Category Archives: Songbirds

Hummingbirds not the only birds returning to region as spring migration advances

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • A Ruby-throated Hummingbird perches on a sugar water feeder.

A voiceover for a promotional trailer for an upcoming movie in the Jurassic Park franchise asks the question “Do you remember the first time you saw a dinosaur?” and answers it with the sentence “The first time you see them, it’s like a miracle!”

Obviously, dinosaurs aren’t walking the earth — except in this highly successful movie franchise — although experts maintain that dinosaurian descendants (birds) still roam the world.

Dinosaurs, of course, have impressed humans with immense size ever since their enormous fossils began to be uncovered. Hummingbirds also impress with size, or rather the lack of it. It’s that tiny size that has prompted people to describe them as “miracles” from the time the first European explorers sailed to the New World in the late 1400s. When Spanish explorers first encountered them, they had no equivalent birds in Europe to use as a reference. They referred to hummingbirds as “joyas voladoras,” or flying jewels.

So, how many remember their first sighting of a hummingbird? These tiny birds, still accurately and often described as flying gems, are worthy of the word “miracle” being used to define them. When we see the ruby-throated hummingbirds return to the region every spring, our belief in miracles is strengthened.

I still have readers sharing reports of their first hummingbird sightings this spring.

• Marty Huber and Jo Ann Detta in Abingdon, Virginia, sent me an email about their first spring hummingbird sighting.

They reported that they got their first look at a spring hummingbird on April 18 at 5:04 p.m. “We were excited and have been looking since the beginning of the month,” they wrote. “Last year we didn’t see our first until April 23.”

• Ed and Rebecca Feaster of Piney Flats, Tennessee, put out their feeders after reading one of my columns earlier in April.

“We are happy to report that we saw a little female ruby-throated hummer on the morning of April 20,” they wrote in their email. “We were thankful to offer her nectar as she seemed very, very hungry!”

The Feasters noted that they have been in the Tri-Cities area for three years.

They had previously lived more than 20 years in the Roanoke Valley. “Birders in that area said to look for the hummers to arrive when the azaleas bloom,” they wrote. “The same seems to hold true here as the ones around our home began to blossom just a couple days ago.”

• Jane Arnold, a resident of Bristol, Virginia, sent me an email about her first hummer sighting.

“Just wanted to let you know that my first hummer of the year arrived at 10:20 a.m. Saturday, April 21,” she wrote. “I was so excited to see him! I had taken my feeder out to hang (it was sitting on a table) and [the hummingbird] flew to it.”

• Don and Donna Morrell emailed me with their first hummingbird sighting of spring. “My wife Donna and I saw our first hummingbirds on April 22,” Don wrote.

The Morrells saw both a male and female hummingbird. “We are located behind South Holston Dam,” Don added. “We are glad our friends are back. Also on that same day we saw an eagle and white crane.”

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • A migrating Great Egret makes a stop at a golf course pond.

Most likely the white crane was a great egret, which is also migrating through the region right now. Although often called cranes, egrets are part of the family of wading birds that includes herons. North America’s true cranes are the endangered whooping crane and the sandhill crane.

• Facebook friend Sherry Thacker reported a first sighting of a ruby-throated hummingbird on April 22.

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Photo Courtesy of Helen Whited • A Baltimore Oriole visits a feeder “baited” with an orange slice.

“It came looking at the thistle seed feeder that is red,” she reported. “I had not put up the sugar water feeder, but I did today.”

Sherry reported seeing some beautiful hummingbirds last year.

Of course, we are in the midst of spring migration, which means hummingbirds are hardly the only new arrivals.

• Helen Whited in Abingdon, Virginia, has seen two very brightly-colored species of birds pass through her yard this spring. On April 17, her feeders were visited by male rose-breasted grosbeaks. “I am so excited to see my first grosbeaks,” she shared in an email that also contained a photo featuring two of the visiting grosbeaks. On April 21, Helen sent me another email with a photo of a male Baltimore oriole visiting a specially designed feeder made to hold orange slices to attract fruit-loving orioles. Grosbeaks and orioles are two migrant species of birds that deliver splashes of tropical color to the region each year.

