Jim Williams has been watching birds and writing about their antics since before "Gilligan's Island" went into reruns. Join him for his unique insights, his everyday adventures and an open conversation about the birds in your back yard and beyond.

Posts about Bird biology

Tough time for birds

Posted by: Jim Williams Updated: June 28, 2014 - 9:31 PM

Many bird species had a tough June. The frequent and heavy rains destroyed some nests and in certain cases nestlings. Some bird species had a chance to nest again. For others, biology made that impossible.

Hard hit were species nesting in wetlands or on marsh shoreline where rising water levels dislodged or covered nests. Birds nesting on or near the ground in flooded areas also lost nests, eggs, or nestlings. Wind blew nests and contents to the ground.

If loss occurred before the eggs hatched there was a chance the birds would nest again. If, however, chicks were lost, then the breeding season for the parents ended. Once eggs hatch, the reproductive system of the female bird shuts down. 

Going into the middle of June, birds simply might not have had time to start over and successfully fledge birds that would be mature enough to migrate or survive winter.

Mark Martell, director of bird conservation for Audubon Minnesota said blackbirds, rails, grebes, and terns in particular were at risk from rising water levels. He pointed out that songbirds, too, faced problems if wet weather made insects hard to find. 

Birds feeding hatchlings rely heavily on insects because of their fat and protein content. Missing a couple of days of food because of heavy rains could mean chicks starve.

“This is the kind of situation,” Martell said, “where the most fit chicks survive and the weak die.”

If we’re living in weather’s new normal, and it's beginning to look that way, these losses will continue. Birds will nest as they have for millions of years, awareness of  extended extreme wind and rain a distant evolution away.

An article in the June 24 edition of The New York Times discussed content of a report about our economy in a world of “unchecked global warming.” The author, Justin Gillis, wrote that in 100 years residents of the Midwest could expect  “20 days each year in which heat and humidity make it functionally impossible for humans to be outdoors.” 

What about birds and other animals? 

What happens to birds when it is too hot and humid outdoors for humans? Is there impact on the plants and insects that provide food for birds? Do birds simply become stressed, as do we, and die? 

Certainly, the first concern is for human life, climate impact on where and how we live. And the next century is a long time from now. But whatever conditions we create for ourselves, by action or neglect, we create for animals as well. 


This Lark Bunting was photographed in South Dakota on a July day when the temperature was pushing 100 degrees. The bird was exposing as much skin as possible and panting in an effort to cool itself.



Wood Stork being seen near Blue Earth

Posted by: Jim Williams Updated: June 21, 2014 - 11:36 PM

A very unusual bird has been seen for the past three days on a farm west of Blue Earth. A Wood Stork, a bird of Florida and the southeastern coast, has been entertaining birders since being reported to the birding community (email) on June 19. This is a juvenile bird, as indicated by its very pronounced head feathers. The Minnesota visitor is shown in the first photo. The second photo shows an adult Wood Stork, with its typical featherless head. Note also the difference in bill color. The Birds of North America monograph on this species explains that fledglings disperse widely after leaving the nesting colony. There are records for this species as far west as California and up the east coast into Canada. One other Wood Stork has been reported here, in Grand Marais several years ago. Both Dakotas, Iowa, and Wisconsin have records. In its usual habitat Wood Storks eat mostly fish. The diet can include insects, snails, crayfish, frogs, snakes, birds, small mammals, as well as some plant material. The Blue Earth stork has been seen feeding in standing water in a field adjacent to the farm. No one has offered comment on what it might be eating. Nor can anyone say how long it will remain. Wood Stork is the only stork species breeding in the U.S., and is our tallest wading bird, measuring just over three feet tall. Folk names for this species include Flinthead and Ironhead. The adult bird shown here was photographed along the west coast of Florida three years ago.

Sparrows hatching in Plymouth bedroom

Posted by: Jim Williams Updated: June 19, 2014 - 5:10 PM

One of my grandsons is becoming surrogate father to one or more House Sparrows. This is happening Thursday afternoon. The first of three eggs he has in his room under a heat lamp is so so slowly being pried open by a very tiny, very pink bird. In one other egg the occupant has poked a hole as it begins to hatch.

I would have bet a lot of money that this would not happen.

Four days ago, Cole, who is 12, and I were checking nest boxes on my bluebird trail. House Sparrows, non-native birds that out-compete bluebirds and Tree Swallows for nesting space, are not favorites of mine. When I find a nest in one of my boxes, perhaps once a season in 40 boxes, I pull the nest out, eggs and the messy nest falling to the ground, where I leave them.

