If birds were in the summer Olympics

1.  Equestrianism - Originally a bison-following bird of the Great Plains, the Brown-headed Cowbirds learned to ride along with cowboys to feed on weed seeds and insects that cows and horses stir into movement.
2.  Running - The fastest-running bird is the ostrich which can run up to 43 mph. The road runner runs about 12 mph.
3.  Marathon - The Arctic Tern makes the longest migration each year, flying 20,000 to 25,000 miles each year from the Arctic to the Antarctic and back again.
4.  Gymnastics - Woodpeckers can be real characters and always seem to be goofing around. But what seems like erratic bouncing around to us is how they practice their evasive maneuvers. Their acrobatics in trees and on feeders is good practice for when they need to flip away from predators.
5.  Fastest flyer - The peregrine is the fastest bird on record reaching horizontal cruising speeds of 65-90 mph.
6.  Highest flyer - Ruppell’s griffon vulture once collided with an airplane off the Ivory Coast in 1973 at 37,000 feet. A migrating Bar-headed Goose was once seen over the Himalayan Mountains in Nepal at roughly 28,000 feet.
7.  Fencing – Hummingbirds can fly right, left, up, down, backwards, and even upside down. When hummingbirds compete for nectar and insects they perform duels with their long blade-like bills as weapons.
8.  Swimming - Gentoo Penguin found on the Antarctic Islands are the fastest underwater swimming penguins, reaching speeds of 25 miles per hour.
9.  Diving – The Thick-Billed Murre is known as one of the deepest diving birds in the world. They have been known to dive up to 330 feet as they chase down their aquatic prey.
10. Synchronized Swimming - With the salt flats all to themselves, these flamingos perform a synchronized dance in the water and in the process, choose their mates.

Blue and orange bird making mud nest

I actually have a barn swallow nesting on my house! The nest construction was amazing. It looked like there were several birds building the nest. How long does she sit on the eggs? ~ Portland, MI

Barn Swallows have a steely blue back, head, wings, and tail, and a rufous neck and tan belly. White spots under the scissor tail can be difficult to see except in flight. Males are more boldly colored than females.

In Michigan, Barn Swallows come up from South America in the spring to breed. They are very adaptable birds and can nest anywhere with open areas for foraging, a water source, and a sheltered ledge. Barn Swallows once nested in caves throughout North America, but now build their nests almost exclusively on human-made structures.

Both birds of a pair make the nest. They build the shell of mud, and line it with grass and feathers. Unmated adult males or “helpers” often associate with a breeding pair to assist in nest building, nest defense, incubation and brooding. "Helpers" may also succeed in mating with the resident female, leading to polygyny. Juveniles from the first brood of the season have also been observed assisting their parents in feeding a second brood.

Breeding pairs form each spring and can produce 2 clutches per season from May until August. Both parents incubate about 5 eggs for about two weeks, feed their nestlings for about 20 days and continue to feed them for about 2 weeks after they have fledged.

Barn swallows are quite effective in reducing insect pest populations. While in the nest, barn swallow parents may feed their nestlings up to 400 times per day. Flies, grasshoppers, crickets, dragonflies, beetles, moths and other flying insects make up 99 % of their diet. They catch most of their prey while in flight, and are able to feed their young at the nest while flying.

The survival of the Barn Swallows and their relationship with humans may have been helped by superstition that any damage to a Barn Swallow's nest leads to cows with no milk and to hens without eggs.

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Study reveals birds and children don't learn in the same way

Aesop's Fable: The Crow and the Pitcher

A Crow, half-dead with thirst, came upon a Pitcher which had once been full of water; but when the Crow put its beak into the mouth of the Pitcher he found that only very little water was left in it, and that he could not reach far enough down to get at it. He tried, and he tried, but at last had to give up in despair. 

Then a thought came to him, and he took a pebble and dropped it into the Pitcher. Then he took another pebble and dropped it into the Pitcher. Then he took another pebble and dropped that into the Pitcher. Then he took another pebble and dropped that into the Pitcher. Then he took another pebble and dropped that into the Pitcher. Then he took another pebble and dropped that into the Pitcher. 

At last, at last, he saw the water mount up near him, and after casting in a few more pebbles he was able to quench his thirst and save his life.

    Little by little does the trick.

A study has shown that young children and crows can both solve similar tasks, but only the children were able to retrieve the reward when it was a task that defied logic.

