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Sunday, December 29, 2013

Get rid of your old Christmas tree where it'll do the most good


 
Ruby-crowned Kinglet
This time of year many of us have “used” Christmas trees to get rid of, but where and how?  After de-tinseling it (along with removing other adornments) just prop it up vertically in the center of your backyard brushpile. (Don’t have a brushpile? – you haven’t been reading this blog regularly). You could also just lean it up against a fence or something. Your tree will serve the birds for the rest of the winter as shelter from predators and bad weather. Even though the tree is dead it’s several degrees warmer inside, and harsh winds are minimized when birds perch on inner branches.
When spring arrives (and the tree is looking disheveled) just push it over and let it become part of the brushpile, decomposing naturally. At that point it will still be mostly green. Birds will still use it as a nesting site, a source of nest-building material and a place to escape from predators.



Where do birds “roost” in bad weather?   Bad weather, (whether rain, cold or wind) finds birds seeking shelter – a place to roost. Almost all birds roost at night too. Ground-nesting birds such as Meadowlarks roost temporarily in tall vegetation or low shrubs. Shrub-nesting species such as Mockingbirds and Cardinals, roost in dense evergreen shrubs. Cavity-nesters like Bluebirds, Titmice and Chickadees, may roost in an old nest or unused birdhouse. Almost all birds like to roost in a brushpile you’ve built up.
 
 

OWEN YOST, in addition to being a blogger, is a licensed Landscape Architect emeritus who has lived and worked in north Texas for over 30 years. He is the recipient of a Lifetime Achievement Award of the Native Plant Society of Texas, and is a member of the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA), International Federation of Landscape Architects, National Wildlife Federation and the Audubon Society. His office is at Yost87@charter.net in Denton.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

What's called a "sparrow" isn't really a true sparrow.

       
White-throated Sparrow
 
Harris' Sparrow
 

Chipping Sparrow
When it comes to birds, I have a pet peeve. We’ve all seen what’s usually called sparrows in parking lots, city trees… everywhere. In everyday language, they’re  called house sparrows.  They are not really native sparrows, however, in the proper, scientific sense. They’re weaver-finches
. ”Passeridae” for the botanic-minded.

This is the time of year when the true Sparrows fly down to north Texas (from Canada) to spend the winter. Since they are all mainly ground-feeders, and the ground up north is frozen solid and snow-covered, they like our relative warmth. And the insects/food they have access to.  You’re most likely to see them foraging among “leaf litter” on the ground in large flocks, which often contain other species too.

 Most importantly, the true sparrows aren’t here in the warm months, and they all migrate here for the winter.

The bird that has picked up the name “house sparrow” is not native to this continent (not found here naturally). They were imported from Europe in the late 19th century. The intent was to rid cities of some insects. Instead they reproduced and spread like crazy, mostly because they have no natural enemy on this continent. (Sort of like the imported Kudzu vine has taken over many southern landscapes). Not being native, they are not protected by the U.S. Migratory Bird Act.

They seem like cute little birds. But their aggressiveness and domineering habits have made them pests in situations where they live alongside our native birds – particularly Bluebirds and Purple Martins. In fact, you see fewer of these native birds around (especially Bluebirds) because the birds known as house sparrows destroy Bluebird eggs, kill babies, and take over their nesting sites. (They’re here all year long)

Savannah Sparrow
North America’s true Sparrows are here only in the cooler months, and don’t deserve to be called “just sparrows”.  Our Chipping Sparrows, Lincoln Sparrows, Grasshopper Sparrows, White-throated Sparrows, Harris’ Sparrows, Juncos (a kind of sparrow) and such are subtly attractive and well-behaved, unlike the imported usurper of the name.
Fox Sparrow
 

White-crowned Sparrow

 

 

 

Sunday, December 22, 2013

What pulls Santa's sleigh?


reindeer or caribou ??
As most of you know, reindeer and caribou are the very same animal, with the same scientific name. As to what pulled Santa’s sleigh, remember that the Christmas tradition developed mainly in Europe.

