Natural History Notes on the Birds

Songbirds Two

Shrike through Gnatcatcher

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About the categories

Name

Common name

Food

The main food category.

Feeding Techniques

How it acquires its food.

Habitat

What kind of area does the bird live?

Plumage

Is there similarity between the male and the female, between winter and spring, young and adult, or are there variations in the plumage amongst the species.

Distribution

Approximately where it is found in the United States.

Breeding

Unique aspects on how the species breeds.

About the Notes from A.C. Bent

Special notes on the status or natural history of this bird.

Notes from A. C. Bent

Selections from the Life Histories of North American Birds, edited by A. C. Bent.

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Name

Loggerhead Shrike
Lesson Plan

Food

Insects, small mammals, reptiles, and birds

Feeding Techniques

Hunts from a perch; scientific name refers to their habit of hanging the food that they catch on a thorn as a butcher hangs meat.

Habitat

Open brushy field; edge habitat

Plumage

Male and female have the same plumage

Distribution

Throughout most of the US; scarce in the northeast

Breeding

Nest is built in a shrub or small tree.

About the Notes from A.C. Bent

Linnaeus, who is mentioned below, was a Swedish naturalist who developed the binomial naming of animal and plant species. He lived between 1707 and 1778. For more information about him go to Carl Linnaeus

French mockingbird is a name that was given to the Loggerhead Shrike in the area around Charleston, South Carolina.

Notes from A.C. Bent

Among the earliest ornithological memories of the writer is the search for nests of the "French mockingbird" amid the myrtle bushes of the back beach of Sullivans Island, near Charleston, S. C. On this narrow barrier of sea sand, which has figured so largely in history since the days when Sir Peter Parker's fleet was turned away by the batteries of palmetto-logged Fort Moultrie, many Low Country bird records have helped make ornithological fame locally. It was a happy hunting ground for several kindred spirits of schoolboy days, and birds' eggs were mediums of exchange for various and sundry other specimens of beach and marsh. In few other areas since has the writer ever found the loggerhead shrike such a characteristic bird and will always associate it with this spot for it was among the first half dozen species of his "life list." Though having shown it to many others for their "first" since, long acquaintance with it has not dimmed interest in its attractive way of life.

Misunderstood and rather frowned upon by the uninformed, the loggerhead is one of the decidedly beneficial and valuable birds of its range and its activities are a natural asset of no mean proportions. As its name implies, it was described from Louisiana, by Linnaeus, but the bird is no more typical of that State than many other parts of its habitat.

Birds in the Classroom
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Name

Northern Shrike
Lesson Plan

Food

Insects, small mammals, reptiles, and birds

Feeding Techniques

Hunts from a perch; scientific name refers to their habit of hanging the food that they catch on a thorn as a butcher hangs meat.

Habitat

Open brushy field; edge habitat

Plumage

Male and female have the same plumage

Distribution

Northern part of the country.

Breeding

About the Notes from A.C. Bent

Notes from A.C. Bent

Food: Dr. Sylvester D. Judd (1898) writes of the food of the northern shrike: "During its winter sojourn it renders a threefold service by killing grasshoppers, English sparrows, and mice. The birds and mice together amount to 60 percent, and insects to 40 percent, of the food from October to April. Grasshoppers constitute one-fourth of the food, and are equal to twice the combined amounts of beetles and caterpillars. * * * In the stomachs of the 67 butcherbirds examined 28 species of seed-eating birds were found. Of these 3 were tree sparrows, 5 juncos, and 7 English sparrows; the others could not be determined with certainty."

In the early days of the English sparrow in this country, while they were being protected, northern shrikes became so abundant on Boston Common that men were employed to shoot them, lest they destroy the sparrows. In this connection, Dr. Judd remarks: "It is to be hoped that in other cities this enemy of the sparrow will be protected instead of persecuted. If there were 6 butcherbirds in each of 20 New England cities, and each butcherbird killed 1 sparrow a day for the three winter months, the result would be a removal of 10,800 sparrows. Since two sparrows could raise under favorable conditions four broods of 5 each, the increase would be tenfold, so that those destroyed by the butcherbirds, if allowed to live, would have amounted at the end of the first year to 118,800, and at the end of the second year to 1,306,800 individuals."

In addition to the three named above, he lists the following birds that this shrike has been known to kill: Chickadee, snow bunting, downy woodpecker, vireo, kinglet, field sparrow, goldfinch, siskin, myrtle warbler, mourning dove, cardinal, longspur, and horned lark.

Among mammals, meadow mice (Microtus) seem to be the most frequent victims, but Judd also lists the white-footed mouse (Peromysails) and the harvest mouse (Reithrodontomys). He continues:

Carrion is sometimes eaten. Prof. F. E. L. Deal, while at Ames, Iowa, In January, 1880, saw a butcherbird fly over the brown frozen prairie to a carcass of a cow, where it lit on one of the ribs and greedily tore off shreds of the flesh.

Active insects are much more liable than sluggish ones to fall victims to the butcherbird, because objects which at rest can not he discriminated are instantly seen when moving. Thus it happens that flying grasshoppers and running beetles form a large proportion of the food of this bird. Grasshoppers and crickets (Orthoptera), which are eaten during every month from October to April, form 24 percent of the total volume of food, and for October and November together these Insect pests form more than half of the food. Compared with Orthoptera, the beetles (Coleoptera) eaten are of minor importance, amounting to only 6 percent of the food. More than half of these beetles belong to the family Carabidae, the members of which prey upon insect pests. Caterpillars were contained in one fifth of the stomachs examined, and during the months of January and February amount to 8 percent of the volume of the stomach contents. Dr. A. K. Fisher collected in March two stomachs that were full of caterpillars. Even the bristly Isabella caterpillar is eaten, an object apparently as edible as a chestnut bur. Cutworms were found in several instances, but moths were seldom met with. Ants, wasps, flies, and thousand legs are sometimes eaten, and spiders constitute 3 percent of the food; but bugs (Hemiptera) were not detected during our laboratory investigations, though a cicada supposed to have been impaled by a shrike was found by Mrs. Musick, at Mount Carmel, Mo. * * * The present Investigation shows that beneficial birds form less than one-fourth of the food of the butcherbird. It also shows that the butcherbird, in addition to being an enemy of mice, is a potent check on the English sparrow, and on several insect pests. One-fourth of its food is mice; another fourth grasshoppers; a third fourth consists of native sparrows and predaceous beetles and spiders, while the remainder is made up of English sparrows and species of insects, most of which are noxious.

The amount of insect food taken by the northern shrike, as stated above, seems surprising. The stomachs examined must have been taken largely in the southern extremes of its winter range, or in fall or spring, for the shrike would not be likely to find flying or crawling insects in New England or in the Northern States in the dead of winter; but grasshoppers are often available in New England in October, and even in some Novembers, and other insects in March.

Dr. Miller (1931) adds the following birds to the list mentioned above, as taken by the species, including both subspecies: Hairy woodpecker, phoebe, white-winged crossbill, redpoll, titmouse, bush tit, and robin. Charles B. Floyd (1928) adds song, white-throated, and fox sparrows and the starling to the list of victims and says:

Several reports are at hand of unsuccessful attempts to capture White-breasted Nuthatches, English Sparrows, Downy Woodpeckers, etc. In several cases where a Shrike pursued Nuthatches, the latter escaped capture by entering a hole in a tree or a nesting-box. The Downy Woodpecker often out-maneuvered its pursuer by constantly turning and dodging in the air rather than by flying away in an attempt to escape by speed, as do almost all the other small birds. Twice this winter I have personally watched a Shrike attempt to capture a Downy Woodpecker from above. Each time that the Shrike swooped to strike the bird, the Downy turned quickly in the air at a sharp angle, the Shrike overshooting its mark. It then turned with much more effort than the woodpecker, and again took up the pursuit. So long as they were in sight - and I saw the Shrike swoop a number of times - the Woodpecker continued on its way apparently unafraid, and dodged each attack with ease.

Several observers have seen shrikes chasing blue jays or found one of the jays impaled in the usual shrike fashion. Ora W. Knight (1908) adds the pine grosbeak to the list of the shrike's victims. William Brewster (1936) gives the following account of a shrike in pursuit of a brown creeper:

When I first saw him, he was in hot pursuit of one of the Brown Creepers and both birds were about over the middle of the river arid scarce a yard apart. The Creeper made straight for the big elm which stands at the eastern end of the bridge. When he reached it, the Shrike's bill was within six inches of his tail, but he nevertheless escaped; for an instant after the two birds doubled around behind the trunk the Shrike rose to the topmost spray of the elm, where he sat for a minute or more, gazing intently downward, evidently watching for the Creeper. The latter, no doubt, had flattened himself against the bark after the usual practice of his kind when badly frightened and he had the nerve and good sense to remain perfectly still for at least ten minutes. My eyes were no better than the Shrike's, for it was in vain that I scanned the trunk over and over with the greatest care. Feeling sure, however, that the Creeper was really there, I waited patiently until at the end of the period just named he began running up the trunk, starting at the very point where I had seen him disappear. It was one of the prettiest demonstrations of the effectiveness of protective coloration that I have ever witnessed.

In the same publication, he vividly describes the capture and killing of a field mouse:

As I watched a Shrike it flew from the topmost spray of a small maple into some alders and alighted on a horizontal stem about a foot above the level of surrounding snow but directly beneath; as I afterwards found, the snow had thawed quite down to the ground, leaving a trench about two feet deep by three or four inches wide, into which the Shrike, after peering intently for a moment, suddenly dropped with fluttering wings and wide opened tail.

Within a second or less it reappeared, dragging out a Field Mouse of the largest size. The moment It got the Mouse fairly out on the level surface of the snow it dropped it apparently to get a fresh hold (as nearly as I could make out it had held it up to this time by about the middle of the back). The Mouse, instead of attempting to regain its run way, as I expected it would do, instantly turned on its assailant and with surprising fierceness and agility sprang directly at its head many times in succession, actually driving it backward several feet although the Shrike faced its attacks with admirable steadiness and coolness and by a succession of vigorous and well aimed blows prevented the Mouse from closing in.

At length the Mouse seemed to lose heart and, turning, tried to escape. This sealed its fate for at the end of the second leap it was overtaken by the Shrike, who caught it by the back of the neck and began to worry it precisely as a Terrier worries a Rat, shaking it viciously from side to side, at the same time dragging It about over the snow which, as I could plainly see through my glass (I was standing within ten yards of the spot) was now freely stained with blood. I could also see the Shrike's mandible work with a vigorous, biting motion, especially when it stopped the shaking to rest for a moment. When It finally let go its hold, the Mouse was evidently dead.

After the shrike had carried off the mouse in its claws, partly eaten it and hung it in a fork, Mr. Brewster examined the mouse.

The Shrike had not touched any part of the body but the skin had been torn away from the entire neck and the muscles and other soft tissues were almost entirely gone from the shoulders and sternum to the base of the skull. The body was untouched and the skull showed no signs of injury, but the cheek muscles had been eaten pretty cleanly away as had also the entire throat with the tongue. Both eyes were whole and in their sockets. This examination confirmed the conviction which I formed while watching the Shrike and Mouse struggling together, viz, that the bird killed the Mouse partly by throttling: that is by choking and shaking it and partly (perhaps chiefly) by cutting open its neck on one side. No attempt was made to stun the Mouse by striking at its skull, such blows as I saw delivered being evidently intended merely to keep the Mouse at bay until the Shrike could close with it and get it by the neck as it finally did.

Mr. Brewster's close observation and careful description shows what is perhaps the shrike's usual method of killing rodents, and I can find very little evidence to the contrary, but Mr. Forbush (1929) says that John Muir "saw a shrike go down into a gopher hole and drive out half a dozen young gophers, and hovering over one after another as they ran, it killed them all by blows delivered from its powerful bill on the back of each one's head."

Dr. W. S. Strode (1889) tells the following story of a mouse-hunting shrike:

Not long since a young farmer invited me out to his field near town where he was husking shock corn, to see a 'Mouse Hawk," as he called it, catch mice. On coming to where he was at work I looked about for the Shrike but did not see it until he pointed to a tree two hundred yards away where it sat on the topmost twig. Pretty soon a mouse ran from the shock, when it came almost with the rapidity of an arrow, and seizing the mouse in its bill flew away with It to the woods across the river, but in a short time it was back again at Its perch on the tree where it did not remain long until another mouse ran out from the shock. In order to test the bird's boldness I pursued this mouse, but undaunted it flew almost between my feet and secured it, and apparently not liking Its hold it alighted a few rods away and hammered the mouse on the frozen ground, and then tossing it in the air caught it by the throat as it came dawn. He then again flew off to the woods. This proceeding the farmer assured me would be repeated many times in the course of the day, and that every mouse would be carried to the strip of woods just over the river. Subsequently a chopper told me that be had found a honey locust tree in this woods that had mice stuck all over it on the thorns.

The northern shrike has two principal methods of hunting, watchful waiting and active pursuit. The former method is the one usually employed, as in the above accounts, in securing mice; the bird perches patiently and motionless on some commanding tree, post, or wire, ready to pounce suddenly on its unsuspecting quarry; mice may be secured also by hovering over their runways in the fields and meadows. Grasshoppers, crickets, and other moving insects may be taken by watching for them, hovering over the fields, or by active pursuit on the ground, though I have not seen the latter method mentioned. But birds must be caught by active pursuit in the air or by chasing them through the trees and bushes; in the latter case the birds escape more often than they are caught by seeking the shelter of dense growth where the shrike is less adept in penetrating the thickets and dodging through the tangles of branches and twigs; cedars and other dense evergreens offer excellent havens of refuge for small birds. Small birds easily recognize the difference between a shrike and some other harmless bird, and immediately "freeze" in their tracks, or seek shelter in the nearest dense cover.

The shrike is a fairly swift flier, but is often not able to catch a smaller bird in a straightaway flight, especially if it resorts to dodging, at which the heavier bird is less adept. The shrike's usual method is to rise above its victim and dive down upon it, felling it to the ground with a stunning blow from its powerful beak, which often proves fatal by breaking the little bird's neck or its back. The shrike follows it to the ground immediately and, if necessary, kills the bird with a blow at the base of the skull or by biting through the vertebrae of the neck. Small birds often escape from such attacks by mounting higher and higher in the air, so that the shrike cannot get above them, and then suddenly darting downward into thick cover.

