Spooky Birds

“Spooky” Birds you could see this Halloween!

Let’s explore some of the “spookiest” birds!

American Crow

(Photo © Kevin McGowan)
Crows say “Caw! Caw! Caw!” and are completely black, including the inside of their mouths! A big group of crows is called a “murder,” but don’t let the name frighten you. This species is family-oriented, very intelligent, and excellent helpers in keeping your environment clean. You see, crows have a broad diet. They eat insects, berries, and grains, but also eat carrion and garbage. That way, they help keep roadways and neighborhoods clean.

Common Raven

(Photo © laniisoma)
A group of ravens is called an “unkindness,” and they have been associated with death in many cultures for hundreds of years. However, you shouldn’t be afraid of ravens! These birds are clever, and like crows they keep urban neighborhoods clean by feasting on carrion. In fact, ravens are social birds that love to play. They have friends and demonstrate empathy. They are also excellent at mimicking sounds, even human speech! Listen for its call, “cr-r-ruck,” and look out for this black-eyed trickster throughout western and northern North America.

Barn Owl

(Photo © Tim Lenz)
An icon of the Harry Potter series, the Barn Owl makes a host of creepy calls, like hissing and hooting. This “magical” bird is able to fly silently through the night thanks to special feathers. It has a round white face like the moon, and feasts on mice and other small rodents. Owl pellets are made of the bones, fur, and other indigestible parts of prey that the Barn Owl regurgitates.

Turkey Vulture

(Photo © Ned Harris )
When dining on carrion, head feathers can get a little sticky. That’s why the bald, red head of the Turkey Vulture is so useful. They circle the skies looking for dinner, identifiable by their 6-foot wingspan and wobbly flight path. In Persian mythology, two vultures are said to guard the gates of the underworld, but we appreciate these helpful scavengers, who clean up roadkill, deceased wild animals, and garbage.

European Starling

Flock of Starlings
(Photo © Muratart )
These invaders to America travel in gigantic, synchronized swarms called “Murmurations” and are feared by farmers because they destroy fields looking for insects and seeds to eat. Starlings sport iridescent feathers that make them appear shiny up close, but from a distance appear as black as crows or ravens.

Common Loon

(Photo © Josh Merrill )
The call of a loon could easily be confused with the howl of a wolf. Common Loons are beautiful, but their lonely, mystical songs at dusk and dawn could lead you to fear a “haunted” lake!

Great Potoo

(Photo © Mauricio Calderon via Macaulay Library)
A master of disguise, the Great Potoo stays still all day, pretending to be a tree branch. This is so they can hide from their predators. Potoos have a unique “Paaawwwr” growl, and only take flight to hunt insects by night. This bird is found in American tropical rainforests and is tough to spot, even by inhabitants of the ecosystem!

~Brigid Lucey

Spotlight: Bernard Maddox

When Bernard Maddox leaves his home, he has more on his mind than running errands. A lifelong birder, he now contributes scores of data to Celebrate Urban Birds at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Wherever Maddox goes, he’s birding and sending his observations to the Lab.

As a child, he was fascinated by birds. “It’s an attractive procedure,” Maddox says, “helping birds and staying active.” Birding can be a group activity, but can be just as fun and interesting as an individual. Through grade school, high school, and college, Maddox maintained interest and involvement in nature. His goals have always aligned with helping people; he studied psychology and child development with a focus on education, and has worked as a tutor for the blind at his local community college.

In keeping with his calling to help others, he received basic and advanced medical training with the United States military. However, Maddox cites his 9-month deployment in combat during the Korean War as a major challenge in his life.

The state bird of Maryland is the Baltimore Oriole. (Photo © The Nature Nook)
After completing his service in the military, he trained with the Maryland state and county police as well as the FBI and worked for the State of Maryland as a field investigator. The job was, at times, dangerous, and Maddox remembers being told to take time off because his own personal safety was at risk. Nevertheless, he has always held the wellbeing of his community in the highest regard. While serving as a state employee, he continued to pursue his calling as a naturalist on the side. He took classes at the Howard County Conservancy and the Irvine Nature Center, and received a degree there.

Upon retirement from governmental public service, Maddox had even more time to allot to conservation and education. He spent 20 years as a naturalist at the Irvine Nature Center and 5 years as an educator and guide for the Maryland Zoo, and has also been a naturalist for the Howard County Conservancy for 5 years. He has been a member of the Lab of Ornithology since 1989!

Settling into retirement was another challenge for Maddox, who had always been well-integrated into his naturalist and educational communities. But when medical problems forced him to retire from his community work, he continued to stay involved with the Lab of Ornithology. Although medical complications create limitations for this avid birder, he refuses to let them hold him back.

“I try to stay active without overdoing it,” he chuckles. “I’m independent,” he continues, “I can go when and where I want.” As always, one of the most important parts of birding is safety. Maddox realizes that he must be careful when out making observations. We encourage birders everywhere to be safe and responsible, no matter where they live.

For the past five years, when Maddox has gone out for a ride or does his shopping, he has sent in observations to Celebrate Urban Birds. You can spot him all over town, helping birds while staying active. The data that Maddox provides is extremely valuable to the Lab, and we encourage others to model his technique: visit various parts of your neighborhood or town, and notice differences and similarities in the environment and your observations!

