Category Archives: Bird Behavior

Who says birds can’t change their tune?

White-throated sparrow (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Songbirds are born with the ability to sing but perfect their songs by listening to others. Many learn when immature, usually from their fathers, and then don’t change their tunes. That’s why it was a surprise when Ken Otter and Scott Ramsay discovered that a new song from western Canada is so popular among white-throated sparrows that it’s taking over the country.

White-throated sparrows (Zonotrichia albicollis) learn their songs at 30 to 100 days old and don’t vary them later except for a window in the birds’ second winter when they’re open to new ideas.

Twenty years ago all the birds sang the tune we still hear in the East, “Oh sweet Canada, Canada, Canada.” The end of the song is a triplet of three syllables.

In the early 2000s Otter and Ramsay recorded a new song unique to Prince George, a remote city in northern British Columbia. The birds sang “Oh sweet cana, cana, cana” without the final syllable.

Fast forward 20 years. Otter and Ramsay watched as “Oh sweet cana, cana, cana” moved east and gained traction across Canada. By 2017 the new song was the only one in the west and was sung by half the white-throated sparrows in Ontario.

It spreads during the winter. White-throated sparrows from across Canada spend the winter together in Oklahoma, Arkansas, Kansas and eastern Texas where mature birds demonstrate their favorite tunes.

The new song caught on rapidly with the younger crowd, probably because the ladies prefer it. Who says songbirds can’t change their tunes?

Read more at The Atlantic’s The Birdsong That Took Over North America.

(photo from Wikimedia Commons; click on the caption to see the original. Audio embedded from Xeno Canto)

Young Raptors As Home Wreckers

Immature bald eagle, March 2015 (photo by Steve Gosser)

Something is happening among nesting bald eagles in the James River watershed that may explain what we’re seeing among peregrines in western Pennsylvania. There are lots of eagles at the James River but less nesting success than in the past. The Center for Conservation Biology in Williamsburg, Virginia has figured out why.

CCB has been conducting bald eagle nesting surveys every March since the 1970s. Seven years after DDT was banned they found only one pair of bald eagles in the watershed. This year there are 319 pairs.

Meanwhile, “eagle productivity has dropped as the population has grown and breeding density has increased.” The number of eaglets per nest peaked at 1.6+ in the mid 1990s but has dropped to only 1.05 today.

Lower nesting success is not a food problem, it’s a competition problem. CCB explains:

The mechanism causing the decline does not appear to be traditional resource competition where pairs scramble for their share of limited fish. Rather, the mechanism appears to be young marauding eagles that are disrupting territory holders and competing for a limited set of viable breeding territories.

Young bald eagles are harassing adult pairs in an attempt to gain a territory — so much so that some pairs fail to nest successfully.

Adult and immature bald eagles jousting (photo by Steve Gosser)

This sounds like what happened at the Cathedral of Learning peregrine nest this year. In February a young male, Ecco, showed up at the Pitt nest and persistently vied for the site — so much so that Morela didn’t lay eggs until May and her eggs were never incubated. Hmmmm.

Young bald eagles are home wreckers. Maybe young peregrines are, too.

Read more about the James River bald eagle population at CCB’s James River Eagle Population Continues to Soar While Productivity Continues to Fall.

(photos by Steve Gosser)

Partners For Life?

Bewick’s swans at Big Waters, UK (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

“Birds are classically among the most monogamous of all organisms,” wrote Frank B. Gill in his textbook Ornithology.     90% of bird species form a pair bond in which they commit to work together to raise their young. Mammals are famously poor at this. Only 5% of mammalian species form pair bonds. Humans are among the few.(*)

For many years, ornithologists thought that birds were both sexually and socially monogamous but DNA studies have shown there is not always a sexual commitment. Extramarital copulations occur but they don’t dissolve the social bond. For instance, this happens among chickadees and …

Between one in 10 and one in three eggs in a female cardinal‘s nest has genes that don’t match her partner, and less commonly, they don’t even match her own. But because of that pair bond to rear the young, they are considered socially monogamous.

Bird Watcher’s Digest: Do Birds Mate For Life?

Even social monogamy comes in a range of time spans depending on the species. Avian pair bonds may last for one nesting, for one season, or for a lifetime.

Those who mate for life include Bewick’s swans (above), wandering albatrosses (pictured below), blue jays and barn owls (videos).

Wandering albatross at Macquarie Island (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Other lifelong pairings include Canada geese, bald eagles, peregrine falcons, red-tailed hawks, ravens, scarlet macaws, sandhill cranes and many more.

But as I said, social monogamy among bird species is a spectrum from lifelong to short commitments. Humans are like this, too.

In the U.S. the human divorce rate is 40%. There’s a bird with the same track record. The masked booby.

Masked booby pair (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

(*) p.s. Here’s why humans started forming pair bonds: Humans evolved monogamous relationships to stop men killing rivals babies

Song Sparrow Babies At The Nest

Song sparrow nestlings and parents, 12 July 2020 (screenshot from Bob Donnan video)

17 July 2020

This month a pair of song sparrows is nesting in a hanging basket above Bob Donnan’s deck in southwestern Pennsylvania. Bob wanted to see them better without disturbing them, so he set up a nest camera and is publishing YouTube videos of their activity. This week the babies grew a lot.

