Chirps and quirks: Meet 6 common birds of Berkeley

In advance of the first-ever Berkeley Bird Festival on Oct. 17, six writers tell tales of their favorite local avian species.

A few of Berkeley’s avian celebrities. The first-ever Berkeley Bird Festival will include a fun falcon game, an exploration of the UC Berkeley Museum of Vertebrate Zoology’s ornithological treasures and more. Credit: Bob Gunderson and Rick Lewis

They’re in your backyard, on your street, perhaps trilling from a telephone wire or flitting through the bushes. Berkeley is home to more than 200 species of birds — each with its own distinctive look, personality, and life story. On Sunday, Oct. 17, the first-ever Berkeley Bird Festival will feature a variety of free bird-related events, from field trips to chalk art drawing sessions and bird-inspired performances. (Berkeleyside is a media sponsor of the festival.)

Berkeley Bird Festival
David Brower Center and UC Berkeley, Oct. 17

Get a head start on the festival by meeting six common local species — dark-eyed juncos, black phoebes, Anna’s hummingbirds, California scrub-jays, California towhees, and snowy egrets. These profiles were written by the students and instructor in Golden Gate Audubon Society’s class on “writing about birds, taught this summer by Berkeley resident and GGAS Board President Eric James Schroeder.

Dark-eyed junco: The superhero next door

Dark-eyed junco. Credit: Rick Lewis

A bird superhero lives in our midst. While nearly all birds are born with a superpower coveted by humans — the ability to fly — dark-eyed juncos have even more superhero traits. Like many masked crusaders, juncos often disguise their identities. In fact, some of the 15 types of dark-eyed junco that live across the U.S. look so different from each other that they were once designated as separate species. In our area, this small sparrow sports a distinct dark hood, reddish-brown back, pinkish sides, creamy belly and short pink bill. The eyes of dark-eyed juncos distinguish them from their distant cousins, Yellow-eyed juncos, which are found in the Southwest. No matter what costume juncos display, they all flash bright white outer tail feathers when they fly.

Juncos not only have the power to transform their appearance, but they also can adapt to habitat extremes, from Arctic tundra to the lawns of UC Berkeley and trails of Tilden Park. Fairly bold around people, these birds hop and scratch on the ground, looking for seeds or insects. During spring and summer breeding seasons, the male junco stands on top of trees or buildings and projects a high trill. Sounding like laser bursts from toy space guns, the trill can be heard from several hundred feet away — a superpower for a five-inch bird that weighs no more than an AA battery.


Juncos have long been part of American culture. Residents back East, where juncos spend winter, nicknamed them “snowbirds.” John James Audubon declared there wasn’t a person in America “who does not know the little Snowbird, which, in America, is cherished as the Robin is in Europe.” In the 1970s, the song Snowbird hit No. 1 on the pop music charts, and Anne Murray, Bing Crosby, and Elvis crooned its lyrics. 

Juncos also have inspired generations of scientists. In the 1930s and ’40s, Alden Holmes Miller, former director of the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology at UC Berkeley, was one of the first ornithologists to explore what the junco can tell us about evolution. More recently, scientists have been studying a population of juncos that stopped migrating — choosing to remain all year on the campus of UC San Diego. They learned that female juncos sing more than previously known and that some birds that do not migrate sing year-round to defend their territories (instead of only during the breeding season). They also learned that male birds with the most testosterone are least helpful around the nest and spend less time parenting. All superheroes have their flaws.

Despite the attention of scientists and the admiration of bird watchers, the dark-eyed junco population is declining. Junco superpowers are no match for their powerful foes: outdoor cats, window collisions and habitat loss. Despite their amazing abilities, juncos are facing mortal enemies, and it is up to us to stand with them. — Jennifer Morrow

Black phoebe: flashy flycatcher

Black phoebe. Credit: Bob Gunderson

A 10-year-old new to birdwatching gave the black phoebe an appropriate nickname — “the rubber band bird” — for its habit of flying out a short distance then returning to the same perch. Its feeding strategy is to snatch small insects out of the air, often from a conspicuous perch such as a utility wire or fence post. It may also pick insects off the ground or from the surface of a pond. While perched, it often pumps its long tail up and down impatiently and chirps sharply. Both the behavior and the call are distinctive, and once you’ve heard the call, you will recognize it easily; it’s short, sharp and similar to the squeak of a sneaker on a gym floor.

The black phoebe is also easy to identify by sight. While other birds nab insects out of the air, none has the same crisp color pattern. The head, back and wings are all a uniform sooty black, which sharply contrast with the white belly. Like most flycatchers, its head seems big for its body and its posture is upright when perched, not angled forward.

Black phoebes are commonly found in open areas, often near water; the Berkeley Marina, the UC campus and many of Berkeley’s parks are all good places to look. Residential neighborhoods with grass or low vegetation and abundant hunting perches are also likely locations. Many phoebes remain in the Bay Area year-round, but numbers are higher in fall and winter when some migrate from breeding areas in far northern California or the Sierra Nevada.

