Monthly Archives: December 2014

The dove digests

mourning dove

Mourning dove in a tree at the edge of our yard.

Mourning doves eat almost exclusively seeds, which make up more than 99% of their diet. Rarely, they will eat snails or insects. Mourning doves generally eat enough to fill their crops and then fly away to digest while resting. They often swallow grit such as fine gravel or sand to assist with digestion. The species usually forages on the ground, walking but not hopping. At bird feeders, mourning doves are attracted to one of the largest ranges of seed types of any North American bird, with a preference for canola, corn, millet, safflower, and sunflower seeds. Mourning doves do not dig or scratch for seeds, instead eating what is readily visible.

mourning dove

The mourning dove (Zenaida macroura) is a member of the dove family (Columbidae). The bird is also called the turtle dove or the American mourning dove or rain dove, and formerly was known as the Carolina pigeon or Carolina turtledove. It is one of the most abundant and widespread of all North American birds. It is also the leading gamebird, with more than 20 million birds (up to 70 million in some years) shot annually in the U.S., both for sport and for meat. Its ability to sustain its population under such pressure stems from its prolific breeding: in warm areas, one pair may raise up to six broods a year. The wings can make an unusual whistling sound upon take-off and landing. The bird is a strong flier, capable of speeds up to 88 km/h (55 mph).

mourning dove

The mourning dove is a related species to the passenger pigeon (Ectopistes migratorius), which was hunted to extinction in the early 1900s. For this reason, the possibility of using mourning doves for cloning the passenger pigeon has been discussed.

Millais Return of the Dove to the Ark

The Return of the Dove to the Ark, 1851, John Everett Millais

Homemade peanut butter suet dough for (blue)birds

bluebird and suet dough

Eastern Bluebird arrives at the suet dough banquet table (aka porch railing). I also serve it in the dome feeder and on the platform feeder if it’s not raining.

Bird Watchers Digest: Top Ten Reasons to Love Suet Dough

10. It’s always fresh and homemade. Commercial suet blocks can be too hard for insect-eating birds like bluebirds and creepers to handle. Some have inclusions, like cracked corn, mixed seed, or whole sunflower seeds, that aren’t useful to birds. Homemade suet dough is soft, crumbly, even in texture, and just right for hungry birds to wolf down.

Here is the recipe: Help birds endure the harsh winter weather with a special treat!

Eastern Bluebird male

Birds I have watched eat the dough: bluebirds, tufted titmice, chickadees, white- and red-breasted nuthatches, downy and hairy woodpeckers, tree sparrows and juncos.

The recipe…

suet dough

Use unsalted, natural peanut butter. You can add chopped raisins or other dried fruit – but soak them in water first.

Chick starter in a 7 lb bag is $12.95 at Amazon: Manna Pro Chick Starter Non Medicated

Why include Chick Starter, the only ingredient not available at the grocery store? To add calcium and protein and avoid diseases that can occur from devouring too much bird dough without the added nutrition. Read more… Julie Zickefoose’s blog post: Zick Dough, Improved.

Cheer, cheer


Northern Cardinal, male.

Did you know?…

It was once prized as a pet due to its bright color and distinctive song. In the United States, this species receives special legal protection under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, which also banned their sale as cage birds.


A stout and glossy fellow. Probably as well fed as a pet, but free.

A robin redbreast in a cage
Puts all heaven in a rage.
William Blake, Auguries of Innocence

Stay wild, little friend.

Red-breasted Nuthatch!

Red-breasted Nuthatch

“Red-breasted Nuthatch!”


“Look! Look! Right there! Oh… it’s gone.”


“It’s back! C’m’ere! Look! See that little nuthatch looking thing?”


“Isn’t that amazing?”


red-breasted nuthatch chickadee

“I’ve never seen one before. They come down from more northern coniferous forests sometimes in winter, I read. How cool is that?”

“Really cool.”

red-breasted nuthatch and chickadee

“Isn’t it cute? It’s so tiny. Smaller than a chickadee.”

“Yes. Cute.”

“It’s so fast. I can’t believe I’m actually getting some photos.”

red-breasted nuthatch and titmouse

“Hey, it likes my homemade suet dough!”

“Mm hm.”

“I’m pretty sure there are two of them. I hope they keep visiting all winter.”

“Me too.”

red-breasted nuthatch v chickadee

“I’m counting for Project Feederwatch today, so I can include it. Also it’s #96 on my eBird list. I started keeping track of birds last January and my rule was I could count them if I also got a photo.”

“Do you think you will get to 100 before the New Year?”

“Yes but I’ll probably have to go look somewhere other than the backyard. Want to take a drive along the coast with me and my camera?”

“I can’t think of anything I’d rather do.”

Feathers old and new


Behold the molting hen, Gallus domesticus uglius.

Her feathers are loose and fall off everywhere, especially in the coop at night. You can see the prickly new pinfeathers growing in on her head and neck. She is cold, irritable, does not like to be touched. The photo above was taken on December 1.

barred rock

Here is a photo taken yesterday of the same hen, Marianne, a barred Plymouth rock. She has grown her tail back and her head and neck are covered now too. She will be the last of my four hens to complete the annual molt, which typically occurs in mid-to-late autumn.

The new feathers look really nice! A couple of my birds had been looking ratty and disheveled for months. Ella the Easter Egger especially had a lot of broken feathers.

ugly ella

Here is Ella in August, just a few scraggly tail feathers, messy broken feathers on her back and neck. Not very photogenic. Some it it may be a slow (months-long) molting process.

easter egger

Now (yesterday) look at her lovely new plumage.

Take a bow, Ella Fitzgerald. She is fatly feathered and fit for winter.

hen feathers

All birds molt.

