Monthly Archives: May 2019

Woodpecker still bears name of historic expedition’s charismatic leader

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The Lewis’s woodpecker’s common and scientific names pay tribute to the famed explorer Meriwether Lewis, who with his partner, William Clark, explored the American West.

The 215th anniversary of the launch of the famous Lewis and Clark Expedition will be observed May 14. Also known as the Corps of Discovery Expedition, the enterprise became the first American expedition to cross the western portion of the United States and explore the recently acquired lands known collectively as the Louisiana Purchase. The Lewis and Clark expedition officially extended from May 14, 1804, to Sept. 23, 1806. As they drove deep into the American West, the members of the expedition saw wonders, including the feathered variety, never before beheld by people outside of various Native American tribes.

In authorizing the expedition, President Thomas Jefferson wanted to establish a reliable route for travel through the western half of the nation and to fend off any attempts by European nations to gain a foothold beyond the nation’s frontier. Jefferson also hoped Meriwether Lewis and William Clark would make some important discoveries about the nation’s native fauna and flora. Jefferson gave instructions for Lewis and Clark to collect bones they found during their journeys. He also asked them to keep alert for large animals that would be new to science. In particular, Jefferson hoped that the men he chose to head the expedition would help prove that the American mastodon still roamed the American West.

Mastodon bones had been found in the eastern half of the United States early in the nation’s history. Jefferson, accepting the widely held view of his time that God would not let animals go extinct, entertained the optimistic belief that large herbivores such as the bison of the American West roamed portions of the newly-acquired Louisiana Purchase along with American mastodons. The expedition failed to find great herds of American mastodons trumpeting their way across the vast prairies and grasslands of the Western United States. As any student of history knows, however, the expedition made many important biological discoveries ranging from unique animals as the pronghorn antelope and grizzly bear to various fish, reptiles and plants.

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Meriwether Lewis gave his name to the famous Lewis and Clark Expedition. as well as to the woodpecker named Lewis’s woodpecker.

The expedition also described nearly half a dozen species of birds that, at the time, had never been discovered and detailed by European Americans. These birds included the common poorwill and the greater sage-grouse. One of the birds — Lewis’s woodpecker — even memorializes the name of Meriwether Lewis and his important contributions to the success of the venture.

Lewis described the woodpecker that now bears his name as a bird “new to science” in one of his journal entries dated May 27, 1806. He made his observations of the bird while the expedition camped on the Clearwater River in what is now known as Kamiah, Idaho. He had mentioned the “black woodpecker” in earlier accounts in his journal, but during his time in the Idaho camp, he managed to shoot and preserve several of the birds. In his account, he described the bird’s behavior as similar to the red-headed woodpecker of the Atlantic states back in the eastern United States.

As it turns out, both Lewis’s woodpecker and the red-headed woodpecker belong to the Melanerpes genus of woodpeckers, which also includes about two dozen species ranging North and South America, as well as the islands of the Caribbean. The other members of the genus found in the United States include acorn woodpecker, gila woodpecker and red-bellied woodpecker. The term Melanerpes comes from ancient Greek words for black (melas) and creeper (herpes), which roughly translates as “black creeper.” Lewis’s woodpecker, one of the largest of its kind found in the United States, can reach a length of 10 to 11 inches. In 1811, the famous naturalist Alexander Wilson composed the first description of the bird for science and named it Melanerpes lewis after Meriwether Lewis. In addition, the bird’s common name has always identified it as Lewis’s woodpecker.

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Photo by Dave Menke/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service • Lewis’s woodpecker is found primarily in the west. It eats insects, mostly caught in the air, as well as fruits and nuts. The woodpecker also shells and stores acorns in the bark of trees.

These woodpeckers nest in open ponderosa pine forests and burned forests with a high density of standing dead trees. They also breed in woodlands near streams, oak woodlands, orchards, and pinyon-juniper woodlands. In appearance, Lewis’s woodpecker stands out from other American woodpeckers. Its unique appearance includes a pink belly, gray collar and dark green back, quite unlike any other member of its family. In behavior, it also differs from other woodpeckers. This woodpecker is fond of flycatching, perching on bare branches or poles and then making flight sallies to capture winged insect prey. It has also been described as flying more like a crow than a woodpecker.

