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

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Male turkeys gobble to attract females

From Cornell Lab of Ornithology

From Cornell Lab of Ornithology:

Male turkeys are called “gobblers” because of their famous call, which is their version of a rooster’s crow.  It’s a loud, shrill, descending, throaty jumble of sound that lasts about a second.  Males often gobble from their treetop roosts, where the sound carries better than on the ground.  They use it to attract females and in response to other males—sometimes one male’s call can lead to a group of others joining in.  Both males and females cackle as they fly down from roosts, give very short, soft purring calls while traveling on foot, and give a long series of yelps to reassemble a flock after it has become scattered.  Young turkeys whistle three or four times to locate the flock when lost.

To find wild turkeys it helps to get up early in the morning, when flocks of these large birds are often out foraging in clearings, field edges, and roadsides. Keep an eye out as you drive along forest edges, particularly forests with nut-bearing trees such as oak and hickory, and you may even see turkeys from your car.  You’ll usually find turkeys on the ground, but don’t be surprised if you run across a group of turkeys flying high into their treetop roosts at the end of the day.

According to the observations listed on eBird: You can find wild turkeys in the Cleveland National Forest and other woodlands in San Diego County from Vista south to El Cajon and east to Anza-Borrego Desert State Park.

Happy Thanksgiving from The Backyard Birder!! 

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Amazing video of the Mission Viejo crows

The video is taken where the crows roost at night -- the canyon behind Saddleback College.
Thousands of crows flock here before dusk to gather for the night, mostly during the fall and winter. In the spring the numbers diminish because most are off nesting.
Happy Birding!

Monday, November 16, 2015

Pine siskins are erratic winter visitors

A pine siskin.  Photo taken in Mission Viejo, CA on 11/15/15
A lesser goldfinch (left) seemingly checks out competition at the feeder by two pine siskins. Photos by J.J. Meyer

Unless you look closely, pine siskins can be mistaken as goldfinches.  Pine siskins are small songbirds with sharp, pointed bills and short, notched tails.  Their bills are thinner than other finches.  They have prominent brown streaking overall with bright yellow on wing bars and folded flight feathers. 

Pine siskins are considered irruptive, meaning their winter movements are erratic and depend partly on seed crops in northern North America.  About every other year, pine siskins irrupt, or move into central and even southern parts of the continent, but the timing and extent of these movements are extremely variable.  Flocks of pine siskins may monopolize your nyjer feeder one winter and be absent the next.  This nomadic finch ranges widely and erratically across the continent each winter in search of food. 

These gregarious birds often flock with goldfinches in winter.  Attract them to feeders with nyjer and other small seeds such as millet or hulled sunflower.  They also flock to plants with hardy seed heads and will occasionally eat suet.

Happy Birding!

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Learning bird language requires patience and awareness

When alarmed, black phoebes raise their crests and produce shrill chirps that become louder, more rapid and frantic sounding.  Photo by J.J. Meyer
   Here's my column, which is scheduled to run in Saturday's Orange County Register:  

      When birds talk, we should listen. They may have a very important message about what is happening in our environment.
      Birds vocalize for a variety of reasons. In a relaxed state, they use contact calls to check in with a mate or members of the flock, or sing to attract a partner. But in an alarmed state, they can produce a death cry to warn of an approaching predator. These sounds are all different. And studying their behavior is equally important in understanding bird language.
     “Birds act as the sentinel species, often sounding the first warning of impending danger,” said Daniel Francis, an instructor and restoration manager at Earthroots Field School.
     Francis recently taught a two-hour bird language class as part of a daylong wilderness awareness workshop at the school’s 39-acre site in Big Oak Canyon near the top of Silverado Canyon Road. The nonprofit school, founded by Jodi Levine, seeks to connect people with nature.
     “Learning bird language is not like learning a foreign language,” Francis said. It’s much more subtle. It involves recognizing bird vocalizations and reading their behavior for clues to what’s happening in our environment.
     “The patterns and nuances of bird behavior are consistent,” he said. “You can watch birds at a backyard feeder in Orange County or go to Brazil and see the same patterns.”
     For example, when a hawk flies into an open area where birds are feeding, multiple bird species will shriek an alarm as they ditch into the surrounding thicket. The birds then remain dead silent until the threat is gone.
     Other animals are known to heed bird language. A wildlife communication network has evolved as a means of survival. The call of an alarmed junco may cause a deer to lift its head and listen intently. Watching the birds fluttering in an umbrella pattern along the tree canopy then signals to the deer that a predator, such as a coyote, is moving on the ground below. Watching the birds’ movement from tree to tree is a clue to the direction of the coyote’s path.
     Francis learned birding skills at an early age from his father, who always kept his binoculars and field guide close at hand. He later trained with bird language experts including Jon Young, author of “What the Robin Knows” (Mariner Books; 2012). Such training requires many hours of observation and quiet field study.
    “It’s amazing what we can learn if we’re aware,” Francis said. “But most of us miss it because we’re in our own heads.”
    Those who are very attuned to bird language can distinguish between the levels of threat or types of predators. “A mountain lion will make a huge disturbance in the landscape,” he said.
    The concept of bird language may sound incredulous. But Francis said he became a believer during a training session when his instructor was able to determine that not only was a predator approaching, but that the songbirds saw it as a significant threat. Students guessed a Cooper’s hawk was on the hunt, but the instructor insisted it had to be larger. That’s when a pair of golden eagles cruised overhead.
    For information on future bird language workshops, go to earthrootsfieldschool.org.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Nuts about acorn woodpeckers

