Monthly Archives: February 2014

Windows can pose danger to kinglets, other songbirds

A thin pane of glass can be bad news for many of our songbirds. Trees and other vegetation reflected in a glass window can confused birds, leading to window strikes. When startled, birds instinctively take flight for the nearest cover. If a window fools them, they may fly toward perceived shelter only to collide with the unforgiving glass.


Photo courtesy of Beth McPherson
This Golden-crowned Kinglet recovered after a collision with a window. Not all birds are so lucky after striking windows, which they have difficulty seeing.

That’s apparently what happened last week at the home of one of my neighbors. According to some estimates, millions of birds perish each year from window strikes. At least the story I’m sharing this week has a happy ending.

I received an email and photo this past week from my Simerly Creek neighbor, Beth McPherson. Beth and her husband, Steve, have a wonderful home on Simerly Creek Road in Hampton. Surrounded by woodlands, their home is like a magnet for a variety of birds.

“I have another simple bird for you to identify,” Beth wrote in her email.

She explained that the bird ran into a window at her home. Fortunately, after a brief rest on her upper porch, the bird recovered completely from its impact with the window.

She described the bird as not much bigger than a hummingbird and estimated that the bird was 3 inches long and about 1.5 inches wide.

“Is it a warbler?” Beth asked.

Actually, although warbler was a good guess, Beth’s bird was a member of a family of tiny birds known as kinglets and firecrests.

Her bird turned out to be a Golden-crowned Kinglet, a fairly common winter visitor. All the large hemlock trees on Beth’s property are probably very attractive to visiting kinglets.

There are two types of kinglets present in Northeast Tennessee, including the Golden-crowned Kinglet and the Ruby-crowned Kinglet. They are indeed very tiny birds, as well as extremely active ones. They are also the only member of this family of birds found in North America.

Four other species, however, are native to Europe, Asia and North Africa. The remaining species include Goldcrest, Common Firecrest, Madeira Firecrest and Flamecrest, which is also known as the Taiwan Firecrest.

It was significant that Beth compared the small size of the kinglet that hit her window to  hummingbirds, which are probably the only birds that are smaller than kinglets.

The kinglets belong to the family, Regulidae, and the genus, Regulus. The family and genus names are derived from a Latin word, regulus, which means “rex,” or “king.” The name was apparently inspired by the colorful crown patches, often red, orange or gold, that resembled the royal “crowns” of kings.

Although similar in size and overall coloration, the Ruby-crowned and Golden-crowned Kinglets are easily distinguished from each other.

Side by side, the two species of North American Kinglets are easy to distinguish. The Golden-crowned Kinglet has a striped facial pattern formed by bold black and white stripes. The Ruby-crowned Kinglet, on the other hand, has a bold white eye ring but not striping. The Golden-crowned Kinglet has an orange crown patch, while the Ruby-crowned Kinglet has a red crown patch that is, more often than not, kept concealed.

Kinglets are active birds, foraging vigorously for small insects, and spiders. When foraging, both kinglet species have a habit of flicking their wings over the backs. Even if you can’t get a good look at the birds, this behavior helps contrast them from other small birds.

Golden-crowned Kinglets are widespread in the region during the winter. During the summer months, head to the slopes of Roan Mountain to look for these tiny birds that nest in the higher elevations of the Appalachian Mountains.

Kinglets don’t typically visit feeders, but they do tend to join mixed flocks with membership consisting of such species as Tufted Titmouse, Carolina Chickadee and White-breasted Nuthatch. When traveling with such flocks, kinglets may visit the space around feeders but rarely take seeds or other fare offered at feeders.


If you’ve ever experience repeated window strikes at your home, the American Bird Conservancy offers some helpful tips for avoiding this tragedy. Just click the following link to learn more how to avoid window strikes:

Click to access collisions_flyer.pdf


I enjoyed receiving the email from Beth. I would love to hear from other readers, too. Just post comments on my new blog at You can also reach me on Facebook or send email to Please share the link to the blog with others who might be interested in the topic of birds and birding in Northeast Tennessee.

