Displaying items by tag: birtds

Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers

12 June 2010
Published in Birds

Originally published on www.critters360.com

Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers

The Downy Woodpecker (Popcoides pubescens) and Hairy Woodpecker (Piocoides villosuis) closely resemble each other in coloration. With similar appearance and habits, they are best discussed together.  They both are largely black and white with white under parts.  The males have a small red patch on the back of the head and neck, while the females lack this red field mark.  Their habitat is largely the same, and the Downy and Hairy both range across much of North America. 

The main distinction between the two species is size.  The Downy is about 6 1/2” long, while the Hairy is two to three inches larger.  The bill of the Downy is small and thin, while the Hairy has a chisel like beak that is proportionately much larger and thicker.  The Hairy also has a distinctive white back when seen in flight.  On the male Hairy, the red patch is often in two sections, separated by a black band.

The woodpeckers’ songs and calls are different.  The Downy has a “pik” or “pick,” that is soft and a high-pitched whinny.  The Hairy Woodpecker has a louder whinny, reminding one of the rattle of the Kingfisher.  Its “peek!” call is sharper and more grating than the Downy.

Downy Woodpeckers are much more common than Hairy Woodpeckers. They defend about 4 acres of territory.  Hairy Woodpeckers defend perhaps a quarter acre, though they search for food over a much wider area.

The preferred foods of both species is similar, largely insects, larvae, and eggs, mostly gleaned from searching the bark of trees. They also eat wild fruit and seeds, as well as poison ivy seeds.

Woodpeckers are sometimes heard year round with soft pecking of tree bark for insects. This is a different from the highly distinctive drumming that is heard when a bird drills into a hollow trunk or even on wooden or metal signs or houses.  This is largely territorial in nature, and more commonly heard in the spring.

These woodpeckers do not generally migrate, and breed throughout their range.  Both species have a single brood of 3 to 6 eggs, with incubation lasting just under two weeks.  The young remain in the nest 20 to 25 dies for the Downy, a few days longer for the Hairy.

When in flight, both species have a roller coaster-like, or undulating flight.  When flying, the white back of the Hairy Woodpecker becomes clearly visible.  When seen in trees, both species (and most other woodpeckers)  will usually be climbing up the central trunk or larger branches.

The Downy Woodpecker is commonly seen in most of its range, almost any part of Eastern North America with forests or groves in parks or suburbs. Both the Downy and the Hairy Woodpecker can easily be attracted to feeders, especially suet feeders.   It is pretty easy to determine the size of the woodpecker when seen on a suet box. The Downy is smaller, and can often be closely approached. The Hairy  looks like a large Downy, is a less frequent visitor to the feeder, and more likely to spook easily. 

In a suitable area, even in a city lot with trees, try putting up a suet box feeder.  It’s a good bet that this would attract these woodpeckers to your yard, and brighten your day during the cold, northern winter. 


Alsop, Fred J. III.  Smithsonian Handbooks: Birds of North America, New York:  DK Publishing, 2001.

Mahnken, Jan.  The Backyard Bird-Lovers Guide , Storey Communications, 1998 ISBN 0-87596-804-X

Pearson, T. Gilbert, Editor.  Birds of America, 1936, Doubleday & Company.

Peterson, Roger Tory.  A Field Guide to the Birds, 1980.  (Eastern North America)

Internet Resources

Cornell Lab of Ornithology

All About Birds: Downy Woodpecker

All About Birds: Hairy Woodpecker

American Robin

10 April 2010
Published in Birds

Originally published on www.critters360.com

The American Robin is the best-known thrush in North America.  It has adapted to human habitation more than other thrushes, and is seen in almost any city park or suburban lawn.  But before discussing the robin in detail, here is a brief review of the other thrushes in North America.

Family Turdidae

Thrushes are known throughout the world except for the Polar Regions and Polynesia. There are about 304 species in this family worldwide, and 10 in eastern North America.  Many of these are largely birds of the far north, including the varied thrush, the northern wheatear, and the gray- cheeked thrush.

The eastern bluebird lives in much of the U.S. east of the Rockies.  It has a red breast like the robin, but blue back and wings.  Its counterpart in the west is the mountain bluebird, a truly blue bird.

