Thursday, January 31, 2008

What the Hell is This?

I got stuck behind this thing yesterday morning, on a narrow, winding, country road with no passing places.

It was moving slower than molasses, and of course, every time it had an opportunity to turn, it went the same way I was going.

Oh my God - now there are two of them!
Could we GO any slower?
No, no, no - Don't turn that way!
What IS this thing, any way?

Grace Goes to the Vet

Grace Ellen

I know, I know - I can hear you all saying, "Grace lives with a vet, why would she need to see go some place to see one?" Well, as much as this pains me to say, I don't know everything, and I can't diagnose everything I see. [I know - you are all stunned by this confession, aren't you?] Plus, when it comes to my own pets, I am not always objective.

Grace, my
beloved 8 1/2 year old Rottweiller has been lame for over two months now. It started about mid-November, as an occasional and subtle little gimpy step, so mild that I said to myself, "Did she just limp?" At first, I wasn't even sure what leg it was on, but by Thanksgiving, I had narrowed it down to her right rear leg.

At first, I did what any good pet owner would do: I ignored it. "Maybe it will go away," I rationalized. "After all, it isn't too bad, and she and Holly do some crazy things as they run around the back yard. Maybe she just pulled something. Maybe it will go away."

As the lameness became more pronounced, I could no longer take the head-in-the-sand approach. She was definitely painful in her right stifle (knee.) I started her on Rimadyl, an NSAID (Non-Steroidal Anti-Inflamatory Drug) like Advil for people, but I delayed X-raying her.

You see, in veterinary medicine there is a saying: "Osteosarcoma (bone cancer) is found AWAY from the elbow and AROUND the knee." And, in my dogs, my first thought is never "muscle sprain," but "Cancer." I didn't want a diagnosis of cancer before Christmas, especially just after the 20th anniversary of my father's death from lung cancer.

Finally, finally, finally I X-rayed her knee, hips, pelvis, and lower back. Other than some arthritis in her lower back, a normal finding for an older large breed dog, I couldn't find anything wrong. I changed her pain meds and waited. And waited. And waited.

She didn't get any better. Drastic measures were called for. I needed help.

Right before I left for my trip to Florida, I couldn't stand it any more. I called the Cincinnati Animal Referral and Emergency (CARE) Center for an appointment with Dr. Steven Schrader, veterinary surgeon and orthopedist extraordinaire. I felt like telling the receptionist, "My dog has been lame for 2 months. I need to make an appointment this week," but I didn't.

The CARE Center is a 24 hour emergency service, and they also have specialists for surgery, cardiology, oncology, neurology and internal medicine who see patients on a referral basis.

Charlie Harper mural in the entry hall at the CARE Center

Our appointment was today. We arrived a little before 10am to check in. "Have you been here before?" "Yes." "Are your phone numbers and address correct?" "Yes." "Who is your regular vet?" "I am." "oh."

the waiting room at the CARE Center. They have 10 exam rooms!
See the guy in the blue shirt? That's who we're waiting for.

Dr. Schrader is the vet I took Grace to last year, when she had severe pain from a mass on her rib cage which I was certain was cancer. He touched her and miraculously healed her. I was hoping for another miracle today, but he told me he could only do one miracle per century.

His exam revealed a cruciate ligament rupture. I was: a) Relieved it wasn't cancer. b) Embarrassed to have missed the diagnosis, since it is the most common cause of stifle lameness in a dog, and c) Stunned to realize he was talking about taking her to surgery. As in today.

Grace waits patiently for her vet appointment.

So, I signed the forms and gave them my credit card and left the hospital without my dog. As I type, it is 5:30pm and I still haven't heard from the hospital. To say I'm nervous would be an understatement. I have every confidence in Dr. S., but still ....

Isn't that a face to inspire trust? And Gracie loves him, too.

Every vet should sit in the client's chair at least once, to experience what it is like from the other side of the table. With Grace, I have been in that chair three times. I think that's enough.

Updates later, with a discussion of cruciate ligament rupture and photos.

Pray for Grace.

