Birds of the Sierra Nevada

Birds of the Sierra Nevada: Their Natural History, Status, and Distribution

Edward C. Beedy
Edward R. Pandolfino
Illustrated by Keith Hansen
Foreword by Rich Stallcup
Copyright Date: 2013
Edition: 1
Pages: 448
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/j.ctt2jcbgg
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  • Book Info
    Birds of the Sierra Nevada
    Book Description:

    This beautifully illustrated and user-friendly book presents the most up-to-date information available about the natural histories of birds of the Sierra Nevada, the origins of their names, the habitats they prefer, how they communicate and interact with one another, their relative abundance, and where they occur within the region. Each species account features original illustrations by Keith Hansen. In addition to characterizing individual species,Birds of the Sierra Nevadaalso describes ecological zones and bird habitats, recent trends in populations and ranges, conservation efforts, and more than 160 rare species. It also includes a glossary of terms, detailed maps, and an extensive bibliography with over 500 citations.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-95447-2
    Subjects: Zoology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. FOREWORD
    (pp. ix-x)
    RICH STALLCUP

    Defining avifaunal boundaries for the Sierra Nevada is not an easy task. The long, rolling hills west of the crest and the steep eastern escarpment are obvious features in the center of the range, but as the mountainous highlands dwindle in southern California and vaguely become the Cascades in the north, drawing appropriate lines becomes more difficult. The authors of this book have done a masterful job in this regard by including nearby Great Basin habitats at the base of the Sierra on the East Side.

    The species accounts are thorough and scholarly. Each contains etymology (the origin of the...

  3. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. PREFACE
    (pp. xi-xii)
    EDWARD C. BEEDY, EDWARD R. PANDOLFINO and KEITH HANSEN
  5. ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
    (pp. xiii-xiv)
  6. Introduction
    (pp. 1-5)

    Our goal in creatingBirds of the Sierra Nevadais to offer a beautifully illustrated and userfriendly book to everyone who is interested in Sierra birds. We hope that the book will enrich the experiences of visitors to the Sierra who want to know about the birds they see, inform Sierra residents who want a deeper understanding of the birds they observe daily, and engage the interest of serious ornithologists who want detailed, up-to-date, and well-researched information about Sierra birds.

    The origins of this book date back to 1985, whenDiscovering Sierra Birdswas published jointly by the Yosemite Natural...

  7. Ecological Zones and Bird Habitats
    (pp. 6-27)

    The Sierra offers an extraordinary variety of bird habitats, from the rolling foothill grasslands, through oak studded savannas and giant conifer forests, up to alpine meadows and chilly, windswept peaks, and over the crest to the lakes, forests, and sagebrush flats of the East Side as well as Joshua tree woodlands of the southern desert regions. No wonder Sierra bird life is so varied! The West Side boasts an elevation gradient unequaled in the 48 contiguous states, spanning nearly 14,000 feet from the lowest foothills to the highest peaks (see Map 2). Most of the Sierra lies west of the...

  8. Recent Trends in Sierra Bird Populations and Ranges
    (pp. 28-36)

    In this chapter we review changes in populations and ranges of birds of the Sierra over almost four decades. We used data from Breeding Bird Surveys (BBS) and Christmas Bird Counts (CBC) and supplemented those data with observations cited inNorth American Birds, numerous publications (see the bibliography), and the personal experience of ourselves and many regional experts. We also compare our analyses of BBS data with those of Sauer et al. (2011). Those authors used a different definition of Sierra boundaries, a different time frame, and more sophisticated statistical methodology (see Appendix 3). We have also, where possible, attempted...

  9. Unanswered Questions about Sierra Birds
    (pp. 37-38)

    As much as we know about Sierra birds, there is even more we do not know. Unanswered questions abound, and many of these questions offer opportunities for amateur naturalists to make significant contributions. We urge all visitors to the Sierra to take careful notes and record all their observations using eBird (http://ebird.org/content/ebird/). Below we list just a few of these questions. Please refer to the “Family and Species Accounts” section of this book for more details.

    Recent observations suggest that these rare ducks are beginning to recolonize the Sierra, but all known occurrences are in steep river canyons where...

  10. Bird Conservation in the Sierra
    (pp. 39-44)

    Human impacts on the Sierra and its birdlife began thousands of years before European settlement. Native peoples used fire as a management tool to clear brush, maintain grasslands and meadows, make travel easier, and improve browse for game animals. Fire management, hunting, fishing, and gathering by Native Americans affected plant and animal communities in the Sierra and likely altered the relative abundance and distribution of some bird species long before the first Europeans arrived.

    Changes caused by native peoples over a 10,000-year span prior to the 19th century paled in comparison to the impacts of European settlers and their large-scale,...

  11. Family and Species Accounts
    • WATERFOWL Family Anatidae
      (pp. 45-71)

      Of almost 30 waterfowl species observed regularly in the Sierra, most pass over during spring and fall migration and only about half of those breed in the region. Most members of this family frequent low-elevation marshes, ponds, and reservoirs, but a few visit Alpine lakes and turbulent streams of the high country.

