Archive for June, 2012

Occasionally, particularly in hot weather, you may find few small moths in a bag of birdseed.  Known as “Meal Moths”, they are common in all types of grain and cereal products.   When you try to swat them, they just seem to evaporate into nothing. 

Adult moths lay their eggs on the seed crop before it is harvested but, since the seed is for consumption, farmers can not spray the crop with insecticide to kill the eggs.  So the eggs remain attached to the seed.  When the weather warms, the eggs hatch resulting is some moths.   Fortunately these moths are not the type of moth that attacks your woolens.  And birds love to eat them. 

But no one wants to have moths in your house.  If they are a problem for you we have moth traps that do a wonderful of getting rid of the moths.

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Chasing Rarities

NYC Rare Bird Alerts have been a-buzz for the past few weeks about the presence of a pair of Mississippi Kites at Sterling Forest – a hugh park about 25 minutes west of the Tappan Zee Bridge.  The kites, which are normally southern birds, have been very cooperative nesting and hanging out most of the day near the park headquarters.  They are small raptors that feed mainly on dragonflies and large flying insects. 

I’ve never seen one.  And I usually don’t chase rarities.  Or at least I won’t go on a long, arduous or “iffy” chase.  I prefer Type B birding and let the birds come to me rather than me chasing them.  That is probably why I have only added a handful of new species to my life list in recent years.

I did agree to accompany a friend looking for the kites which would be a life bird for both of us.  Unfortunately, it rained the first day we chose.  On our rain date the temperature and humidity competed to see which could get higher into the nineties.  On our third attempt he was sick.  So on three days I was psyched for some good birding and then disappointed.  I now know what an astronaut feels when his mission is aborted seconds before blast off.

Last night, when I check the weather forecast and my schedule, conditions looked promising.  So I tentatively planned today would be the day, although it would be a solo outing.

But I slept late, then finished some overdo chores and finally succumbed to inertia and determined to try again another day.

I truly am a Type B birder.  Maybe the Mississippi Kites will fly over the east side of the Hudson River.  They I may go look.

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Dirt Bath

During our recent heat wave, my birds really loved bathing in the bird bath.  But I also noticed that sometimes birds were flopping around in the loose dirt beneath my hedges.  Why?

Like people, birds use bathe to remove dirt and grime from their bodies.  But sometimes they become also infested with parasites such as feather mites or lice.  Water won’t get rid of these parasites.  However, flopping around in very fine soil coats their feathers with fine dust particles.  The dust enters the breathing tubes of the parasites.  Enough dust can clog the breathing tubes and kill the parasite.  So in self defense, the parasite just drop off the feathers. 

 Sometimes bird clean up in water, sometime in dirt.

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How Birds Drink

During a heat wave such as the one we have had, birds appreciate a cool drink of water.

Most birds do not drink water in the same way that humans do.  Humans can “suck up” water from a bowl like drinking through a straw.  Most bird can’t.  When a bird wants to drink water from a birdbath or a puddle, it lowers its beak below the water surface, lets it fill with water, then raises its head high to let the water trickle down into its throat.  

The key word the above paragraph is “most” because some birds can sip water.  In general, these are birds of the open ocean.  And surprisingly, Mourning Doves as well.  A mourning dove can lower its bill into water and just sip. 

 Next time you see birds drinking look for the different techniques.  A House Sparrow or Robin lowers and raises its beak.  But a Mourning Dove keeps its head down and you can see its throat pulse as it swallows water.

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Flock of Waxwings

This week I watched a large flock of Cedar Waxwing foraging for food, primarily berries and flying insects.  Waxwings are nomads constantly moving from area to area in search of food.  You seldom see only a single waxwing.  They travel in flocks. 

A teacher once described the arrival of a flock of waxwing at a tree in her schoolyard:  on Monday there were none.  On Tuesday, the flock arrived and ate all the berries growing on the bottom of the tree.  On Wednesday, they ate the berries in the middle and on Thursday they finished the berries at the top.  On Friday they were gone and haven’t returned.

To me a Cedar Waxwing is an elegant, sophisticated looking bird with subtle coloring tastefully accented with waxy yellow trim.  I never know when to expect them and always smile when they show up.

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Compared to the size of the human brain, a bird’s brain is very, very small.  Yet we often observe bird activities that seem to reflect some ability to think, to solve problems, and to logically overcome obstacles.  Scientists report that birds in the crow family are the smartest of all birds.  It has been shown that not only do they use “tools” but that they can make the tools they need.  The classic experiment involved captive crows.  Their favorite food was placed at the bottom of a tall drink glass.  The crows could not reach the bottom of the glass or tip it over to spill out the food.  They quickly learned to take a twig, remove the leaves and holding it in their bill shove the twig into the glass to pry out the food at the bottom.

That requires some reasoning ability.  But I have often wondered if birds ever do anything just for fun, for the sheer joy of doing it.

Last week’s Science Times section of the New York Times reported a crow activity that seems to have no purpose other that the fact that like doing it.  Jungle crows on Kinkazan Island in northern Japan pick up deer feces – dry pellets of dung – and deftly wedge them in the deer’s ears. 

