Tag Archives: Songbirds

Carolina chickadees are easy birds to befriend and bring into your daily life

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • A Carolina chickadee perches on a branch.

In last week’s post, I pointed out that Eastern bluebirds have already started seeking nesting locations for the upcoming spring nesting season. They’re hardly the only cavity-nesting birds already checking out every nook and cranny for the perfect place to raise a family of young.

I’ve been hearing the familiar “fee-bee-fee-bo” song of the Carolina chickadee from the woodlands around my home. With the recent turn in the weather, the male chickadees are persistent singers, making the woods ring with their attempts to woo a mate.

The Carolina chickadee is at home in mixed or deciduous woods in the United States from New Jersey west to southern Kansas and south to Florida and Texas. The Carolina chickadee also ranges along the Appalachian Mountains, but on some of the higher peaks they are replaced by their cousin, the black-capped chickadee. In Tennessee, birders need to visit some of the higher peaks in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park to find black-capped chickadees.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • A Carolina chickadee visits a feeder for sunflower seeds.

Once a pair of chickadees settles down into domestic bliss, they almost at once start work upon constructing a nest. These little songbirds, looking quite smart in their handsome black, white and gray feathers, build an exquisite nest. The primary nesting material is green moss, which they stuff into a natural cavity or bird box in great quantities. The female chickadee fashions a depression in the collection of moss. She lines this shallow basin with plant fibers as well as strands of fur or hair to provide soft cushioning for her eggs.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • A Carolina chickadee endures a cold winter’s day.

A female chickadee can lay a large number of eggs, with the clutch size ranging between three and ten eggs. Once the young hatch, both parents are kept busy delivering food to a large brood of hungry, noisy chicks. The young grow quickly, but they take advantage of the safety of their cavity nest and don’t depart for the wider world until 20 days after their hatching.

Energetic chickadees, birds of the most engaging antics, make wonderful feeder visitors. With their tame and trusting natures, chickadees are one of the birds I welcome to my feeders. Chickadees are daily visitors to my feeders in the winter season as well as other times of the year. I love to watch a chickadee land on a feeder, snatch a single sunflower seed and fly to a perch close at hand to hack open the seed’s shell and devour the kernel before they repeat the entire process again.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • A Carolina chickadee makes a food delivery to nestlings.

North America’s other chickadees include the aforementioned black-capped chickadee, as well as boreal chickadee, chestnut-backed chickadee, grey-headed chickadee, Mexican chickadee, and mountain chickadee. On a trip to Utah in 2003 and 2006, I saw both black-capped chickadee and mountain chickadee.

In other parts of the world, chickadees are known as “tits,” which is from an Old English word denoting small size. Worldwide, there are about 60 species of chickadees and tits, which are classified collectively under the scientific family name, Paridae. Other members of this family range into Europe, Asia and Africa, including species with colorful names like fire-capped tit, yellow-bellied tit, azure tit, green-backed tit and cinnamon-breasted tit.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • Caroline chickadee waits for a chance to visit a crowded feeder.

It’s easy to attract chickadees to your yard. Shrubs and small trees, feeders stocked with sunflower seeds and perhaps a mesh cage offering a suet cake are sure to make these small birds feel welcome. If you want to witness the family life of chickadees, build or buy a box suitable for wrens and other smaller birds. Chickadees will happily take up residence. These birds often comprise the nucleus of mixed flocks of various species, so they will also bring other birds into your yard and within easy viewing range.

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

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • A Carolina chickadee grasps a branch near a feeder.

 

Vultures aren’t typical poster birds for ecological awareness, but perhaps they should be

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • A flock of vultures gathers in a dead pine tree on a gloomy winter afternoon.

Cougars have returned to eastern mountains, white-tailed deer numbers are out of control and hungry black bears sometimes wander into towns. Encounters between humans and wildlife are nothing new. I was reminded of this fact when I received a recent email from Gene Sturgeon on the subject of vultures. Gene and his wife, Catheryn, reside in Abingdon, Virginia. The town, it would seem, has experienced a recent invasion.

