Natural History Notes on the Birds

Songbirds II

Sparrows through Finches

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Name

Song Sparrow
Lesson Plan

Food

Seeds and insects

Feeding Techniques

Uses its toes to stir up ground debris to find food.

Habitat

Open habitat in a multitude of places.

Plumage

Male and female have the same plumage

Distribution

Throughout the US

Breeding

Nests on ground

About the Notes from A.C. Bent

Under #1 below, when Bent refers to "euphonia", "samuelis", and "fallax", he is referring to particular races of the Song Sparrow. This is a particularly good introduction to the discussions of what constitutes the definition of a species.

Nominate race - The original race that was identified as the species.

Plasticity - In this case plasticity refers to the Song Sparrow's ability to become different subspecies. Most species have not demonstrated this ability.

Ira N. Gabrielson - (1889 - 1977) Former Director of the Fish and Wildlife Service.

Notes from A.C. Bent

Not only is the song sparrow one of our best-known birds; it is also our most variable, with 31 subspecies recognized as occurring within the territory covered by the A.O.U. Check-List (1957) and 3 additional subspecies in Mexico (Friedmann, et al., 1957). Robert Ridgway (1901) writes, "No other bird of the Nearctic Region has proven so sensitive to influences of physical environment," and Alden H. Miller (1956) cites the song sparrow as "one of the best examples of substantial racial diversification" among terrestrial vertebrates on this continent. Most of the subspecies occur west of the Rocky Mountains and in Alaska. Thus 9 races are found exclusively in California, to which may be added in California 8 other races that are not confined to that state. As a result of this plasticity, the song sparrow figures prominently in literature dealing with the origin of species and with ecologic gradients. The frontispiece in Joseph Grinnell and A. H. Miller's (1944) work on California birds will repay examination for its portrayal of variations in eight of the races of that state. Ira N. Gabrielson and F. C. Lincoln (1951) put the extent of the intra-specific variation in the following way:

"It is probably true that if all the resident Song Sparrows between Kodiak Island and the Imperial Valley in California were suddenly destroyed, there are few observers who would believe that there was any close relationship between the large dusky Aleutian birds and the small pale form about the Salton Sea."

It will assist the reader if he is aware of the following decisions as to the manner of presenting this life history of the song sparrow:

 (1) Most subspecies are treated separately in order to permit the use of the detailed information that is available for some populations and to maintain the integrity of three contributed accounts, Margaret M. Nice's summary of her seminal study of euphonia, Richard F. Johnston's report of his investigation of samuelis, and Robert W. Dickerman's account of fallex.

 (2) When two or more geographically proximate and ecologically similar subspecies are believed not to differ in the essentials of their life histories, they are sometimes grouped and information about them is pooled or is otherwise generalized, as indicated.

 (3) When published studies have treated some aspect of the species as a whole rather than of subspecies, e.g., its food habits or its molestation by the cowbird, these results are presented under the first subspecific history, i.e., of the nominate race M. m. melodia, which also includes data that cannot be referred to subspecies and material that appears to be of general applicability.

Thus, the life history of M. m. melodia is to a degree broadly descriptive of the species. Mrs. Nice's treatment of euphonia, on the other hand, contains a wealth of detail about a small population of a widely distributed migratory race. Dr. Johnston's life history of samuelis treats in similar detail a rather specialized, sedentary race with a very limited range. For a general view of the song sparrow and its "wonderful adaptability" (Taverner, 1934), therefore, the reader might wish to consult the life histories of the races just mentioned, as well as the accounts of the races grouped as "Alaskan song sparrows" and "Pacific insular song sparrows." Finally, M. m. rivularis might be referred to as an example of the several subspecies inhabiting the deserts of the United States and Mexico.

 

Young: Most of our knowledge of the development of the behavior of nestling song sparrows comes from Mrs. Nice's work, devoted chiefly to euphonia. The following paragraph is based on her report (1943). The development of the plumage is described below under the heading Plumage.

Newly hatched song sparrows can grasp, gape, swallow, defecate, and change location "by means of uncoordinated wrigglings." A feeding note has been heard in 2-day-old birds. The eyes begin to open at age 3 or 4 days. Incipient preening motions appear at age 5 days, as do, rarely, cowering and the ability to utter a location call. At age 7 days many motor coordinations are acquired, and henceforth the bird "is capable of leaving the nest." Among the behaviorisms of the 7-day-old are cowering, stretching of the wings, head-scratching, yawning, and climbing to the nest rim. Birds 8 and 9 days old acquire new types of wing-stretching, engage in wingfluttering and -fanning, and body-shaking, and utter new feeding notes.

Both parents feed the nestlings, chiefly on "insects, worms, beetles, grubs, flies, caterpillars, grasshoppers, and similar insects" (Knight, 1908). The period in the nest varies, its minimal limit being given as 7 days by Forbush (1929) and its maximum as 14 days by most writers. Seven days undoubtedly does not represent a natural, undisturbed nestling period, but is probably the youngest age at which nestlings will leave the nest when disturbed. Knight says that young leave ground nests earlier than they do elevated nests, and that this early age is 10 days. At this time they are still unable to fly, and newly fledged birds remain hidden in plant cover. Mrs. Nice (1937) states that young euplwnia "when * * * about 17 days old * * * are able to fly and come out of hiding."

Dependence on the parents continues until after the post-juvenal molt (Todd, 1940). The parental bond may be assumed to be severed at the age of about 28 to 30 days as in euphowia (Nice, 1937).

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Name

White-crowned Sparrow
Lesson Plan

Food

Seeds and insects

Feeding Techniques

Feeds in flocks

Habitat

Open country - suburbia

Plumage

Male and female have the same plumage

Distribution

Throughout much of the US, except the northeast, Atlantic coast

Breeding

On the ground, or low tree

About the Notes from A.C. Bent

Bird tick - a dipterous insect parasitic upon birds (genus Ornithomyia, and allies), usually winged.

attrition - basically "death"

acciptrine hawks - refers to accipiters which are small hawks such as the Sharp-shinned Hawk, and the Cooper's Hawk , who specialize in hunting small birds.

Notes from A.C. Bent

Mortality: It seems to me better to get away from the connotations of the word "enemy" and simply to point out that the white-crown is subject to the usual factors that cause attrition in animal populations, whether disease, the complex of factors engendering winter mortality, or direct predation by accipitrine hawks, shrikes, weasels, and the like.

It has its normal share of parasites, both external and internal. Oscar M. Root has kindly furnished a note on the identification of Hippoboscid louse-flies, Ornithomyia fringillina, found on immature birds by Gary C. Kuyava in Minnesota; Francis Harper (1958) has taken a mite of the genus Lealaps from a juvenile specimen in Quebec; and Robert A. Norris (1954) found biting lice (Mallophaga) on dried skins and also found that four out of nine specimens examined in Georgia had protozoan infections of the blood (Leucocytozoon), and one of these, a smallish individual which had not begun its prenuptial molt on March 17, was doubly infected with the malarial parasite, Plasmodium. One adult was heavily infected with abdominal helminths, the filarid nematode Diplotriaena. The individual infected with Plasmodium also had foot tumors caused by the virus Epithelioma contagiosm. Alfred O. Gross (1937) reports the mallophagan Philopterus subflavescens (Geof.) from young on the Labrador coast, and Herbert Friedmann (1938) reports parasitism by the cowbird at Okotoks, Alberta. 

Of greater population significance, probably, is the loss of young birds during the first migration. For the Quebec-Labrador segment, especially, this must be a significant decimating factor because the young of the year are often wind-drifted out to sea, where they perish unless they are fortunate enough to reach an island from whence they can return. I have been particularly impressed with this problem in their lives at Block Island, R.I., where hundreds of white-crowns appear in autumn, when cold fronts pass out to sea, all of them immatures.

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Name

Fox Sparrow
Lesson Plan

Food

Seeds and insects

Feeding Techniques

Scratches ground with its large toes to uncover food

Habitat

Wooded areas, undergrowth

Plumage

Male and female have the same plumage

Distribution

Southeastern states, Pacific states

Breeding

Nests on the ground or low hanging tree

About the Notes from A.C. Bent

Sylvester D. Judd, a zoologist with several years of field and laboratory experience, was appointed in 1895, and assisted Professor Beal in the study of economic ornithology for several years. He prepared a series of fine papers on the food taken by birds, one of the most notable of which was "Birds of a Maryland Farm" (1902); others dealt with the food of grouse, quail, and turkeys. Dr. Judd died in 1905.

Notes from A.C. Bent

Food: Fox sparrows are essentially terrestrial feeders and scratch lustily for their food amongst fallen leaves. Using both feet in unison, they display such remarkable balance that Charles W. Townsend (1905) wonders "why they do not pitch forward on their heads when they spring back." Amelia S. Allen (1915) comments on species at her feeding tray in California: "The habit of scratching for its food seems to be so firmly fixed that it usually scratches among the crumbs before picking them up." 

When not on the breeding grounds the fox sparrow is essentially a vegetarian. According to Sylvester D. Judd (1901) the stomachs from 127 birds taken principally in the eastern U.S. in every month except June, July, and August contained 86 percent vegetable and 14 percent animal matter. Judd adds "The vegetable food differs from that of most other sparrows in that it contains less grass seed (only 1 percent), less grain, and more fruit, ragweed, and Polygonum. 

Half the food consists of ragweed and Polygonum." The birds do little if any damage to cultivated fruits, for most of the fruit seeds found, of blueberries, elderberries, blackberries, grapes, came from birds collected in March, April, and May, and were obviously from withered fruits of the previous year the birds picked up from the ground.

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Name

Golden-crowned Sparrow
Lesson Plan

Food

Seeds and insects

Feeding Techniques

Feeds in flocks

Habitat

Open country - suburbia

Plumage

Male and female have the same plumage

Distribution

Pacific states

Breeding

Nest is generally placed on the ground; lined with grass

About the Notes from A.C. Bent

Zonotrichias - Bent is referring to the genus name of the species, Zonotrichia. This genus includes four species in the US, White-crowned Sparrow, Golden-crowned Sparrow, White-throated Sparrow, and the Harris Sparrow.

Notes from A.C. Bent

Behavior: On the wintering grounds the golden-crowned sparrows are usually found in mixed flocks with white-crowned sparrows. Often while watching white-crowns feeding on a lawn, one will notice a few golden-crowns coming out of adjacent shrubbery, usually staying close to the shrubbery and disappearing into it quickly when one approaches. John B. Price (1931) notes "Although easier to trap than the white-crowns, the golden-crowns are harder to observe in the field as they keep more in the bushes." 

D. D. McLean writes me: "When feeding, this species is relatively quarrelsome toward others of the same species and genus. * * *

When loafing, they are more tolerant of their own kind and other species. Mixed flocks of Zonotrichias spend much of their time perched in or near the tops of bushes whisper-singing, preening, and carrying on twittering small talk. When such flocks are disturbed, they rarely fly en masse to new cover, but string along in singles and small groups. One thing I have particularly noted of interest to me is the fact that they rarely climb very high in trees during the winter, and about 25 feet would be near the maximum. However, in the spring during or just prior to the general move, they often go up to 60 or 70 feet. It has also been noted that most flights from these heights have been northward unless startled or forced in some other direction." 

When they are excited, and sometimes when they are about to take flight or move to another perch, birds raise the feathers of the crown.

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Name

White-throated Sparrow
Lesson Plan

Food

Seeds and insects

Feeding Techniques

Open country, mixed woodland, thickets

Habitat

The undergrowth of woodlands

Plumage

Male and female have the same plumage

Distribution

Eastern states to southern Arizona

Breeding

Usually nests on ground

About the Notes from A.C. Bent

Notes from A.C. Bent

Food: White-throated sparrows feed on both plant and animal matter. Sylvester Judd (1901) examined the contents of 217 stomachs collected during every month except June. From these he reported: The food for the year, as a whole * * * consists of 19 percent animal matter and 81 percent vegetable matter. Of the vegetable food, 3 percent is grain, 50 percent weed seed, and the remainder chiefly wild fruit * *

Some grass seed is consumed, particularly seeds of such troublesome species as pigeon-grass, crab-grass and other panicurns, and Johnson grass. This element forms about 5 percent of the total food and is taken chiefly during September, when it amounts to 24 percent of the food of the month. A little amaranth and lamb's quarters are eaten; and gromwell, chickweed, wood sorrel, sedge, violet and sheep sorrel are all represented in the diet. But the principal weed seeds found in the stomachs are those of ragweed and different polygonums. * * * The two weeds form 25 percent of the food for the year, of which ragweed furnishes 9 percent, and the polygonum 16 percent. During October, ragweed alone constitutes 45 percent of the month's food. * *

The insect food resembles that of many other species in general character, but some interesting differences appear when it is reviewed in detail. Hymenoptera constitute 6 percent of the year's food; Coleoptera, 5 percent; Heteroptera and Diptera, taken together, 3 percent; and Lepidoptera, 3 percent, the customary quota of spiders, millipedes, and snails supply the remaining 2 percent of the animal food.

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Name

Harris Sparrow

Food

Seeds and insects

Feeding Techniques

Forages on the ground

Habitat

Grassland

Plumage

Distribution

Primarily the midwest

Breeding

About the Notes from A.C. Bent

Obviously George Miksch Sutton was not the first 'man' to see the Harris Sparrow's nest. Native Americans had been in the area for many thousands of years.

It is also interesting that these ornithologists would shoot the female bird who flys off the nest so they could be sure of the identification of the bird.

Notes from A.C. Bent

Nesting - Almost a century after the discovery of Harris' Sparrow on the Missouri prairies, the eggs of this handsome bird were still unknown to science. While a nest with young fledglings just out of the nest had been collected and the breeding range roughly established, the region was virtually inaccessible during the nesting season. ...

In 1931 two parties visited the Churchill area with the primary aim of finding the eggs of the Harris Sparrow. Most of the following information is summarized from the full and fascinating account by John B. Semple and George M. Sutton whose party discovered the first nest with eggs.

To George Miksch Sutton of the Carnegie Museum-Cornell University party fell the honor and good fortune of discovering the first nest. He later describes (1936) in his inimitable style the personal feelings of an ornithologist at such a moment: "As I knelt to examine the nest a thrill the like of which I had never felt before passed through me. And I talked aloud! 'Here' I said. 'Here in this beautiful place!' At my fingertips lay treasures that were beyond price. Mine was Man's first glimpse of the eggs of the Harris's Sparrow, in the lovely bird's wilderness home."

Returning to the Semple and Sutton (1932) account:

The circumstances of the finding were these: After watching a certain pair of birds for a time, the junior author started across a wet, open spruce woods bound for an area a mile distant which the birds were known to frequent. Just as he entered a clump of comparatively tall spruce trees, he noticed a Harris's Sparrow picking at its belly with its beak, as if it had just come from a nest. He watched the bird for a time without moving, and then deliberately and quietly retraced his steps, marking the spot carefully. After about fifteen minutes he returned briskly, walked noisily through the water, the mossy mounds, and bushes, and, just as he was about to set foot upon the crest of one of the water-bound hummocks - he flushed the bird. The nest was less than twelve inches from his foot. The bird flew directly from the nest, without any attempt at feigning injury; it perched on a dead spruce bough about twenty yards away, where it wiped its bill. It gave no alarm note. The bird, a female, was collected at once, to make identification certain.

Name

Chipping Sparrow
Lesson Plan

Food

Seeds and insects

Feeding Techniques

Forages on the ground

Habitat

Open country, agricultural areas, parks

Plumage

Male and female have the same plumage

Distribution

Throughout the US

Breeding

Variety of nesting sites

About the Notes from A.C. Bent

Notes from A.C. Bent

The specific name Alexander Wilson gave this little sparrow, socialis, aptly describes the close relationship many later authors have noted between its habitations and those of man. None has expressed it better than Forbush (1929), who wrote "The Chipping Sparrow is the little brown-capped pensioner of the doorward and lawn, that comes about farmhouse doors to clean crumbs shaken from the tablecloth by thrifty housewives. It is the most domestic of all the sparrows. It approaches the dwellings of man with quiet confidence and frequently builds its nest and rears its young in the clustering vines of porch or veranda under the noses of the human tenants." 

The early writers spoke of it as the most common bird in their areas. Audubon (1841) wrote "Few birds are more common throughout the UnitedStates than this gentle and harmless little bunting." But soon after the turn of the century a sharp decline in numbers was noted in formerly populous areas (R. F. Miller, 1933; ii. F. Price, 1935; L. Griscom, 1949). The explanations given usually include cowbird predation or competition from English sparrows. Yet in 1954 - 58 the chipping sparrow was the most abundant nesting bird on the campus of the Lake Itasca Forestry and Biological Station in Hubbard County, Minn., in an area where there were many cowbirds and no English sparrows.

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Name

Black throated Sparrow
Lesson Plan

Food

Seeds and insects

Feeding Techniques

Foraging along the ground

Habitat

Desert

Plumage

Male and female have the same plumage

Distribution

Southwestern United States

Breeding

Nest placed in low shrub or cactus

About the Notes from A.C. Bent

Notes from A.C. Bent

Food: Joe T. Marshall, Jr., writes me that he obtained seeds and "rocks" from the stomach of a specimen taken in Arizona in the fall. Seeds and gravel were similarly found in a bird taken in New Mexico in November. A specimen taken in Janaury in northern Sonora had been eating small seeds.

Marshall considers that the species probably eats seeds in the winter and insects during the nesting period. I have often seen adults carrying insect matter toward their nests. Free water is apparently not necessary for these birds when insects are available. 

Smyth and Bartholomew (1966) comment: "The black-throated sparrow's use of drinking water in the field seems to depend on its diet. During the late spring and early fall, stomachs contain almost exclusively seeds and gravel and the birds regularly drink at waterholes even when maximum temperatures are as low as 90 C. But as soon as green grass and herbs appear after the first rains - in 1964 these fell in mid-November - the sparrows are no longer seen at water holes and can be found in small, widely scattered flocks far from the water holes. At this time their stomachs contain green material as well as seeds and gravel, their bills are stained green, and they can be seen often pecking at green vegetation. Then when day-flying insects become more abundant in February these are eaten, sometimes almost exclusively, and this diet allows the sparrows to be independent of drinking water throughout the breeding season. A few adults can be seen coming to drink in June, and the numbers of birds visiting water and the number of visits to water per bird then increase until by August each bird visits, on the average, about twice daily. The young are fed insects, particularly grasshopper abdomens.

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Name

Savannah Sparrow

Lesson Plan

Food

Seeds and insects

Feeding Techniques

Forages on the ground

Habitat

Open field, marsh, wetland

Plumage

Male and female have the same plumage

Distribution

Throughout most of the US

Breeding

Breeds on the ground

About the Notes from A.C. Bent

Notes from A.C. Bent

Behavior: The most frequently occurring description of Savannah sparrow behavior is that "it runs like a mouse through the grass." This is certainly an apt phrase since it has connotations of color, behavior, and habitat and, in addition, neatly summarizes the Savannah's mien.

Quay (1957), in his paper on wintering Savannaha, summarizes his observations as follows:

The Savannah sparrow was not an easy bird to watch. When disturbed, it ran on the ground more often than it flushed. Crouched low to the ground, head down and stretched forward, it ran quickly and quietly, taking advantage of all cover and resembling a mouse more than a bird.

When disturbed by a man walking, Savannahs either moved onward on the ground or took flight. Flights were usually short, 20 -70 feet, and practically never carried the bird out of the plot. Flight was quick, erratic and only a few inches above the vegetation.

