Category Archives: Songbirds

How Many Blue Jays?

Great Backyard Bird Count 2019

In the winter of 2012 Pittsburghers noticed we had very few blue jays in our area. It was such a mystery that I posted an article in February asking folks to tell me if they’d seen any blue jays lately. Seven years later the responses are still coming in.

Most people respond when they don’t see any blue jays because they miss them. It turns out that blue jay frequency varies throughout the year and can drop locally when the habitat changes, especially if oaks are cut down. (Blue jays rely on acorns.)

Our blue jay count surges during spring and fall migration because a lot of them breed north of us. In Allegheny County (Pittsburgh) there’s also a mysterious mini-surge every year in mid February. What’s that about?

eBird frequency of blue jays in Allegheny County, PA, 2014-2019

See seven years of blue jay reports and musings at Have You Seen Any Blue Jays Lately?

Count your own blue jays during the Great Backyard Bird Count this weekend. How many birds will you find?

(image credits: Great Backyard Bird Count poster, eBird report on frequency of blue jay sightings in Allegheny County, PA, 2014-2019; click on the captions to see the originals)

Brazen In Winter

Northern mockingbird blocks a northern cardinal (photo by Marge Van Tassel)

This week I wrote about northern mockingbirds having knock-down drag-out fights during the breeding season. Did you know that mockingbirds are also territorial in the winter? Even though they’ve migrated far from their breeding territory they vigorously defend their wintering zone.

Last winter Marge Van Tassel had a pushy mockingbird in her Armstrong County yard. She sent this photo saying, “The male of the pair in our yard chased all birds away from the food bowl last year when he was in it. He even chased this female cardinal back to a bush.”

Yikes! She’s putting on the brakes with her tail.

Mockingbirds are brazen, even in winter.

(photo by Marge Van Tassel)

The More The Merrier

Eurasian tree sparrow, great tit and blue tit at a feeder in Bulgaria (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Squirrels eventually figure out a puzzling bird feeder, but have you ever noticed that birds do too? Lone songbirds usually can’t do it, but scientists have proven that a flock can. The bigger the flock the better.

I learned this years ago when I set up a “goldfinch-only” thistle feeder whose holes forced birds to perch upside down to eat the seeds. This is easy for American goldfinches but not for the birds I meant to foil — house sparrows. Lone house sparrows gave up on this feeder but the flock tried a lot of methods. A few of them would land right-side up and slowly fall forward until they were upside down. One of them put out his wing to grab the feeder. The rest of the flock followed.

On Throw Back Thursday, learn how songbird flocks can solve puzzles faster than individuals in this vintage article: Two Heads Are Better Than One.

The more birds at our feeders the merrier we are … and so are they.

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

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)