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April sees the annual return of hummingbirds to the region as readers share their first spring sightings of tiny gems

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • Male ruby-throated hummingbirds show the namesake red throat. The feathers on a male’s throat are iridescent, which means they can change when seen from different angles. In poor light, the ruby-red throat can look almost black.

Bob Cheers, a resident of Plantation Road in Bristol, Virginia, sent an email to announce the arrival of his first hummingbird of spring at 6:20 p.m. on Wednesday, April 10.

“I put the feeder out April 2, which is earlier than previous years, after reading your March 31 article in the Bristol Herald Courier,” Bob wrote. “It brought to mind the one year that I failed to get the feeder out early and spotted a hummingbird hovering outside of my family room window, in the exact location my feeder has hung for the last 30 plus years. That little guy had to have been a repeat customer.”

Bob wrote that he’s intrigued by the fact that this year’s arrival date falls within the spread that ranges from April 9 to April 14 that he has established since he started recording the returns in 2009. “What triggers their departure from Central America and their guidance system, considering the variable winds encountered, that sends them back to my feeder within a five-day period each year?” Bob asked in his email.

I had to do some digging to find an answer to Bob’s question. According to the website, Hummingbird.net, the phenomenon of migration among hummingbirds is not well understood.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • A ruby-throated hummingbird sips from a sugar water feeder.

“Most ruby-throated hummingbirds winter between southern Mexico and northern Panama,” the website reveals. “Since hummingbirds lead solitary lives and neither live nor migrate in flocks, an individual bird may spend the winter anywhere in this range where the habitat is favorable, but probably returns to the same location each winter.”

The time they spend on this wintering range is remarkably brief. “Ruby-throats begin moving north as early as January, and by the end of February, they are at the northern coast of Yucatan, gorging on insects and spiders to add a thick layer of fat in preparation for flying to the United States,” the website notes.

According to the website, some hummingbirds skirt the Gulf of Mexico and follow the Texas coast north, while most apparently cross the Gulf, typically leaving at dusk for a nonstop flight of up to 500 miles, which takes 18 to 22 hours depending on the weather.

The force that compels hundreds of thousands of individual hummingbirds to all migrate at the same time remains mysterious. The reason these birds migrate is simpler. In the eastern half of the United States and Canada, ruby-throated hummingbirds face no competition from their own kind. If they remained in Central America, they would have to compete with dozens of species of hummingbirds during the nesting season. From the standpoint of the ruby-throated hummingbird, why not take a trip and claim a monopoly over some resource-rich terrain? It’s worked for these tiny flying jewels so far.

So, Bob became the first person to report a hummingbird arrival to me this year, but plenty of other people lined up to share their sightings, too.

Amy Wallin Tipton in Erwin, Tennessee, sent a message via Facebook to report her first hummingbird arrival for the spring. “Just saw my first hummer,” she wrote. Amy reported that the hummer, a male, arrived at 6:45 p.m. on Wednesday, April 10. “I’m so glad they are back,” she shared.

Ginger Brackins also reported that she saw her first ruby-throated hummingbird of spring on Wednesday, April 10, at her home in Erwin, Tennessee. She noted that it was a week earlier than last year. Ginger notes the arrival dates each year on her calendar. Ginger’s message about her sighting arrived thanks to her daughter, Gina McKinney, who emailed me on her mother’s behalf

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • Ruby-throated hummingbirds returned to the region in early April.

Joneen Sargent reported that her first hummingbird put in an appearance at 10 a.m. on Thursday, April 11, at her home in Bristol, Tennessee. In her email, she also asked if I had heard of downy woodpeckers drinking from sugar water feeders.

I answered her question by informing her that I’ve noticed downy woodpeckers, as well as Carolina chickadees, taking sips from my feeders. The chickadees can get quite acrobatic in their efforts to indulge their taste for sweets.

“We had our first male hummer at the feeder on Thursday, April 11, here in Bristol, Tennessee,” reported Tom and Sue Faucette in an email. “He came back on April 12-13.”

Lynne Reinhard reported that she saw her first hummingbirds of spring on Friday, April 12. “They are back!” Lynne proclaimed in a Facebook message. She wrote that the first hummingbird of the season arrived at 3 p.m. at her home on the upper end of South Holston Lake.

