Best Bird Houses

I really want to watch birds raise a family this year in a bird house. When do I put it up and do you have houses in stock? ~ Lansing, Michigan

It's never too early or too late to put up a bird house. If you listen, you’ve probably already noticed the excitement in the air. Every day the sun is rising a little earlier and the days are getting longer. Pretty soon when I wake up in the morning, I’ll be able to watch the birds outside my window sitting on the tips of branches and breaking out in song to mark their territory.

Home Tweet Home
It’s hard to believe, but a lot of the birds that winter in Michigan have already begun to scout for good nesting areas. At Wild Birds Unlimited we can help you choose a good, functional bird house that is right for where you live. Not all birds are going to use birdhouses. Depending on where you live, some birds that use houses are House sparrows, wrens, chickadees, titmice, woodpeckers, flickers, bluebirds, Tree Swallows, Purple Martins, Screech Owls, American Kestrels and Wood Ducks.

Best Nest
Just like feeders, it’s best to find a house that is designed well and easy to clean. Look for homes with an easy clean out, proper ventilation, drainage holes, untreated wood, or recycled plastic houses with the proper design. Not all birdhouses are equal. Studies show the inside dimension, the shape and the diameter of the opening determine what birds it will attract. Wild Birds Unlimited - East Lansing, Michigan store always has a wide selection of functional bird houses available.

Create Habitat
People provide bird houses or “nest boxes” because in nature most of these birds use tree hollows or old woodpeckers’ nests. But today we are quick to remove dead and decaying trees with holes because they could become dangerous and fall in storms. So we help Mother Nature by providing alternate homes.

In return the birds will do their best to decimate the bug population in your yard by stuffing their kids’ mouths. And they are also educational and entertaining to watch!

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When birds make noise, it's not always with a song

The wings of the smallest hummingbirds can reach 100 beats per second during courtship displays. As their wings slice through the air, it produces a hum. The hummingbird gets its name from this sound.

Pigeons and Mourning Doves use a wing whistlenoise to warn their flock about approaching enemies--the first example of a non-vocalized alarm call in birds. The source of the alarm noise may be a narrow outer feather on the pigeon's wing. A startled takeoff produces a faster tempo wing whistle that alerts the flock to danger.

Woodpeckers’ rigid tail and wing feathers produce a unique clacking sound in flight. No woodpecker produces a song, only calls. Most woodpeckers use drumming to communicate. You’ll hear an increase in woodpeckers banging their bill rapidly against wood, metal, or any surface that resonates, more and more as breeding season approaches. The drumming relays lots of information including the bird’s sex, health, availability, and right to a territory.

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What is the smallest hawk in North America?

I don’t see this bird very often so it’s a treat when he showed up in the tree outside my window recently. A little larger than a BlueJay, the Sharp-shinned Hawk (Accipiter striatus) looks like a mini Cooper’s Hawk.

Sharp-shinned Hawks are the smallest hawk in North America. The name Sharp-shinned comes from the long and narrow appearance of the hawk’s legs just above its toes.

Adults have blue-gray backs, with narrow, horizontal red-orange bars on the breast and red eyes. Immature sharpies are mostly brown, with coarse vertical streaks on white belly and yellow eyes. Female Sharp-shinned Hawks are about a third bigger and heavier than males. Both the adults and young have broad dark bands across their long square-tipped tails.

Due to the secretive nature of sharp-shinned hawks, little is known about their mating behavior. They have courtship flights and are presumed to be monogamous. The breeding season of sharp-shinned hawks corresponds with the time of maximum prey availability which is usually between late March and June. Ninety percent of their diet consists of smaller birds like sparrows that they hunt for in the forest but I’ve seen them  near a feeding station occasionally in the winter.

On average they have one brood per year and lay 4 to 5 white or bluish eggs per clutch. Incubation lasts about a month, and the eggs hatch within one to two days of each other. Females do most of the incubating, and males will provide food for females while they are on the nest.

After hatching, the chicks are fed in the nest for two weeks and near the nest for another 21 to 32 days. Then the juveniles are shown how to hunt.

The longest recorded lifespan for a sharp-shinned hawk is 13 years. However, most do not live longer than 3 years due to predators, hunting and collisions with cars and buildings.

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When do Northern Cardinals Nest?

I've had a steady colony of Cardinals coming to my feeder for the past six years. They live in the pines in my front yard and all spend time at the feeder in the back yard. Their number has grown from two pairs to three and now to four over these few years. Imagine my surprise that just now I looked out to see NINE pairs. I have several different feeders and they were all over them. Any thoughts? Is it nearing the time when they breed? I've always thought that once paired they stayed together - do they still group during the mating season? ~ Garden City, MI

February is the toughest month for birds to find food so that may be why you are seeing more birds at the feeders. Also most cardinals form pair bonds around February-April. Males and females that have paired up in previous seasons are often the first to pair up as the new breeding season begins, sometimes even as early as January.

When the males begin to sing they are claiming a territory. Older males usually claim their old territory while young males have to move around to find an open territory and an available mate. Extra cardinals now could also mean they are young birds looking to establish a breeding territory.

Actual nesting begins usually sometime between early April and mid-May and ends sometime between mid-July and early September depending on where you live.

Northern Cardinal Mating Rituals
Male cardinals sing to establish territories and attract mates. Females that hear singing may approach and then fly away when spotted by the male. While the male chases the female he continues to sing and spread his tail and wing feathers to give the females a good look. This may continue for several days and help the female determine the male’s health.

As the courtship continues both the male and female begin to sing duets. Cardinals can sing several different song types but during the duets they coordinate songs. Scientists think this is another way for the female to determine her potential mate’s quality.

