Category Archives: Doves & Chickens

Learn From Working Birds

screenshot from PlantForAbundance

On Labor Day let’s take a look at some working birds.

Chickens were first domesticated about 9,000 years ago in both China and India but the idea didn’t really take off for another 2,000 to 4,000 years. Then it spread slowly westward to Persia (Iran), Egypt, Europe and Africa.  Chickens are now the most numerous bird species on Earth because humans like to eat them and their eggs.

Because of our close relationship to chickens we tend to forget that they are birds and we can learn from their behavior.

What does a hen do when she wants to lay an egg?  This video answers the question among a flock of free range chickens.

“What is my chicken telling me?”


(video by Plant Abundance on YouTube)

Count Turkeys In August

Wild turkey with juveniles (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Wild turkey with juveniles (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Silent songbirds and hot weather make birding less interesting in August.  Here’s a project to get you going in Pennsylvania:  It’s time to count wild turkeys.

Every August the Pennsylvania Game Commission conducts a wild turkey survey to determine breeding success.  Everyone from biologists to birders can help.  Two factors add interest to the count:

  1. Juvenile turkeys, called poults, are only half grown so you can tell (and count) the difference between adults and this year’s young.
  2. You’ll also get practice identifying adult males versus females. (You can ignore the adult/juvenile tail-clue because juveniles are just plain small in August.)
How to sex and age wild turkeys by sight (screenshot of PGC poster)
How to sex and age wild turkeys by sight (screenshot of PGC poster)


The guidelines for the survey are pretty simple:

  • Record turkey sightings during the month of August.
  • Count “big birds” (adults) and “little birds” (poults).
  • Record the sex of all adults.  Here’s the full size poster that describes the difference between males and females.
  • For adult females, separate the count “with young” and “without.”
  • Note where you see the birds. When you submit your observations (online here or download the app), click on the embedded map and the form will automatically fill in the location details.
  • Submit a separate report for each flock of turkeys observed, including those without poults, and lone turkeys.
  • Try NOT to report the SAME flock MULTIPLE times. Duplicate flocks bias the results.

Download the app to use in the field or click here for the Turkey Survey form.


Thanks to Mary Ann Pike for passing along this news.


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

p.s. Did you know you can sex turkeys by the shape of their droppings?  Learn more at PGC’s Turkey Biology FAQ page.

Pigeon Of The Woods

Common Woodpigeon in Gdansk (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Common Wood pigeon in Gdansk (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

In Pennsylvania we have only one kind of pigeon and he isn’t really ours.  He’s the descendant of European birds named rock pigeons because they nest on cliffs.  This distinguishes them from another European pigeon that nests in trees, the common wood pigeon (Columba palumbus).

Wood pigeons used to be shy and stay in the woods but now they hang out in parks and cities and are the most numerous bird in London, even more numerous than rock pigeons.

When these two encounter each other you can see that “wood” is bigger than “rock.”

Wood pigeon and feral rock pigeon (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Wood pigeon looks at rock pigeon (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

In some parts of Europe wood pigeons are migratory.  In winter large flocks browse in the fields as shown below.  Notice the bright white patches on their necks and white wing bars visible in flight.

When it’s time to nest they’re back in the trees …

Wood pigeon with chicks at nest (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Wood pigeon with chicks at nest (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

… raising baby pigeons in the woods.


(photos and video from Wikimedia Commons; click on the images to see the originals)

Demonstrating Thoughts Of Love

Pigeons courting (photo by Aomorikuma via Wikimedia Commons)
Pigeons courting (photo by Aomorikuma via Wikimedia Commons)

In the spring a fuller crimson comes upon the robin’s breast
In the spring the wanton lapwing gets himself another crest
In the spring a livelier iris changes on the burnished dove
In the spring a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love.

— from Locksley Hall by Alfred Tennyson


Despite this month’s cold weather birds are courting in western Pennsylvania.  In the cities, at the silos, pigeons are easiest to watch.

Learn how they demonstrate their courtship in this article from March 2010: Thoughts of Love


p.s. The story told in Locksley Hall is different from its most famous line. Read more about the poem here.

(photo by Aomorikuma via Wikimedia Commons. Click on the image to see the original)

For The Love Of Birds

A lot of us love birds but we see them from afar.  Those who live with them have a special relationship that goes much deeper.

Pigeon fanciers breed and race pigeons but it’s a relationship that goes both ways.  The birds benefit from those who care for them and the people are made happy by being with their birds.  This video about three New York pigeon fanciers is a window on their world.

As Vincent Outerbridge says, “This is the life. I wouldn’t trade it for nothin’.”


p.s. Pigeons were easy to domesticate because they are docile in the hand.  As you can see in the film, they’re so docile that they can be held upside down and passed from hand to hand.

(video by JJ Sulin on YouTube)

Pigeons Can Read 4-Letter Words

Pigeons (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Pigeons (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

A new study of rock pigeons indicates they can read four-letter words … sort of(*).

Researchers at the University of Otago in New Zealand and Ruhr University in Germany quizzed four pigeons on their orthographic abilities.

According to Science Daily, “In the experiment, pigeons were trained to peck four-letter English words as they came up on a screen, or to instead peck a symbol when a four-letter non-word, such as ‘URSP’ was displayed. … The pigeons correctly identified the new words as words at a rate significantly above chance.”

Eventually the four birds in the experiment recognized 26 to 58 real words and correctly labelled over 8,000 as non-words.  They’re the first non-primate species found to have this ability.

So yes, pigeons know when they’re looking at a real 4-letter word but like naïve children they don’t know what it means.

Learn more about the study here in Science Daily.


(photo from Wikimedia Commons. Click on the image to see the original)

(*) The study shows that pigeons can figure out letter-combinations. Pigeons have no reading comprehension so, literally speaking, they cannot read.

He Eats Needles


Here’s a bird you’ll never see in Pennsylvania.

The spruce grouse (Falcipennis canadensis) is a resident of the northern forest in Canada, Maine, Minnesota and the northern Rockies.  Though he resembles our state bird, the ruffed grouse, his diet keeps him north of us.

In winter our ruffed grouse (Bonasa umbellus) eats buds, twigs, catkins, ferns and fruit — easy food to find in Pennsylvania.

Not so the spruce grouse.  His winter diet is conifer needles.  They’re so hard to digest and he has to eat so many of them to stay alive that his digestive system changes in the fall.  According to Cornell’s All About Birds, his “gizzard grows by about 75 percent, and other sections of the digestive tract increase in length by about 40 percent.”  Before the snow falls he stocks up on grit so his gizzard can grind up the needles.

In September 2012 Sparky Stensaas found this spruce grouse swallowing road grit and feasting on a tamarack in northern Minnesota.  Tamaracks loose their needles in October so the grouse had to eat them right away.

This bird eats spruce needles, too.  That’s why he’s a spruce grouse.


Click here to see the video full screen and read Sparky’s description of what this grouse was up to.

(video by Sparky Stensaas)

* Tamaracks are larches, deciduous conifers whose needles turn yellow and drop in the fall.