Dickcissels by Andy Reago & Chrissy McClarren (CC BY 2.0 DEED)

The cloaca is an essential anatomical feature in birds (the organ also exists in reptiles, amphibians, and some fish). In birds, the cloaca is a single opening located at the base of the tail that serves multiple functions. It is the exit point for the digestive, urinary, and reproductive tracts. This means that the cloaca is used for the expulsion of fecal matter, the release of urine, and the transfer of sperm or the laying of eggs.

In summary, the cloaca is a multi-purpose organ that is vital for the biological functions of digestion, excretion, and reproduction in birds.

The multi-use design of the cloaca might seem strange, but it’s a remarkable example of evolutionary efficiency. By having just one opening, birds maintain a lighter body weight, which is crucial for flight. The cloaca’s interior is divided into three chambers to handle the different functionalities. Each chamber has a technical name: the coprodeum is like a rectum and is for receiving feces from the intestines; the urodeum is for both urine and genital products; and the proctodeum, which is involved in storing waste from the other chambers before it is expelled.

House Sparrows mating by Richard Smith (CC BY 2.0 Deed)

In birds, the cloaca plays a crucial role during mating. Most birds do not have external reproductive organs. Instead, in breeding season, the cloacal regions of both male and female birds swell, facilitating the transfer of sperm.

Mating occurs when a male and female bird press their cloacas together in a quick touch that typically lasts less than a second. This behavior is known as the cloacal kiss. The swift action allows the sperm to move from the male to the female to fertilize eggs. The efficiency of this process is vital, as birds often need to mate quickly to avoid predators and to not draw attention to themselves in vulnerable situations.

Despite the quick nature of their mating, birds often engage in complex and lengthy courtship rituals leading up to the cloacal kiss. These rituals can involve dances, songs, gift-giving (like offering food), and other behaviors that strengthen pair bonds and signal the fitness of the potential mate. For birdwatchers, observing these behaviors can be one of the most delightful aspects of monitoring avian life.

Black-headed Gulls mating by Alan Shearman (CC BY 2.0 Deed)

In terms of breeding success, the timing of the cloacal kiss is critical. Many bird species have very specific mating seasons, driven by environmental cues like temperature and day length, which ensure that the subsequent laying of eggs and rearing of chicks occur during times when survival rates will be highest.

Understanding terms like cloaca and cloacal kiss not only deepens our knowledge of bird anatomy and reproductive strategies but also enhances our appreciation for the intricacies of bird life.

Bird feeder with female Painted Bunting and Northern Cardinal

It's almost time for Female Bird Day! During Memorial Day Weekend (May 25-27, 2024), birders and bird lovers celebrate the remarkable and often overlooked world of female birds. While their colors may be more subtle, and their songs more muted, female birds are obviously integral to the avian world. Whether you're an avid birdwatcher or simply a nature enthusiast, understanding the unique behaviors of our feathered female friends enriches our appreciation of biodiversity.

Female Mallard with ducklings

Mate Selection

Female birds play a crucial role in mate selection, significantly impacting species survival and evolution. They often choose mates based on physical attributes, such as bright plumage and size, which indicate a male's health and genetic quality. Courtship displays, like dances and songs, are other ways to signal a male's fitness. Additionally, females prefer males that control high-quality territories with abundant food and nesting sites, ensuring better resources for raising offspring. In species where males help with parental duties, females select mates based on their ability to provide care and protection.

This selective process is vital for species survival as it enhances survivability rates, making populations more adaptable and resilient to changing environments and emerging threats. By choosing mates with superior genetics and good health, females increase the likelihood of producing healthy offspring, who are more likely to survive and reproduce. Female preferences drive the evolution of specific traits in males, leading to the development of more pronounced and specialized characteristics that help species adapt and thrive. Overall, female mate selection ensures the health and viability of bird populations, contributing to their long-term survival and success.

Females Sing

Contrary to popular belief that male birds are the primary vocalizers, in many species, female birds sing as well, sometimes as loudly and as often as males. Reasons for singing are similar to those for males. Females may sing in duet with males as a part of courtship or pair-bonding, they may vocalize to help defend territory, or for other communication reasons.

American Robin with brood patch by VSPYCC (CC BY 2.0 Deed)

Nest Building

In many bird species, females take the lead in nest building. This task involves selecting the nest site and gathering materials such as twigs, leaves, grass, feathers, and mud. Female birds often have specialized skills and instincts for constructing secure and comfortable nests that provide protection and optimal conditions for their eggs and chicks.

