Birding Terms: Wherein We Reveal What’s What to Astounded Neophytes

Birders, in an effort to introduce coolness to our unequivocally uncool hobby or perhaps just as subterfuge to conceal our embarrassing passion from chortling eavesdroppers, seem to get a kick out of using inscrutable lingo and esoteric jargon. If we can’t mystify anyone with talk of lores, stringers, morphs, or pishing, we’ll steel our in-group unity by replacing perfectly good words with dumb ones. We’re less creative about it than, say, the drug users who gave the world brilliant terms like doobie, spliff, and angel dust. No, we just call our binoculars “binos” and grin at each other knowingly. Like the total dorks we are.

If it’s to make us feel cooler, it’s working on this guy. I can’t wait to show off my insider knowledge. And like an unscrupulous magician, I’m going to reveal the best and worst of bird words right here, right now.

The following list is a combination of 1) actual words ripped from biology textbooks that no one but ornithologists and birders would ever need to use, 2) made-up words that exist only for birders referencing concepts for which only birders would need a word, and 3) entirely unnecessary slang and abbreviations.

Maybe the terms aren’t entirely unnecessary—maybe there comes a point when you’ve said “sharp-shinned hawk” so often that you really must shorten the term to “sharpie” lest you run out of breath or patience. Or perhaps it’s a shibboleth: REAL birders don’t “look for a particular bird species”; no, no—we twitch.

In any case, here are some terms you dummies should know, in no particular order:

Binoculars are called bins, binos, nocs, or even barrels. (Ex.: Did everyone bring their eye trumpets?) We haven’t decided yet. I call my pair “Benny.”

Scopes are called scopes. These are the big single-eye telescope-looking lenses on tripods. I don’t have one, probably because there’s not a good slang term for them. If we were clever enough to call them cyclopes or winkies or chick magnets or puffin peekers or vulture tubes or eye fluffers or gnostic optics or subcelestial-dimension canopy intrusion devices, I’d be all over it.

Twitching is what you do when your goal for the day is to find a particular species. This is clearly less cool than twerking, tweaking, or even wearing tweed. Worst word in the birding lexicon.

Pishing refers to a birder making stupid pish pish pishhh noises to attract birds. This is the other worst word in the birding lexicon. Don’t pish. And if you do, don’t call it pishing. And if you do call it pishing, don’t make puns about it. It pishes the birds off.

Birding itself is a word no one who isn’t a birder uses. Most people say bird-watching, which describes perfectly well the activity grandma performs through her kitchen window while sucking on her eighth Werther’s Original of the morning. Alas, if you’re into bird-watching but don’t call it birding, you’ll be labeled an amateur. Your life list—if you even have one on eBird, you loser—is probably, like, three entries long. You’ve probably never even seen 400 species in your Big Year. You’ve probably never even DONE a Big Year! Get a load of this “bird-watcher,” everybody! Guffaw! In all seriousness, “birding” does seem to connote a competitiveness or aggressiveness that “bird-watching” does not. Me? I’m usually more bird-watcher than bird-stalker. Perhaps I’m bi.

A Big Year is a big secret, known only to insiders unless you read that one best-selling book or that other book or saw that one movie with Owen Wilson and Jack Black and Steve freakin’ Martin. But seriously, it’s a secret. You don’t know about it. You know nothing.

You’ll hear birders talk about eBird. It’s a website/database where we all religiously keep track of each and every bird we’ve ever seen, ever, and when and where (offering even GPS coordinates because we are serious). Among birders, nothing could be more embarrassing than not having an eBird account. But among non-birders (which is what we call you soulless muggle garbage people, by the way), nothing could be more embarrassing than admitting you have freely and of your own will logged hundreds of hours and thousands of bird sightings into an online database for no reason but personal satisfaction. Fitbits and Untappd are bad enough, but at least you can talk about that at the office without blushing, even if you really really shouldn’t. Ever since the Ashley Madison hack, I’ve had nightmares about an eBird data breach exposing my naked life list to the world.

A life list is, of course, the full list of every species of bird a given individual has seen and identified. For many birders, a complete list of every species not on their life list constitutes, quite conveniently, their bucket list.

A syrinx is both a beautiful word and an example of avian evolutionary bad-assery. Humans reading this blog have a larynx (unless very poor fortune has visited them), but birds have instead a syrinx, which puts our larynx to shame. It’s the difference between a harmonica and a pipe organ. The syrinx allows birds to sing high, low, and even both at once. Learn more about it here so you’re less dumb (also: cool graphics). If you don’t have a syrinx—and you don’t—accept your biological inferiority. Proceed to sneer at human vocalists, or as I like to call them, the Washington Generals of singing.

A bird’s lores are located between its eyes and nostrils, which matters because we like saying it, giving an air of romance to an otherwise ho-hum bit of anatomy. My plan is to introduce regalia as a term for rings on a bird’s neck or breast. Make it so.

A bill is a beak. A beak is a bill. In a shocking departure from our typical snootiness, birders aren’t real particular about this.

 Legs refer, believe it or not, to a bird’s legs. I mean, we can recognize the tarsus and the tibia, but I swear to God, we all just say legs. And their little claw talon things? We call them toes. Yep.

 Chiti WEEW wewidoo is a universally accepted transcription of the song of an Eastern Bluebird. Obviously. I can’t believe I have to explain this.

A stringer is a birder who, through deceit at worst or ignorance at best, gives false reports about his or her bird sightings. Imagine Donald Trump after a birding expedition and you’ll get the idea: “I saw the best birds, tremendous birds, great genes, did you see them? Someone told me, everyone said, this is true, really great birds. In the history of birds, it’s a beautiful history, NO ONE has seen birds like this. Everyone’s telling me they were dragons, ok? I saw things you wouldn’t believe, trust me. I got a call from one of these birds, we had a really great conversation, ok?, this bird loved me like you wouldn’t believe. Obama didn’t see these birds, no one in the fake news media was talking about these birds. No one even knew these birds were here, ok? I alone can find them.”

 Owling is the practice of stumbling through the woods in the middle of the damn night while suffering cold or mosquito bites or branches to the eye or skunk attacks because that’s when the owls are out and real OG birders are fearless beasts, as ridiculous by night as by day.

 Aberrant plumage, by the way, describes birds with, you know, aberrant plumage—those whose color patterns differ from the norm for one reason or another. They flap to the beat of a different painter. A rhythm-less, fame-less, talentless painter. We birders love them because we can sympathize.

That’s all you get today, folks. Will there be a sequel? Depends on whether the funding comes in from Nat Geo. Or, in lieu of that unlikely windfall, it depends on how bored I am in the near future on nights when I’m definitely not owling, but trust me, I’m never owling.


