Category Archives: Winter birds

Several different species of hawks make their home in region

Photo by Bryan Stevens • This captive red-shouldered hawk was rehabilitated after suffering an injury and now works in an educational program at Brookgreen Gardens in South Carolina to teach the public about raptors, other birds, and various types of wildlife.

In recent weeks, I’ve enjoyed some observations of the region’s larger raptors, including red-tailed hawks and red-shouldered hawks.

Anyone who travels along the region’s Interstate Highway System has probably noticed hawks perched in trees or on utility lines adjacent to the roadway. The section of Interstate 26 that runs between Unicoi and Johnson City is often a productive area for keeping alert for raptors. The raptor I have most often observed along this stretch of road is the Red-tailed Hawk, although I have also observed Cooper’s Hawk, Sharp-shinned Hawk, and American Kestrel. In the time of spring and fall migration, it’s also possible to observe Broad-winged Hawks.

The Red-tailed Hawk is named for its prominent red tail. However, only adults show the characteristic red tail. The affinity for Red-tailed Hawks for roadsides is a double-edged sword. Viewing a large hawk from your car is an easy way to watch birds. For inexperienced or careless raptors, however, roadside living is often rife with the chance for a collision with a car or truck. The Red-tailed Hawk, which prefers open countryside, is attracted to the margins of roads and highways because these locations also attract their favorite prey, which includes rodents like rats, squirrels and mice and other small mammals such as rabbits.

Human behavior contributes to some of the problems that hawks encounter in the zone that brings them too close for comfort to motorized vehicles. When people toss trash from a car, the scent of the litter will lure curious and hungry rodents. In turn, hunting hawks are brought to the edges of roads in search of their preferred prey, increasing the likelihood of colliding with automobiles.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A calling red-shouldered hawk perched in a dead tree on Pawleys Island in South Carolina.

In recent days, I have also noticed a Red-shouldered Hawk lurking among the branches of the large weeping willow next to the fish pond. The Red-shoulder Hawk typically prefers wetland habitats and is less likely to haunt roadsides. According to a factsheet published by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, this raptor breeds in moist woodlands, riverine forests, the borders of swamps, open pine woods and similar habitats. Nesting almost always occurs near water, such as a swamp, river or pond.

The Red-shouldered Hawk produces a distinctive, piercing whistle that reminds me of the shrill call of a Killdeer. The visiting Red-shouldered Hawk has been silent so far, perhaps not wishing to draw attention. The few times the local crows have noticed the presence of any sort of raptor, they’ve flocked together to mob the unfortunate hawk. It’s also not the right time of year; during courtship and the subsequent nesting period, these hawks are vocal, but at other times of the year, they are rarely heard. It’s also possible to mistakenly think you have heard one of these large hawks. Blue Jays have apparently learned to imitate the “kee-yar” call of this hawk, often working a flawless rendition of the whistled notes of this large raptor.

In contrast to the related Red-tailed Hawk, the Red-shouldered Hawk soars less and prefers to perch hidden in the cover of trees. This hawk’s name comes from the reddish-brown shoulder patches in the bird’s wings. Adults show a tail marked with vivid bands of black and white that is quite distinctive. The Red-shouldered Hawk belongs to the same genus of raptors as its larger relative, the Red-tailed Hawk. The genus, buteo, includes about two dozen large raptors that are often the dominant avian predators in their respective habitats.

Early naturalist and artist John James Audubon painted this pair of red-shouldered hawk.

Some of the buteo species have adapted to life on islands, including the Galapagos Hawk and the Hawaiian Hawk. Some of these hawks have quite descriptive names, including the White-throated Hawk, Gray-lined Hawk, Zone-tailed Hawk and Short-tailed Hawk. Outside the United States, raptors in the buteo genus are often known as “buzzards.” When the first European colonists came to the New World, they applied the term buzzard to both types of native vultures as well as the large raptors like Swainson’s Hawk and Broad-winged Hawk that reminded them of the ones back in Europe.

All too often, our large hawks don’t receive the love they deserve from the public. They may even run afoul of misinformed individuals who may regard all predatory birds as “bad.” The reality is that all hawks are valuable components of a healthy, working ecosystem, with each species filling a certain niche.

People report American robins lingering this winter

Photo by fotocitizen/Pixabay.com • An American robin fluffs its feathers to stay warm on a cold, wintry day. While the robin is a migratory bird, it’s not unusual for many individuals to forego migration in order to stay on their nesting range the whole year.

A stroll on some walking trails through the woods on Jan. 11 near my home resulted in my first 2020 observation of American robins. The presence of robins during the winter can be a hit-or-miss affair. After I posted my sighting on Facebook, I received plenty of anecdotal evidence to support my belief that many robins decided to skip migration this past fall and spend the winter in the region.

Jennifer Bauer, park superintendent for Sycamore Shoals State Historic Park in Elizabethton, Tennessee, posted that she saw a flock of about 25 robins at the park on Jan. 10.

Anne Powell Cowan, a resident of Bristol, Tennessee, commented that she has seen robins in Bristol all winter. “They never left,” Anne wrote in her comment. “We also have a red-headed woodpecker at our farm in Sullivan County.”

Betty Lacy in Elizabethton, Tennessee, posted that she is hosting a “swarm” of robins. “They love my tall hemlock hedges,” Betty wrote. “I know there was well over 100 of them. They have made little openings all over the hedge where they go in and out!”

Photo by Bryan Stevens •  American robins, prominent in lawns and gardens during their annual spring migration, will turn their attention to nesting duties as soon as spring arrives. For now, some are content to spend the cold winter season a little farther north than some of their kin.

