A flurry of movement caught our attention. Just outside the dining room window, a tiny scrap of a bird flitted around. It wasn’t a wren, goldfinch, or sparrow. They’re around all year. Just what was it?
For most birders, May is the month to live for. Orioles, grosbeaks, tanagers, and warblers arrive as if by magic. They’re colorful, sing with gusto, and are easy to spot. It’s an exciting time, but it’s not THE ONLY exciting time.
All the colorful migrating May birds en route to northern nesting sites and the ones that stick around to nest locally are now heading south to avoid winter’s harshness. September is an outstanding birding month, but it’s also challenging.
Birds stock up on high-calorie foods before their long migrations.
The birds are there but easy to miss. Many have gone through a late summer molt. They’ve replaced gaudy spring feathers with drab ones that enable them to hide better. September is a business month for birds. In May they happily court mates, but four months later the priority is beefing up their bodies for the long flight south. They dart about, often out of sight, seeking tasty insects, spiders, and seeds to fuel migration.
September birding takes patience. We find the most effective way to see birds is to sit quietly and watch. While we may slowly walk trails spotting birds in May, by September we sit on our deck in comfortable chairs, binoculars handy, and bird books and apps at the ready. We don’t find the birds. They find us, but because they don’t sing much and often look different than in Spring, identification is challenging.
Our backyard birding is exciting because we’ve diversified vegetation and have brushy areas, a prairie, a small pond, and big trees close by. However, we don’t just look there for birds. Sometimes we look upward to see soaring nighthawks, migrating raptors, and an occasional skein of Canada geese.
Birds stop for a drink and to fill up on the berries nearby.
Keeping a wary eye, the robin cautiously gets a drink.
Identifying Fall Birds
To help with identification we use several printed bird books including the Peterson Guide and David Allen Sibley’s books. Increasingly we rely on Merlin. It’s an outstanding app produced by the Cornell University Laboratory of Ornithology. Even better, it’s free. The app easily helps identify species and shows many photos of every bird in spring/fall/juvenile/gender plumages. It also has range maps and recordings of the birds’ calls and songs. Merlin recently added a new function: sound identification. Point the phone at a singing bird and the app will help identify it by sound.
After we tentatively identify a bird, we try to confirm it by an Internet search and by consulting our birding friends. Our definitive online source is the Lab of Ornithology’s website. The site contains a vast amount of information, including how to access and use Merlin and eBird.
Easy to Keep Records
eBird allows us to record all bird species we spot in a day. Then we email results to the Lab for analysis. It’s great fun and helps the Lab research bird populations and movement.
There’s more to fall than football and leaf raking. It’s an excellent time to bird and the best birding is often the backyard.
Millions of people love their cats. Some 36% of households keep an average of two cats. They are the second most popular companion animal in the United States, lagging only behind dogs.
Cats decimate bird populations.
Some cats cause problems, especially when owners allow them to free-range the neighborhood. According to the American Bird Conservancy, they kill 2.4 billion birds a year and may be a significant cause of the decline of many species.
Catios to the rescue!
A growing number of cat lovers, many who also enjoy bird watching, recognize the problem and are increasingly adding a catio to their home. Wonder what it is???? It’s simply an enclosure that allows the family cats to enjoy fresh air, sunshine, and a bit of adventure without allowing them complete access to the neighborhood.
Many catios are enclosed patios, which spawned the name, that let cats play outdoors while their owners enjoy lounging or socializing nearby. They are relaxing places for both species. Other catios are small and positioned outside windows. Catios can be either purchased or homemade and often an existing patio can be modified into one.
Although cats love roaming the neighborhood, it is not a safe place. They pick up ticks and transfer them to humans, suffer accidents, are killed by cars as they cross streets, and are taken by predators.
A catio is a good solution to several problems. It allows cats to enjoy the outdoors safe from cars and predators in a place where they can’t kill birds. And, the owners always know where their cat is.
