Author: John Cammidge

The Persecuted Family of Cormorants (Muckle Scarf)

The Persecuted Family of Cormorants (Muckle Scarf)

As my daughter leaves for a vacation on the Shetland Islands, I am featuring the long-time persecuted family of cormorants on my bird blog for this month. The Shetland Islands are a birders paradise, and both the sleek great cormorant (simply called the cormorant in 

The Endangered Western Snowy Plover

The Endangered Western Snowy Plover

  I have volunteered to assist with the protection of the Western snowy plover during their California coastal breeding season this year from March to September. The following is published to coincide with my training as a docent. This small shorebird is approximately the size 

The Rise and the Fall of the European Starling

The Rise and the Fall of the European Starling

Here is the story of a species of bird that has flourished on continents where it was introduced during the 19th century while at the same time suffering serious decline in its native Europe. 

In North America, there were close to 200 million European starlings a few years ago, dispersed from Alaska to Mexico, with geographic extensions into Puerto Rico, Jamaica, and Cuba. Most are descendants of approximately 100 starlings released in New York’s Central Park during 1890 and 1891 by a group of people dedicated to introducing bird species mentioned by Shakespeare in his plays. Their territory rapidly expanded due to the species strong flight ability, its adaptability to various habitats, the production of two broods each season, their aggressiveness, and their diverse dietary choices.  The average life span is two to three years but individuals can live up to 20 years. 

As early as 1914, people in the United States realized how harmful these birds could be and efforts were made to discourage them. For example, in parts of Connecticut, residents tried to scare them away by fastening teddy bears to trees occupied by the birds, and fired rockets through the branches.


European Starling Distribution MapRed coloring – European starling introduced     Blue coloring – native habitat



By 1928, European starlings had reached the Mississippi, and in 1942 they had made their way to the West Coast. Today, these birds are regarded as pests and their numbers are supposed to be in decline. Estimates in recent years are that the North America population has decreased to around 140 million.  

The United States classifies the species as invasive and does not protect it under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. As a consequence, hundreds of thousands of starlings are killed each year. The  US Department of Agriculture reports eliminating 1.5 million birds during 2012 and about 700,000 in 2019.The damage that these birds cause annually to North America agriculture is estimated at approximately one billion dollars.

The North America experience is repeated elsewhere. For example, in Southern Africa, the starling was introduced in 1897 around Cape Town and is now the most common bird in that region. In New Zealand, starlings were introduced in 1862 to destroy the hordes of caterpillars and insects that invaded newly planted crops, whereas today it is considered a pest by orchard owners and an advantage in pastoral areas. In Australia, the starling was introduced in the Melbourne area during 1857 to control insects that were invading farm crops, and rapidly spread across the south-east of the country. In Argentina, the European starling appeared first during 1987 in Buenos Aires and has rapidly expanded its territory.



Seagull and the Starling


Shakespeare only mentions the starling in Henry IV, Act 1, whereas I refer to them twice in my novels. In Unplanned they forecast the weather, and in She Wore a Yellow Dress I feature their habit of flocking in flight during fall and winter to create acrobatic murmurations.  They are permanent residents, although some will migrate short distances.



Seagull eating StarlingThe seagull and the starling



Growing up in Yorkshire, England during the 1960s, I encountered starlings in most places, from around the farm to school grounds, and I also saw one attacked and drowned by a common gull at Spurn Point bird observatory. They received virtually no mention from my colleague birdwatchers because of their abundance. However, since I moved to the United States in 1979, their population in Britain has declined by an estimated 90 percent. The reasons are unclear but seem to include loss of habitat and the poisoning of the insects that they eat. Even so, there remains an estimated 1.8 million breeding birds in the UK, even though the species is placed on Britain’s red-list of birds that carry the greatest conservation concern.  



European Starling AggressionEuropean starling aggression



They are aggressive, stocky, social, and noisy birds that are medium-sized (about 8 inches/20 cm long – the size of an American robin), have short triangular wings, a short tail, pinkish red legs, and a long, slender, pointed bill that is yellow during the breeding season but becomes dark in the fall. They tend to walk rather than hop, and typically roost in trees and on telephone and power lines. During summer, their plumage is a dark, iridescent purplish-green, molting into a blackish-brown with feathers tipped in white to give the bird a speckled appearance. Starlings belong to the family that includes myna birds noted for their voice mimicking. The starlings own whistling and whizzing are sometimes a mimic of other starlings, and occasionally they will repeat the sounds of people, animals, and inanimate objects like police sirens. 



European Starling RoostStarling roost



European starlings are common in towns, suburbs, and in the countryside close to human settlements, where they forage for food on the ground. They are highly social and enjoy an evening singsong. Eating habits are omnivorous and include taking fruits, grains, and seeds, which has caused them to be treated as agricultural pests. The fact that they eat invertebrates, such as leatherjackets (the larval stage of daddy long legs) that damage the roots of grasses and crops, is often overlooked. 

They also compete aggressively to secure tree cavity-space for nesting sites, and in North America displace native species such as bluebirds, oak titmice, acorn woodpeckers, and tree swallows.  Starlings quite literally push out the native bird. Nesting in gutters and vents of buildings and competing aggressively at bird feeders have added to their notoriety, as do their messy droppings that can cause disease.





