Category Archives: Songbirds

Migration By Smell

Gray catbird (photo by Shawn Collins)

I have not seen a gray catbird in Pittsburgh yet but I know they’re on their way. Next month they’ll arrive from their wintering grounds in the southern U.S., the Caribbean and Central America. How do they get here?

Migratory birds are born with an innate sense of direction and distance to their goal but must learn how to get there on their first trip south. After they’ve made the trip once, they create a mental map and can use the sun, stars, earth’s magnetic field and their sense of smell to return home.

Their sense of smell? Yes! Birds do have a sense of smell and they use it.

On Throw Back Thursday, learn how gray catbirds proved they navigate by smell in: Sniffing Their Way North.

(photo by Shawn Collins)

Tiny Birds Crowd the Bath

In eastern North America we have chickadees and kinglets but we never get to see this tiny social bird, the bushtit, that lives year-round from southwestern Canada to Central America.

The bushtit’s name (Psaltriparus minimus) has the same origin as the titmouse’s.

The scientific name for Bushtit is Psaltriparus minimus and the second half of Psaltriparus, “parus,” is Latin for titmouse. And the “tit” in titmouse comes from Old Icelandic “titr” meaning something small.

description of video by John Hamil

Bushtits are extremely social, hanging out in flocks of 10 to 40 birds, moving through the trees and bushes gleaning tiny insects off leaves and branches. At night, they roost together. During the breeding season the entire family and their helpers sleep together in their oversized hanging nest.

On left, bushtit nest in hand. At right, bird emerges near top of structure (photos from Wikimedia Commons)

Whether they’re eating, perched or hiding, bushtits are fond of bushes.

p.s. This video by John Hamil shows how the safety of bushes applies to all backyard birds. When you set up a birdbath, make sure to place it near a bush to provide a safe zone for the birds. They need a place to hide when they’re wet.

(video by John Hamil, Johnson Creek, Portland, Oregon, photos from Wikimedia Commons; click on the caption links to see the original)

It’s A Wonder

Painted bunting in Allegheny County, 22 Jan 2020 (photo by Steve Gosser)

On Monday morning, 20 January 2020, a sparrow-sized songbird, colored like an exotic parrot, showed up at a backyard feeder in suburban Pittsburgh. It happened to choose the backyard of Brian Shema, Operations Director at Audubon Society of Western PA. His Rare Bird Alert immediately attracted a steady stream of birders to see this gorgeous visitor. (If you want to see the bird, instructions are at the bottom of this article.)

Painted buntings (Passerina ciris) are seed-eaters that breed in the coastal Southeast and south central U.S., and spend the winter in Florida, the Caribbean and Central America. Though one occasionally shows up in eastern Pennsylvania this individual is quite out of range in the western part of the state. He’s only the third Allegheny County record.

He’s also extra special because he’s male. Female painted buntings are nice to find but their green color is not so photogenic.

To highlight the male and female difference here’s another male, photographed in Florida by Chuck Tague in 2012. (The border emphasizes that this is not the Pittsburgh bird.)

Painted bunting, Florida, 2012 (photo by Chuck Tague)

Of course we all wonder where the bunting came from and hope for his continued success. So far, so good. He’s hanging out with juncos and successfully avoiding predators, including the merlin that watched Brian’s backyard on Thursday afternoon.

If you’d like to see him, go to this location pinpointed on eBird’s map. Make sure you stay on the street, don’t walk in anyone’s yard, and park without blocking anything. The house is on a corner lot so you can see the feeders from the street. He was there all day yesterday (Friday 24 Jan). Chances are very good that you’ll find other birders looking at him when you get there.

(photos by Steve Gosser, Wikimedia Commons and Chuck Tague; click on the captions to see the originals)

Here To Stay Is The New Bird

Male northern cardinal (photo by Steve Gosser, 2010)

This week is much too warm for snow in Pittsburgh but we can dream as we listen to seasonal music. A favorite is Winter Wonderland, written in Pennsylvania in 1934, that includes these famous lines:

Gone away is the bluebird 
here to stay is a new bird. 
He sings a love song
as we go along
walking in a winter wonderland.” 
Winter Wonderland

Back then eastern bluebirds left northern Pennsylvania in the winter but a new bird had arrived and its population was growing. The song’s writer, Richard Bernhard Smith, may have been referring to northern cardinals.

Originally from the South, cardinals arrived in Pennsylvania in the early 1900s in response to habitat change and warmer winters. As soon as they could survive year-round this new bird was here to stay.

By now our climate is so much warmer that Carolina wrens, Carolina chickadees and red-bellied woodpeckers are additional new birds in Pennsylvania. Nowadays bluebirds linger until it’s quite cold in Honesdale, PA, the town that inspired the song.

New birds find it easy to stay in our not-so-wintry wonderland.

(photo by Steve Gosser)

So Many Robins!

American robin at an ornamental fruit tree (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

14 December 2019

Have you noticed it, too? There are so many robins in Pittsburgh right now!

American robins (Turdus migratorius) are versatile birds. They change their diet from insects and earthworms in summer to fruit in winter. They don’t care if it’s cold but they need lots of food in winter so they migrate more in response to food than to temperature.