Now that does not sound like fun to me.  But scientists who could not think of any logical explanation for this activity feel that the birds do it just because they enjoy doing it.

 I have also heard that in winter Ravens sometimes find an icy slope and ski or sled down the slope.  Now that sounds more like play to me.

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According to Laura Erickson, the world’s most famous duck – Donald Duck – is a Pekin duck – a white domesticated offshoot of the common Mallard.  In his younger days Donald had a longer bill, but with time and maturity his bill has shrunk.  Although he is less portly than many domesticated ducks, he still can’t fly.     

However he has abilities that other ducks can’t match.  He has been known to build a boat and go sailing, grow a beard, wear a sailor coat with a red bow tie, carry a wallet and he changes color, from a livid blue when he is angry to bright red when he is embarrassed in front of Daisy.

A major annoyance in Donald’s life is due to a natural characteristic of Pekin ducks – the females are somewhat poor mothers.  This explains why Donald so often ends up taking care of his three nephews, Huey, Duey and Luey.

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Sometimes your field guide can mislead you.  Case in point:  A young couple was asking about a small bird they had seen in their yard.  After careful observation they described it as a uniform dark gray all over.  They even went one step further, scoured their field guide, and narrowed the identification down to one of two species.  Either a Starling or a Catbird.  (A more experience birder would have quickly ID’ed it based on the basic difference in overall shape.) 

They mentioned that their Sibley field guide shows a large rusty patch under the rump of a catbird.  Their bird did not have a rusty patch, so they concluded it must be a Starling.  What the Sibley field guide doesn’t say is that you usually don’t see this rusty patch on a catbird.  It is there, but doesn’t always show.   In fact I can only remember seeing the rusty patch one or twice in the last five years. 

So, the presence of a field mark can help identify a species.  But the fact that you don’t see a particular field mark doesn’t exclude a bird from being that species.

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“They don’t belong here.  Send them back where they came from. They don’t fit it.  We need stronger immigration laws.  They’re everywhere, a real nuisance.  Kick ’em out.  They are stealing food and homes from native-born Americans.  They’re taking over and ruining this country.”  

Such angry sentiments may be expected during bad economic times.  Some Americans, fearing loss of jobs, become apprehensive about any foreigner who they perceive as a potential threat.  But these diatribes are not new — they are over 100 years old. And, they were not directed at poor people hoping to enter this land of opportunity and create a better life.  No, in this case the undesirable immigrants were birds.  Specifically, the target of these jibes was a feisty, new immigrant called the English house sparrow, now known as the house sparrow. 

 The English house sparrow was first successfully introduced to the US in the 1850s with the release of about 40 birds in Brooklyn. These first few settlers liked their new country and prospered. Like the early human pioneers they moved on rapidly from their east coast landfall and expanded westward.  By 1870 they were established in every state east of the Mississippi; in 1875 they were recorded in San Francisco.  In less than 25 years, the little house sparrow spanned the continent.

The first house sparrows were imported to the US to help farmers.  It was incorrectly believed that they were ravenous insect eaters and would be very beneficial in protecting crops from insect damage.  As a result of this mistaken belief, the new immigrant was a welcome newcomer.  They became a source of civic pride.  Cities enthusiastically encouraged their presence and promoted their well-being.  For example, John Galvin, the Boston City Forester, announced that the house sparrow had eliminated canker worms and yellow caterpillars.  He ordered park department employees to shoot strikes and other predators that were feeding on sparrows.

It didn’t take long for the initial enthusiasm to fade and be replaced with active dislike.  The aggressive house sparrow displaced favorite local birds.  Worse, it turned out that house sparrows are primarily seed eaters, not insect eaters.  In fact, they occasionally destroyed crops they were expected to protect.  By the 1870s, bird lovers and professional ornithologists began to turn anti sparrow.  Active movements protested these immigrants.  Cities that early honored them now fought them.  In 1886, the mayor of Boston ordered city employees to remove nests around the Boston Commons.  Over 4,000 nests were destroyed. Ohio offered a bounty of 10 cents per dozen.

But the protesters were too late.  The house sparrow was strongly entrenched and here to stay.  It multiplied in both presence and numbers.  In 1931 the prestigious American Orthniological Union (AOU) conceded to the obvious and added it to the official list of  US species.  Today it is one of the most populous species in the country.  It is only outnumbered by starling, another immagrant. 

The history of the house sparrow illustrates unforeseen problems that can occur when man intervenes in the established natural order.

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Newly hatched baby birds can be classified into two general categories – either alticial or precocial. 

The young of most songbirds, such as Robins, are alticial – which means they are born pretty much naked, without feathers and with their eyes closed.  They are ugly.  A baby only a mother could love.  At this stage about all they can do is open their mouth wide and beg for food from their parents.  It takes 10 – 21 days of constant attention from their parents before they are ready to leave the nest and strike out on their own. 


Precocial babies, on the other hand, are born with their eyes open and their bodies covered with soft down.  Duckling and Goslings are prime of examples.  They are ready to leave the nest within a couple of days, and often within a few hours.  You often see their parents leading them to areas with food but they are able to feed themselves.


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