Bee-eater (family Meropidae)

I get so excited when it’s time for me to write a post about birds. I think in part it’s because I’ve always loved birds, but mostly it’s because so many of them are bright and beautiful (and yes, fun to draw). Today’s birds, the bee-eaters, are prime examples.

There are 27 species of bee-eater, which comprise the family Meropidae. Almost all species of bee-eaters are found in Africa or Asia, though the odd species lives in Europe, Australia or New Guinea. Bee-eaters live in a wide variety of habitats; they aren’t particularly picky. All they need to be happy is a nice high perch and lovely soft ground in which to dig burrows. Forests tend to be great habitats for bee-eaters, and a a few species are quite attached to their rainforest habitat.


Bee-eaters are a very brightly coloured family of birds. Most species have some kind of green plumage, though a few are primarily red and some have no green on them at all. Bee-eater feathers can be green, red, blue, brown black, yellow… if you think of a colour, there’s probably be a species of bee-eater that has some of that colour on it. Unusually for birds, there seems to be little difference between male and female colouration. In some species the eyes of males are bright red, while they are brown-red in females (a drastic difference, I know), and the tails of males may be longer. There may be more to these birds than meets the human eye, however: male blue-tailed bee-eaters were more colourful than females when they were viewed under UV light. So sexual dimorphism may still occur in bee-eaters, it might just be in a part of the spectrum that we cannot see.


A blue-bearded bee-eater. Image credit: Jason Thompson via Wikipedia

Bee-eaters are very social birds, with many species forming colonies during the breeding season. Two species, the red-throated bee-eater and the white-fronted bee eater, are extremely social — their social structures are thought to be more complex than any other species of bird. They live in colonies built into nests on cliffs, and are further divided into social units called clans, family units and breeding pairs. Clans are composed of several breeding pairs, helper birds (the male offspring from the previous year), and the current year’s offspring. After a morning period in which the colony sits in the sun, preen themselves, and socialize, the colony splits into clans to forage. Each clan has its own territory, and they will aggressively defined their territory against other clans.

If you guessed that that bee-eaters eat bees, then you are super smart and should get a prize! Between 20 and 96% of a bee-eater’s diet can be made up of bees and wasps. But though bee-eaters prefer to consume buzzing pollinators, they don’t exclusively prey on bees. They will also eat a variety of other insects, including beetles, flies, cicadas, termites, crickets, grasshoppers, moths, and more.

Bee-eaters will sometimes catch food on the wing, but more often sit on perches and watch for prey. Carmine bird-eaters have a special way of getting food: they ride on the backs of kori bustards and snap up any insects disturbed by the bustard while it walks around. Bee-eaters’ eyesight is pretty good; they can spot a bee flying around from 60 to 100 meters away. If a prey item is too big for a bee-eater to swallow in flight, the bird will take its meal pack to its perch and then beat it to death. Insects with stingers are more dangerous, so bee-eaters smack them to death on the branch, and then rub the body of the insect to discharge its venom sac.

Courtship in bee-eaters is not very exciting; most species simply call a bit and fluff their feathers up. The white-throated bee-eater does actually have a more prolonged courtship; two birds will fly together in a ‘butterfly display’ before perching together and calling at one another. Bee-eaters do practice courtship feeding, in which males bring their consorts food items during the breeding season. Bee-eaters are monogamous, with sedentary bird pairings lasting from year to year, and migratory birds generally finding new mates each year.


An example of courtship feeding in blue-throated bee-eaters. Image credit: Lip Kee Yap via Wikipedia

All species of bee-eaters nest in cavities that are dug into the ground or into soft earthen cliffs. Both males and females dig the nests, and sometimes the birds start digging several holes before completing one. Digging takes a long time, sometimes as much as twenty days, and the nests are not reused from season to season (seems pretty wasteful to me). Females lay one egg a day, for a total of around five eggs. The eggs hatch in about 20 days, and stay in the nest for about a month. Both adults and chicks defecate in the nests, making them very gross by the time the young are ready to emerge. Perhaps that’s why the birds don’t reuse their nests…

bee-eater drawing

A drawing of a European bee-eater I did using coloured pencils. 