We haven’t been good stewards of the woodpecker that the famous Expedition brought to our notice. According to the organization Partners in Flight, Lewis’s Woodpeckers are uncommon and declining. Their populations declined by 72 percent between 1970 and 2014. Lewis’s Woodpeckers are threatened by changing forest conditions as a result of fire suppression, grazing and logging. These factors often leave pines of a uniform age in the woodpecker’s favored habitat and fewer of the dead and decaying pines crucial for the bird’s nesting success. Humans could help Lewis’s woodpecker thrive by not removing dead or dying trees from western forests.

After the Lewis and Clark Expedition returned to the eastern United States and reported back to Jefferson, he was awarded with 1,600 acres of land. He meant to work on publishing the journals he kept during the Expedition, but kept finding himself distracted. In 1807, Jefferson appointed Lewis governor over the Louisiana Territory that Lewis and Clark had so famously explored. He governed the territory from the Missouri city of St. Louis, which became known as the “Gateway to the West” as more Americans expanded into the territory they had learned about thanks to the famous Expedition.

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Meriwether Lewis in a pose painted with him wearing garb he chose for the expedition.

Lewis spent two troubled years trying to administrate the new territory, but he became entangled in political squabbles and financial difficulties. Things got so difficult for him that Lewis decided he needed to travel to the nation’s capital in person to clear up the mess. On his way to Washington, D.C., he stopped at an inn along the Natchez Trace about seventy miles southwest of Nashville. He died of gunshot wounds on Oct. 11, 1809, and historians have debated ever since whether his death resulted from suicide or murder. Regardless of the nature of his demise, he earned a place in the history books. He’s also remembered every time a birder lays eyes on the woodpecker that bears his name. When the bird is researched in a field guide or on a web page, the more curious individuals are sure to dig a little deeper to learn who provided the Lewis in the woodpecker’s name. His name will continue to be recalled as long as this unusual western woodpecker continues to fly in its beloved pine forests.

I’ve never seen a Lewis’s woodpecker, although I have visited Utah twice to make the attempt. Lewis’s woodpecker is listed as an uncommon permanent resident on the state checklist, so perhaps I will need to be more diligent the next time I visit its home range. I see the red-bellied woodpecker, a smaller relative of Lewis’s woodpecker, on a regular basis. This common bird more closely resembles what most people expect a woodpecker to look like, and it will visit feeders for such fare as sunflower seeds, peanuts and suet.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • The red-bellied woodpecker is a close relative to Lewis’s woodpecker.

In next week’s column, I’ll continue my anniversary tribute to the Lewis and Clark Expedition with a discussion of the bird that honors William Clark, the other partner in the famous westward expedition of discovery.

Readers continue to share hummingbird tales
Garry Cole sent me an email recently to share a hummingbird story.

“I have been following the progress of hummingbird sightings as the birds moved closer to East Tennessee,” Garry wrote. “I read with envy how neighbors all around me had seen these jewels, but none had visited my home here in Hickory Tree near Bluff City.”

Then, on April 23, as Garry sat in the yard, a male ruby- throated hummingbird stopped and hovered less than a foot in front of his face.

“He looked me squarely in the eye as if to say, ‘Well, I’m here. When are you going to feed me?’”

Garry noted that the bird arrived at about 8:15 p.m. “I immediately went inside and prepared my feeder,” he said. “Now, I have at least four that visit my feeder every day. There may be more, but I have only seen four at one time.”

His hummingbirds drink about eight ounces of sugar mix every two or three days and seem to feed more frequently between 5 and 7 p.m.

Tom Brake shared via Facebook that hummingbirds have also returned to his home on Peaceful Valley Road in Abingdon, Virginia. In his posting to my Facebook page, he informed me that he had his first hummingbird sighting of spring on April 28.

Myra Harris message me on Facebook to let me know her mom, Mae Bell Byrd, who lives in Flag Pond in Unicoi County, Tennessee, saw her first hummingbird on April 12.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • Welcoming back hummingbirds also involves making sure that they remain healthy and safe while spending the next six months in our yards and gardens.

