Archive for the ‘Birds’ Category

Top 10 Things You Can Do for Birds In Fall

Sunday, June 27th, 2010

By Bill Thompson, III
WHETHER you’d like to admit it or not, summer is almost over and autumn is nearly upon us.

Spring cleaning gets lots of attention, but for the backyard bird watcher, there’s just as much to do in fall as in spring. I’ve spent much of the past few weekends at our farm doing the items listed below, so this column came to me naturally, you might say.

I like the anticipation of fall. At the farm, fall migration is almost always better than spring migration–we get more birds, and we get more unusual birds. The only thing missing is fresh spring plumage and the symphony of singing males. To ensure that you get the most out of this fall’s migration, I offer these suggestions for the birds in your backyard.

1. Make your windows safe for migrants. Migrant birds get restless and almost hyperactive in the fall. Watch a Red-eyed Vireo chase a warbler all over your yard and you’ll see what I mean. All this activity around your house can have tragic results if one or more of your windows is in a location where flying birds strike the glass. Julie and I use the FeatherGuard idea that the September/October 2001 BWD “My Way” column describes. By doing this, our window kills have been reduced by more than 80 percent. Your main goal is to break up the window’s reflection or prevent birds from striking the glass.

2. Keep hummer feeders up. You’ve probably heard the myth: Take down your hummingbird feeders in the fall or the hummers will “forget” to migrate. It’s not true. Birds, including the hummingbirds at our feeders, are programmed by instinct to migrate when their inner clocks tell them to leave. Changes in daylight (in terms of the length and intensity of sunlight), affect the birds’ departure date and time, as do changes in weather. But there’s no way your feeder will interfere with a bird’s migratory urge, unless the bird is hindered from migrating by some other factor such as illness or injury. Sick or injured birds and late migrants from points to the north of you will benefit from your late-fall feeding station. Leaving your hummer feeders up will do no harm, and it might even do some good. (Make sure your feeders are clean and the solution is fresh-sorry, I couldn’t resist.)

3. Scatter seed. I know bird feeding is done more for the watchers than it is for the ultimate survival of the birds. But I still feel good when I scatter a handful of mixed seed, sunflower hearts, and peanut bits under the brush piles and thick shrubbery around our lawn. This food is intended for those skulking species that may never come to our feeders-the sparrows, thrashers, catbirds, towhees, and others that are too shy (or too smart) to venture across our yard to the centralized feeding stations. I am sure that chipmunks and field mice enjoy this banquet, too. But then again, they might lure a kestrel or Red-tailed Hawk into the yard seeking a mammalian meal.

4. Leave your leaves. Leaving your fallen leaves alone helps your birds both directly and indirectly. The leaves trap and hold moisture from dew and rain, which helps keep your lawn from drying out. As the leaves break down (mowing over them can hasten this) they add valuable nutrients to the soil. Fallen leaves also attract and are fed upon by insects, which in turn are fed upon by birds such as robins, blackbirds, thrushes, bluebirds, catbirds, thrashers, and so on. A healthy lawn is always a birdy lawn.

5. Let your lawn go. It’s all about seedheads. Stop mowing a section of your lawn in late summer and let the long grass go to seed. This is your own natural bird food. Passing buntings, sparrows, and finches will thank you by spending time in your grass. During the past nine winters we’ve lived on our farm, our unmown lawn sections have attracted pine siskins, tree sparrows, Lincoln’s sparrows, one grasshopper sparrow, and lots of the usual suspects (juncos, goldfinches, Indigo Buntings, and Song, Chipping, and Field Sparrows).

6. Let your garden go. It’s hard to resist the urge to pull up all the dead tomato, squash, and other plants in your garden once the growing season is over. And some gardening experts encourage this immediate yanking and burning of the old plants to reduce the chance of plant disease carrying over to the next spring. We’ve never subscribed to that theory, but then we don’t spray pesticides or herbicides, either. We’re not just organic, we’re laissez faire organic, which translates to “lazy.” Our birds thank us by feeding on the old seedheads of our flowers and garden plants. Sparrows, towhees, and juncos skulk in the thick dead vegetation. Sure the garden lacks a certain tidiness, but it’s always full of birds.

7. Feeder check up and inventory.
When fall is here, winter is already getting ready for its grand entrance. If you live in a region where winter weather is harsh, now is the time to look over those large capacity feeders that have been in storage since last spring. Are they fit for another winter of use? Do they need a good cleaning? Do you want to upgrade or expand your feeders and offerings? Avoid the holiday rush and get your shopping done now.

8. Replace old dirty nests. It seems that our late-summer broods of bluebirds are always the messiest. By the time the young have fledged, the insides of the nestbox are caked with droppings, feather dust, and insect parts. We always give the houses a good sweeping out in the fall and replace the filthy old nest with a clean new cup of dried grasses. As I’ve mentioned in this column before, we like to think of the bluebirds, chickadees, or a Downy Woodpecker snuggled deep in the insulating grass inside the box on a cold winter night.

9. Keep the cat indoors. Migrant birds are not familiar with your backyard’s delights or dangers. A lurking cat can take a heavy toll during migration as unsuspecting birds are lured into your yard by habitat, water, and food. It’s a good idea to keep your cat indoors throughout the year, but especially important during fall migration, when adult birds are joined by naïve youngsters making their first southward flight.

10. Water in motion. Moving water in your birdbath created by a mister or dripper is a fantastic way to attract birds. During spring and fall migration, when species not normally found in your area are passing through, an attractive birdbath can make them stop to bathe or drink. Make sure your bath is clean and in a spot where you can easily observe it throughout the day.–Bird Watcher’s Digest

Top 10 Things to Do in Winter

Sunday, June 27th, 2010

By Bill Thompson, III
JUST because the days are shorter and the warblers and hummingbirds are gone from our midst (for most of us, that is) doesn’t mean we should put our binoculars, field guides, and bird watching plans in storage for the winter.

There are many winter activities we can enjoy as backyard bird watchers. Here are a few suggestions:

1. Feeder check. I know it’s obvious, and the birds don’t really need our feeders to survive, but let this serve as a gentle reminder to check on your seed stock and on the status of your feeders. While inspecting my feeders the other day, I noticed that our large gazebo feeder was nearly falling apart. Its replacement looks a lot better and holds more seed-an all-around upgrade.

2. Switch to high-protein foods. Suet and peanuts are great high-energy foods for winter bird feeding. Today, more than ever before, there is a plethora of great peanut and suet feeders available to discerning consumers. Visit any store selling wild-bird products and ask about these feeders and foods. If there is no retail store in your area, head for the grocery store. Purchase generic unsalted peanuts (shells removed) and offer them on your platform feeder or in a tube or hopper feeder. At the meat counter, look for packages of suet (sometimes labeled as beef kidney fat). Suet can be offered as is, placed in a mesh onion bag, or it can be rendered (melted) and then re-hardened in your freezer. Some feeder operators who render their own suet also add raisins, oats, corn meal, peanut bits, or peanut butter to the mix while it is in liquid form. Poured into small cups or ice trays it will harden into handy sizes for feeding.

3. Watch for unusual visitors. Bad weather can really smoke out the unusual birds. Heavy snows here in Ohio will bring lots of our usual feeder visitors to our yard, plus blackbirds and the occasional oddity such as a swamp sparrow or a Savannah sparrow. Will this be the winter that the northern finches invade southward? I hope so. It’s been a while since I’ve seen a common redpoll or an evening grosbeak.

4. Make bird shelters. Our windy ridgetop yard catches every gust of cold winter weather. We try to make our birds a bit more comfortable by building brushpiles and lean-to wind breaks on the windward side of our feeders. These structures, which take only a few minutes to build, block the full effect of the wind, giving the birds a sheltered spot for feeding and resting. Creating these sheltered spots gives me more satisfaction-almost- than feeding the birds. For an example of a lean-to shelter, please see page 96 of the January/February 2001 issue of Bird Watcher’s Digest.

5. Check your nest boxes for roosters. If you have sturdy nest boxes on your property you may already be providing a sheltered spot for your birds. Check inside your nest boxes for evidence that birds are using them as nighttime roosts. Our bluebird boxes host as many birds in winter as they do in summer. Nuthatches, titmice, chickadees, woodpeckers, wrens, owls, starlings, house sparrows, and bluebirds are just a few of the species that will roost in nest boxes outside the normal breeding season.

6. Follow a feeding flock. While you’re out filling the feeders or out for a walk in the woods, watch and listen for signs of a feeding flock. Winter feeding flocks comprise birds of different species that are loosely knit together in a quest for food, while being vigilant for predators. A typical feeding flock here in Ohio might consist of chickadees, titmice, nuthatches, kinglets, woodpeckers, creepers, and perhaps a yellow-rumped warbler, an eastern bluebird, and a hermit thrush. The flock will make little chips and seets and other noises while flitting through the trees looking for food. If an alarm note sounds, watch for the flock to stop moving or make a dash for thicker cover.

7. Look at tracks. A favorite winter activity of mine is trying to determine what a bird has done by looking at the impressions it has left in the snow. It’s amazing how much of your yard is visited by birds in the course of a day. The bird tracks left behind in the snow can be a great indication of what birds were there and what they were doing. I especially enjoy looking at crow tracks to try to discern what these very smart birds were doing and thinking. Sometimes I’ll find a spot where an owl’s wing and leg prints tell me of a plunge after an unseen mouse, or a set of turkey tracks headed for my neighbor’s cornfield. As an added activity, try to decipher the many animal tracks you’ll also encounter.

8. Listen for owls. January and February are prime courtship and nesting time for many owl species. This means that the owls may be calling in the middle of the night, communicating with potential mates and rivals. Take a moment to step outside and give a listen. Here’s a tip: Cup a hand behind each ear. This focuses the sound, creating a kind of parabolic gathering of sound. If you hear an unfamiliar sound in the night, consult one of the many excellent audio guides to bird sounds to solve your mystery. While listening for owls in the winter of 1998, we discovered that coyotes had moved into our area. Hearing those coyotes yip and howl was thrilling and eerie at the same time.

9. Watch for signs of spring. While your eyes and ears are tuned in to nature, listen and watch for the first subtle signs of spring. Many resident bird species will begin singing on warm, sunny January days, even though the breeding season is weeks or months away. The lengthening days and increasing intensity of sunlight act to stimulate the birds’ hormones. Evidence of this is seen in the increased attention that males will pay to females (singing, chasing, defending) and in the increase in general activity among your birds. Long before any nest building takes place, our mourning doves are doing their sad cooing, our male bluebirds are chortling and waving their wings from the top of our houses, and our male goldfinches are getting just a little bit brighter plumage.

