Bird Beef

The way I see it, if you are going to go to the trouble of giving a bird species a name, the name should highlight a distinguishing feature of the species, differentiate it from other species, and–at the very least–accurately describe the species. Apparently these considerations do not apply when it comes to woodpecker monikers.

Bird Beef: Woodpecker names are not helpful for identification.

(I will concede that the yellow-bellied sapsucker, pileated woodpecker, and the redheaded woodpecker have reasonable names).

  • There is the hairy woodpecker, which has no hair.
  • And the downy woodpecker, which looks almost identical to the hairy.
  • Then there is the red-bellied woodpecker, whose “red belly” looks more like an orange crotch and is overshadowed by its bright red head
  • The actual redheaded woodpecker also has a red head is hardly the only woodpecker with red on its head (hello, downy, hairy, pileated, red-bellied, and yellow-bellied sapsuckers!)
  • The northern flicker doesn’t have fingers with which to flick, even if it wanted to.

The red-bellied woodpecker’s name seems especially unhelpful. True, it does have a splash of color on underside, but it’s not red, and it’s not located on the belly. Take a look at this photo, taken at my in-laws’ cabin in northern Michigan. Is it just me, or is it more of a rust color than red? And is it located on the crotch rather than the belly?

The red-bellied woodpecker is named for the scarcely-visible rust-colored patch on its underside.

Since “rust crotch” is not an appropriate name for an otherwise child-friendly bird (unless somebody has footage of a woodpecker attacking a toddler–I’d be very interested in seeing that), let’s look for a different distinguishing feature to lend a name. How about the zebra pattern on the back? That’s pretty unique.

Proposed new name: zebra-backed woodpecker.

I hereby dub thee, zebra-backed woodpecker.

I want to hear a peep out of you!

  •  What bird names confuse, amuse, or frustrate you?
  • What bird name changes would you propose?
  • Do you have footage of a woodpecker attacking a child?
A pileated woodpecker excavates a Thanksgiving meal in Bear Creek Park in Houston, TX.


A female pileated woodpecker excavates a Thanksgiving meal in Bear Creek Park in Houston, TX.

Every bird has a special appeal (with the exception of robins, which I’ll explain in a future post). Some are colorful, others elusive. There are rare birds, giant birds, silly birds, frightening birds, and everything in between.

Rarely does one bird possess so much charisma as the pileated woodpecker: queen hammerhead of the forest. Flaming topknot ablaze, she asserts her reign over a large forested territory with a whinnying call that puts Woody Woodpecker to shame (listen here). Her bill penetrates tree trunks like a hot knife through…rotten bark, and the cavities she creates provide shelter and feeding opportunities for a variety of creatures.

As large as a crow, the pileated woodpecker is the largest woodpecker in North America (unless you hold out hope for a rediscovery of the supposedly extinct ivory-billed woodpecker). In the photo below, which I took at Beer Creek Park in Houston, the pileated (top left) is noticeably larger than the redheaded woodpecker (bottom right).

A female pileated woodpecker dwarfs a juvenile redheaded woodpecker. It is common for other birds to be attracted to pileated woodpeckers’ feeding sites.

Pileated woodpeckers are also noteworthy for their loyalty. Mating pairs stick together till death do them part. Pileateds achieve mating opportunities, not through battling against rivals, but by stepping in to fill the void when another bird dies. Only then will the widowed bird take on a new mate. See my post “Love Birds” to learn about other famously faithful birds.

In case you’re wondering, “pileated” means “capped,” and the pileated woodpecker’s bright red cap is impossible to miss. The bird in the photos is a female, as evidenced by the brownish-black forehead. On males, the entire top of the head is red. Of all the woodpecker species I’ve seen, the pileated is one of the few that is aptly named in accordance with its appearance. But that is a rant for a future post.

I want to hear a peep out of  you!

