Category Archives: Bird Behavior

Owling is One of the Most Rewarding Reasons to Stay Up Late

Whoo Doesn’t Love an Owl?

Owling, aka owl-watching, is one of many family-based birding specialties, on par with hawk-watching, hummingbirding and kingfishering.

OK, we made up the term kingfishering, but the family Alcedinidae, the kingfishers, is another of the most beloved and “collected” in birding, and the subject of our NEXT blog.

But back to the Strigiformes and owling: the often dimly lit, (and let’s face it, frequently futile) search for nocturnal raptors whoo have captured the imagination (and cut into the sleep) of many an avid birder on vacation or birding tour.

True & Barn Owls: Strigidae & Tytonidae

  • Owling is a family-specific type of birding
  • Owling is a family-specific type of birding

Our Queensland’s Wet Tropics Tour, Aug. 13 – 23, 2023, offers chances to see both the Lesser Sooty Owl and Rufous Owl.

Owls and Owling are Everywhere!

Ranging from 5 to 28 inches in length, owls are found on every continent save Antarctica and for millennia have been inspiring myths and legends of awe, fear and admiration.

Since most owls are either nocturnal or crepuscular, an owling trip is typically launched near dusk, a shot in the dark in more ways than one. Owl unpredictability is one thing that makes owling so satisfying when we do get see them. An owl sighting always feels as though fortune has smiled.

A cooperative Elf Owl is a marvelous thing on a Big Bend, TX tour. Photo Credit: Dave Mehlman

Here’s how guide Hugh Simmons narrated one Elf Owling foray in Texas’s Davis State Park:

“From recent negative reports, our chances of success didn’t seem high, but we managed to be in the right place at exactly the right time and were rewarded by brief views of two owls as they flew out from their daytime roost in a woodpecker hole in a wooden utility post – a very satisfactory end to the day!”

An Elf Owl photographed in Portal, Arizona, by Bettina Arrigoni, licensed through Wikimedia Commons.

We go searching for owls on every one of the six continents they inhabit, and they are always a guest favorite when we do manage to see them. Owls often have large faces, stocky bodies and soft feathers to help muffle their predatory flights. Let’s examine some of the owl characteristics that make them special, traits that can vary widely from species to species and place to place.

Are Owls Super Smart? Or Is It Just the Big Eyes & Glasses?

While there are MANY things to love about owls, their Western reputation for being super-intelligent is probably not deserved.

Spectacled Owl are among the night residents we see in Panama birding
Spectacled Owl. Photo Credit: Jerome Foster.

So while the large, tropical Spectacled Owl we frequently see on our Belize, Mexico and Central American tours may look like it just came back from the library, as a group, owls are considered to have below average intelligence. As fierce and mighty hunters, they more closely match up with their reputations among many Native American tribes as harbingers and bringers of death. Maybe the widespread availability of Owl Cams has influenced our opinion, but reducing owls to a caricature of killing machines seems a bit harsh!

The Wise Owl Myth, Explained

Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom, reputedly carried a Little Owl on her shoulder, which she said helped her see in the dark and into blind spots, and that association may be how owls came to symbolize wisdom.

Athena and her “Little Owl,” she said helped her to see better. Photo Credit: The MET via Wikimedia Commons.

(Fittingly, we saw Little Owl in Lesvos, Greece on our most recent tour there with guide Gerard Gorman. For your own chance to see Little Owl in its homeland of legend, our Lesvos, Greece: Migration! tour returns in April of 2023.) Photo Credit: Len Worthington via Creative Commons.

Athena’s story checks out in that owls have superior low-light vision and hearing. But if you’re looking for the smartest of birds, those are the social ones, like the corvids and parrots, according to researchers. Frequent interactions may have honed social birds’ wits and enlarged their brains. Corvids also benefit from having “long childhoods,” continuing to live with their parents “in training” for up to four years!

