Category Archives: nature

Cardinals don’t always look their best during late summer

Photo Courtesy of Gina Fannin • This female Northern cardinal, with a head devoid of feathers, appeared at a home in Cincinnati, Ohio. Although these strange looking cardinals often surprise people, they are not all that uncommon in late summer.

Gina Fannin wrote about an unusual observation of a follicly challenged Northern cardinal at her home in Cincinnati, Ohio. The bird in question, a female cardinal, had lost most of the feathers on her head. Gina took a photo of the bird, which she sent with her email, in which she asked if I have ever encountered a cardinal with such a problem.

Gina said that she has seen male cardinals suffering from baldness, but never a female. “I’ve lived here 24 years, and this is the first time I’ve seen a bald female,” she wrote in her email.

I replied to Gina by informing her that I’ve heard of these strange instances for many years. Bald-headed cardinals seem to be a summer occurrence. I usually get some emails or calls this time of year about people surprised by visits from “weird bald-headed” cardinals. I first began to get calls and email from readers in the late 1990s about this unusual phenomenon that seems to usually afflict cardinals, although I have also seen blue jays suffering from this same ailment.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • This female Northern cardinal, shown with one of her offspring at a feeder in late summer, is exhibiting some problems with her feather molt.

I have studied the opinions of various bird experts, but there doesn’t seem to be consensus about the cause. Some believe the “baldness” is caused by an infestation of mites, which are small relatives of spiders and other arachnids. Others believe that the loss of feathers around the head is a part of a normal molting process. This theory is supported by the fact that cardinals do undergo molting in late summer, usually after the conclusion of the nesting season.

The process of molting removes old feathers, which simply drop from the body as new feathers emerge to take their place. For some reason, some cardinals and jays lose all their head feathers at one time before new feathers are ready to take their place. That’s why the condition is typically observed in the summer months. Both male and female cardinals can be afflicted with “bald” heads. It’s strange that the condition primarily affects these two birds, cardinals and jays, both of which have feather crests. On the other hand, cedar waxwings are also crested birds, but I have never observed or received a report on a “bald-headed” cedar waxwing.

Whatever the cause, a “bald-headed” cardinal is an ugly bird. Without feathers, a cardinal is transformed from a showy favorite among bird enthusiasts to a rather grotesque oddity that could aptly be described as resembling a scavenging vulture. Birds like vultures, however, have heads devoid of feathers for a very important reason: As scavengers, a feathered head would become quickly fouled as the bird reaches into the carcasses of dead animals to feed.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • This young Northern cardinal visits a feeder in the Atlanta suburbs.

The cardinals I have seen with “bald” heads have been visiting feeders stocked with sunflower seeds or perhaps a holder offering a suet cake. So, the absence of feathers is not a hygienic adaptation on the part of cardinals and jays similar to the hygienic necessity of bald heads among vultures. The good news is that the condition is temporary. The normal molt for a Northern cardinal takes two or three months. The feathers on the head do emerge eventually, which is probably very fortunate for the afflicted birds. Feathers serve as insulation during cold weather. A “bald-headed” cardinal would probably have difficulty surviving winter cold spells.

We’re all accustomed to seeing cardinals at our feeders, but people who feed birds would probably be surprised by how much food cardinals and other feeder visitors obtain away from our well-stocked offerings. During the summer months, cardinals eat a variety of wild seeds, fruit and insects. Some of the fruit consumed by cardinals include elderberry, dogwood, blackberry and wild grapes. Young cardinals still in the nest (and fledglings for some time after leaving the nest) are fed mostly insects, including crickets, spiders, moths and flies.

To make cardinals comfortable in every season, offer plenty of thick vegetation, such as a hedge or row of shrubs, and consider planting some of the fruit trees and shrubs that will help these beautiful birds supplement their diet.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A female Northern cardinal with most of her head featherless.

Woodpecker still bears name of historic expedition’s charismatic leader

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The Lewis’s woodpecker’s common and scientific names pay tribute to the famed explorer Meriwether Lewis, who with his partner, William Clark, explored the American West.

The 215th anniversary of the launch of the famous Lewis and Clark Expedition will be observed May 14. Also known as the Corps of Discovery Expedition, the enterprise became the first American expedition to cross the western portion of the United States and explore the recently acquired lands known collectively as the Louisiana Purchase. The Lewis and Clark expedition officially extended from May 14, 1804, to Sept. 23, 1806. As they drove deep into the American West, the members of the expedition saw wonders, including the feathered variety, never before beheld by people outside of various Native American tribes.