Having killed its bird, the shrike seizes it by the neck or shoulders in either its bill or its claws, or both, and flies away with it. Mr. Floyd (1928) made a number of inquiries on this point and received replies from 23 observers, 13 of whom reported that the prey is carried in the bill, I said in the claws, and 3 had seen both bill and claws used. By some one of these methods the bird is carried to the shrike's larder and impaled on a thorn or a sharp stub on some tree or bush, on the barb of a barbed-wire fence, or some other similar point; often the bird is hung by its neck in the acute angle of a fork in a branch or twig. Mice are hung up in the same way, to be immediately devoured or saved for future reference. The feet and claws of the shrike are evidently not strong enough to hold the quarry firmly while it is being torn apart, and some additional support is desirable; hence this characteristic habit. If the shrike is really hungry, its prey is gulped down almost entirely, flesh, feathers, for, and most of the bones, only a few of the larger feathers and bones being discarded. These indigestible portions of the food are disgorged later in the form of pellets, which are often found where shrikes have been feeding. Edwin A. Mason sends me the following description of a pellet that he took from a birdbanding trap where a shrike had been feeding on a junco: "Including a 10-mm. tip, or tail, the pellet was 40 mm. long and 10 mm. thick, consisting largely of matted feathers; scattered through the mass could be seen small pieces of bone, some identifiable as from the skull, one tarsus with foot attached, and one fragment of bone obviously from the main body skeletal structure." A very brief period of time had elapsed between the ingestion and the regurgitation of the indigestible material.

Mr. Floyd (1928) mentions "several pellets which measured from half an inch long to one and one-eighth inches. They averaged three eighths of an inch in diameter."

The northern shrike often kills more mice or birds than it can use at once, to many of which it never returns, and these are left to dry or rot. It has been known repeatedly to enter a bird-banding trap, kill all the birds in it, and not eat any of them. It sometimes dashes into a flock of redpolls or goldfinches, knocking out several of them, perhaps for the mere sport of killing them. Mr. Floyd (1928) writes: "A shrike that was seen to enter an electric-car barn in pursuit of an English Sparrow killed all the Sparrows in the barn, without thought of itself or pausing to eat any of its victims.~~ In captivity it will eat almost any kind of raw meat, will kill living birds and eat them, or eat dead birds or mice, though it seems to prefer mice to any other food. It will come to a feeding station to eat suet or hamburg steak, even when live birds are in the vicinity. Dr. Charles W. Townsend (1933) says: "On a warm March day I watched a Shrike fly-catching from the top of a tree. He pursued a large bee and missed it, but by a quick turn he caught it. * * * Once I saw two on March 9 hovering about the dry thatch-grass cast up on the beach, apparently picking up flies and spiders."

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Name

Common Crow
Lesson Plan

Food

Omnivorous; eats what is available

Feeding Techniques

Scavenger

Habitat

Found practically everywhere, especially where humans are.

Plumage

Male and female have the same plumage

Distribution

Throughout the US

Breeding

See A.C. Bent notes below

About the Notes from A.C. Bent

"recrudescence of the amatory instinct" basically means the reawakening of the desire to mate, which is being considered as some birds start singing again in the fall, months away from their breeding season.

Notes from A.C. Bent

Courtship in birds is expressed in three ways, namely in display, dance and song. * * * The courtship song of the Crow consists of a rattle, a quick succession of sharp notes which have been likened to the gritting of teeth. That this is a courtship song and not merely one of the bizarre expressions of this versatile bird, is shown conclusively by its association with courtship display and dance. Like all bird songs it is commonest in the spring, but may occasionally, as in the case with many bird songs, be heard at other times, especially in the fall of the year, when it is explained by the "autumnal recrudescence of the amatory instinct." Although the song is generally given from a perch, it may also he given on the wing, constituting a flight song, although there is no other difference in the character of the two songs.

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Name

Common Raven
Lesson Plan

Food

Omnivorous

Feeding Techniques

Will sometimes eat carrion

Habitat

Mountainous areas

Plumage

Male and female have the same plumage

Distribution

The western US

Breeding

Builds nest either on a cliff or the top of tall tree. May use the same site for a number of years.

About the Notes from A.C. Bent

The Common Raven is a very intriguing bird. Bent mentions their social structure below. Bernd Heinrich is one writer who has explored this bird in two books, Ravens in Winter and Mind of the Raven. More information can be obtained from the USGS page.

Notes from A.C. Bent

Behavior: The flight of the raven is so fully described under the following subspecies that it is hardly necessary to say anything further about it here.

It shows great mastery of the air in its majestic flight; it can stand almost motionless in the teeth of a gale, hover in the air like a sparrow hawk, or take advantage of the upward current on a steep hillside to rise and circle like a large hawk. Mr. Pearse tells me that when these birds were so abundant there, there was a regular flight line night and morning to and from their feeding grounds toward the mountains in the interior of Vancouver Island; they always passed over sometime before dark and would return in the morning at a corresponding period after sunrise. They never went by in a flock, but in small parties of eight or more, once as many as 40. They probably had some roost in the interior. Baird, Brewer, and Ridgway (1874) mention a roost discovered by Captain Blakiston near Fort Carlton; his "attention was first drawn to it by noticing that about sunset all the Ravens, from all quarters, were flying towards this point. Returning to the fort in the evening by that quarter, he found a clump of aspen trees, none of them more than twenty-five feet high, filled with Ravens, who, at his approach, took wing and flew round and round. He also noted the wonderful regularity with which they repaired to their roosting-place in the evening and left it again in the morning, by pairs, on their day's hunt. They always left in the morning, within a minute or two of the same time, earlier and earlier as the days grew longer, on cold or cloudy mornings a little later, usually just half an hour before sunrise"

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Name

Fish Crow
Lesson Plan

Food

Omnivorous

Feeding Techniques

Opportunistic

Habitat

Generally found around the coastal areas.

Plumage

Male and female have the same plumage

Distribution

Southeast, especially around the coast and other water areas

Breeding

About the Notes from A.C. Bent

Notes from A.C. Bent

Behavior: The fish crow does not differ materially in its habits from its better-known and larger relative. Its flight is similar, but it is quicker and more given to sailing, giving a few flaps of its wings and then sailing along for a short distance. It often poises in the air, hovering on rapidly beating wings, as it scans the ground or water beneath it for possible food. When a number of these crows are together, they often indulge in circling maneuvers, flying around in a confusing formation and then straightening out and proceeding on their way. Audubon (1842) writes:

While on the St. John's river in Florida, during the month of February, I saw flocks of Fish-Crows, consisting of several hundred individuals, sailing high in the air, somewhat in the manner of the Raven, when the whole appeared paired, for I could see that, although in such numbers, each pair moved distinctly apart. These aerial excursions would last for hours, during the calm of a fine morning, after which the whole would descend toward the water, to pursue their more usual avocations in all the sociability of their nature. When their fishing, which lasted about half an hour, was over, they would alight in flocks on the live oaks and other trees near the shores, and there keep up their gabbling, pluming themselves for hours. Once more they returned to their fishing-grounds, where they remained until about an hour from sunset, when they made for the interior, often proceeding thirty or forty miles, to roost together in the trees of the loblolly pine.

Fish crows are more sociable and more nearly gregarious in their habits at all seasons than are their northern relatives. They are seldom seen singly; they often nest in small colonies or groups; and wherever there is food to be obtained, especially in the vicinity of heron rookeries, they are always to he found in large numbers. But the biggest aggregations are to be found in the winter crow roasts. M. N. Gist, the warden at the Orange Lake rookery, estimated the winter crow population at that locality as 50,000, some of which may have been Florida crows, according to Mr. Howell (1932), who adds: "At Goose Creek, Wakulla County, in January, 1920, we observed long lines of Fish Crows every morning shortly after sunrise, flying westward along the beach from the direction of St. Marks Light. Several residents of the neighborhood told us that the birds roosted on beaten down tracts of rushes and drift in the marshes along the lower course of the St. Marks River. At Panasoffkee Lake, Crows are said to roost in large numbers in willow bushes in the marsh at the edge of the lake. At Lake Monroe, February 18, 1897, Worthington saw a flock of about 2,000 Fish Crows going to roost in rushes"

At North Island, S. C., early in December 1876, Maynard (1896) saw a great flight of fish crows that he thought were migrating. "They were evidently migrating for they came down the coast in an almost unbroken stream and continued to fly all day. I think I saw more pass the island than I ever saw before. It did not seem possible that there could have been so many of these Crows in existence for they could be counted by tens of thousands." This may have been merely a local movement, for the birds might have been seeking shelter from the hard, cold northeast wind that was blowing at the time; and fish crows are known to spend the winter much farther north.

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Name

Mexican Jay
Lesson Plan

Food

Omnivorous

Feeding Techniques

Opportunistic

Habitat

Desert

Plumage

Male and female have the same plumage

Distribution

Breeding

About the Notes from A.C. Bent

In Bent the Mexican Jay is referred to as the Arizona Jay with the scientific name of Aphelocoma sordida. It then became known as the Gray-breasted Jay until the current name (2004) of Mexican Jay.

Notes from A.C. Bent

This is the northernmost race of a Mexican species that extends its range into southern Arizona and southwestern New Mexico.

Behavior

The Arizona Jay is one of the most interesting birds of the family, unique in more ways than one. It is the only one of our jays that is markedly gregarious at all seasons, traveling about in scattered flocks of 6 to 20 or more birds; even in the breeding season it lives under semi-communal conditions, with mutual interest in all the nests in the community, helping to build and defend its neighbors' nests and young, shrieking loud invectives at the intruder, with much bobbing of heads and twitching of tails. All this is in marked contrast with the solitary and secretive habits of other jays during the breeding season. Mr. Swarth (1904) writes of its behavior:

Noisy, fussy and quarrelsome as all the jays are, I know of no other species which possesses to such an eminent degree the quality of prying into all manner of things which do not concern it, and of making such a nuisance of itself in general, on the slightest provocation or on none at all, as the Arizona Jay. *** A Red-tail or Swainson Hawk sitting on some limb, furnishes a little excitement until he removes to some quieter locality; but the crowning joy of al is to find some wretched fox or wild cat quietly ensconced on some broad, sheltered, oak limb. In such a case the one that finds the unhappy victim takes excitement on hand; and it is nothing unusual to see thirty or forty birds gathered about the object of their aversion, letting him know in no undecided terms just what their opinion of him is. It is a curious sight also to see a dozen or more gathered around some large snake, which they seem to fear nearly as much as they hate. On one occasion I had an excellent opportunity of watching about twenty Arizona Jays protesting at the presence of rather a large rattlesnake which was leisurely travelling down a dry watercourse which passed our camp. The jays seemed imbued with a wholesome fear of their wicked looking antagonist, and though they surrounded it, kept at respectful distance; they were not as noisy as they often are, but kept uttering low querulous cries, quite different from their usual outbursts. Some of the boldest lit a short distance from the snake and strutted before it in a most curious fashion, head and body held bolt upright, and the tail pressed down on the ground until about a third of it was dragging. *** Besides his vocal outbursts, the Arizona Jay makes when flying a curious fluttering noise with his wings, loud and distinct enough to be heard some little distance producing a curious effect; especially when, as often happens, a troop of them comes swooping down some steep hill side to the bottom of the canyon. Though wary and cunning to a marked degree, so that it is usually impossible to get within gun shot of them, still their curiosity leads to their destruction; for it is a simple matter for the collector, by hiding behind a bush and making any squeaking or hissing noise, to get all the specimens desired.

Bendire (1895) says: Their flight appears to me far less laborious than that of the California Jay. It reminds me of that of some of our Raptores, rising now high in the air, partly closing their wings, and then darting suddenly down, then up again, and repeating these movements for some time.

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Name

Western Scrub Jay
Lesson Plan

Food

Omnivorous

Feeding Techniques

Opportunistic

Habitat

Chaparral; oak forest

Plumage

Male and female have the same plumage

Distribution

Southwestern US - California to West Texas

Breeding

About the Notes from A.C. Bent

There are many accounts of interactions with the members of the Corvidae family of birds. The Corvidae family includes jays, crows, ravens, mapgies, and nutcrackers. All of these species demonstrate aspects of intelligence and a willingness to engage with humans.

Notes from A.C. Bent

This jay seems to have a sense of humor or a fondness for play. Joseph Mailliard (1904) gives an amusing account of the behavior of California jays with his cats, stealing their food and teasing them. While a jay is attempting to steal food from a cat, "each has the measure of the other, and while a cat is watching, it is rarely that a jay approaches within reach of its business end, though it will do all it can to make the cat jump at it, or at least turn away. Grimalkin has learned to keep her tail well curled up when feeding, as a favorite trick of the jay is to give a vigorous peck at any extended tail and, when the cat turns to retaliate, to jump for the prize and make off with shrieks of exultation. To find a cat napping, with its tail partially extended is absolute joy to one of these birds, which will approach cautiously from the rear, cock its head on one side and eye that tail until it can no longer resist the temptation, and, finally after hopping about a few times most carefully and noiselessly, Mr. (or Mrs.) Jay will give the poor tail a vicious peck and then fly, screeching with joy, to the nearest bush"

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Name

Green Jay
Lesson Plan

Food

Omnivorous

Feeding Techniques

Scavenger

Habitat

Brushy woods

Plumage

Male and female have the same plumage

Distribution

In the US it is only found in the very south tip of Texas

Breeding

About the Notes from A.C. Bent

Throughout Bent's life histories there is the constant concern towards the loss of habitat. He and his fellow writers are aware that the land is being rapidly carved up. Most of these writings were done more than 60 years ago.

Texas Kingfisher is a former name for the Green Kingfisher.

Derby Flycatcher is a former name for Great Kiskadee.

Notes from A.C. Bent

This brilliantly colored jay brings to that favored region of the lower Rio Grande Valley in Texas a touch of tropical color that adds much to the many thrills one feels as he meets for the first time the many new forms of Mexican bird life to be found only in that unique region.

As I sat on a log near the edge of a stream in a dense forest along one of the resacas near Brownsville, I caught my first glimpse of a green jay, a flash of green, yellow, and blue, as it flitted through the thick underbrush and the trees above me. In spite of its brilliant colors it was surprisingly inconspicuous among the lights and shades of the thick foliage. I had just been admiring the dainty little Texas kingfisher that flew down the stream and perched on a fallen snag, had been lulled almost to sleep by the constant cooing of the many whitewinged doves, and awakened again by the loud calls of the gaudy Derby flycatcher. The curious chachalaca and the red-billed pigeon had their nests in the vicinity, and there were a host of other interesting birds all about me, but the green jay was the gem of the forest.

