Sycamore Grove Farm, Madison County
Following up on last week’s Bird Blog on blue jays, I wanted to share Atticus Finch’s quote on mockingbirds: “It’s a sin to kill a mockingbird,” Finch tells his daughter Scout. “Mockingbirds don’t do one thing but make music for us to enjoy. They don’t eat up people’s gardens, don’t nest in corncribs, they don’t do one thing but sing their hearts out for us.” While this doesn’t totally exonerate Finch for his statement about blue jays, it does capture the special essense of the Northern Mockingbird (Mimus polyglottos).
Every year since we moved into our house here in Madison County, we have had a pair of mockingbirds that own the immediate land around the house. The male mockingbird begins singing early each morning in the spring. He has several favorite perches, including the weather vane on our barn, the peak over our garage and the two large holly trees on the east side of our house. He will frequently fly straight up from his perch, then back down – all the while singing loudly. He moves from one perch to another to another, singing a lovely medley of songs – and sometimes I think I actually recognize which bird he is mimicking (or not). Mockingbirds also mimic other sounds, including crickets, cats and even sirens!
Once our pair of mockingbirds builds a nest, they actively chase other birds away. And they are very territorial overall – scientists and other birders have observed them attacking predatory birds, even bald eagles, when their territory is invaded.
Stan Tekiela describes their mating behavior perfectly in Birds of Virginia: “Very animated, male and female perform elaborate mating dances by facing each other, heads and tails erect. They run toward each other, flashing white wing patches, and then retreat to nearby cover.”
Birding tip: Mockingbirds eat seeds, insect, bugs and worms – and they will definitely visit your bird feeding area if you put out suet. But unlike woodpeckers, the mockingbird can’t hang upside down on the suet cage so they will perch on top of the feeder to have a snack.
Sycamore Grove Farm, Madison County
To Kill a Mockingbird was one of my favorite books, as well as the movie rendition. All except for that horrifying quote that Atticus Finch said to his son Jem who was just learning to shoot: “I’d rather you shot at tin cans in the backyard, but I know you’ll go after birds. Shoot all the blue jays you want - just don’t kill a mockingbird.”
Blue jays have been reviled and persecuted by many different groups over the years. In Native American lore, blue jays are portrayed as thieves and tricksters. Their behavior has definitely contributed to their reputation: blue jays are known for marauding other birds’ nests, being bullies at your backyard bird feeder, and generally having an aggressive attitude. I have seen this behavior on our farm. They are frequently grouped with European starlings as “nuisance” birds. But they play an important role in the bird world. Stan Tekiela, author of Birds of Virginia Field Guide, says jays are “known as the alarm of the forest, screaming at any intruders in the woods.” I have seen this behavior, too. Red-shouldered and Cooper’s hawks frequently come to my bird feeding station, attracted to the numerous “meals” they observe. Jays are vociferous and loud when they spot one of these predators. There is a sudden mass exodus from the ground where birds were eating seed into the trees for shelter. So I am glad that the birds I bring seed to each morning have a protector in jays.
Joan E. Strassmann tells one of the best stories about blue jays in her Slow Birding book mentioned in an earlier bird blog. She points out oak trees are beholden to jays for spreading their fruit (acorns) far and wide. These trees rely on birds to be the major distribution agent, often carrying the acorns miles away from their parent tree. Scientists studying jay behavior found that these birds collected acorns, stored them in their mouth and throat, flew to a common cache area and buried them tip-first in holes so that each hole held only one acorn. While some were eaten, many acorns grew into trees. “When I hear that the Blue Jays have found a roosting owl or have become alerted for some other reason and fly through the neighborhood with their screeching warning,” Strassman notes, “I like to remember that they have airlifted the oak trees north in tiny acorn packages as the glaciers retreated.”
Birding tip: Audubon offers a wonderful online resource: Bird Watching 101: A Guide for Beginners. Even experienced birders will glean some ideas on how to improve their birding techniques.
Dark Skies -- Emily Byers
The little things that we do every day have a huge impact on our natural world. It makes sense that native plant enthusiasts care about invasives, clean water, soil health, the warming climate, more intense weather patterns, even clean air…but what about dark skies?
Dark skies affect multiple natural processes. For example, many crops are dependent on insect pollination. If you like to eat, you care about insects and in turn, also dark skies. Insects also serve as a food source for many species. If you care about birds, you care about insects and also in turn, dark skies.
