The Crimes and Violence of Birds

Reddish Egret, Egretta rufescens

It’s a fairy tale or fake news to believe all is sweet and peaceful in the world of birds. We are enchanted by their melodious tweets and beautiful plumage, and are often found among them in seemingly peaceful natural settings, but don’t be fooled. Their world is one without constables or arbiters of justice. There are no rules, other than “might makes right”, “survival of the fittest”, and “it’s okay if you can get away with it”.

Blue Jay, Cyanocitta cristata

Their crimes range from petty theft to rape and murder. We birders are onlookers into this world which is similar to our old Wild West, and are grateful for our, albeit fragile, institutions of justice. As we bird we are witnesses to many of these crimes and often wonder what it would be like living in their world. Occasionally I’m even tempted to intervene on behalf of a victimized bird, but usually hold back and let nature take its course and toll.

American Wigeon, Anas americana

Many of their crimes are mere misdemeanors. This would include the holes the Red-bellied Woodpecker is making in my sister-in-law’s cedar siding. The crows, jays, and gulls are perfecters of the art of petty theft. The former two are attracted to shiny objects, while the latter steals food, literally from the mouths of their careless victims. This usually results in a chase, sometimes resulting in a maimed fish dropped back into the ocean with no party getting any satisfaction.

Red-bellied Woodpecker, Melanerpes carolinus

A somewhat more onerous and significant crime is the practice of brood parasitism as I’ve discussed in prior posts. This disgusts our human sense of fairness and personal responsibility, but evolution has apparently blessed it as a successful tactic among many bird species. The initial crime is the stealthy planting of the itinerant egg in the nest of the unsuspecting parent-to-be, but the atrocity is magnified when the robust hatchling pushes the other weaker step-sibling out of the nest.

Brown-headed Cowbird, Molothrus ater

Many avian disputes are over territory and nesting rights, somewhat similar to those issues which crowd our human court dockets. The Red-winged Blackbird claims his territory with a beautiful song, but don’t let that fool you. He’ll attack any other bird, even a larger foe, that dares interlope into his nesting sphere of influence.

Bald Eagle, Haliaeetus leucocephalus

My friends Andy and Sam were accidental witnesses to a spectacular avian air battle between an adult Bald Eagle and Osprey. Andy was even dexterous enough to grab a camera and snap off a shot or two to document the event. Unfortunately, in cases such as that one shoots the pictures first, and checks camera settings later. It seemed like the smaller Osprey got the better of that fight. It was probably a territorial spat with the eagle getting too close to the Osprey’s nest. As you know, Bald Eagles are opportunistic scavengers, often feasting on the killings of others.

Red-shouldered Hawk, Buteo lineatus

Hawks and owls, on the other hand, are merciless killers, always on the prowl to feed themselves and their offspring. Often their victims are other birds, but small mammals are also unsafe around a hungry bird-of-prey. In my yard Accipiters have become good at patrolling the bird feeders, flying in fast and low to take an innocent, unsuspecting passerine. We can take some comfort in that such killings are a necessity of life for the raptor.

Tundra Swan, Cygnus columbianus

In my last post I reported the rape of a Muscovy Duck. I will hazard a completely uninformed guess and venture that most sex among birds is consensual. I may be completely wrong about this, but do point out that many birds do mate for life. That lasting bond would be hard to imagine if it began with a rape, but admittedly I’m anthropomorphizing. Those ducks, however, did seem to cross a line, with no avian justice in sight.

Reddish Egret, Egretta rufescens

I was recently chasing a rarity Iceland Gull on Fort Myers beach, unsuccessfully, when I snuck up on a Reddish Egret and was rewarded with my closest shots ever of the great bird. Suddenly a second egret swooped in and I witnessed a prolonged battle; or was it courtship and copulation? I find it hard to differentiate these with the birds.