The veery, Swainson’s thrush, and hermit thrush, all with ethereal songs, are found in northeastern woodlands.  The wood thrush is found in most of the U.S. east of the Mississippi except south Florida.

Turdus migratorious or American Robin

The most well known thrush in North America is the Turdus migratorious. It is a common in woodlands, and suburban and urban yards across most of the continent.  Though it migrates, many remain in the snowy north over the winter.  In parts of the south central U.S. and Florida the robin is a winter resident only.

This 10-inch bird is easily recognized with its bright orange-red breast. The bill is yellow, the head nearly black, and the back and wings a grayish-brown.  The throat is white with black striping, and it has a broken white eye-ring.  White spots on its tail are seen as it flies away with its 12 to 14 inch wingspan.

It is first seen in March eating worms on lawns and golf courses.  The jerky, short hopping run is interrupted by brief pauses, and then it hops away again.  In the spring, worms are a major food.  As spring progresses into summer, robins consume large numbers of insects, especially beetles in spring and fall, and grasshoppers in late summer.  They enjoy a wide variety of wild fruit, including berries of barberry, chokecherry, and sumac.  These wild berries are often the only source of food in the winter.  They do eat some agricultural fruit, especially cherries.

Nesting and Breeding

Robins are usually monogamous and nest on a territory as small as a third of an acre.  They are territorial and strongly defensive of their territory and young.  The nest is cup shaped, made mostly of mud and grasses, held together by finer grasses and animal fur.  It is usually in protected evergreens, cedar hedges being commonly used.  Nests are usually less than ten feet from the ground. 

The 3 to 7 eggs are a greenish to turquoise blue, sometimes flecked with brown.  Incubation is mostly by the female for nearly 2 weeks. The young are helpless at first, or altricial.  They are brooded by the female for 14 to 16 days prior to fledging.   The male sometimes helps in this as the female may be starting another nest for a second brood. There are often three broods in the south, 1 or 2 in the north. 

Song and Call

The piercing tremolo of the robin’s song is often the last bird-call heard at night as it roosts shortly after sunset.  In spring and early summer, it is also the first bird heard in the morning.  It’s sometimes loud “cheer-up, cheerily, cheerily, cheer-up” song is a natural alarm clock, rousing one from a sound sleep as early as 3:30 am, well before sunrise. 

Its calls are a more rapid “tut-tut-tut.”  At times this is rather quiet as it is just hopping along in a lawn or park, but it can be very loud as a warning when it perceives a threat, such as from a cat.

Attracting Robins

Especially in the northern snow country of New York or New England, one can entice robins with various berry producing plants like currents, American or Japanese barberry, chokecherries, and Russian mulberry.  Having robins in the garden is beneficial in controlling beetles and grasshoppers. 

By mid-July the robins’ morning song is decreased in intensity and duration, and by August they are usually silent.  From early October, in the city or suburb, you may not see them for the rest of the winter.  This is because they move to mixed trees and shrubs that offer more protection and food sources of wild berries.  Whether they are seen or not over the winter, one is sure to welcome their song next March as the harbinger of spring. 


Alsop, Fred J. III.  Smithsonian Handbooks: Birds of North America, New York:  DK Publishing, 2001.

Gilliard, E. Thomas.  Living Birds of the world, Doubleday, Garden City, NY: 1958

Mahnken, Jan.  The Backyard Bird-Lovers Guide, Storey Communications, 1998 ISBN 0-87596-804-X

Pearson, T. Gilbert, Editor.  Birds of America, 1936, Doubleday & Company.

Peterson, Roger Tory.  A Field Guide to the Birds, 1980.  (Eastern North America)

Web Sources

The Great American Bird Count:  Map of Robins in North America, February 2010

Black Capped Chickadee

08 March 2010
Published in Birds

Originally published on www.critters360.com

Black-capped chickadees are a welcome guest to any bird feeding station.  When one puts up a new feeder for the winter season, they are almost always the first birds to discover it.  With their quick arrival and just as hasty retreat after snatching a seed to eat it in a more sheltered area, they will brighten the winter day of almost any bird watcher.