Helen had prepared for the visit by the Baltimore oriole. In an email from last year, she had told me that her husband had promised her an oriole feeder for her birthday. I’m glad she’s been able to report success in bringing one of these bright orange and black birds to her yard.

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Photo Courtesy of Helen Whited • A pair of Rose-breasted grosbeaks take turns visiting a feeder.

• Anita Huffman of Rugby, Virginia, saw a male rose-breasted grosbeak on April 22. She reported her sighting on Bristol-Birds, a network for sharing postings about bird observations in the region.

• John Harty, a resident of Bristol, Tennessee, sought my help with identifying a new bird in his yard. Based on his description of the bird — the shape of a robin, reddish-brown coloration and a taste for suet cakes at John’s feeder — I suggested that his bird was probably a brown thrasher.

Brown thrashers returned to my home in late March and almost immediately sought out my suet feeders. Other recent arrivals have included several warblers — hooded, black-throated green and black-and-white — as well as tree swallows, which immediately got down to the business of selecting a nesting box. All of these birds nest in the gardens and woods around my home.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • Brown Thrasher perched in a Mimosa Tree.

Some birds, however, announce their arrival not with bright colors but with beautiful songs. On April 23, I listened as a wood thrush sang its flute-like song from the edge of the woods just outside my bedroom window. The sweet song of this thrush is one of my favorite sounds of spring.

Every bird is a miracle, whether you’re seeing or hearing them for the first time or welcoming them back for another spring and summer season.

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Photo by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service • The Wood Thrush often sings its flute-like song from deep under cover in dense woodlands.

Timely arrival of blue-gray gnatcatcher signals the rush of spring migration

A blue-gray gnatcatchers finally put in a first spring appearance at my home on April 11. Most likely, these tiny birds had already arrived, but my schedule hadn’t yet allowed me a glimpse of this punctual songbird. Back in March, I saw and heard dozens of them during a trip to the South Carolina Low Country.

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Photo Courtesy of Jean Potter • Blue-gray Gnatcatchers are tiny, energetic bundles of feathers.

 

Birds are as dependable as clocks and calendars when it comes to noting the passage of time. I can keep track of the changing seasons based on the composition of the birds in my yard. The gnatcatcher has long been my signal to the start of the frenzied pace of spring migration for many of the birds returning to the region after sojourns much farther south. For example, the first gnatcatcher arrived in my yard in 2014 on April 4. Two days earlier, I had observed my first blue-grey gnatcatcher of the spring while visiting Winged Deer Park in Johnson City, Tennessee. It doesn’t hurt that the arrival of gnatcatchers coincides with the annual blooming of bluebells, a wildflower for which this local park is famous.

Once again, Winged Deer Park provided me with my first spring sighting of this bird when I finally saw one this year on April 6. Over the years I’ve kept track of such matters, blue-gray gnatcatchers reliably return every year in the final days of March and first days of April. A blue-gray gnatcatcher put in its first appearance at my home on April 2 in 2011. In 2009, I also saw my first gnatcatcher on April 2, although in 2008 I had to wait until April 5 for my first spring sighting of a gnatcatcher. In 2007, the blue-gray gnatcatcher was an “April Fool’s” bird, arriving on the first day of April. Arrival dates in March are a little less frequent. For instance, in 2003, a blue-gray gnatcatcher arrived on March 28. I saw my first spring gnatcatcher on March 30 in 1998. In 2006, the arrival date was March 31.

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The blue-gray gnatcatcher is a tiny, active bird with noisy habits that make it fairly easy to detect in early spring before foliage has grown dense in the branches of trees. This gnatcatcher ranks with the kinglets and hummingbirds as one of the smallest birds to range within the United States. This tiny bird tips the scales at only a fourth of an ounce. A gnatcatcher is an incredible bundle of feathered energy, seemingly always on the move as it snatches small winged insects out of the air or plucks other prey items from leaves or branches. Gnatcatchers are also quite curious birds that, more than once, have given me the distinct impression that I am the one being observed while watching their antics.

