About Melissa Koosmann

Melissa Koosmann is a freelance writer and resident of Capitol Hill. She writes about education, culture, and nature -- and, sometimes, birds for CHS.

CHS Aviary | Steller’s Jays battle neighbors over shared spaces on Capitol Hill

Steller Family Values, originally uploaded by ingridtaylar.

Note to Readers: This will be my last CHS Aviary post. I’m having a baby and moving on to other pursuits after a few months of maternity leave. I’ve enjoyed writing about birds and reading your comments over the last couple of years, so thanks for reading! –Melissa Koosmann

Human beings aren’t the only creatures on Capitol Hill that sometimes squabble over public spaces. Check out the trees and yards in your neighborhood, and you’ll see many species of birds engaged in squabbles over territory. One species that displays particularly interesting social and territorial relationships is the Steller’s jay.

The Steller’s jay is one of the most distinctive birds on the Hill. It has a tall black crest on its head and a blue body. If you look closely, you may see two bright blue vertical stripes over the eyes.

Like its relative the American crow, the Steller’s jay is an intelligent, opportunistic omnivore. It eats insects, seeds, fruit, eggs, and small animals—including little birds like dark-eyed juncos or black-capped chickadees if it can catch them. Here in our urban environment, the Steller’s jay also supplements its diet with human garbage.

Male and female Steller’s jays mate for life, and mated pairs establish dominance over a small area surrounding their nest. They are not completely territorial; other Steller’s jays may enter their space. However, Steller’s jays display dominance behaviors toward any other jays that enter their home area. But the farther they travel from their nest space, the more likely they are to show deference to other jays. This causes a complex, shifting pattern of social relationships based more on geography than on age or sex characteristics.

Steller’s jays indicate their dominance with harsh, raucous calls and various body movements that include wing-spreading and tail-flicking. A submissive bird—in other words, a bird outside its home environment—may crouch low, press its tail to the ground, and let out a “wah” call.

The Steller’s jay is common in parks and gardens around the Hill. If you don’t have a yard, you can find these birds in nearly any green space that has lawns and conifers.

Interested in learning more?

  • Check out the Steller’s jay’s page at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.
  • Learn more about the jay’s distribution in the state of Washington here.
  • This video shows some of the Steller’s jay’s behaviors.

Have a Capitol Hill topic you’re fascinated by that you think would make a great regular column for CHS? Let us know chs @capitolhillseattle.com.

CHS Aviary | Even with the weekend off, sea hawks take flight over Hill

osprey, originally uploaded by rhwalker22.

Keep an eye on the sky around the Hill, and you might see flying sea hawks—not the football players, but the birds that gave their team its name. They’re more commonly called by another name: osprey.

The osprey is a large hawk with a white head and a bold brown or black stripe along the eye. The underside is mostly white, and the wings and back are mostly brown. Ospreys often fly with their wings kinked a bit in the middle, which gives them a distinctive M shape.

Ospreys survive almost exclusively on live fish. They can’t dive more than about a meter underwater, so they tend to hunt in the shallows, although they may also take fish that swim near the surface of deeper water. Their hunting behavior is highly unusual: they dive headfirst toward the water and, at the last moment, throw their feet forward to grasp the fish below the surface. Continue reading

CHS Aviary | Area mallards dabble with cross dressing

Ducks, originally uploaded by ~wesa~.

Generally speaking, male mallards are hard to miss. Because of their characteristic green heads and disturbing sexual habits, they’re among the more noticeable birds around the Hill. But at this time of year, they all seem to disappear. Have they flown away? Nope. They’re just dressed up like ladies.

In the fall, nearly all species of birds molt their feathers and grow a whole new set. While mallards go through this process, they spend about six weeks unable to fly. During this period, the males wear dull, camouflaged plumage–called eclipse plumage–that makes them difficult to distinguish from their female counterparts.

Female mallards have mottled brown feathers, a dark line across the eye, and a blue patch on the wing. If you want to tell them apart from males in eclipse plumage, note their muddy-looking orange and black bill. The male’s bill is mustard yellow, even during the eclipse period.

Behavior can also help you tell the difference between female and eclipse male mallards. If you see a mallard caring for a group of juveniles, it’s female. The males do not help rear young, and sometimes they chase younger ducks out of their territory.

