The rose-breasted grosbeak has arrived for the summer.


By Benjamin P. Burtt


Mr. Burtt: We have a bird that we have never seen before. It is about the size of a robin, has a black head, dark back, white belly and a bright red V shaped bib. The beak is yellow. What is it? From D.E., ( in an E-mail message.)

Dear D. E.: The bird is a male rose-breasted grosbeak. Other readers have asked about the bird and ask, “is it rare in these parts.”

When this beautiful bird suddenly appears in early May it catches our attention. Every year I receive questions from people who have not seen one before and are thrilled to see such an attractive bird. During October through April it has been in the West Indies, Mexico and South America.

I see it first at my feeder where it comes regularly for sunflower seeds. Later on I do not see it very much for it is out of sight foraging in the tree tops.

( Courtesy of Houghton Mifflin Co.)

CAPTION: The male rose-breasted grosbeak on the right is “Black and white with a large triangle of rose red on the breast and a thick pale bill”. The female is “Streaked, like a large sparrow or female purple finch, recognized by large ‘grosbeak bill’, broad white wing bars, striped crown and broad, white eyebrow stripe.” Note the flashes of white when the male is flying. The painting and the description are from Peterson’s “Field Guide to The Birds of Eastern and Central North America”

It sings through the spring and summer. Peterson describes its song as “rising and falling passages; resembles American Robin’s song but given with more feeling (as if the robin has taken voice lessons)”.

Early writers were even more poetic in describing this bird song. In T. Gilbert Pearsons book, Birds of America, in 1917 he said, “Some birds have common voices, but the Rose Breast(one of its early names) has a rich and mellow voice that rings out with abundant vitality in the bush lot at the edge of the forest or across the bushy swamp.”

The beauty of the bird was its undoing in the late 1800s when F. Beal wrote “On account of its attractive plumage, the birds are highly prized for ladies hats, and consequently have been shot in season and out, till the wonder is not that there are so few, but that any remain at all.”

A common name given by early farmers was “the Potato Bug Bird”. It was welcomed for its habit of picking these pests from their crop.

Its nest is a loose flat structure mainly constructed of small twigs with a few leaves and plant stems. It loose construction allows you to see the sky through the nest from below. They nest twice each year. Often the female will be incubating the second clutch of eggs while the male cares for the first fledglings.

They are readily attracted to a bird bath so keep yours filled for the rest of the summer. The rose-breasted grosbeak will stay until the end of September.

Pileated Woodpecker attacking his reflection


By Benjamin P. Burtt

TOPIC: A pileated woodpecker has been attacking his reflection in outside rear view mirrors of cars as well as his reflection in the windows of homes of a suburb near Syracuse, NY. Windows and mirrors have been smashed.

This is a copy of my column that appeared in the Syracuse Post Standard on June 12, , 2004

Kathleen Boswell sent in her April Feeder Survey Report that listed a pileated woodpecker. She commented, “I didn’t see it, but our neighbor saw one breaking our mirror on the car in the driveway. Does this count?” The bird broke another of their mirrors during the May survey week.

This bird has caused a lot of damage. It all started in the spring of 2004 on Brownell and DeVaul roads two miles north-east of Kirkville. The two roads are parallel, and separated by about a half mile of forest. Big trees grow near the homes.

A home owner on DeVaul Rd. found a badly damaged screen and suspecting a prowler or vandal, called the State Police. Neighbors were interviewed by the police and Richard Miller told them about his car mirror that had broken by a pileated woodpecker.

Several windows and car mirrors had been broken at other homes too. The police concluded that the damage on DeVaul Rd. was done by the woodpecker.

On Brownell Rd. where Kathleen Boswell lives, there was damage to windows and car mirrors at five homes. Three were hit in both years and two in 2005 only.

How can this be explained?Like all birds, the pileated will not tolerate others of its own kind near its nest.

When robins or cardinals nest near our homes, they very often catch sight of their reflection in a window. They spend fruitless hours flying up against the glass and pecking it to drive away the intruder. They never succeed in driving that “other bird” away.

However, a pileated woodpecker is the size of a crow, has a big bill and it can split out an 8 inch piece of wood from a tree with one blow if the wood is soft.

Courtesy of Hoiughten Mifflin Co.

This painting is from Peterson’s “Field Guide to the Birds of Eastern and Central North America
When it attacks its reflection, the glass breaks and the image of the “intruder” disappears. It thus does “drive” that other bird away!

To illustrate what it sees when a pileated woodpecker looks in a rear view mirror of a car, Cornell Scientist Kevin McGowan prepared this illustration for me by holding a museum-mounted pileated woodpecker up to a car mirror..

Covering the mirrors with plastic grocery bags solved the problem. However, when the residents forgot to do it, the bird struck again. Eighteen mirrors have been replaced this season and Thru-Way Auto Glass estimates that they replaced 30 mirrors last year from residents of that area.

I contacted woodpecker expert Prof. Jerome Jackson of Florida Gulf Coast University and he knows of no prior report in the scientific literature of car mirrors being broken by pileated woodpeckers. This particular bird seems to be unique

Bluebird nestboxes and May Feeder Survey results

BIRD COLUMN FOR May 29, 2005

By Benjamin P. Burtt

1. A Reader’s question: how can I get more than one family of bluebirds to use nestboxes I have in a field back of my house? This question and the answer also appeared in the Post Standard today, May 29.
2. The results of the Feeder Survey for the first week of May

SECTION 1 : A READER’S QUESTION ABOUT BLUEBIRDS. This material appeared in the Post Standard today.

Mr. Burtt: I have five bluebird nest boxes in a field back of my house and each year we are lucky to have a pair of bluebirds use one of the boxes. Is there a way I can get bluebirds to use some of the other boxes too? W. P. Morrisville, NY

Dear W.P.: It is good to have several boxes available. Even when there is only one pair of bluebirds around, they are choosy and you never know which box they will like the best. It is good to give them a choice. Multiple boxes increase the chances that you will attract at least one pair of bluebirds.

CAPTION: The bluebird can be attracted to nest boxes placed in the correct location. This photograph of the male bluebird was taken by Robert Long of Syracuse.

Now we come to the crucial factor. Bluebirds are territorial and both the male and female will fight vigorously to keep other bluebirds out of the territory where they decide to nest. This territory is huge. A pair that has chosen a box will not allow other bluebirds to nest within 300 feet of their nest!

Tree swallows and house sparrows are attracted to bluebird boxes and are a serious competitor to the bluebird. If there is a quarrel over the box, the bluebird often loses and must go elsewhere.

All these other birds also have a territory that they defend against others of their own kind.

Now that we have learned about these territories and how each bird keeps others OF ITS OWN KIND away, we can use these habits to help the bluebird when we put out the nest boxes.

If you put up single boxes spaced 300 feet apart , tree swallows may take every one and the bluebird often gets left out.

It is better to put up two boxes about 10 to 15 feet apart. Now bluebird families will never occupy both boxes, but If a tree swallow gets one of the boxes first, it will keep other tree swallows away from the 2nd box, but it won’t object to a bluebird using it. This is the way you prevent tree swallows from taking all of the boxes.

Since bluebirds return from the south about March 10 and tree swallows wait until April 1, the bluebird will have a choice of of which of the pair of boxes it wants. Even if there is only one pair of bluebirds around, they are choosy and you never know which one they will like the best. Once they choose one they will keep other bluebirds from using the second box, but they will allow a tree swallow to use it.

If you would like to have more than one pair of bluebirds nesting on your land, put up another pair of boxes, but keep that pair at least 300 feet from the first pair. If you wish to add more boxes, remember a bluebird will not nest within 300 feet of another active bluebird nest. Thus we see that the reason you never before had bluebirds use more than one box was almost certainly that your boxes were too close together.

If you wish to read complete directions for making and placing bluebird nest boxes , Click on Columns in the Table of Contents at the top of this page on the left and then choose the date of June 27, 2004 .

The results of the May Feeder Survey.
There are always more species reported on the feeder survey taken during the first week of May than at any other time during the year. This time 82 species were seen by two or more people.

In addition, 35 observers each recorded an additional species not seen by anyone else. So the total of all reports was 117 species ( we had 110 last year).

What species were people seeing in their yard? The chickadee was listed on every report and the robin on 98% of the reports. Others seen at most feeders were mourning dove, goldfinch, cardinal, blue jay, crow and downy woodpeckers. Next came chipping sparrow, grackle, junco and starling.

The most numerous bird was the goldfinch with the average person reporting 7in sight at once. The goldfinch is not busy with nesting until late summer so it is about the only species where both male and female can still visit a feeder together in May.

White-throated sparrows are present in their largest numbers in May. There were no white-crowned sparrows from January through April, but May is the only month we get them and 38 people listed 88. Both white-throats and white-crowns are on their way to their nesting grounds in northern Canada beyond the trees.

Many more people are now reporting rose breasted grosbeaks than in the past. In the 1970's they were rare birds at a feeder.

Almost all the tree sparrows, juncos and redpolls that were at our feeders during the winter have returned to their breeding grounds in the north. We won’t be seeing them again until next winter.

The Long ListsWhat is the largest number of species that any one person might be expected to find in their yard in early May? Certainly no one would get all the 117 species on the combined lists this time. The longest single list this year had 62 and was turned in by Ken Smith of Freeville. Jeanne Ryan of Cazenovia had 57. Dorothy and Steve Hanzlik tallied 51 near Whitney Point. David Pardee had 49 at Bremerton and so did Linda Quackenbush of Waterloo.

The shortest list had 5 and this was the 4th grade glass at New Haven Elementary school. This was their best month yet and the species were goldfinch, mourning doves, chipping sparrows, crows and one turkey vulture was spotted overhead. Their classroom faces a courtyard and it is hard for birds to discover the foods. Good job!

The typical report had 22 just as it did last year.

Here is the complete list of species. The first figure is the number of birds spotted per 100 reports and the number in parentheses is the number of reports that listed the species. For example just below you will see turkey vulture 81 (38). That means that for a sample of 100 reports a total of 81 vultures were tallied. It also means that in the 100 reports only 38 listed this species.

Loon 2 (1); American bittern 2 (1);great blue heron 23 (18); green heron 7 (6); turkey vulture 81 (38); snow goose (1) (1); Canada goose 264 (52).

Ducks: wood 20 (10); mallard 97 (32);green-winged teal 3 (1); bufflehead 5 (1); hooded merganser 8 (1); common merganser 4 (2).