> Update: 9pm. I decided to keep my plans to go to pottery tonight, instead of sitting around, worrying. Dr. S. called while I was on my way there. Grace is doing fine, despite having some heart irregularity during surgery. She was still pretty stoned on hydromorphone, a pain killer, when he called. (And the dentist told me to take ibuprofen for my aching tooth. How come dogs get all the good drugs?) She'll spend the night in the CARE Center's ICU, and I will pick her up some time tomorrow.

Thanks for all the good thoughts you sent our way. I can feel the love!

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

The NAVC - Exhibit Hall

The North American Veterinary Conference is HUGE. It has been held in central Florida for 25 years, and grows every year. It is internationally known among veterinarians as a premiere event, for education, networking, and socializing. It attracts people from all over the planet. This year, 6000 veterinarians attended. With veterinary technicians and other support staff, vendors, and guests, the total group was something like 15,000. It is so big, it has to be held in three different facilities. I have gone three times now, and each time I go, I remember why I don't go every year. It is BIG! And exhausting. And HUGE!

Here are some photos of one of the two exhibit halls:

Check out what your veterinarian may be buying -



left- blood chemistry analyzer
center- anesthesia machine with built-in ECG monitor
right- digital radiography (X-ray) unit

plates, pins, and screws
for fracture repair

surgical retractors

- and what s/he probably won't be buying, unless your vet wins the state lottery.

doggy (and kitty) CAT scan

underwater treadmill,
for physiotherapy (rehab) after orthopedic surgery

hyperbaric chamber, with stuffed dog
pretending to be Michael Jackson

And you wonder why your vet bills grow every year!

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Anhinga: Snake Bird of the South

I saw my first Anhinga in July, 1993, on Hilton Head Island, and an anhigna was the first bird I saw when my plane landed at the Orlando Airport. This is a really weird creature. It looks almost like a Pterodactyl or some other prehistoric bird ancestor. It is truly unique in that it is the only member of its family, the Anhingidae, in North America.

Anhinga anhinga

I love it when an animal's common name is the same as its scientific name, and the anhinga is one of those. It belongs to the genus Anhinga, and it full name is Anhinga anhinga. Weird, huh? I can think of three other animals which share this quirk - the Eurasian lynx (Lynx lynx), the American bison (Bison bison) and as a matter of fact, the Western Lowland Gorilla is even in the subspecies "gorilla" so its full name is Gorilla gorilla gorilla. But, I digress.

One of the neat things about the anhinga is how is swims - with its body completely submerged and only its neck sticking out above the surface. This appearance has led to one of its nicknames, "snake bird."

See how it got its nickname?

Like its close relatives, the cormorants, the anhigna dives under water to snare a fish, then surfaces to swallow its meal.

Sorry for the fuzzy photo -
I was trying to snap a picture of this successful fisher.

Also like the cormorants, anhingas lack the oil necessary to water-proof their feathers. This makes it easier to submerge to fish, but complicates flying, since it is hard to get airborne with waterlogged plumage. So, after feeding and bathing, anhingas must perch with their wings outspread to dry off in the sun. This is when I think they look their most primitive.

Did Archaeopteryx look like this?

Word of the Day: Indolent

Indolent: adjective - adverse to activity, effort, or movement; habitually lazy.

As in, "I am so indolent, I couldn't be bothered to come up with a Toxicology Tuesday post."

Check back next week.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Life Bird: American Bittern

I have so much to tell you about, I don't know where to start. Although the stated purpose of my trip to Orlando was to participate in the North American Veterinary Conference, I don't really feel like blogging about that tonight. So, instead, I'll treat you to one of the 11 (yes, that's right, ELEVEN!) Life Birds I picked up on my trip, the American Bittern.

A bird of the wetlands, the bittern is notoriously hard to find. Not only is it
shy, elusive, and endangered, it is also very well camouflaged. As it turns out, I practically tripped over this bird. If it were not for my non-birding cousin, I may have missed it entirely.

