“If we can teach people about wildlife, they will be touched”

Out of genuine interest rather than any particular career planing, I spent this past summer working an internship at Avian Wildlife Center that rehabilitates and releases injured wild birds, anything from hummingbirds to herons. Most of the birds we dealt with were brought to us after unfortunate interactions with humans in some way – nest disrupted, hit by car, poisoned by pollution, etc. At the center, birds receive care until they can be released back into the wild.

3 little victims of an illegal nest removal, these fledgling American Robins are a few weeks away from release back into the wild

3 little victims of an illegal nest removal, these fledgling American Robins are a few weeks away from release back into the wild

Before release they are also tested for parasites, ability to self-feed, and feather condition.  During their time at the center people interact with them as little as possible so they don’t learn to associate humans with food and approach them after being released.

It’s a great and rewarding job, if you aren’t expecting high pay, flexible hours, or a stress-free work environment. It’s also pretty interesting, and I could (and did) leave work every day with multiple bird stories to share.

This baby Sandhill Crane was everyone's favorite, and an opportunity to take charge of the hand-feeding was a contested role during his visit.

This baby Lesser Sandhill Crane was everyone’s favorite, and an opportunity to take charge of his bi-hourly hand-feeding routine was a contested role during his visit.

One particularly interesting case we had was a lady who brought in a fallen sparrow nest, with three baby birds. She commented that she was surprised one of the babies was twice the size of the other two.  This is because one wasn’t a sparrow at all, but a cowbird. They are incredibly interesting birds, particularly in how they raise their young – they don’t. Instead, they are nest parasites: the mother cowbird flies around laying eggs in other birds nests to be raised by an unsuspecting parent bird, in this case a sparrow.

A juvenile Brown-headed Cowbird being fed by its foster parent, a Chipping Sparrow, in Baltimore Co., Maryland (6/5/2011). Photo by Jon Corcoran (http://www.flickr.com/photos/thrasher72/).

A juvenile Brown-headed Cowbird being fed by its foster parent, a Chipping Sparrow, in Baltimore Co., Maryland (6/5/2011). Photo by Jon Corcoran (http://www.flickr.com/photos/thrasher72/).

The lady, who before this information had been impressed by his advanced growth, was suddenly appalled at the poor little cowbird in her sparrow nest. She then asked if we would euthanize the “parasite” since it disrupted the life cycles of the other birds. Of course that is not the case, and we explained that we would take care of it just the same – the center takes any injured wild bird, irregardless of how many individuals of that species they might already have because it makes no attempts to influence natural population ratios.

She wasn’t convinced why it should be saved, which was a common sentiment among several of the rescuers of cowbirds we spoke to over the summer.

Perhaps the term “parasite” gives them a bad reputation, but cowbirds are truly fascinating. Where most other species would imprint on whatever they first see – imagine the classic example of a baby duckling who imprints on a human when it hatches and spends its day following people instead of fellow ducks. Cowbirds, however, are smart enough to know what they are without having to see another cowbird during their whole infancy.  This is because they recognize their own coloration and use that information to find mates in the future.

Though barely related, I had to include this image of 2 ducklings imprinted to a Corgi

Though barely related, I had to include this image of 2 ducklings imprinted on a Corgi

Generally, to the public we simply try to explain that it is the bird’s natural behavior which should not be tampered with. Cowbirds are not an invasive species and are completely meant to coexist with other birds in their natural habitat, which ranges all across North America from southern Canada to southern Mexico.

They can’t thrive without this method of reproduction, which arose naturally through co-evolution with competing bird species.  It is simply how they live and reproduce, and the individual should not be blamed for its innate biological behavior, any more than a hawk should be blamed when it kills a dove for its dinner.

This isn’t to say that cowbirds don’t harm other birds – I am sure that unknowingly raising a baby cowbird takes its toll on a sparrow mother, who will be half the size of her baby before it leaves the nest. But they don’t outright kill their hosts (a good parasite doesn’t kill its host, or it loses its livelihood), and the parents with whom the cowbird tries to leave her eggs are not completely defenseless in the matter, as they sometimes detect and eject foreign eggs.

Cowbirds are known to parasitize over 100 different species, so their eggs seldom match those they are laid with.

Cowbirds are known to parasitize over 100 different species, so their eggs seldom match those they are laid with.  Here, a large speckled cowbird egg is alongside 3 smaller blue Chipping Sparrow eggs.

Still, there is so much love (and funding to care for) birds of prey, who must kill to consume at least 20% of their body weight a day to sustain themselves. People marvel over the beauty of an eagle soaring in the sky while nest parasites, such as cowbirds, cuckoos and several other species, are met with animosity – even though they are usually not responsible for the deaths of any other birds and are equally fascinating creatures.

  • (An exception is if a cowbird egg/baby is discovered and tossed from the nest by the duped parent. A response, nicknamed the “Mafia Behavior”, occurs where the mother cowbird will return to the nest and destroy the other eggs, in hopes of forcing the victim to create a new nest and lay a new brood, also giving her another chance to lay new eggs).

Cowbirds are somewhat infamous for contributing to the near extinction of the Kirtland’s warbler and there were even several mass attempts to remove cowbird eggs from warbler nests, although later it was found there were several other factors leading to their decline besides cowbirds, mostly from human damages to the ecosystem. And studies have even shown that when humans try to remove cowbirds, we end up helping them – removing birds from an area signals less competition, so they are able to reproduce more in that area and end up parasitizing even more nests than they would normally would have.