Vivian Hicks has noticed plenty of robins, too. “Robins have been hopping around and feeding in my yard in Southwest Virginia,” Vivian posted.

Mimi Hale has noticed the same in Elizabethton, Tennessee. “Robins have been all over my yard for the last several weeks,” she commented on my post.

Dawn Peters, who resides in Jonesborough, Tennessee, posted that robins have been present at her home since before Christmas.

Gloria Walton Blevins in Damascus, Virginia, also indicated the robins haven’t flown south. “They have been in Damascus all winter,” Gloria commented.

Teresa Treadway in Elizabethton, Tennessee, offered a humorous take on the abundance of robins. “Mine were so confused, they never left,” Teresa posted.

It was left to Catherine Romaine Henderson of Greer, South Carolina, to leave a question on my post. “Does that mean an early spring?” Catherine wondered in reaction to this winter’s abundance of robins.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • An American robin perches on a branch. The robin is one of the best-known song birds in the United States.

The American robin is indeed widely held to be a harbinger of spring. Furthermore, the robin is a popular American bird. In fact, this bird has been designated the official state bird by Wisconsin and Michigan.

In truth, many robins forego migration to endure a few months of cold weather. Their ability to shift their diet from earthworms and insects to fruit and feeder fare helps robins eke out a living. Robins remain an abundant bird but their fondness for co-existing with humans can leave them vulnerable to pesticides applied to lawns and gardens.

According to the website, “All About Birds,” the American robin nests three times a year. On average, however, only 40 percent of robin nests succeed at fledging young. Even once out of the nest, young robins are vulnerable. The website estimates that only 25 percent of each year’s fledged robins will reach November. So, the young robins that join some of the large flocks people are seeing in the region are birds that have beaten the odds.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Even once out of the nest, young robins, such as the one pictured here, are vulnerable. Experts estimate that only 25 percent of each year’s fledged robins will reach November.

Even the robins that do depart the region each fall don’t migrate far. Many robins that spend the summer in Canada or the United States only migrate as far as the Gulf States, southern Florida, southern California, Baja California and Mexico.

Robins are such friendly and engaging birds. If we can have them near us for 12 months of the year, who’s going to complain? They have even adapted to take food at feeders. If you’d like to try your luck at attracting robins to feeders, know that they like their sunflower seeds hulled. They will also eat mealworms, fruit, peanut hearts and suet. Robins prefer to feed on the ground or on an open platform feeder.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • While American robins like fruit when its available, they also spend a lot of time feeding on earthworms and insects.

Dreaming of winter finches flocking south

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Red crossbills use unique beaks to pry seeds from a conifer cone. These birds are among the so-called “northern finches” that occasionally stage massive winter migrations fueled by food shortages in their usual range. They are also nomadic residents throughout the year in northeast Tennessee and western North Carolina.

I recently got a shoutout on Facebook from Tom McNeil, a longtime birding friend and a neighbor here in the mountains of Northeast Tennessee. Tom asked if I’d been seeing any red crossbills on my side “of the ridge” and informed me he had been seeing these odd-beaked birds for the past couple of weeks.

I hadn’t noticed any crossbills and told him so, but I am definitely keeping alert for them after Tom’s notification. Every winter I hope my feeders will be visited by representatives of a group of birds known collectively as “northern finches.” This loose grouping consists of a half dozen species — purple finch, pine siskin, evening grosbeak, pine grosbeak, white-winged crossbill, red crossbill and common redpoll — that periodically stage irruptions from their traditional northern ranges to push south in large numbers during the colder months.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A red crossbill uses its unique beak to pry seeds from a conifer cone. These birds are among the so-called “northern finches” that occasionally stage massive winter migrations fueled by food shortages in their usual range.

I’ve been feeding birds since the winter of 1993, and over the years, the first three species I listed have graced my feeders. Although I haven’t seen any this winter, pine siskins and purple finches have continued to be occasional winter visitors. Sadly, however, I haven’t been visited by showy evening grosbeaks since the late 1990s. The last time I saw an evening grosbeak in the region was back in 2000.

I’ve never laid eyes on a common redpoll, although I spent several hours 20 years ago staking out a yard in Shady Valley, Tennessee, in an unsuccessful bid to observe a redpoll that had been a reliable visitor at a feeder in that small community.

I have seen red crossbills, but my observations of these birds have always taken place during the summer months. Pine grosbeaks and white crossbills are almost unheard of in the region, and I haven’t had opportunity to visit the nesting summer ranges of these birds.

So, as the weather turns cold each year, hope springs eternal that perhaps this will be the winter that will bring some of these northern finches to my feeders, or at least to a feeder in the general area.

The factor that drives these irruptive northern finches to come south is food — or the lack thereof — in their usual ranges. When seed crops are poor in the north, these seed-eating birds may wander as far south as the Gulf States in search of supplemental food sources such as feeders stocked with sunflower seed.

Photo by Public Domain Photos/Pixabay.com • Crossbills and other finches often migrate in source of food.

The red crossbill is a specialist when it comes to foraging for its food. The bird uses its unique bill to open the cones of various conifers. The upper and lower mandibles of the bill are twisted in a way to make them cross when the beak is closed, hence the name “crossbill.”

Worldwide, there are only five species of crossbills — the red crossbill of North America, Asia and Europe; the parrot crossbill of northwest Europe and western Russia; the Scottish crossbill of Scotland; and the white-winged crossbill of Canada, the northern United States, including Alaska, as well as Asia and northeastern Europe. There’s also the endangered Hispaniolan crossbill of the island of Hispaniola in the Caribbean.

