Archive for the 'Songbirds' Category

Feb 25 2014

Bluebird Fight

Eastern bluebird fight (photo by Karen DeSantis)

We think of eastern bluebirds as gentle birds.  They seem to be poor fighters and often lose battles with house sparrows and starlings, so I was surprised to learn from Karen DeSantis that she witnessed two male eastern bluebirds in a long ferocious fight in late February a few years ago.

Karen described on PABIRDS how the fight began with chasing, then escalated into periodic knock downs and grim combat on the ground.  The males fluttered and rolled over a distance of about 30 feet while the female followed every move, twittering as she watched.  The birds were so oblivious that Karen was able to take photographs of the 15-minute battle.  Karen wrote, “It was the long duration of the fight that interested me the most.”

Though we might not realize it, these battles are consistent with bluebird behavior.

During the winter bluebirds flock in family groups and huddle together to stay warm.  In early spring their togetherness ends as the fathers eject their sons from the group before ‘Mom’ and ‘Dad’ nest again.

But the battle Karen witnessed was not a mild family squabble.  Its intensity indicates the guys were fighting over the lady.

Bluebirds are usually monogamous but about 20% of the young come from extra-pair copulations.  The males seem to know if their ladies’ eyes are wandering and guard their mates more closely if they’ve been messing around.  According to Birds of North America Online, “Experimental evaluations (Gowaty 1980) indicate male-male aggression most likely serves to protect threatened paternity. Males are aggressive to males usually in defense of paternity.”   These battles can be so intense that they end in the crippling or death of one of the birds.

Bluebirds may seem gentle but don’t mess with their mates!  Click on Karen’s photo above to watch a slideshow of the fight.

 

(photos by Karen DeSantis)

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Feb 17 2014

Intrepid Minnesotan

Gray jay in Minnesota (photo by Jessica Botzan)

I’m back in the ‘Burgh with a fond look back at my time in Minnesota at the Sax Zim Bog Birding Festival.

Though I never found a great gray owl I saw seven Life Birds(*) and learned a lot about cold and snow.

Cold… was not a problem.  I didn’t have to cope with the worst of this winter in Minnesota but -13F was a typical morning in the bog.  Three to four layers of clothes are indispensable. Toe warmer heat packets inside Sorel boots are the key to warm feet.  I was never cold.

Snow… is a way of life.  If you’re afraid to drive in snow in Minnesota you’re homebound for half the year.  So you just do it.

Minnesota snowplows are awesome, huge, coordinated.  I arrived during a Winter Weather Advisory (4”-6”) and left during a Winter Storm Warning (5”-7”).  No problem.  All the roads and parking lots were plowed, not to bare pavement but quite passable.  The Duluth airport was plowed down to bare pavement.  My flight home was delayed only by de-icing.  Check out this video of clearing the runway.

Birds … are intrepid in Minnesota’s winters.  The easiest to find are ravens and black-capped chickadees.  The rarest are Carolina wrens and robins.  The gray jay is the cutest and the most intrepid.

Gray jays (Perisoreus canadensis) look like oversized chickadees but have the typical corvid attitude.  They’re bold and curious and willing to eat anything including berries, insects, fungi, other species’ nestlings and small mammals.

Jess Botzan saw this one at Sax Zim Bog during the coldest of the cold weather last month and the bird wasn’t phased by it. Gray jays are so intrepid that they lay eggs in March while temperatures are still below freezing and snow is on the ground.  They don’t even bother to nest again in May and June when the weather is easy.

Like everyone else in Minnesota, the gray jay is intrepid in snow and cold.

 

(photo by Jessica Botzan)

(*) Life Birds seen:  Pine grosbeak, black-billed magpie, boreal chickadee, gray jay, northern hawk owl, black-backed woodpecker, Bohemian waxwing.

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Feb 09 2014

I Can Sound Pretty

Blue jay in winter (photo by Cris Hamilton)

As the days get longer the birds have started to sing again.  Jessica Manack reminded me that one of those songs is quite a surprise.

The blue jay’s typical call is unmistakeable and brash. We usually see him do it because he draws attention to himself when he says “Jay.”

He can also make a wide variety of other sounds, some of which are really odd: Try this link at the Macaulay Library.

