The Project Gutenberg eBook of Introduction to Our Bird Friends, Volume 2

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Title: Introduction to Our Bird Friends, Volume 2

Author: Lenwood Ballard Carson

Illustrator: Orville O. Rice

Release date: June 26, 2020 [eBook #62490]

Language: English

Credits: Produced by Stephen Hutcheson and the Online Distributed
Proofreading Team at


Introduction to Our Bird Friends, Volume 2


Text by L. B. Carson
Illustrations by Orville O. Rice

Copyright, 1957

Printed in the United States of America


More and more people are turning to the outdoors and the enjoyment of nature. Many great Americans have been students of wild birds. This is not accidental, for few forms of outdoor recreation offer so much pleasure.

The season of the year will in some cases determine what birds are in your area. Color is important in identifying species. Look carefully at the silhouette or shape; is it slender or chunky, is the tail short or long? Compare its size with a bird with which you are more familiar. Habitat is important, too. One learns to look for Red-winged Blackbirds in wet marshes; for a meadowlark in pastures and fields. Behavior is a clue. Does it walk or hop; does it soar, does it walk headfirst down a tree, as is the habit of the nuthatch, or scratch among leaves like the towhee? Listen to the bird’s song and call note. With a little experience, distinctive songs may be identified. Each bird has its characteristic song.

Bird study can be pursued with as much effort as the watcher cares to exert. Birds need food, water and protection from their natural enemies. You can provide these in your own yard. Some birds will be attracted and you can study them at your leisure. Other species, those which live in swamps, for example, must be searched for aggressively.

A bird guide is a splendid investment, considering the hours of pleasure it will bring you. Binoculars are a help, too, in studying the size, shape, beak, legs and color pattern.

Make written notes of what you see and hear, or a dated list of species and numbers of each. Records will add to your own pleasure and add to the sum of knowledge on birds in general.

This is the second booklet on common birds of the United States published by Capper Publications, Inc. Each of the two volumes illustrates and describes 50 different species. Additional copies (specify whether volume I or II is desired) may be ordered for 25 cents each as follows:

Bird Book Department 2
Capper Publications, Inc.
8th and Jackson Streets
Topeka, Kansas

White Pelican
Pelecanus erythrorhynchos


Soaring overhead during migration, a flock of White Pelicans is a magnificent sight. These great birds weigh as much as 15 pounds, have a wingspread of 9 feet and a total length of more than 5 feet. Their legs are sturdy but short, the toes fully webbed. The bill is long and flat with a pouch beneath the lower mandible. Three contrasting colors make this bird easily identified. The bird is white except for the outer two-thirds of the wings where the end and rear half is black. The bill, pouch and feet are yellow or reddish-yellow.

The head is carried well back, which rests the bill and pouch on the shoulders. They float high on the water and when surrounded by ducks and grebes, they look like aircraft carriers with a destroyer escort.

Unlike the smaller Brown Pelican, these birds do not dive for their food, but form a line, drive the fish to shallow water, where their built-in landing nets ladle the small fry out of the water. Many “crawdads” find that an open pouch is no place to hide when these birds wave their open beaks back and forth in shallow water.

Pelicans must have originated the game of “follow the leader,” for in flight, whatever the leader does, each bird follows in turn.

On mammoth wings

They wend their way,

On silent flight,

Across the bay.

Snowy Egret
Leucophoyx thula


Like ghosts from a bloody past, Snowy Egrets have returned to add their beauty to American bird life. Woman’s vanity and man’s desire for money once brought these beautiful herons almost to the point of extinction. The dainty recurved plumes, which formed a part of the breeding plumage of the birds, were known as “cross aigrettes,” when they were sold by milliners. Women bought, men slaughtered, and egrets died, not only for the plumes; but the nestlings starved after the adults were killed. Plume hunters have departed and the birds are now found in their favorite swamps.

This bird has a length of 20 to 25 inches, white with black bill and legs. The feet are yellow, giving it the nickname of “the bird with the golden slippers.” The young of the Little Blue Heron are also white but have greenish legs, while the bill is 2-tone, blue with black tip. The American Egret is much larger and shows a yellow bill.

The Snowy Egret formerly nested in the Deep South, but is gradually extending its range to include more northern areas. They are prone to wander widely after the breeding season. Western birders will find the Brewster’s Snowy Egret in their area.

With yellow slippers

And spotless plumes,

Which are more charming

The brides or grooms?


Green Heron
Butorides virescens


Anyone who spends time near a lake, pond or stream will find this small heron, for it is there that he secures the minnows, frogs and crayfish which form the major portion of his diet. His favorite method is to stand quietly on a partly submerged log where fish are feeding within reach of his long neck and bill. A quick thrust and one course is served. At other times you will see him sneaking carefully up to the water’s edge, where some slight ripple indicates the movement of fish or frogs.

This bird is small, measuring only 16 to 22 inches in length, but appears even smaller until he extends his long chestnut-colored neck. At a distance he appears to be black but a closer view shows a bluish or greenish tinge to the feathers, depending on lighting conditions. His legs are short and range from greenish to almost orange in color, depending on the season.

The Green Heron builds a loosely-constructed nest, usually not more than 20 feet above the ground, but often some distance from water. They are inclined to nest singly, but may form loose colonies when abundant. The 3 to 5 eggs are greenish in color and can usually be seen thru the frail structure which these birds consider home.

Sometimes they’re green

And sometimes blue

When reflected light

Plays tricks on you.

Canada Goose
Branta canadensis


There is something about the Canada Goose that demands respect. Farmers see him as a weather prophet for his fall flight indicates that winter is on the way, while his spring migration tells them that warmer days will follow. Hunters see him as the prize game bird, worthy of their best efforts. Others point to this bird as a model for man, for his strength, courage and fidelity leave little to be desired. Even the newsboy stops selling papers to watch and listen as these great birds pass over the cities.

Americans are fortunate, for at least one of the 5 sub-species of Canada Geese is found in all areas. They range from the Cackling Goose, a small dark sub-species not much larger than a Mallard and weighing around 3 pounds, to the huge Western Canada and the Common Canada with weights of 10 pounds or more. Richardson’s Goose at 4 pounds and the Lesser Canada at 5 pounds are two smaller sub-species both lighter in plumage like the Common Canada.

All show the same pattern: black head, neck, tail, feet and bill with a white cheek patch and light belly. Back and wings are brownish-gray. The cheek patch in most types is joined beneath the chin. The white of the belly extends around the tail, making the black tail feathers distinctive. The gray shows a barred effect.

He comes in various sizes,

And raises quite a din,

But you can always know him

By the strap beneath his chin.


American Pintail
Anas acuta


This duck has the widest nesting range of any species in the northern hemisphere. An American Pintail looks much the same whether you find him in Hawaii, Europe, Asia, Alaska, Canada, Mexico or on either coast of the United States. The drake is a large gray-backed, white-breasted duck. The white of the breast extends up the long neck to a point back of the brown head; gray feathers extend up the back of the neck to the head. The tail gives a clue to the name, for the 2 center feathers are long, black and pointed. The female is a mottled brown and shows a long, thin neck, bluish-gray feet and a pointed but not elongated tail.

These birds are strong fliers and do much of their courting on the wing, the female leading a convoy of males, each trying to outdo the others. Perhaps she chooses the strongest flier for her mate. The male has a whistled note while the female utters a muffled quack.

Pintails feed in shallow water where their long necks give them some advantage over the shorter-necked puddle ducks which enjoy the same habitat. Nests are placed on dry ground and are usually a deep hollow lined with grasses and down. The site is variable and might be near or far from water, but the American Pintail will go all out to protect her young.

A flock of “sprigs,”

The hunters say,

As these flash by

At break of day.

