North America's Most Abundant “Breeding” Bird Species
ORDER: CICONIFORMES The Heron Family (Ardeidae)
There are 63 species of herons, egrets, and bitterns in the world, 15 of them in North America. With long necks and legs, members of the Heron Family are well-adapted wading birds. We find them mostly along fresh and salt water shores. They wade elegantly, moving slowly and sometimes sweeping the bottom with their foot to stir a prey. When they spy a fish, they move suddenly to grab it in their long, dagger-shaped bills. Herons swallow their food whole, then regurgitate the indigestible parts in pellets. They wisely defecate on shore, not in the water.
In flight, herons tuck their long necks back into their shoulders (unlike members of the Stork, Ibis, and Flamingo Families who extend their necks) and stretch their legs out past their short tail. Their wide, rounded wings move in deliberate, graceful swoops. Commerce in nuptial plumage, specifically from Great and Snowy Egrets, was one of the strongest incentives for the Audubon Society's mobilization.
Cattle Egret (Bubulcus ibis)
Unlike other members of the Heron Family, Cattle Egrets seek out cattle, not shorelines. Anywhere up to eight egrets attend each cow, sometimes perching on the cow's back. As this entourage meanders through a pasture, the cattle scare up insects—mostly grasshoppers—on which the Cattle Egrets dine. They also eat earthworms and even toads.
Cattle Egrets immigrated from the Old World to the New, flying across the Atlantic from Africa. They were spotted in South America around the turn of the century and in Florida first in the early forties. Since then, they have fanned out enthusiastically around the Gulf states, up the Eastern seaboard, north as far as Manitoba, and south into Southern California, where they are the most numerous heron.
Cattle Egrets are often over 20 inches long, mostly white with slightly yellow bib and mantle. Their bills are yellow or orange. Legs of nonbreeding adults are yellow. During breeding season their legs turn coral, and their crown and nape display marvelous tufts of pale orange nuptial plumage.
Cattle Egrets are the only heron able to breed in its first year. Their heronies, as the nest colonies of Heron Family members are called, are found amidst many habitats, including mangroves, willows, pines, live oaks, buttonbush, red maples, and red cedars. Females build nests upward of 5 feet off the ground and sometimes use the same nest over again year after year. They lay three or four eggs per “clutch,” or nest.
Impact to Birds Right in Your Coffee Cup
Every winter, millions of songbirds migrate to Central and South America looking for abundant food. Dual-crop farms where coffee bushes grow in the shade of taller fruit trees have always been a favorite destination. The fruit trees provide winter fare for songsters.
Coffee beans are the third largest import into the United States, after oil and steel, and Americans now drink a third of the world's brew. To keep pace with demand, coffee growers are cutting down fruit trees to make “sun plantations” where coffee beans mature faster. This severely impacts songbird populations. Treeless coffee farms are nearly birdless.
According to Danielle Desruisseaux in High Country News (May 12, 1997), bird-loving consumers need to actively insist on shade-grown coffee, which may cost as much as two dollars more per pound.
The Ducks’ Flu
Waterfowl carry, without ill effect, most known types of influenza. But can you get the flu from a duck or any other bird? Not directly—until recently.
When waterfowl defecate, their viruses spread over land and into water, mutating to survive. In late 1997 the “bird flu” broke out for the first time among humans in Hong Kong, leading to the slaughter of 1.4 million chickens, the suspected culprits. Ducks and geese are also under suspicion as carriers.
Until this recent outbreak, humans had no known “receptors” for avian flu. Some animals such as pigs have, however, provided intermediary links from birds to humans for now-familiar types of influenza.
There is still no known incidence of human-to-human infection with avian flu. However, health officials are concerned that adaptation of the avian flu virus could cause it to spread among humans.
ORDER: ANSERIFORMESThe Duck Family (Anatidae)
Of the 148 species of ducks, geese, and swans known worldwide except in Antarctica, sixty-four inhabit our continent. Waterfowl, as they are known collectively, are an ancient group. Paleontologists have found waterfowl fossils as ancient as 80 million years old. Of all families of birds, members of the Duck Family, or “waterfowl,” were the first to be domesticated.
All are aquatic, swimming birds. They have stocky legs and three webbed front toes, with a smaller elevated fourth toe to the back. Their flat lamellate (with sawlike teeth) bill has a tough little hook on the end. When waterfowl eat, they squeeze their food against the roof of their mouth with muscular tongues. The tongue is attached to the upper mandible.
As the first signs of frost appear in various parts of the northern regions of our continent, waterfowl suddenly take flight. They head south—in North America an estimated 98 million strong—along fairly established flyways, the same they will traverse when they return the following spring. Females select the nesting territories and males follow.
Mallard (Anas platyrhynchos)
Every toddler's first bird call is quack, quack, quack, the Mallard hen's call. Less common but just as recognizable is the drake's raebraeb and kwek. The Mallard is America's most famous and plentiful duck. It is common throughout the Northern Hemisphere and has often been domesticated. In fact, all domesticated ducks except the Muscovy were bred from Mallards.
Like the pheasant, the female's mottled brown feathers blend with the brush. She and the male have a sapphire-blue patch bracketed in black and white on their wing edge. Noting this speculum is crucial to distinguishing the female of this species from the females of other mottled brown species. She has an orange and brown bill with a black tip. The male, with its yellow bill with black tip, is much easier to distinguish. He has a burnished green hood, white collar, and mahogany chest. His body is the smoothest buff. His wingtips are black, as is his rump. A small black “quotation mark” of upturned center tail feathers marks his white tail feathers. Both male and female are approximately 23 inches long.
Mallards live throughout the temperate United States. They summer up into Canada and winter only in the hot, humid South, Southeast, and Pacific states. Open water—whether river, lake, pond, or slough—is the Mallard's biggest attractant. Mallards that live in city parks become accustomed to humans and are eager to feed.
Like most ducks, Mallards have a varied palate that includes seeds, tadpoles, snails, fish, and fish eggs. They eat while tipping up, bottoms in the air, heads foraging on the muddy bottom. They dive into deeper water if necessary. They also eat grains off fields.
Females choose the nesting sites on slightly marshy land. Mallards nest in open bowls made of depressed grass or in the base of shrubs. Mallards aren't interested in lugging bill-fulls of construction material over the terrain. Rather, they settle into a spot, then drag nesting materials in around them. Lined with feathers plucked from their own breast, Mallard nests may hold up to twelve eggs. Females leave the nests unattended, but cover the eggs with down until they lay the last of their ten to twelve white-green eggs. Therefore, the eggs hatch at about the same time. As they hatch, the hatchlings imprint to their mother. Then all spring the ducklings toddle after her, learning first to waddle, then to swim.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service waterfowl survey (approximately 80 percent of North America's birds) estimates Mallards’ present breeding season population at 9.9 million. Including the young born during breeding, this number increases to 14.4 million on southbound migration. Over 5 million were shot by hunters in 1997.
ORDER: GALLIFORMESPheasant Family (Phasianidae)
The Pheasant Family includes pheasants, quails, partridges, spur fowls, francolins, and peafowls. Of about 174 species, there are presently two partridges, one pheasant, three introduced quails, and six native quail species in North America.
Some pheasants, such as Peafowl and the Great Argus Pheasant, are more showy than hummingbirds with their intricately patterned and colored plumage. Other pheasants are much more subdued. All have much in common with chickens. They have chickenlike bills, and their long, strong legs and feet are well suited to scratching for feed. Many have wattles or combs, and some have spurs they use in battles for dominance. They have short, round wings for short, fast flights. No member of the Pheasant Family has inflatable air sacs.
Northern Bobwhite (Colinus virginianus)
The Northern Bobwhite is the only member of the Pheasant Family native to North America. It is a very common quail in the eastern half of the United States. There are small, discrete patches of Northern Bobwhites in the Northwest, Wyoming, and southern Arizona Like other New World quails, it does not migrate. Hence, the Bobwhite's population ebbs and recedes with some frequency because it is enormously vulnerable to bitter winters.
Northern Bobwhites measure 10 inches from bill to tail. They stand upright, in rich sorrel plumage tipped with black and white. Whereas females have a tan breast, males have a more dramatic, sort of gray-black herringbone breast, and a white throat and eye. Both have tousled crowns, almost crests.
In courting, males spread their tail as well as their wings, which they ceremoniously drag on the ground. They turn their head from side to side to show off their eye markings.
The Northern Bobwhite is a family sort of bird. Scuttling around in groups along the edges of brush and fields, Bobwhites scratch around for food, all the while making a whirring sound like a small motor to keep track of one another. The call, bob, rises up to white, bob-white, bob-white. They also make a single hoit covey call when it is time to duck for nighttime cover at twilight. In the winter, there may be as many as thirty birds in a covey. If dogs, hunters, and other passersby disturb them, if they flush out of the weeds or fields in a great, brief surprise of flapping.
Northern Bobwhites conceal their nests deep in hedges or thickets, on the ground, or in depressions left by trampled grass or leaves. Sometimes two or more hens share a nest (as ostriches do). One hen lays from fourteen to sixteen eggs. As long as it is seeds, grain, or fruit, Northern Bobwhites are not picky about what they eat.
Ring-Necked Pheasant (Phasianus colchicus)
The brown-toned female Ring-Necked Pheasant is plain enough. However, the male looks—and is—entirely too exotic to be a North American native. There is a river along the east coast of the Black Sea now called the Rion that was called the Phasis in ancient times. Pheasants were named after the Phasis because, supposedly, the Greek Argonauts returned from the Phasis region with pheasants. Colchis was the name of a province on the river Phasis, hence the name and origin of the Latin Phasianus colchicus.
The Ring-Necked Pheasant was introduced from Asia and has adapted marvelously to the entire northern part of the United States and southern Canada, south into California and the eastern slope of the Rockies into New Mexico. There is a small pocket of Pheasants along the Texas Gulf coast. With its hankering for grain, the species thrives in these farmland areas.
In addition to its white necklace, the male has a lustrous emerald-green head, set off by ruby lappets. The body is a mosaic of predominantly copper, gold, green, and black. It has long copper blades with black stripes for tail feathers. His bold physique also includes fearsome spurs. Head to tailtip, he is as much as 35 inches long. He is polygynous, meaning he has a harem of mates. His lappets engorge and his ear tufts stand erect to attract a female. Females are a mousy beige, only 21–25 inches long.
