Horned Lark

Got a question? Here are some common questions and answers to them.

Injured & Orphaned

I’ve found a baby bird that seems to be lost or abandoned, or injured. What should I do? Before you go near the bird, see our Injured & Orphaned page for help with this situation. Usually young birds that seem abandoned are not. And injured wild animals need highly specialized care.

Bird Behavior

Yesterday around 4:30 pm, we witnessed thousands (we’re not exaggerating) of crows massing in groups over northern Poughkeepsie. We followed them to see where they were heading and found them perched in trees near Rte. 9 around the Mid-Hudson Bridge. There were so many that the boughs of the trees were sagging. What were they doing and why? Crows are very social animals. During late fall and winter, they congregate nightly in enormous roosts, only to disperse again in the morning, when they often travel for miles to their favorite feeding places.

I saw a bird limping along with one wing stretched out as if it were hurt. When I got close to it, it flew away. Why did the bird behave this way? The bird was most likely a Killdeer with young chicks nearby. Killdeer and some other birds feign injury as a distraction display to draw the attention of potential predators away from the area where their chicks are.

I saw a bird sitting on top of an anthill. Is this normal? What you saw was probably a behavior known as anting. Many birds engage in this activity from time to time. Sometimes a bird will actually pick up ants and place them between their feathers, while others will simply sit on the anthill and allow the ants to crawl onto them. Although the behavior is not well understood, it is believed that the formic acid from the ants may act as a pesticide to help the birds control parasites in their feathers and on their skin.

There is a bird constantly attacking my window. Why is it doing that and what should I do? This is territorial behavior seen in some individual birds in the springtime. Occasionally, a male bird will see his own reflection and attack it, thinking that it is another male encroaching on his territory. Once the bird has this in his head, he can’t seem to shake it and keeps attacking. Usually the behavior stops after several days, but sometimes it will go on longer. Since it is the reflection that triggers the behavior, it is sometimes seen at sideview mirrors or other reflective surfaces of vehicles. One way to discourage this behavior (and reduce window strikes by birds as well) is to break up the reflectiveness of the surface being attacked. Some people hang ribbons over their windows to accomplish this. A sideview mirror can be covered with a paper bag when the car is not in use (this technique was observed at a local post office parking lot).

A bird is pecking at the walls of my house. What should I do to stop this? The bird is most likely in the woodpecker family. If it is springtime, the bird is most likely establishing its breeding territory. Woodpeckers commonly drum on trees to signal to others that the territory is taken. The Northern Flicker, which is a woodpecker, drums on all kinds of resonant objects, including rain gutters, and telephone poles. Sometimes, woodpeckers actually look for food in the wood siding or trim of a house and this is very difficult to discourage. See our Nuisance Birds page on this website.

Bird Biology

What is a band code? A band code is a unique species identifier stamped into a metal ring that is placed around a bird’s leg during banding. North American band codes consist of four letters and are established by the U.S. Department of the Interior Fish and Wildlife Service Bird Banding Laboratory. If the bird’s name is two words long, the band code is made up of the first two letters of the first word, followed by the first two letters of the second word. For example, the Northern Cardinal’s band code is NOCA. If there are three words in the name, the code uses the first letter of each of the first two words, plus the first two letters of the third one. So Great Blue Heron = GBHE and Red-winged Blackbird = RWBL. Of course, there are exceptions made when these rules would result in identical band codes for multiple species. For example, Cedar Waxwing = CEDW and Cerulean Warbler = CERW. Note that in this case, the first three letters of the first word are used, followed by the first letter of the second word.

What is asynchronous hatching and why does it occur? Asynchronous hatching helps many species of birds propagate successfully. These birds lay their eggs over a period of several days. As incubation completes, the eggs hatch one by one, so that the chicks that hatch earliest become the largest and strongest, while the last to hatch are the smallest. Usually, all the chicks survive. However, in years when food is in short supply, the larger chicks survive but the smaller ones cannot compete with them. This may seem cruel to the smallest chicks but, from a species survival standpoint, it is a better alternative than to lose the entire brood because none of the chicks can be adequately nourished.