Snad Garrett saw her first hummingbird of spring on Stoney Creek in Elizabethton, Tennessee, on the evening of Friday, April 12.

Merry Jennings in Abingdon, Virginia, saw her first hummingbird on Friday, April  12, around 6 p.m., but hasn’t seen it since. “I put out the feeder on Thursday, April 11,” she noted in the email she sent me.

Lisa Brewer, who lives near Boone Lake in Piney Flats, Tennessee, reported that her first hummer arrived around 3 p.m. on Friday, April 12.

“I put my hummingbird feeders out last Sunday and had been watching every day for the first hummer to arrive,” she wrote in her email. “I was really excited to see a male ruby-throated hummingbird, and I saw what appeared to be the same one on Saturday and Sunday.”

Lisa added that this is the first year she has been able to get her feeders out in time for the first hummingbirds arriving in this area. “So I wanted to be sure to let you know when I saw my first one,” Lisa wrote.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • Keep hummingbirds happy with a sugar water solution of four parts water to one part sugar.

Glen Eller saw his first hummingbird for the spring season on Friday, April 12, at 5:55 p.m. at his home in Fall Branch, Tennessee. “it was a male,” Glen reported in an email.

Karen Fouts posted on Facebook that she saw her first hummingbird of 2019 on Friday, April 12, at her home in Marion, Virginia. She also reported rose-breasted grosbeaks at her feeders.

Lois Cox and Wilma Boy reported their first male ruby-throat hummingbird on Saturday, April 13, at 2:30 p.m. at home in Bluff City, Tennessee. In her email, Lois noted that they needed to get out their feeders for the visiting bird. “It was a male,” Lois wrote in the email. “Hope it comes back.”

Deb Clark sent me an email on behalf of her mother and her sighting of a spring hummingbird. “My mother, Louise Tilson, has asked that I send you a message sharing her good news that she’s having hummingbirds at her backdoor feeder,” Deb wrote in the email.

Deb added that her mom lives in the Riverside community near Chilhowie, Virginia, on the banks of the South Fork of the Holston River. “She put out her feeder about a week ago,” Deb wrote. “The first little fellow showed up Friday, April 12, at about three-thirty in the afternoon.”

Deb relayed that her mother said the hummer came and perched on the feeder, drinking like he was starving.

Louise reported multiple visits by solitary male hummingbirds several times through Friday afternoon, but she wasn’t sure whether it was one bird making several trips or different birds.

Lane and Phyllis Duncan, who reside in the Rich Valley community in Smyth, Virginia, sent me an email to report their first hummer of spring on Friday, April 12, at 3:30 p.m.

Karen Shaffer sent me an email to announce the arrival of a hummingbird at her home. “I’m so excited to report we saw our first hummer on Saturday, April 13, at 11 a.m. at our home on Rich Valley Road, Bristol, near the Benhams and Nordyke communities.”

Karen said she heard the bird before she saw it. “It was visiting our blooming yellow holly bush,” she wrote. “Such a tiny thing — but vivid in color at the throat, so a male, I guess. Yay!”

Gloria Walter Blevins reported in a Facebook message that she saw her first hummingbird this spring on Friday, April 12, at her home in Damascus Virginia. The hummingbird — or another one — returned the following morning. Gloria also noted that she has bluebirds building a nest at her home.

Priscilla Gutierrez, Limestone Cove community in Unicoi County, Tennessee, reported on my Facebook page that she saw the first spring hummingbird Friday, April 12, at 6:45 p.m. “They have been coming ever since,” she noted.

April Kerns Fain in Erwin, Tennessee, posted about her hummingbird sightings on Saturday, April 13, on Facebook. “The hummingbirds are back,” she wrote. “I’ve seen a male at my feeders several times today.”

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Photo by TheSOARnet / Pixabay.com • Male ruby-throated hummingbirds usually migrate ahead of females. These tiny birds must cross the Gulf of Mexico, without stopping, to reach their nesting grounds in the eastern United States. The journey across the Gulf can take them 18 to 22 hours, dependent on weather conditions.

