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

Goldenrod Crab Spider (Misumena vatia)

I want to start off this post with announcement: Our Wild World will be switching to one post a week, on Wednesdays, instead of posts on Wednesdays and Sundays. Things have just gotten too busy for me to keep up with posts twice a week. This was originally supposed to be a weekly blog anyway, so things are just changing to how they were meant to be.

Now that that’s out of the way, we can talk about today’s animal, the goldenrod crab spider. Goldenrod crab spiders are found in the northern hemisphere, in North America and Europe. They are found on fences, leaves, and are especially fond of flowers.

Goldenrod spiders are the largest crab spider in North America, with females growing to be 10mm excluding their legs, and males reaching 5mm. Crab spiders are named because they somewhat resemble crabs, with wide, flat bodies and long front legs that are held open.

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A goldenrod crab spider, in its white form. Image credit: A1xjlq1 via Wikipedia

Goldenrod spiders vary in colour, depending on where they live. You see, crab spiders are ambush predators, waiting on flowers for prey to come swooping by. When an unfortunate insect chances by, the spider grabs their victim with their front legs, and then injects venom into the insect. They feed mainly on flies, butterflies, grasshoppers and bees.

Though goldenrod spiders hang out on lots of different types of flowers, the ones they most favour are goldenrods (no surprise there), trillium, and white fleabane. To camouflage themselves, goldenrod spiders are either bright yellow or white, sometimes with dark markings on the abdomen.

The spiders can change between the two colours, switching between yellow and white depending on the type of flower they are on. They switch colours by secreting a yellow pigment into the body, and excreting the pigment when they want to go from yellow to white. Once the pigment has been jettisoned, however, the spiders have to remake the yellow pigment, so it takes longer to transition from white to yellow (10-25 days) than from yellow to white (6 days). The spiders change colours based on what they see, as crab spiders who have had their eyes painted do not change colour to reflect the colour of flower they are on.

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A goldenrod crab spider using its excellent camouflage to catch a wasp. Image credit: Olaf Leillinger via Wikipedia

Crab spiders rely on their expert camouflage not only to catch prey, but also to avoid becoming prey themselves. Because they don’t try and actively avoid predators, crab spiders can focus on growing and reproducing. That’s why female crab spiders have such huge abdomens — and there is a direct correlation between female weight and egg clutch size, so bigger females do better reproductively.

I’m not a huge fan of spiders, and I have a lovely memory of a crab spider parking itself on my shirt when I was a child (it was a flowery shirt). But crab spiders as whole aren’t too bad. At least they are pretty colours and don’t looks as terrifying as some species of spider.

Now, I have another announcement to make: I have started a pet and wildlife portrait business! And I’ve decided to make my blog and my art work together, so from here onwards I will be making an art piece for every animal I write about on this site. Of course, this means I had to draw a spider, which was extremely difficult for me. But I did it!

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My drawing of a goldenrod crab spider, done in ink. 

Cover image source: Roqqy via Wikipedia

Midwife Toad (genus Alytes)

In a lot of animal species, the story is the same: mom and dad meet, mom lays eggs or gives birth, and dad goes off to find a new mate or look after himself, while mom takes care of the young. Of course, this isn’t the case for all species; some parents don’t look after their young at all, while in others both parents diligently care for their children. And in some species, like the midwife toad, the males take on the responsibility of raising the young all on their own.

There are five species of midwife toad (all of which are actually frogs), in the genus Alytes. They are found in western Europe and northern Africa. They are nocturnal, hiding under objects such as stones and logs or in burrows during the day. To avoid the cold of winter, these frogs burrow underground and hibernate until the nasty months of cold have passed. Midwife toads are mostly terrestrial, heading to water for breeding purposes only.

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A common midwife toad. Image credit: Christian Fischer via Wikipedia

Midwife toads range in size from 3.5 to 5.5 cm, depending on species and gender, with males being smaller than females. Colouration also varies, from brown to quite pale. They are covered in fun reddish warts that make the frogs look nice and bumpy. Midwife toads don’t have highly webbed toes, as they don’t spend a lot of time in the water.

