Birds, Birds, Birds!

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Birds: All birds share the following traits: they are warm blooded, have wings, bill/beak, two feet, have feathers, hollow boned skeleton, lay eggs, and most can fly.

Waterbirds: A swimming or wading bird such as ducks and geese.

Dabblers: A waterbird (such as a mallard or shoveler) that feeds by dabbling (bodies are on the surface of the water while head and neck reaches for food below surface).

Divers: Waterbirds that are able to submerge their entire body in the water in order to feed (such as American Coots and Mergansers).

Songbirds: A bird that produces a series of usually musical sounds.

Raptors: Birds of prey that are carnivorous birds (such as a hawk or falcon) that feed wholly or chiefly on meat taken by hunting or on carrion.

*Definitions From: Merriam-Webster.

The Phenomenon of Flight:
  • Some characteristics of birds that allow for flight include:

    • Strong but hollow and lightweight bones.

    • Feathers and aerodynamic shape of wings.

    • Strong breast muscles that allow proper thrust for takeoff.

  • Birds are able to produce enough thrust (forward movement) through their strong muscles and rotating aerodynamic wings beating up and down to create more pressure forced under their wings while there is less pressure above.

  • Through the forward thrust and increased speed, a bird gains lift from the way that air flows over the contours of the birds wings.

  • Gliding: Birds fly along without flapping their wings at a level or descending height along with the help of gravity. Scientist believe that the earliest dinosaur flyers primarily used gliding down from high overlooks as first form of flying.

  • Soaring: Birds use thermal updrafts to fly higher in the air without the need for flapping their wings.  

Learn More Here:

Arizona State University, “Ask a Biologist: How Do Birds Fly?

The Pendulum Swings Media: “How Do Birds Fly?

“Raptor! A Kid’s Guide to Birds of Prey” by Christyna M. Rene Laubach, and Charles W. G. Smith.

Birds are Dinosaurs!

  • Many scientists today agree that birds are descendants of a class of theropod dinosaurs (which include t-rex and velociraptors)!

  • Previously, scientists thought birds came about by a drastic shift in evolution, but now there is evidence that this transition was slow and deliberate with subtle changes like miniaturization, and the slow fusing and formation of the beak.

  • Birds are more closely related to alligators than lizards are to alligators! Alligator embryos and the embryos of many extinct dinosaurs look quite similar to chickens. Because of this discovery, scientists believe dinosaurs were able to halt their development, becoming smaller and thus able to fly instead of just glide like larger feathered dinosaurs.

  • In southern Germany, a bird ancestor dinosaur fossil was discovered called Archaeopteryx, which dates to the end of the Jurassic period. This fossil was the size of a jay, had a lizard-like tail and teeth, and feathered flight wings. This gave evidence to the progression of dinosaurs like the velociraptors into the birds we know today.

  • Though birds are most likely descended from dinosaurs, there is 150 million years of separation which has given rise to many different adaptations that differ from the dinosaurs they originated.


Learn More Here:

Quanta Magazine: “How Dinosaurs Shrank and Became Birds.

Natural History Museum, Los Angles: “Birds: The Late Evolution of Dinosaurs.

UC Berkeley: DinoBuzz, "Are Birds Really Dinosaurs?"

D News Video: “How Did Dinosaurs Evolve Into Birds?

Fabulous Functions of Feathers:

Feathers serve many functions for birds. Below are a few of these uses:

  • Aid in ability to fly.

  • Help keep body temperature regulated by keeping birds warm in cold conditions.

  • Keep birds protected from the sun’s rays, wind, and water.

  • The downy feathers on ducks trap air that aid in their ability to float on water.

  • Tail feathers on some birds provide supports while on the ground or climbing trees such as woodpeckers.

  • The feathers on an owl’s disc-like face help to funnel sounds to the birds ears increasing their hearing power.

  • Some feathers, such as on owls, help to muffle the birds movement in the air so as to help the bird sneak up on prey.

  • While owl's feathers help to quiet their movements, some birds use their feathers to make noise like drumming or whistling sounds.

  • Birds, such as herons, use their feathers like an umbrella, shielding the lake from the sun’s rays possibly to see more clearly into the water. 

  • Some fish-eating birds will consume parts of their feathers to help in lining their digestive tract to protect against fish bones.

  • Powdery down feathers on birds like herons act as a conditioner to the birds main feathers when crushed and rubbed over their feathers. This is also thought to prevent against mites.

  • Many birds collect and use feathers in the lining of their nests.

  • Some birds can release some of their feathers when attacked to help them escape which is called “fright molt.”

