Category Archives: Songbirds

Blue Jays Nesting

Blue jay gathering rootlets to line its nest (photo by Andy Reago & Chrissy McClarren on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

This spring a pair of blue jays nested in my backyard and fledged a single youngster before Memorial Day.

The fledgling was short-tailed, perky and adventuresome, often standing wide-eyed in exposed open places. His parents followed him everywhere and seemed to say, “Be careful! Don’t stand out in the open like that!”

But the fledgling was too naive. By the third day he went missing, undoubtedly dead. His parents started to build a new nest.

They scouted together in my backyard, gathering moss and rootlets. According to the nest description in the Petersen Field Guide to Birds’ Nests blue jay nests are …

Bulky, well hidden in crotch or outer branch of coniferous or deciduous tree, 5-50 ft above ground, commonly 10-25 ft. Built by both sexes of thorny twigs, bark, mosses, string, leaves; lined with rootlets.

The second nest is so well hidden that I didn’t find it, but here’s what it would look like (photo by Henry T. McLin).

Blue jay on nest (photo by Henry T. McLin on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

The pair has time to raise a second brood, especially if the female laid eggs in the first week of June. From first egg to fledging takes 38 to 45 days:

  • Blue jay egg laying takes 4-6 days (one egg per day, clutch of 4-6)
  • Incubation lasts 17-18 days
  • Nestlings fledge in 17-21 days.
Blue jay family in the nest (photo by Carol Vinzant on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

I hope to see baby blue jays around July 15. I’m wishing them better luck this time! See more news below(*).

p.s. There’s a story behind the blue jay family in the nest above. Click here to read.

(photo credits, Creative Commons non-commercial licenses on Flickr: Gathering nesting material by Andy Reago & Chrissy McClarren. On nest by Henry T. McLin. Nest with babies by Carol Vinzant)

(*) Unfortunately the second brood failed, too. I saw a nestling on the ground, too young to fly, on July 7. I repeatedly placed it up high in the vicinity of the nest but the nestling kept hopping back down to the ground. Eventually it hid under the lip of our bird bath.

Blue jay baby on ground, 7 July 2019 (photo by Kate St. John)

Parrot-Finch of the Northern Pines

Red crossbills, two males, Deschutes National Forest in Oregon (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Alaska Birding with PIB: Anchorage to Seward 18 June 2019

Red crossbills (Loxia curvirostra) are conifer specialists that breed across North America and Eurasia, from Alaska to Newfoundland, from Scotland to Japan. They are so tied to spruces, pines and firs that you won’t find them in deciduous forests nor anywhere that the cone crop has failed. That explains why in three decades I’ve seen only one red crossbill in western Pennsylvania.

Approximate red crossbill breeding range (map is hand drawn by Kate St. John from sources at HBW and IUCN)

Red crossbills eat conifer seeds by prying open the cones using their crossed bills. Their beaks have evolved to match the cones they open — and so have the cones. A 2010 study led by C. Benkman showed that it’s a continuous arms race in which the cones evolve to foil the beaks and the beaks evolve to open the cones. The crossbill-cone competition has resulted in 21 subspecies of red crossbills with different beaks and call types. One population in Idaho, the Cassia crossbill (Loxia sinesciuris), was given separate species status in 2017.

Crossbill beaks are such important tools that a bird’s right-handedness or left-handedness is expressed in the crossing of his beak. Individual beaks cross right or left, as shown in the two male crossbills above.

Though red crossbills don’t migrate, they range far and wide in search of food, calling “jip jip” as they fly. Their flocks are usually noisy but fall silent when they’re feeding intensely. In his Essential Field Guide Companion Pete Dunne describes them as Eclectic Parrot-Finches: wide-ranging, social, and parrot-like in behavior.

Red crossbills favor old growth conifer forests because the cone crop is heavier on trees more than 60 years old. If I’m lucky, today I’ll see the “Red Parrot-Finch of the Pines” near Seward, Alaska.

(photo and base map from Wikimedia Commons, breeding range drawn freestyle by Kate St. John; click on the captions to see the originals)

Smith’s Promiscuous Longspur

Alaska Birding with PIB: At Tangle River on Denali Highway 17 June 2019

In western Pennsylvania we rarely see longspurs, the sparrow-like birds whose long hind toe gives them their name, but two species of longspurs breed in Alaska.