Most robins move south in the fall but some remain north in large flocks that wander in search of abundant fruit. They choose Pittsburgh in December because we have lots of fruit on our native trees, ornamentals, invasive vines, and shrubs.

Here are just a few of the items on the robins’ menu.

Oriental bittersweet, Pittsburgh (photo by Kate St. John)
Bradford callery pear fruit, Pittsburgh, Nov 2012 (photo by Kate St. John)
Ornamental fruit tree, Dec 2019 (photo by John English)
Hackberries, a native tree (photo by Kate St. John)

When the fruit is gone and the ground is frozen, the robins will leave. I expect that to happen in early January.

(photos from Wikimedia Commons, Kate St. John and John English. Robin migration quoted from Journey North.)

A Surprising Look at Robins

American robin in flight (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

We usually see American robins (Turdus migratorius) with their wings closed. They perch in a tree, sit on a nest, or walk with their classic 3-steps-and-stop gait. Even in flight robins close their wings, flapping and gliding in a pattern similar to their walk.

This view of a robin with open wings reveals a surprise. The robin’s armpits, called axillaries, match its belly.

Check out this vintage article on axillaries to see other birds with hidden surprises.

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

Western Woodpecker Tableau

  • Williamson's sapsuckers, immature and adult, Bend, OR (photo by Pati Rouzer)

If you’re from Pennsylvania you may not realize we have few woodpecker species compared to the western states of California, Oregon and Washington.

Sixteen of North America’s 22 woodpecker species regularly occur in the Pacific states while only seven occur in Pennsylvania. Five of our species are also found out west though the yellow-bellied sapsucker is rare.

Let’s take a look at western woodpeckers compared to Pennsylvania’s.

Western Woodpeckers (Pacific states)Pennsylvania Woodpeckers
1Williamson’s sapsucker
(Yellow-bellied sapsucker is rare)Yellow-bellied sapsucker
2Red-naped sapsucker
3Red-breasted sapsucker
4Lewis’ woodpecker
Red-headed woodpecker
5Acorn woodpecker
6Gila woodpecker (California & southwest)
Red-bellied woodpecker
7American three-toed woodpecker (not in California)
8Black-backed woodpecker
9Downy woodpeckerDowny woodpecker
10Nuttall’s woodpecker (California only)
11Ladder-backed woodpecker (California & southwest)
12Hairy woodpecker Hairy woodpecker
13White-headed woodpecker
14Pileated woodpecker Pileated woodpecker
15Northern flicker (red-shafted)Northern flicker (yellow-shafted)
16Gilded flicker (California & Arizona)

With the most habitat diversity and a lot of trees, California wins the prize in the western woodpecker tableau.

(photos by Pati Rouzer, Patty McGann, Andy Reago & Chrissy McLaren, Mick Thompson (Creative Commons licenses on Flickr), and by Steve Valasek)

Get Your Winter Finch Fix

Evening grosbeaks at Ontario FeederWatch, 28 Oct 2019 (screenshot from Cornell Lab’s Ontario FeederWatch cam)

Where are the purple finches, pine siskins, and red-breasted nuthatches this winter? Where are the evening grosbeaks?

If you’ve noticed a lack of winter finches in the eastern U.S. this autumn you’re not mistaken. They’re staying up north.

In his 2019-2020 Winter Finch Forecast Ron Pittaway explained that seed and fruit crops in northern Ontario, Quebec and Newfoundland are exceptionally abundant this year. The winter finches have enough to eat so they’re staying home. Here’s who’s not coming to visit, not even to southern Ontario:

  • Pine grosbeaks
  • Purple finches: They usually come south, but not this year.
  • Red and white-winged crossbills
  • Common and hoary redpolls
  • Pine siskins
  • Evening grosbeaks
  • Red-breasted nuthatches
  • Bohemian waxwings
  • Even blue jays will be less abundant because many are staying north.

If you want to see these species you’ll have to go to Algonquin Provincial Park or watch them online at Ontario FeederWatch, a backyard camera in the Thunder Bay region.

The evening grosbeaks pictured above came to the Ontario FeederWatch platform feeder on 28 October 2019. (Click here for the video.)

Get your winter finch fix at Cornell Lab’s Ontario Feederwatch.

(screenshot from Ontario Feederwatch)

Songbirds On Live Camera

Screenshot from Cornell FeederWatch at Sapsucker Woods

Cornell Lab of Ornithology updated their live feeder cameras at Sapsucker Woods in Ithaca, New York for an even crisper view of the birds.

Watch their feeders from the comfort of your home (click here). Stay tuned overnight and you may see an unexpected visitor. This flying squirrel was a nice surprise on 15 October 2019.

Cornell Lab FeederWatch has live feeds, news, and archived videos.

And don’t miss their Bermuda petrel cam on Nonesuch Island, Bermuda. The breeding season is about to begin!

Even though it’s autumn, there’s a lot to watch on camera.

(screenshot and video from Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Bird Cams)

Blue Jay Fools A Young’un

Like other members of the Corvid family, blue jays (Cyanocitta cristata) are very intelligent and have strong family ties. Some of their intelligence and social awareness is put to use to fool each other, especially where food is involved.

Watch the video above by Lesley The Bird Nerd to see how an adult blue jay played a trick on a young one that was planning to steal his food.

(video by LesleyTheBirdNerd on YouTube. Click here for her YouTube site.)