Words About Birds

One of my new favorite activities is bird watching. I haven’t ventured into the field much. Mostly I observe from the front porch or through the kitchen window. Ken hung three different suet feeders, a seed feeder, and a very clever feeder he made out of a piece of cedar. I like calling it the “cedar feeder.” He drilled several holes in a section of cedar where I put suet, and then he hung it up in a tree. The birds like the natural perch it gives them as they eat the suet.

In early fall at an outdoor women’s weekend, I was lucky enough to see pileated woodpeckers and bald eagles and to hear a barred owl do his who cooks for you, who cooks for us all call. Back at my usual observation post, I witnessed masses of European Starlings land in the trees in the yard one morning. The sound of them all together was something you couldn’t ignore. The dipping and changing direction of starlings is called murmuration. It looks a lot like a wave undulating. We’ve since had grackles come en masse. It’s like listening to a couple hundred friends meet up for the first time in years.

When the Bradford Pear was full of berries, it was visited by the cedar waxwings in what was a mass attack. It was amazing to watch as the birds seemingly took turns, moving from higher branches to lower ones, sort of like rotation in volleyball. They came three different days and when they were done, there were no more berries.

On a late December trip through the Mississippi Delta on the way to Memphis, I watched as Canadian snow geese lifted off of the rice fields. Like a white sheet being raised up by the wind, the birds flew skyward. Not long after that scene, I saw mass flocks of cowbirds, red-winged blackbirds, and grackles do the same thing time and again.

I am getting pretty good at identifying birds, too. I can confidently identify nuthatches, titmice, chickadees, robins, Eastern bluebirds, doves, cardinals, blue jays, mockingbirds, juncos, downy woodpeckers, red-bellied woodpeckers, pileated woodpeckers, northern flickers, grackles, crows, vultures, and cedar waxwings. Sometimes I am right about house finches, phoebes, wrens, sparrows, and hawks.

When identifying a bird, there are lots of factors to listen for and to watch for. The calls of some birds are so distinct, there is no mistaking them for anything else. Phoebes say their names. Mourning doves coo. The downy woodpecker makes a chirpy sort of sound. Jays have a few calls, but all of them are darn insistent so you learn them fast. The shape, size, and curve of beaks can differentiate a finch from a dove; the size of the bird helps narrow the choices. Tails and what a bird does with it is a main identifier. Wrens’ tails are always up, for instance. Bird behavior is fascinating to watch and aids identification enormously. I have learned how woodpeckers sort of bop along a trunk, the white-breasted nuthatch makes its way upside down a branch, and how vultures form a v with their wings when they fly.

Identification is further complicated by gender dimorphism which simply means males and females are differently colored. Most people know that about birds (and some other animals), but probably not the term for it. Gender is clear. Di means two and morph means form or shape. I remember decades ago when morphing programs were all the rage. I’d transform a head shot of my dog into the face of a friend. When morph is used as a verb, it means to change. So in the case of dimorphism, you must remember it is the Greek root the word is using. There are two forms depending on the gender of the bird. Cardinals, currently my most favorite bird, are a great example. The males are brightly colored red while the females are a muted red.

I love this bird watching hobby, but I still have so much to learn. David Sibley has a book coming out in April that I am looking forward to reading. It’s called What It’s Like to Be a Bird: From Flying to Nesting, Eating to Singing—What Birds Are Doing, and Why. For Valentine’s Day, my sweetheart, Ken, bought me a zoom lens for my camera so now I am able to capture those great bird shots. I’ve included a few here. The next time you find yourself in a forest or sitting quietly in a park, take a look and a listen. Enjoy the performance and the pageantry of the birds around you. You won’t be sorry.




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