“In our new neighborhood, the black vultures are ever-present,” Gene wrote. “They circle endlessly, and never seem to land on the carrion that attracts them. Turkey vultures typically are seen on the carrion, but these blacks never appear to be feeding. Also, I can’t imagine this neighborhood has more than the normal number of dead animals.”

Gene has also observed that the black vultures, starting in mid-afternoon, begin to gather in selected trees. Usually two nearby trees, he noted, will contain dozens of them for the night.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • Vultures gather atop an industrial building in downtown Erwin, Tennessee.

Gene asked if the behavior he has observed is fairly typical. I replied to his email that I believe that his observations are accurate and typical. While the birds seem to be roosting in his neighborhood, they are probably not finding their food there. Vultures are capable of soaring long distance in search of food, so they may actually be dining far away from Gene’s Abingdon neighborhood.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • A turkey vulture perches on a branch in a South Carolina woodland.

I asked him if there were pine trees or other types of evergreens because it’s my understanding that vultures are often fond of thick stands of pine. I am guessing this is because such trees offer protection and shelter from the elements. Gene wrote back to inform me that both pine trees and leafless trees are present near his home. “The leafless tree attracts the larger cloud of black vultures,” he added.

Doubtless, some residents are uneasy when these uninvited neighbors swell the neighborhood. I was somewhat surprised by Gene’s observation, but I was also taken aback to learn that Abingdon has for years boasted an extremely substantial population of vultures. In fact, the Abingdon Police Department has even compiled a fact sheet to educate the public about these large birds. According to the release, it is around this time of year that Abingdon sees an increase in the number of vultures due to weather patterns. The APD has apparently received complaints from some citizens about the vultures roosting in their neighborhoods.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • Turkey vultures forage in a freshly mowed field near Abingdon, Virginia. As scavengers, vultures play a vital but often unappreciated role in the environment.

I was glad to note that the fact sheet recognizes the important of vultures in the ecosystem. These large birds serve an important function. Without vultures, local yards and roads would be littered with rotting, stinking, animal carcasses — and the health risks that accompany them.

Nothing prohibits a private land owner from contacting a professional wildlife specialist to disturb the roosts at owner expense. If I might offer unsolicited advice, however, I’d recommend against wasting your money. The tactics, while they may make a temporary difference, don’t usually solve anything in the long run.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • Turkey vultures in their usual V-shaped silhouette characteristic of a soaring vulture.

Abingdon’s government, for both ethical and legal reasons, cannot kill vultures. Private citizens are also forbidden by law to kill vultures or hire exterminators to do so. Vultures are protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. The birds, their nests and eggs cannot be killed or destroyed without a permit from the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Fish and Wildlife Service. Private citizens are also not legally permitted to use fireworks to try to disperse vulture flocks.

The best thing to do is make your home and yard less attractive to these large, scavenging birds. While reading some tips put forward by the APD, I was struck by how some of the advice, if followed, can protect homes from other potential nuisance wildlife ranging from raccoons and opossums to black bears and skunks. According to the APD, there are several things people can do to make their yards less attractive as a roosting place for vultures:
• Ensure that you are not inadvertently attracting the vultures. Common attractions include open containers of pet food, uncovered garbage cans, and pet food bowls.
• Remove any dead trees that make convenient perches for vultures.
• Use humane perch deterrents, like motion-activated sprinklers or lights.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • A Turkey Vulture perches in a woodland in Roan Mountain, Tennessee, during late fall.

The APD also pointed those wishing for more information to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology website, which has excellent information about both species of vulture, including conservation information.

I was very pleased to see that the APD tried to dispel misinformation about these valuable birds. People are, naturally enough, concerned for their pets because of the presence of these large birds. Vultures are carrion eaters, which means eat animals that are already dead, preferring animals that have been dead for two to four days. While there are no accounts of turkey vultures preying upon live animals, there have been occasional reports of black vultures preying upon small, live and relatively defenseless animals.

That tells most, but not all, of the story. Black vultures occasionally will attack newborn livestock, but these birds are not likely to go after the family dog or cat, especially if the pet is mobile and in good health. Nevertheless, it is still a good idea to keep cherished pets indoors. While vultures pose little danger to them, plenty of other animals, such as coyotes, are much more opportunistic than vultures. Keeping cats and dogs confined indoors also protects wild birds and other wildlife from the instinctive predatory notions of our precious pets.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • A black vulture and two turkey vultures share a perch near Boone Lake in Sullivan County, Tennessee.

