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Although birds made headlines in ’21, stories for some species come to an end

Photo by Bob Peyton/USFWS • At 70, Wisdom, a female Laysan albatross and the world’s oldest known breeding bird in the wild, became a mother once again in 2021. In this photo from a previous nesting in 2018, when she was then 67 years old, Wisdom cares for a chick in her nest on Midway Atoll.

Our feathered friends made the headlines in 2021. For a few, the final curtain dropped. For others, their stories offer a ray of hope in some occasionally bleak times.

Feathered time capsule

Testing conducted by scientists identified the bird as a female horned lark, a species that can be found in a few locations in Northeast Tennessee, mostly during winter and early spring. I find it amazing that this bird lived during the same era as now extinct Ice Age beasts, including mastodons, mammoths and woolly rhinos. The horned lark is a small songbird. Males have black masks and a yellowish wash on the head and throat. Males also have the namesake “horns” that are actually dark feather tufts atop the sides of the head giving them the look of a small feathered comical devil. The bird is known as “horned lark” in North America and “shore lark” in Europe.

A mother again

Motherhood suits a Laysan albatross known as Wisdom. She hatched her most recent chick in February of 2021. Why is that worthy of a headline? Well, Wisdom is at least 70 years old, making her the world’s oldest known bird. She was first documented when she was banded in 1956 on Midway Atoll in the Pacific. Since that time, she has weathered storms, earthquakes and tsunamis. In her lifetime to date, Wisdom has flown millions of miles in search of food at sea. She still returns faithfully to Midway Atoll, which is home to the world’s largest colony of albatrosses, when it’s time to nest. Biologists estimate that Wisdom has hatched at least 30 to 36 chicks in her lifetime, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Bell tolls for the ‘Lord God Bird’

The ivory-billed woodpecker was officially declared extinct in 2021. More accurately, the species was proposed for removal from the Endangered Species Act. This decision came 17 years after the largest of North America’s woodpeckers was “rediscovered” in 2004 in the Big Woods region of Arkansas. Despite a resurgence of interest in a bird also known dramatically as the “Lord God Bird,” the scientific community, no further evidence surfaced to support the belief in some quarters that ivory-billed woodpeckers still exist. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service made the extinction declaration in a press release issued on Sept. 29, 2021. The release also identified other birds as candidates for a declaration of extinction, including Bachman’s warbler. Like the woodpecker, the warbler’s last stronghold was in Southern swamps. Several species of native Hawaiian birds have also likely passed into oblivion. Other candidates for de-listing from the Endangered Species Act included several species of fish and mussels. The press release acknowledges that while protections were provided too late for the 23 species mentioned within its pages, the ESA has been successful at preventing the extinction of more than 99% of species listed. In total, 54 species have been delisted from the ESA due to recovery, and another 56 species have been downlisted from endangered to threatened. The Service’s current work plan includes planned actions that encompass 60 species for potential downlisting or delisting due to successful recovery efforts. It’s still cold comfort to fans of North America’s largest woodpecker and the mysterious Bachman’s warbler.

Silver Linings

If you’re looking for evidence that the COVID-19 lockdowns came with a silver lining, turn your gaze to our fine feathered friends. There’s growing evidence that some birds thrived during strict lockdown periods because they experienced less pressure to cope with human disturbances. Scientists also agree, however, that these benefits will likely prove fleeting for birds as the pace of human activity returns to normal levels.

The babbler babbles again

A living black-browed babbler was captured in 2020 by a pair of researchers. They found the bird on the island of Borneo. Before releasing the bird, they documented their find with photographs. In February of 2021, they published their findings in the journal, BirdingASIA. The rediscovery of the black-browed babbler is significant because the only other time the bird had ever been documented was between 1843 and 1848 when the naturalist Carl Schwaner captured one on the island of Java. After that one “blip” on the radar screens of naturalists and ornithologists, Schwaner’s specimen was put into storage and not much attention paid to the species in the intervening 170 years.

Photographic evidence

A tiny songbird known as the Urich’s tyrannulet has been documented with photos and audio recordings by a research team during an expedition to Venezuela. According to a press release from American Bird Conservancy, the tyrannulet (a species of flycatcher) was first described by science in 1899. Second and third sightings of the bird occurred in the 1940s and in 2005, respectively.

Mystery outbreak fades away

An outbreak of disease among birds across the United States surged in spring and summer of 2021 before gradually fading away by fall. A joint statement of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine on Sept. 17, 2021, all states affected by the mysterious bird illness earlier in the year had lifted their do-not-feed recommendation. No cause has yet been determined, but cases are no longer being reported. Symptoms of the illness included crusty eyes, tremors and paralysis among songbirds. The species most frequently affected were fledgling (juvenile) blue jays, common grackles, European starlings and American robins, along with a few other species. While the cause of the outbreak is still unidentified, several possibilities — West Nile, salmonella, avian influenza, house finch eye disease and trichomonas parasites — have been ruled out as possible causes.

 

Take a second glance at the tufted titmouse: you’ll be glad you did

Photo by Anne773/Pixabay • A tufted titmouse visits a feeder.

Don’t dismiss our feathered friends as “bird brains.” They’re smart. They demonstrate that fact in various ways.

For an impish cousin of the chickadee, that intelligence shines through when they visit my feeders. I’m referring to the tufted titmouse, a curious sprite with some mischievous tendencies.

When I go outdoors to fill the feeders with another helping of black oil sunflower, the titmice appear seemingly out of the woodwork or, in their case, out of the woods. Small flocks of titmice show up and perch in the branches of nearby tree and watch me at my task.

There’s also a fascinating and ingrained hierarchy regarding which titmouse gets to approach the feeder first. I’m not aware of how they come to their mutually understood ranking, but when one of their number transgresses, the offense can set off a round of bitter scolding. I’ve also seen two titmice accidentally arrive at a feeder at the same time. When that happens, one of the birds will usually flinch and depart. After the higher-ranking individual grabs a seed and leaves, the other bird can return.

It’s all neat and orderly. In the long run, this structure probably prevents needless waste of energy on birds coming into conflict. Winter’s a lean time. Although the birds can count on my supplemental source of food, they continue to act as if there are no guarantees.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • The tufted titmouse is a backyard bird with an impish personality.

Although they’re most prevalent in the winter, titmice are present throughout the year. Like chickadees and bluebirds, they are cavity-nesting birds and will gladly take up nesting duties inside a bird box.