Blue-winged Teal
Anas discors


Some people call this bird the “Summer Duck.” The fact he arrives late in spring and departs for his winter home before the heavy frosts indicates a desire to evade cold weather. Most of these ducks are well on their way to Mexico or South America when other species begin to arrive from the nesting grounds. Early migration saves the lives of many Blue-wings for hunters prefer this duck for eating. Their speedy flight, their erratic twisting and turning, their tendency to decoy—all offer a challenge to the nimrod.

The blue wing patch, from which this duck derives its name, also is shared by the Cinnamon Teal which replaces this bird in western areas. Shovellers also carry a similar marking. The reddish color of the male Cinnamon Teal and the huge bill of the Shoveller help distinguish the birds. In the eclipse plumage, both male and female Blue-wings are much alike, but by the latter part of October the male assumes the dark head and tail, a crescent before the eye, brown speckled body, back gray-brown, white patch on each flank with dull yellow feet. The bill is bluish-black. The female is brownish-gray in all plumages. Both sexes show the blue wing patch in any plumage.

He likes to muddle every puddle

This handsome little teal.

You’ll see him dredge along the sedge

For there he finds a meal.


Ruddy Duck
Oxyura jamaicensis


This little duck is known by almost 100 different names in the areas where he is found. But no matter what you call him or where you find him, he is distinctive. No other duck except the Masked Duck, which is found in the West Indies, has the stiff tail which often is carried erect and fanned like a miniature sail. The male has a black or blackish-brown crown and nape, depending on the season, whether breeding or winter. The bright-blue bill, rich reddish-chestnut body and white cheek patch make the male a beautiful bird in breeding plumage. In winger the male assumes the grayish-brown coloring of the female, both showing the light cheek patch with darker crown and nape. The head, neck and feet are large for so small a bird.

These ducks are much like grebes in that they can dive or sink into the water, are almost helpless on land, and patter some distance over the water before taking into the air.

Ruddy ducks conceal their nests in reeds or bulrushes over water. Eggs are larger than one would expect to find from so small a mother. The male, unlike most ducks, seems proud to lead his little family on their quest for food and remains near while the female incubates.

Everything about a Ruddy sets him apart from other ducks.

No matter what you call him

He’s nothing like the rest.

And when it comes to diving

He ranks among the best.

American Merganser
Mergus merganser


Many birds have developed beaks which help them secure their food. The American Merganser is no exception. His beak is long and narrow and both mandibles are edged with sharp, pointed teeth which are inclined backward. The tip is covered by a nail or hook designed for catching and holding fish which form the major portion of this duck’s food. These birds are expert divers and the entire flock soon joins one of its members which has located a school of fish. Both rough and game fish are relished.

The male is a beautiful bird with his red bill, greenish-black head, black back fading to an ashy-gray rump and tail. The chest, sides and breast are white and often show a pinkish-salmon tint. Wings show a black and white pattern and the feet are red. A large streamlined duck sitting low in the water with a white body and black trim is descriptive. The female has a reddish-brown head with an elongated brushy crest, ashy-gray back and white belly. They can be confused only with the Red-breasted Merganser, but in this case, both male and female are crested and the male shows a white collar and reddish upper chest.

American Mergansers are rugged and linger as far north as open water will permit securing of food.

Like arrows winging

From giant bow,

You see them flying

Straight and low.


Marsh Hawk
Circus cyaneus


The Marsh Hawk is often called “Harrier,” and his method of hunting would justify such a name. They cover a field like a well-trained dog, back and forth, here and there, cruising slowly with a deliberate flap or a slow sail on wings tipped a little above the horizontal. A slight movement, a quick pounce, and another field mouse has joined his ancestors. The white rump patch makes a good field mark, either on the gray-plumaged male or the brownish feathers of the female or young. The long wings and tail make these birds appear larger than their length of 19 to 22 inches.

Marsh Hawks feed heavily on rodents but include insects, frogs or birds in the diet. Dead animals or birds are not overlooked, thus causing the Marsh Hawk to be blamed for kills which he did not make.

Harriers seem to take pleasure in diving at each other, and the larger buteos, eagles, vultures, prairie chickens or flocks of ducks.

Nests are placed on the ground and are hidden by shrubs, weeds or marshy growth. The female spends much of her time with or near the young while the male is kept busy hunting food for his growing family. The usual clutch contains 5 white or pale-blue eggs, lightly marked with brown spots.

On tireless wings

They scan your fields

In search of rodents

Which cut your yields.

Colinus virginianus


This chunky little brown quail is popular in every region where he resides. Hunters spend thousands of dollars each year in pursuit of this feathered bombshell. Farmers appreciate having such an active ally in their fight against the hordes of insects which menace their crops. They enjoy hearing his cheerful whistle as they go about their daily chores. Birders are happy to know this is one bird which offers no problem for they can list him by either sight or sound. Anyone can point with pride to this bird’s good character for the male can, and often does, take charge of the brood, teaching them how to exist in a hostile world.

The male shows a white throat and line over the eye, while the female is content to wear buffy feathers which make her only a little less colorful. Bobwhites nest and roost on the ground and will spend their entire lives in a limited area if shelter, food and water are available. Many farmers co-operate with their little neighbors by planting blackberries, multiflora rose, or raspberries along their fences, not farming the last inch of every corner of the field. Some even leave a little milo or other grain unharvested near the edge of their fields. Such practices pay dividends in the harvest of insects consumed by Bobwhites.

Some like to shoot

And watch him fall,

While others like

To hear his call.


Wilson’s Snipe
Capella gallinago


Wilson’s Snipe, frequently known as a “Jack Snipe,” is the most common of 3 species which have extremely long, straight bills. All feed by probing in soft mud where their sensitive bills soon locate and obtain their food. This bird prefers marshy areas near streams or ponds. When disturbed, he leaves the scene so rapidly that you might miss the erratic, zig-zag flight, the pointed wings, the stripes on his head, the brownish-striped plumage. You might even miss the orange tail, but you probably will hear the rasping note which he usually utters when he departs. The Woodcock, a similar species, feeds in dense cover and has bars across his crown, rounded wings and a chunky build. A third long-billed bird is the Dowitcher, which feeds in open, shallow water and is found often in small flocks.

Many birds are noted for unusual sounds which they make. Wilson’s Snipe is no exception; however in his case it is not a vocal effort for he ranks low as a singer. This bird uses a flight pattern which causes a vibration of feathers as the bird plunges diagonally downward. Observers have noticed the 2 outer feathers of the tail seem to be separated while on such flights; perhaps this is the clue to the unusual sound.

His king-size beak

Is a handy tool,

As he probes the mud

’Round each grassy pool.

Upland Plover
Bartramia longicauda


The Upland Plover is a confusing bird. Ornithologists still are arguing about what he should be called—a sandpiper or a plover. He formerly was known as a Bartramian Sandpiper. Now the trend seems to indicate that Upland Sandpiper is a name which fits his habits better than Upland Plover. Altho he has legs long enough for wading, he uses them for traveling thru grasses, not water. When alighting, he holds his wings up momentarily before folding them; in fact most of his actions seem more like a plover. Whatever you call him, he still will be found on prairies and grasslands; marshes and mud flats have no appeal to this bird.

The Upland Plover is slightly larger than a Killdeer and is buffy brown in color. His long neck, small head with rather short beak, long tail, hovering flight, but most of all his prolonged call, make identification easy. His long-drawn, mournful whistle seems to blend with breezes which blow above the prairies, and once heard, is not easily forgotten.

These birds once were scarce due to heavy shooting by market hunters, who slaughtered them in great numbers. They now are protected in much of their range, but unfortunately this protection does not extend to their winter home in South America.

We hear your clear

But mournful cry,

As you go tip-toeing

Thru the sky.


