08 March 2010 Published in Birds

Originally published on www.critters360.com

Black-capped chickadees are a welcome guest to any bird feeding station.  When one puts up a new feeder for the winter season, they are almost always the first birds to discover it.  With their quick arrival and just as hasty retreat after snatching a seed to eat it in a more sheltered area, they will brighten the winter day of almost any bird watcher.

The Family Paridae

A member of the Family Paridae, the black-capped chickadee is the most common chickadee in the northeast.  There are about 64 species in this family world wide, with four species in the eastern U.S. Before presenting details related specifically to this species, here is a review of the other North American members of this large family. 

There may be some confusion over the Latin names.  The names used here come from Alsop (2001) in the sources listed, while earlier sources use for the first part of species names Parus instead of Poecile.  When any references are made to the size or song of a particular species, this is in comparison to the Black-capped Chickadee, the main focus of this article.

The Carolina chickadee (Poecile carolinensis) is mostly a bird of the southeast.  It is very similar in coloration, though a bit smaller, with a shorter tail, and a more clean cut bib.  The “chick-a-dee-dee-dee” call is higher pitched and more rapid. A second call is usually a four syllable “fee-bee-fee-bay” instead of the two or three syllables used by the Black-capped chickadee.  The range of the two birds overlaps in the Ohio Valley, and in this area, the two species may intermingle and hybridize.  This complicates a positive identification of species in this area. If one sees a chickadee south of the Mason Dixon Line it is usually the Carolina chickadee.

The other eastern chickadee is the Boreal Chickadee (Poecile hudsonica) of the far north.  As its Latin name implies, it ranges up to Hudson Bay, from Newfoundland in the east to Alaska in the west.  It is sometimes seen in the higher mountains of the Adirondacks, and extreme northern New England. Its color is browner with a grayer back.  The call is hoarse with a more nasal quality.

The fourth member of the Paridae Family in the east is not a chickadee, but the tufted titmouse.  This non-descript bird is grayish-brown above, with chestnut sides, and is white to gray underneath.  While about the same size, It is distinctly different from the chickadees with a crested head similar to that of a cardinal or blue jay.

There are four varieties of the family in Western North America. The mountain chickadee (Poecile gambeli) lives in the interior mountains of British Columbia into California and the southwestern Rockies.  The chestnut-backed chickadee (Poecile rufescens) resides in the coastal mountains of California to Alaska, and interior portions of Washington State and British Columbia. Extending from a narrow strip of western Mexico into extreme southern Arizona is the Mexican chickadee.  The range of the gray-headed chickadee (Poecile cincta)  is limited to northern Alaska into the Yukon and Northwest Territories of Canada.

The Black-Capped Chickadee

Poecile atricapilla is the Latin name for the chickadee common in the northeastern U.S.  Back in the thirties it was known as the common chickadee, sometimes called the Eastern chickadee, or black-capped titmouse.  Typically it is about 4  1/2 to 5  3/4 inches long with a rather long tail. The head is a deep black, its shoulders olive gray, with buff near the tail.  The throat and chin are also black, while sides of the head are white.  Its wings and tail are dusky slate, and tail feathers are edged with grayish white.  Underneath, it is white, tinged with buff along the sides.  The iris is brown. The range is most of the northeastern U.S. to a southern range of about 40 degrees latitude.

From August to February, black-capped chickadees travel in loose flocks through a territory of roughly 12 to 20 acres. Starting in March, the flock breaks into isolated pairs for mating, with a breeding territory of about 1/2 an acre to ten acres.

Nesting and Young

Wing fluttering is a main courtship sign at breeding time.  The female and male both excavate for the nest, while the female does most of the actual nest building.  Generally 4 to 15 feet off the ground, it is constructed of leaves, moss & grasses, lined with small animal fur, hair, feathers, and insect cocoons.   This is often built in natural cavities left by woodpeckers, or tree stumps, especially of birch.  They sometimes use snags or nest boxes.

There are usually 6 to 8 eggs.  These are white with reddish-brown flecks.  These roughly 1/2 inch sized eggs are incubated by both sexes for 11 to 16 days.  The young are totally helpless at birth, or altricial.  Both parents feed the young for 14 to 18 days.  Then they are driven off to fend for themselves. There is often a second brood.  During the time of incubation and before the young fledge, the male aggressively defends the nest with short chases of intruders and occasional fights.

Natural Foods and Birdfeeders

Insects compose about 2/3 of the diet with larvae, chrysalids, and eggs of moths in winter as well as small seeds.  Once spring comes, snout beetles or weevils are taken, as well as tent caterpillar eggs.  Other foods include spiders year round, wild fruit pulp in summer, and seeds of birch, poison ivy, butternuts and bayberries.  They especially like sunflower seeds.  This is sure to attract them to feeders in winter, where they take suet as well.

