Brown-Headed Cowbird

The Brown-Headed Cowbird is often considered an unsavory character of the bird feeder crowd. Perceived like a seedy, back-alley character from a gangster film, many bird watchers chase the Cowbird away from their feeders. They see the Brown-Headed Cowbird as only a nuisance, taking food from the “pretty” birds. In many ways that could easily be a metaphor for human nature and life, but we won’t dwell on the greater philosophy and psychology behind it.

Brown-Headed Cowbirds are in many ways the loners of the bird world. But this loneliness is self-inflicted. The Brown-Headed Cowbird does not build a nest in which to lay eggs. Instead, the female leaves her grayish-white eggs with brown speckles in the nests of other birds. They are the only parasitic bird to reside in New Jersey. Their eggs have been found in the nests of over 200 different species. Some of these birds recognize an imposer and abandon the nest or remove the Cowbird egg. However, many other species raise the Brown-Headed Cowbirds’ babies along with their own young. It is this leaving of their young, like orphans, to fend for themselves in an ugly duckling situation that leads me to pity them.

But while this behavior may seem appalling to some bird lovers, especially those of us particularly partial to songbirds, we need to remember that such is the nature of nature. Brown-Headed Cowbirds were probably laying their eggs in the nests of other species long before man, pencil and paper in hand, decided to study and record his behavior. We shouldn’t judge them harshly for it.

Female Northern Cardinals

I know that I have already written about Northern Cardinals, but I feel that the female Cardinal deserves some special attention. As I mentioned in an earlier post, because of the bright red color of the male Northern Cardinal, the females are often overlooked. But they are really just as interesting to watch and, in my opinion, their subtle hints of red are more striking than the bold display presented by their male counterpart.

The female Cardinal is the same size as the male, 8 ¾ -9 inches. She is a golden brown color with some red highlights on her tail, wings, crest and above her eye. She has a red beak, the same as her male counterpart and she has the same black mask on her face, though usually her mask is smaller and more subtle.

What I love most about the female Cardinals that visit my yard is their sassy attitude. They are just as likely to be aggressive with other birds as a male Cardinal, and there is nothing timid or passive about these ladies. Cardinals are usually one of the larger birds at my feeders and the females have no problem throwing their weight around if need be.

The female Cardinals I have been watching seem more adventurous than the males. The female Cardinals are often balancing on the feeders designed for smaller birds, and figuring out how to perch. Sometimes it takes a few tries, but they usually figure out a good, if awkward, way to balance. The males, either don’t have the patience or maybe have a bit more weight to them making this less likely.

Cardinal couples are monogamous for at least one breeding season, sometimes more. Bird monogamy, and the cheating therein, probably deserves a whole post of its own, and we won’t go into the genetics discussion right now. In one season they will have usually two or three broods. Once the first group have hatched, the male feeds and cares for them while the female goes off to lay and incubate the next clutch.

Northern Flicker

Common year round throughout most of the United States (with the exception of parts of Southern Texas, New Mexico and California), the Northern Flicker is not a regular visitor to my yard. Despite a limited number of sightings, I know Northern Flicker are in the neighborhood, as I can hear their distinctive, hyena like call: https://nationalzoo.si.edu/scbi/migratorybirds/education/nasongkey.pl?bird=Northern+Flicker

As a result of their scarcity in my yard, I am very excited whenever one makes an appearance and I can get a good photo. When I have sighted a Northern Flicker, in my yard or out on various walks, I have noticed that they seem more shy and skittish than other species of woodpecker. If you are lucky enough to be sitting, with a camera nearby, as I was for some of these photos, then you are golden. Any major movements, and the Northern Flicker will bolt. Not necessarily very far, but you will inevitably lose it in the chase.

While technically a woodpecker, you often see the Northern Flicker on the ground or very low to the ground, on stumps etc. This is due to their great affinity to ants. They eat primarily insects, so don’t expect to see them at your suet or seed feeders like many other woodpeckers. In a pinch they will eat nuts or grain, so you might get lucky if food is scarce. Due to their shorter legs, they hop around rather than walk.

Compared to other woodpeckers with their black and white patterning, the Northern Flicker is a bit more subtly feathered, with a golden-brown back, which often blends in to the background more effectively. In my region, the Northeast, the yellow-shafted sub-species is most common. There is also a red-shafted Northern Flicker, the shaft in both cases referring to the flight feathers. If you are looking at the Northern Flicker from the side while stationary, the only hint of yellow can be detected at the very edges of the wings.

