Songbirds (Order Passeriformes, “perching birds”) make up a large order, including 4,600 of the world’s approximately 10,000 avian species. Most have 4 toes—3 facing forward and 1 facing backward, to aid with perching on branches. Made up of 2 major divisions, the oscines are the “true” songbirds, with often-complicated and beautiful songs (to the human ear—I suppose any song is beautiful to the right bird’s ear) and complex syringes (plural of “syrinx,” which is the avian equivalent of the human larynx). The suboscines—which in the U.S. are primarily the flycatchers—have much simpler syringes and far less complicated songs. On this page, you’ll find a write-up of one suboscine species: Western Kingbird.
Other birds on this page are not members of the Passeriformes order at all. Hummingbirds (Order Apodiformes), Mourning Dove (Order Columbiformes, pigeons and doves), and Northern Flicker (Order Picaformes, woodpeckers) are included here as well. All of these summaries were originally written for rehab volunteers.
Western Kingbirds are common flycatchers found in rural residential areas and lowland riparian woodlands. In all, the U.S. has 7 different species of kingbird, including several quite rare visitors to southern Arizona and the Texas/Mexico border. Western Kingbirds live in Colorado between May and September, heading to southern Mexico and Central America in early fall. They can often be spotted sitting on utility wires, scanning for food. Here’s a photo of an adult with fledglings. A part of a large family of species called Tyrant flycatchers, the derivation of their scientific name-–Tyrannus verticalis—was a bit of challenge this time. The genus name (Tyrannus) is easy: From Greek, then Latin, for “absolute ruler,” all kingbirds put up a noisy and vigorous territorial defense of their small “kingdoms,” attacking hawks, ravens, cats, and whatever else wanders in. The species name (verticalis), though, is a bit of a puzzle. Does it refer to their very upright perching posture? But all kingbirds sit that way. Perhaps it comes from the deeper roots of the term “vertical,” which in Latin is “vertex”—crown of the head. Adult Western Kingbirds do have a small orange-red patch on the midcrown, which is rarely seen. No other kingbirds seem to have this, so maybe…
You’ll find 6 noisy, winsome Western Kingbirds in the baby bird room this summer. The sounds they are making now (and make them, they certainly do!) are the same ones they’ll use as adults. Unlike most other songbirds, flycatchers don’t learn their songs by hearing adults sing; they’re born knowing them. A flycatcher also has a much simpler syrinx—the avian version of our larynx, the sound-producing structure in the respiratory track—so its songs and calls are much less complex than most other songbirds. They eat primarily flying insects (flies, bees, wasps, ants, grasshoppers) as well as fruit and berries. As do many other flycatchers, Western Kingbirds will often perch on a bare branch or wire, swooping out 40 – 60 feet in pursuit of insects and returning to the exact same spot to continue the hunt. (This trait can be very helpful if you’re trying to get a good look at one in the wild—you often get multiple tries!) They fledge after about 16 days in the nest, but they depend on their parents for 2 – 3 weeks after that, while they hone their flying skills and learn to catch insects. A couple of weeks ago along the Highline Canal bike trail in Denver, my husband and I watched a parent Western Kingbird feeding 2 very noisy young fledglings. The kids waited impatiently on a branch; the parent zoomed in with a mouthful of insects but landed on a different branch than they were on—probably encouraging them to figure out the art of flying. Once they get that skill honed, the parents will likely show up with wounded insects and drop them from above, forcing the kids to sally forth and catch the insects mid-air. On-the-job training for a new generation of “little tyrants”!
When I start to write one of these species accounts, I think “What is interesting about this species?” With hummingbirds, though, what isn’t interesting about them? The smallest of all birds, hummingbirds weight between 0.1 and 0.3 ounces (2.5 – 8 grams)—or about the same as 5 – 10 M&Ms for most of the hummingbirds we see in Colorado. Probably the most striking aspect of hummingbirds is their unique and extraordinary ability to hover indefinitely in the air, as well as to fly forward, backward, side to side, and even upside down for short distances. Their common name arises from the hum of their wings beating faster than the eye can discern—for Colorado hummingbirds, around 50 beats per second. They have very long tongues that can extend far beyond the tips of their bills, unlike most other birds (except, you may remember, woodpeckers such as the Northern Flicker). Their bills are uniquely designed to extract nectar from deep within tubular flowers. They don’t suck up nectar, though. Instead, they lick it and capillary action then moves the liquid up 2 partial tubes on the sides of their tongues and into their throats. Small insects such as gnats and aphids are also an important part of their diet, providing protein to supplement the sucrose of nectar. Their hearts beat at 1,250 beats per minute when they are flying; even at rest, the rate is still 250 beats per minute. Yet when it’s cold or food is scarce, they can dramatically slow their body functioning through a state of torpor, where their heart rate can drop to 50 beats per minute and their body temperatures fall from ~110o F to 55o F.
