Category Archives: Songbirds

Catbirds Anyone?

Gray catbird (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

20 April 2023

Have you seen your first gray catbird (Dumetella carolinensis) of 2023 yet? I haven’t.

Last week the temperature was so hot for so long in Pittsburgh — up to 16ºF above normal — that we put away our winter coats and wore summer clothes five days in a row. Norway maples burst into full leaf. Oak flowers bloomed. Insects flew around. The ticks came out. (Be careful!) And yet Spring’s migrating birds, the birds we expect under these conditions, did not show up. For instance, where are the catbirds?

As of this writing (6:00am on 20 April) eBird’s gray catbird sightings for April 2023 show that catbirds surround western PA but they aren’t here. Notice the catbird-free zone in western PA.

screenshot map of gray catbird sightings for 1-20 April 2023 (map from Explore Species on eBird)

Zoom in on Allegheny County and you’ll find a single sighting on 8 April in North Park (not shown on map below) and one on 15 April at Riding Meadow Park. Otherwise there are no catbirds in Allegheny County but they’re in the counties around us: Westmoreland, Beaver and Butler. (That red pin drop in the east is in Westmoreland County.)

screenshot map of gray catbird sightings for 1-20 April 2023 (map from Explore Species on eBird)

For some reason Allegheny County, PA is the last place birds want to visit. We have a few theories about it this year but this is an annual problem. Check out the theories and maps in this 2012 article.

p.s. Watch out! More Fire Weather this afternoon!

(photo from Wikimedia Commons, maps from eBird; click on the captions to see the originals)

To Lek or Not to Lek: Grackles Lead Different Lives

Male common grackle, puff and “skrinnk” (photo by Norm Townsend via Flickr Creative Commons license)

23 March 2023

Lek: an assembly area where animals (such as the prairie chicken) carry on display and courtship behavior. Also an aggregation of animals assembled on a lek for courtship.

Merriam-Webster Dictionary

Male prairie chickens hold a lek to attract females and according to this diagram so do “grackles.” It was exciting to think that the puff and “skrinnk” of male common grackles in Pittsburgh was a lek. But it’s not! The three species of grackles in North America lead very different lives.

Common grackles (Quiscalus quiscula), are usually monogamous and may nest alone or colonially with up to 200 pairs in a single colony.

Common grackles, Bill Up Display (photo by Tony Morris via Flickr Creative Commons license)

Bill Up is a male-to-male threat display. The puff and skrinnk is Song during courtship.

Boat-tailed grackles (Quiscalus major), found in Florida and along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts, nest in harems. The males gather in leks to attract the females.

Boat-tailed grackles perform during the breeding season (photo by shell game via Flickr Creative Commons license)
Male boat-tailed grackles on the lek (photo by Judy Gallagher on Flickr via Creative Commons license)

Female boat-tailed grackles are dull brown and laid back compared their male counterparts.

Female boat-tailed grackle (photo by Melissa McMaster via Flickr Creative Commons licnse)

Great-tailed grackles (Quiscalus mexicanus), found west of the Mississippi and in Central America, gather in noisy winter flocks.

Great-tailed grackle flock (photo by Phillip Cowan via Flickr Creative Commons license)

In the breeding season they don’t use leks and they aren’t monogamous.

Great-tailed grackle (photo by designwallah via Flickr Creative Commons license)

Birds of the World explains:

[Their] mating system can be described as non-faithful female frank polygyny, in which a territorial male has one or more social mates, each female has one social mate, and both sexes employ extra-pair copulation as a conditional mating tactic. Territorial males defend a small territory including from 1 to several trees, where one or more females nest. The male protects nestlings hatched on his territory, but not nestlings from other territories. He copulates with his social mates and may attempt to copulate with other females. 

Birds of the World: Great-tailed grackle account

Frankly, all the great-tailed grackles mess around. Even the females swagger.

Female great-tailed grackle (photo by Charlie Jackson via Flickr Creative Commons license)

Though they’re all called “grackles” they don’t act the same.

(photos are Flickr Creative Commons licensed and credited in the captions, click on the captions to see the originals)

Watch Hummingbirds in Ecuador

Click on here or on the image above to see the video at

24 February 2023

For a respite this cold weekend, take a break and watch hummingbirds in Ecuador.