Brown Headed Cowbird


Common European Blackbird



It is hard to mistake other birds for European starlings.  The common grackle in North America is similar looking, but larger, and has a yellow eye whereas starlings have dark eyes. These grackles are resident east of the Rocky Mountains and their cousins, the great-tailed grackle, are present in southern California but look distinctly different.  Other similar-looking birds in North America include the brown-headed cowbird and Brewer’s blackbird. In Europe, the nearest comparable species is the blackbird.



Starling Murmuration



It is the winter’s evening entertainment of aerial displays known as murmurations that is the welcome side of starlings. These murmurations sometimes involve hundreds of thousands of birds and occur when they gather above their roost at dusk to fly in patterns before settling down for the night. The feature is particularly visible from October to February. Where does the name come from? The best guess is from the low and indistinct sound that the birds make in unison, particularly after they land, and is taken from the Latin “to murmur” or “to mutter”.  These flocks of birds can be seen twisting, turning, swooping, and swirling across the sky in mesmerizing shape-shifting clouds. The behavior is believed to confuse predators and help the birds keep warm, and studies show that each bird follows the path of about seven of its closest neighbors. No other bird has a comparable aerial display, although dunlins, some sandpipers, American robins, red knots and geese can be seen traveling in flocks.

The starling may also have weather-predicting abilities. Like many birds, starlings possess a special middle-ear receptor known as a Vitali organ that detects extremely small changes in atmospheric pressure. As atmospheric pressure falls – indicating an approaching storm – the birds fly lower and lower and eventually roost to quietly await the arrival of rain. This weather forecasting ability, however, does not include long range forecasting! 

Despite the entertainment value, the starlings’ reputation remains much more as a pest and they suffer from human persecution. They are frightened out of gardens because of aggressively occupying bird feeders, their nests are destroyed because of the inconvenience and their filth, and farmers shoot, trap, and poison them because of crop destruction.



Dead Starling



Another feature of European starlings is that they are subject to mysterious deaths when up to hundreds of birds fall out of the sky and die. These incidents have been reported in the UK, the United States, the Netherlands, and Spain. There are stories of starlings tumbling from above and ending up dead on the road, in gardens, and across fields. The cause is a mystery and suggestions offered include that the birds were being chased by a bird of prey and hit the ground as they changed direction, or that they were reacting to a change in the weather, or that they had been poisoned. Tests usually show the birds died of physical injuries rather than from health causes.  There are, however, incidents of birds flying too low and hitting moving vehicles, and drones causing chaos in the midst of murmurations.  



European starlings - invasive speciesEuropean starlings – an invasive species



So what is the future of the European starling? Should these birds be protected, especially in the Old World where their numbers are in serious decline, or culled as in the New World where they remain an invasive species and a threat to agriculture and native birds?  United States regulations allow their eggs to be taken as well as permitting their capture and lethal removal. In the Old World, people use scaring devices, shoot or trap the birds, and spray chemical repellants. In countries such as the Netherlands, Spain and France, starlings are sometimes eaten as food (for example, as pate de sansonnet).


Terrine de sansonnet


It is a controversy that won’t be resolved anytime soon. Sadly, once upon a time, the European starling was a national treasure, a source of aesthetic beauty, and occupied an important role in agriculture. Today, thanks to the Agricultural Revolution, most of that has changed. The introduction of pesticides, the development of crops that are resistant to insects, mechanization, and the implementation of new farming practices, has replaced the need for the starling. The species now has a reputation as an invasive agricultural pest that carries disease to livestock and people.

In the meantime, I invite you to reflect on the starlings past history and consider the Legend of Branwen, the daughter of the King of all Britons. After marriage to the King of Ireland, she moved to Ireland where she was abused by her husband. She taught a starling to speak and had it fly to her brother to tell him of her plight. The bird succeeded in its task and her brother came and rescued her. Exactly whether or not this happened is uncertain, but the tale is believed to be based on real events that occurred during the Bronze Age of British history. Well done the European starling!




Last but not least,  you may also be interested in watching the Netflix movie The Starling, recently released, and starring Melissa McCarty, Chris O’Dowd and Kevin Kline.


Identifying Shorebirds

Identifying Shorebirds

Across North America, there are about 50 native species of shorebirds, not including occasional rare visitors, and in Europe these birds are called “waders” because that is what they do.  I first saw waders as a teenager at Spurn Point in the north of England 

The Eccentric Surf Scoter

The Eccentric Surf Scoter

One of my favorite species of birds is the surf scoter, a sea duck that is abundant during October through April along the North American west coast as far south as central Baja (Mexico), after breeding in the boreal forests and tundra of Alaska. It 

Curlew Day

Curlew Day

In chapter 5 of She Wore a Yellow Dress, I describe my first date back in 1965 with a fellow Hull University undergraduate who became my wife.  She curiously asked about my favorite hobby, and when I said it was bird watching, she wanted the name of my best-loved bird. Willingly, I told her it was the curlew because of its large and golden appearance, its mesmerizing summertime call of cur-lee cur-lee cur-lee, and its behavior when protecting its nest. These birds often bred in waterlogged grassland fields close to our family farm.  During my youth, I would hide behind the hedgerows (long since removed), hoping to see the parents, and find the location of their nest. Curlews are highly secretive. Their nests are usually hidden by long grass, and they will leave the nest by taking flight some distance away from where they are nesting. They sometimes pretend to be injured, dragging their wing behind them to persuade you to follow them. When I eventually would find the nest, it would usually contain four dark olive-green eggs with brown markings. 