The main purpose of the study was to see whether birds and children learn in the same way. Study leader Lucy Cheke, from Cambridge University, said that, based on the results, it seems they don't: the birds were unable to learn when something apparently impossible happened, while children were able to learn about what was happening even if they had no idea how it was happening.

"It is children's job to learn about the world," Cheke says, "and they can't do that when they are limited by a preconceived idea about what is or is not possible. For a child, if it works, it works.

"The children were able to learn what to do to get the reward even if the chain-of-events was apparently impossible. Essentially, they were able to ignore the fact that it shouldn't be happening to concentrate on the fact that it was happening.

"The birds however, found it much harder to learn what was happening because they were put off by the fact that it shouldn't be happening.

"The Aesop's fable paradigm provides an incredibly useful means by which to compare cause-effect learning with understanding of underlying mechanisms.

"We are planning on extending this paradigm to really try to understand what's going on in the heads of adults, children and animals when they deal with problems in the physical world."

  1. Lucy G. Cheke, Elsa Loissel, Nicola S. Clayton. How Do Children Solve Aesop's Fable? PLoS ONE, 2012; 7 (7): e40574 DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0040574
  2. Translations of The Crow and the Pitcher by Aesop http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/The_Crow_and_the_Pitcher

When black birds fly south

A flock of Red-winged Blackbirds (Agelaius pho...Now that breeding season is over for Red-winged Blackbirds, they will begin to gather in flocks of all male or all female birds. Northern populations migrate south to the southern United States and Central America beginning as early as August. Even though we’ve had no break in the weather, many birds are feeling a sudden restlessness as they prepare to move south.  Red-wings eat mainly insects in the summer and seeds found in fields or feeders, in the winter. In preparation for migration they may stop at your feeders for a last bite.

Brown bird on the finch feeder

I caught a glimpse of a brown bird on the finch feeder. It was all brown and had a gray beak. Any ideas? ~ Lansing, MI

female Indigo Bunting
Indigo Buntings are a dark gray or black bird about the size of a goldfinch. When the sun hits the male his feather structure refracts the sun to make him appear a brilliant indigo blue. The females are all brown. In mid-Michigan, we often see them at the finch or sunflower bird feeders.

Male American Goldfinch and Indigo Bunting
Photo by
Indigos like a variety of food, including small seeds, nuts, berries, insects, mosquitoes, flies, aphids, small spiders, buds, goldenrod, thistle, grasses, and herbs. At my feeders they like the Nyger Thistle and the No-Mess blend which has the sunflower chips, peanuts, and millet without the hulls.

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Something fun to do with the kids this summer

It’s been a very long, hot summer so far. Parents and grandparents may be looking for something to do with their little ones over summer break.

Aside from trips to the library, museums, theater and pool, it can be difficult to find interesting activities to keep kids entertained. Now might be the time to introduce them to the birds!

Feeding birds can be entertaining as well as educational. Begin by trying to identify the birds in your yard. Help kids look through a birding book. We have one popular Birds of Michigan field guide that is easy for beginning bird watchers. It is organized by the color of the bird. Simply remember the color of the bird and turn to that section to see the choices.

To get a closer look at the birds set up a window feeder or choose a simple feeder that’s easy to fill and clean. Birds don’t like to eat from dirty plates. It’s important to teach kids that a clean feeder helps keep the birds healthy. Wild Birds Unlimited - East Lansing also has the freshest seed that is blended to attract the widest variety of birds.

You could also set up a water bath. Baths not only provide clean water to quench thirst, baths also help birds maintain their feathers. A good part of a bird's day is spent just cleaning and grooming their feathers by bathing, scratching, and preening. It’s so important that it is often the first place parent birds bring their newly fledged babies.
Or take the Olympic Games Challenge
Birds vs. Humans

Birds have many special adaptations to help them live their lives. Some birds can fly long distances; some can dive deep into the ocean while others can run really fast.

How would you match up with birds in an Olympic Games challenge? Compare your best to the best that birds have to offer in the following categories:

A White Pelican has a wingspan of 8-9 feet, a Bald Eagle has a wingspan of 6-7 feet!
• I have a wingspan* of ____feet ____inches.
*Stretch your arms as wide apart as possible and have someone measure distance between the tip of your longest finger on each hand.

In 10 seconds, a hummingbird beats its wings 700 times!
• I can flap my wings (arms) _________ times in 10 seconds.

An owl can stare for hours while hunting for prey!
• I can stare for _______minutes without blinking.

A cormorant dives deep in search of fish. It can hold its breath for about 15 minutes (900 seconds).
• I can hold my breath for _______seconds.

