Category Archives: Songbirds

Blue Jays Building Nests

Blue jay gathering nesting material (photo by Andy Reago & Chrissy McClarren via Wikimedia Commons)

11 April 2021

As loud as blue jays are all year they are very secretive when they nest, so sneaky that it’s hard to find a nest unless you see them build it.

Last week I was lucky to see four pairs of blue jays working on nests in Schenley Park. Both participate in the project though the male does more gathering while the female does more shaping.

Each phase of nest construction uses different materials. You can assess a pair’s progress by noting what they gather.

  • The outer shell is made of strong fresh twigs which they yank from live trees.
  • The middle may include bark, moss, lichen, dry leaves, grasses, mud, bits of paper, cloth, string or plastic.
  • The cup lining is made of tough rootlets and sometimes wet, partially decomposed leaves.

I found a pair in Schenley Park working on the outer shell when I noticed a blue jay vigorously pulling on a long twig until it broke from the tree. He flew up to a crotch in a nearby tree where his lady was waiting to add it to the foundation.

Two blue jays jousted over this valuable mud puddle. One held a muddy clump in his beak while he chased the other away. The second jay persisted.

Valuable nesting material in a puddle, Schenley Park, 9 April 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)

Others pulled rootlets from an overturned tree, apparently in the final stage of construction.

Blue jays gather rootlets like these to line their nests (photo by Kate St. John)

Blue jays will travel 1,000 feet to gather nest material and even more for good rootlets, so I wasn’t surprised when I lost track of them when they flew away.

Learn more about blue jay (Cyanocitta cristata) nesting in this 11 minute video by Lesley The Bird Nerd. Then watch closely as they gather nesting material. Perhaps you’ll find the nest.

(photos from Wikimedia Commons and Kate St. John)

Roadrunners Are Songbirds

Greater roadrunner, Imperial County, CA (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

9 April 2021

Roadrunners coo!

Who knew?

(photo from Wikimedia Commons, tweets from Wendy @geococcyxcal)

House Sparrows Are In Trouble

House sparrows at the Walmart, 29 Jan 2021 (photo by Tim Vechter at Westmoreland Bird and Nature Club on Facebook)

1 April 2021

Yes, today is April Fool’s Day but it’s no joke that house sparrows are in trouble. Though still considered pests in North America their population has declined dramatically, even in their native range. Seven years ago their disappearance was a mystery. Has anything changed?

Native to Eurasia and northern Africa, humans introduced house sparrows (Passer domesticus) to continents and islands worldwide in the 1800s, making them the most widely distributed wild bird on Earth. (Green is native range, yellow is introduced in the map below.)

House sparrow range map: green=native, yellow=introduced (map from Wikimedia Commons)

House sparrows were successful worldwide — too successful — but as recently as 30 years ago they began a steady decline. They are down 84% now in North America and 60% in Europe. In the UK they are red-listed as a species of high conservation concern.

There have been many studies but no one cause for decline. The reasons include:

The one thing we do know since 2014 is that there is no lack of nest sites.

In North America house sparrows are not just in trouble, they are trouble because of their aggression toward native species while nesting.

We’ll be happy to see them go but their mysterious decline should make us think. If a bird as hardy and human-oriented as the house sparrow is declining, it bodes ill for us too.

For more information read :

(photo by Tim Vechter at Westmoreland Bird and Nature Club on Facebook)

Goldfinches Turning Yellow

Male American goldfinch, almost all yellow (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

30 March 2021

Here’s a sure sign of spring: American goldfinches (Spinus tristis) are turning yellow.

In winter both male and female goldfinches are dull. The males have citrine yellow faces, whitish chests, and black wings with white stripes. The females are dull olive brown with buffy stripes on brownish wings.

Goldfinches at Green-Wood Cemetery, NYC, March 2019 (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Female American goldfinch on echinacea (photo from Wikimedia Common)

In February goldfinches begin to molt into breeding plumage but they’re in no hurry to finish since they won’t breed until July. At first the males have “dirty” foreheads and a few yellow patches (below). When a male is nearly finished he’ll have a few dull patches among yellow feathers (top).