The deerlike animals live north of the tree-line in sub-arctic regions. The “reindeer” in northern Europe and Greenland are slightly smaller than the animals called “caribou” in North America, probably having developed that way over thousands of years when different populations of the same species were separated over long periods of time. During that time they had different diets.

Both, of course, are fast runners and are able to live largely on lichens during the arctic winters. None, as far as science has observed, have a red nose; except in peoples' imagination.

 

Most of us live in a “suburbia” of some sort, so I’ll relay a study published in  the Journal of Ornithology that sheds new light on a situation relevant to suburbia and birdwatching.

The study focused on 3 suburban sites, all near a major U.S. city.  It found that predation accounted for 79% of bird deaths. Not disease, not starvation, not bad weather---but an otherwise-healthy songbird being fatally attacked. 47 percent of predation events was by domestic cats.

Whatever your viewpoint on this issue, the need to reach some sort of agreement is clear. Letting domestic cats roam freely outdoors is no good for any creature. Cats that roam freely live only half as long as indoor cats, and tend to bring all kinds of germs and dirt into the house. Cats rarely kill birds because they’re hungry; it’s simply in their nature as hunters.

So if you have a housecat, like me, be kind and keep it safe and indoors.

 

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

The importance of using FRESH seed, besides attracting more birds


 

 
Carolina Chickadee
Using fresh birdseed is just as important as planting fresh grass seed or fresh tomato seeds. Both boil down to what, and how many of them, you want to appear in your yard. (of course, feed fresh birdseed year 'round, but hold off on the grass and tomatoes). In my unscientific observations, I've seen that fresh seed is available only at specialty stores.  Seed sold at "big-box" or grocery stores almost always has been sitting on a shelf too long, and/or has seeds not appealing to north Texas birds.

   You probably wouldn’t buy grass seed left over from last year, or tomato seeds that have been sitting on a warehouse shelf for several months. They lose “viability” over time. This is especially important in cold weather, since birds need the energy and nutrition from fresh seed to stay healthy. Also, many birds who eat insects have switched to seed for the winter.

   Birdseed’s the same. It loses nutrition over time. It looks the same to you and me.  But birds (who depend on nutrition to stay alive) know the difference instantly. Almost all birdseed will retain some viability from the previous year - not 100%, but enough to attract birds. (The only seed that's not good the following year is Nyger/thistle, which has to be new each year).

   Filling feeders with fresh seed should be augmented with planting several kinds of “birdscape” plants in your yard. These are plants whose seeds are especially prized by birds. And the seeds are certainly fresh. Keep in mind that the best time to plant trees and shrubs in north Texas (unlike up north) is now.

   I’d be glad to e-mail you my list of birdscape plants that are native to north Texas.  They’re the trees, shrubs and flowers that grow naturally here. In my experience, also, our local birds look for them, and flock to them.


OWEN YOST, in addition to being a blogger, is a licensed Landscape Architect emeritus who has lived and worked in north Texas for over 30 years. He is a recipient of a Lifetime Achievement Award of the Native Plant Society of Texas, and is a member of the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA), International Federation of Landscape Architects, National Wildlife Federation and the Audubon Society. His office is at Yost87@charter.net in Denton.

 

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Calling birds by their right names avoids confusion


 
The names of birds change frequently, thanks to the governing organization - American Ornithological Union. Most of the time the name-change doesn’t concern an amateur birder, but it can as one gets more into the activity. For instance, the Robin, Cardinal and Mockingbird were modified several years ago to American Robin, Northern Cardinal and Northern Mockingbird (in order to avoid confusion with, for example, the rarely seen Clay-colored Robin – and so on).

Sometimes names have changed to correct incorrect or outdated customs. Like:  the “chicken hawk” is now the American kestrel or Kestrel in everyday conversation. It really never attacked chickens. In fact, a chicken is larger; the Kestrel being about the size of a Blue Jay.
 
The Baltimore Oriole went away, and then returned. Several years ago it was lumped with the Bullock’s Oriole as the Northern Oriole. Further DNA testing, however, showed that they were two distinct species, so the original names were reinstated.