So with all the violence, what is the mortality rate among birds? In this year of the pandemic our human death rates are plastered on the headlines daily. A few things are clear in the avian world. Larger birds live longer than smaller birds, but why is this so? Perhaps it’s because the larger birds are near the top of the food chain and less often preyed upon. Banding data has reported some longevity record life spans: Red-tailed Hawks and Brown Pelicans, 28 years; American Robin, 14 years; Eastern Bluebird, 10 years; and Ruby-throated Hummingbird, 9 years. Most birds, however have much shorter lives.

Ring-billed Gull, Larus delawarensis

It’s estimated that 80-90% of birds do not live to maturity. This is a striking number, but when one remembers the numerous eggs laid and multiple broods per year created by a mating pair, it makes perfect sense. If they all survived we would be inundated with birds, just like an Alfred Hitchcock film. It’s also said that the mortality rate of birds is six times higher during spring and fall migrations. Travel is risky, as we all know.

Anna’s Hummingbird, Calypte anna

It’s difficult to determine how many birds die at the hands or feet of other birds, or from avian diseases. Data regarding bird deaths caused by us humans is more readily available. Collisions with buildings and glass claim an astounding 600 million birds a year; collisions with vehicles, 200 million, and electric wires, 25 million. Six million birds succumb to electrocution each year and one such case was chronicled in my post of 17 November 2019. Our pesticides claim another 72 million per year, and who knows how many die from their loss of habitat. But all these numbers pale next to the 2.4 billion birds killed yearly by domestic and feral cats. That shocking number is hard to believe.

Great Blue Heron, Ardea herodias

How can I conclude such a morbid post of avian crime and death? Perhaps by showing you two Great Blue Herons in love, or by simply stating that these are observations of life on our planet as it is, and not as we wish it to be. It’s merely a description of both the beautiful and fair, right along with the ugly and unjust.

Who Saw That Bird First?

Cinnamon Teal, Anas cyanoptera

If a birding year has a theme, this one has been chasing rarities in Florida. On the surface it sounds like adventure birding, combing through alligator-infested swamps and among trees dripping with Spanish moss, all to make a discovery for “science”. Not really. With but one notable exception, these are rare birds which have been discovered here, outside their normal ranges, by others; meticulous birders tuned to the minutiae of this pursuit much more than I will ever be.

Palm Warbler, Dendroica palmarum

Just this week eBird reported a Cinnamon Teal just east of Fort Myers. I had previously ticked this bird in southern Arizona in its expected range, but Andy had never laid eyes on it. After getting temporarily lost in the rural steppe of Old Florida, we came upon the reported site, easily identified by two other cars on the shoulder and birders sporting the telltale scopes aiming at a roadside pond. We were kept at bay by a wire fence and several large cows. The shallow pond or watering hole was 75 yards away and a dozen dozing ducks were backlit and poorly seen. If it wasn’t for the kind birder who invited us to peer through his scope we would have never seen the teal.

American Coot, Fulica americana

This begs the question, who saw that bird first, anyhow? Someone must have pulled over along the remote road, and carefully studied the plumage of all those distant ducks. Despite the poor viewing conditions, they recognized the plumage of the vagrant bird, and properly called it a Cinnamon Teal. Now that’s a real birder. The rest of us who flock to the site of his or her discovery are just interlopers. That first intrepid birder also had to convince the skeptics at eBird of the sighting, whereas all the rest of us had to do was report a “continuing bird”.

Mangrove Cuckoo, Coccyzus minor

There are many examples of my interloping tendencies. Take that recent Mangrove Cuckoo at Ding Darling, the Groove-billed Ani and Ash-throated Flycatcher at Festival Park, and the Hammond’s Flycatcher at Corkscrew and the Vermilion Flycatcher last season in the Great Cypress Swamp. Some careful birder had the thrill of the initial discovery and was willing to pass it along to the rest of us via eBird.

Sandhill Crane, Grus canadensis

Back up north, a few years ago, I chased a Glaucous Gull reported way down in southern Dorchester County on the Eastern Shore of Maryland; talk about rural and off the beaten track. I amazed myself by finally seeing this white gull among many others, just as I was preparing to pack up and head home, disappointed. There it was, flying in like an apparition, allowing the perfect shot. Who saw it first among the teeming flock of similar gulls swarming around the waterman, fighting for his discarded bait?