Next the males bring tasty treats that they feed to the females. A male’s ability to forage efficiently and provide good quality food is an important consideration for a female that depends on a male to provide food for her while she is incubating eggs and later feed her babies.

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Photo Share: Singing Vole

Singing Vole (Microtus miurus) by Anne Morkill, at the Alaska Martime National Wildlife Refuge.

This species gets its common name from its warning call, a high-pitched trill, usually given from the entrance of its burrow. 

Did you miss anything on the Wild Birds Unlimited blog this week? 
Weekly Recap:

Happy Birthday Michigan: How the state got its name

On January 26, 1837, President Andrew Jackson signed a bill making Michigan the nation's 26th state. "Michigan" is believed to come from the from the French form of the Ojibwa word mishigami, meaning "great water" and referred originally to Lake Michigan itself. The Great Lakes account for one-fifth of the world's surface freshwater supply.

In 1836 a pair speculators from Lansing, New York sold land to a non-existent city in mid-Michigan known as "Biddle City." The New Yorkers arrived to discover that the plots they had purchased were located in a marsh or underwater. Some of the pioneers stayed, and developed a village in what is now Old Town Lansing a mile north of the non-existent "Biddle City."

In 1847, the legislature passed a law to locate the state capital in mid-Michigan because many were concerned about Detroit's proximity to British-controlled Canada, which had captured Detroit in the War of 1812. Unable to publicly reach a consensus because of constant political wrangling, the Michigan House of Representatives privately chose the Township of Lansing as the capitol out of frustration. The sleepy settlement of fewer than 20 people transformed quickly into the seat of state government and individual settlements began to develop along the Grand River.

State Symbols:
Bird - American Robin
Fish - Brook Trout
Reptile - Painted Turtle
Wildflower - Dwarf Lake Iris
Flower - Apple Blossom
Tree - White Pine
Stone - Petoskey Stone
Fossil - Mastodon

Fun Facts:
Michigan is simultaneously known for its cities, supported by heavy industry, and its pristine wilderness. Michigan has the largest state park and state forest system of any state. It is home to a number of areas maintained by the National Park Service with 78 state parks, 19 state recreation areas, and 6 state forests.

Michigan State University was founded in 1855 as the nation's first land-grant university and was the first institution of higher learning in the nation to teach scientific agriculture.

Michigan was the first state to provide in its Constitution for the establishment of public libraries and the first state to guarantee every child the right to tax-paid high school education.

Vernors ginger ale was created in Detroit and became the first soda pop made in the United States. In 1862, pharmacist James Vernor was trying to create a new beverage when he was called away to serve our country in the Civil War. When he returned, 4 years later, the drink he had stored in an oak case had acquired a delicious gingery flavor.

The Kellogg Company has made Battle Creek the Cereal Capital of the World. The Kellogg brothers accidentally discovered the process for producing flaked cereal products and sparked the beginning of the dry cereal industry.

The Detroit Zoo was the first zoo in America to feature cageless, open-exhibits that allowed the animals more freedom to roam.

Michigan has more than 11,000 inland lakes, more than 36,000 miles of streams and 116 lighthouses and navigational lights.

The Upper Michigan Copper Country is the largest commercial deposit of native copper in the world. Detroit is known as the car capital of the world. Alpena is the home of the world's largest cement plant. Rogers City boasts the world's largest limestone quarry. Elsie is the home of the world's largest registered Holstein dairy herd. Michigan is first in the United States production of peat and magnesium compounds and second in gypsum and iron ore. Colon is home to the world's largest manufacture of magic supplies. Grand Rapids is home to the 24-foot Leonardo da Vinci horse, called Il Gavallo, it is the largest equestrian bronze sculpture in the Western Hemisphere.

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Why are there more birds at the feeders in the summer?

I know you told me that birds don’t depend on my feeder to survive, but I was just wondering why I see the birds visit my feeder more often in the summer than the winter. To me it would seem winter would be the hardest time to find food naturally. ~ Linden, Michigan

Year-Round Feeding
Many people enjoy feeding songbirds year-round. Those that do may have noticed birds seem to frequent feeders more at certain times of the year. In fact, the most crucial time in the life of many birds may be in the early spring when seeds that occur naturally are scarcer. Unfortunately this is when a lot of people stop feeding.

I think your observation about birds utilizing feeders more in the warmer months is correct. In the spring and summer, birds are very busy. New birds are migrating up to Michigan, choosing territories, mates, and preparing to have young. Females incubating eggs on the nest take advantage of a convenient feeder for a quick bite. Later parents bring young birds to the feeder as a first step into the world. It is fascinating to watch the parents show their young how to pick up the seeds.

Some birds, like the Dark-eyed Juncos and Red-breastedNuthatches leave us in the spring while others like the warblers, orioles and the hummingbirds, are only summer residents in Michigan.

Bird-Feeding Myths
Some people believe that once you start bird feeding, it should be continued. Or that feeding your birds in the summer will make them too lazy, too dependent or keep them from migrating at the appropriate time. All of these old myths have been dispelled by modern research and observation. Bird feeding is a fun and educational hobby. Birds appreciate the food but never become dependent on your feeder unless there is a severe storm that prevents them from foraging.

Backyard bird feeding is an entertaining and educational pastime that can be enjoyed by children and adults. Thank you so much for sharing your observation.

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What seeds do wild birds eat?

Can you give a definitive answer as to what seeds wild birds will and will not eat at my feeder?

