Archive for the 'Bird Behavior' Category

Sep 15 2017

The Chimney Air Show

This month chimney swifts (Chaetura pelagica) are migrating to South America, leaving before the weather's too cold for the flying insects they eat on the wing.

At dusk the flocks swirl around large chimneys then dive in to roost.  This video from New Glasgow, Nova Scotia shows them streaming into an old schoolhouse chimney.  Wow!

Don't worry when you see smoke coming out of the chimney at the end of the video. An observer explains:  "There are actually two flues in the chimney. The chimney swifts use the larger flue, while the smoke is vented from the smaller flue, so the birds are safe. In fact, they probably benefit from the bit of heat that comes from the smaller flue."

Stake out a chimney in town to enjoy the air show or monitor a wooden chimney swift tower near you.

Chimney swifts are declining and listed as "Near Threatened" so Audubon of Western Pennsylvania has placed chimney swift towers in our area.  ASWP needs your help tracking whether swifts are using the towers during migration.  Click here for information on how you can help.


(video from JimHowDigsDirt on YouTube)

p.s. Thanks to Joe Fedor for sending me ASWP's chimney swift news.

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Sep 08 2017

In The Path of The Storm

8 September 2017, 10am EDT:

Many of us are watching with morbid fascination as Hurricane Irma churns through the Caribbean on its way to Florida.  Even if we aren't in Irma's path, we know people who are and we're worried.

After Irma passed over the U.S. Virgin Islands (USVI) I searched the Internet for footage of St. John, USVI, where I visited in January 2015.  I found information in this USA Today article with links to the USVI Hurricane Irma Alert Facebook page.  Beyond the obvious human suffering, I am struck by how brown the landscape is now.  All the leaves were blown off the trees.

Where are the birds?  What did they do during the storm?

Fortunately birds have strategies for coping with bad weather including:

Shelter in Place

Like us, birds hide out of the wind and rain and wait for the storm to end.  They use man-made structures, thickets, and deep valleys where the wind is less intense. Their strategies are described here in Shelter From The Storm.

Pigeons sheltering from rain in West Norwood Cemetery, UK (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Pigeons sheltering from heavy rain (photo from Wikimedia Commons)


Birds can sense when a storm is coming and often evacuate before it strikes.  A study of golden-winged warblers found that they left Tennessee a day ahead of a tornado: Warblers Fled Tornado One Day Ahead.  Land birds in Florida can move northwest as Irma approaches but the birds on Caribbean islands had nowhere to go.

F5 Tornado approaching Elie, Manitoba on June 22, 2007 (photo by Justin Hobson via Wikimedia Commons)


Fly In the Eye of the Storm

Sea birds have a third option.  As they fly in search of a calm spot, they end up in the eye of the hurricane where they travel with the storm until the winds die down.  This NASA image shows that the eye of Irma on Sept 5 was larger than both Anguilla and St. Martin so it was probably a relatively safe place.  However, the hurricane won't lose power until it's over land so the sea birds may be exhausted when they finally stop far inland.

The eye of Hurricane Irma passes over Anguilla and St. Martin, 5 Sept 2017 (image from NASA Sport)

The eye of Hurricane Irma passing over Anguilla and St. Martin, 5 Sept 2017 (image from NASA Sport)


People and birds in the path of Hurricane Irma are all getting ready.  I think of my friends and family in Florida.


For more the latest information on current hurricanes, see NOAA's National Hurricane Center.

(photo credits: Hurricane Irma satellite animation from NOAA, photo of pigeons sheltering from Wikimedia Commons, photo of tornado from Wikimedia Commons, Eye of Hurricane Irma from NASA Sport. Click on the images to see the originals.)

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Sep 04 2017

Learn From Working Birds

screenshot from PlantForAbundance

On Labor Day let's take a look at some working birds.

Chickens were first domesticated about 9,000 years ago in both China and India but the idea didn't really take off for another 2,000 to 4,000 years. Then it spread slowly westward to Persia (Iran), Egypt, Europe and Africa.  Chickens are now the most numerous bird species on Earth because humans like to eat them and their eggs.

Because of our close relationship to chickens we tend to forget that they are birds and we can learn from their behavior.

What does a hen do when she wants to lay an egg?  This video answers the question among a flock of free range chickens.

"What is my chicken telling me?"


(video by Plant Abundance on YouTube)

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Aug 28 2017

Beer Bee?

American goldfinch, male (photo by Chuck Tague)

American goldfinch, male (photo by Chuck Tague)

At this time of year I often hear a single bird asking this question: "Beer Bee?"

It's a call of the American goldfinch.

Click to learn what it means ... "Beer Bee"



(photo by Chuck Tague)

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Aug 25 2017

Fat in Winter, Thin in Summer

Northern cardinals in May and February (photos by Cris Hamilton)

Northern cardinals in May and February (photos by Cris Hamilton)

Why do birds look fat in winter and thin in the summer?  Have they lost weight?

No.  They're trying to stay cool.

Underneath their smooth outer feathers birds wear down coats all year long.  The down keeps them especially warm when they fluff it out to hold more heat next to the skin.  This fluffing makes them look fat on cold winter days.

When it's hot, they can't take off their down coats so they force hot air out of the down by compressing their outer feathers.  This makes them look thin.