In authorizing the expedition, President Thomas Jefferson wanted to establish a reliable route for travel through the western half of the nation and to fend off any attempts by European nations to gain a foothold beyond the nation’s frontier. Jefferson also hoped Meriwether Lewis and William Clark would make some important discoveries about the nation’s native fauna and flora. Jefferson gave instructions for Lewis and Clark to collect bones they found during their journeys. He also asked them to keep alert for large animals that would be new to science. In particular, Jefferson hoped that the men he chose to head the expedition would help prove that the American mastodon still roamed the American West.

Mastodon bones had been found in the eastern half of the United States early in the nation’s history. Jefferson, accepting the widely held view of his time that God would not let animals go extinct, entertained the optimistic belief that large herbivores such as the bison of the American West roamed portions of the newly-acquired Louisiana Purchase along with American mastodons. The expedition failed to find great herds of American mastodons trumpeting their way across the vast prairies and grasslands of the Western United States. As any student of history knows, however, the expedition made many important biological discoveries ranging from unique animals as the pronghorn antelope and grizzly bear to various fish, reptiles and plants.

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Meriwether Lewis gave his name to the famous Lewis and Clark Expedition. as well as to the woodpecker named Lewis’s woodpecker.

The expedition also described nearly half a dozen species of birds that, at the time, had never been discovered and detailed by European Americans. These birds included the common poorwill and the greater sage-grouse. One of the birds — Lewis’s woodpecker — even memorializes the name of Meriwether Lewis and his important contributions to the success of the venture.

Lewis described the woodpecker that now bears his name as a bird “new to science” in one of his journal entries dated May 27, 1806. He made his observations of the bird while the expedition camped on the Clearwater River in what is now known as Kamiah, Idaho. He had mentioned the “black woodpecker” in earlier accounts in his journal, but during his time in the Idaho camp, he managed to shoot and preserve several of the birds. In his account, he described the bird’s behavior as similar to the red-headed woodpecker of the Atlantic states back in the eastern United States.

As it turns out, both Lewis’s woodpecker and the red-headed woodpecker belong to the Melanerpes genus of woodpeckers, which also includes about two dozen species ranging North and South America, as well as the islands of the Caribbean. The other members of the genus found in the United States include acorn woodpecker, gila woodpecker and red-bellied woodpecker. The term Melanerpes comes from ancient Greek words for black (melas) and creeper (herpes), which roughly translates as “black creeper.” Lewis’s woodpecker, one of the largest of its kind found in the United States, can reach a length of 10 to 11 inches. In 1811, the famous naturalist Alexander Wilson composed the first description of the bird for science and named it Melanerpes lewis after Meriwether Lewis. In addition, the bird’s common name has always identified it as Lewis’s woodpecker.

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Photo by Dave Menke/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service • Lewis’s woodpecker is found primarily in the west. It eats insects, mostly caught in the air, as well as fruits and nuts. The woodpecker also shells and stores acorns in the bark of trees.

These woodpeckers nest in open ponderosa pine forests and burned forests with a high density of standing dead trees. They also breed in woodlands near streams, oak woodlands, orchards, and pinyon-juniper woodlands. In appearance, Lewis’s woodpecker stands out from other American woodpeckers. Its unique appearance includes a pink belly, gray collar and dark green back, quite unlike any other member of its family. In behavior, it also differs from other woodpeckers. This woodpecker is fond of flycatching, perching on bare branches or poles and then making flight sallies to capture winged insect prey. It has also been described as flying more like a crow than a woodpecker.

We haven’t been good stewards of the woodpecker that the famous Expedition brought to our notice. According to the organization Partners in Flight, Lewis’s Woodpeckers are uncommon and declining. Their populations declined by 72 percent between 1970 and 2014. Lewis’s Woodpeckers are threatened by changing forest conditions as a result of fire suppression, grazing and logging. These factors often leave pines of a uniform age in the woodpecker’s favored habitat and fewer of the dead and decaying pines crucial for the bird’s nesting success. Humans could help Lewis’s woodpecker thrive by not removing dead or dying trees from western forests.

