Female Black-headed Grosbeak. Photo: Sally Dinius/Pacific Northwest Birds

Female Black-headed Grosbeak. Photo: Sally Dinius/Pacific Northwest Birds

It’s finally May, and the Black-headed Grosbeak is making its way back into the Pacific Northwest. The first one to arrive in our yard this spring, a female, showed her pretty little face yesterday. I’m sure her mate won’t be too far behind.

The photo to the left is from two years ago, as I just wasn’t quick enough with the camera yesterday. I’d like to think it’s the same female, though, returning to her favorite bird cafe.

Are you still waiting to see the Black-headed Grosbeak? You may already be hearing it as it sings from nearby trees and shrubs.

Black-headed Grosbeak song (Opens in a new tab.)

To attract this bird, be sure to have sunflower seeds ready and available. Rumor has it that it will also drink from oriole nectar feeders, so try hanging one of those this year, too.

Speaking of food, did you know the Black-headed Grosbeak is one of the only birds that can eat the Monarch Butterfly? Monarchs are toxic to many birds because of the milkweed they feed on, but the Black-headed Grosbeak will consume many of these butterflies.

Read on to learn more about the Black-headed Grosbeak!

Scientific name: Pheucticus melanocephalus
Family: CARDINALIDAE

Size and markings: The Black-headed Grosbeak is 8-8.5 inches long and has a wingspan of approximately 12.5 inches. Its beak is finch-like but large, and the upper part is darker than the lower. Tail is fairly short. Warm orange colors the breast, neck, and rump of the male, while his belly is a lighter orange that turns into a creamy white tinged with lemon-yellow. His head is black, and his back is chestnut-brown/black, mottled with orange. Its wings are black, as well, though interspersed with white markings and two white wing bars. The female is tan and brown with a striped head and face. Both male and female may have a yellowish tint to the belly.

Male Black-headed Grosbeak. Photo: Sally Dinius/Pacific Northwest Birds

Male Black-headed Grosbeak. Photo: Sally Dinius/Pacific Northwest Birds

Food: Besides berries and fruit, the Black-headed Grosbeak loves to feast on insects and other invertebrates like wasps, bees, grasshoppers, and caterpillars. It will readily come to backyard birdfeeders, especially when sunflower seeds are offered. This grosbeak will also feed at oriole nectar feeders.

Habitat/nesting/behavior: The Black-headed Grosbeak feels at home in various types of woodlands and forests, including near bodies of water such as rivers and lakes. Suburban gardens, orchards, and edges of forests are also attractive to this grosbeak. When a good location to build a nest is found, the nest is then built loosely on outer branches with no mud to hold it together. Both sexes are equally defensive of their nesting territory, and both will spend time sitting on the eggs.

Number of broods per year: 1
Number of eggs per brood: 2-5

Migratory pattern: Though it spends its winters in Mexico, this bird breeds throughout the western United States. Males reach their breeding areas and sing when the females arrive.

Months usually seen at backyard feeders: Spring and summer months, typically from May to August.

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Learn more about your backyard birds in Birds of the Pacific Northwest: How to Identify 25 of the Most Popular Backyard Birds. Get it for your Kindle (which you can also read on your PC, Mac, smartphone, or tablet with this free reading app), Nook, on Smashwords, or in the iTunes bookstore.

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In some parts of the world, it isn’t rude to spit. In fact, it’s highly desirable…if you’re a bird. Even better if you’re an Edible-nest (or Cave) Swiftlet (Aerodramus fuciphagus), a member of the swift family that builds its nest from its own dried saliva. It’s the male that builds the nest by laying down one strand of saliva after another, eventually forming a small, bracket-shaped nest that adheres to the sides of limestone caves, cliffs, and even buildings. This bird is a smart one, often nesting in hard-to-get-to, high, cavernous caves where many nest collectors have fallen to their deaths.

Swiftlet on nest. Photographer unknown. Source: http://speakupforthevoiceless.org/2014/05/29/bird-nest-soup-mafia-china-thai-connection/

Swiftlet on nest. Photographer unknown. Source: http://speakupforthevoiceless.org/2014/05/29/bird-nest-soup-mafia-china-thai-connection/

The Swiftlet is a small bird at just 4-5 inches long. Found in Southeast Asia, this dark bird with pale undersides creates a nest that is seen as many to be an aphrodisiac or tonic for whatever ails you. A dish that started in China around 1,200 years ago, it has grown in popularity throughout the region, to the point that the harvesting of these nests leave many worried about the bird’s conservation status. In other words, the extensive harvesting of and demand for these nests often occur at times that harm and kill nestlings and fledglings (the young birds are simply “thrown away” or the female no longer has a place to lay her eggs), putting the species at risk of extinction. As you’ll read in the next paragraph, there is a ravenous market for these nests. As long as they can be sold, and/or until better nest harvesting practices are put into place, these birds will continue to be in jeopardy.

Edible nests. Photo by Wikipedia user Kowloonese.

Edible nests. Photo by Wikipedia user Kowloonese.

