Archive for the ‘State Birds’ Category

10 Ways to Help Migratory Birds

December 2, 2013

From the National Wildlife Federation

ImageFrom the American Bird Conservancy: top 10 things you can do in your home or yard to help declining migratory birds

The American Bird Conservancy (ABC) often gets asked how people can help birds during this time of year. Toward that end, ABC has identified the top ten things people can do to aid or protect migratory birds in their homes and yards.

1.  Keep your cat indoors—this is best for your cat as well as the birds, as indoor cats live an average of three to seven times longer. Even well fed cats kill birds, and bells on cats don’t effectively warn birds of cat strikes. For more information, go to

2.  Prevent birds from hitting your windows by using a variety of treatments to the glass on your home—check out ABC’s tips at

3.  Eliminate pesticides from your yard—even those pesticides that are not directly toxic to birds can pollute waterways and reduce insects that birds rely on for food.

4.  Create backyard habitat—if you have a larger yard, create a diverse landscape by planting native grasses, flowers, and shrubs that attract native birds. You will be rewarded by their beauty and song, and will have fewer insect pests as a result.

5.  Donate old birdwatching equipment such as binoculars or spotting scopes to local birdwatching groups—they can get them to schools or biologists in other countries who may not have the resources they need.

6.  Reduce your carbon footprint—use a hand-pushed or electric lawnmower, carpool, use low energy bulbs and Energy Star appliances. Contact your energy supplier and ask them about purchasing your energy from renewable sources.

7.  Buy organic food and drink shade-grown coffee—increasing the market for produce grown without the use of pesticides, which can be toxic to birds and other animals, will reduce the use of these hazardous chemicals in the U.S. and overseas. Shade coffee plantations maintain large trees that provide essential habitat for wintering songbirds.

8.  Keep feeders and bird baths clean to avoid disease and prevent mosquitoes from breeding.

9.  Support bird friendly legislation both locally and in the U.S. Congress.

10.  Join a bird conservation group—learn more about birds and support important conservation work.

According to ABC, birds need our help now more than ever.  In addition to the ongoing threat of loss of habitat that is becoming magnified by global warming, millions of birds are directly killed due to a number of different human-related causes.
Scientists estimate that 300 million to 1 billion birds die each year from collisions with buildings. Up to 50 million die from encounters with communication towers.  At least 11 million die from car strikes.  Another 1 million may die each day from attacks by cats left outdoors.

Some of these deaths occur year-round but many occur during the peak spring and fall migrations. Some studies suggest that perhaps as many as half of all migrating birds do not make it back to spring and summer grounds, succumbing to various threats on either end of the journey.

“Protecting and helping birds is not only the right thing to do, it is also good for the economy and the future of our environment. Birds are invaluable as controllers of insect pests and as pollinators of crops, and also generate tremendous economic revenues through the pastimes of bird feeding and birdwatching,” says ABC President George Fenwick.

A recent federal government study reports that over 20 percent of the U.S. population – 48 million people – participates in birdwatching.  Of that total, about 42 percent (20 million people) actually travel to see birds. Birders spend about $36 billion annually in pursuit of their pastime.  The top five birdwatching states by percentage of total population are: Montana (40%); Maine (39%); Vermont (38%); Minnesota (33%); and Iowa (33%).

Photo of Scarlet Tanager by Brian Tang

PERMALINK: National Wildlife Federation

Illinois State Bird

November 9, 2008
Northern Cardinal

Northern Cardinal

The American election came and went before we described the state birds of Illinois and Delaware.  We had already dealt with Arizona’s and Alaska’s state birds. Today we turn to the state bird of Barack Obama’s Illinois.  Delaware will be next, followed by Iowa.  (Why Iowa?  Because the 2012 presidential election campaign is set to begin there in about two weeks.  Really.  Mike Huckabee, Bobby Jindal, and Sarah Palin have appearances there before November ends. Remember the admonition, “No politician goes to Iowa by accident.”  Frankly, we think two years is too long a campaign and now we’re getting four year campaigns?)

