Category Archives: Songbirds

Makes You Happy

Growing up in Switzerland Melanie Barboni had a dream:  She wanted to see a hummingbird.  When she arrived at UCLA three years ago as an Assistant Researcher in Earth, Planetary and Space Sciences, she placed a hummingbird feeder outside her office window. She now hosts more than 200 of these tiny jewels every day.

Melanie's relationship with the hummingbirds has grown so much that she now recognizes about 50 individuals and has given them names. And though her research involves volcanoes and rocks, her nickname is the "hummingbird whisperer."

Why watch hummingbirds?

As Melanie says, "I mean, look at them. It just makes you happy!"

Read the full story here on UCLA's website.

 

(video from UCLA on YouTube)

Tiny Bathing Beauties

 

In August the hummingbird population is at its peak as adults and this year's juveniles prepare to migrate.  Searching for nectar, they visit flowers and backyard feeders.  They're also attracted to shallow, running water.

Here are two soothing videos of hummingbirds bathing.

Neither one describes where it's located and that presents a challenge ...

Can you identify these tiny bathing beauties?

 

(videos from YouTube. Click on the YouTube logo on each video to see the original.)

Eaten By A Fish!

Barn swallow in South Africa (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Barn swallow in South Africa (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

We've all seen fish jump to catch flying insects above the water but African tigerfish do much more than that.

Back in 2011, scientists conducting a telemetry study of barn swallows (Hirundo rustica) in South Africa were surprised to find that their subjects were being eaten by fish!

African tigerfish (Hydrocynus vittatus) are aggressive animals up to 3.5 feet long with very sharp teeth.  During the study at Schroda Dam, the fish jumped out of the water and ate low-flying birds.  In 15 days they ate 300 barn swallows!

African tigerfish (image from Wikimedia Commons)

In 2014 scientists used high definition video to record the fish in action. Click here to see.

 

Fortunately, there's someone on hand to eat the tigerfish.

Crocodile eating an African tigerfish, South Africa (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Crocodile eating an African tigerfish, South Africa (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

 

Watch out, barn swallows!  Don't fly too low!

 

(photos from Wikimedia Commons; click on the images to see the originals)

Scarlet Baby

Scarlet tanager nestling (photo by Chuck Tague)
Scarlet tanager nestling, 2008 (photo by Chuck Tague)

On Tuesday I heard a sound in Schenley Park that I didn't recognize: a melodious call from a baby bird.

I found the bird flutter-climbing from a low perch to a high spot in a tree, moving fast and begging the entire time.  He had downy tufts on his head, a striped chest, big feet, short wings and an almost non-existent tail.  He looked a lot like the bird pictured above.

I couldn't identify the fledgling so I waited for his mother to bring food and she solved the mystery.  A bird just like her is pictured below (from Wikimedia Commons).

Female scarlet tanager carrying food to feed young (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Female scarlet tanager carrying food to feed young (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

If you don't recognize her, here's another clue.  The father bird looks like this.  (I didn't see him that day.)

Male scarlet tanager (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Male scarlet tanager (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

 

Obviously scarlet tanagers change a lot as they grow into breeding adults.  Read more about them in this vintage article from July 2008:

Scarlet Baby

 

(photo of fledgling by Chuck Tague. photos of adult female and male from Wikimedia Commons; click on the images to see the originals)

 

Woodpeckers Are Doing Really Well

Pileated woodpecker, April 2012 (photo by Chuck Tague)
Pileated woodpecker (photo by Chuck Tague)

Last week Pittsburgh Today published a brief article about ecosystem health in the Pittsburgh region.  One of their points caught my eye: Pileated woodpeckers (Dryocopus pileatus) have made a big comeback in our area.

I've noticed this too.  During Pittsburgh's 2016 Christmas Bird Count last December, many of us found pileated woodpeckers -- so much so that Audubon's summary of the count included this remark: "Pileated Woodpecker was reported at a higher than expected number.  48 individuals represents a new high count for Pittsburgh. "

On the same day as Pittsburgh Today's article, I also received an email from Tree Pittsburgh with news about a project this fall to replace ash trees lost to emerald ash borer (read more here.)

Without intending it, the topics are related.  My hunch is that we have more pileated woodpeckers in Pittsburgh because we have more under-the-bark insects and more dead and dying ash trees, suitable for nesting, since the emerald ash borer came to town 10 years ago.

Pileated woodpecker hole in dead white ash tree, Pennsylvania (photo by Kate St. John)
Pileated woodpecker hole in dead white ash tree, western Pennsylvania (photo by Kate St. John)

 

Woodpeckers are doing really well.  It's the only bright spot in the emerald ash borer plague.