Raising Young

Once the eggs are laid, female birds typically assume a significant role in incubation and caring for the young. In many species, the female incubates the eggs alone, using her body heat to keep them at the proper temperature for development. Many also develop a brood patch, an area of bare skin on the underbody, to better maintain egg temperature during incubation. This period can last from several days to a few weeks, depending on the species.  After the chicks hatch, females often take the primary role in feeding and caring for the young.

Female Birdorable Birds

Female Belted Kingfisher by Russ (CC BY 2.0 DEED)

Differential Migration

In many bird species, females and males migrate at different times, distances, or routes, a phenomenon known as differential migration. The physiological and ecological demands on female birds, particularly related to reproduction, heavily influence their migratory behavior.

Females and males may travel different distances during migration. In some species, females undertake longer migrations than males. This can be due to differences in body size, with females sometimes being larger and better able to endure longer journeys. Additionally, different nutritional needs or environmental pressures can lead to varied migratory routes. 

Females often migrate later than males in the spring and earlier in the fall. For example, in some songbird species, males arrive at breeding grounds earlier to establish and defend territories, ensuring they have prime nesting sites when females arrive. Conversely, females may migrate earlier in the fall to reach wintering grounds sooner, securing the best feeding areas.

In some species, males and females tend to spend the off-season in completely different habitats, or at different elevations. Studying these differences can be important in understanding population trends. For example, if the wintering grounds of female birds is threatened by habitat destruction, the entire species may be in peril, even when the population may seem abundant due to the health of the winter habitat of male birds. So if we focus only on males, important species conservation data may be lost.

Female Birdorable Birds

Female birds not only fascinate with their behaviors and roles but also inspire with their resilience and importance to ecological balance. They pollinate plants, disperse seeds, control pests, and their nesting materials can even aid in the growth of plants, which in turn supports a larger biodiversity.

Celebrating Female Bird Day isn't just about giving these avian heroines their due recognition. It's about understanding the vital roles they play in nature and encouraging conservation efforts to see them, and protect them and their habitats. Their survival and well-being are crucial not only for their species but for ecosystems around the world.

To learn more about female birds, follow the hashtag #FemaleBirdDay during Memorial Day weekend to see how others are celebrating or visit the Female Bird Day website. You can participate in the weekend by focusing on female birds when you go out birding this weekend. If you use eBird, fill in the sex data for your list to indicate female birds you found.

Female Ruby-throated Hummingbird

Birdorable American Robins in lawn

The American Robin is one of the most familiar and beloved birds across North America. With its bright orange belly and cheerful song, it's easily recognized by both sight and sound.  Let's dive into some intriguing facts about the American Robin that may surprise even seasoned bird enthusiasts.

Modified Migration Movements

Not all American Robins migrate, but those breeding in the colder northern regions travel south for the winter, sometimes forming large flocks during migration. 

Migration In Their Name

One thing about migration that relates to all American Robins is found in their Latin name: Turdus migratorius. Turdus refers to the robin's family of birds: Thrush. Migratorius means "to migrate".

Sign of Spring -- or Fall?

Even in places where American Robins remain year-round, their cheerful spring songs make them a sign of spring in some northern locations.  For us here in Florida, the appearance of robins in early November coincides with thoughts of winter

American Robin with worm by Enoch Leung (CC BY-SA 2.0 Deed)

Not Just Worms

American Robins eat a diverse diet. During spring and summer, they mainly eat earthworms and insects, while in colder months, they switch to fruits and berries. They hunt earthworms by watching the ground with cocked heads and then pouncing on prey with their bills once a worm is detected. This familiar and endearing behavior is fun to watch -- a lawn or field full of feeding robins is a sign of a healthy environment. During the winter, robins may gather in large chattering flocks, feeding on berries in trees.

No Relation

Despite the name, American Robins are not closely related to European Robins. They share a similar look in that both species have a recognizable reddish breast. Early European settlers gave the American Robin a similar name to their familiar bird from back home. American Robins are in the thrush family, while European Robins are flycatchers. For the same reason, there are other "robins" in the world that aren't related to either species at all -- like the Rose Robin of Australia.

Ubiquitous Presence

American Robins are familiar birds for a reason: they are highly adaptable to both wild and urban environments. They can be commonly found across a wide variety of habitats, like forests, parks, and residential areas, across North America.

Young American Robin by James Mann (CC BY 2.0 Deed)

A Fresh Look

Young American Robins do not resemble adults until they molt; they sport a speckled breast rather than the iconic red one, which helps in camouflage from predators.