The pair make their nest in a depression in the ground, and the female lays clutches of up to twelve dark olive eggs. Not long after the eggs hatch, the parents sally forth with their young to impress upon them the importance of scratching for food. The high numbers per clutch give tremendous boost to the population, which is then thinned by hunting.
Pheasants’ turf is usually no larger than a square mile or so. There they amble about snacking on corns, grains, seeds, and occasional insects. Their repertoire of clucks, cocks, and cackles are similar to those of chickens. Although they are fond of high grass and weedy culverts, they sometimes roost in trees. Pheasants love dust baths. Their flight, sometimes straight upward, is fast but short.
ORDER: CHARADRIIFORMESThe Plover Family (Charadriidae)
Of the sixty-three species of plover worldwide, fourteen are found in North America. These small to medium-sized shorebirds are stocky, with pigeonlike bills. The bill is always shorter than the head. They fly well on long tapered wings and run well on feet that have tiny functionless hind toes.
Killdeer (Charadrius vociferus)
A type of plover, the Killdeer is technically a shorebird. It does not limit its shore activity to the coasts but is satisfied by just about any open wet terrain across North America in the summer. In the winter in the United States, it sticks to southern climes. Migrating flocks of Killdeer are often huge.
Killdeer are most abundant in America's farmlands. They scout along fresh furrows, wet fields, riverbanks, and golf courses for crustaceans, guppies, insects, and invertebrates. Sometimes they feed in shallow water, but like many other shorebirds, return to land to defecate. Their call is a loud kill-dee, hence the English name and the Latin species name, vociferus. Killdeer are not shy around humans.
Killdeer have brown backs and a telltale orange rump seen in flight. They have white breasts with a double black breast band, a white collar, and a white stripe above the eye. Killdeer measure 10 inches head to tail.
Killdeer lay their three to five eggs in impromptu gravel or sand scrapes, adding a few twigs to keep the eggs in place. Some lay two broods. To distract predators from the eggs or from helpless newborn chicks, they make a long, trilled trrrr and perform a terrific mock injury, rolling around as though with a broken wing.
Homing Pigeons are a specific breed of Rock Dove that have been bred for their navigational expertise since Egyptian times 5,000 years ago. For eons they were the most favored form of quick correspondence. Messages were attached to pigeons’ legs by means of specially designed little tubes. Among these airborne messengers’ more history making deliveries were announcements of Caesar's conquest of Gaul, the Greeks’ Olympian games, Genghis Khan's campaigns, and Napoleon's defeat at Waterloo.
Until the invention of the telegraph about 1800, pigeons commonly carried messages from a few hundred up to a thousand miles away. After that pigeon racing became popular. Racing pigeons are banded and then liberated together. They are not marked “home” until actually into the destination loft. The longest recorded flight was 2,300 miles by a pigeon trained by the U.S. Army Signal Corps.
No one knows the exact reasons for the Homing Pigeon's attraction to its own loft. Its tremendous navigational aptitude is much studied but still remains somewhat of a mystery. Certainly landmarks, ultraviolet light patterns, the plane of polarized sunlight, and the earth's magnetic field play a part.
ORDER: COLUMBIFORMESThe Pigeon Family (Columbidae)
Pigeons of some sort can be found everywhere in the world except Antarctica, the Arctic region, and some islands. Of the 295 pigeon species on our planet, 17 are reported in the United States.
ROCK DOVE OR COMMON PIGEON
Pigeons are plump with small heads, short, rounded bills that finish in a hard tip, and cere with slitted nostrils. Some species lack an oil gland and their smooth plumage appears dry where it is not iridescent. Pigeon wings are pointed, the length varying among species.
Rock Dove or Common Pigeon (Columba livia)
Given their easy adaptation to urbanization, Rock Doves should perhaps be called the “Cable Guys.” We have all seen them hovering in rows along telephone cables and rooflines, ready to zoom in en masse at the first sign of a snack. Pigeons strut around boldly, seemingly as at home in cities and towns as we are. Some are even tame. They gobble up practically anything and drink from any water source, including water fountains and even ponds, where they can alight and take off with ease.
They average 13 inches long, with a bluish gray upper body banded with black markings on the wings, a white tail, and purple-blue on the breast. Although there is not much differentiation between genders, the males have slightly thicker, iridescent necks. Pigeons are monogamous and usually do not take to new mates eagerly.
Their nests are wobbly platforms of twigs, sticks, and grasses built on any surface that simulates the rocky ledge that was once their natural habitat—rafters, beams, and ledges that jut out from freeways and buildings. They lay two-egg clutches, once or twice a year. The female incubates the nest by night, the male during the day. After hatching, the young drink “pigeon milk,” a protein-rich excretion from the glandular walls in the crop of both sexes. In captivity, pigeons have been known to live more than sixteen years, although the average lifespan is less.
Over 200 breeds have diversified from the Rock Dove, including the carrier pigeon (see sidebar). Hence, we see tremendous color, marking, and size variations in any large group of pigeons. Pigeons were first cultivated for meat as long ago as 4500 B.C., then introduced around the world. The French brought them into North America in the early seventeenth century.
Pigeons are outstanding flyers. They have been clocked at up to 94 miles per hour.
Mourning Dove (Zenaida macroura)
The Mourning Dove is aptly named. Its doleful, early-morning cooing is well known throughout the United States, as is the musical flush of doves taking flight.
Mourning Doves generally mate for life, and theirs is a life on the edge. They plunk a hodge-podge nest of twigs in places that often seem ill-planned and ill-fated. Nests are easily spied by humans and predators alike amidst trees, shrubbery, and cactus. They are sometimes on top of rail fences, in chimney corners, or on top of other birds’ nests. Mourning Doves lay only two eggs per clutch, but several times a season. As much as 70 percent of juveniles die within the first year; others live approximately five years.
Despite the poor nesting habits of most parents and the birds’ high mortality rate, the species has increased greatly in numbers and is now the most widespread dove in North America. Some migrate in groups of up to two dozen, particularly when southbound; others are year-round residents. They thrive on seeds and grains from feeders, weedy suburbs, and farms.
Their sleek bodies are soft-toned, a mauve-brown gray with black markings on the long, pointy tail, wingtips, and cheek. These cheek markings are those that distinguish them from the now extinct Passenger Pigeon (see sidebar). The tail has white spots at the tips. Mourning Doves sport distinctive pink feet. They grow to 12 inches long, with an approximate wingspan of 18 inches.
Some states classify Mourning Doves as protected, but over half have a dove hunting season. The Mourning Dove is the most abundant game bird on the continent. Hunters bag more Mourning Doves than any other bird in the United States, in excess of 8.4 million last year.
ORDER: APODIFORMESThe Swift Family (Apodidae)
Apodidae means “without feet.” Swifts do have feet; however, their legs and feet are very puny and taking off from the ground is difficult. Still, they fly better and spend more time on the wing than any other small bird. Their wings beat so fast that it was thought that they beat alternately; however, experiments using slow-motion photography showed that the wings beat in unison. When a swift turns sharply in flight, one wing beats more strongly than the other.
The Biggest Bird Obliteration Ever
The story of the now extinct Passenger Pigeon is the most appalling example of bird ravaging throughout time. The Passenger Pigeon, so named for its routine pilgrimages across our continent, was a North American native. It formerly numbered in the billions. Many feel its population was the greatest of any species ever known. In fact, more than a billion were estimated in individual sightings. At the time North America was first colonized Passenger Pigeons may have represented anywhere from 25 to 40 percent of the total bird population here. They roosted in great numbers, huge flocks perching in the same trees. Sometimes whole areas of trees toppled under their weight.
Passenger Pigeons were tasty. And unfortunately, communal nesting made the hapless birds all the easier to shoot, net, and bag. The numbers killed for food now seem staggering—up to 700,000 a month in the early part of the nineteenth century. Population decline was evident by the Civil War, and the last nest in the wild was reported in 1894. In 1914 the last little passenger, “Martha,” named for Martha Washington, died at age twenty-nine in the Cincinnati Zoo.
Swifts are often confused with swallows. However, most swallows have longer, forked tails, whereas swifts have a short stiff tail. Swallows’ wings have a distinct bend in them; swifts’ wings curve back from the shoulder like boomerangs. Swifts fly higher and rarely come near to the ground for food. Like swallows, they dine on insects caught in the air. There is a surprisingly great number of insects traveling at higher heights, especially on warm air masses. There are eighty species of swifts in the world. Four are in North America.
Chimney Swift (Chaetura pelagica)
Found east of Missouri and Mississippi in the summer, Chimney Swifts are all wing. In noisy flocks, these “winged cigars” perform all kinds of aerial acrobatics. They sail in circles, then with a few speedy batlike beats shoot through the sky making fast ticking sounds. They feed, collect nesting material, and mate in flight. A banded Chimney Swift that lived for nine years was estimated to have flown 1,350,000 miles, including trips between the United States and South America, where Chimney Swifts winter.
Like all swifts, Chimney Swifts have small “afterthought”-sized feet. To abet their aerial stunts, they have scimitar-shaped wings as long as 13 inches in span and blunt square tails that end in needlelike spines. (Chaetura is the Latin name for “bristle.”) They are gray-brown in color, lighter on the underside, and only about 5 inches long.
The male's breeding display is a fascinating dance that looks like a falling maple seed. To win a mate's affection, males hold their wings high over their back and rock back and forth, turning as they descend. Chimney Swifts have a penchant for nesting in chimneys, but they do not mind silos, barns, or hollow trees. There they spackle a basketry of twigs together with saliva for their nest. They lay four or five white eggs. To feed their young, they prop themselves against the walls, leaning their little feet against their tails.
When roosting, a flock circles a chimney or airshaft for as long as an hour, always swirling in the same direction. Then suddenly they descend, one bird at a time, into the chimney. It gives the impression of sooty smoke disappearing backwards. Once inside, Chimney Swifts cling to the walls in clumps, one overlapping another like tiles.
ORDER: PASSERIFORMESThe Flycatcher/Tyrant Flycatcher Family (Tyrannidae)
Flycatchers are the most militant and successful family among all songbirds. They originated in South America and are found only in the Western Hemisphere. Of the 374 species in this aggressive bird family, thirty-five live in the United States. As their name suggests, flycatchers dart out into the air from their perches, snapping up insects. If the insects are too large to swallow whole, they hold them under their foot mercilessly and pluck off a bit at a time with their sharp hooked bills. While courting or trying to intimidate other birds, they raise the plumage on their head. It looks like a crown.