Greater Yellow-legs
Totanus melanoleucus


Sandpipers can be confusing, especially in fall plumage. Mixed flocks require special checking even by experts, but not the Greater Yellow-legs. His large size, slender build, yellow legs, gray upper parts, white tail coverts and under parts can be confused only with the Lesser Yellow-legs (Totanus flavipes). When together, there is no problem for the latter measures 9½ to 11 inches while the Greater Yellow-legs runs from 13 to 15 inches in length. The small, slim beak of the Lesser is straight, whereas the heavier bill of the Greater seems to be slightly upturned. The call is different, for the larger bird uses a loud 3 or 4 note whistle. The smaller uses less volume in his 1 or 2 note effort.

This sandpiper prefers mud flats and his long legs permit him to feed in deeper water where he adds minnows and crayfish to his diet. He can swallow small fish but occasionally lands one which must be reduced to bite size. However, the bird is persistent and soon completes his meal.

The Greater Yellow-legs migrates thruout the United States and may be seen around any suitable habitat. It nests as far north as Alaska and Labrador and may winter far into South America; however many remain along our southern shores and bayous.

They could not miss

When naming you.

Those yellow legs

Gave them the clue.

Recurvirostra americana


The black and white plumage of this medium-size shore bird is distinctive. A closer inspection will show long, blue legs, a thin, upturned bill and in breeding plumage, a rusty neck and head with white before the eye. In winter, the rusty markings are replaced by a gray wash. European birds lack the colorful neck and head markings, but show the black and white pattern and often are called Awl-birds. The bill gives the clue to such a name.

The Avocet feeds by wading in shallow water and swinging his bill back and forth; flocks often advance and feed in unison. These birds also are capable swimmers and have been observed while feeding like puddle ducks, tipping up and extending their heads far under water in search of insects and small crustacea.

Avocets formerly nested as far east as New Jersey but now favor the shores of ponds, lakes and sloughs in the western areas. Sun-dried mud or alkaline flats often bring loose colonies of these birds, anywhere from Southern Texas to Alberta and British Columbia. When disturbed, they circle overhead, utter a series of yelping calls or feign a broken wing in order to lure you away from their nesting sites.

The upturned beak,

The legs so blue,

The black and white

All point to you.


Wilson’s Phalarope
Steganopus tricolor


Phalaropes are unique. Unlike most birds, the female is more colorful, does most of the courting, leaves nest building, incubating and rearing of young to the long-suffering male. Her lone contribution to the rearing of the family is laying eggs. She does deserve some credit, however, for she remains in the area and will join the male in circling overhead when the nest is disturbed, both uttering a sort of nasal, trumpet-like toot.

Wilson’s Phalarope is not only the largest phalarope, but prefers inland marshes, while the Red Phalarope and Northern Phalarope spend more time at sea. In breeding plumage, the female shows a distinctive black line down the side of the neck, starting in front of the eye and blending into a chestnut wash on the shoulders. Under parts and throat are white, wings gray with a gray line extending thru the cinnamon buff of the back. The male is grayer with a cinnamon wash on the neck. In fall, both birds show dark wings, white rump patch and light plumage. The long, needle-like bill and the whirling motion when swimming are good clues to identification in any season. When feeding in shallow water, these birds are active, always in a hurry and running from place to place.

You’re just a sissy,

That we know,

For you let Mama

Steal the show.

Ring-billed Gull
Larus delawarensis


Audubon, in 1840, referred to this species as the common American gull, but due to the change in habitat and increase in population, these birds have departed from many of their former nesting areas. However, next to the larger Herring Gull, it still is one of the most widely distributed. These birds form breeding colonies on islands in Northern United States and Southern Canada, often sharing these sites with the Cormorant and the Common Tern. Like other gulls, they are not to be trusted around unprotected nests of other species, for eggs are considered quite a delicacy in a gull’s diet.

The black ring near the end of this bird’s bill is not a good field mark unless you are near or use powerful glasses to check the specimen. It looks much like a Herring Gull, except for the smaller size (18-20 inches), as compared with the 23-26 inches of the Herring Gull. The Ring-billed shows greenish-yellow legs, whereas the Herring has flesh-colored ones. Both birds show a gray mantle with black wing tips surrounding a white spot. The Herring shows a little more white in this respect. Young of the Ring-billed are a lighter buff than most other species and show a black band near the end of the tail.

That little ring you’re wearing,

Tho faint, still gives a clue,

When with other gulls you’re flying,

We know it’s really you.


Great Horned Owl
Bubo virginianus


The Great Horned Owl, largest of the eared owls, is found over a wide area and may be either light or dark in color, depending on the area where he is found. All specimens show a white throat, ear tufts and yellow eyes. This bird is almost 2 feet in length and can handle fair-sized animals when pressed by hunger. The hoot of this bird is deeper, slower and more uniform than that of the Barred Owl, and often can be heard as a sort of conversational note between 2 birds in the same area. It is given as a 2-note “Who-who,” and answered by a similar call from another bird some distance away. These calls are given on a different pitch.

These owls nest early and often use old structures which were built by hawks, crows or eagles. Hollow trees or stone ledges furnish desirable locations. They are good parents and defend their home and young against all comers, including men. Crows and jays take delight in heckling these owls, but are careful to keep a safe distance, for Great Horned Owls see well in bright sunlight, altho they do most of their hunting in darkness. Their diet includes almost any type of animal life available, but rabbits, rats, squirrels and mice seem to be preferred. Some feed on starlings and pigeons which they find around city buildings.

“Who-who?” you ask

In querulous tone,

When folks invade

Your woodsy home.

Yellow-shafted Flicker
Colaptes auratus


People once called this bird a Yellow-hammer. Lots of folks still do, and it’s but one of the many names applied to this beautiful woodpecker. His brown-barred back, black crescent on the throat, spotted breast, white rump patch and bounding flight, his large size, his loud drumming, his posturing and his loud calls all point to this bird or, if you live in the west, the Red-shafted Flicker. The latter shows a reddish tint to the wings and tail where this bird shows yellow. Heads of males are marked differently, in that the western bird shows a red line extending down from the mouth, while the Yellow-shafted shows black lines.

A flicker prefers ants to any other food, and nature has equipped him with a long, sticky tongue which permits him to explore anthills or tunnels in trees where these insects might be lurking. When ants are not available, he turns to other insects, fruit or berries, one of his favorites the seeds of the poison ivy.

Flickers usually excavate their homes in the trunks of dead trees, the entrance about 3 inches across and extending downward to as much as 24 inches. Both birds apply themselves to this task, leaving small bits of wood in the bottom in lieu of other nesting material.

Sometimes he will surprise you

By feeding on your lawn.

But there you’re apt to find him

Until the ants are gone.


Red-bellied Woodpecker
Centurus carolinus


If you look for a red belly on this bird, you might miss him entirely. Look instead for the red crown and nape, the heavily-barred back and wings and grayish-white under parts. The female lacks the red crown, only the nape showing this brilliant coloring. These birds are about the same size as Hairy Woodpeckers (9 to 10½ inches) and are rather shy, spending much of their time in wooded areas. Bird feeders supplied with corn and nut meats with ample pieces of suet will bring them to your yard. Their natural food consists of beetles and other insects, together with a generous helping of wild fruits, seeds, acorns and when available, some corn. It also relishes both juice and pulp of oranges.

Like other woodpeckers, the Red-bellied excavates nesting holes in trees where their 3 to 5 eggs are laid. Starlings often are waiting to take over these newly-constructed homes and form a real menace to these hard-working birds.

Red-bellied Woodpeckers seem to be permanent residents in suitable locations, not migrating like flickers and Red-headed Woodpeckers. However, they usually are more common in southern areas with a northern limit of Southern Minnesota and Delaware.

In deepest woods

Or near our door,

You seem quite happy

With your chore.

