Monday, January 2, 2012

Christmas Bird Counts

The Christmas Bird Count is a big tradition in Virginia and throughout most of the U.S.  Maybe, at one time, counts were held everywhere on Christmas Day, but now they are spaced out from mid-December to early January.

We attract quite a few birds to our modest urban garden.

During 2011, we received visits all year long from the usual suspects:
Northern Cardinals (Cardinalis cardinalis),
Blue Jays (Cyanocitta cristata),
Mourning Doves (Zenaida macroura),
House Wrens (
Troglodytes aedon)
slightly chubbier Carolina Wrens (
Thryothorus ludovicianus)
House Finches (
Carpodacus mexicanus)

and hundreds of Sparrows.
The Song Sparrow (
Melospiza melodia), with many streaks leading to a central dark spot on its breast, the Field Sparrow (Spizella pusilla), with its rather bland coloring and white circle around its eye, and the Chipping Sparrow (Spizella passerine), with a very definite black line through its eye, are native and prevalent.  But the House Sparrow (Passer domesticus), with its dapper outfit of rusty brown, gray and black, is the most common, especially now in winter.  House Sparrows were introduced to North America in the 19th century and basically flourish wherever there are people.  House Sparrows will usurp nest boxes intended for native songbirds; and gardeners, nest-box monitors and birders often struggle to solve this problem as humanely as possible.
Sparrows in a large Rose de Rescht
This past year, we also saw American Robins (Turdus migratorius), Northern Mockingbirds (Mimus polygottos), Purple Finches (Carpodacus purpureus) and American Gold Finches (Carduelis tristis) in our garden from spring to autumn.  The Gold Finches loved all the Echinacea and Rudbeckia in the yard.  Their rapid “ti-dee-di-dis “ sound like they are giggling all the time.  In truth, Gold Finches may overwinter here.  But they molt their bright yellow feathers and are more difficult to identify.

A Ruby-Throated Hummingbird (Archilochus colubris) lunched occasionally on the nectar of our summer and fall flowers.  And sometimes we caught sight of other tiny birds like the Carolina Chickadee (Poecile carolinensis) and Tufted Titmouse (Parus bicolor).  All these smaller birds attracted a Copper’s Hawk (Accipiter cooperii) this past spring and summer.  He would perch on the fence or arbor and then swoop down into the garden.  His presence always created a lot of commotion among the bird babies and mamas.

We have one substantial tree in the back yard, a Silver Maple, which has suffered damage over the last couple years.  Squirrels are its regular inhabitants.  But in 2011, it was also home to some sort of nuthatch, probably a White-Breasted Nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis), a pair of Downy Woodpeckers (Picoides pubescens) and most recently, a Common Flicker (Colaptes auratus).  Is that a good sign?

Our neighboring yards are much more open… mainly lawns… and they are often filled with Common Grackles (Quiscalus quiscula) and much bigger American Crows (Corvus brachyrhynchos).  These birds are surprisingly ominous and noisy!  Even the sound of their wings, as they take flight en masse, can be frightening.  They seldom venture onto our property.  Maybe there’s just not enough room for all of them.  Or maybe the Jays and Catbirds chase them away.  I’ve seen Mockingbirds attack much larger birds in order to protect their nests.

Although we were once visited by a terribly-lost Canada Goose (Bianta canadensis), there are quite a few, other common birds missing from our garden.  The iridescent Brown-Headed Cowbird (Molothrus ater) and aerobatic Cedar Waxwing (Bombycilla cedrorum) frequented my childhood home, but I never see them here.  I believe the garden is too crowded with plants and garden ornaments to entice Eastern Bluebirds (Sialia sialis), who prefer more open meadows.  And local summer evening swarms of Chimney Swifts (Chaetura pelagica) have decreased dramatically over the last ten years.
One of my 2012 resolutions is to create a more welcoming environment for our feathered friends, and I hope you will do the same.  Christmas Bird Counts wrap up this week.  Check out the National Audubon Society for counts in your area.  Or you could start your own tradition with a New Year Bird Count in your own backyard!  The Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s All About Birds website can help you get started.

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