What is a decurved bill? A decurved bill curves downward. Birds that have decurved bills include Ibis and Whimbrel. The opposite, a bill that curves upward, is called a recurved bill. Avocets and Black-necked Stilts have recurved bills. Other commonly used terms to describe bill shape include conical (cone-shaped), short (shorter than the head), long (longer than the head), and hooked (in which the top half of the bill-the upper mandible-extends beyond the lower one in a hook shape). The shape of a bird’s bill is usually very important to its function. For example, conical bills belong to seed or kernel-eating birds, while hooked bills allow raptors to tear into flesh. Crossed bills (as in White-winged Crossbill) are highly specialized for removing seeds from pine cones. Decurved and recurved bill shapes usually facilitate foraging in particular environments.

What is eclipse plumage and why does it occur? Because feathers wear over time, birds renew them each year in a process called molting. In fact, some species do so twice a year. Male ducks molt into drab plumage, called eclipse plumage, before beginning to replace their flight feathers. The reason for replacing colorful feathers with such dull ones is that ducks will become virtually unable to fly during the molt of their flight feathers. Drab plumage will make the ducks less conspicuous, thus reducing their vulnerability to predators. The bright colors will return in time for breeding season.

Bird ID

I saw a very odd-looking duck and I can’t find it in my field guide. What was it? The duck was probably an escaped domestic duck, or the product of interbreeding between a wild duck and a domestic duck. In most cases in this area, it would be Mallard descendant, but Muscovies are becoming more common also. In David Sibley’s Guide to Birds, there is a page on domestic waterfowl (page 89), and the author states: “Interbreeding produces a bewildering variety of plumages and sizes; some bear little resemblance to the parent species.”

Courtship & Breeding

When do Great Blue Heron eggs hatch in our area? According to the New York State Breeding Bird Atlas Handbook for Workers, Great Blue Herons lay their eggs sometime between April 15 and June 9. The incubation period is 25-29 days, so that puts the earliest hatch time in mid-May. Great Blue Herons have only one brood per year, however, so if the particular pair you are watching starts late, the hatch could happen quite a bit later. The young stay in the nest for 2-3 months after hatching, so there is plenty of time to observe them before they fledge.

What is a brood patch? A brood patch is an area on a breeding adult bird’s belly where the feathers are temporarily lost and the blood vessels become engorged. This change ensures a more efficient warming of the bird’s eggs during incubation.

What is a fecal sac? Songbird young in the nest expel fecal waste in a small sac. A parent removes the sac by carrying it in its bill and dropping it some distance from the nest. This is a very sanitary system, as it keeps the nest from becoming soiled, and helps to keep predators from being attracted to the nest.

What does fledging mean, and what is a fledgling? Fledging is the process during which a chick develops its first growth of feathers. A fledgling is a bird that has left the nest but is still dependent on its parents.

I saw a hummingbird in my yard flying up and down, creating a U-shaped path. What was the bird doing? This is the “pendulum flight” of the male Ruby-throated Hummingbird, seen during spring and summer. It is believed to be a display for females during courtship, but has also been observed as an aggressive behavior between males or between male and female.

What is the purpose of spring birdsong? Do the male and female sing together? The songs we hear in the springtime are primarily sung by male birds, for the purpose of establishing breeding territories, keeping away rival males, and attracting females. There are some exceptions; for example, female Northern Cardinals and Rose-breasted Grosbeaks sing as beautifully as their male counterparts.

It appears that different bird species in the same region nest at different times. Why is that? Each species’ nesting is timed to optimize their offspring’s chances of survival. Primarily, the timing is driven by food availability. Great Horned Owls, for example, begin nesting in February, and their young hatch when the small rodent population is no longer hibernating so that the parents will be able to bring their young the delectable treats that they need to grow quickly and gain their independence. Similarly, many birds’ young hatch into a world crawling with worms. American Goldfinches, on the other hand, nest later in the summer, since the young are fed a diet of seeds, which are not available earlier in the season.

