Category Archives: Songbirds

Not Sick, Just Temporarily Bald

Bald northern cardinal (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

6 July 2021

If you see an odd and ugly bird like this northern cardinal don’t worry that he’s ill. He isn’t sick. He’s just temporarily bald.

Many birds molt in the summer when they’ve finished breeding and food is plentiful. Warm weather is the perfect time to lose worn out feathers, a few at a time, and grow in new ones. Some northern cardinals and blue jays however lose all their head feathers simultaneously and become bald for about a week. This happens so often among blue jays in North Carolina that it’s considered normal there.

Birds also go temporarily bald during the molt if they have feather mites on their heads. Lose all the head feathers and lose the mites, too.

Bald birds are ugly, though. Their ears are just holes near their eyes, their heads look small, and their skin doesn’t match the missing feathers. Nonetheless, it’s temporary.

So don’t worry if you see a bird like this one in the video. He’s not sick. He’s just bald.

(photo of bald northern cardinal photo from Wikimedia Commons; click on the caption to see the original)

Mysterious Illness is in PA: Stop Feeding Birds

Fledgling European starling afflicted with mysterious disease (photo by National Parks Service photographer Leslie Frattaroli via

2 July 2021

UPDATE 13 Aug 2021: The PA Game Commission has announced an end to bird feeding restrictions. The illness has faded away on its own.

The mysterious songbird illness that is blinding and killing songbirds in six states has now spread to Pennsylvania and Delaware. Yesterday the PA Game Commission advised the public to remove feeders and bird baths to slow the spread.

Symptoms of the illness include a discharge and/or crusting around the eyes, eye lesions, and/or neurologic signs such as falling over or head tremors. Infected birds always die. Scientists are investigating but still don’t know what’s causing it.

The disease has been reported in 27 Pennsylvania counties in these species: blue jays, European starlings, common grackles, American robins, northern cardinals, house finches, house sparrows, eastern bluebirds, red-bellied woodpeckers, Carolina chickadees, and Carolina wrens. Tri-State Bird Rescue and Research in Newark, DE has found that the disease primarily affects fledgling European starlings, blue jays, and common grackles.

Counties in Pennsylvania reporting mysterious bird disease as of 1 July 2021

Yesterday Audubon Society of Western Pennsylvania (ASWP) joined the PA Game Commission in urging the public to follow these precautionary measures:

  • Cease feeding birds and providing water in bird baths until this wildlife mortality event has concluded to prevent potential spread between birds and to other wildlife.
  • Clean feeders and bird baths with a 10% bleach solution.
  • Avoid handling dead or injured wild birds. Wear disposable gloves if it’s necessary to handle a bird.
  • Keep pets away from sick or dead birds as a standard precaution.
  • To dispose of dead birds, place them in a sealable plastic bag and discard with household trash. This will prevent disease transmission to other birds and wildlife.

To underscore the point, Audubon Nature Stores will discontinue the sale of seed and bird feeders for the time being.

Do your part. Stop feeding birds until this wildlife crisis is over.

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UPDATE, 2 July 2021: The mysterious illness has now been reported in DC + eight states: VA, WV, MD, PA, DE, IN, OH, KY and more closely matches the Brood X cicada map though this may be a coincidence. My revised attempt at mapping the bird death hotspots, below, is just a rough idea not the whole story. i.e. Do not rely on my map!

Inaccurate map of bird death hotspots as of 1 July 2021 (markup by Kate St. John)

UPDATE from PA Game Commission, 8 July 2021 (posted here on 21 July): As of 8 July 2021 Wildlife Futures received 1,525 reports of dead birds in Pennsylvania. Roughly 25-30% (approximately 500) are likely associated with the current songbird mortality event. To date, the morbidity/mortality event appears to be targeting fledgling common grackles, blue jays, European starlings, and American robins. So far the following pathogens have been ruled out: Salmonella, Chlamydia, avian influenza virus, West Nile virus, Newcastle disease virus, herpesviruses, poxviruses, and Trichomonas parasite.

(photo from NPS via DNREC, maps from Wikimedia Commons. Click on the captions to see the originals)

Mysterious Illness Killing Songbirds in 6 States

UPDATE 13 Aug 2021: The PA Game Commission has announced an end to bird feeding restrictions. The illness has faded away on its own.

27 June 2021

A mysterious illness, first recorded in the DC area in mid April 2021, is blinding and killing songbirds in six states. Scientists at many labs are investigating but there are still no answers. No one knows what’s causing it.

Symptoms include crusted-over eyes, blindness, seizures, loss of balance, and death within a day. Indiana DNR reports that the illness mostly affects medium-sized songbirds: blue jays, American robins (photo at top), common grackles (photo below), starlings, northern cardinals, and brown-headed cowbirds.

So far the disease has been reported in the DC area including Virginia, Maryland, and the eastern panhandle of WV, and in central and southwestern Ohio, parts of Indiana, and north-central Kentucky. My attempt to map the disease centers, below, is missing many incidents outside the red dots. UPDATE, 2 July 2021: The illness is also in PA and Delaware, now in 8 states, shown below.

