Monthly Archives: March 2019

White-throated sparrows advertise their presence in yards and gardens with spring singing

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The calendar has turned to March, and — when it comes to birds — the month is a time of transition. The season doesn’t know whether it’s winter or spring, but the birds know. They, like me, are anticipating the busy spring season.

The clientele at your feeders may change significantly in March. The winter residents are still present, but newly-arrived birds make appearances. Red-winged blackbird, common grackles, and brown-headed cowbirds, all of which may have retreated farther south during the peak of winter, can arrive suddenly in large flocks to lay claim to offerings like suet and sunflower seeds.

On our lawns, we should be noticing flocks of American robins. Long considered a harbinger of spring, the American robin is actually a year-round resident in the region. Spring’s false starts sometimes take robins by surprise, which results in large flocks of these bird descending on lawns and fields to forage frantically for earthworms and insect grubs.

Many people are probably noticing more bird song in the morning. At my home, I’ve been hearing more from birds ranging from song sparrows and chickadees to bluebirds and Northern cardinals, as well as white-throated sparrows. Although they are fairly common winter visitors in the region, the white-throated sparrow makes its presence known most strongly each spring when the birds begin to sing a familiar refrain that has been transcribed in a couple of different ways. Many Americans render the song of the white-throated sparrow as “Ol’ Sam Peabody, Peabody, Peabody.” For those living north of the border, the white-throated sparrow sings “O’Canada, O’Canada, O’Canada.” As I mentioned, it’s a song I’ve been hearing much more frequently in the past couple of weeks. No matter how you translate this sparrow’s song, it’s a sweet and welcome addition to the spring aural landscape.

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The white-throated sparrow also has a close relative that is a little less common. The white-crowned sparrow is one of the more distinctive species in a family often unfairly dismissed as “little brown birds.” It’s fairly common to find mixed flocks of both of these and other sparrows feeding together. They start the mingling process in the fall, probably to prepare them for the necessity of close proximity when winter makes it necessary to crowd together to find food. At my own feeders, I often host mixed flocks of several sparrows, including song sparrows, chipping sparrows, white-throated sparrows and dark-eyed juncos, as well as the occasional field sparrow or swamp sparrow.

 

The white-throated sparrow and the closely related white-crowned sparrow both belong to a genus of American sparrows known as Zonotrichia, which includes three other species. These other three — golden-crowned sparrow, rufous-collared sparrow, and Harris’s sparrow — range mostly outside the continental United States. The rufous-collared sparrow ranges throughout Mexico, as well as the island of Hispaniola. Harris’s sparrow is a bird that occurs mostly in Canada, although there are a handful of records in our region. The golden-crowned sparrow is a bird that occurs mostly in Alaska, although some of this sparrow’s population ranges into the northwestern corner of the state of Washington.

The genus name, Zonotrichia, refers to two ancient Greek words for zone and hair, which refers to the pattern of streaks on the backs of these five sparrow species. The Zonotrichia sparrows belong to a large group of birds known as Passerellidae, or American sparrows, which also includes birds such as juncos, towhees and brush finches. Some of the more descriptive names of some of the American sparrows include orange-billed sparrow, white-eared ground sparrow, green-backed sparrow, olive sparrow, cinnamon-tailed sparrow, five-striped sparrow and golden-winged sparrow.

White-crowned Sparrow

I love white-crowned sparrows, but they are rare visitors to my feeders. They occasionally pass through my yard in the fall, but they rarely stay more than a couple of days. I get plenty of white-throated sparrows and dark-eyed juncos, however, which is nice compensation. The white-crowned sparrow is more numerous in the western half of the United States. In a trip to Utah in October of 2003, these large, striking sparrows were seemingly everywhere. In the eastern United States, the white-crowned sparrow usually makes appearances as a migrant or a winter resident. These sparrows do seem faithful to wintering locations once they have spent a season. The only requirement for attracting them is a yard that offers some extensive thickets or other brushy habitat. A hedgerow bordered by a spacious lawn or field is also a magnet for this particular sparrow.

