Monthly Archives: November 2017

It’s not difficult to find reasons to admire America’s wild turkey

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

I’ve seen a few small flocks of wild turkeys this fall, although larger flocks have been elusive so far. As the fields and woods grow more stark as the cold season advances, I am confident I will start seeing more turkeys. I am even thinking of spending part of my upcoming Thanksgiving holiday looking for some of these very American birds.

The wild turkey has been venerated as an example of an American success story almost from the time the first Europeans settlers set foot on the continent of North America. Even prior to the arrival of Europeans, Native Americans hunted the wild turkey and also made a place for the bird in their myths and lore. Here are my top three reasons to celebrate the wild turkey, one of America’s most fascinating birds:

First, who doesn’t like to root for a contender? Many people have heard accounts of how the wild turkey was a candidate for America’s national bird. It’s a well-known example of historic trivia that the wild turkey had its supporters among the nation’s founding fathers, but was it ever seriously considered for the elevated status as America’s official bird? The answer’s not cut and dry.

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Ben Franklin wasn’t enthusiastic about the bald eagle as the national bird, but perhaps it’s best we don’t eat our national bird every Thanksgiving.

Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams formed a committee assigned the task of designing an official seal for the new United States of America. As is often the case with government committees, the job of designing the seal took longer than expected. After three different committees came up with different designs, Pennsylvania lawyer named Thomas Barton eventually came up with one featuring a white eagle. Secretary of Congress Charles Thomson recommended replacing that eagle design with one depicting the native bald eagle. Eventually, the bald eagle received designation as the nation’s official bird.

Nevertheless, some of the committee members had second thoughts. Franklin later wrote a letter to his daughter that seemed to bemoan the choice of the bald eagle. He labeled the eagle “a bird of bad moral character” and lauded the wild turkey as a “bird of courage.”

Perhaps Franklin suffered some buyer’s remorse. “I wish the bald eagle had not been chosen as the representative of our country,” he wrote in his letter. “The turkey is a much more respectable bird.” He also noted that the turkey is a true and original American native. Of course, the bald eagle is also a bird unique to North America. So while there’s no direct evidence that Franklin did anything to actively promote the turkey as the nation’s official bird, he didn’t exactly provide a ringing endorsement of the bald eagle.

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Early naturalist and painter John James Audubon must have been very familiar with turkeys to have painted this lively scene of a hen and chicks.

Second, the wild turkey has a wide range of experience, both foreign and domestic, as a representative of the United States. While wild turkeys still roam through North America, to the tune of seven million individuals, their domesticated kin are farmed in huge numbers. Native tribes in the Americas began domesticating the wild turkey centuries ago. When early Spanish explorers conquered the Aztec empire in Mexico they found that turkeys were among the domesticated animals kept by the Aztecs. The Spaniards returned to Europe with domesticated turkeys around 1520. In the next few decades, domesticated turkeys spread into other European countries, arriving in England between 1525 and 1540.

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The first European colonists brought turkeys to the New World with them only to discover the ancestors of their domesticated fowl already existed in America.

In a strange twist of fate, colonists in New England and Virginia brought domestic turkeys with them to the New World in the early decades of the 1600s only to be surprised to find the native forests already populated by wild turkeys, which were the ancestors of their domesticated fowls. Today, that back-and-forth saga regarding the turkey continues. One of the most important customers for U.S turkey farmers is the nation of Mexico. Almost 70 percent of U.S. turkey exports go to Mexico.

Finally, the wild turkey has that “in-your-face” attitude that is so American and helps turkeys thrive no matter where they live. In recent decades, some turkeys have taken to suburban living. An article by Brian Handwerk on the National Geographic website puts the spotlight on these turkeys that have taken so readily to living in the ‘burbs.

Massachusetts and Connecticut, former strongholds of the first settlements by Europeans in the New World, are home to densely populated cities like Boston and Hartford. These days, however, turkeys demand their share of the pie, figuratively speaking, when it comes to prime real estate. All a turkey really needs is some cover, which is adequately provided by landscaped lawns in the suburbs, and a few trees that provide nightly roosts. As social birds, they roam in flocks that don’t particularly pay attention to property lines.