All of the photos on this page depict male Northern Flickers. The most distinct difference between the male and female is the male’s black markings on his cheeks. While one of my field guides calls it a mustache and another refers to it as “black malar stripe,” it always reminds me of eye black glare, like football players use.

Other aspects of the appearance that help to identify a Northern Flicker from other woodpeckers are the spotted belly, as I mentioned the golden-brown coloring, and a gray head with a distinctive red patch.

Canada Geese

I want to take the time in this post to talk about a less respected bird, the Canada Goose. Most people choose to write off the Canada Goose as a nuisance. They make a mess in parks and nature preserves. They don’t tend to be friendly, especially in the spring. They don’t have a nice song, and they aren’t pretty to look at. So what’s to like?

Perhaps one of the reasons they aren’t liked is that they are not native to many of the places they now call home. However, despite making the invasive species website- which was somewhat akin to America’s most wanted for our animal friends- being invasive was not really their idea. It is hard to believe today, but the geese population was actually failing in the 1950s. Because of this decline, they were moved to urban and suburban areas where they would not naturally have occurred. They have now thrived in those areas for generations, creating the overpopulation problem we are familiar with today.

Due to the abundance of Canada Geese in my area, I have had a lot of opportunity to photograph them and observe them closely. I think that they have a strength and an intelligence that I truly admire. They also have strong family ties. They are, and this is incredibly impressive, adaptable. One of the reasons we see so many Canada Geese is that they have learned to live in many different situations.

Apparently, Canada Goose identification can actually be more of a challenge than you would think. They are several subspecies, no doubt a result of that adaptability in their nature. All are basically the same to the untrained eye, with the black head and neck, a gray-brown body and white highlights on the chin and backside. Most measure about 36-46 inches, making them much bigger than most ducks but not quite the size of a swan.

One of nature’s first signs of Autumn, the Canada Goose’s V- formation is iconic. The V is also symbolic of the strong family and group ties these geese have. Like Muted Swans and several other waterfowl, Canada Geese mate for life. They also have strong attachment to their nesting locations, and return or remain in the same territory every year. A pair will only have one brood a year, in a nest located near the water. They can have anywhere from five to ten eggs, which incubate for about a month. According to PETA, parent geese can communicate with goslings while they are still in the egg, but I didn’t find any other reference to this in my research. Both parents watch and teach their young for about two months.

In the non-breeding months, Canada Geese join a larger flock or community. They are very protective and territorial all year round, but this is particularly true when they have young or eggs. While other members of the flock search for the aquatic plants, insects, seeds, crustaceans, or berries which make up a goose’s diet, one member of the flock stands guard. The sentinel is easy to spot, usually the only one with its head up, searching the area like the periscope on a submarine. Upon the approach of danger, he or she will honk a warning to the others. The protective nature of Canada Geese extends to the sick or injured birds within a flock, whom the Geese will protect until death or recovery. Suffice it to say, community spirit runs strong in the Canada Goose. And they are very orderly. They always cross the street in a straight, line. A few times I could have sworn the leader looked both ways before starting across!

That is not to say that their overpopulation is not a problem. Human feeding, among other factors, has encouraged too many geese to reside in parks and other recreational areas. In these places they lack many natural predators and can have an impact on the water and vegetation through both their presence and microbes in their feces. An overabundance of Canada Geese has had a negative impact on many wetland habitats in particular.

One human attempt to control the rampant numbers of Canada Geese is through licensed hunting. In New Jersey geese can be hunted in the Fall. And yes, you can eat Canada goose. If you are interested in recipes, this might be a good website to check: https://honest-food.net/cooking-my-goose/ But even hunting Canada geese is more complicated that it first appears. New Jersey lies in the flight path of several different groups of Canada Geese. The New Jersey DEP Fish and Wildlife have identified three separate populations of Canada Geese: Atlantic Population, North Atlantic Population and Resident Population (no-migratory). Of these three, the Resident population is the group that has fewer natural predators however, hunting birds that live in suburban and urban areas creates problems. Hunting regulations have been designed to target the groups with highest populations. Bag and time limits are determined based on the variable populations of the migratory groups.

Outside of hunting seasons, some communities, including Greenwood Lake, have conducted culls against the geese populations in the past. In 2019 they canceled their cull for alternative, humane measures including noise, lasers and dogs. Egg addling, or stopping the grown of embryos younger than fourteen days is another method employed to keep the population down. I don’t envy those who undertake these measures, especially as the Humane Society’s Canada Goose addling guide warns “addling active nests is not a solo activity.”

So there you have it, the Canada Goose. Far to complex to fit into a nutshell. Tenacious creatures with endearing family instincts that happen to be overpopulating our parks due in part to first human intervention and human encouragement.

