Category Archives: Bird Behavior

Watch For Amazing Flocks This Fall

Migrating flock of common grackles take over the trees (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Now that the breeding season is over birds have gathered for migration and the winter.

Early this week 50 common grackles leapfrogged over the trees and forest floor as they searched for food and bathed in Panther Hollow Run. (This photo gives you an idea of their abundance.)

Cedar waxwing numbers peaked in Schenley Park in early October when they devoured most of the porcelain berries. They’ll spend the winter further south, for instance in Memphis, Tennessee where this photo was taken.

Cedar waxwing flock feeding on the ground (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Pine siskins were everywhere a couple of days ago. Are they still visiting your feeders? Where will they head next?

Pine siskin flock in Minnesota (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Starlings numbers are building in Pittsburgh as northern visitors arrive. Soon there will be thousands.

European starlings overhead, Maryland (photo by Mr. T in DC via Flickr Creative Commons license)

Crow numbers are building too. Last weekend I counted 2,400 but more arrived last night. Eventually the flock will look like this video from 2011. Where will they roost? Stay tuned.

Watch for spectacular flocks this fall. Let me know what you see.

(photos from Wikimedia Commons and Mr. T in DC, video by Sharon Leadbitter. Click the captions to see the originals)

More Than a Billion

Male red-billed queleas, Kruger National Park, SA (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

The most numerous wild bird on earth, estimated at 1.5 billion individuals, is the red-billed quelea (Quelea quelea) of sub-Saharan Africa. This very social weaver finch migrates and nests in flocks that number in millions.

Flock of red-billed quelea (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

When the flocks get going they resemble swarms of locusts.

Red-billed queleas eat mostly grain and seeds. As they feed on the ground the flock leapfrogs from back to front like a rolling cloud.

In Africa they are so well known as flocks that it’s hard to think of them as individuals. Two males are pictured above. Here’s a female.

Female red-billed quelea (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Unfortunately their numbers and flocking behavior get them into trouble. When their natural food sources run dry they change their focus to cultivated fields. A flock of two million can eat 20 tons of grain in a day, thus …

This species is a major pest of cereal crops, and huge efforts have been expended by national and international agencies on lethal control and attempts to reduce population numbers by use of explosives, petrol bombs and aerial spraying of [organophosphate] avicides; in South Africa up to 21 million reported killed in a single month, with annual kill estimates of up to 180 million.

Control operations, however, probably do no more than replace naturally occurring mortality, and there is a significant adverse impact on other species, which are poisoned directly or die after eating dead queleas.

Birds of the World, Red-billed quelea

A much more successful control measure than killing them, though very labor intensive, is to actively make noise in the fields and scare the birds away.

After more than 70 years of control measures that kill hundreds of millions of birds per year, the red-billed quelea population has grown.

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

p.s. A video at this link shows all aspects of the red-billed queleas lives but is grisly at the end.

He Needs To Catch Just One

Zoetic with prey, Lake Erie shore, January 2020 (photo by Chad+Chris Saladin)

During their first year of life young peregrines wander, looking for places where prey is abundant. A full grown peregrine needs to catch just one good-sized bird or a couple of small ones (blackbird size) each day to satisfy its hunger. Locations where thousands of birds gather on migration is prime hunting ground. That’s why young peregrines gravitate to the shore.

Shorebirds gather in the thousands at the water’s edge on migration. To protect themselves against peregrines they fly up in a very tight ball so the peregrine can’t pick out a single bird. If any shorebird breaks out of the ball the peregrine will catch it.

Watch the dramatic action of a lone peregrine hunting among thousands of shorebirds in videos below by Mark Wyna and Rob Palmer.

With thousands of potential prey items, the peregrine needs to catch just one.

p.s. If you think the shorebirds’ evasive flight uses up a lot of energy you’d be right. Peregrine pressure on shorebirds keeps them fit. Read more in this vintage blog: Peregrines as a Fitness Program.

(photo of Zoetic with prey by Chad+Chris Saladin. Zoetic is the first female fledgling from the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo site)

Woodpecker With An Attitude

Red-headed woodpecker (photo by Lauri Shaffer)

24 September 2020

There weren’t many warblers at Frick Park yesterday but we saw nearly every woodpecker that occurs in Pennsylvania except for the red-headed woodpecker (Melanerpes erythrocephalus), a very rare bird in Frick(*). Soon we were dreaming about red-headeds, reminiscing about the times we’ve seen them, and remarking on their attitude.

Red-headed woodpeckers sometimes exhibit clownish behavior but more often I’ve seen them fighting. They’re rated as the most pugnacious woodpecker in North America and live up to it by challenging every cavity-nesting bird. They go hard after starlings, northern flickers and red-bellied woodpeckers. They will even challenge pileated woodpeckers four times their size.

Last year Lauri Shaffer was lucky to witness a red-headed woodpecker attacking a pileated.

Red-headed woodpecker attacks a pileated woodpecker (photo by Lauri Shaffer)

It didn’t take long for the much larger woodpecker to leave the tree. Enough is enough!

