Archive for the 'Songbirds' Category

Dec 15 2014

Can’t Tell Their Sex By Their Color

White-throated sparrow, white-striped color morph (photo from Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons license)

White-throated sparrow, white-striped color morph (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Many birds are sexually dimorphic — males are more colorful, the females are drab — but this isn’t true of white-throated sparrows.

White-throated sparrows come in two color morphs: white-striped shown above, tan-striped below.  The crisp white-striped birds aren’t always male, the plain tan-striped birds aren’t always female.  You can’t tell their sex by color.

White-throated sparrow, tan-striped color morph (photo by Henry McLin on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

White-throated sparrow, tan-striped color morph (photo by Henry McLin, Flickr Creative Commons license)

Here they are side-by-side: white-striped on left, tan-striped on right.  Notice that …

White-throated sparrows -- white-striped and tan-striped side-by-side (photos from Wikimedia Commons and Henry McLin, Creative Commons licenses)

  • Head stripes are black-and-white versus brown-and-tan
  • Lores are bright yellow versus dull yellow
  • Malar stripe is weak versus prominent
  • Breast is gray versus brown-and-tan
  • Breast is mostly clear versus very streaky

Not only do they look different but the white-striped birds are aggressive, philandering and don’t take much care of their kids while the tan-striped birds are gentle and very caring of their young.

You would think these differences would force one of the color morphs to disappear from the gene pool but it doesn’t.  The reason is surprising.

When it comes to picking mates, these birds always mix it up.  White-striped (aggressive) males mate with tan-striped (care-giving) females and the tan-striped (gentle) males mate with white-striped (philandering) females. Thus the color morphs and personalities persist.

Learn more about their amazing social behavior in this article by GrrlScientist in The Guardian, May 2011.

And when you see white-throated sparrows you’ll know you can’t tell their sex by their color but the drab ones are always good parents.

 

(photos: White morph white-throated sparrow from Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons license.  Tan morph by Henry McLin on Flickr, Creative Commons license.  Click on each photo to see its original)

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Nov 20 2014

TBT: Messing Around in Mexico

Published by under Songbirds

Yellow-billed Cuckoo (photo by Chuck Tague)

Throw Back Thursday (TBT):

What are “our” birds doing down south while it’s winter up here?

Some of the yellow-billed cuckoos are messing around in Mexico.

Click here for the story from November 2009.

 

(photo by Chuck Tague)

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Nov 10 2014

Flame-chested Crooked Beak

Published by under Songbirds,Travel

Pyrrhuloxia in Arizona (photo by SearchNetMedia on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

To a Pennsylvania birder (me) this looks like an odd female cardinal but it’s actually a male pyrrhuloxia.

Pyrrhuloxias (Cardinalis sinuatus) are closely related to northern cardinals and their ranges overlap in the southwestern U.S.  The pyrrhuloxias take the driest habitats, the cardinals take the wet ones.  If you live in southern Arizona or south Texas you may have both at your feeders.

How do you tell the difference at a glance?  Look at the beak.  Pyrrhuloxias have short, stubby, yellow beaks with a smaller and curved upper mandible.  Adult northern cardinals have bright red-orange beaks while immatures have dull brown-red.

The beak accounts for part of the pyrrhuloxia’s name.  Birds of North America Online explains that “Pyrrhu” comes from Pyrrhula, the genus for bullfinches meaning flame-colored or red. Loxia is the genus name for crossbills and means crooked.

Its a desert cardinal with a flame-colored chest and a crooked beak.

 

(photo taken in Tuscon, Arizona by SearchNetMedia via Flickr, Creative Commons license)

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Nov 08 2014

He Also Says His Name

Published by under Songbirds,Travel

Great Kiskadee (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Almost every South Texas bird I’ve mentioned this week has a name that describes his song.

The green jay has onomatopoeic Spanish names, the chachalaca calls “cha-cha-lac,” and the great kiskadee (Pitangus sulphuratus), above, is easy to find because he always says his name.

Click here to hear.

 

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

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Nov 05 2014

Bad Tempered?

