Did you know?

MAY 2017:

How weather impacts bird migration

Birds leaving the tropics for North America can’t consult weather and radar reports to time their migration for the most favorable conditions. They leave the tropics when the time is right, based on day length. Those that fly over the Gulf of Mexico wait in the Yucatan Peninsula until the weather is favorable. But sometimes an unexpected storm hits while they’re still on the way, flying desperately hundreds of miles over salt water. Those that make it reach the U.S. Gulf Coast exhausted, and must feed and rest before they can move on.

Some studies have shown that many songbirds shift routes between spring and fall migration. This lets birds take advantage of stronger tailwinds in spring and less severe headwinds in fall, according to the study. Tailwinds represent a huge advantage for birds heading back to their breeding grounds, while weaker headwinds in fall allow southbound birds to make the best of a bad situation. The pattern has been noted in the past for a few species, such as the Blackpoll Warbler, but it’s much more widespread among land birds than scientists used to realize. Learn more here: http://news.cornell.edu/stories/2014/05/weather-patterns-aid-small-birds-migrations

 

APRIL 2017:

Some birds that hatched last year are just now leaving their parents, while others have been independent since a few weeks after hatching

Some birds that hatched last year are just now leaving their parents, while others have been independent since a few weeks after hatching. For example, a great many small songbirds that hatched out last summer were already on their own, migrating without any adult guidance, by last fall. Some songbirds, such as swallows stuck with their parents during fall migration. And a few songbirds, such as individual Tufted Titmice and some jays and crows, remained with their parents all winter; some Florida Scrub-Jays and young crows will even stay with their parents during this year’s nesting, helping raise the new batch of chicks. Geese, swans, and cranes usually remain with their parents throughout fall migration and winter. These family units usually break up when the parents split off to breed in spring, and last year’s young often join with other year-old birds, learning adult skills together. Eventually, the birds in these groups pair off to start the process anew.

 

MARCH 2017:

Birds are all dinosaurs, but not all dinosaurs were birds

Evolutionary biologists have found a great many fossils now that show that many dinosaurs in the “Theropod” line had feathers and other characteristics found in modern birds. Velociraptor and Tyrannosaurus Rex were in this line, though Tyrannosaurus was NOT a bird! Because all the birds we know today can be traced back to this group of dinosaurs, it’s fair to say all birds are dinosaurs. But a great many dinosaurs, such as Triceratops and Stegosaurus, aren’t closely related to Theropod dinosaurs, so would not be at all considered birds.

 

FEBRUARY 2017:

Who was Lincoln’s sparrow named for?!

On President’s Day, those of us who love birds can’t help but wonder if any birds were named for presidents. Thomas Jefferson was extremely interested in wildlife and specifically told Lewis and Clark to get as much information about birds on their expedition as possible, but no birds have been named for him, nor for either of the Roosevelts, despite the fact that Teddy and FDR both belonged to the American Ornithologists’ Union and were avid birders. Lincoln’s Sparrow is the only bird with a name in common with a president, but it was not named for Abraham Lincoln. Rather, John James Audubon named it for the young man named Thomas Lincoln who collected a specimen on Audubon’s expedition to Labrador.

 

 

JANUARY 2017:

World’s oldest bird is at least 66 years old and nesting!

Midway Island, in the Pacific Ocean near Hawaii, has a nesting colony of a big seabird called the Laysan Albatross. One of these birds, banded when she was incubating eggs in December 1956 when she was at least 5–9 years old (the minimum age for first breeding—and this may not have been her first nest, so she may well be even older than 66), is still alive! Every year or two she returns to Midway Island to nest again. In 2016, the chick from Wisdom’s egg first seen in December 2015 fledged successfully. The egg first seen in December 2014 disappeared in early 2015—no one witnessed what happened to it, but even young birds lose eggs occasionally. She and her mate raised a chick that fledged in 2014, too.