Red-headed Woodpecker
Melanerpes erythrocephalus


If all birds wore contrasting colors like the Red-headed Woodpecker, identifying birds would be easy. You just can’t miss on this one—the red head and neck, white under parts, blue-black back and tail, black wings with a broad white patch. The young show a grayish-brown head but the white wing patch gives you the clue.

These beautiful birds once were common and nested from the Gulf of Mexico to the southern edge of some Canadian provinces. Recent years have shown a decline in their numbers, probably due to Starlings taking over their nesting cavities before the woodpeckers can rear their broods. Another factor is their destruction by speeding automobiles. These birds feed on flying insects, and often drop down on our highways in pursuit of grasshoppers. Motor cars and some drivers have no respect for wildlife, no matter how beautiful or beneficial.

Beechnuts, acorns, pecans and various fruits and berries are consumed in quantity, and a good supply often will hold these birds far north of their usual winter range. Most Red-headed Woodpeckers migrate, and like flickers, sometimes fly at night, as both species have been recovered after hitting television towers.

They like to build

Their cozy homes

In poles equipped

For telephones.


Crested Flycatcher
Myiarchus crinitus


Flycatchers can be, and often are, noisy birds. They seem to enjoy life and want the world to know how they feel about it. The Crested Flycatcher is no exception. To hear this bird at his best, stroll quietly thru some heavily-wooded area. You scarcely are aware of the flute-like tones of the Wood Thrush in the distance, drum of the Downy Woodpecker, the bubbling tones of the Carolina Wren. All is serene. Suddenly a loudly-whistled “wheeep,” followed by a series of equally loud rolling notes, shatters the air. That is the Crested Flycatcher.

You might see him sitting quietly, peering intently at every leaf and branch, slowly moving his head so nothing will be missed. Then you will see the rufous tail, yellow belly, olive head and back, grayish throat and 2 wing bars. You might see the slight crest from which he gets his name. He is a trim bird almost robin size.

These flycatchers will nest in most any type of hole or cavity, even bird houses when available. They prefer heavily-wooded areas. They have the habit of using snakeskins either in the nesting material or draped into the entrance. Perhaps it makes them feel secure. Since Americans are prone to leave wax paper and cellophane around picnic areas, these birds find such materials a good substitute for snakeskins.

Sometimes he is a rowdy;

More often he’s demure.

And drapes his home with snakeskins

To make him feel secure.

Eastern Wood Pewee
Contopus virens


Some early morning in May, when the trees are filled with migrants, take a stroll thru the woods! The world is filled with bird notes and you listen to the symphony of sound. Then you hear a questioning whisper “pee-a-wee,” as if some stranger wondered if he should or could make himself heard. Finally you locate the bird with the plaintive note and find a little flycatcher, but since he is sitting on a well-shaded limb, you have trouble with the markings. Eventually you see that he is about sparrow-size, is a dusky olive-brown above with whitish under parts, lacks an eye ring but shows 2 distinct wing bars. That is the Eastern Wood Pewee.

Western observers will find the Western Wood Pewee to be a bird with nearly the same markings and habits. However, the western bird has a more nasal, single note song. Tho both birds place their nests on tops of limbs, the Eastern Wood Pewee builds a shallower structure, well covered with lichens and cobwebs, giving it the appearance of a knot on the limb. Both nest in rather open situations. Both birds feed heavily on insects and spiders, including many harmful weevils, flies and beetles. Unfortunately they draw no distinction between useful parasites and pests.

On summer breeze

We hear your call,

You speak your name

But with a drawl.


Tree Swallow
Iridoprocne bicolor


The frost hardly has left the ground, or the peepers and cricket frogs assembled their chorus, when flocks of these swallows can be seen winging their way northward. First flights include only the rugged males which arrive well in advance of their mates. They also are one of the last species of swallows to migrate in the fall. These birds show whitish under parts, while the upper parts are a greenish steel-blue. Western observers might confuse this bird with the Violet-green Swallow but remember that the latter shows a conspicuous white patch on each side of the rump.

Tree Swallows prefer a location near water and soon will occupy holes in stumps so located: however, bird houses are acceptable. They do not choose to nest in colonies and will defend their nesting site with vigor. Those who erect nesting boxes for these swallows might find it necessary to help them evict House Sparrows which often take a liking to their homes. Flying insects form the major portion of this bird’s food. These include numerous mosquitoes and other insects which hatch on or near water, for that seems to be their favorite feeding ground. Other foods include bayberry and wax myrtle berries, which are sought during migration.

A flash of white

With glimpse of blue,

We see you’re back

And welcome you.

Cliff Swallow
Petrochelidon pyrrhonota


Cliff Swallows may be found in almost any part of North America but the west offers more overhanging cliffs where they assemble in large colonies. Their one requirement is an ample supply of mud for their use in building the jug-shaped structure which they attach to buildings, under bridges or overhanging cliffs. Mud reinforced with a few straws, makes a sturdy home, and when lined with feathers, what more could a Cliff Swallow want? House Sparrows also find these little adobe houses inviting, but are not popular neighbors.

This species is easily recognized by the buffy rump patch. Other markings include: a dull white patch above the bill, crown and back of head blue-black, nape brownish gray, back blue-black striped with gray, chestnut over cheek and eye, black patch on lower throat, with chest flanks and sides grayish-brown with rest of under parts white. These birds show more of an assortment of colors than other species.

It is interesting to watch these birds gathering mud for their nests. Always they hold their wings high above their backs and trip daintily around until they get a mouthful of mud, but hesitate to get either their feet wet or their wings soiled.

With buffy rump

And tail so square,

We have no doubt

That you are there.


White-breasted Nuthatch
Sitta carolinensis


Nuthatches are one of the few “upside-down” birds. Chickadees and titmice sometimes feed by hanging below a cone or some limb which they want to explore; woodpeckers and Brown Creepers may brace themselves beneath a limb, but nuthatches seem to feel more at ease, when coming down a tree headfirst. That must be an advantage for they may see food which the climbers overlook. It is amazing to see the ease with which they travel, never using their tails as props.

The White-breasted Nuthatch, largest of the family, is about sparrow-size (6 inches), and shows a bluish-gray back, white under parts with blackish crown and nape. Beady black eyes are noticeable since they are surrounded by the white cheeks. These birds seem to favor deciduous trees rather than evergreens, the preferred habitat of the smaller Red-breasted Nuthatch.

A supply of nut meats and suet on your feeder seems to attract these birds. You might decide, after watching them for a short time, that such a small bird could not eat such a quantity of food. A further check will show that he is thrifty, making trip after trip to hide choice morsels for future use. He is never sure how long the supply will last.

I watch you coming

Down a tree,

But why you should

Amazes me.

Carolina Wren
Thryothorus ludovicianus


Americans are fortunate. There are a lot of reasons, but one is the fact that we have several species of wrens. There is something about these birds that demands immediate attention. It might be their size, for most are small. It might be their songs, for most are good singers. It might be their trim, sleek-looking jauntiness—some might even call it cockiness. These birds are popular around mansions or weather-beaten shacks.

For those of us who live south of the area of severe winters, and east of the plains, the Carolina Wren might be classed as a favorite bird. Any wooded area, especially one with small streams running thru it, makes ideal habitat for this songster. The more tangles and brushy undergrowth, the better he will like it.

If you don’t happen to recognize any of his numerous songs, his size and coloring will lead to his identity. He is as large as a small sparrow (5½ to 6 inches), rufous red above with buffy under parts. He shows a white line over the eye and faint wing bars. The Bewick’s Wrens and Long-billed Marsh Wrens show a line over the eye, both are smaller. Bewick’s has white tips on the tail feathers, while the latter shows distinct stripes down the back.

That cheerful song,

Your roundelay,

Rings thru the woods

’Most every day.