Hawks: osprey 8 (4); bald eagle 1 (1); harrier 8 (6); sharp-shinned 7 (7); Cooper’s 9 (8); broad-winged hawk 3 (3); red-tailed 23 (20); kestrel 10 (8); merlin 1 (1).

Pheasant 1 (1); ruffed grouse 7 (4); turkey 56 (22); killdeer 10 (7); woodcock 12 (7).

Gulls: ring-billed 158 (9); herring 47 (3); common tern 2 (1); rock dove 98 (19); mourning dove 366 (96); horned owl 3 (3).
Chimney swift 6 (1); hummingbird 8 (5).

Woodpeckers: red-headed 1 (1); red-bellied 55 (40); yellow-bellied sapsucker 7 (6); downy 187 (85); hairy 88 (53); flicker 48 (37); pileated 16 (13).

Least flycatcher 2 (2); Phoebe 38 (26); Blue jay 264 (90); crow 389 (88); raven 6 (3).

Purple martin 8 (2); tree swallow 155 (38); barn swallow 25 (10);

Chickadee 316 (100); titmouse 124 (60); red-breasted nuthatch 25 (18); white-breasted nuthatch 89 (64); gnatcatcher 1 (1); creeper 1 (1);

Carolina wren 1 (1); house wren 26 (17); winter wren 1 (1); golden-crowned kinglet 1 (1); ruby-crowned kinglet 22 (10).

Thrushes: bluebird 40 (20); veery 2 (2); hermit thrush 4 (2); wood thrush 5 (5); robin 286 (98); catbird 7 (6).

Mockingbird 4 (3); brown thrasher 10 (10); starling 440 (76); cedar waxwing 24 ( 4).

Warblers: blue-winged 1 (1); Nashville 4 (3); yellow 14 (13); magnolia 2 (1); yellow-rumped 12 (5); black-throated green 1 (1); palm 1 (1); black and white 1 (1); redstart 1 (1); common yellow-throat 2 (2); towhee 20 (17)

Sparrows: tree 34 (13); chipping 221 (80); field 14 (10); savannah 1 (1); fox 14 (6); song 120 (55); swamp 6 (3); white-throated 260 (62); white-crowned 88 (38); junco 269 (79).

Cardinal 209 (92); red-winged blackbird 404 (70); meadowlark 2 (1); rusty blackbird 3 (3); grackle 408 (80); cowbird 270 (67); orchard oriole 1 (1); Baltimore oriole 19 (13); purple finch 164 (54); house finch 153 (58); redpoll 1 (1); pine siskin 8 (3); goldfinch 706 (96); house sparrow 264 (55).

Feeder Survey Directions

Feeder surveys are conducted for one week starting the first Sunday of each month from October through May.

This is a scientific project that I have been operating since 1959 that utilizes readers of this column who observe the birds in their yard and report the numbers and species to me. It is a lot of fun and if you haven't participated before, the following paragraphs describe what it is and how you can help out.

Your observations will help me find out what birds are visiting our yards and feeders throughout the winter. When the results are printed, you can compare the number and types of birds at your feeder with other feeders in the area. I will be able to compare this years results to earlier years.

Participation open to all who live in Central and Upstate New YorkParticipation in this fun project is open to all who live in Central and Upstate New York State. Here is how I define the limits of that area.

The northern boundary is the St. Lawrence River and Lake Ontario west to Rochester.

From there the boundary goes south to Elmira and Binghamton. From Binghamton the line goes north east along Interstate 88 to Albany and then north on Interstate 87 to the border with Canada.

Thus it includes all of the Adirondacks and the Finger Lakes regions.

For those of you familiar with the reporting regions of the former Federation of NY State Bird clubs, it includes all of Regions 2 through 7 and part of 8 ( The Federation has a new name, The New York State Ornithological Association ).

History of this projectThis feeder survey was started in the winter of 1958-59, and data have been gathered every year since then. The idea was suggested by the late Dr. Francis Scheider. So this is the start of the 45th year of this project.

In 1970, a feeder survey was initiated in England. In 1976, one was started in Ontario, Canada, by the Long Point Observatory. The Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology began a survey for the whole United States in 1987.

This is what you do.

Starting on the first Sunday of the designated month and continuing through Saturday, when you have a few minutes, look out the window at the feeders in the yard, and record the number and species of all birds that you can see from the house at that moment. These birds can be at the feeder or anywhere in sight.

Those flying by can be counted if you are sure of the identification. You can record birds that you see when you are outside as long as you are looking from a point right near the house. Birds seen on hikes nearby are not to be included in the list.

To avoid counting the same bird more than once, write down the maximum number of a given species that you see at one time. This way, you know that there are at least that many birds visiting your yard.

Later that day or on another day during the week, check the yard again and write down the number of each species that is visible at one time during that period. Watch as often as you like and keep these lists until the end of the week. You don't have to watch every day, but any day Sunday through Saturday can be included.

Then, summarize your observations by preparing a single list for me that shows the name of each species seen and the largest number of birds of that species sighted at any one time during the week. For example, if you see a total of 42 house sparrows this week, but never more than nine at a time, nine is what you put on the list that you send in.

There may be more than nine house sparrows around your yard, but we are certain that there are at least nine.

We conduct a survey for a week starting the first Sunday of the month from October through May. Through these surveys we see how the population of different species changes throughout the winter. We can also pick out long-term changes in the population of some species over the years.

Preparing the list.

There are several things you can do to make the tabulation easier for me. First, it is a big help if each list has the birds in the same order. If you can, please use what is called "check-list" order. It is the order the birds are listed in your field guide and the order I use when I publish the list of birds seen on a survey.

The second way you can help is to put each species on a separate line with the number of birds first and followed by the name of the species.

Please write the total number of species at the top of your list.

Unusual birds. If you list a bird that is unusual in this part of the country or should not be here at the time of the survey, or closely resembles a species common in our area, please write a note describing the field marks you observed and how you made your decision.

Sending in the ReportsAt the end of the week, put your final list on a postcard or in a letter and send it to the address below. You can use EMAIL if you wish. If you do use Email, please give your name and address so I will know where your observations were made.

PLEASE send your report by Monday right after the survey so that I can get the tabulation done in time to write up the results by the following Saturday.

Send your feeder survey report to either of the following addressesBy Regular Mail: Ben Burtt, PO Box 4915, Stars Magazine, Syracuse, NY 13221.

By E-Mail: Send to Be sure to put "For Ben Burtt" in the Subject Line.

How you can read the Summary Report of the results.

About 3 weeks after a particular survey week ends, when the next survey starts, A column on the web site will include a detailed discussion of "The Feeder Survey Results" It will include the complete list of species, a discussion of all the trends and unusual birds reported, as well as the longest and shortest lists, etc.

A brief discussion and summary of the observations is published in the newspaper on that same date, but there is not enough space there for all of the details that are in the summary of the survey on this web site.

Reader Question on Cardinal eggs and Cornell Ornithology website

BIRD COLUMN FOR May 15, 2005

By Benjamin P. Burtt

SECTION 1. A Reader’s question: Can you tell me something about the nest and eggs of the cardinal? This question and the answer also appeared in the Post Standard today, May 15.

SECTION 2. The new “All About Birds” website from the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology that provides for the public and school teachers everywhere, the Life History of 585 North American birds as well as material on attracting birds. There is no charge to look up information there.

SECTION 3. “The Birds of North America” This is a very detailed and complete life history of all 716 North American Birds. It is designed for scientists and for libraries at universities. To see any of the 18,000 pages of information you must be a subscriber.

SECTION 1. The material here was published in Stars Magazine of the Post Standard on May 15. It answers a reader’s question about the nest and eggs of the cardinal.

Mr. Burtt: I see cardinals around my home nearly every day. Can you tell me something about the nest and eggs of the cardinal? My book only covers the identification of birds. L.D. Cazenovia.

Caption: The male and female cardinal are shown here in this painting from Peterson’s “Field Guide to Birds of Eastern and Central North America”
(Courtesy of Houghton Mifflin Co.)

Dear L.D.: The cardinal’s nest is generally well hidden and you do have to search for it. The male was probably singing near the nest earlier. That may help you locate it. Usually it will be hidden in any of the following locations: dense shrubbery, a tangle of vines, a briar tangle or a small coniferous tree where the branches are close together. The nest is generally 4 to 5 feet above the ground.

CAPTION:This photograph of the nest of a cardinal by Hal Harrison is from his book, “A Field Guide to Bird’s Nests of the Eastern United States”. Although published in 1975, this excellent book is up to date and still in print. ( Courtesy of Houghton Mifflin Co. )

The nest itself is made of twigs and grasses and put together rather loosely. Fine grasses are placed in the center to produce a soft lining and to provide insulation. The photograph by Hal Harrison shows this loose construction. The inside of the shallow bowl is just under 3 inches in diameter. The eggs are a shiny white with brownish spots.

Where can a person look up the answers to a question about the details of the life of a particular bird such as the cardinals nest and eggs discussed above? Written material that deals with such matters is referred to as the “Life History” of the bird. In the past a scientist or an interested lay person had to refer to a set of books.

One excellent such 21 volume set which I have used for years is called, “The Life Histories of North American Birds”. These were authored by Arthur Cleveland Bent and many collaborators. The 21 volumes were published over the years 1919 to 1968. That is where I have always searched for information about any of the 716 species we have in North America.

Now, I would like to tell you about a wonderful new web site prepared by the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology where you can look up the answers to many such questions about birds. It is almost like having your own private library without having to buy a single book! It is called “All About Birds”.

If you have a question like the one above concerning the cardinals nest and eggs, or you have a question about attracting birds, you can go to this site where a lot of information is available. I am always willing to answer questions for you, but having a place for you to look up answers yourself may speed things up for you.

What is this “All About Birds”?

It is a web site which is a sort of Bird Encyclopedia prepared by the The Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology.

There you will find information about 585 North American birds. Given for each bird is its description, other birds that resemble it, the sounds it makes, where to find it, what it eats, its behavior, reproduction, conservation status and other names that is has been called.

The songs of each bird are available and you can hear them if you have the proper software. There are also video clips that can be viewed.

In addition to information about each bird, there are sections on attracting and feeding birds, building and placing nest boxes and landscaping for birds. This is a web site that is indeed, “All About Birds”.

It is available on line and it is free and Cornell has made this available to the public. If you had to purchase a set of books that contained all this information, it would be too expensive for most of us to buy. I don’t have exact figures, but I would estimate that if you had to print this, you would have about 3000 pages of material.

Continually updated.
One of the great advantages of having something like this online is that it will be updated as new things are learned about each bird. Imagine having a reference book on your shelf that automatically revises itself and is always up to date with the latest information!

