Altho a bit long I really enjoyed reading this from the Illinois bird line.
This is a real birder--wish we could all keep journals like this. Also lots
to be learned from it.
Anne Downing
Knox County MO
----- Original Message -----
From: "Sean Carroll" <[log in to unmask]>
To: "IBET" <[log in to unmask]>; "WISBIRDN" <[log in to unmask]>
Sent: Saturday, February 01, 2003 12:27 AM
Subject: IBET: Watching birds in January

Away from home this month, I've seen an American Kestrel on a wire not far
from here, and I may have seen a Northern Harrier a couple of times, in the
area just north of the I-90/US 31 junction. This is very speculative, as
I've never seen a Northern Harrier and known it, but... the first time I
thought I was looking at a large gull, Herring probably, but there was a
bent-forward aspect to the wings that made me curious, and looking it up in
the field guide later, no gull seemed likely, nor did any of the few raptors
I'm familiar with. But each time it was really no more than a silouhette
flying at altitude around100 feet, no colors or detail discernible.

At home, where all birds were new birds for the year, there were 25 species
as follows (with date first seen and high count for the month):

?American Crow (1/1, 3)

I may have a family group here, mated pair with helper.

?American Goldfinch (1/1, 40)

Birds I can count on, thanks to the sock feeders with sunflower/niger. I'm
trying to figure out the pattern to their fluctuating numbers. I know there
are plenty around, but some days a lot of them seem to "call in sick." If
attendance does not improve, I may have to let a few of them go and hire
some new goldfinches.

?American Tree Sparrow  (1/5, 1)

Landed on the picnic table in the front yard for only a moment, once.

?Black-capped Chickadee  (1/4, 3)

Lower numbers this year, I think. I'm keeping these few well fed. They know
where each peanut feeder is. It's fun to watch them getting their seeds or
nuts and know exactly what they're going to do - grab the food and fly off
to a tree to eat it. I've heard the occasional fee-bee-bee (Hey Sweetie),
but not often.

?Blue Jay  (1/1, 3)

Ah, finally, peanut kernels have brought them here and kept them around
reliably. There is one stouter bird we like to call the King Jay - most
often, if not always, this is the one that vocalizes en route to coming in
for peanuts. At times, our picnic table is a blue jay airstrip busy with
arrivals and departures. The jays seem to get along with red-bellied
woodpeckers when they're at the feeder together, and - usually - with the
starlings as well. Actually, those two species are about the only feeder
birds that don't scurry when a jay flies in.

?Brown Creeper  (1/14, 1)

I've had a number of pretty good looks at this little fella now. It has been
seen poking at a lard cage once, but usually passes them by. I'm trying to
figure out what I can tempt it with (and help it survive the winter with) -
I've tried a PB/oatmeal mixture smeared in bark crevices, but I wasn't home
to watch, and I have to suspect the starlings found it before anyone else

?Brown-headed Cowbird (1/4, 100)

Females have outnumbered males by as much as 6-8:1. Mad about millet. It
figures. Put sunflower seed out for birds, get squirrels and raccoons. Put
lard out for woodpeckers, get starlings. Put millet out for juncos and
doves, get cowbirds.

?Canada Goose (1/1, 200)

Only flyovers, as the pond has been frozen all month, usually VERY frozen.
Traveling home from work in the late afternoon, I have noticed regular
movements that I'm guessing are commuting Canadas, resident geese returning
to roosting spots (if ground-dwelling birds are said to roost) from foraging

?Cooper's Hawk (1/4, 1)

Only one good look at a perched bird (adult) so far, a couple decent looks
in flight. I strongly suspect that this bird often hunts here early in the
morning, and is then fond of skulking on the ground around the hedges. I've
flushed it once.

