Although birds made headlines in ’21, stories for some species come to an end

Photo by Bob Peyton/USFWS • At 70, Wisdom, a female Laysan albatross and the world’s oldest known breeding bird in the wild, became a mother once again in 2021. In this photo from a previous nesting in 2018, when she was then 67 years old, Wisdom cares for a chick in her nest on Midway Atoll.

Our feathered friends made the headlines in 2021. For a few, the final curtain dropped. For others, their stories offer a ray of hope in some occasionally bleak times.

Feathered time capsule

Testing conducted by scientists identified the bird as a female horned lark, a species that can be found in a few locations in Northeast Tennessee, mostly during winter and early spring. I find it amazing that this bird lived during the same era as now extinct Ice Age beasts, including mastodons, mammoths and woolly rhinos. The horned lark is a small songbird. Males have black masks and a yellowish wash on the head and throat. Males also have the namesake “horns” that are actually dark feather tufts atop the sides of the head giving them the look of a small feathered comical devil. The bird is known as “horned lark” in North America and “shore lark” in Europe.

A mother again

Motherhood suits a Laysan albatross known as Wisdom. She hatched her most recent chick in February of 2021. Why is that worthy of a headline? Well, Wisdom is at least 70 years old, making her the world’s oldest known bird. She was first documented when she was banded in 1956 on Midway Atoll in the Pacific. Since that time, she has weathered storms, earthquakes and tsunamis. In her lifetime to date, Wisdom has flown millions of miles in search of food at sea. She still returns faithfully to Midway Atoll, which is home to the world’s largest colony of albatrosses, when it’s time to nest. Biologists estimate that Wisdom has hatched at least 30 to 36 chicks in her lifetime, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Bell tolls for the ‘Lord God Bird’

The ivory-billed woodpecker was officially declared extinct in 2021. More accurately, the species was proposed for removal from the Endangered Species Act. This decision came 17 years after the largest of North America’s woodpeckers was “rediscovered” in 2004 in the Big Woods region of Arkansas. Despite a resurgence of interest in a bird also known dramatically as the “Lord God Bird,” the scientific community, no further evidence surfaced to support the belief in some quarters that ivory-billed woodpeckers still exist. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service made the extinction declaration in a press release issued on Sept. 29, 2021. The release also identified other birds as candidates for a declaration of extinction, including Bachman’s warbler. Like the woodpecker, the warbler’s last stronghold was in Southern swamps. Several species of native Hawaiian birds have also likely passed into oblivion. Other candidates for de-listing from the Endangered Species Act included several species of fish and mussels. The press release acknowledges that while protections were provided too late for the 23 species mentioned within its pages, the ESA has been successful at preventing the extinction of more than 99% of species listed. In total, 54 species have been delisted from the ESA due to recovery, and another 56 species have been downlisted from endangered to threatened. The Service’s current work plan includes planned actions that encompass 60 species for potential downlisting or delisting due to successful recovery efforts. It’s still cold comfort to fans of North America’s largest woodpecker and the mysterious Bachman’s warbler.

Silver Linings

If you’re looking for evidence that the COVID-19 lockdowns came with a silver lining, turn your gaze to our fine feathered friends. There’s growing evidence that some birds thrived during strict lockdown periods because they experienced less pressure to cope with human disturbances. Scientists also agree, however, that these benefits will likely prove fleeting for birds as the pace of human activity returns to normal levels.

The babbler babbles again

A living black-browed babbler was captured in 2020 by a pair of researchers. They found the bird on the island of Borneo. Before releasing the bird, they documented their find with photographs. In February of 2021, they published their findings in the journal, BirdingASIA. The rediscovery of the black-browed babbler is significant because the only other time the bird had ever been documented was between 1843 and 1848 when the naturalist Carl Schwaner captured one on the island of Java. After that one “blip” on the radar screens of naturalists and ornithologists, Schwaner’s specimen was put into storage and not much attention paid to the species in the intervening 170 years.

Photographic evidence

A tiny songbird known as the Urich’s tyrannulet has been documented with photos and audio recordings by a research team during an expedition to Venezuela. According to a press release from American Bird Conservancy, the tyrannulet (a species of flycatcher) was first described by science in 1899. Second and third sightings of the bird occurred in the 1940s and in 2005, respectively.

Mystery outbreak fades away

An outbreak of disease among birds across the United States surged in spring and summer of 2021 before gradually fading away by fall. A joint statement of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine on Sept. 17, 2021, all states affected by the mysterious bird illness earlier in the year had lifted their do-not-feed recommendation. No cause has yet been determined, but cases are no longer being reported. Symptoms of the illness included crusty eyes, tremors and paralysis among songbirds. The species most frequently affected were fledgling (juvenile) blue jays, common grackles, European starlings and American robins, along with a few other species. While the cause of the outbreak is still unidentified, several possibilities — West Nile, salmonella, avian influenza, house finch eye disease and trichomonas parasites — have been ruled out as possible causes.

 

Northern cardinals serve as wonderful Christmas ambassadors

Photo by Jack Bulmer/Pixabay • With sunlight shining on this male Northern cardinal’s wing, the bird looks even more splendid. These beloved birds have been made the official birds for seven U.S. states, a recognition not surpassed by any other North American bird.