So, as the name suggests, do gnatcatchers truly eat gnats? The website All About Birds contends that, despite its name, the gnatcatcher does not concentrate its feeding efforts on gnats. This tiny bird does, however, prey on a variety of small insects and spiders. Winged insects, such as small flies and gnats, are part of the menu for a gnatcatcher, but this bird is also capable of plucking spiders from their webs or snatching tiny caterpillars from the underside of leaves.1-blue-grey-flycatcher-john-james-audubon

Like the hummingbirds, the gnatcatchers are an exclusively New World family of birds. They lack the diversity of the hummingbirds. Instead of several hundred species, there are only about a dozen species of gnatcatchers worldwide. Of that number, four — blue-gray gnatcatcher, California gnatcatcher, black-tailed gnatcatcher and black-capped gnatcatcher — range within the United States. The blue-gray gnatcatcher is the only member of this family to reside in the eastern United States. Other representatives of this family of small songbirds include the Cuban gnatcatcher, white-lored gnatcatcher, creamy-bellied gnatcatcher, tropical gnatcatcher and masked gnatcatcher.

The blue-gray gnatcatcher builds an exquisite and compact nest using such materials as spider silk and lichens. I have found many nests over the years by listening for the scolding notes of the parents which, even near their nest, have not learned the virtue of silence. The blue-gray gnatcatcher is one of the birds that, in my mind, truly kicks off the arrival season of many of my favorite neotropical migrants. With the arrival of gnatcatchers, I can now expect to enjoy the arrival of birds like hummingbirds, warblers, tanagers, vireos, thrushes, and grosbeaks.

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Bryan Stevens lives near Roan Mountain, Tennessee. To learn more about birds and other topics from the natural world, friend Stevens on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/ahoodedwarbler. He is always posting about local birds, wildlife, flowers, insects and much more.

Berry-rich diet makes waxwings profuse water drinkers

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • A cedar waxwing perches on a branch while taking a break from flycatching insect prey near a community park pond.

Ernie Marburg, a resident of Abingdon, Virginia, shared an interesting observation about a flock of cedar waxwings he observed recently in his yard.

Waxwings have a brown and gray silky plumage, a black mask and a perky crest. Some of the wing feathers show red tips. The similarity of these wing tips to melted drops of wax gives these birds the common name of waxwing.

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Early American naturalist and artist John James Audubon painted this pair of cedar waxwings.

“The typical flock of waxwings has arrived,” he wrote in his email. He added that the birds exhibited an unusual behavior during their visit.

“From their roosts in the tops of some tall nearby trees, they appeared to be leaving their roosts briefly and returning to the trees as though they were catching flies,” Ernie noted. “There were, however, no flies available.”

The waxwings, he went on to explain, appeared to be going after snowflakes. “Could they have been going after the snowflakes to drink water?” Ernie asked.

While I wasn’t sure that catching snowflakes is an energy-efficient way to relieve thirst, the waxwings might have had a different motivation for their behavior. As I informed Ernie in my reply to his email, waxwings are very social with each other. These birds form large flocks that travel, feed, roost and bathe together. They have also come up with interesting “rituals” to reinforce their social ties with each other.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • The waxy tips to the wing feathers are evident in this photograph of a cedar waxwing.

These rituals, or games, they “play” with each other include a flock of perched birds passing a single berry or fruit in a line, one bird to another, without any of the birds eating the item. I speculated that snowflake catching was their idea of a fun game and a way to practice for fly-catching season, which is just around the corner.

Perhaps I should have conducted some research. As it turns out, other people have witnessed this snowflake-catching behavior, which has led those who have studied the birds to determine that the birds do indeed eat snowflakes to ease thirst. Apparently their diet, which is rich in sugar thanks to the various berries that provide a huge percentage of their food, waxwings are often afflicted with intense thirst. In addition to catching snowflakes, they have been observed eating fallen snow. A single Bohemian waxwing — a relative of the cedar waxwing — can gobble down 300 berries in a couple of hours. According to some statistics, one of these birds can eat up to three times its weight in fruit in a single day. The next time I am lucky enough to observe waxwings in a snowstorm, you can bet I will be watching for this snowflake-eating behavior.