Jane P. Arnold sent me an email to notify me of her mother’s hummingbird sighting. Her mother, Betty Poole, who lives in Abingdon, Virginia, saw her first hummingbird — a male — on Saturday, April 13. The following day, a female ruby-throated hummingbird also showed up at the feeder.

Jane added that she’s still waiting to see her own first hummingbird for the spring.

Helen Whited of Richlands, Virginia, reported her first spring hummingbird arrived on Saturday, April 13. “I just saw my first hummingbird of the season,” she wrote in her email. “Just one male so far. I have had my feeders out and waiting for a couple days. I thought this warm spring weather might bring in a few. So exciting!”

Sharee Bowman wrote a post on her Facebook page to announce her first spring hummer sighting on Saturday, April 13. “Hummingbird came yesterday to my feeder and, yes, it is the first one I have seen this year,” she wrote.

Felicia Mitchell saw her first spring hummingbird on Saturday, April 13. “He is happy to be home,” she reported in a comment on my Facebook page.

Brenda Hickman Dishner posted on my Facebook page about hummingbird arrivals. “They arrived at our house in Bristol, Tennessee, near Holston Dam on Highway 421, on Saturday, April 13, about 10:30 a.m.,” she wrote in her posting.

Vivian C. Tester sent me a Facebook message to report that she saw her first spring hummer at her home in Bristol, Tennessee, on Sunday, April 14.

Linda Kessinger Rhodes saw her first spring hummingbird visiting her feeders at her home in Tennessee Hills by the Walmart on the Parkway in Bristol, Tennessee, on Sunday, April 14. She posted her sighting on my Facebook page.

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

Rhonda Eller saw her first hummingbird on Sunday, April 14, at 1:20 p.m. In her post on my Facebook page, she noted that she hung the feeder out last Wednesday before heading to Louisville to visit family. “I am always pleasantly surprised for the first spotting of one here on Horseshoe Bend in Chilhowie, Virginia,” she added. “Oh, the bluebirds are here, too, and have a nest with three eggs.”

Cheri Miller posted on my Facebook page about her sighting. “I saw one Sunday, April 14, in the Brown’s Branch community in Hampton, Tennessee, eyeing an orchid blooming in the window,” she wrote in her post.

Ron Bartlett reported by email that a single male showed up at his feeder on Sunday, April 14. “I live in McDowell County, North Carolina,” Ron shared. “This is about a week later than normal. Perhaps he was held up trying to cross the border.”

Donna Barnes Kilday of Erwin, Tennessee, posted to my Facebook page that she saw her first hummingbird of spring on the morning of Monday, April 15.

Janie Compton, a resident of Chesterfield, Virginia, saw her first hummingbird on Monday, April 15. Her friend, Phyllis Moore, posted news of Janie’s sighting on my Facebook page.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • Despite a perceived disadvantage of size, ruby-throated hummingbirds are quite capable of thriving in a giant world.

Emily Rogers, from Jonesborough, Tennessee, reported on my Facebook page that she had her first hummingbird of spring in Tennessee’s oldest town on Monday, April 15.

Linda K. Sproles of Bristol, Tennessee, got her first visit from a female hummingbird on Monday, April 15, in the late afternoon. Last year, she said her first sighting took place on Apr.14 while in 2017 she first saw a returning hummingbird on April 16.

Philip Laws, a resident of Limestone Cove in Unicoi County, Tennessee, saw his first hummingbird on Tuesday, April 16, at 4:20 p.m.

Tom and Cathy McNeil, who reside in the Piney Grove community of Hampton, Tennessee, reported their first spring hummingbird on Facebook on Tuesday, April 16.

I saw my first hummingbird this spring when a male visited several of my feeders around 5:30 p.m. on Tuesday, April 16. I enjoyed welcoming him home.

Readers are welcome to continue sharing their hummingbird sightings. Plenty of other colorful birds are also making spring migration stops, and I love to hear what everyone is seeing in their own yards. Email me at ahoodedwarbler@aol.com with questions, comments or observations.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • A female ruby-throated hummingbird settles onto the perch of a sugar water feeder.

Bristol’s CBC records low total of species, but still makes some interesting finds

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Photo by SOARnet/Pixabay.com • The brown-headed nuthatch favors stands of loblolly pine, which are not common in the region. A record number of these small nuthatches were found on the recent Bristol TN-VA Christmas Bird Count.

