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FIFTY COMMON BIRDS OF


THE UPPER MIDWEST

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A Bur Oak Book

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FIFTY
COMMON BIRDS
OF THE UPPER MIDWEST
Watercolors by Dana Gardner
Text by Nancy Overcott

UNIVERSITY OF IOWA PRESS


IOWA CITY

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University of Iowa Press, Iowa City 52242


Copyright 2006 by the University of Iowa Press
http://www.uiowa.edu/uiowapress
All rights reserved
Printed in the United States of America
Design by Omega Clay
No part of this book may be reproduced or used in any form or by any means
without permission in writing from the publisher. All reasonable steps have
been taken to contact copyright holders of material used in this book. The
publisher would be pleased to make suitable arrangements with any whom it
has not been possible to reach.
The University of Iowa Press is a member of Green Press Initiative and is committed to preserving natural resources.
Printed on acid-free paper
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Gardner, Dana.
Fifty common birds of the upper Midwest / watercolors by Dana Gardner;
text by Nancy Overcott.
p. cm.(A Bur oak book)
Includes bibliographical references (p. ) and index.
ISBN 0-87745-983-5 (cloth)
1. BirdsMiddle West. I. Title: 50 common birds of the upper Midwest.
II. Overcott, Nancy. III. Title. IV. Series.
QL 683. M 55 G 37 2006 2005053838
598'.0977dc22
06 07 08 09 10 c 5 4 3 2 1

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Dedicated to
ALEXANDER F. SKUTCH

and JOHAN C. HVOSLEF

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CONTENTS

xi

INTRODUCTION

Wood Duck
Ruffed Grouse
Wild Turkey
Great Blue Heron
Turkey Vulture
Bald Eagle
Sharp-shinned Hawk
Red-tailed Hawk
American Kestrel
Killdeer
American Woodcock
Mourning Dove
Black-billed Cuckoo
Eastern Screech-Owl
Barred Owl
Whip-poor-will
Ruby-throated Hummingbird
Belted Kingfisher
Red-bellied Woodpecker
Downy Woodpecker
Northern Flicker
Pileated Woodpecker
Eastern Phoebe
Eastern Kingbird
Red-eyed Vireo
Blue Jay
Tree Swallow
Barn Swallow
Black-capped Chickadee
Tufted Titmouse

Aix sponsa
Bonasa umbellus
Meleagris gallopavo
Ardea herodias
Cathartes aura
Haliaeetus leucocephalus
Accipiter striatus
Buteo jamaicensis
Falco sparverius
Charadrius vociferus
Scolopax minor
Zenaida macroura
Coccyzus erythropthalmus
Otus asio
Strix varia
Caprimulgus vociferus
Archilochus colubris
Ceryle alcyon
Melanerpes carolinus
Picoides pubescens
Colaptes auratus
Dryocopus pileatus
Sayornis phoebe
Tyrannus tyrannus
Vireo olivaceus
Cyanocitta cristata
Tachycineta bicolor
Hirundo rustica
Poecile atricapilla
Baeolophus bicolor

1
3
5
7
9
11
13
15
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19
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25
27
29
31
33
35
37
39
41
43
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47
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51
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White-breasted Nuthatch
House Wren
Ruby-crowned Kinglet
Eastern Bluebird
American Robin
Gray Catbird
Cedar Waxwing
American Redstart
Ovenbird
Eastern Towhee
Field Sparrow
Song Sparrow
White-throated Sparrow
Northern Cardinal
Rose-breasted Grosbeak
Indigo Bunting
Bobolink
Red-winged Blackbird
Baltimore Oriole
American Goldfinch
RECOMMENDED READING
BASIC FIELD GUIDES TO BIRDS
INDEX

Sitta carolinensis
Troglodytes aedon
Regulus calendula
Sialia sialis
Turdus migratorius
Dumetella carolinensis
Bombycilla cedrorum
Setophaga ruticilla
Seiurus aurocapillus
Pipilo erythrophthalmus
Spizella pusilla
Melospiza melodia
Zonotrichia albicollis
Cardinalis cardinalis
Pheucticus ludovicianus
Passerina cyanea
Dolichonyx oryzivorus
Agelaius phoeniceus
Icterus galbula
Carduelis tristis

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67
69
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75
77
79
81
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85
87
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95
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99
101
103
105

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INTRODUCTION

Whenever we think we have nothing more to learn about the black-capped chickadee, it
surprises us with a new acrobatic trick. A blue jay fixes its eyes on the vertical peanut butter log, tries several times to land on it, and finally succeeds in exhibiting a new skill. A
cardinal, whose behaviors we think we know well, astonishes us when he pokes food
down the throat of a young chipping sparrow. Fifty Common Birds of the Upper Midwest is a
celebration of these and other birds, whose ubiquitous presence offers good opportunities for intimate observation, which makes them a joy to watch no matter how often we
see them.
Inspiration for this book came from the realization that artist Dana Gardner and I have
had the opportunity to observe the avian world through circumstances that are not
available to many people and that we might have a different sort of perspective to offer.
We have coexisted with birds, heard their songs from within our houses, felt their feathery touches when bringing them food, been among them by merely stepping out of our
doors or walking through the woods and fields that surrounded us.
Our purpose is not to tell you all there is to know about a particular species but to
present a sketch of each bird that will give you a feeling for its personality and the way it
lives its life. For this purpose, we use personal anecdotes and information drawn from our
own research, supplemented by other peoples stories and data gathered from books to
portray each species as it goes from nestling to fledgling, to adult and breeding bird;
from its habitat, food, and foraging methods to its migration patterns and distribution;
from the sounds it makes to the way it looks when perched and in flight. Conservation
status and causes for declining or increasing populations are also discussed.
Our stories and paintings may reflect your own impressions, tell you something new,
encourage closer looks, or provide insights to the lives of less common birds. We hope
they will inspire interest in habitat preservation.

Danas life among the birds began at the age of seven, when he and his family moved to
the village of Lanesboro in southeast Minnesota. He remembers sneaking up on ruffed
grouse that were drumming behind his house and listening to the barred owls that frequented his yard. His birdwatching hobby coincided with the development of his artistic
abilities. As a child, he constructed elaborate zoos filled with birds and other animals he
made from modeling clay. Later, he painted the birds he saw in the woods and limestone
bluffs along the South Branch of the Root River, which runs through Lanesboro.

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After studying biology at the University of Minnesota, Dana was drafted into the army
and stationed in the Panama Canal Zone, where he turned his talents to painting tropical
birds. There he met the American ornithologist Alexander Skutch, who invited him to his
home in Costa Rica and eventually asked him to illustrate his books. A close friendship
ensued that lasted until Skutchs death in 2004, just before his one hundredth birthday.
We have dedicated our book to Skutch as a tribute to this friendship and in memory of
the man, who lived gently on the land and whose contributions to ornithology are recognized worldwide.
My interest in birds began when I moved with my husband to the Big Woods, an area
south of Lanesboro reputed for its Ozarks-like culture and abundant wildlife. The birds
around my new home quickly captured my attention. Before long, I began taking a notebook on my daily walks to record my observations, a practice that has continued for
more than twenty years.
I have also explored much of Minnesota, Iowa, and Wisconsin with Carol Schumacher
and Fred Lesher, who are known all over the Midwest for their birdwatching skills, popular field trips, and conservation efforts. Carol has participated in breeding bird surveys
throughout Minnesota and no one surpasses Freds familiarity with the Upper Mississippi
River country. Both friends have enriched my experience in the field.
Someone who not only provided me with an exceptional opportunity to learn about
birdlife at the turn of the last century but was also an important resource for this book is
Johan C. Hvoslef, a Lanesboro naturalist, whose journals I transcribed for the Minnesota
Department of Natural Resources. His daily accounts of the species he saw from 1881 to
1918 have given Fillmore County the best historical records of avian life in Minnesota. In
honor of Hvoslefs contributions, we have included him in our dedication.
All of these experiences converged during Danas visits to Lanesboro, when we benefited from each others knowledge while hiking through our favorite places, his on the
north side of town, mine on the south. Together, we have made some unusual finds, such
as a short-eared owl and Henslows sparrow, but have never tired of seeing the more
abundant species.

Nearly three hundred species are common in the Upper Midwest. Until we actually sat
down to do it, we didnt realize how difficult it would be to select only fifty. We solved
the problem, in part, by concentrating on inhabitants of the forests and grasslands
surrounding Lanesboro, where our love of birds began. In spite of finding a way to narrow
our choices, we still had to exclude many familiar species, some of which deserve mention.
Among the raptors, we chose one eagle, one accipiter, one buteo, one falcon, and two
common owls. That meant leaving out such species as the northern harrier that hovers

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over our fields in summer, the rough-legged hawk that hovers over our fields in winter,
the peregrine falcon, returning from the edge of extinction, and the great horned owl, a
fierce and abundant predator.
We selected the killdeer and the American woodcock because they are the only
shorebirds we regularly see in fields and forest thickets. However, an occasional solitary
or spotted sandpiper will bob up and down and poke its bill into mud by one of our
shaded creeks or farm ponds. A Wilsons snipe may also flush from one of these areas.
Neither of us was willing to exclude the whip-poor-will, regardless of the fact that its
relative, the common nighthawk with its buzzy electrical sound and white wingbars, occurs more often. We reluctantly decided against chimney swifts in spite of the spectacular sight they offer when flying down Lanesboro chimneys to roost at night.
The inclusion of five woodpeckers was an indulgence, but even then we had trouble
leaving out the red-headed woodpecker, now a species of special concern, and the yellow-bellied sapsucker that drills rows of small holes in trees to collect sap and insects. Of
the flycatchers, only the eastern phoebe and the eastern kingbird are portrayed, but we
could just as well have chosen the eastern wood-pewee that graces the woods during
breeding season with its plaintive peeaweee song or one of the Empidonax flycatchers, very
small birds that are difficult to identify because they look so much alike.
Yellow-throated and blue-headed vireos are discussed with the red-eyed vireo, but we
were sorry to leave out the warbling vireo whose monotonous warble is an integral part
of riparian woodlands. Among the Corvidae, only the American crow and blue jay are
regular here. Both are known for their cleverness, noisy vocalizations, and furtive behavior. We chose the blue jay because it is easily observable at feeders. Tree and barn
swallows were selected for their beauty, but northern rough-winged swallows are also
abundant here as are cliff swallows, whose mud nests decorate our barns, bridges, and
limestone bluffs.
Although the brown creeper, a little creature that looks like bark and crawls up trunks
of trees in search of insects, is the only member of its family in North America, we reluctantly decided against it. Likewise for the small blue-gray gnatcatcher that builds a delicate nest in the treetops and whose relatives all live in warmer climates.
We included the house wren because it is the most familiar bird in its family. Not included are sedge and marsh wrens, which look like each other and whose names fit their
habitats. Winter wrens, whose tinkling songs and hiccup-like call notes we usually hear
only during migration, were also excluded.
Robins and eastern bluebirds, the most beloved of the thrushes, had to be part of this
book. That meant leaving out the wood thrush and veery whose brown backs, spotted
breasts, and habits of foraging on the forest floor make them difficult to see but whose
haunting flutelike songs echo through our woodlands in spring, summer, and fall. Of the
mimidae, the gray catbird won out over the brown thrasher, which is declining in popula-

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tion. Both birds mimic other species, but neither equals the mimicking capacity of the
northern mockingbird, which is a permanent resident in Iowa and states farther south.
What to do about the warblers: More than thirty species of these small, elaborately
plumaged insectivores occur in our region, and we had room for only two. We would
have liked to portray all of those that nest in our area, such as the lovely blue-winged
warbler with its buzzy two-part song; the yellow warbler that sings sweet, sweet, sweet, Im
so sweet and sometimes builds new floors in its nest to cover up eggs of the parasitic cowbird; or the common yellowthroat that sings wichity, wichity, wichity along roadsides all
summer long.
The sparrows presented a similar problem. We arbitrarily chose four, regrettably excluding such others as chipping sparrows, tame little birds that often nest in gardens and
parks; savannah sparrows, who sing their names in open fields and meadows; and darkeyed juncos, the gray and white snowbirds that winter in the Midwest and congregate
around feeders.
Two blackbird species that we did not select deserve mention. Eastern and western
meadowlarks, with their bright yellow throats and bellies, used to sing their beautiful warbling songs from every fence post. Now, due to significant loss of their grassland habitat,
both species are in decline and we see them only now and then.
A blackbird that we considered, but decided against because we did not wish to celebrate it, is the invasive brown-headed cowbird. Once an inhabitant of the West where it
foraged for seeds and insects on open ground or the backs of bison, the cowbird expanded across the entire country with the rise in cattle farming, increase in waste grains,
and clearing of forests. This species never makes its own nest but lays its eggs in the nests
of other birds, thus contributing to the decline of those it parasitizes. Forest-dwelling migrants, including most warblers and vireos, some flycatchers, thrushes, and sparrows, and
the rose-breasted grosbeak, are particularly vulnerable to cowbird predation due to the
fragmentation of woodland habitat, which forces them to nest closer to forest edges.
Certain species, such as robins and catbirds, recognize the foreign eggs and eject them
from the nest, but many others incubate the eggs and raise the interlopers at the expense
of their own young.
Of the small finches, the purple finch and pine siskin visit our feeders in winter. The
house finch, native to the Southwest and released by pet shop owners in the East, has
now spread throughout the country. We decided, however, to end our book on a bright
yellow note with the American goldfinch, whose cheerful presence we enjoy all year long.

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FIFTY COMMON BIRDS OF


THE UPPER MIDWEST

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Wood Duck
Aix sponsa

Every spring, the squeal and splash of water as a wood duck pair rises out of the creek
near my house startle me and I think, Oh yes, youre back, I remember you. I usually dont anticipate their arrival, which is surprising because it seems as if one should look forward to
the sight of the richly, almost garishly colored male. I wonder what evolutionary trail led
to its extravagant plumage. The female, in subdued tones of brown and gray, is notable
for her large, white, teardrop-shaped eye patch.
Sometimes I find a pair swimming placidly in the creek, but more often they hear me
coming and the females squeal is the first I know of their presence. The male has a soft,
rising whistle that I dont usually hear. I always feel guilty for disturbing them, especially
when I walk farther upstream and find them calmly swimming only to be disrupted by me
again.
Wood ducks begin courtship on their wintering grounds in the southeastern states. Females show strong nest site fidelity, usually returning to the same site every spring. Since
males follow their mates to the nesting range, the length of their migration varies depending on their mates chosen sites. Their breeding habitat includes shade-protected inland
lakes, ponds, slow-moving rivers, and swamps in deciduous or mixed forests. A very small
body of water can suffice. Dana Gardner once showed me ten chicks following their mother through vegetation in a normally dry area that was wet from recent heavy rains.
Nests are in cavities of large trees, two to sixty-five feet above ground, sometimes in
the abandoned cavities of other species such as the barred owl. Incubating the nine to
fourteen eggs and tending the young for five to six weeks after hatching fall completely
to the females, who often lay their eggs in each others nests. The morning after hatching,
ducklings climb with their sharp claws to the edge of the cavity, brace themselves with
their tails, and jump to the ground.
More than any other duck, this species is a woodland bird, often perching in trees and
venturing away from water to eat nuts and insects. In water, it feeds on the surface, eating aquatic plants, seeds, insects, and crustaceans.
During the late nineteenth century, excessive hunting and the loss of large trees drove
the once abundant species near to extinction. In the 1920s, legal protection and the
placement of boxes in which the ducks readily nest led to a good recovery.
Although I sometimes see a mallard or a blue-winged teal in a farm pond, wood ducks
are the only ducks I see regularly near my home in the woods. Regardless of how many
times I see them, though, the females squeal and accompanying splash of water as a pair
rises out of the creek startle me.