Backyard Birding

I am having problems with Cowbirds taking over my feeder. They have even killed sparrows. In one month I have found three dead sparrows in the yard and I witnessed a Cowbird attack and kill one of the little sparrows. How can I STOP these Cowbirds? Cowbirds are a nasty problem. When the migration season ends (usually around the end of April), many people stop putting seed on the ground (or elsewhere) for sparrows, because they don’t want to encourage the Cowbirds. During the summer season, tube feeders can be filled with shelled sunflower. These seeds are a favorite of Black-capped Chickadees, Tufted Titmice, White-breasted Nuthatches, American Goldfinches, Northern Cardinals, House Finches, Blue Jays, Red-bellied, Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers, and Rose-breasted Grosbeaks. These birds always cause some seed to fall to the ground, which attracts Song Sparrows and Chipping Sparrows as well as Mourning Doves. During the summer you may want to stop using a platform feeder or other feeder that is easily used by Cowbirds.

I’d like to start a Purple Martin colony. What should I do? While Purple Martins do nest in Dutchess County, this question cannot be answered easily. To learn more about Purple Martins, see the Purple Martin Conservation Association’s website. There you will find a wealth of information as well as an online forum where you can participate in discussions and ask or answer questions.

How can I attract hummingbirds and keep them around my yard? Should I make my own food for them or buy a powdered mix? Commercial hummer food mixes are supposed to contain important nutrients other than sugar. While hummingbirds do need other nutrients in their diets, they glean them from natural sources, such as insects, even when they have sugar water available to them in feeders. Look at it this way: the hummingbird sees the feeder as a flower containing nectar, and it never relies solely on flower nectar for its nutrition. It has no idea that there might be protein in the nectar, so it will continue to visit real flowers and consume the insects that it finds there in any case. Another important factor to consider when looking at the commercial mixes is that they almost always contain red color. This is an unnecessary artificial additive with potentially negative impact on hummingbirds (there is no conclusive information on this today). Coloring the food is unnecessary because the feeder itself normally has red parts to attract the hummingbirds anyway.

When to feed: You can start any time while the hummingbirds are around, but once you have gotten them hooked on your feeders, be ready for them when they return in the spring. In Dutchess County, put your feeder out at the beginning of May and keep it filled until the hummingbirds have left for the winter (sometime in September).

For the health of the birds, it’s important to use the right proportion of water to sugar when you make your own hummingbird food. You can keep your hummingbirds happy with a solution of 1 part sugar mixed with 4 parts water. Mix a batch, boil it for 3 minutes (to eliminate any potential parasites), and let it cool. Fill your feeder and pour the rest of the mix into a capped bottle. You can keep this on hand in your refrigerator and refill your feeder a few times before having to make up a new batch. IMPORTANT: Always make sure the sugar water in your feeder does not ferment or get moldy. Change the food every 3-5 days and be especially careful when the weather gets hot. Thoroughly clean the feeder with water every time you refill it. Remember, hummingbirds will often abandon an empty or unclean feeding station, and may not return in spite of your efforts to attract them back with fresh food. And ONE MORE POINT: You will be more successful in attracting hummingbirds if you plant flowers that will attract them also. Hummingbirds are especially attracted to red and orange flowers, especially those with somewhat tubular blooms including bee balm, petunias, salvias, trumpet vine, and fuchsia.

Now that the winter birds are leaving, should I stop feeding the birds? It depends on your personal preference. If you stop putting food out, the birds will find natural sources (and other feeders). Some people keep their feeders stocked year-round for several reasons. First, they get to enjoy birds near the house all year. Later in the summer, entire families of Northern Cardinals, Tufted Titmice, and Black-capped Chickadees are often seen visiting feeders. Second, some people think that feeding birds helps to cut down on the number of bugs near the house.

If you decide to keep feeding birds throughout the summer, you might want to consider not putting food on the ground, since you may otherwise encourage Brown-headed Cowbirds, a parasitic species that is a detriment to warblers and other woodland songbirds.