At over 40 pounds, the Trumpeter Swan is North America's heaviest bird! The Australian Ostrich weighs in at over 250 pounds!
• I weigh _______pounds.

The Australian Ostrich is almost 9’ tall!
• I am _______tall.

A Greater Roadrunner can run at speeds of up to 15 miles per hour!
I can run ______ miles/hour. (use the chart below to determine your speed)

Run 60 feet and check calculations.
Finish time     
3.0 secs = 13.6 Miles/hour
4.0 secs = 10.2 Miles/hour
5.0 secs = 8.2 Miles/hour
6.0 secs = 6.8 Miles/hour
7.0 secs = 5.8 Miles/hour
8.0 secs = 5.1 Miles/hour

For more activities for kids go to:

Where to hang finch feeders

Just bought a new finch feeder. Can I hang it down low in front of my picture window for my cats and family to watch? ~ Lansing, MI

I’ve found the goldfinches feel more comfortable with the feeder near trees but that isn’t a requirement. I have several feeders hanging from a dogwood and pear tree in the front of the house and a couple on a pole in the open in the back of the house. All the feeders have birds but I fill the front feeders that are near trees twice as much.

The most important place to hang a feeder is where you and your family can watch it easily.

Goldfinches can be some of the most particular and finicky backyard birds. Their seed has to be fresh, the feeder clean, and they don’t take it well when you move or replace a feeder.

To make sure your Nyjer seed is fresh pinch the seed with your fingernails and see if any oil comes out. The finches use their bills to twist the seed and sip the oil and then drop the shell. On these cold days where every meal counts, if your seed has dried out your feeder will be skipped. (Wild Birds Unlimited receives a fresh load of seed each week.)

Second, make sure there is no mold in the bottom of your feeder. In Michigan where it can be humid the seed may not get a chance to air out and begin to mold. This can be dangerous to the finches and they will avoid your feeder again. To prevent mold in bad weather use Feeder Fresh (a silica grit that absorbs water and humidity, is safe for birds, and made from non-toxic absorbent sand). You can also shelter your feeder from the elements by using a WBU Weather Guard.

Third, finches are notorious for leaving a tube feeder half full. Just as you may have been taught it was polite to leave at least a little food on your plate so as not to appear gluttonous, I think the goldfinches may have the same rule. So what do you do if you have polite birds that eat only to a certain level and then stop even if there is still good, fresh seed in half of the tube? Don't just top off your feeder with fresh seed. Empty the older seed (if it's still good) into a different container, fill the bottom of your feeder with new seed and top it off with the older seed. The birds will probably eat down to that certain level again and you'll have to repeat the process.

My favorite feeder is a Mesh Finch Feeders. Several birds can feed at a time, the seed airs out, it's easy to clean, easy to fill, has a lifetime guarantee, and is made in the USA. They eat from top to bottom. However if you're thinking of switching feeders remember that finches don't like change and it may take several minutes to several months for Goldfinches to accept a new feeder.

Fourth, yellow attracts Goldfinches that are scouting for new feeding sites. Just like you know about the golden arches of McDonald's, the birds know yellow represents food whether it’s a sunflower or a feeder. If your feeder isn't yellow, attach a yellow ribbon to the feeder to catch a scout's eye. Once one Goldfinch finds your feeder, a flock will follow.

If you already have a few finches at the new location then you just have to be patient. They are probably upset that you moved the feeder but will return eventually.

Why are the birds eating so much?

“The kiss of the sun for pardon. The song of the birds for mirth. One is nearer God’s heart in a garden, than anywhere else on this earth."—Dorothy Frances Gurney

Working at Wild Birds Unlimited I hear how hungry the birds are all the time. So first I would like thank  everyone that supports our small business. People who shop here are the best!

Backyard bird watching is a fascinating activity that increases our awareness and appreciation of nature. It also helps us forget about the hectic day-to-day craziness and just sit back and relax.

This year the birds have had a very long, hot summer to endure. Many birds that normally move away from the feeders to catch bugs when their babies are born have been having a hard time finding food in this dry weather. So the lack of natural food and extreme temperatures has increased the activity at a lot of feeders.

You may be tempted to buy a cheap bag of birdseed at the supermarket. RESIST THE TEMPTATION! The birds will scatter the majority of it on the ground as they look for good seeds.Most cheap blends contain cheap filler seeds that may be attractive to the birds out west but our local backyard birds just have to pick through it. Since you’re paying by the pound, it makes sense to buy seed that the colorful birds like and not just feed the chipmunks.Wild Birds Unlimited makes seed blends specifically formulated to attract the widest variety of birds in our area so you won't see a lot of seed just tossed out of the feeder on the ground.

