Category Archives: Bird Behavior

Working Birds

Peregrine falcon “Charlie” at work at Ramstein Air Base, Germany, Feb 2009 (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

5 September 2022

On Labor Day let’s honor working birds.

Pictured above is a bird at work in 2009, a peregrine falcon named Charlie whose job was to clear birds from the airfield at Ramstein Air Base, Germany. His full crop indicates that he’d already done his job that day but he was looking around anyway, just in case some birds came back.

Charlie is one of several working falcons who make it safe for flights to take off and land at Ramstein. Click on this link to see photos when Ramstein AB celebrated their falcon workers on Earth Day 2018.

And don’t miss this vintage article featuring Rufus, the Harris hawk who patrols Wimbledon. (Includes video!)

(photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Female Mockingbirds Sing in the Fall

Northern mockingbird (photo by Cris Hamilton)

30 August 2022

Northern mockingbirds (Mimus polyglottos) are special because they challenge our assumptions.

It was a wonder in 2014 when, after centuries of ornithologists saying that only male birds sing, Karan Odom at University of Maryland documented singing females. Most of the species live in the tropics but even back then 150 female-singing species were documented in North America.

After this breakthrough female singing became a hot study topic and more species were added to the list. Recent studies delve deeper. Do northern mockingbird females mimic like males? A study published this April found that they do.

Mockingbirds are also unusual because they sing in autumn when other birds are silent. They do it because they change location. Those that nest in the northern end of their range migrate south while others move locally (see animated eBird map). When mockingbirds “reappear” in September they are singing again to claim new territory.

Northern mockingbird, Nov 2015 (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Males and females look alike and they aren’t paired up in winter so we cannot tell which sex is singing. Nevertheless we can hear them. Here are some examples.

28 Sep 2021 in Cincinnati, Ohio:

7 Nov 2019 in Harlingen, TX:

I see mockingbirds in Pittsburgh in the winter. Are they local transplants or from further north? Are they male or female? I dunno.

Northern mockingbird wing flash (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

(photos by Cris Hamilton and from Wikimedia Commons; click on the caption to see the original)

Meet the Familiar: Synanthrope

Pigeons on a traffic light (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

28 August 2022

I had never seen the word “synanthrope” until I found it attached to this photo.

Passer domesticus as synanthrope (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

House sparrows are synanthropes. So are pigeons.

synanthrope (syn-anthrope) [from Greek: syn-anthrope: syn=”together with” + anthropos=”man”] is a wild animal or plant that lives near, and benefits from, an association with humans and the somewhat artificial habitats that people create around themselves.

Wikipedia: Synanthrope

We can be forgiven for not knowing this little-used word since its present meaning is only 74 years old(*).

Synanthropes live with us but we often disparage them. They are wild but too familiar, too “tame,” too weedy. Here are some more examples.

Dandelions (Taraxacum sp.)

Dandelions in the grass (photo by Kate St. John)

Horseweed (Erigeron canadensis) and pilewort (Erechtites hieraciifolius) are native North American plants that like disturbed soil. We notice them in August when they start to look ugly.

Horseweed (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Closeup of pilewort flowers (photo by Kate St. John)

Two local mammals may be recent synanthropes, formerly shunning humans but now benefiting from our habitat.

Squirrels love our birdseed and shelter (attics).

Squirrel on the bird feeder (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

White-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) prefer forest edges next to open areas, a landscape often created by humans. Have deer become synanthropes?

Buck in velvet at Allegheny Cemetery, Pittsburgh (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

p.s. (*) Merriam-Webster explains that the word was introduced by botanist Theodor von Heldreich at a botanical conference in Paris, 16-24 August 1878, making its first-ever use almost exactly 144 years ago.

(photos from Wikimedia Commons and Kate St. John)

The Traveling Nest

The Rivers of Steel Explorer (photo from Ryan O’Rourke)

3 August 2022

What do you do when your nest and babies sail away without you? A house finch couple on Pittsburgh’s North Shore have learned to wait for the boat to come home.

Male and female house finches, Nov 2010 (photo by Steve Gosser)

This spring a pair of house finches (Haemorhous mexicanus) were very quick to build a nest atop a loud speaker on the aft deck of the Rivers of Steel Explorer, docked behind the Carnegie Science Center. By the time the crew caught up with them the female had finished the nest and laid eggs, so the nest had to remain undisturbed until it was empty.

House finch nest on top of loud speaker on Rivers of Steel Explorer vessel, 29 July 2022 (photo by Ryan O’Rourke)

When would it be empty? Not yet. In August? In September?

House finches are masters at back-to-back nesting, raising three to six broods per year. As the young approach fledging the male takes charge of them while the female starts the next round of egg laying. On the Explorer the female doesn’t pause between one brood and the next.

When I met the Explorer finch family on 26 July they had already raised several broods and were caring for young approximately two days old. While our tour waited on deck for the boat to depart the father fed three tiny nestlings. They are growing fast! Here they are three days later on 29 July.