At top, an empress brilliant (Heliodoxa imperatrix) and other hummingbirds feed from the hand of Carole Turek, founder of Click on the screenshot or at this link to watch Royal Hummingbird Feeding on my Hand: The Empress Brilliant.

You can also watch hummingbirds — live! — at Sachatamia Lodge in Mindo, Ecuador.

Click here to visit the live hummingbird stream on YouTube

In the brief moment I watched the live stream, two rufous-tailed hummingbirds (Amazilia tzacatl) visited the feeders and chased each other. Notice the orange beak, green body and rufous tail. We saw them at Mindo, photo below by P. B. Child.

Rufous-tailed hummingbird, Feb 2023 (photo by P. B. Child)

Happy hummingbird Friday!

(screenshots from, rufous-tailed hummingbird photo by P. B. Child)

Blue Jays Eat Acorns

Blue jay carrying acorns, September 2022 (photo by Christopher T)

9 February 2023

Nuts seem an unlikely food for blue jays but in fact they make up 67% of their diet in winter. Acorns are their favorites but they also eat beechnuts, chestnuts, hickory nuts and hazelnuts depending on availability.

Jays pluck acorns from the trees in autumn and eat them on site or cache them for later consumption. You would think acorns are too hard for a blue jay to open but Birds of the World (Cyanocitta cristata) explains how they do it:

Hard foods such as acorns, dry dog food, eggs, etc., are rendered by holding them against a branch or other substrate with one (usually) or both feet, and hammering with the mandible. 

Blue jay hammering at food (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

To cache the nuts — as much as 2.5 miles away — blue jays stuff their faces. The blue jay at top is carrying two acorns in his throat and one in his beak. The blue jay below is going overboard with peanuts. When they reach their cache sites they dump the nuts in a pile and bury them individually.

Blue jay stuffing his throat to carry away some peanuts (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Blue jays have a great memory for where they’ve buried nuts but they stash so many that they inevitably lose track of a few.

“Is that were I buried an acorn last autumn?” (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

If they don’t retrieve all of them, no problem. The acorns germinate and become new trees. Studies have shown that “This tendency may account for the rapid post-glacial dispersal of oaks indicated by pollen analysis,” according to Birds of the World. With this in mind, the Agassiz Audubon Society in Minnesota enlisted the help of blue jays ten years ago to “plant” oaks after volunteers collected and dispersed thousands of native acorns in an area that needed new trees.

To retrieve their cached food, blue jays dig it up with their beaks but this doesn’t work when the ground is frozen. It’s just one more reason why blue jays migrate south for the winter.

If your neighborhood doesn’t have any blue jays right now, it may be because they migrated. But check out the local trees. If there aren’t any oaks or nut trees in your neighborhood that may explain why you haven’t seen any blue jays lately.

This vintage article still gets a lot of comments because people miss seeing blue jays.

(top photo by Christopher T via Flickr used by permission. Remaining photos from Wikimedia Commons; click on the captions to see the originals)

Tanagers Galore in Ecuador!

3 February 2023, WINGS in Ecuador: Day 6, birding in Mindo and the NW Andes

I used to think hummingbirds (Trochilidae) were the most numerous bird family on our WINGS trip in Ecuador until I looked at the tanagers.

Tanagers (Thraupidae) are the second largest family of birds(*) and a Neotropical specialty. Nearly 40% of Thraupidae species live in Ecuador; 20% of the family is on our tour checklist.

Graph based on Thraupidae information, an article on Ecuadoran tanagers and the WINGS checklist

Thraupidae membership is constantly in flux as DNA tests move birds in and out of the family every year. Some species names no longer match their family(**). There’s a tanager called a “cardinal” and members of the Cardinal family Cardinalidae called “tanagers.” To make matters worse some members of the family aren’t called “tanagers” at all, including honeycreepers, conebills, flowerpiercers and saltators.

To bring some order out of the chaos I looked at colorful Thraupidae on our tour checklist whose names include “tanager” and picked 17 of the best for the slideshow. Here they are in order with links to their eBird descriptions and [photo] on Wikimedia Commons.

