Monthly Archives: October 2015

Edgar Allan Poe’s raven much like the real-world bird


Photo by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service                      A Common Raven turns a fallen log into a perch.

From the opening refrain of “once upon a midnight dreary” in his poem, “The Raven,” Edgar Allan Poe established a somber mood and also helped cement the dark reputation of one of North America’s most misunderstood birds.


The common raven seems an apt bird for this week’s column since we will be celebrating Halloween this coming Saturday. Poe’s poem offers a dramatic introduction to a bird that has once again become rather common in the region, particularly at higher elevations. This bird is well-known for nesting on inaccessible cliffs. However, this past year a pair of ravens chose a more unusual location when they built a nest beneath the grandstands at Bristol Motor Speedway. Ravens have nested annually at this location at least since the spring of 2013.

Poe’s well-known poem, first published in 1845, is often cited as evidence for Poe’s genius for rhyme and his ability to create a believable supernatural universe populated by dark forces and one particularly persistent raven.


Edgar Allan Poe, author of “The Raven.”

Poe describes the bird that provides the title of his famous poem with adjectives such as “grim, ungainly, ghastly, gaunt and ominous.” His raven also speaks, although it has the limited vocabulary of a single word, “Nevermore.”

How closely does the real common raven resemble the “bird of yore” in Poe’s classic poem?

Establishing the raven’s closest relatives is helpful. The raven is a member of the corvid family, which includes birds such as crows, magpies, nutcrackers and jackdaws. The common raven is the largest bird among the corvids. This bird can achieve a wingspan of almost four feet. The average raven weighs about two-and-a-half pounds. Large individuals have been recorded with a weight of slightly more than four pounds, making the raven a contender for the title of world’s largest songbird.


John James Audubon painted the Common Raven as part of his ground-breaking “Birds of America.”

It’s also an intelligent bird. Authors of a scientific study conducted about 10 years ago posited the claim that ravens and crows are just as intelligent as some of the great apes. Although parrots are more famous for the ability to mimic human speech, captive ravens have proven capable of learning more words than even the most impressive vocabulary-endowed parrots. So, Poe was not wide of the mark when he gave the gift of gab to the raven in his poem.

In the United States, the raven is quite common in Alaska. In the lower 48 states, raven populations are somewhat more sporadic. These large birds have established strongholds along the Appalachian Mountains and in the American Southwest. The raven is a cosmopolitan bird known to range from North America and Greenland to Europe and Asia, as well as North Africa and the Canary Islands.

The common raven is mainly a scavenger, but this bird is also an opportunistic predator and will prey on a wide variety of animals, including arthropods, amphibians, small mammals, birds, reptiles, and carrion. Ravens are attracted to carrion and are not finicky eaters. They adapt quickly and are known to even consume garbage.

Its black coloration has undoubtedly contributed to the raven’s sinister reputation and its affiliation with many dark superstitions. According to Laura C. Martin’s book, “The Folklore of Birds,” notes that the raven is “loathed throughout Europe as a symbol of impending death and war.” She explains that the raven probably acquired these connotations because these birds fed on battlefield corpses. As indicated earlier, the raven is not a picky eater.71GJJF6G3WL._UY250_

Martin also points out that legend maintains that England will remain a powerful nation as long as ravens live in the infamous Tower of London.


Noah release a raven prior to setting free a dove.

The Bible offers a rich source of tales involving ravens. The prophet Elijah, after falling afoul of a wicked king, went into hiding and was provided food by cooperative ravens. In the story of the Biblical flood, Noah first released a raven to determine if the waters had receded. When the raven didn’t return to the ark, Noah next released a dove. This bird later returned to the ark clutching an olive leaf, which proved that the flood waters had subsided.


Photo by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service The Common Raven, like most other corvids, is known for intelligence.

Many cultures also consider the raven as a “bringer of magic,” and the bird is associated with many creation stories in Native American cultures. Unlike the European custom of designating black as an “evil” color, Native Americans teach that black can hold various meanings, including resting, healing and prophetic dreaming, but evil is not one of them.

Ravens and crows are similar, but ravens are much larger birds. In addition, ravens have wedge-shaped tails and crows have fan-shaped tails. The common raven also has a well-developed ruff of feathers on the throat, commonly called its “hackles.”
A “murder of crows” is a fairly well known collective noun for a flock of these birds. On the other hand, a group of ravens has many collective nouns, including a “bazaar,” “constable” and “rant” of ravens. For its alliteration, I am fond of “a rant of ravens” and think it’s a shame that Poe’s raven was apparently a solitary bird.

Other species of ravens found around the world include dwarf raven, thick-billed raven, fan-tailed raven, brown-necked raven, little raven and forest raven.