Owls are Loners for Life

Meanwhile, owlets are born helpless and dependent, yet not long after they fledge, just weeks or months later, begin leading solitary lives.

This Spectacled Owlet is unmistakably a juvenile with its plumage! Photo Credit: Rhian Springett via Wikimedia Commons

While many people know that a gathering of owls is called a ‘parliament,’ they are such a lonesome and territorial species that it’s hard to imagine when the term might ever be needed in conversation.

Owls are Hunting Machines

Specialized hunters with massive eyes and highly developed and calibrated ears, owls devote almost two-thirds of their brain’s modest volume to the tasks of seeing and hearing, notes WorldBirds.com, leaving little capacity for learning new things.

Some Owls are Smarter Than Others

Nevertheless, some species do exhibit clever and creative feeding strategies, including the Burrowing Owl, often spotted on our Texas, Arizona and Oregon’s Woodpecker Wonderland tours. They routinely set out bait for their insect prey, including bits of fresh cow pies. When a dung beetle comes by attracted by the smell of lunch, they get eaten, University of Florida researchers say.

Owl Calls: Hoots, Hisses, and Who Cooks for You?

Another ingenious adaptation of the Burrowing Owl is its ability to mimic a rattlesnake’s rattle. The Burrowing Owl exhibits this rattly hiss in states like Arizona and Texas, where it competes for burrows with rattlers, desert tortoises and rodents like kangaroo rats and ground squirrels. Rather than excavating their own homes, Burrowing Owl prefers to steal and defend a burrow, and their snake-y vocal imitations help them do that.

For a more quintessential “hooting” call, the Great Horned Owl is the go-to soundtrack for moviemakers hoping to evoke a night in the woods. Widely distributed in North and South America, we frequently see this lovely owl in Arizona and Brazil, where our next tour to the Pantanal is Oct. 11–21, 2022. There are resident Great Horned Owls at one of our favorite accommodations in the world, the Casa de San Pedro B&B, where we stay on our Southeast Arizona Sky Island Fall Sampler Nov. 3 – 10, 2022.

Great Horned Owl taken on our Brazil’s Pantanal trip by Don Cooper.

One of the most iconic and unmistakable owl calls is “who cooks for you?,” which is what the Barred Owl seems to be saying. A North American owl, we often see Barred Owl on our Oregon and Texas tours. Though they hunt at night, they are more active during the day than many other owl species.

Horned, Long-eared and Short-eared: Not Really Ears!

The feather tufts sported by the Horned, Long-Eared and Short-Eared Owl are often mistaken for ears, though they are not even in the vicinity of their true ears. These articulated tufts on the tops of owls’ heads are believed to be part signaling device, part camouflage. Scientists have observed that Short-eared Owls, which we often see on our Journey to the Galapagos cruise (next departure with space Jan. 15 – 27, 2023), tend to be found in more open areas, like grasslands and near the ocean. Longer-tufted owls, like the Long-eared Owl, which we have chances to see on our Nov. 5 – 11 California Birding and Wine tour, tend to live in forests, where a more exaggerated profile may be needed to distinguish them from denser surrounding foliage.

Real Owl Ears are Hidden, Sometimes Offset and Always Amazing!

If someone who is observant is said to be hawkeyed, someone with keen hearing should be called owl-eared, because owls have BOTH the best low-light vision and hearing of any bird. The flat, disc-like faces are part of its hearing toolkit, directing sound to its true ears, which can be found behind the eyes and beneath their feathers. Many owls have ears that are offset, which they use to triangulate which direction a sound is coming from.

What the Color of Owl Eyes Tells Us

Besides being extremely large and cylindrically shaped so as to best capture light, owl eyes come in a variety of striking colors. The color of an owl’s eye is connected to what time of day they are hunting. The darkest of eyes denotes a night-time hunter, orange eyed-owls tend to be crepuscular —hunting at dusk or dawn — and those with yellow eyes are the diurnal, daytime owls.

