Avian generations in the making – part 1: courtship

The tragedies being faced in the Caribbean islands after hurricanes Maria, Jose and Irma are horrible and other than donate cash to help alleviate the needs, I’m not in a position to offer more assistance. I’m grateful for all those who can and hope government assistance will be forthcoming to help all the people in those nations recover.
The effects of the hurricanes also will be noticeable for the wildlife. Many of those living on land will drown or die of hunger; some birds may be a little luckier – able to shelter against the winds if they are native to a place or able to change their migratory pattern (e.g., delay arrival on wintering grounds) for a time. But when the effects of the storms are immense with lots of habitat destruction, the birds, too, will lack places to shelter and not have sufficient food supplies to survive.

It’s thought that some birds endemic to the islands may be severely endangered as a species. On 22 September, birders were happy to hear that eight Barbuda warblers (Setophaga subita) had been spotted on that island; not a lot but they may help ensure this tiny bird doesn’t become extinct.  At the time of writing this blog, the fate of some other bird species was still unknown. I hope that all the Caribbean bird species survive and will be thinking of them as I share this series with you on how birds take measures to ensure future generations. (It might seem odd to write this series now, but some birds are still feeding their young here.)

So, the process begins with courtship. Some birds mate for life, or at least form long-term (multiple-year) bonded relationships. They include bald eagles, black vultures, blue jays, Canada geese, white-breasted nuthatches, brown-headed nuthatches, Northern cardinals, Carolina chickadees, American crows, pileated woodpeckers and my favorite raptor shown above, the osprey (Pandion haliaetus).

Those who form ongoing bonds may have a courtship period that consists of the male bringing the female some food to indicate it’s time to get ready for nest-building. This was the case for these lovely Northern cardinals (Cardinalis cardinalis).

The American crow (Corvus brachyrhynchos) has a similar behavior; in my yard, I sometimes throw out bits of apple or bread for them in the spring as these seem to be considered real treats. The female will sit on a branch overhead calling until the male brings her some – and sometimes almost shoves it down her throat!

The Northern mockingbird (Mimus polyglottos) males will sing their repertoire in the spring to entice female mates – often they perch on the top of trees and fly up and down with spread wings in a beautiful display while singing.

        

   

The yellow-billed cuckoo (Coccyzus americanus) seeks new mates each year but has an interesting courtship behavior described by All About Birds: “A receptive female perches with its head up, pumping its tail slowly up and down…Just prior to mating, the male Yellow-Billed Cuckoo snaps off a short twig that he presents to the female as he perches on her back and leans over her shoulder. Both birds then grasp the twig as they copulate.”

 

     

 

The downy woodpecker (Picoides pubescens) females and males may both flutter between trees with slow wingbeats. Two females may also compete for the attention of a single male, a behavior I observed this past spring and which surprised me.

 

     

The male brown-headed cowbird (Molothrus ater) will vocalize for the female while spreading his wings in a display.

The killdeer (Charadrius vociferus) has a somewhat prettier courtship dance, bending forward and spreading its tail feathers to show off the colorful underside.

  

Next year, I hope to see more of the birds courting as it gives me a happy feeling.

The next step for the birds is nest-building. We don’t have the bowerbirds in North Carolina, who build elaborate nests as part of their courtship. But the species we have do spend a good deal of time on their nests and I’ll share some of their efforts in the next part of the series. (But one or two blogs on another topic will come first.)

 

Credit map: By Kmusser (Own work, all data from Vector Map.) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

A cuckoo causing confusion and consternation, delight and distress….

In the spring this year, I and another birder had the uncommon pleasure of seeing yellow-billed cuckoos (Coccyzus americanus) courting at Mason Farm Biological Reserve. These birds often stay high in trees, hidden by leaves, so it is always a treat to see one of them out in the open. Seeing two together, as the male tenderly offered his lady love a gift, was an unexpected pleasure.

 

 

Also unexpected have been my more frequent sightings of cuckoos in my yard. Last year, I had caught a glimpse of one in a crepe myrtle tree; I thought it was a lucky fluke. This year, I began to see cuckoos in the large trees of my front yard more often, though frequently they were half hidden behind the leaves of the willow oak, red cedar and persimmon. I did hear their identifying calls so I knew when they were around but not in sight.

Then, this past Sunday afternoon as I sat on my front porch photographing birds and insects visiting my flower garden, I suddenly caught sight of a cuckoo flapping about on a makeshift trellis I had arranged around an oak stump where I hope Carolina jasmine and other climbing vines will create a pleasing area.