  • While some bird’s feathers are used for camouflage or hiding from predators, others are colorful and used to attract mates.


Learn More Here:

Arizona State University, “Ask a Biologist: Feather Biology.

Arizona State University, “Ask a Biologist: How do Birds Use Their Feathers.

ID Characteristics
Funky Facts!
References/More Information 


Canada Goose (Branta canadensis):

Black head and neck with white around the chin. Brown feathers along back and tan chest. 

  • These birds tend to choose mates of a similar size which biologist call “assortative mating.” 

  • Canada geese mate for life, although they will find another mate if one goose dies. There are some accounts of extra pair mates. 

  • In the early 1900’s Canada Geese (giant) were put on conservation lists as they were nearly driven into extinction by habitat loss and hunting. Today, their numbers have increased dramatically with more grassy spaces and they are no longer threatened but in fact a nuisance in some areas.   

Cornell Lab of Ornithology: All About Birds, Canada Goose.” 

"Birds of the Great Basin: A Natural History" by Fred Ryser and Jennifer Dewey.

Mallard Duck (Anas platyrhynchos):

Females and adolescent males have dappled brown bodies and orange/brown bills while the males have iridescent green heads, black chest and tail, and brown bodies. 

  • Minus the Muscovy Duck, all other domestic ducks originate from the Mallard Duck.

  • Mallards can fly at speeds of 55 miles per hour! 

  • Male Mallards make quiet rasping sounds and do not quack, while the female Mallards quack is the quintessential duck call.  

  • For 3-4 weeks at the end of the breeding season, Mallards lose their feathers and are flightless for that time. During this flightless time, the Mallards try to stay hidden as they are most vulnerable.  

Cornell Lab of Ornithology: All About Birds, “Mallard.” 


Black Crowned Night Heron (Nycticorax nycticorax):

Black Crowned Night Herons are usually found in the evening, and adults are stocky birds with grey and black plumage. The profile of the adults often resemble that of Gru in Despicable Me!

  • Black Crown Night Herons are the most widespread of Herons, and live in a variety of wetlands. 

  • The young cannot fly until about 6 weeks of age, however they leave the nest at only one month and survive via foot until they can fly. 

  • Females will raise any chick that is in her nest, and does not distinguish her own young from that of another species. 

  • Black Crown Night Herons will regurgitate their food upon being approached which makes researching their diets quite easy for scientists.

“Black Crowned Night Heron.” , Life History, All About Birds , Cornell Lab of Ornithology,



Females are gray/brown with pale blue on wings and tail, whereas the males are bright sky blue with white under the tail. Black bills. 

  • The Mountain Bluebird is Nevada’s state bird. 

  • Females choose their mates based on the male’s nesting site location rather than on the looks, displays, or calls of the male. 

  • Males build a symbolic nest by carrying materials but dropping them while the female independently builds her own nest for the eggs.

  • The male Mountain Bluebird collects food and feeds the female while she is nesting and brooding. 

Cornell Lab of Ornithology: "Mountain Bluebird."


Audubon: Bluebirds.

Mountain Bluebird (Sialia currucoides):

Steller's Jay (Cyanocitta stelleri):

Steller’s Jay have long, slightly bent beaks and a large head and rounded body. They have a prominent crest/feathers that stand up on the back of their heads. They have black heads and a bright blue body.


  • The Steller’s Jay is the only New World bird besides the Blue Jay that builds its nest with mud to hold sticks and twigs together!

  • Both males and females add to the nest which they usually place on the branches of conifers close to the truck of the tree.

  • Steller’s Jay will sometimes steal the nests of other birds and on occasion have been noted as killing other small birds. Why can’t we all just get along Jay?

  • This Jay can mimic a lot of different sounds such as other birds, cats, dogs, chicken noises, and even mechanical sounds they are exposed to. Can you imagine how learning the Jays’ call would be challenging?

Cornell Lab of Ornithology: All About Birds, “Steller’s Jay.

Audubon: Guide to North American Birds, “Steller’s Jay.


American Dipper (Cinclus mexicanus):

Dippers are plump, slate-colored birds with a stubby tails. Even though they are plain in color, they are easy to identify as they are the only North American songbird which will dive underwater. 

  • A dipper’s favorite habitats are fast-flowing water in mountainous areas such as creeks, streams, and waterfalls. Dippers love clean water and are a good indicator of water quality. 

  • Dippers wade and dive underwater to search for aquatic insects, aquatic invertebrates, and small fish to feed on. 

  • Dippers have lots of warm feathers and strong wings to stay warm underwater and swim through strong currents. Young dippers are able to dive and swim within their first month of life. 