While both vultures are migratory birds, their numbers have always fluctuated and will continue to do so. As their populations increase, their range has increased as well. Both species are present in the Abingdon area year-round. Because of the town’s location, their numbers increase from November through early February as they follow the weather patterns. In colder periods, they move farther south, in warmer periods, farther north. Abingdon’s climate makes for a good wintering location. As it gets warmer, non-resident flocks tend to move farther north.

Like many other species of birds, some vultures have learned to co-exist near humans, just like such birds as Canada geese, Eastern bluebirds, American robins and mallards. Like these birds, vultures are highly adaptive creatures. Unlike some types of wildlife that shy away from human contact, vultures and some other birds have adapted to the human environment – perhaps a bit too well. Vulture behavior can be destructive. In recent years, some of these destructive tendencies have become quite infamous among birders. This new behavior apparently first surfaced among vultures wintering in south Florida.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • Turkey vultures regularly dispose of road-killed animals.

They have been known to tear window and roof caulking, vent seals, shingles, rubber seals on car windshields, windshield wipers and other soft, rubbery materials. In addition, their excrement is acidic and may damage painted surfaces and landscaping. The birds also regurgitate a smelly, acidic vomit. Unfortunately, vultures apparently pass on these bad habits to others of their kind and such aberrant behavior is now being seen outside of the Sunshine State.

According to the APD, flocks of as many as 100 vultures have been documented in Abingdon. This number may rise and fall, depending on conditions. Vultures are part of the web of life, which connects them and their fellow creatures to our own lives. Turkey vultures are larger than black vultures, weighing about four to five pounds, with a wingspan of six feet. The turkey vulture’s most distinctive feature is its bright red, featherless head. In flight, a turkey vulture often appears to be “wobbling” and, from underneath, all of the flight feathers are light colored.

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Photo by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service • Turkey vultures have bare red heads, as opposed to the black heads of the related black vulture. While larger than black vultures, turkey vultures are less aggressive than their smaller relatives.

On the other hand, black vultures are smaller, weighing less than four pounds, with a wingspan of five feet or less. The black vulture’s head is grey and featherless, but larger in proportion than the turkey vultures. Viewed in flight, only the outer flight feathers of the black vulture are white.

Although smaller in size, black vultures are feisty and aggressive birds. They often outcompete turkey vultures at carcasses. They will also only reluctantly abandon a feeding site at a carcass. My family almost learned this the hard way during a trip to South Carolina when my father almost ran his car into a flock of black vultures feeding on a road-killed deer. I warned him that the vultures might not get out of the way, and he slowed the car’s speed. The vultures hopped back from the edge of the road as our car traveled past them. Looking back, I noticed they immediately hopped back onto the carcass after we had passed. If we had sped past at full speed, one of the bird’s could easily have panicked and flown into our path. A four-pound bird can do a lot of damage if it hits the windshield of a car traveling at 40 to 50 miles per hour. Trust me! You don’t want to put this to the test.

Perhaps that’s the moral of the story. Give vultures a wide berth and, in theory, they will do the same for you. Let’s face it. Vultures aren’t going to be cute and cuddly faces for ecological awareness. A polar bear or penguin, vultures simply are not. They still have a role to play, and we should be grateful they were created for just that purpose.

Annual Great Backyard Bird Count enlists public as citizen scientists for global survey

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Photo by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service/Lee Karney • The Clapper Rail is abundant in saltwater marshes and mangrove swamps from Massachusetts to South America. Observant participants in the Great Backyard Bird Count are sure to find some of these reclusive birds.

I look forward every year to the annual Great Backyard Bird Count, a survey established as a citizen science project back in 1998. Since 2013, the GBBC has been a global effort, allowing birders around the world to take part. Participants in 2015 observed almost half of the world’s known bird species, and that effort was surpassed just last year during the 2016 count. Over the years, I have counted various interesting birds, including green-winged teal, Ross’s goose, snow goose, American kestrel and Cooper’s hawk, while taking part in the GBBC.