Just before the end of last year, 21 participants gathered to conduct the Bristol TN-VA Christmas Bird Count. Count compiler Richard Lewis noted that the CBC found 71 species and a total of 5,700 individual birds.

“This was the 63rd year the count has been run since 1956,” Lewis posted on Bristol-Birds. “It was the lowest total number of species recorded in 27 years.”

Lewis could not explain the low total of species other than to note that the area doesn’t seem to have the usual influx of wintering birds from up north. In addition, waterfowl numbers were low. “Some species are not coming as far south this year,” he added.

The best find of the count was the discovery of a new bald eagle nest on South Holston Lake. Other noteworthy species recorded were black-crowned night-heron, red-shouldered hawk, merlin and brown-headed nuthatch. The four individuals found represent a new high count for the brown-headed nuthatch on the Bristol CBC. The species had only been seen on the count three other times.

The brown-headed nuthatch is a specialist of pine woodlands throughout the southeastern United States, favoring loblolly-shortleaf pines and longleaf-slash pines. This nuthatch requires standing dead trees for nesting and roosting. They forage for food, however, on live pines. The birds are more abundant in older pine stands.

This small nuthatch is not at all common in the region, but there are some records, including other Bristol records. I’ve had much better luck finding the brown-headed nuthatch during visits to coastal South Carolina or suburban Atlanta in Georgia. In these southern locations, it can be a quite common bird.

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

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

Participants in the CBC included Ron Carrico, Rob Biller, Rack Cross, Angela Cross, Robert Hunter, Terry Hunter, Rick Knight, Roy Knispel, Cade Campbell, Larry McDaniel, Ruth Clark, Mary Clark, Randy Smith, Ron Harrington Sam Evans, Kevin Hamed, Rick Phillips, Adrianna Nelson, Michelle Sparks, Richard Lewis and Phillip Lewis.

The total for the Bristol TN-VA CBC follows:

Canada goose, 730; gadwall, 49; American wigeon, 11; American black duck, 1; mallard, 294; ring-necked duck, 245; bufflehead, 51; and hooded merganser, 25.

Wild turkey, 53; common loon, 4; pied-billed grebe, 18; horned grebe, 2; great blue heron, 22; and black-crowned night-heron, 1.

Black vulture, 75; turkey vulture, 52; sharp-shinned hawk, 2; Cooper’s hawk, 5; bald eagle, 2; red-shouldered hawk, 1; and red-tailed hawk, 27.

 

American coot, 12; killdeer, 14; Bonaparte’s gull, 6; ring-billed gull, 143; rock pigeon, 607; mourning dove, 253; Eastern screech owl, 4; and great horned owl, 2.

Belted kingfisher, 15; red-bellied woodpecker, 30; yellow-bellied sapsucker, 6; down woodpecker, 21; Northern flicker, 12; pileated woodpecker, 12; American kestrel, 11; and merlin, 1.

Eastern phoebe, 5; loggerhead shrike, 1; blue jay, 176; American crow, 404; common raven, 5; Carolina chickadee, 145; tufted titmouse, 93; red-breasted nuthatch, 1; white-breasted nuthatch, 62; and brown-headed nuthatch, 4.

Brown creeper, 5; Carolina wren, 130; winter wren, 5; golden-crowned kinglet, 33; ruby-crowned kinglet, 6; Eastern bluebird, 167; hermit thrush, 8; American robin, 93; Northern mockingbird, 90; European starling, 816; and cedar waxwing, 12.

Yellow-rumped warbler, 18; field sparrow, 15; dark-eyed junco, 41; white-crowned sparrow, 17; white-throated sparrow, 68; song sparrow, 115; swamp sparrow, 7; and Eastern towhee, 22.

Eastern meadowlark, 13; house finch, 47; American goldfinch, 89; and house sparrow, 25.

Glade Spring CBC finds 63 species

A Christmas Bird Count is also conducted annually in Glade Spring, Virginia. This year’s Glade Spring CBC took place Dec. 27 and found a total of 63 species and 6,696 individual birds. The total and individual count both dropped slightly from last year’s count, which found 71 species and 6,891 individual birds. Twenty-three people participated on the 2018 Glade Spring CBC.