To give just one example, yellow-eyed Snowy Owls are daylight hunters. Their soft white feathers provide camouflage and sound-o-flage, helping them sneak up on their prey in broad daylight. Even their feet are covered with feathers, soft slippers to help muffle the incoming threat of sharp talons. We hope to see Snowy Owl on our Alaska tours and our Washington Winter Birding tour, next departure Jan. 20 – 28, 2023.

Snowy Owl feathers even cover their feet to help muffle the sound of their approach. Males and older birds may be all white, while females have more brown mottling. Photo Credit: Greg Smith

Largest, Smallest, and Not-That-Quiet

Because they are exceptions, not only in their huge and small size, we’ve saved for last the largest and smallest owls, which share the unusual trait of being uncharacteristically noisy.

The Great Gray Owl is the longest of owl species, averaging up to 28 inches in length. Anyone who has seen this majestic owl, like our Yellowstone National Park guests often do, comes away with a sense of wonder (and some great photos, too! No telephoto needed with a bird this large.)

Great Gray Owl taken on our Yellowstone National Park tour by guest Gary Stone.

But the endangered Blakiston’s Fish-Owl is considered the world’s largest owl, because it us much more massive, with females weighing up to 10 pounds, and because its wingspan, which can surpass 6 feet, is the largest of any owl. We have great opportunities to see this highly range-restricted bird on our Jan 9 – 23, 2023 Japan Birding and Nature tour, along with Red-Crowed Crane and Japanese Snow Monkey. Since Blakiston’s Fish-Owl’s prey is underwater, being silent isn’t as important, which helps explain why their feathers aren’t as soft and downy as owls that hunt mammals.

Owling is a family-specific type of birding
Blakiston’s Fish Owl. Photo Credit: Takashi Muramatsu via Creative Commons.

At the other end of the spectrum, the smallest and arguably the cutest of all owls is the Elf Owl, which is always a treat for our guests on Texas Big Bend & Hill Country tours as well as our Southeast Arizona tours. Standing about 5 inches tall and roosting in tiny stolen cavities, the Elf Owl is very active and very noisy around dusk, when its persistent peeping offers helpful clues to bird guides trying to find them!

Elf Owl are among the birds and animals we may see on our Arizona birding and nature tours.
Elf Owls are cavity nesters, offering them protection from the chill of desert nights. Photo Credit: Woody Wheeler

Elf Owls do have soft feathers on the leading edge of their wings, so they can be quiet when they want to. Though they are desert dwellers, they prefer riparian habitats.

Uganda and Tanzania are very Owly

We have not yet mentioned Africa, which would be a terrible oversight, because the continent has some wonderful owl species. Our Uganda and Tanzania tours in particular are great places to see owls, including Verreaux’s Eagle-Owl which can be seen on both! Our next Uganda tour with space available is Grand Uganda: Fabulous Birds and Mammals, July 15 – 31, 2023. Our next Tanzania Wildlife and Birding Safari tour is Jan. 30 – Feb. 11, 2023.

Owling is a family-specific type of birding
Verreaux’s Eagle-Owl. Photo Credit: Dominic Sherony via Wikimedia Commons.

World Migratory Bird Day: 5 Trips for the Ultimate Migration Experience

World Migratory Bird Day is a global campaign dedicated to introducing the public to migratory birds and ways to conserve them. This year’s goal is to reduce the impact of light pollution on migratory birds. To commemorate this day, here is a list of 5 Naturalist Journeys guided nature tours where you’ll surely find migrating birds.

Maine’s Monhegan Island 

September 9 – 16, 2022 & September 17 – 24, 2022

Experience the joy of fall migration from Maine’s beloved Monhegan Island, a natural migration hotspot! Migrating birds flying south can get off track and find themselves at dawn out at sea. Once they correct, the almost two-mile-long island is a magnet, a patch of green where they can land for food and shelter. 

