Top 10 Bird Questions
Answers to the most frequent avian inquiries.
By Bernadette Noll
Since we live in the birdiest state in the union, with 629 species reported, there is no question that there will always be questions. Oftentimes we take the birds and their activities for granted.
But the birds come into our consciousness and give us cause for a pause when there is seemingly strange behavior, or when they are in an odd location, or when we see a bird that to the average onlooker seems like an odd duck — or warbler or finch or sparrow. What is it doing? Where is it going? Where did it come from? Or perhaps the most perplexing — what is it?
Each year Cliff Shackelford, the nongame ornithologist for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, receives hundreds of calls and e-mails regarding birds and their avian behavior. Over the years, Shackelford has documented these inquiries — creating a fascinating compilation he has distilled into a crowd- pleasing Power Point demonstration.
Culled from his years of arduous record keeping, I bring to you, in no particular order, the top 10 birding questions posed each year in the state of Texas.
- 1: I spotted a bald eagle! Is this unusual? Aren’t they endangered?
- While bald eagles are still officially listed as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act, the number of bald eagles nationally has increased from approximately 500 breeding pairs in 1967 to an estimated 7,000 breeding pairs today. A TPWD aerial nest check in the spring of 2005 found 160 active nests out of 188 nesting territories surveyed. Says Shackelford: “If you are near a lake in Texas, you will most likely see a bald eagle. They are not un-common; the numbers are continually on the rise. They’re here and they’re here in great numbers.” Though bald eagles are no longer un-usual, they are still spectacular, and you should get out to see one if you can.
- 2: I’ve got a bird in my yard that has become a nuisance. Can you come and take it away?
- Many people call regarding birds that have become pests: a mockingbird that sings loudly all night long, an owl that is threatening pets, a Carolina wren nesting in the eaves, etc. TPWD is not in the business of removing birds, nor do we recommend methods of ridding an area of a bird. “We do not move birds,” says Shackelford. “If there is an owl threatening your cat, keep it in the house. If there is a loud mockingbird outside your bedroom, shut the window. Just like with any other perceived bad neighbor, we’ve got to figure out ways to make peace and even learn to appreciate their contributions. The raptors work hard to eliminate the rodent population. The mockingbirds eat the bugs. I hope people can appreciate that.” Shackelford also points out that the law protects all native birds, so meddling with them or their nests is illegal.
- 3: How can I attract birds to my yard?
- Birds, like other wild creatures, need three things: food, water and shelter. While feeders are nice and will probably bring in a few birds, the best way to attract birds is to create a backyard habitat or wildscape your yard. “If you’ve got a yard that looks like a manicured golf course in Central Texas, for example, you’re only going to attract grackles and white-winged doves,” says Shackelford.
A yard needs a diversity of plants, feeders and cover in order to attract a variety of wildlife. A yard planted with multiple layers of native plants will act as a veritable buffet for an amazing array of birds by providing essential butterflies, berries, bugs and lizards for the birds to feast upon. Nesting boxes, such as a screech owl box or bluebird box, will provide a necessary dwelling place for a wide variety of birds and will give you an opportunity for daily viewing of your yard birds. Adding a water feature such as a pond for the birds to bathe in and drink from will also go a long way to attracting birds to your yard. Even apartment balconies and patios can be effectively wildscaped with potted plants and water features. Before you know it, painted buntings, hummingbirds and songbirds galore will be flocking to your own backyard.
In our own yard, in a treed but very urban setting, the water drip — a small plastic tube hooked up to a spigot and set to drip — has attracted a medley of birds, including dozens of different migrating species. Each spring we can practically count on the many warblers and tanagers and grosbeaks that stop in for a drink or a bath before continuing on their lengthy journey. Bathing birds provide us with great views that we surely would not get otherwise.
- 4: Can I shoot a bird that is eating my pets?
