An online resource based on the award-winning nature guide


Bird Nests: Look But Don’t Collect

11-23-15 mourning dove nest2  005It is prime time to look for bird nests now that leaves have fallen and heavy winter snow has not arrived. Nests such as this Mourning Dove nest are visible and still in fairly good condition. Much can be learned from examining the habitat, exact location, size, shape and construction material of these avian nurseries. But the nests must be left where they are, for possession of not only a bird, but of a bird nest, egg or feather of most migratory birds, even for scientific research or education, is illegal if you do not have a Federal Migratory Bird Scientific Collecting Permit.

Ninety-seven years ago the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA), one of our oldest wildlife protection laws, was created. Basically it is a law that protects birds from people. It was made in response to the extinction or near-extinction of a number of bird species that were hunted either for sport or for their feathers. According to the United States Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS), “The MBTA provides that it is unlawful to pursue, hunt, take, capture, kill, possess, sell, purchase, barter, import, export, or transport any migratory bird, or any part, nest, or egg or any such bird, unless authorized under a permit issued by the Secretary of the Interior.” A list of the species this law pertains to can be seen at

Not all North American bird species are protected under the MBTA. (Passenger Pigeons were not protected, and they no longer exist.) Birds that are considered non-native species such as the House Sparrow and the European Starling are not protected, and many hunted or game birds, including ducks, geese, doves, and many shorebirds are subject to limited protection and can be hunted in season.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is currently working on strengthening this bill to better protect birds from modern-day threats (windmills, cell phone towers, etc.). According to USFWS estimates, power lines kill up to 175 million birds a year. Communications towers account for up to 50 million kills, and uncovered oil waste pits account for up to another 500,000 to 1 million deaths. Data on wind turbines are harder to come by, but current estimates are around 300,000 bird fatalities a year. A number of companies in the oil and power-line sectors have already developed and implemented best practices to protect birds. Let us hope that this trend continues.

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Pileated Woodpecker Droppings

11-12-15 pileated droppings 015Pileated Woodpeckers usually defecate frequently during the day at their foraging sites. As they pry off long slivers of wood to expose carpenter ant galleries, the wood chips pile up on the ground. A substantial pile usually indicates that the woodpecker has been working long enough at this site for there to be some droppings in the pile.

Pileated Woodpeckers eat ants, primarily carpenter, and beetle larvae throughout the year. Fruit and nuts are eaten when available. The primary food shifts seasonally, with fruit mainly in the fall, carpenter ants in the winter, wood-boring beetle larvae in early spring, and a variety of insects in the summer.

Like humans, birds excrete metabolic waste products, mainly nitrogen, which remains after food is broken down. Humans excrete waste nitrogen as urea in urine, which is diluted with water. Birds, needing to be as light as possible for efficient flight, do not have heavy, water-filled bladders. They excrete nitrogen as a chemical called uric acid in a concentrated form with no dilution necessary. The white outer coating of bird droppings is uric acid. The insides of the droppings are the actual feces, or the indigestible parts of a bird’s diet. A Pileated Woodpecker’s droppings at this time of year consist of bits of carpenter ant exoskeletons and a surprisingly small amount of wood fiber (see insert). Birds simultaneously evacuate uric acid and feces from an opening just under the tail called the cloaca or vent.

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Canadian Conifer and Deciduous Tree Seed Crops Affect New England’s Winter Bird Population

11-10-15 pine siskin 185Every year Ron Pittaway publishes a forecast of the movements of winter finches in the upcoming winter ( Although his report focuses on Ontario, he includes the effect that the Canadian seed crops have on northern New England’s winter bird population. A poor crop of a given seed (spruce, birch, etc.) in Canada inevitably drives finches that feed on that seed to search for food elsewhere, often further south. For instance, because White Spruce crops are low in Ontario this year and high in northern New England, we may well see high numbers of Pine Siskins (see photo).

Pittaway predicts we may also see higher than usual Purple Finch numbers (poor cone and deciduous tree seed crops in Ontario), perhaps White-winged Crossbills (poor spruce cone crop in Ontario), and more Common Redpolls (poor birch seed crop in Ontario) this winter. Time to fill feeders, sit back and see how accurate his forecast actually is!

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Last of the Canada Warblers Heading South

9-23 Canada warbler IMG_7397The Canada Warbler (or “necklaced warbler” – the male’s “necklace” is very pronounced in spring plumage) is one of the last warblers to arrive on its breeding grounds in the spring, and one of the first to depart. The last of members of this species are now leaving the cool, moist forests of boreal Canada and the Northeast for northern South America – a particularly long migration for a New World, or wood-warbler. Canada Warblers pass through rapidly, over about a three-week period, which is soon coming to an end. During migration, these warblers are known to sing frequently, and often continue singing on their wintering grounds. Populations of Canada Warblers have declined steadily over the past 30 years, likely in response to forest succession and loss of forested wetlands on their breeding grounds. (photo: fall female or 1st year male Canada Warbler — plumage is indistinguishable. Thanks to George Clark for i.d. confirmation.)

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Ruby-throated Hummingbirds Migrating

9-7 female hummer IMG_1097Anyone with a hummingbird feeder knows that finally female and juvenile Ruby-throated Hummingbirds can feed without fear of being driven off by male hummingbirds, due to the fact that the males have, for the most part, headed for warmer climes. All summer the males do their very best to have sole occupancy of feeders. When the time for hummingbirds to migrate south arrives in the Northeast, males leave first, then females, and lastly, juveniles. The fall migration of hummingbirds occurs just at the time of peak of Spotted Jewelweed (Touch-Me-Not) flowering, suggesting this flower is an important nectar source during this time and may influence the timing of migration. Many of the hummingbirds visiting feeders now are migrants.

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Wild Turkeys Flying

wild turkey 186Wild Turkeys spend 99.9% of their time on the ground, and often it is assumed they cannot fly. While the Wild Turkey is one of the heaviest North American birds, second only to the Trumpeter Swan, it definitely is able to lift itself off the ground and take flight. In fact, a Wild Turkey is amazingly well adapted for explosive, short-distance flight, perfect for escaping predators.

When startled or threatened, a turkey squats slightly, takes a few steps and then explodes upward with help from its powerful legs. Turkey wings are highly cupped, which enables quick takeoff, and the breast muscles that power a turkey’s wings are built for rapid but brief exertions. After take-off, which can be at a steep or small angle, a turkey’s wings beat rapidly until the desired height is attained. The turkey usually then glides to a tree or the ground, where it lands.

Although the maximum distance turkeys can fly in a single flight is estimated to be approximately one mile, they rarely fly more than about 100 yards, which is usually enough to bring it to safety. The average speed a turkey obtains while flying any distance is anywhere between thirty and fifty-five miles per hour. Equally as (or more) impressive than its ability to fly is a turkey’s ability to swim. They have been observed tucking their wings in close, spreading their tail and kicking while in the water.

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Great Horned Owl Fledglings Still Being Fed By Parents

great horned owls-first year IMG_1616Great Horned Owls are one of the earliest nesting birds — you can find them on nests in January, February and March, even in northern New England. Eggs are incubated for about a month, typically in March or April with young usually hatching in May or June. The nestlings remain in the nest for six or seven weeks before fledging. Unable to fly until they are ten or twelve weeks old, the fledglings follow their parents around and continue to be fed and cared for by their parents until fall. In late summer, when they have fledged but are still begging their parents for food, you can hear their distinctive calls. To know what to listen for, go to (Sound recording © Lang Elliott – &

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