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Ruffed Grouse
Bonasa umbellus

From my porch, I saw something fluttering on a log in the woods. Looking closer, I discovered a chicken-size bird with its crest and neck ruffs raised, fanning its tail and rapidly
beating its wings. I felt, more than heard, the low accelerating drumming sound, like the
beating of a heart, coming from the wings of the ruffed grouse. I hear the sound daily in
spring, but this was the first time I had caught the bird in the act.
In early March, the male grouse establishes a territory for courtship displays. When a
female hears the drumming, she enters the territory and mating occurs. One male may
mate with several females, who then build nests by lining depressions in the ground with
leaves, grass, and feathers. One spring, a grouse built a nest in which she laid ten eggs on
the edge of our driveway. She and the nest blended so well with the surroundings that we
wouldnt have known she was there if she hadnt flushed every time we drove past.
Incubation is by the female alone and lasts about twenty-three days. The young are
precocial; that is, they leave the nest soon after hatching. In contrast, songbirds are altricial; they hatch featherless and blind and dont usually fledge for about two weeks. The
mother grouse leads her babies to food but they feed themselves, eating mostly insects
at first. I have sometimes come upon a mother that whines and plays the broken-wing
trick to distract me from her babies, who scurry in all directions.
Ruffed grouse are permanent residents across the northern states and Canada in deciduous or mixed woods, where they forage on the ground, in shrubs, and in trees for
buds, leaves, flowers, seeds, fruit, and a few insects. In winter, they spend most of their
time foraging high in trees or roosting under the snow. Walking on the snow is facilitated
by a fringe of scales that forms along each toe and enlarges the surface area of the foot.
Lanesboro naturalist Johan Hvoslef often worried that young hunters in the vicinity
would extirpate the species from the region. On September 14, 1913, he wrote, A Bonasa
in the valley, and below the fence in the Deep Valley I met withflushedthe whole
brood (covey) again. It was a grand treat: I had been afraid the whole flock had been illegally murdered! Although they are still hunted, the birds remain common throughout
their normal range, with populations fluctuating in regular cycles. According to Gary Nelson, Minnesota Department of Natural Resources Wildlife Manager, ruffed grouse are
presently in a low cycle in most of the state. However, in southeast Minnesota, where
populations generally do not fluctuate, numbers have declined due to our maturing
forests and shortage of second-growth woods that the birds prefer.

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Wild Turkey
Meleagris gallopavo

Wild turkeys inhabit forests with oak trees and clearings, where they eat primarily plant
materials, particularly acorns, but also some insects and small vertebrates. The trees of
my forest are oak, maple, and basswood with lesser numbers of other hardwoods. On the
south side of my house is a natural clearing. It is spring. I wake to the sound of gobbling
and look out on the clearing to see a male turkey, its red wattles swollen, feathers puffed,
and tail fanned, strutting as though in a marching band. Six females are watching this
parade.
A male turkey will mate with several females, who build sparsely lined nests in depressions on the ground. Each hen lays ten to fifteen eggs, which she incubates for about
a month. The young leave the nest soon after hatching and feed themselves but sleep
under their mothers wings at night for several weeks. In summer, I see groups of about
twenty-five downy chicks accompanied by several hens. As the season progresses, the
same scene plays itself out with the chicks appearing larger at each sighting. When the
leaves begin to turn, the males gobble and display again, not to attract mates, but as a response to the length of day being equal to that in spring. At this time of year, turkeys
gather to eat acorns under the giant bur oak that grows next to my porch. At dusk, with a
great flapping of wings, these large birds fly into the tree where they spend the night.
In winter, I have seen up to sixty birds foraging together on the edge of the woods.
When snow is on the ground, I like to climb in the nearby limestone bluffs and find a
sheltered place to sit and wait for something to come my way. It may be a curious chickadee or a parade of deer walking below me. Piles of scat indicate the presence of coyotes.
One day, a sound of barking broke the silence. I looked for dogs and hoped to see coyotes. Soon a flock of turkeys meandered into sight. This was the first I knew of the barking sounds that turkeys make.
Although they originally inhabited the eastern states and parts of the Midwest, by the
beginning of the twentieth century turkeys had nearly disappeared in many areas due to
habitat loss and diseases acquired from domestic poultry. Whether there was ever a native population in Minnesota is uncertain. Beginning in the 1920s, hunting groups periodically attempted to introduce turkeys not only into places they formerly inhabited but
also into new places as well. In Minnesota, the first success occurred in 1973 with wild
birds transplanted from other areas. Since then, the states turkey population has grown
to more than 30,000 with the greatest increase in and on the edges of their historical
habitation.

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Great Blue Heron


Ardea herodias

During one of the most difficult times in my life, I was also discovering life along the
South Fork of the Root River, which flows through my woods. I had a favorite log where I
sat and watched rippling shadows reflected on branches above the creek, shadows of water striders and trout in the water below, and muskrats that appeared if I was quiet
enough. By focusing on the details of my surroundings, I was able to forget the plaguing
details of my life.
I also watched the great blue heron flying overhead, its wings beating slowly and deliberately as though it knew exactly where it was going. This flight came to symbolize for
me a promise that the world would continue in its rhythm regardless of the turmoil in my
mind. Sometimes I saw the heron stepping silently through shallow water as though in
slow motion or standing like a stick, waiting and watching until it suddenly grabbed a fish
in its bill and gulped it down whole. I knew this activity was a matter of life or death: the
bird had to eat to live. I longed for my life to be so elemental.
Herons usually breed in rookeries in trees, twenty to sixty feet above ground. The
nest, a platform of sticks, generally contains three to five eggs. Both parents feed their
nestlings. The young leave the nest in sixty-five to ninety days. Sometimes, a single pair
will breed in isolation. I have watched such a pair return to the same nest over the South
Fork for several years.
Although great blue herons evoke consistency and patience, turmoil may also enter
their lives. In 1945, herons established a rookery in a park reserve in Anoka County, Minnesota, just north of Minneapolis. After more than fifty years of successful nesting, in
June of 2000 the birds disappeared. Cracked shells on the ground indicated there had
been a hatch, but the nests were empty except for a few feathers. Area residents eventually determined that high-speed boating was to blame. Research shows that herons flush
off their nests when humans come within three hundred yards, so it is not surprising that
human activity disrupted this colony. The year after a slow-wake zone in the area became
law, the herons returned and stayed to raise their young.
In spite of human encroachment on their preferred habitats, heron numbers remain
stable, mostly because the birds can adapt to a variety of habitats and diets, which allows
them to thrive around all kinds of waters, including swamps, desert rivers, lakes, and
woodland streams where they eat fish, amphibians, insects, rodents, and other birds.
My life is easier now but I still depend on the great blue heron for perspective. Should
it disappear, I would feel less confidence in natures rhythms.

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Turkey Vulture
Cathartes aura

Like a gigantic dark butterfly, the vulture rocks back and forth as it floats in the sky holding its wings above its body. A dozen vultures rocking low over woods or fields tells me
the birds have found something dead. These birds locate carrion by sight, by watching
the actions of other vultures, and through their well-developed sense of smell, rare in the
avian world. Efficient scavengers, they quickly dispose of dead animals and their potential for spreading disease. Up close, the homeliness of the vultures bare red head may
make you forget about the beauty of its flight. Nature knew what she was doing, though,
because a head with feathers that roots around in smelly carcasses would be impossible
to keep clean.
Vultures often roost together by the hundreds. Tex Sordahl, ornithologist at Luther
College in Decorah, Iowa, showed me a roost where he and his students are studying vulture behavior. Among other things, they are trying to determine the roosting order between adults and first-year birds. In the mornings, they have observed the vultures
spreading their wings toward the sun, presumably to raise their body temperatures from
low nighttime levels.
During pair formation, several birds gather in a circle to perform ritualized hopping
maneuvers. Nest sites are in thickets, hollow trees, caves, or old buildings. Little, if any,
nesting material is used. Both parents sit on the two eggs and feed the babies by regurgitation. The young first fly at nine to ten weeks of age.
One spring, when Dana Gardner and I were hiking along the Root River near Lanesboro, he told me about a vulture nest he once found in the area. He said, The building
where I found the nest was an old log barn, and the roof had collapsed so that when I
poked my head up into the haymow it was like looking into a cave. When I did this, I
heard a loud hoarse hissing and in a corner, I saw two well-grown vulture chicks hunched
over and disgorging the smelly contents of their stomachs. They looked very comical,
clothed in fluffy white down except for their naked heads.
In summer, vultures are present throughout the country. Southern birds are permanent residents, but northern birds fly as far as South America for the winter. The species
declined during the twentieth century, possibly due to eggshell thinning from the ingestion of insecticides. At present, populations appear to be stable.
Because of their association with death and their ugly naked heads, vultures are often
the objects of fear and repulsion. While we find them disgusting for eating carrion, a behavior that benefits us and the environment, we admire them for their elegant flight,
which only pleases our senses.

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Bald Eagle
Haliaeetus leucocephalus

A mature bald eagle, with its white head and tail, is easy to recognize. The first time I ever
saw one was in the fall of 1984 while driving with friends along the Mississippi River in
northern Iowa. There we found an eagle perched in a tree. It could have been a huge
photograph of our national emblem until it turned its regal head and looked down on us.
No one spoke. Words were neither necessary nor sufficient. Now, I see this once endangered species almost any day of the year, soaring over my woods. The displays of courting eagles locking their talons high in the air, then descending in a series of somersaults,
can still bring me to tears.
During the early and mid-twentieth century, eagle populations plummeted. Shooting
was a major cause, but even after receiving full legal protection, their decline continued
because of the widespread use of DDT and other insecticides that made eggshells too
thin to support incubating birds. With the banning of DDT in 1972, the species began a
long period of recovery.
Eagles breed at age four or five. They have long-term pair bonds. Mates may reuse
and add to their stick nest for up to thirty years until it weighs well over a ton. Both parents incubate the two, sometimes three, eggs and feed the nestlings, which fledge at ten
to twelve weeks of age. For several years, I have watched an eagle nest near my home. It
is more than one hundred feet high in a white pine overlooking Duschee Creek, a designated trout stream. I have watched the adults soaring with their long wings held perfectly
straight and have heard their soft whistles, which do not fit their large size. I have
watched the parents sitting on the nest and bringing food to their young. I have watched
mottled-brown nestlings exercising their great wings and venturing out on limbs adjacent
to the nest. I dream of watching a first flight.
Bald eagles are primarily fish eaters. When fish are not available, they will eat birds,
mammals, and other creatures. They hunt by watching from a high perch, where they can
see for long distances about five times more detail than humans can. When prey is
sighted, they swoop down to snatch it with their talons. Eagles sometimes steal fish from
other birds and frequently eat carrion. I have seen a dozen birds feeding on a dead animal
in a farmers field. It is difficult to reconcile this sight with the majestic and fierce demeanor of the bird that symbolizes our country.
I wish I could see a mature bald eagle again for the first time. Nevertheless, its surprising size, pure white head, and long, dark-brown wings holding it aloft with apparent ease
will never cease to be a heart-stopping experience for me.

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Sharp-shinned Hawk
Accipiter striatus

One day, I looked up just in time to see a sharp-shinned hawk speeding toward me down
one of my woodland trails. I ducked as the bird approached and gracefully detoured over
my head. Its short, rounded wings and long tail enable easy maneuvering through mixed
or coniferous forests, where its primary prey are birds from the smallest sparrows to
robins, which nearly equal it in size.
Another day, I discovered a sharpy perched on a low branch deep in the woods. I
could see its red eyes looking into my blue ones, so I knew it was an adult; juveniles have
yellow eyes. I could see its reddish striped underparts and banded tail. Its blue wings told
me the bird was a male. I wondered what he noticed about me. Most birds capture a
whole picture at a glance rather than piecing a scene together as humans do.
I usually see sharp-shinned hawks in late fall and winter. The ones I see early may be
only passing through. This species is highly migratory, breeding north to Canada and
Alaska and wintering as far south as Central America. Large numbers concentrate during
migration along coasts or ridges.
In courtship, mates circle together above the forest. Both sexes gather nesting material, but the female builds the nest, a platform of sticks with twigs and grass for lining,
usually in a dense conifer twenty to sixty feet above ground. The male brings food to his
mate while she incubates, then brings food for her to feed to the nestlings. The young are
able to fly five to six weeks after hatching.
Easily confused with the Coopers hawk, a close relative whose plumage is nearly identical, the sharpy can be distinguished in flight by its smaller head, broader hunched wings
pushed slightly forward, and deeper, more flicking wingbeats. Although the Coopers is
somewhat larger, size is not a good indicator. As with all hawks, males of these species
are smaller than the females; a female sharp-shinned may be nearly as large as a male
Coopers.
Sharpies often lurk around my feeders. One day, when I saw a flock of dark-eyed juncos
in the nearby brush, none of them moving as much as a feather, I immediately looked for
the hawk and found it perched in a small tree. When one of the juncos made the mistake
of flying, the sharpy flew with the speed of a cats paw and grabbed the junco with its
talons. I felt sad for the junco while admiring the speed and concentration of the hawk.
In the mid-twentieth century, DDT and other pesticides led to a decline in sharpshinned hawk populations. Although they have recovered somewhat since then, counts
have begun to decline again, possibly due to the fragmenting of forests.

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Red-tailed Hawk
Buteo jamaicensis

Whenever I see a large, heavy-bodied hawk with broad wings and a short, fanned tail
soaring overhead, I know it is a member of the Buteo genus. I immediately look for the
markings of a red-tailed hawk. As the most widespread and familiar large hawk in the
country, it provides a reference for comparison of all the other Buteos.
The proportions and markings of this species, however, are extremely variable, making it sometimes difficult to identify. A large red-tail can weigh twice as much as a smaller
one. Immatures usually have longer tails and wings than their parents. There are seven
subspecies of this bird, which may interbreed, leading to many different plumage combinations. To complicate matters further, each subspecies has a light, intermediate, or dark
morph.
Except for their tails, adult and immature plumage is similar. Young birds have banded
tails that gradually turn red as they age. All adults, except for the pale Kriders form that
winters in the southern plains, show some red on the tail. The bright red tail is diagnostic
in the East. The western bird is darker but shows the same markings. Streaked belly bands
are present in all red-tails except for some southwestern birds and some Kriders. All
forms, except for the dark morph of the western red-tail, in which markings are obscured,
show commas at the wrist areas under their wings and a dark line along the leading edge
of the wing.
Red-tails excel in soaring and can also hover in the wind. In courtship, they soar in high
circles screaming a drawn-out keeer. The male may pass food to the female in flight or
stoop at her, their feet interlocking, as the female rolls over. Both sexes build their large
stick nest in a tall tree with a commanding view. Both parents incubate the two to three
eggs and feed the nestlings, who leave the nest about seven weeks after hatching.
Small mammals are the red-tails favorite prey, but it also eats reptiles, birds, bats,
frogs, and various other creatures and may feed on carrion. Habitat includes any terrain
that provides open ground and high perches for huntingwoodlands with scattered
openings, fields, or deserts. This hawk has adapted especially well to human construction, such as highways, which provide miles of grassy roadsides with abundant rodents
and with utility poles that make ideal perches.
Whenever I see a hawk perched on a utility pole, I assume its a red-tail. I may assume
too quickly and find on looking closer that the bird is a rough-legged hawk or another
species. I used to assume that the keeer scream always came from a red-tail. Then I
learned that the blue jay mimics this call. Now I know that the blue jays imitation has a
slightly different quality and shorter duration.

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American Kestrel
Falco sparverius

People often tell me self-righteously that they dont need to identify birds by name in order to enjoy them. But, oh what you miss if you dont know what is possible. Before we
became birdwatchers, my husband and I always paid attention to the birds of prey we
saw. We knew about the peregrine falcon and hoped to see one someday. We did not
know about the small falcon that we could see any time of year perched on power lines in
open country or on edges of forests. We never saw a kestrel until we knew of its existence
and began looking for it. About the size of a robin and half the size of a peregrine, this
bird is our smallest diurnal raptor. Like those of its cousins, the kestrels pointed wingtips
and long tail serve it well in high-speed chases.
Another most appropriate name for this bird is windhover. One can often find a
kestrel hovering over a field, suspended in the air by its rapidly beating wings, waiting to
pounce on a grasshopper, its favorite food. It also eats other large insects, small mammals, small birds, and reptiles.
In courtship, the male flies in a series of deep dives and upward swoops, calling a highpitched killy, killy, killy at the top of each swoop. He sometimes passes food to his mate as
she flies slowly with fluttering wingbeats, holding her wings below the horizontal.
Kestrels nest in cavities of dead trees, snags, or artificial nest boxes. They use little, if
any, nesting material. Both parents incubate the four to six eggs, which hatch in about a
month. For two weeks after hatching, the female stays with the young while the male
brings food. After that, the female hunts also. Fledging occurs at about four weeks of
age. Juvenile males have blue-gray wings like their fathers and females have rufous wings
like their mothers.
Kestrels occur across the entire country. Northern birds may migrate south in winter
while those in the middle and southern states are permanent residents. This species may
be declining in the northeast, but numbers remain stable elsewhere. The placement of
nest boxes, especially where there are few natural nest sites, has been helpful.
Among similar-size birds, such as red-winged blackbirds and mourning doves that frequently perch on power lines, kestrels can be recognized from some distance by their
knobby heads, full bodies, and their horizontal position when peering at possible prey.
They have a comfort zone of about fifty feet from approaching cars. When a car approaches too closely, they take flight, often perching again about fifty feet ahead. I like to
stop my car just before this zone, take out my binoculars, and look at the birds rich blue
and rufous colors and the markings on its head that resemble a mustache and a sideburn.

