My Nemesis is a Bird

My dream as a young boy was to be a superhero when I grew up. My efforts to become a superhero by the traditional methods (special serum, cosmic explosions, alien powers, super tech, billionaire playboy) have failed so far. I even tried to use radioactivity, though I know from Spiderman that 90% of people who receive powers from radioactive sources become supervillains. Even though I don’t have special powers, I can still have a nemesis. One of the defining characteristics of a superhero is that he/she has at least one nemesis. Batman has the Joker. Superman has Lex Luthor. Spiderman has Doctor Octopus. My nemesis often consumes my thoughts and has constantly eluded me over the last few years. I know what he looks like from pictures, but have never actually seen him. He wears a blue and white costume with a black mask and spends much of his time in the woods. He inspires many copycats who dress the same way. He talks in a buzzy voice. My nemesis is . . . a Black-throated Blue Warbler.

Black-throated blue warbler feeding chicks

My nemesis is deep and complex because he has a family that he cares for.

Black-throated Blue Warblers spend much of their time in the trees, foraging for insects among the leaves. Males are boldly-colored and represent their name quite well. Females are a drab olive-gray, with a white patch on their wings and a pale, white eyebrow. Black-throated Blues usually nest in the northeastern U.S. and winter in the Caribbean and Central America. There is a small population that nests in the Great Smoky Mountains, which is not far from where I live. I’m pretty sure that population is taunting me with their existence. Though I’m an active birder during migration (when Black-throated Blues pass through the southeast and midwest) I had never even heard one until two years ago in Kentucky. The song sounds like a buzzy “beer beer bee!”, with the last note ascending upward. Side note: other birds also seem to have a strange fascination with beer. Alder Flycatchers say a raspy “Free beer!” and Olive-sided Flycatchers sing “Quick, three beers!” Add to this the birds that are obsessed with tea (Eastern Towhees and Carolina Wrens), and you have a bunch of wildlife dealing with addictions. Anyway, when I heard one while walking along a forest trail, I immediately ran up the path with my binoculars in hand. As I got close to the sound, I could tell it was coming from group of large deciduous trees. Unfortunately, I could not see the bird. I was unsuccessful from all viewing angles and tried using a bird app to call the warbler out. He was unresponsive and then flew off over a ravine without me getting a glimpse. I could hear him briefly calling out, taunting me. Then he was gone and I didn’t hear another Black-throated Blue until the following year in the exact same spot on the exact same day. May 9th is a day that still lingers in my mind and haunts my dreams.  The same circumstances were repeated and I again left without having caught a real glimpse of my nemesis.

Black-throated blue warbler male feeding on berry Black-throated blue warbler female feeding on berry

Black-throated Blues eat berries and drink fine wine after eluding me.

Though my efforts to see a Black-throated Blue proved unsuccessful, my resolve has not changed and I’m more motivated than ever to find one. I’m actually glad that finding one has proven so difficult. This will make the time I finally catch my nemesis that much sweeter. On a final note, I’m planning on going to a birding park this week that has nice trails and cool birds . . . and also a recent recorded sighting of a Black-throated Blue Warbler. Maybe I will finally defeat my nemesis, though I’m not sure what to do if I finally catch him. I feel like my whole life is revolving around finding this bird. Wherever you are, I hope that you will meet your nemesis soon and defeat him/her. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to sing buzzy songs about beer and allow some radioactive animals to bite me.

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I should have microwaved this alligator and let him bite me to gain superpowers.

What Kind of Bird are You?

Do you like birds? Do you like personality tests? Do you ever find yourself listening for earthworms after a spring rain or longing to munch on sunflower seeds? Do you stay awake at night wondering what bird you most relate to? I am here to fulfill all your dreams with a bird personality test! Many people have probably taken multiple personality tests before. I came back positive once, but another part of me swears I didn’t. Anyway, I have created a list of ten questions to answer that will reveal what bird you most identify with. I know there are thousands of birds in the world, but I have chosen 5 specific birds for the sake of time and my sanity. Whichever bird you end up as, I guarantee it will possibly match some part of your personality and define the rest of your life. I recommend taking a pencil and paper, and recording which letter you choose for each question. Now on the quiz!