After the Lewis and Clark Expedition returned to the eastern United States and reported back to Jefferson, he was awarded with 1,600 acres of land. He meant to work on publishing the journals he kept during the Expedition, but kept finding himself distracted. In 1807, Jefferson appointed Lewis governor over the Louisiana Territory that Lewis and Clark had so famously explored. He governed the territory from the Missouri city of St. Louis, which became known as the “Gateway to the West” as more Americans expanded into the territory they had learned about thanks to the famous Expedition.

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Meriwether Lewis in a pose painted with him wearing garb he chose for the expedition.

Lewis spent two troubled years trying to administrate the new territory, but he became entangled in political squabbles and financial difficulties. Things got so difficult for him that Lewis decided he needed to travel to the nation’s capital in person to clear up the mess. On his way to Washington, D.C., he stopped at an inn along the Natchez Trace about seventy miles southwest of Nashville. He died of gunshot wounds on Oct. 11, 1809, and historians have debated ever since whether his death resulted from suicide or murder. Regardless of the nature of his demise, he earned a place in the history books. He’s also remembered every time a birder lays eyes on the woodpecker that bears his name. When the bird is researched in a field guide or on a web page, the more curious individuals are sure to dig a little deeper to learn who provided the Lewis in the woodpecker’s name. His name will continue to be recalled as long as this unusual western woodpecker continues to fly in its beloved pine forests.

I’ve never seen a Lewis’s woodpecker, although I have visited Utah twice to make the attempt. Lewis’s woodpecker is listed as an uncommon permanent resident on the state checklist, so perhaps I will need to be more diligent the next time I visit its home range. I see the red-bellied woodpecker, a smaller relative of Lewis’s woodpecker, on a regular basis. This common bird more closely resembles what most people expect a woodpecker to look like, and it will visit feeders for such fare as sunflower seeds, peanuts and suet.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • The red-bellied woodpecker is a close relative to Lewis’s woodpecker.

In next week’s column, I’ll continue my anniversary tribute to the Lewis and Clark Expedition with a discussion of the bird that honors William Clark, the other partner in the famous westward expedition of discovery.

Readers continue to share hummingbird tales
Garry Cole sent me an email recently to share a hummingbird story.

“I have been following the progress of hummingbird sightings as the birds moved closer to East Tennessee,” Garry wrote. “I read with envy how neighbors all around me had seen these jewels, but none had visited my home here in Hickory Tree near Bluff City.”

Then, on April 23, as Garry sat in the yard, a male ruby- throated hummingbird stopped and hovered less than a foot in front of his face.

“He looked me squarely in the eye as if to say, ‘Well, I’m here. When are you going to feed me?’”

Garry noted that the bird arrived at about 8:15 p.m. “I immediately went inside and prepared my feeder,” he said. “Now, I have at least four that visit my feeder every day. There may be more, but I have only seen four at one time.”

His hummingbirds drink about eight ounces of sugar mix every two or three days and seem to feed more frequently between 5 and 7 p.m.

Tom Brake shared via Facebook that hummingbirds have also returned to his home on Peaceful Valley Road in Abingdon, Virginia. In his posting to my Facebook page, he informed me that he had his first hummingbird sighting of spring on April 28.

Myra Harris message me on Facebook to let me know her mom, Mae Bell Byrd, who lives in Flag Pond in Unicoi County, Tennessee, saw her first hummingbird on April 12.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • Welcoming back hummingbirds also involves making sure that they remain healthy and safe while spending the next six months in our yards and gardens.

Now that hummingbirds are back, take some simple steps to keep them healthy

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • Welcoming back hummingbirds also involves making sure that they remain healthy and safe while spending the next six months in our yards and gardens.

Bristol residents Don and Donna Morrell saw their first hummingbird of spring at 10:19 a.m. on Monday, April 15. “My wife put the feeder up last week,” wrote Don in an email to me. “We live behind South Houston Dam.”

Gordon Aiton, who lives on Elm Street in Erwin, Tennessee, saw his first hummingbird of spring at 7:04 p.m. on Friday, April 19.

Phyllis Moore saw her first hummingbird — a male — at 7:50 p.m. on Friday, April 19, at her home in Bristol, Virginia.

Lynda Carter emailed me to report her first spring sighting of a male ruby-throated hummingbird at her feeder after lunch on Monday, April 15, and a second male appeared on Friday, April 19, a little after 1 p.m. Lynda said she lives at the end of Embreeville mountain in the Lamar community near Jonesborough, Tennessee.

Susan Okrasinski, a resident of Kingsport, Tennessee, saw her first hummingbird of spring on Easter Sunday, April 21.