Subtle Differences

There are seven recognized subspecies of American Robin. The subspecies ranges overlap and they breed together; the subspecies are weakly defined. The subspecies are: Eastern Robin; Newfoundland Robin; Southern Robin; Northwestern Robin; Western Robin; Mexican Robin; and the San Lucas Robin, which has been recognized by some taxonomical authorities as a separate species.

Ecological Importance

As predators, American Robins help control insect populations. As prey, robins support local food webs. Additionally, their droppings help in seed dispersal, aiding in plant biodiversity. American Robins can serve as indicators of ecological health in their habitats.

Longevity

While many -- up to 25% through November -- may not survive their first year, once past that milestone, American Robins can live quite long. The longest known lifespan of an American Robin in the wild, known from bird banding records, is nearly 14 years.

Brood Bonanza

American Robins are capable of producing up to three broods in one year. Two broods is typical; a third brood usually occurs following the failure of an earlier attempt. This high reproductive rate compensates for the high rate of chick mortality.

Popular Icon

The American Robin is the state bird of Connecticut, Michigan, and Wisconsin, reflecting its iconic status and importance in American culture.

Cute American Robin Gifts

Birdorable White Storks on large nest

White Storks build their stick nests elevated off the ground in trees, on roofs, utility poles, or other high locations. These large nests can reach up to 6 feet in width and 9 feet in depth. Stork pairs nest either solitarily or in small groups.

It's time to wrap up Infrastructure Week on our blog. In today's post, we'll be talking about infrastructure created by birds!

Birds, the original architects, craft some of the most elaborate structures in the natural world, and their nests are perfect examples of biological engineering at its finest. We'll list some extreme examples of amazing avian infrastructure, which ranges from the massive sky-high fortresses of Bald Eagles to the finely woven baskets of weaver species. Nests aren't just homes but are feats of construction that provide safety, comfort, and functionality, mirroring the objectives we humans often seek in our own structural designs.

Birds are not just masters of flight; they are also skilled architects whose abilities to build nests range from the simple to the spectacularly complex. These nests serve as nurseries for their young—a safe haven from the elements and potential predators. Each species has its unique approach, with designs meticulously tailored to their specific environmental and biological needs.

Bald Eagle nest by Elizabeth Pector (CC BY 2.0 Deed)

Here are several examples of birds known for constructing some of the most elaborate nests:

  • Bald Eagle - These majestic, powerful raptors build the largest nests of any bird in North America. The nests are reused and added onto for many years by the same bonded pair of adult birds. The nests are massive constructions of sticks, vegetation, and debris, sometimes measuring over 9 feet in diameter and weighing up to a ton. The largest noted Bald Eagle nest was recorded in St. Petersburg, Florida, was 10 feet in diameter and 20 feet tall!

  • Montezuma Oropendola - These tropical birds create long, hanging nests from tree branches. Their nests can be up to 6 feet long and are woven from fibers and vines. The colony trees where these birds nest can have dozens of these pendulous nests hanging from them, creating a striking visual.

Montezuma Oropendola nests by Brian Ralphs (CC BY 2.0 Deed)

Sociable Weaver nests by Brian Ralphs (CC BY 2.0 Deed)

  • Sociable Weaver - These birds build enormous communal nests which may be used by hundreds of birds. The nests are complex structures made of sticks and grass with separated nesting chambers that are lined with soft materials. 
  • Hamerkop - This bird’s nest is a massive, domed structure made from sticks kept together with mud, often built in the fork of a tree. The nest can be up to 5 feet across and is roofed with a thick layer of sticks, featuring a single entrance at the underside of the nest.

  • Hornbills - Many species of Hornbill, like the Great Hornbill, exhibit a remarkable nesting strategy where the female seals herself inside a tree cavity with mud and fruit pulp, leaving only a slit through which the male feeds her and the chicks. This unique method protects them from predators and environmental elements, showcasing an ingenious approach to nesting security.

Hamerkop nest by Greg Schechter (CC BY 2.0 DEED)

These examples illustrate the diverse and sophisticated techniques birds employ in nest building, showcasing their natural ingenuity and adaptability. Each species’ nesting style is perfectly adapted to their environmental needs and breeding behaviors, demonstrating the incredible variety in avian architecture.

