Bird Roll Call: March 18, 2018

  • American crow1
  • American goldfinch1
  • American robin1,2
  • Black-capped chickadee1
  • Blue jay1,2
  • Bufflehead (three pairs)2
  • Canada goose2
  • Common grackle1,2
  • Dark-eyed junco1,2
  • Downy woodpecker1,2
  • Eastern bluebird2
  • European starling1,2
  • House finch1
  • House sparrow1
  • Killdeer2
  • Mallard2
  • Mourning dove1,2
  • Northern cardinal1
  • Northern flicker1
  • Pine siskin1
  • Red-bellied woodpecker1
  • White-throated sparrow1
  • Wood duck2

Today, I saw two American robins leaping off a neighbor’s roof over and over again. They would land on the roof, run over to its edge, leap down to the ground, and fly back up to the roof. While all of this was going on, a blue jay was riffling through leaves in the home’s gutter. It was all very enteratining.

I also saw a male northern cardinal feed a safflower seed to a female. He flew over to the fence where she was perched. She responded by hopping away from him. He pursued her and extended his seed-filled beak. She took the seed and held it in her beak until another male flew to the other side of her. She dropped the seed and flew away.

At Meadowbrook Park, we saw a dead mallard lying by the trail. The red-tailed hawk perched in a nearby tree told us all we needed to know. The hawk wasn’t able to return to the duck, at least not while we were there, because it got caught up in what appeared to be an altercation with two other red-tailed hawks.

Locations — in my backyard and at Meadowbrook Park.


1. Seen at home
2. Seen at Meadowbrook Park

Bird Roll Call: March 16, 2018

  • American goldfinch
  • American robin
  • Blue jay
  • Carolina wren
  • Common grackle
  • Dark-eyed junco
  • Downy woodpecker
  • European starling
  • House finch
  • House sparrow
  • Mourning dove
  • Northern cardinal
  • Red-bellied woodpecker
  • Red-tailed hawk
  • Red-winged blackbird (male)
  • White-throated sparrow

It was a rainy day, and I didn’t spend as much time as usual watching the birds. I did take peanuts out for the blue jays mid-morning. Three jays landed in the nearest tree and began chattering at me, something the sounded like a combination of delighted and demand tones. In the afternoon, the entire neighborhood was flooded with alarm calls from birds. A red-tailed hawk was flying from one house to another in a loose spiral. All day long, the male red-winged blackbird sang his song and its variations. I kept the window cracked so I could hear him.

Location — in my backyard.

Bird Roll Call: March 12, 2018

  • American goldfinch1
  • American robin1
  • Barred owl (two heard singing duet)1
  • Black-capped chickadee (heard)1
  • Blue jay1
  • Common grackle1
  • Cooper’s hawk (adult and juvenile)2
  • Dark-eyed junco1
  • Downy woodpecker1
  • European starling1
  • Gull sp. (overhead)1
  • House finch1
  • House sparrow1
  • Mourning dove1
  • Northern cardinal1
  • Northern flicker (heard)1
  • Northern mockingbird2
  • Red-bellied woodpecker1
  • Red-winged blackbird (about three hundred)2
  • Red-tailed hawk2
  • White-throated sparrow1

I saw the adult Cooper’s hawk in the morning shortly after I woke up. A juvenile Cooper’s hawk flew through the yard and landed on the neighbor’s utility line in the evening.

My partner and I went out at dusk and saw several hundred (at least three hundred by my estimation) red-winged blackbirds in the Prairiefire Wetlands. They were briefly pursued by two red-tailed hawks who had a tussle with one another over hunting rights before they decided to turn in for the night. A single northern mockingbird kept the blackbirds company.

Just after 10 p.m., I heard two barred owls cawing and hooting at one another in a courtship duet similar to the audio file titled “Duet (Northern)” at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s website. I believe the two live in a nest in my neighbor’s tree one house back and one house over.

Locations — in my backyard and at the Prairiefire Wetlands.


1. Seen at home
2. Seen near the Prairiefire Wetlands

Bird Roll Call: February 10, 2018

  • American goldfinch1
  • American robin1
  • Belted kingfisher2
  • Black-capped chickadee1
  • Blue jay1
  • Canada goose3
  • Dark-eyed junco1
  • Downy woodpecker1
  • Eastern bluebird1
  • European starling1,3
  • Gull sp.1,3
  • House finch1
  • House sparrow1
  • Mourning dove1
  • Northern cardinal1
  • Northern flicker (two males)1
  • Pine siskin1
  • Red-bellied woodpecker (male and female)1
  • Red-tailed hawk1
  • White-throated sparrow1

I woke late. Several house finches were already piled into the dogwood for a mid-morning nap. The male red-bellied woodpecker was filling a rotted-out sweetgum branch with food. Squirrels were purging old material from their nest in the other sweetgum tree. The detritus fell to the ground and scared the dark-eyed juncos.