  • Do you have a favorite woodpecker species?
  • Have you hosted a pair of pileated woodpeckers on your property?
  • Have you ever known pileated woodpeckers to take to a nest box, like the one pictured in my previous post?
A barred owl and her eggs


A barred owl and her eggs

It’s difficult to convey the degree to which owls fascinate me. From time to time, Scott and I go out looking for them. Once we went owling on a frigid December night, flashlights in hand, and stood motionless for what felt like hours. We played an owl call on a portable speaker. The fake owl echoed his digital love song into the snow-blanketed beyond and we listened for a real-life response. Our fingers froze, our nostrils fused shut, but no owl made its presence known that night.

We had a more successful owling outing a few weeks ago. The weather was freakishly warm for Michigan in March. We’d been outside at Scott’s family’s cabin, and heard several barred owls calling from the woods. Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you all? the owls demanded. Scott does! He’s grilling our dinner right now! I answered smugly. For unlike the owl, I did not have to swallow my meals whole and then regurgitate the bones and hair later on (however a battle with a stomach virus earlier in the week had resulted in several episodes of regurgitation on my part).

After dusk, we set out with a spotlight and a portable speaker.  Scott has trained his ear using audio files of bird calls, narrated by an expert. First we played the calls of a great horned owl, which would have been a new addition to my life list. Alas, none responded. Then we tried the barred owl. I have to give Scott credit for his bird call DJ skills. Only once did he forget to turn down the volume when he restarted the track, so that narrator Lang Elliot’s voice boomed into the night: “BARRED OWL:”  Oops.

Darkness surrounded us. We silently cursed the spring peepers for drowning out all other sounds with their incessant…peeping. Then, finally, we heard it. Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you? And in response, from a different direction: Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you alllllll?” Before long, we heard a scratching sound on a tree nearby. Talons! We shone the spotlight on two barred owls, who were watching us. The owl calls rose to a fever pitch. It’s safe to say that we were a little freaked out. Then we heard more calling and scratching from a tree on our other side. We got the spotlight up just in time to see an owl take flight and glide silently through densely tangled branches.

It’s astonishing that the owls were able to fly through those branches without knocking into them. It’s impossible to know how many owls were watching us from all directions, but we estimate that we heard about six individuals calling that night. With so many owls in the area, I think it’s pretty likely that barred owls are responsible for the stinky old eggs we found in the nest box intended for pileated woodpeckers. Some follow-up research has heightened my suspicion that barred owls occupied the next box.

Why I Think Barred Owls Laid Those Eggs
Written and Illustrated by Elana Tornquist

  • I read that barred owls will often nest in cavities created by pileated woodpeckers. If that box was designed to entice PWs, then it would also appeal to BOs (and let me assure you, the nest smelled like BO).
  • They lay two to four eggs. We found four of them.
  • They are known to be attracted to campfire and lights, where they can more easily find insect prey. The nest box was pretty close to the house, where the surrounding yard is sometimes illuminated.

But why did they vacate the nest? Why did those eggs go unhatched? Barred owls apparently have few predators, but their most serious one is the great horned owl. Scott has seen and heard them in the area, so it’s possible that one or both parents were killed. Another possible explanation is that the owls were disturbed by the close proximity of humans. People don’t live at the cabin full-time, so maybe the owls set up camp while the cabin was vacant. Weekend human visitors may have frightened the owls off.
We don’t know why the nest box was abandoned, but it’s a good thing we cleaned it out when we did. The barred owl nesting season will end in early April. A nice, clean nest box might attract new inhabitants yet.


Don’t Eat These Cookies

Awhile back I posted about a DIY project for making birdseed cookies. I decided to make my own birdseed cookies one lonely Saturday afternoon. I’ll direct you to this cool website for a complete list of ingredients and directions, but lets just say it was a shamefully simple project. And safe too. No heating and no cutting required.