 

The scientists studying her named her Wisdom. Think of all the world events she’s lived through! You can see photos of her from the US Fish and Wildlife Service here: https://www.fws.gov/refuge/Midway_Atoll/Multimedia/Wisdom.html

 

 

DECEMBER 2016:

Quick History of Eating Turkey in December

Americans eat a lot of turkey in November and December. Although Wild Turkeys are native to the Americas, this December tradition originated in England before English settlers arrived in America. How can that be?

The Spanish conquistadors brought back many things from the Americas, and used some of them in trade with the Middle East, including a magnificent bird that had been domesticated in America long, long ago—the turkey. Other European countries also traded with the Middle East via Spain, and when English traders brought back these delicious birds, they thought they originated in Turkish territories, and so they named them “turkeys.” 

Imagine the surprise and delight when English colonists arrived in America and found these beautiful creatures living wild here. Not only were Wild Turkeys more beautiful than their domesticated counterparts—they were tastier! The turkeys here in America when the colonists arrived fed on American chestnuts, walnuts, and other delicious nuts and plants, making their meat exceptionally flavorful.

Ben Franklin was extremely fond of the Wild Turkey. He wrote about this in a letter to his daughter. He seemed to take particular delight in the fact that the turkey is “withal a true original Native of America.”

Turkeys were wiped out in most of their original range by the 1800s. A horrible tree disease, chestnut blight, killed off the American chestnut tree, a major source of food for turkeys. And the birds were so delicious that market hunters killed them in huge numbers. By the early 20th Century, their population was probably as low as 30,000 birds. State departments of natural resources started protecting them, and then reintroducing them to many places, and now their population is estimated at about 7 million birds!

Turkeys visit backyards now in many areas, feeding on the ground on acorns and anything else they can find. They are true omnivores, so if they can grab one, they’ll eat grasshoppers, mice, small birds, and other little animals as well as fruit, seeds, and nuts. Farm turkeys have been specially bred to have very heavy bodies, hard for their wings to lift, but Wild Turkeys are excellent fliers, at least for short distances, and often roost in trees.

 

 

NOVEMBER 2016:

Kinglets – Amazing Cold Weather Survivors

Most of our winter birds eat seeds or meat from warm-blooded animals, but a surprising number of insects are available, even where the temperature is most frigid. Many of these insects are in a suspended state as eggs or pupae, but some actually move about a bit on warmer days. Golden-crowned Kinglets mostly winter in the central and southern states, but a few can be found as far north as Canadian provinces and northern states, in areas where nighttime temperatures can fall below –40° Fahrenheit! One researcher with a tiny thermometer measured the body temperature of a Golden-crowned Kinglet outdoors in winter at almost 110 ° Fahrenheit!  Some of these tiny birds do succumb in winter, but their high reproductive rate ensures that there will be plenty of survivors come spring.

 

 

OCTOBER 2016:

Hummingbird Stragglers

Many people bring in their hummingbird feeders by early September so they won’t keep hummingbirds north longer than is safe for the tiny birds. But late hummingbirds are usually either young of the year that cannot complete their migration until their bodies have enough fat stored for a long flight, or are birds that have wandered outside of their species’ usual range. Providing nourishing food long enough for them to get fat enough to get going again can ensure their survival. Hummingbirds time migration for when food is most abundant, and so food is definitely not an enticement that will hold them there longer, but providing food to stragglers is definitely a merciful act. Make sure the food is fresh (don’t leave out a feeder and forget about it!).

 

 

SEPTEMBER 2016:

Some Really Cool Fact About Shorebird Migration

Last fall, scientists published their results of a study of migration of three shorebirds, the Semipalmated Sandpiper, Western Sandpiper, and Dunlin. These three species migrate from their wintering grounds to the Arctic using different strategies: the Dunlin tends to make long flights and stops at good feeding areas for significantly longer than the two other species, which make shorter flights and make quicker stops to replenish themselves before the next leg of the journey.

