I remember the day I became a birdwatcher, back in the early 80’s. I lived in Oregon and I was an outdoors-kind-of-girl already, so when my future ex-husband and I planned our first vacation together we made it all about nature. We drove down the Oregon coast, into the California Redwoods, King’s Canyon, Yosemite National Park, and eventually made our way over to Arizona and the Grand Canyon. We bought three Audubon field guides for the trip: one about trees, one about wildflowers, and one about birds. We knew nothing about any of the three.
It was November, so walking the trails at Yosemite was not only incredibly beautiful, but the swarms of tourists were gone and we had the place to ourselves. The cold, clean air smelled of autumn, and the trees had lost most, but not all, of their yellow and red leaves. It was absolutely magical. I can still see in my mind’s eye the trail we were on when we looked over at a small puddle and noticed a beautiful blue crested bird taking a bath; in size it was somewhere between a robin and a crow. It was the first time I really took a moment to see a bird, admire its vivid colors and look it in the eye, and I couldn’t wait to see if I could find a picture of it in our field guide and put a name to it. I was thrilled when I was able to identify it as a Stellar’s Jay (photo above); to this day I have a special place in my heart for that species because it was my first real birdwatching bird.
My interest in birdwatching blossomed from that point, and soon we started putting birdfeeders up in our Portland yard. We quickly attracted a wide variety of seed-eating birds -- Black-capped Chickadees, Scrub Jays, Black-headed and Evening Grosbeaks, Golden-crowned Sparrows, Spotted Towhees and Band-tailed Pigeons to name a few. Rufous Hummingbirds came to the sugar water.
What do all those birds have in common? You will not see any of them here in southeastern Virginia. Most bird species have restricted ranges where they occur; something that is common in one state might not be found at all in its neighboring state. What is common in the western half of the country might not occur east of the Rocky Mountains, and vice versa. Some species like Mourning Doves, Downy Woodpeckers, Great Horned Owls and American Goldfinches do occur throughout North America, but most birds do not; their ranges are more limited.
So when I reluctantly moved with that future ex-husband from Oregon to Alabama, my silver lining was that I would get to explore new regions and see new and different species of birds. What I found in many cases was that the western species that were familiar to me had eastern “cousins” or counterparts; the “cousins” belong to the same family of birds but have evolved into different and distinct species, shaped by different environments, climates, food supplies,
Western Tanager (left) and Summer Tanager (right)
and a host of other factors. For example, the Western Tanager makes its home in the western states, but here in the southeast you’ll find the Summer Tanager instead. In eastern Virginia we have the Carolina Chickadee (below, right), but to the west of us you’ll find the Black-capped Chickadee (below, left). Same bird family and very similar in appearance, but genetically they are different species.
Someone suggested that I make a list of some of the most common birds that come to my Chesapeake birdfeeders, and share that with you all. Of course different species come at different seasons; the birds are entirely different in the winter than they are in the summer, and during spring and fall migrations there are always some surprises and a few rarities moving through. That being said, here are five birds that you’re likely to see in your Chesapeake yard; I will share more in my next blog entries:
The Northern Cardinal is a permanent resident here; you will see it all twelve months of the year as it does not migrate. While it is one of the most common and best known birds in the eastern states, it does not occur at all west of Colorado. The male is vivid red with a black mask; the female is a much more muted shade of orangish-red. Both sport a distinctive crest on their heads. During the day there is always at least one Cardinal in my yard, and right now, at least a dozen Cardinals congregate at my feeders every night at twilight to grab that last meal; they’re always the last bird to leave my yard at the end of the day.
The male American Goldfinch’s yellow plumage is just as vivid and striking as the Cardinal’s red plumage. If you happen to see these two birds next to each other on a sunny summer day, you can’t help but be awed that these colors are possible in nature. The Goldfinch is a very familiar bird in our area, and if you hang a thistle seed feeder, it won’t be long before these guys find you. As summer wanes and your flowers start going to seed, you will see Goldfinches on the seedheads extracting a meal; they are especially fond of zinnias and coneflowers. As with the Cardinals, the female Goldfinch is less brightly colored than the male, and she lacks the black “cap” that is so prominent on the male. Goldfinches do lose their bright colors in the winter, and fade to a pale version of themselves, but it’s fun to watch them in the spring as their breeding plumage returns a few feathers at a time-- they look like a patchwork quilt!
Winter Goldfinch (left); Summer Goldfinch on right (photo by Nancie Laing)
The Northern Mockingbird is another very common bird in our region. When I lived in Oregon, one or two would turn up as vagrants every year, but for the most part Mockingbirds are a more eastern bird. Almost every Virginian with a yard has a Mockingbird that has taken up residence nearby. They do not eat seeds or visit your seed feeders, but I feed mine apples (partially peeled) and a peanut butter concoction that I make (recipe is at the end of this posting). Mockingbirds are the champion “mimic” birds; they make more different kinds of sounds than almost any other bird, and they do mimic other birds’ calls. In the right season they will sing all 24 hours of the day, right through the night and usually right outside your bedroom window. Males and females have identical plumages. It’s easy to recognize one in flight by the prominent white edges on its long tail, and the white patches in the wings. (Photo of Mockingbird by Nancie Laing)
Everyone knows the distinctive Blue Jay when they see one. It is the only species of Jay that we have here in Virginia. They are rare in the western states when they occur at all; there they are replaced by other species of jays, including the Stellar’s Jay that I mentioned at the beginning of this posting, the Scrub Jay, and the Gray Jay in the mountains. Blue Jays are year round residents that do not migrate, and males and females look the same. If you suddenly hear a group of jays calling and getting excited, you will know that there is a predator nearby, usually a hawk or an owl, and that the jays are “mobbing” and trying to chase it away. They are the watchdogs of the birding world.
Five different species of woodpeckers have graced my yard. The one I see most frequently is probably the Red-bellied Woodpecker (An odd choice of name, as a red belly is certainly not its most prominent feature). They love suet and the peanut butter concoction that I make, and they also take sunflower seeds. Like other woodpecker species, they will “stash” food for an emergency winter food supply. I watched one summer as they tirelessly took peanuts from my feeder, flew across the street to the neighbor’s house, and stashed them – hundreds of them -- under the shingles at the peak of their roof. I do hope the neighbor never had occasion to discover this bounty…
More about the birds next time. In the meantime, let me share my peanut butter recipe with you. The birds love it, so be warned that if you start offering this treat to them they will devour as much as you can put out, especially during breeding season when they’re feeding their young, and during the winter when they need extra energy. It’s simple:
Combine 4 cups cornmeal, and 1 cup each of white flour, Crisco
vegetable shortening, and chunky peanut butter. Knead it
with your hands until it’s well-mixed and a little sticky.
I make “plugs” of this mixture, which I press into the holes of the log feeder you see in the picture of the woodpecker, above. The feeder is a 14” section of a red cedar branch; one-inch holes have been drilled into it for the plugs, and an eyebolt has been screwed into one end so the feeder can be hung from a hook. If you don’t have a feeder like this, you can buy one on eBay as I have, make one yourself, or you can put the peanut butter mixture out in some other fashion, for example pressing it into pine cones and hanging the pine cones in a tree.
You can find a lot of ideas about how to attract birds to your yard and feed them by browsing the library’s books in the non-fiction section; try the books with Dewey numbers of 639.978, and the general bird books in the 598 area.