Author: John Cammidge

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 

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 for its favorite seed, the sunflower, and then there was a terrible accident involving a Western Tanager. These are not rare birds in California, just unusual in my backyard.


Black-headed Grosbeak RangeBlack-Headed Grosbeak Range

Photo Credit – Wikipedia


The Black-Headed Grosbeak is a medium sized bird, about the size of a Starling, and is widespread and common in most parts of California, with its numbers appearing stable. It breeds as far north as southwest British Columbia. The average life span is approximately seven years. It chooses oak and mixed woodland for its summer habitat, but as it starts to migrate during September, to spend up to seven months wintering in central Mexico, it tends to choose open woodland, trees alongside streams, and suburban areas, as its preferred environment. 


Black-Headed Grosbeak male and femaleBlack-Headed Grosbeak, Both Sexes

Photo Credit – US National Park Service


The plumage of the male and female is somewhat different, but both genders possess a deep, conical beak, which gives the bird its name. The male has a black head, black speckled white back and tail, and an orangish neck, breast, and sides. The female is browner, with a whitish belly and streaking on the sides.

Their diet is mainly insects, snails, and spiders during summer, but they switch to seeds, berries, and fruit in winter. They are one of the few birds that eat monarch butterflies, despite the noxious chemicals these insects contain after eating milkweed during their larval stage. 


Spotted TowheeSpotted Towhee

Photo Credit – Sacramento Audubon Society


Beware of confusing the Black-Headed Grosbeak with a Spotted Towhee. The latter can be distinguished by its smaller bill and longer tail, and the orange coloring is restricted to its sides.


Evening GrosbeakEvening Grosbeak

Photo Credit – American Bird Conservancy


Blue GrosbeakBlue Grosbeak

Photo Credit – American Bird Conservancy


Rose-breasted GrosbeakRose-breasted Grosbeak

Photo Credit – American Bird Conservancy


There are other species of Grosbeak to be found in California, such as the Evening Grosbeak, so-named because, at first, it was thought only to sing at dusk, the Blue Grosbeak, and the occasional Pine Grosbeak, which is widespread across northern Europe and Asia as well as North America. The Rose-Breasted Grosbeak breeds primarily in the forests of the eastern United States, and winters in central and southern Mexico, the Caribbean, Central America, and northern South America.


Western TanagerWestern Tanager, Male and Female

Photo Credit – Rocky Mountain National Park Service


The Western Tanager that made it to my backyard unfortunately never left. It flew into a house window during the daytime, and died on impact. I hoped it was only stunned but that was not the case. I need to do something about my window! 


Western TanagerFatal Accident

Photo Credit – Author


Glass windows are worse than invisible. They either reflect foliage and the sky, or face off against another window, and appear not to exist. Up to an estimated one billion birds die annually from window strikes in the United States. I am considering what I should do. Should I place decals or stickers on the window despite its large size? The alternatives include installing shutters, using a mosquito screen or netting, adding a series of rope bird-savers, or inside, maybe I could add blinds, the simplest solution. 


Western Tanager Range MapWestern Tanager Range Map:

Photo Credit – Terry Sohl, NatureServe


Western Tanagers breed in the mountains of California, and as far north as Alaska, and winter in north-west Mexico, and as far south as central Costa Rica.  Despite their name, the species is a member of the Cardinal family. They eat insects, fruit, and berries. Males are readily recognized by their bright red head, lemon-yellow breast and back, and black wings, shoulders, and tail. Both sexes possess a relatively small, light-colored beak. They are a couple of inches shorter than an American Robin and slightly smaller than a Black-Headed Grosbeak. Their typical life span, excluding accidents, is around eight years.

I await the arrival of my next unusual species of bird. 

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 

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.




(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 

Attacked by Swans

Attacked by Swans

Mute Swan Photo Credit: Wikipedia I was surprised recently to see two pairs of Mute Swans feeding on grass and submerged vegetation at Schollenberger Park, Petaluma, CA. They appeared to be partners and presumably were preparing to breed in March or April. As we passed 

Buffleheads: Ducks that Nest in Trees

Buffleheads: Ducks that Nest in Trees


It is the start of winter here in Northern California, and a time when tiny Buffleheads, the smallest ducks in North America, arrive to spend their non-breeding season in the state. They are one of 29 duck species in North America and tend to return punctually each year to the same location. Whether I am walking the dog or doing some serious birdwatching, these black-and-white ducks appear in small groups or in pairs, and sometimes individually, on sheltered estuarine waters along the Pacific coast, such as the lower reaches of the Corte Madera Creek. 