Christmas 2021 is almost upon us. If you’ve not finished your holiday shopping, you’d best get moving.

As is my usual custom, I want to share my enthusiasm for the Northern cardinal, one of my favorite birds and a deserving bird to serve as a symbol for the Christmas season.

I have enjoyed watching as cardinals visit my feeders in recent weeks. The beauty of both male and female cardinals is undeniable, but it’s their behavior that’s worth a second look. Nervous, twitchy birds, they are always anxiously surveying their surroundings even as they linger on a feeder long enough to hull a sunflower kernel from its shell. It’s almost as if they know their bright plumage stands out in a drab winter landscape dominated by shades of gray.

One particular male cardinal over the past few months has grown accepting of my close presence. When I stock my feeders with sunflower seed, he barely gives me time to get back to the front porch before he is landing on the feeder to enjoy a meal of seeds. It’s great to see that these beautiful birds can be acclimated to be less timid.

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.

Photo by Skeeze/Pixabay.com • A male Northern cardinal lands on a snowy perch. Cardinals are perfect symbols for the Christmas season with their bright red plumage.

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. Two other South American birds — red-crested cardinal and yellow-billed cardinal — are more closely related to tanagers than to our familiar Northern cardinal. Both the Northern cardinal and red-crested cardinal have been introduced into the state of Hawaii, so two non-native birds from different parts of the globe are now resident in the Aloha State.

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. People can also choose to further the cause of science by taking part in studies such as Project FeederWatch, a nationwide survey of bird populations focused on birds coming to feeders maintained by project participants. In the 2015-16 winter season, 1,373 individuals participated in Project FeederWatch in the southeastern United States. The most common birds reported by observers were Northern cardinal, Carolina chickadee, mourning dove, American goldfinch and tufted titmouse. Finishing out the Top 10 feeder birds in this section of the nation were Carolina wren, house finch, blue jay, red-bellied woodpecker and downy woodpecker. Almost 98 percent of participants reported Northern cardinals at their feeders, which means the cardinal has become an almost universal feeder visitor in the southeast.

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 her book The Cardinal. “And the list goes on. 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.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Northern cardinal seems much less descriptive of this popular bird than such common names as Virginia nightingale and Kentucky redbird.

Here’s some more cardinal trivia:

• Cardinals differ in appearance based on gender. The male boasts crimson plumage, a crest, a black face and orange bill. The female, although less colorful, is also crested. Female cardinals are soft brown in color, with varying degrees of a reddish or rosy tinge in their feathers, particularly in their wings.

The cardinal is a beloved bird. As testimony to the popularity of the Northern cardinal, just consider the fact that it’s the official state bird of seven states: North Carolina, West Virginia, Ohio, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky and Virginia. Only the Northern mockingbird, which represents five states as official state bird, even comes close to the Northern cardinal in this respect.

• The cardinal’s preference for dense cover makes them likely neighbors for such birds as Carolina wrens, Eastern towhees and brown thrashers.

• The oldest recorded Northern Cardinal was a female, and she was 15 years, nine months old when she was found in Pennsylvania, according to the website, All About Birds.

• An uncommon genetic variation sometimes produces a cardinal with yellow or orange feathers instead of the typical red. The scientific name for the condition that produces yellow cardinals is known as xanthochroism.

• Nests are built by the female cardinal, but her mate delivers food as she incubates her clutch of eggs, which usually numbers three or four.

Photo by Bryan Stevens
Cardinals are common visitors to backyard feeders.

Take a second glance at the tufted titmouse: you’ll be glad you did

Photo by Anne773/Pixabay • A tufted titmouse visits a feeder.

Don’t dismiss our feathered friends as “bird brains.” They’re smart. They demonstrate that fact in various ways.

For an impish cousin of the chickadee, that intelligence shines through when they visit my feeders. I’m referring to the tufted titmouse, a curious sprite with some mischievous tendencies.

When I go outdoors to fill the feeders with another helping of black oil sunflower, the titmice appear seemingly out of the woodwork or, in their case, out of the woods. Small flocks of titmice show up and perch in the branches of nearby tree and watch me at my task.

There’s also a fascinating and ingrained hierarchy regarding which titmouse gets to approach the feeder first. I’m not aware of how they come to their mutually understood ranking, but when one of their number transgresses, the offense can set off a round of bitter scolding. I’ve also seen two titmice accidentally arrive at a feeder at the same time. When that happens, one of the birds will usually flinch and depart. After the higher-ranking individual grabs a seed and leaves, the other bird can return.

It’s all neat and orderly. In the long run, this structure probably prevents needless waste of energy on birds coming into conflict. Winter’s a lean time. Although the birds can count on my supplemental source of food, they continue to act as if there are no guarantees.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • The tufted titmouse is a backyard bird with an impish personality.

Although they’re most prevalent in the winter, titmice are present throughout the year. Like chickadees and bluebirds, they are cavity-nesting birds and will gladly take up nesting duties inside a bird box.

