Archive for the 'Bird Behavior' Category

Feb 04 2016

Birds’ Body Language

Published by under Bird Behavior

Peregrine mother, Dorothy, defends her babies on banding day, 2004 (photo by Jack Rowley)

Peregrine falcon, Dorothy, defends her babies on banding day in 2004 (photo by Jack Rowley)

On Throw Back Thursday, I found this gem in the archives from 2009.

What do birds mean when they puff up or raise their head feathers?  Imagine if we used the same signals.

Read more here about Body Language.


(photo of Dorothy, 2004, by Jack Rowley)

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Feb 02 2016

Drinking Blood?

Yellow-headed caracara on a cow in Venezuela (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Yellow-headed caracara on a cow in Venezuela (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

When I wrote that yellow-headed caracaras pick ticks off of mammals Dr. Tony Bledsoe pointed out that, based on the similar behavior of an African bird, it’s possible the caracaras are also drinking the animals’ blood.

Ewww!  What gives?

In Africa, there are birds called oxpeckers (two species in genus Buphagus: yellow-billed and red-billed) that also perch on mammals and eat ticks, lice, fleas, and biting flies found on the animals’ skin.  Studies have shown that individual oxpeckers eat up to 100 engorged ticks or 13,000 nymphs per day.  Quite a benefit to the animal!

Yellow-billed oxpecker on a large bovine mammal in Africa (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Yellow-billed oxpecker on a large bovine mammal in Africa (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Engorged ticks contain tiny blood meals so it’s not a big leap that the oxpeckers sometimes to go directly to the blood source, pecking and plucking at an animal’s wounds.  Despite this parasitic and perhaps painful behavior, many mammals tolerate the oxpeckers although elephants and some antelopes shoo them off when they land.

Yellow-headed caracaras are unrelated to oxpeckers but their tick-eating behavior extends to blood meals as well. The Handbook of the Birds of the World includes this remark about the caracara’s eating habits:

“Perches on cattle and Capybaras (Hydrochoerus hydrochaeris) to pick off ticks; picks flesh from open wounds on backs of cattle, which often seem oddly indifferent to the process.”

It sounds gruesome but the benefits of having your own portable tick-remover apparently outweigh the occasional blood meal.


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

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Jan 29 2016

How To Raid A Wasps’ Nest

There’s a bird of prey in South America that likes to raid wasp nests to eat the larvae.  The problem is that red-throated caracaras (Ibycter americanus) have bare skin on their faces and throats, an easy target for stinging wasps.

How do the birds get the larvae without a lot of pain?  Do they chemically repel the wasps?

In 2013, Canadian Sean McCann and colleagues studied red-throated caracaras in French Guiana on the north coast of South America.  They learned that, no, the birds don’t repel the wasps.  The caracaras are attacked but they compensate in other ways.

Watch the video to see how the birds nab their tasty meal.  They know something about wasp behavior that we had been ignoring.

Click here to read more in their PLOS ONE paper, Strike Fast, Strike Hard, or here at

(video from YouTube)

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Jan 28 2016

Too Many Pigeons?

Rock pigeon flock (photo by Chuck Tague)

Flock of rock pigeons (photo by Chuck Tague)

On Throw Back Thursday:

It can happen at any time of year but more often in the warmer months.  People suddenly get fed up with the number of pigeons in their area and they want them gone … NOW!

Ideas for instant pigeon removal are usually bad and can be really bad for peregrine falcons who hang out near the pigeons.  Last week I got an email from Patricia M. who needed good ideas for pigeon removal because someone in her town wanted to shoot them.

It really is possible to reduce the pigeon population at a specific location.  I’ve seen it happen at the Cathedral of Learning in 2007 and at Pittsburgh’s Mellon Square in 2014. The hardest part of pigeon control is changing human — not pigeon — behavior.

Read how to do it in this blog post from July 2008: Too Much of a Good Thing


(photo by Chuck Tague)

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Jan 20 2016

The Tickbird

This week I blogged about a caracara on a capybara but I didn’t tell you much about the bird.  Why was the bird standing on the mammal?  Hint: The falcon’s nickname is “tickbird.”

Yellow-headed caracaras (Milvago chimachima) are omnivorous members of the falcon family who live in south-Central and South America.  They eat almost anything — carrion, frogs, fish, eggs, palm fruit, corn, horse dung — but when it comes to feeding their young they focus a lot on insects.  90% of the nestlings’ diet consists of beetles, grasshoppers and crickets.

They earned their nickname “tickbirds” because they also glean ticks off of cattle and other mammals, including capybaras.  Above, a juvenile yellow-faced caracara cleans a cow.  The cattle don’t mind, even when the caracaras pick at open wounds.

Yellow-headed caracaras have adapted well as the forest is converted to ranches and cities.  When they aren’t picking ticks off cattle they’re gregarious in town.  You’d never guess from this video that their nickname is The Tickbird.