I just combined flour, birdseed, water, a packet of gelatin, and some corn syrup in a giant mixing bowl. The resulting mixture resembled Nickelodeon Floam (TM). It also kind of looked like ooey gooey mashed up granola bar, which made me really hungry. But don’t eat it! It’s for the birds!

Then I packed the mixture into greased cupcake molds. I could have used cute cookie cutters, or jar lids if I had had enough of them on hand. I stuck pieces of drinking straws straight through the molds to form a hole, which I later used to thread pieces of yarn through so that the cookies could be hung outside.

This is what the cookies looked like after they had been removed from the mold and thoroughly hardened. They were pretty sturdy! What was I going to do with 24 birdseed cookies? I brought them to school and gave them to my first grade students. I also translated the directions for making them into Spanish and gave my students a copy so that they could make them at home with their parents. Many students reported bird action on their apartment patios after hanging the cookies outside. Several of them even did the project with their parents and siblings at home.

I’ll post the Spanish recipe here in case anybody has any use for it. Please excuse my imperfect Spanish. I’m a Gringa!


  • ¾ taza de harina
  • ½ taza de agua
  • 1 sobre de gelatina sin sabor
  • 3 cucharadas de miel de maíz
  • 4 tazas de alimento para aves
  • Popotes
  • Hilo
  • Moldes para formar las galletas (tapas de jarras, moldes de cupcake, etc.)


  1. Combine la harina, agua, gelatina, y miel de maíz en un tazón grande.
  2. Bata los ingredientes hasta que estén bien mezcladas.
  3. Agregue el alimento para aves.
  4. Bata la mixtura hasta que el alimento para aves esté bien cubierto.
  5. Eche aceite en aerosol para cubrir los moldes.
  6. Llene los moldes con la mixtura. Use una taza para aplastarla.
  7. Meta un popote en la parte superior de cada galleta.
  8. Deje las galletas en los moldes con los popotes puestos por 3 horas.
  9. Después de 3 horas, saque los popotes y cuidadosamente saque las galletas de los moldes.
  10. Déjelas que sequen fuera de los moldes por 3 horas más.
  11. Cuando estén secas y duras, meta el hilo en el hueco para colgar las galletas afuera.
Nestbox with eggs and litter


Surprise! This blog is still alive! After a restful spring break in Michigan, I am excited to get back to the blogging.

Last week Scott and I spent some time at his family’s cabin in Woodville, MI. Three years ago, Scott built a large nest box. He installed it on a tree near the house, hoping to attract pileated woodpeckers. Nobody had noticed any action in the nest box over the years.

We decided to open it to investigate its contents. We propped the side hatch open with a really long stick, and much to our surprise, we discovered chicken sized white eggs buried beneath about a foot of leaves. Seriously this bird, whatever it was, could compete with the messiest of my students in a cluttered desk/nest box competition! We rapidly closed the hatch. We didn’t want to disturb any birds that might be hiding in the leaves, and we definitely didn’t want those precious eggs to fall.

As the hours passed, we became more curious about the nest box and more suspicious about the eggs. If it were an active nest, wouldn’t we have observed some clues, such as droppings nearby or a bird entering or exiting the box? Why were the eggs buried beneath leaves? Why were flies swarming around the entrance to the box?

Finally, after much deliberation, we concluded that the nest was no longer active, the eggs were rotten, and the box would be more beneficial to future inhabitants if it were cleaned out. Armed with a couple of long sticks, we got to work. One of us held the box open with a tree branch while the other one swept the junk out with another branch. It was a rudimentary operation, but it got the job done. In the next photos, you will see me modeling both jobs.

All I have to say upon viewing these pictures is: Not everyone can pull off the jeggings and hiking boots ensemble.

Even though we were pretty confident that the nest was ancient, we still felt a twinge of guilt when five or six eggs landed on the ground with a sickening thud. Much to our relief, they smelled putrid and looked pretty nasty too, suggesting that they were indeed past their prime. Whew! Check out the rancid eggs on parade!