School teachers and their students will find this to be a great source of information. The species accounts were assembled by Dr. Kevin McGowan and the other parts of the document were prepared by Maria Read and Anne James.

You can see “All About Birds” on the internet at once there, you click on All About Birds.

Readers note: The web address that I listed in the newspaper was not working on Sunday the 15th when the newspaper came out. The one shown here seems more reliable and takes you to the same place.

How to use “All About Birds”.

When you get to that site you will have a list of choices. If you wish to read about the life history of a particular bird, click first on the tab at the top called, “Bird Guide” and then you are presented a list of species and you select the one that you want.

On the other hand, if you wish to learn about such things as binoculars or attracting birds or making nest boxes, click on the desired topic in the Table on the left side of the page.

SECTION 3. Now I wish to tell you about another web site that has even more information about birds. It is called, “The Birds of North America” web site. If you are a scientist or a serious birder and wish to read almost everything known about a particular species, this is for you. This web site was also produced by The Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology. It is designed for the scientist doing research and for scientific libraries and universities about the country and the world. It is devoted entirely to the life history of the birds of North America. It does not deal with birdwatching or attracting birds.

Some 700 ornithologists contributed to it and it took over 10 years to put it together. It is the most comprehensive reference to the continent’s birdlife ever published.

During the rest of this discussion below I will often refer to Birds of North America as BNA.

How does it compare in its coverage of individual species to the “All About Birds” site discussed above in Section 2?

Whereas “All About Birds” contains about 3000 pages and covers 585 species, BNA has 18,000 pages and covers all 716 species.

For comparison, the discussion of the cardinal uses 5 pages in All About Birds, 15 pages in the old Bent series and 49 pages in BNA. However, for most people, “All About Birds” will give you all the information that you need.

“All About Birds” is free and available to the public while the BNA is accessible only if your have a paid subscription. Individual subscriptions are $40 per year. Institutions such as colleges, schools and libraries pay more depending on the number of people served by the institution. This was an expensive project and paying for a subscription is a reasonable thing to ask us to do.

I subscribe for I often need all the help I can get in answering questions and in preparing the bird column.

A Free Tour of Birds of North America
You can visit BNA and inspect the complete life history of six different species without charge. These are called “demos”( demonstrations). They are “free samples” that show you what information you can get if you become a subscriber. .

The one I think you would be most interested in inspecting right now is the discussion of the ivory-billed woodpecker. This includes the recent discovery that it is not extinct after all!

To visit BNA, go to

Once there you will see the following species listed as “DEMOS”
ivory-billed woodpecker
peregrine falcon
common goldeneye
semi-palmated sandpiper
yellow warbler
fox sparrow

Just single click on the name of the species on the web site that you wish to inspect and you will be taken to the life history just as if you had a paid subscription. These six are free, but if you wish to read the life history of any other of the 716 species you will need to subscribe.

However, there are a number of other links there that you can see without charge. These include recent bird news, species that have been recently revised and how to subscribe if you are an individual or a school or library.

Remember that there is no charge for using the “All About Birds” web site and you can look up any of the 585 species listed there as well as get information on birding, attracting birds, building nest boxes, planting for birds, etc. Everyone can use “All About Birds” and that will be a place to get the information that most people need.

As I explained in Section 2 above, you can go to that free web site by clicking on
Once you are there, click on “AllAboutBirds”
This is a wonderful gift to us all from the Laboratory of Ornithology and I am sure that you will wish to use it again and again.

Deal with house sparrows and starlings and May Feeder Survey


By Benjamin P. Burtt

TOPIC: How to deal with house sparrows and starlings that try to take over nest boxes for bluebirds

ANNOUNCEMENT: The May Feeder survey starts today

This column is divided into two sections

Section 1 contains a copy of the column on the above subject as it appeared in the Post Standard in Syracuse on May 1.

Section 2 has more details on the above subject as well as the results of the April Feeder Survey.


Mr. Burtt: Starlings use my bluebird nesting box every year and the bluebirds are driven away. What can I do about this? –M.C., Port Byron.

Mr. Burtt: House sparrows are trying to take over some bluebird nest boxes we put up in the yard. What can we do? J. N., Walworth, NY.

Dear J.N. and M.C.: Your questions deal with different pests, but keeping the nest boxes just for bluebirds is a common problem.

CAPTION: This is the male eastern bluebird perched on his nesting box. It is the only one of our thrushes that nests in a hole. It is unable to make its own cavity so there is competition with starlings, tree swallows, wrens and house sparrows for every available site.( Photo courtesy of John Rogers of Brewerton).

The Starling Problem
I will answer the starling question first for it is the easiest. Starlings are larger than bluebirds. If the hole is a perfect circle and exactly 1 ½ inches in diameter the starling can not get in, but the bluebird is able to enter easily,

This hole must be bored very carefully. If the hole is just a tiny bit longer one way than the other, that is, it is not a perfect circle, starlings will squeeze in. So, if starlings are using your bluebird box, that means the hole is too big or it is not circular. So you should fasten a piece of thin plywood with the correct size entrance over the hole in the box.

How about House Sparrows?

If you make the entrance small enough to exclude house sparrows you will exclude the bluebird. Since house sparrows live around buildings, bluebird boxes should not be placed close to houses and barns.

If you must place them near buildings, you can put bluebird boxes in pairs about 10 feet apart and the house sparrow will probably take one and leave the other for the bluebird. This does work in most cases. It also works when tree swallows try to take over bluebird boxes.

Some people have had success in repelling house sparrows by attaching one end of a strip of colored ribbon or a piece of monofilament fishing line to a stick projecting up above the box. It hangs down and flutters in the wind. This often will keep away sparrows, but it does not bother the bluebirds.

Announcement: The May Feeder Survey Starts today.

Incoming flights

It is time for the warblers to arrive. Also due this week are the least flycatcher, the great crested flycatcher and the kingbird.

The chimney swift and the catbird are due. The song of the wood thrush should be heard any day now. The white-crowned sparrow will start to pass through to the north. Also expected are the whip-poor-will, red-headed woodpecker and bobolink.

In about a week we expect the veery, Baltimore oriole, scarlet tanager, rose breasted grosbeak and hummingbird.

Another solution to the house sparrow problem.
In regard to the problem of House sparrows and bluebird nest boxes,
Since house sparrows are not protected by law, you can destroy them if you wish to do so as long as you do not harm any other birds in the process. There are traps available that catch them in your yard or there are types that can be put in the nest box that close the entrance when the sparrow gets inside.

If you wish to learn how to make and place bluebird nest boxes, click on
Bluebird boxes

Results Of the April Feeder Survey
During the first week of April, 83 readers counted the birds visible at their feeder and in their yard. For comparison with results from earlier surveys, the numbers given in the discussion below are averaged as if exactly 100 reports came in.

The most abundant species at feeders and in yards was the dark-eyed junco. This is the time of the year when juncos that went south are moving back through this area to nest in southern Canada. Thus April always gives us the highest junco count for the year.

Next in descending numbers were the red-winged blackbird, goldfinch, cowbird and starling.
Birds at the typical feeder

Most every feeder had chickadees, juncos and mourning doves. downy woodpeckers, crows and cardinals. About 75% included goldfinches, blue jays, grackles, robins and starlings..
Birds present during the winter

A measure of the winter population of a particular species is the sum of the six feeder surveys from November through April. Last year there were 5,395 goldfinches tallied. This time we had 4,898. These each were larger than in any winter since the feeder survey started 45 years ago. Normally, it is about 3000 each winter. So the winter population of gold finches has increased in recent years.

The red-breasted nuthatch.

They breed from Pennsylvania north to the limit of the trees. Those that breed in the very northern part of the range move southward in the winter and for that reason we see more in the winter than during the breeding season.

The winter numbers have been higher in alternate years since about 1989. 2005 was one of the low years. Before 1989, the numbers were irregular and followed no pattern from one year to the next.

Species reported by only one person
Niles Brown of Tully listed a black duck. Margaret Miller tallied a common merganser and purple martins near Sandy Pond. At Potsdam, George and Jackie Miller saw a brown thrasher. David Pardee had a screech owl at Brewerton.

The only house wren was seen by Linda Quackenbush of Waterloo. In Cazenovia, Jeanne Ryan tallied a snipe and a swamp sparrow. Steve Swanson spotted an osprey near Brewerton. At Liverpool, Judy Thurber saw two black-backed gulls.

Kathleen Vogt spotted two white-crowned sparrows near Nedrow. Next month we will see hundreds of them as they head back north. John and Elizabeth Wallace listed a red-shouldered hawk near Brewerton. In Fabius, Ted Williams had a rusty blackbird.

Ken Zoller of West Winfield was the only person to report bank swallow and rough-winged swallow, Bonapartes gull and green winged teal.

How many species were seen?
There were a total of 88 species listed, but the average list had 21 species. More species are seen in April than in the winter when 14 would be about average. The shortest list was turned in by Norma Griffins 4th grade class at New Haven. The feeders visible from their classroom are inside a courtyard completely surrounded by the school building. In spite of that location their feeders were able to attract mourning doves and goldfinches.

Other short lists.
Seven species were listed by Fran Vanderveer of Westmoreland. Cynthia Wallace had 10 at Elbridge. There were 11 species on the lists from Helen Clark of Camillus, Alan Fitch of Marcellus and Elaine Lyon at Cortland.

Tallying 12 species was David Bigsby from Syracuse. Also tallying 12 in Syracuse was Dawn Franits. Helen Sterling got 12 at Cleveland and so did Mrs. William Woernley in Homer and David and Kathleen Zakri in Liverpool.

The Long Lists
The longest list had 47 species and was turned in by Ken Zoller at West Winfield. Linda Quackenbush of Waterloo had 46. Lawrence Abrahamson of Marcellus tallied 43.

Other long lists were:
42 from David Pardee of Brewerton
41 from Jeanne Ryan of Cazenovia
35 from Steve Swensen of Baldwinsville
34 from Dorothy and Steve Hanzlik of Whitney Point.
33 from Bill Purcell of Hastings.
33 from Kathy and Scott Trefz of Perryville.

Below is the list of all species reported. The first number for a species on the list is the number of individual birds of that species on 100 reports. The second number is the actual number of reports that listed that bird.
This last number can be very useful to you. If the bird is unusual in early April that second number will be small, perhaps less than 10. So if you have such a bird it means that very few other people spotted one.

Loon 2 (2); great blue heron 22 (17); turkey vulture 106 (29)).

