Author: John Cammidge

Coming to Terms with Terns

Coming to Terms with Terns

Related to seagulls, terns are classified under the bird family, Laridae, and although similar in appearance to gulls, they have constantly intrigued me because of the beauty of their flight. They are usually identified by their black and white plumage, their long, angular wings and 

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. They were exploited by their keepers as symbols of fertility, prosperity and faithfulness, as a sacrifice for religious purposes, as a source of food, and as a courier and communicator. Additionally, they played a minor role as bait in the ancient sport of falconry and, more recently, have been hunted. Before the invention of the telegraph (1835), they were the fastest means of communication. Today, hundreds of varieties of pigeon are bred for show, or as a hobby, or raised to participate in the sport of pigeon racing. King pigeons (possibly named for their large size) are bred for food. Egyptian hieroglyphics, and stone carvings found in Mesopotamia (now modern Iraq) dating back to around 3000 BC, suggest that these birds were domesticated over 5,000 years ago. The white dove is believed to have been bred around this time. All domestic and feral pigeons (domestic pigeons that have returned to the wild) are descended from the wild rock pigeon, and all three readily interbreed.


White Dove and Rock Pigeons


Pigeons have been domesticated to either develop their attractive plumage or to enhance their speed and homing instincts so that they can participate in the sport of pigeon racing. Pigeons raised for endurance flying and homing purposes are typically called homing pigeons or racing homers, whereas other breeds used for exhibition purposes, or as pets, are placed in a broad range of separate classifications. These include such names as Fantails, Carneau, Jacobins, Tumblers, Frillbacks, Pouters and Tipplers.


Fantail and Jacobin Pigeons


As for the ancestry of these pigeons, the rock dove – called the rock pigeon in the United States since 2004 – is considered to be their predecessor. It is native to Europe, North Africa and South Asia, although today it is distributed worldwide. Its numbers are dwarfed by the millions of feral pigeons we see in the streets and public squares of our cities, in urban parks, on farmland and under bridges. Feral and rock pigeons are similar in size and shape, but feral pigeons display a far greater variation in color and patterns. Today, these birds have colonized the world, except for Antarctica and the Sahara Desert. Although once close companions to humans, they have fallen out of favor and lost popularity as their numbers have increased and their behaviors worsened. People generally love them or hate them.


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


Rock/feral pigeons are not native to North America. They were brought from Europe during the 1600s as a source of food and for religious purposes, and inevitably some escaped. They found conditions suitable for breeding and quickly spread across the continent. Today they are widespread. Global population estimates vary widely, ranging from 120 million to 400 million. In the United States, these pigeons fall outside the protection of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, 1918 because, like house sparrows and the European starlings, they are an invasive species, and can be hunted and killed.

Many people treat rock/feral pigeons as pests, and they are killed, or removed, or their habitat modified, and their eggs stolen or made infertile by mixing a chemosterilant with their food, to cull their numbers. Admittedly, they ravage crops, cause a nuisance because of their droppings, damage property, and are believed to be a risk to human health. They also risk being preyed upon by peregrine falcons and sparrow hawks. In some places, there numbers are so great and behaviors so inappropriate that they are called “rats with wings”, a term believed first used by the New York City Parks Commissioner in 1966.

Yet, for those who breed pigeons, the species is worthy of protection. The racing homer is generally acknowledged for its endurance, speed and desire to return “home”. Pigeon racing is known as a sport with a single starting gate and many finishing lines. Races range from 100 km (62 miles) to 1000 km (620 miles), and in the United States, flights of up to 1,100 miles (1770 km) take place. Racing pigeons typically fly around 50 miles (80 km) per hour. Published records indicate there are about 15,000 registered lofts in the US, Taiwan has 500,000 people who race pigeons, there are 60,00 pigeon fanciers in the UK (42,000 keep and race pigeons), and in Beijing alone, there are an estimated 100,000 pigeon fanciers.

Training is essential to make a racing pigeon want to return “home”. Its homing instincts are developed by releasing it from different directions and gradually increasing its flight distance. Prize money can be substantial. The South Africa Million Dollar Race, the Olympics of pigeon racing, offers up $1.6 million in prizes, with a first prize of $300,000.

