Category Archives: Perching Birds

Steller’s Jay – Cyanocitta stelleri

General: Steller’s Jays (Cyanocitta stelleri) are bold, social and extremely vocal Steller's Jay habitat, behavior, diet, migration patterns, conservation status, and nesting.birds that can be found in the mountainous areas of the North American west. They may best be known for their dark blue coloration and lack of white undersides. Be cautious of these vividly colored and inquisitive birds when picnicking, as they have been known to steal unguarded fare. Steller’s Jay populations are healthy and expanding and are listed as Least Concern on the IUCN Red List.

Description: Steller’s Jays are large, robust birds that reach adult weights of 3.5 to 5 oz. and lengths of 11.75 to 13.5”. They have full, long tails, large heads with thick, straight black bills and rounded wings that open to a span of over 17”. Steller’s Jays, like Blue Jays, have prominent crests that sit erect atop their heads. These two species are the only two in North American that have easily distinguishable crests1.

Steller’s Jays are identifiable by their allover dark coloration, lacking the light underparts common of many species. Their heads are charcoal in color with subtle white or blue markings and black crests. Their bodies are dark cobalt blue accented by vivid blue and black barring on the wings and tail. Sexual dimorphism is minimal within this species, with females only being slightly fainter in color and with slightly less barring than males. Juvenile Steller’s Jays lack the brilliance of adults and instead are brown or gray with less prominent crests.

Geographic variations occur across the seventeen known subspecies of Steller’s Jays. These differences can include greater amounts of blue or black across the bodies and crests, and variations in head sizes and patterning.

Steller’s Jays are intelligent, noisy and inquisitive birds that spend most of their time foraging and exploring their habitats. On the ground and in trees they move with bold hops (pausing often to investigate their surroundings) and in the air they travel with graceful, long and steady wing beats (their wings rarely extending past horizontal2.)

Steller’s Jays are extremely social birds, traveling in flocks of mating Steller’s Jay pairs as well as in mixed-species flocks. Their populations are built upon complex patterns of social hierarchies and dominance. To display aggression, two jays may partake in aerial fights, grasping and pecking at each other during flight. Social standings may also be determined through crest displays, wing spreading (to express submission) and an activity called “Aggressive Sliding.” To ward off predators, such as raptors, Steller’s Jays unite into mobs to use vocal and physical intimidation3.

Extremely vocal birds, Steller’s Jays are capable of a broad range of sounds and calls, including mimicking (the likes of dogs, cats, squirrels, chickens, other birds, and even some machines4.) Other sounds include squawks, screams, rattles, soft warbles, and piercing sheck sheck sheck screams5. Adult jays, while usually some of the most vocal birds in their habitats, are quiet and discreet when raising their young or robbing nests6.

Steller’s Jays have been known to live to approximately 16 years old.

Habitat: Steller’s Jays reside in mountainous coniferous and mixed forests of the North American West, where they can be spotted in the high canopy. They may also be found in arid woodlands in the American southwest and Mexico. Their habitats also include parks, campgrounds, and suburban areas.

Location: Steller’s Jay populations are generally resident and inhabit coniferous and mixed woods forests in western North America, from the southern coast of Alaska, through the Rocky Mountain Region (into eastern Colorado) and south into Mexico and Central America at elevations of 3,000’ to 10,000’. Along the Pacific Coast, Steller’s Jay populations tend to be found at lower elevations7.

Although Steller’s Jays are generally resident, some populations may migrate to lower elevations during winter months. Large irruptions in the fall and winter may also cause populations of Steller’s Jays to move into southern California, deserts of the American southwest, and the Great Plains. There has also been accidental population movement into Illinois, Nebraska, Kansas and central Texas8.

Diet: Steller’s Jays are generalist foragers, searching for food on the ground and in trees. Their omnivorous diets consist of two-thirds vegetable matter, including seeds, berries, and nuts. These jays are capable of carrying several large nuts or seeds simultaneously within their mouths and throats. Because they have developed spatial understanding and memory, Steller’s Jays are able to bury and store nuts and seeds for winter food caches. In addition to their own caches, it is common for Steller’s Jays to raid caches of other birds during winter months. Their diets also include insects, small rodents, reptiles, invertebrates and carrion. Steller’s Jays are habitual nest robbers and are known to eat eggs and nestlings. Populations living in close proximity to humans will eat garbage, bird feed and picnic fare9.