‘Tooth’ of the matter: Sawbills harken back to days when birds still had teeth

Everyone has probably heard the phrase “as scarce as hen’s teeth.” It means almost exactly what you think. Birds don’t have teeth, so it’s a way to describe something exceptionally rare. It’s a characteristic that sets birds apart from other creatures, such as mammals.

There are some birds, however, that come closer to having teeth than their other beaked counterparts. Mergansers would definitely fall into that category. The mergansers are a type of duck known collectively as “sawbills,” a reference to their long, thin bills with serrated edges that help them grip prey. The “sawbills” come closer than any of our other birds in having teeth, although not in the same sense as mammals have teeth.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • This female Common Merganser was photographed during this year’s Spring Bird Count.

Although classified as sea ducks, the mergansers are more at home in river habitats. There are six closely related species in three genera: Mergus, Mergellus and Lophodytes. The latter two genera have only a single species, the Hooded Merganser (Lophodytes cucullatus) and the Smew (Mergellus albellus).

The other mergansers in the Mergus genus consist of four species, Common Merganser, Brazilian Merganser, Red-breasted Merganser and Scaly-sided Merganser. The latter is an endangered species with only about 2,500 adult birds in the worldwide population. These remaining Scaly-sided Mergansers are found in the border regions of China, North Korea and Russia.


Photo by Bryan Stevens • A pair of Common Mergansers on the Watauga River in the Lynn Valley community of Elizabethton.

Another species, the Auckland Merganser, became extinct in the early 1900s. Sadly, the last evidence of this species dates back to Jan. 9, 1902, when the last wild pair was shot. After that time, this bird native to the Auckland Islands was never seen again.

In recent weeks, a couple of Common Mergansers spent a few days on the Watauga River in the Lynn Valley community. I saw them on a couple of occasions and also managed to get some photographs of the two handsome drakes.

In Europe, the Common Merganser is called a Goosander, probably a nod to its large size that makes this bird superficially more similar to geese than ducks. Early naturalists such as John James Audubon also provided this bird with a different name, referring to it as the “Buff-breasted Merganser.”

For many years, the Common Merganser was one of my target birds. Finally, more than 10 years ago, I saw my first Common Mergansers during a visit to Middlebrook Lake in Bristol with Reece Jamerson, Gil Derouen and the late Howard Langridge. Despite the word “common” in its name, this merganser isn’t particularly common in Northeast Tennessee. Its relatives, Hooded Merganser and Red-breasted Merganser, are much more regular visitors to the region.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Hooded merganser females, or hens, have a gray-brown head and neck with a reddish-brown crest, which marks quite a contrast from the male’s appearance.

In addition to Bristol’s Middlebrook Lake, I have seen Common Mergansers on Watauga Lake and on the Holston River in Kingsport.

The Common Merganser, particularly the males, are easily identified. Apart from their large size, which is about 26 inches long for males, males of this duck have a dark green head and upper neck. The lower neck, breast and underparts are creamy-white with a varying amounts of a pink or reddish wash. The back is black, while the bill, legs and feet are red. Females are similar to female Red-breasted Mergansers but show a clearly defined white chin patch lacking in their close relative.

According to the website Ducks Unlimited, Common Mergansers breed from Alaska, the southern Yukon, Labrador and Newfoundland south to central California, Arizona, New Mexico, southern Chihuahua and east of the Rockies to Minnesota, Michigan, New York, New England and Nova Scotia.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A female hooded merganser flaps her wings as another preens her feathers behind her.

They are also one of the biggest of North America’s cavity-nesting birds, utilizing natural cavities in trees, as well as man-made nesting boxes. They will also nest on the ground.

Common mergansers feed mainly on fish, amphibians, crustaceans, mollusks and other aquatic organisms. The last extensive population surveys of Common Mergansers took place during the 1970s, when the population in North America was estimated at 1.5 million birds.