AP Hits the PNW

The Art Department and I were wandering around Radnor Lake in Nashville when we decided to break park regulations and follow the call of a Pileated Woodpecker into the forest. We finally caught up with him weeks later, when he landed on a tall fir overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Luckily, there were plenty of breweries in the area to slake our thirst, but we were too tired to go home, so we leased an apartment in Portland and here we are. Lesson learned: never break park regulations. Stay on the path, people.


We met Lillie, this sweet American Kestrel, who lives at the Portland Audubon Society.

Then again, winding up in Portland isn’t exactly a convincing deterrent for a birder. This town is home to two rivers, a stunning variety of wildlife habitats, and gorgeous mountains—and it’s just a quick jaunt from the coast. The folks out here love their birds—in fact, being a birder here seems almost normal. You can’t throw a rock without hitting a municipal, state or national park, and the Portland Audubon Society is right down the road from us. Even our dumpy little apartment complex is surrounded by woods, bisected by a creek, and adjacent to a reservoir, so every dog walk is a birding adventure.

In the handful of weeks since we moved in, we’ve done our share of sightseeing, which has of course included plenty of birding day-trips. So far, we’ve checked out Forest Park, the trails around the Audubon Society, Oaks Bottom Wildlife Refuge, Sauvie Island, Cannon Beach / Haystack Rock, and Ecola State Park (where we saw a flock of enormous flightless birds not listed in the field guide—a local informed us they’re commonly called “elk”).

We also joined a shockingly large and diverse congregation of birdwatchers on the lawn at Chapman Elementary School to watch thousands of Vaux’s Swifts coalesce at dusk into a swirling tornado above the school, slowly funneling into a tall chimney. They call it SwiftWatch, an annual event in September as the birds make their way down to Central America for the winter. Leave it to Portlanders to crowd around an elementary school every night for a month to see this spectacle. This video isn’t mine:

Having never spent much time in the northwest, I’m seeing birds I’ve never seen before on a fairly regular basis. The Willamette Valley is especially blessed with avian life, so we’re just getting started.

My lament, however, is this: I sorely miss Northern Cardinals. Their songs and calls were so ubiquitous year round, audible even from inside the house, that without them I feel a bit wistful and off balance. I miss the Carolina Chickadees and Carolina Wrens and Tufted Titmice and Brown Thrashers and Eastern Bluebirds and Wild Turkeys and Blue Jays, sure. But more than any other bird, I miss the cardinals. We have other species of bluebirds and jays and wrens and nearly-identical chickadees, but there’s nothing like the Northern Cardinal.

orjunco cassady

“I’m an Oregon Junco. You suck-o.” (Photo: John Cassady)

That said, I’m surrounded with a new variety of birds to admire and fall in love with. I’m already smitten with Steller’s Jays, Western Scrub-jays, Black-billed Magpies, Chestnut-backed Chickadees, Anna’s Hummingbirds, Brewer’s Blackbirds, Spotted Towhees, Sooty Fox Sparrows, Oregon Juncos (a gorgeous subspecies of Dark-eyed Juncos), Red-breasted Sapsuckers, Varied Thrushes, as well as the Black Oystercatchers and Pelagic Cormorants we saw at the beach. Watching hummingbirds in the dead of winter is both disconcerting and magical. The reservoir near our apartment has been home lately to Ring-necked Ducks, Buffleheads, Mallards, Common Mergansers, Belted Kingfishers, and Great Blue Herons. With so much going on, I shouldn’t miss the cardinals, but I can’t help it.

Of course there are many familiar birds here, too: the waxwings and kinglets have been especially abundant. It’s also interesting to note the changes in prevalence of a species from one region to another. Whereas one couldn’t look out a window in Nashville without

summer vacation chickadee

Ain’t no party like a Chipping Sparrow party. (Image: Melissa Tucker)

seeing American Goldfinches and House Finches, here in Portland those birds exist but it’s Song Sparrows running the show outside my door—birds that live in Tennessee too but aren’t nearly as numerous (at least in my experience). In Nashville, Chipping Sparrows hopped along my porch all year, so I didn’t really consider their migrations, but here they’re just summer vacationers. I’ll look forward to their arrival as if they were old friends from out of town (except I’ll actually wish they would stay longer).

In the meantime, I’ll revel in this city that seems built for me, teeming as it is with birds, beer, donuts, and weirdos. And the next time I travel east, I’ll be so pleased to see the cardinals that I won’t even mention how miffed I am that they couldn’t be bothered to pay Portland a visit. Perhaps I should take them a few brochures. I don’t know if cardinals are into sour ales, but I do know they’d fit right in grunge-glamming it up in Old Town. If an all-scarlet body suit with a black mask and tufted feather cap is welcome anywhere, it’s Portland.

portland weird cardinal

Dreaming of a more perfect Portland. (Image: Melissa Tucker)

Eggspert Witness: Rob Rutherford, Esq. and the Jurisprudence of Backyard Chickens

The following is a guest-post from Nashville attorney Rob Rutherford, Esq. While Aberrant Plumage typically focuses on wild birds, Mr. Rutherford’s post offers a peek into something we know nothing about: the joy of living with domesticated birds—namely, his beloved chickens.

“Stop staring at me.”


“I mean it. I don’t have time for your mental games and, quite honestly, you’re starting to creep me out.”


“Fine! I relent! Just please just stop staring at me with those beady eyes. I’ll go get the worms if you’ll just release me from your damnable gaze!”

Smug silence.

Bok Bok and Queen Egg propose a new, more aggressive treats schedule.

Bok Bok and Queen Egg propose a new, more aggressive treats schedule.

This is a conversation I had recently with a chicken. Where has my life gone that I’ve come to this point, where a chicken is giving me orders? Perhaps I should back up and start this story a year ago. Back then I was a regular guy—father, attorney, and man-about-town. I knew nothing about birds and nothing about chickens, other than the comedic wit of Foghorn Leghorn, who I believe is some sort of rare large breed of chicken.

One day the idea struck me, as ideas occasionally do, that I should buy some chickens. This idea was fueled by my desire to be more self-reliant in the kitchen, my concern for the welfare of chickens in mass farms, and, most importantly, because my wife said I could.

I devised a plan to start a chicken empire. I would be the urban chicken farmer, and people would flock to my home to see my flock. I also made a decision to incorporate as many chicken puns as possible into my everyday repertoire. So, I crafted a chicken coop with the help of my dad one afternoon, and it was off to the farm to buy some chickens.

“What kind of chickens do you want?” asked the kindly farmer.

“I don’t know. Ones that lay eggs and don’t crow when the sun comes up,” I responded.

