Bird biology

Major source of NA bird information

Sunday, August 30th, 2009

The most complete and accessible bird-information resource for North American bird species is now available to anyone with a Hennepin County Library card. Card-holders can access the wealth of life-history information, along with photos and sound recordings, for every species of bird that breeds in North America. My printed set, bought several years ago before its Internet access was available, includes 716 species. These life histories — distribution, food habits, sounds, behavior, plumage at various stages of life, courtship, breeding and nesting, food, predators, population status, and much more — have been written by a variety of professional ornithologists. This is an incredible resource. Answer to almost any species-specific question you can imagine can be found here. You need a library card. Go to, search the words North American Birds, enter your card number when requested, and there you are. The cover of the monograph for Downy Woodpecker is shown (copyright The Birds of North America, Inc., Philadelphia, PA, A. Poole and F. Gill, editors). birds-of-north-america-cover.jpg

Mute Swans

Wednesday, August 26th, 2009

Feral Mute Swans are collectors’ items for Minnesota birders, but birds of a different feather in Michigan. My wife and I rode the ferry today that travels across Lake Michigan between Muskegon, Michigan, and Milwaukee. We saw about four dozen Mute Swans in the Muskegon harbor. There are several thousaned of these birds in Michigan. This is an introduced species, native to Europe and Asia but not North America. Mute Swans are aggressive birds, driving native waterfowl from lakes they choose for their use. Loon populations have been impacted by the swans. Lake-shore property owners in Michigan often petition to have the swans killed because of their aggressive habits toward both man and beast, and because the swans soil docks and swimming rafts. The Michigan DNR authorizes such kills, sometimes to the dismay of people who don’t understand the problem non-native species can cause. The population of these birds in the Great Lakes area is reported to be increasing from 10 to 20 percent per year. In Minnesota, the birds are classified as a regulated invasive species. Introduction into the wild is prohibited, and possession of captive birds requires a game-farm license and containment.

Regulatory classification (agency): Mute swans are a regulated invasive species, which means introduction into the wild is prohibited (DNR). Possession of captive birds requires a state game farm license and fencing to contain them.

Jack Pine Symposium and festival at Reinaissance Fest

Friday, August 21st, 2009

Kirtland’s Warblers had a wonderful 2009 breeding season in Wisconsin, a continuing successful expansion of their historically restricted breeding territory in Michigan. April 25-26 in Odanad, Wisconsin, near the Michigan border, to talk about the season, the birds, and how to continue this incredible effort. The program is aimed at foresters, ecologists, land managers, biologists and others working or interested in the jack pine ecosystems of Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Canada. For complete information go to

Durng the recently concluded breeding seasons researchers in Wisconsin documented 12 each male and females Kirtland’s Warblers, 11 recorded nesting attempts, with seven or eight or those successful, and from 23 to 30 young fledged. It’s an amazing expansion of a bird population that has since its discovery in Michigan has numbered only a few thousand.

THE BEGINNING OF WHAT IS HOPED TO BE AN ANNUAL Twin Cities birding fair opens Saturday at the Reinaissance Festival in Shakopee. It will be located adjacent to the festival, one admission good for both events. Vendor booths and entertaining presentations will be featured. Stop by and take a look. Birds from The Raptor Center will be on display, along with artists who use birds as their motif. The Reinaissance event is located near Valley Fair.

Latin names

Friday, August 14th, 2009

Birds have common names and scientific names. Both offer valuable information, the latter often more informative and entertaining. I have a book entitled “The Dictionary of American Bird Names.” It was written by Ernest A. Choate, published by The Harvard Common Press in 1985. It’s both a useful reference tool and great fun to read. The House Wren, for example, has the Latin name Troglodytes aedon. Troglodytes refers to the wren family; all birds with this group name are members of the wren family. Aedon specifies a particular species, the one we know as House Wren. Troglodytes means cave dweller, given to wrens because they are cavity nesters. Aedon is from the Greek. Aedon, the daughter of Pandereus, was changed into a nightingale by the gods, but, as author Choate notes, into a wren by a fellow named Vieillot, who first gave the bird its formal name. House Wrens and nightingales share an ability to sing pretty songs. Sometimes that second or ‘trivial’ name honors a friend or associate of the person doing the naming. Lucy’s Warbler, for example: Vermivora luciae. Vermis is worm in Latin, voro Latin for eat: A family of birds that eats worms. Luciae is for Lucy Baird, daughter of an early and well-known ornithologist (Baird’s Sparrow is named for him). Below, Troglodytes aedon in song.


‘Woodworking for Wildlife’ — new, improved edition

Thursday, August 6th, 2009

The best book to have at hand when you’re building a nest box for a bird always has been Carrol Henderson’s “Woodworking for Wildlife”. Now there is a new and expanded edition. First published 24 years ago and revised in 1992, it is the bible of backyard bird construction. Published by and available from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, Henderson’s book gives you easy-to-follow instructions for construction of everything from nest boxes for owls to a toad cottage for your garden. Included is the famous one-board nest box that even I can build. This edition includes information on eliminating predation of birds using these nesting structures. The photos and text about bird nesting, eggs, incubation, and chicks make the book entertaining and valuable even if you never lift a hammer. There are 30 sets of plans here for structures accommodating 46 species of wildlife. This is the best-selling book the DNR ever has published, for obvious and good reasons. To buy one, to to or visit the DNR gift shop at 500 Lafayette Road in St. Paul. The price is $16.95. Royalties from sale of the book go fund to DNR non-game wildlife programs  woodworking-for-wildlife.jpg  

Get outta here!