Glaucous Gull, Larus hyperboreus

I crossed over into Delaware and to the shore of its large bay chasing a reported Sabine’s Gull. It also seemed like a hopeless task, scoping all the birds from the deck of the Dupont Nature Center. There were thousands of shorebirds, gulls, and terns on the breakwater and opposite shore of the inlet over a hundred yards away. They periodically rose and landed in a confusing and frenzied flock. Who saw that slightly different bird with a black hood and yellow-tipped bill among the many commoners? Fortunately another birder pointed the rarity out to me and I gratefully added another tick to my life list. Just a guiltless interloper.

Lesser Scaup, Aythya affinis

Andy and I did make one initial sighting of a rarity ourselves; or perhaps a semi-rarity. We were at Eagle Lake, near Naples, toward the end of our birding trek and talking more about politics than birds, when I noticed a perching black bird right off the trail. It was too large for a grackle and too small for a crow, and had a bulky bill. About the same time we both blurted out, “Ani”. We knew the bird from a prior trip to Panama, but had never seen it in Florida. It was a Smooth-billed Ani.

Common Gallinule, Gallinula chloropus

We posted our observation on eBird and had our fifteen minutes of fame in the birder’s world, as the initial discoverers. But our notoriety was short-lived. Another birder, posted the same bird a few days later and reported the Ani as “the continuing bird, first seen by…” He gave credit to someone else; we were robbed; our sighting was thereafter assigned to another! C’est la vie. We know who was really first, just that one time.

Smooth-billed Ani, Crotophagi ani

Don’t think for a moment that our chasing of rarities down here is universally successful. Careful observers have been reporting a small flock of Redheads, the duck I mean, down in Sugden Park, near Naples. I’ve seen the bird in Maryland, but never down here in the heat of South Florida, and Andy had never seen it anywhere. We got excited when we saw a single duck with a light back and dark head swimming off shore, but closer observation revealed a Lesser Scaup. Andy tried to convince me that the head had a reddish tinge, but that was just the wishful thinking of a frustrated birder.

Pied-billed Grebe, Podilymbus podiceps

I’ve made two more “empty” trips to the park to see this duck and Andy is now up to six excursions, still with no luck, even on a day when other birders had reported the target Redhead. His greater efforts reflect that urge to add a life bird, something that all birders will understand.

Limpkin, Aramus guarauna

Those trips are really not “empty”. Birders also know that there is never a bad birding day, but rather a chance to see some antics of common birds, try a new photographic technique, or catch a bird in an unlikely pose. Those coot and gallinule shots are from the Sugden trip. The Limpkin seemed like an uncommon bird here just a few years ago, but not now. In fact one keeps us awake nightly with its ghastly call, right outside our condo window.

Muscovy Ducks, Cairina moschata

I ended the Sugden Pond trip witnessing the almost brutal copulation of two Muscovy Ducks. Ducks are known for their aggressive breeding habits, and now I can attest to that. The larger male chased and finally caught the female and almost drowned her in the long process. She finally did escape and survive, but barely. It was all just another sighting on an “empty” trip chasing rarities in south Florida.

The Fledging of the Brown-headed Nuthatches

Sitta pusilla


I was six years old and still a dog paddler.  As I stood on the diving tower my knees shook and the water, six feet below, seemed forbidding.  My older brother and sisters begged me to jump but I couldn’t take the plunge.  My father, apparently losing patience, gave me a firm nudge and I fell.  Reaching out for the tower I was able to grab a support and clung there for a few more seconds before falling the remaining three feet into the lake.  I lived.

Parent with brown head, juvenile with grayer head

My son was also six when I ran down the road behind him, holding the seat of his new 20-inch two wheeler.  He was game but his balance was precarious and I was reluctant to let go.  But our rural road was straight and the only potential obstacle was our neighbor’s mailbox 100 feet ahead.  I let go and he was on his own and doing fine.  But that darn mailbox loomed large and Murphy’s Law was upheld again.  It was a direct hit.  He also lived.

