Monthly Archives: November 2018

Overwintering birds make their return to some familiar area haunts

Mergansers

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

Now that the warblers, hummingbirds and other birds of summer have, for the most part, departed, new arrivals have filtered into the region to take their place and prevent the winter months from seeming too bleak.

At my own home, these new arrivals have included a field sparrow — the first I’ve seen at home in several years — and a swamp sparrow. I’ve not caught sight of white-throated sparrows or dark-eyed juncos so far, but these hardy sparrows often don’t arrive until the first incidents of truly snowy weather. However, Helen Whited of Richlands, Virginia, emailed me to let me know that she saw her first dark-eyed junco of the season on Monday, Nov. 5.

Different species of waterfowl have also returned to some familiar haunts, and I’m grateful to readers who have kept me informed about some of these arrivals. Joanne Campbell of Bristol, Tennessee, posted on my Facebook page that hooded mergansers have returned to Middlebrook Lake near her home on Saturday, Nov. 3. The hooded merganser, Joanne noted, is one of her favorite birds. Brookie and Jean Potter of Elizabethton, Tennessee, reported that four male buffleheads returned to Wilbur Lake near their home on Oct. 27.

Middlebrook Lake has served as a winter home for hooded mergansers since 1987, while buffleheads have congregated on Wilbur Lake for decades. Another good location to look for buffleheads during the winter months is in the weir below South Holston Dam around the Osceola Island Recreation Area. Several hundred of these ducks have been reported in past winters at these various locations.

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 each: the hooded merganser (Lophodytes cucullatus) and the smew (Mergellus albellus).

The typical mergansers are fish-eating waterfowl in the genus known as Mergus. The hooded merganser’s genus name of Lophodytes is derived from Greek and, roughly translated, means “crested diver.” Both male and female hooded mergansers have crests capable of being raised or lowered. Females are mostly brown, but males have a striking plumage in a pattern of brown, white and black.

Hooded_Merganser___Drake

Photo by Photo by Tim McCabe/U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service • The male hooded merganser stands out among ducks with his black, white, and brown plumage.

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.

merganser-Bill-ALexas-fotos

Photo by Alexas-fotos/Pixabay.com • This closeup of a female common merganser shows in detail the serrated bill, which assists this duck in seizing and grasping the fish that makes up a good portion of the bird’s diet.

The other mergansers in the Mergus genus consist of four species: common merganser, Brazilian merganser, red-breasted Merganser and scaly-sided Merganser. The last of these is an endangered species with only about 5,000 birds in the worldwide population. These remaining scaly-sided mergansers are found in the border regions of China, North Korea and Russia.

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.

The body plan of Hesperornis was similar to modern loons and 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.

Hesperornis_Heinrich_Harder

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.

Hooded mergansers are content to seek smaller fish. According to the website for the Ducks Unlimited organization, the hooded merganser is the smallest of the three North American mergansers. In addition to fish, hooded mergansers feed on crayfish and other crustaceans, as well as aquatic insects.

The hooded merganser prefers forested wetlands. As a cavity-nesting bird, it seeks out natural cavities in trees for nesting, although it will also accept nest boxes provided by human landlords. This duck breeds from as far north as Alaska and Canada and as far south as Louisiana and Georgia.

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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.

Late fall and winter are good times to see ducks in the region. Some will spend a good portion of the winter season on area lakes, rivers and ponds, while others will make only brief stops during their migration to their preferred wintering grounds. Some of the other ducks that are usually somewhat common in the region in winter include ring-necked duck and American wigeon. If you live or work near a body of water, stay alert for the comings and goings of waterfowl as winter approaches. You may be afforded an opportunity to see a hooded merganser or bufflehead for yourself.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • Female hooded merganser enjoys a swim.

