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Fifty Common Birds of the Upper Midwest

Dana Gardner, Nancy Overcott

Publication Year: 2006

No bird is common, if we use “common” to mean ordinary. But birds that are seen more commonly than others can seem less noteworthy than species that are rarely glimpsed. In this gathering of essays and illustrations celebrating fifty of the most common birds of the Upper Midwest, illustrator Dana Gardner and writer Nancy Overcott encourage us to take a closer look at these familiar birds with renewed appreciation for their not-so-ordinary beauty and lifeways. Beginning with the garishly colored male and the more gently colored female wood duck, whose tree cavity nest serves as a launching pad for ducklings in the summer months, and ending on a bright yellow note with the American goldfinch, whose cheerful presence enlivens the midwestern landscape all year long, Overcott combines field observations drawn from her twenty-plus years of living and birding in Minnesota's Big Woods with anecdotes and data from other ornithologists to portray each species' life cycle, its vocalizations and appearance, and its habitat, food, and foraging methods as well as migration patterns and distribution. Infused with a dedication to conserving natural resources, her succinct yet personable prose forms an ideal complement to Gardner's watercolors as this renowned illustrator of avian life worldwide revisits the birds of his childhood. Together art and text ensure that the wild turkey, great blue heron, sharp-shinned hawk, barred owl, pileated woodpecker, house wren, ovenbird, field sparrow, rose-breasted grosbeak, red-winged blackbird, and forty other species of the Upper Midwest are never seen as common again.

Published by: University of Iowa Press


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pp. ix-x

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pp. xi-xiv

Whenever we think we have nothing more to learn about the black-capped chickadee, it surprises us with a new acrobatic trick. A blue jay fixes its eyes on the vertical peanut butter log, tries several times to land on it, and finally succeeds in exhibiting a new skill. A cardinal, whose behaviors we think we know well, astonishes us when he pokes food down the throat of a young chipping sparrow. Fifty Common Birds of the Upper Midwest is a ...

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Wood Duck: Aix sponsa

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pp. 1-2

Every spring, the squeal and splash of water as a wood duck pair rises out of the creek near my house startle me and I think, Oh yes, you’re back, I remember you. I usually don’t anticipate their arrival, which is surprising because it seems as if one should look forward to the sight of the richly, almost garishly colored male. I wonder what evolutionary trail led to its extravagant plumage. The female, in subdued tones of brown and gray, is notable ...

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Ruffed Grouse: Bonasa umbellus

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pp. 3-4

From my porch, I saw something fluttering on a log in the woods. Looking closer, I discovered a chicken-size bird with its crest and neck ruffs raised, fanning its tail and rapidly beating its wings. I felt, more than heard, the low accelerating drumming sound, like the beating of a heart, coming from the wings of the ruffed grouse. I hear the sound daily in spring, but this was the first time I had caught the bird in the act. ...

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Wild Turkey: Meleagris gallopavo

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pp. 5-6

Wild turkeys inhabit forests with oak trees and clearings, where they eat primarily plant materials, particularly acorns, but also some insects and small vertebrates. The trees of my forest are oak, maple, and basswood with lesser numbers of other hardwoods. On the south side of my house is a natural clearing. It is spring. I wake to the sound of gobbling and look out on the clearing to see a male turkey, its red wattles swollen, feathers puffed, ...

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Great Blue Heron: Ardea herodias

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pp. 7-8

During one of the most difficult times in my life, I was also discovering life along the South Fork of the Root River, which flows through my woods. I had a favorite log where I sat and watched rippling shadows reflected on branches above the creek, shadows of water striders and trout in the water below, and muskrats that appeared if I was quiet enough. By focusing on the details of my surroundings, I was able to forget the plaguing ...

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Turkey Vulture: Cathartes aura

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pp. 9-10

Like a gigantic dark butterfly, the vulture rocks back and forth as it floats in the sky holding its wings above its body. A dozen vultures rocking low over woods or fields tells me the birds have found something dead. These birds locate carrion by sight, by watching the actions of other vultures, and through their well-developed sense of smell, rare in the avian world. Efficient scavengers, they quickly dispose of dead animals and their potential ...

