Eurasian Eagle-Owl (Bubo bubo)

This week I really felt like drawing eyes, so I looked around the internet for a bird with impressive eyes. It’s hard to get more intense eyes than those of a bird of prey, so I was looking mainly for some kind of eagle or owl. And then I stumbled across the magnificent eagle-owl, and I knew I’d found my blog animal for the day.

There are a number of species of eagle-owl, but I’m going to focus on the one that is most commonly referred to as just ‘eagle-owl’ — the Eurasian eagle-owl. As the name suggests, Eurasian eagle-owls are found in Europe and Asia, covering a vast range of about 32 million square kilometres. They aren’t super picky about where they live, and are found in forests, deserts, mountain ranges, farmlands, and riverbeds. Though adaptable, eagle-owls prefer rocky landscapes, which are ideal for nesting.

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The range of the eagle-owl. They certainly get around! Image source: Wikipedia

Eagle-owls are quite large, and are known for being one of the largest species of owl in the world. Their total length ranges from 56 to 75 cm, with wingspans that can reach up to two meters. These owls weigh between 1.22 to 4.6 kg, with females being larger than males. Eagle-owls are mostly brown and black, with white markings on their faces and necks. They have very noticeable ear tufts and giant, orange eyes.

These fearsome birds are quite territorial, chasing other owls and owls of their own species out of their space. They generally stay in the same territory year after year, unless food becomes too scarce or they driven away by other eagle-owls. Being owls, these guys are nocturnal, coming out to hunt at dusk and staying active for most of the night.

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A handsome eagle-owl posing for a picture. Image credit: Piotr_J via Wikipedia 

As big birds, eagle-owls are capable of hunting some fairly sizeable prey. They are known to eat rats, mice, voles, fawns, and foxes. Other prey items include various bird species, including crows, ducks and owls. Eagle owls scan for prey from perches, and then swoop down for the kill. Like other owls, eagle-owls are silent fliers, and use their excellent sight and hearing to track prey in the darkness. Most of the time prey is killed by eagle-owls’ strong talons, but occasionally a swift bite to the head is needed.

Eagle-owls are normally disturbed loners, but do pair up during the breeding season. Courtship begins in the winter, in January and February. Eagle-owls have a variety of vocalizations, used for territoriality and for courtship. Pair bonds are maintained for life, and owls go through courtship rituals each year to strengthen their bonds. Courtship involves a series of calls, bows, and rubbing against one another.

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Those are some intense eyes! 

The birds nest on rocky surfaces, usually on cliffs or slopes, though they will nest on the ground if no alternative is available. One to four eggs are laid, which are incubated solely by the female owl. Her mate does help out, though, by bringing her food during incubation. The eggs hatch after about a month, and the owlets grow very quickly, faster than any other species of owl. I suppose you have to grow quite quickly if you’re going to become one of the world’s largest owls. They will walk out of the nest at five weeks of age, and can fly for short distances at seven weeks. The young birds become independent in the fall, and are sexually mature at two to three years of age.

Eagle-owls have a large population worldwide, as well as an extensive range. Because of this, they are currently a species of least concern, which is great news. Hopefully such beautiful and amazing birds can continue to grace our night skies for years to come.

Cover image credit: DickDaniels via Wikipedia

Mandarin Duck (Aix galericulata)

I generally don’t think much about ducks. Mallards are the ones I’m most familiar with, and though they’re pretty, I’ve seen them so often I don’t pay much attention to them. Mandarin ducks, though — they are ducks you take notice of. I can’t imagine a more colourful, eye-catching duck. Maybe rainbow ducks, but I’m pretty sure those don’t exist.

Mandarin ducks are native to East Asia, though there are also introduced populations in the UK and US. They are migratory, breeding in Siberia, China and Japan, and heading to southern China and Japan for the winter. Mandarin ducks prefer to nest in dense forest areas, around rivers and lakes. In the winter the ducks can be found in marshes, flooded fields, as well as occasionally in costal lagoons and estuaries.

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A male and female Mandarin duck posing for the perfect contrast shot. Image credit: Francis C. Franklin via Wikipedia

As I mentioned, Mandarin ducks are quite colourful. Well, the males are bright and beautiful, and the females are rather drab. I’m not even going to try and accurately describe a male Mandarin duck’s vibrant plumage — that’s what pictures are for! Females are mostly grey with a white stripe behind their eyes. Mandarin ducks don’t reach particularly impressive sizes, measuring 41-49 cm long with wingspans of up to 75 cm.

