Episode 381: Out of Place Birds

Thanks to Richard from NC, Pranav, and Alexandra for their suggestions this week!

Further reading:

ABA Rare Bird Alert

One Reason Migrating Birds Get Lost Is Out of This World

Inside the Amazing Cross-Continent Saga of the Steller’s Sea-Eagle

A Vagrant European Robin Is Drawing Huge Crowds in China

Bird migration: When vagrants become pioneers

A red-cockaded woodpecker:

Steller’s Sea Eagle making a couple of bald eagles look small:

Steller’s sea eagle:

A whole lot of birders showed up to see a European robin that showed up in the Beijing Zoo [photo from the fourth article linked above]:

A robin:

Mandarin ducks:

Richard’s pipit [photo by JJ Harrison (https://www.jjharrison.com.au/) – Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=23214345]:

Show transcript:

Welcome to Strange Animals Podcast. I’m your host, Kate Shaw.

We’re talking about some birds again this week, with a slightly mysterious twist. These are birds that have shown up in places where they shouldn’t be, sometimes way way far from home! Thanks to Richard from NC for inspiring this episode and suggesting one of the birds we’re going to talk about, and thanks to Pranav for suggesting we cover more out of place animals.

Last week we talked about some woodpeckers, and I said I thought there was another listener who had suggested the topic. Well, that was Alexandra! Let’s start today’s episode talking about the red-cockaded woodpecker, another bird Alexandra suggested.

The red-cockaded woodpecker is native to the coastal southeastern United States, where it lives in pine forests. It’s increasingly threatened by habitat loss since the pine forests get smaller every year, and not only does it need old-growth pine forests to survive, it also needs some of the trees to be affected by red heart fungus. The fungus softens the interior wood, which is otherwise very hard, and allows a woodpecker to excavate nesting holes in various trees that can be quite large. The female lays her eggs in the best nesting hole and she and her mate raise the babies together, helped by any of their children from previous nests who don’t have a mate of their own yet. When they don’t have babies, during the day the birds forage together, but at night they each hide in their own little nesting hole to sleep.

It’s a small bird that doesn’t migrate, which is why Beth Miller, a birder in Muskegon, Michigan, couldn’t identify it when she spotted it on July 1, 2022 in some pine trees near a golf course. She took lots of photos and a recording of its calls, which she posted in a birding group to ask for help. She knew the bird had to be a rare visitor of some kind, but when it was identified as a red-cockaded woodpecker, she and nine birder friends went back to the golf course to look for it. Unfortunately, they couldn’t find the bird again. It was the first time a red-cockaded woodpecker had ever been identified in Michigan, although individual birds do sometimes wander widely.

While bird migration isn’t fully understood, many birds use the earth’s magnetic field to find their way to new territories and back again later in the year. Humans can’t sense magnetic fields but birds can, and being able to sense Earth’s magnetic field helps birds navigate even at night or during weather that keeps them from being able to see landmarks.

But sometimes birds get lost, especially young birds who have never migrated before or a bird that gets caught in storm winds that blow it far off course. If a bird shows up somewhere far outside of its normal range, birdwatchers refer to it as a vagrant, and some birders will travel great distances to see vagrant birds.

One interesting note is that birds navigating by the earth’s magnetic field can get confused if the magnetic field is disrupted by geomagnetic storms, including solar flares, sunspots, and coronal mass ejections. Very recently as this episode goes live, the aurora has been occasionally visible across much of the world. The aurora is caused by charged particles from the sun reaching Earth’s atmosphere, causing a colorful glow or shimmer in the night sky, and it’s usually only visible at or near the poles. This month it was visible in places far away from the poles. Fortunately, a really strong geomagnetic storm like the ones this month can actually make it easier for birds to migrate. Instead of getting a scrambled sense of the earth’s magnetic field, a strong geomagnetic storm can temporarily knock out a bird’s ability to sense the magnetic field at all, and that means it uses landmarks, the position of the stars and sun, and other methods to find its way.