While today’s birds, even mergansers, all lack teeth, that hasn’t always been the case. About 80 million years ago, a bird known as Hesperornis (“western bird”) swam the inland seas that stretched over areas from Kansas to Canada. They swam through those ancient seas because they could not fly.

This early 20th century illustration of Hesperornis is no longer considered scientifically accurate by scientists, but it does demonstrate one striking feature - the toothed jaws of this ancient bird.

This early 20th century illustration of Hesperornis is no longer considered scientifically accurate by scientists, but it does demonstrate one striking feature – the toothed jaws of this ancient bird.

The body plan of Hesperornis was similar to modern loons and even the mergansers. Instead of a serrated bill, however, this ancient bird had actual teeth in its long beak. Just like today’s loons and mergansers, it probably fished for its food.

At almost six feet in length, however, it dwarfed our modern mergansers and loons and probably fed on larger piscine prey. So, why don’t today’s birds have teeth? The best answer I have found is that teeth (and other solid bones) were lost in order to make the avian form more streamlined and lightweight.

The power of flight demands a great deal of energy, and teeth are an unnecessary weight. As a result, birds grew hollow bones and lost their teeth.


I have been taking part in the Great Backyard Bird Count and have enjoyed some interesting observations that I’ll discuss in future columns. I would love to hear from readers. Just post comments on my new blog at You can also reach me on Facebook or send email to Please share the link to the blog with others who might be interested in the topic of birds and birding in Northeast Tennessee.

Birding the Big Apple brings surprises

I am posting this column in observance of “Throwback Thursday.” I wrote this column for the Herald & Tribune of Jonesborough in July of 2002. It won me a second-place Tennessee Press Association award for “Best Column” the following year.


During a recent trip to New York City, mainly for the purpose of visiting friends and seeing the sights, I also availed myself of the opportunity of trying to see a few birds in the Big Apple.

Photo by Bryan Stevens A Ring-billed Gull in flight.

Photo by Bryan Stevens
A Ring-billed Gull in flight. Several of these gulls were seen during my 2002 trip to New York City.

At first glance, New York City doesn’t seem a haven for birds or any other sort of wildlife. Without any serious effort on my part, however, I managed to see 15 different species of birds. My tour guide and friend, David, remained courteous enough to indulge my occasional lapses into birding. David, perhaps like many New Yorkers, is familiar on a daily basis with the Big Apple’s three most prominent members of the bird family — the House Sparrow, the European Starling and the Rock Dove, or pigeon.

Everyone who has visited a city park, whether in Jonesborough or New York City, is probably familiar with the Rock Dove. Commonly called pigeon, the Rock Dove is not a native American bird. But their introduction to this continent paralleled the arrival of European colonists. Pigeons came to this country along with other farmyard animals, such as cattle and sheep. But, once here, the Rock Dove, which is a wild bird in Africa and in the Mediterranean, also managed to establish itself outside the farmyard. Nevertheless, more than most other birds, the Rock Dove still only thrives in the company of humans. In New York City, pigeons are a part of the landscape. They are everywhere! As a result, these birds can cause some problems. Their droppings can damage buildings and statues. They can also spread various diseases to humans. Efforts have been made to curb their numbers, but the pigeon looks to be a permanent part of the New York City landscape.

It’s no longer a paradise for pigeons in the Big Apple, however. The Peregrine Falcon, once endangered, has rebounded with protection from the government. The skyscrapers of New York City have replaced cliff faces as nesting sites for these sleek, aerodynamic predators. While I wasn’t fortunate enough to see a Peregrine Falcon while in New York City, they are there. Their presence has put some balance back into the food chain. The pigeons now have a natural predator.