This privately-owned island welcomes birders to enjoy its 350 acres of trails protected by a local conservation organization. 

Notable Species: American Redstart, Northern Parula, Swainson’s Thrush, and over 25 species of warbler!

South Texas: Fall Migration! 

October 9 – 16, 2022

As one of the greatest birding destinations in the United States, South Texas boasts over two dozen tropical bird species that spill across the border. During our October tour, we arrive at the height of the fall migration of raptors and other neotropical species.

Notable Species: Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, Buff-bellied Hummingbird, Harris’ Hawk, Hooded Warbler

Portugal: Fabulous Birding & Culture

October 12 – 24, 2022

Fall migration in Portugal runs from August into early November and our timing on this birding tour is perfect for arriving waders, waterbirds, and raptors. Enjoy refreshing temperatures, stunning cultural sites, delicious meals, and a wide array of coastal species. 

Algarve, Portugal is a notable stop on this trip and is a region rich in protected wetland areas and migrating birds. and is situated on a major fly-way for migrants from Africa. Birding stops here will include the complex network of canals, saline flats and salt pans of the Castro Marim Nature Reserve and the Tavira area of Ria Formosa Natural Park. 

Notable Species: Black Stork, Griffin Vulture, Spotted Flycatcher, Great-spotted Cuckoo

Veracruz, Mexico: River of Raptors & More

October 15 – 26, 2022

Our exciting Mexico birding tour to Veracruz, known as the migration crossroads of the Americas, explores the intersection of diverse biological realms, and sites of historical encounters between peoples of the old and new worlds. Not only will you get the chance to explore the world-renowned Veracruz River of Raptors, the largest hawk migration site on the planet, but you’ll find yourself at a major migration pathway for passerines, butterflies, and dragonflies. 

Each fall, Veracruz hosts 4-6 million migrating raptors on their way to their winter dwellings. This includes 200,000 Mississippi Kites, which is nearly the entire world population!

Notable Species: Broad-winged Hawk, Mississippi Kite, Cooper’s Hawk, Black Vulture

Platte River Cranes

March 12 – 18, 2023 & March 19 – 25, 2023

Each year, half a million Sandhill Cranes descend upon Nebraska’s Platte River. By March, nearly 80% of the world’s population crowds a 150-mile stretch of the river, creating a migration spectacle that is simply mind-boggling to witness. This is the largest gathering of cranes anywhere in the world!

As the state of Nebraska proudly claims, “Some people regard Nebraska as a place you cross on the way to a more interesting place. About a million sandhill cranes disagree.”

Notable Species: Sandhill Crane, Snow Goose, Bufflehead (Winter Resident), Northern Shoveler (Winter Resident)

To find out more about WMBD’s mission and how you can positively influence the lives of thousands of migratinging birds, visit their website:

Love on the Wing: Bird Courtship and Mating Rituals Signal Spring

An earnest warbling from a barely-budded tree and dry grasses passed between bills are two of the most common bird courtship and mating rituals to herald spring.

Springtime is now in the Northern Hemisphere, and migratory flyways around the globe are already bumper-to-bumper with birds making their way to breeding grounds. There, alongside local residents, they will deploy a staggering array of courtship strategies to help them snag a mate.

North American Flyways

  • Pacific
  • Central
  • Mississippi
  • Atlantic

Photo Credit: USGS

Bird Courtship Strategies

Some birds are practical, offering berries, insects or seeds to a potential partner as evidence they can support a family. Others build a speculative nest — sometimes quite an elaborate one — to proffer to their partner a turnkey home. Other birds are far more focused on the flash, growing out elaborate plumage, singing, dancing, and launching elaborate aerial acrobatics.