When choosing a seed blend to feed wild birds I always make sure sunflower is the first ingredient. I also like seed blends with nuts. Sunflower seed is the favorite of most seed eating birds like cardinals, finches and titmice and the peanuts will attract bug eating birds like chickadees, wrens, jays and woodpeckers.

To make the most of your birdseed budget, choose seeds that attract the birds you want to watch. The following shows the results of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service studies on food preferences of birds:

a) Black oil – Fresh oil sunflower seed is attractive to most seed eating bird species.
b) Striped – The larger shell is harder for some birds to crack but Tufted Titmice and Blue Jays prefer.
2. Peanut pieces – Are attractive to numerous species. Lots of bug or suet eating birds choose peanuts for their high protein and fat levels.
3. White Proso Millet– Is the preferred food for ground feeding birds like juncos, doves and sparrows.
4. Safflower seed– This was not included in USFWS studies but is a favorite of House Finches and is considered acceptable to most other bird species except blackbirds and starlings. (Squirrels don't seem to care for it either.)
5. Nyjer (Thistle) - Is not related to weed thistles. The high fat content and small seed shape makes it attractive to finches.
6. Cracked Corn - Eaten about one-third as often as white proso millet and attracts blackbirds.
7. Red Proso Millet– It can be used as a substitute for white proso; however, not as preferred
8. Golden (German) Millet – Is the least preferred of the millets
9. Milo (sorghum) – Large red round seed found in a lot of cheap blends. It is unattractive generally to all species. Jays, cowbirds, and grouse may eat it in Michigan. More of the western ground feeding birds might eat milo.
10. Oats - Only starlings found hulled oats attractive.
11. Wheat – Unattractive to most species.
12. Canary seed - Unattractive to most species. House Sparrows and cowbirds will eat canary seed.
13. Flax seed - Almost completely ignored.
14. Rape seed (canola seed) - Least attractive feed in the study. Quail and doves may eat.

Where to Purchase Seed
We have tons of fresh seed delivered every week to our  Wild Birds Unlimited store in East Lansing, MI. Our seed is also sifted to take out all the sticks and field debris. Wild Birds Unlimited is dedicated to offering fresh, top-quality seed. Our no-waste bird seed blends are made from 100% edible seed and have been exclusively formulated for the feeding preferences of our local birds. No cereal fillers—just fresh, high-quality seed your birds will love. We also carry a wide variety of other bird foods—suet and no-melt doughs, seed cylinders, mealworms and more.

What is your best blend?
For the East Lansing Wild Birds Unlimited store, customers’ preference by far is WBU No-Mess Blend. Our unique No-Mess Blend contains sunflower seeds, peanut pieces and white proso millet without the shells. No shells on the seeds make for a tidier feeding area, since there's nothing on the ground to clean up. Pound for pound, our No-Mess Blend offers the best value because you do not pay for the shells. The birds eat everything happily.

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Chapter 2: Forests of Ghumsar- Where Tigers once used to prowl

Continued from Chapter 1

The Day Begins

Before sun rose above the horizon, we had left for Kaliamba for a detailed bird study of the area. Bijaya bhaina was there with us for the last day of the trip. We wanted to reach pretty early so that maximum recordings could be done. I was so happy to see Gendu ready at the Guest house to guide us into the forest. A round of warm cup of tea and we were ready to venture into forest. Elephants had been there last evening also and didn’t deviate from their usual routine of creating havoc in the area. We needed to be extra careful as they had not gone that far and were having feast in the hill top just nearby the stream that Gendu had talked off the pervious morning regarding the bird watching.

Drive through the thick forests of Kaliamba

After walking nearly for 20 minutes we reached the dried stream with small pools of water here and there. I asked Tapan and Gendu to stay back so that noise could be avoided. A waiting of 10 minutes and I was gifted with a flock comprising White Rumped Shama, Black Naped Monarch Flycatcher and Great Tits. We climbed up for another 100 odd meters to try out our luck. Gendu was still apprehensive about the presence of the Elephants and a strong smell in the air was evidence of their presence nearby. He advised us that we take another road in a different direction and we obliged. On the way to a waterhole present well inside the forest, a pair of Scarlet Minivets led the way before they passed on the baton to a Red Throated Flycatcher. These forests are so rich in bird life and we had not even spend a day completely venturing in them. I can roughly estimate that at least 150-180 different type of bird species could be present in the forests of Ghumsar. Kao-kuk…Kao-kuk call of Jungle Owlet perched very high on the top of a tree attracted our attention. According to Gendu, the forests over here has a very good population of Owls or commonly known as Pecha in Odia.

A Common Iora

Female Scarlet Minivet

A Brainfever Bird

My First Recording of White Rumped Munia

We reached the waterhole deep inside the forest where Gendu had intended to take us. There were some hoof marks of a Mouse Deer near the waterhole. There are many such natural waterholes in the area which is apt for wild animals to thrive in. But because of presence of many villages in and around these forests, they are not to be seen during day time. Some times Gendu gets to see the Barking Deers and Spotted Deers near the guest house itself during the evenings. We walked in the forests for another half an hour to see if some Malabar Pied Hornbills could be recorded but they didn’t turn up. We made the exit through the Kaliamba village during the mid noon. My last avifauna recording in the area was that of a group of White Rumped Munias which normally inhabit in the grassy forest margins and nest in trees. It was also my first sighting of the particular bird species in Odisha. Since we had skipped breakfast in the morning, already we all were hungry and enquired with Gendu if something would be available in the village for eating. Gendu went to his uncle’s shop in village to fetch some mudhi ( puffed rice)and biscuits as we made our way back to the Rest House. Took some rest and made notes at the Rest House itself. Gendu was back after 15 minutes and everyone relished the Mudhi with Pickles. After getting some life back we decided to rest for couple of hours and then go to Bhanjanagar.

