Category Archives: Bryan Stevens

Couple shares story about nesting mourning doves

Contributed Photo by Tim Barto • One of the mourning doves nesting atop a porch column at the home of Star and Tim Barton in Telford arrives with a sprig of nesting material held in its beak. Tim’s photo of the dove even impressed the editors at “Smoky Mountain Living.” The magazine published the photo earlier this year.

Star Barto, a resident of Telford in Washington County, contacted me after reading my column on the Eastern phoebes nesting on my  front porch. Incidentally, the phoebes have now successfully fledged their young.

Star began her email by sharing that she and her husband, Tim, have been blessed with mourning doves building their nests on the top of one of their porch columns.  

“This is our fifth year with a ring side seat,” Star wrote. “They usually have two nestings per season that produce two babies each time.”

This year, the birds changed things up and the Bartos are celebrating  a third nest — atop the same porch column.  

“We call it our special version of an Airbnb,” she noted.

At first, the doves would fly each time Star or Tim opened the front door, but the birds gradually grew accustomed to their human landlords.  

Star wrote that their nest is in such a ideal location — safe, dry, under cover, high up — that the doves return year after year and do not doubt the safety of their habitat.  

“We turn off the porch light, of course, and work hard at minimizing disruption,” she wrote.  

“And they thrive,” Star added. “It is beyond thrilling to be able to see so up close and personal the magic of Mother Nature.”

The mourning dove is a common backyard bird across the country. It’s also considered a game bird.

According to the website, All About Birds, the mourning dove is the most widespread and abundant game bird in North America. According to the website, hunters harvest more than 20 million of these birds every year, but the mourning dove remains one of the most abundant birds with a U.S. population estimated at 350 million. The mourning dove also ranges into Canada and Mexico. 

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A mourning dove stretches a wing while perched on a feeder.

The mourning dove gets its name from its mournful cooing, which has been likened to a lament. Birds are more vocal during the nesting season. 

Former common names for this dove include Carolina pigeon, rain dove and turtle dove. The mourning dove is a member of the dove family, Columbidae, which includes 344 different species worldwide.

From the standpoint of a scientist, there’s no real difference between doves and pigeons. In general, smaller members of the family are known as doves and the larger ones are classified as pigeons, but that’s not a firm rule.

Some of the more descriptively named doves and pigeons include blue-eyed ground dove, purplish-backed quail dove, ochre-bellied dove, red-billed pigeon, emerald-spotted wood dove, pink-necked green pigeon, sombre pigeon, topknot pigeon, white-bellied imperial pigeon, cinnamon ground dove, pheasant pigeon, crested cuckoo-dove and crowned pigeon.

An early illustration of the dodo.

Arguably the most famous dove is the extinct dodo, a bird renowned as being  almost too stupid to live. The dodo almost certainly doesn’t deserve its reputation as a “bird brain.” The reason for the bird’s swift extinction after encountering humans can be explained by the fact that this large, flightless dove evolved on the island of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean. Largely defenseless, the dodo’s fate was sealed from the moment this bird was confronted with new arrivals — humans and affiliated animals such as rats, pigs and cats — at its home.  The results of these first encounters were catastrophic for the species.

The first mention of the three-foot-tall dodo in the historic record occurred in 1598 when Dutch sailors reached Mauritius. By 1662, the bird vanishes from the historic record. The bird disappeared so swiftly that for some time after it was often considered a mythical creature.

Other native doves in the United States include common ground-dove, Inca dove, white-winged dove and Key West quail-dove. The Eurasian collared-dove is an introduced species that has spread rapidly across the country and occurs in Northeast Tennessee. 

Doves are unusual among birds in feeding young a type of milk. Known as “crop milk,” both parents feed young in the nest with this substance produced in the crop, which is simply an enlargement of the bird’s esophagus. The crop is usually used for storage of surplus food, which is usually seeds. 

Young doves are known as squabs, and the crop milk they are fed early in life is rich in antioxidants, fats and proteins, allowing them to thrive and grow quickly. 

To share a sighting, make a comment or ask a question, please email me at ahoodedwarbler@aol.com. 

Red-headed woodpeckers more uncommon than some of their kin

 

Photo by Pixabay • The red-headed woodpecker is accurately named for its entirely red head. Male and female red-headed woodpeckers are identical in appearance, but young birds lack the red head.

Some readers asked for help in determining the identity of some birds that they have encountered. I tried to offer some insight into each query.

First, Lynda Carter in the Lamar community of Washington County emailed me recently with a question about a possible sighting of a red-headed woodpecker.

“I know they are uncommon and I did not get my binoculars on the bird,” Lynda wrote. “I saw the bird land in a large open-crowned oak after hearing a call very like (a) red-bellied (woodpecker) but different somehow.”

