Monthly Archives: October 2022

Crows and their dark kin conjure spooky associations

There’s something rather autumnal about watching a flock of American crows glean the last scattered kernels of corn from a harvested field as one of the flock stands sentry and ready to utter the alarm with some guttural “caws” should anything potentially threatening appear on the scene. Crows are such a part of the landscape that they would almost escape our notice if they didn’t come with centuries of accumulated baggage that makes us distrust them and suspect their every action.

While seeking birds far afield, I have occasionally spotted some innovative scarecrows standing guard in gardens and agricultural fields. I’m not sure if anyone still erects these human effigies for their original purpose of warding off crows and other feathered agricultural pests. These days, scarecrows likely serve an ornamental purpose and are often part of a yard’s whimsical Halloween or autumn decorations.

The crow, largely thanks to its glossy black feathers, but perhaps also with a nod to its avian intelligence, has long been associated with Halloween. Greeting cards and decorations for the holiday often feature depictions of bats, owls and black cats, as well as the inevitable crow and the accompanying scarecrow. With a brain about as big as a man’s thumb, the crow is renowned among ornithologists and other scientists for its keen intelligence. Crows are not fooled for a second by the charade of a straw-stuffed, brainless friend of Dorothy propped in a field.

Photo by Jack Bulmer/Pixabay • American crows and their kin, albeit unfairly, have often been painted darkly because of their black plumage. These fascinating birds are worth a second look and not just during the Halloween season.

The intelligence of this bird has long been known. Early American naturalist William Bartram wrote about a crow named Tom in a highly entertaining essay titled “Anecdotes of an American Crow.” Bartram, who lived from 1739 to 1823, brought humorous observations and keen insight to his subject as he wrote about the joys — as well as tribulations — of living with Tom, a crow that enjoyed tormenting Bartram’s dog and purloining the writer’s spectacles and trying to hide them.

The essay demonstrates that almost as soon as Europeans arrived in North America, some of those with a bent toward the natural world recognized the intelligence and amazing adaptability of the American crow. As well as writing about the natural world, Bartram earned widespread acclaim for his drawings of botanical and ornithological subjects. Tom, the featured crow in Bartram’s brief essay, certainly exhibited intelligence of an impressive degree. Not only did the crow steal his owner’s eyeglasses, he foiled Bartram’s first attempt to reclaim them. The story makes very humorous reading. To read Bartram’s account, visit

What else have crows done down through the ages to gain such a dark and much undeserved reputation? It probably doesn’t help matters that a flock of crows is known as a “murder.” Ancient Greeks considered crows as omens, which often foretold death and other disasters. The warrior goddess known as the Morrighan from Celtic mythology often appears in the form of a crow or raven. She is also often portrayed as being accompanied by a group of these black-plumaged birds. Many Native American tribes revere crows as communicators between worlds. Crows have been documented using tools and solving problems, which shows an uncanny ability to analyze and strategize. The early Celtic people also noted and admired these traits in crows.

I think the Celts and Native tribes had the right idea. Crows are admirable birds for many reasons. For instance, they are very social birds, often forming family flocks. They may also form much larger flocks for the purpose of roosting. When nesting, this social behavior comes in useful for a mated pair. Offspring from previous successful nesting efforts often serve as helpers. In addition to gaining their own life experience on successful nesting and caring for chicks, these older siblings may protect the nest site from predators or even deliver food to fill hungry beaks and bellies.

While famous for their associations to humans and our agriculture, crows forage far beyond the cornfield for their food. Many crows scavenge road-killed wildlife, such as squirrels, opossums and rabbits. While they certainly don’t turn up their beaks at the notion of eating carrion, crows do so less often than birds such as turkey vultures, black vultures and the crow’s fellow corvid, the common raven.

The kinship to the raven is evident, but even moderately experienced birders rarely confuse these similar species. The raven is a large bird with a heavy beak, a distinctive profile and a wedge-shaped tail. In a direct comparison with a raven, a crow looks downright puny. Both are members of the corvid family, which consists of 120 species including jays, rooks, magpies and jackdaws. Some of the world’s other crows include the descriptively named little crow, hooded crow, carrion crow, collared crow, long-billed crow and violet crow. While most of the world’s crows are thriving, the Hawaiian crow has been extinct in the wild since 2002, although the species still exists in captive-breeding programs in various zoos.

Thanks to its resourcefulness and intelligence, the crow is deserving of more respect and even admiration. The American crow is a uniquely American success story. Think more of Bartram’s story about Tom the crow and not the dark, misguided myths and legends about crows this Halloween. Long may the crows fly.