Special Infrastructure shout-out to Bowerbirds

Bowerbirds are known for their construction prowess as well, but their work is solely for mating, not nesting. Male birds in the Bowerbird family create structures called "bowers" which are designed for attracting mates. Bowers are constructed around a sapling or a wall of sticks are and decorated with twigs, leaves, and various brightly colored objects they collect like shells, berries, and flowers. The shape and style of the bower vary by species, with some creating avenue-like paths lined with decorations, while others build more hut-like structures.

Infrastructure Week 2024

Urban Jungles: How Birds Thrive in City Settings

Birdorable Peregrine Falcon in the city

When we think about urban environments, images of bustling streets, towering skyscrapers, and dense human populations come to mind. Yet amidst this concrete jungle, a surprising array of bird species not only survive but thrive. Adapting to city life involves a fascinating blend of biological resilience and behavioral flexibility, allowing birds to exploit new resources and navigate the challenges of urban spaces.

Among the most iconic urban dwellers is the Peregrine Falcon. Renowned for being the fastest animals on earth—capable of diving at speeds over 200 miles per hour to catch their prey—these cosmopolitan raptors have found a surprising ally in tall buildings and skyscrapers. These structures mimic the high cliff ledges Peregrine Falcons traditionally nest on. Cities also provide an abundant supply of prey such as pigeons and smaller birds. Major cities around the globe, from New York to London, now host thriving populations of these falcons, which have adapted remarkably well to urban life.

Streaming nestcams featuring Peregrine Falcons are abundant due to their frequent use of urban buildings for nesting. Right now is a great time to check out cams like the ones linked below, as the Peregrines are busy raising their fluffy young.

Then there are Barn Swallows, who traditionally nest in caves, and in barns and other open structures in rural areas. In cities, these agile fliers have transitioned to nesting under bridges and highway overpasses, using these man-made structures to support their mud-built nests. This adaptation not only provides them with safe nesting sites away from many ground predators, but also places them near water sources where insects—their primary food source—are abundant.

Other bird species that thrive in areas of human development are easy to identify: a big clue is in their name (the name we humans gave to them).  Think about where we can find birds like House Sparrows, House Finches and House Wrens, Barn Owls, Roadside Hawks, and House Martins of the Old World.

City parks and gardens are vital refuges for many bird species. Here, smaller birds like sparrows and finches find not only food in the form of plants and insects but also an assortment of bird feeders filled by enthusiastic bird watchers. These green spaces serve as miniature ecosystems within the urban sprawl, offering shelter and breeding sites. The presence of trees and water features in parks also supports a variety of bird species, from the common robin to the more elusive kingfisher in cities with rivers or ponds.

Birdhouses and nesting platforms are another crucial element that bolsters bird populations in urban settings. Many cities have seen successful implementation of nest box programs that encourage species such as Eastern Bluebirds and Purple Martins to take up residence. These initiatives not only help in bird conservation, increase biodiversity and promote a healthy environment, but also engage the local community in wildlife management and education. Platforms and artificial nests provide safe havens for birds to rear their young away from the prying eyes of predators and the disturbances of city life.

Moreover, urban environments are witnessing innovative approaches to support bird life. For instance, some cities have introduced green roofs, which are covered with vegetation and provide a new habitat for urban birds and other wildlife. These green roofs can reduce the "heat island" effect of cities and offer birds a cooler place to rest and feed. They also help in water retention and provide foraging grounds for insects, thus supporting a small but vital food web for urban bird species.

In adapting to urban environments, birds demonstrate remarkable versatility and resilience. While these adaptations highlight their ability to cope with and exploit new environments, they also underscore the importance of human efforts in supporting urban wildlife. By installing birdhouses, maintaining parks, and initiating conservation programs, we can ensure that our cities remain hospitable to a diverse array of bird species.

Birdorable Herring Gull in the city
Birdorable Barn Swallows flying in front of an office building

It's Infrastructure Week on our blog! The series will dive into the fascinating intersection of urban development and bird conservation and other topics related to infrastructure and birds.  As our cities expand and evolve, so too does the need to consider our feathered friends in our architectural and landscaping decisions. From bridges that serve as nesting grounds to green roofs that offer safe havens, we'll explore how modern infrastructure relates to birds.

Birds brighten our skies with their vibrant colors and melodious songs, but they face numerous dangers as they navigate a world increasingly dominated by human infrastructure. As we expand our cities and networks, we create hazards that pose serious threats to avian populations. Among the most pressing concerns are collisions with glass buildings. Thankfully, innovative solutions and architectural designs are emerging that can mitigate these risks, offering hope for safer skies for our feathered friends.