Reproduction: Steller’s Jays form long-term monogamous pairs that tend to remain together year round. Breeding generally occurs within dense coniferous forests, and begins with courting displays called “Sexual Sliding10.” Steller’s Jays have one brood per year. Nesting sites are selected by both mates who then collect materials and build the nest together. These nests are usually above ground, located on horizontal branches close to the trunk of a tree. One of only two species of New World Jays to use mud as a building material (the other is the Blue Jay,) Steller’s Jays construct cup-shaped nests of stems, moss, leaves, and sticks (all held together with mud.) These nests may be up to 17” in diameter, 7” tall and 2.5” to 3.5” in depth and are lined with pine needles, animal hair, rootlets and sometimes paper. Females are able to lay one egg per day, with typical clutches containing 2 to 6 blue-green eggs spotted with olive, brown or purple. The eggs are 1” to 1.4” in length and are incubated by the females for 16 days, although males have been known to share in incubation duties11. Both parents share in feeding their young. The chicks molt for the first time in 2 weeks and begin to fly at around 3 weeks of age, shortly after fledging. Although the fledglings begin foraging for their own food at one-month-old, parents continue to provide food for an additional month after their young fledge12.

As Blue Jay populations expand west, hybrids with Steller’s Jays are becoming more and more common.

Notes of Interest: Steller’s Jays received their namesake from naturalist Georg Steller. He first discovered this species in 1741 while exploring an Alaskan island as part of the crew of a Russian exploratory ship. Other species that share their namesake: Steller’s sea lions and Steller’s Sea-Eagles13. Over the last two decades, Steller’s Jay populations have expanded, infiltrating a broader range of habitats. As a result, the Steller’s Jay has become a much more common resident of towns and cities14.


Northern Cardinal – Cardinalis Cardinalis

General: According to The Audubon Society the Cardinal was given its name because the deep red color of the males resemble the color of the robes of Roman Catholic Cardinals. Both sexes sing clear, song patterns, which are repeated several times, then varied. Some common songs are purdy-purdy-purdy, whoit-whoit-whoit and wheet-wheet-wheet.

The female lays three to four eggs pale green eggs that are spotted red/brown in a cup shaped nest. Incubation takes 12 to 13 days. When hatched the chicks are naked except for sparse tufts of grayish down and eyes closed. Young fledge 10 to 11 days after hatching.

In the United States, the Northern Cardinal is the mascot of a number of athletic teams. In professional sports, it is the mascot of the St. Louis Cardinals of Major League Baseball and the Arizona Cardinals of the National Football League. In college athletics, it is the mascot of many schools, including the University of Louisville, the State University of New York at Plattsburgh, Ball State University, Illinois State University, Lamar University, the Catholic University of America, Wesleyan University, Wheeling Jesuit University, Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences, North Idaho College and Saint John Fisher College. It is also the state bird of seven states, more than any other species: North Carolina, West Virginia, Ohio, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, and Virginia.

Identification: The Northern Cardinal is a mid-sized songbird that is 8” – 9“ long with a wing span of 10” – 12“. As can be seen from the pictures, the Northern Cardinal has a distinctive crest on the head and a mask on its face which is black in the male and gray in the female. The male is a brilliant crimson red with a black face mask over the eyes, extending to the upper chest. The color is dullest on the back and wings. The female is fawn, with mostly grayish-brown tones and a slight reddish tint on the wings, the crest, and the tail feathers.

Young birds, both male and female, are similar to the adult female until the fall, when they molt and grow adult feathers.

Habitat: The Northern Cardinal is found in woodlands, gardens, thickets, shrub-lands, and swamps. It is a common bird in suburbs and is a frequent visitor to backyard bird feeding stations.

Territory: It can be found in southern Canada – Ontario, Quebec, and Nova Scotia and east, through the eastern United States from Maine to Texas and south through Mexico.

Migration: Cardinals are year round residents and really don’t have formal migratory patterns.

Food: Cardinals primarily eat seeds, grains, and fruits, however; they do eat insects to a lesser extent. Parent birds feed nestlings mostly insects.













House Finch – Carpodacus Mexicanus

General: The House Finch was originally an inhabitant to the west coast of the U.S. and Mexico but has been introduced to the east coast. According to Audubon, in the 1940’s caged House Finches were released in New York City and Long Island, New York. Since that time, the House Finch has established new territory along the Atlantic coast. House Finches were introduced to Oahu from San Francisco sometime before 1870. They had become abundant on all the major Hawaiian Islands by 1901. As with all such events, unintended consequences have occurred. Competition for food and habitat resulted in East coast populations of native Purple Finch and the invasive House Sparrow to decline. (1)

With its increased territory and adaptability, the total House Finch population across North America is estimated between 267 million and 1.4 billion individuals. (2)

House Finches nest in many different places from man-made structures to trees to rock ledges. They will use abandoned nests of other birds. Overall width of the nest is 3-7 inches, with the inside cup 1-3 inches across and up to 2 inches deep.