•••••

The Lee & Lois Herndon Chapter of Tennessee Ornithological Society produces an annual calendar featuring some exceptional bird photography from its members. This 2019 calendar will feature full-color photographs of some of the region’s most colorful and engaging birds. The club sells the calendars for $15 each. All proceeds are used to support birding opportunities and bird-related causes here in Northeast Tennessee. For instance, the club pays for bird seed to stock the feeders at Sycamore Shoals State Historic Park in Elizabethton, Tennessee. The club also regularly supports causes that benefit birds.HerndonCalendar2019(Cover) (1)
The calendar also features an informative calendar grid with highlights for major holidays, as well as important bird-related dates. The calendar’s pages feature more than 80 full-color photographs of area birds, including common favorites and some not-so-common visitors. The front cover features a dazzling photograph of a gorgeous male rose-breasted grosbeak. If you’re interested in obtaining a calendar, contact ahoodedwarbler@aol.com by email or send a message via Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/ahoodedwarbler. Calendars can be mailed to any destination in the United States for an additional charge of $2 for shipping and postage.

 

Wild turkey’s authentic American status beyond dispute

wild-turkey-Avia5-Pixabay

Photo by Avia5/Pixabay.com • A male wild turkey, often referred to as a “tom” or a “gobbler,” fans his tail in a display meant to impress hens and intimidate other males.

Few birds have featured so prominently in the history of the United States as the wild turkey. Thanks to the federal government eventually moving to protect the wild turkey population, this bird today is quite common across the nation. Fields bordering woodlands are a great place to observe wild turkeys strutting their stuff, especially during the autumn and winter seasons when turkeys form large flocks, which are also known as “rafters.” Watching a male turkey, or tom, fan his impressive tail feathers to get the attention of hens or intimidate other male rivals offers a peek into the thinking some of the nation’s founders held regarding the wild turkey.

In fact, if some of the nation’s founders had had their way, the turkey might have been honored as the official bird of the United States. The other contender for the honor — the bald eagle, which became the nation’s actual official bird — had its fair share of famous detractors among some of the nation’s founding fathers.

WildTurkey-TOM

Photo by Jean Potter • A male wild turkey struts his stuff while fanning his impressive tail feathers.

 

Benjamin Franklin, who proposed the turkey as the official United States bird, praised the bird’s courage and expressed displeasure when the bald eagle was chosen over the turkey. Franklin wrote to his daughter, referring to the eagle’s “bad moral character,” saying, “I wish the bald eagle had not been chosen as the Representative of our country! The turkey is a much more respectable bird, and withal a true original native of America.”Franklin

No less than George Washington, the nation’s first president, also shared Franklin’s opinion and pointed out the bald eagle’s lifestyle as a carrion eater. Even if not as our national symbol, the wild turkey is still deserving of respect. This bird, found only in North America, is a survivor of first-rate caliber. Shockingly, the wild turkey, which was so abundant during the Pilgrim era in Massachusetts, almost didn’t survive until the 19th century. It’s almost miraculous that the wild turkey didn’t join the unfortunate ranks of such extinct birds as the ivory-billed woodpecker and Labrador duck. In fact, only an estimated 30,000 Wild Turkeys were alive about 1930. The same forces that wiped out the immense flocks of passenger pigeons and Carolina parakeets almost drove the wild turkey to extinction. Habitat destruction and a merciless commercial slaughter almost claimed another uniquely American bird.

The turkey’s association with America dates back to when the Pilgrims sat down to the first Thanksgiving feast in the New World. Perhaps surprisingly, many of the trappings we associate with the November holiday were missing from the menu. Instead, the Pilgrims enjoyed a repast of bounty that was seasonally available when they held that first celebration back in 1621. The Pilgrim leader William Bradford wrote of that first observance in his work titled “Of Plymouth Plantation.” Some of the details are surprising.

Snow-Turkeys

Photo by Bryan Stevens A flock of Wild Turkeys make their way across a snowy field.