And at that moment it became clear: the only thing I knew about chickens is that hens equal delicious eggs and roosters equal waking at sunrise, which I find inconvenient. So, with significant assistance I selected four hens of differing breeds. Chickens fall into a surprisingly large number of breed varieties, depending on their agricultural purpose, preferred climate, and laying capabilities, among other factors. I wound up with four beautiful birds: a Production Red, a Golden Laced Wynadotte, a Silver Laced Wynadotte, and a Light Brama. I gave them hilarious (to me) names, in furtherance of my previously-mentioned dedication to witty puns. Henceforth they would be known as Queen Egg, Miss Hensworth, Bok Bok, and Chicken the Fourth.

So, here we are one year later, and I find I’ve gained a huge new appreciation for my feathered friends. The most surprising thing I’ve learned is how smart they are. They recognize and differentiate the various humans who care for them. They know where to find the coolest places on sweltering summer days. They know that the treats are stored in our kitchen. Treats consist of dried mealworms, and they love those worms more than anything else on this Earth. They will stare at you with one eye (a chicken, like many birds, can’t see particularly well with both eyes, due to their placement on the side of the chicken’s head), and threaten to go on egg-laying strike until you fetch the worms. I’ve found it best not to argue with them on this point; they seem to have the upper hand… or wing… whatever.

Queen Egg, Chicken the Fourth, and Bok Bok: mealworm connoisseurs.

Queen Egg, Chicken the Fourth, and Bok Bok: mealworm connoisseurs.

The chickens have become a part of the family in the last year. That means we’ve celebrated with them when they laid their first egg (the chickens seemed unimpressed with their own feat, even after I explained to them how delicious eggs were). That also means we’ve mourned when poor Miss Hensworth flapped her way off this mortal coil to join her ancestors in poultry Valhalla.

So, dear Reader, perhaps you are asking yourself, “Should I raise chickens?” The answer is an unequivocal yes. They are remarkably self-sufficient. They will eat almost anything (including, but not limited to, bread, bananas, peanuts, dead birds, pizza, slugs, and all the grass/weeds in your yard). They’ve tolerated temperatures from 0 to 100, and never complained. At least I don’t think they’ve complained. I haven’t quite figured out their complex language of clucks just yet.

Perhaps you are also asking, “Can you please just give me some delicious eggs?” The answer is a firm maybe. Come by and I might be able to spare one. I’m currently engaged in worm-related negotiations with the chickens, so you should probably call first.

If any readers are interested in learning more about raising urban chickens, is a great online resource, and I’m always eager to talk about my chickens with anyone possessing the patience to listen. Feel free to contact at me, Rob, at with a subject line of “Chickens,” or something to that effect.

Birds are Hot

ac birdhouse

This chickadee’s been ordering gadgets from SkyMall. (Art: Melissa Tucker)

Birds are physically gifted but technologically disadvantaged. What passes for technology among avians comes in two categories: 1) millions of years of evolutionary R&D resulting in a level of engineering Henry Ford, Bill Gates, or NASA could never dream of accomplishing and 2) a cultural heritage of expertise in nest-building, foraging, hunting, singing, migration patterns, and other behavioral memes. That’s certainly nothing to sneeze at, but they’ve found themselves wanting when it comes to modern medicine, plumbing, and information technology. And hands. They could really use hands. Perhaps because their crowning achievements occurred long before the industrial revolution, granting them millennia of superiority over the rest of the animal kingdom (not to mention an ostentatious beauty—gloating is the province of the successful, after all), they felt a bit superior, a bit cocksure, and thus adopted a birdmemeshutbeakrather lackadaisical approach to technological advancement. They were, in short, apt to miss the boat when wheels and combustion engines and Gore-Tex and binary code hit the scene: “Good luck with all that, losers,” they said, “but we have wings and don’t need your hocus-pocus.”

And, indeed, they’re fine—still marvelously successful, still gorgeous, still smirking while they crap on your laughably clumsy and inelegant Pontiac Firebird. They boast such efficient circulatory, respiratory, and metabolic systems they make mammals look like rusty Yugos wheezing through their overheated radiators.  According to David Allen Sibley, birder extraordinaire, “a songbird flying a distance of 1 kilometer expends less than 1 percent of the energy that a mouse would use to run the same distance.”

They truly missed out, though, on one very important bit of technology, one they would have done well to adopt: air conditioning. While they’re migrating across continents twice a year to maintain a livable body temperature, I’m setting the thermostat with a finger (so, really, they need air conditioning and hands). My Subaru may not be able to hover, change directions on a dime, soar over the Gulf of Mexico, or perch on a brittle branch, but I can push a button that provides hot or cold air at my command. Meanwhile, they’re huddling together for warmth or searching, slackjawed and desperate, for a cool bath.

I noticed during this sweltering Nashville summer many over-heated birds toddering around with their beaks hanging open. Unlike a dog panting to release heat and draw cooler air into its body, birds are actually trying to cool their beaks, which play an important role in maintaining their body temperature. Birds with larger beaks are better adapted to warmer climes, while small-beaked birds tend to do well in the cold. Because their beaks and legs are not typically insulated by feathers, they have little control over the conservation or release of heat from those areas. Imagine the way the hood of your car gets hot enough to burn skin in the summer and cold as ice in the winter—and then imagine a slab of it attached to your face.

Birds puff out their feathers to create pockets of heat and stay warm when the temperatures drop.

Bikini bod for summer; puffy coat for winter. Birds puff out their feathers to create pockets of heat and stay warm when the temperatures drop.

Birds have, of course, developed behaviors to cope with the elements. Packing up and migrating when the weather gets nasty is wise, but not quite enough by itself—a warm region might still suffer cold nights and even an icy tundra might face a warm spell. So they improvise. For warmth, they make ingenious, well-insulated nests. They puff their feathers out, trapping more heat in their expanded winter coats. Molting provides extra feathers for an upcoming winter and a lighter coat in preparation for summer. Even the color of those feathers is often a function of reflecting or absorbing solar radiation effectively (consider the stark whites and blacks of gulls and terns who live with little shade and must make the most of trapping or blocking heat depending on the season). Many birds sit on their cold, spindly legs or tuck one at a time into their body to warm it. Some can even increase or decrease circulation to parts of their bodies at will and, in the dead of winter, can go into torpor—a sort of semi-hibernation—to survive cold snaps.

When summer arrives, they cool off in a stream, spread their wings to release heat, and hang their jaws open to the breeze. Birds know how to position their bodies to get the most warmth out of a short day of sunlight and certainly know to seek shade when the mercury rises and will even shield their young from the sun using their wings as an umbrella. A behavior called gular fluttering allows some birds to cool down by vibrating muscles in their neck to expel heat (pelicans are expert gular flutterers—they have, after all, a lot of gular to work with). According to ornithologists at Stanford, Black Vultures will go so far as to poop on their own legs in order to cool them via evaporation. Desperate measures, indeed.