- This could be a hungry heron at a koi goldfish pond or a hawk at a chicken coop. Either way the answer is no; it is illegal to kill a native species. “If you’ve got free-roaming chickens, or goldfish in a pond, it’s like leaving the pantry door open when a hungry crowd is around,” says Shackelford. Putting the chickens in a coop or putting a screen over the pond is about the only way to stop the birds from feasting on your animals.
- 5: I saw an unusual bird at my feeder. Can you identify it?
- In this case a picture really is worth a thousand words. Shackelford says he won’t even attempt identification without a photograph. “Imagine trying to identify an actor someone describes as tall, dark and handsome. That could be so many different people. The same applies to birds. I just can’t do it.” Shackelford recommends doing a little birding homework. “Learning to identify field marks, searching the Internet or accessing a good field guide will go a long way in learning to identify birds on your own.”
- 6: Birds have been dive-bombing me at my front door. What can I do? Am I in danger? Are my kids in danger?
- Most likely what you’ve encountered is a barn swallow or a mockingbird that has built a nest nearby. Shackelford recommends using an alternate door for a few weeks if at all possible. “These birds are simply trying to protect their nest. If we can, we should give them a little room and let them be good parents.” Usually it is only between two to three weeks before the young fledge the nest, so Shackelford recommends just waiting it out if you can. In return for our patience, the birds will help us by eliminating pesky insects around our homes.
- 7: What can I do to protect a nest in a tree that’s about to be cut down?
- This call comes in quite frequently in developing areas. Most city codes require permits on trees of a certain size. With the exception of European starlings, English sparrows and feral rock doves, all native bird nests are protected by state law, but realistically, few real estate development projects are ever halted due to the presence of a cardinal nest. Migratory bird nests are protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act; red-cockaded woodpecker and bald eagle nests are protected by the Endangered Species Act. If you can see that a nest is active, try recommending that cutting be postponed. Otherwise count on the power of nature to help the birds relocate.
- 8: I saw an albino bird. Do you want to come and get it for research’s sake?
- Albinism in birds is not at all uncommon. Watch it as a curiosity, but there is no need to alert the authorities. Again, it should be noted that TPWD is not in the business of coming to get birds.
- 9: There are dozens of domestic fowl on my pond. What can I do?
- There are many ducks and geese in Texas that are not native species but rather offspring of somebody’s long-ago domestic pet. If you have domestic fowl on your property, the only solution is to call a private pest control company to help you deal with the problem.
- 10: I found a baby bird that seems to have been abandoned by its parents. What should I do?
- Though a baby bird or a nest appears abandoned, that very well may not be the case. Often the babies are not abandoned but instead being watched from afar. For example, adult blue jays watch their recently fledged young from a nearby branch. Shackelford advises leaving the birds alone. “Rehabbers are overtaxed as it is, and what is intended as well-meaning is actually detrimental to the bird.” Human interaction ends up being more of a kidnapping than a rescue, which is disruptive to the wildlife and costly to wildlife rehabilitation personnel.
Empty nests that appear abandoned should also be left alone. Many birds reuse their nest year after year, while other nests, once vacated by the builder, are then used by a different species. If you find an empty nest, it is best to leave it be.
Watching birds can be an amazing and perplexing endeavor. Their activity can be one minute so predictable and another time seemingly so random. The birds waste few efforts, however, and if we watch long enough we will soon learn that each action is usually for good purpose. It is perhaps for this reason birds are so compelling: they are at once, a wonder, a beauty and a mystery to behold. By examining the birds in our yards and in our communities, we can better appreciate their contributions and understand the role they play in our own great habitats.
For more information on wildscaping your yard, visit <www.tpwd.state.tx.us/wildscapes>
To learn about birding basics and backyard bird feeding, visit <www.audubon.org>
Your local Audubon Society offers birding information pertinent to your area. Many offer tips, field trips and classes for all levels of birders. Local chapters can be found through the national chapter’s Web site listed above.