10. Keep a journal. When did the first junco show up at your feeder last fall? When did the last hummingbird depart? What date do the fox sparrows pass through in spring? Did that sapsucker show up in 1996 or 1997? These are questions that can be answered with a quick reference to your bird or nature journal. As I’ve mentioned before in these pages, keeping some sort of written record of your sightings can be fun, useful, and fascinating. We keep our journal in a spiral-bound volume intended for that purpose. We also keep bird sightings notes on our home computer, so we know exactly when the phoebe started building its nest under our deck in 1996. Things to note in a journal include sightings, date, time, weather conditions, plus bird behavior, arrival and departure dates, and interesting tidbits you wish to remember. Try it, you’ll like it! –Birdwatchers Digest

Top 10 Reasons to Love Suet Dough

Sunday, June 27th, 2010

By Julie Zickefoose
I FIRST BECAME aware of the powers of peanut butter suet dough when Carrie Griffis of Port Orchard, WA, sent us photographs of herself hand-feeding it to a wild adult Pileated Woodpecker. More than that, he brought his brood to her deck to share it. “This must be some stuff,” I thought. “I’ll try it.” My bird-feeding life has never been the same.

1.  It cleans your crusty soup pots. I am not making this up. We’ve all burned beans or chili in our soup pots, and there are some that just won’t scrub clean. Make a batch of suet dough in one of those, stir in the dry ingredients, and you’ll see little black flecks come up with the mixture. Make two or three batches and your pot will sparkle again. The birds won’t mind the flecks–they’re too busy gobbling it down.

2.  It encourages snobbery in bird feeding.
Perhaps I speak only for myself, but I don’t fancy shoveling out premium food for squabbling flocks of starlings. Over the course of a winter I build personal relationships with special birds in the know, birds who are willing to come right to the kitchen window on cue for the good stuff. By putting out only as much as my favorite birds will clean up in 10 minutes and by doing it when I can stand at the window watching them, I discourage the gluttonous but spooky starlings from getting any.

3.  It allows you to get to know individual birds. I offer suet dough in small amounts at set times during my day–usually when I’m at the kitchen window preparing meals for my family. The birds listen for the creak of the storm door opening, and flock to a cement bench where I crumble a handful of dough for them. The same individuals show up every time, and I take a lot of pleasure in seeing “my” bluebirds, towhee, and nuthatch show up right on cue.

4.  It’s attractive to unusual birds. For me, the great surprise of feeding suet dough has been the variety of birds it attracts. Here’s the list of species waiting by my doorstep for their dose every morning: Eastern Bluebird, Dark-eyed Junco, White-throated Sparrow, Song Sparrow, Blue Jay, Downy Woodpecker, White-breasted Nuthatch, Tufted Titmouse, and Rufous-sided Towhee. They know a good thing when they taste it.

5.  It’s cheaper than offering mealworms. It’s nice to be able to attract bluebirds to your doorstep without spending exorbitant amounts of money on live insect shipments. I use mealworms to attract the bluebirds initially, gradually decreasing the number offered. I mix suet dough in with the mealworms and some gets gobbled down in the feeding frenzy. Sooner or later, still-hungry bluebirds eat the dough in earnest, and the fun and convenience of feeding them suet dough really begins.

6.  Birds can feed it to nestlings when other food is scarce.
Prolonged cold rains during nesting season keep insect prey hidden and make it difficult for insect-eating birds to find enough food to keep their young alive. It’s satisfying to see wrens and bluebirds loading up on suet dough for their young in such conditions (I keep mealworms around for such emergencies, as well).

7.  It helps birds through severe weather. High in fat and protein, this concoction is the ideal offering for birds like Carolina wrens and bluebirds, insect-eaters that sometimes don’t survive ice storms and deep snow. Warblers and orioles that might linger around feeders take to it readily.

8.  It’s easy to store. Lard and peanut butter keep a long time even at room temperature. Though you can refrigerate it or freeze it for longer periods, once the birds catch onto it you’ll find you don’t need to. I store mine in large peanut butter jars, kept in a tole-painted bucket by the front door.

9.  It’s easy to make. Every other week I enjoy whomping up double batches of peanut butter suet dough. The kids help me melt the peanut butter and lard and pour in the dry ingredients. I stir it and let it set, chopping it into chunks When it’s cool it smells wonderful, almost good enough to eat!

10.  It’s always fresh and homemade.
Commercial suet blocks can be too hard for insect-eating birds like bluebirds and creepers to handle. Some have inclusions, like cracked corn, mixed seed, or whole sunflower seeds, that aren’t useful to birds. Homemade suet dough is soft, crumbly, even in texture, and just right for hungry birds to

wolf down. –Birdwatcher’s Digest

Top 10 Reasons Spring Feeding is Great

Sunday, June 27th, 2010

By Bill Thompson, III
YOU KNOW SPRING has sprung when find yourself turning away from the piles of discarded seed hulls beneath the feeders, and ignoring the fact that your flower beds need some serious attention. Still, spring is the season of promise, renewal, and some pretty neat action at the bird feeder. Below, in lilting prose and taxonomic order, are my top 10 reasons why spring bird feeding is great. Special thanks to Julie Zickefoose for her able assistance on this one (read: it was her idea).

1. Filling your feeders in shirtsleeves! OK, I admit that I said a few bad words while filling the feeders during the long and snowy winter we just had. When it takes you 20 minutes to suit up just to fill your feeders, it makes you wonder–for a moment–why you’re doing it. Summer feeder duty, by contrast, is a joy. A few handfuls of seed, some nectar refills, a bit of fruit, and a few worms–it’s a piece of cake. What’s best, though, is getting to stay outside to enjoy the birds that come to the refilled feeders. No more watching through glass. These birds are right there for our watching and listening enjoyment.

2. Shifting gears. Spring cleaning goes on outside as well as inside, and we welcome the shifting of gears. We move our feeders to a new spot. We clean out our giant winter seed storage bins for our more modest spring/summer ones. We get all the hummer feeders ready for action. We feed less seed and more mealworms and fruit. We clean out a few juice jugs for use as nectar-storage containers in our refrigerator. We watch for the emergence of natural food sources such as dandelions, honeysuckle, and volunteer sunflowers. And we wave goodbye to our winter visitors, the juncos, white-throated and white-crowned sparrows, purple finches, and black-capped chickadees, all of whom leave us to head north for the breeding season.

3. Waiting for the first hummingbird. Perhaps you are lucky enough to live in a part of the continent where you get hummers all year long. If so, there is no first hummingbird of spring, but you may get a thrill when your summer resident species return. We go nuts waiting for our first rubythroat to show up. Our records indicate that this happens every spring during the first week of April. If a hummer (always an early returning male) appears before we’ve put the feeders out at our kitchen window where the feeder hung last summer, there’s a shout, a mad scramble, and then a bit of nail biting until we see that our feeder is patronized. It always is.

4. Offering fruit and nectar. Almost any kind of fruit you put out for the birds will be eaten by some species. Old standbys are oranges, grapefruits, melons, grapes, and apples. Use your imagination and see what your birds prefer. We spike the fruits onto nails driven into feeder posts and snags all around our yard. For shy species, such as orioles and tanagers, we place a few oranges around the edges of our yard near spots these birds already frequent. Nectar is not just for hummingbirds anymore. More than 50 species have been recorded consuming nectar from feeding stations. Offer a bit in a wide-mouthed jar suspended from heavy-gauge wire. House finches, orioles, tanagers, woodpeckers, and even warblers may stop by for a sip of sweetness. For more info on feeding fruits to birds, see “Fruits Birds Love” by Kathy Piper in the March/April 2000 issue of Bird Watcher’s Digest.

5. Offering eggshells. Have you seen the commercials on TV that say “We all need calcium”? Birds need it, too, especially during the energy-sapping period of egg laying. A female bird converts the calcium she gets from eating eggshells right back into, you guessed it, eggshells. But this time it’s shells for the eggs developing inside her, the ones she’s about to deposit in her nest. Here’s the eggshell recipe: Wash eggshells thoroughly and place in a pie pan in your oven. Bake them at about 250 degrees for 10-30 minutes. Crush them into small bits and scatter in an open spot, such as a driveway, sidewalk, deck, or platform feeder. Watch as all kinds of birds stop by for a nibble. At our farm, martins, barn and tree swallows, chipping and song sparrows, bluebirds, robins, eastern towhees, and Carolina chickadees have eaten the eggshell bits we offer.

6. Offering nesting material. Among the things that can be put out in your yard or garden for nest-building birds are dried grasses, pine needles, clean dryer lint, cotton balls, pet or human hair clippings, and very short (shorter than three inches) pieces of soft yarn. Long pieces of string, yarn, wire, or plastic should be avoided (or picked up and discarded safely if you find them) because they can tangle around bird legs and entrap nestlings or even adults.

7. Courtship behavior. Watch your feeders for fights, for flirting, for chases among rivals and potential mates, and for pair bonds to begin forming. The classic example is what’s known as the cardinal kiss. A male cardinal offers a seed in its bill to a female. If she accepts, you know you’ve probably got a mated pair. The male will continue to offer the female food as a way to demonstrate his intentions to her, and perhaps to show that he’s not only a caring mate, but also knows how to pick out the best sunflower seeds, thus demonstrating his “hunting” prowess.

8. Bird song right outside the window. For those of us in wintry regions, spring brings back bird song to our ears. Backyards in warmer, sunnier regions may get lots of song throughout the year because some species actively court and breed during what we consider to be the winter months. Across the upper two-thirds of North America some brave avian souls sing half-heartedly on sunny days all winter. As the days lengthen and warm, everybody gets into the act. Even birds that think they have a song, but don’t, such as the yellow-headed or red-winged blackbirds, brown-headed cowbirds, or any of the woodpeckers, get into the act of spring noise making. They can’t help it, they’ve got spring fever, too. I love waking up to the cacophony on a sunny April morning. And I’m counting the days until then.

9. Goldfinches molt into spring finery. Out with the old and in with the new! Nothing gets my spring fever working like that first early March glimpse of a male American goldfinch with a splotch of brand-new canary yellow feathers. Though all species go through a spring molting of feathers (old feathers fall out, new ones grow in), not all are as dramatically transforming as the American goldfinch’s.