I am wondering how much longer this bird paradise will last, for I have read that huge tractors have been uprooting the forest trees, clearing up the chaparral, and plowing up the rich land to make room for the rapidly growing citrus orchards and other expanding agricultural interests. Thus will soon disappear the only chance we have of preserving on United States soil this unique fauna and flora; and all these interesting birds will have to retreat across the Mexican border, leaving our fauna that much poorer.

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Name

Steller's Jay
Lesson Plan

Food

Omnivorous

Feeding Techniques

Scavenger; forages in trees and on the ground

Habitat

Coniferous forest habitat

Plumage

Male and female have the same plumage

Distribution

Western US

Breeding

Builds large nest in a tree

About the Notes from A.C. Bent

Notes from A.C. Bent

Alfred M. Bailey (1927) writes: 

They are robbers of the first order, and steal anything edible about camp. I do not know whether we are able to give birds credit for a sense of humor, but if we do, then the Jays surely must come in for first place. I have watched a pair of these fellows tease a spaniel. They would alight in a path, only to be chased away by the dog, and they kept returning so often as to completely exhaust him; then, when the dog refused to chase them longer, they would alight over his head and talk to him,: undoubtedly they were cursing him, until he finally got up and walked away. The same performance was carried on daily. This species is not particularly in favor among hunters, for when one is quietly crossing a muskeg in the hope of jumping a deer, it is the usual thing to have a couple of Jays open a serenade, and then keep just ahead of the hunter, talking all the time.

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Name

Florida Scrub Jay
Lesson Plan

Food

See below; has a wide choice of food items

Feeding Techniques

Habitat

Scrub area

Plumage

Male and female have the same plumage

Distribution

Central Florida

Breeding

About the Notes from A.C. Bent

Notes from A.C. Bent

Food: The Florida jay maintains the family tradition for a rather wide choice of food, deserving the term omnivorous, but leaning toward selections of animal matter to an extent of somewhat more than 60 percent, The tendency of this bird to become familiar with humanity and accept its offerings leads to the inclusion of many items that would not otherwise appear, notably such food as bread, cake, and peanuts, which are invariably accepted with apparent avidity. Any such food, however, is highly artificial in nature and should not enter strictly into any summary of normal consumption. So strongly has the bird become entrenched in many parts of its range as a semi-domestic species that these items are mentioned because of their frequent offering and equally accepted status.

Dr. Clarence Cottam, of the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service, has kindly furnished me with a detailed account of the stomach findings of 16 specimens of coerulescens taken in January, March, April, May, and September. The conclusions from this study reveal that the food is: "Animal matter 60.63 percent. plant matter 39.37 percent. gravel 6.38 percent, trace of feathers." The breakdown of the above is worthy of note. Though the exact percentages are not given, the findings include the remains of grasshoppers, locusts, crickets, termites, burrower-bugs, squash bugs, leafhoppers, earwigs, beetles, weevils, butterflies, moths, caterpillars, cutworms, bees, wasps, ants, anglewings, flies, millipeds, and centipedes. Also included were spiders, scorpions, ticks, mites, mollusks, snails, turtles, frogs, and lizards. Vegetable matter was represented by wheat (Triticum), crowfoot grass (Dactyloctenium aegyptium), acorns (Quercus), purslane (Portulaca), milkwort (Polygala), huckleberry (Gaylussacia), blueberry, cranberry (Vaccinium), and fogfruit (Lip pia). Portions of vegetable debris and indeterminate matter (mast?) and wood pulp were also present.

Audubon (1842) states that the seeds of the saw palmetto are a favorite food, so much so, indeed, that "no sooner have the seeds of that plant become black, or fully ripe, than the Florida jay makes them almost its sole food for a time." lie adds that the method of feeding is like that of the blue jay, for coerulescens "secures its food between its feet, and breaks it into pieces before swallowing it, particularly the acorns of the live oak, and the snails which it picks up among the sword palmetto." Nuttall (1832) also gives the seeds of the saw palmetto as being eaten "largely"

Bendire (1895) adds another item in his summary of the food as "offal." He also mentions wood ticks specifically, as does Maynard (1896), the latter stating that "upon examining the contents of its stomach, found that it was filled with ticks or jiggers which infest the skin of all quadrupeds in this section of Florida." These references to ticks substantiate, without saying so, of course, the observations of N. B. Moore on the habit of this jay of alighting on the backs of cattle and securing ticks in that manner. "Jigger" is the universal name of the redbug in the southeast, an even worst pest than tics in many ways.

Another food habit of this jay, not hitherto mentioned and something of an indictment against the bird, is its fondness for the eggs and young of other birds, and even of poultry. Just how much this is indulged in does not seem clear, but there is certainly abundant evidence that predation of the sort occurs. Bendire (1895) states that this jay is "charged with being very destructive" in this way. A writer whose name I am unable to determine, but whose initials are C. S. C., writing in the Chicago Field, says that they "eat and drink with poultry, having an eye on eggs and young chickens." M. M. Green (1889) states: "Stomachs of two shot contained insect food. The birds' bills were smeared with yolk of eggs. Several people told me that the jays were nest robbers." Nuttall (1832) notes that it "destroys the eggs and young of small birds, despatching the latter by repeated blows on the head"

Grimes (MS.) says: "I know they like crickets for I saw a male pass up four, one after the other, to his sitting mate. * * * In the fall and winter they feed to a large extent on the little acorns of Chapman's oak"

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Name

Blue Jay
Lesson Plan

Food

Omnivorous

Feeding Techniques

Scavenger; forages in trees and on the ground

Habitat

City parks, suburbia, parks

Plumage

Male and female have the same plumage

Distribution

Eastern United States

Breeding

About the Notes from A.C. Bent

Notes from A.C. Bent

Nesting: Bendire (1895), in his excellent account of the blue jay, says: "It prefers mixed woods to live in, especially oak and beech woods, but for nesting sites dense coniferous thickets are generally preferred; oaks, elms, hickories, and various fruit trees, thorn bushes, and shrubbery overrun with vines are also used, the nests being placed in various situations, sometimes in a crotch or close to the main trunk, or on the extremity of a horizontal limb, among the outer branches. They are placed at distances from the ground varying from 5 to 50 feet, but usually below 20 feet. * * * I believe but one brood is usually reared in a season, but in the South they may occasionally raise two"

Describing typical nests, he says: "The nests are generally well hidden, and are rather bulky but compactly built structures, averaging from 7 to 8 inches in outer diameter by 4 to 4 1/2 inches in depth; the inner cup measures about 3 to 4 inches in diameter by 2 inches in depth. Outwardly they are composed of small twigs (thorny ones being preferred), bark, moss, lichens, paper, rags, strings, wool, leaves, and dry grasses, the various materials being well incorporated and sometimes cemented together with mud, but not always; the lining is usually composed exclusively of fine rootlets. Occasionally the Blue Jay will take the nest of another species by force"

John R. Cruttenden writes to Mr. Bent from Illinois: "A peculiar habit of this bird is to line its nest with a piece of cloth or waste paper. This is true in the majority of nests placed near dwellings or in the city, undoubtedly because of the more abundant supply of materials in the city, although the habit is not unusual in nests situated away from man. Henry Mousley (1916) reports: "Evidently the Blue Jay betakes itself to very secluded spots during the breeding season, as I have only succeeded so far in finding one nest, in May of the present year (1915), and had never seen the bird before during the months of June, July and August." Mr. Mousley is speaking here of his experience in Hatley, Quebec. Farther to the south, in New England and the Middle Atlantic States, however, the jay commonly breeds in thickly settled regions, often near houses, as the following observations show.

Frederic H. Kennard (1898) writes: "We have a pair of Blue Jays (Cyanocitta cristata) in Brookline, Mass., that have this year built their nest in a most conspicuous place, between the stems of a Wistaria vine and the capitol of a pillar, supporting a piazza roof. This piazza is in almost daily use, and the path leading immediately beside it is also used constantly." Charles R. Stockard (1905), writing of Mississippi, says: "With the exception of the English Sparrow the Blue Jay is probably the most abundant bird in the State. The shade trees bordering the streets of towns, the groves near dwelling houses, trees along road sides, orchards, pastures, and pine woods as well as thick woods, are nesting localities of this bird. One nest was placed in a tree crotch not more than six feet from a bed-room window, thus one might look out on the bird as she sat calmly upon her eggs, and later she was not noticeably nervous while feeding her nestlings before an audience of several persons who observed the performance from the window"

I remember some years ago seeing a nest containing eggs in a situation with no concealment whatever: on the cross-beam of an electric-light pole. The pole stood near a flight of steps used continually by pedestrians in crossing over the tracks at the main railroad station in Lexington, Mass. From the steps I might have touched the sitting bird with an umbrella. Needless to say, the nest was soon knocked down, presumably by boys.

On June 12, 1942, in Tiverton, R. I., Roland C. Clement showed us a most unusual blue jay's nest under the overhang of a cutbank beside a woodland road, which held at that time a brood of nearly fledged young. As he did not get a chance to photograph it, he has sent us the following description of it: "The recessed face of the cutbank in which the nest is placed lies only 10 feet from the farm road, the cut itself being about 6 feet high and its concavity amounting to about 10 inches two feet below the overhanging brink. In this sheltered recess two stout oak roots of 1 inch diameter reach out horizontally into space, intersecting past their exerted centers, and in this crotch our adaptable jays have firmly anchored an otherwise typical nest. The nest is thus about 4 feet from the ground below and, though not absolutely secure from molestation by terrestrial predators which could probably clamber up to it without undue difficulty because of the moderate incline of the bank, it is indeed inconspicuous among the pendant roots and rootlets of the vegetation above, which presently consists merely of shrubs such as Corylus and Myrica.

"The nest itself is well and firmly woven of long, pliant dead twigs of various species, including some spiny stems of Smilcix and a few cuims of coarse grass, as well as a long strip of paper; and it is lined with fine rootlets, probably those of the brake fern (Pteris), which abounds nearby. The nest cavity is 4 1/2 inches long, parallel to the bank, and 4 inches wide"

Mrs. Harriet Carpenter Thayer (1901) watched the family life of a pair of blue jays at a nest at close range and states that the male aided in making the nest and that both birds incubated, "each relieving the other at more or less regular intervals. And the bird at play did not forget its imprisoned mate, but returned now and then with a choice bit of food, which was delivered with various little demonstrations of sympathy and affection"

Jays are very quiet about their nest. I knew of a nest near the center of the city of Cambridge, Mass., and if I had not happened to see the nest, I should not have suspected that jays were breeding near.

Bendire (1895) quotes W. E. Loucks, of Peoria, Ill., as saying: "A nest of a pair of Robins, built in an elm tree, was stolen and appropriated by a pair of these birds. It was fitted up to suit their needs, and eggs were deposited in it before the eyes of the angry Robins"

A. D. Dubois sent the following note to Mr. Bent: "While listening to the Memorial Day exercises in the auditorium at Chautauqua Grounds (a large pavilion with open sides) I noticed a jay which flew in from the side and up to a nest in one of the roof trusses, where it fed its young and flew out again. This is the first jay's nest I have ever found in a building of any kind"

Dr. Samuel S. Dickey (MS.) reports that nests found by him have been in the following trees: 20 in white pines, 18 in hemlocks, 2 in red spruces, 2 in intermediate firs, 12 in white oaks, 5 in alders (Alnus incano and rugosa), and one each in a pitch pine, sour gum, Cassin's viburnum (only 3 1/2 feet from the ground), and flowering dogwood.

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Name

Gray Jay
Lesson Plan

Food

Omnivorous

Feeding Techniques

Scavenger; forages in trees and on the ground . See below.

Habitat

Coniferous forest

Plumage

Male and female have the same plumage

Distribution

Primarily in the northwest, but also found in coniferous forest going into New Mexico

Breeding

Nest is built by both sexes and placed close to the trunk of a tree.

About the Notes from A.C. Bent

Formerly known as the Canada Jay (See below in Bent)

Notes from A.C. Bent

Behavior: The most striking and characteristic traits of the Canada jay are its tameness or boldness, one could almost call it stupidity, and its thieving propensities. Its tameness often makes it an interesting and a welcome companion in the lonesome woods, but its boldness, coupled with its thieving habits, has caused many travelers to regard it as a nuisance. Manly Hardy expressed it very well when he wrote to Major Bendire (1895) 

They are the boldest of all our birds, except the Chickadee, and in cool impudence far surpass all others. They will enter tents, and often alight on the bow of a canoe where the paddle at every stroke comes within 18 inches of them. I know of nothing which can be eaten that they will not take, and I had one steal all my candles, pulling them out endwise one by one from a piece of birch bark they were rolled in, and another pecked a large hole in a cake of castile soap. A duck which I had picked and laid down for a few minutes had the entire breast eaten out by one or more of these birds. I have seen one alight in the middle of my canoe and peck away at the carcass of a beaver I had skinned. They often spoil deer saddles by pecking into them near the kidneys. They do great damage to the trappers by stealing the bait from traps set for martens and minks and by eating trapped game; they will spoil a marten in a short time. They will sit quietly and see you build a log trap and bait it, and then, almost before our back is turned, you hear their hateful "ca-ca-ca" as they glide down and peer into it.

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Name

Clark's Nutcracker
Lesson Plan

Food

Omnivorous

Feeding Techniques

Scavenger

Habitat

Mountainous coniferous forest

Plumage

Male and female have the same plumage

Distribution

Western US; See below in Bent

Breeding

About the Notes from A.C. Bent

The scientific name of the Clark's Nutcracker (in 2001) is Nucifraga columbiana which is different from the scientific name that Wilson used, Corvus columbianus. This demonstrates that ornithologists realized that the Clark's Nutcracker is not a member of the genus of crows, Corvus.

This is one of the species that is named after Lewis and Clark who first identified them.

Notes from A.C. Bent

Lewis's woodpecker and Clark's nutcracker were named for the two famous explorers who made that historic trip to the sources of the Missouri River, across the Rocky Mountains and down the Columbia River to the Pacific coast, as they were responsible for the discovery of these two unique and interesting birds. Capt. William Clark, who was the first one to mention the nutcracker, referred to it as "a new species of woodpecker"; and Wilson described it as a crow, Clark's crow, Corvus columbianus. These impressions are not to be wondered at, for its flight and some of its actions are much like those of woodpeckers, and it resembles the crows in much of its behavior. John T. Zimmer (1911) remarks: "It reminded me of nothing so much as a young Red-headed Woodpecker in that its flight was markedly woodpeckerlike and its grayish body and head and its black wings and tail with white on secondaries gave it, at least superficially, a very close resemblance to the bird mentioned." The first one I saw, while I was crossing the Rocky Mountains in a train, reminded me very much of some large woodpecker bounding across a valley. Its names, both scientific and common, are all well chosen, indicating its feeding habits, its discoverer, and the place of its discovery.  

