Sunday, December 29, 2019

Little brown birds at feeder: Photos & ID of 12 most common

What are the little brown birds at your feeder? Are they sparrows? Are they finches? Are they wrens?

Small brown birds at your feeder are likely to be sparrows or female finches. However, they might be female blackbirds. They might be wrens! The most common little brown birds at feeders across the United States are these:
  • House Sparrow
  • Song Sparrow
  • Fox Sparrow
  • American Tree Sparrow
  • White-crowned Sparrow
  • White-throated Sparrow
  • Golden-crowned Sparrow
  • female House Finch
  • female Purple Finch
  • female Red-winged Blackbird
  • female Brown-headed Cowbird
  • Bewick's Wren



House Sparrow


Photo of male House Sparrow at a feeder
Male House Sparrow in breeding plumage
Photo by Greg Gillson
Photo of female House Sparrow on tree branches
Female House Sparrow
Photo by Greg Gillson
House Sparrow (Passer domesticus)

Range: Introduced from Europe in the mid-1800s, House Sparrows are found across North America from mid-latitudes in Canada south through Mexico. They do not migrate.

Habitat and habits: The primary habitats of House Sparrows are towns, farms, horse stables, strip malls, urban centers. Wherever people live, House Sparrows follow. They nest in crannies in buildings, street lights, barns, as well as nest boxes. House Sparrows form noisy active flocks.

Description and voice: House Sparrows are rather small sparrows. They are broad-bodied and short legged. They have short necks and their heads are rather flat, not showing much of a forehead bump. Males in breeding plumage (photo above) have gray bodies, rump and tail. The wings are brownish with chestnut tones and one broad white wing bar. In all plumages males have a small black mask and chin; in breeding plumage the black throat extends to the breast. The crown is gray and chestnut extends from behind the eye to the nape and back. Females and immature birds are dusty drab gray-brown, darker on the back and wings. Again, the underparts and rump are gray. There is a broad pale eyebrow back from the eye.

Their song is an incessant and monotonous series of "chirp" and "chi-rup" notes. Their calls are the same, but individual "chirp" notes, more rapid when excited and in noisy flocks.

Feeder type and food preference: House Sparrows have rather weak feet, so they prefer eating from the ground or on trays on platform and hopper type feeders. House Sparrows eat many types of small seeds. Their favorite birdseed is white proso millet. They also like canary seed and German millet.

Similar species: In towns not likely to be mistaken for anything else. Pairs stay together throughout the year, aiding identification. About the same size and overall gray-brown color similar to House Finches. But House Finches have strongly streaked under parts (see House Finch below).

Song Sparrow


Photo of Song Sparrow on cattails
Song Sparrow
Photo by Greg Gillson
Photo of Song Sparrow on wood railing
Song Sparrow
Photo by Greg Gillson
Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia)

Range: Resident in in coastal Alaska and West across the mid-latitudes of the United States. Migratory forms breed north throughout Canada, winter across southern states and into northern Mexico.

Habitat and habits: Song Sparrows inhabit damp and shrubby habitats. They are common in marshes and in backyards landscaped with hedges or larger bushes. Hop on the ground under bushes in gardens. Do not form flocks, but can be numerous in wet swampy areas.

Description and voice: A medium-sized sparrow with a longer, rounded tail. Throughout its range is quite varied in size and coloration. Some birds are pale; some birds are dark. The top photo above shows a dark rusty form from the Pacific Northwest. The lower photo is a paler bird from southern California. Both have the same pattern, though. The face is rather gray with a pale eyebrow line. There is a dark line back from the eye. There is a wide dark stripe on the side of the white throat. Fairly heavy streaking on the sides merge to a spot on the center of the breast.

The common call is a "chimp" call. The musical song (sung most of the year but not mid-winter) starts with a couple of short notes, a louder drawn out buzz, and a final loose jumbled trill. It has been described as singing: "Madge, Madge, MADGE!... put-on-your-teakettle, please." Across North America the pattern of the beginning of the song (ta-ta-ta-DAAA…) is easily recognized.

Feeder type and food preference: Generally seen on the ground under the feeder, or searching under bushes for food. Likes large platform feeders to hop around in. At your feeder Song Sparrows eat white proso millet and smaller seeds and fruit. In summer they switch to primarily insect matter, so may not visit your feeder then.

Similar species: Superficially look like female House Finches, but stay on the ground. When they fly away House Finches fly up into trees, Song Sparrows fly down under shrubs. Fox Sparrows are larger (towhee sized) and less patterned. The Eastern form of Fox Sparrow has foxy orange striping on pale gray upper parts, more colorful than the Eastern Song Sparrow.

Fox Sparrow


Photo of a Thick-billed Fox Sparrow on a tree branch
Thick-billed Fox Sparrow
Photo by Greg Gillson
Photo of a Sooty Fox Sparrow in a willow thicket
Sooty Fox Sparrow
Photo by Greg Gillson
Fox Sparrow (Passerella iliaca)

Range: Breed in the mountains of the West (Alaska to California, Rocky Mountains--Colorado to northern British Columbia) and across northern Canada. Winter along the West Coast and Southeast.

Habitat and habits: Fox Sparrows are found in scrubby habitats. In summer that includes brushy openings in mountain and boreal forests. In winter found in chaparral, dense tangles. They stay hidden but eventually respond to pishing (making "psh, psh…" sounds, squeaks kissing the back of your hand, tooting calls of pygmy owls, smacks, etc.). Then, after all other birds have lost interest, Fox Sparrows may stay perched up in the open as the bird in the photo above. Spend most of their time foraging on the ground or low bushes.

Description and voice: A large stocky sparrow the size of a towhee. Much regional variation. May be 3-4 species, rather than just one. In coastal Alaska and British Columbia birds are dark sooty brown with heavy breast streaking (photo above). Birds in the mountains of California are gray headed with huge bill (photo above). Birds in the Rocky Mountains are gray headed, with small bill. Eastern and Northern birds are pale gray with bright foxy orange streaking. Rather plain solid colored brown above with reddish tones to the rump and wings. Heavily streaked below, some with large spots, some with thin inverted chevrons. The lower mandible of most forms of Fox Sparrows is noticeably pale or yellowish compared to the dark upper part of the bill.

Songs are varied with clear sliding notes and trills. Sometimes sing in migration. Calls vary from metallic "pink" to smacking "tic" or "check."

Feeder type and food preference: Fox Sparrows primarily feed on the ground under dense bushes, kicking over leaf litter. In woodland areas feed on ground under bird feeders where seeds have spilled.

Similar species: Similar to the smaller Song Sparrow. Song Sparrows have more obvious brown striping on the gray head and back; the head of Fox Sparrows generally show less contrast (except the gray and orange northern/eastern form). Fox Sparrows show a yellow lower bill and dark upper bill. Song Sparrows show completely dark bill.

A similar bird in size, shape, coloration is the Hermit Thrush. These sometimes forage in yard edges scratching in leaf litter for insects (especially after a snow storm). They have a thinner, longer bill, long legs, pot belly as related to robin. Otherwise, dark brown, heavily spotted below, rusty color on rump and base of tail.

American Tree Sparrow


Photo of American Tree Sparrow in blackberry bramble
American Tree Sparrow
Photo by Greg Gillson
Photo of American Tree Sparrow in blackberry bramble
American Tree Sparrow
Photo by Greg Gillson
American Tree Sparrow (Spizella arborea)

Range: Breeds in shrubby tundra lands. Winters across northern 2/3 of United States.

