Category Archives: Songbirds

Eating Salad?

American goldfinch eating thistle (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

28 July 2022

Is there a bright yellow bird with black wings in your vegetable garden poking among the salad greens? Or perhaps a drab female or juvenile bird (shown below)?

Female American goldfinch feeding juvenile (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

American goldfinches (Spinus tristis) nest in July so they are very busy bringing food to their young.

Their favorite choice is thistle seed, above, but they will occasionally taste reddish salad greens like Swiss chard, below.

Swiss chard (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Don’t worry for your garden. Goldfinches only take a nibble.

Find out more about the “Salad Birds” in this vintage article:

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

Swallow or Swift?

Chimney swifts (from the Crossley ID Guide Eastern Birds via Wikimedia Commons)

20 July 2022

Whoosh! Fast moving birds circle, swoop, rise and fall as they eat flying insects. Swallows and swifts move so fast that it’s hard to identify them in flight. With one swift and six swallow species in our area(*) the first step is to decide: “Is that a Swallow or a Swift?

This stop-action photo by Patrick bx (@bronxfxdc) makes it easy to see the differences described by audubon.org below.

Is That a Swallow or a Swift? Identification clues from Audubon.org.

Even from a distance these two swallow plates from Crossley ID show many features that are different from the chimney swifts at top.

Tree swallows and northern rough-winged swallows (from Crossley ID Guide to Eastern Birds via Wikimedia Commons)

And finally, chimney swifts make a unique chittering sound in flight.

Swallow or swift? You’ll get plenty of practice in the coming weeks as the birds gather for fall migration.

(*) p.s. Here are the swallow and swift species that occur in our area — southwestern Pennsylvania.

(photos from Patrick bx (@bronxfxdc) embedded tweet & the Crossley ID Guide to Eastern Birds via Wikimedia Commons; click on the captions to see the originals)

July: If You Can’t Clean Feeders Every Week, Stop Feeding Birds

House sparrow at bird feeder (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

13 July 2022

Mid to late summer is a good time to be a bird in Pennsylvania. Fruit is ripe, seeds are plentiful, insect food is everywhere and for raptors there are plenty of naive young animals to capture. With so much natural food available and with songbirds’ preference for insects in summer, birds are not dependent on backyard feeders in July.

You can safely bring in your bird feeders now. In fact, if you cannot clean your feeders every week, they are unsafe for birds. Highly pathogenic avian flu has ebbed this summer but there is apprehension that it will return during fall migration. And it’s not the only disease that kills birds.

Yesterday I encountered three dead or dying birds in my neighborhood within half a mile of each other: a house finch that fell over unless it propped itself on open wings, a dead fledgling robin standing in the street (below), and a fluffed house sparrow that could not walk.

Frozen in place: dead American robin fledgling standing in the street, 12 July 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)

I have no idea what was killing them. It could have been a different reason for each species. I do know that if it was contagious, finches and sparrows would have spread it at bird feeders.

Clean your feeders every week. In hot weather clean your hummingbird feeder twice a week because the nectar spoils! Are you leaving on vacation? Bring your feeders in so you don’t lure the birds into an unsafe environment.

Feeder cleaning advice from Audubon Society of Western PA, April 2022

Be kind and thoughtful of your backyard birds by keeping your feeders clean.

(photos from Wikimedia Commons, ASWP and Kate St. John)

How To Tell When a Song Sparrow is Angry

Song sparrow (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

16 June 2022

Male song sparrows sing to claim territory and avoid fighting with rivals. Each male has a unique song that creates an audio boundary marker that other males are expected to honor. When a rival intrudes, the owner escalates with aggressive signals before he attacks. If you know what to look for, you can tell when a song sparrow is angry.

To learn the escalation steps, “researchers [in a 2013 study at University of Washington led by Çaglar Akçay] recorded songs from 48 sparrows living in Discovery Park in Seattle. To feign an intruder, they perched a stuffed song sparrow in a bush or tree and played the recorded song.

The owners reacted to the stuffed singing intruder as if he was real and escalated as follows:

  1. When the intruder first arrived, the owner matched the intruder’s song. If this didn’t drive off the intruder …
  2. The owner repeatedly flew and landed near the intruder, wing-waving and singing softly. “Wing waving” is vibrating one wing at a time. Soft song is more aggressive than shouting.
  3. When none of this worked the owner attacked the intruder.

This video from the Univ of Washington shows the second step — wing waving and soft song — with narration by one of the researchers. Notice one wing raised and waved at 0:27. Wing raising is a happy greeting between male and female cardinals. Not so with song sparrows!

