Meet Lonely Louie the Turkey

Sometimes we feel sorry for Lonely Louie, so sorry that we toss him a scoop of corn.

Flocks of wild turkeys have been visiting our yard almost daily for years. Most often we see gobbler groups. They are adult males with long beards and spurs. Once in a while a group of hens stops by to glean seeds under our bird feeders. They are sleeker than males and lack a beard. And, rarely, hens appear with a clutch of poults.  An exciting event indeed!

About two years ago a threesome of males began visiting every day. Sometimes two or three times a day. We called them Huey, Duey and Louie.  They seemed inseparable, and we never saw them alone. Late evenings we sometimes watched them flap up to tall tree branches to roost for the night.

two male turkeys foraging.

Huey and Louie

Then, only two visited. Huey and Louie. We never learned what happened to Duey.  Maybe a predator enjoyed him for a meal. Or, he may have had an accident. It is a mystery, but we continued enjoying visits by the other two.





Male turkey side view

Lonely Louie looks for corn

One day Louie showed up alone.  We haven’t seen his companion since. Lonely Louie is now trully a loner. If he’s in the yard and a flock of turkeys appears Louie stays away.  He seems shunned by the others. Maybe he’s just shy.

He seems to miss his two friends.  So do we, but we enjoy seeing Lonely Louie and know he appreciates the scoop of corn we toss out when he arrives.

Look Up! Look Down! Shhhh, Listen!

A Season of Variables

After a drab March “look up, look down, listen” season is here. It’s exciting and frustrating. Always something to see and hear and things we miss, too.

What is look up, look down, listen?  Well, when we walk in woods and prairies, we’re always attuned to nature’s beauty and curiosities. In the Northern Hemisphere April and May force challenges and delights, as the earth turns toward the sun. Its warmth stimulates new life while welcoming arrivals from down south.

Here in Iowa, like much of the United States, bird migration rises through April and peaks in early May. Woods, wetlands, and prairies are filled with bird species we haven’t seen since last year.

Look Up!

“Look up,” Marion remarked on one April walk last year. She spotted the first Rose Breasted Grosbeak of the season. He was perched on a thin branch high in a sycamore tree. As we walked along, we kept looking up to spot other new arrivals. They added color and song to those of cardinals, chickadees, and woodpeckers who are our neighbors all year.

Look Down!

After admiring the Grosbeak and moving on, I said, “look down.” We had been paying so much attention to birds up in the trees that we almost trampled a Dutchman’s Breeches, a delicate white wildflower with petals shaped like old-time Dutch pants. Looking down revealed spring beauties, Mayapples, hepatica, and anemones. Some were not quite in bloom and a few had gone by, but most were in their spring glory.

Shhhh! Listen

Passing a low wetland, we both paused to hear the songs of the chorus frogs and peepers that greet listeners each spring between the vernal equinox and Easter.

So, what do we do on a spring walk? Look up or down or listen? All of these. It is the best time of year to enjoy beauty clinging to the soil, singing from treetops, and chorusing from ephemeral pools.

Make Nature ID easier with Apps

Spotting birds hiding invisibly in tangles of branches and vines is challenging. What’s in that thicket singing? Thanks to the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, we turn on our Merlin app, point the phone where the songs originate, and learn who’s singing. Merlin is easy to download from the app store. Sometimes we are lucky and watch migratory birds close at hand.  

Some people even lure birds in with treats that are eagerly consumed by arriving birds.

Wildflowers cannot hide but can be confusing. We sometimes use an app called SEEK to identify ones that are mysterious to us. SEEK is also easy to download from the app store and can also help identify trees, weeds, and other living things.

Look up, look down, listen! season may be the very best time to be outside. We love it.

How Do Yellow-Bellied-Sapsuckers Time Their Arrival?

Yellow-bellied sapsuckers are precise timers. Every late March we look for this gorgeous, yet sometimes hard-to-spot, migrating bird. They visit our woods in April on their way to northern breeding areas.

