Archive for October, 2011

 Some people feed birds all year round.  Others only feed in the colder months.  The latter group often asks about the best time to put a feeder out.  My response is that there is no preferred date or deadline.  If you are not going to feed all year, you can put out your feeder whenever the spirit moves you.

Sometimes people develop a date that has meaning for them.  One woman explained that her family has a tradition of setting up their bird feeder on Thanksgiving Day.  Another puts her feeders out when she puts away the patio furniture, signifying the end of summer and the coming of winter.  Yet another waits for the first forecasted snowfall of the year.  Or the first day with sub-freezing temperatures.

 Of course, if you enjoy the birds in your backyard, there is no real reason why you shouldn’t leave the feeder up all year.  A common reason people give for not feeding in the summer is that they want the birds to eat the insects in their yard during the summer.  This explanation fits into the category of an old wife’s tale. 

 I explain that birds generally fall into two different categories:  those that eat seeds and those that eat insects, bugs, and worms.  And, if you are a seed-eater, you are always a seed eater regardless of the season.  You may catch a few insects in summer, primarily to feed your young.  But mostly you eat seed every day of the year.  And vice versa, an insect or worm-eating bird such as a robin will never come to your feeder for bird seed. 

 It is interesting to note that this categorization of birds by their food preferences can also applied to migration.  Seed-eating birds can find seed all year, so they generally do not fly south for the winter.  However, insect-eating birds do migrate.  They don’t migrate because they don’t like the cold weather.  They migrate because that can’t find any insects to eat in cold weather.  So they move south to where the bugs are. 

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Native American stories explain how the white raven turned black.  In one version, the owl took the sun, moon, and stars and hid them in his cave.  The raven sneaked into the cave and stole these celestial bodies and hung them back in the sky.  But while he was there he also stole some embers from the fire.  As he flew with a beak full of embers, the smoke from the fire turned him black.

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Losing Wing Feathers

If a bird loses a wing feather it is subject to slight aerodynamic imbalances.  Yet all birds molt their feathers.  So what happens when they molt old feathers?  Do they fly erratically during the period of molt?


No.  Evolution has developed a system so that when a bird molts a feather from its right wing, the same feather on left wing also molts.  Thus symmetrical balance is maintained.


Waterfowl are an exception to this symmetrical molt.  Mallard ducks for example do not molt their flight feathers one at a time.  They molt them all simultaneously. Without flight feathers they cannot fly.  During this period Mallards are in a state called eclipse plumage.  It takes a week or so for new flight feathers to grow in during which time Mallards are grounded (or more likely water-bound) and cannot fly at all. 

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A few weeks ago I posed the question:  “Why do some birds, particularly shorebirds and ducks, pulled up one leg and stand on the other one?” My answer taken directly from the 5th grade humor book was:  “If they pulled up both legs they would fall down.”

Recently I learned that scientists actually have a better theory.  They believe that by pulling up one leg and tucking it into their body feathers, shorebirds conserve energy.  The long legs of a shorebird expose a large surface area to the elements.  Tucking one leg reduces the amount of heat lost particularly in cold weather.

In winter, you will often see a duck employ a similar heat saving strategy.  A duck will rotate its head and tuck its bill into the warm feathers on its back.  Otherwise the large surface area of the bill would radiate a lot of body heat. 

Personally, I’m more likely to remember the 5th grade explanation of why birds stand on one leg.

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Birds come in all sizes.  The largest living bird is the Ostrich which can weigh 350 pounds.  The smallest is the Bee Hummingbird of Cuba which measures only 2.5 inches from the tip of its long bill to the end of its tail.

Another way to illustrate the extremes in size:  An Ostrich egg weighs about 3 pounds and measures about 5 inches long.  A hummingbird egg is about the size of a pea and only weighs .02 ounces.

You could put over 4000 hummingbirds eggs inside one Ostrich egg.

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 A very observant older gentleman noticed three female cardinals at his birder feeder.  Two of them had orange colored bills, the other had a gray-black bill.  Why, he wondered, the difference?

 Answer:  The cardinal with the black bill was a juvenile bird.  Young cardinals, both male and female, have coloring similar to the adult female cardinal — an overall, washed out grayish red color.  Not the bright red coloring of the adult male.  But juvenile cardinals have a black, not orange, bill.  The bill color gradually becomes orange as the youngsters grow intro teenagers and adults.

Female Cartdinal


Juvenile Cardinal






Look for black billed cardinals at your feeder    






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Movie Review

When I began this blog I never dreamed that it would ever include a movie review.  But, that what this post is.

Last evening a flock of local birders assembled at the Saw Mill Multiplex to view a movie on birders.  There were 77 of us.  I know the exact number because there were experienced hawk counters in the crowd. 