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

In addition, a wild turkey’s a fairly big bird. A male turkey, or tom, can weigh between 16 and 24 pounds. The females, or hens, are usually about half that size. Human-turkey conflicts occur most often in the spring when the boisterous toms are focused intently on besting rivals and impressing potential mates. Unfortunately, these hormone-addled tom turkeys sometimes mistake humans going about their daily lives as rivals.

Turkey Silhouette Clip Art Free 27 (1) 2In addition, many human residents of the suburbs have a tendency to offer food to wildlife ranging from squirrels and deer to perhaps a flock of resident turkeys. Providing food can make turkeys expectant and demanding. To put it mildly, a turkey can be a little intimidating. They’re not likely to harm a human being, but occasionally turkeys will also stand their ground, refuse to back down and even give chase to any human who crosses them. Sounds like a proud American, right?

Now, one last thing for which Americans can be thankful. We don’t chow down on bald eagles every Thanksgiving. It would be awful, wouldn’t it, to eat our national bird?

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Bryan Stevens lives in Roan Mountain, Tennessee. If you have a question, wish to make a comment or share a sighting, email ahoodedwarbler@aol.com. He also welcomes friend requests on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/ahoodedwarbler.

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Annual Fall Bird Count finds 122 species in Northeast Tennessee

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • A Great Blue Heron wades through the creek running through downtown historic Jonesborough on a warm afternoon this past summer. These large herons, helped by recent nesting colonies in Erwin, Elizabethton and other locations, have become more commonplace in the region. The 66 Great Blue Herons found on the recent Fall Bird Count represented a new high number for the species on this annual autumn survey of bird populations in the region.

 

The 48th annual Elizabethton Fall Count was held on Saturday, Sept. 30, with 54 observers in 12 parties covering Carter County and parts of the adjacent counties of Johnson, Sullivan, Unicoi and Washington. The participants tallied 122 species, which is slightly below the recent 30-year average of 126 species. The all-time high for this count was 137 species, which was reached in 1993.

Shorebirds were in very short supply due to a shortage of suitable habitat. Aside from killdeer, a solitary sandpiper was true to his name. In particular, two sites that formerly attracted shorebirds have undergone alterations that have essentially eliminated such conditions: Austin Springs and Bush Hog Pond.

This year’s count featured some other notable misses, as well, according to long-time count compiler Rick Knight. Birds missed include Northern Bobwhite (which has been found only four times in the last 24 years), Broad-winged Hawk, Spotted Sandpiper (first miss in last decade), Winter Wren, and Blue-gray Gnatcatcher.

Several birds set new high records for the number of individuals tallied, including Double-crested Cormorant (70); Great Blue Heron (66); Black Vulture (330); Turkey Vulture (215); Red-shouldered Hawk (6); Belted Kingfisher (40); and Red-bellied Woodpecker (90).

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • The 40 Belted Kingfishers found during the Fall Bird Count represented a new high count for this long-running survey.

Fish Crow made its debut on a Fall Bird Count debut when two individuals were found in Kingsport along the Holston River.

The count total follows:

Canada Goose, 957; Wood Duck, 24; Mallard, 378; Blue-winged Teal, 2; Hooded Merganser, 1; Ruffed Grouse, 5; Wild Turkey, 79; Pied-billed Grebe, 11; and Double-crested Cormorant, 70.
Great Blue Heron, 66; Great Egret, 1; Green Heron, 4; Black-crowned Night-Heron, 2; Black Vulture, 330; and Turkey Vulture, 215.

Osprey, 12; Bald Eagle, 6; Northern Harrier, 2; Sharp-shinned Hawk, 7; Cooper’s Hawk, 7; Red-shouldered Hawk, 6; Red-tailed Haw, 27; American Kestrel, 16; Merlin, 1; and Peregrine Falcon, 1.

Killdeer 50; Solitary Sandpiper, 1; Ring-billed Gull, 1; Forster’s Tern, 1; Rock Pigeon, 404; Eurasian Collared-Dove, 2; Mourning Dove, 356; Yellow-billed Cuckoo, 1; Eastern Screech-Owl, 12; Great Horned Owl; 10; Barred Owl; 4; and Northern Saw-whet Owl; 1.

Common Nighthawk, 1; Chimney Swift, 254; Ruby-throated Hummingbird 8; Belted Kingfisher, 40; Red-headed Woodpecker, 7; Red-bellied Woodpecker, 90; Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, 16; Downy Woodpecker, 46; Hairy Woodpecker, 8; Northern Flicker, 63; and Pileated Woodpecker, 37.

