BirdNote

Dave Kutilek

Midway Atoll is the winter home of nearly a million nesting albatrosses. Laysan Albatrosses return to Midway in November to breed. Roughly 450,000 pairs wedge their way into a scant 2½ square miles of land surface.

And why do Laysans nest in winter? Well, the big birds forage mostly at night, so the longer hours of darkness in winter provide more time to find food for their rapidly growing chicks.

And just how big do the chicks get? By mid-May, they may weigh seven pounds, half a pound heavier than an average adult. The young birds will need that extra fat - and energy - as they learn to fly.  

Eugene Beckes

If you watch backyard birds for even a few minutes, you will likely see some characteristic behaviors.

One example is "foraging" styles – the behaviors a given type of bird uses to find its food. Some types of birds, such as sparrows, are famous for their "double-scratch" behavior. This is a maneuver in which the sparrow jumps forward and back, quite quickly...twice.

In each forward jump, the bird lightly hooks leaf litter with its toes. Each return jump pulls the litter aside, exposing, perhaps, seeds underneath. Other species of birds, however, like robins, might be too big to pull off this sleight-of-foot and instead use their bill to simply grab any leaf litter and toss it aside. Two strategies, one goal: expose and grab that food!  

Nancy Magnusson

Evolution works with what's at hand. So if you start with a normal bird skull – bill pointing forward, eyes oriented front or sideways, ears behind eyes – and introduce the challenge of seeing behind your head while your bill is pushed deeply into the soil, what do you get?

The American Woodcock answers this question. With its long bill constantly probing the soil for earthworms, its whole skull has been rearranged. Relative to other birds, woodcocks' eyes have moved toward the top and rear of the skull, pushing the ear openings downward. Apparently the brain followed suit!  

Isidro Vila

Paul McCartney and the rest of the Beatles most certainly grew up hearing Eurasian Blackbirds. Their song is beautiful, so it's no wonder the Beatles chose to weave it into one of their songs.

But McCartney wasn't singing about the bird. He was singing about the racial strife in the American South in the 1960s.

As he said later, "This was really a song from me to a black woman, experiencing these problems in the States: 'keep your faith; there is hope.'" Does the Eurasian Blackbird really sing in the dead of night? Generally not. Still ... what a beautiful, hopeful song.

North Point Press

Why do birds consistently follow certain routes in their migrations?

Pathways of migration evolved, shaped by the wind. During the height of the last ice age, ice-free breeding habitat for songbirds remained in what is now Alaska and parts of Western Canada.

Studies of fossil pollen show that consistent winds blew across the continent on a NW:SE heading of 155 degrees. Scott Weidensaul recounts in his book Living on the Wind: “A powerful high-pressure center over central Canada pumped strong northwest winds, precisely the conditions that would aid migrants.”

The birds rode these tailwinds to traverse the ice fields. And today, the birds still follow this bearing on their migration to South and Central America and the Caribbean.  

Edwin Mercado

Once abundant around San Francisco Bay, the California Clapper Rail is today endangered.

In the 19th Century, unregulated hunting plundered the species. In the 20th Century, rampant development reduced saltmarsh habitat by 85%. But in the 21st Century, the California Clapper Rail has allies!

Restoration is under way to increase healthy saltmarsh habitat for the scarce birds, particularly at Don Edwards San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge. Also, efforts to reduce predation by non-native red foxes and feral cats are improving the chances for California Clapper Rails to survive.

Morymot

Bird nests can often be incredibly hard to find, frequently hidden in plain sight. How do birds do it? Is it an accident caused by simply using the building materials they happen to find?

A Scottish research team used little birds popular in the pet trade, Zebra Finches, to try to find out. The team gave nesting Zebra Finches two sources of paper to build their nests from, one that matched the papered walls of their cage and one that did not.

By and large, the finches chose to build nests that blended in with their background.  

BirdNote: An Owl Is Mobbed

Jan 15, 2015
Paul Bannick

A pint-sized Northern Pygmy-Owl, not much bigger than a pine cone, hoots from a tree-top on a winter morning. Before long, this diurnal owl - a determined predator of small birds and mammals - will attract a mob of a dozen or more small birds.

Mobbing may be a collective response to danger. But it's not certain if the "mobbers" hope to drive away the predator, or simply draw attention to the threat.  

Carol Horner

Named for its rhythmic calls, the Black-legged Kittiwake as it is known in North America - it's also known as the Common Kittiwake - is a dapper, oceanic gull.

As described by Roger Tory Peterson, the tips of its pale gray wings "are cut straight across, as if they had been dipped in ink."

Pat Gaines

After breeding on Arctic cliffs and tundra hillsides in summer, Rough-legged Hawks winter throughout the Northern Hemisphere.

Open country is their ideal territory, where the small rodents they depend on are usually so plentiful that the hawks have enough to eat.

But the rodents are cyclic, with lower populations in some years, and in those winters, Rough-legs may migrate farther and be more abundant in the contiguous United States.  

Joanne Kamo

Many bird songs are rich and complex, difficult to remember, and nearly impossible to imitate.

Some species' songs, however, sound as if they could have been whistled by a human.

These simpler, pure-noted songs are some of the most familiar and easy to remember. These songs, including the "pee-a-wee" of this Eastern Wood-Pewee, are a great place to start building your knowledge of birding by ear!  

Tom Grey

Where have the birds of summer gone? The Swainson's Thrush is wintering in Central or South America, maybe as far south as Bolivia.

Warbling Vireos are now spread through much of Central America, while Black-headed Grosbeaks have migrated to Mexico. This Orange-crowned Warbler also makes Mexico its winter home, as do some American Robins. January finds the Willow Flycatcher tucked away in Costa Rica or Panama.

As winter turns to spring, these singers will begin to fly north, where they will once again grace us with their rich dawn chorus.  

Tom Munson

It's winter, and apples litter the ground. A few still hang, frozen and thawed again and again.

Suddenly a flock of hundreds of birds rises from the ground beneath the trees, swarming in tight formation, wing-tip to wing-tip.

Bohemian Waxwings are erratic winter visitors from their nesting grounds in the boreal forests of the north. They come in search of fruit to sustain their winter wanderings.  

Craig Koppie

One bird of prey may steal another's meal, a behavior that biologists call piracy, or kleptoparasitism.

The prey may change hands several times, perhaps from Northern Harrier to Peregrine Falcon to Bald Eagle. The Peregrine - like the young one seen here - may steal a meal, or have its meal stolen, or both!

Visit your local Audubon chapter, to see where you might watch raptors this winter.  

Mike Hamilton

Snow Geese nest from far northeastern Russia to Greenland, in the arctic and subarctic.

They winter on the deltas of rivers in northwestern Washington, areas along the Eastern Seaboard, and throughout the Mississippi Flyway. They're typically seen in large flocks.

To see if Snow Geese winter near you, visit Cornell's All About Birds. Be sure to watch the amazing video by Barbara Galatti!  

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