Calls and Songs

The song of the black-capped-chickadee is a slightly nasal “chick-a-dee-dee-dee,” though sometimes the first two syllables are left off.  There is also a two note (occasionally three note) mournful clear whistle that descends a full tone or slightly more.  Sometimes, this active bird is heard with no clear song, but just nasal twittering notes.

Behavior

Chickadees travel in small groups from late summer to spring, often with titmice and nuthatches. This mixed flock is rarely more than 5 or 6 birds at my urban feeders, though there may be 10 to 20 in more suburban or wooded areas. In late summer when the flocks are first forming, they may bring attention with their activity to other less conspicuous birds on migration that may be traveling with their group temporarily.  Chickadees themselves do not generally migrate, though in cold or snowy winters may shift more to the southern parts of their range.

Black capped chickadees are seldom still.  They are often seen moving upside down or at strange angles on tree branches, looking for spiders or caterpillar eggs.  They are not good climbers like nuthatches or woodpeckers.  At feeders, they often come quickly, stay just a few seconds to furtively take a seed, then fly off to a more sheltered area to consume it or sometimes store it for later.

A tame and almost fearless bird, it is possible to train them to take seeds off a windowsill or even from the hand.  When filling feeders, if they are already present, they may allow a very close approach to within a few feet.  Invariably, when the feeders go up in late fall, the black-capped chickadee is the first bird to find this new source of food, and other birds follow behind within a day or two.

If you have a winter-feeding station, include sunflower seeds and suet in your mix of foods.  This is sure to attract black-capped chickadees with the antics of this active and acrobatic bird sure to provide many hours of enjoyment.

Sources

Alsop, Fred J. III.  Smithsonian Handbooks: Birds of North America, New York:  DK Publishing, 2001.

Mahnken, Jan.  The Backyard Bird-Lovers Guide , Storey Communications, 1998 ISBN 0-87596-804-X

Pearson, T. Gilbert, Editor.  Birds of America, 1936, Doubleday & Company.

Peterson, Roger Tory.  A Field Guide to the Birds, 1980.  (Eastern North America)

Proctor, Noble, PhD.  Song Birds: How to Attract Them and Identify Their Songs.

Rodale Press, Emmaus, Pennsylvania, 1988.

Internet Resources (Note:  The Cornell Lab of Ornithology also leads to audio clips of the birds in question)

Great Backyard Bird Count 2010 Results: Map of Black Capped Chickadee

http://gbbc.birdsource.org/gbbcApps/maproom?cmd=OneMapDisplay&sppOrder=alpha&species=bkcchi&year=2010&region=NAm&submit.x=48&submit.y=17&submit=View+the+Map%21

Great Backyard Bird Count 2010 Results: Map of Carolina Chickadee

http://gbbc.birdsource.org/gbbcApps/maproom?cmd=OneMapDisplay&sppOrder=alpha&species=carchi&year=2010&region=NAm&submit.x=30&submit.y=5&submit=View+the+Map%21

Great Backyard Bird Count 2010 Results: Map of Boreal Chickadee

http://gbbc.birdsource.org/gbbcApps/maproom?cmd=OneMapDisplay&sppOrder=alpha&species=borchi2&year=2010&region=NAm&submit.x=36&submit.y=11&submit=View+the+Map%21

Black-Capped Chickadee, All About Birds:  Cornell Lab of Ornithology

http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Black-capped_Chickadee/id

Carolina Chickadee, All About Birds:  Cornell Lab of Ornithology

http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Carolina_Chickadee/id

Boreal Chickadee, All About Birds:  Cornell Lab of Ornithology

http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Boreal_Chickadee/id

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12 March 2010 Published in Birds

Originally published on www.critters360.com

The great blue heron is the most widespread and best-known heron in North America.  It is most commonly seen wading in wetlands. When observed standing perfectly motionless for several minutes with long neck outstretched, or stealthily walking in shallow water, one has to admire its patient hunting habits.  An iconic symbol of healthy wetlands, the great blue heron is the largest member of its family in North America.

Appearance and Coloration

This large bird may stand about four feet tall, with an average length of 42 to 52 inches.  With a wingspan of 5 to 6 feet, its wing beats are slow and regular.  It rarely soars or glides except just prior to landing in shallow water or in a tree or large shrub.  This heron is seen in flight almost anywhere, especially near dawn and dusk, as its favorite feeding areas are often miles away from its nest.  Shortly before sunset from April to October, it is frequently seen flying over my urban neighborhood on its way from the Mohawk River to nesting areas several miles away

As it flies, the heron pulls its head back towards its body forming an S with its neck.  The long legs extend straight out from its short tail.  Because of its size and deliberate wing beats, it is easily recognizable in flight.

This graceful bird with the Latin name of Arde herodius belongs to the Family Ardeidae.  There are 59 species of this family of long legged wading birds world wide, 12 of which occur in eastern North America.  Common names include crane and blue crane.

