We have lots of upland game birds in Pennsylvania but none of them have head plumes like this. I had to visit the western U.S. to find birds with topknots.
Gambel’s quail (Callipepla gambelii) live in the southwest, including southern Nevada. Though they can fly they prefer to walk or run away from danger, their topknots bobbing as they go. It makes them look kind of festive, almost silly.
What are the head plumes for?
I read that during courtship the male stands high on his legs, puffs himself out and bows to the ground bobbing his head. This makes his head plumes quiver and shows the rusty top of his head to his potential mate. You’d think this would impress his lady but studies have shown the plumes themselves make no difference in mate selection.
So the question is still open: Why do they wear deely boppers?
Maybe they just like to have fun. 😉
(photo from Wikimedia Commons. Click on the photo to see the original)
For April Fools’ Day I couldn’t resist a little quiz about the amazing talents of pigeons.
Are any of these statements true?
- During World War II electronic missile guidance systems were not yet reliable so the NDRC funded a project to use trained pigeons to guide missiles.
- Pigeons can hear distant thunderstorms and far-away volcanoes that we cannot hear.
- Pigeon nests are cemented with pigeon poop.
- Google uses “pigeon clusters” to enhance its search technology.
- Some pigeons can fly 600 miles a day.
- Pigeons can rescue people capsized at sea.
Want to hazard a guess? Leave a comment with your answer.
(photo by Chuck Tague)
Courtship is well underway among Pittsburgh’s resident birds.
On sunny days red-tailed hawks seem to be everywhere, soaring to claim territory and court their mates. Sometimes you can’t tell the difference between courtship and chasing. Is he driving away an intruder or impressing his mate? And, my heavens, his scream sounds scary! (Read more about red-tail courtship here.)
Because I love watching peregrines and hawks, I often pay attention to their favorite food: pigeons. That’s how I noticed that rock pigeons make courtship flights, too.
Most of pigeon courtship occurs on the ground but there are two flight behaviors that tell you they’re courting.
The first is wing clapping in which a pigeon takes off from the flock making a loud snapping sound as he claps his wings together at the top of his upstroke. This behavior is usually initiated by a male to advertise his sexual maturity. His action often prompts other members of the flock to take off and clap their wings as well.
The other display occurs when a pair breaks off from the flock in flight. Eventually one or both will soar with their wings held upright in a stiff V.
I’ve sometimes seen a trio break away and fly together but only two of them do the V flight. I’ll bet these trios are one female with two males and the guys are trying to impress her. It certainly looks less dangerous than what red-tails do!
(photo from Shutterstock)
Even though this turkey’s chin is scruffy, that’s not where his beard is.
The “beard” on a wild turkey is that cluster of long hairlike feathers sticking out of the center of his chest. They average nine inches long.
Generally only male turkeys have beards but 10 to 20 percent of female turkeys grow them as well. This poses a problem for those ladies during Spring Gobbler hunting season when only bearded (i.e. male) turkeys can be hunted.
Don’t worry about this turkey, though. He’s probably safe all year long because he’s a regular in Cris Hamilton’s back yard.
(photo by Cris Hamilton)
We just went through a very weird weather week that started and ended with snow but melted in the middle… and now it’s very cold!
Last month I mentioned that willow ptarmigan hide in the snow to avoid predators. Here’s one nestled up to its neck, almost invisible except for his beak and eyes.
It’s awesome that he stays warm.
I don’t think Pittsburgh has enough snow to hide a ptarmigan right now, but I bet the Laurel Highlands does!
(photo by from Wikimedia Commons. Click on the photo to see the original.)
On Saturday I counted birds in my neighborhood for the Pittsburgh Christmas Bird Count on the wettest, rainiest day we’ve had in a very long time. The only birds that moved were crows, starlings and pigeons.
The pigeons caught my attention because they were so hard to count. Just after dawn a flock of two dozen birds began their morning flight routine. They started off slowly but as they warmed up they flew in tighter formation, faster and faster, closer and closer together, changing direction often. I marveled at how well they stayed in sync. They were very hard to count!
At the height of their exercise I noticed the flock changed direction so quickly that the leader must have ended up in the back of the group. How did they do this and still maintain their formation? Who was in charge?
