Archive for the 'Bird Behavior' Category

Jun 26 2015

Not Exactly Squirrel Proof

Published by under Bird Behavior,Mammals

Red-bellied woodpecker and chipmunk at squirrel-proof bird feeder (photo by Jonathan Nadle)

Red-bellied woodpecker and chipmunk dining at a squirrel proof feeder (photo by Jonathan Nadle)

Jonathan Nadle’s neighbor has a squirrel proof bird feeder but it doesn’t keep out all the squirrels.

A small member of the Sciuridae (squirrel) family squeezes though the mesh and helps himself to seeds.

A lot of birds won’t visit while the chipmunk’s there — did you know chipmunks eat bird eggs? — but the red-bellied woodpecker has nothing to fear. His long sharp bill is a formidable weapon.

Red-bellied woodpecker and chipmunk coexist at the squirrel-proof bird feeder (photo by Jonathan Nadle)

(photo by Jonathan Nadle)

“Squirrel proof” might not work for chipmunks but at least it keeps out Pennsylvania’s largest member of the squirrel family –> groundhogs.


(photos by Jonathan Nadle)

p.s. Gray squirrels are in the Sciurinae (tree-based) subfamily. Groundhogs and chipmunks are both in the Xerinae (ground-based) subfamily and members of the Marmotini tribe (marmots!).

2 responses so far

Jun 19 2015

Recognize Individual Song Sparrows

Song sparrow at Schenley Plaza, 2013 (photo by Peter Bell)

Song sparrow at Schenley Plaza (photo by Peter Bell)

Believe it or not with practice you can recognize individual song sparrows by voice.

I learned this when I read about the pioneering work of Margaret Morse Nice in Columbus, Ohio.  In 1928 she began an eight year study of song sparrows at her home along the Olentangy River.  Her Studies in the life history of the Song Sparrow changed the course of American ornithology.

Margaret Morse Nice banded the song sparrows and made meticulous observations of their behavior.  She listened carefully to their songs and wrote down the variations including the phrases they borrowed from neighbors.

Her research spawned many studies of song development. We now know that: Songbirds learn their songs by listening when they are adolescents, practicing phrases, and eventually mastering their species song.  Each bird then improvises to make the song his own.  The males work hard to be skilled and unique singers because the females are attracted by the best courtship songs.

I wondered if I could recognize an individual’s song so I started at home.

My backyard is the territory of a male song sparrow whose tune I hear every morning.  Eventually I learned his morning song(*). If I could write musical notation I’d put it here.

From my front porch I can hear “my” song sparrow and my neighbor’s front yard sparrow counter-singing to maintain their territories.  I know those two don’t sound the same.

I can’t identify more than one tune yet but I can recognize “my” song sparrow in the morning now.

Try it and see.


(photo by Peter Bell)

(*) Dr. Tony Bledsoe says that each song sparrow may have up to five distinct songs.  So though I’ve learned the “Good morning” tune I’ve got a lot more learning to do!

9 responses so far

Jun 18 2015

TBT: Food For Thought

Gray squirrel (photo by Chuck Tague)

Gray squirrel (photo by Chuck Tague)

Why are songbirds angry at squirrels?

On Throw Back Thursday (TBT), here’s some Food For Thought from June 2008.


(photo by Chuck Tague)

One response so far

Jun 05 2015

How To Find A Raptor

Red-tailed hawk mobbed by crows (photo by Dori via Wikimedia Commons)

Red-tailed hawk chased by crows (photo by Dori via Wikimedia Commons)

Are you looking for a hawk, an owl, or a fledgling raptor?  Have you seen a juvenile peregrine fly around the corner but now that you’ve made that walk (or run!) you can’t find him?

Stop, listen, and watch for other birds.  They’ll tell you where he is.

Small birds sound the alarm when a bird of prey is near.  In the breeding season they surround and mob the raptor if they think they can get away with it.  They’re trying to drive the raptor away from their nests.

Robins are my favorite hawk-alarms because they’re so loud and persistent.  Other species join them and they all get louder and louder.  When the crows show up it becomes a chase.

So if you need to find a raptor (at a Fledge Watch, for instance) listen for the smaller birds, look where they’re looking and you may find the raptor — though perhaps not the one you’re looking for.


(photo by Dori via Wikimedia Commons. Click on the image to see the original)

p.s. American robins’s eyes look sideways, not straight on like ours, so you’ll have to pick one side of the head and follow the sight-line from there.  Confusing!

p.p.s.  Mark your calendars for Downtown Pittsburgh Fledge Watch, June 13-20, daylight hours.  Announcements and instructions will roll out in the next several days.  Stay tuned at Outside My Window. Check the Events page for updates.

3 responses so far

Jun 04 2015

Don’t Make Me Lower My Voice!