Owls haunt the dark of night while flying on silent wings

Photo by Pixabay • A perched Great Horned Owl appears to blend into the structure of a tree’s limbs, offering the nocturnal predator excellent camouflage.

There’s nothing to send shivers traveling along your spine like listening to the haunting hoots of a great horned owl hidden from human eyes by the cloak of darkness. It’s no wonder that owls have also become popular motifs for the celebration of the Halloween holiday. Just remember there’s more to these creatures of the night than perhaps meets the eye. Owls may be our neighbors, but we’ll never truly belong to their world, which must be why they continue to intrigue us.

While human culture has turned owls into beloved creatures, keep in mind these birds are fierce and ferocious predators. For young American crows in their nests, this owl is the stuff of their avian nightmares. It’s no wonder that crows, which no doubt witness their peers taken by the great horned owl as prey when young and helpless, grow up with an abiding hatred of this large nocturnal raptor. Flocks of adult crows form quickly when an owl is discovered at a roost during the daylight hours. With safety in numbers, the crows mercilessly hound and harry such unlucky owls.

Quite often, it does take a crow’s sharp eye to detect a motionless owl at its daytime roost. Great horned owls have a plumage of mottled grays and browns, as well as some white feathers on the chin and throat. This plumage helps them blend into their surroundings. Even when on the move, the great horned owl rarely attracts attention. They can fly in almost perfect silence on their wide wings. I know this from firsthand experience. Back in the early 2000s I visited Orchard Bog in Shady Valley in Johnson County in early spring for a chance to witness the evening display of American woodcocks from the nearby woodlands. While standing with some other birders, I noticed a large shadow moving low over the fields heading toward us. As the bird got closer, it became recognizable as a great horned owl. The owl barely diverted from its flight. In fact, it flew just over our heads, gliding silently on wide wings. I still marvel at how the owl’s wings made no noise whatsoever. The owl continued to glide over the fields until we lost it in the dusk. 

Photo by Alexas-Fotos/Pixabay • A great horned owl is capable of almost silent flight, which helps the predatory bird take prey by surprise. Many myths and superstitions surround the world’s owls, but the truth about owls is often more fascinating.

On another occasion I also witnessed how, when they want to do so, great horned owls can be absolutely silent. While vacationing on Fripp Island, South Carolina, in the 1990s, I would accompany my family members on dusk gold cart excursions. We liked to pull off the side of the road on a causeway that crossed a series of tidal creeks and marsh. On that occasion, a great horned owl flew from nearby woodlands to land on a gnarled snag that rose above the marshland vegetation. Although the owl arrived on silent wings, it soon interrupted the silence with resonant hoots that carried over the marshes. The owl returned to the same snag for two additional evenings during our vacation stay.

I’ve seen other great horned owl over the years in locations from South Carolina and Florida to Utah and Tennessee. I’ve heard many more of these large owls than I have ever been able to get into focus in my binoculars.

Here are a few other interesting facts about the great horned owl:

• This owl is one of the few predators that preys regularly on skunks. Lacking a well-defined sense of smell, owls aren’t bothered in the least by the skunk’s powerful arsenal of stink.

• A wild great horned owl’s longevity peaks at around 13 years of age. Captive owls have been reported reach ages of more than 30 years old.

• Various Native American tribes have held owls in high respect. Dwight G. Smith, author of Great Horned Owl, a book in the Wild Bird Guides series, noted that members of the Zuni tribe of the southwestern United States often hold owl feathers in their mouths to impart the owl’s ability to hunt silently onto their own hunting abilities.

• Great horned owls will eat other birds. They will eat other predatory birds, as well, including ospreys, peregrine falcon and various hawks. The smaller barred owl knows to stay out of their way, too.

• The David Lynch drama “Twin Peaks,” which ran originally on ABC from April of 1990 to June of 1991, spent considerable time dwelling on the mystery that “the owls are not what they seem.” Footage of great horned owls provided a sinister, mysterious mood that fascinated viewers. The series was resurrected in 2017 on Showtime. Alas, although owls returned in the revival of the series, fans still really don’t know the truth about the owls and their importance to the fictional town of Twin Peaks.

• The Celtic people believed that owls knew the paths that led into the underworld. Perhaps that is how owls became regarded as messengers capable of crossing realms. Many Native American tribes have stories about owls delivering messages from the supernatural spirit world to our own reality. 

I align with the cultures that regard an owl as an omen of good fortune. Any time you get a chance to observe an owl, it’s a good thing. It’s not often we get to glimpse these fascinating birds as they emerge from the shadows. Celebrate any opportunity.


As always, email me at to share observations, make comments, or ask questions.

