Category Archives: Songbirds

A Tip For Identifying Confusing Fall Warblers

A confusing fall warbler, autumn 2011 (photo by Steve Gosser)

2 September 2021

The remnants of Hurricane Ida held back bird migration for two days in Pittsburgh but the logjam has broken. Today and tomorrow hold the promise of many migrating birds in southwestern Pennsylvania including mixed flocks of confusing fall warblers. Here’s a tip on how to identify them. This even works hours later at home with your reference guides.

In the field with a hard-to-identify bird, write down every feature you see as if you were going to draw the bird. Don’t forget habitat and behavior.

Details, details, details! The more details the better. If you get only a fleeting glimpse describe whatever jumps out at you.

The details will be useful when you get home and look at field guides.

Let’s try it on this bird.

At first glance (squint your eyes to see less):

  • perched in a tree
  • smaller than a sparrow; warbler size
  • charcoal gray back
  • yellow chest
  • white wing bars
  • plain face
  • (Under the Tail is important too but we can’t see it here.)

More details:

  • yellow chest has pale gray necklace with stripes

Even more details:

  • broken eye ring
  • throat above necklace is yellow
  • some stripes on flanks
  • greenish patch on back
  • maybe a white patch on topside of the tail

Tools: The Warbler Guide by Tom Stephenson and Scott Whittle has free downloadable tools that show all the warblers side by side. Get them here: QuickFinder PDF (my favorite) or QuickFinder JPGs.

Practice! Use this technique in the field. See how I used it to identify another confusing fall warbler: Orange Crowned or Simply Yellow.

So what bird is pictured above?

Leave a comment with your answer and — most important! — the details that led you to that conclusion.

UPDATE, 3 Sept 2021, the answer is: Magnolia warbler

(photo by Steve Gosser)

Hummingbird Migration Begins This Month

Ruby-throated hummingbird, Missouri (photo by Andy Reago & Chrissy McClarren via Wikimedia Commons)

6 August 2021

Did you notice that hummingbirds were scarce in Pittsburgh from early June to late July? They were here but they were busy nesting and hunting for insects instead of nectar. They reappeared in the last week of July, bolstered by a new population of juveniles.

Right now our hummingbirds are fueling up on nectar before they begin migration in mid August. Meanwhile they are easy to find at feeders and flowers.

This mob of ruby-throated hummingbirds visited a feeder in Atlanta, Georgia on 4 August. …

Here’s a tree full of hummingbirds in the southern California desert on 29 July. Likely species are black-chinned, Anna’s and Costa’s. …

… and here’s a slow motion video in the same southern California backyard.

Follow hummingbird migration on Journey North’s map. Contribute your own sightings here. Weekly tracking begins August 16.

(photo from Wikimedia Commons, tweets by @Scott_Corry1 and @geococcyxcal; click on the captions to see the originals)

What Sex Is This Bird?

What sex is this hummingbird? (photo from Wikimedia Commonss)

6 August 2021

In late summer in eastern North America a different looking ruby-throated hummingbird (Archilochus colubris) shows up. If you don’t look closely you may misidentify it.

It doesn’t look exactly like an adult, pictured below, but it resembles the female.

Adult male and female ruby-throated hummingbirds (photos from Wikimedia Commons)

So is it female? No!

See the red dots on the throat? It’s a young male, born this spring, who is already developing his red gorget.

Before he has red dots you can still identify him by the stippling (dotted lines) on his throat. This young male, below, has stippling without red dots.

Juvenile male ruby-throated hummingbird (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Unfortunately the bird pictured at top was misidentified as female on Wikimedia Commons. I corrected the description but cannot change the filename that contains the word “female” so he will still confuse people.

Proving that you should not believe everything you see on the Internet.

For detailed tips on identifying young ruby-throated hummingbirds, see this article at The Spruce: Ruby-throated Hummingbird Identification.

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

Who Is The King of Birds?

Bald eagle, female at Hays, 24 July 2021 (photo by Theo Lodge)

2 August 2021

Many would say the bald eagle is the king of birds but when it comes to attitude, actions and name the small songbird attacking this eagle is both King and Tyrant.

Eastern kingbird attacks bald eagle, Hays, 24 July 2021 (photo by Theo Lodge)

Attitude: The eastern kingbird is often fierce and angry. This one is showing the orange-red crest he keeps hidden beneath his head feathers until he’s very, very mad.

Eastern kingbird (photo by Andy Reago and Chrissy McClarren from Wikimedia Commons)

Actions: Eastern kingbirds relentlessly defend their territories and will (obviously) ride the backs of hawks and eagles to peck their heads. 

