Category Archives: Songbirds

Changing Into Summer Clothes

Common starlings in non-breeding and breeding plumage (photos from Wikimedia Commons)

23 February 2021

Cold weather will end soon in Pittsburgh with a high tomorrow of 60 degrees F(!) but even if the cold returns we know spring is on the way by observing our starlings.

In February starlings (Sturnus vulgaris) start changing into breeding plumage from spotted brown with dark beak and legs (left above) into iridescent glossy black with yellow beak and bright orange legs (right). From what I’ve seen, the beak starts first.

Even now, before they change into breeding plumage, they start to sing their wiry song.

By the end of March they’ll be wearing summer clothes, singing and flapping to attract a mate.

How far along are your starlings? Do they have yellow beaks yet?

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

Who Is Most Numerous?

Girl holding 2-month-old chicken (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

18 February 2021

Which bird species is the most numerous on earth? It depends on what you’re counting. All birds? Or just wild birds?

For all birds, the domestic chicken (Gallus gallus domesticus) wins the prize with 25.9 billion as of 2019.

Hen and chicks (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Chickens live on every continent except Antarctica as shown on the map below. (Gray indicates absence. Yellow to brown shows increasing density.)

Worldwide distribution of domestic chickens, gray=absent (gray added to map from “Mapping the Global Distribution of Livestock”, PLOS ONE, 2014)

Compare the chicken map to human population density and you’ll see a correlation. There are 7.8 billion humans on earth as of March 2020.

Human population density, 2005 (map from Wikimedia Commons)

As for wild birds, the sparrow-sized red-billed quelea (Quelea quelea) is the most numerous with a population of 1.5 billion as of 2018.

Queleas live only in Africa and thrive best where human grain crops provide abundant food. Queleas correlate to humans too, but not nearly as much as chickens.

Distribution map of red-billed quelea (map from Wikimedia Commons)

Learn how chickens became the Most Numerous Bird On Earth in this 2014 vintage article (at the link).

(photos and maps from Wikimedia Commons and PLOS ONE; click on the captions to see the originals)

Introduced, But Not By Shakespeare

Starling (photo by Pedro Szekely via Flickr Creative Commons license)

3 February 2021

It’s time to set the record straight. European starlings were indeed introduced to North America in 1890 and 1891 by the American Acclimatization Society and the man responsible for it was indeed Eugene Scheiffelin, but his plan had nothing to do with Shakespeare.

The apocryphal story is everywhere, including my own blog post in Feb 2008, Nothing But Mortimer, below, which is INCORRECT in two respects.

European starlings didn’t live in North America until 1890-1891 when a Shakespeare fan, Eugene Scheiffelin of the American Acclimatization Society, released 100 of them in New York’s Central Park because he wanted every bird mentioned in Shakespeare to live in the United States. Starlings make only one appearance in Shakespeare’s works — in Henry IV, Part 1 — and that was because they are mimics.

Outside My Window, Nothing But Mortimer, Feb 2008

The Shakespeare story is quite intriguing but if you look into it, as did John MacNeill Miller, Associate Professor of English at Allegheny College, and his student Lauren Fugate, some of the details don’t hold up. Here are two of them:

INCORRECT: “Starlings didn’t live in North American until 1890-1891.”

Actually starlings were released in the U.S. multiple times in the 1870s and 1880s. Wild flocks were reported during that time.

INCORRECT: “Starlings are here because Eugene Scheiffelin wanted every bird mentioned in Shakespeare to live in the U.S.”

As I said, the Shakespeare connection makes it a nice story but the historical record doesn’t bear up. John Miller explains why.

As far as Lauren and I could tell, the Shakespeare connection is first mentioned by the popular mid-century science & nature writer Edwin Way Teale in his collection of essays, Days Without Time (1948). Schieffelin and the (NYC-based) American Acclimatization Society definitely released the birds in 1890 & 1891, although those were probably among the last releases, rather than the first. (The American Acclimatization Society had themselves released starlings at least once before, back in the 1870s.) So we’re talking about a space of nearly 60 years after the last AAS release that the Shakespeare link is first asserted…and more than 40 years after Schieffelin’s death in 1906.

— email from John Miller, 8 Jan 2021

Learn more about starlings in John Miller’s lecture at Phipps’ Virtual Biophilia in January 2021: Pittsburgh Meeting | A Story That Shaped the Sky:

Sorry, Starlings, to burst your literary bubble.

