Category Archives: Common Birds of Northeast Tennessee

Feeding birds can draw some unwelcome guests

Squirrel-AttackPhoto by Dianna Lynne • Leaping onto a fully stocked feeder, an Eastern gray squirrel scatters seeds in all directions. The unconquerable squirrel is one of the most unwanted guests at many bird-feeding stations.

 

The winter bird-feeding season is coming to a close, but there’s no need to pull the welcome mat completely. Some of our summer visitors appreciate some supplemental food. Of course, there’s less need for our offerings during warm weather when insects and other food sources are readily available.

People in Great Britain spend 200 million pounds per year on wild bird food. In the United States, people are spending $4 billion each year on feed for the birds. Another $800 million in spending goes to feeders, bird baths and other accessories used to attract wild birds.

People have been feeding birds in the United States of America since before it was a nation. The father of our country, George Washington, fed wild birds at his home, Mount Vernon. The great writer and thinker Henry David Thoreau fed the birds and learned to identify many of the birds around Walden Pond in Massachusetts. Poet Emily Dickinson tossed crumbs to sparrows and then turned those special moments with her feathered friends into poetry.

Since the time of Washington, Thoreau and Dickinson, if not before, Americans have been supplying food, as well as shelter and water, to persuade birds to bring themselves closer. In return, we enjoy their color, their interesting behavior, their songs, and much more.

I continue feeding during the warmer months, although I do cut back on the quantity of my offerings. One of the best bonuses for engaging in year-round bird feeding is the chance to see parent birds bring their offspring to feeders to introduce them to human-offered fare. Be aware, however, that when you put out a table offering free food, you’re bound to attract some unexpected guests. Sometimes those unanticipated visitors can wreak havoc on the smooth management of a feeding station for your birds.

Here is my version of the Top 5 candidates for a “Not Welcome” list of the wildlife most people would prefer not to entertain at their feeders.

Hawks

The raptors are, of course, birds themselves. Therein rests the irony. Flocks of birds active around feeders are like ringing a dinner bell for some raptors, which have learned that songbirds in such situations on occasion make easy pickings.

It’s not any single raptor that can be identified as the most obvious threat to songbirds. Species such as American kestrel, sharp-shinned hawk, Cooper’s hawk, red-shouldered hawk, merlin, peregrine falcon and red-tailed hawk will prey on their fellow birds if given ample opportunity.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • Raptors, like this red-tailed hawk, can cause concern when they take up residence near a feeder in a yard or garden.

If a hawk does begin to show interest in your feeders, it may be necessary to curtail or even cease feeding songbirds until after the raptor loses interest and moves on to other hunting grounds.

I hesitate to even place raptors on this list because I believe that every bird is a wonderful creation. It’s best to remember that hawks view smaller birds flocking to a feeder in the same way those small songbirds view the abundance of seeds. For both hawks and songbirds, our offerings represent easy meals. It’s not easy, but the best choice is to co-exist — if not at peace, then at terms with nature’s reality.

Opossums

The Virginia opossum, also known as the North American opossum, or simply “possum,” is often overlooked because its raids on feeders take place after dark. Although the opossum has 50 teeth (that’s more than any other North American mammal has) in its jaws, it shares the night with other active omnivores, including bears and raccoons.

Regardless of its toothy grin, the possum is not adept as hulling sunflower seeds. The telltale sign that a possum is raiding your feeders involves the discovery of little piles of pulped sunflower seeds, hull and all, in your feeder or on the ground beneath it. The possum pulverizes the sunflower seed and evidently tries to extract what nutritional content it can. Of course, suet, nuts and other feeder fare are on the possum’s menu.

This particular possum is the only marsupial found north of Mexico. The continent of Australia is more famous for its marsupials, which include kangaroos, wallabies and wombats.

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com • Although the opossum has 50 teeth (that’s more than any other North American mammal has) in its jaws, it shares the night with other active omnivores, including bears and raccoons.

Raccoons

These masked, ring-tailed bandits are the bane of many a person who enjoys feeding birds. While they primarily restrict their raids to the hours between sunset and dawn, some emboldened raccoons will occasionally become brazen enough to stake a claim to feeders in broad daylight. A couple of years ago, a trio of young raccoons arrived early in the evening with plenty of daylight remaining to feed in the feeders while I watched from a nearby lawn chair with my binoculars.

Raccoons will also spirit away feeders. I’ve found hummingbird feeders, suet feeders and small plastic feeders carried a good distance into the woods before the thieving raccoon dropped them. The stolen items are usually damaged but, on occasion, I’ve recovered some of my items that were more or less no worse for the wear.

On one occasion, a crafty raccoon managed to remove a sunflower seed feeder from its branch on a tree outside one of my windows, I later found the portly critter reclining lazily on his back wedged between the trunk and a branch high on a nearby tree, holding the feeder in one arm and reaching into it with the other like a person eating popcorn.

Raccoons are highly intelligent and inquisitive, which only makes them more difficult to discourage from raiding feeders. They can be amusing and entertaining in their own right, but it’s best not to encourage their visits. If they prove too persistent, cease feeding birds until the raccoons have moved to a new location.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • Curious and intelligent, raccoons can think of many ways of ransacking a feeding station meant for birds.