Eastern Kingbird (Tyrannus tyrranus)
This bold bird does not take flack from anyone. It rules from on top of the highest bush or tree, diving for insects with a great natter of notes and chasing away any bird that threatens its dominion. The Eastern Kingbird summers everywhere in the United States except the West and Southwest. It prefers open areas where it has a good view of insects, its favorite food. Kingbirds fly with rapid, abbreviated wing beats that enable them to hover just above the ground while eating insects or berries, another favorite food.
The Eastern Kingbird is deep gray with a white throat and breast. It has a concealed crown of red. Its feather tips are white. It is a moderate-sized bird, 8½ inches, but this does not prevent the Eastern Kingbird from taking on much larger foes, even raptors, on whose backs it has been known to land. Even occasionally, someone will report that an Eastern Kingbird fearlessly attacked an airplane that ventured into its territory.
Eastern Kingbirds’ nests can be as high as 60 feet, although they sometimes will find a low shrub near the water as a good vantage point for securing insects. They usually situate the cup nest—made of grasses, twigs, rootlets, and hair—in the crotch of two branches or on a horizontal limb. They lay three to five creamy pink-white eggs.
The Lark Family (Alaudidae)
There are seventy-five species of lark, only two of which are in North America, the native Horned Lark and the European Skylark. These sharp, pointy-billed birds live on the ground, where they walk and run but never hop. Their hind toe's claw (larkspur) is elongated and straight rather than curved. Larks have lengthy tapered wings.
What to Call Bunches of Birds
(From James Lipton's wonderful An Exaltation of Larks)
“chain” of bobolinks
“watch” of nightingales
“wake” of buzzards
“parliament” of owls
“peep” of chickens
“company” of parrots
“cover” of coots
“covey” of partridges
“gulp” of cormorants
“ostentation” of peacocks
“murder” of crows
“colony” of penguins
“dule” of doves
“bouquet” of pheasants
“paddling” of ducks Con water)
“congregation” of plovers
“charm” of finches
“unkindness” of ravens
“stand” of flamingos
“building” of rooks
“skein” of geese (in flight)
“walk” of snipe
“gaggle” of geese Con water)
“host” of sparrows
“raft” of grebes
“murmuration” of starlings
“cast” of hawks
“mustering” of storks
“brood” of hens
“flight” of swallows
“siege” of herons
“wedge” of swans
“party” of jays
“spring” of teal
“scold” of jays
“rafter” of turkeys
“deceit” of lapwings
“pitying” of turtledoves
“exaltation” of larks
“fall” of woodcocks
“tidings” of magpies
“descent” of woodpeckers
“sord” of mallards
Horned Lark (Eremophila alpestris)
With their tufted crowns, Horned Larks have the look of Pan. They are native to North America, and nest from Alaska's Arctic coast south into Mexico and east to Georgia. Some winter in their nesting range; others move into the southern United States and Mexico. Horned Larks need open land, with little vegetation. They scamper over mown pastures, golf courses, deserts, airports, and sand dunes eating weed seeds, often out of manure. Their penchant for airports has made them a frequent casualty of aircraft. In the summer they eat insects and spiders.
The Horned Lark has a brown back and wings, a white breast and a black collar, and a black tail. The face is yellowish white with black feather tufts. Males have a black forehead and “muttonchops.” They are about 8 inches long.
The Horned Lark male exhibits an impressive courting stunt. He ascends up, up off the ground as high as 800 feet, then circles in a broad path several times, singing pit-wit, wee-pit, pit-wee, wee-pit. At the end of the song, he plunges headlong to earth with wings back. Only at the last second does the daredevil pull himself out of his stoop.
Impressed with this antic, the female either digs or finds a slight hollow in clodded dirt, around which she builds up a cup of grasses. She lines it with plant down, feathers, and hair. Horned Lark clutches—either double or multiple—usually number about four dingy white eggs, with a spray of brown flecks.
The Swallow Family (Hirundinidae)
These small songbirds, including martins and swallows, are real flyers, although they do not spend as much time on the wing as do swifts. Nor are they so swift. They have twelve tail feathers and facial bristles. Characteristically, they fly low, swooping and somersaulting, their bills agape to swallow insects out of the air. Although they have short legs and weak feet, they will shuffle around on the ground for nesting materials when necessary.
North America's eleven swallow species are all greatly admired. They live close to, if not in or on houses, so we benefit from their cheerful singing and insect-eating. They migrate in early spring, a few pioneer swallows arriving ahead of the flock to see if the breeding climate is still habitable. Swallows depend wholly on insects. Bad weather, which can put an end to insects in the air, will greatly weaken a flock.
Purple Martin (Progne subis)
Purple Martins were this nation's first “insecticides.” Native Americans hung clusters of hollow gourds from trees and bushes which attracted communities of Purple Martins. Purple Martins live almost entirely on insects and keep the mosquito population down. Now they nest primarily in colonies, most in man-made communal nesting boxes, situated in open fields. They also nest in tree cavities and caves, where they will lay four or five white eggs once per season. After breeding, Purple Martins move out of nesting boxes and roost in trees to maintain a good vantage point over insects. They like to swoop in unimpeded by bushes and favor sights near fresh water with an ample supply of swarming mosquitoes.
Five inches long, rounder in comparison to other swallows, with wingspans over 16 inches, Purple Martins are the largest swallow in North America. Whereas the female is a pale gray with a brown back, wide wings, and cap, the male is a deep velvety purple. Purple Martins have a slightly forked tail.
They summer only in the United States and are found throughout the Midwest and East. There is an enormous gulf between this eastern population and the pockets of Purple Martins that appear in the Pacific flyway-in the coastal areas of the Northwest, throughout California, and in parts of Utah and Arizona. This seems inexplicable given all the suitable habitat in the Rockies and inland Northwest.
Tree Swallow (Tachycineta bicolor)
The Tree Swallow is a common North American bird, its range extending into Canada and north to Alaska in the summer. Droves flock to the Gulf region, Southern California, and farther south on winter hiatus. During fall, they are seen in the hundreds on buildings and power lines. They are rarely spotted in the southern states, other than around the Gulf.
This shiny dark teal swallow has a slightly notched tail, splendid white breast, and white collar once mature. When Tree Swallows descend on a berry bush to feed while migrating, the alternating black and white of their white breasts and glossy backs makes the bush appear to glitter.
Like other swallows, they like a good supply of insects and zigzag back and forth over salt marshes and open fields in search of this protein source. Tree Swallows also land to eat insects on or near the ground.
Tree Swallows depend wholly on established crevices for nesting sites—tree cavities left by woodpeckers, building eaves, cliff notches, or nesting boxes. Females—and sometimes males—build nests of grass, lined with feathers, preferably Canadian Goose or merganser feathers. Tree Swallows will do almost anything to obtain feathers, even steal from one another in aerial combat. This competition for building materials and for suitable sites is fierce, so this may explain why Tree Swallows migrate so early. They lay four to six white eggs. The more feathers, the better insulated the nest and more healthy the chicks. The well-insulated chicks fledge earlier.
Cliff Swallow (Hirundo pyrrhonota)
Cliff Swallows are devoted to their nesting sites and unless the site is disturbed will predictably return year after year. At the mission at San Juan Capistrano, a historic Southern California attraction, the Cliff Swallows’ return is legendary. All eyes turn upward on March 19, anticipating their springtime arrival from their winter habitat at Goya, Argentina, 6,000 miles away. The arrival date varies, and there seem to be fewer swallows yearly, possibly because of diminished farmlands around San Juan Capistrano.
Cliff Swallows summer throughout the United States and Canada north to Alaska, although not in the South between Louisiana and Virginia. Intermittently, like Purple Martins, certain populations are wiped out by foul weather.
Aerial romancers, Cliff Swallow males chase their mate on the wing, twittering all the while. These swallows nest in large colonies on eaves, cliffs, and other vertical surfaces, even conifer trunks. In the spring, they scurry from mud source to nest and back again. They roll hundreds of mud pellets, one at a time, then hasten to the nest site to cement them together, crafting a hollow gourd-shape, lined with feathers. They lay four or five creamy white eggs in each of two broods per year.
Nesting colonies can grow to thousands of birds. Farmers sometimes consider these muddy nests on their buildings an eyesore and destroy them. This is unfortunate because Cliff Swallows can keep pernicious insect populations in check.
The 5½-inch-long Cliff Swallow has a white breast, dark gray head, and wings separated from his dark gray tail by an orange rump. It has deep orange cheek patches. Unlike other swallows, the Cliff Swallow has a squared tail.
Barn Swallow (Hirundo rustica)
Barn Swallows are extremely prevalent city dwellers during nesting season. They are also found in farmlands, forests, deserts, and just about anywhere in the United States and Canada except Florida, Georgia, and the southwesternmost Rio Grande basin. They like grass, fields, and meadows where humans, farm equipment, or grazing animals stir up insects. Like tailed vacuums, they swoop to grab insects in midair. Barn Swallows also bathe by swooping into water and out again.
The 6½-inch-long Barn Swallow has a dramatically forked tail—the only North American swallow with a real swallow tail—with white tail spots at the tip. It has a russet breast, with a deep rust bib and brow. It is a deep indigo elsewhere.
Courtship is a long chase. The male pursues the female over the terrain, begging kvik-kvik, vit-vit. Under overhangs, Barn Swallows fashion their open, cupped nests out of mud and grasses mixed together into tiny balls. There they lay four to six speckled white eggs, two times a year. Like Cliff Swallows, they are faithful birds, generation after generation imprinting to specific nesting sites, a habit that greatly endears them to humans who look forward to their companionship and family-rearing so nearby.
Crow as Symbol
Romans regarded the crow as a bearer of the future because its cry cras means “tomorrow” in Latin. In later European superstitions, crows were associated with witches and other death-givers. This explains the term crow's feet for the wrinkles of old age. Native people of the Northwest took a less baneful view of the crow. Eskimos and Siberians believed that the raven was a god that brought dry land out of the sea. He was, through his own sacrifice, a messenger of magical wisdom. One Native American tribe of the Plains named themselves after this remarkable bird; the Crow called themselves “The Children of the Long-Beaked Bird.”
