Saturday, April 26, 2008

More on the Most Hated Bird in America

When I moved into my home in South Newfane, the first bird to greet me was a starling. Bothered by the noise as we parked the rental van in front of the barn and raised the metal door, it flew from an opening where the barn roof meets the house roof. Harsh rattles and gurgles protested our disturbance of its peace.

I soon learned that the starling had not been roosting momentarily somewhere inside the barn, but was maintaining a starling nursery in house walls. And further, that this starling family was not the only to use the walls of the house. On the opposite side of the clapboard barn and house, also where the roofs of the two old buildings meet, was the opening to another starling nursery.

Since that moving day eight years ago, every Spring and Summer I have watched as starlings go in and out of their homes in my home. It starts in March when they carry in nesting material to restore their hidden home, and continues through the summer with the raising of at least two broods. My outrage at their squatting on - or rather, in - my property has been singularly ineffective. I shout at them. I bang the outside of the building. When the cats are attracted to a place on inside and stare intently where they hear movement in the walls, I bang on the walls. The sum total effect of all this is a sore hand.

Every year I have thought about putting the ladder up and trying to seal the openings. But how do you seal an opening, when the entire gabled end of the barn where it overlaps the house roof, shows light? It would be a major construction task, and in the Spring, when I’m thinking about such a task, I have so much else to do. Cleaning the yard after winter - getting the vegetables planted - preparing the flower beds - I can barely squeeze those chores in between the necessity of monitoring bird migration in New England - after all, if I don’t do that the birds might not migrate.

Last year I noticed that a neighbor had a simple technique to keep the starlings out of his outbuilding. A dead and desicated starling hung by the opening. That’s a thought, thought I. But truth be told, I am like most modern Americans; I hire others to kill my meat. My sensitivities are too tender. Even the mousetraps do their work when I’m not there to watch.

So I continue to curse, and the starlings continue to nest - in the walls. I hate them, but not enough to do anything about them.

In my more reflective moments, I wonder why I feel such animosity toward this bird. They are remarkably versatile and resourceful. Pete Dunne calls the European Starling, “Horation Alger in Feathers (an American Success Story) ... A real American. Established itself in the city. Moved into the suburbs. Kicked out the natives (cavity nesters like Red-headed Woodpecker, Purple Martin, and bluebirds). Now found virtually everywhere in North America.”

Starlings are primarily ground feeders, but when winter descends, they can forage like a nuthatch, hover at suet feeders like a hummingbird, or tear apart a squirrel’s nest in search of spiders and other hibernating, edible insects. They can feed like a flycatcher, or take insects on the wing like a swallow. They will follow sheep across a pasture, feeding on the insects stirred out of the grass. An observer watched a starling dart upward from its perch and grab a piece of bread from the mouth of a Blue Jay.

The starling will make no one’s list of beautiful songsters, but it is a mimic every bit as accomplished as the Northern Mockingbird, if not nearly so melodious. A writer described one old male who, “after dining plentifully, is in the habit of expressing the pleasures of a full stomach by going through his whole repertoire. With hardly a pause, but with many a jerk of tail and twitch of wings, it will imitate the songs of the bluebird, the wood-peewee, the red-winged blackbird, the meadowlark, the bobwhite, the Carolina wren, the blue jay, the whippoorwill and the flicker.” If I weren’t so prejudiced toward the starling, I would be astounded at its vocal versatility.

If I weren’t so prejudiced, I would also have to admit that its consumption of insects during its long breeding season is prodigious, and probably beneficial. The examination of hundreds of starling stomachs by researchers suggests that its consumption of injurious insects must put it into the category of a beneficial species. Cutworms, weevils, grasshoppers, crickets, beetles, caterpillars, millipedes, spiders and all other manner of creepy crawlies are fed into the gaping mouths of its young.

When Japanese beetles began their trek through the eastern United States, starlings developed an appetite for the grubs and the adult beetles. An observer in Connecticut watched lines of starlings working across his lawn, feeding on the beetles. Then one year, a cat joined the household, the starling were frightened off, and the unhindered beetles worked their way through the grassroots, killing whole sections of the lawn.

