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Thursday, December 29, 2011

Woodpeckers are definitely not killing your tree

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker
In north Texas, it's the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker that usually gets the blame. But it's just not so - The tree is not healthy!!

The woodpecker (whatever the species) is telling you over and over and over that the tree or shrub is deathly sick.  The tree may look fine to you; but to a bird it's in serious decline. The wood is full of tunneling insects and the tree's sap is abnormally sweet. Both these things attract Sapsuckers and other woodpeckers.

It may be possible to return the tree to health. But it may topple in high wind first.

Eurasian Collared Dove
The Eurasian Collared Dove is becoming accustomed to the north Texas environment. Priority to the mid-80s, however, it wasn't even in the area's field guides. It was introduced to the Bahamas in the seventies, and spread out gradually from there.  It is now frequently seen in the southeast, and is expanding its range westward.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Habitat loss means fewer and fewer bats

When bat populations nosedive, it means big trouble ahead for the human population as well. An example is the Cave Myotis, a species of bat that's disappearing at an alarming rate. Other species are declining too.  In the southwest, that's due largely to loss of suitable bat habitat. So what, you say? When bat populations decline, natural pollination of many crops declines too. Also, there's a large upturn in infestation and crop destruction by flying insects.

All this costs us all a lot of money and adds harmful chemicals to our air. After all, a mature bat eats around 5000 flying insects per night. For free!  You can learn more at -  the website for an excellent, non-profit bat rescue place here in north Texas.

You're totally right to be concerned about any disease carried by birds, no matter how rare or improbable the diseases are. True - cold weather slows or stops the trasnsmission of many bird diseases. But not all! Make sure the birds that visit your yard are healthy enough to fight off diseases, and can have the energy it takes to stay warm.  Even now, clean your feeders with a mixture of 90% water and 10% bleach or vinegar.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

We'd rather fly to Hawaii too, however...

If vacationing in Maui, the Bahamas or Cancun isn't in your budget, do something rewarding right now anyway.  Many people in north Texas have created (or are creating) their private "birdscape" in the back yard - a place where they can go (weather-permitting of course) and not worry about e-mails and such. At no cost! Simply watch birds while relaxing in a lounge chair, or...   A "stay-cation".

Each "birdscape" is unique and different. Size is not a big concern at all. In fact, it's often a matter of "tweaking" an existing back yard landscape. What matters most is what you put IN the birdscape. Whatever it is, it should lower your dependency on store-bought birdseed.

This blog may spur some ideas. Also, I'd like to help face-to-face. As many of you may know, I'm a licensed Landscape Architect in Texas, and have consulted on the landscape design of hundreds of homes. I can also email you a list of "birdscape" plants that are native to north Texas. Just e-mail me.  I've personally seen that these plants are attractive, effective and durable in our climate.

The best time to start planning a birdscape in north Texas is NOW, before springtime and crowds loom around the corner.


Poinsettias and the season

Poinsettias (however you pronounce it) have been a symbol of the holiday season for many decades. I love them! The brightly colored part of the plant, however, is not the "flower", it's the leaves (or technically the bracts).
In nature, the Poinsettia is a shrub or small tree that grows in Central America - mainly Mexico. The 3 - 6 inch leaves can be red, pale green, cream, pink, light orange or white. Contrary to urban legend, the leaves are only very mildly toxic; to the same degree that acorns are toxic. They only cause harm if someone eats hundreds of them (who would?).

In its native Mexico it is often called "Bent El Consul" or "the Consul's daughter", referring to the former U.S. ambassador Joel Poinsett.

Marbled Godwit
An incredible record has been set by a small, unusual-looking bird - a Godwit - the Bar-tailed species. Scientists recorded a migration flight of 7,257 miles between Alaska and New Zealand - diagonally across the entire Pacific Ocean. It was done without resting along the way, across nothing but water, non-stop. 

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Exploring squirrels' trickery with burying nuts

Everyone knows that squirrels bury nuts to eat later. However, researchers have discovered that squirrels often play tricks. They'll dig a hole, then NOT bury a nut in the hole. When a squirrel knows that something or someone is watching, and digging up nuts a moment later, he may dig a "fake" hole. This way he could discourage the watcher and get him to give up (maybe a BlueJay or even another squirrel).  A squirrel may even re-bury a nut, in the same or another place, to make it harder to pilfer.