The items available for that first feast included a variety of fish, such as good New England cod, as well as bass and other fish. The Pilgrims took “good store” of fish and “every family had their portion.” Bradford also wrote that as winter approached, Massachusetts Bay suddenly experienced an abundance of waterfowl, but that their numbers eventually decreased. Birders will recognize what was happening with this sudden influx of ducks and other waterfowl. They were migrating. The waterfowl were temporarily abundant, but then as the ducks and other birds continued to make their way south, they became scarce again. The Pilgrims may have lacked cranberries and mashed potatoes, but they most definitely feasted on turkey. “And besides waterfowl,” Bradford wrote, “there was great store of wild turkeys, of which they took many, besides venison.”

Turkey_two

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A wild turkey forages for food.

According to data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, more than 45 million turkeys are cooked and eaten in the U.S. at Thanksgiving. American per capita consumption of turkeys has soared from 8.3 pounds in 1975 to 18.5 pounds in 1997 and has remained stable at about 16 pounds since 2011. Americans love their turkeys — especially at the dinner table. Perhaps it’s for the best the turkey lost out to the eagle for title of official American bird. Consider how awkward it would be every Thanksgiving to sit down to a meal of roast turkey with all the trimmings while knowing this wild fowl has been recognized as America’s official bird.

••••••
HerndonCalendar2019(Cover) (1)

The Lee & Lois Herndon Chapter of Tennessee Ornithological Society produces an annual calendar featuring some exceptional bird photography from its members. This 2019 calendar will feature full-color photographs of some of the region’s most colorful and engaging birds. The club sells the calendars for $15 each. All proceeds are used to support birding opportunities and bird-related causes here in Northeast Tennessee. For instance, the club pays for bird seed to stock the feeders at Sycamore Shoals State Historic Park in Elizabethton, Tennessee. The club also regularly supports causes that benefit birds.
The calendar also features an informative calendar grid with highlights for major holidays, as well as important bird-related dates. The calendar’s pages feature more than 80 full-color photographs of area birds, including common favorites and some not-so-common visitors. The front cover features a dazzling photograph of a gorgeous male rose-breasted grosbeak. If you’re interested in obtaining a calendar, contact ahoodedwarbler@aol.com by email or send a message via Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/ahoodedwarbler. Calendars can be mailed to any destination in the United States for an additional charge of $2 for shipping and postage.

HaybaleTurkey

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A decorative turkey pays homage to the real bird.

Fall Bird Count finds 127 species

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • Raptors, like this Red-tailed Hawk, proved plentiful on count day. Broad-winged Hawk, a relative of the Red-tailed Hawk, even set a new record for most individuals found.

The 49th consecutive Elizabethton Fall Count was held Saturday, Sept. 29, with 50 observers in 13 parties covering parts of five adjacent counties.

According to count compiler Rick Knight, a total of 127 species were tallied (plus Empidonax species), slightly higher than the average of the last 30 years, which was 125. The all-time high was 137 species in 1993.

Two very rare species were found: Purple Gallinule at Meadowview Golf Course in Kingsport and Black-legged Kittiwake on South Holston Lake. The kittiwake had been found Sept. 27 and lingered until count day.

Shorebird habitat was scarce due to high water levels at most sites, thus only one species was found (other than Killdeer).Broad-winged Hawks were numerous, part of a notable late flight likely due to unfavorable weather conditions preceeding the count.
Warblers were generally in low numbers, although 23 species were seen. No migrant sparrows had arrived yet. Blackbirds, too, were scarce. Some regular species were tallied in record high numbers, likely due to the above average number of field parties.

turkey_two

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Wild Turkeys and Ruffed Grouse were found on this year’s count, but participants failed to locate any Northern Bobwhites.

The list of species follows:

Canada Goose, 781; Wood Duck, 79; Mallard, 345; Blue-winged Teal, 110;  Com. Merganser, 2;  Ruffed Grouse, 2; and Wild Turkey, 56.

Pied-billed Grebe 32; Double-crested Cormorant, 78; Great Blue Heron, 49; Great Egret, 2; Green Heron, 2; and Black-crowned Night-Heron, 5.

