Birds in Your Community Scavenger Hunt

Birds at a feeder at the Los Alamos Nature Center. (Photo by Bob Walker)

Go outside and get to know the birds in your neighborhood! Can you find:

A Steller’s Jay eats a peanut. (Photo by Bob Walker)

Birds eating, drinking, and taking shelter

  • A bird eating seeds
  • A bird eating insects or worms
  • A bird drinking water
  • A bird hiding in a tree or a bush

A habitat has food, water, shelter, and space for animals. You can help create bird habitat near your house by providing a dish of water, or planting flowers with seeds that birds can eat.

Birds interacting with people

  • A bird near your house
  • A bird using man-made features (eating from a garden, resting on a telephone wire, drinking from a bird bath, etc.)
  • A bird helping you (pollinating flowers, eating insect pests, etc.)
  • A cultural representation of a bird (painting, sign, petroglyph, constellation, etc.)
Brown-headed Cowbirds enjoy water from the White Rock Wastewater Treatment Plant. (Photo by Bob Walker)

Birds can be helped and harmed by human behavior. Cats and window strikes kill lots of birds every year. You can help by keeping your cats inside, and by placing stickers or hanging strings on the outside of your windows to block reflections.

Birds of the Season

Watch for these birds running or hopping along the ground, looking for insects and worms. (Photo by Bob Walker)

These tiny, quick birds can be seen hovering near flowers or feeders. (Photo by Deborah Halter)

These thick-beaked birds tend to be seen in flocks. They often visit seed feeders. (Photo by Bob Walker)

Look for a flash of yellow hopping from branch to branch, as this bird looks for insects. (Photo by Bob Walker)

Some birds live in your neighborhood year-round, and others migrate, or move from place to place with the seasons. As the fall season advances, keep looking for these birds. Which birds seem to stick around, and which ones do you see less often as the weather gets colder? Some of our birds fly south to Mexico or Central America for the winter!

Tell us what birds you saw in your neighborhood by sending us an email to takeitoutside@peecnature.org! Ready for more? Try looking for the 20 most common birds of Los Alamos! If you see a bird outside, PEEC’s bird guide can help you identify it.

Why Are Birds Worth Protecting?

Male Western Bluebird. In recent decades, their populations have declined over much of their range. (Photo by Bob Walker)

By Bob Loy

Some of you listened with interest to Bob Walker’s live broadcast from the wildlife observation room at the Los Alamos Nature Center earlier this week. Bob briefly discussed some of the ongoing threats to birds (outdoor cats, window strikes, habitat loss, etc.) and a recent publication in Science which estimated the loss of nearly 3 billion birds in North America in the last 50 years. This equates to a net loss of about 29 percent of the breeding bird population. Much of the data used to reach this conclusion came from everyday community scientists like Bob Walker and other PEEC volunteers, who participate in events like the North American Breeding Bird Survey and the Audubon Christmas Bird Count.

The best way to reverse this trend is through education and that is why I believe PEEC plays such a crucial role in our community’s future. My generation failed, so we need to do a better job of getting today’s youth connected to nature.

That is why I would like to remind everyone of a few of the reasons why protecting birds matters:

  • Important Pollinators: Birds are very important pollinators of wildflowers throughout the world. In the continental United States, hummingbirds are a key part of wildflower pollination.
  • Pest Control: Birds provide valuable ecosystem services in defending crops, such as grapes and coffee, from insects.
  • Disease Control: As discussed earlier this week, by consuming the carcasses of diseased animals, Turkey Vultures help prevent the spread of life-threatening diseases such as cholera, rabies, and anthrax among animals and humans.
  • Seed Dispersal: Some plants need their seeds to pass through the digestive tract of a bird to soften the coats of a seed to help the seed germinate. A great portion of Los Alamos County and the Pajarito Plateau consists of pinyon–juniper woodland. Pinyons and junipers rely heavily on birds for seed distribution, a dependence that makes the pinyon- juniper woodland unique.
  • Indicator Species: An indicator species is one whose status provides information on the overall condition of the ecosystem and of other species in that ecosystem. We learned on Friday that because American Robins frequently eat from lawns, changes to their populations can be an indicator for the overuse of chemicals in a community.
  • Cultural Significance: Bird symbolism is found across all cultures and dates to the most ancient of civilizations. Birds serve as national symbols and are seen in so many aspects of art, mythology, and religion all around the world.