A Waterhole inside the forest that is frequented by Wild animals

Malabar Giant Squirrel

I climbed up the Tree House on the Banyan tree and had a look at the whole compound. There was absolute silence in the area except for occasional calls of the Indian Giant Squirrel hopping from one branch to other of the Giant Banyan Tree. The century old tree and the Rest House were reminiscent of the past glory of Ghumsar and stand equally strong with a hope that the forests and it's wildlife will be able to survive in future also. Sitting in the tree house , I could hear the Old Banyan Tree and the Forest Guest House talking to each other.

Old Banyan Tree (OBT) : I saw the elephants led by Mangu Sardar, the tusker come yesterday and try to barge into your boundary. I think you were hurt by their action.

Forest Rest House( FRH): Dear friend, I am not hurt. Mangu Sardar was angry because his group wanted to feast on the farmlands of the Kaliamba villagers and they hurled crackers at them. That is the reason he came here to feast on the coconut trees. He is basically a good guy. I have seen him grow up from a toddler to the giant tusker that he is now. But he has become erratic and tempered after his parents were killed by poachers who had come from some far off place. Hiding behind the bush and crying alone, he had seen the men take away his father’s tusks. He sees every human being as his enemy from that day.

OBT: Oh I didn’t know about his past. Poor fellow. Next time he comes in, I will try to make him understand. He is a good living being by nature and is also compassionate. Children love him so much and often are among the first drawings that they draw in their note books.

FRH: Today, I heard Gendu telling someone over phone that couple of forest officials will be coming in the afternoon for some work and they will be staying here.

OBT: Hmmm. But you know that they will not be staying in the night. There are some people in green uniform with guns and red flags in hand moving in the area trying to threaten all forest officials. Also, I heard that they killed some poor forest guard in a forest called Sunabeda in Western part of our state to show their strength.

FRH: You remember those days when Tourists and Nature lovers used to come and stay overnight. They used to have so much fun. I used to envy you because they used to go gaga over the Tree House that you have. I used to be alone in the evenings along with my caretaker and drivers who used to prepare dinner in my backyard over earthen choolah. I used to love the warmth of the fire that they used to cook food over. There was so much life around.

OBT: Oohhh. So nostalgic. I feel like crying my heart out. Visitors would climb up the tree house and play cards over a round of Scotch. Whole tree house used to look brighter with kerosene lanterns. Talks of Wild animals and forests of Ghumsar used to take place. They often would mention about a place called Similipal and its Tigers in their talks. But I used to get happy when our Forest sahebs would also talk about our Tigers, our very own Ghumsar Tigers.
Brother, do you recall about our very own Mahabala, the Royal Bengal tiger of Ragada area who used to roam in the night near the hill behind you. Couple of times, he had also entered your boundary when everybody used to get asleep. He was so good looking and so royal but could not father any baby tigers as there was not a single perfect match for the poor Tiger in the whole area. All female tigresses had vanished because forests had reduced and there was hardly any food left for the Tigers. Mahabala died of old age without passing on his royal genes to the next generations. The last Tiger in whole Ghumsar area, Mahabala’s cousin living in the Tarsingi area was pelted with stones for an hour before being shot dead. Poor fellow was defamed as a Man eater whereas truth is that he was hell afraid of them. He used to run away seeing human beings.

FRH: But I suppose this is not new. I have heard our sahebs discussing that all tigers in India are facing the same fate. But do you know my dear friend that we have survived for more than 100 years. There are some people like our Sahebs still left who are doing their bit to save harmless animals and forests. By God’s grace and by the efforts of some good hearted human beings, we will be able to survive and so will many dear friends like you who are there in our forests of Ghumsar. I hope one day another Mahabala returns here to bring back the happy days of Ghumsar. So don’t be sad and cheer up.

OBT: Your words have really given me hope and I am happy now. Thank you my dear FRH for being my companion for so many years.

The Tree House atop Giant Banyan Tree

Century Old Kaliamba Forest Rest House

Bijaya bhaina called me as it was already late and we were supposed to move back to Bhanjanagar. We thanked Gendu by bidding good bye and gave a last glance at the old Rest House. As we drove past the Giant Banyan Tree, I could imagine it smiling and waving to us in joy.

Chapter 1: Forests of Ghumsar- Where Tigers once used to prowl

On a winter morning of 1985, two forest guards bicycle down a road in the Ragada forests of Ghumsar North Forest Division near Bhanjanagar in South Odisha. Suddenly one of the Forest Guards, Mohanty who was riding in front stops his bicycle and other guard bangs his cycle into Mohanty’s. Mohanty had frozen with terror embarked on his face. Winter breeze blowing through the Sal laden forests could not stop Mohanty and his fellow forest guard from sweating. A big male Royal Bengal Tiger was lying on the road unperturbed by the presence of the guards. A big yawn and a fearless stare was the only reaction of the Tiger after seeing the two men trembling with fear. Another minute of silence and the King of the Jungle made a lethargic move toward the bush nearby disapproving the presence of human beings. Five-Seven years later King had vanished from the forests of Ghumsar, the last bastion of Tigers in Southern Orissa. Last Royal Bengal Tiger actually sighted (not the pugmarks on Plaster of Paris Pads) in Ghumsar was in the early 1990s.

