Bird and humans can suffer impact from epidemic disease

Photo by Wileydoc/Pixabay • Pine siskins congregate at a feeder.

I wrote several columns about an abundance of finches earlier this winter and late last fall. Some of these flocks, consisting of such species as purple finches, pine siskins and evening grosbeaks, have persisted. Unfortunately, there is sometimes too much of a good thing as a Facebook post from Carolyn Dover Norman reminded me.

Carolyn posted on my Facebook page to share some concerns about an ongoing epidemic affecting some of our favorite feeder visitors.

“I read your article on the internet about the pine siskins and enjoyed it very much,” she wrote. “I live in Texas and have thousands ( it seems) of siskins in our trees this winter. Yes, they are a friendly bird and two allowed me to pick them up off the ground, but now I learn that they are sick with salmonella.” Carolyn said the infected birds don’t appear to be well and are extra tame. She wondered if I had ever heard of this species being more susceptible to this disease.

“I am having to remove and bleach all my feeders and take precautions,” she added.

Regrettably, I informed her that I have heard of outbreaks of various diseases that can affect different birds. Carolyn is to be commended for taking immediate action. She removed her feeders and disinfected them. By taking those steps, she could cautiously resume feeding the birds, although some careful monitoring of the flocks would seem to be in order.

Back in the 1990s, house finches were decimated by mycoplasmal conjunctivitis. Humans can get infected with conjunctivitis, which is commonly called “pink eye.” According to the Project FeederWatch website, infected finches have red, swollen, runny or crusty eyes. In extreme cases the eyes become swollen shut and the bird becomes blind. Observers might find an infected bird sitting quietly while clumsily scratching an eye against its foot or a perch. While some infected birds recover, many die from starvation, exposure or predation. Since the early outbreaks, the disease has affected several other wild bird species, including American goldfinch, evening grosbeak and purple finch.

I recall seeing both house finches and pine siskins suffering from this disease. I haven’t seen it as often in recent years, which is a relief.

Salmonella is another disease that can affect birds. As most people know, salmonella can also have serious consequences for human health. Finches, especially in the West Coast states of Oregon and California, have been hard hit by salmonella in recent months.

“Salmonellosis occurs periodically in pine siskins in some winters throughout their range. When large numbers of pine siskins congregate, the disease can spread rapidly causing high mortality. Most birds die within 24 hours of infection,” said California Department of Fish and Wildlife Senior Environmental Scientist Krysta Rogers, an avian disease specialist.

Birds become infected with salmonella when they ingest food, water or come into contact with objects, such as bird feeders, perches or soil, contaminated with feces from an infected bird. Sick birds often appear weak, have labored breathing, and may sit for prolonged periods with fluffed or ruffled feathers. Salmonellosis is almost exclusively reported from locations with bird feeders where birds congregate. Rogers advised that residents can help reduce disease transmission by removing bird feeders and bird baths. Allowing birds to feed on natural seeds rather than at bird feeders reduces contact between birds and helps slow spread of the disease. Some of the flocks of finches have been exceptionally large this winter, which is why it’s a good idea to closely monitor the birds at your feeders. At the first sign of illness, take steps to disinfect feeders. It’s a good idea to clean feeders on a regular basis. A spray with a weak bleach water solution followed by a few swipes with a clean towel can help. Once an outbreak is evident, however, the best course would be to stop feeding birds for a short period.

Photo by Veronika Andrews from Pixabay • A flock of snow geese takes flight.

Songbirds aren’t the only birds affected by disease outbreaks. Waterfowl are often vulnerable. Like finches, many species of ducks and geese also form large flocks. Some of the diseases that can run rampant in waterfowl populations include avian influenza, avian cholera and avian botulism. According to the Ducks Unlimited website, major avian botulism outbreaks have been reported throughout North America for more than a century. In 1910, avian botulism resulted in the deaths of millions of waterfowl in California and Utah, and another incident in 1952 killed an estimate 4 million to 5 million waterfowl across the western United States.

In 1999, the West Nile virus, a mosquito-borne disease, arrived in the United States. This disease is typically a mild nuisance for most infected people, but in some circumstances the virus can be lethal. The virus, which first appeared in the United States in 1999 after being discovered in 1937 in the African nation of Uguanda, also didn’t confine itself to the human population. Soon after its arrival in the United States, the virus began decimating American crows. Two decades later, experts have been able to study the consequences of West Nile virus on both humans and wild birds.

Photo by Jasmin Sessler from Pixabay • American crows suffered greatly from the spread of the West Nile virus.

According to an article by Hugh Powell published Oct. 15, 2010, on the All About Birds website, the disease afflicted crows more than any other bird species. “West Nile virus hit American crows particularly hard,” Powell wrote. “When the disease first appeared in New York City, in summer 1999, nearly 5,500 crows died in four months. Tests suggested the disease was 100-percent fatal to crows.” Many other species, from jays and magpies to gulls and chickadees, also proved susceptible, according to the All About Birds article.

Millions of birds died as West Nile swept across the continent in just five years. An interesting thing happened as the virus spread across the country. As viral diseases often tend to do, West Nile apparently became less virulent. The American crow population did hit frightening lows, but the species appears to have managed to rebound.

Where’s the silver lining in regard to all these stories? Here is a sliver of light through the dark clouds. Birds are resilient, just like humans. They can usually overcome anything nature might throw at them.

Keep feeding the birds, but play the diligent host. Put out only the amount of seed that visiting birds can eat in a single day. Monitor the flocks for any sign of illness and respond quickly if such signs are detected. Keep feeding the birds, but be safe and attentive while doing so.

Restless robin flocks signal spring’s approach

When I posted Jan. 29 on Facebook about seeing my first flock of American robins in 2021, I didn’t anticipate the avalanche from other observant bird enthusiasts.

Priscilla Gutierrez commented on seeing about 30 robins in a field along Limestone Cove Road in Unicoi.

“They don’t come to the feeders,” Priscilla noted. “It was wonderful to see them.”

Alice Torbett in Knoxville shared that she saw her first flock of robins about two weeks ago when they swooped in to harvest berries from the holly tees at her Knoxville home. “They were very considerate to wait until after Christmas,” Alice wrote.

Erwin resident Brenda Marie Crowder commented that “tons of Robins are eating my holly berries right now. With snow dropping and all.”

Jonesborough resident Nan Hidalgo reported that she had five robins in her yard on a recent Friday afternoon.

Christine M. Schwarz in Alexandria, Virginia, shared her own sightings.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • An American robin grasps a perch and keeps an eye on its surroundings.

“Three weeks ago there was a large flock at Mount Vernon,” Christine wrote in a comment to my post. “I have seen a smaller group over here by Fort Belvoir, too. I can’t believe they’re migrating now — more like wintering over.”

