Birds of a FeatherPosted on : February 5, 2019
Recently, several cool avian encounters have set my bird brain a twitter. I have an hour and a half commute each day, which for most folks would be torture, but for a sightseer in desperate need of quiet, it’s 90 minutes of nirvana and recuperation. I love listening to music, I love looking at gardens, and I love looking at nature.
As I approached my little ancestral hamlet last week, I peered into one of my dad’s hay meadows where there are often deer grazing or pigs rooting. The deer are my buddies, but the highly destructive, invasive feral pigs certainly are not. When I see pigs I call my dad and he deals with them accordingly. He’s trapped over 600 in the last decade or so. He just shoots them and drags them away for the buzzards.
I’m used to seeing buzzards dine on ham and bacon, but this particular evening, something looked different. So I backed up the truck and fished my binoculars out of the rummage sale behind the seat. Much to my surprise, there were two beautiful bald eagles pigging out. If I remember correctly, this is one reason Ben Franklin wanted the wild turkey for our national bird. My mom had already seen the eagles fly over and had the very same reaction I did when I first a saw bald eagle gliding above my truck: “Wow, look at that buzzard with a white head and white tail!”
The bald eagle is considered the greatest success story of the Endangered Species Act. That listing, along with the ban of DDT pesticide, has increased nesting bald eagles from a low of around 400 pairs when I was born to almost 10,000 pairs today. They recovered so well that they aren’t endangered anymore and are a regular occurrence in Texas.
I didn’t actually see the other interesting bird I came in contact with recently. That’s the beauty of birds. You don’t have to see them to enjoy them as each plays a different tune on a different instrument. I didn’t even realize it was bird when I first heard it. I make regular runs down to Big Momma’s old dogtrot house for laundry, cooking, solitude, dog running, pocket prairie prodding, etc. As it’s often dark when I go by in the morning and dark when I arrive in the evening, I don’t often get to see the birds at my feeding station there, except on the weekends.
Several times while there in the dark last week, I heard these loud short buzzing calls that sounded like a tree frog crossed with a cicada. I wasn’t at all sure it was a bird, especially since it was dark. So after hearing it again early one morning in the middle of my dormant pocket prairie, I searched the internet to check out the options, and thanks to Cornell Ornithology’s allaboutbirds.org site, I identified it as an American woodcock. This is one more reason why I allow all native natural growth in my pocket prairie and only burn/mow it one time per year.
In addition to these odd buzzy, nasal “peenting” sounds, the males (also known as “timberdoodles”) have elaborate evening courtship flights where they swirl up into the air and tumble back down with more unique vocalizations. The late legendary environmentalist Aldo Leopold loved it and wrote an essay about it in his timeless Sand County Almanac titled “Sky Dance” where he penned: “I owned my farm for two years before learning that the sky dance is to be seen over my woods every evening in April and May. Since we discovered it, my family and I have been reluctant to miss even a single performance.”
Although I had read Leopold’s tales about woodcocks, I had never seen one in person until last year while wandering with the dogs along my creek. Then suddenly there it was, rustling through the leaves, with feathers the color of the litter, in the middle of a patch of native switch cane (bamboo). The odd thing looked like an alien shorebird chicken with an exceptionally long bill. The bill is for fishing out earthworms and such. It reminded me of a kiwi bird. I find it hard to believe that folks actually hunt and kill them.
I’m not sure when I first loved birds but I know it was early in life. I remember being most fascinated by northern cardinals in the landscape as the male’s red glowed against the green foliage and drab winters. Occasionally I was allowed to toss some bread crumbs, cornmeal, or oatmeal onto the patio to “feed the birds.” My Grandmother Emanis would do the same in the country.
It wasn’t until I started mowing Marie Daly’s yard that I saw bird feeders, bird baths, and bird houses in a home landscape. I was truly mesmerized by the plethora attracted to their platform feeder and bird bath. I would also watch the bluebirds flit about as I mowed “the back forty” as Mr. Daly called it.
I’ve been back and forth with bird feeders in my life, starting with a number of them, and then banishing them because I thought they cluttered the landscape. But after numerous surgeries where I couldn’t get out and about, I became hooked on watching them come and go at the feeder. I even used to have my feeder set up outside the window next to my clawfoot tub. But that was before Mrs. G claimed the bathroom and tub and Missy cat took a shining to my birds on her walks. So in addition to building me a new bathroom, I packed up my feeders and bird bath and moved them down the road to my other old play houses.
I especially enjoy woodpeckers (primary cavity dwellers) and the host of secondary cavity dwellers that depend on them such as eastern bluebirds, Carolina chickadees, tufted titmice, and brown-headed nuthatches. I also love my pine warblers that were lured in by my backyard pine savanna project along with the brown-headed nuthatches.
Since some of these love suet in addition to black oil sunflower seed, I made homemade no-melt suet cakes over the weekend so I could save money for more cat food.
Written by Greg Grant
Greg Grant is an award-winning horticulturist, conservationist, photographer, and writer from Arcadia, Texas. Each month he writes an article for The Arbor Gate Blog where he is given free range to write about any topic that interests him. During the week, he is the Smith County horticulturist in Tyler for the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service and on the weekends, he and his wife tend Greg’s grandparents’ old farmhouse, his Rebel Eloy Emanis Pine Savanna and Bird Sanctuary, a flock of laying hens, four terriers, one German shepherd, and three cats.