Lynda noted that she could see a lot of red on head and when the bird flew across her pasture to a pine tree, she could see big blocks of black and white in the plumage.

“I shared my sighting with my sister who lives up the mountain from me and she thought she spotted the same bird on a telephone pole in her yard a few days later,” Lynda said.

Lynda added that she and her sister live on the end of Embreeville Mountain. “We are interested in your thoughts concerning our mystery bird,” she wrote.

I responded to Lynda with my absolute confidence that she and her sister did see a red-headed woodpecker. Here are a few reasons for my belief in the identification she came up with.

The large patches of black and white are trademark characteristics of a red-headed woodpecker. The black is actually almost a glossy blue-black.

Of course, the entirely red head also separates the aptly-named red-headed woodpecker from all other members of the family in the region.

She and her sister also live in a section of Washington County near some known locations for finding red-headed woodpeckers.

Photo by USFWS • The red-headed woodpecker is an easily identified bird for anyone getting a good look.

It’s also spring. Red-headed woodpeckers are partly migratory, so her sighting could have involved a migrating bird. I’ve seen several red-headed woodpeckers in the spring in some surprising locations over the years.

We corresponded a bit more and Lynda shared more about the birds around her home.

“I do live in a great spot for birding,” she wrote.  “We have open pasture, wooded gullies and the mountain behind us. Cherokee National Forest is my neighbor to the south and the Nolichucky River is just down the road.”

Lynda hosts nesting wood thrushes that return to the same open wooded patch behind her house. “I just love hearing their song in early morning hours and again in the evening,” she wrote.

She also wrote that she has seen more scarlet tanagers, which is always a thrill, in the last year or two.

“I have had male and female rose-breasted grosbeak at my bin feeder,” she added.

She has recently heard Eastern meadowlarks, red-eyed vireo and ovenbird. She also provides several nest boxes currently occupied by Eastern bluebirds and tree swallows.

The red-headed woodpecker and its relative, the red-bellied woodpecker, belong to a genus of tree-clinging birds known as Melanerpes. The term, translated from Latin, means “black creeper.” Indeed, many of the two dozen members of the Melanerpes genus have an extensive amount of black feathers in their plumage. Other members of the genus include woodpeckers from the Caribbean, as well as from Central and South American. Some of them have quite colorful names, such as yellow-tufted woodpecker, golden-cheeked woodpecker and the accurately named beautiful woodpecker, a native of Colombia.

The red-bellied is a common bird in the region, but some effort or simple good luck is needed to find red-headed woodpeckers. These woodpeckers, which often form family flocks, have localized populations that shift from year to year.

One reason the red-headed woodpecker may be less common than its cousin relates to its fondness for hawking for flying insects along roadsides. The woodpeckers are frequently struck by cars when swooping after their winged prey. Historically, the American chestnut and beech trees also provided much of the mast crops consumed by these birds. With the extermination of the chestnut and the scarcity of beech in some locations, the red-headed woodpecker now depends on oaks and acorns. In fact, this woodpecker is rarely encountered outside of woodlands offering an abundance of oak trees.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Is6MB_8-7ro

•••

Ed Wells, who lives in Nebo, North Carolina, near Lake James, emailed me recently and presented me with another identification challenge.

“I enjoy reading your feature each week,” Wells wrote.  “You always inform and teach me.”

He  also attached some photographs of a bird that flew into the side of his house in 2021.

“I have not been able to make a positive ID,” he said.  “It appeared to be a small shorebird with a straight bill of medium length. Wing span was probably 10 inches or less and perhaps about the same from bill to tail.”

“I moved the stunned bird out of the cold wind and placed it on some mulch,” Ed wrote. “It eventually recovered and flew away.”

Ed also shared that while boating on the lake recently, he saw a bird that he believes might be the same species as his mystery bird. The shorebird was perched on rocks near the waterline.

“My boat startled it and it flew rapidly away,” he added.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gD6nQm1CFKI

Based on his photos, the best I could do was determine the bird was some sort of “peep,” which is a birding nickname for a group of small- to medium-sized sandpipers.

I speculated that the bird might have been a stilt sandpiper, but I also consulted Rick Knight, a veteran birder with much more experience with shorebirds.

“The bill looks too short for stilt sandpiper,” Rick concluded. He said that he would lean toward the bird being a least sandpiper or pectoral sandpiper.

Many shorebirds have been migrating through the region in recent weeks. During the recent five-county Spring Bird Count conducted by the Elizabethton Bird Club, counters found several shorebird species, including least sandpiper, pectoral sandpiper, semipalmated sandpiper, spotted sandpiper, solitary sandpiper, lesser yellowlegs greater yellowlegs and killdeer.