The cedar waxwing has few relatives. Worldwide, there are only two other species: the Bohemian waxwing, which is native to the northern forests of Eurasia and North America; and the Japanese waxwing, found in such northeast Asian countries as Japan, Korea and China.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • Numbers of Ruby-throated Hummingbird in the region tend to fluctuate each year, but people should see a spike in their numbers as the hummingbirds end summer nesting and start migrating south again.

Hummingbirds due back soon

Waxwings are rather nomadic, coming and going with a maddening unpredictability. Other birds are more dependable, arriving and departing at roughly the same time year after year. One such bird should soon make its triumphant and welcome return to yards and gardens throughout the region. According to the website Hummingbird Guide, ruby-throated hummingbirds usually return to Tennessee and Virginia the first week of April. These tiny flying jewels arrive earlier in North and South Carolina, typically arriving the third week of March in those states.

The popularity of hummingbirds in general, and the ruby-throated hummingbird specifically, is simple to understand. These tiny birds are perfectly willing to insert themselves into our lives, offering hours of fascinating entertainment as they visit our gardens, duel at our sugar water feeders and occasionally even nest in trees and shrubs in our yards.

Individuals who feed birds know that it can be an expensive undertaking. The cost of providing sunflower seeds and suet cakes for hungry flocks during the winter months can nibble at the monthly budget, but hardly anyone would begrudge the sparrows, finches, wrens and woodpeckers. After all, they return the favor, putting on daily shows just outside our windows.

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Photo by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service • A male Ruby-throated Hummingbird hovers in front of the camera as it seeks nectar from tiny flower blossoms.

The same is true of hummingbirds. For a relatively modest investment, people putting out feeders or planting nectar-producing flowers are rewarded with the fun and amusing antics of these pint-sized and hyperactive birds.

Attracting hummingbirds is generally much less expensive than feeding other birds. After all, you need only a mixture of sugar water — four parts water to one part sugar — to fill a feeder and catch the attention of a visiting hummer. A few pounds of sugar will last a lot longer than that bag of sunflower seeds, and it’s much less expensive to purchase at the grocery store.

Do not add red coloring or dyes to your sugar water mixture. Some studies have indicated these substances are harmful to hummingbird health. This means tossing out many of the pre-packaged mixtures sold with sugar water feeders. After all, the entire purpose is to attract hummingbirds. Risking their health is simply not acceptable. If you do want to take extra steps to attract these diminutive, feathered sugar junkies, consider supplementing your landscape with a variety of flowering plants. To explore some of the best choices for flowers to tempt hummingbirds, visit the website of The Hummingbird Society at http://www.hummingbirdsociety.org.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • A ruby-throated hummingbird visits a feeder for a sip of sugar water.

I always put out my sugar water feeders in early April. I usually end up waiting a couple of weeks before the first hummingbird appears, but it’s worth the wait. I miss these tiny birds during the winter months, which they spend in much warmer surroundings in southern Mexico and Central America. A male with the namesake red throat is usually the first to appear at my feeders. However, female ruby-throated hummingbirds, which lack the dazzling ruby throat patch, are migrating, too. The females usually lag a week or two behind the pace of the migration for the males.

As always, I enjoy hearing from readers about their first spring sighting of a ruby-throated hummingbird. Readers are encouraged to jot down the date and the time of arrival when they observe their first hummingbird of the season. If the sighting’s duration allows you to verify, note whether the hummingbird was a male or female. These reports can be emailed to me at ahoodedwarbler@aol.com. Together, we’ll track the arrival of these tiny birds as they return to the region.

 

North America’s bluebirds never fail to impress with their winning ways

A famous song declares that “somewhere over the rainbow, bluebirds fly,” so you’ll have to excuse me if I have been looking for those elusive rainbows during the unseasonably warm weather the region’s enjoyed in recent weeks.

Also, like the song promises, “dreams really do come true,” which was fulfilled by the arrival of this year’s first pair of Eastern bluebirds at my home on Friday, Feb. 23. The presence of a pair of these beautiful and trusting birds is always sure to put people in a good mood. People have known for generations that bluebirds make good neighbors. A pair of bluebirds in your yard or garden provides hour upon hour of free entertainment as one watches these birds go about their daily routine. At this time of the year, much of that routine is focused on finding and claiming the best possible nesting location for the upcoming spring season.