The Crow Family (Corvidae)
The Crow Family—including crows, nutcrackers, ravens, jays, and magpies—is one of the world's most flourishing bird families. It has representatives everywhere except Antarctica, New Zealand, and a few islands. Of the 103 species, 17 are found in North America.
Crows are remarkably intelligent, more so than any other bird family. They have a language of their own and can imitate the sounds of other birds, animals, and even humans. Experiments on crows in captivity show that they can count as high as four and associate sounds with certain foods. A tightly knit social organization within families and flocks is another indication of their highly evolved nature. Research has shown that crows can associate symbols with events the way humans do. Crows are classified as a game animal in most states, but have no official hunting season.
American Crow or Common Crow (Corvus brachyrhynchos)
Everyone knows the Common Crow's distinctive caw-caw-caw. Despite and perhaps because of its success, the Common Crow does not win too many popularity awards. In 1940 the Illinois Department of Conservation exterminated 328,000 crows with one blast of dynamite. Hitchcock's The Birds reinforced our national distaste for crows.
AMERICAN CROW OR COMMON CROW
Even if people don't like crows, crows seem to like people. Crow populations are found throughout the United States, following people out of the farmlands and into the cities and suburbs. There are often as many as 3,000 crows roosting in residential areas. As many as 50,000 crows have been reported roosting near shopping centers in cities along the Eastern seaboard, attracted by round-the-clock food and lights to help them spot predators. Black-on-satiny-black, crows grow up to 21 inches long, with a wingspread of up to 40 inches. They nest as high as 120 feet above the ground in the crotches of trees or cliff ledges, wherever they can assemble a jumble of sticks big enough to hold their three to six blotched blue-green eggs. The young are pesky, demanding food and attention from adults in a nasal-sounding call. Practitioners of the “extended family,” crows often remain near their parents and siblings throughout their lives of seven to eight years, even helping raise new broods. Sometimes they fly away to nest elsewhere but, as researchers have observed, return to visit their birth families regularly. Not shy about defending their turf, crows may mob hawks, owls, cats, and even people.
A crow is literally a garbage disposal. Crows discover ready food supplies in open dumping. Their greatest preference is for corn, but songbird eggs and hatchlings are among the 700 recorded items in their diet.
Blue Jay (Cyanocitta cristata)
Blue Jays, uttering their familiar squawk, are big friendly birds that endear themselves with their fearless, regular appearance. Unfortunately, they will greedily raid other birds’ nests, dining on eggs and babies alike, and dominate feeders. These cunning birds often squirrel food away in their nests or other hiding places for later eating. They eat practically everything, even small rodents.
We all recognize the bright blue of the handsome Blue Jay's perky crest, back, wings, and tail. It has a black necklace on its gray breast, and white and black markings on its wings and tailtip. Blue Jays measure about a foot long.
Blue Jays are found in all Eastern states, from the Plains to the Atlantic. They summer and winter throughout, excepting the very northernmost part of their summer range into Canada. They prefer wooded areas and appear every bit as happy in the city as in the country.
Although normally so noisy, Blue Jays become covert operators during nesting season. To stave out competition, Blue Jays make a false nest first, then move on to nest on a branch or in the crotch of a tree. Their nests are messy cups of twigs, bark, mosses, grass, and mud, lined with rootlets. They lay four or five pale olive eggs, speckled with gray-brown, which they ardently defend from squirrels, cats, and other birds.
What's the Difference Between a Crow and a Raven?
At 27 inches ravens grow much larger than crows. They have shaggy heads, their feathers tufting out around their nostrils and throats. Their flight is different from a crow's. Whereas crows flap, ravens alternately flap and soar. While courting, males and females touch wings in flight. Unlike crows, ravens are not seen in huge flocks. They are most common in the far North and Pacific states.
The Titmouse Family (Paridae)
No mice these. The “tit” comes from a perversion of an Icelandic word, titr, meaning something small. The “mouse” derives from the Anglo-Saxon mase, meaning bird. There are sixty-five friendly little species of titmouse. In North America there are fourteen, including bushtits, chickadees, titmice, and the verdin. Titmice have rounded wings and short, strong bills with rictal bristles. Their legs and feet, although not long, are sturdy.
Tufted Titmouse (Parus bicolor)
The adorable Tufted Titmouse is a devoted year-round denizen of the whole eastern half of the United States, from Minnesota and west Texas to the Atlantic. It makes good use of bird feeders, in addition to eating insects, seeds, and berries from deciduous and coniferous forests, swamplands, parks, orchards, and backyards. The Tufted Titmouse has a particular penchant for stream-side habitats. Tufted Titmice sport a natty gray crest and back, black forehead, orangish underwing, white breast, and subtly notched tail. Birds in southern Texas have a black crest. Tufted Titmice measure 6 inches long. Compared to their body size, the Tufted Titmouse's whistle peter, repeated in four to eight phrases, seems disproportionately loud.
We often see the Tufted Titmouse with its head inclined as it clings to a branch or trunk, peering for caterpillar and larvae in bark crevices. This bird is very tame and frequently appears at the sound of a human voice. They will even eventually eat from your hand. Like jays, they store their booty in hiding places.
Tufted Titmice mate for life. Males feed females during courtship. They nest in natural or abandoned cavities, lined with leaves and hair. They get pretty aggressive in their quest for hair, sometimes even plucking it from small mammals and humans! They lay five or six cream-colored eggs with brown speckles, often twice a season.
The Wren Family (Troglodytidae)
Wrens are small cave and hole dwellers, as their Latin name suggests, and are confined to the Western Hemisphere with the exception of one species. There are fifty-nine species in all, ten of them in North America. Type A personalities, wrens are quick, industrious, intolerant, and solitary except during nesting season. They have sharp, slightly down-curved bills, short, rounded wings, and jaunty, cocked tails.
Carolina Wren (Thryothorus ludovicianus)
Thryothorus means reed-jumper; the Carolina Wren dodges about in the undergrowth near water all year. This is certainly a busy bird, both sexes singing a crisp chirpity as they duck in and out of thickets and brush piles looking for insects, caterpillars, worms, and other invertebrates.
The Carolina Wren is a very common nonmigratory bird of the Southeast. Its range extends north to New England and west to Iowa. It is less successful in northern climes because of the severe winters.
The Carolina Wren is the largest and reddest wren in eastern North America. Five and a half inches long, it has a deep russet back, orange breast, conspicuous white eye stripe and throat, and striped black and russet tail.
It is very resourceful when it comes to nesting sites. Any dark crevice will do, from rotting tree stumps to pockets of old clothes hung outside. The nests are bulky masses of leaves, twigs, and plant fibers. The Carolina Wren lays between four and six spotted eggs in two broods a year.
House Wren (Troglodytes aedon)
A French bird lover, Louis Jean Pierre Viellot, named the House Wren aedon in 1807 in reference to Aedon, the Queen of Thebes, who was changed by Zeus into a nightingale. To Viellot, the males’ persistent and clear singing that crescendos upward suggested the song of a nightingale.
In the breeding season we see and hear House Wrens all over the United States, except around the Gulf, where they go only in the winter. They are also in Southern California and the Southwest in the winter.
House Wrens are a plain, warm brown bird, slightly lighter on the underside. Their wings and tails have narrow, dark brown stripes. They have pink legs and feet, and a jaunty upturned tail. They measure only 4½ to 5 inches and have no evident eye stripe.
From one perspective, this bland appearance could be viewed as feathered military fatigues, because the active little House Wren male is a sort of guerrilla architect. Males arrive first at nesting grounds, then hurriedly fill every nook with twigs. These cavities might be tree cavities, woodpecker holes, bird boxes, abandoned hornet nests, pipe railings … anywhere. He with the best and most numerous nests gets the best mate. This activity also keeps neighboring wrens away and confuses predators.
The females arrive a few days later to inspect prospective nests and prospective mates. Fevered courting begins. Each female chooses one nest from the assortment, lines it with wool, hair, and other soft stuff, then commences laying eggs. She lays from six to eight eggs in two or three broods a season. Sometimes males, consistently belligerent, puncture eggs or kill the hatchlings of other wrens and songbirds.
House Wrens—eating exclusively insects and invertebrates such as caterpillars, aphids, snails, wasps, and beetles—are helpful to gardeners.
The Mockingbird Family (Mimidae)
All thirty-one species in the Mockingbird Family are in the Western Hemisphere, twelve of them in North America. All are master mimickers. Closely related to thrushes, they are busy, aggressive birds and live near to the ground. Their bodies are more slender than thrushes’, their tails are longer, and they have rictal bristles around their bills.
Gray Catbird (Dumetella carolinensis)
The Gray Catbird was so named for the nasal-sounding mew it makes while luring a mate into a promising thicket. Its favorite habitat is scrub near humans. Draw a line from the Pacific Northwest south to eastern Texas and you will find Gray Catbirds summering everywhere to the east of it, north into Canada. In the United States, they winter only along the Gulf. Gray Catbirds migrate only at night, and many have been killed striking buildings.
Since they so enjoy fruits and berries, particularly blackberries, it is no wonder they are so abundant in the Northeast. They also eat a lot of insects, particularly during breeding season.
Gray Catbirds are a rich gray with a black cap, black upturned tail, and deep cedar-colored undertail coverts. They are 8½ inches long.
Males arrive at breeding grounds early, establish their territory, and commence singing many sweet phrases with intermittent harsh notes and mewing. Their nests are stout jumbles of rootlets, twigs, grasses, and leaves, lined in plant down. Catbirds lay four dark green-blue eggs.
Northern Mockingbird (Mimus polyglottes)
We know it's spring when we hear the Northern Mockingbird's all-night serenade. This pleasant opera continues throughout the summer. Being a terrific mimic, the Mockingbird's song usually includes odd notes picked up from other species. The Mockingbird jumps and bobs on top of high branches or telephone poles, singing away, imitating as many as thirty-two other species within ten minutes’ time. Scientists have detected thirty-nine species’ songs and fifty call notes. Its incessant singing from the tops of magnolias and live oak trees in the South have made it a symbol of Dixie.
