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 have been answering questions on wild birds on this site for years and have answered about 2400 inquiries to date. The vast majority of questions are 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.


18 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 considerable. 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 know 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.

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