The movie, The Big Year, was based loosely on the book of the same name by Mark Obmascik that made the NYTimes best-seller list ten years ago.  In typical Hollywood fashion the story wasn’t just “adapted” it was pretty much re-written for the big screen and turned into a semi-comedy.  After all, what normal person would want to see a serious movie about 3 obsessed birders?

3 top comedic actors (Steve Martin, Jack Black, and Owen Wilson) portrayed the birders.  In addition other well known stars had cameo appearances – Anjelica Huston, JoBeth Williams, Brian Dennehy.  So the acting was top rate.  So was the cinema-photography with lots of scenes of birds and major birding spots.  The New York gave the movie a review but the Journal New felt it was average.  I felt it was only so-so.

It was entertaining, particularly for people interested in birds.  And non-birders would get a better sense of how much birder enjoy birding.  But it is not a “you have to see it” movie.

Read the book and see the movie, they reinforce each other.  However, if you can only do one, read the book.  It is an outstanding read.  And it is now out in paperback.  I carry it in the store.

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The highly anticipated new movie “The Big Year” has opened.  The movie follows the efforts of 3 obsessive birders who are each attempting to set the record for the greatest number of species seen in one year.  The movie, which is based on a best-selling book of the same name, stars Steve Martin, Jack Black and Owen Wilson.  So I guess that makes it a comedy.

Birders’ Movie Night

In conjunction with all the local chapters of the Audubon Society, we have arranged a Birders Movie Night for all local birders to gather and see this movie as a group.  That should make an interesting evening.

When:       Tuesday, Oct 18th

Time:        Show Time is 7:20 p.m.

Where:     Saw Mill Multiplex Cinema,  151 Saw Mill Road (Rt9A), Hawthorne, NY 10532

                                                            Ticket Price:  $6.00



Post-Movie Owl Prowl

We are working on arranging an Owl Prowl to a local sanctuary following the movie.  Plans have not been finalized yet.  But keep binoculars and flashlight in your car just in case. 

Join us if you can.

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People often wonder how long the birds in their backyard live.  The sad truth is that most birds do not live to see their first birthday.  Youth is a dangerous time for birds.  Lack of food, flying accidents, and predators take their toll.  However, if they do survive the first year their expected life span increases.  On average, the small songbirds at your feeder may live to an age of 5-7 years.  Although the same living species in captivity will live several years longer because they don’t have to worry about finding food or avoiding predators.  

 As a general rule the larger the bird, the longer the life span.  A crow, for example, might live to 15 years of age.  An eagle, 20-25 years.  Parrots, which can live to more than 50 years, may have the longest lifespan.  Often, when someone buys a parrot for a pet, the pet outlives its owner.

 Which reminds me of the story of VanHumbolt’s parrot.  VanHumbolt was a 19th century German explorer and self promoter who made many trips to South America.  On one trip he was befriended by a small, remote native tribe.  The tribe, which had its own oral language but no written language, gave him a parrot that had learned to speak their language.  When he left their remote village, he took the bird back to Germany with him.

 Ten years later, a fatal disease attacked and killed every member of the small tribe.  The parrot, then, became the only creature on earth that could still speak their language. 

 VanHumbolt was a born promoter.  So he took the bird and went on a grand tour of Europe, displaying the parrot before large audiences that were mesmerized by an exotic bird that could speak a dead language.

 P.T. Barnum would have been proud.

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Eastern Bluebirds, the NY State bird, like to nest in cavities in small trees or old fence posts in open fields and meadows.  Unfortunately urban sprawl and suburban development destroyed most of this habitat in lower Westchester.  As a result, since the 1970s there were no records of Bluebirds nesting in Westchester south of I-287 for more than 25 years.  However, thanks to the efforts of Sandy Morrissey and a group of 28 volunteer bluebird monitors, Bluebirds may be making a comeback.

 Sandy’s Eastern Bluebird Project has been installing bluebird nest boxes in suitable habitats hoping to lure Bluebirds into the area.  Sites have included golf courses, parks, cemeteries and other open areas.  To date more than 200 boxes have been installed.  And their efforts seem to be paying off.

 In 2011, 62 bluebird couples used one of the boxes raising a total more than 250 young bluebirds, almost twice as many as in the previous year.

 Monitors check each box on a regular basis, seeing if it is occupied, counting eggs or the number of young, removing unwanted nests.  Sandy obtained her bird banding license this year and was able to band almost 300 adult and nestling bluebirds.  This banding will help identify these individuals again in coming years.

Anyone interested in volunteering for the Bluebird Project, contact Sandy Morrissey, sandym@cloud9.net or (914) 949-2531

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