Bird Blog

Welcome to my Bird Blog: Stories from a Lifelong Birder

Welcome to my Bird Blog: Stories from a Lifelong Birder

My Bird Blog is a series of “then and now” stories that combine my experiences as a juvenile birdwatcher in Britain during the 1950s and 1960s with my knowledge of the same species in California today. Each month I publish the details of a bird 

Cory’s Shearwater and Birds of the Portuguese Azores and Madeira

Cory’s Shearwater and Birds of the Portuguese Azores and Madeira

Cory’s Shearwater off the coast of Madeira, Portugal Photo Credit – Author   Cory’s Shearwater is a large, heavy bird and a member of the seabird family Procelleridae. It breeds primarily in the Portuguese islands of the Azores and Madeira and the Canary Islands, Spain.  

To See a Mockingbird

To See a Mockingbird

Northern Mockingbird

Photo Credit – the Author 

 

Amidst a cacophony of mid-morning birdsong, a medium-sized bird, approximately 10 inches (25 cm) in length, caught my eye. Its tail, as long as its body, was a striking feature. The bird’s plumage was a mix of grey, darker above and lighter below, adorned with distinctive white patterns on its wings and tail, which were particularly noticeable when it took flight. The bird was a Northern Mockingbird, a captivating sight indeed.

The bird appeared in the exact location a year earlier, in a housing development near the Corte Madera Creek in northern California. The purpose of its song was unclear. Maybe it was calling a mate, protecting its territory, catching insects, or simply listening to its voice. During my childhood bird watching in England, the Northern Mockingbird was a species I had never encountered. The bird, a member of a group of New World species, is a rare vagrant in Britain, with years passing between individual sightings. The occasional appearance is thanks to Atlantic tailwinds or even boats offering unexpected lifts, adding a touch of mystery to its presence.

 

Northern Mockingbird
Northern Mockingbird

Photo Credit – eBird

 

The Northern Mockingbird is a testament to adaptability, breeding from southern Canada across the United States and south into Mexico and the northern Caribbean islands. It has even managed to establish itself in Hawaii. Most birds are yearlong residents, but a few occasionally wander in the fall and winter, especially those that breed in the north. The species expanded its range along both coasts into Canada during the 20th century and prefers open land below about 1000 feet (300 meters), where shrubs and small trees provide cover. If you have encountered Western or Eastern Mockingbirds, they are sub-species of the Northern variety.

 

Northern Mockingbird range map
Northern Mockingbird Range Map

Photo Credit – American Bird Conservancy

Orange – Breeding; Green – Permanent Resident; Blue – Non-Breeding Resident

 

At the turn of the last century, California’s standard range for these birds was restricted to the Central Valley, as far north as Merced and along the coast south of Los Angeles; now, the species has become more broadly distributed, and in San Francisco, you may encounter them in the Presidio. The development of farmland, the outlawing of trapping to make them cage birds, and banning shooting them as an agricultural pest have supported this expansion. The species has been common in the southern United States and is the state bird in five states: Arkansas, Florida, Mississippi, Tennessee, and Texas. 

 

Northern Mockingbird - Texas
Texas Mockingbird and Bluebonnet

Photo Credit – American Meadows

 

As the novel To Kill a Mockingbird says, the mockingbird is innocent and harmless and should be allowed to sing and add beauty to its surroundings. Current population estimates are around 30 million in the United States and a little over 40 million worldwide. 

The Northern Mockingbird sings repeated phrases throughout the day and often into the night. A single bird will develop a repertoire of up to 150 to 200 songs during its lifetime. It mimics the songs of other birds and impersonates cats, car alarms, lawnmowers, and police sirens. Expect to hear different songs in the fall from those in the spring. However, estimates are that 90 percent of its songs are pure mockingbird, and 10 percent are mimicry. The bird’s scientific name mimus polyglottos translates into “mimic of many tongues”. Native Americans used a name that translates into “four hundred tongues”. Maybe due to their noisiness, they are caught by cats, attacked by raccoons, and taken by birds of prey. 

