As humans we recognize each other by face, body shape and the way a person walks, but it’s rare that we can recognize individual birds. Birds move too fast to examine their faces and in most cases we don’t know what to look for. However if you can “hold them still” in photographs it’s possible to see patterns. This is especially true of your backyard birds that can be photographed over and over.
Blue jays all look the same … but not really. Their facial markings can be unique enough to tell them apart in photos. Lesley The Bird Nerd in Ontario, Canada has photographed her local blue jays for many years and learned to tell who’s who by face. Check out her 6.5 minute video below.
On Throw Back Thursday an old topic but a good one …
Humans have a trait called handedness in which we show a preference for using one hand over the other. Interestingly, dominance in the left hemisphere of our brains results in right-handedness and vice versa. About 90% of us are right-handed.
Pigeons show it with their feet. If we could watch closely enough we’d notice that a pigeon leads with one foot when it lands, choosing to land first on its dominant foot. Find out more in this 2016 article:
(photo from Wikimedia Commons; click on the caption to see the original)
This red-tailed hawk is not consuming the lump near his mouth. He’s casting a pellet of indigestible bones, fur and feathers that came up from his gizzard. Pellets are a normal by-product of digestion in birds of prey. If you find one, it can tell you what the bird was eating.
We always find pellets during annual maintenance at the Pitt peregrine nestbox including these three found during our 9 January visit (paperclip for scale). The pellets can be many months old.
A closeup shows feathers and bones (no fur*) but is not very enlightening due to the pellet’s age. Fortunately I stored the pellets in a ziploc bag. After they thawed a small fly appeared inside the bag, hatched from eggs laid on the pellet in much warmer weather. Ewww!
Peregrine pellets are slightly longer than a paperclip. Some birds make much larger pellets.
On a hike at Audubon Greenway Conservation Area last Wednesday we found a surprisingly large pellet containing fur, bones and a big tooth. It was so large that we wondered if a bird could produce it. I didn’t pick it up but it looked as though it could span my palm.
A system of four sexes is quite rare and there’s a reason. As Balakrishnan says, “it is evolutionarily unstable and one of these alleles will ultimately go extinct.”
White-throated sparrows have declined 69% in the U.S. over the past 50 years and overall (including Canada) by 33%. Are they declining because of habitat loss? window kills? Is their four-sex system also taking a toll? If so they’re probably the only species with that challenge.
Three days ago the temperature in Pittsburgh fell from 40oF to -1oF in just 25 hours. Standing water froze rock hard. Everyone was walking on ice.
We humans have to wear insulated boots when the temperature is below freezing but birds walk on ice with their bare feet. They don’t they get frostbite because …
Birds are specially adapted to stay comfortable when it’s cold. They have fewer nerves and blood vessels in their feet and the veins and arteries in their legs are intertwined so that cold blood leaving their feet is warmed by incoming arterial blood.
Feathers are vital to a bird’s survival but they wear out and have to be replaced by molting. The best time to do this is when feathers are not urgently needed for migration, courtship or warmth. That makes summer the time to molt. Here are a few examples.
Ruby-throated hummingbirds (Archilochus colubris), above, have to look flashy at the start of the breeding season so they molt their body feathers from June to August. On the wintering grounds they molt flight feathers in preparation for their strenuous spring migration. Look closely at ruby-throats this summer and you’ll see that their body feathers are not as perfect as they were in May.
Northern cardinals (Cardinalis cardinalis) wrap up their last brood of the season in mid summer and begin to molt in mid July. By August they will look very ragged, male and female shown below. Some will be bald.
Male and female peregrine falcons (Falco peregrinus) molt at slightly different times. Females molt their primary wing feathers while they’re incubating eggs (March-May) because their mates are doing all the hard flying to provide food. The males molt their primaries in July after teaching the young to hunt.
Birds molt the same flight feather on each side of the body so that flight remains balanced. Morela’s wings look sleek while she’s sunbathing because she replaced her wing feathers a few months ago.
However she is molting her two central tail feathers. Click on the photo below for a highlighted version showing the two growing feathers.
Meanwhile Ecco is looking very ragged (below). I saw him flying yesterday with a feather obviously growing in on each wing.
Have you noticed that Canada geese (Branta canadensis) are not grazing in their usual upland haunts? They are staying near water because they cannot fly while they molt all their primary feathers at once.
On Sunday at Duck Hollow we saw a female mallard with odd plumage. She was paired with a male mallard but she resembled a male in eclipse plumage. Was this duck a hybrid? Or was it something else?
Michelle Kienholz was so intrigued that she took photos and sent them to the Duck ID group where she learned an amazing thing about female ducks. This odd mallard at Duck Hollow is an “intersex hen.” She is becoming male in a process called spontaneous sex reversal (SSR).