Wild-NightHeron-Adult

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Several species of herons and egrets were located, including Black-crowned Night Heron.

Black Vulture 71; Turkey Vulture 203; and Osprey, 27. This represented a new record for the number of Osprey found on this count.

 
Bald Eagle 8; Northern Harrier, 1; Sharp-shinned Hawk, 3; Cooper’s Hawk, 9; Red-shouldered Hawk, 6; Broad-winged Hawk, 321; (most ever on this count) and Red-tailed Hawk, 19.

 
Virginia Rail 1; Purple Gallinule, 1; Killdeer, 43; Spotted Sandpiper, 1; Black-legged Kittiwake, 1; Caspian Tern, 1; and Common Tern, 2.

 

Rock Pigeon, 597; Eurasian Collared-Dove, 2; Mourning Dove, 330; Yellow-billed Cuckoo, 4; E. Screech-Owl, 24; Great Horned Owl, 10; Barred Owl, 5; Northern Saw-whet Owl, 1; and Common Nighthawk, 1.

 
Chimney Swift, 481; Ruby-throated Hummingbird, 31; Belted Kingfisher, 32; Red-headed Woodpecker, 5; Red-bellied Woodpecker, 92; Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, 5; Downy Woodpecker, 59; Hairy Woodpecker, 12; Northern Flicker, 67; Pileated Woodpecker, 54; American Kestrel, 13; and Merlin, 2. The figures for Red-bellied and Pileated Woodpeckers mark new high counts for these two species.

red-bellied-bryan

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A record number of Red-bellied Woodpeckers were found on this year’s Fall Bird Count.

Eastern Wood-Pewee 15; Empidonax species, 2; Eastern Phoebe, 79; Eastern Kingbird, 9; White-eyed Vireo, 1; Yellow-throated Vireo, 2; Blue-headed Vireo, 21; Philadelphia Vireo, 3; Red-eyed Vireo, 4; Blue Jay, 646; American Crow, 364; and Common Raven, 1.
Northern Rough-winged Swallow, 3; Tree Swallow, 465; Barn Swallow, 1; and Cliff Swallow, 3.

Carolina Chickadee, 177; Tufted Titmouse, 133; Red-breasted Nuthatch, 4; White-breasted Nuthatch, 71; Brown Creeper, 1; House Wren, 4; Winter Wren, 1; and Carolina Wren, 218. Both Tufted Titmouse and White-breasted Nuthatch were found in record numbers, as was the Carolina Wren, too

Golden-crowned Kinglet, 8, Eastern Bluebird, 187;  Gray-cheeked, Thrush 12; Swainson’s Thrush, 46;  Wood Thrush, 9; American Robin, 591; Gray Catbird, 64; Brown Thrasher, 23; and Northern Mockingbird, 111; European Starling 1,226;  and Cedar Waxwing, 294. The number of Gray Catbirds set a new record for the species.

Worm-eating Warbler 1; Northern Waterthrush, 1; Black-and-white Warbler, 7; Prothonotary Warbler, 1; Tennessee Warbler, 42; Orange-crowned Warbler, 2; Kentucky Warbler, 2; Common Yellowthroat, 9; Hooded Warbler, 7; American Redstart, 16; Cape May Warbler, 6; Northern Parula, 8; Magnolia Warbler, 18; Bay-breasted Warbler, 15; Blackburnian Warbler, 8; Yellow Warbler, 1; Chestnut-sided Warbler, 1; Black-throated Blue Warbler, 4; Palm Warbler, 63; Pine Warbler, 11; Yellow-throated Warbler, 1; Prairie Warbler, 1; and Black-throated Green Warbler, 7.

Fall-AmRedstart

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Participants found a total of 23 different species of warblers, including American Redstarts.

Eastern Towhee, 66; Chipping Sparrow, 94; Field Sparrow, 16; Song Sparrow, 97; and Dark-eyed Junco, 42.

