Category Archives: Feeding birds

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.

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Practice of feeding birds a relatively recent development

 

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Emily Dickinson

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Henry David Thoreau

Some recent bouts of cold weather brought increased numbers of birds to my feeders. It’s easy to look at the birds flocking to feeders and think that this special relationship between them and their human hosts is a long-running one. However, the practice of tempting birds with food to invite them to take part in our daily lives is a fairly recent one. The concept of feeding the birds began to develop in the 19th century, motivated in part by some of the early naturalists and transcendental thinkers of New England.

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A Northern Cardinal checks out a gravel drive for dropped seeds.

For instance, the 19th century writer Emily Dickinson described feeding birds in some of her poems. In addition, she wrote about hummingbirds attracted to the flowers in the gardens that she tended with her sister at their home in Amherst, Massachusetts. Dickinson’s fellow writer, Henry David Thoreau, fed birds at Walden Pond as early as 1845. He later wrote his pivotal work, “Walden,” based on his experiences living in his small cabin in the woods. The work is filled with his description of birds and other wildlife.

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Florence Merriam Bailey

The late John V. Dennis, author of “The Complete Guide to Bird Feeding,” sketches out the history of feeding birds in his informative work. Dennis noted that early American naturalist and painter John James Audubon wrote in the 18th century about people from the old country (Europe) feeding birds during spells of bad weather. For a long time, Dennis noted in his book, feeding of birds remained rather sporadic. This began to change in the late 1800s. The evolution of bird feeding was documented by Florence Augusta Merriam Bailey, a 19th century ornithologist and naturalist.

Bailey wrote “Birds Through an Opera Glass” in 1889, becoming one of the first writers to write about birds for popular audiences without too much emphasis on the more scientific aspects of ornithology. She also wrote “Birds of Village and Field: A Bird Book for Beginners,” intended to foster an interest in birds and birding among the general public. Bailey even identified in her writings the first person — a Mrs. E. B. Davenport — to implement a winter-long, even year-long, practice of feeding birds. Another woman — Caroline Soule — developed the first hummingbird feeder back in 1900. She took a glass cylinder, filled it with a sugar water mixture and attached an handmade artificial flower to it. When she hung the feeder near a trumpet vine at her home, she reported that the hummingbirds readily fed from her feeder. Dennis noted that Soule’s basic feeder design has needed very little modification in the last century.

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House Finches visit a feeder in suburban Atlanta, Ga.

Althea Sherman discovered that ruby-throated hummingbirds quickly learned to associate clear bottles filled with sugar water as a source of food. Her 1913 study of hummingbird feeding behavior also noted that hummingbirds remembered the locations of artificial feeders from a previous year and would hover at those precise spots when they returned each spring. So, in less than a century, humans have had a major influence on hummingbirds, helping them adapt to supplemental food sources provided by humans hoping to lure these tiny birds into their yards and gardens for extended stays.

Feeding of birds expanded rapidly in popularity. Today, some estimates indicate that as many as 55 million Americans regularly feed the birds in their yards and gardens. Bird feeding is second only to gardening as the most popular hobby in the United States. The two activities can also overlap. The month of February was named National Bird-Feeding Month by the U.S. Congress back in 1994.

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A Tufted Titmouse and Downy Woodpecker visit a feeder for a chunk of suet.

Feeding the birds can be expensive, but all that money is, without a doubt, good for the economy. Americans spend about $3 billion a year on bird feed. Another $800 million goes to purchase bird feeders, baths and houses. The variety of food is quite extensive, but I generally offer black oil sunflower seeds and commercial mixtures of suet and peanut butter. I sometimes supplement my offerings to the birds with peanuts, nyjer thistle seed (a favorite of American goldfinches) and safflower seed. The latter is useful if you want to discourage squirrels. Unfortunately, the hard shells of safflower seeds also make them inaccessible to some smaller birds, but birds like tufted titmouse and Northern cardinal appear to have no difficulty with these seeds.

Some people have great luck feeding a wide range of birds, including Eastern bluebirds, Baltimore orioles and ruby-crowned kinglets. My bluebirds show an occasional interest in my feeders, but orioles and kinglets have largely ignored them. For bluebirds, mealworms, which can be purchased live or freeze-dried, are a very popular food.

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Dark-eyed Junco visits a feeder during a snowstorm.