Bob’s 12 July 2020 video opens with both parents feeding four nestlings. Only about three days old, the nestlings are featherless and their eyes are closed. After the feeding ‘papa’ bird leaves while ‘mama’ remains to tidy the nest. She picks up something that looks like a worm and eats it — a fecal sac from one of her nestlings.

Later we hear ‘papa’ sparrow singing in the background while ‘mama’ shelters her young and appears to pant. It’s hot. Bob has been trying to provide extra shade because the sparrows’ air traffic has made the flowers droop. (Click here or on the screenshot at top to see the 12 July video.)

Three days later, 15 July, the babies are growing fast. The three remaining nestlings jump up to feed when mama arrives. They look so tall! Click on the image below to see Bob’s 15 July video.

Song sparrow nestlings, 15 July 2020 (screenshot from video by Bob Donnan)

Song sparrows babies mature so fast that they leave the nest at only 10 days old, even earlier in the heat of summer.

The nest on Bob’s deck will be empty soon. You have to look quickly to see song sparrow babies at the nest.

p.s. Bob has a great selection of “how to” landscaping videos on his Bobscaping YouTube channel.

Follow-up videos: (18 July) Junior! Get Back in the Nest!

(screenshots from videos by Bob Donnan; click on the images to see the videos)

Two Crows Save The Day

Two American crows look intently at… (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

14 July 2020

Crows remember the faces of people who pay attention to them and are kind to those they know(*) so it’s not too surprising that …

Last Sunday two crows saved a toddler in Vancouver, BC from running into traffic.

The toddler’s mother, Arley Cruthers of Vancouver, BC writes:

I usually am in peak helicopter mom mode but today she went from “trying to turn on a water fountain while I sat on a bench” to “running towards traffic” in 1 second flat.

I am not fast so I was chasing after her as she ran towards the road. Suddenly two crows swooped down to the fence and started yelling at her. She stopped, went over to the fence and talked to them. The crows kept up yelling at her and she just stood there, chatting with them.

I caught up, and stood between her and the road, and watched their interaction. After a few minutes, the crows gave me a sharp caw and flew away. Everyone in the playground was like “those crows came over to save your kid.” I made sure to thank them!

— tweets by Arley Cruthers (McNeney)

Crows save the day!

Click here for the complete thread.

p.s. The Twitter thread includes this heartwarming story by June Hunter of how crows helped rescue a lost dog: A Christmas Miracle — with Crows!

(*) p.p.s. Crows also remember the faces those who are mean to them; they shout and harass them.

(photo from Wikimedia Commons; click on the caption to see the original; embedded tweet from Arley McNeney Cruthers)

Pair Bonding With Ecco

Ecco and Morela touch beaks at the Pitt peregrine nest, 11 July 2020, 5:45am

13 July 2020

It’s almost mid-July yet two peregrine falcons, Ecco and Morela, are pair bonding at the Pitt peregrine nest in a very serious way. On Saturday 11 July they courted twice and touched beaks in a close bond before dawn.

For five months Morela has had two suitors, Terzo and Ecco. In early June Terzo was a constant presence, then Ecco reappeared on 16 June and both males courted her twice on 25 June. After that Terzo faded away and Morela was alone until Ecco reappeared on 9 July.

I should have seen him coming. My first hint was when Morela spent five hours roosting at the nest rail on the night of 8-9 July from 9p to 2a. Female peregrines usually don’t roost at the nest outside the breeding season. Here she is on the 8 July 2020 “Night in a Minute” video.

The next morning, Morela and Ecco courted for almost four minutes.

The 10th of July was quiet but they returned before dawn on 11 July, courting for three minutes and touching beaks. Beak-touching is more intimate than merely bowing. These two are hitting it off as a couple.

Less than three hours later, at 8:27a, Morela returned with a full crop and courted with Ecco for another three minutes.

I don’t put a lot of stock in the permanence of Morela’s bond with Ecco since he and Terzo trade places so often. However, it’s intriguing to see that she’s so close to Ecco.

Meanwhile, here’s something to ponder …

Why does Morela have a flipped primary feather?

Female peregrines usually molt their primaries during incubation (April/May) so I was surprised to see one of Morela’s primaries is flipped on her right wing. The feather was normal until the morning of 27 June when Morela returned to the nest rail. She preened and stayed there for five hours as shown in the Day in a Minute video .

So far the flipped feather has stayed in that position for 16 days. If it had flipped due to molting, the new feather would have pushed it out by now. So I wonder, was Morela in an aerial battle on 27 June? Even if we knew the answer, we’ll never know who her adversary was.

(photos and video from the National Aviary falconcam at Univ of Pittsburgh)

Some Of Us Sleep During the Day

Lapland longspur, Alaska, Oct 2018 (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

During Arctic summertime the sun stays up for 24 hours. One day lasts many weeks. How do birds cope with 24-hour daylight?