Max the Tawny Eagle had a playful personality.


Bird Personality Test

1. You get hungry for a quick snack in the afternoon. You

A. Look for something sugary

B. Grab some gummy worms

C. Munch on some goldfish

D. Eat something with lots of protein

E. Chow down on some popcorn chicken

2. You are sitting outside when your neighbor walks by. Your immediate response is to

A. Get in their face and make sure they stay off your property

B. Sing at them

C. Hide in the bushes

D. Ignore them

E. Invite them to join you

3. Which one of these movies is your favorite?


B. The Hobbit

C. Finding Nemo

D. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone

E. The Lion King

4. A light rain begins to fall in the late morning. You

A. Seek shelter

B. Play in the puddles

C. Spend time at a lake

D. Are sleeping soundly

E. Lazily sit outside

5. Which color is your favorite?

A. Red

B. Blue

C. Green

D. Silver

E. Black, I enjoy the absence of true colors and prefer something that is linked with death

6. How do you spend your free time?

A. I’m always hungry!

B. Sleeping

C. Playing games

D. Hanging out with a loved one

E. Tanning in the sun

7. Which of these fictional movies would you be most interested in watching?

A. The Macawshank Redemption

B. Lord of the Wings: Return of the Kinglet

C. Snakes on a Crane

D. Owl is Lost

E. Starling Wars: The Emperor Penguin Strikes Back

8. Your ideal dinner involves


B. A mixture of proteins and grains

C. A seafood platter

D. Lots of meat.

E. Leftovers from the night before

9. What is your initial response upon encountering a snake?

A. Try to scare it away

B. Run away screaming

C. Nervously take a few steps back and look for a weapon

D. Grab it by the neck and bite hard

E. Calmly watch the snake move along the ground

10. Pick a book title

A. The Scarlet Feather

B. Tequila Mockingbird

C. War and Geese

D. Guardians of Ga’hoole

E. V is for Vulture

Now it’s time to add up your answers. Try not to scroll down until you’ve totaled your score. An “A” answer counts as one point, “B” is two, “C” is three, “D” is four, and “E” is five points. Once you know your score, check out your result below the picture of the Barn Owl.


What kind of bird are you?

10-18 = Ruby-throated Hummingbird. You are always on the go and expend a lot of energy every day. Food is a vital part of your life and you constantly snack throughout the day. You tend to be aggressive and confrontational with others who get in your way, though you do have a sweet side.


19-26 = Bluebird. Spending time with family is important to you. You enjoy singing songs and expressing your happiness. You occasionally get pushed around by others who are more strong-natured, but sometimes you find the courage to fight back.


27-34 = Green Heron. You enjoy spending time alone in nature, especially around a body of water. You’re intelligent and enjoy fishing. You don’t talk much, but when you do, it’s usually something worth saying. You prefer small groups of friends when you’re not have alone time.


35-42 = Great Horned Owl. You are somewhat of a night owl and often take naps during the day. You have a strong and fierce personality, and are willing to fight for what you believe in. You tend to talk loudly but because of your great hearing, you can also be a good listener.


43-50 = Turkey Vulture. You enjoy basking in the sun and gliding around town on your bike. You eat mostly meat and prefer to let others do the cooking, though you are great at cleaning up after others. Speaking in public is not clearly your strong suit, but you enjoy spending time with friends.


Animal Superheroes

We’re currently in the golden age of superheroes. There are individual hero movies, team-up hero movies, and even movies with a wise-cracking raccoon and a tree thing that has a limited vocabulary. Shows like The Flash and Daredevil are finding success and there doesn’t seem to be any end in sight for the supers. By the way, what would happen if Daredevil somehow gained the Flash’s speed and ran really fast? Would he have sensory overload and blindly crash into things? The hero movie I’m probably most excited about is Lego Batman. Anyway, I’ve decided to write about some heroes you can find in the animal world. Don’t worry, I’ll post at least one picture of a cute dog.