Habitat and habits: In winter Tree Sparrows prefers grassy or weedy habitats near trees. Feed on the ground. Often in flocks. Sometimes mix with other sparrows.

Description and voice: Small gray bird with brown back and wings, and darker gray tail. Round head, shorter squared tail. The head is pale gray with rufous crown and line back from the eye. There is a dark spot on the breast. White wing bars.

The song is a clear sweet descending warble. The call is a soft "tweedle."

Feeder type and food preference: Often feed on the ground under feeder on spilled seeds. Will eat at platform or hopper type feeders. Prefer small seeds such as millet.

Similar species: Chipping Sparrows are darker gray on the face with a black line through the eye starting at the bill. This area, called the lores, is pale on American Tree Sparrow. Clay-colored Sparrows have a brown ear covert and more brownish crown. Field Sparrows come in two colors--a pale gray face with white ring around eye and no rusty line back from eye, or a more buffy-orange colored bird throughout the head and under parts. Of these, the American Tree Sparrow is most likely to actually eat from a bird feeder.

White-crowned Sparrow


Photo of adult White-crowned Sparrow in fir tree
Adult White-crowned Sparrow
Photo by Greg Gillson
Photo of immature White-crowned Sparrow on post
Immature White-crowned Sparrow
Photo by Greg Gillson
White-crowned Sparrow (Zonotrichia leucophrys)

Range: Breed across northern Canada, Alaska, and mountains of the West, also lowlands of Pacific Northwest and Coastal California. Winter across lower half of the United Sates well into Mexico. About 5 slightly different varieties, varying in song and plumage. Coastal California form does not migrate.

Habitat and habits: White-crowned Sparrows winter in brushy roadside tangles, feeding on road edges, lawns. Active feeding flocks hop out from cover farther and farther until flock is startled and flee back into brush to start again.

Description and voice: A slightly longer and larger sparrow with long tail. Gray body, brown striped back and wings, dark tail. Adults with striking black and white striped crown. Yellow or pinkish bill. Immatures during their first year are a bit dingier with crown stripes replaced with buff and rufous (see photo above).

The song is highly varied and each locality has its own variation. All are recognized by starting with a drawn out "sweet" note followed by 2 or 3 trills of different speeds, ending in "cheer-cheer" notes, or similar. Call is a sharp "pink!" note.

Feeder type and food preference: White-crowned Sparrows may be slightly more likely to visit feeders in the West than in the East. They used platform or hopper type feeders with a tray. They eat millet and black oil sunflower seeds.

Similar species: See White-throated Sparrow (next), which has a well-outlined white throat and yellow spot on forehead between bill and eyes. Immature Golden-crowned Sparrows (below) are similar to immature White-crowned Sparrows, but White-crowned Sparrows have more and more clearly defined dark and pale head stripes.

White-throated Sparrow


Photo of tan-striped White-throated Sparrow on ground amid leaf litter
Tan-striped White-throated Sparrow
Photo by Greg Gillson
White-striped White-throated Sparrow
Photo by Greg Gillson
White-throated Sparrow (Zonotrichia albicollis)

Range: Breed across Canada to northern Midwest States and Northeastern States. In winter from Northeast United States, Southeast, South Central States and Southwest. Rare in Winter across the West.

Habitat and habits: White-throated Sparrows breed in coniferous and mixed forests. They winter they prefer dense woodlands and edge habitats, especially with nearby bird feeders. Often occurs in large flocks. Feed by hopping on the ground in openings near cover. Sing throughout winter, call frequently at dawn and dusk.

Description and voice: Adults can have black and white striped head or brown and white striped head. Immature birds for their first year are rather mottled with brown and white striped head. Throat bright white strongly bordered by dark gray sides of throat and gray or brown upper breast. White-throated Sparrows show a strong yellow spot on the forehead between the bill and eye (supraloral area).

Song "O Canada" or "Ole Sam Peabody" in strident whistle. The call is a very loud sharp "chink!" often noted at dusk.

Feeder type and food preference: Frequent at bird feeders in the East. White-throated Sparrows especially like striped sunflower seeds and hulled sunflower. Peanut kernels and white proso millet are also favorites. Also eat German millet, red proso millet, and black oil sunflowers.

Similar species: Similar to White-crowned Sparrows (see above), but White-throated Sparrows have a very obvious contrasting white throat and yellow spot before the eyes.

Golden-crowned Sparrow


Photo of adult Golden-crowned Sparrow on Oregon grape
Breeding plumage adult Golden-crowned Sparrow
Photo by Greg Gillson
Photo of immature Golden-crowned Sparrow on pine branch
Immature Golden-crowned Sparrow
Photo by Greg Gillson
Golden-crowned Sparrow (Zonotrichia atricapilla)

Range: Breed from Alaska south in the mountains of British Columbia. Winter along the West Coast south to Baja, rarely in the interior West to Mexican border.

Habitat and habits: Golden-crowned Sparrows like brushy habitats at the edge of forests often in good-sized flocks. They forage on the ground, hopping. Then they dash for cover when danger is perceived.

Description and voice: Large sparrow, larger than White-crowned Sparrows when seen together. Rather plump and long-tailed, large head, big bill. Very dull and drab, a dirty gray-brown with darker brown streaks on back and wings. Breeding adults show golden yellow crown with black lateral crown stripes. Immatures show a faint yellow forehead and crown, streaked with brown and diffuse brown lateral crown stripes. Adults in winter have head patterns and colored mid-way between breeding adult and immature plumage.

Song is a 3-part descending whistle: "Oh, dear, me." The call is similar to White-crowned Sparrow but softer, "pink!"

Feeder type and food preference: Golden-crowned Sparrows feed on platform and hopper feeders with trays. They eat many kinds of seeds and fruit, including millet and sunflower seeds. They would be more attracted to seeds on the ground or on a low platform feeder.

Similar species: Winter and immature Golden-crowned Sparrows are very similar to immature White-crowned Sparrows. Immature White-crowned Sparrows have more distinctive rust on gray head streaking.

Female House Finch


Photo of female House Finch on back of park bench
Female House Finch
Photo by Greg Gillson
Photo of male House Finch on headstone
Male House Finch
Photo by Greg Gillson
House Finch (Haemorhous mexicanus)

Range: Resident from southern Canada into Mexico.

Habitat and habits: Found in ranches, residential areas. Also brushy wooded lowlands with openings. Flocking and flying over head. Frequently perches in the tops of scrubby trees. When frightened fly up into trees, not down into bushes as do most sparrows. Nest around buildings. This is probably the most likely little brown bird at your feeder.

Description and voice: A small brown bird; both sexes heavily streaked below. Somewhat slim with small head. Wings are short and tail fairly long and narrow with small notch at end. Adult males have brightest red on forehead, upper breast, and rump. Male's red or red-orange color often with some individual variation toward orange or even yellowish.

Songs are a cheery whistled warbling ending with a burry scratchy note. Calls are somewhat similar to House Sparrows but less chirping; a rising "chilp."

Feeder type and food preference: House Finches prefer tube feeders with hulled sunflowers and black oil sunflower seeds.

Similar species: Other striped finches with red-plumaged males include Cassin's Finch in ponderosa pine forests. Purple Finches are found in fir and mixed forests; winter in lowland woodlands and residential areas. The male House Finch has brown streaked sides, white the Cassin's and Purple Finch males have unstreaked pink or purplish (not red-orange) under parts. Female House Finches have a rather plain unmarked head and face. The pale eyebrow and lower face of the other two finches wrap around the brown ear covert (see photo below of female Purple Finch).