Say, it's rather warm out here. I could really go for some poop on my legs.

I say, it’s rather warm out here. I could really go for some poop on my legs. (Photo: Bill Kohbnoos)

They’ve earned their hubris, sure, managing somehow to jimmy-rig their metabolic rate to maintain the necessary 104- to 111-degree internal body temperature whether in Nova Scotia or Equatorial Guinea, but climate change and habitat loss are making their lives significantly more difficult. It takes thousands of years for a species to fine-tune itself to the demands of a given environment, but only a few days of chainsawing or record temperatures to completely ruin the game plan. As global temperatures become more erratic, birds tend to migrate further and for longer, exposing them to new stressors and challenges. If only they’d consider the marvels of modern air conditioning. I’m imagining temperature-controlled nesting boxes all over the globe powered by tiny solar panels, miniature windmills, or doll-house-furniture-sized water wheels. And a billionaire philanthropist-cum-superhero to make it happen.


David Allen Sibley, Chris Elphick, and John B. Dunning, Jr. The Sibley Guide to Bird Life and Behavior. New York: Knopf, 2001.

Mallard Mayhem with Max and Maxine

The Art Department and I often visit her folks in South Carolina, where her father, Mr. Tucker, has developed a special relationship with a pair of wild Mallards. The ducks aren’t in town all year, of course, but when they’re around, they waddle up to his back door in the morning—bright and early—and quack at him until he brings them a scoop of birdseed. He places it in the same spot every time, and they chow down before toddering on along their way. In previous years, they visited just once a day, but this summer they’ve decided to drop in for lunch, too. They’ll migrate as the seasons change and return next year, hungry as ever. Are they actually the same ducks—the same ones he named Max and Maxine several years ago? It’s possible. Mallard pairs do tend to stick together and they’re creatures of habit. Mr. Tucker says he recognizes Max from his peculiar limp. For a while, another quacking couple joined them—Gerald and Geraldine (of course). Those two haven’t returned, but Max and Maxine know a good neighbor when they find one.

In the video, the Art Department and I tried our hand at feeding the ducks. They were much more skeptical of us than they are of Mr. Tucker, but despite our unfamiliar appearance, they decided the birdseed was good enough to eat after all. It was great fun to watch them communicate, take turns on guard duty, and bicker at each other like old couples do. You can hear Northern Cardinals and Mourning Doves in the background.

Passeriformes Haberdasherus: An Interview with Vicki Sawyer


In the course of her grueling Aberrant Plumage duties, the Art Department stumbled across the work of Vicki Sawyer, a Nashville artist whose paintings capture the personality of birds in a unique and startling way, offering fantasy and realism simultaneously.

On one hand, Sawyer paints birds wearing hats. Yes, hats. Fanciful, ornate, exuberantly decorated hats, fashioned by the birds themselves from plants and whatever available materials strike their fancy. Oh, and masks, too. These adornments, I should explain, they craft so they’ll have something fancy to wear at parties.

On the other hand, her avian subjects are not cartoons—far from it. Instead, her portraits deftly represent bird species in great detail with a sharp eye for their special traits and characteristics, from plumage to anatomy to posture to personality. And their accessories are made of the plant materials the depicted species actually live among on a daily basis. Furthermore, anyone who watches birds knows that they are indeed playful, boisterous, proud, and sometimes downright silly; anyone who thinks a mockingbird wouldn’t be interested in donning a particularly lavish lilac bloom around its head has never watched a mockingbird strut and preen. It’s difficult to imagine a better metaphorical representation of bird species’ personalities (and even a sense of each individual bird’s character) than Vicki Sawyer offers us in her work.

Like portraits of humans, these paintings present birds as they might choose to look on a special occasion—dolled up, dapper, and posed jauntily for the camera. The result is what we might find if John James Audobon and Jim Henson had collaborated on a project: a vivid, insightful, and humorous take on these creatures’ inner lives. It’s an occasion when fiction, fantasy, and imagination reveal truths no camera or empirical study could uncover. This is the work of a keen and thoughtful observer and a talented artist. She also happens to be extraordinarily prolific—her many dozens of paintings of birds (and other animals) in hats account for only one of her artistic projects.

We at Aberrant Plumage needed to learn more. Luckily for us, Vicki Sawyer generously agreed to converse with us via email.


Aberrant Plumage: It seems to me that someone who paints birds as vividly as you do must be a dedicated observer of birds in the wild. Do you consider yourself a birder?

Vicki Sawyer: Well, I guess I do now. My dad was quite the birder. One summer when we were visiting my mom and dad in Pittsburgh, Dad and I slowly followed a Northern Saw-whet Owl who perched from tree to tree in the back yard.  Dad was a gentle, patient soul, and hanging with him was always comfortable. So, through the years I have picked up that love for birds from his delight in them. He could identify a bird by its call.

Also, for years I painted birds, animals, and natural elements in murals when we lived in Long Island. I loved looking up birds that frequented Long Island, along with plants that were in the area. 

A few years ago, it occurred to me that if birds could build nests, then they could make hats. This launched my current series in which I look up natural elements that would be in the bird’s environment, something it might use to make a hat. 

AP: Are your paintings based on the birds you’ve seen personally or are they based on photos someone else took? Or your own photos? I guess I’m wondering about your avian art models.

VS: I use many resources for my birds, animals, and flora. Library books, Google images, my own photographs, and simply observing my bird feeder with binoculars.

Once, at the Nashville Zoo, I was photographing the snowy owl couple there, and my camera kept clicking and clicking as it zoomed in and out, adjusting the auto-focus between the background and the cage in the foreground. It bothered the male so much that all of a sudden he launched himself into flight and rammed into the cage right in front of me. I felt horribly. I since learned that I should have had the focus on manual. Oh my!


AP: I love that your birds and the plants they use have a natural relationship to begin with. Birds really do, after all, pick and shape those plants to build nests, and they’re amazingly dexterous and skilled. I recently learned that though there may certainly be an element of instinct in nest-building, it’s also something they learn to do better through time and experience. I saw images of nests built by young birds their first spring and nests built by the very same birds later in life—the difference is astounding. Their first nests are kind of scraggly and misshapen, but mature birds build like well-trained craftsmen. Do you think juvenile birds would try to make their own hats or would their parents make their hats for them? (I know that sounds silly, but I just love imagining it.)

VS: Yes, juvenile birds and animals get lots of help making hats and masks by older birds more skilled in the craft. There is a lot of weaving into their head feathers to make the hats secure.

AP: Have you considered painting them in the hat-making process?

