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

Monday, May 18, 2020

How to recognize a baby bird

A juvenile black phoebe.  Photo by J.J. Meyer
Juvenile Bewick's wrens wait for the next feeding. Photo by J.J. Meyer

The physical characteristics of a baby bird are determined by many factors, including its age and type of species. However, there a few distinguishing features of young birds. 

First, observe the color and quality of the feathers. Baby birds tend to look more round and fluffy than the adults because of their downy feathers. In some cases, the babies may even appear larger than their parents.  In most species, if a bird is fully feathered, it is the size it will be as an adult. It's common for people to see a small bird and immediately think it's a baby, when it in fact, it just might be a small species. 

Juveniles also tend to have dull plumage to camouflage them from predators. Many will not develop their colorful adult feathers until after their first molt. For others, it may require years, as is the case with the bald eagle. Eagles take up to five years to transition to their distinctive white head and tail.

Juvenile birds tend to have bills that appear disproportionately large for their heads. Take a look at the top photo of the juvenile black phoebe. The yellowish, fleshy region at the base of the beak is called the gape flange. It's slightly swollen in young birds and can give them the appearance of frowning. As the bird matures, this will become less pronounced. 

Another way to distinguish if a bird is a youngster, is to watch its behavior. Begging sounds and wing fluttering is a dead giveaway. Uncoordinated flight and an uncertainty at how to eat at a feeder, are also signs the bird may be a juvenile. 

Happy birding!

Saturday, May 9, 2020

Happy Mother's Day from the Backyard Birder

"I told you, I'm not hungry." Photo by J.J. Meyer

Black phoebes are monomorphic, meaning there are no differences in the physical characteristics of males and females. Both parents are actively involved in caring for their young.
They’re very territorial and often remain year-round in an area with an established food source. They build mud nests under the eaves of buildings, bridges and other protected shelters. The female lays three to five eggs then incubates them for 15-18 days. Both parents tend the nestlings. The male often continues to feed the young after fledging while the female re-nests.  Once the babies are deemed old enough to fend for themselves, the parents will aggressively run them out of their territory.
Because black phoebes are insect eaters, they do not visit seed feeders. But you can attract them to your yard by offering live mealworms. Start by placing a few in a dish out in an open area where they can be easily seen on a flyby. Live mealworms can be purchased at many nature and pet supply stores. And don't use pesticides, if you'd like to attract insect-eating birds to your yard.  

Happy Birding!

Sunday, May 3, 2020

Count birds at home on Global Big Day

Join Global Big Day on eBird by sharing the birds you see in your own back yard on May 9, 2020.
If you can spare five or ten minutes to count birds, report your observations on eBird online or with the free eBird Mobile app. If you have more time, submit checklists of birds throughout the day at different times.

Last year, 35,209 birders from 174 countries collected 92,284 checklists. Your observations help scientists better understand global bird populations.

Please remember to put safety first and follow local safety guidelines and closures. You can count birds from inside your home and still be part of Global Big Day. 

For more information, go to Global Big Day

Happy Birding!

Saturday, April 18, 2020

Black-headed grosbeaks have arrived

My first sighting of the season on April 16. Photo by J.J. Meyer

This male seemed frustrated by the nyjer feeder. Photo by J.J. Meyer

These beautiful songbirds from the cardinal family breed in the spring and summer in the western United States and into the southern part of Canada.  Breeding males have a bright orange collar and underparts. Its head is black with a large gray bill. It has black wings with white patches. The females are less colorful with dull orange underparts, and a distinct white eyebrow and chin stripe.

Grosbeaks have large triangular bills, that gives them their name. These large bills allow them to crack seeds and crush large insects such as beetles. Look for them at feeders and hopping around near the brush foraging for insects. Grosbeaks also love fruit and often visit oriole feeders.

Offer black oil sunflower seeds, millet and cracked corn to attract them to your yard. 

Happy birding!

Tuesday, April 7, 2020

Bird watching can reduce stress during stay-at-home orders

Male orioles arrive early in the season to claim the best breeding territories. Photo by J.J. Meyer

Here's my latest column, scheduled to run in the Orange County Register on Saturday, April 11. 

With the stress and uncertainty of Covid-19 weighing us all down, take a moment and enjoy the sounds and beauty of birds. Nature has a way of soothing the soul. And a healthy dose of its solace and respite might be just what we need right now.

Studies have shown that bird watching can help reduce anxiety and depression. It’s undeniable that birds bring joy to people of all ages. According to the National Audubon Society, tens of millions identify themselves as birders.

Staff at many of the local Wild Birds Unlimited stores throughout Southern California have been busy over the past couple weeks making deliveries to those who were unable to get out. Customers said they couldn’t face being homebound for any length of time without being able to feed their birds.