Sometimes a bird just flies the wrong way, like the Steller’s sea eagle that showed up in Alaska at the end of August 2020. Steller’s sea eagle is native to the coast of northeastern Asia and is increasingly threatened due to habitat loss, pollution, climate change, poaching, and overfishing, a real problem if you’re an eagle that eats a whole lot of fish. Only about 4,000 of the birds remain in the wild. It’s a huge eagle, one of the biggest in the world, with a big female having a wingspan over 8 feet across, or almost 2.5 meters. Some unverified reports indicate birds with a wingspan over 9 feet across, or 2.8 meters. It has a huge yellow bill and feet, and is black and white in color. It’s related to the bald eagle but is larger and heavier, and its head is black instead of white.

To an eagle as big as Steller’s sea eagle, the distance between the eastern coast of Russia and the western coast of Alaska is very small, so it’s not all that unusual for birders to see one in Alaska. The difference in 2020 is that the bird was far inland, not on the coast. Then, several months later, a Steller’s sea eagle was reported in Texas. Texas! Very far away from Alaska and the northeastern Asian coast.

No one could definitively say if the Texas bird was the same one seen in Alaska, but a few weeks before there had been a massive storm that could have blown the eagle to San Antonio. It was the first time a wild Steller’s sea eagle had been spotted in Texas.

But the bird wasn’t done traveling. In late June 2021, a ranger in eastern Canada spotted the sea eagle. It was seen by multiple birders and photographers, some of whom got pictures good enough to compare to the Alaska photos from the year before, and it was the same bird! A few months later it was spotted in Nova Scotia, Canada, and in mid-December 2021 it arrived in southern Massachusetts in the United States for a few days. By the end of 2021 it was in Maine.

Since then the eagle appears to divide its time between Maine in the northeastern United States and Newfoundland, Canada, not too far away.

Richard from NC suggested that sightings of Steller’s sea eagle might explain the mystery of Washington’s eagle. I go into detail about Washington’s eagle in the Beyond Bigfoot & Nessie book. There is a rare color morph of Steller’s sea eagle that is almost all black, which matches Audubon’s painting of Washington’s eagle, but Steller’s sea eagle always has a yellow bill, not a dark one as Audubon painted. Still, it’s a very interesting theory that matches a lot better than the theory that Washington’s eagle is just a big juvenile bald eagle.

Eagles are spectacular birds, but even an ordinary bird turns into a celebrity when it shows up somewhere far outside of its normal range. That’s what happened to a European robin at the beginning of 2019. We talked about the European robin back in episode 333. It’s a common bird throughout much of Europe and parts of Asia, but it’s only been documented in Beijing, China three times. The third time was when one showed up in the Beijing Zoo in 2019, at least 1,500 miles, or 2,400 km, away from its usual range. Birdwatching is an increasingly popular hobby in China, and hundreds of birders showed up at the zoo not to see the animals it has on display but to see a little robin that someone in England would barely glance at.

A few months before that, on the other side of the planet, a Mandarin duck showed up in Central Park in New York City. Birders showed up soon after to look at it. The Mandarin duck is a beautiful bird related to the wood duck native to North America, but it’s native to China and other parts of east Asia. The male has a red bill, rusty red face with white markings, and purplish feathers on his sides, while the female is softer and more muted in color. Both males and females have a purplish crest and the male also has a reddish crest on both of his wings that sticks up like a sail when his wings are folded.

In other words, the male in particular is a spectacular duck, and the duck that showed up at Central Park was a male in full breeding plumage, looking his best. Since Mandarin ducks are so attractive and increasingly threatened in the wild, many zoos and private owners keep them, and the Central Park duck did have a band on his leg that indicates he might have been an escaped bird. But no one ever claimed him and in March of 2019 he flew off for good.

