Posted on 2 Comments

American Crows

American Crow in grain field.
American Crow in grain field.
American Crow in grain field. Photo:Jack Dingle, PGC Photo/Public Domain.

American Crows always fascinate me. It’s their intelligence and the confident way they strut as they walk. To many peoples they symbolize transformation and change. I look into their dark eyes and wish I could hold a conversation with them. I wonder what wise things they would say. 

Who are the Crows?

American Crows (Corvus brachyrhynchos) are the most widespread of the crows. It is the species of crow I see most often here in Philadelphia. I live on the edge of the city with lawns, wooded areas, and plenty of open spaces. This is just the type of habitats crows like. They socialize in small flocks in open habitats.

There are two main species of crows in North America, the American and the Fish Crow. (Corvus ossifragus). The Northwestern Crow (Corvus caurinus) and the Tamaulipas Crow (Corvus imparatus) from Mexico are not as frequent in the U.S. and Canada. . The other crows are visitors from Eurasia. 

The Fish Crow is common more in the south and along the east coast usually near water. The Fish Crow looks very similar to the American Crow, but is a bit smaller and the voice is different. Fish Crows has a higher-pitched single or double cah similar to a young crow’s begging call. 

Flying crows (both American and Fish) have square or slightly rounded tail tips. Ravens tails are wedge-shaped in flight. 

I don’t know if I’ll be able to tell them apart. I ‘m sure I’ve seen Fish Crows and thought it the American. 

The Crow Family

Crows and Ravens are all classified in the genus Corvus. They makeup half of the family Corvidae worldwide. All of the members of the family in North America have all-black plumage. There are members of the family with gray or white markings in the rest of the world. There is at least one specie of Corvidae in most habitats in North America.

Differences between American Crows and Ravens

Ravens (Corvus corax) are much larger than crows, with a heavier bill, and a wedge-shaped tail.  Instead of the open habitats of crows, ravens are common in forests, mountains, canyons, deserts and the coast. The Chihuahuan Raven is common in arid areas. 

American Crow in flight.
American Crow in flight.

What are their Characteristics?

American Crows weight about one pound, are 17.5 inches long and have a wingspan of about 39’ from wing tip to wing tip. The American Crow has a large head, broad wings and a short,  rounded or blunt tail. They fly with smooth wingbeats and they glide with wings slightly raised. Ravens fly with their wings flat. 

A Year Round Resident 

American Crows live in their territories year round. They are certainly in my neighborhood  all year. I see them in groups and flocks. Sometimes two or more walking along the ground of perched in trees. Their family groups range in size from 2 – 10 birds. The family groups are made up of birds of various ages. Many times they include the parents and young from previous years that help raise the current brood.  

How Do They Live?

American Crows create nests that amounts to a bulky bowl made of twigs lined with leaves, moss, or other materials. The nest is usually hidden in the fork of a tree. Generally a crow’s nest is located between 25 and 75 feet above the ground. Sometimes the nest is on the ground. 

American Crows gathering for night time roost
American Crows gathering for night time roost.

When they are not nesting and raising youth, crows gather in large communal roosts. These roosts gather in large trees and number thousands of individuals. The nesting season for American Crows in February through June. They raise one brood of 4 to 6 greenish eggs spotted with brown. The female is the main incubator. The eggs take 16 to 18 days to hatch. Between 28 to 35 days old, the young fledge. Fledge is when a young birds develops wing feathers which are large enough for flight. Young crows stay with their parents for up to four years. 

What Do They Eat? 

Crows success is due to their extremely diverse diet.They are omnivorous ground feeders. They eat small animals including fish, bird eggs and nestlings, snails, small reptiles, insects, worms, dead animals, snails, and other invertebrates.  They eat plant foods such as grains, seeds, and fruits.  Also food waste thrown out by human is on the menu. 

If you want to attract crows, particularly if you want to study these fascinating birds, put out bread scraps or corn on the ground. They’ll eat suet from a feeder if they can reach it. They will eat the fruit from shrubs, particularly the fruit the falls to the ground. 

All members of the Corvid genus store extra food. The bury it in the ground or hide it in trees. Crows will drop a nut onto a hard surface such as a road to break open the shell. See Storing Food for the Winter (How to Hoard)  

Where are They Found?

Crows live year round in small groups in the the lower forty-eight section of the US. Canada is the breeding territory for many crows. And a few areas of the southwest along the Mexican border are winter grounds probably for the individuals who spend the summer breeding in Canada.

Flock of Crows
Flock of crows

Behavior to Watch

During the winter, crows congregate in large flocks. They forage as large flocks at abundant food sources such as a grain fields,  gleaning the leftover seeds. Crows gather together at night to roost in large numbers. 

Perhaps the large groups make it easier for the birds to watch for the one of their most dangerous predator, the Great Horned Owl (Bubo virginianus) 

Early one June morning, just after 9 am I heard the husky, piercing scream of a Red-tailed hawk and the American crows went crazy. The crows nesting in the Locust tree out back, began to “caw-caw-caw”, frantically until the hawk left the area. The crows were nesting high in the trees raising their young. 

Crows, like Blue Jays will mob a predator.  By mobbing a predator they will make loud, noisy calls and dive at the predator. I saw a neighbor’s cat mobbed by Blue Jays diving and striking the cat along its’ back. 

American Crow perched in a tree
American Crow perched in a tree.

As I write this in late autumn, I hear the caw of a American Crow nearby. I see it perch on the tip of a branch high in the Sycamore tree that towers over the rooftops of the house the next street over. As the Sun sinks lower in the the late afternoon sky, I watch a crow walk across the roofs of the house across from my window. I have always liked crows. There is something special about them. 

Other Crows in North America

Northwestern Crow (Corvus caurinus) is common in coastal areas along the Pacific coast from Alaska to British Columbia. 

Hooded Crow (Corvus cornix) is a rare visitor from Europe spotted in New York and New Jersey. This crow has a pale gray neck and breast. 

House Crow (Corvus splendens) is. Rare visitor form Asian that is smaller than the American crow with gray neck. Cheeks, and breast. 

 

Works Consulted

Burton, Robert, and Stephen W. Kress. Audubon Backyard Birdwatcher: Birdfeeders & Bird Gardens. San Diego, CA: Thunder Bay Press, 1999.

Sibley, David. The Sibley Guide to Birds. Second edition. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2014., p. 384-385.

Sibley, David, Chris Elphick, and John B. Dunning. The Sibley Guide to Bird Life & Behavior. 1st ed. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2001.

Stokes, Donald W., and Lillian Q. Stokes. Stokes Field Guide to Birds. Eastern Region. 1st ed. Boston: Little, Brown, 1996.

 

Related posts and Information

Starling Murmurations: How to Find One and When to Watch (with video)

A Murder of Crows: What does it mean?

Native American Crow Mythology http://www.native-languages.org/legends-crow.htm

 

Posted on Leave a comment

What Do Raptors (Birds of Prey) Eat?

birds_raptors_raptor beak
birds_Perergine Falcon
Raptor: Peregrine Falcon

Raptors (birds of prey) eat a wide variety of animals. They are at the top of the food chain on most habitats. They’re good indicators of habit health. Without sufficient food (small birds, reptiles and mammals) these birds can’t survive.

Most birds of prey are hunters, but some are scavengers. They hunt and eat rats, mice, smaller birds, snakes, lizards, frogs and fish. There is little that a raptor will not eat. The larger the bird, the larger the prey. Eagles will hunt medium-sized fish, rabbits, ducks, and occasionally fawns and lambs. Smaller hawks and owls will eat mice, rats, smaller birds, etc. The Sparrow Hawk feeds mainly on insects.

Raptors hunt during the day (diurnal) and some are active at crepuscular times (dawn and dusk). Owls are nocturnal (active at night).

Red-tailed Hawk perched on refuge sign
Raptor: Red-tailed Hawk.

Birds of prey require large home ranges, with few other raptors around. They are mostly found in open habitats of grasslands and agricultural fields.The greatest abundance of different species can be found in the tropical rainforest where they roost and nest in trees.

Flying Skills

With few exceptions, raptors are excellent fliers. The Falconidae (falcon, caracaras and allies) family are rapid fliers that take prey while flying at top speed. They catch small prey with their sharp talons and kill it with a bite on the back of the neck.

Claws and Beaks are the Main Weapons

These razor sharp claws and beaks are on a dead raptor I got a chance to study years ago at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia. Most of the dead birds were the casualties of window collisions. Raptor Workshop at the Academy of Natural Sciences.

birds_raptors_american kestrel
American Kestrel. Photo FWS.gov.

How Small Raptors Hunt

Small Accipitrides (hawks, eagles and allies) hunt from a perch. They make short flights to catch small prey on the ground. They squeeze prey to death with strong feet. They then take the prey a short distance away for plucking, ripping and eating.

Small Accipitrides include American Kestrel, Merlin, and Sharp-shinned Hawks.

Medium-sized Raptors include Peregrine Falcons, Cooper’s Hawk, and Broad-winged Hawks.

 

mature female Red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis). Photo taken by Donna L. Long
Mature female Red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis). Photo taken by Donna L. Long

How Large Raptors Hunt

Larger Accipitrides (larger hawks, eagles and allies) don’t actively flap their wings but search for prey while riding thermals. Thermals are warm columns of air that rise from the ground to high in the sky. By riding the thermals these birds can glide for long distances. These thermal-riders do not hunt until the air warms up and when the thermals are created several hours after sunrise. This enables these birds to soar effortlessly for many miles while searching for food.

These large birds tend to eat the soft high protein organs first. Any indigestible material (fur, feathers and bones) is regurgitated in a pellet through the bill, 16-18 hours later.

Large birds of prey include Red-tailed Hawks, Rough-legged Hawks, and Gyrfalcon.

Very Large Accipitrides include Eagles (Bald and Golden) and Osprey. Vultures are raptors but they scavenge rather than hunt.

The sizes are my personal opinions.

More Information on Raptors and Hawks

Bird of Prey Facts – What Makes a Raptor, a Raptor?

Fall Raptor Migration: What You Need to Know (with video)

Raptor Identification – Best Field Guides

Posted on 2 Comments

Confusing Summer Eclipse Plumage of Waterfowl

male mallard duck in eclipse plumage
Eclipse plumage of male Mallard. Mihael Grmek, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons.

Male ducks and other waterfowl have colorful, distinct plumage. For a month or more after breeding, a male duck will molt and sport dull plumage like the female.

These plumage stages are called “basic (bright) plumage” and “alternate (eclipse) plumage” in ducks. It’s called eclipse plumage since it eclipses the vivid basic plumage. Eclipse plumage is temporary. The next molt replaces the eclipse plumage with the colorful (basic) plumage we see during most of the year.

Females Molt First

Females ducks begin partial body and head molt in spring once they arrive on the breeding grounds or before. For one to three months the female ducks are busy being mothers and caring for their young. After the young have fledged, the female duck loses all her flight feathers at once. This happens in the nesting area.

Males stay in their bright, basic plumage later in the spring than females and begin their molt in early summer. Male ducks have already abandoned their mates and some leave the breeding area. Males of many kinds of ducks have specific molting areas they go to as they begin their summer molt. These areas are often a far distance away from the females.

