Archive for the 'Bird Behavior' Category

Apr 12 2016

Pigeons Have A Favorite Foot

Rock pigeon hopping down a step (photo by Pimthida via Flickr, Creative Commons license)

Rock pigeon hopping down a step (photo by Pimthida via Flickr, Creative Commons license)


Most of us have a dominant hand that’s our favorite choice for everything that requires skill.  About 90% of us are right-handed.

Did you know that pigeons (Columba livia) have a favorite foot?  And that most of them are right-footed?

This was discovered by Harvey I. Fisher at Southern Illinois University in the mid 1950’s while he was looking for something else.  In 1954-1955 he was studying the landing force that pigeons exert on a perch, so he recorded the actions of 11 pigeons landing a total of 4,000 times.

That’s when he noticed that most of them extended one foot and landed on it first, and that they had a favorite foot for doing this.  He ran more experiments, tallying 7,259 landings.

Seven of the 11 pigeons were right-footed, three were left-footed and one didn’t have a favorite.  That’s about 63% right-footedness.  Read more here in his 1957 article: Footedness in Domestic Pigeons.

I found out this interesting factlet at the Urban Wildlife Guide’s Right-footed Pigeons, and was so intrigued that I bought the book: Field Guide to Urban Wildlife by Julie Feinstein. (I highly recommend it by the way.)

So what do you think?  Is this pigeon left-footed?  Or is he just tucking his right foot so it doesn’t hit the step?


(photo by Pimthida via Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 license. Click on the image to see the original)

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Apr 08 2016

Juvenile Female Makes Brief Intrusion at Pitt Nest

Juvenile female bows to Terzo at Pitt peregrine nest, 8 April 2016, 3:13pm (photo from National Aviary falconcam at Univ of Pittsburgh)

Juvenile female bows to Terzo at Pitt peregrine nest, 8 April 2016, 3:13pm (photo from National Aviary falconcam at Univ of Pittsburgh)

This afternoon webcam viewers were surprised to see a brown-colored falcon arrive at the Pitt peregrine nest and then bow and e-chup at Terzo as he was incubating.

Terzo was surprised, too.  He got up off the eggs and flew away leaving this juvenile, unbanded female to pause for a heartbeat … and then fly away as well.

Click here for the archived footage: Juvenile female visits the nest.

Juvenile unbanded female at Pitt peregrine nest, pausing before she leaves (photo from National Aviary falconcam at Univ of Pittsburgh)

Juvenile unbanded female at Pitt peregrine nest, pausing before she leaves (photo from National Aviary falconcam at Univ of Pittsburgh)

4 minutes later Terzo returned to the eggs.

40 minutes later Hope returned to incubate.

I’ve not had time to review all the footage but so far the archives show no sights or sounds of a fight with Hope.  Apparently Hope chased off this juvenile intruder.

For now, all is calm.


p.s. Thanks to Zack and sheba50 for pointing out this brief intrusion.  It was so brief that at first I couldn’t find any evidence of it.  I had to review a lot of footage to find it!

(photos from the National Aviary falconcam at Univ of Pittsburgh)

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Mar 19 2016

Based On Behavior

Hope sitting on eggs, 19 March 2016, 7:43am, temperature 34 degrees F (photo from the National Aviary falconcam at Univ of Pittsburgh)

Hope sitting on eggs, 19 March 2016, 7:43am, temperature 34 degrees F (photo from the National Aviary falconcam at Univ of Pittsburgh)

We humans have been speculating about the peregrine falcons at the Cathedral of Learning — about E2’s death and Hope’s future — but the only way to figure out what’s really going on is to watch the birds’ behavior and write down the facts without speculation.

Using the facts, we can match what we see to typical species behavior and arrive at a general answer.  Long-time observers may also match facts to years of observing the individual birds, providing a specific answer based on the individual’s “personality.”  However, additional data may contradict our conclusions.  We must remain open to changing our minds. That’s how we learn.

Today I’ll tell you what I’ve seen at the Cathedral of Learning and will do some matching based on 15 years of watching the peregrines at Pitt and 8.5 years of knowing E2 as an individual.  Keep in mind that conclusions are always speculation, even though educated by long experience.