Count compiler Ron Harrington noted that one new species — a common loon found on a private pond just off Old Saltworks Road — made its Glade Spring CBC debut. Six common mergansers, a new count circle high, were found on the North Fork of the Holston River. A single common merganser was found in that same river last year for the first time.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • Raptors, like this Red-tailed Hawk, proved plentiful on Christmas Bird Counts conducted throughout the region.

Other highlights noted by Harrington included 48 red-tailed hawks (a new high count total), 10 hairy woodpeckers (tying the record high) and three palm warblers, which represented a new high count for this warbler species. The CBC also recorded a high count for wood ducks with seven individuals being found. Other notable finds include swamp sparrow, brown creeper, brown thrasher, loggerhead shrike, winter wren, hermit thrush, Eurasian collared dove and common grackle.

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With these snapshots of winter bird populations in the area, readers can use these references to see if they can find some of these same birds visiting their yards, gardens and favorite birding spots. As always, I enjoy hearing from readers about the sightings they are making. Email me at ahoodedwarbler@aol.com to share sightings, make comments or ask questions.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • A male Northern Cardinal perches in a tangle of branches on a rainy day.

Yellow-rumped warblers are wild about poison ivy berries

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Photo by Edbo23/Pixabay.com • The yellow-rumped warbler is one of the few warblers that attempts to reside in the region during the winter months. Switching from a diet of insects to one of fruit and seeds helps the birds manage to find enough to eat during the lean months. This species is particularly fond of poison ivy berries.

 

November and December are bleak months for birders as we experience a bit of a letdown after the joys of fall migration. Many of the favorite birds that spend the summer months with us have departed and will not return until spring. Hummingbirds, tanagers, vireos and most warblers, despite a few lingering individuals, have left the scene.

I really feel the pinch since warblers are one of my favorite families of birds. In northeast Tennessee, southwestern Virginia and western North Carolina, there are only three warblers that bird enthusiasts are likely to see in the winter. The yellow-rumped warbler is by far the most common winter warbler, but palm warblers and pine warblers are also occasional winter residents. A few other warblers are occasional stragglers, attempting to eke out a living during the cold months. For instance, I’ve seen a few common yellowthroats during the winter over the years

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Photo by Edbo23/Pixabay.com • During the winter months, a yellow-rumped warbler is a dull bird in mostly brown and gray plumage except for the rump patch of bright yellow feathers that provides the bird its common name.

With the exception of the yellow-rumped warbler, however, the chances of enjoying warblers during the winter are rather slim. At least the yellow-rumped warbler is common and I encounter flocks of these birds on most occasions when I walk woodland trails in the region any time from November to April.

Until 1973, the yellow-rumped warbler was divided by scientists into two distinct species: the myrtle warbler in the eastern United States and Audubon’s warbler in the western United States. During a visit to Salt Lake City, Utah, in 2003, I saw my first and only “Audubon’s” warbler. This western counterpart is more colorful than the version birders know so well in the eastern half of the country. In addition to yellow plumage on the rear and flanks, the Audubon’s warbler also boasts a yellow crown and a yellow throat patch. Otherwise, the two birds are remarkably similar in appearance.

Of course, it’s the creamy yellow rump patch — looking like a small pat of butter — that gives this species its common name. Birders have adopted another nickname for the species, often referring to them simply as “butter-butts.”

There is now some discussion in scientific circles of dividing the species into not two distinct species, but four. The other two species would be the black-fronted warbler of mountains in Northern Mexico and Goldman’s warbler, which resides in Guatemala. I wouldn’t mind seeing Audubon’s warbler resurrected as a full species, since it would place an additional species on my life list of birds seen. In addition, it seems fitting that we have at least one bird that honors the name of the famed naturalist and painter John James Audubon.

The scientific name for the yellow-rumped warbler is Setophaga coronata, which are terms derived from ancient Greek that when roughly translated mean “crowned moth-eater.” Like most warblers, the yellow-rumped warbler is fond of insects, but there’s another food source these birds turn to during times of scarcity.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • A wintering yellow-rumped warbler clings to palm fronds in coastal South Carolina.

