If you’re not from around here, you may be encountering an unusual number of Unidentified Flying Objects: birds that look different from the ones you’re accustomed to seeing at home, and behave differently. Here are a few you’re likely to notice on campus or around town.
The plain brown birds with long tails, bigger than sparrows but smaller than robins, are California towhees. They’re ground-dwelling seed-eaters and seem not to mind human company; I’ve had them walk in my back door, just checking the place out.
House finches—red males, streaky brown females—are also common. Even if you don’t see them, you’ll hear the males’ rapid-fire warble. Native Californians, house finches have become naturalized through most of the U.S.
Black phoebes may show up along Strawberry Creek, or any other urban waterway. These members of the flycatcher family are black with white bellies, have short crests and an upright posture. They like elevated perches from which they can scan for flying insects.
The jays here are blue, but they aren’t blue jays—that’s an eastern species. The ones with black heads and swept-back crests are Steller’s (not “stellar”) jays, named after an unfortunate 18th-century Russian naturalist. The crestless jays are western scrub-jays. Both have raucous calls and a strong sense of entitlement.
The big black birds you see may be either American crows or common ravens. Ravens are larger, have wedge-shaped tails, shaggy throats, and bigger beaks, and tend to show up singly or in pairs. Crows have rounded tails and hang out in flocks. Crows caw; ravens croak, in addition to making a wide variety of unlikely noises. The small black birds with baleful yellow eyes and lots of attitude are blackbirds—Brewer’s blackbirds.
Jays, crows, and ravens seem to be particularly vulnerable to the West Nile virus. If you happen to find one that looks freshly dead, report it by calling 877-WNV-BIRD (877-968-2473).
Our local hummingbird is the Anna’s hummer, whose namesake was a French duchess. Males have flashy iridescent rose-red throats and crowns, and a pathetic excuse for a song. Anna’s hummingbirds live here year-round and start nesting in December or January, well ahead of most small birds. Allen’s hummingbirds, with orange-red throats and green-and-rufous plumage, are spring and summer residents.
Winter is warbler season. Yellow-rumped warblers, small grayish birds with the trademark yellow patch at the base of the tail, are the most common species. With luck you may spot a Townsend’s warbler, which has a striking yellow-and-black head pattern.
Small birds abound, especially around conifers and other trees: chestnut-backed chickadees, who announce themselves by name; common bushtits, tiny long-tailed birds that almost always travel in flocks; oak titmice, gray with pointed crests; dark-eyed juncos, sparrow-sized with white outer tailfeathers that flash in flight.
We’ve got doves (mourning) and a variety of hawks. Red-tailed hawks, symbols of a fine Northern California ale, and red-shouldered hawks can be seen soaring overhead. Cooper’s and sharp-shinned hawks, built for close pursuit of smaller birds, nest in street trees not far from campus. Northern harriers and white-tailed kites patrol the waterfront. Peregrines and kestrels are possible, especially in winter.
And you can’t miss the gulls. Most are California gulls that may have nested at Mono Lake or other oases in the high desert. Other waterbirds include the cormorants that build their nests on the bridges that span the Bay, brown pelicans in summer, flotillas of scaup, scoters, canvasbacks, and other ducks in winter.
In spring and fall, migrants may touch down in wooded areas of campus: warblers, vireos, grosbeaks, tanagers, thrushes. Some of these travelers spend the summer in wilder locales like Strawberry Canyon before heading back to the tropics.
There’s always something to watch, even if it’s only pigeons courting or house sparrows wrangling over a crumb. Warning: birding tends to become addictive. If you’re not careful, you may find yourself frequenting sewage ponds and landfills (where rarities often show up), listening for owls in the predawn cold, or braving the waves of Monterey Bay in albatross season. ›