The nutcracker is a mountain bird, ranging from 3,000 feet up to 12,000 or even 13,000 feet, according to latitude and season; its breeding range seems to be mainly between 6,000 and 8,000 feet, or from the lower limit of the coniferous forest up to timber line. It is quite widely distributed in the mountainous regions from southern Alaska and southwestern Alberta to northern Lower California, Arizona, and New Mexico.

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Name

American Magpie
Lesson Plan

Food

Omnivorous

Feeding Techniques

Scavenger

Habitat

Open country

Plumage

Male and female have the same plumage

Distribution

Western US

Breeding

About the Notes from A.C. Bent

Formerly called the Black-billed Magpie. The American Magpie has been split from the Black-billed Magpie which is now identified as living in Europe.

Notes from A.C. Bent

Behavior: The general manner of a magpie is that of a bird well able to take care of itself. It is extremely suspicious yet is inquisitive to a high degree. It takes alarm quickly and rushes away from threatening danger, but it responds to kindness and is easily tamed.  

Much of a magpie's time is spent on the ground in search of food. The walk is somewhat jerky, but it has been characterized as being graceful. The tail is slightly elevated and is constantly twitched. When the bird is in a hurry the ordinary walk is sometimes varied to a series of hops. Small droves of magpies were watched by Fisher (1902) as they caught grasshoppers every morning in a field near Mono Lake, Calif. Their agility in dodging and circling showed how mistaken persons are likely to be in forming an estimate of a bird under ordinary conditions. "Usually nonchalant and absurdly dignified in their demeanor, these birds could at times assume the utmost interest in their occupation, and dart with surprising speed here and there" 

Bendire's (1895) comments on flocking in this bird were that: "Although more or less quarrelsome, it is social in disposition and likes to be in the company of its kind. I have frequently seen from twelve to thirty feeding together near a slaughterhouse or some other locality where food was abundant; but such gatherings are oftener met with in late fall and winter than during the season of reproduction"

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Name

Yellow-billed Magpie
Lesson Plan

Food

Omnivorous

Feeding Techniques

Scavenger

Habitat

Open country

Plumage

Male and female have the same plumage

Distribution

Central valley of California

Breeding

Both sexes build domed nest of twigs high up on a tree limb.

About the Notes from A.C. Bent

Bent's discussion is another good example of the difficulty that we have always had on deciding what a species is and is not. When is a species a sub-species, and when is it a species by itself?

Notes from A.C. Bent

California contains within its borders the whole range of the yellow billed magpie. Localities occupied are known with exhaustive detail. They are restricted to that part of the State west of the Sierra Nevada from Shasta County, at the north end of the Sacramento Valley, southward to Ventura and Kern Counties, and are chiefly in the Sacramento and San Joaquin Valleys and the coastal valleys south of San Francisco. The area occupied is less than 150 miles wide and extends for about 500 miles from north to south. 

The yellow-billed magpie is obviously a close relative of the black billed magpie. Some persons like to think of this relationship as subspecific; others consider the two kinds as distinct species. Probably it makes little difference which way we think of them so long as we recognize the nature of the characters and ranges of the birds, insofar as they represent the true relationship, for it is scarcely possible to prove the correctness of either opinion. The most nearly obvious distinctions have to do with the possession of the yellow pigment, which shows in the bill, claws, and some places in the skin of the yellow-billed form, and its generally smaller size. Some differences in habits also may be seen on close study of the two birds. The ranges do not overlap; in fact, the gap separating them is about 50 miles wide at its narrowest place.

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Name

Horned Lark
Lesson Plan

Food

Insects

Feeding Techniques

Foraging along the ground

Habitat

Open country

Plumage

Male and female have the same plumage

Distribution

Throughout the US

Breeding

About the Notes from A.C. Bent

Bent touches on part of the nature of flocking. There sometimes seems to be a collective consciousness amongst the birds in the flock:"Their flight is light and easy, with a somewhat undulating motion; and the flocks are rather loose and irregular, yet they are apparently all in touch with each other and guided by a common impulse. "

Gregarious means having an affinity to being with others of the same kind. Various species are social and various species are not, and there are species that are social in particular seasons.

Sibilant - producing a hissing sound.

One species that specializes in getting Horned Larks to leave the ground and fly into the air is the Prairie Falcon which preys on Horned Larks in particular.

Notes from A.C. Bent

Behavior: As we see them in winter northern horned larks are decidedly gregarious, occurring in flocks that range in size from half a dozen to a hundred or more birds; they are seldom seen singly or in pairs as in their summer haunts. As we walk across some flat salt marsh near the shore, or some bare stubblefield farther inland, we may be surprised to see a flock of these birds arise from the ground, where their quiet movements and concealing coloration had rendered them almost invisible. They rise all together, and we hear their faint sibilant twittering as they circle about, now high in the air in scattered formation, now close to the ground in more compact order, showing a bright glimmer of white breasts as they wheel away from us, then suddenly disappearing from our view against the dark background as they turn their backs toward us, and finally vanishing entirely as they all alight on the ground not far from where they started. Their flight is light and easy, with a somewhat undulating motion; and the flocks are rather loose and irregular, yet they are apparently all in touch with each other and guided by a common impulse. As they alight on the ground they scatter out and walk about rapidly on their short legs, taking rather long steps, as shown by the marks of the long hind claw in the soft mud or sand. Horned larks are essentially ground birds; I have never seen one alight in a tree, and, so far as I know, no one else has. The top of a rock, stone wall, or low stump, not over 3 or 4 feet above ground, is about as high as they care to perch, and that not very often. They prefer open ground, especially bare ground or where the grass is short, and they are almost never seen where the vegetation grows rank and high. Among the stubble or tufts of short grass, they walk or run in a crouching attitude, reminding one more of mice than of birds; often they squat and hide until too closely approached. They are not particularly shy, if carefully approached, and seem to feel aware of their ability to conceal themselves in scanty cover. If we remain motionless while the bird is hiding, it will soon lift its head and look about, but at the slightest movement on our part it squats again or runs or flies away.

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Name

Barn Swallow
Lesson Plan

Food

Insects

Feeding Techniques

Gathers insects while flying.

Habitat

Agricultural areas, parks, usually found near water

Plumage

Male and female have the same plumage

Distribution

Throughout the US

Breeding

Builds nest under eaves, under bridges, etc.

About the Notes from A.C. Bent

This is a precise description of modern ecological considerations. Bent recognizes the contribution that the Barn Swallow makes to our life both in its charm and in its great ability to catch "troublesome insects." But he wonders if modern farming will shut out the Barn Swallow and thus lose its charm and lose a natural way of keeping control of the insects. Is it possible to do the job of the Barn Swallow ourselves?

Notes from A.C. Bent

Everybody who notices birds at all knows, admires, and loves the graceful, friendly barn swallow. No bird in North America is better known as a welcome companion and a useful friend to the farmer, as it comes each spring to fly in and out of the wide-open barn door, delighting him with its cheerful twittering, or courses about the barnyard in pursuit of the troublesome insects that annoy both man and beast. The peaceful beauty of the rural scene would lose much of its charm without this delightful feature. But such a charming rural scene is not so common as it used to be. The old-fashioned barn, with its wide-open doors, never closed, its lofty haymow, and the open sheds where the farm wagons stood are being replaced by modern structures, neatly painted buildings, with tightly closed doors and no open windows through which the birds can enter. Horses are replaced to a large extent by automobiles and tractors cattle are housed in modern dairy barns; and the open haymow is disappearing. There is no room for the swallow in modern farming. Must it return to its primitive style of nesting or will other means of encouraging it to nest in our farmyards be employed? The birds will stay with us if we supply them with supports for their nests; a two-by-four joist, rough and not planed, nailed to the outside of a building, flat wide side against the wall, and placed well up under the eaves with about 5 inches of clearance, will accomplish the desired results.

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Name

Tree Swallow
Lesson Plan

Food

Insects

Feeding Techniques

Gathers insects while flying.

Habitat

Usually found near bodies of water.

Plumage

Male and female have the same plumage

Distribution

Throughout the US

Breeding

Breeds in cavities from natural to human made bird houses.

About the Notes from A.C. Bent

Notes from A.C. Bent

Young: Austin and Low (1932) from a study of a large number of nests "found the length of the [incubation] period, estimated from the day the last egg was laid to the day the first one hatched, to vary from a minimum of 13 days to a maximum of 16." According to their records the young birds remained in the nest 16 to 24 days, and to account for this variation they point out "that the most food per young will be delivered in those nests containing the fewest nestlings, and hence the rate of growth will be slowest where the broods are largest." They state that "at no time were the young birds observed to return to the boxes once they had flown." Winton Weydemeyer (1934b), however, says: "For a few days after taking to the air, the young birds enter and leave the houses frequently, and remain in them all night."

The nestling tree swallow is an attractive little bird when, well grown, it comes to the doorway and peers about, watching for its parents to come through the air with food. As it waits at the entrance its low forehead and immaculate throat call to mind a little frog sitting there in the box. Its eyes shine eagerly, and when the parents come near it stretches out toward them, its throat gleaming white against the dark interior.

A. Dawes DuBois (MS.) says: "The young are strong of wing when they leave the nest." He speaks of one young bird which "took to the air like a veteran, both parents accompanying it." Austin and Low (1932) state that "usually they showed remarkable ability on their first flight, often remaining in the air well over a minute, and flying a quarter of a mile."George Nelson tells me that he has often watched the young birds leave the boxes in his garden. They launch out, then fall, fluttering, nearly to the ground sometimes, when, of a sudden, the power of flight comes to them, and they rise into the air and fly off, seemingly as ably as their parents.

Behavior: As we watch swallows in flight we notice that they do not all fly in the same fashion, and after long watching we become able to tell them apart when they are far away, or at least to suspect which is which. For example, perhaps the most distinctive in its manner of flying is the barn swallow. It is characteristic of this species to drive along through the air, seemingly with a strong push.  

At the end of each stroke, the tips of the wings are brought backward until the primaries are nearly parallel with the long axis of the body. A robin also shows this peculiarity but to a less degree. The bird swings to the right and left, to be sure, but there are periods of straight flying or sailing, and always there is the impression of a steady drive through the air, with a good deal of power for so small a bird.

The tree swallow, compared with the barn swallow, appears to be less steady in the air, although doubtless it possesses complete mastery over it. There is a suggestion of flickering in its flight, due perhaps to the quicker, less forceful motions of its wings. Flying at a distance, it sometimes resembles a starling - another quick-moving bird - but most characteristic is the habit of hunching up its back or seeming to do so, and lowering its wing tips as it sails, like an inverted saucer in the sky. Francis Allen (MS.) speaks of their flight as "largely a succession of reaches and runs with periods between them when the bird seems to hang in stays for a while to speak in nautical terms."

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Name

Cliff Swallow
Lesson Plan

Food

Insects

Feeding Techniques

Gathers insects while flying.

Habitat

Usually near water

Plumage

Male and female have the same plumage

Distribution

Throughout the US

Breeding

Builds mud nests; see below.

About the Notes from A.C. Bent

Since this section was written by John James Audubon (1837 - 1921) over 170 years ago, there is some vocabulary that needs explaining.

assiduity - unflagging effort

tenements - homes

requisite - necessary

Notes from A.C. Bent

The details of mud gathering and nest building are described by Audubon (1831):  

About daybreak they flew down to the shore of the river, one hundred yards distant, for the muddy sand of which their nests were constructed, and worked with great assiduity, until near the middle of the day, as if aware that the heat of the sun was necessary to dry and harden their moist tenements. They then ceased from labor for a few hours, amused themselves by performing aerial evolutions, courted and caressed their mates with much affection, and snapped at flies and other insects on the wing. They often examined their nests to see if they were sufficiently dry, and as soon as they appeared to have acquired the requisite firmness, they renewed their labors. Until the females began to sit, they all roosted in the hollow limbs of the Sycamores growing on the bank of the Licking River, but when incubation commenced, the males alone resorted to the trees. A second party arrived, and were so hard pressed for time, that they betook themselves to the holes in the wall, where bricks had been left out for the scaffolding. These they fitted with projecting necks, similar to those of the complete nests of the others.

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Violet Green Swallow
Lesson Plan

Food

Insects

Feeding Techniques

Gathers insects while flying.

Habitat

Usually found near a body of fresh water

Plumage

Male and female have the same plumage

Distribution

Western US; see below

Breeding

Nests in cavities

About the Notes from A.C. Bent

Notes from A.C. Bent

This beautiful swallow is well named; the soft velvety plumage in subtle hues of violet and green on the upper surface, the conspicuous white patches on the sides of the rump, and the pure white lower surface combine to make a charming whole, a dainty feathered gem. It enjoys a wide distribution west of the Great Plains and from Alaska to Mexico, and in some places it is one of the most abundant species. A. E. Shirling (1935) writes: "The violet-green Swallow * * * is to the Colorado mountains what the English Sparrow is to eastern and central states. It is the most common bird about cottages and towns. In respect to relative abundance, it exceeds the English Sparrow for the sparrow's range is confined to human surroundings of houses, barns, and picnic grounds. The violet-green Swallow, while most abundant in the neighborhood of human dwellings, ranges widely up the mountain slopes and unfrequented forest lands."

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Name

Rough-winged Swallow
Lesson Plan

Food

Insects

Feeding Techniques

Gathers insects while flying.

Habitat

Usually near a water habitat

Plumage

Male and female have the same plumage

Distribution

Throughout the US

Breeding

Nests in cavities

About the Notes from A.C. Bent

Notes from A.C. Bent

Food: Howell (1924) says: "The food of the rough-winged swallow consists principally of insects, with a few spiders. Flies composed nearly one-third (32.89 per cent) of the total. Ants and other Hymenoptera are extensively eaten, and bugs to a lesser extent. Beetles amounted to nearly 15 per cent of the food and included the cotton-boll weevil, alfalfa weevil, rice weevils and flea beetles. A few moths, caterpillars, dragonflies, Mayflies, and an occasional grasshopper make up the remainder of this bird's food."

