Birdwatching Canada

A voice for the northern birds

Grackle Diaper Patrol

male common grackle

Male common grackle

Common grackles are one of those largely overlooked backyard birds. In spite of the fact they are classed as songbirds, they don’t have a pretty singing voice and aren’t small and colorful.

At first glance, grackles are just plain black. Catch them in the sunlight however, and you’ll see iridescent black feathers on the body, a beautiful blue head on the males, and pale yellow eyes. Females are slightly smaller, and less glossy.

You’ll often find common grackles in large flocks, flying or foraging on lawns and fields. They strut on long legs, pecking for food rather than scratching. When resting they sit atop trees or on telephone lines, keeping up an incessant, raucous chattering.

If you have grackles in your yard, and if said grackles are nesting there, I doubt you can overlook the busy parents doing diaper duty.

Baby grackles produce fecal material that looks like miniature sandwich bags of poop. The parents grab these little bird diapers, and take them far away from the nest so predators can’t locate the baby birds. And drop them. Everywhere.

These clever birds consider water the perfect place to dump their cargo, as water washes away all traces. If you have a pond, a pool or even bird bath in your yard, this would be a good time to initiate regular cleanings. From the air, a glossy polish on a car apparently looks like water as well.

Native to open and semi-open areas east of the Rocky Mountains, the common grackle has adapted well to backyard bird feeders. Their size (13″) gives them first crack at the food, and I’ve even seen them intimidate squirrels into waiting for their dinner until the grackles are finished. The only species they don’t rule seems to be the blue jay, who is truly the lord of the feeder!

Common grackles are resourceful foragers. They sometimes follow plows to catch invertebrates and mice, wade into water to catch small fish, pick leeches off the legs of turtles, steal worms from American robins, raid nests, and kill and eat adult birds. They are the number one threat to corn crops, as they eat ripening corn and well as corn sprouts.

Their range expanded west as forests were cleared, and in some areas, they are now considered a pest by farmers because of their large numbers and fondness for corn and grain. Despite a currently robust population, a recent study by the National Audubon Society indicated that populations had declined by 61% to a population of 73 million from historic highs of over 190 million birds.

So even if they aren’t small and melodious, don’t overlook the common grackles in your yard. They have about 73 million relatives, and can be relied upon to visit your feeders sooner or later, and likely make a deposit in your pond.

Filed under: Songbirds,

Ontario Swift Watch

Bird Studies Canada is excited to announce the launch of a new program: Ontario Swift Watch.

Chimney Swifts, like many other aerial insectivores in North America, are experiencing strong population declines across their range. The Canadian Chimney Swift population has decreased 96% over the past 40 years, leading to their COSEWIC designation as a federally Threatened species.

ChimneySwift23Through funding provided by the Canadian Wildlife Service, Ontario SwiftWatch has been developed as a province-wide initiative to expand and standardize volunteer-based monitoring practices that are already underway in a number of cities. We hope to understand the causes of these population declines and work toward conserving this species.

Chimney Swifts provide an exciting opportunity for city-based individuals to participate in important conservation work, as they are most often found nesting and roosting in urban chimneys.

Have you noticed Chimney Swifts in your area? Bird Studies Canada are looking for volunteer Chimney Swift monitors in cities all across Ontario. For more information, or to become a volunteer, please contact Elisabeth van Stam (1-888-448-2473 ext.173, evanstam@birdscanada.org) or Hazel Wheeler (1-888-448-2473 ext. 165, hwheeler@birdscanada.org).

The mission of Bird Studies Canada is to advance the understanding, appreciation, and conservation of wild birds and their habitats, in Canada and elsewhere, through studies that engage the skills, enthusiasm, and support of its members, volunteers, and the interested public.

Bird Studies Canada is a not-for-profit organization built on the enthusiastic contributions of thousands of volunteer Citizen Scientists. Data from Bird Studies Canada’s volunteer surveys and targeted research projects are used to identify significant population changes and help direct conservation planning.

For more information on this and other volunteer positions for wildlife, please see WorkCabin.ca, Canada’s environmental jobs and volunteers website.