As with any animal that makes its way through life by competing with others, there are winners and losers.  As a rehabilitator, helping one means eventually harming another, as the circle of life continues in the wild and someone must be preyed or parasitized upon. That doesn’t mean efforts to protect the environment are any less meaningful and perhaps the best thing we can do is try to fix the damages done by humans and restore the balance that existed before human activity began to cause serious disruptions.

After all, these species got along just fine before humans showed up to observe, monitor, and “fix” nature.

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“Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food”

It is a universal standard that no matter where you travel to, for whatever reason, the first thing people will ask you about is the food. It goes without saying that most places have a lot more distinctive food than the US, because we have a wide variety of everything. If someone asked me what the food was like in America, I wouldn’t really know what to say. But it’s pretty easy to talk about food in other countries because its more of a specialty there – Italian pasta is unbeatable, I’ve only ever ordered fish & chips in England, Guinness is best drank in Ireland, and the presence and quality of guinea pig kabobs is far higher in Ecuador than the US.

Yes, I said guinea pigs, I couldn’t help it, I love telling people I ate one of those evil furry little creatures that bit me every time I ever tried to pet one as a child. But, seriously, Ecuadorean food is great, so much focus on fresh fruits and vegetables, and the traditional cuisine is rich, filling, and yet still healthy. There were fruits and vegetables that I never even knew existed in the world, and something that I found incredibly thrilling as a traveler was simply wandering fruit markets looking for foods I hadn’t tried yet. My favorites were guanabana (soursop), mora berries, and a ridiculously fun-to-eat fruit called granadilla.

The first time I got one of these, I had no idea how to eat it – you crack it open and eat the fruit-seed pods (that look disturbingly like fish eggs) without eating the white inner part of the shell. They are absolutely delicious and are equally fun and time-consuming to eat!

And the best part about food in Ecuador is this: hunger didn’t seem as big an issue as it might have in similar countries, because the government places a high priority on the availability of food for everyone, and healthy food is cheaper than unhealthy or “fast” food.

More widely available that anything else in a local market, is fresh fruit of all shapes and colors

More widely available that anything else in a local market is fresh fruit of all shapes and colors

For comparison:

  • A full meal at basic restaurant (soup, avocado slices, potatoes, corn, steak, sometimes juice): $2.00 – 3.00
  • A combo meal at McDonalds in Quito: $5.00+
  • Bottle of Coke: $1.50
  • Bottle of Water: $.50

And these healthy differences in Ecuadorean food are a concrete part of governmental policy that have been in the country’s Constitution since 2008. Food Sovereignty, as it is called by the members of the Via Campesina (Peasant’s Way), is the people’s right to define their own food system and have access to healthy, local foods.  This social justice group also focuses on environmental policy and indigenous and women’s rights.

The Food Sovereignty policy

  • supports small farmers and encourages local production and sales
  • works to prevent runaway prices of food products
  • ensures that animals intended for human consumption are raised in a healthy and humane way
  • promises that in case of anthropogenic (human-caused) or natural disasters, the government will step in to ensure that people in need still have access to food
  • and it deals with many other issues as well, ranging from sustainable growing practices to standards set on international foods that are imported

So basically, the government works to ensure that all people have access to healthy and fresh food, and also that food is grown as environmentally-friendly as possible. And this always makes me wonder, why can’t the American government get their act together and have policies like this? Give subsidies to healthy food and tax unhealthy fast food, instead of vice-versa?

As a poor college student – about to get poorer as graduation time approaches – I know all too well that an entire meal at Wendy’s can cost as little as $3.00, but a salad at Wendy’s is double that? A bag of chips costs ~$2 but a bag of apples costs $5? It’s not fair that Americans of lower socio-economic status are forced to buy unhealthy food because they can’t afford anything else, putting them at risk of health complications that arise solely out of their economic standing. The reason our economy is this way in regards to food is probably a complicated mess of politics, economics, and a deep-rooted tradition of what Americans view as a typical diet or their right to consume whatever they want (and undoubtedly a little bit of corruption in the policy-making sectors). There is no quick fix to a problem such as this one, but an increased focus on sustainable food production and a commitment to ensure healthy food for all seems like a good start?

DE VIENTO EMPANADAS

Now, I know I just talked a lot about healthy food and healthy food is great! But, I leave you now with a recipe for deep fried de viento empanadas, a specialty of Ecuador that I was luckily enough to try at an indigenous music festival.  Here’s the recipe, a little rough as it is translated into imperial measuring units from my memory of an old Ecuadorean lady yelling it at me because she thought that would make me understand her better:

  • ~2 cups flour
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
  • 3 oz butter
  • 1/3 cup water

You also need:

  • Cheese for inside the empanadas – there is really only one kind of cheese in Ecuador, a fresh, moist, white cheese that has no other name than simply queso, so I would suggest any white, weak cheese – I used mozzerella.
  • Oil to fry them in – vegetable, sunflower, or canola oil probably work the best
  • Sugar to sprinkle over tops

When I made this recipe, I altered the flour and water a little bit to get the right consistency – this recipe is traditionally used in a high altitude, so that might make a difference or I didn’t get the measurements just right.

  1. Mix flour, salt, baking powder, butter, and water until a soft dough forms.
  2. Take a small ball of dough, depending on how big you want your empanadas to be, and flatten into a circle.
  3. Fill half the circle with cheese and press together, ensuring they are sealed tightly.
  4. Fry in oil until golden brown, flipping halfway through (about a minute per side).
  5. Remove from oil and sprinkle with sugar, allow to cool, and enjoy!
I watched these cook before my very eyes.  De viento empanadas - cheese filled, sprinkled with sugar.

I watched these cook before my very eyes. De viento empanadas – cheese filled, sprinkled with sugar.