 

In 2015, researchers also learned that the brains of birds that migrate long distances have more neurons in regions of the brain that are responsible for navigation and orientation. Does this make them “smarter” than shorter distance migrants? It certainly does in the area of knowing how to find their way, but not necessarily in any other way.

 

 

AUGUST 2016:

Bald Cardinals and Blue Jays

Around the time that many baby birds become independent, their parents molt into new plumage. For some reason, many individual Blue Jays and Northern Cardinals molt or shed their head feathers simultaneously, and appear bald until new feathers grow in. It can take a long time for one to replace those feathers if it also is infested with mites, but most bald birds replace the head feathers fairly quickly.

 

 

JULY 2016:

New Facts About Cowbirds

The Brown-headed Cowbird is North America’s most common “brood parasite.” A female cowbird makes no nest of her own, but instead lays her eggs in the nests of other bird species—most often birds much smaller than cowbirds—who then raise the young cowbirds. Cowbirds lay eggs in the nests of more than 220 species of birds. Recent genetic analyses have shown that most individual females specialize on one particular host species. Cowbird eggs hatch faster than other species eggs, giving cowbird nestlings a head start in getting food from the parents. Young cowbirds also develop at a faster pace than their nest mates, and they sometimes toss out eggs and young nestlings or smother them in the bottom of the nest.

People feel disconcerted at best when they spot a large cowbird fledgling begging from and harassing the much tinier bird that raised it. Cowbirds have been a huge problem for some endangered species. And even non-endangered host birds lose a significant number of their own young while raising a cowbird. But recent research establishes that it’s not wise to destroy a cowbird egg or chick in a nest to help the birds in that nest: cowbirds often return to check on their egg and chick, and may destroy the entire nest if their own offspring isn’t there.

New research suggests that adult cowbirds visit their young and even start teaching them sounds and behaviors while the young are still being fed by their foster parents.

Cowbirds sometimes visit feeders; they do not need our subsidies, so if they show up, it’s usually wisest to close down the feeder for a few days.

 

 

JUNE 2016:

Did you know?

One relative of the mockingbird, the Brown Thrasher, sang over 2,400 distinct songs. A scientist named Don Kroodsma counted every one of them! This was so interesting that the editors of Ripley’s Believe It or Not! put it into their book.

 

 

MAY 2016:

On May 27, 1952, Louise De Kiriline Lawrence counted every song a Red-eyed Vireo sang from Dawn to Sunset – The Total was 22,197

How many songs can a bird sing in a single day? Some species sing much more than others, but one of our most persistent singers, the Red-eyed Vireo, sings from morning until late afternoon, That adds up to a lot of singing! Before dawn on May 27, 1952, Louise de Kiriline went outside and started keeping track, counting 22,197 that day. If you want to hear what the songs sound like, you can hear them here: https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Red-eyed_Vireo/sounds

 

 

APRIL 2016:

How do newly arrived birds deal with sudden bad weather?

The first robins and bluebirds to arrive in northern areas in spring often fly in on a warm front, and then BAM! An April blizzard makes life tricky for them. Birds can easily withstand the coldest April days and nights as long as they’ve been eating enough to give their bodies the energy to maintain their temperature. Robins, grackles, and most of our other earliest migrants arrive in top condition and usually have no trouble whatsoever surviving the worst spring storms. But bluebirds and swallows sometimes aren’t so lucky, if an extended cold snap makes insects hard to find for too many days. It’s heartbreaking to find their bodies inside a nest box. But they usually do survive, and gathering in those boxes, they can keep one another warm through the coldest nights.