Some common birds sing at a higher pitch when living near a highway, or a similar noise-producer. This way, they can be heard above the low-frequency noise of traffic. If the same bird travels to a quieter, more natural setting, he or she switches back to the customary, low-frequency song.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Dark-eyed Juncos have arrived from the "Boreal Forest"

The Junco that has just arrived in north Texas for the winter was probably born in the Boreal Forest. The "Boreal Forest" is a big chunk of southern Canada (and a tiny bit of the U.S.). Unfortunately there's a lot of "tar sand" there too,  which is being excavated. The forest is the birthplace of 3 to 5 billion birds each year - many spending fall and winter in Texas, like Juncos.

There are several regional kinds of Junco. But by far the most common, and the only one abundant in north Texas, is the Dark-eyed Junco (it has black around the eyes, of course).  All kinds are botanically identical.

Bad weather (whether rain, cold, wind or ice) means that birds seek shelter - a place to "roost".  Birds roost at night too, whatever the weather. Ground-feeding birds such as Juncos, roost temporarily in tall prairie grasses or low shrubs.  Shrub-nesting species like Cardinals and Mockingbirds, roost in dense, evergreen shrubs.  Cavity-nesters like Titmice and Chickadees may roost in an old nest or unused birdhouse Almost all birds like to roost in a brushpile* (old tree limbs and branches) you've built. 

 *If you want to find out more about brushpiles, and how to build one,
 just send me an e-mail

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Barn Owls are common in north Texas

Barn Owls
Since Barn Owls are nocturnal, however, you may not see them. Interesting trivia:  A researcher with too much time on his hands tracked a Barn Owl as it moved around during an 11-day period. The owl (mainly in pursuit of food), travelled 827 miles, but ended up just 162 miles from where he started.  All owls stay roughly near where they were born, for their entire lives.

Building a nestbox for Barn Owls isn't hard. Just make sure there's enough room inside for lots of nestlings. A good plan is at   The Barn Owl (along with the Great-horned Owl) feasts on rodents - up to 5 per night.
Barn Owl

A group of owls is called a "parliament".  Also, owls have roughly twice as many bones in their necks as humans, so they can rotate their heads 270 degrees, a valuable tool when hunting. A typical adult Barn Owl can eat about 1500 rats a year, in exchange for very inexpensive housing.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Chickadees sometimes have an identity problem

Carolina Chickadee
The species of chickadee we see here in north Texas certainly has a black "cap". But it isn't called a Black-capped Chickadee. Ours is the Carolina Chickadee, a year long resident.

It's a small bird, but one of the bravest I've seen (it's almost always the first to try out a new feeder or roosting area). Our Carolina Chickadee looks pretty much the same as the Black-capped Chickadee, but I'd wager they can tell the difference (a major difference is the songs).
Carolina Chickadee

Common Loon
Did you know there are Loons in Texas?  The Common Loon, normally associated with Canada and northern U.S., winters near large lakes, where the water stays unfrozen, so it can get to its diet of small fish. Loons can dive about 240 feet underwater, and swim on one breath for about half a mile.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Meticulous yard-cleaning is going to get rid of birds

Olive Sparrows

Dark-eyed Junco

It's time we relegate the myth of "fall cleanup" to the trash bin. Many, many songbirds depend on "yard leavings" to find shelter and food during north Texas' cool months - much like a bird living in a natural forest.

The majority of north Texas' wild birds are attracted to an unkempt yard - Wrens, Juncos, Brown Thrashers, Towhees and all our 12 species of native Sparrows, to name a few.
Of course, some accommodations need to be made for the humans living there too. At our house we clean up a portion of our yard, and let nature take its course in the rest of the landscape. We're constantly rewarded with visits from birds of all kinds.

The Macaulay library at Cornell University's Lab of Ornithology has  collected thousands of bird sounds: they're accessible through their web site - . Their first recording of  birds was made back in 1929, and many, many have been added since.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Blue Jays can "squirrel" away several acorns at once

Blue Jay

The common Blue Jay we see in north Texas can pick up and fly with several acorns at a time.  Very efficient!!

He can carry one or two or three (depending on the nuts' sizes) in its mouth and throat.  Also, at least two more in expandable "pockets" on the outside of its throat.

The jay carries them away and hides them for later - just like a squirrel.

If you're thinking about buying a child a pair of binoculars for Christmas, that's a wonderful, lasting gift!! However, please avoid buying a toy pair, which has terrible performance, usually breaks right away, and sours the child on pursuing other "nature stuff" in the future. Keep these criteria in mind;

1. Choose binoculars where the distance between the eyes ("IDP") adjusts down to 50-55 mm.  2. Steer clear of choosing extra-high magnification, and toward a wider field of view, so the child can see a wider area.  3. Avoid a compact model made for an adult's hands. These almost always have smaller focusing dials.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Goldfinches are arriving; what are you feeding them?

American Goldfinch
American Goldfinch

Some Goldfinches are here already, more are on the way.  When they arrive they're a dirty-yellow color, and are hungry for thistle.  However, the small black seed they like is NOT the same thing as the "thistle" that grows here in Texas.    Some call it "Nyjer" (nigh-jer) a trademarked name for the common birdseed you really want. It comes only from overseas.

This real thistle (or Nyjer) has a freshness length of only 6 or 7 months, since it has to be heated at Customs (250 degrees for 15 minutes) to kill off any unwanted seeds, which starts the process of it going stale. So, when given this year's seed, Goldfinches should eat it all, instead of throwing it on the ground. That's not the case if they're given last year's seed, or locally-grown "thistle".

Rufous Hummingbird
Some north Texans have seen hummingbirds in their yards - during the winter!  It's rare, but possible.

Our "customary" hummingbirds (the Ruby-throated and Black-chinned species) left here in early October. But the Rufous Hummingbird summers in the Pacific Northwest, and comes south for the winter. (And Texas is the "south") .

Sunday, November 20, 2011

The word "harvest" bothers Canada Geese and me

Canada Goose
Roughly 25-percent of the Canada Geese that are "harvested" from the wild each year in Canada are taken by native/aboriginal people. The others are taken for various reasons, including 'sport'.

They're among the top three species hunted (along with Mallards and Teal).

Canada Goose
By the way, they're "Canada Geese" not "Canadian", which you'll hear sometimes in the media.

The number of waystations for migrating Monarch butterflies has passed 1,000. Since Monarchs, like most butterflies, migrate each year to warmer climates like Mexico, they need frequent waystations to rest and refuel, especially in Texas. Size isn't a big factor; some waystations are just a few square yards.

The butterflies used to do this almost anywhere, but the U.S. is losing good butterfly habitat at the rate of over 3,000 acres a day. In this area, the most frequently-seen butterfly is the Gulf Fritillary. Now is the right time of year, in Texas, to prepare an effective butterfly waystation.
Gulf Fritillary

Monday, November 14, 2011

Wild Turkeys vs. what's on our plates

wild Turkey
Unless we live under a rock, we realize that the turkey we eat at Thanksgiving is NOT the same as the wild turkey. They have a common ancestry, but it goes back hundreds of years.

The turkey was encountered by the Spanish conquistadors when they conquered the Aztecs in Mexico. The Aztecs had domesticated the bird for food and the Spanish brought it back to Spain.

In Spain and throughout Europe, it was bred and re-bred into the forerunner of the domestic turkey. It evolved into a very different bird from the original "wild turkey". The pilgrims brought it back to North America, and started the custom of eating it at Thanksgiving.

Since that time the domesticated turkey has been aggressively bred and hybridized even more, primarily to have more and more meat. These days, it can no longer fly, and has become what winds up on our plates each Thanksgiving.
wild Turkey

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Lots of birds are in north Texas during cool weather

Some people are surprised to find out that there are more birds here during cool weather, than in the warm months. Many birds (like Chickadees and Wrens)  stay in north Texas all year long.  Also, lots of birds (such as Flickers and native Sparrows) come to Texas for the fall and winter - escaping the bitter cold and frozen ground up north. After all, this is the South!

Here's a short video I created showing some of the birds you might see in your north Texas yard during cooler weather.

Good birding attire should be durable, of course. The color is also very important. It should not be white, brightly-colored or dramatically patterned. In my yard the birds don't seem to mind earthtones, dark blue or dark green.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Why some birds are now singing BEFORE the crack of dawn

In a word (actually two); light pollution. It's the widespread use of intense artificial light when there should be darkness.
American Robin
According to a recent study, American Robins may start to sing 30-minutes to 3 hours earlier than they did in the past. The birds, quite simply, are confused. It's also evident in Mockingbirds, Wrens...all species. We can't see stars (or comets, meteor showers - all that neat stuff) in the night sky for the same reason - light pollution.

