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Black Phoebes Make Doughty Neighbors

Black Phoebe

Black Phoebe photo courtesy of David Bogener

Winter is not traditionally mosquito-buzzing or cricket-singing season. The bugs lie low, not with summer music but tucked mutely into a puddle or under a log or leaf, usually as eggs or larvae or pupae. They wait for the revolving Earth to point us sunward, waking them up and rousing the crescendo of photosynthesis that prospers life seasonally all over the planet’s surface.

Songbirds, of course, know these seasons at an instinctual level. Our summer birds head south to sunnier latitudes not to keep warm but to keep in grub. Flycatchers, who snag six-legged prey right out of the air for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, are particularly reactive to insect dormancy. Customarily, they enjoy Acapulco or similar resort destinations this time of year.

But there’s always a nonconformist. Come drenching winter rains, pounding hail, hard frosts, and coats of snow, one little flycatcher finds a way to live through winter right here in Northern California. The black phoebe is one of our pluckiest neighbors.

Black Phoebe with Spider

They are no shrinking violets, nor much vegetative at all. Although scarcely the length of your handspan, and dressed in buttoned-down black-and-white, they engage life with redoubtable effervescence. They abundantly sing out their name, phoe-be, phoe-be! as if announcing nature’s vitality on even a frosty morning. They fly-catch when flies—or moths or mosquitoes—are few and far between, and expand their hunt to snatch prey from blades of grass or the surface of ponds. They flick their tails incessantly as if life simply requires dancing. They wear just a hint of a punk ‘do in their headfeathers, just enough to keep more sedate heads wondering.

And they not only survive, they flourish. When spring comes with readier food supplies, pairs reunite, and the male takes his mate on a tour of possible nest sites, fluttering enticingly under bridges or shady eves, or in the cleft of a tree-sized boulder. She chooses a spot and builds a nest, a half-bowl of mud plastered to the selected vertical surface—possibly refurbishing a site that the pair used in prior years.

Black Phoebe Nest

Phoebes defend their turf, chasing off other insectivores and reserving the local winged protein for themselves and their nestlings. But plucky is not foolhardy. They will generally flee a hunting hawk. Still, they are known to harass a fox or cat, and have been observed chasing jays thrice their size to protect their helpless young.

Black phoebes have done well with people. As long as water is nearby, with its provision of insects for eating and mud for nesting, human development has multiplied the vertical surfaces that make continuing life possible for this hardy neighbor of ours. Keep an eye and an ear out: there is likely a clear “phoe-be, phoe-be” near you!


North State Gold

Lesser Goldfinch Male

Lesser Goldfinch Male

Nature offers relentless beauty, free—not for the taking, but still for enrichment. One of this season’s beauties is goldfinches.

If you hang a feeder with thistle seed out your window, then a dozen or more of these lemon cuties may well deck the twigs nearby. They’re tiny, just elongated ping-pong balls, but on a chill winter morning they can turn bare branches into a Christmas tree.

The birds are known as Lesser Goldfinches. “Lesser” because they are smaller than their cousin American Goldfinches, and because in summer the cousins have more stunningly bright plumage. But in winter the larger birds lose their brilliance, turning an amber tan, while the lesser goldfinches continue to shine.

As is common in birds, the males are the prettier ones. Their wings are black with small flashes of white, and they wear smooth black caps. Their greenish backs melt into bright yellow undersides. The females dress in similar colors, but muted and without the hat.

It is uncommon to see a solitary goldfinch. They are gregarious, hanging out together like teens at the mall, and filling the air with their wheezy chittering and trills. In their native western US and Mexico, they can be seen wherever the small seeds they thrive on are abundant. They scour sycamore pods high in city treetops; they flock through weedy lots and fields; and they congregate at feeders. Development does not seem to have reduced the presence of weeds or seeds, and the goldfinches are prospering.

Our North State climate is temperate enough that the goldfinches out your winter window will stay in the neighborhood for their spring nesting. Finches are singers, and a male will twitter and tweet until a female succumbs to his melody and allows him to perch by her. He will eventually begin feeding her, a consideration he will continue as she selects a nest site and does the work of construction. She is practical in this task, weaving her grassy cup in a leafy tree or shrub and lining it with fluff from flora or fauna, making a soft, warm bed for the naked nestlings.

The nest is usually just 4-8 feet off the ground. Keeping it low facilitates his food delivery to her while she incubates their eggs, and later, their exhaustive efforts to fill the bottomless pits of their annual handful of children. In under two weeks of incubation, the young hatch out scrawny and helpless, but strong enough to demand that incessant deliveries of seeds and insects be gathered from the neighborhood and fluttered up to them. In less than two weeks more they will be as big as their parents, feathered, and flapping awkwardly from the nest.

Lesser Goldfinch Female with Nestlings

Lesser Goldfinch Female with Nestlings

After a little more tending, the weary parents can take a break. Their energetic young flutter on, replenishing the local flurry of color and song, continuing the persistent beauty of the natural world.


