Why is the blackbird associated with evil and ill omens?

The RavenImage by Ben Templesmith via Flickr
Why are birds with black plumage the subject of so many unpleasant stories and superstitions all over the world?

The only conclusion that I can come to is because a lot of these black colored birds are clever enough to out smart people. Crows, Grackles, and Starlings are very intelligent birds and tend to work together in family groups to get what they want and what they want is a lot of food generally.

When they go after birdseed we’ve designated for Cardinals only there is always a problem. They can empty a feeder in a day and a suet feeder in minutes. But that doesn’t mean they are any less deserving.

I wonder if they were brilliant red or indigo blue if they would be more loved or excused of their “bad habits"? Most of the black colored birds aren’t beautiful songster either, but they can learn to imitate human speech. Although that didn't help the image of the bird in Edgar Allen Poe's poem "The Raven".

Most blackbirds are also good scavengers and clean up many road kills or garbage littering the roads. In the fall you can watch them gather in large roosts. This sometimes includes millions of birds that blanket groups of trees or fly in intricate patterns across the sky.

Now that Halloween has passed lets look again at our black feathered friends and see if we can find something nice to say about the much maligned black birds.
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Create a Certified Wildlife Habitat

National Wildlife FederationImage via Wikipedia
Get Started Now: Certify Your Habitat!
Join the thousands of wildlife enthusiasts across the country who have been recognized for creating havens for neighborhood wildlife in their very own yards. These individuals have provided the essential elements for healthy and sustainable wildlife habitats and have earned the distinction of being part of National Wildlife Federation’s Certified Wildlife Habitat™ program.

When you certify with your application fee of $20, you’ll receive all these great benefits.
  • A personalized certificate that recognizes your NWF Certified Wildlife Habitat™.
  • A free NWF membership which includes a full year’s subscription to the award-winning National Wildlife® magazine.
  • A free subscription to the quarterly e-newsletter, Habitats, full of insightful tips and information on gardening and attracting wildlife year after year.
  • Your name listed in NWF’s National registry of certified habitats…to recognize all you’ve done for wildlife.
  • And, once you complete your application, you’ll be eligible to purchase the “wildly” popular Certified Wildlife Habitat™ yard sign that shows your commitment to conserving wildlife.
All you need to do is provide elements from each of the following areas:
  • Food Sources: Native plants, seeds, fruits, nuts, berries, nectar
  • Water Sources: Birdbath, pond, water garden, stream
  • Places for Cover: Thicket, rockpile, birdhouse
  • Places to Raise Young: Dense shrubs, vegetation, nesting box, pond
  • Sustainable Gardening: Mulch, compost, rain garden, chemical-free fertilizer
Click HERE for more information. You can also get certification as a gift for someone else.
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Umbrella Tree

'Yellow Since 1877', Wapping WallImage by Loz Flowers via Flickr
Fall storms are here.
Sunny to gray all in one day.
You got to love mid-Michigan weather!

Sam Spenser's 'Bloom' at the wapping project.

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Did you notice a lot of birds at the feeder before the storm hit?

Before the storm rolled through mid-Michigan on Tuesday I noticed the birds' frenzied attack on the food in the feeders. Could they predict that tornado-like winds were about to hit?

Most birds have a special middle-ear receptor called the Vitali organ, which can sense incredibly small changes in barometric pressure. So if the activity at feeders suddenly becomes much more intense a storm may be approaching. Birds flying low or lining up on power lines also indicate swiftly falling air pressure.

The small birds like chickadees fly as little as possible and try to wait out storms in patches of dense vegetation or roosting boxes that give protection. And they appreciate feeders.

During storms birds may think of your feeder as a known source of food. While not dependent on feeders, birds don't feel like foraging for food in bad weather. Feeders make it easier for wild birds to brave a storm.

Today even though the storms are gone the high winds make flying difficult. I’m watching some birds that seem to be flying in place, while other birds like the Blue Jays seem to be able to navigate and take advantage of the wind. They zoom in at the feeder like a bullet.

I love when the wind blows but know it is hard on the birds, so I keep the feeders full. If they can navigate it to the feeder, they deserve a good meal.