When disturbed, they take flight, sometimes by running a short distance on the surface of the water, but unlike other diving ducks, they can also lift off directly, when they choose. They fly fast and low over the water with rapid wingbeats, and are silent in flight, making no whistling or quacking noise. They can travel at up to 48 miles (77 km) per hour during migration. While on the water, they dive for their diet of mainly aquatic insects, crustaceans, and mollusks, and you can see them leap slightly forward and then plunge below the surface of the water. They usually remain underwater for up to 20 seconds, but sometimes stay submerged for over a minute, popping up far away from where they disappeared. I have yet to see one on dry land.


Buffleheads in Flight

Buffleheads in Flight

Buffleheads are bestowed with a large, high-crowned head which is the reason for their name, first being called “bull-headed” using an ancient Greek word, and then this description became “Buffalo Head”, and eventually was shortened to “Bufflehead”. Buffleheads also attract the nickname of “butterball”, a reference to the large amount of fat they carry during migration, and in some places they are known as ”the chickadee of the duck world” because of their small size. The species is native to North America where its current population is around 1.3 million, and this number is believed to be increasing. 


Buffleheads Range Map

Bufflehead Range Map in North America

Buffleheads are rarely seen outside of North America, although individual birds occasionally show up in adjacent countries such as Japan, Greenland, and Iceland, and in parts of Europe, where they are considered a very rare migrant. The Bufflehead is mentioned in the Bird Book I used in England during my 1960s birdwatching, but says that the presence of these birds in Britain is “Accidental”. Indeed, as recently as 2016, only a cumulative total of 17 individual Buffleheads had been recorded in the UK since the species initially appeared during 1920. Most sightings are recorded in the Midlands of England, rather than close to the west coast, and that has led to speculation that some of these birds may be escaped ornamental ducks. As far as I know, none have been recorded at Spurn Point on the east coast of Yorkshire, my favorite bird watching haunt during the 1960s, and just one elsewhere in the county. The opportunities for birdwatching during the 1960s at Spurn Point are described in my memoir-style novel titled She Wore a Yellow Dress. 

Buffleheads are only 14 inches (35 cm) long, compared with the Mallard’s 23 inches (58 cm). The adult male is the most colorful, with a large white patch behind its eye and around the back of its head. Otherwise, the rest of the head and back are black with a green and purple sheen. The underbelly is entirely white, making it highly distinctive on the water. In contrast, females are generally gray below and brown above, with a characteristic white patch on the side of their head. 

Buffleheads are monogamous and can mate for life. However, since their average life span is only around 2.5 years, having a partner for life may not be too difficult. Their migration north for breeding purposes starts during February when they fly under the cover of darkness to avoid predators. Ninety percent of the breeding population is believed to be dispersed westward from Manitoba in Canada, with a few non-breeding birds staying behind for summer, as far south as California.  The return trip begins once their summer habitat begins to freeze over. Those nesting in eastern Alberta typically migrate to the eastern United States and the Gulf Coast of Mexico, and birds from western Canada migrate south along the Pacific Flyway. 

There is always a risk of confusing the identification of Buffleheads with other species of diving duck. For example, a male Bufflehead may be confused with a Hooded Merganser as both birds possess similar large white patches on the back of their heads and catch their food in a similar manner. However, they are not related, and while the male Bufflehead is white on its lower half, the Merganser is brown. Also, the Merganser has a thin bill to catch fish whereas the Bufflehead’s bill is more duck-like.


Hooded Mergansers

Pair of Hooded Mergansers

Ducks that dabble for food on the surface of the water by tipping their bodies upside down should not be confused with Buffleheads because of this feeding behavior. Such species include Mallards, Shovelers, Wigeon, Teal, Gadwalls, and Pintails. 

Scaup ducks that dive to feed are similar in that they display white flanks but are distinguishable because they have no white patch on their head and are much larger than Buffleheads (close to the size of a Mallard).  


lesser scaup duck

Lesser Scaup – Male

There may be confusion with two other species of diving duck, called the Common Goldeneye and the Barrow’s Goldeneye, that are named after their brilliant yellow eyes, surrounded by black in the case of males, and deep brown for females. This possible mistake in identification is due to the white underbelly of the male Goldeneye, the iridescent green on its head, and the white patch on the male’s face. The Common Goldeneye is found widely across the US and Canada, whereas the Barrow’s species is restricted to the northwest and far northeast of North America.