A red-tailed hawk made a brief appearance, and the birds only acted half scared. This hawk looked much younger than the last one who visited. Its eyes were barely pigmented enough to be called citrine, and its feathers were in pristine condition. The hawk didn’t stay long. After it left, the songbirds returned to their business which, on a frigid day like this, amounted to eating as much as possible to provide the calories needed for the long, cold night ahead. I read that birds can lose up to ten percent of their body weight on winter nights. Foods like suet, peanut butter, and sunflower seeds provide the fats that are essential this time of year.

Two male northern flickers arrived in the yard at about the same time. They seemed to size each other up. I don’t know if these are the same two males who were vying for the female’s attention a little while back or if the area is overrun with these fellows. The two sat on the fence together for a little bit then separated and did their own thing, one staying on the fence and the other foraging in the garden despite the mild protestations of mourning doves.

Eastern bluebirds arrived in the afternoon. I put peanut butter bits out for them, but they haven’t found them yet. They primarily visit for the water, which is in short supply when everything freezes.

My partner and I went out looking for a suitable branch to append to the main feeder pole. We ended up behind a lawn and garden store in an area that overlooks part of Indian Creek. I stepped to the edge of the cut bank just as a belted kingfisher flew across the water with a fish in its mouth. We rounded out the day with a few Canada geese before returning home with a branch that had broken off a flowering tree in a Walmart parking lot. It wasn’t easy to cram the branch into the car, but it was worth the effort. The birds are going to love their new perch.

Locations — in my backyard, at Indian Creek near 103rd and Roe, and at Indian Creek near 103rd and Metcalf.


1. Seen at home
2. Seen at Indian Creek near 103rd and Nall
3. Seen at Indian Creek near 103rd and Metcalf

Twitter: A World of Wounds

One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds. Much of the damage inflicted on land is quite invisible to laymen. An ecologist must either harden his shell and make believe that the consequences of science are none of his business, or he must be the doctor who sees the marks of death in a community that believes itself well and does not want to be told otherwise. ― Aldo Leopold

I enjoy feeding the birds.

A murmuration of starlings buzzed the cars on I-35 today.

The female northern flicker appears to have selected one of two suitors. The rejected male spent the day looking for the female. He sat in my yard calling for her. “Kyeer, kyeer. Kyeer, kyeer.”

The red-tailed hawk returned to the yard this afternoon. I have a crush.

These birds are my commitment remaining in the present.

I heard a blue jay cheep like a small songbird at the red-tailed hawk today. I’ve never seen that approach before, and I have no idea what informed the behavior.

I just played Vivaldi on my flute for the house finches.

Many people have an idea of what a bird is, but because they don’t pay close attention to birds, they don’t know what an actual bird is.

If you don’t pay close attention to birds, don’t write about them. Certainly don’t snare them in your nondescript haiku. Real birds deserve better than what you have to say about them.

I like men who walk their dogs in the woods.

Two paths trisect the snow-mantled yard: one to the birdbath, another to the bird feeders.

Juxtaposition: a brown creeper on the sweetgum, a bald eagle in the sky.

When I grow up, I want to spend all my time with birds.

Bird Roll Call: February 4, 2018

  • American goldfinch
  • American robin
  • Blue jay
  • Carolina wren
  • Dark-eyed junco
  • Downy woodpecker
  • Eastern bluebird
  • European starling
  • House finch
  • House sparrow
  • Mourning dove
  • Northern cardinal
  • Northern flicker
  • Pine siskin
  • Red-bellied woodpecker
  • Red-tailed hawk
  • White-throated sparrow

Today, I looked up at one of the sweetgum trees and thought squirrels had built a nest on a low branch. The nest was actually the red-tailed hawk. I got out my new camera and took dozens of photos. The images allowed me to see much more detail than I could have otherwise. The luminous amber eye. The back feathers frayed into the shape of throwing stars. The look on the hawk’s face when blue jays were diving at its head — not irritated but something closer to hurt or disappointment.

The songbirds didn’t scatter at the hawk’s presence. They maintained a respectful (and safe) distance in the bushes and trees lining the fence. Once the blue jays succeeded in driving the hawk away, the birds emerged.

