Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Robins, and Thrashers, and Kites! Oh, my!

Last week, I was fortunate to be doing outdoor work for a change... building a fence to be specific. So... I had a bit more opportunity than usual to observe some suburban wildlife... and by "wildlife" I mean wild birds.

This is the time of year when many young birds (still incapable of flight) are fledging the nest and being fed by their parents on the ground. I've seen more fledgling American Robins (Turdus migratorius) lately than I can count. Most Robins are probably wrapping up their second brood of the season by now. Robins are one of the handful of species that has actually benefited from anthropogenic habitat alteration. Their population is growing... obviously so in my area.

Mother Robin on her nest in my carport in 2007.

These little guys successfully fledged, but not all are so lucky.

In a previous post, I featured a mother Robin on her nest that had survived a serious windstorm. Unfortunately, she didn't raise her brood to fledging. She disappeared shortly after I wrote that post. If I had to guess, one of the neighborhood cats got her. Her nest was just a little too obvious, although I don't really consider a housecat with nothing better to do a true agent of natural selection. Far too many songbirds become the victims of housecats... but I digress.

Robins aren't the only fledgling birds that I've seen lately either. I've seen several Blue Jays (Cyanocitta cristata), Mourning Doves (Zenaida macroura), and Common Grackles (Quiscalus quiscula) around my own house... but my closest encounter was last week with a species I had never actually seen as a fledgling. When I found it, I immediately thought "this looks like a... "

Let me tell you the story.

Last week, my friend Mark and I were building a fence for a lady living in a suburban Memphis neighborhood. Thursday morning when we arrived at her house, she was just about to leave for work. She mentioned to Mark that she had heard a bird in her garage the night before, and he called me over to investigate. We promptly located the fledgling behind a freezer and I was able to safely capture it. It had lots of energy and appeared to be in fine condition, but I imagine it wouldn't have survived too much longer trapped in that garage. I figured its parents would be nearby, and I decided to place it under the shrubbery at the front of the house so the lady could drive away and close the garage door without incident. Little did I know this baby bird had other things on its mind.

As soon as its feet hit the ground, it made a beeline across the driveway for the neighbor's back yard. Fortunately, it wasn't run over by the car as the lady pulled out of the garage. It quickly made its way under the neighbor's fence (luckily no dog in that back yard). The little one knew exactly which way to go as it had almost certainly been communicating with its parents through that closed garage door all morning. As soon as it got into the back yard, I saw one of the parents in the oak tree above. It was indeed a Brown Thrasher (Toxostoma rufum) just as I had initially suspected. It was nice to have that nearly instant confirmation... no need to look it up when I got home. It was also nice knowing that I helped safely reunite a family. My good deed for the day was done.

In addition to all of the songbirds that graced me with their presence, I saw my fair share of raptors too. I saw the usual Red-tailed Hawks (Buteo jamaicensis) and what I believe to have been a Northern Harrier (Circus cyaneus)... but I'm not very confident about that ID made from a moving vehicle. I also saw plenty of my favorite raptors- Mississippi Kites (Ictinia mississippiensis). Three Mississippi Kites kept watch over the neighborhood where we were building the fence, and I even got to see one carrying off a meal (what appeared to be a small songbird) on Wednesday.

I've never been able to snap a photo of a Mississippi Kite, but just so you'll know what they look like, here is Audubon's rendition (a framed print that once hung in my office) and the cover of a book from my bird library. They're simply beautiful animals.

Mississippi Kites are, in my humble opinion, one of the finest looking birds of prey out there, and Memphis is blessed to have what appears to be a healthy population of them. I see them soaring all over the city including my neighborhood... but it hasn't always been that way. The local population had dwindled drastically during the 1960s (probably thanks to DDT), but now the graceful birds are a pretty common sight around the city. Rumor has it that the Memphis Zoo played a key role in this population rebound... pretty cool to see a local conservation effort that has apparently worked.