In general, the great blue heron appears gray to pale blue in coloration.  There is white on the forehead and top of the head, with black on the sides of the crown and crest.  There are gray to black plumes extending from the back of the head. The neck is pale gray.  There is usually a black patch at the shoulders, with a slate-bluish cast to its upper body and tail.  The abdomen is black and white with some rufous streaks. The long, dagger shaped bill is generally an orange-yellow, with dark streaks at the edges.  Its eye is usually a bright chrome yellow. 

During courtship and early breeding season, the great blue heron undergoes several changes in coloration.  The lores, a facial area between the bill and the eyes, are normally gray-green; they change to blue at this time.  The plumes forming a crest from the back of the head become more pronounced. The heron’s legs change color as well, from a dusky black to a dark shade of salmon.

The young differ in coloration from the adult.  They have no lengthened feathers or crest on the head, and the crown is largely black.  The body is more of a brownish slate above with rufous edges, and somewhat ashy gray on the abdomen.

Range of the Great Blue Heron

This large heron extends in the summer over much of the lower 48 states into the southern third of Canada and along the Alaskan coast.  In winter, it contracts its range to the southern half of the U.S. and into the West Indies, Panama, and Venezuela.  As a water loving bird, it is generally absent from dry desert areas and the cold of the far north.

Nesting Habits and Raising Young

The great blue heron is a solitary bird, especially when hunting.  However, it usually nests in colonies of a few dozen up to 150 or more nests. These may be mixed with nests of other species of herons.  The female usually constructs the large nest with materials gathered by the male.  The nest is usually made with sticks, twigs, and dry grasses, lined with leaves and perhaps pine needles.  Usually the nest is 20 to 60 feet off the ground or water in tall trees, though occasionally in lower shrubs.  As they often nest in the same area for many years, as existing nests are added to, they can become very large.  On the west coast blue herons may nest on rocky cliffs

At two day intervals, the female lays two to seven pale blue or bluish green oval eggs, about 2 and 1/2 inches in size.  The first bird hatched is often much larger than those that hatch later, and thus much more likely to survive the first year, especially if food is scarce. 

The incubation is by both sexes, lasting about 25 to 30 days.  The young are semi-altricial, that is, not totally helpless.  They remain in the nest for about 60 to 90 days.  One brood is usual in their northern range, while in southern areas there may be two broods.

Both parents feed the young birds. This is accomplished mainly by regurgitation from the adult.  At first, the adult will place the regurgitated food right in the young’s open mouth.  As they grow larger, the young will start to actively take it from the adult. In the latest stages prior to fledging, the adult may leave a whole speared fish for the young to feed on while they resume hunting.

The Utica Marsh and the Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge

Most of my heron observations have been at the Utica Marsh.  This is a 213-acre wetland straddling the Mohawk River and the New York State Barge Canal, not far from downtown Utica, New York.  The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) is responsible for management of this refuge.

The Utica Marsh is bisected by a railroad track on a ridge several feet above water level.  There is also a deck and an observation tower from which one can view wide sections of marsh with some elevation.  From this tower one may sometimes observe four or five herons at a time, feeding alone in various sections of the marsh, well separated from each other.

Another location to watch herons and many other marsh birds is at Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge (NWR).  This refuge of over 8,000 acres is on the northern end of Cayuga Lake near Seneca Falls, New York. It is one refuge of an extensive network of NWR sites around the country.  At this wildlife management area is a gravel road where in places one can drive slowly at the edge of reed beds for much closer views of herons than is usually possible on foot.

Hunting and Feeding Habits

Great Blue Herons most commonly feed in wetlands.  Their long legs are ideal for wading in water a few inches to a couple of feet deep.  In this environment their diet consists mostly of frogs, craw-fish, snails, salamanders, and fish.  They also eat grasshoppers, and occasionally turtles, and smaller birds.

Sometimes they may be found in drier fields, where ground squirrels, mice and toads are taken as food. Most  heron species digest their food rapidly, and they tend to gorge themselves when food is readily available.

Except at nesting colony sites, the great blue heron is largely solitary, especially in its hunting and feeding habits. Quite often only one bird is seen.  If more than one bird is observed, they are usually several dozen yards apart, feeding in separate marsh pools divided by hillocks of large reeds or stands of shrubs. 

This heron is often seen standing perfectly still for long periods of time with its neck outstretched vertically into the air.   Then ever so slowly, the neck will contract towards the body into a curved S.  With lightening speed, the bill darts into the water, and a frog or fish is caught.  If the prey is large, it is often speared.  The bird instinctively knows the extent of its reach, and seldom misses its mark.

At other times, the bird may walk ever so slowly carefully moving one foot, raising it out of the water, and entering the water again without leaving a ripple.  This stealthy walk may cover only a few feet over several minutes.  There may then be a short pause before the neck quickly stretches out towards its prey.

Smaller prey are immediately swallowed whole.  Larger fish are speared, and if especially active, stabbed several times while on the ground.  Then the prey is tossed in the air and swallowed whole.  Sometimes one is fortunate enough to see the lump of a large frog or fish slide ever so slowly down the heron’s outstretched neck with the bill pointed straight upwards.  They have been known to choke to death trying to swallow prey that is too large.