Male American goldfinch turning yellow, 2006 (photo by Marcy Cunkelman)

His goal is brilliant yellow.

Male American goldfinch (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Look closely at goldfinches and you’ll see them turning yellow.

(photos by Marcy Cunkleman and from Wikimedia Commons)

Who’s Singing Now?

Male house finch (photo by Cris Hamilton)

21 March 2021

When the big waves of migrating songbirds arrive in April and May we will be swamped with birdsong too numerous to list. That hasn’t happened yet so I can still tell you a few birds we’re hearing this week in Pittsburgh.

House finches (Haemorhous mexicanus), show at top, have been singing for a couple of weeks. The males prefer to sing close to their potential nest so it’s a good place to watch for a drab female house finch. The recording below begins with finchy call notes and changes to song.

Did you know … ?

Though common grackles (Quiscalus quiscula) nest communally the males always challenge each other to win a favorite lady. You’ll see them puff their feathers and hear them “skrink!”

Male common grackle puffing and calling, Toronto (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Northern Mockingbirds (Mimus polyglottos) returned to urban Pittsburgh this month and are claiming their favorite territories with mimicked songs. Though he sounds like a lot of other birds you can identify a mockingbird because he repeats the same tune three+ times before he changes.

Northern mockingbird (photo by Cris Hamilton)

Did you know … ?

(photos by Cris Hamilton and from Wikimedia Commons)

We Get Pretty By Wearing Out

Lapland longspur, Oct 2018 (photo by Lauri Shaffer)

9 March 2021

If you saw lapland longspurs (Calcarius lapponicus) in the fields this winter you know how hard they are to notice, even when abundant. Unlike horned larks that are visible when they walk, longspurs barely move while foraging for seeds in low brown vegetation. They match the ground.

Two lapland longspurs foraging in a field, February 2021 (photo by Lauri Shaffer)

To achieve this camouflage, they molt in July and August while on their breeding grounds, then head south to spend the winter in fields across the northern U.S. and as far south as Texas.

Lapland longspur, October 2018 (photo by Lauri Shaffer)

During the winter, their feathers get older but instead of looking tattered they show more color. Here’s one in mid-January.

Lapland longspur, Illinois, 16 Jan 2016 (photo by Andy Reago & Chrissy McClarren via Wikimedia Commons)

By the time they reach their arctic breeding grounds in late May the males are especially gorgeous.

Male lapland longspur, Alaska Maritime NWR (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

They don’t molt to become this beautiful. Instead the tips of lapland longspurs’ feathers wear off to reveal gorgeous colors just below.

It would be nice if we humans got prettier as we wore out. Instead we just look ragged.

(photos by Lauri Shaffer and from Wikimedia Commons)

p.s. European starlings use the same feather strategy.

Clean Your Bird Feeders!

American goldfinch and pine siskin at bird feeder (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

7 March 2021

This winter’s influx of northern finches has brought new enjoyment to backyard birders and death to some of the feeder birds. Pine siskins (Spinus pinus) especially are succumbing to salmonellosis, a bacterial illness spread at bird feeders.

“The first indication of the disease for bird watchers to look for is often a seemingly tame bird on or near a feeder. The birds become very lethargic, fluff out their feathers, and are easy to approach. This kind of behavior is generally uncommon to birds,” Mansfield said. “Unfortunately, at this point there is very little people can do to treat them. The best course it to leave the birds alone.”

WDFW: Help protect wild birds from deadly salmonellosis

Reports of dead and dying feeder-birds in Washington state have prompted the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife to urge people not to feed the birds until at least April 1.

It’s happening here too though not enough for an advisory, but that’s beside the point. Protect your backyard birds. Clean your feeders! What you can’t see is hurting them.

Is this clean? (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

The Spruce published these handy cleaning tips, summarized below:

  • Clean your bird equipment every 2 weeks, more often when a lot of birds are visiting. Crowding spreads disease.
  • Empty the feeder; throw away dirty seed! (I’ve learned this lesson, too. I once had mold in the nyger feeder.)
  • Mix the cleaning solution: 1 part bleach to 9 parts hot water
  • Take feeder apart and soak it to loosen dirt.
  • Then clean thoroughly
  • Dry thoroughly
  • Reassemble and refill. Ta dah!