This question has puzzled scientists too, so last year a team in Budapest decided to find out more by attaching GPS backpacks to a flock of domestic homing pigeons. The GPS units recorded the birds’ position every 0.2 seconds as they flew home or wheeled around the neighborhood. The data was then used to plot the birds’ paths and figure out where each bird flew in relationship to the others and how quickly it changed direction in response to the rest of the flock.
The results were quite interesting. The flocks’ leaders almost always fly in the front and the other birds copy the leader’s movements within 0.4 seconds. The low ranking birds fly behind and to the right but leadership can change and even low-ranking birds occasionally get the chance to lead. This confirms my hunch that the leaders end up at the back of the flock sometimes.
Why do the low-ranking birds fly behind and to the right? The researchers’ theory is that this position maximizes their ability to follow the leader. These birds use their left eyes to watch the leader, left-eye information is processed by the right side of the brain, and the right side of the brain is best at quickly handling social responses.
Why does the flock change leadership? How does it hand off leadership so deftly? The study didn’t answer all my questions but it’s a great start. Read more about it here in Science Magazine.
(photo from Wikimedia Commons. Click on the image to see the original)
How many birds do you see in this picture? If you were a gyrfalcon you’d know right away.
These are willow ptarmigan (Lagopus lagopus), a non-migratory grouse that lives in the open tundra and moorland of Scotland, Scandanavia, Siberia, Canada and Alaska.
Willow ptarmigan are masters of disguise. In summer they are brown and speckled like the vegetation they eat and hide in. In winter they molt into white plumage to match the snow, and between the seasons they’re brown and white like patchy snow and dirt. Willow ptarmigan have to be well camouflaged because so many predators eat them including foxes, wolves, owls, peregrines and gyrfalcons.
How did willow ptarmigans get their name?
“Willow” comes from what they eat in winter: the twigs and buds of willows and alders.
“Ptarmigan” comes from the Gaelic word “tarmachan” which means to grumble or croak and describes the sound these birds make. Tarmachan has no “P” but in the late 17th century somebody put a P at the front of the word to make it look Greek and scientific. By the early 19th century the P stuck and became the accepted spelling of the word.
Did you find three birds in this picture? If so, you probably followed their tracks. Ptarmigan know their tracks are a dead giveaway so they sometimes fly directly to a hiding place and burrow into the snow. Then it’s really hard to find them and you’ll certainly be wondering, “Where’s Willow?”
(photo by Ansgar Walk from Wikimedia Commons. Click on the photo to see the original where you can also see wing marks in the snow.)
The Twelve Days of Christmas repeats the refrain “A partridge in a pear tree.” What species are they talking about?
The song comes from England, so shouldn’t the bird? Unfortunately it’s more complicated than that. The words were published in England in 1780 but they are older and probably French. So the partridge could be either French or English.
Here’s a partridge that’s both: The red-legged partridge is originally from France but was introduced in England in the 1770’s.
Now about the pear tree…
The gifts in the Twelve Days of Christmas are fantastic and extravagant. (Imagine receiving eight maids-a-milking!) “A partridge in a pear tree” is fantastic too because partridges are terrestrial birds who rarely perch above the ground. But of all the partridges in England the red-legged partridge is the most likely to do it.
Despite this convincing argument musicologists say the pear tree might be an English mangling of the French word for partridge — perdrix. In French the ending consonant is often silent. Say perdrix three times fast and it begins to sound like “pear tree.”
Are you the partridge in the perdrix?
(photo from Wikimedia Commons. Click on the image to see the original)
(Wild turkeys in the snow. Photo by Marcy Cunkelman)
Much to my amazement a pigeon has been frequenting the peregrine falcon nest at the University of Pittsburgh. The Aviary’s snapshot camera took his picture as he moved around the nest on November 15th and 19th.
The resident peregrines, Dorothy and E2, are at the Cathedral of Learning every day but not often at their nest. Apparently they aren’t paying attention to this corner of their domain.
Or maybe they’re in a timeshare agreement and this pigeon bought the third week of November?
Who knows? He just better be careful not to be at the condo when the real owners return or they’ll have him for dinner.
Click on the pigeon’s picture to see Dorothy and E2 at the nest earlier this month.
(photo from the National Aviary snapshot camera at University of Pittsburgh)