Although the Savannah sparrow runs when disturbed, it hops when it feeds, and sometimes scratches like a towhee. Quay (1958) reports that the Savannahs "typically fed on the ground, picking up seeds from the ground like a chicken. The only times they were seen to take seeds directly from plants were when snow and sleet covered the bare ground." However, as the seeds continue to scatter from the plants, the Savannahs soon resume feeding on the surface of the snow.

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Name

Nelson's Sharp-tailed Sparrow
Lesson Plan

Food

Primarily insects and other invertebrates; also seeds

Feeding Techniques

Forages on the ground

Habitat

Wetlands, marsh

Plumage

Male and female have the same plumage

Distribution

Unusual distribution - California coast, southeast coast, Great Plains

Breeding

Nest placed above high-tide mark on ground

About the Notes from A.C. Bent

Notes from A.C. Bent

Enemies: Friedmann (1929, 1963) lists nelsoni among the hypothetical victims of the brown-headed cowbird on the basis of one hearsay report. The first definite record was made by John Lane, who reported in a letter to Oscar M. Root: "On June 20, 1962 I found a Nelson's sharp-tail nest with 4 eggs plus 1 cowbird egg in a grassy hummock where the yellow rail nests in Dixon's Slough, Gorrie School District, Brandon, Manitoba."

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Name

Lark Sparrow
Lesson Plan

Food

Seeds and insects

Feeding Techniques

Forages on the ground

Habitat

Open country, fields

Plumage

Male and female have the same plumage

Distribution

Western and midwest states

Breeding

Nest is on the ground, or low shrub

About the Notes from A.C. Bent

Notes from A.C. Bent

Behavior: Where it is plentiful, as on its Oklahoma breeding grounds, the lark sparrow is markedly gregarious. Even at the height of the nesting season one sees them feeding together in small flocks. In such flocks at Lake Texoma I frequently identified color-banded individuals from active nests. While pairs defend their nest and its immediate environs, they do not establish or defend a feeding territory. Birds may fly some distance from the nest for both nesting material and food.

The flocks increase in size as summer wanes and become rather noisy, with much chirping and occasional outbursts of song. Individuals in the flocks quarrel with one another fairly frequently; the fights do not seem to be governed by sex or age, for males may combat with other males and with females, and adults with juveniles. Other species sometimes join the flocks. In one flock of 40 lark and 10 field sparrows, interspecific fighting occurred occasionally. In late summer the flocks become very wary and difficult to approach, and will leave the field where they are feeding at the first sight of an intruder.

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Name

Lincoln's Sparrow
Lesson Plan

Food

Seeds and insects

Feeding Techniques

Forages on the ground

Habitat

Open country

Plumage

Male and female have the same plumage

Distribution

Southwest from Texas to Pacific states

Breeding

Nests on the ground; may compete with Song Sparrow for nesting sites.

About the Notes from A.C. Bent

Notes from A.C. Bent

The Lincoln's Finch (Sparrow) was very shy at first and at all times exceedingly alert and suspicious but he showed a nice and, on the whole, wise discrimination in his judgment of different sights and sounds. A keen, intelligent little traveller, evidently, quite alive to the fact that dangers threatened at all times, but too cool-headed and experienced to be subject to the needless and foolish panics which seize upon many of the smaller birds. He soon learned to disregard the movements and noises which we made within the cabin, and the trains thundering by on the other side of the river did not disturb him in the least but if our door was suddenly thrown open or if a footstep was heard approaching along the river path, he at once retreated into the thickets behind the ferns, dodging from hush to bush and keeping behind anything that would serve as a screen until all was quiet again, when he would presently reappear at the edge of the covert and, after a short reconnaisance, begin feeding again.

But however busily engaged at the seed, no sight or sound escaped him. If a Chipmunk rustled the dry leaves on the neighboring hillside, he would stand erect and crane his neck, turning his head slowly from side to side to watch and listen. When a Swift, of which there were many flying about, passed close overhead with a sound of rushing wings, the Sparrow would crouch close to the ground and remain motionless for a minute or more. But when nothing occurred to excite his suspicions, he would feed busily and unconcernedly for minutes at a time. Some of the seed had sifted down among the dry leaves and for this he scratched precisely in the manner of the Fox Sparrow, making first a forward hop of about two inches and then a vigorously backward jump and kick which scattered behind him all the leaves that his feet had clutched. In this manner he would quickly clear a considerable space and then devote himself to the uncovered seeds, which he would pick up one by one and roll in his bill after the manner of most Sparrows.

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Name

Brewer's Sparrow
Lesson Plan

Food

Seeds and insects

Feeding Techniques

Forages on ground

Habitat

Sagebrush, desert, plains

Plumage

Male and female have the same plumage

Distribution

Interior western states

Breeding

Nests in shrubs near the ground, but not on the ground

About the Notes from A.C. Bent

Notes from A.C. Bent

John Cassin discovered this drabbest of North American sparrows in 1850 and named it in honor of the Boston physician and naturalist Thomas Mayo Brewer. His recognition of the range as essentially western North America remains unchanged, especially with the discovery in 1925 in the Canadian Rocky Mountains of a montane race. No other bird is more characteristic of the arid sage country of the Great Basin and Pacific slopes, where Brewer's sparrow is often abundant both as a migrant and resident.

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Name

Grasshopper Sparrow
Lesson Plan

Food

Mostly insects

Feeding Techniques

Forages on the ground.

Habitat

Grassland

Plumage

Distribution

Primarily through the eastern states - but also found in scattered areas of the west.

Breeding

About the Notes from A.C. Bent

Notes from A.C. Bent

Behavior: The grasshopper sparrow is a secretive bird, difficult to observe. It seldom flies, but runs ahead of the searcher through the grass and flushes only when hard pressed. As William Brewster (journal) describes it: "when flushed the sparrows rise swiftly and vigorously, twisting a little * * * the flight then becomes steady and direct and is performed in long, regular undulations, the wings being vibrated rapidly." He adds: "On the ground they both run and hop." Witmer Stone (1937) notes that in flight the bird "turns to one side or the other like a snipe." Simmons (1925) writes that when flushed the western grasshopper sparrow rises "in a zig-zag flight for a few yards" and then "dives back into the weeds. * * * In open fields, flight is extended and rapid."

The bird perches in a peculiar crouched position, as if ready to dart off in an instant.

D. J. Nicholson comments on the colonial nature of floridanas: "They breed in small colonies: three or four to a dozen pairs. These colonies are very local and are not found everywhere over this vast prairie, many apparently suitable spots being unoccupied."

These same words might well apply to the eastern and western grasshopper sparrows as well, for they show the same colonial nature and fluctuate considerably in abundance from year to year.

One cause of population changes might be attributed to grassland management practices. On my study area, for example, the fields during the early part of the study were run down and supported a poor growth of timothy, alfalfa, and red clover. From 1944 on, the fertility of the fields increased considerably and the grass mixture was changed to a thick, vigorous growth of alfalfa, ladino clover, and brome grass (Bromus inermis). The grasshopper sparrows in the area settled in hay and abandoned fields where the vegetation was not so heavy.

Oscar Root (1957, 1958, letter), who kept a long-time record of local population fluctuations on a level, artificially drained airport of 100 acres at North Andover, Mass., found the grasshopper sparrow populations there built up to highs, followed by severe reductions in numbers the following year. He believed mowing the grass on the area prior to his counts reduced the population. However, when mowing was postponed to allow completion of nesting by the sparrows, the population still remained low. He states that certain areas always productive in the past were without grasshopper sparrows, though in prime shape and undisturbed.

The birds about Concord, Mass., have shown a similarly fluctuating pattern of abundance through the years (Griscom, 1949).

An unusual concentration of grasshopper sparrows is described by Brewster in his Nantucket journal. Here on June 27, 1874, he and Maynard found grasshopper sparrows extremely plentiful. He writes that "they were equally distributed for an extent of three to four miles. Often there were three or four pairs breeding in an area a hundred yards square." This species was fairly common on the Islands in the 1920's, but in recent years it has become local and uncommon and appears to have been replaced by the Savannah sparrow (Passerculus sandwichensis) (Griscom and Folger, 1948). Mrs. A. B. Davenport writes that the same situation is true on Conanicut Island, off Rhode Island. The bird was formerly abundant on Martha's Vineyard and north to Essex County, Mass.; today it is rare and local, replaced by the Savannah sparrow (Griscom and Snyder, 1955).

Thus it appears that populations of grasshopper sparrows fluctuate sharply at times in spite of the availability of suitable habitat. No reason can be given, but in some areas it appears to be giving way to the Savannah sparrow, a bird that occupies the same fields and is able to maintain its numbers when shrubs invade the area.

 

Name

Henslow's Sparrow

Food

Largely insects (see below)

Feeding Techniques

Foraging on the ground

Habitat

Tall grass prairie

Plumage

Distribution

North eastern and central United States

Breeding

About the Notes from A.C. Bent

Notes from A.C. Bent

Henslow's sparrow is a grassland species occupying meadows or marshy openings in the woodlands of central and eastern United States and southern Canada. A shy, unobtrusive, and secretive little bird that tends to run when disturbed instead of flying, it is consequently hard to find and difficult to observe in the field. When Audubon discovered the first specimen in Kentucky just across the Ohio River from Cincinnati in 1820, he painted the bird and named it (1829) for his friend the Reverend John Steven Henslow, professor of botany at Cambridge University, England.

Throughout its summer range the western Henslow's sparrow occupies weedy prairies and meadows, and neglected grassy fields and pasturelands, which are often dotted with low shrubs or bushes. The vegetation it inhabits may be rather irregular in height and density, or fairly uniform; the ground cover is usually quite dense and at least a foot or two high.

Food. From 17 stomachs (12 adult, 5 immature) Hyde (1939) collected between April and October, he determined the food to be 82 percent animal matter by bulk and 18 percent vegetable matter. Orthoptera comprised 36.47 percent of the August-September food, Coleoptera 19.3, Heteroptera 12.2, Lepidoptera 3.3, and Hymenoptera 1.8 percent. Additional items of animal matter included Diptera, Neuroptera, spiders, unidentified arachnids, myriapods, and gastropods.

,

Name

Tree Sparrow
Lesson Plan

Food

Seeds and insects

Feeding Techniques

Forages on the ground

Habitat

Marshes, brushy areas

Plumage

Male and female have the same plumage

Distribution

Most of the US, except southeast, southwest, and Pacific states

Breeding

Nest is placed on the ground

About the Notes from A.C. Bent

"The Department of Agriculture estimates that the sparrow tribe, of which the tree sparrow is one of the most abundant species, saves the farmer $90 million a year." One of the main reasons for having the Life Histories of North American Birds written was to provide commentary on the economic impact of birds.

Notes from A.C. Bent

Economic importance: Because of the vast quantities of obnoxious weed seeds the tree sparrows consume during their winter sojourn in the States, much has been made of the economic value of this species. The Department of Agriculture estimates that the sparrow tribe, of which the tree sparrow is one of the most abundant species, saves the farmer $90 million a year. Judd (1901) describes the thoroughness with which they clean up a patch before moving on. On an area 18 inches square in a weedy ditch where they had been feeding, he found 1,130 half seeds, only 2 whole ones, and only 6 seeds left in the whole field, which, he says, was devoid of weeds the next year.

Since Judd's time some doubt has been expressed of the value of the sparrow tribe. Certainly Judd overestimated the thoroughness of their gleanings, else they could not return year after year to the same areas, nor would they wander so freely over their little territories, only to cover the same ground another day. And certainly there is no scarcity of weeds in the country regardless of the great hordes of these birds. The reproductive capacities of the plants easily outdo the eating capacities of the sparrows, and there will probably always be enough weeds left to bother the farmer and propagate the species. Indeed, if there were no sparrows, the overcrowding of the plants themselves would soon establish a balance.

But if not actually beneficial, these birds are certainly harmless. They occasionally sample grain, but to no appreciable extent. The charge has been made that they distribute rather than destroy the seeds, but this accusation was refuted by Judd's study. He found that in the thousands of stomachs containing ragweed, there was never an unbroken seed. The thoroughness of avian digestion prevents the evacuation of anything but a most insignificant portion of the food ingested.

In the summer the tree sparrow is of no economic significance, as it nests beyond the reaches of civilization. But whether or not we can evaluate the species in cold dollars and cents, it will always be welcome as a gentle, cheerful little creature in our winter fields and gardens.

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Name

Rufous-crowned Sparrow
Lesson Plan

Food

Seeds, insects

Feeding Techniques

Forages on the ground

Habitat

Brushy hillsides

Plumage

Male and female have the same plumage

Distribution

Southwest

Breeding

About the Notes from A.C. Bent

A. L. Heermann is the person for whom the Heermann's Gull was named.

Notes from A.C. Bent

Contributed by HOWARD L. COGSWELL

HABITS

John Cassin (1852) described the bird now known as the rufous-crowned sparrow from specimens A. L. Heermann collected on the Calaveras River, California, presumably in foothills east of Stockton and thus in the northern part of the range of the nominate race as it is now designated. Four years later, and presumably from the same specimens, J. Cassin (1856) illustrated the species nicely in color. However he still gave it the most inappropriate vernacular name of "western swamp sparrow," stating that the birds "live in the vicinity of the shores of the ocean and the margins of streams of fresh water." How he obtained such a completely erroneous idea of the habitat of this predominantly dry hill country bird is not clear. Apparently all he had to base it on were A. L. Heermann's skimpy notes, which he quotes as follows: "In the fall of 1851, I met with a single specimen of this bird, in company with a flock of sparrows of various kinds. In the spring of 1852, I found it quite abundant on the Calaveras River, where I procured several specimens. Its flight appeared feeble, and when raised from the ground, from which it would not start until almost trodden upon, it would fly a short distance, and immediately drop again into the grass."

Its shy nature and inconspicuous song, coupled with the discomfort attending any pursuit or wait for such a bird in its typical habitat of dry hillside grass with scattered or open brush or rocks, are doubtless partly responsible for the scant attention given this species since the 1850s. In the San Francisco Bay region Joseph Grinnell and Margaret W. Wythe (1927) refer to it as being "closely restricted to open sunny hillsides clothed sparsely with chaparral particularly California sage." In that region this plant (Artemisia californica) is widespread on steep, south- or west-facing slopes with poor or little soil (Grinnell, 1914b). William Brewster (1879) states, based upon information from C. A. Allen of Mann County, that:

"They * * * are found in considerable numbers every season on all the mountains about Nicasio. Black Mountain, however, seems to be their stronghold. It is destitute of forests and the exceedingly steep, rocky sides are abundantly clothed with 'wild oats' and a bush very like the sweet-scented southern-wood. Another shrub, called by hunters the 'spit-bush' is also characteristic of the locality, which is otherwise dry, and barren to a degree. The males sing from the tops of these low bushes."

While we might wish for a more detailed description of this area where the nests of the species were first found and described, it is obviously typical rufous-crowned sparrow habitat. Joseph Grinnell and A. H. Miller (1944) summarize most succinctly the habitats the race rujficeps prefers as follows: "Hillsides that are grass covered and grown to sparse low bushes, scarcely dense enough to constitute true chaparral. Rarely bushes may be absent if rock outcrops are present. Slopes frequented are sunny and well drained. Marked preference is shown for California sage (Artemisia californica). This in its typical open growth, associated with grass tussocks, is adhered to exclusively by these sparrows in many areas."

The mixture of low shrubs and grass they emphasize as this sparrow's prime habitat often includes other plants that they probably use. On the outer coastal mountains Hubert 0. Jenkins (1906) found the species at Big Sur and at Mount Mars, Monterey County, where I have seen them in April and December of recent years on the steep slope just above a high sea cliff where golden yarrow (Eriophyllum staechadifolium), mock-heather (Haplopappus ericoides), low-growing coyote brush (Baceharie pilularis), poison oak (Rhus diversiloba), and many broad-leaved herbs grow amid the sagebrush and grass. However, where the shrubs are too dense in this coastal area rufouscrowned sparrows are absent.

In the inner coast ranges and presumably the western foothills of the Sierra Nevada, black sage (Salvia mellijera) and other low shrubs mix with or replace the Artemisia, and the grass and other herbs between the shrubs are often much sparser in this area, which is occuppied by rufous-crowns, than near the coast. J. Grinnell and T. I. Storer (1924) emphasize that scattered low bushes on the driest slopes form this race's habitat at El Portal and Pleasant Valley near the eastern limit of its range in the Sierra Nevada foothills. In both the coastal and inner foothill areas the open spacing of these types of short shrubs, as well as their soft, often woolly leaves and relatively thin, flexuous twigs characterize the vegetation types known as coastal scrub or coastal sage scrub, as distinct from the taller, stiffer, harsher-leaved chaparral.

The rufous-crowned sparrow is, in fact, one of the most characteristic birds of the coastal scrub and undoubtedly reaches its highest population levels in that type of vegetation, whether on the foggy coast itself or in the sunny interior foothills. This race is also reported occasionally where true chaparral is regrowing after fires and is consequently still low and sparse. J. Grinnell (1905d) found them daily from Aug. 29 to Sept. 4,1904 in a ravine near the base of Black Mountain, Santa Clara County, "only on a southern hillside covered with a low growth of greasewood brush (Adenostoma)." In the Poso Range of Kern County H. Sheldon (1909a) found the species "quite plentiful * * * inhabiting the wild gooseberry thickets in the canyons and in such patches growing among rock piles on the hills." Scattered trees, usually oaks, may also be present in some areas where rufouscrowned sparrows breed, but as J. R. Pemberton (1910) notes in the bills of southern Alameda County, "The birds seldom leave the bushes for the oaks, their favorite perches being the tops of the sage."

Harry S. Swarth (1917) notes this race in shrubless foothill areas east of Fresno: "As many as ten or twelve might be observed in the course of hail an hour. The hills they frequented are devoid of brush or trees of any sort, and the sparrows resorted for shelter to the numerous rock piles and outcroppings. Here, in company with a large Rock Wren population, they seemed to find congenial surroundings despite the lack of vegetation of a size to afford shelter."

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Name

Field Sparrow
Lesson Plan

Food

Seeds and insects

Feeding Techniques

Forages on the ground

Habitat

Brushy habitat

Plumage

Male and female have the same plumage

Distribution

Eastern US

Breeding

About the Notes from A.C. Bent

Notes from A.C. Bent

Food: In his classic work, Judd (1901) notes that the field sparrow eats about 41 percent animal and 59 percent vegetable matter. The animal food consists of weevils, beetles (May, click, leaf, ground, and tiger), grasshoppers, caterpillars, leafhoppers, ants, flies, wasps, and spiders. The vegetable matter is made up of grass seeds (crab, pigeon, broomsedge), chickweed, purslane, lamb's quarters, gromwell, knot-weed, wood-sorrel, with some oats after harvesting time.

Martin, Zim, and Nelson (1951) state of the field sparrow's animal food: "Insects eaten consist chiefly of beetles, grasshoppers, and caterpillars. Various other invertebrates, including ants and other Hymenoptera, leafhoppers, true bugs, and spiders are also consumed." Plant food from 137 specimens from the northeast consisted mainly of bristlegrass, crabgrass, broomsedge, panicgrass, some oats, and lesser amounts of dropseed grass, sheep sorrel, pigweed, ragweed, wood sorrel, timothy, and goosefoot. From 38 stomachs from the prairie states, the main plants eaten were bristlegrass, panicgrass, dropseedgrass, and crabgrass, with lesser amounts of vervain, goosefoot, wheat, redtop, and gromwell.

Crooks (MS.) noted that the field sparrows began feeding before it was completely light in the morning; they fed a great deal up to about 9 a.m., intermittently for brief periods during the day, and then heavily again from 6 to 6:30 in the evening. He also noted that the female fed for longer periods, up to 14 minutes at a time, while the male's feeding periods averaged around 4 minutes.