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Killdeer
Charadrius vociferus

An early migrant, the first killdeer of spring arrives in late February, singing its name as it
flies over the upland areas around my woods. The killdeer is a member of the plover family, one of several shorebird families, which usually live near water. This species is also
found in fields far from water. I have never seen this bird in the woods, but once I hear it,
I know I will be able to find it a short distance away in a farmers field.
Plovers have round heads and short, straight bills. The killdeer has two dark breastbands, as opposed to the single or broken breastband of other plovers. The bird is widespread and abundant across the country. On mud flats, when I am trying to identify some
of the less common shorebirds, a killdeer is likely to frustrate me by conspicuously
sounding its alarm and causing all the other birds to fly.
Its plumage pattern, however, allows this species to be equally inconspicuous. Its
white underparts take on the hue of the nearest surface, and its bold, disruptive head
and breast markings that match similar breaks in the background visually separate the
killdeer into parts, making it difficult to discern the whole bird.
Because the killdeer builds its nest on the ground in an open area, such as on bare soil,
short grass, or a gravel road, it seems like the nest would be easy to find. But it is only a
shallow scrape in soil or gravel and matches its surroundings in a way that makes it invisible until you are almost on top of it. At that point, the bird will let you know of its presence by its loud killdeer call and feigning of injury to lure you away from its nest.
Males show stronger nest site fidelity than females do. A particular pair may mate for
successive years. Birds that nest in the north may migrate as far south as Chile in the fall.
Those in the southern states are permanent residents. In breeding season, the male flies
over the nest site with slow, deep wingbeats, calling repeatedly. Courtship displays on
the ground include sham nest-scraping movements. Both parents incubate the three to
five eggs for twenty-four to twenty-eight days. In very hot weather, they may soak their
belly feathers to help cool the eggs.
Young killdeer are precocial: they leave the nest soon after hatching and feed themselves, although the parents remain nearby. They eat mostly insects but also other invertebrates and a small amount of seeds. Very young birds have short tails, single breastbands, and legs that appear exceptionally long. As they follow their parents running a few
steps, stopping abruptly, then running again, these little guys present one of the most
comic and endearing sights of the avian world.

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American Woodcock
Scolopax minor

The American woodcock, also known as night partridge, timber doodle, and big-eyes, is
a member of the sandpiper family but, unlike most sandpipers, it is nocturnal, secretive,
and solitary and resides in forest thickets, fields, and brushy swamps instead of on mudflats and ocean shores. Its eyes are set far back in its head, allowing the bird to watch for
danger even with its bill deep in the dirt probing for earthworms, which it may goad into
moving by a peculiar rocking motion that sends vibrations into the ground. As with other
long-billed sandpipers, the tip of the woodcocks bill is sensitive and flexible, facilitating
its ability to find and grasp food below the surface.
One evening at dusk, toward the end of March, I hear a familiar nasal peent in the field
behind my house and know that the woodcock has returned, as he does every year at
about this time. I cant see him at first but if I wait until the peenting stops and the musical twittering of his wings begins, I can see him flying high into the darkening sky, then circling overhead. When I hear a kissing sound, I know he is floating down like a leaf to land
where he started and begin another round. Now I can dimly see his round little shape and
long bill. Every time he peents, he turns to the side, eventually coming full circle. If I listen
carefully, I can hear a soft hiccup before each peent. The purpose of these elaborate displays is to attract a female, who, if he is lucky, will be waiting for him as he floats to the
ground.
After mating, the female makes a simple nest by scraping a place on the ground in
open woods or an overgrown field and lining it with dead leaves. She incubates her four
eggs alone for about three weeks. The nest is protected from discovery by her plumage,
which looks like the forest floor, and by her habit of sitting tightly without flushing even
when a human reaches down and touches her. A few hours after hatching, the young
leave the nest. The mother feeds them for several days until they begin to probe for food
on their own. They are independent at about five weeks. As with other ground nesters,
the mother does distraction displays to keep predators away from her babies.
During breeding season, woodcocks are found from Minnesota to Texas and east to
the Coast. In fall, they migrate by night to their wintering grounds in the southern states.
Some populations of this species are declining, due in part to habitat loss and pesticide
ingestion. Woodcocks are also a popular game bird, although they wouldnt make much
of a meal, as they are slightly smaller than mourning doves and only slightly larger than
robins.

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Mourning Dove
Zenaida macroura

Most of us have woken at one time or another to the plaintive cooing of the mourning
dove. We have known this bird from childhood whether we are birdwatchers or not. It is
present during the breeding season in all the states and year round in all but the far
north. One can see it in any kind of semi-open habitatfarms, towns, open woods, roadsides, prairies, and deserts. Mourning doves thrive in habitat altered by humans, and
their numbers have increased as human settlement has increased.
The term billing and cooing comes from the mating ritual of these birds. The male
struts and coos before his mate with his chest puffed out and head nodding. Just before
copulation, the female puts her bill inside that of her mate and they bob up and down
several times. As part of the ritual, the male also flies up, making a whistling sound with
his wings, then glides to the ground in a long circle.
The male leads his mate to potential nest sites and she chooses one, usually in a tree
or shrub. He gathers nesting material and she builds the nest, a flimsy platform of twigs
lined with fine materials. Both parents incubate the two eggs for about two weeks. At
first, the nestlings receive a pure diet of pigeon milk, a substance rich in fat and protein
that the adults produce in their crops. After a few days, the young birds begin to receive
a mixture of pigeon milk and partially digested seeds or fruit. Fledging occurs at about
two weeks. Before then, the female may have already laid her second clutch of eggs in
the same nest. Mourning doves are prolific, raising as many as six broods in a season.
This birds diet is ninety-nine percent seeds, which it swallows whole. The seeds are rotated and crushed in its gizzard, a muscular section of the stomach that takes the place
of teeth and jaws. Large amounts of grit, such as sand and pebbles, which the dove also
swallows, enhance the grinding action of the gizzard. All birds have gizzards, but their
morphology differs depending on their diets. In birds that eat primarily soft foods, the
gizzard is more like the rest of the stomach.
Although the mourning dove is hunted in many states, its numbers remain high in
most areas. However, a steady decline has occurred in Minnesota since 1966. In spite
of this decline, in 2004 the state instituted a dove hunting season for the first time in
fifty-eight years. Ironically, the decline is due in part to birds dying from the ingestion of
lead shot, which they swallow for grit. The dove is an emblem of peace. To shoot one for
pleasure or the bit of food it might provide seems like a contradiction to me.

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Black-billed Cuckoo
Coccyzus erythropthalmus

One day, early in my birding career, I glimpsed a strange-looking bird slipping furtively
through dense brush near my house. It looked larger but more slender than a robin, had
a long tail, and was brownish above, whitish below. I couldnt imagine what it was, so I began methodically paging through my field guide. When I came to the cuckoos, I immediately recognized the mystery bird. At that time, all I knew about cuckoos was that they
periodically popped out of clocks singing their name.
Now I know that the cuckoo family consists of about one hundred forty species
worldwide. The most familiar in North America are the black-billed and yellow-billed
cuckoos. The common cuckoo of Europe is the bird of the clock, a bird that never builds
a nest or tends to its own young but lays its eggs in the nests of other species.
The black-bill and yellow-bill sometimes lay their eggs in each others nests but generally tend to their own eggs and young. They do not sound like cuckoo clocks but may
sound like each other. The black-bill sings a musical rhythmic cu, commonly in series of
threes, but sometimes issues a guttural knocking vocalization. Its cousin sings a wooden
repeated kowp but also makes a cooing sound. In addition to their similar vocalizations,
they look very much alike, which makes them difficult to differentiate from a distance.
What sets them apart are the black-bills small white undertail spots, reddish eye-ring,
and black bill in contrast to the yellow-bills bold white undertail spots and yellow lower
mandible. Although they are large for songbirds, their inconspicuous plumage and secretive habits make them easier to hear than to see.
Both species winter in South America and breed in thickets on the edges of woods or
marshes from the East to the Midwest. The black-bill breeds farthest north. Clutch size
and population densities are associated with outbreaks of the hairy tent caterpillar, their
preferred food. Other caterpillars and insects that they find by hopping around in shrubs
or on low branches are also part of their diet, as are snails, small fish, eggs of other birds,
berries, and fruit.
Males feed their mates during courtship, then help to build the nest, a loose platform
of sticks placed in a bush or the dense branches of a small tree. Both sexes incubate the
eggs and feed the nestlings. The young leave the nest and climb around in the branches
as early as one week after hatching. They can fly at about three weeks.
Loss of habitat due to human development is a concern for both species but more
so for the yellow-billed cuckoo, which has shown a significant decline in recent years.
Black-bill populations are relatively stable. Although both species occur in my woods,
the black-bill is more common.

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Eastern Screech-Owl
Otus asio

A wavering whinny permeates the woods in the middle of the night. The sound seems to
come from a larger entity than the little screech-owl, which is even smaller than a cardinal. A long musical trill usually accompanies the whinny. Screech-owls primarily inhabit
deciduous woods but will reside in almost any area that has some open ground and large
trees, including city parks. One Halloween night, I saw a screech-owl perched like a statue
above the entrance to a church in Winona, Minnesota.
During pair formation, the male raises his wings, snaps his bill, blinks at the female,
and brings food to her with much hopping and bowing. Mates preen each others feathers and sing duets. They nest in tree cavities and artificial boxes, including those meant
for wood ducks. Mates often roost together in the nest, but incubation of the four to five
eggs for about twenty-six days is mostly by the female. Both sexes feed the young, which
fledge in about four weeks but remain with the adults for some time longer. The parents
often bring live wormlike blind snakes to the nest. The snakes live in the debris eating insect larvae, thus reducing brood parasites.
The screech-owl diet consists primarily of large insects and small rodents but may also
include amphibians, worms, and small songbirds. It is a common practice for songbirds to
gather fluttering and calling around a perched owl. This mobbing behavior helps to divert the predator from fledglings or annoy it enough to make it fly away. Birdwatchers,
aware of this habit, often imitate the owls calls to draw songbirds into sight.
One day last winter, I went out with several friends, including John Hockema, who is
known for his ability to identify many species by nuances in their one-note calls, which to
most ears sound like they could be coming from any bird. He is also good at mimicking
the sounds of birds. By mimicking a screech-owl that day, he drew in chickadees, nuthatches, titmice, cardinals, and woodpeckers. While watching these birds, we noticed a
pattern in the bark of a dead elm that depicted a perfect image of the little owl. When
one eye of the image slowly opened and closed and the wind rustled an ear tuft, we realized we were seeing a real bird.
The eastern screech-owl is present year round in the East and Midwest. It has three
color morphs or phases, which vary from gray to red to brown. The similarly plumaged
western screech-owl resides in the West and varies from gray to brown. The eastern population, although still common, has gradually declined over recent years, possibly due to
the absence of trees with cavities suitable for nesting. The placement of nest boxes has
helped to slow its decline.

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Barred Owl
Strix varia

When I left the city for the country, I couldnt sleep at first because the woods were so
quiet. Then one night, as I lay awake in the silence, a humanlike scream followed by a
demonic cackling pierced the air, striking something primitive in me that made me forget
to breathe. The next morning, I found no dead bodies or evidence of a struggle. A few
nights later, I heard the same sounds preceded by the typical who cooks for you? hooting of
a barred owl. Although they still strike a primitive chord, I now welcome these sounds
from my old neighbors.
Often I will notice what looks like a growth on a tree, only to realize it is a superbly
camouflaged barred owl staring at me out of its penetrating dark eyes. Eventually, the
bird lifts its wings and flies silently through the dark forest. Serrated primary feathers on
each of the owls wings disrupt the airflow, thus allowing for the silent flight.
In locating its prey, the owls large and asymmetrical ear openings are its greatest assets. A sound coming from above will seem louder in the ear with the higher opening. A
sound from below will seem louder in the opposite ear. It can also locate the direction of
a sound by the difference in time it takes to reach each ear. These adaptations allow the
bird to hone in on the faint squeaking of a mouse from more than fifty yards away.
The barred owl is a bird of deep pine and hardwood forests. An isolated woodlot with
numerous mature trees may also serve its purposes. It is a permanent resident from Minnesota to the Gulf Coast and east to the Atlantic Ocean. Although it is relatively common in our area, logging operations are reducing its available habitat.
Barred owls form long-term pair bonds and will use one nest cavity for successive
years. Courtship and mating occur in late winter. The male feeds the incubating female
on the nest. The young, usually two, hatch in about thirty days and stay in or near the
nest for around twelve weeks.
One summer, several evenings in a row, I heard an intense insectlike hissing that rose
in pitch, then stopped abruptly. It seemed slightly sinister, and I felt a delicious wariness
while stepping through the dark. I described the sound on my birding listserv, but before
receiving any suggestions I solved the puzzle. It must be a flying squirrel! The description
in my guidebook seemed to fit, and I gleefully reported it on my listserv. The next
evening, however, on hearing the sound, I looked up into a tree and saw a young owl begging for food. I, of course, had to report my error, thus tarnishing my reputation as an experienced birder.

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Whip-poor-will
Caprimulgus vociferus

On spring and summer evenings in leafy woodlands from the East Coast to Minnesota
and south, the whip-poor-will sings its name up to 1,000 times without a break. In his
journal entry of June 19, 1912, Johan Hvoslef wrote, It was really a solemn ride we had
through the dense dark woods below Skrukkerud with all the Antrostomus [old genus
name for whip-poor-will] offering up their weird notes to the spirits of the eveningor
their longing sweethearts.
The whip-poor-will feeds on night-flying insects by flying out from a perch or along the
edges of woods and capturing its prey in its wide gaping mouth. During the day, the bird
rests on the ground, where its markings make it almost impossible to distinguish from the
leaf litter.
The male sings to attract a mate or defend his territory. In courtship, he undulates,
bobs, and circles the female while making a purring sound. The female lays two eggs on
the ground without building a nest and incubates them alone for about twenty days.
Both parents feed the young. Nesting is synchronized with the lunar cycle so that the
parents will be feeding their young when brighter moonlight makes foraging easiest.
Fledging occurs about twenty days after hatching. The mother may start a second brood
while the father is still feeding the first.
To protect her babies, the mother engages in distraction displays. In his 1976 book
Parent Birds and Their Young, Alexander Skutch described watching a whip-poor-will hissing
and moaning while beating her wings against the branch where she perched, then circling
around him to land on the same perch and begin displaying again. After watching this
routine for fifteen minutes he left, not wanting to prolong her distress.
My friend Karla Kinstler, director of the Houston Nature Center in southeastern Minnesota, reported an experience she had with this bird. She wrote, Normally we hear
whip-poor-wills way back behind our house. But in 2004 a whip-poor-will repeatedly
came into the yard. On June 15 I heard the familiar whip-poor-will coming from very close
to the house, so I opened a window and slowly stuck my head outside. Without a doubt,
this bird was singing from inside the garage! When my husband cautiously walked into the
garage, the bird flew right past him into the woods. I wonder what the nesting phoebe in
the garage thought of all the loud whip-poor-willing going on.
This species winters in the southeastern states and Central America. In recent decades, its numbers have decreased, possibly due to deforestation on its wintering grounds
and loss and fragmentation of its habitat in northern areas. I used to hear these birds often on my property. Now, I have to go elsewhere to hear their haunting songs.

