Archive for the 'Songbirds' Category

Aug 05 2016

His Feathers Sing

The male club-winged manakin (Machaeropterus deliciosus) uses dance and sound to attract the ladies but he doesn’t open his mouth.  He uses his wings!

Watch and listen as he bows and flares.  The loud buzzy noise is made by his secondaries.  Cornell Lab writes:

The secondary wing feathers of the male Club-Winged Manakin, a bird from South America, are large and rigid. He strikes them together at about 107 times per second to create a buzzing sound, which is used during courtship displays.

Ornithologists have known for a long time that the males’ secondary feathers are deformed.  This 1871 drawing shows the difference between the males’ deformed and the females’ normal feathers.

Modification of Manakin Pipra deliciosa = Machaeropterus deliciosus wings for sound production, from Darwin's - The Descent of Man

Modification of Manakin Pipra deliciosa = Machaeropterus deliciosus wings for sound production, from Darwin’s – The Descent of Man


Now that we have high definition video we can see why they’re like that.  He makes his feathers sing.


p.s.  Click here for the location of secondary wing feathers.

(video from Cornell Lab of Ornithology on YouTube. Illustration from Wikimedia Commons; click on the image to see the original.)

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Jul 22 2016

Purple Martins: Faithful to Home

Purple martin fledgling opens wide for dad (photo by Donna Foyle)

Purple martin fledgling opens wide for dad (photo by Donna Foyle)

Last Saturday fourteen of us joined purple martin landlords and their families at Bob Allnock’s annual Purple Martin Night where we learned about the birds and heard news of their success.

Click here for the slideshow that illustrates this article.

Purple martins (Progne subis) are North America’s largest swallow and the only bird that relies on man-made housing for its nest.  The western population still uses woodpecker holes but eastern purple martins made the switch long ago to nest colonially in apartments and man-made gourds provided by human landlords.

Purple martin houses at Bob Allnock's (photo by Kate St. John)

Purple martin houses at Bob Allnock’s (photo by Kate St. John)

The landlords provide housing and protection and the martins return faithfully every year.  The dark blueish purple males arrive first — in April in western Pennsylvania — followed by the adult females with dark backs, light bellies and gray collars.  The adults claim their favorite nest sites before the speckled sub-adults arrive.

Purple martins eat only flying insects and are especially fond of dragonflies.  To catch them they feed higher in the sky than other swallows.  We didn’t think the martins were anywhere near us until we looked up at the clouds with our binoculars and saw them wheeling as much as 500 feet above.

Female purple martin with food for her nestlings (photo by Donna Foyle)

Female purple martin with food for her nestlings (photo by Donna Foyle)

By mid-July many of the young martins in Bob’s colony had already fledged but they still begged from their parents.   The (approx) 80 nest sites were humming with activity as the adults fed youngsters, took out the garbage (fecal sacs), and sometimes even tussled at the nest holes.  One youngster (see him in gourd #2) fledged while we were there.

Like all birds, purple martins are vulnerable to nest predation and a variable food supply. Fortunately they have dedicated landlords who …

  • Check the nests to make sure all is well. In the slideshow notice the circular access lid on the gourds. Bob Allnock can also watch three nests on nestcams.
  • Protect the nests from starlings by providing M-shaped holes that only purple martins can use.
  • Thwart raccoons and snakes who climb the poles to raid the nests.  Bob Allnock has wrapped the base of his poles with live electric wiring (“electric fence”).  One shock is all it takes!
  • Scare off great horned owls who raid from the air.  Bob turns on a yellow “air dancer” at dusk.  He moves it to a new location every night so the owls don’t get wise to it.
  • Provide supplemental feeding during prolonged wet weather when the bugs don’t fly. Purple martins starve without these feedings.

And the weather has cooperated.  This year’s fledglings are doing well in western Pennsylvania’s dry weather, especially after three wet years in a row.

Until their young have learned the ropes the purple martins stay at the colony.  At dusk they return to spend the night inside the nests.

In September they’ll leave for Brazil and their landlords will wait through the long quiet winter for their faithful purple martins to come home.

Click here for a slideshow of the event.