Pileated woodpecker escapes the attack of a red-headed woodpecker (photo by Lauri Shaffer)

Red-headeds will even attack each other, as witnessed by Chris Saladin when an immature attacked an adult. On Throw Back Thursday check out her photos of the battle between two red-headeds, the woodpeckers with attitude: The Most Pugnacious Woodpecker.

(photos by Lauri Shaffer)

(*) p.s. Red-headed woodpeckers are Rare Birds indeed. eBird describes them this way:

The Second Atlas of Breeding Birds in Pennsylvania reports an alarming decline throughout the state with a 46 percent decrease in the number of blocks that recorded the species between the first and second atlas periods. In that short amount of time, the Red-headed Woodpecker withdrew significantly from its former breeding range and was no longer found in 13 of Pennsylvania’s northern counties.

Red-headed woodpecker account at eBird

Birds Burst Into The Sky After Sunset

Immature male rose-breasted grosbeak (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

19 September 2020

Birding in Pittsburgh has been great this week and will continue today and tomorrow, Saturday & Sunday 19-20 September, as shown on BirdCast’s local migration alert for Pittsburgh below.

screenshot of BirdCast local migration alert for Pittsburgh, PA, 18 Sept 2020

Birding is great on the morning after high migration because the birds travel at night. They start their journey after sunset and land before sunrise, flying over us when it’s too dark to see them.

On good weather nights they’re so anxious to leave that they burst into the sky after sunset, a phenomenon that’s visible on time lapse weather radar. The slideshow below shows this effect on the evening of 15 September 2020 when the birds took off only 20 mins after sunset.

Note that the image is circular because the radar’s reach is circular and it is fainter on the edges because radar fades as it gets far from the source.

Who was flying that night? In addition to warblers, which will be waning soon, we now see thrushes, tanagers, and rose-breasted grosbeaks (Pheucticus ludovicianus). The grosbeaks may resemble females, but don’t be fooled. If they have a touch of orange or red color on their breast they are immature males as shown at top. Here’s another immature male.

Immature male rose-breasted grosbeak (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

This weekend is a great time to go birding in Pittsburgh. Let’s get outdoors!

p.s. Click here to get BirdCast local migration alerts for your hometown.

(photos from Wikimedia Commons, slideshow from KPIT weather radar, Migration alert screenshot from BirdCast; click on the captions to see the originals)

1,500 Chimney Swifts

Chimney swift trio (photo by Jeff Davis)
Chimney swift trio (photo by Jeff Davis)

11 September 2020

In September chimney swifts (Chaetura pelagica) migrate through western Pennsylvania on their way to South America. Unlike songbirds, swifts migrate during the day but we often don’t see them because they travel so high. Birds of the World says they’ve been recorded above the clouds on the warm leading edge of a cold front, 7000 feet up!

At night swifts sleep in chimneys, choosing the most convenient place. The roost may hold more than 1000 birds per night though the individuals change as some leave for the south and others arrive from the north.

Since moving to Oakland in early August I now live within sight of the Cathedral Mansions chimney, one of the largest migratory roosts in the Pittsburgh area. When the weather’s fine I step out to watch them circle the chimney and dive into the roost. Last Sunday I invited Michelle Kienholz to join me. Her videos show some of what we witnessed.

Chimney swifts swirling around Cathedral Mansions chimney, 4 Sept 2020 (photo by Michelle Kienholz)

We started watching while the sun was up but the swifts didn’t come close to the chimney until a few minutes after sunset. By that time it was obvious they were making very large circles around the chimney, flying out of our peripheral vision.

As the sky got darker the swifts circled closer and closer, faster and faster. To enter the chimney they stalled upright, then dove in. There were so many swifts they had to wait in line or circle out and try again.

We tried to count as they dove in but they were quick.

It was almost too dark to see when the last swift disappeared 20 minutes later.

My estimate was 1,500 chimney swifts.

Watch them live at the Audubon Society of Western Pennsylvania’s Virtual Chimney Swift Night Out, 25 September 2020, 7-9pm. Click here for details.

p.s. The swifts leave before dawn if the weather is good but this morning it’s overcast. A few swifts popped out of the chimney 15 minutes before dawn but all went back in.

UPDATE 18 SEPT 2020: I counted 1,300 chimney swifts tonight. The flock completed its dive into the chimney by 7:52pm.

(photo of three swifts by Jeff Davis; still shot and videos of Cathedral Mansions chimney swifts by Michelle Kienholz)

Geese At Work

Geese at work, protecting the flock (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

On Labor Day let’s honor working birds. This year … domestic geese.

A couple of domestic geese are often kept with chickens to guard them from predators. Geese are always alert and will naturally honk and shout when they see danger. The chickens run for cover while the large and aggressive geese may attack the threat. Some geese are so aggressive that they’ve injured people. (By the way, Canada geese will attack if you approach their young.)