Fritted glass on the JP Morgan Building in Sydney by Rob Deutscher [CC BY 2.0 Deed]

Glass buildings, with their sleek and modern aesthetics, are a staple of urban architecture. However, they pose a significant hazard to birds. The transparent and reflective properties of glass can deceive birds into thinking they're flying towards open sky or habitat, leading to collisions that are often fatal. Each year, it's estimated that millions of birds die from striking glass surfaces. Cities along major migration flyways can be major zones of bird mortality during the spring and fall. This issue has garnered attention from conservationists, architects, and city planners who are all working towards making buildings safer for our feathered friends.

One of the primary reasons glass buildings are so dangerous to birds is that birds don't perceive glass as a barrier. The reflections of trees, sky, and other natural elements on glass surfaces can create an illusion of continuity in their habitat. When birds try to fly through these illusions, they collide with the hard, unyielding glass. Furthermore, during nighttime, interior lights confuse and attract nocturnal migrants, compounding the risk of collisions.

Netting to make windows safer for birds

Addressing this issue, several innovative solutions and architectural adjustments can be implemented to help reduce bird collisions with glass buildings:

  • Fritted Glass: This type of glass has patterns etched onto it that are visible to birds but minimally intrusive to human eyes. The patterns can take various forms such as dots, lines, or images that cover enough surface area to alert birds of the barrier ahead.

  • Angled Glass: Installing glass at an angle can help reduce reflections of the sky and vegetation, which are often the visual cues that mislead birds. Angled glass reduces the severity of these reflections, making the surface more visible to birds as an obstacle.

  • External Screens and Netting: Installing screens or netting in front of glass surfaces can physically prevent birds from colliding with the glass. This method doesn't alter the glass itself but provides a barrier that birds can see and avoid.
  • UV-reflective Glass: Birds can see ultraviolet light, which is invisible to humans. Glass treated to reflect ultraviolet light can appear clear to humans but is visible to birds. This technology allows buildings to maintain their transparency for people while being an effective deterrent against bird strikes.

Bird-safe glass with decals by Kendeda Building | Shan Arora [CC BY 2.0 Deed]

  • Decals and Window Films: Placing decals or special films on glass surfaces can make windows visible to birds without significantly affecting the view from inside. These decals are often placed in specific patterns that provide cues to birds that there is a barrier.

  • Lighting Reduction: Reducing light pollution, especially during migration seasons, can decrease the number of birds attracted to and disoriented by glass buildings at night. Many cities are adopting guidelines that include turning off building lights or dimming them during critical migration periods.

Community involvement is also crucial. Initiatives like bird conservation programs and educational campaigns can raise awareness about the importance of bird-friendly designs. By supporting policies that require or encourage such measures, the public can play a pivotal role in promoting safer environments for birds.

During this infrastructure week, as we continue to build and innovate, it's vital that we consider our impact on the natural world. With thoughtful design and technological advances, we can create infrastructures that not only serve human needs but also protect our avian companions. Ensuring the safety of birds as they navigate the challenges of modern landscapes is not just an act of conservation; it's a commitment to preserving the beauty and diversity of life on Earth.

Birdorable Ruby-throated Hummingbird with nest and chicks

Ruby-throated Hummingbird with nest

When it comes to raising their young, birds exhibit a fascinating array of parenting strategies.

One common myth about bird parenting is that it always requires two parents — one male and one female — to successfully raise their young. While this is true for many bird species, it's not a universal rule. The parenting styles in the avian world are as varied and complex as the birds themselves. The truth is much more nuanced and interesting. Let's explore the myth that two parents are required to raise baby birds.

American Robin Tending Young by Courtney Celley/USFWS (Public Domain)

Paired Chick-Rearing Is Typical

In many bird species, parenting is indeed a dual activity. Take, for example, the familiar American Robin. While the female takes care of incubating the eggs, both are involved in feeding and protecting the fledglings. This shared responsibility ensures that at least one parent is always guarding and nurturing the offspring, increasing their survival chances in the unpredictable wild.

Similarly, some species of penguins are famed for their cooperative parenting. In the strategy of the Emperor Penguin, the male takes the first long shift standing over the eggs through the harshest winter conditions, without eating, while the female goes to sea to feed. Upon her return, roles switch, with the female taking over chick-rearing duties. This level of mutual participation is crucial for survival in their extreme environment.

Sometimes Single Parenting Is the Norm

Despite the prevalence of this model, several bird species challenge the notion that two parents are strictly necessary. In some species, single-parent families are not only common but are the norm. For instance, in the case of the Ruby-throated Hummingbird, females manage the bulk of parenting duties on their own, from brooding to feeding and protection.