So, how does a warbler make it through the winter season in the region? After all, most warblers exist on a diet heavy on insects and other small invertebrates. The yellow-rumped warbler, however, supplements its diet with different seasonal berries, including juniper berries, Virginia creeper berries and dogwood berries. They also feed on berries from one unlikely source. These birds love to gorge themselves on poison ivy berries that, fortunately, produce no ill effects. I’ve long noticed that many of the trails I enjoy walking during the winter season wind through woodlands overrun by poison ivy. Of course, by eating the berries, the warbler also help spread the noxious vines.

The yellow-rumped warbler is not the only bird known to feed on poison ivy berries. Other birds seen eating these berries include Northern flickers, bobwhites, Eastern phoebes, Cedar waxwings, tufted titmice and American robins. White-tailed deer show a preference for dining on poison ivy leaves over other types of vegetation. The berries are high in fat and calories, which makes them an ideal food source for creatures with high metabolisms like songbirds. The berries also ripen in fall and early winter when many other types of berries are scarce. While it is best for humans to avoid contact with this plant, it is a valuable fall and winter food source for wildlife.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • A male yellow-rumped in spring plumage looks quite different than his subdued winter appearance.

While the yellow-rumped warbler is quite capable of dealing with some frost and snow, more than half of the world’s warblers live in more tropical climates outside the borders of the United States and Canada. Not all yellow-rumped warbler attempt to tough out winter conditions in the United States. Some do migrate to the tropics, where they utilize a variety of habitats, including mangroves, thorn scrub, pine-oak-fir forests and shade coffee plantations.

All warblers are exclusively New World bird species. The family numbers about 120 species. Some of the descriptively named species of warblers not seen within the United States or its northern neighbor include citrine warbler, white-striped warbler, black-crested warbler, pale-legged warbler, buff-rumped warbler, golden-bellied warbler and black-eared warbler.

During your next woodland stroll, keep your eyes peeled for small brown birds in the branches of nearby trees. If the last thing you see before they dive for cover is a bright yellow rump patch, you’ll know you’ve observed a yellow-rumped warbler.

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Early naturalist and painter John James Audubon painted these yellow-rumped warblers.

 

Great horned owl reigns as ‘feathered tiger of the night’ among birds

 

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Photo by Alexas-Fotos/Pixabay • A great horned owl is capable of almost silent flight, which helps the predatory bird take prey by surprise. Many myths and superstitions surround the world’s owls, but the truth about owls is often more fascinating.

I’ve been so focused on migrating warblers and other songbirds of late that I felt some surprise when outside near dark on Oct. 10 when I heard the low hoots of a feathered phantom from the woodlands on the ridge behind my home.

The hooting of a great horned owl is an instantly recognizable sound and always sends shivers traveling along the spine. The after-dark calls of this large predatory bird also got me to thinking about previous encounters with this owl, such as watching one glide silently over wetlands in Shady Valley, Tennessee, many years ago. I had traveled to the bogs in Shady Valley maintained by The Nature Conservancy in the hope of witnessing the mating displays of the American woodcock. Before those avian rituals began, a great horned owl kicked off the evening in style. I still remember the large owl passing like a dark shadow only a couple of feet over my head. The wings did not even appear to flap as the owl’s silent flight propelled the bird out of sight within seconds.

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Photo by Flickr on Pexels.com

I also remembered another occasion while driving on a wet and stormy night, rounding a curve, and finding an owl, upright in the road, standing over fresh roadkill. The owl’s eyes reflected the beams of my headlights before it seized its meal in powerful talons and flew off into the darkness. I’ve always wondered if the owl had killed something in the road or came along at just the right moment to scavenge a meal after some creature had been killed by a passing car.

Owls have been around for a long time, according to “Owls: The Silent Hunters,” an episode of National Geographic’s series, “Wildlife Wonders.” The narrator for the episode reveals that the first recognizable owls first showed up in the fossil record about 40 million years ago. Since that time, owls have evolved into a fantastic, widespread and diverse group of about 135 different species. North America is home to several species, including the far-ranging great horned owl, which ranks as one of continent’s largest owls. It’s not the largest owl in North America, but it is the most widespread of the continent’s large owls. The snowy owl — popularized in J.K. Rowling’s fiction as Harry Potter’s loyal companion owl, Hedwig — is one of the largest owls in the Northern Hemisphere, bigger than such large owls as great horned owl and barred owl. The aptly named great gray owl is larger in body size than the great horned owl, but the snowy owl is heavier and more massive than either of these two contenders.