Lapland longspurs (Calcarius lapponicus), pictured above, rigorously adhere to their own internal clock. “If it ought to be night right now, we’re going to sleep.” They sleep during the day.

Other species have different strategies. Some have no clock at all. Others vary their clocks based on sex, male or female.

Red phalarope male in May (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Find out how four species cope with 24-hour daylight in this vintage blog: Arctic Summer Bird Activities.

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

Fireworks Escape To The Wild

Backyard fireworks party, unknown location, Nov 2012 (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

3 July 2020

Municipal 4th of July fireworks celebrations are canceled in Pennsylvania because of COVID-19 but that doesn’t mean there won’t be any explosions. Amateurs have been setting them off in neighborhoods and fields ever since the weather turned warm. Complaints are blossoming as fireworks “escape to the wild.”

In 2018 a new Pennsylvania fireworks law permitted Class-C “consumer grade” aerial fireworks like those shown below. This released a firestorm of complaints from residents, local firefighters and police — and complaints this year from New York City.

The city ballpark in my Pittsburgh neighborhood has always been a magnet for amateur fireworks activity so we’ve learned to cope. Some call the police (who can’t do anything if the fireworks are legal). Meanwhile we wait for the noise to go away. The birds wait, too.

Find out how wild birds cope with fireworks in this vintage blog: What Do Birds Think of Fireworks.

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

p.s. M-80s, cherry bombs and similar explosives are still illegal under federal law.

Not The Soap Opera We Thought

Ecco with Morela at the Pitt peregrine nest, 3 March 2020

2 July 2020

This spring the unresolved rivalry between two male peregrines — Terzo and Ecco — at the Cathedral of Learning made for a disappointing nesting season but generated a lot of speculation. Now that we know more about the Downtown peregrines we can lay one bit of speculation to rest.

Back on 15 March when Terzo and Ecco’s rivalry was spinning like a revolving door, I was surprised to see the Downtown female peregrine Dori appear on camera at Pitt. At the time I couldn’t help wondering, “Is the unbanded male Dori’s new mate who is shopping in Oakland because he doesn’t like the Downtown site?” … This led to speculation that Ecco was two-timing between the two nests. No, he is not.

Ecco has not been two-timing between Pitt and Downtown because (1) he’s not Dori’s mate and (2) he would have been way too busy Downtown to visit Morela at certain critical times.

Dori’s mate: On 28 June we learned from Lori Maggio’s photos that the Downtown male peregrine is banded. (Ecco is not banded.)

Adult male peregrine with silver colored right leg band, Downtown Pittsburgh, 2020-06-28 (photo by Lori Maggio)
Close-up of silver colored right leg band on Downtown Pittsburgh adult peregrine, 2020-06-28 (photo by Lori Maggio)

Critical timing: Here’s one example.

We learned on 28 June that the Downtown peregrine nest produced at least two young, probably more, who fledged approximately 25 to 30 June 2020. Parent peregrines are always extremely busy during the fledging period as they watch, feed and protect their naive young. During that period the Downtown adults had no time to make jaunts to other territories.

Meanwhile at Pitt, Ecco spent a busy day courting Morela multiple times on 25 June.

Morela and Ecco, 25 June 2020, 7:32am

Even if we didn’t know Dori’s real mate, this timing indicates Ecco has nothing to do with the Downtown nest.

So, Ecco isn’t two-timing. Frankly he’s having trouble being a successful one-timer.

My apologies for sending us all down this speculative rabbit hole. I should have brushed off Dori’s visit as curiosity on her part. I’ve seen other females visit the Pitt nest during turbulent times. Magnum visited twice in 2016 during Hope’s first turbulent year.

As much as I know peregrines I never learn that they’re surprising.

(photos from the National Aviary falconcam at Univ of Pittsburgh and Lori Maggio)

You’d Think It Was March

Morela at the nest overnight, 2020-06-25, 2:20am

26 June 2020

It’s late June, the solstice has passed, and yet three Cathedral of Learning peregrines are courting and the female Morela spent most of Wednesday-Thursday night at the nest.

Female peregrines normally spend the night at the nest before egg laying. Don’t get your hopes up, though. It’s too late in the year for successful eggs.

On 25 June over a period of 9 hours Morela courted with suitors four times, twice with each male, Ecco then Terzo. Click on links on these images and captions to see video of each event.

Ecco and Morela bow for 3 minutes, 2020-06-25 at 5:50am
Ecco and Morela bow for 9 minutes, 2020-06-25 at 7:30am
Terzo arrives at 10:30am, 2020-06-25
Terzo and Morela bow for almost 4 minutes, 2020-06-25, 10:40am
Morela sunbathes at 10:48am, 2020-06-25
Morela and Terzo court for 5 minutes, 2020-06-25, 2:15pm

Here’s a quick video summary: Day in a Minute, 25 June 2020 7am to 7pm.

After a long failed nesting season, the peregrine soap opera continues at Cathedral of Learning. Is Morela enjoying all the attention? You’d think it was March.

(photos and videos from the National Aviary falconcam at Univ of Pittsburgh)