Midwife toads come out of their hidey-holes at dusk to feed, hunting small arthropods such as beetles, caterpillars, spiders and lots of other squirmy fun things. Though they are small frogs, midwife toads don’t have to worry too much about predators, as their warts secrete a nasty toxin that can kill most potential predators.

Breeding season in midwife toads can be anywhere from March to August, depending on where the frogs live. Males spend their nights calling to attract females, who call back if they are pleased with their songs. The two then come together, and the male stimulates the female to lay by stroking her cloaca with his toes. She then lays an egg mass, which the male fertilizes and then wraps around his ankles.

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A male midwife toad with eggs on his back. Image source

It is this behaviour that gives the midwife toad its common name. Males carry the eggs on their backs until they hatch, in three to six weeks. They keep the eggs moist by staying hidden in moist burrows, and taking refreshing baths if the eggs get too dry. When the eggs are ready to hatch the male brings them to a nearby body of water, where the  tadpoles stay until they develop into frogs.

Dedication to one’s young is always nice to see, whether it’s from the male parent, female parent, or both. But it’s especially nice to see some species where the males take on the burden of parenthood, simply for diversity’s sake. So kudos to you, midwife toad.

Tent Caterpillar (genus Malacosoma)

Have you ever seen trees infested with tent caterpillars? They look pretty terrible. I’ve never liked tent caterpillars – their ‘tents’ are far too much like spider silk for me to look at without shuddering. Still, I don’t discriminate, so these little guys deserve a blog post.

Tent caterpillars are the larvae of moths in the genus Malacosoma. There are at least twenty six species of tent caterpillars, found in North America and Eurasia. Different species have preferences for different host trees – for example, the eastern tent caterpillar prefers cherry and apple trees, while the western tent caterpillar is fond of oak and poplar trees.

The appearance of the caterpillars varies with species, but generally they have some variation of orange, black, white, and blue markings, with some lovely hairy bits to make them look cool. The moths themselves are pretty boring looking, being shades of brown to tan. They are also quite furry.

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A lovely ball of western tent caterpillars. Image credit: Brocken Inaglory, via Wikipedia

Tent caterpillars emerge from their eggs in the spring, and set to work building their ‘tents’ soon afterwards. The tents play a key role in keeping tent caterpillars at the right temperature. If tent caterpillars get too cold, they cannot digest any food. So the tent is designed to be a perfect heat chamber, with different layers of the tent creating a range of temperatures. To change its body temperature, all a caterpillar has to do is move from one section to another.

If warmth is the problem, why don’t tent caterpillar hatch later in the year, when temperatures are higher? Well, tent caterpillars have evolved to feed on young tree leaves, which of course grow in the early spring. When caterpillars leave the tent to forage, they leave a trail of pheromones so that they can find their way back to the tent. If a caterpillar comes across a tasty bunch of leaves, it will return to the tent and leave a different pheromone trail, which recruits other caterpillars in the tent to go on a mass feeding frenzy.

It is this feeding behaviour that can cause damage to trees, as a group of caterpillars can easily defoliate a whole tree. Generally, however, this doesn’t cause permanent damage to the tree, unless caterpillars return season after season, or the tree was already under some form of stress. Forest tent caterpillars (Malacosoma disstrium) are the species most well known for outbreaks — in a bad year (or good year, depending on what perspective you’re taking), forest tent caterpillars can defoliate tens of thousands of acres of trees.

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An adult tent caterpillar moth. Image source: Wikipedia

Tent caterpillars complete their larval growth after seven to eight weeks, after going through five or six instars. They then leave their tree and search for safe places to spin cocoons, and emerge as adults after two weeks. The life of tent caterpillar moths is not a very long one; they mate shortly after leaving the cocoons, and females die after laying eggs, meaning their life spans can be less than a day. The larvae start development in the eggs, but then pause and shelter inside their egg cases until the following spring. These are hardy little insects, being able to endure temperatures of -40 C over the winter.

I’m still not a huge fan of tent caterpillars, though the main damage they do is purely aesthetic. Still, at least I now know why they build those creepy tents, and it’s actually for a pretty neat reason. So I guess I have slightly more respect for these little creatures.

