Monthly Archives: October 2017

Crows show intelligence yet can’t shake dark reputation


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.


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.


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.


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.


To ask a question, make a comment or share a sighting, send an email to



Although graceful in the water, life gets awkward for grebes on land

As the calendar moves into the months of October and November, migrating waterfowl will replace the exodus of songbirds that evacuate the North American continent every fall in preparation for their winter season in the tropics. The umbrella term of waterfowl can include such birds as ducks, geese, loons and grebes.


Photo by Bryan Stevens • This pied-billed grebe stranded itself on a wet lawn during fall migration. A grebe’s legs are positioned so far back on their bodies that grebes have difficult walking on land. Once released in a pond, the grebe was able to take flight and continue its migration.

That last family keeps one of the lowest profiles among the grouping of birds lumped together as waterfowl. Worldwide, there are 22 species of grebes. This family also includes three extinct species — Alaotra grebe, Atitlán grebe and Colombian grebe.

Many people are unaware of the grebes. After all, they are oddball birds with not a lot in common with other waterfowl such as loons and ducks. In eastern Tennessee, southwestern Virginia and western North Carolina, the pied-billed grebe is the most likely member of the grebe family to come into contact with humans. The pied-billed grebe’s scientific name, Podilymbus podiceps, can be roughly translated as “rear-footed diver.” The reference is to the fact that this grebe, as well as others of its kind, have their feet positioned so far back on their bodies that movement on land is difficult and awkward.

The pied-billed grebe has inspired a variety of other common names, including American dabchick, dabchick, Carolina grebe, devil-diver, dive-dapper, hell-diver, pied-billed dabchick, pied-bill, thick-billed grebe and water witch, all of which reflect this grebe’s almost exclusively aquatic lifestyle.

The pied-billed grebe is a world-class survivor. Already a member of an ancient family of birds, this species has outlasted the others in its genus. The Atitlán grebe, which was also known as the giant grebe, went extinct around 1989 after a series of catastrophic setbacks, including a devastating earthquake and the introduction of smallmouth and largemouth bass to Lake Atitlán in Guatemala. The bass consumed the prey this grebe needed for its survival, and large bass occasionally ate young grebes.

Smallmouth bass.png

Bass introduced into Lake Atitlán consumed the small fish that the Atitlán Grebe              required as a food source. Large bass also ate young grebes.



These birds range in size from the least grebe, which weighs only about six ounces, to the great grebe, which can tip the scales at four pounds. North American grebes include red-necked grebe, horned grebe, eared grebe, Clark’s grebe and Western grebe. In extreme southern Texas, birders can find least grebes in suitable wetland habitats.

With the exception of the least grebe, I’ve seen all of North America’s grebes. During visits to Utah in 2003 and 2006, I observed the sleek, long-necked Clark’s grebe and Western grebe. On a 2006 trip to Utah, I visited Antelope Island State Park and observed tens of thousands of Eared Grebes gathered on the Great Salt Lake for the nesting season. In Tennessee, one of the most reliable locations to find eared grebes is from viewing areas at Musick’s Campground on South Holston Lake, where a small number of these grebes have wintered for many years.

An unusual February fallout back in 2014 resulted in equally unusual numbers of red-necked grebes on area lakes, rivers, and ponds. I’d previously observed this grebe on Boone Lake, South Holston Lake and Watauga Lake in northeast Tennessee.


Photo by Bryan Stevens • A Red-necked Grebe mixes with Mallards at a pond on the campus of Northeast State Community College in Elizabethton.

Grebes are prone to landing on glistening surfaces — lawns, asphalt parking lots and even paved roads — during migration flights, especially at night during heavy rain. A serious problem arises when the grebe, with those rear-positioned feet, finds itself stranded, unable to take flight again without a paddling run across the surface of a body of water.

One of these strandings was recounted in Rick Knight’s book, The Birds of Northeast Tennessee. On Feb. 13, 1994, a red-necked grebe grounded itself with one of these crash landings onto a parking lot in Elizabethton, Tennessee. The fortunate grebe received a human-assisted rescue, being transported to a small lake near the town for release.