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Name

Bank Swallow
Lesson Plan

Food

Insects

Feeding Techniques

Catches insects while flying

Habitat

Variety of habitats; usually near water

Plumage

Male and female have the same plumage

Distribution

Throughout the US

Breeding

Nests in burrows in bank

About the Notes from A.C. Bent

The smallest swallow found in the US

The scientific name of this swallow is Riparia riparia which Bent provides an explanation for.

The European Bank Swallow that Bent refers to is now (2005) called the Sand Martin and still has the scientific name of Riparia riparia which is the scientific name of the Bank Swallow.

Notes from A.C. Bent

The name swallow immediately brings to our mind a bird with a peculiar charm and grace and possessing a dexterity of flight that is seldom excelled by birds of other groups. The swallows are insectivorous and most of the insects are winged types that are captured during the course of their flying. All the species share these qualities, which serve as a strong bond of comradship among the members of the family. Especially is this true during autumn, when the individuals flock together at the common roosting places and late share with each other the vicissitudes of the long migration.

The bank swallow is distinguished from the other swallows by its unique habit of nesting in burrows, which it cleverly excavates well into the vertical sides of a bank of clay, sand, or gravel. This characteristic habit has given origin to both its scientifc name Riparia (Latin riparia, riparian; ripa, bank of stream) refers to its living in a bank of a stream. Likewise the common names are obviously suggestive of this mode of life. The name bank swallow is the one generally accepted in this country, but others, such as sand swallow, ground swallow, bank martin, and sand martin, also suggest the characteristic nesting habit of this swallow.

The 1931 A.O.U. Check-list does not recognize a subspecific difference between the American bank swallow and the bank swallow of Europe. Oberholser (1938), however, points out that "the American bank swallow differs from the European Bank Swallow, Riparia riparia riparia, in shorter wing, relatively larger feet and bill, darker and more sooty (less rufescent) brown underparts. ... It was long ago distinguished from the European bird by Leonhard Stejneger, but his diagnosis has subsequently been overlooked or ignored, although the American bird, is however readily separable as above indicated. Stejneger named the 'American variety' of bank swallow Clivicola riparia maximiliani; and his type, subsequently designated, is an adult male, No. 8325 of the United States National Museum collection, taken at Ipswich, Mass., May 20, 1870, by C. J. Maynard." Oberholser, therefore, proposes the name Riparia riparia maximiliani (Stejneger) for Riparia riparia riparia of the 1931 A.O.U. Check-list. Whether or not the proposal to differentiate, subspecifically, the American and European representatives of the bank swallow is accepted by the A.O.U. Committee on Nomenclature, it seems advisable to limit the present account to the bank swallow in America. Wetmore (1939) does not agree with Oberholser that there is a line of demarcation between the American and European birds.

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Name

Purple Martin
Lesson Plan

Food

Insects

Feeding Techniques

Feeds from the wing

Habitat

Parks, suburbs,

Plumage

Distribution

Throughout the US

Breeding

Breeds in natural tree cavities, or human made nest sites.

About the Notes from A.C. Bent

Notes from A.C. Bent

Food: The whole diet of the purple martin can be fully covered by one word: insects! When that is said, all is said, for that is what the bird subsists upon and nothing else. However, since the same can be said for other birds, some elaboration is necessary in regard to specific kinds of insects. Prof. F. E. L. Beal made an exhaustive study of the martin's food (1918) and found only a few spiders besides true insects. These creatures are so close to insects, however, that, in many minds, they are identical. The Hymenoptera composed the greatest item, amounting to 23 percent, ants and wasps figuring mostly, with a few bees. To accusations that martins destroy honeybees, he had a definite answer that in only 5 out of 200 stomachs did honeybees appear, and every one of them was a drone.

Flies amount to 16 percent of the total food and include some of the house-fly family as well as numerous long-legged tipulids. The Hemiptera, or bugs, amounted to 15 percent and included stink bugs, treehoppers, and negro bugs. Beetles composed 12 percent and are represented by May, ground, dung, cotton-boll, and clover weevil beetles. Moths and butterflies were found to some extent. Dragonflies seem general favorites and were found in 65 stomachs, some of which contained nothing else.

In connection with this habit of eating dragonflies, Forbush (1929) states that "adult dragonflies are considered to be useful, as they destroy harmful smaller insects, including mosquitoes, but the young of dragonflies are destructive to small fishes, and this habit may neutralize the beneficial habits of these insects. As Martins are said to feed heavily at times on mosquitoes, their destruction of dragonflies may be immaterial."

He says further that "in some instances a great decrease of mosquitoes is said to have followed the establishment of Martin colonies, but I have had no opportunity to investigate these reports." Certainly, it would be logical to suppose that the area about a thriving martin colony would be freer of mosquitoes than one without these birds. T. S. Roberts (1932), after listing such insect prey as ants, wasps, daddy-long-legs, horse flies and robber flies (which prey on honeybees), bugs, beetles, moths, dragonflies, and spiders, ends with the somewhat remarkable statement that the martin is "rather neutral from an economical standpoint but worthy of protection." He appears to be in an isolated position among most writers, who are entirely commendatory of the martin's economic value. Junius Henderson (1927) quotes some interesting data from Attwater in saying that a quart of wing covers of cucumber beetles were found in one martin nesting-box. Henderson says rather vividly, in comparison with Roberts' opinion above, that since "Martins are very active, requiring a large amount of food, and a considerable part of each insect is indigestible, the number of insects they destroy in order to get sufficient nourishment is 'not only beyond calculation, but almost beyond comprehension.' The food is often compressed into a hard mass, so it is wonderful how much a stomach may contain. The mass of insects contained in a Swallow or Martin, would before compression, equal or exceed the bulk of the bird's body."

Audubon (1840) says little of the martin's food, mentioning only that "large beetles" figure in it, and that the birds "seldom seize the honey-bee." Alexander Wilson (1831) devotes more space to this phase and states that he "never met with more than one man who disliked the martins, and would not permit them to settle near his house. This was a penurious close-fisted German, who hated them because, as he said, 'they eat his peas.' I told him he must certainly be mistaken, as I never knew an instance of martins eating peas; but he replied with coolness, that he had many times seen them himself 'blaying near the hife; and going schnip, schnap' by which I understood that it was his bees that had been the sufferers; and the charge could not be denied"!

Relative to the enormous numbers of insects destroyed by this species, as well as the assiduous care of the young in providing them with food, is the now classic example given by Widmann (1884). He watched a colony of 16 pairs of these birds from 4a.m. to 8 p.m, and during that time the parents came to the young 3,277 times, or an average of 205 times for each pair. The females made 1,823 visits, the males 1,454.

John A. Farley (1901b) records that about the cranberry bogs of Plymouth and Barnstable, Mass., the martin devours numbers of the imagoes of the fireworm (Rhopobota vacciniana), which is a highly beneficial act, since cranberry growers estimate that over a term of years, they lose 50 percent of their crops by insects, chiefly the fireworm.

F. L. Farley (MS.) writes from Camrose, Alberta, that martins are very fond of bits of egg-shells, so much so that "they are as crazy for these shells as are cedar waxwings for ripe fruit." He continues: "Mrs. Farley saves most of her eggshells for one of our friends who has about 30 pairs of martins nesting. He just breaks them up and throws them down on the ground under his boxes and before he reaches the house there are numbers of martins on the ground, feeding on them and even taking bits up to the young. The first time it was noted that martins liked shells was when a man saw them holding on to a stucco house and pulling away at oystershells that were protruding from the cement. The party told me he tried to feed them eggshells at once, and from that time on all the martin men in town have been doing this." No doubt it was the lime that attracted the birds. Farley adds the interesting item that "our purple martins have increased now (1939) to more than 200 pairs in our little town, from a single pair that nested here in 1918."

The food is, of course, procured mostly on the wing and in the usual swallow fashion of darting, swooping, and wheeling in erratic flight, but graceful in the extreme. Sometimes, late in the afternoon, or early in the morning, martins skim the surfaces of ponds and rivers, dipping down expertly for drinks. Occasionally they pick up food from the ground by walking about. In any summation of the martin's food habits and economic value Taverner's (1984) statement is eminently fitting. Under the heading "Economic Status" he says: "The Martin like the other swallows is a bird with no bad habits, and with so many good ones that every effort should be made to aid its increase." Here is no betwixt and between statement, but a straight declaration of a fact that should be apparent to every student of this valuable species.

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Name

Wrentit
Lesson Plan

Food

Insects and berries

Feeding Techniques

Forages within brush, shrub

Habitat

Chaparal

Plumage

Male and female have the same plumage Male and female have different calls.

Distribution

Found mostly along the coast of California, but also in Oregon

Breeding

About the Notes from A.C. Bent

Preening is one of the most important behaviors that birds participate in. As a photographer I have become very aware of the time that birds spend preening as I wait for them to be finished before I take a picture. Sometimes it seems that birds are either preening, sleeping, or eating.

Notes from A.C. Bent

Behavior: A wren-tit's habitat is such that most of its movements are a series of hops or flights of a few feet from one twig to the next. Individuals do not cross open spaces of even 30 or 40 feet readily or frequently. The longest flight I observed was about 150 feet over open grassland, but such flights are unusual. 

Care of the plumage, which involves the usual preening and bathing, has two features of special interest. Preening is usually done by the individual's working over the feathers with its bill, or where the bill cannot reach, with its foot. Not infrequently, however, the members of a pair or family preen one another. The activity is usually limited to the region of the head but sometimes includes the feathers of the back, sides, breast, and crissum. The method is always the same: the bill is thrust into the feathers and a single one is manipulated between the mandibles from the calamus to the tip of the vane. Bathing in puddles when they occur near bushes includes the usual bobbing and splashing, but the plumage is moistened by a series of momentary dips rather than one long one. Rain - or fog-moistened brush is perhaps a commoner source of water for bathing. Birds move about in the leafy crowns, brushing and bumping against the wet leaves until their plumage is well dampened, and then the customary shaking and preening take place. Once a bird was observed to dust-bathe.

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Name

Chestnut-backed Chickadee
Lesson Plan

Food

Insects, seeds

Feeding Techniques

Forages in trees

Habitat

Open woodland

Plumage

Male and female have the same plumage

Distribution

Primarily along the coast of the Pacific states

Breeding

Nests in cavities

About the Notes from A.C. Bent

Notes from A.C. Bent

The visitor from the Eastern States is accustomed to seeing roving bands of chickadees, kinglets. creepers, and other small birds trooping through the winter woods and is not surprised when he finds just such jolly companies of friendly little feathered mites foraging through the dark coniferous forests of the humid Northwest coast. The kinglets and the creepers are so much like their eastern representatives that he does not recognize the difference, as he sees them in life; they are just familiar friends, kinglets and creepers. But the chickadees are different; they do not fit into memory's picture of our New England woods; their caps are not so black as those of eastern birds, and the rich chestnut of their backs and sides is strikingly new. We get the thrill of a new bird, seen for the first time. But, as we watch them we see that they are still chickadees, with all their manners, activities, and cheery notes, just old familiar friends in more richly colored garments, but just as sociable, friendly, and intriguing; they win our affection at once.

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Name

Black-capped Chickadee
Lesson Plan

Food

Insects, seeds

Feeding Techniques

Forages in trees

Habitat

Variety of wooded habitats

Plumage

Male and female have the same plumage

Distribution

Throughout the northern part of the US

Breeding

About the Notes from A.C. Bent

Vivacity -

Notes from A.C. Bent

Courtship: The chickadee has apparently developed no ritual of courtship other than the pursuit of the female by the male: a common performance of many of the smaller birds. Chickadees are so common and so continually under our observation at close range that if they practiced any marked trait when pairing off, it would certainly have been noticed and described. 

Dr. Samuel S. Dickey (MS.) says of the mating of the chickadee: "From what I am able to learn of this process, the birds grow agitated late in March and increase their vivacity during April and early in May. They hurry between aisles of trees and swerve over bypaths, and males dart at and even clasp one another. Then they part, and the more dominant male pursues and chases a female over brush piles and even to the ground. Then up they arise and hurry onward. A few such days of immoderate activity, and their nuptial rites seem completed"

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Name

Carolina Chickadee
Lesson Plan

Food

Insects, seeds

Feeding Techniques

Forages in trees

Habitat

Variety of wooded habitats

Plumage

Male and female have the same plumage

Distribution

South-eastern United States

Breeding

About the Notes from A.C. Bent

Notes from A.C. Bent

The Carolina chickadee, one of the four birds discovered by Audubon in the coastal part of South Carolina, is the low-country representative of the Boreal chickadee (atricapillus); yet carolinensis by no means confines itself to the Atlantic and Gulf coastal plains. It ascends the Blue Ridge Mountains probably higher than 5,000 feet, according to Brewster (1886), thus falling short by 1,500 or 1,600 feet of attaining the highest point in its range: Mount Mitchell, with an altitude of 6,684 feet. Brewster continues: "Common, and very generally distributed, ranging from the lowlands to at least 5,000 feet, and probably still higher. On the Black Mountains I found it breeding sparingly along the lower edge of the balsam belt, and thus actually mingling with P. atricapillus. In one place a male of each species was singing in the same tree, the low plaintive tswee- dee- tswee - dee of the P. carolinensis, contrasting sharply with the ringing te - derry of its more northern cousin. The fact that the two occur here together and that each preserves its characteristic notes and habits, should forever settle all doubts as to their specific distinctness"

Other observers have recorded the birds in summer at altitudes of 3,300, 4,400, and 5,000 feet. But the center of abundance is unquestionably the great swamp areas of the Coastal Plain, where the writer has found it to be one of our commonest birds. Any wooded territory attracts them, it seems, except possibly extensive pine woods. But even small towns and villages often have their chickadees, and the writer has frequently seen it as a backyard resident.

Except during the actual breeding period, chickadees are nearly always seen in small bands: family parties, as it were. Late in summer and in fall they are invariably associated with tufted titmice, yellow-throated and pine warblers, brown-headed nuthatches, and downy woodpeckers; later in the winter their ranks are increased by myrtle warblers and the two kinglets. In such foraging bands, the tufted tits appear as leaders, with the chickadees as next in command.

No bird has endeared itself to us as much as the chickadee; its gentle, confiding ways, soft colors, and saucy air, as well as its readiness to patronize feed trays, render it a universal favorite.

