Archive for March, 2013

The Boys are Back

Its spring and, yes, the blackbirds are back.  Huge flocks of Starlings and Grackles with a smattering of Cowbirds and Red-wings are marauding the neighborhood again.

If you maintain a birdfeeder you dread the return of the blackbirds.  Hoards descend upon your yard en masse, hundreds of them.  They devour all your sunflower seeds draining the feeder dry in minutes.

Here is how I explain this spring phenomena:  The male blackbirds are the first to return from down south.  Females arrive several weeks later.  The males have nothing to do so they act like a bunch of teenage boys.  They hang around on the street corner with the other guys. They get in trouble.  They eat.    

A few weeks later the girls show up and the boy start to think of other things.  The gangs break up.  They pair off.  And the huge flocks are just a distant memory….. at least until next spring.

Hint:  You can banish the male blackbirds from your feeder by filling it safflower seed.  Blacksbirds don’t like.  Other birds do.  For years it was known as the Cardinal seed. So if the blackbirds are annoying you, try using safflower seed in your feeder for a few weeks. 


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A bird’s ability to fly seems like an amazing gift.  If you want to go from here to over there, all you do is take off and go.  Nothing to stop you.  No schedules.  No traffic.  No accidents or road repairs to slow you down.  Just go as the spirit moves you.   Sounds great.

I can only think of one potential drawback.  Imagine a cheerful little chickadee just zipping along from your yard to your neighbor’s.  Carefree and happy-go-lucky.  What fun.  And then a big wet raindrops falls from the sky and whacks him (or her) in the head.  Ouch.  That must hurt….. a lot.   The impact of a raindrop on a tiny bird weighing less than an ounce must be comparable to dropping a bowling ball on your toes. 

The Science Times section of the New York Time had a small article on a raindrop hitting a mosquito.  Since a mosquito is much smaller than a chickadee, the impact must be more severe.  But no.  According to the article, it doesn’t hurt the mosquito at all.  It is so lightweight there isn’t much damage.  The falling raindrop just moves the mosquito down along with it.  The article used a balloon as an example.  A balloon is very light.  But you can hit it as hard as you want and you can’t break it.  It just moves out of the way. 

I hope that is true for flying birds.  Or for flying people.  I would love to be able to fly like a bird.

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Some Names Fit

Descriptive Bird Names

 I have been talking about names for birds that can be misleading.  But, in fact, many names are actually “spot on”.  If you saw the bird and I told you its name you would say “that is it exactly.”  Below are some examples.  Get out your Field Guide and look up the following birds and see how well the name describes the bird:

 Yellow-headed Blackbird

yellow-headed blackbird

Rose-breasted GrosbeakRose-breased Grosbeak



Long-tailed Duck

Red-faced Warbler

Brown-headed Nuthatch

White Ibis

Scissor-tailed FlycatcherScissor-tailed Flycatcher




Their names fit.  Just as with people, sometimes the name matches the person.

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Location Names.  Early ornithologists would sometimes name a new species after the location where they first discovered the bird.  Hence, we have birds named Baltimore Oriole, Nashville Warbler, Cape May Warbler, Louisiana Waterthrush, Kentucky Warbler, Tennessee Warbler, Connecticut Warbler, Carolina Wren, Canada Warbler.  (Virginia’s Warbler was actually named after a person.)

 You might think that using the location would give you a clue where to find the bird.  If, for example, you want to see Cape May Warbler, just go to Cape May.   Unfortunately, that doesn’t work.

 Yes, the first Cape May Warbler was discovered in Cape May.  But it was in late April, in the middle of spring migration.   The bird was just passing through Cape May migrating north from its winter home in Central America to its summer territory in Canada.    There are probably less than two weeks during the year when you might actually be able to see a Cape May Warbler in Cape May.

Habitat names.    Sometimes a bird name is selected to be indicative of the bird’s habitat.  For example, a Chimney Swift does roost in chimneys.  A Wood Thrush is found in the woods.  A Marsh Wren likes marshy areas.  A Barn Swallow nests in barns.  An owl standing next to a burrow in the ground may be a Burrowing Owl.

 Unfortunately you cannot rely on descriptive names to yield a positive identification. 