So now you may be thinking that I have become reconciled to the starlings who make my walls into their summer homes - that I am willing to tolerate their presence because they do have a good side. Well, you are wrong! Last October I saw starlings fly from the openings in the barn - front and back - which they use when they are nesting. I was outraged! Bad enough that they nest in my house. I was not going to have them roosting through the winter. I got out my extension ladder, scavenged chicken wire and cage wire, and climbed up. Tearing my hands on the sharp wire, I stuffed it into the cracks and crevices. Then I stapled the cage wire over the opening, and hammered the staples to set them securely. Away! Away! Go roost in some tree along Putney Road with your own kind. Give some Sharp-shinned Hawk a chance at a meal. Leave my seed on the ground around my feeders for my doves and my juncos.

My dander is now up. “You’re not going to nest in my walls again!” So said I, to those most hated birds in America.

Off in the distance, I thought I heard the rattle and gurgle of a starling ... it sounded like a laugh.

Quotations are from “Pete Dunne’s Essential Field Guide Companion,” 2006, and from “Bird Invasion” by Edwin Way Teale in “Treasury of North American BirdLord,” 1987.

Friday, April 25, 2008

The Most Hated Bird in America

Note: Sorry for the delay in this post. I was birding in the Florida Keys and Everglades and away from the electronics - just optics and camera - and lots of birds!

In the early 1970s, the gas company inspected the furnace in the building where I was working. There was a serious problem with the air draw in the chimney; something was blocking the flue and preventing gases from venting properly. They ordered the problem corrected, and to enforce their order, turned off the gas. The building custodian opened the flue and found the problem. He removed four large trash cans of dead starlings. Over the course of a several of winters, the birds had been drawn to the rising heat from the chimney. On their warm perch, they were overcome by the rising gases and fell down the chimney where they accumulated by the hundreds in a dried out mass of carcasses.

In 1985, I attended an Audubon conference commemorating the 200th anniversary of the birth of John James Audubon. It was held at Mill Grove on the Schulykill River outside of Philadelphia, Audubon’s first residence and home in America. The speaker at the evening banquet was Roger Tory Peterson, whose new edition of his “Eastern Bird Guide” had been published the year before. Peterson began his talk by saying that the first bird he had heard when he arrived at Mill Grove and got out of the car was a phoebe. The phoebe was a nesting resident when Audubon lived at Mill Grove, and was the first bird that Audubon studied scientifically. Audubon figured a way to band the bird in order to learn whether the same bird returned to the same spot to breed - the male did, with a new mate. Peterson then added, rather ruefully, that the second bird he heard, hard on the phoebe song, was a starling, a bird that was not even present in America when Audubon lived.

The starling is deliberately named “European” to emphasize its foreign origins; in Europe it is known simply as the Common Starling, which is the meaning of its scientific name: Sturnus vulgaris. “Vulgaris” means “common” in Latin, although we might prefer the English derivative of the Latin word - vulgar.

The starling was introduced to America in 1890. Eugene Schieffelin was a wealthy New York drug manufacturer enamored of all things Shakespearean. It became his curious aim to introduce to America all of the birds mentioned in the works of Shakespeare. “Skylarks, chaffinches, nightingales, as well as [House] Sparrows and starlings, rode across the Atlantic in cages consigned to Schieffelin. He even organized a society for the importation of foreign birds and incorporated it in Albany.”

Schieffelin’s attempts to introduce Shakespeare’s birds failed, with two exceptions, the House Sparrow and the starling. The House Sparrow had been imported by several other people in addition to Schieffelin, but the exclusive responsibility for the starling belongs to the wealthy drug manufacturer. Sixty starlings arrived in 1890, to be released in New York’s Central Park. The next year, an additional forty starlings were released. All of the millions of starlings in America descend from these one hundred birds.

The venerable American Museum of Natural History on Central Park West has the dubious honor of having hosted the first starling nest in America. A pair found an opening under the eaves of one of the wings, and the rest, as they say, is history. Within fifty years, the starling could be found from New York to Oregon, from Mexico to the Hudson Bay.