 

(photo credits: Pileated woodpecker by Chuck Tague.   Dead ash tree with pileated woodpecker hole by Kate St. John)

 

The Dickcissels Came Back

Dickcissel singing in western PA, 10 June 2017 (photo by Anthony Bruno)
Dickcissel singing in western PA, June 2017 (photo by Anthony Bruno)

While I was on vacation in Europe I missed the chance to report on an unusual bird in Pennsylvania this summer.

First seen in early June, dickcissels (Spiza americana) have now been reported in 14 of Pennsylvania's 67 counties, north, south, east and west.

Their sudden appearance in the middle of the nesting season is a tribute to their peripatetic lives.  If nesting fails at their preferred location they'll travel a thousand miles to find a better nesting site.

Perhaps they came to Pennsylvania this year because there's a severe drought where they usually nest in the plains of North and South Dakota and Montana. Bob Mulvihill wrote about this correlation during the dickcissel invasion of 1988 (click here and scroll to page 6).

U.S. Drought Monitor map, 4 July 2017 (map from U.S. DroughtMonitor, UNL, USDA, NOAA)
U.S. Drought Monitor map, 4 July 2017 (map from U.S. DroughtMonitor, UNL, USDA, NOAA)

 

In the summer of 2012 when there was a severe drought in the Midwest, dickcissels came back to Pennsylvania.  Read more about them in this vintage post from June 2012: Dickcissels

 

(June 2017 photo by Anthony Bruno)

Five Kinds of Chickadees

Great tit, England (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Great tit, England (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

In western Pennsylvania we have two kinds of chickadees: black-capped and Carolina.  Unfortunately they hybridize in Pittsburgh and look so similar that it's hard to tell them apart.

The Birds of Europe lists five "chickadees" in Britain though they're called tits, like our titmouse.  Only two are in the same genus as Pittsburgh's chickadees and only those two look similar.  Here are all five.

The great tit (Parus major), pictured above, is 60% heavier than a Carolina chickadee (Poecile carolinensis) and more colorful.  He sports a yellow chest with a bold black stripe.

 

The coal tit (Periparus ater) is smaller than a Carolina chickadee though he looks large in the photo below.  Unlike our chickadees, his nape is white and he sometimes raises a tiny black crest on his head.

Coal tit in Devon, England (photo by Aviceda via Wikimedia Commons)
Coal tit in Devon, England (photo by Aviceda via Wikimedia Commons)

 

The blue tit or Eurasian blue tit (Cyanistes caeruleus) is about the same size as a Carolina chickadee but prettier in yellow, black, white and blue.

Blue tit in Lancashire, England (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Blue tit in Lancashire, England (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

 

The marsh tit (Poecile palustris) and willow tit (Poecile montanus) look similar to each other and to our chickadees. They're all in the same genus, Poecile.

Marsh tit (photo by S?awek Staszczuk via Wikimedia Commons)
Marsh tit (photo by Slawek Staszczuk via Wikimedia Commons)

Willow tit, Lancashire, England (photo by Francis Franklin via Wikimedia Commons)
Willow tit, Lancashire, England (photo by Francis Franklin via Wikimedia Commons)

 

I think British chickadees are prettier than ours.  My favorite one is blue.

 

(all photos from Wikimedia Commons; click on the images to see the originals)

Tipping Point

Rose-ringed parakeet, Kensington Gardens, London (photo by Tony Austin via Wikimedia Commons)
Rose-ringed parakeet, Kensington Gardens, London (photo by Tony Austin via Wikimedia Commons)

Imagine having this beautiful exotic bird at your backyard feeder on a regular basis.

One wild parakeet is a joy to watch. Two are nice, too.  But how many constitute a nuisance?

Rose-ringed parakeets (Psittacula krameri) are native to Asia and Africa and popular as pets in Europe, especially because they can mimic the human voice.  However escaped rose-ringed parakeets are now feral in many European cities and the seventh most numerous bird in London gardens (backyards).   Counts conducted a decade ago put Britain's feral parakeet population at 30,000 birds.

In large flocks the parakeets are noisy and hungry, even voracious.  They shout everywhere they go.

"Rose-ringed Parakeet (Psittacula krameri)" from xeno-canto by Timo Tschentscher. Genre: Psittacidae.

Ironically, the birds have reached two tipping points.  Their population is increasing in urban Europe but declining in their homeland, India, where they're trapped for the pet trade.

How many is too many in Europe?  How few is too few in the wild?

Read more about the U.K. population at CBC news and on the RSBP website.

 

p.s. The bird pictured at the feeder is female and not nearly as colorful as the male, below.  The males have rosy rings on their necks.

Male rose-ringed parakeet (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Male rose-ringed parakeet (photo by Dick Daniels via Wikimedia Commons)

(photos from Wikimedia Commons; click on the images to see the originals)