It started to snow, teasingly at first and then with conviction. The red-tailed hawk came back and sat like an urn in the neighbor’s silver maple. None of the songbirds were bothered by the raptor’s presence. Perhaps the weather was bad enough for everyone to agree to share the same space.

Dark-eyed juncos hopped through the new snow like children. I took photos of the juncos, the male northern flicker, the red-bellied woodpecker, half a downy woodpecker (she was moving too fast for me to catch her in the frame), and several house finches, including the one who is missing several wing feathers.

Looking at the photos later, I saw that the northern flicker’s breast and belly have the appearance of hearts instead of spots — dozens of tiny valentines saying to the female who passed him over, “Pick me, pick me.” Maybe that’s what his plaintive cry means. “Kyeer, kyeer. Kyeer, kyeer.” Pick me. Pick me.

I am so in love with these birds. Their lives are beautiful, complicated, and heartbreaking. I can’t wait to see them again tomorrow.

I almost forgot to mention that two eastern bluebirds visited the yard today. Such a wonderful surprise!

Location — in my backyard.

Bird Roll Call: January 30, 2018

  • American crow 2
  • American goldfinch1
  • American robin1
  • Black-capped chickadee1
  • Blue jay1,2
  • Canada goose (overhead)1
  • Cooper’s hawk1
  • Dark-eyed junco1
  • Downy woodpecker1
  • European starling1,2
  • Gull sp.2
  • House finch1
  • House sparrow1
  • Mourning dove1,2
  • Northern cardinal1
  • Northern flicker1
  • Pine siskin1
  • Red-bellied woodpecker1
  • Red-tailed hawk1
  • Rock pigeon2
  • White-throated sparrow1

The red-tailed hawk was absent this morning, and the Cooper’s hawk was present. She was perched in one of my sweetgums when I went out to the feeding station at the back of the property. When I turned to come inside, she was gone. An hour later, she returned. My clue was the thirty or so mourning doves suddenly scattering from the yard. A few birds who weren’t able to fly away in time huddled in a rose of Sharon by the fence. The hawk moved on after a few minutes.

Free to move about the yard again, an American robin and a house finch bowed to each other at the birdbath. They were just bending down to drink water, but I liked the idea of them engaging in a Buddhist ritual. I read that birds set aside their differences at the birdbath because water is critical to every bird’s survival. Foes in other contexts are cordial to one another when drinking and bathing. So they aren’t actually bowing to one another, but their civility contains an intrinsic bow.

The female northern flicker came back today with her suitor in tow. She preened then worked her way up a branch. He hopped closer to her. She ignored him. Given her real or feigned indifference, I suspect she hasn’t yet chosen him as a mate. When he tried getting even closer, she flew into another tree. He followed. She flew out of the yard. Again, he followed. I imagined him spending his entire day moving from tree to tree and yard to yard in pursuit of her. That’s probably exactly what he did.

Nine northern cardinals made their way to the yard throughout the day — four males and five females. The house finch with light orange plumage visited the finch feeding station, as did the house finch with missing wing feathers.

In the afternoon, I saw the red-tailed hawk flying over the neighbor’s yard and out of sight. Later, the Cooper’s hawk came back and landed in another neighbor’s tree. I noticed that our winter lawn, pocked by squirrels, had turned the color of infected mucus.

Locations — in my backyard and while driving through town.


1. Seen at home
2. Seen while driving

Bird Roll Call: January 29, 2018

  • American goldfinch
  • American robin
  • Black-capped chickadee
  • Blue jay
  • Carolina wren (heard)
  • Canada goose (overhead)
  • Dark-eyed junco
  • Downy woodpecker
  • European starling
  • House finch
  • House sparrow
  • Mourning dove
  • Northern cardinal
  • Northern flicker
  • Pine siskin
  • Red-bellied woodpecker
  • Red-tailed hawk
  • White-breasted nuthatch
  • White-throated sparrow

Every morning, I scan the yard to see which species are present and to watch their antics. This morning, I looked first at the ground and the feeders. I saw eight species merrily going about their business. I looked up to see who might be in the shrubs and trees. To my surprise, the red-tailed hawk I’d seen a few days ago was relaxing on a low branch in my neighbor’s silver maple, its big white stomach shining like a piece of porcelain. None of the birds were at all concerned about the hawk’s presence, not even the blue jays. Everyone was acting like the hawk wasn’t there. Northern cardinals, dark-eyed juncos, and house finches even perched nonchalantly in the nearby magnolia. Several more species visited while the hawk was present. They ate. They drank water. They flew this way and that. It’s like they’d all come to an agreement: the hawk would visit the area each morning to rest and nothing more, and the birds would allow it because the hawk had agreed to hunt elsewhere.

