Category Archives: Bird Behavior

Seen This Week, May 14-20

Just banded: female red-winged blackbird in hand, Frick Park, 14 May 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)

21 May 2022

Seen this week in Schenley and Frick Parks:

At top, bird bander David Yeany holds a recently banded female red-winged blackbird at Frick Park on Migratory Bird Day, 14 May 2022.

On 17 May we looked for warblers along Nine Mile Run’s boardwalk and found many black walnut flowers fallen on the railing.

Old flower from black walnut, 17 May 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)

I would have brushed this one away until I saw an insect hiding on it. Do you see the juicy caterpillar, below? This is warbler food!

Warbler food! on an old black walnut flower, 17 May 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)

In Schenley Park a carpenter ant examined fading pawpaw flowers that smell like rotten meat, if they smell at all. No rotting meat here. She left.

An ant leaves after exploring fading flowers on a pawpaw tree, 13 May 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)

Mystery flower of the week was a non-native with thin basal leaves found blooming in the woods in Frick Park. How did star-of-Bethlehem (Ornithogalum sp.), a native of southern Europe and southern Africa, get into the woods? Is it invading?

Star of Bethlehem blooming in the woods at Frick Park, 14 May 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)

(photos by Kate St. John)

Wild Parrots in the Backyard

King parrot and crimson rosella perch on a fence (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

11 May 2022

Imagine having wild parrots visit your bird feeder.

Australia is home to 56 parrot species including the Australian king-parrot (Alisterus scapularis) and the crimson rosella (Platycercus elegans) of eastern and southeastern Australia. Though they nest in the woods they often visit urban parks and backyards.

Sometimes they scuffle over rights to the feeder, as captured by this feedercam. (The constant loud hooting in the video is a wonga pigeon.)

Occasionally an individual learns how to be hand-fed like a black-capped chickadee.

How cool it would be to have wild parrots in the backyard!

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

Separating the Wheat From the Chaff

Chipping sparrow with seed in beak (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

28 April 2022

Seed-eating birds use only their beaks to extract their food from shells and husks. Have you noticed how they do it?

At the feeder you may see them pick up a whole nut, crack the shell with their strong beaks and let the shell fall, then work on the seed inside their mouths with tongue and beak. They do the same with grassy seeds though we rarely see it.

Evening grosbeak and American goldfinch at the feeder, Nov 2012 (photo by Marcy Cunkelman)

This slow motion video of a field sparrow (Spizella pusilla) shows how he separates the “wheat” from the chaff. It’s a lot of mouth work for tiny seeds.

(photos from Wikimedia Commons and Marcy Cunkelman)

From Flocks to Nests

Mourning dove flock on a fence in winter (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

13 April 2022

In spring a change occurs in mourning dove behavior as large flocks we see in winter disperse to nest. Some flocks move north while locals break up into couples and fan out to choose a territory.

It is hard to notice when the change occurs so I graphed my eBird count of mourning doves (Zenaida macroura) in Frick and Schenley Parks, January 2021 through 9 April 2022.

My eBird counts of mourning doves in Frick & Schenley, 1 Jan 2021 through 8 April 2022 (data from Kate St. John)

The change is pretty dramatic. Just 1-5 birds from March through September, then over 40 December through February. The largest flocks were at the Frick Environmental Education Center where they sunned in the trees above the feeders. 100 mourning doves in January!

Mourning dove flock in winter sun (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

This year the count dropped below 10 in early March as they paired up. Some pairs maintain their bonds throughout the winter. Others get to know each other in the spring.

Wary pair of mourning doves in California (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

On territory the male visits potential nest sites and calls to his mate to inspect them. She gets to choose. (His nest call is 3 notes like this).

According to Birds of the World: To build the nest he brings small twigs, etc. which he delivers to her while standing on her back(!) She arranges them around her while using her body to form a simple bowl. Nest building usually takes 7–10 hours spread over 2–4 days.

The loosely built nest looks messy. Sometimes you can see through it from below.

Mourning dove nest with egg (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

And they mate. She lays her first egg within 2 days of nest completion. Subsequent eggs are one or two days apart.

Mourning dove pairs share incubation as they wait for the eggs to hatch in 14 days. Surprisingly neither bird has a brood patch but it works anyway.

The chicks are fed by regurgitation and grow up to resemble their parents. They fledge in 13-15 days, sooner if frightened.

Adult with two almost grown chicks (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Juveniles remain in speckled plumage through August. By winter they look like adults.

Juvenile mourning dove in September (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

And in October mourning doves gather in flocks again. The process starts over from flocks to nests.

UPDATE 13 April 2022: Today at Frick Park I talked with someone who has a mourning dove nest in their yard while 16 mourning doves hung out near the feeders. Flocking and nesting were simultaneous today.

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


Rubbing his beak, this bald eagle is feaking (photo by BC Coastal Dry Belt, Creative Commons license on Flickr)

9 April 2022

New word for the day.

Feaking  – The act of rubbing the beak against a surface for cleaning or maintaining beak shape, often done after eating.

Definition from the National Eagle Center

The word feak originated in falconry in the early 16th century, derived from the German word fegen which means cleanse or sweep. Despite what auto-correct assumes, there is NO R in feak.

In this video, the female bald eagle is feaking on the edge of a nest platform in the rain.

And here’s a peregrine feaking after her meal.