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Ruby-throated Hummingbird
Archilochus colubris

One day when I was hiking along Shattuck Creek in a narrow, wooded valley near my
home, a ruby-throated hummingbird whirred by on her way to a patch of grayish-green
lichen on a horizontal branch overlooking the water. I would never have recognized the
patch as a nest if I hadnt seen the bird settle into its tiny bowl, a bowl built to stretch like
a womb as babies grow. She alone had created this small wonder from plant down, fiber,
bud scales, and lichen and had attached it to the branch with spider silk. She alone would
sit on her two eggs for about two weeks and care for her young. Then she would start a
second brood.
Besides a spectacular mating dance, the males only contributions to this process are
his genes. He and the female are rarely seen together except during courtship, when he
flies back and forth in a wide arc like a child on a swing. His buzzing and twittering often
alert me to this display, and I watch as his iridescent ruby throat flashes off and on. The
color of his throat is not due to pigment but to transparent cells over the feathers that reflect only ruby-colored light. When the angle is just right, the color becomes visible. The
female and young birds have whitish throats.
Of the worlds three-hundred-some species of hummingbirds, most live in tropical
America. A dozen or so live in the western states. Only the ruby-throat is common from
Minnesota to the Atlantic Coast, where it frequents open woods, gardens, or city parks,
hovering to gather nectar from feeders and tubular flowers with its long, narrow bill and
sticky tongue. Small insects that it snatches from the air or steals from spider webs also
provide nourishment.
Beating their wings eighty times per second, thus producing the sounds for which they
are named, hummingbirds can fly straight up and down, backwards, and sideways. These
little whirlwinds are extremely territorial, and it often seems that they could spend their
time better by feeding than by chasing away interlopers. However, a hummer that successfully defends a patch of flowers, which produces only so much nectar a day, may find
all the food it needs in that one place. Usually when I am filling the nectar feeders, one of
these fearless living helicopters hovers so close that the air stirred by its propellers fans
my face.
After consuming enough food to double their weight, ruby-throats fly all the way to
Mexico or Central America for the winter. The males are first to come north in spring.
The females soon follow, some of them returning like the great bald eagles to the same
nests they occupied in previous years. In spite of a decline in recent years, this species remains abundant.

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Belted Kingfisher
Ceryle alcyon

A distinctive loud rattle along the South Fork of the Root River alerts me to the presence
of a belted kingfisher. I watch as she flies downstream, making a wide detour around the
place where I stand. She lands, still rattling, on a branch overlooking the water. I notice
the raised crest of her large head and the blue and rufous bands across her breast, which
tell me she is a female. The male has only a blue band. If I am lucky, I will see her plunge
headfirst from her perch or from a hovering position into the water to catch a fish with
her large bill. Like other birds such as owls and gulls, she will later cough up a pellet of indigestible bones and scales.
Her name fits her well. In Anglo-Saxon, kingfisher means king of the fishes. In Greek,
Ceryle means kingfisher, thus the birds genus name. A Greek fable states that Alcyone,
daughter of Aeolus, grieved so deeply for her shipwrecked husband that she threw herself into the sea and was transformed into a kingfisher, thus the species name.
Kingfishers are solitary except when breeding. In display, mates make rapidly repeated
mewing calls and the male feeds the female. The nest site is at the end of a three- to
six-foot horizontal tunnel in a vertical bank near water. Both sexes excavate the tunnel.
Both sexes sit on the six to seven eggs, the female at night, her mate during the day. Both
parents feed the nestlings a diet primarily of small fish but also crayfish, frogs, and insects. Fledging takes place at about four weeks, after which the adults teach their young
to fish by dropping dead catches into the water for retrieval. About three weeks later, after the young have learned to catch live food, the parents drive their offspring out of
their territory.
I have seen holes in banks that appear to be kingfisher tunnels but have never seen a
bird entering or leaving them, nor have I ever entertained the idea of reaching inside one.
However, an acquaintance once showed me the scars left from a kingfisher bill, when, as
a child, she accepted a dare to poke her hand into one of these tunnels.
Of the ninety-one species of kingfishers worldwide, only the belted is common in the
United States. Although it is present year round across most of the country, some birds
migrate along coasts, lakeshores, and rivers to northern South America for the winter.
Most kingfishers leave my area in the fall, but every year during the coldest days of January I hear the familiar rattle coming from a perch in a bare tree over the South Fork. Populations have declined slightly in recent years, which may be due to the loss of suitable
nesting sites.

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Red-bellied Woodpecker
Melanerpes carolinus

The throaty chuck, chuck, chuck of the red-bellied woodpecker is ubiquitous yet wild and
primitive, a surrogate voice of the forest, as though the trees themselves are laughing. Its
boisterous, undulating flight speaks for the energy of the woods, as though the trees
themselves are flying.
Divisions in nature are not always as distinct as we perceive them. The red-bellys symbiotic relationship with trees seems to blur the borders between living things. It roosts
in trees, builds its nest inside them, and contributes to their health by using its chiselshaped bill and long, barbed tongue to dislodge harmful insects. Its strong feet, with two
toes forward and back, allow it to grip a trunk so closely that the bird looks like part of
the tree, an image enhanced by the black and white barklike barring on its upperparts.
The males bright red head and nape, however, give him away as does the females red
nape, hind crown, and nasal areas. Stiff tail feathers brace the bird as it works itself up a
trunk.
At any time of year, red-bellies interact vigorously, making it difficult to determine
whether the interaction relates to courtship or aggression. Common displays include head
bowing, bill pointing, drumming, and two birds bobbing around a trunk shouting wika,
wika, wika. Mates engage in drumming duets.
A grove of poplar trees near my house has provided nest sites for many woodpeckers.
On April 14, 2002, I observed a male red-belly excavating a nest hole in one of these
trees. A few days later, he was working on another hole nearby. On May 1, he was working
the first one again. Both adults were entering the first hole on May 10. In the morning of
May 14, I saw the female change places with her incubating mate. By May 29, the parents
were flying from the feeders to the nest with suet, sunflower seeds, and bits of oranges
for their young. By the end of June, the young birds, then as big as their parents, were
coming to the feeders, still begging for food but also feeding themselves. They were a
comical sight with their gray-feathered heads that made them look bald.
Red-bellied woodpeckers have adapted well to the presence of humans. They have
been extending their range north for many decades and are now permanent residents
from southeast Minnesota to Texas and eastward. They probably reached southeast
Minnesota about the time that Johan Hvoslef recorded his first sighting. On November
10, 1906, Hvoslef wrote, I heard an unfamiliar sound and at last detected a bird I had
never seen before. It was a female Melanerpes carolinus: its sharp, far sounding cry was repeated every now and then. The red patch at the nap of the neck was bright and conspicuous while the red of the belly was indistinct.

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Downy Woodpecker
Picoides pubescens

Also called Tommy woodpecker and black and white driller, the downy is our smallest
and most widespread woodpecker, residing year round throughout the country except
for the far Southwest. It is present in the deciduous trees of wilderness forests, secondgrowth woods, small woodlots, orchards, and shady neighborhoods of large cities. I find
up to a dozen of these agile, acrobatic birds around my feeders every day, except during
the period when they are molting. Sometimes I see them hanging upside down on weed
stalks. They have the same short legs, strong claws, and stiff tails as other woodpeckers,
which allow them to work their way up trunks gleaning insects both from within the bark
and on the surface. Insects comprise about eighty percent of their diets, but they also
eat berries and come to feeders for sunflower seeds and suet.
When I am tending the feeders, a downy will approach closely and give a soft, dry rattle. At these times, I can see the dark bars on its outer tail feathers that distinguish it from
the hairy woodpecker, a close but larger relative with a proportionally larger bill. From a
distance, it is difficult to tell one species from the other. Their pik or peek calls are also
similar but can be learned with practice. The downys drumming on whatever resonant
wood or metal it can find is almost slow enough to count each beat, while the hairys is
very fast but has longer pauses between sequences. A red patch on the back of the head
is present in the males of both species and absent in the females. In both species, the juvenile males and females have reddish foreheads.
In fall and early winter, male and female downies maintain separate territories. Each
bird excavates its own roost. In late winter, each member of a pair selects its own drumming post and the drumming duets begin. Over the next several months, the mates will
increasingly synchronize their activities. After beginning several excavations, the pair will
finally agree on a nest site in dead wood twelve to thirty feet above ground. Both sexes
excavate the cavity, which is usually camouflaged by surrounding lichen or moss. The
four to five eggs hatch in about twelve days. Both adults incubate and later brood and
feed the nestlings. The male may do most of the brooding. The young leave the nest at
about three weeks of age and remain near their parents for around three more weeks. In
winter, adults and juveniles often forage with other small birds.
Although by nature this species diet consists mostly of insects, downies come to my
feeders so consistently that it makes me wonder if the readily available and reliable
sources of food at backyard feeding stations could result in an evolutionary change of
diet and how such a change would affect the ecological balance.

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Northern Flicker
Colaptes auratus

Except for the crow-size pileated woodpecker, the northern flicker, also known as yellowhammer, yarrup, and hairy wicket, is our largest woodpecker. Because of its large size and
full body, I sometimes mistake it for a small hawk, especially since it often perches upright
instead of clinging to trunks of trees. But it is not averse to tree climbing and has the same
specialized equipment for this activity as other woodpeckers.
Unlike other woodpeckers, the flicker spends much of its time on the ground looking
for ants, its primary source of food. It probably consumes more ants than any bird in the
country. Other insects, which it catches in mid-air or gleans from bark while working its
way up trunks, also provide nourishment as do fruits and berries, which it gathers by
perching on the outer limbs of trees and shrubs.
The flickers territorial and courtship kuk, kuk, kuk call is similar to the pileateds but differs in its higher pitch, faster pace, and sustained rhythm. Its wika, wika, wika call is similar
to that of the red-belly. A low-pitched throaty warble, given near the nest, warns of danger. A nasal down-slurred peeoow keeps family members in touch. The birds nonvocal
drumming is given in short bursts.
Besides calling and drumming, flicker displays include swinging their heads back and
forth and spreading their wings and tail to show off their bright undersides. Both sexes
excavate a nest cavity, with the male choosing the site in the dead wood of a tree or post.
Both adults incubate the five to eight eggs, the male at night and part of the day. Both
parents feed the young, which hatch in about two weeks and fledge about four weeks
later.
The northern flickers appearance is the most varied of any woodpecker. It has two
primary forms, which were once considered different species. The male yellow-shafted in
the East and North has yellow wing linings, a red nape crescent, and a black mustache.
The male red-shafted in the West has reddish wing linings, no nape crescent, and a red
mustache. Females of both kinds lack a mustache. In the Great Plains, where their ranges
overlap, these forms interbreed, resulting in a variety of intergrades.
Some form of flicker is present year around throughout most of the country in open
forests, towns, and areas with very few trees. The yellow-shafted is the most migratory. In
fall, it travels in flocks, moving east then south down the Atlantic coast. Most of these
birds migrate out of my area in the fall, but some remain here all year long. When snow is
on the ground, I most commonly hear their peeoow call, which suggests the presence of
family groups. Surveys show a decline in population since the 1960s, possibly due to the
encroachment of starlings on nesting sites or human use of antkillers.

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Pileated Woodpecker
Dryocopus pileatus

One day many years ago, before I was a birdwatcher, I glimpsed a live cartoon character,
Woody Woodpecker, while driving through the Big Woods. No one who was with me saw
the bird, and I later thought I must have imagined it. Now I know it was a pileated woodpecker, the largest woodpecker in North America next to the similarly shaped ivory-bill
that once inhabited much of the Southeast and was thought to be extinct until February
11, 2004, when it was found again in the Big Woods of eastern Arkansas more than sixty
years after the last confirmed sighting.
In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, with the clearing of forests, the pileated
seemed to be heading toward extinction also, but in the twentieth century it began
adapting to the proximity of people and second-growth forests, where only a few large
trees were present, thus ensuring its survival. It now inhabits hardwood, conifer, and
mixed forests, woodlots, and parks. Any time of year, I can hear the pileateds irregular,
ringing cuk, cuk, cuk calls and see it flying through my woods. I find evidence of the birds
presence in wood chips at the bases of dead trees where it has excavated sections as
much as seven feet long while foraging for carpenter ants, its favorite food. Besides ants
and other insects, this species also eats wild fruits, berries, nuts, and suet.
The pileated defends its large territory with slow, powerful drumming and penetrating
calls. Courtship activity includes gliding flight displays, crest raising, head swinging, bobbing around trunks, and wing spreading, which shows off the flashy white undersides of
its wings. Both sexes excavate the nest cavity, which is new each year but in the same area
as previous years. The entrance is usually oval and the depth ranges from ten to twentyfour inches. Both adults incubate the three to five eggs for about eighteen days and feed
the nestlings, which fledge about four weeks after hatching but remain with their parents
for two to three more months.
In 1987, I discovered a pileated nestling poking its big head out of a hole about fifty
feet high in a barkless elm near one of my woodland paths. Soon the father arrived with
food, which it jabbed down the babys throat. Amid much loud begging, the mother arrived with more food. She had a flaming red crest like the father but lacked his red mustache. I returned home and called members of our fledgling bird club, who came to
watch and take photographs.
The pileated woodpecker has attracted the attention of people across its range from
Minnesota south to Texas and east to the Atlantic Ocean. Some of the other names by
which this bird is knownlogcock, cock of the woods, and great god woodpeckerattest to the impression it has made.

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Eastern Phoebe
Sayornis phoebe

The eastern phoebe is an early migrant, usually arriving in my woods in late March, when
snow is still on the ground. Its hoarse, insistent feebee song is a welcome sign of spring. I
watch as it pumps its tail in its typical manner while perching conspicuously at the end of
a branch, then flies out to catch an insect in midair. The phoebe is a member of the flycatcher family, which consists of about three hundred eighty species and is the largest
family of birds limited to the New World. Although the family name comes from the
habit of catching insects in flight, many flycatchers also gather insects from foliage.
The female phoebe arrives on breeding grounds about two weeks after the male. Pair
formation occurs quickly after brief erratic flight chases. The male defends his territory
by singing, especially early in the morning. Originally, phoebes placed their nests in the
niches of cliffs near water. With the advent of man-made structures, preferred nesting
sites changed to such places as rafters of barns, ledges under porches, and girders under
bridges. The birds often return to sites from previous years, sometimes renovating old
nests.
Every year from 1998 through 2004, a phoebe nested on a rung of our overturned
canoe, which is stored across the rafters outside our workshop. The first year, I watched
her construct the base of her cup nest with mud pellets, then build it up with moss,
leaves, and grass. Each year, she added more moss so that the sides grew from less than
two inches to about four inches high. Each year, I watched for the wide-open bills of the
babies rising above the nest. One day in May 2001, I saw two little bills awaiting food. A
week later, only one baby remained, a large cowbird baby that filled the whole nest. In
2004, the phoebe again raised a cowbird but every other year she raised one or two
broods of her own young. Although the male neither helps to build the nest or incubate
the eggs, he helps feed insects to the four to five nestlings, which fledge about sixteen
days after hatching.
As with many of the flycatchers, phoebes recognize their own species primarily by
sound. In general, passerines, or perching birds, must learn some of their vocal repertoire
from their parents, but young phoebes know their songs from birth and can sing them
perfectly even when raised in isolation. The females also sing, which sets them apart from
most other species.
Eastern phoebes inhabit open and riparian woodlands, rocky ravines, and farmland
with scattered trees. They breed from the Midwest to the East Coast and migrate to the
southeastern states and Mexico for the winter. In spite of frequent cowbird predation,
their numbers appear to be stable.

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Eastern Kingbird
Tyrannus tyrannus

This flycatcher, a handsome bird with sharply contrasting black and white markings, has
one touch of color, a patch of red crown feathers that are rarely visible. I have never seen
this color, but others say it appears during aggression or courtship display. In courtship,
the male performs a rapid up-and-down flight, does backward flips, and hovers and tumbles in midair. Mates commonly greet each other with a fluttering of wings.
The female, possibly with help from the male, builds a bulky cup nest of weeds, moss,
bark strips, plant down, cloth, and string. Long strands of nesting materials hang off the
edges. The nest is in the same area as other years, usually near the tip of a horizontal
branch in a deciduous tree or large shrub and sometimes on top of a stump in water or a
fence post in open country. Incubation is by the female and averages about seventeen
days. When she finds a cowbird egg in her nest, she ejects the egg or damages it. Both
parents bring insects to their three or four nestlings and carry out fecal sacs, which they
drop from particular perches. After fledging, which occurs at around seventeen days, the
young birds remain with their parents for about another month. The timing of breeding
may relate to insect abundance.
Kingbirds are fierce protectors of their young and their territories, commonly defending against humans who approach too closely and large birds such as crows, owls, and
hawks. They fly as high as one hundred feet, where they persistently attack intruders from
above. This behavior has earned them the name Tyrannus tyrannus (tyrant tyrant). Although not as aggressive as kingbirds, other species in this family vigorously defend their
territories also, thus earning the whole family the common name of tyrant flycatchers and
the scientific name tyrannidae.
As with other flycatchers, the kingbird watches for insects from a conspicuous perch,
flies to snatch its prey out of the air, and then returns like a boomerang to the same or
nearby perch. It also hovers to pick berries and fruit out of foliage, especially on its wintering grounds in the tropical forests of South America.
The eastern kingbird is common in summer from the East Coast to the Great Plains
and the Northwest. It frequents farmlands, roadsides, forest edges, marshes, and grasslands and prairies with a few scattered trees. In the past, I frequently saw this bird in the
field next to my house and heard its buzzy sputtering song. Over the years, the woods
has encroached on the field and the bird has disappeared. I still see it often, though, on
nearby roadsides, perched on power lines or fence wires, where I can easily recognize its
behavior and the conspicuous white terminal band on its tail.

