Archive for the 'Songbirds' Category

Sep 02 2015

No Feet

Published by under Bird Anatomy,Songbirds

Hummingbird foot, in bander's hand (photo by Kate St. John)

Leg and foot of ruby-throated hummingbird in bander’s hand (photo by Kate St. John, bander Bob Mulvihill)

Here’s the leg of a ruby-throated hummingbird, so short that the toes make up nearly half its length.

Look closely and you’ll see the foot resembles a garden claw.

Garden claw tool (illustration from

Garden claw (illustration from


This group of birds also has tiny feet shaped like garden claws.

White-throated swifts (Crossley ID Guide for Eastern Birds via Wikimedia Commons)

White-throated swifts (Crossley ID Guide for Eastern Birds via Wikimedia Commons)


Once you know their feet are similar, it’s not a big leap to realize that these birds are related.

Swifts (Apodidae) and hummingbirds (Trochilidae) are in the same the taxonomic order Apodiformes, a Greek word that means “A”=no, “pod”=foot.

“No feet.”  :)


p.s. Click here to read more about the similarities between hummingbirds and swifts.

(hummingbird photo by Kate St. John, garden claw clip art from, white-throated swifts illustration from the Crossley ID Guide for Eastern Birds, Creative Commons license, via Wikimedia Commons. Click on the images to see the originals)

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Sep 01 2015

Strong Opening

Published by under Bird Anatomy,Songbirds

Immature blue-winged warbler shows beak-opening strength at Neighborhood Nestwatch banding (photo by Kate St. John)

Immature blue-winged warbler shows its strong opening muscles, in bander’s hand (photo by Kate St. John, bander Bob Mulvihill)

With songbird migration underway, here’s something to think about when you see a blue-winged, golden-winged, Tennessee, orange-crowned, or Nashville warbler:  Their beaks make a strong opening.

Back in July at Cunkelman’s Neighborhood Nest Watch banding, Bob Mulvihill’s mist nests captured an immature blue-winged warbler (Vermivora cyanoptera).  With the bird in hand he put his fingers lightly on the bird’s beak and it immediately opened its beak and pushed Bob’s fingers away.  What an unusual talent!  These warblers have extremely strong gaping muscles.

Golden-winged warblers, closely related to blue-wings, are so well studied that this fact is mentioned in the literature about them.  Bob has also found it to be true of the (formerly*) Vermivora warblers and oriole species he’s banded in eastern North America.

Why this unusual talent?  Vermivora literally means “worm eater” — vermi:worm, vora:eat.  The “worms” are small caterpillars (not earthworms) that hide among leaves, often wrapped in cocoons or in curled up leaves.  The warblers open the rolled leaves against the caterpillars’ will.

When you see these talented birds watch them probing among the leaves.  They’re making a strong opening.


(photo by Kate St. John)
And what’s all this about formerly(*)?
The genus Vermivora used to contain nine species including Tennessee, orange-crowned, Nashville, Virginia’s, Colima and Lucy’s warblers, but in 2010 the American Ornithological Union transferred all but Bachman’s (extinct), blue-winged and golden-winged to the genus Oreothlypis.  After years of having nine Vermivoras, it’s hard to keep up with the changes.

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Aug 06 2015

Save Time: Reuse, Recycle

Cordilleran flycatcher at the nest, Mount Lemmon, AZ (photo by Donna Memon)

Cordilleran flycatcher at the nest, Mount Lemmon, AZ, 3 August 2015 (photo by Donna Memon)

Last week, Karyn Delaney reported a northern cardinal using an old robin’s nest outside her window and we joked in email that the mother took this shortcut because it’s so late in the breeding season.

Cardinals rarely reuse nests but some songbirds do.  On Monday Donna Memon and I found a Cordillean flycatcher at her(*) nest at the summit of Mount Lemmon.  Because her nestlings were too tiny to see and the nest edges and “launch pad” had fecal evidence of active fledglings, we surmised she was reusing the nest.