Brown Thrasher
Toxostoma rufum


This long-tailed bird (with the rufous-brown color, white wing bars, curved bill, striped breast and yellow eyes) welcomes spring with a loud and cheerful song. You will see him sitting at the top of some tall tree, throwing all his efforts into loud, clear notes. You will notice a wide variety of tones but all seem to run to couplets and triplets, not like the steady tempo of the Mockingbird or the more subdued tones of the Catbird, both of which are near relatives.

The next time you see him, he is likely to be under a hedge or around a brushy area, busily engaged in moving any leaves or other rubbish which might hide a lurking insect. Another favorite habitat is along the less-traveled country roads, where he always seems to think he should be on the opposite side and makes a quick, running flight to get there.

Brown Thrashers are found in suitable habitat anywhere east of the Rocky Mountains and sometimes spend the winter far north of their usual southern range. Sennett’s Thrasher is similar but is found in the southern parts of Texas. Brown Thrashers are often called “Brown Thrushes,” but thrushes have short tails, a different type of song, and prefer a different habitat.

You pair your notes,

Then triple some,

Which lets us know

That spring has come.

Wood Thrush
Hylocichla mustelina


To know the Wood Thrush is to love him. Unfortunately he seldom visits cities unless parks or other heavily-wooded areas are found within the borders. Forests, with a plentiful undercover, offer the seclusion which this bird demands. There you will hear the flute-like tones which make this bird famous as a singer. It is not a continued effort; each series of notes is followed by a rest, allowing you to absorb the full beauty of the rounded tones—then another, but completely different series, sometimes higher, sometimes lower, but always the same pure quality. Some think the Hermit Thrush is a better singer, but the Wood Thrush is a close competitor.

When you invade his domain he will greet you with a series of scolding notes, but that gives you a chance to see him. You will notice he is slightly smaller than a Robin, has a heavily-spotted breast and a rufous head, the back wings and tail more of a reddish cinnamon-brown. They nest rather low and use either mud or leaf mold in building a sturdy structure. This is an eastern bird but ranges from Minnesota, Ontario and New Hampshire south almost to the Gulf. A few winter around the Gulf of Mexico but most prefer the more southern areas of Mexico, Central America and Panama.

If mortals had

Your gift of song,

Some popular tunes

Would seem less long.


Olive-backed Thrush
Hylocichla ustulata


The Olive-backed Thrush and the Gray-cheeked Thrush are similar. Both show olive-brown backs, light under parts and lighter spots than the Wood Thrush. The Olive-backed is slightly smaller and shows a more distinct eye ring, buffier cheeks and breast. This bird’s song is a series of flute-like tones which spiral upward. A. D. DuBois (M.S. quoted by Bent in Bulletin 196-1949-P. 184) thinks of it as saying “whip-poor-will-a-will-a-zee-zee-zee.” The Veery’s song starts high and runs down the scale, while the Gray-cheeked Thrush’s song, tho similar in quality, shows less variation and ends on a slightly higher note.

Except a narrow range west of the Cascades and Sierra Nevada mountains, occupied by a western race, the Russet-backed Thrush, Olive-backs can be found from Northern North America to Central South America, depending on the season of the year. One of the nice things about this bird is that he sings during migration, giving bird lovers a chance to hear his song without traveling to the land of spruce, fir and birch, which is a favorite nesting area.

More than 63 per cent of this bird’s food is animal matter and includes many beetles. Wild, soft-skinned fruits with occasional seeds complete the diet.

A swirl of notes

Ascending high

Like whirlwinds

That reach the sky.

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
Polioptila caerulea


This tiny bird, smaller than a chickadee, never seems to have a quiet moment. On first sight, one is reminded of a Mockingbird, but not from his color, for he is blue-gray above and whitish below. It might be the long tail with the black center and white sides or perhaps it is the trim build. There is a narrow, white eye ring, and the male shows a dark line above the bill. These marks are sometimes difficult to see due to the bird’s restlessness. The tail seems to be constantly in motion. Both birds utter call notes, a thin “spee” or “zpee” sound. His song itself is faint and seldom heard.

These birds range from Southern Canada to Guatemala and are permanent residents in some states bordering the Gulf, but sporadic in their northern range.

The Gnatcatcher is an early migrant and can be found well into his nesting range by the middle of April. Nests sometimes are constructed in advance of egg-laying dates. Perhaps the bird is taking advantage of a supply of building materials which are seasonal. It frequently dismantles the first nest, using the contents in the construction of another nest in a more favorable location. It is built of plant down and other materials, bound with webs and covered with lichens.

A whispered “spee”

From yonder tree,

Gives us a clue

That it is you.


Ruby-crowned Kinglet
Regulus calendula


When you hear this bird sing, you are impressed by the beauty of clear, but variable notes. When you check the source, you are surprised to see a tiny bird with such a big voice. His short tail might lead you to believe he is even smaller than the 3¾ to 4½ inches which he measures. His coloring is not impressive, being an olive-gray. You might notice the distinct eye ring or the prominent wing bars. If he is excited by your close inspection, he might flash the ruby crown feathers, from which he gets his name.

In fall you might think this bird was a warbler for he has some of the warbler actions. He constantly flicks his wings and tail in a nervous manner, but you will miss the tail markings of the warblers. The Golden-crowned Kinglet is similar in size and general markings, but both male and female show distinctive gold crown patches. The Golden-crowned seems a little more rugged and spends his winters farther north.

These birds nest in the spruce belt of Canada and spend the winter in Southern United States with scattering records as far north as Iowa. The Western Ruby-crowned Kinglet is similar in appearance but has a slightly different song. It frequently nests as far south as New Mexico.

We look at you,

A tiny thing,

And marvel at

The way you sing.

Cedar Waxwing
Bombycilla cedrorum


Waxwings are the nomads of the bird world; like gypsies, they come and go. Apparently they drift southward in the fall and northward in the spring, but have no regular migration. They range from Southern Canada to Central America but might leave when it frosts or stay thru the winter. Unlike some “Knights of the Road,” they present a neat appearance. In fact the soft, brownish-gray plumage, fading into lighter under parts, the slate-colored tail with the yellow tip, the jaunty crest, the black eye mask, the reddish spot on the wing, the sleek, streamlined stance—all mark him as an aristocrat.

Waxwings like companions and travel in flocks. Where you find one, you might find a dozen or more than one hundred. Whether feeding or resting, you will hear them conversing in a high-pitched, wheezy note which is difficult to describe. Some refer to it as a hiss, others as a whine.

When an ample supply of food is available, Cedar Waxwings gorge themselves until they seem rather listless. Various fruits and berries are relished, but insects and cankerworms are taken in season.

The Bohemian Waxwing is slightly larger, grayer and shows more white on the wing and brown under-tail coverts.

You’re just a glutton,

That we know,

For you’re not one

To eat and go.


Warbling Vireo
Vireo gilvus


The Warbling Vireo is not colorful. If you happen to see his back, you will see he is a grayish olive-green, slightly grayer on the head. When looked at from below, and that is the way you generally see him, you may see a tinge of yellow on the white under parts. A white line over the eye is the only other marking. But don’t give up; you will note the slow, deliberate vireo movement. He loves to sing and soon you will hear a pleasing series of notes, all connected but each note on a different pitch; a wave of bird notes, not hurried but clear and musical. This song could be confused with that of the Purple Finch but the latter is slightly higher in pitch and faster.

Unlike other vireos, he likes to nest in the high, deciduous trees which line the streets of cities and towns. Parks and farm homes also offer suitable habitat. The nest is a neat structure, placed near the end of a drooping branch on some well-developed tree; one which is growing in the open, for these small birds like plenty of room around their homes. The male is so proud of his home he often sings while taking his turn with the incubating.

The Western Warbling Vireo has a similar song, seems inclined to nest nearer the ground, but shuns evergreens.