The GBBC is a joint project of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the National Audubon Society with partner Bird Studies Canada. With its global perspective, a great many exotic bird species are now tallied on the annual GBBC, but the survey remains firmly established as a grassroots effort to compile data crucial for the conservation of the world’s beloved birds. The information gathered by tens of thousands of volunteers helps track the health of bird populations at a scale that would not otherwise be possible.

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Photo by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service/Steve Hillebrand • Parakeet Auklets in flight in the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge. The Great Backyard Bird Count extends beyond North America and now covers the entire globe.

It’s incredibly easy to take part in the GBBC. Anyone anywhere in the world can count birds for at least 15 minutes on one or more days of the four-day count period and enter their sightings at http://www.BirdCount.org. There’s no charge or fee for taking part in the GBBC, which is a fun way to observe a variety of birds. Thanks to the flexible count criteria, it is also an easy way to make a contribution to science. The data delivered by the thousands of participants is now collected and compiled by the website ebird.org.

This year’s GBBC will be held over a four-day period, starting on Friday, Feb. 17, and continuing through Monday, Feb. 20. Participants are invited to count birds at their own homes in their yards and gardens. They can also travel farther into the field, birding in their favorite parks, wildlife refuges or other birding hot spots. Participants can count alone or join with groups of fellow birders. Those taking part in the GBBC are invited to count in as many locations as they like. The reported results will help create a real-time snapshot of where birds are distributed during the winter months.

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Photo by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service/Lee Karney • A pair of Sandhill Cranes in a New Mexico wetland.

The 2016 Great Backyard Bird Count saw 142 species of birds reported in Tennessee. In Virginia, a total of 177 species was counted by participants in the annual survey. The Old Dominion State has a distinct advantage over landlocked Tennessee in having ample coastal access to the Atlantic Ocean, which helps explain the more than 30 additional species tallied in Virginia. Birds like brown pelican, American oystercatcher, Northern gannet, purple sandpiper and great black-backed gull represented finds not found in Tennessee.

Both states were outpaced by GBBC participants in North Carolina, who managed to find an incredible total of 213 species, including red-cockaded woodpecker, little blue heron, razorbill, brant, parasitic jaeger, Northern fulmar and Western tanager.

Overall, the top three species-rich states were Florida (323), Texas (359) and California (369). In the lower 48 states of the United States, a total of 616 species of birds were reported for the 2016 GBBC.

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Photo by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service/Richard Baetsen • Sharp-tailed grouse engaged in a mating display. Keeping track of populations of vulnerable species is a major component of the annual GBBC.

The 2016 GBBC shattered records. An estimated 163,763 bird watchers from more than 130 countries joined the effort. Participants submitted 162,052 bird checklists reporting 5,689 species, which is more than half the known bird species in the world and 599 more species than the previous year. So, what results will 2017 produce?

Social media, like Facebook and Twitter, have helped raise awareness about the importance of the GBBC, which has proven helpful in tracking long-term population trends of North American birds, as well as the bird populations on other continents. If anything, counting birds during the GBBC is an easy way to do your part to advance the cause of science intended to improve the plight of our beloved birds. So, circle the dates on your calendar and join me in taking part in the upcoming Great Backyard Bird Count. For more information on the Great Backyard Bird Count, visit www.BirdCount.org.

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

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Cardinals provide perfect symbol for Christmas holiday

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • Male Northern cardinals are among the most showy of North American birds.

Often, when people think of the birds of the winter season, their 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 so unlike their summer appearance of bright yellow and black.

There’s one bird, however, that stands out 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. Over the years, the 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 Northern cardinal.

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Photo by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service • Male Northern cardinals are welcome birds in a bleak winter landscape.

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

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, of the southwestern United States, and the Vermilion cardinal, or phoeniceus, a bird found in Colombia and Venezuela. 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 Bryan Stevens • A female Northern cardinal visits a feeder for a meal of black oil sunflower seeds.