Birds of North America Online (BNA) reports that Cordillerans in the Santa Catalina Mountains in Arizona — the location of Mount Lemmon — build a “cup of moss, sometimes mixed with bark strips or rootlets, [and] lined with fine grass or rootlets.” Cordillerans often reuse nests, sometimes in the same location for 20 years.  Perhaps this nest has been recycled many times because it’s much sloppier than a simple cup.

In the next three photos the flycatcher feeds and watches her tiny nestlings but she has to hurry because …

Cordilleran flycatcher feeding young, Mount Lemmon, AZ (photo by Donna Memon)

Cordilleran flycatcher feeding young, Mount Lemmon, AZ, 3 August 2015 (photo by Donna Memon)

Cordilleran flycatcher at nest, Mount Lemmon, AZ (photo by Donna Memon)

Cordilleran flycatcher at nest, Mount Lemmon, AZ (photo by Donna Memon)

… this is a late nesting.  Winter comes early to Mount Lemmon and Cordilleran migration begins in mid-August so she’ll have to hurry.

It looks like she’s already saved time by reusing the nest.


(*) A NOTE ABOUT “Cordilleran and “she”:  Empidonax flycatchers are notoriously hard to identify but the Cordilleran flycatcher is the Empid species that nests on the summit of Mount Lemmon, a sky island in southeastern Arizona.  The Cordilleran’s look-alike relative, the Pacific slope flycatcher, is a low elevation bird. Also, for convenience I’ve called this bird a “she” but the males help feed the nestlings so we may have been watching a “he.”  On the subject of “he/she” I am borrowing my husband’s Poetic License.  😉


(photos by Donna Memon)

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Jul 30 2015


Published by under Songbirds,Travel

Magnificent hummingbird (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Magnificent hummingbird (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

If you want to see a really magnificent hummingbird in the U.S. the only place to find one is in the mountains of southeastern Arizona.

Magnificent isn’t just an adjective, it’s part of his name:  The Magnificent Hummingbird (Eugenes fulgens).

Arizona is the northern edge of his range which extends south to Panama.  According to Wikipedia you can find him “at the edges and clearings of oak forests from about 2000 m altitude [6,500 feet] up to the timberline.”  He’s listed as common at the Southwest Wings Festival.

Common, but not a common size.  He’s the second largest hummingbird north of Mexico and can be twice as big as a ruby-throated hummingbird.

And he’s uncommonly dark.  Though he has a tiny white patch behind his eye, both males and females look black until the light shines on their iridescent feathers.

When you see one of these hummingbirds, you hope for a splash of sunshine.

The photo above is one of those magnificent moments when a black bird flashes color and takes your breath away.


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

p.s. I saw this Life Bird yesterday at Santa Rita Lodge in Madera Canyon.  His throat flashed bright green, much greener than this photo.  :-)

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Jul 29 2015

How Big Is An Elegant Trogon?

Published by under Songbirds,Travel

Male Elegant Trogon (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Male Elegant Trogon (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Today I’m at the Southwest Wings Festival hoping to see the holy grail of Arizona birding: an elegant trogon (Trogon elegans).

In my imagination these birds are huge — the size of crows — but they’re really only as big as American robins.  Their bulky necks, long tails and upright posture make them look big in photographs. The male’s red breast and deep voice add to the illusion.

Elegant trogons range from southeastern Arizona through Mexico to Costa Rica where they live in deciduous forests and nest in natural cavities in sycamores or unused woodpecker holes.  They leave Arizona for the winter(*) but are still present in July … which is why I’m here.

If I’m lucky enough to see this Life Bird I’ll let you know if he “shrank” to his normal size.  😉


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

(*) I heard yesterday that because of warmer winters at least one pair of elegant trogons now stays in the area year-round.

p.s.  On July 31 in Huachuca Canyon I saw four elegant trogons.  Wow!