These were my thoughts as Suzanne and I sat with Mary and Gene on their porch, sipped wine, and watched the Brown-headed Nuthatches (BHNH) fledge from their Bluebird house.  Mary had called us, all excited, as she sensed that the big moment had arrived.  I was immersed in household projects and reluctant to drop them, but my wife “egged me on”.  I grabbed the camera and we arrived just in the nick of time.


The first fledgling was purposeful and bold; stuck his head out the hole, surveyed the landscape, and quickly launched himself into the new world.  I can just picture him (or her) as the dominant chick of the clutch, perhaps standing on the backs and heads of the others in the crowded box to get more than his fair share of the food.  His siblings were likely relieved to see him go.

#2 clinging for dear life as parent and #3 look on

Number two was a completely different story, poking his head out and withdrawing it several times.  When he finally left the hole he clung to the side of the house before scampering back inside, just to start the process all over again.  One time he lost his grip and fell down to the metal snake guard below the house.  A parent, reminiscent of my father and the diving tower incident, finally had enough of this and pushed the timid chick into the wild.  Each fledgling’s initial short flight was to the nearby loblollies, apparently a favorite tree for the species.

Pygmy nuthatch, Sitta pygmaea

This nuthatch, along with the similar west coast Pygmy nuthatch are smaller than the related White-breasted and Red-breasted birds of the same genus.  The brown head is distinctive and its call is comical.  If you hear a Rubber Ducky in your pine tree you’ll know you’ve found a BHNH.  We Delmarva birders are lucky to be just within the range of this bird, which extends south to northern Florida and west as far as Texas.

Red-breasted nuthatch, Sitta canadensis

The social BHNHs are often found in small groups, often with young males assisting with the feeding chores.  The breeding pair are monogamous, at least for the breeding season, and bring just one brood into the world each year.  This clever bird is one of the few avian tool-users, known to use a small piece of bark to dislodge insects from the tree.  The non-migratory BHNH will also visit a feeder for sunflower seeds, especially in the cooler months.

White-breasted nuthatch, Sitta carolinensis

Gene and Mary have created a wonderful avian habitat on their narrow tidal creek of the Chesapeake Bay.  We first met this erstwhile urban couple years ago when they had just recently left the city and moved to our rural Eastern Shore.  They quickly learned the local flora and fauna and have become astute observers and conservers of the land.  Their beautiful yard is bordered by stands of pines and hollies with sizable areas of wildflowers and gardens extending down to the tidal grasses at the shoreline.  Scattered birdhouses and feeders are carefully maintained and Mary keeps a log of the comings and goings of the wildlife.  This spring the nuthatches were the primo attraction.

Juvenile and parent BHNH

She first noticed the seven eggs in the Bluebird house on April 6, thinking they were likely the work of Carolina chickadees.  But by  4/13 she noticed the busy BHNH parents at the site and the hen incubating the eggs.  They hatched on 4/21 and fledged right on schedule 18 days later.  These birds are cavity nesters, usually in old woodpecker holes, but are also known to inhabit birdhouses on occasion.

#3 & #4

Numbers 3 and 4 seemed to take a team approach to fledging.  Both heads and bodies squeezed together into the birdhouse exit, seemingly encouraging each other to attempt the flight to the nearby loblolly.  We did not observe the other three fledglings but Mary reported that the box was empty and quiet the next morning.  I suspect for a few short days the parents will assist the fledglings with feeding but soon they will be on their own; sink or swim.  If lucky they may achieve a life span approaching eight years.

Parent, showing how it’s done

What must it be like for the new nuthatches?  Leaving the warm, safe confines of the 6X6X15 inch box and launching themselves into a vast universe of entirely new sights, sounds and dangers.  Think of your first day of school, or perhaps your first date or kiss. What about that first piano recital or being left alone for the first time at summer camp.  Even these can hardly compare to nuthatches’ first flights at only 18 days of age.  And we certainly did not have a crowd of curious spectators aiming those binoculars and that long telephoto lens at us during our debut.  The fledglings were truly a sight to behold and so far, they too have lived.

