Category Archives: Songbirds

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)

It’s Warbler Time!

Blackburnian warbler (photo by Steve Gosser)
Blackburnian warbler (photo by Steve Gosser)

In early May it’s warbler time!

This is the Biggest Week in American Birding in northwestern Ohio and I’m not going to miss it.  I expect to see my favorite warbler, the Blackburnian (Setophaga fusca) above, and up to five warblers whose names are out of place in Ohio.

The birds listed below were named for the location where a scientist first described them though they were on migration at the time.   The name tells you more about the ornithologist’s travel schedule than it does about the bird.

Tennessee warbler (Oreothlypis peregrina).  From Birds of North America Online:

“Described by Alexander Wilson in 1811 from a migrant specimen on the banks of Tennessee’s Cumberland River, its common name belies the fact that its breeding range is restricted almost entirely to the boreal forest zone of Canada, southeastern Alaska and the extreme northern fringe of the U.S.”

Tennessee warbler (photo by Donna Foyle)
Tennessee warbler (photo by Donna Foyle)

Nashville warbler (Oreothlypis ruficapilla):  Found by Alexander Wilson in Nashville in 1811, and so named.

Nashville Warbler at Magee Marsh (photo by Brian Herman)
Nashville Warbler at Magee Marsh (photo by Brian Herman)

Kentucky warbler (Geothlypis formosa). Named by Alexander Wilson in 1811 while he was in Kentucky.

Kentucky warbler (photo by Tony Bruno)
Kentucky warbler (photo by Tony Bruno)

The elusive Connecticut warbler (Oporornis agilis) is so hard to find in the spring that Steve Gosser’s photo below is from September 2013. Alexander Wilson first saw one in autumn, too. From Birds of North America Online:

Alexander Wilson first described this species in 1812 and named it after the state of Connecticut, where he collected the first specimen, a fall migrant. The common name is something of a misnomer, however, because the species does not breed in Connecticut, nor is it a common migrant there.

Connecticut warbler in western PA, September 2013 (photo by Steve Gosser)
Connecticut warbler in western PA, September 2013 (photo by Steve Gosser)

And finally, the Cape May warbler (Setophaga tigrina) was one of the last birds Alexander Wilson described. He found it at Cape May, New Jersey in May 1813. He died three months later at age 47.  From Birds of North America Online:

“Its English name refers to the locality from which Alexander Wilson first described the species— Cape May, New Jersey—where it was not recorded again for more than 100 years .”

Cape May warbler (photo by Bobby Greene)
Cape May warbler (photo by Bobby Greene)

If I’d named the warblers for my first sightings they’d be Ohio warbler, Magee Marsh warbler, Maumee Bay warbler, and Ottawa (county) warbler.

It’s warbler time in Ohio!


(photo credits: Steve Gosser, Donna Foyle, Brian Herman, Tony Bruno, Bobby Greene)

The Warblers Are Coming!

American redstart (photo by Tony Bruno)
American redstart (photo by Tony Bruno)

The warblers are coming!  In fact the second wave is already here.

Ten days ago I listed four new arrivals: Louisiana waterthrush, yellow-throated warbler, pine warbler and yellow-rumped warbler.

This week brought in five more beauties, illustrated in photos by Tony Bruno and Steve Gosser.  I saw most of them at Enlow Fork (SGL 302), just 45 air miles south of Pittsburgh.  I’m sure they’ll be in town this weekend.

American redstart (Setophaga ruticilla), at top.  Black, white and orange, as soon as the redstarts arrive they’re easy to find because they’re hyperactive and just above eye level.  We saw 10 of them at Enlow Fork yesterday, April 26.

Northern parula (Setophaga americana), below. Smaller and slower moving than a redstart, parulas are usually in the tops of the trees, especially sycamores. We were lucky to see one at eye level at Enlow Fork.

Northern parula (photo by Steve Gosser)
Northern parula (photo by Steve Gosser)

Palm warbler (Setophaga palmarum), below:  This warbler is easier to identify that you’d think because he pumps his tail and is willing to walk on the ground. I found him on the grass at Frick Park.

Palm warbler (photo by Steve Gosser)
Palm warbler (photo by Steve Gosser)

Black-throated green warbler (Setophaga virens), below. Usually found at mid-height in the trees, he sometimes hovers like a redstart to glean insects from the leaves. Enlow Fork.

Black-throated green warbler (photo by Steve Gosser)
Black-throated green warbler (photo by Steve Gosser)

Common yellowthroat (Geothlypis trichas), below:  This one like to hide in thick bushes so we heard him before we saw him — and then just caught a glimpse.  “Witchity, Witchity, Witchity” at Enlow Fork.

Common yellowthroat (photo by Steve Gosser)
Common yellowthroat (photo by Steve Gosser)

There are plenty of opportunities to see warblers this Sunday April 29.  Click the links for details:

It’s time to get outdoors.  The warblers are coming!


(photo credits: American redstart by Tony Bruno; all other warblers by Steve Gosser)


Good News You May Have Missed

Hermit thrush (photo by Steve Gosser)
Hermit thrush (photo by Steve Gosser)

After a turbulent week for Pittsburgh’s peregrines, here’s some good news you may have missed.

Spring migration is bringing new birds to Pittsburgh almost every day.

Wednesday’s new arrival (for me) was a hermit thrush at Bird Park in Mt. Lebanon, illustrated by Steve Gosser’s photo above.

On Thursday morning birders discovered that huge flocks of migrating buffleheads, scaup, horned grebes and Bonaparte’s gulls had landed on Pittsburgh’s rivers Wednesday night.  This phenomenon, called a “fallout,” was a one day wonder.  Most of the birds left that evening.

And songbirds that arrived last weekend are still here.  Check out more good news in Tuesday’s article: New Birds In Town.


(photo by Steve Gosser)