Except when in the colony of nesting birds where croaking and squawking of many birds may be raucous, the great blue heron is mostly silent. It has no real song worthy of the name.  It is quite reclusive and skittish around humans, and easily spooked.  Chances are that when a person wanders along the wooded edge of a suitable feeding habitat, the bird will fly off with a loud, deep, very unmusical squawk or croak, often before being observed visually. Due to its sensitivity to intruders, the great blue heron is not easy to observe with any regularity at close range.  It can be seen in flight, however, almost anywhere, especially at dawn and dusk.

The best places to watch most herons and waterfowl for any length of time is from an observation deck or tower at the edge of wetlands. Unless one is very quiet and stealthy, like the bird itself when in its hunting mode, one is lucky to get a close view.  Birds seen from the edge of a wetland are generally 100 to 300 yards away. Binoculars or a spotting scope are necessary to make detailed observations.

At Montezuma NWR, one can drive very slowly, and park momentarily in places perhaps 30 yards away from an edging of reeds, and see these magnificent birds at close range as they feed at the edge of a marsh near the road.  The birds have become accustomed to slow moving cars and are not so easily spooked.

If one goes to a suitable habitat of wetlands or open marsh, take a good set of binoculars or a spotting scope.  One will find that with a little patience this large member of the heron family is fascinating to watch.

Sources

Alsop, Fred J. III.  Smithsonian Handbooks: Birds of North America, New York:  DK Publishing, 2001.

Eastman, Whitney and Karen, et. al.   The Treasury of Birds.  Octopus Books, London, 1972. ISBN 7064 0013 5         

Gilliard, Thomas E.  Living Birds of the World.  Doubleday and Company, Garden City, NY  1967

Netherton, John.  At the Water’s Edge:  Wading Birds if North Aneruca.  Voyageur Press, Inc., Still Water, MN, 1994.   ISBN  0-89658-233-7

Pearson, T. Gilbert, Editor.  Birds of America, 1936, Doubleday & Company.

Peterson, Roger Tory, and the Editors of Life.  Life Nature Library : The Birds.  Time, Inc. NY 1963

Peterson, Roger Tory.  A Field Guide to the Birds, 1980.  (Eastern North America)

Web Resources

Great Backyard Bird Count 2010 Results: Map of Great Blue Heron (February 2010)

http://gbbc.birdsource.org/gbbcApps/maproom?cmd=OneMapDisplay&sppOrder=alpha&species=grbher3&year=2010&region=NAm&submit.x=22&submit.y=7&submit=View+the+Map%21

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09 April 2010 Published in Birds

Originally published on www.critters360.com

The white-throated sparrow is a bird of the north woods. About 7 inches long, it has a distinctive white throat, yellow “eyebrows” or supra loral patches, and a black band on the head between a white-eye stripe and white or tan crown.  The bill is dark and the breast is grayish.  There are two white wing bars on a generally brown and black streaked back and wings.

Legend has it that a Farmer Peverly was debating about whether to plant or not on a spring day.  Hearing a bird’s plaintive call, he interpreted it as, “Sow Wheat, Peverly, Peverly, Peverly.”   Thus, the white-throated sparrow became known as the Peverly bird in New England. 

Other phrases put to this song include “O, Sweet, Canada, Canada, Canada” or “Poor Sam, Peabody, Peabody, Peabody.” The first two syllables are a slow clear whistle, while the second part of the call is a more rapid set of three triplets.

Range and Various Names

Whether put to words or not, this plaintive call of the white throated sparrow is a hallmark sound of the north woods, from Labrador west to Alberta, south to the Adirondacks and northern New England.  In winter, this sparrow migrates into the Ohio Valley and Central New England, south to Florida and Mexico.

In the Adirondack Mountains of Upstate New York, it was known as the cherrybird; in Manitoba, it is sometimes called a nightingale.  Other names commonly used include Canada bird, white-throat, Canada sparrow, and white-throated crowned sparrow.  By whatever name it is known, the song of the white-throated sparrow is a common sound of the Adirondack forests. 

Sometimes, it is seen at the winter feeder in central New York.  Whether winter resident or not in any give year, it is heard in the Mohawk Valley on its migration north in early April. 

Nest and Young

The white-throated sparrow is monogamous, and solitary in its nesting habits.  The female sparrow builds its cup nest of moss, bark, twigs and grasses on the ground or in low bushes in moist evergreen forests.

The 3 to 6 eggs are pale green or blue, or creamy white, all with reddish brown speckles. After an incubation period of about two weeks, the altricial, or helpless, young spend 7-12 days more in the nest.  The young are fed by both sexes. 