Tools & Techniques

What is pishing? Why does it work? Many birds respond to distress calls of other birds, which often sound similar to a “pish” sound. Other birds respond to squeaking sounds that can be generated by kissing the back of one’s hand. Pishing and squeaking work best during the breeding season, when birds often react in an effort to chase away what they believe to be an intruder on their territory. Sometimes pishing is an effective technique to draw a bird out of dense cover when it is heard sounding its own alarm notes or chips.

A word (or two) of caution: First, not all birds are attracted by pishing or squeaking; in fact, any birder who has tried these techniques can tell of birds that were “pished off” to the point where they left the scene entirely! Second, and most important, it is not a good idea (or an ethical practice) to unduly alarm birds that are trying to ensure successful breeding. If a bird is already very excited or alarmed, you may be too close to its nest for comfort. Every birder should always exercise good judgment to place the safety and well-being of the birds first, even when it means missing a look or an ID.

What is a life list? What is a life bird (or a lifer)? Many birders keep a list of the bird species they have seen during their lifetime. This kind of list is known as a life list. A life bird (lifer) is a species seen during one’s lifetime; in other words, it is one of the species on a life list.

Listing is enjoyable and useful to many birders. There are many kinds of lists besides life lists. There are yard lists (birds seen in one’s yard), trip lists (birds seen on a particular trip), state lists, and so forth. Aside from the enjoyment of recording (and reliving) one’s birding experiences, lists can provide good reference information. For example, it can be useful and interesting to look back to see what the earliest date was that a particular species returned to one’s yard in past springs. When planning a birding trip where you’ve gone before, it can be helpful to look back at your birding records to either decide on the date you should take the trip or determine what birds you might or might not see when you make your next visit.

And keeping records and submitting them to the bird club each month helps ornithologists by providing data on population and migration trends from year to year. Such trends offer clues to environmental changes and their impacts on wildlife, which can lead to programs and initiatives to counteract or reduce detrimental human activities.

What should I be looking for in a pair of binoculars? A good pair of binoculars represents a significant investment for a birder, so you should research the subject a bit before buying them. And a simple Q&A cannot do justice to this very important question, so we’ll just give you a few pointers to get you started. Then make sure you try the binoculars in your own hands before you make a purchase. Talk to other birders. Most birders will be happy to let you try their binoculars in the field. Join us on a bird walk!

Within the price range that you can afford, the primary factors you will want to consider are magnification, brightness, field of view, close focus distance, and weight. For birding, magnification should be between 7X and 10X. Keep in mind that not only the image is magnified, but also the effect of your own hands shaking while you are holding the binoculars to your eyes. Many people swear by 10X binoculars, but many others cannot hold them steady enough to feel comfortable with them.

Brightness is important because you will often be observing birds in low light conditions, especially in the early morning or evening. In general, binoculars are brighter if the lenses are coated (because the coatings help prevent light from being reflected off the lenses). In addition, the larger the lenses, the more light they will gather. However, high quality optics with good coatings almost always perform better than larger but lower quality lenses. When comparing binoculars of similar optical quality, look at the numbers. 7×50 represents a magnification of 7X with lenses that are 50mm in diameter. 8×30 represents a magnification of 8X with lenses that are 30mm in diameter.

Field of view is important because a small field of view captures less of the area than a larger field of view and makes it harder to locate a bird in your binoculars. You might then waste time searching for the bird with your binoculars and losing it before you ever get to look at it.

Close focus is important when you are trying, for example, to identify a sparrow hopping about in a bush less than 10 feet away from you. If your binoculars don’t focus closely enough, you will not see the bird clearly in those precious moments when it suddenly appears in your binoculars and thus you have less of a chance of making a good ID. Weight and size are important, of course, because birding may take you on long walks with binoculars hanging around your neck. In addition, holding binoculars up to your eyes for extended periods of time can become quite tiring to your arms.

Your binoculars may very well be your most important birding investment, so you need to find a pair that’s really right for you. Talk to your birding friends about the choices they made and what features they like and don’t like. Then weigh the pros and cons of candidate products before you make your final decision.

Researched and authored by Carena Pooth