Archive for the 'Songbirds' Category

Nov 17 2015

Eye Color Is All That Matters

Published by under Songbirds

Dark-eyed Junco, January 2014 (photo by Cris Hamilton)

Dark-eyed Junco in western PA, January 2014 (photo by Cris Hamilton)

The juncos are back in town and, even if they don’t match each other, I can assure you they’re all dark-eyed juncos.

This wasn’t always the case. When I was young there were seven kinds of juncos: white-winged, Oregon, slate-colored, gray-headed, Guadalupe, Mexican and Baird’s. In Pittsburgh we normally saw slate-colored juncos and were very excited when an Oregon junco showed up.

Then in 1983 the American Ornithological Union (AOU) determined that despite plumage differences there are really only two species:  dark-eyed junco (Junco hyemalis) and yellow-eyed junco (Junco phaeonotus).  The others are subspecies.

Dark eyed juncos range from Alaska and Canada down to Mexico.  Yellow-eyed juncos are found only in Mexico, southern Arizona and southern New Mexico.

Here’s a bird in New Mexico with dark eyes that would have been called an “Oregon junco.”

Dark-eyed junco in New Mexico (photo by Steve Valasek)

Dark-eyed junco in New Mexico (photo by Steve Valasek)

And here’s a yellow-eyed junco in Tucson.

Yellow-eyed junco (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Yellow-eyed junco in Tucson, Arizona (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

So when you see an odd-looking junco don’t worry that his feathers don’t match the other birds.  Check his eyes.  Eye color is all that matters when identifying a junco.


(photos of dark-eyed juncos by Cris Hamilton and Steve Valasek. photo of yellow-eyed junco from Wikimedia Commons; click on the image to see the original)

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Nov 16 2015

Tree Sparrows Are Misnamed

Eurasian tree sparrow (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Eurasian tree sparrow (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Names are so confusing!

This bird looks like a house sparrow (Passer domesticus) but he’s not.  He’s a Eurasian tree sparrow and he’s the reason why our tree sparrows are called American tree sparrows.

Eurasian tree sparrows (Passer montanus) are native to Europe and Asia (of course) but about 15,000 of them live in the St. Louis area now.  In the 1870’s, 12 were imported from Germany and established a breeding population but they were never as successful as their aggressive cousins.

Passer montanus is 10% smaller than a house sparrow, has a brown (not gray) head, and a black ear patch.  Males and females look alike and the juveniles are just duller versions of the same.

Eurasian tree sparrows are doubly misnamed.  They nest in holes in buildings, not in trees, and they don’t live in the mountains but they have “tree” and “montanus” in their names.  That’s because house sparrows dominate the cities of Europe and pushed this sparrow to live in the open countryside where there are trees.  In Asia the “tree” sparrow lives in cities.

American tree sparrows are misnamed, too.  European settlers thought Spizella arborea resembled the Eurasian tree sparrow so they called ours “American tree sparrows” even though ours spend the winter in scrubby places, not trees, and breed and forage on the ground.

Do you think the American tree sparrow below looks like the Eurasian one above?  I don’t.

American tree sparrow (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

American tree sparrow (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Alas, they are all misnamed.


(photos from Wikimedia Commons. Click on the images to see the originals)

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Nov 14 2015

Have You Seen One Yet?

Published by under Migration,Songbirds

American tree sparrow (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

American tree sparrow (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

In the past few weeks winter sparrows have arrived in western Pennsylvania.  We’ve seen dark-eyed juncos, white-throated, white-crowned, and fox sparrows … but I haven’t heard of American tree sparrows yet.

American tree sparrows (Spizella arborea) breed in Canada and Alaska and spend the winter in weedy snow-covered fields and backyards in the Lower 48 states, though not as far south as Florida.

When they do show up they can be confusing.  They resemble chipping sparrows except for a black dot in the center of their chests and a two-tone bill.  (Notice the yellow lower mandible and the dull brown upper mandible.) The two don’t mix though. Chipping sparrows are usually gone by the time the tree sparrows get here.

Watch for the arrival of this same-but-different bird.

Have you seen an American tree sparrow yet?