Byron Tucker, who lives in Atlanta, commented, “The other day, I saw a flock of robins and blackbirds mixed together.”

Dee Obrien, formerly of Elizabethton, Tennessee, but now living in Florida, lamented the timing of the robins. “They always seem to come back to soon, poor little things,” she wrote. “It is too cold.”

Becky Boyd shared her own experience with robins. “I’ve had dozens here in Knoxville,” she said. “They all recently left, except one loner who is terrorizing the bluebirds and attacks them at the feeders.”

Erwin resident Donna Rea, and a former co-worker at The Erwin Record, posted a question to my Facebook robin discussion.

“What do robins eat this time of year?” Donna asked. “Will they eat out of our feeders if the ground is frozen and they can’t find a hibernating worm?”

Photo by Jack Bulmner/Pixabaycom • An American robin plucks a berry from a branch.

I suggested in my reply that robins might eat suet at feeders, as well as fruit. More likely, the restless robins in the region are probably scouring the countryside for holly trees with berries. Of course, robins are omnivorous in their appetite and would gladly take an earthworm if they could coax one out of the chilly ground.

South Carolina resident Catherine Romaine Henderson simply posted an optimistic comment on my robin post. “Please tell me spring is coming!”

The American robin is indeed widely held to be a harbinger of spring. Furthermore, the robin is a popular American bird. In fact, this bird has been designated the official state bird by Wisconsin and Michigan.

In truth, many robins forego migration to endure a few months of cold weather. Their ability to shift their diet from earthworms and insects to fruit and feeder fare helps robins eke out a living. Robins remain an abundant bird but their fondness for co-existing with humans can leave them vulnerable to pesticides applied to lawns and gardens.

According to the website, “All About Birds,” the American robin nests three times a year. On average, however, only 40 percent of robin nests succeed at fledging young. Even once out of the nest, young robins are vulnerable. The website estimates that only 25 percent of each year’s fledged robins will reach November. So, the young robins that join some of the large flocks people are seeing in the region are birds that have beaten the odds.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Returning American robins, prominent in lawns and gardens during their annual spring migration, will soon turn their attention to nesting duties.

Even the robins that do depart the region each fall don’t migrate far. Many robins that spend the summer in Canada or the United States only migrate as far as the Gulf States, southern Florida, southern California, Baja California and Mexico.

The American robin is a large bird in the thrush family, which in North America also includes such birds as Eastern bluebird, wood thrush, and Townsend’s solitaire.

In the British Isles, the European robin is simply known as “robin” or “robin redbreast.” When the first English colonists arrived in New England and other parts of colonial-era North America, they took pleasure in finding that some of the birdlife in the New World resembled familiar birds from their homeland. The red-breasted American robin looked like the bird they knew in the Old World as “robin,” which motivated them to name the New World bird “robin,” as well.

Other than the red breast, however, the two robins are not all that similar. The American robin is the larger of the two birds. Further separating these two birds is the fact that the European robin is not a thrush but rather a member of the family of Old World flycatchers.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • While American robins like fruit when its available, they also spend a lot of time feeding on earthworms and insects.

In some ways, the two robins are similar. Both are fond of earthworms, spending a great deal of their time on the ground foraging for worms. They will also follow human gardeners at their work, waiting patiently for the followed person to disturb the soil with a spade or hoe and expose earthworms for the waiting bird. They are also rather tolerant of humans and have learned to make their own homes close to human dwellings.

Some of the British transplants to North America must have felt homesick for familiar things because several unsuccessful attempts were made to introduce the European robin to the United States and Canada. European robins introduced in New York and Oregon failed to gain a foothold, unlike the introduction of such alien birds as the house sparrow and European starling.

On a few occasions, our American robins have overflown their destinations and ended up in the United Kingdom. For instance, an American robin became a first for London birdwatchers when one was found in that nation’s capital city in March of 2006. Whether of the European or American persuasion, robins have long been a favorite of birdwatchers and nature enthusiasts.

They have even adapted to take food at feeders. If you’d like to try your luck at attracting robins to feeders, know that they like their sunflower seeds hulled. They will also eat mealworms, fruit, peanut hearts and suet. Robins prefer to feed on the ground or on an open platform feeder.

Robins are such friendly and engaging birds. If we can have them near us for 12 months of the year, who’s going to complain?

 

Hermit thrushes brave East Tennessee winters

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A hermit thrush perched on a fence rail shows the reddish tail, a reliable field mark to separate this species from close relatives. The tail contrasts from the rest of the bird’s plumage.

Karen Miller sent me an email about a winter visitor in her yard at her home in Parrottsville, Tennessee. “I have seen a hermit thrush eating holly berries for 10 days,” Karen wrote. “Is he migrating or is he perhaps a winter visitor here in Parrottsville?”

To answer her question, I replied and informed her that the thrush is a winter visitor. The hermit thrush takes up residence after its kin have already departed the region in the fall, making it one of the few thrushes to remain in Northeast Tennessee during the winter months. I’ve always thought a good nickname for this bird would be the “winter thrush” because of its presence during the colder months of the year. Of course, for those who know where to look, a few hermit thrushes spend the summer nesting season at high elevation peaks such as Roan Mountain on the Tennessee and North Carolina border.

The hermit thrush is one of the larger brown thrushes, which also includes such related birds as Swainson’s thrush, veery, gray-cheeked thrush and wood thrush. Other less closely related members of the thrush family include the American robin, Eastern bluebird and Townsend’s solitaire.

USFWS • Hermit thrushes like to keep to the shadows.

The poet Walt Whitman employed a hermit thrush as a symbol in his poem, “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d,” a moving pastoral elegy in honor of the assassinated President Abraham Lincoln. Whitman evidently knew his birds, and it’s not difficult for naturalists and bird enthusiasts to identify that he referred to the hermit thrush when he wove this songbird as a symbol into his stanzas honoring Lincoln. “Sing on there in the swamp,” Whitman wrote in his poem. “O singer bashful and tender, I hear your notes, I hear your call. I hear, I come presently, I understand you…”

Whitman evidently knew of this bird’s bashful, retiring habits, and he had obviously enjoyed the flute-like notes of the hermit thrush’s call. Whitman and many other Americans have been made fans of this gifted songbird. In fact, the citizens of Vermont even proclaimed the hermit thrush as their official state bird. The hermit thrush is well known for its song — a series of clear, musical notes, each on a different pitch, consisting of a piping introductory note and a reedy tremolo. The song had often been described as melancholy by various bird experts. The birds don’t usually sing in winter, but they do produce a call note when disturbed or alarmed that is described as a low “chuck.”