During springtime breeding season, black phoebes rely on nearby water sources for an essential nest construction material — mud. The male scouts for potential locations and the female builds the nest, using mud for the outer layer and plant material for an inner lining. Mud also cements the nest to a vertical surface such as a rocky creek bank, building or bridge. The female does most of the incubation of the eggs, but both males and females feed the young for two to three weeks after hatching. A pair usually raises two or even three broods each season. Mated pairs often stay together for many years and use the same nesting territory repeatedly.

Unlike many bird species, black phoebe numbers have increased over the past several decades. They’ve clearly embraced human-altered habitats, as is visible whenever you see one perched on a wire fence or signpost. Not all birds have been so adaptable; the number of North American birds has declined by 30% in the past 50 years. When you spot a black phoebe’s distinct pattern and hunting style as you walk your neighborhood, rejoice in their resilience. — Martha Berthelsen

Anna’s hummingbird: Flying jewels

Anna’s Hummingbird. Credit: Bob Gunderson

You will hear it before you see it:  A quick chirp, like an electrical spark, something high and metallic. Listen.

Chzip. Chzip-chzip. Chzip.

Your gaze turns toward the sound. There it is—Anna’s hummingbird. It’s one of the smallest of birds at 3 to 5 inches, weighing about one-tenth of an ounce, with a long beak and emerald iridescent feathers. The males have impressive magenta throats called “gorgets.” Females have only small rose-flecked throats. Both are flying jewels.

Anna’s hummingbird is the most common hummingbird in the Bay Area and along the Pacific Coast from Baja north through British Columbia. With an estimated population of five million, Anna’s flits through open woods, parks and shrubs; its conservation status is “of least concern.”

An Anna’s hummingbird travels from flower to flower for nectar and also for insects, which provide it with protein. To get enough of each, it visits 1,000 to 2,000 flowers every day. Hovering in front of blooms, these birds sound like miniaturized helicopters. Their rapidly beating wings — over 80 beats per second — create the hum that gives them their name. 

One good local spot to see Anna’s Hummingbirds is the Tilden Botanical Garden. In the middle of this expansive garden, a stone bridge crosses Wildcat Creek. Bordering the creek are columbines, a hummingbird favorite. As you walk over the bridge, pause and listen. You’ll hear that familiar “chzip.” You’ll perceive some movement. And as your eyes adjust, you’ll see numerous Anna’s playing and darting toward each other.

Hummingbirds are the only birds that can fly backwards. They have tiny legs and can’t walk. But they can fly — to great heights at tremendous speeds.

If you’re lucky, you’ll see their spectacular courtship display. When a male finds a female he wants to attract, he hovers in front of her, then suddenly soars up 80 feet or more.  He hovers again, then abruptly plummets down at speeds up to 100 mph, pulling up at the last second like the bottom of a “J.” He makes an odd shrieking sound.

This sound has fascinated scientists for years. It’s not a call because it’s not vocalized, and it’s made only by male Anna’s hummingbirds. How do they do it?

No one knew until 2008, when UC Berkeley student researchers Chris Clark and Teresa Feo proved that Anna’s unique shriek comes from wind rushing through the male’s spread tail feathers. Here’s yet another example of how this bird is one of nature’s great beauties and personalities. As Clark and Feo remarked, it’s the first bird in the world known to “tweet its tail.” — Sandy Gess

California scrub-jay: Bright, noisy neighbor

California scrub-jay. Credit: Rick Lewis

A loud squawk and flash of blue reveal one of the noisier birds in the neighborhood, the California scrub-jay. Looking closely, you can see that the blue flash is a bird with a dusty blue head and back divided by a light brown shawl, with a jaunty black eye patch below a white eyebrow. This saucy, medium-sized bird — found on the West Coast from Washington to Baja California — weighs about 3 ounces, or as much as a dozen grapes.

The California scrub-jay’s usually loud squawk sounds like it’s scolding someone. Scrub-jays sometimes move beyond scolding to mob another bird, perhaps because it’s too close to a jay’s nest. When the offending bird is a predator seeking eggs or chicks, the jays’ calls and mobbing alert nearby birds to protect their own nests or dash for cover.

Gardens, parks, chaparral and woodlands are home to scrub-jays. They’re drawn to the chaparral at Cesar Chavez Park, oak trees around the UC Berkeley Botanical Garden and yards and parks everywhere. They choose habitat with their preferred food — insects and fruit in the spring and summer, supplemented in the fall by seeds and acorns, which they hide and save for winter food. You can watch them do this by putting out peanuts on a feeder: Jays will hide them like acorns. (Some acorns that aren’t reclaimed by jays sprout and grow, helping provide food for future generations of wildlife.) Although they fiercely defend their own nests, scrab-jays supplement their diet by catching and eating the newly fledged chicks of other birds, such as Western bluebirds.

