Category Archives: Bird Behavior

A Swift Game of Skittles

Peregrine approaches, dangling a menacing foot, 2021 (photo by Chad+Chris Saladin)

19 September 2021

The rooftop deck of my building overlooks the largest chimney swift roost in the Pittsburgh area, the Cathedral Mansions chimney, so I wasn’t surprised when Sarah Koenig of Audubon Society of Western PA emailed to arrange a location for a live online Chimney Swift Watch.

Sun pillar next to tall chimney (swift roost) at Cathedral Mansions, 19 Sept 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)

Unfortunately it didn’t look good for a live event. Since Hurricane Ida I hadn’t seen many swifts but I decided to take a look. On Thursday evening, 16 September, I went to the roof at sunset to count the swifts.

Chimney swifts near a peregrine nest site in Ohio, 2021 (photo by Chad+Chris Saladin)

By 7:40pm about 100 swifts were circling the chimney and one had just dropped in. Suddenly I was distracted by a large bug that banged right into me. I brushed it away and I looked at the chimney again and there were no swifts at all! I’d been distracted for mere seconds and I know it takes many minutes for the flock to drop in. Where did they go? As I waited and watched the swift inside the chimney came out and flew away, too. Huh?

I tried again last night, Saturday 18 September. This time I looked for all species. I saw 400+ crows heading for Oakland after sunset and a peregrine perched on the Cathedral of Learning.

As the sky darkened I focused exclusively on the chimney. Again, 100+ swifts circled the chimney and I waited to count them as they dropped in. It was 7:40pm.

Cathedral Mansions chimney with swifts circling, September 2020 (photo by Michelle Kienholz)

And then they were gone.

But this time I knew why. As I watched a peregrine approached the chimney from the darkened eastern sky. He could see the flock silhouetted against the sky but the swifts couldn’t see him until he flew through the flock and scattered them like small bowling pins.

Peregrine approaches a flock, 2017 (photo by Chad+Chris Saladin)

For the peregrine is was a game of skittles. For the swifts it was life or death. Peregrines can grab swifts in the air. Maybe he did.

Peregrine with chimney swift prey at St. Ignatius, 2020 (photo by Chad+Chris Saladin)

This swift game of skittles is new behavior for the Pitt peregrines but it may be that Ecco is trying out new things during his first autumn at Pitt.

I hope he gets over these sunset games. I’d like to see a lot more swifts at the chimney.

(photos by Chad+Chris Saladin, Kate St. John, Michelle Kienholz)

Bonding and a Lot of Preening

Morela and Ecco pair bonding, 10 Sep 2021 (photo from the National Aviary falconcam at Univ of Pittsburgh)

12 September 2021

The Pitt peregrine falcons, Morela and Ecco, are staying close to home and watching fall migration as it passes through Pittsburgh. Every day they visit the nest, bow to strengthen their pair bond, and preen on camera. On 10 September they met twice at the nest, shown below.

A few days ago I wrote about birds that twist their necks. Watch Morela preen the spot between her shoulder blades. I can touch that spot with my fingertips but it’s a stretch!

(photos from the National Aviary snapshot camera at Univ of Pittsburgh)

Wry and Awry

Wrybill, New Zealand (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

10 September 2021

When I think of the word “wry” the first thing that comes to mind is sarcastic or dry mocking humor. “He made a wry comment” and everyone smiled like this:

Wry smiles: cat emoji and Gianni Gambi in 1937 (images from Wikimedia Commons)

At its root “wry” means twisted, bent or turned abnormally to one side. Two birds have “wry” in their names and their bodies show it.

The wrybill (Anarhynchus frontalis) is a plover endemic to New Zealand whose bill is permanently twisted, always to the right.

Wrybill in hand and illustration of bill (images from Wikimedia Commons)

The Eurasian wryneck (Jynx torquilla) is named “twisted neck” but his neck is straight …

Wryneck (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

… until he gets frightened.

All birds can twist their necks to preen, as Ecco demonstrates this week at the Pitt peregrine nestbox.

But the wryneck moves his neck in an mesmerizing way to distract predators.

We stop and stare when his neck is awry.

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

Follow The Chickadees

Black-capped chickadees, 2012 (photo by CheepShot via Wikimedia Commons)

9 September 2021

The first three weeks of September are prime time to see warblers passing through Pittsburgh on fall migration. But finding these small, quiet, often greenish birds among the leaves is difficult.

How to find warblers? Listen for and follow the chickadees. Warblers are often with them.

Learn why in this vintage article: Local and Vocal.

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

Landscape of Fear

Adult Cooper’s hawk (photo by Dave Brooke)

8 September 2021

Fear causes an inability to thrive in humans. Now a new study shows this is true of birds as well.

As a grad student at University of Massachusetts in Amherst, Aaron Grade decided to parse out why urban nestlings are lower weight than their rural cousins. It’s well known that urban settings have poor habitat, altered food sources and more predators but the likelihood of predation is lower there because urban predators have so many other food choices.

House wren at nestbox (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Grade wondered if fear play a role so he set out 38 house wren nest boxes and loudspeakers in participants’ backyards in urban, suburban and rural western Massachusetts. During the nesting season participants played back the sounds of two predators of house wrens: Cooper’s hawks (pictured at top) and eastern screech-owls (below).

