Category Archives: Songbirds

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.)

Best Baby Bird

Baby bird east of Safety Sound, Alaska (photo by Barb Bens)

Last Sunday our Partnership for International Birding tour saw this baby bird near the mouth of the Solomon River east of Nome, Alaska. It took us a while to identify him.

His looks like a sparrow with white outer tail feathers but his back has golden camouflage like a golden plover.

After much debate we decided he was a baby Lapland longspur. Click here to see a male in breeding plumage.

As we pulled out of the parking area his father arrived with food.

Best Baby Bird of our trip. Thanks to Barb Bens for the photo.

(photo by Barbara Bens)

Blue Jays Nesting

Blue jay gathering rootlets to line its nest (photo by Andy Reago & Chrissy McClarren on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

This spring a pair of blue jays nested in my backyard and fledged a single youngster before Memorial Day.

The fledgling was short-tailed, perky and adventuresome, often standing wide-eyed in exposed open places. His parents followed him everywhere and seemed to say, “Be careful! Don’t stand out in the open like that!”

But the fledgling was too naive. By the third day he went missing, undoubtedly dead. His parents started to build a new nest.

They scouted together in my backyard, gathering moss and rootlets. According to the nest description in the Petersen Field Guide to Birds’ Nests blue jay nests are …

Bulky, well hidden in crotch or outer branch of coniferous or deciduous tree, 5-50 ft above ground, commonly 10-25 ft. Built by both sexes of thorny twigs, bark, mosses, string, leaves; lined with rootlets.

The second nest is so well hidden that I didn’t find it, but here’s what it would look like (photo by Henry T. McLin).

Blue jay on nest (photo by Henry T. McLin on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

The pair has time to raise a second brood, especially if the female laid eggs in the first week of June. From first egg to fledging takes 38 to 45 days:

  • Blue jay egg laying takes 4-6 days (one egg per day, clutch of 4-6)
  • Incubation lasts 17-18 days
  • Nestlings fledge in 17-21 days.
Blue jay family in the nest (photo by Carol Vinzant on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

I hope to see baby blue jays around July 15. I’m wishing them better luck this time! See more news below(*).

p.s. There’s a story behind the blue jay family in the nest above. Click here to read.

(photo credits, Creative Commons non-commercial licenses on Flickr: Gathering nesting material by Andy Reago & Chrissy McClarren. On nest by Henry T. McLin. Nest with babies by Carol Vinzant)

(*) Unfortunately the second brood failed, too. I saw a nestling on the ground, too young to fly, on July 7. I repeatedly placed it up high in the vicinity of the nest but the nestling kept hopping back down to the ground. Eventually it hid under the lip of our bird bath.

Blue jay baby on ground, 7 July 2019 (photo by Kate St. John)

Parrot-Finch of the Northern Pines

Red crossbills, two males, Deschutes National Forest in Oregon (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Alaska Birding with PIB: Anchorage to Seward 18 June 2019

Red crossbills (Loxia curvirostra) are conifer specialists that breed across North America and Eurasia, from Alaska to Newfoundland, from Scotland to Japan. They are so tied to spruces, pines and firs that you won’t find them in deciduous forests nor anywhere that the cone crop has failed. That explains why in three decades I’ve seen only one red crossbill in western Pennsylvania.

Approximate red crossbill breeding range (map is hand drawn by Kate St. John from sources at HBW and IUCN)

Red crossbills eat conifer seeds by prying open the cones using their crossed bills. Their beaks have evolved to match the cones they open — and so have the cones. A 2010 study led by C. Benkman showed that it’s a continuous arms race in which the cones evolve to foil the beaks and the beaks evolve to open the cones. The crossbill-cone competition has resulted in 21 subspecies of red crossbills with different beaks and call types. One population in Idaho, the Cassia crossbill (Loxia sinesciuris), was given separate species status in 2017.

Crossbill beaks are such important tools that a bird’s right-handedness or left-handedness is expressed in the crossing of his beak. Individual beaks cross right or left, as shown in the two male crossbills above.

Though red crossbills don’t migrate, they range far and wide in search of food, calling “jip jip” as they fly. Their flocks are usually noisy but fall silent when they’re feeding intensely. In his Essential Field Guide Companion Pete Dunne describes them as Eclectic Parrot-Finches: wide-ranging, social, and parrot-like in behavior.

Red crossbills favor old growth conifer forests because the cone crop is heavier on trees more than 60 years old. If I’m lucky, today I’ll see the “Red Parrot-Finch of the Pines” near Seward, Alaska.

(photo and base map from Wikimedia Commons, breeding range drawn freestyle by Kate St. John; click on the captions to see the originals)

Smith’s Promiscuous Longspur

Alaska Birding with PIB: At Tangle River on Denali Highway 17 June 2019

In western Pennsylvania we rarely see longspurs, the sparrow-like birds whose long hind toe gives them their name, but two species of longspurs breed in Alaska.

Lapland longspurs (Calcarius lapponicus) are the most conspicuous songbird on the tundra as they prominently claim territory and a mate. The males flutter and sing above their chosen patch, advertising themselves in loud flight song displays.

Smith’s longspurs (Calcarius pictus) are harder to find partly because of their lifestyle. They don’t claim a territory, they don’t claim one mate, and they don’t use flight song displays. Instead the males sing from the top of a twig, “Hey, ladies! Come here.”

Male Smith’s longspur (photo by Jared Hughey for the 2013 Smith’s longspur project)

When a female shows up the two go through their courtship displays and copulate. Then they both go off to mate with other birds.

Smith’s longspur, female (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

The fancy name for this is polygynandry. Each female and each male pairs and mates with two or three of the opposite sex. These birds are very busy during the breeding season!

Over a period of one week in the early spring, a female longspur will copulate over 350 times on average; this is one of the highest copulation rates of any bird. Males are well-equipped to deliver such large numbers of ejaculates—their testes are about double the mass of those of the monogamous and congeneric Lapland Longspur.

Birds of North America, Smith’s longspur account

Every nest contains chicks of mixed parentage — the same mother, various dads. Fathers choose a couple of females and try to insure that most of the chicks are their own.

Males do not defend territories, but instead guard [their] females by following them closely. [Males] compete for fertilizations by copulating frequently in order to dilute or displace sperm from other males.

Birds of North America, Smith’s longspur account

When John James Audubon named Smith’s longspur for his friend Gideon B. Smith he was unaware that these birds had such an unusual social life. It took a long time for humans to figure it out, beginning with pioneering behavioral work in the 1960s and now DNA tests today.

Inside the calm exterior of a Smith’s longspur is a very promiscuous bird.

(credits: YouTube video by Jared Hughey for Heather Craig’s 2013 breeding study,
photo of female Smith’s longspur from Wikimedia Commons,
photo of male Smith’s longspur by Jared Hughey on Flickr. NOTE: I have been trying to reach Jared Hughey since 11 May 2019 via email, Facebook and Alaska NPS Twitter to confirm photo permission for his stillshot of the male Smith’s longspur. Perhaps he is out doing field work. When he contacts me I will remove his photo if he objects to its use.)