His note is just a warble.

You cannot write it down.

But you are bound to hear it

If you walk ’round the town.

Black and White Warbler
Mniotilta varia


Warblers are an unusual family of birds. Some act like flycatchers and often feed on flying insects. Others join the vireos in searching for larvae in the thick foliage of higher trees. A few mingle with sandpipers and find their food along the banks of some small stream, while the ground-dwelling contingent share choice morsels with thrushes. The Black and White Warbler is different, for while nesting on or near the ground, he feeds on the trunk or larger limbs of trees, combining the upward movement of the Brown Creeper with reverse actions of nuthatches. His is more of a swing movement, quickly switching as if undecided whether to go up or down. Various beetles, ants, weevils, plant lice and larvae are included in his diet.

This bird can be distinguished from the similar Black-polled Warbler by the white stripe down the center of the crown and the white line over the eye. Their habits and songs are different.

Due to its feeding habits, the Black and White Warbler does not depend on extensive foliage to furnish a supply of caterpillars, and migrates earlier than many of this colorful family. Fall migration may find him lingering well into October, before departing for his winter home.

He’s black and white,

As you can see

When he climbs ’round

That rough-barked tree.


Yellow Warbler
Dendroica petechia


The Yellow Warbler, commonly called “Wild Canary,” is the best-known member of the warbler family. Its breeding range extends from the northern part of Alaska, thru Canada, United States and into Mexico, and from coast to coast. It winters as far south as Peru. Unlike most warblers, this friendly little bird seems to enjoy being near people and may nest in some shrub or bush near your home.

You will recognize him instantly for he is the yellowest of all our warblers, even in confusing fall plumage. The male shows pale, chestnut streaks on the throat, breast and sides. The female may show a few obscure markings, but not the distinct pattern worn by her mate.

Yellow Warblers build a compact little nest using grasses, plant down, wool, cotton, hair or feathers, depending on available materials. Nests range from 3 to 60 feet above ground, with a tendency to build them low when suitable sites are found. Cowbirds are this bird’s worst enemy for one or more Cowbird eggs can be found in most Yellow Warbler nests. They have learned to combat this menace by adding another story to their structure, thereby covering unwanted eggs with a new layer of nesting material. In some instances as many as 6 stories have been added.

A sunbeam marked

With heavier ray

Flits ’cross the yard

Each summer day.

Northern Water-thrush
Seiurus noveboracensis


It is easy to see why these warblers are called water-thrushes. They resemble thrushes and usually are found near water. When you see him walking down a half-submerged log or wading along the edges of a pool, you will find he teeters like a Spotted Sandpiper. You also will notice the dark, olive-brown back, yellowish stripe over the eye, the throat and under parts buffy-yellow streaked with dark olive. The slightly larger Louisiana Water-thrush shows a white line over the eye, white or buffy-white under parts, unmarked white throat with duller streaks under the body. The Ovenbird, a near relative, shows an eye ring, reddish-orange crown and lacks the line over the eye. Western observers will find that Grinnell’s Water-thrush is slightly larger with lighter eye lines and under parts.

During migration, the Northern Water-thrush might appear in your yard or garden, but edges of swamps, ponds or streams appeal to him most. To see him at his best it is necessary to invade secluded areas around cool bogs, mountain streams or northern lakes. There you will hear the loud song, a series of clear but emphatic notes. His well-hidden nest may be found by stumps or roots or moss-covered logs.

This funny little warbler

Likes water on his feet,

And when it comes to singing

He’s really hard to beat.


Yellow-breasted Chat
Icteria virens


The Yellow-breasted Chat is not only the largest, but the most unwarbler-like of this colorful family. If you live near thickets of dense shrubbery, where brier tangles and brushy, low bushes grow in profusion, there you will find this bird. He prefers low, damp ground but does not overlook similar habitat on dry hillsides. His loud and varied song will let you know when he arrives. Each series of notes is followed by a long pause, and then another series, but on an entirely different pitch; clear-whistled notes, low grating tones, caws or reed-like tones all find a place in this bird’s song.

When you invade his territory, you will find he is elusive, but a little patient waiting on your part will bring him out. Then you can check the olive-brown back and rich, lemon-yellow breast fading to white beneath the tail. The white line just above the eye combines with an eye ring, as if he were wearing spectacles. You might even see the short, stout bill or the rounded wings. Its long tail gives this bird a length of 7½ inches. He might entertain you with his clown-like antics by fluttering into the air with his head down and feet dangling, but accompanied by some of his sweetest music.

A clown at heart,

He lets you know

That he is pleased

To steal the show.

Wilson’s Warbler
Wilsonia pusilla


When you make this bird’s acquaintance, you will wonder why he was not called a “Black-capped Warbler,” for no name would be more fitting. In fact, many ornithologists now refer to him by that name. Those who do their birding in the Western United States might feel the same about the Pileolated Warbler, which is similar. Both birds show olive-green above and yellow below, with no wing marks or other distinguishing features, except the black cap worn by the males. Some females carry this mark faintly outlined, but it is lacking on the young. The western bird is slightly larger.

During migration this warbler seems to prefer low bushes and shrubs to the higher trees and is found around parks or bushes bordering streams. They seem friendly but move so rapidly that you may miss the black cap. They combine the usual warbler antics with those of small flycatchers by capturing many flying insects; however, they are not inclined to return to the same perch, but hurry on their way.

The song is a rapid series of notes with little variation except the last tones, which are slightly lower in pitch. They nest on the ground near water or swampy areas such as sphagnum bogs of the north or alder and willow valleys of the west.

That little cap

Upon your head

Gives us the clue,

Or so we’ve read.


Yellow-headed Blackbird
Xanthocephalus xanthocephalus


Eastern birders are unfortunate for only on rare occasions do they have a chance to see and study this handsome bird. He is larger than the Red-winged Blackbird, with which he often is associated, but smaller than the Grackles. During migration, they join other members of their family in feed lots, pastures or fields and any mixed flock is worth inspecting. They are identified easily for no other bird has the black body, white wing patch and yellow head and breast. The female lacks wing markings and shows dusky, grayish-brown coloring with a yellowish tinge on lighter head markings. They walk with almost a strut, as if they were proud of their brilliant plumage.

Yellow-headed Blackbirds nest in colonies and affix their bulky nests to tules and other vegetation which grow in the center of marshes and swamps in western areas. There seems to be a tendency to move eastward, for a few are nesting in the marshes of the upper Mississippi valley.

Their song is distinctive and consists of a series of chuckles, squeaks and grating notes, all produced by what seems to be a great physical effort. The results hardly justify such a strain.

Your favorite call,

So loud and harsh,

Would scare the frogs

In any marsh.

Baltimore Oriole
Icterus galbula


Most people are attracted to birds by one of 3 things—their brilliant plumage, a beautiful song or the way they build their nests. The Baltimore Oriole scores in every department. Few birds are more colorful than an adult male, perched on the top of some tall tree, in full sunlight. The rich-orange body glows like a living ember. When you add the black of the head, back, wings and central tail feathers, the white wing bar and feather edging on the wings and the orange outer feathers, near the end of the tail, the contrasting pattern is unique. The female and young are less colorful with dull black and yellowish-orange markings and 2 distinct wing bars.

The Baltimore Oriole’s song is a rich melodious whistle which varies slightly when given by different birds, but retains the oriole quality. It could be confused with songs of some of the grosbeaks, but the latter use more “chip” notes with their whistles. Western birders will find a similar quality in the songs of Bullock’s and Scott’s Orioles.

For nesting sites, they choose a spot near the end of some drooping branch, where they construct a deep, well-woven, gourd-shaped structure which swings in the breeze. Grasses and string furnish building material.

A lot of grass

And bits of string,

Will make their home

A wondrous thing.