This sort of thing happens quite a lot, and probably some bird’s name was changed while I was writing this. But it rarely has much impact on amateur birders.

 

 

The Christmas Bird Count (CBC) is the granddaddy of all birding events – with over 1500 separate events and at least 50,000 participants each year, across the country. The way the CBC got started, however, is unique.

It began in 1900 as an alternative to the Sidehunt tradition. At the time, the Sidehunt was an informal custom involving going outside on Christmas morning for several hours and shooting (with a gun) every bird and animal encountered (not popular with neighbors). Frank Chapman, a noted ornithologist of the time, started the CBC to counter the hunt. He encouraged some friends to go out on Christmas morning and count, not kill.

It grew from there. The CBC has not only provided a lot of good, raw research material. It has also uncovered and created many strong friendships centered on birdwatching.

PS: There is almost certainly a Christmas Bird Count scheduled to take place in your part of north Texas. All skill levels can participate, and it takes place during Christmas season (not necessarily hristmas Day). To find one near you, try an internet search, or contact a local birding organization.


 
OWEN YOST, in addition to being a blogger, is a licensed Landscape Architect emeritus who has lived and worked in north Texas for over 30 years. He is the recipient of a Lifetime Achievement Award of the Native Plant Society of Texas, and is a member of the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA), International Federation of Landscape Architects, National Wildlife Federation and the Audubon Society. His office is at Yost87@charter.net in Denton.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

The "Texas Thistle" isn't the same as what Goldfinches eat.


 
 
The small, black seed that Goldfinches are crazy about is not the same as the “thistle” that grows here in Texas.   The thistle we all see growing in pastures and roadsides around here is Cirseum texanum. However, Goldfinches love the tiny seeds of the Guizotia  abyssinica, which grows in semi-arid Africa and parts of India. This tiny seed is sometimes called Nyjer (nī-jĕr), which is a trademarked name. It's the only common birdseed that comes from overseas.  How it came to be called "thistle" (incorrectly) is a mystery.

Since it has to be imported, the U.S.D.A. requires that it be heated (250 degrees for 15 minutes) at customs, to kill any stray weed seeds. This partially dries out the seed. So its “freshness” has a life of only 6 or 7 months. Even with all this government-mandated processing, Goldfinches love it, and eat it like candy instead of throwing it on the ground.   But they won’t eat it if given last season’s, dried-out, Nyjer seed, which (unlike other birdseeds) doesn't remain viable for the following season.

It's expensive and, like toddlers with Halloween candy, is eaten voraciously by Goldfinches even though the energy it provides is minimal. So I like to put it out only as a special treat, mostly feeding the energy-packed black-oil Sunflower instead.




 

Saturday, December 7, 2013

How birds stay warm in winter; the "flying tennis ball"


American Robin
     To me, birds look something like flying tennis balls on cold days.  That's partly because birds’ winter plumage contains roughly twice the number of feathers as their summer plumage.

Clearly, they need plenty of good food from you - since almost all of their normal food is covered up. This produces fat and energy to keep warm.

It's also because they fluff up their feathers to trap little pockets of air, which further insulate their bodies. They can only do this if the have access to clean water in cold weather. The actual bath may only take a few seconds but it can be lifesaving. 



they’re built to peck wood      Woodpeckers have thick sculls, outside of which is another shell. In between is a light shock-absorbing sponge-like layer of tiny hollow chambers (sort of like bubble-wrap)between the outer shell and the skull.  So, NO, they don’t get headaches when they peck.
They do NOT damage trees although it may look like they do. The trees they peck on are already in poor health. Their poor health makes the wood softer and any sap is sweeter. These factors, in turn, attract insects (often borers and carpenter ants). This is what Woodpeckers are after, not the tree itself!  Woodpeckers are “cavity nesters”, living in birdhouses or holes in dead trees (the only time they'll peck at wood directly), so they have no need for camouflage.


Please heed this tweet I received:   Feed me!   It's cold out!


