Right now they’re spending a lot of time caching conifer seeds to last them through the winter. All summer long they ate arboreal arthropods (insects in trees) but now they’re switching to seeds, hiding them under bark or in sapsucker holes, covering the opening with lichen or plant matter. If there aren’t enough cones they move south, as so many did last winter.
Though they depend on cone-bearing trees for food, red-breasted nuthatches prefer to nest in dead or dying birches or aspens whose trunk is softened by disease or rot. They often pick a birch with a broken top. The lady digs the nest hole while her mate watches and brings her food. She throws sawdust out of the hole leaving a telltale pile below the nest. I’ve never seen this because I’m never in Maine during nesting season.
If I came here in the spring — or spent time watching the few red-breasted nuthatches who nest near Pittsburgh — I would see this amazing nesting habit: To protect their eggs and nestlings they collect pine sap on the tips of their bills or on a little piece of bark, then smear it around the opening of the nest. The male smears sap on the outside, the female smears it on the inside. Experiments have shown this sticky mess keeps away both predators and competitors.
Adult nuthatches are very skillful at zooming straight into the nest without touching the sides — those who don’t are eliminated from the gene pool — so how do the nestlings fledge without getting stuck? According to Birds of North America Online, parent nuthatches place small clumps of fur on the sticky inner nest rim on the day of fledging.
They make a stick-free launch zone for the kids to leave the sappy nest.
Yesterday while on my way to somewhere else , I discovered a blog called Goldbird Variations that began when the author started playing music for birds.
Years ago Lisa Rest of Chicago took up the piano again and often played with her window open. One day a mourning dove flew to the windowsill and sang along. She didn’t understand what it was doing until later, wanting to share her music with an audience, she rediscovered that the birds were listening outside her window and singing as she played.
Lisa has perfect pitch and can tell that the birds do too. Listen to a cardinal sing with her in this post that explains why birds are attracted to music.
Which leads to the nightingale above…
Lisa points out she’s not the only one to play music for birds. In May 1927 the BBC recorded Beatrice Harrison playing Londonderry Air on her cello in her garden in Surrey as a nightingale sang along. The bird waits for her phrases and blends in at appropriate times. Amazing! Click here to download and play the mp3 recording from the Music And Nature radio program.
I have neither perfect pitch nor musical skill but I’ve encountered birds’ interest in music when I whistle while I hike. I’m particularly fond of Bach and Beethoven and since I don’t sing well I whistle my favorite tunes.
Their favorite of my repertoire seems to be the second movement of Beethoven’s 6th Symphony, Szene am Bach (Scene at the brook) from his Pastoral Symphony.
Of course the birds like that one!
(photo of a nightingale singing in Berlin. Click on the image to see the original on Wikimedia Commons. This post was inspired by the Goldbird Variations)
If you live in North America this fact is amazing: House sparrows are an endangered species in Britain.
I learned this when I read John Metcalfe’s article called Making Cities More Bird Friendly With Nesting Bricks. In it he describes a new brick specially designed by Aaron Dunkerton and manufactured in England to provide habitat for nesting house sparrows. Before mortar is applied it looks like this. (Click on the bricks to read about them.)
House sparrows are the most widely distributed wild bird on earth. Why are they so endangered in the U.K. that people invent ways to help them? Here’s what I found out.
The greatest house sparrow declines occurred where nestlings starved within a week of hatching or had low fledging weight, both due to lack of insect prey. The best success occurred where they ate plenty of aphids or spiders. (Aphids come up again!)
Because house sparrows nest in holes in buildings, they did well in neighborhoods built before 1919, in neighborhoods where soffitt and fascia were made of wood, and in distressed neighborhoods where the buildings needed repairs. They avoided neighborhoods built after 1985 because of new construction standards and lack of deterioration. That’s why Aaron Dunkerton invented the bird brick for new homes.
House sparrows did poorly in tidy neighborhoods with lots of paving. Over the years Britons have paved their front yards and removed trees and shrubs so they can park their cars. This has reduced house sparrow habitat.
All habitat was not equal. House sparrows preferred deciduous plants and the insects associated with them.
African starlings evolve color faster than any other bird — 10 times faster than their ancestors and modern relatives according to a new study from the University of Akron.
Like other Sturnidae these birds had iridescent qualities, but after they made it to sub-Saharan Africa 17 million years ago their colors went wild. The cells that give their feathers iridescence are called melanosomes. Instead of the usual simple rod-like forms, glossy starlings (Lamprotornis) developed hollow rods, solid flattened rods, and hollow flattened rods. Though these divergent melanosomes are sometimes found in other birds, glossy starlings can have all the variations in one species. This produced an explosion of new colors.
At the University of Akron Rafael Maia studied microscopic feather structures and used spectral color analysis and evolutionary modelling to figure out how these starlings evolved four types of melanosomes and 19+ species. It happened very fast.
Their social structure helped. For glossy starlings, color confers high rank in both sexes so the most colorful birds are the most successful breeders. Intense social pressure selected for better and better colors.
The lyrics of the Beatles’ Blackbird song used to puzzle to me. What blackbird sings in the dead of night? In eastern North America I didn’t know of any blackbirds that did that.
My worldview was too small. North American blackbirds are icterids: Brewer’s, red-winged, rusty, tri-colored and yellow-headed. In England common blackbirds are thrushes, a single species Turdus merula similar to the American robin.
The common blackbird’s song is complex, varied and beautiful. His syrinx allows him to sing two songs simultaneously and even harmonize with himself. In the video above he starts out loudly on a perch, then drops to the ground and whisper-sings just like a robin. Like our robins he also sings at night.
And watching a sora cross the road. He made himself into a ball so he looked like a very slow, round muskrat without a tail (was this camouflage?) and risked his life by walking slowly in front of traffic. Fortunately all the drivers were birders and we stopped to stare and spare his life.
When Charlie posted these photos on his Flickr account he alluded to Edgar Allen Poe’s Raven and wrote, “In spite of Carole opening the door and the trash pickup, [the robin] kept returning until Carole covered the kickplate with the door mat.”
Spring is moving north and so are the robins. This week a big wave arrived after Monday’s snow. Now that they’re here, how soon will they nest?
Robins nest later the further north you go. In 1974 Frances James and Hank Shugart were curious about the conditions that governed their nesting times throughout the U.S. Using climate data and Cornell nest watch information from 8,544 robins’ nests they developed a model that predicted when robins would nest in a particular region.(*)
The model shows that robins cue on weather. Hatching is timed to occur when local humidity is 50% and temperatures are between 45 and 65 degrees Fahrenheit. By April 23, Pittsburgh’s highs and lows are exactly in that range so our birds are getting ready. Here’s what they’re up to:
Robins spend 5-7 days building their first nest of the season.
Egg laying begins 3-4 days after first nest completion.
Eggs are laid one per day for a clutch of 3-4 eggs.
Incubation lasts 12-14 days.
From nest building to hatching, the first nest takes 26 days. (Subsequent nests take less time.)
Our robins should be nest building right now except for one thing: Do they have enough mud to begin construction? Has the mud been frozen?
Watch the robins in your neighborhood to see what stage they’re in. Join Cornell Lab’s Nest Watch program and your data can become the basis for studies like James’ and Shugart’s that broaden our knowledge of birds.
(Credits: photo by William Majoros on Wikimedia Commons. Click on the image to see the original.
Today’s Tenth Page is inspired by page 260 of Ornithology by Frank B. Gill, portions of which are quoted(*) in this article.)