 

Bears

A visit from a black bear is hard to miss. With their brute strength, bears are capable of mangling and destroying even the most sturdily constructed of bird feeders. While there are many other unwanted feeder guests, none can match the bear for its sheer capacity for destruction. Black bears can weigh between 200 to 600 pounds, so it’s not hard to imagine their potential for wreaking havoc.

Amanda Austwick lives in Flag Pond, Tennessee. She is a dedicated feeder of our feathered friends, which has led to repeated incidents with problem bears over the years. Amanda lives within the official boundaries of the Cherokee National Forest. Black bears have been thriving in the Cherokee National Forest, as well as throughout the southeastern United States.

When I first corresponded with Amanda several years ago, she was writing to me about a bear attack on her feeders. “One feeder was completely bent over on the ground,” she wrote. I also pointed out that the bear is actually just feeding on the seed. The damage to the feeder is a by-product caused by the fact bears probably don’t know their own strength.

I’ve not gone completely unscathed when it comes to bears and my feeders. Several years ago I owned a nice feeder with a metal meshwork used for holding shelled peanuts, which are loved by birds such as chickadees, titmice, nuthatches and woodpeckers. I woke one morning to find the feeder had been mangled into the equivalent shape of a pretzel.

Compared to the stories told by Amanda, as well as other people who have shared their own bear tales over the years, I got off lucky to only lose a single feeder to a bear. Brookie and Jean Potter, friends who live near Wilbur Lake in Carter County, Tennessee, have had to innovate to stay one step ahead of the bears living in proximity to them. Brookie managed to raise their feeders beyond a bear’s reach using a complicated system of poles and pulleys.

If such proactive measures are not something one wishes to do, there’s one simple step that can be taken. People can bring in their feeders at night to ensure there’s nothing left outdoors to attract the attention of a meandering bear. Bears are omnivores, eating a varied diet ranging from insects and fish to amphibians and bird eggs. When a bear finds a bird feeder, they’re happy to include sunflower seeds or other such fare in their diet. When such food is no longer available, they’re likely to move on.

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Photo Courtesy of Amanda Austwick • This bear caused considerable damage to the Austwick feeders.

Squirrels

They may not match a black bear for sheer destructive capability, but I regard the Eastern gray squirrel as Public Enemy Number One when it comes to having peace and tranquility at a bird-feeding station. What justifies this ranking? It’s simple, really. I know of no sure-fire way to deny a hungry and determined squirrel access to any type of feeder. It’s possible to slow them down, but I think the best we can do is maintain an uneasy truce of co-existence with squirrels.

I wouldn’t begrudge the squirrels some bird seed if they didn’t show such ingratitude by gnawing on feeders. With their sharp incisors, squirrels can chew up and spit out plastic and even wood feeders. More expensive feeders made of ceramics, metal and glass are immune to the same type of squirrel vandalism.

Although I’ve not tried it, I’ve heard that sunflower seed laced with capsaicin will deter squirrels. This spicy substance is even used to deter such large mammals as elephants and grizzly bears. Capsaicin, which is derived from hot peppers, reacts entirely differently with birds. While many mammals will avoid food containing even minute amounts of capsaicin, birds will readily consume it. The difference seems to be that bird receptor cells are largely insensitive to capsaicin.

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com • The gray squirrel is a cunning and often destructive guest at feeders intended for the benefit of birds.

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To be sure, I could have added some other wildlife species to the list. White-tailed deer can graze on flowers planted for the benefit of hummingbirds. Deer have even been documented eating the eggs of songbirds, perhaps more for the calcium shell than any other reason. Chipmunks are almost as wily as squirrels, but they’re cuter and non-destructive. Insects, such as bees and hornets, can overwhelm sugar water feeders intended for hummingbirds.

Don’t even get me started on stray cats! A few years back, a study by researchers from the Smithsonian’s Migratory Bird Center and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Center found that between 1.4 to 3.7 billion birds lose their lives to cats each year in the United States. In addition to birds, cats kill billions of small mammals — shrews, voles, mice, rabbits — every year. Most of the carnage is committed by feral or stray cats, not house cats. My own two cats are kept indoors to avoid contributing to the problem.

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Photo by Adriaan Greyling on Pexels.com • A chipmunk accepts crumbs. The cute factor usually works in preventing this rodent from being considered a pest.

High school senior looking out for interests of the region’s bluebirds

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • A handsome male Eastern bluebird perches on a chain-link fence.

Observant people have probably noticed Eastern bluebirds already checking out possible nesting locations. These cavity-nesting birds begin scouting for possible nest sites in February and March. By April, female bluebirds may be incubating a clutch of eggs.

Although bluebirds will nest in natural cavities in trees, they respond readily to the availability of nesting boxes provided by human landlords. Many people are devoted to the cause of seeing that bluebirds — a favorite of many — continue to thrive in the face of certain challenges.

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Photo by Adrianna Nelson • Bluebirds are skillful at foraging for insects.

Eighteen-year-old Adrianna Nelson is one such person. A senior at John S. Battle High School, Adrianna said she recently became involved with the Tennessee Bluebird Society as a way to become active with a conservation-related activity involving birds.