I along with one of my dear friends Tapan drove down from Bhubaneswar in the morning and reached Bhanjanagar around 6 in the evening. A small town alongside SH 7 has its own importance from Wildlife Point of view. On the northern side are the famous Kalinga Ghat and the forests of Phulbani. On the North eastern side lies the Forests of Gasma and further north lies the Daspalla Reserve Forests, Baisipalli Sanctuary and Satkosia Gorge Sanctuary. Down South are the Forests of Sorada and discontinued connectivity with Lakhari Valley Sanctuary. All Forest Department offices like DFO Ghumsar North, DFO Ghumsar South, Conservator of Forests, Range offices and the Forest Guest Houses dot the town. Most of these offices were built by British and are still intact.Conservation activities in Bhanjanagar area were initiated pre independence era. Ghumsar North comprises of 5 Ranges namely Mujagada, Central, Tarsingi, Galeri and Jagannathprasad. DFO of Ghumsar North, Mr Bipin Behera was more than helpful to arrange for our accommodation at the Forest Guest House in Bhanjanagar. We made plans for the subsequent 2 days to trace and record various hill Birds. I was very hopeful of photographing Hill Myna (Saree) this time after missing it in Similipal. Also, I had heard that hills near Kaliamba Guest House in Central Range houses some Malabar Pied Hornbills popularly known as Kochilakhai in Odisha. With exciting prospects looking in horizon, we retired to the bed after having a filling dinner. Temperature outside the Guest House was freezing around 5 degree Celsius and warmth provided by the thickness of two blankets was the only savior for us.

Pleasure drive through Forests of Ghumsar

We were woke up sharp at 6 am by the caretaker Braja and cup of tea in his hand was god’s weapon for us to fight the severe cold that the region was facing. Braja told that Saab was waiting for us at the Department’s Nursery about couple of kilometers away on the Highway. He informed that Bijaya Dash, department’s driver has been deputed to be with us for both days as he was the best man to guide us inside the forest area. I have a big fascination for people from Ganjam area, reason being their unique way of speaking language and addition of humor in each sentence. Bijaya bhaina has never gone out of Ganjam and in-fact he has served for 26 years in the same division and knew the forests of Ghumsar on tip of his fingers. Bijaya bhaina drove us to a place called Sriramnagar just ahead of Russelkonda Reservoir on the outskirts of Bhanjanagar. While walking to a hill top, he told that the place used to have lot of carnivores earlier. But there days lesser number of carnivores meant that number of Wild Boars, Cheetals and Sambar Deers have grown up despite occasional poaching by local tribes for the purpose of consumption as food. I was surprised to hear that the ranges of Mujagada , Central and Tarsingi also boast some sporadic populations of Neel Gais and Bisons. Couple of months back, four wild boars were smashed to death by a speeding Bus on the Highway near Russelkonda.

My First recording of Rosy Minivet

Walking along the fringe of a hill, I came across a surprise beauty flocking ahead on the road. My first recording of Rosy Minivet (Pericrocotus Roseus) which is a Winter Visitor to the place from Himalayan Region. I thanked my stars and gave a big smile to Bijaya bhaina. When your day is good make the maximum use of it. Within 45 minute of walk, 17 birds were sighted notable among them being Golden Fronted Chlropsis, White Browed Bulbul, Changeable Hawk Eagle and Large Cuckoo Shrike. Area around Bhanjanagar is inhabited by a lot of White browed Bulbuls, which I concluded from my numerous recordings of the particular specie from areas around Kaliamba, Tarsingi and Mujagada during my two days of stay in the area. We did then drove up to Mujagada after stopping briefly at Sora devi temple to offer our prayers. Drive through the SH 7 in the forests of Ghumsar is absolutely a pleasure. Complete greenery on both sides of the road devoid of any traffic. Warmth of Sun on a freezing winter morning and listening to the stories of forests , we reached Mujagarh, the range headquarters. Walking inside the forest, we followed the pug marks of a young male leopard to a rocky patch where it had discontinued. These forests were once the home of Royal Bengal Tigers which now have been taken over by the Leopards. Today we are left with those stories of the King which has vanished from the region and which is on the brink of extinction in other areas. Bijaya bhaina himself has been witness to many such incidents involving the king. On a summer midnight news came to the Headquarters in Bhanjanagar that a tiger has been sighted near a forest road in Mujagada range. Immediately forest department staff rushed to the spot along with their spotlights to see a fully grown RBT with its prized hunt of a fully grown Bison. According to Bijay those were the best days of the forests of Ghumsar where Tigers used to prowl. So many times Bus drivers driving on the Bhanjanagar – Daspalla road used to sight Tigers. One such time, Bijay and Mr Banerjee ( the then Range officer of Tarsingi had followed a RBT on the road for almost 15 minutes before it vanished into the nearby Sal Forests. According to Bijay, that has been his best sighting of a RBT till date.

White Browed Bulbul

A Indian Grey Hornbill

A Changeable Hawk Eagle

Black Headed Oriole

We came back to Mujagad to have breakfast. Staying in other states, I always miss the steaming ghuguni and udad dal wada , the integral part of any roadside breakfast counter in Odisha. Gulping down the breakfast in such a ramshackle place is what I always love doing. Within couple of hours I had developed a camaraderie with Bijay bhaina. He had so many stories to tell us and like a child I requested him to tell us all of them in the evening at the Guest House. After finishing the breakfast, we decided to drive down to Kaliamba area.