Several factors account for the unprecedented success of the starling in colonizing North America. It is one of the first birds to nest in the Spring. It has two broods, sometimes three or even four broods, each with four to six young. In other words, a pair can produce upwards of twenty-four offspring in a single breeding season. As one writer put it, “Each year, the multiplication of these birds is something to make the ears of the fecund rabbit droop in frustration.” Another factor of the starling’s success, as with most other introduced species, is that before introduction it had already learned how to live in cities and with human neighbors. Cities and towns are underpopulated ecological zones; a bird already accustomed to cities can find the room it needs to live successfully.

Within a few years, Boston and Philadelphia were reporting a few starlings, then many starlings, then too many starlings. Attempts were made to stem the tide. “People fired shotguns into trees where the birds roosted at night and were showered with falling starlings. They doused the birds with fire hoses; they set off Roman candles; they clanged bells; they stood around beneath the trees and slapped long boards together to produce artificial thunderclaps. They set out stuffed owls, electrically charged dummy owls, aluminum owls with eyes that would shine at night, imitation owls re-enforced with explosive charges .... In Decatur, Illinois, an estimated twenty thousand starlings were killed in the course of a two-months campaign. And in Washington, D.C., Government men spent their evenings jiggling strings to which were attached rubber balloons containing dried peas. The peas in the balloons produced a hissing rattle that scared the starlings out of their wits - for a time.”

Nothing worked. Starlings are here to stay. They are nesting in flicker holes, bluebird boxes, courthouse eaves, barn lofts, bridge abutments - anywhere they can find a small cavity and a roof over their head. After raising their multiple broods, they gather in the winter in flocks of thousands and tens of thousands. A state capital roof which served as a winter roost eventually had to be cleared of eleven tons of dung. So many perch on the hands of town clocks that the works are put out of order.

The same day that I once saw “primordial numbers” of migrating swallows on Plum Island, I saw an equal number of starlings ball up in a massive dark cloud when a hawk came near. They are successful survivors of the natural dangers that occasionally come in their colonized continent. It seems that it is easier for a Cooper’s Hawk to take a pigeon, or for a Merlin to take a sandpiper, than for either to take a starling. Either predator can reduce a resident population of pigeons or sandpipers during a winter, but if they are feeding on starlings, they are making little impact on the numbers.

Most birders keep a list of the birds they see during a bird outing. Many don’t bother listing the starling. I do, because I am interested in those rare occasions when I can go almost an entire day without seeing a starling, and those even rarer days when I don’t see one at all. Not that I miss it! Bird lover or not, the starling is not a loved bird. In fact, it is without a doubt the most hated bird in America.

Quotations are from “Bird Invasion” by Edwin Way Teale in “Treasury of North American Birdlore,”

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Hooded Merganser - Uncommon and Stunningly Beautiful

Early April is the prime time for viewing waterfowl. The ducks are on their way north to their breeding grounds. They pause along our rivers to rest, roost, and feed. Their numbers are often in the hundreds, sometimes the thousands. It is the time of year when I always have my scope with me.

However, two of the most beautiful ducks in the world, ducks found only in North America, are not just passing through. They breed in small lakes and ponds, and sometimes along streams and rivers throughout our area - Wood Duck and Hooded Merganser.

The drake Wood Duck is bright and multi-colored; he looks like the creation of a Pop artist with a pallet of barely mixed primary colors. The Wood Duck is a common three season bird in our area, found where the waters are quiet in wooded swamps, shady pools, and lazy rivers. They go south for the winter.

Not so the Hooded Merganser. As long as there is open water, a few of these ducks can be found in our area throughout the year. They are considered uncommon throughout their range, and until I moved to Vermont a dozen years ago, I rarely saw them. Now I live in the heart of their range and find nothing unusual about seeing them during any month of the year along the Connecticut River, in and around the Retreat Meadows or Herrick’s Cove, or in some remote beaver pond up in the hills. On the last day of March, I watched a dozen in the West River - in pairs or small groups of four or five. The drakes were in full, fresh breeding plumage, displaying for the hens with the whiplash neck stretch typical of waterfowl, pursuing each other, and the hens. Early this week I watched a similar show at Herrick’s Cove.

