Category Archives: Songbirds

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)

Turning Redder, Losing Stars

Northern cardinal at the feeder (photo by Chuck Tague)

22 February 2022

Despite recurring winter weather we are more than halfway to spring and the birds know it. As their bodies prepare for the breeding season they develop brighter feathers, skin and beaks. Here are two backyard birds who make this transformation. One turns redder, the other loses stars.

Northern cardinals (Cardinalis cardinalis) molt from July to October, changing out their old feathers for new. At first the male doesn’t look bright red because the very tips of his new feathers are actually gray. You can see the gray feather tips on his back in the photo below.

Northern cardinal: Notice the gray tips on the feathers of his back (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

By mid-winter the gray tips wear off and the male cardinal becomes brilliant red for the breeding season.

Cardinals get their color from what they eat so diet plays a part and there are regional and habitat differences that affect the color. But no matter where they live, male cardinals turn redder in winter.

European starlings (Sturnus vulgaris) have a similar strategy for changing into breeding plumage. When their feathers are new in autumn each one is tipped with white so their bodies appear to be sprinkled with stars — hence the name “starling.” This close up shows that on new feathers the stars are tiny V’s on the feather tips.

European starling with starry winter plumage (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Over the winter the white tips wear off, especially on their head and breast feathers. By the time it’s breeding season their faces and chests are shiny, sleek and iridescent. Starlings lose their stars in the spring.

European starling in sleek breeding plumage, March 2021 (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

There is one more transformation that starlings make that will tell you which are male and female.

In the winter starlings’ beaks are dark brown but turn bright yellow in spring. You can tell the difference between male and female by looking at the color at the base of their beaks — the part closest to their faces.

Just like the baby colors — girls are pink, boys are blue. You can see it with binoculars.

Here’s a side-by-side comparison. The blue on the male at left is easiest to see. The pink on the female at right is pale and takes more effort to figure out.

Male (left) and female (right) starling beaks in breeding plumage (photos from Wikimedia Commons)

(Cardinal photo by Chuck Tague. Starling photos from Wikimedia Commons; click on the captions to see the originals)

He Doesn’t Sound Like a Tufted Titmouse

Tufted titmouse, Nov 2017 (photo by Steve Gosser)

21 February 2022

If you listen to birds and have learned to identify a few songs, our resident tufted titmouse (Baeolophus bicolor) is an easy one. His typical spring song is a clear whistled “Pete, Pete, Pete” or “Peter, Peter, Peter.”

However he has some tricks up his sleeve. He may get creative with a different-sounding Peter. This one (near a red-winged blackbird) sings “jury, jury, jury” almost like a Carolina wren.

Sometimes he’s really loud and I wonder, Who is that??

Or he sings an oddly accented Peter also quite loud (cardinal in the background).

And here, in an unattended AudioMoth recording, he doesn’t sound like a titmouse at all.


If it’s a song you can’t figure out at a time of year when new migrants have not yet returned maybe it’s a tufted titmouse.

(photo by Steve Gosser, audio from Xeno Canto)

Expecting “California” Birds

California thrasher, Lake Los Carneros, 2020 (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

17 February 2022, at the San Diego Bird Festival, field trip Camp Pendleton

There are seven birds on San Diego County’s checklist with “California” in their names. I’ve seen five of them, the ones in italics (listed in alphabetical order).

  • California condor
  • California gnatcather(*)
  • California gull
  • California quail
  • California scrub-jay
  • California thrasher
  • California towhee

Today I’m hoping for a California gnatcatcher (Polioptila californica) that lives in the chaparral, a now rare shrubby habitat found only in California and a small part of Baja California (Mexico). One of the best places for chaparral in San Diego County is at the Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton where some of the land has been left wild. I’m heading there on the Camp Pendleton field trip.

California gnatcatcher, San Diego (photo by Andy Reago & Chrissy McClarren via Wikimedia Commons)

Nine years ago I saw another state specialty, the California thrasher (Toxostoma redivivum), at top, who has a lot more personality than a gnatcatcher.

I’ll tell you more in this vintage article:

(*) UPDATE 21 Feb 2022: I saw the California gnatcatcher while on this trip. Life Bird!

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

Who’s Singing Now?

Northern cardinal, singing (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

9 February 2022

With the spring equinox only five weeks away on 20 March, local songbirds have begun to sing to claim their territories.