I’ve come a long way since my childhood when my grandmother would let me scatter crumbled cornbread on the ground for the dark-eyed juncos ahead of snowstorms. I also remember that the juncos, or snowbirds, would flock to the site where my grandfather dumped the ashes from his wood stove. I suspect the ash provided supplemental minerals and nutrients craved by the birds.

 
Some birds are quite adventurous in their tastes. On a whim, I once placed a stale McDonald’s apple pie on my front porch during a winter cold spell. A Carolina wren discovered the pastry and made frequent trips each day to feast on this unexpected bonanza. The wren whittled away at the pie, which soon disappeared. I suspected the wren probably advertised to friends, so other wrens may have helped in finishing off the pie.

 
Human generosity can help birds survive frigid cold snaps, but for the most part, they’re not dependent on humans for their food. The reason to feed birds is entirely a selfish one. We take immense pleasure in observing their antics as they interact with each other at our feeders. Experts have even shown that such activities as bird feeding can be therapeutic in reducing stress in human observers.

 
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.

 

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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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The Lee and Lois Herndon Chapter of Tennessee Ornithological Society, based in Elizabethton, Tennessee, is once again offering for sale its annual calendar. All proceeds from sales of the 2017 calendar benefit the chapter’s work to promote birds and birding. This year’s calendar features nearly 100 full-color photographs. Calendars are $15 and can be obtained at the office of the Bristol Herald Courier, 320 Bob Morrison Blvd., Bristol, Virginia. To reserve a copy, email me at ahoodedwarbler@aol.com or message me on Facebook.
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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.

Region’s largest woodpecker always makes big impression

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Photo by Bryan Stevens                         The downy woodpecker is the smallest of its kind in the region. Its largest relative is the crow-sized pileated woodpecker.

In recent posts, I’ve discussed the yellow-bellied sapsucker, a definite oddball among the region’s woodpeckers, as well as the downy woodpecker, which is the smallest member of this clan of tree-hugging birds. This week I’d like to discuss the pileated woodpecker. On the other end of the size scale from the downy, the pileated woodpecker ranks as the largest member of this family of birds to make its home in the United States.

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Photo by Ken Thomas                                                     The pileated woodpecker, despite its size and noisy personality, is a rather shy bird.

The large pileated woodpecker — it’s the size of a crow — never fails to impress. This bird has a loud, raucous cackling call, which is often heard before the bird is observed. This woodpecker spends a good amount of its time low to the ground, so when one takes flight unexpectedly, often calling loudly as its powerful wing beats carry it away from an observer, the moment can be somewhat startling. These experiences of sudden and unexpected sightings of one of these woodpeckers is often accompanied by exclamations of surprise. Hence common names such as “wood-hen” and “Lord God Bird” have been adopted for these woodpeckers. Other names for the pileated have included carpenter bird, cock-of-the-woods and wood-hen.

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Photo by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service                                              The pileated woodpecker, if the ivory-billed woodpecker is truly extinct, reigns as the largest woodpecker in the United States.

At one point, the pileated woodpecker was relegated to second place when it came to the size of native woodpeckers. The often inaccessible swampy woodlands and river bottoms of the American south were home to the former title holder, the ivory-billed woodpecker. With the unsettled status of the ivory-billed woodpecker — is it extinct or is it still lingering in an Arkansas swamp? — the pileated woodpecker is considered the largest woodpecker in the United States. If incontrovertible evidence of the existence of ivory-billed woodpeckers should emerge in the future, the pileated woodpecker would once again find itself overshadowed by this dramatically larger relative.

Although the pileated woodpecker can reach a length of 19 inches, the bird weighs only about 11 ounces. Male and female look similar with a black and white body and a bright red crest. Males show a red stripe — or mustache — on the cheek that is not present in females.

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Early naturalist and painter John James Audubon painted these pileated woodpeckers in the process of foraging for food.

As mentioned earlier, the pileated woodpecker often can be found low to the ground, foraging on tree stumps and fallen logs, as well as in taller, living trees. The reason for this behavior rests with one of its favorite foods — the humble carpenter ant. The pileated is not the only woodpecker that supplements its diet with ants. For instance, the Northern flicker is also fond of dining on these insects. Studies conducted on the dietary preferences of pileated woodpeckers have revealed that as much as 40 percent of the diet is made up of ants. Some pileated woodpeckers appear to have developed quite an addiction for ants with some individuals dining almost exclusively on ants. These woodpeckers also eat wild fruits and nuts, as well as other insects and their larvae. The pileated woodpecker will occasionally visit a feeder for suet or seeds, but I’ve not had much luck overcoming their instinctive wariness.