      Waterfowl are distinguished from other birds by their bills, which are blunt, somewhat flattened (except for mergansers), with a hard tip, or “nail.” All species are excellent swimmers and well adapted to aquatic living, with webbed feet, long necks for underwater feeding, and thick coats of down. The...

    • QUAIL Family Odontophoridae
      (pp. 71-74)

      New World quail are medium-sized birds only distantly related to the quail of the Old World, but both are named “quail” for their similar appearance and habits. The Western Hemisphere species are in their own family and range from the cold, high deserts of Canada to the rainforests of southern Brazil. Members of this family generally have relatively short wings and tails, and short, powerful legs. While capable of short bursts of fast flight, especially when pursued or disturbed, they mostly travel on foot. Female quail usually lay large clutches of 10 to 20 buffy-white or brownish eggs and incubate...

    • FOWL-LIKE BIRDS Family Phasianidae
      (pp. 74-81)

      These stout-bodied birds with strong feet and legs are well suited for dwelling on the ground. Though capable of short, swift flights, they mostly run to escape danger. The turkeys, pheasants, ptarmigans, and chukars of the Sierra were introduced for hunting. The two native grouse, Greater Sage and Sooty, also are considered game birds, despite their declining populations. All Sierra species nest on the ground, making them vulnerable to predators, but the drab, mottled females are difficult to spot when motionless on their cryptic nests. Females usually lay 5 to 15 yellowish, buff, or reddish-brown eggs marked with purple or...

    • LOONS Family Gaviidae
      (pp. 81-83)

      Called “divers” in Europe, loons are sleek-bodied and superbly adapted to aquatic habitats but are almost helpless on land. Laterally flattened legs, set far back on their bodies, do not enable them to walk or stand, so loons can only move on land by sliding on their bellies. Unlike grebes, which have lobed toes, loons have webbed feet. They are also strong fliers but cannot take off from land; instead, they take flight after a long running start over open water, often into a stiff wind. Once aloft, they fly with quick, shallow strokes on slender, pointed wings. On a...

    • GREBES Family Podicipedidae
      (pp. 83-89)

      Wedded to water at all seasons, grebes feed, sleep, court, and nest on water. At a distance, they look somewhat like ducks but tend to sit higher on the water and have shorter bodies, more slender necks, and sharp, pointed bills. Rather than webbed feet, they have individually lobed toes that fan out when pushed through water, as do coots and phalaropes. Grebes can dive 20 feet or more and stay submerged for up to a minute. Similar to loons, grebes swim underwater with great strength and agility, propelled by legs set so far to the rear that they cannot...

    • CORMORANTS Family Phalacrocoracidae
      (pp. 89-90)

      Cormorants must leave the water periodically to dry in the sun because their feathers are not fully waterproofed like a duck’s. The structure of cormorant feathers decreases their buoyancy and eases their underwater pursuit of fish. Six of the world’s approximately 30 cormorant species occur in North America. Three species—Brandt’s, Pelagic, and Double-crested Cormorants—occur commonly at bays and protected estuaries of the California coast, but only the Double-crested regularly ventures inland. The family name is derived from Gr.phalakros,bald, andkorax,a raven.

      ORIGIN OF NAMES “Cormorant,” a sea crow, from OF.cormaran; phalacrocorax(see family account...

    • PELICANS Family Pelecanidae
      (pp. 90-91)

      With enormous, pouched bills and massive wingspans, pelicans are among the most spectacular and unmistakable of Sierra birds. Throughout the world there are six species of pelicans but only two, American White Pelicans and Brown Pelicans, occur in North America. White Pelicans occur regularly away from the coast and are likely to be seen in the interior. Brown Pelicans are common visitors to California’s coastal waters and offshore islands but casual visitors to the Sierra. The family name is derived from Gr.pelekon,an ax, a reference to the pecking habits of a similar kind of water bird.

      ORIGIN OF...

    • HERONS AND RELATIVES Family Ardeidae
      (pp. 92-98)

      These long-legged waders have long necks that extend their reach and sharp, pointed bills for spearing and grasping prey. They are the only North American birds, other than Western and Clark’s Grebes, having neck mechanisms that permit sudden, spearlike head thrusts toward their prey. Although they may appear awkward while landing or taking off, all members of this family exhibit strong, graceful flight. Bitterns, herons, and egrets can be recognized in flight by their folded necks and long legs trailing behind.

      Female herons and egrets usually lay three to five greenish-blue, unmarked eggs (except for bitterns, which lay reddish-brown eggs),...

    • IBIS Family Threskiornithidae
      (pp. 98-100)

      This family includes both the ibises and spoonbills, representing more than 30 species worldwide; five of these exist in North America but only one, the White-faced Ibis, regularly occurs in the Sierra. White-faced Ibis can be distinguished from most other wading birds by their long, decurved bills, distinctive glossy plumage, and highly gregarious habits in all seasons. The family name is derived from Gr.threskiornis,a sacred bird.