Published by under Songbirds,Travel

Green jay, Cyanocorax yncas, Venezuela (photo by Dilankf from Wikimedia Commons)

Have you ever seen a green jay?  I haven’t yet, but I’ve haven’t been in his native range until today.

While my husband holds the fort at home I’ve flown to the Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival in Harlingen, Texas, just inside the northern edge of the green jay’s range. I hope I see this Life Bird.  He’s common in Central and South America but you have to be in this corner of Texas to see him in the U.S.

In Texas Cyanocorax yncas is called a green jay but many jays are green in Central and South America so elsewhere he’s called an Inca jay, Querrequerre, Quinquín, Querqués or Carriqui.

The bird in the photo above is a “querrequerre” from Venezuela.  His South American population is separated from the Central American group by 900 miles so a querrequerre looks slightly different and uses different habitats than the green jay of Texas.  He’s larger, has a crest, and lives in humid forests instead of mesquite thickets and open woodland as they do in Texas.

He also has an attitude that’s given his onomatopoeic Spanish name an additional meaning.  In Venezuela querrequerre is slang for a grumpy person with a bad temper who’s easily upset and angered.

An article by Eduardo Lopez for Audubon of Venezuela explains how the jay got this bad name.  As an example, he tells the story of a ranger at El Ávila National Park who tried to rescue a trapped querrequerre and was attacked by the querrequerre’s family.  The birds drew blood!   Obviously it was a big misunderstanding but the ranger swore he would never help those jays again.  (If you can’t read Spanish, use Goggle Chrome or Google Translate when you click on this link to Lopez’ article.)

Do green jays in Texas have bad tempers?

I hope to find out in the next five days.

 

(photo from Wikimedia Commons, taken in Warairarepano National Park, Caracas, Venezuela.  Click on the image to see the original.)

p.s.  Some day the South American Cyanocorax yncas may be called a separate species.

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Nov 04 2014

How Starlings Stick Together

Watch this video of a starling flock evading a peregrine falcon in Torino, Italy and you’ll see some truly amazing coordinated flying.

How do starlings wheel and turn in such tight balls?  How do they compress and expand without hitting each other?  The mystery has puzzled humans since the first time we saw it and recent explanations that each bird keyed only on his nearest wing-neighbors did not seem to answer the problem.

Now a study published in July in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences explains their behavior in an elegant model.

Using agent based modeling of self-propelled particles researchers from the University of Warwick’s Department of Physics created a simulation that behaves just like a starling flock attacked by a hawk.

Their video below plays the simulation twice.  Isn’t it uncanny how much this matches what the flock is doing above?

Changing patterns of light and dark within the flock are the key to each bird’s movement.  They all want to be near each other but they need to see what they’re doing.  The team writes, “We show that large flocks self-organize to the maximum density at which a typical individual still can see out of the flock in many directions.”

Lead researcher Daniel Pearce explains the model’s rules: “Each bird is represented by a particle which each have an identical set of rules to follow (and likelihood of making a mistake). In this case the rules are (a) follow your nearest neighbour and (b) move towards the areas of the projection containing the most information. When lots of these particles are introduced, the result is a collective motion much like that of a real flock of birds.”

What is “information” in this context?  The technical answer is “the birds fly toward the resolved vector sum of all the domain boundaries.”  Hmmmm!

Click here to read more in Science Daily.

 

(peregrine-starling video by “greenkert” on YouTube. Simulation video by Daniel Pearce on YouTube.  Information from University of Warwick, Revealed: The mystery behind starling flocks” in ScienceDaily)

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Nov 03 2014

Siskin Surge

Published by under Migration,Songbirds

Pine sisken (photo by Shawn Collins)

Ron Pittaway’s Winter Finch Forecast predicted pine siskins would move south this winter but no one expected the numbers seen in eastern Pennsylvania in the third week of October.

Hawk Mountain Sanctuary counted about 3,000 per day for several days, including 3,147 on October 23.  Andy Markel and Bill Oyler counted 739 heading southwest in Horse Valley, Franklin County on October 25.

Numbers were lower in western Pennsylvania where the largest count mentioned on PABIRDS was 50 on October 20 in Allegheny County.