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Red-eyed Vireo
Vireo olivaceus

After birding for three years on my own, in 1987 I met Anne Marie Plunkett, then the
great dame of Minnesota birding. Anne Marie visited me in my woods, organized the first
two Christmas Bird Counts in Fillmore County, and helped me start a county bird club. I
learned about vireos on my first field trip with her. Until then, I had only paged past them
in field guides on my way to other birds. That day, we saw red-eyed, yellow-throated, and
blue-headed vireos. Following the field trip, I looked for these birds in my woods and
found all three. Who knows when I would have discovered them if not for Anne Marie?
Another name for the red-eyed vireo is preacher bird, which comes from the males
practice of singing incessantly throughout the day. His robin-like notes consist of up to
forty different phrases that he doesnt repeat in any particular order. The song of the
yellow-throated vireo is similar but has a burry quality, longer pauses, and fewer phrases,
which the bird generally repeats in a given order. The notes of the blue-headed vireo
are clearer, higher, and slower paced than those of its relatives but are otherwise similar.
These vocalizations seem obvious to me now, but for a long time, I couldnt tell them
apart.
Even if you hear a red-eyed vireo singing, you might not be able to find him because
his colors blend with the leaves and he usually stays out of sight in the treetops of deciduous forests where he methodically searches for insects. The female, who usually stays in
the forest understory, is even more difficult to locate because she doesnt sing. The two
sexes look alike.
When courting, the male fans his tail and sways back and forth in front of the female,
following which both sexes quiver their wings. The female selects the nest site, usually
less than fifteen feet high in a deciduous shrub, and does all the building. Her mate accompanies her to and from the site as she gathers material. The nest, constructed from
spider webs, cocoons, weed stems, and strips of bark, is a delicate cup suspended by
its rim from a forked twig. The female alone sits on her four eggs, which hatch in about
two weeks. During this time, when the male stops singing, the female anxiously looks
around, then leaves the nest to join her mate, who then feeds her. Both parents feed the
nestlings. Fledging occurs at ten to twelve days, after which the family group may roam
widely.
Red-eyed vireos breed in the East, Midwest, and Northwest. They winter in South
America where the focus of their diets changes to berries and small fruit. Deforestation in
the tropics and fragmentation of habitat with increased cowbird parasitism in North
America pose threats to vireo populations.

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Blue Jay
Cyanocitta cristata

I could watch and listen to a blue jay for hourshow it screeches into a landing, scaring
all the other birds, then hops about on rubber-ball toes; how it bobs up and down by extending its legs in rhythm to its squeaky pump-handle song; how it rattles and growls and
sings doodle-dee-do, or imitates the scream of a red-tailed hawk, or shouts jay! jay! to send
its alarm throughout the woods and incite other birds to join in its harassment of a predator. Look for a mob of jays and you will surely find a hawk or an owl.
Bold in character, bold in color, bold in its conspicuous crest, large bill, and large,
graduated tail, the blue jay can also be inconspicuous and furtive as it tends its own nest
or robs the nest of another bird. While engaged in breeding activities, it is nearly silent.
Both sexes build a bulky nest of twigs, grass, and bark strips, line it with softer materials, and decorate it with string or other debris. The nest is eight to thirty feet high in a deciduous or coniferous tree. The female sits on her four to five eggs while her mate feeds
her on the nest. Both parents feed the nestlings, which fledge about three weeks after
hatching.
Blue jays are common in the East and Midwest and are expanding their range northwest. They are successful because they are highly adaptable. For example, when the eastern forests were cleared, they adapted to people and began nesting in city parks and
yards. They can eat a large variety of foods, seventy-five percent of which is vegetable
matter, including nuts, seeds, grains, and fruits; other foods include insects, spiders, frogs,
small rodents, and carrion. Although blue jays are often vilified as nest robbers, birds eggs
and baby birds make up less than one percent of their diet.
Members of the Corvidae family, which includes ravens, crows, jays, and magpies, blue
jays are among the most intelligent of birds. In the laboratory, they are quick to learn
problem-solving strategies, such as staying with a stimulus that produces food and avoiding one that does not. When captive jays see slides of camouflaged moths on tree trunks,
they soon learn to pick out a species with which they are familiar and peck a key a certain
number of times when they spot it. They commonly harvest acorns, store them in the
ground, and remember where to find them later.
These birds often visit my yard, where they have learned how to balance at suet feeders meant for smaller species. I laugh at the sight of blue jays reaching for sunflower seeds
from the small perches of tube feeders that are swinging in the wind. The fact that they
are common makes them no less entertaining.

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Tree Swallow
Tachycineta bicolor

Tree swallows are the first swallows to come north in spring and the last to leave in fall.
On a cold spring day, it warms my heart to watch flocks of these birds in long, flowing
flights over a lake, scooping insects out of the air. Unlike the other eight species of swallows that breed in North America, tree swallows feed not only on insects captured in
flight but also perch in bushes to eat seeds and berries, especially bayberries.
This species breeds across the northern half of the country and Canada. Males lead
potential mates to possible nesting sites in open areas, usually near water. Nests are in
holes of dead trees or birdhouses, such as those provided for bluebirds. Once they have
chosen a site, the swallows defend it aggressively. For the last six years, a pair of swallows
has nested in a bluebird box on the Hvoslef Wildlife Management Area near my house.
Whenever I approach the box, the birds dive at my head, swerving off only at the last
moment.
The nest, built by the female, is a cup of grasses lined with feathers. Her mate helps
gather materials and, when she is present at the site, does a fluttering flight, then lands
and moves toward her, bowing as he comes closer. The two then touch bills. Incubation
of the four to seven eggs is by the female only. Both parents feed the nestlings, which
hatch in about two weeks and fledge about three weeks later. Both parents carry fecal
sacs of the young away from the nest and drop them into water.
Young birds are strong fliers as soon as they leave the nest and become independent
within two or three days. Juveniles are often present at the nests of swallows other than
their parents but they are not helpers. Instead, they attempt to steal food from the adults
and young birds.
In midsummer, tree swallows begin collecting into huge flocks, and in fall, they join
other swallows, often lining up on power lines or skimming over water by the hundreds or
thousands. They spend the winter in Central America, where they remain in flocks, feeding in marshy areas.
The tree swallow is presently thriving, due in part to the recent popularity of bluebird
boxes, which has reduced its need to compete with other cavity nesters for natural sites.
However, a threat to its numbers may exist in climate change. According to an article on
global warming in National Geographic, September 2004, North American swallows are
now migrating north in spring twelve days earlier than they did twenty-five years ago.
Since different species react to climate change in different ways, the natural cycles of the
birds and the insects they eat may cease to be synchronized, thus contributing to population declines or even extinction.

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Barn Swallow
Hirundo rustica

Almost everyone is familiar with the barn swallow. Because we are so accustomed to seeing this bird, we might not appreciate its beauty, but take a careful look at its long, deeply
forked tail, dark blue back, and rich orange underparts and you cant help but admire it.
In the 1800s, the swallows beautiful feathers resulted in the killing of thousands of birds
to make ornaments for womens hats. In 1886, an editorial by George Bird Grinnell in Forest and Stream condemning the waste of bird life for millinery led to the founding of the
Audubon Society.
During breeding season, the barn swallow is common across the entire country and
allows close inspection due to its practice of nesting near people. It inhabits towns, agricultural areas, open country, and savanna, especially near water, where it drinks, bathes,
and catches insects in flight. Males and females arrive simultaneously on their breeding
grounds from their winter homes in Central and South America. In courtship, males chase
females in long swooping flights while singing twittering songs interrupted by creaking
sputters. Mates rub heads, interlock bills, and preen each others feathers. Several pairs
may nest in the same area but they generally do not form large colonies like bank and cliff
swallows do.
The nest, built by both sexes, consists of mud, which they plaster to horizontal or vertical supports in buildings, under eaves or bridges, or in rock cavities. They may travel
half a mile away for mud that has the right consistency. Sometimes they use nests from
previous years, adding new layers of mud each year until the nest is up to a foot high.
In 1988, my sister-in-law, Susan Gysland, watched barn swallows build a nest and raise
their young under the roof of her porch in Lanesboro. She watched surreptitiously so as
not to disrupt or cause them to move away. She watched them return to the site repeatedly with pea-sized clods of mud that they plastered against the rough wall. Soon the
base of the nest took shape, a semicircle at the top tapering downward in the form of a
cone. They worked for five days, finally lining the nest with feathers. She watched them
sit on their four eggs for two weeks and feed their young until they took their first flights
three weeks later. Identifying with their parenthood, she thought of her own children,
who would soon venture away from home.
Helpers, usually yearlings or immatures from the parents first clutch, are often present at barn swallow nests and occasionally aid in feeding the nestlings, like human children caring for their younger siblings. Our ability to identify with the swallows gives us a
personal stake in helping them survive threats, such as those posed by climate change,
habitat destruction, and predation by domestic cats.

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Black-capped Chickadee
Poecile atricapilla

A black-capped chickadee was the very first bird to find my feeders. It snatched a seed,
flew to a nearby tree, cracked the seed open, ate it, and immediately flew back to the
feeder for another. Now, whenever I go to fill the feeders, a chickadee is waiting. Sometimes in its hurry for food, it alights on my hand and hops along my arm.
A black and white ball of acrobatic energy, the chickadee resides year around in mixed
and deciduous woods, in city parks, and in neighborhoods from Alaska to Oregon and
across the Upper Midwest to the East Coast. Its jerky up-and-down flight is easily recognizable, as are its cheerful chick-a-dee-dee-dee call and spring song, a whistled fee-bee, or
springs here, which it sometimes sings in the cold of winter.
The chickadee is the first bird to return to a feeder after a threat, such as a sharpshinned hawk, has flown away. Its high metabolism, necessitating frequent feeding, and
its ability to get away quickly probably have more to do with this characteristic than
bravery. It investigates everything and is quick to find insects, seeds, and berries as it forages, sometimes hanging upside down, among small branches. Look for the chickadees
and you will often find other small birds with them, especially during fall migration. I like
to think the migrants have learned that the chickadees know the neighborhood, its dangers, and where to find food.
One April, I watched a chickadee pair excavating a nest hole in a rotting stump. I could
hear one bird softly tapping in the hole while its mate waited on a nearby branch. When
the tapping bird appeared with a mouthful of wood chips, which it scattered away from
the site, its mate flew into the hole to take its turn. I observed this activity every day for
almost two weeks. When the excavation was complete, the female gathered nesting material and placed it in the cavity. During the next two weeks, I occasionally observed the
male carrying insects and seeds to his incubating mate, and then one day I could hear the
cries of nestlings begging for food. I missed the fledging day, but in the middle of May, I
observed the parents busily feeding their newly fledged young.
In late summer, chickadees gather into small flocks that remain together until the next
breeding season. A flock usually forms around a dominant pair with the two members of
this pair each dominating all others of their respective sexes.
It is difficult to imagine a world with too many chickadees. Fortunately, they are doing
well. Although feeding stations are mostly for our own benefit and not a necessity for the
birds, their presence seems to be a factor in the growth of the chickadee population.

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Tufted Titmouse
Baeolophus bicolor

We sit on my back porch, a cool breezy space on a hot humid day. My friend Carol has
brought a field trip here to see a tufted titmouse. While we wait, bluebirds call nearby.
They are busy feeding their young, who are almost ready to fledge. House wrens carry
food to their nestlings under the house. A field sparrow sings in the distance. Finally, we
hear a faint peter, peter, peter, which gradually becomes louder until the bird we have been
looking for comes within sight.
Tufted titmice are common in deciduous woods and shady city parks throughout the
eastern half of the country. Our woods is on the northern edge of their range. Although
we had seen one at our feeders almost every winter, we didnt have any breeding pairs
until 1995. Since then, we have had a resident flock. Because they are uncommon in other
parts of Minnesota, many people have come here just to see these birds.
Titmice are larger than their relatives, the chickadees, but have a similar repertoire of
whistling and raspy calls and display much of the same behavior. Specialized leg muscles
give them the ability to hang upside down under twigs and leaves, where they find insects, berries, and seeds. They frequently come to feeders, take one seed, and fly to a
nearby branch where they hold the seed with their feet while cracking it open with their
bills. Or, they may store the food in a bark crevice for later retrieval.
This species forms long-term pair bonds. In spring, males chase females, who, in turn,
quiver their wings in display. The male feeds his mate while she builds a nest of grass,
moss, and bark strips in a natural tree cavity, old woodpecker hole, or nest box. She may
pluck hair for the lining from a live animal or even a human head. Incubation of the five to
six eggs is by the female only. The young hatch in about two weeks and leave the nest
about fifteen days later. Both parents, and occasionally an offspring from the previous
year, feed the nestlings.
As the summer wears on, I enjoy listening to the noisy juveniles as they make their way
through the woods with their parents to visit my feeders. The youngsters have gray forehead patches, unlike the adults whose patches are black. The families stay together
throughout the winter, after which the young disperse to breed in nearby areas or some
distance away.
In recent decades, this species has been expanding its range north and populations
seem to be increasing, probably due to the readily available food at feeders. Since our
first pair of breeding birds arrived, titmice have moved farther into Minnesota, mostly
along the Mississippi River where the previously unheard peter, peter, peter has become a
most welcome sound.

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White-breasted Nuthatch
Sitta carolinensis

Also called tree-mouse and devil downhead, the white-breasted nuthatch, aided by its
strong claws and toes, makes most of its living by climbing up and around but usually
headfirst down the trunks of trees searching for insects. This bird is a common resident in
deciduous woods across the country, but its appearance and vocalizations are inconspicuous enough that you might not be conscious of its presence. On a winter day, without
knowing why, you may suddenly feel a touch of spring. A likely source is the nuthatchs
wah, wah, wah spring song, which it sometimes sings in January.
In winter, when insects arent available, the nuthatch frequently visits feeders for sunflower seeds and suet. Nuthacking, which gives the bird its name, refers to the way it
lodges a seed in a bark crevice, then puts the strength of its whole body into hammering
the seed open with its bill. When competing with another bird for feeder foods, the
nuthatch hangs upside down, spreads its wings, and sways back and forth.
The sight of this bird perched in a frozen position with its head and tail raised tells me
a predator is nearby. A rapid series of nasal ank calls tells me it is joining other small birds
in mobbing a predator. A single ank note helps maintain contact with family members.
Nuthatch pairs stay together on their nesting territory year round and may mate for life.
Each bird, however, has its own separate roost hole. When leaving its roost in the morning, it carries away feces that have accumulated during the night. Courting begins in late
winter, during which time the male feeds his mate and performs bowing, swaying, and
singing rituals.
The nest site is a natural cavity in which the female builds a cup of soft bark shreds,
grasses, and hair. Both sexes may add bits of fur around the nest hole and sweep across it
with an insect held in their bills, thus leaving a scent that helps deter predators. The male
feeds his mate while she incubates their five to nine eggs. Both parents feed their young.
Fledging occurs about two weeks after hatching.
This species is usually nonmigratory, but numbers sometimes move south in an irruptive manner. The smaller red-breasted nuthatch of northern coniferous forests is much
more likely to move in this way, especially when cone crops are poor. When I hear a highpitched call that sounds like a distant horn, I know one of these little nuthatches is in my
area.
Although the cutting of large trees and the need to compete with other cavity nesters
create some difficulties for white-breasted nuthatches, their population remains strong.
These birds are such an integral part of the woods that Im not usually mindful of their
presence, but if they were to disappear, I would surely miss them.