 A sparrow sitting in a tree probably isn’t a Tree Sparrow.  The warbler in a pine tree may not be a Pine Warbler.   The sparrow in the field could be a Field Sparrow, but maybe not.  A woodpecker with red on its head may not be a Red-headed Woodpecker in the same way a yellowish warbler may not be a Yellow Warbler.

What’s in a name?  Not much you can rely on all the time.  But sometimes you can.  Next time we will talk about bird names that match the bird.

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Well, how did you do on the challenge to name the 29 species of birds that with an official AOU common name consisting of only one word?  It is not easy.  We tend to think first of the common, everyday birds, such as a robin or a crow.  Unfortunately, the official name is American Robin or American Crow, Fish Crow, Mexican Crow, Northwestern Crow.  We often ignore the adjectives and modifiers.

Many of the one-word birds are waterfowl such as Mallard, Canvasback, Redhead, Brant, Gadwall, Bufflehead.  Open water birds like Dovekie and Razerbill also make the list

A number of shorebirds/marsh birds also go by a single name:  Sanderling, Killdeer, Willet, Whimbrel, Dunlin, Ruff, Limpkin, Sora, Surfbird

The miscellaneous birds include Veery, Bobolink, Ovenbird, Merlin, Gyrfalcon, Dickcissel, Verdin, Chukar, Pyrrhuloxia

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Naming a newly discovered bird species based on its prominent color or color feature seem like a logical way to describe it so that other can identify it when they see it.  After all, a bluebird is blue, right?  But so is an Indigo Bunting and a Blue Grosbeak.

 In Westchester, a common misnomer is to refer to a Red-bellied Woodpecker as a Red-headed Woodpecker.  It is a woodpecker, a large woodpecker.  And there is a large amount of red color on its head.  And you never see any red color on its belly.   So the logical choice seems to be to call it a Red-headed Woodpecker.  But that would be wrong.  It is a Red-bellied.  Why?

Red-bellied Wookpecker

 Red-headed Woodpecker

The reason is that there was another species already called a Red-headed Woodpecker.  Can’t have two different species with the same name.   OK, but why call it a Red-bellied if it doesn’t have a red belly.

To understand this you have to go way back to the time when early ornithologists were first recording and naming new species in North American, maybe 150 – 200 years ago.  In general binoculars or field glasses, if you had them at all, were of poor optical quality.  So bird identification was primarily done by shotgun.  First, you shot and killed the bird, then you picked it up and looked at it very closely.   And during breeding season, this new woodpecker does have a faint reddish blush on its belly, particularly when you ruffle the belly feathers and look at it closely from only a few inches away.   

Hence, the Red-bellied Woodpecker got its name.

Many species of birds are named based on their color.  Sometimes by adding more words to the name gets a little more specific, for example, the Black-throated Blue Warbler or the Chestnut-side Warbler.  That helps.  It works but don’t rely only on the name of the color. 

Trivia:  Most of the 900+ species in North America have multiple word names, sometimes two words, sometimes three words, hyphenated words.  In fact, only 29 species have only a single word name.  How many of them can you think of? 

In my next post, or the one after that, I will identify them.


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In the scientific world the person who first discovers a new species (animal, insect, plant, bird, etc.) gets to name it.   If you discovered a new bird what would you call it?  Choosing the right name is not always obvious.  Ask any new parent-to-be. 

 You might look to see how other scientists went about selecting a name for a new species.   If you look at all the existing names you’ll notice that there is no one way.  Names vary greatly.  But it seem that four popular approaches to selecting a new name.

 The first approach is to name you new species in honor of a person.   That person might be a notable scientist (probably an ornithologist), or a famous person, or the wealthy patron who financed your trek into unknown territories, or maybe after your favorite cousin.  Thus you may find names such as Audubon Warbler, Lincoln Sparrow, Bairds Sparrow, or Lucy Warbler.

 A large number of birds are named after geographic areas, often the area where the bird was first seen or is very abundant.   Hence names, such as Connecticut Warbler, Nashville Warbler, Kentucky Warbler, Cape May Warbler, Northwest Crow, Baltimore Oriole, Louisiana Waterthrush, etc.

 Another group of birds are named for their favorite habitat:  Seaside Sparrow, Meadow Lark, Prairie Warbler, Mountain Bluebird, Orchard Oriole, Pine Warbler, Palm Warbler, Pine Siskin, Marsh Wren.

