The Color Yellow

There is just something about the color yellow. While some birds carry their yellow plumage more subtly than others, it never fails to draw attention. I thought it might be fun to highlight some of our yellow feathered friends, and how they manage to pull off such a bold and outspoken color.

Of course when you talk about yellow birds, it would be remiss not to at least acknowledge one of the most famous yellow birds in history. Yup, you guessed it, Big Bird. At eight feet, two inches I think it is safe to say that Big Bird is the largest yellow bird the world will ever see. Since 1969 he has resided on Seasame Street, educating generations of children. However, as we are unlikely to ever see Big Bird or his like on a hike in the woods (a mixed blessing really) I think we will switch our focus to some of his smaller yellow contemporaries.

Big Bird and a few other species aside, most birds seem to feel that a touch of yellow is bold enough to draw attention to them, without causing them to stand out too much. What they really want is for the yellow to attract mates, without also attracting predators. And in some cases I think they might have the right idea with their approach. In the case of yellow, less is often more.

We take as our first example of subtle yellow, the Cedar Waxwing. Mostly a dull brown-gray, the Waxwing’s yellow can be seen in two places. The downy feathers of its belly have a yellow tint to them, revealed only to those who have the advantage of seeing it from the ground. The second splash of yellow that the Cedar Waxwing displays is a bit bolder, and can be found on the very tip of its tail, a feature it has in common with the slightly larger Bohemian Waxwing. Together, and compared to the dull coloring of the rest of his plumage, these two splashes of yellow do attract the eye.

Our next bird uses yellow similarly to the Cedar Waxwing, displaying it on its belly. The Great-Crested Flycatcher is not the only flycatcher with a yellow belly. However, it has the brightest yellow belly of all its fellow flycatchers. Despite that statement, you can see from the photo that its downy belly could still be considered light or dull yellow when compared to many of the other birds that sport yellow plumage.

Though much smaller than both the Cedar Waxwing and the Great-Crested Flycatcher, the Ruby-Crowned Kinglet shares their fairly flat brown-gray coloring. The Ruby-Crowned Kinglet displays its yellow it is a bolder spot then its belly. Both the male and the female have a series of bars and stripes of both white and yellow on the tips of its wing and tail feathers. While stationary this yellow may not attract too much attention, but when in motion, the yellow and white stripes draw the eye, almost as boldly as racing stripes on a race car.

The White-Throated Sparrow is probably is probably the most common backyard bird to display the power of the subtle use of yellow. With two dashes of yellow, over the top of each eye, this Sparrow is immediately distinguishable from any other sparrows that might be at your feeders. I am not sure if it is the placement of the yellow, so close to the white strip or if it is the contrast of the yellow against a relatively dark brown head and body. Perhaps it is a combination of both. But there is no denying, the minute a White-Throated Sparrow is on the scene, you can’t help but notice it.

The Common Yellowthroat displays its yellow a bit more openly. While the throats of both sexes of the Common Yellowthroat are the brightest yellow plumage found on their bodies, their brown-gray back feathers do have a yellowish tint if seen in the right light. I personally think the male’s yellow seems a bit brighter than his mate, but that could be because of the contrast between the yellow and the black mask across his face. The female’s face, in comparison, is the same brown-gray of its body, and therefore the combination provides less of an impact.

Yellow plumage is a very common feature of many of North America’s many warblers. As with other bird varieties, we find that some warblers use yellow more sparingly than others. The Yellow-Rumped Warbler provides a good example of subdued yellow plumage on a warbler. The Yellow-Rumped Warbler sports bright yellow splashes in a few key areas, which contrast with the gray, white and black of the rest of its plumage. As his name clearly indicates, one of those three splashes is located on its “rump.” Rump in this case refers to its back, where its tail attaches to its body. Besides its backside, the Yellow-Rumped Warbler also has a flash of yellow on either side of its breast, near where its wings tuck into its body. The third yellow highlight is a stripe going down the center of its head.

When observed alone, the yellow of the Yellow-Rumped Warbler might not seem all that understated. But compare him to the male Palm Warbler or the Yellow Warbler, and suddenly you will understand what I mean by understated. While the Palm Warbler (left) is not completely yellow, he may as well be. While his wings, tail and back are a brownish-green or olive, his chest immediately draws your eye with its vivid yellow coloring. The Yellow Warbler (right) can’t even pretend. While it does have black wing bars and brown stripes running down its belly, the Yellow Warbler is everything its name implies, yellow. After a quick look at the warbler section of any North American bird book, you will see that I am not kidding when I say that these are just two examples of mostly yellow warblers. I counted about fourteen, but you could easily find more. It all depends on where you draw the line between yellow and yellow highlights.