Why should we do something about light pollution? Humans “around 80 percent of all—and more than 99 percent of people in the US and Europe—now live under light-polluted skies. In addition to direct lighting from urban infrastructure, light reflected from clouds and aerosols, known as skyglow, is brightening nights even in unlit habitats.” (Kwon, 2018) Many, truly do not know what unlit skies look like.
In addition, insects are impacted by light pollution. The article “Light Pollution is a Driver of Insect Declines” discusses how artificial light serves as an evolutionary trap. Artificial light is a human-induced problem. Throughout ecological history, “most anthropogenic disturbances have natural analogs: the climate has warmed before, habitats have fragmented, species have invaded new ranges, and new pesticides (also known as plant defenses) have been developed. Yet for all evolutionary time, the daily cycle of light and dark, the lunar cycle, and the annual cycle of the seasons have all remained constant. insects have had no cause to evolve any relevant adaptations to artificial light at night.” (Avalon et al, 2020) Insects are attracted to the ultrabright unnatural lights and exhaust themselves before engaging in pollination or reproduction. The decline of insects lead to diminished food sources for larger organisms.
Light pollution causes disorientation and exhaustion in migratory birds. Birds use energy stores to make long journeys. Studies show that “migrating birds were disoriented and attracted by red and white light (containing visible long-wavelength radiation), whereas they were clearly less disoriented by blue and green light (containing less or no visible long-wavelength radiation).” (Poot et al, 2008)
The good news is that humans can put ecological practices in place to mitigate the impacts of light pollution. Further research shows that “artificial light at night impacts nocturnal and diurnal insects through effects on development, movement, foraging, reproduction, exhaustion and predation risk.” (Borges, 2022) It is estimated that light pollution is driving an “insect apocalypse” resulting in a loss of around forty percent of all bug species within just a few decades. There are multiple reasons to care about insects.
We can make an impact on this serious problem. Community members can have their voices heard by participating in their local HOA meetings and completing surveys conducted by the local government in the comprehensive planning phase. By speaking out residents can weigh in on light ordinances in public spaces. Even talking to neighbors who are unaware of the problem can help.
The International Dark Sky Association (https://www.darksky.org/) has great resources for educating yourself and others about light pollution. Virginia has five Dark Sky parks which are more than any other state East of Mississippi. The parks include Rappahannock County Park, Sky Meadows State Park, Staunton River State Park, James River State Park, and Natural Bridge State Park. The link to the parks can be found at https://www.darksky.org/our-work/conservation/idsp/finder/.
Visiting Dark Sky parks and taking part in citizen science is an important way to help protect these amazing spaces for future generations to enjoy.
Sycamore Grove Farm, Madison County
If you’re like me, you are wondering where are all the robins coming from lately? I occasionally observe (or hear) one or two robins on my daily morning bird walk during the winter. But in the last week and a half they are arriving in droves. Two days ago I counted 150 robins within 300 feet of our house. On this morning’s bird walk I counted 75. They fly down into the grassy area and hop around, looking for something to eat. The back story is that most Virginia robins don’t migrate - they spend their entire winter in their breeding range here. The reason we don’t see them is they simply move into the nearest woodlands, finding worms, grubs and insects in spots where the ground remained open and unfrozen. Robins also eat a wide variety of berries remaining on bushes from the fall.
The robins we are seeing in big flocks now are the robins that did migrate south. These are probably male robins which are returning to their breeding grounds up north to stake out territory. The migrating female robins arrive a little later – from a few days to around two weeks.
Our resident robins will become more visible as the weather warms up a bit, typically around April. Their mating season runs through July. American robins are one of the first birds to begin laying eggs each spring. They normally have two or three broods each season. The average life span of a robin is two years (remember a dark-eyed junco’s longevity averaged 11 years). They have a lot of predators, including other birds (crows, ravens, hawks, owls and eagles); mammals (squirrels, raccoons, foxes, and wild and domestic cats); and reptiles (rat snakes, gopher snakes and snapping turtles).
In her book Slow Birding: The Art and Science of Enjoying the Birds in Your Own Backyard, Joan E. Strassmann shares the findings of two Canadian professors on “How Robins Find Worms.” The scientists determined that “the birds were initially locating worms by hearing, then tilting their heads back to focus their foveae [the sharpest, central part of the eye] on the spot where they first heard the worm.” Using this two-step process yielded them catching a worm 90% of the time! While they may have short life spans, they sure are successful as birds who catch the worms!
Birding tip: Make birding a habit. Go birding every day – even if it’s just 5 minutes. Check out How To Train Your Brain To Adapt To A Habit from KWIK Learning, whose motto is “Read faster. Work smarter. Think better.”
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