American Robin with White Feathers

If you look at the range map you’ll see that there are winter populations of America Robins  in most states year round. Yes, year round. Robins are surprisingly hardy birds, capable of surviving temperatures well below zero. But that doesn’t mean sightings are common year round.

After nesting season has ended, they usually form large nomadic groups that roost at night in the woods. Their diet changes from mostly worms and insects to fruit, nuts and berries. I’ve seen them devouring our crab apples, Mountain Ash tree berries, and sometimes under my feeders looking for nuts. They also appreciate open water in the fall and winter. If you have a pond or heated birdbath they may show up for afternoon drinks.

Sunday my cats and I were excited to watch a flock of 6 robins all bathing together in the pond. Spish, splash, they were taking a bath and causing a lot of excitement in our house. As pleased as I was watching the pond action, I was even more excited to see a couple robins out in the lawn. One was a beautiful, dark red-breasted robin, but the other was a little different. Is that white?

It was way in the back of the yard so I extended the zoom to take some candid shots of a leucistic American Robin. I talked about leucism in an earlier blog. Click HERE to read more. And below is a short video.
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Our Fifth New Species for the Year

18-24 October

As I made my way out to Wing Island along the boardwalk this week, I was greeted by clouds of robins ascending from the island to the skies. It certainly seems to be a good roost site, with loads of berries for an early morning breakfast before heading off. Surprisingly we only captured one robin this week among the hundreds that utilize this area.

Banding occured Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Sunday. The front that passed through left high winds and cold temps, not a good combination for banding so Friday and Saturday were out. Yellowrumps continue to dominate our nets. Thankfully they have to be the easiest bird to remove. Downright passive about the whole thing. It isn't unusual for all birds found in a net to be yellowrumps at this time of year traveling in large groups. We call them MYWA's, since we go by the subspecies Myrtle Warbler.

Normally I'm banding MYWA's very quickly. Ageing and sexing them is fairly easy and are probably out of my hands in 20 seconds. The bird pictured above gave me pause however, when I noticed an abnormality on its hallux, or rear toe.

The entire toenail was encased in this hard substance. I don't know if it was an abnormality in the keratin of the nail or some kind of parasite. Then I noticed it was present on the left hallux also.

Any ideas? Seemed different than a pox or scaly leg. I didn't try to remove it for fear of causing bleeding.

Next to MYWA's, we've  had abnormally high numbers of Golden-crowned Kinglets and chickadees this week. Over the past 10 years our average number of banded golden-crowns is 13. We have already banded 77 this year and our season still has another month to go. Ruby-crowned Kinglets (below) aren't as numerous this year and while we've banded quite a few (27), numbers are comparable with past years.

Chickadees are another story! Ten chickadees in this net, ten in the next net, has been the norm this week as we silently curse under our breath. Don't get me wrong, we love our chickadees, but they are the opposite of MYWA's removing from a net. They bite and clench with their feet making it a lot harder on themselves. Some of these chickadees must be migratory. I'm finding many loading up with fat. Nothing beats the weekend in Oct, 2001 at Braddock Bay Observatory in New York. I was there for 3 days being examined for my Bander Certification test. Occasionally they experience a huge migration of chickadees making their way over Lake Ontario.  And that's just what happened. We banded over 300 chickadees one day and over 400 the next. Thank goodness there were lots of us there to process these birds. And thankfully I passed my test! Here's a chickadee about to give me a final bite before being released.

Hopefully this bird is not one migrating elsewhere since the tail was so worn many feathers were half the size. It may have experienced some nutritional difficulties while the tail was growing in producing feathers of poor quality. The one good feather (r4 on the left side) was probably replaced.

We captured only 2 Blackpoll Warblers on Monday and Tuesday, most have gone through. Considered one of our confusing fall warblers, Blackpolls can resemble Bay-breasted and Pine Warblers in the fall.

Unlike Bay-breasted Warblers who have black feet, Blackpolls feet are yellow.

Pine Warblers have clean backs, while the backs of Blackpolls are streaked.

Our first Blue-headed Vireo of the fall season arrived on Tuesday

along with a new species for our station, a Grasshopper Sparrow!

Notice the bold, heavy white eye ring and the yellow feathers at the bend of the wing.

 I thought the feather combination on the back was so beautiful.