Layka is a Belgian Malinois war dog who lost her leg after being shot during an ambush in Afghanistan. She heroically took down the shooter and helped saved the U.S. soldiers. Her leg had to be amputated and she underwent therapy treatment which included a underwater treadmill. I was fortunate to see Layka get honored during halftime of a Tennessee football game last fall.

Left – Layka with a leg brace after injuring her other front leg! Right – Layka with one of the soldiers she protected (Photo from National Geographic).

Kilo is a pit bull that protected his owner during a home invasion. A man posing as a deliveryman attempted to force his way into the house. The owner pushed back and was scuffling with the intruder when Kilo charged in and attacked the intruder. The man shot Kilo in the head and fled the scene. Fortunately, the shot richocheted off Kilo’s skull and he managed to survive after surgery. Pit bulls often get a reputation as mean dogs, but Kilo was by all accounts a kind dog. Most dogs become mean because of their trainers.

In 2002, an elderly farmer in Austria fell and broke his hip after being pushed by a cow. The weather was frigid and stormy, and the farmer was not able to get up or call for help. His goat Mandy and his collie came to keep him warm and lift his spirits. Mandy even allowed the farmer to milk her so that he had something to eat.

Photo: Maessive/Flickr

In 2009, a quaker parrot named Willie helped saved a toddler’s life. The owner had gone to the bathroom and suddenly heard Willie yelling “Mama! Baby!” She quickly came out to see Willie flapping his wings and found that the toddler was blue and choking on some food. The young child was fine after the woman performed the Heimlich maneuver.

Photo: Tamara Reynolds Photography

Well, I hope you enjoyed learning about these animal heroes. Now I’m going to . . . hold on, what’s that? The cat-lovers are angry that I didn’t feature a cat?! Fine, I’ll post a short story about a cat that actually did something besides eat and sleep.

Tara is a female cat who helped protect her young owner after he was attacked by a large dog. The dog was biting the young boy’s leg when Tara charged in and attacked the dog, eventually chasing it off. Tara was later presented with the National Hero Dog Award from the SPCA (Los Angeles). Yes, that’s right, she was given a dog award! You can read more about her story here

Hopefully you’ve enjoyed reading about some of the superheroes in the animal world. I love these stories because they show how cool God’s creation can be. Some animals can be heroes in other ways as well, such as being therapy pets to encourage people who are depressed or have PTSD. Now it’s time for me to start training falcons to do heroic things, like bring me ice cream.

Paradise not Lost

One of the places that I would love to travel to for the sights and wildlife is New Zealand. I’m especially interested in canoeing down the river with the two giant king statues shown in The Lord of the Rings. Another place I would enjoy visiting is the beautiful island region of Papua New Guinea. Among the tropical rainforests of Papua New Guinea, there still exists a hint of paradise, with colorful birds that engage in strange behaviors. My last blog examined a few of the birds-of-paradise endemic to this region. Now I’m back for more dances with extravagant birds!

First up on today’s list is the Magnificent Riflebird. Male riflebirds have irridescent blue neck feathers that hang like a bib across the breast. When trying to woo a female, the male will use sweet-sounding calls to bring a female in to investigate. Then the male fans his wings out and performs a head dance to the rhythm of sounds produce by his wings! Check out this interaction in the cool video clip below.

Next up, is the Superb Bird-of-Paradise, which employs a different dancing strategy. Superb males look somewhat similar to riflebirds, with their dark feathers and brilliant blue bibs. Like many other birds-of-paradise, Superb males are polygamous and will mate with multiple females if possible. This species primarily feeds on insects and fruit. Females will often lay just 1 or 2 eggs per clutch in nests composed of plant material. During courtship, the male will spread out his feathers in the shape of a fan and hope around on a tree branch while the female inspects him. Bright blue spots on the body appear like large eyes during this display. 

