Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Not-So-Common Feeder Bird: Pine Siskin

Many of you might have not seen this little striped jewel, before. Since this is an irruption year many seed eating birds are exploring farther from their normal ranges to find food. So the Pine Siskin, Carduelis pinus, is showing up at feeders all over the state of Indiana. There was one at Southeastway Park the Wednesday before Thanksgiving. In the past, Eagle Creek Park has had them at their feeders. Holliday Park has had them at the feeders and I have also seen them feeding in the trees near the playground.

Photo by John Howard

Like so many birds, many times you can hear them before you see them. When in trees, Pine Siskins typically like to forage near the top. Their call is very distinctive, a buzzy Zzreeeee, that makes me look up to find them. They are closely related to and are the same size as the American Goldfinch and frequent thistle/nyjer feeders. Some, mostly the males, have yellow on the wings and tail and sometimes on the body. Many times you will see a group of American Goldfinches at a thistle feeder and notice a striped one is in the mix. If it is the same size and has a slender pointed bill, you have a siskin!

These birds have an amazing ability to store seeds in their distensible esophagus that can stretch. Researchers have found crop contents as high as 1.5 g in siskins. They are only 15 g in weight. This would be like a human carrying a whole Thanksgiving turkey around in their belly. I know some of you tried this last week, but I doubt any of you succeeded!

One bird that can be confused with the Pine Siskin is the female House Finch. Although they are striped like the Pine Siskin, they have a stouter bill and are a bit bigger. They do not have any yellow on their wings or tail.

Note stubby, slightly curved bill of the female house finch.

Keep your eye out at your feeder for this beautiful little finch!


Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Wild Turkeys-Happy Turkey Day!

Well, these birds may not be a common feeder bird unless you have a large yard out in the country, but it would be wrong of me not to cover them at such an apropos time. You may be one that only thinks turkeys are delicious... Mmmmm-oh, where was I! Actually, the Wild Turkey, Meleagris gallopavo silvestris, is a pretty fascinating bird with an interesting historical and biological background.

Wild Turkeys were first domesticated by the Aztecs and Central Americans around 500 AD. They were then taken back to Spain by conquistadors in the 1500's, then they were imported into Europe and were brought back to North America as poultry in the 1600's. World traveler! We loved the taste of turkey so much that by the early 1930's they were almost wiped out. Luckily, through conservation efforts and wildlife management plans, the Wild Turkey is doing well. The Eastern subspecies has an estimated population of 5.1 to 5.3 million strong!

The Wild Turkey has a unique appearance. The males are big, 48 inches in length weighing 16-24 lbs, while the females are smaller, around 37 inches with a weight of 8-10 lbs. Both male and female turkeys have fleshy protuberances on their heads. Caruncles are more prominent in the males and become engorged with blood in the spring. Male or Tom turkeys have a wattle, a wrinkled, folded flap of skin which is on the neck. Both sexes have what is called a snood that hangs over the bill. The male's snood is much longer than the females. Turkeys also have a unique set of feathers called a beard. The beard, which has the appearance of hair, is located on the chest and is found mostly on males, but 10-20% of females can also have beards. The males beard is approximately 9 inches long, with the record turkey beard being 18 inches! ZZ Top turkey!

There is a belief that Ol' Ben Franklin himself thought the turkey would be a better choice for our national symbol over the bald eagle. Though there is some truth to the story, it really isn't what he had in mind. This belief arises from a letter Franklin wrote to his daughter, Sarah Bache, in 1784, in which he criticizes a veterans' organization (the American Order of the Cincinnati) for choosing the bald eagle as their emblem.

Franklin wrote :"Others object to the bald eagle [i.e., on the Cincinnati's emblem] as looking too much like a dindon, or turkey. For my own part, I wish the bald eagle had not been chosen as the representative of our country; he is a bird of bad moral character; he does not get his living those among men who live by sharping and robbing...he is generally poor, and often very lousy. Besides, he is a rank coward; the little king-bird, not bigger than a sparrow, attacks him boldly and drives him out of the district...I am, on this account, not displeased that the figure [i.e., the Cincinnati's drawing] is not known as a bald eagle, but looks more like a turkey. For in truth, the turkey is in comparison a much more respectable bird, and withal a true original native of America. Eagles have been found in all countries, but the turkey was peculiar to ours...He is, besides, (though a little vain and silly, it is true, but not the worse emblem for that), a bird of courage, and would not hesitate to attack a grenadier of the British guards, who should presume to invade his farmyard with a red coat on".

Not so much for the turkey as against the Bald Eagle, I would say!

On to more fascinating facts! (Many of these I have gathered from the National Wild Turkey Federation's site. Besides other interesting facts it has all kinds of turkey calls with names like "kee kee run", "purr" and "tree call" under "What does a wild turkey sound like?" Check it out!)

Did you know a turkey can run 25 miles per hour and fly 55 miles per hour? Amazing!