Wood duck male in eclipse plumage
Wood Duck Aix sponsa, male in eclipse plumage (retains red bill. Credit: Judy Gallagher, CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons.

Flight Feathers are the First to Go

The reason for the eclipse plumage is that ducks replace all their flight feathers at the same time. During this time they are flightless. In midsummer, it seems all the male ducks disappear, they haven’t. They are hiding in plain sight or flown off to a distant location. They just look like the females.

First the flight feathers shed all at once. Then the colorful head and body feathers molt (shed) to make way for new feathers.  (Once the flight feather regrow and the birds are able to fly, the bright, eye-catching head and body feathers regrow also.

male mallard duck in eclipse plumage
Male Mallard in eclipse plumage. Credit: Materialscientist, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons.

For both male and female ducks the “summer molt” of flight feathers will last from three to five weeks.

So during the fall, winter, and spring the birds wear the familiar plumage colors we know. It’s summer when identifying ducks looks confusing. This eclipse plumage is mostly seen in adult birds, juvenile plumage is whole other kettle of fish.

Order of Plumage of Ducks

Bright breeding plumage (fall-winter-spring) eclipse plumage (summer) Bright breeding plumage (fall-winter-spring)

birds_ducks_black_mallard.
An American Black Duck (Anas rubripes top left) and a male Mallard (Anas platyrhynchos bottom right in eclipse plumage).
Credit: Jean-Philippe Boulet, CC BY 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons

Ducks with Eclipse Plumage during Summer

  • Mallard
  • Wood Ducks
  • Blue-winged Teal
  • Green-winged Teal
  • Northern Pintails
  • Northern Shovelers

Works Consulted

Kaufman, Kenn, and Kenn Kaufman. Kaufman Field Guide to Advanced Birding: Understanding What You See and Hear. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011.

Sibley, David, Chris Elphick, and John B. Dunning. The Sibley Guide to Bird Life & Behavior. 1st ed. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2001.

Williams, Ernest H. The Nature Handbook: A Guide to Observing the Great Outdoors. Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.

More on Waterfowl

What is the Difference Between Ducks, Swans, and Geese?

Waterfowl Migration in Autumn

Posted on 2 Comments

American Redstart

Setophaga_ruticilla_American_redstart_male
American Redstart (Setophaga ruticilla), male (Dover Publications)
American Redstart (Setophaga ruticilla), male. Photo: Dover Publications

While on a  warbler walk years ago, I learned that the American Redstart (Setophaga ruticilla) and the Red-eyed Vireo (Vireo olivaceus) were once the most common birds in Philadelphia and the rest of Pennsylvania.

Still Common?

Once I learned that the Redstart was once one of the most common birds, I began to imagine Redstarts as common as American Robins. The current state of the American Redstart population is stable. There are so many of these birds and they range over an extremely wide area. They range over much of North America, Central America, the West Indies, parts of Eurasia and Africa.

I think any decline is where the bird is found. The American Redstarts is a wood warbler.  Wood Warblers are generally small birds that live in thick to semi-open woodlands, marshes, swamps and forest edges. They like to be near water. Philadelphia provided plenty of forest interior and waterside sites in the past. This is has changed a great deal. I think if I lived in a more wooded or forested area, I would probably see more of the birds.

The American Redstarts I’ve seen were in forests with several ponds and streams nearby. When forests and woodlands are cut down, American Redstarts lose their homes. And the fragmentation of wooded areas leads to an increase in predators which like to hunt along habitat edges. Cowbirds seem to target warblers as foster parents for their large, hungry offspring.

 

American Redstart bird, male
American Redstart bird, male. Photo courtesy of Dan Pancamo Photography http://photos.pancamo.com found on Wikimedia – 3 May 2015

When to See the American Redstart

The American Redstart is a common breeding bird in the northern plains states and areas east of the Mississippi River in North America and in the Philadelphia Region. The American Redstart can be seen in Pennsylvania during the breeding season. They are found here from mid-April until late October. A few stragglers may stay in our area into January, which isn’t very cold anymore.

But this little bird winters in Central America and warm island places like Jamaica. It’s a neotropical migrant.

 

About

I when I see the American Redstart I am so hypnotized but the bright and pretty colors of the male, that I forgot to snap a few photos. Not that I could anyway. Like all warblers, these little insect eaters are fast. Warblers always seem to be “hepped-up” on caffeine. Never staying in one place, and hopping from tree, to trunk to leaf pile, and on and on.

When I go birding, many of us in the group suffer from “warbler neck”. This condition results in a tired head and chest area, as your neck and head are jerked around repeatedly. On warbler treks, people loudly whisper, “Where is the bird?” I can’t see it?” “I hear it, but oh, wait, maybe there are two.” Every warbler walk I have gone on goes like this.

 

female American Redstart (Setophaga ruticilla)
The female American Redstart (Setophaga ruticilla) around Sapelo Island. Photo courtesy: The Lilac Breasted Roller from Sullivan’s Island, United States, CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons

Appearance

The male is sports the flamboyant black-and-orange plumage on tail patches and wings.The females have a gray-green head and olive-brown upper body. The underparts are a clear white. Touches of yellow are on her shoulder, wing and tail patches.

The striking orange and black patterns are bright in full view, but serve to camouflage the bird among the shady, leafy branches, the bird’s prime foraging places. The local common name for the American Redstart in Central America is “candelita” meaning “little candle”.

 

What They Eat

American Redstarts are mainly insectivorous, feeding on insects plucked from leaves, twigs and bark. The bird will also feed on nectar and small fruits in winter and during migration.

A common foraging technique of the Redstart is to flush insect prey into the open by flashing the color on its tail patches and wings. As the startled insects flee the American Redstart follow in hot pursuit, often catching insects in mid-air like a flycatchers.

Setophaga_ruticilla_American_redstart_male
A male American Redstart (Setophaga ruticilla) in Chiquimula, Guatemala. Photo courtesy Dennis Jarvis from Halifax, Canada derivative work: Snowmanradio, CC BY-SA 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons

Attracting the American Redstart

If you wanted to attract this bird to your backyard habitat, bird garden or naturalist garden, it seem the best way is to plant plants that attract insects. Native oaks, cherries, plums, birches, crab apples, blueberries and other species that provide food for insect larva are a good start. Having those trees in a leafy neighborhood or near a woods would greatly increase your chances of seeing the American Redstart in your home garden.

Offering water is always a good option. Put out drinking water in water feeders. Keep a swallow birdbath filled with water for bathing.

The Song of the American Redstart

 

Conclusion

It is always a special day when I see American Redstarts. As the breeding season is underway and you walk in the woods, keep an eye out for this beautiful and wide ranging bird.

More on Warblers

What are Neotropical Migrants? (A Beginning Birder’s Guide)

Spring Warblers &#8211; Birding Tips and Techniques

A Warbler Walk 

Posted on Leave a comment

Attracting Hummingbirds

Female Ruby-Throated hummingbird
Perching Female Ruby-throated Hummingbird
Perching female Ruby-throated Hummingbird. Photo by Donna L. Long.
Attracting hummingbirds is not much different from other birds. I think attracting hummingbirds is less expensive because you make their nectar with water and a bag of sugar. One 4 pound bag of sugar will make gallons of hummingbird nectar. Buying feed for the seed-eating birds requires buying expensive bags of seeds over and over again. What follows are the basics of attracting hummingbirds.
Female Ruby-Throated hummingbird
Female Ruby-Throated hummingbird perched on a branch. Photo: Donna L. Long.

Hummingbird Migration Dates

I spotted this female Ruby-Throat at the Schuylkill Nature Center in the Roxborough section of Philadelphia in late autumn. Longer after you would think these small, delicate birds would have headed to the warmer southern regions.
At first I heard a squeaking noise and then I realized it was a hummingbird. She flew right by me and sat on the thin branches of a tree, not more than fifteen feet from me.
Several days later, another female Ruby-Throat hovered less than six feet from me when I was at Bowman’s Hill Wildflower Preserve in New Hope Bucks County in late autumn.

Tiny as these birds are most fly non-stop across the Gulf of Mexico to spend the winter in Mexico and Central America.

Here are both the north and south migration dates for North American Hummingbirds. Hummingbird migration northward starts earlier than you would think. And hummingbirds stay later in the autumn than we think.

This chart covers the eight most common species that breed in North America.

Eastern Northward Southward
Ruby-throated late February to mid-May late July to late October
Western Northward Southward
Allen’s January to March mid-May to September
Anna’s does not migrate; shifts to local areas with more food
Black-chinned mid-March through mid-May mid-July – November
Broad-tailed March to May August to October
Calliope March to May late July to September
Costa’s late January to February September to October
Rufous February to May late June to September
male ruby-throated hummingbird perched on stake
Male Ruby-throated Hummingbird (Archilochus colubris) on a tomato stake, defending his territory. Photo: Joe Schneid, Louisville, Kentucky, CC BY 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons

Ruby-Throats are the Northeast’s Only Hummer

The Ruby-Throated hummer is the only hummingbird that lives and nests in the Philadelphia area and in eastern North America. The male as a sparkly deep ruby red colored feathers on its throat. The female has plain white feathers.

Another hummingbird the Rufous Hummingbird is a regular rare visitor to Pennsylvania during migration. This hummingbird frequents backyard hummingbird feeders during their migration from August to December. The Rufous doesn’t nest in Philadelphia or Pennsylvania. The Ruby-Throated does nest in the state.

birds annas hummingbird drinking nectar
Anna’s Hummingbird drinking from feeder in San Diego County. Public domain.

 

When to Put Out the Nectar

Now it a good time to put out hummingbird feeders to attract hummingbirds to your garden. Many of these small birds will be passing through on their migration south to Central America or north to parts of North America.

The hummingbird migration dates vary according region of the country. This information is helpful in knowing when to place your nectar feeders out in your backyard habitat gardens.

If you don’t live in the Philadelphia area, any bird field guide will tell you which species you can expect to find in your neighborhood. For Philly it is a Ruby-Throat most of the time. Some lucky folks may spot a Rufous or other rarity.

We can put our nectar feeders out early enough to attract hummingbirds in the spring. At leave them out late into the fall to help hummingbirds on their trip south.

 

hummingbirds at feeder
Hummingbirds at feeders. Centpacrr at English Wikipedia [CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)]

Recipe for Homemade Hummingbird Nectar

Use the hummingbird migration dates to know when to put out to attract hummingbirds.

This nectar recipe mimics the water to sugar ratio of flower nectar, the main food of adult hummingbirds. They do feed their young insects and spiders along with nectar.

The Key: Four parts water to one part refined white sugar.

Four parts means four units of water to one unit of refined white sugar. So, take a coffee cup or a glass or a measuring cup. Fill it with water four times. Then take the same container and fill it once with sugar.

  1. Pour the refined white sugar in the water.
  2. Dissolve the sugar in the water and place it hummingbird feeder.
  3. Change the sugar water frequently as it can spoil quickly in the sunshine.
  4. I would make it fresh every time I change the nectar in the feeder.
female ruby throated at Cardinal flower.
Female Ruby-throated Hummingbird sampling Cardinal flower nectar. Photo Donna L. Long.

Plants to Attract Hummingbirds

There are many plants which attract hummingbirds. The birds are very attracted to red, tubular flowers. They also like orange-red and pink. So, if you are at the garden center or choosing a variety from a nursery catalog keep those colors in mind.