My observations confirm those of Malcolm Crooks. Pairs often fed for many hours during the early morning before they nested, and seemed to be picking up grass and other seeds. During nesting they continued to feed on seeds, but began eating many more insects, including grasshoppers and large larvae, and the incubating female devoured any ants that ventured into the nest. The nestlings, as stated above, are fed entirely on insect food. Later in the summer as the flocks began to form they again fed largely on grass seeds.

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Name

California Towhee
Lesson Plan

Food

Seeds and insects

Feeding Techniques

Scratches the ground to find food

Habitat

Varied habitats that include suburbia, chaparral, brushy areas

Plumage

Male and female have the same plumage

Distribution

California

Breeding

Nest placed in shrub or low tree

About the Notes from A.C. Bent

senicula - this refers to a different race of the California Towhee

Notes from A.C. Bent

Behavior: A behavior pattern often mentioned in the literature is the brown towhee's so-called "shadow-boxing," a fighting response aroused when its reflection in a shiny surface suggests the presence of another towhee in its territory. D. P. Dickey (1916) first described this action for senicula as follows: "Perching on the sill, the bird would eye his reflection, and then set systematically to work to kill the supposed rival, with all the ire and intolerance of a rutting moose." Reflections from window panes near feeding stations frequently stimulate these attacks, and hub caps often receive the same attention in the Berkeley area from both towhees and robins. W. E. Ritter and S. Benson (1934) describe and discuss the meaning of this phenomenon in terms of breeding activity and territorial behavior: 

The Towhee, standing on the ledge, would face the window and assume a threatening attitude by lowering its head, fluffing out its feathers, and drooping its wings. It would then leap up at the window, striking it with its feet, or with the feet and the beak at the height of about ten inches. It would then fall back and immediately leap up to strike again. Sometimes it varied the procedure by continuing up the pane, clawing at its image as it rose.

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Name

Green-tailed Towhee
Lesson Plan

Food

Seeds and insects

Feeding Techniques

Scratches the ground to find food

Habitat

Brushy mountain slopes, chaparral, sage, manzanita

Plumage

Male and female have the same plumage

Distribution

Southwest

Breeding

Nest placed in shrub or low tree

About the Notes from A.C. Bent

Notes from A.C. Bent

Food: Among the relatively little information published on the species' food habits, J. Grinnell (1908) noted greentails in abundance at the north base of Sugarloaf in the San Bernardino mountains where "they were feeding on service-berries [Amelanchier alnifolial] in company with many other birds."

According to F. M. Bailey (1928), the species takes weed seeds and insects, including the alfalfa weevil and other injurious beetles and bugs. In the Bull Run mountains of Nevada, Ira La Rivers (1941) found this towhee, among other species, feeding on small, third-instar Mormon crickets (Anabrus simplex).

The green-tailed towhee often visits feeding stations, where it accepts chick-feed, cracked corn, bread crumbs, and birdseed. C. H. Merriam (1890) noted that this bird's "habit of searching for food on the ground led to the death of several individuals which got into our traps set for Mice and other small mammals." Similar experiences were recorded by L. M. Huey (1936a) and also by J. Grinnell and T. I. Storer (1924), who specified that the source of the birds' undoing was the rolled oats placed on the traps as bait.

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Name

Eastern Towhee
Lesson Plan

Food

Seeds and insects

Feeding Techniques

Scratches the ground to find food

Habitat

Diverse habitats, thickets, edge habitats

Plumage

Male and female have similar plumage

Distribution

Eastern states

Breeding

About the Notes from A.C. Bent

Notes from A.C. Bent

Mark Catesby (1731) in his description of the "towhee-bird," commented "It is a solitary Bird; and one seldom sees them but in Pairs. They breed and abide all the Year in Carolina in the shadiest Woods." Vieillot, in redescribing Catesby's "towhee-bird" as "Le Touit Noir" in 1819, added the following to the already growing store of information (translated from the French):

This species is numerous in the center of the United States where it remains through the summer and from where it migrates in Autumn to spend Winter in the South of the States. The Towhees, because of their short wings, cannot fly at much altitude or stay in the air for a long time; so they travel only by fluttering from hedge to hedge, from bush to bush, and they are never seen at the top of tall trees. They hunt on the ground for the different seeds they feed on, pushing the leaves and weeds that hide those seeds aside with their bill and feet; they seemed to me to be quite fond of small acorns [petits glands], eating usually only those that are fallen; they live in pairs through summer, gathering in families during September and large flocks toward the end of October, which is the time of their migration voyage which they accomplish in company with sparrows and blue and red fallow-finches. Those birds like to stay in summer in the thickness of thickets and at the edge of woods. Then we can see the male on the top of a medium height tree where he sings for hours at a time; his song is made of only a single short and often repeated musical phrase, but it seemed to me sonorous and pleasant enough to make me regret that the bird would stop as soon as there were young ones. The female makes her nest on the ground, in the weeds or under a thick bush, gives it a thick and specious shape; she makes it out of leaves, vines, and bark strips outside and lines it inside with fine weed stems. Her laying consists of five eggs of a pale flesh color with freckles more abundant at the larger end.

Since these early writings, many details of the life history of this ever popular bird have come to light. Presumably, both Catesby and Vieillot were referring to the bird that breeds in the northeastern United States although Catesby was more likely to have been familiar with the form occurring in Georgia and the Carolinas. Studies of geographic variation in morphology, migratory behavior, and breeding habits have today documented the propriety of recognizing four subspecies of eastern towhees (Dickinson, 1952). C. G. Sibley's (1950) study of the allied western forms has confirmed their close relationship to the nominate eastern stock.

The four eastern races the 1957 A.O.U. Check-List recognizes are characterized as follows (Dickinson, 1952):

P. e. erythrophthalmus (Linnaeus). A large, small-billed, vividly colored, red-eyed form, showing a large amount of white on the rectrices. It breeds in the Transition and Upper Austral Zones east of the Great Plains from southern Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario, and Maine southward through middle North Dakota, Iowa, Kansas, and northern Arkansas, and eastward through middle Tennessee, northern Georgia, and western South Carolina to the Atlantic coast in southern Virginia.

P. e. rileyi Koelz. A medium sized, large-billed race with variable eye color, and showing less white on the rectrices than its northern relatives. It breeds from western Florida and southeastern Alabama northeastward through southeastern Georgia and South Carolina to central coastal North Carolina.

P. e. alleni Coues. A small, medium-billed, pale-eyed race, showing very little white in the rectrices. It breeds in Florida from Franklin, Columbia, and Duval counties south to southern Dade County.

P. e. canaster Howell. A large, large-billed, pale race, with variable eye color, showing a medium amount of white on the rectrices. It breeds from eastern Louisiana and western Mississippi northward to southern Tennessee, eastward across northern Alabama and central Georgia and South Carolina to south-central North Carolina, and southward to the Gulf coast from extreme western Florida westward to central Louisiana.

Authors vary widely in their choice of terms describing the preferred habitat of the rufous-sided towhee. Some areas noted are hedgerows, thickets, brushy hillsides, and "slashings" (E. 11. Eaton, 1914); woodlands and swamps (E. E. Murphy, 1937); dry uplands near edges of woods or high tracts covered with a low brushwood (Baird, Brewer, and Ridgway, 1874b); brushy pastures (C. J. Maynard, 1896); and "thickets of willows, cottonwoods, and young sycamores, where wild sunflowers, horse-weeds and poke grow rampant, the whole woven together by the interlacing of wild cucumber vines" (A. W. Butler, 1898). Forbush (1929) says "He is a ground bird: an inhabitant of bushy land. No other sparrow in New England seems to be so wedded to life in thicket and tangle. * * * He spends most of his life in thicket, 'scrub' or sprout land, and so the bushy lands of Marthas Vineyard and Cape Cod are favorite resorts. He is not a dooryard bird except in winter, when necessity now and then drives one to a feeding station, but even then he spends most of his time in the shrubbery, coming out only to secure food. He may be found along bushy fences and roadsides, and often finds food or sand in country roads." B. H. Warren (1890) states that they occasionally "visit potato vines and other plants on which the destructive Colorado potato-beetle feeds."

F. M. Chapman (1932),writing of the "southern race" of the towhee, comments that it "does not associate with the northern bird, which is abundant in the south in the winter. The latter selects haunts of much the same nature as those in which it passes the summer, while the southern bird lives in heavy growths of scrub palmetto."

My own experiences in the Gainesville region (where Chapman spent much of his time) and elsewhere over the entire range of P. e. alleni do not confirm Chapman's observations. Racially mixed flocks do occur in winter, and frequently. P. e. alleni is quite commonly found in habitats other than that of scrub palmetto. Sandpine (Pinus clausa) scrub in both the coastal dune and "Big Scrub" areas of Florida have this white-eyed towhee as a very conspicuous element along with the Florida Jay Aphelocama c. coerulescens. When I spent a summer on Cape Cod, Mass., I was impressed by the obvious gross similarity of the species preferred habitats there and in Florida. The habitat of birds from near the type locality of P. e. canaster (Mobile, Ala.) and P. e. rileyi (Brunswick, Ga.) do not differ radically from those in which the towhee is abundant in peninsular Florida. In my experience, the species frequents early seral stages in both xeric and mesic successions, and whenever ruderal conditions approximate these natural situations one can usually expect to find towhees in abundance.

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Name

Spotted Towhee
Lesson Plan

Food

Seeds and insects

Feeding Techniques

Scratches the ground to find food

Habitat

Diverse habitats, thickets, edge habitats

Plumage

Male and female have similar plumage

Distribution

Western States

Breeding

Nest placed in shrub or low tree

About the Notes from A.C. Bent

Notes from A.C. Bent

The morning of July 29, 1942, was cool and foggy in Berkeley, and on the hillside at my home * * * the trees and bushes were dripping with water. An adult Spotted Towhee * * * came to the feeding tray at 7:15 and ate some of the cracked grain offered there. It was a dejected looking individual, with bare patches of skin showing around the head, for it was in the middle of its annual molt; indeed it left a spotted tail feather behind on the tray. It flew but a short distance, stopping on top of a tangle of baccharis bushes and poison oak. At once it began scuttling about under and over the wet foliage, rubbing against it and shaking down drops from overhead. The wings were half spread and were fluttered in the fashion customary in bathing; also the bird bent the legs, crouching down rather than standing normally erect. It moved about within a radius of about two feet, always in the crowns of the bushes, three to four feet above the ground. After approximately a minute of this the towhee moved on, but it was detected at a distance,perched, fluttering its wings and preening. The bath was not by my standards especially effective, as the bird was only slightly wet, but it had apparently satisfied an instinct at least. All this time there had been a pan of water on the feeding tray, but it was small and fairly deep and evidently was not so stimulating of the bathing reaction as the natural supply of water.

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Name

Canyon Towhee
Lesson Plan

Food

Seeds and insects

Feeding Techniques

Scratches the ground to find food

Habitat

Desert

Plumage

Male and female have the same plumage

Distribution

Arizona, New Mexico

Breeding

Nest placed in shrub or low tree, or cactus

About the Notes from A.C. Bent

The Canyon Towhee was recognized as a distinct species from the California Towhee during the 80s. The Brown Towhee became the California Towhee and the Canyon Towhee was recognized as a full species. This species split was anticipated by Bent early in the century as he remarks below.

Notes from A.C. Bent

It is curious that the arguments over the relationships of similar kinds of birds (like the two kinds of flickers, meadowlarks, and wood pewees) have never touched the canyon towhee as a subspecies of the brown towhee of California. The two have always been considered conspecific, yet they are isolated from each other by the Gulf of California and the Colorado Desert, and they differ from each other in voice, habits, and coloration. The shy canyon towhee calls sheddap and has a pleasant jingling song, whereas the bold brown towhee of California calls a sharp chip which also serves, in series, as the rare song. Whereas the brown towhee of California is longtailed and a fairly uniform brown, the canyon towhee of Arizona has a shorter tail, a white belly, a black spot in the middle of the chest, and a reddish-brown crown patch. This line of reasoning unites the two: there is a gradual transition southward from the California brown towhee to a population at the cape of Baja California which resembles the canyon towhee in every detail except the chest spot, which is lacking. 

Within their large geographic range canyon towhees live in a variety of habitats. All provide open spaces for feeding on bare ground and dense bushes or trees with low growing limbs for hiding. Examples are desert gullies and foothill canyons in Arizona, where the vegetation is giant cactus and paloverde; around sheds, wood-piles, outbuildings, and chicken-coops of the farm; and in the log fences around corn fields and in scrap lumber piles at sawmills in the forested mountains of Mexico.

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Name

Abert's Towhee
Lesson Plan

Food

Seeds and insects

Feeding Techniques

Scratches the ground to find food

Habitat

Desert shrub areas

Plumage

Male and female have the same plumage

Distribution

Southeast California, Arizona

Breeding

Nest placed in shrub or low tree, or mesquite

About the Notes from A.C. Bent

Notes from A.C. Bent

Behavior: The wariness of Abert's towhees has impressed many ornithologists, and Bendire (1890) rated them among the shyest birds of his acquaintance. They are generally difficult to approach and to observe, because of the denseness of the riparian growth which they frequent much of the time. However, it is usually easy to detect their presence in an area owing to their habit of calling frequently under most conditions. As indicated above, they are not strictly confined to riparian vegetation, but will venture forth a few yards into adjacent, more open situations to forage and dust bathe. When disturbed, they usually retreat directly back into riparian growth, even though closer shelter may be available.

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Name

Dark-eyed Junco
Lesson Plan

Food

Seeds and insects

Feeding Techniques

Forages on ground

Habitat

Open woods, parks, brush

Plumage

Male and female have similar plumage

Distribution

Throughout the US

Breeding

Nest placed on the ground

About the Notes from A.C. Bent

Notes from A.C. Bent

The northern slate-colored junco, or "common snowbird" as persons who know it only in winter often call it,is one of the most distinctive of our common sparrows. With its uniform pale gray upperparts sharply defined against its white belly, aptly described as "leaden skies above, snow below," it is not likely to be confused with anything but other closely related juncos, and then only in the western parts of its wintering range. A friendly little bird that breeds across the continent from Alaska to Labrador and Newfoundland and from the limit of trees southward into the northern United States, it is the summer companion of the canoeist in the Canadian forests and of the mountain hiker of Appalachia. In winter it retreats southward throughout most of the United States in small, congenial flocks of 15 to 25 individuals. These sometimes forage over the snow-covered fields with the tree sparrows searching for the seeds of weeds that escaped the cultivator, and they commonly frequent the yards of homes where food has been put out for them, which they much prefer to scratch from the ground than to pick from an elevated feeder.

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Name

McCown's Longspur
Lesson Plan

Food

Seeds

Feeding Techniques

Forages on the ground

Habitat

Prairie grassland

Plumage

Male and female have different plumage

Distribution

Midwest

Breeding

About the Notes from A.C. Bent

Shore Larks - probably an older name for Horned Larks

Notes from A.C. Bent

Whether on its winter range or summer breeding ground, McCown's longspur is a bird of the plains, of the "big sky" country where the land flattens to the blue haze of mesa or plateau; where distance is the hawk's flight from a line of craggy "breaks" to the horizon. Amid the features of such a vast landscape it was first collected about 1851. It happened apparently as much by accident as by design. "I fired at a flock of Shore Larks," writes Capt. John P. McCown, U.S.A. (1851), "and found this bird among the killed." For this, in the first published description of the bird, George N. Lawrence (1851) announced, "It gives me pleasure to bestow upon this species the name of my friend, Capt. J. P. McCown, U.S.A." He adds, "Two specimens were obtained * * * on the high prairies of Western Texas. When killed, they were feeding in company with Shore Larks. Although procured late in the spring, they still appear to be in their winter dress."

Very likely this is the bird that the fatigued Captain Meriwether Lewis saw on the Marias River (near Loma, Choteau County, Mont.). Had he been more explicit in his description he might have added McCown's longspur to the magpie and the prairie dog on the list of species new to science the Lewis and Clark Expedition was to bring out of the vast northwestern wilderness. As it happened, the company was footsore and weary, slightly rebellious, and nearly at the rope's end of its resources when on June 2,1805, with its usual unpredictableness, the Missouri River divided in front of the explorers. One branch bore down on them from the right or north, the other seemed to come from the south or left, each flow about equally wicked in its rolling turbidity. Which was the Missouri and which its affluent? An incorrect decision meant days of toil and pain spent for nothing, incalculable delay, the threat of spending winter in the mountains. On June 4,1805, Lewis and six men, taking the righthand fork, the Marias River, explored upstream. A day's march brought him to extensive "plains" where prickly pear tore his feet through his "Mockersons," where rain soaked, and a windstorm chilled the party. What with haste, the fear of indian attack, the distraction of bear, deer, elk, and "barking squireels" continually under their gunsights, it is perhaps hardly surprising that when he encountered a new bird in the short grass, Lewis did not collect it and later was less precise in his report than was his custom. He listed (Thwaites, Lewis and Clark Journals, II: 119: 120) several sparrows and -

Also a small bird which in action resembles the lark, it is about the size of a large sparrow of a dark brown colour with some white feathers in the tail; this bird or that which I take to be the male rises into the air about 60 feet and supporting itself in the air with a brisk motion of the wings sings very sweetly, has several shrill soft notes reather of the plaintive order which it frequently repeats and varies, after remaining stationary about a minute in his aireal station he descends obliquely occasionally pausing and accomnyng his descension with a note something like twit twit twit; on the ground he is silent. Thirty or forty of these birds will be stationed in the air at a time in view. These larks as I shall call them add much to the gayety and cheerfullness of the scene. All those birds are not seting and laying their eggs in the plains; their little nests are to be seen in great abundance as we pass. there are meriads of small grasshoppers in these plains which no doubt furnish the principal aliment of this numerous progeny of the feathered creation.

While Lewis' notation describes McCown's generally (though it lacks the precise detail necessary for positive identification), Elliott Coues in his annotation of the Biddle edition of the Lewis and Clark "JOURNALS" in 1893 unhesitatingly identified the bird: "This is the black-breasted lark-bunting or longspur, Centrophanes (Rhynchopanes) maceowni, which abounds in Montana in the breeding seasons." Reuben G. Thwaites, the editor of the "ORIGINAL JOURNALS OF LEWIS AND CLARK (1904: 05)," accepts his conclusion. Between 1806, when Thomas Jefferson announced the news of the progress of the Expedition in a message to the Congress, and 1851, when George N. Lawrence published the discovery of the longspur, only the Biddle version of the "JOURNALS" (published in 1814) appeared in print. The Biddle edition, however, is a paraphrase, a popular account of the most important events of the expedition. It omits the scientific data, including the zoological material, among which is the account of McCown's longspur. While the avian specimens collected on the Expedition were becoming well known, the scientific data remained in darkest obscurity.

For almost a hundred years Lewis' description of "a small bird" with a treasury of other ornithological information lay hidden in the unpublished portions of the "JOURNALS" in the library vaults of the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia. In 1892 Elliott Coues, his new Biddle edition largely completed, learned of the original papers, secured them, and from their largely untapped resources enriched his volume with pages of annotations. One of the notes pertains to the identification of Lewis' "small bird." But the actual text of Lewis' account of the discovery was not published until Thwaites brought out the original Lewis and Clark "JOURNALS," uncut and intact, in 1904: 05. By that time Captain McCown's discovery of the longspur was firmly established in the literature. With no specimen of McCown's from the expedition at hand, ornithologists since then seem indisposed to reopen the question whether the "small bird" Lewis saw on its breeding grounds really was, as Coues stoutly maintained, Centrophanes (Rhynchophanes) maccowni.