We were at a wetlands area called Lake Woodruff National Wildlife Refuge, south of Lake George, near DeLand. (And DeWater!) If you are not familiar with Florida, try looking north of Orlando, southwest of Daytona Beach. I was having a great day. I had already seen Sandhill Cranes, White Ibis, Black Vultures, Great Blue, Little Blue and Tricolored Herons, and both Great and Snowy Egrets. I was scanning the shoreline across a small channel when Nancy said, "There's a bird right there."

"Right where?" I asked, continuing to focus on the weeds on the opposite shore.

"Right there," she replied. I checked out the nearest greenery, looking for a sparrow or some other LBJ.

"No," she insisted, "right THERE."

I followed her pointing finger. OMG! An American Bittern, about 10 feet away from me.

Can you see the bittern in this photo? No?

Can you see it now?
This has got to be the coolest bird ever! It looked just like a stump, and despite our proximity, me talking too loudly, and my eager attempts to get just-one-more photo, it stayed in one place, swaying back and forth, imitating the weeds blowing in the breeze.

Isn't it beautiful?

Finally, I got just a bit too close and spooked it. It flew over the channel to the next weedy patch, and when I looked for it, it had vanished. Awesome!

Just for the record, Nancy also spotted the Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, a tiny, flittery little thing. Not a Life Bird, but still a good find. Need luck on your next quest for Lifers? Take along a non-birder - they're lucky!

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Back from Florida and Jeez, is it COLD!

Ah, man - central Florida was in the 60's and low 70's for most of the past 10 days, and I'm already missing it. We did dip down into the 50's a bit and the locals were bundled up in coats, hats, and gloves, shivering, turning up the heat and complaining about the "cold." Now I'm back in chilly ol' Ohio, where the high today was about 35. Luckily, I did miss the 2 degrees above (with -12 degree wind chills) from just a couple of days ago.

Boy, do I have a bunch of good photos for you! I'll try to organize them into themed posts, but to whet your appetite, here is a brief taste of what I have been doing while I was away. I call this post:

The Coat Tour

My famous OSU jacket traveled to Orlando in my checked bag from the Cincinnati Airport (which, if you didn't know, is actually in Kentucky). A near-tragedy occurred when one of my checked bags (the small one) traveled with me on my connecting flight through Atlanta while the larger one, containing ALL of my outer clothes, including my wonderful coat, somehow took a direct flight. While I was enjoying (?) the hospitality of the Hartsfield airport, my large bag was all alone, waiting for me in Orlando. Perhaps it looked sad and lonely, perhaps it had that "Take me home" expression, or perhaps some people are just idiots, but when I arrived at the Orlando airport, it was gone.

"All the bags from your flight are in this area," was the so-not-useful comment from a Guy in a Tie near the carousal, when I told him my suitcase was missing. I renewed my search, only to confirm my suspicions. No suitcase. The Tie Guy sent me on to his supervisor, in the office.

"Our records show your bag was checked in, Ma'am. It is here in the airport," said Ms Helpful Supervisor Person. "It's NOT!" I choked out through the lump in my throat.

Thinking perhaps I couldn't SEE a large black wheeled suitcase with red tartan ribbons attached to both handles, Ms. Helpful looked at all the bags scattered around the Baggage Claim area. She even inspected the hot pink duffle and the paisley overnight bag, just in case my suitcase had somehow mutated during the flight. It hadn't.

This is when the lowest ranking guy in the baggage area informed me that he had pulled my bag off a different flight, and had put it aside to await my arrival. (Thank God for blue-collar workers who notice ACTUAL suitcases rather than trusting computer reports.) When he shared this info with Ms. Supervisor, she was of the opinion that someone else had taken my bag by mistake, and all we could do was wait for some honest soul to return it to the airport. She took my hotel and cell phone information, and left me feeling less than hopeful.

Yes, friends and neighbors, KatDoc was stuck in Florida wearing hiking boots, corduroy pants, and a sweater. The small bag held my jammies and unmentionables, but all my lighter clothes were MIA. More to the point, my OSU jacket was gone. I almost cried in the airport.

