Archive for the 'Bird Behavior' Category

Jan 25 2017

Perpetual Motion


Three wild turkeys are stuck in a rut.

They’re doing some circular thinking.


(video from YouTube. Click on the video to see the original)

5 responses so far

Jan 19 2017

Birds Wearing Black-n-Gold

Black and yellow birds who flock together in Western Panama (photo composite)

Black and yellow birds who flock together in Western Panama (photo composite)

On Throw Back Thursday:

These birds are wearing black-n-gold!

Just before the Steelers AFC Championship game in 2011 I explained why these black and yellow species tend to flock together.

This Sunday the Steelers are again in the AFC Championship.  What better time to revisit birds wearing black-n-gold.  Read on!

Wearing Black-n-Gold!


(composite photo credits, top left to right, then bottom left to right:
1. Slate-throated Whitestart: Corey Finger on
2. Sooty-capped Bush Tanager: Wikipedia
3. Yellow-thighed Finch: Wikimedia Commons
4. Collared Whitestart: Jan Axel on
5. Silver-throated Tanager: Kent Fiala’s Website
6. Yellow-throated Brush Finch: Atrevido1 at Solo Aves on Flickr

5 responses so far

Jan 12 2017

He Wears His Status On His Chest

Published by under Bird Behavior

Comparing bib size in two male House Sparrows (photos from Wikimedia Commons)

Comparing bib size in two male House Sparrows (photos from Wikimedia Commons)

On Throw Back Thursday:

Who’s in charge among the house sparrows?  The size of the male’s black bib is a clue.  Find out more in this vintage blog from 2011.



(photos from Wikimedia Commons: To see the originals, click here for photo on the left, here for photo on the right)

No responses yet

Nov 07 2016

Thousands Of Crows In Oakland

Crows burst off a building as they prepare to roost in Oakland, 4 Nov 2016 (photo by Kate St.John)

Crows burst off a building as they prepare to roost in Oakland, 4 Nov 2016 (photo by Kate St.John)

Ever since the winter crows came back to Oakland I’ve wanted to watch them arrive at the roost so last Friday evening, November 4, I stopped by Schenley Farms and Pitt’s campus.  What a spectacle!

Half an hour before sunset a steady stream of silent crows flew in from the southwest to the hill above Bigelow Boulevard near Centre Avenue.  I assumed they would spend the night up there, but no!

Crows are afraid of great horned owls — for good reason — so they want a good view from the roost. They prefer the tops of tall well lit trees or rooftops five to ten stories high. And they want no owls nearby.  Perhaps that’s why they like cities.

The sky was clear on Friday evening and the light lingered long after sunset at 6:13pm so my camera could “see” them against the sky.  Before it was dark nearly 40 crows chose this bare tree. The tree isn’t full yet.

Crows assemble in the treetops (photo by Kate St.John)

Crows assemble in the treetops, 4 Nov 2016 (photo by Kate St.John)

As darkness fell they left the hilltop for the area bounded by Fifth, Bayard, Bellefield and Tennyson.  And now they were loud!  Hundreds flew above me on Bayard Street.

Hundreds of crows above Bayard (photo by Kate St. John)

Hundreds of crows above Bayard (photo by Kate St. John)


They assembled at the roof edges of tall apartment buildings and then burst off to choose another site (photo at top).  They landed on Alumni Hall and packed in tightly on the Wyndham Hotel roof.

As night falls some crows choose Alumni Hall rooftop for their roost (photo by Kate St. John)

As night falls, some crows choose Alumni Hall’s roof (photo by Kate St. John)

… and they settled in the treetops on campus, 100 to 200 per tree.

Crows settle on the treetops on Pitt's campus, 4 Nov 2016 (photo by Kate St. John)

Others settle in the treetops on Pitt’s campus at Fifth Ave, 4 Nov 2016 (photo by Kate St. John)


I calculated 4,000 crows in that four block area, but they were still arriving after it was too dark to see.  I have no idea how many spent the night there.

Until today most people didn’t notice the crows because rush hour was over by 6:00pm.  But today we’ve changed the clocks back and rush hour will be at sunset, 5:09pm.

People will be surprised by the spectacle — and some will be repulsed — that there are thousands of crows in Oakland.


(photos by Kate St. John)

7 responses so far

Nov 05 2016

Some Mouse Is Gonna Die

Red-tailed hawk on the hunt at the Allegheny Front (photo by Steve Gosser)

Red-tailed hawk on the hunt at the Allegheny Front (photo by Steve Gosser)

Steve Gosser captured this red-tailed hawk on the hunt at the Allegheny Front Hawk Watch last week.

He wrote on Facebook:

While seeing this isn’t that scary for us, if you’re a little mouse seeing this would be terrifying. Caught this Red-tailed doing a dive at the hawk watch today.

Some mouse is going to die of fright … if nothing else.


For more cool photos, see Steve Gosser’s website at

(photo by Steve Gosser)

One response so far

Oct 21 2016

Mallards Come A’Courting

Even though mallards breed in the spring, they begin courting in September.  In some places 90% of them are paired by the time winter arrives.

Watch them on lakes, ponds, rivers, and in the video above to see these courtship actions(*).