OWEN YOST, in addition to being a blogger, is a licensed Landscape Architect emeritus who has lived and worked in north Texas for over 30 years. He is the recipient of a Lifetime Achievement Award of the Native Plant Society of Texas, and is a member of the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA), International Federation of Landscape Architects, National Wildlife Federation and the Audubon Society. His office is at Yost87@charter.net in Denton.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Helping birds make it through a north Texas winter


Over a typical winter, birds spend about 99% of their time simply trying to stay alive. Many don’t make it to the spring. Or through a cold night. However, there are several ways that you and I can help.
 
COZY ROOSTS

In rainy, windy or cold weather, birds seek the shelter of roosts. Also, every night, birds want to go in roosts too. Why? Simply to stay out of the weather and get a little extra heat (many birds often congregate in a roost to share body heat). They can’t just pack on some fat, like many mammals do, since birds need to stay light enough to fly.

A “roost” can be almost anything. In nature it could be a rotted-out hole in a tree, a pile of fallen branches, or just the center of an evergreen tree.   When these natural roosts aren’t around, birds will roost under your house’s eaves, in an old birdhouse, or in a man-made roost box. It doesn’t need to be fancy. In addition to roost boxes, we’ve planted some evergreens around our yard too (in north Texas, live oak, wax myrtle, yaupon holly, and juniper are good). However, without a safe, cozy roost for shelter, a bird probably won’t be around for long.

WATER

It may seem like water would be the farthest thing from a bird’s thoughts in winter.  In fact, clean water for drinking and bathing is probably the most vital and most constant need of a bird – all year long. In cold weather they still need to bathe daily to keep their flight feathers in shape, and to be able to fluff up their feathers to insulate themselves. In the winter, however, water is harder to find, what with birdbaths being put away by many people, and sometimes-frozen lakes, ponds and puddles.

A quality birdbath can be left out all year – I do all three of mine. It’s the “bargain” ones that crack and chip in freezing weather. A few people keep birdbaths ice-free with heaters. But this is Texas and water freezes infrequently! If the water freezes in mine, I just pour in a pitcher of hot water and reap the benefits. Naturalist Val Cunningham observes that a yard that provides open water will attract three times as many birds as a yard where there’s only food.

ENERGY FOOD

To a bird, the quality of what they eat often means the difference between life and death. In cool weather, the vast majority of the food they consume goes toward keeping warm. Consequently, if they don’t get fresh, nutritious food they may end us as a statistic. Their foods of choice include suet, shelled nuts, and fresh seed.


The instant seed is harvested from the field, it begins losing its potential for energy – its oil content. So the less time a bag of seed spends traveling or sitting on a shelf, the more potential energy it has. And wild birds will need all its energy. Many species that ate insects in the summer have switched to seeds until the spring. For this reason there will be more birds at your feeders, too.  

 

Along with all the other rigors of winter, consider this;  winter’s shorter days require that they find energy-food and water in less time. So make whatever’s in your yard easy to find, and worth finding!

 


OWEN YOST, in addition to being a blogger, is a licensed Landscape Architect emeritus who has lived and worked in north Texas for over 30 years. He is a recipient of a Lifetime Achievement Award of the Native Plant Society of Texas, and is a member of the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA), International Federation of Landscape Architects, National Wildlife Federation and the Audubon Society. His office is at Yost87@charter.net in Denton.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Nearby "I've never thought of that" places to see birds





 1.     Landfills are almost always full of all kinds of gulls (notice I didn’t say “seagull” because there is no such bird).

2.     Sewage treatment plants and settling ponds have lots of good food for birds, and you’ll get used to the smell in about ten minutes.
3.     Urban lakes, ponds and man-made reservoirs are excellent places for shorebirds and waterbirds. Remember, every lake in Texas (except Caddo) is man-made.
4.     Urban harbors and dock areas have lots of birds, especially if the water’s calm and there’s a minimum of boat activity.
5.     Vacant lots and abandoned industrial sites are usually full of birds, largely because of the lack of human activity, and the availability of nesting and roosting sites.
6.     Arboretums and parks are usually good sites, with mature trees, and many have benches and other resting places.
7.     Cemeteries are quiet and restful, often with large, mature trees. Birds love both!
8.     Roadside rest stops attract birds because of the avability of water, and (almost always) plants have been added to the sites.
9.     Utility line rights-of-way usually cut through heavily wooded, undisturbed land. The lines provide plenty of perches for birds.
10.   Edges of rural roads provide good habitat – mice congregate here, so many birds hunt here. You can also stay in your car as you birdwatch.
 