Close up of house finch nest, 29 July 2022 (photo by Ryan O’Rourke)

Our tour pulled away from the dock and I forgot about the house finches for 90 minutes while we traveled Pittsburgh’s three rivers. Mother and father house finch were absent but they had not forgotten. Waiting on shore they were so attuned to the habits of the Explorer that when the vessel maneuvered to dock they raced across the channel to the aft deck. “The kids are home!”

The Traveling Nest is one of many birding highlights on Rivers of Steel Explorer tours. Captain Ryan O’Rourke explained, “In addition to hosting a bird-watching cruise with the National Aviary, part of our educational program for students includes a lesson in birding and how birds can be indicators of the health of our rivers.”

And then there are rare birds that the Explorer is first to see. On 26 April 2022 O’Rourke reported 13 American avocets on the Monongahela River at Station Square. I chased these birds and missed them. Wish I’d been on the boat!

Next month you can join Rivers of Steel and the National Aviary for Riverboat Birding on the Explorer, 3 September 2022. Sign up below or click here.

(photos by Ryan O’Rourke and Steve Gosser)

Mesmerizing Dance

Sunbittern, Costa Rica (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

29 July 2022

The sunbittern (Eurypyga helias) looks rather boring when its wings are closed but when it flies you see a gorgeous pattern on its wings. Why is that?

Subittern in flight, Costa Rica (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

And then it dances …

If you want to see a sunbittern in the wild, here’s where they live.

Range map of sunbittern from Wikimedia Commons

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

Eating Salad?

American goldfinch eating thistle (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

28 July 2022

Is there a bright yellow bird with black wings in your vegetable garden poking among the salad greens? Or perhaps a drab female or juvenile bird (shown below)?

Female American goldfinch feeding juvenile (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

American goldfinches (Spinus tristis) nest in July so they are very busy bringing food to their young.

Their favorite choice is thistle seed, above, but they will occasionally taste reddish salad greens like Swiss chard, below.

Swiss chard (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Don’t worry for your garden. Goldfinches only take a nibble.

Find out more about the “Salad Birds” in this vintage article:

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

Swallow or Swift?

Chimney swifts (from the Crossley ID Guide Eastern Birds via Wikimedia Commons)

20 July 2022

Whoosh! Fast moving birds circle, swoop, rise and fall as they eat flying insects. Swallows and swifts move so fast that it’s hard to identify them in flight. With one swift and six swallow species in our area(*) the first step is to decide: “Is that a Swallow or a Swift?

This stop-action photo by Patrick bx (@bronxfxdc) makes it easy to see the differences described by audubon.org below.

Is That a Swallow or a Swift? Identification clues from Audubon.org.

Even from a distance these two swallow plates from Crossley ID show many features that are different from the chimney swifts at top.

Tree swallows and northern rough-winged swallows (from Crossley ID Guide to Eastern Birds via Wikimedia Commons)

And finally, chimney swifts make a unique chittering sound in flight.

Swallow or swift? You’ll get plenty of practice in the coming weeks as the birds gather for fall migration.

(*) p.s. Here are the swallow and swift species that occur in our area — southwestern Pennsylvania.

(photos from Patrick bx (@bronxfxdc) embedded tweet & the Crossley ID Guide to Eastern Birds via Wikimedia Commons; click on the captions to see the originals)

Screeching All Over Again

  • Ecco: OH NO! SHE'S BACK!

19 July 2022

For ten days, July 8 to 18, the airspace around the Cathedral of Learning was quiet. Literally quiet. No screeching. This year’s young peregrines had finally left home to become independent. What a relief after Silver Girl screeched all day for a handout on 6 July! Ecco and Morela relaxed.

It was too much to hope. When it rained all day on Sunday 17 July with more rain due on Monday the 18th, Silver Girl came home to beg from Ecco rather than hunt on her own in the rain.

Oh no! She’s back! Ecco retreated to the nestbox but departed as Silver Girl arrived. Screeching! Screeching! She hopped up to the snapshot camera and continued screech.

Here’s what she sounded like in case you’ve forgotten the noise.

Silver Girl screeches for a handout, 18 July 2022

My husband heard her screeching again at St. Paul’s Cathedral steeple at 7pm.

The weather will be sunny for the next five days without any all-day rain for the foreseeable future. Silver Girl will leave again but will she become truly independent? It remains to be seen.

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

Baby Birds Try To Figure It Out

Baby burrowing owls (photo by Katie McVey USFWS via Wikimedia Commons)

15 July 2022

After weeks of being fed by their parents, baby birds’ first big challenge is to feed themselves. What is edible? How to chomp it? How to catch it?

When open my beak the food goes in. Doesn’t it?

“Is this how to do it?” Juvenile red-tailed hawks practice pouncing at Tompkins Square Park, New York City in June 2022.

“What is this?” say two baby burrowing owls. Babies, it’s food!

(photo from Wikimedia Commons, embedded tweets and video)

Baby Birds Stepping Out

Piping plover chick at Queens, NY (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

10 July 2022

Before they can fly, baby birds make their first moves on foot. Watch three babies stepping out.

A piping plover chick (Charadrius melodus) at Rockaway, NY:

A flightless guillemot chick (Cepphus grylle), accompanied by his father, jumps into the sea at an island off the UK coast:

A baby emu gets excited.

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