      ORIGIN OF NAMES “White-faced” for the white facial feathers of breeding birds; “ibis” is an Egyptian name taken from Sacred Ibis(Plegadis aethiopicus)that was mummified and depicted on tombs; Gr.plegas,...

    • NEW WORLD VULTURES Family Cathartidae
      (pp. 100-103)

      New World vultures are large scavengers with long, broad wings enabling them to soar great distances in search of carcasses. These carrion-eaters have extraordinary vision and can find dying or recently dead animals from high in the air. They often feed by thrusting their featherless heads into the body cavities of rotting animals, so baldness avoids the problem of chronically soiled head feathers. Of the seven species in this family, Turkey Vultures are fairly common to abundant in the Sierra, and California Condors historically nested there. The family name is derived from Gr.kathartes,a cleanser or purifier, for their...

    • OSPREY Family Pandionidae
      (pp. 103-104)

      In recent decades Ospreys were considered a subfamily of the family Accipitridae, along with hawks, kites, and eagles. However, they are again considered a distinct family, represented by only a single species. This is supported by genetic studies and physical characteristics including having toes of equal length and rounded, rather than grooved, talons. Ospreys and owls are the only raptors with reversible outer toes, allowing them to grasp prey with two toes in front and two behind. The family name is thought to be derived fromPandion,a king of Greek mythology whose two daughters were turned into birds; this...

    • HAWKS AND RELATIVES Family Accipitridae
      (pp. 104-118)

      All species in this large and diverse family are daytime predators with keen eyesight, sharp talons, and hooked beaks for dismembering and devouring prey. Like owls, they often consume whole animals and digest them in their highly acidic stomachs. Fur, feathers, and bones are then passed on to the gizzard (a muscular stomach), compressed into pellets, and regurgitated. These pellets, or castings, provide useful information about diets. Females are larger than males, but most species do not show noticeable plumage differences between the sexes.

      Female kites and harriers lay four to six eggs, while most hawks only lay two to...

    • FALCONS Falconidae
      (pp. 118-122)

      More than any other birds of prey, falcons are built for speed, streamlined and compact. Small heads, short necks, long, pointed wings and narrow tails are all adaptations for rapid flight. When pursuing prey, they rocket through the air at enormous velocities and kill with powerful blows from outstretched talons. Their hooked beaks are sharply notched about halfway between the tip and base, useful for tearing flesh or breaking the necks of their victims. Like many other predatory birds, falcons dissolve food in their highly acidic stomachs and then regurgitate indigestible feathers or fur as compressed pellets.

      Falcons do not...

    • RAILS AND RELATIVES Rallidae
      (pp. 123-128)

      With the exception of the gregarious American Coot, marsh-dwelling members of this family are generally secretive, poorly known, and seldom seen—most often detected by their loud and distinctive calls. Thin bodies and strong legs allow them to slip effortlessly through dense marsh vegetation. When absolutely forced to fly, they make short, quick flights to cross open spaces. Although they have a very high ratio of leg muscles to flight muscles, some rails manage to fly long distances during migration. Despite their short stubby wings, migrating Soras have been clocked at almost 60 miles per hour!

      These birds can be...

    • CRANES Family Gruidae
      (pp. 128-129)

      Represented by 14 living species (and almost 40 extinct species) worldwide, cranes can be recognized by their behavior of flying with their necks extended with feet trailing behind, as compared to herons or egrets, which always crook their necks. On the ground, cranes can also be distinguished by the “bustle” of feathers over their rumps. Two species of crane, the Whooping and Sandhill, regularly occur in North America, but only the latter has been seen in the Sierra. The family name was derived from L.grus,a crane.

      ORIGIN OF NAMES Named for the Sandhills region of Nebraska, where many...

    • PLOVERS Family Charadriidae
      (pp. 130-134)

      While sandpipers and most other shorebirds have long bills that allow them to find prey by touch under water or mud, plovers are visual, surface hunters. They have a distinctive feeding strategy of walking in short bursts, stopping to scan for movement, then pecking at the surface. This pattern makes plovers immediately recognizable at a distance or when they are mixed in with other shorebirds. Plovers can also be recognized by their short bills and stout bodies. Large eyes aid plovers in spotting prey and help them hunt at night. Unlike most other shorebirds, plovers seldom wade but work the...

    • STILTS AND AVOCETS Family Recurvirostridae
      (pp. 134-136)

      While they are considered shorebirds, these large, long-legged, long-billed waders are placed in a separate family. Compared with other shorebirds, stilts and avocets have small heads, long necks and wings, and short, square-tipped tails. Front toes are partially webbed, hind toes rudimentary or absent, and they walk with long, graceful strides. The long legs and bills of stilts and avocets give them access to deeper water and submerged food items that cannot be reached by smaller shorebirds.

