This is a column where readers are encouraged to ask questions about birds-in-general, back yard birds/birding, bird feeding, bird health, bird banding, bird migration, bird ecology etc.
So, let’s get started with some questions.
Question: My “Snowbirds” or Juncos have arrived. Why do we call them Snowbirds & where do they come from?
Answer: The Snowbird or the Dark-eyed Junco is a common visitor to our Reserves and SW Ontario throughout fall, winter and early spring. We often refer to them as snowbirds because of their arrival come the colder weather and the noticeable outer-tail feathers which are as white as snow. There are six sub-species of Dark-eyed Juncos. Our winter resident is the Slat-colored Junco. Several of these sub-species are known to interbreed which makes a positive id difficult at times.
Juncos nest on the ground under conifers & the mixed deciduous boreal forests of the north as far as the arctic. Year-round residents can be found in pockets of eastern Ontario and west along the southern border of Manitoba. Smaller areas of year-round residents can also be found in parts of the Appalachian Mountains from New York State down to Georgia.
As our neo-tropical songbirds fly south to warmer weather in fall, the juncos seem to relish the colder climates. These shy skittish sparrow-like birds prefer finding their food on the ground & underneath your feeders. Juncos are successful survivors in harsh weather in part due to their little jig. Yes, they dance to their own drummers. Snowbirds like other ground feeders will jump-up, lurch forward then as they land, scrap their claws backward to unearth food from the decomposed vegetation; many refer to this raking motion as the “double-shuffle”.
Inexpensive millet can be scattered close to bushy areas around your yard or placed in feeders. The juncos will gather on the ground under the feeders as well as areas where they are close to cover. Keep looking up.
Question: Does the Flicker migrate?
Answer: The Northern Flicker or as it is often referred to by us older folks; the Yellow-shafted Flicker, is a regional migrator. These magnificent large woodpeckers (length: 12.5 inches) do not travel huge distances. Most often it is the hatch-year birds that migrate to other areas where food is more plentiful. The adult birds can & do stay year- round. In winter, their diet consists of seeds along with berries on trees & shrubs.
It is the Flicker who has a summer diet preference like no other woodpecker; ants. You may notice these unique birds digging into your lawn and wonder why. Flickers are attracted to ant mounds. Ants are the primary diet of Flickers during warm weather. Like all woodpeckers, these birds have very long tongues that wrap around the inside of their skull when not in use. With the Flicker, it has a tongue two inches longer than its already long bill. The tongue has a curvature and tiny barbs at the end that make it a tool of destruction for ants.
Placing leg bands for research purposes on this species is not as daunting as one might think. All other species of woodpeckers are combative and it takes a firm grip and courage. The Flicker remains accommodating for the most part except for one instrument of passive aggression: flickers scream like banshees. This annoying and down-right piercing scream is embarrassing. It is the type of human-like shriek that if anybody were near-by would likely believe awful transgressions are taking place! Consequently, when dealing with flickers we tend to work as fast as possible and send them on their way.
The upside is that I love the colors and patterns of this bird. There are none like it! After placing a band on the bird & taking measurements and weight it settles down. Then the flicker allows me to capture the exceptional depth of beauty. I admire and respect the Northern Flicker. What an extraordinary bird. Keep looking up.
Question: Where are my wild canaries? They seem to have disappeared.
Answer: Many of us still refer to our beloved American Goldfinches as our wild canaries’ due to their bright canary-yellow color. On our Ontario Reserves canaries are a year-round staple due primarily to the plethora of seed. Goldfinches are the very last species of songbird to nest and do not start nest building until mid-July in Ontario. Why so late, you might ask? They will wait until their favorite edibles have gone to seed.
Their love of seeds is legendary: thistle-head, sunflower seed, goats beard & teasel. Niger seed from our tube feeders & socks is another favorite. Small tree seeds such as elm, alder and birch are other options. Goldfinches are the closest to pure vegetarian songbirds. They only eat insects as incidental when feeding on seed.
As we often see along the roadside, these acrobats will balance on flowerheads to feed off the seeds then pull the soft fibrous silk like that from milkweed pods to line their nests. They will even pull dandelion wisps for their nests.