The drake Hooded Merganser is not as brightly colored as the Wood Duck, but the bold black and white pattern of head and neck, the crisp white streaks on the wings, and the bright orange-brown on the sides combine for a stunning effect. And then there is the hood! Here’s Pete Dunne’s description in his Essential Companion: “The boldly patterned drake, adorned with a crest that opens and closes like a Chinese fan, is hard to overlook. With the hood closed, the head is anvil-shaped and adorned with a peanut-shaped white patch behind the eye. With the hood open, the head bulges into an oval fan with a pure white center and a black border that sets off a golden eye and a thin black bill.”

The female is like most waterfowl females - plain and drab. Except - she has a light brown crest which is almost always partly or fully raised; even from a distance the crest looks like a halo glowing about her head, a luminous aura. The beginner waterfowl watcher can confirm her identity (not always easy with the waterfowl hens) by scanning the water for a drake. One is certain to be in the area, and his distinctive plumage is unmistakable at almost any distance.

The Hooded Merganser is one of three mergansers regularly found in North America (along with Common and Red-breasted) and the only one endemic to the continent. Classification of mergansers is subject to much discussion; some taxonomists class them with the sea ducks; others give them their own sub-family. At one time they were regarded as very primitive ducks, their serrated beaks being considered an evolutionary hold-over from toothed dinosaurs. More recent studies now dispute this.

The beak is a distinguishing characteristic of the mergansers. Sportsmen call them “sawbills.” Mergansers are diving ducks that regularly eat fish; the serrated edges on the beak help them grasp the slippery small fish that make up most of their diet. Hooded Mergansers, however, have a varied diet. Nesting in small ponds that have no fish, the Hooded will take small frogs, tadpoles, insects, seeds, and even the roots or bulbs of water plants.

Merganser comes from two Latin words meaning “diving goose.” (The Common Merganser is about the size of a Brandt, a small goose.) The striking white crest gives the Hooded Merganser the rest of its name. The Hooded’s folk names are many, often including “sheldrake,” which comes from the English colloquial meaning “dappled, variegated.” It is variously known as Hooded, Wood, Pond, and Pickaxe Sheldrake. It is also known as Spike-bill, Hairy-crown, Hairy-head, Saw-bill Diver, and Water Pheasant.

The Hooded Merganser often winters along the coast in brackish wetlands and tidal creeks; it is seldom found in salt water or large open bodies of water, although I have seen it in late winter in Lake Champlain. In general, it prefers fresh water, and gently flowing rivers. During late Fall, Winter and early Spring, in the turbulent waters below the Vernon Dam, you are likely to find goldeneyes, perhaps Common Mergansers, and an occasional Long-tailed Duck. The Hooded Mergansers are more likely to be found along the quiet edges around the island or in calmer waters further down river. As the ice goes out, they frequent the edges around the Retreat Meadows or the calm waters of the West River.

Many writers suggest that when ducks begin moving north to their breeding ground, they have paired for the breeding season. As I watch the Hooded Mergansers at this time of year, it looks to me as though the pair formation is still an open issue. Drakes are displaying and squabbling with one another and chasing the hens. And sometimes it looks as though the hen is trying to get the attention of a drake - any drake. I watched four drakes in the West River swimming together in a tight group. A hen trailed close behind, sometimes appearing to be quacking for attention.

Hooded Mergansers share breeding habitat with Wood Ducks; both are cavity nesters and at times may compete for the same cavity in a forest wetland, swamp, or beaver pond. Bent’s life history reports not only such competition for nest sites, but occasionally a sharing of a nest site, with female Wood and female Hooded laying eggs in the same nest. In the 1890's, an observer wrote: “I believe it is well known that the wood duck often drives the merganser from her nest, and in one nest I found 30 eggs of wood duck and 5 eggs of merganser. The hollow in the tree in which the nest was placed was not very large and the eggs were several layers deep.”

Like Wood Ducks, Hooded Merganser young leave the nest soon after hatching. They jump, scramble, fall, or flutter to the ground or water below.

On a sunny day a few summers ago, I was hiking somewhere above the Harriman reservoir. I found a warm rock near a beaver pond and used it for a mid-morning picnic spot. During my quiet sit, I saw something small and drab moving among the marsh grasses. It was followed by feather balls scurrying over the surface. Then the drab form dove. Seconds later, one after another feather ball also dove. In turn each popped back to the surface. I stood slowly to get a better look, but my imperceptible movement did not go unnoticed. Mother Hooded and her young disappeared into the grasses.