Inadequate map of bird death hotspots as of 1 July 2021 (markup by Kate St. John)

For instance, Indiana DNR lists the counties where the illness has occurred. My map does not included these scattered locations. (In other words, don’t rely on my map.)

Counties in Indiana reporting mysterious bird disease as of 27 June 2021

Residents in affected areas are asked to take their feeders down so that birds do not congregate. There are good reasons to do so …

Megan Kirchgessner, a veterinarian with Virginia’s Department of Wildlife Resources, said “From a veterinary perspective, especially in the springtime when food is abundant, there’s no reason for those feeders to be out,” she said. “And to be perfectly honest, especially in a situation like this, they can do more harm than good.”

Washington Post, Public urged to stop feeding birds, 14 June 2021

Though no one knows what’s causing the illness, avian flu and West Nile virus have been ruled out.

Some, including an ornithologist at the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center, have speculated the illness is related to the Brood X cicada emergence (yellow on the map below), that the birds are consuming pesticide-laden or fungus-laden cicadas. If so, the disease will disappear in July when the cicadas do and will not return for 17 years.

Active periodical cicada broods in U.S. (2013 map from USGS via Wikimedia Commons)

The cicada connection occurred to me too. The disease map as of 1 July 2021, after PA and Delaware were added, more closely matches the Brood X map.

For now we wait for more information and pray the illness doesn’t spread.

(embedded photos from Facebook and Twitter, maps from Wikimedia Commons. Click on the captions to see the originals)

Reprise of Grassland Birds

Dickcissel in Clarion County, June 2012 (photo by Robert Greene, Jr)

24 June 2021

In early summer Pittsburgh birders tire of searching among dense leaves so we travel to Clarion County’s recovered strip mines for grassland birds. Yesterday five of us drove 90 minutes to look for open country birds we’ve found there in the past.

Dickcissels (Spiza americana) are back again this year and easy to find singing on the wires at Concord Church Road. These rare nomads were a Life Bird for me in 2012. Read this vintage article, Dickcissels, for the reason why they to come to western Pennsylvania.

At Piney Tract (actually a grassland) we saw Henslow’s sparrows (Centronyx henslowii) …

Henslow’s sparrow, Clarion County, Summer 2011 (photo by Steve Gosser)

and heard them …

And we saw a grasshopper sparrow (Ammodramus savannarum) singing …

Grasshopper sparrow, June 2017 (photo by Steve Gosser)

… but I could not hear him because I’ve lost the upper frequencies. Can you hear the really loud trill of this grasshopper sparrow?

We also looked for upland sandpipers (Bartramia longicauda) but, alas, they were not there. Seven years ago I saw four of these Magical birds at Mt. Airy.

Interested in exploring the Clarion County’s grasslands? Check out two locations plus photos in this vintage article: In The Scrubby Fields.

(photos by Robert Greene, Jr and Steve Gosser)

The Most Beautiful Song

Wood thrush singing (photo by Shawn Collins)

13 June 2021

Right now Schenley Park is full of singing wood thrushes. In recent days I’ve counted a dozen every time I walk the trails.

On Friday morning, 11 June, this wood thrush sang his heart out at the Bartlett end of Panther Hollow. It’s the most beautiful song in Schenley Park.

Get outdoors now to hear the wood thrushes. They will stop singing in July.

(photo by Shawn Collins, recording by Kate St. John)

Few Migrating Birds But Some Rewards

Gray-cheeked thrush, Frick Park, 21 May 2021 (photo by Charity Kheshgi)

23 May 2021

This year’s weather has made for a lackluster spring migration season in southwestern Pennsylvania. It was suddenly warm in late April then surprisingly cold in the second week of May. During the cold spell migrating birds avoided us by traveling along the Atlantic coast or up the Mississippi valley and Great Plains.

Their absence here was noticeable. Other than one spectacular birding day on 6 May the rest of the month has had a good mix of species but few individual birds. I find it bizarre to spend three hours birding in mid May and see/hear just one American redstart (Setophaga ruticilla) or one Tennessee warbler (Leiothlypis peregrina).

But there have been rewards. Last week in Frick Park Charity Kheshgi found a couple of gray-cheeked thrushes and two mourning warblers on two different days. One gray-cheeked thrush perched in the open.

Gray-cheeked thrush among leaves, 21 May 2021 (photo by Charity Kheshgi)

The mourning warblers remained in the shadows. Scroll right to see his eye shine in the third photo.

And it’s baby season for robins. Cuteness is its own reward.

p.s. Today (and yesterday) there was an olive-sided flycatcher in Frick Park. Click here to se a photo of one that Charity Kheshgi saw at Presque Isle.

(photos by Charity Kheshgi)

The Passerine Chicken

Female (top) and male cowbird (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

20 May 2021

Brown-headed cowbirds (Molothrus ater) are the blackbird we love to hate.

Well known as a brood parasite, the female cowbird lays her eggs in the nests of smaller birds. The hosts foster her eggs and chicks while their own nestlings die. It’s particularly sad when we see a warbler feeding a cowbird chick knowing that his own nestlings did not survive.