The Northern cardinal is a native and abundant bird. 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 cardinal accepts a wide variety of food at feeders. Sunflower seed is probably their favorite, but they will also sample safflower seed, cracked corn, peanuts, millet, bakery scraps and even suet. 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. Cardinals away from our feeders eat insects and fruit, including the berries of mulberry, holly, pokeberry, elderberry, Russian olive, dogwood and sumac.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • Female cardinals scans the snow’s surface for seeds dropped by other birds.

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. People can also choose to further the cause of science by taking part in studies such as Project FeederWatch, a nationwide survey of bird populations focused on birds coming to feeders maintained by project participants.

In the 2015-16 winter season, 1,373 individuals participated in Project FeederWatch in the southeastern United States. The most common birds reported by observers were Northern cardinal, Carolina chickadee, mourning dove, American goldfinch and tufted titmouse. Finishing out the Top 10 feeder birds in this section of the nation were Carolina wren, house finch, blue jay, red-bellied woodpecker and downy woodpecker. Almost 98 percent of participants reported Northern cardinals at their feeders, which means the cardinal has become an almost universal feeder visitor in the southeast.

The roots of Project FeederWatch extend back to 1976 Ontario, Canada, when Dr. Erica Dunn with Canada’s Long Point Bird Observatory established the Ontario Bird Feeder Survey. After a successful 10-year run, its organizers realized that only a continental survey could accurately monitor the large-scale movements of birds. Therefore, Long Point Bird Observatory decided to expand the survey to cover all of North America.

The expansion launched in the winter of 1987-88, when more than 4,000 people enrolled. FeederWatchers represented every state in the U.S. except Hawaii, as well as most Canadian provinces. Project FeederWatch continues to be a cooperative research project of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Bird Studies Canada (formerly the Long Point Bird Observatory) on an annual basis. To learn more, visit http://feederwatch.org/

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Early naturalist and artist John James Audubon painted this pair of Northern Cardinals.

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.”

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • A pair of Northern Cardinals claim perches near a feeder.

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.

Here’s some additional cardinal trivia to increase your knowledge of this fascinating bird:

• Cardinals are also known by such common names as redbird and Virginia nightingale.

• Cardinals differ in appearance based on gender. 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.

• The cardinal’s preference for dense cover makes them likely neighbors for such birds as Carolina wrens and brown thrashers.

• The oldest recorded Northern Cardinal was a female, and she was 15 years, nine months old when she was found in Pennsylvania, according to the website, All About Birds.

Wild turkey’s connection with holiday of Thanksgiving dates back to Pilgrim era

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Early naturalist and painter John James Audubon painted this depiction of a wild turkey hen and poults.

When the Pilgrims sat down to the first Thanksgiving feast in the New World, many of the trappings we associate with the November holiday were missing from the menu. Instead the Pilgrims enjoyed a repast of bounty that was seasonally available when they held that first celebration back in 1621. The Pilgrim leader William Bradford wrote of that first observance in his work titled “Of Plymouth Plantation.” Some of the details may surprise you.

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Wild turkey painted by John James Audubon.

When Americans sit down in a few days to celebrate Thanksgiving, plenty of us will enjoy a meal of turkey with all the traditional trimmings. Among the items available for that first feast were a variety of fish, including good New England cod, as well as bass and other fish. The Pilgrims took “good store” of fish and “every family had their portion.” Bradford also wrote that as winter approached, Massachusetts Bay suddenly experienced an abundance of waterfowl, but that their numbers eventually decreased. Birders will recognize what was happening with this sudden influx of ducks and other waterfowl. They were migrating. The waterfowl were temporarily abundant, but then as the ducks and other birds continued to make their way south, they became scarce again.

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The early settlers in Massachusetts took advantage of abundant resources, including fish such as cod (pictured) and bass. Wild turkeys were also abundant.

The Pilgrims also enjoyed Indian corn, as well as the wild fowl that is still very popular at traditional Thanksgiving meals today. They may have lacked cranberries and potatoes, but they most definitely feasted on turkey. “And besides waterfowl,” Bradford wrote, “there was great store of wild turkeys, of which they took many, besides venison.”

So, cod and venison shared top billing with turkey at that early Thanksgiving. Of course, Bradford was writing about North America’s wild turkey, which is a far cry from the domesticated fowl that typically ends up on serving platters on Thanksgiving Day in our age

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Photo by Bryan Stevens                                      A wild turkey forages for food.