They are one of the first and most enthusiastic birds to greet the spring with joyous song each year. The tufted titmouse’s song — a persistent repetition of “Peter! Peter! Peter!” — rings through the woodlands around my home along with the urgent “fee-be fee-bo” of the Carolina chickadee. These birds form mixed flocks with each other and other species to explore their surroundings and search for food.

In addition to singing, titmice are enthusiastic scolders. They will scold over any transgression, real or imagined, focusing their ire on their fellow titmice or other birds, potential predators and even human observers. They’re quite persistent at their raucous scolding, which is just another reason I label them as imps of the woods.

In appearance, the tufted titmouse is a drab bird that could easily slip beneath the radar. The bird’s appearance does, however, offer a few distinctive qualities. Although mostly a gray bird, the titmouse sports a distinctive crest and a rusty-pinkish coloration along the flanks. Titmouse eyes are black as coal and look large in proportion to their heads, which lends them an expressive appearance as they explore in yards and gardens.

The term “titmouse” refers to the old English word “tit” meaning “small,” as well as the old English “mase,” also a reference to small size. Probably because of the bird’s small size and gray coloration, “mase” evolved into “mouse” and combined to form the word “titmouse.”

The titmice living in my yard visit my house windows at times, which drives my cats to distraction. I’ve wondered if the titmice are curious and trying to peek inside the house, but I believe I have a more down-to-earth explanation. These little birds are very thorough when foraging for food, and I’ve watched them pluck spiders and other insects from the window frames.

Like chickadees, titmice are fond of sunflower seeds. No other offering will so readily lure them to feeders, although they do develop a fondness for suet cakes. I’ve also had success attracting titmice to my feeders by offering unsalted, shelled peanuts. I sometimes break up the peanuts into smaller, more manageable pieces for the benefit of the titmice. These foods and a few trees or saplings around your home is all you really need to welcome titmice.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A young titmouse visits a suet feeder.

In the early 1900s, the tufted titmouse would have been considered a southern bird with its stronghold in states like Tennessee, Virginia, the Carolinas and Georgia. Perhaps it was the titmouse’s innate curiosity that pushed the species to expand successfully beyond the southern United States. The titmouse has steadily expanded its range northward, thriving in new locations. Some experts credit this expansion to more readily available access to supplemental food at feeders.

During the nesting season, titmice forage for a variety of insects. Many spiders, beetles, caterpillars and other small bugs will be fed to hungry young titmice in a tree cavity or a nesting box. Like chickadees, titmice build exquisite nests, often using mostly moss with other materials, such as bark, cloth scraps, dry leaves and shed snakeskins. These small birds line their nests with hair or fur of other animals.

Over the years, many readers have shared observations documenting the fur-collecting skills of tufted titmice. The birds are not content to simply collect shed fur. They seem to prefer collecting the fur fresh from a living animal. Many dogs fall victim to impish titmice that boldly pluck strands of fur from the canine’s coat.

In another funny story, a woman once told me about a titmouse that flew onto her head every time she stepped outside her home. Perhaps the bird sensed her affection for birds since it never failed to pluck strands of hair from her head to carry back to its nest. For any would-be skeptics, the woman provided photographic documentation of the incidents. In addition to dogs and humans, animals ranging from squirrels and opossums to mice and woodchucks have also been observed “sacrificing” fur for the nesting success of tufted titmice.

The female tufted titmouse incubates the eggs. She lays between three and nine eggs, although a usual clutch size is five to six eggs. The female titmouse is protective of her nest and is known for a behavior known as a “snake display.” I’ve observed titmice perform this display when I’ve peeked into nesting boxes. She remains tightly seated on her eggs, or young, while she hisses loudly and strikes in a manner very much like a striking serpent. Not all titmice engage in this display. Some remain still and try to “blend” with the nest, while others will fly away if a nest box is opened. Regardless, it’s a convincing display of bravado on the part of such a small bird. If it looks scary to people, I am sure it could succeed at repelling a squirrel or mouse. I’m uncertain if the behavior would deter an actual snake.

Other titmice in North America include bridled titmouse in Arizona and New Mexico; oak titmouse of the Pacific Coast region; juniper titmouse from the Great Basin, which consists of Wyoming, Idaho, Utah, Nevada, Oregon and California; and the black-crested titmouse, which ranges from Missouri into east-central Mexico.

Titmice occur exclusively in North America and belong to the genus Baeolophus. Europe, Asia and Africa are home to some other crested birds in the family of chickadees and titmice. For instance, the European crested tit and the grey crested tit are species that sport a crest of feathers like titmice but are more closely related to chickadees.

The tufted titmouse, for the reasons I’ve mentioned and more, is one of nature’s imps, but it’s also an entertaining neighbor. Get to know these visitors by offering sunflower seeds or other fare and, if you want to go the extra step, place some bird boxes around your yard as potential nesting sites. By next winter, you may have an entire flock of these feathered imps as your guests.

•••••

Need a last-minute Christmas gift? The Elizabethton Bird Club is selling its 2022 bird calendar again this holiday season.

The front cover features a stunning photo of a chestnut-sided warbler. 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 ahoodedwarbler@aol.com or stop by the office of The Erwin Record at 218 Gay St., Erwin.