The Mockingbird breeds throughout the United States, except for the Northwest, east through North Dakota to Lake Michigan. It is a resident throughout all of the temperate part of the continent and remains in the winter. A common city dweller, it also likes fields and deserts. A Mockingbird flashes its wings and tail to scare up insects, its primary food. It also eats berries, seeds, and invertebrates.
The Northern Mockingbird, 11 inches long, is all shades of gray, with a whiter underside, darker top, and deep gray wings edged with white. Its lengthy dark gray tail flashes white on the outer edges when it flies. In erect posture scouting for insects, its tail is upturned.
The Mockingbird nests in any dense shrubbery or tree, including conifers and cacti tangles; the nest is a large structure of sticks, rootlets, and grass. It lays four to five turquoise eggs, splotched with brown, two or three times a season. It is tremendously defensive, dive-bombing animals and humans near its nest and chasing birds that invade its territory. Mockingbird males, confronting each other at a territory border, will hop rapidly to the side and back.
Whereas ground-nesters such as meadowlarks, starlings, and vesper sparrows walk, birds that are more at home in trees will tend to hop, that is, raise their entire body weight, both feet together, and land farther off. Thrushes are the best-known hoppers. Paleontologists feel that hopping (between branches) was an intermediate evolutionary step that led to operable wings.
The Thrush Family (Turdidae)
This particularly songful and well-loved branch of the songbird order eats mostly insects. Of the 306 species in the world, 19 are reported in North America.
Wood Thrush (Hylocichla mustelina)
The pleasant little Wood Thrush is common to the undergrowth of immature woodlands of the eastern half of the United States throughout the summer. There you will hear their pit-pit-pit. Their summer range does not include the tip of Florida. They winter from south Texas south through Central America. Unfortunately, the Wood Thrush population has decreased drastically in recent years.
Wood Thrushes, 7½
Wood Thrushes usually lay four pale blue eggs in two broods per season. The nests, found in the crotches of trees or saddled to shrub branches, are like neat sandwiches of mosses, grasses, and dead leaves on either side of a layer of mud. Often, Wood Thrushes incorporate a telltale piece of light-colored paper in their construction.
American Robin (Turdus migratorias)
Throughout the United States, the American Robin's cheerful chorus is a sure sign of spring's thaw. A sprightly and uplifting garden companion, the Robin hops about hunting—by sight, not sound-earthworms, grubs, insects, and spiders. Other birds sometimes snatch worms from Robins’ bills as they pull them from the soil. In the fall Robins also eat seeds, fruit, and berries. They can be comfortable in practically any habitat.
Robins breed everywhere in the United States and summer throughout, except in the bitterly cold northern states. Robins appear in almost every habitat, ranging up to 12,000 feet.
Everyone welcomes the appearance of the Robin's warm brown body with its russet vest and white belly. The tail is almost black, but tipped in white. Males usually have deeper rust breasts than females. They grow to 10 inches. Juveniles have spotted breasts.
Robins site their mud-lined cup nests of grasses and small roots very carefully. They favor protected crotches of trees, building ledges, and garden nesting platforms. They usually lay four of their lovely “robin's egg blue” eggs in two broods.
The Waxwing Family (Bombycillidae)
There are only three species in this exclusive little family, two of them in North America. Bombycilla is the Latin word for “silky tailed,” and certainly the waxwing's plumage is chiffonlike. Their bills are short and stout, and finish in a slightly notched hook. Waxwings’ secondary wing feathers and tail feathers have narrow prolonged tips with a waxy substance on them. Waxwings live mostly in trees.
Cedar Waxwing (Bombycilla cedrorum)
Masked like a marauder with a prominent crest, Cedar Waxwings are lovely, smooth birds of 7 inches length with luscious gradated tones. Their heads are pale brown, upper body rust, and lower belly yellowish buff. Their undertail coverts are white, their wings and tail a progressively darkening gray. They have skinny red tips on their secondary wing feathers that look like “waxy” nail polish, and their tail feathers have startlingly bright yellow tips. Males have a black throat.
The Cedar Waxwing appears throughout almost all of North America at some time of the year, except for the Sierra Nevada range. It summers north from Northern California well into Canada and east to the Atlantic. Its winter range extends all the way to the South. It is found only in the Western Hemisphere.
Graceful flyers, Cedar Waxwings are nomadic and not very territorial due to their feeding habits. They consider insects a delicacy and must profit together from insect hatchlings. Particularly during breeding season when they need the protein, we often see them bolting about in great number.
These birds migrate in what seems an erratic path. Being fruit eaters, Cedar Waxwings move about unpredictably, in pursuit of fresh supplies. Flocks suddenly descend on berry bushes and eat gluttonously while making lisping sounds. They depart just as hastily when every berry is gone. Sometimes, spoiled fruit makes them somewhat drunk.
They mate late in the season when fruit is plentiful. Part of the mating ritual is passing food. Pairs and sometimes groups of Waxwings pass a single berry or cherry, a flower petal, or an insect back and forth until someone finally swallows it.
They are tidy nesters, and can be aggressive in their pursuit of building material. Sometimes they steal material from other birds’ nests. They make cups of grass, rootlets, moss, pine needles, and bark in conifers and orchard or shade trees. Nests, which may be packed in colonies, can be as high as 50 feet off the ground. They lay three to five pale blue-gray eggs, spotted black, either once or twice a season. They feed their young exclusively on insects.
The Starling Family (Sturnidae)
This family is almost entirely Old World, with the exception of the two Myna species and the European Starling introduced into the United States.
European Starling (Sturnus vulgaris)
If someone were to say that you were intelligent, prolific, articulate, and adaptable, you would take it as a compliment. The same can be said of Starlings, yet we love to loathe this “bad bird” of the order Passeriformes.
Eugene Schieffelin did not loathe Starlings. Rather, he was driven to introduce into America all species mentioned in William Shakespeare's work, Starlings among them. In 1890, Schieffelin let loose sixty Starlings in New York City's Central Park. Shakespeare has prevailed and so have Starlings. The urbanization of our countryside seems to bother Starlings far less than it does environmentalists. They just move in, descend on other food sources, and in general “citify.”
Although Starlings are held in ill repute in the States, they are far less so in their “homeland” of Europe. Let's look at their admirable traits. They are 90 percent carnivorous, putting away a good quantity of insects. Starlings are a most effective combatant of clover weevil, cutworms, grasshoppers, and Japanese beetles, and what horticulturist needs those?
These 5½- to 7½-inch-long birds are model in-formation aerialists, maneuvering twists and turns in perfect formation, loosely or tightly balled. We attribute this aptitude to their short tails.
Starlings are very chatty although not melodious, with sounds ranging from a wolf-whistle to cawing. They are able to mimic as many as thirty other bird songs. This ability goes hand in hand with their terrific hearing. Starlings can hear many notes that are too high pitched for humans to perceive, up to 8,000 vibrations per second.
In the fall and winter, Starlings’ bills are gray and their new plumage is beautifully speckled with white and light tan spots. It is this star-spangled effect that earned them their name. By spring the lightness at the feathers’ tips wears away, and the birds turn a glossy, iridescent black. The males’ bills turn yellow. Females, viewed close up, have a yellow ring along the outer edge of their eyes’ irises.
Starlings take up permanent occupancy within their breeding range throughout the United States, except for Alaska and Hawaii. They often nest in cities where there are fewer predators and ample food supplies. The male chooses the site and makes a best effort by dragging in an assortment of dead leaves, bark, and lichens. His mate then arrives, throws out everything he has installed, and begins again with grasses.
You will find Starlings in your ivy, in your chimneys, and in any bird house with a hole they can squeeze through. They nest in cavities and usually lay four to six white, milky-blue, or green eggs. Nesting pairs raise several broods a year and live between five and sixteen years.
As Starlings fledge, they often make for the open country, where adults may join them after their last brood. Their sometimes enormous communal roosts make conspicuous blackened areas in marshes and trees. These dense roosting habits can damage trees, with too much weight or too much guano (droppings). Starlings’ droppings also make them unpopular in cities, where they may foul buildings, monuments, and stonework.
These tough birds are not shy about getting enough. They are very aggressive and usually drive more timid birds from food sources. For these reasons, they are not much loved.
The Vireo Family (Vireonidae)
The vireo is another all-Western Hemisphere bird, with thirty-eight species, twelve in North America. The word “vireo” relates to the Latin virere, describing their green tone. Vireos have a short, straight bill with a slight hook at the tip. Their foreheads have many bristles.
Red-Eyed Vireo (Vireo olivaceus)
During summers in eastern woodlands, the Red-eyed Vireo's nasally chway is an almost constant and somewhat monotonous song. They sing incessantly, even while feeding and even on very hot days. Red-eyed Vireos breed throughout the eastern half of North America, from east Texas east and north across the northern states and west to southern Washington. They prefer forests with a shrubby understory where they can scout for insects, spiders, and seeds. Red-eyed Vireos winter in Central and South America.
The Red-eyed Vireo has an olive-green back. Its gray cap is set off by a black brow mark. Under that, there is a white line over the eye and beneath it, with a black eye line. The belly is yellowish white. Unlike some other vireos, it has no wing bars. Although its eyes are very red, this color is not always easy to spot in the field. Red-eyed Vireos are 6 inches long.
Males sway hypnotically before their mates when courting. Vireos build pendulant cup nests, placed in the fork of a tree branch low to the ground. Covered with fibers, spider webs, and lichens, they appear a sort of gray. Although these are well camouflaged in the summer, when fall comes one clearly sees the gray cups hanging in the woods. Red-eyed Vireos lay three or four white eggs that have a few dark spots.
The American Wood Warbler Family (Parulidae)
These warblers are so colorful and graceful that we regard them as the “butterflies” of the bird world. The American Wood Warbler Family includes 109 species, 56 in North America (as distinguished from Sylviidae—The Old World Warbler Family). In North America, only the finches are more numerous in the number of species. Warblers, Ovenbirds, Yellow-breasted Chats, Ground-chats, Redstarts, Waterthrushes, and Yellowthroats are all parulas. They have a thin, pick-ax-shaped bill and slender legs with long toes.
Yellow Warbler (Dendroica petechia)
Yellow Warblers regard a meadow with willows as their ideal terrain, but they are also frequenters of woods, orchards, and gardens. Where there is water, they will find insects, their exclusive food, excepting a very few berries. Yellow Warblers breed all over North America and winter in Mexico. A few live year-round in Southern California and southern Arizona. During migration they are apt to appear almost anywhere.