Feeding and behavior

White-throated sparrows eat many seeds, but also consume fresh fruit (berries), and insects.  They feed most often on the ground, scratching in leaf litter, making enough rustling noises that one at first suspects it is a much larger animal. The white throat and yellow facial patches are the best field marks, combined with a gray non-streaked breast, for those brief occasions one catches a glimpse of this bird which is more often heard than seen.

Distinctive Bird Song

The mournful song with introductory clear whistles followed by triplets on a different pitch is unmistakable.  The tone, quality and pitch are similar to the two note clear whistle of the chickadee.  Once heard, its distinctive rhythm is not easily forgotten and the many variations to the song are usually recognizable.  Its one-syllable “pink” or “tsip” are a bit more difficult to learn.

This is perhaps, other than the loon, the most iconic bird song of the Adirondacks.  It can be heard singing throughout the day, but especially in the late afternoon to early evening twilight of late spring to mid-summer.  This mournful call brings a sense of peace and tranquility to the woods of mountain lakes at the end of another day in the wilderness.  

Sources

Alsop, Fred J. III.  Smithsonian Handbooks: Birds of North America, New York:  DK Publishing, 2001.

Mahnken, Jan.  The Backyard Bird-Lovers Guide , Storey Communications, 1998 ISBN 0-87596-804-X

Pearson, T. Gilbert, Editor.  Birds of America, 1936, Doubleday & Company.

Peterson, Roger Tory.  A Field Guide to the Birds, 1980.  (Eastern North America)

Web Sources

Sparrow calls from Stonybrook Math Department

Great Backyard Bird Count 2010 Results: Map of White Throated Sparrow, February 2010

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09 April 2010 Published in Birds

Originally published on www.critters360.com

Crows are nearly universally known, except for in parts of the South Pacific and southern South America.  The general behavior and habits of the American crow would be well known to those who observe the jackdaw in Eurasia and North Africa.

While they might be observing different varieties of crows, there are many stories about the crow’s intelligence and cunning on both sides of the Atlantic.  From Eurasia, perhaps the best-known stories are from Aesop’s Fables.

Crows are members of the Family Corvidae, which has about 100 species worldwide.  The crows in North America include the fish crow, the American Crow, and the white- necked and northern ravens.  The large family also includes the blue jay, scrub jay, gray jay, and black-billed magpie.

The American Crow

The Corvus brachyrhynchos is the most widespread and well-known bird in North America.  The American crow is about 17-21 inches long with a wingspan of 33 to 40 inches. It is all black, and its distinctive “caw-caw-caw,” with its many variations, is a common sound in city or country. 

With intelligence and social behavior, including sentries, crows are difficult to approach.  When flying in a flock, they are usually far apart rather than in a tight formation.  Crows form large flocks, especially in winter.  Up to several thousand birds may fill the entire horizon.

Crows eat nearly anything, from insects to seeds and sprouting plants, eggs and young of birds and reptiles, small mammals, garbage, and carrion   They are often seen on the ground in dumps, behind super markets, or at the roadside eating carrion, oblivious to passing traffic. While single birds may be seen in the country, in cities, they are most often seen in groups of 5 to 10 birds, or larger flocks.

Breeding and Nesting

American crows are monogamous and solitary nesters.   The nest is made of twigs and branches, lined with grass, feathers, bark, moss, leaves, and hair.   This is usually in the fork of a tree, often over 50 feet off the ground. 

The 4 to 8 eggs are pale bluish-green to pale olive-green with brown or olive gray splotches.  Incubation is about 18 days by both sexes.  The altricial young spend about a month in the nest before fledging.  There may be two broods in the south.  

Crow Behavior

Crows are an interesting bird to watch for behavior that can sometimes be quite surprising.  They will sometimes “mob” a hawk or owl, seen as a threat.  Several crows may dive-bomb a hawk from above, forcing it into the tree-tops. 

As they often eat eggs and young birds, they are a threat to many smaller birds. Sometimes the crow is on the receiving end of mobbing behavior as a response.  This is commonly done by grackles and red-winged blackbirds.  As the crow flies through an area, it is harassed and attacked, usually from above and behind.  The smaller birds pester the crow unmercifully to drive him out of the neighborhood.

At other times, a crow may actually try to attack small animals imitating a raptor.  One day, my wife and I observed a crow chasing a squirrel.  It was trying to clutch the frightened animal with its feet, similar to a hawk swooping down on a rabbit or mouse.  Its feet are not effectively strong like a raptor’s talons; it was unsuccessful in catching the squirrel.   It certainly was comical, though it’s doubtful if the harassed squirrel appreciated the joke.

But the crow is sometimes on the receiving end of this joke as well.  Crows will often be in groups with a sentry bird, and one cawing crow may soon lead to a chorus when a threat is near.  One April morning near dawn in a park’s woodlands, there was a tremendous outcry of several crows that just would not stop.  This small flock of crows was in frenzy, in trees about 20 to 30 feet off the ground.  At the base of a tree, there was a crow struggling on the ground, its head and upper torso disappearing down the throat of a red fox. 