Tiny kinglets brighten  the bleakest of seasons

Photo from Pixabay.com • Only the male ruby-crowned kinglet shows the red crown patch. In almost every other way, females are identical in appearance.

On one of our recent frosty mornings, the chickadees, the wrens, the titmice and other small birds were chattering and chirping in tree branches around my feeders. As I paused a moment to watch their antics, I noticed a tiny grayish bird that flashed a patch of ruby red feathers as it flitted among the branches.

The visitor turned out to be a ruby-crowned kinglet, one of North America’s smallest bird. This tiny bird is typically about four inches long and doesn’t even weigh half an ounce. How is it that one of the smallest North American birds chooses to spend the harsh cold months of winter in our yards and gardens?

Chickadees, titmice and other familiar winter birds eke out an existence by supplementing some their diet with fare from bird feeders. Although kinglets often associate with roaming mixed species flocks, they’re rarely interested in the offerings at our feeders. The kinglets are dedicated to gleaning tiny insects and spiders, as well as insects eggs and larvae, from branches and plantings in our yards. They’re so successful at it that they don’t need to turn to even a well-stocked feeder. A kinglet will on occasion sample an offering of suet or peanut butter, but this bird doesn’t make a habit of visiting feeders.

Since mid-October, I’ve been seeing a few golden-crowned kinglets, as well as the closely related ruby-crowned kinglet, at my home. Both the golden-crowned and ruby-crowned kinglets are members of a family of diminutive birds known collectively as kinglets and firecrests. They’re such tiny, energetic bundles of feathers that they absolutely excel with the “cuteness” factor.

All kinglets are very small birds, as well as extremely active ones. The ruby-crowned and golden-crowned are also the only members of this family of birds found in North America. Four other species, however, are native to Europe, Asia and North Africa. The remaining species include goldcrest, common firecrest, Madeira firecrest and flamecrest, which is also known as the Taiwan firecrest.

Photo Courtesy of Beth McPherson • A golden-crowned kinglet survived an impact with a window pane.

Kinglets, as their name suggests, are such tiny birds that about the only North American birds smaller than kinglets are some of the hummingbirds. The kinglets 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.

Although similar in size and overall coloration, the ruby-crowned and golden-crowned kinglets are easily distinguished from each other. Side by side, the two species of North American kinglets are easy to identify. 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 feather atop the head.

Kinglets are active birds, foraging vigorously for small insects, and spiders. When foraging, both kinglet species have a habit of flicking their wings over the backs. Even if you can’t get a good look at the birds, this behavior helps contrast them from other small birds, including some warblers, wrens and the blue-gray gnatcatcher. They’re often curious birds and can be coaxed into a closer approach if a human observer make squeaking noises to attract their attention.

Golden-crowned kinglets are widespread in the region during the winter. During the summer months, head to the slopes of some of the region’s higher mountains to look for these tiny birds that nest at the higher elevations of the Southern Appalachians. Ruby-crowned kinglets can also be found in the region during the winter, but extreme cold weather will often force this less cold-hardy species to eke out the winter months farther south.

On a January visit to Hilton Head Island, South Carolina, about 20 years ago, I chanced into what must have been a winter invasion of the Low Country by ruby-crowned kinglets. These tiny birds were extremely abundant at every location I visited.

In summer, ruby-crowned kinglets are absent from the region due to their preference for nesting much farther north in spruce-fir forests in the northwestern United States and across Canada.

Kinglets are surprisingly tame at times and often exhibit as much curiosity about us as we display toward them. They’re very active birds, however, constantly moving from perch to perch. These bursts of hyperactivity can make them difficult to observe since they so rarely remain still. Although small in size, these birds more than compensate for it with a feisty spirit that does them well through the harsher weather of the winter months.

•••••

Looking for a beautiful Christmas gift for the bird enthusiast on your shopping list? Members of the Elizabethton Bird Club are selling a professionally-produced calendar that features dozens of 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 ahoodedwarbler@aol.com.

Sales of local calendar fund bird-worthy aims

 

The front cover of the 2022 bird calendar produced by the Elizabethton Bird Club features a photo of a chestnut-sided warbler taken by club member Charles Warden. The calendar is available for purchase for $15, plus $2 for shipping and handling. They make great Christmas gifts for nature and bird enthusiasts. For more information, email ahoodedwarbler@aol.com. 

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.

These calendars make wonderful Christmas gifts and stocking stuffers. This year’s front cover features a gorgeous photo of a chestnut-sided warbler taken by club member Charles Warden. This is Warden’s first year contributing photographs to the club’s yearly calendar project. More of his photos are on display through the calendar. He is a resident of Johnson City.

“I took the photo on the Spring Bird Count with Fred Alsop and Judi Sawyer on May 1 of this year at Hampton Creek Cove,” Warden said.

He said that the bird was among the blooms of what he thinks was an apple tree.

“We heard the warbler and chased it down,” he said. “It came out in the open and posed nicely for pictures.”

He has been interested in photography since he took a beginning photography class at East Tennessee State University on a lark in 1977.

“I am lucky enough to be making a living as a photographer for ETSU marketing.”

Bird photography is certainly a challenge, he said, and requires much patience, decent equipment and a lot of luck.