Vagrant birds show up in weird places all the time, especially in spring and fall when most migratory birds are on the move. Sometimes a vagrant bird returns to the mistaken area in following years, brings its mate and offspring, and essentially founds a new migratory route. This is what scientists think has happened with several species of songbird that breed in Siberia and migrate to southeast Asia for the winter.

Richard’s pipit is a medium-sized songbird with long legs, a long tail, and a relatively long bill. It’s mainly brown and black, with lighter underparts. It looks like a stretched-out sparrow. It migrates to southern Siberia, Mongolia, and a few other parts of central Asia to nest during the summer, and flies back to India and other parts of southeast Asia to spend the winter. But a small population flies west instead of south and spends the winter in Spain, Italy, and surrounding areas instead of in India.

For a long time scientists thought the birds seen in Europe were just lost. They’re still quite rare in Europe compared to their high population in Asia. Then a team of scientists caught 81 of the birds, installed leg-bands on all of them and GPS loggers on seven of them, and released them again. The birds migrated north to breed, then returned to Europe instead of Asia to spend the winter, where some were caught again and their leg-bands recorded. So just remember that when a bird shows up where it’s not expected, it might not be as lost as people think.

You can find Strange Animals Podcast at strangeanimalspodcast.blubrry.net. That’s blueberry without any E’s. If you have questions, comments, or suggestions for future episodes, email us at strangeanimalspodcast@gmail.com. We also have a Patreon at patreon.com/strangeanimalspodcast if you’d like to support us for as little as one dollar a month and get monthly bonus episodes.

Thanks for listening!

Episode 333: Robins and Ravens

Thanks to Liesbet, Simon, and Thea for their suggestions this week! Let’s learn about some birds!

Further reading:

Blue Tits and Milk Bottle Tops

Ravens parallel great apes in flexible planning for tool-use and bartering

Further watching:

A Raven Calling [this is a great video of a raven making all sorts of interesting sounds–I only used a tiny clip of it in the episode but it’s worth watching the whole thing]

The European robin:

The American robin and a worm that is having a very bad day:

A blue tit [photo By © Francis C. Franklin / CC-BY-SA-3.0, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=37675470]:

A blue tit about to get the cap off that milk bottle [photo from link above]:

The Eastern bluebird:

A raven:

An American crow:

Show transcript:

Welcome to Strange Animals Podcast. I’m your host, Kate Shaw.

This week we have suggestions from Liesbet, Simon, and Thea, who suggested some relatively common birds that you may already think you know all about, but there’s lots to learn about them!

We’ll start with Liesbet’s suggestion, about the European robin and bluebird, and while we’re at it we’ll learn about the American robin and bluebird. The European and American birds are completely different species. The reason they have the same names is because when Europeans first started paying attention to the birds of North America, they needed names for the birds. The native peoples had names for them, of course, but the Europeans wanted names in a language they understood, so in a lot of cases they just borrowed names already in use at home.

Let’s start with the robin, which we also talked about way back in episode 81.

The European robin is a little bitty bird, only around 5 inches long, or 13 cm, with a brown back, streaked gray or buff belly, and orange face and breast. It has a short black bill and round black eyes. It eats insects, worms, berries, and seeds. The eggs are pale brown with reddish speckles.

It lives throughout much of Eurasia, but robins in Britain tend to be fairly tame, probably because they were traditionally considered beneficial in Britain and Ireland, so farmers and gardeners wouldn’t hurt them. In other parts of Europe they were hunted and are much more shy. European robins are also common on Christmas cards in Britain and Ireland, possibly because in the olden days, postmen used to wear red jackets. The postmen started to be called robins as a result, and since postmen bring Christmas cards, the bird robin became linked with card delivery and finally just ended up on the Christmas cards. Plus, their orange markings are cheerful in winter.