Six Categories of Bird Mating Rituals

Scientists have identified six principal categories of bird courtship and mating rituals: singing, dancing, displays, building, feeding and allopreening, or mutual grooming. In this blog we will look at each bird courtship category and give examples, using birds we see on our tours. Starting with the most obvious and simple, many birds sing or call to attract a mate:

Singing as a Mating Ritual

One of the first things we notice as the quiet of winter gives way to spring is birdsong, which often serves the double duty of staking a territorial claim and advertising to a mate. Many warblers, including the Black-throated Green Warbler, demonstrate different songs for different audiences, one they sing when males are on their territory and another when they are single and notice females are nearby. Hear the different songs here on All About Birds.

  • Dark-eyed Junco can be seen on our Oregon birding and nature tours
  • Fox Sparrow can be seen on our Oregon birding and nature tours
  • can be seen on our Oregon birding and nature tours
  • Lazuli Bunting can be seen on our Oregon birding and nature tours.
  • Magnolia Warbler can be seen on our Oregon birding and nature tours.
  • Olive-sided Flycatcher can be seen on our Oregon birding and nature tours.
  • White-crowned Sparrow can be seen on our Oregon birding and nature tours.

Birdsong is often thought of as “a guy thing,” associated in popular culture with males crooning and females swooning. But female songbirds are getting a new look — and listen. Scientists at the Female Birdsong Project are enlisting birder citizen-scientists to help them document female singers. Female song was once thought unique to tropical species, where pairs often co-defend territory year round. But many temperate species females, as it turns out, may have been singing all along and had their songs ascribed to males, as Audubon notes in “Female Cerulean Warblers Chirp Away at Birdsong Stereotypes.”

Our two Oregon tours are a great place to see and hear warblers and other birds, since more than 275 species nest there, according to the state’s most recent breeding bird atlas.

Naturalist Journeys’ Upcoming Oregon Tours

Both of these Oregon tours are guided by Steve Shunk, our Northwest US bird (and woodpecker!) expert. Steve took all of the songbird photos in the gallery above.

Dancing as Bird Courtship

Not all songbirds sing (nor are all singing birds songbirds). Ravens, for example, and Cedar Waxwings make vocalizations and are physiologically capable of song. But like your shy friend at karaoke, they just don’t sing. Scientists theorize that the Cedar Waxwing once had a song, but lost it because it was no longer necessary. A sociable rather than territorial bird, Cedar Waxwings often travel as a group in search of berry-laden trees. That means males have no reason to ‘sing out loud, sing out strong’ to attract a mate. Instead they initiate a hopping treetop dance with a female of their in-group, often proffering a love token — a berry or an insect, for example — that the two will pass between them in a bonding exercise. When she responds to his offering in turn, he knows he’s onto something.

Cedar Waxwings, passing a berry. Photo Credit: Alan Rice via Wikimedia Commons

There are many birds who court by dancing, including the spectacular two-stepping of the Western Grebe, which may be seen (though they are unlikely to be courting then) on our Oregon tours. Western Grebes may also be seen on a new tour this year: Washington Coastal Birding and Nature with guide Steve Shunk August 18-25.

Western Grebes bonding through dance. Video Credit: devra via Wikimedia Commons

Displays

When the dancing is more or less one-sided, with the female sitting in wallflower judgement, it is considered a display. For example, watch these Blue-backed Manakin, which we have chances to see on our Trinidad and Tobago and our Guyana tours, dance in a wild, all-male conga line to try and win the girl:

Blue-backed Manakin display. Video Credit: Renato Spiritus via Wikimedia Commons

Prairie chickens and grouse also compete for a mate via dance-off, gathering early on spring mornings on nature’s dance floor, a ‘lek’ that they return to year after year. Prairie grouse mating rituals also include whooping, drumming their feet, and booming sounds made through the inflation of air sacs in their chests or neck. Meanwhile, drab female hens sit and take it all in, until one of the dancers impresses her enough to take for a mate.