Song sparrow (photo by John Beatty)

Song sparrow (photo by John Beatty)

When observing songbirds closely, I sometimes notice that a bird is singing softly.  He sings his species tune but he’s whispering.

Among American robins I’ve seen soft song used in courtship but with song sparrows it’s not a sweet activity.

In a study conducted by Duke University, researchers found that song sparrows use soft song only in aggressive male-on-male interactions.  In fact, “the amount of soft song produced is the only singing behavior that can be used to reliably predict a subsequent attack by the singer.”

In other words, if a song sparrow lowers his voice he’s really angry.  Click here to read the study.

“Don’t make lower my voice!”

It’s a useful parenting tool among humans, too.  😉


(photo by John Beatty. Click on the image to see the original)

4 responses so far

May 14 2015

Nowhere To Stand

Common grackles contempplating the Mon River (photo by John English)

Common grackles contemplating the Monongahela River (photo by John English)

These common grackles appear to be inspecting the Monongahela River at Duck Hollow. Perhaps they want to touch the water but there’s nowhere safe to stand.

Though grackles aren’t water birds they’re known to dip their food in water, a trait they may have inherited from their ancestry.

On Throw Back Thursday, watch a video of grackles dunking their food even when it doesn’t need it in this article from 2012: Dunkin’ Peanuts.


(photo by John English)


No responses yet

May 13 2015

Eats Ticks And Shouts

Published by under Bird Behavior

Helmeted guineafowl (photo by Dick Daniels via Wikimedia Commons)

Helmeted guineafowl (photo by Dick Daniels via Wikimedia Commons)

In my experience, you know you’re in a tick-infested Lyme-disease hotspot when you see deer fencing and this bird roaming nearby.

Deer fencing keeps deer out of the garden.  This bird keep the ticks at bay.

Helmeted guineafowl eat insects, seeds and weeds and are best known (to me) for eating ticks.  Studies have shown they make a significant dent in the tick population on lawns but don’t keep them in an urban or suburban area.  Your neighbors will hate you.

Native to arid south and central Africa, helmeted guineafowl (Numida meleagris) have been kept as a source of food for thousands of years but they’ve never become as domesticated as chickens.  They love to shout and roam.

They are great talkers who keep up a constant conversation with each other and shout warnings for every danger known to guineafowl.   Unfortunately, once they get going they are loud and prolonged about dangers that don’t matter to us humans.  Sometimes their shouting makes us laugh …

… but after a while the neighbors hate them, not only because they shout but because they refuse to stay at home.

Inveterate free-rangers, they will roost in trees and walk off to find better eating elsewhere.  Gunieafowl advice columns warn to be prepared to lose them to foxes, coyotes, dogs and owls, especially if you try to keep them at home by clipping their wings.  They want to visit the neighbors.

However, if you live in a remote place with lots of ticks they’re worth the effort.

I was naive the first time I saw a guineafowl roaming a front yard near New Jersey’s Belleplain State Forest.  Back then, a decade ago, I had never been to a truly tick-infested place until I walked into that forest.  About five years ago I noticed a guineafowl inside a deer fence in northern Jefferson County near the Clarion River and it too was a tick-infested hotspot. Oh my gosh!

So if you see this bird and deer fencing, pull your socks over your pant legs before you get out of the car!

You can’t miss noticing the guineafowl.  He eats ticks and shouts.


(photo by Dick Daniels via Wikimedia Commons. Click on the image to see the original)

6 responses so far

May 06 2015

Warblers Fled Tornadoes One Day Ahead!

Published by under Bird Behavior

F5 Tornado approaching Elie, Manitoba on June 22, 2007 (photo by Justin Hobson via Wikimedia Commons)

Just over a year ago a violent storm system spawned 84 tornadoes that ripped through the central and southern U.S. on April 27-30, 2014.  Because of the storms’ advanced warning, ornithologists learned an amazing thing about birds.

In the previous year, Dr. Henry Streby and researchers from the Universities of Tennessee and Minnesota had placed geolocators on 20 golden-winged warblers nesting in the northeast mountains of Tennessee.

Golden-winged warbler (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Golden-winged warbler (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

The tiny devices had recorded information while the warblers migrated and now, in late April, it was time to recapture the birds and retrieve the data.

During that fateful week in April, the researchers had found 10 of the warblers in Tennessee and were about to capture them when they learned of the storm and left the mountain to wait it out.

The storm was very bad!  It roared through Kansas and Arkansas on April 27, generated this radar image in Tennessee on April 28 (click image for a closeup), and then dumped heavy rain on April 30.

Weather radar of EF3 tornado, Lincoln County, TN, 28 April 2014 (NWS via Wikimedia Commons)

Weather radar of EF3 tornado, Lincoln-Moore County, TN, 28 April 2014 (NWS via Wikimedia Commons)

When the violent weather was over, the researchers went back up the mountain and captured five golden-winged warblers wearing geolocators.  In the months that followed they downloaded and processed the data to chart the birds’ course.