Filed under: Songbirds, ,

Baby Robins Dropping Down

It’s late spring in North America, and across the continent baby or fledgling robins are dropping out of their nests. This seems a strange way to propogate the species, but for generations adult robins have been giving fledglings a boot. They can fly a few feet, but spend most of their time on the ground.

People are always concerned that this baby bird has fallen out of its nest and needs help. The truth is he was pushed out of the nest to get on with the business of growing up. DO NOT PICK THEM UP. Don’t take them to a zoo or wildlife rehab centre.

Baby or fledgling robin

Baby or fledgling robin

It may seem cruel to us, but this is the way robins conduct their family life, and judging by the number of robins in the country, it works. The best thing for you to do is keep dogs and cats away while the youngster gets his bearings. He’ll move along in a little while.

Baby robins look something like their parents, but have speckled chests, and fluffy down feathers poking out here and there. Yes he looks helpless, but they manage to survive in huge numbers.

Just think of them as the true image of spring, and keep the dogs and cats away. Use their presence in your yard as an opportunity for a nature talk to the kids, which will be a lot more help to the birds!

Filed under: Songbirds, , ,

Featured Feathers: Siskins

Pine siskin

Pine siskin

Pine siskins are members of the Finch family, and are presently at my feeders in both the front and back yards. The name ‘siskin’ comes from the Scandinavian word for ‘a chirper.’

These little brown birds have prominent streakings of yellow at the base of the tail and in the flight feathers.They are about 4-5 inches high, with a wingspan of 7-8 inches. Finches are a gregarious lot, and siskins can often be found in mixed flocks of American goldfinches in the summer and redpolls in the winter.

Their calls are generally a raspy chittering. You may also hear a harsh, grating “zreeeeeeet” which gets higher towards the end.

Seed eating birds with stout conical bills, finches have large jaw muscles and powerful gizzards to deal with hard seeds. Their beaks are modified for holding and shelling seeds – a seed is wedged into a special groove at the side of the mouth and crushed by raising the lower jaw onto it. The husk is then peeled off with the tongue, releasing the kernel, which is then swallowed.

Pine siskins forage in flocks, usually high in the tree canopy, and often hang upside down on tips of conifers. Frequent visitors to backyard feeders, they are fond of niger thistle seed and are presently enjoying my shelled sunflower seeds. They also eat tree buds, insects and spiders.

They can be found across Canada, but nest in the western provinces and territories. Nests are a shallow saucer of twigs, grasses, leaves, weed stems, rootlets, bark strips, and lichens, lined with fur, feathers, grass, moss, or thistle down. Usually well concealed, the nests are placed near the end of a horizontal tree branch.

Filed under: Songbirds, , ,

How Smart Is a Crow?

I knew members of the Crow or Corvidae family were smart, but this video blew me away! He tries it, thinks about it, then fixes the problem. Too spooky!

Vodpod videos no longer available.

more about “How Smart Is a Crow?“, posted with vodpod

Filed under: Songbirds, Uncategorized, , ,

Warbler Help

Any bird watcher will tell you that identifying warblers is hard. Next to impossible sometimes.

I’ve just stumbled across a beautiful blog from Ontario that currently offers pictures and information on some warblers on her latest post. If you’re interested in warblers – and most birders are – then take a look at W-Week Warblers.

Filed under: Songbirds, ,

A Friday Funny

It’s a cold, rainy Friday here. I’m listening  to a yard full of red-winged blackbirds who sing the same song over, and over, and over from dawn to dusk. It doesn’t matter to them if it’s raining or not, they’re still singing!

A cheerful note was added to my day when a friend sent me this Yellow Warbler picture, which makes me laugh every time I look at it.

This is truly an excellent example of a photographer being in the right place at the right time, and with the right camera!  How come I never get so lucky?

Filed under: Songbirds, ,

Arson Birds

A sparrow is apparently the culprit behind a fire at a shop in Lincolnshire, England that caused £250,000 ($450,000 Cdn) worth of damage.

At first, the owner of the store and the fire brigade were at a loss as to what started the blaze. An investigation immediately after the fire found no electrical or gas faults.

Then the forensic investigator from the insurance company, AXA, told the shop owner they had enough evidence to conclude that it was a sparrow that took up a cigarette end into the roof.

