Birds of America – All About the The Cardinal Grosbeak

Cardinal GrosbeakThis bird is also called ‘The Cardinal’ or ‘redbird’ and is one of the most popular songbirds in North America.  Their slowly dwindling numbers are giving concern and in some areas, they are nearly low enough to put them on the ‘threatened’ list.  How much do you know about the Cardinal Grosbeak?

History of the Cardinal Grosbeak

All through the early 1800’s, these birds were prized because of their beautiful scarlet color and their lovely singing.  As a result, thousands were trapped and sold in cages.  And they didn’t just stay in America.  In the late 1800’s, America made a pact with Europe, to trap and sell the birds to Europeans.  Because of this, thousands more were exported to Europe, for the pleasure of wealthy Victorians.  Happily, this was stopped by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act which was passed in 1918.  Today, the Cardinal Grosbeak may not be trapped, sold or kept in a cage.

Why is it called The Cardinal?

The name is thought to originate from the Cardinals of the Catholic Church.  They wore – and still wear – scarlet red robes and the Cardinal Grosbeak is a stunning scarlet red.

The original name was the Northern Cardinal, which presumably related to it being a North American Bird, because at that time, it was only found in the South of the United States.  Now, it can be see in almost every state.

Are they completely red?

No – the male is a vibrant scarlet but has a black patch from eyes to throat.  The female bird is a duller shade of red which can go as dull as a reddish brown.  She has red areas on her breast, wings and tail.  Males and females both have quite pointed crests on their heads.  They both have short wings, long tails and stubby scarlet beaks.  They both have deep red legs and feet.  Cardinals Grosbeaks are around 8 or 9 inches long.

Why is their song so popular?

They are renowned for whistling.  When males and females are together, they whistle a duet!  The whistling is loud and clear and can vary from one area to another.

Breeding

Cardinal Grosbeaks mate for life.  It’s unusual to see one without another nearby.  The mother bird lays between 3 and 5 eggs and stays on the nest (which is made from small twigs, pieces of bark, roots, and lined with soft grass) being fed by the male.  The eggs hatch in under two weeks and then both birds share the task of feeding them and keeping them safe.  One pair of breeding birds may raise as many as four families in one season.  Often, the families (broods) will overlap, with the male caring for one live batch, while the female incubates the next lot!

Baby Cardinal Grosbeaks all tend to look female when they hatch, except that their beaks are black to start with, turning cream and then scarlet as they grow. 

Do they migrate?

No – Cardinals are one of the very few breeds who don’t migrate.  They do tend to clan together during the winter and at that time of year, flocks of seventy or more may be seen.

What do they eat?

They love insects, which make up almost a third of their intake during the summer.  They are often used to help areas suffering an infestation of insects.  They also enjoy seeds, fruit, berries. flowers and leaf buds.

Where can I see them?

They live anywhere that they can find insects, such as bushes, wooded areas, parks and residential areas too.

Why not put some seeds and berries on your bird feeder and see if you can attract these stunning birds into your yard?  It’s well worth the effort!

Birds of America – All About the The Purple Finch

Purple FinchThe Purple Finch is a dear little bird and looks somewhat like a British Robin but it has a color scheme like no other.  It’s a ‘passerine’ or perching bird and is a member of the Finch family.  Read on to learn more about this cheeky character.

Is it Purple?

No.  It’s actually a pretty shade of rose pink.  In French, it is called ‘Roselin Pourpre’.  The American naturalist, Roger Tory Peterson famously described the Purple Finch as “a sparrow dipped in raspberry juice”.  That is a cute and fairly accurate description.  The male has a raspberry colored head and chest, a dark patch on his face and a white unmarked lower belly.  The female bird is a dull brown, with brown and gray streaks on her back, sides and chest.  She has a pale stripe over her eyes, a dark line down the side of her throat and a dark patch over her ears.  She also has a white underbelly but it has streaking.  A juvenile Purple Finch looks just like a smaller adult female bird.  Purple Finches have a short, notched tail and a straight beak.

Where can I see one?

During the summer, they live around St. Louis and British Columbia.  In the winter time, they move to Texas, Kentucky, North and South Carolina and along the border between the US and Mexico.  Their breeding territories in the US are California, Minnesota and West Virginia.  In Canada they breed in British Columbia and Newfoundland.

They used to be abundant in the East but competition with House Sparrows and House Finches has made their numbers dwindle.  House Finches were introduced to New York in the 1950’s and they have taken over.  Purple Finches are intimidated by House Finches as shown by a study that discovered when the two met up, Purple Finches backed off 95% of the time.

What sort of habitat do they like?