Males and sometimes females are very aggressive in territorial disputes [with other kingbirds], often resorting to aerial fights in which they lock feet together, pull out each other’s feathers, and sometimes fall to the ground. Eastern Kingbirds also attack large nest predators like crows and Blue Jays. Such aggression has been shown to increase their breeding success.

from Eastern Kingbird account, All About Birds

In late July when Theo Lodge took the attack photo, the kingbird was ensuring a successful breeding season by defending his “kids.” The juveniles look like adults now except for yellow mouths.

Juvenile eastern kingbird, 23 July 2013 (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

And so the eastern kingbird earned the common name of king and a scientific name, Tyrannus tyrannus, that doubles up on tyrant.

Enjoy them now in Pittsburgh. They’ll be gone by early September.

(eagle photos by Theo Lodge, kingbird photos from Wikimedia Commons)

Update Aug 1: Mysterious Bird Illness is Fading Away

American robin fledgling in DC (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

UPDATE 13 Aug 2021: The PA Game Commission has announced an end to bird feeding restrictions. The illness has faded away on its own.

1 August 2021

A few days ago there was hopeful news from Audubon Society of Western PA about the mysterious deaths of songbirds, especially fledglings, in 11 states and DC. The mysterious illness is fading away.

Cornell Wildlife Health Lab at Cornell University has even better news:

As the mysterious illness killing birds lessens, scientists at the Cornell Wildlife Health Lab believe the cause may have been the recent cicada eruption.

Cornell experts not overly alarmed by mysterious songbird sickness, Ithaca Times, 28 July 2021

Cornell’s cicada hypothesis is based on data from the National Wildlife Health Center and the consortium of wildlife agencies investigating the mysterious deaths, summarized here from the Ithaca Times article:

  • The illness appeared about a week after the Brood X cicadas emerged in mid-May.
  • The geographic distribution of the illness matches the Brood X map, including its non-contiguous nature, yellow on the map below.
  • The illness did not spread to nearby states that did not have Brood X cicadas.
  • The illness waned as the cicadas died off and dropped precipitously after the cicadas disappeared.
Active periodical cicada broods in U.S. (2013 map from USGS via Wikimedia Commons)

This is great news for western Pennsylvania. We do not have Brood X cicadas, instead we have Broods V and VIII, the last of which appeared in the Pittsburgh area as Brood VIII in 2019. It will be 12 to 15 years before they re-emerge: Brood V in 2033 and Brood VIII in 2036. If the problem was caused by magicicadas we’re off the hook in Pittsburgh for a very long time.

Brood V Magicicada in Pittsburgh, 30 May 2016 (photo by Kate St. John)

Nature doesn’t follow state lines and political boundaries but state agencies have to. Thus all of Pennsylvania was told to stop feeding birds until scientists learned more about the mysterious bird deaths. Scientists are getting close to an answer and soon (I hope!) we’ll be able to feed birds again.

Read more about the cicada connection at Cornell experts are not overly alarmed by mysterious songbird sickness, Ithaca Times, 28 July 2021.

Learn about the white fungus that infects the cicadas at Cicadas face bizarre “death zombie” fungus that eats away at their butts, CNET, 24 May 2021.

(robin photo and map from Wikimedia Commons; click on the captions to see the originals). Magicicada photo by Kate St. John)

July Is Goldfinch Month

American goldfinch (photo by Chuck Tague)

12 July 2021

While most songbirds began nesting in May and some have finished for the year goldfinches wait until now to start a family.

Unlike most birds American goldfinches (Spinus tristis) are totally vegetarian. They eat only plant matter, never insects, worms or meat so they wait to nest in July when their favorite foods are plentiful. Foods such as thistle seed.

Male American goldfinch on thistle (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

The female goldfinch builds her nest in a shrub or sapling, laying a foundation of spider silk and adding rootlets and fibers. Then she lines the nest with soft down, often using thistle fluff.

Female American goldfinch in July (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

She lays one egg per day for a clutch of five and starts incubation at the next-to-last egg. In 12-14 days her babies hatch.

American goldfinch nest with young (photo by Chuck Tague)

It’s still July. Now the fun begins!

The parents make many trips back and forth from thistle fields to the nest where they feed by regurgitation. Sometimes the adults munch on leafy vegetables, even in gardens, which earned them the nickname “Salad Birds.”

If the nest had a cowbird egg in it that brown-headed cowbird nestling dies within 3 days because it can’t survive without insect protein.

Meanwhile if you listen for the male in his looping courtship flight you might be able to find the nest inside his circle. Listen and watch for “potato chip.”

You’ll also hear a new call if anything dangerous shows up near the young. The warning is “beer BEE.”