Surprisingly, the wild turkey, which was so abundant during the Pilgrim era in Massachusetts, almost didn’t survive until the 19th century. It’s almost miraculous that the wild turkey didn’t join the unfortunate ranks of such extinct birds as the passenger pigeon and Carolina parakeet. In fact, only an estimated 30,000 Wild Turkeys were alive about 1930. The same forces that wiped out the immense flocks of passenger pigeons and migrating Eskimo curlews almost drove the wild turkey to extinction. Habitat destruction and a merciless commercial slaughter almost claimed another uniquely American bird.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens                                                                    A flock of wild turkeys makes its way along a grassy slope in Northeast Tennessee.

Ironically, the wild turkey’s valued status as a gamebird (the largest in North America) helped persuade many Americans to fight for its conservation. It’s an effort that succeeded admirably. Today, there are almost seven million wild turkeys roaming North America. The wild turkey is now abundant enough to be legally hunted in most states, including Tennessee, Virginia and North Carolina. The turkey is once again common across the continent, including in Massachusetts.
The wild turkey is a large bird of mostly a terrestrial lifestyle. Males, or tom turkeys, can reach a length of 46 inches, weigh between 11 and 24 pounds and boast a wingspan of 60 inches. Females, or hens, are typically much smaller and weigh between 5 to 12 pounds. The wild turkey is perfectly capable of flying at speeds up to 55 miles per hour, but they often prefer to walk and run over the ground. They’re good sprinters, in fact, and can reach a running speed of 25 miles per hour.

The female turkey, or hen, nests, incubates eggs and rears young without any help from her mate. The hen may lay as many as a dozen eggs. The clutch usually hatches within a month. Newly-hatched turkeys are known as poults. The poults are capable of finding their own food after leaving the nest, which they do within 12 hours of hatching. They are supervised, however, by the hen. Wild turkeys require a mixture of woodlands with clearings and fields to thrive. They roost in trees at night, but feed in more open habitats.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens                                        A pair of wild turkeys remains alert while searching for food.

The wild turkey’s scientific name is Meleagris gallopavo. This bird is exclusively resident in North America, but domesticated turkeys are now raised around the globe. The wild turkey has only one close relative, the ocellated turkey, or Meleagris ocellata. The ocellated turkey ranges throughout the Yucatán Peninsula in Mexico as well as the northern parts of Belize and Guatemala.

Few birds have featured so prominently in the history of the United States as the wild turkey. In fact, the turkey came close to being named the official bird of the United States. Benjamin Franklin, who proposed the turkey as the official United States bird, was dismayed when the bald eagle was chosen over the turkey. Franklin wrote to his daughter, referring to the eagle’s “bad moral character,” saying, “I wish the Bald Eagle had not been chosen as the Representative of our country! The turkey is a much more respectable bird, and withal a true original native of America.” George Washington, the nation’s first president, also shared Franklin’s opinion, and pointed out the Bald Eagle’s lifestyle as a carrion eater.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens                                                                               Wild turkeys forage for food when snow melts off the ground.

While their objections are duly noted, perhaps it’s just as well that Americans don’t have an official national bird that’s also served up at holiday meals in households throughout the nation. If not as our national symbol, the wild turkey is still deserving of respect. This bird, found only in North America, is a true American success story.

Summer’s bright American goldfinches will soon transform into their dull winter plumage

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Photo by Bryan Stevens                            An American goldfinch feeds on thistle seeds from a feeder designed to contain these tiny seeds.

I received a phone call recently from Allan Vance, who had a question about American goldfinches. Allan told me he moved back to Bristol about nine years ago after living for about 30 years in Savannah, Georgia. He now resides in the community of Middlebrook, where he feeds the various birds that flock to his yard.

Allan explained that the goldfinches had become conspicuous in their absence from his yard starting a few weeks ago. “I haven’t seen a single one in weeks,” he said.

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A thistle sock with seeds favored by American goldfinches.