(videos from YouTube. The second video was filmed in Cali, Columbia)

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Jan 17 2016

Whose Voice Is That?

Blue jays mimic the sounds of raptors to warn (or fool!) other blue jays.

In Pittsburgh they often mimic red-tailed hawks.  In Florida red-shouldered hawks are much more common so the jays imitate them instead.

This video from MyBackyardBirding in Florida is a good example of how blue jays can sound like red-shouldered hawks.  Can you tell who’s who when they aren’t on screen?

The mourning dove seems to be having a hard time figuring it out.


(video from MyBackyardBirding on YouTube)


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Jan 15 2016

A Conversation Between Two Birds

During the snowy owl irruption two years ago, John Dunstan recorded this video of a raven and a snowy owl having a conversation.

The raven says many things.  The snowy owl is unimpressed.

Notice at 1:20 in the video that the top of the raven’s head seems to grow “ears.”  This dominance gesture means “I’m big! Watch out!”  The owl doesn’t care and reaches over to peck the raven at 1:44.  The raven’s ears go down … but up again at 2:09.  What’s going on?

John Dunstan asked raven expert Bernd Heinrich, author of The Mind of the Raven, for an explanation and put Heinrich’s reply in the video description:

Naturalist Bernd Heinrich, author of “The Mind of the Raven”, was nice enough to provide this description.

Hi John,
The first thing to notice is that the owl is TOTALLY unimpressed. It’s not scared in the least, and the raven has no aggressive intentions, but starts out being just curious – like: “what the hell is This!” So it tests – tries to get a reaction. But the owl still stays totally nonchalant. At some point the raven then tries a different tactic – it puts on its “I’m a big guy” display of erect “ear” feathers – usually used to show status in the presence of potential superiors, but here used also with a bowing and wing-flaring, which is used in supplication if there is NOT going to be a challenge – so, yes, I think the raven was having fun, and then also starting to have some respect, because this big white thing was NOT going to cooperate and be its toy. 

The comments on the video are priceless!  Click here to see the video on YouTube and read the comments.


(video by John Dunstan on YouTube)

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Jan 08 2016

Natural Born Hustlers: PBS NATURE

Are humans the only species that fools others to survive, find food, and mate?  Not at all!

This month PBS NATURE premieres a new three-part series, Natural Born Hustlers, airing on PBS on Wednesdays, January 13, 20 and 27 at 8:00pm (ET) (check local listings).

Episode One, Staying Alive, focuses on survival techniques:  camouflage, dominance tricks, audio mimics and playing dead.  Early on I was amazed to learn how zebras’ stripes create an optical illusion.  You have to see them in motion to believe it!

Other fascinating finds are the amazing skin-morphing camouflage of cuttlefish, the lizard that walks like a stinky beetle, and the white-faced capuchin monkeys who calculate whether they’re needed in battle.  “More capuchins are killed by their own kind than by predators,” says the episode.  What an unfortunate trait to have in common with humans.

The video excerpt above gives you a good idea of animals’ ingenuity.  California ground squirrels use their enemy’s scent as protective camouflage.  Their arch enemy is the rattlesnake, so if you hate to look at snakes this video will make you flinch.

And fair warning to those afraid of snakes:  Staying Alive has quite a few snakes in it including a match-up in North Carolina of a harmless species that mimics the coral snake.  The bonus is that you can identify birds by song on the audio track.


(Natural Born Hustlers trailer from PBS NATURE)

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Jan 07 2016

TBT: No, they won’t eat corn

Coopers hawk (photo by Chuck Tague)

Coopers hawk (photo by Chuck Tague)

On Throw Back Thursday (TBT):

When a Cooper’s hawk eats a bird at your feeder, it makes you think.

Click here for some thoughts on carnivorous birds — No, they won’t eat corn  — from 2008.


(photo by Chuck Tague)


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Dec 21 2015

The Peanut Challenge

Why is this crow trying so hard to carry three peanuts when he could easily carry two and come back for the rest?

Last Friday Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s eNewsletter featured this video from Ontario FeederWatch where a crow was tempted by unshelled peanuts.

Though he could easily carry two, the crow spent more than a minute trying to pick up a third.  At 40 seconds into the video he was salivating so much that he “dripped” onto the platform.

Finally he achieved his goal and flew away.  Two seconds later we see why he had to take so many in one trip.  Competition!

Want to see more?

Located in the Thunder Bay District of Ontario, Ontario FeederWatch runs day and night.  In addition to the crow the cam has recorded a flock of pine grosbeaks, a hungry ruffed grouse, and a night time visit from a northern flying squirrel.

Click here to watch the birds at Ontario FeederWatch.


(video from Cornell Lab’s Ontario FeederWatch)

p.s.  The feeders are in Manitouwadge, Ontario, a town so remote that it’s an 11.5 hour drive from Toronto and 8 hours from Duluth.  Click here (and zoom out) to see it on Google maps.

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