“I only recently got involved with TBS,” she said.

She began looking last summer for a way to contribute locally to the welfare of birds.

“I came across the TBS website,” she said. “They didn’t have a coordinator for Sullivan County, so I decided to fill the position.”

Nelson said she is interested in all birds but enjoys focusing on bluebirds and other cavity nesters to spread knowledge about their importance.

“TBS focuses on bluebirds,” she said.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens A male Eastern Bluebird inspects a nesting cavity in a wooden fence post. When such cavities are scarce, bluebirds readily build in nest boxes.

Bluebirds are like the “poster child” for the organization, Nelson noted, but she also pointed out that TBS also promotes the conservation of other native cavity nesters.

As county coordinator for TBS, her job primarily involves giving presentations to raise awareness about bluebirds and other cavity-nesting bird species.

“I have already presented to the Bristol Bird Club, and I plan to still give a few more presentations,” she said.

“I can also set up bluebird trails,” Nelson said. “I have not done any trails this year, but I have plans for next year. Part of my responsibilities is also to maintain trails and answer questions from the community.”

 

There are some good reasons for people to offer extra support to help bluebirds thrive.

“Eastern bluebirds are native cavity nesters,” Nelson said. “They are not strong enough to excavate their own cavities, so starlings and house sparrows can take over natural and man-made structures very quickly. It is important to promote the longevity of native species. Not only are they important, they are very beautiful.”

There are several things that people can do to make their yards and gardens more attractive to bluebirds.

“One of the most important is to make sure that there is proper habitat,” Nelson explained. “Bluebirds prefer open areas with some trees or other perches for spotting insects.”

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • A female Eastern Bluebird gathers pine needles to use as nesting material. Bluebirds are a cavity-nesting species that will use natural or manmade cavities.

For those interested in attracting nesters, Nelson said that picking the right nest box and proper placement is important.

She helps maintain nesting boxes along a bluebird trail at Steele Creek Park in Bristol.

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Photo by Adrianna Nelson • Eastern bluebirds are a beautiful bird to welcome into the backyard.

In addition, providing plenty of water helps. “Bluebirds also like meal worms, but plants such as dogwoods, sumac, pokeweed, viburnum, and others can provide food, especially in the winter,” Nelson said.

Keeping predators away is crucial. According to Nelson, this can be achieved with simple actions such as keeping cats indoors.

“There are more details about bluebirds, boxes, nesting, predators, habitat and more online on the North American Bluebird Society website,” Nelson added.

Nelson shared some fascinating facts about bluebirds.

“They can spot insects from over 50 yards away,” she said.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • Eastern Bluebirds are year-round residents in Northeast Tennessee.

Bluebirds are bigger than small songbirds like chickadees, wrens and warblers, yet they weigh only about one ounce.

Bluebirds are truly “early birds,” according to Nelson. “Eggs usually hatch within the first two hours after dawn,” she said.

There are no local meetings of the Tennessee Bluebird Society, but an annual meeting for TBS is held in November. The meeting is open to the public.

TBS and North American Bluebird Society members get quarterly journals and newsletters. There is also information on the websites of the two organizations for anyone interested in bluebirds.md19917207443

NABS was founded in 1978 by Dr. Lawrence Zeleny in order to promote the preservation of bluebirds, a cavity-nesting species in decline at that time. Zeleny, with the support of his wife, Olive, dedicated much of his life to providing nestboxes and managing bluebird trails. He promoted bluebird conservation through hundreds of talks and articles in many periodicals.

The Eastern bluebird has two close relatives — the Western bluebird and the mountain bluebird. These species belong to the genus, Sialia, which is counted among the world’s thrushes.The Western bluebird ranges throughout California, the southern Rocky Mountains, Arizona and New Mexico. The mountain bluebird is widespread in the western United States, as well. Two states — Idaho and Nevada — have bestowed official status on the mountain bluebird as their official state bird. The Eastern bluebird has also been honored with that designation by the states of Missouri and New York.

The Eastern bluebird suffered serious decline from 1940 into the 1960s, but it is now a common bird in the region. Rick Knight, author of The Birds of Northeast Tennessee, notes that nest boxes were instrumental in the recovery of the Eastern bluebird.

Nelson is continuing the work pioneered by others to conserve the Eastern bluebird. She lives in Bristol, Virginia, with her parents, Sandi and Shawn Nelson. She welcomes the public to contact her about bluebirds by emailing adriannan1@hotmail.com.

To learn more about the Tennessee Bluebird Society, visit http://www.tnbluebirdsociety.org. For more information on the North American Bluebird Society, visit wwwna.bluebirdsociety.org.

Bluebird-BabeInMimosa

Photo by Bryan Stevens A young Eastern Bluebird slowly gains independence after leaving the nest.

Cardinals seem tailor-made for Christmas season

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The Northern cardinal, a familiar backyard bird in many sections of the United States, is a perfect symbol of the Christmas season.

The shopping days before Christmas are getting fewer, so I hope everyone has had time to find gifts for everyone on their lists. My wish to readers is that everyone gets to enjoy a great holiday that just might also include watching some birds.

Although I hate to see the colorful birds of spring and summer — scarlet tanagers, Baltimore orioles, indigo buntings, rose-breasted grosbeaks — depart every fall, the winter season offers some compensation.