Curlew nest


And who could not be hypnotized by these birds as they poured out their distinctive bubbling call, like a kettle rising to the boil, but never quite getting there. I would often hear the sound late into the night.



Regrettably today, because fields are drained and long grass is no longer grown, the curlew has moved on. Most of their past territory in the west of Britain has been lost, and virtually none breed in lowland England.


Curlew nest locations


Curlews are migratory large wading birds, mottled brown and gray, with long bluish-colored legs, and very distinctive long down-curved bills. The bill length is approximately six inches (15 cm). In the UK, pairs nest on the ground in wet pasture, and on moorland and heathland, and in marshes. They are site-faithful, returning to the same location each year so long as conditions remain suitable, and their chicks often establish nesting sites nearby.  The species is omnivorous, eating both plants and invertebrates, and are often seen probing soggy ground with their long bills to find worms, grubs, and insects. The bill is longer than their tongue and acts like a pair of tweezers or chopsticks as they extract food. They may then toss it into the air and catch it on their tongue before swallowing it.


curlew feeding

Eurasian curlew feeding


Because of the decline in curlew numbers since the 1970s, the bird is now placed on the UK’s “red list” of endangered species.  It is likewise listed as vulnerable to extinction in continental Europe. Reasons include habitat loss (afforestation, urban development, drainage of wetlands, and shift to arable farming), changes in farming practices (increased mowing of fields, destruction of nests by farm equipment, and early cutting of green grass for silage), more predators (foxes, badgers, crows), and climate change (loss of water, drying out of breeding sites, ground too hard for curlew bills, and the inundation of coastal habitats). To raise awareness of this situation the English-based Curlew Action Group has declared April 21 as World Curlew Day.  

An estimated 25 percent of the Eurasian birds’ global population breeds in the UK today, numbering close to 70,000 pairs, but since the late 1960s its numbers have declined 70 percent. The species has never had it easy with humans. It was often hunted and eaten, and it was not until during World War II that butchers in the UK were banned from selling its  flesh.  


curlew recipe


Curlews are mentioned in several old English recipe books, and in Cornwall they were so common that their meat was stuffed into pies. Evidence of their revival by the mid-20th century, however,  is mentioned in the 1958 edition of the York Bootham School Bird List. Under “curlew” it reports:

          At the end of the 19th century, the curlew seems to have been confided to the moorland parts of Yorkshire as far as breeding was concerned. Nowadays the picture is quite different. They have bred for several years in locations around York and during the severe winter of 1947, many were seen along the River Ouse.


Long-billed Curlew

North America long-billed curlew


In North America, the Eurasian species is not present except as a very rare vagrant. There are three other curlew species, however, native to the continent, with the long-billed curlew the most common. This is the curlew I have seen most typically since moving to California. It has an estimated population of 125,000 to 160,000, and its down-curved bill is slightly longer than the Eurasian variety, at 8 inches (20 cm). The bird is a foot tall (30 cm), and is the largest shorebird in the United States.  Its coloring is mainly mottled brown, with a pale cinnamon belly, and in flight, it displays upper and lower wings that are slightly cinnamon. Because of the long bill, it was nicknamed the candlestick bird, and it is this alias that is one of the alleged sources of the name for Candlestick Point in San Francisco. Apparently, long ago, the long-billed curlew was plentiful in this area. 



long-billed curlew distribution

Long-billed curlew Range Map



Marbled godwit

Marbled godwit


In size, shape and color, the long-billed curlew is similar to the marbled godwit, but the curlew’s down-curved bill is distinguishable from the upturned bill of this other bird. The curlew’s call is a whistled and high pitched curl-e-e-u-u, whereas the godwit gives off a loud kerreck or god-wit sound.


Bristle-thighed curlew

Bristle-thighed curlew


Breeding grounds of bristle-thighed-curlew

Alaskan breeding grounds of bristle-thighed curlew


There is the much rarer bristle-thighed curlew, so named for the inconspicuous bristle feathers at the base of its legs. It nests in a few hilly areas of north-western Alaska and has an estimated population of 10,000. For winter, it flies non-stop to various south Pacific islands, including Hawaii, Fiji and Samoa. This species, regrettably, is vulnerable to extinction, causing its numbers to be closely monitored in Alaska and measures taken to protect its wintering habitat. 

The third species of curlew may now be extinct. The Eskimo curlews’ breeding grounds lay in the far northeastern regions of Canada, and they migrated long-distance to the pampas grass of Argentina. The last confirmed sighting of this species in Canada was during 1987, and it was last recorded in South America in 1939.