      In the Sierra, stilts and avocets usually nest from April through August with a peak in June. Clutches usually contain four light-brownish eggs...

    • SANDPIPERS AND RELATIVES Family Scolopacidae
      (pp. 136-147)

      While the name “sandpiper” is often restricted to species in theTringaandCalidrisgenera, it more broadly includes snipe, phalaropes, and other relatives. Most of these slim-bodied birds are far-ranging visitors to beaches, mudflats, and shorelines. Capable of mind-boggling annual roundtrip migrations of as much as 20,000 miles, most North American sandpipers breed on the Arctic tundra then migrate across the continent or along the coasts as far as the southern tip of South America. Some species only rarely visit inland sites, where they are highly sought after by bird-watchers. A large part of their appeal is knowing that...

    • GULLS AND TERNS Family Laridae
      (pp. 147-154)

      Gulls are widespread scavengers whose hooked bills allow them to eat almost anything, and many species are adept at begging a meal from picnickers and tourists. Terns have long sharply pointed bills, and they specialize on catching small fish and insects in fast, adroit hunting maneuvers. Gulls and terns tend to be gregarious at all times of year, and during the breeding season generally nest in large, noisy colonies. Some species remain on the coast year round, while others fly inland to nest in marshes or on islands in large lakes and rivers. Pairs cooperate in building nests of twigs...

    • PIGEONS AND DOVES Family Columbidae
      (pp. 154-159)

      There are no technical differences between “pigeons” and “doves,” except that the former tend to be larger, and these names are often used interchangeably. Most pigeons and doves are stocky, fast-flying birds with short legs, long tails, and small heads and bills. Their flight muscles may make up more than 40 percent of the bird’s body weight to power strong, fast flight. Wing shape is often a good indicator of the species’ migratory behavior, and pigeons with the longest wings tend to fly the greatest distances. Pigeons and doves have soft skin at the base of their bills, and a...

    • CUCKOOS AND ROADRUNNERS Family Cuculidae
      (pp. 159-162)

      It may seem strange that the tree-dwelling cuckoos and ground-dwelling roadrunners are in the same family. Their similarities are mostly anatomical and best seen by examining their feet—all species in this family have their two inner toes pointing forward, while the two outer ones point backward. Roadrunners make their own nests and incubate their own eggs, as do Yellow-billed Cuckoos. However, Yellow-billed Cuckoos are occasional brood parasites, laying their eggs in other cuckoo nests (and rarely those of other species). Cuckoos migrate for long distances to winter in tropical rainforests of northern South America, but roadrunners fly infrequently and...

    • BARN OWL Family Tytonidae
      (pp. 162-163)

      There are two families of owls in the Sierra: Tytonidae, represented only by the Barn Owl and “typical” owls (family Strigidae) with 10 other Sierra species. Barn Owls are medium-sized owls that differ from typical owls in details of their bone structure and feet but share most other physical and behavioral characteristics (see below). They are the only North American representative of this widely distributed family, which includes 16 living species worldwide, except the polar and desert regions. The family name is derived from Gr.tyto, an owl.

      ORIGIN OF NAMES “Barn” for their habit of roosting in barns and...

    • TYPICAL OWLS Family Strigidae
      (pp. 163-174)

      Fearsome hunters of the night, owls hold a mysterious fascination for humans. Their direct stares and stolid upright postures have earned them a reputation for wisdom. Because most species are nocturnal, casual observers only rarely see more than an owl’s silent, fleeing silhouette. Owls reveal their presence by calls, distinctive for each species and usually given at night.

      With large eyes and broad facial disks, an owl’s gaze can be piercing and intimidating. Owls have excellent vision, not only at night but also in daytime. Both eyes point straight ahead, permitting depth perception for capturing prey. While their eyes do...

    • NIGHTHAWKS AND RELATIVES Family Caprimulgidae
      (pp. 175-177)

      Like owls, which may be their closest relatives, nighthawks and poorwills are primarily nocturnal and have unusually soft feathers that permit silent flight. They are most active at sunrise and sunset, and when the moon is out they forage through the night. They hunt visually for nocturnal flying insects, sweeping them up with a net of “rictal bristles” that extend out from the mouth on some species. Despite their short bills, these birds have surprisingly wide gapes when they open their mouths (up to two-inches wide). Legs are short and weak and mostly serve to help perch on the ground...

    • SWIFTS Family Apodidae
      (pp. 178-181)

      No other birds are so lightly tethered to earth as the swifts. They spend nearly every waking moment of their lives on the wing, and even other aerial gymnasts, like nighthawks and swallows, cannot match the speed and daring maneuvers of the swifts. With their highly streamlined bodies and long, pointed wings, these are aptly named birds. Swifts are superficially similar to swallows in habits and appearance, but swallows are passerines, or “perching birds,” while swifts are related to hummingbirds and share similar internal wing structures and tiny feet. Incapable of “perching,” swifts can only cling. They feed, drink, gather...