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Bald Eagle: Haliaeetus leucocephalus

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pp. 11-12

A mature bald eagle, with its white head and tail, is easy to recognize. The first time I ever saw one was in the fall of 1984 while driving with friends along the Mississippi River in northern Iowa. There we found an eagle perched in a tree. It could have been a huge photograph of our national emblem until it turned its regal head and looked down on us. No one spoke. Words were neither necessary nor sufficient. Now, I see this once endangered ...

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Sharp-shinned Hawk: Accipiter striatus

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pp. 13-14

One day, I looked up just in time to see a sharp-shinned hawk speeding toward me down one of my woodland trails. I ducked as the bird approached and gracefully detoured over my head. Its short, rounded wings and long tail enable easy maneuvering through mixed or coniferous forests, where its primary prey are birds from the smallest sparrows to robins, which nearly equal it in size. ...

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Red-tailed Hawk: Buteo jamaicensis

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pp. 15-16

Whenever I see a large, heavy-bodied hawk with broad wings and a short, fanned tail soaring overhead, I know it is a member of the Buteo genus. I immediately look for the markings of a red-tailed hawk. As the most widespread and familiar large hawk in the country, it provides a reference for comparison of all the other Buteos. The proportions and markings of this species, however, are extremely variable, making ...

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American Kestral: Falco sparverius

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pp. 17-18

People often tell me self-righteously that they don’t need to identify birds by name in order to enjoy them. But, oh what you miss if you don’t know what is possible. Before we became birdwatchers, my husband and I always paid attention to the birds of prey we saw. We knew about the peregrine falcon and hoped to see one someday. We did not know about the small falcon that we could see any time of year perched on power lines in ...

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Killdeer: Charadrius vociferus

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pp. 19-20

An early migrant, the first killdeer of spring arrives in late February, singing its name as it flies over the upland areas around my woods. The killdeer is a member of the plover family, one of several shorebird families, which usually live near water. This species is also found in fields far from water. I have never seen this bird in the woods, but once I hear it, I know I will be able to find it a short distance away in a farmer’s field. ...

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American Woodcock: Scolopax minor

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pp. 21-22

The American woodcock, also known as night partridge, timber doodle, and big-eyes, is a member of the sandpiper family but, unlike most sandpipers, it is nocturnal, secretive, and solitary and resides in forest thickets, fields, and brushy swamps instead of on mudflats and ocean shores. Its eyes are set far back in its head, allowing the bird to watch for danger even with its bill deep in the dirt probing for earthworms, which it may goad into ...

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Mourning Dove: Zenaida macroura

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pp. 23-24

Most of us have woken at one time or another to the plaintive cooing of the mourning dove. We have known this bird from childhood whether we are birdwatchers or not. It is present during the breeding season in all the states and year round in all but the far north. One can see it in any kind of semi-open habitat—farms, towns, open woods, roadsides, prairies, and deserts. Mourning doves thrive in habitat altered by humans, and ...

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Black-billed Cuckoo: Coccyzus erythropthalmus

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pp. 25-26

One day, early in my birding career, I glimpsed a strange-looking bird slipping furtively through dense brush near my house. It looked larger but more slender than a robin, had a long tail, and was brownish above, whitish below. I couldn’t imagine what it was, so I began methodically paging through my field guide. When I came to the cuckoos, I immediately recognized the mystery bird. At that time, all I knew about cuckoos was that they ...

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Eastern Screech-Owl: Otus asio

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pp. 27-28

A wavering whinny permeates the woods in the middle of the night. The sound seems to come from a larger entity than the little screech-owl, which is even smaller than a cardinal. A long musical trill usually accompanies the whinny. Screech-owls primarily inhabit deciduous woods but will reside in almost any area that has some open ground and large trees, including city parks. One Halloween night, I saw a screech-owl perched like a statue ...