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The Eastern bluebird is one of the most beloved American songbirds.

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

Woodpeckers and nuthatches can excavate their own cavity in a dead or decaying tree. Others, such as the bluebirds, must find a cavity already in existence. Such cavities are scarce real estate and can be subject to some intense competition. The Eastern bluebird is at a disadvantage when forced to compete with non-native introduced birds such as aggressive European starlings and house sparrows. Even native competitors such as house wrens and tree swallows are serious rivals when it comes down to staking a claim to prime nesting real estate.

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

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • A female Eastern Bluebird gathers pine needles to use as nesting material.

Fortunately for bluebirds, this species will also accept lodging in a nest box, or birdhouse, provided for them by human landlords. One of the simplest ways to bring bluebirds close is to offer wooden boxes, constructed to their specific requirements, for their use as nesting locations. Because of their trusting nature when it comes to their human neighbors, the Eastern bluebird is one of our most beloved birds. In fact, bluebirds are such popular birds that interest in them and their well-being has inspired the foundation of organizations such as the North American Bluebird Society. The Eastern bluebird has also been designated the official state bird for New York and Missouri, which provides more testimony to the immense popularity of this bird.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • A flock of Eastern bluebirds perches on fenceposts.

There are two other species of bluebirds found in North America. The Western bluebird is found throughout the year in California, the southern Rocky Mountains, Arizona and New Mexico, as well as in part of Mexico. The species ranges in the summer as far north as the Pacific Northwest, British Columbia and Montana. The Mountain bluebird nests in open country in the western United States as far north as Alaska. They are short-distance migrants, retreating as far south as Mexico during the winter season.

Other than these three species, North America offers few others birds with mostly “blue” plumages. Some examples include indigo bunting, blue grosbeak, and blue jay, as well as birds like great blue heron and belted kingfisher.

In addition to housing, food and water can be used to lure Eastern bluebirds closer. This bird doesn’t eat seeds, but it can be attracted with an offering of mealworms — live or freeze-dried – or commercially prepared peanut butter nuggets. A water feature in a yard is also a magnet for bluebirds and a host of other bird species.

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

If your home doesn’t provide suitable open, spacious bluebird habitat, it’s still easy to enjoy these beautiful birds. An afternoon or evening drive into open country, such as agricultural farmland, is likely to yield sightings of this bird on fences and utility lines. Golf courses, some of which go the extra mile to accommodate bluebirds, also provide habitat for these lovely birds.

The Eastern bluebird is present in the region in all seasons and is one of our more common birds. If you’re already an experienced landlord and host for these birds, you probably already know they joys they can bring. If not, why not try to attract them closer to you? Most bluebirds in the region have already started looking for a nesting site. Many of these birds may nest two or even three times in a single season. March has only just arrived, so there’s still time to place a nest box or two on your property to get their attention.

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If you have a question, wish to make a comment or share a sighting, email ahoodedwarbler@aol.com.

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

America’s lost parakeet remains poignant symbol of need to protect our birds

A century ago this week, a caged bird died in Cincinnati, Ohio. However, this was not simply a case of an untimely death of a beloved family pet. Instead, that bird represented the last of its kind.

The bird belonged to the Psittacidae, a family of tropical birds that includes macaws, parrots, caiques, amazons and parrotlets. The bird, a male named Incas, was the last captive Carolina parakeet (the only species of parrot native to the eastern United States) in existence when he died at the Cincinnati Zoo on Feb. 21, 1918, in the same aviary where Martha, the last passenger pigeon, had died four years earlier.

 

The demise of Incas came about a year after the death of his mate, who had been named Lady Jane by their zookeepers. In a time before the forces of social media and round-the-clock mass media, the death of Incas likely went unnoticed by other than a few people.

