Category Archives: Bird Behavior

The Dance Makes A Difference

How can we tell when similar birds are actually different species?

In the jungles of Indonesia the male superb bird of paradise (Lophorina superba) is famous for his courtship dance.  To attract a mate he calls loudly, unfurls his jet black feathers and iridescent green apron, and starts to dance.  If he’s really good at it, the female accepts him.

The bird’s color and dance are so mesmerizing that ornithologists at first dismissed the differences between the eastern and western birds. Now they’ve looked more closely.

This video from Cornell Lab of Ornithology shows how the western bird’s behavior convinced scientists to split the superb bird-of-paradise (Lophorina superba) into two species.

The dance makes a difference.  The bird with the sidestep gait is now called the Vogelkop superb bird-of-paradise (Lophorina niedda).


p.s. Volgelkop is the name of a peninsula in western New Guinea, Indonesia where this bird lives.  On the map the peninsula is shaped like a bird’s head.  Vogel+kop means “Bird head” in Dutch.

(video from Cornell Lab of Ornithology)

Nothing Can Go Wrong

What happens when you put a very smart parrot in the room with a voice-activated virtual assistant?

The owners of an African grey parrot named Petra also own an Amazon Echo, the tall black cylinder that activates a blue light when it hears the word “Alexa.”  Say “Alexa” and the computer carries out your command.

Here are three short clips of Petra with Alexa.  Above, “All lights on.”

“Tell me a fact” …

… and “lights off.”


What will happen next?    Um … Nothing can go wrong.


See more of Petra and Alexa on the PetraGrey YouTube channel.    Read more about Alexa here.

(videos from the PetraGrey YouTube channel)

Puzzling Peanut Feeder

Chipmunks emerged from their winter lairs last month.  Meanwhile blue jays are gathering to prepare for the breeding season.

What happens when both species encounter a peanut attached to a screw?

Let’s see …


p.s. Why does the blue jay pick up each peanut and set it down?  I learned this week that blue jays weigh the peanuts and then take the heaviest (best) one.

(video from My Backyard Birding on YouTube)

Singing In The Rain

Blue jay in the rain (photo by Christian Lanctot via Flickr, Creative Commons license)
Blue jay in the rain (photo by Christian Lanctot via Flickr, Creative Commons license)

On Thursday afternoon, a flock of blue jays called and sang in the rain outside my window.  They were so musical that I recorded them.

In the clip below you can hear rain falling and some harsh “jeer” calls, but notice the musical “tweedle” songs. Those are blue jays (Cyanocitta cristata) performing the pumphandle call as they bob on the perch.  These are faint; turn up your speakers.

Blue jays “tweedle”in the rain, 22 Feb 2018, the Pumphandle call:

This call sometimes means there’s a mild threat nearby, but it’s usually heard in the spring while they’re claiming mates and territory.

After a while, the flock changed its tune.  Listen for the faint “djeep djeep” in this clip.


Weather didn’t dampen the blue jays’ spirits.  They felt like singing in the rain.


Watch a video that explains the blue jays’ calls, here: The Complex Calls of Blue Jays by Lesley the Bird Nerd.

(photo by Christian Lanctot via Flickr Creative Commons license; audio recorded by Kate St. John)

p.s. As of yesterday morning, February 24, I’ve heard the first robins singing in the dark.

Cardinal Courtship

Female cardinal raises one wing to greet her mate (photo by Marcy Cunkelman)
Female cardinal raises one wing to greet her mate (photo by Marcy Cunkelman)

Last week Punxsutawney Phil predicted six more weeks of winter(*) but the birds know spring is on its way.

Northern cardinals (Cardinalis cardinalis) don’t migrate so they’re a good species to watch for early signs of spring.  Some pairs stay together all winter on their home territory or in mixed flocks.

