Ask the Expert

There used to be a website called Ask the Experts on which you could submit a question, for free, on a large variety of subjects and get an answer from experts, or at least knowledgeable people, in the field. I answered  about 2400 inquiries to date before the site disappeared. The vast majority of questions were straightforward and fall into a few categories:

  1. Identification – a bird in the backyard, one they saw while on vacation, on TV, in the zoo, etc. Sometimes they simply describe the bird but often they include a photo. If the description or photos are good, it’s pretty easy although birds from other continents are a bit more of a challenge. I can only recall being stumped twice. Occasionally a description is just plain wrong or misleading and I have to work with the questioner to refine it.
  2. Behavior – why are blackbirds chasing a hawk, why do starlings flock in the winter, why do woodpeckers peck on my house?
  3. Injuries and illnesses– bird with broken wing, Northern Cardinal with bald head (feather mites), House Finches with eye problems (conjunctivitis), etc. I always recommend going to a wildlife rehab center or a vet.
  4. Baby birds – usually this is a fledgling that jumped out of the nest; I usually recommend they leave it alone but if necessary, take it to a bird rehab center.
  5. Pest birds – how to prevent grackles from pooping on the pool deck, swallows from building nests on the house, and mockingbirds from singing all night.
  6. Why are there fewer birds in my backyard/neighborhood/local park this year? And,
  7. General questions – how birds fly, breathe, hatch, incubate, the longest wingspan, etc.

I have also received a number of questions on caged birds – parakeets, parrots, doves, and so on. Although not my real expertise, I know enough about keeping birds (I did it myself briefly many years ago, although today I am not fond of keeping birds in captivity) to answer questions, like “why are my lovebirds molting?” how big should a nest box be for doves?” and “how to sex parakeets.” I try to give the inquirer some other site to go to to get an answer.

It seems that many people who ask questions about their caged birds know less about birds in general than those who ask about wild birds. I guess that bird keepers simply go to a pet shop and bring home a bird and a cage and assume it will need minimal care and just act like a hamster.  A recent questioner asked why her birds were fighting. (In a small cage you just can’t randomly mix a bunch of birds of different species as she did.) It’s truly amazing to find that some people who buy a bird at a pet shop have no idea what species it is. A person wanted to know how to sex and breed his lovebirds. When I asked what species, he sent me a photo of his parakeets! And then there is the guy who wanted to use his flock of chickens to hatch parrot eggs. (I didn’t ask for details.)

Watching birds in the wild is much more ornithologically educational, it appears.


49 thoughts on “Ask the Expert

  1. Hi there!

    Today at work I found a chickadee that had flown into our glass greenhouse. S/he was laying on the pavement panting and seemed on the verge of death. We thought she’d broken her neck but then she was able to pick her head up and look around. I’m thinking she’s suffered a concussion as she’s sleeping a lot and is a little twitchy at times. I’ve brought her home and have been letting her sleep protected. I’ve had her for close to 2 hours now and she’s still sleeping but I have higher hopes now that she’s going to survive.
    I live a 15 minute highway car ride from work and was wondering, when she gets better enough to be released, will it be ok for her to be released here on my farm or will that be detrimental? Does she have a flock she has to rely on back at my work? I work on a collage campus with many tall glass buildings as well as the greenhouse and birds are constantly dying on our campus 🙁
    It kind of makes me concerned to bring her back there but I want to do what’s best for her

    Thank you so much for your time and I hope to hear back soon

  2. Hello. I have found on my computer, a note I made some time ago to myself. Undoubtedly, I was reading something on-line that about this. The note says that the eared dove of S. America is a relative of the passenger pigeon, that it nests and travels in massive flocks as they did and even darkens the skies. It also says this bird like the passenger pigeon is under intense pressure from land clearing and hunting.
    Since discovery of this note, I haven’t found anything else on-line that describes the massive groupings or the possible genetic relations. A hopeful thought occurs to me, that some N. Am passengers may have mixed in and mated. I suppose that’s a dream because, from what I know of our bird, it seems it would not have straggled away.
    Do you know where I can find more information on dan links between n am passenger pigeon and s am eared dove. I keep finding information about mourning doves, in this search – which, unfortunately, in Florida is seems have been replaced by collard doves. I’d also like to know if protection measures are being coordinated for the S. Am birds if people are at all able – AT ALL able to learn from history.

    1. The Passenger Pigeon and S.A. Eared Dove have similar habits, but they are only distant relatives. Since they are not only different species but different genera, it is highly unlikely that they interbred at any point. Their ranges also did not overlap. To find more information, search under their scientific names, Ectopistes migratorius and Zenaida auriculata. Protection for birds in SOuth America is generally terrible.

