Archive for the 'Songbirds' Category

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!

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Jun 11 2015

Almost The Same

Published by under Peregrines,Songbirds

Downy woodpecker juvenile and adult (photo by Marcy Cunkelman)

Downy woodpecker juvenile and adult (photo by Marcy Cunkelman)

In most bird species by the time baby birds leave the nest they resemble their parents, but they don’t look quite the same.  The young are still in juvenile plumage.

Peregrine falcons, for instance, are the same size and shape as their parents but the juveniles are brown and cream colored where the adults are charcoal gray and white.  The juvenile plumage lasts two years and may protect young peregrines from attack by territorial adults.  (“I’m too young to breed. Don’t hit me!”)

Comparison of adult and juvenile peregrine plumage (photos by Kim Steininger)

Comparison of peregrine plumage: adult (left, looking at photographer) and juvenile (right, looking down) — photos by Kim Steininger


Pictured at top, the two downy woodpeckers are parent and child.  You can tell who’s who by their behavior — the parents feed their kids.  You can also tell by plumage.

On Throw Back Thursday, learn the color differences between juvenile and adult male downy woodpeckers at They Almost Look Alike (from 2008).


(photo credits:  downy woodpeckers by Marcy Cunkelman, peregrine falcon photos by Kim Steininger)

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Jun 09 2015

How Deforestation in Central America Affects Your Wood Thrush

Published by under Migration,Songbirds

Wood Thrush (photo by Steve Gosser, 2008)

Wood Thrush (photo by Steve Gosser)

Though you may not have noticed, wood thrushes aren’t as plentiful as they used to be.  According to the Second Atlas of Breeding Birds in Pennsylvania, “they are down by almost half since 1966 … though they remain widespread.”

The change is due to loss of breeding habitat (suburban sprawl for instance), acid rain (which affects their breeding success), and an interesting fact we learned a few years ago.

A team from the University of York headed by Bridget Stutchbury has conducted a long term study of wood thrush migration. Using geolocators they’ve tagged wood thrushes on both their breeding and wintering grounds to find out where the birds go and how long it takes them to get there.  In 2009 they reported that wood thrushes take their time going south but are quick to return in the spring taking only two weeks to get ‘home.’

The data also revealed that regional populations of wood thrushes stick together on both their wintering and breeding grounds.  Birds that breed in Crawford and Erie Counties, Pennsylvania spend the winter together in a small section of eastern Honduras and Nicaragua.  Birds that breed in Vermont spend the winter at one location in Nicaragua. The map below from the study’s press release shows a star for each tagging site and round circles for the birds’ destinations.  Notice that Pittsburgh’s birds spend the winter in Belize.

Breeding-wintering connections for wood thrushes. Each star is a site where geolocators were deployed on wood thrushes. Round circles are birds’ sites in the opposite season.  Credit: Image courtesy of York University

Breeding-wintering connections for wood thrushes. Each star is a site where geolocators were deployed on wood thrushes. Round circles are birds’ sites in the opposite season.
From: Connectivity of Wood Thrush Breeding, Wintering, and Migration Sites Based on Range-Wide Tracking. Conservation Biology, 2014
Credit: Image courtesy of York University

Now that we know where the wood thrushes go it’s easier to find out what’s happened.  If the one place your region’s wood thrushes spend the winter is logged, fewer will survive to return in the spring.

That’s how deforestation in Central America affects your wood thrush.

Check the maps for yourself on page 9 of the study –> here.


p.s. Louisiana:  This study also found that in the spring all wood thrushes cross the Gulf of Mexico and land at one specific spot near New Orleans.  If that spot goes bad, it’s bad news for wood thrushes!

(credits: Wood thrush photo by Steve Gosser, map courtesy of York University press release via Science Daily)

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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)

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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)


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Apr 20 2015

Looking For An Old Man’s Beard

Northern Parula (photo by Steve Gosser)

Northern Parula (photo by Steve Gosser)

Northern parula warblers (Setophaga americana) will be migrating through western Pennsylvania in the next few weeks.  They’re on their way to northern breeding grounds, but plenty of them nest south of Pennsylvania.  Why don’t they nest here, too?

My guess is that they used to.

Northern parulas are very versatile about climate.  Their range map shows they breed from the Gulf of Mexico to southern Canada but there’s a gap in the Rust Belt states, New Jersey, and New England that divides their northern and southern populations.

Breeding parulas are hard to find in western Pennsylvania because they’re picky about nesting material.  They look for a site near water with Old Man’s Beard (Usnea lichen) or Spanish moss where they hollow out a cup in the hanging mass and line it with soft fibers. (On rare occasions they choose other hanging material such as flood debris in trees.)