Baby Bird 08                    (Your photostr...
And just a little reminder that Tuesdays are seed delivery days. If you would like to load a few fresh bags of seed into your car directly, that would be much appreciated. I know I keep running out of No-Mess blend but there is a couple tons waiting outside the store right now! Come in early to pick up your supply at the Wild Birds Unlimited in East Lansing, Michigan.
Thank you all!

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Black-headed or bald-headed-vulture-cardinal

I’ve seen a lot of rough looking birds lately with feathers poking up here and there. I know that soon I’ll be getting calls about black-headed or bald birds.

Every July and August it is a somewhat common sight to see some bald birds at the feeder in mid-Michigan. Molting, for birds, is usually the periodic replacement of feathers by shedding old feathers while producing new ones. And, after the breeding season, most birds go through pre-basic molt that results in a covering of feathers, which will last until the next breeding season.

However, after nesting season some Cardinals, BlueJays, and Gracklesgo through an abnormal molt or replacement of feathers. Many appear to be juveniles undergoing their first pre-basic molt or growth of their first winter adult plumage. There are no scientific studies on why some of these birds are bald and some aren’t or why it’s just the head.

Growing up I remember we would have bald Blue Jays appear at the feeders every fall. They were large, lively, loud, healthy birds with tiny bald black heads. Fortunately, new head feathers grew in within a few weeks.

I don’t believe there is anything wrong with most of these birds, despite how bad they look. The only other reason a bird might lose patches of feathers may be due to health problems such as malnutrition, mite infestation, or some unidentified disease.

So if you see a Vulture Cardinal or Mohawk Blue Jay, don't worry. The unexplainable but temporary feather loss is common for this time of year. Even though staggered feather replacement is the normal pattern for most birds, I believe these birds will be alright without any intervention and grow their feathers back soon.

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Midsummer Birds

19 June- 14 July

The second half of June was quiet for a time but with the onslaught of baby birds our numbers tripled by the beginning of July. It is then a mad rush to get babies banded and back to the spot where they were captured to reunite with their parents. They were emerging at my home too and I just had to share these adorable photos of a recently fledged Carolina Wren. It sat on the steps not quite knowing what to make of me and my camera. Notice the downy feathers on top of the head. So cute!

Back on the island we had numerous HY (hatch year or first year) birds on June 16- robins, chickadees, Carolina Wrens, and our first Hairy Woodpecker and Tufted Titmouse (shown below).

Notice the lime green ring around this young bird's eye which will darken to gray as the bird ages.

Most of our Northern Cardinals are aged AHY or after hatch year in the spring, which means banders know the bird is not a young bird but we can't age it past the previous year. Our female cardinal had retained two juvenal secondary feathers allowing us to age her as SY (second year) meaning she was born last year. Many cardinals will go through a complete molt in their first year but occasionally we get lucky and find molt limits in the wing as below. The two secondary feathers are shorter and browner than the feathers on either side of them.

Flocks of starlings were visible flying over the fields and salt marsh on June 24th. I always cringe when they get close to a net and say a silent prayer that I won't find it full of starlings! We captured only 3 thank goodness, all HY birds. Young birds have grayish-brown plumage and we can sometimes sex them by the color of the eye; dark brownish gray for males and grayish with a yellow tinge for females, but I didn't feel comfortable assigning sex to this bird so I sexed it unknown. The eye color seemed to fall somewhere in between. 

This bird had a severe case of cloacal flukes, a parasitic flatworm that causes this appearance around the cloaca (or vent- the opening for reproductive and excretory systems of a bird), so I'm not sure this bird will survive.  

We captured a chickadee who still had the bright yellow gape of a very young bird. Babies have bright yellow mouths to make it easier for the parents to feed them.

Other first HY's for our summer season on the 24th were a very buffy looking Song Sparrow

and a House Finch of unknown sex. 

Most of our adult Yellow Warblers have finished breeding and are going through complete molts before heading off to their wintering grounds.

This SY femalewe captured on the 29th was molting her inner primary feathers, corresponding primary coverts, and secondary or greater coverts.

Also molting was this HY Hairy Woodpecker replacing only his primary feathers.

Young birds have grayish brown eyes and in males the red on the head extends in front of the eyes. 

For some reason we don't capture many White-breasted Nuthatches even though we hear them almost every day we are banding. We caught this male also on June 29th.