Night Herons

Yellow-crowned Night Heron, Nyctanassa violacea


If you’re looking today for action photos of birds or acrobatic flight shots, you’ve come to the wrong place.  The hunch-backed, thick-necked, short-legged Night Herons will not tear up the dance floor, but on further review they do have some interesting characteristics.  The Bird-naming Gods nailed it with the “Night” part, but not so much with “Heron”.  These birds are clearly nocturnal; I’ve only infrequently seen them foraging or flying in daylight.  But their body type is not typical of the long-legged and graceful posture of most other herons and egrets.

Black-crowned Night Heron, Nycticorax nycticorax

The world’s Night Herons are divided among three genera with the most cosmopolitan bird, the Black-crowned Night Heron (BCNH), found on all continents except Antartica and Australia.  It belongs to the genus Nycticorax which has a Greek origin meaning “night raven”.  This refers to its croaking wock wock Raven-like call.  The BCNH is also our most common and widespread Night Heron in the New World, found from Canada to Patagonia.

BCNH                                                  click on any photo to zoom

The genus Nycticorax also includes the extant Rufous or Nankeen Night Heron (N. caleconicus) found in SE Asia, Australia, and New Zealand, and at least five extinct endemics that didn’t survive on Bermuda and the Ascension and Mascarene Islands.


The Yellow-crowned Night Heron (YCNH) belongs to the genus Nyctanassa and is found exclusively in the New World and primarily in the SE United States, Mexico, and Central and northern South America.  For completeness I mention the the third and last genus of Night Herons, Gorsachius.  It contains four species only found in the Old World, three in Asia and one in Africa.

YCNH, juvenile with black bill

So what’s so special about these herons, other than their nocturnal hunts?  You will on occasion catch them foraging in shallow wetlands in daylight, especially during nesting season when they are struggling to satisfy their famished young heronettes.  Night Herons are one of the few bird groups to employ “baiting” techniques to attract small fish.  They spread small twigs and food on the water’s surface to lure the unsuspecting.  If that doesn’t work they also vibrate their bill in the water to attract the curious but less intelligent Pisces.

BCNH, juvenile with yellow in bill

There’s no problem IDing the adult birds.  You’ll usually find them snoozing in shrubs along the water’s edge at about 3 to 15 feet elevation.  The juveniles are not so colorful and quite similar to each other, but if you pay attention to their bills the ID becomes easy.  If there’s yellow in the bill you have a BCNH and if its entirely black, the bird is a juvenile YCNH.  Guide books also mention the different patterns of white spots on the brown plumage, but those field marks have not been as obvious or useful for me.  The juveniles will obtain the adult plumage in their third year.

YCNH, juvenile

BCNH tend to nest in large rookeries, often with diverse species, while the YCNH tends to nest alone or in small groups.  It’s the courtship displays of the BCNH that are most interesting.  Apparently due to hormonal fluctuations the male becomes aggressive and begins a “Snap Display”, clicking his bill while crouching and pacing in his staked out territory.  This is followed by the “Stretch Display” as he extends his neck fully, bobs his head, and begins hissing.  For some reason all this commotion attracts curious females and spurs on nearby males to start their own competing displays.  But wait, it’s not over yet.

BCNH, my only flight shot of these birds so far.

The male initially rejects the females, taking his sweet time to pick the perfect mate.  Monogamous pair formation occurs when one lucky female is finally allowed to enter his territory and rewarded with mutual preening and billing.  Finally, at or near the time of copulation, the legs and feet of both partners turn pink.

BCNH, Hmm…aren’t those legs and feet a little pink?

I’m fortunate to see the two species of Western Hemisphere Night Herons all year long in my patch in SW Florida, and was also surprised to recently see the BCNH at dusk on the Ganges River.  We had a nesting pair of YCNH’s on the edge of the mangroves of Clam Pass in Florida for the last two seasons, but unfortunately their favorite tree did not survive the recent hurricane and I have not seen them this year.  But from now on, whenever I do see a Night Heron, I’m going to pay more attention to leg and foot color.  That observation offers just another glimpse into the private lives of these interesting birds.