10. Species diversity goes up as spring migrants come through. On a busy spring morning the activity at your feeders will attract other birds, perhaps including some unusual feeder visitors. At our feeders, a week of spring mornings can bring us a rose-breasted grosbeak, fox sparrow, Savannah sparrow, eastern meadowlark, red-headed woodpecker, or yellow-rumped warbler. These are all species that we have only as sporadic feeder visitors during a few weeks in the spring. –Bird Watcher’s Digest

Top 10 Bird Feeding Myths

Sunday, June 27th, 2010

By Bill Thompson, III

1. This Feeder Is 100% Squirrel Proof!  I am sorry, but there’s just no way!
Here I am setting myself up for angry letters from feeder manufacturers, but it is simply impossible to believe this statement. Oh, yes, you can make a feeder squirrel proof by placing it in the middle of a treeless lawn with a pole-baffle that would do the Pentagon proud. But nail that same feeder to your deck railing and watch the squirrels remove the confident smile from your face, along with all the seed in your feeder. Squirrels have the luxury of being way more resourceful than any bird feeder designer. Why? Because a squirrel is working to feed itself and its offspring, and it will throw itself into the task with all its might every single day. The squirrel thinks of nothing else but the seed inside that feeder, and how to get at it. The feeder designer, meanwhile, is thinking about lunch and vacation and next Tuesday’s staff meeting and bowling league. That’s why the squirrels win every time.

2. Perches on Hummer Feeders Are Bad. It started out as anecdotal evidence that grew into a wave of mild hysteria. Hummingbird feeders with perches were killing hummingbirds! How? Well, the hypothesis was that hummers would land on a feeder perch in the early morning and drink a deep slurp of very cold nectar, and this jolt of coldness would cause them to go into torpor, a trancelike state in which body functions slow drastically to conserve energy. Some hummers were found hanging upside down from their perches, while others fell to the ground and were at the mercy of predators. Witnesses reasoned that the hummers did not generate enough body heat while sitting and thus succumbed to the cold.

Removing the perches would force the hummers to hover while feeding, thus generating body heat. Now, before you go out and rip the perches off your feeders, consider that there are lots of reasons why a hummer might behave in this way. The bird could be in a natural state of torpor, which is how hummingbirds survive in extremely cold weather. A hummer that has been stung by a bee or wasp will behave strangely, as will one that is sick or perhaps injured from the fighting that occurs near a busy feeder. In my experience a feeder with perches allows many hummers to feed at once peacefully. Hummingbirds forced to hover at feeders seem to fight more readily, and are more active in defending a feeder. As with red dye, we don’t have scientific evidence to prove that feeders with perches are bad for hummingbirds, so until we do, use your own good judgment. As for me, I’m pro perch.

3. Red Dye in Hummer Food Is Bad. We’d like to think we know what is best for the birds we feed, but in a lot of cases, we don’t. It certainly seems logical that adding food coloring to hummingbird nectar solution might not be good for the birds drinking it, but the fact is, we don’t have any scientific proof to that effect. So it’s one of those innocent-until-proven guilty things. And until some scientist does the testing, there will continue to be millions of packages of red-dyed hummingbird nectar being sold and used. As Jerry Seinfeld used to say: “Not that there’s anything wrong with that.” This is what I’m saying: Hello out there. Any ornithology graduate students reading this? I’ve got an idea for your dissertation!

4. There’s Only One Hummingbird Species Found East of the Rocky Mountains. Gone are the days when this statement could be considered true. There are even breeding records for other hummingbird species (mainly the buff-bellied hummingbird) in southern Texas. In winter this statement is even less accurate because there can be as many as 10 different hummingbird species visiting feeders throughout the southeastern states. In addition to our regular eastern breeder, the ruby-throated hummingbird, eastern states now regularly play host to rufous hummingbirds, a hardy species that can breed as far north as Alaska. It is unclear if this is a new phenomenon or if the explosive growth of hummingbird feeding has made these birds more noticeable. I’m still waiting for the first good unusual hummingbird at our feeders.

5. Blackbirds/Squirrels Won’t Eat Safflower Seed. Safflower was once considered by many feeder operators to be the anti-blackbird and anti-squirrel food. Cardinals seemed to love it, but blackbirds and squirrels did not. That’s not really true anymore, but nobody knows why. Many folks who feed safflower report that any bird or mammal that eats sunflower will also eat safflower. Safflower seed is still a nice alternative food to offer—it works in any feeder suitable for sunflower seed and it can be bought in bulk at feed stores. A blackbird and squirrel deterrent it is not, but then again, what is?

6. Birds Won’t Eat Milo. Years ago in an early issue of Bird Watcher’s Digest, one of our editorial cartoons stated emphatically that “Real Birds Don’t Eat Milo.” Readers in the eastern half of North America nodded in agreement, but those folks in the Southwest howled their ridicule and protested loudly. Red milo is a staple of western bird feeding, especially in the Southwest where a variety of quail, doves, towhees, and sparrows readily eat it. In the East and upper Midwest, birds don’t seem to eat milo much at all, so any mixed seed with a large percentage of milo will probably go mostly uneaten.

7. The Mixed Seed at the Grocery Store Is Bad. I believed this with all my heart until recently when I saw some decent mixed birdseed for sale at a fancy grocery store. Granted, the stuff at my local chain grocery store is still absolute junk, unfit for rock doves. But some seed producers seem to be getting the message that quality seed is worth selling. The trick to telling the junk seed from the better stuff is to read the ingredients. Junk seed has almost none of the following: black-oil sunflower, peanut bits, safflower, millet, or sunflower hearts. It will have lots of milo, wheat, barley, cracked corn, and upon visual inspection, perhaps some empty hulls, sticks, and other inedibles. The best mixes feature a hearty helping of sunflower seed in some form.

8. Birds Will Starve if You Stop Feeding in Winter. Birds have evolved over the eons as incredibly adaptive, mobile creatures. Unless a bird is sick or debilitated, it can use its wings (or legs) to range far and wide in search of food. Birds that cannot move in search of food are likely doomed to perish anyway, which is part of the natural scheme of things. So when you’re going away on vacation for two weeks in the middle of a cold, snowy winter spell, it’s nice if you can arrange for a neighbor to keep your feeders filled. Most serious feeder operators wouldn’t think of letting their feeders go empty. But if it happens while you’re gone, as it has happened to me, realize that your birds did not all starve, they just went somewhere else to find food. Now you’ll have to work to lure them back!

9. Bird Feeding Is Really Bad/Good for Birds. Let’s face it, birds did just fine before we decided, a few hundred years ago, to feed them. Birds do not need the food we provide for them. It’s a nice compromise between our desire to see birds in our backyards and the birds’ willingness to take advantage of our largesse. Birds do not rely solely on our feeders for their survival, and they certainly do not rely on our feeders for necessary nutrients, so it’s wrong to say that feeding is “good” for birds. By the same token, when bird feeding is done in a conscientious manner, it is also not bad for birds. Yes, messy feeding stations can harbor disease, and food can sometimes spoil at our feeders, but if these scenarios are avoided, bird feeding is enjoyable for us and attractive to the birds. If you wish to stretch the argument to include whether millions of bird feeders have an impact on bird populations, then yes, we can argue about the negative effects of bird feeding. But let’s not do that now. Let’s go on to the next myth.…

10. Feeders Keep Birds From Migrating. If this were true, we’d have hummingbirds and orioles clinging to our feeders all winter long. Birds migrate when their natural internal “clocks” give them the urge to migrate. Migration is driven by instinct and external factors such as sunlight and weather, not by the availability of sunflower seed or food at feeders. One thing to note is that birds need extra food during migration, so it’s a nice idea to keep your feeders stocked in case a hungry migrant plops down in your yard looking for food. –Bird Watcher’s Digest

Titmice…Eyes of Coal

Sunday, June 27th, 2010

ACH TIME I see a Tufted Titmouse I think of that song. You know the one…”Frosty the Snowman was a jolly happy soul, with a corncob pipe and a button nose, and two eyes made out of coal.”

I know it’s silly. But those big, dark, fluid black eyes get to me every time. They just seem to be the defining characteristic of a titmouse, and they also seem to reinforce their intense and energetic temperament.

Members of the titmouse family are all quick and vigorous in their movements, darting and dashing among the branches but seldom indulging in long flights. In the winter they can be particularly intense as they cache food items throughout their territory.

Titmice hoard food items by scattering them one by one under loose bark and in small crevices. They apparently can remember the exact location of each item they hide for weeks or even months. Some authorities believe this amazing memory retention is associated with the fact that the hippocampus region of a titmouse’s brain gets larger in fall, and shrinks in the spring. This is the portion of the brain responsible for short-term memory.

The Bridled Titmouse, unlike the other titmice species, does not hide seeds for future use. Its hippocampus is small compared to other titmice and shows no seasonal variation in size.

So, maybe those dark eyes do look so intense because there is really a lot going on inside a titmouse’s pointed little head.

Facts About Titmice

  • The Tufted Titmouse seeks insects and cocoons among dead leaves, whether still attached to a tree, fallen to the ground, or even built into squirrels’ nests.
  • It eats with its feet! Tufted Titmice are one of a few perching birds that can use their feet to hold seeds while they break them open.
  • During the winter the Tufted Titmouse forages together with chickadees, nuthatches, woodpeckers and Brown Creepers.
  • The Tufted Titmouse is apparently totally dominant over the Black-capped Chickadees within their territory. Chickadee survival rates often plummet after Titmice expand into their territory for the first time.
  • The Tufted Titmouse has been expanding its range northward since the 1940’s and is now found almost to the Canadian border across most of its range. Speculation for the expansion includes warming winter temperatures and the increase in mature woodland habitat.
  • Tufted Titmice have been know to wander northward in the fall and winter, even into southern Canada. –BirdTracks

Tips On Living With the Wild

Sunday, June 27th, 2010

By Kathy Van Mullekom
AS neighborhoods sprawl into rural areas and shopping centers claim remaining woods in cities, a new breed of wildlife emerges.

Rabbits, Raccoons and deer aren’t so wild any more because we’re taking away their habitats and they are learning to live among us.

“We’ve forced wildlife to become suburbanized,” says Laura Simon, field director of the urban wildlife program for the Humane Society of the United States.

“They are opportunistic and adaptive. As habitats are cut down and developments move in, they’ve had to move closer to our homes to nest and eke out a life.”

In many cities nationwide, those adapting animals include deer, Raccoons, Canada Geese, squirrels, skunks and rabbits—even foxes.

“The reason foxes are adapting well is that they are moving in where their food sources, such as rabbit, songbirds and the young of Raccoons and opossums, are plentiful,” says Jim Seward, assistant park services and program at Sandy Bottom Nature Park in Hampton, VA.