A feather is a “dead” structure, somewhat analogous to hair or nails in humans. The hardness of a feather is caused by the formation of the protein keratin. Since feathers cannot heal themselves when damaged, they have to be completely replaced. The replacement of all or part of the feathers is called a molt. Molts produce feathers that match the age and sex of the bird, and sometimes the season.

Molting occurs in response to a mixture of hormonal changes brought about by seasonal changes. The entire process is complex and many questions remain regarding how the process is controlled.

None of my four hens are laying eggs right now, which is normal during molt and often in winter. They need more daylight (or artificial light) to stimulate laying.

rhode island red

Lucy the Rhode Island red, with shiny new feathers.

I prolonged laying their first year with light in the coop, but last year I let them have a break when they stopped laying during molt in December. They started again in early February, when daylight was over 10 hours rather than the 9 we get now (at the winter solstice).

hen butt

Fluffy butt is a characteristic of the Buff Orpington breed.

Grace Kelly has an abundance of perfect new feathers. She has always been a perfectly lovely looking bird (even during molting), and a good layer, but she is not especially friendly.

buff orpington after molting

She still has a few new pin feathers coming in around her neck. New feathers push out the old.

More on The Molt, from Hencam Blog

Molting is a messy, lengthy, disruptive event. Each chicken has about 8,500 feathers. Some birds will lose all of them, seemingly at once. It’s as if the hen is a cartoon character that sneezes and then finds herself embarrassingly naked. More often than not, it’s a patchy affair, with some bald spots and other areas looking raggedy. A few chickens never look scraggly and you can tell that they’re molting only by the evidence of their feathers on the ground. Like the leaves falling in autumn, the a flock doesn’t molt at the same time or pace. It can take a several months for everyone to lose their feathers and during that time the coop will look as if there’s been a pillow fight overnight. Every night.

I like feathers.


Sometimes I pick them up and save them. Here is a feather from the barred rock, on the porch railing, with tiny snowflakes.

I brought a Ziplock bag full of chicken feathers to Thanksgiving and gave them to my 5-year-old niece who also likes feathers.


Lucy and Grace.

Last spring I read a book that made me appreciate the beauty and function of bird feathers even more than I already did: Feathers: The Evolution of a Natural Miracle, by author and biologist Thor Hanson.

Feathers are an evolutionary marvel: aerodynamic, insulating, beguiling. They date back more than 100 million years. Yet their story has never been fully told.

In Feathers, biologist Thor Hanson details a sweeping natural history, as feathers have been used to fly, protect, attract, and adorn through time and place. Applying the research of paleontologists, ornithologists, biologists, engineers, and even art historians, Hanson asks: What are feathers? How did they evolve? What do they mean to us?

Engineers call feathers the most efficient insulating material ever discovered, and they are at the root of biology’s most enduring debate. They silence the flight of owls and keep penguins dry below the ice. They have decorated queens, jesters, and priests. And they have inked documents from the Constitution to the novels of Jane Austen.

Feathers is a captivating and beautiful exploration of this most enchanting object.


From the Scientific American review:

The complex structure, development and growth of feathers can, to paraphrase one expert on the subject, be seriously damaging to your mental health. Feathers are just crazy, almost certainly the most complex structures to ever grow out of any animal’s external surface.

Yet for all their marvellous complexity, for all the interest that people have displayed in their evolutionary origins and diversity, for all their role in bird behaviour and ecology, and for all their economic and cultural significance to humans, it doesn’t seem that any one book has ever been devoted to feathers and feathers alone. Thor Hanson’s 2011 Feathers is thus a rather significant book, and very nice it is too.


From The Guardian:

Feathers are the most complicated artefact fashioned by nature from a single substance: the protein keratin. That’s the stuff that nails, hair and horse’s hooves are made from. But a hair is simply a string of dead protein fibres squeezed from the follicle, like glue from a nozzle. Bird feather keratin is similarly extruded from a follicle, but it is structured so that the barbs radiating from the central quill are held together by tiny Velcro-like fasteners. All this has to be cast in a single process.

barred rock

Bird color


When nature made the blue-bird she wished to propitiate both the sky and the earth, so she gave him the color of the one on his back and the hue of the other on his breast. – John Burroughs

As one might expect from the amazing diversity of colors and patterns exhibited by more than 9,000 bird species found in the world, birds can see color. In fact, they can discriminate a greater variety of colors than humans; as some birds can see into the ultraviolet range.

The colors in the feathers of a bird are formed in two different ways, from either pigments or from light refraction caused by the structure of the feather.

Tiny air pockets in the barbs of feathers can scatter incoming light, resulting in a specific, non-iridescent color. Blue colors in feathers are almost always produced in this manner. Examples include the blue feathers of bluebirds, Indigo Buntings, Blue Jay’s and Steller’s Jays. – All About Birds, Color

Tree sparrows don’t actually spend much time in trees

american tree sparrow

Forget the name, American Tree Sparrows prefer the ground. Porch railings will do just fine too.

They forage on the ground, nest on the ground, and breed primarily in scrubby areas at or above the treeline.

They reminded European settlers of Eurasian Tree Sparrows, hence the name. They are winter visitors here and return to northern Canada in summer. We have been seeing one or two at once on most days and occasionally more.

American Tree Sparrows need to take in about 30 percent of their body weight in food and a similar percentage in water each day. A full day’s fasting is usually a death sentence. Their body temperature drops and they lose nearly a fifth of their weight in that short time.

Don’t worry, little birdies, we won’t let you down!

And what do tree sparrows like to eat? According to Project Feederwatch

Screen Shot 2014-12-18 at 6.15.01 PM

Feed the birds.