VS: Maybe for a children’s book. By the way, I just got back from a great family vacation in Seattle! There were so many loud crows on Alki Beach. Rumor has it that they are apt to steal food from a child in a stroller. And the seagulls perched on the dock at Ivar’s Seafood restaurant squawked loudly for treats.

titmousewithflowerAP: Speaking of mischievous birds, the birds in your paintings have a great sense of personality and character that reflects their species well. How do you convey their personality in the paintings? I could swear I’ve seen one or two of them actually grinning in a very subtle way.

VS: It’s mainly in the eyes where I try to make them speak to you. And with some finches and cardinals whose beaks go up and then down on the ends, I try to make a subtle “Mona Lisa” upturn at the end so they don’t look mean.

AP: Are their hats often reflective of their personalities, as you see them? To me, it just seems so right, so characteristic of their nature, that they create such fun, eccentric, extravagant hats for no reason other than that it pleases them.

VS: You’ve guessed right! When I paint a new bird, or a bird party scene, I consider carefully what each bird’s personality might be.  

hummingbirdmaskAP: Your paintings reveal a wonderful mix of realism and formal portrait qualities with whimsy and humor. Some hats seem to be almost plausible, while others defy the laws of physics. At the same time, there’s a sense that the birds share in the levity—they love their hats and keep a straight face, but they’re just having fun. How do you see that balance in your work? And is it reflective of how you see the character of these animals that work and strive for basic survival, but still manage to find a little time for playfulness?

VS: Every bird has a unique personality. Some wear a hat because others in the group are doing so, while some create hats for every occasion and mood.

roosterwithturniphatAP: Who are your favorite artists who depict birds, and how did they influence you? Do you see yourself as working within (or even in opposition to) a certain tradition of bird or wildlife art?

VS: My style developed from painting many birds and animals on walls when I painted murals in Long Island years ago. Audubon was definitely an influence.

AP: It seems you prefer a very plain background rather than a natural landscape (though their habitat is still reflected in their choice of decorative plant materials). That strikes me as in keeping with some other bird art—Menaboni did that and Audubon sometimes included a landscape background but sometimes did not. What are your thoughts on that decision?

VS: Several years ago, I was on a Southwest flight. Featured in an article was a wildlife photographer, whose name I sadly forget. His backgrounds were all black and he commented that the dark background helped to elevate the animal’s character. Also, I like the dark chocolate background because, well, I like dark chocolate.


AP: Duly noted. Are there particular species that are special to you—that you love to watch and paint more than others? What are your favorite places to watch birds? Do you have memories of special bird-watching experiences?

VS: Black-capped Chickadees, Carolina Wrens, and Tufted Titmice have spunky personalities. I love to watch and paint them.

Backyard feeders, woodlands, and oceans are some favorite places to watch birds. I might have mentioned to you following a Saw-whet Owl around our yard with my dad—a great memory. Also, just recently, as I crossed a bridge over the Harpeth River, a female Summer Tanager flitted past me. Never saw one before.

On another occasion, I remember excitedly exclaiming to my son-in-law while we were driving in his car in Denver, “There goes a magpie!!!” He laughed because they are so common there.

When we lived in Long Island, we lived at the boarding school where my husband worked.  One day a Korean student came over to the house and was so amazed and excited to see an “all red bird!” Maybe we should always be excited with each bird we see, however common.


vickisawyerphotoTo learn more about Vicki Sawyer and her art (and recipes!), visit her website. Her paintings can also be found at The Art and Invention Gallery in Nashville, TN; Gallery 202 in Franklin, TN; The Huntsville Museum of Art in Alabama; Gallery 2828; and the Lark and Key Gallery in Charlotte, NC.

Birds in the News: a New Hummingbird Species Emerges

Left: Bahama Woodstar; Right: Inaguan Lyretail (Photo: Anand Varma)

Left: Bahama Woodstar; Right: Inaguan Lyretail. Notice the fan-shape of the Woodstar’s tail in contrast to the more drastically fork-shaped tail feathers of the Lyretail (Photo: Anand Varma)

No, ornithologists haven’t discovered some long-lost bird, nor has evolution offered up a new invention, but scientists from Yale, Cornell, and the University of California-Riverside made a convincing argument in the January publication of Auk (the journal of the American Ornithologists’ Union and the Cooper Ornithological Society) that two subspecies of a tropical hummingbird—The Bahama Woodstar and the Inaguan Lyretail—should be classified as distinct species. Though their physical differences Continue reading

The Over/Under: Bluebirds and Robins; or, The Art Department Goes on Strike

The following is a post I sent to the Art Department, which found fault in my sagacious words and refused to supply any art for the post (leaving me to create my own). They sent me instead the letter found in Part II below. 

PART I: Robins Rule, Bluebirds Drool

And now for something unnecessarily negative!

Overrated bird of the day:

Eastern Bluebird. (Art: Me)

Eastern Bluebird. (Art: Me)

I’ve yet to find a bird I can’t appreciate, but I must also confess that I’m sometimes baffled by the special popularity of certain birds. Take, for example, the Eastern Bluebird. People love bluebirds and, hey, I’m delighted for them—for the bluebirds and the bluebird lovers. I certainly understand the thrill of seeing that striking flash of blue darting across a field at sunrise. But I can’t seem to understand why it’s a favorite of so many. Let’s be honest: it’s a robin with slightly brighter plumage. It eats
worms and has an average singing voice, at best. Its coloration is often dusty and mottled and certainly less brilliant than many other common backyard birds like Northern Cardinals, American Goldfinches, and even Blue Jays. It in no way resembles those cute animated birds flitting around Snow White.

See that backlit bluebird on the power line there? Oh, wait, nope, that’s a robin. Exactly.

Underrated bird of the day:

American Robin (Art: Me)

American Robin. (Art: Me)

But, come to think of it, the American Robin is actually quite special in my mind. Part of my fascination is just nostalgic, I suppose: the “robin red-breast” was the first bird I could recognize as a child, the first bird whose nest I saw up close, the first bird whose broken eggs I found on the sidewalk. Like any very common bird, we tend to overlook them—I’m as guilty as anyone—but I found on a recent birding trip that, outside their usual context of poking around the front lawn, they’re quite stunning. I found a group of robins deep in the woods sifting through leaves in the shade and it was suddenly like seeing them for the first time. Indeed, were this bird new to me, I’d be enthralled by the burnt orange breast and white rump, the white eye-ring, the streaked and stippled throat, the slender yellow bill with a dark tip. I’d be impressed by the way they thrive just about anywhere and yet never make a nuisance of themselves. I’d marvel at their lovely morning song and the relaxed way they forage, tugging worms out of the earth as if they could see through the topsoil. I’d be charmed by their confident, relaxed demeanor—none of the squabbling of finches, nor the bravado of mockingbirds, nor the dogmatic workaholism of cardinals, nor the skullduggery of Blue Jays, nor the fretfulness of sparrows. They eat bugs in the morning and then nibble on berries and fruit later in the day, sometimes getting drunk on honeysuckle.