The Family Paridae

A member of the Family Paridae, the black-capped chickadee is the most common chickadee in the northeast.  There are about 64 species in this family world wide, with four species in the eastern U.S. Before presenting details related specifically to this species, here is a review of the other North American members of this large family. 

There may be some confusion over the Latin names.  The names used here come from Alsop (2001) in the sources listed, while earlier sources use for the first part of species names Parus instead of Poecile.  When any references are made to the size or song of a particular species, this is in comparison to the Black-capped Chickadee, the main focus of this article.

The Carolina chickadee (Poecile carolinensis) is mostly a bird of the southeast.  It is very similar in coloration, though a bit smaller, with a shorter tail, and a more clean cut bib.  The “chick-a-dee-dee-dee” call is higher pitched and more rapid. A second call is usually a four syllable “fee-bee-fee-bay” instead of the two or three syllables used by the Black-capped chickadee.  The range of the two birds overlaps in the Ohio Valley, and in this area, the two species may intermingle and hybridize.  This complicates a positive identification of species in this area. If one sees a chickadee south of the Mason Dixon Line it is usually the Carolina chickadee.

The other eastern chickadee is the Boreal Chickadee (Poecile hudsonica) of the far north.  As its Latin name implies, it ranges up to Hudson Bay, from Newfoundland in the east to Alaska in the west.  It is sometimes seen in the higher mountains of the Adirondacks, and extreme northern New England. Its color is browner with a grayer back.  The call is hoarse with a more nasal quality.

The fourth member of the Paridae Family in the east is not a chickadee, but the tufted titmouse.  This non-descript bird is grayish-brown above, with chestnut sides, and is white to gray underneath.  While about the same size, It is distinctly different from the chickadees with a crested head similar to that of a cardinal or blue jay.

There are four varieties of the family in Western North America. The mountain chickadee (Poecile gambeli) lives in the interior mountains of British Columbia into California and the southwestern Rockies.  The chestnut-backed chickadee (Poecile rufescens) resides in the coastal mountains of California to Alaska, and interior portions of Washington State and British Columbia. Extending from a narrow strip of western Mexico into extreme southern Arizona is the Mexican chickadee.  The range of the gray-headed chickadee (Poecile cincta)  is limited to northern Alaska into the Yukon and Northwest Territories of Canada.

The Black-Capped Chickadee

Poecile atricapilla is the Latin name for the chickadee common in the northeastern U.S.  Back in the thirties it was known as the common chickadee, sometimes called the Eastern chickadee, or black-capped titmouse.  Typically it is about 4  1/2 to 5  3/4 inches long with a rather long tail. The head is a deep black, its shoulders olive gray, with buff near the tail.  The throat and chin are also black, while sides of the head are white.  Its wings and tail are dusky slate, and tail feathers are edged with grayish white.  Underneath, it is white, tinged with buff along the sides.  The iris is brown. The range is most of the northeastern U.S. to a southern range of about 40 degrees latitude.

From August to February, black-capped chickadees travel in loose flocks through a territory of roughly 12 to 20 acres. Starting in March, the flock breaks into isolated pairs for mating, with a breeding territory of about 1/2 an acre to ten acres.

Nesting and Young

Wing fluttering is a main courtship sign at breeding time.  The female and male both excavate for the nest, while the female does most of the actual nest building.  Generally 4 to 15 feet off the ground, it is constructed of leaves, moss & grasses, lined with small animal fur, hair, feathers, and insect cocoons.   This is often built in natural cavities left by woodpeckers, or tree stumps, especially of birch.  They sometimes use snags or nest boxes.

There are usually 6 to 8 eggs.  These are white with reddish-brown flecks.  These roughly 1/2 inch sized eggs are incubated by both sexes for 11 to 16 days.  The young are totally helpless at birth, or altricial.  Both parents feed the young for 14 to 18 days.  Then they are driven off to fend for themselves. There is often a second brood.  During the time of incubation and before the young fledge, the male aggressively defends the nest with short chases of intruders and occasional fights.