(All the purple martin close-ups are by Donna Foyle. House photos by Kate St. John.  Image of yellow inflatable air dancer from

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Jul 10 2016

Up Close with a Song Sparrow

Published by under Songbirds

Up close with a song sparrow held by bander Becca Ralston, Neighborhood Nestwatch, Donna Foyle's, 9 Jul 2016 (photo by Kate St. John)

Closeup of a song sparrow held by bander Becca Ralston at Neighborhood Nestwatch, Donna Foyle’s home, 9 Jul 2016 (photo by Kate St. John)

Did you know that song sparrows (Melospiza melodia) are the most abundant breeding bird in Pennsylvania?  All they need are tall grasses, shrubs or trees to thrive in marshes, suburbs, farmland, or along roadsides.

At the National Aviary’s Neighborhood Nestwatch events, song sparrows are a target species and the one most often banded.  This may have been true yesterday at Nestwatch at Donna Foyle’s, but the birds avoided the mist nets!  Bander Becca Ralston had to change the net locations several times before this song sparrow came in.

Song sparrows are boring “Little Brown Jobs” (LBJs) from afar but they’re fascinating up close.  Notice the intricate pattern and subtle shades of brown on this bird’s head.  You can see the feather-eyelashes that circle his eye.  His eyes are black from a distance, but up close you can see that they’re really brown.


Bander Becca Ralston holds a male song sparrow at Neighborhood Nestwatch (photo by Kate St. John)

Bander Becca Ralston holds a male song sparrow at Neighborhood Nestwatch (photo by Kate St. John)


(photos by Kate St. John)

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Jul 06 2016

Variations On A Warbler Theme

Published by under Songbirds,Travel

Connecticut, Mourning and MacGillivray's warblers (illustration by Louis Aggasiz Fuertes in National Geographic, public domain from Wikimedia Commons)

Connecticut, Mourning and MacGillivray’s Warblers (illustration by Louis Aggasiz Fuertes, public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

When Louis Aggasiz Fuertes drew these birds they were all the same genus, Oporornis.  This made sense because Connecticut, mourning and MacGillivray’s warblers are similar in appearance and habits.  All three breed in northern forests where they are shy, secretive skulkers, nesting and feeding on the ground.

The Connecticut warbler (at top) is the hardest to find, so hard that his nest wasn’t discovered for 70 years after the species was described.  His breeding grounds in the bogs and moist forests of Minnesota, Wisconsin, upper Michigan and central Canada are protected by mosquitoes!   Birds of North America says, “Its secretive behavior and preference for breeding habitat in remote areas with abundant insect life has made it very difficult to study.”  No kidding!

The mourning warbler (middle) has a wider distribution.  He breeds in second growth forests from British Columbia to Newfoundland and into the northern tier of Pennsylvania.  He’s one of the few warblers that benefits from human disturbance, preferring to nest in clearcuts 1 to 10 years old.  I usually see him during spring migration at Magee Marsh, Ohio.

MacGillivray’s Warbler (bottom) prefers second growth too, but he breeds at low to moderate elevations in the Rockies and Sierras.  I saw my first MacGillivray’s warbler (Life Bird!) in Glacier National Park in burned areas that are the dry mountain equivalent of a clearcut.

For many years the Oporornis genus calmly hummed along until two discoveries upset the apple cart.

Everyone thought these species never met on their breeding grounds … and they don’t … except for one spot in the Peace region of British Columbia near Dawson Creek where in 2009 Irwin et al. discovered that mourning and MacGillivray’s warblers hybridize.

Then in 2010 DNA evidence split the Oporornis genus.  Now the Connecticut warbler stands alone, though many websites and field guides have not caught up.

  • Old: Oporornis = [Connecticut, mourning, MacGillivray’s and Kentucky warblers].  Geothlypis = [common yellowthroat]
  • New: Oporornis = [Connecticut].  Geothlypis = [common yellowthroat, mourning, MacGillivray’s and Kentucky warblers]

In appearance and ancestry, these birds are variations on a warbler theme.


(illustration by Louis Aggasiz Fuertes in National Geographic, public domain from Wikimedia Commons)

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Jul 01 2016

Dipper or Ouzel

Published by under Songbirds,Travel

Question: What songbird …

  • Lives along streams in western North America?
  • Looks like a plump, dark gray robin with a short tail?
  • Bobs his tail like a Louisiana waterthrush?
  • Does “push-ups” like an angry wren?
  • Swims and dives as if he was a duck?
  • Has white nictitating membranes (third eyelids) for seeing underwater?
  • Eats only underwater prey?

Answer: A bird who has two names — the American dipper (Cinclus mexicanus) or water ouzel.

“Dipper” describes his behavior. While looking for prey from the water’s edge, he dips his body up and down as if doing push-ups on his legs. This action gives him two perspectives while looking through the water’s refraction: high view and low view.