 

Northern Mockingbird Eating

Northern Mockingbird Winter Diet

Photo Credit – iNaturalist

 

For food, their diet changes during the year. In summer, they primarily eat insects; in fall and winter, they consume fruit. They forage on the ground or in vegetation. Visits to garden bird feeders are rare, but in winter, suet, mealworms, and fruit may attract them. Their average life span is eight years, but some are known to live as old as 15. 

 

Blue Mockingbird

Blue Mockingbird

Photo Credit – Wikipedia

 

If you visit southwestern Mexico, do not be surprised to see a “blue” version of the mockingbird. The Blue Mockingbird is indigenous to Mexico, with an estimated population of up to five million. Both mockingbird species are of “least concern” from a conservation perspective. 

 

Finally, you may want to listen to a singing Northern Mockingbird:

Scaup, A Confusion of Ducks and Geese

Scaup, A Confusion of Ducks and Geese

Greater Scaup (male with the white plumage) Photo Credit – Cornell Lab: All About Birds   California winter visitors, the Greater Scaup, have recently left the coastal creek near my home and returned to their breeding grounds along the West Coast up to Alaska. Previously, 

American Kestrel, Small Falcon with a Large Appetite

American Kestrel, Small Falcon with a Large Appetite

Eurasian or Common Kestrel: Photo Credit – Wikipedia   American Kestrel Photo Credit – Cornell Lab of Ornithology   Thank you, Sonoma Land Trust, for connecting me with the beautiful American Kestrel, the smallest raptor in North America, during a recent visit to the Sonoma 

Hummingbirds That Live In California

Hummingbirds That Live In California

Humming-bird Hawk-moth

Photo Credit – Graeham Mounteney, Butterfly Conservation

 

Hummingbirds are small, often migratory birds that inhabit the Americas. They have compact bodies, long, narrow beaks, and relatively long blade-like wings. The latter allows them to fly in every direction and to hover. Typically, they migrate alone and travel up to 500 miles a day. The people of California benefit from the beauty, courage, and entertainment of hummingbirds in California.

The weight of hummingbirds is typically less than two pennies and the noise their wings make gives them their name. Distribution of this family is limited to the American continents, with approximately 350 species, including 15 in the United States and Canada. If you see one in Europe, it is likely that you either observe an escaped cage bird or a Hummingbird Hawk-moth, an insect that looks like a hummingbird when feeding. The moth’s range is Asia, North Africa, and Southern Europe. Let’s start with hummingbirds generally and finish with California’s hummingbirds.

 

Anna's Hummingbird (male) | Hummingbirds in CaliforniaAnna’s Hummingbird (male)

Photo Credit – National Audubon Society

 

First, the evolution of hummingbirds is a puzzle. The oldest hummingbird fossils are not in the Americas but in Germany, Poland, and France, and date back 30 plus million years. Today, these birds are extinct. Did they die out because of competition for food or because of an increasingly cold climate in Europe that persuaded them to move across the land bridge between Siberia and Alaska? From here, they could have colonized southwards and developed a diverse and rapidly expanding population. Alternatively, could there have been a natural convergence of evolution and the New World species developed independently?  It is probable that we will never know. 


Hummingbird Range
Hummingbirds Range

Photo Credit – Erik Stokstad, Science

 

Hummingbirds feed on nectar (occasionally insects) and consume up to 160 per cent of their body mass daily. They have a bias for red flowers and red feeders. This is in part due to the rich source of food, and partly because they possess trichromatic visual senses that prefer the range yellow to red and mute other colors such as blue.  However, the main attraction is the quality of nectar, and it does not need to be colored! There is no need for you to add red food dye to the water you place in the hummingbird feeder. These birds are highly territorial and will fight to protect their mate, source of food, and their nest. This includes attacking bees, butterflies, and moths. I have even seen a hummingbird chase a raptor, presumably because it came too close to the hummingbird’s nest.