“A concern on the horizon is the invasion of suburbia by the coyote, which may make the concerns of all the other nuisance wildlife pale in comparison.”

During spring, animals are particularly active because they’re having babies and searching for food and water. Often, their habits clash with ours and life becomes a little combative.

Here are some tips from the humane society and the National Wildlife Federation on how to peacefully co-exist with wild friends that may visit your yard:

What they like to eat: Mice and other creatures people dislike, raid trash cans and bird feeders and nibble on food remains from barbecue grills.

What they like to do:
Raccoons raise their young in dead, hollow trees. But people often cut those down, so raccoons often look for uncapped chimneys to serve as nurseries.

What you can do: Avoid feeding Raccoons or they will hang out all night, every night, expecting free handouts. If your chimney has no cap on the top, and you have no Raccoons in it, have a chimney expert install a cap. If you have a mother and her young in your chimney, wait for her to move them to ground level, which she will do when her young are about 6 weeks old. If you have Raccoon babies in your chimney and you cap it before she gets her babies out, the mother will rip out shingles to get to them.

For bird feeders, install a 2-foot-long plastic-pipe baffle that’s open on the bottom and closed at the top. Position it 4 feet off the ground; a Raccoon’s haunches are not strong enough to scale it. These baffles are available at wildlife specialty stores.

What they like to eat: Young tender plants, including veggies and perennials; clover is their favorite; plants browsed by rabbits have a neat, clipped appearance.

What they like to do: Make baby bunnies three to four litters a year. They create nests in open places, favoring tall grass.

What you can do: To protect plants, use bad-smelling repellents such as Liquid Fence (available at many local garden centers). Black netting over plants also helps protect them; its almost-invisible look is barely noticeable in the garden.

In Colonial Williamsburg, garden historian Wesley Greene uses a granular product called Rabbit No More to protect lettuce; it and Mole No More, both nontoxic, are available at or call (402) 658-5180.

For fencing, use 2-ft.-high chicken fence supported by posts every 6 to 8 feet; make sure the bottom is either buried 6 to 8 inches deep or is staked securely to the ground to prevent rabbits from pushing underneath it.

What they like to eat: They can empty a bird feeder in no time and nibble on your almost-ripe tomatoes; also will chew wires and even the gas line on your grill.

What they like to do: Build nests at the top of chimneys, only to sometimes have them fall down into those cavities; or, jump down into chimneys, thinking they are hollow trees; they can’t climb out those slippery slopes.

What you can do: Cap chimneys. If a wandering squirrel gets in an uncapped chimney, go up on the roof and lower a long -inch rope into the chimney, leaving the rest of the rope hanging off the side of the house; the squirrel will easily climb the rope and get out. Remove rope and cap chimney.

To evict a family of squirrels from an attic, use a blaring radio or put ammonia-soaked rags in the area. Strobe lights in the attic are also effective at “freaking them out,” say wildlife experts. Check to make sure you have no holes in your siding or exterior trim where more squirrels can enter.

Outdoors, use caged bird feeders to keep squirrels from raiding them. Safflower is a bird seed that squirrels seem to dislike. Squirrel baffles on feeders also help; they are available at wildlife specialty stores and garden centers. Wildlife experts suggest you feed the squirrels to keep them happy and away from feeders.

To help prevent squirrels from eating tomatoes, place containers of fresh water outdoors for them; they are usually thirsty and looking for a drink.

What they like to eat: Grubs, mice, baby rats and Japanese beetles

What they like to do: Spray dogs that get too close to them; get under your house and shed; skunks and cats get along fine.

What you can do: Seal up any entry points under your house and outbuildings.

To deodorize a dog, mix a quart of hydrogen peroxide, 1/2 cup of baking soda and 1 teaspoon of a liquid soap. Wash the dog in this concoction, rinse, shampoo, rinse again and the smell is gone. Tip: A black dog may have a few rust-colored highlights after this application. Tomato juice does not work. If a skunk sprays a dog’s tongue, there is no real way to deodorize it.

Canada Geese

What they like to eat: Grass shoots

What they like to do: Litter yards and golf courses with droppings when they land and stay on grassy areas; flock to open water for protection from predators.

What you can do: Reduce fertilizer use and supplemental water to reduce young grass shoots. Allow grass to “naturalize.” Grass that’s 6 inches high has fewer tender shoots, making the food more difficult for geese to find.

To keep them from loitering on grassy areas, establish a hedge or planting of ornamental grasses, cattails or shrubs along the edge of the water; this disrupts the clear sight line they need to have when a predator approaches them. Boulders larger than 2 feet wide and 12 inches high can be mixed between plants.

Border collies have been successful in deterring geese at golf courses, parks, airports and condos.

What they like to eat: After a long winter nap, they fill up on most anything in a garden

What they like to do: These cautious animals generally fear people but will burrow under houses, porches and other buildings.

What you can do: To keep them out of your garden, add objects that blow in the wind, including balloons and reflective Mylar tape.

The best solution is a 3-ft-high mesh or chicken-wire fence with two tricks built into it. The top above-ground part should be floppy, or staked loosely to wooden stakes so it wobbles if the animal tries to climb over it. The bottom 12 inches should run parallel to the ground and be secured with landscaping staples as a “false bottom” to prevent digging under it.

To encourage them to move along, put urine-soaked cat litter inside burrow entrances.

What they like to eat: Plants, plants and more plants, especially tender ones like azaleas, tomatoes and perennials

What they like to do: Strip foliage and bark from plants

What you can do: Garden wisely, including using plants deer dislike: strong-smelling mint, geranium and marigolds; daffodils; toxic foxglove and nightshade species; fuzzy and prickly plants; ornamental grasses and ferns; salvias; asters; allium; and native plants. For a list of deer-resistant plants, visit

To scare them away, use motion-activated sprinklers; battery-operated stakes feature scent lures that deliver a mild shock and teach deer to avoid certain areas of the garden.For repellents, local gardeners and extension offices report good results with a bad-smelling product called Liquid Fence, available at garden centers.

Deer-proof fencing is the most effective method. Fencing options include plastic mesh, electrified polytape, woven wire and electric fence kits that come with a scented lure.

Tips On Living With The Wild
Here’s help on living in harmony with wildlife, courtesy of the Humane Society of the United States, WindStar Wildlife Institute and National Wildlife Federation:

• Button up your house. Check home’s exterior and interior for places where wildlife can enter. Un-capped chimneys, holes in siding or trim and open foundation vents and access doors are entry points for animals. Birds like to build nests inside dryer and bathroom ventilation pipes. Placing screens over the pipe on the outside is an ideal way to fix that problem; if a bird and its nest are already in the pipe, wait until the family has left to remove the nest and screen the area. It takes about 21 days for baby birds to leave home.

• Seal off access to areas under decks and storage sheds. To check for animals, sprinkle a 12-inch band of white flour around the deck or shed, checking for animal footprints; you also can stuff any hole with newspaper and wait 48 hours to see if an animal pushes it away.

• Remove temptation. Songbirds are good to feed, but raccoons are not. If raccoons raid your birdfeeders, remove the feeders at night or install stovepipe-style baffles to keep raccoons from scurrying up the poles supporting the feeders.

• Use trashcans that raccoons can’t open (cans with 4-inch twist-off lids are good) or tip over easily. Keep barbecue grills clean; even nonfood products such as candles, sunscreen and insect repellent can attract animals, so keep those indoors when you’re not using them.

• Make them move along. To safely make your yard inhospitable to wildlife, use rotten egg-smelling repellents such as Liquid Fence on plants. Devices that spray water, move or make noise often help; one that seems to work effectively is the motion-activated scarecrow that shoots sprays of water.

• Clean the roof. Trim branches away from your house to limit access for climbing wildlife; check limbs, chimneys and attics for occupied nests before trimming.

Learn more. For more information, visit, and –Daily Press (Newport News, VA)

Thwack On Head Enough To Restore Peace To One’s Soul

Sunday, June 27th, 2010

By Michael Burke
WE SAT on the front porch chatting idly, watching the nearby Nanticoke River drift by. Conversation touched on the war in Iraq and other troubles haunting the world.

The day was bright, but the talk had an ominous undertone. We were interrupted by a loud “thwack” followed a few moments later by a second and then a third. After a brief pause, we heard it again. The sound was coming from high up a tree near the end of the driveway. A Pileated Woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus) was looking for dinner.

Pileateds are crow-size birds, 17 inches from beak to tail.

They love carpenter ants and will excavate large rectangular holes in trees in search of the insects. These big woodpeckers use their long necks for leverage as they rear back and let go with a powerful thwack each time their chisel-like bill is sent hammering into a tree.

When the bird has opened a cavity, it will probe the hole with its tongue, extracting ants or other insects in a remarkably efficient fashion. The tongues of woodpeckers are extraordinary. They are barbed at the end and sticky, both effective adaptations for catching insect prey. Their tongues can also be quite long—up to 5 inches in some species.

To accommodate that unwieldy length, they have evolved some rather elegant, albeit bizarre, anatomy. For the Pileated, that barbed tip is just the working end of a series of structures (called the hyoid apparatus) that extends back through the mouth, wraps all the way behind the skull, over the top of the head, down across the forehead, and eventually anchors at the base of the big bird’s nose. When a Pileated sticks out its tongue, its entire head is in on the action. In the Hairy Woodpecker (Picoides villosus), the tongue extends behind the skull and then loops around the right eyeball.

When looking at a Pileated Woodpecker, one can’t help but be impressed with its size and dramatic red crest. They are our largest woodpeckers except for the recently rediscovered ivory-billed—assuming those accounts are accurate.

The Pileateds are primarily black birds, with white throats and matching stripes that start on the face and extend down those long necks. They also show extensive white under their wings, as well as a white flash on the top.

Females, like the one we saw at the end of the driveway, have a big red crest. In males that crest is even more impressive, as it stretches across the forward to the base of the bill. Males also have a patch of red feathers on each cheek that birders typically refer to as a mustache.

Pileated Woodpeckers generally form mating pairs. Both sexes help to build the nest, which is a cavity in a large tree. Fittingly, wood chips serve as the base for the eggs, which take two weeks to hatch. The birds take another month before they fledge. Mating pairs typically produce two broods each year.

The large woodpeckers inhabit the entire eastern United States and Canada. Their range reaches across Canada to the Pacific and down again into the U.S. Northwest. They are year-round residents, although they will roam far from their resident territory during the nonbreeding season. Pileated Woodpeckers numbers are increasing across their range, largely because of the spread of second-growth forest in areas that had previously been logged or farmed.