The visiting hermit thrush at her home has allowed Karen Miller to get to know this somewhat reclusive bird better. “He sits on the ground, cocks his head, spies a berry and then jumps up and gets it,” she wrote. She noted that her visitor has a good appetite. “He eats four or five at a time,” she said. “I’m so glad to see him.”

Photo by USFWS • Like many thrushes, the hermit thrush is fond of fruit and berries, especially during the winter.

According to the Smoky Mountains Visitors Guide website, the hermit thrush forages for most of its food from the ground. This bird’s diet includes insects, spiders, snails, and earthworms, plus considerable amounts of wild fruits during the fall and winter. Hermit thrushes may join up with mixed flocks of birds during the winter, often associating with such songbirds as kinglets, brown creepers, chickadees and titmice. For those not fortunate enough to host a wintering hermit thrush, this bird can be found during the summer months atop some high-elevation peaks. Close to home, look for this thrush in the Roan Mountain Rhododendron Gardens. The hermit thrush is also found at some locations in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park.

Female hermit thrushes collect nesting materials and construct the nest, within which she will lay three to six eggs. These thrushes nest once or twice a season. According to the website All About Birds, nesting habits differ between hermit thrushes in the western North America and their counterparts in the eastern half of the continent. Eastern thrushes tend to nest on the ground, but those in the west often place their nests in shrubs or tree branches.

At home on Simerly Creek Road, my first hermit thrush of the winter arrived in early November of last year. During a woodland stroll with neighbor Beth McPherson, the resident thrush put on an impressive show, hopping and scraping on the woodland floor beneath a rhododendron thicket bordering a mountain spring. In such surroundings, it’s not difficult to fathom why this bird has developed such a subtle plumage of muted browns and grays. Even when foraging actively, the bird blended remarkably with the background of fallen leaves and other woodland debris.

The hermit thrush is known by the scientific name, Catharus guttatus. The term guttatus is Latin for “spotted,” which seems appropriate. Surprisingly, the hermit thrush is not closely related to the other North American migrant species of Catharus thrushes. Instead, the hermit thrush is more closely related to the russet nightingale-thrush, a Mexican songbird. The hermit thrush could accurately be called the “red-tailed thrush” for the fact that this species has a rusty-red tail that stands apart from the warm brown-gray tones of the rest of its plumage. A white eye ring, pink legs and a heavily spotted breast complete the rest of this bird’s understated appearance.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A hermit thrush perches on a branch in a winter woodland.

The wintering hermit thrushes in the region will likely stay put for the next couple of months, but they will mostly depart the area in April or early May. If you want to look for them, now’s the time.

••••• Bryan Stevens lives near Roan Mountain, Tennessee. To learn more about birds and other topics from the natural world, friend Stevens on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/ahoodedwarbler. He is always posting about local birds, wildlife, flowers, insects and much more. If you have a question, wish to make a comment or share a sighting, email ahoodedwarbler@aol.com.

 

Baffling visitors turn out to be Northern flickers

Photo by NatureLady/Pixabay.com • A Northern flicker grasps a board with its talons. These medium-sized woodpeckers spend much more time on the ground than the other woodpeckers in the region.

Irene and Peter Cannatelli emailed me recently to ask for some help identifying birds in their yard at their home in Jonesborough, Tennessee.

“We have a pair of birds we’ve never seen,” Irene wrote in the email.

They were unable to get a photo of the birds, but Irene provided a detailed description. “They have a red crown, black under neck, like a collar, a long thin beak, and brown speckled bodies,” she wrote. In addition, she noted that the birds showed white down the middle of their backs when flying off.

“They are ground feeders,” she added.

Once I studied her description of the birds in question, I felt confident that the visitors were Northern flickers, a member of the woodpeckers family, albeit a less than typical member of the extensive clan. Most of the region’s woodpeckers are black and white birds. The Northern flicker, on the other hand, shows considerable color— for a woodpecker. Irene’s description left me in no doubt of my identification.

After I responded to the email, Irene googled Northern flicker and confirmed my identification. “That is what they looked like,” she agreed.

She also shared more about her enthusiasm for local birds. “We have five bird feeders in our little bird garden,” Irene wrote.

“We made suet for the first time this past week using Crisco, oatmeal, peanut butter, sunflower seeds, cornmeal and raisins,” Irene added. “We made four blocks. When we put the first one out it was gone in one day.”

Many birds appreciate both homemade and store-bought suet cakes, which provide a needed protein boost in the winter season when insects are scarce.

Irene noted that some of the clientele at her feeders include cardinals, finches, lots of doves and blue jays. Now the couple can add flickers to that growing list.

While flickers can be found during all seasons in the region, this woodpecker is one of the migratory ones. I see the most Northern flickers during fall migration. This woodpecker is one of the few of its kind that usually migrates to warmer climates during the colder months, although the species is not completely absent from the region in the winter season.

As mentioned earlier, this is a woodpecker with many other common names, including yellow-hammer — a popular name in the Deep South — and harry-wicket, heigh-ho and gawker bird. The Northern flicker is also the only woodpecker to serve a state — Alabama — as an official bird. The flicker earned this distinction back in 1927. Soldiers from Alabama who fought for the Confederacy were nicknamed “yellowhammers” because of their grey-and-yellow uniforms, which matched the colors of the bird. Incidentally, Alabama was one of the first states to ever name an official state bird.

Photo by Dave Menke/USFWS • A Northern flicker peers from a tree cavity.

There are two races of Northern flicker — yellow-shafted and red-shafted — found in the United States. Eastern flickers show yellow feather shafts beneath the wings while western counterparts show red beneath the wings. A trip to Utah several years ago gave me a chance to also see the red-shafted race of this bird.

The Northern flicker is also not the only flicker in the United States. The gilded flicker inhabits many of the deserts — Sonoran, Yuma and Colorado — in the United States. Of course, trees are scarce in deserts, but that hasn’t proven an obstacle for this woodpecker. The bird is closely associated with saguaro cactus. Other desert dwellers depend on this woodpecker. Once the flickers are no longer making use of their nest and roost holes in the multi-armed cacti, other wildlife moved into the chambers.

The Northern flicker is an enthusiastic drummer, pounding loudly on the sides of trees with its stout bill. The purpose of the drumming is to communicate with mates and signal potential rivals that they’re intruding. Toward that objective, flickers sometimes substitute metal utility poles or the sides of buildings for the trunks of trees. In addition to drumming, the flicker also employs a variety of loud vocalizations that are fairly distinctive. A loud, repeated vocalization, often translated as “wicka-wicka-wicka,” is similar to the cluck-like call of the larger pileated woodpecker. The flicker is also known for emitting a sharp, loud “kleeer” call that can be heard from a considerable distance. Flickers are probably most vocal during the spring months.