“Oh, is it winter already?” they ask as other birds prepare for migration. “Whatevs. We’re good right here.”

(They’re good, that is, as long as you haven’t drenched your lawn in pesticides and herbicides, in which case they’re screwed. Be kind to your robins, please!)

Let’s remember to appreciate the birds that are most abundant, most present in our lives. Sure, it’s overwhelmingly exciting to spot a rare seasonal bird or see a particular species for the first time. I get it. The first time I saw an Indigo Bunting, I almost hyperventilated. And the first time I saw a Summer Tanager, I nearly wept. (Okay, fine, I wept without qualification.) But let’s also celebrate the common birds who live with us every day, the ones that flutter at the sound of your front door opening and clear a path as you drive down the block. They’re the ones we can watch day after day and study in detail. They nest in our yards and lead their fledglings to our bird-feeders. Their familiar songs brighten our mornings and late afternoons. When we want to observe bird behavior, it’s the robins and cardinals and titmice and house finches who, thankfully, don’t mind having such nosy neighbors.

And the “overrated” Eastern Bluebirds? They’re a gorgeous treat all summer. Ah, if only more birds were overrated. Let’s overrate American Robins. And European Starlings, while we’re at it, with their constellation of iridescence, and Brown Thrashers with their virtuosic concertos, and Chipping Sparrows with their strikingly handsome brows and dainty two-hop locomotion. One can’t, after all, overhype the magnificence of a creature that can freaking fly, nor one that is extravagantly marked and colored, nor one that can build its own house, nor one that sings.

A friend of mine likes to tell a joke about trying to turn her House Finches into Purple Finches, a rarer, brighter specimen. Yes, I’d be thrilled to see a Purple Finch at my feeder, but I love the House Finches and, like a reliable friend, they show up every day to complain that we’re out of sunflower seeds again. Common beauty is that much more beautiful, perhaps, for its abundance.

PART II: The Art Department Defects

Dear Dr. Plumage:

I regret to inform you that I am unable to furnish any art for your recent blog post titled, “The Over/Under: Bluebirds and Robins.”

While the post’s conclusion is thoughtful and poignant, I must take exception to your opening salvo. I cannot abide by your blatant disrespect toward the Eastern Bluebird, one of Americans’ most beloved birds. It is tantamount to libel against the millions of great Americans in the great states of Missouri and New York, who have rightfully named the Eastern Bluebird as their state bird, and with whom I stand in solidarity today.Unpretty

Moreover, I would like to clarify a few facts for the sake of your readers:

A) Eastern Bluebirds are not as similar to American Robins as you claim. In fact, they are about 2/3s the size. We all know that smaller things are cuter.

B) Your assertion that Eastern Bluebirds have only “slightly brighter plumage than a robin” and can appear “dusty and mottled” are patently false. I can only speculate as to why you would make such ludicrous statements.

  • LennyHypothesis #1: You’ve been using Pixar’s Lenny for bins. He doesn’t transmit color very well.
  • Hypothesis #2: You’ve never actually seen an Eastern Bluebird. Perhaps this is because they don’t often come to feeders, and your idea of birding is sitting on the couch watching reruns of The West Wing, occasionally turning around to mull over the feeder action.
  • Hypothesis #3: You’re colorblind. Test yourself here. It’s okay, really. Colorblind people are people too. You are still deserving of love. It’s good that you know now, so you won’t make a fool of yourself with things like this blog post ever again.

C) Re: Snow White’s birdie friends. It’s a cartoon. Relax.

D) If the American Robin wants to be as well-loved as the bluebird, why doesn’t it just be prettier?


The movement of a bluebird dropping down from a perch to catch an insect is somehow both showy and understated. They possess the elegance and earnestness of Mikhail Baryshnikov in his prime.

mikhail baryshnikov-dancer-1978

“If I ever go looking for my heart’s desire again, I won’t look any further than my own back yard!”

“If I ever go looking for my heart’s desire again, I won’t look any further than my own back yard!”

Maybe the bluebird doesn’t have the other-worldly voice of the nightingale, nor the wide repertoire of the Brown Thrasher, but he still makes a joyful noise. In fact, a male bluebird will serenade his mate with a soft, whistled song while she lays eggs. If you cannot admire that, Dr. Plumage, you have no appreciation for true love, nor for anything beautiful in the world at all.

Eastern Bluebirds, male feeding the female, Lumberton, New Jersey

(Photo: Steve Greer, New Jersey Photography, Lumberton NJ)

I should also add that bluebirds have a lot to offer the novice bird-watcher who is interested in behavior. He or she will appreciate sexual dimorphism in the plumage of both adults and juveniles—a relatively rare phenomenon—allowing for easy sex differentiation. (Robins are fine birds, no doubt, but a robin is a robin is a robin.) Bluebirds also forage in open areas in spring and summer and are amenable to man-made nest boxes; their bright color makes them hard to miss, even in trees. Paragons of accessibility, they are.

Bluebirds rushing to defend their nest box from a hungry starling. (Photo: David Kinneer)

Bluebirds rushing to defend their nest box from a hungry starling. (Photo: David Kinneer)

Funny that you mention European Starlings as a bird we should appreciate more. European Starlings are named Sturnus vulgaris for a reason. Vulgar, indeed! Eastern Bluebird populations have fallen by as much as 90% in recent decades due to loss of habitat and diminished availability of food sources, particularly in winter. Were you aware, Dr. Plumage, that starlings are a non-native species and are very aggressive toward bluebirds? They out-compete would-be bluebird parents for natural nest cavities. Flocks of rapacious starlings—up to 100,000 in number—blitz fields of wild berries and strip them clean before moving on to the next unsuspecting ravine. These are the self-same wild berry fields upon which our beloved Eastern Bluebirds depend in the winter months. Most appallingly, starlings attack adult and juvenile bluebirds. Have you ever had a bluebird nest box turn into a scene reminiscent of the Saw franchise?

If you found starving baby bluebirds inside, you may well have starlings to thank for eating the parents.

Bruised, maimed, or partially eaten nestlings? Probably the work of starlings.

Chunks of the nest missing? Picture an innocent nestling clinging to the nest fibers as she is ripped away by a starling.

Nestlings who are so terrified when you check the box that they cleave to the back wall to get away? Those sweet babies are likely having flashbacks of home invasions by starlings.

These babies are clearly overrated. The invasive birds that eat their little heads off are underrated.