The male’s role in breeding is quite clear—mate with as many females as he can and then take off for more southerly climes. Females raise the young alone, building tiny nests of thistle and dandelion down, hair, feathers, and rootlets, with lichen or small bits of bark as camouflage. Spider webs provide the glue for these components and also allow the tiny nests to stretch to accommodate the growing nestlings. Eggs—usually 2—are about the size of a small jelly bean. The young hatch after 16 – 19 days and leave the nest around 20 days after hatching.
The 17 species that breed in the U.S. and Canada represent only about 5% of the more than 320 hummingbird species in the western hemisphere. In Colorado, we have 2 breeding species: By far the most common and widespread is the Broad-tailed Hummingbird; Black-chinned Hummingbirds breed in some areas as well. In addition, 2 other species spend time in Colorado following breeding—the Rufous Hummingbird and the Calliope Hummingbird. Broad-tailed Hummingbirds are easily confused with the eastern Ruby-throated Hummingbird because of their brilliant red gorgets (feathers on the throat). Yet Broad-tails are more closely related to the brilliant orange-red Rufous Hummingbird. Interestingly, the dark-headed Black-chins are in the same family as the Ruby-throats, even though they don’t look that much alike. (This photo of a Black-chin is extraordinary in that you can actually see the purple “collar” at the end of the black “chin.” It’s very difficult to see that characteristic unless you are in the perfect light and the perfect place.) Finally, in its own family, the Calliope Hummingbird is the smallest breeding bird in North America; both males and females can be identified by their tiny size (only 3″ long!) and very short tails (that don’t extend beyond the wingtips at rest). Males have dramatic magenta gorget feathers that look like streamers.
In our area, hummingbirds are migratory, heading to Mexico or Central America for the winter. In fact, Rufous Hummingbirds that breed in coastal Alaska fly ~2,700 miles from their wintering grounds to their breeding areas—in effect, traveling 49,000,000 body lengths twice a year. These fascinating creatures have spawned a number of “wives tales,” ranging from the harmless (e.g., hummingbirds will starve if I don’t keep my feeders full) to the totally bizarre (e.g., hummingbirds migrate on the backs of Canada Geese). Read about 12 common myths about hummingbirds and help dispel these common misconceptions about these amazing little jewels.
Mourning Doves are among the most abundant and widespread bird species in North America. Its scientific name is Zenaida macroura. Zenaida was the first name of the wife of the French botanist Charles Bonaparte, who lived and worked in the early 1800s. The species name refers to its extremely long tail, from Greek—makros (long) and ouros (tail). Its common name arises from its song, which sounds rather mournful. Young Mourning Doves look very much like their parents, except that their feathers have a “scaly” appearance—wispy little white edges, which wear off quickly once they leave the nest, outline the end of their feathers. Here’s a photo of a recently fledged youngster, where you can really see this effect. Mourning Doves can be found around Colorado all year, although they tend to move to southern parts of the state during the colder months.