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Photo by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service • A captive snowy owl educates the public about owls and some of the perils they face in an environment shared by humans.

Nevertheless, the great horned owl is large enough, ferocious enough, and lethal enough to have been described by many ornithologists as a “feathered tiger of the night.” The great horned owl lives and hunts in the woodlands of northeast Tennessee, southwest Virginia and western North Carolina. They thrive in rural areas, but these adaptable owls have also learned to make their way in the suburbs and even city parks. Not by any stretch of the imagination, however, is this owl confined to the southern Appalachians. These owls also make their home in the wetlands along the southern Atlantic coast, as well as arid deserts of the American southwest.

During a September vacation many years ago to Fripp Island, South Carolina, a solitary great horned owl provided several days of entertainment for my parents and me. We took a golf cart at dusk each evening to park at a spot that offered a good view of the marshes and tidal creeks in the interior of the island. For several consecutive days, the owl flew to a perch on a piece of driftwood as the sun sank below the horizon. We would wait patiently for only a brief interval before the owl entertained us with its low hoots that resonated across the marsh.

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

The great horned owl is capable of taking a wide variety of prey, including many rodents ranging in size from mice and voles to rabbits and squirrels. Although various mammals form the most part of its diet, the great horned owl will kill adult birds as large as a Canada goose, wild turkey and great blue heron. This owl also preys on fish, reptiles, amphibians and even insects. The great horned owl is one of the few predators that preys regularly on skunks. Lacking a well-defined sense of smell, owls aren’t bothered in the least by the skunk’s powerful arsenal of stink. That ability to fly and glide using almost completely silent wings has given this nocturnal predator an enormous advantage over many of its prey species.

A wild great horned owl’s longevity peaks at around 13 years of age. Captive owls, however, have been reported reaching ages of more than 30 years old.

Various Native American tribes have held owls in high respect. Dwight G. Smith, author of “Great Horned Owl,” a book in the “Wild Bird Guides” series, noted that members of the Zuni tribe of the southwestern United States often hold owl feathers in their mouths to impart the owl’s ability to hunt silently onto their own hunting abilities.

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

The main fascination humans hold for owls rests in their mystery. Owls, being mainly nocturnal creatures, rarely cross paths with humans. These predatory birds have many adaptations that help them stake out their claim on the night hours. Owls possess large eyes with binocular vision and extremely accurate depth perception — which also make them seem more expressive to human observers and perhaps helped establish the reputation of the “wise” owl.

Owls cannot completely rotate their heads, but they come close. Owls are flexible enough, however, to be able to turn their heads in a 270-degree arc, or three-quarters of the way around. Owls have keen hearing to go with their excellent eyesight. In fact, owls don’t even need to see their prey to capture it. Tests with barn owls in total darkness have shown that they are capable of catching mice by hearing alone. An owl’s prominent facial disk directs sounds toward their ears. The “ear tufts” on the great horned owl and some other relatives are ornamental feathers, and not actual ears.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens / A great horned owl perches on a post during its part in a wild bird show at Callaway Gardens in Pine Mountain, Georgia.

Around the world, the world’s owls have earned some rather descriptive common names. Examples include pharoah eagle-owl, vermiculated fishing owl, fearful owl, pearl-spotted owlet, chestnut-backed owlet, spectacled owl, black-and-white owl, crested owl, cinereous owl, tawny owl, whiskered screech owl, greater sooty owl and desert owl.

Americans will observe Halloween on Wednesday, Oct. 31, which brings me to one other piece of owl trivia. There’s an ancient Chinese belief that owls snatch the souls of incautious people — just something I thought you might want to know if you find yourself out and about after dark on Halloween night and hear the hoots of a nearby owl.

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Photo by George Gentry/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service • A great horned owl is shown on the nest with one of her chicks.