Monday, August 3rd, 2009

The blackbird in the photo is chasing a Swainson’s Hawk from its nesting territory. The hawk was just doing a flyover, but the small bird was taking no chances. Raptors do take songbird eggs and nestlings, so an investment in caution is a good idea. Swainson’s eat insects for most of the year, hunting down small mammals, reptiles, and sometimes birds only during the nesting season. Swainson’s Hawks are mostly birds of prairies west of Minnesota, although the bird is routinely seen in our state. They winter in South America, moving south in September and October, sometimes many together. I’ve seen a hay field in South Dakota with more than 100 Swainson’s Hawks working the cut grass for grasshoppers, fattening themselves for the migration flight. These birds were photographed recently in North Dakota.swainsons-chased-4-5021.jpg

Counting Chimney Swifts

Wednesday, July 29th, 2009

Are there Chimney Swifts in your neighborhood? Swifts are those fast-flying little birds that alternate rapidly fluttering wings with long, swooping glides. They have bodies that resemble stubby cigars; there seems to be no tail of mention. You’ll see them hawking insects in the sky over your neighborhood or perhaps over a lake or pond. Work is underway to help swifts prosper in Minnesota. Nesting and roosting structures are being built. And in August and September you can participate in the state’s first annual Chimney Swift Sit. This is a census to help determine just how well these birds are doing, and where they’re doing it. You can count the birds as they enter a roosting site for the night, or you can alert Audubon Minnesota about site location so volunteers can be assigned. If you’re counting, this is a sit-down job. Important are swift roosting locations. These most likely will be chimneys (duh!). You’ll see the birds sort of pouring into the structure. It might be a large industrial chimney; it might be an uncapped chimney for your neighbor’s fireplace. I know of one roosting site in our neighborhood (fireplace), and there is another here yet to be discovered. We see the birds daily. We just haven’t yet figured out where they nested and now roost. I’m working on it. You can contact Audubon Minnesota to volunteer or offer information by emailing Ron Windingstad at rwindingstad@audubon. org. Or, go to Swifts are fun to watch, aerial acrobats at their best. chimney-swift-best.jpg chimney-swift-flies-4154.jpg

Taking the babies for a ride

Tuesday, July 21st, 2009

Earlier this year I watched Western Grebes in their courtship dances at Sand Lake National Wildlife Refuge north of Aberdeen, South Dakota. Last week, in the same spot, I watched young grebes being fed atop a parent’s back. This pair of grebes had two young, both tucked beneath the wings of one of the parents. Sometimes you couldn’t see the small birds. Other times they had their heads and necks extended, mostly when food was offered. The non-carrying parent was fishing for minnows to feed them. What do you do with the babies when it’s your turn to fish? You just extend your wings and rise out of the water. The babies unceremoniously slide off, promptly climbing aboard the other parent. It didn’t look like the grebe chicks were ready for the change, and neither was I, my camera’s shutter speed not fast enough to capture a clear shot of the sliding chick. My favorite spot to watch these birds is the bridge where South Dakota Highway 10 crosses the Sand River in the northern part of the refuge. The river is wide here, lake-like, bordered by high reeds. The grebes fish in the water flowing beneath the bridge. They sometimes are as close to observers as 15 or 20 feet. Terns, gulls, pelicans, and cormorants also feed here.  west-grebe-family-low-rez-51491.jpgwest-grebe-feeds-low-rez-51431.jpg grebe-unloads-trib-5182.jpg  

Rare warbler doing well in Wisconsin

Saturday, July 18th, 2009

Kirtland’s Warbler is a rare species of bird that had been known to breed only in 13 contiguous counties in northern lower Michigan. It’s nesting habitat needs are very specific: jack pine stands of a certain age. Fire once ensured that such habitat existed. We no longer tolerate natural fire. The 2008 census of this species at its Michigan sites found fewer than 2,000 singing males (singing males because you have to locate them to count them). Now, however, the bird has expanded its range into at least two parts of Wisconsin, the major site less than a two-hour drive from Minnesota — Adams County, which is about 100 miles east of LaCrosse. This nesting season there has been called extremely successful. To put that in perspective, we’re talking about five nests in Adams County that fledged a total of 19 birds. Male Kirtland’s Warblers have been found at two sites in Marinette County, on the Michigan border. One nest containing three eggs was found there. One singing male has been reported from Douglas County (far northwestern Wisconsin) this summer, but the bird has not been relocated. In 2008, Kirtland’s also were reported from Vilas and Jackson counties, but confirmation was not made. Habitat is one problem for the Kirtland’s Warbler, cowbirds another. In Michigan and at the Adams County locations cowbirds are being trapped to reduce the degree of parasitism that can make warbler nesting seasons fruitless. The photo is of a recently fledged Kirtland’s. It was taken by Joel Trick of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and is used with permission.kiwa_fledge_adamsctyjuly2009byjoeltrick.jpg 

Bird predation by muskrats (!!)

Wednesday, July 15th, 2009

I have forever regarded the muskrat as a gentle vegetarian, living on reeds and tubers found near its mounded lodges in shallow waters. Or, like the muskrat pictured, a shy visitor to a crab apple orchard. Now I learn that they eat ducks, among other birds. A friend called recently to report watching a muskrat attack a half-grown Canada Goose. The mammal really did try to bite off more than it could chew; the goose escaped. That sent me on a literature hunt, seeking more information on this new perspective. Evan Hazard’s “Mammals of Minnesota” mentions only the vegetarian portion of a muskrat’s diet, as did all but one of the sources I found on the Internet. The exception was a paper written in 1918 for the Massachusetts conservation department by ornithologist Edward Forbush. The paper discussed bird predators. And there was the cute muskrat, one of which swims in our pond, credited with dining on Green Herons and ducks as well as geese. This might be partial explanation for the continuing loss of baby Wood Ducks around here. muskrat-4894.jpg