  

Black-chinned Hummingbird | Hummingbirds in California
Black-chinned Hummingbird (male)

Photo Credit – Be Your Own Birder

 

Broad-tailed Hummingbird
Broad-tailed Hummingbird (male)

Photo Credit – eBird

 

There are seven hummingbird species present in California. Only three appear regularly in my part of California, north of San Francisco, so I must travel to see the other four. Because hummingbirds are small and fast, it is difficult to distinguish one species from another. The four requiring that I travel are as follows:

  1. Black-chinned Hummingbirds – small, slender birds that, while uncommon, are broadly spread across the state except in my area north of San Francisco. A medium to long-distance migrant, these hummingbirds arrive during April/May and depart for western Mexico and southern Texas during July/August. A few remain residents year-round in southern California.  Males are distinguished by a black head, metallic-green body, white breast, and an iridescent violet lower throat. Females are less dramatically colored.&nsbp;
  2.  

  3. Broad-tailed Hummingbirds – these are medium-sized hummingbirds found only in the northwest of California and are present from late May to early August. They are common in the high-altitude areas of the Sierra Nevada, although their numbers have recently declined due to the destruction of their open space breeding habitat. They are migrants that winter in southern Mexico and Guatemala. Males are distinguished by an iridescent green back, on their throat a bright rose-red gorget (named after neck clothing and armor worn by men and women from the medieval times onwards), and white eye rings.
     


    Calliope Hummingbird | Hummingbirds in California
    Calliope Hummingbird (male)

    Photo Credit – Cornell Lab of Ornithology


    Costa's Hummingbird
    Costa’s Hummingbird (male)

    Photo Credit – Cornell Lab of Ornithology

     

  4. Calliope Hummingbirds – these are long distance migrants that pass along California’s Pacific coast on their way between Mexico and their breeding grounds in the northwest. During fall, they return south but use a route along the Rockies and Sierras. They are tiny, under four inches in length, and the smallest birds in California. Males are distinguished by a long, magenta-colored throat with similar colored feathers organized in streaks passing down the neck; the head and upper parts are metallic green, and the breast is white. They are named after Calliope, a Muse in Greek mythology, who inspired Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey.
  5.  

  6. Costa’s Hummingbirds – are smallish, medium-distance migrants that winter in Mexico, and some remain resident year-round in southern California. They are common in the Mohave Desert and nearby gardens, and in the sage scrub of coastal California as far north as Santa Maria. Males are distinguished by a large, iridescent purple gorget that covers their head and flares along the sides of their neck. They are named after Louis Marie Pantaleon Costa de Beauregard, a 19th-century Sardinian nationalist who was fond of collecting hummingbirds.Now let me turn to the three species I am most familiar with because they appear in my neighborhood, starting with Anna’s Hummingbirds; these are by far the most common species of hummingbird in my part of northern California.
     

    Anna's Hummingbird Family
    Anna’s Hummingbirds

    Photo Credit – National Geographic

     

  7. Anna’s Hummingbirds – These medium-sized, stocky, flashy, feisty, and fearless birds are named after Anne d’Essling, the wife of the Duke of Rivoli. She never likely saw one. The French naturalist René Primevère Lesson gave the name to the bird after observing the species in California, presumably to sponsor favor with the Italian family.

    Anna’s Hummingbirds are common along the western coast of North America from northern Baja to southern Canada and many are permanent residents within this range. Their distribution explains why I have so many that visit my bird feeders year-round. Eight million Anna’s Hummingbirds are estimated to live in the western United States, and their numbers represent a substantial increase over the early 1970s. As temperatures warm, the territory for Anna’s Hummingbirds has expanded into the mountains of California, allowing their numbers to increase. Males are distinguished by a reddish-pink throat and reddish crown, an iridescent bronze-green back, pale grey belly, green flanks, and a slightly forked tail.


     
    similar-hummingbird-species-rufous-allens | Hummingbirds in California
    Allen’s and Rufous Hummingbirds

    Photo Credit – Hummingbird Central

     

  8. Allen’s Hummingbirds – small, compact, aggressive, territorial birds, and relatively rare. They migrate north beginning as early as December, and occupy a narrow strip of coastal forest, meadows, and gardens from Santa Barbara to southern Oregon. Their journey back to central Mexico takes place inland from June to August, although the birds that live around Los Angeles are often year-round residents. The species name celebrates Charles Andrew Allen, an American collector and taxidermist who identified the bird in 1879 in Nicasio, California. The species population has fallen by around 80 percent since 1968 to around 1.5 million. They are hard to distinguish from Rufous Hummingbirds. Males are identified from their green back and forehead, rust-colored flanks, rump, and tail, and iridescent orange-red throat. Females and immature adults are virtually identical in appearance to their equivalent Rufous Hummingbirds.