Often, when we think of the birds of the winter season, our thoughts focus on some of the less-than-colorful feeder visitors — the brown sparrows and wrens, the black and white chickadees and the drab American goldfinches, so unlike their summer appearance.

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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.

There’s one bird, however, that makes an impression in any season. The Northern cardinal, especially the brilliant red male, stands out against a winter backdrop of snow white, deep green or drab gray. On a recent snowy afternoon, I spent some time watching a pair of Northern cardinals from my window. Cardinals are wary birds. They make cautious approaches to feeders, never rushing to the seed in the manner of a Carolina chickadee or tufted titmouse.

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, a bird of the southwestern United States, and the Vermilion Cardinal, or phoeniceus, a bird found in Colombia and Venezuela.

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Photo by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service • The Pyrrhuloxia, or desert cardinal, is a counterpart to the Northern cardinal in the American southwest.

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.

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Photo by Pixabay.com • A red-crested cardinal forages on a sandy beach. This bird has been introduced to such exotic locations as Hawaii.

Over the years, the Northern 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 bright red cardinal.

Cardinals, also known by such common names as redbird and Virginia nightingale, are easily recognized backyard birds. I never tire of observing these colorful birds. Cardinals are easily lured to any backyard with plentiful cover to provide a sense of security and a generous buffet of sunflower seed.

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Photo by Skeeze/Pixabay.com • A female Northern cardinal lands on a deck railing. Female cardinals are not as brightly colorful as males, but they do have their own subtle beauty.

Cardinals accept a wide variety of food at feeders. Sunflower seed is probably their favorite, but they will also sample cracked corn, peanuts, millet, bakery scraps and even suet. The cardinal is also one of only a few birds that I have noticed will consistently feed on safflower seed.

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. When away from our feeders, cardinals feed on insects and fruit, including the berries of mulberry, holly, pokeberry, elderberry, Russian olive, dogwood and sumac.


There’s no difficulty in identifying a cardinal. 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 tinge in their feathers, particularly in their wings. Immature cardinals resemble females except young cardinals have dark bills.

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 familiar Northern Cardinal is not the only bird to bear the name cardinal. Others include the yellow cardinal of Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay, the vermilion cardinal of Colombia and Venezuela, and the red-crested cardinal, a songbird native of South America that has also been introduced to Puerto Rico and Hawaii.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • Northern cardinals will visit feeders stocked with sunflower seeds at any season.

At feeders, cardinals mingle with a variety of other birds. Cardinals are common visitors to backyard feeders. For such a bright bird, the male cardinal can be surprisingly difficult to detect as he hides in the thick brush that conceals his presence. Cardinals are nervous birds, however, and usually betray their presence with easily recognized chip notes. Their preference for dense, tangled habitat is one they share with such birds as brown thrashers, Eastern towhees, Carolina wrens and song sparrows. In general, however, cardinals directly associate only with their own kind. Cardinals will form loose flocks during the winter, but these flocks are never as cohesive as those of such flocking birds as American goldfinches. Cardinals are more often observed in pairs.

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.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • Northern cardinals are a favorite for makers of Christmas ornaments.

There’s additional evidence to put forward as testimony to the popularity of the Northern cardinal. It’s the official state bird of seven states: Virginia, North Carolina, West Virginia, Ohio, Illinois, Indiana and Kentucky. Only the Northern mockingbird, which represents five states as official state bird, even comes close to the Northern cardinal in this respect.

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. Simply add some black oil sunflower seeds to your feeders to welcome this beautiful bird to your yard.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • A male Northern cardinal visits a feeder on a snowy afternoon.

Gift suggestions for the bird-lovers on your Christmas shopping list

Although some people like to get an early start on holiday shopping, I’m certain some, like myself, are still in the process of checking those lists. If you’re looking for some ideas for bird and nature enthusiasts on your list, I’ll make a few modest suggestions that could result in making the season merry and bright.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • Field guides are an essential tool for bird identification.

Field guides
If you’ve enjoyed watching the birds that congregate at your feeders or noticing the visitors to your yard and gardens, but you’ve also become curious about the identities of all your feathered visitors, it might be time for a helpful and informative field guide. I prefer field guides illustrated with paintings rather than photographs, but I have a varied collection of guides. I started a long time ago with the Golden Guide to Birds. It’s a classic and still a great guide to help interest children in the birds around them.
Some of the guides I recommend and use myself these days are National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America, The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Eastern North America, and Peterson Field Guide to Birds of Eastern and Central North America. Any of these field guides should be easily found online or in stores at a cost of under $20.
If you have already acquired a good basic field guide, perhaps you’re ready for more specialized field guides that focus on particular families of birds or on the behavior of backyard birds.
For the warblers, there are several field guides available, including the Stokes Field Guide to Warblers, A Field Guide to Warblers of North America (Peterson Field Guides), and the Warbler Guide.
For a handy guide to identify some of the birds seen on beach and coastal vacations, consider such titles as Stokes Beginner’s Guide to Shorebirds and Shorebirds: An Identification Guide to the Waders of the World, and National Audubon Society Pocket Guide to Familiar Birds of Sea and Shore.
For fans of hawks and allied raptors, several guides exist including A Field Guide to Hawks of North America (Peterson Field Guides), Birds of Prey: Hawks, Eagles, Falcons, and Vultures of North America, and Hawks from Every Angle: How to Identify Raptors In Flight.
In short, there’s a field guide for every family and grouping of birds. With expertly rendered illustrations or photographs, brief and concise text, and helpful range maps, nothing beats a good field guide forYea, improving one’s ability to identify birds. I recommend thumbing through the pages of a good guide over trying to randomly use Google to search online for a bird glimpsed for a brief time.