    • HUMMINGBIRDS Family Trochilidae
      (pp. 181-187)

      With whirring wings and shimmering iridescent plumage, these tiny aerial wizards bring a sense of magic to Sierra meadows, rock gardens, and scrublands. Both hummers, and the flowers they visit, have coevolved to enhance their mutualistic relationships. Many “hummingbird flowers” have internal structures that facilitate pollination by hummers. Some, such as penstemon and paintbrush, hide their nectar from insects deep in tubular “throats” that effectively reserve it for hummingbirds. Others, like manzanita, have small flowers with narrow openings and no attractive landing places for bees or other pollinators that might compete with hummers. Their small size, long bills and tongues,...

    • KINGFISHERS Family Alcedinidae
      (pp. 187-188)

      Their bright plumages and loud vocalizations make kingfishers conspicuous, as does their habit of perching on open snags or branches near streams or lakes. About 90 species exist in temperate and tropical forests of the world, but the Belted Kingfisher is the only member of this family in the Sierra. The medieval name “kingfisher” means “chief of the fishes”—the primary prey of most species in this family. The family name is derived from L.alcedo, a kingfisher.

      ORIGIN OF NAMES “Belted” for the bright chestnut breast band of adult females; kingfisher (see family account above); Gr.megaceryle, large kingfisher;...

    • WOODPECKERS Family Picidae
      (pp. 188-204)

      As their name suggests, woodpeckers are admirably equipped for drilling in wood. They excavate nest cavities and winter roosts with their powerful bills and drill holes or flake off bark in search of insects. Special cushioning protects their brains from shock, and an unusual bone structure secured to the back of their skulls support their extremely long, barb-tipped tongues that are used to extract insects or sap from holes. With strong feet and stiff tail feathers, they brace themselves vertically on trees while pecking.

      Woodpeckers’ bills are also used for “drumming,” pecking loudly in specific patterns to communicate with mates...

    • TYRANT FLYCATCHERS Family Tyrannidae
      (pp. 204-217)

      Tyrant flycatchers form a group of birds taxonomically intermediate between oscine passerines (songbirds) and nonpasserines (all other nonperching birds). Although tyrant flycatchers sing somewhat like songbirds, their songs are not complex or musical because their vocal apparatus (syrinx) is not well developed, hence they are known as suboscine passerines. Also, their songs are mainly hard-wired from birth, rather than learned as in oscine passerines. These flycatchers are the only North American representatives of this large and diverse group of mostly New World, tropical, suboscine families.

      Tyrant flycatchers characteristically feed by swooping from perches and snatching insects either in the air,...

    • SHRIKES Family Laniidae
      (pp. 217-219)

      Shrikes could fairly be considered “honorary raptors.” Much like other birds of prey, they sit motionless on exposed perches in open habitats like prairies, grasslands, tundra, and deserts, and dart out to catch large insects, small birds, or mammals—most often from the ground. Shrikes often impale their prey on thorns, sharp sticks, or barbed wire. Primarily an Old World family, there are more than 30 species in 3 separate genera in Europe, Asia, and Africa; only 2 species, the Loggerhead and Northern, occur in the Sierra or elsewhere in North America. There are no representatives of this family in...

    • VIREOS Family Vireonidae
      (pp. 219-224)

      Vireos are superficially similar to wood-warblers (family Parulidae), and the two families were once considered close relatives. More recent studies revealed stronger relationships between vireos, shrikes, and jays, and one can see a resemblance in the vireo’s somewhat heavy, slightly hooked bills. Unlike colorful male warblers, all Sierra vireos wear subdued plumages year-round, and males and females look the same. Also unlike warblers, vireos frequently sing in fall, making them easier to detect in fall migration than other silent migrants. Vireos are methodical foragers, moving deliberately through foliage, often cocking their heads to peer downward, and only occasionally flycatching. They...

    • JAYS AND RELATIVES Family Corvidae
      (pp. 224-235)

      These raucous “songbirds” are often disparaged for camp robbing, eating garbage and carrion, and scolding human trespassers and pets with loud, harsh squawks and calls. However, their superior learning abilities, keen memories, and complex vocal repertoires fascinate many bird students. A few species in laboratory settings have shown they can count and demonstrate self-awareness by repeatedly looking in mirrors, solving complex, multistep problems, and even making their own tools.

      They have strong legs, long, stout bills, and rictal bristles covering their nostrils, which serve an unknown function. As omnivorous as humans, Corvid food is anything that can be caught and...

    • LARKS Family Alaudidae
      (pp. 236-237)

      This family comprises a group of more than 90 ground-dwelling species that primarily occur in arid, barren landscapes of the Old World; almost 70 of those are restricted to Africa, and none occur regularly on oceanic islands. Only one species, the Horned Lark, occurs in the Sierra. Larks are distantly related to swallows; they run or walk rather than hop, aided by their unusually long and straight hind claws. Their wings are long and straight, permitting flight under extremely windy conditions. The family name is from L.alauda, a lark.