Doves, by virtue of their light plumage, are often associated with good, while dark-feathered ravens are associated with darkness and evil.

If you hear the guttural, low caw of a raven this Halloween, beware of this bird’s long history of association with the darker niches of the world. Here’s one final tidbit regarding this bird from Martin’s book. Cherokee tribes believed that ravens would visit villages to seek out ill or dying people. In the absence of a village shaman to drive away the bird, the raven would invariably snatch the life of the ailing individual. It’s something I wanted to make you aware of in advance of the year’s most spooky holiday.


Bryan Stevens lives near Roan Mountain, Tennessee. To learn more about birds and other topics from the natural world, friend Stevens on Facebook at 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

October brings bird walks and new arrivals


Photo by Bryan Stevens                                      An Eastern Phoebe perched on a barbed wire fence.

The end of October punctuates the annual spectacle of fall migration. By the end of the month, most of the summer residents — hummingbirds, vireos, tanagers, warblers —will have migrated out of the region to distant wintering grounds. In the waning days of October, winter residents — Brown Creepers, Winter Wrens, Dark-eyed Juncos, Hermit Thrushes and much more — take up residence in our yards, where they will keep a low profile during the fewer hours of daylight during the long winter months.

So far, I have already welcomed a Marsh Wren and Winter Wren to my yard, and I am looking forward to the arrival of winter sparrows.

I have once again been leading bird walks every Saturday in October at Sycamore Shoals State Historic Park in Elizabethton. There are still two walks — Oct. 24 and Oct. 31 — for interested persons to attend and try to get a look at some of the late-fall migrants passing through the region. The walks begin at 8 a.m. Bring binoculars to increase your viewing enjoyment.


Photo by Bryan Stevens                One of the lingering Ruby-throated Hummingbirds perches in branches near a hanging feeder.

The first two walks were cancelled due to rain, but on a very chilly morning on Oct. 18 the first walk finally commenced. Five participants joined me for a morning stroll on the park trails and along the Watauga River. We saw Wood Ducks, Mallards and Canada Geese, as well as several flocks of Cedar Waxwings, along with Blue-headed Vireo, Yellow-rumped Warbler and several woodpeckers, including Downy, Red-bellied, Pileated, Northern Flicker and Yellow-bellied Sapsucker.

At home, the seasons are definitely shifting. Although a few Ruby-throated Hummingbirds lingered (as of Oct. 18), the first White-throated Sparrow put in an appearance on Oct. 14. Winter residents are gradually displacing departing summer visitors.

Last year’s bird walks at Sycamore Shoals produced some good birds, including a female Common Merganser that was discovered in the Watauga River. Other good finds have been found in past years.

On Sunday, Oct. 11, my mother and I enjoyed watching a female Common Merganser on the Watauga River.


Photo by Bryan Stevens                                                                    A Common Merganser on the Watauga River associated with Canada Geese and Mallards.

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.

Common_Merganser (1)

Photo by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service                    A male Common Merganser takes a swim.

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.

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.

May population surveys during 1970-’79, suggested a continental population of 1.5 million birds. Population tracking has been lacking in recent decades, but experts believe that Common Mergansers have a stable population.


Photo by Bryan Stevens                                        A Common Yellowthroat hides in a tangle of brush during a migration stop.

When November arrives, I’ll be keeping watch for ducks making stops at the pond at Erwin Fishery Park or along the series of ponds located along the linear walking trail in Erwin. I’ll also make a journey to Wilbur Lake, one of my favorite destinations, to look for returning Buffleheads.


To learn more about birds and other topics from the natural world, “friend” Bryan on Facebook at 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


Photo by Bryan Stevens                                                                                        Blooming Goldenrod looks splendid in fall sunshine.


Photo by Bryan Stevens                                      The Autumn Meadowhawk, pictured, and Shadow Darners are some of the final dragonflies flying around the fish pond as cooler weather arrives.


Photo by Bryan Stevens                                                    Some Ruby-crowned Kinglets, such as this individual, may overwinter in Northeast Tennessee.


Fall Bird Count finds above-average total of 129 species

Geese-Flock 2

Photo by Bryan Stevens                                                                   A flock of Canada Geese in a field near the Watauga River in Elizabethton on the day of the Fall Bird Count.

The 46th annual Elizabethton Fall Count was held on Saturday, Sept. 26.

A total of 37 observers in nine parties covered Carter County and parts of adjacent Johnson, Sullivan, Unicoi and Washington counties in this yearly count conducted by the Lee and Lois Herndon Chapter of Tennessee Ornithological Society, or the Elizabethton Bird Club. This year’s count included new territory around Kingsport that has not traditionally been a part of this annual fall survey.