Female Purple Finch


Photo of female Purple Finch on plant stalks
Female Purple Finch
Photo by Greg Gillson
Photo of male Purple Finch on plant stalk
Male Purple Finch
Photo by Greg Gillson
Purple Finch (Haemorhous purpureus)

Range: Breeds across southern Canada. Year-round resident in Northeastern United States,  Southeast Alaska and West Coast to southern California. Winters in Eastern United States, rarer in the West, except where resident.

Habitat and habits: Cool damp conifer forests. Also mixed woods. In winter also lowland woods and residential areas. Tends to forage high in trees. Males sing from top of trees. Frequently found in flocks. Visits bird feeders in winter.

Description and voice: Plump with a large angled head and large bill. Short strongly notched tail. Female Purple Finch is heavily streaked below. Back and wings have a greenish tint. Face strongly patterned. The pale wide eyebrow wraps around the dark ear covert and back to the lower face. Male with clear unstreaked breast and sides. All of upperparts tinged with red--even over the brown wings and back.

The song is a strongly patterned rapid warble: "hurry-little, hurry-little, hurry-little, hup! hup!" The call is a flat "plik!" often given in flight.

Feeder type and food preference: Purple Finches strongly prefer black oil sunflower seeds over all other seeds. They prefer to eat from tube feeders.

Similar species: Cassin's Finches in ponderosa forest habitat in the West are whiter and cleaner on the under parts. Males more lightly dusted with red, concentrated on the crown. House Finches are slimmer and longer tailed. Female House Finches have plain unpatterned faces. Male House Finches have brown crowns, bright red forehead, upper breast, and rump. They also have heavily streaked sides unlike the male Purple Finch.

Female Red-winged Blackbird


Photo of Red-winged Blackbird in willow
Female Red-winged Blackbird
Photo by Greg Gillson
Photo of male Red-winged Blackbird on willow
Male Red-winged Blackbird
Photo by Greg Gillson
Red-winged Blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus)

Range: Year-round resident across the United States and into Mexico. Summer breeder into Alaska and across Canada. These northern birds migrate south in winter to join other resident birds.

Habitat and habits: Nests in cattail marshes and wet fields. Red-winged Blackbirds winter in same habitat as when breeding, but also form huge winter flocks in feedlots and grain fields. Winter flocks may be separated by gender. Males in spring perch conspicuously. Females often stay low and hidden in marsh vegetation or grasses. Frequently forage on the ground.

Description and voice: Stocky, pot-bellied with a short tail. Bill straight, conical, sharp-pointed. Larger than any sparrow. Male glossy black with red-orange shoulder edged with yellow. Female heavily streaked or striped rusty brown, buffy white, gray, and black and frequently mistaken for sparrows by newer bird watchers. Often a pinkish-orange hue on throat. Immature males are similar, but show some red on shoulder.

Male's song a bubbly "ong-ka-REE-aa." Call is a dry "chack" usually given in flight.

Feeder type and food preference: Red-winged Blackbirds eat most bird seed including millet, sunflowers, and cracked corn. They also eat suet. Since they are larger they tend to eat first from the platform feeders.

Similar species: In California Red-winged Blackbirds are joined by the similar Tricolored Blackbirds. Males have darker red shoulders with a white border. Females are blacker overall, with an almost all-black belly.

Female Brown-headed Cowbird


Photo of female Brown-headed Cowbird on tree branch
Female Brown-headed Cowbird
Photo by Greg Gillson
Photo of male Brown-headed Cowbird on wooden fence post
Male Brown-headed Cowbird
Photo by Greg Gillson
Brown-headed Cowbird (Molothrus ater)

Range: Breed across North America (rare in Alaska) south of Arctic. In winter birds migrate out of Canada, the northern Great Plains and interior West.

Habitat and habits: Cowbirds live in open fragmented woods, pasturelands with dotted trees, residential areas. They winter in feedlots and grasslands. May join winter Brewer's Blackbird flocks in strip mall parking lots. Birds heading north in spring are more likely to show up at backyard bird feeders. The male display includes the head raised toward sky and wing and tail fanning. Females lay their eggs in the nests of other smaller birds who raise the cowbird young as their own.

Description and voice: A small blackbird with typical pot belly, short neck, and short tail. Head is flat, bill short and conical; finch-like. Male glossy black with a green iridescence, brown head. Female is smaller than the male and evenly pale gray-brown. Immature birds are paler yet with streaky under parts. Over the fall these pale young birds molt in shockingly black patches of feathers.

Song is a gurgle with rising whistled squeak, "goog-leee," imitated at times by starlings. Call a flat dry rattle.

Feeder type and food preference: Prefers millet over all other seeds at bird feeder. Eat at platform and hopper feeders with wide trays. Also on the ground.

Similar species: Not many birds with which to confuse. Larger and plainer than House Sparrows. Smaller than other blackbirds. Female buntings (Lazuli, Indigo, Varied Buntings) much smaller with more curved upper ridge to bill, shorter wings. Female Blue Grosbeaks have bigger bills and wing bars, and are more warm rufous.

Bewick's Wren


Photo of a Bewick's Wren on a plant stem
Bewick's Wren
Photo by Greg Gillson
Photo of Bewick's Wren on tree stump
Bewick's Wren
Photo by Greg Gillson
Bewick's Wren (Thryomanes bewickii)

Range: Year-round resident on Pacific Coast, southern interior West, to Texas, south into Mexico. Rare in the Mississippi and Ohio River Valleys.

Habitat and habits: Brushy woodlands in a variety of biomes, including chaparral, desert scrub, rain forest clearings, riverside tangles, backyard hedges. Crawls and hops through low tangled vegetation, brush, abandoned structures investigating for insect food.

Description and voice: Smaller than most sparrows. Chubby round body. Neckless. Long thin pointed bill, slightly curved. Long floppy tail often held up over back. Long white eyebrow stripe. Gray under parts. Back and wings brownish, can be reddish-brown or grayer.

Loud song patterned similar to a Song Sparrow with single notes and trills, often a buzzy note. Variable, individual birds have many songs. Flat buzzy call "bjeee," repeated.

Feeder type and food preference: Feed in bushes at edge of yard. Eats at suet feeder.

Similar species: In the East and Southeast Bewick's Wren is replaced by the Carolina Wren. It is ruddier with buffy orange under parts, rather than gray. White throat. Long white eyebrow stripe. The House Wren will likely not eat at your bird feeding station, but may nest in an old shed or birdhouse. It is all brown, similar to Bewick's Wren in shape with shorter tail.

Conclusion


We discussed in detail 12 little brown birds that may show up at your feeder or in your backyard. In addition, we briefly mentioned 12 similar species that are also possible. Many other little brown birds live in grasslands and marshes and forests.

The 5 most likely little brown birds at your feeder will probably be House Sparrows, female House Finches, Song Sparrows, White-throated Sparrows, and female Red-winged Blackbirds. Learn to identify these first.

Yes, they are sometimes harder to identify. But you can do it!

Tuesday, December 24, 2019

Cloaca: All about how birds pee, poop, lay eggs and have sex

Why do birds poop so much? Do birds pee? Why is bird poop white? Where do birds lay eggs from? How do birds have sex?

I have decided to answer all these burning questions in one post. All these questions have one answer. It involves the cloaca, a chamber at the end of the digestive and reproductive system of reptiles, amphibians, fish, and birds.

