Monthly Archives: December 2022

Cardinals provide a great symbol for Christmas season

Photo by Jack Bulmer/Pixabay • A male Northern cardinal is a cheerful feathered ambassador on even a dreary day. While fairly commonplace, cardinals are worth getting to know and are easily attracted with sunflower seed.

Christmas 2022 is almost upon us. As is my usual custom, I want to share my enthusiasm for the Northern cardinal, one of my favorite birds. One male cardinal around my home as become very accustomed to my presence. He has even learned my routine and knows when to anticipate my daily stocking of the feeders with sunflower seeds.

At first, he kept an eye on my actions from a safe distance, but he gradually grew bolder. Soon, he began to land on the feeder before I even had my back turned and was heading back inside the house. His familiarity also bred impatience. He began to detect my routine. Once I get home from work in the evening, I head first to the mailbox. More often than not, I glimpse a flash of red feathers near the feeders while retrieving the most recent postal deliveries. My dependable cardinal always makes me smile. The bird has learned that a meal is imminent once I have completed this one chore.

If I don’t immediately return to the feeders with sunflower seeds, he will wait until I emerge from the house. He isn’t quite so brave that he will stay perched on the feeder as I replenish the supply, but he has definitely learned that his human friend is the source of all the free seeds.

I have always enjoyed watching cardinals. The beauty of both male and female cardinals is undeniable. They’re usually nervous, twitchy birds, so it has been fun watching this particular male cardinal grow accepting of my presence.
The Northern cardinal, especially the brilliant red male, stands out against a winter backdrop of snow white, deep green or drab gray. Over the years, the cardinal has also become associated with the Christmas season. How many Christmas cards have you received this holiday season with a cardinal featured in the artwork? I’d wager that at least a few cards in any assortment of holiday greetings will feature the likeness of a Northern cardinal.

There is a possible reason that male cardinals try to outshine each other when it comes to their bright red plumage. According to the website Tennessee Watchable Wildlife, brighter red male cardinals are able to hold territories that have denser vegetation, feed young at higher rates and have greater reproductive success than males with feathers of a duller hue.

The Northern cardinal belongs to a genus of birds known as Cardinalis in the family Cardinalidae. There are only two other species in this genus, and they range across North America and into northern South America. The two relatives are the pyrrhuloxia, or Cardinalis sinuatus, of the southwestern United States, and the Vermilion cardinal, or phoeniceus, a bird found in Colombia and Venezuela.
The Northern cardinal is a native and abundant bird. Cardinals are a widespread species, ranging westward to the Dakotas and south to the Gulf Coast and Texas. The southeastern United States was once the stronghold of the cardinal population. In the past century, however, cardinals have expanded their range into New England and Canada.

The cardinal accepts a wide variety of food at feeders. Sunflower seed is probably their favorite, but they will also sample safflower seed, cracked corn, peanuts, millet, bakery scraps and even suet. While we may get the idea that cardinals feed largely on seed, that is a misconception based on our observation of the birds at our feeders. Cardinals away from our feeders eat insects and fruit, including the berries of mulberry, holly, pokeberry, elderberry, Russian olive, dogwood and sumac.
The cardinal uses its large beak to efficiently hull sunflower seeds or deal with other foods foraged in field and forest away from our feeders. The large, heavy beak hints at the cardinal’s kinship with birds such as tanagers and grosbeaks. In fact, some of America’s early naturalists referred to the bird as “cardinal grosbeak.” Other common names include the apt “redbird” moniker and “Virginia nightingale.”

Even once the holidays are past, there’s nothing like a glimpse of a Northern cardinal to add some cheer to a bleak winter day. It’s not surprising that such a popular bird has also become associated with many trappings of the Christmas season.
“You see cardinals on greeting cards, stationery, paper plates, paper napkins and tablecloths, doormats, light switch plates, candles, candle holders, coffee mugs, plates, glasses, Christmas tree ornaments and lights, bookmarks, mailboxes, Christmas jewelry,” writes June Osborne in “The Cardinal,” a book about this popular bird.

“And the list goes on,” Osborne writes. “Cardinals have become an integral part of the way that many people celebrate the holiday season.”