Shown below at left is old man’s beard lichen (Usnea species), at right is Spanish moss (Tillandsia usneoides).  Both are epiphytes that grow on other plants but they aren’t parasitic. They get their nutrition from the air.

Old Man's Beard lichen and Spanish moss (photos from Wikimedia Commons)

Old Man’s Beard lichen and Spanish moss (photos from Wikimedia Commons)

Spanish moss is a southern plant whose northern limit is in coastal Virginia. Usnea grows in North American and European forests where the air is clean, but Old Man’s Beard has been missing from western Pennsylvania for more than a century, killed by our air pollution.  Though Pittsburgh’s air isn’t as bad as it used to be, it’s still too polluted for a plant that lives on air.  Without Old Man’s Beard, the northern parula passes us by.

So, yes, northern parulas probably used to nest here … and they might come back.  Pennsylvania’s forests have regrown since deforestation a century ago, and the air in the mountains is clean enough for lichens.  Breeding northern parulas have increased in the Allegheny and Appalachian mountains and on the high plateau.

When our air is clean enough for Old Man’s Beard we’ll have northern parulas, too.


(photo of northern parula by Steve Gosser. Photos of Old Man’s Beard lichen and Spanish moss from Wikimedia Commons. Click on these links to see the original Wikimedia photos)

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Feb 05 2015

TBT: Cardinals See Red

Northern cardinals feeding together in the snow (photo by Marcy Cunkelman)

Throw Back Thursday (TBT):

Winter is more than halfway over.  We turned the corner on Groundhog Day.

As spring sunlight increases, birds’ hormones trigger courtship and territorial behavior.

Northern cardinals feed peacefully together during the winter but soon the males won’t tolerate each other.  Click here to read about their spring behavior in this blog post from 2008:  Cardinals See Red.


(photo by Marcy Cunkelman)

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Jan 31 2015

Not A Mourning Dove

Published by under Songbirds,Travel

Zenaida Dove (photo by Dick Daniels via Wikimedia Commons)

Zenaida doves (Zenaida aurita) are near matches for mourning doves except they’re slightly smaller and darker, have shorter more rounded tails, and white trailing edges on their wings.  They live on Caribbean islands, including Cuba.  They are very rare in Florida (*).

These field marks would make for a subtle and complicated identification except that mourning doves (Zenaida macroura) don’t live at St. John, U.S. Virgin Islands — at least not in the southeast corner where I’m staying.

Interestingly, they sound just like morning doves so you could be fooled by their song.


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

(*) See Vincent Lucas’ comment below on Zenaida doves in Florida.

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Jan 26 2015

First Bird On The Agenda

Banaquits arguing in Brazil (photo from Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons license)

The first bird on my St. John, U.S. Virgin Islands agenda is the bananaquit. For me, it’s a Life Bird so I’m excited to see one.  I fear it will soon become “ho hum,” though, because it’s so common on the island.

The bananaquit (Coereba flaveola) is a small, non-migratory bird — only the size of a black and white warbler — but it moves much faster than the warbler.  Can you say “hyper-active?”

Its beak is curved because it eats nectar for a living just like other tropical nectar-eaters: hummingbirds, sunbirds and honeycreepers.

Ornithologists have tentatively placed the bananaquit in the Tanager family but its family relations are often disputed.   Scientists argue about where to place this bird; these two argue about where to place themselves.

They were photographed at Campo Limpo Paulista, Brazil by Leon Bojarczuk.


(photo by Leon Bojarczuk via Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons license.  Click on the image to see the original)

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Jan 25 2015

Visiting Warblers At Their Winter Home

Published by under Songbirds,Travel

Black and white warbler (photo by Cris Hamilton)

Today I’m flying to a place that shares my name for a week of hiking with the Keystone Trails Association and Treks & Trails International.

When I heard about the trip last year I thought, How could I not visit St John in the U.S. Virgin Islands?  My husband wasn’t interested (he’d had obligations in Pittsburgh and now he can’t travel because of his concussion) but I knew this would be a great opportunity to visit warblers at their winter home.

Many warblers go to Central and South America for the winter but some stay in the Caribbean.  The most common ones at St. John are: yellow warbler, northern parula, blackpoll warbler, black and white warbler (above), American redstart and northern waterthrush.

I expect to see this bird in the coming week … and many birds I’ve never seen before.

Stay tuned.  :)


p.s. Internet access is spotty at St. John so I’ve written and pre-scheduled this week’s blogs ahead of time.  I might not post/respond to your comments this week but I’ll be very active online next weekend!

(photo by Cris Hamilton)

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