When searching for flickers, however, don’t concentrate on scanning tree trunks. Flickers spend a lot of time in fields or on lawns in search of insect prey, which mostly consists of ants and beetles. This non-typical behavior by this particular bird is what threw off the Cannatellis’ attempt to identify their visitors. Flickers also eat seeds and fruit, and these woodpeckers will also visit feeders for peanuts, sunflower seed and suet.

The adult flicker is a brown bird with black bars on the back and wings. A distinctive black patch occupies the upper breast, while the lower breast and belly are beige with black spots. Males can be identified by a black or red mustache stripe at the base of the beak. They also have a red stripe on the back of their gray heads. The flicker’s dark tail is set apart by a white rump patch that is conspicuous when the bird takes flight.

Photo by USFWS • A researcher extends a flicker’s wing to show the yellow feather shafts.

The Northern flicker, as either the red- or yellow-shafted reach, ranges across the United States and Canada. The flicker also ranges to Central America, Cuba and the Cayman Islands. Known scientifically as Colaptes auratus, which can be roughly translated as the “golden woodpecker,” there are about a dozen species of flickers in North, Central and South America, as well as the Caribbean.

Look for Northern flickers in fields, orchards, city parks and well-planted suburban yards. These woodpeckers are usually not too shy around human observers and will sometimes allow for extended observation. If you’re even more fortunate, you could find one visiting your yard or garden. Just remember to scan the ground. This is one woodpecker that’s not a consistent tree-hugger like many of its kin.

 

Tennessee and neighboring states hosting exceptional rare birds this winter

Photo by LoneWombatMedia from Pixabay • Among the unusual avian visitors to the Volunteer State this winter has been a snowy owl that has delighted observers in Chattanooga. Snowy owls, such as the individual pictured, are more commonly found on the tundra regions of the Arctic.

Birds have wings. Birds can fly. Birds confound our expectations.

Perhaps the mobility of birds is part of the human fascination with them. An unexpected bird can pop up at any time at almost any place. In fact, with 2021 less than a month old, the Volunteer State has already hosted some absolutely incredible birds.

For example, birder Evan Kidd found a Pacific Slope Flycatcher in Maryville on Jan. 7. 

A couple of weeks later, a snowy owl, which is a bird most people have only become acquainted with in the pages of J.K. Rowlings Harry Potter novels, made an appearance on Zephyr Lane near Lake Chickamauga in Chattanooga. 

Chattanoogas been a real hot spot so far this year. In addition to the snowy owl, Chattanoogas hosted such unlikely visitors as white-throated swift and Bullocks oriole. 

All of these birds quickly achieved celebrity status and attracted birders from near and far hoping for a glimpse of these rarities to Tennessee. 

Birder Michael Todd posted on Facebook on Jan. 13 about his own observation of the white-throated swift. This particular sighting came with a bit of an unnerving twist for all the people who had flocked to see the swift.

Luckily, the swift narrowly avoided being a snack for a marauding merlin that tried its best to have some swift for lunch today, Todd revealed in his Facebook post. 

Closer to home, a long-tailed duck has been hanging out with buffleheads and other ducks at the weir dam at Osceola Recreation Area in Bristol. 

Ray Miller from Pixabay • Long-tailed ducks, such as this individual, favor colder waters, but they occasionally venture into Tennessee.

The winter invasion of evening grosbeaks, a finch that usually inhabits the forests of Canada and the northern United States, continued into 2021 as well.

What brings birds to locations far beyond their typical range? Obviously, their wings and the associated power of flight makes it possible for birds to travel surprising distances.

But on a more down-to-earth level, some of these birds such as the snowy owl and evening grosbeaks have ventured far south of their normal ranges because their usual food sources are scarce. Climate change may be exacerbating those scarcities. On occasion, a major weather phenomenon like hurricanes or other strong storms will force birds into unfamiliar territory. And whos to say that an occasional bird doesnt succumb to the temptation of wanderlust and decide to explore greener pastures? Or maybe some of these birds are simply stubborn, lost, and reluctant to ask for directions.

The reasons an unexpected bird might grace any given location are myriad. Whats easily explained is the excitement that they can generate. Back in the winter of 2009 I traveled with some friends to Spring Hill, Tennessee, in the hope of getting a look at a snowy owl. After several hours staking out some large fields with dozens of other birders on property owned by General Motors at the time, we got our owl. Incidentally, that particular owl got the nickname Chevy due to its association with the GM production facilities in Spring Hill. The moment that owl unfurled its wing and made a short but majestic flight over the field remains a birding thrill of a lifetime. 

Making the moment even more memorable was the fact that I got to see my first (and so far only) snowy owl in my home state of Tennessee instead of traveling to the edge of the Arctic tundra during the summer to look for this awesome owl on its native turf. Its not that I would say no to a tundra tour, but it hasnt been in the cards yet.

I have a short list of some other exceptional birds that have made their way to Tennessee rather than forcing me to venture across the country and around the globe to see. I observed monk parakeets and a green-breasted mango hummingbird in North Carolina, as well as a harlequin duck and Virginias warbler along Netherland Inn Drive in Kingsport from the greenbelt that meanders along the Holston River. Earlier this year while birding alone, I felt a moment of thats different when a raptor took flight over the parking lot at Sycamore Shoals State Historic Park in Elizabethton and materialized as a Mississippi kite once I got my binoculars on it. 

I think its part of the reason some birders are addicted to the chase. Theres nothing wrong with the cardinals and sparrows in the backyard, but a rare bird can truly generate a powerful jolt of excitement. 

Photo by Edbo23/Pixabay.com • During the winter months, a yellow-rumped warbler is a dull bird in mostly brown and gray plumage except for the rump patch of bright yellow feathers that provides the bird its common name. Although not a rare bird, these common resident make winter days more lively for observers.

Technology, including social media and GPS, has helped pinpoint these rarities when they stray into unfamiliar terrain. For instance, the snowy owl near Chattanooga is hardly the only one of its kind straying south of the Arctic this winter. These owls have made a major push south with individuals spotted in Lee, Illinois; Cumberland, Pennsylvania; Wood, Ohio; and Clinton, Iowa. A snowy owl has even been spending the winter on Ocracoke Island along the Outer Banks of North Carolina. Theres even dramatic photographs online of the owl against the backdrop of the famous Cape Hatteras Lighthouse. 

Whats the best way to spot a rare bird? Keep your eyes open and learn to recognize the birds that arent part of the familiar local flocks. One word of warning: Looking for those rarities can become addictive.

Sapsucker an odd bird out among woodpeckers

Photo by Jean Potter • A yellow-bellied sapsucker visits a suet feeder.