On Sunday, we had our biggest day all year with 225 birds captured, the majority being MYWA's of course. In the mix was a rather late hatch year Common Yellowthroat of unknown sex 

and this female Red-breasted Nuthatch.

I was unable to age her, but sexing was easy as the grayish-blue crown blended in nicely with the same back color. Males have black crowns.

I stayed later on Sunday than the others opting to keep a few nets open. As I did the last round I was rewarded with the best bird of the day, a hatch year male Sharp-shinned Hawk, our first for this fall season. They rarely bite, but we must make sure we always have control of their talons. It can be quite painful if they get a hold of you with their feet.

He kept a close eye on me turning his head almost all the way around as I took a picture of his back.  

As always, thanks very much to following people for assisting me at the banding station this week: Mary Bassing, Jo-Anna Ghadban, Judy Keller, and Carolyn Kennedy.
The following birds were seen, heard, or captured between 18-24 October. Numbers reflect captured birds only.

Total Birds: 601                    Total Species: 51

Total Banded Species: 23      Birds/100 net-hours: 138

Double-crested Cormorant

Great Blue Heron


Turkey Vulture

Northern Harrier

Sharp-shinned Hawk- 1

Cooper's Hawk

Red-tailed Hawk

Black-bellied Plover


Greater Yellowlegs

American Woodcock

Ring-billed Gull

Herring Gull

Great Black-backed Gull

Mourning Dove

Great Horned Owl

Belted Kingfisher

Downy Woodpecker

Yellow-shafted Flicker

Tree Swallow

Blue Jay

American Crow

Fish Crow

Black-capped Chickadee- 93

Tufted Titmouse- 4

Red-breasted Nuthatch- 1

White-breasted Nuthatch

Brown Creeper- 1

Carolina Wren- 2

Golden-crowned Kinglet- 44

Ruby-crowned Kinglet- 6

Eastern Bluebird

Hermit Thrush- 3

American Robin- 1

Gray Catbird- 4

Cedar Waxwing

European Starling

Blue-headed Vireo- 1

Red-eyed Vireo- 1

Myrtle (Yellow-rumped) Warbler- 369

Blackpoll Warbler- 2

Common Yellowthroat- 1

Northern Cardinal- 8

Grasshopper Sparrow- 1

Song Sparrow- 43

Swamp Sparrow- 9

White-throated Sparrow- 1

Dark-eyed Junco- 3

Red-winged Blackbird

American Goldfinch- 2

House Sparrow

Crows: Are they Feathered Apes?

An American Crow (Corvus brachyrhynchos), take...Image via WikipediaAs Halloween approaches you may be seeing fake crows used as decorations in frightful displays. But even though cultures around the world may regard the crow as a bad omen or a nuisance, this bad reputation might overshadow what could be regarded as the crow’s most striking characteristic – its intelligence.

In recent studies researchers have found that the birds can recognize individual human faces that pose a threat out of thousands of people. Dr. John Marzluff a wildlife biologist at the University of Washington did the first formal study of human face recognition in wild birds by asking the people banding crows to wear rubber "bad men" masks.

American crow -- Corvus brachyrhynchos Martine...Image via WikipediaAfter the birds were banded and released back on campus, volunteers walked around with the masks on and recorded the crows’ reactions in the following months. The birds did not forget and were very vocal about the supposed “bad men”. In fact the effect not only persisted, but has multiplied over the past two years. Dr. Marzluff found the “bad men” were scolded by many more crows than had experienced the initial trapping. The researchers hypothesize that crows learned the face of the “bad men” and spread the word through the flock.

Dr. Marzluff believes that this ability gives crows and their brethren an evolutionary edge. “If you can learn who to avoid and who to seek out, that’s a lot easier than continually getting hurt,” Dr. Marzluff said. “I think it allows these animals to survive with us — and take advantage of us — in a much safer, more effective way.”

If you missed Nature last night, it was all about crows' intellegence and humans' increased interest in studing them. You can watch PBS's Nature: A Murder of Crows below.

Watch the full episode. See more Nature.

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What says eh-eh, yank-yank?

Trick question. It's a conversation between Dolly and a Red-breasted Nuthatch. Dolly is behind the window of course.

The first thing new customers say when they walk in the door of the Wild Birds Unlimited-East Lansing store is, "Isn't it ironic to have cats in a bird store?" I usually respond that we're all bird lovers here. And that's true.