IT'S THE LAW !         The Migratory Bird Treaty Act and its amendments (which are federal law!) make it clear that it’s strictly forbidden to own, kill, injure or harass any native bird. Even ones that don't migrate! Generally, the law also unquestionably forbids messing with the nest of a protected bird in any way - even a little bit!  Cutting a tree down with a nest in it certainly qualifies as "illegal". If you see a possible violation, the Game Warden is the main enforcer, but any peace officer can start the ball rolling.
 The potential for harming a nest can happen any time of year, but NOW is the time of year when you're probably going to be okay. Anyway, before you take down a tree, dig a utility trench or ”clear” underbrush (where most birds nest) be absolutely, 100% sure there’s no bird nesting there. Occasionally I'll have trees cut down at my house. Before it comes down, however, I'll watch it carefully for a long while, making sure that no birds are nesting there.

 

OWEN YOST, in addition to being a blogger, is a licensed Landscape Architect emeritus who has lived and worked in north Texas for over 30 years. He is a recipient of a Lifetime Achievement Award of the Native Plant Society of Texas, and is a member of the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA), International Federation of Landscape Architects, National Wildlife Federation and the Audubon Society. His office is at Yost87@charter.net in Denton.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

natural, safe soil amendments


If you have children or pets who play outside, you certainly want everything you spray, shovel, till or spread on your yard to be totally safe. That’s why every landscape design I do, and many of the ones done by other professionals, are accompanied by the caution to avoid the use of artificial soil amendments. Materials found in nature are almost always safe and are often less expensive. Sometimes free! (note that not everything found in nature is good – for instance, arsenic is natural).  Some of the amendments are mixed into the soil, some go on top of the soil – so follow directions. Here’s a brief description of some:
 
NATIVE SOIL:
 
No matter how disgusting your soil seems, leave it be and improve it naturally. (Of course, remove large rocks and such). You can even cultivate it, but never get rid of it.  The native soil is what our native trees and flowers are genetically accustomed to growing in. If the soil is made too “good” or is fertilized a lot, our native plants may not grow. Especially if you’re planting a tree, save the soil you dig up, and refill the hole with it, possibly mixing in a little organic matter such as dead leaves.

Dead leaves, shredded into smaller pieces, make a superb mulch or soil amendment. A once-over with a lawn mower, shredding the leaves and blowing them right back on the grass, works quite well. It's obviously inexpensive and time-saving too.
 
ORGANIC FERTILIZER:

These work fantastically, and do not contain any filler material of questionable origin. Organic fertilizers don’t have abnormally-high levels of nitrogen or harmful salts, which probably will cause you to water your lawn more often in the future. Everything that’s in it is needed for healthy plant growth, and will not harm children, pets or birds.
 

CORN MEAL:

Horticultural corn meal naturally stimulates beneficial soil microorganisms, to control fungal diseases that might otherwise attack your plants. It also helps make nutrients more available to plants, acting as a mild fertilizer. Some people use it to control algae in ponds and other water features.

CORN GLUTEN MEAL:

Not to be confused with the above (on penalty of a brown garden), corn gluten meal is what’s called a pre-emergent; stopping seeds from germinating. For unwanted growth, it’s best applied about March 1 and again on June 1. Avoid spreading it where “good” seeds are planted (it won’t kill growing plants at all).

EARTHWORM CASTINGS:

Earthworms eat organic matter in the soil and excrete “castings”. Do I really need to say any more?  All good, nutritious soils have this naturally. It’s an excellent,  odorless fertilizer – good for adding to potting soil too. It’s sold under several brand names.

COMPOST:

This is easily the best form of organic matter. (It’s the product of a natural decomposition process, where it takes decades.) The result is the kind of soil we should have. Compost can be made quickly at home or is sold at lots of places. It is full of microscopic beneficial organisms, loaded with nutrients, and it recycles things like old leaves, dead shrubs and grass clippings that could otherwise wind up in landfills.
 