Thankfully, no species of bee-eater is currently classified as vulnerable or threatened. Despite being affected by habitat loss (especially nest destruction from trampling and river bank damage), bee-eater numbers remain strong, which is great news!

Cover image credit: Bernard Dupont via Wikipedia

American Robin (Turdus migratorius)

Is there a songbird in North America that is more recognizable than the American robin? Bluejays give them a good run for the title, but I still think robins are more well known. I may be slightly biased, though, because my mom’s name is Robin — but my point is robins are very common birds, and yet it’s taken me four years to write about them. Time to fix that!

American robins are well-known in North America because they are widespread across the continent. They can be found year-round in the southern parts of Canada, throughout the US and into Mexico. Robins travel as far south as southern Mexico during the winter, and head north to the Canadian Territories and Alaska in the summer. Robins are at home in a variety of habitats, though they like short grass and open ground, with trees or shrubs for perching and nesting. Many suburban and agricultural areas provide ideal habitats for robins, which is why they are so common in populated areas.


A map of the range of the American robin. Yellow is the birds’ breeding range, green is where robins can be found year-round, while blue is the robins’ winter range. Image source: Wikipedia

Robins are not overly large birds, ranging from 23 to 28 cm in length, with wingspans of up to 41 cm. They have dark grey or black heads and wings, with white markings on their throats and around their eyes. Their bills are yellow, and they have brown legs and feet. Of course, you probably know that robins have red breasts, but just in case you didn’t, I drew this picture to emphasize it.


Of course, the red on their breast stays inside the lines, but I took some artistic license with this picture

Robins are gregarious birds, roosting together in large flocks at nighttime. During the day, the flocks break up into smaller feeding groups. American robins feed on a wide variety of foods, including insects, fruits, and berries. They hunt insects using sight and sound, hopping around on the ground and then cocking their heads to listen fro their prey. Though insects make up a large portion of their diet, berries and fruits tend to be the staple of the robin’s diet. This is quite advantageous for the birds, as they can winter farther north than other similar species, thanks to their varied diet.


A male American robin. Females look pretty similar, but are duller in colour. Image credit: Dakota Lynch via Wikipedia

After the birds finish their migrations in the spring, breeding starts. The breeding season starts in April and lasts into July. They lay their first clutch very early in the season, and often will have two or three broods each year. Robins build nests in bushes, trees or on manmade structures, usually five to fifteen feet off the ground. Nests are not reused; the robins must build a new nest for each brood they raise (apparently robins are not very efficient).

Clutch sizes vary from three to five eggs, which hatch after about two weeks. Female robins will continue to brood their young for a few days after hatching, and then will only brood during bad weather. Two weeks after they hatch, the young birds leave the nest, though they are still dependent on their parents for food and protection during this time. Robin chicks learn to fly quite quickly, and are able to sustain flight two weeks after fledging.


Juvenile robins are spotted and funny looking, to help them stay camouflaged. Image credit: Laurent Bélanger via Wikipedia

Unfortunately for robins, they are susceptible to predation. Only 25% of American robins make it through their first year. Robin eggs and chicks are preyed upon by squirrels, snakes, and other birds, such as blue jays, grackles, and crows. Robin parents protect their eggs by mobbing predators, as well as making chirping warning calls. Adult robins are themselves the targets of predators, falling victim to hawks, cats, and snakes.

Despite high levels of predation, American robin numbers are still doing just fine. They are one of the most abundant land birds in North America, with an estimated population of 320 million. They used to be killed for their meat, but have since become protected by the Migratory Birds Act, so all is well in the world of robins. As a final note, I would like to point out that the genus name of the American name is Turdus. Maybe I’m being immature, but I think turdus is a pretty funny name…

Cover image credit: Arustleund via Wikipedia

Red-crowned Crane (Grus japonensis)

I recently finished a book by one of my favourite authors, Simon Winchester. It was called Korea: A Walk Through the Land of Miracles, and in it, he describes his journey walking across South Korea. It was an interesting read, but the point is that he describes some of the endangered wildlife that makes its home in Korea, and the red-crowned crane caught my eye, so I decided to blog about it.