(photo from Wikimedia Commons. Click on the image to see the original)

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Nov 05 2015


Starlings in monochrome (photo by Mr. T in DC, via Flickr, Creative Commons license)

Starlings in monochrome (photo by Mr. T in DC, via Flickr, Creative Commons license)

In Pittsburgh we don’t have sandpipers but in the winter we have something similar.  Can we call them “land-pipers?”

Click here for a Throw Back Thursday article from 2008 about our substitute for shorebirds: Land-pipers.


UPDATE:  Richard Nugent suggests they be called “lawn-pipers.”   Excellent name!

(photo by “Mr. T in DC”, via Flickr, Creative Commons license. Click on the image to see the original.)

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Oct 27 2015

October (and November) Hummingbirds

Published by under Migration,Songbirds

Rufous hummingbird, female, Carrolton, PA, 19 Oct 2015 (photo by Bob Mulvihill)

Female rufous hummingbird, Carrolton, PA, 19 Oct 2015 (photo by Bob Mulvihill)

Do you still have red flowers in your garden?  Are your hummingbird feeders filled and hanging?  If so you might attract a rare bird.

Our ruby-throated hummingbirds (Archilochus colubris) have left for the tropics but a few hardy northwesterners visit Pennsylvania in the fall.  They’re the Selasphorus hummingbirds.

The most likely visitors are rufous hummingbirds (Selasphorus rufus) that breed in the Pacific Northwest and as far north as Alaska.  They’re used to cool temperatures and not bothered by our weather as long as they find enough to eat.  During migration they range far and wide and often visit backyard feeders.

Solo birds can show up anywhere.  Last year Hannah Floyd found one inside Phipps Conservatory during the Pittsburgh Christmas Bird Count.  Unseen when she entered Phipps through an open window, the bird spent a good part of the winter at the red powderpuff tree (Calliandra haematocephala) in the Stove Room.

Selasphorus hummingbirds are so rare in Pennsylvania that ornithologists work hard to band every one that’s found.  Usually they’re identified as rufous hummingbirds but the species is so similar to the even-rarer-in-Pennsylvania Allen’s hummingbird (Selasphorus sasin) that the bird usually has to be in hand to tell.

If you see a hummingbird in your garden at this point, it’s rare!  Call the National Aviary’s ornithologist Bob Mulvihill right away at 412-258-1148 (office) or 412-522-5729 (cell).  Or email him at He’ll stop by to capture and band it and you’ll get a chance to see it up close. He banded the female rufous pictured above in Carrolton, Pennsylvania on October 19.

To learn more about rare fall hummingbirds in western Pennsylvania, click here at the National Aviary’s website.


p.s. While you’re waiting for a rarity, watch hummingbirds spending the winter in West Texas on Cornell Lab’s West Texas Hummingbird Cam.

(photo by Bob Mulvihill)

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Oct 24 2015

Waiting For Snowbirds But Not For Snow

Published by under Migration,Songbirds

Dark-eyed Junco, January 2014 (photo by Cris Hamilton)

Dark-eyed Junco, January 2014 (photo by Cris Hamilton)

In the normal progression of fall migration, October is when northern sparrows arrive in the Pittsburgh area.

I’ve already seen my first white-throated and white-crowned sparrows, but I haven’t seen a dark-eyed junco yet.

Some people call juncoes “snowbirds” because they arrive with the first snow.  Fortunately our juncoes get here before that happens.

I’m waiting for snowbirds, but not for snow.


(photo by Cris Hamilton)

UPDATE: First junco in my yard this fall appeared on Oct 29 after the rain. Then a pause and today (Oct 31) I have 2 juncoes.

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Oct 22 2015

Duck, Duck, Goose?

Published by under Songbirds

Duck, duck, goose

Throw Back Thursday (TBT):

In the weeks ahead ducks and geese will migrate through Pennsylvania from the frozen north.

We intuitively separate ducks and geese into two classes of waterfowl — “This one’s a duck, that one’s a goose” — but how?

Three years ago I mused about this question and got a surprising answer when I asked “What’s the difference between a duck and a goose?”

Click here to find out.


(silhouette images: duck from Freedigitaldownloads, goose from Shutterstock)

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Oct 19 2015

Male Or Female?

