Friday, November 30, 2012

Leucistic Birds

Irv wrote:  I found your article in the Houston Chronicle on leucistic birds very interesting and informative.  We live in Conroe in Stewart’s Forest and fortunately still have lots of trees around us.  We feed the birds black oiler sunflower seeds and have bird baths  in our yard so we have a good variety of birds who visit our back yard.  One of the birds is a cardinal with a white head.  From the rest of the coloring I assume it is a female cardinal.  You stated in your article that some birds with luecism have a hard time attracting a mate due to lack of their specific species color.  I believe that this cardinal may have mated because on occasion I have seen one or two other cardinals with white plumage on their heads although their unusual coloring is not quite as obvious as the one we see more frequently.

My Answer:  Well, apparently your leucistic female cardinal has beat the odds and attracted a mate.  If she did mate, she would have passed on her defective genes and potentially produced the one or two other leucistic cardinals you've seen.  Hard to know for sure without genetic analysis , so we can only guess.  Be on the lookout for other leucistic species.  If you see more birds with leucism other than the one or two cardinals, that could indicate some contaminate in their environment (it would not be in your sunflower seed.) 

Thursday, November 29, 2012

December Travels to Texas

Tim wrote:  I am a Florida birder and I am bringing the family to the San Antonio area for a 4 day stay in mid December.  Might make a day trip to Corpus Christi.

We will be doing the usual tourist things as a family, but I can't resist to see if there are any potential lifebirds in the area.  Do you have any leads on: Yellow Rail, Mountain Plover, Sage Thrasher, Sprague's Pipit, Harris's sparrow, or any of the 3 Longspurs?  If I thought the chances were decent I would try to workin an outing or two to try and grab one or more.
Thanks in advance for any thoughts which you can share.

My answer:  All the birds can be found in winter in Texas, but in most cases you'd have to drive hundreds of miles to different parts of the state and have a lot of luck on your side.

Yellow rails are in the coastal marshes, but nigh to impossible to see unless you trudge through a cottonmouth invested marsh.  They don't normally call during winter.

Mountain Plovers can show up anywhere, but most likely in farm fields around Austin and west of Rockport.

Sage Thrashers are possible in the Hill Country  north of San Antonio in the Kerr Wildlife Management Area west of Kerrville.

Sprague's Pipits are a sure thing at the Atwater Prairie Chicken NWR near Sealy, TX.

Harris's Sparrows tend to show up in hedgerows along farm field roads between Houston and San Antonio; the farm roads of the Katy Prairie west of Houston is a good place to look.

(Smith's Longspur found in eastern Harris County, Texas in 2011)

Longspurs are reliably found in the Texas Panhandle north of Amarillo and especially around Dalhart in the grassy fields of ranches---but you have to do a lot of driving around those roads to spot them.  In fact, of all the birds you listed, the longspurs are the surest thing if you have the time and patience to look.  It can also be brutally cold and windy in the Panhandle during winter.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Why do bird congregate in large flocks?

Question from Doug: Every day at sun down, 100s of black birds congregate and the utility lines at Kirkwood and Westheimer. My questions are, what kind of birds are they, where are they during the day, and where do they spend the night?

Good question. People have advanced several theories as an answer, although no one knows the answer for certain. At any rate, the blackbirds congregating on power lines are usually a mixed flock of European Starlings, Red-winged Blackbirds, and Great-tailed Grackles. During the day, they forage over a large area that may include farm fields, marshes, grasslands, suburban yards, and city streets, The reason they congregate and perch at night on power lines is due to complex social behavior that 1.) helps them keep warm by huddling together, 2.) helps them avoid predators because it's easier for a group to spot predators and protect each other than it is for a lone individual, 3.) helps them find food because members of the flock can lead other members to the best feeding locations, and 4.) helps them locate food around the utility wires because the wires are usually at lighted traffic intersections with waste food from humans scattered on the ground and with insects attracted to the street lights.