Explore a few more reasons why protecting birds is important here.

A male Evening Grosbeak at the nature center. These birds could lose 78% of their summer habitat in New Mexico if the climate warms by 3 degrees Celsius. (Photo by Bob Walker)

What can you do to protect birds? I’m so glad you asked. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology lists the following seven simple actions that you can take today to protect birds:

  1. Make windows safe
  2. Keep cats indoors
  3. Reduce your lawn, plant native species
  4. Avoid pesticides
  5. Drink shade-grown coffee
  6. Use less plastic 
  7. Watch birds, and share what you see

Visit this webpage to learn more about why each of these steps matter and how you can practice them in your own home.

Learn more about the #BringBirdsBack campaign here and explore Audubon’s Survival by Degrees project here to see how climate change could impact birds in your area.

Day 5: Birds and the Food Chain

This Sharp-shinned Hawk has some uncomfortable news to share with you. (Photo by Bob Walker)

On the final day of bird week, we are learning about how birds fit into our local food chain. Join us next week to explore signs of spring with Take It Outside!

Help us improve this program! We want to hear what you have enjoyed about the first week of Take It Outside and learn what we can do better in the coming weeks. Please, do us a favor and fill out this evaluation form.

Upcoming Event:

We’ll be hosting a virtual astronomy talk tonight (Friday, March 20) instead of our regular planetarium show at the nature center. Join Rick Wallace via livestream at 7 PM to hear about some of the brighter objects that you can currently find in the night sky. Then, explore the spring equinox and the presence of water on various planets and moons in our solar system. Learn more and register here. This talk is free, but registration is required to receive the link to the livestream.

Blog Post:

The song of the American Robin is often considered a sign of spring, so we thought learning more about this bird would be a perfect segue between this week’s bird theme and next week’s look at signs of spring. Learn more about the robin, and how it fits into our food chain, in today’s blog post.

Activity:

The diversity of life just outside your doorstep can surprise you! Start this activity with a nature observation outside. List the animals and plants you can see in your yard. Are there any signs of birds or other animals? Trees and grasses? Then change your perspective! Pick up rocks to see critters underneath, move around fallen branches or logs, lie on the ground and look up. From your list, think about what might eat what. Maybe the robin eats the worm he found, or the junco has been eating the old seeds from the sunflower, and a hawk is trying to catch the junco. Try to put together a food chain including at least four different species.

Using paper cups, draw an animal or plant on each cup and label it with its name. Now you can stack them in the order of who eats whom. To extend this activity, make cups for more of the species you found in your yard or neighborhood. Try stacking them in new or different ways! Look for pictures of the different plants and animals in old magazines and glue them to your cups.

Find further instructions here.

Outdoor Challenge (Beginner):

A Spotted Towhee eating a worm in a local backyard. (Photo by Bob Walker)

All animals need to eat! Go outside and look for evidence of birds eating the following things.

  • Seeds
  • Fruit or berries
  • Insects
  • Worms
  • Other birds

What seemed to be the most common foods? Would you like to eat like a bird? Share your thoughts with us!

Outdoor Challenge (Advanced):

See if you can spot some of our local birds of prey. Common ones of our area include:

Look for the Cooper’s Hawk and Sharp-shinned Hawk hunting from trees near bird feeders or other congregations of small birds. The Red-tailed Hawk can often be seen soaring in the air, sometimes being badgered by other birds. Look for the Great Horned Owl at dusk or dawn, hunting from high perches. Typical locations include the Mitchell Trail in Los Alamos or White Rock Canyon. Find a Northern Goshawk and make our birders jealous!

Other Resources:

  • Do you want to continue your birding journey? Here are some of our favorite birding apps to help you identify birds. Merlin Bird ID (free), the Audubon Bird Guide app (free), iBird Ultimate (paid), and the Sibley eGuide to Birds (paid). The Merlin Bird ID app is great because it asks you three simple questions about the bird you saw and then brings up a list of likely birds! We also recommend checking out eBird, so you can track what birds you see! Check out this Introduction to eBird video on YouTube.
  • Join our PEEC Birders interest group to discuss birds over email with a group of other enthusiasts. When the Los Alamos Nature Center is open and hosting programs again, keep an eye on our events page for our free monthly bird walks hosted by a local expert.
  • We enjoyed this article from the Cornell Lab about how birds can make life better, especially during these uncertain times. The article also provides some great resources if you want to learn more about birds.