Summer Tanager 2; Scarlet Tanager, 11;  N. Cardinal, 149; Rose-breasted Grosbeak, 125; and Indigo Bunting, 14.

Bobolink, 2; Red-winged Blackbird, 132; Eastern Meadowlark, 7; Common Grackle, 8; Brown-headed Cowbird, 5; House Finch, 41; Pine Siskin, 11; American Goldfinch, 220; and House Sparrow, 69.

Goldfinch 5

Photo by Bryan Stevens • American Goldfinches were among the smaller songbirds found during the annual Fall Bird Count.

Dark-eyed junco heralds winter’s approach and marks milestone in weekly bird musings

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

I wrote my first column about our “feathered friends” on Sunday, Nov. 5, 1995, which means this column will soon celebrate its 23rd anniversary.

This column has appeared on a weekly basis for the last 23 years in a total of five different newspapers, and in recent years it has been syndicated to several more. The column has also been a great conduit for getting to know other people interested birds and birding. I always enjoy hearing from readers, and I hope to continue to do so in the coming years as well. Since February 2014, I’ve also been posting the column as a weekly blog on birds and birding.

I saw my first swamp sparrow of the fall on Oct. 23. Autumn’s a time when many of those so-called “little brown birds,” also known as the sparrows, return to live in the fields, gardens, yards and woodlands around our home. Two of the other anticipated arrivals are white-throated sparrows and dark-eyed juncos.

SwampSparrow-April11

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Sparrows, like this swamp sparrow, often spend the winter months in fields, woods, and wetlands, sometimes visiting feeders in our homes and gardens.

In fact, that first column I wrote back in 1995 focused on one of the region’s most prevalent winter residents— the dark-eyed junco. Experts place juncos among the varied sparrow family. All juncos are resident of the New World, ranging throughout North and Central America. Scientists are continually debating precisely how many species of junco exist, with estimates ranging from a mere three species to about a dozen species.

Some of the other juncos include the volcano junco, yellow-eyed junco, Chiapas junco, Guadalupe junco, pink-sided junco, Oregon junco and Baird’s junco, which is named in honor Spencer Fullerton Baird, a 19th century American naturalist and a former Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution.

With that introduction and with some revisions I have made through the years, here is that very first column that I ever wrote about birds.

dark-eyed-junco-Skeeze-Pixabay

Photo by Skeeze-Pixabay • A dark-eyed junco clings to a snowy perch.

…..

Of all the birds associated with winter weather, few are as symbolic as the dark-eyed junco, or “snow bird.” The junco occurs in several geographic variations.

John V. Dennis, author of “A Complete Guide to Bird Feeding,” captures the essence of the junco in the following description: “Driving winds and swirling snow do not daunt this plucky bird. The coldest winter days see the junco as lively as ever and with a joie de vivre that bolsters our sagging spirits.” The dark-eyed junco’s scientific name, hyemalis, is New Latin for “wintry,” an apt description of this bird.

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Most people look forward to the spring return of some of our brilliant birds — warblers, tanagers and orioles — and I must admit that I also enjoy the arrival of these birds. The junco, in comparison to some of these species, is not in the same league. Nevertheless, the junco is handsome in its slate gray and white plumage, giving rise to the old saying “dark skies above, snow below.”

Just as neotropical migrants make long distance journeys twice a year, the junco is also a migrating species. But in Appalachia, the junco is a special type of migrant. Most people think of birds as “going south for the winter.” In a basic sense this is true. But some juncos do not undertake a long horizontal (the scientific term) migration from north to south. Instead, these birds merely move from high elevations, such as the spruce fir peaks, to the lower elevations. This type of migration is known as vertical migration. Other juncos, such as those that spend their breeding season in northern locales, do make a southern migration and, at times, even mix with the vertical migrants.

Juncos are usually in residence around my home by early November. Once they make themselves at home I can expect to play host to them until at least late April or early May of the following year. So, for at least six months, the snow bird is one of the most common and delightful feeder visitors a bird enthusiast could want.