  • E2’s death and activities surrounding it:
    • E2’s last appearance on camera was at 12:37pm on Tuesday March 15.
    • Hope laid her second egg at 5:08pm on Tuesday March 15.
    • E2 always visited each egg as it was laid.  He did not visit Hope’s second egg.
    • E2 always brought food to his mates at dawn.  He has not been present at dawn since Tuesday March 15.
    • E2’s body was found on Wednesday March 16, perhaps at 4:00pm–5:00pm.  It was retrieved around 6:00pm.
    • E2’s body has a broken right wing and broken right leg and blood in mouth.  Blood in mouth indicates internal injuries.
    • When E2’s body was retrieved his wings could be opened, therefore no rigor mortis. Rigor mortis is temporary.  I am awaiting further data but the Backyard Chickens website says it sets in half an hour to 4 hours after death and ends 24-48 hours after death.  (Thank you, Donna Memon, for this link.)
  • Hope’s activities since E2 disappeared:
    • She has stayed close to the nest and laid a third egg.
    • This morning’s temperature dropped to 34 degrees F.  Under these circumstances peregrines cover their eggs to keep them from getting too cold.
    • Hope covered the eggs last night.
    • Yesterday afternoon when Hope was not on camera she was not at the Cathedral of Learning.  (I did not see her fly.)
  • Is Hope alone? Is there a new male present?
    • A second peregrine has not been seen on camera since E2’s last appearance.  An intruder male would begin courting immediately. There has been no courting at all.
    • Yesterday afternoon I observed off and on for 90 minutes from the ground at the Cathedral of Learning.  I never saw two birds — only Hope.
    • Hope and E2 were loud when they were near each other, lots of ee-chupping and calling.  I have not reviewed all of the audio archives but from what I have heard… there has been no peregrine noise since E2 disappeared.  (This may need to be corrected if additional data contradicts it.)


  • Time of E2’s death: My conclusion, based on knowing him as an individual, is that he died on Tuesday afternoon before 5:00pm.
  • Cause of E2’s death: Based on description of his injuries, my conclusion is that he was hit broadside by something much larger than him.  These massive injuries cannot be inflicted by another bird.
  • Underlying cause of E2’s death: This is speculation on top of speculation!   My guess is that he was hit by a vehicle while swooping low over the road.  (I once saw him swoop low over Forbes Avenue. This 1 observation in 8.5 years merely means he was willing to swoop low over a road at one point.)
  • Did an intruder force E2 into a fight?  No. If an intruder had been involved, that intruder would be at the Cathedral of Learning and courting with Hope by now.
  • Is Hope incubating?  I don’t know Hope’s ways like I knew Dorothy’s so I don’t know.  I would have answered that question based on her continuous time on the eggs but Hope cannot incubate continuously because she must hunt for herself.
  • Is Hope hunting for her own food?  I don’t know.  I have not observed long enough on the ground.
  • Is there a new male at the site yet?   Not that we know of.

As I said above, conclusions are always speculation.

Keep watching and learning.


(photo from the National Aviary falconcam at Univ. of Pittsburgh)

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Mar 11 2016

Ravens Dance?

Lots of birds puff their head feathers and stand erect to show their dominance.  Common ravens do it, too.

When Zachary Cava filmed three ravens interacting in the Mojave Desert he thought they might be courting.  Was this courtship or was something very different going on?

Cornell’s Birds of North America explains that among common ravens,

The highest level of dominance is displayed by slowly walking highly erect with bill pointed upward, fluffing out throat hackles and [fluffing] feather tracts above legs to create “pant”-like appearance, elevating “ear” tufts, and flashing white nictitating membranes. Wings are spread slightly at the shoulders. Both males and females engage in this behavior, but it is more pronounced in males.  (credit: Bernd Heinrich)

Yes, these two ravens are working out who’s in charge.  So why is the third one bowing low with his head puffed up?

His actions resemble the male’s pair bond display to the female(*) but he’s got his back to the other two and they aren’t paying much attention.

Ravens don’t dance … or do they?


(video from YouTube by Zachary Cava)

(*) “In direct display to female, also fluffs out head, bows to female while spreading wings and tail, flashes white nictitating membranes, makes gurgling or choking sounds, and snaps bill.”  — credit Cornell Birds of North America

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Mar 08 2016

Pigeon Applause

Two rock pigeons in flight (photo from Shutterstock)

(photo from Shutterstock)

Have you heard it?  It’s the sound of pigeon applause.

The wings of rock pigeons (Columba livia) often make whistling sounds when they fly, but during the breeding season the males’ wings make a clapping sound, too.

Like many birds, pigeons have courtship rituals before and after mating. Here’s a summary of what they do from Cornell’s Birds of North America:

  • Before they mate:
    • The male struts around the female: standing tall, inflating his neck, cooing, bowing and fanning his tail.
    • They preen each other on the head and neck.
    • The female asks the male to feed her, like a nestling, by regurgitation. This may be called “billing”
  • They mate: The female crouches. The male mounts her and balances with open wings.
  • Afterward the male may do a post-copulatory flight display:
    • He takes off loudly clapping his wings on the upstroke (behind him) for 3-5 wingbeats.
    • And then he glides with his wings up in a “V”

Play the audio clip below to hear that distinctive clap.