I can be included among such people. My Christmas decorations include an assortment of cardinal figurines and ornaments. There are other birds — doves and penguins for example — associated with the holiday season, but for me the holidays magnify the importance of one of my favorite birds. The cardinal, in its festive red plumage, appears made to order for a symbol of the holiday season.


Unusual goose spotted visiting Unicoi pond

Contributed Photo by Joe McGuiness • A visiting snow goose stands by the edge of a Unicoi pond as a nearby Canada goose preens its feathers. Snow geese are known for two color phases: white and blue. This particular goose appears to have characteristics of both color phases.

I was left a phone message on the first day of December by Erwin resident Joe McGuiness, who is also a fellow member of the Elizabethton Bird Club.
Joe wanted to let me know about an unusual goose that had been present at a farm pond along Massachusetts Avenue in Unicoi.

He had already identified the bird as a snow goose, which has two distinct coloration phases: the namesake white phase and a dark phase known as a “blue goose.”
The problem with this particular goose was that it seemed to show characteristics of a typical snow goose and a “blue” goose.

“Based on the fact that it has a white belly, I think this is a retrograde between a white phase and blue phase of the snow goose,” Joe wrote in a followup email.
“Not a true blue phase of the snow goose,” he determined. Based on my own observation, I concurred with his assessment.

The visiting snow goose has been hanging out with a flock of Canada geese that move from the pond to some nearby fields.

Of the geese found in the region, the well-known Canada goose is nearly ubiquitous. Surprisingly, that’s not always been the case. For instance, in his book, “The Birds of Northeast Tennessee,” Rick Knight points out that the Canada geese now present throughout the year resulted from stocking programs conducted in the 1970s and 1980s. In earlier decades, the Canada goose was considered a rare winter visitor to the region. Seeing the Canada goose in every sort of habitat from golf courses to grassy margins along city walking trails, it’s hard to imagine a time when this goose wasn’t one of the region’s most common waterfowl.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A snow goose swims amid Canada geese a few years ago at the pond at Fishery Park in Erwin, Tennessee.

The world’s geese are not as numerous as ducks, but there are still about 20 species of geese worldwide, compared to about 120 species of ducks. While both ducks and geese are lumped together as waterfowl, most geese are more terrestrial than ducks. Birders are just as likely to spot geese in a pasture or on the greens of a golf course as they are on a lake or pond.

The snow goose breeds in regions in the far north, including Alaska, Canada, Greenland and even the northeastern tip of Siberia. They may spend the winter as far south as Texas and Mexico, although some will migrate no farther than southwestern British Columbia in Canada.

The snow goose bucks the trends that show many species of waterfowl declining. Recent surveys show that the population of the snow goose exceeds five million birds, which is an increase of more than 300 percent since the mid-1970s. In fact, this goose is thriving to such a degree that the large population has begun to inflict damage on its breeding habitat in some tundra regions.

A smaller relative to the snow goose is the Ross’s goose, which for all practical purposes looks like a snow goose in miniature. The common name of this goose honors Bernard R. Ross, who was associated with the Hudson’s Bay Company in Canada’s Northwest Territories.

Here’s a quick history lesson. Hudson’s Bay Company is the oldest commercial corporation in North America. The company has been in continuous operation for more than 340 years, which ranks it as one of the oldest in the world. The company began as a fur-trading enterprise, thanks to an English royal charter in back in 1670 during the reign of King Charles II. These days, Hudson’s Bay Company owns and operates retail stores throughout Canada and the United States.

In addition to his trade in furs, Ross collected specimens for the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. Ross is responsible for giving the goose that now bears his name one of its early common names – the Horned Wavy Goose of Hearne. I wonder why that never caught on?
Ross repeatedly insisted that this small goose was a species distinct from the related and larger lesser snow goose and greater snow goose. His vouching for this small white goose eventually convinced other experts that this bird was indeed its own species.
Ross was born in Ireland in 1827. He died in Toronto, Ontario, in 1874. He was described by other prominent early naturalists as “enthusiastic” and “a careful observer” in the employ of Hudson’s Bay Company. When John Cassin gave the Ross’s Goose its first scientific name of Anser rossii in 1861, he paid tribute to the Hudson’s Bay Company’s Ross.