Cole asked if he could have the eggs. “Sure, they’re yours.” It’s not often that anyone gets close looks at songbird eggs. Cole is an enthusiastic birder with a love of anything alive (or dead) and outdoors. So, he took the eggs.

“Can I have the nest?” he asked. My thoughts went to bird lice before I said yes. Why not? I had no idea that he would reconstruct the nest in a box in his bedroom, find a heat lamp, and incubate the eggs. 

He called that night to tell me he had candled one of the eggs — not easy with a cream-colored egg blotched with brown — but, he said he saw the outline of a chick. He sounded excited.

These are bird lessons hard to find, and I was happy for him. He was going to be disappointed when the eggs didn’t hatch, but that’s a lesson, too.

Just after one o’clock today, Thursday afternoon, Cole’s sister Sophie called and said, “Grandpa, you have to come over and see Cole’s baby birds.”


And so I found three kids, ages 12, 8 and 6 huddling over this jury-rigged nursery, watching an incredibly small and delicate sparrow push against the shell, rest, push again, rest, that routine to continue for hours, I’m sure. You can’t buy this. I'm offering no help or direction, but will if he asks. Right now, Cole is using the Internet for answers. He is ready with meal worms as food. He has not given thought to fecal sacs, but he will.

I’ll report as this progresses. Whatever happens this will be unforgettable for these kids. And for me.

By the way, in case you wonder, Cole’s possession of eggs, nest, and now live birds is legal because House Sparrows, as non-native invasive species, are not protected. Unless you get too close to Cole’s babies.

Here is a photo of the chick making its initial appearance in the world. What you see in the opening is a wing. The eggs are about three-quarters of an inch in length. The second photo shows the bird after emerging from the egg, a process that tpok about two hours. It ate bits of meal worm an hour after that. In the second photo, the bird's head is pointed down, the end of its beak overlapping the egg on the left.

Western Grebes in courtship behavior

Posted by: Jim Williams Updated: May 26, 2014 - 3:19 PM

Western Grebes nest at Sand Lake National Wildlife Refuge near Aberdeen, South Dakota. They have an elaborate courtship behavior that was in beginning stages when I visited there late last week. Courtship culminates with the pair rising to their feet on the water, and with wings abeat, racing across the water’s surface. The birds touch, bow, and nod to each other as pairs are chosen.  

The Western Grebe colonies most reliable and closest to the Twin Cities that Chanhassen birder Bob Janssen knows of are on Lake Osakis in Todd and Douglas counties, and possibly some of the larger lakes in Kandiyohi County south and east of Willmar. Also worth a look are Lake Waconia in Carver County and Pelican Lake in Wright County.  The status of these colonies change from year to year, he said. Janssen is author of a book on Minnesota bird records, and is working on a book about birds in our state parks.


It was a failure to launch

Posted by: Jim Williams Updated: May 14, 2014 - 10:08 PM

A few days ago I wrote about a strange collection of spiders seen at Crex Meadows near Grantsburg, Wis. Stretched along a 150-yard section of refuge road were thousands and thousands of spiders. They were on a sheet of spider silk that looked not like webbing but more like cloudy plastic wrap for food storage. The largest of the spiders would cover a dime. Most were much smaller.

The question was, what was going on? I had never seen anything like it.

I sent photos to a biologist friend. He sent them to Jim Fitzpatrick at Carpenter Nature Center near Hastings. And Jim sent them to his brother, John Fitzpatrick, who runs the Cornell Lab of Ornithology in New York State. John sent them to Mark Deyrup at the Archbold Biological Station in Venus, Florida.

He provided the answer.

I have to note that two days prior, Val Cunningham, who shares with me the birding columnist duties for the StarTribune, also sent me the answer. She found it the old-fashioned way — Google.

The answer is failed mass ballooning. Here’s what Deyrup wrote:

“This … appears to be the result of a mass ballooning event by a number of different species of spiders. This occasionally happens when weather has not been good for spider dispersal. The spiders run up the nearest tall shrub in the open when the weather is dry and breezy and not too cold. They then release threads that (are intended to) carry them away after the threads get long enough. You can see some spiders doing this in the photos. Each spider leaves a thread wherever it goes as they climb the shrub, and many of the threads that are sent out on the breeze end up back on the starting point, so the amount of silk quickly adds up. Sometimes there are so many spiders ballooning that the spiders landing on a field and shrubs cover everything with a delicate layer of silk.”


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