I heard the whiny “mews” coming from a nearby tree and scanned with binoculars until I located a calling yellow-bellied sapsucker. I always think sapsuckers sound whiny, but I still celebrated seeing one from my front porch on the afternoon of Jan. 11. The new year is still young, which makes me eager to see what other birding surprises may arrive.

I’ve kept track of the birds in my yard since the winter of 1992-1993, and my recent observation is only the second sapsucker I have seen at home. I’ve found the evidence of their presence in sapsucker rings drilled in bands of holes around tree trunks and branches, but the actual flesh and feather sapsuckers have been extremely evasive.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A yellow-bellied sapsucker hitches its way up a tree trunk.

The aforementioned rings or bands are the visible evidence of a sapsucker’s penchant for drilling evenly spaced holes, or wells, into the trunk of a sap-bearing tree. These holes even form patterns completely encircling a tree’s trunk. The sticky wells trap insects. When sapsuckers return to the scene of the crime, they enjoy a sweet treat of oozing sap and a protein snack from the mired bugs.

I don’t think my lack of success with sapsuckers at home is for lack of effort. I heard the sapsucker the moment I stepped outside to fill up the feeders. The sapsucker blended almost perfectly into its surroundings, becoming almost invisible against the bark until making little hitching movements up the trunk. I wish I could report that I see yellow-bellied sapsuckers on a regular basis. I think they would be fascinating to observe in the same way I watch downy woodpeckers and red-bellied woodpeckers.

 

Worldwide, there are almost 10,000 species of birds. After awhile, one may begin to wonder if thinking of unique names for each of these species began to deplete creative reserves.

Then again, some of the names given to birds suggest someone really wanted just to have fun at the expense of birders and nature enthusiasts. After all, you have to be careful about shouting out bird names like blue-footed booby, great bustard and hoary redpoll in mixed company.

There are also bird names that just don’t make a lot of sense — dickcissel and phainopepla, for example — even to birders. Then there are names that are oxymoronic, including greater pewee and giant hummingbird.

There are some bird names that sound like fighting words that bring into question concepts like courage and honor. Indeed, I sometimes think people are waiting for a punchline when I inform them there truly is a species of bird known as the yellow-bellied sapsucker. This bird’s humorous name is only one of the ways the yellow-bellied sapsucker stands out as an oddball among the region’s clan of woodpeckers.

In profile clinging to the trunk of a tree, the yellow-bellied sapsucker is a rather pudgy, especially for a woodpecker. The sapsucker has black and white plumage enhanced by red foreheads in both sexes. Male sapsuckers also have a bright red throat patch. Both sexes also show a large white stripe on their black wings. And yes, there is enough of a pale yellow wash on the stomach of this odd woodpecker to justify the descriptive “yellow-bellied” as part of its common name.

As mentioned, sapsuckers harvest sap by using their bills to drill various sorts of holes into the bark of a tree. Some of the more shallow holes, which are usually made in a rectangular fashion, must be maintained on a frequent basis for the bird to continue to derive sap from the tree. These sap wells not only provide nourishment to the sapsucker but to other birds, including hummingbirds, that appreciate a quick sugar fix.

In the early 1800s, early naturalist and artist John James Audubon painted the yellow-bellied sapsucker, known during his time as the yellow-bellied woodpecker. Although they tend to prefer trees like maple and birch, sapsuckers are known to feed on more than 250 different varieties of trees. Indeed, they actually do feed on the trees. Not only do these birds subsist largely on sap, they also feed on the cambium layer in the bark of a tree. The sapsucker also supplements its diet with insects, fruits and seeds. Unlike other members of the woodpecker clan, sapsuckers do not visit feeders all that frequently. When a sapsucker does visit a feeder, it is often lured there by the promise of suet.

 

While most woodpeckers attempt to tough out the winter season in the same region where they spent the summer, the yellow-bellied sapsucker is migratory. Ahead of the coldest months of the year, sapsuckers migrate to the southeastern United States, as well as the West Indies and Central America. During the summer months, most sapsuckers nest in forests across Canada, Alaska and the northeastern U.S. states. There is also a small population of breeding sapsuckers in the Appalachian Mountains of Virginia, Tennessee and North Carolina.

The yellow-bellied sapsucker has a call that sounds amazingly like the meow of a cat. I know about this call from personal experience. While birding in South Carolina a few years ago, I searched diligently for the source of such a call. It sounded somewhat like a gray catbird — another mimic of the common household feline — but not quite. Now I know that when I hear this unusual call I can train my binoculars on the branches and trunks of nearby trees to scan for a sapsucker.

There are actually another three sapsucker species — Williamson’s, red-breasted and red-naped — in North America, but they are all birds of the western half of the continent.

It is true of many species of birds that males and females look different. In the case of the Williamson’s sapsucker, males and females look so different that early naturalists mistakenly believed the male and female were entirely different species! Only two decades after the initial discovery of this bird did scientists finally realize that both male and female Williamson’s sapsuckers were the same species. This particular sapsucker was named in honor of Lt. Robert Stockton Williamson, who led a surveying expedition that collected the first male. The intent of the expedition wasn’t focused on collecting birds. Williamson and his men had actually been assigned the job of identifying the best route west for a railway to the Pacific Ocean.

Although I haven’t been too lucky with this bird at my home, it isn’t too difficult to find this bird during fall migration and in the winter months at city and state parks in the region. If you observe a yellow-bellied sapsucker in your own yard, consider yourself lucky to get a glimpse of this oddball woodpecker.

Annual Christmas Bird Counts produce notable results

Photo by Bryan Stevens • The thaw after a snow makes it easier for wild turkeys to forage for food.

Long-running bird count finds 77 species

The Lee and Lois Herndon Chapter of Tennessee Ornithological Society completed two Christmas Bird Counts last month for Northeast Tennessee. The long-running counts for Elizabethton and Roan Mountain were conducted with social distancing protocols due to the ongoing pandemic. The 78th consecutive Elizabethton CBC was held Saturday, Dec 19, with 26 observers in 10 parties. Although the day started cold at 19 degrees, temperatures warmed by mid-day. Participants tallied 77 species (plus one additional species in count week), which is above the recent 30-year average of 73 species. The all-time high on this count was 85 species found in 2017.

Below is the list for the Elizabethton CBC: 

Canada Goose, 645; Mallard,193; Ring-necked Duck, 1; Bufflehead, 105; and Hooded Merganser, 6.

Ruffed Grouse, 1 (Count Week); Wild Turkey, 26; Common Loon, 3; Pied-billed Grebe, 5; Horned Grebe, 8; and Double-crested Cormorant, 1.

Great Blue Heron, 21; Black Vulture, 14; Turkey Vulture, 14; Sharp-shinned Hawk, 1; Cooper’s Hawk, 4; Bald Eagle, 3; and Red-tailed Hawk, 30.