When I was introduced to the world of birds many, many years ago, one old sage referred to the American Goldfinch as, “Chip & Dip”. As these small groups of bright yellow skyrockets fly away, first you hear the chip then you see the dip. Your canaries will return soon with their fledglings. Keep looking up.
Question: Who is that little brown bird that sits on my porch banister & never stops singing?
Answer: Yes, and when the House Wren stops singing with his very loud bubbly tunes it is his flip-side raspy scold which he uses to threaten and bully. Bully? Really? This plump tiny cantankerous summer visitor to our reserves has a scientific name of Troglodyte – a hermit who lives in a cave. This is not entirely untrue. All wren species prefer cavity nesting but our Reserve curmudgeon is not particularly selective in finding a cave-like abode. A pair will nest in conspicuously unusual containers: shoes, boots, high-top sneakers tied & tossed over a hydro-line, door wreaths, shoe box, any small box, vase, coffee tins, hanging flower baskets and yes, nesting boxes are but a few house choices. And, if our House Wren is not quite sure where to nest, not to worry. It is the male who seeks out nesting sites and will build several in anticipation that the female may not be captivated by his first construction. Can we say, “high maintenance”? He will pursue another domicile for a second brood but may not go back to any of his previous sites for fear of rejection.
The feathers of the House Wren are dense & its legs and talons are quite strong for such a slight bird at a demonstrative 4.75 inches! Because of the wrens’ compact body with an elongated slightly curved bill, the tail is often seen raised high in the air to counter balance its very quick actions.
This wren has a huge geographic area. Its summer breeding range covers most of the U.S. and the southern portion of Canadian Provinces bordering the States. This bird with his fearless demeanor weighs about 10.5 grams or the same as two quarters. It winters in the southern states, Mexico & central America. We can find it all year-round in every country of South America. The global breeding population in 2015 was estimated to be 160 million with 5% of that population attributed to Canada.
William Blake, British Poet (1757-1827) once said of the wren:
He who shall hurt the little wren,
Shall never be beloved by men.
Keep looking up and enjoy your irritating yet endearing North American idol.
Question: Is there a blue bird other than the Eastern Bluebird in our area? I’m seeing a smaller all-blue bird.
Answer: During warmer weather on native lands, bird species increase by as many as 100 because of neo-tropical spring migration & the nesting of these species along with other migrating/nesting birds. There is a bright tropical blue sparrow-like bird who visits the mud puddles in our driveways for a quick drink and even a bath. It is the Indigo Bunting. Indigo is a misnomer since it never really reveals the darker India ink-blue unless its cloudy. This darker blue is only around the head area close to the black masking around the eyes.
Have you ever seen those picture-perfect post card photos of Caribbean Seas with palm trees swaying and white sandy beaches? The multi-color blue seas of the Caribbean are the hues of this bird. A very beautiful pale green-turquoise and every conceivable shade of tropical blue can be seen within these feathers. Ironically, this bird spends the winter months on the islands of Caribbean and central America.
As secretive as this bird often is, native territories encourage this behavior simply because reserves have perfect habitat that becomes irresistible to these summer residents. What do they love? Dirt road edges, open woodlands, brushy pasture and weedy old orchards. The female hides in her cup-like nest built within shrubby vegetation not far from the ground. Her feathers are a mix of camouflage light browns so she “like” blends. During the banding process, a closer look will expose some of the feather edging on her wings which has a turquoise cast. Indigo Buntings will visit your thistle feeders. Keep looking up.
White-throated Sparrow, May 2017
Question: In early spring large numbers of brown birds can be seen on the ground around feeders, in bushes, along forest edges and in woodlands. Can Ask The Birder help to identify one of the possible species?
Answer: We will try to assist by telling you about one of the possible species who fit this pattern of behavior. The White-throated Sparrow is in a group birders call LBJs or Little Brown Jobbies because there are a lot of similar looking small brown bird species. The White-throated Sparrow does not get much press but we find it an underappreciated bird.
It begins to arrive in our area around the middle of April through mid-May from their wintering grounds throughout the eastern, central and southern USA. They breed throughout Ontario building their nests on the ground or sometimes up to 10 feet high in trees.