  9.  

  10. Rufous Hummingbirds – small, aggressive birds that pass through California (February to April and July to early October) on their nearly 4000-mile journey from Mexico, to breed north of California, as far north as Alaska, and then return home for winter. The population has declined significantly during the past 50 years but is large enough that these migrants remain familiar across California. Males are distinguished by their copper-orange back (although some are partially green, confusing their identity with Allen’s Hummingbirds). Their throat is an iridescent reddish-orange; they have a white breast and a white patch behind their eyes. 

And finally:

Which are the smallest hummingbirds? The Bee Hummingbird, the smallest bird in the world, is found only in Cuba. It is two and a quarter inches long and weighs less than a dime.

Which are the largest hummingbirds? The Giant Hummingbird is nine inches in length and is found throughout the Andes on both the east and west sides.  

Belted Kingfisher: What You Need To Know

Belted Kingfisher: What You Need To Know

Belted Kingfisher Photo Credit – I-naturalist (Birds of San Diego County)   I usually hear the Belted Kingfisher rather than see one when walking alongside the Corte Madera Creek near San Francisco. Occasionally, you might observe one perched above the water or hovering on rapidly 

Eurasian Collared Doves – Invaders or Colonizers?

Eurasian Collared Doves – Invaders or Colonizers?

Eurasian Collared Doves Photo Credit – Cornell Lab of Ornithology   Recently, I was walking alongside my local creek-side in Northern California when I heard the purring sound of goo-Goo-goo, and strove to find out what it was. I discovered a pair of Eurasian Collared 

Western Bluebirds, an Example of Natal Philopatry

Western Bluebirds, an Example of Natal Philopatry

Western Bluebirds Male & Female

Photo Credit – National Geographic

 

The number of Western Bluebirds fluttering and dropping to the ground in search of insects appears to have dramatically increased this fall around the golf course I use here in northern California. What is going on, I ask?

First, an introduction to Bluebirds. There are three species in North America: the Eastern, the Mountain, and the Western; some are resident and some migrate. The northern populations head south for winter. The Eastern is the most common and is found east of the Rockies; the Mountain Bluebird lives high in the Rockies, as far north as Alaska and the Yukon and east into Oklahoma, Kansas, and Nebraska. The Western Bluebird is restricted to the Pacific Northwest and down to the southern Rocky Mountains and Mexico. Western Bluebirds in the south tend to be year-round residents. All three species are members of the thrush family. 

 

Bluebird Range Map

Mountain Bluebird           Western Bluebird            Eastern Bluebird
Bluebird Range Map

Photo Credit – Avian Report

 

The Western Bluebird is the dominant species that forages across my Bay Area golf course. Their plumage is a brilliant royal blue across their top half, they have a rusty brown-red neck and upper breast, and their lower breast is gray. The plumage on the female is duller, and both genders are slightly smaller than an American Robin. They forage by sitting and waiting on low-to-the-ground perches, inspecting beneath them for insects, and then swoop down to catch their prey. Nesting takes place in tree cavities and artificial nest boxes, but they also have to compete with other cavity-nesters such as starlings, certain swallows, and wrens for this right to occupy a nesting site. Their breeding habitat includes open woodlands, ranch environments, and streamside groves, but the winter habitat expands to include oak and riparian woodland, coastal chaparral, and pasture fields. Their summer diet is mainly insects, but in winter its food expands to include berries such as grapes, mistletoe, and poison oak.