The Persians, Greeks and Romans bred pigeons for both show and racing, and the Genghis Khan nation used them to communicate across their vast Mongol Empire. During the 12th century AD, the city of Bagdad and all the main towns in Syria and Egypt were linked together by messenger pigeons, as they are sometimes called. During the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries in Europe, pigeon guano was considered highly prized as a fertilizer, and in England, it was originally the primary source of saltpeter, an essential ingredient for making gunpowder.

During the First and Second World Wars, homing pigeons saved hundreds of thousands of human lives by carrying messages across enemy lines. During the First World War, mobile pigeon lofts were set up behind trenches from which pigeons often had to fly through enemy fire and poison gas to deliver their messages home. Amazingly, the last “pigeon post” service appears to have ended during 2004 in India.

Pigeon racing remains a widespread hobby around the world. All you need is a loft for your pigeons, and the time and funds to care for the birds and to train them to win. Birds are brought to a specific site where they are released, and each bird flies back to its owner’s loft. A band attached to the bird’s leg before the race begins is then removed, and placed into a timing device. The pigeon that has the fastest average speed is declared the winner.


California Classic Pigeons


Exactly how racing pigeons navigate their way home is unclear. A dominant theory is that they use the position and angle of the sun, along with landmarks, to navigate the direction of flight. However, there are examples of pigeon races taking place during sunny, clear weather when large numbers of participants simply vanish. In June 2021, only about 10 percent of 250,000 birds released across the UK made it home within the expected timeframe. It was a clear day but many birds straggled home much later, and some remain missing today; some flew in the wrong direction and several ended up in other countries. One is believed to have been spotted in Majorca, Spain, nearly 1000 miles (1610 km) away.

Some scientists believe that the birds use the Earth’s magnetic field for navigation because of a concentration of iron particles in their beak that appear to serve no other useful purpose. On this particular day, it is presumed that a solar storm must have occurred. Another theory proposes that homing pigeons can detect low-frequency sounds coming from the earth and oceans to guide them home, which are inaudible to humans.

What’s important is that this is a serious sport, and a highly successful pigeon can be sold for huge amounts. In November 2020, a two-year old female racing pigeon, belonging to a Belgian, was auctioned to a Chinese purchaser for $1.9 million because of its breeding pedigree, making it the highest valued racing pigeon. Consequently, the peregrine falcon and sparrow hawk sometimes find themselves threatened or hunted by racing pigeon enthusiasts who fear that the raptors will kill their prize birds.


Peregrine Falcon and Sparrow Hawk


There are of course other pigeons and doves worldwide. In fact there are over 300 species of these birds, some occupying tiny areas, such as a single island (for example, Granada), or small parts of a country ( for example, the Somali pigeon in northern Somalia and the black-billed fruit dove in the north east corner of Australia’s Northern Territory). In North America, in addition to the rock pigeon and its descendants, there is the band-tailed pigeon, native to the west and southwestern states. It is the second most abundant species of pigeon in the United States. Small flocks can be observed descending into backyards and stealing seeds from bird feeders. There is also the white-crowned pigeon, found in southern Florida, and the red-billed pigeon resident in the south of Texas and throughout Mexico. They are considered gamebirds and are hunted across the southern areas of North America.


Band Tailed Pigeon


As for doves, there are 15 varieties in North America, with the mourning dove, named for its haunting and sad cooing sound, by far the most common. It is resident across two-thirds of the North American continent, and has an estimated population of about two million breeding birds. They are friendly, attractive birds, often seen in backyards where they feed both on the ground, under bird feeders, and on platform feeders. Some US states regard them gamebirds.


Mourning Doves


Hopefully, they will not follow the same destiny as the passenger pigeon, a native bird to North America that was considered to be the most numerous species of bird on that continent when Europeans first arrived. Its population at that time is estimated to have been at least three billion, and the species is thought to have accounted for around 40 percent of the continent’s bird population. They were shaped for speed, lived in forests, ate nuts and berries, and occupied very noisy nesting colonies. Their numbers rapidly declined, with catastrophic losses in the late 1800s. By 1900, none had survived in the wild, and in 1914, the last passenger pigeon in captivity died. Over-hunting, deforestation, and the boom-to-bust availability of their food are quoted as reasons for the extinction.