There is evidence that our chickadees, like other members of the titmouse family, remain mated for periods longer than one breeding season; Nice (1933) records a pair of Carolina chickadees in Ohio that were associated for three winters and two summers.

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Name

Mountain Chickadee
Lesson Plan

Food

Insects, seeds

Feeding Techniques

Forages in trees

Habitat

Coniferous forests usually above 4000'

Plumage

Male and female have the same plumage

Distribution

Western US

Breeding

Breeds in cavities

About the Notes from A.C. Bent

Notes from A.C. Bent

Behavior: Grinnell, Dixon, arid Linsdale (1930) describe in some detail the intimidation behavior of this species when the nest is invaded:

When a slab of rotten wood was removed the bird lunged, at the same time spreading its wings convulsively, and then gave a prolonged hissing sound: just that order of procedure. The bird repeated this performance nineteen times by count before it suddenly flew from the nest at the close approach and light touch of the observer's hand. The body had been kept closely depressed into the nest cavity. The lunges were rather inane: the bird simply struck out, in one direction and then another. At the moment of the lunge, the black-and-white striping of the head brought her into abrupt and conspicuous view of the observer peering into the cavity: reinforcing the surprise effect of the sounds produced. At times, the hissing sound was produced, the wall of the cavity was struck, and the white of the head moved, all at the same instant. * * * During the winter chickadees regularly made up portions of the companies of birds of several species that foraged together through the day. Some of the individuals that moved to low altitudes in winter joined circulating bands of bush-tits.

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Name

Black-crested Titmouse
Lesson Plan

Food

Insects, seeds

Feeding Techniques

Forages

Habitat

Woodlands

Plumage

Male and female have the same plumage

Distribution

Eastern US

Breeding

Nests in cavity. Will nest in artificial nest sites.

About the Notes from A.C. Bent

Notes from A.C. Bent

Food: Little seems to be known about the food of this titmouse, and practically nothing has been published on it. Austin Paul Smith writes: "Having but one true Titmouse, the Black-crested (Baeolophus atricristatus), we especially appreciate him, though he is omnipresent, even into the heart of the city (Brownsville). They inspect any object of any size, that may arouse suspician of harboring caterpillars or other insects. They are very fond of the caterpillar of the butterfly (Libythea bachmanni) which so persistently attacks our hackberry trees, as to have surely defoliated them this summer, but for the combined efforts of the Titmouse and Sennet's Oriole.

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Name

Bridled Titmouse
Lesson Plan

Food

Insects, seeds

Feeding Techniques

Forages

Habitat

Oak woodlands

Plumage

Male and female have the same plumage

Distribution

Southern part of Arizona and New Mexico

Breeding

Nests in cavity. Will nest in artificial nest sites.

About the Notes from A.C. Bent

Lead colored bush tit - a subspecies of Bush Tit

Notes from A.C. Bent

The oddly marked bridled titmouse, with its sharply pointed crest, its black-and-white-striped head, and its vivacious and friendly manners, is, to my mind, the prettiest and the most attractive of all the crested tits. Only those of us who have traveled in Arizona or New Mexico, or farther south into the highlands of Mexico, have been privileged to see it, for it is a Mexican species that finds its northern limits in a rather restricted area in southwestern New Mexico and southern Arizona. We found it rather common in the oak-clad foothills of the Huachuca Mountains, where the striking color pattern of its pretty head gave it an air of distinction and always attracted our admiration. We found it most commonly from the base of the mountains, about 5,000 feet, up to about 6,000 feet. Harry S. Swarth (1904) writes: "This, one of the characteristic birds of the mountains of Southern Arizona, is found in the greatest abundance everywhere in the oak regions of the Huachucas, breeding occasionally up to 7,000 feet, but most abundant below 6,000 feet. On one occasion, late in the summer, I saw a Bridled Titmouse in a flock of Lead-colored Bush Tits on the divide of the mountains at about 8,500 feet, but it is very unusual to see the species at such an altitude"

Mrs. Bailey (1928) says of its haunts in New Mexico: "Small flocks of about half a dozen each, probably families, were eagerly met with among the blue oaks, junipers, and nut pines of San Francisco Canyon, where they were associated with Lead-colored Bush-Tits and Gray Titmice. Other small flocks of the prettily marked Bridled were later discovered in sycamores in the open valley, at the junction of White Water Creek and San Francisco River; but they are more characteristically birds of the oak country"

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Name

Oak Titmouse
Lesson Plan

Food

Insects, seeds

Feeding Techniques

Forages in branches of trees

Habitat

Oak woodlands

Plumage

Male and female have the same plumage

Distribution

Primarily California

Breeding

Nests in cavity. Will nest in artificial nest sites.

About the Notes from A.C. Bent

Formerly known as Plain Titmouse. The scientific name is Parus inornatus, which Bent explains.

Notes from A.C. Bent

This is, indeed, a plain titmouse, without a trace of contrasting colors in its somber dress; inornatus, unadorned, is also a good name for it. But it is a charming bird, nevertheless, with its jaunty crest, like a miniature jay, its sprightly manners, and its melodious voice. Its gray coat blends well with the trunks and branches of the oaks among which it forages. It is the western counterpart of our familiar eastern tufted titmouse, which it resembles in appearance, behavior, and voice and for which it might easily be mistaken, unless clearly seen.

The species, of which there are at least nine subspecies, occupies a wide range in western North America, from the Rocky Mountain region to the Pacific coast, and from Oregon to Lower California. The type race is now restricted to northern and central California.

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Name

Tufted Titmouse
Lesson Plan

Food

65% animal items, 35% plant material

Feeding Techniques

Gleaning

Habitat

Open woodland

Plumage

Male and female have the same plumage

Distribution

Eastern US

Breeding

About the Notes from A.C. Bent

sagacity that is hard to fathom - wisdom that is hard to understand.

Notes from A.C. Bent

Young: Dr. Dickey (MS.) tells me that in several nests that he watched the period of incubation proved to be "exactly 12 days"; and he says that young remain in the cavity 15 or 16 days. A young bird, 4 days old, had a light salmon-pink body, with eyes only partly open, and was naked except for "feather tufts of dusky grey down" on the top of the head, at the base of the skull and in the middle of the back. When 6 days old, the "body had blue-gray down and rows of conspicuous slate-blue pin-feather shafts"; the eyes were now open. Two days later, "the gray down was falling away from head and sides; the hack mouse-gray; the flanks under back of wings tinged with light brown; pin-feather scabbards of wings not entirely unsheathed, but fast disintegrating." When ten days old, the young were well feathered and closely resembled the adults, but they remained in the nest five days more.

Mrs. Margaret Morse Nice (1931) writes: "In the Wichita Reserve June 6, 1926, we discovered we had fastened our tent to a black jack in a cavity of which five fully feathered titmice were housed; happily the, parents accepted the situation with equanimity. I watched the nest from 2 to 4 P.M. the first day, from 10:40 to 12:10 the next. Despite the hot weather mother Tit brooded 3 and 8 minutes the first day, 8 and 15 the next, father in the meantime giving the food he brought to her. Both birds kept their crests depressed, both often twitched their wings: the female more than her mate: and both used a great variety of notes. During the first two hours 18 meals were given, during the last hour and a half, seven"

I cannot find it definitely so stated, but apparently incubating and brooding devolve mainly, if not wholly, on the female. Both sexes help to feed the young for some time after they leave the nest, and both young and old travel about together in a family party during summer, until they all join the mixed parties of their own and other species that roam the woods during fall and winter.

Behavior: This lively little titmouse is one of the most popular of the southern birds, with its active, vivacious manners, as it flits about in the foliage of the trees, often banging head downward from some terminal cluster of leaves, or clings to the trunks and branches, searching in the crevices of the bark for its insect food. It attracts attention and endears itself to us with its tame, confiding manners, as it is not at all shy, but comes freely into our orchards and gardens, even close to houses, and partakes of our hospitality at our feeding stations; it appears utterly fearless of human presence. As Edmund W. Arthur (Todd, 1940) says:

We should probably ascribe to him without hesitation the first place in our hearts. He presents many claims to the rank of first nobleman of the forest realm. His presence is genial and pleasing, his plumage attractive, his alertness conspicuous; and his habits are good. * *

Each pair of tufted titmice has a domain of its own during mating season. Over this the birds exercise a jealous sway, at least in so far as errant titmice are concerned. Enter upon this domain and without too much fuss begin to whistle the titmouse challenge. Directly you will excite vigorous replies from the lord of the manor. If you persist: and you probably will: he will approach to within a few feet of you. If you carry in your hand a hat or a sizable piece of dark cloth or a box, his lordship seems to think you have another bird in captivity. He will shake himself as if with rage, or in defiance, and drop, scolding, almost within arm's length, where as long as you continue to answer him, he will remain to scold and protest.

At other times, too, these inquisitive birds show their curiosity by reacting to the sound of human voices. Dr. Dickey tells me that they are "seen to react to the voices and noises made by road workers, drillers, and farmers. They hurry forward from shelter in twos or threes. Even when a visitor calls at the door of a house and starts to talk, then the titmouse arrives, evidently curious at a stranger in its habitat. I sometimes hesitate to wonder if such birds do not discriminate between the natives and strangers, for they have a sagacity that is hard to fathom"

Enemies: Titmice are doubtless subject to attack by the ordinary enemies of all small birds, cats, hawks, owls, and snakes, but published records are not plentiful. The enterprising cowbird finds and enters the nesting cavity to deposit its unwelcome egg occasionally. Dr. Friedmann (1929) records four cases, and probably others have occurred since, but sometimes the entrance hole is too small for the parasite to enter.

Harold S. Peters (1936) lists, as external parasites on the tufted titmouse, two lice (Myrsidea incerta and Philopterus sp.), a mite (Trombicula irritans), and a tick (Hoemaphvsalis leporis-palustris).

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Name

Verdin
Lesson Plan

Food

Mostly insects; some seeds

Feeding Techniques

Forages in tree branches

Habitat

Desert

Plumage

Male and female have the same plumage

Distribution

Southwest US

Breeding

Nest site in shrub, low tree, or cholla cactus. Will build nests during the year that it will use to sleep in. See below.

About the Notes from A.C. Bent

Palmer Thrasher is the former name for Curve-billed Thrasher.

Notes from A.C. Bent

This little olive-gray bird, with a yellow head and chestnut shoulders, is one of the characteristic birds of the southwestern desert regions. I made its acquaintance in a dry wash in southeastern Arizona, where the hard stony soil supported a scanty growth of low mesquites, hackberries, hawthorns, catclaws, and other little thorny shrubs, with a few scattering chollas. Here it was living in company with cactus wrens, crissal thrashers, and Palmer's thrashers. Elsewhere in that region we found it on the mesquite plains, on the greasewood and cholla flats, and on the low hillsides dotted with picturesque giant cactus. It and the other desert birds seem to make a living in the harsh and cruel desert, far from any water, where the soil is baked hard and dry and every living plant is armed with forbidding thorns; even the "horned toad," which is really a lizard, carries a crown of thorns on its head and lesser spikes on its body, to protect it. But the verdin is equal to the occasion and builds its own armored castles, protected by a mass of thorny twigs, in which to rear its young, and to which it can retire at night.

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Red-breasted Nuthatch
Lesson Plan

Food

Insects, seeds

Feeding Techniques

Feeds along the trunk of a tree picking for food in the crevices

Habitat

Coniferous forest

Plumage

Male and female have similar plumage

Distribution

Throughout the US

Breeding

Nests in tree cavity that they usually excavate, or they may use an old woodpecker hole.

About the Notes from A.C. Bent

gnomes -

Notes from A.C. Bent

The red-breasted nuthatch is a happy, jolly little bird, surprisingly quick and agile in his motions. He has the habit of progressing over the bark of trees like his larger relative, the whitebreast, but his tempo is much more rapid, and he extends his journeys more frequently to the smaller branches. Here he winds about the little twigs out to the end, among the pine needles, moving very fast: up, down, and around: changing his direction quickly and easily, seeming always in a hurry to scramble over the branches. He is more sociable, too, than the larger bird, and when a little company is feeding together they keep up a cheery chatter among themselves. We find them at their best when gathered in the northern forests at the close of summer. Then they give their high, tin-whistle note, kng, back and forth on all sorts of pitches, varying its inflection, ringing unheard of changes on this simple call, and when they are together thus, they use also a squealing note: a very high, nasal, little pig like or mouse like squeal: and a short explosive kick, or a rapid series of kick. The effect of these notes, given by a dozen birds as they chase one another about, is very jolly. The little birds seem so happy, animated, and lively and their voices have such a range of expression that they almost talk: a playful gathering of talkative, irrepressible, woodland gnomes.

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Name

White-breasted Nuthatch
Lesson Plan

Food

Insects, seeds

Feeding Techniques

Feeds along the trunk of a tree picking for food in the crevices

Habitat

Oak woodlands

Plumage

Male and female have similar plumage

Distribution

Throughout the US

Breeding

Nests in tree cavity that they usually excavate, or they may use an old woodpecker hole.

About the Notes from A.C. Bent

Notes from A.C. Bent

Spring and courtship: If we have had a male nuthatch under our eye through the winter, either a bird roaming through a bit of woodland or one visiting our feeding station daily, we notice, as spring approaches, a change in his behavior: he begins to sing freely at all times of day, whereas previously he sang sparingly and only in the morning hours. At this time his deportment toward his mate changes also. All through the winter the pair has lived not far apart, feeding within hearing of each other, but the male has paid little attention to his mate; in fact, on the food shelf he has shown dominance over her; but now in the lengthening, warmer days of spring he becomes actively engaged over her comfort. A real courtship begins: he carries food to her and places it in her bill, he stores bits of nut in crevices of bark for her convenience, and he often addresses his singing directly to her. Standing back to her, he bows slowly downward as he sings, then in the interval before another song he straightens up, then bows as he sings again. The songs come with perfect regularity over and over again and can thus be recognized even in the distance as the courtship song.

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Name

Pygmy Nuthatch
Lesson Plan

Food

Mostly insects, and other invertebrates with some plant food. (See below)

Feeding Techniques

Feeds along the trunk of a tree picking for food in the crevices

Habitat

Pine forests

Plumage

Male and female have the same plumage

Distribution

Scattered areas of the western US

Breeding

Nests in tree cavity that they usually excavate, or they may use an old woodpecker hole.