The spot is popular with chipmunks and Eastern gray squirrels (Sciurus carolinensis), as well as many smaller birds like Renee, one of the banded Carolina wrens (Thryothorus ludovicianus) living in my yard.

     

But to see a large cuckoo sprawled on the branches was unexpected and I feared that it had an injured wing after escaping from a hawk attack. I took a few quick photos. Then I approached to get a better look — the bird tried to flutter away but didn’t get far.

I ran inside to get a box and the phone number of a local wildlife rehabilitator. I left a message and managed to get the bird in the box, to which it protested vigorously. When I closed the top, it calmed down and then the rehabilitator returned my call stating that perhaps it was a fledgling – I said it looked like the wing was injured so she asked me to take a photo of it.

When she saw my point-and-shoot camera photo, she said it wasn’t clear whether it was a juvenile or not and asked me to photograph the beak. Young birds have a yellow or bright “lining” where the beak meets the face. This area is called the gape flange and in most birds, the color disappears as they age and the beak becomes firmer.

      

With a slightly better photo of the bird’s head and beak, the rehabilitator informed me that this was indeed a young bird. She also told me that the bird probably was feigning a wing injury to get the parents to come back more quickly with food! On her recommendation, I put the bird back on a stump by the makeshift lattice.

I knew about killdeer adults pretending to have a broken wing and dragging it on the ground to lead predators away from a nesting area. The yellow-billed cuckoo adults will also do this distraction display.

But I had not heard of fledglings engaging in this ruse. The rehabilitator said she had known of crow fledglings that kept this up a couple days, although she didn’t realize cuckoos would do this as she doesn’t get many calls about this species. But, she commented, “birds aren’t stupid; a free meal is a free meal.”

I kept checking on the bird and it stayed on the stump quite a while. Then it hopped down into the leaf litter and made its way over to some large rocks under a cedar tree with low-hanging branches. First, the cuckoo just hung out on the rock. And all this time, it kept that wing stretched out.

Then the bird lunged upward to get onto the branch. At this point, I seriously wondered whether it wasn’t injured after all, perhaps having fallen out of the nest and hurting its wing when it landed. It got a purchase on the limb and continued to keep its wing out. Then it fell off the branch.

       

After a short rest on the rock, the fledgling jumped up on to the branch again and stayed there. I went inside and returned periodically to check on him/her. About 3.5 hours from time I first saw him/her, the bird was still resting on the branch with the wing out. S/he was no longer wary when I came to look but viewed me calmly.

About 30 minutes later, I went back outside for another check and found the bird on the branch, but now with its wings both folded in towards its body. I was really glad that it appeared to be ok and hoped the parents would come for it. I had heard them calling earlier in the afternoon but never saw them approach the offspring, though this may have happened when I went inside for brief periods. And when I finally looked at the first photos I had shot in quick succession, I saw a couple where the bird had drawn in both wings to hop about, only to stretch out its wing later again.

 

When it was almost time for me to leave for a theater engagement with a friend, I went back out to check one more time and discovered my cuckoo friend was gone. I examined the cedar tree to see if it was further up, as well as the trees and ground all around, and could find no sign of him/her. I hoped that s/he finally decided to give up the display and just flew to a better place. I did check the area the next two days but did not see the bird again.

Then, this morning, a distressing finding started off my day. When I went outside, a neighbor boy was staring at the ground in front of my street-side willow oak. When I got there, the cuckoo lay dead at the street edge. He said he had seen the bird yesterday sitting on the road “with a broken wing”. I wish I had seen it – I don’t know if the bird had really been injured after all, was feigning an injury and then fell prey to a neighbor’s cat (which is what I think happened as its underside looked like it might have been in a cat’s mouth), or if something else occurred. In any event, it was such a sad discovery.

I buried the cuckoo while regretting how short its life was. I’m glad I don’t let my cats roam about anymore and I wish neighbors would also keep their felines inside, even though I know that birds might fall prey to a hawk or die because of a disease. But I wish I’d been able to help this beautiful young bird. My emotions tell me the cuckoos won’t return but my mind says they won’t avoid the yard because they lost an offspring. Time will tell.

 

 

 

Mama and Papa house wren to the rescue!

A few times each day, I walk outside with my 18.5-year-old cat, Jonahay, who is deaf and has some other ailments. He used to be an indoor-outdoor cat until I decided that it was better not to let him roam the neighborhood.