Greater Sage Grouse ‘booming’. Video Credit: BLM of Oregon and Washington via Creative Commons

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the showiest birds are often the ‘players’ of the avian world; those least likely to stick around and help raise their young, according to Cornell’s All About Birds. Birds of Paradise, the many spectacular species we see on our Papua New Guinea tours and peacocks are all guilty as charged. Peahens often form a mutual aid society after their mates strut away to hypnotize other females, cooperatively raising their peachick young.

Not all displays are so elaborate. Some may simply involve breeding plumage, or the striking of a pose.

  • Gray Hornbill may be seen on our Tanzania Tours.

Allopreening

For the birds whose love language is touch, allopreening, or the preening of other birds, is how they establish and maintain bonds. The obvious example here is lovebirds! Rosy-faced Lovebirds, which we see on our Namibia tours, were named for this canoodling behavior. Birds preen themselves to keep their feathers in flying form and to remove mites and debris. They preen one another as pair bonding, and among highly territorial species, to remind one other they are friend not foe. Macaws and parrots may be found gently nibbling their mates’ heads and bills on our South American, Central American, and South Texas tours.

  • Rosy-Faced Lovebirds may be seen on Naturalist Journeys' Africa tours

Building Bird Courtship

“If she doesn’t find you handsome, she should at least find you handy,” the old saying goes. And many birds build speculative nests — sometimes several nests — and try to lure in the ladies with turnkey real estate. Cape Weavers, which we often see on our South Africa tours, are among the most impressive of all builders, though Sociable Weavers build apartment complexes with multiple rooms for each couple, insulated interior rooms for cool nights and exterior ones for hot days.

Video Credit: Vassia Atanassova via Wikimedia Commons

Bowerbirds, also of Papua New Guinea and Australia, build elaborate nests on the ground and strew them with flowers and food and other love tokens to help lure a mate.

Regent Bowerbird arranging the furniture for a potential mate. Photo Credit: Bowerbirdaus via Wikimedia Commons

Food Offerings

Who doesn’t like a nice meal they didn’t have to forage themselves? Among the most pragmatic of love tokens, food is mate-bait for many species. Some birds drop the food near the female as if they were delivery drivers dropping off pizza. Others place the food directly into the female’s bill, showing that they know what to do once the chicks are hatched.

eBird Breeding Codes

Witnessing bird courtship and mating rituals is fascinating, whether you are on a migration birding and nature tour, or just doing some backyard birding. But did you know that eBird has a special set of codes for noting this avian courtship and the resulting nests and young?

They are:

  • NY Nest with Young (Confirmed) — Nest with young seen or heard.
  • NE Nest with Eggs (Confirmed) — Nest with eggs.
  • FS Carrying Fecal Sac (Confirmed) — Adult carrying fecal sac.
  • FY Feeding Young (Confirmed) — Adult feeding young that have left the nest, but are not yet flying and independent (for some projects should not be used with raptors, terns, and other species that may move many miles from the nest site; often supersedes FL).
  • CF Carrying Food (Confirmed) — Adult carrying food for young (for some projects should not be used for corvids, raptors, terns, and certain other species that regularly carry food for courtship or other purposes).
  • FL Recently Fledged Young (Confirmed) — Recently fledged or downy young observed while still dependent upon adults.
  • ON Occupied Nest (Confirmed) — Occupied nest presumed by parent entering and remaining, exchanging incubation duties, etc.
  • UN Used Nest (enter 0 if no birds seen) (Confirmed) — Nest is present, but not active. Use only if you are certain of the species that built the nest.
  • DD Distraction Display (Confirmed) — Distraction display, including feigning injury.
  • NB Nest Building (Confirmed/Probable) —  Nest building at apparent nest site (should not be used for certain wrens, and other species that build dummy nests; see code “B” below for these species).
  • CN Carrying Nesting Material (Confirmed/Probable) — Adult carrying nesting material; nest site not

For more information about how to use the codes, here is a link. Happy birding!