Category Archives: Songbirds

Knock Down, Drag Out: Mockingbirds Fight

  • Northern Mockingbirds fighting #1 (photo by Beth Signorini)

In case you think that songbirds are innocent, meek creatures consider the northern mockingbird (Mimus polyglottus). He always has “attitude” and he’s willing to engage in a knock down drag out fight.

Beth Signorini captured these two during the breeding season.

I wonder who won.

(photos by Beth Signorini)

Eating Crow?

Evidence of a peregrine meal. What is it? (photo by Kate St. John)

Early this month when Bob Mulvihill stepped out on the ledge to clean the Cathedral of Learning falconcams, he found this evidence of a peregrine’s meal. What species is it? Did the peregrines eat a crow?

The remaining head feathers are black and slightly iridescent. The beak is big and a bit down-curved. The feet look rather large for the bird’s body. Obviously the bird has plastic color-bands but there was no USFW band on its right leg so there’s no way to trace it.

Here’s a closer look:

Crow beaks are 2.5 inches long. How long is the beak on this bird? Less than 1 inch.

The iridescent head feathers and slightly down-curved one-inch bill point to a common grackle rather than a crow.

I’m still not sure what this bird was, but I do know the peregrines did not eat crow. 😉

(photos by Kate St. John)

Orange House Finch

A normal house finch with an orange one (photo by Marcy Cunkelman)

House finches normally have rosy red foreheads, chests, and rumps but occasionally you’ll see an orange one. He’s not a new species, he’s just a color variant.

The orange color might be temporary. Depending on what the house finch eats he could be red next year.

Find out how this happens in this vintage article entitled “Orange?

(photo by Marcy Cunkelman)

Solitaire Generates a Crowd

Townsend’s solitaire at Yellow Creek, Indiana County, PA (photo by Steve Gosser)

The Townsend’s Solitaire (Myadestes townsendi) is a thrush that lives in western North America, from Alaska to Mexico and only as far east as Nebraska and Kansas in the winter.

He’s considered a short distance migrant but every winter a few individuals break the mold and come to the northeastern U.S. and southeastern Canada. This one was found at Yellow Creek State Park during the Indiana PA Christmas Bird Count on 26 December 2018.

Townsend’s solitaires are easy to identify by their soft gray color, white eye ring, long tail and buffy wing patches. Under certain light conditions his gray color looks brown.

The bird’s common name comes from John Kirk Townsend who first collected it and from its solitary habits. Solitaires are usually alone but will hang out with other species near food. This one was eating fruit with a flock of American robins at the Boy Scout Camp.

Townsend’s solitaire and American robin at Yellow Creek (photo by Glenn Koppel)

Since Townsend’s solitaires are rare in western Pennsylvania, birders from miles around have come to see and photograph him. When I went to Yellow Creek State Park on New Year’s Eve (a 1.5 hour drive) I found the solitaire and six other birders, four of whom I knew by sight or name. I missed Steve Gosser and Glenn Koppel who took these pictures on New Year’s Day.

The bird may be solitary but he generates a crowd.

(photos by Steve Gosser and Glenn Koppel)

Let’s Get Pileated

Pileated woodpecker (photo by Dick Martin), Statue of a peasant wearing a pilos and carrying a basket (photo of a statue in the Louvre from Wikimedia Commons)

How did the pileated woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus) get its name?

The word pileated comes from the name of a brimless felt hat, the conically shaped pileus of Ancient Greece and Rome. Those who wore the hat were pileated just as those who wear caps are capped.

In Ancient Rome the pileus was a sign of one’s place in society since it was normally worn only by freed slaves. However, that practice was turned on its head during Saturnalia celebrations.

On Throw Back Thursday, learn why all the Romans wore peaked caps in late December in this vintage article: Being Pileated is a Saturnalian Tradition.

Let’s get pileated.

(photo credits: woodpecker by Dick Martin. Statue in the Louvre from Wikimedia Commons, click on this link to see the original)

Backyard Bird Sings Beethoven

16 December 2018:

Today is Beethoven’s 248th birthday.

To celebrate, here’s the soundtrack of a backyard bird singing the first notes of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony.  (Song begins at 8 seconds; bird is not visible.)

Here’s an orchestra playing the same four notes.

Beethoven would not have known the song sparrow, whose range is limited to North America, but this song sparrow knows Beethoven.

(drawing and audio from Wikimedia Commons; video by Christina M. Rau on YouTube)

Open Wide!

Wire-tailed swallow bringing food to juvenile (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

This beautiful swallow, native to sub-Saharan Africa and southern and southeast Asia, is very similar to our barn swallow except for its two wire-like tail feathers and its preference to live near water.

The wire-tailed swallow’s (Hirundo smithii) family life is similar, too.  When the fledglings beg for food, the parents deliver it on the wing.

Open wide!

Wire-tailed swallow delivering food to young (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

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

Always Creeping Up

Brown creeper (photo by Andy Reago & Chrissy McClarren via Wikimedia Commons)

Here’s a bird you’re bound to see this month in southwestern Pennsylvania. Brown creepers live year round north and east of Pittsburgh but only come here in the winter.  I saw one last week in Greenfield.

The brown creeper (Certhia americana) is a tiny brown bird with a long tail and down-curved bill.  He eats insects and spiders which he gleans from the bark of large tree trunks, spiraling upward and checking under the bark as he goes.

When he sits still he’s hard to see. His colors match the bark.


Brown creeper camouflaged (photo by Andy Reago & Chrissy McClarren via Wikimedia Commons)

The video below shows him spiraling upward, clinging to the bark with his large feet splayed. Sometimes he hitches sideways to grab a tidbit.  When he reaches the top, he will drop like a leaf to the base of another tree trunk and start again.

If you can identify birds by ear, here’s a challenge for you. List the species singing in the video.  I identified five species but I’m unable hear brown creepers anymore. Is the brown creeper singing?

p.s. At backyard feeders, brown creepers don’t eat seeds but they’ll come to suet feeders.

(photos from Wikimedia Commons, click on the captions to see the originals. video by Abnerthewonderdog on YouTube)

Winter Finches On Camera

On Tuesday I wrote about finches from Canada that will visit us this winter: common redpolls, pine siskins, purple finches and more.  Before they get here you might want some practice identifying them. The perfect place to do it is on the Ontario Feederwatch webcam.

This 7-minute video from October 16 shows purple finches, pine siskins, black-capped chickadees and (a bird I didn’t mention yet) evening grosbeaks.

Ontario Feederwatch also has a very unusual “feeder” bird, the State Bird of Pennsylvania — a ruffed grouse — shown in this Tweet from @kerry_lapwing.

These feeders are located in Manitouwadge, Ontario, Canada, a small town 430 miles northeast of Duluth, Minnesota.  It’s already cold there with temperatures well below freezing every night (21o to 27o F or -6o to -3o C).

Tune in to Ontario FeederWatch for a preview of birds we hope to see in the northern U.S. this winter.

(Ontario Feederwatch YouTube video from Becky R, Twitter photo from Kelly Lapwing)

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.) )