What happened next was either a minor miracle or a reaffirmation that honesty and decency still exist in the human race. A woman called - she had my bag at her business. It had been picked up by mistake by visitors from Europe. When they arrived at their destination, they realized they had the wrong suitcase, but they were a long way from the Orlando Airport, and they decided to return it when they went back to the airport for their flight home. In two weeks.

Two weeks?!?!?! What kind of goofball, ignoramous, IDIOT keeps someone's bag for TWO FREAKIN' WEEKS? Fortunately, the business lady said "There is no way I can let this woman go without her luggage," and even though her company wouldn't pay for the bag to be shipped back (and the Europeans obviously weren't taking responsibility) she took it upon herself to return my suitcase to the airport. The airline, in turn, sent it on to my hotel, and while I was telling the front desk that I was expecting my lost luggage to be delivered, the driver arrived. Right there in the hotel lobby, I opened the suitcase to find -

MY JACKET, on top of the rest of my things. Hurrah!

That's when I decided not to let that jacket out of my sight. I would take it with me everywhere. So, here are photos of The Jacket, enjoying itself in sunny Florida:

Relaxing in a chair at the hotel room,
regaling me with travel tales.
Having breakfast at the hotel.
Sitting in on lectures at the Convention Center.
Lunching by the pool at the Gaylord Palms.
Looking for manatees on a pontoon boat trip.
Taking an airboat ride.Hamming it up at Lone Cabbage Fish Camp.
Birding at Lake Woodruff National Wildlife Refuge.
Waiting for our flight home.

In later posts, I'll share more of our trip with you, including some pretty good bird photos. As a teaser, I was hoping to see about a dozen Life Birds on this trip, and I got close. Trip List to follow...

Wednesday, January 16, 2008


Dark-eyed Junco

I understand why juncos are called "snowbirds," since their arrival signals the return of winter storms to Ohio. But, I don't understand why Ohioans who travel to Florida for the winter, escaping the snow, have the same nickname.

Be that as it may, KatDoc is about to transform herself into a snowbird, at least temporarily. I'm off to Orlando, Florida for a five day veterinary conference, followed by a three day mini-vacation with family. I hope to get in some birding while I'm away, and to bring back lots of news and photos to fill up the blog.

So, have fun in my absence, behave yourselves, and get to work on this week's toxicology quiz! (I suppose you are going to say those three things are mutually exclusive, right?)

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Toxicology Tuesday, January 15

A common phone call at a vet office is "My pet just ate a house plant; is it poisonous?" This is not a "yes or no" question - the answer depends on the type of plant, what part or parts are eaten, perhaps how much the pet ate, and what type/how big the pet is.

Here is a typical group of house plants (mine):

Ignore the Peace Lily in the back right of this photo - we already covered it in a previous post. The rest came in one of those florist's baskets, a mixed arrangement of foliage plants crammed into a too-small container. It was a "Thank you" gift from Heidi's owners (remember Heidi?) I took the arrangement apart and repotted the plants as small groupings.

Group 1

Group 2

What can you tell us about these plants? Do you know their names, or if they are:

Toxic or Not?
. . . . .

Edit: Wed., Jan. 16

So, from the dearth of responses, I can see this is not a popular topic. Tell you what we are going to do. I'm going to give you some more time to research this one, because it is a toughie, and because I am going to be off the air for nearly two weeks (see next entry.) Here are some close-ups of the six plants in question, and I added some hints to the comments section to help you out.

Answers after I return on January 27.

In Group 1, we have the following three plants:

A. Philodendron

B. Dracaena marginata

C. Dieffenbachia

And, these three plants are in Group 2:

D. Aucuba japonica

E. Parlor palm

F. Syngonium podophyllum

See you in a couple of weeks. Have fun!

. . .

----- Answers -----

It's Jan. 27, I'm back, and here are your answers:

A: Philodendron. A very common household plant, the philodendron is in fact toxic. It, like many of the plants shown here, is a member of the Arum family (Araecea), and the toxic element is an oxalate. (more on oxalates below) Personally, I have had many philodendrons over the years and many houseplant-eating dogs and cats, and I have never had this one be chewed by pets. Neither have I seen a case of toxicity related to Phil in my practices.