  1. Beryl-spangled tanager (Tangara nigroviridis) [photo]  
  2. Black-chinned mountain tanager (Anisognathus notabilis)   [photo]
  3. Blue-and-black tanager (Tangara vassorii)   [photo]
  4. Blue-capped tanager (Thraupis cyanocephala) [photo]  
  5. Black-capped tanager (Tangara heinei)  [photo]
  6. Blue-necked tanager (Tangara cyanicollis)   [photo]
  7. Blue-winged mountain tanager (Anisognathus somptuosus)   [photo]
  8. Fawn-breasted tanager (Pipraeidea melanonota)   [photo]
  9. Flame-faced tanager (Tangara parzudakii)  [photo]
  10. Glistening green tanager (Chlorochrysa phoenicotis)   [photo]
  11. Golden tanager (Tangara arthus)  [photo]
  12. Golden-naped tanager (Tangara ruficervix)   [photo]
  13. Grass-green tanager (Chlorornis riefferii)   [photo]
  14. Guira tanager (Hemithraupis guira)   [photo]
  15. Hooded mountain tanager (Buthraupis montana)   [photo]
  16. Scarlet-bellied mountain tanager (Anisognathus igniventris)   [photo]
  17. Swallow tanager (Tersina viridis) [photo]

(*) The largest family of birds on earth are the Tyrant flycatchers Tyrannidae.

(**) The red-crested cardinal at left is a Tanager (Thraupidae) while the scarlet tanager on the right is a Cardinal (Cardinalidae).

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

Loads of Hummingbirds!

30 Jan 2023, WINGS in Ecuador: Day 2, Yanacocha Reserve on Pichincha Volcano

If you want to see hummingbirds, Ecuador is the place to be. It holds the worlds record for the highest number of species and contains about 40% of the total.

The checklist for our tour has 51 hummingbirds on it, 28 of which have been seen every time WINGS makes the trip. The slideshow displays 20 that we’re certain to see. I tried to memorize them in advance but there are just too many!

As you look at the hummingbirds, here’s something to watch for: Nearly every species has a white dot, called a post-ocular spot, or a white stripe of feathers behind the eye. Why do they have this and what is it for? My Google searches cannot find an answer.

Here are the species in slideshow order with links to their eBird descriptions and [photo on Wikimedia Commons].

  1. Andean emerald (Amazilia franciae) [photo] 
  2. Gorgeated sunangel (Heliangelus strophianus) [photo]
  3. Booted racket-tail  (Ocreatus underwoodii) [photo] 
  4. Brown Inca (Coeligena wilsoni) [photo] 
  5. Buff-tailed coronet (Boissonneaua flavescens) [photo] 
  6. Collared Inca (Coeligena torquata) [photo] 
  7. Empress brilliant (Heliodoxa imperatrix) [photo] 
  8. Fawn-breasted brilliant (Heliodoxa rubinoides) [photo] 
  9. Great sapphirewing (Pterophanes cyanopterus) [photo]  
  10. Purple-bibbed whitetip (Urosticte benjamini) [photo] 
  11. Purple-throated woodstar (Calliphlox mitchellii) [photo] 
  12. Sapphire-vented puffleg (Eriocnemis luciani) [photo] 
  13. Sword-billed hummingbird (Ensifera ensifera) [photo] 
  14. Sparkling violetear (Colibri coruscans) [photo]
  15. Speckled hummingbird (Adelomyia melanogenys) [photo]
  16. Tawny-bellied hermit (Phaethornis syrmatophorus) [photo] 
  17. Tyrian metaltail (Metallura tyrianthina) [photo] 
  18. Violet-tailed sylph (Aglaiocercus coelestis) [photo] 
  19. Velvet-purple coronet (Boissonneaua jardini) [photo] 
  20. White-whiskered hermit (Phaethornis yaruqui) [photo] 

NOTE: The photos may not match exactly to the Mindo Valley hummingbirds because some species vary by location. For instance, see this illustration of the booted racket-tail.

Hello From Puembo

Scrub tanager, Columbia (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

29 Jan 2023, WINGS in Ecuador: Day 1, Puembo Birding Garden

Today I’m spending my first day in Ecuador at the Puembo Birding Garden, a bed and breakfast with cool birds conveniently located near Quito’s airport. Our WINGS tour opens here tonight at dinner.