Crows show intelligence yet can’t shake dark reputation

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Photo by Bryan Stevens
Red-winged blackbirds mob an American crow. In turn, crows often mob large raptors,           such as red-tailed hawks and great horned owls.

There’s something rather autumnal about watching a flock of American crows glean the last scattered kernels of corn from a harvested field as a sentry stands guard ready to utter the alarm with some guttural “caws” should anything potentially threatening appear on the scene. Crows are such a part of the landscape that they would almost escape our notice if they didn’t come with centuries of accumulated baggage that makes us distrust them and suspect their every action.

The crow, largely thanks to its black plumage, but perhaps also with a nod to its avian intelligence, has long been associated with Halloween. Greeting cards and decorations for the holiday often feature depictions of bats, owls and black cats, as well as the inevitable crow and the accompanying scarecrow. It’s not like the straw-filled sentries that stand guard over a farmer’s fields do anything to intimidate or even discourage crows. With a brain about as big as a man’s thumb, the crow is renowned among ornithologists and other scientists for its keen intelligence. Crows are not fooled for a second by the masquerade of a scarecrow propped in a field.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens / Wary American crows survey their surroundings.

The intelligence of this bird has long been known. Early American naturalist William Bartram wrote about a crow named Tom in a unique naturalist essay titled “Anecdotes of an American Crow.” Bartram, who lived from 1739 to 1823, brought humor and insight to his subject as he wrote about the joys, as well as tribulations, of living with Tom, a crow that enjoyed tormenting Bartram’s dog and stealing the writer’s spectacles and trying to hide them.

The essay demonstrates that almost as soon as Europeans arrived in North America, some of those with a bent toward the natural world recognized the intelligence and amazing adaptability of the American crow. As well as writing about the natural world, Bartram earned widespread acclaim for his drawings of botanical and ornithological subjects. Tom, the featured crow in Bartram’s brief essay, certainly exhibited intelligence of an impressive degree. Not only did the crow steal his owners eyeglasses, he foiled Bartram’s first attempt to reclaim them. Noting Bartram’s attention to his efforts to hide the purloined spectacles, Tom snatched the eyeglasses a second time when Bartram made a premature attempt to reclaim them. The situation makes very humorous reading.

What else have crows done down through the ages to gain such a dark and much undeserved reputation? It probably doesn’t help matters that a flock of crows is known as a “murder.” Ancient Greeks considered crows as omens, which often foretold death and other disasters. On the positive side, many Native American tribes revere crows as communicators between worlds. Crows have been documented using tools and solving problems, which shows an uncanny ability to analyze and strategize. Early Celtic people also noted and admired these traits in crows.

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Early naturalist and artist John James Audubon painted this American crow.

In addition, crows forage beyond the cornfield for their food. Many crows scavenge road-killed wildlife, such as squirrels, opossums and rabbits. While they eat carrion, they do so less often than birds such as turkey vultures, black vultures and the crow’s fellow corvid, the common raven.

The kinship to the raven is evident, but even moderately experienced birders rarely confuse these similar species. The raven is a large bird with a heavy beak, a distinctive profile and a wedge-shaped tail. In a direct comparison with a raven, a crow looks downright puny. Both are members of the corvid family, which consists of 120 species including jays, rooks, magpies and jackdaws.

Many years ago I fed a flock of ducks that took up residence at my fish pond. Before long, the crows arrived within minutes after I tossed shelled corn on the ground for the benefit of the ducks. If the ducks took too long consuming the corn, the impatient crows crowded closer and competed directly with the ducks for the kernels. The crows that live around my home are usually too cautious and wary to visit feeders situated near my home. Feeders set farther from the house receive occasional hurried visits by crows.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens / A trio of American crows forages on a grassy lawn.

American author and abolitionist Henry Ward Beecher summed up the American crow in the frequently quoted remark, “If men had wings and bore black feathers, few of them would be clever enough to be crows.” It’s an apt tribute and comes from the man whose sister, Harriet Beecher Stowe, wrote “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” a book often credited with helping to launch the American Civil War.

Crows, perhaps more than any other North American bird, have learned to co-exist with human beings. Make an effort to get past some pre-supposed superstitions about these interesting birds and learn to appreciate them for their many good qualities.

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

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