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.

Birding Community E-bulletin

Posted by: Jim Williams under Bird biology, Bird conservation, Bird sightings Updated: July 21, 2014 - 1:06 PM

Birding Community E-bulletin for July 2014. Always interesting, the bulletin contains short takes on news of birds and bird conservation, including a summary of rare birds seen in North America during the previous month. The archive contains issues from 2004 to the present.

http://refugeassociation.org/news/birding-bulletin/

House Sparrows

Posted by: Jim Williams under Birds in the backyard, Nesting Updated: July 29, 2014 - 11:10 PM

House Sparrows should not be allowed to use nest boxes intended for bluebirds or other native cavity nesters. A reader recently asked about a suspicious nest he found in a box he tends. 

The nest described sounded like intrusion by House Sparrows, an invasive non-native species. If the nest is a mess of grass and feathers and paper and whatever, it's House Sparrows. I remove nest and eggs, if any.

What do other nests look like, so you don't trash the wrong one? Chickadees build with moss. Tree Swallows always incorporate feathers. Bluebirds make a nest nest of grass and/or pine needles, rarely other material. House Wrens use sticks and twigs exclusively. 

Don't hesitate to open the box to check on the nest and possible occupants unless you suspect native birds are close to fledging. (You don't want to provoke early departure by opening a box containing young birds near fledging.) Knock first -- from the side, not in front of the opening-- to warn any adult birds in the box, then open. (I've watched people knock as they're tempted to peer into the box, as if to see exactly what is going to fly into their face. It will sharpen your reaction time.)

Birds will tolerate occasional quick looks into their nest box. Some people who provide boxes for bluebirds open the box daily to check on chick progress once the eggs hatch, not that I recommend that. The birds will not abandon the nest because of occasional, brief, discrete looks. If sparrows persist, find a new location for the box, or trap and dispose of the sparrows. It is the male you want to catch. Google "sparrow nest-box traps" for more information. 

If you have nest boxes, they should be cleaned once nesting is complete. Open the box cautiously in case wasps or bumblebees are nesting there. I've found both inside boxes, and wasps also in nests attached to the outside bottom of the box. If there are wasps or bees, prop the door open if you can, and leave. Remove all nesting materials from non-occupied boxes. Wear gloves. Avoid the dust that will come from the box; do not stand downwind. I leave my boxes open over the winter, cleaning and closing in the spring, usually early April.

Below, a typical House Sparrow nest, a jammed collection of almost any material the bird could carry.

The Three-Minute Outdoorsman

Posted by: Jim Williams under Bird books Updated: July 15, 2014 - 2:21 PM

This should be a good read. University of Minnesota ornithologist Dr. Robert Zink has written a book entitled “The Three-minute Outdoorsman : Wild Science from Magnetic Deer to Mumbling Carp.” It’s published by the University of Minnesota Press. Book stores should have it; the Hennepin County library does. I’ve read one piece from the collection, and it was informative and entertaining. I can tell you more once the library delivers the copy I’ve requested.

Black flies in silent attacks

Posted by: Jim Williams under Bird biology, Bird travels Updated: July 14, 2014 - 9:13 AM

I have Black Fly bites, four of them large enough to be seen from across the room. This doesn't make me exceptional. It does make me itch. I was in Caledonia Saturday for a meeting of a Quail Forever group, devoted conservationists focused on Northern Bobwhite. Minnesota has a few of those birds in Houston County. We were sitting in a farmyard at picnic tables beneath large shade treess, all very pleasant. I noticed a small flying insect on the table in front of me, and smacked it. Dead but intact, it offered close examination. I thought I could recognize the humped shape of a Black Fly, the shape that gave them one of their several folk names -- Buffalo gnat. Speaking to the group briefly about birds I mentioned the Black Fly problem in central and northern parts of out state. While I was talking a cell phone rang, a member of the small audience having a short conversation. He happened to be a veteranarian. The call, he told us, came from a local DNR biologist who had just arranged transportion to The Raptor Center in St. Paul for a Bald Eagle chick so bothered by the flies that it crawled out of its nest and was injured in a fall to the ground. There was some surprise that the flies were attacking birds way down there in Houston County. A few hours later Thurman Tucker, active QF member and advocate for the species disappeared from lunch. Unannounced, he was hurrying home to Minneapolis, so many fly bites on his face that one of his eyes was almost swelling shut. My bites weren't apparent until I got home, and my wife took a look at me. The one on my left temple is the size of a half dollar coin, the one inside my left elbow quarter-size, the bites on the back of my neck no more than a nickel. No itching last night, but they itch like blazes. I felt no bite nor any insect on my skin while being bitten, an absolute stealth attack. There were no swarms around our heads, thankfully, like the swarms seen on and around heads of Common Loons, one of the bird species under particular attack. The fly I killed on the table was about 1/8th of an inch long. I wonder if bites received by birds swell, and do they itch? Is it the attack itself which drives birds to distraction and death or is it the aftermath, the swelling and itch? 

Monday morning -- I also wondered about the impact of the files on domestic and wild mammals. I await information from the University of Minnesota Extension Service. I did visit with a vet in Duluth, assuming that the flies have been or are as much as a problem there as anywhere. The doctor with whom I visited said she had seen no cases of noteworthy response to fly bites on pet animals. I found remarks concerning livestock on a web site in Europe (these flies are everywhere). Swarms of flies are said to send cattle and horses into panic-driven runs. Hundreds of bites on one animal can produce enough stress and/or allergic reactions to cause death. Flies can gather in nostrils and throats in numbers sufficient to suffocate the victim. I can find no such local reports. The good news is that the flies have a life span of about a month, hatching basically an event occurring broadly at the same time. We are soon to find respite. 

Here, from the Internet, is a photo of a black fly, hardly looking like the terror it can be.

Hummingbird nest

Posted by: Jim Williams under Bird biology, Nesting Updated: July 20, 2014 - 5:43 PM

The nest of a Ruby-throated Hummingbird is being watched at a park location in St. Louis Park. Eggs are are close to hatching, although exactly when is unknown. Incubation takes about 16 days, young birds leaving the nest about 19 days after hatching. The nest is made of plant material and down held trightly together with spider web. It is covered on the outside with flakes of lichen. The female bird, working alone, builds the nest in about five days.

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