Cover image credit: Greg Hume via Wikipedia

Smew (Mergellus albellus)

A lot of animals catch my eye because of their names. Some are simply very descriptive (Northern short-tailed shrew), some are named after someone (Burton’s haplo), and some are downright bizarre (grunion). Still, I think today’s animal wins the prize for dumbest animal name ever. To me, smew sounds like a poorly thought out acronym, much like Hermione’s house elf organization, SPEW.

Despite their name, smews are actually quite beautiful birds. They are ducks, but are so unusual they are classified in their own genus, Mergellus. Smews are migratory, breeding in northern Europe and Asia, and wintering in Germany, the Low Countries, and around the Baltic and Black Seas. They like areas where there is some tree cover, especially during the breeding season, as they build their nests in tree cavities.

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A nice comparison of a male (top) and female (bottom) smew. Image credit: Andreas Trepte via Wikipedia

Male smews are very distinctive birds, having striking black and white feathering. Females are less showy, with rust-coloured crowns and grey plumage everywhere else. Smews grow to be a medium size, reaching lengths of 38-44 cm. They have special, hooked beaks with serrated edges that are perfect for grabbing fish.

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A nice close up of a female smew that shows her serrated, hooked bill. Image credit: Spinus Nature Photography via Wikipedia

Breeding season for smews begins in May, when they travel north to the taiga. As I mentioned earlier, they nest in pre-made holes in trees, often those created by woodpeckers or other animals. They lay 6-9 eggs, and fly south in early fall. During the breeding season smews tend to stay in small groups, but the rest of the year they like to be in flocks of up to 100 birds.

Although smews are fairly common in their range, their population is declining. They are protected by an international treaty, so hopefully we can keep these neat looking, weirdly named birds around for a long time (I have no idea where the name smew comes from, by the way).

Cover image credit: Dick Daniels via Wikipedia

Hoopoe (Upupa epops)

This bird caught my eye a few weeks ago, so it’s about time I blogged about it. Hoopoes have a bit of a funny name, but more importantly they are very funny looking. In fact, they are so unique that they are placed in their own family, Upupidae.

Hoopoes are Old World birds, and are found in Europe, Asia and Africa. Populations in Europe and Asia are migratory, while the African birds stay put year round. Hoopoes can use pretty much any habitat, as long as there is open ground to forage on, and nesting areas, such as cliffs, trees, or walls.

Hoopoes reach sizes of 25-32 cm, and have wingspans of up to 48 cm. They are brown on their top half and belly, with very visible white and black striped wings. Their beaks are long and thin, which helps make these birds easily identifiable. But probably the most distinctive feature of hoopoes is their large crests, which can be extended to look super silly.

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Look how dumb hoopoes look with their crests raised! Image credit: Artemy Voikhansky via Wikipedia

Hoopoes feed primarily on insects; it is for this that their long beaks are extremely useful. They forage by walking along the ground and sticking their beaks into the dirt. Their bills are extremely strong, and can be opened while in the ground, or used to move stones. Hoopoes can fly, and will sometimes pursue swarming insects in the air, but most often they stay on the ground while feeding.

Breeding in hoopoes can be quite a dangerous affair. Males violently defend their territory, and fights can result in a bird going blind. Once a pair bond is formed, it lasts for the season, but no longer. Nests are usually built in vertical surfaces, such as trees or walls. Females lay between four and twelve eggs, depending on location.

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I think they’re quite pretty, when they don’t have their crests up. Image credit: Dûrzan cîrano via Wikipedia

Once the eggs hatch, both parents are responsible for caring for the chicks. The young birds fledge after about a month, and leave their parents a week later. The young of any species are vulnerable to predators, but if I were a hungry hunter, I would stay away from hoopoe chicks. They have some very nasty ways of defending themselves.

Females who are brooding eggs produce a liquid that smells of rotting meat, and rubs this over her feathers. Once the chicks have hatched, they too produce this secretion, which scares off predators and parasites. When they are six days old, the chicks can shoot faeces at any potential predators, and can also stab at them with their long bills. The moral of the story: stay away form hoopoe nests.

Hoopoes are definitely neat birds, though I’d definitely avoid one if I met it in the wild. I’m not sure I want to smell like rotten meat or be stabbed in the eye with a sharp pointy bill. No, I’ll admire them from the warmth and safety of my bed.

Cover image credit: Nitulakshmi via Wikipedia