Dolly alerted me that the first Red-breasted Nuthatch of the season had arrived! I joined Dolly at the window and we counted at least four nuthatches in the tree looking for pinecone seeds and yank-yanking it up. Most woodpeckers and nuthaches have a call that sort of sounds like they are laughing. Click HERE to play a recording of a nuthach.

Red Breasted Nuthatch/Sitta CanadensisImage via WikipediaAdult Red-breasted Nuthatches have gray backs with rust-colored breasts. But the first thing I notice are the black caps and white stripes above the eyes. Females are less colorful, with a more washed-out rust color on the belly.

As they move along the trunks and branches of trees, nuthatches glean bugs such as beetles, pine woodborers, and spiders. In the fall and winter, they like the seeds of fir, pine, and spruce trees, and are also common visitors at nut, sunflower, mealworm, and suet feeders.

In mid-Michigan we usually only see the red-breasted in the winter unlike the White-breasted Nuthatch which is common year-round.  

So keep your eyes and ears open for these darling little birds. They are built to walk any direction with greatly enlarged hind toes and a short tail.

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What Bird is Showing that Flash of White on its Tail?

I'm watching the Rose of Sharon bush in the backyard. The blooms are gone and so are my hummingbirds that used to fight over that bush. But there are some new birds out there bouncing back and forth among the branches. They're flashing distinctive white outer tail feathers.

Wait a minute my brain is slowly making connections...Juncos! Hello juncos, it's been awhile since I last saw you in mid-Michigan. Oh my, it's a nice flock this year.

Did you know that up to 70% of Juncos wintering in the southern U.S. are females? The juncos we see all winter in the Lansing area are typically males. They risk wintering in the northern states in order to be the first ones back in the spring to their breeding territory in the upper Michigan and Canadian.
Dark-eyed Junco (Junco hyemalis) Great Backyar...Image by Stephen Little via Flickr
The Dark-eyed Junco Junco hyemalis is a medium-sized sparrow with dark gray plumage on its head, breast and upper parts which contrast with the white, outer tail and white belly. The female and immature juncos are less slate colored and tend to be browner than the adult male.

They are often called “Snowbirds,” possibly due to the fact that they are more likely to visit feeding stations during snowy periods. Many people also believe their return from their northern breeding grounds foretells the return of cold and snowy weather. Another possible source of the nickname may be the white belly plumage and slate-colored back of the Junco, which has been described as “leaden skies above, snow below.”

Whatever the name you are welcome to join the rest of my hardy crew of birds that decided mid-Michigan was the best place to stay all winter. My feeders are clean and I just filled them with WBU No-Mess. Bon App├ętit!
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Do Birds Eat Only at Certain Levels?

I have a plant hanger I want to hang my new squirrel buster on. Does it need to be at a certain height to attract birds? ~Owosso, MI

Where to Place Feeders
Feeders can be placed throughout the yard at different levels to attract a variety of birds. Just remember the number one rule in feeder location is to place it where you can watch the birds easily.

Try to find a place that's sheltered from the wind and away from cats and other predators. And the closer your feeder is to the window, the less likely birds will be hurt if they mistake the clear glass as a fly through.

How Birds Find The Feeder
Birds are amazing creatures and can find new feeders several different ways just like humans find restaurants. Everyone has a friend that likes to tell you about the new "hot spot." Some birds fly in flocks and may send out a scout bird to forage for new feeding sites.

Or if you see a line around the block for a restaurant, you may get in line yourself to check out the food. Some solitary birds see a lot of birds at a feeder and go see what all the fuss is about.

What if you see the "Golden Arches" on the way home from work? You know what's inside. Most birds find their food by sight. Some birds already eat at the neighbor's house and may see your familiar feeders on the way home.

How Long Does It Take
It may be a matter of hours before birds discover new feeders or a matter of weeks. The variation depends on habitat, number of nearby feeders, and the kinds of birds in the area. Chickadees, and House Sparrows are especially quick to locate new feeders. Also if you switch feeders the birds may be cautious to try that feeder. To encourage the birds to use new feeders tempt them with scattered seeds on the ground.