“On my way into the kitchen I just saw (be still my heart) the first hummer of the season — whoo hoo!” Susan wrote in a post on her Facebook page. “It was a female, which is unusual as the males come up first and the females follow.  What a nice Easter surprise!”

Joanne Campbell, who lives at Middlebrook Lake in Bristol, Tennessee, posted on my Facebook page about her first spring hummer. “Had our first hummingbird sweep into our courtyard on Tuesday, April 23,” she wrote in her post.

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Photo by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service • A ruby-throated hummingbird seeks nectar from small blooms on a flower.

Every hummingbird’s arrival at our homes after an absence of nearly six months is nothing short of an epic achievement on the part of this tiny bird. According to the website, hummingbird.net, most ruby-throated hummingbirds make a daring journey across the Gulf of Mexico to return to their summer homes in the United States and Canada. They typically depart at dusk for their nonstop Gulf flight of up to 500 miles, which takes 18 to 22 hours, depending on the weather.

Now that we’ve welcomed them back into our yards and gardens after such a harrowing journey, it’s important as good hosts to make sure these tiny wonders are kept safe.

Some ways of ensuring that our hummingbird guests are kept healthy and secure are simply common sense. For instance, don’t use pesticides, herbicides or any other sort of toxin anywhere close to the vicinity of a sugar water feeder or a flower garden. Hummingbirds are such tiny creatures with such intense metabolisms that it only takes a minute amount of any harmful substance to sicken or kill one of these little flying gems.

Feeding hummingbirds is easy, but many people try to complicate the process. Only common, pure cane sugar, mixed to a ratio of four parts water to one part sugar, is a safe choice for these birds.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • Hummingbirds have even inspired ornaments and keepsakes in their image, a testament to their popularity and beloved status as yard and garden visitors.

For emphasis, I’ll repeat again that only common, pure cane sugar is safe for hummingbirds. There are no safe substitutes. Do not use organic, raw or brown sugar. Confectioner’s sugar, which contains an anti-caking substance (often corn starch, silicates or stearate salts), is also hazardous to hummingbirds.

There’s also a type of sugar known as turbinado sugar, which is named for the process of spinning the sugar in turbines to crystallize it. The crystals are rich in vitamins and mineral valuable for human health, but they are lethal for hummingbirds. Iron is one of the minerals contained in turbinado sugar. Hummingbird metabolism has a low tolerance for iron, which is present in the molasses added to brown sugar and in agave nectar. These are natural substances, but that doesn’t make them safe for hummingbirds.

The ratio of four parts water to one part sugar utilizing pure cane sugar most closely duplicates the nectar that hummingbirds obtain from some of their favorite flowers. Why try to mess with nature’s perfection?

I cannot imagine why anyone would supplement sugar water for hummingbirds with such human beverages as a sports drink or Kool-aid, but there have been reports of people doing so. Be aware that such additives will only risk the health of these tiny birds.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • Female ruby-throated hummingbirds must face many demands if they are to be successful at nesting and raising young, both tasks being done without assistance from male hummingbirds.

Honey is another substance, although perfectly natural in its origins, that should be avoided. Honey encourages the growth of fungus, which can quickly incapacitate or kill a hummingbird. A packet of artificial sweetener might taste great in your iced tea, but do not add such substances to the solution in your hummingbird feeder. These artificial sugar substitutes offer nothing of nutritional value for a bird with an extreme metabolism with excessive energy demands. In theory, a hummingbird mistakenly feeding on nothing but an artificial sweetener would soon starve to death.

It’s also important to change out your feeders and clean them as often as every one to three days. In extremely hot weather reaching more than 90 degrees, the sugar solution may need to be changed and the feeder cleaned on a daily basis. That’s not as difficult as it sounds. I prepare sugar water and store it in plastic juice containers. Refrigerated, the solution will last longer and can be doled out on a daily basis until a new supply is needed.

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Photo by sapphir1/Pixabay.com • Although a natural substance, honey should not be fed to hummingbirds as it can promote a fungus harmful to hummingbirds.

Don’t use any type of soap or detergent to clean the feeders. The best advice I’ve read is to stick to hot water and vinegar, which will not leave behind a residue that could potentially harm the hummingbirds.