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Barred Owl: Strix varia

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pp. 29-30

When I left the city for the country, I couldn’t sleep at first because the woods were so quiet. Then one night, as I lay awake in the silence, a humanlike scream followed by a demonic cackling pierced the air, striking something primitive in me that made me forget to breathe. The next morning, I found no dead bodies or evidence of a struggle. A few nights later, I heard the same sounds preceded by the typical who cooks for you? hooting of ...

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Whip-poor-will: Caprimulgus vociferus

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pp. 31-32

On spring and summer evenings in leafy woodlands from the East Coast to Minnesota and south, the whip-poor-will sings its name up to 1,000 times without a break. In his journal entry of June 19, 1912, Johan Hvoslef wrote, “It was really a solemn ride we had through the dense dark woods below Skrukkerud with all the Antrostomus [old genus name for whip-poor-will] offering up their weird notes to the spirits of the evening—or ...

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Ruby-throated Hummingbird: Archilochus colubris

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pp. 33-34

One day when I was hiking along Shattuck Creek in a narrow, wooded valley near my home, a ruby-throated hummingbird whirred by on her way to a patch of grayish-green lichen on a horizontal branch overlooking the water. I would never have recognized the patch as a nest if I hadn’t seen the bird settle into its tiny bowl, a bowl built to stretch like a womb as babies grow. She alone had created this small wonder from plant down, fiber, ...

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Belted Kingfisher: Ceryle alcyon

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pp. 35-36

A distinctive loud rattle along the South Fork of the Root River alerts me to the presence of a belted kingfisher. I watch as she flies downstream, making a wide detour around the place where I stand. She lands, still rattling, on a branch overlooking the water. I notice the raised crest of her large head and the blue and rufous bands across her breast, which tell me she is a female. The male has only a blue band. If I am lucky, I will see her plunge ...

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Red-bellied Woodpecker: Melanerpes carolinus

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pp. 37-38

The throaty chuck, chuck, chuck of the red-bellied woodpecker is ubiquitous yet wild and primitive, a surrogate voice of the forest, as though the trees themselves are laughing. Its boisterous, undulating flight speaks for the energy of the woods, as though the trees themselves are flying. Divisions in nature are not always as distinct as we perceive them. The red-belly’s symbiotic ...

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Downy Woodpecker: Picoides pubescens

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pp. 39-40

Also called Tommy woodpecker and black and white driller, the downy is our smallest and most widespread woodpecker, residing year round throughout the country except for the far Southwest. It is present in the deciduous trees of wilderness forests, second-growth woods, small woodlots, orchards, and shady neighborhoods of large cities. I find up to a dozen of these agile, acrobatic birds around my feeders every day, except during ...

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Northern Flicker: Colaptes auratus

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pp. 41-42

Except for the crow-size pileated woodpecker, the northern flicker, also known as yellowhammer, yarrup, and hairy wicket, is our largest woodpecker. Because of its large size and full body, I sometimes mistake it for a small hawk, especially since it often perches upright instead of clinging to trunks of trees. But it is not averse to tree climbing and has the same specialized equipment for this activity as other woodpeckers. ...

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Pileated Woodpecker: Dryocopus pileatus

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pp. 43-44

One day many years ago, before I was a birdwatcher, I glimpsed a live cartoon character, Woody Woodpecker, while driving through the Big Woods. No one who was with me saw the bird, and I later thought I must have imagined it. Now I know it was a pileated woodpecker, the largest woodpecker in North America next to the similarly shaped ivory-bill that once inhabited much of the Southeast and was thought to be extinct until February ...

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Eastern Phoebe: Sayornis phoebe

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pp. 45-46

The eastern phoebe is an early migrant, usually arriving in my woods in late March, when snow is still on the ground. Its hoarse, insistent feebee song is a welcome sign of spring. I watch as it pumps its tail in its typical manner while perching conspicuously at the end of a branch, then flies out to catch an insect in midair. The phoebe is a member of the flycatcher family, which consists of about three hundred eighty species and is the largest ...

