Another use for feathers

Sometimes I take so many photos, I forget what I have, and good ones get lost in the gigabytes of storage on my hard drive.  This past spring was one of those times when I took many more photos than I was able to post.  So, I thought I would backtrack and catch up with a few of the highlights of the previous spring’s bird migration.

Here’s a bird I had never seen before this spring, let alone taken a picture of it.

A Horned Grebe in all its spring feather spendor

A Horned Grebe in all its spring feather splendor posing in the still waters of a local dam on the Mississippi River.

The "horns" are the patches of yellowish feathers on the sides and back of the head, which can be fluffed out to stand erect.

The “horns” are the patches of yellowish feathers on the sides and back of the head, which can be fluffed out to stand erect.

In winter plumage they resemble their cousins the Western Grebe, with the same black and white markings (but with much shorter bills and necks).

By Mike Baird [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

By Mike Baird [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Like other grebes, and diving ducks, this little bird is a fish eater.  But it has an unusual habit associated with this diet.  It consumes its own feathers to act as a strainer to prevent the fish bones in its stomach from passing into the intestine. The plug of feathers plus any undigested bones, may be egested, similar to what hawks and owls do when they regurgitate the indigestible portions of their diet.  In fact, feather fish strainers are so important to grebe digestion that the parents begin feeding feathers to their chicks as soon as they hatch.  Do other fish-eating birds regurgitate the fish bones as well?  What animals can or would eat bone, anyway, other than hyenas or some vultures who can secrete potent stomach acid?  It’s pretty hard and non-nourishing stuff.

Ron Dudley posted some fantastic photos of several grebe species eating feathers on his Feathered Photography blog.  (Click here to go there)

Finch vs Sparrow

I see that my bird classification skills are sadly out of date.  Today I found out that the Indigo Bunting is grouped with the Cardinals, Rose-breasted and Black-headed Grosbeaks, and Flame, Scarlet, and Hepatic Tanagers.  How confusing!  For some reason, I have always lumped little birds with conical (finchy) bills into one group, when in fact, there are definitely two:  finches and sparrows (and then of course, one can further split those two categories into old world (Europe-Asia) and (New World – Americas), but I won’t go there in this post.

So, here’s the low-down on what to call the little finch-like birds in your garden.  (Like all rules, there are, of course,  exceptions to these generalities.)

1) If the male is brightly colored in his summer plumage but the female duller, resembling the winter plumage, the species is likely to be a finch, e.g., Goldfinch, House Finch, etc.

This male hasn't quite finished decking himself out in yellow and black, but he's close.

This male hasn’t quite finished decking himself out in yellow and black, but he’s close.

Male House Finches really stand out at this time of year.

Male House Finches really stand out at this time of year.

Female House Finches have some nice stripes, but no accent colors.

Female House Finches have some nice stripes, but lack the brilliant red accent colors of the male.

2)  Sparrows of both sexes sport a mottled brown, black, and white plumage that blends in nicely with their preferred grassy habitat.  Only the juvenile (first year after hatch) birds look different than the adult plumage.

This Swamp Sparrow was singing up a storm, but it was hard to locate him among the dead cattail stems and grasses.

This Swamp Sparrow was singing up a storm, but it was hard to locate him among the dead cattail stems and grasses.

Male and female White-throated Sparrows look identical, but the first year birds have brown head stripes and lack the yellow spot above the eye.

Male and female White-throated Sparrows look identical, but the first year birds have brown head stripes and lack the yellow spot above the eye.

3) Typically, sparrows feed mostly on the ground, scratching under the litter for seeds or insects, while finches are more arboreal, searching for food on the seed heads of perennial grasses, thistles, etc.

Even though there is a feeder full of delicious finch seed right above this bird's head, it prefers to look in the grass for fallen kernels rather than perch on the feeder.

Even though there is a feeder full of delicious finch seed right above this bird’s head, it prefers to look in the grass for fallen kernels rather than perch on the feeder.

A photo from last summer illustrates the plumage difference between male and female Goldfinches, as well as their preference for perching on the flower heads to harvest the seed.

A photo from last summer illustrates the plumage difference between male and female Goldfinches, as well as their preference for perching on the flower heads to harvest the seed.

4) It may be difficult to see differences in the shape and size of their bills, but finches generally have a stouter, thicker bills for their body size than sparrows.  That rule seems to work if you compare House Finch bills to those of Swamp Sparrows, but it looks like White-throated Sparrows have a pretty thick bill as well.

As I said above, there are exceptions to every rule…but at least I won’t be calling all seed-eating birds sparrows now without thinking about it first.