Category Archives: Bird Behavior

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)

Nesting Underground

Burrowing owl in Florida (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

12 March 2021

Ah Spring! It’s time to nest.

Pennsylvania’s bald eagles are already on eggs in their huge stick-nests. Peregrine falcons are about to lay eggs on gravel ledges. Meanwhile, in Florida and southern California burrowing owls (Athene cunicularia) are preparing to nest underground.

Burrowing owls aren’t usually seen inside the nest because it’s dark in there. No problem. There’s plenty to see at the burrow entrance. Here’s a pair in Florida.

Happy Friday!

(photo from Wikimedia Commons, tweet from Wendy @geococcyxcal in southern California, video from photoguy73)

Great Horned Owls Don’t Always Win

Screenshot of great horned owl about to attack male bald eagle, 2 March 2021, 23:38 (from Pixcams video below)

5 March 2021

If you follow the Hays bald eagle family you know the female is incubating three eggs while her mate guards her overnight. The male has good cause to stay close. A great horned owl has been harassing them!

Almost two weeks ago, on Sunday 21 Feb 2021 at 9:26pm, a great horned owl knocked the male bald eagle off the “woods perch.”

Things seemed to calm down for a week. Then on the night of Tuesday 2 March 2021 the great horned owl came back twice.

The Hays bald eagles are probably feeling murderous about that owl right now so I’m sure they’ll like this trail cam video from Washington state in which a great horned owl is attacked by three species in a row!

Great horned owls may be everyone’s enemy but they don’t always win.

(screenshot from Pixcams video; click on the caption to see the original)

Whattaya Think?

screenshot from video of YouTube Stella the starling

26 February 2021

Stella was a European starling who was rescued when she fell out of her nest in St. Louis. Her rescuer, Rebecca B, was unable to return Stella to the nest (too high up) so she took care of the bird, planning to return her to the wild when she was old enough to survive on her own.

Rebecca B wrote in September 2015: “Well, that didn’t really work out as planned. Stella quickly became very attached and more of a pet than a wild bird. It became very clear she wasn’t suited to live outside in the wild when she began to talk and say “stella is a pretty bird” at only 4 months old! The whistles followed quickly.. and she hasn’t stopped learning.”

This week I wrote a lot about starlings. … Whattaya think?

p.s. In the U.S., European starlings (Sturnus vulgaris) are an invasive alien species and are not protected as native birds are. That means starlings, unlike native birds, can be kept as pets without a permit.

(from Stella the Starling on YouTube)

Songbirds Fight

Two female common starlings fighting in D.C, 9 April 2013 (photo by Angela N via Flickr Creative Commons license)

25 February 2021

As winter ends and spring arrives, songbirds work hard to claim territory and mates. They usually sing to warn away competitors but sometimes sound is not enough. They resort to fury.

Though songbirds are small and seem powerless they resemble their dinosaur ancestors when they fight. The action looks vicious but they move so fast that it’s hard to capture on camera.

Above, two female (European) common starlings fight on the lawn at the Library of Congress in April 2013. Below, carrion crows fight in London in 2021.

Eastern bluebirds are normally gentle but not when they fight for a mate as photographed by Karen DeSantis in 2014. Click here to see a slideshow of the bluebird fight.

Eastern bluebird fight (photo by Karen DeSantis)
Male bluebirds fighting, 2014 (photo by Karen DeSantis)

Sometimes a bird mistakes his own reflection for a rival and goes all out against a mirror. This American robin fought his reflection at Charlie Hickey’s house in 2013.

Robin fighting his reflection (photo by Charlie Hickey)
Robin fighting his reflection (photo by Charlie Hickey)

Songbird skirmishes usually end quickly. Otherwise someone will get hurt!

(photos from Angela N via Flickr Creative Commons license, Karen DeSantis and Charlie Hickey; click on the captions to see the originals)

Insists On Raising An Only Child

4 February 2021

Scarlet macaws (Ara macao) are large colorful parrots native to Central and South America whose population is locally endangered due to habitat loss and the illegal pet trade.

To stem the tide of macaw decline projects such as the Macaw Recovery Network in Costa Rica and The Macaw Society in Peru raise abandoned scarlet macaw chicks for release in the wild.

Where do the abandoned chicks come from?

Every nest has at least one because macaw parents insist on raising an only child. Read more about this unusual behavior in this vintage article: Prefers To Raise An Only Child.

Scarlet macaws at their nest hole (photo by Allan Hopkins via Flickr Creative Commons license)

(photos from Wikimedia Commons and by Allan Hopkins via Flickr Creative Commons license; click on the caption to see the original)

Why Do Rare Gulls Visit in February?

Lesser black-blacked gull in the UK (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

1 February 2021

If you want to see a rare gull that breeds in Europe or the arctic, February is the best time in Pittsburgh.

Gulls need open water for food and shelter so when ice forms they have to leave. Arctic breeders move to openings in the sea ice (polynyas) or fly south along the coasts or to the Great Lakes. When it’s very cold the Great Lakes freeze by February and the gulls move further south. That’s when they find Pittsburgh.