But during the courtship season he says KWEE-de-lee, a sound so melodic you think it couldn’t be made by a jay.

When you hear this call, look for the bird and you’ll find him doing rapid deep knee bends, raising and lowering his entire body as he calls.

“I can sound pretty,” says the blue jay.  “I just don’t want you to notice.”

(photo by Cris Hamilton)

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Jan 23 2014

Gregarious

House sparrows in snow in Moscow (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

House sparrows are always gregarious, but more so in winter when they flock together in large numbers.

In the morning and afternoon they disperse to feed, but twice a day — at midday and in the evening — they gather in dense shrubs or evergreens and chatter for an hour or more.  They sound a lot like this.(*)

You might not hear them in today’s cold weather but when you do it’s unmistakable.  They’re in a bush alive with birds … but you can’t see them.  I’ve tried to count them but they fall silent and hide when I approach.  I rarely see even one.

Here’s a flock in a tree, somewhat hidden but easier to see than inside a privet hedge!

House sparrows in a bush in Saskatoon (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

House sparrows love each others’ company so much that, according to the Stokes Guide to Bird Behavior, some travel up to four miles to join the roost.

“Gregarious” works for house sparrows — from Latin gregarius (from grexgreg- ‘a flock’) + -ous (to make it an adjective).

 

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

(*)  The sounds at the link above are similar but not quite the same as winter chatter because they’re from a more intense breeding chase in April.  Listen to this segment from BirdNote for all the sounds house sparrows make.

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Jan 20 2014

Winter Hardy

Published by under Songbirds

Carolina wren in winter (photo by Marcy Cunkelman)

A hundred years ago Carolina wrens (Thryothorus ludovicianus) were a southern bird rarely found in southwestern Pennsylvania but they expanded northward during the 20th century, even into Canada.

Carolina wrens don’t migrate so they have to cope with winter wherever they settle down.  When winters are severe they die off and are rarely seen until new individuals disperse northward to fill the gaps.  This was particularly noticeable after the harsh winter of 1977-78 when it took them ten years to recover their northern haunts.

Since then they’ve done quite well, a success due in part to human changes to the landscape.  Warmer winters, regrown woodlots, and backyard bird feeders all make it easier for Carolina wrens to survive though it wouldn’t have been possible without a change on their part, too.  In 1912 Dr. Frank Chapman considered them to be woodland birds unadaptable to human settings but by 1948 Arthur Bent observed that there was plenty of evidence they’d made the change.  Indeed we see them near our homes every day.

This winter may be a tough challenge for Carolina wrens.  During the polar vortex January 6-7 many birders were concerned that their favorite wrens would perish. We were happily surprised that they came through, sometimes by hiding in our buildings, during the two-day cold snap.

This week will bring another, longer round of arctic cold with temperatures down to 0oF.  Will our wrens make it through this time?

Fill your feeders and cross your fingers.  May our Carolina wrens be winter-hardy, greeting us with their loud calls and songs when the weather warms again.

 

(photo by Marcy Cunkelman)

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Jan 13 2014

Melancholy Tyrant

Published by under Songbirds

Tropical kingbird (photo by barloventomagico, Creative Commons license via Flickr)

Continuing my tropical theme…

The tropical kingbird seems rare to us because his range barely touches southern Arizona and the lower Rio Grande valley, but he’s a very common bird in Central and South America and is often seen near humans because he likes what we do to the landscape — especially our wires.

I became interested in him when I learned his scientific name: Tyrannus melancholicus.  It means “melancholy tyrant.”  Why was he named this way?

Members of the Tyrannus genus are “tyrant” flycatchers because they fearlessly defend their territory, nest and young against much larger predators.  Below, a tropical kingbird attacks a zone-tailed hawk.  Our Tyrannus, the eastern kingbird, does the same to hawks in Pennsylvania.

Tropical kingbird attackes a zone-tailed hawk (photo by barloventomagico, Creative Commons license via Flickr)

Melancholicus, meaning melancholy, is not an obvious choice for such an active bird.  Mourning doves are named for their sad song so I listened to the tropical kingbird’s song in case that’s what gave him his name. Click here to hear.

It doesn’t sound sad to me, but perhaps he’s so-named because he sings this tune in the dark before dawn and stops when the sun rises.

I don’t know…  Do you?