•••

Have questions about birds? Email me at ahoodedwarbler@aol.com. Feel free to make comments and share observations, too.

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.

 

Annual fall bird count tallies 129 species for Northeast Tennessee

Photo from Pixabay • A red-headed woodpecker clings to the trunk of a tree. During the recent Fall Bird Count for Northeast Tennessee, all the region’s seven woodpecker species were tallied. The medium-sized red-headed woodpecker is found only in isolated locations in the region. They prefer more open country than most of their kin. Habitat containing dead or dying trees is vital if these woodpeckers are to thrive.

I wrote last week about my participation in the recent 52nd annual Fall Bird Count conducted by the Elizabethton Bird Club.

This week I want to dive into the results of what turned out to be a great count. The five-county tally of the birds in Northeast Tennessee was held on Saturday, Sept. 25, with 34 observers in 14 parties, plus two feeder watchers. Participants covered Carter County, as well as parts of adjacent Johnson, Sullivan, Unicoi and Washington counties.

This year’s count tallied 129 species, which is slightly above the recent 30 year average of 125 species. The all-time high was reached in 1993 when 137 species were tallied.

Participants for this year’s count included Fred Alsop, Jerry Bevins, Rob Biller, Debi Campbell, J.G. Campbell, Ron Carrico, Catherine Cummins, Dianne Draper, Cindy Ehrhardt, Harry Lee Farthing, Dave Gardner, Tammy Griffey, Don Holt, Connie Irick, David Irick, David Kirschke, Rick Knight, Roy Knispel, Richard Lewis, Dianne Lynne, Vern Maddux, Joe McGuiness, Tom McNeil, Eric Middlemas, Susan Peters, Brookie Potter, Jean Potter, Pete Range, Judith Reid, Judi Sawyer, Chris Soto, Bryan Stevens, Peggy Stevens, Kim Stroud, Charles Warden and Rex Whitfield.

The four most commonly observed species, in descending order, included European starling, 838; Canada goose, 744; American crow, 502; and blue jay, 437. No surprises there.

Somewhat surprising was the total of 222 brown-headed cowbirds. Other abundant birds that numbered more than 200 individuals included mourning dove (316), rock pigeon (285), chimney swift (227), Eastern bluebird (208), American robin (222), cedar waxwing (230) and American goldfinch (216).

A total of 24 species of warblers was found, including 172 individual Tennessee warblers. These greenish-yellow warblers can be quite abundant as they pass through the region each autumn.

Some families of birds, such as falcons and woodpeckers, were well represented on this count with all the expected species being found by count participants.

Five Empidonax species, often referred to as “empids” by birders were found during the count but do not contribute to the total. These small flycatchers are nearly identical in appearance and silent during the fall. Faced with an inability to positive identify them, birders simply noted that they were seen.

The list follows:

Canada goose, 744; wood duck, 42; mallard, 182; blue-winged teal, 4; Northern shoveler, 2; and common merganser, 4.

Wild turkey, 18; pied-billed grebe, 3; double-crested cormorant, 43; great blue heron, 39; great egret, 4; green heron, 1; black vulture, 61; and turkey vulture, 183.

Osprey, 7; bald eagle, 9; sharp-shinned hawk, 3; Cooper’s hawk, 8; red-shouldered hawk, 6; broad-winged hawk, 11; and red-tailed hawk, 25.

American coot, 1; killdeer, 45; spotted sandpiper, 2; rock pigeon, 285; Eurasian collared-dove, 22; mourning dove,  316; and yellow-billed cuckoo, 2.

Eastern screech-owl, 11; great horned owl  7; barred owl, 3; American kestrel, 28; merlin, 8; and peregrine falcon, 3.

Common nighthawk, 3; chimney swift, 227; ruby-throated hummingbird, 23; and belted kingfisher, 32.

Red-headed woodpecker, 2; red-bellied woodpecker, 83; yellow-bellied sapsucker, 1; downy woodpecker, 51; hairy woodpecker, 11; Northern flicker, 54; and pileated woodpecker, 39.

Eastern wood-pewee, 31; Acadian flycatcher, 1; Eastern phoebe, 92; Eastern kingbird, 1; and loggerhead shrike, 1.

White-eyed vireo, 7; yellow-throated vireo, 5; blue-headed vireo, 21; Philadelphia vireo, 1; and red-eyed vireo, 6.

Blue jay, 437; American crow, 502; fish crow, 3; common raven, 13; tree swallow, 160; barn swallow, 29; and cliff swallow, 1.

Carolina chickadee, 145; tufted titmouse, 109; red-breasted nuthatch, 9; white-breasted nuthatch, 52; brown-headed nuthatch, 3; and brown creeper, 1.