Carolina parakeets, John James Audubon

 

If few noticed the passing of Incas at the time, surely today we can mourn the loss of one of the most abundant birds to ever roam the continent. Few people even realize that North America was once home to its own species of parakeet. A few individuals — all that remained of once massive flocks of colorful, noisy native parakeets — made it into the 20th century. Despite the death of Incas in 1918, the Carolina parakeet as a species was not officially declared extinct until 1939. It was a classic example of going out with a whimper, not a bang, when the entire population of the Carolina parakeet crashed suddenly and for reasons still not fully understood.

For instance, large flocks of these birds still flew free until the final years of the 1800s, but in the first decade of the 1900s, these flocks disappeared. The only other native parrot — the thick-billed parrot of the American southwest — no longer flies north of the Mexican border. An attempt to re-introduce this parrot to Arizona in the 1980s ended in disappointing failure. Of course, thick-billed parrots still fly free south of the border.

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It would be wonderful to have native parrots still flying free. The extinct Carolina parakeet ranged throughout the eastern United States, including the states of Virginia, Tennessee and North Carolina. These parrots strayed on occasion as far north as Wisconsin and New York and ranged as far west as Colorado. Florida provided a stronghold for this colorful species, which also made its last stand in the Sunshine State. The last flock of thirteen wild birds was documented in Florida in 1904.

These birds have attracted attention since the arrival of the first Europeans. English explorer George Peckham mentioned the presence of Carolina parakeets in an account he wrote of his 1583 expedition in Florida. In the 1700s, English naturalist Mark Catesby described the species for science in a two-volume work titled “The Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands.”

The parrots were evidently numerous, often encountered in large flocks. Few early naturalists attempted to properly study them, resulting in a sad dearth of knowledge. Much of what we do know is quite intriguing. The diet of these parakeets made them toxic, as early naturalist and artist John James Audubon observed when cats sickened and died after dining on fresh parakeets. One of the parakeet’s favorite foods — cockleburs —imparted the toxicity into the flesh of the birds.

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Alexander Wilson

An unusual empathy and loyalty may have contributed to the downfall of the species. Early naturalist Alexander Wilson wrote of an 1808 encounter with a large flock of these parakeets. After noting how the bird covered almost every twig in a tree, Wilson raised a gun and shot several of the birds. Some of the shot birds were only wounded. “The whole flock swept repeatedly around their prostrate companions, and again settled on a low tree, within twenty yards of the spot where I stood,” Wilson wrote. “At each successive discharge, although showers of them fell, yet the affection of the survivors seemed rather to increase.”

The same tendency to rally to the side of fallen companions made Carolina parakeets easy targets for people capturing them in the late 1800s for the exotic pet trade. This flocking together and unwillingness to abandon wounded members made the birds easy targets when farmers shot them. It certainly didn’t help matters that the parakeets were also hunted for their brightly colored feathers, which were used to adorn women’s hats. It remains unclear what exactly annihilated a once abundant bird, although it was likely a combination of all of the aforementioned factors.

Changes to the landscape encouraged the parakeets to shift their diet from weed seeds to cultivated fruit, which won them the ire of farmers. Logging of extensive forests may have impacted their numbers, too. Experts have even theorized that the parakeets fell victim to some sort of epidemic spread by domestic fowl.

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Painting by Alexander Wilson of a Carolina Parakeet.

If only the dawning of a more environmentally aware age had arrived slightly sooner, the Carolina parakeet might have been saved along with species like the bald eagle and whooping crane. This native parakeet, if it had endured, might today be considered an ordinary backyard bird jostling for space at your feeders with birds like blue jays and purple finches.

Incas and his fellow Carolina parakeets may be gone, but they’ve not been forgotten. Their story is a reminder of why it remains crucial to protect all birds. Let that devotion to preservation be the legacy of America’s lost parakeets.

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

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • Although protections came too late to help the Carolina Parakeet, laws like the Endangered Species Act did save birds like the Bald Eagle from possible extinction.

 

 

Winter weather events can adversely affect birds, too

Although the weather has been mild thus far this winter, that can change in the blink of an eye. Inclement weather affects humans, but it can also have adverse affects on birds. Snow, sleet, ice, wind and other forces can play havoc on the lives of our feather friends. Birds have many adaptations to help them deal with the worst the elements can throw at them, but sometimes events can overtake them.