The Passenger Pigeon


A feature of pigeons that you might sometimes observe is the way they often bob their heads as they walk. Unlike humans and owls that have forward-facing eyes, pigeons have side-mounted eyes, with monocular vision. They bob their head to gain depth of perception.

My childhood days during the 1950s in the UK exposed me to summer time visits from turtle doves, now seriously threatened in that country, with under 15,000 pairs currently breeding. There was also the more frequently observed collared dove, with over one million pairs, and the stock dove. Probably my favorite was the wood pigeon, the UK’s largest and commonest pigeon, and whose nest of twigs often allowed me to see the presence of two white eggs before I climbed the tree.


European Turtle Dove and Common Wood Pigeons


In summary, doves are associated with love, peace and compassion, whereas rock and feral pigeons are known today for living in close proximity to humans, their continuous breeding habits, the pollution they create, and their alleged spreading of disease. They procreate excessively; young birds can start breeding as soon as five months after birth, they can raise broods as frequently as eight times a year, and the male as well as the female produces “pigeon milk” to feed their young (sometimes called squabs). Additionally, they have a diet based heavily on scavenging human waste in addition to consuming seeds and grain. They are highly human-dependent and, regrettably, after thousands of years, their right to live alongside human beings is being challenged. Hopefully, they will receive sufficient compassion to acknowledge their prior contributions to human society, and be allowed to enjoy a peaceful life. Eliminating some of their sources of food and using deterrents to keep them away from protected areas should be chosen over resorting to killing these birds, destroying their nests, and making their eggs infertile. Long live Columba livia (domestica).


(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 keeper of about 50 homing pigeons, and subsequently changed to breed show birds such as Fantails and Jacobins.)



<b>The Alarming Population Decline among Wild Birds, with Special Attention given to the Eurasian Skylark and the American Bobolink</b>

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

I recall it was the summer of 1954 when my childhood hobby of collecting birds’ eggs and trading them at school came to an end. The British government implemented the Protection of Birds Act, 1954 forbidding the taking of wild bird’s eggs, and protecting the 

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 frankly ignored the rather common, drab and inconspicuous-looking birds known as house sparrows and tree sparrows that I encountered around the farm. The two species look very similar except that 

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 be one of the most beautiful birds in the world. I enjoyed the brief sighting although the bird was partially obscured by the dark forest canopy. Nevertheless, 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.

My opinion changed 22 years later when I returned to Costa Rica and came across a queztal — a pair, actually — during a hike I was taking along the Savegre river valley. The birds apparently were out searching for their favorite food – wild avocados – which they swallow whole before regurgitating the pips. They were perched gracefully on tree branches, with the male showing off his elongated upper tail coverts, about 3 feet (1 meter) long, and both were adorned with their resplendent metallic blue, green and crimson red plumage. The male occasionally called out “come here, come here” whenever the two birds were separated. No wonder the quetzal was regarded as “sacred” and “precious” by the Aztecs and Mayans, and became the national bird of Guatemala and the name of its currency. Around 20,000 to 50,000 are thought to survive today, although the number is declining due to habitat loss.  


quetzels, one of the most beautiful birds

A pair of quetzals Kristian Kniland and I photographed in the Savegre national forest.


Putting these two Costa Rican varieties aside, I set myself the task of selecting species of bird that I could place in my top 10 list of birds, based on their plumage and visual presentation and considering their deportment and fortitude to overcome extraneous challenges. Another benchmark was that all 7 Continents should be represented. Thus, for those of you interested in ornithology and who maybe planning to travel after the COVID-19 pandemic, the following nominations for most beautiful bird may be helpful.


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 that were considered for most beautiful birds, and which deserve a mention, are the peacock (India), hyacinth macaw (S. America), flamingo (Americas, Africa and parts of Europe and Asia), condors (Americas), scarlet ‘I’ iwi (Hawaii), hoopoe (Europe), mandarin duck (Asia), Atlantic puffin (N. America and Europe), blue jay (N. 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).