Killdeer, 8; Ring-billed Gull, 5; Rock Pigeon, 313; Eurasian Collared-Dove, 6; and Mourning Dove, 108.

Eastern Screech-Owl, 4; Great Horned Owl, 1; Barred Owl, 2; Belted Kingfisher, 16; Red-headed Woodpecker, 2; Red-bellied Woodpecker, 49; Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, 14; Downy Woodpecker, 29; Hairy Woodpecker, 3; Northern Flicker, 17; and Pileated Woodpecker, 27.

American Kestrel, 19; Eastern Phoebe, 14; Blue Jay, 199; American Crow, 395; Common Raven, 9; Carolina Chickadee, 159; Tufted Titmouse,110; Red-breasted Nuthatch, 3; White-breasted Nuthatch, 28; and Brown Creeper, 2

Winter Wren, 9; Carolina Wren, 136; Golden-crowned Kinglet, 26; Ruby-crowned Kinglet, 9; Eastern Bluebird, 134; Hermit Thrush, 13; American Robin, 40; Gray Catbird, 1; and Northern Mockingbird, 69.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • The Northern Mockingbird has been the official state bird for Tennessee since 1933.

European Starling,1081; American Pipit, 51; Cedar Waxwing, 16; Orange-crowned Warbler, 1; Palm Warbler, 1; and Yellow-rumped Warbler,  71.

Eastern Towhee, 20; Chipping Sparrow, 15; Field Sparrow, 10; Fox Sparrow, 1; Song Sparrow, 179; Swamp Sparrow, 6; White-throated Sparrow, 62; White-crowned Sparrow, 13; Dark-eyed Junco, 65; and Northern Cardinal, 199.

Red-winged Blackbird, 3; Eastern Meadowlark, 1; Common Grackle, 2; Brown-headed Cowbird, 1; Evening Grosbeak, 1; House Finch, 27; Red Crossbill, 9; American Goldfinch, 136; and House Sparrow, 49

Participants included Joe McGuiness, Kim Stroud, Dave Gardner, Vern Maddux, Rob Armistead, Chris Soto, Roy Knispel, Jerry Bevins, Pete Range, Harry Lee Farthing, Tammy Griffey, Tom McNeil, Debi and J.G. Campbell, Bryan Stevens, Ben and Anne Cowan, Brookie and Jean Potter, Fred Alsop, Catherine Cummins, Judi Sawyer, Charlie Warden, Michele Sparks, Jacki Hinshaw, and long-time compiler Rick Knight.

The 68th Roan Mountain CBC was held Sunday, Dec. 20, with seven observers in three parties. There was one to two inches of snow above 4,000 feet elevation. Participants tallied 49 species (plus 1 in count week), which also is slightly above the recent 30-year average of 46 species. The all-time high on this count was 55 species in 1987.

This count circle is entirely above 2,800 feet elevation with less water areas and open country resulting in lower over-all bird diversity and density.

Below is the list for Roan Mountain:

Canada Goose, 27; American Black Duck, 10; Bufflehead, 12; and Hooded Merganser, 8.

Ruffed Grouse,  1 (Count Week); Wild Turkey, 18; Pied-billed Grebe, 3; and Great Blue Heron, 4.

Turkey Vulture, 6; Cooper’s Hawk, 1; Red-shouldered Hawk, 2; Red-tailed Hawk, 4; and American Kestrel, 1.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Raptors, like this Red-tailed Hawk, showed up on both the Roan Mountain and Elizabethton Christmas Bird Counts.

Rock Pigeon, 16; Mourning Dove, 27;  Belted Kingfisher, 2; Red-bellied Woodpecker, 6; Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, 2; Downy Woodpecker, 13; Hairy Woodpecker, 6; Northern Flicker, 2; and Pileated Woodpecker, 5.

Eastern Phoebe, 5; Blue Jay, 37; American Crow,176; Common Raven, 31; Carolina Chickadee, 68; Tufted Titmouse, 32; Red-breasted Nuthatch, 3; White-breasted Nuthatch, 14; and Brown Creeper, 1.

Winter Wren, 4; Carolina Wren, 39; Golden-crowned Kinglet, 8; Ruby-crowned Kinglet, 1; Eastern Bluebird, 30; Hermit Thrush, 1; American Robin, 43; Northern Mockingbird, 10; and European Starling, 132.

Photo by Nickfish03/Pixabay.com Winter Wrens, such as this individual, reside only at higher elevation during the spring and summer. During the winter months, they take up residence at lower elevations. A total of nine of these tiny wrens were found during the recent Elizabethton Christmas Bird Count. Four more were tallied by the Roan Mountain CBC.

Eastern Towhee, 5; Field Sparrow, 2; Song Sparrow, 89; Swamp Sparrow, 5; White-throated Sparrow, 4; Dark-eyed Junco, 30; and Northern Cardinal, 68.

House Finch, 4; American Goldfinch, 11; and House Sparrow, 20.

Participants included  Fred Alsop, Catherine Cummins, Judi Sawyer, Charlie Warden, Tom McNeil, Roy Knispel, and compiler Rick Knight, who thanked all participants for another successful pair of CBCs.

Results from the two local CBCs will be forwarded to the National Audubon Society. According to the National Audubon Society’s website, the tradition of the Christmas Bird Count arose from a less than bird-friendly custom. By the turn of the 20th century, so-called sportsmen would conduct a “Side Hunt,” a rather blood-thirsty Christmas custom that saw hunters competing to see who could score the largest amount of feathered and furred corpses.

The annual holiday bird survey may even have arisen from an earlier custom with roots in Europe that came to the United States of America with early colonists. The “Side Hunt” has some similarity to a peculiar celebration in Ireland and other European countries known as “Wren Day” or “Hunt the Wren Day.” The event was conducted the day after Christmas, the date of Dec. 26 being consigned as Saint Stephen’s Day. By the 20th century, the hunt consisted of tracking down a fake wren carried atop a decorated pole. Crowds would parade through towns in masks and colorful attire. These groups were referred to as “wren boys.”

Whether or not the “Side Hunt and “Wren Hunt” shared any connections, it was a huge step forward for conservation when preeminent ornithologist Frank M. Chapman proposed a new holiday tradition. His radical idea was to count birds during the Christmas season rather than hunting and killing them. The first CBC took place in December of 1900 with 27 observers participating at 25 locations in the United States and Canada.

We’ve come a long way since the days when birders used a gun to bring a bird up close and personal for inspection. There’s still competition, but these days birders are trying to see which count party can observe and identity the most species of birds. The only evidence brought back from the field is an occasional photograph.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A dark-eyed junco, usually a harbinger of wintry weather and snowy days, shells sunflower seeds beneath a feeder.