B. Dracaena marginata.
There are many types of Dracaena, some of which are called "Corn Plants." Most Dracaenas are nontoxic, as is this species.

C. Dieffenbachia. Also called "Dumbcane" for its potential to cause vocal cord paralysis and temporary loss of speech. Listed as toxic, this member of the Arum family also contains calcium oxalates.

D. Aucuba japonica goes by many common names, including Gold Dust Plant, Japanese Aucuba, and Spotted Laurel. It is toxic, too, but here the agent is a glycoside found in the fruit and leaves.

E. The Parlor Palm's Latin name is Chamaedorea elegans, but it is sold as Neanthe bella. (Go figure.) It is nontoxic.

F. Syngonium podophyllum, or Nephthytis, is often called Arrowhead Plant, Arrowhead Vine, or Goosefoot Plant. It is related to Philodendron, and as another member of the Arum family, contains oxalates, making it toxic to pets.

What does all this mean for your pets and mine?

The glycosides found in the Gold Dust Plant are minor toxins. Mild GI upset, vomiting and diarrhea, might be seen if a pet ingests this plant.

Calcium oxalates, the toxic principle of three of the above plants, and the Peace Lily seen in the back right of the first photo, cause oral irritation, drooling, vomiting, difficulty swallowing, and perhaps a loss of voice from vocal cord paralysis. It is rare that a pet would ingest a sufficient quantity to cause serious health risks or death, however.

I am not concerned about keeping any of these plants in my house with my 4 cats and 2 dogs. Interestingly, the two plants receiving the most abuse from my plant-loving cats are the Parlor Palm and the Dracaena, the two nontoxic plants. Is that because they have tried the others and found the bitter taste and oral irritation to be repellent? Is it because the thin leaves look and feel like blades of grass? Or, have we just been lucky? In any event, I do try to keep my cats from chewing the plants, not so much for the cats' sake, as for that of the plants.

The take-home lesson from this exercise is to Know Your Houseplants. You can see this is a challenge, since one plant can have many different common names and even the scientific names may vary. Please, if you have house PETS and house PLANTS, take the time to learn the names of your plants. Do it now, before Fido shreds that thing you got as a housewarming gift from Aunt Fern.

I have two reference books, one by the Sunset publishing house (you can find it at the big box hardware stores) and one by the American Horticultural Society, and I wish I had more. You need at least two books, because no one book will have photographs of every species or variety of houseplant out there. When you buy or receive a new plant, save the care tag that comes attached to it, or at least write down the name.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Another Brown Bird

Here's somebody I'm missing from my yard - a Carolina Wren. Last winter, I had two regular visitors to my feeding stations. They loved the suet dough, served either on this hanging platform feeder or in bluebird feeder, enclosed with Plexiglas on the two long sides and with round entry holes on the ends. There, I kept suet dough and mealworms for the bluebirds, and the Carolina Wrens quickly caught on to the special treats to be found inside. I could always count on them to arrive the minute I stepped back inside after putting out the good stuff.

They were doing great, until a late cold snap came along, and I never saw them again. Both Eastern Bluebirds and Carolina Wrens seem to experience rises and falls in their numbers here in SW Ohio. After several mild winters, the populations rise, then we have a bad winter and they suffer a massive die off. I'm afraid last year's birds succumbed, and so far, a new pair has yet to move in. I really miss them, too. They sing most of the year, and they always liven up a winter walk in the woods.

"Calling all Carolina Wrens: KatDoc is serving up the 'dough again. If you come by, she'll even toss in some nice protein snacks, to go with the fatty ones." [I hope they hear me.]

. . .

Word of the Day - Dingle

A dingle is a deep, narrow, wooded valley, also known as a dell. Origin unknown. Not to be confused with "dingleberry," a term we used in vet school for the stuff clinging to the back end of a sheep or goat.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Can Dogs See Photos?