You can also plant native flowers that will attract hummingbirds. Make sure you plant flowers that bloom during migration season. Plant flowers that bloom in the spring using the dates in the chart. And don’t forget autumn-blooming flowers.

Plant the flowers in clumps of at least three plants. Three or more plants give enough nectar sources that it’s worth a hummer’s time to visit. It also creates a larger splash of color to catch the attention of hummingbirds searching for food.

Spread out the bloom time of the flowers to provide nectar throughout the seasons the hummers are in your area.

  • Bee Balm (Monarda spp.)
  • Cardinal Flower
  • Columbine (Aquilegia spp.)
  • Creeper, Scarlet (Ipomoea cristulata)
  • Creeper, Trumpet (Campsis radicans)
  • Honeysuckle (Lonicera spp.)
  • Lantana (Lantana spp.)
  • Penstemons (Penstemon spp.)
  • Sages, Salvias, spp. (Salvia spp.)

Here is a list of spring hummingbird attracting flowers for Philadelphia and the MId-Atlantic region.

Use the Audubon Native Plant Database to find flowers for your area. After entering your zip code a list of plants is generated. Next you can filter for the type of birds you want to attract.

Perches and Shelter

Trees and shrubs with thin branches and twigs provide perches that the small feet of hummingbirds can grasp. Trees and shrubs with large leaves provide shelter from rainy weather.

Provide Nesting Materials

Hummingbird nests are  made of spider webs, cottony seed material, the wooly surface of some leaves, plant fibers such as thistle down and cattail fluff or soft bird feathers. The outside of the nest maybe camouflaged with lichen, mosses, or other similar materials.

You can collect cattail fluff, moss, lichen, thistle down and make it available for the birds.

 

b=hummingbirds around a bird bath
Hummingbirds around a birdbath. Photo courtesy Mike’s Birds from Riverside, CA, US, CC BY-SA 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons

Provide Water for Drinking and Bathing

Hummers like to bathe. Provide a swallow basin that allows the birds to bathe safely without drowning.

 

Conclusion: The Key Steps in Attracting Hummingbirds

  1. Learn the hummingbirds species which live in your area and when.
  2. Make hummingbird nectar and put out a feeder.
  3. Plant red, orange-red or pink tubular flowers in group of three or more.
  4. Plant several varieties of plants that bloom during the months the hummingbirds are present in your area. Annual flowers will bloom from spring until frost.
  5. Provide places for hummingbirds to perch.
  6. Provide nesting materials.
  7. Provide a bird bath.

I hope this information is useful. Let me know in the comments below if you have any experiences successes and failures attracting hummingbirds to your garden.

 

 

Posted on Leave a comment

Birding: The Best Posts

female American Redstart (Setophaga ruticilla)
female American Redstart (Setophaga ruticilla)
The female American Redstart (Setophaga ruticilla) around Sapelo Island. Photo courtesy: The Lilac Breasted Roller from Sullivan’s Island, United States, CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons

‘Birding: The Best Posts’ is a roundup of the posts on my blog that I have written over the past ten years. There is a ton of information on this blog. Sometimes it is hard to find. I often stumble upon a forgotten post and am delighted I wrote on the topic.

There is a little bit for everyone from new birders to advanced birders who want to learn about bird behavior and sharpen their birding skills.

 

humans_child_young birder
Young Birder.

Information for New Birders

Choosing Binoculars for Nature Study

Choosing Field Guides (with videos)

The Importance of Birds to Indigenous American Peoples (video)

Winter Birding: How to Master It (with video)

Spring Warblers Birding Tips and Techniques

Birding By Ear: Learning Birds Calls and Songs

 

Bird Migration

Bird Migration Facts

Bird Migration Routes: Do You Live Near One? 

Spring Bird Migration for Beginning Birders

What are Neotropical Migrants? (A Beginning Birder’s Guide)

Hummingbird Migration Dates

Raptor Migration: What You Need to Know to Hawk Watch (with video)

Winter Bird Migration and Irruptions (Videos)

Waterfowl Migration in Autumn

 

flock of starlings act as a swarm
A flock of Starlings act as a swarm. John Holmes on Wikimedia.

Bird Behavior

The Dawn Chorus

How a Cardinal Makes His Red Feathers

The Relationship Between Birds, Berries, and Fruit

Starling Murmurations: How to Find One and When to Watch (with video)

A Murder of Crows – What does it mean?

A Turkey Vultures Sense of Smell

 

Studying Birds

Searching for Abandoned Bird Nests

Project Feederwatch

Birding by Ear: Learning Bird Calls and Songs

Spring Bird Migration for Beginners 

Bullock's Oriole (Icterus bullockii)
Bullock’s Oriole (Icterus bullockii)

Identifying Birds

Winter Feeder Birds: Identifying Woodpeckers

Identifying Savannah and Song Sparrows

Arctic Birds that Visit in Winter (with video)

What is the Difference Between Ducks, Swans, and Geese?

Learn the Fall and Winter Colors of These Common Bird Species

 

Birds by Color: Identifying Birds

How and Why Birds Change their Plumage.

Common Winter Birds Across North America

Identifying Birds by Color: A Collection of Photo Galleries

Birds by Color: Yellow Birds

Birds by Color: Yellow Warblers

Birds by Color: Red Birds 

How a Cardinal Makes His Red Feathers

Birds by Color: Orange Birds

Blue Birds: Identifying Birds by Color (A Photo Gallery)

Birds by Color: Identifying Little Gray Birds

Winter Feeder Birds: Identifying Blue Birds

 

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/9/97/White_falcon.jpg
White Falcon (hybrid bird). U.S. Air Force photo by David Armer, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Birds of Prey (Raptors)

Bird of Prey Facts, What Makes a Raptor, a Raptor?

What Do Raptors (Birds of Prey) Eat?

Watching Birds of Prey

Birds of Prey of Philadelphia, and New Jersey: A Checklist

Bald Eagles at Conowingo Dam, close to Philadelphia

Identifying Birds of Prey: Books to Help You

Hawk Migration Watch at Fort Washington State Park

Hawk Migration at Cape May Point State Park

Philadelphia Owls: A List of Species

Sharpies in Winter

Schedule Your Hawk Watching Now

 

Hummingbirds

Hummingbird Migration Dates

Spring Blooming Flowers to Attract Hummingbirds

Making Hummingbird Nectar

 

Bird Checklists

Philadelphia Owls: A Checklist 

Birds of Prey of Philadelphia, and New Jersey: A Checklist

 

birds_female ruby throated hummingbird
Female Ruby-Throated Hummingbird at a feeder.

Creating a Backyard Habitat

Habitat Garden: What You Need to Start One

Water in Your Backyard Habitat

Attracting Birds with Water

Cover: Providing Shelter in Your Backyard Habitat

Choosing a Nest Box

Cavity Nesters: Birds that Use Holes in Trees

Birdhouses: Choosing, Maintaining, and Attracting Birds

LoveNest Birdhouses with WiFi Video

Put out Nesting Materials and Nest Boxes March 1

 

Attracting Birds to Your Backyard

How to Attract Birds to Your Garden

Attracting Bird with Fruit Trees and Berry Plants

Winter Birds and Winter Food

A Winter Bird Feeding Guide: Attract Birds to Your Backyard (with Video)

Attracting Cedar Waxwings to Your Backyard

Attracting Hummingbirds

Making Hummingbird Nectar

Attracting Birds with a Shadbush

Spring Blooming Flowers to Attract Hummingbirds

 

Nature Journaling

Keeping a Life List or Birder’s Journal

Using a Species Account

Using a Field Notebook for Nature Journaling

Catalog for the Grinnell System

Grinnell Method for Nature Journals

Spring Birding and Nature Journal Prompts

Observation Checklist to Sharpen Your Skills

An Easier Way to Draw Birds (video) — John Muir Laws

Secrets for Capturing Stunning Photographs of Birds

Citizen Science

Project FeederWatch Info, Tips, and Nature Journaling Ideas

The Great Backyard Bird Count

Join the Christmas Bird Count | Audubon

Conclusion – Birding: the Best Posts

I hope this collection, Birding: The Best Posts’, is useful. Have I missed a topic? Do you have a burning bird question and would like a professional librarian to research and find the answer? Drop a comment or question in the box below.

 

Posted on Leave a comment

Keeping a Life List or Birder’s Journal

Piping plover (Charadrius melodus) walking on the beach
Piping plover (Charadrius melodus) walking on the beach
Piping plover (Charadrius melodus)
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Public domain.

A life list is a record of the birds you have seen and where. A birder’s journal records the same as the life list but can include more details. These are nature journals for birders. These two journals are kept for a long time. It may take you decades to fill one up.

nature_journal_birders_journal
page from my birder’s journal and life list

How I Use My Birder’s Journal

Before buying a dedicated life list I recorded the date I first saw a species in the margins of my field guide. I didn’t have much room to write details like location or weather conditions, but I was young and didn’t want to spend my allowance. When I started getting a regular paycheck, I bought the National Geographic Birder’s Journal I still use. It’s out of print but used/unused copies are available on Amazon and probably other places.

birders journal checklist
a checklist page form my birder’s journal

Using the Checklist

On the first page of my birder’s journal I recorded the date I started July 2007. I’m still writing and recording in it. The front of the book is.checklist of all the bird species that are establish in North America with a few exotic visitors added in. By looking over my checklist I see that the number of ducks, geese, and swans that I have seen is rather skimpy. The Shorebirds area of the checklist is rather empty. Visiting Bombay National Wildlife Refuge in Dover, Delaware during fall migration when shorebirds are in abundance is on my bucket list.

Using the Life List

The bulk of my Birder’s Journal is filled with spaces to record species sightings. I have chosen to list my first sighting and subsequent sightings especially if I was in a wildlife refuge or visiting another state. I could have just as easily made notations just on the first sighting by including weather, number of birds, gender, age, activity or anything else. I like looking over the journal and reminiscences about past field trips.

nature journal_backyard bird list
the backyard bird life list in my birder’s journal

Add Your Own List

In the back of my birder’s journal I add a list just for the birds that I’ve seen in my backyard. I taped in black graphic paper. I started last year (2021) and still need to add past species listed in the journal section. This essentially be a backyard bird and feeder list.

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/9/97/White_falcon.jpg
White Falcon (hybrid bird). U.S. Air Force photo by David Armer, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Choosing a Life List or Birder’s Journal

Birding focused journals have several focuses.

Checklist of birds – just that a checklist

Journal/Life List – Life lists have space for the first time a species is seen.  Usually species info is pre-printed so you just add dates and location.

Journal/Diary – doesn’t have species information. You write your observations about the bird. This is more of a nature journal that focuses on birds.

