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

Friday, August 29, 2014

Birds molt this time of year

Juvenile Western bluebirds in molt look a bit bedraggled.  Photo by Ken Tomb
In case you missed The Backyard Birder column in the Orange County Register on Saturday, Aug. 30, here it is:
        Have you noticed that birds seem to keep a low profile this time of year?
       “I’ve had people ask me why they don’t see mockingbirds around in August,” said Sylvia Gallagher, chairwoman of bird information for Sea and Sage Audubon, Orange County’s local chapter. “Well, they’re definitely here, but they’re not singing and they’re molting.”
      Molting is a systematic process of replacing feathers. Birds tend to become secretive during this time, vocalizing infrequently and hiding in the vegetation. That’s because they’re more vulnerable to predators during molt, especially when growing new flight feathers. It may take weeks or months for them to complete the molting cycle.
      Feathers are important to a bird’s survival, so they spend a great deal of time taking care of them. After bathing, they use their bills to preen. Each feather is coated with oil from a gland at the base of their tails to prevent it from becoming dry and brittle. Feathers need to be in good shape for flight maneuverability. They also insulate birds from the cold and make them virtually waterproof.
      “Every bird has a complete molt once a year,” Gallagher said. “Most birds molt in late summer and early fall, but the way birds molt differs among species. Some have a partial molt, then migrate. But they’re not normally in a full molt when flying long distances.”
      Because molting requires a lot of energy, it usually kicks in after breeding. Many undergo a complete molt on or near their breeding grounds, which allows them to migrate south with a new set of feathers.
     Some songbirds, such as the Western kingbird, will migrate partially south to the monsoon areas of southwest Arizona and New Mexico to molt. There the rain brings an abundance of insects for them to feed on. After molting their flight feathers, they continue migrating south to their wintering grounds.
     Molting patterns can even differ among closely related species, such as goldfinches, she said. American goldfinches molt twice a year, once in early spring when males sport their bright yellow breeding feathers and again in the fall when they exchange them for a more drab winter garb. Lesser goldfinches molt only in the fall.
      Waterfowl, including ducks, loons and grebes, lose all their feathers at once, rendering them flightless for about a month. During this time, male ducks molt into a brown eclipse plumage, which resembles the female coloring. Once the male’s wing feathers have regrown and they are able to fly, drakes will begin to grow the bright colors on their heads and body.

Happy Birding!

Monday, August 25, 2014

A recent study finds many species exposed to eye disease

A male finch shows signs of eye disease. Photo by Errol Taskin

Cornell University reports that more than half the bird species they tested had been exposed to the bacteria responsible for House Finch eye disease.  A paper recently published in the online scientific journal PLOS ONE shows that a bacterial parasite previously thought to infect only a few species of feeder birds is actually infecting a surprisingly wide range of species, though most do not show signs of illness.

Though many species of songbirds can be infected by this bacterium, only House Finches regularly exhibit swollen eyes as a result of infections. Birders can help by joining Cornell Lab's Project FeederWatch in November.  As part of the bird counts, participants are asked to record signs of the disease in finches.

The take-home message for people who feed backyard birds remains the same: keep the feeders clean. If you see sick birds, leave them alone, take down the feeders and clean them, being sure to wash your hands thoroughly afterward. 

The California Department of Fish and Game recommends:

•Sanitize feeders and birdbaths WEEKLY using a 10 percent bleach solution and water, rise and allow to completely dry before refilling.
•Clean up old food around feeders regularly to prevent disease and reduce the attraction for mice and rats
•Clean bird droppings off patios and decks
•Replace wooden feeders with plastic which can be cleaned and sanitized
•Use gloves when handling feeders and wash your hands when finished
•Keep wild birds away from pet food and water
•Do not place feeders where humans eat, drink or prepare food

Happy Birding!

Friday, August 22, 2014

Scientists solve mystery of how hummingbirds taste sweetness

Hummingbirds feel the sweet lure of nectar, but they taste it in the most unexpected of ways.

This group of feathered friends doesn’t have a sweet taste receptor, which means they shouldn’t be able to taste sweet at all. But a new study published Thursday in Science reveals that hummingbirds have repurposed their umami receptor (which recognizes meaty and savory flavors) to be able to taste nectar’s sweetness.