Superb bird-of-paradise  male displaying in rainforest canopy

I need to find a shiny blue bib for my next date

Another fancy bird-of-paradise is the King-of-Saxony. The males of this species have long striped plumes that stream from their heads and are used in visual displays. A male will make strange mechanical-sounding noises while bouncing on branches and waving their plumes. Apparently females find this very attractive. Territorial males will also sing to ward off potential intruders. King-of-Saxony Birds-of-Paradise (It’s very exhausting to use all those hyphens!) will feast on insects and berries. They especially enjoy tropical punch juice and sometimes fall off their perch if they drink too much.

The final bird-of-paradise I want to highlight is the Carola’s Parotia. The males of this species might be considered among the top dancers in the bird world. Courtship displays involve the use of long feathers which form a sort of skirt that makes the parotia appear to be a ballet dancer. The male begins by clearing out the dance (dirt) floor and shaking his feathers to attract females. Once the females arrive, the male spreads out his tutu and gracefully glides, hops, and waggles across the rainforest floor while showing off his shiny bib and long head plumes. Check out the funny video below.

I always enjoy watching videos of birds-of-paradise engaging in courtship displays. The things men will do to attract a lady . . . anyway, These beautiful birds and their cool habitats show that there are still reminders of paradise in our world. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to put on my coat of many colors and practice my waggle-glide. Maybe I’ll even create some long plumes for my head.



The Sounds of Spring

Spring is perhaps my favorite season of the year. I enjoying watching the trees and flowers come into bloom, the birds finding mates and building nests, and the pleasant temperatures. There are the side effects, such as the wind blowing pollen and other allergens into my face, Robins singing outside my window at 4:00am when I’m trying to sleep, and having to wash my car more often due to avian flyovers. One of the things I really enjoy, despite the annoying early birds, is the sound of birds singing in the morning.

Carolina Wren PhotoBaltimore Oriole Photo

        Carolina Wren © Kevin Shea               Baltimore Oriole © Bryan Hix

From 2012-2014, I spent each spring + summer doing songbird point counts in southern Indiana. My mornings usually  consisted of getting up before dawn and recording every bird I heard or saw at my points. Most of the time, you hear birds more than you see them, so knowing the songs and calls of the birds in the area was critical. Nature likes to be tricky, so there were several times where other creatures (chipmunks, frogs, insects) attempted to sound like birds. There were also occasions were the morning chorus of bird songs was almost deafening and picking out individuals was difficult. I usually responded by firing flares into the woods to quiet some of the birds down and make my job easier. Another good response was running around and whacking tree branches with a backpack to reduce the number of birds in the area.

Male indigo bunting

While driving to point count sites early in the morning, I often almost ran over Indigo Buntings sitting in the middle of the road.

Have you ever thought about why birds sing so much in the spring and rarely sing in the winter? The reason for this is not just a response to the nicer weather. The early spring is a great time for birds to migrate to their home range and prepare for the breeding season. Males are the primary singers, though the females of some species (such as Northern Cardinals) may also sing as well. Birds primarily use their voices to claim territories, attract mates, and communicate with other birds. The complexity and length of a male’s song may signal his fitness as a parent to a potential mate. Most birds are believed to learn songs from their father or other members of the species.


© Ed Schneider                                          © maia bird

The song of the cardinal often sounds like a whistled “birdie birdie birdie” or “sweet-chew sweet-chew sweet-chew”. Other times the song resembles the sounds from a space invaders arcade game.

One of my favorite things to hear in the morning was the song of a Wood Thrush. Many thrushes are capable of singing two different notes separately or at the same time, making it sound like two birds are singing. Wood Thrushes were the main study bird, which was good. If the focus bird had been something like a hoarse crow, listening to the calls would not have been as pleasant. Anyway, one of the experiments I was a part of involved using playback of thrush recordings and measuring the responses by Wood Thrushes. Apparently male thrushes don’t usually like intruders that encroach upon their territory. We were also testing to see if the playback affected nesting choices in the following years. Basically, my boss wanted to know if the presence of wood thrush draw in young males scouting for the following year (believing that the territory is good for raising young), or if the songs repel males and push them toward other territories.