Viewed from a distance, the 5-inch-long Yellow Warbler male is all yellow. His very yellow breast has orange streaks (petechia means red spots on skin). His back is olive-yellow, and he has yellow spots on his tail. Females are a drabber yellow. Both have chubby little bodies and jet black eyes.
While attended to by males, Yellow Warbler females construct lovely and elaborate nests, located in the crotch of trees. The nests are made of grasses, down, and plant fibers, carefully covered with willow strips and gray plant fiber, bound with spiders’ silk or caterpillar webbing, then lined with plant down and hair. Yellow Warblers must be either very absorbed or very proud of this intricate craft, because observation by humans does not seem to bother them.
Unfortunately the nests are much admired by Cowbirds, too, who seek them out for their own eggs. However (as mentioned in the Cowbird description), Yellow Warblers are not often taken in by the parasitism and will recommence nest-building, right on top of the egg. They lay three to six glossy gray-green or blue-white eggs with blotches of pale brown in a circle around the large end.
The Yellow Warblers’ song changes but is always clear, rapid, and happy.
Common Yellowthroat (Geothlypis trichas)
“Common Yellowthroat,” although not a poetic name, aptly describes this bird, common throughout North America, except for northern Canada and Alaska during the summer. In the winter, it remains only in the southernmost parts of the United States and migrates into Mexico. A real warbler, the Common Yellowthroat repeats his scolding wichity over and over again, darting about in the brush not unlike a wren. Being an insect eater, it frequents watery wild habitats such as marshes, riparian thickets, and even mangroves. It is often found in cattails.
Both male and female have olive-brown backs and tails and yellow breasts. The male has a bold Zorrolike mask and a somewhat browner head than the female. Common Yellowthroats are about 5 inches long at maturity.
Common Yellowthroats spend most of their time close to the earth. Their cup nest is either on the ground or just a few feet above it. They use large leaves, grasses, and bark in its construction and sometimes line it with animal hair. Occasionally, Common Yellowthroats build a sort of overhang over one side to cover clutches of three to five creamy eggs with spots at the large end.
Ovenbird (Seiurus aurocapillus)
The genus name of the sprightly little Ovenbird means “shaky tail.” Charming as it is, the Ovenbird's little strut is infrequently seen. Nonetheless, we know the Ovenbird is there because we hear its crescendoing song—teacher, teacher, teacher—in the low branches of woodlands across North America in the summer. Ovenbirds winter along the Gulf coast of the United States, in northeast Mexico, and south into northwest South America.
The Ovenbird has a golden crown streaked with black; olive-brown back, wings, and tail; and a white-black streaked throat, cheeks, and breast. Its long legs, designed for walking in the forest, are pink. It is about 6 inches long.
In a slight depression in the forest floor, female Ovenbirds build a nest that looks like a Dutch oven. They include grasses, dead leaves, weeds, and rootlets in their construction. They lay three to six speckled white eggs. The nest opening in front looks like an open invitation to passing predators. Ovenbird eggs are much preyed upon by small mammals and snakes.
The Weaverbird Family (Ploceidae)
Weaverbirds are so named because most of the 260 species weave intricate nests that, relative to their size, are the largest nests of any bird. However, of the two weaverbird species found in the United States—the Eurasian Tree Sparrow and the House Sparrow—neither weaves remarkable nests. Weaverbird bills are short and conical, perfect seed-crackers.
House Sparrow (Passer domesticus)
Also known as the English Sparrow, the House Sparrow is no sparrow. It is a weaverbird. A Eurasian and African native, it was first introduced into America in 1851. Nicolas Pike, director of the Brooklyn Institute, released eight pairs in Brooklyn that did poorly. Two years later, he released a larger number that thrived. By 1940 House Sparrows’ range extended throughout the United States, at a rate far faster than the Starling.
House Sparrows are very chummy with humans. Some attribute their early success to the seeds they ate from vast quantities of horse dung. Cars put an end to this moveable feast and diminished House Sparrows’ numbers. House Sparrows continue to eat a great variety of insects, silage, and garbage.
About 6 inches long, House Sparrows, with their conical bill and buff-brown coloring, most resemble sparrows of the Finch Family. The males’ coloring is much more distinctive than sparrows, however. They have gray heads with black bibs, a russet nape, and a black streak across the eye. Females have no black bib. Their song varies from a loud cheep to chirping and twittering sounds.
House Sparrows love sex. The males scrape and bow around the female then mount her numerous times in succession. House Sparrows nest well in nest boxes, in natural tree hollows, and under eaves. Without a hollow, they will build a large domed structure outside. They pull all manner of nesting material into these chambers and secret away the eggs in a deeper chamber. House Sparrows lay about five tinted white eggs two or three times a year.
The Troupial Family (Icteridae)
So named because they gather in troops, the Troupial Family members are very diverse. Many of them, while proliferating, are not popular among humans because they compete with other birds. Troupials all have conical, sharp bills and narrow heads. Of the ninety-one species that live only in the Western Hemisphere, twenty-two are in North America.
Red-Winged Blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus)
The best known troupial is the Red-Winged Blackbird, the most abundant bird in North America. Most of the year it is found in nearly every state, and summers throughout the continent and north into Alaska. Winter flocks are enormous, in the millions. Crazy for cattail marshes, huge groups descend with a cacophony of ok-a-lee on cattails and other open areas with tall brush. Red-Winged Blackbirds can be distinguished from grackles by their rolling wave-type flight.
Male Red-Winged Blackbirds are just that—black with red wing epaulets banded in yellow. The red part of the wing is not always easily visible, except in flight. Females, with their responsibility for guarding the nest, are camouflaged, streaked brown and buff, like a big sparrow. Sometimes they have an orange throat. Red-Winged Blackbirds are close to 9 inches long and have black eyes. They eat a lot of insects in the spring and summer, then grains and seeds in the cooler months.
Migrating males arrive at nesting sites first, choose a territory, and await the females. Red-Winged Blackbirds are often polygynous. Red-Winged Blackbirds knit a cup of whatever plant fibers are in the area onto vegetation or sometimes directly on the ground. They lay three to five pale turquoise eggs with irregular dark lines, then, frequently, will furiously defend their nests against crows and birds of prey. Red-Winged Blackbirds lay two broods a season.
Common Grackle (Quiscalus quiscula)
People refer to Common Grackles with all the respect granted a scourge. They are a plentiful, aggressive species that can drive out sweeter birds. And they are never without one to several dozen of their relatives, even when nesting. These large flocks forage in woodlands, swamps, parks, and gardens. They eat everything, from insects, seeds, and grain to small reptiles. That their diet includes other birds’ eggs and young has not helped their reputation.
Although they are not a western or southwestern bird, they are numerous elsewhere, year-round in all but the most northern parts of the United States. There is some migration, but never too distant.
Common Grackles measure 12½
Grackles nest practically anywhere, even on the edges of larger birds’ nests. Their nests are messy but efficient masses of twigs, leaves, debris, and mud. They lay four to seven pale olive eggs that are streaked with brown.
Brewer's Blackbird (Euphagus cyanocephalus)
This troupial was named by Audubon after Dr. Thomas M. Brewer, a Boston physician, ornithologist, and oologist (person who studies eggs)—a man whose egg collection was the finest of his époque (late nineteenth century).
Brewer's Blackbirds are as ubiquitous on the West coast as Common Grackles are in the East. Both city and country dwellers, they like insects, insect larvae, seeds, and grains. They are year-round residents in California, Oregon, Washington, Nevada, and parts of Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, and Arizona. In the summer, some fly north into Canada and as far east as the Great Lakes. In the winter, Brewer's Blackbirds appear in huge flocks all over the southern United States, especially in farmland where they find a steady source of grains and seeds after harvest time.
The 9-inch-long birds would appear more lovely if they were not so numerous. Brewer's Blackbirds are an iridescent black with tints of purple, green, and blue. Like those of grackles, males’ eyes are bright yellow, the females’ darker. Their tail is shorter than a grackle's, and they walk about purposefully like any blackbird.
In the equine world, the mule is a well-known hybrid of breeding between a horse and a donkey. In the avian world, hybridization frequently occurs in captivity. In the wild, it is less common, but there are species that crossbreed regularly, such as certain warblers. Breakdown in habitat, according to experts, is the major cause of hybrid breeding, which has produced some fairly dramatic hybrids.
Brewer's Blackbirds nest in colonies. They make very tidy little bowls of twigs, grasses, and mud or cow dung, in which they lay three to seven pale green-gray eggs, spotted with darker olive. They sometimes lay two broods a season.
Bobolink (Dolichonyx oryzivorus)
Imagine a little flying skunk, sans stink, but with an irrepressibly joyful song. That's the Bobolink. Sadly, this lovely little bird is in serious jeopardy in our country. Because of diminishing grasslands, its numbers have declined by 90 percent in the Midwest and 25 percent throughout North America over the last thirty years.
Bobolinks make the longest migratory journey of any member of the Troupial Family. Starting 5,000 miles away in South America, they journey via the Eastern states to the northern United States and southern Canada.
Come spring, males arrive a few days ahead of the females. Strongly polygynous, they flutter around songfully above meadows and fields, seeming to burst with a several-phrased song that starts low and bubbles upward. The beginning sounds a bit like bob-o-link, bob-o-link. In addition to chasing females, males bow on the ground with their nape feathers up as part of their courtship.
Male Bobolinks are the only songbirds that are mostly white on their back and solid black below. They have a buff nape. Their tail feathers are very stiff and pointy like those of woodpeckers. Females resemble large House Sparrows in coloring (as do males after the postnuptial molt). Their feathers are mostly shades of brown with dark stripes running across the crown and down the back.
Bobolinks lay four to seven blotchy gray eggs in scrape nests made of nearby grasses. They site these in ruts left by farm machinery, but make sure they are carefully concealed in grass, weeds, or a crop. Males help care for the young.
Brown-Headed Cowbird (Molothrus ater)
Cowbirds are considered the rascals of American birds. Like the blackbird, they are a disgrace to the Troupial Family. Their ill-repute is pervasive. Even people who find it within themselves to love troupials as irritating as grackles frown on and even despise Cowbirds. Why? Because this North American Cowbird is a user.