“It’s been a learning curve for sure, and it’s still a tough call when to take the binoculars down and put the camera up as it’s so mesmerizing to watch the birds,” Warden said.

The chestnut-sided warbler is a summer resident in the region and can be found at middle and higher elevations on many of the area’s mountains, including Unaka and Roan. Unlike many warblers, both males and females are brightly colored, with the female being slightly less so. Males during the summer nesting season show a yellow crown, black mask, white cheeks, throat and breast and the namesake chestnut flanking on his sides.

He’s also a cheery and persistent singer when he arrives on his nesting territory. His song is usually transcribed as “Pleased, pleased, pleased to meetcha!” For birders, it’s like a welcoming reintroduction each spring when this particular song is heard from the branches of trees in local woodlands.

For the singing male, there’s a more personal reason for singing his song. The “pleased, pleased, pleased to meetcha” refrain is a way of attracting the attention of potential mates. Males sing an entirely different song once settled into nesting activities with a mate. The song used to attract mates is more heavily accented, according to the website, All About Birds. Some males sing only unaccented songs and thus have a lower success rate at attracting mates.

Chestnut-sided warblers are classified by scientists as birds that favor successional habitats for nesting purposes. These sorts of habitats are usually disturbed by human activities such as logging. However, disturbed habitats can be created by natural occurrences, including fires, flooding and storm damage. During the winter months, this warbler withdraws into Central America with many individuals finding suitable habitat on shade-coffee plantations.

Female chestnut-sided warblers will weave a nest of bark, grass and other components all bound together with gathered spider silk. She will lay three to five eggs. These warblers make the most of the summer season, often nesting a second time after raising their first brood.

Chestnut-sided warblers feed largely on insects, but the birds also incorporate seeds and fruits into their diet. Young are fed by both parents on a diet of small insects, spiders and caterpillars. The chestnut-sided warbler’s scientific name, Setophaga pensylvanica, roughly translates as “eater of moths from Pennsylvania,” which is a nod to the bird’s insect-rich diet.

Other warblers that can be found in the mountains of Northeast Tennessee — and in the pages of the calendar — include black-throated blue warbler, golden-winged warbler, worm-eating warbler, hooded warbler, prairie warbler and common yellowthroat.

Like most small songbirds, the New World warblers, to which the chestnut-sided warbler belongs, don’t have long lifespans. A few individuals, however, defy the odds. According to the website, All About Birds, the longest-lived chestnut-sided warbler documented by scientists was a nearly seven-year-old bird banded in Rhode Island in 1980. The bird had been banded in the same state six years and 11 months earlier in 1973.

Of course, with the exception of the yellow-rumped warbler, most of the warblers don’t spend the winter months in the region. With one of these calendars, however, you can enjoy beautiful photos of some of our most lovely warblers while awaiting their return this spring in mid-April and early May.

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 ahoodedwarbler@aol.com.

 

Wild turkey’s rebound is amazing wildlife success story

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A male gobbler seeks the attention of hens, as all these Wild Turkeys add to the number of this species found during the count.

Celebrated in William Bradford’s written account of the First Thanksgiving in 1621, the wild turkey had all but vanished from Massachusetts and the rest of New England a mere two centuries later. By the time of Henry David Thoreau, who is arguably America’s first environmentalist, the noted author lamented in 1856 that the turkey and other wildlife were difficult to find in his native Massachusetts.

In a journal entry from the spring of 1856, Thoreau decried the part the descendants of those Pilgrims who celebrated the first Thanksgiving more than 200 years earlier had played in the decimation.

“When I consider that the nobler animals have been exterminated here — the cougar, the panther, lynx, wolverine, wolf, bear, moose, dear, the beaver, the turkey and so forth and so forth, I cannot but feel as if I lived in a tamed and, as it were, emasculated country,” Thoreau wrote in his journal. “Is it not a maimed and imperfect nature I am conversing with?”

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Wild turkeys cross a snow-covered field.

Perhaps, but Thoreau would probably be encouraged that many of the animals he mentioned in his journal have now recovered and once again roam throughout New England. The wild turkey has been in the vanguard of that resurgence. In fact, the revival of the wild turkey’s fortunes in New England has had unintended consequences. In short, this venerable fowl has run amok in some parts of its former stronghold.

An article by Brianna Abbott for the Audubon Society’s website estimates that before Europeans first colonized New England in the 1600s, as many as 10 million wild turkeys roamed from Maine to Florida to the Rocky Mountains of the American West.

Today, wild turkeys are back with a vengeance. Turkeys may have grievances, it turns out, for the persecution they suffered at the hands of Americans for the past few centuries. Touted as a major restoration success story, the wild turkey began to be reintroduced to New England about half a century ago.

Now that they’re back, turkeys are part of a dramatically changed landscape. Suburbs now stretch in wide swaths of terrain that once supported forests and associated wildlife. Luckily — for the turkey, anyway — it is a very adaptable bird. Turkeys have taken to life in the suburbs with such enthusiasm that they are now a wildlife management issue for the human residents who must share living space with them. Emboldened problem turkeys chase and intimidate women and small children, as well as pets. Whole flocks have gone rogue.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A wild turkey forages for food.