California scrub-jays spend about three months raising young each year. Pairing up, they offer each other food while singing a melodious song that contrasts with their normal raucous noises. They select a breeding territory and defend it from other jays throughout the year. After both parents build the nest out of twigs lined with plant fibers and animal hair, the female lays four or five eggs and incubates them for about 18 days. If people approach too close too often, these seemingly bold birds may abandon a nest, but they will chase away animal predators threatening their young, such as squirrels, snakes and cats. Both parents feed the chicks for about three weeks while the naked newborns grow feathers and learn to fly. Chicks continue to beg food while learning to fly, and even after they’ve mastered flying and foraging. Once adult, they may live for 15 years.

When you hear or see a bright, noisy California scrub-jay, enjoy its colors, appreciate its scolding and ponder its complex personality. — Marjorie Powell

California towhees: Brown and beloved

California Towhee. Credit: Bob Gunderson

Birds of the World, the bible of avian lore, seems almost dismissive of towhees as “little more than large New World sparrows.” And California towhees are a uniform plain gray/brown with just a touch of cinnamon color on their throats and their vents (their bottoms). Males are slightly larger than females; otherwise, they’re indistinguishable. Uniformly plain they may be, but Cal towhees are a beloved local bird.

This species has a limited range on the West Coast — from southern Oregon to the tip of Baja. Within this range, it’s found in a variety of habitats and has adapted well to urban and suburban areas. The Oakland Christmas Bird Count — which includes Berkeley — has reported more Cal towhees each year since 2008 than any other such count in the country. Berkeley residents Dave Quady and Bob Lewis, who for many years led the local count, proudly refer to Oakland and adjacent areas as the “California towhee capital of the world.”

In birding lingo, California towhees are characterized as “highly sedentary,” meaning they are non-migratory and have a small home territory. If you’ve got a pair in your backyard, you’re likely to find that they’re settled there. But the more general meaning of “sedentary” doesn’t apply to this species. These birds aren’t fast movers, nor do they move far, but they are constantly in motion, usually shuffling along the ground, foraging for seeds and other vegetable matter, and often making their characteristic loud “chip” calls. These metallic-sounding notes serve a range of purposes, including keep-in-touch signaling, warning notes and even challenges. 

During spring, towhee pairs defend their territories aggressively. The male’s chip calls evolve into song by adding a trill at the end. The female builds the nest, which may be in a tree, shrub or even on the ground. She also incubates the eggs, which hatch in about two weeks. But when it comes to child rearing, the males pitch in. Towhee chicks need a high protein diet, so parents bring home take-out dinners of insects such as grasshoppers, caterpillars, spiders, beetles, wasps and ants.

Chicks fledge at eight to 11 days and stay with their parents for up to six weeks, by which time they’ve achieved their full adult size. And since California towhees mate for life, if you do have a resident pair, you’re likely to see them for years to come. — Eric James Schroeder

Snowy egret: Patient hunter

Mixed flock of snowy egrets (black bills) and great egrets (yellowish-orange bills). Credit: Rick Lewis

A swoosh of white, and the long-necked bird lands gracefully at the muddy edge of the estuary near the Berkeley Marina. Trail walkers stop, gesture and whisper as they focus their attention on this avian show. The bird — a snowy egret — is motionless, yellow eyes focused and black bill pointed at a spot beneath the water’s surface. It wades with slow, high steps through the shallow water, revealing unexpectedly yellow feet attached to long, skinny black legs. The egret goes motionless again and stands in wait for prey. The trail walkers are less patient and continue along their way. 

Snowy egrets are known for a wide variety of foraging techniques. They may run through the water or supplement their slow stalking by dabbling a foot or bill to lure prey. Occasionally they hunt from the air while flying low. Like other members of the heron family, the snowy egret’s sixth cervical vertebra allows it to pull its neck into an “S” shape, then shoot its head and bill forward to jab fish, crayfish and other invertebrates from the brackish water.

One snowy egret sighting, and suddenly more are visible. White birds in the distance cluster near a much larger version of themselves. Perhaps a mother snowy egret with her flock? No — this is a great egret, with a bright yellow beak and legs that are black to the toes. DNA analyses prove the great egret is a separate genus from the snowy egret and more closely related to the great blue heron, despite that white plumage. Both birds are common year-round residents of the Bay Area and routinely feed near Berkeley’s Aquatic Park. Each has its own foraging style: The great egret seems more sedentary, even stately, and is a less frenetic fisherman than the snowy.

During spring courting season, egret facial skin goes vibrant. The great egret sports a lime-green color around the eyes, and the snowy egret a bright yellow. Both egrets also grow long, lacy white plumes. These elegant plumes were prized by fashion-conscious humans in the late 1800s and were hunted commercially to decorate women’s hats. With the value of plumes approaching twice that of gold, great and snowy egret populations were decimated. Fortunately, conservationists intervened — resulting in the preservation of these egrets and the birth of the Audubon movement. Today both species have recovered enough that they are rated of “least concern” by conservationists, and the great egret is the enduring symbol of the National Audubon Society. — Susan MacWhorter