We are fortunate to have these uncommon, beautiful, and handsome ducks so accessible. Hooded Mergansers on any quiet river or pond are one definition of good birding.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Waterfowl - Herrick's Cove and Hinsdale Setbacks

At Herrick's Cove (IBA in Rockingham, VT) on Tuesday, there were Green-winged Teal, 6 American Widgeon, 3 Common Goldeneyes, Hooded and Common Mergansers, Ring-necked Ducks, Mallards, Wood Ducks, American Black Ducks, Canada Geese. Also 2 Belted Kingfishers, Tree Swallows, Great Blue Heron, and all of the expected blackbirds. Bufflehead provided entertainment as two drakes vied for the attention of a hen.

Hooded Mergansers plied the edges of the ice.

On Wednesday at the Hindale setbacks south of Brattleboro (from boat launch north to parking area by causeway), I did better with noting the numbers. There were 300 Ring-necked Ducks, 120 Common Mergansers, 40 Hooded Mergansers, 4 Green-winged Teal, 10 Wood Ducks, 3 Bufflehead. Also Bald Eagle, Belted Kingfisher, Eastern Phoebe, Great Blue Heron, Ring-billed Gulls, Tree Swallows, and many Red-wings, grackles, and Song Sparrows.

Good Birding!

Saturday, April 05, 2008

Common Grackle - The Overlooked Blackbird

Last week I was a music critic, reviewing the musical abilities of our locally common blackbirds: Red-winged Blackbird, Brown-headed Cowbird, and Common Grackle. My review was not favorable. As songbirds, they are something of an embarrassment; some of their singing has been likened to a rusty gate hinge. However, what I might think of their singing ability is irrelevant as long as the singer is able to impress a female of his kind.

This blackbird trio evokes very different reactions from bird watchers. The Red-wing is probably the best liked, especially in the Spring when the male flashes his bright red epaulets for the benefit of the females and as a warning to other males. The cowbird, a brood parasite, is despised; even mild-mannered pacifists may be stirred into threats of violence by its presence.

And then there is the Common Grackle, the overlooked blackbird, the one that is there but seldom noticed, rarely contemplated, never appreciated. For the moment, let’s not overlook this blackbird.

The Common Grackle is the largest of these three blackbirds, about the size of a Mourning Dove, though its long tail makes it appear larger. A member of the blackbird family (Icteridae - orioles, meadowlarks, blackbirds) its scientific name is Quiscalus quiscula. Both the Genus and species name derive from the Latin meaning quail; I have found no explanation for why these very un-quail like birds were so named. Grackle comes from the Latin, graculus, a term applied to jackdaws or choughs, Old World birds closely related to crows. With its dark color, large “crow-like” beak, and tendency to behave like a crow, the Common Grackle has often been known as the Crow Blackbird.

There are two forms of the Common Grackle. The “purple” grackle is found in the southeast. It is almost uniformly purple with green gloss. The more northern form is the “bronzed” grackle; its bronzy body contrasts with its blue-black head. A third form may be the Florida grackle, slightly smaller than the other two forms.

It is a disservice to describe the Bronzed Grackle, the form which breeds in our area, as having a bronzy body and blue-black head, especially this time of year. The males are in fresh breeding plumage. Even on a gray day, the body sparkles with multi-hued iridescence. When the sunlight reflects off of the wings and back, it is breath-taking. The only analogy which I can come up with is the rainbow of colors seen in an oil slick, but colors which have been deepened and sharpened. When the light is just right, the head is shiny and deep, deep blue.

The Common Grackle is very common almost everywhere east of the Rockies, with its range extending from Florida and the Gulf Coast well into the Canadian boreal forest. It is a successful species because it is an adaptable species. It has especially taken to the changes which humans have made to the landscape, readily learning to find food in farmlands, pastures, feedlots, suburban lawns, trash heaps and anywhere else that can accommodate its omnivorous tastes.