Lets concentrate on its field marks because once you learn them you can pick it out of the crowd. It is a medium sized bird usually seen feeding on the ground scratching for seeds. A plump looking sparrow with mostly rufous brown wings and a long tail with a white throat (hence the name) and a gray breast. The white throat is usually outlined with black and there is a white to tan stripe above the eye along with a yellow spot above the eye and behind the bill.
Just to make things more interesting (fun?) there are two colour phases for the species. The first is the white phase which has bright white contrasting with vivid black markings. Next is the tan phase and the areas of white have more of a tan colour and the black marking are a dark brown. This can make the tan phase more difficult to distinguish from the other LBJs. Learn to pick out the white phase first and then progress to the tan phase and amaze your friends.
Question: Are Red-winged Blackbirds a sign of Spring?
Answer: Our ancestors would reply a resounding, “yes”. They relied on these boisterous & flashy birds each spring. In the mid-18th century it was noted that our descendants trusted the Red-winged Blackbird in determining when to plant their crops. An account of a Mohawk farmer reports how the skies turned an ominous black for three consecutive days from sunrise to sunset. We no longer have these massive numbers of migration due to climate change, drought and loss of wetlands. None the less, blackbird migration is still significant and signals change. Today, I often refer to them as a FIFO bird – First In First Out and my favorite moniker, Fancy Dancer. These showy males whirl & twirl much as our young men dance today and throughout our history during pow wow. For the Red-winged Blackbird, this behavior or mating display is two-fold: it attracts the females and scares-off other suitors. Coincidence? Our predecessors were masters of observation and mimicry. The circle of life continues. One thing to note about male plumage: the red epaulets of his namesake do not completely occur until his third year. He must suffice with yellow-orange for his first two years of life which the females are not as receptive to – color maters. The female is rather drab which allows her to hide while nesting in the marsh.
Question: I’m hearing a bird singing outside my home. Isn’t this early? Who might it be?
Answer: Some of our local birds do begin courtship behavior and nesting sooner than the influx of spring migratory warblers & other songbirds. Part of that courtship begins with singing. Northern Cardinals are one of the first birds to make their voices heard. Both male & female sing. It is a singular clear whistle-like note with varying intensity & speed: whoweet, whoweet, whoweet. Courtship feeding is a unique behavior display where either bird will split a seed, take out the meat then place it in the bill of its partner. Cardinals are monogamous and can have up to three broods per year. The male will continue to feed & care for the first brood while the female builds yet another nest and lays more eggs. I have often indicated, that cardinal pairs remind me of an old married couple.
Question: Two woodpeckers are coming to back-yard suet feeders during the winter that appear to be identical except for size. Are they the same bird?
Answer: Short answer is:these woodpeckers are not the same bird. There are subtle differences that make the Downy & Hairy Woodpecker unique and therefore separate species. As noted the size is apparent. The Downy is about the size of a House Sparrow (6.25 in. or 15.6 cm) while the Hairy Woodpecker (9.50 in. or 23.6 cm) is as big as our American Robin. Here on Six Nations as with most Reserves in Ontario, the Hairy Woodpecker is a common occurrence due to our undisturbed large areas of woodlands. In non-native suburbia, this stunning woodpecker is rare; its requirements are more to the liking of our lands. The Downy Woodpecker is the ubiquitous woodpecker of N. America. Our smallest drummer has adapted to the suburbs & every place in-between. Other notable differences for these woodpeckers:
- The Hairy has a bill nearly the size of its head & is chisel-like while the smaller Downy has a pointy bill about a third of the size of its head
- The outer tail feathers of the Hairy are white while the Downy is white with black spots
- Drumming of the Hairy is fast & buzzing about 25 taps per second & the pause between drums can be 20 seconds. The Downy is about 15 taps per second and pauses are just a few seconds between each drum.
Watch as each bird flies away from the feeder. The Hairy takes long more powerful, undulating wing beats with stronger purposeful dips.
Question: How do our winter birds survive each winter?
Answer: Adaptation, feathers, feathers & more feathers.