Juncos flock to feeders where they are rather mild-mannered — except among themselves. There are definite pecking orders in a junco flock, and females are usually on the lower tiers of the hierarchy. Females can sometimes be distinguished from males because of their paler gray or even brown upper plumage.

Junco

Photo by Ken Thomas • A dark-eyed junco perches on some bare branches on a winter’s day.

Since juncos are primarily ground feeders, they tend to shun hanging feeders. But one winter I observed a junco that had mastered perching on a hanging “pine cone” feeder to enjoy a suet and peanut butter mixture.

Dark-eyed juncos often are content to glean the scraps other birds knock to the ground. Juncos are widespread. They visit feeders across North America. The junco is the most common species of bird to visit feeding stations. They will sample a variety of fare, but prefer such seeds as millet, cracked corn or black oil sunflower.

There’s something about winter that makes a junco’s dark and light garb an appropriate and even striking choice, particularly against a backdrop of newly fallen snow.

Junco-Carver

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Dark-eyed junco nests on high mountain slopes during the summer month. This dark-eyed junco was photographed at Carver’s Gap on Roan Mountain during the summer nesting season.

Of course, the real entertainment from juncos come from their frequent visits to our backyard feeders. When these birds flock to a feeder and begin a furious period of eating, I don’t even have to glance skyward or tune in the television weather forecast. I know what they know. Bad weather is on the way!

•••••

Back when I wrote that original column, juncos often returned each fall in the final days of October or first days of November. In the last few years, however, their arrival times have grown consistently later in November. At times, it takes a serious snowfall to drive these hardy birds to seek out easy fare at my feeders. I’m hoping they’ll return soon. In the meantime, if you want to share your first dark-eyed junco sighting of the fall, I’d love to hear from you. If you want to share a sighting, have a question or wish to make a comment, email ahoodedwarbler@aol.com.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • A female dark-eyed junco scrambles for sunflowers seeds in the snow.

Some birds expert at conjuring Halloween-style thrills and chills

nature bird cute wildlife

The  greater tit, a European relative of the Carolina chickadee, has learned to hunt and kill a species of small bat in the Hungarian mountains. • Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

My ruby-throated hummingbirds set a new record this year, lingering until Oct. 17. Although present on the morning of that date, I didn’t see any that evening. The next morning, their absence — quite notable and somewhat saddening — continued. In all likelihood, I won’t see any more ruby-throated hummingbirds until next April. I hope they arrive early.

Carolyn Baker Martin commented on the post I made on Facebook about the departure of the hummers. Carolyn noted that 2018 has been an interesting year for birds and flowers. Carolyn, who lives in Elizabethton, Tennessee, also shared a recent observation she made of a hummingbird behavior that I’ve never personally witnessed.

“I had a hummer recently in torpor,” Carolyn wrote in her post. “It sat on the feeder a long time without moving or feeding. Finally, a tail feather began to move. It fed constantly for one more day and was gone.”

Despite their small size, most hummingbirds, including the ruby-throated hummingbirds, are less frail than they appear. Torpor is a biological adaptation possessed by hummingbirds and some other creatures that lets them survive a serious cold spell. It’s not quite the same thing, but think of these tiny birds as voluntarily going into a coma when they enter torpor. Comatose or catatonic creatures are a staple of some horror and suspense films, so perhaps a look at how some birds can induce shivers along the spine is in order in view of the celebration of Halloween this week.

The ultimate coma victim is the fabled zombie, but that’s not likely to afflict any of our feathered friends, right? Well, consider the great tits of Hungary, which are relatives of our tufted titmouse and Carolina chickadee. These birds — at least the Hungarian ones — have apparently acquired a taste for brains.

Not human brains, thankfully. The victims of these brain-hungry great tits are a species of bat — a flying creature often associated with the modern celebration of Halloween, as well as legends about vampires — that shared the habitat of these birds in the Bükk Mountains of Hungary. As it turns out, the tits only hunted bats, in this case a tiny species known as common pippistrelle, out of dire necessity.