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Jul 22 2015

Mistaken For A Bug

Ruby-throated hummingbird compared to a cicada (photo by Kate St. John)

Ruby-throated hummingbird (left) compared to a cicada (right) — photo by Kate St. John

There’s a moth called the hummingbird clearwing moth that we sometimes mistake for a hummingbird, but did you know that a hummingbird can be mistaken for a bug?

On Saturday at the Cunkelman’s Neighborhood Nestwatch banding I found an annual cicada caught in one of the mist nets.  I brought it back to the banding area and Bob Mulvihill held up a hummingbird next to it for comparison.  The two are amazingly similar when held in this position.

We rarely confuse hummingbirds with bugs but Bob has seen a bug — a cicada killer — mistake a hummingbird caught in a mist net for a cicada.

Cicada killers (Sphecius speciosus) are large, solitary wasps that feed on nectar as adults.  Each female digs an underground nest with chambers where she plans to lay her eggs.  Then she patrols the area looking for cicadas to collect as food for her young.  When she finds one she stings it with a venom that paralyzes it, then carries the cicada back to the nest where she places it in a chamber, lays one egg on it, and seals the chamber.  When the egg hatches the larva eats the paralyzed cicada.  (Yes, I’ll say it.  Ewwww!)

Cicada killer with subdued cicada (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Eastern cicada killer wasp with subdued cicada (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Because cicada killers are solitary, they aren’t aggressive toward humans.  You have to work very hard to make one sting you and when it does the sting is reported to be as harmless as a pinprick.

Bob told us the cicada killer tried to subdue the hummingbird with a sting but the venom did not affect the bird.  Whew!


(comparison photo of hummingbird and cicada by Kate St. John, cicada killer wasp photo from Wikimedia Commons; click on the image to see the original)

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Jul 20 2015

Yellow Shoulders

Published by under Bird Anatomy,Songbirds

Male American goldfinch, two years or older, at banding (photo by Kate St. John)

Male American goldfinch, two years or older, at banding (photo by Kate St. John)

Here’s something we learned at the Neighborhood Nestwatch banding at Marcy Cunkelman’s last Saturday that you won’t notice through binoculars.

Did you know that first-year male American goldfinches look different than the older males?

Full adult males, two years and older, have bright yellow shoulders (scapulars) that match their backs as shown above.  First-year males have a mix of black and yellow on their shoulders.

Here’s a first-year male held by the National Aviary’s Bob Mulvihill while he explains the color.

First-yearmale American goldfinch, at banding (photo by Kate St. John)

First-yearmale American goldfinch, at banding (photo by Kate St. John)

And here’s a side-by-side comparison of the scapulars: full adult on the left, first-year male on the right.  Notice how the younger male has black under the yellow on his shoulder.

Scapulars on 2-year+ male American goldfinch compared to 1st-year male on the right (photo by Kate St. John)

Pure yellow scapulars on 2-year+ male American goldfinch (left) compared to black+yellow on 1st-year male (right) — photo by Kate St. John

First-year males are old enough to breed but they don’t have any experience yet.  Perhaps the ladies use the colors as a signal when picking mates.

If you look closely for the yellow shoulders, you too can separate the men from the boys.


(photos by Kate St. John)

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Jun 30 2015

Bald Bird Season

Published by under Songbirds

Bald northern cardinal, June 2015 (photo by Matt Webb)

Bald northern cardinal, June 2015 (photo by Matt Webb)

It’s that time of year again when some birds go bald.  Don’t worry. They won’t stay that way.

Bird bander Matt Webb explained why this happens when he posted his photo of a bald northern cardinal on Facebook:

“The loss of [head] feathers is due to feather mites. They are able to deal with the mites on the rest of their body, but end up breaking their feathers off their heads when they scratch at the mites. They will re-grow the feathers this fall. It’s actually a pretty common and normal occurrence with Northern Cardinals and Blue Jays, and seems to be prevalent at this time of year.”