Interestingly, Pittaway’s forecast accounts for this.  In his assessment of northern tree seed crops (i.e. finch food) he wrote:  “Spruce cone crops are variable in Ontario … East of Ontario cone crops are generally poor in the Atlantic Provinces, New York State, New Hampshire and other northern New England States.”  That means that pine siskins northeast of the Appalachians would certainly move through Pennsylvania while those directly north of Pittsburgh might find a good seed crop and not bother to fly this far south.

Though they’re still being reported in Pennsylvania the numbers are more normal now in random flocks of 15 to 20 — at least on PABIRDS.

Where will that surge of siskins end up?  West Virginia?  The Great Smoky Mountains (where it snowed already)?  It’s probably too soon to tell.

 

(photo by Shawn Collins, Crawford County, 2 November 2014)

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Oct 01 2014

The Blue Jay Forecast

Published by under Migration,Songbirds

Blue Jay (photo by Steve Gosser)

When folks wonder why blue jays are scarce they turn to the Internet and find my 2012 blog post “Have You Seen Any Blue Jays Lately?”   In the past two+ years 116 readers have commented on the status of blue jays where they live.

The most recent comments are on the absence of jays:  Where have they gone?  Why did they leave?  When will they come back … if at all?

Over the winter blue jays eat acorns, beechnuts, hazelnuts, hickory nuts and other mast (nuts).  Their range map looks as if they never migrate but they will leave if nuts are scarce.

How can we know if the blue jays will leave? Check the Blue Jay Forecast.

Every fall Ron Pittaway produces a Winter Finch Forecast for Canada based on the abundance of tree seeds in Canada’s forests.  The finches in his report eat a wide variety of seeds including spruce, fir, birch and mountain ash.  If food is abundant the birds stay home all winter.  In poor mast years they irrupt southward.  Here in Pennsylvania we wait for Pittaway’s forecast to tell us which species will visit us in coming months.

Blue jays depend on tree nuts too and they often move when the finches do, so Pittaway includes them in his forecast.  This year he says “Expect a good to heavy flight (many more than last year) moving westward along the north shorelines of Lakes Ontario and Erie because the acorn, beechnut, hazelnut and soft mast crops averaged low in northeastern, central and eastern Ontario.”

If you live in Ontario, don’t expect to see a lot of blue jays this winter.  Lots of them are in Pittsburgh — at least right now.  Guess where they came from.   ;)

Click here for Ron Pittaway’s Winter Finch Forecast.   Scroll down to read about blue jays.

 

(photo by Steve Gosser)

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Sep 21 2014

Not Confusing

Published by under Migration,Songbirds

Hooded warbler (photo by Steve Gosser)

September and May are the two best months to find warblers in Pennsylvania, but in the fall many are confusing.  Adult males, like this hooded warbler, are not.

Confusing Fall Warblers got their name from four scary pages in the Peterson Field Guide to Birds where immatures and a few females are lined up to show their differences.  Hah!  They all look the same.

But I’ve learned a trick to overcome the problem.  The more you watch non-confusing adults the easier it is to identify their confusing “kids.”

Within each species the birds have the same body-shapes, feeding habits, perching styles and favorite locations (on the ground vs. thickets vs. treetops).  Often, the confusing birds have colors and markings that hint at their non-confusing cohorts.  Sometimes there’s one indelible clue — like the square of white on the female black-throated blue’s wing that matches the male’s.

Get some practice seeing adult male warblers on Steve Gosser’s new Warbler Page where he displays beautiful photos of Pennsylvania’s best.

Not confusing!

 

(photo by Steve Gosser, September 2014)

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Aug 23 2014

Waxwing Update

Cedar waxwing nestlings (photo by Marcy Cunkelman)

Remember the cedar waxwing nest I wrote about this month?  Marcy Cunkelman sent me an update this morning.

The eggs hatched more than a week ago and the parents have been busy feeding the nestlings.

All those trips to the fruit bushes have paid off.  Three healthy youngsters are tall enough now to be seen in the nest.  They have yellow wrinkled “baby” beaks and crests that look like bad toupees.

It won’t be long before they fly.

Keep growing, little guys.  Your”hair” will look better soon.

Click here to see what a just-fledged cedar waxwing looks like.

 

(photo by Marcy Cunkelman)

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