  • Female dippers build their nest around bridges or behind waterfalls where the nest material will stay constantly wet from the water’s spray. The nest is built of materials like moss, twigs, and roots. 

“Peterson Field Guide to Birds of Western North America” by Roger Tory Peterson

Audubon: American Dipper

Don’t Feed Birds Bread!

  • Contrary to what Mary Poppins says, don’t feed the birds bread. Bread is high in carbohydrates and lacking any nutritional value for birds.

  • Birds will fill up on this low nutrient bread and not eat nutrient rich foods they need.

  • Eating too much bread can cause the birds to develop “angel wing” where the wings are malformed and prevent them from flying.

  • Uneaten bread can attract other predators, develop mold, or produce excess algae blooms causing a domino effect of problems.

More information on what birds can eat and what is harmful can be found on the National Geographic website here.



Common Raptor Traits:

Raptors share some extra characteristics that make them distinct from other birds:

  1. Excellent vision: Raptors have great vision in order to spot prey from long distances while in flight. Raptors can see anywhere from two to eight times as well as a human’s vision!  

  2. Sharp talons: Raptors have sharp talons and most are adapted to catch and hold prey in flight. Raptor talons are used not only for catching and holding prey, but in many cases they are used as tools, self defense, to break and transport branches/twigs, walk on ground or across carrion (dead animals), and for perching in trees.

  3. Hooked beak: Raptors have sharp hooked beaks used to either kill or tear apart prey. Some raptor beaks, like the Prairie Falcon, contain a “falcon tooth” which is a notch in the beak that slips between the neck bones of the prey and is used to break the neck.  

More Information:

The Reno Hawk Project.

“Raptor! A Kid’s Guide to Birds of Prey” by Christyna M. Rene Laubach and Charles W. G. Smith.

The Peregrine Fund: Explore Raptors.

Great Horned Owl (Bubo virginianus):

Large, stout body with broad, disc-like head, huge yellow eyes and prominent ear tufts. Color of feathers vary widely from grey to cinnamon. Great Horned Owls have short, wide wings that allow them to maneuver through trees in a forest settings easily.    

  • Great Horned Owls are fearsome predators that can take down prey much larger than themselves. The Great Horned Owl uses its talons to sever the spine of its prey and it is said that the pressure required to release the grip of the talons equates to 28lbs!

  • Great Horned Owls have been known to attack crows and even Red Tailed Hawks, and it is common to see these smaller birds swarming and dive bombing the Great Horned Owl. They do this to show the owl that they know it is near and to hopefully drive it off. Prey do not die from the predator they see, but from the predator they do not know is there.

  • Great Horned Owls are able to move their head 180 degrees which compensates for the fact that they cannot move their eyes in their sockets.

  • Great Horned Owl's disc-shaped face feathers helps to funnel sound toward their powerful ears in order to hear prey from afar. Along with their great hearing, these owls have soft feathers that allow them to fly almost silently through the night. Great Horned Owls are very competent predators through their incredible vision, hearing, strength, and silence while hunting.  

Cornell Lab of Ornithology: All About Birds, “Great Horned Owl.

“Raptor! A Kid’s Guide to Birds of Prey” by Christyna M. Rene Laubach and Charles W. G. Smith.

Red Tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis):

Large body. Darker feathers on back and lighter feathers on underbelly. Dark wing tips and a dark belly band of feathers. Rust-orange tail feathers. Young Red Tails have brown bands on tail feathers.

  • Red Tailed Hawks are the most prominent hawk species in North America and are a very common sight along roadsides resting on power line poles.

  • The quintessential call of the Red Tailed Hawk has been used in many movies and tv commercials where eagles or other hawk species are flying overhead. The call that you hear is almost always a Red Tailed Hawk even when the star bird is a different species.

  • Red Tails have been observed in hunting pairs where they work together to capture squirrels by guarding opposite sides of a tree.

  • A courting male will put on a display of soaring in circles and diving before approaching the female. On occasion, both the male and female will clasp talons and dive together while embraced towards the ground before separating. Once mated, Red Tails will usually stay together until one of the pair dies.     

Cornell Lab of Ornithology: All About Birds, “Red Tailed Hawk.

“Raptor! A Kid’s Guide to Birds of Prey” by Christyna M. Rene Laubach and Charles W. G. Smith.


Other birds:

Common Raven (Corvus corax):

The Common Raven’s call is a hoarse cawing noise. They are completely black birds with shiny feathers.  

  • Raven's brains are twice the size other birds which is noticeable in their displays of intelligence.