If his identification of the species lacks detail, Lewis' description of its habitat is certainly that of McCown's longspur. For McCown's is a bird of the land where mirages on miles of sage and salt flats deceive the eye with the illusion of gleaming tree-bordered lakes; where, as Lewis observed, "the whole country appears to be one continued plain to the foot of the mountains or as far as the eye can reach; the soil appears dark rich and fertile yet the grass * * * is short just sufficient to conceal the ground. Great abundance of prickly pears which are extremely troublesome; as the thorns very readily pierce the foot through the Mockerson; they are so numerous that it requires one half of the traveler's attention to avoid them;" a land where the temperature, as unpredictable as a cowboy's flapjacks, rises breathlessly high in summer and drops to icy lows in winter. In Custer County, Montana, in the late 1880s, Ewen S. Cameron (1907) watched McCown's longspurs in the heat waves of a temperature standing at 114 degrees. In July 1911 near Choteau, Teton County, in the same state, Aretas A. Saunders (1912), caught in one of those thunderstorms which suddenly and commonly lash the plains, fled to cover under a sheep herder's shed to escape the rain which quickly changed to hail. Soon "a small flock" of McCown's longspurs joined him, "feeding on the ground under the shed as though they were out in the open in the best of weather."

I remember the flock of McCown's I saw in 1958 in a late April squall. According to my field notes:

Mr. and Mrs. Herman Chapman, Dr. N. R. Whitney, Jr., and I drove near Casper, Wyoming. With the unexpectedness characteristic of prairie weather, a spring storm hurled wind and snow upon us; the road ahead vanished. We no more than crawled along a road where side-banks, car high, were topped with sage.

Suddenly we saw birds struggling into view over and into the road. Some came down no more than a car's length away. Chapman stopped altogether. We saw they were McCown's Longspurs, the black caps and dark smudgy crescents on the breast marking the gray fronts of the males. Farther away were others, their bodies so light in color that frequently they were invisible, lost in the folds of snow. Several dozen swooped out of a gust. Through snow on the windshield and snow driven in windy sheets we watched. Perhaps as many as two hundred birds drifted into the road and up the side of the opposite bank.

The wind ripped at the sage above them, but here in the lee of the bank, in a sort of microclimate less severe than the white fury above, they fed, apparently on seeds; walked rather than hopped about, now in, now out of view in the white spirals the wind flung down the roadway. Now and again two males squared off in what seemed to be threat postures, head down, beaks open, wings laid back and fluttering slightly. There was some chasing presumably of McCown's females by males. A male pursued a female across the road and back again; then both flew down the road; the white area in the tail and the black terminal band were sharply revealed in flight; both vanished in the obscurity of snowdust. A female faced an approaching male; male promptly veered aside, lifting his wings slightly but enough to show the white linings momentarily.

About five minutes passed. When the squall abated, the birds moved in short flights above the road and along the bank; appeared restless. As the road ahead cleared, the birds arose above the sage and met the hard push of the wind. For a moment they hung there, swinging sidewise, dark shapes moving at a cord's-end, without advancing. Then in a slacking wind or in an extra spurt of driving power, they swept low over the sage and vanished. By the time we drove beyond the cutbank, though the storm had lifted somewhat, the birds had become indistinguishable from the driven gusts.

It is a bird of a landscape dominated by rolling prairies where sage and buffalo grass are the characteristic floristic types, and chestnutcollared Iongspurs, horned larks and sage grouse are the characteristic birds. Saunders (1912), riding on horseback across the divide between the drainages of the Dearborn and Sun Rivers, gives an excellent account of the approach to prairie habitat for which McCown's seems to have a preference: "The rolling, round-topped hills changed to fantastically shaped, flat-topped, prairie buttes, the tall grass and blue lupine changed to short buffalo-grass and prickly pear, and the bird voices changed from Vesper Sparrows and Meadowlarks, to Horned Larks and McCown Longspurs."

Called McCown's bunting, rufous-winged lark bunting, blackbreasted longspur, black-throated bunting, and "ground larks" (Raine, 1892) by "the natives" at Rush Lake in Saskatchewan, in southern Alberta it is often "one of the few common, widespread birds of the open country" (Rand, 1948); sometimes "on flattopped prairie benches, this is the only bird found" in Teton and Northern Lewis and Clark counties (Saunders, 1914).

The monotypic status of Rhyncophanes mccownii has been questioned several times. In his general discussion of the genus Plectrophanes, S. F. Baird (1858) suggested in 1858 a new genus, Rhyncophanes. In his description of the species, Baird says: "The Plectrophanes Maccownii is quite different from the other species of the genus in the enormously large bill and much shorter hind claw, so much so, in fact, that Bonaparte places it in an entirely different family. As, however, many of the characteristics are those of Plectrophanes, and the general coloration especially so, I see no objection to keeping it in this genus for the present."

Coues (1880) writes: "As Baird exhibited in 1858, there is a good deal of difference among the birds usually grouped with Plectrophanes nivalis, enough to separate them generically in the prevailing fashion. * * * Maccown's Bunting has precisely the habits of C. ornatus, with which it is associated during the breeding season in Dakota and Montana."

When in 1946 Olin S. Pettingill, Jr., collected in Saskatchewan what proved to be a hybrid between the chestnut-collared and McCown's longspurs, the problem was discussed again. Enumerating similarities and differences, Sibley and Pettingill (1955) argue that, despite the difference in the size of the bill, the point of distinction between the two longspurs, "It is demonstrable that it merely represents the extreme development in a graded series." The authors conclude that "it seems doubtfully valid to separate the members of the genus Calcarius, including the Chestnut-collared, Lapland (C. lapponicus) and Smith's (C. p. ictus) longspurs from the monotypic genus Rhyncophanes." They recommend a return to the genus Calcarius.

Once the species ranged in the breeding season over the wide prairie interiors of the western United States and the southern expanses of the Canadian prairie provinces: Oklahoma (Nice, 1931), Colorado (Bergtold, 1928; Bailey and Niedrach, 1938), Wyoming (McCready, 1939; Mickey, 1943), Nebraska (Carriker, 1902), South Dakota (Visher, 1913, 1914), Minnesota (Brown, 1891; Currie, 1890), North Dakota (Allen, in Coues, 1874; Coues, 1878), Manitoba (Taverner, 1927), Saskatchewan (Raine, 1892; Macoun, 1909) and Alberta (Macoun, 1909).

If the foregoing is an indication of its former nesting grounds, then the breeding range of McCown's has been drastically reduced. It is no longer included among the breeding birds of Kansas (Johnston, 1964), if indeed it ever nested there, nor of Nebraska, where it is now designated a migrant and a winter resident (Rapp, Rapp, Baumgarten, and Moser, 1958).

In South Dakota it was last recorded by Visher (1914) in 1914; since 1949, no authenticated nesting has been reported (Krause, 1954; Holden and Hall, 1959). It vanished from the Minnesota scene after 1900 (Roberts, 1932) except for a single observation of two fall stragglers in October 1936 near Hassem (Peterson and Peterson, 1936). The first authentic specimen for Manitoba was not collected until May 1925 according to P. A. Taverner (1927); its status as a breeding bird in the province is at the moment unclear.

In North Dakota it has been reported from the southwest (Allen, in Coues, 1874), northeast (Peabody, in Roberts, 1932, at Pembina), and northwest (Coues, 1878). But Robert E. Stewart, wildlife research biologist of the Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center at Jamestown, writes me (1964): "During the first quarter of this century, the species gradually disappeared over the greater portion of its former range, leaving only a small remnant population of scattered pairs in the extreme western part of the State near the Montana line." It is sobering to reflect on his next statement: "At the present time, there is some doubt as to whether McCown's Longspurs breed anywhere in North Dakota, although spring and fall migrations are of regular occurrence in the western areas. If breeding populations are present they must be either very rare and local or irregular in occurrence. While searching for them during the past two summers, I have combed the native prairies in the northwest quarter of the State, but without success."

At this writing, Montana seems to be the last stronghold of McCown's longspur in the United States. Stewart (letter, 1964) says that it is "common and widespread over most of the short grass prairies" there; "in the northeast portion, considerable numbers may be found within 50 miles of the North Dakota boundary. On July 3, 1953, I made a detailed list count of breeding birds occurring in approximately 200 acres of lightly grazed short-grass prairie, located in Roosevelt County, about 18 miles northeast of Wolf Point." How numerous McCown's was in the study area as compared with other emberizine forms can be seen in Stewart's list of relative abundance:

Savannah Sparrow 7 Clay-colored Sparrow 1 Chestnut-collared Longspur 44 McCown's Longspur 20

Is it significant that this area of comparative abundance is contiguous to the area in the Canadian Provinces where McCown's longspur still maintains itself with something of its former vigor? The center of population seems to be northeastern Montana westward, the adjacent regions in Saskatchewan from Willow Bunch northwest to Gull Lake and Golden Prairie, and the southeastern portion of southern Alberta. Whether the density of population is contiguous or broken into widely distributed breeding colonies seems not to be known. C. Stuart Houston writes me (letter, 1964) that in Saskatchewan there appears to be additionally a wide area of lesser density which apparently runs from Estevan northward to Fort Qu'Appelle, northwest to Outlook and Rosetown, and westward to the Alberta border. This would include the "elbow" region of the South Saskatchewan River.

In this "fringe" area the bird seems to show considerable fluctuation in numbers and in appearances in a given locality. M. Ross Lein (letter, 1964) says that in the Estevan region during the period 19 58:1962, "I never saw a McCowu's Longspur," although he believes the bird may be resident but very much restricted. Writing about the South Saskatchewan River sector, Frank Roy (1958) comes to the conclusion that "longspurs, once the most common bird in the Coteau, are now a rare and local species." However, in a letter (1964) he adds, "I now believe that the fluctuations in numbers in the area north of the South Saskatchewan River are attributable to the birds being near the edge of their normal range."

Apparently McCown's is a bird that responds to not easily discernible environmental changes. Perhaps this is involved in the unpredictableness of its appearances at certain times and in certain places. Although not enough data seem to be at hand to draw conclusions, it appears to arrive in numbers more often in dry years than in wet. Roberts (1932) says that it visited western Minnesota "only in dry seasons: when very dry it was most abundant, and in wet seasons it was entirely absent."

In North Dakota Dr. and Mrs. Robert Gammell (letter, 1964), bird banders at Kenmare, are of the opinion that they secure MeCown's "mostly during the dry years * * "'. During the dry year of 1961 we caught 6 in July." This is contrasted with years of average or above average moisture when one bird was banded in June in 1959 and none in the years 1960, 1962, 1963, and 1964 until August; after the breeding season, that is, and at the beginning of the flocking and migration period. Frank Roy (1964) states that its abundance in the "Elbow" region of Saskatchewan apparently depends on the year: an inference, I take it, to a wet or a dry year.

Another factor seems to complicate the problem. Writes Stewart (letter, 1964): "Certainly there seems to be ample habitat left, since large tracts of native prairie are still present in many areas, including the high, drier types that were preferred. * * * The reason for the gradual disappearance of this species in North Dakota is not apparent to me." He adds: "Possibly, some subtle climatic change may be involved."

Willard Rosine (MS) suggests that certain of the emberizine forms, such as lark bunting and grasshopper sparrow, may detect minute and subtle changes in the complex of soil and vegetation as well of climate: changes too minute to be easily recognized: to which they respond. It may be that McCown's longspur is a member of this group.

I have been thinking about the effects of fire in the regeneration of the prairie environment and whether this may be one of the "changes" involved here. Early travelers on the plains have left many and vivid depictions of "oceans of flame" rolling over the prairie swales, from Kansas (Sage, 1846) to the Canadian Provinces where Henry W. Hind (1860) describes one such holocaust which "extended for one thousand miles in length and several hundreds in breadth."

In the last 40 years at least, agricultural methods have largely prevented uncontrolled prairie fires or have contained them to the smallest area possible. One wonders if fire and its effect on the grasslands' environment, however minute and subtle, may be involved in the changing boundaries of the breeding range of McCown's longspur; whether fire is implicated in the environmental requirements of this species as there is the possibility that it may be in the requirements of Kirtland's warbler in Michigan (Van Tyne, 1953), although these have not yet been determined.

Nor can one ignore such factors as Frank Roy (1958) underscores in his query concerning the Coteau region of Saskatchewan: "Has cultivation brought about this rather sudden decline in the longspur population? Do newer methods of cultivation, and more frequent tilling to eradicate weeds, make it impossible for longspurs to rear their young in regions where they were abundant as recently as fifteen years ago?" Also the possible effects of aerial spraying, pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers upon the vast and still somewhat mysterious complex of soil composition and vegetational relationships have still to be assessed.

Once McCown's longspur apparently ranged a country where fences were farther apart than rivers or the far plateaus; today it nests where barbed and woven wire proclaim the domesticity of plowed acres. Once it bred on the plains where its associates included the antelope and the buffalo; today it is neighbor to the Hereford and the baby Angus.

Birds in the Classroom
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Name

Lazuli Bunting
Lesson Plan

Food

Seeds and insects

Feeding Techniques

Forages on the ground

Habitat

Open brush, along streams

Plumage

Male and female have different plumage

Distribution

Western states

Breeding

Built by female in shrub or low tree

About the Notes from A.C. Bent

C. H. Merriam created the concept of Merriam Life Zones which is being applied to the distribution of the Lazuli Bunting.

Notes from A.C. Bent

The lazuli bunting is a jewel like species closely related to the eastern indigo bunting, which it replaces in the west and which it resembles in behavior. During the breeding season, it is widely distributed over all the region west of the prairie States from the western parts of the Dakotas to New Mexico and from southern British Columbia south to Lower California, it is mostly a bird of the Upper Sonoran Life Zone but may range into the Lower Sonoran and Transition Zones. It has been found from near sea level on the coast and at Furnace Creek in Death Valley to elevations of 10,000 feet in the Sierras and 7,000 to 8,000 feet in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado. Tolerant of wide ranges of humidity and temperature, it breeds in the humid coast belt and the desert mountains of the Great Basin region, as well as in many intermediate localities. In the more arid regions it is commonly restricted to the brushy cover around springs or streams or to cultivated or irrigated areas. Grinnell and Miller (1944) describe its habitat as follows:

In breeding season, clumps of bushes, broken chaparral, weed thickets and other low vegetation on hillsides or in and about water courses, but not usually over water or damp ground. * * * Diversity of plant growth and discontinuity of masses of it seem important as well as the presence of a low dense tangle used normally for nesting. Foraging takes place in this cover, or in tall grass, but song posts are to varying degrees above it: even in the tips of tall trees if these are present.

Birds in the Classroom
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Name

Lark Bunting
Lesson Plan

Food

Seeds and insects

Feeding Techniques

Forages on the ground

Habitat

Grassy pastures, open areas

Plumage

Male and female have different plumage

Distribution

Midwest/Rocky states

Breeding

Nest is slight depression on the ground lined with grasses

About the Notes from A.C. Bent

Notes from A.C. Bent

Courtship: Published evidence indicates that the lark bunting does not attempt strongly to establish or maintain territories. Thus, Whittle (1922) reports that after dispersal of the larger flocks, the lark buntings nested in colonies in which five or six nests were "so close together that the males often sang from a series of fence posts at the same time." A. A. Saunders has pointed out that "if there were territories, the birds crossed over each other's frequently while singing, but it may have been that when they alighted they did so only in their own territories." This tolerance of other buntings seems to be extended to other prarie species as well. Thus, Langdon (1933) writes: "Our Troubadour of the Plains is gentle of manner and pleasingly sociable among his fellows. He lives a beautiful family and community life. Amiability is a characteristic trait. I have yet to see him quarrel with the Desert Horned Lark or the McCown Longspur much less with one of his own kind, even when the plains are populated with many pairs of all three birds.

Bailey and Niedrach (1938) report that the lark bunting commonly nests with chestnut-collared longspurs, McCown's Longspurs, desert horned larks, and mountain plovers as near neighbors.

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Name

Painted Bunting
Lesson Plan

Food

Seeds and insects

Feeding Techniques

Feeds from the ground or close to it

Habitat

Woodland edges, brushy areas

Plumage

Male and female have different plumage

Distribution

Southeast

Breeding

Nests in dense brush

About the Notes from A.C. Bent

Notes from A.C. Bent

Sometimes it seems that a language other than our own succeeds in conveying an idea more convincingly. In the case of the avian gem we know as the painted bunting, Spanish seems more appropriate, because in Spanish it is "mariposa": butterfly. This bird, in its dazzling brilliance, seems hardly a creature of feathers at all, but rather a dancing butterfly.

No other North American species is so brightly colored, or wears such a Joseph's coat of startling contrasts. There is no blending of shades whatever, the different hues are as sharply defined as if they were cut by a straight edge. No wonder many people seeing it for the first time can scarcely credit their eyes, because nothing else approaches it. Many other bright birds occur hither and yon about the country, but for flaming, jewel-like radiance, the nonpareil, as we know it in the South, literally fulfills the name; it is "without an equal."

Birds in the Classroom
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Name

Indigo Bunting
Lesson Plan

Food

Seeds and insects

Feeding Techniques

Feeds from the ground or close to it

Habitat

Brushy pastures, shrubland; see below

Plumage

Male and female have different plumage

Distribution

Primarily in eastern states

Breeding

Built by female in shrub or low tree

About the Notes from A.C. Bent

ecological distribution - studying the distribution of birds in response to the conditions of the environment. How does the environment restrain or encourage the success of the species?

canopy - the uppermost part of a forest

succession - The constant change to vegetation communities. If a forest burns down and there is empty land left, there is a predictable succession of plants that will replace the forest. First there will be weeds, and then shrubs, small trees, then larger trees. This process will take over a hundred years, eventually ending in a climax forest.

second growth - this term refers to a forest that has replaced a forest that was either burned down or logged. 

"As the automobile replaced the horse, large acreages of pasture were allowed to revert to forest, and the indigos started to reappear."

"In the East the opening of the forest canopy by agriculture, logging and burning, and in the western grasslands the planting of trees, coupled with cessation of burning, converted great areas into potential Indigo Bunting habitat. This species has apparently responded to these changes with a great increase in population and extension of range."

Notes from A.C. Bent

Bond (1957), studying ecological distribution of breeding birds in the upland forests of southern Wisconsin, noted that indigos occasionally occur in the forest, but are generally a species of the more open drier woods. Several factors appear to govern their breeding distribution: decreasing canopy of the forest, decreasing moisture, decreasing sapling density, and increasing shrub density. Odum (1950) found that in the mountains of southwestern North Carolina these buntings were less numerous in mesic shrublands than in xeric shrublands where there were "numerous species of shrubs and small trees which occur in dense thickets interspersed with more open places dominated by grasses and herbs." Todd (1940), like Burleigh, believed that a habitat near water is preferred, even if the water is only a small mountain stream. In western Pennsylvania, however, dry hillside thickets and even orchards are often chosen.

In Maryland, Stewart and Robbins (1958) noted indigos in "hedgerows, wood margins, and orchards; also in brushy cut-over areas of swamp forest and of rich, moist forest on the upland." In north central Arizona, H. Dearing and M. Dearing (1946) found the species in an apple orchard on one side of a road and in native trees (pines, oaks, cypress, juniper) and shrubs along the road. The shrubs included Ceanothus, scrub oak, sumac, and two species of manzanita. Roberts (1932) found buntings in sparsely wooded brush country, clearings grown up in second growth, and narrow strips of timber bordering lakes and streams. In Louisiana, except for the coastal areas, Lowery (1955) recorded them in clearings at the edges of woods and along highway and railroad rights of way.