The social interaction of birds that includes flocking behavior is an ongoing topic in ornithological research, and I'm sure we will learn more about the reasons for social interaction as research continues.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Barred Owl

Here's my reply to a reader who found a barred owl in her backyard:

Yes, that's indeed a Barred Owl, a rather common owl where you live but not commonly seen because it occupies the temporal zone of the night when people are asleep.

I normally do several articles on owls, the last one was this past October and was about Great Horned Owls. You can read it at here.

Owls get unfairly blamed for the disappearance of small pets. It's really coyotes that are getting the pets. (Yes, our urban and suburban neighborhoods have coyotes.) For an owl to pick off a small pet, the pet would have to be the size of a rat or small rabbit. But pet owners should never leave a small pet or any pet outdoors by itself at night or during the day. Packs of wild dogs also roam neighborhoods, and larger feral cats roaming can harm defenseless house pets. Pet dogs and pet cats should be kept indoors and only let out on a leash for their safety and health. (It's a lesson I learned the hard way.)

Owls go after rats and other rodents, which is a good thing or else we'd be overrun with those vermin.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Cardinal Sees His Reflection

Question from Tonie: We have a cardinal that keeps crashing into our front window then he flies to the back where he crashes into a glass sliding door! He must be knocking himself silly! What can I do for him? Why is he doing this?

The Cardinal sees his reflection and thinks it's an intruding male on his territory. For our birds here in Texas, breeding season in terms of staking out territories has already begun. The thing to do is to put up window decals of falcons, the natural predator of birds, or leaf decals that distract birds from windows. You can buy the decals online at any number of places (just type in "Window Decals for Birds" in a search engine like Google. Even has the decals. They're not expensive.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Winter Hummingbirds in Texas

I received a number of emails from readers regarding my January 7th article about winter hummingbirds in the Houston Chronicle and San Antonio Express News. Here's a sample:

One reader wrote: "I read your article in today's paper. I too have two hummingbirds in my back yard in Clear Lake. This is the second year that I see some around. I always keep a feeder or two in the winter. In the fall I have 8 feeding stations that I refill twice a day. This is fun to watch them.
Now they have to share their feeder with bees and I do not know how to chase the bees away.
I am glade to see that I am not the only hummingbird feeder in the winter.
Thank you for your article."

Friday, January 6, 2012

Backyard Bird Feeding Tips

Question from reader: I am an avid reader of your nature column and an avid bird lover as well. I was wondering if you could tell me how to increase the species at my home bird feeders. I have several feeders in my back yard, two with standard millet/sunflower seed mix and a new one with finch mix. They are at this time about 6 feet apart on my patio. I attract thousands of house sparrows and different species of doves. I also get frequent visits from mockingbirds, cardinals, and blue jays. However, I never seem to attract any of the migratory thrushes and warblers described in your column. Could you give me any advice on how to get more diversity at my feeders?

Answer: It doesn't sound like your doing anything particularly wrong. Warblers and thrushes are insect eaters and only visit feeders in winter. The three warblers we routinely have in winter at our feeders are Orange-crowned, Yellow-rumped, and Pine. Hermit warblers spend the winter here and often hang around platform feeders. Warblers and thrushes are also attracted to suet cakes in almost any season. Come spring, you might want to put out orange slices to attract migratory orioles and resident woodpeckers.

Other suggestions: Use a "No-Mess Blend of Bird Seed" available at Wild Birds Unlimited Stores in Houston or online at Also, get the "No Melt" variety of suet cakes from the same store. Both products should attract more varieties of birds to your yard, but there's no guarantee because many factors such as trees, bushes, and plantings are at play in attracting birds to a yard. I've seen "perfect" yards for birds, but the poor home owner gets few birds. We don't always no what's keeping birds away or what's attracting them. Obviously, if you have feral cats coming to your yard, that could be a deterrent. Still, backyard bird feeding is not a science. (By the way, I have no financial interest or reward in recommending Wild Birds Unlimited; I simply like their products and customer service.)

Hope this helps, and thanks for being an avid reader of the column.