Eastern Wood-Pewee 6; Eastern Phoebe, 76; Eastern Kingbird, 1; Loggerhead Shrike, 1; White-eyed Vireo; 2; Yellow-throated Vireo, 1; Blue-headed Vireo, 14; Red-eyed Vireo, 6; Blue Jay, 447; American Crow, 424; Fish Crow, 2; and Common Raven, 19.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • Migrating shorebirds, such as this Solitary Sandpiper, added diversity to this year’s Fall Bird Count in Northeast Tennessee.

Northern Rough-winged Swallow, 3; Tree Swallow, 68; Carolina Chickadee, 174; Tufted Titmouse,93; Red-breasted Nuthatch, 6; White-breasted Nuthatch, 44; Brown Creeper, 2; House Wren, 2; and Carolina Wren,180.

Golden-crowned Kinglet, 4; Ruby-crowned Kinglet,14; Eastern Bluebird, 163; Veery, 7; Gray-cheeked Thrush, 26; Swainson’s Thrush, 70; Hermit Thrush, 1; Wood Thrush, 19; American Robin, 301; Gray Catbird, 34; Brown Thrasher, 11; Northern Mockingbird, 100; European Starling, 2,106; and Cedar Waxwing, 205.

Ovenbird, 2; Black and White Warbler, 6; Tennessee Warbler, 32; Common Yellowthroat, 9; Hooded Warbler, 2; American Redstart, 5; Cape May Warbler, 8; Northern Parula, 3; Magnolia Warbler, 29; Bay-breasted Warbler, 10; Blackburnian Warbler, 2; Chestnut-sided Warbler, 2; Black-throated Blue Warbler, 5; Palm Warbler, 21; Pine Warbler, 11; Yellow-rumped Warbler, 5; Yellow-throated Warbler, 4; Prairie Warbler, 1; and Black-throated Green Warbler, 8.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • Migrating Rose-breasted Grosbeaks were among the 122 species tallied for this year’s Fall Bird Count.

Eastern Towhee, 50; Chipping Sparrow, 57; Field Sparrow, 14; Song Sparrow,144; Lincoln’s Sparrow, 1; Swamp Sparrow, 1; Dark-eyed Junco, 75; Summer Tanager, 1; Scarlet Tanager, 11; Northern Cardinal, 173; Rose-breasted Grosbeak, 19; Indigo Bunting, 15.

Red-winged Blackbird, 41; Eastern Meadowlark, 17; Common Grackle, 859; Brown-headed Cowbird, 78; House Finch, 44; Pine Siskin, 1; American Goldfinch, 138; and House Sparrow, 33.

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Bryan Stevens has been writing about birds on a weekly basis since 1995. If you have a question, wish to make a comment or share a sighting, email ahoodedwarbler@aol.com.

Dark-eyed junco faithful visitor to feeders during wintry weather

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Photo by Kenneth Thomas / Dark-eyed juncos, often referred to as “snow birds,” flock to feeders in winter during periods of inclement weather.

I recently took part in the 48th annual Elizabethton Fall Count. Although part of the count’s focus is on Carter County, significant attention is paid to the adjacent counties of Johnson, Sullivan, Unicoi and Washington in Northeast Tennessee. This year’s count, which was held Saturday, Sept. 30, with 54 observers in 12 parties, tallied 122 species, which is slightly below the recent 30-year average of 126 species. The all-time high for this count was 137 species, which was reached in 1993.

Together with Brenda Richards, I travelled the Forest Service road on Holston Mountain to seek out some species that prefer higher elevation habitats, including dark-eyed juncos. The junco is also a winter visitor to yards and gardens throughout the region and should be returning any day now for a seasonal stay during the colder months of the year. During our progress up the mountain, we glimpsed several dark-eyed juncos as well as other birds such as blue-headed vireo and black-and-white warbler.

I have always had a fondness for juncos. In fact, I wrote my first birding column on Sunday, Nov. 5, 1995, which means that I recently celebrated the 22nd anniversary of my weekly accounts of birds and birding. The column has appeared weekly without interruption in various newspapers in the last 22 years. The column has also been a great conduit for getting to know other people interested in our “feathered friends.” I always enjoy hearing from readers, and I hope to continue to do so in the coming years. Since February of 2014, I’ve also been posting the column as a weekly blog on birds and birding.