His advice for you? Stick with it! Stay active in your community as a citizen scientist, whether you enjoy birding alone or with friends, and remember that you can help birds, find purpose and perspective in nature, and inspire the world around you.


~Brigid Lucey


This summer, I began working at the Lab of Ornithology as an undergraduate intern for the Celebrate Urban Birds program. It is amazing how quickly I began to notice specific birds in my community, and before long I could call each one by name. You don’t need to be an expert to be a birder. You just need curiosity!

(Photo © Tyler Brewer)
I was walking through a parking lot when I saw a female Mallard and her duckling near a puddle on the concrete, happy as they could be. They were surrounded by pieces of bread from well-meaning passerby. I couldn’t blame them for wandering up to a grocery store for snacks; birds adapt to their surroundings, and learn how to survive in an urban setting.  I thought, “Maybe these ducks planned their journey from one stream to another through this parking lot on purpose!” It wouldn’t surprise me.

We want to hear your stories, especially when birds spark your curiosity. It’s important to stay interested in your environment, to care for the creatures that live there, and to get your community involved. Thanks!

~Brigid Lucey

2018 Mini-Grant Applications!

It is the end of the year and with it comes the opportunity to apply for the 2018 Celebrate Urban Birds Mini-Grants! We can’t wait to see the incredible projects that will be proposed to connect communities with nature, birds, arts, and citizen science!

All mini-grant applicants are offered free Celebrate Urban Birds Kits and training to support their events (even if their proposals are not funded). Organizations working with underserved communities are strongly encouraged to apply. No experience with birding is needed. Mini-grants range from $100 to $750.

Here are the requirements for your proposed program, festival, or event:

  • It must take place within 2018
  • The funds can only go to organizations (not to individuals)
  • The Celebrate Urban Birds 10-minute citizen science observation must be included
  • It must incorporate greening or habitat improvement activities
  • The arts should be integrated in a meaningful and authentic manner

We love out-of-the-box ideas! We encourage businesses, hospitals, healthcare organizations, senior centers, and community centers to apply. In the past, we’ve offered mini-grants to an ice-cream shop that gave coupons to customers who collected data and planted bird-friendly flowers; an oncology center that encouraged patients to collect data while they waited for appointments; a courthouse that offered outdoor programming for children waiting for their parents; a theater troupe that connected inner-city youth with nature; a day habilitation program that combined community work, gardening, birdwatching, and the arts; and many youth-led community greening projects.

We will share selected mini-grant projects broadly to inspire others to organize events in their communities.

Our application is simple and straightforward. You don’t need to know anything about writing grant proposals to apply. Simply answer our questions about what you plan to do, where, when, and with whom.

We will be accepting applications through December 31, 2017.

To apply now, click on the following link: https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/minigrants2018

Explore the gallery of wonderful past events on our website!

  • Milpa Alta, Mexico

The Recovery of the California Condor

(Photo © Daniel Sachse/The Macaulay Library at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology)
The California Condor is the largest bird in North America. It can weigh nearly 22 pounds, and have a wingspan of over nine feet (277 cm), perfect for soaring through the air.  Condors age very well, and can live for more than 60 years. The oldest condor is 49 and still breeding successfully! Adult condors are black with big white patches under their wings, and if you are lucky enough to spot one, it will probably also sport a numbered identification tag.


(Photo © Mark Schocken/The Macaulay Library at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology)
You see, the California Condor is an endangered bird. This means it has a chance of going completely extinct. In fact, in 1980 there were only 22 of these spectacular birds left! The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decided to capture all the remaining condors and breed them in captivity, in the hopes that they would make a comeback in a protected, secure environment.


(Photo © Jay Langford/The Macaulay Library at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology)
By 1987, all 27 remaining condors were captured. Although it was a controversial move to breed the birds in captivity, the program had huge success. Condors usually only lay one egg every year or two, but with the help of breeding techniques they laid up to three eggs per year. Human caretakers worked alongside the condor parents to raise chicks. The humans used hand puppets to ensure minimal human interaction!


Beginning in January of 1992, condors were reintroduced to California. Today, there are approximately 430 California Condors in the world, and roughly half of them live in the wild. They are still one of the rarest birds in the world.

(Photo © Chuck Burt/The Macaulay Library at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology)

A major threat to condors today is lead poisoning. This is usually the result of accidentally eating ammunition fragments in the carcasses of animals that humans have hunted. Luckily, important steps have been taken to eliminate lead-based ammunition. Additionally, conservation groups work to monitor and treat the birds, and supply lead-free carcasses for the wild birds to scavenge.

(Photo © Jeff Culler/The Macaulay Library at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology)
Scavenge, you say? Scavenging means that the condor doesn’t hunt, it eats animals that are already dead. California Condors will fly over 150 miles in search of carcasses to eat, looking for groups of other scavengers who have already found the meal. They scare off any smaller species, but are happy to eat alongside other condors. The condor’s baldness is an advantage. If they had feathers on their heads, cleaning up after dinner would be a lot more difficult!
(Photo © Nigel Voaden/The Macaulay Library at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology)


The Lab of Ornithology has a CondorCam so you can observe these amazing birds anytime. Check out the livestream or our favorite clips!

~Brigid Lucey