The Spruce suggests that when you’re in the market for new bird feeders, think about how you will clean them. Sometimes wood can be hard to clean.

Northern cardinal at wooden bird feeder (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Read more at All About Birds and The Spruce.

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

Uncommon Starlings

Spotless starling (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

3 March 2021

Why is this starling all black?

The European starlings (Sturnus vulgaris) we love to hate in North America are just one of 123 species in the Starling family (Sturnidae). In Europe their English name is “common starling.” Here are seven of their uncommon looking relatives.

Spotless starling (Sturnis unicolor): The common starling’s nearest relative is a non-migratory resident of Spain, Portugal, northwest Africa, and nearby areas. Shown above, he is indeed spotless.

Rosy starling (Pastor roseus): Looks uncommon to us but is common in India in winter.

Rosy starling, Pakistan (photo by Imran Shah via Wikimedia Commons)

Violet-backed starling (Cinnyricinclus leucogaster): Native to sub-Saharan Africa, the male is beautiful amethyst, the female is boring brown.

Superb starling (Lamprotornis superbus): Lives in Africa. Definitely superb. Imagine seeing more than one!

Superb starlings, western Serengeti, 2012 (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Greater blue-eared starling (Lamprotornis chalybaeus): A very common bird of open woodlands in the Sahel and the eastern half of Africa.

Greater blue-eared starling, Botswana Africa (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Hildebrandt’s starling (Lamprotornis hildebrandti): Lives in Kenya and Tanzania. Oh my!

Hildebrandt’s starling, Tanzania (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Mysterious starling (Aplonis mavornata): There is no photo of the mysterious starling because cameras had not been invented when he was found in Polynesia in 1825. Ornithologists went looking for him in 1975 but he was already extinct. Due to the mystery of his origin, there are probably two extinct species of mysterious starlings. Read more here.

Mysterious starling non-photo (screenshot from Birds of the World)

Our European starlings certainly look common compared to these.

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

Is It Grackle Day?

Male common grackle (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

1 March 2021

Grackle Day is coming this week. For some it’s already here.

The arrival of migrating blackbirds and grackles is one of the earliest signs of spring. Common grackles (Quiscalus quiscula) leave the East End of Pittsburgh during fall migration and don’t return until early March, usually around the 5th. I haven’t seen a grackle yet but I found a red-winged blackbird — just one — in Schenley Park on Friday 26 Feb, my First of Year.

Friends in Beaver County reported small flocks of grackles at their feeders on Saturday 27 February. I’m disappointed the birds bypassed Pittsburgh but am keeping my eyes open for their arrival here.

Sometimes I hear their “chucking” sound before I see them. Listen for …

Then they point their bills up, strut and puff and “skriiNNNK.”

I can hardly wait!

Will this be Grackle Day?

(photo from Wikimedia Commons, audio from Xeno Canto, video from YouTube. click on the captions to see the originals)

Whattaya Think?

screenshot from video of YouTube Stella the starling

26 February 2021

Stella was a European starling who was rescued when she fell out of her nest in St. Louis. Her rescuer, Rebecca B, was unable to return Stella to the nest (too high up) so she took care of the bird, planning to return her to the wild when she was old enough to survive on her own.

Rebecca B wrote in September 2015: “Well, that didn’t really work out as planned. Stella quickly became very attached and more of a pet than a wild bird. It became very clear she wasn’t suited to live outside in the wild when she began to talk and say “stella is a pretty bird” at only 4 months old! The whistles followed quickly.. and she hasn’t stopped learning.”

This week I wrote a lot about starlings. … Whattaya think?

p.s. In the U.S., European starlings (Sturnus vulgaris) are an invasive alien species and are not protected as native birds are. That means starlings, unlike native birds, can be kept as pets without a permit.

(from Stella the Starling on YouTube)