Waterhen, Moorhen or Gallinule – Which is It?

Waterhen, Moorhen or Gallinule – Which is It?

Growing up in Yorkshire, I called them waterhens (now often known as moorhens) and read that they were members of the rail family. After all, they were the size and shape of a chicken, they “clucked”, and laid eggs like a hen (i.e. many eggs 

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 Bird that Gives its Name to a Color

A Species of Bird that Gives its Name to a Color

Eurasian/common teal bird (male) 


The first Eurasian teal bird I ever saw was a flock flying south over the sea at Spurn Point, Yorkshire, in England, presumably on their way to wintering grounds around the Mediterranean or closer. The identification of this small duck with a stout neck and short tail was in the early 1960s during my introductory stages of birdwatching. Migrating teal often do not interrupt their travel, although I spotted large numbers of the species swimming on the Lagoons just north of Warren Cottage on later occasions. In Europe, the species is known as the common teal or sometimes called the Eurasian green-winged teal, and they are dabbling ducks that typically feed in shallow waters by tipping their heads into the water to find food (unlike diving ducks). This is the sole variety of teal bird to breed throughout Euro-Siberia, a region that extends from Iceland across most of Europe, and over Siberia to the Kamchatka Peninsula. 


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. Large flocks will form outside the breeding season and are distinguished in flight by their quick wingbeats and veering and twisting acrobatics in tight formation similar to shorebirds. Typically they frequent freshwater ponds, shallow lakes, wetlands, coastal marshes and estuaries.

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


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


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


When I moved to America I again encountered a bird known as the green-winged teal which is the smallest dabbling duck in the United States, about the size of a pigeon, and which is believed to belong to the same species as the Eurasian teal. It is almost indistinguishable from the Eurasian variety, and during winter the two may be mixed together when small numbers of Siberian and Alaska-breeding Eurasian teal pass down both coasts of North America. The most conspicuous difference is the presence on American males of a vertical white bar on the side of the breast, and also they are slightly smaller than their Eurasian relatives. These two subspecies interbreed where their range overlaps. The American green-winged teal is common and widespread across North America, with an estimated four million birds that breed in Canada and the northern USA, and which migrate south across the continent during August, and winter until returning to their breeding grounds starting in early March.

While the green-winged teal is the most common representative of this bird family in North America, the blue-winged species is also widespread but avoids desert areas and stays away from the west coast where they are greatly outnumbered by cinnamon teal. The blue-winged teal arrive late in their breeding grounds (late April/early May) and depart early (August), travelling further and faster than other teal species. They use the Atlantic and Mississippi flyways rather than the Pacific route during migration.

Do not confuse the green-winged teal with the American wigeon that is slightly larger and whose male lacks cinnamon-brown coloring on its head, or the larger mallard whose drake possesses a gleaming green head, and both sexes display blue wing feathers in flight possibly causing confusion with blue-winged teal.


American wigeon male
American wigeon (male)


Mallard male and female
Mallard (male and female)


Cinnamon teal are less numerous in North America than the green and blue-winged varieties, 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. Up to 500,000 migrate south as far as Mexico and Central America but generally are only found in the western regions of North America. The males have 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 color and heavily streaked.


Cinnamon teal male and female


In Pacheco Valle Woods, a neighborhood in the city of Novato, CA, constructed at the end of the 1970s and named after Ignacio Pacheco, an early Californian pioneer, the streets are titled after species of birds, including the cinnamon teal. Since the location is ideal for birdwatching this might not be surprising but no record appears to exist of how the species used were selected. With names such as sage grouse, puffin, condor, elegant tern, curlew, elf owl, sandpiper and pelican, it can be assumed that local presence was not a factor, and there is no nearby shallow water suitable for the sighting of cinnamon teal. However, the choices of flicker, red hawk, oriole, quail, kingfisher, hummingbird and dove are species that may either be resident or visitors to the development.

I would never have seen a cinnamon teal at Spurn Point or elsewhere in Britain where it is a potential vagrant, but here in California I can enjoy them from fall to spring and had my first sighting at the Madrona Marsh Preserve in Torrance, Southern California several years ago. They are truly beautiful.

