Signalers vs. strong silent types: Sparrows exude personalities during fights

Song sparrow on his territory.

Song sparrow on his territory.

Like humans, some song sparrows are more effusive than others, at least when it comes to defending their territories. New findings from the University of Washington show that consistent individual differences exist not only for how aggressive individual song sparrows are but also for how much they use their signals to communicate their aggressive intentions.

The findings, published online Dec. 4 in Proceedings of the Royal Society B, show that while many birds signal their intentions clearly, other “strong silent types” go immediately to aggressive behavior and ultimately attack without first signaling their intentions.
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Bird Watching: Easy steps to attract birds to your yard

g12c000000000000000a1661648d62e43ae8232483827846b32fe917873If you want birds in your yard — and not your neighbor’s yard — you’ve got to lure them in with an attractive space filled with what they need to survive.

“Bird watching is fun,” said Rhiannon Crane, project leader with the Yardmap Project at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. (Visit for more information about building a bird habitat in your backyard.)

“By providing birds with the right habitat, you can increase your enjoyment by attracting between 20 to 30 species of birds — that amount is doable in an urban or rural setting. More diversity equals more fun,” Crain said.

Additionally, birds are good for your yard and provide an alternative to chemicals for keeping the insect population in check, Crane said.

Like all animals, birds need water, food and structure, which means a safe place to eat, sleep and nest, be pro- tected from the elements and elude predators.

For the water element, “it’s as easy as putting a saucer of water in the yard,” Crane said. Adding a dripping feature or running water is even more attractive to birds.
For a lasting effect that will allow birds to stay over winter months, add a bird feeder to your yard, Crane said. A basic seed mix is a good start, but specialized foods will attract a wider range of species.

Since baby birds don’t eat seeds, Crane suggests planting native shrubs and trees for birds to forage from. These will also attract caterpillars, which the babies can eat.
Consider letting a corner of your yard go wild by creating a brush pile with clippings, branches and twigs as many birds prefer habitat on the ground.
Evergreens also provide natural cover year-round and attract migrating birds.
“You can do a little or a lot,” Crane said. “It’s not difficult to attract birds to your yard.”

Easy DIY bird feeder
There are plenty of eco-friendly bird feeders are available for sale, but how about trying to make your own? It’s easy using just a milk jug and common household tools:

  1. Thoroughly wash an empty 1-gallon plastic milk jug. Replace the cap.
  2. Cut two large holes about 4 inches in diameter in the two adjacent sides of the jug opposite the handle. The holes should be about 2 inches up from the bottom of the jug.
  3. Cut a hole below each of the large holes and insert a twig or dowel rod through diagonally as a perch.
  4. With a large nail, punch two holes in the neck of the milk jug, about 1 inch below the cap.
  5. Run a 2-foot-long piece of wire through the holes, twisting the wire tightly above the cap with several turns.
  6.  To camouflage, brush on green acrylic paint and attach leaves to the outside with clear glue. Add twigs to the top to create a roof. Cover the entire project with clear non-toxic craft glaze so it’s water-resistant.
  7. Fill the feeder with birdseed and use the wire ends to hang it from a strong branch or other support.


Cornell project uses artificial intelligence to ID birds

Merlin interacts with online users through games to learn how people see birds.

Merlin interacts with online users through games to learn how people see birds.

More than one in five Americans engage in bird watching. Now, researchers at Cornell University are making it easier to identify different species with an artificial intelligence program called Merlin.

Type the words “orange bird” into Google hoping to identify one of our feathered friends, and you’re more likely to get an image from the hit game series Angry Birds. But help is at hand for the nation’s amateur birders.

Miyoko Chu is the principal investigator of the Merlin project at Cornell University. She says the more people who interact with the online tool through a range of games, the smarter Merlin gets. “Merlin is a machine and Merlin needs to understand how people see birds, describe birds, remember the birds they’ve seen. And in order to do that we ask people to play these games on our website.”

Chu says if they’re successful in training Merlin, scientists hope the system will eventually be smart enough to narrow down bird species from a basic search. It might even become possible to I-D birds on the spot.

“Someday in the future you might be able to have capability on your camera or on your binoculars where, as soon as you’ve gotten that shot, your camera or your binoculars might help give you an identification on that bird.”

Cornell is working with four other universities around the country to get Merlin up and running for the spring bird migration.

‘Bubble-Pop’ Bird May Be Rarest in U.S.

(Image: Gunnison Sage-Grouse by Noppadol Paothong)

(Image: Gunnison Sage-Grouse by Noppadol Paothong)

The Gunnison sage-grouse, a bird with an unusual “bubble pop” mating call and display, could be America’s rarest bird, according to avian experts.

The bird was only discovered 13 years ago, and yet it’s already nearly a goner. Today, fewer than 5,000 of these birds remain in the wild, and they are rapidly dwindling.

“In my view, the Gunnison sage-grouse is the most biologically endangered bird species in all of continental North America,” Cornell Lab of Ornithology director John Fitzpatrick said in a statement sent to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The chicken-sized bird has an amazingly unusual mating ritual. To court females, the males strut about while wagging their spiky tails and making a popping-like noise as they inflate yellow air sacs from their white chests.