They are one of the first and most enthusiastic birds to greet the spring with joyous song each year. The tufted titmouse’s song — a persistent repetition of “Peter! Peter! Peter!” — rings through the woodlands around my home along with the urgent “fee-be fee-bo” of the Carolina chickadee. These birds form mixed flocks with each other and other species to explore their surroundings and search for food.

In addition to singing, titmice are enthusiastic scolders. They will scold over any transgression, real or imagined, focusing their ire on their fellow titmice or other birds, potential predators and even human observers. They’re quite persistent at their raucous scolding, which is just another reason I label them as imps of the woods.

In appearance, the tufted titmouse is a drab bird that could easily slip beneath the radar. The bird’s appearance does, however, offer a few distinctive qualities. Although mostly a gray bird, the titmouse sports a distinctive crest and a rusty-pinkish coloration along the flanks. Titmouse eyes are black as coal and look large in proportion to their heads, which lends them an expressive appearance as they explore in yards and gardens.

The term “titmouse” refers to the old English word “tit” meaning “small,” as well as the old English “mase,” also a reference to small size. Probably because of the bird’s small size and gray coloration, “mase” evolved into “mouse” and combined to form the word “titmouse.”

The titmice living in my yard visit my house windows at times, which drives my cats to distraction. I’ve wondered if the titmice are curious and trying to peek inside the house, but I believe I have a more down-to-earth explanation. These little birds are very thorough when foraging for food, and I’ve watched them pluck spiders and other insects from the window frames.

Like chickadees, titmice are fond of sunflower seeds. No other offering will so readily lure them to feeders, although they do develop a fondness for suet cakes. I’ve also had success attracting titmice to my feeders by offering unsalted, shelled peanuts. I sometimes break up the peanuts into smaller, more manageable pieces for the benefit of the titmice. These foods and a few trees or saplings around your home is all you really need to welcome titmice.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A young titmouse visits a suet feeder.

In the early 1900s, the tufted titmouse would have been considered a southern bird with its stronghold in states like Tennessee, Virginia, the Carolinas and Georgia. Perhaps it was the titmouse’s innate curiosity that pushed the species to expand successfully beyond the southern United States. The titmouse has steadily expanded its range northward, thriving in new locations. Some experts credit this expansion to more readily available access to supplemental food at feeders.

During the nesting season, titmice forage for a variety of insects. Many spiders, beetles, caterpillars and other small bugs will be fed to hungry young titmice in a tree cavity or a nesting box. Like chickadees, titmice build exquisite nests, often using mostly moss with other materials, such as bark, cloth scraps, dry leaves and shed snakeskins. These small birds line their nests with hair or fur of other animals.

Over the years, many readers have shared observations documenting the fur-collecting skills of tufted titmice. The birds are not content to simply collect shed fur. They seem to prefer collecting the fur fresh from a living animal. Many dogs fall victim to impish titmice that boldly pluck strands of fur from the canine’s coat.

In another funny story, a woman once told me about a titmouse that flew onto her head every time she stepped outside her home. Perhaps the bird sensed her affection for birds since it never failed to pluck strands of hair from her head to carry back to its nest. For any would-be skeptics, the woman provided photographic documentation of the incidents. In addition to dogs and humans, animals ranging from squirrels and opossums to mice and woodchucks have also been observed “sacrificing” fur for the nesting success of tufted titmice.

The female tufted titmouse incubates the eggs. She lays between three and nine eggs, although a usual clutch size is five to six eggs. The female titmouse is protective of her nest and is known for a behavior known as a “snake display.” I’ve observed titmice perform this display when I’ve peeked into nesting boxes. She remains tightly seated on her eggs, or young, while she hisses loudly and strikes in a manner very much like a striking serpent. Not all titmice engage in this display. Some remain still and try to “blend” with the nest, while others will fly away if a nest box is opened. Regardless, it’s a convincing display of bravado on the part of such a small bird. If it looks scary to people, I am sure it could succeed at repelling a squirrel or mouse. I’m uncertain if the behavior would deter an actual snake.

Other titmice in North America include bridled titmouse in Arizona and New Mexico; oak titmouse of the Pacific Coast region; juniper titmouse from the Great Basin, which consists of Wyoming, Idaho, Utah, Nevada, Oregon and California; and the black-crested titmouse, which ranges from Missouri into east-central Mexico.

Titmice occur exclusively in North America and belong to the genus Baeolophus. Europe, Asia and Africa are home to some other crested birds in the family of chickadees and titmice. For instance, the European crested tit and the grey crested tit are species that sport a crest of feathers like titmice but are more closely related to chickadees.

The tufted titmouse, for the reasons I’ve mentioned and more, is one of nature’s imps, but it’s also an entertaining neighbor. Get to know these visitors by offering sunflower seeds or other fare and, if you want to go the extra step, place some bird boxes around your yard as potential nesting sites. By next winter, you may have an entire flock of these feathered imps as your guests.

•••••

Need a last-minute Christmas gift? The Elizabethton Bird Club is selling its 2022 bird calendar again this holiday season.

The front cover features a stunning photo of a chestnut-sided warbler. The inside pages of the professionally produced calendar feature dozens more full-color photographs and an informative and educational grid.

These calendars sell for $15 plus $2 for shipping. All sales help the club fund birding programs, public park feeders, conservation efforts and other activities in upper Northeast Tennessee.

For more information on how to obtain a calendar, email me at ahoodedwarbler@aol.com or stop by the office of The Erwin Record at 218 Gay St., Erwin.

Tiny kinglets brighten  the bleakest of seasons

Photo from Pixabay.com • Only the male ruby-crowned kinglet shows the red crown patch. In almost every other way, females are identical in appearance.

On one of our recent frosty mornings, the chickadees, the wrens, the titmice and other small birds were chattering and chirping in tree branches around my feeders. As I paused a moment to watch their antics, I noticed a tiny grayish bird that flashed a patch of ruby red feathers as it flitted among the branches.

The visitor turned out to be a ruby-crowned kinglet, one of North America’s smallest bird. This tiny bird is typically about four inches long and doesn’t even weigh half an ounce. How is it that one of the smallest North American birds chooses to spend the harsh cold months of winter in our yards and gardens?