A total of 129 species were found, which is slightly above the average of 125 over the last 30 years. The all-time high of 137 species was achieved in 1993.
The most numerous bird on the count was the European Starling (1,347) followed closely by Canada Goose (1,182) and American Crow (896).



Photo by Bryan Stevens                              Mourning Doves were one of the more abundant birds on this year’s Fall Bird Count.

Other numerous birds included Mourning Dove (529), Chimney Swift (490), Blue Jay (432) and Rock Pigeon (375).

Of course, some birds were represented by only one individual, such as Northern Harrier, Great Egret, American Wigeon, Ruffed Grouse, Peregrine Falcon, Olive-sided Flycatcher, Eastern Kingbird, Worm-eating Warbler, Northern Waterthrush, Nashville Warbler and Yellow-breasted Chat.


Photo by Bryan Stevens                                         A flock of Wild Turkeys near the Elizabethton Municipal Airport.

The total follows:
Canada Goose, 1,182; Wood Duck, 90; American Wigeon, 1; Mallard, 254; Blue-winged Teal, 13; Ruffed Grouse, 1; Wild Turkey, 161; Pied-billed Grebe, 9; and Double-crested Cormorant, 31.

Great Blue Heron, 39; Great Egret, 1; Green Heron, 7; Black-crowned Night-heron, 4; Black Vulture, 172; and Turkey Vulture, 189.
Osprey, 19; Northern Harrier, 1; Sharp-shinned Hawk, 5; Cooper’s Hawk, 10; Bald Eagle, 8; Red-shouldered Hawk, 3; and Red-tailed Hawk, 16.


Photo by Bryan Stevens A curious Gray Catbird peeks from dense cover. Attendees at the fall rally can look for catbirds and other species at any of the offered bird hikes.

Photo by Bryan Stevens                                        A curious Gray Catbird peeks from dense cover.

Sora, 4; American Coot, 2; Killdeer, 87; Spotted Sandpiper, 3; Solitary Sandpiper, 5; Willet, 1; Sanderling, 2; Least Sandpiper, 1; and American Woodcock, 1.

Ring-billed Gull, 4; Forster’s Tern, 1; Rock Pigeon, 375; Eurasian Collared-Dove, 5; Mourning Dove, 529; and Black-billed Cuckoo, 1.

Eastern Screech-owl, 27; Great Horned Owl, 3; Barred Owl, 1; Northern Saw-whet Owl, 1; Chimney Swift, 490; Ruby-throated Hummingbird, 36; and Belted Kingfisher, 33.

Red-headed Woodpecker, 1; Red-bellied Woodpecker, 73; Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, 1; Downy Woodpecker, 53; Hairy Woodpecker, 7; Northern Flicker, 54; and Pileated Woodpecker, 28.


Photo by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service The European Starling ranked as the most common species on the count.

Photo by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service
The European Starling ranked as the most common species on the count.

American Kestrel, 24; Merlin, 2; Peregrine Falcon, 1; Olive-sided Flycatcher, 1; Eastern Wood-Pewee, 14; Acadian Flycatcher, 2; Eastern Phoebe, 71; and Eastern Kingbird, 1.

White-eyed Vireo, 3; Yellow-throated Vireo, 1; Blue-headed Vireo, 6; Red-eyed Vireo, 4; Blue Jay, 432; American Crow, 896; and Common Raven, 8.

Northern Rough-winged Swallow, 1; Tree Swallow, 231; Cliff Swallow, 2; Carolina Chickadee, 128; Tufted Titmouse, 111; Red-breasted Nuthatch, 1; and White-breasted Nuthatch, 43.

House Wren, 6; Marsh Wren, 1; Carolina Wren, 152; Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, 2; Golden-crowned Kinglet, 2; and Ruby-crowned Kinglet, 2.



Photo by Bryan Stevens                                A total of 21 species of warblers, such as this Northern Waterthrush, were counted during the Fall Bird Count.

Eastern Bluebird, 230; Veery, 1; Gray-cheeked Thrush, 1; Swainson’s Thrush, 23; Wood Thrush, 12; American Robin, 312; Gray Catbird, 60; Brown Thrasher, 19; Northern Mockingbird, 76; European Starling, 1,347; and Cedar Waxwing, 132.

Ovenbird, 2; Worm-eating Warbler, 1; Northern Waterthrush, 1; Black-and-white Warbler, 6; Tennessee Warbler, 12; Nashville Warbler, 1; Common Yellowthroat, 25; Hooded Warbler, 4; American Redstart, 51; Cape May Warbler, 8; Northern Parula, 2; Magnolia Warbler, 24; Bay-breasted Warbler, 8; Blackburnian Warbler, 7; Chestnut-sided Warbler, 7; Black-throated Blue Warbler, 2; Palm Warbler, 54; Pine Warbler, 2; Yellow-throated Warbler, 1; Black-throated Green Warbler, 4; and Yellow-breasted Chat, 1.



