Category Archives: Bird Behavior

Flying Only When Necessary

Interior of a moving van + JetBlue landing at Las Vegas (photos from Wikimedia Commons)

7 December 2021

In Case You Missed It.

Greater roadrunner, running (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

The greater roadrunner (Geococcyx californianus) normally runs 15 mph to capture prey or faster in short spurts. He can’t fly well, just extended-wing glides, so walking takes him everywhere he wants to go. Around humans he can be so curious that he gets into trouble.

Last month while a family was packing a moving van in Las Vegas, a curious roadrunner walked into the van when they weren’t watching. The doors closed, the trip began, and the roadrunner was trapped inside for four days. He was discovered when they unpacked the van in Westbrook, a suburb of Portland, Maine.

The roadrunner traveled by land from Las Vegas to Portland, Maine (map from Wikimedia Commons, alterd)

Volunteers transported the roadrunner to Avian Haven in Freedom, Maine (another hour and a half drive) where he got expert care. Avian Haven tells his story here:

The roadrunner recovered so well that nine days later he boarded a direct flight from Boston to Las Vegas and was released in his old neighborhood by Nevada Department of Wildlife. The video shows his release in real time, then repeats in slow motion. I think he ran out of the carrier faster than 15 mph.

Though roadrunners prefer to travel on the ground, 6.5 hours in an airplane sure beats four days in a moving van. As the Audubon Guide to North American Birds explains:

The roadrunner walks and runs on the ground, flying only when necessary.

p.s. See news about the roadrunner at News3LV: His discovery in Maine: Roadrunner, going-faster, ends up in Maine after hitchhike, His Nevada neighborhood: Roadrunner Road Trip takes accidental cross country trip to Maine , His return: Roadrunner arrives home in Las Vegas after stowaway trip to Maine.

(Roadrunner news embedded from Facebook, map and photos from Wikimedia Commons. The first three photos are NOT from the actual event.)

Fire Hawks

Hawks circle a bushfire in Australia as they hunt for escaping prey (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

5 December 2021

Fire is a way of life in Australia where bushfires rage during the dry season and humans set controlled burns during the rest of the year. Australia’s indigenous people, the Aborigines, use fire as a tool on the landscape to “facilitate hunting, change the composition of plant and animal species in an area, reduce [wildfire] hazards, and increase biodiversity.”

Australia fire season map from Australian Government Bureau of Meteorology

Every living thing on the continent has adapted to fire including three species of raptors in northern Australia that hover over active firefronts to capture prey escaping from the flames (at top). Sometimes the prey hides too effectively so the firehawks carry burning sticks to set new fires and flush the prey.

The hawks’ behavior, unique to Australia, was reported in a 2017 study in the Journal of Ethnobiology: Intentional Fire-Spreading by “Firehawk” Raptors in Northern Australia which said:

We document Indigenous Ecological Knowledge and non-Indigenous observations of intentional fire-spreading by the fire-foraging raptors Black Kite (Milvus migrans), Whistling Kite (Haliastur sphenurus), and Brown Falcon (Falco berigora) in tropical Australian savannas. Observers report both solo and cooperative attempts, often successful, to spread wildfires intentionally via single-occasion or repeated transport of burning sticks in talons or beaks. This behavior, often represented in sacred ceremonies, is widely known to local people in the Northern Territory, where we carried out ethno-ornithological research from 2011 to 2017; it was also reported to us from Western Australia and Queensland.

— Bonta, M. et al. (2017). Intentional Fire-Spreading by “Firehawk” Raptors in Northern Australia. Journal of Ethnobiology, 37(4), 700-718.

The behavior is so uncommon that seeing it is often a once in a lifetime experience. The observer must be in front of the fireline, watching the controlled burn (as shown below) as a hawk picks up a burning stick. Needless to say there are no photos of the behavior yet, but there are many eyewitnesses especially among the Aborigines who have tended fires for thousands of years.

Controlled burn of grasslands in Australia (photo by MomentsForZen via Flickr Creative Commons license)

Who was the firehawk that tried it first among the three species?