Bat ecologists Péter Estók and Björn M. Siemers, after observing the odd behavior of the great tits during some winter seasons, conducted a study to see if great tits are consistent devourers of bats’ brains. They discovered that the birds did hunt the bats and had even learned to detect a special call the bats make as they emerge from hibernation. The ecologists conducted their study over two years and learned that the great tits teach others of their kind the special art of hunting bats. They also learned that the birds made efficient killers, dragging the bats from their roosts and cracking their skulls to get at their brains.

However, when provided with plenty of alternative food, including such favorite items as bacon and sunflower seeds, the great tits chose to eat these items rather than actively hunt bats. The researchers concluded that great tits only resort to harvesting the brains of small bats during times of scarcity during harsh winters. The bizarre story is even featured in the title of a fascinating book by Becky Crew titled “Zombie Birds, Astronaut Fish, and Other Weird Animals.”

Cassowary

Photo by lailajuliana / Pixabay.com • The southern cassowary reaches a height of more than five feet and weighs 120 pounds. The bird has a fearsome but perhaps undeserved reputation for attacks on humans.

So, if humans have nothing to fear from brain-hungry birds, are there any birds that we should fear? Some experts suggest that precautions might be in order if one expects to come into close proximity with a southern cassowary, which is the third-tallest and second-heaviest living bird, smaller only than the ostrich and emu.

The cassowary, a native of New Guinea and northeastern Australia, has developed a reputation as a fearsome bird capable of injuring or killing humans. According to ornithologist Ernest Thomas Gilliard, cassowaries deserve their reputation. In his 1958 book, “Living Birds of the World,” he explained that the second of the three toes of a cassowary is fitted with a long, straight, dagger-like claw which can sever an arm or eviscerate an abdomen with ease. According to Gilliard, there have been many records of natives being killed by this bird.

A thorough study, however, has partly exonerated the cassowary from these misdeeds. In a total of 150 documented attacks against humans, cassowaries often acted in self-defense or in defense of a nest or chicks. The only documented death of a human took place in 1926 when two teenaged brothers attacked a cassowary with clubs. The 13-year-old brother received a serious kick from the bird, but he survived. His 16-year old brother tripped and fell during the attack, which allowed the cassowary to kick him in the neck and sever the boy’s jugular vein.

Mesembriornis_model

Model of the terror bird Mesembriornis at the Chicago Field Museum, prepared by taxidermist Leon L. Pray, seen on the left.

So we can rest easier knowing that murderous birds that reach a height of almost six feet tall are unlikely to terrorize us should we travel to the lands down under. A more ancient relative of the cassowary, however, might have been a different story had humans lived during the same time period. Phorusrhacids, also known as “terror birds,” were a group of large carnivorous flightless birds that once had some members reign as an apex predator in South America before they went extinct around two million years ago. The tallest of the terror birds reached a height of almost 10 feet. Titanis walleri, one of the larger species, even ranged into what is now the United States in Texas and Florida.

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Terror birds were equipped with large, sharp beaks, powerful necks and sharp talons. Their beaks, which would have been used to kill prey, were attached to exceptionally large skulls. Despite their fearsome appearance, these birds probably fed on prey about the size of rabbits. Perhaps not knowing this, Hollywood has cast these birds as monsters in such films as 2016’s “Terror Birds” and 2008’s “10,000 BC.”

Besides, casting birds as the villains had already been done back in 1963 when Alfred Hitchcock released his film, “The Birds,” based loosely on a short story by Daphne du Maurier. The film, which starred some big Hollywood names such as Rod Taylor, Tippi Hedren, Jessica Tandy, Suzanne Pleshette and Veronica Cartwright, cast a whole new light on a “murder” of crows. Today, the film has achieved the status of a Hollywood classic. I guess it just goes to show that werewolves, zombies, and other Halloween monsters have nothing on our fine feathered friends.

TheBIRDS!