Red-crowned cranes are found in Eastern and southeast Asia. They spend their summers in Russia, China and Mongolia, migrating south to Korea and central China during the winter. There is also a non-migratory population on Hokkaido, Japan. They are found in marshes and wetlands, preferring areas with deep water, which is unusual among crane species.


When standing, red-crowned cranes appear to have black tails, but those patches of black are actually their wings. Image credit: Alastair Rae via Wikipedia

These birds get quite big, reaching 1.5 to 1.58 meters in height, with a 2.2 to 2.5 meter wingspan. Red-crowned cranes are on average the heaviest cranes in the world, with weights ranging from 4.8 to 10.5 kilograms. The birds get their names from the red patches on their tops of their heads, which may look like feathers, but are actually areas of bare skin. The rest of the body is a mix of black and white, with black on the wings, and males having black cheeks, throats and necks.

Red-crowned cranes have long, sharp beaks. In fact, their beaks almost seem too large for their heads (that’s what I thought when I was drawing one, anyway. I had to keep checking the proportions to make sure they were right). These are used in a spearing motion to collect food. Red-crowned cranes are omnivorous, feeding  on insects, fish, amphibians, small reptiles and other birds, as well as plants and seeds. To gather food, the cranes wander through the mud, keeping their heads close to the ground. When they find something they like, the birds jab their beaks into the ground, grasping their prize in their impressive beaks.

Another benefit of that unwieldy beak that it makes an excellent weapon. The sharp beaks, along with the cranes’ enormous size, means that adult birds are quite well protected against predators. Eggs and nestlings are often the target of predators, though it takes a ballsy hunter to go after a red-crowned crane nest, as the parents will defend it aggressively, sometimes killing smaller predators that attempt the feat. Introduced mink on Hokkaido are one of the few predators that successfully raid red-crowned crane nests.


So pretty! Image credit: Spaceaero2 via Wikipedia

Reproduction in red-crowned cranes occurs in the spring and summer. Cranes are big dancers throughout the year, but they dance a bit more during the breeding season, where pairs dance together to establish or strengthen a bond. The dances can include bows, head bobs, leaps, and calls performed in unison by both partners. Once a pair is formed, the two tend to stick together year after year.

During nesting, red-crowned cranes are territorial, and both sexes help to build nests on the ground, often on wet ground or shallow water. Females lay two eggs, which hatch after about a month. Both parents incubate the eggs and care for the chicks. The chicks leave the nest and accompany their parents on foraging trips at around three months after hatching; they fledge about 70 days after hatching. The young birds stay with their parents for a while longer, however, getting assistance from their mother and father until nine months of age. Red-crowned cranes are some of the longest-lived birds in the world, with wild birds living to 30 to 40 years, and captive birds reaching 70 years of age.


Pencil crayon and watercolour pencil drawing of a red-crowned crane. I’m still working on the best way to scan these, so forgive the picture quality.

Unfortunately, these beautiful birds are also some of the rarest cranes in the world. There are only about 2,750 birds left in the wild. As predation is not much of an issue for this species, their main threat is the destruction of the wetlands that they live in. There is some good news. Human conflict, has, unwittingly, given some land back to the red-crowned crane and other species: the 250km long Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea is undisturbed by people, and has become an accidental nature reserve. It gives homes to many endangered species, including the red-crowned crane. It may be an uneasy place for animals to make their homes, but at least their habitat remains undisturbed, for now.