This is what the European robin sounds like:

[robin song]

The American robin is a type of thrush. It lives year-round in most of the United States and parts of Mexico, spends summers in much of Canada, and winters in parts of Mexico. It’s very different from the European robin. The European robin is tiny and round and adorable, while the American robin is big and always looks kind of angry. It grows around 10 inches long, or 25 cm. It’s dark gray on its back, with a rusty red breast, white undertail coverts, and a long yellow bill. It also has white markings around its eyes. Young birds are speckled. It mostly eats insects, worms, and berries.

If you see a bird on the ground, running quickly and then stopping, it’s probably a robin. Mostly the robin hunts bugs by sight, but it has good hearing and can actually hear worms moving around underground. You can sometimes see a robin with its head cocked, listening for a worm, before pouncing and pulling it out of the ground, just like in a cartoon.

American robin eggs are a light teal blue, so common and well-known that robin’s-egg-blue is a typical description of that particular color. In the spring after eggs hatch, the mother robin will carry the eggshells away from the nest to drop them, so predators won’t see the shells and know there’s a nest nearby. That’s why you’ll sometimes see half a robin eggshell on the sidewalk. It doesn’t mean something bad happened to the baby, just that the mother bird is doing her job. Both parents feed the chicks, and the parents also carry off the babies’ droppings to scatter them away from the nest.

This is what an American robin’s song sounds like.

[robin song]

Liesbet also wanted to learn about the European bluebird, more commonly called the Eurasian blue tit. We haven’t talked about it or the American bluebird before, even though they’re both beautiful birds.

The blue tit lives throughout Europe and parts of western Asia. It grows around 4 and a half inches long, or 12 cm, and has a bright blue crown on its head with blue on its wings, tail, and back. Its face is mostly white but it has a black streak that crosses its eye and a black ring around its neck. In fact, if you’re familiar with the blue jay of North America, the blue tit looks a lot like a miniature blue jay. It even has a little bit of a crest that it can raise and lower.

Because it eats a lot of insects and other small invertebrates, along with some seeds, the blue tit is an acrobatic bird. It will hang upside down from a twig to reach a caterpillar on the underside of a leaf, that sort of thing. It will also peel bits of bark away from a tree trunk to find tiny insects and spiders hiding underneath it. This habit leads it to sometimes peel bits off of people’s houses, like the putty that holds windowpanes in place. It also once led to the blue tit learning a surprising way to find food, and to learn about that, we have to learn a little bit about how people in the olden days got their milk if they didn’t own cows.

Back in the early 20th century, people used to get milk delivered every morning by a milkman. Refrigerators and ice boxes weren’t common like they are today, and most people didn’t have a way to keep milk cold. That meant it would go bad very quickly, so people would just order how much milk they needed in one day and when they got up in the morning, the milkman would have left the milk and other dairy products on the doorstep for the family.

The milk was always whole milk, also called full-fat, and as it sat in its bottles on the doorstep waiting for the family to wake up and bring the milk in, the cream would separate and rise to the top of the milk. Cream is just the fattiest, richest part of the milk. These days milk is processed differently so even if you buy whole milk, the cream won’t separate from it, and most milk sold today has already had most of the cream separated out. That’s why skim milk is called that, because the cream has been skimmed off the top. It’s sold separately as heavy whipping cream or mixed with milk as half-and-half. But back in the olden days, if you wanted to make whipped cream or clotted cream or some other recipe that calls for cream, you’d just skim the cream off yourself to use it.

The problem is, cream is so rich and full of protein that other animals learned to rob milk bottles, especially the blue tit. Birds can’t digest milk, naturally, since only mammals produce milk and are adapted to digest it, and even most adult mammals have trouble digesting milk. But cream contains a lot less lactose than the milk itself, and lactose is the type of sugar in milk that can cause stomach upset in adults. Blue tits learned that if they peeled the little foil cap off a milk bottle, they could get at the cream, and it became such a widespread behavior that each generation of blue tits became more adapted to digest cream.

These days, of course, most people buy their milk at the grocery store. The blue tits have had to go back to eating bugs and seeds.