Photo by George Gentry/U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service • A male evening grosbeak perches on the side of a sunflower-stocked feeder.

W. Herbert Wilson Jr. wrote an article about the northern finches for the Oct-Dec. 1999 edition of “North American Bird Bander.” Wilson noted that supplemental food, such as feeder fare, can influence the migratory habits of many birds, including these finches. He cited the example of black-capped chickadees, which have been shown to demonstrate an increased chance of survival during lean winter times when they have access to feeders. He also noted that the provision of food at feeders has helped birds like the tufted titmouse, house finch and Northern cardinal extend their range northward. In part, Wilson theorized that more people are feeding birds closer to the northern climes where these birds live. As a result, the long-distance irruptions are no longer necessary to find supplemental food.

Other theories have also been advanced by other experts, including changing migratory routes, diminishing overall finch numbers and climate change. Theories aside, I will continue to hope some of these birds wing their way toward my feeders this winter. If I’m lucky, this could even be the year the evening grosbeaks return! If anyone is seeing any of these “northern finches,” I’d

love to hear about it. Contact me at ahoodedwarbler@aol.com.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • An American goldfinch visits a feeder for sunflower seeds

Egrets, snow geese sightings enliven winter birding

Photo by Dewey Fuller • A great egret stands amid a flock of Canada geese at Middlebrook Lake in Bristol, Tennessee.

It’s 2020, but I feel like I am still playing catchup with the birds found in the last few weeks of 2019. We might not have had much snow so far this winter, but birds with white plumage have stirred up some excitement in recent weeks. The birds are finally showing some winter movement as they turn up in some unlikely places and at unseasonable times. While I have felt that the winter’s off to a slow start in regards to birds, some other unusual visitors have popped up in various locations in the region.

Dewey Fuller, who resides near Middlebrook Lake in Bristol, Tennessee, emailed me recently to report an unexpected bird and share photos of the feathered visitor.

He correctly identified the bird as a great egret based on its white plumage and dark legs. “Another unusual visitor to Middlebrook,” Dewey wrote in his email.

The waders — herons, egrets, storks — usually reside in wetlands and coastal areas, but they are prone to wander after the nesting season. Their wandering usually takes place in late summer and early fall, so the Middlebrook visitor was a tad out of season.

While it is unusual for a great egret to visit the region in December, I know from personal experience that a twelfth month visit from this graceful wading bird is not unheard of. The first great egret to ever visit my home arrived on a snowy evening in December many years ago. This past summer heralded a more seasonal visit from only the second great egret to visit my home.

Joe McGuiness, an employee with the U.S. Forest Service who resides in Erwin, recently observed a great egret at a pond along the linear walking trail in Erwin, Tennessee. I’m not sure why these stately white birds have been present in December, but they certainly attracted attention with their unexpected presences.

Photo by StockSnap/Pixabay.com • A snow goose comes in for a landing, showing off its black flight feathers that contrast with its otherwise all-white plumage.

The egret was only one recent mostly all-white bird to put in an appearance. I found a single snow goose in a cornfield along Old Johnson City Highway about a half mile from the Lynch Farmhouse/Gallery in Unicoi, Tennessee shortly before Thanksgiving.

Snow geese are extremely abundant, but their migratory flyways usually keep these geese far from the mountains and valleys of Northeast Tennessee.

The snow goose has a second color phase known as a “blue goose” that has plumage that replaces the white feathers of the snow goose except in the head, neck and tip of the tail. The white phase of the species boasts all-white plumage except for black flight feathers. Adults have pinkish-red legs and bills. Serrations along the bill create the diagnostic “grin patch” that helps people distinguish the goose from the smaller related Ross’s goose. Male snow geese are typically somewhat larger than females.

Snow geese breed well north of the timberline in Canada, Alaska, Greenland and Siberia. In winter, they head south to spend the colder months across much of the United States and even Mexico.

Snow geese numbers have exploded in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. In fact, some experts worry that the sheer abundance of this goose is doing damage to the fragile tundra habitat these geese use for breeding. According to the website “All About Birds,” hunting for snow geese in the eastern United States was stopped in 1916 because of low population levels. Hunting was allowed again in 1975 after populations had recovered.

Although they remain a hunted game bird, an occasional snow goose achieves significant longevity in the wild. The oldest snow goose was an individual documented as being 27 years and six months old that was shot in Texas in 1999.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A snow goose swims amid Canada geese at the pond at Fishery Park in Erwin, Tennessee, in February of 2018. .

77th Elizabethton Christmas Bird Count yields 63 species

Photo by Bryan Stevens • This adult bald eagle was one of several counted on this year’s Christmas Bird Count.

The 77th consecutive Elizabethton Christmas Bird Count was held by members and friends of the Elizabethton Bird Club on Saturday, Dec. 14. Participants in the long-running CBC tallied a total of 63 species of birds, which was down considerably from the recent average of 73 species. The all-time high for this count consisted of 85 species and was established two years ago with the 2018 Elizabethton CBC.

The temperature lingered in the 40s all day with light rain. The low species total, as well as low individual numbers, was likely due to the lousy weather, according to long-time count compiler Rick Knight.

Knight noted some count highlights, including single representatives of ruffed grouse, pine warbler and red-headed woodpecker. In addition, 75 wild turkeys, 181 Eastern bluebirds, and 449 cedar waxwings demonstrated that some birds were far from scarce.