What You Can Do with a Birder’s Journal or Life List

  • You can plan trips. Perhaps you lack any sightings of shorebirds. You can plan to visit places where shorebirds gather and when the best times to see them.
  • record the species that visit your backyard feeders or habitat
  • record type of feeder the bird or bird species uses
  • record type of food the bird prefers
  • did the bird visit a water source? A hanging water feeder or a bird bath or pond?
  • birdhouse residents
  • Record the raising of young, when chicks are born, when they fledge
  • Record the birds activities and interaction with other birds.
  • Record additional sightings of the bird or bird species in different locales or habitats
  • Record seasonal observations
  • List migrants during spring and fall migration
  • Record the first appearance of migrants
  • Observe year-round resident species
  • Record the first appearance of winter visitors.
  • Sketch plumage colors, difference between the genders, juvenile and adult
  • Sketch body features beak shape
  • Note calls and songs
  • Record your citizen science sightings like the Great Backyard Bird Count and Project FeederWatch
Setophaga_ruticilla_American_redstart_male
A male American Redstart (Setophaga ruticilla) in Chiquimula, Guatemala. Photo courtesy Dennis Jarvis from Halifax, Canada derivative work: Snowmanradio, CC BY-SA 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons

Conclusion

Keeping a Birder’s Journal or Life List isn’t just for competitive birders. It can be a fun activity for casual backyard birders and competitive birders who participate in ‘Big Days”.

I searched Amazon.com for examples of birder’s journals and life lists. There aren’t as many as there were years ago. You can buy journals at environmental centers, bookstores, and online retailers. I include Amazon.ocm because as an affiliate I receive a commission which pays for this website. All the links below are affiliate links to the book page on Amazon.com. Use Amazon’s “Look in Inside this book” feature to choose the best book to suit your needs. Good search terms to use are “life list” or birder’s journal”.

The National Geographic Birder’s Journal is out of print but there are used/unused copies on Amazon.com https://amzn.to/3LyzvMZ

Rite in the Rain Birder’s Journal https://amzn.to/3G6IWlz

Sibley’s Birder’s Life List and Field Diary https://amzn.to/39G5xth

Cornell Lab of Ornithology Birder’s Life List and Journal https://amzn.to/3MysTiX – every bird occuring in North America has a space to record your sightings.

Bird Watching Field Journal, Log, Sketchbook, and and Life List https://amzn.to/3lt0IpB

For Kids

Beginning Birdwatcher’s Book with 48 stickers! (Dover Publications) https://amzn.to/3LGlcpO

This series of books has checklist geared to several regions of the United States.

Birdwatching Life List for Kids: Southeast Region: A Birder’s Checklist Notebook Journal for Children to Log Birds https://amzn.to/3LxVsMe

for the mid-Atlantic region https://amzn.to/3G34r6Z

Birdwatching Book for Kids: A Journal to Observe and Record Your Birding Adventures by Kristine Rivers https://amzn.to/3lw2OVS

 

More Information on Birding

Birds: Table of Contents (listing a posts on this blog)

Identifying Birds by Color: A Collection of Photo Galleries

As always feel free to drop a comment down below.

Posted on Leave a comment

Spring Warblers – Birding Tips and Techniques

Setophaga_ruticilla_American_redstart_male
Yellow Warbler (Dendroica petechia). Photo courtesy Pennsylvania Game Commission/Joe Kosack.
Yellow Warbler (Dendroica petechia). Photo courtesy of Pennsylvania Game Commission/Joe Kosack.

Warblers are arriving and birders are all a flutter. These birds have a reputation as challenging the most experienced birdwatchers. In this post I focus on understanding their habits, hopefully making the spring warbler-watching season a fun one.

Warblers of the World

Warblers are classified in two categories by western scientists, Old World (Sylviidae) and New World (Parulidae) birds. The Old World includes Eurasia, Africa, and Australia. The “New World” includes the Caribbean, North, Central, and South America.

“New World” Warblers are small, arthropod-eating birds of Central, South America, and the Caribbean which breed in North America north of Mexico. During spring they migrate as far north as Canada.

 

Hooded Warbler (Wilsonia pusilla). Photo courtesy Jake Dingel/Pennsylvania Game Commission.
Hooded Warbler (Wilsonia pusilla). Photo courtesy Jake Dingel/Pennsylvania Game Commission.

The Wood Warblers

The Parulidae family is called the ‘wood warblers’. The Parulidae are split into two subfamilies, the ‘wood warblers proper’ (Parulidae) and the ‘banana quits’ (Coerebinae). The bananaquits have one species in the Caribbean. This post focuses on the Parulidae, wood warblers of the Americas and the Caribbean.

There are about 116 species of wood warblers that breed in North America, give or take a few. Scientists debate amongst themselves as to how they decide a bird fits into the Parulidae family.  It still is one of the largest bird families.

A female yellowthroat bathing in the Vale of Cashmere in Prospect Park, Brooklyn. Early in the video there’s also a female American redstart.

Video courtesy of Rhododendrites, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons

Warbler Traits

One hundred sixteen species are categorized as Parulidae and all those species share a number of traits.

The wood warblers are small, anthropoid eating perching birds. Species lengths range from 4 to 7.5 inches long. They have skinny little legs that look like toothpicks.

Most have short, pointy slender or flat beaks. They eat arthropods which include insects, spiders, and crustaceans. They search for food in tree bark, among tree leaves, and on the forest floor.

Setophaga_ruticilla_American_redstart_male
A male American Redstart (Setophaga ruticilla) in Chiquimula, Guatemala. Photo courtesy Dennis Jarvis from Halifax, Canadaderivative work: Snowmanradio, CC BY-SA 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons

Many are colorful.  The most common plumage colors are yellow and olive. But also red, black, gray, and green feathers on some species.

female American Redstart (Setophaga ruticilla)
The female American Redstart (Setophaga ruticilla) around Sapelo Island. Photo courtesy: The Lilac Breasted Roller from Sullivan’s Island, United States, CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons

The males have brighter and sharper color plumage that females. The females being nest sitters have duller more subdued coloration. The young fledglings, both male and female, share the plumage of their mothers but a bit duller.

Very Colorful Wood Warblers

  • Golden Swamp Warbler (Protonotaria citrea)
  • Northern Parula (Parula americana)
  • Blackburnian warbler (Dendroica fusca)
  • Red-faced Warbler (Cardellina rubrifrons)
  • American Redstart (Setophaga ruticilla)
Male Kentucky Warbler (Oporornis formosus) singing.
Male Kentucky Warbler (Oporornis formosus) singing. Photo courtesy Andrew Weitzel from Lancaster, PA, USA, CC BY-SA 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons. Audio courtesy G. McGrane, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

And they have lovely songs. The males are the singers in all but a few species. When warblers are return to their breeding territories I believe their beautiful songs greatly enhance the dawn chorus.

Learning the songs and calls of spring warblers, particularly the most common species, may be your best bet in identifying them, because you may not actually see them.

They constantly move. On many occasions I have heard birders, call out, “Hold still!’ while trying to focus their binoculars on warblers hopping through the trees.

 

Warbler Migration

May is the height of warbler migration. Most American warblers of Central and South America, stay in tropical forests all year around. but some take part in Neotropical migrations and move to northern ecosystems to breed and raise young.

Neotropical migratory American wood warblers breed and raise their young in forests of higher latitudes. This includes the woods and forests of Alaska, Northern and Southern Canada and the United States.

They birds take advantage of the abundance of anthropoids (insects) and more choices of nesting sites than are available crowded tropical areas.

When to Go Birding, I mean Warbling

It is during migration that birders in North America get a chance to see neotropical birds. Otherwise, you would have to travel to the tropics to see them. Birding during spring migration is when the birds save us an expensive overseas trip.

Warblers migrate at night, from dusk to dawn the next morning during spring and fall. During the day they stop to feed. This is when birders get to see them: from dawn all day until they take off at dusk and continue their migration. Unless your area is their breeding territory. 

During migration several species may feed in the same area, creating a bonanza for excited birders.

Breeding

At least 52 species of American Warblers breed within the central and eastern portions of North America from about the middle half of the United States to the southern half of Canada.

Several species can breed in the same stand of trees but feed in different parts of the tree canopy, on the surface of tree bark, or on the forest floor.

Yellow Warbler (Dendroica petechia). Photo courtesy Pennsylvania Game Commission/Joe Kosack.
Yellow Warbler (Dendroica petechia). Photo courtesy Pennsylvania Game Commission/Joe Kosack.

Identifying Wood Warblers

In spring, the different species of spring warblers are easy to identify. The males are brightly colored and they sing species distinctive songs. The female plumages are similar to the males, but the colors are more subtle.

In fall, things get a bit more challenging. Some species change their plumage and can look very different than they did in the spring. The males aren’t singing either. The work of breeding and raising young is over, so there is not need to attract a mate.

Adding to the difficulty, in fall that the plumage of juvenile warblers is similar to their mothers, but duller.

Very Common Wood Warblers

These warblers are common in many areas of North America.

  • Yellow Warbler (Dendroica petechia)
  • Common Yellowthroat (Geothlypis trichas)
  • Yellow Breasted Chat (Icteria virens) – the largest species of Warbler
  • Yellow rumped Warbler (Dendroica coronata)
  • American Redstart (Setophaga ruticilla)

Keeping a Life List or Birder’s Journal

Mystery Bird in the Middle of the Atlantic Ocean

Habitats

Wood warbler choice of habitats contribute to making they hard to see. They like thickets, dense shrubs, and hopping along branches high in the tree canopy. Because of their preferences look for warblers along woodland and forest edges. They can also be found in marshes and swamps.

Photographing Warblers

Getting photographs of these small, hyperactive birds is a challenge. I would love to get a great photo or two of at least two species of warblers. It takes research and practice way before you hit the birding trail. 

An article by Bill Palmer appeared on the North American Nature Photography Association blog entitled, Chasing Spring Warblers

From the article:

“Most of us are pretty adroit at photographing eagles, hawks, pelicans, ducks and other large birds, but what about photographing small, hyperactive, secretive birds such as warblers? Adding to the challenge, when you do get a chance to see one, it may only be visible for a few…”

The tips in this article also help with spotting the warblers on birding trips.

I share it here because it has such excellent advice. Highlights from the article

  • learn the calls and songs of the species you are most likely to see and hear
  • learn which warbler like which habitat
  • spring warbler migration starts in late March through May in North America
  • warblers fly over the Gulf of Mexico back into North America
  • Magee March in Northwest Ohio is called, “The Warbler Capital of North America”
  • the technical stuff of photographing warblers – camera, lens, flash, etc. is covered
  • hints and tips of getting the shot

 

Conclusion

I hope this post has shed a little light on how to observe warblers. In researching this article I learned some tips on how to up my “warbler game”.

I do get excited when I actually “see” one of these birds on a branch or tree limb. Spotting one feels like a major accomplishment. They are a challenge. That’s why birders love warbler season.

This is an updated post originally published March 4, 2020.

Most Posts on Birding

Spring Bird Migration for Beginning Birders

Keeping a Life List or Birder’s Journal

Birds by Color: Yellow Warblers

Birds by Color: Yellow Birds 

Spring Birding and Nature Journal Prompts

Mystery Bird in the Mid of the Atlantic Ocean

Posted on 2 Comments

Birdhouses: Choosing, Maintaining, and Attracting Birds

Red-breasted_Nuthatch_(Sitta_canadensis)5 By pbonenfant [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Red-breasted_Nuthatch_(Sitta_canadensis)5 By pbonenfant [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Red-breasted_Nuthatch_(Sitta_canadensis)5 By pbonenfant

It’s migration and nesting season. And as backyard birding thoughts turn to birdhouses, I am considering putting a birdhouse or two in my city garden. 