This accurately named white-crowned sparrow is easy to distinguish from all the other “little brown birds” in the sparrow family. First, for a sparrow, it’s somewhat large. Second, there’s the distinctive black-and-white head pattern that gives the bird its name. Of course, only the adult sparrows show the black and white head pattern. Young birds show alternating bands of tan and brown in place of the black and white. Both adults and young birds show a crisp gray breast that also helps distinguish them from other sparrows, which often have brown streaking across the breast. A pale bill also sets them apart from most other sparrows likely to visit feeders.

In similarly distinctive fashion, the white-throated sparrow, especially as spring gets nearer, also acquires a plumage that makes it stand out from the flock. These sparrows have a plumper shape than some of their kin. They have a black and white pattern to their head and a neat “bib” of white feathers covers the throat. The standout feature to this bird’s appearance is the bright yellow spot located between each eye and the bird’s bill. Some winter birds may lack this spot of yellow or show a less dramatic version, but the approach of spring usually puts white-throated sparrows into fine form.

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Photo by Skeeze/Pixabay • A white-throated sparrow perches on a branch to sing its easily recognizable song. Many Americans translate the sparrow’s song as “Ol’ Sam Peabody, Peabody, Peabody.”

Many sparrows, including the white-throated sparrow, prefer to forage for food on the ground. It’s often helpful to purchase a supply of millet seed. When filling your feeders with sunflower seeds, scatter a couple of handfuls of millet seed on the ground beneath the feeders or at the edge of a brushy area. Sparrows like to have quick access to dense cover, so they will feed more securely if the scattered seeds are within quick reach of shelter.

Sparrows don’t always co-exist peaceably. According to the website allaboutbirds.com, many of the larger sparrow species are quite aggressive with their kin. This aggression usually demonstrates itself in a tendency to chase other birds. Apparently, white-crowned sparrows will share their territories with fox sparrows — which are larger birds — but they will give chase to chipping sparrows and dark-eyed juncos in an attempt to drive them from the territory.

Most songbirds live a precarious life that can be measured in only a few years. However, an occasional individual defies the odds. According to the website allaboutbirds.com, the oldest recorded white-throated sparrow was at least 14 years, 11 months old, when it was recaptured and rereleased during banding operations in Alberta, Canada.

Listen for the song of this garden and yard visitor as you go about your daily routine. It’s easy to recognize, depending on your preference for the Canadian or American version. Don’t wait too long. Most white-throated sparrows depart the region by late April to reach their summer nesting grounds throughout the forests across Canada, the northeastern U.S. and the northern Midwest.

Hear the song and see video footage of a white-throated sparrow at White-throated sparrow singing.

 

American wigeon also known by name ‘baldpate’

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Photo by Tim McCabe/U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service • This male American wigeon shows the white head patch that gives this duck its other common name of “baldpate.” In this photograph, a female wigeon rests near her mate while a male redhead, a species of diving duck, swims in the background. This duck nests in season wetlands in the American midwest.

Erwin, Tennessee, resident Pattie Rowland recently asked my help identifying some ducks she had photographed at the pond at Erwin Fishery Park. She already suspected the ducks in her photo were American wigeons, but she wanted confirmation.

The ducks were indeed wigeons, which are classified with the “dabblers” instead of the “divers,” which are two broad categories for describing the wild ducks likely to occur throughout North America. Dabblers feed mostly near the surface of the water, foraging on everything for aquatic insects to roots and tubers. The “divers,” not surprisingly, dive into the depth to pursue fish, mollusks and other aquatic prey.

“This was my first time to see them,” Pattie noted in a Facebook message. I congratulated her because I know how exciting a new observation of a bird can be.

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Photo by Roy Lowe/U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service • A male American wigeon looks quite at home swimming on a small pond. Wigeons belong to ducks that are classified as “dabblers” and “puddle ducks.”