 

Western Bluebird Nesting

Western Bluebird Nesting

Photo Credit – Pacific Bird

 

Philopatry is the tendency of creatures to remain or habitually return to where they were born. Natal refers to the bird’s birthplace. It appears that mother Bluebirds can affect the everyday behavior of their male chicks while their offspring are still in the egg. They allocate different levels of testosterone and related hormones into the eggs, dependent on the competitiveness of the environment in which they have lived. If there is little competition for breeding and foraging, stay-at-home sons are born. When the reverse exists, more hormones are added, and the male chicks become more aggressive and more likely to disperse away from home.

  

Western Bluebird Berries

Western Bluebird Diet of Berries

Photo Credit – Las Pilitis Nursery

 

The life span of a Bluebird is around four years, and its clutch size is around 2 to 8 eggs, a situation that appears to encourage growth in population. Where I play golf, there are plenty of oak trees and open “pastures”, and I rarely see starlings who might compete with them. There are plenty of Acorn Woodpeckers to create new nesting sites. Maybe this is what is going on. Additionally, the numbers may be influenced by the arrival of migrating birds from the north during the fall.    

The overall population of the Western Bluebird has held steady during recent years and the species is of “low concern” from a conservation perspective. The expansion of grazing land, the removal of dead trees, predation from cats and rodents, and the effect of non-native plants are the primary risks to their numbers. 

During my early days of bird-watching in Europe, Bluebirds were not a species I saw. The closest to these species was listening to Vera Lynn sing There’ll Be Blue Birds over the White Cliffs of Dover.  Written by two Americans in 1941, it appears that neither the composer nor the writer were aware that bluebirds did not live in Britain. However, the song became, and still is, a British favorite.

 

Bluebirds Dover

Bluebirds over the White Cliffs of Dover

Photo Credit- Rooftop Post
Backyard Tales of a Black-headed Grosbeak and a Western Tanager

Backyard Tales of a Black-headed Grosbeak and a Western Tanager

Black-Headed Grosbeak Photo Credit – Author   The fall migration is underway. There are birds appearing in my Northern California backyard which I have not identified before. First there was the Black-Headed Grosbeak, a member of the Cardinal family, inspecting my bird feeder, probably looking 

The Success of the Bald Eagle

The Success of the Bald Eagle

Bald Eagle in Marin County (Photo Credit – Elyse Omernick, Marin Living Magazine)   A friend of mine recently sighted a Bald Eagle near Fairfax, CA. an event that was inconceivable a few years ago. The Bald Eagle returned to Marin County, CA. in 2008 

Owls of Marin

Owls of Marin

Barn Owls

Photo Credit – Birds and Blooms

 

Someone from San Anselmo recently asked me about Owls in Marin, and expressed interest in installing an Owl Box. I believe Owl Boxes are available as part of the Hungry Owls Project sponsored by the WildCare organization in San Rafael, Marin County. Barn Owl Boxes and Screech Owl Boxes are available, and both types of owl are resident in Marin County, CA.

 

 

Great Horned Owl and Range Map

 

The most common owl in Marin County is the Great Horned Owl which breeds in the nests of other birds, such as raptors and covids, and is probably an unsuitable guest for Bird Boxes. They are one of the most common owls in North America, and are widely distributed across the continent and in parts of South America. The size of the owl makes it too large for most nest boxes, but there are other considerations. Great Horned Owls are fierce predators, and as well as eating squirrels and mice, they may attack housecats and small dogs. Their diet goes well beyond rodents. They may even attack humans while defending their territories. Even so, I spot them occasionally in my backyard, high in the conifer trees, displaying their horn-like tufts, and in the evenings and early mornings, I can hear their haunting hoots. Sometimes they are mobbed by cawing American crows because the Great Horned Owl is the crows’ most dangerous predator. 

My dissertation on “European” Owls can be found in Chapter 18 of my novel She Wore a Yellow Dress, and the species most common to both this Bird Blog and that discourse, is the Barn Owl.

 

 

Barn Owls Distribution MapBarn Owl Distribution

Photo Credit – The Barn Owl Trust

 

Barn Owls are one of the most widely distributed birds in the world, and are found almost everywhere except in polar and desert areas and northern Asia. The species is nocturnal and specializes in hunting small mammals on the ground, especially rodents. It flies silently, and its call is a drawn-out screech. Sub-species of the Barn Owl live in different parts of the globe, and the bird is non-migratory. They nest in hollow trees, cliff cavities, barns and silos, and nest boxes, and long ago, one nested in the chimney of my Yorkshire home. The nest collapsed, the female dropped down the chimney into my brother’s bedroom, where it startled him and terrorized him until my parents caught and removed it. 