The 1,015 individuals counted made the European starling the most abundant bird on this year’s CBC, followed by cedar waxwing (449), American robin (371) and Canada goose (319).

Photo by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service • The European Starling ranked as the most common species on the count.

Notable misses included almost all the ducks — only three species being found. Knight noted that duck numbers have been low so far this season.

Counters also missed finding killdeer, Wilson’s snipe, Eurasian collar-dove, red-breasted nuthatch, brown thrasher, Eastern meadowlark, white-crowned sparrow and fox sparrow. A single Eastern screech-owl represented the only owl species found on the count.

My own count area consisted of territory around Watauga Lake and the town of Butler. Accompanying me on this count were Brookie and Jean Potter, David and Connie Irick, Eric Middlemas, Brenda Richards and Chris Soto.

Highlights of our day counting birds in mid-December included numerous sightings of bald eagles and a welcome and restorative lunch at Dry Hill General Store and Deli in Butler. We also enjoyed our observations of a common loon, horned grebe, and several species of raptors.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Nine red-tailed hawks made it onto this year’s Elizabethton Christmas Bird Count.

Here’s the final total for the 2019 Elizabethton CBC:

Canada goose, 319; mallard, 268; ring-necked duck, 4; bufflehead, 107; ruffed grouse, 1; and wild turkey, 75.

Common loon, 1; pied-billed grebe, 4; horned grebe, 1; double-crested cormorant, 4; and great blue heron, 18.

Black vulture, 4; turkey vulture, 38; sharp-shinned hawk, 4; Cooper’s hawk, 1; bald eagle, 6; and red-tailed hawk, 9.

Ring-billed gull, 20; rock pigeon, 246; mourning dove, 200; Eastern screech-owl, 1; and belted kingfisher, 11.

Red-headed woodpecker, 1; red-bellied woodpecker, 10; yellow-bellied sapsucker, 10; downy woodpecker, 21; hairy woodpecker, 2; Northern flicker, 27; and pileated woodpecker, 7.

American kestrel, 8; Eastern phoebe, 7; blue jay, 164; American crow, 299; and common raven, 1.

Carolina chickadee, 133; Tufted titmouse, 61; white-breasted nuthatch, 29; brown creeper, 1; winter wren, 5; and Carolina wren, 94.

Golden-crowned kinglet, 15; ruby-crowned kinglet, 1; Eastern bluebird, 181; American robin, 371; Northern mockingbird, 57; European starling, 1,015; and cedar waxwing, 449.

Pine warbler, 1; yellow-rumped warbler, 61; Eastern towhee, 17; chipping sparrow, 16; field sparrow, 28; Savannah sparrow, 5; song sparrow, 125; swamp sparrow, 1; white-throated sparrow, 40; and dark-eyed junco, 45.

Northern cardinal, 124; brown-headed cowbird, 1; house finch, 72; American goldfinch, 63; and house sparrow, 29.

Photo by Jean Potter • Two species of warbler — pine warbler, pictured here, and yellow-rumped warbler — made this year’s Elizabethton CBC.

Roan Mountain CBC finds 49 species

The Elizabethton Bird Club conducts a second CBC for Roan Mountain in Carter County, Tennessee. The 67th Roan Mountain CBC was held the following day, Sunday, Dec. 15, with eight observers in two parties. The skies had cleared from the previous day. Participants counting at elevations above 4,500 feet found an inch of fresh snow.

Knight noted that a good cone crop is present in the spruce-fir forest. The count tallied 49 species, which is three above the recent 30 year average. The all-time high on this count was 55 species found in 1987. Lower species totals on this count are due to harsher climate in higher elevations, less diversity of habitats, and lower number of observers and parties.

Some highlights included 26 Canada geese. On most CBCs, Canada geese would not be considered extraordinary, but Knight noted there are few records on the Roan Mountain CBC for this goose.  Other highlights included 11 American black ducks, two red-breasted nuthatches and a single purple finch. A single American kestrel, which is also represented by only a few records on this count, was found. The counters found 27 common ravens, which meant that this corvid species outnumbered its relative the blue jay, which tallied only 21 individuals.

Knight suggested that a few notable misses for this count included sharp-shinned hawk, brown creeper and fox sparrow.

The Roan Mountain CBC total follows:

Canada goose, 26; American black duck, 11; buffledhead, 17; hooded merganser, 1; wild turkey, 2; pied-billed grebe, 2; and great blue heron, 1.

Turkey vulture, 3; Cooper’s hawk, 2; red-shouldered hawk, 2; and red-tailed hawk, 2.

Rock pigeon, 14; mourning dove, 34; belted kingfisher, 1; red-bellied woodpecker, 4; yellow-bellied sapsucker, 3; downy woodpecker, 14; hairy woodpecker, 1; and pileated woodpecker, 2.

American kestrel, 1; Eastern phoebe, 4; blue jay, 21; American crow, 96; and common raven, 27.

Carolina chickadee, 46; tufted titmouse, 31; red-breasted nuthatch, 2; white-breasted nuthatch, 12; winter wren, 1; and Carolina wren, 21.

Golden-crowned kinglet, 9; Eastern bluebird, 18; American robin, 126; Northern mockingbird, 1; European starling, 33; and cedar waxwing, 12.

Yellow-rumped warbler, 1; Eastern towhee, 17; field sparrow, 3; song sparrow, 68; white-throated sparrow, 11; and dark-eyed junco, 62.

Northern cardinal, 19; house finch, 2; purple finch, 1; red crossbill, 10; pine siskin, 1; and American goldfinch, 6.