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Bodies of the fallen Lapland longspurs are shown scattered on a frozen lake after a 1904 weather-related catastrophe overtook hundreds of thousands of migrating longspurs.

One such event took place on the night of March 13-14, 1904, when hundreds of thousands of one small songbird species perished as circumstances came together in a perfect storm. This infamous event in the annals of ornithology mystified residents living around the town of Worthington, Minnesota, when they awoke on the morning of March 14 to find thousands of dead birds strewn across the landscape. Birds fell onto everything from yards and gardens to street and rooftops, as well as numerous frozen lakes.

In an article in the ornithological publication The Auk, the affected songbird was identified as the Lapland longspur, a bird that nests in the Arctic tundra and spends winters on the expansive prairies and plains of the United States and Canada. The Lapland longspur, also known as the Lapland bunting, also ranges into Russia and the Northern Scandinavian countries of Europe. The term “longspur” refers to the long hind claws on this small songbird’s feet. Two other longspurs — Smith’s longspur and chestnut-collared longspur — are found in North America.

The Lapland longspur disaster on the night of March 13, 1904, originated with a massive migration flight taking these songbirds back to their tundra nesting grounds. The author of the Auk article speculated that the longspurs migrating northward encountered a winter storm in the darkness. Heavy snow accumulated on the feathers of the exhausted migrants, forcing them to crash to the ground by the hundreds of thousands across the terrain of southwestern Minnesota and northwestern Iowa. From the point of view of the disoriented birds, the lights from the towns dotted across the landscape added to the chaos and confusion. Many of the bird suffered blunt force traumas, including ruptured organs, crushed skulls, bone fractures and other such injuries incurred when falling to the ground from great heights.

The Auk article comes to a total of a million birds lost in a single night, although the author admits the toll could have been even higher. Although this is an immense figure, consider that a survey dating to 2004 estimated 8 million Lapland longspurs in Alaska alone during the nesting season.

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Early naturalist and artist John James Audubon painted Lapland Longspurs or, as he knew them, Lapland Lark Buntings.

The 1904 disaster didn’t seem to dent the overall numbers of the Lapland longspur. The populations of many species of birds can survive such catastrophes, but other species already struggling could be adversely affected by such events. For example, in February of 2007 a flock of year-old whooping cranes was exterminated by severe storms that overwhelmed them in a shelter at the Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge in Florida. A total of 18 young whooping cranes, part of a flock trained to follow an ultralight aircraft from their birthplace in Wisconsin to the refuge in Florida salt marshes, were killed during the storm. The loss of that many young birds also robs the endangered species of much needed vitality. As of February 2015, the total whooping crane population stood at 603 individuals, including 161 captive birds.

Weather disasters extract a toll on both humans and birds. Sometimes they may affect hundreds of thousands of individuals, although the consequences are often confined to smaller segments of a population.

In early May of 2013, dozens of common loons migrating through Wisconsin encountered an unseasonable ice storm. Many of the birds found ice forming on their feathers, weighting them down and causing emergency landings. Wildlife rehabilitation workers rescued more than 50 birds, but there were probably many other loons affected by the freak storm that were lost without a trace.

Common_Loon_on_Water

Photo by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service • Common loons are quite at home in the air and on the water, but these birds are awkward if weather forces them to set down on land.

Loons crashing onto land or even small ponds are doomed. Agile and graceful in water because of strong legs and webbed feet, loons are almost incapable of movement on land. Landing on a small body of water is not much better since loons must run along a stretch of waters — sometimes for hundreds of yards — in order to get their relatively heavy bodies aloft.

Loons are not the only birds that sometimes face forced landings. In March of this year, a winter storm raged through most of the Northeastern United States. The wakes of these storms resulted in wildlife agencies in the region being flooded with reports of dead or injured American woodcocks in the region. Most of the reports were concentrated in and around New York City. Not only did the storm interrupt the migration flight of the woodcocks, but cold temperatures caused the ground to freeze, preventing the stranded birds from finding food.