Rob Carter of LoveNest Birdhouses in Atlanta, Georgia has graciously offered to answer our questions about choosing and placing birdhouses in our backyards and habitat gardens. 

Full disclosure, LoveNest Birdhouses will be gifting one of their WiFi video camera birdhouses to me, so I can actually try having a birdhouse in my urban backyard.

If you buy a birdhouse from Rob at LoveNest Birdhouses, I’ll receive a small commission which will go to support this blog.

And here’s Rob. 

lovenest birdhouse
Lovenest Birdhouse

Basic Birdhouse Questions

Q: Do birds actually use birdhouses? 

A: They really do! And, the need for birdhouses has increased greatly due to the reduction in naturally-occurring places for many bird species to build their nests and raise their young.

Q: Which types of birds use birdhouses?

A: The birds that use birdhouses are known as “cavity nesters” – meaning species that build their nests in enclosed cavities. There are roughly 80 cavity-nesting bird species in North America, including a variety of woodpeckers, owls, songbirds, falcons, and ducks. Certain birds like woodpeckers create their own cavities by excavating holes in trees and sometimes (sorry homeowners!) other wooden structures. Other birds are “secondary” cavity nesters, meaning they use cavities created by other birds.

Q: What is the purpose of birdhouses?

A: Birdhouses provide critical habitat for cavity-nesting birds which rely on a supply of viable locations for nesting and fledging. Birdhouses increase the supply of available cavities capable of protecting nests from predators and the elements.

Residential development and environmental challenges over recent decades have had a very negative impact on bird populations. Birdhouses offer important support to counter these threats.

Q: Do birds use birdhouses in the winter?

A: They do! Birdhouses offer shelter for birds seeking an enclosed space where they can protect themselves from cold, wind and wet weather. They will often congregate together in the same space and generate heat by fluffing their feathers and shivering.  

barn swallow and nest box
Barn Swallow nest box at John Heinz NWR at Tinicum in Philadelphia. Photo by Donna L. Long.

 

Urban Birdhouses

Q: Rob, I live on the outskirts of a large city (Philadelphia, Pa). Is there anything us urban birders should know? 

A: The big thing I would say is that birdhouses are perhaps most critical in more urban environments where there are so few naturally occurring cavities to support cavity-nesting species.

Dead trees and limbs which are really helpful for excavating cavities are undesirable and/or unsafe for homeowners and tend to be taken down, eliminating viable habitat. And, in urban environments, they are almost nonexistent.

The result is that cavity nesting species tend to dwindle and vacate those areas. Plentiful birdhouses can help reduce the trend of dwindling urban bird populations.

Q: What about discouraging Starlings and House Sparrows? 

A: House sparrows are a widespread, invasive and particularly aggressive species that competes for food and habitat with other species like popular songbirds. For example, house sparrows are known to attack adult bluebirds and their offspring, and even destroy eggs.

Because they are not a native species in North America, along with starlings, house sparrows are not protected by law, and you are allowed to destroy their nests and eggs.

Paying attention to the type of bird food and bird feeder one puts out can discourage house sparrows from frequenting one’s yard, as can the removal of wet (and dry/dusty) birdbath locations. A birdhouse without a perch is less attractive to house sparrows, and waiting until early April to put up your birdhouse can help since that is often after the time house sparrows have chosen nesting locations.

If you find a house sparrow or starling has begun to occupy your birdhouse, simply cover up the entrance hole for a few days and wait for the bird to go elsewhere.

Generally, starlings need a birdhouse portal 1.5 inches wide to enter, and house sparrows need 1.25 inches. You could consider using a smaller portal such as 1.125 to discourage unwanted species, though that will also eliminate certain more popular birds such as bluebirds from using the birdhouse. 

Nest in the Wissahickon Forest in Philadelphia
Birdhouse in the Wissahickon Forest in Philadelphia

Choosing a Good Birdhouse 

Q: What makes a good birdhouse?

A: Generally speaking, a “good” birdhouse would be any one that allows the occupants to successfully build a nest and fledge their young. Beyond that, different birds prefer different size birdhouses and different size entrance holes (portals).   

Q: How do I choose the right birdhouse?

A: There are countless birdhouse designs out there. Many are delightfully creative and fun in their appearance. That said, many designs are not necessarily conducive to producing the best outcome for the birds or attracting the species desired by the person putting out the birdhouse.

If you just want a birdhouse in your yard and don’t care what species occupies it, then most birdhouses will suffice, and chances are you may get a bird of some sort to occupy it.

Otherwise, if you want to attract particular species, research what nestbox and portal dimensions are most well suited to those species and purchase a birdhouse that conforms to those specifications.

Beyond dimensions, the structure of the birdhouse can play an important role in keeping the nest dry and discouraging insects and rot.

Q: Does it matter what color a birdhouse is?

A: Generally, any birdhouse is likely to attract an occupant. However, birdhouses that are more natural in their colors and material are more likely to be preferred by birds looking for a suitable nesting location. 

Q: Do birds like a hanging or swinging birdhouse?

A: A birdhouse should be mounted in a manner that is stable and prevents it from becoming unstable in wind. 

Q: What size holes for what size birds?

A: Here are some common size entrance holes (portals) for popular cavity-nesting species:

  • 1 1/8 inch [chickadee, house wren, prothonotary warbler]
  • 1 ¼ inch [nuthatch, titmouse, downy woodpecker]
  • 1 ½ [eastern bluebird, Carolina wren, hairy woodpecker]
  • 1 9/16 [western bluebird]

Q: Are some birdhouse materials bad for the birds? 

A: Bear in mind that any color applied to a birdhouse which constitutes a paint or a stain may contain chemicals which are harmful to birds, and therefore not a good idea. Be sure to check whether the material used is safe.

For example, our LoveNest Birdhouses are built with long-lasting, insect-repelling cedar, and we use no paints or stains.

 

Attracting Birds 

Q: How do I attract birds to a birdhouse?

A: Having a supply of desirable food somewhat nearby can make a big difference – both in the form of traditional bird feeder food like sunflower seeds as well as items like suet and mealworms (great for attracting bluebirds).

Nearby water like a birdbath can be helpful, as well as shrubs and plantings that offer a sense of privacy and a source of nesting materials.

That said, don’t place your birdhouse too near any birdfeeder or birdbath because activity there of too many birds can cause territorial conflict and dissuade nesting birds from choosing that location.

Q: What do I put inside a birdhouse?

A: We would argue: nothing! Birds are very picky about what materials they want to use in building a nest. What one bird might find helpful, another may find a deterrent.

Instead of placing anything inside the nest box, we recommend making some good nest building materials available somewhat nearby for birds to choose from.

Good options would be: a pile of twigs; grass clippings; pine needles; clumps of pet hair (which can be hung up in an empty suet feeder for cleanliness and easy access). See Put Out Nesting Materials March 1

Placing a Birdhouse 

Q: Where should you place a birdhouse?

A: Generally, most birds prefer relatively sunny locations that may also benefit from some afternoon shade. It is considered a best practice to have the front entrance facing east, opposite prevailing wind direction, and away from any bird feeder location.

Bluebirds and some other species prefer a birdhouse location that is accessible across a large open field of low grass, while other species prefer a more secluded location in the vicinity of nearby shrubs and trees. Place the birdhouse at least 5 feet above the ground.  

 

Q: How many birdhouses can I fit in a backyard? How far apart should birdhouses be placed?

A: The answer here depends on the specific birds involved. Some birds are less sensitive than others to the distance between nesting locations and can handle as little as 15 feet apart. Most prefer distances more like 50, 100 or 200 feet.

Generally speaking, the more you can work to keep the nesting locations apart from one another physically and visually, the better. Some birds, like wrens, will fill up “competing” nest boxes with material just to keep other birds from nesting there if they feel their territory is threatened. 

Northern Flicker (Colaptes auratus) leaving cavity nest.

Birdhouse maintenance 

Q: How and when should I clean a birdhouse?

A: A birdhouse should be cleaned out right after any new crop of baby birds has fledged. It’s best to take the birdhouse down, remove any nesting material, and thoroughly scrub the interior surfaces where the nest was located using a solution of 1 part bleach and 9 parts water.

This will ensure the nest box provides a fresh and healthy environment for the birds you want to attract. It can also be a good idea to clean the box again right before nesting season each year (around February-March).

With proper maintenance, you may find that the birdhouse is used by nesting birds multiple times each year from March through June and during the rest of the year for roosting.

Q: What other maintenance should I do?

A: Be sure to make sure the birdhouse is in good shape structurally and does not have any hazardous conditions present, such as an insecure mounting connection, protruding screws/nails, rotten wood, or insect infestation. 

Q: How do we protect the birdhouses from predators like opossum, raccoons, cats, etc. What about rodents, large and small?

A: Placement on a tree or fence is not recommended. Placing the birdhouse on a dedicated post or pole can make it difficult for predators to access, as can placement up high on the wall of a house or other structure impossible for a predator to climb.

The addition of a pole/post baffle underneath the birdhouse can be very helpful. Additionally, the smaller the entrance hole (portal) of the birdhouse, the more difficult for a predator to achieve success. 

 

Tell Us About LoveNest Birdhouses? 

Q: Can you tell us about your birdhouses? 

A: The idea for the LoveNest came from my then teenage son asking for a birdhouse with a camera in it for Christmas nine years ago. Our family had so much fun and were so fascinated watching that eventually I decided to create a business making them for other people.

The birdhouses are made of long-lasting, insect-repelling cedar with no harmful paints or stains, and they are built to last for many years. They come as fully assembled product, designed specifically for capturing all the activity inside and outside the birdhouse (the LoveNest comes in 1 and 2 camera versions).

The product features high quality, state-of-the-art electronics and easy-to-use software for viewing and recording the birds. The quality of the LoveNest experience is far superior compared with trying to add a stand-alone camera to a birdhouse not designed for the purpose.

The LoveNest also features the ability to have the birdhouse plugged in 24/7 to maintain year-round viewing without the need for inconvenient battery removal/charging.

That said, the birdhouse can operate on its own internal battery for extended periods of time depending on the amount of bird activity and the software settings used. We encourage people who are interested to visit our website and watch some of the videos posted there.

Q: Where can we find your birdhouses?

A: Our website is www.lovenestbirdhouses.com  

Q: Are your birdhouses handmade?

A: They are! And we take great pride in making our product by hand right here in the United States. 

Q: How does a video camera add to the bird watching experience?

A: There is so much fascinating information to learn about birds. But without the ability to witness them up close as they live their lives, much of that remains a mystery. A video camera birdhouse gives viewers a wonderful window into the lives of these fascinating creatures. 

Q: What should I teach my children about birdwatching with birdhouses?

A: The future of our planet depends on future generations caring about the well-being of other species with whom we share the planet.

Witnessing the behavior of birds as they raise their young in our backyard birdhouses offers an exceptional learning experience about what we all share in common, and it enhances our motivation to support the natural world around us.

Maintaining a birdhouse for our local birds involves us directly in being caretakers of nature. Raising children who value this role is essential if we wish to wind up with a population that works actively to preserve the environment.  

Eastern Bluebird perched on birdhouse
Eastern Bluebird and birdhouse (courtesy US Fish &Wildlife Service;Dr.Thomas G. Barnes/University of Kentucky)

Conclusion

Whew! Rob did a great job answering our questions. I learned that a birdhouse is useful all-year round. You can put up a birdhouse anytime and join bird conservation efforts. 