Here, with some revisions I have made through the years, is that first column that has now involved into a look that is all “For the Birds.”
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Of all the birds associated with winter weather, few are as symbolic as the Dark-eyed Junco, or “snow bird.” The junco occurs in several geographic variations.dennisjl 2

John V. Dennis, author of “A Complete Guide to Bird Feeding,” captures the essence of the junco in the following description: “Driving winds and swirling snow do not daunt this plucky bird. The coldest winter days see the junco as lively as ever and with a joie de vivre that bolsters our sagging spirits.” The Dark-eyed Junco’s scientific name, hyemalis, is New Latin for “wintry,” an apt description of this bird.

Most people look forward to the spring return of some of our brilliant birds — warblers, tanagers and orioles — and I must admit that I also enjoy the arrival of these birds. The junco, in comparison to some of these species, is not in the same league. Nevertheless, the junco is handsome in its slate gray and white plumage, giving rise to the old saying “dark skies above, snow below.”

Just as neotropical migrants make long distance journeys twice a year, the junco is also a migrating species. But in Appalachia, the junco is a special type of migrant. Most people think of birds as “going south for the winter.” In a basic sense this is true. But some juncos do not undertake a long horizontal (the scientific term) migration from north to south. Instead, these birds merely move from high elevations, such as the spruce fir peaks, to the lower elevations. This type of migration is known as vertical migration. Other juncos, such as those that spend their breeding season in northern locales, do make a southern migration and, at times, even mix with the vertical migrants.

Juncos are usually in residence around my home by early November. Once they make themselves at home I can expect to play host to them until at least late April or early May of the following year. So, for at least six months, the snow bird is one of the most common and delightful feeder visitors a bird enthusiast could want.

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Early American naturalist and artist John James Audubon painted this pair of Dark-eyed Juncos.

Juncos flock to feeders where they are rather mild-mannered — except among themselves. There are definite pecking orders in a junco flock, and females are usually on the lower tiers of the hierarchy. Females can sometimes be distinguished from males because of their paler gray or even brown upper plumage.

Since juncos are primarily ground feeders, they tend to shun hanging feeders. But one winter I observed a junco that had mastered perching on a hanging “pine cone” feeder to enjoy a suet and peanut butter mixture.

Dark-eyed juncos often are content to glean the scraps other birds knock to the ground. Juncos are widespread. They visit feeders across North America. The junco is the most common species of bird to visit feeding stations. They will sample a variety of fare, but prefer such seeds as millet, cracked corn or black oil sunflower.

There’s something about winter that makes a junco’s dark and light garb an appropriate and even striking choice, particularly against a backdrop of newly fallen snow.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens / A Dark-eyed Junco perches on the side of a hanging feeder offering sunflower seeds.

Of course, the real entertainment from juncos come from their frequent visits to our backyard feeders. When these birds flock to a feeder and begin a furious period of eating, I don’t even have to glance skyward or tune in the television weather forecast. I know what they know. Bad weather is on the way!

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

Dark reputation of world’s owls is being rehabilitated as people learn more about them and their habits

 

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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.

As I sit at my computer working on this week’s post, I can hear the low, sonorous call of a great horned owl from the woods located behind my house. The great horned owl is one of two species I often hear near my home. In addition, I regularly hear the much smaller Eastern screech-owl calling from the same woods. The intervals around dusk and dawn are popular times for owls to produce their eerie calls. At present, there’s a pair of great horned owls living in the woods near my home. If I hear one, I usually hear the other. These large owls call to each other to communicate their whereabouts. Perhaps it helps them avoid surprise encounters with each other once they begin hunting after the sun sets.

The great horned owl lives and hunts in the woodlands of northeast Tennessee, southwest Virginia and western North Carolina. These large owls thrive in rural areas, but these adaptable predatory birds have also learned to survive in the suburbs and even city parks. While quite at home in the region, the great horned owl is not 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. If nothing else, the great horned owl has shown amazing resilience and adaptability.

With about 200 different species, the world’s owls form an order known as Strigiformes. Characteristics that define owls include a mostly solitary and nocturnal existence. These predatory birds are also typified by such physical traits as an upright stance, binocular vision, exceptional hearing, sharp talons, and feathers adapted for silent flight.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens / A Barred Owl blends with the background in this photo taken of a wild owl at Brookgreen Gardens in South Carolina.