Female ducks are born with two ovaries but only one develops. The left ovary actively pumps out hormones to stifle the male genes, making the bird truly female. If a disease damages the only ovary and it stops producing hormones the female duck spontaneously turns into a male. Experiments have shown that the now-male duck is able to breed and fertilize eggs.
Because most ducks are sexually dimorphic a female with a dead ovary eventually looks male as well. The intersex hen at Duck Hollow is partway through her/his outward transformation, which is why she/he is in eclipse-like plumage.
Notice the clues in her/his feathers that indicate the transition:
tail feathers are black and curly white,
green feathers interspersed on head
breast is darkening (top photo)
color line between neck and breast is becoming white
For more information on bird sex chromosomes see Anatomy: W and Z. For photos of eclipse plumage see Mallards in Eclipse. And here is an article about spontaneous sex reversal in chickens, a problem for chicken farmers.
Despite recurring winter weather we are more than halfway to spring and the birds know it. As their bodies prepare for the breeding season they develop brighter feathers, skin and beaks. Here are two backyard birds who make this transformation. One turns redder, the other loses stars.
Northern cardinals (Cardinalis cardinalis) molt from July to October, changing out their old feathers for new. At first the male doesn’t look bright red because the very tips of his new feathers are actually gray. You can see the gray feather tips on his back in the photo below.
By mid-winter the gray tips wear off and the male cardinal becomes brilliant red for the breeding season.
Cardinals get their color from what they eat so diet plays a part and there are regional and habitat differences that affect the color. But no matter where they live, male cardinals turn redder in winter.
European starlings (Sturnus vulgaris) have a similar strategy for changing into breeding plumage. When their feathers are new in autumn each one is tipped with white so their bodies appear to be sprinkled with stars — hence the name “starling.” This close up shows that on new feathers the stars are tiny V’s on the feather tips.
Over the winter the white tips wear off, especially on their head and breast feathers. By the time it’s breeding season their faces and chests are shiny, sleek and iridescent. Starlings lose their stars in the spring.
There is one more transformation that starlings make that will tell you which are male and female.
In the winter starlings’ beaks are dark brown but turn bright yellow in spring. You can tell the difference between male and female by looking at the color at the base of their beaks — the part closest to their faces.
Just like the baby colors — girls are pink, boys are blue. You can see it with binoculars.
Here’s a side-by-side comparison. The blue on the male at left is easiest to see. The pink on the female at right is pale and takes more effort to figure out.
(Cardinal photo by Chuck Tague. Starling photos from Wikimedia Commons; click on the captions to see the originals)
These high gloss eggs look like ceramic but were actually laid by members of the Tinamou family, native to Central and South America.
Great tinamou egg
Elegant-crested tinamou egg
Thicket tinamou (Crypturellus cinnamomeus) egg
Tataupa tinamou egg
Tinamous are shy, secretive ground-dwelling birds that resemble chickens but are closely related to ostriches and emus. 46 species range in size from the 8’7″ small-billed tinamou (Crypturellus parvirostris) to the 16-19″ grey tinamou (Tinamus tao). No matter where they live, rainforest, savannah or shrubland, all of them lay shiny eggs in a nest on the ground.
One would think that shiny eggs would be easily found by predators, especially after researchers examined the cuticle, the egg’s outside layer, and found:
They quantified its smoothness down to the nanometer scale and measured the shininess of the mirrorlike surface, finding that tinamou eggs are up to 14 times as glossy as the average chicken egg. A spectroscopy test also revealed that the blue eggs were iridescent (the green and brown eggs were too shiny for the spectrometer to accurately measure).
White-throated sparrows are back for the winter. Here’s something to remember when you see them.
In the world of birds, the bright ones are male and the dull ones are female, right?
Not so for white-throated sparrows (Zonotrichia albicollis). In this species the bright white versus dull tan stripes are color morphs. The bright white-striped bird at top can be either male or female. The tan-striped below is also either sex.
The bird with bright yellow lores on the left could be female. The one with dull yellow could be male.
Amazingly the colors match up to personality traits regardless of sex.
White-striped birds are bold, aggressive, philandering and not particularly caring of their kids. They are not the best parents.
Tan-striped birds are gentle and very caring of their young. They’re the good parents among white-throated sparrows.
Since each bird can tell the other bird’s personality at a glance, you would think the gentle would mate with the gentle and the bold with the bold. But that’s not how they do it. They always mix it up.
White-striped (aggressive) males mate with tan-striped (care-giving) females and tan-striped (gentle) males mate with white-striped (philandering) females. Thus the color morphs and personalities persist.