Category Archives: Songbirds

Open Wide!

Wire-tailed swallow bringing food to juvenile (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

This beautiful swallow, native to sub-Saharan Africa and southern and southeast Asia, is very similar to our barn swallow except for its two wire-like tail feathers and its preference to live near water.

The wire-tailed swallow’s (Hirundo smithii) family life is similar, too.  When the fledglings beg for food, the parents deliver it on the wing.

Open wide!

Wire-tailed swallow delivering food to young (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

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

Always Creeping Up

Brown creeper (photo by Andy Reago & Chrissy McClarren via Wikimedia Commons)

Here’s a bird you’re bound to see this month in southwestern Pennsylvania. Brown creepers live year round north and east of Pittsburgh but only come here in the winter.  I saw one last week in Greenfield.

The brown creeper (Certhia americana) is a tiny brown bird with a long tail and down-curved bill.  He eats insects and spiders which he gleans from the bark of large tree trunks, spiraling upward and checking under the bark as he goes.

When he sits still he’s hard to see. His colors match the bark.

Brown creeper camouflaged (photo by Andy Reago & Chrissy McClarren via Wikimedia Commons)

The video below shows him spiraling upward, clinging to the bark with his large feet splayed. Sometimes he hitches sideways to grab a tidbit.  When he reaches the top, he will drop like a leaf to the base of another tree trunk and start again.

If you can identify birds by ear, here’s a challenge for you. List the species singing in the video.  I identified five species but I’m unable hear brown creepers anymore. Is the brown creeper singing?

p.s. At backyard feeders, brown creepers don’t eat seeds but they’ll come to suet feeders.

(photos from Wikimedia Commons, click on the captions to see the originals. video by Abnerthewonderdog on YouTube)

Winter Finches On Camera

On Tuesday I wrote about finches from Canada that will visit us this winter: common redpolls, pine siskins, purple finches and more.  Before they get here you might want some practice identifying them. The perfect place to do it is on the Ontario Feederwatch webcam.

This 7-minute video from October 16 shows purple finches, pine siskins, black-capped chickadees and (a bird I didn’t mention yet) evening grosbeaks.

Ontario Feederwatch also has a very unusual “feeder” bird, the State Bird of Pennsylvania — a ruffed grouse — shown in this Tweet from @kerry_lapwing.

These feeders are located in Manitouwadge, Ontario, Canada, a small town 430 miles northeast of Duluth, Minnesota.  It’s already cold there with temperatures well below freezing every night (21o to 27o F or -6o to -3o C).

Tune in to Ontario FeederWatch for a preview of birds we hope to see in the northern U.S. this winter.

(Ontario Feederwatch YouTube video from Becky R, Twitter photo from Kelly Lapwing)

House Sparrows Put On Their Winter Coats

House sparrow in British Columbia, Canada (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Birds that eat insects leave Pennsylvania for the winter but the omnivores, like this house sparrow, stay behind.  Food won’t be a problem but it’s going to get cold so the house sparrows get ready in advance.

A study by Lowther and Cink in 1992 found that house sparrows (Passer domesticus) prepare for winter by molting into heavier plumage. Plumage weight increased 70% between August and September alone.  Summer weight is 0.9 grams; winter weight is 1.5 grams.

In September the house sparrows put on their winter coats.

(photo from Wikimedia Commons; click on the caption to see the original. 
This article was inspired by page 153 of Ornithology by Frank B. Gill, 3rd edition.) )

Sugar Doesn’t Hurt Me

Hummingbird at the feeder (photo by Marcy Cunkelman)
Ruby-throated hummingbird at the feeder (photo by Marcy Cunkelman)

By August in Pennsylvania, ruby-throated hummingbirds (Archilochus colubris) have finished breeding and all of them, young and old, are fattening up for their migration to Central America.  Many are visiting backyard feeders.

Last week on PABIRDS Rob Blye posted a collection of interesting questions about feeding hummingbirds, including someone’s concern about sugar. Here’s a summary of the feeder discussion with embedded links to the original text.

Do young hummingbirds imprint on feeders as a preferential food source and ignore natural food sources?

No.  Scott Weidensaul writes that as much as 40 percent of the hummingbirds’ diet is made up of insects and other small arthropods which they pursue while away from our feeders. There’s no need to worry that they’re getting an unbalanced diet.

Is sugar bad for hummingbirds?

Not at all. Sugar is bad for humans but fine for hummers. Scott Weidensaul writes: “Flower nectar and a white cane sugar/water mix are essentially identical sucrose fluids.  Four parts water and one part white sugar neatly replicates what they’re getting from flowers. “

Can we offer a different sweetener than sugar? What about honey?

Absolutely not!  Scott writes that “substitutions are dangerous. Organic/brown/turbinado sugar or molasses can pack fatally high levels of iron, to which hummers are exquisitely sensitive, while honey, once diluted, becomes a stew of dangerous bacteria and fungi.”

Is it OK to hang hummingbird feeders if you cannot clean them frequently?