Lapland longspurs (Calcarius lapponicus) are the most conspicuous songbird on the tundra as they prominently claim territory and a mate. The males flutter and sing above their chosen patch, advertising themselves in loud flight song displays.

Smith’s longspurs (Calcarius pictus) are harder to find partly because of their lifestyle. They don’t claim a territory, they don’t claim one mate, and they don’t use flight song displays. Instead the males sing from the top of a twig, “Hey, ladies! Come here.”

Male Smith’s longspur (photo by Jared Hughey for the 2013 Smith’s longspur project)

When a female shows up the two go through their courtship displays and copulate. Then they both go off to mate with other birds.

Smith’s longspur, female (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

The fancy name for this is polygynandry. Each female and each male pairs and mates with two or three of the opposite sex. These birds are very busy during the breeding season!

Over a period of one week in the early spring, a female longspur will copulate over 350 times on average; this is one of the highest copulation rates of any bird. Males are well-equipped to deliver such large numbers of ejaculates—their testes are about double the mass of those of the monogamous and congeneric Lapland Longspur.

Birds of North America, Smith’s longspur account

Every nest contains chicks of mixed parentage — the same mother, various dads. Fathers choose a couple of females and try to insure that most of the chicks are their own.

Males do not defend territories, but instead guard [their] females by following them closely. [Males] compete for fertilizations by copulating frequently in order to dilute or displace sperm from other males.

Birds of North America, Smith’s longspur account

When John James Audubon named Smith’s longspur for his friend Gideon B. Smith he was unaware that these birds had such an unusual social life. It took a long time for humans to figure it out, beginning with pioneering behavioral work in the 1960s and now DNA tests today.

Inside the calm exterior of a Smith’s longspur is a very promiscuous bird.

(credits: YouTube video by Jared Hughey for Heather Craig’s 2013 breeding study,
photo of female Smith’s longspur from Wikimedia Commons,
photo of male Smith’s longspur by Jared Hughey on Flickr. NOTE: I have been trying to reach Jared Hughey since 11 May 2019 via email, Facebook and Alaska NPS Twitter to confirm photo permission for his stillshot of the male Smith’s longspur. Perhaps he is out doing field work. When he contacts me I will remove his photo if he objects to its use.)

Chickadee Nests

Black-capped chickadee (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Like eastern bluebirds and tree swallows, black-capped and Carolina chickadees are cavity nesters. They place their tiny nests inside woodpecker holes, birdhouses, or in cavities that they excavate on their own.

It takes a week or more for a chickadee pair to make their own nest hole so a suitable birdhouse is a great find for them. Do you have a birdhouse in your yard? Chickadees might have chosen it.

On Throw Back Thursday, here’s what to expect at the Chickadee Nest.

(photo from Wikimedia Commons; click on the caption to see the original)

Another Bird Named Swainson’s

Swainson’s warbler (photo by Bettina Arrigoni via Wikimedia Commons)

I’ve seen the Swainson’s thrush and Swainson’s hawk. My goal last weekend was to hear and see a Swainson’s warbler.

Like the other two birds the Swainson’s warbler (Limnothlypis swainsonii) was named for English ornithologist William J. Swainson (1789-1855) but unlike them he’s hard to find.

To begin with, Swainson’s warblers don’t breed in Pennsylvania. The northernmost corner of their range is a 3.5 hour drive from Pittsburgh. Three of us went to New River Gorge, West Virginia.

Range map of Swainson’s warbler (from Wikimedia Commons)

We found his breeding habitat …

Breeds in southern forests with thick undergrowth, especially canebrakes and floodplain forests in lowlands and rhododendron-mountain laurel in the Appalachians.

from species account at All About Birds

… and stood quietly in a rhododendron thicket where he’s known to breed. We listened for this.

Listening is important. Swainson’s warblers skulk in shadowy, deep thickets and are rarely seen.

We heard one (“He’s in there!”) but he never came out.

Fortunately listening counts.

(photos and maps from Wikimedia Commons, sound from Xeno Canto; click on the captions to see the originals)

p.s. Here’s how thick the rhododendrons are in West Virginia, in a blog post by Samuel Taylor.

Palm Warblers In Yellow Or Brown

Palm warbler, yellow subspecies, on migration in eastern Pennsylvania (photo by Lauri Shaffer)

Palm warblers (Setophaga palmarum) come in two colors — yellow and brown — and both are seen in Pennsylvania during migration, but we rarely see them together. They follow different paths and have different destinations.

