You ask, I'll answer here.


This question is from John in Huntington, Vermont who sent me an email & some curious photos.

Greetings from Huntington! I've got a little female downy woodpecker who's been hanging out on a birch tree next to our suet feeder. She'll come over and snack a bit, then bop back to the tree, tuck her head under her wing, and take a little nap. She's been doing this for a couple of days. I was wondering if this is normal behavior?

Photo by John Hadden at johnhaddenphotography.com

Photo by John Hadden at johnhaddenphotography.com

ANSWERS:

While it's pretty rare to sleep during the day and right out in the open, there is documentation in Birds of North America of them sleeping under a limb of a tree. She's smart to take a break near food though. 

A couple of thoughts...

...she might just be really cold! Birds don't actually tuck their beak under there wing, it's more down their back AND this behavior is not only for sleeping, it also helps conserve heat! Check out how puffed up her feathers are on the rest of her body, kind of like piloerection, aka 'goose bumps' that we get when we respond to cold. Puffing up allows the bird to capture warm air coming off their body in many little pockets between the feathers. 

...in case she is ill, you might consider washing your feeders before filling them up again. A 10 to 1 solution of water and bleach should do the trick of killing anything that could spread. 

...in case she's having a hard time finding a suitable place to sleep, here are some ideas on how to provide good sleeping spots for birds in your yard!

  • Plant evergreens, a great source of shelter in all seasons. Arborvitae shrubs and trees are a good alternative for yards that lack space for a full-sized conifer.
  • Build a brush pile from tree branches and twigs for shelter, the denser the better. In northern regions, snow accumulates on the pile, creating a “bird igloo.”
  • Leave nest boxes out at all seasons, since some birds will use them as nighttime roosts after the breeding season. Or buil a winter roosting box. Try this pattern: http://bit.ly/Cornell_RoostBox

Thanks for sharing your pictures! 

You can find more of John's photos at johnhaddenphotography.com. And, he's got a cool weather blog too at East Street Weather Blog


This question is from Victor who heard the Crows in Vermont interview on VPR's Vermont Edition on November 25th.

I live in the midst of several families of ravens that make their homes high in the old pines and spruces on the eastern flank of the Worcester chain of the Green Mountains. They soar widely and always signal my comings and goings in the woods around my house. But I don't think I have ever seem them congregate the way crows do. I have seen thousands of crows congregating seasonally in the high pines around the Vermont College campus where I spent about twenty-five years of my professional life. So my question: What is the difference between crows and ravens other than size? Further, do ravens form murders at all? Or are they more solitary (but equally smart and social) than crows. I'm a fan of Berd Heinrich's published work on ravens but I don't think he speaks about this particular question.

ANSWERS:

Crows vs. Ravens is actually a tricky id! Size is definitely part of it, but hard to gauge when the birds aren't next to each other. Ravens tend to have a larger, more robust bill than crows and sometimes you can look for a wedge shaped tail to tell you that you've got a raven. Their calls are different too! Crows tend to have higher, sharper, 'caw'-like sound, whereas, raven's have a deeper tone of a series of 'roks'.

Here's a great summary of their differences from eBird:  http://bit.ly/CrowsVSRavens

When it comes to forming murders, ravens tend to form smaller flocks in the hundreds vs. the thousands. Ravens will follow carnivorous mammals during the winter months to take advantage of carcasses they leave behind as a main food source. So, small murders of raven will form and often stay close to kill sites. While I don't recall Bernd Heinrich's book Mind of the Raven mentioning winter roosting, Heinrich has studied this phenomenon in ravens! You can find the paper here: http://bit.ly/Heinrich_Raven_Roost


The following questions were questions that did not make it on air for Vermont Edition's Fall Bird Show on October 20th, 2015.

From Moretown Elementary School students: 

  1. Why do bird form murmurations? 
  2. Why do osprey have hooked beaks?
  3. Why do feathers have different colors and patterns?

ANSWERS: 

  1. For the most part, murmurations take shape in large flocks of birds in response to an aerial predator like a raptor. The large flock is then responding to that predator in order to survive. It's actually easier to survive with all your bird buddies around you because it's less likely you'll get singled out as an individual. The really cool thing about murmurations is that they've been studied by super-science geeks called computational physicists who use computer modeling to try to understand how the birds are seemingly able to move in sync. What they've discovered is something called a "scale-free correlation", which in turn basically means that they move as one. There's no one bird in charge of being the leader! One study showed that birds in these flocks pay very close attention to the seven other birds closest to them. And, apparently, when you apply that behavior to the whole flock, birds are very successful at not crashing into one another and moving in those beautiful synchronized flocks known as murmurations. More at this link: http://bit.ly/BirdMurmurations
  2. Bird beaks are a big fat clue to what the bird eats. Raptors like osprey are predators and eat flesh, in this case the flesh of fish. Check out your teeth. What do you use to bite into a juicy hamburger? Mainly, your canine teeth, those sharp pointy ones, do the job of ripping and tearing for you. Birds don't have teeth, so the hooked beak on the osprey helps it to tear up its prey into "beak-sized" pieces for consumption! More here: http://bit.ly/BeakShapes
  3. Bird feather color and pattern serve two purposes; to help the bird blend into its surroundings and then, kinda just the opposite, to attract a mate during breeding season. Birds molt once or twice a year, which means they replace their old feathers with new ones. Most of the small songbirds have what is called a complete molt in the fall and often this is when their coloration becomes more drab. Check out this link with animation of a goldfinch changing to winter plummage: http://bit.ly/Plummage


From Greg in Brattleboro, VT:

Greg sent this picture and wanted to know what kind of bird this is. 

ANSWER:

So, when I look at this bird I know right away that it's some kind of raptor or bird of prey. I'm going to look then at the head, chest and tail from some more clues. In the photo on the right, the cap on the head is a slate gray. The back of the neck is lighter in color. Tail is strongly barred and has a trailing edge in white. Relatively short legs and feet are yellow. The photo on the right shows the rusty color on the body of the bird, white undertail coverts and again the barring on the tail with a rounded trailing edge of white. This is one of those tricky ids - is it a Cooper's Hawk or a Sharp-shinned Hawk. They are very similar but some of the features I italicized give me the sense that this is a Cooper's Hawk. What do you think? Try this set of comparisons to help figure out the tricky id yourself: http://bit.ly/sharpievscoopers

Promised on the Vermont Edition Bird Show on October 20th :

Holiday gifts for bird nerds!

ANSWER, CLICK BELOW: