Category Archives: Tennessee

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.

Father of the Bird: Fatherhood runs the gamut among world’s birds

Photo by picman2/Pixabay.com • A male satin bowerbird has collected blue objects to decorate his “bower,” which provides a stage for performing elaborate mating displays designed to attract interested female bowerbirds.

As we honor fathers today with a special day in their honor, I thought it might be a good time to look to the bird world for some examples of what fatherhood means among our fine feathered friends.

Among many of the raptors, which includes hawks, falcons and eagles, females are significantly larger than males. Unsurprisingly, much of the job of protecting the nest and young falls to the larger and stronger females. Male raptors, for the most part, are good parents and hunt prey and deliver food to the nest. Sometimes, though, there can be trouble in paradise. For example, researchers are giving a new look at the dynamics between mated bald eagles. The prevailing theory once supposed that bald eagles mate for life.

In an article published Nov. 9, 2012, on the website of William and Mary College, researchers announced that they have begun to notice that eagles on occasion undertake the avian equivalent of “divorce.”

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Although bald eagles were long thought to mate for life, the national bird is not quite as devoted to its mate as originally believed.

Bryan Watts, the director of the Center for Conservation Biology, was interviewed for the article. Watts noted that both males and female eagles will cheat. Getting away with cheating, however, favors the female. Watts explained that the male may be absent fishing when another male eagle visits the nest site and proceeds to mate with the female. Consequently, the unsuspecting mate returns and could end up raising eaglets that were fathered by the intruder instead of himself.

There are some male birds who are more steadfast once they mate. For instance, swans, cranes and albatrosses are known for sticking with a chosen mate over a lifetime. Two endangered species — the California condor and the whooping crane — are known to mate for life. Cranes typically choose a mate when they reach the age of two or three; condors, on the other hand, usually don’t mate until they are at least six to eight years old. Of course, both these birds live long lives. Whooping cranes may live to the age of 25 while condors can live for as long as six decades.

Photo by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service • Endangered California condors typically do mate for life.

According to the Audubon website, we can look to a family of shorebirds for some examples that go against usual gender norms. Phalaropes reverse the usual sex roles in birds, with the females being larger and more colorful than males, In addition, females take the lead in courtship, while males are left to incubate the eggs and care for the young once the business of mating is done. Three species of phalaropes inhabit North America: Wilson’s phalarope, red-necked phalarope and red phalarope.

Many male birds lend a hand in building nests or raising young. There are some examples of “deadbeat dads,” however, with one of the most glaring being the beloved ruby-throated hummingbird. A male hummingbird is unlikely to ever lay eyes on his offspring. Once mating has been concluded, the female is left to build a nest on her own. She also incubates the eggs without any help from her mate, who has probably already skipped out and started to court other female hummingbirds in the vicinity. Once the two eggs hatch, the female hummingbird is solely responsible for feeding the hungry offspring. It’s the primary reason hummingbirds always lay two eggs. With her high metabolism, a female hummingbird would be hard pressed to feed herself and any more than two young.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Male hummingbirds do little to help females construct a nest and care for young.

Some male birds, like their human counterparts, approach romance by initiating courtship by bringing some shiny bling to the relationship. Bowerbirds, which are found mainly in New Guinea and Australia, are renowned for their unique courtship behavior. A male bowerbird will build a structure — the bower — and decorate it with sticks, flowers, shells or other brightly colored objects in an attempt to attract a mate. Alas, once he has won a mate with these “bribes,” he’s no better than male hummingbirds. The females are left to build the nest and raise the young without any assistance from the males.

Satin bowerbird males often decorate with blue, yellow or shiny objects, including berries, flowers or even plastic items such as ink pens, drinking straws and clothes pegs. As the males mature they use more blue objects than other colors. The decorated bower becomes a stage from which males carry out intense behavioral displays called dances to attract their mates.

The world’s largest flightless birds – ostriches, emus, rhea, cassowaries and a few others – would make good “father of the year” candidates. For instance, male ostriches share incubation duties with females. Once the eggs hatch, male ostriches are active in leading young to suitable foraging habitat and protecting them from predators. Some male ostriches can stand nine feet tall and weigh 320 pounds, so dad is an imposing obstacle for many predators. In the event of an attack, the male will try to draw off the predator while the chicks run for cover with their mother.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com The male common ostrich, the world’s largest bird, is a dedicated father to his young, offering protection from a dangerous world.

Fatherhood often means a dedicated effort on the part of some birds, while other basically make their genetic contribution to ensuring the survival of the species and are done with the concept. There’s a surprising variety to behold once one starts looking at the different avian approaches to fatherhood.

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Photo by Chris Brenner on Pexels.com • Male birds, such as the Indian Peafowl, use various displays to attract mates. After mating is completed, male birds vary in the degree of assistance they offer with the task of raising a brood of hungry young.

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.

Birds serve as muses to inspire poets to greater heights

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Photo by makamuki0/Pixabay.com • The turtledove has featured prominently in poems and other literature, including the holiday song “The 12 Days of Christmas.”

With May’s arrival, other migrating birds have made stops in my yard, providing some excitement to the daily routine. It’s easy to wax poetic about the birds around us. Indeed, poets have been incorporating birds into some of their best-known work for centuries.

The Bard himself penned a poem titled “The Phoenix and the Turtle.” While the phoenix is a mythical bird and not one actually found in nature, the “turtle” in the poem’s title refers to the well-known European turtledove. Even before Shakespeare glorified the turtledove in his poetry, this small dove had already been entangled with myth and legend stretching back to Ancient Greece and Rome. For instance, the turtledove was considered by the Greeks as sacred to Demeter, the goddess of the harvest. Romans adopted the turtledove as an emblem of their goddess Fides, who reigned over the attributes of trust and faith. Perhaps, even more famously, the turtledove is still known today in the lyrics of the enduring Christmas carol, “The 12 Days of Christmas,” as the gift given on the second day of Christmas.

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Photo by skylarvision/Pixabay.com • The phoenix was a legendary bird that, if destroyed, arose from its own ashes to live again.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge gave us his gloomy “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” in 1798. The longest of his poems, it tells of a sailor who brings ill fortune upon himself by shooting an albatross, which is a family of sea-going birds consisting of about two dozen species. The poem also inspired the phrase “having an albatross around one’s neck” as a metaphor for bad luck.

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The poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge popularized the phrase “albatross around one’s neck” to suggest a period of ill fortune in his poem “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.”

Albatrosses are large birds with wingspans larger than most other birds, making them capable of spending almost their entire lives at sea except for the times they come ashore for the purpose of nesting. The entire family has been besieged by a variety of problems, many of which are caused by humans. Three albatross species are critically endangered, five species are endangered, seven species are near threatened and seven species are considered vulnerable.

One of America’s most famous poets often looked to the natural world, especially its feathered inhabitants, for inspiration for some of her most famous poetry. “Hope is the Thing with Feathers” by Emily Dickinson is arguably one of the finest metaphors in American poetry, with the abstract concept of hope being equated with a bird Dickinson likely observed in her gardens in Amherst, Massachusetts.

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The poet Emily Dickinson’s perceptive observations of the natural world show in her poetry.

I’ve always enjoyed Dickinson’s “A Bird Came Down the Walk,” which transforms an ordinary encounter between a bird and a woman tossing it a crumb into an inspiring message of perseverance. One cannot help but feel that Dickinson, a famously reclusive woman, also envied the bird its power of flight and the freedom its wings gave it.

A near contemporary of Dickinson, and one famous for his moody, rhythmical works, Edgar Allan Poe published his masterpiece “The Raven” in 1845. While the poem won him many fans, he received a paltry $9 from the magazine “The American Review” for the work. Perhaps because of the insulting matter of compensation, Poe first allowed the work to be published under a pseudonym. “The New York Evening Mirror” became the first outlet to publish the poem with Poe’s name attached to it.

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Edgar Allan Poe

The young poet Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote a classic poem titled “To a Skylark” in 1820. Shelley, one of the English Romantic poets, has been overshadowed in some ways by his wife, the novelist Mary Shelley, who provided the world with the enduring novel Frankenstein. Shelley apparently wrote his poem after he and his wife encountered one of these birds during a stroll in the countryside during a trip to Italy.

As is the case with good literature, Shelley’s poem inspired other authors. Reportedly, the English playwright Noël Coward and the American novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald received inspiration from lines in the poem to create titles for their respective works, “Blithe Spirit” and “Tender is the Night.” American playwright Tennessee Williams titled his first play “Not About Nightingales,” apparently as a reaction to Shelley’s ode.

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Although his wife arguably achieved more fame with her novel, Frankenstein, Percy Bysshe Shelley won immortality with his memorable poems in the spirit of English Romanticism.

The Eurasian skylark is a widespread species found across Europe and Asia. This bird has also been introduced in various locations around the world. In North America, introduced populations of skylarks are found on southern Vancouver Island in British Columbia and San Juan Island in the state of Washington.

The only native lark in North America is the horned lark, also known by its scientific name of Alauda alpestris, which translated means “lark of the mountains.” The horned lark is a common, widespread bird of open country, such as prairies, deserts, and agricultural lands. Although horned larks also sing in flight like their relative, only the Eurasian skylark seems to be famous enough for its song to inspire poets to write tributes. The Eastern meadowlark, a fairly common bird in the region, is not an actual lark but a member of the blackbird family.

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Photo by Kathy2408/Pixabay.com • A Eurasian skylark perches on a wire. This bird once inspired the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley to write his famous poem “To a Skylark.”

 

Based on the opening lines to Shelley’s poem, it can be safely argued that Shelley was particularly impressed by the skylark’s song.

“Hail to thee, blithe spirit!
Bird thou never wert,
That from heaven, or near it,
Pourest thy full heart
In profuse strains of unpremeditated art.”