Two weeks ago I saw a bald blue jay near Schenley Plaza.  He didn’t want me to take his picture so I had to keep my distance.  In this photo he almost looks normal …

Bald blue jay, June 2015 (photo by Kate St. John)

Bald blue jay, June 2015 (photo by Kate St. John)

… but when he turns his head he’s bald with an Elizabethan ruff around his neck.  😉

Bald blue jay, June 2015 (photo by Kate St. John)

Bald blue jay, June 2015 (photo by Kate St. John)

When birds are bald you can see that …

  • Their ears are holes below their eyes, though usually covered by feathers. Our ears are holes too, partly covered by a flap of skin.
  • Their eyes are large compared to the size of their heads.
  • The northern cardinal’s skin and the roots of his feathers are black.
  • The blue jay’s skin is dark but the roots of his feathers are not.


Have you seen any bald birds lately?

(Vultures don’t count! They’re always bald.)


(photo of bald northern cardinal photo by Matt Webb, photos of bald blue jay by Kate St. John)

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Jun 19 2015

Recognize Individual Song Sparrows

Song sparrow at Schenley Plaza, 2013 (photo by Peter Bell)

Song sparrow at Schenley Plaza (photo by Peter Bell)

Believe it or not with practice you can recognize individual song sparrows by voice.

I learned this when I read about the pioneering work of Margaret Morse Nice in Columbus, Ohio.  In 1928 she began an eight year study of song sparrows at her home along the Olentangy River.  Her Studies in the life history of the Song Sparrow changed the course of American ornithology.

Margaret Morse Nice banded the song sparrows and made meticulous observations of their behavior.  She listened carefully to their songs and wrote down the variations including the phrases they borrowed from neighbors.

Her research spawned many studies of song development. We now know that: Songbirds learn their songs by listening when they are adolescents, practicing phrases, and eventually mastering their species song.  Each bird then improvises to make the song his own.  The males work hard to be skilled and unique singers because the females are attracted by the best courtship songs.

I wondered if I could recognize an individual’s song so I started at home.

My backyard is the territory of a male song sparrow whose tune I hear every morning.  Eventually I learned his morning song(*). If I could write musical notation I’d put it here.

From my front porch I can hear “my” song sparrow and my neighbor’s front yard sparrow counter-singing to maintain their territories.  I know those two don’t sound the same.

I can’t identify more than one tune yet but I can recognize “my” song sparrow in the morning now.

Try it and see.


(photo by Peter Bell)

(*) Dr. Tony Bledsoe says that each song sparrow may have up to five distinct songs.  So though I’ve learned the “Good morning” tune I’ve got a lot more learning to do!

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Jun 11 2015

Almost The Same

Published by under Peregrines,Songbirds

Downy woodpecker juvenile and adult (photo by Marcy Cunkelman)

Downy woodpecker juvenile and adult (photo by Marcy Cunkelman)

In most bird species by the time baby birds leave the nest they resemble their parents, but they don’t look quite the same.  The young are still in juvenile plumage.

Peregrine falcons, for instance, are the same size and shape as their parents but the juveniles are brown and cream colored where the adults are charcoal gray and white.  The juvenile plumage lasts two years and may protect young peregrines from attack by territorial adults.  (“I’m too young to breed. Don’t hit me!”)

Comparison of adult and juvenile peregrine plumage (photos by Kim Steininger)

Comparison of peregrine plumage: adult (left, looking at photographer) and juvenile (right, looking down) — photos by Kim Steininger


Pictured at top, the two downy woodpeckers are parent and child.  You can tell who’s who by their behavior — the parents feed their kids.  You can also tell by plumage.

On Throw Back Thursday, learn the color differences between juvenile and adult male downy woodpeckers at They Almost Look Alike (from 2008).


(photo credits:  downy woodpeckers by Marcy Cunkelman, peregrine falcon photos by Kim Steininger)

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