Insurance investigators concluded that a sparrow must have picked up a smouldering cigarette butt and deposited it among the dry twigs of its nest under the eaves. Thirty-five cigarette ends were eventually found in various sparrows’ nests in the roof.

An AXA spokesman said: ‘We believe it’s the first case of its kind we’ve ever had to deal with. We had to bring in a specialist to investigate.” I’ve certainly never come across this sort of thing before. It’s strange to think how such a little bird armed with such a small object could cause such chaos.”

Oh, and the species? It was a house sparrow.

House Sparrow

House Sparrow

Filed under: Songbirds, , ,

We’ve Been Invaded

Bohemian waxwings in a spring mountain ash tree

Bohemian waxwings in a spring mountain ash tree

The yard this morning is filled with hundreds of Bohemian waxwings. They’re in all the trees, all the bushes and on the fences. It’s noisy out there! They have temporarily displaced a yard full of American robins who are not quiet this time of year either.

It’s been a great winter for the waxwings in Canada, as huge flocks have been reported in many provinces in the last few weeks. We’ve always had them in the yard, but never in such large numbers. There isn’t a berry left on any mountain ash tree for miles.

I was reading an interesting article this morning about the bird population in North America  shifting north. It seems they had more than 22,000 Bohemian waxwings in Anchorage, Alaska for their Christmas bird count, more than any other bird species.

Long-term global warming is prompting North American birds to winter farther north, according to the Audubon Society:

  • the American robin in now wintering 200 miles further north than it used to
  • birds that winter in Alaska that shifted their range the greatest distance north included the marbled murrelet, 361 miles; spruce grouse, 316 miles; red-breasted nuthatch, 244 miles; varied thrush, 229 miles
  • Texas now has fewer robins each winter, while New Hampshire has five times more

As the northern climate warms, the vegetation responds accordingly. While on the surface this influx of southern birds might make northern birders happy, there is a limit.

Northern species dependent on shore ice or northern tundra — both of which have been shrinking in recent years — aren’t as fortunate. Birds that nest on the tundra have nowhere further north to go. Birds like dunlins, sandpipers and murrelets could be in real trouble. The population of Kittlitz murrelets in Prince William Sound has declined by 84 percent over 11 years.

Things are changing drastically in bird world. No one knows how fast birds can adapt to the changing conditions, but we can at least be happy the Bohemian waxwing is a long way from being listed as an endangered species.

Filed under: Global Warming, Songbirds, ,

Blue Spring At Last

It’s been a very white spring here in the west. As loathe as I am to admit it, it’s now the second day of April, and no matter which window I look out of, I see snow. Piles of snow. Sigh.

Fortunately, up and down the foothills, birdwatchers are reporting increasing numbers of blue flashes among the white, which can only mean the beautiful mountain bluebirds have returned once again.

Male mountain bluebird

Male mountain bluebird

These small members of the Thrush family were once considered sacred by the Navajo because their feathers are the color of the sky. They were regarded as images of the rising sun, the supreme image of the creator.

These attractive birds are native only to North America, and are found from Alaska, through western Canada and the USA to Mexico. They nest in British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan and The Yukon.

Males return first in the spring, staking out their territories and waiting for the return of the females a few weeks later. The males select a nesting site and fly in and out repeatedly, singing during the entire performance to attract a female.

Bluebirds are the only members of this family to nest in cavities or bird houses, and are losing nest sites to the more aggressive European starlings and house sparrows. The recovery of the bluebird population is due in large part to the establishment of bluebird trails, and human-supplied nest boxes.

Across the western provinces, it is not uncommon to see miles of bird boxes on rural fence posts, or in trees. If you put up a bluebird house near an old field, orchard, park, cemetery, or golf course, you’ll have good chance of attracting a pair of bluebirds. They prefer nest boxes on a tree stump or wooden fence post between three – five feet high.

If you would like to contribute to the conservation of these beautiful harbringers of spring, you can get plans for bluebird boxes, learn about trail management and just generally read more about these popular little songbirds at the Mountain Bluebird Trails website.

Filed under: Songbirds, , , ,

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