Cardinals do their part to make the winter season brighter

Photo by Skeeze/Pixabay.com • A male Northern cardinal lands on a snowy perch. Cardinals are perfect symbols for the Christmas season with their bright red plumage.

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

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

There’s one bird, however, that makes an impression in any season. The Northern cardinal, especially the brilliant red male, stands out against a winter backdrop of snow white, deep green or drab gray.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Northern cardinal seems much less descriptive of this popular bird than such common names as Virginia nightingale and Kentucky redbird.

Over the years, the Northern cardinal has also become associated with the Christmas season. How many Christmas cards have you received this holiday season with a cardinal featured in the artwork? I’d wager that at least a few cards in any assortment of holiday greetings will feature the likeness of a bright red cardinal.

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

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Even the female Northern cardinal offers a subtle beauty not quite as showy as the male.

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

While we may get the idea that cardinals feed largely on seed, that is a misconception based on our observation of the birds at our feeders. When away from our feeders, cardinals feed on insects and fruit, including the berries of mulberry, holly, pokeberry, elderberry, Russian olive, dogwood and sumac.

There’s no difficulty in identifying a cardinal. The male boasts crimson plumage, a crest, a black face and orange bill. The female, although less colorful, is also crested. Female cardinals are soft brown in color, with varying degrees of a reddish tinge in their feathers, particularly in their wings. Immature cardinals resemble females except young cardinals have dark bills.

Cardinals are a widespread species, ranging westward to the Dakotas and south to the Gulf Coast and Texas. The southeastern United States was once the stronghold of the cardinal population. In the past century, however, cardinals have expanded their range into New England and Canada. These birds have even been introduced to Hawaii.

Photo by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service • A male cardinal looks splendid against a snowy background.

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

It’s not surprising that such a popular bird has also become associated with many trappings of the Christmas season.

“You see cardinals on greeting cards, stationery, paper plates, paper napkins and tablecloths, doormats, light switch plates, candles, candle holders, coffee mugs, plates, glasses, Christmas tree ornaments and lights, bookmarks, mailboxes, Christmas jewelry,” writes June Osborne in her book The Cardinal. “And the list goes on. Cardinals have become an integral part of the way that many people celebrate the holiday season.”

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

I can be included among such people. My Christmas decorations include an assortment of cardinal figurines and ornaments. There are other birds — doves and penguins for example — associated with the holiday season, but for me the holidays magnify the importance of one of my favorite birds. The cardinal, in its festive red plumage, appears made to order for a symbol of the holiday season.

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

Even once the holidays are past, there’s nothing like a glimpse of a Northern cardinal to add some cheer to a bleak winter day.

Don’t overlook subtle beauty of winter’s little brown birds

Photo by Kaz/Pixabay.com • The yellow lores on the white-throated sparrow makes this species easy to pick out from a flock of related “little brown birds.”

Amy McGill, a reader from Ohio, sent me an email following last week’s column about dark-eyed juncos. Amy, as it turns out, is a fellow junco lover.

At the time of her email, she was still waiting to see my favorite of all birds make their appearance at her home. She noted that juncos usually return to her home about a week before the end of October, so they are slightly late this year. Consequently, Amy’s “little timely visitors” are making her wonder what has delayed them.

At my own home in northeast Tennessee, the dark-eyed juncos appear to vie with white-throated sparrows for abundance each year. Last winter, the sparrows were far less conspicuous than the juncos. Although we’re only a week into November, both the dark-eyed juncos and white-throated sparrows have absented themselves from my feeders.

With temperatures dipping lower after a particularly hot, dry autumn, some cold-season arrivals have made themselves at home. On Saturday, Nov. 3, a common raven flew over my house. Perhaps to make certain I didn’t neglect to take note, the raven produced its trademark croaking call the entire time the large, dark bird soared overhead.

Photo by Ken Thomas • A Northern Mockingbird patrols a thicket.

A Northern mockingbird visited the feeders on Saturday, Oct. 27, to see what was the commotion from the other birds. After one quick peek, the mocker paid no attention to the available offering of sunflower seeds. At my home, mockingbirds are strictly fall/winter birds and are fairly uncommon.

Ravens and mockingbirds are easier to recognize and identify than sparrows, which are also referred to by birders with some frustration as “little brown birds.” Lumping the sparrows together as a family of similar-looking species does a disservice to them, however.

While most are definitely “little brown birds,” the sparrows offer quite a range of subtle differences in plumage as well as song, making it possible — if at times challenging — to identify them. Some of the winter sparrows in the region include fox sparrow, swamp sparrow, song sparrow, chipping sparrow, white-crowned sparrow and the aforementioned white-throated sparrow.

In similarly distinctive fashion, the white-throated sparrow — especially as spring gets nearer — also acquires a plumage that makes it stand out from the flock. These sparrows have a plumper shape than some of their kin. They have a black-and-white pattern to their head, and a neat “bib” of white feathers covers the throat. The standout feature to this bird’s appearance is the bright yellow spot located between each eye and the bird’s bill. In winter, some white-throated sparrows may lack this spot of yellow or show a less dramatic version, but the approach of spring usually puts puts these birds back into fine form.

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.”

Many sparrows, including the white-throated sparrow, prefer to forage for food on the ground. It’s often helpful to purchase a supply of millet seed. When filling your feeders with sunflower seeds, scatter a couple of handfuls of millet seed on the ground beneath the feeders or at the edge of a brushy area. Sparrows like to have quick access to dense cover, so they will feed more securely if the scattered seeds are within quick reach of shelter.