MOLASSES:

Good soil is alive - containing microorganisms and fungi that help plants grow. Molasses feeds and stimulates these organisms, essentially acting as a natural fertilizer. Technically, it adds carbon to the soil. It is available in the wet or dry, granular form, or you can just get blackstrap molasses at the grocery store.
 

VOLCANIC SAND:

This sand helps plants grow when mixed into your native soil, unlike concrete sand or the kind of sand you buy for a sandbox.  Primarily it helps keep moisture in the soil, so you have to water the yard less. It also makes nutrients, found naturally in all soils, more available to your plants – so you need to fertilize less. There are several kinds available, and several brand names. Often called “lava sand”, it’s especially good at keeping your soil moist and your water bill low.
 

TEXAS GREEN SAND:

Mined from ancient seabeds, it’s packed with organic matter and trace minerals. It also contains a high percentage of iron and is non-toxic – so is an excellent iron supplement for your plants.

 
IRONITE:

This is a naturally-occurring mineral that has been used in agriculture for years. There is no man-made chemical process involved. Ironite does many things;  it’s a mild fertilizer, stimulating root growth and fighting the natural deficiency of iron common in area soils. It also helps plants take up the nutrients found naturally in even the most unpromising dirt.
 

NEEM OIL:

Derived from the Neem tree (which grows in India and Burma), neem oil is biodegradable and is a botanical insecticide.  It’s not really an amendment, but an insect-controlling spray. Neem oil is primarily used to control grasshoppers by disrupting their growth cycle. Neem oil can also control spidermites, aphids and whiteflies, as well as controlling most kinds of fungus. Sprayed on plants, it makes them unappetizing to many insects (ordinary soap and water will do this too).

 
ZEOLITE:

This is an underused material (sold under several brand names, such as Norit) especially for those who have used all sorts of chemicals in your yard, but now want to go straight. Basically it holds certain elements, releasing them to your plants with perfectly natural efficiency – or not releasing the harmful or unnecessary ones at all. It has proven detoxifying properties as well as an ability to deodorize.

 
Every one of these soil amendments is effective and they’re sold under a variety of brand names by responsible garden centers and feed stores. What’s more they won’t damage the birds and butterflies that visit your yard.

 

 

Sunday, November 24, 2013

The Red-tailed Hawk is making itself useful


 
 
Red-tailed Hawk
The common Red-tailed Hawk feeds mainly on rodents (including squirrels). With its two-foot body and four-foot wingspan, it isn’t agile enough to be a serious threat to many birds (especially in heavily treed areas), although it may get lucky and catch a few.  

It's probably the most common hawk in North America. They have clear regional differences, however. Most of them do not have what call a red tail;  it's tail is rust-colored, tan, chocolate-brown or, especially in younger ones, sort of a dirty white. (They are sometimes called “chicken hawks”but there actually is no such thing). Wherever they live, however, they are relentless hunters of mice, rats, chipmunks, squirrels etc.)
 

Frozen birds.    If a small bird at your feeder suddenly sees a predator, like a hawk, he’ll normally fly to the safety of a nearby shrub. If safe cover isn’t close by, however, he’ll “freeze” motionless for a minute or two. He's hoping that the predator won't see him, since the predator's attention focuses on motion.
 
Clearly, the small bird would prefer the safety of vegetative cover. “Freezing” is far less effective, but it’s still better than being attacked and eaten by a hawk.
 

 

OWEN YOST, in addition to being a blogger, is a licensed Landscape Architect emeritus who has lived and worked in north Texas for over 30 years. He is a recipient of a Lifetime Achievement Award of the Native Plant Society of Texas, and is a member of the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA), International Federation of Landscape Architects, National Wildlife Federation and the Audubon Society. His office is at Yost87@charter.net in Denton.

 

 

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

The urban birds you may see every day

 
Red-winged Blackbird
 

Eurasian Collared Dove
Birds are everywhere in north Texas, even highly-developed areas. They may not always be the prettiest, best-behaved species. After all, different kinds of birds prefer different environments, which explains what are often called “urban birds” in environments of concrete, exhaust fumes, loud noises and garbage.

