Category Archives: Bird Behavior

Can’t Fly Right Now

Canada geese during flightless period in July (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

23 June 2021

Feathers wear out so birds molt to replace them. Most species molt their flight feathers one pair at a time, losing a matching feather on each side, so they can continue to fly. Not so with swans, geese and whistling ducks. They replace all their feathers shortly after the breeding season in a single annual synchronous molt. During the molt they cannot fly.

Though it seems crazy to lose the ability to fly these large heavy birds are safe on water and unsafe in flight if missing a few feathers. It works for them to lose these flight feathers all at once.

Canada goose flight feathers highlighted on the wing (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Geese rarely display their stubby wings but you can tell when they’re molting by looking at their tails. Most of the year their flight feathers cover their rumps (left). When molting (right) you can see a white rump patch.

Not-molting vs. molting appearance in Canada geese (photos from Wikimedia Commons)

Right now in Pittsburgh Canada geese are in their flightless period that lasts six weeks from mid-June to August. You’ll see them flock in or near large bodies of water, feeding on land and walking to the water to swim to safety. You might even notice they are not at grassy feeding places, such as Flagstaff Hill, which don’t have bodies of water nearby. Such sites are unsafe when they cannot fly.

Have you seen any Canada geese flying lately? No. Because they can’t.

p.s. Goose mitigation plans do not harass geese during their flightless period. The best mitigation is done before they nest. For example, see the Allegheny Commons goose mitigation plan here.

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

Raven Kids at Play

Ravens wrestle (screenshot from @CrytzerFry)

18 June 2021

After young ravens fledge they hang out with their parents for one to six weeks and putter with their siblings. Sometimes they pick mock fights and wrestle like puppies.

@CrytzerFry’s camera trap caught them in the act.

Ravens just wanna have fun. 😉

p.s. How do we know these are young ravens? The gape (opening of their beaks) and mouth are pink — even pinker when they are younger.

Juvenile ravens at Veldhoven Zoo, Netherlands (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

(screenshot from embedded Twitter video by Melissa Crytzer Fry @CrytzerFry, photo from Wikimedia Commons)

(*) “WWE” = World Wrestling Entertainment

Playing In The Sky

Three juvenile peregrines play Chase Me in Ohio, 2014 (photo by Chad+Chris Saladin)

16 June 2021

Yesterday afternoon I scanned the Cathedral of Learning with binoculars as I walked through Carnegie Mellon’s campus. Off in the distance I saw three juvenile peregrines playing in the sky.

The moment was perfect for a game of tag with brilliant sun and a strong gusty wind. I could see the three flipping and dipping in a game that builds important skills for hunting and courtship.

The photo at top, taken in Ohio by Chad+Chris Saladin, gives you a hint of what I saw from here.

Cathedral of Learning as seen from Carnegie Mellon, 15 June 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)

So does this slideshow of Kim Steininger’s peregrine photos from Wilmington, Delaware, 2007.

  • Two juvenile peregrines play tag, 2008 (photos by Kim Steininger)

Yesterday I saw three of four juvenile Pitt peregrines plus one adult in a matter of minutes. I’m glad I was far enough away to see the whole event.

p.s. The four Pitt peregrines fledged in two groups over a period of one week. The first two fledged on 4 & 5 June, the third late in the day on 8 June, the fourth around 11 June. Because the first group flew so well by the time the second group fledged it was impossible to find all four at the same time. Fledging date of #4 is based on behavior and perching location. Some perches at Pitt are used only by newly fledged birds, then never used again.

Yesterday’s play session in the sky was 1 male and 2 females. Size was obvious.

(photos by Chad+Chris Saladin, Kate St. John and Kim Steininger)

Stay Away From My Baby

Raven strafes a coyote that got too close to her youngster (screenshot from tweeted video by @CrytzerFry)

8 June 2021

Ravens and coyotes can work together but not when a fledgling raven is involved. A motion detection camera captured this mother raven’s reaction when a coyote came too close to her fledgling.

Keep your distance! Stay away from my baby!

p.s. Sometimes ravens and coyotes work together. See these anecdotes from the Adirondacks (https://www.adirondackavianexpeditions.com/behavior/communication-between-common-ravens-and-eastern-coyotes-an-observation) and San Francisco (https://coyoteyipps.com/2010/06/11/crows-and-ravens/).

(screenshot from embedded Twitter video by Melissa Crytzer Fry @CrytzerFry)

The Passerine Chicken

Female (top) and male cowbird (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

20 May 2021

Brown-headed cowbirds (Molothrus ater) are the blackbird we love to hate.

Well known as a brood parasite, the female cowbird lays her eggs in the nests of smaller birds. The hosts foster her eggs and chicks while their own nestlings die. It’s particularly sad when we see a warbler feeding a cowbird chick knowing that his own nestlings did not survive.

Brown-headed cowbird chick fostered by common yellowthroat warbler (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

According to Birds of Stanford only 3% of cowbird eggs make it to adulthood but this is achieved by flooding the market with cowbird eggs.

One brown-headed cowbird egg among 5 of an eastern phoebe’s (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

An average female cowbird can lay 40 eggs per season, usually one per nest, from mid-or-late April to mid-July. She doesn’t have a physical boundary between clutches, no regression of ovaries to shut off egg laying between clutches, so she just keeps going. This has lead ornithologists to characterize female cowbirds as “passerine chickens.”

