Monthly Archives: November 2020

Common grackles part of November’s changing bird lineup

 

Photo by Bernell MacDonald/Pixabay.com • Common grackles are quite accomplished at foraging for food in a variety of habitats.

November is a month of transition. The birds of summer have all “flown the coop,” returning to warmer climes to the south in Central and South America, as well as the Caribbean. Of course, even as hummingbirds, warblers, tanagers, vireos, and others have fled North America in advance of winter’s imminent arrival, other birds are arriving to take their place.

Many of the newcomers don’t offer the vibrant plumage of a scarlet tanager or a rose-breasted grosbeak, but they make up for the lack of striking feathers by remaining quite faithful to our feeders during the bleak, short days of winter. A hermit thrush and a dark-eyed junco represented some first-of-autumn arrivals when they showed up Nov. 6, followed the next day by a swamp sparrow. In addition to the sparrow, three ravenous common grackles descended on my suet feeders that same day.

For many bird enthusiasts, the “common” in this particular bird’s name is particularly apt. Tending to form large, noisy flocks, common grackles can easily wear out even the most generous welcome. Perhaps because I live at a mid-elevation area, common grackles are extremely infrequent visitors to my yard. I can be a little more welcoming to a bird that I know is not likely to linger.

Photo by diapicard/Pixabay.com • A common grackle perches on a shepherd’s hook in a garden. These large birds, which are part of the blackbird family, form flocks and bring big appetites to feeders during migratory stops.

Nevertheless, that same evening these three grackles must have spread the word because a flock of about 30 of these birds arrived. If I needed a reminder, the flock provided a quick one. A handful of grackles isn’t too disruptive, but a large flock can quickly overwhelm and intimidate smaller feeder birds.

Even so, I remain inclusive in my embrace of all feathered friends. A much maligned bird if ever there was one, the common grackle is worth a second look. For those who are able to overlook the occasional bad habits of birds such as Northern mockingbirds, mourning doves, or even cantankerous ruby-throated hummingbirds, there may be hope for this large member of the diverse family of blackbirds, known by scientific types as a member of the family Icteridae. This grouping of New World species, also known as New World blackbirds, includes such members as orioles, meadowlarks, cowbirds, bobolinks, marshbirds, orependolas, caciques and, of course, blackbirds.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A boat-tailed grackle sings, if the bird’s harsh, grating notes can be considered a song, from a perch in a wetland in South Carolina.

The common grackle is known by the scientific name Quiscalus quiscula. In the southeast, in particular along the coast and in wetland areas, a common and related species is the boat-tailed grackle. Other species of grackles found in the New World include the great-tailed grackle, Nicaraguan grackle, Great Antillean grackle and the Carib grackle. A little more distantly related are the South American species golden-tufted mountain grackle and the Colombian mountain grackle.

One species — the slender-billed grackle of Mexico — suffered extinction at the dawn of the 20th century. Reasons for this bird’s disappearance are not clearly understood, but habitat destruction of Mexican wetlands and hunting pressures have been theorized as causes. Like others of its kind, the slender-billed grackle may also have been persecuted as an agricultural pest.

Like many other birds dependent on wetlands, common grackles have experienced population declines in recent decades. Although it seems odd to refer to a bird with a population estimated at around 73 million individuals in North America as on the decline, common grackles have suffered an estimated population loss of about 60 percent from historic highs.

Male grackles stand out from other blackbirds due to their sheer size. Males can reach a length of 13 inches, although much of that can be measured in an exceptionally long tail. A grackle’s plumage has a black sheen that can shine with brilliant iridescence that tends to appear purple, green or blue when the sun shines just right on the feathers. Females tend to be smaller than males and are a muted black and brown. Both sexes have long, sturdy bills and yellow eyes.

Most rural residents don’t have to worry about common grackles overwhelming their feeders, but some people living in urban and suburban settings have found grackles to be difficult guests. The birds have bottomless appetites and are aggressive toward more desirable feeder birds. Fortunately, migrating flocks in the fall tend not to linger. After a brief visit, which can still deplete supplies of seed and suet cakes, the grackles continue migrating.

Grackles are usually one of the earliest birds to return each spring. In fact, it’s not at all unusual for these large birds to make their way back to the region as early as late February. I am usually glad to welcome them back since I know that their return is a strong indication that some more favored species are certain to follow in their wake and that winter’s grip is waning.