“Ouzel” is an Old English word that now means “like a blackbird,” except that the water ouzel is not like any blackbird. 

In fact this water-loving species is unlike any songbird in North America. 

That’s why I came out west to see him at Glacier National Park.


p.s. Life Bird! I even saw one feeding his young, thanks to Denny Olsen, our Road Scholar birding guide.

(video from JVCdude on YouTube)

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Jun 30 2016

One Note

Varied thrush (photo by Eleanor Briccetti via Wikimedia Commons)

Varied thrush (photo by Eleanor Briccetti via Wikimedia Commons)

Spring starts late in the northern Rockies so many birds are still singing here in Glacier National Park. Fortunately the varied thrush is one of them.

In the breeding season the varied thrush (Ixoreus naevius) is a shy bird of mature western forests. He sings from the top of a conifer for 10 to 15 minutes but the trees are so tall that he’s hard to find. If he wasn’t singing we’d never know he’s there.

His song consists of one note that lasts two seconds.  He pauses 3 to 20 seconds and then sings again, a different note.  The disembodied sound echoes in the canyons.

Like all thrushes his syrinx allows him to blend two sounds so his note has a burry quality.  It sounds like this:

This song is unique in North America and easy to identify by ear.

Just one note.


(photo by Eleanor Briccetti via Wikimedia Commons)

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Jun 28 2016

There’s A Lot Less Singing

Yellow warbler (photo by Chuck Tague)

Yellow warbler (photo by Chuck Tague)

It happens every year. By late June, birds are singing a lot less than they did a month ago. By mid July most birds are silent.

Find out why they stop singing in this article: Becoming Silent.


(photo by Chuck Tague)

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Jun 21 2016

The Bird Who Sings All Night

Northern mockingbird, singing with wing flash (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Northern mockingbird, singing and wing flashing (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

This month someone in my neighborhood complained he was kept awake at night by birds singing loudly in the dark.  Every song was different so he thought it was a variety of birds.  Who was making that racket?  It was only one northern mockingbird.

Mockingbirds are well known for nocturnal singing.  The majority of those who do it are lonely bachelors trying to attract a female.  They belt out their songs as loudly as possible in all directions and they prefer to do it at the most aggravating time for humans — midnight to 4:00am.  Studies have shown they sing more on moonlit nights and in well-lit areas.  Woe to city and suburban dwellers near street lights!

The video below, recorded at 2:00am, is understandably dark. The bird is exceptionally loud.

Over at my house there’s a mockingbird who’s definitely lonely!  Will he ever stop?

Birds of North America Online says:  “Typically, adults sing for approximately three fourths of the year (Feb through Aug, and late Sep to early Nov); occasionally sing during winter. … No nocturnal song occurs during the fall.”

So we wear earplugs to bed and pray that the mockingbird finds a mate.  Or we’ll have to wait until August.


(photo from Wikimedia Commons. Click on the image to see the original. Mockingbird audio by SevereTStormFan on YouTube)

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Jun 05 2016

Unusual Bird In The Mirror

Protonotary warbler "stuck in a car mirror" (screenshot from video by waterwarbler on Flickr)

Prothonotary warbler “stuck in a mirror” (screenshot from video by waterwarbler on Flickr)

I’ve seen robins, cardinals and mockingbirds attack car mirrors but never this!

Last Thursday waterwarbler captured video and photos of a prothonotary warbler fighting with his own reflection in DuPage County, Illinois.  Click on the screenshot above to see the video.  (Note: When another vehicle drives by the warbler is fine. He moves to the hood of the car.)

And check out this photo of warbler reflections: “Suddenly lots of PROWs“.   No wonder the bird is confused.


(screenshot from a video by waterwarbler on Flickr)

p.s. “PROW” is the four-letter code for prothonotary warbler.

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May 08 2016

Ostentatious Orioles

Published by under Migration,Songbirds

Baltimore oriole (photo by Steve Gosser)

Baltimore oriole (photo by Steve Gosser)

Though it’s been less than two weeks since the first Baltimore orioles returned to western Pennsylvania, it didn’t take long for them to arrive in force and begin to establish their territories.

Now they’re everywhere and obvious — singing, chasing, chattering with annoyance, drowning out the songs of other birds.

As soon as they’ve paired up Baltimore orioles sing a lot less and become almost secretive.

Enjoy them now while they’re ostentatious.


(photo by Steve Gosser)

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