Region’s 53rd Fall Bird Count tallies one-day total of 125 species

Photo by Image by simardfrancois/Pixabay • A single great crested flycatcher was tallied during this year’s Fall Bird Count conducted by members and friends of the Elizabethton Bird Club.

The 53rd consecutive Elizabethton Fall Count was held Saturday, Sept. 24, conducted by 26 observers in nine parties. The weather was cool and cloudy, with scattered light showers in most areas. Counters covered parts of Carter County and territory in the adjacent counties of Johnson, Sullivan, Unicoi and Washington.

According to long-time count compiler Rick Knight, participants tallied 125 species, which is exactly the average of the last 30 years.

The all-time high for the count was 137 species in 1993. Conversely, the lowest total in the last 30 years was 102 species in 1999.

Along with Rob Armistead, I counted birds around Sycamore Shoals State Historic Park and the linear walking trail along the Watauga River in Elizabethton.
The highlights of our morning included good looks at a male prairie warbler and some common mergansers on the river.

The list:
Canada goose, 881; wood duck, 50; blue-winged teal, 3; mallard, 195; American black duck, 1; and common merganser, 6.

Northern bobwhite, 6; wild turkey, 50; and pied-billed grebe, 1.

Rock pigeon, 477; Eurasian collared-dove, 8; mourning dove, 248; yellow-billed cuckoo, 3; common nighthawk, 1; chimney swift, 91; and ruby-throated hummingbird; 18.

Virginia rail, 2; sora, 1; killdeer, 12; semipalmated sandpiper, 1; and wilson’s snipe, 1.

Double-crested cormorant, 30; great blue heron, 25; great egret, 5; and green heron, 4, Black vulture, 43; turkey vulture, 82; osprey, 8; Northern harrier, 1; sharp-shinned hawk, 1; Cooper’s hawk, 5; bald eagle, 4; red-shouldered hawk, 7; and red-tailed hawk, 9.

Eastern screech-owl, 19; great horned owl, 7; barred owl, 4; belted kingfisher, 25; red-headed woodpecker, 8; Red-bellied woodpecker, 69; yellow-bellied sapsucker, 2; downy woodpecker, 32; hairy woodpecker, 24; Northern flicker, 50; and pileated woodpecker, 29.

American kestrel, 24; merlin, 1; and peregrine falcon, 2.

Great crested flycatcher, 1; Eastern wood-pewee, 12; Acadian flycatcher, 1; Empidonax species, 1; Eastern phoebe, 93; White-eyed vireo, 4; yellow-throated vireo, 3; blue-headed vireo, 15; and red-eyed vireo 11.

Blue jay, 415; American crow, 436; fish crow, 2; common raven, 11; tree swallow, 130; and barn swallow , 6.

Carolina chickadee, 167; tufted titmouse, 136; red-breasted nuthatch, 7; white-breasted nuthatch, 51; house wren, 9; winter wren, 1; marsh wren, 1; Carolina wren, 157; blue-gray gnatcatcher, 1; golden-crowned kinglet, 4; and ruby-crowned kinglet, 3.

Veery, 2; gray-cheeked thrush, 5; Swainson’s thrush, 85; American robin, 271; gray catbird, 37; brown thrasher, 9; Northern mockingbird, 69; and European starling, 453.

Cedar waxwing, 225; house sparrow, 28; house finch, 52; red crossbill, 2; and American goldfinch, 145.

Chipping sparrow, 72; field sparrow, 19; dark-eyed junco, 17; song sparrow, 83; Eastern towhee, 59; Eastern meadowlark, 17; and red-winged blackbird, 67.

Ovenbird, 4; worm-eating warbler, 1; Northern waterthrush, 2; black-and-white warbler, 13; Tennessee warbler, 57; Orange-crowned warbler, 1; Nashville warbler, 3; Common yellowthroat, 15; hooded warbler, 4; American redstart, 34; Cape May warbler, 18; Northern parula, 10; Magnolia warbler, 25; bay-breasted warbler, 16; Blackburnian warbler, 11; chestnut-sided warbler, 5; black-throated blue warbler, 15; palm warbler, 96; pine warbler, 6; Yellow-rumped warbler, 5; yellow-throated warbler, 1; Prairie warbler, 2; black-throated green warbler, 17; and Canada warbler, 1.

Summer tanager, 1; scarlet tanager, 14; rose-breasted grosbeak, 65; blue grosbeak, 2; and indigo bunting, 5.

Some notable misses, according to Knight, were ruffed grouse, broad-winged hawk, brown creeper, common grackle and brown-headed cowbird.

“Many thanks to all participants for another good count,” Knight remarked when posting the summary of the 2022 Fall Bird Count.