If your yard is devoid of brushy retreats, you can make your own brush pile, perhaps with trimmings from routine autumn landscape maintenance. A brush pile makes a popular gathering place for not only sparrows but also wrens, kinglets and other small songbirds. In addition to security, the brush pile lessens the impact of cold winter winds.

Sparrows don’t always co-exist peaceably. According to the website allaboutbirds.com, many of the larger sparrow species are quite aggressive with their kin. This aggression usually demonstrates itself in a tendency to chase other birds. Apparently, white-crowned sparrows will share their territories with fox sparrows — which are larger birds — but they will give chase to chipping sparrows and dark-eyed juncos in an attempt to drive them from the territory.

Most songbirds live a precarious life that can be measured in only a few years. However, an occasional individual defies the odds. According to the website allaboutbirds.com, the oldest recorded white-throated sparrow was at least 14 years, 11 months old, when it was recaptured and rereleased during banding operations in Alberta, Canada.

So, while it’s easy to overlook the sparrows, I’d recommend giving them a second glance. Here are a few relatives of the white-throated sparrow with common names that suggest the identifying feature that helps them stand out from the flock: golden-crowned sparrow, rufous-collared sparrow, cinnamon-tailed sparrow, black-chinned sparrow and black-throated sparrow.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Vesper sparrows are uncommon birds in spring and fall in the region, although they do nest on the grassy balds of Roan Mountain.

American wigeon also known by name ‘baldpate’

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Photo by Tim McCabe/U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service • This male American wigeon shows the white head patch that gives this duck its other common name of “baldpate.” In this photograph, a female wigeon rests near her mate while a male redhead, a species of diving duck, swims in the background. This duck nests in season wetlands in the American midwest.

Erwin, Tennessee, resident Pattie Rowland recently asked my help identifying some ducks she had photographed at the pond at Erwin Fishery Park. She already suspected the ducks in her photo were American wigeons, but she wanted confirmation.

The ducks were indeed wigeons, which are classified with the “dabblers” instead of the “divers,” which are two broad categories for describing the wild ducks likely to occur throughout North America. Dabblers feed mostly near the surface of the water, foraging on everything for aquatic insects to roots and tubers. The “divers,” not surprisingly, dive into the depth to pursue fish, mollusks and other aquatic prey.

“This was my first time to see them,” Pattie noted in a Facebook message. I congratulated her because I know how exciting a new observation of a bird can be.

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Photo by Roy Lowe/U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service • A male American wigeon looks quite at home swimming on a small pond. Wigeons belong to ducks that are classified as “dabblers” and “puddle ducks.”

It’s not been an exciting winter for ducks in the region. Other than some redheads and buffleheads back in November and early December at the start of the winter, the wigeons are the only wild ducks of interest that I’ve observed at the pond.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service released its report this past summer on 2018 Trends in Duck Breeding Populations, based on surveys conducted in May and early June of 2018 by FWS and Canadian Wildlife Service.

Overall duck numbers in the survey area remained high, according to the report. Total populations were estimated at 41.2 million breeding ducks in the traditional survey area, 13 percent lower than last year’s estimate of 47.3 million but 17 percent above the long-term average. The projected mallard fall flight index was estimated at 11.4 million birds, down from the 2017 estimate of 12.9 million.
“The dip in the population for prairie-breeding puddle ducks is not unexpected and by no means unprecedented given that conditions on the prairies this spring were drier than last year,” said DU Chief Scientist Tom Moorman. “As a result, 2018 populations dropped accordingly. However, populations of all key species except northern pintails and scaup remain above long-term averages. This year’s breeding population decline is a reminder of the need to sustain the capacity of breeding habitats, particularly in the prairies as we go through natural variation in wetland conditions. Waterfowl populations are adapted well to short-term swings in habitat conditions, but we must continue to guard against the long-term loss of prairie breeding habitat.”

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Early naturalist and artist John James Audubon painted this pair of American wigeon, a duck for which the male has earned the name “baldpate” for a distinctive white crown patch.

American wigeons, however, bucked the trend of some of the other prairie-breeding puddle ducks and showed a slight rise in overall numbers. The wigeon breeding population was estimated at 2.8 individual ducks, according to the survey. Wigeons beat their long-term average, which rests at 2.6 million.

The American wigeon can be found all over North America. Their breeding grounds stretch from Alaska across the tundras of Canada all the way to the Atlantic Ocean. American Wigeons can be found in their wintering habitats from the American Northwest to central Mexico, from the southern prairie pothole region through the Gulf Coast and from New York to the Bahamas close to the Atlantic shoreline. American wigeons are also common winter visitors to Central America, the Caribbean, northern Colombia, Trinidad and occasionally Venezuela

Wigeons are aquatic grazers and forage on grasses and sedges in wet meadows and pastures. The American wigeon’s diet has a higher proportion of plant matter than the diet of any other dabbling duck.

It’s also called the “baldpate” for the same reason our national bird is known as the “bald” eagle. A white patch on the forehead reminded early naturalists of a bald man’s head in much the same way that our national bird earned the term “bald” eagle because of its own white head. Further, the word “bald” is thought to derive from an archaic word in Middle English meaning “white patch,” from which the archaic definition “marked or steaked with white” is drawn.

The origins of the term “wigeon” are a bit murkier. According to Merriam-Webster Dictionary, the first known use of “wigeon” dates back to 1508, and other sources suggest that the term perhaps was derived from a French/Balearic term meaning “a kind of small crane.”

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Photo by Coffee/Pixabay.com • Gadwalls are close relatives of American wigeon.

There are two other species of wigeons — the Eurasian wigeon of Asia and Europe and the Chiloé wigeon of South America. Wigeons belong to the Mareca genus of dabbling ducks, which also includes gadwall and falcated teal.

While female American wigeons produce a rather raspy quacking sound, wigeons more typically produce a vocalization when excited that sounds like “whew, whew, whew.”

Some ducks have become associated with certain bodies of water in the region, and the American wigeon is no exception. In addition to the pond at Erwin Fishery Park, there have been reports of American wigeons this winter from a large pond adjacent to the campus of Northeast State Community College in Elizabethton, Tennessee, as well as on the weir dam at Osceola Island Recreation Site in Bristol. Hooded mergansers have wintered in large numbers at Middlebrook Lake in Bristol. Hundreds of buffleheads have wintered at Wilbur Lake near Elizabethton, Tennessee, for decades. March and April, being periods of transition as winter changes into spring, could bring migrating ducks to the region’s ponds, lakes and rivers. Keep your eyes open and you could be surprised by what you find.

 

 

Virginia woman hosting wintering ruby-throated hummingbird

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Photo by Mariedy/Pixabay.com • The ruby-throated hummingbird is the expected hummingbird in the eastern United States spring through fall. These birds are rare winter visitors, however, which makes the one living in a yard in Fall Church, Virginia.

I have been corresponding by email with Ellen Haberlein since around Thanksgiving of last year about a hummingbird that is wintering at her home in Fall Church, Virginia, which is located only a few miles from Washington, D.C.

The hummingbird’s presence has brightened the winter season for the Haberlein family since it showed up in late October of 2018.

Through the years, I have seen several of these seemingly out-of-place hummingbirds. Some of them remain at their host’s feeders for a brief stay of a few days or a couple of weeks, but some of these hummingbirds have extended their stay for several months, lingering throughout the winter months before eventually departing in February or March.

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Photo by Larry Golfer • This male ruby-throated hummingbird has resided at the home of Ellen Haberlein since around Thanksgiving of last year. Haberlein lives in Fall Church, Virginia, which is located only a few miles from Washington, D.C.

The big question is: are these hummingbirds truly lost and out of place? The answer, based on everything I have managed to learn, is that these hummingbirds are precisely where they want to be. For still unknown reasons, some of these western hummingbirds make a migration swing through the eastern United States.

Many of the visiting winter hummingbirds turn out to be rufous hummingbirds, which is a species native to the western United States. The bird visiting Ellen’s feeder, however, is a ruby-throated hummingbird. In the summer months, the ruby-throated is the expected species of hummingbird in the eastern United States. In the winter months — not so much. However, in some regions in Virginia, as well as along the Gulf Coast, a few ruby-throated hummingbirds are attempting to overwinter.

The rufous hummingbird has basically become an expected winter visitor with a few reports being received each winter. I have observed Rufous Hummingbirds in many different locations, including Bristol, Blountville, Flag Pond, Elizabethton and Hampton. I have also observed Allen’s hummingbirds in Mountain City and Johnson City. I know of records of these small birds from Erwin, Roan Mountain, Johnson City and many other locations throughout the region. Winter hummingbirds are a delightful surprise for their hosts, but their presence no longer shock long-time birders.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • Rufous hummingbirds have been extensively documented as wintering throughout the southeastern United States. This male rufous hummingbird was documented in Hampton, Tennessee, a couple of years ago.

“Hosting a hummingbird in winter is a first for us, so we enjoy having him here,” Ellen wrote. “I feel that I am responsible to keep the little guy alive through the cold months.”

Doing so has meant staying atop some challenges.

“I monitor the feeder to make sure it doesn’t freeze,” Ellen wrote. “I have read the nectar doesn’t need to be replaced as often in winter, but I still change it every 2-3 days.”

She’s taking no chance with the health of her tiny visitor. “I think he needs to have fresh to stay in good health,” Ellen wrote. “I have two feeders, so when I remove one, I immediately replace it with another. That way his food source is not disrupted.”

Ellen noted that the hummingbird seems to be able to stand the cold nights. “I take in the feeder at night, and he looks for it just at dawn in the morning,” she wrote.

She contacted Bruce Peterjohn at the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center. Her visiting ruby-throated hummingbird is the first he has heard of in Virginia for the winter season this year, although Peterjohn informed Ellen that some ruby-throated hummingbirds usually overwinter close to the Chesapeake Bay in Virginia.

Bruce Peterjohn

Bruce Peterjohn

Peterjohn, the chief of the US Bird Banding Laboratory for USGS, is the person responsible for administering the national bird banding program and the data management system for bird banding and band encounter datasets. His personal banding activities are focused on banding hummingbirds in the mid-Atlantic region, especially hummingbirds that appear during late autumn and winter.

With the dawning of the new year, Ellen’s visiting hummingbird remained present. “I am happy to help this little bird get through the winter,” Ellen said.

I checked back with Ellen on Jan. 29 to see if the hummingbird remains in residence.

“He made it through the last storm with wind chills at zero or below,” she replied to my email. “Now we have more cold coming and I am hoping for the best.”

I imagine Ellen is a good host for many birds, not just the unseasonable hummingbird, that visit her yard and gardens.

In our correspondence, she shared some sightings of warblers, which is my favorite family of birds.

“By the way, I have not seen a hooded warbler,” Ellen wrote. “I see warblers pass through during spring, like Tennessee warblers and black-and-white warblers.”

I’m hopeful that she will spy a migrating hooded warbler, perhaps this spring. In the meantime, she’s hosting a wintering hummingbird. “I am happy to help this little bird get through the winter,” Ellen wrote.