Only the female sits on the nest, using the featherless area on her abdomen, known as the “brood patch”. Owls eat, but rarely drink. They obtain most of their water from their prey. Here in Marin it is believed that the population of the Barn Owl has declined in recent years because of the loss of nesting habitat and the effect of rat poison.

 

Northern Spotted Owl

 

Marin County, and in particular, Point Reyes National Seashore, the Golden Gate National Park, and Muir Woods,  are  home to the Northern Spotted Owl. These are large owls, with rounded heads and no ear tufts. I have seen them on tree-tops in northern Point Reyes. They prosper in the northern coastal climate of California, and sometimes use nest boxes. It is suggested that their population has been supported by the presence of large numbers of dusky-footed woodrats, the owl’s preferred prey. You will note from the Range Map that there are three subspecies of Spotted Owl, each occupying a different geographic range.

 

Barred Owl

 

However, not everything is stable for the Northern Spotted Owl. In 2002, their close relative, the Barred Owl, began to arrive in Marin County. This is an eastern species that has expanded its range westwards. Barred Owls are slightly larger than the Northern Spotted Owl, more aggressive, less choosy when selecting their prey, and may negatively affect the territory and nesting behavior of the Northern Spotted Owl. The two species look similar, except that the Northern Spotted Owl has a spotted brown and white pattern on its chest, while the Barred Owl has a barred brown and white pattern. 

Western Screech Owl

 

The Western Screech Owl may also occupy nest boxes, and has a presence in Marin County.  It is a small, stocky owl, with conspicuous ear tufts, and tends to have a rufous plumage. It is doubtful that you will ever see this variety of owl. It is a nocturnal hunter and spends its daytime hiding in roost holes in trees. They include suburbia and public parks among their chosen habitats, and if you install an owl box, include a couple of inches of untreated wood shavings since the Western Screech Owl does not build its own nest. Also, beware of starlings that compete for the same roosting sites.  Finally, if you hear one, it will sound like a set of whistled hoots, and not the screeching implied by the bird’s name. 

Despite this article’s Marin County focus, it is not to say that there are no other species of owl found in California. There are several, with their own unique preferences for habitat. These include the Northern Pygmy Owl, Northern Saw-whet Owl, Flammulated (flame-colored) Owl, Burrowing Owl, the Great Gray Owl, the Short-eared and Long-eared Owls, and the rare Snowy Owl.

 

Northern Pygmy Owl

 

 

Flammulated Owl

 

Burrowing Owls

 

Great Gray Owl

 

The Northern Pygmy Owl is about the size of a sparrow, hunts during the daytime, is generally non-migratory, has a rapid high-pitched staccato call, and nests in tree cavities and woodpecker holes. The Northern Saw-whet Owl (possibly named after its saw-like call), sometimes migrates, and inhabits dense forests in the central and southern United States. The Flammulated Owl, about the size of an American Robin, migrates to Mexico and Central America after breeding in eastern parts of California and other south-west States. Unlike other owls, it feeds on insects.

Today, the Burrowing Owl is found mainly in California’s Imperial Valley, although decades ago, it was more widespread, and included a breeding population in Marin County. It lives underground in burrows that it digs itself. 

The Great Gray Owl is a large owl that avoids people, is a permanent resident of coniferous forests, hunts at night, and in California, its range is restricted to the north-eastern part of the State.

 

Long-eared Owl

 

Long-eared Owls are occasional winter visitors and have been spotted in Marin County. Historically, they likely bred in this County. They are medium-sized, have long ear tufts that are held erect, and are rarely seen because in the daytime they hide in trees, and at night, they hunt in open areas. Short-eared Owls are rare and declining in number in California. They are recognized as a species of special concern because of loss of habitat. The species is ground-nesting, and prefers grassland and marshland such as that found in north-eastern California and the Central Valley. During winter, a few may appear along parts of the California coast.