 

(photos of tropical kingbirds in Barlovento, north-central Venezuela, by barloventomagico, Creative Commons license via Flickr) 

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Jan 11 2014

No Snow

Snow buntings, Crawford County, Jan 2014 (photo by Shawn Collins)

Can you believe how warm it is today?

Shawn Collins found these snow buntings in Crawford County a week ago when the snow was melting.  Two days later we were in the sub-zero polar vortex.  Now it’s 60 degrees warmer and the snow is gone.

It’s a good thing snow buntings are white, brown and black. They’re camouflaged even when there’s no snow.

(photo by Shawn Collins)

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Jan 04 2014

At The Top Of The Mountain

Black rosy-finch (photo by Steve Valasek)

Here’s a bird I hope to see some day … but I’ll have to go out of my way to find it.

The black rosy-finch (Leucosticte atrata) is an alpine bird from the American West that spends all his life at high elevation.  In the summer he nests on cliffs above the treeline in the Rockies.  In the winter he moves to lower mountaintops.

Steve Valasek photographed this one at a feeder at Sandia Crest, New Mexico … at the top of the mountain.

 

(photo by Steve Valasek)

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Dec 06 2013

Bird Equivalents

Tufted titmouse, Great tit (photos from Wikimedia Commons)

Here’s an interesting thought: Around the world there are birds with similar habitat and food requirements that are ecological equivalents to each other.  Though they live on different continents they occupy similar niches.  Sometimes they even look alike.

I was intrigued by this when I found a graphic on page 630 of Ornithology by Frank B. Gill showing three sets of equivalent birds from North America and Europe.  Here they are:

Set #1.  The tufted titmouse in North America (at left above) is an ecological equivalent to the great tit in Europe (at right).

All About Birds says the tufted titmouse prefers “eastern woodlands below 2,000 feet elevation, including deciduous and evergreen forests. Tufted titmice are also common visitors at feeders and can be found in backyards, parks, and orchards.”

Europe’s great tit prefers similar habitat.  I wish our titmouse was as colorful.

 

Set #2.  Our black-capped chickadee (at left below) is equivalent to Europe’s willow tit (at right).

Again according to All About Birds, “Black-capped chickadees may be found in any habitat that has trees or woody shrubs, from forests and woodlots to residential neighborhoods and parks, and sometimes weedy fields and cattail marshes. They frequently nest in birch or alder trees.”

In Europe, look for the willow tit in these habitats.

Black-capped chickadee, Willow tit (photos from Wikimedia Commons)

 

Set #3.  The chestnut-backed chickadee of the Pacific Northwest (at left below) is equivalent to the coal tit in Europe (at right).

All About Birds says, “Chestnut-backed chickadees are found in dense coniferous and mixed coniferous forests of the Pacific Coast. You can also find them in shrubs, trees, and parks of cities, towns, and suburbs.”

The coal tit has similar habitat requirements in Europe and fills a wider niche in Ireland where competing marsh, willow and crested tits aren’t present.

Chestnut-backed chickadee, Coal tit (photos from Wikimedia Commons)

 

There are many more ecologically equivalent species.  GrrlScientsist shows us Kenya’s ecological equivalent of the red-tailed hawk at this link.

Can you think of other bird equivalents?

 

(photos from Wikimedia Commons. Click on these links to see the originals: tufted titmouse, great tit, black-capped chickadee, willow tit, chestnut-backed chickadee, coal tit.
Today’s Tenth Page is inspired by page 630 of Ornithology by Frank B. Gill.
)

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Nov 12 2013

Sparrow Time

Published by under Migration,Songbirds

Fox sparrow and white-throated sparrow (photo by Steve Gosser)

It’s not news that migrating sparrows are back in town but it’s always news to see a fox sparrow in any setting.

Steve Gosser photographed this one (top) with another migrant, a white-throated sparrow, at Harrison Hills Park last week.

Some sparrows come to western Pennsylvania in the fall and stay all winter, including dark-eyed juncoes, American tree sparrows, and the white-throated sparrow shown above.

But fox sparrows are few and far between and right now they’re just passing through, headed for the southern U.S.

If you don’t see one before Thanksgiving you’ll probably have to wait until March to catch them on their return trip back north.

I’ve been looking, but so far no luck.

 

(photo by Steve Gosser)

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