Fitzpatrick and others are paying attention to this bird now, as it’s a candidate for listing as endangered under the Endangered Species Act. The Gunnison sage-grouse only lives in eastern Utah and Colorado.

“The Gunnison sage-grouse is now in imminent danger of a series of local population collapses, which — when they occur — will result in extinction of the species,” Fitzpatrick explained.

Efforts by public agencies and private landowners to help stabilize the bird’s populations through private land easements, conservation plans and community education have not halted its decline, says Fitzpatrick.

Despite the bird’s precarious status, getting a species endangered classification can be a long, laborious process.

For example the Dakota skipper butterfly, on the candidate’s list since 1975, is now extinct in Indiana and Iowa. The Eastern Massasauga rattlesnake has been a candidate since 1982. And the Kittlitz’s murrelet, a small bird, has been on the candidate’s list for nearly 20 years.

“It is now urgent that the Gunnison sage-grouse be listed as an endangered species, and that a recovery team be assembled to fast-track recommended steps for halting the decline and imminent extinction of this remarkable bird,” said Fitzpatrick.

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Count Shows 37 Bird Types in Reston

Annual Great Backyard Bird Count shows who is living in Reston trees.

Volunteers participate in the Great Backyard Bird Count 2013 Credit Abby Stocking

Volunteers participate in the Great Backyard Bird Count 2013 Credit Abby Stocking

Reston residents counted 253 birds from 37 species as part of the 2013 Great Backyard Bird Count.

The Walker Nature Education Center has participated in the national GBBC since 2010. It is an annual four-day event that engages bird watchers of all ages in counting birds to create a real-time snapshot of where the birds are, says Abby Stocking, environmental education specialist at Walker Nature Center.

The GBBC is led by the Cornell Lab of Orinithology and National Audubon Society, with Canadian partner Bird Studies Canada and sponsorship from Wild Birds Unlimited.

The count took place Feb. 15 through 18. For the first time since the count was started, bird watchers from anywhere in the world with Internet access could submit their observations, Stocking said. Results were received from 103 countries all over the globe recording more than 25.5 million birds from over 3,100 species.

In Reston, the nature center teamed up with the Audubon Society of Northern Virginia to show people how they could get involved. Volunteers helped participants identify birds at the nature center feeders, as well as along the trails.

The 30 participants also learned how to submit their observations into the GBBC’s online database.

Spotted in Reston were Northern Cardinals, Eastern Bluebirds, a Brown Creeper, Ring-necked Ducks, Ruddy Ducks, Bufflehead, and a Horned Grebe, said Stocking.

The nature center plans to participate again next year, but there is still time to get involved now. Nature House staff and volunteers will sontinue counting birds for a related survey through April 6.

Stop by on a Wednesday or Thursday to get involved with Project Feeder Watch.


Turning out lights in Detroit for migrating birds

If we’re lucky, we can catch a glimpse of a migrating bird or two as they pick their way north, but most pass over without us ever knowing.



The Cornell Lab of Ornithology describes it this way in their Round Robin blog:

An invisible river of animals, rivaling any scene from the Serengeti but consisting of half-ounce birds that pass quietly overhead, in the dark.

Michigan gets it fair share of birds passing overhead in the dark.

We’re part of the Atlantic and Mississippi flyways, and while no one knows exactly how birds do it, researchers do know birds use light to help them migrate.

In today’s Detroit News we hear how General Motors is encouraging its workers to turn off the lights in the Renaissance Center.

Lights from buildings can confuse the birds and throw them off-course.

The number of deaths caused by nighttime building collisions is in the tens of millions according to the American Bird Conservancy.

The News reports GM has been recognized by the Detroit Audubon Society for its efforts:

GM encourages employees to turn off their lights at night during spring and fall migrations, from March to May and August to October…

GM has been part of the Safe Passage Great Lakes program for seven years, Kelsey said. This is its first award.

We often don’t think of these migrating birds because we can’t see them.

You can see a video of migratory birds caught in city lights in Chicago. It was put together by Chicago Bird Collision Monitors, a volunteer bird rescue group.

And in the Round Robin Blog, Cornell Lab scientist Andrew Farnsworth was on hand to count migratory birds as they passed through the shafts of light beamed into the sky over New York:

Credit Greg Chow / Creative Commons

Credit Greg Chow / Creative Commons

In all he saw at least 2,000 birds and heard the faint chip notes of many more. He identified 28 species passing overhead and at times flying through the beams of light, where the rush of bodies looked like flurries of snow, he said.

Some make it over a city, some don’t.

These birds didn’t make it in Toronto:

Credit Kenneth Herdy / FLAP

Credit Kenneth Herdy / FLAP

If you want to do something to cut down on nighttime bird-building collisions, Chicago Bird Collision Monitors has these tips:

  • At minimum – Extinguish or dim display lighting, including spotlighting, decorative, advertising and rooftop lighting, on buildings over forty (40) stories from 11:00 p.m. until sunrise during designated spring and fall migration periods
  • What’s desired – Install efficient shield lighting for all exterior lighting fixtures, including decorative, advertising, and security lighting. Light focused downward, eliminating direct upward light and reducing spill light
  • And the best practice – Eliminate display lighting, including spotlighting, decorative, advertising, and rooftop lighting

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