Male courtship moves:

  • Swimming broadside to the female
  • Head sunk in shoulders: an introductory posture
  • Head-Shake: wagging the head from side to side
  • Head-Flick:  arching the neck to the tip of the bill. This ends in flicking the head.
  • Swimming-Shake (not sure I saw this in the video)
  • Several males simultaneously display with:
    • Grunt-Whistle: whistle, then grunt. (the video calls this spitting)
    • Head-Up-Tail-Up (This is my favorite!)
    • Down-Up: looks like bowing

Female courtship moves encourage the males:

  • Nod-swimming: bobs her head up/down
  • Steaming forward:  swims quickly with neck low to the water

Pairing up:

  • Male tries to lead female away by doing Turn-Back-of-Head in front of her.  If she likes him, it works.


Listen for these sounds:  When you hear the whistle, it’s a male courtship sound.  Only the females say “Quack.”


(*) The capitalized terms are from Birds of North America Online.

(video from YouTube via

No responses yet

Oct 14 2016

Why Do Peregrines Like Bridges?

Hope (69/Z) at the Tarentum Bridge, July 2012 (photo by Steve Gosser)

Hope (69/Z) at the Tarentum Bridge, July 2012 (photo by Steve Gosser)


Out in the wilderness, peregrine falcons nest on sheer cliffs.  Pittsburgh doesn’t have those cliffs but we do have nesting peregrines at two sites on buildings and five on bridges.

It’s easy to see that a tall building resembles a cliff …

Cathedral of Learning (photo by Kate St. John)

… but bridges are open structures without sheer walls.
Tarentum Bridge nestbox project, The Bucket Truck, 27 Feb 2015 (photo by Kate St. John)

Why do peregrines like bridges?

I found the answer in a blog post from The Center for Conservation Biology.  CCB monitors peregrines in Virginia where many falcons prefer bridges at the coast.

As you read the article linked below, watch for a photo of the Benjamin Harrison Lift Bridge where Hope (black/green, 69/Z) pictured above, was banded. She has nested at both kinds of sites in Pittsburgh:  six years at the Tarentum Bridge and now at a building, the Cathedral of Learning.


Peregrines and Bridges


p.s. The article explains that peregrine nestlings from the Lift Bridge are hacked in the Shenandoah Mountains. Hope was one of those birds.

(photo credits:
Hope at Tarentum by
Steve Gosser
Cathedral of Learning and Tarentum Bridge by Kate St. John
peregrine on nest by Bryan Watts linked from CCB blog

7 responses so far

Oct 09 2016

Favored By Cardinals

Published by under Bird Behavior,Plants

Climbing false buckwheat (photo by Kate St. John)

Climbing false buckwheat (photo by Kate St. John)

This vine looks messy but its seeds are good food for birds and mammals.

Though climbing false buckwheat (Fallopia scandens a.k.a. Polygonum scandens) is related to smartweed and Japanese knotweed, it’s a native perennial vine. Unfortunately it looks invasive because its red stems climb over nearby vegetation to get close to the sun.

Its small whitish flowers bloom from August to October but they aren’t much to look at.

Climbing false buckwheat (photo from Flora Pittsburghensis)

Climbing false buckwheat (photo from Flora Pittsburghensis)

Last week in Schenley Park I found a chipmunk and four cardinals hiding among the tangled vines, quietly munching false buckwheat seeds.

The seeds are favored by cardinals.


(seed photo by Kate St.John. Flower photo from Flora Pittsburghensis; click on the photo to see the original)

No responses yet

Oct 03 2016

Pigeons Can Read 4-Letter Words

Pigeons (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Pigeons (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

A new study of rock pigeons indicates they can read four-letter words … sort of(*).

Researchers at the University of Otago in New Zealand and Ruhr University in Germany quizzed four pigeons on their orthographic abilities.

According to Science Daily, “In the experiment, pigeons were trained to peck four-letter English words as they came up on a screen, or to instead peck a symbol when a four-letter non-word, such as ‘URSP’ was displayed. … The pigeons correctly identified the new words as words at a rate significantly above chance.”

Eventually the four birds in the experiment recognized 26 to 58 real words and correctly labelled over 8,000 as non-words.  They’re the first non-primate species found to have this ability.

So yes, pigeons know when they’re looking at a real 4-letter word but like naïve children they don’t know what it means.

Learn more about the study here in Science Daily.


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

(*) The study shows that pigeons can figure out letter-combinations. Pigeons have no reading comprehension so, literally speaking, they cannot read.

No responses yet

Sep 27 2016

He Eats Needles

Here’s a bird you’ll never see in Pennsylvania.

The spruce grouse (Falcipennis canadensis) is a resident of the northern forest in Canada, Maine, Minnesota and the northern Rockies.  Though he resembles our state bird, the ruffed grouse, his diet keeps him north of us.

In winter our ruffed grouse (Bonasa umbellus) eats buds, twigs, catkins, ferns and fruit — easy food to find in Pennsylvania.

Not so the spruce grouse.  His winter diet is conifer needles.  They’re so hard to digest and he has to eat so many of them to stay alive that his digestive system changes in the fall.  According to Cornell’s All About Birds, his “gizzard grows by about 75 percent, and other sections of the digestive tract increase in length by about 40 percent.”  Before the snow falls he stocks up on grit so his gizzard can grind up the needles.

In September 2012 Sparky Stensaas found this spruce grouse swallowing road grit and feasting on a tamarack in northern Minnesota.  Tamaracks loose their needles in October so the grouse had to eat them right away.

This bird eats spruce needles, too.  That’s why he’s a spruce grouse.


Click here to see the video full screen and read Sparky’s description of what this grouse was up to.

(video by Sparky Stensaas)

* Tamaracks are larches, deciduous conifers whose needles turn yellow and drop in the fall.

One response so far

Next »