Earlier this summer, David called me looking for advice about a problem with birds. Seems that a pair of House Sparrows had built a nest beneath his air conditioning unit at his apartment. The problem involved timing. David recently moved to a new apartment and he needed to take the air conditioner with him. In the end, David’s need for the air conditioner outpaced the nesting progress of the sparrows. Now, he’s convinced that the sparrows, like the gulls, are out to get him. More about the gulls later.

The House Sparrow is an non-native species introduced to the United States. The House Sparrow was released intentionally in the United States in the 1850s at different points between New York and New England. Other introductions of this species occurred at other points in the United States. The introductions were huge mistakes. By 1910, the House Sparrow had invaded the entire continent. The House Sparrow is also an aggressive bird. Soon, the House Sparrow came into conflict with a beloved American favorite, the Eastern Bluebird. The major competition between Eastern Bluebirds and House Sparrows is for nesting cavities. House Sparrows have the tenacity to evict even the larger Easter Bluebirds from occupied nests. Occasionally, the sparrows even kill nestling or adult bluebirds. I found the House Sparrow almost as numerous as Rock Doves in most areas of New York City.

But, there was still a third common bird — the European Starling. I encountered the first starlings of my trip in New York City’s famous Central Park. Ironically, Central Park is where the European Starling, now considered the most numerous bird in North America, got its start. The Rock Dove and House Sparrow got here first, but the European Starling didn’t waste any time once the first starlings were released in 1890. The first European Starlings were released at that time in Central Park because some fans of William Shakespeare wanted to release all the birds mentioned in The Bard’s plays. Apparently, only the release of the European Starling had any lasting consequence. Even today, starlings and Shakespeare are very much associated with Central Park. During the summer there is a popular Shakespeare festival held in Central Park. And, on any summer day, there will always be plenty of starlings in the park.

Those were three of the 15 birds I managed to observe on my trip. The remaining 12 species comprised a diverse and at times surprising list. I found American Robins, American Crow, Blue Jay, Chimney Swift, Carolina Wren and Downy Woodpecker within Central Park. In addition, at a large pond within the park I also observed a Green Heron and Mallards. The Robins, in particular, appeared as they would in any park setting. They hopped about on grassy lawns while foraging for food. David told me he recently saw a Roadrunner in the park. I told him that would be an extraordinary discovery since that bird is native to the western United States.

There’s a lot of water in and around New York City. Perhaps it isn’t a surprise to discover birds such as Double-crested Cormorants swimming in the East River. I also saw plenty of gulls. In fact, I saw three different species of gulls — Herring Gulls, Ring-billed Gulls and Laughing Gulls.

Surprisingly, gulls haven’t always been common in the vicinity of New York City. According to the book Wild New York: A Guide to the Wildlife, Wild Places and Natural Phenomena of New York City by Margaret Mittelbach and Michael Crewdon, gulls did not frequent New York City 100 years ago. Now, there are as many as one million gulls in New York City. The book also mentions one of the attractions: Staten Island’s Fresh Kills Landfill, the largest garbage dump in the world.

The cover of the book Wild New York: A Guide to the Wildlife, Wild Places and Natural Phenomena of New York City by Margaret Mittelbach and Michael Crewdon

The cover of the book Wild New York: A Guide to the Wildlife, Wild Places and Natural Phenomena of New York City by Margaret Mittelbach and Michael Crewdon

My friend David considers gulls evil omens. I tried to do some research into the role of gulls in folklore. I turned to the book by Laura C. Martin titled The Folklore of Birds. Her entry on gulls proved sketchy. Here’s some of what I learned. The word “gull” comes from a Welsh word, “gwylan,” which can be translated as “wailing.” The term “gull” apparently derived from the bird’s wailing or plaintive call. The Latin genus name, Larus, for gull is translated as “ravenous seabird.” So, that leaves us with a ravenous, wailing seabird. Apt descriptions, but not exactly a rich folklore. Birds such as crows and the various species of owls have much more ominous superstitions surrounding them.


New York City has a “New York Rare Bird Alert.” If you would like to know what rare birds are being seen in New York City, dial (212) 979-3070. I dialed the number during my visit and received information about excitement regarding large flocks of migrating shorebirds, a Common Raven and nesting Blue Grosbeaks.


