When I began watching peregrine falcons 22 years ago, peregrines were endangered and our smallest falcon, the American kestrel, was doing just fine, but the tables have turned. Peregrines have fully recovered from extinction in eastern North America while kestrels have lost half their population and face an uncertain future. The New York Times described their plight this week in The Mystery of the Vanishing Kestrels: What’s Happening to This Flashy Falcon? Can we save this beautiful bird before it’s gone?
American kestrels are versatile birds. At home in grasslands, meadows, deserts, cities and suburbs, they eat grasshoppers, crickets, large flying insects, beetles, lizards, small rodents and small birds.
Kestrels nest in cavities in buildings, trees, cliffs and nestboxes but more than half of their sites are unoccupied now in eastern North America. I’ve seen the decline first hand in Pittsburgh. A decade ago there were two kestrel nests within a few blocks of Downtown’s Third Avenue peregrines. Now there are none.
Dr. John Smallwood, a professor of biology at Montclair State University interviewed in the New York Times article, has monitored 100 kestrel nestboxes in New Jersey for nearly 30 years. The number of occupied nests at his sites peaked at 61 in 2002 and has dropped ever since.
What’s going wrong for kestrels? Are they out-competed for prey? Are they ingesting poison? What’s happening on their wintering grounds? Are insect declines affecting kestrels? Are neonicotinoid pesticides a factor? And what about the bigger questions of habitat and climate change?
Many kestrel experts think it’s a combination of causes. Dr. Smallwood agrees, but he still has a top suspect. “If I’m only allowed one word: grasshoppers.”
The one parameter that seems to be declining over time, researchers say, is survival of young birds in the summer.
… the thinking is that those juveniles may be more dependent on insect prey because it’s easier to catch.
Once a year, from late June until August, Canada geese spend six weeks molting all their wing feathers. This means they can’t fly in July, nor even in late June.
On a walk at Herr’s Island yesterday I saw many Canada geese swimming in the river and a few of their primary feathers — the “fingertip” feathers — scattered on shore. At first I wondered if a goose had been attacked and then I realized the feathers were a sign of their synchronous molt. Here’s a snapshot from a similar discovery made by Rebecca Johnson in 2020. (Click on the snapshot to see her video on YouTube.)
Even if you don’t see discarded wing feathers you can tell a Canada goose is molting because its white rump is visible above the dark tail. It’s really noticeable from above.
Sometimes you can see the pin feathers coming in. This marked up photo highlights the pin feathers and visible white rump.
In late June and July when they cannot fly Canada geese are safe only in water. You’ll see them feeding just a short walk from a large body of water and notably absent from landlocked places.
When they can fly again and their tails will look like this.
Have you noticed Canada geese avoiding people lately? They aren’t as bold when they can’t fly in late June and July.
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.