As it thrives in areas where the forest has been cleared and is at least partially reverting to its original state, the indigo bunting would be expected to increase in parts of its range where such conditions develop. In north central Florida, for example, agricultural practices have radically changed the landscape over the past few decades, converting much of the once extensive pine forests, hammocks, and swamplands to pasturelands. As some of the pastures are abandoned and undergo processes of ecological succession, the stage is set for their occupancy by these buntings. Before 1964 the species was rarely seen in the environs of Gainesville, but in that year breeding birds were found at 10 widely scattered sites. Its increase in recent years has been noted elsewhere in Florida by Sprunt (1954) and in Maryland by Warbach (1958). The comments of Wells (1958) are apropos:

"Perhaps originally a bird of successional vegetation within the Eastern Deciduous Forest of North America, and of the oak openings along the prairie-forest ecotone, the Indigo Bunting was undoubtedly restricted in numbers by the relatively closed canopy of the climax forest. In the East the opening of the forest canopy by agriculture, logging and burning, and in the western grasslands the planting of trees, coupled with cessation of burning, converted great areas into potential Indigo Bunting habitat. This species has apparently responded to these changes with a great increase in population and extension of range.

The ecological succession of forest floras in Maine during the past century has been accompanied by marked changes in the indigo bunting population at this northern limit of its breeding range. Palmer (1949) traces the species decline there, which began in the late 19th century and continued until the 1930's. As the automobile replaced the horse, large acreages of pasture were allowed to revert to forest, and the indigos started to reappear. "There has been a marked increase during the past decade, the species again being noted as a regular migrant and breeder, especially inland in southwestern Maine. The following table indicates some of the preferred breeding habitats of this species and the breeding population densities. With few exceptions these habitats are all ecologically similar: open areas with dense cover for nesting and feeding and the availability of high singing perches.

Breeding habitat
Population count or estimate

residential area

1/acre

thicket, unmodified woodland

5 (nests)/ 7.08 acres 2/ 26.87 acres

forest edge

forest interior

9 - 18 pairs/ mile

3 - 9 pairs/ 100 acres

20-year-old grass-shrub field

4 pairs/ 100 acres

hemlock sere: mesic shrubland

oak-chestnut sere: xeric shrubland

7 pairs/ 100 acres

18 pairs/ 100 acres

old field and fence-row

0.7 pairs/ 100 acres

tung oil groves

1 pair/ 2-- 3 acres

overgrown area once cleared for building

11 pairs/ 77 acres

swamp thicket

1 pair/ 0.26 acre

apple orchard

dense second growth

shrubby field

field and edge habitat

dry deciduous scrub

13 pairs/ 25 acres

4 pairs/ 21 acres

3 pairs/ 19.5 acres

9 pairs/ 66 acres

1.5 pairs/ 26 acres

Birds in the Classroom
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Name

Dickcissel
Lesson Plan

Food

Insects and seeds

Feeding Techniques

Forages on the ground

Habitat

Meadows, prairies, fields

Plumage

Male and female have similar plumage

Distribution

The Midwest

Breeding

Built by female in shrub or low tree

About the Notes from A.C. Bent

Notes from A.C. Bent

Enemies and accidents: Dickcissel nests on or near to the ground are subject to the usual enemies: weasels, minks, skunks, coons, opossums, and especially semiwild domestic cats. Hawks and owls take their toll. I saw a sharp-shinned hawk capture a female dickcissel as she carried food to her young at a nest near Atwood, Ill.

Stevenson and Meitzen (1946) report that a dickcissel was brought to the nest of a Sennett's white-tailed hawk.

A certain number of dickcissels are casualties of the highways. Starrett (1938) found four killed by automobiles in central Illinois, and Smith (1938) reports one killed in flight by a passing car at Sydney, Nova Scotia. Tuck found a dickcissel that had been run over by a railway train near Terra Nova, Newfoundland. James Hodges (1950) reports that a dickeissel was caught in small interlaced wires of an electric line and starved to death. A nest I found in central Illinois July 2,1918, in a thick cluster of grapevines 5 feet above the ground had become so badly infested with mites that the young were almost killed. I found the same mites, less abundant, in a number of nests. Nathan Banks of the Museum of Comparative Zoology identified them as a new species of Liponysus, allied to the common poultry mite.

Perhaps the greatest foe of the dickcissel, especially those that nest in clover and alfalfa fields, is the mowing machine. Cutting the first crop destroys the early nests, and the late or second nest are often victims of a second harvest. In one 20-acre field near Atwood, Ill., I found four nests, three with eggs and one with young that a mowing machine had destroyed. Spurrell (1921) notes frequent destruction of nests in Iowa by the cutting of clover fields. He found many eggs while loading hay. Destruction by mowers may be serious enough to affect materially local dickcissel populations.

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Name

Northern Cardinal
Lesson Plan

Food

Mostly vegetation such as seeds, but also insects; see below

Feeding Techniques

Forages on the ground

Habitat

Brushy habitat

Plumage

Male and female have different plumage

Distribution

Eastern states, midwest, and Arizona

Breeding

Built by female in shrub or low tree

About the Notes from A.C. Bent

Notes from A.C. Bent

Food: In his excellent paper on the food of the grosbeaks, W. L. McAtee (1908) gives the results attained from the examination of nearly 500 stomachs of this species. The examination showed that "the bird's diet is about three-tenths animal and seven-tenths vegetable." The animal food consists almost entirely of insects. He lists 51 species of beetles, including ground beetles, click beetles, wood borers, fireflies, lamellicorn beetles, long-horned beetles, snout beetles, leaf beetles, billbugs, and bark beetles. Twelve species of hemiptera are listed, including cicadas, treehoppers, leafhoppers, plant lice, and scale insects. Four species of grasshoppers and crickets are included, as well as the larvae of eight species of Lepidoptera, ants, sawflies, dragonflies, and other flies. Other invertebrates include spiders, centipedes, snails, slugs, and small bivalves, he mentions that a male cardinal was seen eating a field mouse.

He says that the nestlings of the cardinal are highly insectivorous: "During the preparation of this report 4 have been examined, with the result that 94.75 percent of their food was found to be animal matter and 5.25 vegetable. * * * The proportions of the principal food items of the four nestlings are as follows: Cicadas, 17.25 percent; grasshoppers, 20; caterpillars, 21.25; and beetles, 23.25."

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Name

Pyrrhuloxia
Lesson Plan

Food

Seeds, insects, berries

Feeding Techniques

Forages on the ground

Habitat

Brushy habitat

Plumage

Male and female have different plumage

Distribution

Southern parts of Arizona to Texas

Breeding

Built by female in shrub or low tree

About the Notes from A.C. Bent

Notes from A.C. Bent

Food: Once in late February I saw a male nibbling at the fresh catkins of a low cottonwood tree. The small but attractive bright red fruits of the Christmas cactus (Opuntia leptocaulis) also may be eaten. Although pyrrhuloxias sometimes perch in the spiniest of our taller, arborescent chollas, I have never seen them touch the fruit.

In the autumn, along the narrow roads of the San Xavier Indian Reservation south of Tucson, groups of birds gather in the vicinity of abundant food supplies. Here the fences are overgrown with mesquite, elder, hackberry, and graythorn. Near the end of October when the hackberries were nearly gone, I found pyrrhuloxias eating green berries in the elder bushes, crowding out a few Gambel white-crowned sparrows that had been attracted there first. Some of the nearby fields had been left fallow and were densely covered with pigweed and Johnson grass. Other fields had good stands of ripe hegari of two varieties. On all sides the ground and vegetation fairly moved with hordes of grasshoppers. They were everywhere, even in the upper branches of the mesquites, yet nowhere could I find a pyrrhuloxia actually eating a grasshopper, although I counted 42 birds on a 2-mile road, at least 20 in a strip about 200 yards long adjacent to a hegari field.

At a fence corner, where the hegari came right up to the mesquites, I found three females perching carefully on top of the 4 - to 6 - inch-long seed spikes. Each bird leaned over, pulled loose a large round seed, straightened up and ate it. As I watched, other pyrrhuloxias came at intervals to feed.

They always clung to the top, ate off the top, and gradually worked downward by leaning forward till their bills were lower than their feet. The seeds in this area of about 10 feet square had been eaten almost entirely, while the hegari farther away from the mesquites appeared untouched. Here and there close to the fence hedge I saw many partially consumed spikes. One got the feeling that had the indians planted their hegari farther from the mesquites, the pyrrhuloxias might not have ventured into the open so frequently. Perhaps all the blame should not be placed on the pyrrhuloxias, for they had as companions numbers of Abert's towhees, brown towbees, Gambel white-crowned sparrows, house finches, and even a few house sparrows, any of which may have helped consume the Papago Indians' hegari crop.

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Name

Great-tailed Grackle
Lesson Plan

Food

Omnivorous - see below

Feeding Techniques

Forages on the ground; often as part of a flock

Habitat

Farms, parks, towns, open country

Plumage

Male and female have different plumage

Distribution

Southwestern states - but expanding its range

Breeding

In shrubs, trees, usually near water

About the Notes from A.C. Bent

Notes from A.C. Bent

Food: Few birds, I imagine, subsist upon a greater variety of food than the boat-tailed grackle, or display greater ingenuity in procuring nourishment. "Everything is grist for their mill." Their diet includes both animal and vegetable products. Much of their food is picked up from the ground, where they extract the larvae of beetles and other insects from among the roots of the grasses, and capture small lizards. They are said to hunt in freshly plowed land, following close behind the plowman. They pluck ticks and other vermin from cattle, often alighting upon the animals' backs for this purpose. They spend much time foraging in the vicinity of water. On bare shingly fiats along the shores they turn over small stones by inserting the tip of the bill beneath the nearer edge and pushing forward, then devour the small crustacen, insects, worms, or the like that they find lurking beneath. It is chiefly the more powerful males that hunt in this fashion. Often the grackles wade into shallow water, where apparently they capture tadpoles and small fish. Or if the water be deep, they may adopt other modes of fishing; A. W. Anthony (Griscom, 1932) tells how at Lake Atitlan in Guatemala the grackles caught fish as they flew low over the surface of the water, seizing their prey by means of a quick snap and hardly wetting their plumage in the process. At other times, however, these grackles plunged boldly into the lake, like a tern or a kingfisher, immersing themselves to a depth of not more than 3 or 4 inches. Sturgis (1928) records that the great-tailed grackles frequent the most isolated rocks in Panama. Bay, where doubtless they devour a variety of small marine creatures. In Costa Rica, Carriker (1910) found the bird common among the mangroves of the brackish estuaries so numerous along the Pacific coast.

Like other grackles, this species pillages the nests of other birds, devouring their eggs or nestlings. In Guatemala, I surprised a male boat-tailed grackle resting upon a fence-post where a pair of Bonaparte's euphonias (Tanagra lauta lauta) had built a nest, well concealed in a cranny caused by decay. The roof had been torn from the little domed nest and the newly laid eggs had vanished. Although I arrived too late to catch the grackle in the act, the circumstantial evidence pointed strongly toward him as the despoiler of the nest and-devourer of the eggs. In Mexico, Chester C. Lamb (1944) saw a male grackle seize a female yellow warbler which had dashed into the face of the bigger bird in a vain attempt to save her eggs. The warbler was killed her skull crushed by the grackle's powerful bill.

Of vegetable food, the grackles are fond of ripe bananas and of small, sweet berries, especially those of the melastomaceous shrub Conostegia. They greedily eat maize, tearing up the germinating grains from newly planted fields. One Guatemalan farmer told me that his efforts to start a cornfield were frustrated by the grackles until he adopted the expedient of scattering a considerable quantity of grain about the edges of his field. This kept the hungry birds occupied until the planted maize had grown large enough to withstand their attacks. Yet this same farmer considered that the grackles, by destroying grubs and other insect pests, did on the whole more good than harm on his estate. Later, as the maize crop nears maturity, the grackles renew their depredations upon the milpas, tearing open the husks to reach the tender, milky grains, which the females at this season feed to their fledglings .

Birds in the Classroom
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Name

Common Grackle
Lesson Plan

Food

Omnivorous

Feeding Techniques

Opportunistic - see below

Habitat

Open country

Plumage

Male and female have different plumage

Distribution

Eastern and Midwest United States

Breeding

About the Notes from A.C. Bent

Purple Grackle is the older name for Common Grackle

sagacity - wisdom

Notes from A.C. Bent

Food: Beal's (1900) report on the contents of 2,346 stomachs of crow blackbirds includes the food of both the purple and the bronzed grackles, and will be considered under the latter subspecies. It seems proper to discuss here only such reports as refer especially to the purple grackle.

In his report on the birds of Pennsylvania, B. H. Warren (1890) gives the following list of the contents of several series of stomachs, collected in various months:

March: Twenty-nine examined. They showed chiefly insects and seed; in five corn was present, and in four wheat and oats were found. All of these grains, however, were in connection with an excess of insect food.

April: Thirty-three examined. They revealed chiefly insects, with but a small amount of vegetable matter .

May: Eighty-two examined. Almost entirely insects, cut-worms being especially frequent.

June: Forty-three examined. Showed generally insects, cut-worms in abundance; fruits and berries present, but to very small extent.

July: Twenty-four examined. Showed mainly insects; berries present in limited amount.

August: Twenty-three examined. Showed chiefly insects, berries, and corn.

September: Eighteen examined. Showed insects, berries, corn and seeds.

October: During this month (1882), the writer made repeated visits to roosting resorts, where these birds were collected in great numbers, and shot 378, which were examined. Of this number the following is the result of examinations, in detail, of 111 stomachs:

Thirty, corn and coleoptera (beetles); twenty-seven, corn only; fifteen, orthoptera (grasshoppers); eleven, corn and seeds; eleven, corn and orthoptera; seven, coleoptera; three, coleoptera and orthoptera; three, wheat and coteoptera; two, wheat and corn; one, diptera (flies).

The remaining 267 birds were taken from the 10th to the 31st of the month, and their food was found to consist almost entirely of corn.

These examinations show that late in the fall, when insect food is scarce, corn is especially preyed upon by these birds, but during the previous periods of their residence with us, insects form a large portion of their diet.

Bendire (1895) makes the general statement that: Their food consists largely of animal matter, such as grasshoppers, caterpillars, spiders, beetles, cutworms, larvae of different insects, remains of small mammals, frogs, newts, crawfish, small mollusks and fish. While it must be admitted that Indian corn, oats, and wheat are also eaten to some extent, much of the vegetable matter found in their stomachs consists of the seeds of noxious weeds, such as the ragweed (Ambrosia), smartweed (Polygonum), and others. Fruit is used but sparingly, and consists usually of mulberries, blackberries, and occasionally of cherries. One of the gravest charges against them is the destruction of the young and eggs of smaller birds, especially those of the Robin.* * *

They spend much of their time on the ground, being essentially ground feeders they walk along close to the heels of the farmer while plowing, picking up beetles, grubs, etc., as they are turned up by the plow, or search the meadows and pastures for worms, grasshoppers, and other insects suitable for food.

The purple grackle eats the Japanese beetle, that imported pest that does so much damage to lawns, fruit trees, and flower gardens. I constantly see grackles and starlings feeding on my lawns, and like to think that they are probing for the grubs of this beetle: but I have never seen them feeding on the adult beetles in my rose garden. However, Japanese beetles were found in all the stomachs of purple grackles, meadowlarks, starlings, cardinals, English sparrows, wood thrushes, catbirds and robins, that were taken in the heavily infested areas in New Jersey and eastern Pennsylvania. Smith and Hadley (1926) say: "The purple grackle accounts for more of the beetles than any other bird. * * * Several were completely gorged with them. * * * The percentage of beetles eaten by the more important birds is as follows: Purple grackle, 66.3; meadowlark, 50.7; starling, 42.3; cardinal, 38.6; catbird, 14.8."

About our city parks these grackles are scavengers, picking anything edible from the rubbish cans, or eating any crumbs or bits of food dropped from the lunch baskets of visitors. Frank R. Smith sends me a story illustrating the sagacity of the bird: "This morning, as I passed through the park back of the National Museum, I noticed a grackle that had found a dry, hard crust, left from a lunch. The bird made several attempts to eat the crust, but its hardness resisted his efforts. Picking it up, he flew across the walk and alighted near a hydrant, beneath which a bird-bath was sunk to the level of the ground. Soaking in the water sat a pigeon, and the grackle, while evidently wanting to enter, feared to trust his prize so near the larger bird. After several false starts, he waded boldly into the water and turned his back on the pigeon, so that his own body was between the bread and the bird he feared. He dropped the bread into the water, waited a few seconds, picked it up and walked out to the grass, where he ate the softened bread. During this time the pigeon sat watching him curiously."

Hervey Brackbill writes to me: "Acorns are a prominent fall food. Flocks as large as a couple of hundred birds come into the oak-wooded suburbs of Baltimore in late September and October, and feed both in the trees and on the ground beneath. The grackles, incidentally, do not open the acorns as blue jays do, by holding them down with their feet and hammering them with their bills; they grip them back in the angle of their mandibles and crack them by direct pressure."

Clarence Cottam (1943) observed an unusual feeding habit of grackles and crows at the outlet of a reservoir where: About 12,000 cubic feet of water per second was passing through the electric turbines, "boiling up" to form the headwater of the Cooper River. Apparently the turbines were cutting up or otherwise killing large numbers of gizzard shad and other small fishes. These, brought to the surface by the churning water, attracted Ring-billed, Herring, Laughing, and Bonaparte's Gulls, as well as crows, Purple Grackles, and even a solitary Red-wing. * * * The grackles and crows fed over the turbulent water, picking up morsels of food with the skill and dexterity of the typical water birds. The feet and even the breast feathers of many of the crows and grackles were seen to touch the surface of the water momentarily as the birds hovered over this (for them) uncharacteristic feeding place. * * * Purple Grackles * * * use a wide variety of foods, and we have occasionally observed them feeding in shallow water on stranded insects and even small fishes. To see several dozens of these birds feeding in deep and turbulent water after the manner of gulls and terns, however, was indeed a surprise.

Economic status: The grackle's reputation among farmers is almost as black as its plumage, for its faults, and it has plenty, are more conspicuous than its good deeds. Nor is it any more popular among its bird neighbors, as can be seen by the hostility they show toward it, for many a robin's or other small bird's nest has been robbed of its eggs or callow young to satisfy the appetites of young grackles. Analysis of stomach contents does not show any large percentage of such food, but it must be remembered that the yolks of eggs and the soft parts of small young are quickly digested and thus not easily detected; and the egg shells are not always swallowed.

The grackles are condemned by farmers on account of the considerable damage done by them to the grain crops during the planting season and until after harvesting has been completed. They are accused of pulling up the sprouting corn and wheat in the spring, but much of this is done to obtain the cutworms that are attacking the seedlings. Warren (1890) says on this point: "Some four years ago I was visiting a friend who had thirty odd acres of corn (maize) planted. Quite a number of 'blackies,' as he styled them, were plying themselves with great activity about the growing cereal. We shot thirty-one of these birds feeding in the cornfield. Of this number nineteen showed only cut worms in their stomachs. The number of cut worms in each, of course, varied, but as many as twenty-two were taken from one stomach. In seven some corn was found, in connection with a very large excess of insects, to wit: Beetles, earthworms, and cut worms. The remaining five showed chiefly beetles."

Perhaps the chief damage to the corn crop is done when the grain is in the milky stage in the summer; the gracldes are flocking at that season and, where they are abundant, they swoop down in great black clouds into the standing corn; they strip the husks off the ears and eat the tender kernels, taking perhaps only a few from each ear, but rendering many unfit for the market. Sometimes as much as a quarter of the crop is thus damaged. The farmer is nearly helpless to protect a large field, for shooting only drives the birds from one portion of the field to another. All that can be said in favor of the grackle here is that it is a persistent enemy of the destructive corn borer.