No.  Spoiled food is dangerous for hummingbirds and it spoils daily in 90 degree weather. Clean your feeders thoroughly and regularly. Empty, clean and refill daily when it’s 90 degrees. You can extend this to every few days when the high is 60.  Click here for guidelines from Aududon.

Should we add something to the sugar-water to prevent spoilage?

No.  Scott writes, “avoid new products that claim to deter spoilage. Hummingbird experts are deeply suspicious about the safety of such additives.”

How do you attract hummingbirds if you can’t clean your feeders that often?

Ellen from Cumberland County had that problem so she planted salvia and other hummingbird favorites. The hummingbirds now “come back every year looking for their flowers and guard them zealously.”  Read her flower list on PABIRDS and/or this list of top 10 flowers for hummingbirds at The Spruce.

The bottom line is this:  Sugar doesn’t hurt hummingbirds, but spoiled food does.  Clean your feeders thoroughly and often, especially in August’s heat!

(photo by Marcy Cunkelman)

Turning Green

Male scarlet tanager in August 2015 (photo by Tim Lenz via Flickr, Creative Commons license)
Male scarlet tanager on an ash tree, August 2015, Chemung County, NY (photo by Tim Lenz via Flickr, Creative Commons license)

Yesterday in Schenley Park I saw a scarlet tanager with blotches on his belly.  He was starting to turn green.

Scarlet tanagers (Piranga olivacea) molt twice a year.  In January through March they molt into breeding or “alternate” plumage while on their wintering grounds in South America. The females don’t change color but the males turn from green to scarlet. Young males often retain a bit of green (click here to see).

When the breeding season is over, they molt back to basic plumage in July through September. The males look blotchy at first but when they’re done they’re bright olive green with black wings as shown below.  By then they’re on their way to South America.
(photo at top in August, Tim Lenz; photo below in Oct, Andy Reago & Chrissy McClarren)

Scarlet tanager in October 2015 (photo by Andy Reago & Chrissy McClarren via Flickr, Creative Commons license)
Scarlet tanager in October 2015 (photo by Andy Reago & Chrissy McClarren via Flickr, Creative Commons license)

I was lucky to see yesterday’s scarlet tanager because he hardly made a sound.  Tanagers have stopped singing now that breeding is over.  This one was singing very softly.


p.s.  Did you know that female scarlet tanagers sing?  According to All About Birds: “The female Scarlet Tanager sings a song similar to the male’s, but softer, shorter, and less harsh. She sings in answer to the male’s song and while she is gathering nesting material.”

(photo credits: scarlet tanager turning green by Tim Lenz via Flickr, Creative Commons license; yellow-green scarlet tanager by Andy Reago & Chrissy McClarren via Flickr, Creative Commons license)

Songbirds in Newfoundland

A pair of Canada Jays in Canada (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
A pair of Canada Jays in Canada (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

On a birding trip in Newfoundland:

Though my focus is on seabirds in Newfoundland, here are three beautiful songbirds that I never see in Pennsylvania.  They were Life Birds for me at Sax Zim Bog, Minnesota.

Canada jay (Perisoreus canadensis):

Meet the Canada jay. After more than 60 years as the “gray jay,” the Canada jay officially goes back to his original name this month. If all goes well, he’ll also become the National Bird of Canada.

This friendly, intrepid and intelligent bird is the size of an American robin — but much smarter. He won the Royal Canadian Geographical Society’s contest for National Bird but the Canadian government is reluctant to name a national bird, though they have a National Tree (the sugar maple).

Professor David Bird, one of the Canada jay’s supporters, vows to walk across Canada and collect a million signatures for National Bird status if he has to.  Good luck, Canada jay!


Boreal chickadee (Poecile hudsonicus):

Boreal chickadee (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Boreal chickadee (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

More colorful than his black-capped and Carolina cousins the boreal chickadee lives only in the boreal forests of Canada and a few bordering areas of the U.S.  He’s such a spruce forest specialist that he caches only spruce seeds.

Don’t expect to hear him sing.  Unlike his southern cousins, he doesn’t have a whistled song.  Here’s the closest he comes to it (Xeno Canto XC46492 by Andrew Spencer at Boot Cove Trail near Lubec, Maine):



Pine grosbeak (Pinicola enucleator):

Male pine grosbeak in Quebec (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Male pine grosbeak in Quebec (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

The pine grosbeak lives in subarctic and boreal habitats in North America, Scandinavia and Siberia.  I could have seen one in Finland last year if I’d been in the right place.

Pine grosbeaks have such a wide range that their voices vary geographically. The best Xeno Canto recordings are from Scandinavia and Alaska but Newfoundland’s sound different.

Pine grosbeaks feed their nestlings insects but otherwise eat buds, seeds and fruit. Their Latin scientific name describes them well:  Pinicola (pine tree dweller) enucleator (removes the kernel (nucleus)).

The females are orange-ish instead of rosy.