Watch for wintering kestrels in open habitats

 

Photo by reitz27/Pixabay.com • While one of the smaller falcons, the American kestrel is also one of the this family of raptors more colorful members.

I enjoyed a drive through Limestone Cove in Unicoi, Tennessee, on the afternoon of the next-to-the-last day of 2020. In addition to finding a total of 13 Eastern bluebirds, I saw an American kestrel perched on utility lines near Bell Cemetery. The sighting was the first I’ve had of a kestrel so far during the 2020-21 winter season. Over the years, the cemetery and adjacent fields have been a reliable location for finding this small falcon during the winter.

The American kestrel, although present throughout the year in the region, is somewhat more prominent during the winter months when kestrels from farther north migrate into the region. However, this falcon also nests in the region and can be found at any time of the year in suitable habitat, which is usually open countryside.

The American kestrel is a small member of the falcon family, which includes such relatives as merlin, peregrine falcon and gyrfalcon. All falcons, regardless of size, share a similar aerodynamic design that includes sleek, streamlined bodies and long, slim wings which taper to pointed tips. They fly with rapid wingbeats and are capable of swift flight.

Photo by PBarlowArt/Pixabay.com • An American kestrel uses a rock outcrop as a convenient perch.

The male American kestrel is a colorful bird. He shows a rusty back with some black barring, a rusty tail and steel blue-gray wings. The female kestrel is brownish with black barring on her back and tail. She also shows a buff-colored wash streaked with brown on her under- parts. Both sexes show a strong facial pattern marked by two black “sideburns” on the side of the face.

The American kestrel has long been one of my favorite raptors. They’re seldom as skittish as many other raptors and will permit close observation. Formerly known by the name “Sparrow Hawk,” the American kestrel does not feed entirely on other birds. In fact, a large part of this small falcon’s diet includes rodents and insects.

In its nesting preference, the American kestrel is unusual among other native falcons and hawks. Kestrels nest in cavities, including abandoned woodpecker holes and nest boxes provided by humans.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • An American Kestrel uses a fence post for a perch.

Like many raptors, the American kestrel likes to hunt from a perch, swooping down on unsuspecting prey. The kestrel, however, is also capable of hovering, a type of flight that only a relatively few birds, including the belted kingfisher and the ruby-throated hummingbird, are capable of performing.

The falcons comprise a family of birds with a long history with humans. The sport of falconry, although not as widely practiced today, long ago became associated with royalty and nobility. In fact, falconry has been called “the sport of kings.” The sport basically involved hunting prey, usually other birds, with birds of prey such as falcons. As a pastime, falconry never became as popular in the United States as in other parts of the world.

There are more than 60 species of falcons found worldwide. While the peregrine falcon’s endangered status became well-known in the United States, other falcons have been threatened with extinction. The Mauritius Kestrel once dwindled to a population of only six individuals. Today, the population, due to intensive human effort, has greatly recovered.

Other members of the falcon family can be found in the region, including the peregrine falcon and the merlin. Other falcons in North America include the prairie falcon and the Aplomado falcon. Worldwide, some of the more descriptively named falcons include spotted kestrel, rock kestrel, greater kestrel, lesser kestrel, red-footed falcon, red-necked falcon, sooty falcon and brown falcon.

To share observations, ask questions, or make a comment, email me at ahoodedwarbler@aol.com.

Photo by USFWS/Robert Burton • An American kestrel in flight shows the aerodynamic design that earned this small falcon the common name of sparrow hawk.

Birds make headlines in 2020

Photo by Irene K-s/Pixabay.com  • The ongoing pandemic with its social distancing protocols has motivated many people to connect with nature, especially through activities like bird feeding and birdwatching. Even common birds, like these chipping sparrows and an American goldfinch, help people cope with the stresses of the global pandemic.

To state that it has been a strange year is an exercise in understatement. Nevertheless, the few 2020 bright spots have focused on our fine feathered friends, whether it was the long-awaited return of birds like evening grosbeaks or a welcome spike in interest in all things related to birds. While we wait for 2021 and hope for better days to come, I decided to take a glimpse at some of the bird-related news headlines for this past year.

New birds found

Scientists discovered five new species of birds in 2020. Some of the most recent additions to the world’s avifauna include songbirds from various remote islands, including the Peleng fantail, Peleng leaf warbler, the Taliabu grasshopper warbler, the Taliabu myzoemla and the Taliabu leaf warbler. These newly-discovered species will help swell the ranks of the world’s estimated 9,000 to 10,000 bird species. Since many headlines have concerned warnings about disappearing birds, it’s nice to know that scientists are still finding new birds in some unexpected locations. 

Photo by thịnh nguyễn xuân/Pixabay.com • This red and green macaw in captivity shows the bright plumage of its wild kin, which are again flying free in Argentina.

Don’t cry for the macaws, Argentina

Red and green macaws, which have been exterminated from other parts of Argentina, are thriving in Iberá National Park after the country reintroduced these large, colorful birds in 2015. This year, a pair of the 15 macaws living in the park produced three chicks. It’s a start and marks the first red and green macaws hatched in Argentina in more than 150 years.

Birds provide cure for COVID blues

In a year that saw the human species suffer from an ongoing pandemic, many people turned to nature, particularly birds, as a means to cope with the stresses of life during the time of COVID-19. The Audubon Society’s website spotlighted the way birds have brightened the lives of humans during the imposition of social distancing to help prevent the spread of the virus. Sales of bird seed and birdhouses have increased since the early months of the pandemic. It’s not difficult to understand the reason. People have been doing more to invite birds into their lives, whether it’s bribing them with a well-stocked feeder or providing shelter for such necessary activities as nesting and roosting. For more articles on the magic of birds during a global pandemic, visit the Audubon website at Audubon.org. 

Wisdom’s maternal instincts unabated

Wisdom has returned to Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument on the island of Midway. Wisdom, a Laysan albatross that is at least 69 years old, is set to become a mother again after laying an egg in early December as she has been done more than 30 times since 1956. At an age when human mothers might be looking to a chance to enjoy becoming grandmothers or even great-grandmothers, Wisdom wants another crack at motherhood. She has been immensely successful as a breeding albatross, surviving with her offspring the great tsunami that swept over the island in March of 2011. Much studied by scientists, Wisdom has successfully hatched a chick every year since 2006 and looks to replicate this feat again in 2021. 

Evening grosbeaks return to region

After being absent for 20 years, evening grosbeaks have made sporadic appearances at feeders throughout the region with sightings reported from Elizabethton, Roan Mountain, Hampton and Townsend, as well as other locations across the Volunteer State. Part of an irruption of other Northern finches, the grosbeaks have been joined by such species as purple finches, pine siskins and common redpolls. Dianna Lynne, who lives on Stoney Creek in Elizabethton, Tennessee, reported a small flock of both male and female evening grosbeaks at her feeders on Dec. 9. She joins a list of some other people lucky enough to host these entertaining birds this winter.