I’ve read that red-tailed hawks aren’t as much of a threat to songbirds as Cooper’s hawks and sharp-shinned hawks. A chart from the 1945 publication Birds of Kansas titled “What Hawks Eat” states that only 9.2 percent of a red-tailed hawk’s diet consists of small birds, compared with 55 percent and 96.4 percent for Cooper’s hawks and sharp-shinned hawks respectively. Cooper’s hawks and sharp-shinned hawks definitely pose more of a risk to songbirds than red-tailed hawks, but still — 9.2 percent is significant. If I were a songbird, I would be uneasy about having a red-tailed hawk in my vicinity, even if it seemed to have struck a deal with birds like me. Maybe having the red-tailed hawk around is beneficial in some way. Its presence might keep the Cooper’s hawk who frequents the area from paying a visit. Having a red-tailed hawk around as opposed to a Cooper’s hawk would definitely be a move in the right direction where the songbirds are concerned. The latter is five times more likely to eat them.

A few flakes of snow teased the air. Ten mourning doves composed a simple song on the utility lines. Imagine each line as part of a musical staff and the doves as notes. They were positioned in the equivalent of the F-natural and A-natural positions. The song they created looked like this:

| — _ — — | _ — — _ | } — } } |
.
.
Key: …..| = bar …..— = A-natural ….._ = F-natural …..} = rest

At one point, a mourning dove landed on the utility line above the second dove from the left. They formed a dyad comprised of F-natural and A-natural.

The hawk flew away just under half an hour after I’d first seen it, parting the songbirds as it went.

Location — in my backyard.

Bird Roll Call: January 27, 2018

  • American crow (overhead)1,2,4
  • American goldfinch1
  • American robin1,3
  • Black-capped chickadee2
  • Blue jay1,2
  • Brown creeper2
  • Canada goose1,3
  • Carolina wren2
  • Cooper’s hawk1
  • Dark-eyed junco1,2
  • Downy woodpecker1,2
  • Eastern bluebird2
  • European starling1,3,4
  • Gull sp. (overhead)1
  • Hairy woodpecker2
  • House finch1
  • House sparrow1
  • Mourning dove1,2,3
  • Northern cardinal1,2
  • Northern flicker1
  • Pine siskin1
  • Purple finch (female)2
  • Red-bellied woodpecker1,2
  • Red-shouldered hawk2
  • Red-tailed hawk4
  • Rock pigeon4
  • Tufted titmouse2
  • White-breasted nuthatch2,3
  • White-throated sparrow1,2
  • Yellow-rumped warbler2

A downy woodpecker’s call woke me at 7 a.m. I cleaned the birdbath with a bleach solution last night, so I had to take it back outside this morning and fill it with fresh water. It’s important to keep all feeders and birdbaths clean so birds don’t transmit diseases to one another. I’ve decided to wash everything weekly so I don’t expose any of the birds who visit my yard to unsanitary conditions. Trudging outside in the cold first thing in the morning wasn’t my favorite thing to do, but it had to be done, so I did it.

Crows cawed overhead. A few dozen starlings passed over. Gulls flew by. Their mottled underparts resembled quail eggs. I believe they were juvenile ring-billed gulls. The crows came into view just above the treeline, smudges of wet black paint.

Blue jays began snapping up the shell peanuts I placed in the wreath feeder. I saw that at least one was caching the nuts under leaves strewn about the yard. I knew blue jays buried acorns. For this reason, they are considered the architects of our country’s great oak forests. A single blue jay can hide between three thousand and five thousand nuts each season. Of these, many go uncollected. The oak forests would not have spread as quickly as they did after the last glacial period without the essential contributions of blue jays. But this isn’t an oak forest. It’s just my yard. I had no idea a blue jay would hide shell peanuts in a suburban environment.

The squirrel who couldn’t figure out how to carry twigs up the sweetgum made several more unsuccessful attempts to do so this morning. While I was watching that tragicomedy play out, the Cooper’s hawk landed in the other sweetgum, where a second squirrel body-slammed her in an attempt to oust her from the area. Above, in their matching collard robes, a choir of blue jays sat atop my neighbor’s pin oak wailing at the hawk. Eventually, she flew away. Between the rumbling squirrel and the cacophonous blue jays, hanging around wasn’t worth the effort.

I got out my flute and played Vivaldi while I watched the birds. All those rollicking notes made me feel a bit like a bird and less like a human.

My partner and I met a friend at the Overland Park Arboretum where, to my dismay, I failed to locate the nesting pileated woodpeckers. I tried to traverse a washed-out section of the trail with nearly disastrous results before walking alongside white-tailed deer for a while when I thought I was lost but wasn’t.

