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

Sunday, September 25, 2016

The female pin-tailed whydah looks very different from the male

A female pin-tailed whydah -- Photo by J.J. Meyer
As a follow-up to my story on exotic birds in Saturday's Orange County Register --

Here's a photo of the female pin-tailed whydah. The streaked, brown plumage is similar to native sparrows, though the bird can be distinguished by its bright orange bill.

Happy Birding!

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Exotic birds find refuge in Southern California

A pair of Amazon parrots in Santiago Regional Park in Orange. Photo by Trude Hurd
Scaly-breasted munia, also known as a nutmeg mannikin. Photo by J.J. Meyer

Check out my story on the cover of Saturday's Orange County Register Home & Garden section:

Many exotic bird species have made Southern California their home, breeding and living here year-round, with several populations of these birds skyrocketing in recent years.

Doug Willick, who records rare bird sightings for the North American Bird Journal and the local Sea and Sage Audubon Society newsletter, said, “We typically think of exotics as the bright, colorful nonnative species sold as caged birds in pet shops. Other nonnative bird species have also become naturalized in the United States like house sparrows and starlings, but we don’t think of those as exotics.”

The exotic birds that have been area residents the longest are likely the various species of parrots, said Willick, a wildlife biologist. He remembers seeing parrots in the area as far back as the 1960s. He continues to hear them every morning at first light from his home in Old Towne Orange. A flock of red-crowned parrots and mitred parakeets is seen frequently in his neighborhood. The red-crowned, lilac-crowned and yellow-headed Amazons are particularly well-established in Southern California.

“These birds have adapted well to urban areas,” he said. “They’re very smart birds.”

Cindy McNatt has grown used to the squawks of the parrots that stop to snack on her loquat trees in the backyard of her Santa Ana home. “When they’re working this area, I’ll hear them for weeks, then they disappear. They seem to like the older neighborhoods like North Tustin, where they still have fruit and nut trees.”

The flocks seem to stick to the tree crowns, often perching in the neighborhood palms but never going to the ground for food or drinking from her fountain, which attracts a host of other birds, she said.

According to the research of the California Parrot Project, founded by Kimball Garrett of the Natural History Museum in Los Angeles, there are at least 10 species of parrots that have become naturalized throughout Southern California, from San Diego to the northern reaches of Los Angeles and east to Redlands. An estimated 2,500 feral parrots are living freely in California.

Native to Mexico and South America, these feral parrots have become city dwellers. The tales of how the parrots escaped from captivity have become fodder for urban legend. Some say large-scale releases occurred when an area pet shop burned down, or when Busch Gardens in Van Nuys closed many decades ago. Others contend that many birds were released by poachers when facing arrest on this side of the border. Experts believe the population cannot be traced to a couple of isolated releases, but rather is the result of a number of intentional and unintentional releases over the years.

Another widely established bird species is the scaly-breasted munia, also known as the nutmeg mannikin, or spice finch in the pet trade.

“Orange County seems to be the epicenter for these birds, though they are widespread,” Willick said.
These small, chestnut or reddish-brown finches from Asia have dark heads and thick bills. Adults have a scaly patterned chest, while juveniles are mostly tan overall. These highly gregarious finches colonize in large flocks, often showing up at backyard feeders.

They’re late nesters, Willick said, often starting in late summer or early fall. Large flocks can be found at Huntington Central Park and the San Joaquin Wildlife Sanctuary in Irvine.

Growing numbers of bronze mannikins, an estrildid finch from Africa, have been sighted at Huntington Central Park and along the San Gabriel River Trail. These birds look similar to the scaly-breasted munia but are darker in color.

Because exotic birds are nonnative and therefore not listed in most field guides, their identification can sometimes confuse even the most avid birder.

Dave Oliver of Huntington Beach first spotted a bright orange bird while biking on the Santa Ana River Trail a few years ago. At first he thought it was a vermillion flycatcher, but after further research learned that it was a northern red bishop, also called an orange bishop.

Breeding males are bright red with a black head and chest, while nonbreeding colors tend toward yellow or yellowish orange. Females have pale yellow chests with streaky brown backs and wings. These birds are native to Africa.

Oliver has since kept a lookout for the bird during his daily rides along the river. He recently saw a male and female perched together close to the trail. But he’s never seen more than two at a time on his rides.

Northern red bishops were first sighted in area in the 1970s, Willick said. But their population hasn’t grown like that of the scaly-breasted munia, because these birds are more limited in their choice of habitat. They tend to prefer the tall grass of marshy areas.

Another exotic bird species showing up throughout the area is the pin-tailed whydah, an African native. Breeding males have extremely long tail feathers. Both sexes have bright orange bills. Populations of these birds, first sighted nearly 30 years ago, have exploded over the last 10 to 12, Willick said.

These birds are known to be aggressive competitors when foraging for food, often chasing native birds away from feeding sites. But of even greater concern is that pin-tailed whydahs are brood or nest parasites, similar to our native brown-headed cowbirds. That means they don’t build their own nests or care for their young; they lay their eggs in the nests of other birds.

“Are they parasitizing our native bird species? We don’t know,” he said. But ornithologists speculate that because pin-tailed whydahs lay their eggs in the nests of estrildid finches in Africa, they may be laying their eggs in the nests of scaly-breasted munia, the only estrildid finch in our area.