 Yet another popular way to name a new species is to name for it prominent colors or features:  Red-winged Blackbird, Bluebird, Yellow Warbler, Red-headed Woodpecker, Red-bellied Woodpecker, Brown-headed Cowbird, Rufus-sided Towhee, Spotted Sandpiper, Greater Yellowlegs.

 Any of these naming conventions can be used.  After all, you discovered this new species and therefore you have the right to call it whatever you want.  

 But each of these naming conventions has caused some confusion for you fellow birders.  Next time we will discuss how some names do not make it easy for others to identify your bird.

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Bird names can be confusing.  One reason is that birds can actually have three or more different names.  First, there is a scientific name which consists of two Latin words and follows a structured naming system established by the Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus.  The first word is the genus name, the second is the species name.

Unless you are British, most birders never use (or know) the scientific name.  They just use the common name, such as American Goldfinch or just “goldfinch” if there is only one common goldfinch species in the area.  Finally, there may be a colloquial name, a name used historically by local residents to identify a bird.  For example, my mom referred to a goldfinch as a Wild Canary.  Some birds have different colloquial names in different parts of the country.

So a single species may be identified by three different names

Scientific Name:          Turdus migratorius

Common Name:          American Robin

Colloquial Name:        Robin Red-breast

The American Ornithologists Union (AOU) is the official arbiter of both the scientific and the common name.  It maintains The Checklist of NA Birds which is “the standard” for identifying the more than 900 species seen in NA.  Periodically the list is update.  These update often cause arguments and confusion, not among the birds, but among birders.

One source of confusion is the definition of a species.  In the old days birds were consider a separate species if they did not interbred with other species, or, if they did, their offspring were infertile.  Today DNA is used to separate species.  As more and more information becomes available the total number of species changes.  The process is often called Lumping or Splitting.  In Lumping, two birds that were once considered separate species are lumped together into a single species.  Splitting is just the opposite with one species suddenly becoming more than one species.  It is all confusing, but as long as the birds know what is going on it really doesn’t matter.  There is one advantage for a birder who maintain a Life List – when a species is split you often get to add one species to your life list.

In my next few blog posts I will talk more about bird names and how they got that way.  For example, I will explain why if you want to see a Cape May Warbler, you don’t want to go to Cape May.  Or why you never see a red belly on a Red-bellied Woodpecker.

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Albino Birds


Albino Hummingbird - 2

I’ve never seen an albino bird, a bird with white, colorless feathers and pink eyes.  They are very rare.  When scientists reviewed the records of 30,000 birds that had been captured for banding over many years, they discovered that only 17 of the birds were albino – that is less than ½ of 1%.   Maybe that rarity is why I have never seen one.

 I have seen a partial albino bird, a birds where portions of the plumage are white. (Technically they are called leucino birds)  For a while we had a house sparrow coming to the feeder in front of the store that looks exactly like thousand of other house sparrows except it had a white head.  It really stood out.

 Sometime you get a reputation for being an expert at something you are not.  Missi Gottesman, the woman who recently spotted the very first Barnacle Goose ever seen in Westchester may have achieved that status, at least among her friends. 

 A friend emailed this photo to Missi showing an unusual looking goose she had just seen.  Missi, having just found the Barnacle Goose, had become a legend is identifying rare geese.  She was sure to know what this one is.   It turned out to be a partial albino Canada Goose.  It had the shape, size and color of a normal Canada Goose with the exception of some white areas.   I think the white gave the bird something of a strikingly handsome look.  

Unfortunately I deleted Missi’s photo so you can’t see how handsome it was.  But below are some photos of a partial albino Redwing Blackbird.  I think this bird is much more attractive the real thing.

 Albino Redwing - 1 Albino Redwing - 2



   Athough partial albino birds are not as rare as fully albino birds they are not common.  But you never know.  This one was found and photographed, not by an ornithologist, but by a true amateur who couldn’t tell a chicken from a chickadee.


Look closely at all the birds you see.  You never know what you might find.





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Audubon magazine has an annual photography contest to identify the best bird photos. The results are extraordinary – so many great photos.

Check this link to see 100 exceptional bird photos:

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