The fox also out witted the crow in Aesop’s fable of the Fox and the Crow.  In that story, the fox flattered the crow into speaking to prove it had a voice matching its beauty.  As the crow cawed, it dropped a piece of stolen meat, which was then eaten by the fox. 

In the spring morning observation related above, the fox again outwitted the crow.  This time it resulted in the crow’s demise amidst the lamenting chorus of its friends and family.

Sources

Alsop, Fred J. III.  Smithsonian Handbooks: Birds of North America, New York:  DK Publishing, 2001.

Gillard, E. Thomas.  Living Birds of the World.   Doubleday & Company, Garden City, New York:  1967.

Pearson, T. Gilbert, Editor.  Birds of America, 1936, Doubleday & Company.

Peterson, Roger Tory.  A Field Guide to the Birds, 1980.  (Eastern North America)

Web Sources

Aesop’s Fables.com  The Fox and the Crow.

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07 March 2010 Published in Birds

Orignally published on critters360.com

The flash of an all red bird seen in a hedgerow or thicket, or at an open tree- top perch is easily recognized as the northern cardinal.  Commonly called just cardinal, it is one of the best-known birds in eastern North America.  Its bright vermillion red color and crested head make it unmistakable.  It adds a brilliant touch of color to the drabness of late fall, or hedges and snow- covered ground of winter.

Range of the Northern Cardinal

The formal name for Cardinalis cardinalis in English is the Northern Cardinal, This is curious, as it was historically a southern bird. Other common names in the past include crested redbird, Kentucky cardinal, and Virginia nightingale.  Its popularity has made it the state bird of North Carolina, Virginia and five Ohio Valley states.

The range of the northern cardinal has expanded northward since the mid 20th century.  It is now common throughout the east from New Brunswick to Florida and west to the to the Great Plains east of the Rockies, Texas, into Arizona and much of Mexico.  The Great Lakes are a general northern boundary of its range in the Midwest.

Identification

The northern cardinal has a distinctive crested head, with a short conical beak designed for cracking seeds. It is about 7.5 to 9 inches long, with a wingspan of about 10 inches.  A black mask offsets the brilliant red of the male. This surrounds its bright orange-red beak, extending into the eye and the throat.  The female is duller in color, a buffy olive green with red streaks on the wing and tail. The black mask on the female is not quite as extensive as on the male.   The young birds are similar to the female in coloration.

Cardinals are non-migratory, remaining within their range year round.  This does not mean, however, that the individuals seen at the feeder are the same that might breed in the neighborhood.  During breeding season they are usually seen singly or in pairs, while in winter they may be in small flocks.  Their nesting territory is usually from a few acres to a city block or two in area.

Prior to breeding, as with many other birds, the male will often chase the female.  He will also fight males that are invading his territory.  Either of these circumstances might involve swooping flight, not as commonly seen during the rest of the year.

Nesting and Young

The female builds the nest.  It is loosely constructed of small twigs, bark, weed stems, and leaves, held together by grass, fine rootlets, or horsehair. This is most commonly found about three to ten feet above the ground in thickets, hedgerows, cedars, and grape arbors, but could be as high as 30 feet in a fork of tree branches.  There are usually 2 to 4 eggs, bluish or greenish-white with flecks of buff, chestnut, brown or purple. 

The incubation period is just under two weeks, incubation usually done by the female. The young are altricial, or completely helpless, when hatched.  Both parents feed them during the 9-11 days of confinement to the nest before fledging. Northern cardinals typically have two to three broods a year, with perhaps four broods in southern areas of its range.  

Natural Food and Bird Feeders

The northern cardinal eats a wide variety of fruit, seeds, grasses, and grains. Sunflower seeds are a favorite food. It may take sap from holes in trees made by woodpeckers.  Insects form about a third of its diet.  These include cicadas, boll weevils, scale insects, beetles, and various caterpillars.

It feeds from trees or thickets at times, but is frequently seen foraging on the ground under feeders or sunflowers.  At the feeder, the northern cardinal likes seeds and suet, especially sunflower seeds.  It is usually the first bird seen at the winter feeder in the dim twilight before dawn, and often the last bird seen near dusk.

Calls and Songs

The northern cardinal has a wide variety of songs.  Most common is a descending “what cheer … what cheer…” often in pairs, sometimes three to five times.  This is often immediately followed by a “whoit-whoit-whoit-whoit” that ascends in pitch. This might also be transliterated as an ascending “Cheer-up, cheer-up.”   These two syllables (or perhaps more accurately described as a one syllable diphthong) are repeated several times in rapid succession.  Sometimes the second part of the call is a more rapid short clear trill, repeated perhaps 20 times over two or three seconds.

Most songs are clear whistles with distinctive tremolo.  Parts of the songs seem to either ascend or descend in pitch, but remain a very clear and bright whistle.  While there are many variations, these songs are easily learned with a little careful observation.  Frequently, their songs continue for several minutes from a tree top perch. With their bright red color, they are easily seen from this usually exposed location.