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Photo by Jean Potter • A male hooded warbler flits through the foliage of a rhododendron thicket.

HMSP plans Great Backyard Bird Count events

Hungry Mother State Park in Marion, Virginia, plans some bird walks on Saturday, Feb. 16, to coincide with the Great Backyard Bird Count.

The GBBC is a free, fun and easy event that engages bird watchers of all ages in counting birds to create a real-time snapshot of bird populations. Participants are asked to count birds for as little as 15 minutes (or as long as they wish) on one or more days of the four-day event and report their sightings online at birdcount.org. Anyone can take part in the Great Backyard Bird Count, from beginning bird watchers to experts, and you can participate from your backyard, or anywhere in the world.

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Photo by Ted Schroeder/Great Backyard Bird Count • Evening grosbeaks may be more common on this year’s GBBC, according to early reports on the movements of these large, colorful finches.

Each checklist submitted during the GBBC helps researchers at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the National Audubon Society learn more about how birds are doing, and how to protect them and the environment we share. Last year, more than 160,000 participants submitted their bird observations online, creating the largest instantaneous snapshot of global bird populations ever recorded.

To help participants become better citizen scientists, some field guides and binoculars will be provided during the activities at Hungry Mother State Park. Supplies of these items, however, are limited.

The walk will commence at 8 a.m. Either Master Naturalist Randy Smith or Hungry Mother volunteer Mike Evans will conduct the walk. Participants are also welcome to bird solo or with a few friends to cover more territory.

At 9 a.m., participants will return to parking lot five for “Breakfast in a Bag” with the Holston Rivers Master Naturalists. While enjoying breakfast, attendees will be invited to wander over to the park’s restaurant to check out various hands-on birding activities.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • Hungry Mother State Park near Marion, Virginia, has long offered a variety of birding and nature activities and programs, such as the ones planned around the upcoming Great Backyard Bird Count scheduled for Feb. 15-18.

The special event will wrap up when Smith teaches participants a little more about backyard birding with an informative session at 10:30 a.m. at the restaurant.

All ages and skill levels are welcome. Attendees are encouraged to dress warmly as the event will be held rain or shine.

For more information, call HMSP at (276) 781-7400. The park is located at 2854 Park Blvd., Marion, Virginia. Details are also available by calling 1-800-933-7275 or visit http://www.virginiastateparks.gov.

The 21st annual GBBC will be held Friday, Feb.15, through Monday, Feb. 18. Please visit the official website at birdcount.org for more information.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • Participate in the Great Backyard Bird Count and help document populations of birds, including great blue herons.

Cardinals seem tailor-made for Christmas season

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

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

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

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

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Photo by Skeeze/Pixabay.com • A male Northern cardinal lands on a snowy perch. Cardinals are perfect symbols for the Christmas season with their bright red plumage.

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

The Northern cardinal belongs to a genus of birds known as Cardinalis in the family Cardinalidae. There are only two other species in this genus, and they range across North America and into northern South America. The two relatives are the pyrrhuloxia, or Cardinalis sinuatus, a bird of the southwestern United States, and the Vermilion Cardinal, or phoeniceus, a bird found in Colombia and Venezuela.

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

Two other South American birds — red-crested cardinal and yellow-billed cardinal — are more closely related to tanagers than to our familiar Northern cardinal. Both the Northern cardinal and red-crested cardinal have been introduced into the state of Hawaii, so two non-native birds from different parts of the globe are now resident in the Aloha State.

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

Over the years, the Northern cardinal has also become associated with the Christmas season. How many Christmas cards have you received this holiday season with a cardinal featured in the artwork? I’d wager that at least a few cards in any assortment of holiday greetings will feature the likeness of a bright red cardinal.

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

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

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

While we may get the idea that cardinals feed largely on seed, that is a misconception based on our observation of the birds at our feeders. When away from our feeders, cardinals feed on insects and fruit, including the berries of mulberry, holly, pokeberry, elderberry, Russian olive, dogwood and sumac.


There’s no difficulty in identifying a cardinal. The male boasts crimson plumage, a crest, a black face and orange bill. The female, although less colorful, is also crested. Female cardinals are soft brown in color, with varying degrees of a reddish tinge in their feathers, particularly in their wings. Immature cardinals resemble females except young cardinals have dark bills.

Cardinals are a widespread species, ranging westward to the Dakotas and south to the Gulf Coast and Texas. The southeastern United States was once the stronghold of the cardinal population. In the past century, however, cardinals have expanded their range into New England and Canada.

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

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

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

It’s not surprising that such a popular bird has also become associated with many trappings of the Christmas season.

“You see cardinals on greeting cards, stationery, paper plates, paper napkins and tablecloths, doormats, light switch plates, candles, candle holders, coffee mugs, plates, glasses, Christmas tree ornaments and lights, bookmarks, mailboxes, Christmas jewelry,” writes June Osborne in her book The Cardinal. “And the list goes on. Cardinals have become an integral part of the way that many people celebrate the holiday season.”

I can be included among such people. My Christmas decorations include an assortment of cardinal figurines and ornaments. There are other birds — doves and penguins for example — associated with the holiday season, but for me the holidays magnify the importance of one of my favorite birds. The cardinal, in its festive red plumage, appears made to order for a symbol of the holiday season.

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

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

Even once the holidays are past, there’s nothing like a glimpse of a Northern cardinal to add some cheer to a bleak winter day. Simply add some black oil sunflower seeds to your feeders to welcome this beautiful bird to your yard.

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