The Eastern Screech Owl is fairly common here in north Texas, and it "nests" throughout cooler weather - starting now. However, Screech Owls don't actually build nests. They simply find a safe place (unused birdhouse, old woodpecker hole, rotted-out tree trunk etc.) and lay eggs there.  The criteria are that it be hidden (so the owls can sleep during the day), the entry is at least 3 inches in diameter and the eggs won't just roll away.

In extreme weather the smallish owls may seek shelter in such a place (called "roosting"). If so, they're inclined to lay eggs there too.

The Eastern Phoebe's right at home in north Texas

Eastern Phoebe
Eastern Phoebe
The north Texas area is at the southern extent of the Eastern Phoebe's "summer range", and also at the northern limit of its "winter range".  Which means that the Eastern Phoebe (despite its name) lives here year 'round - many of them anyway. Phoebes are very dependant on human-made structures such as bridges, roof overhangs, sheds and unused birdhouses, where they often roost at night or in bad weather.

Incidentally, the word "eastern" in a bird's name almost always means east of the Rocky Mountains.

Carolina Chickadee

Are you like me - sometimes forgetting where you put the car keys and so on? Maybe we sometimes share a trait with Chickadees. In a study of Black-capped Chickadees, the area of the brain used to process spacial information like where we left things  (the hippocampus) varies in size during a typical year.  It enlarges in the fall and winter, coinciding with the birds' seed-caching and -finding activity.  It shrinks in the spring, when feats of memory are no longer crucial.

By the way, the species of Chickadee found here in north Texas is the Carolina Chickadee.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Feed birds in your yard without a birdfeeder!

Log: about 1 foot long by 2 in. diam.

It's not difficult at all, and it's incredibly inexpensive!  Just slather some peanut butter on a small area of a tree's bark  (I use the Crunchy kind - the cheaper the better).  You can spread it on a part of an existing tree, or do what I've done:  cut a log section and outfit it with an eye-hook, to hang where flowering baskets were last summer .

Sometimes these "spreads" are marketed by some specialty stores. Don't waste your money!  Instead, save money by avoiding paying for others' marketing and pointless 'secret ingredients'.

Common Nighthawk
Sandhill Crane
Researchers with too much time on their hands discovered that most birds spend more flying time with their wings moving downward than with their wings moving up.  The downward motion (probably counteracting gravity) is a power stroke, and takes a tiny bit longer than the "recovery" stroke.
E. Meadowlark
N. Mockingbird

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Look who showed up in my birdbath!

Although I felt somewhat like a voyeur, I spied on a Wood Thrush who was splashing around in one of our birdbaths. Wood Thrushes are usually summer birds here, so this may be the last I see of its kind for a while. But their "migration" may be just a short distance, so you never know! (see any similarity to a Robin?   He's a kind of Thrush too)

North Texas has mild winters, so Mallards often stay here all year, depending on the availability of food and the safety of the surroundings. In the winter, they prefer roosts in or near wetlands (which rarely freeze solid here) which have lots of natural food, and are a hindrance to approaching predators.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Oh, to fly like a Turkey Vulture!

Turkey Vulture

You can see Turkey Vultures all over north Texas.  For a moment, let's forget the distasteful images. They soar effortlessly - flapping their wings only occasionally, and rocking gently from side to side. They're riding air currents, and it's almost a contest to see which bird can go the longest without flapping its wings. That behavior makes me envious of airborne Turkey Vultures and makes them easy to identify, even from a great distance.

Mockingbird in Yaupon Holly

A good landscape design has a place for everything you need. It accommodates a typical grassy lawn, places for birds, outdoor relaxation spots etc. All while lowering maintenance and utility costs dramatically. If this is the sort of "birdscape" you're wanting, from a licensed Landscape Architect (semi-retired), email   This is the very best time of year to start planning a north Texas landscape.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Winter bird arrives in north Texas. Early bird?

White-throated Sparrow
A sharp-eyed reader saw the first White-throated Sparrow of this season. There are actually several species of these native sparrows such as the Chipping Sparrow, Fox Sparrow etc. They are all here in north Texas only during cooler weather - migrating here from Canada. The aggressive, pesky bird we informally call a sparrow (House Sparrow) is in another genus entirely.

Green Heron

Great Blue Heron

Many Herons seen around here migrate to warmer weather as cold weather approaches, but not all of them. Some stay around north Texas since our winter weather isn't very severe. Which means they can hunt fish whenever the water surface isn't frozen solid. If it does freeze, they'll hunt in nearby fields and yards for rodents and whatever else they can find to eat.