Birds serve as muses to inspire poets to greater heights

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Photo by makamuki0/Pixabay.com • The turtledove has featured prominently in poems and other literature, including the holiday song “The 12 Days of Christmas.”

With May’s arrival, other migrating birds have made stops in my yard, providing some excitement to the daily routine. It’s easy to wax poetic about the birds around us. Indeed, poets have been incorporating birds into some of their best-known work for centuries.

The Bard himself penned a poem titled “The Phoenix and the Turtle.” While the phoenix is a mythical bird and not one actually found in nature, the “turtle” in the poem’s title refers to the well-known European turtledove. Even before Shakespeare glorified the turtledove in his poetry, this small dove had already been entangled with myth and legend stretching back to Ancient Greece and Rome. For instance, the turtledove was considered by the Greeks as sacred to Demeter, the goddess of the harvest. Romans adopted the turtledove as an emblem of their goddess Fides, who reigned over the attributes of trust and faith. Perhaps, even more famously, the turtledove is still known today in the lyrics of the enduring Christmas carol, “The 12 Days of Christmas,” as the gift given on the second day of Christmas.

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Photo by skylarvision/Pixabay.com • The phoenix was a legendary bird that, if destroyed, arose from its own ashes to live again.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge gave us his gloomy “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” in 1798. The longest of his poems, it tells of a sailor who brings ill fortune upon himself by shooting an albatross, which is a family of sea-going birds consisting of about two dozen species. The poem also inspired the phrase “having an albatross around one’s neck” as a metaphor for bad luck.

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The poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge popularized the phrase “albatross around one’s neck” to suggest a period of ill fortune in his poem “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.”

Albatrosses are large birds with wingspans larger than most other birds, making them capable of spending almost their entire lives at sea except for the times they come ashore for the purpose of nesting. The entire family has been besieged by a variety of problems, many of which are caused by humans. Three albatross species are critically endangered, five species are endangered, seven species are near threatened and seven species are considered vulnerable.

One of America’s most famous poets often looked to the natural world, especially its feathered inhabitants, for inspiration for some of her most famous poetry. “Hope is the Thing with Feathers” by Emily Dickinson is arguably one of the finest metaphors in American poetry, with the abstract concept of hope being equated with a bird Dickinson likely observed in her gardens in Amherst, Massachusetts.

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The poet Emily Dickinson’s perceptive observations of the natural world show in her poetry.

I’ve always enjoyed Dickinson’s “A Bird Came Down the Walk,” which transforms an ordinary encounter between a bird and a woman tossing it a crumb into an inspiring message of perseverance. One cannot help but feel that Dickinson, a famously reclusive woman, also envied the bird its power of flight and the freedom its wings gave it.

A near contemporary of Dickinson, and one famous for his moody, rhythmical works, Edgar Allan Poe published his masterpiece “The Raven” in 1845. While the poem won him many fans, he received a paltry $9 from the magazine “The American Review” for the work. Perhaps because of the insulting matter of compensation, Poe first allowed the work to be published under a pseudonym. “The New York Evening Mirror” became the first outlet to publish the poem with Poe’s name attached to it.

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Edgar Allan Poe

The young poet Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote a classic poem titled “To a Skylark” in 1820. Shelley, one of the English Romantic poets, has been overshadowed in some ways by his wife, the novelist Mary Shelley, who provided the world with the enduring novel Frankenstein. Shelley apparently wrote his poem after he and his wife encountered one of these birds during a stroll in the countryside during a trip to Italy.

As is the case with good literature, Shelley’s poem inspired other authors. Reportedly, the English playwright Noël Coward and the American novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald received inspiration from lines in the poem to create titles for their respective works, “Blithe Spirit” and “Tender is the Night.” American playwright Tennessee Williams titled his first play “Not About Nightingales,” apparently as a reaction to Shelley’s ode.

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Although his wife arguably achieved more fame with her novel, Frankenstein, Percy Bysshe Shelley won immortality with his memorable poems in the spirit of English Romanticism.

