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Ornithology FAQs

I found a sick/injured/orphaned bird; what should I do?

Only licensed rehabilitators may possess and care for sick, injured, or orphaned native birds. In many cases a bird that might appear injured or ill is actually perfectly healthy. Do not assume that a young bird is orphaned just because you don’t see adults in attendance — it is usually best to leave it where it is. If you are certain that a bird is too injured or ill to survive without intervention, or if it is a dependent young bird that is known to be without parental care, contact a licensed bird rehabilitator. A list provided by the California Department of Fish and Game may be found at www.dfg.ca.gov/wildlife/rehab/facilities.html. These licensed practitioners will instruct you on how to stabilize and transport the bird. Remember that most rehabilitation facilities depend on volunteer staff and monetary donations. In an emergency you may also contact your local animal control agency or branch of the Humane Society.

Many bird injuries and disruptions to nesting can be prevented with common sense and environmental awareness. Keep your cats indoors to eliminate predation. Avoid trimming trees or shrubbery during the nesting season, generally February through July in Southern California — keep in mind some species nest outside of this period. If birds regularly strike your windows, consider keeping curtains or shutters closed during the day, placing numerous decals on the glass panes, and/or changing plantings to reduce the reflection of plants in the window.

I saw this bird that I can't identify; what could it have been?

Most birds are readily identified in the field, although some elude certain identification even by seasoned experts. Excellent field guides to bird identification exist for North America — these should always be consulted first. If you need help with bird identification, first try to write notes about the bird’s appearance, size, behavior, and voice; sketches are helpful, and photographs (even if the bird’s image is very small) are invaluable. As staff time permits, we are happy to try and help you work out the identification of birds you have seen; you might also try your local Audubon Society chapter or peruse various excellent Web sites that have photographs and descriptions of North American birds. You can also learn to identify local birds by visiting the Natural History Museum’s Hall of Birds where you can peruse the many specimens displayed there.

I found a dead bird; does the Museum want it?

The Museum’s research collections grow, in part, from birds salvaged by staff and members of the public. However, we can generally only use specimens with known date and locality of collection information and there are many common species of local birds, which we generally do not accept additional specimens. Our current permits do not allow us to accept birds salvaged outside of the state of California. If you are in a position to regularly salvage freshly dead birds, particularly in rural parts of California, contact the Ornithology Departments's Collections Manager; we can arrange to include you under the Museum’s salvage permit. If you’ve found a freshly dead bird, contact us to see if we are interested. Write down date and exact locality where the bird was found, and place this information and the bird in a sealed (e.g., ziplock) bag and freeze it. You cannot retain possession of native birds or their parts. All birds are protected by federal migratory bird laws; therefore, it is important that you contact us to arrange for transfer of the specimen to the Museum as soon as possible.

Why am I seeing all these parrots around Southern California? And how did they get here?

No parrots are found naturally in Southern California, yet at least ten species now breed in the region and some of these maintain populations of hundreds or even thousands of individuals. They were imported, depending on the species, from Mexico or South America (or in one case, India) for the pet bird trade; over time enough birds escaped or were released to establish small populations, and most of these populations grew as the escaped birds began to breed successfully in the wild. Ecologists are justifiably concerned about the potential impacts of non-native species on our native wildlife and natural habitats. In the case of Southern California’s parrots, harmful impacts appear, so far, to be very minor since nearly all parrot populations are restricted to urban areas and suburbs and do not generally occur in natural habitats.

For more information on our local parrots, see Ornithology Resources or visit the California Parrot Project.

How do I tell a crow from a raven?

Both Common Ravens (Corvus corax) and American Crows (Corvus brachyrhychos) are common and widespread in Southern California, and both are similar large, black birds with pointed black beaks. Put most simply, a raven is like a crow only more so — on average our ravens are nearly twice as heavy as our crows, and they exceed crows in total length and wingspan by about 40 percent. Ravens have diamond-shaped tails (squared or slightly rounded in crows), more pointed wings, heavier bills, and shaggy lancelike throat feathers. Behavioral features are also helpful. Ravens often soar in the air like hawks; crows almost never do this. Crows gather in large groups to roost in wooded areas; ravens are usually in smaller groups and in general prefer drier, more open and more rugged areas. Ravens have deeper, croaking calls (unlike the higher “caaaa” of a crow).

Where did all my "blue jays" go?

The most common "blue jay" in the lowlands of Southern California is the Western (or "California") Scrub-Jay (Aphelocoma californica). Like many members of the crow, jay, and magpie family (Corvidae), our scrub-jays suffered high mortality rates from West Nile Virus, a mosquito borne disease. This has resulted in noticeably reduced jay populations in many lowland valleys in the region over the past five years. Populations are expected to recover and an increase has already been found in many areas. The abundance of jays in your garden also depends on food availability — when acorns are plentiful in oak woodlands jays may move to those areas to feed.

What happened to all of my hummingbirds?

Hummingbirds are readily attracted to our gardens if we plant a variety of nectar-rich flowering shrubs. Many people also provide sugar-water hummingbird feeders; these feeders can be purchased at any garden, home improvement, or nature store and should be filled with a mixture of one part sugar to four parts water (brought just to a boil, then cooled; be sure to clean the feeders frequently). 

People often notice large fluctuations in the numbers of hummingbirds they see in their gardens. This can be due to several things: (1) numbers swell in migration (mainly February to April, and again from July to September); (2) after wet winters there is often an abundance of food in natural habitats, so numbers may be lower in our residential areas; (3) hummingbirds are very good at taking advantage of abundant but temporary food sources, so they may move away from your yard to better feeding areas during certain periods; and (4) single, very aggressive male hummingbirds (especially Allen’s Hummingbird, a very pugnacious species that is expanding its range) will often dominate feeders and patches of flowering shrubs and not allow other individuals to feed. Try placing more feeders and planting more hummingbird-attracting plants around your entire yard to increase the number of hummers.

What's that bird singing all night long outside my window?

Our Northern Mockingbirds (Mimus polyglottos) have a rich and beautiful song that consists of a great variety of phrases, each repeated several times before the next selection of phrase is sung. In the spring and summer male mockingbirds, especially those without a mate, spend many hours of the day and night singing to attract a mate and territory. Unfortunately, if the favored song perches happen to be right outside your bedroom window, they do a lot of this singing between the late evening and dawn. Take heart, this nocturnal singing usually winds down later in the summer. In the meantime, we suggest you enjoy this reminder of the fascinating habits of our local wildlife. If that’s not possible, try earplugs.

Do you have any specimens of....?

To learn more about the specimens that are available in our research collections, and the policies about their use, visit our collections or contact the Ornithology Department's Collections Manager for additional details.

What exactly were teratorns, and where and when did they live?

Teratorns were very large predatory birds that are well-represented in the Pleistocene asphalt deposits at Rancho La Brea. This group of birds includes Argentavis magnificens, the largest flying bird ever known, which was described from six million year old fossils collected in Argentina.

Visit the Page Museum at the La Brea Tar Pits for more information on teratorns and fossil birds.