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House Wren
Troglodytes aedon

One wall of my office has a sliding patio door that leads to a long, narrow porch where I
like to sit and peer deep into the woods. Two other walls have long panes of glass, five
panes on one, three on the other. Above and below the panes are small screened openings. Wooden flaps that open for ventilation cover these openings on the outside walls.
One spring afternoon, I came home to find stacks of small sticks on the ledges below the
flaps of six upper openings. While I was puzzling over the source, a house wren appeared
with a stick in his bill and added it to one of the stacks. I looked through my books to
learn about this odd behavior and discovered that the male wren commonly builds
dummy nests in a number of cavity-like places, then leads the female to these sites and
she chooses one to complete by adding softer materials.
It seems like these little brown breeding machines are so anxious to breed that they
will nest in almost any kind of enclosed space. I have also found wren nests in the mast
of our sailboat, behind the license plate of our car, and in a flowerpot. Not only that, the
birds seem to be covetous of all the nesting spots and will puncture the eggs of other
birds or pull their nests apart. This behavior might discourage predators, who, after
checking many nests and finding them all empty, may stop looking in a particular area.
The male wren defends his territory by singing a loud bubbling song, especially early
in the morning, when humans are trying to sleep. In courtship, he sings while quivering
his wings. His mate, in turn, quivers her wings to solicit copulation. Incubation of the six
to seven eggs is by the female. The eggs hatch in about two weeks. Both parents feed the
young, which fledge twelve to eighteen days after hatching. A male may mate with more
than one female, and a female may move to another males territory to begin a second
brood.
In summer, this species can be found across the country actively foraging for insects in
the dense vegetation of woodlands, farms, gardens, and parks. A scolding rapid series of
chit calls will alert you to its presence. In fall, at about the time their smaller relatives, the
winter wrens, arrive in my woods from the north, house wrens leave for their wintering
grounds in the southern states and Mexico.
Although evolution has given house wrens many mechanisms for defending territories
and the ability to nest in all kinds of odd places, they must compete with the nonnative
house sparrows that also have these abilities. Following the introduction of house sparrows in the late nineteenth century, wren populations declined, but now they appear to
be stable.

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Ruby-crowned Kinglet
Regulus calendula

The male ruby-crowned kinglet, one of our smallest birds, is a round bundle of brown
feathers with no apparent neck, easy to miss until he flutters chattering in your face, raising his ruby crown, as in response to a potential mate, rival, or predator. Some birds have
names that dont seem to fit, but kinglet, or Regulus, meaning petty king or little prince,
fits this bird perfectly. The female is similar but lacks the ruby crown.
The kinglet arrives in my woods in late March or early April from its wintering grounds
in the southern states and Central America. Before seeing it, I usually hear it chattering or
singing a loud bubbling song that would seem to come from a much larger bird. This little bird pokes its bill into everything, often flicking its wings or hovering while picking insects or seeds out of foliage. Sometimes it catches insects in flight. If I want it to come
close, all I have to do is make a spishing (spssh, spssh) sound.
By early May, the last kinglet has moved north to the boreal forests of Canada, where
the female builds a hanging cup nest of moss, lichen, down, spider webs, and dead leaves
with a cavity deep enough to conceal her and her seven to eight eggs. The nest, which
looks like the surrounding foliage, is attached to twigs beneath the horizontal branch of a
conifer anywhere from two feet to one hundred feet above ground. She incubates the
eggs alone for approximately two weeks; her mate sometimes feeds her on the nest. Both
parents feed their young, which fledge about sixteen days after hatching.
Kinglets return to my area in early to mid September. By early November, the last bird
has flown south. In fall, I hear mostly the chattering calls, but once in awhile a partial
song, as though from a youngster trying out its voice, rings through the woods. At this
time of year, both the ruby-crown and its cousin, the golden-crowned kinglet, often forage with other small birds, such as chickadees, titmice, nuthatches, vireos, and warblers.
I dont know how long it would have taken me to notice kinglets if, as a beginning
birder about twenty years ago, I hadnt happened to come across them in my field guide.
Intrigued by the name and the description, I decided to look for them in my woods. The
time of year was right and I found both species. A few days later, I went looking again, and
to my dismay, I found a dead ruby-crowned kinglet tangled in a thistle. I suppose it was
hovering a bit too close in its search for insects. Although I still feed sad for the bird that
died, it is good to know that this species is doing well and continues to be widespread
and common.

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Eastern Bluebird
Sialia sialis

One day in early spring I felt an urgent need to clean our bluebird box and put the door
back on. When I was done and walking away, something told me to turn around. I looked
and there was the bluebird pair, sitting on the house. When the male sang his sweet
notes, I realized that memory can do justice neither to the colors of this bird or to its
song. The eastern bluebird, a member of the thrush family, is one of the best songsters in
the avian world.
Johan Hvoslef reported seeing hundreds of bluebirds in the early 1900s. But in recent
decades, due to the felling of dead trees, removal of wooden fence posts, and competition for nest holes with house sparrows and starlings, numbers declined by up to ninety
percent. The placement of artificial nest boxes, which began in the 1980s, has led to a
partial recovery. In 1989, I placed one nest box in the field next to my house. Knowing
that bluebirds prefer semi-open country with scattered trees, I wasnt sure if my field was
open enough to attract a pair. I didnt have to wait long to see a female perched at the
entrance investigating the interior.
When courting, the male feeds his mate, sings, flutters in front of her, and preens her
feathers. Although he neither helps to build the nest nor to incubate the four pale blue
eggs, he is always present, guarding against intruders. When he flies to the top of the box
and sings, his mate leaves the nest to hunt on her own by perching low, then fluttering to
the ground to catch insects or hovering among foliage to feed on berries. Both parents,
and often young birds from a previous brood, remove fecal sacs and feed the young,
which fledge about eighteen days after hatching. Bluebirds usually have two broods a
season.
One morning, while sitting on my porch, I saw a nestling poke its head out of the box.
Soon it ventured farther out so I could see the spots on its breast and back. I knew then
where I would spend the day. I watched and waited, experiencing what seemed to me the
hope and anxiety of the babys parents. Soon the nestling was most of the way out. Suddenly, it flew, landing safely on a branch almost hidden by leaves. By early afternoon, four
babies had fledged and I had had the privilege of watching each event. The family remained nearby for several days, then disappeared.
In the fall, I saw bluebirds, some with breasts still spotted, perched on our power line
and fluttering around the nest box. I knew they would soon migrate to their wintering
grounds in the southern states. I would have to wait until the next March to see them
again.

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American Robin
Turdus migratorius

Soon after we moved to the woods, my husband and I cut paths through our favorite
areas and placed benches along the way. One of the benches overlooks the South Fork of
the Root River. A grove of red cedar trees grows here. One day in late October as I approached the bench, I heard the sharp clucking calls of robins. I sat on the bench to
watch and listen. The birds were flying erratically among the trees, tumbling to the
ground, flying up again, and falling off perches. I realized I was witnessing a raucous party
of inebriated robins feasting on fermenting cedar berries.
Wild berries and cultivated fruits comprise about sixty percent of the robins diet. Insects, earthworms, snails, spiders, and other invertebrates make up the rest. These birds
predict the coming of rain with much singing, which makes you wonder if they are anticipating the juicy worms that rise to the surface in wet weather. Who hasnt seen a robin
hop a short distance on a freshly mown lawn wet from dew or rain, stop as if to look and
listen, then pull a succulent meal out of the ground? Experiments have shown that the
birds, contrary to popular belief, locate worms by sight, not sound.
Robins occur year around across the country except for winter in the far north. When
I was a child growing up in southeast Minnesota, I used to compete with other children
for the first spring sighting of a robin, which usually happened in early March. In recent
years, however, I have often seen these birds in the winter.
The males arrive first on their nesting grounds and sing to defend their territories.
When the females come, several males will pursue one female, who will choose a mate for
the sake of his territory. The nest is a cup of grasses and twigs with a middle layer of mud,
built mostly by the female on a low horizontal branch, light fixture, or a ledge of a house,
barn, or bridge. She forms the nest by pressing her breast against the edges. She lays four
pale blue eggs and sits on them while her mate guards the site. Both parents feed their
nestlings a diet of insects and worms. The young birds leave the nest about two weeks after hatching. As with all immature thrushes, they have spotted breasts, which help to
camouflage them. While the father continues to feed the fledglings, the mother begins a
second brood.
In spite of their nests frequently falling prey to predators such as crows and domestic
cats, robins are doing well, in part because they dont have the hardship of long migrations and they have learned to capitalize on the presence of buildings for nest sites and
lawns for worms and other delicacies. Unfortunately, the very lawns that provide them
food may also contain harmful chemicals.

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Gray Catbird
Dumetella carolinensis

The catbird has sometimes fooled me into thinking Im hearing the first notes of an orioles song. Its hard to listen to a catbird without believing that he enjoys singing and
wants everyone within hearing distance to know what a great virtuoso he is in spite of the
fact that his vocalizations consist mostly of rambling whistled or squeaky phrases randomly interrupted by the catlike mew that has given him his name. His concerts begin at
dawn and, after a daytime intermission, continue into the evening, often intermingling
with the hooting of owls.
In the second half of May 2003, a catbird consistently sang from a barberry bush near
a birdbath in my yard. One day, I saw him bowing before his mate, then turning away
from her to show off the patch of chestnut under his tail. I could watch the area from my
porch, and soon I saw his mate carrying twigs, grass, and leaves deep into the bush while
he stood guard. When I parted the branches, unmindful of thorns, I found the beginnings
of a large, bulky nest.
On May 24, I found the bird sitting on her nest. She didnt move a feather, and I imagined fear in her dark beady eye as she looked at me. On May 31, when the mother was off
the nest, I saw four blue-green eggs inside it. On June 10, I found one nestling and three
eggs. Two days later there were four nestlings, and both adults were busily carrying insects to their young. The male catbird makes more feeding trips than his mate. His feeding instinct is so strong that he sometimes feeds young birds of other species while waiting for his own young to hatch. By June 21, the babies looked large enough to fledge. The
next day, the nest was empty and the female was ready to begin a second brood.
During breeding season, catbirds are common in all parts of the country except in the
Southwest and far Southeast. They inhabit undergrowth along the edges of woods and
streams, overgrown fields, and yards, where they forage for insects and berries. One day
while watching the birds foraging behavior, I tried to put myself in its place. I imagined
myself up to my neck in morning wet grass, flipping a leaf aside with my beak, grabbing
the grub underneath, and flying to a branch to savor the grub. The thought of such a life,
without the encumbrances of human existence, suddenly seemed appealing.
In fall, these birds migrate to their wintering grounds in the southeastern states and
Central America. In recent years their populations have declined. One reason for the decline might be the presence of domestic cats to which the birds fall prey because they
live so close to the ground.

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Cedar Waxwing
Bombycilla cedrorum

You hear a high, thin, whistling sound and a cedar tree comes alive with a tight flock of
waxwings rising, then turning in unison, as though a single entity. It is almost impossible
for me to think of these birds in the singular. Even while breeding, they will fly away from
the nest to feed in a flock.
Unlike most species, pair formation takes place within the flock before the birds arrive
on breeding grounds. At any time of year, waxwings will line up on a branch and pass a
berry from one to the other down the line and back again. In courtship, mates will pass a
berry back and forth between each other until one bird eats it. They will also rub bills and
engage in rapid circular chases. Nesting usually occurs later than other species, as late as
September or October when apple, plum, cedar, and other trees are bearing fruit.
Both sexes gather grass, twigs, and plant fibers to build a loose cup nest on a horizontal branch or in a fork of a tree about twenty feet high. The female lays three to five eggs
and does all the incubating, while her mate feeds her and guards the area. Both parents
feed their young and eat their fecal sacs. Before fledging occurs, about two weeks after
hatching, the parents have begun a nest for their second brood. They feed the fledglings
for about ten days, after which the young birds join other juveniles to feed in small flocks.
Waxwings forage by climbing about in trees, hovering to pick food from foliage and
flying out to catch insects in midair. They are nomadic, and local numbers vary depending on the availability of food. They occur on the edges of woods, streams, fields, and
yards year round in the North. In winter, they are also present in the South.
No matter how often I see these birds, their elegant plumage never ceases to astound
me. Black masks; soft brown crests, backs, and breasts; yellowish bellies; yellow-tipped
tails; and red spots on the tips of their secondary feathers that look like drops of wax all
come together to make this species look like fine art.
On January 1, 2002, I saw waxwings in my crabapple tree but they looked different.
They were larger than usual and their backs, breasts, and crests were grayish instead of
brown. My friend Carol had repeatedly told me to watch for Bohemian waxwings that
sometimes wander down from their northern territories. I grabbed my field guide, read
the description, looked at the birds again, and, when I observed their diagnostic rusty
undertail coverts, made a positive identification of seven Bohemian waxwings. Two days
later, the apples were gone and so were the birds. I happily added these birds to my life
list.

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American Redstart
Setophaga ruticilla

Flashing his orange and black colors, he flies out from a poplar tree to catch an insect in
midair. The Cubans call him candilita or little candle. Soon his mate arrives. She is yellow
and gray where he is orange and black. The American redstart belongs to the subfamily
of wood warblers, which consists of small, multicolored insectivores that occur only in
the western hemisphere. Fifty-four species breed in North America. During migration, I
have counted thirty-one species in my woods, all but seven of which breed farther north.
It is tempting to think the intricate markings and bright colors of warblers are a result
of fancy and intention rather than natural selection. In spite of their elaborate plumage,
they are difficult to locate and identify because of their constant activity and small size,
which allow them to disappear amongst the foliage. In fall, identification becomes more
complicated as many of the males acquire drabber plumage, similar to that of females
and immatures. It helps to learn certain characteristics, such as the presence or absence
of wingbars, tail spots, eye-rings, and eyelines that identify broad groups.
Knowledge of vocalizations is an important aid to warbler identification. The redstarts squeaky notes were the most important for me to learn, since it is the commonest
warbler in my area and frequently sounds like other birds. Without knowing the subtleties
of its songs and calls, one can easily mistake the redstart for a yellow, chestnut-sided,
magnolia, or black-and-white warbler.
Although all warblers feed mainly on insects, they avoid competition with each other
by foraging differently and occupying particular niches. The redstart hovers in foliage
and catches insects in flight more than its relatives do. Its niche is midway in trees of
open deciduous and mixed forests, especially second-growth forests.
The female redstart chooses a mate for his territory. She builds a dainty nest in the
fork of a tree. Materials include plant fibers, grass, feathers, and lichen to decorate the
outside. She alone sits on the nest. Both parents feed the nestlings, which fledge in about
nine days. Every year since Ive been watching redstarts, except the last, I have witnessed
the breeding process. During this time, I have frequently found the little parents frantically feeding one big cowbird baby. Increasing cowbird predation is a threat to almost all
warbler species.
In fall, redstarts migrate with other warblers from breeding grounds in the East, Northwest, and Canada to tropical America where they face loss of habitat due to widespread
deforestation. Fragmentation of habitat in the north is also a problem. Watching the
waves of migrating warblers used to be my favorite birdwatching activity. Over the last
five years the birds have appeared no longer in waves but only one or two at a time.

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Ovenbird
Seiurus aurocapillus

A friend of mine calls them wind-up birds for their emphatic, unmusical teacher, teacher,
teacher song that steadily rises in volume and pitch. Ovenbirds arrive in my woods from
Mexico or Central America in early May. From then on into summer, I hear them singing,
mostly early and late in the day. Infrequently, I hear the evening or flight song, a rapid
jumble of warbles and whistles intermingled with teacher phrases.
Unlike many warblers, ovenbirds spend most of their time on the ground picking insects out of leaf litter. Because of this habit and their inconspicuous plumage, they are
even more difficult to see than other warblers. I have often looked in vain for one that
seems to be singing just feet away and have finally had to satisfy myself with the mere
knowledge of its presence. Instead of hopping or flying in search of food, these birds walk
across the forest floor, bobbing their heads and flicking their tails. The genus name, Seiurus, means to wave the tail. Northern and Louisiana waterthrushes, the two other warblers in this genus, walk and bob in a similar manner.
The male ovenbird establishes a territory in deciduous or mixed woods and defends
it against intruding males by kneading the ground with his feet, tilting his tail, and lowering his wings. He sings to attract a female, often while pursuing her in flight. Using dead
leaves, grass, bark, and animal hair, the female builds an oven-shaped nest on the
ground. Because the nest looks like a clump of leaves, it is almost impossible to discover.
I have never found one in spite of looking diligently in the area near my house, where
ovenbirds sing every year. While sitting on her eggs or brooding her young, the female
wont flush unless a human or other creature almost steps on her, and then she flutters
away, dragging one wing as a distraction display.
Although cowbirds heavily parasitize this species, ovenbird babies often survive along
with the cowbird babies. When the young leave the nest, seven to ten days after hatching,
they can only flutter and hop. After a week or two, they are able to fly and walk. They receive food from both parents while in the nest and for ten to twenty days after leaving it.
Habitat loss on its wintering grounds is a serious threat to this species, which is also
particularly sensitive to forest fragmentation on its breeding grounds in the East and Upper Midwest. I am lucky that my woods contains large trees that provide closed canopies,
which shade the forest floor and keep the ground cover minimal, thus creating ideal habitat for this bird. However, development is quickly fragmenting the surrounding forest,
and I fear that some day the ovenbird will no longer find a suitable place to breed here.