The Eurasian skylark is a widespread species found across Europe and Asia. This bird has also been introduced in various locations around the world. In North America, introduced populations of skylarks are found on southern Vancouver Island in British Columbia and San Juan Island in the state of Washington.

The only native lark in North America is the horned lark, also known by its scientific name of Alauda alpestris, which translated means “lark of the mountains.” The horned lark is a common, widespread bird of open country, such as prairies, deserts, and agricultural lands. Although horned larks also sing in flight like their relative, only the Eurasian skylark seems to be famous enough for its song to inspire poets to write tributes. The Eastern meadowlark, a fairly common bird in the region, is not an actual lark but a member of the blackbird family.

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Photo by Kathy2408/Pixabay.com • A Eurasian skylark perches on a wire. This bird once inspired the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley to write his famous poem “To a Skylark.”

 

Based on the opening lines to Shelley’s poem, it can be safely argued that Shelley was particularly impressed by the skylark’s song.

“Hail to thee, blithe spirit!
Bird thou never wert,
That from heaven, or near it,
Pourest thy full heart
In profuse strains of unpremeditated art.”

Birds are continually inspiring us, much like a singing skylark once served as an avian muse for one of Shelley’s most famous poems. Whether it is their song, their beauty, or their free spirits, birds are certainly worthy of a poem or two.

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“Hope” is the thing with feathers – That perches in the soul – And sings the tune without the words – And never stops – at all – And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard – And sore must be the storm – That could abash the little Bird That kept so many warm – I’ve heard it in the chillest land – And on the strangest Sea – Yet – never – in Extremity, It asked a crumb – of me.                                   — by Emily Dickinson

 

 

Now that hummingbirds are back, take some simple steps to keep them healthy

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • Welcoming back hummingbirds also involves making sure that they remain healthy and safe while spending the next six months in our yards and gardens.

Bristol residents Don and Donna Morrell saw their first hummingbird of spring at 10:19 a.m. on Monday, April 15. “My wife put the feeder up last week,” wrote Don in an email to me. “We live behind South Houston Dam.”

Gordon Aiton, who lives on Elm Street in Erwin, Tennessee, saw his first hummingbird of spring at 7:04 p.m. on Friday, April 19.

Phyllis Moore saw her first hummingbird — a male — at 7:50 p.m. on Friday, April 19, at her home in Bristol, Virginia.

Lynda Carter emailed me to report her first spring sighting of a male ruby-throated hummingbird at her feeder after lunch on Monday, April 15, and a second male appeared on Friday, April 19, a little after 1 p.m. Lynda said she lives at the end of Embreeville mountain in the Lamar community near Jonesborough, Tennessee.

Susan Okrasinski, a resident of Kingsport, Tennessee, saw her first hummingbird of spring on Easter Sunday, April 21.

“On my way into the kitchen I just saw (be still my heart) the first hummer of the season — whoo hoo!” Susan wrote in a post on her Facebook page. “It was a female, which is unusual as the males come up first and the females follow.  What a nice Easter surprise!”

Joanne Campbell, who lives at Middlebrook Lake in Bristol, Tennessee, posted on my Facebook page about her first spring hummer. “Had our first hummingbird sweep into our courtyard on Tuesday, April 23,” she wrote in her post.

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Photo by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service • A ruby-throated hummingbird seeks nectar from small blooms on a flower.

Every hummingbird’s arrival at our homes after an absence of nearly six months is nothing short of an epic achievement on the part of this tiny bird. According to the website, hummingbird.net, most ruby-throated hummingbirds make a daring journey across the Gulf of Mexico to return to their summer homes in the United States and Canada. They typically depart at dusk for their nonstop Gulf flight of up to 500 miles, which takes 18 to 22 hours, depending on the weather.

Now that we’ve welcomed them back into our yards and gardens after such a harrowing journey, it’s important as good hosts to make sure these tiny wonders are kept safe.

