Archive for May, 2012

I found a Baby Bird.  What is it?

I recently received an email with this message and photo.  The sender knew it was an owl, but which one?

Answer:  It is an Eastern Screech Owl.

This shows that, although most people have never seen an owl in Westchester, owls and many other birds are in the neighborhood.  This little owl was in a yard just off of Central Avenue in Yonkers.  All you have to do find birds is look.

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Every spring, I receive many concerned phone calls saying “I found a baby bird.  What should I do with it?”  Before responding I ask a simple question:  Does it have feathers? 

If the baby bird has feathers, it is fairly mature and its parents will probably be around.  The best thing to do is just to leave in alone.  You may want to move into shrubs instead of leaving in the center of the lawn where every passing child or pet will easily see it.  The parents are probably around and will continue to feed it.  In fact, sometimes, the parents kick the kid out of the nest inplying that the nestling that it old enough do things for itself. 

If the baby doesn’t have feathers, it may have fallen from a nearby nest.  Try to find the nest and put the baby back in the nest.  Don’t worry about the old wives tale that the parents will smell humans on it and ignore or kill the nestling.  Birds don’t have a good sense of smell.  And they will continue to be good parents.

If all this fails, you can try raising the poor young thing yourself.  (One older gentleman told me he found and raised a young cardinal eight years ago.  He still has it.  Calls it Rosie.  Rosie sits on his shoulder and responds when he says “give me a kiss”)  I don’t recommend this approach. 

I have a list of certified Wildlife Rehabilitators in the local area.  I’ll can put you in touch with one of them and they can nurse your poor little orphan.  It always warms my heart that some people are so concern over a baby bird.  Most people are good.

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A bird’s life is fast and quick.  A human takes more than 15-18 years to become an adult ready to leave home and face the world alone.  Compare this to a robin.  Once the eggs are laid, they hatch in about 2 weeks.  Once the nestling emerges from the egg, it only takes another 2 weeks before it is ready to leave the nest – not prolonged childhood.

Check the following link to watch the entire childhood in less than 3 minutes.


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 Chickadees are one of my favorite birds.  They are curious birds, one of the first to try out a new bird feeder.  And once they find it, they are daily visitors.  Although they are small in size, they are very bold and will learn to eat from your hand.

Sunflower seeds are their favorite food.  At a feeder, you can watch them pick up one sunflower seed, then drop it and pick up a different one.  Once decide on the best seed, they fly to a nearby branch and, holding the seed firmly against the branch with their feet, crack open the shell with their beak to get to the seed inside.

Studies show that they select sunflower seeds by heft choosing the heaviest seed much like shoppers picking melons in the grocery store.  Scientists filled a feeder with a variety of sunflower seeds, some were empty shells, some were normal seed of various sizes, and others were filled with plaster to make them heavier than normal.   Chickadees consistently chose the heaviest seeds which promised the greatest nutrition for the amount of energy they would expend in cracking it open.

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Ever wonder why most hummingbird feeders are red?  It’ is generally assumed that hummingbirds have the strongest attraction to that color, right?  Maybe not. Research conducted by the University of St. Andrews suggests that the Hummingbird’s attraction to feeders has more to do with location than color.

In the experiment, researchers varied the sweetness and refill rate of four different colored feeders in order to find out if color played a role in the ability of the hummingbirds to learn the best feeders to visit. What they found was that the hummers learned which feeder would be the sweetest and which would be refilled more frequently independent of the feeder color.  A study published on Planet Earth Online states:

“Ultimately, this suggests they ignore color and just focus on location… I guess its a bit like us in the supermarket. We know exactly where to look on the shelves and isles for our favorite products, which means that when the supermarkets move them, we have to readily search to find them again.”

A separate study performed by a professor at Yale University generated similar results. In this study, red, green, blue, yellow and clear feeder solutions of the same sweetness were placed side by side. Over the course of several days, the researchers changed the placement of the feeders and observed the number of visits to each color. Their conclusion was that hummingbirds are more strongly influenced by the location of their food source than by the color.

So what does all this mean for the everyday birder?  Keep your feeder in the same location. Moving it around might cause the hummingbirds to search for food elsewhere!