Purple Finches love wooded areas, especially for breeding.  You may hear them warbling before you see them as they can be quite noisy when in a group – but they tend to stay high up in the trees, making them difficult to spot.  They are also happy in more open areas such as fields, parks and residential areas, especially in winter time, when they eat seeds from low-growing plants.

How can I encourage them to my garden?

If you live in an area with Purple Finches, it is relatively easy to attract them to your Bird Feeder.  They adore black oil sunflower seeds, so provide these in abundance.  They’re also partial to millet, berries, insects and thistle, so offering these will help too.

Unusual Facts About the Purple Finch

  • The oldest known Purple Finch lived for 11 years and 9 months.
  • Purple Finches are good mimics and can imitate Barn Swallows, American Goldfinches, Eastern Towhees and Brown-headed Cowbirds.
  • Although the Purple Finches beak is relatively chunky, it is a delicate tool.  The bird uses the strong beak to crush seeds and then extracts the nut with its tongue.  A Purple Finch is also able to take nectar without destroying or eating a flower and can extract a seed from inside a soft fruit without causing too much damage.
  • Fruit-eating birds help with propagation because the seed passes through them and is then dropped some distance away.  However, although the Purple Finch is a fruit eater, it doesn’t help with this because the seed is so crunched up by their beaks that it wouldn’t be able to grow.

Watch out for them

Keep an eye out in your yard for these cute little birds.  They make a cheerful splash of color in the garden and will bring you a lot of pleasure.


Birds of America – Everything You Need to Know About the Downy Woodpecker

Downy WoodpeckerThe Downy Woodpecker, (Latin name, Picoides pubescens) is the smallest of all woodpeckers found in North America.  It is very acrobatic and often frequents garden feeders and parks.

Here’s some more information about this cute bird.

Where can I see one?

The Downy Woodpecker lives pretty much all over Northern America.  Those who live in the North may fly further south in the summer and those in mountainous regions may fly to lower grounds.  During the winter months, they roost in holes in trees.

They breed in wooded areas across North and Central America, making nests in holes in trees or in the crook of a tree branch.  They favor deciduous trees (those which seasonally lose their leaves) and brush or bushy territory.  They also love orchards.

You could also look for them in places where there are tall weeds because they love to eat goldenrod galls for the fly larvae inside.  Look out for their distinctive rising and falling flight pattern.  You may often hear one before you see it because they have a shill call, rather like a horse whinnying.  And of course, like all woodpeckers, they drum on trees with their bill.

What do they look like?

Imagine a classic woodpecker shape and then downsize it.  These birds have wide shoulders and straight backs which helps them to lean away from the trunk of a tree.  Their beaks are straight and like a chisel.  In other woodpeckers, the bill is quite large but in the ‘Downy’, it is relatively smaller.

Regional Variations

Downy Woodpeckers in the West of America are darker all over their bodies with less white on their wings than those from the East.  Pacific Northwest Downys are altogether duskier.

Plumage

At first glance, the Downy almost looks like a chess board.  Adult birds are mostly black on the upperparts, with white ‘checkering’ on the wings.  There is a white stripe above and below each eye.  Their back, throat and underbelly is white and there is a bold white stripe down the center of the back.  Their tail is black with white bars or white with black bars, depending on how you look at it!  You can tell a male from a female because males have a small red area on the back of the head and females don’t.

Male Downys aren’t very chivalrous

During the winter months, male and female Downys go their separate ways in the search for food.  Males favor small branches or the stems of weeds which offer more insects, seeds and berries, while females stick to larger branches and tree trucks.  This isn’t choice on the part of the female.  The presence of the male keeps her away from the ‘better’ areas.  This was shown when researchers took all males out of a feeding area and the females went straight into the ‘traditionally male’ area!

The difference between ‘Downys’ and ‘Hairys’

If you are a budding ornithologist, you will have spotted that the plumage description of the Downy Woodpecker also fits that of the Hairy Woodpecker.  Their plumage is virtually identical.  The differences between the two are that the Hairy is much larger than the Downy and the Hairy doesn’t have black spots on its white tail feathers.

Downys, Hairys and Convergent Evolution!

Although they look so similar, these two species of woodpecker are not closely related.  Experts believe that their similar looks are a wonderful example of something called convergent evolution.   This means that although they have the same biological traits and features, they have arrived at them independently and coincidentally, rather than being evolved from one another i.e. their lineage is unrelated.  No one is quite sure why this has occurred.

The Ornithologists challenge

Because of their amazing similarity, one of the first identification challenges that ornithologists like to master is to tell the difference between Downys and Hairys.

Why do Woodpeckers drum on trees?

For two reasons.  They are establishing their territory and the noise alerts other woodpeckers to the fact that this area is now taken!  They also drum to dig into wood, searching for food and to make holes to nest in.