Bronzed Grackle
Quiscalus quiscula


Almost everyone who lives or has traveled any place east of the Rocky Mountains has seen this bird. The chances are they call it a blackbird, for most people do. From his appearance, they are right. Since there are a number of different species of blackbirds, this one should be examined more closely. When you see him walking around your yard, you will notice he is larger than a Robin, has a wedge-shaped tail and yellow eyes. The male often shows a keel-shaped tail, when flying. The plumage is iridescent and may show green, blue or purple. Those who live along the Atlantic coast refer to these birds as Purple Grackles, a name which is becoming popular for both the eastern and western types.

Grackles gather in huge flocks and can do much damage to unharvested crops. In mixed flocks, grackles show a more even flight pattern than most blackbirds.

Other birds are not happy when grackles nest in their area for these birds are inclined to add both eggs and young of smaller birds to their diet. Credit must be given the grackle, however, for he mixes numerous insects with his diet of fruit and grain.

We watch you dunking

Crusts so thick,

And wonder where

You learned the trick.

Blue Grosbeak
Guiraca caerulea


Many birders seem to have trouble in listing the Blue Grosbeak. One reason is the size, for they are smaller than most members of this family. Another reason is that light conditions often make them appear black. A third reason might be their choice of habitat. They prefer brushy areas near some stream, but may be found along woodland borders or hedges, where ample brush is found. They usually nest in low trees or shrubs. There you probably will find the male as he sings from the top of some bush or even utility wire which crosses his territory. You can see he is a deep, but rather dull blue, with 2 chestnut wing bars. The female is brown and shows 2 buffy wing bars. Both show a heavy beak which gives them their name.

Blue Grosbeaks nest from Maryland to California but shun the northern states. They winter as far south as Honduras and are fonder of warm weather than most members of their family.

The Blue Grosbeak has a beautiful finch-like song, using a short series of notes which rise and fall into a sweet warble. It is slower than the song of the Purple Finch and does not carry like the usual grosbeak song. Their food consists of insects and small seeds or grain.

The male is blue,

His mate is brown.

But neither likes

To live in town.


Pine Siskin
Spinus pinus


Pine Siskins are unpredictable. Some years they are numerous, while others produce few, if any, in the same area. Food supply is not necessarily the answer, for they are erratic wanderers. These small finches seem to prefer conifers for nesting. They build a neat structure, using grass, bark or moss with a lining of finer materials. Their home is well hidden by the heavy foliage near the end of a limb. The eggs are a pale bluish-green, dotted with brown or black markings, more colorful than the pale blue eggs of the American Goldfinch.

Siskins resemble goldfinches in their notes, flocking habits and size, but can be identified by the uniform, striped appearance. They have semi-concealed yellow patches near the body on both wings and tail. Goldfinches show clear breasts in any plumage. Birders have found the best clue to the identity of this bird is the long buzzy note which forms a part of his song. His notes are husky in quality.

In winter siskins mingle with other finches in harvesting weed seeds. Other food consists of seeds of various trees such as ash, birch or elms, together with leaf buds. Most of their summer is spent in evergreens which offer not only the nesting sites but food necessary for growing families.

That buzzy note

Makes it a cinch

To know you’re not

Another finch.

Red-eyed Towhee
Pipilo erythrophthalmus


Towhees inhabit thickets, bushes and brushy areas, and spend most of their time scratching thru litter which covers the ground in such locations. When disturbed, they usually utter the call note which gave them their name. Opinions differ as to sounds made, so these birds are referred to as “Towhees,” “Jorees” or “Chewinks.” Some call them “Ground Robins,” since they feed on the ground and a part of their plumage resembles that of our Robins.

Towhees are smaller than Robins. The male shows 3 distinct colors; the head, throat, back, wings and tail are black; sides are rusty, and the belly, outer tips of the tail and wing spots are white. The female is browner but easily identified by the color pattern. Western birds are called Spotted Towhees, since their wings and backs show more white feathers. Both have red eyes. Those who do their birding along the coast from South Carolina to Florida will find birds with lighter irises and referred to as White-eyed Towhees.

These birds nest on the ground but do most of their singing from tops of trees. Songs vary and may include a series of notes or 1 or 2 notes followed by a trill.

When he’s near you will hear

A loud rustling sound,

For he rakes as he takes

Choice food from the ground.


Vesper Sparrow
Pooecetes gramineus


Several kinds of sparrows can be found in open fields, along roadside fences and hedgerows, but the Vesper Sparrow is easiest to identify. If you should miss the chestnut patch on the bend of the wing or the white belly, bordered by fine lines, you still will notice the white outer-tail feathers. The back is a light grayish-brown with dark stripes.

Juncos and pipits also have white outer-tail feathers, but adult juncos show no stripes and pipits walk instead of hop. Western Vesper Sparrows show less brown in their plumage, some being almost a light gray, but still show darker lines on their backs, sides and breasts.

These birds use grass and small roots in building their nests, which usually are in or near a clump of grass. Their eggs are grayish white, heavily marked with brown.

Vesper Sparrows are good singers. Their best efforts seem to be late in the evening, when dusk replaces the fleeting shadows; their musical notes add a fitting benediction to the dying day. This chorus accounts for the name. Songs vary, but usually start with 2 pairs of long melodious notes, the second pair higher in pitch, then a series of rapid notes beginning still higher, then coming down the scale to end in a soft warble.

You might have been a junco

From markings on your tail,

But you prefer the prairies

Where breezes never fail.

Lark Sparrow
Chondestes grammacus


These large sparrows are easily identified. No other sparrow has a white border around the tail or the distinctive chestnut and white head pattern. Another mark is a distinct, dark spot on the breast. Clay-colored Sparrows show a similar head pattern but lighter parts are grayer and the cheek patch is duller, more brown than chestnut. The latter-named bird has no spot on the breast.

Lark Sparrows prefer open areas along country roads, old orchards or pastures with scattered trees or bushy hedges. Such habitat furnishes nesting sites and a plentiful supply of insects, small seeds and grit for their use. Altho usually a common species within its range, these birds are inclined to be erratic and might be scarce one season and abundant the next, with no apparent reason.

They nest on or near the ground but like to sing from a more elevated perch such as a fence, bush or tree. Some sing while hovering in the air. They cover a wide range but populations vary from year to year.

Their song is a series of melodious notes, varying in pitch but seeming to include a few “churrs” which are quite distinctive. Songs vary between birds, each bird giving a wide variety of notes in a short period of time.

You like the pastures

With scattered trees,

Where you can live

A life of ease.


Chipping Sparrow
Spizella passerina


Chipping Sparrows are not only the friendliest, but one of the best-known American sparrows. The reason is apparent, for yards, gardens and parks furnish ideal habitat for these birds. They often nest in vines or bushes just outside your window. Nesting materials include grasses, rootlets and hairs, horsehair being used extensively, when available. Their fondness for a horsehair lining in the nest sometimes leads to casualties when either parents or young become entangled.

Chippies derive their name from their songs, a series of chip notes which they utter. This is a rapid, unmusical series of notes, all on the same pitch. They frequently join the Robins to start the day with song. Juncos and some of the warblers also use a series of chip notes in their songs, but with more variations and more musical in quality.

They feed heavily on insects and larvae, including various caterpillars, beetles, ants and plant lice. Vegetable food amounts to a little more than half their diet and includes seeds from grasses and weeds. Crab grass seeds seem to be a favorite.

Western Chipping Sparrows are slightly larger and paler but show the rusty cap, black beak and other markings which are distinctive.

That chestnut cap,

White line below,

Black thru the eye,

That’s you, we know.