Listen for it this spring.


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

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Mar 04 2016

Getting In Tune

If you’ve been watching the Gulf Tower and Cathedral of Learning falconcams this month, you’ve seen the peregrines bowing and “chirping” to each other in courtship display.  Their rituals cement their pair bond and get them in tune with each other for the breeding season.

Some birds have fancier courtship displays.  Pairs of waved albatrosses (Phoebastria irrorata) get reacquainted after six months at sea by doing a courtship dance.

The video above shows their elaborate ritualized moves: bill clacking, rapid bill circling, bowing, touching the ground and their sides with their beaks, raising their bills, and making a whoo sound.  You have to visit the Galápagos to see them as it’s the only place where they breed.

The pairs do their dance in time for the female to lay her single egg in April to June.  Nestlings reach adult size in December and leave the colony by January to forage at sea until they reach maturity at 5-6 years old.

During El Niño there is too little food to raise a family so many birds don’t breed at all.  This year is a hard one for the waved albatross.

Sadly, this species is critically endangered.  The waved albatross’ range is confined to the Galápagos and the Humboldt current off the coasts of Peru and Ecuador.  Though long-lived, these birds are slow to reproduce and their population is declining, especially at the hands of longline fishing.

It’s quite a privilege to see them dance.


(video from Peregrine Travel Centre Adelaide on YouTube)

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Mar 03 2016

Found A Brainy Bird

Florida scrub-jay on Joan's hat (photo by Chuck Tague)

Florida scrub-jay on Joan Tague’s hat (photo by Chuck Tague)

On Throw Back Thursday:

Last week in Florida with Chuck and Joan Tague we found these brainy birds on Merritt Island.  On a similar trip in 2009 a jay was so bold that he perched right next to a replica of himself — a Florida scrub-jay pin on Joan’s hat.

Read how the Florida scrub-jay got so smart in this Throw Back article from February 2009:  Speaking of Brainy Birds.


(photo by Chuck Tague)

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Mar 01 2016

Out In The Open

American bittern with fish (photo by Billtacular via Flickr Creative Commons license)

American bittern with fish (photo by Billtacular via Flickr Creative Commons license)

American bitterns are usually hard to find because their plumage matches their favorite habitat — marshland vegetation.  Last week I saw one easily when he stepped into the open to catch a big black fish at Green Cay Wetlands in Delray Beach, Florida.

These photos, taken at a New Jersey marsh by Billtacular, are so similar to my experience that I just had to share.

At first the bittern was impossible to find.  I saw him nearby when he moved but he “disappeared” into the background when he stood still.

American bittern craning his neck (photo by Billtacular on Flickr Creative Commons license)

American bittern craning his neck (photo by Billtacular via Flickr Creative Commons license)

A fish caught his eye and he struck.  What a long neck!

American bittern splashes to get a fish (photo by Billtacular via Flickr Creative Commons license)

American bittern splashes to get a fish (photo by Billtacular via Flickr Creative Commons license)


American bittern catches a fish (photo by billtacular via Flickr Creative Commons license)

American bittern catches a fish (photo by Billtacular via Flickr Creative Commons license)

At Green Cay the fish was so large that the bittern had to pause to swallow it.  He remained in the open — very photogenic — until the bulge in his throat finally went down.


(photos by Billtacular via Flickr Creative Commons license)

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Feb 26 2016

Life’s A Stage


Here’s a light-hearted look at the serious business of courtship among the birds-of-paradise.

Happy Friday!


(video from Cornell Lab of Ornithology on YouTube)

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Feb 19 2016

Celebrity Vultures In Peru


What does a city do when it’s overwhelmed by illegal garbage dumps?

In Lima, Peru much of the trash generated by its 10 million people is dumped illegally but it’s hard to clean up because the dumps are hidden and people don’t care.  In December 2015 the Peru Ministry of Environment enlisted the help of birds.

Black vultures (Coragyps atratus) are excellent at finding garbage — after all, their lives depend on it — so the program equipped 10 black vultures with GPS trackers and GoPro cameras and Ta dah!  The vultures find the dumps. The humans place the dumps on the map and clean them up.  And the vultures have become celebrities.

See the maps at Gallinazo Avisa.  Meet the vultures — they have names — in their second video here.  (Don’t miss the punchline at the end of the video!)

Read more about Peru’s “Vultures Warn” program at


(video from Gallinazo Avisa at YouTube)

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