Some other notable waterfowl have already been spotted this winter. A Northern pintail has been observed at Erwin Fishery Park. As winter extends its icy grip farther north, more waterfowl are likely to migrate through the region. Keep an eye on rivers, ponds and lakes to see what unusual waterfowl might be visiting.


Northern flickers claim kinship as part of woodpecker family

Photo by NatureLady/Pixabay • Northern Flickers belong to the woodpecker family. Relatives living in the region include the pileated woodpecker, yellow-bellied sapsucker and downy woodpecker. Unlike most woodpeckers, flickers spend an extensive amount of time foraging on the ground for various insects.

While driving along Simerly Creek Road on a recent morning, a flash of yellow and white darted from the trees adjacent to the road and flew ahead of my vehicle a short distance before veering back into the trees.

An oval of white — the rump patch of a Northern flicker — stood out on the bird and made identification simple, even while traveling at a speed of 40 miles per hour.
Flickers are woodpeckers, but they are some differences between them and other members of this clan. While flickers can be found during all seasons in the region, this woodpecker is one of the migratory ones. I see the most Northern flickers during fall migration. This woodpecker is one of the few of its kind that usually migrates to warmer climates during the colder months, although the species is not completely absent from the region in the winter season.

This species also has many other common names, including yellow-hammer — a popular name in the Deep South — and harry-wicket, heigh-ho and gawker bird. The Northern flicker is also the only woodpecker to serve a state — Alabama — as an official bird. The flicker earned this distinction back in 1927. Alabama soldiers who fought for the Confederacy were nicknamed “yellowhammers” because of their grey-and-yellow uniforms, which matched the colors of the bird. Incidentally, Alabama was one of the first states to ever name an official state bird.

There are two races of Northern flicker — yellow-shafted and red-shafted — found in the United States. Eastern flickers show yellow feather shafts beneath the wings while western counterparts show red beneath the wings. A trip to Utah several years ago gave me a chance to also see the red-shafted race of this bird.

The Northern flicker is also not the only flicker in the United States. The gilded flicker inhabits many of the deserts — Sonoran, Yuma and Colorado — in the United States. Of course, trees are scarce in deserts, but that hasn’t proven an obstacle for this woodpecker. The bird is closely associated with saguaro cactus. Other desert dwellers depend on this woodpecker. Once the flickers are no longer making use of their nest and roost holes in the multi-armed cacti, other wildlife moved into the chambers.

The Northern flicker is an enthusiastic drummer, pounding loudly on the sides of trees with its stout bill. The purpose of the drumming is to communicate with mates and signal potential rivals that they’re intruding. Toward that objective, flickers sometimes substitute metal utility poles or the sides of buildings for the trunks of trees. In addition to drumming, the flicker also employs a variety of loud vocalizations that are fairly distinctive. A loud, repeated vocalization, often translated as “wicka-wicka-wicka,” is similar to the cluck-like call of the larger pileated woodpecker. The flicker is also known for emitting a sharp, loud “kleeer” call that can be heard from a considerable distance. Flickers are probably most vocal during the spring months.

When searching for flickers, however, don’t spend all your time scanning tree trunks. Flickers spend a lot of time in fields or on lawns in search of insect prey, which mostly consists of ants and beetles. Flickers also eat seeds and fruit, and these woodpeckers will also visit feeders for peanuts, sunflower seed and suet.
The adult flicker is a brown bird with black bars on the back and wings. A distinctive black patch occupies the upper breast, while the lower breast and belly are beige with black spots. Males can be identified by a black or red mustache stripe at the base of the beak. They also have a red stripe on the back of their gray heads. The flicker’s dark tail is set apart by a white rump patch that is conspicuous when the bird takes flight.

Some woodpeckers have been impacted by the rise of automobiles. According to the website All About Birds, in the mid 20th century, red-headed woodpeckers were quite commonly hit by cars as the birds foraged for aerial insects along roadsides. I thought of this tidbit of information as I reflected on my most recent flicker sighting.

