Tag Archives: Virginia

Readers report on robin, purple martin that stand out from other members of their flocks

 

Albino-Swallow

Photo by Jean Potter • Two barn swallows in typical plumage perch on a wire with an albino individual.

Birds of a feather, as the old saying goes, tend to flock together, but what happens when a member of the flock stands out from the rest? Although conventional wisdom mandates that being conspicuous is not helpful for most wild creatures, some of them can’t help but get attention. Different readers have brought to my attention some birds at their homes that instantly stood out.

Sara and Ed Gschwind, residents of Bristol, Tennessee, have been keeping tabs on an American robin in their yard that is showing an extensive amount of white feathers in its plumage. For the most part, this particular robin has a white head, largely white wings and extensive white in the typically red breast. “My 88-year-old mother, Nora Rockett, suggested I send a photo to you,” Sara wrote in an email.

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Photo by Ed Gschwind • A leucistic American robin enjoy time in a bird bath. Albino and leucistic birds are rather rare in nature.

Sara said that her mother, who has lived in Bristol all her life, has never seen anything like it. I replied to Sara’s email, asking for a few more details.

While the robin interacts with others of its kind, the Gschwinds haven’t seen any evidence this particular robin is attempting to nest. Ed took a photograph of the robin enjoying the water in a bird bath in the Gschwind yard.

“The robin bathes every day, and loves the water like all robins do,” Sara wrote. “The robin has been here since the robins returned three months ago. I’m trying to keep it happy.” Since the robin is a regular visitor, I agree that they’re doing a good job keeping the bird happy, since it’s not shown any inclination to leave their yard.

Tom Brake, who lives in Abingdon, Virginia, contacted me through Facebook about a male purple martin with extensive white feathers residing at the purple martin colony he has established at his home.

Purple martins are the largest member of the swallow family in the United States. Like many other swallow species, they nest in colonies. Martins are cavity-nesting birds that readily accept hollow gourds or special purple martin condominiums for nesting.

“Currently I have nests in 43 compartments with 20 being active (eggs having been laid),” Tom wrote. “Last year I had 51 pairs, and I hope to get close to being back to 60 or 70 active pairs this year. The next two weeks will be the busy time for completion of nests and laying.”

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Photo by Tom Brake • A leucistic male purple martin perches with its mate, a typical female purple martin, near a hollow gourd they may use for nesting purposes.

As for the bird showing the white feathers, Tom has named him “Leuie” because the bird is an example of leucism, a condition related to albinism.

Albinism is a genetic, or inherited, condition resulting in a complete lack of production of pigmentation. Albino birds are, for the most part, extremely uncommon. I’ve heard of a variety of birds, ranging from hummingbirds and American robins to various ducks and swallows, that have a tendency to produce albino individuals.

Leucism is another genetic mutation that causes affected birds to grow feathers that are pale or whitish overall. A faint pattern may be visible. Leucism is also uncommon, but is more common that albinism. Both the robin in the Gschwind yard and the purple martin at Tom’s home are examples of leucistic birds.

Tom noted that “Leuie” is doing well so far. “He has a mate, but their first clutch of four eggs was either thrown out by a second year male martin or discarded by themselves because they sensed non-viability,” Tom wrote in a Facebook message. “Maybe the cold, wet weather had something to do with the loss.” He noted that the same thing happened recently to two other nests.

“Leuie and mate are still using their gourd, so I expect they will re-clutch,” Tom wrote. The term “re-clutch” means that Leuie’s mate will lay a new batch of eggs and Leuie will be ready to carry out his own paternal duties to help raise any resulting young.

Albinism and leucism are not the only conditions that can affect pigment in a bird’s feathers. Some birds have the opposite problem in that they produce too much pigment, resulting in a much darker bird than what would be typical. The plumage of such affected birds is described as melanistic, which is in stark contrast to an albino bird. With a melanistic bird, the feathers are much darker than usual because of an abundance of pigment. In rare albino birds, the opposite occurs and the lack of pigment in the feathers leave them looking white. Completely albino birds also tend to have red eyes. It’s probably better for a bird to be melanistic. Albino birds tend to stick out like sore thumbs, attracting the attention of predators.

Robins-AlbinoAndRegular

Photo by Ed Gschwind • Compare the leucistic American robin in the bird bath with the typical robin perched in a nearby chair. Albino birds are rather rare in nature.

I’ve only seen a few albino or partial albino birds in person, although I have observed videos and photographs of such birds. During a trip to Salt Lake City, Utah, in 2006, I observed an albino Brewer’s blackbird. An albino blackbird is almost an oxymoron. This particular blackbird had a white upper body and head and a black lower body. At first, I thought it might be a small tern, but closer observation — and identification of the birds with which it was associating — eventually confirmed that it was a Brewer’s blackbird, a common species in Salt Lake City.

Those observations remain my best looks at albino birds in the wild. I’ve also seen partial albinos, including an American Crow with white feathers in its wings that inhabited the woodlands and fields at my home for several years. I’ve also observed a couple of American goldfinches over the years that would probably qualify as leucistic birds.

A few years ago, I saw an albino Red-tailed hawk while driving between Erwin, Tennessee, and Asheville, North Carolina, on Interstate 26. The hawk was often present near the North Carolina Visitors Center. I’ve also heard from readers over the years about birds such as American goldfinches and downy woodpeckers exhibiting albino tendencies.

Albino-Hawk

Photo by Jean Potter • This partial albino red-tailed hawk was spotted for several years near the state line dividing northeast Tennessee and western North Carolina.