“Birds have a calming effect,” said Diann Tomb, assistant manager at the WBU location in Mission Viejo. “Forget watching television, which only causes more stress,” she said. “Watch the birds instead.”

Breeding season is in full swing, so there’s a lot of bird activity right outside our windows. Missing sports? Watch the birds’ version of March Madness, a competition for food, territories, and even mates. And this event will go on into summer.

It’s amazing what you might discover about birds if you just pay attention. You never know when an unusual species may show up. You might witness a pair displaying courtship behaviors or the avian equivalent of a marital squabble. You just have to be watching.

The pandemic forced avid birder George Nothhelfer to cancel his planned birding excursions. He’s been coping by taking walks around his south Orange County neighborhood and visiting local parks. “Spring migration is underway and there’s a lot of interesting birds out there,” he said.

According to Audubon, more than a billion birds will make their way over the Golden State during spring migration. For birds migrating up the Pacific Flyway to the Pacific Northwest, Canada and Alaska this spring, California is a major stop.

Get the family involved with bird watching and create a learning experience for homebound children. Then record your sightings on eBird, the largest biological citizen-science program in the world. It helps birders locate species and keep track of their sightings. The program gathers more than 100 million bird sightings each year. Collectively, these sightings help scientists understand bird populations, distribution, habitat use and trends. A free video on how to use eBird is available at www.academy.allaboutbirds.org/product/ebird-essentials/.

Even if it’s raining, it’s still possible to bird watch thanks to the many live streaming videos available online. Live eagle nest cams on Catalina Island and other locations across the country stream nonstop at www.explore.org. Student lesson plans are available on the site. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology also streams several live videos, including a barred owl nest box and a large feeding station located at Sapsucker Woods in New York, which attracts many beautiful Eastern species.

Remember that birds don’t understand the concept of social distancing, so if you have feeders, they need to be cleaned and sanitized regularly to prevent the birds from getting sick. Prevention is the key to avoiding the spread of avian diseases. Experts at the Lab recommend scrubbing and soaking feeders monthly in a diluted bleach solution, then rinsing and drying thoroughly, before adding fresh seed.

Being vigilant about cleanliness is particularly important when it comes to hummingbird feeders. These tiny birds can pick up a deadly fungal infection at dirty feeders. An infected bird can then spread the disease at every feeder it visits. The infection causes a swollen tongue, eventually causing the birds to suffocate or starve.

Because a nectar or sugar solution can ferment in direct sunlight in as little as a day in hot weather and five days in the shade, experts recommend cleaning feeders frequently with white vinegar or bleach. Rinse thoroughly with hot water and replace with fresh nectar at least every five days and more often in warm weather.

Thursday, April 2, 2020

Orioles are back in town

A female hooded oriole in Mission Viejo on 4/2/2020. Photo by J.J. Meyer
  Local birders have reported sightings of migrant orioles for several weeks. These striking songbirds return to breed in Southern California during the spring and summer. 
Hooded and Bullock’s orioles are the two most common species of orioles found in Orange County, although there have been rare sightings of Scott’s and orchard orioles in previous years.
Orioles are medium-sized songbirds, about 8-inches long with slender bodies and long legs and tails. They are coveted among backyard birders mostly because of their bright colors. Both hooded and Bullock's orioles are sexually dimorphic, with males being more brightly colored than females.
Hooded orioles are named for the orange hood of the male’s breeding plumage. Males have an orange or orange-yellow head, nape, rump and underparts with a distinctive black bib and narrow mask.  The tail is black. And wings are black with with two white wingbars. Females are mostly olive yellow with dusky gray wings and white wingbars. Hooded orioles have long, slightly curved bills.
Adult male Bullock’s are flame-orange with a neat line through the eye and a white wing patch; females are washed in gray and orange. They have straight, pointed bills. 
Manufacturers tend to make oriole feeders orange, because the birds are attracted to the color. Nectar feeders made especially for orioles can better accommodate the larger birds by providing longer perches and bigger feeding ports than are typically seen on hummingbird feeders. Orioles also have an affinity for fruit and even grape jelly.
It’s also possible to attract orioles by planting native shrubs with berries or flowering plants that invite caterpillars, one of their favorite foods. And encourage nesting by delaying trimming dead palm fronds until fall.  
Happy Birding!

Saturday, March 28, 2020

Birds stay warm by fluffling their feathers

A mourning dove puffs up to keep warm on a chilly spring morning. Photo by J.J. Meyer

            The calendar might say it's spring, but it's been chilly during the night and early morning in Southern California recently.

When it's chilly outside, birds fluff their feathers to trap a layer of warm air against their body. The concept is similar to how humans keep warm under a pile of blankets.  It may be cold when we first snuggle in, but soon the air underneath the blankets warms up from our body heat. 
Mourning doves have the ability to look like a round ball. Some birds also tuck their legs and feet into their breast feathers to keep heat from escaping.  

Happy birding!