Compare the egg with the penny to get an idea of the egg’s size.

Pretty gross, right? We’re still not sure which species produced these eggs.  Our guess is barred owl, pileated woodpecker, or possibly wood duck, although there isn’t much water in the area. Now that the nest box is clean, we hope something new moves in.

What about you?

  • Do you recognize the eggs in the photos?
  • Do the white feathers in the first photo belong to the bird who laid the eggs? Or did the bird find them someplace?
  • Why didn’t the eggs hatch? Would any of the birds on the suspect list be bothered by the close proximity of humans?
Inca dove

Love the Doves

An Inca dove fluffs its scaly feathers on a spring day at High Island, TX.

If you are like me, then at one time in your life, you thought that the pigeon-like bird heard cooing around dawn was called a morning dove. If you are like me, you were wrong. It’s actually a mourning dove, so named for its sorrowful song.

Mourning doves are abundant in the suburban Michigan neighborhood where I grew up. Rock doves, (the elitist name for “pigeons”) could be seen here and there, but that was the extent of my dove exposure for the first 23 years of my life. When I moved to Houston shortly after college, the dove world opened wide. To prove it, here’s a list of the doves I’ve seen in Houston:

Houston Doves

  • Rock dove (pigeon–boring)
  • Mourning dove (all over Michigan–boring)
  • White-winged dove (cool at first, then bo-ring)
  • Eurasian collared dove (confusing. Is it a collared dove or a turtle dove?)
  • Ring-necked turtle dove (see above)
  • Inca dove (cool!–see below)

Of all the doves I’ve spotted in Houston, the Inca dove (pictured above) is by far the most exciting. I first identified it at the Boy Scout Woods at High Island last spring. Then, a few months ago, I spotted it at my school, in the heart of Houston. It is unique among Houston doves for its pronounced scaliness. A reddish brown color, which I guess is called rufous is seen on the wings when the bird takes flight. My favorite part about the Inca dove is its call, which sounds like a bunch of monkeys attempting Morse code.

What about you?

  • Did you go through a “morning” dove phase too?
  • Do you have a favorite dove?
  • Can you consistently differentiate between a Eurasian collared dove and a ring-necked turtle dove? What’s the trick?
I sawed my friend in two. And I actually invited two additional friends over: Ms. Spoon and Mr. Sharper Knife.

Little Miss Popular

The fruits of my labor: A homemade squash feeder hangs forlornly from my apartment patio.

I’m not sure whether to feel proud or pathetic. Last weekend, while my peers were out doing age appropriate activities, such as dating each other or recording a new album with their rock ‘n roll band, I was indoors making homemade bird feeders out of rotting vegetables. Or are they fruits?

A very lonely Saturday night: All the materials needed to create the bird feeder are my only friends.

I used a softening acorn squash, a knife, and some yarn to fashion a feeder for the birds. You may recognize the project from my recent DIY post.

I sawed my friend in two. And I actually invited two additional friends over: Ms. Spoon and Mr. Sharper Knife.

It was so easy. I just cut the squash in half with a knife. I decided to use the bottom half of the squash for the feeder since it was more uniformly shaped and easier to balance in the yarn sling. Initially I used the squash seeds to lure birds. But they all sort of glued together into a gob because I didn’t dry them out first. Ultimately, I replaced them with sunflower seeds.

Ta da!

Making the sling out of yarn was the hardest part. I had to balance the squash just right. The completed feeder is now hanging securely outside of my apartment window. I have not seen any birds eating from it yet. Then again, they have also been avoiding my suet feeder and hummingbird feeder, so maybe the squash isn’t to blame.

As exciting as Saturday night squash feeder building is, I have something a little more fun in mind for tonight. But don’t worry. Once a bird nerd, always a bird nerd. I’ll be sure to do the Chicken Dance when I’m out on the town with my friends.