      ORGIN OF NAMES “Horned” for the species’ distinctive, black “horn”...

    • SWALLOWS Family Hirundinidae
      (pp. 237-245)

      Swallows and martins spend much of the day diving and turning at exceptional speeds in dexterous pursuit of flying insects, taking them with gaping mouths. Though not as thoroughly aerial as swifts, swallows are similarly well adapted for hunting on the wing with slender, streamlined bodies and long, pointed wings enabling great maneuverability and graceful flight, punctuated by periods of gliding. Their small, weak feet are not suited to walking but do allow them to perch securely on branches, rooftops, and telephone wires, unlike swifts, which are unable to perch.

      Most swallows nest in mud structures plastered to vertical walls...

    • CHICKADEES AND TITMICE Family Paridae
      (pp. 245-250)

      These small, lively, and inquisitive birds flock to backyard feeders and seem surprisingly unafraid of humans. Most members of this family flock together during the nonbreeding season, often along with kinglets, nuthatches, or woodpeckers. The sexes are similar and some species show boldly patterned plumages. Sierra species all reside in the region year-round, but some move short distances up or downslope in response to local weather. They vocalize almost continuously and have surprisingly complex and distinctive repertoires, with each serving a specific purpose such as flock cohesion, attracting mates, or territorial defense. Their loud calls and overall curiosity make them...

    • VERDIN Family Remizidae
      (pp. 250-251)

      Verdins are the only New World representatives of this family that includes the “penduline tits.” Closely related to “true tits” (family Paridae), most members of this family (including Verdins, which were formerly classified as members of the Paridae) make elaborate, hanging bag nests. Members of this family forage in a fashion similar to other tits, hanging upside down from small branches to capture insects, their primary prey. In addition to Verdins (the only members of this genus), 12 other species reside in Eurasia and Africa. The family name was derived from OF.remizi, a covered carriage—a possible reference to...

    • BUSHTIT Family Aegithalidae
      (pp. 251-252)

      All 13 members of this mostly Old World family live in forest and shrub habitats, including the one North American representative, the Bushtit (the only member of the genusPsaltriparus). Except for the Long-tailed Tit(Aegithalos caudatus),which is widely distributed across Europe and Asia, all the other species live in the Himalayas and/or other mountainous regions of Eurasia and China. Collectively known as “long-tailed tits,” members of this family are sedentary and live in small social groups that defend common territories. The family name is derived fromGr. aigithalos, a titmouse.

      ORIGIN OF NAMES “Bushtit” for the species’ habitat...

    • NUTHATCHES Family Sittidae
      (pp. 252-256)

      Early British birdwatchers observed small, tree-climbing birds wedging nuts into tree crevices and hacking them open with their stout, upturned bills. First called “Nuthacks,” they later became known as “Nuthatches.” These agile, little climbers use their sharp claws to travel up, down, or sideways along bark surfaces. In this fashion they can examine crevices for food overlooked by woodpeckers or Brown Creepers, which, unlike nuthatches, almost always travel upward using their tails as props. Nuthatches fly with relatively slow wingbeats that are clearly audible when they flutter between trees.

      Most nuthatches excavate their own nesting cavities in living trees or...

    • CREEPERS Family Certhiidae
      (pp. 256-257)

      Members of this mostly Old World family are sometimes called “tree-creepers” since, much like woodpeckers, they spend their time creeping up large trees. Only one species, the Brown Creeper, occurs in North America, but it looks remarkably similar to eight other species from Europe and Asia. Members of this family also resemble “woodcreepers” (subfamily Dendrocolaptinae) of the Neotropics in appearance and behavior. However, they are not closely related and their similarities are due to convergent evolution, resulting from their common requirements to forage on and blend with tree bark. All members of the family Certhiidae have short legs and never...

    • WRENS Family Troglodytidae
      (pp. 257-264)

      Small and cocky, wrens are a dynamic group of birds whose outsize voices match their spunky and curious nature. Although many aspects of their life histories are highly variable, most wrens can be immediately recognized by their short, cocked-up tails, long curved bills, and lively songs. Other traits, not so easily observed, are the moderately flattened skulls that allow wrens to reach their heads farther into crevices in search of insects and spiders. This feature is accentuated in Canyon Wrens, whose spinal cord attaches at the back of the skull rather than to the underside like other wrens. Being almost...

    • GNATCATCHERS Family Polioptilidae
      (pp. 264-265)

      These dainty birds are most similar to Old World warblers (family Sylviidae) and wrens (family Troglodytidae) in their anatomical structure and habits. Like those related species, gnatcatchers move restlessly through the foliage plucking insects with long, slender bills. Similarly, their short wings and long, fanned tails facilitate agile flights through the dense vegetation where they feed and nest. The gnatcatcher family is comprised of about 20 species that mostly reside year-round in tropical and subtropical areas of North and South America, and only the Blue-gray Gnatcatcher occurs in the Sierra. The family name means “gray-winged” from Gr.polios, gray, and...