Allan purchases thistle socks for the flock of goldfinches at his home. These “socks” are actually long, mesh bags holding the tiny seeds of the nyjer plant. Although these seeds are also known as thistle seeds, they are not related to the thistle plants that are sometimes classified as noxious weeds. Finches are able to cling to the sides of the mesh socks as they carefully remove the seeds. The tiny seeds are quite securely held within the mesh socks. Special feeders with small ports for dispensing of these tiny seeds are also available.

After he purchased his most recent thistle sock, Allan expected the birds to visit it as is their usual custom.     After several weeks, only one bird — not a goldfinch — had visited the sock. He wondered if there might be some explanation behind the goldfinches suddenly turning their backs on these favorite seeds.

I explained that there were two possible reasons, which are somewhat connected to each other, for the goldfinches suddenly shunning the sock. It’s early fall and there’s an abundance of natural food sources available to fold finches. Many roadside, fields and gardens are filled with plants that are already producing a banquet of fresh seeds for finches and other seed-loving birds. It’s possible that, faced with a smorgasbord of other foods, the goldfinches are no longer quite as reliant on the seeds in Allan’s thistle socks.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens                                    An American goldfinch showing its bright summer plumage.

The American goldfinch is also one of the last songbirds to nest each season. Some goldfinches don’t even start to think about nesting until late July and early August. Their nesting season is timed to coincide with a time of natural abundance. Goldfinches feed their young mostly on insects, as opposed to most songbirds that work so hard to gather insects to feed their young a protein-rich diet.

It’s a satisfying irony that, although brown-headed cowbird females sometimes slip their eggs into a goldfinch nest, any young hatched in those nests rarely survive. While goldfinch hatchlings are adapted to thrive on a diet of seeds, the fostered young cowbirds fail to thrive on a diet so lacking in insects.

In addition to feeding birds, his yard serves as a place for them to nest. He noted that wrens have successfully nested at his home over the years. He said a funny memory from years ago involved a white-tailed deer at a feeder. “I saw this doe raiding my feeder,” he said, adding that the deer used its tongue to lick seeds from the feeder.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens                                        A fall American goldfinch looks quite different than it does at the height of summer.

The male American goldfinch during the breeding season is unmistakable in his bright yellow and black plumage. Female goldfinches are more subdued in coloration. Males also sing a bubbly, cheerful song when seeking to win the attention of a potential mate. Outside of the nesting season, goldfinches are quite sociable and form large flocks. Dozens of these small songbirds can descend on feeders at almost any time of the year, but they are primarily attracted to our feeders during the lean times of the winter months.

For these and other reasons, goldfinches are favorites of many bird lovers. There are actually three species of goldfinches in North America. The two related species are Lawrence’s goldfinch of California and the lesser goldfinch, which ranges through the southwestern United States as well as Central and South America.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens                                            A male American Goldfinch perches on a barbed wire fence.

The American goldfinch is also known by other common names, including wild canary, yellowbird and willow goldfinch. I’ve also heard the goldfinch referred to as “lettuce bird.” This nickname, which was one my maternal grandmother applied to the bird, relates to the bird’s fondness for seeds. Apparently the goldfinches would flock to lettuce plants in the garden once they had gone to seed.

Come winter, this vibrant bird undergoes a transformation into a dull, drab bird with grayish feather. In fact, this annual molt usually begins in September. During the fall and winter, the American goldfinch looks almost like an entirely different bird.

It’s understandable why people love to entertain flocks of these finches in their yards and gardens. Three states — Washington, Iowa and New Jersey — have made the American goldfinch their official state bird.

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To learn more about birds and other topics from the natural world, friend Stevens on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/ahoodedwarbler. He is always posting about local birds, wildlife, flowers, insects and much more. If you have a question, wish to make a comment or share a sighting, email ahoodedwarbler@aol.com.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens                                                                                                                  Winter goldfinches are not the birds of splendid appearance that they wear during the summer months.

Worm-eating warbler less conspicuous member of family of bright, active migratory songbirds

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Photo by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service                The worm-eating warbler is one of the more nondescript warblers.

It’s September, which for me signals the autumn migration season of warblers and other neotropical birds. The warblers are a family of small songbirds that also happens to be the main reason I enjoy bird watching. Although warblers can be a challenge to observe and a puzzler to identify, they’re bundles of multi-colored feathers brimming with high-octane energy as they forage in treetops, along woodland edges, in weedy fields and around ponds and streams.