House wren, 8; winter wren, 4; Carolina wren, 179; blue-gray gnatcatcher, 6; golden-crowned kinglet, 5; ruby-crowned kinglet, 9.

Eastern bluebird, 208; veery, 2; gray-cheeked thrush, 2; Swainson’s thrush, 46; wood thrush, 19; American robin, 222; gray catbird, 34; brown thrasher, 14; Northern mockingbird, 80; European starling, 838; and cedar waxwing, 230.

Ovenbird, 2; worm-eating warbler, 4; Northern waterthrush, 1; black-and-white warbler, 3; prothonotary warbler, 1; Tennessee warbler, 172; Nashville warbler, 3; common yellowthroat, 19; hooded warbler, 4; American redstart,  29; Cape May warbler,  40; Northern parula, 5; magnolia warbler, 24; bay-breasted warbler, 76; Blackburnian warbler, 9; chestnut-sided warbler,  9; black-throated blue warbler,  10; palm warbler,  171; pine warbler, 30; yellow-rumped warbler, 2; yellow-throated warbler, 5; prairie warbler  1; black-throated green warbler, 11; and Wilson’s warbler,  1.

Eastern towhee, 71; chipping sparrow, 76; field sparrow, 14; Savannah sparrow, 1; song sparrow, 131; and dark-eyed junco, 45.

Summer tanager, 1; scarlet tanager, 36; Northern cardinal, 160; rose-breasted grosbeak, 89; Blue Grosbeak,  2; and indigo bunting, 13.

Red-winged blackbird  61; Eastern meadowlark, 6; common grackle,  66; and brown-headed cowbird, 222.

House finch, 100; red crossbill, 2; American goldfinch, 216; and house sparrow, 114.

Many of the species observed on this county will be taking a temporary leave of Northeast Tennessee until next spring. Tanagers, warblers, vireos and other birds will seek out locations farther south to spend the winter months.

They’ll be back, though, and just in time for the 2022 Spring Bird Count. To make a comment, ask a question or share an observation, send an email to ahoodedwarbler@aol.com.

Hermit thrushes brave East Tennessee winters

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A hermit thrush perched on a fence rail shows the reddish tail, a reliable field mark to separate this species from close relatives. The tail contrasts from the rest of the bird’s plumage.

Karen Miller sent me an email about a winter visitor in her yard at her home in Parrottsville, Tennessee. “I have seen a hermit thrush eating holly berries for 10 days,” Karen wrote. “Is he migrating or is he perhaps a winter visitor here in Parrottsville?”

To answer her question, I replied and informed her that the thrush is a winter visitor. The hermit thrush takes up residence after its kin have already departed the region in the fall, making it one of the few thrushes to remain in Northeast Tennessee during the winter months. I’ve always thought a good nickname for this bird would be the “winter thrush” because of its presence during the colder months of the year. Of course, for those who know where to look, a few hermit thrushes spend the summer nesting season at high elevation peaks such as Roan Mountain on the Tennessee and North Carolina border.

The hermit thrush is one of the larger brown thrushes, which also includes such related birds as Swainson’s thrush, veery, gray-cheeked thrush and wood thrush. Other less closely related members of the thrush family include the American robin, Eastern bluebird and Townsend’s solitaire.

USFWS • Hermit thrushes like to keep to the shadows.

The poet Walt Whitman employed a hermit thrush as a symbol in his poem, “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d,” a moving pastoral elegy in honor of the assassinated President Abraham Lincoln. Whitman evidently knew his birds, and it’s not difficult for naturalists and bird enthusiasts to identify that he referred to the hermit thrush when he wove this songbird as a symbol into his stanzas honoring Lincoln. “Sing on there in the swamp,” Whitman wrote in his poem. “O singer bashful and tender, I hear your notes, I hear your call. I hear, I come presently, I understand you…”

Whitman evidently knew of this bird’s bashful, retiring habits, and he had obviously enjoyed the flute-like notes of the hermit thrush’s call. Whitman and many other Americans have been made fans of this gifted songbird. In fact, the citizens of Vermont even proclaimed the hermit thrush as their official state bird. The hermit thrush is well known for its song — a series of clear, musical notes, each on a different pitch, consisting of a piping introductory note and a reedy tremolo. The song had often been described as melancholy by various bird experts. The birds don’t usually sing in winter, but they do produce a call note when disturbed or alarmed that is described as a low “chuck.”

The visiting hermit thrush at her home has allowed Karen Miller to get to know this somewhat reclusive bird better. “He sits on the ground, cocks his head, spies a berry and then jumps up and gets it,” she wrote. She noted that her visitor has a good appetite. “He eats four or five at a time,” she said. “I’m so glad to see him.”