In the case of the African Jacana, the female is the dominant and more territorial individual. She mates with multiple males, and it’s these males who incubate the eggs and take care of the chicks solo. This role reversal shows how diverse bird parenting can be.

Female Ruby-throated Hummingbird feeds nestlings by Lorie Shaull (CC BY 2.0 Deed)

Some Species Practice Breeding Cooperation

The variability in bird parenting strategies extends even further with communal breeding, where multiple birds share parenting duties, sometimes involving individuals that are not the biological parents of or even biologically related to the young. Species like the Acorn Woodpecker live in large family groups where several females lay eggs in the same nest and the group collectively takes care of all the young. This communal approach can alleviate the burden on any single bird and enhance the survival rates of the nestlings.

In some species of birds, such as the Florida Scrub-Jay, older siblings from previous broods help in feeding and protecting the new chicks of subsequent broods. This behavior not only supports the current breeding pair but also provides valuable parenting experience to the younger birds.

Chipping Sparrow feeding baby cowbird by Sue Thompson (CC BY-ND 2.0 Deed)

Zero Parenting: Brood Parasitism

Then there are brood parasites like the Brown-headed Cowbird, who lay their eggs in the nests of other bird species. The cowbird chick, once hatched, often pushes out the host's eggs and becomes the sole beneficiary of the unsuspecting foster parents' care. This strategy completely removes the biological parents from the nurturing equation, relying instead on deception for the survival of the offspring.

The reasons behind these varied parenting strategies are complex and influenced by ecological and evolutionary pressures. Factors such as predator density, food availability, and environmental conditions can dictate whether a species evolves to favor single parenting, bi-parental care, or communal breeding.

The Loss of an Adult In Paired Chick-Rearing

In species where two parents are generally involved in raising the chicks, the presence of both ensures optimal care: one can forage for food while the other protects and warms the young. However, should one parent perish, the remaining parent may face increased challenges but not necessarily insurmountable ones. The success of single-parenting in such cases largely depends on factors like the species’ natural behavior, the stage of the nestling period, and the environmental conditions.

For instance, in many songbirds, if the male dies after the chicks have hatched, the female alone might still manage to raise the chicks to fledging. This is possible because the most labor-intensive period requiring both parents, which includes egg incubation and early chick rearing, may have passed. At this stage, the demand is primarily for feeding the rapidly growing chicks. If food is abundant and the threats from predators are minimal, a single mother could potentially manage the workload alone.

In the case of the death of the female, leaving the male to care for the eggs or very young chicks, the scenario might be different. In many bird species, males might not be physiologically equipped to incubate eggs or might not have the behavior programmed for such tasks. 

As demonstrated in the examples above, environmental factors play a significant role in nest survival when one parent is lost. In a habitat where food is plentiful and easily accessible, the surviving parent has a better chance of successfully feeding the chicks and themselves. However, in a scenario where food is scarce or requires significant effort to obtain, the stress and physical demands on the single parent could lead to lower success rates for the nest. And the timing of the parent’s death certainly affects outcomes. 

Some bird species have also shown the capacity to find new mates quickly if their partner dies, thereby restoring the dual care system. This flexibility can greatly enhance the survival prospects of the current brood.

Dual Parenting In Birds Myth: Busted

The myth that all birds require two parents to successfully raise their young does not hold up under scrutiny. The avian world is rich with diverse parenting strategies, each adapted to the specific needs and challenges of different species. This diversity demonstrates the adaptability and complexity of birds, making them endlessly fascinating subjects of study and observation.

Birdorable Akekee and 'Akikiki birds in Hawaii

‘Akeke‘e (left) and 'Akikiki (right)

In an unprecedented and inspiring leap towards conservation, the American Bird Conservancy, alongside other conservatoin agencies, has embarked on a groundbreaking mission in Hawaii to save several critically endangered Hawaiian honeycreepers from the brink of extinction. The culprits behind the looming threat? Invasive Southern House Mosquitoes carrying avian malaria. The solution? A clever, innovative strategy involving the release of non-biting male mosquitoes engineered to curb the mosquito population and, by extension, the spread of the deadly disease.

Hawaiian honeycreepers, with their vibrant plumage and unique evolutionary history, are more than just birds; they are integral to Hawaii's ecological and cultural tapestry. Once flourishing with over 50 native species, the islands now see a stark reduction to merely 17, each teetering dangerously close to oblivion. The initiative, aptly named Birds, Not Mosquitoes (BNM), marks a significant milestone in conservation efforts, particularly as it coincides with Makahiki o Nā Manu Nahele, or the Year of the Forest Bird, amplifying its significance and urgency.