The drumming is mostly during the spring when they want to find territory for a nest and then build it.  The noise is made by very fast pecking on the trunks and branches of dead trees which are quite resonant, giving the noise a slight echo.  Woodpeckers don’t only drum on trees – they have been observed drumming on buildings and utility poles.

Help! – a Woodpecker is making holes in my tree!

Generally, woodpeckers don’t make holes for nesting or probe for food in wood that is sound.  Most trees have some area of dead wood and if a woodpecker is drumming on your tree, the likelihood is that the area is already dead so it’s not the woodpecker that is doing the damage.  He’s just taking advantage of it!  Some people take woodpecker activity in their backyard to indicate that surrounding trees are unhealthy but this is rarely the case.  If you’re worried, it might be an idea to get an arborist to check out your trees.

How can I attract Woodpeckers to my backyard?

Downys love suet feeders, especially during the winter months but they are also very partial to sunflower seeds (particularly the black oil variety), millet, peanuts and…chunky peanut butter!  Another tip is to set up some hummingbird feeders as Downys like to drink from these. Then sit back and enjoy watching these endearing creatures!

Birds of America – Everything You Need to Know About the American Robin

American RobinThe American Robin (with the glorious Latin name of Turdus migratorius) is also known as the North American Robin.

You may be familiar with the fat, bright, scarlet breasted European Robin which often appears on Christmas cards – but the American version is different altogether.  Here’s why…

Does it have a red breast?

Sometimes.  This is why it is called a Robin, after the European version.  However, the American Robin actually belongs to the thrush family.  Its breast varies in colour from a deep red to peach to peachy-orange.

Other plumage

The American Robin’s head varies too – from deep black to shades of gray.  It has white arches over its eyes and a white stripe which starts at its beak, continues above its eye and onto its head.  Ornithologists call this stripe a supercilium.  The bird has a white throat with black streaks.  The belly and area under the tail are white.  Its beak is mostly yellow with a dark tip which becomes more pronounced during the winter months.  It has brown legs and feet.

How do you tell the males from the females?

They are quite similar a difficult to distinguish from each other but the female does tend to be a little duller than the male.  She has a brownish tint to her head, has brown upperparts and is less brightly colored underneath.

Youngsters

Young birds are easier to spot.  The juvenile American Robin is paler than an adult and has dark spots on its breast, which makes it look more thrush-like.

How big is it?

It’s 23 – 28 centimeters (10–11 inches) in length.  The wingspan is from 31 – 41 centimeters (12.2–16 inches.  On average, it weighs in at a tiny 77 grams (2.7 ounces).

What do they eat?

Almost half of the bird’s diet is made up from grubs, grasshoppers and caterpillars.  It particularly loves worms and hunts them by sight, not sound as many other birds do.  This is what gives it the characteristic action of ‘running and stopping’.  Sadly, the American Robin digs for worms on suburban lawns and so it often falls prey to pesticide poisoning.

When am I most likely to see one?

Anywhere in North America, all year round.  In the winter months, it tends to stay south of the area from Florida down to Mexico and along the Pacific coastline.   In the summer months, they breed in Canada.  It’s the state bird of Connecticut, Michigan and Wisconsin so it’s a good bet that you’ll see one in any of those states.

Within those areas, American Robins favor gardens, parkland, golf courses (lots of lawn-like area for worms!) and fields.  They also like wooded areas and forests.

A Few Interesting Facts About the American Robin

American Robins are great breeders but they have to be, because their success rate isn’t very high.  Only around 40% of nests produce young and only 25% of those who do make it, don’t survive the laying season.  So, only half of the Robins that are alive in any given year will survive until the next.

The oldest known American Robin was a month short of 14 years old – but was a lucky exception to the rule.  On average, the entire bird population turns over every six years.

  • If you find an American Robin roost then you’re in for an amazing sight.  Some roosts hold as many as a quarter million birds!
  • During fall and winter when their favorite worms are scare, the birds eat a large amount of fruit.  It has been observed that if they only eat honeysuckle berries, they may become intoxicated!
  • In the 1964 movie ‘Mary Poppins’ (starring Julie Andrews) which is supposed to be set in London, the robin that lands on Mary’s finger during the song ‘A Spoonful of Sugar’, an American Robin, not a British one.
  • The comic book hero ‘Robin’, beloved sidekick of Batman, wasn’t inspired by a Robin at all.  His creator was actually inspired by an illustration of Robin Hood, drawn by the artist N. C. Wyeth.  However, in a later version, his ‘Mother’ gave him the name Robin because he was supposedly born on the first day of spring, when Robins traditionally herald the end of winter.  His red shirt is meant to emulate the Robin’s red breast.