Brookie and Jean Potter, as well as their neighbors, Jim and Diane Bishop, continued to host a flock of grosbeaks at their homes near Wilbur Lake in Elizabethton, Tennessee. They first saw their grosbeaks in early December, but the flock, which has grown to as many as 17 individuals, now visits daily and has extended its stay into 2021.

Without a doubt, the approaching year 2021 will offer its own surprises. People and birds will make more headlines. Remember to keep space in your life and schedule for birds and nature. These will help anyone weather any storm. To share observations, ask questions, or make a comment, email me at ahoodedwarbler@aol.com. 

Photo by Jean Potter • A male evening grosbeak perches for a view of a nearby feeder.

 

Winter season wouldn’t be complete without the splendor of cardinals

Photo by Jill Wellington/Pixabay.com • A male Northern cardinal grasps a branch of winter greenery.

I have enjoyed an opportunity to observe the many Northern cardinals visiting my feeders in recent weeks. The beauty of both male and female cardinals is undeniable, but it’s their behavior that’s worth a second look. Nervous, twitchy birds, they are always anxiously surveying their surroundings even as they linger on a feeder long enough to hull a sunflower kernel from its shell. It’s almost as if they know their bright plumage stands out in a drab winter landscape dominated by shades of gray.

The Northern cardinal, especially the brilliant red male, stands out against a winter backdrop of snow white, deep green or drab gray. Over the years, the cardinal has also become associated with the Christmas season. How many Christmas cards have you received this holiday season with a cardinal featured in the artwork? I’d wager that at least a few cards in any assortment of holiday greetings will feature the likeness of a Northern cardinal.

There’s some more evidence to put forward as testimony to the popularity of the Northern Cardinal. It’s the official state bird of seven states: North Carolina, West Virginia, Ohio, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky and Virginia. Only the Northern mockingbird, which represents five states as official state bird, even comes close to the Northern cardinal in this respect.

The Northern cardinal belongs to a genus of birds known as Cardinalis in the family Cardinalidae. There are only two other species in this genus, and they range across North America and into northern South America.

The two relatives are the pyrrhuloxia, or Cardinalis sinuatus, of the southwestern United States, and the Vermilion cardinal, or phoeniceus, a bird found in Colombia and Venezuela. Two other South American birds — red-crested cardinal and yellow-billed cardinal — are more closely related to tanagers than to our familiar Northern cardinal. Both the Northern cardinal and red-crested cardinal have been introduced into the state of Hawaii, so two non-native birds from different parts of the globe are now resident in the Aloha State.

Photo by Jack Bulmer/Pixabay.com • A male cardinal grips a branch to make a quick survey of its surroundings.

The Northern cardinal is a native and abundant bird. Cardinals are a widespread species, ranging westward to the Dakotas and south to the Gulf Coast and Texas. The southeastern United States was once the stronghold of the cardinal population. In the past century, however, cardinals have expanded their range into New England and Canada.

The cardinal accepts a wide variety of food at feeders. Sunflower seed is probably their favorite, but they will also sample safflower seed, cracked corn, peanuts, millet, bakery scraps and even suet. While we may get the idea that cardinals feed largely on seed, that is a misconception based on our observation of the birds at our feeders. Cardinals away from our feeders eat insects and fruit, including the berries of mulberry, holly, pokeberry, elderberry, Russian olive, dogwood and sumac.

The cardinal uses its large beak to efficiently hull sunflower seeds or deal with other foods foraged in field and forest away from our feeders. The large, heavy beak hints at the cardinal’s kinship with birds such as tanagers and grosbeaks. In fact, some of America’s early naturalists referred to the bird as “cardinal grosbeak.” Other common names include the apt “redbird” moniker and “Virginia nightingale.”

Photo by Skeeze/Pixabay.com • A male Northern cardinal lands on a snowy perch. Cardinals are perfect symbols for the Christmas season with their bright red plumage.

Even once the holidays are past, there’s nothing like a glimpse of a Northern cardinal to add some cheer to a bleak winter day. People can also choose to further the cause of science by taking part in studies such as Project FeederWatch, a nationwide survey of bird populations focused on birds coming to feeders maintained by project participants.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A male Northern cardinal pays a visit to a feeder.

In the 2015-16 winter season, 1,373 individuals participated in Project FeederWatch in the southeastern United States. The most common birds reported by observers were Northern cardinal, Carolina chickadee, mourning dove, American goldfinch and tufted titmouse. Finishing out the Top 10 feeder birds in this section of the nation were Carolina wren, house finch, blue jay, red-bellied woodpecker and downy woodpecker. Almost 98 percent of participants reported Northern cardinals at their feeders, which means the cardinal has become an almost universal feeder visitor in the southeast.

It’s not surprising that such a popular bird has also become associated with many trappings of the Christmas season.

“You see cardinals on greeting cards, stationery, paper plates, paper napkins and tablecloths, doormats, light switch plates, candles, candle holders, coffee mugs, plates, glasses, Christmas tree ornaments and lights, bookmarks, mailboxes, Christmas jewelry,” writes June Osborne in her book The Cardinal. “And the list goes on. Cardinals have become an integral part of the way that many people celebrate the holiday season.”

I can be included among such people. My Christmas decorations include an assortment of cardinal figurines and ornaments. There are other birds — doves and penguins for example — associated with the holiday season, but for me the holidays magnify the importance of one of my favorite birds. The cardinal, in its festive red plumage, appears made to order for a symbol of the holiday season.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Northern cardinal seems much less descriptive of this popular bird than such common names as Virginia nightingale and Kentucky redbird.

Here’s some additional cardinal trivia to increase your knowledge of this fascinating bird:

• Cardinals differ in appearance based on gender. The male boasts crimson plumage, a crest, a black face and orange bill. The female, although less colorful, is also crested. Female cardinals are soft brown in color, with varying degrees of a reddish tinge in their feathers, particularly in their wings.

• The cardinal’s preference for dense cover makes them likely neighbors for such birds as Carolina wrens, Eastern towhees and brown thrashers.

• The oldest recorded Northern Cardinal was a female, and she was 15 years, nine months old when she was found in Pennsylvania, according to the website, All About Birds.

• An uncommon genetic variation sometimes produces a cardinal with yellow or orange feathers instead of the typical red. The scientific name for the condition that produces yellow cardinals is known as xanthochroism. This condition also often occurs in house finches.

• Nests are built by the female cardinal, but her mate delivers food as she incubates her clutch of eggs, which usually numbers three or four.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A female Northern Cardinal feeds during a snowstorm at a hanging tray filled with sunflower seeds.