This is what a blue tit sounds like:

[blue tit song]

The bluebird is a North American bird that also eats insects and other small invertebrates, along with berries and seeds. It grows around 7 inches long, or 18 cm. There are three species, the eastern bluebird and western bluebird, which look similar with bright blue above and white underneath with rusty red breast, and the mountain bluebird, which is blue almost all over and lives in mountainous areas of western North America. The bluebird is a type of thrush, meaning that it’s actually related to the American robin and used to be called the blue robin.

The bluebird spends a lot of its time sitting on a branch and watching for insects in the grass below. When it spots a grasshopper or beetle or spider or even a snail, it will drop down from its branch to grab it. It prefers open grasslands with trees or brush it can perch in, so it’s common around farmland. The mountain bluebird hunts like this too, but it doesn’t always bother to perch and will just hover above the ground until it spots a bug.

This is what an eastern bluebird sounds like:

[bluebird song]

Next, Simon and Thea wanted to learn about crows and ravens. The raven is another bird we covered a long time ago, in episode 112. I had a really bad cold the week of that episode and not only did I sound awful, I didn’t do a very good job with my research. I’m glad to revisit the topic and correct a few mistakes.

Crows and ravens look similar and are closely related, with both belonging to the genus Corvus. There are lots of species and subspecies of both, but let’s talk specifically about the American crow since it’s closely related to the hooded crow and the carrion crow found throughout Europe and Asia. Likewise, we’ll talk about the common raven since it’s found throughout much of the northern hemisphere.

The American crow can grow up to about 20 inches long, or 50 cm, with a wingspan over 3 feet across, or about a meter. Meanwhile, the common raven has a wingspan of up to 5 feet across, or 1.5 meters, and can grow up to 26 inches long, or 67 cm. Both are glossy black all over with large, heavy bills and long legs.

Crows and ravens both mate for life. Crows in particular are devoted family birds, with the grown young of a pair often staying to help their parents raise the next nest.

Both crows and ravens are omnivores, which means they eat pretty much anything. They will eat roadkill and other carrion, fruit and grain, insects, small animals, other birds, and eggs. They’re also extremely smart, which means a crow or raven can figure out how to get into trash cans and other containers to find food that humans think is secure.

Both also sometimes make and use tools, especially sticks that they use to dig out insects in places where their beaks can’t reach. But ravens in particular show a lot of tool use. Ravens sometimes throw pinecones or rocks at people who approach too close to their nests, and will even use sticks to stab at attacking owls. A few ravens have been observed to hold big pieces of bark in their feet while flying in strong winds, and they use the bark as a sort of rudder to help them maneuver. Other cognitive studies of ravens show that they have sophisticated and flexible problem-solving abilities where they can plan at least one step ahead, similar to great apes. Other corvids show similar abilities.

The raven can imitate other animals and birds, even machinery, in addition to making all sorts of calls. It can even imitate human speech. If a raven finds a dead animal but isn’t strong enough to open the carcass to get at the meat, it may imitate a wolf or fox to attract the animal to the carcass. The wolf or fox will open the carcass, and even after it eats as much as it wants, there’s plenty left for the raven.

Ravens also communicate non-vocally with other ravens. A raven will use its beak to point with, the way humans will point with a finger. They’ll also hold something and wave it to get another raven’s attention, which hasn’t been observed in any other animal besides apes.

The raven is much larger and heavier than a crow, and you can also distinguish a crow from a raven by their calls. This is what an American crow sounds like:

[crow call]

And this is what a raven sounds like:

[raven call]

You can find Strange Animals Podcast at strangeanimalspodcast.blubrry.net. That’s blueberry without any E’s. If you have questions, comments, or suggestions for future episodes, email us at strangeanimalspodcast@gmail.com. If you like the podcast and want to help us out, leave us a rating and review on Apple Podcasts or Podchaser, or just tell a friend. We also have a Patreon at patreon.com/strangeanimalspodcast if you’d like to support us for as little as one dollar a month and get monthly bonus episodes.

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