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Eastern Kingbird: Tyrannus tyrannus

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pp. 47-48

This flycatcher, a handsome bird with sharply contrasting black and white markings, has one touch of color, a patch of red crown feathers that are rarely visible. I have never seen this color, but others say it appears during aggression or courtship display. In courtship, the male performs a rapid up-and-down flight, does backward flips, and hovers and tumbles in midair. Mates commonly greet each other with a fluttering of wings. ...

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Red-eyed Vireo: Vireo olivaceus

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pp. 49-50

After birding for three years on my own, in 1987 I met Anne Marie Plunkett, then the great dame of Minnesota birding. Anne Marie visited me in my woods, organized the first two Christmas Bird Counts in Fillmore County, and helped me start a county bird club. I learned about vireos on my first field trip with her. Until then, I had only paged past them in field guides on my way to other birds. That day, we saw red-eyed, yellow-throated, and ...

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Blue Jay: Cyanocitta cristata

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pp. 51-52

I could watch and listen to a blue jay for hours—how it screeches into a landing, scaring all the other birds, then hops about on rubber-ball toes; how it bobs up and down by extending its legs in rhythm to its squeaky pump-handle song; how it rattles and growls and sings doodle-dee-do, or imitates the scream of a red-tailed hawk, or shouts jay! jay! to send its alarm throughout the woods and incite other birds to join in its harassment of a predator ...

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Tree Swallow: Tachycineta bicolor

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pp. 53-54

Tree swallows are the first swallows to come north in spring and the last to leave in fall. On a cold spring day, it warms my heart to watch flocks of these birds in long, flowing flights over a lake, scooping insects out of the air. Unlike the other eight species of swallows that breed in North America, tree swallows feed not only on insects captured in flight but also perch in bushes to eat seeds and berries, especially bayberries ...

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Barn Swallow: Hirundo rustica

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pp. 55-56

Almost everyone is familiar with the barn swallow. Because we are so accustomed to seeing this bird, we might not appreciate its beauty, but take a careful look at its long, deeply forked tail, dark blue back, and rich orange underparts and you can’t help but admire it. In the 1800s, the swallow’s beautiful feathers resulted in the killing of thousands of birds to make ornaments for women’s hats. In 1886, an editorial by George Bird Grinnell in Forest ...

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Black-capped Chickadee: Poecile atricapilla

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pp. 57-58

A black-capped chickadee was the very first bird to find my feeders. It snatched a seed, flew to a nearby tree, cracked the seed open, ate it, and immediately flew back to the feeder for another. Now, whenever I go to fill the feeders, a chickadee is waiting. Sometimes in its hurry for food, it alights on my hand and hops along my arm. A black and white ball of acrobatic energy, the chickadee resides year around in mixed ...

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Tufted Titmouse: Baeolophus bicolor

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pp. 59-60

We sit on my back porch, a cool breezy space on a hot humid day. My friend Carol has brought a field trip here to see a tufted titmouse. While we wait, bluebirds call nearby. They are busy feeding their young, who are almost ready to fledge. House wrens carry food to their nestlings under the house. A field sparrow sings in the distance. Finally, we hear a faint peter, peter, peter, which gradually becomes louder until the bird we have been ...

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White-breasted Nuthatch: Sitta carolinensis

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pp. 61-62

Also called tree-mouse and devil downhead, the white-breasted nuthatch, aided by its strong claws and toes, makes most of its living by climbing up and around but usually headfirst down the trunks of trees searching for insects. This bird is a common resident in deciduous woods across the country, but its appearance and vocalizations are inconspicuous enough that you might not be conscious of its presence. On a winter day, without ...

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House Wren: Troglodytes aedon

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pp. 63-64

One wall of my office has a sliding patio door that leads to a long, narrow porch where I like to sit and peer deep into the woods. Two other walls have long panes of glass, five panes on one, three on the other. Above and below the panes are small screened openings. Wooden flaps that open for ventilation cover these openings on the outside walls. One spring afternoon, I came home to find stacks of small sticks on the ledges below the ...