Please support backyard bird conservation and this blog by purchasing you bird house from LoveNestBirdhouses.com (Made in the U.S.A.!).

More Information on LoveNest Birdhouses

LoveNestBirdhouses.com

See videos of birds in LoveNest Birdhouses at “The Secret Lives of Birds” on LoveNestBirdhouses.com

More FAQs on LoveNest Birdhouses 

More Information Attracting Backyard Birds

Cavity Nesters

Put Out Nesting Materials March 1

Places to Raise Young – Creating Your Backyard Habitat

How to Attract Birds to Your Garden

Posted on Leave a comment

What are Neotropical Migrants? (A Beginning Birder’s Guide)

Bullock's Oriole (Icterus bullockii)
Hooded Warbler (Wilsonia pusilla). Photo courtesy Jake Dingel/Pennsylvania Game Commission.
Hooded Warbler (Wilsonia pusilla). Photo courtesy Jake Dingel/Pennsylvania Game Commission.

Neotropical migrants are birds who move from southern regions north to North America, Canada and the Far North to breed and raise young. There are 361 species of birds that breed in the Nearctic (United States and Canada) and migrate to wintering grounds in the Neotropics (Caribbean, Mexico, and southward).

“In the southern and western United States, 50-60 percent of breeding birds are migrants, a number that rises to 80 percent in southern Canada and to 90 percent in the Canadian subarctic. (Cunningham, p. 1151)”,

These birds begin their southward migration soon after the young fledge meaning the young leave the nest and learn to fly.

Ecozone-Biocountries-Neotropic
Neotropic regions – Neotropical migrants.

What are the Neotropical and Nearctic Regions?

The Neotropical region includes Middle and South America and the West Indies. The Nearctic region include North America north of the tropics. The border between in the two regions is that area in Mexico which is the northern edge of tropical, evergreen forests. The transition between the tropical and non-tropical is not a straight line of demarcation. In some areas it maybe be hard to define the separation or transition between them. (DeGraaf, p. 9)

Ecozone-Biocountries-Nearctic-2
Nearctic regions – Neotropical Migrants

 

What families  and species of birds migrate between the tropics and the North?

The birds which migrate include pelicans, bitterns, egrets, storks, raptors, terns, warblers, and other species. Of the 361 species which migrate the family with the most species is the Emberizidae. This family includes the wood warblers, tanagers, orioles, and sparrow. This family has 95 species which are Neotropical migrants, which accounts for more than 25% of all Neotropical migrants.

How long do neotropical migrants spend in each region?

Even those of us in the northern breeding grounds think the birds spend most of their lives in the north with us, they don’t. A study of 13 common warblers migrants spent their year three months or less on their breeding grounds, two to three months migrating, and six to seven months on their wintering grounds (deGraf, p. 11).

The time spent migrating and living in the wintering grounds takes up the majority of their year. Breeding and raising young is but a short time for the birds.

What is the conservation status of Neotropical birds?

For quite awhile a blame game was played between the nations in the Nearctic region blaming the lands in the Neotropical lands for loss of habitat. The Neotropical nations in turn blamed the northern regions for the same.

A deadly combination of pesticides, predation (outdoor cats are a major culprit), and habitat loss negatively affect the population strength of migrating birds.

The loss of suitable habitats for breeding and wintering activities negatively affects the survival of these birds. In addition the loss of stopover areas of wetlands, forests, and grasslands along the migration routes are a major stressor.

It’s estimated that over 40% of North America’s forests which provide the primary breeding grounds of many migrants (especially warblers) have been fragmented by roads, parking lots, or suburban developments, or simply cut down and cleared.

Bullock's Oriole (Icterus bullockii)
Bullock’s Oriole (Icterus bullockii)

How do we help conserve Neotropical migrants?

The main activity is conservation of habitat. In both the nearctic breeding, stopover, and wintering grounds need protecting. In a way in boils down to what for humans what would be housing. There is a shortage of affordable housing in industrialized nations for humans. There is a shortage of breeding, stopover, and winter housing for migrating birds, too.

During the breeding season the migrants are adapted for a wide range of habitats from early-successional grasslands, old fields, and mature forests.

What is the Neotropical Migratory Bird Conservation Act?

“The Neotropical Migratory Bird Conservation Act authorizes grants for the conservation of neotropical migratory birds in the United States and Latin America and the Caribbean, with 75 percent of the amounts made available to be expended on projects outside the United States.” Find the Act here on FWS.gov. 

The report, Birds of Conservation Concern is available on the website of the U.S. Wildlife Service. 

An interactive Bird Conservation Map is available on the U.S. North American Bird Conservation Initiative website.

Spot-breasted Oriole (Icterus pectoralis)
Spot-breasted Oriole (Icterus pectoralis)- http://www.birdphotos.com

A List of Some but Not All Neotropical Migrants

This list is from Neotropical Migrants Breeding and Wintering Areas and Species List on Texas.gov.

  • Chimney Swift
  • Ruby-throated Hummingbird (Hummingbird Migration Dates)
  • Belted Kingfisher
  • Yellow-bellied Sapsucker
  • Black-billed Cuckoo
  • Yellow-billed Cuckoo
  • Common Nighthawk
  • Chuck-will’s-widow
  • Whip-poor-will
  • Olive-sided Flycatcher
  • Eastern Wood-Pewee
  • Eastern Phoebe
  • Great Crested Flycatcher
  • Eastern Kingbird
  • Western Kingbird
  • Scissor-tailed Flycatcher
  • White-eyed Vireo
  • Blue-headed Vireo
  • Yellow-throated Vireo
  • Warbling Vireo
  • Philadelphia Vireo
  • Red-eyed Vireo
  • Purple Martin
  • Barn Swallow
  • Cliff Swallow
  • House Wren
  • Marsh Wren
  • Veery
  • Gray-cheeked Thrush
  • Swainson’s Thrush
  • Hermit Thrush
  • Wood Thrush
  • Gray Catbird
  • Cedar Waxwing
  • Blue-winged Warbler
  • Golden-winged Warbler
  • Tennessee Warbler
  • Nashville Warbler
  • Northern Parula
  • Yellow Warbler
  • Chestnut-sided Warbler*
  • Magnolia Warbler
  • Cape May Warbler
  • Black-throated Blue Warbler
  • Yellow-rumped Warbler
  • Black-throated Green Warbler
  • Blackburnian Warbler
  • Yellow-throated Warbler
  • Prairie Warbler
  • Palm Warbler
  • Bay-breasted Warbler
  • Blackpoll Warbler
  • Cerulean Warbler
  • Black-and-white Warbler
  • American Redstart
  • Prothonotary Warbler
  • Worm-eating Warbler
  • Swainson’s Warbler
  • Ovenbird
  • Northern Waterthrush
  • Louisiana Waterthrush
  • Kentucky Warbler
  • Common Yellowthroat
  • Hooded Warbler
  • Yellow-breasted Chat
  • Summer Tanager
  • Scarlet Tanager
  • Rose-breasted Grosbeak
  • Blue Grosbeak
  • Dickcissel
  • Bobolink
  • Orchard Oriole
  • Baltimore Oriole

Birding and Neotropical Migrants

As we learned above the average migrants spend most of their year on their wintering grounds to the south. If those of us in the northern regions want to see their species we either have to travel to the south regions when the birds are wintering or get outside in spring and find them during migration. We maybe also see some species come to our summer bird feeders.

Once the birds are nesting and raising young, responsible birders stop patrolling the woods and wetlands and leave the birds to raise their young undisturbed.

Keeping a Life List or Birder’s Journal

Conclusion

When I started birding it took me awhile to understand the seasonal movements of birds. Why other birders came out in force during spring and fall migrations was a bit of a mystery.

Now we can seek out stopover places that provide food, water, and rest for migrating birds.

I hope this clears up questions birders have about when and where to bird.

Works Consulted

Cunningham, Mary Ann. “Neotropical Migrants.” In Environmental Encyclopedia, edited by Deidre S. Blanchfield, 2:1151–52. Detroit, Michigan: Cengage Learning, 2011.

DeGraaf, Richard M., and John H. Rappole. Neotropical Migratory Birds: Natural History, Distribution, and Population Change. Ithaca: Comstock Publishing Associates, 1995.

More on Bird Migration

Bird Migration Facts

Spring Birding for Beginning Birders

Bird Migration Routes: Do You Live Near One?

Identifying Birds by Color

Keeping a Life List or Birder’s Journal

BirdLife.org – International Bird Conservation

Posted on 2 Comments

Robins, Worms, and Rain

robin in grassy lawn
robin in grassy lawn
The Robins are Back.

Robins have made their way back from the woods and are running across lawns again. If robins have returned then earthworms are active or soon will be. Earthworms are the American Robins main food spring through fall. Three things coincide this month, robins, worms, and rain. Let’s explore how these three things intertwine and interact in the ecosystem.

The Worm Moon

March is the month of the Worm Moon. Here in the east, Algonquin peoples call from the current new Moon to the next new Moon, the Worm Moon. It’s the time that worm-like animals are first seen after the cold of winter. See Algonquin Moon Names 

 

Earthworms, Indigenous and Introduced

The large earthworms we often see aren’t indigenous to the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast above Maryland. In the Mid-Atlantic other soil organisms were the main soil builders and conditions. Decomposers such as snails, termites, sowbug, and fungi are the indigenous animals which eat and break down organic matter to release nutrients for plants and animals to digest.

Native indigenous earthworms are smaller than the introduced larger Eurasian worms. The large familiar earthworms of farms and gardens are introduced members of the family Lumbricidae. The native earthworms include only a few members of the Lumbricide but are classified in a different genus (Bismastos) than the Eurasian earthworms. Other indigenous worms are classified as members of a few other families. (Nardi, p.78)

American Robin hunting in grassy lawn
American Robin hunting in grassy lawn

Robins and Earthworms

American Robins (Turdus migratorius)have a distinct behavior of scurrying, stopping, cocking their heads from side to side and pointing their eyes at the ground. Then they may quickly stab at the soft ground and pull up a worm. If they are feeding chicks, they fly off with the worm dangling from their beaks or they eat the worm themselves.

During the summer, worms make up 20% of a robins diet. Sometimes as many as 20 worms are captured in the lawn topsoil. In the ecosystem, robins serve as a predator of earthworms.

robin feeding earthworm to chicks
Robin feeding earthworm to chicks

Since Eurasian earthworms have been introduced, I wonder how it has affected the American Robin population. I do know that the species is more common that they were in the past. The removal of forests and the presence of lawns surely must contribute to it.

I suppose robins of the past ate the native indigenous worms? Or maybe their diet has completely changed. The larger Eurasian earthworms has become a mainstay of the birds’ diet. This may have affected chick health and species population growth.

Once the earthworms are no longer easily hunted,  the birds switch from a spring and summer diet of mostly bugs and worms to fruit and berries. Robins feed on the ground for most of the year. I guess since they eat fruit and berries in the fall and winter they feed in the trees.

Earthworm on the surface.
Earthworm on the surface.