The black kite (Milvus migrans),

Black kite (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

the whistling kite (Haliastur sphenurus) whose whistle sounds like this … and…

Whistling kite (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

the brown falcon (Falco berigora).

The firehawks add a complication to fire management in northern Australia. Read more in Australian “firehawk” raptors intentionally spread fires at Nature.org.

p.s. I note with pleasure that the principal author of the study is Mark Bonta, son of Marcia & Bruce Bonta of Plummer’s Hollow, PA. Marcia Bonta is a great nature writer who wrote for the PA Game News for 28 years and retired this month. Her Farewell on 1 Dec 2021 is here.

(photos from Wikimedia Commons, Australia fire season map from Australian Government Bureau of Meteorology; click on the captions to see the originals)

Why Don’t Sleeping Birds Fall Off the Branch?

African gray parrot and common grackle, each sleeping on a perch (photos from Wikimedia Commons)

2 December 2021

We take for granted that birds sleep on a perch without falling off, yet we drop whatever we’re holding when we fall asleep. (Many’s the time that my book falls off the bed!)

How do birds continue to hold on after they fall asleep? The answer is in this vintage article.

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

Crows Recognize Their Friends

American crow at Laval University, Quebec City (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

28 November 2021

Smart crows are naturally wary around humans. Though most people don’t even notice birds, crows know that some humans are malicious.

Crows notice us noticing them. They watch us back while they assess whether we’re dangerous or beneficial. They learn the faces of enemies so they can recognize them later. They also remember their friends.

A friendship with crows can run both ways when the crows bring gifts.

An “enemy” can become a friend if he’s consistently kind and trustworthy, as was this mailman in Vancouver, BC.

Peanuts were the treat that turned an “enemy” into a friend.

Crow with peanuts in Newfoundland (photo by Felip1 via Flickr Creative Commons license)

(photos from Wikimedia Commons and Felip1 via Flickr Creative commons license. Embedded videos from YouTube. Click on the captions to see the originals)

Talking Turkey: The Band of Brothers

Three male wild turkeys displaying (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

23 November 2021

When we gather over turkey this week we won’t be thinking of the wild birds that inhabit our parks and neighborhoods. But wild turkeys will be social gathering, too, in flocks that are like extended families.

Members of wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo) flocks are often siblings. The males are usually brothers and though only one male, the dominant brother, gets to mate with the ladies the brothers work together to protect their territory. This 2013 article, Band of Brothers, explains the pecking order.

Sometimes the band of brothers causes trouble. For instance, they don’t recognize their own reflection so they attack those turkeys on the shiny car.

Moral of the story: If you part outdoors in turkey country, it’s best to have a dirty car.

p.s. Click here to see two turkeys chase the police in McCandless Twp last January.

(photo from Wikimedia Commons, click on the caption to see the original)

Appreciating Crows

American crow in Castle Shannon, Pittsburgh (photo by Christopher Bailey via Wikimedia Commons)

21 November 2021

Pittsburgh’s winter crow flock has been avoiding my North Oakland neighborhood for three weeks now and I miss them. When I see them in the late afternoon, if I see them at all, they are flying very high in a steady stream. Where are going? Does anyone know?

The only crows I see are too few or too high for me to appreciate their raucous calls and aerial antics so I enjoyed them this recent video from #LesleytheBirdNerd. Listen to a crow Meow!

Like the video? Subscribe to Lesley’s channel at https://www.youtube.com/c/LesleytheBirdNerd/

If you know where Pittsburgh’s crows are roosting (spending the night), please leave a comment below. I’d love to find them.

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

Virgin Mary Vultures?

California condor (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

10 November 2021

Sometimes DNA tests reveal more than anyone thought possible.

In 1987 when California condors (Gymnogyps californianus) were close to extinction the California Condor Recovery Plan established a captive breeding program that resulted in 518 condors in the wild as of 2019. Built into the program are routine DNA tests of condor offspring to make sure they will not be inbred. When scientists in San Diego performed paternal analysis of two recent captive offspring they were in for a surprise. The two had no fathers even though male condors were present. The mothers hatched viable eggs without mating. Were they Virgin Mary Vultures?

