"I hope you love birds too. It is economical. It saves going to heaven."
Emily Dickinson

Friday, February 27, 2015

American robins flock to fresh water

American robins on 2/25/15 in Mission Viejo -- Photo by J.J. Meyer
American robins are the classic harbinger of spring. When I lived in Chicago, I was always happy to see these thrushes arrive for the season.

Two days ago, just after I had turned off the fountain for the evening, we were visited by a flock of robins at dusk. At one point, there were nine bathing and drinking. I turned to Cornell's Birds of North America to investigate if they were migratory. 

I found that robins live in California year-round.  But there are also migrating robins that have wintered in Mexico and Central America that move northward through California in February. 

Happy Birding!

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Coos signal the start of mating season

Billing is the term used when the male opens his bill to the female. She inserts her bill into his as part of the courtship display. Mating ensued shortly after this photo was taken.  Photo by J.J. Meyer

 In case you missed my column in today's O.C. Register, here it is:

             Valentine’s Day cards often feature doves, a symbol of love since ancient times.  Lovers are said to be cooing when they talk sweetly to each other. And when they express affection, they’re acting “lovey dovey.”
             Mourning doves have recently started to coo, which means mating season has begun.  The call, referred to as an “advertising coo,” is a two-syllable coo followed by two or three louder coos. Unmated males generally coo from a conspicuous perch in an attempt to attract a mate.
            “The call of a mourning dove sounds mournful, which is where they get their name,” said Sylvia Gallagher, chairperson of bird information for Sea and Sage Audubon, Orange County’s local chapter.
            This species has a courtship ritual that begins with males performing an aerial display with vigorous and noisy wing flapping.  After they select a potential mate, “males bow, pump their heads and coo to the female,” she said.  
Preening and nibbling of the head and neck precede mating. This courtship behavior gives way to “billing,” which refers to the male opening his beak to the female. If interested, she inserts her beak into his and they briefly pump their heads up and down.  The female crouches as an invitation to mate.
Naturalists agree that mourning doves are seasonally monogamous and there are indications birds may pair up again in subsequent breeding seasons.
“They’re prolific nesters,” Gallagher said.  “But they build super sloppy nests.”
These loose flimsy nests are made of pine needles, twigs and grass. Unlined nests provide little insulation for nestlings, but the shoddy construction works for the species. Mourning doves generally lay two eggs per clutch and with up to six broods or hatchings per year, a pair can produce up to a dozen offspring. Estimates of their population range from 100 to 475 million in North America.
Both sexes participate in building the nest, incubating the eggs and caring for the young. One parent is usually on the nest at all times. Babies fledge at 15-18 days. Parents continue to feed the young until 25-27 days old.
            Mourning doves are common year-round residents in Southern California.  Both sexes are similar with plump bodies, long tails and short legs. Feathers are mostly gray with black-bordered white tips on tail and black spots on the upper wings. Males are slightly larger and more colorful than females with their pale rosy breasts and bluish crowns and necks.
            Mourning doves are ground feeders. Attract these birds by offering white millet, black oil sunflower seeds and cracked corn.   

Happy Birding!

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Love birds on Valentine's Day: Join the Backyard Bird Count

Western scrub jay -- Photo by J.J. Meyer
The 18th annual Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC) is February 13 through 16.

Count birds at any location for at least 15 minutes on one or more days of the count and enter your sightings at www.BirdCount.org. The information gathered by tens of thousands of volunteers helps track changes in bird populations on a massive scale. The GBBC is a joint project of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the National Audubon Society with partner Bird Studies Canada.

The Great Backyard Bird Count is a great way for people of all ages to connect with nature. Participation is free. To learn more about how to join the count and download instructions, go to www.birdcount.org. While you're there, get inspired by the winning photos from the 2014 GBBC photo contest.

Happy Birding!

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Do birds get cold feet?

A scaly-breasted munia, previously known as a nutmeg mannikin. Photo by J.J. Meyer
Scientists say they do.  While songbirds can maintain their core body temperature above 100F in cold weather, their toes are barely above freezing.

Generally, their specialized circulatory system protects their feet from frostbite. With minimal fluid in the cells of their feet and because their circulation is rapid, the blood typically doesn't remain in their feet long enough to freeze.

However, severe weather can cause problems. A report from Bird Studies Canada published in Cornell Lab's "Winter Bird Highlights From FeederWatch 2014-2015" indicated that an increased number of mourning doves are staying north for the winter and that the majority of the birds that spent the winter in Ontario were found to have lost one or more toes to frostbite.