Puembo Birding Garden is an eBird hotspot so I found out what I’m likely to see long before I arrived. #1 will be a Life Bird that ranges from Columbia to Ecuador, the scrub tanager (Stilpnia vitriolina), easily attracted to fruit trays even in the rain.

Scrub tanager in the rain, Columbia (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Perhaps I’ll hear a croaking ground dove (Columbina cruziana) that looks like an orange-billed mourning dove and sounds like a frog …

Croaking ground dove, Peru (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

… or the bright red crimson-mantled woodpecker (Colaptes rivolii) …

Crimson-mantled woodpecker (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

… or an amazing hummingbird, the black-tailed trainbearer (Lesbia victoriae).

Black-tailed trainbearer in Quito (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Check out this video for a look at where I am today.

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

Is It Spring Yet? Asks the Starling

European starling in winter plumage (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

12 January 2023

I know it’s only 12 January but a starling told me on Tuesday that spring is coming soon. I could see it in his beak.

Most of the birds that spend the winter in Pittsburgh wear the same colors all year long. Blue jays, chickadees and red-tailed hawks don’t change their look from winter to spring. European starlings (Sturnus vulgaris) do make a change but it’s subtle.

In winter they live up to their name with “starry” spotted feathers, dull dark pink legs, and gray-black beaks. When spring comes their spots wear off, their legs become brighter red and their beaks turn yellow.

Last Tuesday I saw a starling whose beak was turning yellow, though still black-tipped like the one pictured below.

Halfway to spring plumage (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

His ultimate goal is this glossy crisp appearance.

European starlings in breeding plumage (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Starling beaks usually start changing in February. Is spring coming sooner than usual or is that starling ahead of the game?

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

White-throated Sparrows Have Four Sexes

White-throated sparrow colors and sexes — green arrows show the only combinations that can mate successfully (photos from Wikimedia Commons)

8 January 2023

White-throated sparrows (Zonotrichia albicollis) come in two color morphs with either white-striped or tan-striped heads. The color tells us nothing about the sex of the bird because both morphs contain males and females. Last week a new article about a 2016 study reiterated the white-throated sparrow’s affinity for mating with the opposite color morph. It’s deeper than just a preference. These birds cannot reproduce with their own color.

Thirty years of research by Elaina Tuttle and Rusty Gonser into the genetics and behavior of white-throated sparrows revealed a mutation in chromosome 2 that makes it impossible for same-color-morph birds to reproduce. The birds seem to know this and only look for mates among birds of the opposite color. Instead of half the population as possible mates, fellow researcher Christopher Balakrishnan points out that “One individual can only mate with one-quarter of the population. This bird acts like it has four sexes.”

  • White-stripe Male
  • Tan-stripe Male
  • White-stripe Female
  • Tan-stripe Female

A system of four sexes is quite rare and there’s a reason. As Balakrishnan says, “it is evolutionarily unstable and one of these alleles will ultimately go extinct.”

White-throated sparrows have declined 69% in the U.S. over the past 50 years and overall (including Canada) by 33%. Are they declining because of habitat loss? window kills? Is their four-sex system also taking a toll? If so they’re probably the only species with that challenge.

Read more in these two articles where I obtained the quotes above: IFLScience: Meet The Sparrow With Four Sexes and NATURE: The sparrow with four sexes.

(four photos above are from Wikimedia Commons at these links: top left, top right, bottom left, bottom right)

Hand Feeding The Birds

Screenshot of female northern cardinal feeding from her hand, Jocelyn Anderson Photography @JocAPhotography

27 December 2022

When Michigan photographer Jocelyn Anderson (@JocAPhotography) takes a walk in the park she brings her camera and a pocketful of shelled peanuts, sunflower seeds and suet nuggets. While balancing her camera she films the birds eating out of her hand in beautiful closeups.

Before last week’s cold snap the birds were very hungry and very active as seen in the screenshot above and her video below. (Videos are in slow motion.)

A male red-bellied woodpecker arrived alone. As he lands you can see the pale red patch on his belly that gives him his name.

Days later it was too cold for bare hands so she offered the food on her mitten.

See more of Jocelyn Anderson’s photos and videos @JocAPhotography on Twitter. Visit her photo website where you can learn “How to Hand Feed Birds.”

(screenshot and videos by Jocelyn Anderson (@JocAPhotography)