?Dark-eyed Junco (1/1, 14)

I saw as many as 24 in December. I wonder if my local population is still
that high. I have some reason to speculate that juncos may be easier prey
for raptors here -  especially, perhaps, early in the season when they may
be new to the area and its dangerous places. They also seem less wary, less
easily alarmed, than other small birds. As I've noted before, juncos appear
to demand a lot of "personal space" from each other. They are also "fringe
birds," rarely mingling with ground-feeding cowbirds and house sparrows but
instead keeping to the edges. They are early and late birds, which is
fortunate, because cowbirds monopolize the platform feeder when they are
active; I always try to provide an alternate site, porch or the ground, to
accomodate some cowbird-free dining for juncos. My wife has noted juncos

?Downy Woodpecker (1/1, 5)

Another reliable and welcome species, thanks to plenty of lard feeders. A
male sometimes visits the wire mesh peanut feeder on the porch. A late bird
that often grants me a sighting when I get home from work.

?European Starling (1/1, 130)

63 is the most I've had roaming the lawn at one time. Numbers have gone down
as cowbirds have moved in, in a reversal. There is apparently no food or
feeder they will not try. I still don't know whether they actually eat
sunflower seed or just poke around in it and knock it down simply to piss me
off. If I try to put out something for my friendly neighborhood crows (my
hawk alarms!), I can be assured that starlings will get most if not all of
it. There was an individual here with a missing or injured leg (impossible
to tell) - tough time to be hurting with all the low temps. Old One Leg
hopped about, was able to get on feeders well enough, and flew just fine,
but would often rest on the ground near the spruces. I haven't seen it
lately (it wasn't the victim in the hawk story below), so I don't know
whether it has healed, succumbed to a predator, died, or what.

?Hairy Woodpecker (1/1, 2)

A full day of watching is not complete without seeing both the male and
female hairy! I think I'm getting close to mastery at discerning hairy from
downy at a glance. Close, not perfect. The tip on bill size I've heard and
read comes in quite handy. Related to it is the fact that a hairy will
usually appear arched back in feeding at a cage mounted flush on a trunk -
because its bill is long - whereas a downy can dig in without arching. When
the sunlight hits the white on the back of a downy, it can make it look
larger than it is sometimes. So it's still possible for me to think hairy
when I see a downy, but when it actually is a hairy, there's never any

?House Finch  (1/1, 23)

Interesting head coloration on many males, patchy - maybe blotchy is the
better word - dark and red, occasionally even white and red. Also a very
bright and prominent red stripe on the back of many of them, something I
hadn't noticed much, if at all, until this winter. These birds are easily
the biggest consumers of sunflower seed. They have also been heard singing,
quite a treat in such quiet times.

?House Sparrow  (1/1, 28)

Well, you know... it *is* a SPARROW, so let's be glad of that. Tough little
winter birds, too, so I don't begrudge them the millet. It'll fatten them up
for the hawks. Too bad they're about the flightiest small birds here. Their
"dirt baths" are a year-round phenomenon, apparently.

?Mourning Dove  (1/1, 5)

Only 3 have been seen in the yard at once (the 5 was a flyover). They have
not been seen often, despite much food that ought to appeal to them. They
may be here more often than I think, since they may also feed (spillage) on
the ground by the porch where I can't see them (I've flushed them when
walking outside often enough in the past). There has been an unusually small
individual here lately. Malnourished? Runt of the litter? I think my
expectations of seeing more must be based on some unusually mild weather in
parts of January and maybe February last winter that brought them out then.

?Northern Cardinal (1/4, 6)

Although no more than 4 at a time have been seen, I have ascertained that
the local population is now 6 (4 M, 2 F). There is a male with a blue-white
tail discloration, and the last I checked the tail feathers were also
uneven. The latter is something that would change over time; as to the
former, I first speculated that maybe he had been (don't laugh, it must
happen sometimes) pooped on by another bird, but this marked individual has
been seen subsequently (I'm always looking for him, although I may not
ultimately find out whether the discoloration was a temporary or permanent
aberration). It occurs to me that the female bill color could be described
as "candy corn orange." I have developed quite the ear for the cardinal's
"chip" note now. It seems the chip notes of many species are thought to be
"distinctive," and while I've been skeptical of this (or at least of my
ability to distinguish one from another), now I've at least got a chip I can
use as a point of reference. It's become clearer to me how shy and wary
cardinals are, which I guess is only surprising because I've always thought
of them as larger songbirds. They - or at least the males - are early/late
birds, and I often watch for a male to appear at the feeder when I get home.
The latest I saw one there this month was 5:23 PM.