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Photo by Pixabay.com • A well-stocked feeder is a first step toward attracting more birds to your yard.

Feeders
Bird feeders come in an astounding variety of shapes and sizes. Nothing will do more to bring birds into our daily lives than maintaining a well-stocked feeder. Be certain to include a bag of sunflower seeds so that your gift will allow the recipient to immediately begin to enjoy the parade of birds sure to flock to the feeder.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • Birds, like this Eastern bluebird, appreciate nest boxes.

Houses
It’s never too early to start thinking about spring and the return of many of our favorite birds. To bring more birds into our lives, it doesn’t hurt to encourage them by providing man-made nesting and roosting boxes. Many of our favorite birds — Eastern bluebird, tree swallow, tufted titmouse, white-breasted nuthatch — are cavity-nesting species but will just as readily raise their young in nesting boxes as in a hole in a tree. With boxes customized to their own particular needs, other birds such as Eastern screech-owl, wood duck and great crested flycatcher will also make use of bird boxes. Many gardening centers, produce stands, feed stores and other shopping outlets sell bird boxes of various designs, shapes and sizes. If you’re shopping for a bluebird box, be certain that the recipient’s yard is a spacious one. Bluebirds feel more comfortable in open surroundings. If the yard is more overgrown and woodsy, consider a box tailored more for a woodland bird like a chickadee or a nuthatch.

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Photo by Pixabay.com • A good pair of binoculars will bring birds much closer.

Binoculars
Unless requested, don’t buy binoculars for an adult. Most birders would prefer to pick out their own pair to use to make up-close and personal bird observations. An inexpensive pair, however, could be perfect for fostering in a child an interest in birds and nature. If you have grandchildren, children, or even nephews and nieces, a beginner’s pair of binoculars could make a life-altering gift that lets the recipient view the world in a whole new light.

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Calendars
Birds have always been a popular photography subject for calendars. There’s an almost endless variety of bird calendars, but I’m partial to one produced by the Lee and Lois Herndon Chapter of Tennessee Ornithological Society, of which I am a member. This annual fundraising endeavor features some exceptional bird photography from club members. This year’s calendar features full-color photographs of some of the region’s most colorful and engaging birds. The club sells the calendars for $15 each. For an additional $2 shipping fee, calendars can be sent to any address in the United States. All proceeds are used to support birding opportunities and bird-related causes.
The calendar also features an informative calendar grid with highlights for major holidays as well as important bird-related dates. The calendar’s pages feature more than 80 full-color photographs of area birds, including common favorites and some not-so-common visitors. The front cover features a dazzling photograph of a male rose-breasted grosbeak. If you’re interested in obtaining a calendar, email ahoodedwarbler@aol.com or look up Elizabethton Bird Club on Facebook.

 

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • A bird-related Christmas ornament makes a nice gift.

Ornaments

The branches of my Christmas tree are always weighted heavily with a variety of bird-related Christmas ornaments. Holiday tinsel and baubles make the season look a lot like Christmas if they feature some of our favorite birds such as cardinals, chickadees, hummingbirds, penguins, doves, geese, eagles or any of the other popular species of birds. Choose a fun and unique bird ornament for the enthusiast on your Christmas list.

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Photo by Kevin Blanzy on Pexels.com

Overwintering birds make their return to some familiar area haunts

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • A female hooded merganser flaps her wings as another preens her feathers behind her.

Now that the warblers, hummingbirds and other birds of summer have, for the most part, departed, new arrivals have filtered into the region to take their place and prevent the winter months from seeming too bleak.

At my own home, these new arrivals have included a field sparrow — the first I’ve seen at home in several years — and a swamp sparrow. I’ve not caught sight of white-throated sparrows or dark-eyed juncos so far, but these hardy sparrows often don’t arrive until the first incidents of truly snowy weather. However, Helen Whited of Richlands, Virginia, emailed me to let me know that she saw her first dark-eyed junco of the season on Monday, Nov. 5.

Different species of waterfowl have also returned to some familiar haunts, and I’m grateful to readers who have kept me informed about some of these arrivals. Joanne Campbell of Bristol, Tennessee, posted on my Facebook page that hooded mergansers have returned to Middlebrook Lake near her home on Saturday, Nov. 3. The hooded merganser, Joanne noted, is one of her favorite birds. Brookie and Jean Potter of Elizabethton, Tennessee, reported that four male buffleheads returned to Wilbur Lake near their home on Oct. 27.

Middlebrook Lake has served as a winter home for hooded mergansers since 1987, while buffleheads have congregated on Wilbur Lake for decades. Another good location to look for buffleheads during the winter months is in the weir below South Holston Dam around the Osceola Island Recreation Area. Several hundred of these ducks have been reported in past winters at these various locations.

