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Ruby-throated Hummingbird

Hummingbird Occurence map

Four species of hummers cover most of the continental U.S. What about the rest of the species? Click the image to explore the ranges of 10 North American species at our Citizen Science blog.

Hummingbirds are special—brilliant, tiny, precision-flying creatures that glitter like jewels in the sun and dazzle with their aerial acrobatics, flying fast then stopping instantly, hovering, and zipping up, down, or backwards with exquisite control.

They’re strictly a New World animal, and they fascinated the first Europeans who arrived in North America. Christopher Columbus wrote about them. Many naturalists at the time wondered if they were a cross between a bird and an insect (at one point being called “flybirds”).

More than a dozen species of hummingbirds regularly summer in the United States, including these four that are most commonly seen at backyard feeders:

Ruby-throated Hummingbirds depart for Central America in early fall, with many crossing the Gulf of Mexico in a single flight. To accomplish this incredible migratory feat, they feast on nectar and insects and double their body mass, from 3 grams to 6 grams (or from the weight of a penny to the weight of a nickel). Ruby-throated Hummingbirds have the largest breeding range of any North American hummer.

Ruby-throated Hummingbird &, Black-chinned Hummingbird

Ruby-throated Hummingbird (left) by Laura Erickson, Black-chinned Hummingbird (right) by Brian Sullivan.

Black-chinned Hummingbirds are the most adaptable of all North American hummingbirds, found from deserts to mountain forests and from urban areas to pristine natural areas. The Black-chinned Hummingbird’s tongue has two grooves that suck up nectar like a sponge. Then the bird retracts the tongue and squeezes the nectar into its mouth.

Anna’s Hummingbirds are dazzling with iridescent emerald feathers and sparkling rose-pink throats. Nineteenth-century French naturalist René Primevère Lesson was mesmerized by “the bright sparkle of a red cap of the richest amethyst” on the male’s head and named it after the French duchess of Rivoli, Anna de Belle Masséna. These hummingbirds live along the Pacific Coast and in many areas are present year-round.

Anna’s Hummingbird & Rufous Hummingbird

Anna’s Hummingbird (left) by Nancy Starczyk, Rufous Hummingbird (right) by Chris Wood.

Rufous Hummingbirds are small but feisty. They chase off larger hummingbirds at flowers and feeders, and they’ve even been seen chasing away chipmunks. Rufous Hummingbirds have the northernmost breeding range of any hummingbird, yet in fall they migrate about 4,000 miles south to Mexico—in what is possibly the longest migration relative to body size of any bird.

More about hummingbirds:

 

(Image at top: Ruby-throated Hummingbird by Kevin Click via Birdshare)

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downloadmerlin

Merlin Bird ID—now available for Android—is a revolutionary new app for identifying common birds of North America. Why is it revolutionary?

  • It asks you five simple questions about the bird you saw and then gives you a short list of the most likely possibilities
  • That short list is a smart list—Merlin uses data from our eBird project to tell you which birds are most likely to be seen near you, right now
  • It’s loaded with tons of top-quality photos and sounds
  • It’s free

We launched Merlin Bird ID in January 2014 for iOS7 devices and immediately started work on developing an Android version. That version is now ready to download in the Google Play store. Plus, while we were developing Merlin for Android, we also expanded the app so that it now covers 400 species and contains more than 2,000 photos and 1,000 sounds. And it’s still free. Note: because Merlin Bird ID is a large app, be sure to download it via a wifi connection. Tap this link from your Android device to download the Android version (OS4 and higher).

iPhone and iPad Users: the updated 400-species version of Merlin Bird ID is available for devices running iOS7 or later, too. If you already have Merlin, just update the app on your device to get the new version. If you don’t have Merlin yet,  tap this link from our iOS device to download the iOS version.

New to Merlin? This video tells you what it’s all about:

About Merlin Bird ID

(updated from the original launch post, January 2014)

Most important of all, Merlin Bird ID was built with input from real bird watchers who contributed their time to data-gathering exercises hosted here at All About Birds via our All About Birds Labs project, as well as birders who entered their sightings into eBird, providing the occurrence data that’s at the heart of Merlin’s magic. We’d like to say a heartfelt thank you to all of you who participated.

Do you have questions about Merlin Bird ID? See our Merlin frequently asked questions.

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Owlet788banner2

Cornell Lab staff writer Pat Leonard is in Barrow, Alaska, with owl researcher Denver Holt (above), who has been studying Snowy Owls for more than 20 years. Yesterday they visited the owl nest that’s featured on our Bird Cams project. The nest originally had seven owlets, but the researchers know of only two that are still alive. Pat Leonard describes how the nest checkup went:

Every three days this summer, Denver Holt of the Owl Research Institute tries to check each of the 20 Snowy Owl nests he’s monitoring. [Read about a previous nest check.] Today, our goal was to find the two surviving Snowy Owl chicks from our Bird Cams project nest to see if they are still alive and how they are doing. Holt has brought along Cindy Shake of UMIAQ, an organization that provides support for Holt’s research, as another helpful set of eyes. We strike out across the soggy tundra in the vicinity of the live camera to see if we can spot the little ones.

With a light mist blowing on the ever-present wind and the glowering low-slung cloud cover it seems impossible to locate anything small and gray at a distance. The Snowy Owl parents are nearby and they see everything with their super-powered eyesight. They are paying close attention to us, so there may be a chick nearby. As usual, with 23 years of experience under his belt, Holt spies a chick first. It’s hunkered down near a hummock where one of the adults has left a lemming. The chick sees us coming.