?Northern Goshawk (1/27, 1)

A bird my wife described to me as, essentially, a Cooper's Hawk with a gray
breast, must (I conclude) have been a goshawk. The front yard drama she
witnessed seems to have been this: The goshawk flew in and either grabbed a
male cowbird in flight or from a perch in a small tree and took it to the
ground, and then flew off with its prey across the road and over the field.
Now I have a yard sighting - a splendid one - that isn't mine! Last May,
there was a Mute Swan in the pond that I didn't get to see... except that I
did see it, as my wife managed to videotape it. No chance of that this time,
but I can always hope for a repeat performance, or at least that the goshawk
will pass by at least once, just to remove any doubt.  That's all I'm

?Red-bellied Woodpecker  (1/4, 2)

The female is often seen, whereas the male pops up more sporadically. The
female has often been seen, mornings and especially semi-late afternoons,
hitting the peanut feeder on the picnic table in repeated forays, probably
gathering the nuts to cache them somewhere. It's quite fun to see her on a
flat surface, waddling like a penguin. I'm proud to say, my red-bellieds
take ZERO crap from starlings. They poke 'em! They will fight them on the
tree trunks, on the table, on the...

?Red-tailed Hawk  (1/1, 2)

QUITE frequently seen, to the point where we have named the immature male
Aragorn (the sexing is an educated guess, as I would really have to see two
side by side to know which is which) . Only once this month have 2 been
seen, and that was when Aragorn met up with the other far in the distance,
and they flew together, higher and higher (alas, I couldn't tell who was who
by then, but one was larger than the other). One morning I woke up to
Aragorn perched in the shagbark hickory. Thanks, hawk! Nothing like just
opening your eyes and seeing a redtail from bed!

?Red-winged Blackbird  (1/5, 6)

Only two sightings. 6 males among a flock of starlings, and then - most
unusually - a lone female redwing among  the cowbirds in the front lawn
(mid-January some time).

*Ring-necked Pheasant  (1/12, 1)

A male, seen by me for a moment across and near the road in a field. My wife
then saw it run across the road into our yard, on its way towards the woods.
I'm sure it was an escapee from the game club.

?Rock Dove  (1/4, 12)

Always flying, going hither and yon, round and round in tight formation.
Roving birds. They've (6 of them) only flown through the yard once; usually
I see them from the yard over a nearby field. I was struck and surprised by
how much their shape in flight reminded me of crows, and how utterly unlike
Mourning Doves they appeared.

?Sharp-shinned Hawk  (1/14, 1)

Like the Cooper's, I suspect it might be around much more than I'm able to
detect. It was the co-star in the following hawk drama: The immature sharpie
flew into the brushpile (mid-lawn) after something. As it stood there, it
then alternated between looking around nervously and hopping, wings
flapping. This went on for about a minute. Then a redtail flew in and chased
the sharpie into the woods, while simultaneously a black bird scurried out
of the brushpile and out of sight. A few minutes later the redtail (Aragorn)
flew in again, perched on a low branch, and proceeded to eat what appeared
to be a starling. It seems the redtail stole lunch from the sharpie. I'd
guess that the starling was probably injured by the sharpie first, although
I'll never know whether the redtail got it on the ground or on the wing.
This all took a little reconstruction to piece together. I didn't know
whether it was a Cooper's or Sharp-shinned at first, only that it was an
immature Accipiter. From the eyes and head. I got no real look at anything
else, but figured it had to be a sharpie, because a Cooper's would have
stood taller over the part of the pile blocking my view. It wasn't
immediately clear what Aragorn was doing when he perched, either - at first
I saw this mysterious black marking on the lower breast, and gradually
realized it was a bird, tail up, being held in his talons. A sharpie has
also been "seen" (briefly, a flash) sitting on top of a hedge right outside
a window - the things you see when you're not paying enough attention! I was
only sort of absent-mindedly going for a look out the window, then WHAM! It
flew away, but I got a look at tail and general color, and by size appeared
to be a sharpie (again, immature). I also don't know whether a Cooper's
could balance so well on top of a hedge that doesn't even really support a
squirrel's weight. Then again, maybe squirrels outweigh hawks, what do I
know? Their bones aren't hollow.