Advanced Pole System
And if your plant hanger doesn't work, Wild Birds Unlimited patented Advanced Pole System (APS) is comprised of interchangeable hardware pieces, that lets you add or subtract bird feeders, birdhouses and other bird feeding accessories. It gives you the ability to create and customize your bird feeding station with over 3,000 combinations.

Good luck and enjoy the new feeder!

Sometimes Pictures are Worth a Thousand Smiles!

My nephew loves going to kindergarten. Unfortunately he caught his first school cold and had to stay home. But that didn't stop his creativity.

Poor little guy. Get well soon.

The weather is turning brrrr, cold in mid-Michigan. Yesterday a big black cloud covered the sky and blustering winds pushed me around as I carried seed out to the customers' cars. I just might have to stop using the screen door.

My cat Dolly loved the leaves that kept blowing in under the door. She'd pounce and shred any that would dare to enter the Wild Birds Unlimited store in East Lansing.

But going by the picture my niece drew, I think the turn in the weather made her think about the possibility of snow.

No, it's too soon! Let's stay above freezing until November please.

No Birds at Michigan Feeders is Unfathomable!

“There eating me out of house and home.” I hear that all the time at the Wild Birds Unlimited - East Lansing, MI store. But what I hear when people tell me that is, “I have lots of bird activity in my yard and I’m happy!”

We had Gordon Dunkley who works at the Wild Birds Unlimited – San Antonio, TX store visit us recently and he said they have no birds at their feeders at this time of year. NO BIRDS! As the seasons change, mid-Michigan switches between having a lot of birds to having a lot more birds. We never have NO BIRDS!

I asked “what do you mean NO BIRDS,” and he said sometimes where he lives there are no birds at the feeder. NO BIRDS! What would I do with no birds?

I’ve never gone a day without watching our birdfeeder hopping with birds. Not to rub it in, but NO BIRDS is just unfathomable.

Right now we are seeing an increase in activity at the feeders. Some birds from Canada and the U.P. are making mid-Michigan their winter resting place. Some Dark-eyed Juncos, Red-Breasted Nuthatches, Pine Siskins, Redpolls, Crossbills, and Snow Buntings are just a few birds seen here only during the winter. The White-throated and White-crowned Sparrows are common migrants in mid-Michigan from mid-September to mid-November.

A few other feeder birds that you will see all year as well as during the winter are the Mourning Dove, Downy Woodpecker, Red-bellied Woodpecker, Blue Jay, American Crow, Black-capped Chickadee, Tufted Titmouse, White-breasted Nuthatch, European Starling, Northern Cardinal, American Goldfinch, and of course the House Sparrow to name a few.

NO BIRDS! Unthinkable! As winter approaches Michigan, many birds change some of their eating habits and you will see an increase in traffic at your feeder. Birds that usually eat insects will visit more often to add rich, high energy foods such as fruit, nuts, seed or suet to supplement their diets.

NO BIRDS! That's impossible to understand! And don't forget just like in the summer, birds also need a source for water in the winter. When the weather turns freezing, a heater or heated birdbath can keep an open water source for birds to bathe and drink.

And thank you Gordon and Margaret for a lovely visit. Fall is a wonderful time to visit Michigan and I hope you had a nice trip.

Feeling Good About Fattening Up

As winter approaches, throw dietary caution to the wind.
We're not talking about some radical new nutritional plan. We're talking about feeding your wild birds high-calorie, high-fat foods to help them survive the winter.

Food is the most essential element to providing birds with the energy, stamina and nutrition they need during the winter months. To stay warm, birds will expend energy very quickly, some losing up to 10% of their body weight on a cold night.

An ample supply of a high-calorie food, such as suet, seed cylinders, or peanuts, is critical to a bird’s survival
Suet is a high-energy, pure-fat substance that is particularly helpful in winter when many birds have a difficult time finding the insects they would eat normally.

If you offer suet in addition to your seed, bird species, such as woodpeckers, nuthatches, chickadees, titmice are even more likely to stop by your yard and become frequent visitors.

And if you aren't offering your birds peanuts, you're truly missing out.

Peanuts are also a high-fat food that a variety of birds will eat for an energy-filled treat. In their shell or out, your birds will go crazy for peanuts.

Let Wild Birds Unlimited help you prepare your birds for the upcoming winter.

Source: WBU Nature News