Archive for the 'Bird Behavior' Category

Mar 08 2017


Swallow-tailed kite in flight (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Swallow-tailed kite in flight (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

We use words like powerful, strong or fierce to describe raptors but this one is different.  The swallow-tailed kite (Elanoides forficatus) is truly graceful.

Named for their beautiful black tails, their flight is so buoyant that they barely flap as they swoop and turn to grab food from the air or the treetops.  They seem to be moving in slow motion and it’s true.  They can fly slowly because their wings and tails are so long.

Swallow-tailed kites live year round in South America but only visit the southern U.S. and Central America to breed. They eat mostly insects which they capture with their feet but supplement their diet with frogs, lizards and nestling birds during the nesting season.

I’ve seen solo kites returning to Florida in late February but my best experience was last month on the Road Scholar birding trip to Costa Rica.  We saw flocks of swallow-tailed kites and they were spectacular!

At a pond near the road to Agua Buena, three kites skimmed the water, drinking and bathing, as graceful as swallows.  They flew so low that we could see the bluish sheen on their backs.  Jon Goodwill photographed them in the flight.

Swallow-tailed kite, bathing (photo by Jon Goodwill)

Swallow-tailed kite, bathing or drinking in flight (photo by Jon Goodwill)

Swallow-tailed kite bathing (photo by Jon Goodwill)

Swallow-tailed kite bathing (photo by Jon Goodwill)

Swallow-tailed kite lifting off from its bath (photo by Jon Goodwill)

Swallow-tailed kite lifting off from its bath (photo by Jon Goodwill)

Later we took a detour … and we were lucky.  Our guide Roger Melendez saw a pair of kites building a nest.  Bert Dudley zoomed his camera for this video of the female arranging the sticks. (You can hear us talking in the background.)

Swallow-tailed Kite making a nest


I would love to show you the beautiful flight of these graceful birds. This video of three man-made kites flown by Ray Bethell is the closest approximation.

Swallow-tailed kites are so graceful.


(top photo from Wikimedia Commons, bathing and drinking photos by Jon Goodwill, video by Bert Dudley. Click on the images to see the originals)

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Mar 03 2017

Golden Sky Dance


Golden eagles (Aquila chrysaetos) are the most widely distributed eagle on earth, found in North America, Eurasia and even northern Africa.

During the nesting season they perform a climb-and-plunge “sky dance” to warn other eagles away from their territory. This video from Cornell Lab shows a spectacular sky dance filmed in the western U.S.

Golden eagles prefer to nest in wide open habitats without humans.  They don’t breed in the eastern U.S., probably because it’s too densely populated.  So when you see the “sky dance” in Pittsburgh you’re watching a male red-tailed hawk claim his territory.

Red-tailed hawks are closely related to golden eagles but neither one of them is related to bald eagles.  Click here to find out why.


(video on YouTube from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology channel)

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Mar 02 2017

The Shock of Swan Divorce

Bewick's swans (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Bewick’s swans (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

On Throw Back Thursday:

Some birds are so faithful to their mates that it’s absolutely shocking when they divorce.  Such was the case with two pairs of Bewick’s swans at Slimbridge in 2010.

Read more here in this vintage article:

Swan Divorce


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

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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)

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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

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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)

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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)

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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)

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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

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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

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