The woodcock is an unusual shorebird, also known by such whimsical names as “bog sucker” and “timberdoodle,” that has completely abandoned the shore in favor of woodlands and fields. The American woodcock is not a rare bird, but the species is rarely seen due to its retiring habits and inaccessible habitats.

Closer to home, an unusual February event back in 2014 resulted in equally unusual numbers of red-necked grebes on area lakes, rivers, and ponds. This grebe, a rare visitor to the region, was apparently forced by weather conditions to make a stopover on bodies of water in the region. Reports of red-necked grebes persisted for about a week before they eventually departed to continue their flight to more favored locations.

Back in 2011, it wasn’t a winter storm that killed thousands of birds in Arkansas. The birds — red-winged blackbirds, European starlings, brown-headed cowbirds, and common grackles — shared a communal roost near the town of Beebe.

On New Year’s Eve, just as 2011 was dawning, about 5,000 of these birds died after crashing into trees, buildings and automobiles, according to a National Geographic News article by Charles Q. Choi. Apparently these birds were frightened into flight by the explosive booms from a professional fireworks display celebrating the arrival of a New Year. In the chaos after thousands of birds not suited for nocturnal flight took to the air, they began to impact various stationary objects and crash back to the ground.

Summer-Pelicans

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Brown pelicans fly in a line over the Atlantic Ocean on the South Carolina coast.

Incidentally, in the same article, mention was made of a 2010 incident when hundreds of pelicans washed up on the border between Washington and Oregon. The article blamed a cold front that caused ice to form on the feathers of the bodies and wings of the pelicans.

Birds, much like their human admirers, live in a world greatly affected by the vagaries of weather. All things considered, birds manage to ride out most of what Mother Nature throws their way. It’s one of their many admirable qualities.

Winter wren one of the season’s low-profile visitors

WinterWren

Photo by Jean Potter
What the winter wren lacks in size, it makes up for with its voice. A boisterous and exuberant singer during the spring nesting season,  winter wrens are also quick to scold intruders into their winter territories.

 

Of late, every time I step outside my front door I’ve incurred the ire of a winter wren that’s taken up residency in my yard. This wren is a tiny bird among a family of birds known for small size, but it makes its presence known in unmistakable terms.

For starters, the winter wren is a noisy bird. The one living at my home arrived in late November and immediately claimed a niche to call its own. Any intrusion is met with a scolding chatter as the wren scurries low to the ground to drop out of view. In fact, the winter wren’s a very terrestrial bird. Observers are just as likely to see one of these wrens run across the ground as they are to see it take flight. I’m hopeful he will remain as winter’s grip tightens for the next couple of months.

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

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

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

For the most part, wrens are birds of the New World. In fact, only the Eurasian wren represents the family in Europe, Asia and Africa. Experts recently split the winter wren into several different species, including the Pacific wren of the west coast of North America and the Eurasian wren of Europe, Asia and Africa.WinterWren_edited-1

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

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

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

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The Lee and Lois Herndon Chapter of Tennessee Ornithological Society produces an annual calendar featuring some exceptional bird photography from its members. This year’s calendar features full-color photographs of some colorful and engaging birds. The club sells the calendars for $15 each. All proceeds are used to support birding opportunities and bird-related causes. 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.HerndonCalendar2018(Cover)

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, as well as a few more exotic birds. The front cover features a dazzling photograph of a red-headed woodpecker. The photo was taken by Debi Campbell, a resident of Bluff City, Tennessee, and current president of the Herndon chapter. If you’re interested in obtaining a calendar, contact ahoodedwarbler@aol.com by email. Calendars will also be available for purchase by cash or check only at the offices of the Bristol Herald Courier located at 320 Bob Morrison Blvd. in Bristol, Virginia.

If you’re interested in obtaining a calendar, contact ahoodedwarbler@aol.com by email. Calendars will also be available for purchase by cash or check only at the offices of the Bristol Herald Courier located at 320 Bob Morrison Blvd. in Bristol, Virginia.

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Bryan Stevens lives near Roan Mountain, Tennessee. If you have a question, wish to make a comment or share a sighting, email ahoodedwarbler@aol.com.