In November of 2011, a neighbor delivered a bird that had landed in his yard and could not take flight. The bird, put into a cardboard box for its own safety, didn’t appear to have any injuries. Once I saw the bird, I realized it was a pied-billed grebe. We released the bird on my fish pond, where the grebe dived and swam extensively before resting for a long period on a muddy edge of the pond. Overnight, the grebe disappeared. I believe the grebe took flight during the night and continued with its fall migration. The incident remains one of my closest encounters with a grebe.


Photo by Bryan Stevens The pied-billed grebe paddles through the water after it was rescued after a stranding on a lawn.


In the coming weeks and all throughout the winter months, look for pied-bill grebes, as well well as more uncommon grebes like horned grebe and red-necked grebe, on lakes and rivers throughout the region.

Bryan Stevens lives near Roan Mountain, Tennessee. To ask a question, make a comment or share a sighting, email him at

Reader reports visit from rufous hummingbird

An email from Bristol resident Ralph Beamer offered a timely reminder about the need to keep a watchful eye on our sugar water feeders even as most of the ruby-throated hummingbirds depart the region.

“For the past week, I have had a red humming bird coming to the feeder,” Ralph explained in his email. He added that he had never seen a hummingbird like this recent visitor.

“Have you had any reports of a similar sighting?” Ralph asked.

Ralph is the first person to make such a report this fall, but sightings of a species of hummingbird other than the expected ruby-throated hummingbird are becoming more commonplace each year. Once the numbers of ruby-throated hummingbirds are reduced as these tiny birds migrate from the region, noticing an unusual hummingbird at a feeder becomes even easier.

In a reply to Ralph’s email, I sought more information on the hummingbird’s coloration. He confirmed that the bird’s feathers looked more reddish brown than bright red, which supports my belief that he has received a visit from a rufous hummingbird.Ruf-Drawing

I speak from personal experience. My yard has attracted rufous hummingbirds on a couple of occasions. In October of 2016 I received my most recent visit from a rufous hummingbird, which lingered into November and was banded by Mark Armstrong. A former curator of birds for the Knoxville Zoo, Armstrong has devoted several years to studying the phenomenon of rufous hummingbirds that appear to migrate on a regular basis through the eastern United States every fall and early winter. Mark’s efforts have largely focused on Tennessee reports of rufous hummingbirds, but other banders operating from the Gulf Coast to New England have confirmed rufous hummingbirds in their respective regions.

The possibility of attracting a rufous hummingbird is the reason I encourage others to keep a sugar water feeder available into October and November. Experts who have studied the matter note that the presence of a feeder will not encourage ruby-throated hummingbirds to linger. These tiny birds know instinctively when it’s time to depart. Without the attraction of a feeder, however, a visiting rufous hummingbird might reject any extended stay in your yard.

Selasphorus rufus, or the rufous hummingbird, is about the same size as the ruby-throated hummingbird. Both species reach a body length of a little more than three inches and weigh only a few grams. In fact, one of these small hummingbirds might weigh the equivalent of a dime. Female rufous hummingbirds are slightly bigger than males, so a well-fed female rufous hummingbird might weigh as much as a nickel. So, to get an accurate impression of this sort of size, simply think of these tiny birds as weighing less than some of the spare change in your pocket.

Although hummingbirds are not known for their longevity, the website for Tennessee Watchable Wildlife notes that the oldest rufous hummingbird on record reached an age of eight years and 11 months. For the most part, hummingbirds blaze like tiny comets and enjoy typically brief but fast-paced lives. Despite a prevalent impression, hummingbirds are not delicate creatures. For instance, the rufous hummingbird’s tolerance for cold allows it to survive temperatures that dip briefly below zero. This adaptation has allowed the rufous hummingbird to breed as far north as Alaska.

The Selasphorus genus of hummingbirds consists of the rufous and six other species. Of those species, the Allen’s hummingbird, broad-tailed hummingbird and calliope hummingbird are known to also migrate through the eastern United States although with less frequency than the rufous. The remaining Selaphorus hummers — scintillant hummingbird, glow-throated hummingbird and volcano hummingbird — range in the tropical regions of Costa Rica and Panama. Those rufous hummingbirds that don’t spend the fall and early winter in the southeastern United States choose to overwinter in the region of Mexico around the city of Acapulco. This majority of the rufous hummingbird population migrates north again in the spring to claim nesting territory that can range from the Rocky Mountains of the western United States, as well as the Pacific Coast states of California, Oregon and Washington, all the way north to southern Alaska, as well as British Columbia in Canada.