In February they begin to court.  The males become aggressive toward other males and solicitous to their ladies.  And they begin to sing. (Xeno-canto recording # 356015 by Ted Floyd)

Watch your local cardinals for these courtship behaviors:

  • Lopsided pose :  The cardinal tilts up one side of its body, raises one wing, lowers its crest and exposes its belly, sometimes rocking side to side.
  • Song-dance display (shown by a female cardinal above):  The bird stands erect, raises its crest and one wing.
  • Song-flight display (quoted from Birds of North America):  In flight the male fluffs his breast feathers, raises his crest, sings, and descends slowly toward his mate in short, rapid strokes.  (Is the male doing this in the top photo?)
  • Territorial Singing:  (audio above)
  • Counter-singing:  Female cardinals counter-sing with their mates.
  • Courtship feeding:  The male cardinal presents food to his lady, beak to beak.  Gene Wilburn in Port Credit, Ontario captured a male feeding his lady with a “kiss.”
Northern cardinal courtship, "The Kiss" (photo by Gene Wilburn via Flickr, Creative Commons license)
Northern cardinal courtship, “The Kiss” (photo by Gene Wilburn via Flickr, Creative Commons license)


Cardinals are courting.  Spring isn’t far away.


(photo credits: wing flash in the snow by Marcy Cunkelman, The Kiss by Gene Wilburn via Flickr, Creative Commons license)

NOTE(*): On Groundhog Day the Spring Equinox is six weeks away … so it’s always true that we’ll have “six more weeks of winter.”

Only In California

Yellow-billed magpie, San Benito County, CA (photo by J. Maughn via Flickr, Creative Commons license)
Yellow-billed magpie, San Benito County, CA (photo by J. Maughn via Flickr, Creative Commons license)

There are three species of magpies on earth but this one, the yellow-billed magpie (Pica nutalli), lives only in the open oak savannah of central and southern California.

Even though barn owls (Tyto alba) occur worldwide this video could only happen there.

Like all magpies the birds are brave and relentless.  One of them pulls the owl’s wing!

What are the three Pica species? Eurasian (Pica pica) in Europe and Asia, black-billed (Pica hudsonia) in western North America, and yellow-billed (Pica nutalli) only in California.


(photo by J. Maughn on Flickr, Creative Commons license; click on the image to see the original. Video by Charles Sullivan on YouTube)

p.s.  Yellow-billed magpies are hard to find near Chico, California ever since West Nile Virus came through.  I was afraid I’d never see one but J. Maughn (his photo is at top) suggested looking at eBird for recent sightings.  Ta dah!  I went to a place near Big Chico Creek where magpies had been seen this month and found a pair building a nest.  Life Bird!


Smart and Cocky

Crow pulls the tail of an immature bald eagle, Delta, BC, Canada (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Crow pulls the tail of an immature bald eagle, Delta, BC, Canada (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Bald eagles are big and majestic, even the young ones like the immature bird pictured here.

Who’s smart and cocky?   That small black bird in the back:  a crow pulling the bald eagle’s tail.

Sometimes crows are a little too daring but this one is getting away with it.


(photo from Wikimedia Commons taken at Delta, BC, Canada. Click on the image to see the original)

An Innovative Way to Save Macaws

Scarlet macaw (photo by Alejandro Morales courtesy PBS NATURE)
Scarlet macaw (photo by Alejandro Morales courtesy PBS NATURE)

In an effort to save scarlet macaws (Ara macao) researchers at the Tambopata Macaw Project in southeastern Peru have studied and cared for them since 1989.   In the process they discovered why macaw chick survival is so low.  Scarlet macaws prefer to raise an only child.

Though the female lays two to four eggs, when the eggs hatch the parents shower all their food and attention on the first hatchling and neglect the others. The second chick has a 45% chance of survival but the rest starve.

This low reproductive rate is bad for a species threatened by forest fragmentation and the pet trade, so Tambopata has come up with an innovative way to save the abandoned chicks.  They’ve developed a project to rescue the neglected chicks and relocate them to foster parents in wild nests with none or only one chick.

Shannyn Courtenay at the Macaw Project writes, “There is already great interest in this new work from macaw managers and conservation projects in Mexico, Guatemala, and Costa Rica where scarlet macaws are endangered.”

See a video about the project and their crowdfunding request at  Increasing Survival of Macaw Chicks using Foster Macaw Parents in the Wild.

Over the holiday season the project reached its funding goal (yay!) but you can still contribute through January 7, 2018.


(photo by Alejandro Morales courtesy PBS NATURE)