No nest-builders, Cowbirds let other birds do their work for them while they continue mating and eating. Males glug-glug-glee through pastures, seducing as many females as they can accommodate. Cowbirds’ polygyny expands their numbers throughout their seven-year-plus lifespan.
Despite the bad rap Cowbirds get from humans, Cowbirds get along fine with cows. Some people refer to them as cow buntings, others as lazy-birds. Cowbirds used to be called buffalo birds, back when buffalo were the prevailing North American bovine. The introduction of ranching increased the number and range of Cowbirds to such an extent that they now represent a significant environmental menace and major threat to the survival of any species it parasitizes. It occupies most of our continent north to the Arctic.
Cowbirds snatch up insects disturbed by grazing cattle and pluck ticks right off buffalo, cow, horse, and even mule skin. They also eat weevils, snails, caterpillars, and beetles and put away a fair quantity of corn, grain seeds, and berries. Seven or eight inches, bill to tail, the males have a coppery brown hood with a metallic purple-black body. Females are grayish brown.
Fecund female Cowbirds steal into the nests of other birds to lay an egg, usually just before dawn when the birds who have labored hard and long to build the nests are out for breakfast. Each lays an average of five eggs willy-nilly, not even in the same nest. Though speckled brown and oval, the eggs are uneven in every other respect, differing in size and color, even in the same brood. Cowbirds prefer the nests of birds whose eggs are smaller than theirs, but will use the nests of as many as 195 other species.
Once host birds discover their inheritance, they charitably brood the whopper Cowbird egg as though it were their own. The Cowbird incubation period is most often shorter than that of the hosts’ eggs, so the Cowbirdling already has the jump on its foster siblings from the start. Most hosts’ munificence knows no bounds, and they are just as quick to feed the Cowbird as they were to sit on it.
Cowbirds eat just about anything, and nestlings are not shy about begging, not just from their foster parents but from any passing bird. Theirs is an open-mouthed policy. Hence, Cowbird babies double their size the first day after hatching. They are masters at eating more than their share, much to the detriment of the eggs and babies who actually belong there. Sometimes the foster parents’ own eggs rot from neglect, so busy is the bird tending to the demanding Cowbird nestling. If the Cowbird nestling does not throw the eggs out of the nest, the parents do.
Eastern bluebirds are the most victimized recipients of Cowbird eggs, a fact that contributes greatly to Cowbird disgrace. Not all foster parents that receive Cowbird eggs react so unwittingly. Red-eyed Vireos and Yellow Warblers are not sucked into this role. Sounding an alarm note, the Yellow Warbler will build another nest on top of the egg, repeating this as many times as it takes to discourage the Cowbird.
Why and how Cowbirds became so parasitic is a mystery. Their opportunistic methods, while neither warm nor exemplary, serve the continuation of their species.
Eastern Meadowlark (Sturnella magna)
The Eastern Meadowlark shows long-legged, sharp-witted adaptations to its prairie lifestyle. It parades about like a quail, looking over the waving grasses for predators and prey alike. Its sharp bill and eye positions are perfect for locating various kinds of insects. Meadowlarks feeding on weevils, caterpillars, and cutworms are a welcome presence on a farm. When insects become scarce in winter, these resourceful prairie inhabitants will also eat grain and the fruit remaining in orchards.
Its range extends from the Southwest eastward, and north into Canada in the summer. When migrating, males usually arrive two weeks earlier than females to establish their territory.
Eastern Meadowlarks are 8 to 11 inches long with a 13 to 17 inch wingspread. Their backs are dull brown with mottled black for camouflage in the grasslands. The vibrant yellow chests with a black V under the throat make a showy display for attracting females. When they take flight, there is a flash of white at the tailtips.
The Eastern Meadowlark male is a great advertiser of his chosen terrain, which is usually about seven acres. He belts out his delightful song from a high perch. Polygynous, he may attract several females into his meadow harem.
Eastern Meadowlarks’ cup nests are like little straw caves. Built of grasses and plant stems in damp depressions on the ground (sometimes a hoofprint from cattle or horses), they position themselves under a dome of curved grass. Instead of flying directly into the nests—which would alert predators—Eastern Meadowlarks land some way away and walk to them. They lay about five pale pink eggs, spotted with lavender and brown, in two broods. The female tends the nest and may make slight chortling sounds when she hears the flight song of the male.
Western Meadowlark (Sturnella neglecta)
Naturalists with the Lewis and Clark expedition into the Northwest overlooked the Western Meadowlark because it so greatly resembles the Eastern Meadowlark and shares some of the same range. It was later named “neglecta.”
The Western Meadowlark's distribution—across southern Canada from the West to Ontario, southward to Baja California—is somewhat more limited than the Eastern Meadowlark. It prefers the plains and foothills but has been found at elevations up to 12,000 feet in the Southwest.
Though the same size, the Western Meadowlark is lighter in color than its eastern cousin. Careful listeners will note the distinction between their two songs. The Western male's song is more melodious, with flute tones. He too uses his song to broadcast his dominion from posts, fences, and tall weeds. Western Meadowlarks have the same purposeful strut on long limbs, poking for insects, spiders, and grain as they go. Their nest construction is the same as that of the Eastern Meadowlark, except Western Meadowlarks prefer dry ground. They, too, lay four to five pale lavender-pink eggs, mottled with browns and lavender. Despite all their similarities, the two species do not interbreed.
The Finch Family (Fringillidae)
The Finch Family—including sparrows, finches, buntings, grosbeaks, and cardinals—is the largest family in North America, numbering ninety-one species. Several species do not breed here.
Finches have real seed-cracking beaks. They are conical and very strong, with the cutting edge angled at the base. But there is considerable variation in shape, the most dramatic being crossbills whose beaks overlap at the tips. Mostly, they sing from perches.
Fringillids are not colonial nesters, and monogamous pairs are quite territorial during the spring and summer. But they do flock considerably during winter. Females usually build the nest, incubate the eggs, and brood the young. Males feed the females while they incubate the eggs.
Rufous-Sided Towhee (Pipilo erythrophthalmus)
Highly successful, Rufous-Sided Towhees are common in many habitats. We find them throughout the United States (except Oklahoma and part of Texas) in the summer—both in the city and in the country. They like parks, sagebrush, and pastures. They are not fussy as long as there are insects, seeds, and fruit.
Sometimes confused with Robins, Rufous-Sided Towhees have a white area on their breast between the rufous coloring under their wings and tail. Males have a near-black head, wings and back, and a tail with white tips. Females are more brown.
Under the cover of shrubs, females usually build their nest on the ground using plant matter and lining it with hair if available. They lay three or four speckled eggs twice a year.
Song Sparrow (Melospize melodia)
So melodious is our native Song Sparrow's song that its first three notes have been compared to the first three notes of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. Henry David Thoreau interpreted those notes as: “Maids! Maids! Maids!” followed by “Hang up your tea kettle-ettle-ettle.” Both genders are great songsters, the male most soul while marking its territory against rivals. He fluffs his feathers, then raises and lowers one or both of his wings, at once uttering a few long notes, followed by shorter ones and trills.
They are year-round residents across the middle and north into northwest North America, some summering in the northern states and Canada, others wintering in the South. Song Sparrows are well known throughout the United States and have adapted well to urban areas. Loving seeds and small insects, these lively little birds seek out weedy areas and brush in city, town, and country and everywhere in between.
There is some color variation depending on location; Song Sparrows are darker in northern climes and lighter in southern. They are generally mottled brown above, with streaks of dark brown on the head, breast, and back. Song Sparrows are distinguished by the large dark spot on their breast. They are approximately 5 to 7 inches long with an 8-inch wingspan. The Song Sparrow's flight is distinctive; it pumps its long, rounded tail up and down.
Song Sparrows make their woven cup nests on or near the ground in thickets. They lay three to six eggs in a clutch, pale green in color with russet or lilac spots. Since they may raise as many as three broods a season, males often fledge one set of hatchlings while the female incubates the next clutch.
Chipping Sparrow (Spizella passerina)
The Chipping Sparrow sings chip, chip, chip throughout the day but always at the same pitch. The individual note or dry trill, though not melodious, is a cheerful reminder of its presence.
The Chipping Sparrow is a common backyard visitor because it loves seed, especially grass seed, and also eats insects and spiders. This polite little bird is among the easiest to tame for backyard birders. It will eventually even eat from one's hand. The “chippie” summers all over North America. In the winter it is found only in the South.
Chippies are lighter than Song Sparrows but about the same length, 5 inches with an 8-inch wingspan. Its back is brown and dark brown, its breast pale gray. The forked tail is pointed at the ends. The broad white mask with a black streak over its eyes is unmistakable. In the spring and summer it sports a bright rufous cap and black bill.
Chipping Sparrows weave a cup nest of rootlets, grasses, and horsehairs if they are to be found. Nests are most often situated on a lower limb of an evergreen. Chipping Sparrows usually lay four pale mottled eggs in a clutch. The male feeds the female at the nest while she incubates the eggs for up to two weeks. Their lifespan is short, averaging only two or three years.
Savannah Sparrow (Passerculus sandwichensis)
The Savannah Sparrow, although closely approximating a Song Sparrow, is short-tailed and streaked with dark brown. It has a white band running through its crown and paler legs, and sports a light yellow shadow above its eyes. Some have a small spot on the bosom like a Song Sparrow, but their tail is longer and slightly pointed at each side. They grow up to about 6½ inches.
Feeding on seeds and insects, Savannah Sparrows hop about in the grass. When disturbed, they will dart through the grass, either on foot or in short flight. Because of these movements they are sometimes called “grasshopper sparrows.” Savannah Sparrows have a soft lisp of a trill, a series of tpsit's, with a lower last note that sounds much like an insect.
Scientists have traced the first subspecies of the Savannah Sparrow to a place named Sandwich in the Aleutians, but it is named after Savannah, Georgia, where it was discovered in the nineteenth century. This gives an idea of its range. They are abundant all over North America, in many different types of habitats, from the high mountain meadows to fields to coastland marshes. They winter in the United States, mostly in southerly states and along the coast of California, then summer throughout the northern continent north to the Yukon. With such a wide range, there are inevitable color variations. These finches do not flock much.