Do not put any sort of red dye or coloring into the sugar water, and do not purchase commercial solutions that incorporate red dyes. Some scientific studies suggest that red dye is a recipe for disaster with hummingbird. Such dyes are thought to lead to kidney failure and certain death for the hummingbird. There’s also plenty of evidence to suggest that banning red dye is an exaggeration of the peril. Taking that into consideration, I still err on the side of caution. Perhaps the red dye will eventually be proven harmless. Until that time, I prefer not to risk the health of my resident hummingbirds.

I’m often asked if the sugar water feeder itself should be red. There is ample evidence that hummingbirds are attracted to red. According to information from the National Audubon Society website, current thinking is that the red dye, as just mentioned, may not be good for them, nor is it necessary to attract hummingbirds. The color on a feeder is enough to attract them. Most feeders incorporate some red parts into their construction. People can mix their own nectar using 1/4 cup sugar to every 1 cup of water.

It’s a lot of work to attract hummingbirds and keep them safe and healthy. I’d like to think the rewards we get from these small birds make the effort worthwhile.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • A female ruby-throated hummingbird, lacking the bright throat patch of a male, surveys her surroundings from a low perch.

 

Smallest of the nuthatches finds a niche at woman’s feeders

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Photo by Lee Karmey/USFWS • A pygmy nuthatch captures a caterpillar.

Veronica Rausch contacted me by email to share a story of the nuthatches that frequent the feeders at her home in central Oregon.

“I have a small flock of pygmy nuthatches coming into the feeders next to my dining room window on a regular basis,” Veronica wrote, adding that the nuthatches began their visits about three weeks ago.

Veronica wrote that she lives in the pine forests of Central Oregon at an elevation of about 4,200 feet.

“The pygmy nuthatches are delightful little birds and share the feeders with the chickadees and juncos,” she wrote. “The bigger birds such as the Stellar’s jays and the woodpeckers will cause them to leave.”

Veronica has also enjoyed observing their unusual antics. “I saw one do a little dance on a branch by the suet feeder,” she described in her email. “Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to grab the camera fast enough! I hope they stick around.”

I replied to Veronica’s email, noting how I consider her fortunate to be hosting the smallest of North America’s nuthatches at her home. Admitting to some envy at her good fortune, I explained that I hope to some day add this species to my life list so I can check all of the continent’s nuthatches off my list of target birds.

Even by nuthatch standards, the pygmy nuthatch is a small bird. In appearance, this nuthatch shows buffy-white underparts contrasted with a brown head and a slate-gray back. They often breed in large extended family flocks, so the four individuals observed by Veronica might very well have been closely related to each other.

Nesting pygmy nuthatches are often assisted in their chores by “nest helpers,” which are close relatives that help the busy parents gather food and feed hungry young. These nest helpers also deliver food to females as they incubate eggs and will mount a spirited defense of a nest threatened by intruders. Their communal nature extends to nocturnal roosting when many individuals will huddle together to ensure their combined body heat helps them survive extremely cold nights.

So how small is the pygmy nuthatch? The adults are barely four inches long and weigh only a third of an ounce. A common fountain pen weighs more than this tiny nuthatch, which goes a long way towards explaining the bird’s scientific name, sitta pygmaea.

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Photo by theSOARnet/Pixabay.com • The brown-headed nuthatch, the southeastern counterpart to the pygmy nuthatch that ranges throughout the Rocky Mountain states, is strongly associated with various types of pine trees.

Pygmy nuthatches are not at all likely to be found in the Mountain Empire or any adjacent areas, but there is another small nuthatch that is found in some extremely localized habitats in the region. The brown-headed nuthatch is a specialist of pine woodlands throughout the southeastern United States, favoring loblolly-shortleaf pines and longleaf-slash pines. This nuthatch requires standing dead trees for nesting and roosting. They forage for food, however, on live pines. The birds are more abundant in older pine stands.

I saw several brown-headed nuthatches during a recent stay on Fripp Island in South Carolina. I’ve also observed this small nuthatch during visits to Chattanooga, Tennessee, and Atlanta, Georgia, as well as various other locations in South Carolina. This nuthatch even occurs in the Mountain Empire region, most recently with four of these birds being found at Washington County Park on South Holston Lake near Bristol during the 2018 Christmas Bird Count conducted by the Bristol Bird Club.

These small birds will occasionally forage close to the ground, but they are often in the upper branches of pine trees. Their presence is often revealed by their call, which sounds amazingly like a squeeze toy. They produce their “squeaky toy” call persistently when agitated or curious. Brown-headed nuthatches often associate with mixed flocks in company with Carolina chickadees, tufted titmice, pine warblers and other small songbirds.