 

 

He rarely killed anything; he just wanted to mark his territory (which he still does) and occasionally he would catch moving things and bring them inside.

Thankfully, he didn’t bring me dead birds or animals; I did have to capture baby rabbits, chipmunks and a snake or two so they could go back outside. Now he just walks around and sleeps on the porch with me at his side; chipmunks and squirrels walk by him as they know he won’t chase them.

This afternoon as I was vacuuming, Jonahay came to ask for a walk, so I paused to take him outside for a few minutes. When we got to the side yard, I was surprised by a pair of house wrens (Troglodytes aedon) who were chittering vigorously and loudly in a cedar tree above me. They had not nested in my yard this year but do visit once in a while.

 

As I moved, they moved with me, continuously calling – their vocalization was very obviously directed at me, but I didn’t see any young ones anywhere so I wasn’t sure why they were so upset.

One of them – the male, I presume – only paused his calling for a few seconds when he groomed a little. I kept looking around for what might be upsetting them but didn’t see anything. Jonahay indicated we could go inside and the wrens had to let me leave.

 

As I took the vacuum cleaner into the kitchen, which opens onto a screened-in porch, I suddenly noted a few tiny feathers on the floor. If the wrens hadn’t been “yelling” at me, I might have just glanced down and thought they were bits of cat toy or fluff. But now I was more alert!

I called my two other (indoor) cats and they didn’t come, which was suspicious. Even when they look at animals through the windows and screens, they will usually react if I speak to them. When I entered the laundry room on the other side of the kitchen, there were Moasi (shown left)  and Ogi (right), sitting on the washer and dryer watching a juvenile wren perched on the window sill!

I don’t know how the bird got into the house. Likely, it had been early in the morning when I opened the porch door for a few minutes as I put out bird food, but I had not seen the bird on the porch when I re-entered. During the morning and early afternoon, I hadn’t noticed the cats chasing anything either so the mystery remains. I hadn’t been outside much with all my chores so perhaps those parents had been calling for him all that time.

In any event, I shooed Moasi and Ogi out of the room and proceeded to open the window. The little wren jumped into a plastic container near the window and that enabled me to easily move him/her to the open window. The bird waited a minute (enabling me to quickly get his photo) and then flew out to freedom – and obviously to a pair of anxious but effectively protective parents!

     

Late arrivals and late departures

Since a ruby-crowned kinglet (Regulus calendula) began visiting my suet feeders several years ago, I’ve looked forward to his arrival each autumn so that I can watch him at leisure during the winter months. This past season, however, I began to fear that he had decided to go elsewhere or, more sadly, might have passed away and wouldn’t be coming around again. I did see members of the species at the Haw River in late November and one was feeding on seeds to my surprise.

Then, finally, on the 26th of December, Rudy turned up at my feeders – weeks later than usual but to my great delight! And where did he go for a bite to eat? In the past, he loved my suet but now he, too, was feeding at one of the seed feeders!

Shortly thereafter, I discovered I now had two ruby crowns in residence as they began vying with one another to claim the suet area as their territory. After thinking that I would have no jeweled visitor this winter, it turned out I had two, leading to a happy dance as I gazed out of my living room window.

   

The golden-crowned kinglets (Regulus satrapa) have a single feather covering each nostril; this doesn’t appear to be the case for the ruby crowns. Their tongues are often in sight when they open their mouths in anticipation of getting a bite. I wondered if the tongue is sticky to help them snatch food while hovering; an online search did not net me any references about kinglet tongues, however.

Normally, these hyper-active tiny birds seek insects and arthropods as meals, including spiders, pseudoscorpions, aphids, bees, wasps, beetles and ants. But my home-made suet has proved to be a big draw (also for other birds with whom they must compete for space).

 

The ruby-crowned kinglets will often hover in front of a feeder, sticking out their tongue to snag a bit of suet before they fly to a perch.

As winter progressed, it looked like the yellow-rumped warblers (Setophaga coronata) decided to copy their style, also hovering and snatching on occasion.

 

I decided to leave the dry stalks of the scarlet mallow and butterfly bush in place this past winter so they had perches close to the feeders. They made a nice “studio” for some portraits!

After a while, since there was a lot of traffic at the feeders, I began smearing suet on the mallow stalks, which proved to be a big hit. The ruby crowns alighted and fed calmly, a big change from their usual frenetic pace. (A few other birds also enjoyed this option, including the Eastern bluebirds and yellow-rumped warblers.)

 

Sometimes, they went through a bit of head contortion to snag some of the treat.