Of course, having talked about all of these yellow birds, many of my readers are probably wondering how I could be so remiss as to omit the bright yellow of the Goldfinch, New Jersey’s state bird. However, rather than omit it, I was saving the best for last. The Goldfinch is probably one of the first birds that come to mind when a bird watcher is asked to name a yellow bird. Despite its name, the Goldfinch is not a rich gold color, but rather a bright and bold yellow. The males sport a black cap on their heads, and both sexes also display black wings with a white band. As is the case with so many bird species, the male Goldfinch tends to be the brighter of the two sexes, but the females are still pretty bright, and only seem dull when they are directly compared to the males.

Additional Sources:

Photo of Big Bird from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Big_Bird_and_Michelle_Obama_(8555066920).jpg Accessed on May17, 2020.

A Wintry Walk in the Celery Farms

One of the things I like most about the Celery Farms in Allendale, NJ is that it provides an interesting walk, regardless of the season. I know I have said Autumn is my favorite season to visit, and it is, but winter is definitely nice as well. Especially if the weather is snowy and the lake has frozen. In fact many of the locals play hockey on the ice, so on an early morning winter walk (especially during the school break) one often finds the parking lot full.

Winter at the Celery Farms is not really for the unadventurous. If you think the path is muddy in other seasons, wait until you experience it in the winter. What makes it more interesting is that the mud sometimes freezes awkwardly making footing complicated. Definitely don’t forget your boots. Besides slip-sliding on the paths, the platform stairs can also be a bit slippery, so take extra care.

But this extra effort to walk safely around the trail only makes the few sightings you have all the more rewarding. Usually winter at the Celery Farms yields the sightings you would expect. All our year round residents are there including Sparrows, Mallards, Canada Geese, Northern Cardinals, Dark-Eyed Juncos and Woodpeckers.

However, the lack of vegetation makes it possible to see some of the smaller birds that winter here, such as the Golden-Crowned Kinglet. The Golden-Crowned Kinglet is actually smaller than a Chickadee, making it really difficult to spot. But they have a tendency to flick their wings around as they hop from branch to branch, so the extra movement helps to attract one’s attention. They eat insects, fruit and drink tree sap (sans pancakes) as a part of a healthy balanced diet.

If you are having a particularly cold spell, you might see other birds and animals, flushed from discrete roosts to hunt for food. The deer are always foraging about and you never know if you will see other mammals wandering about.

Birding in the Winter

Bird watching in the winter is not always for the faint of heart. Some of the best snowy bird photos can only be taken when one is exposed to the elements. Wintry walks are one great option. Get out of the house for a bit, get some fresh air and explore your favorite trails from a different perspective. Sometimes this can be tricky, especially if piles of snow or icy patches have developed on the trail. In New Jersey the ice is more of an issue than snow, but trail safety, especially when carrying expensive camera equipment, can be sketchy at times. Just remember to have good treads on your footwear and take it nice and easy.

The backyard is also still an option during the winter months. I am not just talking about the view from the warm comfort behind the windowpane. Bundle up, bring a lawn chair and camp out for a bit outside. I have done this a few times after a good storm and I have gotten some amazing shots. The birds are just as happy as the humans that the snow has stopped, so they come out in force. Besides some strange glances from the neighbors, there is really no downside. I get a bit of fresh winter air, and the experience of fresh, clean snow which honestly doesn’t last more than a day of two in New Jersey most of the time.

Winter is also a great time to focus on some of the Northeast’s year-round birds. I feel like the summer is focused on attracting the rare birds…can I get some VIP’st to my yard? Winter allows us to rekindle our relationships with the everyday backyard birds. Woodpeckers, Cardinals, Chickadees, Blue Jays, several varieties of Sparrow. During the winter in New Jersey our usual cast of characters is also joined by the Dark Eyed Junco.

Even if you decide not to brave the storm, remember that the birds don’t have a choice. If you feed the birds during the summer, you really should feed them during the winter as well. During the summer they become used to thinking of your feeders as a source of food. The winter months, especially if there is snow and ice, can be deadly for birds. So get off your couch, put on your boots and go fill up that feeder!

Types of Sparrows

Once you become a bird watcher, you become aware that many facts you took for granted are not 100% accurate. For example, “call a spade a spade” or “call a sparrow a sparrow.” Not necessarily untrue. However, there are twenty-one different types of sparrows listed in my Eastern North America bird book. So “sparrow” is clearly not specific enough.

I want to take some time in this post to point out of the differences between some of the most common sparrows, so you can begin to notice them yourselves. I am going to focus on four: House Sparrows, Chipping Sparrows, Song Sparrows and White-Throated Sparrows.