(photo of a European starling (mislabeled as a crow) by Pedro Szekely via Flickr Creative Commons license)

p.s. Phipps Conservatory’s Biophilia offers monthly lectures at this link.

Who’s Chirping In That Hedge?

Hedge in front of a house (photo by decaseconds via Flickr Creative Commons license)

14 January 2021

It’s winter and you’re out for a walk in the neighborhood. As you approach a hedge you can hear it’s alive with hidden birds. They sound like this:

Or this:

The noise is a flock of house sparrows (Passer domesticus) but the hedge is so dense and dark that you can’t see them. The photo below shows the problem; click on it to see the birds in a digitally brightened version.

House sparrows in a hedge in Saskatoon (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

House sparrows are always gregarious, but more so in winter when they flock together in large numbers.

Flock of house sparrows in Moscow (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

In the morning and afternoon they disperse to feed, but twice a day — at midday and in the evening — they gather in dense shrubs or evergreens and chatter for an hour or more.  If you approach the hedge they suddenly fall silent. If you peer inside you’ll find a few birds looking wary. The rest have flown out the other side.

If you wait long enough, someone else will watch the hedge for you.

Cooper’s hawk watching for backyard prey, Vienna VA (photo form Wikimedia Commons)

(photo of a hedge by decaseconds on Flickr via Creative Commons license; sparrow photos from Wikimedia Commons. Click on the captions to see the originals)

Benefits of A Rare Bird

White-crowned sparrow (photo by Tim Lenz via Wikimedia Commons)

12 January 2021

White-crowned sparrows (Zonotrichia leucophrys) are not rare in North America but are extremely rare in Britain. In 2008 a white-crowned sparrow showed up in the small town of Cley next the Sea, Norfolk and stayed for many weeks thanks to Richard and Sue Bending who put seed for it in the drive to their Dawn Cottage home, shown below.

Dawn Cottage, Cley Next The Sea, Norfolk (photo from Zoopla real estate site)

In the UK there’s a lovely tradition of birders (called twitchers) making a donation to a local charity when they come visit a rare bird. In 2008 the parish church St. Margaret’s at Cley next the Sea, built in 1320-1340, was in need of restoration funds so the donations were given to the church. The bird stayed for weeks, ultimately raising 6,000 pounds, more than $11,000 in 2008 dollars. At the time it was the most ever raised by a rare bird.

St. Margaret’s, Cley Next the Sea, Norfolk, 2008 (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

St. Margaret’s honored the bird with a stained glass window.

The white-crowned sparrow of St. Margaret’s, Cley (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

And British twitchers honored the bird with a nickname — “badger bunting” — for the badger-like stripes on its head.

Beyond the thrill of seeing a rare bird there can be tangible benefits.

p.s. A tip of the hat to @RyanFMandelbaum for his tweet that tells the story.

p.p.s. I saw the church from a distance in late June 2017 when I visited Cley & Salthouse Marshes on a birding tour with Oriole Birding. I had 12 Life Birds there; Best Bird was Eurasian spoonbill. It’s a great place for birds!

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

Birds Wearing Little Red Hats

Common redpoll, Meals Rd Butler County, 10 Jan 2021 (photo by Steve Gosser)

11 January 2021

In this irruption winter of northern birds in southwestern Pennsylvania, we’ve seen pine siskins (Spinus pinus) and evening grosbeaks (Coccothraustes vespertinus) but I had not seen common redpolls (Acanthis flammea) until finally, last week, they were present every day in a sunflower field in Butler County.

Last week was too overcast for a good photo but Steve Gosser returned yesterday for these stunning pictures.

Common redpoll on a sunflower, Meals Rd Butler County, 10 Jan 2021 (photo by Steve Gosser)
Common redpoll, Meals Rd Butler County, 10 Jan 2021 (photo by Steve Gosser)

Then on Saturday 9 January 2021 the birds were even closer to home. Matt Juskowitch found a dozen redpolls at Bethel Green in Allegheny County. Here’s Matt’s documentation shot, proving that the birds are real. Notice the red hat! Adult male redpolls also have a pink wash on their chests.

Documentation photo: Common redpoll at Bethel Green, 9 Jan 2021 (photo Matthew Juskowitch embedded from ebird checklist S78940944)

I went to Bethel Green yesterday, 10 Jan 2021, and saw 9 redpolls eating birch catkins. Here’s one of Matt’s photos from his eBird report yesterday afternoon.