What is a cloaca?


In birds, the bowels (digestive system), bladder and reproductive organs (urogenital system) all come together in a tubular cavity called the cloaca. The opening from the cloaca to the outside world is the anus, more often called the vent. [See references at end of article.]

This means that urine and feces from the digestive tract, and sperm and eggs from the reproductive tract, all pass out of the body through a common passage, the cloaca, and from there out the vent.

  • Where do birds pee from? The cloaca.
  • Where do birds poop from? The cloaca.
  • Where do birds lay eggs from? The cloaca.
  • How do birds have sex? The cloaca.

The word "vent" is also used by bird watchers to describe the area of a bird between and behind the legs, back to the base of the tail. The vent area feathers may be a different color than other feathers of the under parts.

Vent feathers can be useful in identification. For instance, some fall plumages of immature Orange-crowned Warblers and Tennessee Warblers are very similar. Both are rather all-over green. However, the feathers on the vent of Tennessee Warblers are white, while they are yellow-green on Orange-crowned Warblers. It is a small, but diagnostic, feature.

The vent, when discussing the feather tract between and behind the legs, are bordered by the belly in front and the undertail coverts behind. On each side of the vent feathers are the flanks.

Photo of a Brown Booby on a poop-covered buoy
Birders see only the bird; non-birders see only the bird poop.
Brown Booby. Photo by Greg Gillson.

How do birds urinate?


The kidneys of birds are rather large for their body size compared to mammals, up to 2% of body weight (Pettingill, 1970, see references at end of article). Kidneys regulate salts and liquids in the body. The kidneys also eliminate wastes from protein metabolism, in other words, urine.

Urine is composed mostly of water and nitrogenous wastes, specifically uric acid. This is different from mammals whose urine has nitrogenous waste in the form of urea. The uric acid in birds is highly concentrated and nearly insoluble.

Birds do not have a bladder. Rather, urine transfers directly from the kidneys to the cloaca. The cloaca absorbs some of the water out of the urine back into the body. Between the kidneys and the cloaca, 98% of the water filtered by the kidneys is reabsorbed. This highly efficient conservation of water means that birds don't have to drink as often for urination. Birds lose more water through breathing than urination. It also means that the bird's urine that is voided is not liquid like a mammal. They eliminate a semi-solid pasty residue that is chalky white in color.

That's right! The white droppings birds leave behind is mostly pee, not poop, to use the common vulgar terms. Now you know why bird poop is white--it's not poop!


Where do birds poop from?


Now you know that the white excreta from birds is not so much poop as it is concentrated solids from the urine.

As we discussed, birds don't have bladders. So they don't hold their urine. This is actually a very good thing as a bladder full of urine would be heavy and make flight more difficult. It also explains why birds evacuate when taking flight--they are getting rid of excess weight.

Do birds intentionally poop on cars?


No, birds don't intentionally defecate on cars. It's just that people make it so convenient! People choose to place bird roosting sites above parking spaces! What am I talking about? Street lights, telephone wires, the edges of buildings and sidewalk trees are all placed over automobile parking spaces. Right?

All these things are wonderful bird perching structures. Of course, people are noisy and busy. This frightens the birds into flight. And before birds fly, they void. Why do birds stick around if people are always startling them? Food. People are sloppy. People spill and throw out garbage all the time. They pile garbage in bins along the street. This garbage often has some food items that some birds eat. Gulls, pigeons, starlings, blackbirds, house sparrows all find human food waste to eat in cities. They sit up there above your car on all these convenient perches waiting for someone to drop edible garbage. And while they sit there above your freshly washed vehicle? Digestion happens.

Bird digestive system, or... Why do birds poop so much?


The bird's digestive system starts with the mouth and proceeds to the stomach and gizzard. Partially digested food (called chime after leaving the gizzard, pronounced KIME) then continues to the small intestine. The large intestine is not obviously larger or different from the small intestine in birds. The large intestine is usually called the rectum in birds. It is actually rather short and dumps into the cloaca. The intestine is longer in seed-eating and herbivorous birds.

Birds have a high metabolism. Their body temperature normally ranges from 102-112 degrees F, depending upon species and activity. They eat nearly continuously during waking hours, if ample food is available, otherwise they rest.

Their rate of digestion is also sped up. Digestion is usually more rapid than mammals. Food items pass through a bird's digestive system in 2.5 to 12 hours. Animal food is digested faster than plant material. Pettingill (see reference at end) gives an example of a magpie digesting a mouse in 3 hours.

Birds eat 1/4 to 1/2 their weight in food each day. The Cornel Lab of Ornithology (source) says a chickadee may eat 35% of its body weight each day, a jay maybe 10%, and a hummingbird 100% in nectar plus thousands of small insects! Birds need to eat more in cold weather to keep up their high body temperature. What goes in must come out.



Bird poop color


Bird waste is evacuated along with the white uric acid, known as bird poop. You can often note small dark stool-shaped lumps mixed in with the larger white bird droppings. This is the actual fecal matter.

The tiny stools within the bird poop is often a dark brown or green color. But bird droppings can be stained bluish or purple if birds have been eating lots of berries, for instance. It can also be other colors depending upon diet.

The stools of Canada Geese are thick and green, composed primarily of the indigestible portions of grass that they eat. It is coated with white uric acid.

Scientists recently discovered large nesting colonies of Adelie Penguins in remote parts of the Antarctic. How did they do so? They looked at satellite images! Adelie Penguins eat much red krill. The inedible parts of the pink shells were pooped out at their icy colony grounds and the ice was colored pink and visible from space! (Source)

Guano


The uric acid in bird excrement is rich in phosphate, potassium and nitrogen. Bird manure makes excellent fertilizer!

The word "guano" is Spanish and comes from the Quechuan language of Peru meaning dung. In Peru several seabirds return to the same islands to breed. The seabird excrement forms a thick layer on the tops of the islands.

The primary birds that produce guano off Peru are pelicans, boobies, and cormorants

Locals have been using the fertilizing properties of guano for thousands of years. In 1802 Europeans discovered how the locals were using guano in Peru. Guano then became a highly sought-after product. By 1913 modern fertilizers were produced in Germany by the large scale artificial synthesis of ammonia. Guano became less valuable as a fertilizer then. Good thing.

The guano was collected by slaves hand mining from the small islands. The need was so strong in the United States and Europe that birds were disturbed and breeding islands destroyed. (Source: Wikipedia)

Photo of House Sparrows copulating in a bush
Copulating House Sparrows
Photo by Greg Gillson

How do birds have sex?


Birds procreate by copulation. Males impregnate females during a "cloacal kiss." The male mounts the female and the cloacae of both the male and female are pressed together briefly. Male sperm move up the female oviduct and fertilize the egg.

The sexual union is about as quick and dull as these words suggest. However, many birds have elaborate courtship rituals for pair bonding, leading up to copulation.

Most birds have nothing resembling a penis. The testes of the male bird (well inside the body) swells immensely during the breeding season. Breeding condition of male birds is easily seen during capture and banding of wild birds for scientific study. Males in strong breeding condition have a swollen cloacal protuberance. Birds have sex by briefly touching their cloaca together; there is no male insertion into the female.

However, some birds such as ostriches, tinamous, some ducks, as well as chicken-like birds (including turkeys, pheasants, quail, grouse) do have a penis structure resembling that of crocodiles.

Where do birds lay eggs from?