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Eastern Towhee
Pipilo erythrophthalmus

The first time I ever heard drink your tea in the wild, I knew I was hearing an eastern
towhee. I had heard the song on tapes and had been waiting to hear the real bird. To
Thoreau, it sounded like hip-you, he-he-he-he, which fits even better. The name towhee
also resembles the song. Another name is the chewink, which resembles a call given by
both the sexes. In spring, to announce their territories, male towhees sing from high
perches but also spend much of their time on the ground, where their signature habit of
stirring up the leaves by hopping forward then scratching backwards with both feet frequently gives them away. Other sparrows also scratch in the leaves but none as vigorously
as the towhee.
This species breeds and forages for insects, seeds, and berries in open woods and
brushy areas from the East to the Midwest. The male attracts a mate by chasing her, fluffing his feathers, and rapidly spreading and folding his tail while singing softly. The female
scratches a depression on the ground in which she constructs her nest so that its rim is
even with the surface. Materials include leaves, twigs, bark, rootlets, and finer material,
such as animal hair, for lining.
During the two weeks of incubation, the male guards the territory but rarely approaches his incubating mate. On the last few days, he comes to the nest with food in his
bill, which might be his way of learning if the eggs have hatched. For the first week of
their lives, he alone feeds the three to five young, while the female broods them. When
flushed from the nest, which she does only reluctantly, the mother may feign injury to
distract the intruder. After the first week, she also takes part in feeding. The young birds
receive food from both parents for about a month after fledging, during which time the
adults may begin a second brood.
In winter, towhees gather in loose flocks. Southern birds are permanent residents.
Those that breed in the North migrate to the southern states and Central America. One
year, I found a towhee overwintering near a bend in the South Fork of the Root River. I
named the area Towhee Point.
Until recently, this species was known as the rufous-sided towhee, one race of which
occurred in the East, another in the West. But research suggested that the two races were
distinct species and the western bird became the spotted towhee. White spots on its upperparts distinguish this bird from its relative.
Towhees often play host to cowbirds, whose eggs they dont recognize. Because they
nest on the ground, they also frequently fall prey to domestic cats. These factors, plus loss
of habitat, have led to a significant decline in recent years, especially in the Northeast.

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Field Sparrow
Spizella pusilla

The field sparrows song, a sweet accelerating trill, fits his delicate appearance. From an
exposed perch, he raises his small head, opens his pink bill, and sings from early spring
through summer. His song, floating across the overgrown field near my house in the middle of a hot summer day, suggests coolness and serenity. In spite of his name, he does not
inhabit wide-open grassy areas but favors brush, second-growth woods, and woodland
edges from the East Coast to the Midwest.
Field sparrows usually breed in the same area each year. Pairing occurs with little display. On May 18, 2002, I saw one of these birds carrying nesting material into the brush
near my driveway. When I parted the brush, I found a small, inconspicuous cup of woven
grasses resting in vegetation close to the ground. On May 24, the nest contained one
whitish, speckled egg. Two days later, there were two eggs, and on May 27, there were
four. A few days later, I showed the eggs to a birdwatching group from the University of
Minnesota that visits me every spring. The next time I checked, all the eggs were gone,
and I feared that I had exposed the nest to a predator.
When, as commonly occurs, a nest falls prey to a domestic cat, raccoon, or snake, the
birds immediately start the process again, making up to seven attempts before raising a
successful brood. They typically raise one to three broods a season. Soon after my sad
discovery, I saw the female carrying a bill full of grasses but declined to follow her.
The female alone sits on the eggs, but both parents carry spiders and insects to the
young birds. About seven days after hatching, the babies leave the nest to hop about in
low vegetation until they are able to fly seven days later. For another two weeks, while the
mother begins another brood, the father feeds the fledglings, after which they gather into
small flocks to feed on their own. In late summer, the adults and young form larger flocks.
Those in the north migrate to the southern states for the winter. Southern birds are permanent residents. Although still abundant, populations have declined in recent years,
possibly due to increased predation and habitat loss through human development.
In spring, the birds move north with other sparrows. More than thirty sparrow species
are native to North America, with about twenty-two occurring in the Upper Midwest.
These species can be as difficult to find and identify as warblers but for different reasons:
they usually hide deep within foliage, they lack bright colors, and many are similar in
plumage. Although I can easily recognize the sparrows I see most often, identification of
the less common and more secretive species is a continuing challenge.

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Song Sparrow
Melospiza melodia

Most range maps show song sparrows as permanent residents in my area, but I rarely see
them in winter. They return in mid March from their wintering grounds just south of here
or as far south as northern Mexico. I usually hear them before I see them. Their intricate
and melodious songs, for which they are aptly named, consist of two to four loud, clear
whistles on the same pitch, followed by a buzzy trill and several short notes. Within this
pattern, each individual will sing several different versions, which are easily recognizable
by their quality as belonging to a song sparrow.
The appearance of this bird is as variable as its songs. Twenty-nine subspecies with regional differences in size and colors ranging from grayish to chocolate and rusty brown
occur across the country with intergrades that gradually blend one variation into another. Because it is the most numerous and widespread sparrow in North America, detailed knowledge of this bird by both sight and song can serve as a reference for all other
sparrows.
In March, at least one song sparrow will spend time in my yard, scratching under the
feeders or singing from the top of a small tree or shrub. Later, I have to go elsewhere to
see them, usually down to the thickets and marshy areas along the South Fork of the
Root River. I also find them perched on power lines above abandoned pastures.
Because males defend small territories, large numbers of song sparrows may be present in good habitat. A courting male chases a female and flies from perch to perch with
his wings vibrating, neck outstretched, and head held high. Although he may help carry
material, his mate builds the nest, a cup of weeds, leaves, and bark strips with fine grass
and animal hair for lining, which she usually places on the ground under a shrub or clump
of grass. As with those of field sparrows, predators often discover song sparrow nests,
and the birds may have to start over several times.
The female, who does all the incubating, leaves the nest about once every half hour,
often in response to the male singing loud versions of his song a few yards away. Both parents feed their offspring while in the nest and for about three weeks afterwards until the
young birds are able to fly well. In some populations, parents divide the brood between
them, each feeding its own set of fledglings. During this phase, they usually begin a second brood.
I have often observed the adults carrying food to their newly fledged young. I have
also seen them feed young cowbirds. Song sparrows, along with yellow warblers, play
host to cowbirds more than any other species. In spite of this predation and a vulnerability to habitat loss, the population remains strong.

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White-throated Sparrow
Zonotrichia albicollis

On April 13, 1985, my first spring of birdwatching, the woods rang with hundreds of
voices singing old Sam Peabody, Peabody, Peabody. I wasnt there to hear it. My husband
telephoned to tell me of the enchanting music and the birds he saw singing it. We wondered why we hadnt heard the voices before. Why did it take a concentrated interest in
birds to hear these songs? What else were we missing by not paying attention? Before I
returned home, the birds had moved north to their breeding grounds in the thickets and
undergrowth of coniferous and mixed forests in Canada and Alaska. Every year since
then, I have been home to welcome their songs and the sight of dozens of birds scratching simultaneously in leaves or foraging under our feeders in search of seeds and insects.
In his journals from the early 1900s, Johan Hvoslef carefully documented his sightings
of male and female white-throated sparrows. We now know that the sexes are much alike,
with the female coloring being only slightly duller than that of the male. The differences
that Hvoslef observed were those between the white and tan morphs of this bird, one
having white crown stripes and the other tan crown stripes. Experiments have shown
differences in behavior between the two morphs. The adults tend to mate with opposite
colored morphs. White-striped males sing more and are more aggressive towards singing
birds than their counterparts. Because the females of this morph also sing, the whitestriped males are likely to drive them off and mate instead with tan-striped females,
which do not sing.
To solicit copulation, the female quivers her wings and trills. Using coarse grass, twigs,
pine needles, and finer materials, she builds a nest well concealed in a shrub, under a mat
of dead vegetation, or under a fallen log and incubates her three to five eggs for about
two weeks. Both adults feed their young, which leave the nest about nine days later but
continue to receive food from their parents for two more weeks.
In mid September, flocks of white-throated sparrows return to my woods. Sometimes,
white-crowned and Harris sparrows, also of this genus, will be in their midst. In fall, I hear
only fragments of the old Sam Peabody song, which I attribute to young birds practicing
and find even more endearing than the full spring song. By the end of October, most of
the adults are on their way to the southeastern states and immature birds and first-year
females are flying to northeastern Mexico for the winter.
Because they prefer forest-edge habitats, white-throated sparrows have benefited
from some forestry practices. Their numbers, however, decline when forests regenerate
or are cleared for development. Surveys show a slight decline in total population over recent years.

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Northern Cardinal
Cardinalis cardinalis

No other winter bird in my woods approaches the colorfulness of a male cardinal. His
bright red plumage against new-fallen snow brings a feeling of warmth to a cold December. Once common only in the Southeast, the cardinal has been expanding north and
west for more than a century. Johan Hvoslef saw it for the first time in Lanesboro in 1898.
Since then, it has reached woodland edges, thickets, and gardens from the East to the
Great Plains and into central Minnesota. Although not as common there as elsewhere, it
has also reached the north shore of Lake Superior.
Beginning in late winter, a spot of red at the top of a tall tree will reveal a male cardinal
singing wheet-cheer-cheer-cheer, variations of which change from day to day, bird to bird,
and region to region. A soft trill usually follows the song. Females sing as well as the males
do, and countersinging between mates is an important courting behavior. Mate feeding,
often observable at feeders, is equally important. Cardinals consume some insects, but
their diet consists primarily of seeds and berries that they find on the ground, in low
bushes, and on feeder shelves.
The female builds a cup nest usually about four feet high in the densest part of a
thicket or evergreen. I have observed nest building, incubating of three or four pale blue
eggs, and feeding of nestlings deep inside several black spruces in my yard. The female
sometimes sings while sitting on her eggs, which generally results in her mate coming to
feed her. Both parents feed their young, which fledge about ten days after hatching.
While his mate begins a second clutch, the male feeds their fledglings. His strong instinct for feeding regularly compels him to feed other species, such as young chipping
sparrows, song sparrows, and cowbirds. In his 1976 book Parent Birds and Their Young,
Alexander Skutch described a cardinal feeding goldfish on the edge of a pool.
Although they are frequent cowbird hosts, cardinals often succeed in raising their own
young at the same time. My records show that they feed cowbirds most frequently early
in the season. Since they nest up to four times a year, they may be raising their last
broods when the cowbirds have already left the area in preparation for migration. I often
see them feeding their youngsters, which are easy to recognize by their dark bills, as late
as September. Other than her red bill, the juveniles resemble their mother with plumage
in subtle shades of red, olive, gray, and brown.
Cardinals gather into flocks for the winter. During these months at dawn and dusk, as
many as twenty-two birds, eleven of each sex, forage in my yard. The availability of feeder foods has been partly responsible for the species continuing abundance and range expansion.

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Rose-breasted Grosbeak
Pheucticus ludovicianus

Every year around May 1, the male rose-breasted grosbeak appears at my sunflower feeders as though he had never left for the winter, but in fact, he has just returned from Central or South America. At the risk of anthropomorphizing, I agree with L. Nelson Nichols,
who described the grosbeak character in Birds of America, 1917: He is seldom nervous and
seldom allows trivial things to disturb him. . . . When with his young, he seems to be the
embodiment of good cheer.
The grosbeak sings any time of day from the moment he arrives on his breeding
grounds until his young are independent. Some say his series of slurred whistles sounds
like a robin that has taken singing lessons. During pair formation, he approaches the female with his head pulled back or slowly rotates from side to side while quivering his
wings and fluffing his breast and tail feathers. I especially enjoy watching him while in full
song he flies slowly across a clearing, displaying the black and white pattern of his wings.
Grosbeaks breed in open deciduous woods across the northern half of the country
from the East Coast to Minnesota and into western Canada where they forage in shrubs
and trees for insects, seeds, and berries. The nest, built mostly by the female, is a flimsy
cup of coarse and fine twigs through which eggs may be visible from below. Although it
is usually less than twenty feet above ground, the first nest I ever discovered was about
fifty feet high in an oak tree. While taking their turns incubating, the female sometimes
sang softly, but the male seemed to put his whole heart into his loud rambling song as
though to say, look what Im doing! Alexander Skutch, in Parent Birds and Their Young, speculates that the predators of birds that sing on their nests depend mostly on senses other
than their ears.
When the three to five young fledge, about ten days after hatching, the female may
begin a new brood while the male cares for the first, often bringing his offspring to feeders for sunflower seeds. The fledglings look similar to their mother, streaked with brown
like a large sparrow. For several weeks, their persistent and plaintive me too cries are
among the most common sounds in my woods. About one month after fledging, the juveniles begin to disperse.
As summer merges into fall, these birds visit my feeders less often, the adults stop
singing, and a metallic chink call is all that reveals their presence. Before learning this
call, I thought the birds migrated in early August. Now I know that the last bird usually
doesnt leave until late September. Although grosbeak numbers remain healthy, loss of
habitat on both their wintering and breeding grounds is cause for concern.

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Indigo Bunting
Passerina cyanea

One day in June 1976, my husband and I began digging holes for the posts that would
hold up our house. Rain poured down. Every step we took made a sucking sound as we
dragged our feet out of the mud. It wasnt an auspicious beginning, but we eventually succeeded in building a house that has been our home for more than twenty years. During
our early days of building, a brilliant blue bird that looked like it belonged in the tropics
kept us company, often singing what seemed like a haphazard squeaky jumble of notes
from the top of a small tree. The bird was an indigo bunting. Years later, I realized the
song consisted of couplets, each pair at a different pitch, sounding something like fire,
firewhere? where?here, here. Now I can easily differentiate the song from the squeaky
notes of other birds.
When they first arrive in spring, I often see buntings at my feeders, but they soon
leave to breed and forage for insects and seeds in the brush along our township road and
the South Fork of the Root River. The male sings to defend his territory, usually in the
same area as previous years. On the ground, he spreads his wings and dances around a
potential mate. If his territory is of good quality, he may attract more than one mate, but
he contributes little else to the breeding process other than guarding the area and, in
some cases, feeding the fledged young while their mother begins a second clutch.
The female builds her nest, a compact cup of grasses, dead leaves, weeds, and downy
material, low in a dense shrub or small tree. She lays three to four eggs and sits on them
for about twelve days. If she finds a cowbird egg in the nest, she may bury it by building a
new floor. The babies fledge about ten days after hatching but remain near their parents
for at least two more weeks. During this time, the chip calls of agitated parents often alert
me to the presence of young birds.
After a molt in late summer, the males look like females, brown with fine striping on
their breasts, except for a few blue feathers. I often see partially molted males at this time
of year. In late August through November, the buntings migrate in flocks, flying across
the Gulf of Mexico to their wintering grounds in Mexico and Central America. They migrate by night, orienting themselves by the stars.
Indigo buntings do well in brushy rural areas across the eastern half of the country and
have grown in abundance since the early 1900s due to the clearing of forests and the increased availability of abandoned pastures. Since the 1940s, they have been extending
their breeding range into the southwestern states.