A farmer who used geese and guineafowl to guard his chickens says domestic geese are the best. Geese alarm only when they see a threat; the farmer knows there’s a good reason to check on the flock. Guineafowl are noisy but they alarm for almost anything.

When you see geese with chickens you can be sure those geese are at work.

p.s. When seen in Pennsylvania, geese like those pictured above are barnyard escapees. Here are some tips on their background: Chinese geese have long necks and knobs on their heads (top photo) and were domesticated from swan geese (Anser cygnoides). Domestic geese in white or gray with faces like snow geese (the attacking goose above) are descended from greylag geese (Anser anser).

p.p.s. Sometimes the geese are fooled. In Medieval manuscripts, stained glass windows and carvings a fox dressed up as a monk or priest preaches to geese and chickens, then ultimately eats one of them. “When the fox preaches, look to your geese.

Fox preaching to chickens and a goose from Book of Hours, Maastricht, 1st quarter of 14th century (image from Wikimedia Commons

Convergent Behavior

Eurasian wryneck (photo by Imran Shah via Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons license)

Did you know that, when threatened, this Eurasian woodpecker uses the same distraction display as a South American flycatcher? Though the birds aren’t related their similar behavior looks like convergent evolution.

Convergent evolution is when similar traits evolve in unrelated species because they’ve had to adapt to similar environments.

A classic example is the body shape of sharks and porpoises. Both have long streamlined bodies, dorsal fins and flippers because both must swim fast to catch underwater prey.

Black-tipped reef shark, Maldives (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

But sharks are fish and porpoises are mammals. They aren’t related.

Long-beaked common dolphin (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Here’s another example of convergent appearance.

Eastern meadowlark, yellow-throated longclaw (photos from Wikimedia Commons)

The eastern meadowlark of North America (a member of the blackbird family Icterid) and the yellow-throated longclaw of Africa (a member of the wagtail/pipit family Motacillidae) live in similar habitats on separate continents. Though strikingly similar they are not related.

So what do you think? Is the neck-turning behavior of the Eurasian wryneck (Jynx torquilla) …

… like the distraction display of the royal flycatcher (Onychorhynchus coronatus) of Central and South America?

Royal Flycatcher (Onychorhynchus coronatus) display

(Video courtesy of Cameron Rutt via Flickr; see more about this bird here).

While they’re unable to escape both birds twist their necks. Perhaps the goal is to mesmerize the predator. It looks like convergent behavior to me.

p.s. See more examples of convergent evolution at this Univ of Texas link.

(photos from Wikimedia Commons. Videos by Anders Nielsen on YouTube and courtesy of Cameron Rutt on Flickr)

Leaves Early To Raise Another Family

Male orchard oriole (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Why haven’t I seen an orchard oriole (Icterus spurius) in Pittsburgh since June? They probably left early on migration. Some have a reason to hurry — they raise a second family in Mexico.

A 2009 study by Rohwer and Hobson found that some yellow-billed cuckoos, orchard orioles, hooded orioles, yellow-breasted chats and Cassin’s vireos breed in North America, then on their migration south they stop off at the thorn forests of western Mexico and raise a second family.

This “migratory double breeding” discovery was stunning. Scientists knew of just two Old World species who did this on their journey north, but until this study no birds were known to do it in the western hemisphere and none anywhere were known to double-breed on the southbound trip.

Gathering the evidence was daunting. July and August are monsoon season in western Mexico with temperatures at 100+ degrees, humidity at 100% and lots of biting insects.  Rohwer’s team was there to study the molt cycles of migratory songbirds.  Instead they found five species breeding! In addition to orchard orioles they found …

… the tellow billed cuckoo (Coccyzus americanus) that breeds in eastern North America and western Mexico:

Yellow billed cuckoo (photo by Chuck Tague)

Hooded oriole (Icterus cucullatus): breeds in southeastern Texas, the Southwest, parts of California and western Mexico.

Hooded oriole (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Yellow-breasted chat (Icteria virens): breeds across the U.S. and into southern Canada and Mexico.

Yellow-breasted chat (photo by Anthony Bruno)

and Cassin’s vireo (Vireo cassinii): breeds in the Pacific Northwest, southwestern Canada and surprisingly in western Mexico.

Cassin’s vireo, New Mexico (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Who would have guessed they’re in such a hurry to raise another family half a continent away.

(photos by Chuck Tague, Anthony Bruno and from Wikimedia Commons)

Surprising Enemies of Paper Wasps

Black-capped chickadee (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

21 August 2020:

The presence of European paper wasps (Polistes dominula) can be daunting until you realize they have enemies. Birds eat their larvae right out of the nest. Gerardine Baugh discovered this while watching a chickadee at a wasp’s nest outside her window.

Who knew that a chickadee would be so brave when confronted by a wasp?

p.s. If you missed it, learn more about European paper wasps in this week’s article.

And there’s good news from Ohio: When European paper wasps first arrived in Ohio they supplanted native paper wasps. Now that trend has reversed.

(photo from Wikimedia Commons; video by Geradine Baugh)