Common redpoll at Bethel Green, 10 Jan 2021 (photo Matthew Juskowitch embedded from ebird checklist S79026167)

Thank you, Matt, for alerting us to these rare birds. If you’d like to see them here are the two locations I visited: Meals Rd, Butler County and Bethel Green, Allegheny County.

The birds are moving around from place to place so they may show up at your own birches, alders, sunflowers or feeders. Watch for small finches with red on top of their heads (“poll” means head). They are only as big as goldfinches.

(photos by Steve Gosser and Matt Juskowitch)


Murmuration of starlings in Rome, Italy (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

8 January 2021

Many people in North America don’t like starlings (Sturnus vulgaris) for their aggressive invasive behavior, but starlings can do something beautiful that no other songbird can match. At dusk as they gather to roost, starlings fly in tight flocks that wheel and turn in unison. Their murmurations make beautiful patterns in the sky.

This 4-minute video of starlings at dusk was recorded at RSPB Otmoor Reserve, a birding hotspot in Oxfordshire, UK.

And here’s a short clip from San Rafael, California.

Unfortunately, the murmurations are smaller than they used to be. Starlings have declined 80% in the UK and 49% in the U.S. since 1970.

Murmuration of starlings in Studland, Dorset, UK (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

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

These Look-Alikes Are Not Closely Related

Downy woodpecker compared to hairy woodpecker (two photos from Wikimedia Commons)

7 December 2020

Two common birds in Pennsylvania, downy and hairy woodpeckers, are so similar that they’re hard to tell apart. Downy woodpeckers are small and hairys are large but if they’re not side by side there’s just one major clue:

  • Downy woodpeckers have short beaks, one third the length of their heads back-to-front.
  • Hairy woodpeckers have long beaks, same length as their heads back-to-front.

Frank Izaguirre (@BirdIzLife) tweeted this recent backyard photo of both birds:

Because of their similarity you’d think downys and hairys are close cousins but they’re not. A study published in April 2019 explains why they look alike, described in Living Bird:

Despite being look-alikes these two species are not that closely related. Their genetic lineages split off from a shared ancestor over 6 million years ago—about as far back as chimps and humans split.

A new study published in April in the journal Nature Communications provides strong evidence that Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers are an example of “plumage mimicry”—one species of bird evolving to match the plumage patterns and colors of another.

Living Bird: Are woodpeckers evolving to look like each other; a new study says yes

In fact, the downy woodpecker (Dryobates pubescens) is more closely related to Nuttall’s woodpecker (Dryobates nuttallii), native to California.

Downy woodpecker compared to Nuttall’s woodpecker (two photos from Wikimedia Commons)

And the hairy woodpecker (Dryobates villosus) is more closely related to the red-cockaded woodpecker (Dryobates borealis), a Near Threatened species of mature southern pine forests.

Hairy woodpecker compared to red-cockaded woodpecker (two photos from Wikimedia Commons)

They don’t look like their near relatives. They look like each other.

So don’t feel bad if you can’t tell downy woodpeckers and hairy woodpeckers apart. They are mimics. 😉

See how many other woodpeckers are mimics at Living Bird: Are woodpeckers evolving to look like each other; a new study says yes.

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

They Eat Poison Ivy

Yellow-rumped warbler eating poison ivy berries (photo by Cris Hamilton)

22 October 2020

When you see a bird eating white berries from a hairy vine you might not realize it’s eating poison ivy. Birds are blissfully immune to the urushiol in poison ivy sap that gives us humans a nasty rash.

By late October poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans) doesn’t look like the plant we’ve been avoiding all summer. The leaves are red or missing, the vine is exposed, and bunches of white berries hang from the branches. It’s easy for migrating yellow-rumped warblers (Setophaga coronata) to find the food they’re so fond of.

Yellow-rumped warbler eating poison ivy berries (photo by Cris Hamilton)

Resident birds such as downy and pileated woodpeckers munch on the berries all winter.

Pileated woodpecker eating poison ivy berries (photo from Flickr by Jen Goellnitz, Creative Commons license)

It makes me feel itchy to think of it!

p.s. Deer eat poison ivy, too.

(photos by Cris Hamilton and from Flickr via Creative Commons licensing by Dendrioca cerulea and Jen Goellnitz; click on the captions to see the originals in Flickr)