To share a sighting, ask a question or make a comment, email me at

Bristol park’s Wildlife Weekend returns Oct. 7-8 to celebrate 25th anniversary

Contributed Photo by Michele Sparks • A Northern waterthrush is secured in a bander’s hand at a bird banding station operated at a previous Wildlife Weekend. Bird banders Richard Lewis and Rack Cross will also conduct a bird banding operation at this year’s Wildlife Weekend at Steele Creek Park in Brisol on Saturday, Oct. 8.

Members of the Friends of Steele Creek Nature Center and Park in Bristol are getting ready to observe a milestone in their yearly staging of Wildlife Weekend on Friday and Saturday, Oct. 7-8.

This year’s event, which will feature the theme “Plants and Pollinators,” will mark the 25th anniversary of the yearly celebration of wildlife in it many forms.

Birds will certainly be part of the mix, as will reptiles and honeybees, not to mention insects, spiders and more. Bird-specific activities scheduled for Oct. 8 include an Early Bird Walk, which will be conducted at 9 a.m. by Bristol Bird Club member Larry McDaniel, as well as a bird banding station located at the thicket near the Civitan Pavilion. Banding will get underway at 9:30 a.m. with longtime bird banders Richard Lewis and Rack Cross on site to introduce bird banding and its value to science to those attending this event.

If you’ve never observed bird banding, I would encourage you to attend this event. Banders receive training and are licensed by the federal government. These sessions also provide an opportunity to observe birds in a way that differs greatly from peering at them through binoculars. Of course, it’s rather hit or miss on what birds might show up in the nets used to capture the birds. Some of the expected birds that may be caught and banded include warblers, sparrows, thrushes, grosbeaks and other songbirds.

Other Saturday activities will include a walk at 10 a.m. to look for spiders and insects with naturalist Cade Campbell, and the two-hour Commander’s Morning Hike. The latter is a guided hike to the highest point in Steele Creek Park.

On Saturday afternoon, another Commander’s Hike will be offered with a different focus: this three-hour hike, which starts at 1 p.m., will give participants a chance to visit the oldest tree within the park.

Other afternoon walks, focused on honeybees, reptiles and mushrooms, will be led by Jeremy Stout, Lance Jessee and Mike Martin respectively. The mushroom walk commences at 1 p.m. The honeybee walk begins at 2 p.m., and the reptile walk will start at 3 p.m.

The popular Wildlife Weekend Passport is back. This scavenger hunt can be played via a downloadable Goosechase app or with a traditional printed hole punch version. Completed passports must be returned to the registration table by 4 p.m. to be eligible for prizes.

Saturday will also offer a variety of interactive exhibits and information tables, both at The Lodge and Nature Center’s lakeside porch from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Themes for some of the kiosks will include fossil casting, rocks and minerals, and skins and skulls. 

Wes Walker, who has helped organize the events for Wildlife Weekend, noted that Saturday’s events will also be documented by a local photography group.

“We should be having the Eastman Camera Club on-site that day, “Walker said. “This club, comprised of both amateur and professional photographers, captures various events across the Tri-Cites area.”

Walker touted Wildlife Weekend as a chance to learn more about Steele Creek Park, which is a gem featuring more than 2,000 acres in the middle of Bristol. 

“Most folks are aware of the ‘park’ area, but that only encompasses a fraction of the entire park,” Walker said. “Wildlife Weekend is an opportunity for individuals and families to explore this local treasure, and learn about the natural wonders from local experts.” 

The numerous interactive activities range from crafts, to several-mile hikes. Wildlife Weekend also serves as an excellent way to introduce children to the wonders of nature, as well as a knowledge supplementation for more experienced nature enthusiasts. 

The Bristol Bird Club will operate a kiosk offering information on the region’s varied birds. In addition, members of the Washington County Master Gardeners program will host a kiosk adjacent to their pollinator garden next to the Nature Center’s lakeside porch. The Campbells (Tracy, Cade and Chloe) will offer a family crafts kiosk featuring crafts for making “Critter Keepers” and “Mosaic Magnets.” Megan and David Christian will operate an owl pellet kiosk. By dissecting the pellets, participants can get a hint at the varied diets of owls residing in the park. 

The 25th Wildlife Weekend kicks off on Friday, Oct. 6, with an opening reception at 6 p.m. in the Steele Creek park Nature Center. After a brief overview of the history of Wildlife Weekend, keynote speaker Gerardo Arceo-Gomez will present a program titled “Pollination in Action: Fantastic Bees and Where to Find Them.” Friday’s activities will conclude with an awards ceremony for the 2022 Wildlife Weekend Amateur Photography Contest. 

For more information on the 25th annual Wildlife Weekend, visit