The largest turkey recorded was 37 lbs? That's the size of a kindergartner!

The males have brightly colored featherless heads which can change colors? During breeding season this can change from red to white to blue in a matter of seconds! Talk about patriotic! Let's see the eagle do that!

A turkey can see movement almost a hundred yards away? Wow!

A group of turkeys is called a rafter?

Well, I need to go gobble some turkey myself. Hope all of you have a great holiday!


Common Feeder Birds: Red-Breasted Nuthatch

Another nuthatch that has been showing up in record numbers at Indiana feeders is the Red-breasted Nuthatch, Sitta canadensis. According to Ken Brock, who posts regularly on the Indiana Birds Listserv, this year is an irruption year and 450 have been logged as of Oct 30th! The previous record number was 287 in 2005. During an irruption year, the birds cannot find enough food in their normal winter grounds and are forced to fly farther south in search of food. With nuthatches, this is usually due to a failure of cone crops, their preferred food. They are fond of seeds from pines, spruce and other conifers.

With all that said, you might have a good chance of one of these creatures showing up at your feeder. They are adorable! They are approximately 4 and 1/2 to 4 and 3/4 inches in length, a bit smaller than the White-breasted Nuthatch. They only weigh .35 ounces, less than two quarters! They have a bluish-gray back with pale orange underparts and a short tail. Their face has a white chin, black eyeline and a white supercillium, the white stripe above the eye, and a dark cap. The males have a black cap, while the females have a more gray cap and lighter orange color on the underparts. It has similar toes and foraging behavior as the White-breasted Nuthatch.

In my encounters with these birds, I usually hear them before I see them. They have a high-pitched "ank, ank ank" call that reminds me of a toy horn. Since they are fond of conifer or evergreen seeds, they are usually found on the trunks of pine, cedar and spruce, but I have seen them in deciduous trees, also. We had one visit our feeders all winter in 2005, entertaining us while we ate lunch. It's food of choice was peanuts, but they also enjoy suet and black-oil sunflower at the feeders. We have heard quite a few at Eagle Creek and Southeastway Park this year, but have not seen any at our feeders, yet. Keep your eye out for this one, if they show up you won't be disappointed!StumbleUpon

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Common Feeder Birds: White-breasted Nuthatch

Late fall and winter is a great time to watch birds at your feeder or, if you don't have a feeder, visit a park that has feeders. A great citizen science project is Project Feeder Watch from Cornell. Indiana Audubon also features a Winter Feeder Count and forms can be found on their website.

The information that is gathered by people just like you helps scientists discover trends in bird populations and provides valuable data.

The next series of posts will feature common birds one can expect to find at their feeders in Indianapolis. The first bird I have chosen is one of my favorites, the White-breasted Nuthatch, Sitta carolinensis. This little bird is full of personality and has some interesting quirks about it. They are absolutely fascinating to watch. Their name comes from their unique habit of placing large seeds and nuts in crevices of trees, then "hacking" or "hatching" them open with their long, slightly upturned bill. They cache or store seeds under loose bark or in crevices of trees and will place only one item at each site in an area as large as 45 acres! Remarkably, they can remember where they placed them, unlike me who cannot find my car keys half of the time!

These birds have beautiful markings. They have a dark crown with white cheeks and a white breast. Their back is a bluish-gray. They have a short tail with white corners that are visible in flight.They are approximately 5-6 inches long and weigh 18-30 grams, or about as much as 5 quarters. ( A quarter weighs about 5.7 grams.) They are cavity nesters, which means they use hollow trees and limbs for their nest. The males usually have a darker crown and are a slightly more vivid color than the females.

But their habit of climbing down a tree head first is the easiest way to spot them. When climbing down the tree, they depend on their sharp claws and their strong hind toes which they dig into the bark. They stretch one foot out under their breast and the other is placed back under their tail as they inch their way down the tree, checking each crevice for a juicy bug or one of their treasured seeds they had hidden earlier. Their toe arrangement is called "anisodactyl" meaning three toes forward and one toe back. The rear digit has the longest nail and aids in their climbing ability. In the winter, their diet is composed mostly of seeds, while in summer it is mostly insects. In spring and fall, they have a mixed diet of insects and seeds. So, if you have a chance, check these little wonders out and watch them as they explore a tree trunk! Tomorrow, we will learn about another nuthatch that is showing up at feeders all over Indiana this year, the Red-breasted Nuthatch!

Monday, November 19, 2007

My First Blog Post!

For my first blog entry let me introduce myself. I am Janet Creamer, a naturalist for the Indianapolis Parks Dept. I have been a naturalist for 4 and a half years. I love anything outdoors and actually get stir-crazy if I am inside for too long. I love exploring outside and enjoy teaching and learning about nature. This blog is designed to cover nature topics we will come across on our explorations of the outdoors. Feel free to contact me if there is something you would like me to cover in a post. Let's learn together about the fascinating and vast topic of nature!