Additional Sources for this post include:

http://www.iucngisd.org/gisd/species.php?sc=1427

https://www.state.nj.us/dep/fgw/artgoose19.htm

https://www.northjersey.com/story/news/passaic/west-milford/2019/06/14/greenwood-lake-commission-cancels-controversial-canada-geese-cull/1448330001/

https://www.humanesociety.org/sites/default/files/docs/wild-good-egg-protocol.pdf

Killdeer

I have only had the opportunity to see Killdeer in the wild once. I came across a pair this spring, on the side of Barbour’s pond. They were enjoying the soggy ground near the water’s edge. No doubt it was in the perfect condition for rooting out tasty insects and other invertebrates to eat. As the only “shore bird” that doesn’t really like the Jersey Shore, Killdeer are commonly found by fresh water ponds or lakes, in parks and even golf courses.

They struck me instantly as very comical to watch. A more nervous and neurotic looking bird I have never seen! Even its high-pitched call of “Kill-deer” seems fraught with anxiety. They sprint short distances, in the most awkward (one of my field guides referred to it as clock-work) style, halting suddenly and then remaining incredibly still for a moment before reaching down to take a bite of something. Their movements are perhaps more exaggerated by the shape of their bodies. Eleven inches long, they still seem to be too tall on their thin, stilt legs. Strangely disproportionate.

The Killdeer is not a particularly pretty bird. Both the males and females look the same, having a dull brown back with a white neck and belly, as well as some accents of white on the face. The most important and distinct feature of the Killdeer is the two black rings around its neck. It is the presence of two rings that differentiates the Killdeer from other Plover species, which all possess only one. If you are able to get close enough, you may also notice the eyes of the Killdeer. Large black pupils surrounded by a thin yellow-red iris, add to the appearance of nervousness and anxiety.

Killdeer are apparently most well-known for their distraction techniques. They are in fact, a primary example. When predators approach a Killdeer nest, one of the adults will act wounded, favoring a wing and lead the danger away from their nest. Once they are free and clear, they fly away to safety themselves. I hope that one day I will be able to observe more Killdeer and perhaps even witness this textbook maneuver for myself.

Black-Crowned Night-Heron

As many readers may have realized by this point, I am not one of those bird watchers out only to spot a rare bird. No ticking boxes for me. I appreciate and enjoy all the birds I observe. But that doesn’t mean I don’t get excited when I happen upon something unusual or unlikely.

One weekend morning in mid-October, on a walk in the Celery Farms (Allendale NJ), I had a lucky sighting. Not far from the parking area the path turns around a small, narrow extension of the lake. This is usually where the turtles hang out on overturned logs. And that is where we saw it, standing on a log and peering into the algae covered water. I knew it was a small heron of some kind, but it wasn’t until I had time to compare my photos to my books that I realized it was a Black-Crowned Night-Heron.

What makes this so excited is that, as its name suggests, Black-Crowned Night-Heron aren’t usually spotted at 10am. They are 3rd shift birds, sleeping during the day and feeding at night. The best time to see them is usually dawn or dusk. Yet there he was, hunting. The coloring was unmistakable and the white plumes on the head are clearly visible in my photos, despite using my phone camera. The Heron seems tiny at 24-25 inches when compared with the Great Blue Heron at 45-47 inches.

Carolina Wren

Their small size and general lack of interest in seeds and feeders makes spotting a Wren in the garden more than your run of the mill day in the yard. Not that I wish to imply that Wrens are uncommon. They are pretty common in yards, or at least their songs are. If you don’t know where to look and who you are looking for, spotting a Wren could be a bit of a challenge. Following their song is always a good place to start.

One of six wrens common to the Northeastern United States, the Carolina Wren is easily the most distinct. They are the same size as their fellow Wrens and have a similar body type, including a brown body and down-curved beak. However, what sets them apart is their distinct white eyebrows. Their chest is also brighter than other Wrens, starting white toward their heads and fading into yellow halfway down their chests.

Carolina Wrens prefer good cover in bushes or shrubs, but these songbirds can’t help themselves, they keep bursting into song. Each male sings between twenty-seven and forty-one songs and the males and females have been known to sing duets. The pair will mate and remain monogamous for an entire breeding season, having two broods. Due to their need for cover, they tend to look for natural cavities in which to create a nest.

While they will occasionally eat fruit or seeds, this is rare. Their primary diet is insects. This interest in bugs makes them a common ground hunter. Look for them around leaf piles and tree roots, poking around and searching for insects.