Weather Conditions

Late March and April nights are often below freezing, followed by warm days. That temperature fluctuation stimulates maples to send sap upward. At the same time, the warmer days awaken hungry insects seeking sweet meals. Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers arrive from the south at sap time and make their familiar wells, or small rows of holes, through maple bark. Sap oozes out and attracts protein-rich insects. Hungry migrating sapsuckers dine on both sweet sap and tasty insects.

Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers are Precise Timers

Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers time their migration precisely. They arrive exactly when conditions are perfect. Within a few weeks the weather warms, maples stop bleeding sap, insects disperse, and the birds are north of us getting ready to nest.

Meet The Confusing Tree Sparrows

Tree Sparrows. Two species. What could be more confusing?  Well, there’s more. Both look like common House Sparrows (formerly known as English Sparrows.

Meet the American Tree Sparrows

Marion glanced at our feeders recently and noticed what looked like a Chipping Sparrow in the midst of a flock of House Sparrows. But it wasn’t. It was an AMERICAN TREE SPARROW. This bird nests in far northern Canada and is almost always spotted in winter. Why it doesn’t keep flying south and winter somewhere warmer than Iowa is a mystery to us. The bird does look like a Chipping Sparrow, but it’s bigger and “chippers” left long ago to winter where it’s warmer. We won’t see one again for a few months.  So, a rusty capped sparrow in winter stands a good chance of being an AMERICAN TREE SPARROW.

Meet the New Tree Sparrows

Rich looked out the window a few days later and spotted an odd bird. It was near House Sparrows but looked slightly different.  A dark spot on its cheek revealed it as a EURASIAN TREE SPARROW. What was it doing in our Iowa yard?

Back in 1870 a box of wild birds arrived in St. Louis from Germany. Inside were 12 Eurasian Tree Sparrows that were released. They slowly spread outward.

According to the Cornell University Laboratory of Ornithology’s ebird the bird spread north slowly and took about 150 years to reach our yard. It’s been widely spotted across the United States, but mostly along the Mississippi River.

Differences in Habitat Preferences

It looks like a House Sparrow at a quick glance. House Sparrows are at home in urban areas while the European Tree Swallow is more a denizen of brushy areas outside town. Sometimes they mingle. See a flock of House Sparrows. Take a close look.  One may be a European Tree Sparrow.

European and American species share one trait. Both prefer feeding on the ground.  Why they’re called tree sparrows beats us.

Learn More!

For accurate information on birds check out the Lab of Ornithology’s website.

Why Do You Band Birds?

student holding chickadee

A chickadee gently cradled in man’s hand.

On an early, warm, bright November day, several Coe and Mt. Mercy University Students with their professors arrived at Winding Pathways to band birds. They stood mesmerized as one cradled a diminutive bird in his hand. This long-distance traveler had met a temporary misfortune.





It was a golden-crowned kinglet, a tiny bird tipping the scales at only .19 ounce.  On a recent night, it had winged south from its summer home in the north and decided to rest and feed amid the tall grass and woods at Winding Pathways. Then, it would continue southward. It didn’t know that Dr. Neil Bernstein had other plans.

Neil had stretched mist nets an hour earlier. The kinglet, along with chickadees and a Carolina wren didn’t see these fine mesh nets in time. They were caught but uninjured.  Neil showed the students how to band birds by gently removing them from the net, weighing each tiny bird, recording data, placing a small lightweight band around its leg, and releasing it. Data are then submitted to help researchers better understand bird migration.

The kinglet and wren waited patiently as students weighed and banded each, but not the chickadees. These bitty, year-round residents have an attitude. They didn’t like being held one bit and pecked at the student’s fingers.

Student Reactions

Students were used to collecting scientific data on different natural topics. They were fascinated by the process of banding birds.  “I thought we were going to listen to a bird band!” joked one student. Another envisioned running around chasing birds, concluding that would not work well.