Eskimo curlew

Eskimo curlew



Eskimo curlew



One caution for birdwatchers is not to confuse the identification of curlews with their close cousin, the whimbrel. The latter breed on the vast treeless plains of the frozen Arctic in North America and Eurasia, and migrate south to South America and the shorelines of Africa, south Asia and Australasia. Because of their more remote breeding locations, the whimbrel is less threatened than other curlew species, and maintains a global population of around 1.8 million.  They are typically greyish-brown above and whitish below, with two distinct races. The Eurasian whimbrel is white-rumped (very noticeable in flight), whereas the North American subspecies is dark-rumped. The curlew and whimbrel are similar in shape, but the whimbrel is smaller, and its bill, although similarly down-curved, it is not as long as the curlew. Probably the best ways to identify the whimbrel is through its two dark bands across the head, and its rippling whistle that prolongs into a trill.



 Like the curlew, it is named after its call.





There are three other species of curlew worldwide, with only the little curlew not on the endangered species list. It is the smallest curlew, has the shortest bill, breeds in northern Siberia, and spends winter in Indonesia and Australasia. Its population is about 180,000, and the number is stable. 

The slender-billed curlew, classed as critically endangered, has a population of under 100, and nests in the peat bogs of Siberia, wintering around the Mediterranean.  Finally, there is the endangered Far Eastern curlew, with a declining global population of around 30,000. It breeds in eastern Russia and Mongolia, and winters mainly in coastal Australasia. 


Little curlew

Little curlew


Hopefully, this article will help you understand why certain species of bird are headed towards extinction, and why conservation actions are essential. In the UK, efforts are being taken to protect the curlews’ habitat, monitor its nesting sites, cull predators or fence them off from the breeding areas, rear chicks in captivity, and increase public awareness of the vulnerability of the species. The North America situation with the long-billed curlew is less severe, although numbers have declined in the eastern parts of its breeding range.  Consequently, the species is placed on the list of “birds of concern”.  

Finally, remember that April 21 is World Curlew Day. The date marks the Feast Day of St. Beuno in Wales (who died 21 April 640) and the legend that survives him. As the story goes, he was a Christian missionary, crossing the Menai Strait to Anglesey to lead a sermon when he dropped his papers in the water. This would have been a disaster were it not for a passing curlew that rescued the book and flew his papers to land to dry and to prepare them for his services. As a thank you, St. Beuno prayed to God for the protection of the curlew and asked that the species become invisible and be allowed to nest safely in long grass  free from predators.

Saint Beuno's Final Miracle


Coming to Terms with Terns

Coming to Terms with Terns

One of the very few families of birds that remained constant when I moved from England to California in 1979 was the family of terns. I regularly saw Sandwich, Arctic, common, black, and little terns during my visits to Spurn Point in Yorkshire, and during 

The July 2021 Pelagic Bird Spotting Experience for a Struggling Bird Identifier

The July 2021 Pelagic Bird Spotting Experience for a Struggling Bird Identifier

This is a memoir of a COVID-invigorated Bird Spotter and his July 2021 journey from Half Moon Bay to the pinnacles of the Southeast Farallon Islands, and waters beyond, in search of pelagic birds: puffins, shearwaters, storm-petrels, and albatross. My thanks go to Alvaro Jaramillo 

From Racing Pigeons to Mourning Doves

From Racing Pigeons to Mourning Doves

For thousands of years, domesticated pigeons have been an integral part of human life. Egyptian hieroglyphics and stone carvings in Mesopotamia (now modern Iraq) indicate that these birds were domesticated at least 5,000 years ago. Over centuries they have been kept as symbols of  prosperity, used for religious sacrifice, eaten, and trained as couriers. Before the invention of the telegraph (1835), they were the quickest means of sending long distance messages. Today they are bred for show or used in pigeon racing. Feral pigeons, that you seem to see everywhere, are domesticated pigeons that have returned to the wild. My first experience of domesticated pigeons was in April 1953, when we moved into a new home that had a dovecote with about a dozen beautiful white fantail pigeons; for more on this, I refer you to my novel Unplanned.


White Dove and Rock Pigeons


Pigeons today are usually bred either for show at competitions or to increase their speed and homing instincts as a racing bird. Those raised for racing are usually known as homing pigeons or racing homers, whereas show birds are subdivided into a range of various types such as Fantails, Carneau, Jacobins, Tumblers, Frillbacks, Pouters, and Tipplers.


Fantail and Jacobin Pigeons


The ancestor of all pigeons is the rock dove, called the rock pigeon in the United States. The species is native to Europe, North Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia, and although widespread, its numbers are decreasing. Elsewhere, such as in the Americas and Australia, these birds originated from captive stock and are classified as rock pigeons (feral type) instead of rock pigeons (wild type). The estimated global population of rock pigeons is as high as 400 million birds. The two types are similar in size and shape but it is the feral type that displays the variations in colors and patterns.


Feral Pigeons

Feral pigeons (taking on some of the colors bred into domesticated fancy pigeons)



Rock Pigeon (wild and feral) Range Map: green – native and/or nesting: orange – introducedRock Pigeon (wild and feral) Range Map: green – native and/or nesting: orange – introduced


Originally pigeons were brought from Europe to North America during the 1600s to provide food for settlers and to be used for religious purposes. However, they quickly began to breed, and as some escaped, they rapidly spread across the continent. Today they are widespread in North America. Under the 1918 United States Migratory Bird Treaty Act they were excluded from protection since they are non-native and were considered an invasive species like the house sparrow and European starling.