 

 

MARCH 2016:

Numbers of birds gathering at important migration stop-overs

Most migratory birds could not possibly make their entire journey without stopping here and there to eat and rest. Birds making a long journey over land can stop wherever the habitat below looks or sounds right. Those that migrate by day can even set their course along traditional pathways that ensure they’ll have good habitat when they need it—and some of the places en route provide more abundant food than others. But birds that have to cover large expanses of water, such as the Gulf of Mexico, may need food, drinking water, or rest when far from shore. By the time they finally reach land, they’ll be exhausted and hungry. Some places along coasts, such as High Island on the Texas coast of the Gulf of Mexico; Point Pelee in Ontario and the Magee Marsh in Ohio, both on the Lake Erie shore; and Cape May on the Atlantic coast in New Jersey, are especially famous as stop-overs for a wide variety of species. The Platte River in Nebraska is the most famous stop-over for geese and especially Sandhill Cranes.

 

 

FEBRUARY 2016:

Who was Lincoln’s sparrow named for?

On President’s Day, those of us who love birds can’t help but wonder if any birds were named for presidents. Thomas Jefferson was extremely interested in wildlife and specifically told Lewis and Clark to get as much information about birds on their expedition as possible, but no birds have been named for him or for either of the Roosevelts, though they belonged to the American Ornithologists’ Union and were avid birders. Lincoln’s Sparrow is the only bird with a name in common with a president, but it was not named for Abraham Lincoln at all. Rather, John James Audubon named it for the young man named Thomas Lincoln who collected a specimen on Audubon’s expedition to Labrador.

 

 

JANUARY 2016:

World’s oldest bird is 64 years old and nesting!

Midway Island, in the Pacific Ocean near Hawaii, has a nesting colony of a big seabird called the Laysan Albatross. One of these birds, banded when she was incubating eggs in 1955 when she was at least 5-years old, is still alive! Every year she returns to Midway Island to nest again. In 2014, she and her mate (no one knows how old he is) successfully raised a chick. Last year her egg was lost—no one witnessed what happened to it, but even young birds lose eggs occasionally. This year she’s trying again.

The scientists studying her named her Wisdom. Think of all the world events she’s lived through!

 

DECEMBER 2015:

Birds in “The Twelve Days of Christmas”

If someone really were to give all the gifts from the song “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” the recipient would end up with a lot of presents! There would be a total of:

  • 42 swans a-swimming (These would most likely be Mute Swans, the species most often seen in England where the song was written, and the species the Ugly Duckling turned into.)
  • 42 geese a-laying (wild or domestic Greylag Geese)
  • 36 calling birds (“colly birds,” which may have been European blackbirds related to our robin)
  • 30 French hens
  • 22 turtle doves
  • 12 partridges in pear trees (probably the Gray Partridge or another small species)
  • 1 messy house.

 

 

NOVEMBER 2015:

By November, chickadees are almost completely ready for winter. After adults are done raising their chicks, they molt into new feathers. The new plumage weighs a full 25 percent more than the old, worn feathers it replaces—that added insulation will help hold in their body heat on those long winter nights.

Chickadees are social in their flocks, but each one sleeps alone. Chickadees are very curious, and all day as they move from place to place in their range, they’re inspecting tree crevices and cavities. Each one tries to find several good spots where it can spend the night, and uses its tiny chickadee bill to dig out new cavities in soft, rotten spots in trees. Having a safe roost is essential to protect it from wind, icy rain, snow, frigid temperatures, and predators.

Chickadees are so observant and have such good memories that they remember all the good roost spots and all the places where they hide food. But sometimes after they know every crevice in a tree lightning or ice rain knocks down the tree. To erase those now-useless memories so the chickadee can form new memories in that tiny brain, every fall they let the neurons holding useless memories die, and they grow new ones! Human scientists are studying this to figure out how we can help people with memory problems.

 

OCTOBER 2015:

Many people in the northern states and Canada who feed hummingbirds all summer feel panicky if they see a hummingbird after Labor Day, thinking feeders might be enticing them to stick around too long. That is absolutely not true: most hummers leave when food is most abundant, and fuel up continually on their long journey. Stragglers in late September and throughout October are simply adult females who finished nesting late and the young birds from those late nests. Keeping feeders out past the first heavy frosts can mean the difference between life and death for these hungry travelers. It’s best to keep out only one relatively small feeder, so you can keep the sugar water fresh when there aren’t many birds using it.