Julie Zickefoose’s post on Thursday, January 18, “Alpha Bird,” told the tale of an amusing incident between her dog, Chet Baker, and her macaw, Charlie. In the comments, she noted that Chet “won't look at the pictures on the computer screen, but he turns his head when I try to show them to him. Charlie, on the other hand, loves to look at pictures of himself and people he knows. It's a difference in brain organization between birds and dogs, I would guess.”

That stimulated a question from Sara: “I've wondered if dogs can see an image clearly on the computer screen; my dog won't look either. Any idea? KatDoc are you out there ?”

I punted a quick answer in Julie’s comment section, but since then, have fleshed out a more detailed response.

Over the years, my own dogs and cats have noticed rapid motion on the TV, and my cat Dixie comes running to investigate the sounds when I play DVDs with a lot of bird calls and songs, but in general, my experiences with my pets echo conventional wisdom. They won’t look at pictures, watch TV, or pay attention to their reflection in a mirror.

I was always taught that dogs couldn’t see photographs or images on TV or computer monitors, that they couldn’t grasp a two dimensional image and convert it into a recognizable object. That ability was thought to be limited to primates and birds. (Aside: My own thought is that for dogs, sense of smell is much more important than vision when it comes to object recognition. Since photos and TV pictures don’t include smell-o-vision, dogs don’t experience those images like they do the real live thing.)

A study released in November of 2007 busts that myth wide open. A research group led by Friederike Range, Dept. of Neurobiology and Cognition Research, University of Vienna, Austria, studied the ability of dogs to recognize computer images.

Here’s what they did: First, they taught four dogs to discriminate between photographs of dogs or photos of landscapes on a computer monitor, using 40 different pictures of each type. They rewarded the dogs with a food treat each time they selected a dog picture instead of a landscape. Then, they conducted a two-part experiment.

In part one, they asked the test dogs to choose between pictures of landscapes or dogs, but this time they used new photos, not the ones the dogs had been trained on. The dogs were able to correctly select the dog pictures, demonstrating that they recognized the category differences.

Next, the researchers tried to trick their subjects by showing them new dog photos superimposed over familiar landscape pictures. When asked to choose between “new dog/old landscape” versus “no dog/new landscape,” the dogs chose the pictures that contained dogs.

So, according to this study, not only can dogs see a two-dimensional image, they can learn to sort those images into categories.

Cool, huh?

. . .

Word of the Day:

argillaceous Clay-like; of, relating to, or containing clay or clay minerals. From the Latin argilla. Argil means clay, especially potter's clay.

"You might say my jeans are dirty after pottery class, but I prefer to call them argillaceous."

Saturday, January 12, 2008

True Toxicology Tales

Thought you might like to know, the things I write about in my toxicology posts really do happen. Yesterday, I had a panicked phone call from an owner whose dog had just eaten a whole pack of gum. Yes, it was Orbit sugar-free gum containing xylitol as the artificial sweetener.

Loyal readers of this blog will remember the Toxicology Tuesday report on xylitol, a sugar alcohol rapidly increasing in popularity as a low-cal alternative to sugar in gums, mints, and available in bulk for home baking. Luckily, my client was aware of the dangers, and called me the minute she discovered what her dog had done.

Taffy is a 20 lb mixed breed dog who apparently has craving for minty-fresh breath. The owner had come home, dropped her purse on the floor, and gone upstairs for "just a minute." When she came back down, she found Taffy had stuck her nose into the bottom of her purse to find the gum hidden inside. There was not a trace of debris on the floor, and only one stick left in the pack. The owner knew that two pieces had previously been removed, so simple math meant that our culprit had ingested 11 sticks of the 14 stick pack. (Two to four sticks would be toxic in a dog Taffy's size.) She had her dog in our hospital within 45 minutes of finding the evidence.

Our first step was to induce vomiting, something I generally do with oral hydrogen peroxide. It usually works pretty quickly, but it took three doses before Taffy would give me the gum back. I counted 10 wrappers, so I felt certain we had gotten most of the gum out of her stomach. We checked her blood sugar, drew baseline lab work for her liver enzymes, and started her on IV fluids with dextrose, to keep her blood sugar up.

