Friday, December 13, 2013
As a birdwatcher, I was excited to see that the American Bird Conservancy has declared the Peep (Marshmallicious delicious) to be this year’s Easter bird of the week.
The environmental group also announced that the Peep, a small bird with bright plumage that appears in huge numbers in springtime, will now be split into four different species.
Until now, scientists at the conservancy only recognized the familiar yellow form of Peep as a full species. But, the group said, there is now support in the ornithological community for granting separate species status to the blue, teal, pink and purple forms.
“There simply isn’t any evidence that these forms interbreed,” ABC senior scientist Dr. David Wiedenfeld said in a written statement. “While they can often be found roosting in the same box, the fact is that nobody has ever seen an intermediate bird between the color morphs.”
Nearly every year a few Peeps with orange plumage show up in the fall, around Halloween time, or in a strawberry pink color in mid-February, but scientists do not believe these colors are the result of inbreeding.
“The presence of occasional orange and other colored birds in the population may represent occasional aberrant individuals,” Wiedenfeld said, “but any new taxonomic changes will require further study.”
Another genetic anomaly is the Peep that appears half-yellow, half brown, as if the bird had been dipped in chocolate. These birds are expected to remain low in number, as they are heavily targeted by hungry predators.
Large flocks of Peeps typically appear in springtime, with numbers peaking in April, according to the conservancy. Despite their ubiquitous distribution and social nature, their migratory paths, wintering, and breeding areas are little known.
During their breeding season, Peeps can easily be found in suburban backyard habitats, where they lay clutches of colorful eggs in nests of brightly-colored plastic grasses. Adult and immature peeps can be quickly located by their sweet calls and neon plumage.
They are known for perching atop cupcakes, and appear to have a great fear of microwave ovens.
So many Peeps have been spotted this spring that birdwatchers have set up a special Facebook page to report their sightings.
Although Peeps are heavily consumed, their populations appear to quickly rebound in subsequent years and therefore they are not a species of conservation concern.
Indeed, with no worries about Peeps’ population status, scientists have even turned to using them in aging research. Researchers are fascinated by the fact that a Peep corpse hardens, but never decays, especially when tacked to office bulletin boards on a bet.
Meredith Goad has harvested oysters on the Chesapeake Bay, eaten reindeer in Finland and sipped hot chai in the Himalayas. She writes the weekly Soup to Nuts column and enjoys a good cocktail.
Susan Axelrod's food writing career began in the kitchen; she owned a restaurant and catering business before turning to journalism more than a decade ago. To relax, she bakes, gardens and hikes with her husband and their two dogs. A newcomer to Portland, she is an online content producer for the Press Herald.
Susan can be contacted at 791-6310 or saxelrod [at] pressherald.com.
On Twitter: @susansaxelrod