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A stunning picture of a male Mandarin duck. Image credit: David Iliff via Wikipedia

Mandarin ducks feed primarily on plants and seeds, foraging both on land and in water. During the winter, seeds and grains form the bulk of the ducks’ diets; in spring and summer they eat more animal-based diets, including insects, snails, fish and frogs. They are crepuscular, feeding at dawn and dusk and roosting during the day.

Male Mandarin ducks use their bright colours to attract females, though they also perform courtship rituals that include strange behaviours such as mock drinking and shaking. Once a pair bond is formed, it can last for multiple seasons. Both parents search for a nesting site, though females get the last say in where they finally settle down. Between nine to twelve eggs are laid in the nest, and are incubated by the female for about a month. Male Mandarin ducks may protect females and eggs during incubation, but they do not help with incubation, and leave before the eggs hatch.

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A female with her ducklings, who had to make a huge leap of faith to get there. Image credit: London looks via Wikipedia 

Mandarin ducks start life in a bit of a quandary. They’ve just hatched, so they can’t fly, and they have to follow their mothers to the nearest bit of water so they can feed. But their nests aren’t easy to get out of; sometimes Mandarin duck nests can be as high as nine meters off the ground. Thankfully, the chicks don’t have trust issues — when their mother calls them, the chicks leap from the nest one by one. Somehow they manage to land unhurt, and can proceed to waddle to the nearest water source. The chicks learn to fly in 40 to 45 days, and are then independent from their parents.

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Okay so… I started a beautiful painting of a Mandarin duck, but it’s going to take some time, so I made this as a place holder. Get it? I absolutely love Mandarin oranges so I thought I’d draw a duck made out of them…

Mandarin ducks are currently listed as a species of Least Concern, however they do face threats to their population. Habitat destruction is a serious issue for Mandarin ducks, since they require trees for nesting. They are poached for their beautiful plumage, but thankfully they taste pretty bad so they aren’t hunted for food. Tasting terrible is an excellent survival strategy in our modern world!

Wedge-Tailed Eagle (Aquila audax)

I picked today’s animal because lately I’ve had a hankering to draw some kind of claw or talon. When I think of impressive talons, I immediately think of eagles, so I searched around until I found a suitable candidate. And lo! The wedge-tailed eagle popped up, and I couldn’t have found a better bird to draw and to write about.

The wedge-tailed eagle is found in Australia, so I’m shocked it’s not venomous. There are also populations in New Guinea and Indonesia. Wedge-tailed eagles are fairly flexible about where they live: they can be found in almost all habitats in Australia, including rainforest, forests, savanna and mountainous areas. Though they can be found in a wide variety of habitats, they do tend to prefer more open areas, such as woodlands and grasslands.

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An angry-looking wedge-tailed eagle. Image credit: Susan via Wikipedia

Wedge-tailed eagles are big, and are in fact the largest birds of prey in Australia. Like all raptor species, females are bigger than males, measuring up to 2.84 m in wingspan. This is the largest wingspan recorded for a species of eagle. This does not classify wedge-tailed eagles as the largest species in the world, however. Their wings and tails are long for their body size, and so a number of other eagle species outweigh wedge-tailed eagles.

These eagles get their name from the long, wedge-shaped tail that is unique to their species. They are dark brown or black, with reddish brown feathers under their wings and around their neck and shoulders. Young eagles are golden brown or reddish brown, and darken as they age.

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A great picture showing the wedge-tailed eagle’s wedged tail. Image credit: fir0002 via Wikipedia

Wedge-tailed eagles are gliders, soaring at very high heights for hours. They will often be found soaring at altitiudes of over 1,800 m. They spend most of their time perching and surveying their lands. These birds aggressively defend their territory, soaring in arcs and diving to advertise their ownership. If an unfortunate bird does enter a wedge-tailed eagle’s home range, the eagle will dive and attack the intruder. They will also attack hang gliders and paragliders that enter their territory, which is presumably an unsettling experience for the gliders.

Wedge-tailed eagles hunt and scavenge for their food. Their main source of prey are rabbits and hares — both of which are introduced species. Eagles will also hunt foxes, cats, wallabies, kangaroos, koalas and other birds. On rare occasions, wedge-tailed eagles will work together to hunt larger prey, such as red kangaroos. They are known to chase goats off hillsides so that they injure themselves, and will isolate weaker animals from flocks for easy hunting. Wedge-tailed eagles are adaptable, and are not above scavenging. They will chase crows away from carrion and are often seen feeding on roadkill.