Photo by Bryan Stevens                                  Scarlet Tanagers were still present in good numbers for the Fall Bird Count on Sept. 26.

Eastern Towhee, 59; Chipping Sparrow, 37; Field Sparrow, 14; Song Sparrow, 99; Dark-eyed Junco, 31; Scarlet Tanager, 16; Northern Cardinal, 188; Rose-breasted Grosbeak, 28; Blue Grosbeak, 1; and Indigo Bunting.


Red-winged Blackbird, 60; Eastern Meadowlark, 41; Common Grackle, 67; Brown-headed Cowbird, 15; Baltimore Oriole, 3; House Finch, 55; American Goldfinch, 188; and House Sparrow, 56.

Double-crested cormorants not unexpected visitors to region



Photo courtesy of Jean Potter                                                          Double-crested cormorants are quite at home in the water, where they hunt for fish using their hooked bills.

In the waning days of summer and these early days of fall, I’ve been seeing a welcome diversity of birds, including warblers, flycatchers, tanagers and even some unusual waterfowl.

The ponds along the linear walking trails in Erwin are good locations for seeking migrating double-crested cormorants. These large, fish-eating birds also show up occasionally at the large pond at Erwin Fishery Park. Some people mistake these aquatic birds for anhingas, or “snake birds,” which are named for their habits of swimming with only their necks and heads above the surface of the water. The anhinga, a bird of southern wetlands and swamps, is not all that closely related to cormorants. These two species merely share a superficial appearance, differing mostly in the shape of their bills. Cormorants have a serrated, hooked bill good for grasping slippery fish while anhingas have a sharp bill similar to a herons that is useful for spearing fish.


Photo by Bryan Stevens                                        A Double-crested Cormorant perches on a fallen log in a pond.

The double-crested cormorant is widely distributed across North America, ranging from the Aleutian Islands in Alaska down to Florida and Mexico. These fish-eating birds are also abundant on inland lakes across the United States.

The double-crested cormorant can reach a body length of almost three feet and is a dark bird. Adults have black plumage, but young birds are brownish or gray in coloration. The bird gets its common name from the double crest of black and white feathers displayed during the breeding season.


Photo Courtesy of Jean Potter                          The double-crested cormorant is a fish-eating bird perfectly adapted to its aquatic lifestyle.

Cormorants lead a mostly aquatic lifestyle. Unlike many types of waterfowl, such as ducks and geese, cormorants do not have waterproof feathers. After a dive into the water for a fish, all cormorants have to spend time out of the water to dry their feathers. Fish compose the majority of a cormorant’s diet, but these birds may also take an occasional amphibian or crustacean. While the double-crested cormorant can be found on local lakes and rivers at almost any time of the year, these birds are most often encountered during migration in the spring and fall. In recent years, instances of nesting have been increasing in the area. I have even observed double-crested cormorants at large ponds and small lakes at city parks.


Photo by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service                    A double-crested cormorant takes time to dry its feathers after spending time in the water searching for fish.

Worldwide, there are about 40 different species of cormorants, which are also known by the common name “shag,” which refers to the crest of feathers evident on many of these waterfowl. Experts have not had an easy time defining relatives of the cormorants. Many experts include gannets, anhingas, pelicans and even penguins as possible close relatives of the cormorants.

The flightless cormorant, also known as the Galapagos cormorant, is native to the Galapagos Islands. It is a unique member of the cormorant family in that it is the only one that has lost the ability to fly. Other species of cormorants include spectacled cormorant, reed cormorant, white-breasted cormorant, king shag, red-footed shag, crowned cormorant and pygmy cormorant.


Early naturalist and artist John James Audubon painted this double-crested cormorant.

North America is home to a few other species of cormorants, but none are as widespread as the double-crested cormorant. Others include the great cormorant, pelagic cormorant, Brandt’s cormorant, red-faced Cormorant and the Neotropic cormorant, which is found along the southeast areas of Texas down into Mexico.

20090819-Cormorant_fishing_by_Eisen in Japan

A painting of humans using cormorants to catch fish.

In some parts of the world — Japan, China and Macedonia — humans have trained cormorants to capture fish for them. A cord or ring around the cormorant’s neck prevents the bird from swallowing anything other than small fish. Larger specimens captured by the cormorants are retrieved by the human angler.

In Japan, fishing with cormorants is a tradition dating back 1,300 years. Even today, Japanese cormorant fishermen are important as a tourist attraction. Elsewhere, fishing with cormorants has become less common as more modern means of catching fish have become readily available.

I don’t expect we will see people using cormorants to catch fish from Holston Lake, but you can probably visit the lake with at least a likelihood of seeing these unusual birds catch fish for their own consumption.