  3. I am a student with some questions about mallards. i have asked many sites and they have been stumped. do you think i’m on a scientific breakthrough?
    Please help me soon.
    First question they can’t answer is how to breed mallards to create a new type of domesticated mallard. what are some ducks to breed with mallards that would be new?
    second one many sites tell me i’m stupid for asking is: what is the oldest origin of mallard? How long ago was it that the first mallard was found?
    Please reply soon and be honest about the breakthrough! thank you for spending so much time listening to me ramble on about questions. AND HAVE A GREAT DAY!!

    1. I don’t think you are on a scientific breakthrough because you don’t seem to have a clear mission. Different species generally don’t mate with one another – that’s why they are different species. I also don’t understand what you are trying to do – a “new” domestic mallard would not be a scientific breakthrough. Exactly what do you think needs to be created?
      Mallards have been around for hundreds of thousands of years. Aristotle probably discovered them, if not before.
      I think you need to do some research about duck breeding before you go any further.

  4. Hi I have two pet cockatiels that are brother and sister and they have just laid two eggs at the bottom of the cage. The parents of them were also cockatiels and they are now two years old. We are not sure what to do with the eggs.

  5. I live in central Massachusetts and have set up a thistle tube feeder and it is frequented by juncos, chickadees, tufted titmice and golden finches.

    At least two of the finches have markings that have me wondering. With the number of them that frequent the feeder, there may be others. One has a skull cap (yarmulke) marking (on top of its head) that appears to be yellow and the other has a yellow Mohawk on the top of its head.

    Genetic mutation or something else? Thank you for your time and consideration.

    Paul Piergallini

    1. I presume you mean goldfinches. This time of year all the birds are in their winter plumage which varies considerably. Plus there are matures and immatures. Variation in color and pattern is pretty common among these birds. Not a genetic mutation.

  6. Dear Dr Lederer,

    I was sitting on the porch here in East Tennessee this morning listening to the Carolina Wrens chirruping away when I thought of the following question.

    It has been rumoured (the veracity of this rumour being irrelevant for present purposes) that in Medicine, when a Doctor or researcher is unable to account for a given condition they will resort to their default explanation of its being “genetic”. It occurred to me that the same might be said (whether accurately or not) of zoologists – that they might designate any unexplained behaviour among animals as being the result of “instinct”.

    My question, therefore, is: If a bird is raised away from others of its own species and never has occasion to hear an example of the typical vocalization of its own species, will it still produce those same songs and calls, and if so, how? Or is their signature sound the result of learned behaviour?

    Yours Faithfully,

    Elliot Brown

    1. It has been known for a long time that the song of a bird has two origins. There is a genetic, intrinsic part that they are born with and a learned part. Young birds have the genetic part and as they mature the next spring they hear the songs of the adults of their species and learn to refine their song by listening to them. Some species of songbirds have been experimentally raised in isolation and in that case they will develop a song that is partly based on the birds of other species that they hear.


    Is this a more accurate answer? If you go to this site the very first picture is what I am seeing.

    I live in central Massachusetts and have set up a thistle tube feeder and it is frequented by juncos, chickadees, tufted titmice and goldfinches.

    At least two of the finches have markings that have me wondering. With the number of them that frequent the feeder, there may be others. One has a skull cap (yarmulke) marking (on top of its head) that appears to be yellow and the other has a yellow Mohawk on the top of its head.

    Genetic mutation or something else? Thank you for your time and consideration.

  8. Hi,
    I have a unique question I was hoping you could help me with…
    I’ve started a forum organization that’s branded after birds that fly in V-Formation and we host an annual conference that provides subject matter experts and leaders speaking to the forum’s members. I’m trying to come up with a name for the network of leaders (or the tip of the V formation) and was wondering if there’s a technical or slang name for the lead/head position of the V formation?
    Do you have any great ideas for names as it relates to the leading bird(s) of a group?
    Thanks in advance for your thoughts!

  9. Good Afternoon (or Morning in California),
    I was curious about the toxicity of spur-winged geese. I am curious if we know how long [after they eat poisonous beetles] the toxicity stays within them. I think their flesh loses the toxicity after a few months, but I’m curious if anyone has anything written on this precise point. Could you direct me in the right direction?
    Thank you so much for your time and knowledge!
    All the best!

  10. We have a eastern screech owl that comes to perch in our white pines every so often
    It is a rufous phased bird or brown
    We live in Northwest Indiana.
    I have read that the two color phases are southern in nature
    Gray should be in our region
    Is this unusual?
    I have been birding for many years and teach Environmental Science and a short course in Birding

    1. Both color phases are found across the range of the Eastern Screech Owl, but in different proportions. In Indiana, the populations tend to be 60% red and 40% gray, but there is some variability.

  11. Our classroom has a baby duck and he is doing great. We wonder, is it harmful to him if he stays in the class overnight 12-15 hours alone? It has food, heat, water and company of a stuffed animal. We also leave quiet music to make him feel he is not alone.