While scarlet tanagers, Baltimore orioles and northern rough-winged swallows have finished nesting, July is goldfinch month.

(photos by Chuck Tague and from Wikimedia Commons; click on the caption to see the original)

I Don’t Look Like My Parents

Juvenile chipping sparrow (photo by Marcy Cunkelman)

8 July 2021

Summer is a challenging time to identify birds when fledglings look quite different from adults. Here are seven species whose babies can honestly say, “I don’t look like my parents.”

American robin adults (left) have plain rust-colored breasts. Juveniles (right) have spotted breasts.

American robin: adult and fledgling (photos by Steve Gosser and Charity Kheshgi)

The differences between juvenile and adult downy woodpeckers are subtle. Juveniles (left) have a faint red patch on top of the head while adult males (right) have a vibrant splash of red on the back of the head. (Don’t be fooled by the red flower behind the male in this photo.)

Juvenile downy woodpecker (left) being fed by father (photo by Marcy Cunkelman)

Red-bellied woodpecker juveniles (middle photo) are very plain with no red on their heads. Adult males (left) are red from bill to nape while adult females (right) have red napes, pale foreheads, and a spot of red at the bill.

Red-bellied woodpeckers: adult male, juvenile, adult female (photos by Marcy Cunkelman and Cris Hamilton)

In breeding plumage adult European starlings (left) are iridescent glossy black while fledglings are dull brown (right). Check out the shape of the fledgling’s beak and how he opens it. He has that in common with his parents.

Adult and juvenile European starlings (photos by Chuck Tague and Charity Kheshgi)

Juvenile northern cardinals (dark bird on branch) resemble their mothers but the juveniles have dark beaks. Their mothers (at right) have orange beaks.

Northern cardinal: Adult male feeding juvenile, female has orange beak (photos by Bob Kroeger, Cris Hamilton)

Juvenile brown-headed cowbirds never look like their foster parents. These dull brown, chunky birds have short, fat necks and “fat” beaks. The beak is the clue.

Brown-headed cowbird chick begging from song sparrow host (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

And finally, young chipping sparrows look so different from their parents that you’d think they’re another species. The juveniles are stripey brown (photo at top) while their parents have plain pale breasts and rusty caps. The best way to identify a fledgling chipping sparrow is to watch who it begs from.

Adult chipping sparrow tries to ignore its begging youngster (photo by Marcy Cunkelman)

A Hat Tip for this topic goes to Mary Ann Pike who described it in a comment yesterday.

Did you find any fledglings hard to identify this year? Let me know in a comment.

(photos by Marcy Cunkelman, Steve Gosser, Charity Kheshgi, Cris Hamilton, Bob Kroeger, Wikimedia Commons)

Not Sick, Just Temporarily Bald

Bald northern cardinal (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

6 July 2021

If you see an odd and ugly bird like this northern cardinal don’t worry that he’s ill. He isn’t sick. He’s just temporarily bald.

Many birds molt in the summer when they’ve finished breeding and food is plentiful. Warm weather is the perfect time to lose worn out feathers, a few at a time, and grow in new ones. Some northern cardinals and blue jays however lose all their head feathers simultaneously and become bald for about a week. This happens so often among blue jays in North Carolina that it’s considered normal there.

Birds also go temporarily bald during the molt if they have feather mites on their heads. Lose all the head feathers and lose the mites, too.

Bald birds are ugly, though. Their ears are just holes near their eyes, their heads look small, and their skin doesn’t match the missing feathers. Nonetheless, it’s temporary.

So don’t worry if you see a bird like this one in the video. He’s not sick. He’s just bald.

(photo of bald northern cardinal photo from Wikimedia Commons; click on the caption to see the original)

Mysterious Illness is in PA: Stop Feeding Birds

Fledgling European starling afflicted with mysterious disease (photo by National Parks Service photographer Leslie Frattaroli via delaware.gov)

2 July 2021

UPDATE 13 Aug 2021: The PA Game Commission has announced an end to bird feeding restrictions. The illness has faded away on its own.

The mysterious songbird illness that is blinding and killing songbirds in six states has now spread to Pennsylvania and Delaware. Yesterday the PA Game Commission advised the public to remove feeders and bird baths to slow the spread.

Symptoms of the illness include a discharge and/or crusting around the eyes, eye lesions, and/or neurologic signs such as falling over or head tremors. Infected birds always die. Scientists are investigating but still don’t know what’s causing it.

The disease has been reported in 27 Pennsylvania counties in these species: blue jays, European starlings, common grackles, American robins, northern cardinals, house finches, house sparrows, eastern bluebirds, red-bellied woodpeckers, Carolina chickadees, and Carolina wrens. Tri-State Bird Rescue and Research in Newark, DE has found that the disease primarily affects fledgling European starlings, blue jays, and common grackles.