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My drawing of wedge-tailed eagle talons. It’s done in charcoal, which I rarely use, but will probably start doing more of, because I really enjoyed drawing this!

Like many birds, wedge-tailed eagles are monogamous. They choose one partner for life, and will stick together until one of the pair dies. Breeding season occurs from June to August. The birds build a nest from sticks and leaves, usually in trees or on cliffs or hillsides. The nests are used from year to year, and can reach sizes of 1.8 m wide and 3 m deep after years of use.

Females lay one to three eggs in the nest, which do not hatch simultaneously. This means that the first chick to hatch has an advantage over its siblings. When food is scarce, the elder chick will often kill the other young, by outcompeting them or through a direct attack. The young fledge at 75 to 95 days of age, and are dependent on their parents for another three to five months. Sexual maturity is reached at about three years of age, but eagles usually will not mate until they have their adult plumage, which occurs around six years of age.

Thankfully this majestic species is not currently threatened, though the Tasmanian subspecies is considered to be endangered. As adults, wedge-tailed eagles have no natural predators, but they were once hunted by humans who wanted to protect their livestock. It has since been shown that wedge-tailed eagles do not have a large impact on livestock populations, so farmers can now leave them alone, which is fabulous news for both famers and the eagles.

Cover image credit: fir0002 via Wikipedia

Bee-eater (family Meropidae)

I get so excited when it’s time for me to write a post about birds. I think in part it’s because I’ve always loved birds, but mostly it’s because so many of them are bright and beautiful (and yes, fun to draw). Today’s birds, the bee-eaters, are prime examples.

There are 27 species of bee-eater, which comprise the family Meropidae. Almost all species of bee-eaters are found in Africa or Asia, though the odd species lives in Europe, Australia or New Guinea. Bee-eaters live in a wide variety of habitats; they aren’t particularly picky. All they need to be happy is a nice high perch and lovely soft ground in which to dig burrows. Forests tend to be great habitats for bee-eaters, and a a few species are quite attached to their rainforest habitat.

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Bee-eaters are a very brightly coloured family of birds. Most species have some kind of green plumage, though a few are primarily red and some have no green on them at all. Bee-eater feathers can be green, red, blue, brown black, yellow… if you think of a colour, there’s probably be a species of bee-eater that has some of that colour on it. Unusually for birds, there seems to be little difference between male and female colouration. In some species the eyes of males are bright red, while they are brown-red in females (a drastic difference, I know), and the tails of males may be longer. There may be more to these birds than meets the human eye, however: male blue-tailed bee-eaters were more colourful than females when they were viewed under UV light. So sexual dimorphism may still occur in bee-eaters, it might just be in a part of the spectrum that we cannot see.

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A blue-bearded bee-eater. Image credit: Jason Thompson via Wikipedia

Bee-eaters are very social birds, with many species forming colonies during the breeding season. Two species, the red-throated bee-eater and the white-fronted bee eater, are extremely social — their social structures are thought to be more complex than any other species of bird. They live in colonies built into nests on cliffs, and are further divided into social units called clans, family units and breeding pairs. Clans are composed of several breeding pairs, helper birds (the male offspring from the previous year), and the current year’s offspring. After a morning period in which the colony sits in the sun, preen themselves, and socialize, the colony splits into clans to forage. Each clan has its own territory, and they will aggressively defined their territory against other clans.

If you guessed that that bee-eaters eat bees, then you are super smart and should get a prize! Between 20 and 96% of a bee-eater’s diet can be made up of bees and wasps. But though bee-eaters prefer to consume buzzing pollinators, they don’t exclusively prey on bees. They will also eat a variety of other insects, including beetles, flies, cicadas, termites, crickets, grasshoppers, moths, and more.

Bee-eaters will sometimes catch food on the wing, but more often sit on perches and watch for prey. Carmine bird-eaters have a special way of getting food: they ride on the backs of kori bustards and snap up any insects disturbed by the bustard while it walks around. Bee-eaters’ eyesight is pretty good; they can spot a bee flying around from 60 to 100 meters away. If a prey item is too big for a bee-eater to swallow in flight, the bird will take its meal pack to its perch and then beat it to death. Insects with stingers are more dangerous, so bee-eaters smack them to death on the branch, and then rub the body of the insect to discharge its venom sac.