The female lays 2 to 6 pale blue to white eggs speckled with fine black and pale purple markings. The eggs are about .6” long and ½” wide. The chicks hatch in 13 to 14 days and are naked except for sparse white down along feather tracts. They fledge in 12 to 19 days.

House Finches can have two or more broods per year.

In captivity House Finches have lived as long as 11 years.

Identification: House Finches are about the same size as House Sparrows but more slender. They measure 5.1” – 5.5” long and with a wingspan between 7.9” – 9.8”. They weigh ½ oz – 1 oz.

Adult males are rosy red around the face and upper breast, with streaky brown back, belly and tail. Adult females are plain grayish-brown with thick, blurry streaks and an indistinctly marked face.

The red of a male House Finch comes from pigments contained in its food. Because of this, sometimes orange or yellowish male House Finches will be observed.

Habitat: House Finches inhabit city parks, backyards, urban centers, farms, and forest edges across the continent. In the western U.S., House Finches native habitat is desert, grassland and open woods. They are frequent late fall and winter visitors to my upstate NY backyard birdfeeder.

Territory: Native range was west coast from Mexico to Canada east to Texas and Nebraska. The east coast population is north to Maine and Canada south to Florida and west to the Mississippi.  (3)

Migration: These birds are mainly permanent residents; some eastern birds migrate south.

Diet: House Finches eat almost exclusively plant materials, seeds, buds and fruits. In orchards, House Finches eat cherries, apricots, peaches, pears, plums, strawberries, blackberries, and figs.


1.       Wootton, JT. (1987). “Interspecific Competition between Introduced House Finch Populations and Two Associated Passerine Species”. pages 325–331.

2.       Cornell Lab of Ornithology


3.       Belthoff, James R.; Gauthreaux, Sidney A. (1991). “Partial Migration and Differential Winter Distribution of House Finches in the Eastern United States”

Common Starling – Sturnus vulgaris

General: The Common Starling, European Starling, is native to most of temperate Europe and western Asia. It was introduced into the New York in 1890 when only 100 birds were released. (1) Since then they have spread throughout the US and Canada. Large flocks of Starlings (easily made up of thousands of birds) can be seen in farm areas in upstate NY. This has proven to be both beneficial and detrimental at the same time. They do eat many crop damaging insects yet they also eat grain seeds and have replaced native species. Frankly, I believe this a classic example of the unintended consequence of introducing an “invasive species”.

The breeding season begins in early spring and summer. Males choose the nest site and use it to attract females. (2) I have had numerous issues with Starlings becoming stuck in vent grates and have friends that had them entering the house via the fireplace. Starlings also occasionally nest in burrows and cliffs. The female lays 3 to 6 light blue – green/white eggs. The incubation period is approximately 12 days. The chicks are helpless when hatched. They fledge in approximately another 21 days. Pairs may have three broods per breeding season.

Starlings are great vocal mimics: individuals can learn the calls of up to 20 different species. Their normal calls are rather raspy calls with no real rhythm.

As a note – in NY there is no closed hunting season on Starlings (at least now). If you need target practice, please have fun. This is the only time I actually advocate killing a bird this way.

Identification: Starlings are chunky and blackbird-sized they are 8”–9” long with a wingspan of approximately 13”-16”. They weigh between 2–4 oz. The bill is narrow conical with a sharp tip. In flight their wings are short and pointed as are their tails. At a distance, starlings look black. In summer they are purplish-green iridescent with yellow beaks; in fresh winter plumage they are brown, covered in white spots. Their legs are stout and as can be seen are pink/red.

Juveniles are grey-brown, and by their first winter resemble adults though often retain some brown juvenile feathering especially on the head in the early part of the winter.

Habitat: European Starlings prefer urban or suburban areas. They also commonly reside in grassy areas such as farmland, grazing pastures, open forests and woodlands.

Territory: Starling range from Alaska, through much of Canada, all the contiguous US.

Migration: Starlings do not engage in any significant migration.

Food: Starlings are omnivorous but they eat mostly insects and other invertebrates such as grasshoppers, beetles, flies, caterpillars, snails, earthworms, millipedes, and spiders. They also eat fruits and grains and will frequent bird feeders.

(1)    The Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Birds

(2)    Cornell University

Common Grackle – Quiscalus Quiscula

Common Grackle


Common Grackles are very “common” blackbirds. They often come to bird feeders in noisy flocks with other blackbirds, cowbirds, and starlings that seem to take over all other visitors. In some areas, it is now considered a pest by farmers because of their large numbers and fondness for grain.