Gone are the turkey’s natural predators — lynxes, cougars and wolves — that had kept America’s premier game bird’s population in balance. As Thoreau pointed out, nature is no longer perfect. More than 170,000 wild turkeys now live in New England and they’re not always at peace with their human neighbors.

Thoreau didn’t have the benefit of environmental science to back him up, but he would probably not be surprised that a “maimed” nature is causing some unexpected problems even as some of the animals he so sorely missed are returning to their former haunts.

The Tennessee Watchable Wildlife Website notes that the wild turkey was once nearly eliminated from the Volunteer State. By the early 1900s, over-hunting eliminated this species from most of its range, including much of Tennessee. Modern wildlife management has reestablished this bird throughout its historic range and into 49 of the 50 United States.

According to the website, the natural habitat for the wild turkey consists of mature woodlands with scattered openings or fields. In such areas, turkeys can forage for food such as acorns and other wild nuts, seeds, fruits, insects, buds, fern fronds and even the occasional salamander.

Some of the nation’s founding fathers were fans of the wild turkey. Benjamin Franklin, who proposed the turkey as the official United States bird, praised the bird’s courage and expressed displeasure when the bald eagle was chosen over the turkey. Franklin wrote to his daughter, referring to the eagle’s “bad moral character,” saying, “I wish the bald eagle had not been chosen as the Representative of our country! The turkey is a much more respectable bird, and withal a true original native of America.”Franklin

No less than George Washington, the nation’s first president, also shared Franklin’s opinion and pointed out the bald eagle’s lifestyle as a carrion eater as a strike against the eagle. Even if not as our national symbol, the wild turkey is still deserving of respect. Besides, would we really want to chow down on our national bird every Thanksgiving?

Wild turkeys roam the woods around my home, and I know of other areas that are dependable locations for observing these birds. While their numbers are increasing, the wild turkey has not yet turned the tables. For the foreseeable future, I suspect Americans will continue to dine on turkey every Thanksgiving, and not the other way around.

Who could blame them, however, if turkeys were to feel perfectly justified in biting back at the American public? We’ve not always been the best stewards for our native wildlife. Call me an optimist. I believe turkeys and people can co-exist. As residents in New England have learned, we just have to be prepared for some give and take.

Photo by Jean Potter • A male wild turkey struts his stuff while fanning his impressive tail feathers.

Winter wrens, true to their name, are only resident during the winter months in much of the region.

Photo by TheOtherKev/Pixabay • The winter wren is a tiny, secretive winter resident throughout Northeast Tennessee, southwest Virginia and western North Carolina.

On a recent morning, I noticed Grayson the cat acting agitated before I heard the reason for his state. A blur of brown feathers revealed itself among a tangle of vines and leaves draped across the exterior of the dining room window.

The blur of feathered frantic activity produced a steady stream of shrill notes as it methodically gleaned beneath seemingly every single leaf in the untidy cluster of frost-withered vines. Those notes, as well as the constant, darting movement, attracted Grayson’s notice and then mine. The little visitor, safely on the other side of the glass — much to Grayson’s disappointment — turned out to be the season’s first winter wren.

The winter wren is a noisy bird and quite different than the Carolina wren, a larger relative that is fairly common in the region. This wren usually arrives in my yard in late October or early November. Upon their arrival, they immediately claim niches to call their own. Any intrusion is met with a scolding chatter as the wren scurries low to the ground to drop out of view. In fact, the winter wren’s a very terrestrial bird. Observers are just as likely to see one of these wrens run across the ground as they are to see it take flight.

The website All About Birds, managed by The Cornell Lab of Ornithology, offers advice on making a wren-friendly yard. “Landscaping with native plants is a good way to provide habitat for Winter Wrens,” according to the website. Other steps to take could extend to creating brush piles and ensuring some sections of the yard offers dense vegetation. The website also notes that this wren is often found making its home near streams.

In the summer, the winter wren often nests atop some of the high-elevation mountains in the region, especially ones with abundant fir and spruce trees. Otherwise, it’s mostly a winter visitor in the region. Other wrens common to the region include the Carolina wren and the house wren. In suitable habitats, especially during fall and spring migration, two other wrens — marsh wren and sedge wren — are observed occasionally in the region. Other wrens native to the United States include the rock wren, canyon wren, cactus wren, Pacific wren and Bewick’s wren.

The world’s 88 species of wrens are, for the most part, the quintessential “little brown birds,” but that hasn’t kept them from acquiring some interesting and descriptive common names. Some examples include the moustached wren, sooty-headed wren, gray-barred wren, tooth-billed wren, bicolored wren, spotted wren, flutist wren, riverside wren, whiskered wren, happy wren, musician wren, timberline wren, speckle-breasted wren, sepia-brown wren, white-breasted wood wren and giant wren. The last species on the list resides in Mexico and is indeed a “giant” among a family of tiny birds, reaching a length of almost nine inches and weighing all of 1.8 ounces.

For the most part, wrens are birds of the New World, ranging through North, Central and South America. In fact, only the Eurasian wren represents the family in Europe, Asia and Africa. Experts recently split the winter wren into several different species, including the Pacific wren of the west coast of North America and the Eurasian wren of Europe, Asia and Africa. Birding friends in Great Britain, where the bird is resident throughout the year, tell me they simply refer to the species as “wren.”