Although classified as sea ducks, the mergansers are more at home in river habitats. There are six closely related species in three genera: Mergus, Mergellus and Lophodytes. The latter two genera have only a single species each: the hooded merganser (Lophodytes cucullatus) and the smew (Mergellus albellus).

The typical mergansers are fish-eating waterfowl in the genus known as Mergus. The hooded merganser’s genus name of Lophodytes is derived from Greek and, roughly translated, means “crested diver.” Both male and female hooded mergansers have crests capable of being raised or lowered. Females are mostly brown, but males have a striking plumage in a pattern of brown, white and black.

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Photo by Photo by Tim McCabe/U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service • The male hooded merganser stands out among ducks with his black, white, and brown plumage.

Everyone has probably heard the phrase “as scarce as hen’s teeth.” It means almost exactly what you think. Birds don’t have teeth, so it’s a way to describe something exceptionally rare. It’s a characteristic that sets birds apart from other creatures, such as mammals.

There are some birds, however, that come closer to having teeth than their other beaked counterparts. Mergansers would definitely fall into that category. The mergansers are a type of duck known collectively as “sawbills,” a reference to their long, thin bills with serrated edges that help them grip prey. The “sawbills” come closer than any of our other birds in having teeth, although not in the same sense as mammals have teeth.

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Photo by Alexas-fotos/Pixabay.com • This closeup of a female common merganser shows in detail the serrated bill, which assists this duck in seizing and grasping the fish that makes up a good portion of the bird’s diet.

The other mergansers in the Mergus genus consist of four species: common merganser, Brazilian merganser, red-breasted Merganser and scaly-sided Merganser. The last of these is an endangered species with only about 5,000 birds in the worldwide population. These remaining scaly-sided mergansers are found in the border regions of China, North Korea and Russia.

While today’s birds, even mergansers, all lack teeth, that hasn’t always been the case. About 80 million years ago, a bird known as Hesperornis (“western bird”) swam the inland seas that stretched over areas from Kansas to Canada. They swam through those ancient seas because they could not fly.

The body plan of Hesperornis was similar to modern loons and mergansers. Instead of a serrated bill, however, this ancient bird had actual teeth in its long beak. Just like today’s loons and mergansers, it probably fished for its food. At almost six feet in length, however, it dwarfed our modern mergansers and loons and probably fed on larger piscine prey.

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This early 20th century illustration of Hesperornis is no longer considered scientifically accurate by scientists, but it does demonstrate one striking feature – the toothed jaws of this ancient bird.

Hooded mergansers are content to seek smaller fish. According to the website for the Ducks Unlimited organization, the hooded merganser is the smallest of the three North American mergansers. In addition to fish, hooded mergansers feed on crayfish and other crustaceans, as well as aquatic insects.

The hooded merganser prefers forested wetlands. As a cavity-nesting bird, it seeks out natural cavities in trees for nesting, although it will also accept nest boxes provided by human landlords. This duck breeds from as far north as Alaska and Canada and as far south as Louisiana and Georgia.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • Hooded merganser females, or hens, have a gray-brown head and neck with a reddish-brown crest, which marks quite a contrast from the male’s appearance.

Late fall and winter are good times to see ducks in the region. Some will spend a good portion of the winter season on area lakes, rivers and ponds, while others will make only brief stops during their migration to their preferred wintering grounds. Some of the other ducks that are usually somewhat common in the region in winter include ring-necked duck and American wigeon. If you live or work near a body of water, stay alert for the comings and goings of waterfowl as winter approaches. You may be afforded an opportunity to see a hooded merganser or bufflehead for yourself.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • Female hooded merganser enjoys a swim.

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The Lee & Lois Herndon Chapter of Tennessee Ornithological Society produces an annual calendar featuring some exceptional bird photography from its members. This 2019 calendar will feature full-color photographs of some of the region’s most colorful and engaging birds. The club sells the calendars for $15 each. All proceeds are used to support birding opportunities and bird-related causes here in Northeast Tennessee. For instance, the club pays for bird seed to stock the feeders at Sycamore Shoals State Historic Park in Elizabethton, Tennessee. The club also regularly supports causes that benefit birds.HerndonCalendar2019(Cover) (1)
The calendar also features an informative calendar grid with highlights for major holidays, as well as important bird-related dates. The calendar’s pages feature more than 80 full-color photographs of area birds, including common favorites and some not-so-common visitors. The front cover features a dazzling photograph of a gorgeous male rose-breasted grosbeak. If you’re interested in obtaining a calendar, contact ahoodedwarbler@aol.com by email or send a message via Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/ahoodedwarbler. Calendars can be mailed to any destination in the United States for an additional charge of $2 for shipping and postage.

 

Some birds expert at conjuring Halloween-style thrills and chills

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The  greater tit, a European relative of the Carolina chickadee, has learned to hunt and kill a species of small bat in the Hungarian mountains. • Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

My ruby-throated hummingbirds set a new record this year, lingering until Oct. 17. Although present on the morning of that date, I didn’t see any that evening. The next morning, their absence — quite notable and somewhat saddening — continued. In all likelihood, I won’t see any more ruby-throated hummingbirds until next April. I hope they arrive early.