These babies are overrated. The invasive birds that eat their little heads off are underrated. (GIF: Art Department; Logic: Dr. Plumage)

Side note: House Sparrows, another invasive species, are also PSYCHOPATHIC BABY KILLERS who will enter bluebird nest boxes and peck the sweet baby bluebirds to death. TO DEATH. But, no doubt, you are also a card-carrying member of the House Sparrow Appreciation Society. And I bet that when you aren’t birding, you’re writing love letters to imprisoned serial killers.

Hapless Aberrant Plumage Reader

Hapless Aberrant Plumage reader

In conclusion, I simply cannot participate in the publication of this post, Dr. Plumage, in which you denigrate Eastern Bluebirds and, in practically the same breath, encourage readers to “overrate” European Starlings. (What would that even mean? Giving them an “F” instead of an “F-minus?”) I fear the effects this post could have on America’s beloved native bluebird population, should your countless droves of readers nationwide abandon their bluebird nest boxes and surrender to the hostile takeover of European Starlings on our amber waves of grain.

I, for one, will not condone it.

With righteous indignation,

The Art Department

Learn more: Information on the bluebirds Dr. Plumage doesn’t care about. Consider joining the North American Bluebird Society to help fight the scourge that is Dr. Plumage.

Photographer David Kinneer offers a wonderful collection of Eastern Bluebird photos at He captures bluebird behavior so beautifully that even Dr. Plumage might appreciate it (on a good day).


A respectful disagreement arises among the Aberrant Plumage staff.


The civil discourse continues most humbly and considerately.

Aberrant Amble: A Non-Birder’s Birding Adventure

What follows is a guest post from Mr. Stephen W. Holmes, President of the Board. (What board? Doesn’t matter. He’s Mr. President.) -Ed.

Aberrant Preamble

Chatting away with Mr. Aberrant Plumage the other night, I asked him to give me a simple writing task, something to exercise my long-dormant chops, something easy. His response—in hindsight utterly foreseeable—threw me off in that moment.

“Write an entry for my blog!” MAP cried out. “Something about birds!”

“But I don’t know anything about birds,” I said, quite logically.

“Oh, that doesn’t matter.”

“It seems like that would matter.”

“DO IT!” he bawled. Well, game over. There’s no combating such a reasoned argument, at least not coming from MAP. Challenge accepted, sir. My apologies to the well-meaning regular readers of this fine blog.

Aberrant Amble

In case you are wondering if I’m being modest about my keen knowledge of these feathered creatures of the wild, that I really am a fellow “birder” and not just a slow-witted sap who sipped whiskey with MAP one muggy summer’s night, let me share with you some of the most impressive avian truths I have accumulated over the years:

  1. coconutA 5-ounce swallow cannot carry a 1-pound coconut.
  2. They like to crap on my car more than they like to crap on your car. That’s just science.
  3. The term birder potentially—but definitely does not—comes from the Latin qui volucres, meaning “one who birds.”
  4. They are basically dinosaurs, or whatever.

Feel free to use any and all of these facts—and they are facts—at your next social gathering or work luncheon. Wallflowers, no more!

It’s right about now I realize that not only have you stopped reading because I misused the word amble in the heading above, but you haven’t read one word of this because MAP rightfully made an editorial decision to go with an old Garfield comic strip instead. I’m pushing through though, because that’s what one does when given a friendly assignment. Plus, I have placed a rather arbitrary deadline on this and need to quicken my pace. If there is one person I hate disappointing more than you, who I probably do not know, it’s me, who I probably do. Or do I? Existentialism, party of one, your contemplation is ready.


It was early morning in late April and a cool fog had set in after a night of thunderous rainfall. Our group planted its collective feet on the damp trails of Radnor Lake, a 1,332-acre beauty that seemingly drops out of the sky behind the aristocratic mansions of Belle Meade. We consisted of three. Mark—the skillful birder who draws you into this blog at his leisure with his expertly knowledgeable and expertly written pieces. Melissa—the fantastic visual artiste who peppers these stories so well with her colorful graphical renderings that it is hard to believe she doesn’t charge a fee. And me—the guy who didn’t think to bring binoculars to a birdwatching excursion.

The walk started off admittedly slow, but serene. The breeze off the lake was relaxing, the conversation upbeat. At the very least, I thought, it was going to be a nice jaunt amongst friends. Not a bad Sunday morning no matter what. But then, as if on a director’s cue, a rustling came from the trees to our left. Mark and Melissa sprang into action like grizzled vets. I thought they were about to start doing those meaningful arm gestures reserved only for Navy Seals while entering an enemy compound. They actually might have, because I was stuck in the mud, frantically trying to untangle the binocular strap from around my neck. (They instinctively knew to bring me a pair of binos, a term I literally just made up this second.)

“What do you see?” Mark asked.

“I think it’s a Gnatcatcher,” Melissa proclaimed.

“Oh, well done,” Mark said. “It is definitely a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher! See it, Stephen?”

“You stupid, @#$% strap! Why won’t you turn the other way!? No, the other way!” I answered.


Bins. Binos. Eye trumpets: how not to use them.

Petite, yet round, the Blue-gray Gnatcatcher is marked by a thin white eye ring and a color pattern worthy of its name. While they make their home over a wide spread of the United States and Mexico, they are not the most abundant in terms of sheer numbers, so it was a great start for the two experts.

Meanwhile, I had courageously, triumphantly, and finally overpowered that devil’s strap. It was an inauspicious start for the amateur.

From there we set off, and I settled down. We saw a group of Lesser Scaups meandering about the lake. Scaups look a lot like ducks to non-birders like me, but they are definitely not ducks. That is offensive to the Scaup, which has a massive superiority complex on this issue. But broad strokes, yeah, think duck. Or think Mallard, which we also saw, and I believe actually is a duck. I think.

Image: Melissa Tucker

Statler, Tyrannus, and Waldorf ridiculing my blog. (Image: Melissa Tucker)

We saw Eastern Kingbirds (whose Latin name seriously is Tyrannus tyrannus) perching mightily high atop the trees. Gray or black on top and white underneath, they look like they are headed to an important meeting, or perhaps a night at the opera. Dress for the bird you want to be, not the bird you are, that’s this one’s motto.

We saw loads and loads of Warblers: from Yellow-rumped to Black & White to possibly even a Swainson’s. The Swainson’s Warbler was/would be a rare treat for Mark & Melissa, as it is described by The Cornell Lab of Ornithology as “one of the most secretive and least observed of all North American birds.” They delighted in the potential find, and I delighted right along with them. In the end they were unwilling to mark it as a definitive find, and I applaud them for their caution. I, on the other hand, often throw caution to the wind when there is even the slightest potential for me to say I have seen something special. For instance, several years back I saw Sasquatch. Granted, it was at a Halloween party inside a dorm room in college, but I saw him for sure. Just ask me and I’ll tell you. So yeah, we definitely saw a Swainson’s Warbler.