Kaliamba situated about 25 kms from Bhanjanagar has a century old forest guest house amidst a picturesque setting of tall Sal trees around and a banyan tree in-front which must be older than the guest house itself. Amidst the picture perfect setting, there was some disturbing flavor. Some Coconut trees in-front of the guest house had been uprooted and the newly constructed perch damaged at one corner. I was told by Gendu, the forest guard that it was the handy work of a group of errant jumbos that has been camping behind the guest house near a waterhole inside the forest for last couple of days. Every evening they descend down the small hillock and create havoc in the paddy fields nearby Kaliamba village. He got even much more excited and took us to a nearby field of Kandhamula (Sweet Potatoes) belonging to his father in law. Whole field was devoid of a single root. “Jumbos are really clever and they can smell where the Sweet Potato roots are present. They would strike at that point precisely with their foot and get the roots uprooted”, uttered Gendu with dismay. Villagers though have not resorted to any action by elephants frequenting the place but they are in state of horror. Forest department has formed JFMs( Joint Forest Management) groups in different villages mainly comprising the youngsters. DFO and other officials regularly hold interaction with them on collaborative forest management, forest protection, timber leasing, nabbing the poachers, preventing forest fires, handling situations such as elephant havoc on villages etc. In current case, the JFM at Kaliamba has been provided with crackers, powerful spotlights and funds to keep elephants at bay but every effort seems to be very small in-front of the group which has been enjoying the feast of fresh paddy harvest and Sweet Potato plantations daily evening.

A typical Jungle Trail

As we were taking a walk through the compound, my eye fell on surprise avifauna visitor to the area, a Ultramarine Flycatcher which flies down from North to escape from the severe snowfalls and dipping mercury. We asked Gendu about the presence of birds in and around the forests. He pointed out towards a flowing stream about half a kilometer from the guest house where there might be birds in morning time and if luck was there then of course sightings of Kochilakhai may happen. Gendu prepared some tea as we searched for the numerous Malabar Giant Squirrels that are present in the area. Many of them have in-fact made the old banyan tree their home. Kaliamba village has now been electrified which is good for human beings but a bad situation for Elephants. We have to draw a fine line between development and disaster. Human settlements need to be electrified but at the same time basic precautions needs to be taken. Utter care should be taken to draw underground cables to electrify the villages. If cost is a factor then at least following two measures should be taken without any minute deviation. Firstly we cannot have electric cables drawn at a lower height, so heighted poles have to erected. Secondly the base of the poles have to be well cemented. Or else the way Elephants are getting electrocuted in other parts of State, same would keep on happening in Ghumsar also. Reports suggest that on an average, 10-15 elephant deaths happen annually in the state because of electrocution.
We decided to head back to Bhanjanagar for afternoon lunch and come next day morning for bird watching near the stream as suggested by Gendu. On the way back came across a couple of Indian Jackals who were basking in the sun perhaps after a satisfying lunch.

Indian Jackal basking in Winter Sun

On the way back through the forest road, we noted the forest on both sides mainly comprised of Sal trees with very stunted growth. Bijaya bhaina told that actually the whole area was not that green and because of conservation efforts in last 10 years, it has again regained life. All the Sal shoots have actually regenerated in this period and in next 15 years if same conservation efforts continue then they would become a wonderful patch of forest. Sometimes Bisons have been seen crossing the particular road on which we were travelling. We came across a local villager in his mid sixties and instantly stopped to have a chat. I asked him if has seen a tiger ever in his life in the area. Looking at us with little shining eyes, he nodded his head and replied “right in the place where we were standing, Tigers once used to roam freely but no more they are to be seen. Only Leopards some time.”. Later on, I came to know from an unconfirmed source that a RBT was shot on its leg by a group of villagers in early 90s on the particular road. Tiger limped away with pain to one of the nearest hillocks and growled with agony for hours. Villagers followed it to the place where it confided behind a shrub. One shot on the head and the growling and roaring sound faded into the silence of forest. Skin sold to a trader in Sorada, lucky bone sent to somebody in Berhampur and Canines converted in to lockets made their way into markets of Calcutta. I heard about the “Lucky Bone” for the first time which is basically the bones of shoulder of the Tiger that it licks before making a run towards the prey. This is a misconception that Tiger traders have easily sold to the educated high end buyers of the cities who would pay thousands to buy a simple piece of bone at the cost of a beautiful animal struggling for its survival.