Lauri Shaffer (birdingpPictures.com) found a yellow palm warbler at Montour Preserve in eastern PA in early April, above. Bobby Greene photographed a brown one on migration in Ohio a few years ago, below.

Palm warbler, western subspecies, on migration in Ohio (photo by Bobby Greene)

The colors indicate the two subspecies — yellow and western (brown) — that breed in different places, cross over on migration, and overlap their range in winter. The typical range maps don’t tell the story.

Palm warbler range map (from Wikimedia Commons)

Birds of North America Online gives the details, paraphrased below:

Two subspecies of the Palm Warbler exist, easily identified in the field. [They] inhabit separate breeding grounds but overlap on their wintering grounds. The Western Palm Warbler (S. p. palmarum) nests roughly west of Ottawa, Ontario and winters along the southeastern coast of the U.S. and the West Indies. The Yellow Palm Warbler (S. p. hypochrysea) nests east of Ottawa and winters primarily along the Gulf Coast.

paraphrased from Birds of North America Online

For the quickest way to their breeding grounds “yellow” crosses to the Atlantic Flyway in the spring (green arrow going east) while “western” crosses to the Mississippi-Ohio watershed (green arrow going northwest). Their breeding grounds divide at the pink line. On the map it would look like this.

Two subspecies of palm warbler cross over on migration (range map from Wikimedia Commons, annotated by Kate St. John)

If you’re in the Florida Keys in February you’ll see both of them, as Chuck Tague did when he made this slide.

But don’t expect to see them both in Pittsburgh. Ours are the western palm warbler. It’s a rare day when we find a yellow one.

Read more about palm warbler subspecies in Chuck Tague’s blog: Palm Tree Warblers.

(credits: Yellow palm warbler by Lauri Shaffer, BirdingPictures.com. Brown palm warbler by Robert Greene, Jr. Range maps from Wikimedia Commons, annotated by Kate St. John. Brown and yellow comparison by Chuck Tague)

I Can See, But Not Hear Them Singing

Can you hear the golden-crowned kinglets in this video? They are very loud but I can’t hear them at all, though I can see their beaks moving. Their voices are at a high frequency I no longer hear.

All About Birds explains:

Golden-crowned kinglet (photo by Steve Gosser)

Golden-crowned kinglets sing an ascending, accelerating series of up to 14 very high-pitched tsee notes lasting up to 3 seconds and sometimes ending in a musical warble that drops an octave or more in pitch. This is one of the first bird songs that people stop being able to hear as they age. 

All About Birds, Golden-crowned kinglet sounds

If you can’t hear the kinglets you are probably over age 65, perhaps younger, and probably have age-related hearing loss. Presbycusis affects 1 out of 3 of people by age 65 and half of us by age 75. The CDC explains that “the most important sounds we hear every day are in the 250 to 6,000 Hz range.” Kinglets vocalize around 8,000 HZ.

What are HZ? Sounds cause vibrations and are measured in vibrations per second: 1 Hertz (HZ) is 1 vibration/second. High-pitched sounds vibrate faster than low pitched sounds so “high pitch” is also “high frequency.”

At birth humans can hear sounds from about 20 to 20,000 HZ but we start losing our upper range of hearing at age 18! Most of us don’t miss sounds above 17,000HZ but some teenagers in the UK will. They capitalized on the age-related hearing difference by creating a “mosquito whine” ringtone that teachers cannot hear. See and hear it on NPR.

The kinglets in the video are vocalizing at 7700 to 8400 HZ as shown in this graph from the Spectroid app on my mobile phone. The pink scale at the bottom shows the kinglets singing in the 8000 HZ area (at right) and my voice below 5000 HZ (long pink lines on the left). (Top graph shows loudness in decibels.)

So now I have two ways to see golden-crowned kinglets singing. I can watch their beaks or I can watch the Spectroid graph on my mobile phone.

Perhaps if I point my cellphone in the woods I’d see if any golden-crowned kinglets are out there.

p.s. Click here for a video that explains age-related hearing loss & helps you answer the question “How Old Are Your Ears?

(photo of golden-crowned kinglet by Steve Gosser, Spectroid graph recorded by Kate St. John; video by The Wood Thrush Shop on YouTube)