Geese and ducks: Snow goose 359 (4); Canada goose 1,512 (54);
wood duck 33 (7); black duck 1 (1); mallard 79 (26; bufflehead 29 (2); common merganser 14 (1); reing-necked duck 6 (3); green-winged teal 31 (1).

Hawks: Osprey 6 (2); bald eagle 3 (2); northern harrier5 (4); sharp-shinned 9 (9); Cooper's 8 ( 8); red-shouldered 1 (1); red-tailed 30 (24); kestrel 10 (6).

Pheasant 7 (6); ruffed grouse 4 (4); turkey 136 (24); killdeer 23 (14); snipe 1 (1); woodcock 9 (7).

Gulls: Bonaparte 2 (1); ring-billed 102 (18); herring 78 (6); black-backed 2 (1); rock dove 89 (13); mourning dove 391 (90).

Screech owl 1 (1); Horned owl 4 (2); kingfisher 3 (2);

Woodpeckers: red-bellied 54 (38); sapsucker 7 (6); downy 196 (89); hairy 91 (59); flicker 35 (29); pileated 10 (9);
rough-winged swallow 1 (1); phoebe 37 (29); purple martin 25 (1); tree swallow 112 (23); bank swallow 5 (1); bluejay 223 (78); crow 404 (88); raven 8 (3).

Chickadee 384 (96); titmouse 107 (55); red-breasted nuthatch 35 (24); white-breasted nuthatch 114 (68); brown creeper 7 (7); Carolina wren 3 (3); house wren 1 (1); golden-crowned kinglet 13 (3).

Bluebird 42 (17); hermit thrush 2 (2); robin 342 (92); mockingbird 4 (3); brown thrasher 2 (1); cedar waxwing 21 (3); starling 424 (77); towhee 4 (4).

Sparrows: tree 130 (36); chipping 47 (30); field 5 (4); fox 36 (23); song 168 (59); swamp 1 (1); white-throated 44 (22); white-crowned 2 (1); junco 926 (92).

Cardinal 230 (88); red-winged blackbird 581 (70); meadowlark 4 (3); rusty blackbird 1 (1); grackle 966 (78); cowbird 341 (58); purple finch 86 (40); house finch 172 (58); redpoll 46 (6); siskin 9 (3); goldfinch 457 (79); evening grosbeak 51 (3); house sparrow 332 (46).

May Survey starts today
The last Feeder Survey of the season starts today and continues through Saturday. Record the largest number of each species you see at any one time during the week. Lots of reports are needed. Short lists are just as valuable as long ones.

At the end of the week, mail or e-mail the report to the appropriate address below.

Benjamin P. Burtt
Professor of Chemistry Emeritus
Syracuse University
Home: 6161 Smokey Hollow Rd.
Jamesville, NY 13078
Telephone 315-469-6887

Derby Hill Bird Observatory


By Benjamin P. Burtt


Section 1 The arrival dates for the Spring migrant songbirds that normally show up between April 17 and April 30. The Spring migration of the birds of prey as seen from the Derby Hill Hawk Lookout.

Section 2 Why Derby Hill is such a wonderful place to see the hawk migration. How to get there and when to go.

Incoming flights.

Eleven new migrants will arrive from the south during the next two weeks. The approximate arrival dates are as follows:

April 20: brown thrasher, chipping sparrow and white-throated sparrow.
April 25: yellow-rumped warbler, green heron, spotted sandpiper, common tern and house wren.
April 30: yellow warbler and chimney swift.

The Derby Hill Bird Observatory A question from a reader: Mr. Burtt: When will the various hawks be seen at Derby Hill this spring? G.M., Canastota,

Dear G.M.–Turkey vultures pass through during April and the first broad winged hawks usually appear about now and will be passing through until about May 5.

Thousands of hawks will be moving overhead during the next two weeks, but they are spread apart and are far above our homes so that we don’t even notice them there.

However, the Derby Hill Bird Observatory that you mentioned is one of the best places in the Eastern United States to see the spring migration of hawks. It is 30 miles north of Syracuse on the shore of Lake Ontario.

Hawks seldom fly over the Great Lakes, but instead turn to follow along the southern shore in a northeasterly direction and then swing north just after they pass over Derby Hill at the eastern end of Lake Ontario.

When the wind is from the south the birds are pushed close to the Lake and this heavy traffic is easily seen from atop Derby Hill as they pass by.

The migration is just beginning now for the osprey and the first ones appeared April 5. Still passing through are sharp-shinned hawks, red-tailed hawks, turkey vultures and a few golden eagles, peregrine falcons and merlins.

The bird that goes by in the largest numbers is the broad-winged hawk. Over 6000 went by on April 19 last spring. This season the first ones appeared yesterday. Visit Derby Hill the next fair day when the wind is from the south to see this natural spectacle.

Caption: The broad-winged hawk migrates in large flocks visible from Derby Hill. It has a chunky shape like a red-tail. Note the broad black and white bands across the tail of the adult. This painting is from Peterson’s Field Guide, “Birds of Eastern and Central North America”( Courtesy of Houghton Mifflin Co. )

Call 1-315-963-8291 early in the morning for a recorded summary of the sightings of the previous day as well as a prediction based on the weather and wind as to whether or not this day will be good for hawks.

This is where the newspaper column ended. However, in Section 2 just below is a further discussion of the Derby Hill Bird Observatory, how to get there and why it is such a great place to see hawks.

SECTION 2: The spring hawk migration at the Derby Hill Bird Observatory

The arrival of song birds near our homes is a signal of the arrival of spring that most everyone notices. Most of us are aware of the noisy arrival of geese. When a robin appears on our lawn or a red-winged blackbird is at our feeder, we rejoice.

However, for most people the migration of hawks goes unnoticed. These birds of prey usually do not appear in our yards and they fly by silently.

While thousands of these birds are moving overhead each day, from February through May, they are spread apart and far above us and we can not get a close look at them.

In February, a few Coopers hawks, goshawks and red-tails begin to move through New York. The numbers increase markedly in March.

One of the best places in the United States to observe the spring migration of hawks is about 30 miles north of Syracuse on the shore of Lake Ontario. It is the Derby Hill Bird Observatory. Thousands of hawks can be seen close at hand when the wind is from the south.

Why is Derby Hill such a good spot?As hawks migrate, they take advantage of rising currents of warm air to keep them aloft and this saves energy. These thermals, as they are called, form over spots where the land has been warmed by the sun.

Hawks migrating northward in Ohio, Pennsylvania or western New York eventually come to the Great Lakes

Since thermals do not normally form over the water, the birds turn right and follow the shoreline in a northeasterly direction. Most hawks migrate through our area following this traditional route along the southern shore of the Great Lakes.

Those encountering Lake Erie follow its shore to Buffalo. At that point a few go north and then skirt the western end of Lake Ontario. Most however, follow the southern edge of Lake Ontario to the east. As the birds from Ohio move northeastward they are joined by hawks coming up through Pennsylvania and western New York.

All these birds then pass around the eastern end of Lake Ontario and go directly north. At that turning point is a ridge across their path called Derby Hill. It extends southward perpendicular to the shore of Lake Ontario. This is the first hill that the hawks have encountered in many, many miles of flying.

When the winds are from the south, all the birds are pressed against the lake. An observer on the north end of Derby Hill near the shore will see them all.

As birds approach from the west, they are usually seen as they come up over a parallel lower ridge. West of that ridge, the lake plain is unbroken for many miles. Birds coming from the west do not need to fly over any hills until they encounter this first ridge.

Hawks frequently pause near this area and circle to gain altitude to go over the hill. For this reason, they are often in sight for many minutes before they pass over Derby Hill and then turn north along the eastern shore of Lake Ontario.

During March we usually see goshawks, bald eagles, red shouldered and red-tailed hawks. The first good flight this season was on March 7. That day 73 red tailed hawks went by. Sighted also were 3 Coopers, 8 rough-legs, 2 bald eagles and one turkey vulture. The busy period is from mid-March until the end of May.

In a typical spring, 15 species of hawks will be seen and some 44,000 will pass by during that time. About 22,000 will be broad winged hawks and their biggest flights come between April 20 and May 10. Perhaps 8,000 red-tailed hawks will be seen and about 6,000 sharp-shinned hawks and 2000 turkey vultures.

The 50 acre property is owned by the Onondaga Audubon Society. Biologist Gerard Phillips is there every day through the spring to tally the birds and help visitors enjoy this event.

Everyone is welcome to visit the observatory. When there are south winds you will see more hawks. You will also see many songbirds in migration too.

The Derby Hill Observatory is directly north of Mexico, NY. If you travel Interstate 81 from the north, use exit 36, if from the south use exit 34. The Hawk Lookout is located on Sage Creek Road off Route 104B just west of its intersection with Route 3. This is a few miles directly north of the town of Mexico. Sage Creek Road runs to the north from 104B. It is about one mile to the shore of Lake Ontario.

Use the parking area shortly before the road ends at the lake. Walk up the dirt road to the east to the north lookout.

You can telephone Derby Hill early in the morning to get a prediction as to whether it will be a good day for a hawk flight. The number is 315-963-8291.

The best weather conditions occur when there is a south wind which blows the birds up to the lake shore. Since they are reluctant to cross over the water, they are concentrated in a stream that passes over Derby Hill not far from the shore.

Reader questions, spring arrival dates and feeder survey


By Benjamin P. Burtt

1. A Reader’s question: what is the bird I’ve had this winter that has a red breast like a robin, but really is not a robin? This question and the answer also appeared in the Post Standard today, April 3.

2.The arrival dates for the Spring migrants that normally show up between March 30 and April 17.

3.The results of the Feeder Survey for the first week of March.

4.The April Feeder Survey starts today.

Mr. Burtt: I have had a robin like bird at my feeder this winter that has the red breast, but the back, wings and tail are black rather than gray. Its bill is not yellow, but dark and thicker and shorter than a robins bill. It eats seeds. What is it? W.C. Liverpool

Dear W.C. - It is almost certainly an eastern towhee which normally spends the winter in the south. Each year however, a few remain north for the winter and survive.

CAPTION: The eastern towhee is due in about a week. The male is black with reddish brown sides. The belly is white. Spots of white show in the wing and tail. The female is brown where the male is black. This painting is from Peterson’s field guide, “Birds of Eastern and Central North America” (Courtesy of the Houghton Mifflin Co. )

The Spring migration is underway and the towhee is one of the 17 new species that should be arriving from the south during the next two weeks. The migration started about a month ago and some eight species have arrived to date.