The reproductive organs of birds are rather unusual. The gonads are markedly asymmetrical. In the females, the left ovary is functional. The right ovary is generally missing (though often present in the embryo, and present but non-functional in many birds of prey). Likewise, the male has two testes, the left is much larger, though both are functional (Audubon Encyclopedia, see references below).

After copulation the sperm may reach and fertilize the eggs within 26 minutes. In domestic hens the time between copulation and laying of fertile eggs averages about 72 hours (minimum 19.5 hours).

The female produces many ova (plural of ovum) during its life. An ovum (yolk) releases into the oviduct. It is at this point the fertilization can take place if there is any male sperm present.

About 18 minutes after fertilization the yolk passes to the magnum where the egg white (albumen) is formed. After about 3 hours in the magnum the egg is passed into the isthmus. During about an hour in the isthmus the egg receives its shell membranes. Then the egg moves to the uterus for about 20 hours where it receives the shell. The pigment color of the shell is added about 5 hours before laying. The completed egg passes through the vagina to the cloaca and is expelled into the nest.

It is all very complicated, but the egg ends up in the cloaca to be laid.


References:


Ornithology in Laboratory and Field, 4th Edition. Olin Sewall Pettingill, Jr. 1970.

The Audubon Society Encyclopedia of North American Birds. John K. Terres. 1980.



Saturday, December 21, 2019

Sunflower seeds & white proso millet attract the most birds!

An article published in the Wildlife Society Bulletin in 2014 (abstract) studied the bird seed preferences of backyard birds at feeders in the United States and Canada from 2005-2008. The 4 year study at 173 backyard bird feeders came to this conclusion:

Three types of bird seed items attract the most wild birds:
  1. Black oil sunflower seeds 
  2. Sunflower chips and niger seed
  3. White proso millet
Unfortunately, many wild bird seed mixes contain less than half of these items by weight. Half the seeds in some mixes are basically "chicken scratch" that backyard birds don't eat. You'd be better off to pay twice as much to purchase black oil sunflower seeds and white proso millet separately.

But this isn't "news." A study in 1980 revealed the same thing. Yet many bird seed providers still offer up "bargain" mixed birdseed with worthless filler.



What type of bird seed attracts the most birds?


In the article referenced above (full citation immediately below), the authors examined 10 seeds commonly found in mixed bird food blends. They then offered these seeds individually in different types of feeders.


[David J. Horn, Stacey M. Johansen, and Travis E. Wilcoxen, 2014, Seed and Feeder Use by Birds in the United States and Canada, Wildlife Society Bulletin, Volume 38, Issue 1, pages 18–25.]


It's no surprise that black oil sunflower seeds top the list of favorite bird seeds. This bird food is well-known to attract many birds. This is the special favorite of larger finches (house finches), cardinals, chickadees, and nuthatches.

Hulled sunflower seeds (also known as hearts or kernels) that are broken into smaller pieces (as sunflower chips) are a favorite of smaller finches including goldfinches, redpolls and pine siskins. The seeds of the niger plant (trademarked as Nyjer) and often sold as "thistle," is similarly sought out by these same small finches.

White proso millet is the favorite food of ground-feeding sparrows, juncos, mourning doves, and red-winged blackbirds. Unfortunately, however, millet is also the favorite of house sparrows and brown-headed cowbirds, two species that are viewed as pests by some as they can be harmful to other birds.

Of course, birds will eat many other items. But given a choice, most birds will choose sunflower seeds, niger, and white proso millet over other options.

Cheaper mixed bird seed blends have a high volume of "filler" seed. These seeds are cheaper, as they are used in the poultry industry and available at lower cost. It is noteworthy that no backyard birds prefer red milo (sorghum) or safflower seeds. Only one bird, the common grackle, prefers cracked corn. All three of these items are commonly used in cheap bird seed mixes.

Photo of cardinal and chipping sparrows at seed feeder
Chipping Sparrows and Cardinal
Image from Pixabay by GeorgeB2

What seeds are in wild bird seed mixes, and what do birds actually like?


More information of the above article is on the Project Wildbird website (source).

The 10 types of seeds found in bird seed mixes for this study included:

Black oil sunflower
Hulled sunflower (fine sunflower chips and medium sunflower chips)
Striped sunflower
Cracked Corn
Niger
Red milo (sorghum)
Safflower
Whole peanut kernels (out of shell)
White proso millet

This study is similar, if more extensive, than one published in 1980 for the US Department of the Interior (Special Scientific Report--Wildlife No. 233) by Aelred D. Geis. It is titled: "Relative attractiveness of different foods at wild bird feeders." (source)

Geis compared different foods to regular striped sunflower seeds and white proso millet, common items in wild bird seed mixes that most birds eat.

Geis found that, for instance, American Goldfinches preferred hulled sunflowers (whole kernels or broken chips), niger seed ("thistle"), and black oil sunflower seeds more than regular striped sunflower seeds. The goldfinches did not eat the white proso millet.

Cardinals preferred black oil sunflower seeds over other types of sunflowers, but liked sunflower seeds of all types, and would eat a wide variety of other seeds, as well.

Blue Jays liked whole peanut kernels and striped sunflowers.

House Finches like black oil sunflower seeds, preferring them twice as much as their next choices of striped sunflowers and hulled sunflowers.

White-crowned and White-throated Sparrows liked black oil sunflower seeds and white proso millet.

Song Sparrows and Dark-eyed Juncos preferred white proso millet.

So, knowing that most birds want to eat black oil sunflower seeds and white proso millet above all else, what do bird seed providers put in their wild bird seed?

Milo.

Not just milo, but other seeds that backyard birds don't eat.

Seeds found in wild bird seed mixes that most backyard birds don't eat:

Buckwheat
Canary seed
Cracked corn
Flax
German millet
Red millet
Japanese millet
Red milo (sorghum)
Oats hulled
Oats whole
Rape seed
Rice
Wheat

What is the best bird seed mix?


The best bird seed mix is none. Skip the commercial birdseed mixed blend and feed birds what they want!

Put one type of seed in each separate feeder!

Finches and nuthatches like black oil sunflower seeds. They prefer raised tube feeders.

Sparrows and juncos like white proso millet. They like low platform (tray) feeders or even eating on the ground.

Goldfinches and siskins like niger seed ("thistle") in a special thistle sock.

If you want to offer your backyard birds generic mixed seed, I'd put it in a small hopper feeder or a low platform feeder. As soon as the black oil sunflower seeds are gone, though, so will be many other birds except for juncos and sparrows. I'd have a second feeder--a tube feeder--dedicated to black oil sunflower seeds for the finches, cardinals, chickadees, nuthatches and other birds.

If you have lots of quail and mourning doves, though, cheap bird seed with lots of red milo on a low platform feeder may be ideal.

A comparison of bird seed ingredients and ratios


Christopher Ingraham investigated different bird seed mixes for an article in the Washington Post (source). He went to local stores in Minnesota, including Wal-Mart, and carefully measured the seeds himself. Here's what he found:

Wild Bird Seed Economy Mix
Black oil sunflower (none)
White proso millet 12%
Filler: 88%, including 74% red milo, some wheat and some cracked corn

Royal Wing Splendid Blend
Black oil sunflower 3%
White proso millet 18%
Filler: 78%, including 60% red milo and 18% wheat

Pennington Classic Wild Bird Feed
Black oil sunflower 17%
White proso millet 29%
Filler: 55%, including 46% red milo and some wheat

Our Family Wild Bird Seed
Black oil sunflower 14%
White proso millet 29%
Filler: 57%, including 43% red milo and 14% cracked corn

Harvest Songbird blend
Black oil sunflower 42%
Striped sunflower seeds and sunflower chips 14%
White proso millet 23%
Filler 21%, including 14% red milo and 7% safflower

Pennington Waste Free Bird Seed
Hulled sunflower chips 52%
White proso millet 26%
Fruit and nuts 6%
Filler: 16%, including cracked corn and canary grass (NO red milo!)