Later in the season, after the corn is harvested and shocked, the grackles do some damage to the ripened ears by extracting the hard kernels; and Nuttall (1832) says that "in the Southern States, in winter, they hover round the corn-cribs in swarms, and boldly peck the hard grain from the cob through the air openings of the magazine."

Referring to the attacks on sprouting winter wheat, Judd (1902) writes: "During November 1900, a flock of from 2,000 to 3,000 pulled wheat on the Bryan farm, and only continual use of the shotgun saved the crop. At each report they would fly to the oak woods bordering lot 5, where they fed on acorns. Nine birds collected had eaten acorns and wheat in about equal proportions. The flock must have taken daily at least half an ounce of food apiece, and therefore, if the specimens examined were representative, must in a week have made away with 217 pounds of sprouting wheat, a loss that would entail at harvest time a shortage of at least ten times as much."

Although grain forms nearly half (47 percent) of the food for the year it is not all a loss to the farmer, as much of it is waste grain dropped during harvesting or left on the ground after that. Some slight damage is done to green peas, cherries, strawberries, blackberries, and other small fruits, but less than is done by some other birds.

All this damage may seem considerable, but it is largely offset by the good done in the destruction of those insects, harmful to the interests of the farmer, which make up over 50 percent of the food for the year. Consequently, where grackles are overabundant, they should be controlled or the crops be protected, otherwise they are fully as useful as harmful.

Birds in the Classroom
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Name

Boat-tailed Grackle
Lesson Plan

Food

Omnivorous

Feeding Techniques

Opportunistic

Habitat

Open country, parks and other cultivated areas

Plumage

Male and female have different plumage

Distribution

Southeast

Breeding

See below

About the Notes from A.C. Bent

polygamous - having more than one spouse; this is generally used to refer to males who have more than one mate. Polyandry refers to females who have more than one spouse.

preponderance - a large majority

progeny - offspring

Notes from A.C. Bent

Incubation: E. A. Mcllhenny (1937) says: "The male pays not the slightest attention to the female after copulation is accomplished; neither does he visit the nesting location in the early part of the nesting season with any regularity, nor does he assist in the building of the nest or in the care of the young." He prefaces these observations by stating that in its courtship and lack of attention to the young, "the Boat-tailed Grackle differs from any other American bird I have ever observed."

S. A. Grimes of Jacksonville, Fla., writes (MS.) that he has "never seen a male mexicanus of any race lend a hand in any manner to assist in nest-building, incubation, or care of the young," and Ivan R. Tompkins of Savannah, Ga., tells me (MS.) that no male he ever collected had "worn incubation patches."

As might be expected, the peculiar breeding habits of the boat tailed grackle is reflected in the sex ratio of the young. In a polygamous species one would expect a preponderance of females, and such is normally the case with the boat-tail. Illustrative of specific figures in this regard, Mellhenny (1940), who checked 89 nests at Avery Island, La., and found that the hatch comprised 70 males and 145 females, rather more than a 2-to-1 majority. In his extensive banding operations Mcllhenny found this ratio consistently carried out in trapped birds. In 1935 and 1936 he banded 1,848 boat-tails, of which 609 were males and 1,239 females, practically the same proportion. He adds the interesting observation that banding has proved that "while the females of the previous year nest as yearlings, the males do not reach the breeding age until the second year."

Another characteristic at which I have often wondered is the unusual percentage of infertile eggs in nests of the boat-tail. On many an occasion, when investigating the home life of this bird and examining nests of young, I have found at the bottom an unhatched egg or even two; and now and then a search of the nests after the season has revealed these lonely reminders of an unborn progeny. I have not heretofore mentioned this in print, nor have I ever made any systematic count of the occurrence of this peculiarity. The only author who ever has, as far as I know, is E. A. Mclllienny (1937), who found in one Louisiana colony that" twelve out of nineteen nests examined contained one egg each that did not hatch, and three out of nineteen * * * contained two." He also found that in the first nesting there were no infertile eggs, in the second an occasional one, while in the third, "the majority of nests contained one or more infertile eggs." It may be that the unique breeding habits of the male are reflected in this manner, or perhaps these are examples of lowered vitality, decreased virility, and the like.

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Name

Red-winged Blackbird
Lesson Plan

Food

Insects, seed, berries

Feeding Techniques

Forages on ground - often as part of a flock

Habitat

Generally found around water habitat

Plumage

Male and female have different plumage

Distribution

Throughout the US

Breeding

Colonial nester

About the Notes from A.C. Bent

Ernst Mayr - (1904 -2005 ) Evolutionary biologists who in 1942 with the publication of his book, Systemics and the Origin of Species, suggested that a prime aspect of speciation was geographical separation.

Notes from A.C. Bent

Territory: As indicated above and as noted by all observers, the resident adult male, on his arrival on the breeding grounds or soon after that, "stakes out his claim" to the territory that he has decided to establish and to defend. This claim may be large or small, depending on the size of the marsh and the density of its population; in a large marsh with few redwings nesting in it, the territories may be extensive and well outlined; but in a dense colony, the claims are close together and the boundaries are not so well marked. The male stands his ground and defends his territory against intruding male redwings and other trespassing birds; he even drives away female redwings until he is ready to mate.

Ernst Mayr (1941) writes as follows on territorial behavior: "Early in the season, when the weather was still cold and the males had just recently established themselves in their territories, they spend a good deal of their time sitting on the, top of small bushes or old cat-tail stalks and calling softly chuck-chuck, particularly when migrating blackbirds flew overhead. They were rather fluffed up and only the yellow margin of their shield showed. As soon as a singing spell 'overcame' one of the birds his whole attitude changed, and he displayed his red brilliantly: only to fall back into his former lethargic condition when the singing was ended."

Birds in the Classroom
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Name

Brewer's Blackbird
Lesson Plan

Food

Omnivorous

Feeding Techniques

Forages on the ground

Habitat

Human environments, agricultural areas

Plumage

Male and female have different plumage

Distribution

Throughout most of the US, except eastern coast states

Breeding

Nest is built by female and may be placed in many different places

About the Notes from A.C. Bent

Notes from A.C. Bent

The Brewer's blackbird has profited by human alteration of the environment. A large part of its time is spent perching on electric wires, where it rests, preens, calls, displays, and uses the wire as a guard perch during breeding activities. This bird forages extensively on lands that have been converted from brush or forest to pasturage, and on freshly plowed soil; it eats some grain (usually waste); and frequents golf courses, lawns, and irrigated areas. Such advantageous conditions possibly contribute to the increase of this species. Dawson and Bowles (1909) say that in Washington it has profited by human settlement of the land and by the spread of cattle; and Kennedy (1914) says that in the Yakima Valley the bird has "prospered greatly" due to irrigation. Grinneil and Miller (1944) state that, in some areas in California, it "apparently has increased as a result of human occupation of the land." The Brewer's blackbird seems to have been extending its range eastward in recent years, and it has now been recorded as a breeding species in Ontario, eastern Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Illinois. What seems to be the first published record for Ontario, of both occurrence and breeding, was made by Allin and Dear (1947); on June 14, 1945, a male was collected and a nest with young found in a cleared area near Port Arthur. The male was taken in a colony of eight birds, including a brown-eyed female, that occupied 8 acres. Concerning the bird's eastward extension in Minnesota, Roberts (1932) says that it is "one of several birds that have extended their ranges eastward across the state in comparatively recent years." It has been abundant in the Red River Valley "since the earliest records for that region; the first nesting colonies in the eastern part of the state were discovered at Minneapolis in 1914.

Birds in the Classroom
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Name

Yellow-headed Blackbird
Lesson Plan

Food

Insects

Feeding Techniques

Forages on the ground

Habitat

Marsh

Plumage

Male and female have different plumage

Distribution

Western states, and portions of midwest

Breeding

Colonial nester

About the Notes from A.C. Bent

Notes from A.C. Bent

The yellow-headed blackbird is mentioned by La Rivers (1941) as one of the birds seen eating the Mormon cricket. Kaimbach (1914) records it as feeding on the alfalfa weevil. "Of 21 stomachs collected in June, only 4 failed to contain the weevil. The insect formed 43.48 percent of the yellow-head's food and was taken at an average of more than 6 adults and 47 larvae per bird. The largest number taken by any of this species was 190 larvae and 2 adults. Another record was 160 larvae and 2 adults. Three adults and 117 larvae were eaten by one bird, while five others had taken more than 170 individuals apiece."

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Name

Tri-colored Blackbird
Lesson Plan

Food

Insects, seeds

Feeding Techniques

Forages on the ground

Habitat

Marsh, open country

Plumage

Male and female have different plumage

Distribution

Mostly California - but seems to be expanding its distribution and now is found in Oregon and Washington

Breeding

Female builds nest in marsh

About the Notes from A.C. Bent

This is an interesting discussion of when a bird is a race or a distinct species. Coues does not think that the Tri-colored Blackbird has enough differences from the Red-winged Blackbird to make it a distinct species.

Notes from A.C. Bent

This handsome blackbird was discovered by Nuttall near Santa Barbara, Calif., in 1836. He sent a male specimen to Audubon, who described it in his Ornithological Biography (1839) and figured it in his other great illustrated works as one of the only three forms of redwings recognized at that time. His specific name has stood on the A. 0. U. Check-List ever since as a binomial; it has not been split into subspecies, nor has it been shown to integrate with other forms of Agelaius. Nuttall wrote to Audubon at that time: "Flocks of this vagrant bird, which, in all probability, extends its migrations into Oregon, are very common around Santa Barbara in Upper California, in the month of April." Its range is now known to extend from southern Oregon, west of the Cascade Range, southward through California, west of the Sierra Nevada, to northwestern Lower California. Its center of abundance seems to be in the San Joaquin Valley in California.

Coues (1874) questioned the status of this bird as a distinct species on the grounds that its bill is similar in shape to that of some of the races of phoeniceus, and "the difference in the shade of red is no greater than that observable in specimens of phoeniceus proper, while the bordering of the red in the latter is sometimes nearly pure white."

Baird, Brewer, and Ridgway (1874), however, point out certain differences which seem to substantiate the tricolored redwing's claim to specific status:

Immature males sometimes have the white on the wing tinged with brownish yellow, as in A. phoeniceus. The red, however, has the usual brownish-orange shade so much darker and duller than the brilliantly scarlet shoulders of the other species, and the black has that soft bluish lustre peculiar to the species. The relationships generally between the two species are very close, but the bill, as stated, is slenderer and more sulfate in tricolor, the tail much more nearly even; the first primary longer, usually nearly equal to or longer than the forth, instead of the fifth.

Two strong features of coloration distinguish the female and immature stages of this species from gubernator and phoeniceus. They are, first, the soft bluish gloss of the males, both adult and immature; and secondly, the clear white and broad, not brown and narrow, borders to the middle wing-coverts.

The lesser wing coverts ("shoulders") of the adult male are colored a much darker red than in any of the subspecies of A. phoeniceus, a dull crimson, or the color of venous blood, very different from the bright vermilion or scarlet of the other species.

Ralph Hoffmann (1927) says of the haunts of this redwing: "In the San Joaquin and Sacramento Valleys there are many small irrigation reservoirs fringed with a dense growth of tules. From these in spring and early summer issues a medley of droning and braying sounds, and lines of blackbirds fly out in all directions to the neighboring fields or fly back with food for the young."

Birds in the Classroom
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Name

Brown-headed Cowbird
Lesson Plan

Food

Insects, fruit

Feeding Techniques

Forages on the ground

Habitat

Agricultural areas

Plumage

Male and female have different plumage

Distribution

Throughout the US

Breeding

Does not build its own nest. Lays its eggs in the nests of other species. See below.

About the Notes from A.C. Bent

Notes from A.C. Bent

The two most characteristic habits of this bird are indicated in the above names. The Greek word Molothros signifies a vagabond, tramp, or parasite, all of which terms might well be applied to this shiftless vagabond and imposter. It deserves the common name cowbird and its former name, buffalo-bird, for its well-known attachment to these domestic and wild cattle. The species is supposed to have been derived from South America ancestors, to have entered North America through Mexico, to have spread through the Central Prairies and Plains with the roving herds of wild cattle, and to have gradually extended its range eastward and westward to the coasts as the forests disappeared, the open lands became cultivated, and domestic cattle were introduced on suitable grazing lands.

The cowbird is unique in a family of nest-building birds; the blackbirds all build strong, well made nests, and the orioles show remarkable nest-building ability; the bobolink builds only a flimsy nest of grass on the ground, but the cowbird builds no nest at all, relying on other species to hatch its eggs and rear its young. Whether the cowbird ever knew how to build a nest, and, if it did, how it happened to lose the art and become a parasite, probably never will be known, though some interesting theories on the subject have been advanced. Much light is thrown on this subject by Herbert Friedmann (1929) in his study of the South American cowbird, to which the reader is referred. For the benefit of the readers who do not own this interesting and comprehensive book, we shall quote from it freely.

In his chapter on the origin and evolution of the parasitic habit he writes:

The evidence points unmistakably to the view that the Cowbirds originally bred in normal fashion and that parasitism is a secondarily acquired habit. The reasons for making this statement are:

1. The instincts of nest-building and incubation are so universally present in all groups of birds in all parts of the world that it seems likely that this is the primitive condition of the Cowbirds.

2. All the Cowbird's close relatives are nest-builders; in fact, its family, the Icteridae, is known as a family in which the nest-building instincts reach their pinnacle of development.* * *

3. Within the genera Agelajoides and Motothrus we find several stages in the evolution of parasitism exhibited by different species. The Bay-winged Cowbird, A. badius, uses other birds' nests and lays its eggs in them but incubates and rears its own young. Sometimes it makes its own nest. The Shiny Cowbird, M. boneriensis, is parasitic but has the parasitic habit very poorly developed, wasting large numbers of its eggs. Rarely it attempts to build a nest but in this it is never successful. This indicates that originally it built a nest but no longer knows how. The North American Cowbird, M. ater, is entirely parasitic but is not wasteful of its eggs.* * *

4. The parasitic Cowbirds (Metothrus) have definite breeding territories and are more or less monogamous. Howard has shown that the territory precedes the nest in the evolution of the instincts of guarding associated with reproduction. If the Cowbirds were parasitic from the very beginning it would be very hard to explain their territorial instincts. * * * The facts that the Cowbirds are fairly monogamous indicates that they were monogamous originally and probably nested in normal fashion as all monogamous birds do.

5. The most primitive of the existing species of Cowbirds is, * * * the Baywinged Cowbird. This species is the only one of its group that is not parasitic and doubtlessly represents the original condition of the Cowbird stock.* * * From the above it seems safe to assume that parasitism is not the original condition in the history of the Cowbirds. The problem, then is not whether the Cowbirds were always parasitic or not, but how they lost their original habits and became parasitic.* * *

The best theory advanced as yet, and one which my studies tend to support in part, at least, is that of Prof. F. H. Herrick. This writer studied the cyclical instincts of birds and found that not infrequently different parts of the cycle are interrupted by various causes which result in a general lack of harmony between successive parts of the cycle. He suggested that the parasitic habit may have originated from a lack of attunement of the egg-laying and the nest-building instincts which resulted in the eggs being ready for deposition before a nest was ready for them.*

The first writer to see that one explanation would not serve for all the different groups of parasitic birds was G. M. Allen (1925). * * * Wisely refraining from offering an explanation of parasitism, he suggests several "possible ways of origin."

One of the possibilities is that parasitism may have arisen from the occasional laying of eggs in strange nests by birds that are very sensitive to the ovarian stimulus provided by the sight of a nest with eggs resembling their own. This is substantiated by experimental evidence collected by Craig who found that in doves ovulation could be induced by comparable stimuli. Otto Widmaun (1907) offered the following interesting theory to account for the origin of the parasitic habit:

We know that fossil remains of horses, not much unlike ours, are found abundantly in the deposits of the most recent geological age in many parts ofAmerica from Alaska to Patagonia .

It was probably at that period that the Cowbird acquired the habit of accompanying the grazing herds, which were wandering continually in search of good pasture, water and shelter, in their seasonal migrations and movements to escape their enemies. As the pastoral habit of the bird became stronger, it gave rise to the parasitic habit, simply because, in following the roving animals, the bird often strayed from home too far to reach its nest in time for the deposition of the egg, and, being hard pressed, had to look about for another bird's nest where-in to lay the egg. * * * By a combination of favorable circumstances this new way of reproduction proved successful, and the parasitic offspring became more and more numerous. In the course of time the art of building nests was lost, the desire to incubate entirely gone, paternal and conjugal affection deadened, and parasitism had become a fixed habit.

Dr. Friedmaun (1929) disposes of this theory as "more interesting than suggestive," and adds: "It is somewhat surprising to find a naturalist of Mr. Widmann's ability advancing such a theory. Probably he meant it more as a suggestion to be taken for whatever it might be worth than as a real attempt at an explanation." The trouble with the theory is that we have no known facts on which to base it, there being no record of a cowbird leaving its nest to follow cattle, horses, or bison. Probably the parasitic habit was developed before the cowbirds invaded North America. And we do not know to what extent the primitive cowbirds, in South America, had developed the habit of following the wandering herds. Dr. Coues (1874) makes the following suggestion:

Ages ago, it might be surmised, a female Cowbird, in imminent danger of delivery without a nest prepared, was loth to lose her offspring, and deposited her burden in an alien nest, perhaps of her own species, rather than on the ground. The convenience of this process may have struck her, and induced her to repeat the easy experiment. The foundlings duly hatched, throve, and came to maturity, stamped with their mother's individual traits: an impress deep and lasting enough to similarly affect them in turn. The adventitious birds increased by natural multiplication, till they outnumbered the true-born ones; what was engendered of necessity was perpetuated by unconscious volition, and finally became a fixed habit: the law of reproduction for the species. Much current reasoning on similar subjects is no better nor worse than this, and it all goes for what it is worth.

The weakness in this theory is that such cases of adventitious laying in alien nests must have been very rare at first, and the inherited tendency to repeat the experiment would soon disappear by crossbreeding with individuals of normal breeding habits, unless the habit proved to be beneficial to the species, and no such proof is evident. We frequently find fresh eggs of robins and other birds laid on the ground, but failure to reach their nests has never developed parasitic habits in these birds.

Birds in the Classroom
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Name

Bronzed Cowbird
Lesson Plan

Food

Insects, fruit

Feeding Techniques

Forages on ground

Habitat

Brushy area

Plumage

Male and female have different plumage

Distribution

Very southern part of New Mexico, Arizona, Texas

Breeding

About the Notes from A.C. Bent

Notes from A.C. Bent

"In northern Central America the red-eyed cowbird is found from the lowlands of both coasts far up into the mountains, breeding in the highlands of western Guatemala at least as high as 8,500 feet above sea-level. In southern Central America it is less widely distributed. In Costa Rica it appears to be absent from the heavily forested Caribbean lowlands and from the almost equally heavily forested lowlands on the Pacific side of the country, to the southward of the Gulf of Nicoya; but it is present in the drier lowlands around and to the north of the Gulf of Nicoya (Guanacaste), the central highlands, and the upper portions of the Caribbean slope. It avoids the forest, and its local (distribution is largely determined by the presence of open country. Hence it is more abundant in the highlands, where there is a dense human population, with many open fields and pastures, than in the less populous and more uniformly forested lowlands. For the same reason, it is more common in the dry and relatively open Pacific lowlands, and in arid, mountain-rimmed valleys in the Caribbean drainage, than in the heavily wooded coastal districts of the Caribbean; yet in Guatemala and Honduras it has invaded these districts where they have been extensively cleared for banana plantations and pastures. Red-eyed cowbirds often fly in compact flocks over some of the larger highland cities of Central America, and I have seen many of them in the central plaza of San Jose, Costa Rica.

