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Wild Birds of Southeast Virginia
 

Gray Catbird

            The Gray Catbird is medium-sized, slate-gray bird with black caps and tails, along with chestnut undertail coverts and usually hold its tail cocked up.  Males, females and juveniles look similar.

            Catbirds are great insect-devouring birds, but be mindful when fruit is ripening because fruit and berries are their favorite food, which includes a wide variety of berries such as blackberries, cherries, mulberries, wild blueberries, huckleberries, elderberries and pokeberries.  At your feeder, they love the Wild Delight Fruit and Berry Mix, along with mealworms, which are in short supply right now.  I have them in backyard at my jelly feeder.

Like all birds, they love to drink and take baths, so put out a birdbath, keeping it clean and filled.  In Virginia the catbird lives in dense undergrowth dominated by saplings and shrubs and are often found foraging on the ground, flipping leaves aside with their bills.  When they forage in the shrub layer, they glean food from foliage and twigs.  They sing a discordant series of sounds that can be alternately tuneful and rasping.  They are named for their mewing call and are receptive to pishing.

            Catbirds are monogamous, forming pairs after they arrive at the breeding grounds.  They nest in dense, broad-leaved thickets and tangles, or in low trees.  The female builds the nest perhaps with material brought by the male.  The nest is a large, bulky, open cup, typically supported by horizontal branches and made from twigs, weeds, grass, leaves and bark strips.  The female incubates 3 to 4 eggs for 12 to14 days.  Both parents help brood and feed the young, which leave the nest at 8 at 12 days.  The adults continue to feed the fledglings for up to 12 days after they leave the nest.  Gray Catbirds often raise two broods a year, and build a new nest for each brood. 

           Cool Fact:  The brown-headed cowbird lays eggs in the catbird nests, and the catbird throws most of them out.  The catbird learns to recognize its own eggs, probably by looking at them.  If a cowbird quickly replaces the first catbird egg in the nest, the catbird may recognize the cowbird egg as its own and throw out its own egg.

           The male catbird uses his loud song to proclaim his territory.  He uses a softer version of the song when near the nest or when a territorial intruder is nearby.  The female may sing the quiet song back to the male.

Eastern Bluebird

           The Eastern Bluebird is a member of the thrush family and one of 3 species that occurs in North America.  It is a cavity nester that lives in open country such as golf courses, parks, playgrounds, and large yards with open areas.  Placement of nest boxes has resulted in population increases in many areas.  Nan and I with the Hampton Roads Bird Club monitor many bluebird boxes in Newport News City Park.  We have lots of babies in our boxes already.  This seems to be a very good year.  The bluebirds have started early and are producing many eggs.  Most of our boxes have 5 eggs and some babies have hatched already.

           This bird is an important predator of destructive insects such as beetles, grasshoppers, caterpillars, crickets, and katydids. Their diet also consists of various fruits and berries of the dogwood, hawthorn, wild grape, sumac, hackberry seeds, blackberries, honeysuckle, and Virginia creeper.  Bluebirds feed by perching on a high point and swooping down to catch insects on or near the ground.

            The male is deep blue above, rusty brown chest, throat and flanks.  Both male and female have white bellies.  The female is blue but not as bright. Juvenile birds have spotted chest and back, with blue on the wings and tail.

            You can attract bluebirds to your yard with a bluebird box.  A good bluebird box should be well ventilated, have drainage holes, be east to monitor and easy to clean.  These birds can nest up to 3 times each year.  Cedar and redwood are ideal although plywood and other types of wood can be used.  Boxes can be painted or stained a light color.  Treated lumber should not be used because of the toxic content.  A bluebird box should not have a perch, since perches attract sparrows and wrens.  Bluebird boxes should have a round entrance about 1-1/2”.
 

Goldfinches

            Goldfinches and thistle are made for each other. Thistledown usually means the end of summer, which for Goldfinches is the signal to begin nesting.  In late July and early August when the gawky youngsters of other songbirds are exploring shrubbery and taking their first dip in the birdbath, the Goldfinches get serious about raising a family.  It is the last bird of summer to nest.

           The nest structure is strong, durable, and so tightly woven it will actually hold water.  Goldfinches nest so late in the season, which means there is usually a full canopy of leaves sheltering the nest.

           Most female goldfinches lay between 4 and 6 eggs.  The eggs are oval in shape, pale bluish/white in coloring and unmarked. Once she begins incubating her eggs, she becomes one of the most patient, diligent sitters in the world.  In fact, the female depends largely on the male for food during the first 12-14 days, since he does not help incubate the eggs.  The youngsters are quiet for the first week or so, making little or no noise but then they are like our own children.  They, too, discover they can make sounds, a lot of sounds.

            Beginning in September, the birds go through a complete molt.  Olive drab is the autumn and winter fashion for all Goldfinches, male and female, immature and adult. Juvenile males and females retain the drab color like their mother throughout the autumn and winter.  By October even the adult male begins to look like females as the autumn molt passes.  In preparation for cold days ahead, nature is covering each bird’s body with about 1000 more feathers than it had during the summer.

           By late November, all Goldfinches appear pretty much alike, but a closer examination reveals the wings of the adult males are actually blacker than females and immature companions.

            Providing Niger seed at a feeding station works like magic to attract house finches, purple finches, and best of all, the Goldfinches.  In the warm months, water is particularly enticing to the Goldfinches.  They probably drink and bathe more often at the patio birdbaths than any other species, with the exception of robins.

            So enjoy the finches, all of them, but especially the Goldfinches, which we enjoyed all summer.  Bet you’ll find them at your feeders this fall and winter.

 

We have been getting calls at our store about a particular pretty little song our customers hear in the morning and afternoon coming from their yards.  “Old Sam Peabody Peabody Peabody.”  Yes this wintertime beauty, the White Throated Sparrow, is here and singing just for us.  I hear him call and I get out my platform feeder and fill it with white millet.  It comes down out of the trees to feed where I can see its pronounced black and white crown stripe, yellow spot in front of the eyes and a white throat.

          Sparrows are a group of small, generally brown-streaked birds that are often lumped together as little brown jobs (LBJ), but we have great sparrows here in Virginia.  I recommend you get out your Field Guide where you will discover the Chipping Sparrow, Dark Eyed Junco, American Tree Sparrow, White Crowned Sparrow (which looks like the White Throated Sparrow minus the yellow spot near the eye), and the big Fox Sparrow are the most common species seen here in Virginia.  The Dark-Eyed Junco is here now and some have taken up residence behind our store.  They are scratching in the white millet and are known as the snowbird.  Just so there is no confusion, the House Sparrow, which is part of the Weaver Finch family, is typically found in your yard, not an American Sparrow.  The House Sparrow was introduced to America in the mid-1800’s and has spread across the country.

          Attracting sparrows is easy.  Their basic needs at this time of year are food, shelter and water.  The best food to offer these birds are white millet either scattered on the ground/snow, under bushes and shrubs, or in a platform feeder since they are basically ground feeders.  White Throated Sparrows also eat peanut kernels, hulled sunflowers and black oil sunflower seeds.  If you plan to provide water, you can get more birds to use your bird bath this winter by using a heating element (bird bath heater) to keep the water from freezing.  As the weather cools this fall and winter, try tossing some white millet in a section of your yard.  Then watch to welcome these great, delightful winter bird friends.  Keep a look out for the Red Breasted Nuthatch, Pine Siskins, Blackpolls, Pine Warblers, can be seen in the winter.  See how many birds you can attract to your yard this winter!
Greet the Sparrow
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