Cover image credit: Petra Karstedt via Wikipedia

Eastern Bluebird (Sialia sialis)

As you may have noticed, I now accompany each Our Wild World post with a piece of original artwork. It’s been a lot of fun so far, and it’s a nice exercise where I can try out different styles. This week was a little different, as I let my art supplies decide what animal I was going to blog about instead of the other way around. I had my friend pick out a few art supplies from our local art store, and then made a piece using only those materials (plus paper). So I was quite restricted in what animal I could choose, but the eastern bluebird turned out to be the perfect one.

Eastern bluebirds are found in North and Central America, east of the Rockies. They range from southern Canada to Mexico and Honduras. These birds like open areas with some trees, which means farmlands are perfect for these guys. They are also found in parks, backyards, and golf courses.


The distribution of eastern bluebirds – yellow is their breeding range, green is where the birds occur year round, and blue is their wintering range. Image source: Wikipedia

Eastern bluebirds are not overly large, reaching between 16 and 21 cm in length with 25 to 32 cm wingspans. They are bright birds, with blue wings and tails and red breasts. It’s this colouration pattern which made these guys perfect art subjects — I was given blue and orange-pink inks to work with. Female eastern bluebirds are similarly coloured to males, though they are quite a bit duller.


A male and female bluebird hanging out on a branch. Image credit: Snowmanradio via Wikipedia

Bluebirds eat a variety of foods, including numerous insects and fruits. In the summer their diet consists mostly of insects, such as beetles, crickets, caterpillars and grasshoppers. In the winter when insect life becomes scarce, the birds rely more heavily on fruits and berries. They feed by swooping down from perches close to the ground to snag any unfortunate insects.

Eastern bluebirds are both highly social and quite territorial. They can gather in large flocks reaching over 100 birds. But bluebirds are protective of their nests during the breeding season, and defend choice feeding spots in the winter. Eastern bluebirds are partially migratory, flying to southern areas when food is scarce or temperatures get particularly nasty.


Even bluebird eggs are pretty. Image credit: Basil via Wikipedia

The breeding season in eastern bluebirds occurs in spring and summer. Females construct their nests in tree cavities, such as woodpecker holes. Though eastern bluebirds are generally monogamous, this is not always the case. The females lay three to seven blue eggs, which hatch after thirteen to sixteen days. The chicks grow quite quickly, fledging after only fifteen to twenty days. The chicks hang around for about three weeks after they have left the nest, and their parents will continue feeding them during this time. Sometimes the grateful chicks will stick around to help their parents raise a second brood, if their parents raised them right.


I got to experiment with pink and blue ink, and a white gel pen. Fun times! 

Though eastern bluebirds are fairly abundant, there have been significant declines for the species in some areas. This has mainly been do to habitat destruction (particularly of nesting sites) and competition with introduced species, such as house sparrows and European starlings. The good news is that placing nest boxes in bluebird habitats is a good way of keeping numbers of bluebirds up, so hopefully we can keep implementing such effective conservation programs. After all, it would be a terrible shame for such beautiful birds to become endangered.

Flightless Cormorant (Phalacrocorax harrisi)

I was originally going to make this post about cormorants in general, as the whole family is a pretty neat group of birds. But then I saw that there is a flightless cormorant, and couldn’t resist writing about this very unique species. Maybe one day I’ll go back and write about the entire family.

There are about 40 species of cormorants in the family Phalacrocoracidae, and the flightless cormorant is unique among them, as the rest are flighted birds. Flightless cormorants are found only on the galapagos islands, proving once again that that archipelago is one of the strangest places on earth where wildlife is concerned.    

Flightless cormorants are the largest members of the cormorant family, growing to be 89-100 cm in length, and weighing up to five kilograms. Their wings have shrunk, and are currently only about a third of the size the flightless cormorant would need to fly. Flightless cormorants also have a very small keel bone, which is the bone flight muscles are attached to.


Flightless cormorants are apparently not afraid of people at all – they can be readily approached and handled by humans. Image credit: putneymark via Wikipedia

They have black feathering on their backs, and brown on their undersides. Flightless cormorants, like other species of cormorant, have webbing between all of their toes. They have hooked beaks and turquoise  eyes, giving them a bit of a funny appearance. Males are about 35% heavier than females.