Many people treat rock pigeons as pests and hunt and shoot them. They are believed to spread disease, they infest our parks and public places, they damage crops in the fields, and they poop everywhere, including on your head.

Yet for those who breed pigeons, the bird is worthy of protection. The racing homer is bred for its endurance, speed, and desire to return “home”, with racing distances from as short as 62 miles (100 km), up to 620 miles (1000 km). The bird typically flies at about 50 miles (80 km) per hour. Prize money for winning races can be substantial. The South Africa Million Dollar Race offers $1.6 million in prizes with the first prize worth $300,000. Pigeon racing is a serious sport, and a highly successful pigeon is highly valued. In November 2020, a two-year old female racing pigeon was auctioned to a Chinese purchaser for $1.9 million, making it the highest valued racing pigeon ever.


California Classic Pigeons


Exactly how racing pigeons navigate their way home is unclear. A favored theory is that they use the position and angle of the sun and landmarks. However, often races take place during sunny, clear weather, yet large numbers disappear. In June 2021, about 10 percent of the 250,000 birds released across the UK for a competition made it home on time, but the others either straggled home much later or are still missing.

Another theory is that pigeons use the Earth’s magnetic field because they have a concentration of iron particles in their bill.  A third idea is that they can detect low-frequency sounds coming from the earth and oceans and use these to travel home.

Of course there are many other species of pigeon and dove worldwide. In fact there are over 300 species, some occupying tiny areas, like a single island (for example Granada), or small parts of a country ( like the Somali pigeon in northern Somalia or the black-billed fruit dove in the north-east corner of Australia’s Northern Territory).

In North America, the commonest I see here in California is the band-tailed pigeon, a native of the west and southwestern states. It is the second most abundant species of pigeon in the United States, and usually travels in small flocks that will suddenly descend into backyards and steal seeds from bird feeders. There is also the white-crowned pigeon, native to southern Florida, and the red-billed pigeon that is seen in southTexas and throughout Mexico.


Band Tailed Pigeon


Band-tailed pigeon Range MapBand-tailed pigeon Range Map


As for doves, there are 15 varieties in North America, with the mourning dove by far the most common. It is resident across two-thirds of North America and has an estimated population of two million. Doves are distinguished from pigeons by their smaller size and fanned tail; however, there is no scientific difference between the two types of bird. Doves are friendly, attractive birds, often seen in backyards where they feed on the ground under bird feeders, or on platform feeders.


Mourning Doves


Mourning dove Range MapMourning dove Range Map


Hopefully, none of these species will suffer the same experience as the passenger pigeon, which is now extinct. This species was native to North America and the most abundant bird on the continent when Europeans first arrived. The population back then is estimated at around three billion. They lived in forests, ate nuts and berries, occupied very noisy nesting colonies, and were caught and eaten by humans. Numbers rapidly declined, and by 1900, there were none in the wild, and in 1914, the last one in captivity died.


The Passenger Pigeon


In the UK, during my childhood days, I enjoyed the summer-time visits from turtle doves, a species that is now seriously threatened in Britain. Today there are under 15,000 pairs breeding. The UK is also home to the collared dove and the stock dove. Probably my most favorite is the wood pigeon, the UK’s largest and commonest pigeon, and one whose nest of twigs often allowed me to see the two white eggs it contained before I climbed the tree.


European Turtle Dove and Common Wood Pigeons


In summary, doves appear welcomed by humans as representatives of love, peace, and compassion, whereas pigeons are hated because of their abundance, mess, and aggressiveness. Our love-hate relationship with these birds needs to find the right balance. Hopefully, we can control the numbers of pigeons without having to hunt and shoot them. Who knows, one of them you shoot maybe a racing pigeon returning home.


(Author’s note: I would like to thank my friend Ted Adams of Pacheco Valley, CA who encouraged this article by providing me with a copy of the 1965 edition of the Encyclopedia of Pigeon Breeds by Wendell M. Levi. Long ago, Ted was the caretaker of about 50 homing pigeons)



Population Decline among Wild Birds, with Special Attention to the Eurasian Skylark and the American Bobolink

Population Decline among Wild Birds, with Special Attention to the Eurasian Skylark and the American Bobolink

It was the summer of 1954 when my childhood hobby of birds’ egg collecting  came to an end. The British government implemented the Protection of Birds Act, 1954 that forbid me to take wild birds’ eggs, and at the same time, protected adults and their 

Learning About Sparrows, Those “Little Brown Birds”

Learning About Sparrows, Those “Little Brown Birds”

During the 1950s and 1960s, as a young birder in the north of England, I ignored the rather common, drab and inconspicuous-looking birds known as house sparrows and tree sparrows. Both are Old World species, distributed across Europe and Asia, and rarely migrate significant distances. 

The Worldwide Beauty of Birds

The Worldwide Beauty of Birds

Blue-crowned mot mot


The first resplendent quetzal I ever saw was on April 5, 1998 in the Monteverde Cloud Forest, Costa Rica. The species is considered by many to represent the most beautiful bird in the world, and although it was partially obscured by the dark forest canopy, it was sufficient to cause one of my companions to burst into tears. “It’s my wife” he said. “Her greatest ambition was to see one of these birds, but she died last year of cancer”.

