Naturalist: Uncommon facts about common birds

An English sparrow. Photo courtesy of

European starlings on a wire. Photo courtesy of

(Editor’s note: This is the last in a two-part series on the Sherburne County Master Gardeners’ Garden Expo.)

by Joni Astrup
Associate editor
What do the European starling, American crow and English sparrow all have in common?
They are birds people often love to hate.
But Stan Tekiela of Victoria, a naturalist, wildlife photographer and writer, sees them in a different light.
“I’ve never met a bird I didn’t love,” Tekiela said.
Tekiela was the keynote speaker April 9 at the Sherburne County Master Gardeners’ Garden Expo in Big Lake. In a fast-paced talk laced with humor, Tekiela discussed uncommon facts about common birds.
Consider the European starling. The bird is often disdained because it is not native to the United States. But Tekiela told the audience: “Folks, look around the room…Aren’t we all basically European imports just like them?”
The starling was introduced to the United States as part of a group’s mission to bring every bird mentioned in the works of Shakespeare to North America, he said. The starlings were sold to cities in the United States and released to parks.
The English sparrow is another non-native. Tekiela said it was brought to the United States in 1850, where it became widespread. It takes over the nests of other birds, like bluebirds. “Because of this behavior people tend not to like this bird,” Tekiela said.
But he said it is declining in numbers in the United States and an endangered species in several countries where it is a native.
Then there’s the American crow. While often reviled, Tekiela said the crow and other birds in the same family are the smartest birds in North America.
Crows have complex social structures, Tekiela said. The young from the previous year help raise the new young and the birds also cooperatively hunt, problem solve and use tools. He showed a video of one bird that was part of an experiment. Water was put in a narrow tube and then food floated on top.

The American crow. Photo courtesy of

The bird couldn’t reach the food, so it dropped rocks into the tube to raise the water level and bring the food to the top of the tube where the bird could reach it.
“I totally admire crows. I think they’re just such fascinating birds,” he said.
Pigeons, meanwhile, are a common bird with an interesting history.
“People have had a relationship with this bird since, basically, the dawn of time,” Tekiela said.
It has been used for both food and communication.
Tekiela said news of the first Olympics was delivered on the leg of a pigeon. The birds were also used for communication in World War II.
More than 1,000 men were “pigeoneers” during WWII. Their job was to carry pigeons into battle to use for communication as a back-up to radio.
When a pigeon was released, everyone knew that meant a message was likely being sent so enemy soldiers opened fire on the birds.
“These birds are war heroes,” Tekiela said.
Other uncommon facts about common birds:
•The turkey vulture’s bald head actually serves a purpose. Vultures feed on decaying, rotting animals. They can clean their bodies with their bills, but they can’t reach their heads. Having a bald head helps the bird keep its head clean.

Stan Tekiela

•Turkey vultures protect their young in the nest by vomiting on intruders.
•While most birds have three toes forward and one back, woodpeckers have two toes forward and two back. “It helps them to hold on to vertical surfaces,” Tekiela said. They also have very stiff tail feathers that help when they are on vertical surfaces.
•In 1850 John J. Audubon declared that the red-headed woodpecker was the most numerous bird in North America. But from 1950 to 2000, there has been an 80 percent decline in the population of red-headed woodpeckers. Tekiela said no one knows why.
“(It’s a) huge, gigantic red flag,” he said. “This bird is going away at the rate of 2-3 percent per year. If you have young children, there’s a chance that this bird could be gone by the time your children are grown up.”
•The osprey was wiped out in Minnesota but was reintroduced and is doing just fine. The birds migrate in the fall. A pair that nested near Tekiela’s house actually spent the winters in two different locations. The female wintered in the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico while the male went to South America. In the spring they would meet back up at the nest.
For more information, go to Tekiela’s website at

What birds see

A blue jay. Photo courtesy of

The American kestrel, a type of falcon, has an extra cone in its eye that allows it to see in ultraviolet light. Cones are cells in the retina of the eye that are responsible for color vision.
Turns out that’s not unusual in birds.
A study of 500 species of birds found that 99 percent had that extra cone in the eye to enable them to see in ultraviolet light. Ultraviolet light is a spectrum of light humans can’t see.
“Birds see completely different than you and I,” Tekiela said.
The benefits of seeing in ultraviolet light include:
•Being able to see “nectar guides,” which are marks on flowers that guide birds to the nectar.
•Birds like the kestrel that hunt small mammals can see the urine paths that mice, voles and shrews leave as they run along.
•Birds in which the male and female appear identical to the human eye, like blue jays, actually appear different in ultraviolet light. Male blue jays, for instance, have a white patch on them under ultraviolet light, distinguishing them from female blue jays.



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