and beyond.
We are very excited to present to the public many different options for enjoying the Site to the fullest. When you visit us next, consider the following:
- Bird watch and/or bird band.
- Bring a picnic.
- Admire the historic buildings’ architecture.
- Walk on one of our hiking trails.
- Explore the Edwardian Garden (as for a Garden Plan!)
- Attend one of our special events (watch this calendar).
- Take a traditional guided tour of the Thompson Family Mansion.
- Visit the Ghost Town of Indiana.
- Find the two beautiful cemeteries located on site.
- Take in the natural scenery and view of the Canadian Heritage Grand River.
- Book your function in the historic stone Coach House.
- … and much more!
If you have any questions or comments about how to make the most of a visit here, staff are always available to take your call at 905-772-0560 during opening hours.
We sincerely hope to see you here soon to help us celebrate our 20th year as a National Historic Site!
Editor’s Note: 100+ bird organizations declared 2018 the “Year of the Bird” as it is the centennial of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act’s ratification. Many are pledging to do 1 thing per month to help birds. As Ruthven Park National Historic Site has a bird banding station in collaboration with the Haldimand Bird Observatory, we are featuring one blog post per month on different birds! Below, you will find the fifth installment in this 12-part series.
Article by Mike Furber, Ruthven Park National Historic Site Bird Bander
It was a special fall banding season in 2015 at Oriskany Banding Station in Haldimand County. Previously, we were lucky to catch and band one or two Cape May Warblers a year since 2003. That fall, however, we banded an astonishing 22 Cape Mays (dare we say a “catch twenty-two”) – indeed, more than the previous twelve years put together! How could this happen? Read on.
A striking warbler, especially in the spring in its alternate plumage, the predominantly yellow male has a unique chestnut or rufous cheek patch along with a large white wing strip that sets it apart from other warblers. The drabber female is not as distinct and can be quite challenging to identify – especially in the fall in basic plumage – but there always seems to be a diagnostic yellowish pale marking on each side of the neck. In autumn basic plumages, both birds are not as colourful, yet still attractive.
Many of our wood warblers have strange names that often seem to have little to do with their natural history; Cape May Warbler (Setophaga tigrina) is a good example of this phenomenon. Many warblers are named after where they were first discovered. In this case, Cape May Warbler was first named by Alexander Wilson (1766-1813) based on an anonymously collected specimen from Cape May County, New Jersey in 1811. Ironically, he and other famous ornithologists such as John James Audubon (1785-1859) and Thomas Nuttall (1786-1859) never saw a live one.
To this day, Cape May Warblers have continued to be uncommon or rare as a migrant in southern Ontario – except during occasional years of a spruce budworm (Choristoneura fumiferana) population breakout in the northern coniferous forests. Without these occasional population explosions of this moth caterpillar, you should wonder what might happen to Cape May Warblers. Indeed, they seem to be more dependent on this insect larva than the other so-called spruce budworm warblers, namely Bay-breasted Warbler (Setophaga castanea) and Tennessee Warbler (Oreothylypis peregrina).
Cape May Warbler is the most specialized of the northern forest breeding warblers. Although rather uncommon to rare most years, occasionally, they can be very common in fall migration after a successful nesting year that coincides with a high spruce budworm population. This often results in a year where many birds are caught and banded. Herein lies the answer to why we probably caught so many during that fall of 2015. Earlier that year in the spring, there probably was a spruce budworm population outbreak in much of the northern boreal forests, resulting in a very successful nesting year for Cape Mays. In fact, most large banding stations like Long Point Bird Observatory banded almost twice as many as usual (152) that same year. Furthermore, the Ontario Bird Banding Association totalled 344 banded throughout the province which includes most banders and banding stations in 2015; again, more than twice the normal total.
The preferred habitat is balsam fir mixed with white or black spruce; a more open park-like feel is preferred, with birch and aspen in the mix. As a tree top feeder, Cape May prefers to sing from the top spires of conifers. The song is a very high frequency, thin sounding “seet seet seet seet.” Though rarely observed, the nest is usually placed in the upper branches of a spruce or balsam.
As a favourite of many birders and bird banders, most would agree that Cape May Warbler is a darling of the Canadian Shield and the boreal forest where it nests. The species name “tigrina” is quite appropriate for two reasons: first, the male’s yellow underparts are finely streaked with black; and second, it is a very aggressive warbler toward other species, such that it could be called the “tiger” (or “tigress”) of the wood warbler world.
Although not as long a distance migrant as some warblers such as Blackpoll Warbler (Setophaga striata), Cape May Warbler still travels a respectful distance from its nesting range to its wintering grounds primarily in the West Indies and surrounding islands. A remaining mystery is why Cape May Warblers don’t expand their breeding range into more of British Columbia, the Yukon, and Alaska where there is much of the same spruce-fir habitat. One reason, though not a satisfying one, is that there may be limits on the distance a bird species can travel north during the hurried spring migration. Other possible explanations include competition among other species, geographical barriers such as the Rockies, and physiological limits such as coping with temperature extremes. Ornithologists at the Cornell Lab of Ornithologists continue to research this mystery.
Unfortunately, like many bird species, Cape May Warbler numbers show significant declines since the 1990s per Canadian Migration Monitoring Network data from Long Point Bird Observatory. There was a moderate decrease in the breeding populations recorded during the second Ontario Breeding Bird Atlas (2001-2005) compared to that observed during the first atlas (1981-1985). This difference was thought to be mainly due to lower spruce budworm numbers during the second atlas. It will be interesting to see the results of the upcoming third Ontario atlas data collection during 2021-2025.
To be sure, much has been learned from bird banding recoveries and encounters. Moreover, along with the use of satellite transmitters and geolocators, and with continued amazing technological advances in bird research, we will continue to learn more about this lovely northern warbler. And to this end, we can better conserve this important avian member of the boreal forest ecosystem. Best of luck to all birdwatchers: here’s hoping you are fortunate to see a Cape May in its resplendent spring plumage this May and in many more years to come.
The Welcome Centre and Grounds: Monday to Friday, 9:00am to 5:00pm, Saturday and Sunday, 9:30am to 5:00pm
The Mansion: Reminder that our regular tours of the Thompson Mansion season has come to an end. Be sure to check out our upcoming events to take advantage of tours of the mansion. We do offer tours of the mansion to pre booked groups of 15 or more. Give us a call today or check out our website for more information 905.772.0560 or www.ruthvenpark.ca
Phone: (905) 772-0560
243 Haldimand Hwy. #54,
Cayuga, ON N0A 1E0