Jim Williams has been watching birds and writing about their antics since before "Gilligan's Island" went into reruns. Join him for his unique insights, his everyday adventures and an open conversation about the birds in your back yard and beyond.

Posts about Birds in the backyard

Goldfinches showing the color of spring

Posted by: Jim Williams Updated: March 25, 2015 - 11:21 AM

If doesn't look a lot like spring today -- Wednesday -- unless you are looking at male American Goldfinches molting from their drap winter plumage into the bright yellow of spring and summer.

World Sparrow Day: we missed it

Posted by: Jim Williams Updated: March 22, 2015 - 2:27 PM

Saturday last was World Sparrow Day. You probably missed it. I found out a day late. 

The sparrow being honored was the House Sparrow, one of more than 40 species in that family. House Sparrows generally are ignored by birders unless as a check mark on a list. House Sparrows deserve recognition, and even concern, for a couple of good reasons. And I say this as someone who has pulled sparrow nests from my bluebird nest boxes, then killed those intruders. (I think in the future I will work to simply keep them at bay.)

What’s the big deal? As was pointed out by more than one commenter on the email list BirdChat, House Sparrows, along with pigeons, are many people’s only contact with birds. House Sparrows are bird ambassadors in the city, particularly in its inner parts. Without House Sparrows, many city residents have less contact with wild animals than they already do; such contact can be almost nil.

Second, in Great Britain, from which our sparrows were brought in the 1800s, this species is on a steep decline. There was a loss of 71 percent of the estimated population from 1977 to 2008. No one knows why this is happening. This is scary. What is the cause of  the loss? What species birds are next? Is this an indication of our future, of an environment headed in such a direction that now House Sparrows are having survival problems? (I know, that's alarmist. The small chance is distant and remote and small, right? Then there is the canary in the coal mine.)

House Sparrows are tough. They have been recorded as living in coal mines in Great Britain, and breeding high on mountains. They are the most human-adapted bird species on earth. If we can’t keep the planet hospitable for them, what then?

House Sparrows, male above, female below. They're really rather handsome birds.

UV liquid marks windows, alerts birds

Posted by: Jim Williams Updated: March 18, 2015 - 10:22 AM

The National Eagle Center in Wabasha uses the usual choices of window decals to discourage bird strikes on the very large expanse of glass covering its south wall. We have some of those decals on our patio doors. They work, sort of. We bought something at the center during a recent visit that might do a better job, a product used by the center in addition to those decals. It’s a small container of fluid, much like a Magic Marker. The fluid rollls on, and once dry leaves an ultra-violet track, visible to birds but virtually invisible to you. It’s called UV Liquid, price $19.95 for enough to treat several windows through the year. It should be washed off and replaced every two months or so, we were told. It is visible until it dries, then all but disappears. We’re giving it a try. If it works, it’s clearly a good idea. 

Purple Martin festival in June

Posted by: Jim Williams Updated: March 13, 2015 - 10:26 AM

The fourth annual Outdoor Purple Martin Festival will be held in Columbia, S.D. (near Aberdeen) Saturday, June 13. Tickets can be purchased online at https://purplemartindakotas.yapsody.com/.

This is a chance to learn more about the birds and their ecological benefits. A hands-on how-to will introduce attendees to creation and maintenance of a martin colony, one box or more.

Martins are cavity nesters that need human assistance given the lack of natural cavities that would accommodate this colonial species. Martins also are prodigious consumers of flying insects. They make wonderful backyard guests, but do prefer nesting locations near water.

Breakfast and lunch socials will be available. Festival hours will be 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Overnight accommodations can be found by contacting the Aberdeen Area Convention and Visitors Bureau: http://www.visitaberdeensd.com.

Another attraction is Sand Lake National Wildlife Refuge, a wonderful birding location. It’s located a few miles north of Columbia. Visit there on Sunday. Columbia is about a four-hour drive from the Twin Cities.

For more information, contact Perry D. Vogel, president of the Purple Martin Association of the Dakotas, and festival co-founder. His phone number is (218) 791-3689, email perry@purplemartindakotas.org. 

The event will take place at the residence of Paul and Joy Mammenga, 12345 396th Ave, Columbia.

You can find martin nesting equipment and supplies at www.shop.PurpleMartinDakotas.org.

Above, a pair of Purple Martins on the porch of their home. Below, a multi-cavity box hosting several pairs of martins. Martins also nest in simple gourd-shaped plastic houses hung from a pole. Examples of these can be seen at Memory Lake in Grantsburg, Wis. The box below is part of a martin colony maintained at the public beach in Wayzata.

A squirrel you might want to invite over

Posted by: Jim Williams Updated: December 11, 2014 - 10:33 PM

A reader wrote to ask about his recent sighting of a flying squirrel eating at one of his bird feeders. He didn't expect to see that mammal here. 


Flying squirrels are resident in the Twin Cities area. There are two species, Northern Flying Squirrel and Southern, both occupying the northern two-thirds of the state, excepting western portions.


A couple of years ago we had a female raise her family here (Orono) in one of our nest boxes, built for bluebirds, but used in the yard by chickadees. We had them at our home east of Grantsburg, Wis., also, when we lived there in the 1990s. 


Flying squirrels don’t actually fly, but glide from one perch to another. They have a fold of skin, a membrane which extends from the front to the hind feet. Legs stretched form an airfoil that allows glides as long as 150 feet. Shorter glides are the rule.


The squirrels are about the size of chipmunks, with dense, glossy olive-brown fur above, white below, with large brown eyes. They eat  — besides birdseed and suet  — fruits, nuts, insects, small birds, and meat scraps. 


Nocturnal, the squirrels are infrequently seen, feeders like those of my correspondent offering the best opportunities. The squirrels are beautiful animals, absolutely wonderful mind-their-own-business neighbors. Anyone who sees one is fortunate. Keep an eye on your feeder. (A neighborhood with mature trees helps). And if you have a cat, please keep it indoors at night. 


Below, a flying squirrel at a feeder. If you look closely you can see the fold of skin used for gliding.



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