Northern cardinals (Cardinalis cardinalis) rejoined the soundscape in the last week or two. If you hear a loud “Cheer, Cheer, Cheer” look for the singer perched prominently nearby. Listen for two cardinals singing, one near one far, in this recording.

Song sparrows (Melospiza melodia) are some of the earliest to resume singing. They piped up in January.

Song sparrow, singing (photo by Peter Bell)

Each male song sparrow has a unique variation on the basic song. The typical pattern begins with 3 introductory notes, then a warbling jumble that ends with a higher or lower note than the rest of the song. Here are two examples:

Though the flocks of American robins (Turdus migratorius) in Pittsburgh now are probably migrants that will leave in March, they can’t help but sing in fine weather.

American robin (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Listen for their “Evening Song” at the end of the day.

When the sun shines in early February some other birds sing, too, including Carolina wrens and tufted titmice.

Get your ears in tune while there aren’t many singing so you’ll be ready when they all sing at once in April.

(photos by Peter Bell and from Wikimedia Commons; click on the caption to see the original)

In Quest of Moby Beak

Male red crossbill at Spruce Flats Bog, Westmoreland County, PA, 26 Dec 2021 (photo by Donna Foyle)

2 January 2022

In mid-December Pittsburgh birders were a-buzz with the news of five red crossbills on Laurel Mountain in Westmoreland County. The birds are so rare in southwestern Pennsylvania that many made the trek to Rector-Edie Road in the Forbes State Forest hoping to see those beaks.

Red crossbills (Loxia curvirostra) are conifer specialists whose crossed beaks are specially evolved to pry open the cones of spruce, hemlock, fir and pine. Because conifer seed abundance varies year to year they are naturally nomadic and highly irruptive. Few are resident anywhere, even in their northern forest breeding range. You can see why they’re so fascinating in this 5-minute video from the Netherlands.

Video of red crossbills in De Koog, Netherlands, 2013 via Wikimedia Commons

Crossed beaks are worth seeing and not easy to find so at times I’ve been as obsessed with them as Ahab was with Moby Dick. Unfortunately I was out of town on 26 December when five friends drove up Laurel Mountain to find the red crossbills. In three hours on the mountain they heard the birds at Rector-Edie Road and had good looks at Spruce Flats Bog where Donna Foyle took these pictures.

Zoomed in on female red crossbill, 26 Dec 2021 (photo by Donna Foyle)

The weather stayed warm last week so seven of us met up at Spruce Flats Bog on Friday 31 December. In the warmth we felt comfortable waiting for two hours for the views Donna had earlier in the week. Instead three red crossbills flew over once without stopping. We couldn’t see their beaks. Aaarrg! That’s exactly why they are called …

Despite my quest for Moby Beak I’m not going back up the mountain any time soon. The weather is now icy and the roads are barely maintained up there. Better luck next time.

(photos by Donna Foyle, video from Wikimedia Commons; click on the captions to see the original)

The Drab Ones Are Not The Females

White-throated sparrow, white-striped color morph (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

14 December 2021

White-throated sparrows are back for the winter. Here’s something to remember when you see them.

In the world of birds, the bright ones are male and the dull ones are female, right?

Not so for white-throated sparrows (Zonotrichia albicollis). In this species the bright white versus dull tan stripes are color morphs. The bright white-striped bird at top can be either male or female. The tan-striped below is also either sex.

White-throated sparrow, tan-striped color morph (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

The bird with bright yellow lores on the left could be female. The one with dull yellow could be male.

White-throated sparrows: white-striped and tan-striped (photos from Wikimedia Commons)

Amazingly the colors match up to personality traits regardless of sex.

White-striped birds are bold, aggressive, philandering and not particularly caring of their kids. They are not the best parents.

Tan-striped birds are gentle and very caring of their young. They’re the good parents among white-throated sparrows.

Since each bird can tell the other bird’s personality at a glance, you would think the gentle would mate with the gentle and the bold with the bold. But that’s not how they do it. They always mix it up.

White-striped (aggressive) males mate with tan-striped (care-giving) females and tan-striped (gentle) males mate with white-striped (philandering) females. Thus the color morphs and personalities persist.

Learn more about their amazing social behavior in this article by GrrlScientist in The Guardian, May 2011.

You can’t tell a white-throated sparrow’s sex by its color but you pick out the good parents in the flock.