Courtship in bee-eaters is not very exciting; most species simply call a bit and fluff their feathers up. The white-throated bee-eater does actually have a more prolonged courtship; two birds will fly together in a ‘butterfly display’ before perching together and calling at one another. Bee-eaters do practice courtship feeding, in which males bring their consorts food items during the breeding season. Bee-eaters are monogamous, with sedentary bird pairings lasting from year to year, and migratory birds generally finding new mates each year.

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An example of courtship feeding in blue-throated bee-eaters. Image credit: Lip Kee Yap via Wikipedia

All species of bee-eaters nest in cavities that are dug into the ground or into soft earthen cliffs. Both males and females dig the nests, and sometimes the birds start digging several holes before completing one. Digging takes a long time, sometimes as much as twenty days, and the nests are not reused from season to season (seems pretty wasteful to me). Females lay one egg a day, for a total of around five eggs. The eggs hatch in about 20 days, and stay in the nest for about a month. Both adults and chicks defecate in the nests, making them very gross by the time the young are ready to emerge. Perhaps that’s why the birds don’t reuse their nests…

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A drawing of a European bee-eater I did using coloured pencils. 

Thankfully, no species of bee-eater is currently classified as vulnerable or threatened. Despite being affected by habitat loss (especially nest destruction from trampling and river bank damage), bee-eater numbers remain strong, which is great news!

Cover image credit: Bernard Dupont via Wikipedia

American Robin (Turdus migratorius)

Is there a songbird in North America that is more recognizable than the American robin? Bluejays give them a good run for the title, but I still think robins are more well known. I may be slightly biased, though, because my mom’s name is Robin — but my point is robins are very common birds, and yet it’s taken me four years to write about them. Time to fix that!

American robins are well-known in North America because they are widespread across the continent. They can be found year-round in the southern parts of Canada, throughout the US and into Mexico. Robins travel as far south as southern Mexico during the winter, and head north to the Canadian Territories and Alaska in the summer. Robins are at home in a variety of habitats, though they like short grass and open ground, with trees or shrubs for perching and nesting. Many suburban and agricultural areas provide ideal habitats for robins, which is why they are so common in populated areas.

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A map of the range of the American robin. Yellow is the birds’ breeding range, green is where robins can be found year-round, while blue is the robins’ winter range. Image source: Wikipedia

Robins are not overly large birds, ranging from 23 to 28 cm in length, with wingspans of up to 41 cm. They have dark grey or black heads and wings, with white markings on their throats and around their eyes. Their bills are yellow, and they have brown legs and feet. Of course, you probably know that robins have red breasts, but just in case you didn’t, I drew this picture to emphasize it.

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Of course, the red on their breast stays inside the lines, but I took some artistic license with this picture

Robins are gregarious birds, roosting together in large flocks at nighttime. During the day, the flocks break up into smaller feeding groups. American robins feed on a wide variety of foods, including insects, fruits, and berries. They hunt insects using sight and sound, hopping around on the ground and then cocking their heads to listen fro their prey. Though insects make up a large portion of their diet, berries and fruits tend to be the staple of the robin’s diet. This is quite advantageous for the birds, as they can winter farther north than other similar species, thanks to their varied diet.

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A male American robin. Females look pretty similar, but are duller in colour. Image credit: Dakota Lynch via Wikipedia

After the birds finish their migrations in the spring, breeding starts. The breeding season starts in April and lasts into July. They lay their first clutch very early in the season, and often will have two or three broods each year. Robins build nests in bushes, trees or on manmade structures, usually five to fifteen feet off the ground. Nests are not reused; the robins must build a new nest for each brood they raise (apparently robins are not very efficient).

Clutch sizes vary from three to five eggs, which hatch after about two weeks. Female robins will continue to brood their young for a few days after hatching, and then will only brood during bad weather. Two weeks after they hatch, the young birds leave the nest, though they are still dependent on their parents for food and protection during this time. Robin chicks learn to fly quite quickly, and are able to sustain flight two weeks after fledging.

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Juvenile robins are spotted and funny looking, to help them stay camouflaged. Image credit: Laurent Bélanger via Wikipedia

Unfortunately for robins, they are susceptible to predation. Only 25% of American robins make it through their first year. Robin eggs and chicks are preyed upon by squirrels, snakes, and other birds, such as blue jays, grackles, and crows. Robin parents protect their eggs by mobbing predators, as well as making chirping warning calls. Adult robins are themselves the targets of predators, falling victim to hawks, cats, and snakes.

