Archive for June, 2012

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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A customer introduced me to a bird blog covering the nearby Pelham Bay Park and City Island areas.  The site, run by Jack Rothman, not only provides info on recent sighting but also contains links to various NYC and local area groups.

 Check it out:




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Lingering gloom from overnight rain hung in the air as we began our monthly birdwalk.  Although weather restricted the number of participants our spirits were high because we were joined by our favorite young Midwestern birding hot shot visiting Westchester for the weekend.

At Rye Nature Center out best sightings were Wood Thrush and House Wren.  Eventually the sun chased away the reminders of rain creating a lovely late spring day.  Half our group continued on to Read Sanctuary looking for seaside birds.  (our Midwestern was suffering from a mild case of salt-water withdrawal)  There we found both Snowy and Great Egrets, a pair of Osprey on the nesting platform (later joined by another pair), Killdeer, Great Black-backed Gull and much more.

In total, between the two locations, we spotted at total of 34 species – not too bad for a day that didn’t look too promising at the start.  A detailed list of birds seen is shown below:

Common/Backyard Birds:   Robin, Blue Jay, Catbird, Am. Crow, Titmouse, Downy, Hairy and Red-bellied Woodpeckers, Mourning Dove, House Wren, Cardinal, Barn Swallow, Tree Swallow

 Not quite as Common:  Wood Thrush, Chimney Swift, Song Sparrow, Baltimore Oriole,

 Blackbirds:  Common Grackle, Starling, Red-winged Blackbird

 Heard but not Seen:  Carolina Wren, White-breasted Nuthatch, Solitary (Blue-headed) Vireo

 Water/Shore Birds:  Great and Snowy Egret, Killdeer, Osprey, Canada Goose, Mallard, Cormorant, Fish Crow, Osprey, Great Black-backed Gull, Ring-billed Gull

 Next Bird Walk

Our next monthly bird walk will be on the first Saturday of July, July 7th.  Join us if you can.

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Sleep is quite different for birds than it is for us. They are light sleepers rarely falling into any kind of deep sleep.  Most of us are able to sleep soundly for eight hours without fear of being eaten.  But birds must be constantly aware of their surroundings keeping an ear alert for danger and ready to hop out of “bed” and move without prior notice.  Short spurts of sleep are the best they can achieve.

Where do they sleep?  Birds normally roost in the same habitat they nest in.  Ducks sleep on or near water, shorebirds sleep on the beach, cardinal sleep in bushes, woodpeckers in woodpecker holes.

Many birds use a “wing tuck” posture for sleep, turning their neck and nuzzling their bill into their back feathers. 

Here are two interesting facts about sleep.  First, certain swifts are continuously in flight and may only touch land once a year.  It is believed that they sleep while flying.  Second, giraffes only sleep less than 30 minutes per.  I know this last fact has nothing to do with birds, but it is an interesting, if useless, fact.

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