Earthworms, Rain, and Robins

Earthworms are active near the surface early and late in the day. And there is always a large number of earthworms on the surface of the ground after a rain. You often see dead worms floating in puddles. I don’t know what killed them but worms don’t drown. Worms breathe oxygen through their moist skin.

We don’t know why worms emerge above ground during and after a rain. Science has three ideas as to why they surface. The first idea is they can move and disperse more readily on the wet surface of the ground better than they can while underground.

The second idea focuses on the worms finding bits of organic matter they eat as food, on the surface in greater abundance. But isn’t that true all the time?

The third idea is the worms can find potential mates easier above ground than underground. The short answer is we really don’t know why worms surface especially after a rain.

However, it could be as simple as this: as worms surface on lawns and pavements they are more easily seen than in meadows or fields. Robins use this situation. This is why we see the birds hunting among the grass of fields and lawns.

earthworms in rain puddle
Earthworms in rain puddle.

Robins, Earthworms, and Rain

A robin eating an earthworm after a rainstorm connects to history, colonization, ecology, and protecting the health of the Good Earth. Our actions are no less connected and important to the the making, creating and workings of our world.

Works Consulted

Williams, Ernest H. The Nature Handbook: A Guide to Observing the Great Outdoors. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.

“How Robins Find Worms”, Gill, Frank B. Ornithology. 3rd ed. New York: W.H. Freeman, 2007.

Nardi, James B. Life in the Soil: A Guide for Naturalists and Gardeners. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007.

 

Related Posts

Earthworm Invaders (Smithsonian Environmental Research Center) – EcosystemontheEdge.org

Nature Almanac March 2022

Robins and Promises of Warm Weather 

The Order of a Rainstorm 

 

Posted on Leave a comment

Spring Birding and Nature Journal Prompts

Bullock's Oriole (Icterus bullockii)
American Redstart bird, male
American Redstart bird, male. Photo courtesy of Dan Pancamo Photography http://photos.pancamo.com found on Wikimedia – 3 May 2015

Spring Birding is the time to watch out for bird species that don’t nest in your area but may be passing through to their summer nesting grounds.

In this article, we’ll focus on the places and species you can see as the spring migration and summer nesting season continues.

male house sparrow and male goldfinch
A male American Goldfinch and a male House Sparrow eat from the feeders in my garden. Photo by Donna L. Long.

Spring Birding in Your Backyard

The birds that will visit your feeders fall into three main categories: winter visitors, summer nesters, and spring and fall migrants. In the average yard 15 to 20 species visit. You will see the greatest variety of species during the spring and fall migration seasons.

The number of species you see depends on where your feeders are located and what habitats are near them. The number of trees and shrubs, grasslands, and water in your immediate area has an effect on how many birds species you may see. And which species will visit. 

Bullock's Oriole (Icterus bullockii)
Bullock’s Oriole (Icterus bullockii)

Seeing More Than the Feeder Birds

If you want to see more than the 15 to 20 feeder species, you have to go to other areas. If you want to see the many warblers, swallows, thrushes, etc. that won’t come to your garden and backyard feeders, a field trip is needed.

Trees are a key element on how many birds you can see. Public parks in city and suburban areas are great places to see migrating warblers and other songbirds. Environmental centers, refuges, and public gardens, and even cemeteries will host spring migrants. See Neotropical Migrants.

To see species that depend on bodies of water for food you will have to visit ponds, rivers, wetlands, shores, and even reservoirs.

Journal Prompt 1: Record Sightings

Keep daily records of sightings. Note the date, weather conditions, sunrise and sunset times. The sunrise and sunset times allow you to calculate the photoperiod or day length of when the birds appear. The most reliable cue to bird migration is day length.

Birds become restless as the photoperiod or day length increases or decreases. As the amount of day length increases in late winter into the spring, birds know they need to move to find good breeding and feeding territories.

Journal Prompt: What Bird Species Arrive First?

The earliest arrivals get to choose the best nest sites and feeding areas. Once good weather arrives  birds are flying north or choosing choice locations.

Birds that migrate a short distance, like local Robins that winter in the shelter of woodlands, are often one of the earliest birds to reappear in the spring. Other birds signal the arrival of a spring in different locals.

Each area has an indicator bird species which signals the arrival of spring.

  • Buzzards (Turkey Vultures) return to Hinckley, Ohio
  • Swallows return to Capistrano, California
  • Redwing Blackbirds return to northern marshes in mid-March
  • American Robins return to lawns and grassy patches in the east
  • Chipping Sparrows arrive at feeders in colorful plumage
  • Eastern Phoebe announce their return by calling a rapid fee-bee in early March

Journal Prompt 2: Calls and Songs

Early spring is a good time to pick out a few species and learn their calls and songs. If you venture out into the wooded areas and parks to spot warblers in April, you’ll need all the help you can get. Listen out for bird songs not calls. Songs mean a bird is staking a claim on a territory, or is courting. It is a clear sign the spring breeding season has begun.

If the songs you hear are not familiar, you may be hearing the calls and songs of migrants passing through.

Why not start with the song of American Robins? Or chip call notes of Chipping Sparrows? Or the fee- bee call of the Eastern Phoebe?

If you like the challenge of identifying warblers, find out which warblers are plentiful in your area and learn those calls and songs before moving on to the rarer species.

barn swallow and nest box
Barn Swallow nest box at John Heinz NWR at Tinicum in Philadelphia. Photo by Donna L. Long.

Backyard Habitat: Keep Those Feeders Topped Up

Most songbirds migrate at night. The air is cooler and it maybe safer. Raptors (birds of prey) follow  songbirds (their food) as the smaller birds fly north. Birders see these night migrants when they stop during the daylight hours to rest and eat. This is when you see them in wooded areas, parks, and backyard bird feeders.

Birdhouses in Your Garden or Backyard

Are you thinking of putting up birdhouses this year? I have but don’t know what to do in my small city backyard. I have set up the opportunity to interview a maker of birdhouses in the coming weeks.  I plan to ask many, many questions and post the interview and answers on this site.

Update: Read the interview – Birdhouses: Choosing, Maintaining, and Attracting Birds

See also: Choosing a Nest Box

Conclusion

I am just so excited to bird this spring. I have a new area all picked out to bird. I think maybe the lifting of pandemic protocols is also lifting my spirits. Happy Birding. Happy Spring, Happy Ending of the Pandemic! Fingers crossed!

 

More Spring Birding Information

Spring Migration for Beginning Birders

Spring Warblers – Birding Tips and Techniques

Birding by Ear: Learning Bird Calls and Songs 

Hummingbird Migration Dates 

Posted on 2 Comments

The Great Backyard Bird Count

2022_great_backyard_bird_count

2022_great_backyard_bird_count

What is the Great Backyard Bird Count?

The Great Backyard Bird Count is a free and fun citizen science program that takes place annually in mid-February. To participate, look out your window and see what birds are in your backyard or at your feeders during the four days of the count. You will need to submit a checklist online or through the smartphone eBird app to add your sightings to all the data collected from around the world.

The Great Backyard Bird Count, like Project FeederWatch, monitors the abundance, distribution, and winter movement of birds in North America.

birds_canada geese
Head of a Canada Goose. Photo by Donna L. Long

Since 1998, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology has sponsored this project.  Today the project is jointly sponsored by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Birds Canada, and the National Audubon Society.

I think it is important to count and submit data on urban birds particularly. A 2010 article, in the scientific journal Nature, revealed that ecologists had neglected the study of urban ecosystems.  Those of us who live in urban areas can correct this mistake by entering data in this and other citizen science projects. 

There is a notion afoot, that animals and plants must disappear (die off) in the presence of humans. The numbers are often reduced, but many animals live in cities. What I often write about is how we can provide good lives for all the inhabitants of the city, human and non-human.

bird_northern_mockingbird
Northern Mockingbird

When the Great Backyard Bird Count Takes Place

The annual count collects data on bird populations before the great spring migration. The count takes place each year in mid-February over four days. The count takes place over a weekend, Friday through Monday. In 2022, the Count will take place February 18-21, 2022.

How Can You Participate?

The Count has participants worldwide. You can participate in the Great Backyard Bird Count in your backyard or at a favorite birding spot. You can participate as an individual, a household or in a group.

Male Hairy Woodpecker eating from upside down suet feeder in my backyard.
Male Hairy Woodpecker eating from upside down suet feeder in my backyard.

How Do You Sign Up?

If you have a smartphone you enter your data through the eBird app available in the iPhone App store or for Android phone the Google Play store. Search for the eBird app and download it. Create an account or sign-in to an existing account with the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

If you have the Merlin app you can’t use it for the Count. The Merlin app is for identification of bird species. It a free field guide on your smartphone. The app is available through the Apple App or Google Play store.

Your Great Backyard Bird Count and eBird accounts are linked. Any sightings you enter during the Great Backyard Bird Count dates will automatically counted in the project.

Next record your sightings. The instructions on observation are below and on the Great Backyard Bird Count website. It couldn’t be easier.

If you don’t have a smartphone you can enter your sightings online at

https://www.birdcount.org/ebird-on-computer/

perching Northern Goshawk
Northern Goshawk Gillfoto, Juneau, Alaska, United States, CC, via Wikimedia Commons

How to Participate in the Great Backyard Bird Count

It’s not much different from Project Feederwatch. I think of it as a mashup of Project Feederwatch and the Christmas Bird Count. You can count in your backyard like FeederWatch or count in a group. You also have the option of observing at a favorite sight.

If you want to go out in a group, check your local birding organization or environmental centers for opportunities.

Step 1: Decide where you will watch birds.

Step 2: Watch birds for 15 minutes or more, at least once over the four days, 

Step 3: Count all the birds you see or hear within your planned time/location and use the best tool for sharing your bird sightings:

(from https://www.birdcount.org/participate/)

Birdcount.org has a free webinar on how to participate in the count.

Last year’s participants could download a participation certificate after the count.

bird_starling
A Starling eating suet in my backyard.

Conclusion

I hope this takes some of the mystery out of joining a citizen science project. Gathering scientifically relevant data for scientists is not hard.

If you have suggestions for others or questions share them in the comments below. 

This post will take the place of our regular Saturday blog post.

 

More Winter Birding Information

Rare Bird Alerts

Sign up for rare sightings for an area of your choosing using eBird https://ebird.org/alerts.

More Birding Citizen Science Projects

Project FeederWatch Info, Tips and Nature Journal Ideas

Christmas Bird Count

Posted on Leave a comment

Arctic Birds that Visit in Winter (with video)

American Tree Sparrow (Spizelloides arborea)
American Tree Sparrow (Spizelloides arborea)
American Tree Sparrow (Spizelloides arborea) Jocelyn Anderson [CC BY https://creativecommons.org/%5D

Arctic birds spend the summer nesting season in the Far North at the Arctic Circle. Some are year-round residents of the chilly North. But when winter weather  approaches or food is hard to find, these Arctic birds migrate south to areas with more food. This is your chance to see them without embarking on a costly trip.

What I didn’t realize when I was a new birder was that some birds I wouldn’t see in my local area except in winter. It seems so much emphasis is placed on the spring and summer migrants, that I didn’t realize winter could yield exciting sightings, too.

 

Where to Find Arctic Birds Further South

Experienced birders participate in forums, alerts, and social media pages to be aware of sightings of winter visitors from up north. Unless you travel to points near the Arctic Circle, the winter migrations maybe the only way you get to see these birds.