Natural Foods and Birdfeeders

Insects compose about 2/3 of the diet with larvae, chrysalids, and eggs of moths in winter as well as small seeds.  Once spring comes, snout beetles or weevils are taken, as well as tent caterpillar eggs.  Other foods include spiders year round, wild fruit pulp in summer, and seeds of birch, poison ivy, butternuts and bayberries.  They especially like sunflower seeds.  This is sure to attract them to feeders in winter, where they take suet as well.

Calls and Songs

The song of the black-capped-chickadee is a slightly nasal “chick-a-dee-dee-dee,” though sometimes the first two syllables are left off.  There is also a two note (occasionally three note) mournful clear whistle that descends a full tone or slightly more.  Sometimes, this active bird is heard with no clear song, but just nasal twittering notes.


Chickadees travel in small groups from late summer to spring, often with titmice and nuthatches. This mixed flock is rarely more than 5 or 6 birds at my urban feeders, though there may be 10 to 20 in more suburban or wooded areas. In late summer when the flocks are first forming, they may bring attention with their activity to other less conspicuous birds on migration that may be traveling with their group temporarily.  Chickadees themselves do not generally migrate, though in cold or snowy winters may shift more to the southern parts of their range.

Black capped chickadees are seldom still.  They are often seen moving upside down or at strange angles on tree branches, looking for spiders or caterpillar eggs.  They are not good climbers like nuthatches or woodpeckers.  At feeders, they often come quickly, stay just a few seconds to furtively take a seed, then fly off to a more sheltered area to consume it or sometimes store it for later.

A tame and almost fearless bird, it is possible to train them to take seeds off a windowsill or even from the hand.  When filling feeders, if they are already present, they may allow a very close approach to within a few feet.  Invariably, when the feeders go up in late fall, the black-capped chickadee is the first bird to find this new source of food, and other birds follow behind within a day or two.

If you have a winter-feeding station, include sunflower seeds and suet in your mix of foods.  This is sure to attract black-capped chickadees with the antics of this active and acrobatic bird sure to provide many hours of enjoyment.


Alsop, Fred J. III.  Smithsonian Handbooks: Birds of North America, New York:  DK Publishing, 2001.

Mahnken, Jan.  The Backyard Bird-Lovers Guide , Storey Communications, 1998 ISBN 0-87596-804-X

Pearson, T. Gilbert, Editor.  Birds of America, 1936, Doubleday & Company.

Peterson, Roger Tory.  A Field Guide to the Birds, 1980.  (Eastern North America)

Proctor, Noble, PhD.  Song Birds: How to Attract Them and Identify Their Songs.

Rodale Press, Emmaus, Pennsylvania, 1988.

Internet Resources (Note:  The Cornell Lab of Ornithology also leads to audio clips of the birds in question)

Great Backyard Bird Count 2010 Results: Map of Black Capped Chickadee


Great Backyard Bird Count 2010 Results: Map of Carolina Chickadee


Great Backyard Bird Count 2010 Results: Map of Boreal Chickadee


Black-Capped Chickadee, All About Birds:  Cornell Lab of Ornithology


Carolina Chickadee, All About Birds:  Cornell Lab of Ornithology


Boreal Chickadee, All About Birds:  Cornell Lab of Ornithology


Great Blue Heron

12 March 2010
Published in Birds

Originally published on www.critters360.com

The great blue heron is the most widespread and best-known heron in North America.  It is most commonly seen wading in wetlands. When observed standing perfectly motionless for several minutes with long neck outstretched, or stealthily walking in shallow water, one has to admire its patient hunting habits.  An iconic symbol of healthy wetlands, the great blue heron is the largest member of its family in North America.

Appearance and Coloration

This large bird may stand about four feet tall, with an average length of 42 to 52 inches.  With a wingspan of 5 to 6 feet, its wing beats are slow and regular.  It rarely soars or glides except just prior to landing in shallow water or in a tree or large shrub.  This heron is seen in flight almost anywhere, especially near dawn and dusk, as its favorite feeding areas are often miles away from its nest.  Shortly before sunset from April to October, it is frequently seen flying over my urban neighborhood on its way from the Mohawk River to nesting areas several miles away

As it flies, the heron pulls its head back towards its body forming an S with its neck.  The long legs extend straight out from its short tail.  Because of its size and deliberate wing beats, it is easily recognizable in flight.