Share Your Experience:

Submit at least three outdoor challenge reports this week for a chance to win a set of PEEC’s custom bird stickers! This is our last post of bird week, but you can catch up on our challenges through the weekend. We’d love to see your Take It Outside photos, too. Please send them to takeitoutside@peecnature.org or share them on Facebook or Instagram with the hashtag #peectakeitoutside.

That wraps up bird week! Next week’s Take It Outside theme will be Signs of Spring. Join us on Monday, March 23 for the kick off of week two!

Ravenous Robins

This American Robin was spotted along the Main Loop Trail at Bandelier National Monument. (Photo by Mouser Williams)

By Rachel Landman

American Robins are a familiar feathered friend here in Northern New Mexico and across all of North America. They are found here all year round, but you have a greater chance of seeing them out and about now that the weather is warming up. This spring, you’ll likely find a robin running across your lawn or around your local park on the hunt for earthworms!

An American Robin carrying an insect back to its nest. (Photo by Bob Walker)

The next time you see an American Robin on the ground, watch it closely. You’ll notice that it runs a few steps, pauses, cocks its head to one side, and then dives its head down to the ground to snatch up a worm. Observe that its eyes are on the sides of its head — rather than the front like ours.

When it turns its head to the side, it is using one eye to scan the ground for worms. When it sees one wriggling around, it plucks it out of the earth for a tasty snack and then hops a few more steps to do it all over again! 

The diet of an American Robin consists of about 40% insects and 60% fruits. The main part of their diet changes both with the season and the time of day. They eat more earthworms, snails, spiders, and insects in the mornings and more fruit later in the day, and they eat more creepy crawlies in the spring and summer and more fruit in the winter months. Robins eat a wide variety of fruits, including juniper berries and cherries. Some of our local bird feeding enthusiasts have found that robins are fond of grapes!

In addition to being a predator to worms and insects, American Robins have occasionally been recorded eating small snakes, shrews, skinks, and frogs. While robins are a predator for some of our smaller critters, they have predators of their own, too.

An American Robin snacking on a grape in a backyard in White Rock. (Photo by Bob Walker)

Adult American Robins are preyed on by hawks and owls, roaming house cats, and larger snakes. The eyes on the sides of their head aren’t just for looking for worms. The placement of their eyes provides a wide range of vision that helps them scan their surroundings for predators. Robin eggs and young have a different set of predators to worry about than the adults. Squirrels, snakes, raccoons, and crows or ravens are known to look for nests and eat the eggs inside.

In addition to the predators mentioned above, humans have an impact on robin populations. Because robins frequently eat from lawns, they are vulnerable to human-caused pesticide poisoning. Changes in their populations can serve as indication of larger environmental problems in their habitats, like the overuse of chemicals.

Want to learn more about the American Robin? Check out its profile on All About Birds.

Happening Hummers: A Look at the Unique Traits of Our Smallest Birds

A male Calliope Hummingbird — the smallest bird in continental North America and one of four hummingbirds that reliably visits Northern New Mexico. (Photo by Mouser Williams)

By Bob Loy

I am fascinated by bird behavior. Almost every bird species has some characteristic that separates it from others. Hummingbirds are one of the most unique types of bird found here on the Pajarito Plateau. We are very fortunate to have four species of hummingbirds visit us each year. That may not seem like a lot, but those who live east of the Mississippi only see one regular hummingbird visitor each year. We are lucky to live in such a special place.

While only eight species of hummingbird breed in the United States, you may be surprised to learn that hummingbirds are one of the largest families of birds (second only to flycatchers) with an estimated 338 recorded species found worldwide. Hummingbirds are unique to the Western Hemisphere. Ecuador claims the most species with a whopping 163!