Photo by USFWS • Like many thrushes, the hermit thrush is fond of fruit and berries, especially during the winter.

According to the Smoky Mountains Visitors Guide website, the hermit thrush forages for most of its food from the ground. This bird’s diet includes insects, spiders, snails, and earthworms, plus considerable amounts of wild fruits during the fall and winter. Hermit thrushes may join up with mixed flocks of birds during the winter, often associating with such songbirds as kinglets, brown creepers, chickadees and titmice. For those not fortunate enough to host a wintering hermit thrush, this bird can be found during the summer months atop some high-elevation peaks. Close to home, look for this thrush in the Roan Mountain Rhododendron Gardens. The hermit thrush is also found at some locations in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park.

Female hermit thrushes collect nesting materials and construct the nest, within which she will lay three to six eggs. These thrushes nest once or twice a season. According to the website All About Birds, nesting habits differ between hermit thrushes in the western North America and their counterparts in the eastern half of the continent. Eastern thrushes tend to nest on the ground, but those in the west often place their nests in shrubs or tree branches.

At home on Simerly Creek Road, my first hermit thrush of the winter arrived in early November of last year. During a woodland stroll with neighbor Beth McPherson, the resident thrush put on an impressive show, hopping and scraping on the woodland floor beneath a rhododendron thicket bordering a mountain spring. In such surroundings, it’s not difficult to fathom why this bird has developed such a subtle plumage of muted browns and grays. Even when foraging actively, the bird blended remarkably with the background of fallen leaves and other woodland debris.

The hermit thrush is known by the scientific name, Catharus guttatus. The term guttatus is Latin for “spotted,” which seems appropriate. Surprisingly, the hermit thrush is not closely related to the other North American migrant species of Catharus thrushes. Instead, the hermit thrush is more closely related to the russet nightingale-thrush, a Mexican songbird. The hermit thrush could accurately be called the “red-tailed thrush” for the fact that this species has a rusty-red tail that stands apart from the warm brown-gray tones of the rest of its plumage. A white eye ring, pink legs and a heavily spotted breast complete the rest of this bird’s understated appearance.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A hermit thrush perches on a branch in a winter woodland.

The wintering hermit thrushes in the region will likely stay put for the next couple of months, but they will mostly depart the area in April or early May. If you want to look for them, now’s the time.

••••• Bryan Stevens lives near Roan Mountain, Tennessee. To learn more about birds and other topics from the natural world, friend Stevens on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/ahoodedwarbler. He is always posting about local birds, wildlife, flowers, insects and much more. If you have a question, wish to make a comment or share a sighting, email ahoodedwarbler@aol.com.

 

Birds make headlines in 2020

Photo by Irene K-s/Pixabay.com  • The ongoing pandemic with its social distancing protocols has motivated many people to connect with nature, especially through activities like bird feeding and birdwatching. Even common birds, like these chipping sparrows and an American goldfinch, help people cope with the stresses of the global pandemic.

To state that it has been a strange year is an exercise in understatement. Nevertheless, the few 2020 bright spots have focused on our fine feathered friends, whether it was the long-awaited return of birds like evening grosbeaks or a welcome spike in interest in all things related to birds. While we wait for 2021 and hope for better days to come, I decided to take a glimpse at some of the bird-related news headlines for this past year.

New birds found

Scientists discovered five new species of birds in 2020. Some of the most recent additions to the world’s avifauna include songbirds from various remote islands, including the Peleng fantail, Peleng leaf warbler, the Taliabu grasshopper warbler, the Taliabu myzoemla and the Taliabu leaf warbler. These newly-discovered species will help swell the ranks of the world’s estimated 9,000 to 10,000 bird species. Since many headlines have concerned warnings about disappearing birds, it’s nice to know that scientists are still finding new birds in some unexpected locations. 

Photo by thịnh nguyễn xuân/Pixabay.com • This red and green macaw in captivity shows the bright plumage of its wild kin, which are again flying free in Argentina.

Don’t cry for the macaws, Argentina

Red and green macaws, which have been exterminated from other parts of Argentina, are thriving in Iberá National Park after the country reintroduced these large, colorful birds in 2015. This year, a pair of the 15 macaws living in the park produced three chicks. It’s a start and marks the first red and green macaws hatched in Argentina in more than 150 years.

Birds provide cure for COVID blues

In a year that saw the human species suffer from an ongoing pandemic, many people turned to nature, particularly birds, as a means to cope with the stresses of life during the time of COVID-19. The Audubon Society’s website spotlighted the way birds have brightened the lives of humans during the imposition of social distancing to help prevent the spread of the virus. Sales of bird seed and birdhouses have increased since the early months of the pandemic. It’s not difficult to understand the reason. People have been doing more to invite birds into their lives, whether it’s bribing them with a well-stocked feeder or providing shelter for such necessary activities as nesting and roosting. For more articles on the magic of birds during a global pandemic, visit the Audubon website at Audubon.org. 