The stuffed intruder would not leave, even when the owner sang softly, so the owner attacked. Yow!

If a male song sparrow is speaking softly and waving one wing, he’s angry. Learn more at Get off my lawn: Song sparrows escalate territorial threats — with video.

(photo from Wikimedia Commons, embedded video from University of Washington study in 2013)

Best In Song

14 May 2022

Wood thrushes (Hylocichla mustelina) are back in Schenley Park after their winter sojourn in Central America.

Yesterday this one used his beautiful voice to claim a nesting territory near the Bartlett tufa bridge. Click here or on the screenshot below to hear him sing.

Of all the birds he wins “Best In Song.”

(photo from Wikimedia Commons, video by Kate St. John)

This is The Week for Warblers

  • Hooded warbler (photo by Steve Gosser)

10 May 2022

In your backyard, in a local park, or at hotspots on Lake Erie’s southern shore, this is the week to see beautiful warblers on migration in eastern North America. They fly overnight and fuel up during the day, flitting among new leaves on the hunt for insects. Here are just a few of the gems to look for, in photos by Steve Gosser.

Get outdoors. This is the week!

(photos by Steve Gosser)

Migration: The Color of Spring

Scarlet tanager, May 2021 (photo by Christopher T)

1 May 2022

May at last! For the next three weeks gorgeous birds will arrive on the south wind, some to nest, others to pause on their northward journey. With colors more vibrant than April’s wildflowers they suddenly appear among new green leaves. Red, yellow, blue, black and white, Christopher T’s photos show them at their best.

Male scarlet tanagers (Piranga olivacea) are not scarlet when they spend the winter in South America — instead they are green — but by the time they’re back home in the eastern U.S. they are the brightest red.

Kentucky warblers (Geothlypis formosa) highlight brilliant yellow with a black cap and mask. We are lucky to have this uncommon bird nesting in Pennsylvania. I-80 approximates the northern edge of their range.

Kentucky warbler, May 2021 (photo by Christopher T)

Male indigo buntings (Passerina cyanea) are mottled brown when they spend the winter in Central and South America, but nothing says “blue!” like an indigo bunting in May sunshine.

Indigo bunting, July 2021 (photo by Christopher T)

Even black and white look beautiful when worn by a male black-and-white warbler (Mniotilta varia) …

Black and white warbler, April 2022 (photo by Christopher T)

… and more beautiful when punctuated by the male rose-breasted grosbeak’s (Pheucticus ludovicianus) exclamation point. Watch carefully when he flies to see the rosy surprise beneath his wings.

Rose-breasted grosbeak, May 2021 (photo by Christopher T)

Get outdoors this month to enjoy migration’s colors of spring.

(photos by Christopher T)

Separating the Wheat From the Chaff

Chipping sparrow with seed in beak (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

28 April 2022

Seed-eating birds use only their beaks to extract their food from shells and husks. Have you noticed how they do it?

At the feeder you may see them pick up a whole nut, crack the shell with their strong beaks and let the shell fall, then work on the seed inside their mouths with tongue and beak. They do the same with grassy seeds though we rarely see it.

Evening grosbeak and American goldfinch at the feeder, Nov 2012 (photo by Marcy Cunkelman)

This slow motion video of a field sparrow (Spizella pusilla) shows how he separates the “wheat” from the chaff. It’s a lot of mouth work for tiny seeds.

(photos from Wikimedia Commons and Marcy Cunkelman)

The Grackles Are Back!

Common grackle. “Skrinnnk!” (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

4 March 2022

The grackles are back!

During the winter common grackles (Quiscalus quiscula) are mostly absent from Pennsylvania but in early March they head north to nest. Their return began this week with a trickle of solo birds on Tues 1 March which grew to small flocks of 5-7 on Thursday. Very soon large flocks will pass through on their way to Canada, taking over feeders and backyards as they did at Marcy Cunkelman’s in this 2005 photo.

Common grackles take over the yard, spring 2005 (photo by Marcy Cunkelman)

Even if you don’t see them you will hear the grackles announce themselves. Look to the treetops to see the males puff and “skrinnk!”

This week’s scouts are the early birds. More grackles are definitely on the way. Look at the difference in eBird reports between December-February and March-May!

  • eBird: Common grackle sightings, Dec-Feb past 10 years

Common grackle (Quiscalus quiscula) sightings, winter vs spring, past 10 years (retrieved from eBird on 3 Mar 2022)

Use eBird and your sightings will be added to the maps.

(photos from Marcy Cunkelman and Wikimedia Commons; distribution maps from eBird retrieved on 3 March 2022; click on the captions to see the originals)