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Ruby-crowned Kinglet: Regulus calendula

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pp. 65-66

The male ruby-crowned kinglet, one of our smallest birds, is a round bundle of brown feathers with no apparent neck, easy to miss until he flutters chattering in your face, raising his ruby crown, as in response to a potential mate, rival, or predator. Some birds have names that don’t seem to fit, but kinglet, or Regulus, meaning petty king or little prince, fits this bird perfectly. The female is similar but lacks the ruby crown. ...

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Eastern Bluebird: Sialia sialis

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pp. 67-68

One day in early spring I felt an urgent need to clean our bluebird box and put the door back on. When I was done and walking away, something told me to turn around. I looked and there was the bluebird pair, sitting on the house. When the male sang his sweet notes, I realized that memory can do justice neither to the colors of this bird or to its song. The eastern bluebird, a member of the thrush family, is one of the best songsters in ...

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American Robin: Turdus migratorius

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pp. 69-70

Soon after we moved to the woods, my husband and I cut paths through our favorite areas and placed benches along the way. One of the benches overlooks the South Fork of the Root River. A grove of red cedar trees grows here. One day in late October as I approached the bench, I heard the sharp clucking calls of robins. I sat on the bench to watch and listen. The birds were flying erratically among the trees, tumbling to the ...

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Gray Catbird: Dumetella carolinensis

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pp. 71-72

The catbird has sometimes fooled me into thinking I’m hearing the first notes of an oriole’s song. It’s hard to listen to a catbird without believing that he enjoys singing and wants everyone within hearing distance to know what a great virtuoso he is in spite of the fact that his vocalizations consist mostly of rambling whistled or squeaky phrases randomly interrupted by the catlike mew that has given him his name. His concerts begin at ...

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Cedar Waxwing: Bombycilla cedrorum

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pp. 73-74

You hear a high, thin, whistling sound and a cedar tree comes alive with a tight flock of waxwings rising, then turning in unison, as though a single entity. It is almost impossible for me to think of these birds in the singular. Even while breeding, they will fly away from the nest to feed in a flock. Unlike most species, pair formation takes place within the flock before the birds arrive ...

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American Redstart: Setophaga ruticilla

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pp. 92-93

Flashing his orange and black colors, he flies out from a poplar tree to catch an insect in midair. The Cubans call him candilita or little candle. Soon his mate arrives. She is yellow and gray where he is orange and black. The American redstart belongs to the subfamily of wood warblers, which consists of small, multicolored insectivores that occur only in the western hemisphere. Fifty-four species breed in North America. During migration, I ...

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Ovenbird: Seiurus aurocapillus

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pp. 77-78

A friend of mine calls them wind-up birds for their emphatic, unmusical teacher, teacher, teacher song that steadily rises in volume and pitch. Ovenbirds arrive in my woods from Mexico or Central America in early May. From then on into summer, I hear them singing, mostly early and late in the day. Infrequently, I hear the evening or flight song, a rapid jumble of warbles and whistles intermingled with teacher phrases. ...

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Eastern Towhee: Pipilo erythrophthalmus

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pp. 79-80

The first time I ever heard drink your tea in the wild, I knew I was hearing an eastern towhee. I had heard the song on tapes and had been waiting to hear the real bird. To Thoreau, it sounded like hip-you, he-he-he-he, which fits even better. The name towhee also resembles the song. Another name is the chewink, which resembles a call given by both the sexes. In spring, to announce their territories, male towhees sing from high ...

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Field Sparrow: Spizella pusilla

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pp. 81-82

The field sparrow’s song, a sweet accelerating trill, fits his delicate appearance. From an exposed perch, he raises his small head, opens his pink bill, and sings from early spring through summer. His song, floating across the overgrown field near my house in the middle of a hot summer day, suggests coolness and serenity. In spite of his name, he does not inhabit wide-open grassy areas but favors brush, second-growth woods, and woodland edges from the East Coast to the Midwest. ...

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Song Sparrow: Melospiza melodia

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pp. 83-84

Most range maps show song sparrows as permanent residents in my area, but I rarely see them in winter. They return in mid March from their wintering grounds just south of here or as far south as northern Mexico. I usually hear them before I see them. Their intricate and melodious songs, for which they are aptly named, consist of two to four loud, clear whistles on the same pitch, followed by a buzzy trill and several short notes. Within this ...