The House Sparrow is the most obvious starting point. Ubiquitous, especially whenever food is out for the taking, you see them in yards, woods, parks and city streets. I have so many of the little guys in my yard at this point I think they may have started having extra broods just because of my feeders.

Male and female House Sparrows look different. The males have a whitish-gray belly with a black bib on the upper chest, flanked by a white patch on either side. The black from the bib carries up their neck to under their eyes. A gray cap sits on top of their heads, with two patches of brown running from the sides of their heads into their brown wings, back and tail feathers. The brown on their wings, back and tail is broken up with thin stripes of black.

The females are a bit more muted and boring, but if you look closely their feathers have a few secrets to share. The female’s feathers are mostly tan, with her underbelly being lighter than the feathers on her head and back. If you look closely you will notice she has a light stripe on both sides of her head which include her eyes. The wings of the female are similar to her male counterpart, being a darker brown, with stripes of white and black mixed in.

The House Sparrow is in fact not a sparrow at all. Introduced to North American from Europe in the 1850s, they are actually from the Weaver Finch family. Their populations thrived in their new home and today they can be seen throughout the United States all year long. They are also a common sight because they are not remotely scared of people. Much less skittish than other birds, they have the advantage for scavenging food in busy areas.

Food isn’t the only thing they scavenge. Their nests have been known to incorporate paper and even plastic into the weave. They usually have 4-6 eggs each nesting, with two or three broods in a season. They are at it like rabbits! They like cavities to nest in, so they are big fans of bird houses.

Chipping Sparrows are also fairly common to my yard in the summer. They visit feeders and they forage the ground around them, so you can easily spot them hopping about. One of the biggest physical differences between a Chipping Sparrow and the other three species I am discussing, is that the Chipping Sparrow is smaller. The Chipping Sparrow is five inches to the House Sparrow’s six inches and when you are that small, one inch does make a difference when it comes to aggressive behavior at the feeders.

Unlike the House Sparrow, all Chipping Sparrows look alike, regardless of gender. The Chipping Sparrow’s most defining feature is its light brown or chestnut cap. Its chest is gray and it has dark, streaked brown wings with hints of white. If you are able to see one of these little guys close enough (probably not with the naked eye) you will also notice a black stripe going across his face, in line with his beak and across his eye. This black stripe created a gray stripe above it on both sides, which separates the black from the edge of the brown cap.

Chipping Sparrows may be little, but don’t underestimate their toughness. They can survive without a drink for three weeks. They don’t try to brave a northern winter though. Instead they head to Mexico for the winter months.

Chipping Sparrows typically have about four eggs per nest and they usually have two broods each season. The female is the primary caregiver, incubating the eggs and feeding the new hatchlings. During the female’s incubation of the eggs, the male Chipping Sparrow will try to find additional mates.

Song Sparrows are a bit less common to my yard. But they do visit on occasion and I often see them and hear them on hikes. Not unlike the Red-Winged Blackbird, they are particularly partial to marshy areas and can often be found near water.

As you can image from its name, the Song Sparrow likes to sing a lot. Often their song is the best way to spot them. They are loners but they aren’t bashful. Often you will find them perched on a conspicuous branch or reed singing their hearts out. This is because they not only sing to attract a mate, but also to mark their territory. To hear the song of a Song Sparrow, click here: https://nationalzoo.si.edu/scbi/migratorybirds/education/nasongkey.pl?bird=Song+Sparrow+%281%29

Though they will visit the vicinity of a feeder, Song Sparrows rarely go to the feeder directly. Instead you will see them hopping around beneath a feeder, gleaning seeds from the ground. You will recognize the Song Sparrow by the streaks on its chest. Song Sparrows are white or cream with random short, dark brown streaks running vertically along their chest. If you look closely, you will also see a larger spot, usually near the center of their chest. Their wings are similar to those of other sparrows, brown with stripes of white and lighter brown. There is also a brown stripe on each cheek, breaking up the white on the Song Sparrow’s face.

White-Throated Sparrows are my personal favorite. They usually come to the feeder alone, and glean around on the ground looking for food. They aren’t aggressive with other birds, but neither are they intimidated. They are about the same size as the House Sparrow, and they usually won’t be pushed around. Like the Chipping Sparrow, White-Throated Sparrows head to Mexico for the winter.

I think they are the coolest looking sparrows with race-car yellow-stripe eyebrows. Besides the yellow over its eyes, the White-Throated Sparrow has…you guessed it: white feathers on its throat. While both male and female White-Throated Sparrows look similar, across both sexes there are some which have white stripes and others that have tan stripes on their heads. Based on what I have read, birds with white stripes seem to prefer mating with birds with tan stripes, but I am not sure what the deal is with that.

Hopefully after this little introduction you will start to spot the differences in Sparrows yourself!