About the Notes from A.C. Bent

Notes from A.C. Bent

Food: Prof. F. E. L. Beal (1907) examined only 31 stomachs of the California races of the pygmy nuthatch and found the food to be divided into approximately 83 percent animal matter and 17 percent vegetable. The largest item of animal food was approximately 83 percent animal matter and 17 percent vegetable. The largest item of animal food was Hymenoptera, mostly wasps with a few ants, amounting to 38 percent of the whole. Hemiptera came next, 23 percent; "a large proportion of these belong to the family Cercopidae, commonly known as spittle-insects, from the fact that they develop inside of a froth-like substance resembling saliva produced in summer upon grass and various plants and trees. While none of these insects have yet become pests, there can be no doubt that collectively they do considerable harm to plants, as sometimes they are very abundant and subsist entirely upon their sap." Eighteen out of twenty stomachs from the pine woods of Pacific Grove "contained remains of Cercopidae, and six were filled with them. The average for the 18 stomachs is a little more than 76 percent of all the food." Beetles of various families formed about 12 percent of the food, caterpillars 8 percent, and spiders 1 percent. "The vegetable portion is made up almost entirely of seeds, of which a majority are those of conifers, as was to be expected from the habits of the bird."

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Name

Common Bushtit
Lesson Plan

Food

Insects

Feeding Techniques

Feeds as a group; forages over small branches of tree looking for insects, especailly aphids.

Habitat

Chaparral, open woods

Plumage

Sexes the same except eye color - Male has dark eye and female has yellow eye

Distribution

South western US going up to the state of Washington

Breeding

Creates pendulous nest. See below.

About the Notes from A.C. Bent

Notes from A.C. Bent

Nesting: The curious and beautiful nests of the bushtits are works of art and marvels of avian architecture. In marked contrast to the thorny castles of the verdins, the long, gourd-shaped, hanging pockets of the bushtits are made of the softest materials and are often prettily decorated or camouflaged. Some nests are more or less concealed among the foliage or among hanging bunches of beardlike lichens, but most of them are suspended in plain sight, where one might easily be overlooked as a stray wisp of lichens or an accumulation of plant debris. The nests are hung in a variety of trees, saplings, or bushes at various heights, although a large majority are not over 15 feet above the ground.

Mrs. Addicott (1938) remarked that most of the nests she studied at Palo Alto, Calif., were in oaks, but this does not seem to be always true elsewhere. Grinnell, Dixon, and Linsdale (1936) have given the data for 38 nests on Point Lobos Reserve, Calif.; the kinds of trees occupied and the heights of the nests from the ground were as follows: 16 nests were in Ceanothus bushes, both living and dead, a 41/2 to 11 feet; 12 were in pines at from 6 to 50 feet, only 4 of which were above 15 feet; 4 were in live oaks at from 7 to 20 feet; 3 were in sage bushes at from 4 to 41/2 feet; 2 were in cypresses at from 7 to 10 feet; and 1 was in a Baccharis bush at 6 feet. In the northern portion of the range, many nests are found in conifers, spruces, firs, and hemlocks, often suspended from the ends of limbs. 15 to 25 feet from the ground and in plain sight; but I found two nests near Seattle that were in "spirea" bushes 9 to 10 feet up. Nests have been found in eucalyptus and pepper trees, in willow and alder saplings, in Kuntzia and hazel bushes, and probably in a variety of other trees and shrubs.

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Name

Brown Creeper
Lesson Plan

Food

Insects, seeds

Feeding Techniques

Crawls up a tree searching the crevices of the tree; unlike the nuthatches it never crawls down a tree.

Habitat

Mature forests

Plumage

Male and female have the same plumage

Distribution

Throughout the US

Breeding

Breeds in cavities, currently three races recognized

About the Notes from A.C. Bent

bole of a tree - the trunk of a tree

sentient - having sense perception; in this case sentient is referring to the creeper's ability to sense where insects are in the crevices of the tree

Notes from A.C. Bent

The brown creeper, as he hitches along the bole of a tree, looks like a fragment of detached bark that is defying the law of gravitation by moving upward over the trunk, and as he flies off to another tree he resembles a little dry leaf blown about by the wind. As he climbs up the tree, he is feeding, picking up tiny bits of food that he finds half-hidden in the crevices of bark along his path. In his search he does not work like the woodpeckers, those skilled mechanics whose work requires the use of carpenter's tools, the drill and chisel. The creeper's success depends on painstaking scrutiny, thoroughness, and almost, it seems, conscientiousness. Edmund Selous (1901), speaking of the European tree-creeper, a bird close to ours in habit, uses the exact word to show us the creeper at work. "His head," he says, "which is as the sentient handle to a very delicate instrument, is moved with such science, such dentistry, that one feels and appreciates each turn of it."

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Carolina Wren
Lesson Plan

Food

Insects and fruit

Feeding Techniques

Actively forages on tree branches, shrubs, tree trunks

Habitat

Variety of woody and brushy habitats

Plumage

Male and female have the same plumage

Distribution

Southeastern US

Breeding

About the Notes from A.C. Bent

Notes from A.C. Bent

In attempting to compile the life histories of the wrens of this species, I have not overlooked and shall not attempt to criticize a recent important paper on the geographical variation in the Carolina wren by George H. Lowery, Jr. (1940), in which he splits the species into eight subspecies, one of which is Mexican. This makes a rather large addition to the three races now recognized in our 1931 Check-list. Doubtless some of his races, perhaps all of them, are worthy of recognition in nomenclature. But, as the author does not claim to be a systematic ornithologist, it seems best for a work of this kind to follow the nomenclature and classification of the latest Check-list, as has been done in previous volumes.

I have always associated the Carolina wren with the sunny South, one of that happy trio of birds that are always ready to greet the northern bird lover with their loud cheery songs as he travels southward; the songs of this wren, the tufted titmouse, and the cardinal have enough in common to confuse a newcomer when he hears them for the first time, but they are really different when carefully studied; however, they are all delightful and give us a warm touch of southern hospitality, a hearty welcome to Dixie Land.

But we cannot now regard the Carolina wren as exclusively a southern bird, for it seems to have been extending its range northward during the early part of the present century. The 1931 Check-list gave as the probable northern limits of its range "southeastern Nebraska, southern Iowa, Ohio, southern Pennsylvania, and lower Hudson and Connecticut valleys" and called it "casual or accidental in Wisconsin, Michigan, Ontario, Maine, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts." Dr. Charles W. Townsend (1909) has published an interesting paper on what he calls an invasion of this wren into New England, giving a large number of records for various States; most of these are fall and winter records, but there are enough breeding records mentioned to indicate that the Carolina wren may be regarded as a rare breeding bird in at least southern New England. It has long been known to breed on Naushon Island, off the coast of southern Massachusetts; Forbush (1929) mentions several other Massachusetts breeding records, and Knight (1908) records a breeding record for Maine.

Dr. Chapman (1912) says of the haunts of the Carolina wren: "The cozy nooks and corners about the home of man which prove so attractive to the House Wren are less commonly chosen by this bird. His wild nature more often demands the freedom of the forests, and he shows no disposition to adapt himself to new conditions. Undergrowths near water, fallen tree tops, brush heaps, and rocky places in the woods where he can dodge in and out and in a twinkling appear or disappear like a feathered Jack-in-the-box, are the resorts he chooses."

The last part of this statement is undoubtedly true, but there is plenty of evidence that he has learned "to adapt himself to new conditions." Milton P. Skinner (1928), for example, says that, in the sandhills of North Carolina, these wrens "are dwellers in the dooryards and about houses, more even than in wilder haunts. Almost all kinds of shrubbery attract them, but they like the thickest, thorny kind the best. While they are generally in the bushes and lower growth, they sometimes go higher into trees, even as much as thirty feet above the ground." Arthur H. Howell (1924) says that, in Alabama, "although partial to low bottomland timber," it is "found also about farmyards and in town gardens. Indeed, so domestic is it at times that it is often called 'house wren'." Other observers give us similar impressions and the bird certainly shows considerable adaptability in its choice of a great variety of nesting sites about human structures. There is no doubt, however, that it has always shown a preference for the wilder woodland thickets, preferably along watercourses and in swamps, but also in hammocks and in isolated clumps of trees and bushes on the prairies and pine barrens throughout the South.

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Name

Bewick's Wren
Lesson Plan

Food

Insects and fruit

Feeding Techniques

Actively forages on tree branches, shrubs, tree trunks

Habitat

Variety of woody and brushy habitats

Plumage

Male and female have the same plumage

Distribution

Southwestern US and Pacific states

Breeding

See below.

About the Notes from A.C. Bent

Some species adapt very well to the presence of humans.

Notes from A.C. Bent

Nesting: Almost any suitable cavity or place of support will suit this wren for a nesting site. Dr. S. S. Dickey (Todd, 1940) writes: "Odd and wonderful are the sites that Bewick's Wren habitually chooses for its summer home. Away from the haunts of man, it selects locations suggesting its primitive habits: knotholes in fallen trees in the woods or open fields, natural cavities and woodpecker-holes in trees, or now and then the center of a dense brush heap. But civilization has provided this bird with an unusual variety of homes. Any opening of ready access invites its attention; among those used are holes in fence posts, tin cans, empty barrels, discarded clothing hung in buildings, baskets, bird boxes, deserted automobiles, oil wells, and crevices in stone, brick, or tile walls."

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Name

House Wren
Lesson Plan

Food

Insects and fruit

Feeding Techniques

Actively forages on tree branches, shrubs, tree trunks

Habitat

Brushy habitat, gardens, parks

Plumage

Male and female have the same plumage; at least 3 races recognized

Distribution

Throughout the US

Breeding

About the Notes from A.C. Bent

It is easy to imagine enemies as being other animals that would want to eat Bewick Wrens, but Bent reminds us that birds have a wide range of parasites that can be very damaging.

Philopterus - is the genus of biting louse

Liponyssus sylviarum - Northern Fowl Mite

Notes from A.C. Bent

Enemies: As is true with many birds, the house wren is host to a number of external parasites. Peters (1936) lists five species as having been found on the house wren: Two lice, Menopon sp. and Philopterus subflavescens (Goef.),and three species of mites, Dermanyssus gallinae (Deeger), Liponyssus sylviarum (C. & F.), and Trombicula whartoni Ewing. While the presence of lice and mites is not usually fatal to the birds, heavy infestations are very annoying and may prove harmful especially to the nestlings, which have no means of ridding themselves of the pests. 

Baldwin (1922) cites a specific example in which there was a lone house wren in a nest that received all the food and attentions of the adult birds. This nestling, instead of growing rapidly in size and weight, as might be expected, was far below normal, greatly undernourished, and a miserable skinny-looking specimen. This condition prevailed until a heavy infestation of lice was discovered and a poultry louse killer applied on the twelfth day. After that there was some improvement, and a considerable gain in weight was noted. 

No records of internal parasites and diseases of the house wren have come to my attention, but doubtless a thorough examination of many specimens would reveal them.

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Winter Wren
Lesson Plan

Food

Insects and fruit

Feeding Techniques

Actively forages on tree branches, shrubs, tree trunks

Habitat

Wet coniferous forest

Plumage

Male and female have the same plumage

Distribution

Eastern US and the Northwest

Breeding

About the Notes from A.C. Bent

The long list of insects and other invertebrates helps to remind us that birds like Winter Wrens are opportunists in their own way. They feed on what is available to them.

Notes from A.C. Bent

Food: The winter wren is almost wholly insectivorous, and it is especially useful in consuming many of the woodland insects and their larvae which are more or less injurious to our forests. W. L. MeAtee (1926a) writes: "Vegetable food is of practically no interest to the winter wren; the bird wants flesh and its choice of meat most commonly strikes upon such creatures as the beetles, true bugs, spiders, caterpillars, and ants and other small hymenoptera. By contrast grasshoppers, crickets, crane flies, moths, millipeds, and snails are minor items of food, and dragon flies, daddy-longlegs, mites, pseudoscorpions, and sowbugs are merely tasted. Forest insects consumed are bark beetles and other weevils, round-headed wood borers, leaf beetles, leaf hoppers, plant lice, lace bugs, ants, sawffies, and caterpillars." 

Arthur H. Howell (1924) says that, in the South, "the bird has been known to capture boll weevils." And E. H. Forbush (1929) writes: "The winter wren feeds along the banks of streams, frequently pecking at something in the water, and sometimes in its eagerness to secure its prey, it immerses the whole head. lt may thus secure water insects. Miss Mabel Wiggins informed me that at East Marion, Long Island, N. Y., on October 20, 1918, winter wrens were feeding on the berries of the Virginia juniper or red cedar."

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Rock Wren
Lesson Plan

Food

Insects and fruit

Feeding Techniques

Forages on the ground

Habitat

Desert

Plumage

Male and female have the same plumage

Distribution

Western US

Breeding

Nest is placed in amongst boulders, in burrows cut in banks. See below.

About the Notes from A.C. Bent

Notes from A.C. Bent

Nesting: Two nests that we found in Cochise County, Ark., were built in holes in the steep, almost perpendicular banks of a little arroyo that had been cut out like a miniature canyon by running water. The holes were not far from the top of the cut-bank and 4 or 5 feet from the bottom of the cut, and were exposed by the cutting away of the soil (pl. 54); they were probably made by gophers or some other animal long ago, for the soil was baked too hard for the wrens to have excavated them. The holes were about 12 inches deep, and the nests were placed far back; the entrance to each nest was paved with two or three handfuls of small, flat stones, which were also found under and behind the nest. The nests were made of grasses, straws, weed stems, and rootlets and were lined with fine grasses, horsehair, and a few feathers. 

Mrs. Amelia S. Allen writes to me that she found rock wrens nesting under similar circumstances near Livermore, Calif., "in an eroded gulch 10 to 12 feet deep. Nests were in the earthen banks of this gulch with not a rock outcropping in sight. In Corrall Hollow itself, we found a nest near the top of an earthen cut about 15 feet high. It was lined with sheep's wool and contained six eggs."

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Canyon Wren
Lesson Plan

Food

Insects and fruit

Feeding Techniques

Forages on the ground

Habitat

Rocky canyons usually near an arid habitat

Plumage

Male and female have the same plumage

Distribution

Western US

Breeding

Nest is placed in amongst boulders, in burrows cut in banks.

About the Notes from A.C. Bent

My trips to the desert have been punctuated by the remarkable song of the Canyon Wren. It is amazing that so much sound could come from such a tiny bird.