Because we’re on the subject of politics we should note that the state bird of Illinois is also the state bird of several swing states, all but two of which were carried by Senator Obama.  The Northern Cardinal is the most popular state bird in the United States.  It is claimed by Illinois (21 electoral votes), Indiana (11), Kentucky (8), North Carolina (15), Ohio (20), Virginia (13)and West Virginia (5). A candidate who carries all the Cardinal’s states has more than one-third of the electoral votes necessary to be elected president. [1]

Not only do humans like Cardinals, Cardinals like humans. Our cities, and our bird feeders, especially our winter-time bird feeders, have allowed Cardinals to expand their range; unlike so many species whose ranges we have contracted or destroyed entirely.  We’ve also helped by clearing forest land and turning it, first into agricultural use and then to suburbia. Coniferous forests have less food for the seed, insect and fruit-eating Cardinals. They may even find global climate change amenable.  They do not migrate but live their entire lives within an area of 8 or so square miles and warming temperatures play a role in their range expansion.

Charley Harper Cardinal Card

Charley Harper Cardinal Card

Cardinals lead an envious life style.  About 5% of the time, they fly.  Another 13% is spent eating.  That leaves them about 80% of their time free for perching and sleeping.  If humans could do that we would spend about two and a half hours a day working and eating and the rest would be free time.  (Some anthropologists believe that is about how much time subsistence societies did spend making a living.  It is a mistake to romanticize such cultures — life was short and dark back then — but imagine how many books you could read, birds you could see, hikes you could take if you had that kind of free time.)

Cardinals are not free from worry though.  Cats, dogs, squirrels, shrikes, hawks and Eastern Screech Owls keep them alert.  Nest predation is a big problem as well.  Snakes, birds and chipmunks steal their eggs.  Cowbirds steal Cardinal eggs, destroy them and replace them with cowbird eggs which the Cardinals are then stuck with raising.

They are socially monogamous.  One study found an annual divorce rate of about 20%.  Males occasionally mess around, though.  Some male DNA is occasionally found in places it shouldn’t be. The bright red cardinals you see on the millions of gifts, cards, and photos are males.  The female is a basic grayish tan.  Both sexes sing; males to defend territory and attract females.

Female and Male Cardinals photographed by Ken Clark

Female and Male Cardinals photographed by Ken Clark

They enjoy messing with scientists’ minds.  So adept with their strong beaks that they can open hard seeds yet peel grapes, they also are skilled at removing plastic or aluminum leg bands placed there by ornithologists.
[1] The Western Meadowlark comes in second in this popularity contest, representing six states. In third place is the Mockingbird, the state bird of five states. A candidate who carried Cardinals(93), Western Meadowlarks(27) and Mockingbirds(84) would have 214 votes and would only need to pick up Chickadees and Bluebirds or California Quails to be elected president of the United States.)

For more on Cardinals see

Halkin, Sylvia L. and Susan U. Linville. 1999. Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis), The Birds of North America Online (A. Poole, Ed.). Ithaca: Cornell Lab of Ornithology; Retrieved from the Birds of North America Online:


While we’re on the subject of politics we want to give a shout out to our web site designer, Firefly Studios.  If you’ve never been to our web site you should go just to look at how beautiful it is.

The folks at Firefly are, in addition to being fine artists, are proud liberals and they sell political tee shirts such as this one:


and this one:


which you can buy from them at their alternative website, Talk Back Tees.

For those of you who are Republicans or otherwise unhappy with the recent American election, we suggest you try their other, non-political web site where you can find tee shirts such as this one, containing a Northern Cardinal.

Northeastern Birds

Northeastern Birds

Arizona’s State Bird

October 15, 2008

In our continuing series of brief examinations of the state birds of the United States we move today from Alaska to Arizona.  This progression is completely random and the fact that we’ll probably cover Illinois and Delaware next is in no way connected to the current political campaign in the United States.  Pure coincidence.

Arizona’s state bird is the Cactus Wren.  It builds several nests, sometimes as many as seven.  They use some as homes and some as decoys, although because the Cactus Wren builds its nests in thickly thorned cacti, it is unclear why it needs all those nests.  One likely reason is that adult wrens allow their children to use some of the nests which gets the kids out of the way.  In good years as many as three broods of wrens may fledge. Moreover, the male Cactus Wren, like a fighter pilot, mates with more than one female.  All the nests separate the new broods and the females from one another.  Reminds me of the old Royal Navy toast, “To wives and mistresses, may they never meet!”

It is unknown whether the males remember how many nests they have. Or, for that matter, how many mistresses.

Cactus Wren range

Cactus Wren range

Noisier and larger than any other wrens in their range, Cactus Wrens live in the Chihuahuan, Mojave, and Sonoran Deserts.  Like Louis L’Amour’s Apaches and desert heroes, these wrens are well adapted to the desert.  They are most active during the sunrise and sunset hours when the desert has its mildest temperatures.  During the heat of the day they hang out in shady spots, doing as little as possible.  Because of the scarcity of available water, they evolved as xerophiles, animals which do not need free water but who acquire all their water from their food.  Insects are their primary food.