My bird watching continued into the weekend... which was about the only positive aspect of my solo fishing trip to Herb Parsons Lake on Saturday. I saw Green Herons (Butorides virescens), Great Blue Herons (Ardea herodias), Great Egrets (Casmerodius albus), a Red-headed Woodpecker (Melanerpes erythrocephalus), and a fair number of ducks and songbirds. I even saw a Prothonotary Warbler (Protonotaria citrea)... one of my favorite bottomland birds. Unfortunately, my camera isn't up to the task of photographing small birds at a distance.

Giving up

As for the fishing... I'd rather not talk about it.

By the way, if you've never heard of Herb Parsons (the man the lake was named for), he was a legendary exhibition shooter and world champion duck caller from west Tennessee. He was known as the "Showman Shooter" and is considered by many to be the greatest exhibition shooter of all time. He died way too early, but he still left quite a legacy. Enjoy.


  1. What a wonderful post. Backyard adventure,Birding( the Mississippi Kite looks cool ,indeed)...and the video...incredible talent followed by true, humble words. Thank you so much!

  2. Thanks, Herringbone. Glad you enjoyed it.

  3. Great post. Urban birding! I don't have a cat at the moment, but it always used to break my heart to see our house-cats carrying off fledglings.

  4. Erin, thanks for the comment. All people have to do is keep their cats inside, and no hearts will be broken... not ours or the birds'.

  5. Yeah, pretty simple solution, eh? People are just lazy, in general, and stuck in their routines. I remember one year I rearranged the animals' stall order in our barn so that the barn swallows would be able to fledge without being trampled by horse hooves.

  6. Erin, very cool and considerate. The Robins in the pictures above actually delayed me replacing those awful wrought iron posts with wooden ones, and prevented me from tearing apart my storage room for expansion for about a month. I had leaned an old wooden barn post in the corner of that black wrought iron post and before I knew a nest was built on top of it. It was kind of annoying, but I couldn't disturb them... and I admit I actually enjoyed watching them raise their young.

  7. Yeah, while somewhat annoying and inconveniencing, I always consider it an honor to have part of my 'home' chosen as theirs.

  8. It's fun seeing the Robins out and about...it's pretty much the only birds we see from our porch. We get a nice little bark from CiCi every time one comes within 20 feet...ha!

    really enjoyed the post!

  9. Jay
    Really a shame the little Robins didn't make it. House cats are clearly the villian here when it comes to little birds and there nest. We lost a Bluebird nest with three eggs the other day on our back porch. Our neighborhood cat raided the nest that night and put an end to the nesting Bluebirds. Enjoyed the post.

  10. Great post. I love birdwatching and have an array of feeders and houses in my urban backyard that I enjoy. I've got two nesting robins and a house with a pair of wrens that I love to watch as of late. Its not about the fish anyway...but the wonderful sights and sounds along the way....jeff

  11. Jay, little did I know that when we "met" you were such a fine writer. I'm happy that TNA survived growing pains and you are able to impart such interesting information to us infidels...well, one infidel anyway. (The rest seem fairly normal folks.) This was another great post.

  12. Sanders, CiCi sounds like she could be a good watchdog for a worm farm.

    Bill, cats really can be annoying. My mom has bird feeders in her back yard, and the neighborhood cats started using the area around the feeders as a hunting ground. It probably wouldn't be so bad if they couldn't go over fences wherever they please.

    Jeff, you're right it's not all about the fish... but catching at least one on Saturday would have been nice. It really wasn't my day.

    Cofisher, thanks as always for the kind words. I don't think I'm much of a writer, but I do like to share the things I'm passionate about. I'm glad TNA has survived too.
    By the way, I wouldn't consider you an infidel. An eccentric maybe, but not an infidel.

  13. I enjoyed your post, Jay. I have several birds' nests around our house that I just can't bring myself to destroy (two are Swallows nests built in 2004 and the house needs repaiting-ugh). If you're ever in the Dallas area, go see the Blackland Prairie Raptor Center. They came and spoke at one of our fly fishing meetings earlier this year, and one of the birds the gentleman brought was a Kite.