Savannah Sparrows’ cup nests are found in clumps of grass or moss and in depressions in the ground where there are overhanging bushes or other foliage. They are sometimes lined with hair. Savannah Sparrows lay four or five spotted or blotched eggs.
White-Throated Sparrow (Zonotrichia albicollis)
The White-Throated Sparrow is larger than most sparrows, up to 7 inches long. Its more stocky-looking body tends to a more upright posture than some sparrows’. This sparrow has a markedly white throat and a gray breast, striped black and white crown, and yellow areas from the eyes toward the bill, which is gray-black.
The White-Throated Sparrow can tolerate lower temperatures. It summers across the woodlands of south and central Canada, then winters primarily in the dense brush of the Northeast, East, and Midwest, but also into Utah, Colorado, and New Mexico from as far north as Canada south to Mexico. In winter there is a California contingent, separated by the Rockies from other White-Throated Sparrows.
This species is a real whistler, with one or two clear notes followed by three quavering ones in a different pitch. It is an easy song to imitate, and birders have much success in luring White-Throated Sparrows from the ground with similar whistles. They appear only in small flocks. Seed and insect eaters, they spend a lot of time scratching around on the ground.
They favor the coniferous forests and marsh areas for nesting. The females build their cup nests on the ground or in low brush, made of grass and rootlets nestled under other vegetation. They lay four or five speckled eggs, usually just once a year.
Vesper Sparrow (Pooecetes gramineus)
In nesting season, Vesper Sparrows sing all day long. That they continue singing at twilight earned them their name. Although Vesper Sparrows spend most of their time on or near the ground, the male will sing from the highest perch in sight to attract a mate and define his territory. His song is lovely, with two minor notes, then two higher notes, followed by descending trills.
Vesper Sparrows are crazy about dust baths, and sometimes so fond of dusty rutted roads that they will roost there.
Sparrows of many varieties are highly abundant and successful in North America. This, coupled with the close resemblance among species, has led some bird watchers to refer to them en masse as LBJ's, or “little brown jobs.”
Vesper Sparrows summer in southern Canada and the northern United States, East coast to West coast, and winter in the South, particularly along the Gulf coast. They like low-cut grassy areas where they can hop about to get at beetles, moths, and other insects, as well as weed seeds and grain.
Vesper Sparrows find a bare patch on the ground under bent weeds for their nest. There they lay three to five pale, spotted eggs two or three times a season. Six inches long, the Vesper Sparrow is grayish brown and streaked brown on its back, wings, and notched tail feathers. One sees white outer tail feathers when it flies. A white eye ring also distinguishes it. It has a buff-white breast with a russet patch at the base of the wing.
Field Sparrow (Spizella pusilla)
The tiny 5½-inch-long Field Sparrow has a distinctive pink bill but is otherwise delicately toned in comparison with its more dramatically striped fellow sparrows. It has a russet crown and back, black flecks, and white wing bands. The buff rings around its eyes give it a blank expression.
Less widespread than many sparrows, the Field Sparrow is an East coast and Midwest bird. Its range ends at the Rockies. It does not migrate much, except from the northernmost part of the
United States in the winter and Florida, Texas, and Louisiana in the summer. When migrating, Field Sparrows make what can be harrowing passages in small flocks at night, sometimes hitting wires and buildings.
Seed, insect, and berry eaters, they favor weedy fields, brush piles, and farmlands. They are more shy about humans than most sparrows. Delineating its territory, the male Field Sparrow begins its song with two slurred plaintiff notes, then speeds into a trill as it flits busily from bush to bush. The female builds a hair and rootlet-lined cup nest in low thickets or on the ground, where it lays four or five pale speckled eggs up to four times a season.
Dickcissel (Spiza americana)
Although Dickcissels look a bit like chunky little meadowlarks, they belt out a much different tune. In the summer, one hears the males’ noisy dick, ciss, ciss, ciss from every perching place in the grain belt. Huge flocks of them fan out through the West, North, and East from the Mississippi into mid-America. Like sparrows, the Dickcissel likes pastures where it dines on seeds and insects. This species has suffered greatly from diminishing pastureland. Dickcissels prefer warm weather, and flee en masse to Mexico and northern South America for the winter. There, flocks grow into the tens of thousands.
These birds, 6 to 7 inches long, have a yellow breast and eye stripe, gray head and rump, and brown and black back and wing markings, together with a russet wing bend. Unlike meadowlarks, they have no white markings on their tails. Their bills have a blue hue. Males have a black bib that disappears by fall. Females closely resemble female House Sparrows but have a russet patch at the base of the wings.
Their breeding territories change from year to year. The males arrive first, determine their domain, and sing like crazy. Ten days later the females arrive, and nest-building begins. They lay three to five pale blue eggs in a cup nest, fashioned of grass, in weeds or on the ground. Farm equipment sometimes destroys casually sited nests.
Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis)
Northern Cardinals are spreading their color and songful cheer ever farther into the continent. They are presently permanent residents across much of the United States and north into Canada in the East, where they are many people's most popular songbird. Their range does not include the Northern Rockies or Sierras, the Northeast, Nevada, or Southern California. They favor berry-filled undergrowth and find it in the country and city.
Like the high cardinals of the Roman Catholic Church, Northern Cardinal males wear lush red. Both males and females have a plucky-looking crest that more resembles a pope's miter. Whereas the male is a showy red, the female is browner with a paler breast, and a hint of red on the bib and crown. Up to 9 inches long, both have a black face and pink bill once they mature.
Northern Cardinals are wonderful singers and sing throughout the year. Their deep slurred whistle may sound like what cheer, cheer, cheer, although there are almost thirty variations. Northern Cardinal males are jealously territorial, picking a fight even with their own image in a hubcap or window. They are also very attentive mates, chivalrously offering their females food. They hop about, looking for beetles and seeds, especially sunflower seeds, but they will also eat fruit and sometimes spiders and invertebrates. They drink maple sap from holes made by sapsuckers.
The Northern Cardinal female makes a loosely constructed nest of plant fibers, twigs, and rootlets, nestled in dense shrubs. It lays three to four pale eggs, speckled with brown. Cardinals may have as many as four broods per season. The male cares for the first brood while the female incubates the next hatch.
Indigo Bunting (Passerina cyanea)
No one enjoys a landscape interrupted by powerlines … except Indigo Buntings. Indigo Buntings do not just roost on the powerlines, they subsist in the clearings powerlines run through, poking around for food in the low growth. Young plants harbor their diet of insects (in any stage of development), spiders, and seeds. In addition, you'll find Indigo Buntings in open clearings like parks, second-growth areas, and fields. They fan out over the eastern half of the United States in summer, including an area from Missouri extending into central Texas.
Unlike most finches, Indigo Buntings can sing while in flight. Throughout a summer day they will sing a series of high-pitched calls of sweet-sweet, where-where.
During breeding, Indigo Bunting males are just that—indigo—with dark black feathers surrounding the bill. Their lower bill is white. Females are a buff-brown with black feather streaks on the wings and tail. They have a light beige breast with rusty flecks around the neck. They are small, only 5½ inches long.
The female weaves a shallow cup nest of plant materials in the crotch of a sapling, or buried in dense brush. She lays three to six light blue eggs that hatch in twelve to thirteen days.
The Indigo Bunting's range overlaps with the Lazuli Bunting's, which it greatly resembles. It has been known to hybridize with the Lazuli Bunting.
Lark Bunting (Calamospiza melancorys)
Like larks (and Indigo Buntings), Lark Bunting males zoom off the ground into flight singing. Their song might be cardinal-like slurs, chugs, or clear piping or trilling. The call note is hooo-eee.
Lark Buntings breed on America's prairies, from southern Canada south to eastern New Mexico, where they find bugs, seeds, and grains. They winter in the Southwest south into central Mexico. They are seen less frequently on the East coast. In the last thirty years, their numbers have dwindled by over half, probably due to diminishing grasslands in the Midwest.
A small (6 to 7 ½ inches) bird, males are sometimes mistaken for Bobolinks in the spring due to their deep slate color and the white patch on their wings. Unlike Bobolinks, they have a black rather than white back. Females are gray-brown on the back and almost white-breasted with streaks. In the fall, the males’ coloring is much the same.
In migration, each Lark Bunting rotates in position. This constant shifting makes the flock appear to roll. They scatter when breeding, but will tolerate proximity with other pairs. Lark Buntings nest in a depression on the ground. Their nests are loosely constructed arrangements of plant fibers lined with plant down and hair. They lay four or five pale turquoise eggs, which may be speckled with rust.
House Finch (Carpodacus mexicanus)
Only introduced to the East coast of America in the 1940s, this pleasant little songster now thrives there year-round, except in the Mississippi Delta where it only winters. It has also adapted well to the area from Wyoming south through west Texas and west to the Pacific. It is not found in the Great Plains region. House Finches like to live near humans, enjoying feeders whenever possible. Their diet is predominantly weed seeds. They eat insects during nesting. Both the male and female are sparrowlike in coloring, but the male has blacker striped flanks, wings, and tail. His forehead, breast, and rump are rosy in the East and more orange in the West. The House Finch's tail is squared off. It measures 6 inches.
Their nests are bulky cups, fashioned of grass and bark. House Finches are not too picky about siting, having had success in conifers, backyard shrubs, tree cavities, cactus, and even tin cans on fence posts. They lay four to five speckled blue-white eggs.
American Goldfinch (Carduelis tristis)
America's “wild canary” fills the air with its high-pitched su-wee song. The call is sad—tristis meaning sad in Latin. The American Goldfinch is found throughout the United States, year-round in more temperate regions. It summers north into Canada and winters in the warmer regions. American Goldfinches are at home in many habitats where seeds, especially thistle, are abundant. (Carduelis comes from carduus, Latin for thistle.)
During breeding season, the male is vibrant yellow and wears a black cap and white-striped black wings and tail. The female is two shades of olive, which the male's coloring more approximates once breeding season is over. When viewed from the back, the wings and tail appear black and white striped. American Goldfinches are 5 inches long.
Flocks zoom up and down over fields, each dip punctuated by tee-dee-di-di. In late spring, flocks break up and the males commence singing a sustained canarylike song. Several pairs may share a territory. American Goldfinches know a soft nesting material when they spy one, and will wait to nest until they can line their cups with downy thistle seeds. They position their nests in the forks of bush branches. Commonly, American Goldfinches lay five very pale blue eggs.