Just as the winter wren thinks nothing of acting like a mouse when scurrying through leaf litter and over fallen logs in search of insect prey, this bird doesn’t hesitate to imitate mice by poking into shadowy holes in the ground or exploring the dark crevices of fallen logs. When winter temperatures drop sharply, many of these birds may cram themselves into a roosting hole to benefit from the communal heat from so many tiny feathered bodies in such close proximity. Winter wrens eat mostly insects and spiders, but in winter these birds will also eat some seeds and berries. Winter wrens rarely visit feeders, but a suet cake often attracts birds with similar dietary preferences, including kinglets and chickadees. A larger relative, the Carolina wren, is a common visitor to feeders.

In English and German lore, the winter wren was known as the “king of the birds.” Different tales provide varying explanations for how such a small bird earned such an inflated title. Ritual hunts were enacted in some European locations. These hunts, known as “wren hunts,” were conducted by “wren boys” who would parade through town on their quests. Wren Day fell on Dec. 26, which coincided with the holiday St. Stephen’s Day. Some myths blame the noisy bird for betraying the hiding place of Stephen, who was delivered up as a Christian martyr to his enemies due to the bird’s treachery. In some European cultures, various superstitions sprang up about wrens. For instance, in Scotland it is considered extremely unlucky to kill a wren.

Personally, I feel lucky to have the tiny winter wren spending time around my home and can guarantee no “wren hunts” will be staged here. At a time of year when feathered friends can be scarce, a winter wren is a welcome visitor.

 

Bird of mystery, black rail famed for eluding birders

Photo by AGAMA/Adobe Stock • Adult male black rail (Laterallus jamaicensis) standing in a swamp during the night in Brazoria County, Texas. The black rail is a  secretive, rarely seen bird of wetlands and marshes. Much smaller than other members of the rail family, the bird doesn’t offer even determined birders any easy observations.

On Wednesday morning, Oct. 13, I fetched my mom’s newspaper before heading to work. Scanning the front page headlines while walking back from the mailbox, I missed a tiny bird.

The bird flushed into a panicked flight at the last possible second from right under my feet. At a glance, I knew at once that I’d seen something incredibly different. I can only describe the bird as a black, somewhat pear-shaped bird, perhaps a little larger than a typical sparrow, with a less than elegant flight that took it a couple of feet into a stand of cattails and other wet-loving vegetation.

Then, just like that, the bird was gone. After that brief encounter, which may have lasted at best a second or two, the bird vanished. With sparrows or warblers, an observer can squeak some notes to persuade a curious bird to come back into sight. I tried and got no response.

Of course, I didn’t think I’d seen a warbler or a sparrow. In an instant, perhaps one of the most significant bird sightings I’ve ever had at my home was concluded but hardly resolved.

I remained standing, staring, trying to determine what I’d just seen. I had an idea, but it was almost too unexpected and too unsupported to entertain. I won’t be adding it to my life list of birds seen, but I am fairly confident that I saw a black rail, one of the tiniest representatives in a family of birds that also include sora rail, Virginia rail, clapper rail and king rail.

When I describe the bird as tiny, it’s not an exaggeration. Adults are bigger than most sparrows but smaller than an American robin. They are gray-black birds speckled with white on the back. They have a black crown and chestnut patch evident on the back of the neck. The bill is black.The legs range from pink to wine-colored. The most striking feature of this bird, if observed under favorable conditions, is its bright red eyes.

Many birders have probably enjoyed a flight of fancy while imagining a beady pair of red eyes staring back at them from dense marsh vegetation. The black rail is so difficult to observe that it has become a sort of feathered “holy grail” for birders. I was certainly not expecting the possibility of my path crossing with this tiny wanderer.

The black rail has not been extensively studied by scientists, which means much about this elusive bird of marshes and wetland is poorly understood. There are different reasons behind the mysteries surrounding the bird.

For instance, although it does vocalize, black rails call mostly after dark. Not many people go wandering through marshes at night, so black rails largely go unheard.

In addition, when these small birds perceive a threat, they prefer running through dense vegetation instead of taking flight. Some black rails in northern areas are migratory, so these birds are capable of sustained flight. They simply don’t like to fly unless circumstances dictate flight upon them. They’d prefer to scurry through wetland, much like a small rodent. They are even known to take advantage of trails blazoned through marshes by mice and other small rodents.

A few aspects of my observation work in favor of the bird being a black rail. I’ve seen other rails — sora, Virginia rail and clapper rail — on multiple occasions. Virginia rail and clapper rail can be ruled out. They’re too large and too different in appearance to be mistaken for a black rail. The sora bears a certain similarity to a black rail, but it is mostly brown and gray with a yellow bill. It’s also larger than a black rail.

Once the black rail’s close kin are eliminated, there aren’t any other likely suspects that might be confused with it. It’s frustrating. I will likely always refer to this sighing as “the bird that looked a lot like a black rail.” My hesitation stems partly from the simple fact that so many birders are unable to ever get a look at this bird. Why should I have had better luck, even if only for a split second?