Hopefully, now that you know something about California owls, you will choose to advocate for these birds in your part of the State, possibly exempting yourself from invasive species such as the Barred Owl. 

POSTSCRIPT: And it would be remiss of me not to mention a large owl species that is dominanly white with mottled plumage, and very rare in California, the Snowy Owl. Their presence here is highly unusual, although one last year made it as far south as Los Angeles County. They breed in the Arctic tundra and some move south for winter, occasionally reaching  Central California. Unlike most owl species, they hunt during the daytime, as well as at night.  

 

Snowy Owl

Linnet Versus The American House Finch

Linnet Versus The American House Finch

I was first introduced during the late 1950s to the small songbird, a member of the finch family, called the Linnet or Common Linnet, when I was associated with the Bootham School Natural History Club in York, England. Founded in 1834, the society was one 

Black-throated Gray Warbler in Yosemite Valley

Black-throated Gray Warbler in Yosemite Valley

Male Black-throated Gray Warbler (Photo Credit eBird)   During May this year, the Black-throated Gray Warbler made its way onto my birding “life list” as a result of a visit to Yosemite Valley. Not that these birds are rare in California ,but I had never 

The Legendary Hoopoe: A Pretty Bird with Poor Personal Hygiene

The Legendary Hoopoe: A Pretty Bird with Poor Personal Hygiene

Eurasian Hoopoe

(Photo Credit eBird)

 

I have just returned from a trip to Israel, a country that adopted the Hoopoe as its national bird in May 2008. I was fortunate enough to see one hunting for food on the lawns of HaPisga Gardens in Jaffe. My other notable birding event was in Jerusalem at the Nili and David Bird Observatory. Here birds were passing through Israel on their way to Europe, including Blackcaps, Redstarts, and an Olivaceous Warbler. Also caught in the mist net was a Lesser Whitethroat that had previously been ringed in Finland. More local birds observed included a Syrian Woodpecker, White-throated Kingfisher, and Hooded Crows.

 

 

BlackcapBlackcap

(Photo Credit The Author)

 

 

The Hoopoe was selected to celebrate Israel’s 60th anniversary, and 155,000 people voted using a list of ten species. Its Hebrew name is “Duchifat”, and in Arabic this converts to the “Hudhud”. The Hoopoe is mentioned in the Torah as “abhorrent and not to be eaten” because of its skunk-like stench, but Jewish legend praises it for introducing King Solomon to the Queen of Sheba. The Queen is believed to have ruled the “Land of Sabah” south of Israel, where she and her subjects worshipped the sun. Gifts were offered, visits took place, the Queen embraced the beliefs of Islam, and the King eventually gave her “all that she desired, whatever she asked”.

 

  

Prophet SolomonProphet Sulaiman, King of the Jews

(Photo Credit Encyclopedia Britannica) 

 

 

Hoopoes are instantly recognized by their cinnamon-colored plumage, their attractive tall, erect crest of black-tipped feathers, and their black and white striped wings. In profile, they look similar to woodpeckers but their black bill is longer and thinner. They are medium-sized birds, about the size of a mourning dove, and their trisyllabic song of “oop-oop-oop” likely gave them their English name. An alternative explanation is that their name is derived from the French word “huppee” that means crested bird. They display an erratic butterfly-like undulating flight, half closing their broad, rounded wings, at the end of each beat.

 

 

Hoopoe 2022 Israeli Stamp2022 Israeli Stamp

(Photo Credit eBay)

 

 

This Eurasian species is present across most of Europe, Asia, and the northern half of Africa. There are two other species. The Madagascar Hoopoe is restricted to the island of Madagascar, and the African Hoopoe is found in southern Africa; neither of these species migrates unlike the Eurasian variety. The global population of the Eurasian Hoopoe is estimated at between five and ten million birds.

 

 

Hoopoe Range MapHoopoe Range Map

Orange: European Hoopoe – breeding; Dark Green: Eurasian Hoopoe – resident; Blue: Eurasian Hoopoe – wintering; Moss Green: Madagascar Hoopoe; Light Green: Africa Hoopoe.