You can find mallards almost anywhere with permanent water in or near the Hill. If you don’t want to make a trip all the way to Lake Washington or Portage Bay, try a spot like Denny Blaine Lake Park.

Interested in Learning More?

  • Check out the mallard’s page at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.
  • Listen to the differences between male and female mallard quacks here.
  • To read about other confusing duck plumages, including intermediate and hybrid plumages, check out this article.

Bonus Owl Coverage
This barred owl was spotted hanging out near Volunteer Park earlier this week. We wrote about the area’s barred owls here in May 2012.

Barred owl, originally uploaded by jillbertini.

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CHS Aviary | Capitol Hill crime wave includes this notorious fruit thief

Robin redbreast, originally uploaded by GlennFleishman.

With the warm weather this summer, many gardeners’ berry plants around the Hill are highly productive. This means more fruit — but the birds often get it before we do. One notorious fruit thief on the Hill is the American robin.

American robins are gray-brown birds with reddish or orange breasts. The males’ breasts are darker red, the females’ lighter orange. If you look closely, you’ll see that robins have white spectacle-like rings around each eye.

A large proportion of the robins’ diet is not actually fruit, but insects. Robins tend to spend the morning hours hopping around on lawns, looking for small invertebrates to eat. By afternoon, they’re more likely to be in trees, gleaning insects from the branches or eating any fruits they can forage.

Robins eat slugs, snails, and many other invertebrates that attack gardens. There is some evidence that they also selectively eat wormy fruit, probably because of its higher protein content. Even so, a robin or two can make a pretty big dent in your blueberry harvest. If this is happening to you, your best bet is probably to cover your berries with a mesh cloth to keep the birds out.

Robins are a typical member of any backyard bird population. If you don’t have a yard, you can find them fairly easily by following their musical song. Lawns and trees around any local park are good places to look.

Learn more

  • Check out the robin’s page at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.
  • Before you go out looking for robins, take a moment to familiarize yourself with its song and call.
  • If robins are eating your garden crops, this page has some helpful tips.

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Capitol Hill Aviary | Hill’s thirsty pigeons suck

Birdie, originally uploaded by katie.houck.

Many human residents of Capitol Hill hate pigeons—or “rats with wings,” as a lot of people call them. But pigeons don’t just suck in the sense that most people don’t like them. Most unusually among birds, they can drink water by creating suction with their bills.

You are certainly familiar with pigeons, which birders usually refer to as rock pigeons or rock doves. Most are plump blue-gray birds with dark bars on the wings. Some variant individuals are white, reddish, or spotted. All of them are the feral cousins of domestic birds that were brought to North America in the 1600s. They have thrived in the cities here—and pretty much everywhere else in the world as well.

The rock pigeon’s sucking ability may not sound very impressive to you. You are, after all, a mammal, and mammals are excellent suckers. But the vast majority of birds cannot suck at all. Most drink by repeatedly dipping their bills into water and then tipping back their heads to deliver small amounts of water to their throats.

Pigeons and doves, in contrast, suck water deftly by retracting their tongues and using their bills like straws. They can consume water quickly and easily this way, and that’s a good thing, because they need to drink relatively large quantities. Most pigeons and doves consume about 10-15% of their body weight in water daily. (Some of our Hill pigeons may mix it up with an occasional beer, but that’s just a guess.)

Pigeons normally forage at ground level, but they tend to rest on windowsills and eaves—a habit that can make life somewhat uncomfortable for the human passersby who walk beneath them. According to Birds of North America Online, pigeons’ eating and drinking habits make their droppings “relatively voluminous.” If you’ve ever been hit by falling pigeon poo, you’re doubtless aware that this is a bit of an understatement.

You probably already know where to find rock pigeons here on the Hill. If you plan to go out looking, check anywhere people tend to drop french fries on the ground.

Learn more

  • Check out the rock pigeon’s page at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, and listen to their vocalizations here.
  • You can find some background information about pigeons and their 5,000-year history of domestication by humans here.
  • This video shows pigeons drinking water.

strong and free
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Capitol Hill Aviary | Rufous hummingbirds take up summer residence on the Hill

Untitled, originally uploaded by Minette Layne.

If you watch flowers and feeders closely at this time of year, you may see a hummingbird that typically visits the Hill only in late spring and early summer: the rufous hummingbird.