An array of catio photos is visible on Catio Spaces. Many other websites feature them. Catios are a great way for cat lovers to show care of wildlife species, keep their cats safe, and live in peace with human neighbors who are frustrated when they spot a feline stalking birds under their feeder.
One morning while watching the arrival of spring migrant birds, we were startled and annoyed to see a cat lurking under the feeder seeking a bird victim. We so enjoy the Summer and Scarlet Tanagers, and Indigo Buntings at our feeders. They add diversity to our usual visitors – titmice, chickadees, cardinals, and woodpeckers who visit throughout the year.
We chased the cat away but began researching the history of domestic cats and their impact on wildlife. It’s both fascinating and concerning.
Challenges Facing Birds
Modern birds face many challenges, including habitat destruction, climate change, light pollution that disrupts navigation, and crashing into towers. However, the International Union for Conservation of Nature lists domestic cats as one of the world’s worst nonnative invasive species. They are the number one human-caused threat to birds in the United States and Canada and kill upwards of 2.4 billion a year.
Domestication of Cats
Cats have a strong hunting instinct.
People and cats have a long relationship. They were domesticated from the European wildcat over 10,000 years ago, probably in the Fertile Crescent. Wherever people have migrated to they’ve brought along cats. Even after so many years living with people this animal, Felis sylvestris, retains its predatory instincts, reproduces rapidly, and readily goes wild, or feral.
Domestic cats are fascinating animals loved by millions of people, so any criticism of them often brings a sharp emotional response. However, there’s no doubt they harm wildlife, and one of the main reasons is their artificial high population density.
Wild predators, like cougars, bobcats, and wolves have vast territories. It takes plenty of land to sustainably produce enough prey for a predator to live. So, if they are crowded together they’d starve. A naturally occurring population of predators in a healthy ecosystem simply has few individuals. For example, a healthy population of native bobcats may have only a few individuals spread over several square miles. The same goes for wild native European wildcats in natural areas in Asia and Europe. The problem comes when humans crowd many cats into a small area.
Families that don’t want cats stalking birds can take a few actions to reduce the death toll of birds. These include:
- Asking neighbors to keep their animals in their home or yard.
- Placing feeders on metal “shepherd’s hooks” that cats can’t climb.
- Configuring a ring of wire mesh around feeding stations to exclude cats from catching juncos, chipping sparrows, and other ground-feeding birds.
Birds face many hazards in this modern world. Cat predation is one that can be reduced. Both cats and birds can enjoy a safer life if the owners of descendants of the European wildcat kept their pets indoors.
*Note: Our assessment of WindowAlert is based on our experiences both from purchasing the company’s product and a complimentary set of decals to try.
Last fall as Rich was walking along the outside of the Cedar Rapids Public Library and found a tiny dead warbler on the sidewalk beneath a large window. Fall warblers are tough to identify but it was a blackpoll. Why did the bird hit the window?
This amazing bird has an enormous migration from the far north of the continent to the south each fall, with a reverse trip in the spring. The bird Rich found probably was only halfway through its autumnal journey. Its death was sad and probably could have been prevented.
Occasionally we have a bird crash against our windows at Winding Pathways, and a male cardinal persists in cracking his head against a window at our church in Cedar Rapids.
Bird numbers are declining at an alarming rate for many reasons. Certainly, habitat loss and climate change are taking a toll. Feral cats and windows also kill millions of birds every year. Some of that loss can be prevented.
Why Birds Are Killed by Windows?
According to Spencer Schock at WindowAlert, birds are impacted by windows for two reasons. First, all year, but especially during migration, birds simply don’t see the glass and assume they can fly right through it. That’s what happened to the warbler. Second, it’s springtime rivalry. The cardinal banging on the church window sees his reflection, assumes it is a rival and tries to chase it off or intimidate it. This behavior is common, especially among cardinals, and usually happens from late winter into early spring. It’s rarely fatal to the bird but can annoy humans inside the building.
How to Reduce Bird Strikes on Windows.
The simple solution for both types of bird strikes is to do something so the animal recognizes it is glass. Here are some ways to reduce window strikes:
- Close Drapes. But then people can’t see out and sunshine can’t enter.