When you purchase at the store


When purchasing at the store look at the seed. The Harvest Songbird blend is nearly half (40%) black oil sunflower seeds and that plastic bag should look quite black through the transparent sections. A good product!

You should always read the ingredients. That Pennington's Waste Free brand has no milo. And though you won't see any black hulls of the black oil sunflower seed, you will read that its very first ingredient will be sunflower chips. A good bird seed!

If the first ingredient is milo (sorghum) move on.


Photo of bird seed bag list of ingredients

Milo is the first listed ingredient. Don't buy!
Click to enlarge

What I saw in the bird food department at Wal-Mart


Back in August I went to Wal-Mart to see what kind of bird foods they offered. Our yard is landscaped gravel and cement sidewalks with only a few succulents in pots. Marlene and I were looking for a no-waste/no-mess bird seed. I took lots of photos with my phone. But I must admit that I'm not any good at using my phone camera--I'm too self conscious!

My first photo is the ingredients list of a Pennington bird seed. It has very few black oil sunflower seeds and lots of milo and millet visible. My photo doesn't show the brand, but the fact that milo is listed as the first ingredient, it must be the Pennington Classic. Don't buy.

Another photo shows a Premium Finch Lovers Blend by 3-D Pet Products. It is sunflower kernels and niger seed. This is perfect in a tube feeder for goldfinches, house finches, chickadees and nuthatches! It was 13.8 cents an ounce, so more expensive by weight, but less than $11 for 5 pounds. Seems like a good deal.

I was interested to see Harvest Seed & Supply Mealworm Medley. It advertises as attracting bluebirds and "rarely-seen songbirds." It might. The ingredient list starts out with black oil sunflower seed, millet, safflower seed, chipped sunflower seeds, striped sunflower seeds, peanuts, dehydrated mealworms. The final ingredient is milo. Since it is listed last, I believe that it should be the least common ingredient. I might just put out mealworms for bluebirds, though. The other ingredients are found in most mixed bird seed blends.

Harvest Seed & Supply also has a No Waste Wild Bird Food. It's half the price of the Finch Lovers Blend. Let's see what ingredients it has. Dehulled sunflower seeds. Evidently "dehulled" is the same as "hulled"! Millet is next, peanuts, canary seed. I can't look through the bag to see but it must be similar to the Pennington Waste Free Bird Food. Seems a good choice for attracting a wide variety of birds for non-messy bird feeding.

Next was the 3-D Premium Nut N' Berry. Sunflower kernels, peanuts, sunflower seed, safflower seed, pistachios, hulled pumpkin seed, dried raisins (isn't that the definition of raisins?), and dried cranberries. Hmm, seems like a good trail mix rather than bird food! More for larger finches, grosbeaks, cardinals, and jays. The sparrows, towhees, and juncos get left out.

Photo of bird seed bag in storage container
Seed fits in storage container to keep fresh in and pests out
We finally ended up with the 3-D Zero-Waste Deck, Porch N' Patio. That's where we hung our new feeder--from our bedroom window awning over the patio sidewalk. The ingredients list is sunflower kernels, peanuts, pistachios, and hulled pumpkin seeds. That's okay for larger finches. We only have House Finches (and a Black Phoebe at our bird bath). We could get Lesser Goldfinches if we put up a thistle sock, but niger seed is too messy for our yard. This choice would not attract sparrows. On the other hand, it also does not attract House Sparrows. We don't have many in the area... and would like to keep it that way, as they are a bit messy and aggressive.

Photo of patio bird feeder hanging from awning
Our patio bird feeder with no-mess seed
The feeder we bought (not a large choice in San Diego in summer) was more decorative than functional, however. It was a pretty Stokes brand glass tube feeder with small tray at the base. Unfortunately the seed is too large. Peanut and pistachio pieces get stuck in the opening and we have to unclog it. But, hey! The few birds we do have in our yard did come to the feeder. The House Finches did tend to throw out some of the peanuts in order to get to the sunflower pieces. A ground squirrel cleaned up the sidewalk. So, no mess! Kind of. If we had tree squirrels instead of fence lizards, though, we might not be so happy.



Have you read this related post?: Why don't birds come to my feeder?



Buy bulk and save!

Wagner's 25 pounds: black oil sunflower seeds Medium sunflower chips: 50 pounds: No waste/No mess! Mix your own sparrow feed: 50 pounds: White Proso Millet

Monday, December 16, 2019

Where do birds go during bad weather? How can I help?

Where do birds go during bad weather?


It seems that the weather is getting more severe everywhere--droughts, floods, storms. You may wonder how birds survive. Where do birds go when the weather is bad?

You may notice less bird activity when it rains. And birds seem to disappear entirely during strong storms and wind. Where do they go? How do they protect themselves?

And what about hurricanes? Blizzards? Hailstorms? Do birds fly away from bad weather or sit it out? How do they find food? Do many birds die during stormy weather?

What can you and I do to help birds during prolonged periods of inclement weather and storms?

Let's find out.

Where do birds go when it rains?


Photo of a Western Wood-Pewee sitting on a branch in the rain
Western Wood-Pewee in the rain
Photo by Greg Gillson

During light rain showers most birds continue their normal activity. Birds are very active and need to eat frequently. In light rain the just keep doing their bird thing. They can do this because their feathers are waterproof. Well, the feathers aren't waterproof in themselves. Birds make their feathers waterproof through the activity of preening.

Birds spend much of their time caring for their feathers. This is called preening. They use their bill to sort through their feathers. They clean off dirt and parasites. They smooth and align all the small interlocking barbules that act like tiny zippers to hold the feathers together neatly. This keeps the feathers well maintained and helps keep water from reaching the skin below.

You may see birds reaching around to their rump with their bill, often with their tail fanned as they stretch around. There is a special preening gland (also called oil gland) at the base of the tail in most bird species. Its exact name is the uropygial gland. Birds wipe a waxy oil from this gland onto their bill and crown and then apply it to the rest of feathers. The preening "oil" makes the plumage shiny and like new. Well-care-for feathers repel water by their fine structure, more so than any properties of the preening oil itself (source).

So during a light rain birds generally stay out, finding food and living their lives. They stay dry with their water-repelling plumage just as you might with a good rain suit. If the rain is too hard, however, or is accompanied by winds, then birds need to seek shelter. We discuss this next.

Where do birds go during a storm?


Photo of seabirds flying over raging seas during a storm
Seabirds in a storm
Photo by Greg Gillson
Rains accompanied by strong winds can have a more deleterious affect on birds.

The seabirds far offshore in the above photo are strong fliers. Or, rather, they use the strong winds for dynamic soaring. Those Western Gulls, Northern Fulmars, Black-footed Albatrosses, and Sooty Shearwaters in that photo actually seem to enjoy those winds off the West Coast. But what do they do during multiple days of such conditions? Certainly they must get tired out. They can't find food in that choppy water turned to froth.