Common goldeneye

Common Goldeneye


Barrow's Goldeneye

Barrow’s Goldeneye


Common Goldeneye Range Map

Common Goldeneye Range Map

It is also these three species of duck that compete with Buffleheads for the best cavities and hollows in trees to be used as nesting sites, despite the physical limitations of webbed feet and the preference of ducks to feed on ponds, lakes, rivers, and along seacoasts. Another possible competitor for tree cavities is the Wood Duck but its breeding territory is largely in the United States, and therefore south of the territory in which Buffleheads nest.


Wood Ducks

Wood Ducks – Male and Female


Wood Duck Range Map

Wood Duck Range Map

The Bufflehead appears to prefer cavities in aspen and poplar trees, although it will use holes in Douglas firs, ponderosa pines, and black cottonwoods. Holes excavated by Northern Flickers appear as the duck’s first choice since these cavities are small and deep enough to provide security and prevent the larger Goldeneye duck from taking over, to the extent that they will kill the Bufflehead occupant if they have to. Females select the nesting cavity that is usually located two (60 cm) to ten feet (300 cm) above the ground so that the ducklings can safely leap and fall to the ground a couple of days after hatching. An average of nine cream to buff-colored eggs are laid and incubated by the female. The male takes this time off to molt. 

Goldeneyes and mergansers are less choosy with their nesting sites, and will include rock openings, abandoned buildings, open tops of tree stumps, and nest boxes, as suitable sites. Cavities constructed by pileated woodpeckers apparently are preferred by Goldeneyes.


Buffleheads: A female at nest

Bufflehead female at nest

As for conservation, Bufflehead numbers are not in decline despite 200,000 to 250,000 being shot each year in the United States and Canada by hunters. As long as deforestation is controlled, the species should continue to flourish and remain of “least concern” from a conservancy perspective. Who knows, maybe the Bufflehead will continue to adapt to using human-provided nesting boxes or convert to the more traditional nesting methods employed by other species of duck, if tree cavities become hard to find.

Two Species of Robin; Same Name, Different Bird; The European Original and the American Look-alike

Two Species of Robin; Same Name, Different Bird; The European Original and the American Look-alike

European Robin   American Robin At this time of year, European Robins, a species commonly called robin or robin redbreast in the UK, are a familiar sight on Christmas cards in England. The practice began during Queen Victoria times in the mid-18th century when the 

Sandhill Cranes are back in California for Thanksgiving

Sandhill Cranes are back in California for Thanksgiving

Sandhill Cranes During early October this year, I visited the Cosumnes River Preserve, south of Sacramento, to glimpse flocks of Sandhill Cranes flying high in the sky, having just arrived to winter in their thousands among the fields, marshes, and wetlands of the Central Valley 

Shore Lark or Horned Lark, the Same Bird?

Shore Lark or Horned Lark, the Same Bird?

Many years ago, I was required to persuade my fellow birdwatchers that I had spotted a pair of Shore Larks on a beach just north of the Warren at Spurn Point, Yorkshire, England, to have the sighting recorded in the Bird Observatory’s daily log. What made the task difficult was that the presence of a Shore Lark in this neighborhood was unusual, the encounter demanded that I supply a detailed justification, and that as a teenager, I had never done this before. Nonetheless, I was successful with my presentation.


Drawing of Spurn Point April 1961Drawing of Spurn Point April 1961- see my novel She Wore a Yellow Dress for more details


Today there are fewer sightings of Shore Larks in Britain than during the 1960s, and according to the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, only around 100 Shore Larks arrive to winter each year in the UK. These birds appear along the east coast of England during October to March, traveling south from their breeding grounds. They usually spend summer in Scandinavia and the far north of Eurasia, migrating in search of new sources of food and to avoid the cold weather. Typically they appear along sea-shores and on salt marshes. Those breeding in the mountains of south-east Europe and southern Asia tend to remain there year-round.