Inside the reserve forest

After having a late lunch we decided to go to the forests of Tarsingi in North Ghumsar region. Anupam Banerjee, the Ranger of Tarsingi was to accompany us for the trip. Banerjee in his late fifties is a gem of person and has huge field experience. He is in-fact known for his skills of sharp shooting and hence one of the few forest officers called on assignments of tranquilizing animals when needed. Banerjee babu was very happy to know that we had come down especially to do bird photography in the forests where very few people come. He like Bijaya has spend his whole life in Ghumsar Division and took pride in passing on this fact by saying- “ agyan ethikara gacha patra bhi amaku chini chanti” meaning leaves and trees of these forests also know us very well. I knew that drive to Tarsingi situated about 35 kms from Bhanjanagar on the way to Daspalla was going to be interesting. Again we were fortunate to have company of a man who had so many interesting stories to tell and more importantly who also talked of facts of forests accurately. As we approached a road side fig tree, Banerjee babu asked the driver to stop the vehicle. He pointed out to the top of the tree where some Indian Grey Hornbills were feasting on figs. I asked, “ are these Kochilakhai common in these parts ?”. He corrected me by saying, “these are not Kochilakhai birds, rather they are Katakhai birds. Malabar Pied hornbills are called Kochilakhai and Indian Grey Hornbills are called Katakhai/ Karakhai”. Another useful piece of information on birds learnt. After another half an hour drive, we took a left turn into the forests of Tarsingi. Absolute thick and rich forests of Sal ,Arjuna, Sissoo and Asan. I am amazed by the quality of forests this region has. Whole stretch from Tarsingi to Daspalla is a contiguous strip of highly wooded low altitude hills. Absolutely rich and dense patch which harbors wide array of Flora and Fauna. These have to be saved at any cost from Timber Mafias and which perhaps is being done in Tarsingi area. But it has its own challenges. Recent news of encroachment by local villagers and indirect support of Naxals who are present in a particular part of the forests is what is going to be a major challenge for the whole administration. If Tigers have to be saved on a longer run then we need to create forests connected to each other by thick corridors. Tarisingi and Gasma forests form such a thick corridor between forests of Baisipalli, Daspalla and with that of Ghumsar. Baisipalli are the last forests of Central Odisha where Tigers are there and if proper prey base is maintained (which is a huge challenge currently) and forests made devoid of villages, who knows we may have some Tigers back in the region. I know that this is a height of optimism but hope is what pushes us ahead.
We decided to leave the vehicle and walk on a forest road to see if some birds could be clicked and recorded in the fading light. We were hopeful of recording the Hill Myna which is quite common in these forests. The forest road inside the Tarsingi forest is known as Keskenda Road which is a locally refined version of “Cox Corner road” named after the British forest officer, Mr Cox who had developed the road during pre-independence era. As we were walking down the road, a soothing whistling sound of a bird, far perched on the tree top attracted us. Unmistakably it was the Hill Myna that we were looking for. I was told by Bijaya bhaina that Hilla Mynas are sometimes sold in local haats at the cost of four hundred rupees and Parakeet at the rate of two hundred. Many traders from Calcutta visit such haats to buy the birds. We strolled for another hour in the forests before leaving for Tarsingi Range Office which was established way back in 1912 by the British Forest Officials of Ghumsar. We sat over a cup of Tea for discussion with the staff amidst setting sun. The office itself looks like a heritage site with colonial touch reflecting everywhere. With a sharp drop in temperature, we could not avoid gulping down another cup of warm tea. The whole experience of sitting along with forest officials itself is a pleasure for me and understanding the local forest issues, listening to Tiger stories and knowing about the first hand experience of field staff is a thing that I miss while being in a city. For my companion of the trip, Tapan, a banker, it was even much more exciting. He had never expected that forests in Odisha could be so beautiful.
There are not that much Leopard sighting these days is what the staff had to tell although there is a good population of Sambar Deers and Wild Boars in the area. As per the census report published in 2004, Ghumsar North with a number of 49 had the maximum number of Leopards in Orissa after Similipal, though the numbers are always debatable because of the pugmark mode of census carried out. I pestered Bijaya bhaina to share some more tales from his rich treasure of Wildlife incidents. Bijay bhaina obliged this time with a story other than Tiger. Once while driving through the Tarsingi- Bhanjanagar road during the summer of 2008, he saw a big black shining log shaped creature crossing the road. It could not be mistaken. It was a huge King Cobra almost 13-14 feet in length crossing the road in broad day light. Bijay stopped his vehicle immediately and saw the amazing scene. From the opposite side a speeding biker unaware about the crossing snake came to the point only to be taken by surprise and hence a skid was inevitable. Terrorized by the size of the snake, he ran back. Bijay came back to the office to report the sighting. These sightings only confirm the importance of ecologically rich Ghumsar.

At Tarsingi Range Office- Tapan and Bijay Bhaina

We drove back to Bhanjanagar guest hosue by 7 in the evening after a satisfying day. At the guest house, after freshening up and making notes, we met Bipin babu to inform on the days proceedings. “Did you see something?” asked the DFO. Rosy Minivet & White Browed Bulbul were the catch of the day , I informed him and with another day to go, prospects were looking exciting. We informed him about our Kaliamba plans for the next day. He immediately summoned Bijay bhaina that he should accompany us for the next day trip also. After a quite dinner in the evening, we went in for a walk in the sleepy town of Bhanjanagar. Belghar and Daringbadi about 100 kms away were reporting unusual snowfall and it had its effect on Bhanjanagar also. Most of the shops had closed by that time and few street dogs on the road were trying to huddle together along the dying embers set by road side rickshaw pullers. We came back to the Guest House and retired to the warm cozy bed after a satisfying day of work.

Chapter 2

Titmice Fun Facts

There are five species of titmice in North America: Black-crested Titmouse, Juniper Titmouse, Oak TitmouseBridled Titmouse, and Tufted Titmouse. The most widely distributed and only titmouse in mid-Michigan is the Tufted Titmouse.

Tufted Titmouse
• The Bridled Titmouse is the only North American member of its family that appears to have helpers at the nest regularly, And unlike the other titmice species, does not hide seeds for future use. The part of the brain used to store memories of hiding places is small in this species compared with other species that frequently hide food.
• The Oak Titmouse mates for life, and pairs defend year-round territories. Those that do not find a mate in their first fall are excluded from territories and must live in marginal habitat until they find a vacancy.
• The Juniper Titmouse sits very tight on her nest and will hiss like a snake if disturbed.
• The Black-crested Titmouse hybridizes with the Tufted Titmouse where their ranges overlap in central Texas. They were considered the same species for a while, but they are distinct genetically and vocally.
• The Tufted Titmouse has an alarm call that seems to fade off into the distance, giving the impression that the bird is moving from one place to another. Birdwatchers and predators alike can be fooled into chasing this ghost call while the titmouse stays securely hidden out of sight. During the winter, Tufted Titmice forage together with chickadees, nuthatches, woodpeckers and Brown Creepers.They have been expanding its range northward since the 1940s and is now found almost to the Canadian border across most of its range. Speculation for the expansion suggests warming winter temperatures and the increase in mature woodland habitat. 