Chickadees, titmice and other familiar winter birds eke out an existence by supplementing some their diet with fare from bird feeders. Although kinglets often associate with roaming mixed species flocks, they’re rarely interested in the offerings at our feeders. The kinglets are dedicated to gleaning tiny insects and spiders, as well as insects eggs and larvae, from branches and plantings in our yards. They’re so successful at it that they don’t need to turn to even a well-stocked feeder. A kinglet will on occasion sample an offering of suet or peanut butter, but this bird doesn’t make a habit of visiting feeders.

Since mid-October, I’ve been seeing a few golden-crowned kinglets, as well as the closely related ruby-crowned kinglet, at my home. Both the golden-crowned and ruby-crowned kinglets are members of a family of diminutive birds known collectively as kinglets and firecrests. They’re such tiny, energetic bundles of feathers that they absolutely excel with the “cuteness” factor.

All kinglets are very small birds, as well as extremely active ones. The ruby-crowned and golden-crowned are also the only members of this family of birds found in North America. Four other species, however, are native to Europe, Asia and North Africa. The remaining species include goldcrest, common firecrest, Madeira firecrest and flamecrest, which is also known as the Taiwan firecrest.

Photo Courtesy of Beth McPherson • A golden-crowned kinglet survived an impact with a window pane.

Kinglets, as their name suggests, are such tiny birds that about the only North American birds smaller than kinglets are some of the hummingbirds. The kinglets belong to the family, Regulidae, and the genus, Regulus. The family and genus names are derived from a Latin word, regulus, which means “rex,”or “king” The name was apparently inspired by the colorful crown patches, often red, orange or gold, that resemble the royal “crowns” of kings.

Although similar in size and overall coloration, the ruby-crowned and golden-crowned kinglets are easily distinguished from each other. Side by side, the two species of North American kinglets are easy to identify. The golden-crowned kinglet has a striped facial pattern formed by bold black and white stripes. The ruby-crowned kinglet, on the other hand, has a bold white eye ring but no striping. The golden-crowned kinglet has an orange crown patch, while the ruby-crowned kinglet has a red crown patch that is, more often than not, kept concealed. Both sexes of the golden-crowned kinglet possess a yellow crown patch, but only the male ruby-crowned kinglet boasts a scarlet patch of feather atop the head.

Kinglets are active birds, foraging vigorously for small insects, and spiders. When foraging, both kinglet species have a habit of flicking their wings over the backs. Even if you can’t get a good look at the birds, this behavior helps contrast them from other small birds, including some warblers, wrens and the blue-gray gnatcatcher. They’re often curious birds and can be coaxed into a closer approach if a human observer make squeaking noises to attract their attention.

Golden-crowned kinglets are widespread in the region during the winter. During the summer months, head to the slopes of some of the region’s higher mountains to look for these tiny birds that nest at the higher elevations of the Southern Appalachians. Ruby-crowned kinglets can also be found in the region during the winter, but extreme cold weather will often force this less cold-hardy species to eke out the winter months farther south.

On a January visit to Hilton Head Island, South Carolina, about 20 years ago, I chanced into what must have been a winter invasion of the Low Country by ruby-crowned kinglets. These tiny birds were extremely abundant at every location I visited.

In summer, ruby-crowned kinglets are absent from the region due to their preference for nesting much farther north in spruce-fir forests in the northwestern United States and across Canada.

Kinglets are surprisingly tame at times and often exhibit as much curiosity about us as we display toward them. They’re very active birds, however, constantly moving from perch to perch. These bursts of hyperactivity can make them difficult to observe since they so rarely remain still. Although small in size, these birds more than compensate for it with a feisty spirit that does them well through the harsher weather of the winter months.

•••••

Looking for a beautiful Christmas gift for the bird enthusiast on your shopping list? Members of the Elizabethton Bird Club are selling a professionally-produced calendar that features dozens of full-color photographs and an informative and educational grid. These calendars sell for $15 plus $2 for shipping. All sales help the club fund birding programs, public park feeders, conservation efforts and other activities in upper Northeast Tennessee.

For more information on how to obtain a calendar, email me at ahoodedwarbler@aol.com.

Wild turkey’s rebound is amazing wildlife success story

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A male gobbler seeks the attention of hens, as all these Wild Turkeys add to the number of this species found during the count.

Celebrated in William Bradford’s written account of the First Thanksgiving in 1621, the wild turkey had all but vanished from Massachusetts and the rest of New England a mere two centuries later. By the time of Henry David Thoreau, who is arguably America’s first environmentalist, the noted author lamented in 1856 that the turkey and other wildlife were difficult to find in his native Massachusetts.

In a journal entry from the spring of 1856, Thoreau decried the part the descendants of those Pilgrims who celebrated the first Thanksgiving more than 200 years earlier had played in the decimation.

“When I consider that the nobler animals have been exterminated here — the cougar, the panther, lynx, wolverine, wolf, bear, moose, dear, the beaver, the turkey and so forth and so forth, I cannot but feel as if I lived in a tamed and, as it were, emasculated country,” Thoreau wrote in his journal. “Is it not a maimed and imperfect nature I am conversing with?”

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Wild turkeys cross a snow-covered field.

Perhaps, but Thoreau would probably be encouraged that many of the animals he mentioned in his journal have now recovered and once again roam throughout New England. The wild turkey has been in the vanguard of that resurgence. In fact, the revival of the wild turkey’s fortunes in New England has had unintended consequences. In short, this venerable fowl has run amok in some parts of its former stronghold.

An article by Brianna Abbott for the Audubon Society’s website estimates that before Europeans first colonized New England in the 1600s, as many as 10 million wild turkeys roamed from Maine to Florida to the Rocky Mountains of the American West.

Today, wild turkeys are back with a vengeance. Turkeys may have grievances, it turns out, for the persecution they suffered at the hands of Americans for the past few centuries. Touted as a major restoration success story, the wild turkey began to be reintroduced to New England about half a century ago.

Now that they’re back, turkeys are part of a dramatically changed landscape. Suburbs now stretch in wide swaths of terrain that once supported forests and associated wildlife. Luckily — for the turkey, anyway — it is a very adaptable bird. Turkeys have taken to life in the suburbs with such enthusiasm that they are now a wildlife management issue for the human residents who must share living space with them. Emboldened problem turkeys chase and intimidate women and small children, as well as pets. Whole flocks have gone rogue.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A wild turkey forages for food.

Gone are the turkey’s natural predators — lynxes, cougars and wolves — that had kept America’s premier game bird’s population in balance. As Thoreau pointed out, nature is no longer perfect. More than 170,000 wild turkeys now live in New England and they’re not always at peace with their human neighbors.

Thoreau didn’t have the benefit of environmental science to back him up, but he would probably not be surprised that a “maimed” nature is causing some unexpected problems even as some of the animals he so sorely missed are returning to their former haunts.

The Tennessee Watchable Wildlife Website notes that the wild turkey was once nearly eliminated from the Volunteer State. By the early 1900s, over-hunting eliminated this species from most of its range, including much of Tennessee. Modern wildlife management has reestablished this bird throughout its historic range and into 49 of the 50 United States.

According to the website, the natural habitat for the wild turkey consists of mature woodlands with scattered openings or fields. In such areas, turkeys can forage for food such as acorns and other wild nuts, seeds, fruits, insects, buds, fern fronds and even the occasional salamander.

Some of the nation’s founding fathers were fans of the wild turkey. Benjamin Franklin, who proposed the turkey as the official United States bird, praised the bird’s courage and expressed displeasure when the bald eagle was chosen over the turkey. Franklin wrote to his daughter, referring to the eagle’s “bad moral character,” saying, “I wish the bald eagle had not been chosen as the Representative of our country! The turkey is a much more respectable bird, and withal a true original native of America.”Franklin

No less than George Washington, the nation’s first president, also shared Franklin’s opinion and pointed out the bald eagle’s lifestyle as a carrion eater as a strike against the eagle. Even if not as our national symbol, the wild turkey is still deserving of respect. Besides, would we really want to chow down on our national bird every Thanksgiving?

Wild turkeys roam the woods around my home, and I know of other areas that are dependable locations for observing these birds. While their numbers are increasing, the wild turkey has not yet turned the tables. For the foreseeable future, I suspect Americans will continue to dine on turkey every Thanksgiving, and not the other way around.

Who could blame them, however, if turkeys were to feel perfectly justified in biting back at the American public? We’ve not always been the best stewards for our native wildlife. Call me an optimist. I believe turkeys and people can co-exist. As residents in New England have learned, we just have to be prepared for some give and take.

Photo by Jean Potter • A male wild turkey struts his stuff while fanning his impressive tail feathers.

Barn owl helps kin earn ghostly reputation

Photo by Kevinsphotos by Pixabay • A barn owl flies through the darkness without any difficulty whatsoever. Special adaptations make barn owls a silent, highly efficient predator on rodents, some songbirds, and some reptiles and amphibians.

Halloween is drawing closer, and it’s definitely the one night of the year that we become acutely aware of things that go bump in the night.

While goblins and ghouls can be dismissed as mere apparitions of the imagination, some real-life feathered phantoms do roam the darkness, perhaps even in your own backyard. If so, you are more likely to have heard them than to have seen them.

If you do hear anything unusual Halloween night, chances are the sounds may have been produced by an owl.

Several species of owl reside in Northeast Tennessee, including the Eastern screech-owl, the barred owl, the great horned owl and the barn owl. A fifth owl, the tiny Northern saw-whet owl, can be found at some high-elevation locations, including Unaka Mountain in Unicoi County. A few other owls have made sporadic appearances in the region, including long-eared owl, short-eared owl and even snowy owl.

The barn owl is an owl that has adapted its ways to co-exist with humans. Even its common name refers to the fact that these owls will roost and nest in barns and other structures. They are also known to select natural tree cavities, caves and other human structures, including recesses build into sports stadiums and arenas. My most recent sightings of barn owls took place at a grain silo in Sullivan County a few years ago, a large barn located on Antelope Island State Park in Utah in 2006 and under the eaves of the old theatre on the campus of the Mountain Home Veterans Administration near East Tennessee State University back in 2000. These sporadic sightings are testimony to the overall elusive nature of this owl.

I was surprised to learn during my background research that the barn owl is the most widely distributed species of owl as well as one of the most widespread birds on the planet. This owl is also referred to as common barn owl, to distinguish it from other species in the barn-owl family Tytonidae. Owls in this family comprise one of two main lineages of living owls, the other being the typical owls in the Strigidae family. The barn owl, known by the scientific name, Tyto alba, is found almost worldwide except in polar and desert regions, Asia north of the Alpide belt, most of Indonesia, and the Pacific islands.

The genus name for this owl is Tyto, a variation of the ancient Greek word, “tutō,” which meant “owl.” The barn owl family, Tytonidae, consists of true barn owls, as well as grass owls and masked owls.

All owls are carnivores, but the barn owl specializes on rodents more than many of its kin. However, this owl will also eat other birds and insects.

Because of their pale plumage and nocturnal habits, barn owls have been saddled with such common names as demon owl, death owl, night owl and ghost owl.

Other common names include rat owl, inspired by one of its major prey items, and barnyard owl and church owl, which are two haunts where these owls often roost or perch. I also liked the name scritch owl and hissing owl, which were acquired because of vocalizations from this bird.

Barn owls have several adaptations that allow them to hunt in complete darkness. These owls have excellent hearing, allowing them to pinpoint prey even when the absence of light renders vision useless. The characteristic facial disc of the barn owl helps channel sounds toward the bird’s ears.

Even the feathers of owls have adapted to the need to stalk wary prey without revealing their presence. Specialized feathers permit owls to fly almost silently. Their feathers absorb flight noises and even alter air turbulence to keep the flight smooth and quiet. Most prey never suspect the owl’s approach until it’s far too late.

For the average person the term “owl” is representative of what is actually an extremely diverse family of birds. Worldwide, there are about 220 species of owls varying in size and habits.

Humans have come up with some descriptive names for various owls around the world. A sampling of these names includes fearful owl, pharaoh eagle-owl, collared owlet, pearl-spotted owlet, least pygmy-owl, red-chested owlet, buff-fronted owl, Stygian owl, vermiculated fishing-owl, black-and-white owl, bare-legged owl, maned owl, bearded screech-owl, spectacled owl and golden-masked owl.

Owls, according to Linda Spencer, author of “Knock on Wood: A Serendipitous Selection of Superstitions,” have inspired a mixed bag of superstitions ever since humans stood up. Owls have long been associated with the forces of both good and evil. The “hoot” or call of an owl is believed by people of many cultures to foretell death. There are some interesting ways to counter the ominous hoot of an owl, according to Spencer. Means of warding off the evil owl power include putting irons back in the fire, throwing salt, pepper and vinegar on the fire, tying a knot or taking one’s clothes off, turning them inside out and putting them back on.

According to Laura Martin, author of “The Folklore of Birds,” one of the earliest human drawings depicting owls dates back to the early Paleolithic period. The scene is of a family of snowy owls painted on a cave wall in France.

Owls have also entered the culture as symbols of wisdom and goodness. The wise old owl, Martin writes, dates back to the time of King Arthur. The sorcerer Merlin was always shown with an owl on his shoulder. During the Middle Ages owls became symbols of learning and intelligence. The Greeks didn’t fear owls as did the Romans. In fact, the owl was the sacred mascot of the Greek goddess Athena.

There’s one more owl-related myth I forgot to mention. There is a Chinese belief that owls snatch the souls of unwary people — just something you should know if you are out and about after dark on Halloween night.

Photo by skitter photos/Pixabay • Look for owls on Halloween and every other dark night.

 

Speedy merlin a member of world’s family of falcons 

Photo by Gary Chambers/Pixabay • The merlin is a small but compact falcon, built for speed and equipped with a personality characterized by aggressive traits all out of proportion to its size.

I took part in the annual five-county Fall Bird Count conducted by members and friends of the Elizabethton Bird Club on Saturday, Sept. 25.

In the morning hours, I birded with Chris Soto around Sycamore Shoals State Historic Park and the linear trail that winds along the Watuaga River in Elizabethton. Our efforts were rewarded with looks at plenty of good birds, including a couple of great egrets, several palm warblers, white-eyed vireos, ospreys and common yellowthroats.

Toward noon, we made our way to join other members of our count party —Brookie and Jean Potter — who had covered other areas of Elizabethton with the help of Dave and Connie Irick.

Our break for lunch has been held for many years at the Watauga Lake Overlook. The location gives a convenient place to have an outdoor lunch, weather permitting, while scanning the nearby lake for bird activity.  We did add more birds, including great blue heron and double-crested cormorant, while seated at a picnic table with a good view of the lake.

The true star of the lunchtime show, however, turned out to be a pint-sized falcon known as a merlin. Merlins are built for speed with an overall aerodynamic design enhanced by tapered wings that permit sudden changes of direction and impressive bursts of speed. That inclination for speed was on full display Saturday afternoon during our bird count lunch break. The little merlin would suddenly bank and disappear out of sight only to zip past heading in a new direction moments later. The bird put on a show for the entirety of our lunch break.

In the afternoon, joined by Chris’s husband, Rex, I traveled with Brookie Potter to Holston Mountain. We added some other birds to our list, including dark-eyed junco, red-breasted nuthatch and blue-headed vireo. I’ll compile the results of the fall count in a future column.

Photo by Lapping/Pixabay • The merlin in flight is graceful and swift.

Merlins have a reputation for being pint-sized punks among raptors. The merlin is a member of the falcon family, which also includes birds like the American kestrel and peregrine falcon. I once saw a merlin harassing a turkey vulture, diving on the much larger but less agile bird until the vulture finally veered in another direction. This observation reinforces the merlin’s reputation for aggressively meeting incursions into its territory by other raptors. Reference guides and websites with passages about merlins often accompany the description with such words as “tenacious” and “fierce,” and for good reason.

The merlin has long been associated with the forests of North America and Eurasia, but in recent decades it has proven capable of adapting to life in urban landscapes. In that respect, it’s merely following the example of its cousin, the peregrine falcon. Formerly making its nest on cliffs, peregrine falcons now substitute skyscrapers as nesting sites. A book for children titled “Falcons Nest on Skyscrapers” tells the story of a peregrine falcons successfully nesting on a skyscraper in Baltimore, Maryland.

The keeping of falcons for hunting, originally reserved for kings, queens and other nobility, evolved centuries ago and is known as falconry. The website All About Birds tells how falconers, or people employed to care for the raptors nobles kept in captivity, called the merlin a “lady hawk” because of the tendency of queens and other noblewomen to use these smaller hawks when hunting for birds such as skylarks. The website also identifies Catherine the Great of Russia and Mary, Queen of Scots, as two powerful women who were fond of hunting with merlins.

Although often associated with the nobility of Europe, falconry can be traced back to such ancient civilization as Egypt and Mesopotamia. In both Egyptian hieroglyphics and art, the god Horus is often depicted as a being with the body of a man with the head of a falcon. Existing ancient artifacts in museums around the globe have made this depiction of Horus, also known as Ra, almost instantly recognizable.

In body length, there’s not a lot of difference between a merlin and a kestrel. The merlin, however, boasts a heavier, more compact build than a kestrel. It’s this physical strength that probably lets them get away with being so outgoing with their pugnacious and aggressive lifestyle.

Incidentally, the kestrel is nicknamed “Sparrow Hawk,” while the merlin’s moniker is “Pigeon Hawk.” Their larger relative, the peregrine falcon, used to be widely known as the “Duck Hawk.”

Of course, they are all falcons, a family of raptors that is set apart from such birds as hawks, eagles and harriers.  Other falcons in the United States include the prairie falcon, a bird of the hills, plains and deserts of the American west, and the Aplomado falcon with a range extending from the southwestern United States to as far south as Argentina in South America.  The largest falcon, the gyrfalcon, is a bird of the far in the far north in remote Alaska and Canada, as well as parts of Europe and Asia. In the sport of falconry during the Middle Ages, no person other than a crowned king was permitted to hunt with a gyrfalcon, which thus became known as the “king of birds.”

Merlins remain uncommon in the Eastern United States, which makes any sightings a big occasion for birders. I’ve only enjoyed a handful of sightings over the years, including observations in Florida, South Carolina and Tennessee. One of my more memorable sightings took place on a sandy point on Fripp Island, South Carolina, as I watched a young merlin, perhaps still learning the finer points of hunting, attempting to go after some boat-tailed grackles. A powerful breeze blowing from the ocean probably hampered the bird and offered some protection to the grackles. If any of the grackles had been foolish enough to take flight, I think the merlin would have easily captured its intended prey. On this occasion, the grackles hugged the ground and the merlin eventually had to look elsewhere.

Worldwide, there are 40 species of falcons that have been given such descriptive names as red-necked falcon, red-footed falcon, sooty falcon, orange-brested falcon, brown falcon, black falcon, grey falcon, bat falcon and Eleonora’s falcon, which is named for Queen Eleanor of Arborea, who offered in the 1300s the first documented legal protection for hawks and falcons to protect them from illegal hunting.

Queen Eleanor started a fine tradition. Birds like peregrine falcons and merlins, as well as bald eagles, whooping cranes and California condors remain free and flying in our skies today because of the willingness of government to enact laws that protect both birds and their vital habitat. We can’t lose sight of that, not if we hope to continue seeing a feisty merlin zipping through the skies over Watauga Lake on a gorgeous late September afternoon.

To share an observation, make a comment or ask a question, send me an email at ahoodedwarbler@aol.com.

Ospreys found around area waterways during migration

Photo by Bryan Stevens • An osprey perches in a tree along the Watauga River in Elizabethton, Tennessee.

The day after the yearly Autumnal Equinox, I felt change in the air. The birds felt likewise, I think, based on a wonderful stroll along the linear trail behind the McDonald’s in Erwin.

Normally, I’d be at my desk, but thanks to a power outage, I had some empty time on my schedule and decided to do some research for the bird column by checking out the status of local birds. The occasion also marked my first walk on these wonderful trails since we officially shifted into the fall season.

In the span of about 20 minutes, I observed a pair of ruddy ducks, an osprey, great blue heron, belted kingfisher, red-bellied woodpeckers, Eastern kingbird, Eastern wood-pewee, gray catbird, Tennessee warblers and a Cape May warbler that got so close I had to be content to watch the bird without use of binoculars.

I felt special to get to share the bird’s personal space. It was in some shrub with berries (privet?) but I wasn’t able to tell if it was eating berries or plucking bugs off the berries. I am sure I missed many warblers due to overcast viewing conditions, but the Cape May made up for those missing.

Early naturalist and artist John James Audubon painted this work of art featuring an osprey with a fish held in its talons.

I also think I had a couple of wild Mallards. The pair was so wary they didn’t strike me at all like typical mallards.

I was alerted to the presence of the osprey, which had apparently snagged a fish dinner from the ponds along the trail, when I heard the bird’s piercing whistles. Ospreys make this call when challenged by other ospreys or bald eagles, or when disturbed by human activity. My interest, which involved training my binoculars on the bird, sent the bird flying to a more distant perch. The osprey carried its fish meal with it. I had a chuckle thinking that perhaps the bird was ashamed of its small catch.

According to the website All About Birds, ospreys don’t dine exclusively on fish. These large raptors have also been documented feeding on other birds, snakes, voles, squirrels, muskrats and salamanders. Perhaps this angler’s also an opportunist.

Ospreys, also known by the common name of “fish hawk,” occur worldwide. Ospreys migrate through the region in spring and fall, making sightings more likely along some lakes and larger rivers. They are becoming more abundant and have also been reported nesting at some lakes and reservoirs in the region in recent summers.

I see ospreys even more often when I travel to South Carolina, where these medium-sized raptors are common along the coast and in wetlands.

Probably because of their shared preference for piscine prey and wetland habitats, ospreys often encounter bald eagles. Ospreys are considerably smaller than eagles, although they are slightly larger than a red-tailed hawk.

The osprey is a truly cosmopolitan bird, occurring on every continent except Antarctica.

The osprey is not technically an official state bird anywhere in the United States, but some unusual political drama occurred in Oregon in 2017 when a state senator attempted to replace Oregon’s official bird (Western meadowlark) with the osprey.

As reported on the website, oregonlive.com, both birds managed to attract ardent supporters. Eventually, a compromise was reached. The meadowlark remained Oregon’s state bird with a modified designation as “official state songbird.” In turn, the osprey received recognition as Oregon’s “official state raptor.”

Farther afield, the osprey has been designated the official bird of Södermanland, a province in Sweden.

In the 1960s and 1970s, ospreys suffered reproductive problems, as did bald eagles and peregrine falcon, as a result of toxic insecticides such as DDT. With the banning of DDT in many nations, the populations of all these birds has improved in recent decades.

The bird Americans know as osprey is technically the Western osprey. The genus Pandion includes only two osprey species — the Western osprey and the Eastern osprey, a bird that ranges across Australia and the island of Tasmania. The Eastern osprey can also be found in the Philippines, Indonesia and New Guinea.

The Elizabethton Bird Club will be offering bird walks every Saturday in October at Sycamore Shoals State Historic Park in Elizabethton. Walks begin at 8 a.m. from the parking lot at the park’s visitors center. Scheduled dates for these free bird walks are Oct. 2, Oct. 9, Oct. 16, Oct. 23 and Oct. 30. Many of the park’s trails meander along the Watauga River, which will provide excellent opportunities for observing migrating ospreys. In previous years, ospreys have been fairly common birds on these walks.

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

Photo by Tom Koerner/ USFWS • An osprey makes a successful catch and feeds well as a result.

Two warblers have names connected with the Volunteer State

Photo by GeorgeB2/Pixabay.com • The Nashville warbler is an attractive bird with more color than the Tennessee warbler.

Tennessee once represented the western frontier for many people in the United States, so the state acted as a beacon for naturalists wanting to make new discoveries. Some of those early naturalists, men such as Alexander Wilson, spent a lot of time in the Volunteer State.

Two of Wilson’s ornithological “discoveries” in Tennessee involved two species of warblers that were  given names to honor the state and its capital after the birds were first observed in Tennessee and near Nashville.

Those birds were both members of one of my absolute favorite bird families — the warblers. It’s necessary to differentiate the New World wood-warblers from a grouping of birds in Europe, Asia and Australia that are also called warblers.

What is a warbler? The Wikipedia entry for these birds describes the New World warblers or wood-warblers as a group of small, often colorful, passerine birds that make up the family Parulidae and are restricted to the New World. They are not closely related to Old World warblers or Australian warblers.

That’s an adequate description, from a scientific standpoint. But warblers are magic. To do them justice, I’m compelled to wax a little more eloquent. They are a combination of color, movement and energy wrapped in a tiny bundle of feathers. Warblers are constantly on the go, hardly ever staying still for long.

The frenetic lifestyle of warblers challenges new birders. These birds don’t often stop and pose long enough for someone to get binoculars focused on them. One doesn’t exactly watch warblers. Following a warbler through tangled vines or the leafy tree canopy isn’t watching so much as anticipating. One gets a “feel” for where the warbler will appear next while tracking them through binoculars. By getting familiar with the way these avian sprites behave is the best way to learn how to observe these birds.

It’s not for nothing that some birders suffer from a malady, particular during the migration seasons, called “warbler neck.” The direct cause is the strain on the neck and back from always looking upward toward the treetops where many warblers like to stay.

Some, but not all, warblers are suffused with bright colors: yellows, oranges, blacks, blues and whites. A few — ovenbird, worm-eating warbler, Northern waterthrush — are various shades of brown. Some of my favorite warblers are the hooded warbler, Blackburnian warbler and black-throated blue warbler.

Then we have the warblers I mentioned earlier, which were discovered in the Volunteer State and to this day bear names honoring the state and its capital city. These two birds are the Tennessee warbler and the Nashville warbler.

Photo by Paul Spark/Adobe Stock • The Tennessee warbler, while named for the Volunteer State, spends very little time within Tennessee. These warblers migrate through the region each spring and fall but nest much farther north in the boreal forests.

The appearance of the Tennessee warbler varies greatly depending on the season. In autumn, most Tennessee warblers are greenish-yellow birds with whitish-gray underparts. Sometimes that green color ranges into vivid chartreuse territory.

In the spring, the basic green and white pattern remains evident, but both males and females sport a gray head and a black line that runs through the eye and along the side of the bird’s face. The plumage — at least in illustrations and photographs — is shown as more crisp and distinct with spring birds.

The pioneering American ornithologist Alexander Wilson gave the Tennessee warbler its name, which, unfortunately, is not an accurate moniker. Don’t blame Wilson too harshly for the mistake. Even after he “discovered” the first Tennessee warblers back in 1811, it would be almost another century before scientists finally located the bird’s nesting grounds in Canada in 1901. The remote and inaccessible nature of the the region helped prolong this mystery about the Tennessee warbler’s life cycle.

Wilson was an interesting figure in the natural history of the United States. Born in Paisley, Scotland, in 1766. As a young man, he learned the trade of weaving. At the same time, he became interested in poetry and claimed inspiration in particular from the Scottish poet Robert Burns.

In 1794, after not succeeding at poetry or weaving, he departed Scotland for a new life in the United States of America. He settled with a nephew in Pennsylvania, but he found opportunities limited for poet-weavers.

To make a living, he took up teaching. He met the famous naturalist William Bartram, who encouraged Wilson’s interest in ornithology and painting. These two passions took off for Wilson.

He made his life’s work the undertaking of publishing the nine-volume “American Ornithology” that featured his own illustrations of American birds. The work featured 268 species with 26 of them having never previously been described for science.

His fame as an ornithologist grew, and several species of birds were named in his honor, including the Wilson’s storm-petrel, Wilson’s plover, Wilson’s phalarope, Wilson’s snipe and Wilson’s warbler. Wilson’s work probably inspired John James Audubon’s own more extensive and famous collection depicting the birds of North America.

Every autumn I see some of the birds Wilson documented and painted as they stage their fall migration through the Volunteer State to reach destinations farther south.

Our capital city of Nashville also provides a common name to one of the warbler clan. The Nashville warbler is a small bird with a rounded head and short tail. The plumage of this warbler consists of yellow below and olive above. The birds have a white eye-ring that stands out against a gray head. The Nashville warbler also has a thin chestnut-brown crown patch, but a really exceptional look is required to see this feature. Most guides don’t mention that the Nashville warbler has a white patch of feathers surrounding the area where its legs join the body. This section of white is completely surrounded by yellow feathers. This is a helpful feature to know when trying to distinguish this warbler from some similar species.

Once again, Wilson bestowed a rather inaccurate name on this species, as the bird in question is only a visitor to Nashville and the surrounding territories during a limited window of time each year. The same is true of the Tennessee warbler. At best, these birds can only be found in the Volunteer State in April and May and again in September and October. Otherwise, Tennesseans would have to travel a good distance to see these birds at other times of the year.

Fortunately, these birds come to us. I’ve already seen the first Tennessee warblers for fall migration, but I’ve not been lucky enough this fall to get binoculars on a Nashville warbler — yet! There’s still time. Migration continues, so get outdoors and see what you can find.

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

Common nighthawks share autumn skies with many other migrants

Autumn’s a chance for me to indulge my passion for warblers, with a few dozen species of these songbirds passing through the region in the span of a few weeks. I always try to keep in mind, however, that the warblers are not the only migrating birds winging through the region.

The Elizabethton Bird Club had planned a “nighthawks and hot dogs” party at the home of Larry McDaniel near Jonesborough, but that event had to be cancelled because of the recent surge in COVID-19 cases in the region.

My silver lining was that I saw a large flock of common nighthawks at my home on Aug. 29. It was an evening of birding dominated by insect-eaters and fruit-eaters.

Cedar waxwings and one American robin perched in the wild cherry trees and plucked ripening fruit from the branches.

Swooping overhead a handful of Chimney Swifts and about 30 Common Nighthawks (the first I have seen this fall) collected insects just over the treetops. Flycatching from a dead blue spruce was an Eastern Wood-Pewee, another fall first.

Other birds included a pair of Northern cardinals feeding three young, an Eastern towhee and one hooded warbler. At one point an irritable ruby-throated hummingbird chased the pewee round and round the trunk of the dead spruce. They almost looked like they were characters in a zany cartoon.

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

Like such birds as warblers, vireos, thrushes, tanagers, flycatchers and hummingbirds, the common nighthawk is a neotropical migrant. In addition, this nighthawk has one of the longest migration routes of any North American bird. Twice a year, these birds migrate for distances ranging from 1,600 to 4,200 miles. Nighthawks that spend the spring and summer in Canada travel to southern South America for the winter months.

With September advancing on the calendar, I have been keeping an eye on the treetops for passing warblers, vireos and tanagers, but I also remember to direct my gaze to the skies. Forgetting to look skyward could result in missing the passage of such varied migrants as chimney swifts, broad-winged hawks and common nighthawks.

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

Photo by Skeeze/Pixabay • A common nighthawk adopts an elongated pose atop a fencepost.

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

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

A perplexing nickname for the common nighthawk is “bull-bat.” This merger of the words “bull” and “bat” makes sense when you explore a little deeper. The common nighthawk earned the nickname “bull-bat” because of its perceived “bat-like” flight and a “bull-like” boom produced by its wings as it pulls out of a dive.