All in all, we had 20 confirmed bird species finds. Among those was the Ruby-throated Hummingbird, which flutters its wings on average 70 times per second, but can ratchet that up to an amazing 200 times per second when on a high-speed dive. There was the large Barred Owl spreading its massive wings not 25 yards from our trail. Needless to say, its speed was substantially less than the Hummingbird, but I’d imagine you could hide 50 hummingbirds underneath its wings. (It’s a bigun! That’s what I’m implying.  Feel free to infer as much.)

We saw a Summer Tanager, not to be confused with a Cardinal, which we also saw. We saw an Eastern Phoebe, which is a brownish-gray flycatcher known for an active nature and a “phoebe” voice that you surely have heard many, many times in your life.

Maybe the most impressive find for me was the Green Heron. This was in part due to how near we were able to get to it and how long it sat frozen on a branch hanging out over the water’s edge. Its prominent, silky-smooth green back and chestnut body really were stunning to observe so closely, and while I have zero ability to note true characteristics of these or any other birds, it seemed to me to exude this dominating confidence. But what do I know? It might as easily have been in a petrified state of panic because it was a teenager and its adolescent friends saw it out in public with its mother.

The crown jewel of the day though had to be the Pileated Woodpecker. We thought this colorful bird was going to be our white whale, as we heard its signature rapid-fire tapping echo throughout the woods from the outset, but each time the pecking clearly came from a distance. It appeared the chances of seeing it were gone as we rounded our final turn home, but Melissa spotted one hanging out on a branch of a thick-trunked oak, level to our eye line. This vibrant and lively bird certainly was an awesome sight. As big as a crow, it is easily recognizable because of its rich black body and white streaks running down its neck, and is highlighted by a brightly burning red mohawk on top. Its sharp bill is perfectly designed for drilling its famous rectangular-shaped holes in dead trees and rotten woods in search of carpenter ants and other insects. It might have been our last confirmed sighting, but it was worth the wait (as was my hilarious Woody the Woodpecker parody that definitely wasn’t annoying at all.)

A side note: Melissa did a lot of the spotting that day. She’s got peepers like an eagle, that one. My biggest find was a Red-eared Slider, which is a terrapin to the unwitting. So as long as you sit in a seemingly permanent state of stillness and are not a bird in any capacity, I’ll eventually find you. I’m quite the birder, I am.

It was a productive, interesting, and downright fun morning with friends, jam-packed with sights, sounds, and smells that are always at our disposal, free of charge and full of life—here, there, and everywhere. So what are you waiting for? Have at it!

Aberrant Postamble

If I may leave you with one final thought, it would be this: the proprietors of this blog—both of them—display a true passion for the hobby of birdwatching. Infinitely more than most, these two have an impressive ability to balance the seriousness it takes to be proficient birders with the joviality it takes to bring it to people like me, an absolute novice. Mark is a masterful writer, and made a wise choice to combine his superior knowledge of birds with his sagacious command of the English language. And Melissa is unquestionably one of the smartest people I know. I do not believe she has any formal training in graphic arts or design, but is a wizard at it naturally. And she should be guest blogging (or co-blogging) soon. Challenge thrown, MAP!

So please keep reading Aberrant Plumage. And please keep birding if you already do. And please give it a go if you haven’t yet. I know Mark and Melissa are willing to help you on your way. If they’re not, then they’ll fake it for me. Hell, I just wrote all these nice words. They’ve got to now.

One last, final thought: The word amble means to walk, so technically we ambled about. I still misused it in the previously-mentioned heading, but I was oh so close to figuring it out. Postamble is technically just gibberish. You got me on that one too.

One last, last, final thought for MAP: If you do use a Garfield comic strip, make sure it’s one where Odie chases a bird around the house while Garfield is fat and sleeps all day. I mean, they’re all basically like that, but at least it has a bird in it.

Garfield_4 (1)

Sigh. We serve at the pleasure of Mr. President.

Our Finches Are Sick

House Finches are quite common throughout most of the United States—if you’ve seen a bird-feeder or, heck, a tree, you’ve seen a House Finch. But they may not always be so ubiquitous. Their numbers have fallen sharply due to West Nile Virus and Finch Eye Disease, so named because it leads to a nasty (and quite obvious) case of conjunctivitis, though its real danger is that it creates respiratory distress that kills many of the birds it infects. Or if the disease doesn’t kill them, the weakness and blindness it causes makes them easy prey. Like any smart pathogen, it lets the host live just long enough to transmit the infection to others.bigbird and doctor

I first noticed this condition affecting goldfinches in 2007 or so when I was living near Athens, Georgia. But apparently it had already been decimating House Finch populations since the mid-90s.

Today, I often see House Finches with crusty, swollen eyes at my feeders here in Nashville. The diseased birds are lethargic and clumsy, some of them half blinded and struggling to breathe. It’s heartbreaking to watch.

Healthy male House Finch. Photo:

Healthy male House Finch. (Photo:

Part of the problem may be that House Finches aren’t native to the eastern US. They seem to be especially susceptible to disease here. One could argue that they’re suffering from over-population and that a disease like this serves to keep their numbers in check in a region where they perhaps never belonged in the first place (though the disease has now spread to their home turf on the west coast as well). In areas where finches are less numerous, the disease causes little if any damage, while in crowded conditions it spreads rapidly.

At this point, there’s no consensus about what should be done. Perhaps research will provide some answers. The only thing we know to do—and we must do—is keep our feeders clean. The disease does not seem to affect humans, but it can and has spread to other finch species like the American Goldfinch, Purple Finch, and Evening Grosbeak. Most other species remain unaffected, even when exposed to the bacteria (at least until another mutation allows the bacteria to cause symptoms in a wider swath of bird populations).

So I implore you: wash your feeders regularly. Once every two weeks at minimum, preferably more often, especially if you see diseased birds. Use a bleach and water solution. Rake up the mess under your feeders. Otherwise, you’re inviting your birds to a buffet of Mycoplasma gallisepticum, which is exactly as bad as it sounds.

I’ve seen far too many backyard bird-feeders that obviously haven’t been cleaned in years. They’re caked with debris, slime, rust, and droppings—five-star conditions for microbes. Cleaning them won’t stop Finch Eye Disease, nor will taking the feeders down completely. But I won’t allow my bird-feeders to become an ally of this deadly disease. If there’s even a chance that cleaning the feeders regularly will make the birds in my neighborhood a little safer, pass me the Clorox.

For more information on Finch Eye Disease, check out FeederWatch and Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s AllAboutBirds. You may also be interested in this summary of a recent study showing that many songbird species—even those that do not frequent bird-feeders—have been infected with the disease, though most show no symptoms.

Clean your feeders, please!

Clean your feeders, please!