A single note call is more commonly heard when the bird is foraging in thickets or trees.  This is a single sharp “pik” or “chip” sometimes in a  cluster of two or three notes, but often with several seconds between notes, repeated several times per minute.  This is also commonly heard in cedars and hedges near dusk.

While they call year round, the northern cardinal is heard more frequently starting about mid-February in my upstate New York location.  From late winter until mid August they are usually an early singer, starting perhaps a half hour before sunrise.  This singing continues for most of the day.  Less frequently heard in mid afternoon, they begin singing again in earnest about two hours before sunset until just past sunset. 

A common visitor to winter bird feeders, the northern cardinal is usually silent during these visits.  Sunflower seeds are sure to attract his bright red colors to the often-drab winter scenery.  When one begins to hear more frequently the “cheer-up” call in late winter, it is time to follow his advice. Cheer up.  Spring cannot be too far behind after surviving another long northern winter.

Sources:  Books

Alsop, Fred J. III.  Smithsonian Handbooks: Birds of North America, New York:  DK Publishing, 2001.

Mahnken, Jan.  The Backyard Bird-Lovers Guide , Storey Communications, 1998 ISBN 0-87596-804-X

Pearson, T. Gilbert, Editor.  Birds of America, 1936, Doubleday & Company.

Peterson, Roger Tory.  A Field Guide to the Birds, 1980.  (Eastern North America)

Proctor, Noble, PhD.  Song Birds: How to Attract Them and Identify Their Songs.

Rodale Press, Emmaus, Pennsylvania, 1988.

Internet Resources

Northern Cardinals Sounds, All About Birds, Cornell Lab of Ornitholody

http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Northern_Cardinal/sounds

Northern Cardinal Identification – All About Birds, Cornell Lab of Ornithology

http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Northern_Cardinal/id/Cardinal.Htm

Bird song sample and range map

http://www.bio.umass.edu/biology/kunkel/gjk/cardinal.htm

Great BackYard Bird Count: 2010 Results Map of Northern Cardinal

http://gbbc.birdsource.org/gbbcApps/maproom?cmd=OneMapDisplay&species=norcar&year=2010&region=NAm

21 February 2010 Published in Birds

Oringinally published on www.critters360.com

Loons are a fascinating bird, and a symbol ot the North Country whether in New York, Maine, or Minnesota.

My interest in the loon was piqued by another passion, short wave radio.  I recall in the late 1960s and early 1970s listenening to Earle Fischer and his “Listener’s Mailbag” show on CBC International Service.  There was a weekly feature on birds of Canada, many recorded in Algonquin Park.  This included songs of the loon.  Listening to these calls then, and subsequently for many years in the Adirondack Mountains, it is easy to see how “crazy as a loon” originated.

Family Gavidae

Much of the information here may apply to any of the five species of the Family Gavidae. In the spring of 1983, the author observed a red throated loon (Gavia stellata) on Pine Lake in Lewis County.  However, information here mostly concerns the common loon (Gavva immer), hereafter referred to just as loons.  Most observations have been in New York State, but also Maine, Quebec and New Brunswick.

The loon is one of the most primitive birds, and uniquely equipped for swimming and diving.  With legs very far back on the body, it can not walk. However it is a superb swimmer, on the surface and especially underwater.  

Loons are larger than most ducks, about 28 to 36 inches. They are usually seen swimming alone or in pairs on the surface of remote northern lakes.  With the young in late summer, there may be three birds, very rarely four or more.  A common mistake for beginners is seeing a family of loons with six to ten birds.  These are much more likely mallards, wood ducks, or mergansers, as one would rarely see loons in that number in the north.

The loon ranges across the Canadian – US border, though its southern range is not so extensive as it was 50 years ago.  In the US it is largely restricted to Northern New York, Northern New England.  Formerly, it ranged into much of the Ohio Valley and Southern New England. Much of this loss is due to development of previously remote lakes and habitat destruction. Loons are very susceptible as well to lead, mercury,  and  declines in prey due to acid rain.

Nesting and Young of the Common Loon 

Loons mate for life, with pair bonds lasting 10 to 20 years.  The loons spend their summers and breed on northern mountain lakes straddling the Canadian border.  The lakes of northern Minnesota, the Adirondacks of New York, and northern New England are all home to the loon.  Most of them winter at the sea coast. From New York and New England, they migrate to the Atlantic, while from the central US, to the Gulf Coast.

They usually return to the same lake to breed, and usually have one young, occasionally two.  Their nest is usually on islands of mountain lakes, or on remote, undeveloped wooded shore lines.  Quite often their nest is on abandoned muskrat mounds, and almost always within a few feet of the shoreline.  To move from the nest to water they either slide on their belly, or waddle very awkwardly using wings and feet to propel themselves forward.