Shore Lark: Global Range MapShore Lark: Global Range Map – orange breeding; purple year-round; blue non-breeding


Contrast this with my experiences today in California as I fulfill my docent responsibilities to protect the nesting Snowy Plovers on Surf Beach, close to the Vandenberg Space Force Base. During my visits, I have seen close to the above annual number of UK birds that look similar to the ones at Spurn Point, either undulating in flight in small flocks, or erratically walking and running among the dunes foraging for food. The distinction is that in North America these birds are called Horned Larks, and are the only lark that is native to North America.  In Europe, there are several other native species such as the Skylark, Crested Lark, and Wood Lark. The Shore Lark probably spread to the New World around 600,000 years ago. Today many are resident in North America year-round, and are joined during winter by Horned Larks from the north and from mountainous areas. Birds belonging to this species return to their birthplace each summer, a characteristic known as philopatry.


Horned Lark: North America Range MapHorned Lark: North America Range Map


Horned Larks breed throughout North America, choosing open ground or habitats possessing short vegetation. They construct grass-lined, cup-shaped nests in depressions on the ground, laying a clutch of three to five eggs. Their scientific name translates as “desert lover of the high mountains”.


Horned Lark breedingHorned Lark breeding


There is also a species known as Meadowlark in North America but these birds belong the blackbird, not lark family. Also, efforts in the past to introduce the Eurasian Skylark into North America have usually failed, although a small population survives today on Vancouver Island, and vagrants from Asia are occasionally seen in Alaska.


North American Western MeadowlarkNorth American Western Meadowlark



Eurasian SkylarkEurasian Skylark


This species with two names enjoys one of the largest worldwide ranges of any songbird, and has an estimated global breeding population of 140 million, with 97 million in North America. The species is usually classified as of “Least Concern” from a conservation point-of-view. However, in North America, its numbers have declined by an estimated two thirds since 1970, in part due to pesticides, as well as caused by loss of habitat. In western North America, Horned Larks are one of the species most often killed by wind turbines although, as the chart below illustrates, this cause of death among birds is minor compared with other means of fatality. In the UK, the Shore Lark is on the Amber (Watch) List of birds due to habitat loss caused by changes in agricultural practices and urbanization. 


Wind Turbine Deaths: It Happens!!Wind Turbine Deaths: It Happens!!


The Shore Lark is easily distinguished from other Old World larks by its pale yellow throat, the yellow on its face, and a black breast-band and cheeks. It is pinkish brown above and whitish below. Males have a small black band across their crown and small black feather tufts, only visible at short range, that are horn-like (two pointed black feathers jutting out backwards on either side of the crown). Males are slightly larger and darker than females and their “horns” are more prominent. The same description applies to New World Horned Larks.


Horned Lark or Shore Lark?Horned Lark or Shore Lark?


As for the most appropriate name for this species, the North American term seems most suited since it refers to the bird’s obvious feature of “horns”. Also, only in certain parts of Europe does the species migrate to coastal habitats during winter that justifies the name of “Shore Lark”. Personally I am satisfied with either name, and I am delighted that my volunteering at Surf Beach has reconnected me with a species that caused me so much excitement many years ago. However, whether this species continues as a winter visitor to the UK remains uncertain. Global warming will impact mountain and high altitude upland regions as the tree line advances upwards, potentially pushing the habitat of these birds further north. 

Northern Wheatears, Champions of Migration

Northern Wheatears, Champions of Migration

I was first introduced to Northern Wheatears at the end of March 1961 during a school geology fieldtrip to Stainforth in Ribblesdale, Yorkshire, England. A small group of us were studying the area’s Carboniferous Limestone and Millstone Grit and searching for fossils in the older 

 The Global Reach of the California Quail

 The Global Reach of the California Quail

California Quail – male and female Admired by many, the California Quail, about the size of a pigeon, is a hardy and adaptable ground-dwelling game bird that was originally resident in the United States from Southern Oregon south into Baja California, but has extended its 

The Extraordinary Abilities of Birds

The Extraordinary Abilities of Birds

Killdeer faking injury

According to research, birds are astonishingly intelligent creatures. Jennifer Ackerman in her book The Genius of Birds dismisses the belief that idioms such as “bird brain”, “eating crow”, “cuckoo”, and “feather brain” have anything to do with a true understanding of the brain structure of birds, and my early experiences as a bird watcher confirm her belief. One of my first memories of unusual bird behavior is at Spurn Point in Yorkshire when two partridges flew over the Warren. The female hit the overhead electric wires and decapitated herself, and the male landed and called out for her for at least 30 minutes. Further details of my adolescent bird watching are in my novel She Wore a Yellow Dress.  