Look for Northern flickers in fields, orchards, city parks and well-planted suburban yards. These woodpeckers are usually not too shy around human observers and will sometimes allow for extended observation. If you’re even more fortunate, you could find one visiting your yard or garden. Just remember to scan the ground. This is one woodpecker that’s not a consistent tree-hugger like many of its kin.

Photo by USFWS • The yellow feather shafts of the “yellow-shafted” race of Northern flicker are evident in this photo.




Bluebird makes debut on calendar’s front cover


Contributed Image • A male Eastern bluebird photographed by Paul and Emily Bayes adorns the cover of the Elizabethton Bird Club’s 2023 calendar. Sales of the calendars, which are $15 each, benefit projects of the Elizabethton Bird Club.


If you didn’t find all you needed on Black Friday for those on your shopping list, here’s a suggestion. The Lee and Lois Herndon Chapter of Tennessee Ornithological Society, also known as the Elizabethton Bird Club, has produced its annual calendar featuring bird photographs by its members and friends of the organization.

A bluebird sighting just can’t help brightening any day. The Eastern bluebird is a beloved bird, but this is the first time one has graced the cover of the club’s annual calendar. A cavity-nesting member of the thrush family, bluebirds will accept bird boxes for nesting provided by human landlords. The photo of the bluebird for the cover was provided by chapter members Paul and Emily Bayes, who also contributed numerous other photographs for the calendar.

The inside pages of the professionally-produced calendar feature dozens more full-color photographs and an informative and educational grid. These calendars sell for $15 plus $2 for shipping. All sales help the club fund birding programs, public park feeders, conservation efforts and other activities in upper Northeast Tennessee.
For more information on how to obtain a calendar, email me at

Here’s a little more on the Eastern bluebird, which is a year-round resident in the region and can be found in open yards as well as the rural countryside. People have known for generations that bluebirds make good neighbors. A pair of bluebirds in your yard or garden provides hour upon hour of free entertainment as one watches these birds go about their daily routine. At this time of the year, much of that routine is focused on finding and claiming the best possible nesting location for the upcoming spring season.

Photo by Bryan Stevens
A male Eastern Bluebird perched on playground equipment at Winged Deer Park in Johnson City.

The Eastern bluebird is one of North America’s best-known cavity-nesting birds. About 85 species of North American birds use cavities in trees for nesting purposes. Cavity-nesting birds include ducks, such as buffleheads and wood ducks, as well as birds of prey such as Eastern screech-owls and American kestrels.

Over the years, I have found bluebirds nesting in cavities inside wooden fence posts, but there are fewer wooden fence posts every year. This reinforces the idea of how changing landscapes have affected these birds. Instead of wooden fence posts, many farmers now use metal ones, and dead or dying trees — a much sought-after resource for cavity-nesting birds — are often removed from woodlands.

Fortunately for bluebirds, this species will also accept lodging in a nest box, or birdhouse, provided for them by human landlords. One of the simplest ways to bring bluebirds close is to offer wooden boxes, constructed to their specific requirements, for their use as nesting locations.

Because of their trusting nature when it comes to their human neighbors, the Eastern bluebird is one of our most beloved birds. In fact, bluebirds are such popular birds that interest in them and their well-being has inspired the foundation of organizations such as the North American Bluebird Society. The Eastern bluebird has also been designated the official state bird for New York and Missouri, which provides more testimony to the immense popularity of this bird.

The bluebird belongs to the Sialia genus, which includes two other species: the mountain bluebird and the Western bluebird, both ranging throughout the western half of the North American continent.

Perhaps the poet Emily Dickinson summarized it best with these lines from her aptly named poem, “The Bluebird.”

“Before you thought of spring,
Except as a surmise,
You see, God bless his suddenness,
A fellow in the skies
Of independent hues,
A little weather-worn,
Inspiriting habiliments
Of indigo and brown.”