Incidentally, two of my best rail sighings have taken place in Erwin.

Back in 2000, I observed a Virginia rail stepping delicately and deliberately though some cattails and other vegetation on the fringes of the wetland area adjacent to the large pond at Erwin Fishery Park. I watched the bird move carefully and deliberately through the vegetation. It was only for a moment or two, but it was of longer duration than my recent “blink-and-you-missed-it” observation of the black rail in my driveway.

My best observation of a sora took place in the spring a few years ago during a visit to the boardwalk over the wetlands near the industrial park in Erwin. The boardwalk is part of the extended linear trail in town. I was birding that day with Margaret Roy, the former manager of Mountain Inn & Suites of Erwin.

Margaret wanted to learn more about birds, and we really got lucky when we found such an uncommon bird only minutes after we stepped onto the boardwalk. It was as simple as looking down on the mudflats and noticing an odd, plump bird walking without concern beneath us. From our elevated viewing platform, we got excellent looks through binoculars and I took some photos.

Early naturalists, even without benefit of binoculars, were aware of the black rail. John James Audubon, the famous painter and naturalist, painted a black rail and its chick. Audubon referred to the elusive denizen of wetlands depicted in his painting as the “least water-rail.” Others have called the bird by such names as “least water-hen,” “little black rail” and “black crake.” In some parts of the world, rails are referred to as crakes, but they are basically all the same type of bird.

According to the website, All About Birds, black rails have been eliminated from many saltwater tidal habitats. The website even encourages people to listen for black rails in spring in freshwater wetlands. Although they favor tidal habitats on the coast, black rails will nest in a variety of wet meadows, marshy edges, and even along creeks and rivers. Some event attempt to nest around farm ponds or fields of hay with standing water.

Black rails are scarce, but they do range throughout the United States and Canada. The two states with the most black rails are Florida and California. Unfortunately, those two states feature habitats under siege from human encroachment.

Because of their small size, black rails are limited water that is more shallow than used by most rails. They feed on seeds, insects, crustaceans and mollusks. In 2015, the black rail was confirmed as a nesting species in South Carolina after long being classified as a non-breeding migrant to the state.

High tides that force these birds from their dense cover make them vulnerable to predators ranging from herons and hawks to foxes and cats.

Rails belong to the family of birds known as Rallidae, which includes not only crakes and rails, but coots and gallinules, too. The entire family consists of about 150 species, including bird with such descriptive names as grey-throated rail, ash-throated crake, snoring rail, invisible rail, chestnut rail and striped crake. Many species of rails, particularly those that evolved on isolated islands, have become flightless.

There’s a saying that lightning never strikes twice. I’m hoping the saying is wrong. I’ve learned a lot about this fascinating bird while researching the topic of black rails after my all-too-brief sighting. I’d very much like to get a more satisfying look at a black rail some day.

Fingers crossed.

 

It all began with a dark-eyed junco

Photo by Jack Bumer from Pixabay • For many people, the dark-eyed junco is a winter bird, not arriving until the first frost or snowfall of the season. These songbirds typically remain until late spring when they disperse to their nesting grounds.

I wrote my first bird column on Sunday, Nov. 5, 1995, which means this weekly column is marking its 26th 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  2014 at www.ourfinefeatheredfriends.com.

I’ve played detective, helping people identify everything from “rain crows,” or cuckoos, to Muscovy ducks, chukars and double-crested cormorants. I’ve observed unusual birds, including white pelicans, brants and roseate spoonbills, in Northeast Tennessee, Southwest Virginia and Western North Carolina 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 hummingbirds 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.

Even as I tweak my anniversary column for “Feathered Friends,” parts of the region just experienced the first heavy frost. 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 bereturning 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.”

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 as 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.

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.

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.

The juncos are a small branch of the sparrow clan. Some of the other juncos include the endangered Guadalupe junco, yellow-eyed junco, Baird’s junco and volcano junco. The last one on the list is endemic to the Talamancan montane forests of Costa Rica and western Panama. Baird’s junco is named for Spencer Fullerton Baird, an American ornithologist and naturalist.

Baird served as secretary  for the Smithsonian Institution from 1878 until  his death in 1887. He greatly expanded the natural history collections of the Smithsonian from 6,000 specimens in 1850 to over two million by the time of his death.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this introduction to juncos. 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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Orders are being accepted for the 2022 bird calendar produced by Elizabethton Bird Club members. Calendars feature bird photographs taken by club members. The calendars sell for $15, plus $2 for postage and handling for those needing a calendar mailed to them. This year’s cover features a beautiful photograph of a chestnut-sided warbler among spring blossoms taken by Charles Warden. Anyone interested in the purchase of a calendar can email Bryan Stevens at ahoodedwarbler@aol.com for more information.

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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 26 years. I can also be reached on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/ahoodedwarbler.

 

 

 

American crow’s dark reputation more from plumage than behavior

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 • An American crow perches on a log. Due to its dark coloration, crows have often been associated with evil and other dark forces. In actuality, crows are admirable, highly intelligent birds.

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 http://www.geocities.ws/jswortham/crow.

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.