By the way, insects have taken over the world, so it is a good thing that birds and fish eat them for us.  Insects originated, on dry land, about 400 million years ago.  (By comparison, humans have been here less than 2 million years.)  At least a million different species of insects exist.  According to E.O. Wilson, about a billion billion insects are alive on the planet as you read this.  These insects weigh, if you put them all together — and please, don’t — about one trillion kilograms, more than all the humans on earth combined. “Insects,” according to Dr. Wilson, who has spent his lifetime studying them, “can thrive without us, but we and most other land organisms would perish without them.”

Living in the desert has its advantages. For instance, because it is warm year round, there is no need to migrate and Cactus Wrens don’t.  Better yet, the beetles, ants, moths, spiders and ants don’t freeze or go dormant, so food is constantly available.

The downside for the wrens is that many other animals also like desert living.  Predators such as snakes, roadrunners, and Loggerhead Shrikes are undeterred by the thorny cactus in which the wrens live.  Curved-bill Thrashers compete with them for territory.  Worse — for the wrens — humans also like the warmth of the desert.  We build cities and bring our pet cats along with us and the cats are a significant cause of mortality among Cactus Wrens.  We also destroy their habitat and that is now the leading cause of death for Cactus Wrens.

Of course, we’re not xerophiles and it is a desert. The Cactus Wrens might outlast us.


Many of the facts in this post came from Proudfoot, Glenn A., Dawn A. Sherry and Steve Johnson. 2000. Cactus Wren (Campylorhynchus brunneicapillus), The Birds of North America Online (A. Poole, Ed.). Ithaca: Cornell Lab of Ornithology; Retrieved from the Birds of North America Online:  You should not blame the scientists for any liberties we may have taken.  The photo was taken by Mark Wagner.

Alaska’s State Bird

September 18, 2008

All the states have state birds.  Over time, we’ll blog about most of them.  Just at random, we selected Alaska’s for our first entry in the series.  It is the Willow Ptarmigan.  It’s Latin name, derived from Greek — go figure — is Lagopus lagopus which means “hairy foot.”  It is a small grouse, closely related to the Red Grouse of Europe. Ranging from Alaska to Labrador and parts of northern Canada, its hairy feet help it walk on snow.

Legend has it that they fly into snow banks in winter leaving no trail for predators to follow.  Actually, they dig themselves into snow banks and spend nights and periods of bad weather in the snow in order to stay warm. In winter, the birds are almost completely white and, during the rest of the year, adapt feather colors similar to the flora.  They have at least three separate molts a year in order to maintain their disguise. Unless flushed, they are difficult to discern.

The females are known for cryptic behavior which makes it more difficult for observers to assign meaning to their conduct. The females apparently are attracted to males with large combs, who display themselves vigorously and who have large territories. Females appear excited and interested in the male display battles which occur prior to selecting mates. The females will also chase neighboring females whether they are mated to other males or not. Females also engage in more daily preening behavior although the reasons for this are unknown.

Most are monogamous, assuming their selected mate survives from one breeding season to the next. If both members of a pair survive, 83–86% will mate again. Both male and female juveniles are fertile and begin their own broods early in life.

The males, alone among grouse species, stay with the female after eggs are laid and participate in protecting the couple’s new youngsters until the first autumn of life, by which time the young can fend for themselves.  Males have been known to attack grizzly bears, distracting the bear to give time for chicks to disperse and hide.  None are known to have attacked moose or wolves. They will attack humans.  John Jay Audubon noted one such attack by both males and females:

. . . the parents would fly directly towards us with so much boldness, that some were actually killed on the wing with the rods of our guns, as they flew about in the agonies of rage and despair, with all their feathers raised and ruffled.

They have a cornucopia of predators. Hawks, eagles, falcons, gulls and owls will kill them or eat their eggs.  Many mammalian species which live in Alaska also prey on them.  Humans hunt them with guns and wolverines, wolves, foxes, lynx and polar bears hunt them with claws and teeth.  All of those will eat their eggs as will jaegers, magpies, crows, ravens, and weasels.  Even the arctic ground squirrel gets into the act, eating eggs and chicks.

In short Willow Ptarmigans are beset with enemies, which is why they have so many young (5-10 per year) and why they are fertile at such a young age.

The male’s song is a loud “go-back go-back”.

Here is some video.

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