 

 

Birds of America – Everything You Need to Know About the Blue Jay

Blue Jay Canvas PrintThe Blue Jay (Latin name Cyanocitta Cristata) is a passerine bird, which is an ornithologists term for a bird that perches.  If you don’t live in America, you may have never heard of it.  If you live anywhere in the western United States of America or Southern Canada, then you are probably familiar with this pretty native bird.  But how much do you really know about it?

Here is a Guide to the Blue Jay
______________________

Is it blue?

Yes and no.  The blue feathers are not blue due to color pigmentation.  The feathers do have pigment but it is melanin, which isn’t blue, but brown.  The glorious blue color appears because the surface structure of the barbs on their feathers causes light to scatter through modified cells when it hits them.  If a blue feather is damaged or crushed, the blue color disappears!

The Blue Jay isn’t totally blue.  Its crest, back, wings and tail vary from lavender blue to mid blue.  It has a white face and off-white underbelly.  Blue Jays have a black collar around their necks which goes up across the sides of their heads.

The individual patterning of this black bridle varies tremendously and it is thought that it helps the birds to recognize each other.  The primary feathers on its wings are edged with black, blue and white.  They have black bills, legs and eyes.  There is no color difference between males and females.  The only way to tell the difference is that males are a tiny bit larger.

How big is it?

From beak to broad, rounded tail, the Blue Jay is 22 – 30 cm or 9 to 12 inches.  They weigh in at from 70 to 100 grams (2.47 – 3.53 ounces) and have a wingspan of 34 – 43 cm or 13 to 17 inches – so they’re pretty hard to miss!

The crest

Blue Jays have a crest on the top of their heads.  This acts as an outward display of the bird’s emotion and as a warning to other birds.  If the Jay is aggressive or excited, the crest raises upwards to its full height.  If the bird is scared, the crest spreads outwards.  When it’s relaxed and calm, the crest stays flat against its head.

What do they eat?

Blue Jays are omnivorous which means that they eat ‘meat and veg’.  Their beaks are very strong so that they can crack open nuts and for crunching up seeds, grain and corn, which they hold in their feet.  They particularly like acorns and this is why they often live on the edge of wooded areas where oak trees tend to grow.  The strong beak also comes in handy for cracking through the exoskeletons of beetles.  They also enjoy grasshoppers and caterpillars.  They have the facility of a pouch in their throat for carrying items to either store elsewhere or to take to a place of safety to eat.

Do they migrate?

Yes, in huge numbers.  They migrate in flocks of thousands and if you live near the Great Lakes or on the Atlantic coast you may have been lucky enough to witness this amazing sight.  They have a strange migration pattern which is little understood.  Some Blue Jays don’t migrate at all.  It’s thought that younger birds are more likely to migrate than older ones, although older birds do migrate in huge numbers.  Some Jays appear to migrate individually.  No one knows why they choose to migrate when they do – or why the do it so erratically.

How can I attract them to my garden?

If you live in Florida, this could be difficult.  If Red-headed Woodpeckers, Florida Scrub-Jays and gray squirrels visit your garden, it will be hard to attract Blue Jays because they are strongly dominated by these other creatures.

The good news is that Blue Jays love bird feeders.  Because they are perching birds, they prefer tray style feeders or a hopper feeder fixed to a post.  They can’t manage well with hanging feeders because they’re just not designed to hang!  Put out plenty of seeds and nuts such as peanuts and sunflower seeds.  Suet is also a good choice.  If you’re thinking long-term, plant some acorns to provide oak trees for future generations.

Blue Jays are also attracted to birdbaths so having one of those will maximize your chances.

And the Flip Side of That is…..

Help – Blue Jays have taken over my garden!

These birds are very territorial during the summer months.  However, once they have finished breeding, they will start gathering food for the winter months, filling their throat pouches and taking it elsewhere to stock up.  At this point, they can invade your feeder and take over!  You are actually very lucky to see these stunning birds in such profusion but if they really are a nuisance, try not putting any food out for a few days and they will soon get the message.

And Finally – A Few Interesting Blue Jay Facts…

  • The Blue Jay is great at mimicking the hawk calls – in particular, the Red Shouldered Hawk.  This could be to let other birds know that there’s a hawk about or it may be to deceive them into thinking that there’s a hawk around so that the BJ gets first pick of any available food!
  • Ornithologists have never reported Blue Jays making and using tools.  However, during one study, captive BJ’s used strips of newspaper as a tool to reach and rake food pellets that lay outside their cages.
  • The major league baseball team of Toronto is called the Toronto Blue Jays.
  • The oldest known wild Blue Jay lived to be at least 17 and a half years old.