This morning, Taffy was doing well, her blood sugar holding at 100 (normal). Because I closed at noon, she went on to a 24 hour facility for continued care this weekend, but things are looking good so far. Aside from severe hypoglycemia (low blood sugar) Taffy's other risk is for hepatic necrosis, or death of her liver tissue, which can take up to 72 hours to see, so she's not out of the woods yet.

If you have to have a poisoning case, this is the kind you want to have: An alert owner, who recognized that her dog ate something potentially bad and brought her in right away, the recovery of the majority of the toxin, and a dog who is (so far) responding to supportive care.

So please, dog lovers out there, cross your fingers, say a prayer, or wish on a lucky star that Taffy does well. She is a sweet dog, in the process of being adopted from a dog rescue group by a lovely lady, with a cute little boy and another dog-sister who is already in love with her new friend. And, do me a favor - put the xylitol gum in an upper cabinet right now.

Friday, January 11, 2008

My Spark Bird

For those of you who might not be familiar with all the birding ins and outs, a "spark bird" is the bird that got you into birding, that sparked your interest and got you hooked into this crazy hobby/sport/avocation.

For most people, it is something big and dramatic, like a Pileated Woodpecker or a Great Blue Heron. Or, it is something rare, mysterious, or unusual. For me, it was sparrows, often disparagingly called LBBs (Little Brown Birds) or LBJs (Little Brown Jobs.)

I mark my transition from "passive" birder (keeping the bird feeders filled and watching them from my window) to active birder to the year 1994. That winter, I decided to start sorting out all the LBBs into their respective species, instead of calling them all "some kind of sparrow."

Most people curse sparrows, as they are small, brown, and tend to hide in the tall grass when you want to see them, so identifying them can be tough. With a little bit of work, I began to sort out the LBBs in my yard. As it turned out, some of those sparrows were (House) Finches and (Carolina) Wrens, and were not sparrows at all.

The bird that grabbed me and made me want more was the White-crowned Sparrow. Look at this guy:

How could you not love a bird like this? Sharp black and white striped head, crisp clean shirt-front, pink bill, doesn't he look ready to go to a formal party? You can't tell it from this photo, but Zonotrichia leucophrys is larger than your average, everyday sparrow, too: 7" long as compared to 6.25" for the common Song Sparrow or 5.5" for the teeny Chipping Sparrow. That doesn't sound like a lot of difference, but you can really see it in a group of ground feeding LBBs.

Something else I love about the White-crowneds is the way they stop feeding and stand up "on their tippy-toes," making themselves very tall and thin. I think they must be searching for predators. It is a behavior I don't see in the other birds feeding around them.

For a while, I was very confused by birds like this:

Then, I started comparing them to the LBBs I knew. Clear breast, not streaky, pink bill, striped crown (ignore the colors for now) and the clincher - the same behavior of standing erect and looking all around. I finally figured this was some sort of color variation on White-crowned Sparrows, like the tan-striped versus white-striped varieties of White-throated Sparrows.

With a little research, I learned that first winter (i
mmature) White-crowneds have a brown and tan striped pattern. Now, I see several at my feeders every winter, and have lovingly dubbed them "Brown-crowned Sparrows."

I only get White (and Brown)-crowned sparrows in the winter, so I almost never get to hear them sing. They are one of the first birds to return in late fall and one of the last to leave in spring. Like most sparrows, they love the suet dough.

"Brown-crowned Sparrow" diggin' the suet dough
Eyes bigger than the stomach.
A field mark for many birds, not just WCSP

In the spring of 1994, I took my first "warbler walk" and the sight and sound of those tiny jewels cemented my interest in birding, but that is a story for another post.

. . .

Word of the Day:

Coypu: The Coypu, Myocastor coypus, also called the nutria, is a large, semiaquatic rodent native to South America but recently introduced to other continents for fur production

*Thanks to the three ring circus of Bill of the Birds, Rondeau Ric, and Julie "Science Chimp" Zickefoose for the inspiration for day's WOTD.