- Put something over the exterior window that looks to birds like a barrier or physically keeps them away. Draping the mesh netlike material made to protect cherry trees from birds trying to steal fruit works. The downside is that sometimes birds get tangled in it.
- Put decals on the windows to help birds identify a glass barrier. We like the many designs sold by WindowAlert. They’re easy to apply, attractive, inexpensive and work well.
- Eliminate reflection to keep cardinals and other territorial birds from attacking their own image. WindowAlert has a material called Stop Bird Attack. It comes in a spray can that’s sprayed on the outside of the window. The material looks like white flocking put on Christmas trees to imitate snow. It eliminates reflection and can be easily cleaned off the window after the mating season.
Check the windows first.
Ready to spray
The spray makes the window opaque.
The BirdStop spray resembles Christmas tree flocking.
What to Do When a Bird is Found under a Window
A few times we’ve been sitting in our home and hear a bang as a bird strikes a window. We sadly find the poor animal lying still under the window. There are two likely outcomes.
This bird broke its neck hitting a window.
The bird is either dead or dying and there’s nothing we can do to alter that unhappy outcome. e bury the poor creature and add more visibility items to the window.
The bird has been stunned and will soon recover and fly away. Often a bird will recover, but while it is stunned it’s vulnerable to cats and other predators. Spencer advises gently putting the bird in a closed cardboard box or large paper bag. As soon as it has recovered, release it outdoors.
Probably the best thing a homeowner can do to help songbirds is to plant a diversity of native grasses, flowers, shrubs, and trees to create habitat. The next best action is to keep cats indoors and reduce the odds of collisions with glass using the methods described above.
This Albino Woodpecker comes to the feeder regularly.
Several months ago, we looked out our dining room window and saw an unusual woodpecker enjoying suet at a feeder only a few feet away. It was a downy but it’s head was almost completely white, unlike all others of the same species we’ve seen.
Last year we had a fox squirrel with an unusually short tail that hung around our yard for months. We’ve also spotted other wild animals with distinctive markings unusual for their species, healed but visible wounds and other characteristics that help identify it as an individual.
The Power of Observation
Being able to identify an individual animal adds to the fun of wildlife observation. For example, from the squirrel, we learned that he or she mostly just stayed in our yard and nearby woods. We never spotted it at a neighbor’s yard. Then, one day we remarked, “We haven’t seen’ shorty tail’ for a while”. We actually never saw the animal again and assumed he or she met his end due to an accident, predator, car collision, or some other catastrophic incident. Because we could tell him from other squirrels, we know he lived at least ten months.
The piebald woodpecker still comes to our feeder, and we’re getting to know it as an individual rather than just a generic downy. It adds to the fun of wildlife observation.
Like people, animals are individuals. At first glance, every one may look the same but with careful observation, it’s possible to spot differences in plumage, fur, size, shape, gait, and even personality that help identify it as an individual. Scientists studying animals ranging from whales to snow leopards often learn to distinguish one from another by the pattern of barnacles on a whale’s body to the markings on a cat’s fur.
It’s a totally noninvasive way of distinguishing one from another. We can do this with common yard wild animals.
Do Squirrels Ever Fall?
What happens when a squirrel falls?
Squirrels are amazingly agile, but they do slip and fall. It’s not common, but it happens. Rich has seen two squirrels fall from the top of large oak trees.
One squirrel lost its footing on a huge oak tree at the Indian Creek Nature Center when Rich was walking nearby. It spread out its legs and tail and fell horizontally, hitting the ground with a “thump”. Although it fell at least 40 feet the squirrel appeared uninjured, scampered off, and climbed right back up the oak.
Another squirrel fell from an even bigger oak in our home’s backyard. It did the same as the Nature Center Squirrel and spread out its body, hit the ground, and ran right off.
Squirrels rarely fall, but once in a while, they do. Fortunately, as this YouTube video shows, they seem amazingly able to recover from a fall that would instantly kill a human.
What are some of the animals you know as individuals? Let us know!