"Red-eyed cowbirds perform at least short migrations, largely altitudinal, even in the tropical portions of their range. In the mountains above Tecpkn, Guatemala, I found them at between 8,000 and 9,000 feet only during the nesting season, from March until July. During this period they were a familiar sight in the pastures about the house which I occupied from early February until the end of the year. But in August they vanished, apparently having descended to lower and wanner regions, and were not seen again in this locality during the remainder of the year, although a few were found on the plateau a thousand feet lower. During the year I spent near Vara Blanca, living in a narrow clearing in the midst of the rain forest of this excessively wet region on the northern slope of the Cordillera Central of Costa Rica, at 5,500 feet above sea-level, the first red-eyed cowbird was seen on March 28, just as the nesting season was beginning for the majority of the local birds. I had been present in the same spot since the preceding July, without having seen a single individual. In this instance, I think it probable that the cowbirds had arrived from the cultivated lands of the central plateau to the south, passing over the continental divide, which here was about 6,800 feet high. To the north were scarcely broken forests leading down to the Caribbean lowlands, where the species is not known to occur."

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Name

Bobolink
Lesson Plan

Food

Insects

Feeding Techniques

Forages on the ground, quite often in flocks

Habitat

Meadows, fields

Plumage

Male and female have different plumage

Distribution

Eastern states, midwest, and the Rocky Mountain states

Breeding

Nests on the ground

About the Notes from A.C. Bent

Notes from A.C. Bent

Our familiar bobolink is known by various names in different parts of its seasonal wanderings. We know it in the north by the above common name, which has stood for many years and is evidently an abbreviation of "Robert of Lincoln" in the classic poem of that name by William Cullen Bryant. In New England it is sometimes called by the pretty name, "meadow-wink," and the less complimentary name. "skunk blackbird." owing to its fancied resemblance in color pattern to that unpopular animal. On its fall migration it is recognized as "ortolan" "reed bird" and "rice bird" on account of its haunts and habits, and, in Jamaica, where it has grown exceedingly fat, they call it "butter bird." On its spring migration through the southern States, it is often called the "May bird."

Unfortunately for us New Englanders our beloved bobolink has largely disappeared, or at least has been greatly reduced in numbers in most of its former haunts, during the past 50 years. In my youthful days nearly every mowing field of long, waving grass, many of the damper meadows near our streams, and some of the drier portions of the brackish marshes furnished attractive homes for one or more pairs, often many pairs, of bobolinks. In driving through the open country past such places we could always count on seeing some of these showy birds hovering in ecstatic flight just above the tall grasses, the waving white daisies, and the bright yellow buttercups, pouring out a flood of bubbling, erratic song. They were always conspicuous to both eye and ear, forming one of the delights of a springtime ramble. But this is now mainly a happy memory, for there are so few places where they can now be found that it is an event of importance if we see one.

The partial disappearance of the bobolink from the Northeastern States has been due to several very evident causes. The heavy slaughter of the migrating hordes, both spring and fall, as will be discussed later, has perhaps killed off a large proportion of the birds that formerly nested in New England. Fortunately, due to the reduction in the cultivation of rice in the Southern States, this slaughter has been largely stopped and the birds are more rigidly protected everywhere. Another cause of less importance was the wholesale killing of "reed birds" for the market, but this is now prohibited by law. But the New England population of bobolinks has not been built up to its former proportions. A local cause here that has also had its effect in driving away our breeding birds is a decided change in the time and in the methods of harvesting our hay crops. Formerly, the grass in our mowing fields, the favorite nesting places for bobolinks, was cut by hand and rarely before the first or middle of July. By that time the young bobolinks were out of the nest and safely on the wing. Now the mowing is done earlier, usually before the end of June, the grass is cut close with mowing machines, and the hay is scraped off by machine rakes. Many young birds would thus be killed while still in the nests or before they were able to escape by flight. This naturally drove the birds away to seek safer nesting grounds. Furthermore, with the passing of the horse much less hay has been needed, and there are fewer fields of the tall grass so much preferred by the bobolinks. The haying fields in Massachusetts are largely a thing of the past.

Southern New England is not the only place in the east where the bobolink has decreased in numbers. Robie W. Tufts writes to me from Nova Scotia: "My notes indicate a marked scarcity of these birds during the summer of 1919 and again in 1920. They were noticeably scarce again during the summer of 1930, and during the past summer of 1945 seemed alarmingly scarce." Ludlow Griscom (1923) wrote referring to the New York city region: "This distinguished songster was formerly a common summer resident throughout our territory, but is now found only in the outlying and more rural districts. Its great decrease started fifty years ago when trapping the males for cage-bird purposes was a profession on large scale." Todd (1940) remarks, for Pennsylvania: "Observers from various parts of the state agree that since the early twenties there has been a marked falling off in the numbers of this species." And even as far west as Minnesota the bobolink is yielding ground, but not for the same reasons. Thomas S. Roberts (1932) writes: "There is some indication that the Bobolink has been decreasing in numbers in recent years and that, locally, it has almost disappeared from lowlands where it was formerly abundant. Its place has been taken by the Brewer's Blackbird, which has swept eastward across the state and is now abundant even in the southeastern counties. It lives and nests here under exactly the same conditions as the Bobolink and, being a larger and more aggressive bird, there is reason to fear that it is driving the Bobolink from its former domain."

While the bobolink has been discouraged and its numbers have been depleted in many of its eastern breeding resorts, it has been encouraged to extend its range and to increase in abundance farther west until it is now a common breeding bird across the entire continent in the northern States and the southern Provinces of Canada. It apparently never liked to nest on the virgin prairies but it followed civilization westward, and with the settlement of the country it found congenial nesting sites in cultivated grasslands and clover fields. The westward movement evidently began many years ago, for Ridgway (1877) wrote: "The Bobolink seems to be spreading over all the districts of the 'Far West' wherever the cultivation of cereals has extended. We found it common in August in the wheat-fields at the Overland Ranch, in Ruby Valley [Nevada]." W. L. McAtee (1919) says: "The trend of the bird's breeding range to the northwest is unmistakable; for instance in the first edition of the A. 0. U. Check-List, the Western limit of the breeding range was given as the Great Plains; in the second edition, 1895, as Nevada, Idaho and Alberta, and in the third edition, 1910, as British Columbia."

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Name

Western Meadowlark
Lesson Plan

Food

Insects

Feeding Techniques

Forages on the ground

Habitat

Agricultural areas

Plumage

Male and female have the same plumage

Distribution

Western states

Breeding

Nests on the ground

About the Notes from A.C. Bent

Notes from A.C. Bent

I shall never forget the day I first heard the glorious song of the western meadowlark; the impression of it is still clear in my mind, though it was May 30, 1901. It was my first day in North Dakota, and we were driving from Lakota to Stump Lake when we heard the song. I could hardly believe it was a meadowlark singing, so different were the notes from those we were accustomed to in the east, until I saw the plump bird perched on a telegraph pole, facing the sun, his yellow breast and black cravat gleaming in the clear prairie sunlight. His sweet voice fairly thrilled us and seemed to combine the flutelike quality of the wood thrush with the rich melody of the Baltimore oriole. I have heard it many times since but have never ceased to marvel at it. It seems to be the very spirit of the boundless prairie.

Birds in the Classroom
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Name

Eastern Meadowlark
Lesson Plan

Food

Insects

Feeding Techniques

Forages on the ground

Habitat

Agricultural areas

Plumage

Male and female have the same plumage

Distribution

Eastern United States

Breeding

Nests on the ground.

About the Notes from A.C. Bent

Notes from A.C. Bent

The meadowlark is the outstanding and the most characteristic bird of the American farm. It is revered by the farmer not only because of its charming simplicity and its cheerful, spirited song, but also for its usefulness as a destroyer of harmful insects and the seeds of obnoxious weeds. The coming of the meadowlark in the early spring, while the fields are still brown, is a thrilling event. His arrival is made known by his plaintive but not complaining or melancholy song as he stands mounted atop some tall tree in a grassy meadow, with his bright yellow breast surmounted by a black crescent gleaming in the morning sun.

The meadowlark has the build and the walk, as well as the flight, of the quail; and since it frequents the marshes, especially in its winter quarters, it has sometimes been called the marsh quail. This name has probably lead many a hunter to think of it as a game bird. Fortunately in recent years fewer meadowlarks are killed for food, and this may be at least one factor responsible for the increasing numbers as well as the extension of its nesting range .

When I first came to Maine 35 years ago the meadowlark was a comparatively rare bird in the southern part of the State. Since that time it has steadily increased in numbers, until today almost every suitable meadow and grass field has its quota of meadowlarks. Similar increases in the number of meadowlarks have been reported from other sections of its range. Milton B. Trautman states in a letter that he counted 400 pairs of meadowlarks while walking through suitable fields, during the course of a few days in the Buckeye Lake region, Ohio. He estimated the amazing number of 1,400 pairs as nesting in the area, an average of 1 meadowlark for every 7 acres, or about 91 to the square mile.

In 1906: 1908 I conducted the fieldwork of a statistical survey of the birds of Illinois for the Illinois Natural History Survey. In making the census counts, I walked many times through fields and woods over the length and breadth of the State. An assistant traveled at 30 yards distant and parallel to my line of march and was responsible for measuring the distance of each field traversed in terms of paces, which later were translated into feet. The species and the numbers of birds flushed in a strip 50 yards in width, including those flying across the strip within a hundred yards to our front, were recorded. Thus we covered all types of crops and vegetation during all conditions of weather and at all seasons of the year to obtain a comparative sample- of the birdlife. During the summer months alone an area equivalent to 7,793 acres was covered, on which 85 species of birds were recorded. The meadowlark proved to be the most abundant of the native Illinois birds, being represented by 1,025 individuals, or 13.2 percent, of the total bird population. There was an average of 85 meadowlarks to the square mile for the whole area traversed. As the birds were unequally distributed, never occurring, for example, in woodlands or among shrubbery, their numbers rose to 266 to the square mile in stubble, 205 in meadows, 160 on untilled lands, 143 in pastures, and 131 on wastelands, but fell to 10 per square mile in fields of corn.

The meadowlark population varied in numbers from the northern to the southern part of the State, 100 in northern Illinois being represented by 175 in the central and by 215 in the southern part. The center of density of the summer meadowlark population at that time was in the southern section, and during the winter months the concentration of meadowlarks in southern Illinois reached an average of 373 per square mile. Many of the birds which nest further north winter in that section of the State.

From various reports I have recently received from the Middle West, it is probable that if the census were repeated today the average meadowlark population would exceed the average of 85 to the square mile obtained during the summer months of 40 years ago.

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Name

Bullock's Oriole
Lesson Plan

Food

Insects, nectar, fruit

Feeding Techniques

Forages in trees and from flowers

Habitat

Open woods, parks

Plumage

Male and female have different plumage

Distribution

Western states

Breeding

Hanging nest built mostly by female from variety of grasses and other vegetation.

About the Notes from A.C. Bent

Notes from A.C. Bent

This highly colored oriole replaces the Baltimore oriole in the western half of North America, except for a narrow strip along the Pacific coast from the San Francisco Bay region to northern Baja California. Its breeding range extends from the southern parts of British Columbia, Alberta, and Saskatchewan to southern Texas and northern Mexico, and from the western edge of the Great Plains and prairie regions to the Pacific slope. At the eastern border of its range, where it meets that of the Baltimore oriole, these two closely related species appear to interbreed, producing an interesting series of apparent hybrids, to be referred to later.

The favorite haunts of Bullock's oriole are in the growths of deciduous trees, cottonwoods, willows, sycamores, etc., that line the streams or irrigation ditches in open country, in the prairie regions, and in cultivated lands. The presence of water is not essential, for they are equally at home in some of the partially dry washes that extend down into the grasslands from the mountain canyons, where there is some underground moisture, or far from any water in the tree-claims about the ranches; they are also found living and nesting in the semiarid mesquite groves in Arizona. It is, perhaps, less intimately associated with human habitations than is the more sociable Baltimore oriole, though it does nest to some extent in villages and near houses, especially about farms and ranches.

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Name

Hooded Oriole
Lesson Plan

Food

Insects, nectar, fruit

Feeding Techniques

Forages in trees and from flowers

Habitat

Open woods, palm trees

Plumage

Male and female have different plumage

Distribution

Southwest

Breeding

Hanging nest built mostly by female from variety of grasses and other vegetation.

About the Notes from A.C. Bent

Notes from A.C. Bent

Food: In general, the food of this oriole consists of a combination of insects and the nectar of flowers, but also some fruits, such as berries and cherries. In addition to the fruits mentioned above, hooded orioles are fond of loquats, but in my experience they pay little attention to peaches, grapes, or other later ripening soft fruits. Nectar undoubtedly fills a larger place in their diet than is recognized by some writers. Where suitable flowering plants are present in abundance, the birds will spend much time in diligently probing the blossoms of agaves, aloes, hibiscus, lilies, and other tubular forms. In procuring nectar from large flowers, the favored method is to perch on the stem of the blossom and puncture the base of the tube with the sharp bill. While a certain amount of insect food would naturally be obtained from the flowers, the fact that nectar is the primary object is indicated by their custom of occasionally slitting unopened lily buds, a habit by no means popular with gardeners.

As might be expected from their fondness for nectar, orioles enthusiastically respond to offerings of sugar syrup, of which they will consume relatively large quantities, drinking deeply and often. They appear rather more tolerant of dilution of the syrup than do hummingbirds. An originally saturated solution seems to be as readily taken when diluted to half strength.

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Name

Altamira Oriole
Lesson Plan

Food

Insects, nectar, fruit

Feeding Techniques

Forages in trees and from flowers

Habitat

Tropical habitat

Plumage

Male and female have different plumage

Distribution

Southern tip of Texas

Breeding

Hanging nest built mostly by female from variety of grasses and other vegetation.

About the Notes from A.C. Bent

Notes from A.C. Bent

Nesting: The Alta Mira oriole is a wonderful nest builder. Sutton and Pettingill (1943) found five occupied nests near Gomez Farms, Tamaulipas, all of which were "placed in much exposed situations. Nests of Icterus gularis reported from San Luis Potosi and El Salvador were placed in similarly exposed situations." The first nest was within 75 yards of the house in which they lived, and was watched daily from the beginning of the construction to the laying of the first egg. This nest was in "a living, though leafless, 50-foothigh ear tree (Enterolobium cyclocarpum)," about 35 feet from the ground, not far from the end of a slender branch and attached to a two-tined fork.

Building the nest required at least 18 days (April 7: 24) and possibly as many as 26 days (April 7: May 2). From April 7 to 14 the work progressed irregularly; from April 14 to 17 much material was added; from April 17 to 22 the structure took on its final shape; but from that date on, work was desultory. We believe the first egg was laid on May 2.* * *

The nest's greatest outside length, from the fork to the bottom, was 25 inches. The greatest outside diameter (not far from the bottom) was 6½ inches. It was symmetrical and quite smooth, the material being well tucked in. It was made almost entirely of air-plant rootlets, most of them several inches long, and fiber stripped from palmetto leaves. The lining, which covered the bottom only, was of palmetto fiber and horsehair. Nowhere about the nest was there a feather, bit of wool or cotton or kapok fluff, or other soft material.

About 250 strands of rootlet or palmetto fiber passed over each eight-inch length of supporting twig. The remaining third of the nest-rim consisted of four or five tough rootlet "cables" hung from one tine to the other. About these, slenderer rootlets were twisted tightly, giving the edge a somewhat ropelike appearance. This third of the rim was notably thin and strong.* * *

The rootlets of the nest wall ran downward and more or less parallel to each other, as if they had purposely been allowed to dangle while the bird wove other strands about them. Some of these meridional rootlets extended the entire length of the nest, but most of the material was obviously woven in and out crosswise into a sort of rough fabric. No rootlet or fiber encircled the outside of the nest.

The wall was thickest at the bottom. Here the material was tightly interwoven and matted. The lining was not attached either to the bottom or to the sides. It could be lifted en masse without difficulty, evidently having been laid with some care and pressed into final position by the bird's body.

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Name

Scott's Oriole
Lesson Plan

Food

Insects, nectar, fruit

Feeding Techniques

Forages in trees and from flowers

Habitat

Desert shrub

Plumage

Male and female have different plumage

Distribution

Primarily Arizona and New Mexico, also parts of California and Texas

Breeding

Hanging nest built mostly by female from variety of grasses and other vegetation.

About the Notes from A.C. Bent

Notes from A.C. Bent

Food: Like other orioles, Scott's must feed largely on insects and their larvae, but there is considerable evidence that it eats some fruit and consumes the nectar from flowers, as some other orioles are known to do. Mrs. Kate Stephens (1906) says: "In front of our sitting room window and six feet distant are several aloes of a small species, bearing panicles of tubular orange flowers on stems about three feet high. In the latter part of April a male Scott oriole (Icterus panserum) alighted many times on these stems, most frequently mornings. He would thrust his bill deeply into the blossoms and appeared to suck the nectar. * * * I got the impression that he did not gather any insects."

Bendire (1895) writes: "Their food consists mainly of grasshoppers, small beetles, caterpillars, butterflies, larvae, etc., as well as of berries and fruits. I have seen them eating the ripe fig-like fruit of the giant cactus."

Grinnell (1910) says that an "apricot orchard near Fairmont was freely patronized by the Scott Orioles from the neighboring yuccas. Two shot there had their gullets distended and faces smeared with apricot pulp." And Frank Stephens (1903) found them "feeding on figs and peaches in the orchard" at Beale Spring .

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Name

Baltimore Oriole
Lesson Plan

Food

Insects, nectar, fruit

Feeding Techniques

Forages in trees and from flowers

Habitat

Parks, suburbs

Plumage

Male and female have different plumage

Distribution

Eastern United States

Breeding

About the Notes from A.C. Bent

Notes from A.C. Bent

Nesting: In constructing its nest, a woven, hanging pouch, the oriole is perhaps the most skillful artisan of any North American bird. In southern New England we think of the little cradle as hanging most often high in the air near the end of a long drooping branch of an elm tree, where it swings and tosses in the wind, but the bird often builds here in poplars, maples, and even in the apple and pear trees of our orchards, where it is anchored to a more stable branch.

Speaking of nests in Hatley, Quebec, Henry Mousley (1916) states: "The usual nesting site selected here is near the top of some fair sized tree, generally a maple." Knight (1908) reports that in Maine, although the elm is the oriole's favorite tree, "occasionally nests are placed in maples, locust, cottonwood, poplar or other hard wood trees." Eaton (1914) writing of New York State, says: "I have found this oriole's nest hanging from Norway spruce, hemlock, and horsechestnut which one would naturally expect he never would select. In different villages of western New York the preference seems to be in this order: white elm, silver maple, sugar maple, and apple." Farther west, in Minnesota, Edmonde S. Currier (1904) remarks: "Common about the lake [Leech Lakel. * * * All the nests seen were in birch trees." A. D. DuBois (MS.) speaks of a nest in Illinois in an oak tree, hung in a cluster of leaves at the topmost end of a branch, hidden so effectively that I should not have discovered it if I had not seen the male fly to it and chase away sparrows and other birds." M. G. Vaiden (MS.), in a letter from Mississippi, mentions pecans, sycamores, and elms as nesting sites, and includes this interesting record: "In my yard the pecan trees grow to a height of 50 to 75 feet, some of them even higher. Virginia creeper vines run up the trunk and out on most of the limbs. On May 22, a Baltimore oriole selected as a nesting site a limb of a tree which had fallen off, pulling the creeper with it and was hanging suspended in the air, the nest being attached to the creeper as well. After three eggs were laid the limb fell to the ground, but the bird, not to be outdone, built another nest in the dangling remains of the creeper, from which she fledged her young."