Wisdom’s maternal instincts unabated

Wisdom has returned to Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument on the island of Midway. Wisdom, a Laysan albatross that is at least 69 years old, is set to become a mother again after laying an egg in early December as she has been done more than 30 times since 1956. At an age when human mothers might be looking to a chance to enjoy becoming grandmothers or even great-grandmothers, Wisdom wants another crack at motherhood. She has been immensely successful as a breeding albatross, surviving with her offspring the great tsunami that swept over the island in March of 2011. Much studied by scientists, Wisdom has successfully hatched a chick every year since 2006 and looks to replicate this feat again in 2021. 

Evening grosbeaks return to region

After being absent for 20 years, evening grosbeaks have made sporadic appearances at feeders throughout the region with sightings reported from Elizabethton, Roan Mountain, Hampton and Townsend, as well as other locations across the Volunteer State. Part of an irruption of other Northern finches, the grosbeaks have been joined by such species as purple finches, pine siskins and common redpolls. Dianna Lynne, who lives on Stoney Creek in Elizabethton, Tennessee, reported a small flock of both male and female evening grosbeaks at her feeders on Dec. 9. She joins a list of some other people lucky enough to host these entertaining birds this winter.

Brookie and Jean Potter, as well as their neighbors, Jim and Diane Bishop, continued to host a flock of grosbeaks at their homes near Wilbur Lake in Elizabethton, Tennessee. They first saw their grosbeaks in early December, but the flock, which has grown to as many as 17 individuals, now visits daily and has extended its stay into 2021.

Without a doubt, the approaching year 2021 will offer its own surprises. People and birds will make more headlines. Remember to keep space in your life and schedule for birds and nature. These will help anyone weather any storm. To share observations, ask questions, or make a comment, email me at ahoodedwarbler@aol.com. 

Photo by Jean Potter • A male evening grosbeak perches for a view of a nearby feeder.

 

Welcome white-throated sparrows with abundant cover, stocked feeder

Photo by Pixabay.com • A yellow dot on the white-throated sparrow’s lores, a region on the face between the bill and the eyes, is one easy means of distinguishing the winter bird from its fellow sparrows, a family often dismissed as “little brown birds.”

Winter’s a season painted in shades of gray. Or brown, in the case of some of the “little brown birds” known as sparrows that enliven our yards and gardens during the colder months. A few, like the song sparrow, reside near us through all the seasons, but most of the sparrows are visitors only during the colder months of the year. This diverse family includes such birds as dark-eyed junco, chipping sparrow, white-throated sparrow, white-crowned sparrow, field sparrow, fox sparrow, and Eastern towhee.

I host many of these sparrows every winter, but one of the most reliable visitors is the white-throated sparrow. The white-throated sparrow and the closely related white-crowned sparrow both belong to a genus of American sparrows known as Zonotrichia, which includes three other species. The other three — golden-crowned sparrow, rufous-collared sparrow, and Harris’s sparrow — range mostly outside the continental United States. The rufous-collared sparrow ranges throughout Mexico, as well as the island of Hispaniola. Harris’s sparrow is a bird that occurs mostly in Canada, although there are a handful of records in our region. The golden-crowned sparrow is a bird that occurs mostly in Alaska, although some of this sparrow’s population ranges into the northwestern corner of the state of Washington.

Photo by Skeeze/Pixabay • A white-throated sparrow perches on a branch to sing its easily recognizable song. Many Americans translate the sparrow’s song as “Ol’ Sam Peabody, Peabody, Peabody.”

The genus name, Zonotrichia, refers to two ancient Greek words for zone and hair, which refers to the pattern of streaks on the backs of these five sparrow species. The Zonotrichia sparrows belong to a large group of birds known as Passerellidae, or American sparrows, which also includes birds such as juncos, towhees and brush finches. Some of the more descriptive names for American sparrows include orange-billed sparrow, white-eared ground sparrow, green-backed sparrow, olive sparrow, cinnamon-tailed sparrow, five-striped sparrow and golden-winged sparrow.

Many sparrows, including the white-throated sparrow, prefer to forage for food on the ground. It’s often helpful to purchase a supply of millet seed. When filling feeders with sunflower seeds, scatter a couple of handfuls of millet seed on the ground beneath the feeders or at the edge of a brushy area. Sparrows like to have quick access to dense cover, so they will feed more securely if the scattered seeds are within quick reach of shelter.

Photo by Skeeze/Pixabay • A white-throated sparrow perches on a branch to sing its easily recognizable song. Many Americans translate the sparrow’s song as “Ol’ Sam Peabody, Peabody, Peabody.”