How these increasing populations of exotic birds are affecting our native bird populations is still relatively unknown, he said.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Introducing the California Scrub-jay

The California Scrub-jay.  Photo by J.J. Meyer
In case you need an excuse to buy a new field guide -- 

The American Ornithologists’ Union, the official authority on classification and names of all bird species on this continent, recently released a new checklist of North American Birds. 

In the new checklist, the Western Scrub-Jay has been split into two species: the California Scrub-Jay (Aphelocoma californica) and Woodhouse’s Scrub-Jay (Aphelocoma woodhouseii). Birders have long recognized that these widespread western jays come in different shades: a darker, more rich color in California, Oregon, and southwestern Washington, and a somewhat paler, grayer type in the interior West, from Nevada east to Texas. Many field guides already illustrate them separately as “coastal form” (or “Pacific form”) and “interior form.”

The American Ornithologists’ Union has been considering this split for several years. The split became official after genetic research demonstrated that the two species rarely interbreed where they come into contact with each other in western Nevada.

Happy Birding!

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Fall is the best time to trim trees

The breeding season is over so if you must trim your trees, it's a good time to do it. 

But please remember to keep some foliage around your yard so the birds can escape from predators, especially if you have bird feeders. 

Begin to watch for hummingbird nests by late November.  Before trimming, take the time to watch the tree for at least a half hour.  If you see a female hummingbird going in and out, there is a good chance she's building a nest.

Please pass this information along to your homeowner's association if you have one. Let's keep our birds safe.

Happy birding!

Monday, September 12, 2016

Squirrels stockpile food in the fall

A tree squirrel stretches to reach the Naturally Nuts suet. Photo by J.J. Meyer
You can expect to see more squirrel activity at your bird feeders this time of year. That's because squirrels stockpile seeds and nuts in hidden caches for the winter. They bury them in the ground--sometimes right in the middle of the lawn--and in openings in tree trunks.

Squirrel-proof feeders and baffles will help keep them away from the bird food. Or you can just give in and feed them. They love peanuts, corn and sunflower seeds.

Happy Birding!

Monday, September 5, 2016

Finding feathers lately?

That's because most birds are molting. Every bird goes through a complete molt once a year.   Most birds molt in late summer and early fall, but the way a bird molts differs among species. Some have a partial molt, then migrate. But they’re not normally in a full molt when flying long distances.

Molting requires a lot of energy, so that's why it occurs after the breeding cycle is over. Birds tend to keep a low profile when molting because they are more vulnerable to predators during this time. 
Birds in molt can look scruffy or unusual with stubby tails and patchy bald spots, which makes bird identification tricky this time of year. 

Happy Birding!

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Mockingbirds' songs stop while they care for their young

A juvenile mockingbird makes high-pitched begging calls. Photo by J.J. Meyer
Here's my next column, scheduled to run in the Orange County Register on Saturday.       

      It’s nearing the end of the breeding season, though many birds are still feeding their families away from the nest.
      I’ve been watching a pair of Northern mockingbirds with two fledglings for the past week or so. The youngsters’ downy feathers make them appear slightly larger than the parents. I can hear the fledglings’ relentless high-pitched begging calls coming from the honeysuckle in our back yard. With two large mouths to feed, the parents fly in and out of those bushes continuously throughout the day.
       Mockingbirds have two to three broods, or hatchings, each season. They typically begin in mid-February and are finished by early September. Females incubate the eggs and provide most of the nestling care, though both sexes share in feeding once the babies are out of the nest. Babies fledge, or leave the nest, at 12 to 14 days when they’re still flightless. Until they can fly, these young birds are extremely vulnerable to predators, including cats.
       Mockingbirds don’t typically sing this time of year. The adults I’ve been watching have been relatively silent except for the shrieking alarm calls they make when a crow or jay ventures too close to their fledglings. Mockingbirds can be very aggressive when defending their territory, nest and young. The parents often join together to attack intruders.
      These medium-size songbirds pack a lot of attitude in their 10-inch-long frame. Their plumage is gray or gray-brown overall and their bellies pale gray. In flight, they flash their white wing patches and white outer tail feathers. Other identifying features include long legs and tails, short slightly curved black bills and reddish-brown eyes with a dark eyeline. Juveniles have streaky gray breasts and bright yellow gapes – the name for the interior of the mouth and edges of the bill.
      Mockingbirds are common backyard birds and year-round residents in Orange County. They’re insect and fruit eaters, so they don’t visit seed feeders. But they eat suet and frequently visit the large suet cylinder in my yard. They also appear when I step outside to feed mealworms to the black phoebes. I’ve learned that there’s less competition for the worms when I toss a few on the ground for the mockingbirds first, then toss worms one at a time in the air for the black phoebes, which are able to catch them on the fly.
      When the breeding season is over, the birds will begin molting, a systematic process of replacing feathers. Birds tend to become secretive during this time, vocalizing infrequently and hiding in the vegetation to evade predators.
      Both male and female mockingbirds will begin singing again in September and continue until early November. Males sing two distinct repertoires: one reserved for spring and another for fall. The female also sings in the fall, although usually more quietly than the male.

Happy Birding!