 

SEPTEMBER 2015:

Fall migration can be thrilling to watch, but different weather patterns can make it hard to see some birds on the exact same days when it’s ridiculously easy to see other birds. In most areas, a high pressure system following rain, associated with northwest winds, can be ideal for spotting hawks. If you live near a ridgeline or coast, that’s where to head. On murky days, many songbirds may be pigging out at feeders, berry-rich vegetation, and wherever insects abound, especially near ponds, creeks, and bigger shorelines.

 

AUGUST 2015:

In summer, as parent birds produce their young, more birds exist in North America than in any other season. But in August, this can be hard to believe. After the breeding season, most species stop singing almost entirely, so we don’t hear many birds. Young songbirds tend to have rather drab feathers. After the hectic weeks of raising young, many adult birds look a bit bedraggled; as soon as their nesting responsibilities end, they start molting out of their worn, brilliant feathers into the plumage that they’ll wear through winter.

Male cardinals replace their brilliant red feathers with feathers that appear much duller. Those are actually the exact same feathers that will appear so bright by winter’s end. When they grow in, a male cardinal’s new feathers have dull brown edges, which make him a little less conspicuous and provide added insulation as nights start growing cold. Little by little, the brown edges of each feather will wear away, so as winter ends, he’ll look his finest right when he is trying to attract a mate.

 

JULY 2015:

Baby birds learn all kinds of things from their parents. Even before they hatch many of them start learning sounds their species makes, and after hatching, they learn even more of these sounds, and what the different calls mean. Their parents teach them how to recognize danger and what to do—sometimes they need to get away fast, and sometimes it’s better to freeze without moving.

Parents also teach their young where to go at night, the safest places to take a bath, and how to associate with other birds, of their own species and others.

 

JUNE 2015:

If birds paid attention to horoscopes, virtually no North American wild birds would be Virgos, Libras, Scorpios, or Sagittarius. Many Great Horned Owls would be Capricorns or Aquarius. The vast majority of songbirds would be Taurus and Cancer, with many goldfinches (late nesters) being Leos.

 

MAY 2015:

Every day of the year, birds from somewhere are migrating. In North America, a few birds such as northern finches move about throughout winter. The very first migrant hummingbirds start appearing along the United States’ Gulf Coast by February. As temperatures and food allow, they slowly work their way northward even as more arrive from Mexico in March and April. But many birds wintering in the tropics don’t dare return to North America until food is more certain to be available. They have no way of knowing what our weather is like, so they bide their time, working out with their internal rhythms and day length when they should return north. Northern trees start leafing out in late April and May, which is when caterpillars emerge, providing the food that fuels migration and breeding for the huge numbers of birds returning in May.

 

FEBRUARY, MARCH & APRIL 2015:

In humans and most other mammals and birds, males are larger than females. But most male owls, hawks, and hummingbirds are significantly smaller than females. Why is there any size difference at all? And why do birds of prey and hummingbirds break the rule of males being larger?

 

JANUARY 2015:

Snow Buntings can easily survive temperatures of 40 below zero. When the temperature drops to 58 below, their body temperature can start dropping. Common Redpolls can survive for 3 hours in a chamber set at 60 below zero. Cardinals and Blue Jays start shivering when the temperature is below 65 degrees F. above zero. In winter, they do a lot of shivering!

 

DECEMBER 2014:

If someone really were to give all the gifts from the song “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” the recipient would end up with a lot of presents! There would be a total of:

  • 42 swans a-swimming (These would most likely be Mute Swans, the species most often seen in England where the song was written, and the species the Ugly Duckling turned into.)
  • 42 geese a-laying (wild or domestic Greylag Geese)
  • 36 calling birds (“colly birds,” which may have been European blackbirds related to our robin)
  • 30 French hens
  • 22 turtle doves
  • 12 partridges in pear trees (probably the Gray Partridge or another small species)
  • 1 messy house.