I had been much more impressed by the several blue-crowned motmots we had stopped to photograph during our minibus journey from San Jose to Monteverde. However, my opinion was to change later.

This was my first dedicated overseas trip for birding although I had followed the hobby of bird watching in England during the late 1950s and 1960s. Each of the first 35 chapters of my “coming-of-age” novel She Wore a Yellow Dress is dedicated to a bird that influenced my early life, and the last chapter is given as a special tribute to my deceased wife who supported my love of birding. Only the hoopoe, from chapter nine of the book, deserves a special mention at this time, although it does not make my top ten. 

22 years later, when I was back in Costa Rica, I came across a pair of quetzals during a hike I was taking along the Savegre river valley. The birds were out searching for their favorite food – wild avocados – which they swallow whole before regurgitating the pips. That magnificent sighting took them to the top of “my most beautiful birds” that I have ever seen. 

quetzels, one of the most beautiful birds

A pair of quetzals in the Savegre national forest.


It also prompted the task of trying to select the top ten species of bird that I consider to be the most beautiful birds in the world, even though I may not have seen them. What follows are the results of my efforts and descriptions of the birds I have selected. I used plumage, visual presentation, and my desire to represent all 7 Continents to create this list.

Here comes number one.


green headed teenager, one of the most beautiful birds

1. Green-headed tanager (South America)

A striking, multi-colored songbird (with several different opalescent colors) that is endemic to the Brazilian Atlantic Forest (only about 10 percent of the original forest survives today). The species’ territory includes south-east Brazil, parts of Paraquay, and north-east Argentina. Surprisingly, the bird’s flashy coloring is used as camouflage while it forages among the forest canopy to find its diet of fruit and insects. The Portugese name for the bird is “Saira-seta-coras”, meaning seven-colored tanager.

Its breeding season is November to February in Brazil; November and December in Paraquay; and November in Argentina. Its population is unknown but the number appears stable, and although abiding in the same area most of the time, some may undertake small seasonal migrations between the forest and semi-open habitats.



keel billed toucan, one of the most beautiful birds

2. Keel-billed toucan (Central/South America)

A species noted for its unmistakable, large, rainbow-colored bill, often considered one of the most beautiful birds in the world. Despite the bill’s appearance, it is hollow, made of keratin, with thin rods of bone for support, and therefore is not heavy. The bird’s plumage is mainly black, with a yellow neck and chest, and the bird is heard more than it is seen because of its preference for living in the tops of forest canopies; it moves between trees by hopping due to its limited flying abilities, and is found from Southern Mexico to Venezuela and Colombia; it is the national bird of Belize and the global population is estimated at up to 500,000.



bee hummingbird, one of the most beautiful birds

3. Bee hummingbird (Cuba – North America)

This is the smallest bird in the world at 2.4 inches (6.1 cm) long, and weighs under 0.1 ounce (2.6 grams). It is found exclusively in the Cuban archipelago and is sometimes mistaken for a bumble bee since, as well as its smallness, the bird makes a buzzing noise when it flies. The male displays an iridescent red head and throat, black tips to its wings, grey-white underparts, and the remainder is bluish-green. The birds are sedentary, often living alone, but play a vital role in the ecosystem by picking up pollen on their bill and head, and passing it on as they fly from flower to flower. In a day, a bird may visit 1,500 flowers.

The species occupies the rain forest and forest edges where there are bushes and lianas. Its nest is about the size of a quarter and its eggs the size of a coffee bean. The bird has the ability to fly straight up and straight down, backwards and even upside down. Its population size is unknown, but the species is believed to be in decline.



Wilson's bird of paradise, one of the most beautiful birds

4. Wilson’s bird-of-paradise (West Papua, Indonesia – Asia)

This species of bird-of-paradise, out of an estimated 42 types, exhibits more colors than any other bird in the family. Birds-of-paradise are extraordinary creatures, not only for the colors of their plumage, but their lacey feathers that they wear arranged into disks, flags, ribbons or wires, and that they use in dances and mating displays. In the circumstances of the Wilson’s bird-of-paradise, its teal crown is actually bare skin. The species occurs within a small range, limited to the islands of Waigeo and Batanta off the West Papua coast. Their mating ritual includes the male flashing its brilliant green fluorescent collar and calling out to the female. Supposedly, with all birds-of-paradise, the female is the one that selects her partner and chooses the one with the “sexiest” display. So long as this process continues, we can expect incredible colors and decorative feathers among this family of birds.



european bee eater, one of the most beautiful birds

5. European bee-eater (Europe)

One of Europe’s most colorful birds, with an estimated breeding population of 3 to 5 million pairs. It occurs as a rare vagrant and infrequently breeds in the United Kingdom, preferring to inhabit the warmer climates of southern Europe and North Africa. Its plumage is highly distinctive with a yellow throat, rusty brown upperparts and turquoise underneath. Its diet makes it unique. As the name suggests, bees are its preferred food, although it will take butterflies, dragonflies, flying ants, and even wasps. To avoid being stung by its prey it will return to its perch and repeatedly thrash the insect against a branch to release the sting. It may catch up to 250 bees a day.



grey-crowned crane, one of the most beautiful birds

6. Grey-crowned crane (Africa)

You are more likely to see this species in a zoo than out in the wild. Its size and form, as well as its plumage, qualify it for a place on my list of most beautiful birds. Today, there are about 30,000 grey-crowned cranes living in the wild. Their usual territory is wetland/grassland in eastern and southern Africa, especially in Kenya, Uganda (where it is the national bird), Zambia and South Africa. These majestic long-legged birds stand 3.3 feet (100cm) tall, have grey bodies, white wings with brown and gold feathers, white cheeks, and a bright red inflatable throat pouch beneath their chin. The most striking feature is a spray of stiff golden feathers forming a crown around their heads. They are non-migratory, although some may move short distances.