The power of flight gives most birds a perfectly valid reason to disregard the power of gravity. The family of tree-clinging birds known as nuthatches lives an even more topsy-turvy lifestyle than many other of their winged kin. Nuthatches prefer a headfirst stance, even “walking” upside down as they search for food in the nooks and crannies of tree trunks and branches.

The United States is home to four species of nuthatches: white-breasted, red-breasted, brown-headed and pygmy. White-breasted nuthatches are probably the most familiar nuthatch to backyard birders in this area.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • A white-breasted nuthatch clings to the bark of a tree.

Because of their gravity-defying antics, the white-breasted nuthatch and other members of the family can provide hours of entertainment at our bird feeders. Individual white-breasted nuthatches will follow a single-minded path along the trunk of a tree or a branch on the way to a feeder. An individual nuthatch rarely varies from this path. It’s amusing to watch the jerky progress along the trunk as this bird prepares for a flight to a feeder holding sunflower seeds or a hanging wire basket of suet.

At my home, nuthatches typically remain aloof from the always-ongoing rivalry between the chickadees and titmice. The white-breasted nuthatch is also a no-nonsense visitor. Rarely distracted by disturbances among other birds, this nuthatch is content to grab a seed and go or hang on to the wire frame of a suet basket and peck off chunks of suet.

The more numerous titmice and chickadees give way when a white-breasted nuthatch claims a feeder. At times, however, among the frantic activity, a tufted titmouse or a Carolina chickadee will forget itself and fly to a position on a feeder already claimed by a nuthatch. If surprised enough to retreat to a nearby perch, the nuthatch will go through a rather comical little dance to express its displeasure. Wings spread out in a rigid pose, the bird will turn around in tight circles, showing definite resentment at being displaced by an offending chickadee or titmouse.

The stubby red-breasted nuthatch is another member of the family that occasionally finds its way to our yards. Smaller than the related white-breasted nuthatch and, as far as I can tell, complacent in the company of chickadees and titmice, the red-breasted nuthatch is always a welcome visitor. It has a tell-tale “yank yank” call that it produces when excited that sounds very much like little tin horns. The red-breasted nuthatch, perhaps because it spends so much of the year in more remote areas, can also be amazingly tame when it pays a winter visit.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • A red-breasted nuthatch clings to the mesh of a feeding tube to get at the peanuts contained within.

Nuthatches can be attracted to feeders by offering peanuts, sunflower seeds and suet. They are also cavity-nesting birds, but are more reluctant about accepting a nesting box as a place to rear young. They will gladly accept an old woodpecker hole or other natural cavity in a tree.

I also want to complete my list of North American nuthatches by adding the fourth species — pygmy nuthatch — to my life list. I have made two trips to western North America, where this species ranges, but haven’t managed to find this bird. Both the pygmy and brown-headed are among the smallest members of the nuthatch family.

On the other end of the size scale is the appropriately named giant nuthatch, which reaches a length of almost eight inches. The giant nuthatch ranges through China, Thailand and Burma. This nuthatch is bigger than a downy woodpecker, one of our more common visitors at backyard feeders in our region.

Worldwide, there are about 25 species of nuthatches, some of which have surprisingly descriptive names for birds that spend most of their lives creeping in obscurity along the trunks and branches of trees. Some of the more creative common names for these little birds are inspired by locations around the globe, giving us species like Siberian nuthatch, Kashmir nuthatch, Burmese nuthatch, Bahama nuthatch, Algerian nuthatch, Indian nuthatch and Chinese nuthatch.

These birds are named “nuthatch” for the habit of some species to wedge a large seed in a crack and hack at it with their strong bills. I like to refer to them as “upside-down birds” because of their gravity-defying nature. It must give them an interesting perspective on the world around them.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • In some areas, brown-headed nuthatches are feeder visitors. These small nuthatches are specialists that favor stands of loblolly pine.

Many birds plan ahead for times of scarcity

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Photo by Struza/Pixabay.com • A chickadee plucks a peanut from its shell. Chickadees, like many other songbirds, often store food that they can utilize during lean times.

Ernie Marburg sent me an email last month about an article he had read on chickadees that he thought might be of interest. The article’s main focus involved the fact that chickadees are apparently capable of remembering 1,000 cache sites and retrieving food several months after having placed it in various scattered locations.

“Their memories are better than ours,” Ernie wrote. “Mine, anyway.”