    • DIPPERS Family Cinclidae
      (pp. 265-266)

      American Dippers are found from the Aleutian Islands and northeastern Alaska, south through the mountainous regions of western North America and the highlands of Mexico to western Panama. There are five members of this family, and all have similar habits and form and live in swift mountain streams on every continent except Africa and Antarctica. The family name is derived from Gr.kinklos, a bird mentioned by Aristotle for its bobbing behavior.

      Origin Of names “Dipper” for the familiar dipping and bobbing behavior;cinclus(see family account above); L.mexicanus, of Mexico, where the bird was first collected.

      NATURAL HISTORY...

    • KINGLETS Family Regulidae
      (pp. 266-269)

      Delicate, active birds that flit fairylike among twigs and leaves, members of this family have slender, pointed bills for capturing insects. They breed in boreal or high mountain forests, where most species remain year-round. In all seasons they flick their wings continuously while flitting among dense branches and leaves in search of small, soft-bodied insects and spiders. Kinglets and their kin specialize on eating prey items hidden at the tips of slender branches, where their light weight and ability to hover give them access to food unavailable to larger, less agile birds. Their unusually fluffy, thick plumages keep them warm...

    • WRENTIT Family Sylviidae
      (pp. 269-270)

      Wrentits have been the equivalent of a taxonomic “pinball,” bouncing around from family to family with each new analysis of their origins. Since the mid-1800s, Wrentits have been classified as members of many different families by many different authors. This confusion arose because they seemed to have a mixture of characteristics of true wrens (family Troglodytidae) and tits (family Paridae). More recently they were considered to be the only members of the family Chamaeidae. Modern genetic studies suggested that they were the only North American representatives of the Babblers (family Timaliidae), and in 2010 they were moved again to become...

    • THRUSHES AND RELATIVES Family Turdidae
      (pp. 270-278)

      With moderately long and slender bills, thrushes take insects, worms, and spiders from the ground and low plants or snatch them from midair. They also dine on fruits and berries from late summer through the winter. The young of all seven Sierra species leave their nests with heavily spotted breasts, but only two, Hermit and Swainson’s Thrushes, retain their breast spots as adults. Many of the thrushes display soft browns and grays, and the vivid hues of bluebirds offer a striking contrast to those muted plumages. For many birders it is the music that makes this their favorite family, and...

    • MOCKINGBIRDS AND THRASHERS Family Mimidae
      (pp. 278-283)

      As the name of this family suggests, mockingbirds, thrashers, and their relatives are inspired singers and accomplished mimics. Most display subtle patterns of gray or brown, identical for both sexes. These slender, long-tailed birds use strong, down-curved bills to forage on the ground or in dense brush cover.

      Both parents build large, bulky cup nests with twigs, stems, and grasses, usually less than 10 feet above the ground and always hidden by dense, overhanging branches or foliage. Usually heavily marked with reddish-brown or maroon spots and splotches, 2 to 4 bluish or whitish-blue eggs are incubated by both sexes (except...

    • STARLINGS Family Sturnidae
      (pp. 283-284)

      Members of this family, including starlings and mynahs, are native to Europe, Asia, and Africa as well as to northern Australia and many Pacific islands. None are native to North America. All species have strong feet, rapid and direct flight, and exhibit gregarious social behaviors. Their preferred habitats are open landscapes with a few scattered trees, shrubs, or other perching posts. Several species, including European Starlings, are highly dependent on humans in their native locales as well as in areas where they have been introduced. The nearly 120 species in this family include some of the most brightly colored and...

    • PIPITS Family Motacillidae
      (pp. 285-286)

      Pipits belong to a large family of fairly small, ground-dwelling birds, all with long, wagging tails. In addition to pipits, this family includes wagtails and longclaws, species with primarily Eurasian and African distributions. Worldwide, this family includes about 65 species in 6 different genera but only 1, the American Pipit, occurs in the Sierra. The family name is derived from L.motacilla, a wagtail.

      ORIGIN OF NAMES “American” for the primary range of this recently recognized species, formerly lumped with a closely related Eurasian species(Anthus spinoletta)that were both called “Water Pipits” for their preferred wetland habitats; “pipit” from...

    • WAXWINGS Family Bombycillidae
      (pp. 286-287)

      Unlike most “songbirds,” or oscine passerines, waxwings have no real songs and their relationships to other passerine families are uncertain; their closest relatives may be extinct. Many authorities consider them most closely related to pipits (family Motacillidae) and starlings (family Sturnidae), but waxwings also show similarities to silky-flycatchers (family Ptilogonatidae), including Phainopeplas. Of the three species of waxwings, two (the Cedar and Bohemian) occur across North America and both visit the Sierra. Bohemians are rare irruptive visitors (see Appendices 1 and 2). The third species in this family is found in Japan and northeastern Asia. The family name is combined...