Our winter denizens have adapted throughout the centuries as do all species of birds. Let’s look at Black-capped Chickadees, Nuthatches and Downy Woodpeckers. These birds are similar in many ways. Each species has short, pointy bills that gives them considerable leverage in pounding bark on trees with the intention of finding grubs & insects hidden within. These inhabitants all have very thick legs and long thick toes with sharp claws which allow them to cling & grip areas of trees that other birds cannot. Acrobats they are! Also, something unique to these devils of delight are their brains. Yes, their brains. These three species have an enlarged hippocampus which is a specific portion of their brain that is primarily associated with spatial navigation and memory. These “brainiacs” can remember where they hide their stash. The name to this compulsive behavior is to cashe. Cashing is the ability to store food and retrieve it at a later date.
Feathers are amazing. For many years now, I have been taking extreme close-ups of a birds feathers prior to release after the banding process. The average songbird has approximately 3,000 feathers. Feathers are very cool adaptions & yes plumage keep birds cool in hot weather but also store heat during subzero temperatures throughout prolonged winters. How? The layers & different texture of feathers (down being the most desirable) enable each bird to maintain a constant body temperature by trapping air. Feathers have both the unique combination of strength & lightness. Birds manipulate their feathers & preening is a process that not only adjusts feather placement but creates a waterproof barrier. The preen gland is located at the base of the tail & the bird will spread this oily substance with their bill throughout their feathers.
(Slide mouse over image to see name of bird. Click on image to view larger version.)
Question: Seeing lots of bird movement. What is migration?
Answer: Migration is the regular seasonal movement of birds for mating and food availability. Migration generally takes place in the spring and then again in the fall. Not only birds migrate but many species throughout the world spectrum migrate including but not limited to; whales, Monarch Butterflies, salmon, zebra, wildebeests and caribou.
There are more than 2,000 species of birds in North America while about 350 are considered long distance migrators. Songbirds such as warblers, flycatchers, vireos, orioles and sparrows are currently migrating south. These songbirds which are primarily insectivores need protein for themselves and during nesting. As the climate becomes colder so does the availability of insects. Migration therefore becomes a necessity.
How do birds know when to migrate? Daylight plays an integral part in this decision. Once days start to shorten, the brain triggers the endocrine system which cause hormonal changes. Both adult and fledglings molt their feathers. Fresh, stronger feathers are replaced and they begin to build-up fat deposits. Each species has a different time frame when these transitions take place.
Migration by songbirds for the most part occurs at night. This way it gives the birds an opportunity to rest and feed during daylight hours. Interestingly, with the technology of Doppler Radar and other similar weather tracking devices, large flocks of bird species migrating during the night can be seen on track.
Keep looking up.
(Slide mouse over image to see name of bird. Click on image to view larger version.)
Question: Where have my hummingbirds gone?
Answer: There are certain questions we expect to hear every year and this is one of them. If your hummingbird feeders are close to your house such as hanging from an s-hook on your porch,
under your eves, suctioned to your kitchen window or visible from your path to your car on a long 5-foot shepherds hook you notice things. You notice as they squawk, fight, whip past your ears as they make silly incredible acrobatic moves that make you laugh out loud. You notice when the activity stops. You really, really do notice. We do, too.
From the very beginning of the arrival of your Ruby-throated Hummingbirds in April and May, the dinner bell has rung and the red-rockets keep coming. The big ruckus in April-June has leveled. The playing field is more sedate for the females because nesting becomes a priority. The males are still their randy selves and the only two objectives while maintaining their summer territory is to chase away other males while attempting to mate with as many females as possible. The
males weight drops because he has no time to seek out much in the way of protein sources. He has a spot in a tree close to the feeders where he hides in wait before he dive-bombs any other male and all females.
Whatever you do, don’t panic. The females are sitting on their eggs & soon will have to feed two ravenous newbies. They are solely responsible for finding a suitable nest site, building the nest, sitting on the eggs & feeding both herself & the two nestlings. These dedicated moms will spend more time looking for small soft-bodied insects in many of the tube shaped flowers within their territory and catching tiny insects on the fly. Native Territories are a wonderful habitat for hummingbirds with an irresistible amount of tree leaves for gleaning, tree bark nooks and crannies & wild flowers to explore. Oh those wild flowers. A whopping two thirds of a hummingbird’s diet consists of protein. Protein is vital to her diet and the nestlings. The sugar water then becomes a quick energy source for her sustainability while seeking nutrient rich proteins for long term survival. She no longer dawdles at the feeders. Her instinct is to get back to her nest.