Counties in Pennsylvania reporting mysterious bird disease as of 1 July 2021

Yesterday Audubon Society of Western Pennsylvania (ASWP) joined the PA Game Commission in urging the public to follow these precautionary measures:

  • Cease feeding birds and providing water in bird baths until this wildlife mortality event has concluded to prevent potential spread between birds and to other wildlife.
  • Clean feeders and bird baths with a 10% bleach solution.
  • Avoid handling dead or injured wild birds. Wear disposable gloves if it’s necessary to handle a bird.
  • Keep pets away from sick or dead birds as a standard precaution.
  • To dispose of dead birds, place them in a sealable plastic bag and discard with household trash. This will prevent disease transmission to other birds and wildlife.

To underscore the point, Audubon Nature Stores will discontinue the sale of seed and bird feeders for the time being.

Do your part. Stop feeding birds until this wildlife crisis is over.

A NOTE TO COMMENTERS: Comments on this blog are moderated. If you post a comment that is profane or could inflame others, I will edit it or delete it.

UPDATE, 2 July 2021: The mysterious illness has now been reported in DC + eight states: VA, WV, MD, PA, DE, IN, OH, KY and more closely matches the Brood X cicada map though this may be a coincidence. My revised attempt at mapping the bird death hotspots, below, is just a rough idea not the whole story. i.e. Do not rely on my map!

Inaccurate map of bird death hotspots as of 1 July 2021 (markup by Kate St. John)

UPDATE from PA Game Commission, 8 July 2021 (posted here on 21 July): As of 8 July 2021 Wildlife Futures received 1,525 reports of dead birds in Pennsylvania. Roughly 25-30% (approximately 500) are likely associated with the current songbird mortality event. To date, the morbidity/mortality event appears to be targeting fledgling common grackles, blue jays, European starlings, and American robins. So far the following pathogens have been ruled out: Salmonella, Chlamydia, avian influenza virus, West Nile virus, Newcastle disease virus, herpesviruses, poxviruses, and Trichomonas parasite.

(photo from NPS via DNREC, maps from Wikimedia Commons. Click on the captions to see the originals)

Mysterious Illness Killing Songbirds in 6 States

UPDATE 13 Aug 2021: The PA Game Commission has announced an end to bird feeding restrictions. The illness has faded away on its own.

27 June 2021

A mysterious illness, first recorded in the DC area in mid April 2021, is blinding and killing songbirds in six states. Scientists at many labs are investigating but there are still no answers. No one knows what’s causing it.

Symptoms include crusted-over eyes, blindness, seizures, loss of balance, and death within a day. Indiana DNR reports that the illness mostly affects medium-sized songbirds: blue jays, American robins (photo at top), common grackles (photo below), starlings, northern cardinals, and brown-headed cowbirds.

So far the disease has been reported in the DC area including Virginia, Maryland, and the eastern panhandle of WV, and in central and southwestern Ohio, parts of Indiana, and north-central Kentucky. My attempt to map the disease centers, below, is missing many incidents outside the red dots. UPDATE, 2 July 2021: The illness is also in PA and Delaware, now in 8 states, shown below.

Inadequate map of bird death hotspots as of 1 July 2021 (markup by Kate St. John)

For instance, Indiana DNR lists the counties where the illness has occurred. My map does not included these scattered locations. (In other words, don’t rely on my map.)

Counties in Indiana reporting mysterious bird disease as of 27 June 2021

Residents in affected areas are asked to take their feeders down so that birds do not congregate. There are good reasons to do so …

Megan Kirchgessner, a veterinarian with Virginia’s Department of Wildlife Resources, said “From a veterinary perspective, especially in the springtime when food is abundant, there’s no reason for those feeders to be out,” she said. “And to be perfectly honest, especially in a situation like this, they can do more harm than good.”

Washington Post, Public urged to stop feeding birds, 14 June 2021

Though no one knows what’s causing the illness, avian flu and West Nile virus have been ruled out.

Some, including an ornithologist at the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center, have speculated the illness is related to the Brood X cicada emergence (yellow on the map below), that the birds are consuming pesticide-laden or fungus-laden cicadas. If so, the disease will disappear in July when the cicadas do and will not return for 17 years.

Active periodical cicada broods in U.S. (2013 map from USGS via Wikimedia Commons)

The cicada connection occurred to me too. The disease map as of 1 July 2021, after PA and Delaware were added, more closely matches the Brood X map.

For now we wait for more information and pray the illness doesn’t spread.

(embedded photos from Facebook and Twitter, maps from Wikimedia Commons. Click on the captions to see the originals)