Those rufous hummingbirds that continue to migrate through the southeastern United States each autumn constitute more evidence that we still have a lot to learn about birds. Even an abundant species like the rufous hummingbird offers mysteries that curious humans can attempt to understand.

While I can’t guarantee hummingbirds, I want to remind readers of the bird walks at 8 a.m. each Saturday in October at Sycamore Shoals State Historic Park in Elizabethton, Tennessee. Remaining walks, which are free and open to the public, are scheduled for Oct. 21 and Oct. 28. Meet at the parking lot at the park’s visitors center. Bring binoculars to increase your viewing pleasure.


Bryan Stevens lives near Roan Mountain, Tennessee. To ask a question, make a comment or share a sighting, email him at


World’s coffee drinkers owe debt to pest-eating warbler

Do you like to have a morning cup of coffee as you watch the early-bird arrivals at your backyard feeders? If so, you may want to thank some of the warblers and other neotropical migrants that consume tiny insect pests injurious to coffee farms.

The website provides an archive of interesting reading material about the connections between coffee farming and many neotropical birds. According to a profile on the black-throated blue warbler at the website, this particular warbler has a strong affinity for wintering on coffee farms.


Photo by Bryan Stevens • Coffee drinkers owe a debt to the black-throated blue warbler.

The black-throated blue warbler is a nesting bird in hardwood and mixed forests in many mountainous regions of eastern Tennessee, southwestern Virginia and western North Carolina. In fact, the species nests as far south as northern Georgia along the Appalachian Mountains. Those birds not nesting in the Appalachians make their summer home in southern Canada, as well as northern states like New York and Pennsylvania.

Thanks to scientific tests of the birds’ feathers, scientists now know that most of the black-throated blue warblers that spend the summer nesting season in the Appalachians are in turn wintering in Puerto Rico and Hispaniola. The black-throated blue warblers from the northern part of the range for the species spend the winter months in Cuba and Jamaica.

I’ve been spending more time than usual in my yard since the arrival of September, and I’ve been rewarded with glimpses of numerous migrating warblers, including Tennessee warbler, Blackburnian warbler, Cape May warbler, black-and-white warbler, chestnut-sided warbler, hooded warbler, Northern waterthrush and black-throated green warbler, as well as a dazzling male black-throated blue warbler.


Photo by Jean Potter • A male black-throated blue warbler, banded for a study on songbirds, is examined closely. This is one of the most beautiful of the warblers.

If you recall the 1980s hit song, “Sharp Dressed Man,” by ZZ Top, perhaps I can give an accurate impression of the male black-throated blue warbler. He a dapper, sprightly fellow with a blue topcoat that dominates first impressions. It’s only after seeing the shock of blue that the observer takes notice of the black throat and the black feathers forming a dark facial mask, as well as a clean divide between the bird’s blue crown and back and the clean white underparts. The male even carries a fresh pocket “handkerchief” in the form of a white block on each wing. This becomes a diagnostic mark in the female’s less impressive version.
The sexes of black-throated blue warbler are the most markedly different among all the warblers. Even the famous early naturalist and painter John James Audubon got confused by the black-throated blue warbler male and female. He even made the mistake of painting a young black-throated blue warbler and misidentifying it as “pine swamp warbler.” The female black-throated blue has nary a trace of black in her feathers. Her plumage is mainly a dull olive-gray with dingy white underparts. Her only tie to her mate when it comes to appearance is her much more modest version of the “pocket handkerchief” on each wing.
In Jamaica, black-throated blue warblers are identified by as the number one predator of the dreaded coffee berry borer. So, as you raise that cup of affordable morning coffee, thank the black-throated blue warbler for eating all of those harmful pests that, left unchecked, would cause coffee prices to spike.
Bryan Stevens lives near Roan Mountain, Tennessee. To learn more about birds and other topics from the natural world, friend Stevens on Facebook at 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

Photo by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service/Mark Musselman • Black-throated Blue Warblers are among the birds than call the mountains of Southern Appalachia home during the summer months.