Avian Spooks Haunt the Night

Great Horned Owl

Great Horned Owl

Who-h’hoo-hoo-hoo! Not a Halloween ghost, but an owl. Some owls are smaller than robins, others bigger than your poodle, but they live all around us, locally and worldwide, almost invisibly.

Most common in North America is the Great Horned Owl. It’s not really horned—just feather-tufted—but these owls have the hearing, eyesight, feathering, talons, and instincts that make them formidable nighttime spooks .

Being nocturnal, the owls must keep warm. Their thick blanket of soft feathers does the job. Their feathering is so plush that a child’s finger poked into it can disappear. The Great Horned Owl is about the size of a housecat, but weighs only half as much, maybe four pounds. The rest is feathers.

The softness of these feathers helps insulate the birds, but it also promotes their silence. You may have heard the stiff flapping of, say, a raven winging by in daylight hours. But the owl’s feathers, soft and fringed at the wings, slip silently through the air, so that an unsuspecting rat is given no warning of its doom.

“No warning” is important. Daytime raptors—hawks and eagles—generally catch their quarry only 20% of the time. Snatching prey in the night can only be more difficult.

But owls are up to the task. They have huge eyes; imagine tennis balls on our human faces. Their pupils can open wide to catch dim shades in the dark. Their retinas are rich in rod cells, the photoreceptors that see only black and white, but still see when color receptors have shut down with dusk. Their huge eyes leave no room for their pupils to slide left-right as ours do, but they compensate with 14 vertebrae in their neck, twice our number, allowing their famous three-quarter head swivel.

Owl hearing is exceptional. Their cheek feathers form two little dishes that funnel sound into their ears, one on each side of the head, one high and one low. That high/low offset helps the owl pinpoint the source of a sound, much as a dog will by cocking its head. Tests on barn owls have shown their ability to capture prey in total darkness, by sound alone.

Once its prey is located, a hunting Great Horned Owl will loft from its perch and wing forward like a shadow. Its talons—not the typical three toes forward, 1 toe back of songbirds, but rather angled two forward/two back—will encircle its prey. Scarily strong—reported to be able to pop a steel-belted tire—the talons will pierce the lungs or heart.

Great Horned Owls are not picky eaters. They may hop on the ground to snatch scorpions and other invertebrates; they may eat frogs, mice, rats, or rabbits; coots, ducks, or other birds; squirrels, cats, or, thanks to an absent sense of smell, skunks.

Their nocturnal versatility—night, after all, happens all over—permits Great Horned Owls to live in forests, fields, wetlands, and deserts. They hoot to establish a territory and to coax a mate. In spite of her larger size, she hoots the alto and he hoots the bass. All dueted up, they will nest in trees, in stick nests or cavities, or in old barns, or on rock ledges, where they will deliver shreds of the local vermin to their hungry chicks.

And at this Halloween time of year, you may hear their hoots, but also the hisses, shrieks, barks, whistles, and wavering cries with which owls haunt the darkened skies.


Plants for Birds

Cedar Waxwing

Cedar Waxwing on Toyon by Jay Thesken

After the long heat, the season for planting approaches. The local CNPS will hold its fall sale of native plants at the Shasta College Horticulture area on October 14, 8am-2pm. It may be an opportunity to dress up both your yard and the birds!

We only survive and flourish because of photosynthesis, the green-plant magic that turns solar energy into food energy. Without plants we would lack the wit to see a bird, as well as any birds to see. None would sing, or sprout a golden feather.

Praying Mantis

Praying Mantis

Fortunately, many plants survive our summer droughts and winter frosts. Trees, shrubs, forbs, and grasses provide a feast of seeds, nuts, berries, leaves, and nectar. Native plants support insects—caterpillars, leaf-hoppers, aphids, and more. Buckwheats, sages, coffeeberry, and toyon are among the many plants that support our pollinators—native bees, wasps, flies and beetles. The insects become food for so much of animate life, including our local fledglings who this month are fueling their first flights south.

Western Bluebirds

Western Bluebird Fledglings Waiting to be Fed

Many birds are strongly associated with oaks. Besides making nesting sites, oaks make acorns, which are devoured by jays, magpies, crows, ravens, turkeys, and band-tailed pigeons. Acorn woodpeckers store the acorns in rotting branches for winter dining. Lewis’s woodpeckers do the same, but meticulously shell and split the acorns first!

Acorn Woodpecker Granary

Acorn Woodpecker Granary

And oaks pass storms of insect energy on to hungry birds! Woodpeckers, titmice, and nuthatches dine on the beetles, ants, and spiders of the woody branches, and on the wasp larvae in oak galls. A stunning 534 species of butterflies and moths are known to lay their eggs in oaks, and those caterpillars feed orioles, warblers, vireos, mockingbirds, and bushtits. Bluebirds and flycatchers hawk the insects that take wing, and robins, sparrows, and towhees pick dinner from the detritus under the trees. Oaks are the crowning gem of many a lively yard!