Happy Birding!

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Birds change habits in chilly weather

Offering high-energy suet can help birds like this acorn woodpecker survive the cold. Photo by Susan Brown Matsumoto
Here's my latest column that ran the Orange County Register on Saturday, Jan. 31.

      Do you know how birds survive in winter?
      In some ways it’s a lot like humans: they put on a down coat, hang with a group of friends, eat a lot and find a warm place to hunker down.
      Because birds are exposed to the elements, they rely on a variety of physiological and behavioral adaptations to stay warm. For example, certain species will grow additional downy feathers before winter to increase their insulation.
     “When goldfinches complete a full body molt in the fall, their feathers become more dense to help keep them warm,” said John Schaust, chief naturalist for Wild Birds Unlimited in Carmel, Ind. “Juncos are known to increase their feathers by as much as 30 percent in winter.”
     Other avian physiological responses to the cold include the use of muscle contractions to generate body heat. While similar to shivering, it doesn’t involve the same trembling motion seen when humans are cold.
     Chickadees, including the mountain chickadees that live in Southern California, use a mechanism called “regulated hypothermia,” Schaust explained. While they normally maintain a temperature of about 107 degrees Fahrenheit, they can lower this to about 86 degrees when their environment drops below freezing in order to survive the night. Hummingbirds can enter a state of torpor, in which their respiration and other body processes are slowed to conserve energy until their next meal.
     Birds also change their behavior when the weather is nippy. They start by fluffing their feathers to trap a layer of warm air against their body. Generally, they roost earlier in the winter because temperatures can drop quickly after sunset. Titmice, chickadees and bluebirds will seek shelter from the wind in old woodpecker nesting cavities and man-made nesting boxes when available. And bluebirds and bushtits often huddle together at night to conserve heat.
     When temperatures drop, all of our fine-feathered friends need to eat more to generate heat. “We promote high-fat, high-calorie foods,” Schaust said. These foods include black oil sunflower seeds, suet and mealworms, which help support birds’ high metabolic rate during winter.
     Studies have shown that bird feeders make a difference, he said. In severe cold, the activity at feeders increases because the birds need more calories to stay warm under these conditions.
     “An interesting fact is that pine siskins can pack enough seeds into their crops before roosting to survive five hours at -4 degrees Fahrenheit,” Schaust said.
     Trying to keep warm takes energy. And birds can expend calories, which are stored in the form of fat, very quickly.
     “This fat must be replaced every day,” he said. “As birds eat throughout the day, they’ll convert that food to fat. And they can store up to 10 percent of their body weight in fat. But they’re going to burn up all that fat overnight. Then they have to start that process over the next day.”
     In addition to keeping bird feeders full, it’s also important to replenish fresh water in fountains and birdbaths for drinking and bathing, he said. Though a cold shower may not sound appealing to us, birds bathe in winter because feathers have to be in good shape for insulation against the cold.
     While winter is a good time for tree trimming, consider leaving places for birds to take cover. Roosting in thick foliage is definitely warmer than being out on a limb.

Happy Birding!

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Bird songs of spring

A Northern mockingbird  Photo by J.J. Meyer
Ah, love is in the air.

A mockingbird was singing its heart out this morning, something I haven't heard all winter. Though it's a little early for mating season to begin, our fine feathered friends are establishing territory and looking for a mate through vocalizations.

Just a few days ago, I also heard the cooing of a male mourning dove. The song is vocalized mainly by unmated males from a conspicuous perch. It’s a soft coo-oo followed by two or three louder coos. To hear this song, go to Cornell Lab's All About Birds.

Happy Birding!

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Great deal for new FeederWatchers

Count feeder birds for science.

Special FeederWatch offer

Sign up for FeederWatch for the first time before the end of February and you will automatically be signed up for next season too. That means new members can participate for the rest of the 2014-15 season, which runs through April 3, and participate for the entire 2015-16 season for the single-season rate of $18 in the U.S. and $35 in Canada. Allow at least three weeks for instructional kits to arrive. 

Project FeederWatch is a winter-long survey of birds that visit feeders at backyards, parks and nature centers.  To participate, simply count the birds you see at your feeders during any two-day period and post your counts on the Project FeederWatch website.  Your data helps scientists track the movements of winter bird populations and long-term trends in bird distribution and abundance.

Project FeederWatch is sponsored by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Bird Studies Canada. To join, go to FeederWatch.

Happy Birding!