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A gray catbird perched on a tree branch in Wilmington, NC.jpg

JUNE 2024

Gray Catbird

This wild singer makes an appearance in my novel BIRD NERD, where I list him under “Birds That Sound Like R2 D2.” That’s because the Gray Catbird's long and complicated song has a bunch of whistles, whines, squeaks and other sounds that remind me of my favorite Star Wars robot. The cat part of the name comes from the “mew” call that often punctuates the end of the song.

The handsome and vocal bird is also responsible for an old saying, “sitting in the catbird seat,” which means being in a favored or prominent position. Fitting, since male catbirds do like to sing from prominent perches. I’ve seen it in action after catbirds started coming to my feeder to test the new fruity suet I hung up. Often a lone catbird would sit high atop the pole belting out a song or simply standing guard.

The story of exactly how the "catbird seat" expression came to be is rather murky and also quite interesting.  Here are links to the curious origins:

https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/catbird%20seat

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Catbird_seat

Male and female House Finches

at my feeder.

May 2024

House Finch

The House Finch is the second “House” bird on my list, and like the House Sparrow of March, it also has an interesting origin story. As you recall, House Sparrows were brought over from Europe and released into New York City, then multiplied…and multiplied….from there. As for House Finches, these birds, which originated in the western U.S. and Mexico, were brought to the east coast by pet dealers who tried to sell them as “Hollywood Finches.” Eventually the dealers released them out of fear of getting arrested.

 

Male House Finches have beautiful rosy red heads and upper chests while the females are grayish brown with blurry streaks on their bellies. They like to stick close together, and I often see them in pairs at my feeder. They take the “house” part of their name quite seriously, often nesting in places close to and attached to homes like patio flowerpots and door wreaths. A pair nested a few times in one of the support arms of my door’s portico. We made it a point to be extra quiet coming in and out of the house!

House finch eggs in nest

House Finch eggs in nest by my door.

Fledgling House Finches

from a different year.

Actual photos of a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker working on my backyard maple tree, plus a close-up of the rows of holes he left in my pecan tree.

April 2024

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker

Let’s go exotic for April! Well actually, the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker—despite its quirky name—is pretty common in North America. You can find them from Canada all the way down to Panama.

Sapsuckers drill holes into bark just like other woodpeckers. But don’t expect to hear any jackhammering when they’re around. They’re quieter workers, making neat rows of holes to search for sap and trapped insects that they lick up with their brush-tipped tongues. They also make and maintain shallow rectangles that they return to for later meals.

When I moved to my new house last year, I noticed one of my trees was filled with rows of little holes—from the trunk way up its branches. At the time, having had no idea this was a sapsucker’s work, I spent hours online looking up what kind of strange tree I had before learning that it was a sapsucker to blame! Right after finding that out, sure enough, a sapsucker landed in the tree.

Now he’s moved to the sugar maple right outside my office. That’s him in the photos. (The red patch on the throat gives him away as a “he”).

House sparrow (Passer domesticus) at the food place House sparrow at the food place.jpg

March 2024

House Sparrow

Keeping with the theme of "common" everyday birds, I present the House Sparrow. It’s got “house” in its name, so that’s a clue as to where they like to hang out. Okay, not inside your house, of course, but you’ll find them pecking around places where people are, such as suburban neighborhoods, city streets, and farms.

 

If you hear lots of chirping inside your neighbor’s hedge, there’s a good chance a few house sparrows are inside. (By the way, that's the extent of their singing--just chirps.)

When I was growing up, any small brown bird was a sparrow to me. But actually, there’s lots of different kinds of sparrows in North America—dozens, actually!

 

And here’s a fun fact for ya: The House Sparrow isn’t native to North America. Back in 1851, a bunch of them were brought over from Europe and released in New York City (yeah, people did odd stuff like that back then).

Pair of Northern Cardinal (cardinalis cardinalis) in a tree.jpg

February 2024

Northern Cardinal

Our February bird is another one that’s common in North America—The Northern Cardinal. It’s a pretty bird, and popular, too: Seven states claim it as their official bird, and many a holiday card and calendar have featured a stunning male posing against a snowy backdrop (although the females have a beauty of their own—just not as showy).

One particular reason February is a good month to talk about cardinals is the holiday of love that we celebrate—Valentine’s Day. Cardinals, you see, have been known to mate for life. And get this—during breeding season, the males will feed seeds to their partners!  I’ve actually seen this happening at my feeder station and couldn’t help but let out an, Aww, how sweet! (especially since it looks like they’re kissing when they do that). My husband and I have taken to calling any cardinal pair we see “Mr. and Mrs. Cardinal.”

Northern Cardinals are fine singers, too, with their cheer-cheer-cheer and birdie-birdie-birdie and what I’ve heard someone describe as the space laser gun. They’re also frequent feeder visitors, often the first to come in the morning and the last to stop by in the evening.

And yet, with all the reasons to love cardinals, how many of us pass them by with barely a passing glance? Let’s resolve this year to stop and admire the cardinals in our lives.

Image by Trac Vu

January 2024

American Robin

January’s Bird of the Month is the humble American Robin, one of my earliest bird memories growing up in the city. For a while I thought its official name was Robin Redbreast, since that’s what so many people called it. (The fact that the bird’s breast looked orange confused me, but I just went along with it.)

American Robins aren’t birdseed eaters. They prefer worms and insects and often forage on the ground. They also eat berries; I’ve seen them in winter plucking them from trees and shrubs. They will join in on the bird action in your yard and may partake if you offer stuff like mealworms and fruit. They also visit birdbaths.

The robin’s song is relatively loud and goes something like cheerily, cheer up, cheer up, cheerily, cheer up. They also do a loud laugh.

Fun fact: Every once in a while an American Robin will get blown off course during migration and end up across the Atlantic! British birdwatchers will flock to see this rare (for them) species with their own eyes. So whenever you're out birding and think to yourself “Oh, it’s just a boring robin,” try to remember how amazing the sight is to those in the U.K.

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