In August, peace & tranquility comes to your hummingbird feeders to a certain extent. I often describe this time of year as motivational chaos. All of the hummingbirds are bulking up. There is a sense of urgency and their objectives are identical. The adult males’ metabolism changes in preparation for the journey south. They begin to put on weight and are not so much interested in the females. The females have each fledged 1-2 young & the increase of activity at feeders is notable. The migration of hummingbirds from farther north also begins to trickle down to our reserves in southwest Ontario. And, so this particular cycle of our beloved hummingbirds will come to a close. Enjoy your hummingbirds and keep looking up.
Question: Do I need to continue feeding my backyard birds in the summer?
Answer: There are two schools of thought: Some believe that birds during the summer are able to find enough food and therefore feeding your birds is not necessary. Still others believe maintaining feeders and suet can give the female and her eggs much needed nutrients. Once the eggs hatch, protein can play a significant part in keeping the nestlings healthier & mother stronger. Mortality rates in hatch year birds can be as high as 80%.
Question: Will suet purchased in retail stores go rancid during hot weather?
Answer: Make sure you look at the label prior to purchase. All suet doughs are formulated for summer use and will remain solid & stay viable. Some winter suet will melt with continuous days of heat but still remain edible. All woodpeckers, Black-capped Chickadees & Nuthatches love suet all year-round.
Question: Why am I seeing so many robins this spring?
Answer:American Robins, like many of our local birds have cyclic years referred to as irruptions or invasions . This means that there will be years of abundant food sources and warm weather conditions in cold weather. When this happens, American Robins can have more than one brood in the upcoming spring and summer months. It is not unusual to have two broods and even three broods per robin. Robins are what we call local birds that really do not migrate hundreds of miles but will locate to different areas of within their domain to find food especially when winters are harsh. Trees and shrubs with berries that remain throughout the winter will keep your robins in the neighborhood.
Question: How do I make my own hummingbird juice and should I include red dye?
Answer:1 to 4 ratio which is one cup of water to 1/4 cup of sugar. Bring mixture to a boil for a minute or two. Place juice in refrigerator then place in feeder when chilled. This can be prepared in advance and kept in the refrigerator for 2 weeks. Large batches can be made in advance. I usually mix 8 cups of water to 2 cups of sugar. We do not recommend using any kind of dye in your hummer juice or purchase hummer food that has a red dye. This can be harmful to your hummingbirds.
Question: Our Ask- A- Birder staff wants to know if our readers are seeing all yellow birds near the forest edge.
Answer: If they have recently arrived with the other spring migrants, they are very likely Yellow Warblers. They vocalize a melodic “sweet, sweet, sweet” and are one of the early arrivals from the south. They build cup shaped nests in bushes and small trees.
Question: We also wonder if anyone is seeing small birds with yellow throats and black masks in reeds and marsh areas.
Answer: These would be Common Yellowthroat Warblers. Gregarious little birds you can see them pop up from tall reeds and cattails to proclaim their territories, ward off rivals and attract the ladies. Their bright yellow throats and black masks are great field marks. The mask has earned them the nick names of “bandit” or “Lone Ranger”. This is a wonderful time of year for birding so go out for a walk and enjoy spring migration.
By Carl A. Pascoe & Rachel A. Powless
We wish to thank The Turtle Island News for sponsoring the 2016 Earth Day festivities on April 22. They graciously bring together educational, environmental and cultural exhibits to Six Nations on the Grand First Nation to raise awareness of the diverse is-sues and share knowledge with the residents of Six Nations and visitors. Ac-cording to Wikipedia Earth Day was first celebrated in 1970 to encourage ecological education and environmental protection. These diverse April 22nd events are now held in more than 140 countries worldwide.
This annual event has helped promote an under-standing that we are all connected and even small things we accomplish can have far reaching impacts. Thanks to the photographs taken by the Apollo astronauts beginning in 1968 which revealed the first views of the entire planet by humans, our perspective has expanded to include the entire globe. See the NASA wed site for the Apollo photographs. These pictures showed there are no national borders and changed our views forever. I believe these photos were a turning point for many of us and helped inspire those who initiated the actions which started Earth Day.
In 1970 Bald Eagles & Peregrine Falcons were on the Endangered Species lists, the Whooping Cranes population was almost gone in the wild, air & water pollution was severely impacting local and global ecosystems and trash filling our landfills was not being recycled. We have made some important progress such as the near recovery of the Bald Eagle & Peregrine Falcon numbers, improvement in the air & water quality in many areas and dynamic recycling programs. The Whooping Cranes are making slow progress but are still on the edge of extinction susceptible to a single catastrophic environmental and/or man-made disaster.
Earth Day is a catalyst each year for us to assess what we have accomplished so far, determine what has been working, what has not produced results, plan strategies to deal with identified problem and look into the future to try and understand the implications of our interventions. We have amassed a staggering amount of data on the causes and effects of changes in local, regional and even global ecosystems. The tremendous leaps in technology since the first Earth Day has progressed far beyond our wildest speculations at that time. The computers used to launch those Apollo missions filled rooms and, to help put the changes in perspective, I have more computing pow-er on my laptop then they had in those rooms full of hardware.Carl with Charle Brown a 3 year old Bald Eagle in rehab due to injury.
Our belief during those early decades of Earth Day was that technology would be able to provide solutions for all of our problems. It turns out that the complexities involved required not just technical intervention but governmental, industrial, local and most important individual commitments to make progress. These human based interventions have ebbed and flowed over the years dictated by the crisis of the moment. This short term and myopic (near sighted) views of our environmental problems has caused the suppression of the development of the long term perspectives required to deal with our issues.
It is a long held belief of many Native Peoples that we must all think and plan 7 generations ahead. Every individual, their actions, their in-actions, interactions with family, friends, neighbors, and communities should take this perspective into account to help make good decisions. Do you need to clear all the trees to build your house or can some be left untouched? How large an area of lawn do you really need with all the fertilizer and maintenance required? Can you leave some areas for native plants especially around the edges of ponds, lakes and rivers to offer a haven for wild-life and as a buffer to help natural filtering of fertilizers before they can run off into the waters? Can you and your neighbors get together to set up naturalized areas along property lines to develop corridors for the safe dispersal of wildlife? Go outside and look around to see how you impact your local ecological system. Be creative and innovative.
Probably the most important technological innovations have been the spread of the internet into a resource of unrestrained information available to almost anyone and the explosion of social media. Unfortunately, the inter-net and social media applications are also the repository of an astonishing amount of misinformation and disinformation requiring those seeking valid data to engage in critical thinking so they determine for themselves the truth of what they are reading and/or hearing.
An unforeseen consequence of this electronic revolution is that it is separating people by substituting media interaction for actual human contact and the exchange of ideas involving face to face communications. This is also causing a profound disconnection from the natural world and an emersion into a “virtual” substitute for reality. The proliferation of the selfie phenomenon is a prime example of the narrow and egocentric version of our place within the greater scheme of things that is pervasive in our society. Does a social media posting of your everyday activities or 130 character limited dissertation of an individual’s opinion regarding some trivia have any impact on our world?
Please do yourself and your children a favor by spending some time out-side with the phones and other media turned off. Look up into the sky at the clouds, observe the birds gracefully performing their aerobatics and try to imagine their view from above. See the trees in all of their majesty and then walk up close looking at the detail of the bark and all of the other organisms’ dependent on this micro ecosystem. Can you relate the insights of the inter-dependency of tree bark’s environment with all of its flora and fauna to those of the bigger picture of your home, yard, neighborhood and community? Try taking a magnifying glass with you to help in discovering all of the small things normally hidden from casual observations. Take photographs of the plants, flowers, birds, animals and insects which surround you which you may have taken for granted. You may discover insights and a greater appreciation of all the things around while increasing your motivation to protect our remarkable planet. We have no other place to live and must protect the Earth.