Well, not really. In Christian and Muslim theology the Virgin Mary conceived Jesus through the Holy Spirit while still a virgin. These mother condors used asexual reproduction, parthenogenesis, to produce viable youngsters.

Female California condor with 30-day-old chick (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

As Wikipedia explains, parthenogenesis occurs naturally in some plants, some invertebrate animals, and a few vertebrates including some fish, amphibians, reptiles and very rarely birds. But not in mammals. There are no known cases of naturally occurring mammalian parthenogenesis in the wild. If it happened the offspring would be female.

Parthenogenesis is incredibly rare in birds. KPBS describes how they found it in San Diego.

Does asexual reproduction ever happen among wild birds? We will never know.

Learn more about Parthenogenesis here. Read the published study at Facultative Parthenogenesis in California Condors.

(photos from Wikimedia Commons, video embedded from KPBS)

Three Bird Masks

29 October 2021

Three kinds of bird masks just in time for Halloween.

Wear a festive bird mask that you make at home. It helps to be as skilled as the person in this video. (I am not.)

Wear a mask to attract attention and inspire others to wear masks. (August 2020 at UNC Chapel Hill.)

Or wear a mask to disguise yourself so that crows don’t recognize your face. The video in this vintage article — Wear A Mask — explains why crows react to the full head mask John Marzluff is putting on below.

John Marzluff dons a mask for the crows (screenshots from YouTube)

(screenshots are from the embedded videos)

Mallards Are Courting Now

Male mallards display in December (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

26 October 2021

In October male mallards challenge each other and pair with females. This seems odd since it isn’t the breeding season … but it is! Mallards pick their springtime mates in the fall.

The majority of pairs form on wintering grounds, far in advance of breeding. Mallard pairs form earlier (September–November) than do most Northern Hemisphere Anas species. At Ithaca, New York, courtship begins in September; 90% of females are paired by November. In coastal Louisiana, approximately 55% of migratory females arrived in November already paired; 95% paired by late December. 

Mallard Pair Formation: Cornell Lab’s Birds of the World

Courtship is easy to observe because the males show off in groups.

Social courtship [among mallards] occurs on open water. Several males gather around one female and perform displays directed at her. … Especially characteristic of Mallards are synchronized bursts of male displays (Grunt-Whistle, Head-Up-Tail-Up, or Down-Up) involving up to 5 males performing one of these displays each per bout.

Mallard behavior: Cornell Lab’s Birds Of The World

The male at top is performing the Head-Up-Tail-Up display. There are more courtship moves in this All About Birds video.

Listen for the high whistle of the males that are arching their backs and necks in the Grunt-Whistle display.

Competition is fierce and the ladies can afford to be choosy. In North America there are always more male mallards than females, averaging 1.33 to 1. When desperate a male may choose a female of another species. No wonder these ducks hybridize!

p.s. Maybe we’ll see courtship behavior at Duck Hollow next Sunday.

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

It’s Time to Store Food

Blue jay carrying peanut (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

14 October 2021

Now that winter’s coming, birds are migrating to find favorable habitat and reliable food supplies. Those that eat seeds don’t have to leave if food is plentiful, especially if they cache seeds and nuts.

All About Birds explains:

Caching is like a giant game of concentration. … A bird must not only fly back and forth, one or a few seeds at a time, over hundreds of trips. They also have to make sure the caches aren’t stolen and remember where all the food is hidden when hunger comes a-calling. Most common North American feeder birds can have anywhere from hundreds to thousands of separate caches scattered around their home ranges.

All About Birds: Where is that bird going with that seed...?

Chickadees, nuthatches, red-bellied woodpeckers, and blue jays all use feeders as a source for the cache, visiting quickly to grab a nut. They even compete for the privilege. “Back off!” says the red-bellied woodpecker to the blue jay.

Learn more about the caching habits of blue jays and red-bellied woodpeckers at these links.

Work quickly! It’s time to store food.

(photo from Wikimedia Commons, video embedded from MyBackyardBirding on YouTube)