Notes from A.C. Bent

Behavior: The canyon wren is usually heard long before it is seen. We hear the loud, ringing song echoing from the walls of the canyon and scan the rocky cliffs to find the tiny source of such a soul-filling outburst of melody. We catch a glimpse of his gleaming white throat before we can make out the outlines of the bird, for the browns of body, wings, and tail blend well into the background of rocks. At first, as he creeps along some narrow ledge or dodges in and out among the loose rocks and crevices of the cliff, we may mistake him for a chipmunk or a white-throated mouse, so mouse like are his movements. Soon he stops in full view on some sharp prominence or even the crest of the cliff, throws back his head, his silvery throat swells, and out pours the delicious strain; and we are astonished to connect such a volume of sound with such a tiny bird.

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Cactus Wren
Lesson Plan

Food

Insects and fruit

Feeding Techniques

Forages on the ground

Habitat

Desert

Plumage

Male and female have the same plumage

Distribution

Extreme southwest

Breeding

See below

About the Notes from A.C. Bent

Z. lycioides is an old scientific name for Coyote Bush

Notes from A.C. Bent

Nesting: The list of nesting sites utilized by cactus wrens is a long one. Following a study of a large number of nests near the base of the Santa Rita Mountains south of Tucson, Ariz., Mrs. Bailey (1922) wrote:

While the name Cactus Wren was justified in this locality as in others by the innumerable nests found in cholla cactus, here thorny trees and bushes especially catsclaw zizyphus (Z. lycioides) or coyote bush, were also used extensively, while mesquite and the dense shrubby hackberry or grenjeno were used occasionally for nesting sites. It was interesting to note that zizyphus bushes containing nests generally stood under mesquite trees, so getting double protection. The protection afforded by the armament of thorns was often so complete that it was impossible to reach a nest without cutting away the obstructing branches. Even that, however, did not always satisfy the nest makers, for such bulky, conspicuous nests need to be safeguarded in every way from hawks, owls, and other enemies. Thirty-five out of sixty-four nests examined were not only protected by the entangling thorns of the surrounding branches but were built within clusters of the red-flowered mistletoe which in many cases partially or wholly concealed them. One nest lay on a level branch covered by an unusual horizontal growth of mistletoe and showed only as a darkened mass inside, but most of them were in round ball-like masses of mistletoe, commonly at the ends of branches in terminal mistletoe rosettes, frequently so dense that it was impossible to obtain nest statistics or photographs. One of the nests without mistletoe protection was built under an unbrella-like mass of foliage.

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Marsh Wren
Lesson Plan

Food

Insects and fruit

Feeding Techniques

Forages on ground, near edge of water; sometimes takes insects from surface of water.

Habitat

Marsh

Plumage

Male and female have the same plumage

Distribution

Throughout the US

Breeding

Nest in built in cattails by male. See below.

About the Notes from A.C. Bent

preponderate - only one substance will be found the most

venturesome birds - refers to Marsh Wrens that will venture into the water to find nesting material; Marsh Wrens are not water birds

rankly -

Moses Lake is in eastern Washington.

Notes from A.C. Bent

Nesting: Dawson and Bowles (1909) give a very good description of the nest of this wren as follows: 

The Marsh Wren's nest is a compact ball of vegetable materials, lashed midway of cat-tails or bull rushes, living or dead, and having a neat entrance hole on one side. A considerable variety of materials is used in construction, but in any given nest only one textile substance will preponderate. Dead cat-tail leaves may be employed, in which case the numerous loopholes will be filled with matted down from the same plant. Fine dry grasses may be utilized, and these so closely woven as practically to exclude the rain. On Moses Lake, where rankly growing bull rushes predominate in the nesting areas, spirogyra is the material most largely used. This, the familiar, scum-like plant which masses under water in quiet places, is plucked out by the venturesome birds in great wet banks and plastered about the nest until the required thickness is attained. While wet, the substance matches its surroundings admirably, but as it dries out it shrinks considerably and fades to a sickly light green, or greenish gray, which advertises itself among the obstinately green bull rushes. Where this fashion prevails, one finds it possible to pick out immediately the oldest member of the group, and it is more than likely to prove the occupied nest. 

The nest-linings are of the softest cat-tail down, feathers of wild fowl, or dried spirogyra teased to a point of enduring fluffiness. It appears, also, that the Wrens often cover their eggs upon leaving the nest. Thus, in one we found on the 17th of May, which contained seven eggs, the eggs were completely buried under a loose blanket of soft vegetable fibers. The nest was by no means deserted, for the eggs were warm and the mother bird very solicitous, in so much that she repeatedly ventured within a foot of my hand while I was engaged with the nest.

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Name

Sedge Wren

Food

Insects

Feeding Techniques

From Bent: No very extensive study of the food of the short-billed marsh wren seems to have been made. Dr. Walkinshaw (1935) says that the food consists of insects. 'They have been observed to feed the young with moths, spiders, mosquitoes, flies, grasshoppers and bugs.'

Habitat

Grasslands, especially wet grass with bushes

Plumage

Distribution

Eastern US

Breeding

About the Notes from A.C. Bent

During the time this account was written the Sedge Wren was known as the Short-billed Marsh Wren.

Notes from A.C. Bent

Habits

This tiny wren is more of a meadow wren than a marsh wren, for it shuns the westtest marshes where the long-billed marsh wren loves to dwell among the tall, dense growths of cattails or bulrushes and where the water is a foot or more deep. It prefers the drier marshes or wet meadows, where there is little water or where the ground is merely damp. These are what we call the sedge meadows, where the principal growth consists of various species of Carex and tall grasses, often growing in thick tufts, and various other plants that need a little moisture. Such marshes are often intersected by streams or ditches or are bordered by lower and wetter marshes where cattails and bulrushes flourish in the deeper water; the short-billed marsh wrens have often been seen among the cattails and have even been known to build their nests low down in these flags, but they much prefer to breed in the sedge and grass association. A large marsh of the latter type, near my home, has been a favorite breeding ground for these wrens for many years; there are some small willows, alders and gray birches along the banks of the intersecting ditches; and small bushes scattered through the marsh serve as singing stations for the wrens; many flowering plants add color to the scene all through summer, and it is a glorious sight early in fall when the bur-marigold carpets the whole meadow with a blaze of yellow. A pair of marsh hawks may be seen here in spring performing their courtships; we have often seen the male in his spectacular flight and have flushed the female from here nest. This and other similar swamps in eastern Massachusetts are the favorite haunts of swamp sparrows, song Sparrows, Henslow's sparrows, and northern yellowthroats.

Name

American Dipper
Lesson Plan

Food

Insects

Feeding Techniques

Swims underwater in fast moving streams, rivers, to catch aquatic insects

Habitat

Mountain Streams

Plumage

Male and female have the same plumage

Distribution

Western US

Breeding

Usually builds nest that is protected by falling water.

About the Notes from A.C. Bent

Water ouzel is an earlier name for the American Dipper.

John Muir (1838 - 1914) American naturalist and writer, and one of the people most responsible for preserving Yosemite as a national park.

Notes from A.C. Bent

No better account of the American dipper has ever been written than John Muir's (1894) chapter on the water ouzel; I cannot do better than to quote freely from it, as it covers the ground most beautifully. Of its characteristic haunts, he writes: Among all the countless waterfalls I have met in the course of ten years' exploration in the Sierra, whether among the icy peaks, or warm foot-hills, or in the profound Yosemite canyons of the middle region, not one was found without its Ouzel. No canyon is too cold for this little bird, none too lonely, provided it be rich in falling water. Find a fall, or cascade, or rushing rapid, anywhere upon a clear stream, and there you will surely find its complementary Ouzel, flitting about in the spray, diving in foaming eddies, whirling like a leaf among beaten foam-bells; ever vigorous and enthusiastic, yet self-contained, and neither seeking nor shunning your company. * * * He is the mountain streams' own darling, the hummingbird of blooming waters, loving rocky ripple-slopes and sheets of foam as a bee loves flowers, as a lark loves sunshine and meadows.

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Name

Ruby-crowned Kinglet
Lesson Plan

Food

Arthropods

Feeding Techniques

Foraging; hover-glean foraging

Habitat

Wooded areas

Plumage

Male and female have similar plumage

Distribution

Throughout the US

Breeding

About the Notes from A.C. Bent

John Burroughs (1837 - 1921) a contemporary of John Muir

Notes from A.C. Bent

Courtship: This seems to consist mainly of the display between rival males of the flaming red crest, which is usually partially concealed or at least restricted by the surrounding dull feathers of the crown, but which can be uncovered or perhaps erected in the ardor of courtship or in the anger of combat. John Burroughs (Far and Near, pp. 178 -179) thus describes such rivalry between two males: "They behaved exactly as if they were comparing crowns, and each extolling his own. Their heads were bent forward, the red crown patch uncovered end showing as a large, brilliant cap, their tails spread out, and the side feathers below the wings were fluffed out. They did not come to blows, but followed each other about amid the branches, uttering their thin, shrill notes, and displaying their ruby crowns to the utmost." 

It would not be surprising if rivalry in song were also one of the features in the contest for supremacy.

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Name

Golden-crowned Kinglet
Lesson Plan

Food

Arthropods

Feeding Techniques

Foraging; hover-glean foraging

Habitat

Coniferous forests

Plumage

Male and female have similar plumage

Distribution

Throughout the US

Breeding

Nest is placed in fir tree

About the Notes from A.C. Bent

Gold-crest is an old name for the Golden-crowned Kinglet

From the account below is this description of hover gleaning: "When they had cleared the branches the little birds fluttered about the trunks, hanging poised on busy wing, like hummingbirds before a flower, meanwhile rapidly pecking the clinging eggs from the bark."

Notes from A.C. Bent

Edward H. Forbush (1907) writes: "At Wareham, on Dec. 25, 1905, I watched the Gold-crest hunting its insect food amid the pines. The birds were fluttering about among the trees. Each one would hover for a moment before a tuft of pine 'needles,' and then either alight upon it and feed, or pass on to another. I examined the 'needles' after the kinglets had left them, and could find nothing on them; but when a bird was disturbed before it had finished feeding, the spray from which it had been driven was invariably found to be infested with numerous black specks, the eggs of plant lice.

Evidently the birds were cleaning each spray thoroughly, as far as they went." Again, he saw kinglets feeding in the pines near his home, mainly on the trunks and the larger branches; they were feeding on the eggs of the aphids, which "were deposited in masses on the bark of the pines from a point near the ground up to a height of thirty-five feet. The trees must have been infested with countless thousands of these eggs, for the band of Kinglets remained there until March 25, almost three months later, apparently feeding most of the time on these eggs. When they had cleared the branches the little birds fluttered about the trunks, hanging poised on busy wing, like hummingbirds before a flower, meanwhile rapidly pecking the clinging eggs from the bark."

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Name

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
Lesson Plan

Food

Insects

Feeding Techniques

Forages in trees

Habitat

Riparian woodlands, oaks

Plumage

Male and female have the same plumage

Distribution

Eastern US, and southwest US

Breeding

About the Notes from A.C. Bent

Notes from A.C. Bent

In defense of its nest, the gnatcatcher's small size places it at a disadvantage in competition with larger species, for it seems not to possess the "driving power" of the even smaller hummingbirds, though it lacks nothing in either bravery or initiative when occasion demands. Its attitude toward human invasion of the sacred precinct of the nest shows wide individual variation. On the few occasions when I have approached closely to a gnatcatcher's nest, my presence always caused great excitement, which was evidenced by noisy protests but never resulted in a direct attack. S. A. Grimes (1928) found the brooding gnatcatcher very tame, and on several occasions he "climbed to within five or six feet of a sitting bird without causing it to leave the nest, or when it did it usually returned before I could get the camera set up for photographing." In sharp contrast to this, the same writer (1932) described an attack made upon him while he was photographing a nest, when the male gnatcatcher actually "struck the writer several times on the head and once in the eye," this last blow incapacitating him completely for a time. Maurice Brooks (1933) tamed a pair of gnatcatchers by making gradual advances toward the nest during the period of incubation until, after the young had hatched, he and his family could come within 2 or 3 feet of the nest without interrupting the feeding schedule. Finally he cut off the nest branch and lowered it for easier observation, still without apparently disturbing the parent birds. His next move was to cup his hands loosely about the nest in an attempt to compel the parent birds to alight on the hands. This intimacy was more than the birds would stand and the result was surprising as the female immediately attacked viciously and repeatedly. Amicable relations were later re-established, and the female did occasionally actually alight upon the experimenter's hands, but even then she would without warning "sometimes take time out to attack." All attacks were made by the female.

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Name

Black-tailed Gnatcatcher
Lesson Plan

Food

Insects, spiders

Feeding Techniques

foraging

Habitat

Desert

Plumage

Male and female have the same plumage

Distribution

Extreme southwest California, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas

Breeding

Nest placed in shrub or tree. See below.

About the Notes from A.C. Bent

plumbeous gnatcatcher

Notes from A.C. Bent

Nesting: The nests of the plumbeous gnatcatcher are placed in low trees or small bushes at no great height from the ground, much like those of the black-tailed gnatcatcher. There are two nests of the former in the Thayer collection in Cambridge, quite similar in construction, but very different in dimensions. One taken by W. W. Brown in Sonora on April 30, 1905, measures 1 1/4 inches in height, 2 inches in outer diameter, 1 inch inside diameter, and 1 inch in inner depth; it was in a mesquite. The other, a much larger nest, was taken from an Atriplez bush on the desert near Phoenix, Ariz., by G. F. Brenninger on April 10,1901; it measures 21/2 inches in height, 21/4 in outside and 11/2 in inside diameter, and was hollowed to a depth of 11/2 inches. Both nests are very neatly made of various grayish fibers, compactly woven, and are lined with pappus and other plant down; they are firmly bound with spider web, but no lichens have been used for outside decoration. Each nest held five eggs.

A nest taken by Frank C. Willard near Tombstone, Ariz., on April 22, 1897, is described in his notes as 31/2 feet up in a small bush, in a fork and supported by various twigs; it was made of fine bark strips and grass and was lined with fine grass and cactus fiber, with a few small feathers woven in. A nest found by Van Tyne and Sutton (1937) in Brewster County, Tex., on April 14, 1935, was "situated about three feet from the ground in a thickly-leaved thorn bush that was growing under a huge cottonwood." Mrs. Bailey (1928) mentions a nest near Terlingua, Tex., in a fouquieria (ocotillo) bush.

Birds in the Classroom
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Name

Lesson Plan

Food

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Habitat

Plumage

Distribution

Breeding

About the Notes from A.C. Bent

Notes from A.C. Bent