Along with some other species of grackles, the common grackle is known to practice “anting,” rubbing insects on its feathers to apply liquids such as formic acid secreted by the insects.

These birds are aggressive and will raid picnic baskets and food at parks and beaches. I enjoy watching unsuspecting people’s food grabbed by Grackles.

They are relentless in fighting off aggressive crows and predators. A small flock of Grackles made nests in my neighbor’s two huge pine trees. One late afternoon I heard noise and saw what appeared to be 10 -12 Grackles frantic and vocal. as I approached a crow came out from the tree and took flight. What I thought were 10 grackles turned to almost 20. They took chase and for roughly 5 minutes an aerial battle took place. The crow eventually came back, I believe to rob the Grackle nests, and the Grackles fought with it within the tree. What was interesting was that the Grackle calls seemed to alert all the Grackles in the area. Within about 10 minutes over 50 grackles came and hounded the crow and eventually chased it from the nests.

During spring mating season, Female grackles typically build nests in a coniferous tree between, in deciduous vegetation, cattails and other sites. It is my experience that grackles nest in large flocks. Each spring we have roughly twenty active grackle nests with these noisy birds. I have had Grackles nest about 10’ up in my neighbors hemlock hedges. The female lays 1–7 eggs that pale blue eggs, with black scrawls. Incubation period is 11-15 days. The chicks are born blind and helpless. They fledge in approximately 21 days.


Common Grackles are large, about the size of a Mourning Dove. They are 11”–13” long with a wingspan of approximately 14”-18”. Common Grackles weigh approximately 2.5–5 oz. They have long legs and long tails. Their head is flat and the bill is longer than in most blackbirds Common Grackles appear black from a distance, but up close their glossy purple heads contrast with bronzy-iridescent bodies. A bright golden/yellow eye gives grackles an intent expression. Males are slightly larger than females. Females are slightly less glossy than males.

Common Grackles are very “common” blackbirds. Young birds are dark brown with a dark eye.


The common grackle thrives around agricultural fields, feedlots, city parks, and suburban lawns. They’re also common in open habitats including woodland, forest edges, meadows, and marshes. Unbroken tracts of forest are the only places where you are unlikely to find Common Grackles.


The Common Grackle moves north in spring to northern Alberta, central Ontario, and Newfoundland, New England south to Gulf Coast states east of Rockies.


This bird is a permanent resident in much of its range. Northern grackles migrate in flocks to the southeastern United States. Those Northern Common Grackles migrate to northern Kansas, southern Great Lakes region to the southern US in the winter.


The Common Grackle is omnivorous however they mostly eat seeds, corn, rice and fruits. They are frequent visitors to bird feeders. Amazingly, Grackles also eat: beetles, grasshoppers, worms, all other types of editable bugs and invertebrates, crustaceans, mollusks, fish, frogs, salamanders, mice, and other birds.

Chipping Sparrow – Spizella passerina

General: The Chipping Sparrow used to use hair in its nest, accordingly, it was given a nickname of “hairbird”. They are frequent visitors to birdfeeders. They are a timid bird that makes way when other birds are present.

Chipping Sparrows typically build their nests low in a shrub or tree. The female lays 2–7 Pale blue to white eggs lightly streaked or spotted with black or brown. Incubation is about 10 – 15 days. When the chicks hatch they are naked, helpless with their eyes closed. They fledge in 9 – 12 days.

Identification: The Chipping Sparrow has a dark, conical bill. The crown of the head is a rusty color. There is a black stripe that runs through the eye. It has a gray face and under-parts (these two features help identify the Chipping Sparrow). Its back is tan with dark streaks the wings are brown with brown bars. Chipping Sparrows are between 4 ½” – 6” long with a wingspan of approximately 8 ½”. They weigh roughly ½ oz.


Juvenile Chipping Sparrows are prominently streaked below. Like non-breeding adults, they show a dark eye-line, extending both in front of and behind the eye. The brownish cap and dusky eyebrow are variable but generally obscure in juveniles.

Habitat: Chipping Sparrows inhabit grassy woodland pastures, gardens, city parks, brushy pastures and suburban neighborhoods.

Territory: Depending on time of year – during breeding season from the Yukon, Manitoba and Newfoundland south through the entire US, south into Mexico and Northern Latin America.

Migration: The Chipping Sparrow is partially migratory, with almost all high northern birds migrating in winter to the southern United States and Mexico. Chipping Sparrows migrate by night.

Food: Most of the foods Chipping Sparrows eat are seeds – grass seeds, grains and flower seeds and at times fruits. Insects will be eaten in spring and fed to chicks. These birds are frequent visitors to feeders. The pictures here are from my feeder.