Considering her output the female brown-headed cowbird is the white leghorn chicken of songbirds. Fortunately she doesn’t lay as many eggs as a leghorn, 300 per year!

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

Crow Steals Wallet

Carrion crow (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

17 May 2021

Earlier this month author Wyl Menmuir went snorkeling at Flushing Beach in Falmouth, England to do research for his next book. Things took a turn when a crow(*) showed up.

I went snorkeling and came back an hour later. As I was getting out of the sea I saw the crow pull my trousers out of my bag which were rolled up. It pulled the trousers out and then went into the pocket and got my wallet out. I had my fins on, there was no way I could get to it. … The crow just looked at me with my wallet in its mouth and took it up to the top of the tree.

Falmouth Packet UK, Wyl Menmuir has wallet stolen by crow at Flushing beach, 13 May 2021

But it got worse. The crow opened the wallet, pulled out the contents and scattered them in the tree!

Click on the news link below to find out how Menmuir got most of his wallet back.

At least one carrion crow at Flushing Beach has a reputation.

(*) It was not an American crow (Corvus brachyrhynchos). In England the crows are carrion crows (Corvus corone).

(carrion crow photo from Wikimedia Commons; click on the caption to see the original)

I’m Warning You!

Peregrine, GG, drives away a bald eagle, 2016 (photo by Chad+Chris Saladin)

12 May 2021

During the nesting season birds attack predators that threaten their young, driving them away from the nest before they get close. Peregrine falcons remember these threats all year long and are quick to harass raptors. Bald eagles are often their targets.

Even immature peregrines without a nest will harass raptors. This young peregrine drove five bald eagles off the ice in Cleveland one day last winter.

Immature peregrine harasses bald eagle, Cleveland Ohio, winter 2021 (photo by Chad+Chris Saladin)

Pomarine jaegars (Stercorarius pomarinus) are ocean predators who steal the catch of other birds and prey on their young. A peregrine in Cleveland could not stand it when a jaegar ventured off Lake Erie to the Cuyahoga River in January 2015. See more photos at Peregrine vs. Pomarine.

Peregrine falcon harasses pomarine jaegar, Cleveland, Ohio, January 2015 (photo by Chad+Chris Saladin)

Turkey vultures can’t catch a peregrine but will eat peregrine eggs if they get a chance. Below a male peregrine, Wade, drives off a turkey vulture. Go away!

Peregrine attacks turkey vulture, 2019 (photo by Chad+Chris Saladin)

Nesting peregrines are exceptionally fierce. This video by FaB Peregrines shows the male who nests at Charing Cross Hospital, London, UK attacking a buzzard (*hawk) that came too close.

FaB describes what happened:

I was working around 2.10 p.m. when I heard loud Peregrine alarm calls. I couldn’t see anything at the front, checked from my balcony at the back and spotted a Buzzard and seconds later a Peregrine dive bombing it! I went and grabbed my camera and caught a little bit of the action. This was Tom on his own, Azina was in the box with the chick the whole time.
5 May 2021 at 2.15 p.m. Fulham

When a peregrine sees a threat he doesn’t hesitate. “I’m warning you!”

p.s. Do you like the peregrine photos? Check out Chad+Chris Saladin’s Facebook page.

(*) In the U.S. “buzzard” means vulture. In Britain the buzzard is a hawk, Buteo buteo.

(photos by Chad+Chris Saladin, video from FaB Peregrines, Charing Cross Hospital, London, UK)

Why Do They Wag Their Tails?

Two tail bobbers: Spotted sandpiper, Louisiana waterthrush (photos from Wikimedia Commons)

14 April 2021

One of the joys of early spring is finding the first Louisiana waterthrush (Parkesia motacilla) of the year as it forages along a stream and sings its loud distinctive song. The bird is so loud that we hear him first then look for movement along the water’s edge. He stands out because he constantly bobs his tail. In fact he bobs the entire back end of his body!

Just half a minute of this video illustrates what I mean.

A few weeks later the spotted sandpiper (Actitis macularius) arrives to walk the water’s edge bobbing the entire back end of his body, too.

Same habitat, same movement. Is there some advantage in drawing attention to one’s back end? Why do these birds wag their tails? I found a partial answer at All About Birds:

… waterthrushes don’t actually wag the tail, they dip (or teeter) the entire rear of the body by moving their ankle joints. This motion is very much like the bobbing of Solitary and Spotted Sandpipers, which share their wetland habitats. It’s been suggested that this habit might either help them avoid scaring off their prey or possibly startle their prey into motion.

All About Birds, overview of Louisiana Waterthrush

There’s plenty of time to watch them teeter in the weeks ahead. My first Louisiana waterthrush of 2021 was at Cedar Creek Park in Westmoreland County on 30 March. I expect the first spotted sandpiper next week.

Bonus! Here’s a closeup of a Louisiana waterthrush singing:

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

p.s. Others birds pump their tails including eastern phoebes, palm warblers, hermit thrushes, wagtails and pipits. It is not quite the same motion.

Roadrunners Are Songbirds

Greater roadrunner, Imperial County, CA (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

9 April 2021

Roadrunners coo!

Who knew?

(photo from Wikimedia Commons, tweets from Wendy @geococcyxcal)