Birds are continually inspiring us, much like a singing skylark once served as an avian muse for one of Shelley’s most famous poems. Whether it is their song, their beauty, or their free spirits, birds are certainly worthy of a poem or two.

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“Hope” is the thing with feathers – That perches in the soul – And sings the tune without the words – And never stops – at all – And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard – And sore must be the storm – That could abash the little Bird That kept so many warm – I’ve heard it in the chillest land – And on the strangest Sea – Yet – never – in Extremity, It asked a crumb – of me.                                   — by Emily Dickinson

 

 

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.

 

April brings flurry of spring migrants to region

Louisiana Waterthrush

Photo by Adobe Stock • Subtle plumage differences, as well as habitat, behavior and seasonal presence, are factors in distinguishing the Louisiana waterthrush, pictured, from the closely related Northern waterthrush. The Louisiana waterthrush nests along fast-moving streams in the area while the Northern waterthrush does not breed in the region.

I’m always happy for the arrival of April because I know the month hails the arrival of some of my favorite birds. The roughly 50 species of New World warblers that occur in the Eastern United States have captivated me from the time I first picked up a pair of binoculars. The warblers offer color, energy, complex songs and much more for the bird enthusiast to enjoy.

The month started out with my first sighting of a purple finch for the year. The finch must have been a harbinger of birds to come because in quick succession I observed many early migrants, including brown thrasher, blue-headed vireo, blue-gray gnatcatcher and chipping sparrow, as well as several warblers.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • A study of the facial pattern of a female purple finch helps contrast her from similar female house finches. Again, the notched tail is also a good indication of the bird’s identity.

The first warbler to arrive in the woods around my home this year was a singing male black-throated green warbler. Three others — black-and-white warbler, yellow-throated warbler and Louisiana waterthrush — followed quickly after my sighting of the black-throated green warbler.

The Louisiana waterthrush stood out among these early observations. This warbler is a specialist of creeks and streams, and my sighting took place near a roaring creek swollen by a rainy spring. This water-loving warbler also has a loud, ringing song that can still be hard to hear because of the fact the bird is usually near the background noise of rushing water.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • A black-and-white warbler creeps over the bark of a pine in search of insect prey.

 

While many warblers have shown signs of decline in recent years, the Louisiana waterthrush appears to have bucked that trend. According to the website, “All About Birds,” Louisiana waterthrush populations were stable between 1966 and 2015, based on statistics from the North American Breeding Bird Survey. Partners in Flight, a network of organizations engaged in all aspects of avian conservation, estimates a global breeding population of 360,000, with almost all of those individuals spending at least part of the year in the United States. About a quarter of the population retreats into Mexico during the winter season. The rest winter in Florida and some of the Gulf Coast states, as well as the islands of the Caribbean.

While most songbirds are fortunate to survive two or three years in the wild, at least one Louisiana waterthrush lived to the age of at least 11 years and 11 months. The bird, a male, was seen in New Jersey in the wild and identified by a band on one of his legs. He had been banded in the same state, according to the website, “All About Birds.”

The waterthrushes are the only two species in the genus Parkesia, so named to honor American ornithologist Kenneth C. Parkes, who was for many years curator of birds at Carnegie Museum of Natural History. The common name of the Louisiana waterthrush is not a very apt one, as this bird does not have any special affinity for the state of Louisiana. Someone collected some of the early specimens of the Louisiana waterthrush in its namesake location, and the name has stuck through the years.

The only other warbler in the genus Parkesia is the Northern waterthrush which, unlike its relative, likes to live near quiet, sedate pools, ponds and bogs, not rushing streams.

Hummingbirds getting closer to region

Tommy and Virginia Curtis of Smithville, Tennessee, reported their first ruby-throated hummingbirds of the spring on the email group, “TN-Birds.” The hummingbird arrived on April 7.

“We had two male ruby-throated hummingbirds arrive late Sunday afternoon,” they wrote in their email. “That is a little later than the April 1 arrival times in the past.”

The two visitors had apparently agreed to co-exist.

“So far they are eating peacefully, and neither is attacking or dominating the one feeder,” the couple reported. “We keep wondering when the white-throated sparrows and dark-eyed juncos plan to leave, as we have had many of them all winter.”

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

The couple also shared that they have been hosting a small flock of purple finches. “They normally don’t show up at our feeders unless there is snow on the ground, but we have enjoyed seeing them daily,” they wrote in their email.

Of course, the Curtises live in DeKalb County in Middle Tennessee. As of press time, I still haven’t received any reports of hummingbirds arriving in East Tennessee or Southwest Virginia. I’m confident these tiny winged gems will arrive soon. I hope to update on hummingbird arrivals in next week’s column.

Remember to share your hummingbird sighting by emailing me the date and time of the sighting to ahoodedwarbler@aol.com. I’m also on Facebook should anyone want to contact me through that social media platform.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • A male ruby-throated hummingbird perches near a feeder that he is ready to defend from all comers.

 

Overwintering birds make their return to some familiar area haunts

Mergansers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

•••••

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