They are famous for their elaborate mating display that includes dancing, bowing, running and jumping, while raising their wings and inflating their red throat sacks.

15 species of crane exist worldwide, including the sandhill and whooping cranes in North America, and the common and demoiselle in Europe. Do not confuse cranes with storks. Storks are not closely related, do not vocalize like cranes and are more heavily built, especially in the bill.



Bullock's oriole, one of the most beautiful birds

7. Bullock’s oriole (North America)

This songbird occupies the west of the United States, whereas a close relative, known as the Baltimore oriole, is the equivalent in the east of the country, and up until 1975, the two species were combined into one, called the Northern oriole. The adult male is medium-sized and has bright orange underparts, a black back, large white wing patches, and a black throat and black line through the eye. They are nimble and highly active birds, searching for caterpillars, and feeding on nectar and fruit. They breed on the western side of North America from southern British Columbia into north Mexico, and winter as far south as Central America. On the Great Plains, their range overlaps with the Baltimore oriole and the two species occasionally hybridize. Both male and female Bullock’s orioles sing, the male more sweetly and the female often more prolifically. A special trait is there determination to resist interference from the brown-headed cowbird that tries to use them as host parents. They are one of the very few species that will puncture and eject brown-headed cowbirds’ eggs laid in their nests.



golden pheasant, one of the most beautiful birds

8. Golden pheasant (China – Asia)


A delightful, timid and beautiful gamebird, native to the forests and mountains of western and central China. Additionally, it has a substantial feral population elsewhere in the world, with birds having been relocated to North America, South America, Europe, Australia and New Zealand. Two thirds of the bird’s length is accounted for by its golden-brown tail, and it sports an unmistakable golden crest and rump, green patches on its back, a bright red body, and its legs and bill are yellow.

Golden pheasants feed on the ground on grain, leaves and invertebrates, but roost high in the trees at night. This very colorful species is commonly seen in zoos, aviaries, on farms and in gardens worldwide, but in the wild, they hide in the dark forest during the daytime and retreat to their tree-top roosts for the night. If startled, they can burst into flight at great speed.



Snow Petrel, one of the most beautiful birds

9. Snow petrel (Antarctica)

An odd-one-out among the species I have selected, and its inclusion reflects its pure white plumage, jet-black eyes and beak, and its bravery in breeding as far south as the Geographic South Pole. It lives on krill and has to travel to the open sea to find its food. The name petrel is of unclear origin but is believed to come from the bird’s habit of running on water before taking off. Today, an estimated 4 million birds inhabit the Antarctica Continent and surrounding islands.



gouldian finch, one of the most beautiful birds

10. Gouldian finch (Australia)

These birds are native to the tropical grasslands of northern Australia, are extremely attractive and strikingly colorful, and can morph into different colors on their face while retaining a consistent pattern elsewhere, combining greens, blues, orange and purple. For example, there is the black-headed, red-headed and yellow-headed Gouldians, and a few even have an orange face. The explanation is that they regulate the production of melanin and that different amounts cause the color differences (polymorphism is the technical term). The species was, until the late 1960s, trapped and exported as cage birds, and some estimates suggest that less than 2,500 exist today in the wild.


OTHER BIRDS: I confess there are many other species of  beautiful bird that deserve a mention; just a few include the peacock (India), hyacinth macaw (S. America), flamingo (Americas, Africa and parts of Europe and Asia), condors (Americas), scarlet ‘I’ iwi (Hawaii), mandarin duck (Asia), Atlantic puffin (N. America and Europe), yellow-billed cardinal (Central South America), great hornbill (Asia), Victoria-crowned pigeon (New Guinea – Asia), bohemian waxwing (N. America), Adelie penguin (Antarctica), king parrot (Australia), Vulturine guinea fowl (NE. Africa), several species of kingfisher (Americas, Europe, and Asia)), and of course, the bald eagle (N. America).

Hopefully,  my top ten and the ones listed above, plus the quetzal and hoopoe, can influence your personal selection.

Waterhen, Moorhen or Gallinule – Which is It?

Waterhen, Moorhen or Gallinule – Which is It?