Like all migrating birds, warblers face numerous obstacles and hazards as they fly back south every fall after spending most of the spring and the entire summer spread across the United States and Canada for the season of nesting and raising young. Storms, such as the recent Hurricane Hermine, can be a hazard. Predatory raptors, like peregrine falcons and merlins, follow the migration routes and pick off various migrants. Even something as mundane as a window pane can bring a tragic halt to migration each year for thousands of our smaller songbirds.

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Photo Courtesy of Dianna Lynne Tucker           This worm-eating warbler perched on a flower pot while recovering from an impact with a window.

I recently received an email from Chris Soto, a fellow member of the Lee and Lois Herndon Chapter of the Tennessee Ornithological Society. Her sister, Dianna Lynne Tucker, resides in Elizabethton, Tennessee, near Holston Mountain. Her home has a yard that is a magnet for a variety of songbirds. One of the birds passing through her yard had an unfortunate impact with a window. Chris and Dianna already suspected the identity of the bird, but they emailed me asking for help to confirm it. I concurred that the bird was a worm-eating warbler.

“After a brief rest, the bird recovered,” Chris noted in the email. I always like a story with a happy ending.

The scientific name for this warbler is interesting. The worm-eating warbler, or Helmitheros vermivorum, is in a genus of one. It’s the only species contained within the genus. Vermi means “of or relating to worms” while vorum is related to eating. Hence, vermivorum is quite literally an “eater of worms.” The worms in this warbler’s diet, however, are not earthworms. Instead this bird feeds on caterpillars, the larval form of moths and caterpillars. The worm-eating warbler has one unusual foraging method to look for caterpillars. This warbler will often cling to a cluster of dead leaves while probing into the tangle to seek out any concealed caterpillars, as well as small insects and spiders. All in all, the worm-eating warbler doesn’t feed any more exclusively on caterpillars than other warblers.

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Photo Courtesy of Dianna Lynne Tucker         Like other songbirds, the migratory worm-eating warbler faces many perils during its annual fall migration.

This warbler’s non-musical song is a dry trill that compares with the songs of chipping sparrows and dark-eyed juncos. Since these other birds can be found in similar habitats, it can be a bit of a challenge for beginners to identify this warbler by sound alone. The worm-eating warbler isn’t one of the more colorful members of the family. It has a subtle beauty, however, with a plumage of brown and buff feathers. The most distinctive part of its appearance are the black stripes that run along the crown and a dark stripe through the eye. This warbler has a pinkish bill. Both males and females look alike.

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Photo Courtesy of Brian Rovira                        This worm-eating warbler recovered after striking a window at the home of Brian Rovira in Unicoi, Tennessee.

According to the website All About Birds, the oldest worm-eating warbler ever documented was a male that was at least eight years, one month old when he was recaptured and rereleased during banding operations in Connecticut. I’ve seen fewer of this particular warbler over the past ten years, but the overall population figures for this species have actually trended slightly upward. The worm-eating warbler’s population is concentrated in the southeastern United States. It favors deciduous woodland habitat with shaded banks, steep gullies and ravines. The habitat around my home must have changed enough that they are no longer a frequent visitor. The worm-eating warblers will migrate to Mexico and Central America this fall, electing to spend the winter months in warmer terrain.

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Early American naturalist and painter John James Audubon painted the worm-eating warbler in company with some native butterflies.

Warblers and their active lifestyles can be a challenge for human observers. Nevertheless, it’s worth the effort to seek out these colorful, energetic and interesting songbirds. Many people like to look for returning spring warblers, but I’ve always found the fall season the best time to look for these birds. September is the month when the majority of these warblers will migrate through our region. Warblers ignore offerings of seeds at our feeders, but a bird bath, ornamental fountain, pond or stream is like a magnet drawing these migrants to stop, enjoy a cool drink and a vigorous splash in the inviting water.

Keep a pair of binoculars at hand and your eyes open. If you’d like to share your observations of migrants passing through your yard this fall, I’d love to hear from you.

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