There are many other illustrations of bird intelligence that I could give you from my experiences but I want this article to focus on the more bizarre aspects of bird behavior. Examples of strange conduct I have used in previous blogs include birds feigning injury, shrikes impaling prey on thorns before eating their victims, fulmars spitting foul liquid at anything that threatens their nest, and the parasitic behavior of Eurasian cuckoos and brown-headed cowbirds.


Great Indian hornbill, a source of interesting bird behavior

Great Indian hornbill

Let us start with Indian hornbills.  There are nine species in India, so how about choosing the largest one, 40 to 48 inches long (100 to 120 cm), the great Indian hornbill. It is native to the tropical rain forests on the Indian subcontinent and in south-east Asia, and like all hornbills, has a huge casque on top of its massive bill. The casque is hollow and serves no known purpose, but for this article the species uniqueness lies in something quite different. 


Great hornbill nest

Great Indian hornbill nest

The female builds a nest after entering the hollow of a large tree and then seals the entrance while she is still inside so that she can no longer leave. She uses dung and pellets. The male supplies the pellets of mud from the forest floor; first he swallows the material and later regurgitates it as saliva-covered nesting matter for the female to use. During the next 8 to 10 weeks the male feeds the female through the nest slit as she molts, the eggs hatch, and the chicks become half-developed.


Red-breasted nuthatch, a source of interesting bird behavior

Red-breasted nuthatch

Another example of unusual bird behavior involves the red-breasted nuthatch, a resident and native to most of Canada and the United States. It is a small compact bird with a very short tail, and like the hornbill, nests in holes in trees. After building the nest, it will spread a coating of conifer resin at the entrance to the hole, sometimes applying it with a piece of bark, for the purpose of preventing other birds, like wrens and woodpeckers, from using the space.


Red-breasted nuthatch Range Map

Red-breasted nuthatch Range Map

Should you happen to be in New Guinea, look out for a bird that is poisonous, known as the hooded pitohui. It is a small black and orange bird with powerful bill and dark red eyes that inhabits the hills and low mountains of the islands of Papua New Guinea.  The poison is in its feathers and skin. Apparently, along with the fruit and seeds that they eat, these birds are also partial to invertebrates such as the small melyrid beetle. It is this creature that provides them with the poison, known as batrachotoxin. In humans, in small doses, it can cause tingling and numbing, but in large quantities it may lead to paralysis, cardiac arrest, and death. Local people leave the bird alone, call it the “rubbish bird”, and consider it inedible. Snakes that eat its eggs may become sick because of the poison the female wipes onto her clutch of eggs. 


Hooded pitohui, a source of interesting bird behavior

Hooded pitohui

Across the globe, in the Amazon and Orinoco basins of South America, lives a bird known as the hoatzin (pronounced wat-sin), and sometimes called the reptile bird, skunk bird, or stinkbird. It is pheasant-sized, with a long neck and small head, and feeds on leaves and fruit. It has no known close relatives among the bird world, but like some dinosaurs, Hoatzin chicks are born with two claws on each wing that survive for the first three months of their lives and are used for climbing and balance.


Hoatzin chick, a source of interesting bird behavior

Hoatzin chick

The hoatzin’s digestive system is unique among birds. It employs bacterial fermentation in the front part of its gut to break down vegetable material, much like cattle do. However, this process causes the bird to produce a highly disagreeable, manure-like odor. While indigenous people sometimes collect its eggs, it is rare that they hunt the bird because they consider its meat to be undesirable. The hoatzin is fairly common in its range today because it inhabits mangrove swamps and riverine forest.



Hoatzin adult

Last but not least, let me introduce you to the Eurasian wryneck, a member of the woodpecker family that pretends to be a snake when threatened. In my early birdwatching days it was a summer resident in the UK, from March to mid-July, breeding chiefly in southern England and occasionally in Wales. Today it is only a passage bird with less than 300 sightings in Britain annually.

It is sparrow-sized and feeds on ants, and like the hornbill and nuthatch, nests in holes in trees.  When threatened, it has the ability to turn its head 180 degrees, twist its neck, and hiss like a snake, and is nick-named snake bird because of this behavior. It has often been linked to witchcraft, curses, and evil spells. Using its Latin name of Jynx torquilla, it is supposed to “jinx” people (i.e. bring them bad luck).


Eurasian wryneck

Eurasian wryneck


Eurasian wryneck Range Map

Eurasian wryneck Range Map: orange – summer; blue – winter; green – all year

As you might expect, none of these unusual birds are particularly threatened at the moment, either by global warming or human interventions.