The sides of the towhee are reddish, and of the same color as the breast of a robin. On seeing it for the first time, people often get the impression that the entire breast is rusty. Actually, it is white down the center and the color is confined to the sides.

Until recently it was called the rufous-sided towhee. It is not as common as the robin and is a bit smaller and more slender.

It is found in brushy places and generally gets its food from the ground. To expose insects or seeds laying there, it often seizes a leaf and tosses it aside.

It also rakes the leaves by pushing back with both feet to expose the food items underneath. It makes so much noise in dry leaves that you would think a squirrel is making the commotion. You often hear the bird before you see it.

The song is loud and easily identified. It seems to say “drink-your-teeee”. The second syllable is lower in pitch than is the first. The last syllable is higher and is drawn out. Sometimes the third note is omitted.

In addition to its song, the towhee has a two-part call and it is loud and clear. Various writers have described it as “she-wink” or “tow-hee” and the latter description of the song became the birds name.


Listed here are the approximate dates that some common species show up between March 30 and April 17. The actual date we see them does vary, but I find it fun to be on the lookout for a species and when I see it , to know whether it is early or late. So here are the average dates:

March 30: wood duck and yellow-bellied sapsucker
April 1: blue-winged teal, junco, flicker, tree swallow
April 5: field sparrow
April 10: purple finch, eastern towhee, bittern, bank swallow, barn swallow and purple martin.
April 15: hermit thrush, clilff swallow, rough-winged swallow and broad winged hawk.


During the first week of March, readers tallied the birds seen at their feeder or visible from their home and sent in a list. From the summary of those reports we can see what birds are here and which ones are scarce or abundant this spring in upstate New York.

The birds at the typical feeder.
The number of species per report ranged from two for the 4th grade class at the New Haven Elementary School to 33 for Linda Quackenbush at Waterloo. The average feeder had 15 species this time.

What birds were most often reported on the March Feeder Survey? Over 90% of the reports listed chickadees, cardinals, mourning doves and crows. Over 80% of the people listed juncos and downy woodpeckers.

About three-fourths of the observers had bluejays, goldfinches and white-breasted nuthatches. Two-thirds of the observers listed titmice and starlings.

A bit over half had house finches and downy woodpeckers.
Rare BirdsSome birds were reported by only one person. Lawrence Abrahamson reported a mockingbird at Marcellus. At Malone, Pete Biesemayer was the only person to see ruffed grouse, siskins and evening grosbeaks.

Dorothy Coye spotted goldeneye ducks on Skaneateles Lake. Estelle Hahn had a screech owl in Dewitt. Kathy and Scott Trefz saw killdeer at Perryville. Ken Zoller spotted black ducks and horned larks at West Winfield.

Unexpected birdsThere were three species listed that normally do not return from the south this early. It happens that each of these birds can easily be confused with other species that are expected to be here in early March.

A report of an eastern wood pewee came from Smyrna. This is a flycatcher that normally does not show up until May 5 when the insects are flying. Unfortunately there was no statement as to how the bird was identified. If it was identified by hearing its song, we must keep in mind that the chickadee has a “pee-wee”, whistled call that is part of the courtship and is heard all through the late winter and early spring.

A chipping sparrow was listed in Clay. They normally do not show up until April 15, so this report would have been some 6 weeks early. Again, no description was given.

If it was identified as a chipping sparrow because it had a red cap, it is much more likely that it was a tree sparrow. The tree sparrow is quite common during the winter. It has a reddish cap, a black breast spot and the lower part of its bill is yellow. If the breast spot is not conspicuous, the observer is led to believe that the bird is a chipping sparrow.

However, if you carefully inspect your field guide, you will find that in winter the chipping sparrow does not have a red cap. The top of the head is brown with a few fine black lines running from front to back.

Field sparrows were listed in Mexico and they do not normally show up until a month later in early April.

So when you identify a bird that is unusual in winter, please tell how you identified it. How can you tell whether a bird you see is unusual at that time of year? If you would like a list of the dates when birds show up in the spring, send me a stamped, self addressed envelope and I will forward one to you.

The March list.
Here is the list of all species reported. The first number for a species on the list is the number of individual birds of that species on 100 reports. The second figure is the actual number of reports that listed that bird.

Canada goose 828 (33)

Ducks: black 2 (1); mallard 8 (2); goldeneye 10 (1); common merganser 30 (5); turkey vulture 5 (3).

Hawks: bald eagle 3 (2); sharp-shinned 9 (9); Cooper’s 10 (10); red-tailed 30 (25); rough-legged hawk 3 (3); Kestrel 2 (2); pheasant 4 (4); ruffed grouse 2 (1); turkey 221 (21); killdeer 4 (1).

Gulls: ring-billed 44 (10); herring 32 (4); black-backed 2 (1); rock dove 160 (16); mourning dove 779 (92).

Owls: screech 1 (1); horned 2 (2).

Woodpeckers: red-bellied 62 (48); downy 198 (86); hairy 94 (53); flicker 7 (5); pileated 4 (4); horned lark 100 (1); blue jay 330 (77); crow 1,355 (91); raven 7 (2).

Chickadee 580 (99); titmouse 126 (65); red-breasted nuthatch 44 (33); white-breasted nuthatch 133 (73); brown creeper 5 (5);
Carolina wren 5 (5).

Bluebird 8 (4); robin 250 (39); mockingbird 1 (1); cedar waxwing 72 (6); starling 889 (64); cardinal 433 (96).

Sparrows: tree 361 (60); chipping 1 (1); field 3 (1); song 8 (6); white-throated 70 (29); junco 400 (85).

Snow bunting 22 (3); red-winged blackbird 62 (20); rusty blackbird 5 (2); grackle 23 (10); cowbird 24 (9); purple finch 99 (8); house finch 329 (55); redpoll 89 (9); pine siskin 6 (1); goldfinch 702 (74); evening grosbeak 6 (1); house sparrow 542 (49).

The April feeder survey starts today.
Please watch whenever you can and keep a record of the number of birds of each species that you see each time. At the end of the week, list the largest number of each species that you saw at any one time during that week.

Arrange all the species in the order shown in the list just above from last month. Put each species on a separate line with the number first, followed by the birds name. Please write the number of species at the top of the list.

At the end of the week, put your list on a postcard or in a letter and send it to B.P.Burtt, Smokey Hollow Rd., Jamesville, NY 13078-9548. Or you can send results by EMAIL to ( Please include the name of your town ).

The Spring migration


By Benjamin P. Burtt

TOPIC: The Spring migration and the birds that are expected in the next two weeks. Special attention is given to the fox sparrow and to the American woodcock with its spectacular courtship ritual that includes singing on the ground, an aerial flight with wings that whistle and a zig-zag dive to the ground.

Incoming Flights

This week in our yards we can expect to see the first migrant song sparrows. Showing up in the yard the following week( 3/27-4/2), are the sapsucker, junco, flicker, and tree swallow. The winter wren will be back soon too.

Other Spring arrivals.

Many of the new birds that appear from the south in the next two weeks will not visit feeders, but you may see them near your home.

It is time for the kestrels to return. While quite a few of these small falcons winter here, most go further south. Thus the local population will increase as the migrants return.

The harrier or marsh hawk will be seen flying low over meadows and marshes any day now. The kingfisher returns and so does the snipe. Great blue herons are due.

The American woodcock or timber doodle as it has been called, moves in from the south this week. It has a very long bill and large, bulging eyes placed high on its head. This painting is from the Peterson Field Guide, “Birds of Eastern and Central North America” fifth edition
( Courtesy of Houghton Mifflin Co )

The woodcock will soon be engaged in courtship. It has a spectacular ritual involving singing on the ground, an aerial flight with wings that whistle and a head long dive to the ground again. These activities start in early April and last a week or two.

To see the show, drive to a marshy field with scattered brush just about sundown. Stop your car and listen for a single “peent” note that will be repeated at intervals. It may be better to just stand quietly and wait. The call is not musical, but it is buzzy and some have likened it to a “Bronx Cheer”. In fact it sounds something like the note made by the nighthawk in flight.

I remember one such visit in particular. The sky was clear and there was no wind. On the ground, the details of bush and meadow were blending into grays as the light faded rapidly. That is the time the ritual normally begins. Promptly, the first call came from an open spot a short distance in front of us.

A few seconds later, the call was repeated. We crept a bit closer. The woodcock generally stands in a little clearing. Sometimes he walks or struts about, but more often he just stands still in the same spot while holding his tail erect as he calls.

After a few such calls the, "peenting" stopped and the bird took to the air with rapidly beating wings. He flew in wide circles as he went higher and higher. When he was about 50 feet above the ground his outer wing feathers were somehow adjusted to make a “twittering” sound. It could be described as a rapid "winnow-winnow-winnow." When he reached a height of 300 feet this twittering stopped. Then he started his descent, chirping as he zig-zagged back and forth.

Then, as if a sputtering motor had run out of gas, the sounds abruptly ceased. Silently, the woodcock glided steeply towards the ground. He leveled off just above the earth, and dropped into the clearing from which he had come.

A moment later, the "peent" sound was heard and the ritual started again. After several such performances when the male returns to the ground he will find a female or two near his courting spot. If so, his performance has been successful!

Each time the bird goes into the air, the observer can creep a little closer to the courting ground. You can get within a dozen feet if you are careful. Eventually, the light fades and one can only follow the whole process by ear.

They often go through the ritual at dawn, but I have never tried to see it then. I understand that while the evening performance lasts about a half-hour, that at dawn can be twice as long.

Fond of Earthworms

The woodcock feeds mostly on earthworms and its long bill and the strange placement of its eyes are an aid in its search for this prey. It can seize worms that are several inches underground. It probes its very long bill deep into soft earth.

With most of its bill in the soil it can not open the entire bill to grab the worm. However, the upper part of the bill at the tip is rubber-like and flexible. Just this tip can be opened to seize the worm.

While probing for worms with its head down near the earth, it would not be able to spot danger if its eyes were on the side of its head like they are on most birds. However, since its eyes are placed near the top of its head, it can still be on the lookout for danger.

The fox sparrowNormally, the first fox sparrows show up about now. They are, in my view, the most attractive members of the sparrow family. They spend the winter from southern Pennsylvania to the Gulf of Mexico. They are now on their way north to breed.

The summer home of the fox sparrow is in the northern forests of Canada. There, it nests on the ground from the limit of the trees south to the Gulf of St. Lawrence and into the northern parts of the Provinces of Western Canada. In Newfoundland, it is one of the most common nesting birds.