Loons are very secretive and require pristine environments and their presence is usually a sign of pretty good natural conditions.  On large lakes where boating and skiing is allowed, they require undeveloped shore for nesting.  In many of these lakes, there may be markers warning boaters and canoeists to go very slowly as heavy wakes could flood their low lying nests.  Motor boats in particular could cause them to abandon their nest, leaving it open to raccoons, weasels, or other predators of their eggs.  The most critical period for protection is mid May to 4th of July.  Boaters on mountain lakes should be sensitive to this and avoid areas that may be posted with floating markers in some lakes.

After the young is born, it may ride on its mother’s back for a few days, then be seen floating in the water.  They may be about 1/2 adult size, to nearly full grown by fall.  The coloration is generally like that of an adult in winter plumage.The back and head is a grayish brown, merging gradually into a white throat and breast visible when swimming on the surface.  The adult in breeding or summer plumage has a dark head with an occasionally metallic green cast, and a checkered black and white back.  There is a broken band of black and white stripes on the neck, then a solid black band just above the white chest.  The eye is a brilliant ruby red, often visible with binoculars.

Swimming and Flying Habits

Loons are most commonly seen on the surface, lying low in the water.  They often dive by just sinking unobtrusively,  leaving only the slightest ripple if any at all.  They can stay under water for up to a minute or more, and may resurface several dozen yards away from where last seen.  Quite often, their head will enter the water while on the surface, visually hunting for prey.  The two or sometimes three birds in a group will maintain contact with one short clear high pitched “hoo.”

Loons have a wing span of 50 to 58 inches with rather narrow wings.  Unlike most ducks who just “lift off” for flight, they need to skate or skitter across the surface of the lake for 20 yards, or often much more, to build up enough momentum for flight. This is somewhat similar to the dancing of some grebes in the west.  Then they very gradually climb, meaning they have to fly in a corkscrew pattern to gain enough height to clear the trees that enclose the mountain lake.  They may circle the lake in one to three revolutions.  If one sees the bird take off, it often is possible to follow this path and see the bird at fairly close range as it flies by your section of shore.  As it flies close by, its wings give off a distinctive whistling noise.

In the fall the author has seen adults trying to teach the young how to fly, with limited success in the lesson observed.  The adult showed the young how to take off twice, but the young was unable to attain flight on three attempts.  As this was in late September, there was still perhaps another month or six weeks to learn the lesson, otherwise risk the threat of being frozen in.

Loons eat mostly fish, but also frogs and aquatic insects.  Smaller prey may be eaten underwater, while larger prey would usually be brought to the surface. The author has observed in September an adult and young hunting together.  The adult attempted to pass off from its bill to the young a rather active frog.  The young promptly dropped the frog, and the adult had to dive to retrieve it.  A second hand off to the young was more successful.

Loon Calls

These are perhaps a most memorable part of observing loons.  There are at least 4 major distinct calls.  The first is the one note “hoo” mentioned above. This is used to keep in contact with the young or mate of the adult.

The second call is commonly referred to as a wail.  It is clear tones rising in pitch like a musical arpeggio, at intervals of a third, fourth or fifth.  It tends to linger on the highest pitched note, then fall back to the lower pitch.  This could include two or three pitches most commonly, though sometimes four or five notes. 

A third call is a distress call, sometimes called a yodel. This starts out like the second call, but then raises in pitch and has an “eee-ooo-eee” aspect to it.  The “eee” being about a third higher than “ooo,”  The pattern could repeat several times in clusters of three, thus “eee-ooo-eee,  eee-ooo-eee, eee-ooo-eee, eee-ooo-eee.”  Then there might be a pause of a few seconds and the call could be repeated.  This call is sometimes  repeated several times with short breaks between.

The fourth call is  a laughing yodel, very difficult to describe.  It is a wavering song on two or three notes at close intervals, and could be heard for a few seconds, or sometimes much longer, to 30 seconds or more.  Usually this would be shortly after take off as the loon is circling the lake.

Some of the indigenous peoples thought the call of the loon to be perhaps evil, or an omen of death.  It is indeed a haunting call.  Once heard it is not forgotten, and easily recognized when heard again.  If one camps in remote North Woods or mountains, the trip is almost incomplete without hearing the call of the loon.  It is an iconic symbol ot the North Country.

References

Peterson, Roger Tory.  A Field Guide to the Birds, 1980.  (Eastern North America)

Pearson, T. Gilbert, Editor.  Birds of America, 1936, Doubleday & Company.

Alsop, Fred J. III.  Smithsonian Handbooks: Birds of North America, New York:  DK Publishing, 2001.

A Day in Algonquin Park, non commercial recording on cassette tape.

Eastman, Whitney and Karen, et. al.  The Treasury of Birds, 1972. ISBN 7064 0013 5

E. Thomas Gilliard. Living Birds of the World, Double Day & Company, Inc., 1958.

Understanding Loons – Cyber Tower – Cornell University    This site includes video with loon calls. 

http://cybertower.cornell.edu/lodetails.cfm?id=163 


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