On the drive home, we saw a coyote roving in a field. Two red-tailed hawks sat like knots on a tree’s bare limbs. The sky turned the color of a male house finch’s breast. Then it was dark.

Locations — in my backyard, at the Overland Park Arboretum, at South Lake Park, and while driving to and from these locations.


1. Seen at my home
2. Seen at the Overland Park Arboretum
3. Seen at South Lake Park
4. Seen while driving

Bird Roll Call: January 26, 2018

  • American goldfinch
  • American robin
  • Black-capped chickadee
  • Blue jay
  • Canada goose (overhead)
  • Dark-eyed junco
  • Downy woodpecker
  • European starling
  • Gull sp. (overhead)
  • House finch
  • House sparrow
  • Mourning dove
  • Northern cardinal
  • Northern flicker
  • Red-bellied woodpecker
  • Red-tailed hawk
  • White-throated sparrow

As I sat down to watch birds, I saw the male northern flicker looking for the female again today. She was nowhere to be found. I haven’t seen her or the male she appears to have partnered with since the day they became an item.

A red-tailed hawk landed on a low branch in one of my sweetgum trees. I noted its yellow eyes, the brown stingray patterning on its breast feathers, the speckles on its belly feathers. A blue jay approached the hawk and began cheeping at it like a small songbird. I’d never seen that strategy employed before and wondered why the blue jay chose this approach over sounding an alarm call. Unfazed, the hawk settled in for a long rest, its body spreading out until it took on the shape of a Foghorn Leghorn cookie jar. A second blue jay arrived on the scene and began making a “meh, meh, meh” sound — not exactly the alarm call, but at least something a little more assertive than cheeping. This was followed by silence, then the second blue jay cycled into a different call. I believe it was the first call listed on The Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s All About Birds page.

After a few minutes, the blue jays left the hawk in peace. It looked to the right without moving its head, its right pupil gliding toward its beak. I could see that its brown head was mottled and resembled depleted soil on the side of an asphalt road.

Only the northern cardinals remained. The hawk’s feathers blew in the wind. It leaned forward a few times but didn’t fly. Its pupil held the sun. Above, gulls looked like gashes in the sky’s sateen. Dark-eyed juncos, oblivious to the hawk’s presence, gathered at the birdbath. The blue jays returned and dove at the hawk; one hit it on the crown. The hawk scratched its head with its left foot then tucked the foot into its body, a sign that it was insistent on relaxing. A second red-tailed hawk called from above. The sound was quickly swallowed by silence. The wind picked up and spread the hawk’s feathers farther apart. It swayed side to side with the undulating branch.

The neighbor’s dog came outside and flapped his ears. The hawk paid no attention. A squirrel chattered from the cavity in the silver maple. The hawk didn’t care. What interested him was high above. Its eyes traced two lines through the sky: contrails from a jet. It cocked its head one way then the other, as if trying to put the strange white streaks into a “hawk” context. How were these lines relevant to its life? Once the jet was gone, the hawk turned its head around backward and angled it downward. I imagined it taking inventory of what was pertinent: finch, finch, dove, squirrel.

The blue jays returned again and finally sounded the alarm call, but in a half-hearted way, as if they were merely doing what was expected of them as opposed to what they felt compelled to do. A squirrel nearly fell off the utility line at the back of the property but recovered. Squirrels remind me of The Flying Wallendas when they engage in such acrobatics. A mourning dove landed on the utility line. The hawk watched with interest before turning to look my direction, head on and beak down, like a school librarian glowering over a pair of reading glasses.

The male flicker returned to the yard. He sat in a tree calling for the female who did not choose him. “Kyeer, kyeer. Kyeer, kyeer.” It was a sad call that brought to mind Basho’s famous haiku:

In Kyoto,
hearing the cuckoo,
I long for Kyoto.

Hearing the northern flicker, I missed the present moment even as I was experiencing the present moment.

The hawk turned around on the branch and wagged its tail. By this point, it had been in the tree for just over one hour. Its demeanor quickly changed from relaxed to alert: head forward, feathers tight against its body, eyes scanning everything. It dipped forward and raised its tail before flying into the neighbor’s silver maple. There, it assumed the same stance as the red-tailed hawks I’ve seen along the roadways. The hawk was no longer resting. It was ready to hunt. I knew it was going to fly before it flew — first left, then right. Then it was gone. Within seconds, songbirds popped out of their hiding places: a northern cardinal here, a dark-eyed junco there. I put my binoculars down and walked away.

Location — in my backyard.