South of the St. Lawrence River, there are very few nesting spots. In Nova Scotia, there is only one island off the coast where the bird is found. Its summer neighbors there include such species as the rough-legged hawk, the pine grosbeak, the gray-cheeked thrush, the white-crowned sparrow and the northern shrike.

Fox sparrows will be passing through Central New York from now until early May as they head to those northern areas to breed. We will see them again in the fall as they go south. Only during these two brief periods are they spotted here.

The fox sparrow is the largest of the sparrows that we see. The breast is heavily streaked. Like the song sparrow, the streaks come together to form a central spot on the breast. However the other markings on the fox sparrow are much broader and darker than those of the song sparrow.

Its most distinguishing identification mark is the rusty-brown red rump and tail. It is this fox-like color that gives it its name. Like the towhee, it feeds by scratching away the dead leaves in its busy search for fallen seeds or insect food. Both feet are used and it makes quite a commotion in the brush. In fact, one usually hears the scratching and rustling in the leaves before actually seeing the bird.

In secluded thickets

From late March until early May, the fox sparrow will be found in woods or secluded thickets or amongst the bushes at the edge of a field. It is hard to spot it there. Since it feeds right on the ground, it is seldom seen perched much above the ground.

When disturbed, the bird usually will fly into the lowest branches of some nearby tree and be quite conspicuous and easy to identify. In a moment or two it will return to the ground to scratch around some more.

Watch for it on the ground around your home, scratching in the leaves or picking up spilled seed below your feeders. It will be further north by May 5, so now is the time to see it as it passes through.

Early birds and February Feeder Survey results


By Benjamin P. Burtt

TOPIC: The Spring migration has begun. Comments are made about the birds that have already arrived and those that are expected in the next two weeks before the next column comes out. Some details are presented on the phoebe, the first flycatcher to arrive.

ALSO :The results of the Feeder Survey for the first week of February.


This column is divided into two sections

Section 1 includes material about the phoebe and other species that are expected to arrive shortly . This appeared in the Post Standard today.

Section 2 presents the results of the February Feeder Survey, what birds were seen, the birds that are abundant, those that are scarce and some of the unusual birds that were spotted.

The Spring migration of the birds always begins in early March in Central New York .

Birds that normally appear during the first week of March are the male red-winged blackbird, Canada goose, grackle and cowbird. A few of you may have already seen these birds.

What new birds can we expect to see this coming week? Most all of us think of the robin as the REAL sign of spring. The robins begin to move in from the south about March 10 each year. But what about the ones we see before that? Are they early migrants? The answer is that it is very hard to tell. Here is the reason.

In the fall, most of the robins go south. However, for some reason every year, there are flocks of robins that do not migrate. There are not many of these flocks, but there are always robins about Central New York through the winter. They find an area where there are berries to eat and unfrozen streams or marshes with muddy spots in which they can probe for food. My guess is that having found such a spot, they stay there for the winter. The people who live nearby see them all winter long. The Feeder Survey shows that there are robins being seen every month from October through May, but only from a few scattered locations.

As the day become longer compared to the length of the night, there is a change in the hormones in most birds. This tends to produce a restlessness, an “urge to migrate” in those that go south as part of the approach of the breeding season. This restlessness also affects those small flocks that did not migrate and have spent the winter in Central New York.

During February, these wintering birds start to move around more. If they now wander into your yard, it naturally raises the question, are these robins that have returned early from the south?

On the average, the robins that have been south start to return about March 10. Suddenly, one day near the 10th we see them everywhere. The ones we saw in February though were probably here somewhere in Central New York all winter.

This week in addition to robins, we should spot a few migrant bluebirds. Killdeer and meadowlarks are due. Turkey vultures will probably be seen overhead.

During the week after that, March 13-19, the female red-winged blackbird is expected. Also due that week, is the phoebe. It is the first flycatcher to arrive. The other members of the flycatcher family do not show up until May.

The eastern phoebe, the first flycatcher to migrate will arrive about March 15. It is a gray-brown bird that bobs its tail down and up while perched. You can attract it to a nesting shelf about 6 inches square placed in a sheltered spot under the eaves, on a porch or inside a barn. (This painting is from Peterson’s “Field Guide to the Birds of Eastern and Central North America” (Courtesy Houghton Mifflin Co.)

Why does the phoebe come back so early and how does it survive when there are no insects to eat? First of all, it doesn’t go very far south for the winter. It spends the winter in the Southern U.S. All the other flycatchers go to Central or South America for the winter and do not show up here until May when insects are available here.

I found a list of the foods that the phoebe eats in a 1967 book “Attracting Birds: from the prairies to the Atlantic” by Verne Davison. In the list of the plant food that it eats, there were 6 listed and only two have berries that could still be available when the bird returns in March, they are sumac and poison ivy . .

Those are the only fruits that persist until spring that were listed for the phoebe, but I suspect that it may find other berries that are left from the previous fall. Many other fruits that it eats in the summer were listed, but these are the only ones that have berries that are still available when it returns in the Spring.

If you see phoebes feeding on berries this spring, I would be very interested to have you tell me what they are eating.

The phoebe is a gray-brown, sparrow-like flycatcher with a light breast and a black bill. It has the habit of bobbing its tail downward and this helps identify it.

Its name comes from the song which is a hoarse, two syllable “fee-bee’, fee-bee “. The first “fee-bee” goes down in pitch, while the second goes up.

Sometimes the courtship call of the chickadee in late winter is thought to be the song of the phoebe. That of the chickadee is a clear, whistled call while that of the phoebe is hoarse and is not heard until late March.

SECTION 2 The results of the February Feeder Survey
During the first week of February, many readers watched their yard and counted the numbers of birds of each species. At the end of that week, they sent me a list showing the maximum number of birds of each species they saw at any one time during the week.

For example, if they saw 25 blue jays that week, but never more than 4 at a time, then 4 was the number they put on the list for that species. We know that at least that many were in the vicinity.

The first bird to arrive from the south is the male red-winged blackbird which comes about March 1. While a few red-wings have been here all winter, the migrants usually show up in Central New York during the first week of March and begin to sing. However, that first date can vary a week either way. This year I am still looking forward to hearing the song, “oh-ker-ee”, which for me says that spring has really arrived.

On the February feeder survey, out of 100 reports there normally would be perhaps 10 that listed one or more winter resident red-wings. This time there was only one report of 15 birds. They have been scarce all winter.

More bird news from the February Feeder Survey
For each of you who feeds birds, it is fun to be able to compare what you saw in your yard during the first week of February with the observations of others who feed birds. The February Feeder Survey has now been tabulated.

Here are the birds most often seen, and the number present at the average feeder during the period from February 6 to 12.

There were five species that were seen by over 90% of the observers. Here are those species with the average number of each that was listed on the reports. You can compare this to your count - - - Chickadees 5, mourning dove 9, cardinal 4, crow 20 and white-breasted nuthatch 2.

The two most numerous birds were the mourning dove and the goldfinch. More abundant than normal were tree sparrows, titmice, juncos and purple finches. While the tally for redpolls was low, the few people who had them had about 20 each.

The count for red-wings, grackles and cowbirds was low. Only a few bluebirds and pheasants were reported.

Some species do not travel in flocks and we usually see just the male and the female. This is true of the following species in which we see only 1 or 2. These include the downy woodpecker, the white-breasted nuthatch, the red-breasted nuthatch and the tufted titmouse.

The short listsEvery list is important for I am interested in knowing what birds people see. Some people have a better habitat than do others and have a greater variety of species. However, to learn what birds are around, we need to have reports whether they are long or short.

The fourth grade class at the New Haven Elementary School continues to send a list that is forwarded by their teacher Mrs. Norma Griffin. Their feeders are in a courtyard and it is a bit hard for birds to find the feeders. This time they had goldfinches and a mourning dove.

Listing 6 species were Eugenia Fish of Cortland and Susan Fondy of Watertown. Dan Frantis of Syracuse listed 7. Reporting 8 species were Charlels Bruner of Brooktondale, Judith Miller at Pulaski and Barb Robinson and Bob and Shirley Rock at Oswego.

The average feeder in early February had 14 species. So now lets look at the longest lists.

The longest listsAt Waterloo, Linda Quackenbush had 32. Ken Smith had 28 at Freeville. There were 25 on the list from John and Elizabeth Wallace of Baldwinsville. Listing 24 species were Ken Zoller at West Winfield and Lawrence Abrahamson of Marcellus. Tallying 23 were Steve and Dorothy Hanzlik of Whitney Point and Steve Swensen of Baldwinsville. In Perryville,

Kathy and Scott Trefz listed 22. Seeing 21 were Judy Thurber of Liverpool ,David Pardee of Brewerton and Paul Radway of Pompey. There were 20 on the lists from Matt Young of DeRuyter and Sharon Robarge of Richland.

Scarce birdsSome species were reported by only one person. In Dewitt, Estelle Hahn had a screech owl. Judy Thurber observed 2 great black-backed gulls at Liverpool. Dorothy Coye reported goldeneyes at Skaneateles. In Waterloo, Linda Quackenbush had the only red-wings and horned larks. Ken Smith tallied a mockingbird and a few golden crowned kinglets. Matt Young had 2 rusty blackbirds near Deruyter. Ilse Vogelpoel saw a chipping sparrow in Manlius.


Below is a list of all species reported. For each bird, the first figure is the number of them listed on 100 reports and the number in parentheses is the percentage of the reports that listed that species.

Canada goose 364 (20);
Ducks: black 2 (1); mallard 30 (4); goldeneye 8 (1); common merganser 6 (3).

Daytime birds of prey: sharp-shinned 18 (18); Cooper’s 21 (18); red-tailed 32 (28; kestrel 2 (2); pheasant 3 (3); ruffed grouse 2 (2); turkey 118 (8).

Gulls: ring-billed 17 (8); herring 5 (2); great black-backed 2 (1); rock dove 139 (15; mourning dove 917 (97); screech owl 1 (1); horned owl 7 (4).

Woodpeckers: red-bellied 41 (32); downy woodpecker 189 (81); hairy 94 (50); flicker 3 (3); pileated 3 (2);

Horned lark 9 (1). Blue jay 311 (77); crow 4059(2000 in 1) (92); raven 11 (4); black-capped chickadee 490 (98); titmouse 147 (67); red-breasted nuthatch 50 (32); white-breasted nuthatch 141 (90); brown creeper 7 (6); Carolina wren 4 (4); golden crowned kinglet 4 (1); bluebird 9 (4); robin 497 (27); mockingbird 3(2); starling 678 (59); cedar waxwing 119 (5); cardinal 419 (97).