Female pine grosbeak in Quebec (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Female pine grosbeak in Quebec (photo from Wikimedia Commons)



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

Day 4, 11 July 2018: Cape Race and St. Shott’s

Scenes Of Cardinal Family Life

Northern cardinals (Cardinalis cardinalis) are common backyard birds that we often take for granted though their family life is interesting.

Bob Kroeger photographed cardinals nesting in his Cape Cod backyard in May and June.  The slideshow lets us pause and see what they’re doing.

The male is very bright red:  This is good news for the family. Studies have shown that males with bright red breasts and females with bright underwings show more parental care to their young.

He feeds his mate at the birdbath:  The male’s job is to feed his mate from nest building through brooding (and perhaps beyond).  This makes sense because male cardinals don’t have brood patches.  The females build the nest, incubate the eggs and brood the young.

She’s eating away from the nest:   It’s perfectly normal for the female to spend time away from the nest, even if there are eggs in it.  During incubation, which lasts 11-13 days, the female spends 30% of daylight hours away from the nest.

Two juveniles on a branch with their father:  This cardinal couple beat the odds. The majority of nests fail due to predation.

How to recognize juvenile cardinals:  The juveniles resemble their mother but their beaks are dark.  (Adults have orange-red beaks.)  The juveniles’ beaks will turn orange-red when they are 65-80 days old.

You can’t see the food in the father’s beak:  The parents feed insects to their young but they  carry the food far back in their large beaks.  Researchers probably find this frustrating when they have to identify what the young are eating.

How long will the young depend on their parents?  Juvenile cardinals are completely dependent on their parents for about 19 days.  Around that time, their mother starts to build her next nest. Dad may feed the youngsters occasionally until they are 25-56 days old.


(photos by Bob Kroeger of South Dennis, MA: photos on Facebook; his business website.)

Count Nightjars By The Light Of The Moon

Common nighthawk (photo by Chuck Tague)
Common nighthawk (photo by Chuck Tague)

Next week the last survey window opens for counting nightjars by the light of the moon. It’s a fun way to go birding on a moonlit night — June 20 to July 6, 2018.

Nightjars are a worldwide family of nocturnal/crepuscular birds that eat flying insects on the wing.   They have long wings, short legs, short bills and very wide mouths. Two of these cryptically-colored species are found in Pennsylvania:

  • Common nighthawk (Chordeiles minor), in flight above, breeds in cities and open habitat, grasslands, dunes.
  • Eastern whip-poor-will (Antrostomus vociferus), roosting below, breeds in forests near open areas.

Whip-poor-will, 2014 (photo by Cris Hamilton)
Whip-poor-will, 2014 (photo by Cris Hamilton)

Both populations are in steep decline and so are other nightjars in North America. Scientists don’t know why and they need more data.  That’s where we come in.

The Center for Conservation Biology set up the Nightjar Survey Network to collect population data about these birds. Their website describes how it works:

Nightjar surveys are easy to perform and will not take more than two hours to complete. Volunteers conduct roadside counts at night, on scheduled bright moonlit nights, by driving and stopping at 10 points along a predetermined 9-mile route. At each point, the observer counts all Nightjars seen or heard during a 6-minute period.

Wait for a moonlit night, drive your route, stop and listen. Count by sound!  Click here for their voices.

Register for the Nightjar Survey Network here, then select or create your own 9-mile route. For more information see

The Nightjar Survey needs volunteers across the continent — not just in Pennsylvania.  Here are the species to count.

  • Antillean nighthawk
  • Buff-collared nightjar
  • Chuck-wills-widow (named for its call)
  • Common nighthawk (named for its behavior)
  • Common pauraque
  • Common poorwill (named for its call)
  • Lesser nighthawk
  • Eastern whip-poor-will (named for its call)
  • Mexican whip-poor-will


p.s. While you’re out there you might hear owls. 🙂

(photo credits: common nighthawk in flight by Chuck Tague; roosting whip-poor-will by Cris Hamilton)

Purple Martins Sing

Purple martin male, singing near his nest, Chicago (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Purple martin male, singing near his nest, Chicago (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

We don’t think of swallows as songbirds but indeed they do sing.  Our largest swallow, the purple martin (Progne subis), has a unique sound that carries far.  With practice, you can recognize their voices even when you can’t see them.

Purple martins nest communally so the best place to learn their song is near a purple martin colony.

As you approach you’ll hear them singing as they fly, a liquid gurgling warble with throaty chirps.  (This in-flight recording, Xeno Canto XC13689 by Chris Parrish, includes other bird songs in the background.)


In early summer near their nests, you’ll hear songs, creaky rattles and the sound of begging juveniles. (Purple martins vocalizing near their nest, including begging calls of young, from Xeno Canto XC139568 by Russ Wigh)


The throaty, gurgling chirps are unique to purple martins.  When you hear it overhead, look for a nearby colony and go see the swallows sing.

For more sound samples visit the purple martin sound page at All About Birds.


(photo from Wikimedia Commons; click on the image to see the original.  Audio from Xeno Canto; click the links for the original recording pages)