If you’ve never gone for a walk out in nature on an early spring morning, I encourage you to do so. Listen to the symphony of bird songs and watch as the birds, forage for food, find mates, and build nests. Nature’s orchestra can be quite peaceful and beautiful, as long as the crows and jays aren’t yapping their heads off. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go head-bob while listening to bird calls.

Classic TV Shows with Birds

Following along the lines of my last two blogs, I came up with a list of classic TV shows involving birds. I may have distracted myself from grad school work just to post this blog. This list may inspire me to create a bird-themed Netflix. I’m pretty sure at least five people would sign up for that. Anyway, here’s a couple of cool pictures to prep you for the ridiculous puns to follow.

Bird TV Shows

Doctor Hoo – Follows the time-traveling adventures of an owl from another planet.
Ducks of Hazzard – A family of ducks in the south experiences adventurous run-ins with geese and the law.
The Dove Boat – A group of doves experience love and adventure on a cruise boat.
Full Grouse – A widowed male grouse receives support in raising his young chicks. The unorthodox family deals with making sure everyone is adequately fed.
House of Cardinals – A political drama following the rise of a red bird to power.
Jays of our Lives – Soap opera focused on the relationship drama between a group of corvids.
Loony Toons – An animated musical show involving the wailing and yodeling of loons.
Prison Crake – A waterbird uses marking and bands on his feathers and legs to help free his wrongfully-convicted brother from prison.
QuailSpin – Animated show using characters from The Jungle Book that follows aerial business operations in a town of gamebirds.
Saved by the Bellbird – Show following the adventures and struggles of adolescent bellbirds.

Who wouldn’t want to watch a show about quail?

Love is in the air

Because today is Valentine’s Day, I thought this would be a good time to start blogging again. Now few things are as powerful in saying I love you as little chalky candy hearts with cute messages, but I’m here to give you the next best thing – a blog about love between falcons. My fieldwork studying American Kestrel behavior has come to an end, so here are some of the insights into romantic love I’ve learned from these fast flyers.

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1. Love is extravagant – Male kestrels often court potential mates by flying high in the air and making quick swoops down while calling out “klee klee klee klee klee!” Males will then repeat this aerial dance and show off their beautiful blue wings in an effort to impress females. This desire to impress the opposite sex with song and dance never happens in the human world.

Male American kestrel in flight

2. True love involves good food – Men often take their significant other out to eat as part of a romantic date. Male kestrels are similar in that they will bring food to the female to cement pair-bonding. The female often whines in anticipation of the free meal, but I’m too afraid to make any comparisons to the human world here. The meal is usually an insect or rodent, but kestrels also hunt birds, lizards, frogs, and even snakes! Guys, take note and bring a snake to your next romantic dinner. What works for the kestrels has to work for humans, right?!

Nothing says I love you like a freshly-killed snake.

3. Love fights together – While I was following pairs of kestrels around for my graduate research, I occasionally observed encounters with potential predators such as Cooper’s and Red-tailed Hawks. One pair of kestrels actually used a nest box close to a Red-tailed Hawk nest. This meant that there were numerous interactions with the pair of Red-tails. I watched the kestrel pair team-up multiple times to dive-bomb and harass the invading hawks. This kestrel pair also chased off a Cooper’s Hawk that came too close for comfort. While the kestrels were certainly protecting themselves, their main motivation most likely came from the desire to protect their nesting territory and their young. Lesson in love? Work with your partner to fight against neighbors who are different from you or want to eat your kids.

American kestrel pair, male (left) female (right)

A family that fights together, stays together.

Hopefully you now realize that falcons have a lot to teach you about love. I didn’t write everything that I’ve learned from watching kestrels because that could fill an entire book . . . or at least a large bumper sticker. Go spend time with the ones that you love and appreciate the life God has given you. If you eat a few chocolates and scream like a kestrel while you’re at it, that’s cool too. Falcon out!