Rufous hummingbirds are tiny orange and green birds with bright red patches under the chin. The females tend to be paler than males, and their red throat patch is much smaller. As with all hummingbirds, the colors of the rufous hummingbird are hard to see in shadow, but they tend to be brilliant in bright sunlight.

Rufous hummingbirds make a 3,800-mile round trip journey from Mexico to the Pacific Northwest and back every year. Although some other birds fly farther in miles, the rufous hummingbird’s trip is amazingly long for a bird of its small size. The round-trip journey is 78,470,000 times the length of its body. Continue reading

Capitol Hill Aviary | Hill bird mom will lays its own weight in eggs

Ruby-crowned Kinglet,
originally uploaded by tbtalbottjr.

At this time of year, birds often fly around carrying bits of grass, twigs, cobwebs—and sometimes, here on the Hill, trash—for building nests. Many birds lay several clutches of eggs every season in an attempt to raise as many chicks as possible. But one of the Hill’s smallest songbirds, the ruby-crowned kinglet, has a different strategy.

The ruby-crowned kinglet gets its name because of a tiny red crest on the male’s head, but this crest only pops up when he is agitated or trying to attract a female. If you see a kinglet, you may not see any red at all. You may only see a tiny gray bird with some yellowish coloration on the underside. Continue reading

Capitol Hill Aviary | Deadbeat Hill birds abandon chicks

It’s breeding season, so most bird species around Capitol Hill are busy building nests, brooding eggs, or rearing chicks. But one Hill resident, the brown-headed cowbird, doesn’t do any of those things. Instead, cowbirds lay eggs in other birds’ nests and abandon them. Biologists call this behavior brood parasitism. Continue reading

Capitol Hill Aviary | Hill mallards embroiled in battle of the sexes

Now that spring is on its way, it’s time for us at Capitol Hill Aviary to talk about duck sex. Like virtually all animals, birds spend a great deal of energy on reproduction. Many ducks — including the mallard, a common water bird around the Hill — have an unusually violent reproductive strategy.

Male mallards, as you may know, have bright green heads and mustard-yellow bills. Females are mostly brown, with some muddy orange on the bill and a patch of blue on the wing.

Mallards typically form pair bonds in the late fall or early winter. By March or April, the female chooses a nest site, and the pair grows increasingly territorial.

Several times per day, either the male or female signals interest in copulation by pumping their heads up and down (which looks totally sexy if you happen to be a duck).

Continue reading

Capitol Hill Aviary | Little birds make big noise

Last month on Capitol Hill Aviary, we saw birds that cooperate to kill. This month, we’ll look at birds that cooperate to avoid being killed: drab little passerines called bushtits. Bushtits may be easy prey for human pun lovers, but they’re harder prey for hawks.

Bushtits are tiny gray birds with brownish heads and stubby black beaks. They spend almost all their time in large flocks, and they sometimes gather on birdfeeders in groups of a dozen or more. Otherwise they hang out in trees and bushes, foraging for insects and small spiders.

Because bushtits are so plain looking, a lot of people don’t notice them at all. But they’re responsible for a good deal of the bird background noise around the neighborhood. As they feed, they twitter and tweet almost constantly. These vocalizations, called contact calls, help them keep track of their location among the flock. It’s as if they’re constantly saying, “I’m here! I’m here! I’m here!”

Bushtit on Cable, originally uploaded by Velo Steve.

For tiny birds like bushtits, maintaining close contact with a group is an excellent strategy to avoid predation because so many birds can stay on the lookout for danger at once. When any of them spots a hawk, it makes a loud, shrill shriek called an alarm call. The flock reacts by falling silent and freezing in place for several seconds.

You can find bushtits almost anywhere on the Hill that has bushes or trees. These birds favor areas with good cover, so protected backyards and large stands of trees are the likeliest spots.

Interested in learning more?

  • Check out the bushtit’s page at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.
  • You can listen to bushtit calls at the Macaulay Library of Natural Sounds, or you can go outside and stand next to a bush.
  • It’s a lot of fun to see a whole flock of bushtits on a suet feeder. If you don’t have a feeder at home, check out this video

More Capitol Hill Aviary

Melissa Koosmann is a freelance writer and resident of Capitol Hill. She writes about education, culture, and nature — and, sometimes, birds for CHS.