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Cornell Lab of Ornithology recently reported the results of the 2012 Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC).  Over President’s Day weekend this past February families throughout N. America counted the birds they saw in their backyard and then sent their count info to Cornell to be compiled and analyzed.  This was the 15th year for the GBBC.  Here are some highlights:

  • Over 104,000 count lists were submitted.  That is a lot of bird watchers.
  • More than 620 different species of birds were seen.
  • A total of over 17 million individual birds were seen.
  • 2012 numbers confirmed the invasion of Snowy Owls reported this winter, more than 4 times the numbers seen in 2011, with record numbers in the Midwest.
  • Year-to-year changes in count data reveal the rapid range expansion of Eurasian Collared-Doves.  10 years ago they were rare southern birds.  This year Canadians reported twice as many as they did last year.

 For a more detailed summary of this year’s GBBC trends visit www.birdcount.org

 Cornell Lab sponsors many similar bird studies that encourage the participation of the general public (they call us “citizen scientists”).  It is fun and satisfying to be able to participate in scientific studies.  Why not join one of their studies?


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The Brown-headed Cowbird is an appropriately named bird – a black bird with a brown head.  I saw my first cowbird of the year today.  They are early returning migrants and can usually be found in flocks of grackles and starling.  I know they have been in the area for a while but I just hadn’t seen one.  Maybe I just didn’t go birding often enough.

Cowbirds have a terrible reputation and are universally disliked.  The reason behind this loathing is simple:  they are nest parasites.  In practice that means they lay their eggs in the nest of other birds and let those birds raise the cowbird’s kids.  Often they lay eggs in the nest of a tiny birds, such as a warbler.  New-born cowbirds are physically larger than adult warblers.  But the adult warblers have such a strong parental instinct that they feed this hungry, giant baby at the expense of their own smaller, weaker young.  Young cowbirds also destroy warbler eggs or kill the hatchlings.

Cowbird nest predation is one of the major concerns for the continued existence of Kirtlands Warbers, the rarest of all warblers with a total population of only hundreds of individuals.  Scientists found cowbird eggs in more than half of all Kirtland Warbler nests.

 It is somewhat easier to tolerate cowbirds if you understand how they developed their nasty habit.  Cowbirds used to follow the buffalo herds.  As buffalo roamed they flushed a lot of insects, which the cowbirds devoured.  Buffalo herds are constantly on the move.  If the cowbird took a few weeks off to build a nest and raise young, the buffalo would have moved on and might be 50 miles away. 

It was better to stay with their source of food and let someone else raise the kids

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Today I saw the first Chimney Swifts of the year.  It is one of those birds whose name pretty much tells it all.  Its name is simple and straight forward.  Few observers ever see the red belly on a Red-bellied Woodpecker or note the crests on a Double-crested Cormorant.

Roger Tory Peterson describes the swift as a cigar with wings and that is what it look like.  They are always in flight, zigging and zagging.  They have crescent shaped wings and appear to have no tail.  You never see them perched because they can’t.  The legs are not developed for perching.  They roost inside brick chimneys, 100s of swifts clinging to the vertical side of the chimney.

Several years ago I was leading a Bird Walk at Harts Brook Park.  One of the women on the walk mentioned she had never seen a Chimney Swift.  A few minutes later as we walk near the greenhouse, I noticed one flying over.  As I pointed it out, the swift veered sharply and flew straight down into the chimney of the old greenhouse – a perfect illustration of its name:  “swift” and “chimney”

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The weather bureau predicted today would be a lovely spring day, sunny and mild.  Surprisingly they were right.

I joined a couple of friends at Marshlands Conservancy.  Although we did not get started until after 10:00AM it was an enjoyable late morning walk.  Not as many birds as earlier in the morning but still I managed to add 5 new species to my 2012 bird list.

The best sighting of the morning was a male Indigo Bunting, totally dazzling in bright sunlight.  It may be called “indigo” but that does not truly describe its color.  I’m not sure what would be a better term.  To me the color seems to glow as if the bird was illuminated from the inside.  “Indigo” is better than “blue” but not even close to the real color.

The most unexpected bird was a single, solitary Solitary Sandpiper in a small water hole in the woods.

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Cornell Lab of Ornithology is making great strides in marrying the simple pleasures of birding with the wonders of technology.  Average birders (Cornell calls them” citizen scientists”) submit millions of reports on bird sightings across the county.  Cornell has manipulated these data and developed real time Occurrence Maps that let you observe bird migration without leaving your computer.  And you can see an entire year of migration, week by week, in less than 2 minutes.

Check the link below and observe the yearly migration of the White-throated Sparrow.  You will notice how they blanket the east in winter but my mid-summer can’t be found in the US.  Note it is helpful to click on the Larger Map.


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