Feaking isn’t confined to raptors. Learn the several reasons why birds do it at National Audubon’s article: Here’s Why Birds Rub Their Beaks on Stuff.

(photo from BC Coastal Dry Belt on Flickr; videos embedded from YouTube)

Pittsburgh’s Peregrine Soap Operas

Terzo at Third Avenue, 8 June 2021 (photo by Lori Maggio)

7 April 2022

In recounting Beauty’s life in Rochester and the soap opera she experienced in 2012 I’m reminded of two notable soap operas among Pittsburgh’s peregrines.

On Throw Back Thursday read about the Westinghouse Bridge in 2015 and Terzo’s secret life in 2020.

(photo by Lori Maggio)

Listening to the Sap Rise?

Yellow-bellied sapsucker in Central Park, Feb 2021 (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

17 March 2022

Spring is here and tree sap is rising in western Pennsylvania. This month yellow-bellied sapsuckers (Sphyrapicus varius) are migrating through our area, pausing to drill holes in the trees to sip the welling sap.

How does a sapsucker know a tree is a good candidate for a meal? Can he hear the sap rising? Maybe so.

Seven years ago I learned that with special microphones we can hear the secret sounds of trees. Here’s an example from a Scots pine, recorded by Marcus Maeder’s trees project.

Auditory emissions of a Scots pine (recording by Marcus Maeder)

On Throwback Thursday learn more about the secret sounds of trees and listen to one in the video.

(photo from Wikimedia Commons, audio from Marcus Maeder’s trees project; click on the captions to see the originals)

Focus in the Midst of Distractions

Immature red-tailed hawk focused on prey (photo by Chuck Tague)

10 March 2022

Despite distractions we humans can focus on just one thing if we want to. Birds of prey can do it, too, as seen in this video of a red-tailed hawk in Tompkins Square Park, New York. The hawk doesn’t care about squirrels or people or the ambulance but when he sees a rat …!

This ability to focus is called selective attention and was proven eight years ago in chickens. See this vintage article, Selective Attention in Chickens, with an amazing video to test your own selective attention.

Bonus test: After you see the video in the chicken article, try another test. (This test + answer lasts 3 minutes. The remaining 2 minutes show family & friends reactions.)

(photo from Wikimedia Commons; click on the caption to see the original. Videos embedded from YouTube)

Snowy Egret’s Fishing Feet

Snowy egret in Celebration, Florida (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

7 March 2022

How do you identify a snowy egret among the six white wading birds in North America?

Snowy egrets are the only one of the group whose feet don’t match their legs. Yellow Feet + Black Legs. You can see it even in flight.

Snowy egrets in flight (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

The color combination helps them forage. While their black legs are probably ignored by their prey, the “yellow feet catch the eye of fish and other creatures, drawing them closer or stalling them so the egret can strike,” per Bird Watcher’s Digest.

Here are three of the snowy egret’s five foot-fishing techniques.

Foot stirring:

Foot probing: in slow motion.

Foot dragging: Dangling their feet in the water to make the fish rise up from the depths.

Snowy egrets have 21 techniques for catching fish, the broadest repertoire of all North American herons. They have a lot of tricks up their sleeves.

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

Let Me Help You Out of That

Australian magpie, looking at it (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

6 March 2022

Sometimes an experiment doesn’t work as planned but the results are far better than expected.

Researchers wanted to track Australian magpies (Gymnorhina tibicen), a very social species that lives in groups of 2-12 individuals on permanent territories. Rather than use the typical long-lasting harness that requires recapturing the bird to collect the datapack, they designed a harness that would release when exposed to a magnet placed at a feeding station. Would the new harness design work? The first step was to try it on a few magpies and see.

Illustration of novel harness for Australian magpies with magnetic release (image from Australian Field Ornithology 2022, 39, 7–11

Researchers led by Joel Crampton captured five magpies at Pacific Paradise, Queensland, banded them and fitted each one with a GPS harness. Then they followed the birds to see the harness release at the feeding station.

Each banded bird immediately tried to remove the harness but it was too well designed for that to work. Instead the unexpected occurred. Unbanded magpies came to the rescue.

On the day of trapping, one individual was observed attempting to remove its own tracker but was then approached and aided by another juvenile (without a tracker or coloured leg-band) once again pecking the harness part of the tracker. The tracker remained but, within the next 10 minutes, an adult female (also without a tracker or leg-band) proceeded to approach and successfully pecked the harness at various points such that the tracker came off the fitted juvenile within c. 10 minutes. This first Magpie that had been tagged had its GPS device removed within 1 h.

Australian Field Ornithology: Australian Magpies Gymnorhina tibicen cooperate to remove tracking devices

This happened over and over again until none of the banded birds had trackers. Here’s a video of the magpies helping each other.

This finding was unexpected but far better than the original experiment. It was the first time anyone had seen rescue behaviour among Australian magpies.

To our knowledge, this is the first study to report the conspecific removal of GPS trackers, and should be considered when planning future tracking studies especially on highly social species.

Australian Field Ornithology: Australian Magpies Gymnorhina tibicen cooperate to remove tracking devices

“Here,” say the magpies to each other. “Let me help you out of that.”

p.s. A tip of the hat to Michelle Kienholz for pointing out this study.

(photo from Wikimedia Commons, diagram and video from Australian Field Ornithology: Australian Magpies Gymnorhina tibicen cooperate to remove tracking devices; click on the captions to see the originals)