Other great American poets, including Robert Frost, have also waxed poetic about bluebirds. Before poets wrote their poems, many Native American tribes, including the Navajo and Cochiti, paid special reverence to bluebirds. Russian folklore and Chinese mythology also offer interesting tales about “blue birds,” but those are not species closely related to any of North America’s three species of native bluebirds.

Ruby-crowned kinglets make their winter return

Photo by Steve Carson/Pixabay • Only male ruby-crowned kinglets show the red crown patch that gives the bird is common name.

White-breasted nuthatch or red-breasted nuthatch? Common yellowthroat or yellow-throated warbler? Greater yellowlegs or lesser yellowlegs? These and others are some of the identification questions new birders struggle to answer. The coming winter season provides the perfect opportunity for getting to know the region’s birds better if for no other reason than there are fewer species in residence.
Color, markings and behavior are some of the things to consider when trying to identify a new bird. Another consideration is size. In our region, if the bird’s tiny (even smaller than a chickadee, for instance) the possibilities narrow to two related species known as kinglets.

As their name suggests, kinglets are tiny birds. In fact, the only birds in the eastern half of North America that are smaller than kinglets are some of the hummingbirds. Most of the kinglets, known outside North America as “flamecrests” or “firecrests,” belong to the family, Regulidae, and the genus, Regulus. The family and genus names are derived from a Latin word, regulus, which means “rex,” or “king.” The name was apparently inspired by the colorful crown patches, often red, orange or gold, that resemble the royal “crowns” of kings.

Photo by USFWS • Ruby-crowned kinglets are winter visitors throughout the region.

The two North American species — ruby-crowned kinglet and golden-crowned kinglet — can both be found in the region in winter. The ruby-crowned kinglet typically arrives for the winter season in the first weeks of October. The golden-crowned kinglet usually arrives later in the season.

Four other species of kinglets can be found in North Africa, Europe and Asia. Experts recently removed the ruby-crowned kinglet from the genus Regulus and placed this species in a separate genus, Corthylio. The reclassification was based on size (the ruby-crowned kinglet is actually the largest member of this family) and differences in vocalizations.

Circling back to the matter of identification, the two kinglets are easily distinguished from each other. Although roughly similar in size and overall coloration, the ruby-crowned and golden-crowned kinglets contrast enough that a snap identification is simple with a good look through binoculars. The golden-crowned kinglet has a striped facial pattern formed by bold black and white stripes. The ruby-crowned kinglet, on the other hand, has a bold white eye ring but no striping. The golden-crowned kinglet has an orange crown patch, while the ruby-crowned kinglet has a red crown patch that is, more often than not, kept concealed. Both sexes of the golden-crowned kinglet possess a yellow crown patch, but only the male ruby-crowned kinglet boasts a scarlet patch of feathers atop the head. Observers can expend a lot of energy trying to get a look at the crown patches, which are typically only displayed when the bird is agitated.

Kinglets are very active birds. If warblers can be described as energetic, the kinglets are downright frenetic in their activities. The kinglets almost never pause for long, flitting from branch to branch in trees and shrubs as they constantly flick their wings over their backs. These bursts of hyperactivity can make them difficult to observe. Although small in size, these birds more than compensate for it with a feisty spirit that does them well through the harsh winter months.

Kinglets often join mixed flocks comprised of other species of birds, some of which are regular feeder visitors. Perhaps by observing their flock counterparts, some kinglets have learned to accept feeder fare such as suet, mealworms and chopped nuts. Away from feeders, kinglets mostly feed on a range of small insects and arachnids. These tiny birds will also consume some fruit, such as the berries of poison oaks and dogwoods.

By learning the ruby-crowned kinglet’s call, which is a harsh, fast, two-parted scold that, to my ears, sounds like “Jit Jit,” birders can detect the presence of these tiny birds in thickets and other dense vegetation.

Normally, kinglets have a rather fleeting lifespan. These tiny birds can be considered old if they live three or four years. There are always exceptions. The oldest golden-crowned kinglet on record was six years and four months old. That individual, a male, was documented by a bird bander in 1976, according to the website All About Birds.
Overall, kinglets are trusting, tame birds and a welcome addition to any flocks visiting your yard and garden. These tiny feathered sprites are definitely worth getting to know.