Usually the Baltimore oriole hangs its nest high over our heads; Eaton (1914) estimates the average height as 25 to 30 feet and he has seen a nest 60 feet above the ground. On the other hand, A. D. DuBois (MS.) reports "the lowest nest that has ever come to my attention was in a burr oak 7 feet 8 inches from the ground." Thomas D. Burleigh (1931) cites a still lower nest in Pennsylvania, "but six feet from the ground at the extreme end of a limb of an apple tree in an orchard."

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Name

House Finch
Lesson Plan

Food

Seeds, berries

Feeding Techniques

Forages on ground

Habitat

Human environments

Plumage

Male and female have different plumage

Distribution

Throughout the US

Breeding

Female builds nest in many different types of areas. House Finch is an opportunistic nester.

About the Notes from A.C. Bent

Notes from A.C. Bent

Two instances of Western Robins (Turdus migratorius propinquus) and House Finches (Carpodacus mexicanus frontalis) using the same nests have come to our attention during the past three years. In May, 1934, we were informed that House Finches were feeding young robins in a nest on a front porch in east Denver, Colorado. On investigation we found four half-grown robins, two newly hatched finches and four finch eggs. There were two female finches apparently with the same mate, and the three finches and the two adult robins fed the young regularly. Unfortunately, however, the large robins smothered their small nest mates. We did not determine whether the four remaining eggs hatched. All three adult House Finches fed the young robins in the nest, and after the young had left the nest.

On May 15, 1936, in a similar instance, the nest was on the back porch of Bailey's home, 2540 Colorado Blvd., Denver. The young robins were nearly ready to leave the nest, and there was no evidence that the pair of House Finches had laid eggs. However, both adult finches and robins fed the young regularly. The male finch was particularly solicitous and would alight on a wire a few feet from the nest and sing whenever one of the other birds brought food. The young robins left the nest May 20, and the finches were the only ones noted feeding them from that time on, although the adult robins were about and no doubt shared the responsibility.

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Purple Finch
Lesson Plan

Food

Seeds, berries, insects

Feeding Techniques

Forages on ground

Habitat

Open country, suburbs, agricultural areas

Plumage

Male and female have different plumage

Distribution

Eastern states and Pacific states

Breeding

Female builds nest on horizontal branch of tree, usually a conifer

About the Notes from A.C. Bent

Notes from A.C. Bent

Food: Ora W. Knight (1908) sums up the food of this finch very well as follows: "As to the food of the Purple Finch, the species is primarily a seed eater during the winter and spring, eating all sorts of weed and grass seeds, also to a lesser extent a few buds of apple, maple and birch as well as other tree buds. In late spring they eat some insects, such as beetles, green caterpillars and small larvae of various sorts. In summer they are fruit eaters to quite an extent, partaking of strawberries, raspberries, blackberries, cherries, both wild and cultivated and many other fruits. They seem to relish the fruit of the dogwoods, elders and viburnums very much."

Alexander F. Skutch writes to me: "In Maryland on October 27, 1929, I watched a purple finch feeding on the dry 'cones' of the tulip poplar. One by one it pulled the winged scales from the cluster, and with one deft bite cut out the seed from the thicker end of each, then allowed the empty wing to flutter slowly to the ground."

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Name

Cassin's Finch
Lesson Plan

Food

Seeds, berries

Feeding Techniques

Forages on ground

Habitat

Mountainous

Plumage

Male and female have different plumage

Distribution

Western states

Breeding

Female builds nest on horizontal branch of tree, usually a conifer

About the Notes from A.C. Bent

Notes from A.C. Bent

Food: Throughout most of the year members of this species are vegetarians, living largely on buds, berries, and seeds, particularly those of conifers.

No doubt a certain amount of animal food is taken during the nesting season. The birds forage to a large extent on the ground according to Salt (1952).

Grinnell and Storer (1924) offer the following comments on the food of these finches in the Yosemite region: "The feeding habits of the Cassin Purple Finch are like those of the California. It forages either in the tops of the trees or on the ground, rarely feeding in bushes and then only on the outer foliage. Near Tamarack Flat, on May 24, 1919, a male of this species was seen feeding on the urn-like buds of the green manzanita. Young buds of one sort or another, especially needle buds of the coniferous trees, seem to be the preferred food. These and similar tender growths are likely the staple food of the Cassin Purple Finch during the long winter season when the ground is covered with snow. In the Lassen region of California, Grinnell, Dixon, and Linsdale (1930) found the gullet of a bird shot from high in a hemlock to be "filled with the shelled kernels of two kinds of seeds, but no animal matter was detected." Swarth (1901) records these finches feeding in pepper and willow trees in Los Angeles in April. Arnold (1937) observed a male Cassin's finch feeding on cotoneaster berries on January 18, 1934, in the Coalinga area of California, and Gander (1929a) records seeing these finches in mixed flocks with California purple finches and house finches feeding on sunflower seeds on the grounds of the San Diego Zoo on Mar. 23, 1927.

Scott (1887) records members of this species feeding on the young buds of cottonwood in the Santa Catalina Mountains of Arizona in winter. Mrs. Ailey (1928) mentions the seeds of yellow pine found in the crop of one Cassin's finch obtained in the Manzano Mountains of New Mexico. She also mentions that in the Yellowstone these finches had been found eating rock salt spread on the ground for deer. Taylor (1912) records two individuals observed in northern Humboldt County, Nev., feeding in the foliage of a quaking aspen at 7,500 feet. Munro (1950) comments on a juvenal observed feeding on mulberries on August 21 in the Creston region of British Columbia.

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Name

Evening Grosbeak
Lesson Plan

Food

Seeds

Feeding Techniques

Forages in trees - usually as part of a flock

Habitat

Coniferous forest

Plumage

Male and female have different plumage

Distribution

Throughout the US

Breeding

Female builds nest on horizontal branch of tree, usually a conifer

About the Notes from A.C. Bent

Notes from A.C. Bent

Behavior: Evening grosbeaks appear affable and harmonious when not overcrowded or short of food. When the conditions are reversed, they are not so attractive. Mr. Bent comments: "Although evening grosbeaks are ordinarily gregarious and sociable, feeding harmoniously when scattered openly on the ground, their behavior is quite different when crowded on the feeding trays. There they are often selfish, hostile, and belligerent, pushing their way in, sparring with open beaks, and threatening to attack or drive out a new arrival. They are bosses of the tray and are intolerant of other species, driving away even the starlings; only the blue jay seems able to cope with them. Even the females of their own species are not immune to attack by the males. But, so eager are they for their food, that the tray remains crowded full of birds as long as there is standing room. Towards human beings they are usually tame and fearless; we can almost walk among them when they are feeding on the ground; with good treatment they might learn to feed from our hands, or allow us to pick them up by hand from the feeding tray. When taken from traps, they should be handled with heavy gloves, for they can bite savagely with their powerful beaks."

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Black-headed Grosbeak
Lesson Plan

Food

Seeds

Feeding Techniques

Forages in trees, shrubs

Habitat

Mixed wooded areas

Plumage

Male and female have different plumage

Distribution

Western states

Breeding

Nests in trees; nest built by female

About the Notes from A.C. Bent

Notes from A.C. Bent

From the eastern foothills of the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific coast the handsome black-headed grosbeak replaces our familiar rose-breasted grosbeak of the eastern States. It is not quite as showy as the eastern bird, but it is richly colored, the brownish orange of the under parts contrasting well with the black head and the black and white of the wings and tail. The western race, the subject of this sketch, breeds from southern British Columbia through California to northern Lower California and western Mexico.

One should look for the black-headed grosbeak in situations similar to those in which one could expect to find the eastern rose-breasted grosbeak, in thickets of bushes, small trees or willows which grow along streams, around the edges of swamps, ponds, or damp places, as well as on the edges of open woods, where the sunlight filters down through the foliage, but almost always not far from water or low ground. S. F. Rathbun says in his notes: "On more than one occasion, when in a forest where no sign of any break was seen, we perhaps would hear from far away the clear song of this grosbeak; and then we knew that in the direction whence it came would be found some more or less open spot, possibly bordered by a bit of water or a stream. And other somewhat favored spots are about the borders of the forest that have a mixture of deciduous growth."

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Name

Yellow Grosbeak
Lesson Plan

Food

Feeding Techniques

Habitat

Riparian woods

Plumage

Male and female have similar plumage

Distribution

Rarely found in southern Arizona

Breeding

About the Notes from A.C. Bent

Notes from A.C. Bent

No Bent available

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Name

Blue Grosbeak
Lesson Plan

Food

Insects

Feeding Techniques

Forages on the ground

Habitat

Open country, brushy areas, wood edges

Plumage

Male and female have different plumage

Distribution

Southern states from Virginia to Florida to Arizona and Colorado

Breeding

Nest is placed close to the ground

About the Notes from A.C. Bent

Notes from A.C. Bent

Behavior: The blue grosbeak is a quiet, peaceful bird, living in harmony with its wild neighbors, or with other species in captivity, where it is a popular cage bird. It vigorously defends its nesting territory against intruders of its own species, but tolerates neighbors of other species. It makes itself at home about human dwellings and is not too timid there.

Nehrling (1896) says: "The flight of the Blue Grosbeak is short and low, usually leading only from one thicket to another. During migration it mounts high into the air and then its flight is rather hurried. On the ground, where most of the food is gathered, its motions are somewhat awkward. It usually searches one place thoroughly and then hops to another. In the branches of trees and shrubs its movements denote that in these it is perfectly at home. It has a predilection of perching in the tops of low bushes and trees, where it swings up and down."

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Name

Rose-breasted Grosbeak
Lesson Plan

Food

Seeds, insects

Feeding Techniques

Forages in trees

Habitat

Deciduous woodlands, gardens, orchards

Plumage

Male and female have different plumage

Distribution

Northeast states and northern midwest states

Breeding

Female builds nest on horizontal branch of tree, usually a conifer

About the Notes from A.C. Bent

Notes from A.C. Bent

Courtship: Tyler contributes the following note: "The courtship of the rose-breasted grosbeak, or its culmination, is a quiet, dignified act. There is none of the hot pursuit of the bobolink with almost a rape at the end. The two grosbeaks appear truly fond of each other. We see the female bird turn her head upward toward her mate and their beaks come together in a sort of kiss. All is harmony and peace, a picture of affection and contentment, not uncontrolled passion. They are on a branch of a tree or shrub, perhaps near where their nest will be. Their behavior resembles the love-making of the scarlet tanager under similar circumstances, quiet and staid with none of the abandon of the farmyard."

But there is nothing peaceful in the preliminaries to courtship, when the males often engage in fierce combat, more spectacular, however, than harmful, except for the loss of a few feathers. Sometimes several males may be seen hovering about one female, fighting among themselves and singing to her at the same time.

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Name

Common Redpoll

Lesson Plan

Food

During the winter they eat seeds of birches, alders, and willows. Grinell gathered from the data available that the Common Redpolls eat seeds from 42 different genera of plants.

Feeding Techniques

Habitat

Breeds in sub-arctic forests and tundra.

Plumage

Distribution

Very northern part of the country.

Breeding

About the Notes from A.C. Bent

Notes from A.C. Bent

When the cold air masses of winter extend their fronts into our northern tier of states, a period of welcome surcease from the storminess of the seasonal transitions descends upon regions within their influence. During this month or more of calm the days scintillate and begin to lengthen, and the dwellers of the northland, human as well as wild, come out of hiding to enjoy the sun and the cold, dry air. These are among the most beautiful days in the northland; the temperature hovers between -10 degrees and -20 degrees, there is no wind, and a great silence lies upon the winter barrens. From the distant spruces that dot the valley slopes like stubble come the faint tinklings of white-winged crossbills and the occasional rattle of redpolls, sounds so faint that you must hear them repeated to feel sure that the sound is not coming from your own lungs.

Not many redpolls winter near the edge of timber, but some do, and only a year in the semibarrens, that broad, indefinite ecotone between the treeless tundra and the spruce-fir-larch forests of the taiga, can give one a sense of thorough familiarity with these small finches.

   

Name

Pine Siskin
Lesson Plan

Food

Seeds

Feeding Techniques

Forages in shrubs, trees, vegetation usually as part of a flock

Habitat

Weedy areas, mixed woodland

Plumage

Male and female have the same plumage

Distribution

Throughout the US

Breeding

Female builds nest on horizontal branch of tree, usually a conifer

About the Notes from A.C. Bent

Notes from A.C. Bent

The pine siskin is a social bird the year round. Breeding individuals join in social flocks away from the nesting territory, and they sometimes feed in the tree where the nest is situated. These social groups are small, up to a half dozen birds, not the large flocks commonly seen outside the breeding season. From late summer to late winter the pine siskin associates, roughly in descending order of frequency, with the redpolls, the goldfinches, the two crossbills, the purple finch, the cedar waxwing, and very occasionally, the juncos. Except for the first two mentioned, the association usually is brief and may break off whenever a mixed flock takes flight. A common situation is to find the few siskins in the flocks of the other species, especially when goldfinches or redpolls are plentiful and the siskins few.

The siskin is a relatively high and swift flier, often crossing from ridge to ridge or peak to peak in direct flight far above the trees. The following subspecics are discussed in this section: Spinus pinus pinus (Wilson) and S. p. macreplerus (Bonaparte) the intervening area. The flocks are compact, and all members execute long undulating sweeps in unison. Usually the birds fly silently, but now and again one or many may utter a sharp lisping call-note that carries well.

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Name

American Goldfinch
Lesson Plan

Food

Seeds, insects

Feeding Techniques

Forages in shrubs, vegetation

Habitat

Open country; thistles; woody edges

Plumage

Male and female have different plumage

Distribution

Throughout the US

Breeding

Female builds nest on horizontal branch of tree, usually a conifer

About the Notes from A.C. Bent

Notes from A.C. Bent

Alexander F. Skutch writes to us:

"All through the third week of April, 1931, large flocks of goldfinches were present in the woods near my parents' house on the outskirts of Baltimore. Here they fed in the elm trees, which at this period were green with their clustered keys, as though with an earlier and transient foliage. There was more music in their confiding call-notes than in many a bird's song. Hanging head downward from the slender elm twigs, the goldfinches plucked the winged fruits; not, so far as I could learn, to eat the small green embryos, but to extract a little white larva, about a millimeter in length, which infested many of the fruits and caused them to take on an abnormal, irregularly swollen aspect. The birds deftly bit the larvae out of the husks, then let the keys flutter to the ground, until large quantities were strewn beneath the trees where they had been feeding."

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Name

Lesser Goldfinch
Lesson Plan

Food

Seeds, insects

Feeding Techniques

Forages in shrubs, vegetation

Habitat

Open brushy country

Plumage

Male and female have different plumage

Distribution

Southwest

Breeding

Female builds nest on horizontal branch of tree, usually a conifer

About the Notes from A.C. Bent

Notes from A.C. Bent

Courtship: Pair formation is usually accompanied by courtship song, courtship flight, song flight, and a canarylike song. Courtship feeding is important in the maintenance of the bond. These elements resemble the ones observed by Stokes (1950) in his study of the American goldfinch. The species studied on the Hastings Reservation in California contrasts in several ways with the calendar of activity exhibited by the species farther east.

In midmorning of Jan. 29, 1945, on a wooded hill a male perched at the tip of the topmost twig of a 40-foot leafless valley oak. Turning first one way, then the other, he uttered an almost continuous song. This was the first singing green-backed goldfinch observed that season. Earlier in the month there had been snatches of song intermingled with a variety of calls.

 
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Name

Gray-crowned Rosy Finch
Lesson Plan

Food

Seeds

Feeding Techniques

Are usually found feeding at the edge of snow.

Habitat

Mountains

Plumage

Male and female have the same plumage

Distribution

Western states usually above 6000 feet

Breeding

Female builds bulky nest usually between two boulders.

About the Notes from A.C. Bent

Notes from A.C. Bent

P. M. Silloway (1903) writes of the behavior of these finches in Fergus County, Mont.:

A regular winter resident at Lewiston, where it is known as "brown snowbird." It generally appears about the first of November, though in pleasanter weather it may not be observed before the 8th or 10th.

The leucostictes (Gray-crowned Rosy Finch) are our English Sparrow in social manners. They feed at the door-steps, or in the yards. On a warm winter morning I have seen from forty to fifty of these birds sitting on a wood-pile in the door-yard, sunning themselves and gleaning from refuse. In the late afternoons the individuals of a flock scatter out to accustomed nooks for the night. A particular male, and sometimes a female, have regular sleepingnooks in the porch of the writer's home, and long before nightfall the birds seek their quarters. I have seen one enter a tubular eavestrough, there to spend the night. Frequently they flutter under projecting eaves, and cling to some projecting support for the night.

The leucostictes feed on the seeds of the dwarf sage, or glean from the snow about the bases of such plants. They are fond of gleaning along the hillside at the margin of the snowy areas. In the spring, when a thaw is taking place, a flock will congregate on a spot eight or ten feet across, all pecking industrially from the bare ground.

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Name

House Sparrow
Lesson Plan

Food

Seeds

Feeding Techniques

Forages on ground

Habitat

Prefers association with people

Plumage

Male and female have different plumage

Distribution

Throughout the US

Breeding

Usually places nest in human made crevice.

About the Notes from A.C. Bent

The AOU Check list referred to below is the American Ornithological Union checklist which is the official listing of birds for North America.

The story below is a good example of the damage that can happen when introduced species are brought into an area.

The History of the English Sparrow

Notes from A.C. Bent

The common name English sparrow is a misnomer, but it has stuck to this bird for some hundred years and is likely to survive indefinitely. It was quite natural to call it the English sparrow, as most of the birds were imported from England, but the species is widely distributed in Europe and Asia, with closely related forms in North Africa. For a full account of its distribution and geographical variations the reader is referred to an excellent paper on the subject by Dr. John C. Phillips (1915). And, after calling it a sparrow for these many years, and our commonest and best known sparrow at that, we must recognize it as a weaver finch and separate it widely from our sparrows in the A. 0. U. Check-List. Who wants to call it the European weaver finch? The scientific name has not been changed, for which we may be truly thankful! Many years ago, when I was a small boy, probably in the late 1860's or early 1870's, my uncle, who lived next door to us in Taunton, was the first to introduce English sparrows into that immediate vicinity. He built a large flying cage in his garden that was roofed over, covered with netting on four sides, and well supplied with perches and nesting boxes. Here the sparrows were so well fed and cared for that they soon began to breed. It was not long before the cage became overcrowded, and he ordered his coachman to put up numerous nesting boxes all over the place and to liberate the sparrows. They soon filled all the new boxes, and also drove away the purple martins, tree swallows, and house wrens from all the older boxes. When the neighbors' cats killed a few of the precious sparrows, which were the newest pets and were zealously guarded, my uncle became so angered that he ordered his coachman to "kill every cat in the neighborhood." My uncle drove in that night to find the coachman with nine of the neighbors' cats laid out on the stable floor, a cause for some profanity. It was not long, however, before my uncle began to miss the martins, swallows, and wrens and to realize that the sparrows were not as desirable as expected; so he ordered the coachman to reduce them. This he did effectively by digging a trench and filling it with grain, so that he could kill large numbers with a single raking shot. But the martins, swallows, and wrens never returned. This incident is typical of what happened in many other places before we realized that we had made a great mistake in importing this undesirable alien.

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About the Notes from A.C. Bent

Notes from A.C. Bent