(Photo Credit Wikpedia)

 

 

The Eurasian Hoopoe does not breed in the UK and I did not spot one during my childhood days of birdwatching in England. However, up to 100 birds appear during spring as they migrate from Africa to Europe, usually along the south coast of England. The species has two basic habitat requirements. It needs access to lightly vegetated open ground for feeding, and vertical structures, such as trees, walls, cliffs, and burrows, to provide cavities for its nests.

 

 

 

Hoopoe NestingHoopoe Nesting

(Photo Credit Dr. Shanthathamenan)

 

 

The Hoopoe’s reputation for abhorrence originates from the foul-smelling, thick brown liquid that is produced in the preening glands of brooding females. This is ejected from their posterior onto their feathers, and onto their eggs, to protect against predators and parasites. The secretion, which includes the unpleasant odor of dimethyl-sulphide, smells like rotting meat. Additionally, the Hoopoe allows litter and feces to build up in its nest that adds to the odor.  Even the chicks can squirt liquid feces in the direction of their suspected predators.  

During the breeding season, Hoopoes are territorial and will chase off intruders, sometimes stabbing them with their bill, and occasionally blinding the opponent. Clutch size averages around seven eggs, and incubation begins as soon as the first egg is laid. The male feeds the female during the incubation period.

 

 

Hoopoe NestHoopoe Chicks

(Photo Credit Francoise Vareille)

 

 

Until my visit to Israel, my sightings had only taken place during trips to Majorca, Spain, like the one I describe in chapter 10 of my novel She Wore a Yellow Dress. The Eurasian Hoopoe is absent from North America except for occasional vagrants that are seen in Alaska and the Canadian Yukon Territory. 

Finally, let me to finish with some more legends and myths attributed to the Eurasian Hoopoe:

  • Ancient Egypt: the Hoopoe was treated as sacred and a symbol of gratitude. Pictures of the bird adorn the walls of tombs and temples, and were used in iconography during the Age of the Pyramids (2700 to 2200 BC) to designate a child as heir and successor to his father. 

 

 

Tomb of Khnumhotep 11Tomb of Great Chief Khnumhotep

(Photo Credit Australian Center for Egyptology)

 

 

  • Ancient Persia: the Hoopoe was the symbol of virtue and the perfect messenger. Literature relates the meeting of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. There is also Iranian folklore that describes an uncovered bride combing her hair; her father-in-law sees her; she is ashamed, and flies away, with the comb in her hair, to become the Hoopoe. In Attar’s Logic of Birds, the bird is wise and the leader of all birds. 
  • Ancient Greece: the Hoopoe was the bird of good omens, and king of all the birds in the Greek comedy, The Birds.   
  • Turkey: the Hoopoe was treated as sacred and a symbol of loyalty and compassion.
  • Arab Countries: the Hoopoe is often regarded as a provider of medical remedies. It was believed that its heart cured diseases, and that its bones should be used for magical purposes. It also has the reputation of being able to locate water underground. 
  • Elsewhere in Europe: the Hoopoe has a mixed reputation. In France, hearing its song before the vines blossom, is a sign of a plentiful harvest and good wine. To the Vikings, the presence of the Hoopoe was a harbinger of war; in Estonia, its song was supposed to foreshadow death, and in other places it was considered a thief.

Whether or not you accept these beliefs, the Eurasian Hoopoe is a species that has had a lasting impact on human civilizations. Thanks to its adaptation and defensive skills, there is little worry about its future survival. It continues to be listed as of “Least concern” from a conservation point of view.

 

 

The Wise HoopoeThe Wise Hoopoe, King Solomon’s Personal Messenger 

(Photo Credit Santa Monica Bay Audubon Society)

 

 

As Thin As A Ridgway’s Rail

As Thin As A Ridgway’s Rail

Ridgway’s Rail (Photo Credit eBird)   Some people hold the opinion that the saying “As Thin as a Rail” derives from a comparison with the skinny and slender shape of birds known as Rails, including the Ridgway’s Rail. Many of these species have laterally compressed