?White-breasted Nuthatch (1/4, 2)

I was recently delighted to not only see 2 at the same time for the first
time I can remember, but also to see a female and know it. All this fall and
winter I've been checking to see whether the rather oft-seen male had
company. Or to put it another way, I started paying attention as to whether
he might sometimes be she. As long as I've been putting peanuts out in a
wire mesh feeder, the nuthatch has chosen "take out" - grab it and run - but
I noticed recently that when the weather was really cold, he would "dine in"
- chip at and eat bits of peanut for a while before taking a kernel and
flying off. I guessed that it had to do with cold and the need for immediate
sustenance, but maybe it's just learned behavior - "these are good, I've
been here lots of times, it's pretty safe, why leave so fast?"


I put water out in a 2'x2'x2" tray on weekends. Starlings drink, and
especially BATHE, most enthusiatically. Cowbirds and house sparrows also
drink and bathe. Blue jays have learned to drink there. Aside from this,
almost nothing. A female cardinal has bathed a couple times, and a goldfinch
will very occasionally take a drink. Now, what does all this mean? You would
think that at a time when water is hard to come by, I'd have more customers.
Are starlings (especially), cowbirds, and house sparrows dirtier? Thirstier?
More cleanliness-conscious? Smarter?


?Lard: Woodpeckers love it. Starlings won't leave it alone. The advantage of
very cold weather is that the lard gets harder for starlings to deal with,
although they don't stop trying. Very rarely have I seen other birds at it;
chickadees, a nuthatch, a brown creeper, crows hopping for it (in a suet
cage on a tree trunk) hilariously - no others. Although I did see a jay
chase a starling that was carrying a chunk. Strangely, lard that I hung in a
plastic mesh bag against a tree trunk has not proved popular - maybe the
woodpeckers just aren't used to it yet.

?Sunflower: Everybody, of course, although with the hopper feeders no longer
hanging on tree trunks, the (red-bellied, especially) woodpeckers haven't
found them (a red-bellied DID hang on a tube feeder to get some, which was
pretty neat to watch). Cowbirds will take it in the absence of millet. This
winter I have seen juncos (not often) at elevated hopper feeders with
sunflower seed for the first time.

?Peanuts: Blue jays, chickadees, starlings, nuthatches, cardinals,
red-bellieds, downys. I must recommend a double-grated peanut feeder made by
Duncraft as a good squirrel frustrator. It's capable of being hung or
pole-mounted, but I just lay it flat on a table; with the nuts below both
grates, the squirrels can't get 'em. Nohow. Birds - any of them - can.

?Finch mix (niger/sunflower chips): Goldfinches only!

?Millet: Cowbirds, juncos, and house sparrows would be happy if I put out
nothing else. Mourning doves like it. Cardinals eat it. A Chukar feasted on
it for days (last December). Can't think of any others. I love it bcause
it's CHEAP! Wish *I* could eat it.

?Safflower: Just put this out again. So far house finches are the takers. I
expect chickadees, and most of all I hope the cardinals try it and like it.
Squirrels don't like it, which makes it a godsend.

?Cracked corn: Has some appeal for cardinals, juncos, and mourning doves.
But mainly, it's a squirrel and house sparrow magnet. It's a waste of my
time, and I've stopped putting it out.

?Peanut butter mixed with uncooked oatmeal: It's a lot easier to mix than PB
and cornmeal! Starlings are apparently nuts about it - I hope I find a way
to give other birds a chance to try it before they devour it.

Back next month with something shorter, probably! Unless I can get 25 new
species to show up in February. Now *that* would be something.
Sean Carroll, Lake/McHenry County, Illinois, near Wisconsin

Birds. Delightful, fascinating, comforting, inspiring birds.

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