 

 

 

 

These kinglets surprised me again in January when they began visiting the peanut feeder, too. I watched as they pecked off tiny bits of peanut; I suspect they also might have been looking for ants or other insects around the nuts.

 

 

 

When it rains, these little avians can look quite bedraggled! But they didn’t appear bothered by the snow flurries.

Normally, these birds are in what seems to be constant motion, scarcely stopping for a second in their quest for food. A large privet bush near my feeders, however, has become a resting and hiding spot for them. (Yes, I know, privets are invasive plants and should be removed but this particular shrub provides a get-away for the feeder birds when the sharp-shinned and Cooper’s hawks fly in for a raid and the catbirds love to build their nests in this particular site.)

    

  

I continued seeing ruby crowns during my nature walks, although not as reliably as in my own yard. They were in residence at the Jordan Lake woods and a small wooded area near Chapel Hill’s Senior Center.

 

 

One day at the Haw River, I witnessed a territorial dispute between two males who were claiming certain trees as their own.

 

I stopped seeing the ruby crowns at my feeders around the end of March and assumed that they had embarked on their migration up North for breeding season. On 9 April, I was surprised to see one in the woods bordering Jordan Lake.

On 18 April, one appeared in a cedar tree in my yard.

And then on the 22nd of April, I spotted one high in the leafy branches of a willow oak in my front yard. I’m guessing that perhaps this bird was stopping for a rest as it traveled from further South on its way up North; I didn’t see it visit the suet feeder.

 

 

I miss my little kinglet companions in the spring and summer; hopefully, they won’t wait so long to appear again later this year.

 

Back to blogging with the golden crowns!

Litter boxes scrubbed, bird feeders filled, other chores waiting but I’ve decided to end my blogging hiatus on this rainy and somewhat gloomy Sunday morning. This and my next blog will feature two of my favorite birds and then I hope to treat you with a nesting saga as spring is well underway.

With a lovely ruby-crowned kinglet visiting my yard every year for the past four years, I’ve developed a particular fondness for this tiny avian species. This past autumn and winter, my partiality expanded to include their jeweled cousins, the golden-crowned kinglets (Regulus satrapa), who seemed to have favored our geographical area with an irruption (an ecological term for a sudden increase in an animal population). Whereas in previous years, I felt lucky to catch a glimpse of a golden crown during their months-long stay in North Carolina, they appeared to be everywhere this past winter and in full view to boot.

 

The golden-crowned kinglets are about the same size as the ruby crowns and similar in overall body color except that they also have a black eyebrow stripe.

While the ruby-crowned males only flash their red crests when mating or upset, however, the golden crowns have a permanent yellow stripe atop their heads.

 

         

The male golden crowns can sometimes be distinguished by the fact that there will be a hint of red in their golden crest.

         

Like the ruby crowns, these little insect foragers are in constant movement as they scour branches, shrubs and plants for a meal. Their varied diet includes beetles, flies, crickets, butterflies, spiders, and bees and wasps. In the winter, they will also eat some seeds.

     

Searching for the insects often means they hang upside down from branches as they look at the underside and in crevices for their next bite to eat.

 

They also hover mid-air to snatch an insect or fly.

The golden crowns sometimes sit still a bit longer than ruby crowns so that you have a chance to get off a few photographic shots before they resume their dietary searching. And this year, one of those photos placed me among the winners in a small local competition.

These birds are not much bigger than hummingbirds, but like the hummers, they also undertake a long migration twice yearly. Their winters are spent throughout North America but for breeding they travel to the far North and mountainous Northwestern areas of this hemisphere.

This year, many places had mild winters but if they arrive in the North before spring-like temperatures arrive, they are able to survive nights as cold as –40 degrees; sometimes, they huddle together to keep a bit of warmth. Their lifespan is several years, with the oldest recorded golden crown being a banded male who was at least 6 years and 4 months when he was recaptured in Minnesota in 1976.

       

 

This species prefers life in coniferous forests but it seems if a few spruce and pines are around, they will settle in. I saw them in a small and somewhat sparsely vegetated area near a senior center, an arboretum, along the Haw River, and in the woods and bogs of various nature reserves.

 

 

In the United States, the number of golden-crowned kinglets declined 75% between 1966 and 2014. Habitat loss has contributed to this. However, spruce reforestation in the Eastern USA may have contributed to a more recently seen increase in numbers of kinglets. I’m very glad that they are not (yet) an endangered species and I hope we get to see them a lot next winter, too!