Are you seeing new arrivals in your yard or at your feeders? Let me know by emailing ahoodedwarbler@aol.com.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Boat-tailed grackles perch on viewing equipment at an observation platform at Huntington Beach State Park in South Carolina.

Finches arrive ahead of winter in impressive numbers

I’d watched with some degree of envy after friends posted on social media about the arrival of purple finches and pine siskins earlier this fall. What was wrong with my yard?

Fortunately, I only needed to remain patient. People began reporting the arrival of these two species of winter finches at their feeders weeks ago all across Tennessee. The purple finches and pine siskins showed up, finally, at my home on Oct. 23.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Male and female purple finches share space at a feeder.

The pine siskin nests during the summer on the higher elevations of Roan Mountain. These small finches, which are related to the American goldfinch, are common winter feeder visitors some years and completely absent other years. This looks to be a year for siskin abundance. Andrew Del-Colle, Site Director and Editor for Audubon Magazine, posted a recent article about this autumn’s dramatic irruption of pine siskins.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A pine siskin in a spruce at Carver’s Gap on Roan Mountain.

Project FeederWatch, which has monitored North American bird population trends for decades, defines the term irruption as a sudden change in the population density of an organism. In the case of birds, irruptions refer to the movement of northern-wintering species to the south in years of low food availability. Other species that often stage winter irruptions include evening grosbeaks, red-breasted nuthatches and common redpolls. There’s also some indication that some of these other birds may make their way south this winter.

“If you’ve never seen a pine siskin, this is your year,” Del-Colle wrote. “In the past month, the birds have invaded the United States in search of food, inundating backyard feeders across the country. Without question, it’s one of the biggest irruption years in recorded history for the finches.”

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Purple finches jostle for space in a feeder stocked with sunflower seeds.

The pine siskins at my home spend much of their time in weedy fields adjacent to my home and visit my feeders on a semi-regular basis. I suspect their feeder visitation will increase once some truly wintry weather arrives.

The purple finches that arrived on the same day do not rival the siskins in sheer numbers. Nevertheless, the purple finches have lingered, as well. The purple finch, which is a winter visitor to northeast Tennessee, southwest Virginia and western North Carolina, is apparently not as common as in the past. Experts have speculated that the decline in the numbers of purple finches each winter can be attributed, at least in part, to the closely related house finch. The house finch may simply be out-competing the purple finch for scarce natural resources.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A male house finch perched on a cable. These finches are native to the western United States but became established in the eastern states thanks to the illicit pet trade.

The house finch is quite widespread across the United States. Originally, however, the house finch was a bird of the western part of the country, living in Mexico and the southwestern United States. About 1940, the house finch became established in the eastern United States. In violation of federal law, these small finches were being sold in New York City as pet birds described as “Hollywood Finches.” To avoid trouble with authorities, vendors and even some owners released their “Hollywood Finches” into the wild. Finding the area around New York City to their liking, house finches spread. Within a few decades, they were common birds throughout the eastern United States, including Tennessee, Virginia and North Carolina.

As the house finch claimed a new range, they inevitably encountered the related purple finch. During the winter, both finches are often present at feeders in the region. When both are available for observation, bird enthusiasts should take advantage of the opportunity to compare and contrast these birds. I have never had any difficulty distinguishing a purple finch from a house finch. The two species, at least in my eyes, are easily recognized. I can understand why some people might have trouble separating the two birds. The late Roger Tory Peterson once described the purple finch as a bird “dipped in raspberry juice.” Think about that imagery for a moment and you’ve got a good start to distinguishing a male purple finch from a male house finch. With some practice, observers will come to notice the subtle differences between a purple finch and a house finch.

These two finches belong to the genus Haemorhous, which can be roughly translated as “the color of blood.” The two species are also simply classified as American rosefinches. This grouping also includes a third species, Cassin’s finch, which occurs in the western United States. I have seen all three species, adding Cassin’s finch during a visit to Utah in 2006.

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Differentiating purple finches

from house finches can be a challenge

Let’s deal first with the males. Male purple finches are delicate pink-red (that raspberry coloration) on the head and breast, mixing with brown on the back and cloudy white on the belly. The red of a male purple finch is definitely a color I have not observed with many other birds. Even “red” birds such as male Northern cardinals and male scarlet tanagers do not show the same red color. Once you learn the way the red appears in the plumage of a male purple finch, you are on your way to telling this bird apart from its relative.