Carolyn Baker Martin commented on the post I made on Facebook about the departure of the hummers. Carolyn noted that 2018 has been an interesting year for birds and flowers. Carolyn, who lives in Elizabethton, Tennessee, also shared a recent observation she made of a hummingbird behavior that I’ve never personally witnessed.

“I had a hummer recently in torpor,” Carolyn wrote in her post. “It sat on the feeder a long time without moving or feeding. Finally, a tail feather began to move. It fed constantly for one more day and was gone.”

Despite their small size, most hummingbirds, including the ruby-throated hummingbirds, are less frail than they appear. Torpor is a biological adaptation possessed by hummingbirds and some other creatures that lets them survive a serious cold spell. It’s not quite the same thing, but think of these tiny birds as voluntarily going into a coma when they enter torpor. Comatose or catatonic creatures are a staple of some horror and suspense films, so perhaps a look at how some birds can induce shivers along the spine is in order in view of the celebration of Halloween this week.

The ultimate coma victim is the fabled zombie, but that’s not likely to afflict any of our feathered friends, right? Well, consider the great tits of Hungary, which are relatives of our tufted titmouse and Carolina chickadee. These birds — at least the Hungarian ones — have apparently acquired a taste for brains.

Not human brains, thankfully. The victims of these brain-hungry great tits are a species of bat — a flying creature often associated with the modern celebration of Halloween, as well as legends about vampires — that shared the habitat of these birds in the Bükk Mountains of Hungary. As it turns out, the tits only hunted bats, in this case a tiny species known as common pippistrelle, out of dire necessity.

Bat ecologists Péter Estók and Björn M. Siemers, after observing the odd behavior of the great tits during some winter seasons, conducted a study to see if great tits are consistent devourers of bats’ brains. They discovered that the birds did hunt the bats and had even learned to detect a special call the bats make as they emerge from hibernation. The ecologists conducted their study over two years and learned that the great tits teach others of their kind the special art of hunting bats. They also learned that the birds made efficient killers, dragging the bats from their roosts and cracking their skulls to get at their brains.

However, when provided with plenty of alternative food, including such favorite items as bacon and sunflower seeds, the great tits chose to eat these items rather than actively hunt bats. The researchers concluded that great tits only resort to harvesting the brains of small bats during times of scarcity during harsh winters. The bizarre story is even featured in the title of a fascinating book by Becky Crew titled “Zombie Birds, Astronaut Fish, and Other Weird Animals.”

Cassowary

Photo by lailajuliana / Pixabay.com • The southern cassowary reaches a height of more than five feet and weighs 120 pounds. The bird has a fearsome but perhaps undeserved reputation for attacks on humans.

So, if humans have nothing to fear from brain-hungry birds, are there any birds that we should fear? Some experts suggest that precautions might be in order if one expects to come into close proximity with a southern cassowary, which is the third-tallest and second-heaviest living bird, smaller only than the ostrich and emu.

The cassowary, a native of New Guinea and northeastern Australia, has developed a reputation as a fearsome bird capable of injuring or killing humans. According to ornithologist Ernest Thomas Gilliard, cassowaries deserve their reputation. In his 1958 book, “Living Birds of the World,” he explained that the second of the three toes of a cassowary is fitted with a long, straight, dagger-like claw which can sever an arm or eviscerate an abdomen with ease. According to Gilliard, there have been many records of natives being killed by this bird.

A thorough study, however, has partly exonerated the cassowary from these misdeeds. In a total of 150 documented attacks against humans, cassowaries often acted in self-defense or in defense of a nest or chicks. The only documented death of a human took place in 1926 when two teenaged brothers attacked a cassowary with clubs. The 13-year-old brother received a serious kick from the bird, but he survived. His 16-year old brother tripped and fell during the attack, which allowed the cassowary to kick him in the neck and sever the boy’s jugular vein.

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Model of the terror bird Mesembriornis at the Chicago Field Museum, prepared by taxidermist Leon L. Pray, seen on the left.

So we can rest easier knowing that murderous birds that reach a height of almost six feet tall are unlikely to terrorize us should we travel to the lands down under. A more ancient relative of the cassowary, however, might have been a different story had humans lived during the same time period. Phorusrhacids, also known as “terror birds,” were a group of large carnivorous flightless birds that once had some members reign as an apex predator in South America before they went extinct around two million years ago. The tallest of the terror birds reached a height of almost 10 feet. Titanis walleri, one of the larger species, even ranged into what is now the United States in Texas and Florida.

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Terror birds were equipped with large, sharp beaks, powerful necks and sharp talons. Their beaks, which would have been used to kill prey, were attached to exceptionally large skulls. Despite their fearsome appearance, these birds probably fed on prey about the size of rabbits. Perhaps not knowing this, Hollywood has cast these birds as monsters in such films as 2016’s “Terror Birds” and 2008’s “10,000 BC.”