Eastern screech-owl (photo by Bobby Greene)

Though there was no actual danger, parent house wrens responded to the sounds by guarding their young and perhaps feeding them less. In the end nestlings in these playback settings were 10% underweight no matter what habitat they grew up in.

The study found that whether the birds are hurt or not, their nestlings are underweight and less likely to survive if the family lives in fear.

“These landscapes of fear,” says Grade, “can have a greater effect on behavior and survival than the actual predator itself.”

Science Daily: How landscapes of fear affect the songbirds in our backyards

Birds and humans cannot thrive in constant fear.

Read more about the birds at Science Daily.

Read about humans at Low Birth Weight Babies and Black Women: What’s the Connection?

(photos by Dave Brooke, Wikimedia Commons and Bobby Greene)

p.s. This is also a lesson for birders: Avoid using playback of predator sounds, especially during the spring and summer nesting season!

What do Ospreys have in common with Golden Retrievers?

Golden retriever at the beach (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

31 August 2021

When dogs get wet they shake it off.

So do ospreys.

It’s a bit trickier to shake off in the air.

(photo from Wikimedia Commons, video embedded from YouTube, tweet embedded from @marktakesphoto)

Hummingbirds Are Rowing in the Sky

Anna’s hummingbird at UC Berkeley Botanical Garden, 2018 (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

25 August 2021

Hummingbirds hover and zip, levitate and fly backwards. How do they do it?

At more than 50 beats per second(*) their wings are so fast that we can’t see what they’re doing so UC Berkeley captured and filmed Anna’s hummingbirds in high-res video.

Played back in slow motion we see their wings moving forward and back in a figure 8 like oars in a boat. Hummingbirds are rowing in the sky!

Check out this PBS Deep Look.

(*) The fastest recorded wing beats were 80 beats per second by an amethyst wood-star hummingbird.

(photo from Wikimedia Commons; click on the caption to see the original, video embedded from PBS Deep Look)

A Little Pair Bonding

Morela preens at the green perch, 12:24pm 12 August 2021 (photo from the National Aviary snapshot camera)

15 August 2021

Mid-August is a quiet time for the Cathedral of Learning peregrine falcons. This year’s youngsters have left the area to begin their life adventures while the adults stay close to home and wrap up their annual molt.

Morela and Ecco rarely visited the nestbox in July but last Thursday 12 August they spent eight minutes bowing together. They were not courting. They were strengthening their pair bond.

In other news, I usually don’t check the snapshot camera but when I did so on Monday 9 August at 4:44am Morela was perched there in the dark. This was a one-time event.

Morela before dawn, 4:44am, 9 August 2021 (photo from the National Aviary snapshot camera at Univ of Pittsburgh)

To check the snapshot camera scroll down on this webpage to see the 2nd image. NOTE: The first image is the streaming camera which is not functioning now.

(photos from the National Aviary snapshot camera at Univ of Pittsburgh)

When Hummingbirds Refuel

Anna’s hummingbird, California (photo by Terry Lucas via Wikimedia Commons)

11 August 2021

When hummingbirds sip nectar it can change their external body temperature. The change is visible in this thermal video of an Anna’s hummingbird by Gary Nunn.

I’ve highlighted the bird’s temperature change with a slideshow of before and after snapshots.

  • Before feeding: The bird’s head, body and throat are hot red. His shoulders are cool green.
  • After feeding: The bird’s crop is full of cool nectar so his throat turns yellow. His shoulders warm up from green to yellow.

If we had a thermal sensor we could watch these Anna’s hummingbirds change color as they refuel.

(photo from Wikimedia Commons, embedded Tweet and YouTube; click the captions/logos to see the originals)

Who Is The King of Birds?

Bald eagle, female at Hays, 24 July 2021 (photo by Theo Lodge)

2 August 2021

Many would say the bald eagle is the king of birds but when it comes to attitude, actions and name the small songbird attacking this eagle is both King and Tyrant.

Eastern kingbird attacks bald eagle, Hays, 24 July 2021 (photo by Theo Lodge)

Attitude: The eastern kingbird is often fierce and angry. This one is showing the orange-red crest he keeps hidden beneath his head feathers until he’s very, very mad.

Eastern kingbird (photo by Andy Reago and Chrissy McClarren from Wikimedia Commons)

Actions: Eastern kingbirds relentlessly defend their territories and will (obviously) ride the backs of hawks and eagles to peck their heads. 

Males and sometimes females are very aggressive in territorial disputes [with other kingbirds], often resorting to aerial fights in which they lock feet together, pull out each other’s feathers, and sometimes fall to the ground. Eastern Kingbirds also attack large nest predators like crows and Blue Jays. Such aggression has been shown to increase their breeding success.

from Eastern Kingbird account, All About Birds

In late July when Theo Lodge took the attack photo, the kingbird was ensuring a successful breeding season by defending his “kids.” The juveniles look like adults now except for yellow mouths.

Juvenile eastern kingbird, 23 July 2013 (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

And so the eastern kingbird earned the common name of king and a scientific name, Tyrannus tyrannus, that doubles up on tyrant.

Enjoy them now in Pittsburgh. They’ll be gone by early September.

(eagle photos by Theo Lodge, kingbird photos from Wikimedia Commons)