Growing up in Yorkshire, I called them waterhens (now more usually known as moorhens). They are humble birds, preferring freshwater wetlands, and are sedentary, except that they are joined by birds moving from north-west Europe to winter in the UK.  As their name implies, they 

Mafia-Style Behavior Among Birds

Mafia-Style Behavior Among Birds

Meet the Eurasian common cuckoo bird and the North American brown-headed cowbird, both brood parasites. ­­ As a boy many years ago in northern England, I pursued a little brown bird called a hedge sparrow, flicking its tail and shuffling through dense bramble undergrowth and 

A Species of Duck that Gives its Name to a Color

A Species of Duck that Gives its Name to a Color

Eurasian/common teal bird (male) 


The first Eurasian or common teal I ever saw was a flock flying south over the sea at Spurn Point, Yorkshire, in England, during the early 1960s, presumably on their way to their wintering grounds around the Mediterranean. Spurn Point was a regular haunt of mine as a bird watcher during my late teens and early 20s, and I still have fond memories. I chose to include some of these recollections in my recently published novel, She Wore a Yellow Dress (by John R. Cammidge). While essentially a coming-of-age story during the 1960s and 1970s, I share in each chapter at least one species of bird that featured in my life at the time.

The identification of this small duck with its stout neck and short tail occurred during my early stages of bird watching. Migrating teal usually do not interrupt their travel, unlike many other species of duck. In Europe, the bird is sometimes known as the Eurasian green-winged teal, and they are ducks that feed in shallow waters by tipping their heads into the water to find food. This  species of teal  breeds across Euro-Siberia, a region that extends from Iceland to over most of Europe, and to Siberia and the Kamchatka Peninsula. In the UK, around two thousand pair breed in northern Britain,  but as many as 200,000  spend winter here. It has a very close relative – maybe even the same species – in North America that is called the green-winged teal. Now that I live in California it is this bird I see during winter.


Eurasian Common Teal Female
Eurasian/common teal (female)


Look for the male’s chestnut-colored head, with a broad green eye patch, a spotted chest, grey flanks and a black-edged yellow tail. Females are mottled brown but both genders display bright green wing patches in flight. The Eurasian and North America varieties appear almost identical except the male green-winged has a vertical white bar on the side of its breast and the common teal has a horizontal white stripe along the inside wing feathers. During winter, the two may mix together when small numbers of Siberian and Alaska-breeding Eurasian teal pass down both coasts of North America. Similarly, green-winged teal can be blown across the Atlantic Ocean to Europe. The two subspecies interbreed where their range overlaps.


Eurasian common teal Range MapEurasian common teal Range Map: light green – nesting, dark green – all year round; blue – wintering



Green-winged teal Range MapGreen-winged teal Range Map


Large flocks form outside the breeding season and are recognized in flight by their quick wing beats and veering and twisting acrobatics. You usually see them on calm bodies of water such as marshes, shallow lakes, wetlands, and estuaries.

The green coloring on the teal’s head has been used to describe a shade of blue-green known as “teal’, and apparently was first used in 1917.


American green winged teal male and female
American green-winged teal (male and female)


American blue winged teal male
American blue-winged teal (male)


The American green-winged teal is widespread across North America, with an estimated four million birds  breeding in Canada and the northern USA, and they migrate south across the continent during August, returning to their breeding grounds starting in early March.

While the green-winged teal is the commonest of this family of ducks in North America, the blue-winged species is also widespread, but absent in desert areas and also rare along the West Coast where they are outnumbered by cinnamon teal. They use the Atlantic and Mississippi flyways rather than the Pacific corridor during migration.


Blue-winged teal Range MapBlue-winged teal Range Map


You need to avoid confusing the green-winged teal with the American wigeon that is slightly larger, and the male wigeon lacks the cinnamon-brown coloring on its head. There is also the larger and very common mallard whose drake possesses a gleaming green head, and both sexes exhibit blue wing feathers in flight, possibly causing confusion.


American wigeon male
American wigeon (male)


Mallard male and female
Mallard (male and female)


Finally, there is the cinnamon teal in North America These are less numerous than the green and blue-winged species, with an estimated 150,000 to 300,000 that breed primarily in the Great Salt Lake region, the San Luis Valley of Colorado and the Caribo-Chilcoton parklands of British Colombia. Many migrate south to California, and as far as Mexico and Central America for winter but their range is restricted western North America. The male has a cinnamon-red head, neck, breast and belly, a black back and rump, and a characteristic red eye, black bill, and yellow legs and feet. The female is a rustier colored and heavily streaked.


Cinnamon teal male and female


Cinnamon teal Range MapCinnamon teal Range Map


In Pacheco Valle Woods, a neighborhood in the city of Novato, CA, and named after Ignacio Pacheco, an early Californian rancher, the streets are called after species of birds, and include Cinnamon Teal Lane. However, there is no record of how these names were selected.

Additionally, I could never have seen cinnamon teal at Spurn Point or elsewhere in the UK since it is only a rare vagrant to Europe, whereas in California it can appears as a fall and winter resident. My first sighting of this species was at the Madrona Marsh Preserve in Torrance, Southern California.

The only other duck possessing a cinnamon-colored face that might cause confusion is the canvasback, but this is a large duck and dives for food rather than dabbles.


Canvasback male and femaleCanvasback (male and female)\


Reductions in water availability due to climate change may reduce the teal’s habitat and affect its future breeding populations that leads to a decrease in numbers. In the US, however, its wildlife conservation status is of Least Concern, whereas in the UK it has made it onto the Amber Watch List because of a decline in breeding numbers.