In fact, food and shelter are probably the two most compelling factors sparrows take note of when selecting a yard for their winter residence. There are easy means of providing the shelter that gives these small birds peace of mind. Leave an edge or corner of your yard in a unkempt manner. Don’t cut down grass, weeds, and saplings. Even if human neighbors look askance, your feathered friends will be grateful. An alternative is to create a brush pile with discarded trimmings taken during periodic spruce-ups of the yard and garden. Sparrows, as well as other birds, will use the brushy cover as a shelter from the elements and as protection from visiting raptors such as sharp-shinned hawks.

The white-throated sparrow is so named for the patch of white feathers on the throat. While this field mark help with identification, there are other distinct features of this particular sparrow that helps contrast it from members of the “little brown bird” gang. For starters, adults have a bold face pattern of black and white crown stripes. The most obvious field mark for attentive observers is the yellow spot between the eye and the bill. It’s a vivid splash of color not commonly found in the plumage of most of its kin.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • The white-crowned sparrow is a very aptly named bird.

Most songbirds live a precarious life that can be measured in only a few years. However, an occasional individual defies the odds. According to the website allaboutbirds.com, the oldest recorded white-throated sparrow was at least 14 years, 11 months old, when it was recaptured and rereleased during banding operations in Alberta, Canada.

Although they are fairly common winter visitors in the region, the white-throated sparrow makes its presence known most strongly each spring when the birds begin to sing a familiar refrain that has been transcribed in a couple of different ways. Many Americans render the song of the white-throated sparrow as “Ol’ Sam Peabody, Peabody, Peabody.” For those living north of the border, the white-throated sparrow sings “O’Canada, O’Canada, O’Canada.” No matter how you translate this sparrow’s song, it’s a sweet and welcome addition to the spring aural landscape.

Most white-throated sparrows depart the region by late April to reach their summer nesting grounds throughout the forests across Canada, the northeastern U.S. and the northern Midwest. In the influx of more showy birds each spring, their absence sometimes goes unnoticed. Nevertheless, it always feels good to welcome them when they return in late October and early November as winter begins extending its grip for the season.

Share your own sightings. Email me at ahoodedwarbler@aol.com with observations, comments or questions.

 

Rufous hummingbirds appear after other hummers depart for the winter

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A young rufous hummingbird approaches a feeder for a sip of sugar water. These hummingbirds, which are native to the western United States and Canada, have become regular visitors throughout the eastern United States in late fall and early winter.

Almost every year since beginning to write this column, I have penned articles about the phenomenon of wintering hummingbirds. With the official 2020-21 winter season approaching, I have already gotten word of hummingbirds making themselves at a couple of homes in the region, as well as from such far-flung locales as Ohio and New York.

Photo by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service/Dave Menke • The rufous hummingbird is increasingly becoming a migrant/winter resident in the eastern United States.

Katherine Noblet, a former resident of Johnson City, Tennessee, is hosting a rufous hummingbird at her home in Mount Vernon, Ohio. The tiny bird was banded and identified on Nov. 16. The verdict? The tiny visitor is a first-year female rufous hummingbird.

Noblet, who also hosted rufous hummingbirds when she lived in Tennessee, has posted on Facebook about her most recent winter hummingbird. She noted that the hummingbird, which she has named Reba, first appeared on Nov. 14. Temperatures have dipped into the 20s during the bird’s stay.

“Why a few of these tiny creatures want to hang around this far north is a mystery, but she looks happy and healthy and cannot be existing on just sugar water,” Noblet noted in a Facebook post on Nov. 24. “I have to trust she knows what she is doing.”

Closer to home, some Roan Mountain residents have reported lingering hummingbirds.

Leslie and Kathie Storie, who reside on Heaton Creek in Roan Mountain, Tennessee, posted to Facebook on Oct. 29 about a visiting hummingbird.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A rufous hummingbird grasps a briar as a perch for a moment’s rest from its frantic activities.

“We had a hummingbird on Heaton Creek about 6 o’clock today,” they noted in a post on my Facebook page.

Although they had already taken down their feeders, they reported still having pineapple sage and lantana in bloom in their yard. These flowers are favorites of hummingbirds and would no doubt help attract one of these tiny birds.

 

Judi Sawyer, also a resident of Roan Mountain, has hosted not one but two rufous hummingbirds this fall. She noticed the birds in early October. One of the two birds was banded and documented on Oct. 4. One of the birds evaded the bander’s traps, but the one that was banded was identified as an immature male rufous hummingbird.

I also received an email recently from Susan Jensen, a resident of Carmel, New York, about a lingering hummingbird at her feeders. She had found one of my online articles about wintering hummingbirds and contacted me for more information.