The grackle’s opportunistic adaptability has often led to its persecution. When Audubon painted his “Purple Grakle, or Common Crow Blackbird,” he showed them exercising “their nefarious propensities. Look at them: The male, as if full of delight at the sight of the havoc which he has already committed on the tender, juicy, unripe corn on which he stands, has swelled his throat, and is calling in exultation to his companions to come and assist him in demolishing it. The female has fed herself, and is about to fly off with a well-loaded bill to her hungry and expectant brood ....” The grackles are ripping apart ears of maize, or Indian corn.

When Audubon wrote and painted in the 1840s, he was reflecting the farmers’ experience from the earliest days of the European settlement. The Crow Blackbirds were known as “Maize Thieves,” to such an extent that bounties were paid for their heads. Some towns on Cape Cod did not allow a young man to marry until he had turned in his quota of blackbird heads to the town clerk. Forbush reports that the “war against the birds was so successful that in 1749 locusts, cutworms and other grass-destroying pest so completely ruined the grass crop of the New England States that the farmers were obliged to send to England and Pennsylvania to obtain hay enough to feed their cattle through the winter ... after this occurrence the people ‘abated’ their enmity against the ‘Maize Thieves’ as they thought that they had observed the birds feeding on the pests which destroyed their crops.”

A hundred years after the New Englanders “learned their lesson,” Audubon writes about farmers in Louisiana welcoming the grackles in the Spring when they would feed on the grubs in freshly plowed fields. In the summer, the farmer’s attitude changed: “no sooner does the corn become fit for his own use, than he vows and executes vengeance on all intruders.”

The grackles in our neighborhoods are tuning up for the breeding season. When not making their wary trips to the bird feeders, I sometimes see them in the bare tree branches displaying. The male puffs his feathers out so that he looks twice as big as he really is, partly opens his wings and spreads his tail. Is he trying to scare off competitors, or somehow brag about his prowess? He knows, and others of his kind know. When the snow finally disappears from the ground, we may also see him strutting, puffed out and dragging his tail rigidly as he struts. Some writers have called the courtship of the grackles uninspiring, but what do they know - they’re not other grackles. Obviously this “uninspiring” display is a turn-on to other grackles.

At this time of year, notice the tail when a grackle flies. It is a long tail that often looks like a v-shaped keel. You don’t see it all the time; often the tail is spread in an ordinary manner. The v-shaped keel is seen even less often after breeding season. Forbush thinks this is part of the courtship display - a way for the male to advertise the quality of his genes.

Common Grackles love corn, fruit, nuts, and grain. In Spring and when feeding their young, they take prodigious amount of grubs and insects, often ones which are injurious to crops. In pursuit of favored insects, they may even try a clumsy, flycatcher type of pursuit. They sometimes ruin early apples and pears. They may take the eggs and young of other birds. They will catch small fish in a gull or tern-like manner. Those hard, stale pieces of bread you throw out around the feeder may be soaked in water to soften them up.

This period before our favored birds return is a good time to watch the Common Grackle, our overlooked blackbird.

Good birding.

Quotations are from J.J. Audubon, “The Birds of America,” 1840-1844, and from Edward Forbush, “Birds of Massachusetts,” 1929.

Friday, April 04, 2008

Brigantine Yesterday

After a quick trip to Philadelphia, I came home by way of Brigantine (which it will always be to me, not Forsyth NWR). Highlight was watching the courtship and nest building of an Osprey pair. First found them placidly on the nest platform. He suddenly leaped in the air and landed on her back.

After this quick bit of courtship (or foreplay ?), they flew together. She landed on a perch and watched while he picked up nest material, flew to the nest, then flew again with the same nest material, repeating over and over.

Other highlights - many Great Egrets in their stunning breeding plumage.

A single Horned Grebe, some distance from shore and near a large flock of Brandt - also in breeding plumage. Since we usually see them around here in winter when they are white and gray, this was a treat even though the view was difficult.

Many ducks still have not come north. There were hundreds of Green-winged Teal, plus Northern Pintail, Northern Shoveler, a few female Hooded Mergansers, three Snow Geese, a pair of Wood Ducks. But the highlight was the Blue-winged Teal, something of a rarity on the eastern coast.

A pair of Caspian Tern put on a fishing display, then very cooperatively roosted quietly and posed for me. It was five hours of delightful birding, and relatively warm. It's been months since I've had anything like it in Vermont.


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