Oak Titmouse with Insect

Oak Titmouse with Insect

Quail will roost in the oaks, but will gladly poke about at ground level in the thick protection of Ceanothus bushes, where foraging wrens and towhees may join them. Nearby lupines, after their bright show of blue flowers, will draw the quail out to dine on their nutritious seed pods.

California Quail Female with Chick

California Quail Female with Chick

The fruits from Coffeeberry, Toyon, and Elderberry attract robins, bluebirds, mockingbirds, waxwings, and nuthatches. Currants will also draw these berry-loving birds.

Goldfinches flock to sunflowers and thistles. Milkweed supports not just monarchs but eleven other species of butterflies and moths, too. Colorful grosbeaks dine on their seeds, and hooded orioles use the plant fibers to weave their nests.

Swallowtail On Western Vervain

Swallowtail On Western Vervain

Four species of hummingbirds are regularly seen in our area, and many flowers sustain them—woolly blue curls, larkspurs, penstemons, monkeyflower, fuschia, currants, and salvia. Some of these plants bloom through the winter, sustaining the resident Anna’s hummingbirds.

Anna's Hummingbird on Thistle

Anna’s Hummingbird on Thistle

For the adventurous, poison oak provides fruit and cover for quail, thrushes, sparrows, goldfinches, flickers, juncos, kinglets, sapsuckers, wrens, titmice, and a host of other songbirds. Don’t get carried away with toxic adventures, though. Nandina, known as heavenly bamboo, is a colorful but dangerous invasive that poisons birds with its cyanide-laced berries.

Gardening for birds is best done with a dose of indolence. Leave those dead-heads on the plant; they’ll feed the finches. Leave the leaves on the ground. Towhees and sparrows will breakfast on the bugs that turn them into mulch. Native plants are generally a great bet. Together with the birds they form a beautiful gift to yards all over. Enjoy!


Birds Pull Out Their Winter Coats

Bald Eagle Juvenile

Bald Eagle Juvenile photo courtesy David Bogener

What’s up with our backyard birds? Where are they?

You may have seen them over the last months busily carrying load after load of insects to feed their ravenous nestlings, then being raucously pursued by fledglings demanding yet more food – sometimes with two or even three batches of babies through the season. All this effort has taken a toll on the adult birds’ feathers and now, despite the daily care they have taken preening and cleaning them, the feathers are worn out. The birds are lying low during their molt – the annual or twice yearly loss and regrowth of feathers done by most songbirds. But don’t expect to catch a glimpse of bald birds – each worn feather becomes loosened in its socket and is pushed out by the growth of a new feather.

The process takes from 5 to 12 weeks for songbirds, after which some will appear in winter plumage quite different from the bold patterns some males sport in summer. For example, American Goldfinch males are bright canary yellow with bold black accents during the breeding season, but become a quieter butterscotch color, much like females and juveniles, in their winter garb. Similarly, you may see a male Western Tanager that has lost his gaudy orange head feathers and exchanged them to the muted gray of a female before starting the long, dangerous migration to Costa Rica for the winter.

Bald Eagle 4 Year Old

Bald Eagle Sub-Adult photo courtesy David Bogener

Other groups of birds go about the molt differently. Ducks, geese and some other water birds go through a rapid “synchronous molt”. They change their feathers quickly in a period as short as two weeks which renders them flightless for that period. This seems like a risky business – but researchers have deduced that since these birds are heavy relative to their wing surfaces, losing a few feathers at a time would seriously hamper flying ability, so they get it over with as quickly as possible and minimize the length of time that they are especially vulnerable to predators.

Raptors (eagles, hawks, falcons and their kin) “make their living” on the wing and can’t afford to suffer periods of impaired flying abilities. These birds may take as long as two years to complete a molt. The loss of flight feathers must be symmetrical or flying would be skewed. A woman who raised an owl that could not be released into the wild observed this in action. She reported that her feathered friend pulled a loose wing feather out and gave it to her, then immediately removed the corresponding feather from the other wing.

Bald Eagle Adult

Bald Eagle Adult photo courtesy David Bogener

To give young Turkey Vultures a good start, they don’t molt their flight feathers until they are two years old. The vultures soaring over minus a couple feathers are almost certainly adults.

In most birds, tail feather replacement is from the center of the tail toward the outer edge. Woodpeckers reverse this for a very good reason. Watch closely the next time you see one ratcheting up a tree and you will see that it braces itself firmly using its stiff tail feathers. The key for this is an inner pair of long feathers. Those are retained until the outer tail feathers have been replaced with fresh, strong vanes, keeping the woodpecker able to fully function searching for insects in the bark.

You may find a single feather in your yard – evidence that one of “your” birds has cast it off for a brand new set of feathers to get it through the winter or prepare it to head off to winter habitat in Mexico, Central America or South America. Enjoy the memento!