Read more on the National Geographic website at:
Scientists Solve Mystery of How Hummingbirds Taste Sweetness

Saturday, August 2, 2014

How to choose a backyard birdbath

A Western scrub jay enjoys a cool drink.  Photo by J.J. Meyer
In case you missed my column in today's O.C. Register, here it is:


California towhees, Western scrub jays and robins tend to jump into the middle of a birdbath and splash with gusto. Smaller birds are often more timid, walking around the edges of a bath until they feel confident enough to test the water. Hummingbirds prefer to fly through a gentle spray.

With so many types of fountains and birdbaths on the market, how do you choose one that most birds will actually use?

For the birds, it’s all about feeling safe.

“The water should be no deeper than 3 inches for a water feature to be attractive to most songbirds,” said Robyn Bailey, NestWatch project leader at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. “And gentle sloping basins are preferable to one that drops off sharply.”

Rocks can be added to an existing bath that may exceed this depth. And it’s best if the basin has a rough texture of the surface to give the birds a sure footing, she said. When it’s too slippery, the birds may not feel comfortable using it.

Like all animals, birds need water to survive. Bathing is a bird’s best friend for feather care. Birds bathe frequently to wash off dirt, parasites and other skin irritants. After vigorous splashing, a bird usually retreats to a perch where it fluffs its feathers to dry. Then it methodically preens each feather, adding a protective coating of oil secreted by a gland at the base of its tail.

Birds are attracted to the sight and sound of moving water, which makes some fountains or birdbaths with misters a popular rest stop for resident and migratory birds.

Placement of the water feature in your yard also matters to the birds. Some shy species such as orioles and warblers will only visit birdbaths and fountains near protective vegetation.

“If cats are a concern, chose a birdbath with a 3-foot pedestal and place it in an open area, about 15 feet from shrubs to give birds a chance to see the approaching danger,” Bailey said. “In yards without a threat from predators, a basin can be placed on the ground or short pedestal."

The California Department of Fish and Wildlife suggests sanitizing birdbaths at least once a week by using a 10 percent solution of household bleach in water. Scrub with a stiff brush, rinse well and refill. Clean and replace the water frequently, especially in the heat. Replacing the water every few days will help reduce the threat of breeding mosquitoes, which can carry the West Nile Virus.

“Consistency is key,” she said. “If the birdbath is always drying out, the birds will stop coming. Providing water as part of a backyard habitat is important especially in periods of extended drought.”
Happy Birding!

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

KNX News Radio examined California's drought

 Passing along the information on this important program:    

            As California faces one of the most severe droughts on record, KNX 1070 NEWSRADIO will present a comprehensive examination of the region’s current water emergency in a day-long series titled, “Running on Empty: Our Epic Drought,aired July 31.
KNX 1070’s award-winning news staff will look at the impact the worsening drought will have on our lives far beyond dry lawns and dirty cars.  A potential health emergency looms, firefighters are changing the way they battle fires and some areas are already on the verge of running out of water. 
KNX will detail what sets the current drought apart from those the state has experienced in the recent past. Among the questions to be answered are what food products might disappear from shelves and which ones will get costlier, who decides who’ll be able to tap into the eroding water supply and what will the long-term effects be on the local environment and wildlife?

 Seven KNX reporters have conducted more than 50 interviews with California Governor Jerry Brown, representatives from the Metropolitan and Orange County Water Districts, climatologists, environmentalists, farmers and others.

Podcasts and companion stories are posted at www.cbsLA.com/drought.

Monday, July 28, 2014

A little inspiration for today from Birds on the Wires

It's amazing how many of us find inspiration from the birds.

One morning while reading a newspaper, Jarbas Agnelli saw a photograph of birds on an electric wire. He cut out the photo and was inspired to make a song using the exact location of the birds as musical notes. He was curious to hear what melody the birds created.

He sent the music to the photographer, Paulo Pinto, who told his editor, who told a reporter and the story ended up as an interview in the newspaper. It ended up as the winner of the YouTube Play Guggenheim Biennial Festival.

Have a listen at how incredible the sounds that came out of the birds' positioning on the wires.


Saturday, July 26, 2014

Has one bird taken over your hummingbird feeder?

A male Allen's hummingbird has claimed this feeder.  Photo by J.J. Meyer
A common question: I have one hummingbird that runs all the others away. What can I do to get more hummingbirds at my feeder?

It's not uncommon for a male hummingbird to claim an area with a food source as "his" territory. Then he runs all the other birds off with his fierce chirps.

Solve this by placing several feeders around the yard, making it more difficult for him to protect them all.  Make sure the defender can't see them all from one lookout spot.  Or create some type of visual separation, such as a vine-covered trellis, between hanging feeders.

Do you have any other tricks? Please comment below.
Happy Birding!