The big trees lining this section of the Nanticoke on Maryland’s Eastern Shore are prime habitat. The bird we spotted was just the closest of several flying over the wide river or along its wooded shoreline that we saw that weekend.

When the big female began hammering away, I was up out of my seat with binoculars in hand. We prowled around the tree for several minutes until the woodpecker finally showed herself. As we retreated to the porch minutes later, she let out one of those harsh, wild staccato calls the birds use to communicate with one another.

Pileateds are no backyard birds. They need big, mature trees and plenty of them to meet their habitat needs. This section of the Nanticoke had seen little development. Large tracts just upstream were permanently protected through various purchases and easements. The biggest property downstream was privately owned, but it is largely managed for habitat purposes. This wasn’t quite the wilderness, but it still had a primitive feel to it.

The despair for the world that had been haunting us had slipped away. The Pileated’s broad wings lifted her in a graceful flight over the water, carrying the weight of the bird as well as my world-weary cares. We were, in the words of the poet Wendell Berry, in “the peace of wild things.”— Bay Journal

Think Of Wildlife When Decorating For Holidays

Sunday, June 27th, 2010

By Laura Bailey
THE COLORADO Division of Wildlife is asking people to be mindful of wildlife while putting up outdoor Christmas displays this year.

Every year wildlife officers are called to help free animals caught in lights and decorations, but the division is trying to reduce such mishaps by instructing people how to safely decorate.

To help reduce the number of the incidents, the division is asking people to follow the following tips:

  • Avoid stringing lights clotheslines-style across the yard.
  • Place flagging along wired decorations so deer can see where the wire is.
  • Use multiple strands of wire plugged together versus one long strand so that if animals become entangled they have less wire get out of.

  • String lights on trees with larger trunks, or more than six inches in diameter. Such trees are less likely to be rubbed by bucks who get antlers entangled in the lights.

Also the division is cautioning people not to approach or try to help an entangled animal, because greater injury to the animal or to the person could result.

“Definitely do not approach an animal on your own,” said spokeswoman Jennifer Churchill. “They’re stressed out from having that stuff on them and they shouldn’t be near people in general,” she said.

In the majority of cases, the animal will work itself out of the lights its own, Churchill said. “Nine times out of ten, if it’s an antler situation they will come off,” she said. If it appears the animal is being constricted and cannot breathe or eat, citizens should call the division for help

Think About Wildlife In House, Yard Design

Sunday, June 27th, 2010

By Eleanor C. Foerste
MORE HOUSES and more people mean less natural habitat for some wildlife but new homes for others. Wildlife living in close proximity to people means more wildlife encounters.

As we develop the natural landscape, our homes, our pets and our cars put native animals at risk for injury. Do your part to minimize the damage. Our homes can be hazardous to wildlife. Window films with reflective coatings interfere with bird flight patterns, resulting in thousands of deaths and injuries each year. There are other energy-efficient window alternatives to minimize wildlife injury. You can try placing the silhouette of a diving hawk on the window to scare birds from the area.Your Cooperative  Extension office has patterns that may be helpful.

Our homes can invite wildlife into dangerous situations. As seen in the recent cartoon movie Over the Hedge, pet doors allow more than pets to enter your home. The onscreen havoc pales in comparison to some real-life adventures I have heard of when skunks and Raccoons also learn to use the pet doors to gain access to your home for food and shelter. If you are considering this as a convenience option for your pet, perhaps you could limit the access to only the storage room or the garage, rather than the entire house.

Wildlife encounters may be fatal for animals as well as humans when they involve roads. We read signs and change locations when detour routes are posted, but it is hard to train the animals to change their travel paths when roads are built. Cars have overturned when they hit a wild pig on the road because they are small enough to get under the vehicle frame. This is bad news for car, driver and pig. Evasive maneuvers to avoid injuring wildlife on the road can also be dangerous as portrayed in car insurance commercials.

Wildlife rehabilitators, those licensed to care for injured wildlife, provide several other suggestions to reduce animal injuries as we continue to expand human territory:

Check lawns and grass fields for nests before mowing high grass. This is especially important in the spring when rabbits and birds are nesting. Check for active nests before pruning tree limbs and dense shrubbery. Leave some dead trees as homes for cavity-nesting wildlife.

Keep pets and their food indoors. It is safer for them, because they will not be exposed to diseases they can catch from wild animals. Dispose of litter properly and clean up litter in natural areas. Litter can be mistaken for food and cause digestive problems.

Don’t feed wildlife. It is against the law and is not good for the animals. A neighbor’s porch was destroyed by an otter that had gotten used to eating bacon. Locals’ cars and homes have been damaged by the powerful pecking of sandhill cranes looking for another handout.

Wildlife needs to forage or find the best food for their bodies, and our diets may alter their nutritional intake, making them more likely to get sick. It also changes the animal’s behavior and puts them at more risk of injury by humans and our pets. Feeding songbirds to supplement their diet is popular, but be sure to keep feeders and birdbaths clean to prevent disease. Wear gloves so you don’t get germs that can make you sick.

Cap chimneys to keep birds and wildlife from moving in and becoming a nuisance.

Don’t try to keep wild animals for pets, and use special care with injured or orphaned wildlife. The best policy is often to do nothing and let the animals care for themselves. If you want to help injured or orphaned wildlife, support licensed trained wildlife rehabilitators. They need volunteers and donations of feed, blankets and money to pay for veterinary services.

Contact your Cooperative Extension office for names of local rehabbers and a free handout on caring for inured or orphaned wildlife.

Walk in the woods
Take a walk on the wild side and see nature in action. Walks in natural areas provide an opportunity to better understand wildlife behavior and animals’ connection to the ecosystem. Though you may not always see animals and birds, you can learn to look for evidence of their presence and find out why they occur in some areas and not in others. — Orlando Sentinel

EDITOR’S NOTE:  Eleanor Foerste is a natural resources agent with the University of Florida/IFAS Osceola County Extension Office

The Sparrows’ Secrets

Sunday, June 27th, 2010

By Diane Cooledge Porter
ON CRISP October days, when they’re passing southward through my yard, I hear fragments of the white-throated sparrows’ Old Sam Peabody song.

From my upstairs window, I watch a bunch of dead leaves blow into the yard on a gust of wind. They settle, brown and rumpled, among the gathering autumn leaves beneath the bird feeders. Nothing much to attract attention.

And then the new arrivals transform into White-throated Sparrows. They jump, kick the leaves behind them, and reach into the cleared space for seeds that other birds have spilled from the feeders.

Now and then one of them gives way when another rushes at it, allowing the more aggressive bird to feed in some particularly attractive spot. But the time of defending territories is long past. These sparrows are just passing through, migrating southward, and they seem comfortable with one another’s proximity. Only a few will linger here where I live, in Iowa, at the northern boundary of the sparrow’s winter range. Most will spend the winter in the southeast or along the Pacific coast.

Concealment and beauty
Even with the white crown stripe on some of the birds’ heads, the White-throats do look like old dry leaves, rustling in the wind. At least, that’s how they look from above. A merlin or sharp-shinned hawk  studying the ground for a meal might overlook them entirely. White-throated Sparrows count on concealment, camouflage, invisibility.

But they also need beauty. It is not enough merely to survive. To win the game of natural selection, a bird must produce and raise offspring. Displaying fine feathers helps it to win mates. And if its appearance impresses or intimidates rivals, it has a better chance of maintaining sufficient territory to find food for its young. Being gorgeous can pay off in becoming an ancestor.

And so a White-throated Sparrow has a beautiful face. Some have white stripes on their heads and others tan stripes, but each one has a snow white bib, with delicate black borders that emphasize its brightness. A spot of yellow shines with the intensity of sunflowers between eye and bill.

Although the yellow dot is only a small patch of color, you couldn’t miss it if you were another White-throat, looking head-on from the same level. You’d see a dramatic pattern, the love face that the White-throated Sparrow shows to its own kind while turning a drab cold shoulder to the hawk. Here the needs for concealment and display both find expression in one small bird.

Plaintive spring music
In early spring, White-throated Sparrows are already singing by the time they pass through my Iowa yard. The silvery tendrils of their high, pure whistles reach in through my window at dawn. The White-throat’s song traditionally is transcribed as Old Sam Peabody Peabody Peabody. That’s a crude approximation of the cadence, with some notes sustained and some in triplets. But it doesn’t even touch the quality, which is ethereal and musical, some notes steady, some plaintively quavering.

When I first hear it, in March or April, I have to jump out of bed and run outside to find and greet this bird. Although the White-throats may be passing through for a couple of months, inevitably the day will come when the last one leaves for northern forests to breed. I’m already missing them, just thinking about it.

Scraps of song in October
During their fall migration, after the nesting season, the sparrows sing only a little. On crisp October days, when they’re passing southward through my yard, I hear fragments of Old Sam Peabody. Their high-pitched, whispery whistles are just scraps of song, but instantly recognizable as White-throated Sparrow.

I cannot know what the sparrows mean by their songs. Perhaps the sparrows sing just enough to stay in touch, for the comfort of each one another’s company, or for corroboration that they are traveling in the right direction.

But the sound has a distinct effect on me. It makes me think of distant woods from which the bird has traveled. Of the fragility of a small singer on its journey. Of all that is vulnerable, fleeting, and lovely. My throat almost aches with the sound, as if it has touched some wellspring of nostalgia, or as if my vocal chords have reached in sympathy for an impossibly high note.

If I lived in the forests of Canada or in the Northwoods, where White-throated Sparrows nest, if I could listen to them all summer long, would their song still affect me this way? I think it would. I think I could not help but hear that poignancy, that story of seasons and lives, of loss overwhelmed by beauty.

By what secret does an ounce of feather and bone produce such music?– Backyard Bird Newsletter

The Season Is Looking Up For Eagle Fans

Sunday, June 27th, 2010

By John Dyer
BOSTON, MA–The eagles have landed.

The season for Bald Eagles is at its height in Boston’s western suburbs, according to wildlife experts, giving residents a once-a-year window of opportunity to see America’s national symbol up close. And local reservoirs are considered perfect places to view the majestic birds, the experts said.

“At this time of year, we have more Bald Eagles generally concentrated in Massachusetts than any other season,” said Wayne Petersen, an ornithologist with the Massachusetts Audubon Society.

The area’s large bodies of water are now attracting Bald Eagles roaming in search of food. As fish-eating birds, eagles living in Canada and Maine during the spring and summer head south in the winter to search for ice-free rivers, lakes, and ponds where they can reach prey.