The red in the plumage of male house finches is surprisingly variable. In most cases, the heads, necks and shoulders of male birds are reddish and the red at times extends to the stomach and between the wings on the bird’s back. The intensity of the red changes with the seasons and is also derived from the berries and fruits in the bird’s diet. Pale yellow and bright orange are alternatives to the typical red plumage.

Look closely at the photograph of the purple finches accompanying this column. There’s a distinctive facial pattern evident on the birds. The strong facial markings include a whitish eye stripe and a dark line down the side of the throat. This pattern simply doesn’t exist with the male house finch. When I make a snap identification of these two birds, I always look for the facial pattern even before I study any other aspects of the appearance of the bird. In addition, purple finches have powerful, conical beaks and a tail that appears short and is clearly notched at the tip. Rounding out the description of a male house finch is the fact that they have a long, square-tipped brown tail and are brown or dull-brown across the back with some shading into gray on the wing feathers. The breast and stomach feathers may be streaked.

Females of both house finches and purple finches are dull brown birds that could easily be mistaken for sparrows. Again, the facial pattern is much more apparent on a female purple finch than on the related female house finch. In addition, I have always noticed that female purple finches are usually a darker shade of brown than the dull brown female house finches. Both male and female house finches are more slender than their more chunky-bodied counterparts.

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Although not closely related to our American birds, there is also a group known as rosefinches common to Europe and Asia. Some of these distant relatives include such descriptively named birds as scarlet finch, streaked rosefinch, red-mantled rosefinch, pink-browed rosefinch, long-tailed rosefinch, three-banded rosefinch and Himalayan beautiful rosefinch.

Purple finches occupy a variety of winter habitats, including fields, woodland edges, lawns and gardens. All it takes to lure these finches to feeders is a plentiful offering of sunflower seeds. If you are lucky enough to have both of these finches visiting your feeders, take time to study the differences. It takes some practice, but they can be distinguished quite confidently.

 

Twenty-five years ago this week, dark-eyed junco provided inspiration for first column

I wrote my first bird column on Sunday, Nov. 5, 1995, which means this weekly column is marking its 25th anniversary this week. This column has appeared over the last three decades in a total of six different newspapers, which I regard as a personal achievement, as well as an accomplishment for our feathered friends. It’s on their behalf that I pen these weekly efforts to promote conservation and good will toward all birds. I have also posted the column as a weekly blog posting since February of 2014 at ourfinefeatheredfriends.wordpress.com.

Photo by Steve McLeod/Pixabay.com • The dark-eyed junco is a fairly common winter resident in the region. Rather widespread, different races of the dark-eyed junco are found throughout the North American continent.

I’ve played detective, helping people identify everything from “rain crows,” or cuckoos, to Muscovy ducks and double-crested cormorants. I’ve observed unusual birds, including white pelican, brant and roseate spoonbill, in Northeast Tennessee and Southwest Virginia and spotlighted them in these columns. I still take delight in the kaleidoscopic parade of colorful warblers that pass through the region each spring and fall as well as the fast-paced duel of ruby-throated hummingbirds and the occasional rufous hummingbird straying through the region.At my home, I also provide sunflower seed and other supplemental food for the resident birds like Carolina chickadees, white-breasted nuthatches, song sparrows and downy woodpeckers.

Photo by Steve McLeod/Pixabay.com • The dark-eyed junco is a fairly common winter resident in the region. They are faithful feeder visitors during bouts of wintry weather.

Even as I write my silver anniversary column for “Feathered Friends,” local weather forecasters are predicting the winter’s first hard freeze. This prognostication of approaching winter weather is a perfect time to dust off this week’s column, which is a revision of the first bird column I ever wrote. This column focused on a common visitor to yards and feeders during the winter months. In fact, dark-eyed juncos should be returning to the region any day. Here, with some revisions I have made through the years, is that first column.

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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.

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.”

Photo by Bryan Stevens / A Dark-eyed Junco visits a hanging feeder.

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.

During the summer months, a visit to higher elevations mountaintops is almost guaranteed to produce sightings of dark-eyed juncos. Juncos may nest as many three times in a season. A female junco usually lays three to six eggs for each nest, which she constructs without any assistance from her mate.

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.

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.

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.

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

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.