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


Canvasback male and femaleCanvasback (male and female)

The lesson from so many varieties of duck is to understand the many features that can be used to distinguish between species. These include profile (size and shape and position on the water), color pattern, behavior including feeding, flying (wing beat) and flocking patterns, habitat and voice.


Dotterel, a small plover, and a word in Britain used to describe a person easily deceived, stupid or gullible; why?

Dotterel, a small plover, and a word in Britain used to describe a person easily deceived, stupid or gullible; why?

As a small wader and member of the plover family of birds, the dotterel is known for its friendly, sweet and trusting behavior towards humans. As a result, it is easily caught, was hunted for sport, eaten by royalty as a delicacy during English Tudor 

Roman Coin for a “Butcher Bird”

Roman Coin for a “Butcher Bird”

Eurasian Red-Backed Shrike   I must have been aged 14 at the time, looking down near the blade of the spade I was using, when I spotted a large round object in the soil. It was dirty black, except for a distinctive blue-green patina caused 

Which bird is supposedly colored by the blood of Jesus?

Which bird is supposedly colored by the blood of Jesus?

The European goldfinch, a native of Europe, North Africa and western and central Asia, was such an attractive bird that hundreds of thousands were taken from the wild to become cage birds in Britain less than 100 year ago. This led to the British government passing an Act in 1933 that made the sale of wild birds illegal, and by the early 1960s, it was a much more common sighting in my neighborhood, and recorded on numerous occasions by fellow birdwatchers. It was easily distinguished by its crimson face, black and white head and black and yellow wings. 

Legend has it that the bird encountered a suffering Jesus carrying his cross to Calvary and wearing a crown of thorns. The bird flew down to try and remove the thistles (its favorite food), and as it did so, a drop of blood from Jesus stained the bird’s face. Ever since, the goldfinch has been associated with the Passion of Christ. The bird appears in many religious Italian Renaissance paintings and symbolizes Christ’s crucifixion, resurrection and redemption. The Dutch painter, Carel Fabritius in 1654 painted a life-size goldfinch chained to a perch. This picture was used by Donna Tartt in her prize-winning novel of the same name.

Currently, the European population of goldfinches is around 100 million, and about one million breed in Britain, with their territory spreading northwards. The bird is small, around 5 inches (13cm) in length, and weighs half-an-ounce (15 grams). The species is highly social, often flocking in groups, and enjoys the seeds that people provide in their bird feeders. Otherwise you see them foraging  for seeds on wasteland and road sides. They are monogamous, forming long-lasting pairs and noisily defend their breeding site. The female builds the nest and incubates the eggs while the male feeds her. Most goldfinches  stay close to their breeding ground although some seek out warmer weather by visiting the south of France and Spain during winter.

The goldfinch is represented in North America by three species, but they belong to a different genus and are not closely related.  However, the European goldfinch was a popular cage bird in North America and escapees have populated Wisconsin and parts of Michigan.

In California, we have all three American variants present – the American goldfinch (the prettiest), the lesser goldfinch (formerly called the Arkansas goldfinch) and Lawrence’s goldfinch (named after a former American ornithologist). While different in appearance, all goldfinches (including the European one) flock together, constantly call in flight and enjoy the same food (seeds from thistles, sunflowers, grasses and certain trees). They are attracted to bird feeders and I can claim to have had all three visit my back garden during the past year.


Lesser Goldfinch


Lawrence Goldfinch

It is strange that certain birds in North America have been given the same name as European species but are not closely related. Probably the best other example is the American robin. Apparently it was named by European settlers because it has the same brown body and orange breast that the much smaller European robin possesses. However, the latter belongs to the flycatcher family whereas the American robin is a member of the thrush family.

But be reassured that most of the species seen in the Old World and New World carrying the same name, are closely related. This includes waders like whimbrel, curlew and dunlin; ducks and geese such as mallard, goldeneye, greater scaup and Canada goose; seabirds such as scoters, puffins, and arctic tern; and raptors like osprey, peregrine falcon, northern goshawk and merlin.