Shake and I hang back while Holt moves closer. While he’s concentrating on the chick, Mom swoops by to snatch the lemming for safekeeping. Dad’s remaining a bit passive, something Holt has noted in the past. He expresses nothing but admiration, though, for the female and the job she has been doing. “She’s magnificent!” he declares.

Snowy Owlet788

Biologist Denver Holt holds Snowy Owl chick number 788. Photo by Pat Leonard.

Holt snags the owlet and takes a closer look. Who do we have here? This is chick number 788, according to the last three digits on the leg band Holt put on weeks ago. The owlet’s primaries are growing in nicely and it seems to be the proper size for its age. This chick is 34 days old as of today (July 22) and walked off the nest a couple of weeks ago. This is the younger of the two chicks we hoped to find. Sibling number 787 was the first chick to hatch and the first to leave the nest, just a couple of days before this one.

Holt looks over the bird in his hand and feels confident that this chick is a female. Its dark ashy color is one clue but he also looks at the number four secondary feather. “If it shows spots that don’t reach all the way to the rachis—the shaft of the feather—then it’s a male,” Holt explains. “If the feather shows bars that do reach all the way to the shaft, which is the case with this one, then it’s a female.”

Holt has tested the accuracy of this method by cross-checking field observations with later DNA analysis. The score: 140 correct matches out of 140 chicks whose gender was determined in the field using the feather method. Holt coauthored a paper on these results in the Journal of Raptor Research in 2011.

After a quick visual check, Holt sets the bill-clacking owlet free and she does her hobble-hop away with, I imagine, something akin to relief, if an owl can feel such a thing. After she’s put some distance between us, Mom returns with the lemming and feeds her—a good thing to see. Beautiful number 788 still has another two to three weeks to totter about the tundra before she can take her first awkward flights. Fledging usually takes place when chicks are 45 to 55 days old. Though we’re happy to have found 788, the overall mortality among this year’s chicks is pretty sobering—about 70% by Holt’s reckoning, though it’s not clear why.

We spend another 15 minutes or so looking in vain for chick number 787. The parents seemed to lose interest in us too, so perhaps we were never even close. However, when we returned home we learned to our relief that several people watching the Bird Cams, including project assistant Hollie Sutherland, had seen the owlet scurry away as we approached.

In the end, we abandon the search so as not to stress the adults any more than necessary because while we are on the scene, they have to be on alert. The goal, as always, is to balance the need for scientific study with the overall wellbeing of the birds being studied. And no one wants to end up on the business end of those razor-sharp claws!

For more about Snowy Owls, check out:

(Top image: Denver Holt examines the spread wings of owlet 788. Markings on the fourth secondary feather [a little farther than halfway along the trailing edge of the wing] can be used to sex young Snowy Owls. Photo by Cindy Shake.)

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BHCowbird-flipkeat

In summer many young-of-the-year songbirds fledge from their nests. In seemingly no time at all, midsummer bird watchers are beset by a rush of bland, brownish birds in juvenal plumage.

But don’t despair—there are still plenty of clues to help you get where you’re going. In fact, using just three steps you can get through a process of elimination and arrive at an ID. Let’s take the streaky, brown creature in the above photo as an example:

1. What do we see?
Shape: fairly short, thick, stubby bill
Color pattern: blurry, indistinctly streaked breast, pale bold edges on wing coverts
Behavior: on the ground

2. To which group does this bird belong? One thing to keep in mind with juvenile songbirds—they have adult sized bones when they leave the nest. They may have shorter wings and tails than adults because their feathers are not fully grown, but you can rely on their bill shape and leg length being true to their species.

In this photo, sparrows and finches come to mind because of this bird’s streaks and stubby bill. Also, blackbirds have thick-based, sharply pointed bills and are often on the ground.

3. Which species? This bird’s hefty bill is too thick for a House or Purple Finch. It’s also longer-proportioned and larger than either of the finches.

Cowbird-HFinch

Here’s the mystery bird compared with a House Finch (right) by Mark Moore.

Female and juvenile Red-winged Blackbirds are similar, but they have a longer, pointier bill and more clearly defined, darker streaks on the head.

Cowbird-RWB2

Compare the mystery bird with the higher-contrast streaking of a female Red-winged Blackbird (right) by Anne Elliott.

On a Song Sparrow, there is more contrast between the streaks and the overall body color. On the mystery bird we notice streaks, but the entire breast and belly is streaked, uniform in color, and there’s no clear distinction where a streak starts or ends. The mystery bird’s streaked belly means we can cross many sparrows off the list of possibilities—and its hefty bill is even larger than a typical sparrow’s bill.

Cowbird-SoSparrow2

Here, the mystery bird shows far less contrast—and overall different shape—than a Song Sparrow (right) by Ryan Schain.

The head is fairly plain overall and the eyebrow blends right in, so we also cross off anything with a bold head pattern, such as juvenile Black-headed and Rose-breasted Grosbeaks.

Cowbird-RBGrosbeak2

The mystery bird’s large bill is outdone by the Rose-breasted Grosbeak (right, by Kelly Colgan Azar), which also shows a prominent stripe over the eye.

What else is brown and streaky with a thick, short bill? As we mentioned, blackbirds are often found on the ground. They tend to have thick but long, sharply pointed bills. However, Brown-headed Cowbirds—members of the blackbird family—have a distinctive short, thick-based bill. Though the adults are uniformly brown (females) or blackish brown with a brown head (males), juveniles are heavily streaked—and indeed this is a juvenile Brown-headed Cowbird.

For more help on identification:

 

(Mystery bird photo: juvenile Brown-headed Cowbird by Flipkeat via Birdshare.)

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