 

NOVEMBER 2014: Ben Franklin never really proposed making the turkey the national emblem. He did disapprove of the Bald Eagle, and wrote to his niece years later that the turkey would have made a better choice, but there is no evidence that he ever even mentioned that to John Adams or Thomas Jefferson as the three men designed the emblem.

 

OCTOBER 2014: Red-tailed Hawks have a loud, wonderful cry that most people mistake for an eagle’s call. Movie and television producers often substitute the call of a Red-tailed Hawk for the call of a Bald Eagle to give the eagle a cooler, wilder sound. Real Bald Eagles have a higher-pitched chirpy sound. You can hear both calls at www.allaboutbirds.org

 

SEPTEMBER 2014: Cedar Waxwings are not nearly as easy to catch and band as some other songbirds, and are exceptionally hard to retrap because of their irregular wandering ways. But we know that at least one Cedar Waxwing, caught as an adult, lived to be at least 7 years old. It was caught as an adult in Wisconsin in 1964 and was killed by a car in Michigan in 1970. Other waxwings have almost definitely lived even longer than that!

 

AUGUST 2014Scientists put bands on birds to track them. One adult male American Goldfinch that was banded in 2004 was caught in a bander’s net in 2013, when it was at least 10 years 9 months old. One banded in Guelph, Ontario, was found 8 months later in Olla, Louisiana. Goldfinches are one of the most frequently banded of all birds.

 

JULY 2014Bald Eagles almost always carry fish with the head facing forward. This allows them to be more streamlined in flight.

When fishing for themselves, eagles usually carry fish to a nearby tree, or even eat them on the ground. They carry fish long distances only when feeding young at the nest.

 

JUNE 2014: Great Blue Herons hold fish in their stomachs for longer when nestlings are tiny, so the fish will be soft and easy to eat. As the chicks grow, the parents regurgitate fish sooner. One Great Blue Heron regurgitated a pile of fish to its almost-fledged nestlings when one large goldfish in the pile was still alive! The oldest chick took several minutes to finally swallow it.

 

MAY 2014: The brilliant colors on a male hummingbird’s throat do not have brilliant pigments. If those feathers were ground up, the feather powder would be dark gray. The color comes from how light reflects, depending on the direction the light comes from. Just changing the direction he faces, a hummingbird’s colors can change dramatically.

 

4469166515MARCH 2014: The American Robin is the state bird of Connecticut, Michigan, and Wisconsin. Robins weigh about 2 ½ – 3 ounces. Robins feed their young a wide assortment of food items, including caterpillars and other insects, spiders, slugs, and fruits as well as worms. The oldest wild robin we know of lived to be over 13 years old.

 

FEBRUARY 2014: Female owls are almost always larger than males! Larger birds are stronger but less maneuverable and slower in flight. As a team, they can catch a wider prey base. The female is usually the one who sits on the nest and protects the young. 

 

JANUARY 2014:  A chickadee may eat 35% of its weight in food each day while a Blue Jay eats about 10% of its weight and a Common Raven 4%. Putting it another way, a 150-pound person would need to eat over 52 pounds of food each day to eat like a chickadee, 15 pounds to eat like a jay, or 6 pounds to eat like a raven. So next time someone says you “eat like a bird,” ask them what kind.

 

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DECEMBER 2013: The Northern Cardinal is the state bird of 7 states, more than any other. Cardinals are found in 41 widespread states, but all 7 states that call it their state bird are contiguous. Cardinals weigh about 1 ½ ounces. A quarter-pound burger, without the bun, is heavier than 2 cardinals put together! Cardinals are heaviest in winter, when they need the most fat.

 

NOVEMBER 2013:  Chickadee calls are complex and language-like, communicating information on identity and recognition of other flocks as well as predator alamrs and contact calls. The more dee notes in a chickadee-dee-dee call, the higher the threat level. The oldest known wild chickadee was a tween in human years, having lived 12 years and 5 months.