Here are a few fun facts about hummingbirds in general before we discuss the hummingbirds of Northern New Mexico:

  • Male hummingbirds are deadbeat dads, making the females the ultimate single mothers. Males and females only come together to mate for a fraction of a second. After that, the female does everything on her own, including building the nest; laying, sitting on, and guarding the eggs; and protecting and feeding the young until they fledge. Wow! That’s a lot of work.
  • They have tiny little feet that are only good for perching, scratching, or preening. If they wish to move — even a few inches — they must fly.
  • If they don’t eat, hummers can starve to death in about an hour.
  • They eat every 10 minutes throughout the day.
  • Hummingbirds have very good memories and are even able to remember where they found food from the previous year. 
  • These birds fly at 25 – 30 miles per hour regularly. They can reach speeds of 60 miles per hour when performing a diving display during mating.
  • Hummingbirds are the only bird that has an insect as a predator. Praying mantises will go after them on occasion!
  • The average lifespan for hummingbirds is 3 – 6 years. The record is 12 years held by a female Broad-tailed Hummingbird. We know this thanks to bird banding!
  • Female hummingbirds usually lay two eggs that are about ½ inch long.
  • The eggs hatch in 13 – 22 days depending on the species.
  • Hummingbirds are very important pollinators of flowers, shrubs, and trees.

The four species that visit us here in Northern New Mexico are the Broad-tailed Hummingbird, Black-chinned Hummingbird, Rufous Hummingbird, and Calliope Hummingbird. Broad-tailed and Black-chinned Hummingbirds both arrive in the spring and breed here. Rufous and Calliope Hummingbirds arrive later in the summer, usually in July or August.

Get to know each of the species that we find in Northern New Mexico!

A male Broad-tailed Hummingbird visiting a feeder at the nature center. (Photo by Bob Walker)

Broad-tailed Hummingbirds

  • The wings of males make a distinct trilling sound when flying. You will often hear them before seeing them and this makes them easy to identify!
  • Broad-tailed Hummingbirds are the highest altitude breeder of any hummingbird found in the U.S. They will breed at elevations of up to 10,500 feet.
  • They are especially attracted to red tubular flowers.
A male Black-chinned Hummingbird at the Los Alamos Nature Center. (Photo by Bob Walker)

Black-chinned Hummingbirds

  • Black-chinned Hummingbirds are widespread and are found in a variety of habitats — from deserts to high mountain forests. They are adaptable and can be found in urban areas and recently disturbed habitats.
  • Their eggs are about the size of a coffee bean. The nests, which are usually made from plant material and spider webs, expand as their babies grow.
A male Rufous Hummingbird stopping for a snack at the nature center. (Photo by Bob Walker)

Rufous Hummingbirds

  • Rufous Hummingbirds are extremely territorial! Once they’ve found a good nectar source, they will chase away any hummingbird that tries to drink from their flowers or feeders. 
  • Rufous Hummingbirds breed as far north as southeast Alaska, making them the northernmost breeder of any hummingbird in the world.
  • These hummingbirds have a very long migratory route and travel clockwise across western North America annually. They go up the Pacific Coast in late winter and spring and reach the Pacific Northwest by May. They head south in early July, traveling along the Rocky Mountains.
A male Calliope Hummingbird stopping by the nature center. (Photo by Bob Walker)

Calliope Hummingbirds

  • The Calliope Hummingbird is the smallest bird in continental North America.
  • These birds are small, but mighty! They are quite territorial and have been seen chasing away birds as big as Red-tailed Hawks during breeding season.
  • It weighs about as much as a penny at roughly 2.5 grams!

Keep an eye and ear out for our hummingbirds in the coming weeks! Broad-tailed and Black-chinned Hummingbirds should begin to arrive in early April.

If you decide to feed hummingbirds, there’s no need to buy the fancy store nectar. It’s easy to make your own! A simple solution of one-part sugar to four-parts water is all it takes with no boiling or dyes required. Check out this hummingbird food recipe and some feeding guidelines from All About Birds. Be mindful that this juice spoils quickly in the hot weather, so be sure to change it regularly! Change your water before it gets cloudy or discolored. Sugar water ferments quickly in the summer and produces a toxic alcohol. We recommend changing your water daily or, at the most, every two days during the warmest days of the year.