Black-Capped Chickadees

Black-Capped Chickadee’s are one of Northern New Jersey’s year-round residents. Small but spunky (they are only about 5 inches), the Chickadee tends to be a bit shy of other birds around the feeder and will often wait to have some alone time with the seeds. When they are feeding young, often the pair will visit the yard together, one keeping watch while the other gets seeds. Then they swap places before flying off to fill the empty bellies and gaping mouths of their little ones. But don’t let this behavior make you think of them as cowards. The are cautious adventurers. If you are just starting to feed birds or you put out a new feeder, it is very likely that the Chickadees will be the first to find it.

Besides their small stature, you will know the Chickadee easily. He has a black cap and neck, with a tan belly and gray wings. There is some white in his wings and a white section at the back of his neck. I say he, but in fact the male, female and juvenile Black-Capped Chickadees are all identical. Even if you can’t see a Chickadee, they tend to be very polite, and introduce themselves with their typical “Chick-a-dee-dee-dee” call that gives them their name (https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Black-capped_Chickadee/sounds)

Attracting a Black-Capped Chickadee to your yard with a feeder is pretty easy. Their diet is varied enough with a mix of insects, seeds and fruit that they will come to seed or suet feeders. It is also pretty easy to convince them to become tenants. In nature the Black-Capped Chickadees like nesting in cavities, but they think the basic nest box is very homey. In my garden they have tried to move in for a few years now, however the Sparrows seem to intimidate them until they abandon their nesting activities. It takes them about 10-14 days to make their cavity homey, lining it with moss, feathers, hair and cocoons. They typically have one brood of 6-8 white eggs with red-brown markings. After three weeks the babies fly off make their own way in the world.

In the winter Chickadees have been known to flock in groups up to twelve. They like to roost in dense conifers for protection from the weather. They are easily spotted in the snow, foraging for food as they need to eat on a daily basis to survive. They must even brave the worst winter storms to search for food. So next time you look out your window into a snowstorm, spare a moment of thought for the brave little Chickadees.

Palm Warbler

According to my Birds of New Jersey and Birds of Eastern North America, the Palm Warbler isn’t a common bird to my region. Despite that fact, I have laid my eyes on a couple on my various walks. I guess the few I saw were in New Jersey on vacation.

There is definitely no way that I mistakenly identified this bird. With olive-yellow on its back, a bright yellow neck and belly and a chestnut brown cap on the top of its head, this bird is very difficult to confuse with any others. The impression of yellow overall was not so bright as that of the Yellow Warbler and the chestnut cap is very distinct as many other warblers with yellow bodies have black trimmings.

My first sighting of a Palm Warbler was by far the best. I was in the Meadowlands and the Warbler was on the ground behind a bush. The olive-yellow of its feathers made it stand out prominently and I was able to get photos while only being a few feet away. He wasn’t really upset by my presence, and continued to do his thing, including puffing up his feathers for a good cleaning.

My second and third sightings were both more fleeting, frantically trying to get a photo or two in while the bird was still in site. As with all Warblers, Palm Warblers are small, quick and always seem to be moving. They will sit on branches, but like an antsy child, they are always on the move. A bit to the left…move back where they started…hop up a branch to see if that is better…jump back down to the original spot…hop to the left. If many of the species of Warbler were not bright yellow, I don’t know if I would ever catch any of them on camera at all. My second sighting was again in New Jersey, at Garret Mountain Reservation and the third was while walking the Albany Pine Bush in upstate New York.

The Palm Warbler probably derived its name during its winters in Florida and the Caribbean. Most of the population summers in Northern Canada. They nest on the ground or on the lower level of trees, which may be why my first Palm Warbler was under a bush. They eat insects which they hunt on the ground and on trees.

So let this be a lesson to you. Field Guides are helpful tools, but your own powers of observation are also good. Sometimes Field Guides are wrong. Bird migrations and other natural annual occurrences are effected by weather, urban development and tons of other factors which can combine to change how birds behave and where they live. Don’t doubt what you think you saw, you might be right.

The Dark-Eyed Junco- A Winter Resident

It isn’t often that anyone chooses to winter in the Northeast (birds included), but I guess New Jersey is just like Florida to a Canadian bird. A least the Dark-Eyed Junco seems to think so. Juncos spend their summers in Canada, flying South for the winter months. If you leave your feeders fulled in the winter, Dark-Eyed Juncos will probably be regular customers. In winter they are often seen in flocks, some of which include other small birds, such as chickadees and sparrows. When not at a feeder, you will see them foraging on the ground using their “double scratching” technique, which makes them appear to be hopping in place. In summer they eat a varied diet of insects and seeds, but in winter it is all seeds, all the time.

Dark-Eyed Juncos are actually a very common sight in winter throughout the continental United States, but the species is divided into five regional subspecies. The sub-species to frequent the Northeast is Slate-colored; Oregon, White-winged, Grey-headed and Guadalupe being the other four sub-species.

As the name implies, the male Slate-colored Dark-Eyed Junco has a matted or slate black body, with a grey belly and white under-tail. The female is even more muted, with a tan/brown body and white belly and under-tail. At about 5 1/2-6 inches, they are only slightly smaller than House Sparrows and only slightly larger than a Chickadee. Their most defining feature is their rounded belly, which is reminiscent of Santa Claus, even if it doesn’t seem to shake like a bowl full of jelly.

Like so many of nature’s other clues, the arrival of the Dark-Eyed Junco in November tells of impending changes in the weather. When they finally depart New Jersey, often in April, we know that Spring has truly arrived!

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