Students commented on how the pecks were sharp but not worrisome. One explained she talked quietly to the chickadee as she carefully held it. Reassuring the bird, she would not hurt it.  “I could feel its heart rate slow down,” she commented.

Although chickadees are small, kinglets are even smaller. This kinglet will carry its band as it wings southward but chickadees are homebodies and will wear their bands as they flit around our yard all winter.

Why Band Birds?

band on bird

Tiny band with a number.

Banding is a traditional way of learning where birds go, habitat needs, and the impact of climate on both. Perhaps a fellow bander will catch “our” kinglet and inform scientists at the US Geological Survey.

Be Less Tidy in Your Yard! Welcome Wild Fruits

We think of fall as migration time when all the birds leave. And there is a great birdcast website to see in live time the flights. But an autumn walk through a park with wild edges reveals shrubs, bushes, and grasses alive with bird activity. Visit an orchard on a cold winter day and the odds are good for spotting robins pecking on frozen dropped apples, but wild fruits are more common, all just beyond suburbia.

Let’s step back to spring. When Rich worked at the Indian Creek Nature Center his phone would often ring during those first warm days. With excitement callers would announce that the robins had returned. Spring’s here!

Seeing a robin on a spring lawn gives the illusion that they’ve just made a long journey from a faraway wintering ground down south. Robins, bluebirds, and other birds usually just shift where they live and forage as seasons change.

Ecological Survivors

A robin sits in a tree

A robin surveys the area

Robins, in particular, are ecological survivors. They’re adapted to living on lawns and around people during the warm months, where they nest on porch eaves and forage for worms and bugs in mowed grass. The coming of fall’s cold marks the disappearance of robins from suburbia. They don’t go far and make an amazing dietary switcheroo to wild fruits.

Robins and bluebirds shun their summer buggy and wormy diet and shift to fruits and some seeds come winter.

On an October walk, we spotted several wild fruits – berries perhaps – that birds feast on during the cold months. the native plants are great – even the poison ivy – the exotics are problematic.

Here are some common winter weedy and seedy plants:

  • Gray Dogwood. This small native dogwood often forms thickets along trails, parks, woods, and even yards and holds plenty of berries into cold months.
  • Wild grapes. People rarely eat sour and seedy wild grapes, and sometimes birds also leave them alone during summer, but come winter the raison-like grapes make nutritious avian fare.
  • Poke Weed. In late fall this tall purple-stemmed and fruited plant is hard to miss. Birds eat the frozen berries. Note: Poke berries are toxic to people and many mammals but not birds.
  • Poison ivy. Gulp. This bane of allergic people is a beneficial wildlife plant. Deer and rabbits browse on the woody sprouts and birds feast on the berries.
  • Asian Honeysuckle, Japanese Barberry, and Oriental bittersweet are “dirty bird plants.” Actually, birds love the berries and carry them far and wide to poop out the seeds. All three exotic plants are highly invasive and crowd out more desirable native plants. Birds have helped them conquer woodlands and field edges to the detriment of healthy bio-diversity.

Winter Fare Is More Than Fruits

Winter bird fare isn’t just fruit. Many birds glean frozen spiders and insects from crevices in tree bark and dozens of species continue to eat grass and “weed” seeds. That’s a problem with mowed lawns. They produce no seeds, so few birds visit them during the colder months. Taller growing grasses, flowers, and shrubs often hold their seeds into the winter and are bird magnets.

Want to have birds in the yard all winter?  Keeping feeders stocked helps, but better results come when homeowners encourage buffers of native shrubs, vines, and grasses that produce natural winter bird food and habitat. Most people love their tidy lawn, but edging the lawn, usually along a property line, or creating “pocket prairies” with native or desirable tall grasses, wildflowers, and shrubs adds summer color and year-round wildlife appeal. So, we encourage readers to create and leave wilder spaces for the birds!