Those seabirds have no place to hide. They can sit on the ocean and rest. But that water is too rough for that. The gulls often return to shore and even inland during storms, but the other seabirds remain far from land. Often they can glide on the winds in front of the storm and work their way around to the back side, hundreds of miles and perhaps taking days. After strong winter storms it is not unusual to find dead gulls and fulmars on the beaches, often emaciated from lack of food. But rarely does an albatross wash up in similar storms. They are used to flying thousands of miles around the North Pacific in a week.

After hurricanes on the East Coast many birders visit lakes hundreds of miles inland. Why? There they may find seabirds flying around over the lake waters far from their ocean habitats. After a few days many fly back over land to the Atlantic. Seabirds make their way to the calmer eye of the hurricane at sea and are carried along with the storm. At sea there's not much to hit them. Over land it becomes dangerous. Certainly, many seabirds die in hurricanes.

It's another story for small birds on land. Most are not strong fliers. They are in danger of flying into objects such as tree branches and power lines in strong winds. They could also be hit by leaves, twigs, trash or other objects blown by the wind.

I lived most of my life in Oregon. It rains there. A lot. When I was caught out in the woods during a downpour I appreciated hiding under a dense redcedar tree. Hardly any rain reached the ground under such a tree. Each branch of flat needle leaves acted like a roof shingle, causing the rain to drip farther and farther from the trunk.

During storms birds hide in dense trees and bushes. They may be able to find some calmer areas on the leeward side of a woods, protected from some of the winds. Such protected areas may also have insects, also hiding from the wind. Such insects my be right down on the ground behind clumps of dense bushes. Birds may hide there as well, very low to the ground.

In your yard birds may hide in dense bushes, especially behind a fence line or shed. Arborvitae or other thick hedges may protect small birds.

Can birds fly in the rain?


Why do we not see birds flying when it rains? Well, birds can fly in the rain. Larger birds such as ducks, geese, swans, and gulls are frequently noted flying in the rain. During storms, though, it uses more energy to fly. And it becomes harder to find food and refuel. So flying when the weather is stormy is not advantageous. Birds generally find a place to wait out a storm.

During spring migration small land birds frequently migrate north at night during showery weather following a warm front. If they encounter a cold front, with clear skies and a stiff breeze from the north, they will land immediately and stay until the winds turn to their favor again. They don't migrate in heavy rain, unless they get caught by surprise as, for instance, migrating across the Gulf of Mexico from the Yucatan or Caribbean islands.

A couple of reliable references I checked suggest that birds don't fly in rain because of low air pressure (source). Lower air pressure allegedly has a higher energy cost for flying. That would not seem to fit with migratory birds flying north in spring with warm fronts that are definitely low pressure and showery weather. Migratory birds fly at high elevations where air pressure is less than ground level. But birds fly in the mountains where air pressure is much less, too, as my crushed water bottles when I return home attest. I'm just not sure. There's something here that doesn't seem right or I misunderstand. But I provide the reference source for you in case you want to follow up.

Where do birds go when it snows?


Mountain Chickadee in the snow
Photo by Greg Gillson
As with rainstorms, birds during blizzards and snowstorms hide in dense bushes and trees protected from the wind.

Cavity nesting birds may also gather together during unusually cold weather in old woodpecker holes and even backyard bird houses. The birds that do this include bluebirds, chickadees, nuthatches, and maybe swallows in early spring that got surprised by a late season cold snap.

Snow by itself is generally not the problem. It is the cold--specifically a prolonged freeze--that can present problems for "half-hardy" birds such as Ruby-crowned Kinglets, Eastern and Western bluebirds, Gray Catbirds, Brown Thrashers, Hermit Thrushes, Anna's Hummingbird, Yellow-rumped Warblers and others--birds that primarily eat insects. During mild winters they can be found farther north. But if the ground (and water) stays frozen for a week, they will starve or dehydrate. You may find these cold, weak, hungry and thirsty birds on the ground under bushes or on road edges or around buildings where there may be some melt.

Seed-eating birds and hawks don't have as much of a problem, though they do need to find liquid water to drink in winter.

The basal portions of most feathers have fluffy down that traps air next to the skin and acts as the original down insulation. Birds can raise their feathers, too. They fluff up in a ball to keep warm. And they often tuck their head under their wing to keep their head warm.

What about those skinny stick legs and long toes stuck out in the cold? Why don't they get frostbite or make the bird cold? Birds have a countercurrent blood exchange in their legs. Arteries and veins are close together in the bird's legs. Warm blood in the arteries going to the feet warms the cool blood in the veins returning to the body. So birds can stand on ice without freezing or getting too cold (source). Amazing!

How can I help the birds in winter?


We've discussed that birds need a place to hide out of the wind during rainstorms, snowstorms, and hailstorms. You may be able to provide this with a nice thick hedge next to a wood fence or against your shed or house. You can also plant dense conifers, such as cedars or spruce. A tangled brush pile can work, if you live in an area where you can have some "wild" or natural landscaping.

Bird houses may provide winter nighttime roosting for chickadees and bluebirds during exceptionally cold weather.

Then in the morning birds will need access to food and fresh water. A bird feeder (tube or hopper types) with a covered roof may work to provide some open food sources during snowy weather. Suet, meal worms, and peanut butter are high-energy foods for winter bird feeding.

A bird bath heater is a device used to keep bird baths from freezing in areas with colder winters. Birds need drinking water in winter. Such open water may be harder to find in dry frozen periods of winter than in summer.

You can hang hummingbird feeders near a porch light with incandescent bulb that may provide enough heat to keep from freezing. Some people keep a second hummingbird feeder indoors, ready to hang on the porch first thing for hummingbirds suffering through a period of freezing weather. Tiny though they are, hummingbirds can handle freezing weather for a day or two.

Friday, December 13, 2019

What birds are in my area? Free eBird tutorial shows you!

Learning what birds are found in your local area has never been easier! You can use eBird to find out what birds are in your area now or in the past. The eBird database is free to all and uses real bird sightings gathered by bird watchers around the world. Your area can be as small as a local park, county or state, depending upon where you live. You can easily determine the common birds in your area or region with frequency bar charts for each week of the year.

eBird maps are more accurate and up-to-date than any range map in any book for determining what birds are found in your area. eBird will show you what birds are common in your county (US), thus you'll be able to quickly determine the most common birds in your own backyard!

If you sign up to eBird (also free) you can access features such as a list of most common birds this month that you haven't seen yet in any county or larger region. Likewise, you can have eBird notify you of rare birds in your region. Signing up also allows you to add your own sightings to the database. eBird keeps track of your personal lists for any area you wish.



eBird logo
Cornell Lab or Ornithology logo

What is eBird?


Created in 2002, eBird is described as "a real-time online checklist" program. At its most basic it archives bird checklists from birders around the world. Its power comes from adding over 100 million bird sightings to its database each year (source).

This citizen science program does not just collect bird sightings, though. It also displays bird sightings in various ways. Anyone can search for bird sightings of a particular species anywhere in the world. Or you may display all of the birds sighted in one particular place. Then you can combine these individual places, such as counties, states, and larger regions. They can help you know what birds to look for, at home or anywhere else.

The most powerful means of displaying local bird frequency in eBird is the county bar chart.

County bar charts


Go to eBird.org and select Explore:

Please click on image to enlarge
Next you are supplied with several options. Now choose Bar Charts:

Please click on image to enlarge
Select a country and region. Then, from the subregion menu, choose Counties. Scroll to the bottom of the page and click on the Continue button. All the counties are listed for you to choose from a drop-down menu. Scroll to find the county you want. Select it and click the Continue button. A bar chart is created for you from the area you selected.