 Pyle states that males can develop partial brood patches which indeed was present on this bird.  

On July 7th we caught the female who had finished breeding and her belly feathers were growing back in. The head and nape feathers on females are a dull black or grayish color compared with the jet black on the male above.

Most of the young Yellow Warblers we capture at this time of year can't be sexed but occasionally we can assign sex to the bird if we see red streaks on the breast such as this young male.

Ovenbirds have begun their southerly migration already, we've had three so far this month.  

Our first HY Baltimore Orioles were captured on July 11th. We sexed her as a female due to her short wing.

On the 14th we captured a very young Common Yellowthroat  whom we aged as  L for local, meaning the bird is unable to sustain flight.

We also captured this young chickadee that had gone through some kind of nutritional difficulty as the feathers were just emerging. The bird has a striped appearance to the feathers 

 and if you notice the tips of the tail feathers also have uneven growth bars.

The Bird Banding Lab contacted me recently about three of our birds found by others. One was a Carolina Wren banded by Gretchen as a HY bird on 2 July 2010. The bird was found in a house on Smith Lane in Eastham, a town nearby, on April 6th.

On the 21st of June a Myrtle Warbler, similar to the bird pictured below, was found in Bridgewater, Nova Scotia.

Sadly, the bird was found dead but still it is exciting when we hear about our birds being found in different areas. The distance between the two sites is approximately 337 miles as the crow flies, or I should say as the warbler flies!!

Lastly , a Common Yellowthroat I banded on 13 August 2011 as a young bird was recaptured and released unharmed at Manomet's banding station this past May 24th.

Speaking of recaptures we had a couple of significant encounters of birds previously banded by us during this time frame- a 6 yr old American Goldfinch and a 9 year old Prairie Warbler. This picture of the Prairie was taken in 2010 during his yearly molt. We've captured him every year except 2005.

As always many thanks to those who put in many volunteer hours helping at the banding station including Ben Lagasse, Judith Bruce, Carolyn Kennedy, Gretchen Putonen, Jessica Rempel, and Judy Keller. The following is a list of birds seen, heard, or banded during this time period. 

Total birds: 298                             Total species: 53

Total banded species: 23                Birds/100 net-hours: 42

Great Blue Heron
Great Egret
Green Heron
Northern Harrier
Red-tailed Hawk
Semipalmated Plover
Laughing Gull
Ring-billed Gull
Herring Gull
Great Black-backed Gull
Common Tern
Mourning Dove
Ruby-throated Hummingbird- 1 new
Belted Kingfisher
Downy Woodpecker-  6 new
Hairy Woodpecker-  2 new
Yellow-shafted Flicker-1 unbanded
Eastern Phoebe
Great Crested Flycatcher
Tree Swallow
Barn Swallow
Blue Jay
American Crow
Fish Crow
Black-capped Chickadee-  42 new; 12 recaps; 1 unbanded
Tufted Titmouse- 1 new
White-breasted Nuthatch- 2 new
Carolina Wren-   9 new; 3 recaps
American Robin-  14 new; 5 recaps; 5 unbanded
Gray Catbird-   31 new; 23 recaps; 1 unbanded
Northern Mockingbird- 1 new
Cedar Waxwing
European Starling-  5 new, 1 unbanded
Yellow Warbler- 12 new; 2 recaps
Pine Warbler
Prairie Warbler- 2 new; 3 recap

Ovenbird- 3 new; 1 recap
Common Yellowthroat-  25 new; 29 recaps; 3 unbanded
Northern Cardinal-  7 new; 1 recap
Eastern Towhee-  1 new; 2 recaps
Saltmarsh Sparrow
Song Sparrow- 14 new; 12 recaps; 3 unbanded
Red-winged Blackbird-  1 new; 1 unbanded
Common Grackle
Brown-headed Cowbird
Baltimore Oriole-  5 new
House Finch-  4 new
American Goldfinch -  3 new; 1 recap
House Sparrow- 1 new

Orange and blue-black robin-like thrush

Varied Thrushes are rare in Michigan. According to the Birds of MichiganField Guide by Ted Black “Varied Thrushes are typically western birds, but a few invariably wander off course each fall and make their way into our region. There are one to three sightings reported in Michigan each year usually at backyard feeders with nearby dense coniferous trees that provide shelter for this wayward wanderer. Berries, fruits, seeds, nuts, acorns and suet are some of the offerings that might encourage a lengthy visit from a Varied Thrush.”

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