“We have had ruby-throated hummingbirds for many years and I have three feeders for them during the season,” Jensen said. “I always leave one up until I know for sure everyone has passed through to their winter location.”

In October, she reported a feeder visitor that looked like a strange ruby-throated hummingbird. She described the bird as bronze and rusty with a bit of green.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Rufous hummingbirds have been extensively documented as wintering throughout the southeastern United States. This male rufous hummingbird was documented in Hampton, Tennessee, a couple of years ago.

“For about two weeks I thought it was a ruby-throated hummingbird until I realized it wasn’t,” Susan wrote in her email.

After a quick Google search, I emailed Susan and put her in touch with Robert Yunick of Schenectady, New York. On Friday, Nov. 20, he traveled to Susan’s home. He banded the bird, which he identified as juvenile female rufous hummingbird, confirming Susan’s thoughts on the bird’s identity. Susan shared a video of the banding process at this link:

https://share.icloud.com/photos/0wh7RBoUKoPsxXBvQi39coTCQ

“It has been here since Oct. 10,” she informed me in an email. She noted that the bird has endured at several freezing nights when the temperature dipped down to 20 degrees.

“I change the feeder every three days and, if it is frozen like it was this morning, I change it again,” she said. “We are now going to bring the feeder in at night and put it out early the next morning.”

A rufous hummingbird hosts in a host’s hand after being banded and documented in Hampton, Tennessee, several years ago.

Susan enjoyed observing the banding process. “The whole process was surprising,” she wrote to me. “I had never witnessed anything like it.”

Susan said the visiting hummingbird got caught in the trap fairly quickly.

“Bob worked very quickly to measure and band her,” Susan added. “It took about 20 minutes and he fed her three times.”

At the conclusion of the process, she got to hold the tiny visitor. “I have held a hummingbird before, but it was still very special,” Susan said.

She also shared what she termed an “extra story” about hummingbirds.

“About three to four years ago, I was sitting on my deck, watching the babies (immature) hummingbirds buzz around later in the evening,” she said. “They chase each other, and do all kinds of acrobatics.”

During that evening’s antics, one of the hummingbirds flew right into the post used to hold Susan’s feeder.

“It knocked itself out, falling on the railing,” Susan explained. “I was stunned. I picked her up and proceeded to do everything wrong until my son came home. He looked up what to do, and we righted all the wrongs.”

They realized that the bird needed to be fed, so they took down the feeder and fed her twice.

“After that, she took off,” Susan noted. “It was amazing.”

Susan shared that she has been feeding the birds at her home in New York’s Hudson Valley for over 30 years.

“My parents got me interested,” she explained. “They took up bird watching when I was in high school and I have been bird watching ever since.”

Watching birds, she noted, is her all-time favorite thing. “Even when my husband and I are hiking we are always looking for something new,” she said. “It never gets old.”

Photo by Daniel Roberts/Pixabay.com • An adult male rufous hummingbird is a dazzling bird. Many of the winter rufous hummingbirds look much less vibrant.

Through the years, I have seen several of these seemingly out-of-place hummingbirds. Some of them remain at their host’s feeders for a brief stay of a few days or a couple of weeks, but some of these hummingbirds have extended their stay for several months, lingering throughout the winter months before eventually departing in February or March.

The big question concerns whether these hummingbirds are truly lost and out of place. The answer, based on everything I have managed to learn, is that these hummingbirds are precisely where they want to be. For still unknown reasons, some of these western hummingbirds make a migration swing through the eastern United States.

Many of the visiting winter hummingbirds turn out to be rufous hummingbirds, which is a species native to the western United States. The birds visiting at the homes of Katherine, Judi, and Susan all turned out to be rufous hummingbirds. It’s likely the visitor reported by the Storeys was also a rufous hummingbird.

In the summer months, the ruby-throated is the expected species of hummingbird in the eastern United States. In the winter months — not so much. However, in regions all across the Eastern United States, as well as along the Gulf Coast, a few ruby-throated hummingbirds are attempting to overwinter.

The rufous hummingbird has basically become an expected winter visitor each year in Southwest Virginia, East Tennessee, and western North Carolina. A few reports are received each winter. I have observed rufous hummingbirds in many different locations throughout East Tennessee and Southwest Virginia.

Winter hummingbirds, while always a delightful surprise for their hosts, no longer shock long-time birders. We’ve grown to expect them. If any readers are still hosting lingering hummingbirds at their feeders, I’d love to hear their stories. Email me at ahoodedwarbler@aol.com.

Common grackles part of November’s changing bird lineup

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Finches arrive ahead of winter in impressive numbers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

____________

Differentiating purple finches

from house finches can be a challenge

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

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

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

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

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

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