These issues involving the absence or abundance of pigment can complicate bird identification. After all, all-white birds, from snowy owls and tundra swans to great egrets and snow geese, do exist in nature. Even in these birds, however, there’s usually some other color present to break up the uniformity of the bird’s plumage. Keep in mind that such rarities as albino individuals of such common species as house finches and American robins can show up at your feeders or in your yard. It’s just another way birds constantly surprise us.

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To learn more about birds and other topics from the natural world, friend him on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/ahoodedwarbler. He is always posting about local birds, wildlife, flowers, insects and much more.

Writer and artist Julie Zickefoose to share wisdom at Abingdon program, nature walk

 

With the nesting season for some of our favorite birds kicking off, the timing is especially fortuitous for an upcoming program. Acclaimed nature writer and wildlife illustrator Julie Zickefoose will be the a featured speaker for Sunday with Friends at the Washington County Public Library in Abingdon, Virginia, later this month. Her talk will be followed by a book sale and signing.

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Julie Zickefoose and a feathered friend. — Photo Contributed

In addition, Zickefoose will take part in a bird walk along the Virginia Creeper Trail at 8 a.m. on Saturday, April 22. Those wishing to participate in this Earth Day event are invited to meet at the trailhead in downtown Abingdon. I’m planning on attending the walk, which I hope will produce many interesting migrant birds. The walk is free and open to the public.

Zickefoose, the author of the new book, “Baby Birds: An Artist Looks into the Nest,” will speak Sunday, April 23, at 3 p.m. at the Washington County Public Library. Her event is free and will be held in the Conference Room at the Main Library in Abingdon, Virginia.

The public is invited to meet Zickefoose on the day after Earth Day to celebrate her new book. Life-sized baby birds wriggle, crawl and flutter off the pages of this beautiful book, the product of 13 years of deep involvement and close observation of nesting birds. Lively writing describes the development of 17 bird species from egg to fledgling, with the wonder, humor and relentless curiosity that Zickefoose is known for. She provided commentary on National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered” for five years and for 12 years has written a thrice-weekly natural history blog.

She has written several other books, including “The Bluebird Effect: Uncommon Bonds with Common Birds,” “Natural Gardening for Birds: Create a Bird-friendly Habitat in Your Backya26312954._UY1628_SS1628_rd,” and “The Young Birder’s Guide to Birds of North America,” a co-writing venture with Bill Thompson.

 

According to Zickefoose’s website, she began her career as a field biologist for The Nature Conservancy. She became a magazine and book illustrator. Eventually, she began illustrating her own stories. She writes and paints from Indigo Hill, her 80-acre sanctuary in Appalachian Ohio. Zickefoose also writes a blog. To read entries, visit juliezickefoose.blogspot.com.

Ben Jennings helped secure Zickefoose’s lecture. He has worked for the past 15 years organizing “Sunday with Friends,” a series of book and author events hosted by the Washington County Public Library’s Friends of the Library organization.

“I get tips from lots of folks about writers, as well as doing research on my own,” Jennings said.

He also noted that Kate Foreman persuaded him to invite Zickefoose to take part in the series. “Kate is a longtime friend, and currently the director of advancement at Barter Theatre,” Jennings said. “I certainly trust her judgment. Kate had to remind me — but I did remember — Julie’s commentary on NPR several years ago. Julie was thrilled to come to be with Kate for the weekend.”

The Friends of the Washington County Public Library is a voluntary, non-profit organization whose purpose is to help strengthen the resources of the library and to make it a dynamic force in the community. Friends’ activities generally fall into four main categories— advocacy, fundraising, programming and volunteerism. First organized in the mid-1960s, the Friends groups has made an important contribution over the years by helping to raise funds to improve library facilities and providing financial support for special projects. The Washington County Public Library is located at 205 Oak Hill St., Abingdon, Virginia. For more information, visit http://www.wcpl.net.

Bluebird-Box

A female bluebird checks out a potential nesting box. — Photo by Bryan Stevens

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A pair of Eastern bluebirds, a species of birds often featured in Zickefoose’s writings, has been exploring the nest box options available at my home. The bluebirds actually started checking the boxes in late February. With the arrival of March, the pair has had to contend with as many as three tree swallow interlopers. I’m not sure of the status of the third tree swallow, but it definitely gives the swallows an edge in numbers.

While bluebirds are not totally loyal to previous nesting locations, studies indicate that as many as 30 percent of bluebirds return to previous nesting sites the following season. So, if you can attract a pair of bluebirds to your yard, that’s half the battle. The same pair, or perhaps some of their offspring, will quite possibly return to yard in future years.

Habitats with spacious areas of short grass are perfect for bluebirds. So, homes with large lawns or that are located adjacent to fields, will attract bluebirds looking for a place to nest. If you lack any trees with natural cavities, a bluebird nesting box is necessary to secure their extended stay. Nesting box plans are easily obtained online if you want to build your own boxes, or you can purchase boxes at many farm supply stores and garden centers.

To keep the bluebirds happy and safe, avoid using herbicides or pesticides on your lawn to prevent accidental poisoning of adult bluebirds and their young. A few small trees and shrubs spaced throughout the yard will provide convenient perches for bluebirds as they hunt for insects to feed themselves and their young.

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

vultures-tree

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.

vulture-tower

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.

bryan-vulture

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.

tvultures

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.

vulture-halloween

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.

BS-VULTURES

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.

TurkeyVulturesClean

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.

Turkey_Vulture_edited-1

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.