This graceful bird with the Latin name of Arde herodius belongs to the Family Ardeidae.  There are 59 species of this family of long legged wading birds world wide, 12 of which occur in eastern North America.  Common names include crane and blue crane.

In general, the great blue heron appears gray to pale blue in coloration.  There is white on the forehead and top of the head, with black on the sides of the crown and crest.  There are gray to black plumes extending from the back of the head. The neck is pale gray.  There is usually a black patch at the shoulders, with a slate-bluish cast to its upper body and tail.  The abdomen is black and white with some rufous streaks. The long, dagger shaped bill is generally an orange-yellow, with dark streaks at the edges.  Its eye is usually a bright chrome yellow. 

During courtship and early breeding season, the great blue heron undergoes several changes in coloration.  The lores, a facial area between the bill and the eyes, are normally gray-green; they change to blue at this time.  The plumes forming a crest from the back of the head become more pronounced. The heron’s legs change color as well, from a dusky black to a dark shade of salmon.

The young differ in coloration from the adult.  They have no lengthened feathers or crest on the head, and the crown is largely black.  The body is more of a brownish slate above with rufous edges, and somewhat ashy gray on the abdomen.

Range of the Great Blue Heron

This large heron extends in the summer over much of the lower 48 states into the southern third of Canada and along the Alaskan coast.  In winter, it contracts its range to the southern half of the U.S. and into the West Indies, Panama, and Venezuela.  As a water loving bird, it is generally absent from dry desert areas and the cold of the far north.

Nesting Habits and Raising Young

The great blue heron is a solitary bird, especially when hunting.  However, it usually nests in colonies of a few dozen up to 150 or more nests. These may be mixed with nests of other species of herons.  The female usually constructs the large nest with materials gathered by the male.  The nest is usually made with sticks, twigs, and dry grasses, lined with leaves and perhaps pine needles.  Usually the nest is 20 to 60 feet off the ground or water in tall trees, though occasionally in lower shrubs.  As they often nest in the same area for many years, as existing nests are added to, they can become very large.  On the west coast blue herons may nest on rocky cliffs

At two day intervals, the female lays two to seven pale blue or bluish green oval eggs, about 2 and 1/2 inches in size.  The first bird hatched is often much larger than those that hatch later, and thus much more likely to survive the first year, especially if food is scarce. 

The incubation is by both sexes, lasting about 25 to 30 days.  The young are semi-altricial, that is, not totally helpless.  They remain in the nest for about 60 to 90 days.  One brood is usual in their northern range, while in southern areas there may be two broods.

Both parents feed the young birds. This is accomplished mainly by regurgitation from the adult.  At first, the adult will place the regurgitated food right in the young’s open mouth.  As they grow larger, the young will start to actively take it from the adult. In the latest stages prior to fledging, the adult may leave a whole speared fish for the young to feed on while they resume hunting.

The Utica Marsh and the Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge

Most of my heron observations have been at the Utica Marsh.  This is a 213-acre wetland straddling the Mohawk River and the New York State Barge Canal, not far from downtown Utica, New York.  The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) is responsible for management of this refuge.

The Utica Marsh is bisected by a railroad track on a ridge several feet above water level.  There is also a deck and an observation tower from which one can view wide sections of marsh with some elevation.  From this tower one may sometimes observe four or five herons at a time, feeding alone in various sections of the marsh, well separated from each other.

Another location to watch herons and many other marsh birds is at Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge (NWR).  This refuge of over 8,000 acres is on the northern end of Cayuga Lake near Seneca Falls, New York. It is one refuge of an extensive network of NWR sites around the country.  At this wildlife management area is a gravel road where in places one can drive slowly at the edge of reed beds for much closer views of herons than is usually possible on foot.

Hunting and Feeding Habits

Great Blue Herons most commonly feed in wetlands.  Their long legs are ideal for wading in water a few inches to a couple of feet deep.  In this environment their diet consists mostly of frogs, craw-fish, snails, salamanders, and fish.  They also eat grasshoppers, and occasionally turtles, and smaller birds.

Sometimes they may be found in drier fields, where ground squirrels, mice and toads are taken as food. Most  heron species digest their food rapidly, and they tend to gorge themselves when food is readily available.

