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Salvia, Re: Siskin, and Re: Song Sparrow

Hi Carolinabirders,

I noticed today that Barnes Supply Co. on Ninth Street in Durham was 
selling Salvia seedlings. I've been considering planting something like 
this in my yard to supplement the sugar water supply and whatever natural 
nectar sources happen to be in bloom. However, I have no idea what 
conditions Salvia requires for health and blooming; my yard is quite 
shady, especially in the summer, and parts of it have very poor drainage. 
Will Salvia succeed in such habitat or not? Any suggestions for species 
which will find my yard more habitable and attract hummers? I haven't yet 
joined the crowd buying up Pineapple Sage (which is another type of 
Salvia) to attract winter hummers, but given that my feeder went 
untouched from October to April, maybe this coming winter I'll give it a 

On Mon, 29 May 2000, Marsha Stephens wrote:
> Is it possible that I have a pine siskin at my feeders?  I always think
> of them as winter birds, and from what I have read, they should be up
> north this time of year.  Anyone else have them?  Is this usual or
> unusual?  Thanks.

A Siskin is certainly possible, but definitely *not* usual, in Chapel 
Hill in late May. The Triangle Bird Checklist 
(http://www.duke.edu/~cwcook/chbc/trichk2000.pdf) lists the species as 
"Rare", which translates to "may be present but not detected most years", 
for the last three weeks of May and the first week of June. Still, given 
how far south many winter irruptive species went this year (kinglets in 
Florida, Bohemian Waxwing in north Texas, Snowy Owl in Florida, etc), we 
might expect a few to be heading north a little late.

On Sun, 28 May 2000 AHK4586@aol.com wrote:

>     Outside my house we have two parent Song Sparrows feeding a child. The
> young bird is about the same size if not larger. It was definately not full
> grown, as its tail was quite short, and its feathers were a dull mottled
> brown. When it jumped/flew, the wings looked a bit broader too. My question
> is if Song Sparrows are commonly parasitized by Brown Headed Cowbirds, and,
> if this sounds as if it could be one. The bill looked sparrow like, but the
> edge of the bill was white, and went partially on to the cheek. there may be
> a technical term for that, but i dont know. Thanks for the help.

I think you're seeing a Song Sparrow fledgling. Bird fledglings are often 
at their fattest just as they leave the nest. This gives them a safety 
margin while they learn to fly and forage by themselves, without their 
parents' help. The adult birds, on the other hand, get thinner while 
feeding their young, until the young become independent and the adults 
start fattening up for migration. So the apparent large size of the 
youngster may be an effect of the parent feeding its chicks and working 
itself hard, before it starts refusing the chicks' begging calls and 
forcing them to fend for themselves.

I think that Brown-headed Cowbirds have been recorded parasitizing Song 
Sparrows, but not often. Open-habitat birds like Song Sparrows have been 
interacting with cowbirds for a long time, and are fairly adept at 
avoiding parasitism. Shrubland birds like Indigo Buntings get parasitized 
more often, and the woodland-interior birds like Wood Thrush and many 
warblers and vireos are the species which have little defense against 
brood parasitism and thus are threatened more by cowbirds.

The technical term for the white edge of the bill on a young bird is the 
"gape". The colored lining of the young birds' mouths acts as a 
behavioral trigger encouraging adult birds to feed the chicks. On 
occasion, it even works on other species; a few published notes record a 
bird of one species feeding a chick of another, unrelated species. Brood 
parasites like cowbirds and European cuckoos take advantage of this 
pattern, and some African finches show amazing degrees of mimicry between 
the chicks of brood parasites and those of hosts in gape coloration.

> And if you
> do think that it could be a cowbird chick, what would be the best actions to
> do, if any.

It probably isn't worth taking action. As Janine points out, you must 
have a federal permit to mess with migratory songbirds, even "nusiance" 
species like cowbirds, crows, and grackles and other blackbirds. And this 
may not even be a cowbird chick.

Furthermore, the Song Sparrows have already raised this chick and its 
broodmates (if any) to fledging, so removing the cowbird chick will not 
benefit them much, if at all. They only benefit if the cowbird disappears 
very early, before it robs the parents' real offspring of food and 
attention for weeks.

In any case, saving one single pair of birds from one parasitic episode 
does very little to aid bird populations. The only actions which might 
really help are (a) a long-term massive cowbird control program taking 
place over a large area for many years, such as those presently aiding 
the Kirtland's and Golden-cheeked Warblers; and (b) preventing forest 
fragmentation through regional bans on logging and road construction, so 
that forest interior bird species have large blocks of cowbird-free 
habitat in which to breed. Strategy (b) helps many other species besides 
songbirds; (a) is really only advisable as a last resort, or in habitats 
where cowbirds occur naturally without fragmentation.

Good birding,


Joshua S. Rose
Duke University
Department of Zoology