October walks at state park will offer migrant-viewing opportunities

The autumn season is a great time to practice birdwatching skills. The temperatures are milder, some of the concealing leaves have dropped from the trees and many migrating birds are moving through the region. With those factors in mind, the Lee and Lois Herndon Chapter of Tennessee Ornithological Society, also known as the Elizabethton Bird Club, will conduct morning bird walks every Saturday in October at Sycamore Shoals State Historic Park in Elizabethton, Tennessee.


The walks will begin at 8 a.m. and participants are asked to meet in the parking lot in front of the park’s visitors center. The dates for this year’s walks are Oct. 7, Oct. 14, Oct. 21 and Oct. 28.

Participants are advised to bring binoculars to increase viewing enjoyment. Persons of any skill level are invited to take part in these walks along the park’s walking trails, which offer river, field and woodland habitats. Members of the Elizabethton Bird Club will happily answer questions and help new birders with identification of any birds encountered. Targeted species will include migrants such as warblers, tanagers, thrushes and flycatchers, as well as resident songbirds ranging from Northern cardinals and blue jays to Carolina chickadees and red-bellied woodpeckers.


I enjoy fall birding probably more than any other season. It’s always nice to welcome some of our favorites when they return in the spring, but autumn’s the most productive season (at least in my own experience) when it comes to seeing the greatest diversity of birds in a relatively brief period of time.
Birding in my yard during September produced sightings of several species of warblers, a family of birds that is always one of the anticipated highlights of the migration season. Migrants spotted in my yard this fall have included American redstart, Blackburnian warbler, Cape May warbler, Tennessee warbler, Northern parula, magnolia warbler, hooded warbler, black-and-white warbler, chestnut-sided warbler, black-throated blue warbler, black-throated green warbler and Northern waterthrush.


Photo by Bryan Stevens • Warblers, like this bay-breasted warbler, are experts at remaining hidden in the leaves of trees. Their energetic movements make warblers difficult to follow through binoculars. In addition, bay-breasted warblers are among those species described as “confusing fall warblers,” because their autumn appearance is a dramatic departure from the look they had in the spring.


The warblers are the warmth-chasing retirees of the bird world. Like their human counterparts with summer homes in the mountains to escape the worst of summer’s scorching temperatures, warblers retreat southward every fall, spreading into the southern United States, the Caribbean, and Central and South America for the winter months.


Of course, warblers are not the only neotropical birds to employ this technique of nesting and raising young in the northern latitudes during the summer only to return south for the winter. Tanagers, vireos, flycatchers and some other families do the same, but not with the same niche-exploiting diversity of the warblers. As a family, the warblers boast 114 species. Not quite half of the species make some part of North America their summer home, which leaves the rest of the more sedentary family members living year-round in the American tropics.


Photo by Bryan Stevens • An Eastern Wood-Pewee perches during a migration stop in the yard.


Warblers pose a worthy challenge for birders. It takes practice to chase their movements in binoculars as they flit among the upper branches of tall trees. They are, for the most part, a family of almost frantically active birds that rarely pause for long while foraging for food, which mostly consists of various insects or insect larvae. Warblers migrating through the region during the autumn season bring another challenge to the table. Many warblers wear completely different plumages in spring and fall, which requires some mental adjustments when trying to match a binoculars view of a warbler to its illustration in a field guide. Known as the “confusing fall warblers,” these tricky cases prompt some novice birders to throw up their arms in defeat. I know because I once felt like that myself. As with all worthwhile pursuits, practice makes perfect.


Come out and join me and other bird club members at one of the Saturday strolls at Sycamore Shoals State Historic Park, which is located at 1651 W. Elk Ave., Elizabethton, Tennessee. We’ll chase some warblers through the treetops. We may not identify every single one, but we’ll have a fun time in the attempt.



Bryan Stevens lives near Roan Mountain, Tennessee. To ask a question, make a comment or share a sighting, email him at