It’s not been an exciting winter for ducks in the region. Other than some redheads and buffleheads back in November and early December at the start of the winter, the wigeons are the only wild ducks of interest that I’ve observed at the pond.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service released its report this past summer on 2018 Trends in Duck Breeding Populations, based on surveys conducted in May and early June of 2018 by FWS and Canadian Wildlife Service.

Overall duck numbers in the survey area remained high, according to the report. Total populations were estimated at 41.2 million breeding ducks in the traditional survey area, 13 percent lower than last year’s estimate of 47.3 million but 17 percent above the long-term average. The projected mallard fall flight index was estimated at 11.4 million birds, down from the 2017 estimate of 12.9 million.
“The dip in the population for prairie-breeding puddle ducks is not unexpected and by no means unprecedented given that conditions on the prairies this spring were drier than last year,” said DU Chief Scientist Tom Moorman. “As a result, 2018 populations dropped accordingly. However, populations of all key species except northern pintails and scaup remain above long-term averages. This year’s breeding population decline is a reminder of the need to sustain the capacity of breeding habitats, particularly in the prairies as we go through natural variation in wetland conditions. Waterfowl populations are adapted well to short-term swings in habitat conditions, but we must continue to guard against the long-term loss of prairie breeding habitat.”

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Early naturalist and artist John James Audubon painted this pair of American wigeon, a duck for which the male has earned the name “baldpate” for a distinctive white crown patch.

American wigeons, however, bucked the trend of some of the other prairie-breeding puddle ducks and showed a slight rise in overall numbers. The wigeon breeding population was estimated at 2.8 individual ducks, according to the survey. Wigeons beat their long-term average, which rests at 2.6 million.

The American wigeon can be found all over North America. Their breeding grounds stretch from Alaska across the tundras of Canada all the way to the Atlantic Ocean. American Wigeons can be found in their wintering habitats from the American Northwest to central Mexico, from the southern prairie pothole region through the Gulf Coast and from New York to the Bahamas close to the Atlantic shoreline. American wigeons are also common winter visitors to Central America, the Caribbean, northern Colombia, Trinidad and occasionally Venezuela

Wigeons are aquatic grazers and forage on grasses and sedges in wet meadows and pastures. The American wigeon’s diet has a higher proportion of plant matter than the diet of any other dabbling duck.

It’s also called the “baldpate” for the same reason our national bird is known as the “bald” eagle. A white patch on the forehead reminded early naturalists of a bald man’s head in much the same way that our national bird earned the term “bald” eagle because of its own white head. Further, the word “bald” is thought to derive from an archaic word in Middle English meaning “white patch,” from which the archaic definition “marked or steaked with white” is drawn.

The origins of the term “wigeon” are a bit murkier. According to Merriam-Webster Dictionary, the first known use of “wigeon” dates back to 1508, and other sources suggest that the term perhaps was derived from a French/Balearic term meaning “a kind of small crane.”

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Photo by Coffee/Pixabay.com • Gadwalls are close relatives of American wigeon.

There are two other species of wigeons — the Eurasian wigeon of Asia and Europe and the Chiloé wigeon of South America. Wigeons belong to the Mareca genus of dabbling ducks, which also includes gadwall and falcated teal.

While female American wigeons produce a rather raspy quacking sound, wigeons more typically produce a vocalization when excited that sounds like “whew, whew, whew.”

Some ducks have become associated with certain bodies of water in the region, and the American wigeon is no exception. In addition to the pond at Erwin Fishery Park, there have been reports of American wigeons this winter from a large pond adjacent to the campus of Northeast State Community College in Elizabethton, Tennessee, as well as on the weir dam at Osceola Island Recreation Site in Bristol. Hooded mergansers have wintered in large numbers at Middlebrook Lake in Bristol. Hundreds of buffleheads have wintered at Wilbur Lake near Elizabethton, Tennessee, for decades. March and April, being periods of transition as winter changes into spring, could bring migrating ducks to the region’s ponds, lakes and rivers. Keep your eyes open and you could be surprised by what you find.