Except at nesting colony sites, the great blue heron is largely solitary, especially in its hunting and feeding habits. Quite often only one bird is seen.  If more than one bird is observed, they are usually several dozen yards apart, feeding in separate marsh pools divided by hillocks of large reeds or stands of shrubs. 

This heron is often seen standing perfectly still for long periods of time with its neck outstretched vertically into the air.   Then ever so slowly, the neck will contract towards the body into a curved S.  With lightening speed, the bill darts into the water, and a frog or fish is caught.  If the prey is large, it is often speared.  The bird instinctively knows the extent of its reach, and seldom misses its mark.

At other times, the bird may walk ever so slowly carefully moving one foot, raising it out of the water, and entering the water again without leaving a ripple.  This stealthy walk may cover only a few feet over several minutes.  There may then be a short pause before the neck quickly stretches out towards its prey.

Smaller prey are immediately swallowed whole.  Larger fish are speared, and if especially active, stabbed several times while on the ground.  Then the prey is tossed in the air and swallowed whole.  Sometimes one is fortunate enough to see the lump of a large frog or fish slide ever so slowly down the heron’s outstretched neck with the bill pointed straight upwards.  They have been known to choke to death trying to swallow prey that is too large.

Except when in the colony of nesting birds where croaking and squawking of many birds may be raucous, the great blue heron is mostly silent. It has no real song worthy of the name.  It is quite reclusive and skittish around humans, and easily spooked.  Chances are that when a person wanders along the wooded edge of a suitable feeding habitat, the bird will fly off with a loud, deep, very unmusical squawk or croak, often before being observed visually. Due to its sensitivity to intruders, the great blue heron is not easy to observe with any regularity at close range.  It can be seen in flight, however, almost anywhere, especially at dawn and dusk.

The best places to watch most herons and waterfowl for any length of time is from an observation deck or tower at the edge of wetlands. Unless one is very quiet and stealthy, like the bird itself when in its hunting mode, one is lucky to get a close view.  Birds seen from the edge of a wetland are generally 100 to 300 yards away. Binoculars or a spotting scope are necessary to make detailed observations.

At Montezuma NWR, one can drive very slowly, and park momentarily in places perhaps 30 yards away from an edging of reeds, and see these magnificent birds at close range as they feed at the edge of a marsh near the road.  The birds have become accustomed to slow moving cars and are not so easily spooked.

If one goes to a suitable habitat of wetlands or open marsh, take a good set of binoculars or a spotting scope.  One will find that with a little patience this large member of the heron family is fascinating to watch.


Alsop, Fred J. III.  Smithsonian Handbooks: Birds of North America, New York:  DK Publishing, 2001.

Eastman, Whitney and Karen, et. al.   The Treasury of Birds.  Octopus Books, London, 1972. ISBN 7064 0013 5         

Gilliard, Thomas E.  Living Birds of the World.  Doubleday and Company, Garden City, NY  1967

Netherton, John.  At the Water’s Edge:  Wading Birds if North Aneruca.  Voyageur Press, Inc., Still Water, MN, 1994.   ISBN  0-89658-233-7

Pearson, T. Gilbert, Editor.  Birds of America, 1936, Doubleday & Company.

Peterson, Roger Tory, and the Editors of Life.  Life Nature Library : The Birds.  Time, Inc. NY 1963

Peterson, Roger Tory.  A Field Guide to the Birds, 1980.  (Eastern North America)

Web Resources

Great Backyard Bird Count 2010 Results: Map of Great Blue Heron (February 2010)


About Us

The Mohawk Valley Almanac provides a wide variety of information on fairs and festivals, wildlife, and the natural world in this historic region of central New York State. Many annual regional fairs and festivals celebrate the seasons, agriculture, historical and religious holidays, the arts, sports, and ethnic heritage of the diverse population. The natural world of birds and other wildlife, weather, astronomy, and gardening in a climate with cold and snowy winters are also featured.

We hope to make the Mohawk Valley Almanac a gateway to this area of Central New York for anyone interested in the natural world and regional festivals of the greater Mohawk Valley. Come back and visit often for new information. Contact us on the link below for further information or to subscribe to our monthly almanac newsletter.

Connect With Us