  12. I was sitting in my yard one afternoon, in New Mexico, and watched a small brown bird fly out of a tree and catch insects and take them back to the nest. I could hear the babies chipping loudly every time they were fed. What I noticed was that the bird didn’t fly out and chase down the insects, he/she flew in an arc and intercepted the insect, being able to fly right back to the nest. I observed this 4 or 5 times. The bird hunting in a perfect circle and going back home without wasted energy. Is this common? I know food source can make a difference. Hawks and eagles dive. Hummingbirds feed on flowers, so they hover. Was what I observed common among small, (hand size), birds?

  13. Oh my how do you tell if a egg you found is dead or alive! I found this small egg in my yard and ive been trying to figure out what kind of egg it is and if its even still alive…it doesnt have any cracks on it bit i think it might have died when it fell out its nest

  14. Hello,

    Around midnight last night, about 10 miles from the coast in southeast Florida (Palm Beach County), I heard a VERY loud “aawwrk!” followed by pecking, which kept repeating that sequence. It sounded like a cross between some type of parrot and a very loud chicken. It was in a tree or on a fence post. I spooked it, it flew a short distance, and had the silhouette of an owl, with large long wings compared to a small body.
    I am very familiar with birds in south Florida, and I’ve never heard anything like this. It’s not a night heron, I see those a lot. I thought it was an owl, but no owls at least in North America make that sound. What could this be??


  15. Hi There,

    Had a query ,if I touched a baby sparrow,do other sparrows or his own mother kill the baby as it got a human touch?
    I have seen a baby sparrow falling down from height and was unable to fly or walk.I lift him gently and put on the table so that his mother can see him.after some time o found some sparrows gathered and take the baby along with them.Do they kill the baby?

  16. How do I stop birds from ruining the screens on my window? I assume they’re using the strands for nesting material. I’m in Silver Spring, Maryland and it’s the most common type of small bird in a residential area.

  17. I have a 4 month old Alexandrine parrot ..she is very playful ..but for the last 5-6 days she was having loose droppings with a huge amount of clear watery liquid.. I was giving Ofloxacine Ornidazole suspension but it was not helpful ..2 days ago she stopped eating anything and the water came out with droppings in great amount and frequency ..My vet told me to switch the antibiotic to Cotrimoxazole paediatric suspension.. but today I noticed that she might having cold .. she is very inactive and lethergic ..please tell me what can I do for her wellness..please tell me

  18. I have a stand of about 50 purple coneflowers that are about 4 feet tall. Every flower stem has been broken about one inch below the bloom. The dead bloom just hangs from the broken stem. I can find no evidence of any animal, and to me it looks only that a bird could have done this. The plants are otherwise healthy. Have you heard of bird exhibiting this behavior? I was wondering if it may be some competitive territorial behavior. I live in Dublin, Ohio and have many finches, blue jays, cardinals, robins and other less abundant birds.

  19. Hey there, today while I was out a little guy smacked into a window so I brought him home with me, I think it’s a juvenile Northern Parula, I think they are currently migrating down south, I live in Ontario Canada. I was just wondering if I should let him go in a day or so if he seems strong enough or if I should get a cage for him to house him for the winter?

  20. Hi, I got my bird yesterday and I was told it is better to keep the cage door open for my bird so it knows it’s safe. It suddenly starting screaming and flew out of the cage, into a window twice, and fell, I tried to grab it, and I put it back in its cage. Then it started panting and moving side to side onto one foot. I’m not sure what to do, I have not signed up for a vet yet.

  21. Dear Dr Lederer,

    I am an artist interested to design and fabricate tall sculptures designed support stork nests. The sculptures themselves are simple spiraling posts of various spiraling frequencies and painted various colors that correspond with the frequencies. What’s more important is determining where to install these sculptures. Can you tell me where storks and other large birds build nests in high places where they would likely also utilize a tall sculpture for this purpose. I’d be happy to share my designs for your input as well and would be grateful for your advice about the distribution of large birds that would likely build a nest on a very tall artwork.

    Thank you, Peter

    1. Well, there is no simple answer here. Storks are one species but other large birds, hawks and eagles, for example, prefer somewhat different nesting places. Ospreys are pretty flexible and would most likely use one of these
      sculptures, but it would have to be near water. Where you put these sculptures depends on where you are (country, city, suburbs, or wherever) and the nearby habitat – marsh, grassland, forest, etc. And of course, whether there are storks or ospreys or whatever in the area. More details about what the sculpture looks like, how tall it is, what it looks like at the top, and the possible places they could be put would be helpful.

      1. Dear Dr. Lederer,
        Thank you for your reply,
        I’d like the final design to suit the storks who I hope will build nests on the highest point of the posts. I’ve designed a metal basket that may encourage the nest building. May I send you the working designs of the posts and baskets? If yes could you let me know what email address to direct it too. I’d be grateful for your feedback.
        Thank you,

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