 

 

Many birds plan ahead for times of scarcity

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Photo by Struza/Pixabay.com • A chickadee plucks a peanut from its shell. Chickadees, like many other songbirds, often store food that they can utilize during lean times.

Ernie Marburg sent me an email last month about an article he had read on chickadees that he thought might be of interest. The article’s main focus involved the fact that chickadees are apparently capable of remembering 1,000 cache sites and retrieving food several months after having placed it in various scattered locations.

“Their memories are better than ours,” Ernie wrote. “Mine, anyway.”

Ernie also had a question for me about observations he and his wife have made at their home in Abingdon, Virginia, about birds and the practice of caching food.

“My wife and I have both observed crows taking bread (five or six pieces at a time) in their beaks and flying off and burying it in lawns among the grass,” he wrote. “We have also observed that they march through the lawn apparently looking for such food caches. Is this something that is commonly known? Are we correct in our observation of this?”

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Photo by dbadry/Pixabay.com • Blue Jays often create food caches for acorns and other items. This jay is leaving a feeder with several peanuts thanks to an expandable esophagus.

Experts have indeed noticed this behavior. In fact, it’s fairly well known that crows are methodical in their approach to storing food. Crows, which belong to the corvid family that includes birds such as jays, ravens and magpies, are also highly intelligent animals. Their intelligence shows in the extra step they take after they have buried food. The crow will often take a leaf or twig and place it over the spot where the food has been buried. Experts suspect the bird takes this action to mark the spot and attract attention to the location when they return to look for the buried food.

Birds store food for convenience when they have more food than they can finish, but they also cache food in anticipation of periods such as inclement winter weather when food is likely to become scarce.

The blue jay, a relative of the American crow, is fond of acorns. The jay is so enamored of acorns — a nutrient-rich food for many birds and other animals — and so dedicated to caching acorns that the bird actually helps oak forests expand. A single jay may cache thousands of acorns each fall. Inevitably, some of the cache will be forgotten, to go uneaten and give the acorn the chance to sprout into a seedling in the spring that may grow into a mighty oak in a new stand of oaks.

The jay even has some modifications to help with the storing of food. Blue jays have a flexible esophagus that can distend and allow them to stuff multiple acorns down their throats. Caching food is hard work, so it helps reduce energy consumption if the jay can transport several acorns at a time instead of a single acorn on each trip to a cache site.

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Photo by Anne773/Pixabay.com • A Carolina chickadee visits a feeder for a sunflower seed. Chickadees are a songbird that’s known for storing surplus seeds as insurance against lean times.

Now, back to chickadees for a moment. Research has shown that the brains of black-capped chickadees grow in anticipation of the need to remember where these tiny songbirds cache their sunflower seeds and other foods. The interesting finding is that only the part of the brain associated with memory grows. After all, it doesn’t do much good to store food for a rainy or snowy day if the bird promptly forgets where the food has been hidden.

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This image illustrates an acorn woodpecker’s visit to a food cache. These woodpeckers are famous for storing acorns in dead and living trees, as well as substitutes such as telephone poles.

The acorn woodpecker might qualify as a world-class cacher of food. As the bird’s name suggests, this woodpecker loves acorns. An acorn woodpecker will devote a significant amount of its time to establishing granaries. In this case, the granaries are holes drilled in the trunks of trees (or sometimes in a telephone pole or the side of a wooden building) for the storing of acorns. Some of these trees have hundreds of holes drilled into them with each hole containing an acorn placed there by the woodpecker. The woodpeckers often use dead trees, but they also utilize living trees. Surprisingly, the holes do not seem to affect the health of the trees.

From chickadees and woodpeckers to crows and jays, birds manage to continually surprise with seemingly infinite resourcefulness.

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com • The American crow is also known for caching food.