White-crowned Sparrow
Zonotrichia leucophrys


White-crowned Sparrows are known only as migrants or winter residents to birders living east of the Great Plains. Westerners are more fortunate for White-crowns and the similar Gambel’s and Nuttall’s Sparrows nest in much of their area. When flushed from their feeding grounds, these birds will impress you by their alert appearance. The habit of erecting the crown feathers makes the head appear round and puffy, and brings out the beauty of the broad black and white stripes which surround the white crown.

These birds have a gray throat and breast, 2 wing bars, grayish-brown backs with darker stripes. The feet and bill are pinkish. A white line over the eye of the White-crowned Sparrow does not extend to the beak, as it does on Gambel’s and Nuttall’s. Nuttall’s Sparrow has a yellow bill.

White-throated Sparrows often are found in mixed flocks with White-crowns, but the former show a distinct white throat patch, have flatter heads, and a yellow spot between the bill and eye. The beak is dark.

White-crowned Sparrows are good singers. Their songs vary but usually start with a clear but plaintive whistle. Western varieties sing differently but have a similar quality.

When winter takes

An angry mood,

You visit us

In search of food.


Song Sparrow
Melospiza melodia


Song Sparrows literally sang themselves into a name, for few birds sing so persistently. To Thoreau these birds seemed to say: “Maids! maids! maids! hang up your teakettle-ettle-ettle.” To you it may sound differently, but you still will hear the sharp notes with which he starts his song. These are on the same pitch with a slight pause between each note. From there, the song is variable and may contain trills or assorted notes on various pitches. One bird may produce several different songs.

These birds prefer brushy or weedy areas near water but may nest near your home if a bird bath is handy. No other bird seems to take as much pleasure from bathing.

There are numerous geographic forms of this bird, which accounts for wide variation in colors and sizes. The Desert Song Sparrow is light while others are almost as rusty as Fox Sparrows. All Song Sparrows are heavily striped, and show a distinct spot in the center of the breast, and a dark line on each side of the throat. There is a gray stripe thru the crown and a broader line over the eyes.

They usually migrate in March and October but wintering birds often are found in the nesting range.

It’s plain to see

Why you’re so clean.

You take a bath

In every stream!

Lapland Longspur
Calcarius lapponicus


Lapland Longspurs are birds of the far north, nesting as they do in the arctic and sub-arctic regions of both eastern and western hemispheres. They visit us only in the winter when deep snow and bitter cold drive them from their homes. Flocks of these sparrow-sized birds may be found in open fields, prairies and pastures, feeding on whatever seed or small grain is available. They run rapidly, ever on the search for more food, and may be joined by Horned Larks at good feeding spots.

They seem nervous and take wing frequently, circle here and there and often return to the same location. They have a rolling, erratic flight which reminds one of blowing leaves.

In breeding plumage these birds display a lot of color. The male has a black head and chest, rufous nape, back and sides heavily striped and a white belly. A buffy stripe behind the eye drops down the neck and backward along the sides of the chest. In winter you will see a brownish bird with blackish streaks and white under parts.

In their eagerness to return to their northern homes, Lapland Longspurs often suffer heavy losses because of wet spring snows. Their song is varied and sweet.

Like blowing leaves,

You come and go

Across the prairies

Flecked with snow.

Jan. Feb. Mar. Apr. May. Jun. Jul. Aug. Sep. Oct. Nov. Dec.
Avocet 7   .. ..   .... .... ..  
Blackbird, Yellow-headed 20   .. ... 
Bobwhite 5 oooo oooo oooo oooo oooo oooo oooo oooo oooo oooo oooo oooo
Chat, Yellow-breasted 19 oooo oooo oooo .... .... .   
Duck, Ruddy 4 .... .... ..oo oooo o... ...o oooo ....
Egret, Snowy 1   .. .... .   
Flicker, Yellow-shafted 9 oooo oooo oooo XXXX XXXX XXXX XXXX XXXX XXXX oooo oooo oooo
Flycatcher, Crested 11   .o oooo oooo oooo oooo ..  
Gnatcatcher, Blue-gray 15 .ooo oooo oooo oo.. ....
Goose, Canada 2 .... .... .ooo oo..  ... .... ....
Grackle, Bronzed 21 .... .... oXXX XXXX XXXX XXXX XXXX XXXX XXXX XXoo oo.. ....
Grosbeak, Blue 21 .... .... ....
Gull, Ring-billed 8 .... .... .ooo oooo o.   .... .ooo oo.. ....
Heron, Green 2    . ..oo XXXX XXXX XXXX XXXX oooo ..  
Kinglet, Ruby-crowned 16 .... .... ...o oooo oo.   .oo oooo .... ....
Longspur, Lapland, 25 oooo oooo oo.. ..oo oooo
Merganser, American 4 XXXX XXXX XXXo oo.. .       . ..oX XXXX
Nuthatch, White-breasted 13 .... .... .... .... .... .       . .... ....
Oriole, Baltimore 20   .o XXXX XXXX XXXX oooo o. 
Owl, Great-horned 9 XXXX XXXX XXXX XXoo oooo oooo oooo oooo oooo oooo ooXX XXXX
Pelican, White 1 ..oo oo.. .... ..     .. oooo oo..
Pewee, Eastern Wood 11 .ooo oooo oooo oooo ....
Phalarope, Wilson’s 8   .. oo.     . ...  
Pintail, American 3 oooX XXXX XXXo oooo ..      . .... .ooo XXXX oooo
Plover, Upland 6  ... oooo oooo oooo oooo .   
Siskin, Pine 22 .... .... .... oooo o.   .... ....
Snipe, Wilson’s 6   .. ...o oooo .      .. .... ....
Sparrow, Chipping 24    . oooo XXXX XXXX XXXX oooo .... ..  
Sparrow, Lark 23    . .ooo XXXX XXXX XXXX ooo.
Sparrow, Song 25 XXXX XXXX XXXX Xoo.  ... ooXX XXXX XXXX
Sparrow, Vesper 23 .... .... .... .XXX    . oooo .... ....
Sparrow, White-crowned 24 .... .... .... ..oo Xo.. .... .... ....
Swallow, Cliff 12  .oo XXXX XXXX XXXX XXXo .... ..  
Swallow, Tree 12 oooo o..     . .... ... 
Teal, Blue-winged 3 ..oo XXXX XXXX oo..   .o XXXX XXXo ..  
Thrasher, Brown 14 .... .... .... oXXX XXXX XXXX XXXX oooo oooo oo.. .... ....
Thrush, Olive-backed 15   .o XXXo .     ... ..  
Thrush, Wood 14    . oXXX XXXX Xo.. .... .... .   
Towhee, Red-eyed 22 .... .... .... oooo oooo oooo oo.. .... .... .... .... ....
Vireo, Warbling 17   .o XXXX XXXX oo.. .... ....
Warbler, Black and White 17   .o oooo   .. ..  
Warbler, Wilson’s 19 .oo. ....
Warbler, Yellow 18   .o XXXX XXoo oo..  ... ..  
Water-thrush, Northern 18    . oooo .     ... ... 
Waxwing, Cedar 16 oooo XXXX oo.. .... .... ....   .. .... ..oo oooo
Woodpecker, Red-headed 10 .... .... .... ..oo XXXX XXXX XXXX XXXX XXXo .... .... ....
Wren, Carolina 13 oooo oooo oooo oooo oooo oooo oooo oooo oooo oooo oooo oooo
Yellow-legs, Greater 7  .oo XXXX Xo.     . oooo oooo oo.. .   
. The dot or period indicates the bird is seen occasionally.
o The small o shows the bird is seen more frequently.
X The capital X shows the bird is seen commonly.

For example, during January and February, the Bronzed Grackle is seen rarely. The first week in March, it is seen more frequently, after which it is seen commonly until the middle of October. The table is based on bird census figures collected within a radius of 50 miles of Topeka, Kansas. Your area may show different results.


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Transcriber’s Notes