  • Ravens have the ability to cache or store food and remember the different kinds of food they stored and when they need to harvest  each item such as meat stored vs. seeds where they will harvest meat first which has a shorter shelf life.  

  • One Aesop fable recalls a raven dropping stones into a water jug in order to raise the water level high enough to take a drink, which demonstrates the raven's problem solving skills.

  • Ravens have an incredible ability to use tools and problem solve. They use sticks to harvest grubs from trees, and can even create hooks by modifying sticks. Some have been know to tear off serrated sides of leaves to use as insect snares.

  • Ravens are known as excellent acrobatic flyers and the young can sometimes be spotted playing games by dropping sticks in the air and diving to catch them!

  • Ravens can use their intellect to understand cause and effect as shown through a study where ravens would come at the sound of a gunshot known to produce a carcass but would not be drawn to other sounds just as loud or similar pitch.

  • Ravens are thought to mate for life and both parents help to care for the young.

“Curious Minds” David Attenborough's Natural Curiosities, BBC Earth.

National Geographic: Common Raven.

Cornell Lab, All About Birds: Common Raven.

Alfred the Law Loving Crow Video.

Rock Pigeon (Columba livia):

Small, plump bird with thin bill. Body color can be variable, but Rock Pigeons usually have a light grey body, shiny green/grey/purple head, and two black bands on their wings.

  • Often referred to as “sky rats” pigeons have a bad rap today in many areas as they are quite prolific especially in cities. However, pigeons have an interesting and long history with humans dating back some 5,000 years as recorded in both Egyptian hieroglyphics and Mesopotamian cuneiform.  

  • Pigeons also played an important military role during World War I and II where pigeons were used to send messages for the US Army Signal Corps.

  • Charles Darwin studied the differences between pigeon varieties which helped him formulate his theory on evolution. Thank you pigeons!

  • Pigeons have excellent navigation and can find their way back home from great distances. Pigeons use magnetic fields to navigate as well as smell, sound, and the position of the sun.

  • Rock Pigeons also possess “genetic plasticity” where they can be bred to develop many different physical forms. As such, there are many pigeon shows (like dog shows) where judges determine which pigeon breeding is supreme. What is unique, is that after only a few generations, these funky bred pigeons will revert back to the standard Rock Pigeon look.

National Geographic “Brilliant Beasts Pigeon Genius.

Cornell Lab of Ornithology: All About Birds, “Rock Pigeon.


Black-Billed Magpie (Pica hudsonia):

The tail is usually as long or longer than the rest of a magpie’s body, coloring is an iridescent black and white, black beak is curved.

  • Magpies are closely related to crows, jays, and ravens, all in the corvid family.

  • Although they appear blue in certain light, magpie feathers are playing a trick on you! Each feather is made up of light-scattering, microscopic beads spaced in a way that everything except blue light is cancelled out. Blue on any animal (including humans’ blue eyes) is due to some kind of light reflection of this type.

  • Studies have shown that magpies, like humans, can recognize themselves in mirrors and even track down stolen items and make decisions faster when humans are looking at them.

  • Historical records show that magpies followed hunting parties of Plains Indians and fed on leftovers from bison kills. On the Lewis and Clark expedition, they reported magpies entering their tents to steal food.

The Cornell Lab: Black-billed Magpie Identification 

The Cornell Lab: Black-billed Magpie Overview 

Audubon: Black-billed Magpie 

Smithsonian: Why Are Some Feathers Blue? 

BBC News: Magpie 'can recognize reflection'


Belted Kingfisher (Megaceryle alcyon):

Belted Kingfishers have a shaggy crest on the top of their head, a thick dagger-like bill, and their tails are medium length. The females have a road rusted band on their bellies, and the males have a blue-grey band. Juveniles have irregular rusty spotting on the breast band.

  • This is on e of the few bird species where the female has righter coloring than the male.

  • These birds like to spend their time perched alone along bodies of water looking for small fish. 

  • Kingfishers will cough up the indigestible parts of prey, such as bones and scales, in pellets. 

  • Males bring females fish as a part of their courtship. 

  • The oldest known fossil in the kingfisher genus is 2 million years old!

Cornell Lab, All About Birds: Belted Kingfisher 

Audubon: Belted Kingfisher


local resources:

Check out these organizations to learn more about birds in our area!
  • Truckee Meadows Parks Foundation Facebook
  • Truckee Meadows Parks Foundation Twitter
  • Truckee Meadows Parks Foundation Instagram
  • Truckee Meadows Parks FoundationLinkedIn
  • Truckee Meadows Parks Foundation Youtube

Protecting & enhancing our communities' livability through public engagement, education, and the sustainability of our parks, open spaces, and trails.


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