Though our city is 300 miles from the ocean a few gulls stay here year round. Several dozen herring gulls (Larus argentatus) breed on our rivers and a few non-breeding ring-billed gulls (Larus delawarensis) spend the summer. In winter they are joined by hundreds more.

Last week a single lesser black-backed gull (Larus fuscus) appeared at the gull roost where the Allegheny meets the Ohio. This species breeds on the coast of Europe and Iceland — and possibly now in Greenland and maritime Canada — but Pittsburgh is west of its normal range.

How did this bird get here? Here’s a wild guess: Perhaps he flew from the Atlantic to the St. Lawrence Seaway, Lake Ontario and Lake Erie and stopped when he got to Cleveland.

According to the Great Lakes Total Ice Coverage Map from 30 Jan 2021, the Toledo end of Lake Erie is fully iced up and it’s pretty thick now at Cleveland. If he was staying near Cleveland he would have to leave.

Great Lakes Surface Environmental Analysis for 30 Jan 2021 from NOAA

Will more rare gulls arrive this month? Check the Great Lakes ice conditions at NOAA for a hint of what’s to come.

(photo from Wikimedia Commons; click on the caption to see the original. map from NOAA’s Great Lakes Environmental Research Lab)

p.s. UPDATE 20 Feb 2021: Lake Erie was almost completely ice covered on 19 February 2021. See map below

Great Lakes Surface Environmental Analysis for 19 Feb 2021 from NOAA

Who’s Chirping In That Hedge?

Hedge in front of a house (photo by decaseconds via Flickr Creative Commons license)

14 January 2021

It’s winter and you’re out for a walk in the neighborhood. As you approach a hedge you can hear it’s alive with hidden birds. They sound like this:

Or this:

The noise is a flock of house sparrows (Passer domesticus) but the hedge is so dense and dark that you can’t see them. The photo below shows the problem; click on it to see the birds in a digitally brightened version.

House sparrows in a hedge in Saskatoon (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

House sparrows are always gregarious, but more so in winter when they flock together in large numbers.

Flock of house sparrows in Moscow (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

In the morning and afternoon they disperse to feed, but twice a day — at midday and in the evening — they gather in dense shrubs or evergreens and chatter for an hour or more.  If you approach the hedge they suddenly fall silent. If you peer inside you’ll find a few birds looking wary. The rest have flown out the other side.

If you wait long enough, someone else will watch the hedge for you.

Cooper’s hawk watching for backyard prey, Vienna VA (photo form Wikimedia Commons)

(photo of a hedge by decaseconds on Flickr via Creative Commons license; sparrow photos from Wikimedia Commons. Click on the captions to see the originals)

Ravens In Pittsburgh!

Raven in Schenley Park, 4 Jan 2021 (photos by Andrea Lavin Kossis)

13 January 2021

The smartest bird in the western hemisphere, the common raven (Corvus corax), has come to town and is claiming nest sites in the City of Pittsburgh. Ravens have been seen in Schenley Park, above, and are regularly found at Forbes Avenue in Frick Park. This is a big deal because…

Common ravens were extirpated from eastern North America by 1900. After 1950 they slowly recolonized remote areas of the north and Appalachians but were rarely seen in eastern cities. We were very surprised when a pair showed up at Brunot’s Island in October 2007 and eventually nested there. Since then, very slowly, ravens have become more visible in Pittsburgh.

Common raven flies by Western Penitentiary, 13 Oct 2007 (photo by Chuck Tague)

Ted Floyd, editor of the ABA’s Birding Magazine, sparked a discussion of city ravens in his blog post: How to Know the Birds: No. 51, The Impossible Raven.

Ted has Pittsburgh roots from the time when ravens were scarce, but now lives in Boulder, Colorado where ravens are common in town. His tweet prompted lots of feedback from Pittsburgh birders.

Michelle Kienholz contributed video of ravens at Forbes Ave in Frick Park including a second video of a raven “whispering” sweet nothings to his/her mate. (Michelle’s remark refers to a photo of the raven diorama at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History taken by Mike Fialkovich.)

[When the car noise abates briefly at 0:19 below you can almost hear what the raven is saying, a muted “whup … whup”.]

Watch and listen for ravens in the city. “Brock! Brock!”

(photos by Andrea Lavin Kossis and Chuck Tague plus embedded tweets)


Murmuration of starlings in Rome, Italy (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

8 January 2021

Many people in North America don’t like starlings (Sturnus vulgaris) for their aggressive invasive behavior, but starlings can do something beautiful that no other songbird can match. At dusk as they gather to roost, starlings fly in tight flocks that wheel and turn in unison. Their murmurations make beautiful patterns in the sky.

This 4-minute video of starlings at dusk was recorded at RSPB Otmoor Reserve, a birding hotspot in Oxfordshire, UK.

And here’s a short clip from San Rafael, California.

Unfortunately, the murmurations are smaller than they used to be. Starlings have declined 80% in the UK and 49% in the U.S. since 1970.

Murmuration of starlings in Studland, Dorset, UK (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

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