What are bar charts?


Bar charts display information in a special graph. Here, let me show you an example from eBird. I followed the directions above and chose Pima County, Arizona. I just visited there last month, November 2019. Here is a sample section of the bar chart:

Bar chart of sparrow frequency in Arizona
Section of the Pima County, Arizona bar chart of birds
Please click image for larger view
During my trip I found Chipping Sparrows, Brewer's Sparrows, and Black-throated Sparrows in the county during the last week of November. They are all expected according to the bar chart above. The bars are thicker when the birds are more common. Bars are absent if no one has detected that species during that week of the month.

Each month has space for 4 bars, corresponding to the 4 weeks of the month. Weeks 1-3 have 7 days each (1-7, 8-14, 15-21). Week 4 can have 7-10 days, depending upon the month.

This is a chart for all years that anyone submitted records--even decades ago for some older birders who entered any checklists they may have written down years ago. But you can select any number of past years, even just one year, or whatever part of this year is complete.

It appears I could have found Black-chinned Sparrows somewhere in the county. Maybe I could have found Grasshopper Sparrow or Clay-colored Sparrows, too, though they are less common.

Note that these are bar charts of frequency--the number of times the species is found on every checklist. This is NOT a chart of numerical abundance. I saw a large flock of Chipping Sparrows, but only singleton Black-throated Sparrows, but the frequency per checklist is the same: found or not found on each checklist.

Got it? Good! Now, if I wanted to figure out where to go to find those Grasshopper and Clay-colored Sparrows that should have been present, I could use the map feature.

Maps


This time from the Explore menu I chose Species Maps. I'm looking for Grasshopper Sparrows in Pima County, Arizona. The bar chart showed they should have been present in Pima County when I visited in November. But I didn't see any. The bar chart did indicate they weren't seen as often as the sparrow species I did see. So maybe, it was just chance that I didn't see any Grasshopper Sparrows. Or... perhaps I wasn't in the right location or habitat.

After selecting Explore>>Species Map I chose the bird name and location. The text entry bars auto-fill as I type. I select Grasshopper Sparrow from the species list. I type in "pima" in the Location search bar and select Pima County from the list ("Pima County, AZ, USA"). Then I get a map showing sightings. If more than 1000 locations are on your map you get rectangular purple blocks on the map wherever the species was seen. The darker the purple, the more sightings in each block.

Map of Pima county, Arizona showing Grasshopper Sparrow sightings.
Click for larger view
I'd like to see individual sightings, so I select "Show Points Sooner" checkbox.

Map of Grasshopper Sparrow sightings in Pima County, Arizona
Please click on map for larger view
Well, that explains it. I was birding at Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, way over on the left edge of this map. The Grasshopper Sparrow sightings are all over on the right side of the map near Grass Valley and Patagonia, well south of Tucson. No wonder I didn't see any!

See those red location marks? Those are sightings made of the species within the last 30 days. You can click on any of the sighting marks on the map to see the checklist that shows all the species seen at that location.

Hotspots


On the map above you may notice smaller solid markers. Those are personal locations where someone recorded a checklist of birds. Those could be a person's backyard or just a bird noticed once while driving by. Such checklists might only include one species of note, but are more valuable if they include all the birds seen at that location during one timed visit.

The larger markers with the white flame design inside are Hotspots. These are public areas where many birders are likely to go and submit checklists for. Hotspots can be a park or wildlife refuge, pond, viewpoint, trail or any publicly accessible location where birders repeatedly return to watch birds.

For every Hotspot you can create bar charts of frequency. You may find that some local Hotspots, such as a small park, may only have a few checklists at a couple times of years. It's fun to check these out and add missing weeks to the bar chart, and missing species to the Hotspot. Some Hotspots will be visited by birders several times nearly every day of the week.

When I prepared to visit Arizona last month, I checked out all the Hotspots in the area and visited several of them, making sure to create new checklists to add to the data. You could do the same thing with Hotspots near your own home. You may find that there are exciting birds near your home that you knew nothing about!

Photos and sounds


You can click on any bird name on a checklist and be taken to a species account with maps, photos, and sound recordings. You can refine these by choosing a smaller territory. Then you can see only photos from a certain region or area.

Alternatively, from a checklist on a map you may have followed, click on the Hotspot name to be taken to the overview page for that area. On the Hotspot overview you can see recent sightings, and several bar chart checklists, including one with photos--the Illustrated Checklist. I like these because it is sometimes easy to add photos of new species to less well visited Hotspots.

Target birds


One of the benefits to signing up to eBird is that you can sign up to receive email when rare birds are seen in any area you choose.

If you add your own checklists, you can receive notification of any species you haven't seen yet. That includes birds you have never seen anywhere, birds you have never seen in just the defined area, or even birds that you haven't seen yet this year. Many birders start new lists every year.

The Target birds selection will give you a list of birds in your target area you haven't seen ordered by the most likely first! You can get the answer to, for instance: "What bird of those I haven't seen in the county is easiest to find?" Or, "What bird that I haven't seen in the state is most likely in the month of March?"

To benefit from this feature, though, you have to add sightings to eBird. Here's how:

Adding to the data


Sign up to eBird and go birding. Keep track of how long you spent and how far you traveled. To be most useful, break up any trips to 5 miles at most. Add a new checklist any time you change habitats, locations, or cross county lines! Record every species you can identify. Keep track of the number of individual birds of each species you see. This is optimum. You can keep less recorded data. But the more precise your checklist the more useful it is to science. The data each checklist absolutely needs is an exact location and an exact date.

Too much work? There is nothing wrong with a 5 minute count out the window of birds at your feeder. That's a Stationary Count, and is very valuable. You could do several such counts in a day. Birders love to find rare birds or travel to record rare birds that others have found. But there is actually more scientific benefit in daily records of common birds from a small location, repeated over time. Your backyard may not be as exciting as a remote jungle, but regularly recording common birds at your feeder may actually produce more scientific insights when combined with other people doing the same across the country.

Beginners should not be afraid of making mistakes in identification. The checklist entry program has a list of expected birds to chose from. If you enter an unexpected bird it will ask you to provide details. Then a real person, a local expert, will vet the record. For accuracy, only vetted records of birds will be added to the eBird database public output (bar charts and map points).

It may seem uncomfortable to have someone question you about what you saw. But look at it as a learning experience in improving your birding and observation and description skills. Size, shape, behavior, plumage coloration. Describe the field marks. Remember, describe the bird--tell the Reviewer only what you saw (shape, colors, behavior), don't say what you concluded (name of bird) or how positive you were, or that it looked just like the picture in the book. Even if you are able to provide a photo, a written description is still very useful.

Your written description or photo of an unusual or rare bird becomes a scientific specimen record--just like in a museum. So it needs to be accurate.

It is fun to add a new bird to your county list or a new early or late date for your area. In either case you'll need to write a description of the bird.

Who knows? In a year or two you might be the expert! Then other people may come to you asking: "What birds are in this area?"



To get you started on common backyard birds, I have created posts listing the most common backyard birds for every state.

Please check out the Article Index and scroll all the way to the bottom to find your state.



Legal disclosure

As an Amazon Associate I earn commissions from qualifying purchases. Thank you for your support.

Featured Post

12 Best birding binoculars under $200: Birder selected!

[Updated January 11, 2020]  You want to purchase binoculars for bird watching but you don't know who to trust! This post was written...