“There’s not as much open water during the winter in the north,” said Marion Larson, a biologist with the state Division of Fisheries and Wildlife. “Believe it or not, we’re Florida for the eagles.”

Larson added that recent spates of warm weather might lead more eagles to journey to spots where they aren’t usually seen. “A lot of the ponds that were iced over may be open,” she said. “If a lot of ponds are not frozen, they’re going to be scattered more widely.”

Last week’s survey logged five Bald Eagles in Boston’s western suburbs, where the two adults and three juveniles represented an increase from the two adults counted last year, according to a MassWildlife statement. A total of 71 eagles were documented statewide, compared with 49 last year. Almost 20,000 Bald Eagles live in the United States now, according to the US Fish and Wildlife Service.

Some of those Bald Eagles are among the approximately 25 pairs nesting permanently in Massachusetts,  said Tom French, assistant director of MassWildlife. Others will head north in the spring to return to their nests.

While Bald Eagles mate for life, males and females temporarily separate when they aren’t hatching eggs and fledging, or rearing, their chicks, French said. They can easily cover 150 miles a day, he said, using their superior eyesight and vantage point, at around 1,000 ft. in the air, to locate good fishing ponds and other eagles.

Some of the Bald Eagles seen over the next few weeks are the offspring of birds introduced to the area in the 1980s, when the state and MassAudubon brought young eagles from Michigan and Canada to the Quabbin. Prior to that, the last eagles on record as nesting in Massachusetts were on Cape Cod in 1905. At the time, habitat loss and hunters were decimating the eagle population.

As the century progressed, agricultural pesticides such as DDT found their way into the Bald Eagle’s food chain. DDT softened the birds’ eggshells, resulting in fewer chicks surviving to adulthood. By 1963, according to US Fish and Wildlife, barely 400 pairs of nesting eagles lived in the lower 48 states. In the ensuing decades, DDT was banned, eagles were placed under the protection of the endangered species list, and their population rebounded.

While Bald Eagles are generally thought of as noble birds, and certainly appear regal with their white heads and dark-feathered bodies, in reality they are lazy and often steal other animals’ food, said Petersen.

“You’d think the national emblem is a little more macho,” he said. “Even though they’re perfectly capable of catching prey, they’ll eat carrion, particularly in the winter.”–Boston Globe

The New Wildlife Biologist

Sunday, June 27th, 2010

By Mike Stahlberg
VIDA, OR–As a teenager, Brian Wolfer rode in the passenger seat of a pick-up truck, holding a spotlight out the window, helping his father survey deer populations for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) in Medford.

At age 32, Wolfer is still spotlighting Blacktail Deer for the state wildlife agency, but now he’s the one in the driver’s seat, one eye on the narrow logging road, the other peering into the woods, looking for the tell-tale glint of deer eyes reflecting light.

Wolfer is the ODFW’s new wildlife biologist in the southern Willamette watershed. Wolfer previously worked as the assistant district biologist, where he dealt with issues ranging from Sage Grouse management to the occasional (unverified) report of a wolf sighting.

The job of wildlife biologists is part wildlife monitor, part wildlife advocate, part public relations, and part lightning rod for any wildlife-related problems or issues that may arise.

Unlike many of his classmates in the wildlife biology program at Oregon State University, Wolfer said, “I knew what I was getting into.” After all, he was simply following his father’s career path.

“Many of those kids had no idea what a biologist actually does,” Wolfer said.  What biologists do during late November and early December–when deer population trend counts and herd composition surveys are conducted after hunting season ends–is log long hours.

On this day, Wolfer arrived at the ODFW’s office in east Springfield at 8:15 a.m. and didn’t head home until almost midnight. In between, he spent the daylight hours on the telephone and at the computer in his office, stepped outside at dusk to take tissue samples from the head of an elk, brought in by a hunter to check for chronic wasting disease, and drove through the darkness for six hours doing deer survey work.

Blacktail Deer tend to bed down during the day and feed in clear cuts at night, so monitoring their population requires biologists to work nights. The deer surveys give wildlife managers an indication of the ratio of bucks and fawns’ does–information that can dictate changes in hunting regulations. In recent years, biologists also have used the surveys to look for signs of deer hair loss syndrome and other diseases.

At other times of the year, Wolfer might be found in the field riding in a helicopter to survey the local elk population, pulling teeth from hunter-harvested Black Bears for use by researchers, monitoring Western Pond Turtle habitat, or counting doves at a spring.

Most of a wildlife biologist’s job, however, involves dealing with people, not animals. And many members of the public have misconceptions about the role of their local wildlife biologist.

“One of the biggest misconceptions is just the size of our staff and the things we have time to respond to ranging from sick and injured wildlife to nuisance wildlife damage,” Wolfer said.

“We’re in a pretty big area here, with a large urban component, and when you have that there are a lot of injured animal issues,” he said. “And we’ve essentially got two people here, so there’s a limit on how much help we can provide to people and still get the rest of our jobs done.”

Indeed, Wolfer and assistant district biologist Christopher Yee rely upon volunteers for such things as wildlife rehabilitation and for help with habitat improvement projects. But Wolfer said he does try to make time to check out reports of sick deer. “I would try to get samples from that animal, as opposed to one that’s been struck by a car.”

Another common misconception is that biologists are available to tranquilize problem animals with dart guns.

“The ability to safely and effectively dart animals is not what people think it is,” Wolfer said. “For instance, we don’t relocate problem Cougars, and the same thing with bears. If an animal is creating enough of a problem that it can’t continue where it’s at, we’re not going to move that problem to somebody else.”

His top job priorities, Wolfer said, include familiarizing himself with his new district and establishing good working relationships with owners and managers of private timberlands in the district.

Due to changes in habitat resulting from reduced timber harvesting on public lands, “private timber is getting more and more important to our hunters,” Wolfer said.

He also wants to use the ODFW’s “Wildlife Access and Habitat Program,” funded by a $2 surcharge on hunting licenses, to help maximize public access to private lands.

“I’d like to try and be a liaison between some of the hunter groups and the timber companies for special projects that the different hunter groups could do,” he said. “I don’t know that we’ve got enough positive face time between our landowners and some of our hunter groups, so I’d like to encourage that.”

The salaries of state wildlife biologists are financed in large part by license and tag fees and excise taxes paid by hunters. (The pay scale for a supervising wildlife biologist ranges from about $40,000 to about $59,000 per year.)

But Wolfer’s job also includes responsibility for non-game species, and he wants to work with owners of private lands used by non-game species.

“We have a lot of unique habitat types around here” such as the oak savannahs on the fringes of the Willamette Valley “that need to be preserved if certain species are going to be maintained in this area,” he said.

“There are landowners who would like to do positive things for wildlife, and I’ll try to work with them to let them know about some of the positive things they can do to enhance habitat values on their lands–just protecting what they have, voluntarily.”

Meanwhile, Wolfer said his first deer surveys in the McKenzie and Indigo units of eastern Lane County are producing mixed results. In some “strongholds” where lots of forage combines with plenty of nearby cover, “deer seem to be doing well, as a whole,” he said, but “we don’t see the numbers” in areas with less-productive habitat.

Of course, Wolfer knows well that spotlighting surveys can produce misleading results.

After all, it was his father, Mervin Wolfer, who came up with the idea of using cameras hidden along deer trails to photograph migrating Blacktail in southern Oregon. The cameras–triggered by breaking a laser beam across the trail–snapped flash or infrared photos of whatever happened along.

And hundreds of Mervin Wolfer’s photos documented that there was a much higher percentage of bucks–and many more big bucks–in the population than had ever seen by hunters, or biologists. –Register-Guard

The Circle of Healing: Eagle To Man

Sunday, June 27th, 2010

By Jeff Guidry
ARLINGTON, WA–Every day at Sarvey Wildlife Center we witness first hand the incredible battle for life that our animal brothers and sisters go through. This is a story of one Bald Eagle’s magnificent spirit and sheer will to live.

It was mid-summer when a call came in reporting a fledgling Bald Eagle had fallen out of a nest on a Seattle golf course. Our very own Crazy Bob went to the rescue and transported her to the Center. She arrived with two broken wings. When asked to take her to the vet, I jump at the chance.

When I load this hurt and terrified baby into the car, she neither whimpers nor fights; she can’t even stand. This is not a good sign; she is obviously in very bad shape. As I drive to Sno-Wood Veterinary Hospital, I constantly look back to check on my very special passenger. She stares at me with big beautiful brown eyes, her mouth slightly agape. I drive a little faster—this Bald Eagle must live!

She is operated on and has both wings pinned; they are now immobile. Back at Sarvey we lay her in the bottom half of a huge carrier filled with shredded newspaper for support.

The fight for her life begins.

Twice a day a tube is pushed down her throat so that food and medicine can be pumped into her. A week goes by with no change; she still cannot stand up. At three weeks, there’s a slight change, but it’s for the worse. I’m getting scared for this young Bald Eagle.

Working at the Center, you begin to recognize a look, a look that indicates death is winning. This bruised and broken Bald Eagle was losing the battle but not her dignity. The struggle for her life was not over.

Every chance I get I talk softly to her, telling her to hold on, to fight, to live. Why I felt such a connection to this particular eagle, I do not know. Four weeks go by and she is still on her belly. There is nothing so heartbreaking as seeing the life force of this majestic bird slowly slip away.

At five weeks we are approaching the end. Sarvey Wildlife Center believes in giving every soul that comes in a chance to live; but when it is painfully clear that death is the only way out, the decision is made to let that particular spirit continue on its journey. We were at this juncture; this beautiful baby eagle was given one week to see if she could, or would, stand up. This was a crushing blow. Every day that next week I checked to see if she was up. The answer was always the same… “No.”

On the following Thursday I could barely face going to the Center. As I walked in not a word was spoken but everyone wore a huge grin. I raced back to the young Bald Eagle’s cage, and there she stood in all her glory!

She was standing! She had won. This girl had cheated death by a mere 24 hours. She was going to make it. She was going to get her second chance.

After another week the pins in her wings were removed. Her right wing was perfect, but her left was not. She couldn’t fully extend it. We tried physical therapy and hoped a little time was all she needed, but there was no significant progress. Her wing was too badly damaged. She would never fly, never soar the skies with her people. At least her life was saved, but for what? Was she doomed to live her life in a cage? Not exactly, for this was a special soul.

Bald Eagles normally want nothing to do with humans and will go to great lengths to get away from them. This girl liked people; she wanted to see what you were doing, to follow where you were going, and to see whom you were going with. She was very curious.