And here’s the amazing thing:  The data showed that the birds spent the winter in Colombia as expected, but there was an aberration just before the geolocators were retrieved.  One to two days before the tornadoes struck, all five birds sensed the storms were coming and evacuated 400 miles southward — all the way to the Gulf of Mexico, just outside the danger zone.  When the storms were over, they flew back to Tennessee and were back on territory by May 2.

The tornadoes’ low-frequency sound gave the warblers a long-distance cue.   They heard it and fled!  The researchers speculate that other birds do this, too.

Read more here in BBC Science News.


(photos from Wikimedia Commons. Click on the images to see the originals.  F5 Tornado in Elie, Manitoba, June 2007, by Justin Hobson.  Golden-winged warbler by Andy Reago.  Radar image from National Weather Service of F3 tornado in Lincoln-Moore County, TN, April 28, 2014)

p.s.  To see the size of a geolocator on a warbler, here’s a blackpoll warbler wearing a geolocator.

3 responses so far

Apr 09 2015

Location, Location, Location: PBS NATURE April 15

Last night we learned about nests on PBS NATURE‘s Animal Homes.  Next Wednesday Episode 2 will take us inside bird and mammal homes chosen for their prime locations.  Tune in at 8:00pm EDT to learn:

  • When beavers hear running water they feel compelled to build. Once started they alter the landscape and never stop improving their dams, canals, lodges and storage facilities.  Did you know they move rocks?
  • Hooded mergansers nest in hollow trees 50 feet above the forest floor.  When the “kids” leave the nest, watch out below!
  • Find out why eastern woodrats are called “packrats.”
  • Learn that the safest place to build a black-chinned hummingbird nest is near the ultimate enemy.
  • Visit a bear den in the Allegheny Mountains of Garrett County while Maryland DNR tags a black bear mother with four cubs.  How do you keep bear cubs warm while their mother is “out cold?”  Cuddle them!

Watch Animal Homes: Location, Location, Location on PBS NATURE, April 15 at 8:00pm EDT.  In Pittsburgh it’s on WQED.


(video from PBS Nature, Animal Homes Episode 2, Location, Location, Location)

No responses yet

Mar 28 2015

Mixed Parentage

Redhead-Ring-necked Duck hybird, Duck Hollow, Pittsburgh, PA, 25 Mar 2015 (photo by Tom Moeller)

Redhead-Ring-necked hybrid duck at Duck Hollow, Pittsburgh, PA, 25 Mar 2015 (photo by Tom Moeller)

What duck is this?

Photographed by Tom Moeller on March 25 at Duck Hollow in Pittsburgh, this odd duck defies a single label.  Apparently one of his parents was a redhead, the other a ring-necked duck.

Here are the two species he resembles: male redhead on the left, male ring-necked duck on the right.

Two male ducks: Redhead and Ring-necked (photos by Chuck Tague)

Two male ducks: Redhead and Ring-necked (photos by Chuck Tague)

He has the head color, eye color and shoulder of a redhead and the head shape, bill color and body color (except for his non-white shoulder) of a ring-necked duck.

Depending on the light and the distance you might see a feature of either species and call him accordingly.  David Poortinga figured him out and told Tom what it was.

Here’s another look him.  He’s a redhead with a fancy bill and black back.  Or he’s a ring-necked duck with a red head.

Redhead-Ring-necked Duck hybird, Duck Hollow, Pittsburgh, PA, 25 Mar 2015 (photo by Tom Moeller)

Redhead-Ring-necked Duck hybrid, Duck Hollow, Pittsburgh, PA, 25 Mar 2015 (photo by Tom Moeller)

Ducks and geese hybridize a lot compared to other birds.  Duck hunters see these hybrids up close because they have the bird in hand so Ducks Unlimited explains:

“Waterfowl crossbreed more often than any other family of birds. Scientists have recorded more than 400 hybrid combinations among waterfowl species. Mallards crossbreed with nearly 50 other species, and wood ducks hybridize with a surprising 26 other species. Nearly 20 percent of waterfowl hybrid offspring are capable of reproducing.”

Mallards being the least picky, or the perhaps most promiscuous, breed with many species.  According to Ducks Unlimited their mates include northern pintails, black ducks, wigeon, shovelers, cinnamon teal, green-winged teal, and gadwalls.  Perhaps every dabbling duck is a mallard at heart.

Will the Odd Duck attract a mate this spring ?  If so, will she be a redhead or a ring-necked duck?  What will his offspring look like?

Yikes!  Talk about mixed parentage!


p.s. As of yesterday, March 27, the hybrid was still at Duck Hollow.

(photo of hybrid Redhead-Ring-necked Duck by Tom Moeller.  Composite photos of redhead and ring-necked ducks by Chuck Tague)

3 responses so far

« Prev - Next »

Bird Stories from OnQ