    • SILKY FLYCATCHERS Family Ptilogonatidae
      (pp. 287-288)

      Silky Flycatchers are a small family represented by only four species in three separate genera, thought by some experts to be related to the waxwings (family Bombycilidae). All are beautiful, long-tailed birds, and three, including the Phainopepla, sport crests on their heads. Phainopeplas, the only family member represented in the Sierra, are the northernmost representatives of this primarily Central American family that inhabits woodlands from the southwestern United States south to the mountains of western Panama. The family name is derived from Gr.ptilogonys, a tapered feather, in reference to the pointed tails of all members of this family.

      ORIGIN...

    • WOOD-WARBLERS Family Parulidae
      (pp. 288-301)

      The small, slender-billed wood-warblers enliven the Sierra with bright colors and lively songs—some call them the “butterflies of the bird world.” At least some yellow is visible in the plumages of most Sierra species as they flit busily through the foliage. None of their songs are actually “warbles” nor are they particularly musical, but they are key to finding and identifying the various species. Warblers live mainly on insects gleaned from branches and leaves or captured in midair, but some species also eat fruits, allowing them to remain farther north in winter. They occupy a wide range of habitats,...

    • SPARROWS AND RELATIVES Family Emberizidae
      (pp. 302-321)

      While many members of this family are superficially similar (mostly brownish and streaky), Sierra sparrows are fascinating birds and reward the patient observer by revealing subtle distinctions in appearance and behavior. Partly because many sparrow species are similar in appearance, occupy similar niches, and eat similar foods, they have evolved a complex variety of songs, behaviors, diets, and morphological characteristics unique to each species. Try watching, for example, how sparrows in a mixed-species flock differ in the ways they flush and take cover when startled, with longer-winged, agile species like Vesper Sparrows making long flights and landing on exposed perches,...

    • GROSBEAKS AND RELATIVES Family Cardinalidae
      (pp. 322-328)

      Much like wood-warblers, members of this brightly colored family primarily winter south of the Sierra. Males wear vivid plumages compared with the relatively drab females. The heavy, conical bills of buntings and grosbeaks are designed to crack the hard coats of seeds and nuts, but adults also eat fruits and buds. Insects provide an important source of protein for growing nestlings. Despite the similarities of their common names, Black-headed and Blue Grosbeaks in the family Cardinalidae are only distantly related to Pine and Evening Grosbeaks in the family Fringillidae, which includes a variety of other red and yellow “true finches.”...

    • BLACKBIRDS AND RELATIVES Family Icteridae
      (pp. 328-340)

      Members of this family generally have long, pointed bills, and males often flaunt bright orange, yellow, or iridescent black plumage; females are typically drab in color. Many species are highly gregarious, forming large flocks after the breeding season and through the winter. Mixed flocks of blackbirds and cowbirds often travel and feed together. Sierra members of this family are most common in the foothills and are mostly uncommon or rare above the middle elevations.

      Female Icterids build bulky cup nests or deep pendant bags suspended from trees, shrubs, or wetland plants, where they usually lay three to five whitish, greenish-blue,...

    • FINCHES AND RELATIVES Family Fringillidae
      (pp. 340-353)

      Bird taxonomists sometimes refer to members of this family as “true finches.” These seed-eating birds have coned-shaped bills, with sharp cutting edges angled downward at the base, making them especially adept at holding and cracking seeds. In the Sierra, breeding male Fringillids display bold patterns of red, yellow, or gold. Their natural diets help maintain these bright plumages; captive birds fed artificial foods often molt into drab browns or grays like those of females and juveniles. Finches flock together in undulating flight, often in full song. Unpredictable, they can be abundant in an area one year and rare or absent...

    • OLD WORLD SPARROWS Family Passeridae
      (pp. 353-354)

      Old World sparrows, distinct from New World sparrows (family Emberizidae), are primarily seedeaters, though they also consume small insects when nesting and feeding young. Much like crows, gulls, and pigeons, many species scavenge for food around cities, where they mostly consume human leavings. About 50 species are native to Europe, Asia, and Africa, but a few species, including House Sparrows, have been widely introduced outside their native range. The family name is derived from L.passer, a sparrow.

      ORIGIN OF NAMES “House” for their species’ preference for nesting in buildings and other human-made structures;passer(see family account); L.domesticus,...

  12. Appendices
    • APPENDIX 1 Checklist of Sierra Birds
      (pp. 355-373)
    • APPENDIX 2 Rare, Casual, and Accidental Birds of the Sierra Nevada
      (pp. 374-381)
    • APPENDIX 3 Methods Used to Determine Population Trends
      (pp. 382-382)
    • APPENDIX 4 Common and Scientific Names of Plant Species
      (pp. 383-384)
  13. GLOSSARY
    (pp. 385-386)
  14. BIBLIOGRAPHY
    (pp. 387-412)
  15. INDEX OF COMMON NAMES
    (pp. 413-420)
  16. INDEX OF SCIENTIFIC NAMES
    (pp. 421-428)
  17. ABOUT THE AUTHORS AND ARTIST
    (pp. 429-430)