About this time our director suggested that I try to glove train her. She had the right temperament; maybe she could do educational programs. Wouldn’t that be something? Few eagles are able or willing to be handled, much less remain calm in front of large crowds. The work began.

I started getting her used to the glove, a little at a time. At first she was thinking, “OK, I’ll step on your hand but only with one foot.” Then, “OK, I’ll use both feet but only for a second.” Later, “Yeah you can take me part way out of my cage, then I’ll jump right back in.” And finally, “OK, I’ll let you walk around with me on your arm. Hey, this is fun!”

At this point, every day a volunteer would take this Bald Eagle out for a cruise around the clinic. It was time for her final test—jesses, the leather straps that attach to the ankles of birds-of-prey to give control to the handler and to protect the bird from injury or escape. I put the jesses on her—a piece of cake. It was as if she were born with them on. This was certainly a very mellow Bald Eagle.

Now it was almost time for her first program, but she needed a name. None that we could come up with seemed right, and then Paula, a volunteer, said, “Hey, what about Freedom?” That was it; that was her spirit and her spirit was why grandfather sent her to us. She was ready.

Freedom is now four years old and one of Sarvey Wildlife Center’s premier ambassadors. She clearly enjoys our programs and really knows how to turn on the charm. She is a star. Freedom has been on national television, on the front page of major newspapers, and is known across the country.

She is also one of the great loves of my life. She will touch her beak to the tip of my nose and stare into my eyes. At that moment our spirits are one. I am the luckiest person on Earth.Thank you, Freedom.

EDITOR’S NOTE:…Jeff said, “Why I felt such a connection to this particular eagle, I do not know.”

Now we all know why:

Freedom is alive because Jeff fought for her life, and there is no doubt that Freedom sensed his love and commitment. Jeff gave Freedom the support she needed to want to live.

When Jeff was later diagnosed with a serious illness requiring chemotherapy, he found himself turning to Freedom for support. Two or three times a week, whenever he felt well enough, he would drive from Bothell to Arlington to walk with Freedom around the grounds. Now it was Freedom’s turn to give Jeff a reason to fight for his life.

Only a short time ago Jeff was informed there was no trace of the disease left in his body. He immediately left for the Center. When he took Freedom out of her flight, she did something she had never done before: She extended her wings and wrapped them around him.

The circle of healing was now complete.

Ten More Easy Bird Songs You Know

Sunday, June 27th, 2010

By Scott Shalaway
THE KEY to learning bird songs is to build confidence by learning the easy songs first.

Recently I reviewed 10 common species that everyone who reads this column surely recognizes, even if they don’t realize it. This week I’ll describe the songs of 10 more birds that are easy to learn. It’s just a matter of knowing how to listen.

The American Robin is probably the most easily recognized bird in North America thanks, in large part, to its habit of hunting for worms in backyards.
Despite its familiarity, many people have never connected the bird to its loud, liquid, repetitious song. Listen for it early in the morning on the way to work and in the evening before dusk. It’s a lively song that, once learned, is difficult to ignore — “cheerily, cheer-up, cheerio.”

Arguably the most stunning bird in the eastern deciduous forest, the Scarlet Tanager, can be surprisingly difficult to see because it usually stays in the tree tops. Its song’s structure suggests a robin — repetitious, conversational phrases. But while a robin’s voice is clear and musical, a Scarlet Tanager’s tone is raspy. Many birders say the Scarlet Tanager’s song sounds like a robin with a sore throat.

Another easily recognized bird is the Northern Cardinal. Its crested head and bright red plumage make it familiar to even young school children. Its song can be complex and varied, but there is always a common component. Cardinal songs almost always contain slurred whistles. One of the most common songs in a cardinal’s extensive repertoire is a loud, “purdry, purdy, purdy.”

The boss at every backyard feeder is the Blue Jay. It’s big, loud and aggressive, and sometimes blue jays bully smaller birds. Blue Jays often announce their arrival vocally. They are excellent mimics and have an impressive array of songs and calls. The easiest to recognize are the loud, “jay, jay, jay,” and the softer and more peculiar, “queedle, queedle, queedle.”

Red-eyed Vireos are among the most common song birds in the eastern deciduous forest. Like Scarlet Tanagers, red-eyes stay in the tree tops, but unlike tanagers, their drab markings make them difficult to identify even if they pop into view. But they are vocally distinct. Red-eyed Vireos sing short, repetitious, conversational phrases. Often they sing continuously for minutes at a time, stopping only occasionally to catch their breath. For this reason, Red-eyed Vireos are sometimes called “preacher birds.”

The Eastern Towhee song is one of the easiest to master. With its black head and rufous sides, a towhee resembles a robin and is sometimes called a ground robin. The towhee song is a loud invitation to, “drink your tea!” And one of its call notes suggests its own name: “ta-wee.”

Carolina Wrens nest in empty cans, buckets, old boots and abandoned mail boxes. Their white eye line and rich brown color distinguishes them from the smaller mousey brown House Wrens that will return in about a month. Carolina Wrens sing loud triple notes — “tea-kettle, tea-kettle, tea-kettle,” or “chirpity, chirpity, chirpity.”

Chipping Sparrows inhabit backyards all across the continent. They like open lawns with scattered evergreen shrubs. Look for these plain-breasted, rusty-capped sparrows to return by mid April. Their song is a distinctive, high-pitched, monotone trill.

In a few weeks the evening skies in towns and cities across America will be swept for flying insects by Common Nighthawks, dark robin-sized birds with bold white wing bars. Look for them at ball games just after the lights come on. And as they soar, listen for a distinctive nasal, “peent.”

The final bird in this week’s lesson is the Yellow Warbler, a common warbler as likely to been seen flying across a country road as on a nature trail. When Yellow Warblers return in a few weeks, listen for them along forest edges, in old fields and near wetlands. The song is pure and rapid, “Sweet, sweet, sweet, I’m so sweet.” –Pittsburgh Post Gazette

EDITOR’S NOTE: For more instruction, consult the excellent CDs in “Birding by Ear” and “More Birding by Ear” (Houghton Mifflin’s Peterson Field Guide Series).

Tailored Garden Lures Wildlife

Sunday, June 27th, 2010

By Mary Taylor Young
WHAT IF YOU could put a few seeds in the ground, tend them carefully and come up with a garden full of birds and animals?

By gearing your landscaping with careful plantings, you can draw wildlife to your home. Shrubs like plum, currant, chokecherry and serviceberry offer succulent fruit for birds and some mammals; shrub thickets offer nest sites and year-round shelter.

If you live in the foothills or mountains, you can attract hummingbirds with a variety of flowering plants like evening primrose, honeysuckle and penstemon. Junipers provide berries for Colorado’s wintering birds from fall through spring. Fruit trees–cherry, apple, crabapple, plum–offer sweet fruits for wildlife, and a vegetable garden, if you’re willing to share it, is a natural magnet for rabbits, deer, frogs and other animals.

Pines provide good cover and nesting sites. The shoots and seeds feed squirrels, chipmunks, grosbeaks and other birds. Colorado blue spruce, the state tree, hosts many insect species that attract chickadees, nuthatches and woodpeckers.

Attracting animals to your home offers the chance to observe the rhythms of their life cycle–breeding, nesting and rearing their young. Large trees like oaks and cottonwoods make good homes for many songbirds and tree-dwelling mammals like squirrels. Clusters of shrubs and small trees offer better concealment and nest sites than widely spaced plantings.

Backyard ponds and water features not only provide drinking water for wildlife but if lined with vegetation can attract frogs and toads, salamanders and reptiles. Remember that a sterile cement pond provides neither food nor shelter for aquatic species.

Or how about a garden filled with colorful, gently fanning wings? With the right flowers, your garden can blossom with butterflies. Most bright flowering plants attract butterflies, but coneflowers, rabbitbrush and butterfly bush are especially appealing to them.

Of course you may attract some animals that aren’t so welcome. Resourceful Raccoons attracted to your home may also disturb your trash. Skunks might not be your ideal neighbor, especially if you have dogs. And encouraging wildlife visitors carries responsibility.

If you want butterflies in the garden, don’t use chemical pesticides. Consider protective fencing or other means of discouraging domestic predators–dogs and cats. Don’t place food sources where birds and small mammals have too great a chance of being “nabbed” by pets.

There are many books and pamphlets on landscaping for wildlife. Consult the nature and landscaping sections of your bookstore or library for more information.–Rocky Mountain News

Supermodel of the Songbird World

Sunday, June 27th, 2010

By Patricia Thompson
WHICH would you rather be, a glamorous supermodel or a reliable best friend?

There are the delicate supermodels of the songbird bird world: Think Yellow Warbler (Dendroica petechia) or Western Tanager (Piranga ludoviciana)—migrants that abandon us for the tropics at the least sign of a chill.

Vivacious little juncos, on the other hand, stick with us through rain, snow, wind and gloom. The Dark-eyed Junco (Junco hyemalis) is about as glamorous as an old toaster, but for all its ordinariness, it’s Washington’s most reliable backyard bird. How vacant would our winters be without this familiar species?

Dark-eyed Juncos are here year-round, nesting and foraging on the ground or in hopper-type and platform feeders. They prefer black oil and hulled sunflower seeds, peanut kernels, millet, thistle seeds and occasionally suet mixes.

These dependable little residents weigh in at about 3⁄4 ounce, and have been clocked flying at 26 mph. They come in many color variations, though the “Oregon” race is the one most frequently found in Washington. Even with the color variations, one thing is for sure: The flick of the white outer tail feathers on a departing bird says junco.

Dark-eyed Juncos used to be classified in the finch family Fringillidae and are still called a finch in some references. But they are now in the very closely related family Emberizidae, the Wood Warblers, tanagers, cardinals, grosbeaks, buntings, blackbirds and sparrows.

If you look in your field guide, juncos are likely placed among the sparrows, to which they are most closely related. Think of the junco as an environmental barometer. If the junco population starts to decline, we will know our environment is in serious trouble.

Like any of the common backyard birds, it is enormously important to monitor them, so we can catch a crisis at the beginning.— Seattle Times

EDITOR’S NOTE: Patricia Thompson is a wildlife biologist with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Study Shows Deep Declines In Shorebirds

Sunday, June 27th, 2010

By Peter B. Lord
ALL THE NUDESTS, sunbathers and surfcasters who gave up space on some of Rhode Island’s beaches in recent years so biologists could work to protect the nests of endangered Piping Plovers now can see another strong piece of evidence that the work was worthwhile.

The federal government announced last week that a major survey of migrating shorebirds has found dramatic declines in southeastern Canada and the northeastern United States.