Of course, the real entertainment from juncos come from their frequent visits to our backyard feeders. When these birds flock to a feeder and began 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!

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If you’d like to share your first sighting this season of dark-eyed juncos as the temperatures get colder, email me at ahoodedwarbler@aol.com. As always, the column is also a line of communication with fellow bird enthusiasts. I’ve enjoyed sharing stories about birds with countless readers over the past 25 years. I can also be reached on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/ahoodedwarbler. 

 

 

Screech-owls are tiny terrors in the dark

Photo by Irene K-s/Pixabay.com • An Eastern screech owl keeps an eye on its surroundings.

I’ve been listening to almost daily serenades by an Eastern screech-owl in the woods around my home. The wailing, trembling vocalization usually starts around dusk and can continue at intervals throughout the night. As a half moon rose in the darkening sky on the evening of Oct. 22, I paused a few moments to listen to the wailing and haunting vocalizations of two different screech-owls from the edges of the woods.

I’m glad to have this small owl as a neighbor, but I fully realize that owls have suffered from a dark reputation in certain corners. The fact is, unless you are a small rodent or some sort of insect-sized prey, the Eastern screech-owl makes an excellent neighbor.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • An Eastern screech-owl perches in the branches of an Eastern hemlock.

On the verge of Halloween, a closer look at this small owl is warranted. An adult Eastern screech-owl is usually only between six and nine inches in length. Many people upon first seeing a screech-owl assume it’s a baby owl. During past trips to Brookgreen Gardens in South Carolina, I have enjoyed attending the daily educational programs conducted by the zoo staff at Brookgreen. These programs are designed to introduce visitors to various examples of native wildlife. The presenter usually introduced a couple of animals to the audience. On several occasions, the show featured birds of prey, including hawks and owls.

Two of the shows during my visit to Brookgreen back in 2019 featured Lucy, an Eastern screech-owl, and people in the audience invariably asked if she was a baby owl. To their astonishment, they learned that Lucy was an adult screech-owl and unlikely to grow any bigger. There are larger owls in our region, including the great horned owl and barred owl. Lucy and her kin must avoid these much larger owls, which would not scruple at making a meal of the much smaller owl.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Lucy, a red Eastern screech-owl at Brookgreen Gardens.

Because of their small size, screech-owls prey on some comparatively small creatures, including insects, small rodents, amphibians, songbirds and reptiles. The Eastern screech-owl is also a cavity-nesting bird and will accept bird boxes provided by humans so long as the box’s entrance hole is customized to their size.

The screech-owl is the owl most likely to encounter human beings. It’s an adaptable little feathered predator, fully as at home in the backyard and garden as it is in parks and woodlands. In addition to nesting in cavities, this owl roosts in them during the daytime hours. Look for roosting screech-owls in knotholes of trees or in unoccupied wood duck boxes. Although they come in two color phases — red and gray — both variations are quite capable of camouflage. When perched or roosting, these small owls blend remarkably with their surroundings.

The Eastern screech owl also produces a variety of odd wails and other vocalizations including a distinctive, trembling “whinny” call that is often made when the owl feels curious or alarmed. It’s a wavering, haunting call that is made after dark, most often at the hours closer to dawn and dusk. Imitating the call of a screech-owl or playing a recording is also a trick for getting some shy songbirds to show themselves. Screech-owls are not-so-welcome neighbors among my yard’s songbirds, which will flock to this owl’s call and band together to “mob” the predator and try to convince it to depart the immediate area.

In addition to the Eastern screech-owl, the United States is also home to several other small owls, including Western screech-owl, Northern pygmy-owl, Northern saw-whet owl, flammulated owl and elf owl, which at six inches tall and a weight of less than an ounce qualifies as the world’s smallest owl.

When I finished listening to the recent owl duet and returned indoors for the evening, I reflected on the fact that screech-owls make good neighbors. Their prey preferences remove many nuisance insects and rodents from the habitat they share with humans as well as other wildlife. If you’re hearing an odd, winnowing call from the edge of the woods at your own home, there’s a good chance that you have one of these small owls as a neighbor. Keep alert for these small owls as we approach this year’s Halloween.

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To learn more about birds and other topics from the natural world, friend Stevens on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/ahoodedwarbler. 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 ahoodedwarbler@aol.com.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • An Eastern screech-owl at rest in a roosting hole in a large sycamore tree.