Sparrows: tree 518 (55); song 6 (3); white-throated 73 (24); junco 510 (85).

Red-winged blackbird 15 (1); rusty blackbird 2 (1); cowbird 30 (6); grackle 4 (3); purple finch 228 (24); house finch 298 (46); redpoll 162 (8); siskin 24 (8); goldfinch 855 (80); evening grosbeak 23 (2); house sparrow 613 (55).

The March feeder survey starts today and ends Saturday.
Please watch whenever you can and keep a record of the number of birds of each species that you see each time. At the end of the week, list the largest number of each species that you saw at any one time during that week.

Arrange all the species in the order shown in the list on this page from last month. Put each species on a separate line with the number first, followed by the birds name. Please write the number of species at the top of the list.

At the end of the week, put your list on a postcard or in a letter and send it to B.P.Burtt, Smokey Hollow Rd., Jamesville, NY 13078-9548. You can send results by EMAIL to Please include the name of your town ).

If you would like to read the complete instructions, click on the word instructions. To return to this column click on ”Back” at the top of the screen.

The Great Horned Owl


By Benjamin P. Burtt

TOPIC: The Great Horned Owl, the first bird to nest in the Spring in Central New York does not make its own nest, but uses an old red-tailed hawk nest or a crow nest if one can be found. This owl will use also use a nesting platform if it is constructed to the correct specifications.


This topic was covered in my newspaper column in the Post Standard in Syracuse on the above date.

This version here on my web site contains everything that was in the newspaper plus a lot of additional information for the reader who is interested in learning more about the great horned owl and how to build a nesting platform for it.

Signs of Spring

Here in the northeast we are ready for signs of spring. However, today It is cold and there is snow on the ground, and the only sign that spring is on the way is that daylight lasts longer than it did in December.

However, for the great horned owl, spring is well underway. Most birds nest later on, but these owls have already finished courtship, mating and are now laying eggs.

Starting in mid-January there was a lot of hooting. During courtship the male approaches his mate along a branch on which she is perched. He bows his head, leans over, fluffs up his feathers and then droops his wings with his tail pointing straight up. From this position he swells up his white bib and gives a long drawn out series of hoots.

The male then resumes his upright position and the female goes through a similar ritual. Later they face each other and rub beaks and then snap them with a clicking sound.

CAPTION: The great horned owl is the first Central New York bird to nest in the spring. Since we seldom see one close by, I am using this picture to show the bird’s huge size. This particular owl had been hit by a car three years ago and was under the care of wildlife rehabilitator Cynthia Page of Manlius. When its broken wings eventually healed, it was released. ( Courtesy of Cynthia Page).

They never make a nest of their own, but must find something they can use. In Central New York, they very often choose an old red-tailed hawk nest . It is a good choice for it is large and made of sturdy sticks. They must take what they can find and they sometimes use last year’s nest made by a crow or even a leaf nest made by a squirrel. They can use a hollow tree. One nest was in the crotch of a tree where three huge branches came together. There was no nesting material at all, but a single young owl was successfully raised there. That nest, of all places was in a tree in Oakwood Cemetery in Syracuse.

Once they have selected a site, they spend a great deal of time in the vicinity as the time for egg laying approaches. The female will even sit in the nest a lot before the eggs are laid.

These borrowed nests are not always in good condition. They sometimes fall apart from previous wear and tear and the effect of past storms. The eggs or young can be dumped to the ground prematurely

Two eggs are laid, but about a week apart starting about now. Incubation starts with the first egg and continues for about 35 days per egg.

One time I was inspecting a nest from the ground through my telescope and there was a mound of snow covering the nest. As I was about to take my eye from the scope, I saw the snow move and it appeared to shake itself. From under a coat of snow appeared the head of mother owl!

Two white downy young will hatch in mid-March. They will be the size of the chicks of domestic chickens.

They will be in the nest for over a month, during which time they need constant protection from the snow and low temperatures.

For many years in the 1950's and 60's I was studying great horned owls and red tailed hawks by banding their nestlings. If the banded bird was ever found, one could learn how long it lived and where it went. To do this I had to find active nests and climb to the nest at the appropriate time to put U.S. Fish and Wildlife bands on the young birds. .

Around the first of April, I would check known nests of red-tailed hawks to see if there was any activity around the nest they had used the previous year. If so, there would be hawk eggs in the nest and the female would be incubating.

Sometimes though, I would find that great horned owls had taken over the site a month before the hawks and half grown owls were in the nest about ready to be banded.

A day in the woods

In the Eaton area, Gerald Church would often find horned owl nests for me. When the young were the right age for banding, we would pick a day to do it when there was a blue sky and lots of sun. It was nice to be out in the woods in the early spring.

Here is one day I remember. Patches of snow were still present in shady spots on some of the hills. The nest was in an old beech and only about 40 feet up.

A sling shot was used to fire a lead weight over a branch. This weight carried a nylon fishing line. That line was used to pull up a clothes line which in turn was used to pull up a heavy manila rope over the branch and down to the ground. Gerry would tie himself to one end of the manila rope and the other was secured to my safety belt. With the aid of a pair of climbing spikes, I went up the tree while Gerry backed off through the woods keeping the rope tight.

There was a 3-week old horned owl in the nest and at this age it was still timid and easy to band. However, he puffed himself up in a somewhat threatening way to become a big ball of fluffy feathers. In the nest could be seen the remains of a rabbit and the bones of many rodents. I even found the leg of a racing pigeon with the band still on it from a club in Albany.

Another nest

A few days later, Church called to report that he had found another nest with young that were larger and almost adult size. I met the Churches early one morning and we went to that nest. This one was about 60 feet up in a maple tree and the two young were indeed fully feathered.

We tried to be quiet around the nest during the climb, for young owls frequently leave the nest on the slightest excuse at this age. Sure enough, when I was about 20 feet below the nest, one owl stepped to the edge, spread his wings and took his first jump into space.

The first flight is usually a long glide and the bird is unable to gain altitude. This young one was pretty strong and his wings were well developed. Consequently his glide was long and flat. Church went scrambling off through the woods behind the owl as I kept my eye on its path of flight. He found it perched uneasily in a small Hawthorne tree and brought it back to my pack basket at the base of the nesting tree.

To band the second one, I started up the tree again. My climb was continued as quietly as possible, but just as I tied myself in below the nest, the other one jumped out. Being younger, his wings were not as well able to support him and he took a rather steep glide to the leaf covered floor of the forest below.

He was easy to capture. Both owls were hauled up in the pack basket and I tied it to a branch. The youngsters were banded right in the basket. The first leg band was easy to put on, but the turmoil in the basket with two squirming full-grown owls that didn't want to be banded made the placing of the second band a bit more difficult. I wanted to be sure that the second leg that received a band was attached to the other owl!

Next I had to put the young in the nest and get to the ground without having them jump out again. Arranging one owl in each hand, I raised them above my head and placed them in the nest. They were held there with one hand over each one to keep them quiet. I was hidden below the nest (it's three feet across) so they couldn't see me as I slowly withdrew my hands.

They did not move so I climbed down quietly without shaking the tree. On the ground we quickly gathered all the equipment and moved off 100 yards where I removed the safety belt and spikes and packed all the equipment in the basket.

The young owls soon stood up to watch us, but showed no inclination to take to the air again--at least not that day. These were the last of ten owls that were banded that season. Some years later Church took up the banding of owls himself.

The first year for these owls is a dangerous time and most of those that I banded in the past were recovered in their first year. within 10 miles of the nest .

However, one of the three owls we banded that day (4/25/68) lived a very long time in the wild. When it was 19 years and 4 months old it was killed by a car one night as it flew low over a road near Morrisville. It was carrying a frog it had just captured! It was only a few miles from where it had been banded. At that time it was the oldest great horned owl in the banding records. Today, the record for a great horned owl banded as a nestling is a bit over 22 years.

More about the nests of the horned owlWhen it does find a place, it does very little to it. The adults will add a few feathers or grasses, but generally, they do nothing more to the nest than to make a slight hollow in the material there.

These old nests are often too small and in such poor shape that a young owl may fall out before it can fly. The edges may be made of soft vegetation and weak or rounded. If a young one gets too near the edge it will give way and the nestling crashes to the ground.

An owl nesting box

The great horned owl will nest in a man-made nesting box if it is constructed to the proper dimensions. Such a box is open at the top and would better be named a nesting platform.

For 12 years a great horned owl used a nesting platform in a tree back of my house. As shown, it is made from 2-by-4s and filled with straw, bark, sticks and hemlock boughs.

It is about two feet square with sides about 8 inches high made from two rectangles of 2-by-4s. The floor of the box is ½ inch plywood that is nailed on opposite sides to the under edge of the 2-by-4s. The sides of the floor reach to within 1/4 inch of the other two sides. This space prevents the nest box from collecting rain water.

Nesting materials

This tray-like box should be mounted from 20 to 40 feet up in a tree. It is filled with straw, sticks arranged in a circle and hemlock boughs to resemble a red-tailed hawk nest.

Insulation from the cold

These materials in the box provide some protection for the eggs and insulation from the cold. The materials used in a real hawk nest may be piled some 12 to 14 inches deep in the crotch of a large tree. These materials provide a great deal of insulation below the eggs.

Since my nesting platform was not that deep, special attention had to be paid to construct it so that the eggs laid in it would not lose heat through the bottom. The first model I designed was not well insulated and the owls that used it lost the eggs when the temperature was below zero for a few days.

After that experience I laid a 2 inch thick square of Styrofoam on the floor with a square of plywood on top of it. It somewhat resembled a sandwich with the Styrofoam between the wooden floor and the square of plywood laying on top of the foam. The nesting materials were then laid on the top piece of wood.

This nest is sturdy, for the four sides are made of 2x4s and a young owl can walk right to the edge with no danger of that side collapsing. Thus, the owls can remain in the nest until they are ready to fly. Such a nest in many cases is better than the old nests they sometimes have to use.

I had this platform in place for about 12 years and the owls used it 9 of those years. It was mounted in a tree on the edge of the woods about 500 feet behind the house. During the nesting season I watched the activity at the nest through a telescope that was placed just inside the big window that faced the nest.

Raccoons are attracted by owl eggs and I had to wrap the tree trunk with aluminum flashing after a loss of all the eggs one year.

The Unusual Fall Migration of the Tree Sparrow & January Feeder Survey Resuts


By Benjamin P. Burtt

TOPIC: The Unusual Fall Migration of the American Tree Sparrow as Shown by the Feeder Survey


This column is divided into two sections

Section 1 discusses the migration of the tree sparrow which was discussed briefly in the bird column in the Post Standard in Syracuse on the above date.