All cormorants are water birds, and flightless cormorants are no exception. Their webbed feet and strong legs mean flightless cormorants are excellent swimmers, and they use this skill to catch tasty meals. They normally feed on fish, eels, octopi and other sea animals, foraging on the ocean floor and staying near the coast. Although cormorants are water birds, they lack any kind of waterproofing in their feathers, and so must spend time drying their feathers after each dive. To do this, all cormorants adopt a characteristic wing-drying pose when they come out of the water: they spread their wings and hold them open so they can dry.


A flightless cormorant in the characteristic wing-drying pose. Image credit: charlesjsharp via Wikipedia

Breeding season in flightless cormorants takes place from July to October. During these months, the temperatures cool, which means food is more abundant, and the risk of the chicks getting heat stress is lower. Males court females by swimming around them in the water. The pair then move to land, where males bring females expensive presents, such as seaweed and objects that have drifted to the islands on the current.

The females uses theses gifts to build a nest, into which she lays three white eggs. Both parents incubate and care for the chicks, though usually only one of the nestlings survives. If things are going well and food supplies are still abundant, the female will leave when the chick is around 70 days old. She goes to find another mate, leaving the male to finish taking care of their chick.


A flightless cormorant nest, with a lovely view of… rocks. Image credit: putneymark via Wikipedia

Though flightless cormorants have a small population, and are limited to a very tiny area, they do breed quickly and so can recover from population crashes. As flightless birds, they are vulnerable to predation from introduced predators such as dogs and cats. They also rely on cold water for food and breeding, so these birds will be impacted by climate change. Still, for highly specialized birds living on two islands, they are doing pretty well for themselves.

Roseate Spoonbill (Platalea ajaja)

Have you ever wondered what would happen if a flamingo and a duck had babies? Probably not, but that’s what came to my mind when I saw a picture of today’s animal, the roseate spoonbill. There are same weird-looking birds out there, but the roseate spoonbill is definitely up there as one of the weirdest.

Roseate spoonbills belong to the family Threskiornithidae, which includes other spoonbills and ibises. They are found in North and South America, from Florida and Georgia through to Argentina. Spoonbills are wading birds, and so live near water, usually mangrove swamps and mudflats.


A roseate spoonbill, wading happily in the water. Image credit: Charlesjharp via Wikipedia

As I said before, roseate spoonbills are pretty much flamingo/duck hybrids. They have the long legs and pink bodies of flamingoes, but at the top of the neck, a different bird’s head seems to have been welded on. Roseate spoonbills have a yellow head tinged with green, and a long, thin bill that widens and flattens at its end, which is why they’re called spoonbills. Roseate spoonbills grow to be 71-86 cm long with a 120-133 cm wingspan.

That spoon-shaped bill isn’t just for decoration — spoonbills use their bills to feed. They wade through the water, swishing their bills from side to side, catching whatever they can in the process. The funny shape of their bills allows roseate spoonbills to sift through mud very easily, leaving them with tasty morsels. Spoonbills aren’t particularly picky, feeding on crustaceans, frogs, newts, small fish, and insects.


A wonderful picture of a roseate spoonbill. Image credit: Photo Dante via Wikipedia

Male roseate spoonbills woo females by bringing them nesting materials; this is important as spoonbills build large nests. These are made out of twigs and sticks, and usually are built in mangrove trees or shrubs. Spoonbills lay two to five eggs, which hatch in around 24 days. Both parents take care of the young, which are able to fly after eight weeks, and are sexually mature at sixteen weeks of age.


Spoonbill chicks aren’t quite as pretty as their parents. Image credit: ladydragonflycc via Wikipedia

As is the case with many birds that have pretty feathers, roseate spoonbills were nearly hunted to extinction for their plumage. Luckily, they have since recovered, and are now doing quite well in isolated areas, and are a species of least concern. Which is great news, because it would be a terrible shame for such a unique species to go extinct.