Regarding his photo of the Swiftlet nests to the left, photographer Kowloonese has this to say: “The top image shows the inside of a nest (shown here upside down). The bottom one shows how it would look when stuck on the wall of the cave. The nests are about 3″ long in this photo. These nests are still slightly moist hence requires refrigeration though most are sold completely dry. As of 2005, dried bird nests can be priced between US$1000 to US$3000 per pound in San Francisco area depending on the type of nest and moisture contents. The moist variety costs less per pound because it weighs more for the same amount of material. The sample in this picture cost about US$20 each. The nests are double steamed until they are broken into tiny Jello-like bits.”

Ten years later, the price for the nests has gone up, reaching up to $4,500 per pound and creating a mafia-like atmosphere surrounding the cultivation and sale of these nests. Here’s to hoping that someday cooler heads will prevail and the nests will be collected in a more sustainable way (or, better yet, will no longer be considered a delicacy). If not, yet another bird will be added to the list of extinct species.

Oh, people. Just eat something else.

Read more: Healing Powers of Birds’ Nest Soup Remain Mysterious

Bird’s Nest SoupM

Bird Nest Soup Mafia — China & Thai Connection

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Learn more about your backyard birds in the newly revised and updated Birds of the Pacific Northwest: How to Identify 25 of the Most Popular Backyard Birds. Get it for your Kindle (which you can also read on your PC, Mac, smartphone, or tablet with this free reading app), Nook, on Smashwords, or in the iTunes bookstore.

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Each morning, there’s one Steller’s Jay who arrives to sit in our Japanese Maple before the others. I like to think it’s the same bird each time, but I honestly can’t tell, so I pretend. My nine-year-old, given the task of naming him, calls him Toca Boca after a hair styling app on iTunes. (Of course, we also don’t know if he’s actually a male, but we’re going with it.) The maple is just 15-ish feet from our patio, which is where I stand in my pajamas and bedhead hair to toss peanuts to birds who have bedheads of their own. As soon as I start tossing, the rest of Toca Boca’s clan swoops out from wherever they were watching me, including from the roof just above where I’m standing. (Why, yes, that does freak me out.) On the days when the rest of the gang is otherwise predisposed, TB will loudly squawk to let them know they’re missing out on the food, and in they fly from all corners of the neighborhood.

“Silly bird,” I say. “You could have had all these peanuts to yourself.”

“Crazy lady,” I imagine he replies, “I’m not coming near you on my own.”

Toca Boca contemplates keeping the peanuts for himself. Photo: Sally Dinius/Pacific Northwest Birds

Toca Boca contemplates keeping the peanuts for himself. Photo: Sally Dinius/Pacific Northwest Birds


This handsome yet quirky bird might have had a different name than the one he has now (Steller’s Jay, that is, not Toca Boca) were it not for a brave botanist named Georg Steller, the first European to see — and set foot on — the beautiful land we now call Alaska. It was on Kodiak Island where Steller first saw the black and blue jay, a relative of the Blue Jay and the American Crow, among others in the Corvidae family.

Georg (pronounced GAY-org) Steller was born 306 years ago on March 10, 1709 in Windsheim, Bavaria (now Germany). Long before the ill-fated voyage of 1741 that left him a survivor among a much smaller group than had first set out, Steller was educated at several universities, where he studied theology, medicine, and the natural sciences, including botany. The knowledge he gained, especially in medicine and botany, made him a highly-valuable BMOB (big man on boat), when he put it to use to save many of the sailors afflicted with scurvy. Captain Vitus Bering, in charge of the expedition, unfortunately was one of the men who did not survive.

Georg Wilhelm Steller, 1709-1746

Georg Wilhelm Steller, 1709-1746


It was on one of the Aleutian islands during this difficult trip that Steller was able to collect specimens of several birds and animals that were named for him in the years after his death. Steller’s Sea Cow (Hydrodamalis gigas), a marine mammal that was a cousin of the manatee, was one of the creatures he discovered. The sea cow was massive, weighing around nine tons (or more) and measuring up to 30 feet in length. Sadly, Steller’s Sea Cow was hunted to extinction within the two decades after its existence was made known.

Other creatures discovered by and named for Georg Steller were Steller’s Sea Eagle (Haliaeetus pelagicus), Steller’s Sea Lion (Eumetopias jubatus), a mollusk called the Gumboot Chiton (Cryptochiton stelleri), Steller’s Eider (Polysticta stelleri), and our friend, Steller’s Jay (Cyanocitta stelleri).

Georg Steller died in 1746 while attempting to return home on an overland journey through Siberia. I’m grateful, as I’m sure you are, for valiant and brave men like Steller who put their lives at risk to discover more about our amazing world.