The nightjar, or Caprimulgidae, family of birds is also sometimes known as “goatsuckers.” Apparently, in trying to explain the nocturnal tendencies of these birds, the Greeks came up with the imaginative but erroneous idea that birds like nighthawks liked to sneak into barns and have a meal of fresh goat’s milk. In reality, nighthawks feed almost exclusively on insects, including ants, wasps, beetles, caddisflies, moths, mayflies, flies, crickets, grasshoppers, and other insects. They capture much of their insect prey on the wing.

There are almost 80 species of nightjars in the world. Less than 10 occur in North America. Many of the common nighthawk’s relatives have been given descriptive names, such as long-trained nightjar, collared nightjar, spot-tailed nightjar, red-necked nightjar, golden nightjar, fiery-necked nightjar, swamp nightjar, pennant-winged nightjar, lyre-tailed nightjar, little nightjar, sickle-winged nightjar, rufous-bellied nighthawk, short-tailed nighthawk, sand-coloured nighthawk and least nighthawk.

So, keep looking skyward. The next flock of migrating common nighthawks may fly over your home. These flocks are usually on the move in August and throughout September.

I will keep watching the skies. Nighthawks can also appear almost magically, as if out of thin air. First, observers may see one of two birds, then several, followed quickly by dozens or sometimes hundreds as they wheel and cavort in the skies overhead with impressive grace and agility. I’ve seen flocks that would easily number more than 500 birds in locations throughout the region, although flocks often number only a couple of dozen birds.

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

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

Wood duck one of few ducks that’s an area resident in summer months

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A wood duck, also known as the summer duck or Carolina duck in some locations, perches on a submerged log.

I’ve enjoyed sporadic observations of a family of wood ducks living at the fish pond this summer. A wood duck hen chose to raise four ducklings at my pond, which is cloaked in abundant cattails and waterlilies. I think the dense vegetation offers concealment that makes the little family feel at ease.

Nevertheless, the ducks have remained elusive. I get glimpses of them, but the moment they become aware of me the ducklings form a single line and file one by one into the stands of cattails. The hen is always the last to seek the shelter of the cattails, no doubt ensuring the safety of her young before she thinks of herself.

Waterfowl are usually scarce in the region in summer aside from the ubiquitous Canada geese and mallards found at ponds, local park, golf courses and many other locations. Waterfowl aren’t entirely absent, however, especially when you add the variety of domesticated waterfowl that are often found with the aforementioned geese and ducks.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Male wood ducks are one of the most stunning of North America’s waterfowl.

The small wood duck is an exception. This duck is a species of waterfowl that can be found, in suitable habitat, during the summer nesting season throughout the southeastern United States. Unlike Canada geese and mallards, which historically never nested in the region until recent decades, the wood duck is actually supposed to be present during the warmer months of the year. In many parts of their range, wood ducks are known as the “summer duck” since they are the only wild native nesting duck present during the season.

Another common name for this species is the Carolina duck, which refers to the southern stronghold of this species of waterfowl. Wood ducks are year-round residents across much of the southeastern United States, especially in suitable habitat such as small lakes, flooded woodlands, swamps and marshes.

Like a handful of other North American waterfowl, the wood duck is a cavity-nesting bird. These ducks often occupy former nesting cavities created by woodpeckers, but they will also readily accept nesting boxes of suitable dimensions provided by human landlords. Because of their devotion to nesting in cavities, wood ducks have at least something in common with songbirds like Eastern bluebirds, tree swallows and house wrens, as well as larger birds such as American kestrels and Eastern screech-owls. Wood ducks aren’t the only waterfowl that nest in cavities. Buffleheads, hooded mergansers and common goldeneyes are also cavity-nesting ducks. None of those ducks, however, nest in the southeastern United States.

Some wood duck nests can be located far above the ground, which poses a challenge for flightless young. Like most species of waterfowl, young wood ducks are born capable of immediately leaving the nest and being led by their mother to foraging areas. First, however, there’s that giant leap of faith that each of the ducklings must make. Nests are often built over water, so that first jump often ends in a splash-down. Some nests are built over land, but that doesn’t seem an obstacle. The ducklings make that leap without any difficulty. Just like the Abominable Snowmen in the old holiday favorite “Rudolph, The Red-nosed Reindeer,” wood duck babies bounce! Once the ducklings have departed their cozy nesting cavity, their mother will guard them from predators and lead them to prime foraging areas for a period of about two months.

Photo by Jack Bulmer/Pixabay • A wood duck hen keeps watch as one of her ducklings forages in the thick duckweed covering a pond’s surface.

The wood duck belongs to the genus Aix. The only other species in the genus — the Mandarin duck — is native to East Asia. The two are classified as “perching ducks” by biologists. The males of both these species are among the most ornate ducks in the world. The male wood duck has red eyes and a dark-tipped red bill. The colors in a male’s plumage includes glossy, iridescent greens, purples and browns in dramatic patterns. The male also has a distinctive head crest. Female wood ducks also have crests, but their plumage is overall gray and brown with a teardrop-shaped white patch around the eyes, as well as a white chin and throat.

The majority of a wood duck’s diet consists of vegetable matter. In autumn, I’ve observed these ducks foraging with enthusiasm for acorns. Summer, however, is a time for gorging on insects. The wood duck hen, and her ducklings in particular, have been happy to forage for insects and other small invertebrates among the floating lily pads.

In his book, “Birds of Lake, Pond and Marsh,” author John Eastman noted that the wood duck was the most abundant of North American ducks during the 19th century. In the late 19th century, pressures from hunting and habitat destruction combined to dramatically lower the numbers of this exclusively North American duck. Eastman noted that the Federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 is largely credited with saving the wood duck from possible extinction.

From 1918 to 1941, it was illegal to hunt wood ducks. Thanks to this temporary hunting ban and other conservation measures, the wood duck population recovered in dramatic fashion. Recent surveys all point to a species on the rebound with numbers of wood ducks rising for the past several decades.

The creek and the fish pond at my home have proven dependable magnets over the years for attracting visiting wood ducks. I also have good luck finding wood ducks at the large pond at Erwin Fishery Park. Most wood ducks in the southeastern United States do not migrate. Those that live farther north during the summer will migrate to areas as far south as Mexico in the fall. We’re fortunate to reside in a region where wood ducks are year-round resident waterfowl.

I feel even more fortunate that a stealthy visit to the fish pond at my home has given me numerous opportunities over the past few months to glimpse the lives of these fascinating ducks of summer.

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

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A wood duck family shares a fallen log.