Pileated woodpeckers — usually a mated pair — have been among my wild neighbors for years, but they are shy, retiring birds. Despite their bold appearance and capacity for making quite a racket, the pileated woodpecker usually goes out of its way not to attract attention to itself. Because of this, close-up observations of the largest of our woodpeckers are experiences to savor.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens                                This pileated woodpecker was photographed at Brookgreen Gardens in South Carolina in 2015.

The bird’s enthusiastic ability to excavate cavities in rotten trees is a boon to other species of birds. Certain species of ducks as well as owls, bats, squirrels and other species of wildlife will often make use of cavities created by pileated woodpeckers for roosting locations or to raise their own young.

Worldwide, there are about 180 different woodpeckers, but the family is conspicuous in its absence from Australia, Madagascar and New Zealand. The pileated woodpecker ranges across the continent, with birds present in the forests across Canada and the eastern United States as well as certain areas along the Pacific coast.

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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.

Feeding the birds during year’s colder months offers pleasant pastime

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A still shot from the Feeder Watch cam in Ontario showing Evening Grosbeaks and Pine Grosbeaks.

Patricia Werth, a resident of Abingdon, Virginia, shared with me in an email that that she has been enjoying watching birds visit feeders for snacks of sunflower seeds and other tidbits. The feeders, however, are not her own. She has been watching online a camera focused on a family’s backyard feeders in Ontario, Canada. A couple named Tammie and Ben Haché are identified on the webpage as the hosts for the camera.

She informed me that the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology placed the camera on the feeders. In similar projects, Cornell has also placed bird cams in positions that allow different moments of a bird’s life — such as hatching and fledging —to be shared with onlookers watching from the comfort of their living rooms or with the convenience of a smart phone.

“They have a flat tray as one of their feeders with shelled peanuts and sunflower seeds on it,” Patricia shared.

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A pair of House Finches visit a feeder.

She noted that some of the birds at the feeders include a ruffed grouse. While the grouse was eating, a blue jay arrived and wanted the grouse to leave. In response, the grouse ruffled its neck feathers and spread its tail. “The blue jay decided to wait to eat,” she added.

Patricia has also enjoyed the habits of the crows and blue jays at the feeders, noting that a jay will pick up one shelled peanut and fly away but the crows won’t leave until they have at least three peanuts.

“Fun stuff to watch,” she said. Patricia has seen many species that don’t often reach Virginia and Tennessee, including birds like evening grosbeak and pine grosbeak.

Patricia also shared that she felt that others would like this site as much as she does. To observe the birds visiting the feeders in the yard in Ontario, Canada, just visit  http://cams.allaboutbirds.org/channel/38/Ontario_FeederWatch/

Patricia had also read my recent column on dark-eyed juncos. “I still haven’t seen any juncos yet, but I have been watching for them,” she shared.

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American Goldfinch eating sunflower seeds at a feeder.

It’s simple and relatively inexpensive to feed the birds. While a wide range of feeders of all shapes and sizes can be purchased at gardening centers and most retail stores, something as simple as a clay saucer can function as a dispenser of seeds. Of course, seeds can even be scattered on the ground. In fact, this is the preferred method of foraging for many of our ground-dwelling birds.

I like to provide a mixed variety of foods during the winter months. My main offering include black oil sunflower seeds (and plenty of them), as well as suet cakes and shelled, unsalted peanuts.

Some of our more common feeder visitors include Carolina chickadees, tufted titmice, blue jays, house finches, American goldfinches, as well as a variety of sparrows and woodpeckers. It’s still fairly early in the winter season, but it’s good to watch for more unexpected visitors such as purple finches, red-breasted nuthatches and evening grosbeaks.

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Downy Woodpecker obtains suet from a feeder.

In urban or suburban settings, expect to entertain such birds as house sparrows, European starlings and rock pigeons at your feeders. These non-native species can quickly overwhelm some feeders and crowd out native birds.

Whether or not the show is televised, it’s always great fun to watch the antics of birds at our feeders during the winter months. Many of the other aspects of the natural world that we enjoy, from flowers and butterflies to gardening and dragonflies, are absent during the winter months. Curious chickadees, feisty finches and wily wrens can definitely lift one’s spirits on gloomy winter days.

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A female Northern Cardinal perches on the side of a rustic feeder.

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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A White-breasted Nuthatch departs a feeder with a seed.