Brown-headed cowbird chick fostered by common yellowthroat warbler (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

According to Birds of Stanford only 3% of cowbird eggs make it to adulthood but this is achieved by flooding the market with cowbird eggs.

One brown-headed cowbird egg among 5 of an eastern phoebe’s (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

An average female cowbird can lay 40 eggs per season, usually one per nest, from mid-or-late April to mid-July. She doesn’t have a physical boundary between clutches, no regression of ovaries to shut off egg laying between clutches, so she just keeps going. This has lead ornithologists to characterize female cowbirds as “passerine chickens.”

Considering her output the female brown-headed cowbird is the white leghorn chicken of songbirds. Fortunately she doesn’t lay as many eggs as a leghorn, 300 per year!

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

Color Is Not The Only Clue

Screenshot from video tweet by pacificnorthwestkate

14 May 2021

Every once in a while we find a very unusual bird that defies identification.

This one was filmed by pacificnorthwestkate (@pnwkate) at the Delta in Vancouver, BC, Canada on Thursday 6 May 2021. Its chest and belly look like an eastern towhee (Pipilo erythrophthalmus) but its shape, beak, voice and behavior are like a red-winged blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus). The final clue is that he hangs out in marshes with red-winged blackbirds.

As you watch him move and hear him sing you know who he is.

A commenter on the tweet remarked that this bird has been frequenting the Delta for about three years now. Speculation is that he’s leucistic rather than hybrid.

When you identify birds, color is not the only clue!

(tweet and screenshot from pacificnorthwestkate @pnwkate)

How Do They Get Here?

Canada Warbler at Schenley Park, 25 May 2019 (photo by Kuldeep Singh)

5 May 2021

Early May is exciting for Pittsburgh birders as beautiful migratory songbirds arrive in our area. Some come from as far away as South America and are en route to northern Canada. Some stay to nest, others move on. What map are they using? How do they get here?

Much of migration remains a mystery. This list is just a summary of the high points. If you have more to add, please leave a comment!

Basic Onboard Navigation System:

Migratory birds are born with a basic navigation system that improves with experience. First-of-year birds fly south in the fall with these instructions: Fly in [this] direction for [this] long.

Those born with a faulty compass head the wrong way and end up on Rare Bird Alerts.

My Life Bird lark sparrow was found at Seal Harbor, Maine. Though usually a western bird, he flew east instead of south.


After a bird has made the trip just once, it remembers the route and retraces it year after year. The lark sparrow in Seal Harbor showed up every September for the typical life span of a lark sparrow. His compass error didn’t hurt him.

Birds can be thrown off course by bad weather but they have additional navigational aids.

“Seeing” Earth’s Magnetic Field:

European robin (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

There’s evidence that birds can “see” Earth’s magnetic field to help them navigate, though we’re not sure how. A 2018 study of European robins and zebra finches reported that a cryptochrome protein in their eyes (Cry4) helps them see the blue light associated with magnetism. Cry4 increases during migration season and ebbs thereafter. Intriguing!

Orienting by polarized light at sunrise and sunset:

Savannah sparrow in Juneau, Alaska (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Before 2006 scientists knew that birds orient themselves at sunset. Then they learned how.

Researchers from Virginia Tech in Blacksburg and Lund University in Sweden say experiments with savannah sparrows in Alaska show the birds take readings of polarized sunlight at sunrise and sunset and use them to periodically recalibrate their magnetic compasses.

The Baltimore Sun: Sunlight is key for Bird migration

Navigating by smell:

Gray catbird (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Birds even use their sense of smell! A study of gray catbirds in 2009 showed that those who’d made the trip before used smell to course-correct.

How do they get here? It’s even more amazing than we thought!

To learn more, click the embedded links above.

(photos by Kuldeep Singh, Suunto, and Wikimedia Commons; click on the captions to see the originals)

Frick Park on the Cusp of May

  • Barred owl, Frick Park, 2 May 2021 (photo by Charity Kheshgi)

2 May 2021

Frick Park and adjacent Duck Hollow are two of the hottest birding hotspots in southwestern Pennsylvania. So many birds show up during spring migration that we birders spend hours there in April and May.

Frick’s 644 forested acres are a green oasis halfway through Pittsburgh’s developed metro area. The Monongahela River at Duck Hollow beacons to water and shorebirds while the woods attract songbirds to refuel before continuing north.

screenshot of Pittsburgh, PA regional map,

The Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy map of Frick Park shows how Duck Hollow (furthest point south) connects to the larger park. The birding is so good in that corridor that I often walk from Duck to Frick. If the two locations were a single hotspot their combined species count would probably surpass 200. Click here to download the Frick Park map.

screenshot of Frick Park map from Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy. Click here to download the map

Charity Kheshgi photographs birds at Frick Park and/or Duck Hollow nearly every day. Her slideshow above includes a few of the birds she saw on the cusp of May. See more by following her on Instagram at

p.s. I was there for the Blackburnian warbler but missed the barred owl because I didn’t visit Frick on 2 May. So many birds, so little time!

(photos by Charity Kheshgi, maps from Google and Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy)