Category Archives: Bird Behavior

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!