My friend David now lives in Baltimore. I haven’t visited him there, but he has visited me in the mountains near Asheville, N.C. I’d like to thank him again for my taste of the Big Apple.


I’d still love to hear from readers. Just post your thoughts here or email me at Keep up with me on Facebook, too.

Get ready to take part in this week’s 2014 Great Backyard Bird Count

Welcome to my new blog, “Our Fine Feathered Friends.” I hope everyone who has enjoyed reading my columns through the years will flock here to keep up to date with our birds and birding opportunities in the region.


From Afghanistan to Zimbabwe, bird watchers from more than 100 countries are expected to participate in the 17th annual Great Backyard Bird Count, Feb. 14–17, 2014.

I have plenty of time to participate this year, and that’s exactly what I plan to do. Anyone anywhere in the world can count birds for at least 15 minutes on one or more days of the count and enter their sightings at

The information gathered by tens of thousands of volunteers helps track the health of bird populations at a scale that would not otherwise be possible. The GBBC is a joint project of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the National Audubon Society with partner Bird Studies Canada.

“People who care about birds can change the world,” said Audubon chief scientist Gary Langham. “Technology has made it possible for people everywhere to unite around a shared love of birds and a commitment to protecting them.”

In North America, GBBC participants will add their data to help define the magnitude of a dramatic irruption of magnificent Snowy Owls. Bird watchers will also be on the lookout for the invasive Eurasian Collared-Dove to see if it has expanded its range again. GBBC observations may help show whether or not numbers of American Crows will continue to rebound after being hit hard by the West Nile virus and whether more insect-eating species are showing up in new areas, possibly because of changing climate.

Last year’s GBBC shattered records after going global for the first time, thanks to integration with the eBird online checklist program launched in 2002 by the Cornell Lab and Audubon. Participants reported their bird sightings from all seven continents, including 111 countries and independent territories. More than 34.5 million birds and 3,610 species were recorded—nearly one-third of the world’s total bird species documented in just four days.

“This is a milestone for citizen science in so many respects—number of species, diversity of countries involved, total participants, and number of individual birds recorded. We hope this is just the start of something far larger, engaging the whole world in creating a detailed annual snapshot of how all our planet’s birds are faring as the years go by,” said Cornell Lab director Dr. John Fitzpatrick.

“Canadian participation in the Great Backyard Bird Count has increased tremendously in recent years, and it’s wonderful to see this program growing globally,” said Bird Studies Canada President Dr. George Finney. “The count is introducing unprecedented numbers of people to the exciting field of bird watching.”

The GBBC is a great way for people of all ages and backgrounds to connect with nature and make a difference for birds. It’s free and easy. To learn more about how to join the count, visit and view the winning photos from the 2013 GBBC photo contest. The Great Backyard Bird Count is made possible in part by sponsor Wild Birds Unlimited.

I had a great time participating in last year’s GBBC, and I plan to do so again this year. If recent weeks are any indication, there could be plenty of interesting birds out there.



Photo courtesy of Toy James
An albino American Robin at the home of Don and Toy James.

Don and Toy James shared a photo of an albino American Robin at their home in the Danner Subdivision on Jan. 15.

“My wife snapped this photo of an albino robin in our back yard,” Don wrote. “I have never seen one and thought it was interesting.”

Don said the robin was feeding on worms with the other robins in the yard.

“My wife said they all ate together and he flew away with them,” Don said. “They seemed to treat him as any other robin.”

I had inquired about any interactions they observed since sometimes birds will shun an albino invidual. Apparently, that wasn’t the case with this robin.

During a trip to Salt Lake City, Utah, in 2006, I observed an albino Brewer’s Blackbird. An albino blackbird is almost an oxymoron. That observation remains my best look at an albino bird in the wild.


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You can also reach me on Facebook or send email to