The cardinal on the left, above, is not the thinnest one I've ever seen.  Cris Hamilton took his picture in May when the temperature was pleasant.  He'll look considerably thinner this month.

It's just another way that birds cope with heat.


p.s. We think of down as white but on a northern cardinal it's black.  Click here to see a northern cardinal's body feather, called a semi-plume, black at the root and red at the tip.

(photos by Cris Hamilton)

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Aug 18 2017

As The Crow Flies

On Wednesday we learned how flapping birds save energy.  Today we'll watch them fly in slow motion.

In this video from India, see the house crows (Corvus splendens) use their slotted wings to stay aloft in the strong wind.  Someone off camera is tossing bread in the air.  The crows hover and flap to catch it.

Slotted wings save energy as the crow flies.

It looks like fun.


p.s. Test your skills at identifying birds in flight.  Find a pigeon (or three) that parachutes in to join the flock.  How can you tell it's a pigeon? Pigeons have pointed wings.

(video by Sudhir, Suke on YouTube)

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Aug 15 2017

How Will Birds React To The Eclipse?

Asleep: mallard and European coot (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Two birds roosting, mallard and European coot (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

How will birds and animals react to the solar eclipse on Monday, August 21?  Will they act differently during the total eclipse (from Oregon to South Carolina) compared to the partial eclipse here in Pittsburgh? You can help Science answer these questions.

We have anecdotes about animal behavior during solar eclipses but not a lot of scientific data.

People have noticed that birds stop singing, farm animals return to the barn, and night critters wake up.  Are they reacting to totality as if it's a miniature night?  Or is it something else?

Science doesn't have answers because the data has been hard to collect.  To reach a conclusion, the scientific method gathers data over and over again under the same conditions.  It's hard to do for total eclipses because in any one location they occur as much as 400 years apart.

Scientific method diagram (image from Wikimedia Commons)

Scientific method diagram; Knowledge is Gained (image from Wikimedia Commons)


But this time will be different. On Monday August 21, thousands -- or even millions of us -- will collect data on animal behavior before, during, and after the eclipse thanks to the Life Responds: Solar Eclipse 2017 project and the iNaturalist app. The project will analyze our data and repeat the experiment during the next eclipse.

Here's how you can help.  (Instructions are from the Life Responds: Solar Eclipse 2017 project.  Click the link for more information.)

Before the eclipse. Day(s) ahead of time.

  1. Download the free iNaturalist app to your Android (Google Play) or iPhone (App Store)
  2. Open the app and create an account at
  3. Practice using the app. Here are some instructions.
  4. Inside the app, join the Life Responds project
  5. Decide where you'll be observing the eclipse and know when it'll be at maximum darkness.

On the Day of the Eclipse:

  1. When you get to your observation site, choose the birds and animals you'll observe.
  2. Post at least 3 observations of the birds/animals in iNaturalist at the times below. Add anything interesting you notice in the Notes.
    1. 30 minutes before maximum darkness.
    2. During maximum darkness or totality
    3. 30 minutes after maximum darkness.
  3. Make additional observations if you wish.

The cool thing about this project is that you don't have to be in the path of totality to provide useful data.

Do the birds stop singing at dark and restart when it's light? (This is a trick question! Few of them sing in August.) Do the chimney swifts dive into chimneys to roost?  Do the squirrels go to bed?  Do the deer come out?  What about your pet?  And if you're a beekeeper, how are your honeybees?

I've downloaded the app and I'm ready.  I sure hope it isn't cloudy on Monday, August 21!


(photo from Wikimedia Commons; click on the image to see the original)

p.s. Observing Machines:  If you're in a city in the path of totality, the street lights will come on.  Will they come on in Pittsburgh?

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Aug 11 2017

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.)

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Jul 28 2017

Best Bird In The Parking Lot

On a cold day in January 2014, Anthony Francher pulled into a parking lot at Rocky Mountain National Park and was approached by this black-billed magpie who clearly expected a handout.

The bird chortles and calls.  Do you see how his eyes turn white?  He's closing his "third eyelid," the nictitating membrane.

When no food appears, the magpie seems to get irritated.

Proving what my friend Chuck Tague used to say:  The best birds are in the parking lot.


(video by Anthony Francher on YouTube, posted in January 2014)

p.s. In the video description Anthony urges people not to feed wild animals lest they become tame.

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Jun 25 2017

We’ll Stop Singing Soon

Gray catbird singing in Madison, Wisconsin (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Gray catbird singing in Madison, Wisconsin (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

This week I noticed that the birds aren't singing as much as they did a month ago.  Song sparrows and American robins are vocal but Baltimore orioles and rose-breasted grosbeaks have fallen silent.

Gray catbirds have been on and off.  They sang all spring but were quiet in mid-June.  This week they began singing again.  Birds of North America online told me why.

Gray catbirds sing from the moment they return in the spring until late in incubation, then become quiet when the eggs hatch and young are in the nest.  Their first brood fledged in mid June and now, in late June, they're nest-building and incubating their second brood.  That's why they're singing again, though not as often.

Other birds have never stopped.  Northern mockingbird "lonely bachelors" are still singing all night.  John Bauman heard this one outside his window at 1:30am Friday morning!

By mid-July most birds will stop singing.

Maybe the midnight mockingbird will take the hint but it's possible he'll continue into August.  Yikes!


(photo from Wikimedia Commons; click on the image to see the original)

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