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

Seen This Week in Frick

Winter wren, Frick Park, 9 Dec 2021 (photo by Charity Kheshgi)

11 December 2021

On Thursday 9 December Charity Kheshgi and I took a walk in Frick Park on the third day in a row of cold weather. Light snow dusted the leaves and logs but the temperature promised to push above freezing by noon.

Moss with snow, Frick Park, 9 Dec 2021 (photo by Charity Kheshgi)

Best Bird was a very obliging winter wren who finally posed for his portrait, at top, after showing us his tail. Who knew that a winter wren’s tail is so speckled? It’s worth saving a butt shot to see it.

Winter wren’s tail end, Frick Park, 9 Dec 2021 (photo by Charity Kheshgi)

Yellow-bellied sapsuckers were back in town, perhaps a second wave of migrants after the first set left in early November.

Yellow-bellied sapsucker, Frick Park, 9 Dec 2021 (photo by Charity Kheshgi)

A female red-bellied woodpecker was very vocal as she checked out this potential nest hole.

Red-bellied woodpecker, Frick Park, 9 Dec 2021 (photo by Charity Kheshgi)

And a wave of juncos (30 of them!) munched seeds in the tall grass blending into the background.

Dark-eyed junco in grasses, Frick Park, 9 Dec 2021 (photo by Charity Kheshgi)

We were surprised to see a northern harrier heading south. At first we identified him by shape (below). Charity was able to see his light underside and black wingtips.

Northern harrier flyby, Frick Park, 9 Dec 2021 (photo by Charity Kheshgi)

Perhaps the migrants will stick around for a while. On Saturday morning, though rainy, it is 65 F.

(photos by Charity Kheshgi)

Singing Butchers in Australia’s Spring

Gray butcherbirds in a garden in Brisbane, Australia (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

12 November 2021

While it’s fall in North America it’s spring in Australia and nesting season for birds. One bird in particular has a loud flute-like voice that it uses for claiming territory.

Grey butcherbirds (Cracticus torquatus) are carnivorous songbirds, larger than robins and smaller than grackles. Their hooked beaks, like those of northern shrikes, help them eat small birds and lizards. Yet when they sing duets or in groups it sounds as clear as a flute.

Wikipedia describes their songs:

All members of the territorial group contribute to the territorial song, a loud and rollicking song with both musical and harsh elements. The song can be sung by only one member, but more often it is sung in duet or as a group. Some duets are antiphonal where it is not obvious that two or more birds are singing. Most songs are sung antiphonally with different group members singing different phases sequentially, with sometimes some overlap. Some songs have been known to last up to 15 minutes. During this time, there is no vocal interaction with groups from other territories.

Wikipedia account of Grey Butcherbird

The grey butcherbirds’ harsh whining reminds me of grackles. Their melodious songs are like nothing else.

(photo from Wikimedia Commons; click on the caption to see the original. video from PittwaterEcowarriors on YouTube)

Better Birds Desired

Lewis’s woodpecker (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

6 October 2021

In early October it’s easy to find pigeons, red-bellied woodpeckers, northern flickers, blue jays and chickadees in Pittsburgh. Ho hum! I wish for better birds.

At Jackson Lake in Los Angeles County, California last Sunday, there were similar but more interesting species. Here’s a sampling from Ted Keyel’s eBird checklist.

Instead of rock pigeons there were band-tailed pigeons (Patagioenas fasciata), North America’s largest wild pigeon.

Band-tailed pigeons in southern California (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Instead of red-bellied woodpeckers (Melanerpes carolinus) there were two other Melanerpes. A flock of 40-60 migrating Lewis’s woodpeckers (Melanerpes lewis) …

Lewis’s woodpecker from the Crossley ID Guide via Wikimedia Commons

… and six acorn woodpeckers (Melanerpes formicivorus).

Acorn woodpecker (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

We have northern flickers in Pittsburgh but they are yellow-shafted (click here to see). In California northern flickers (Colaptes auratus) are red-shafted. Wow!

Northern flicker, red-shafted (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Instead of blue jays California has Steller’s jays (Cyanocitta stelleri).

Steller’s jay (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

And instead of black-capped or Carolina chickadees they have mountain chickadees (Poecile gambeli).

Mountain chickadee (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

These are much better birds!

Note: Ted posted photos on his checklist but I do not yet have permission to use them so these are from Wikimedia Commons. Click here to see Ted’s photos.

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