November 2023 saw the first of these mosquito releases on Maui and Kaua‘i, following extensive study, analysis, and regulatory nods from state and federal bodies. This innovative approach introduces mosquitoes carrying a strain of Wolbachia bacteria, harmless to humans but fatal to mosquito progeny. When these engineered males mate with wild females, the resulting eggs fail to hatch, leading to a gradual but significant decrease in mosquito populations.

This technique, already proven in combating mosquito-borne human diseases globally, promises a ray of hope for Hawaii's feathered natives. Without intervention, climate change's warmer, drier conditions push mosquitoes to higher elevations, directly threatening the survival of species like the Kiwikiu and ‘Δ€kohekohe on Maui, and ‘Akikiki and ‘Akeke‘e on Kaua‘i. Experts warn that without a drastic reduction in mosquito numbers, these birds could vanish within a decade.

'I'iwi by Mellisa McMasters (CC BY 2.0 DEED)

Behind this ambitious project is a broad coalition of state and federal agencies, non-profit organizations, and researchers, all united under the banner of the U.S. Department of Interior's Strategy to Prevent the Extinction of Hawaiian Forest Birds. The initiative not only aims to stabilize and eventually increase native bird populations but also sets the stage for future re-introductions from conservation breeding programs.

Monitoring forms the backbone of this initiative, with teams on Maui and Kaua‘i meticulously tracking mosquito populations with traps, as well as malaria prevalence, and bird population dynamics. This extensive, data-driven approach ensures that the intervention's impact is scientifically measured, paving the way for further releases and an expanded fight against avian malaria.

The commitment of nearly $16 million by the current administration under the Investing in America Agenda underscores the project's importance, signaling a collective determination to protect Hawaii's unique biodiversity. As 2024 unfolds, the partnership eyes continued efforts on Maui, expanded operations on Kaua‘i, and a comprehensive Statewide Environmental Assessment to explore wider applications of this conservation tool.

This pioneering endeavor exemplifies the power of collaboration, innovation, and dedication in the face of seemingly insurmountable conservation challenges. As the Birds, Not Mosquitoes project advances, it stands as a testament to the potential for science and unity to forge a future where Hawaii's skies are once again filled with the vibrant chorus of its native honeycreepers.

Anting 🐜 is a behavior exhibited by some birds in which they allow ants 🐜 to crawl on their feathers and skin, or they actively apply ants, other insects, or substances ants secrete, to their feathers. They do this as part of their preening, or self-care, routine.

Anting is a curious behavior exhibited by a surprisingly wide range of birds – over 200 species across the globe are known to do it.

Anting is one of the most peculiar and fascinating behaviors observed in birds. Those that engage in anting display a curious interaction with ants and other insects. 🐜 This behavior has intrigued ornithologists and bird enthusiasts alike, offering a glimpse into the complex natural behaviors birds have developed to cope with their environments. 🐜

American Robin Anting by ptgbirdlover (CC BY 2.0 Deed)

🐜 Anting typically occurs in two forms: active and passive. In active anting, a bird will pick up ants in its beak and then rub them onto its feathers. In passive anting, a bird will sit directly on an insect nest or move its body around on the ground where the bugs are present, allowing the insects to crawl through its feathers. 🐜 The majority of anting observations involve formic acid-bearing ants, which are believed to play a crucial role in this behavior.

The reasons why birds engage in anting are still not entirely understood by ornithologists, but several theories have been proposed. 🐜 One of the most accepted explanations is that anting helps birds to get rid of parasites and other skin irritants. Ants produce formic acid, a chemical that could potentially help control feather mites and lice. 🐜 By rubbing ants over their bodies, birds might be using the formic acid as a kind of natural pesticide.

Another theory suggests that anting could be a way for birds to soothe irritated skin, particularly during molting when new feathers are growing and old ones are being shed. 🐜 The formic acid might provide a form of relief from the discomfort associated with this process.

Anting may help to regulate a bird's preen oil production. 🐜 Preen oil, secreted from a gland near the base of the tail, keeps feathers waterproof and flexible.  πŸœ The formic acid from the ants could stimulate the preen gland or even supplement the oil itself.