The average decline for 30 species studied amounted to 36 percent during the survey period, from 1980 to 2000, according to the study released by the U.S. Geological Survey, a division of the Department of Interior.

Some species fared worse: Black-bellied Plovers declined by 65 percent, American Golden Plovers were down 78 percent, Killdeer dropped 63 percent and species of sandpipers were down from 61 to 74 percent.

“I think this has been a dramatic change,” Jonathan Bart, a geological survey biologist and lead author of the study, said in a telephone interview from Idaho. “It is certainly a cause for concern.”

Piping Plovers also declined throughout the region. But in Rhode Island and Massachusetts, where concerted efforts were made to protect their nests and young birds, the numbers are up dramatically.

“There are places such as Massachusetts and Rhode Island where Piping Plover management was superb — focused and well-managed,” said Brian Harrington, a biologist emeritus at the Manomet Center for Conservation Sciences on Cape Cod, who was a co-author of the report.

The overall numbers for the plovers are down for the region, Harrington said, because places such as the Canadian Maritimes and some other states have not had such effective recovery programs. (The overall decline appears to be more than 50 percent, Bart said, but he wants more data before finalizing that figure.)

So while biologists can celebrate the success stories with Piping Plovers, they can only express concern over the overall declines for shorebirds and a frustration over the lack of explanations.

Shorebirds are not ducks or gulls or cormorants. They are the several dozen species that generally have long legs, pointed wings and long bills. Many nest in the Arctic and migrate through the Northeast to spend their winters in South America. The Piping Plovers are an exception–they nest in the Northeast. Bart said the numbers of shorebirds appear to be declining wherever surveys are done.

“There is a big effort across the world to gather more information and to digest it,” Bart said. “Our big problem in the bird monitoring world is not data, but data management.”

Harrington said data management is the skill that Bart brought to the project. The bird surveys were done by about 2,000 volunteer birdwatchers carefully collecting data every 10 days as part of the International Shorebird Survey coordinated by Manomet.

Bart brought a “special talent” for analyzing the data collected and using it to reach conclusions, Harrington said.

Shorebirds, as they migrate south from the Arctic each fall, touch down in places in the Northeast where they can store huge quantities of food that will fuel them for their long flights on to South America.

The study was not able to discount the hypothesis that the birds simply changed their migratory routes. But, there was no evidence to support that theory either. Frustrating all the scientists is the lack of good evidence to explain the declines.

“Something could be going on in the Arctic. Something could be happening at the coastal sites where they feed. Or, it could be changes in South America,” Harrington said. “It’s an awesome challenge to rigorously sort out the why.”

He said scientists are looking at loss of habitat in general, loss of pond habitat in New England, lower productivity of salt marshes, the filling in of coastal ponds and decreased food supplies because of pollution.

Another concern is climate change. As they migrate, the birds depend on a specifically timed abundance of invertebrates to feed on in each hot spot where they touch down.

“We know they travel in a stepping-stone fashion, one biological hot spot to another. And global warming is throwing the synchronism of biological blooms out of kilter.”

Bart said two broad efforts are under way to try to understand the bird declines. One program is trying to do surveys in places where the birds spend their winters. Biologists also are trying to design surveys that cover the entire continent, Bart said.

The bird study was published last year in the Journal of Avian Biology and can be obtained for a fee. But a summary can be found on the USGS Web site. –Providence Journal

Springtime In Paradise–the Birds Are Returning

Sunday, June 27th, 2010

By Scott Shalaway
FINALLY four consecutive days of sunshine, blue skies and gentle breezes this week tell me spring has returned. Red maple buds have bloomed, brilliant yellow coltsfeet line the edges of country roads, and fields and meadows have morphed from brown to vivid green.

And every day new spring migrants return. On Monday I heard the sweet monotone trill of a Chipping Sparrow. On Tuesday a Field Sparrow sang from the meadow below the house. A series of high-pitched notes at an ever accelerating pace makes this song easy to recognize. The notes’ pattern suggests the cadence of a ping-pong ball dropped on a table. And Thursday Tree Swallows appeared in the hay field and began checking out nest boxes.

Eastern Phoebes, the first song birds of spring, returned weeks ago and are now building a nest on a light fixture on the porch.

But this is just the first trickle of spring migration. It will continue throughout April and peak in May. The actual migration usually takes place at night, primarily because that’s when the sky is most free of predators.

“Flocks of these nocturnal migrants rise from their daily resting places about one half hour after sunset, appearing like a huge cloud lifting from the Earth on weather radar systems,” explains Dan Brauning, Pennsylvania Game Commission Wildlife Diversity Section supervisor.

“A normal May morning will find dozens of species pursuing insects in treetops and underbrush,” he says. Many of these will briefly appear in suburban backyards. On particularly active mornings after a clear night and southern breeze, trees may be swarming with birds such as Black-throated Green Warblers and Red-eyed Vireos. A sharp eye and good pair of binoculars are needed to sort out the flitting specks of color.”

Though many people put away their bird feeders during spring and summer, others wonder if it’s OK to continue feeding birds year round. Though many birds shift to a diet of live insects and other invertebrates when weather permits, many continue to visit feeders for an easy source of food. But if you’ve ever seen a bear near your home, beware.

Mark Terrnent, Pennsylvania Game Commission bear biologist, urges those who live in bear country to reconsider feeding birds during spring and summer.

“Residents who put out bird feeders–or any food for wildlife, for that matter –after bears have left their dens may attract bears to their property,” he cautioned. “Once bears learn that food is available in your yard, they will return and often become a nuisance by damaging property or upturning garbage cans. That is why intentionally or unintentionally feeding bears is illegal.”

If you must feed birds where bears are common, Terrnent suggests bringing feeders inside at night, or suspending them at least 10 ft. above the ground and four feet from anything a bear might climb, including overhead limbs.

Christopher Ryan, Black Bear Project Leader for the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources echoes Terrnent’s advice.

“Bears that wander near residential areas in search of food are less likely to stay if they do not find anything to eat,” Ryan said. “People need to secure garbage in bear-proof facilities and place trash out for collection on the morning of pickup. Residents should remove all outside pet food at night, and bird feeders should be taken down, cleaned and stored until late fall to further discourage feeding around human habitation.”

Otherwise, bears become habituated to handouts and lose their fear of humans. When bears lose this fear they resort to raiding garbage and other food sources associated with people. Unfortunately, if these activities are repeated, wildlife personnel are forced to humanely destroy the offender for safety reasons.

Nectar feeders intended for hummingbirds are particularly attractive to bears because they have a sweet tooth, so be sure to take them in at night.

And, by the way, Ruby-throated Hummingbirds are back. There have already been reported as far north as Michigan, Rhode Island and New York. Check their northward progress at –Pittsburgh Post Gazette

Spring Will Be Upon Us When We See the Signals

Sunday, June 27th, 2010

By Scott Shalaway
TO MOST of us, spring means flowers blooming, birds singing and gardens growing. The calendar definition of spring, however, is simply the mid point between winter and summer, one of two days of the year when day and night are equal in length. (The first day of autumn is the other.)

It makes more sense to define seasons in terms of what’s happening in nature than to simply accept a calendar definition. The appearance of robins is among the most popular signs of spring; it’s also among the least reliable.

If all robins disappeared each winter and returned in March, I could buy the association. But they don’t. I see robins all winter long. Some may be residents that chose not to migrate. Others are birds from farther north that winter here.

The reason more people don’t see robins in the winter is that robins gather in flocks and move away from open yards and parks and into deeper woodlands where food is abundant. Robins eat fruits during the winter, so they head for heavily wooded areas where dogwood berries, rose hips, crab apples and grapes abound.

In March, winter flocks break up and robins move back into open areas. Once again they hunt earthworms on lawns and build nests in shade trees. Robins nest early; sometimes their first clutch of eggs freezes. But I digress, the natural history of robins is another column.

Here are some of the more reliable signs of spring I’ll be watching for in the weeks ahead:

  • Longer days, shorter nights. Gentle rains. Gelatinous egg masses deposited by frogs, toads and salamanders in almost every vernal pond. Streams lined with eager anglers on the first day of trout season. Kingfishers and Great Blue Herons fishing every day, without a license and with no limits.
  • Blooming crocuses, daffodils, forsythias, and coltsfoot (it’s the bright yellow flower that’s easily confused with dandelion, which will soon follow). Morels under dead elm and apple trees.
  • Turkey Vultures kiting on rising thermals. Six-foot Rat Snakes basking on sun-baked country roads. Goldfinches molting from their drab winter plumage into brilliant lemon drops. Tent caterpillars.
  • Turkeys gobbling. Grouse drumming. Squirrels barking. Screech-owls whistling. Coyotes yipping.
  • The shocking brilliance of Baltimore Orioles, Scarlet Tanagers, Indigo Buntings and Red Efts. The incredible camouflage of Gray Tree Frogs, Woodcock, Copperheads and Hen Mallards.
  • Ground hogs munching roadside greenery. A Phoebe building a nest on the porch light fixture. Killdeer scurrying about on lawns, parking lots and cemeteries. Baby Cottontails scampering across the yard.
  • Butterflies in hay fields. Meadowlarks singing on fence posts. Box Turtles crossing country roads. Barns Swallows and Kingbirds returning to local farms. Mourning Doves cooing on power lines. Dragonflies, damselflies, Tree Swallows, Yellowthroats and Red-winged Blackbirds patrolling territories in a cattail marsh.
  • At dusk, bats patrolling the yard, a chorus of Spring Peepers, and the sweet yodel of a Wood Thrush singing vespers. An evening serenade by a Whip-poor-will, one of those considerate birds that calls its own name. Nighthawks sweeping insects from the sky over city streets. Big fat toads hunting moths and beetles beneath the porch light. Frogs leaping across the warm roadways on a rainy night.
  • Arms bloodied by multiflora rose thorns. The sound of lawn mowers and the sweet aroma of freshly cut grass. Working in the yard until the day is done. Dirt under my fingernails. Washing up with brisk, hand-pumped water. Sleeping with the windows open.

These are a few of my favorite things during my favorite season. But to many, spring is defined by the return of Ruby-throated Hummingbirds. They returned to the Gulf coast several weeks ago (you can check their progress at I expect them here on the ridge between April 20 and May 3.

So I’ll soon be making nectar (mix one part table sugar with four parts boiling water, cool and refrigerate). And that’s one more sure sign of spring — a jug of nectar in the refrigerator.

The best way to monitor seasonal changes is to keep notes. A new citizen science project encourages you to submit seasonal observations as part of a national project. For more information, visit, –Pittsburgh Post Gazette