Acorn woodpeckers create granaries in the palms on Catalina Island. Photo by J.J. Meyer

An acorn woodpecker pokes his head out of a large wooden pole.  Photo by J.J. Meyer
My husband and I had the opportunity to watch acorn woodpeckers in action while on a recent trip to Catalina Island.  These photogenic birds seemed to be everywhere.

Acorn woodpeckers are medium-sized woodpeckers with straight, spike-like bills and stiff, wedge-shaped tails used for support as the birds cling to tree trunks.

These striking birds are mostly black above with a red cap, creamy white face, and black patch around the bill.  They have a distinctive facial pattern with glowing yellow eyes.  Some like to think of them as having a painted clown face.  In flight, they show three patches of white: one in each wing and one on the rump. Females have less red on the crown than males.

Acorn woodpeckers are gregarious birds that live in large groups, hoard acorns and breed cooperatively. Group members gather acorns by the hundreds and wedge them into holes they’ve made in a tree trunk or telephone pole. Acorn woodpeckers also spend considerable time catching insects on the wing. They make raucous, scratchy waka-waka calls.

Want to learn more about woodpeckers?  The Yosemite Conservancy is hosting "Day of the Woodpecker" on December 5.  There are 11 species of woodpeckers found in Yosemite — more than in any comparable area in the United States.  Spend a day with an expert naturalist watching these industrious birds and learning about their diverse habitats and behaviors.  For more information, go to Yosemite Conservancy.

Happy Birding!

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Start counting: Project FeederWatch has begun

Anna's Hummingbird --  Photo by Sam Wilson/Project FeederWatch

Project FeederWatch started Nov. 8.

This citizen science project, sponsored by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Bird Studies Canada, is a winter-long survey of birds that visit feeders at back yards, nature centers, community areas and other locales in North America.  Participants periodically count the birds they see at their feeders through early April and log their counts on the program's website.  The data help scientists track broadscale movements of winter bird populations and long-term trends in bird distribution and abundance.

"We learn so much from the information people report to us, and the data become more and more valuable as time goes by," says project leader Emma Greig. "This is how we learned that bushtits are increasing in the western part of the country and that more yellow-rumped warblers are appearing in the East."

A new tool on the FeederWatch website makes it easy to see the trends, such as the bushtit and warbler increases, along with many others that decades of data reveal.

You don't have to be an advanced birder to participate.  Just watch feeders as much or as little as you want over two consecutive days as often as every week.

There is a $18 annual participation fee for U.S. residents ($15 for Cornell Lab members). The participation fee covers materials, staff support, web design, data analysis, and a year-end report (Winter Bird Highlights). Project FeederWatch is supported almost entirely by participation fees. Without the support of our participants, this project wouldn’t be possible.

For more information and sign up, go to Project FeederWatch.

Happy Birding!

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

New research links house finch behavior at feeders with the spread of eye disease

A lesser goldfinch shows signs of eye disease.  Photo taken Sept. 2011 by J.J. Meyer
From Cornell Lab's Project FeederWatch Blog Sept. 23, 2015: 

New research about feeder birds and House Finch eye disease (mycoplasmal conjunctivitis) reveals an interesting link between behavior and disease transmission. Previous evidence suggested that the bacterium was spread by birds that had the most social connections. A research team from Virginia Tech outfitted wild flocks of House Finches with transmitter chips that recorded their feeder behavior and discovered that the birds that visited feeders with the greatest frequency were the most likely to contract and spread the eye disease.

Does this mean we should stop feeding birds?

No. House finch eye disease has been present since the early 1990s and biologists think it has reached somewhat of an equilibrium in the eastern House Finch population; only 5-10% of individuals are thought to be infected, and House Finch populations seem to be doing well overall. So, you don’t have to stop feeding birds, but there are some precautions you can take if you are concerned about the disease at your feeders (read on!).

What should you do?

This research indicates that feeders facilitate the spread of the disease when infected individuals spend a lot of time on feeders. So, there are several things you can do:
  • Keep on the lookout for sick birds, and participate in Project FeederWatch so you can contribute to the growing dataset about the spread of this disease.
  • If you see a sick finch, disinfect your feeders. If you wish, you may remove feeders for a few days to encourage sick birds to disperse.
  • Clean your feeders on a regular basis, even if you do not notice sick birds.
Find more information about the disease and detailed recommendations for cleaning feeders at Project FeederWatch/Cornell Lab.

Read more about the Virginia Tech research study.
Reference: Adelman JS, Moyers SC, Farine DR, & Hawley DM. (2015) Feeder use predicts both acquisition and transmission of a contagious pathogen in a North American songbird. Proc. R. Soc. B 282: 20151429.