Doves and pigeons belong to the Columbidae family (which is Latin for “pigeon or dove”—how convenient!). So doves and pigeons share many interesting physical features. For instance, these birds can drink with their heads down, using their beaks like a straw. (Any other bird has to take a sip of water and throw its head back, so the water can trickle down its throat.) Almost all of their diet is seeds and plant parts. Doves can store lots of seeds in their crops, often gathering seeds in one place and then flying to another spot to digest them in a bit more leisure. Since doves prefer to find seeds and water in open areas free of vegetation—making them easy to spot—these eating and drinking styles may help to limit their exposure to predators. Doves don’t have an oil or “preen” gland to help with waterproofing their feathers. Instead, they have “powder down” feathers—extremely fine feathers that disintegrate into a dust-like substance. Through preening, the bird coats its feathers with this dust to provide some waterproofing. If you’ve ever seen a window strike by a dove, you may have seen a “ghost bird” on the glass—a tracing of the bird left on the glass by this powder down. If you and the bird are both lucky, that’s the only remnant of the strike you’ll find…
Mourning Dove babies (called “squabs”) grow very quickly, increasing their weight 14-fold in 15 days. Initially, parents feed the kids “crop milk”—a rich mixture produced in the crop. (That’s why we tube-feed young doves and pigeons—to simulate the parents’ feeding them crop milk.) As the nestlings grow, the parents switch to feeding them regurgitated seeds. That’s why shaker feeding is an important part of a growing squab’s rehab feeding protocol, since that action nicely mimics the parents’ feeding behavior. The nestlings fledge about 15 days after hatching and remain with the parents for another 15 days, fed primarily by dad while mom starts another clutch. In fact, Mourning Doves can have as many as 5 or 6 clutches a year (although in Colorado, 3 is more common) while many other birds struggle to make it through just 1 brood. Although not quite as prolific in reproduction as our familiar Rock Pigeon—which can have babies just about any month of the year—is it any surprise that doves have been a symbol of love and fertility through the ages?
Once upon a time, North America had 2 major flicker species: the more eastern Yellow-shafted Flicker and the more western Red-shafted Flicker. Each was named for the color of the shafts of their tail and flight feathers, either a lively lemon-yellow or a lovely orange-red. A couple of decades ago, these species were lumped into Northern Flicker when scientists realized that they interbreed easily wherever they overlap. In Colorado, our flickers are primarily the red-shafted subspecies, although it’s not uncommon to see hybrids sporting some features of each subspecies and, occasionally, some pure yellow-shafteds. Here you can see the red shafts of the flight and tail feathers. And here is a photo of a male and female Northern Flicker together. You can tell they are red-shafted even without seeing the shafts because this male has a red “mustache” (malar stripe) while a yellow-shafted male would have a black mustache.
The scientific name of the Northern Flicker is Colaptes (Greek for “chisel”) auratus (Latin for “gilded”)—originally assigned to the Yellow-shafted Flickers when they were considered a stand-alone species. (When species are combined, a new scientific name isn’t always created, just to add to the fun and confusion.) It’s not clear how the common name “Flicker” evolved. My favorite theory is that it’s an imitation of one of their many vocalizations. Heard mostly during breeding season, to me it sounds like a soft, almost squeaky “wick-a, wick-a, wick-a”-or, to some, “flick-a.” They’re most commonly identified year-round by their strident “kleeee-yer” call or a repetitive “ki-ki-ki-ki-ki” during mating season.
Flickers are part of the vast woodpecker family (Picaformes)—and the one most likely to be found hunting for food on the ground rather than in trees. Woodpeckers have some interesting physical features. For instance, they use their extremely stiff tails to brace themselves as they move up and down tree trunks. In addition, most perching birds have 3 toes pointing forward and 1 pointing back to help grip a tree branch. But most woodpeckers have 2 toes facing forward and 2 facing backward, for better traction when traveling along trunks. They also have much longer, more curved claws than non-climbing birds do, for greater gripping power. (Have you tried to unhook a flicker’s feet from the side of a cage or a bird net? It can be quite a challenge.) A flicker has a greatly elongated apparatus that supports and controls the tongue; the sheath that contains the tongue wraps completely around the skull and attaches at the nostril! This extraordinary arrangement—hummingbirds are the only other birds that have it—allows them to extend their tongues well beyond their beaks. (That may not sound like much in the human world; but in the bird world, it’s major.) Flicker tongues are especially sticky, so they can lap up their favorite food—ants. They also extract beetle larva by probing the soil with their long beaks. Since many spend winters in Colorado, they switch to fruit, berries, and seeds when ants and beetles become scarce. They also appreciate suet offered at feeders during the cold months. Young flickers fledge between 24 and 27 days after hatching; they stay with their parents for only a short time afterwards. In general, flickers excavate nest cavities only in soft or diseased wood, since their beaks aren’t quite as strong as most other woodpeckers. But if you’ve ever been pecked by one of our young flickers, you might want to take issue with that.
© 2009 Tina Mitchell