This glimpse into the life of Georg Steller and the tragic voyage to the Kamchutka Peninsula in Alaska was just the tip of the iceberg. You can read more at the following links:

Georg Steller: Zoologist and Botanist (Encyclopedia Brittanica)

Encounters of Alutiiq and Russians on Kodiak Island, 1741 (in the words of Georg Steller, himself)

Absurd Creature of the Week: A Strange Saga of Bribery, Skinny-dipping, and a 12-ton Sea Cow (Wired.com)

Profiles in Natural History: Georg Wilhelm Steller and the Ape in the Sea (Popular Social Science)

Steller’s Voyage on Google Maps

Learn more about Steller’s Jay:

The Beautiful Yet Dastardly Steller’s Jay (Pacific Northwest Birds)

Ever Heard of a Bearded Steller’s Jay? (Pacific Northwest Birds)

Which Jay Was That? It’s blue… it’s a jay… but what KIND of Jay? (BirdNote)

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Learn more about your backyard birds in the newly revised and updated Birds of the Pacific Northwest: How to Identify 25 of the Most Popular Backyard Birds. Get it for your Kindle (which you can also read on your PC, Mac, smartphone, or tablet with this free reading app), Nook, on Smashwords, or in the iTunes bookstore.

Don’t forget to follow us on Facebook and Twitter!

Often, the first inkling we may have that a Varied Thrush is close by is its song: a haunting, monotone trill that it lets loose from its perch in a tree or bush. It sounds something like this one:

Varied Thrush Song (Opens in a new tab.)

The Varied Thrush is a common resident of the Pacific Northwest, though not seen in backyards as often in the winter as during warmer months — from my vantage point, at least. In fact, it’s so rarely seen in my yard (at least compared to the “usuals” who are always here) that when I heard it’s whistle the other day, I stood wracking my brain for a good several minutes trying to remember which bird was making the sound. (I’d just seen a female Varied Thrush under my feeders a day or two before — you’d think I could have put two and two together. But no.)

Male Varied Thrush (Photo: Walter Seigmund) and Female Varied Thrush (Photo: Minette Layne)

Male Varied Thrush (Photo: Walter Seigmund) and Female Varied Thrush (Photo: Minette Layne)

Whatever the season, being visited by a Varied Thrush is a treat. Here’s what you need to know about this very pretty bird.

Scientific name: Ixoreus naevius
Family: TURDIDAE

Size and markings: Also called the Oregon Robin by some, the Varied Thrush is about 9.5 inches long with a wingspan of 16 inches. This cousin of the American Robin has a dark slate-gray head, back, wings, and tail with orange banding on the wings. The slate-gray color can look navy blue in certain light. The Varied Thrush also has an orange belly, throat, and eye stripe. Males can be identified by the black band across the upper chest and somewhat darker coloring. Females have this band, also, but theirs is much lighter.

Food: The Varied Thrush has a “varied” diet and eats berries, seeds, nuts, and insects. It is often seen foraging for seeds below feeders but will also venture onto suet and seed feeders.

Habitat/nesting/behavior: Though the Varied Thrush lives year-round in the Pacific Northwest, it is most common in the Cascades (including suburban areas in the Cascade foothills), Northern Rockies, and along the Pacific Coast. Breeding usually happens in the rainforests close to the Pacific Coast. Compared to its cousin, the American Robin, the Varied Thrush is rather quiet and shy, but can still let loose a variety of songs and calls, the most recognizable being a sweet yet haunting monotone trill.

Number of broods per year: 1-2
Number of eggs per brood: 1-6

Migratory pattern: In the Pacific Northwest, the Varied Thrush is a year-round (though not always seen) resident. It also breeds throughout western Canada and all of Alaska and spends winters in California and on the Baja California peninsula in Mexico.

Months usually seen at backyard feeders: Any, though most common during spring and fall.

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Learn more about your backyard birds in the newly revised and updated Birds of the Pacific Northwest: How to Identify 25 of the Most Popular Backyard Birds. Get it for your Kindle (which you can also read on your PC, Mac, smartphone, or tablet with this free reading app), Nook, on Smashwords, or in the iTunes bookstore.

Don’t forget to follow us on Facebook and Twitter!

American Bittern by John James Audubon

American Bittern by John James Audubon

If you’re a fan of John James Audubon (1785-1851), you may also be familiar with his work, Audubon’s Birds of America, which contains beautiful watercolor illustrations of 435 North American birds. Audubon discovered 25 species himself, naming quite a few of them for people he knew (Bewick’s Wren, Swainson’s Hawk, Wilson’s Warbler, and more).

Audubon’s illustrations are made from hand-engraved plates and are now available at Audubon.com. Because the good folks at Audubon have made these available to us in their online library, we can now download a high-resolution version of each print for free. As a warning, these are huge files, which you might want to resize once you’ve downloaded them.

Having these illustrations at our fingertips is a really big deal. Personally, I feel like a kid who got locked in a toy store for the night and isn’t one bit upset about it. (Seriously. Don’t even call my parents, ’cause I’m staying!) The only negative about this is not knowing which ones to print first.

So, bird and nature lovers, do check out and enjoy these beautiful Audubon prints. You just might feel like you took a walk through the countryside with John J. himself.

You can also get Audubon’s Birds of America for your Kindle or Kindle app or by choosing one of these other hard cover or paperback editions.

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Learn more about your backyard birds in the newly revised and updated Birds of the Pacific Northwest: How to Identify 25 of the Most Popular Backyard Birds. Get it for your Kindle (which you can also read on your PC, Mac, smartphone, or tablet with this free reading app), Nook, on Smashwords, or in the iTunes bookstore.

Don’t forget to follow us on Facebook and Twitter!

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