Grackles;

Actually, there are three species of grackles; but they all look pretty much the same, and they don’t care what you call them.  About 25 years ago, Denton had no Grackles. They gradually expanded their range northward from the gulf coast, adapting well to living in built-up urban areas as the natural vegetation was covered by development.

Since Grackles are bigger than most other birds, they tend to frighten songbirds away. They aren’t very picky about what they eat (stale fries, garbage etc.), so they fit right in to an urban environment.

Pigeons;

What we call pigeons are closely related to Mourning Doves. They’re correctly called “rock pigeons” or “rock doves” and are a major food source for city-dwelling hawks and falcons. According to fossil records their ancestors have been on earth about 310,000 years, and were domesticated about 5000 years ago.  The species was brought to this continent, for some unknown reason, by European settlers in the early 1600s.

            Their close relatives, White-winged Doves and Eurasian Collared Doves, are also adept at fitting into the urban environment. Until a few years ago, they were never seen in north Texas.

Starlings;

            Like Kudzu vine and Dutch Elm disease, Starlings didn’t appear naturally in this hemisphere. An eccentric Shakespeare enthusiast released about 100 Starlings in New York in the 1890s. He thought it was a clever idea to bring to the “New World” every species mentioned in Shakespeare’s writings. Now we have over 200 million of them.    In Europe, from whence they came, Starlings are actually decreasing in number.

House sparrows;

House sparrows aren’t really sparrows. True sparrows migrate here each winter. What we call a house sparrow is really a weaver-finch, and was imported from England in 1850, to combat a plague of insects in Brooklyn.  Galveston also imported some in 1860. By 1880, they were everywhere in the city, and their nests had clogged up that city’s water system.

North Texas hosts several species of true sparrows (Chipping Sparrow, Fox Sparrow, Harris’ Sparrow, White-throated Sparrow etc.) which are actually quite attractive, and all migrate northward for the summer.

Cowbirds;

This bird is being slandered for adapting too well. Instead of building its own nest and nurturing its own nestlings, Cowbirds lay eggs in nests of other species, who incubate and raise them unknowingly.

Why?  For centuries they followed nomadic herds of buffalo (they attracted lots of insects) since that’s where the food was. They simply couldn’t stay in one place (like on a nest) for very long since the buffalo moved continuously, so they adapted.

 Crows & “blackbirds”;

            In normal usage, any bird that’s mostly black and somewhat aggressive is a “blackbird”. Often a large flock of “blackbirds” may occupy a single roost, and wear out their welcome rapidly with the noise and droppings. Actually such a flock may contain three or four kinds of birds with one dominant species; mostly Grackles or mostly Cowbirds. But there may be some Red-winged Blackbirds, Brewer’s Blackbirds or Bob-o-links mixed in. They’re all “icterids” and they’re “birds of a feather”.

There may be a number of Crows too, although they aren’t technically icterids.  (We’ve reached the point where you don’t really care, haven’t we?)

Vultures;

The vulture (most numerous here is the Turkey Vulture) has an awful reputation, but it’s one of my favorite birds since they soar so gracefully on their 6-foot wingspans; riding invisible air currents.  Old movies incorrectly refer to them as buzzards. Vultures clearly fill an ecological niche as they search for “less-than-fresh” food such as roadkill.

Hundreds of them usually roost together overnight, and spread their large wings out in the morning to catch the sun and warm up. If you’re lucky enough to see one up close, check out the featherless head and neck.  It’s evolved that way so it doesn’t get ”food” on itself that can harbor bugs or weigh it down.




 
 

OWEN YOST, in addition to being a blogger, is a licensed Landscape Architect emeritus who has lived and worked in north Texas for over 30 years. He is the recipient of a Lifetime Achievement Award of the Native Plant Society of Texas, and is a member of the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA), International Federation of Landscape Architects, National Wildlife Federation and the Audubon Society. His office is at Yost87@charter.net in Denton.