Section 2 contains the Detailed Results for the January 2005 Feeder Survey


The Fall Migration of the American Tree Sparrow as Measured by the Feeder Survey

I have conducted a Feeder Survey in Central New York every winter for the past 47 years with the cooperation of readers of my Bird Column in the Post Standard. As the years have gone by we have learned some interesting things about the birds that spend the winter here.

During the first week of each month from October through May, readers watch their yard and count the number of birds of each species that are visible there. At the end of the week they send me a list of the species and the maximum number of each species they saw at one time during that week.

Using this information over the years we can get an idea of how the population of a given species changes over the years or even how it changes on the average through the winter from October through May.

Today, I want to tell you how I have learned something about the migration of the tree sparrow. Tree sparrows are present in Central NY from October through May, but they go far to the north in the summer to breed and then come back in the fall.

Of all the birds that are tallied on every feeder survey from October through May, it is the only one that does not breed here. It is listed on nearly half the reports in mid-winter.

It nests about 1000 miles north in the summer in the wet, brushy wastes of northern Canada. This area is north of the trees and extends as far north as there is any scrubby growth.

Figure 1: This is the tree sparrow. ( Courtesy of Kevin and Jay McGowan)

How do we identify it? It is the only rusty-capped sparrow that is abundant here in winter. It reminds us a bit of the chipping sparrow that also has a rusty cap and is a summer resident. However, we must remember that in the winter the chipping sparrow does NOT have a rusty cap. The top of its head at that time of year is brown with black streaks running from front to back.

In addition to its rusty cap, the tree sparrow has a dark spot in the middle of the breast and the chipping sparrow does not. On some tree sparrows that spot is not very conspicuous and this leads some observers to think it might be a chipping sparrow.

The bill of the tree sparrow is two toned, that is, the top is black and the bottom is yellow. While the chippies bill is entirely black in summer, it fades to a gray-brown in winter, but both parts of the bill are still the same color .

The tree sparrow’s nest

The nests in the far north are on the ground and hidden in dense tangles of shrubs. The tree sparrow might better be called the “brush sparrow” for it seldom spends time in trees.

Why is it called “tree” sparrow if it spends so little time in trees? The early settlers noticed that it bore a resemblance to the chestnut-capped tree sparrow of Europe and Asia which has a rusty cap, but otherwise resembles a house sparrow. A few of these European tree sparrows were released around St. Louis and you will find them in some of the field guides. In this country they are called Eurasian Tree Sparrows. Anyway, the early settlers gave it the name tree sparrow and the official name today is American Tree Sparrow.

The fall migration of the tree sparrow

This is where the feeder survey has provided some interesting information. The tree sparrow leaves that northern nesting area before September ends and starts a journey southward. A few appear here in Central New York in early October.

Figure 2 shows how the abundance of the tree sparrow changes during the winter here in Central New York. This chart is obtained from the Feeder Survey over the years.

Figure 2 In the chart, the number of tree sparrows per 100 reports is plotted on the vertical axis against the month on the horizontal axis. The number of birds for each month is the average of the counts for that month for the years from 1999 through 2003.

For example, The average of the January counts for each of those five years was 280 tree sparrows per 100 reports. For this January, 2005 it was 206. So this year the tally was a bit below the average for January.

Every year they leave their breeding grounds in the north in late September.
A few tree sparrows first appear here in early October. The numbers slowly increase here in Central New York and it takes 5 months for the numbers to reach a peak value. The numbers remain at a high level through February and March with the maximum count usually being in February.

In April, the numbers decrease as these birds start to leave for the north. By early May only a few remain, but all are gone by the end of that month.

The puzzling question is, why does it take so long for this fall migration?

Another bird that nests in the far north and migrates to the United States for the winter is the white-crowned sparrow. Its migration is more typical of the sparrow family.

The white-crowned sparrow, instead of making a leisurely migration, rushes along as do most birds and they all pass through here in October to go further south. We seldom see any during the rest of the winter. None were reported on the January survey just past.

In May the white-crowned sparrow migrates through our area on its way back to the north. This occurs in the first week of May during the last survey for the season..

I can only speculate as to why the tree sparrow migrates so slowly in the fall. It has a tiny bill and feeds on the very small seeds of grasses and weeds. Such weed seeds would not be available if the snow gets very deep. So perhaps it moves to the south only enough to find weeds that are not covered with snow.

The white-crowned sparrow is a larger bird and has a heavier bill that can crack larger seeds. I would think that it might go even more slowly than the tree sparrow since it would be able to eat tree seeds in addition to those on weeds.

Even if I can not suggest why the tree sparrow goes slowly, the Survey shows that it does. The slow migration is nothing new for in looking back over the 47 years of the feeder survey, I see the same trends.

I am a bit surprised that more people do not report tree sparrows, but I suspect that some people may be using only a hanging tubular feeder with short perches. Tree sparrows and juncos normally feed on the ground and they will not use such a feeder. In such a case they can only feed on spilled seed.

To attract those two species put out a fine seed such as cracked corn or white proso millet. Scatter it on the ground or on a large platform or tray-like feeder on a post.


The observations for the January Feeder Survey were made by readers during the first week of January.

What birds were most abundant at feeders during the first week of January when we conducted the feeder survey? While geese and crows were more abundant than any other species reported, they were not at feeders. Starlings were in third place and only some of them visit feeders regularly.

The most abundant bird right at feeders was the goldfinch. There were 837 per 100 feeders. We always present the numbers per 100 feeders so that comparisons can be made with results in the past.

The goldfinch count this year is not quite as high as last years record tally, but is way above average. In mid-winter the goldfinch has been the most abundant species at feeders in recent years.

After the goldfinch came the mourning dove, house sparrow, chickadee and junco. There were large numbers of cardinals and house finches.

It is also fun to know what species are present at most feeders. As usual, just about everyone had chickadees. 95% of the feeders had at least one. Other birds that were present at over 80% of the feeders were white-breasted nuthatches, downy woodpeckers, mourning doves and juncos. Over half the feeders had blue jays, goldfinches, titmice and hairy woodpeckers. The tree sparrow was listed by almost half the people.

A total of sixty species was spotted. Of these, 48 were fairly common, that is they were seen by 2 or more observers. The other 12 species were each seen by only one person.

The typical feeder had 13 species. By that I mean that half of the observers had more than 13 and the other half had less than 13.

The shortest lists.

The shortest list came from the New Haven Elementary School fourth grade class taught by Norma Griffin, they had 15 goldfinches and 2 mourning doves. E. Randall of Clinton tallied 4 species. In Watertown, Susan Fonday listed 5. There were 6 on the lists of Dawn Franits of Syracuse, Marsha Smith of Dryden and Mrs. William Woernley of Homer.

Tallying 7 were David Bigsby of Syracuse, Eugenia Fish of Cortland and Bob and Shirley Rock of Oswego. Cynthia Wallace had 8 in Elbridge.

The longest lists

The longest list came from Ken Smith in Groton, he had 32 species. In Waterloo, Linda Quackenbush had 31. Tallying 27 were David Pardee of Bremerton and Steve Swensen of Baldwinsville. Ken Zoller had 26 in West Winfield. Listing 25 was John and Elizabeth Wallace.

There were 22 on the lists from Paul Radway of Pompey, Steve and Dorothy Hanzlik of Whitney Point and Matt Young of DeRuyter.

Finches from the northThere are many other northern species that come down here when food is scarce in Canada. This year there has been no appreciable movement of northern finches as far south as Central New York. The northernmost survey came from Peter and Linda Biesemeyer of Malone. They did list some northern species. They had 30 redpolls, 4 pine siskins and 10 evening grosbeaks.

The Rare BirdsBirds listed by only 1 person were bufflehead by Mrs. Dana Coye at Skaneateles, a kingfisher at New Woodstock, reported by William and Marilyn Fais. Estelle Hahn of Dewitt has had a screech owl roosting in a nest box. David Pardee reported a great blue heron and a hermit thrush near Brewerton. Judy Thurber at Liverpool was the only person to report Herring gulls and Great black-backed gulls. Matt Young had a rusty blackbird at DeRuyter. Ken Zoller reported black ducks and horned larks at West Winfield.

There was one yellow-throated vireo reported, but the person did not tell how the bird was identified. This bird is normally in South America in winter and I can find no records of one here in winter. When an unusual bird is listed, it is very helpful if you give me the field marks that you used to identify the bird.

Two people reported chipping sparrows, Remember, the chipping sparrow does not have a reddish cap in winter. Most winter reports turn out to be tree sparrows.

The total pictureHere is the list of all species reported. The first figure is the number of birds spotted per 100 reports and the one in parentheses is the number of reports out of 100 that listed the species.

If you divide the number of birds by the number of reports for a particular species you get the average number visiting a feeder. It is fun to compare this with your own tally for that species.

Great blue heron 1 (1); Canada goose 2,729 (34).

Ducks: black 2 (1); mallard 21 (5); bufflehead 8 (1);

Daytime birds of prey: northern harrier 2 (2); sharp-shinned hawk 14 (14); Cooper’s hawk 19 (19); redtail 23 (19); rough-legged hawk 2 (2); pheasant 7 (4); ruffed grouse 3 (3); turkey 43 (5).

Gulls: ring-billed 21 (5); herring 2 (1); black-backed 2 (1); rock dove 129 (10); mourning dove 736 (83); screech owl 1 (1); horned owl 3 (2); kingfisher 1 (1).

Woodpeckers: red-bellied 50 (40); downy 192 (84); hairy 78 (52); flicker 4 (4); pileated 4 (4); horned lark 1 (1); blue jay 247 (67); crow 2,018 (84); raven 11 (5); chickadee 516 (95); titmouse 148 (64); red-breasted nuthatch 44 (32); white-breasted nuthatch 143 (85); brown creeper 4 (4); Carolina wren 4 (4); bluebird 11 (2); hermit thrush 1 (1); robin 72 (7); cedar waxwing 133 (8); northern shrike 2 (2); starling 941 (35); cardinal 355 (82).

Sparrows: tree 206 (44); chipping 4 (2); song 4 (3); white-throated 48 (16); junco 434 (79); red-winged blackbird 4 (2); rusty blackbird 1 (1); grackle 4 (3); cowbird 64 (7); purple finch 109(17); house finch 310 (41); redpoll 134 (8); pine siskin 5 (2); goldfinch 857 (67); evening grosbeak 10(1); house sparrow 667 (44).

Announcement: The February Feeder Survey starts today, February 6