Ernie also had a question for me about observations he and his wife have made at their home in Abingdon, Virginia, about birds and the practice of caching food.

“My wife and I have both observed crows taking bread (five or six pieces at a time) in their beaks and flying off and burying it in lawns among the grass,” he wrote. “We have also observed that they march through the lawn apparently looking for such food caches. Is this something that is commonly known? Are we correct in our observation of this?”

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Photo by dbadry/Pixabay.com • Blue Jays often create food caches for acorns and other items. This jay is leaving a feeder with several peanuts thanks to an expandable esophagus.

Experts have indeed noticed this behavior. In fact, it’s fairly well known that crows are methodical in their approach to storing food. Crows, which belong to the corvid family that includes birds such as jays, ravens and magpies, are also highly intelligent animals. Their intelligence shows in the extra step they take after they have buried food. The crow will often take a leaf or twig and place it over the spot where the food has been buried. Experts suspect the bird takes this action to mark the spot and attract attention to the location when they return to look for the buried food.

Birds store food for convenience when they have more food than they can finish, but they also cache food in anticipation of periods such as inclement winter weather when food is likely to become scarce.

The blue jay, a relative of the American crow, is fond of acorns. The jay is so enamored of acorns — a nutrient-rich food for many birds and other animals — and so dedicated to caching acorns that the bird actually helps oak forests expand. A single jay may cache thousands of acorns each fall. Inevitably, some of the cache will be forgotten, to go uneaten and give the acorn the chance to sprout into a seedling in the spring that may grow into a mighty oak in a new stand of oaks.

The jay even has some modifications to help with the storing of food. Blue jays have a flexible esophagus that can distend and allow them to stuff multiple acorns down their throats. Caching food is hard work, so it helps reduce energy consumption if the jay can transport several acorns at a time instead of a single acorn on each trip to a cache site.

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Photo by Anne773/Pixabay.com • A Carolina chickadee visits a feeder for a sunflower seed. Chickadees are a songbird that’s known for storing surplus seeds as insurance against lean times.

Now, back to chickadees for a moment. Research has shown that the brains of black-capped chickadees grow in anticipation of the need to remember where these tiny songbirds cache their sunflower seeds and other foods. The interesting finding is that only the part of the brain associated with memory grows. After all, it doesn’t do much good to store food for a rainy or snowy day if the bird promptly forgets where the food has been hidden.

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This image illustrates an acorn woodpecker’s visit to a food cache. These woodpeckers are famous for storing acorns in dead and living trees, as well as substitutes such as telephone poles.

The acorn woodpecker might qualify as a world-class cacher of food. As the bird’s name suggests, this woodpecker loves acorns. An acorn woodpecker will devote a significant amount of its time to establishing granaries. In this case, the granaries are holes drilled in the trunks of trees (or sometimes in a telephone pole or the side of a wooden building) for the storing of acorns. Some of these trees have hundreds of holes drilled into them with each hole containing an acorn placed there by the woodpecker. The woodpeckers often use dead trees, but they also utilize living trees. Surprisingly, the holes do not seem to affect the health of the trees.

From chickadees and woodpeckers to crows and jays, birds manage to continually surprise with seemingly infinite resourcefulness.

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com • The American crow is also known for caching food.

Birds made the headlines around the world last year with some important stories

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Photo by Bob Peyton/USFWS • At 67, Wisdom, a female Laysan albatross and the world’s oldest known breeding bird in the wild, is a mother once more! On Feb. 6, 2018, approximately two months after Wisdom began incubating her egg, Wisdom and her mate, Akeakamai, welcomed their newest chick to the nesting colony at Midway Atoll. In this photo, Wisdom is pictured with her most her recent chick.

In these early days of 2019, I thought it might be a good time to look back at some of the top bird-related stories of 2018. Here are my Top Five picks:

Mother of Mothers
Wisdom the albatross nested again at age 67. Wisdom, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service website, is the oldest known banded bird in the wild. She is a female Laysan albatross that nests within the world’s largest albatross colony on Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge. She is at least 67 years old and a world-renowned symbol of hope for all species that depend upon the health of the ocean to survive.
Famed ornithology expert Chandler Robbins banded Wisdom on Dec. 10, 1956. Forty-six years later, he banded her again.
Albatrosses and other seabirds return to the same nesting site each year. Wisdom has been using the same nesting site on Midway Atoll since she was first banded. Albatrosses lay a single egg and incubate it for a little over two months. After a chick hatches, it will still be another five months before it will leave the nest. In that time, Wisdom and her mate, Akeakamai, like all albatross parents, take turns incubating the egg or caring for the chick while the other forages for food at sea.
“Midway Atoll’s habitat doesn’t just contain millions of birds, it contains countless generations and families of albatrosses,” said Kelly Goodale, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Refuge Biologist, in a press release. “If you can imagine when Wisdom returns home, she is likely surrounded by what were once her chicks and potentially their chicks. What a family reunion!”
Wisdom’s also a real survivor. For instance, she survived, along with her chick, the earthquake and tsunami that killed many Laysan and black-footed albatrosses on Midway Atoll in 2011.

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Photo by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service • Wisdom feeds a chick from a previous nesting.

New Discoveries
New birds continue to be discovered around the world. For example, a research team has described an unusual new songbird species. The bird was named the Rote leaf-warbler (Phylloscopus rotiensis) after the island where it is found.
This new species of leaf-warbler, which has an unusually long bill, was first discovered on Rote Island, Indonesia.
Each year, about five to 10 new bird species are described worldwide. The fact that this bird is the second novel species described from Rota last year is also noteworthy. The other species — the Rote myzomela (Myzomela irianawidodoae) is a species of Indonesian honeyeater endemic to the island of Rote. Although first noticed years ago, scientists only confirmed this past year the the bird is actually a distinct species.
On this one small island in the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana islands live two other birds found nowhere else in the world: the Mariana crow and the Rota white-eye. These birds are testimony to both the resilience and fragility of the world’s birds.
Mixed Heritage
In an example of the fluidity of some species of birds, experts have confirmed a rare three-species hybrid with DNA from three different New World warbler species. As the warblers are my favorite family of birds, I found this a fascinating story.
The bird found in Pennsylvania was the offspring of a hybrid warbler mother and a warbler father from an entirely different genus. This is a combination never recorded before now, which resulted in a three-species hybrid bird. The bird is the offspring of a female hybrid between a blue-winged warbler and a golden-winged warbler. Its father was a chestnut-sided warbler, which is not considered a close relative of the other two warblers

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Photo by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service • Endangered California condors receives some good news in 2018.

Condors Soar Again
California condors continue to climb back from the brink of extinction. For the first time in more than three decades, an endangered California condor chick successfully fledged from a cliff-side nest in Santa Barbara County in California in November of 2018. Condor number 933 took its first short flight after being raised by its parents for six months in the northern Santa Barbara backcountry of Los Padres National Forest. This chick represents another milestone in the condor recovery program: the first second-generation wild fledgling in Southern California. Its father fledged from the Santa Barbara backcountry in 1980.
The chick known as Condor 933 hatched in late April and was raised by six-year-old female condor 654 and 38-year-old male condor 20, more popularly known as AC-4.
Official USFWS statistics from December 2016 recorded an overall population of 446 condors, of which 276 are wild and 170 are captive. A key milestone was reached in 2015, when more condors were born in the wild than died.
The goal of the California Condor Recovery Plan is to establish two geographically distinct self-sustaining populations, each with 150 birds in the wild and at least 15 breeding pairs, with a third population of condors retained in captivity. As the Recovery Program works toward this goal, the number of release sites has grown. There are three active release sites in California, one in Arizona and one in Baja, Mexico.

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Photo by Noah Kahn/USFWS • The endangered ‘Apapane evolved in the forests of Hawaii and is found nowhere else in the world. This bird was banded and released back to the forest. Apapane are one of the most common native birds in Hawaiian forests. Their feathers were used to some extent in Hawaiian feather work. Another Hawaiian species, the poʻo-uli, was officially declared extinct in 2018.

Slipping Away
Despite the success stories, birds are getting hit hard in the age of extinction sweeping our planet. Some of this year’s extinction casualties included a diminutive Hawaiian species known as the , as well as the Brazilian birds known as the cryptic treehunter and the Alagoas foliage-gleaner. Spix’s macaw — a parrot species made famous by Disney’s animated feature film Rio — is now extinct in the wild, although about 50 individuals survive in captivity. The announcement about the macaw was a formality. Scientists have suspected the species is extinct in the wild since 2011 when the last known female Spix’s macaw perished. The announcement in September of 2018 served as a mere formality. Unfortunately, things will probably only get worse for many bird species in the short-term future. We must never begrudge the resources needed to keep them all flying free.

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