Category Archives: Songbirds

Singing Butchers in Australia’s Spring

Gray butcherbirds in a garden in Brisbane, Australia (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

12 November 2021

While it’s fall in North America it’s spring in Australia and nesting season for birds. One bird in particular has a loud flute-like voice that it uses for claiming territory.

Grey butcherbirds (Cracticus torquatus) are carnivorous songbirds, larger than robins and smaller than grackles. Their hooked beaks, like those of northern shrikes, help them eat small birds and lizards. Yet when they sing duets or in groups it sounds as clear as a flute.

Wikipedia describes their songs:

All members of the territorial group contribute to the territorial song, a loud and rollicking song with both musical and harsh elements. The song can be sung by only one member, but more often it is sung in duet or as a group. Some duets are antiphonal where it is not obvious that two or more birds are singing. Most songs are sung antiphonally with different group members singing different phases sequentially, with sometimes some overlap. Some songs have been known to last up to 15 minutes. During this time, there is no vocal interaction with groups from other territories.

Wikipedia account of Grey Butcherbird

The grey butcherbirds’ harsh whining reminds me of grackles. Their melodious songs are like nothing else.

(photo from Wikimedia Commons; click on the caption to see the original. video from PittwaterEcowarriors on YouTube)

Better Birds Desired

Lewis’s woodpecker (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

6 October 2021

In early October it’s easy to find pigeons, red-bellied woodpeckers, northern flickers, blue jays and chickadees in Pittsburgh. Ho hum! I wish for better birds.

At Jackson Lake in Los Angeles County, California last Sunday, there were similar but more interesting species. Here’s a sampling from Ted Keyel’s eBird checklist.

Instead of rock pigeons there were band-tailed pigeons (Patagioenas fasciata), North America’s largest wild pigeon.

Band-tailed pigeons in southern California (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Instead of red-bellied woodpeckers (Melanerpes carolinus) there were two other Melanerpes. A flock of 40-60 migrating Lewis’s woodpeckers (Melanerpes lewis) …

Lewis’s woodpecker from the Crossley ID Guide via Wikimedia Commons

… and six acorn woodpeckers (Melanerpes formicivorus).

Acorn woodpecker (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

We have northern flickers in Pittsburgh but they are yellow-shafted (click here to see). In California northern flickers (Colaptes auratus) are red-shafted. Wow!

Northern flicker, red-shafted (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Instead of blue jays California has Steller’s jays (Cyanocitta stelleri).

Steller’s jay (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

And instead of black-capped or Carolina chickadees they have mountain chickadees (Poecile gambeli).

Mountain chickadee (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

These are much better birds!

Note: Ted posted photos on his checklist but I do not yet have permission to use them so these are from Wikimedia Commons. Click here to see Ted’s photos.

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

Upside Down or Backwards

Peregrine flying upside down, Stammy at Youngstown, Ohio in 2011 or earlier (photo by Chad+Chris Saladin)

29 Sep 2021

There aren’t many birds on Earth that can fly upside down or backwards.

Peregrine falcons, like fighter jets, are powerful precision fliers that can fly upside down if they want to. Though we usually miss seeing it, Chad+Chis Saladin have photographed several episodes.

Above, more than a decade ago a peregrine nicknamed Stammy nested in Youngstown, Ohio after hatching at the Cathedral of Learning in 2003. When he was a youngster I saw his father Erie do a back flip and fly upside down in front of his “kids” on the nest rail. In the photo above, Stammy shows what he learned from his dad.

Below, you might be fooled that this peregrine is flying normally because of the position of its wings and head. Wrong! It’s upside down. Notice that its dark back is facing the ground while its white-and-gray underside is facing up. The bird twisted its head almost 180 degrees to focus on prey while it dives. Perhaps this optical illusion is why we don’t realize peregrines are flying upside down right in front of us.

An optical illusion: this peregrine is flying upside down (photo by Chad+Chris Saladin, 2017)

Peregrines can flap while they’re upside down, then turn sideways to right themselves.

  • Flying upside down (photos by Chad+Chris Saladin)

Hummingbirds break all the rules. They’re the only birds that can fly both upside down and backwards. Here are two videos from southern California that show hummingbirds in …

backwards flight …

… and upside down.

Our hummingbirds have left for the winter but there are still plenty of them in the southern tier. Watch hummingbird feeders from southern California to Florida to see them fly upside down and backwards.

(peregrine photos by Chad+Chris Saladin at C&C’s Ohio Peregrine Page, tweet from Wendy @geococcyxcal, YouTube video from Taofledermaus)

How Fast Do Songbirds Migrate?

Flock of robins, early morning (photo by Carl Berger Sr on Flickr via Creative Commons license)

27 September 2021

During fall migration warblers pass through Pittsburgh, followed by thrushes, then sparrows. We see them during the day after they’ve flown all night. Where were they yesterday? How far will they fly tonight? How fast are they traveling? What is their destination?

The answers are weather dependent, of course, but they also vary by species. Here are three recent songbird examples.

Wood thrush (Hylocichla mustelina)

Wood thrush in September (photo by Andy Reago & Chrissy McClarren from Wikimedia Commons)

Wood thrushes (Hylocichla mustelina) breed across the eastern U.S. and southeastern Canada, then spend the winter in Central America.

Wood thrush range (map from Wikimedia Commons)

In 2009 a geolocator study of wood thrushes by Bridget Stutchbury found that:

  • Wood thrushes fly more than 311 miles a day on migration. If they fly 8-10 hours per night their air speed is 30-38 miles per hour.
  • They dawdle in the fall by stopping over in the southern U.S. or the Yucatan for one to four weeks before proceeding to their final destination.
  • Wood thrushes return two to six times faster in spring because they barely stop at all.
  • They shorten the trip by flying across the Gulf of Mexico overnight, a distance of 600 miles from the Yucatan to Louisiana.

Where was that wood thrush yesterday? Maybe north of Toronto, Ontario. When he leaves how far will he fly? Perhaps to Lexington, Kentucky.

Blackpoll warbler (Setophaga striata)

Blackpoll warbler in autumn (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Blackpoll warblers (Setophaga striata) spend a lot of time fattening up before they leave North America for their wintering grounds in Brazil because they fly non-stop over the Atlantic Ocean to get there.

Their route averages 1,900 mi (3,000 km) over open water, requiring a potentially nonstop flight of around 72 to 88 hours. They travel at a speed of about 27 mph (43 km/h).

Wikipedia Blackpoll Warbler account
Blackpoll warbler breeding and wintering range (map from Wikimedia Commons)

Some blackpolls take off from Cape Cod. Some launch from coastal Virginia. Where was that blackpoll yesterday? If you’re asking this in Pittsburgh he might not have been very far north. Where will he be tomorrow? If you’re asking this on the U.S. coast the answer is “over the Atlantic Ocean.”

American robin (Turdus migratorius)

American robin (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

American robins (Turdus migratorius) take their time in the fall. Since they can live year round in much of the U.S. those that leave their breeding grounds (yellow on map) can afford to linger on their way south. Robins leave when the ground freezes or is covered by snow. Some travel as far as Florida, Mexico and Central America but most do not.

American robin range (map from Wikimedia Commons)

When on the move American robins have been clocked at 20-36 mph. They are faster when migrating than when they fly in our backyards.

So where was that robin yesterday? Probably here in Pittsburgh. Where will he be tomorrow? If he decides to fly all night he can reach Lexington, Kentucky with the wood thrush.

(photos and maps from Carl Berger on Flickr and Wikimedia Commons; click on the captions to see the originals)

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)