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White-throated Sparrow: Zonotrichia albicollis

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pp. 85-86

On April 13, 1985, my first spring of birdwatching, the woods rang with hundreds of voices singing old Sam Peabody, Peabody, Peabody. I wasn’t there to hear it. My husband telephoned to tell me of the enchanting music and the birds he saw singing it. We wondered why we hadn’t heard the voices before. Why did it take a concentrated interest in birds to hear these songs? What else were we missing by not paying attention? Before I ....

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Northern Cardinal: Cardinalis cardinalis

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pp. 87-88

No other winter bird in my woods approaches the colorfulness of a male cardinal. His bright red plumage against new-fallen snow brings a feeling of warmth to a cold December. Once common only in the Southeast, the cardinal has been expanding north and west for more than a century. Johan Hvoslef saw it for the first time in Lanesboro in 1898. Since then, it has reached woodland edges, thickets, and gardens from the East to the ...

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Rose-breasted Grosbeak: Pheucticus ludovicianus

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pp. 89-90

Every year around May 1, the male rose-breasted grosbeak appears at my sunflower feeders as though he had never left for the winter, but in fact, he has just returned from Central or South America. At the risk of anthropomorphizing, I agree with L. Nelson Nichols, who described the grosbeak character in Birds of America, 1917: “He is seldom nervous and seldom allows trivial things to disturb him. . . . When with his young, he seems to be the ...

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Indigo Bunting: Passerina cyanea

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pp. 91-92

One day in June 1976, my husband and I began digging holes for the posts that would hold up our house. Rain poured down. Every step we took made a sucking sound as we dragged our feet out of the mud. It wasn’t an auspicious beginning, but we eventually succeeded in building a house that has been our home for more than twenty years. During our early days of building, a brilliant blue bird that looked like it belonged in the tropics ...

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Bobolink: Dolichonyx oryzivorus

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pp. 93-94

Even before I turned off my car, I could hear bobolinks singing in the meadows of the Hvoslef Wildlife Management Area, a short drive from my home. I visit these birds many times every spring, but on May 8, 2004, I was also scouting for a field trip I was to lead during the Bluff Country Bird Festival the next week. While there, I found more than fifty species and hoped they would still be present on field trip day. I wasn’t disappointed. Of ...

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Red-winged Blackbird: Agelaius phoeniceus

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pp. 95-96

On March 1, 2004, I joined my regular birding partners, Carol Schumacher and Fred Lesher, to look for birds in Minnesota and Iowa. While watching wood ducks swimming in a partially frozen marsh in Houston County, Minnesota, we heard a sound we couldn’t place—like distant farm machinery or wind rustling dry leaves. To investigate, we drove up a hill to a small grove of trees where we found more than 2,000 male red-winged ...

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Baltimore Oriole: Icterus galbula

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pp. 97-98

Spring 2003 was the coldest we had ever experienced in the Big Woods, and the insect population was almost nonexistent. The migratory birds that depend on insects as an important food source consumed more than their usual amount of seeds, suet, oranges, and sugar water at our feeders. In spite of the cold, a tropical sight met my eyes day after day when up to ten Baltimore orioles, five scarlet tanagers, a dozen rose-breasted grosbeaks ...

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American Goldfinch: Carduelis tristis

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pp. 99-100

People occasionally tell me that they are looking forward to the return of goldfinches in spring, not realizing that the olive-brown birds with black wings and buffy wingbars they see in winter are the same as the yellow birds they see in spring and summer. Goldfinches are present all year in patches of thistles and weeds and in open deciduous woods from the East to the West Coast except for the far North where they are present only during ...

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pp. 101-102

Basic Field Guides to Birds

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pp. 103-104


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E-ISBN-13: 9781587296642
E-ISBN-10: 1587296640
Print-ISBN-13: 9780877459835
Print-ISBN-10: 0877459835

Page Count: 126
Publication Year: 2006