Birds at my bird feeder recently looked all mottled with patches of bright and dull colors, are they sick?

Question Answered by Cory Braastad, Biological Field Technician,.INL ESER Program

This is a good question since there are several different factors behind this. The first thing I like to know is what time of year was this? There would be 3 different seasons that could effect the color of the birds: spring, summer and fall.

Red-winged Blackbird

Summer: When birds migrate back to their summer grounds they will begin to look for a mate. The males are brighter in color than the females. These brighter colors will help attract a female.

Spring: When you first see the birds its is usually in early spring and they may not have their bright summer colors yet, which may lead people in thinking that there might be something wrong with them. In actuality, they are losing their dull winter colors. If you look at a male goldfinch for example, in the early spring they will still have their dull fall/winter colors then in the spring they will grow their bright yellow colors.

American Robin

Fall: In October they will look blotched and have a mix of brown and yellow on them.

What plumage the birds have really depends on the season and it can be really fun to see male birds slowly transition from their spring plumage to their fall plumage and back again.

Bird Communication
Birds communicate for many reasons and most songbirds have a repertoire of calls and/or songs to convey meaning. Typical bird communications fall into two main groups.

  • Songs are relatively long and elaborate and are used to impress and attract a mate, as well as to declare territorial boundaries.
  • Calls are usually shorter than songs. They are used to identify family members, to announce the presence of a predator or to tell other birds about food.

Birdwatchers often pay attention to a bird’s songs and calls as it is an easy way to find and identify birds, even when they are hard to see in trees and bushes.

Bird Song Mnemonics

Black-capped Chickadee
  • Robin: Cheerily, cheeriup, cheerio, cheeriup. Cheerily, cheeriup, cheerio, cheeriup.
  • Black-capped Chickadee: Chicka-dee-dee-dee-dee. Chicka-dee-dee-dee-dee.
  • Red-winged Blackbird: Conk-a-reeeee. Conk-a-reeeee. Conk-a-reeeee.
  • Killdeer: Kill-deer, kill-deer, kill-deer. Kill-deer, kill-deer, kill-deer.
  • Mourning Dove: Oo-wah-hooo, hoo-hoo. Oo-wah-hooo, hoo-hoo.
  • American Goldfinch: Per-chik-or-ree. Per-chik-or-ree. Per-chik-or-ree. Per-chik-or-ree.
  • Yellow Warbler: Sweet, sweet, sweet, sweet-thansweet

For this activity, you are going to create a “sound map” of everything you hear.
You will need: clipboard and paper or notebook, pencil, open area

  1. Before you go outside, make a list of symbols for things you may hear on your sound journey. You can make any symbols you like: curly lines for “wind,” a messy scribble for rumbling of a truck, a stick dog for barking, whatever makes sense to you.
  2. Record your symbols in a map legend in a box below your map.
  3. Start your walk on your map with an X. As you travel, listen to the sounds you hear and mark them on your map. Using the bird sound mnemonics, you can even mark the location of kinds of birds you hear.

Which sounds stood out to you the most? Could you tell how far away the sounds were? Were there any sounds you couldn’t identify? Where there sounds heard from every direction? Why or why not? Did you hear a bird? Could you identify it from its song?

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