Sources: WBU BOTM  and

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Dark gray bird with white speckles

I have flocks of robins eating the fruit from my Mary Potter Crab trees. Mixed in with the robins, (seemingly a part of the flock), I see a bird that initially looked like a baby robin as it has the speckled look, but I knew it couldn't be that this time of year. These birds are a darkish gray, about the size of a robin and have rounded white tips on their feathers and a blue green iridescent underbelly. I've never noticed a bird like this. Do you have any idea what it could be? I'd sure appreciate any help you could provide. Thank you, Novi, MI

They are probably European Starlings. They flock and eat fruit in the winter just like American Robins and Cedar Waxwings.

The European Starling Sturnus vulgaris molts its feathers in the fall and the new black feathers have tips that are whitish, giving the bird the appearance of “stars” covering their body. Over the winter, sunlight and weather dulls the speckled look and the bird becomes uniform dark brown or black.

Both sexes also have reddish brown legs, and seasonal changes in bill color (yellow in the spring, black in the fall). Males sport a bluish spot at the base of their beaks, while the female displays a reddish pink speck. Juvenile birds are large dull gray or black.

The European Starling is insectivorous when breeding and typically consumes insects including caterpillars, moths, and cicadas, as well as spiders. The starlings like to grab bugs directly from the air or plunge their beaks into the ground randomly and repetitively until an insect has been found. In the winter starlings are omnivorous and can also eat grains, seeds, fruits, nectar, and food scraps.

In 1890’s, 100 starlings were released into New York City’s Central Park. It is said that Eugene Schieffelin wanted all of New York to see the birds mentioned in the plays of William Shakespeare. Until that time, starlings were not native to North America and were imported from England. Scientists estimate that descendants from those original released flocks now number more than 200 million in the United States.

Thank you so much, you are correct! Additionally, the male, (I assume), has alternating iridescent purple and iridescent red under the neck with iridescent green on breast. Very pretty. Female is lighter in color and more white specked with little iridescence. They seem to be a good example of a bird that can easily be ignored, but when viewed more closely, they are very beautiful; especially on a sunny winter afternoon which brings out the beauty of the iridescent coloring! Thank you so much for the identification!!

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Evidence that yawning is contagious in birds too

“Budgies” also find yawns contagious
Yawning is contagious in humans and some non-human primates. A recent study investigated the possibility that yawning and stretching was also contagious in birds. The social, flock-living birds Budgerigars (Melopsittacus undulatus), were videotaped and the times of all yawns and stretches for each bird were recorded.

Analyses suggest that the clustering of these behaviors is due to social influence. If the birds saw their neighbor stretching and yawning, it cued them to do the same. This study provides the first detailed description of temporal patterns of yawning under social conditions as well as the first support for contagious yawning and stretching in a non-primate species in a natural context.

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How high can squirrels jump to bird feeders?

Squirrel Fun Facts 
• Squirrels can jump up to 5 to 6 feet vertically, and they can leap 8 to 10 feet between objects.
• Squirrels have 5 toes on their back feet and 4 toes on their front. Their front toes are very sharp and help in gripping tree bark for climbing. Their back foot toes allow them to hang upside down and leave their front paws free reach for food.
• They have two incisors on the top and two on the bottom jaw that will grow continuously, but stay short due to the constant wear they receive.
• Squirrels can smell food from great distances. This helps them find the food they hoard.
• Squirrels eyes are positioned in such a way that they can see some things behind them.
• In addition to residing in the Eastern US, Eastern Gray Squirrels have been transplanted to many Western states, Great Britain, Ireland and South Africa and come in a variety of colors.
• Squirrels can eat their own body weight (approximately 1.5 pounds) every week.
• Squirrels have been known to fall from 100 feet without hurting themselves.
• The name Squirrel comes from the Ancient Greek word σκίουρος, skiouros, which means, shadow-tailed. This is probably because the squirrels use their bushy tails to shade themselves.

People either seem to love squirrels or hate them. Many people complain that the squirrels are eating their birds’ food. The number one selling feeder at Wild Birds Unlimited - East Lansing is the squirrel proof feeders. We can also help you create a squirrel proof set up with baffles or choose a seed to deter squirrels.

For some people, feeding squirrels is actually fun or provides a distraction to deter squirrels from bothering their bird feeders. Wild Birds Unlimited - East Lansing has several feeders and food for squirrels.

It is recommended that people who feed the squirrels place food away from window sills or door steps so as to discourage squirrels coming through screens. Feeding stations for squirrels should also be placed away from the regular bird feeding stations. There are many good feeders for feeding squirrels and some birds attracted to nuts and corn may also visit these feeders.

Squirrels live in many backyards. Placing squirrel houses in urban areas can help reduce the possibility of squirrels nesting in unwanted locations. Squirrel houses should be placed away from human dwellings at least 15’above the ground. They should face south and away from prevailing winds. Boxes can be cleaned in mid to late summer if there are no babies present.

If you or anyone you know is trapping and moving squirrels, please let them know that it is illegal to move wildlife in Michigan without a permit. And you may be doing more harm than good. Squirrels live in territories and every time one is removed, another will take its place. Moving squirrels that are pregnant or that have babies waiting for their mother could result in death. However, if you leave the squirrels that you have, alone they will keep other squirrels away. Wild Birds Unlimited - East Lansing can show you how to squirrel proof your bird feeding station so that you and the squirrels, can live in harmony.

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