The smallest owl — weighing as little as an ounce and measuring a mere five inches) — is the elf owl (Micrathene whitneyi). To give you some perspective, that DVD of your favorite movie also weighs about an ounce. The common house sparrow that flocks in shopping center parking lots is slightly bigger than this tiny owl. According to the website, The Owl Page, the elf owl was originally known as Whitney’s Owl. The scientific name whitneyi is a Latinized word formed from the last name of Josiah Dwight Whitney, a prominent American geologist for whom the diminutive owl was named. Whitney was considered the foremost authority of his day on the economic geology of the United States. In addition to having a tiny owl named in his honor, Whitney’s name graces Mount Whitney, the highest point in the continental United States, and the Whitney Glacier, which was the first confirmed glacier in the United States.

The miniature elf owl is every bit the predator, but its prey generally consists of various insects as well as such desert dwellers as scorpions and spiders. Despite the extremes of the environment in which it lives, the elf owl does just fine. It prefers areas offering plenty of saguaro cactus. Cavities in these iconic desert plants provide roosting and nesting locations for this tiny owl. The elf owl range from the southwest regions of the United States to Central Mexico and Baja California. Unfortunately, the numbers of this owl in Texas and California have declined in recent times.33ecc634b6bf2f56939e0c28a1e0c6c0

To find the world’s largest owl, head to the other side of the world to the islands of Japan, as well as remote areas of Siberia, Manchuria and Korea. With a body comparable in size to that of a young child and a wingspan wider than six feet, the Blakiston’s fish owl (Bubo blakistoni) earns its distinction as the largest owl in the world. The fish owls are part of a larger grouping of birds known as eagle owls, which specialize in hunting in habitats found along large rivers. Female Blakiston’s fish owls are larger than males, and a large female can weigh as much as 10 pounds and attain a 6.5-foot wingspan. This big owl was named after English naturalist Thomas Blakiston (1832-1891) who found the first specimen on Japan’s northern island of Hokkaido in 1883. According to Paul Frost of The Raptor Foundation, this owl is sacred to the Ainu, a native people residing on Hokkaidu. The Ainu refer to this owl as “kotan kor kamuy,” which means “god of the village” or “god who defends the village”.

While many culture view owls with misgivings, often associating their nocturnal tendencies with more sinister motives, that’s not always the case. For instance, the Japanese people believe that owls bring good fortune. In addition, owls offer protection from suffering. Other cultures have feared and reviled owls. The ancient Romans share much of the blame for the negative image owls are still overcoming. Romans considered owls as harbingers of death, defeat and other disasters. To ward off the evil caused by an owl, Romans advised that the offending owl should be killed and nailed to a door. Such a bloodthirsty solution leads me to think that owls had more to fear from Romans than Romans had to fear from them.

The need for common names for the 200 species of owls has resulted in some creative monikers. Some of the most descriptive common names for some of the world’s owls include ashy-faced barn owl, barking owl, brown owl, cuckoo owlet, fearful owl, giant eagle owl, Christmas Island hawk owl, snowy owl, laughing owl, rufous owl, tawny-bellied screech owl, winking owl, and spotted wood 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.

Many relatives of the great horned owl have proven equally adaptive, carving out niches for themselves in habitats as diverse as jungles, deserts and the frozen tundra. Indeed, the great horned owl has many relatives living in our region. The Eastern screech owl is a tiny cousin, but some other large owls that live in the area include the barred owl and the barn owl. More rare to the region are visits by such owls as the short-eared owl and the long-eared owl. There’s even another tiny relative — the Northern saw whet owl — that is rarely heard and even more seldom seen.

Regardless of the species, the activities of owls are invariably cloaked in darkness. Despite electric lights and other trappings of civilization, people still delight in the shivers that result from hearing the hoots of an owl. It’s truly no surprise that owls have become popular motifs in the weeks leading up to our recent celebration of the Halloween holiday. Owls may live alongside us, but we’ll never truly belong to their world, which consists of all the spooky things that go bump in the night.

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Bryan Stevens lives near Roan Mountain, Tennessee. If you have a question, wish to make a comment or share a sighting, email ahoodedwarbler@aol.com. Find him on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/ahoodedwarbler.