Despite high levels of predation, American robin numbers are still doing just fine. They are one of the most abundant land birds in North America, with an estimated population of 320 million. They used to be killed for their meat, but have since become protected by the Migratory Birds Act, so all is well in the world of robins. As a final note, I would like to point out that the genus name of the American name is Turdus. Maybe I’m being immature, but I think turdus is a pretty funny name…

Cover image credit: Arustleund via Wikipedia

Red-crowned Crane (Grus japonensis)

I recently finished a book by one of my favourite authors, Simon Winchester. It was called Korea: A Walk Through the Land of Miracles, and in it, he describes his journey walking across South Korea. It was an interesting read, but the point is that he describes some of the endangered wildlife that makes its home in Korea, and the red-crowned crane caught my eye, so I decided to blog about it.

Red-crowned cranes are found in Eastern and southeast Asia. They spend their summers in Russia, China and Mongolia, migrating south to Korea and central China during the winter. There is also a non-migratory population on Hokkaido, Japan. They are found in marshes and wetlands, preferring areas with deep water, which is unusual among crane species.

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When standing, red-crowned cranes appear to have black tails, but those patches of black are actually their wings. Image credit: Alastair Rae via Wikipedia

These birds get quite big, reaching 1.5 to 1.58 meters in height, with a 2.2 to 2.5 meter wingspan. Red-crowned cranes are on average the heaviest cranes in the world, with weights ranging from 4.8 to 10.5 kilograms. The birds get their names from the red patches on their tops of their heads, which may look like feathers, but are actually areas of bare skin. The rest of the body is a mix of black and white, with black on the wings, and males having black cheeks, throats and necks.

Red-crowned cranes have long, sharp beaks. In fact, their beaks almost seem too large for their heads (that’s what I thought when I was drawing one, anyway. I had to keep checking the proportions to make sure they were right). These are used in a spearing motion to collect food. Red-crowned cranes are omnivorous, feeding  on insects, fish, amphibians, small reptiles and other birds, as well as plants and seeds. To gather food, the cranes wander through the mud, keeping their heads close to the ground. When they find something they like, the birds jab their beaks into the ground, grasping their prize in their impressive beaks.

Another benefit of that unwieldy beak that it makes an excellent weapon. The sharp beaks, along with the cranes’ enormous size, means that adult birds are quite well protected against predators. Eggs and nestlings are often the target of predators, though it takes a ballsy hunter to go after a red-crowned crane nest, as the parents will defend it aggressively, sometimes killing smaller predators that attempt the feat. Introduced mink on Hokkaido are one of the few predators that successfully raid red-crowned crane nests.

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So pretty! Image credit: Spaceaero2 via Wikipedia

Reproduction in red-crowned cranes occurs in the spring and summer. Cranes are big dancers throughout the year, but they dance a bit more during the breeding season, where pairs dance together to establish or strengthen a bond. The dances can include bows, head bobs, leaps, and calls performed in unison by both partners. Once a pair is formed, the two tend to stick together year after year.

During nesting, red-crowned cranes are territorial, and both sexes help to build nests on the ground, often on wet ground or shallow water. Females lay two eggs, which hatch after about a month. Both parents incubate the eggs and care for the chicks. The chicks leave the nest and accompany their parents on foraging trips at around three months after hatching; they fledge about 70 days after hatching. The young birds stay with their parents for a while longer, however, getting assistance from their mother and father until nine months of age. Red-crowned cranes are some of the longest-lived birds in the world, with wild birds living to 30 to 40 years, and captive birds reaching 70 years of age.

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Pencil crayon and watercolour pencil drawing of a red-crowned crane. I’m still working on the best way to scan these, so forgive the picture quality.

Unfortunately, these beautiful birds are also some of the rarest cranes in the world. There are only about 2,750 birds left in the wild. As predation is not much of an issue for this species, their main threat is the destruction of the wetlands that they live in. There is some good news. Human conflict, has, unwittingly, given some land back to the red-crowned crane and other species: the 250km long Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea is undisturbed by people, and has become an accidental nature reserve. It gives homes to many endangered species, including the red-crowned crane. It may be an uneasy place for animals to make their homes, but at least their habitat remains undisturbed, for now.

Cover image credit: Petra Karstedt via Wikipedia