Some ways of ensuring that our hummingbird guests are kept healthy and secure are simply common sense. For instance, don’t use pesticides, herbicides or any other sort of toxin anywhere close to the vicinity of a sugar water feeder or a flower garden. Hummingbirds are such tiny creatures with such intense metabolisms that it only takes a minute amount of any harmful substance to sicken or kill one of these little flying gems.

Feeding hummingbirds is easy, but many people try to complicate the process. Only common, pure cane sugar, mixed to a ratio of four parts water to one part sugar, is a safe choice for these birds.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • Hummingbirds have even inspired ornaments and keepsakes in their image, a testament to their popularity and beloved status as yard and garden visitors.

For emphasis, I’ll repeat again that only common, pure cane sugar is safe for hummingbirds. There are no safe substitutes. Do not use organic, raw or brown sugar. Confectioner’s sugar, which contains an anti-caking substance (often corn starch, silicates or stearate salts), is also hazardous to hummingbirds.

There’s also a type of sugar known as turbinado sugar, which is named for the process of spinning the sugar in turbines to crystallize it. The crystals are rich in vitamins and mineral valuable for human health, but they are lethal for hummingbirds. Iron is one of the minerals contained in turbinado sugar. Hummingbird metabolism has a low tolerance for iron, which is present in the molasses added to brown sugar and in agave nectar. These are natural substances, but that doesn’t make them safe for hummingbirds.

The ratio of four parts water to one part sugar utilizing pure cane sugar most closely duplicates the nectar that hummingbirds obtain from some of their favorite flowers. Why try to mess with nature’s perfection?

I cannot imagine why anyone would supplement sugar water for hummingbirds with such human beverages as a sports drink or Kool-aid, but there have been reports of people doing so. Be aware that such additives will only risk the health of these tiny birds.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • Female ruby-throated hummingbirds must face many demands if they are to be successful at nesting and raising young, both tasks being done without assistance from male hummingbirds.

Honey is another substance, although perfectly natural in its origins, that should be avoided. Honey encourages the growth of fungus, which can quickly incapacitate or kill a hummingbird. A packet of artificial sweetener might taste great in your iced tea, but do not add such substances to the solution in your hummingbird feeder. These artificial sugar substitutes offer nothing of nutritional value for a bird with an extreme metabolism with excessive energy demands. In theory, a hummingbird mistakenly feeding on nothing but an artificial sweetener would soon starve to death.

It’s also important to change out your feeders and clean them as often as every one to three days. In extremely hot weather reaching more than 90 degrees, the sugar solution may need to be changed and the feeder cleaned on a daily basis. That’s not as difficult as it sounds. I prepare sugar water and store it in plastic juice containers. Refrigerated, the solution will last longer and can be doled out on a daily basis until a new supply is needed.

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Photo by sapphir1/Pixabay.com • Although a natural substance, honey should not be fed to hummingbirds as it can promote a fungus harmful to hummingbirds.

Don’t use any type of soap or detergent to clean the feeders. The best advice I’ve read is to stick to hot water and vinegar, which will not leave behind a residue that could potentially harm the hummingbirds.

Do not put any sort of red dye or coloring into the sugar water, and do not purchase commercial solutions that incorporate red dyes. Some scientific studies suggest that red dye is a recipe for disaster with hummingbird. Such dyes are thought to lead to kidney failure and certain death for the hummingbird. There’s also plenty of evidence to suggest that banning red dye is an exaggeration of the peril. Taking that into consideration, I still err on the side of caution. Perhaps the red dye will eventually be proven harmless. Until that time, I prefer not to risk the health of my resident hummingbirds.

I’m often asked if the sugar water feeder itself should be red. There is ample evidence that hummingbirds are attracted to red. According to information from the National Audubon Society website, current thinking is that the red dye, as just mentioned, may not be good for them, nor is it necessary to attract hummingbirds. The color on a feeder is enough to attract them. Most feeders incorporate some red parts into their construction. People can mix their own nectar using 1/4 cup sugar to every 1 cup of water.

It’s a lot of work to attract hummingbirds and keep them safe and healthy. I’d like to think the rewards we get from these small birds make the effort worthwhile.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • A female ruby-throated hummingbird, lacking the bright throat patch of a male, surveys her surroundings from a low perch.