Published by under Migration,Songbirds

Ruby-crowned kinglet, October 2015 (photo by Steve Gosser)

Ruby-crowned kinglet, October 2015 (photo by Steve Gosser)

You can’t tell the difference between male and female ruby-crowned kinglets (Regulus calendula) unless they’re upset.  Only males have the ruby crown that gave the bird its name but they hide it unless they’re agitated.

Fortunately for us, ruby-crowned kinglets are feisty and will raise their head feathers as a challenge to each other and just about anyone else.

Watch for them migrating through western Pennsylvania this month.

Steve Gosser photographed this one at Shenango Lake, Mercer County.


(photo by Steve Gosser)

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Sep 30 2015

Pay Attention To What I Eat

Yellowhammer, male (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Yellowhammer, male (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Here’s the story of a great idea that went sour really fast because people didn’t observe bird behavior.

During the 1800’s many Britons emigrated to New Zealand and began farming. As the settlers cleared the forest, New Zealand’s native birds (which are flightless) retreated or became extinct.

Soon insect pests proliferated and the farmers clamored for a solution.  Someone had a bright idea, “I know! Birds eat bugs. Let’s import a bird.”

The Acclimatisation Societies decided to import the yellowhammer (Emberiza citrinella), a sparrow-like Eurasian bird famous for his pretty song.  They lined up dealers in Britain who captured local yellowhammers and shipped them overseas.  New Zealand’s farmers welcomed them with open arms.

It didn’t take long to find out this was a terrible mistake.  The birds ate the crops, not the insects.

Look at his conical bill and you can tell the yellowhammer eats seeds all year long.  In fact, he only supplements his diet with insects during the breeding season.

Soon New Zealanders hated the yellowhammers.  In 1880, only 15 years after the first birds arrived, the last shipment was turned away and sent to Australia.  Farmers hunted, poisoned and raided yellowhammer nests, trying to rid the country of this once welcomed bird but it was too late.  Yellowhammers were firmly established in New Zealand and are widespread today.

They’d have saved a lot of trouble if someone had paid attention to what yellowhammers eat.

Read the full story here at Science Daily.


(photo from Wikimedia Commons. Click on the image to see the original)

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Sep 29 2015

A Bird On The Hand

Debbie Kalbfleisch hand feeds a black-capped chickadee (photo by Donna Foyle)

Debbie Kalbfleisch hand feeds a black-capped chickadee (photo by Donna Foyle)

Early this month Debbie Kalbfleisch told us of a magical place loaded with migrating warblers where the chickadees eat out of your hand. The only rules were: Bring black sunflower seed, Never feed the chickadees near the road, Leave no seed behind (or they will learn to eat from the ground, not your hand).

Our birding email group, fittingly called “The Chickadees,” could not resist these enticements so Debbie led us there last Saturday.  Above, she demonstrates that it really works.

Naturally the rest of us had to try.  Below, Barb Griffith, Ramona Sahni and I hold out our hands while Donna Foyle takes our picture.

Hand feeding wild chickadees, Barb Griffith, Ramona Sahni and Kate St. John (photo by Donna Foyle)

Hand feeding wild chickadees, Barb Griffith, Ramona Sahni and Kate St. John (photo by Donna Foyle)

As the chickadees became accustomed to our large group of 12 they came to our hands more often, taking turns and flying off to cache the seeds.

Then the warblers showed up.  (I’d forgotten that migrating warblers forage near chickadees.)  We put the seed in our pockets and raised our binoculars but the chickadees followed, still expecting to eat.  Fortunately one of us always had a hand out.

I missed a few warblers because I love the chickadees so much.

He's on my hand! (photo by Donna Foyle)

He’s on my hand! (photo by Donna Foyle)


You can train your own backyard chickadees to eat from your hand.  All it takes is cold weather and a lot of patience.  Here’s how –> Seeing Eye To Eye With Birds

Balck-capped chickadee takes a peanut from my hand (photo by Donna Foyle)

Black-capped chickadee takes a peanut from my hand (photo by Donna Foyle)


A bird on the hand is worth two in the bush.


(photos by Donna Foyle)

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