Normally these birds can be found in ecosystems similar to where they live up North. Snowy Owls will be seen in open fields and grasslands. Red-throated Loons will winter on the shorelines of oceans and bays.

Your backyard may be an area with more food for species such as Bohemian Waxwings or American Tree Sparrows.  Or Snowy Owls maybe show up in a grassy field in your area. Some birds may hang around as late as April until they move back north to breed and raise young.

Snowy Owl landing
Snowy Owl landing in field in winter.

Arctic Visitor: The Snowy Owl

Snowy Owls spend their summers in the Far North of the Arctic Circle. It is an uncommon to rare sight in the lower 48 states of the U.S. When birders in the lower 48 states see this spectacular bird it is big news. Look at your bird field guides range map of the Snowy Owl. Looking at just how far north these birds live, you might rush over to the open fields or marshes to spot a Snowy Owl visitor, too.

Piping plover (Charadrius melodus) walking on the beach
Piping plover (Charadrius melodus)
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Public domain.

Shorebirds in WInter

Shorebirds are a group of birds which share characteristics such as living and feeding along the water’s edge. Most of the 53 species in North America breed in the Arctic and winter along the coastlines.

Instead of camping out on the summer tundra where I hear there are murderous swarms of insects, take a trip to the seashore. Shorebirds will be numerous on beaches where humans frolicked in summer.

Red-breasted_Nuthatch_(Sitta_canadensis)5 By pbonenfant [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Red-breasted_Nuthatch_(Sitta_canadensis)5 By pbonenfant

Arctic Birds Species Common at Winter Feeders

Bohemian Waxwings (Bombycilla garrulus) breed in the far north and often winter in southern Canada and the northern U.S. In irregular years the birds venture as far south as Pennsylvania through the midwest U.S. Trees and shrubs that hang onto their fruit into the winter will attract these birds. When a winter flock of Bohemian Waxwings is spotted in nearby forests, birders gather to see these elegant birds.

The American Tree Sparrow (Spizella arborea) breeds in the north and spends winters over much of the United States. They might visit your feeder. The American Tree Sparrow winter diet consists of small weed and grass seeds. They will select the small millet and nyjer seeds from trays set on the ground.

The Red-breasted Nuthatch (Sitta canadensis) lives in coniferous forests and feeds on the seed in cones of spruce, fir, and other conifers. If the seed harvest from cones is less than what the Red-breasted Nuthatch will irrupt south of the coniferous forests, They can be found in coniferous trees, grasslands, and backyard bird feeders. At feeders they favor sunflower seeds or suet.

Evening Grosbeaks (Coccothraustes vespertinus) live in the coniferous forests in the western U.S. and Canada. This species may irrupt in large flocks. These birds prefer their sunflowers in platform feeders or on the ground.

white pine tree grove
White Pine Trees in a cluster. Photo by Donna L. Long.

Ecosystems Where Arctic Birds are Found

Arctic Birds that Visit Backyard Feeders

  • American Tree Sparrow
  • Evening Grosbeak
  • Red-breasted Nuthatch

Observing on Wetlands, Ponds, Rivers, Bays, etc.

  • Long-tailed Duck
  • Red-throated Loon

Observing along the Coastline of the Atlantic or Pacific Oceans

  • most of the 53 species of shorebirds in North America

Observing at Grasslands

  • Willow Ptarmigan
  • Rough-Legged hawk
  • Snowy Owl
  • Northern Goshawk
  • Snow Bunting
  • Northern Shrike

Observing at the Shore

  • Glaucous Gull
  • Iceland Gull
  • Bonaparte’s Gull

Observing in Forests

  • Bohemian Waxwing
  • Red Finch
  • Common Redpoll
  • Red Crossbill
  • White-winged Crossbill
  • Pine Grosbeak
  • Golden-crowned Kinglet

Breed in the Arctic and Winter in British Columbia

  • Yellow-Billed Loon
  • Peregrine Falcon

Birds that Nest in the Arctic Wildlife Refuge and Winter in the U.S.

  • Long-tailed Duck
  • Snow Bunting
  • American Tree Sparrow
  • Glaucous Gull
  • Rough-Legged Hawk
  • Common Redpoll
  • Red-throated Loon

Birds to Watch for in Winter (Video)

Lesley the Bird Nerd created a very helpful video which highlights the species to watch out for, why they may arrive further south, and where to locate them.

Conclusion

I hope this article clarifies why birders make such big deals over winter sightings of birds. And I think it also shows that birding is a year-round activity. If you have questions or can add to our understanding,  please leave your comment below.

Works Consulted

Barker, Margaret A., and Jack L. Griggs. The FeederWatcher’s Guide to Bird Feeding. 1st ed. A Cornell Bird Library Guide. New York, NY: Harper Resource, 2000.

Sibley, David. The Sibley Guide to Birds. Second edition. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2014.

Stokes, Donald W., and Lillian Q. Stokes. Stokes Beginner’s Guide to Shorebirds. 1st ed. Boston: Little, Brown, 2001.

Related Posts on Winter Birding 

Winter Birding: How to Master It (with video)

Winter Bird Migrations and Irruptions

Common Winter Birds Across North America

Winter Bird Feeding Guide: Attract Birds to Your Backyard (with video)

Learn the Fall and Winter Colors of These Common Birds

 

Posted on Leave a comment

Common Winter Birds Across North America

By Minette Layne (Flickr: [1]) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
By Minette Layne (Flickr: [1]) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Chestnut Backed Chickadee By Minette Layne (Flickr: [1]) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

In North America, there only two dozen common winter feeder bird species that are widespread and can be seen in both the west and east. In both the eastern and western regions there are about another ten species that visit bird feeders.

There are a few surprise visitors, but as you will see in the lists below, there are not that many species that will make birding convenient for you by visiting your backyard.

A Sharp-shinned Hawk perches on my garden fence. Photo by Donna L. Long
A Sharp-shinned Hawk perches on my garden fence. Photo by Donna L. Long

There are other birds in the U.S. and Canada during winter, they just won’t visit your feeders regularly. You may be lucky (or is it unlucky) enough to have a Red-tailed Hawk or a Sharp-shinned Hawk hunt at your feeders for the small, delicious birds you attract. A Great-horned Owl may hang out in a nearby tree.

The birds that live in wet habitats, like shorebirds and waterfowl, are hanging out by the last patches of unfrozen water. If you want to see those birds, you will have to go where they are, unfrozen lakes, rivers, bays, and the oceans.

American Tree Sparrow (Spizelloides arborea)
American Tree Sparrow (Spizelloides arborea) Jocelyn Anderson [CC BY 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)]

As the spring gets under way and the far north arctic regions begin to thaw, visiting arctic bird species will return to the taiga and tundra. These birds breed arctic and winter in the lower 48 states of the U.S. or the more southern areas of Canada. Depending where you live, winter maybe the only chance you get to see some of the birds.

Next week’s post will be on the Birds That Breed in the Arctic and spend the winters in southern Canada and the Continental U.S.

Female Hairy Woodpecker eating suet at my buffet.
Female Hairy Woodpecker eating suet at my buffet.

This is a list of the most common birds which visit bird feeders in the winter months. These birds can be observed across North America including the United States and Canada. The list is compiled from Project FeederWatch.org, a citizen science project of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

The list is broken down by those species that are widespread and those which are seen either in the east or west.

A male Cardinal and Mourning Dove eating from a platform feeder.
A male Cardinal and Mourning Dove eating from a platform feeder.

Widespread Common Winter Feeder Birds (about 24 species)

Woodpeckers

  • Downy Woodpecker (Picoides pubescens)
  • Hairy Woodpecker (Picoides villosus)

Thrushes

  • American Robin (Turdus migratorius)

Starlings

  • European Starling (Sturnus vulgaris)

Doves

  • Mourning Dove (Zenaida macroura)

Nuthatches

  • White-breasted Nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis)
  • Red-breasted Nuthatch (Sitta canadensis)

Chickadees and Titmice

  • Black-capped Chickadee (Parus atricapillus)

Cardinals

  • Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis)

Blackbirds

  • Red-winged Blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus)
  • Brown-headed Cowbird (Molothrus ater)

Finches

  • American Goldfinch (Carduelis tristis)
  • Purple Finch (Carpodacus purpureus)
  • House Finch (Carpodacus mexicanus)
  • Pine Siskin (Carduelis pinus)
  • Evening Grosbeak (Coccothraustes vespertinus)

Sparrows

  • White-crowned Sparrow (Zonotrichia leucophrys)
  • White-throated Sparrow (Zonotrichia albicollis)
  • Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia)
  • Fox Sparrow (Passerella iliaca)
  • American Tree Sparrow (Spizella arborea)

Identifying Savannah and Song Sparrows

Old World Sparrows

  • House Sparrow (Passer domesticus)
Steller's Jay (Cyanocitta stelleri)
Steller’s Jay (Cyanocitta stelleri). Photo: public domain, fws.gov

Western Feeder Birds (about 10 species)

The following is a list of birds that visit feeders in the winter in the western region of North America.

Sparrows

  • Dark-eyed Junco (Junco hyemalis) – Oregon form
  • Dark-eyed Junco (Junco hyemalis) – pink-sided form
  • Golden-Crowned Sparrow (Zonotrichia atricapilla)
  • Cassin’s Finch (Peucaea cassinii)

Chickadees

  • Chestnut-Backed Chickadee (Poecile rufescens)
  • Mountain Chickadee (Poecile gambell)

Thrushes

  • Varied Thrush (Ixoreus naevlus)

Jays

  • Stellar Jay (Cyanocitta stelleri)

Blackbirds

  • Brewer’s Blackbird (Euphagus cyanocephalus)

Woodpeckers

  • Red-Shafted (Northern) Flicker (Colaptes auratus)
bird_dark-eyed Junco
Dark-eyed Junco. Photo by Donna L. Long

Eastern Feeder Birds (about 10 species)

The following is a list of birds that visit feeders in the winter in the eastern region of North America.

Chickadees and Titmice

  • Carolina/Black-capped Chickadee mix
  • Carolina Chickadee (Parus carolinensis)
  • Tufted Titmouse (Parus bicolor)

Sparrows

  • Dark-eyed Junco (Junco hyemalis) – Slate-colored form
  • Eastern Towhee (Pipilo erythrophthalmus)

Wrens

  • Carolina Wren (Thryothorus ludovicianus)

Jays

  • Blue Jay (Cyanocitta cristata)

Blackbirds

  • Common Grackle (Quscalus quiscula)

Woodpeckers

  • Red-bellied Woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus)
  • Yellow-Shafted (Northern/Taiga) Flicker (Colaptes auratus)
American Tree Sparrow (Spizelloides arborea)
American Tree Sparrow (Spizelloides arborea) Jocelyn Anderson [CC BY 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)]

More Posts on Winter Birding

Winter Birding: How to Master It (with video)

Winter Bird Migrations and Irruptions (with video)

Winter Bird Feeding Guide: Attract Birds to Your Backyard (with video)

Citizen science project: The Great Backyard Bird Count

Citizen science project: Project FeederWatch Info, Tips, and Nature Journaling Ideas

Identifying Song and Savannah Sparrows

identifying Birds by Color: A Collection of Photo Galleries