Crows anting by Betsy Howell for U.F Forest Service- Pacific Northwest Region (Public Domain)

There’s also a thought that anting may play a role in the maintenance of a bird's plumage. 🐜 By allowing ants to crawl through their feathers, the ants might be helping to clean the birds, removing debris and possibly even adding a layer of protective substances via the ants' secretions. 🐜

Behaviorally, anting is quite a spectacle. 🐜 Some bird species appear to enter a trance-like state while anting, remaining still and allowing ants to work their way through their feathers for several minutes. The bird may be laying prone on the ground with feathers spread as if it is sunning, as shown in the above photos in this post. The below image of a Black Woodpecker shows the bird standing normally with ants crawling over the feathers. 🐜 Whatever the method, such behavior can be quite entertaining to watch, as birds seem to be completely absorbed in the process.

Black Woodpecker anting in Hungary by Fracesco Veronesi (Public Domain)

Interestingly, not all birds use ants for anting; some have been observed using other materials like cigarette butts, presumably for the chemicals they contain, or even snails and millipedes. 🐜🐜 This substitution suggests that the primary motivation behind anting might be related more broadly to chemical acquisition from various sources, not just ants. 🐜

Some Bird Species Known to Engage in Anting Behavior

Anting behavior varies widely among bird species and is most commonly seen in passerines, or perching birds. Among the well-documented anters 🐜 are species like the Blue Jay, European Starling, and American Crow. 🐜🐜 However, reports indicate that many other species across different families also engage in this behavior, highlighting its widespread nature but variable practice among avians.

Despite its oddity, anting is a significant aspect of avian behavior, pointing to the intricate ways birds interact with their environment to meet their physiological needs. 🐜 It serves as a reminder of the adaptive and sometimes unexpected nature of wildlife, sparking curiosity and wonder among those lucky enough to observe it. 🐜🐜🐜

Birdorable Black-capped Vireo

The Black-capped Vireo, a small, striking species of songbird that once teetered on the brink of extinction, serves as a symbol of hope in the world of conservation. Its road to recovery showcases the power of targeted conservation efforts. In learning about the Black-capped Vireo, we can celebrate the continued survival of a species that once faced dire prospects.

Black-capped Vireos are notable as the only species of vireo to display sexual dimorphism, meaning males and females have a different appearance. Males can be identified by their distinctive black cap, which contrasts with their white underparts and greenish upper body. Females have a similar look but with more muted color differences.

Native to North America, the Black-capped Vireo breeds across parts of Oklahoma, Texas, and northern Mexico. There, it can be found in shrubby areas where it can find its preferred nesting sites.

By the late 20th century, Black-capped Vireo numbers had dwindled alarmingly, primarily due to habitat loss, grazing practices that altered their natural habitats, and the parasitism of their nests by the Brown-headed Cowbird.

The turning point for the Black-capped Vireo came with its listing as an endangered species, in 1987, which catalyzed a series of conservation actions aimed at reversing its decline. One of the first steps in this process was habitat restoration. By managing vegetation and controlling grazing, conservationists were able to recreate the brushy environments that are ideal for the vireo's breeding and feeding. These efforts provided the birds with the conditions they needed to rebuild their populations.

Photo of a Black-capped Vireo

Another critical component of the Black-capped Vireo's recovery was the control of the Brown-headed Cowbird population throughout critical parts of their breeding range. Through a combination of trapping and monitoring, conservationists significantly reduced the number of cowbirds in areas critical to the vireo's survival. This action decreased the rate of parasitism in vireo nests, allowing more vireo chicks to hatch and reach maturity.

Public education and involvement have also played a vital role in the recovery of the Black-capped Vireo. By raising awareness about the bird's plight and the importance of conservation efforts, organizations and government agencies have garnered support for their initiatives. Volunteers have contributed to the recovery efforts by participating in bird counts and habitat restoration projects.

Thanks to the concerted conservation work, the Black-capped Vireo has made a remarkable comeback. In 2018 it was removed from the list of endangered and threatened wildlife due to these efforts.

However, the conservation journey for the Black-capped Vireo is not over. Continued efforts are necessary to ensure the Black-capped Vireo's long-term survival. Habitat preservation remains a critical factor, as does the need for ongoing management of cowbird populations to prevent them from undermining the vireo's recovery. The species is managed by state agencies in both Texas and Oklahoma. Of course, habitat changes due to climate change pose a continued threat to vireos and other species.

The story of the Black-capped Vireo is a great story of what can be achieved when conservationists, government agencies, and communities come together to save a species from the threat of extinction. This success shows the importance of persistence, innovation, and cooperation in the face of environmental challenges.

Cute Black-capped Vireo Gifts