Besides, casting birds as the villains had already been done back in 1963 when Alfred Hitchcock released his film, “The Birds,” based loosely on a short story by Daphne du Maurier. The film, which starred some big Hollywood names such as Rod Taylor, Tippi Hedren, Jessica Tandy, Suzanne Pleshette and Veronica Cartwright, cast a whole new light on a “murder” of crows. Today, the film has achieved the status of a Hollywood classic. I guess it just goes to show that werewolves, zombies, and other Halloween monsters have nothing on our fine feathered friends.

TheBIRDS!

Common nighthawk flocks form part of fall migration spectacle

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Photo by Jean Potter • A common nighthawk rests on a metal railing.

With September advancing on the calendar, I have been keeping an eye on the skies. For the most part, I focus on the upper branches of trees and feeders during the migration season, but I don’t forget the need to look skyward from time to time.

The reason? Well, that’s the best way to detect soaring raptors or flocks of migrating common nighthawks. The autumn sky is also a popular flyway for other birds, including chimney swifts and swallows.

So, what is a common nighthawk? First, this bird, despite what is implied by its name, is not a hawk. It’s also not strictly nocturnal. Particularly in the fall, nighthawks are active during daylight hours when engaged in catching winged insects. Outside of fall migration, these birds can often be observed over large parking lots or well-lit streets, snatching up insects swarming around the light poles.

The common nighthawk is one of three members of the nightjar family found in the region during the summer months. The other two nightjars are the whip-poor-will and chuck-will’s-widow, birds that produce their namesake vocalizations in the nocturnal hours. Both of these species migrate, but they don’t take the dramatic approach employed by nighthawks. Each fall, common nighthawks form large flocks, ranging in size from dozens to hundreds or even thousands of individuals, as they migrate south for the winter.

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Early American naturalist and artist painted this dynamic scene of common nighthawks.

The whip-poor-will, after the common nighthawk, is the second most widespread member of its family to spend its breeding season in North America. The whip-poor-will ranges from southern Canada to the Gulf states. This bird also occurs in Arizona, New Mexico and southwestern Texas. The whip-poor-will favors habitat consisting of deciduous woodlands and the edges of forests.

All members of the nightjar family feed exclusively on insects that are caught on the wing. In this respect, the nightjars can be considered the nocturnal counterparts of the swallows. The nightjars have comparatively large, gaping mouths they use to scoop up flying insects. They also have large eyes, an adaptation to their nocturnal lifestyle.

Whip-poor-will numbers have been declining in the past few decades. These nocturnal birds frequent woodland edges, but they seem to be rather particular about such habitats. A forest that is too mature seems to hold little interest for them. Disturbed habitats, such as those created by logging, are acceptable to the birds once secondary growth begins. As this new growth matures, however, the whip-poor-will apparently abandons such territory. Because of these requirements, whip-poor-wills can be somewhat localized in their distribution and sometimes difficult to locate.

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Photo by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service • A common nighthawk finds a perch for a brief rest.

When I was a kid, one of my favorite summer activities was sitting on the front porch of my grandparents’ home and listening to the whip-poor-wills call after dark. I remember how the plaintive call would be repeated for long intervals before a passing automobile’s headlights might frighten the bird into silence. Then, after a brief pause, the “whip-poor-will” calls would, tentatively at first, begin again and continue throughout the night.

Today, I’m living in my grandparents’ old home, and the whip-poor-wills no longer call. I heard a single individual that called for a single evening back in May of 1997, but that was apparently a migrating bird that did not remain in the surrounding woodlands. The only member of the nightjar family that I dependably encounter at home these days is the common nighthawk, and then only during that narrow window of late summer and early autumn.

Unlike whips and chucks, the common nighthawk isn’t active only after dark, which makes it much easier to observe these birds. They look somewhat like swifts and swallows but are much larger. They are brownish-gray birds with pointed wings and forked tails. They are easily identified by distinctive white patches on the underside of their wings.

The nightjar, or Caprimulgidae, family of birds is also sometimes known as “goatsuckers.” There are almost 80 species of nightjars in the world. Less than 10 occur in North America. The common nighthawk, whip-poor-will and the chuck-will’s widow are neotropical migrants. While they breed in a wide range of territory in North America, they spend their winters in Central and South America. Like all nightjars, nighthawks feed almost exclusively on insects, which they catch on the wing.

Many of the common nighthawk’s relatives have been given descriptive names, such as long-trained nightjar, collared nightjar, spot-tailed nightjar, red-necked nightjar, golden nightjar, fiery-necked nightjar, swamp nightjar, pennant-winged nightjar, lyre-tailed nightjar, little nightjar, sickle-winged nightjar, rufous-bellied nighthawk, short-tailed nighthawk, sand-coloured nighthawk and least nighthawk.

So, keep looking skyward. The next flock of migrating common nighthawks may fly over your home. These flocks are usually on the move throughout September although they begin to appear as early as late August. They can also appear almost magically, as if out of thin air. First, observers may see one of two birds, then several, followed quickly by dozens or sometimes hundreds as they wheel and cavort in the skies overhead with impressive grace and agility. I’ve seen flocks that would easily number more than 500 birds in locations throughout the region, although flocks often number only a couple of dozen birds. The two flocks I’ve observed so far this migration season numbered about thirty and fifty birds, respectively.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • Rising clouds provide a backdrop for a flock of migrating nighthawks.