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Bobolink
Dolichonyx oryzivorus

Even before I turned off my car, I could hear bobolinks singing in the meadows of the
Hvoslef Wildlife Management Area, a short drive from my home. I visit these birds many
times every spring, but on May 8, 2004, I was also scouting for a field trip I was to lead
during the Bluff Country Bird Festival the next week. While there, I found more than fifty
species and hoped they would still be present on field trip day. I wasnt disappointed. Of
all the birds we saw, the dozens of displaying bobolinks drew the most interest.
This species, a member of the blackbird family, migrates the farthest of any North
American landbird. It winters in southern South America and breeds across the northern
United States and Canada. Its preferred habitats are wet meadows and native prairies
with a few low bushes but, due to the scarcity of these habitats, nesting areas are now
mostly in hayfields and meadows, where the birds forage on the ground or from weed
stalks for insects and seeds. When in the tropics, fruits and nectar also become part of
their diet. Except when breeding, they forage in flocks.
The name bobolink is one interpretation of the males bubbling spring song. Another
is oh, geezeler, geezeler, gilipity, onkeler, oozeler, oo. Thoreau wrote, This flashing, tinkling meteor bursts through the expectant meadow air, leaving a train of tinkling notes behind.
To defend and attract females to his territory the male sings while flying with rapidly vibrating wings just above the vegetation. On the ground, he sings softly with tail spread,
wings drooping, and bill pointed down showing off his yellow nape. If more than one female likes his territory, he may have more than one mate.
Under the dense cover of forbs in a natural or scraped depression, the female builds a
cup nest of coarse and fine grasses. She sits on her eggs for about twelve days. The young
leave the nest one to two weeks after hatching, before they are able to fly. Both parents
feed their offspring. The juveniles look much like their mother, brownish-yellow with dark
stripes. Before fall migration, the adult males will molt into a similar appearance.
Bobolink numbers have declined significantly from their original abundance. In the
past, extensive shooting to protect rice crops on which they heavily fed contributed to
their decline. However, loss of their natural habitat has probably been the greatest threat
and, since they now nest in hayfields, they have become vulnerable to the cutting of
these fields before their breeding cycle is complete. Out of concern for bobolinks, some
enlightened farmers are postponing their first harvests of hay. I consider myself fortunate
to have a reliable place on public land where I can observe the behavior of these striking
birds.

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Red-winged Blackbird
Agelaius phoeniceus

On March 1, 2004, I joined my regular birding partners, Carol Schumacher and Fred
Lesher, to look for birds in Minnesota and Iowa. While watching wood ducks swimming in
a partially frozen marsh in Houston County, Minnesota, we heard a sound we couldnt
placelike distant farm machinery or wind rustling dry leaves. To investigate, we drove
up a hill to a small grove of trees where we found more than 2,000 male red-winged
blackbirds flying among the branches, chattering, calling, and singing kon-ka-reeee. A few
redwings remain in the lower half of Minnesota through the winter, but we knew this large
flock had just recently arrived from the south. This species breeds in every state and is a
permanent resident in all but the far north.
Male redwings reach their breeding areas several weeks before the females, during
which time they establish territories by singing and exposing their red epaulets while
arching forward and spreading their wings or flying from perch to perch in slow, stalling
flights. The intensity of display can be measured by the extent to which they expose
their epaulets. They defend their territories from intruders, such as humans, with explosive high-pitched alarm calls.
When the brownish streaked females arrive, they perch in the area and watch the displaying males, then choose a territory to enter. Courtship involves aerial chases between
a mated pair or several males and one female. A male will also perch above his mate, flare
his shoulder patches, lower his head, and sing. He usually has three mates in a season, all
in different stages of breeding.
The female weaves a nest of grass, leaves, and reeds, which she attaches to standing
vegetation, such as cattails, bulrushes, or tall growth in dry fields. She does all the incubating and is the primary caregiver to the nestlings. When the young leave the nest,
about two weeks after hatching, the fathers role as provider increases. When their parents stop feeding them, the juveniles join other young birds to roost and feed together.
Redwings always nest in the marshy areas along the South Fork of the Root River. In
late July they disappear and, after a period of molting, they reappear in large numbers on
power lines along the upland fields surrounding my valley. Most of these birds will migrate to states just south of here for the winter. Often in late fall and again in early spring,
I hear their clicking flight calls and see streams of redwings flying over my house.
This species may be the most numerous of all North American birds. In fall and winter,
along with grackles, rusty blackbirds, cowbirds, and starlings, it gathers in flocks of more
than 10,000 to forage for seeds of grasses, weeds, and grain, sometimes doing extensive
damage to crops.

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Baltimore Oriole
Icterus galbula

Spring 2003 was the coldest we had ever experienced in the Big Woods, and the insect
population was almost nonexistent. The migratory birds that depend on insects as an
important food source consumed more than their usual amount of seeds, suet, oranges,
and sugar water at our feeders. In spite of the cold, a tropical sight met my eyes day after
day when up to ten Baltimore orioles, five scarlet tanagers, a dozen rose-breasted grosbeaks, and several indigo buntings visited the feeders simultaneously. Once, a multicolored Cape May warbler joined the group.
Almost everyone east of the Great Plains is familiar with the Baltimore orioles flaming
orange and black colors and its clear, melodic spring song that rings from the treetops in
open woods, riparian groves, and towns. The male establishes his breeding territory by
singing from a prominent perch and countersinging with neighboring males. When the
lighter-plumaged female arrives, she too participates in territorial defense, chasing other
females out of the area while her mate chases intruding males. Unlike most other songbirds, the female also sings, and countersinging often occurs between mates. In courtship, the male performs a bowing ritual while partly spreading his wings and tail.
With her mate in close attendance, the female builds a nest in a tall deciduous tree,
often an elm, near the tip of a drooping branch. In May 1998, I watched a nest taking
shape in an elm outside my bathroom window. I watched the avian seamstress attach
long fibers to a branch and loop them underneath, then take one fiber at a time, push it
through one side and pull it through the other until she created a long pouch that swung
in the breeze like a cradle. The fibers included grasses, strips of bark, and string that I had
placed on branches for her benefit. I couldnt see the eggs, which she incubated for two
weeks, but I eventually saw the four nestlings crying for food from both adults. I later saw
the fledglings in drab yellow and brownish plumage visiting the feeders with their parents
for sugar water and oranges.
After breeding, the orioles no longer sing so often, and their most common vocalization is a harsh rattle. Without knowing the rattle, you might not be aware of their presence. Migration to Mexico and Central and South America begins in late summer. Increasingly, orioles have wintered in the southeastern states where feeders offer oranges,
other fruit, and peanut butter mixtures.
This species is vulnerable to the absence of elms in which it prefers to nest and deforestation on its wintering grounds in tropical America. Global warming, another cause for
concern, may induce orioles to migrate earlier, thus throwing off the timing with certain
insects and nectar-producing flowers on which they depend.

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American Goldfinch
Carduelis tristis

People occasionally tell me that they are looking forward to the return of goldfinches in
spring, not realizing that the olive-brown birds with black wings and buffy wingbars they
see in winter are the same as the yellow birds they see in spring and summer. Goldfinches
are present all year in patches of thistles and weeds and in open deciduous woods from
the East to the West Coast except for the far North where they are present only during
breeding season and the South where some spend the winter. Movement south occurs
mostly when food is sparse elsewhere.
In spite of their drab winter plumage, I enjoy watching the flocks of thirty to forty
birds that visit my feeders at this time of year for sunflower seeds. Their looping flights to
and from the feeders, accompanied by perchicoree flight calls brighten an otherwise gray
day. Their high-pitched sweeet calls as they jostle each other for a perch sound happy to
me, but plaintive to others, thus their species name tristis, which means sad.
In spring, the female goldfinch turns into a yellow bird with black wings and the male
turns bright yellow with black wings and a black forehead. In late spring, the male begins
to sing a long, warbling song while perched or while engaging in a flat, slow flight with
fluttering wingbeats. During this period, several males may chase one female. Although
these activities relate to courtship, nesting doesnt occur until July or August, possibly
timed for the greatest abundance of seeds, especially those of thistles and the daisy
family. Thistle down also offers the female a favored source of nesting material, as do spider webs. The nest, usually in an upright fork of a leafy bush or tree, is compact enough
to hold water.
The female sits almost continuously on her eggs. If she gives a soft high call, her mate,
who has been circling high overhead in a deep rollercoaster flight, will come down to
offer her partially digested seeds. One year, by watching the activity of a male, I found a
nest with five eggs in a small box elder along the South Fork of the Root River. Later,
there were five nestlings. I listened for the baybee call the parents give when danger
threatens their young, but I never heard it.
Both parents feed their babies until they fledge about two weeks after hatching. The father becomes the primary caretaker of the fledglings if the mother begins a second brood.
During this time, the woods resounds with chipee, chipee, chipee calls of begging young.
Although goldfinch numbers are presently strong, they have decreased slightly in
recent years. One concern is that large concentrations around feeders that are not regularly cleaned may contribute to the spread of disease, such as the conjunctivitis found in
house finches.

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RECOMMENDED READING

Appenzeller, Tim, et al. The Heat Is On. National Geographic, vol. 206, Sept. 2004 : 1275 .
Curson, Jon, David Quinn, and David Beadle. Warblers of the Americas. New York: Houghton
Mifflin, 1994 .
Ehrlich, Paul R., David S. Dobkin, and Darryl Whey. The Birders Handbook. New York: Simon and
Schuster, 1988 .
Farrand, John, ed. The Audubon Society Master Guide to Birding. 3 vols. New York: Knopf, 1983 .
Gill, Frank B. Ornithology. New York: W. H. Freeman, 1995 .
Hvoslef, Johan C. Diaries 18811918 . Unpublished. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota
Archives; Elmer Andersen Library.
Kaufman, Kenn. Lives of North American Birds. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1996 .
Leahy, Christopher. The Birdwatchers Companion. New York: Hill and Wang, 1982 .
Pearson, T. Gilbert, ed. Birds of America. Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1917 .
Rising, James D. The Sparrows of the United States and Canada. San Diego: Academic Press, 1996 .
Roberts, Thomas S. The Birds of Minnesota. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 1932 .
Sibley, David A. The Sibley Guide to Birds. New York: Knopf, 2000 .
Skutch, Alexander F. Parent Birds and Their Young. Austin: University of Texas, 1976 .
Stokes, Donald W., and Lillian Q. Stokes. A Guide to Bird Behavior. 3 vols. Toronto: Little, Brown,
1979 .

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BASIC FIELD GUIDES TO BIRDS

Field Guide to the Birds of North America. Washington, DC: National Geographic Society, 2002.
An excellent guide for both beginners and experts. Contains brief descriptions of family
groups. Provides clear range maps for each species and good notes on identification, behavior,
habitat, vocalizations, and population status. Illustrations on pages facing the text depict individual species in varying plumage, sometimes in flight, and often with habitat cues in the background.
Kaufman, Kenn. Kaufman Field Guide to Birds of North America. New York: Houghton Mifflin,
2005.
The Kaufman guide, with color-coded tabs for quick indexing, is especially suitable for beginners. Range maps and succinct text descriptions, which allow for quick learning of basic details,
appear on pages facing respective bird images. While other guides use artists illustrations or
photographs, Kaufman combines the best of both approaches by using digitally-enhanced
photographic images. Significant field marks are highlighted.
Peterson, Roger Tory. Field Guide to the Birds of Eastern and Central North America. New York:
Houghton Mifflin, 2002.
Originally published in 1934, the Peterson book was the first guide to birds intended for a general audience. Many editions later, its popularity continues, particularly among beginners, although experienced birdwatchers use it as well. The text includes descriptions of appearance,
voice, habitat, and range. Illustrations on facing pages depict various plumages with pointers
to diagnostic field marks. Range maps appear at the back of the book.
Robbins, Chandler S., Bertel Brunn, Herbert S. Zim, and Arthur Singer. Birds of North America: A
Guide to Field Identification. New York: Golden, 2001.
The Golden guide first appeared in 1949. Through subsequent editions, it has been most helpful to beginners. Includes range maps and notes on identification, abundance, habitat, behavior, and vocalizations. Illustrations on pages facing the text show each bird in various plumages, often accompanied by an illustration of a similar species with which it might be confused.
Accounts of family groups include silhouettes of birds from other families for comparison.

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Sibley, David Allen. The Sibley Guide to Birds. New York: Knopf, 2000.
The definitive guide for experienced birders. Contains substantial information on each species
with an emphasis on illustrations that show geographic, seasonal, and sex variations; birds in
flight; and notes pointing to unique markings. The text, which assumes some previous knowledge, is interspersed with the illustrations. Voice details and descriptions of geographical differences are extensive. Range maps are exceptionally clear. Excellent group accounts show all
species in a family on one or two pages. A shortcoming is that the book is too large to carry
into the field.
Sibley, David Allen. The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Eastern North America. New York: Knopf,
2003.
This portable field guide, which includes all birds found east of the Rocky Mountains, also contains abundant information with emphasis on multiple illustrations. Although the images are
smaller than those in The Sibley Guide to Birds, the details are clear and precise. The text, which
appears in a block next to the illustrations, is less extensive but easier to follow. Introductory
accounts of family groups are very useful.

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INDEX

eagle, bald, 11

Accipiter striatus, 13
Agelaius phoeniceus, 95
Aix sponsa, 1
Archilochus colubris, 33
Ardea herodias, 7

Falco sparverius, 17
flicker, northern, 41
goldfinch, American, 99
grosbeak, rose-breasted, 89
grouse, ruffed, 3

Baeolophus bicolor, 59
blackbird, red-winged, 95
bluebird, eastern, 67
bobolink, 93
Bombycilla cedrorum, 73
Bonasa umbellus, 3
bunting, indigo, 91
Buteo jamaicensis, 15

Haliaeetus leucocephalus, 11
hawk: red-tailed, 15; sharp-shinned,
13
heron, great blue, 7
Hirundo rustica, 55
hummingbird, ruby-throated, 33

Caprimulgus vociferus, 31
cardinal, northern, 87
Cardinalis cardinalis, 87
Carduelis tristis, 99
catbird, gray, 71
Cathartes aura, 9
Ceryle alcyon, 35
Charadrius vociferus, 19
chickadee, black-capped, 57
Coccyzus erythropthalmus, 25
Colaptes auratus, 41
cuckoo, black-billed, 25
Cyanocitta cristata, 51

Icterus galbula, 97
jay, blue, 51
kestrel, American, 17
killdeer, 19
kingbird, eastern, 47
kingfisher, belted, 35
kinglet, ruby-crowned, 65
Melanerpes carolinus, 37
Meleagris gallopavo, 5
Melospiza melodia, 83

Dolichonyx oryzivorus, 93
dove, mourning, 23
Dryocopus pileatus, 43
duck, wood, 1
Dumetella carolinensis, 71

nuthatch, white-breasted, 61
oriole, Baltimore, 97
Otus asio, 27
ovenbird, 77

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swallow: barn, 55; tree, 53

owl: barred, 29; eastern


screech-, 27
Passerina cyanea, 91
Pheucticus ludovicianus, 89
phoebe, eastern, 45
Picoides pubescens, 39
Pipilo erythrophthalmus, 79
Poecile atricapilla, 57

Tachycineta bicolor, 53
titmouse, tufted, 59
towhee, eastern, 79
Troglodytes aedon, 63
Turdus migratorius, 69
turkey, wild, 5
Tyrannus tyrannus, 47

redstart, American, 75
Regulus calendula, 65
robin, American, 69

Vireo olivaceus, 49
vireo, red-eyed, 49
vulture, turkey, 9

Sayornis phoebe, 45
Scolopax minor, 21
Seiurus aurocapillus, 77
Setophaga ruticilla, 75
Sialia sialis, 67
Sitta carolinensis, 61
sparrow: field, 81; song, 83;
white-throated, 85
Spizella pusilla, 81
Strix varia, 29

waxwing, cedar, 73
whip-poor-will, 31
woodcock, American, 21
woodpecker: downy, 39; pileated, 43;
red-bellied, 37
wren, house, 63
Zenaida macroura, 23
Zonotrichia albicollis, 85

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SELECTED BUR OAK BOOKS

Birds at Your Feeder: A Guide to Winter Birds


of the Great Plains
Dana Gardner and Nancy Overcott
Birds of an Iowa Dooryard
Althea R. Sherman
Butterflies in Your Pocket:
A Guide to the Butterflies of the Upper Midwest
Steve Hendrix and Diane Debinski
A Country So Full of Game: The Story
of Wildlife in Iowa
James J. Dinsmore
Iowa Birdlife
Gladys Black
The Iowa Breeding Bird Atlas
Laura Spess Jackson, Carol A. Thompson,
and James J. Dinsmore
Prairie: A North American Guide
Suzanne Winckler
Raptors in Your Pocket: A Great Plains Guide
Dana Gardner
Where the Sky Began: Land of the Tallgrass Prairie
John Madson

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