Some of the most common backyard birds you might see…
Blue jays have always been a rarity for me to see, even more so than the cardinal. They are very beautiful and interesting looking birds that I wish I could see more often. Blue jays are passerine birds, which means that they have 3 toes in the front and one in the back, which is perfect for perching. Passerine birds account for more than half of all birds.
Blue jays are mostly blue with white underparts and a blue crest. They have a collar of black around their necks and their faces are white. The wings can be a mix of blue, white, and black and the feathers on their head can be up or down according to the mood they are in. Usually with most birds, when the crest is up it means they are aggressive or cautious. When it is down, it means they are submissive or scared.
Blue jays can measure from 9-12 inches from bill to tail and weigh 2.5-3.5 ounces. Their wings can spread out up to 17 inches and the males are slightly larger than the females. They look alike and the only way to tell the difference is in their nesting behaviors. Most blue colored birds don’t have a pigment that turns their feathers blue. The structure of the feathers creates the color because of light interference, so if the feather is destroyed then the color would be as well.
This bird’s diet consists mainly of seeds, nuts, some fruits, and insects. They will hide nuts to be eaten later, like squirrels do. They look for food in trees or on the ground, and can sometimes snatch an insect right out of the air. They also eat bread, meat, grains, corn, and occasionally eggs. If you have a bird feeder, they will shy away from other birds because oftentimes other birds are aggressive towards them.
Blue jays are distributed throughout southern Canada to as far south as Florida and Texas and stops where the Steller’s Jays territory begins, who are closely related. There has been cross breeding between the two jays, due mostly to more tree growth because of less fires.
Little is known about their migratory habits. Some stay in wintery conditions, while others fly south, mainly thought to be because of food availability. Younger jays migrate more than adults, with flocks of anywhere from 5-250 birds flying in the daytime. They prefer to settle in forests that are not too dense.
Blue jays are smart, curious, and inquisitive by nature. They are important to other birds simply for the fact that they will sound an alarm to smaller birds if there is a predator around. They can also impersonate sounds from predatory birds, but it is not known whether it’s to ward off other birds to keep food to themselves or to see if a predator is in the area. Owls who try to nest near blue jays will be pestered until they move somewhere else. Owls are one of its predators, so they don’t want them anywhere near their home. Other enemies of the blue jay are hawks, squirrels, opossums, raccoons, crows and other birds of prey.
Blue jays begin mating from March-July with their lifelong mates. Both birds build the nest from roots, moss, cloth, paper, twigs and more. Usually they build one higher up in a tree between branches, but occasionally they will use a mailbox or another bird’s old nest. The female incubates between 3-6 eggs for a few weeks until they hatch, while the male brings her food the whole time.
Once the babies hatch, they remain in the nest until they can fly in a few weeks. As a family, they find food together and travel around for a few months before the now independent babies can fly off on their own. Blue jays are considered sexually mature when they are one year old. They normally live for up to 10 years (double that in captivity), though one was found to be 17 in the wild. Jays are susceptible to the West Nile Virus, and although many are taken, there are many more to replace them, as it stands now.
Blue jays are well known birds, despite a complete understanding of their behavior. They are the provincial bird of Prince Edward Island in Canada, the official mascot of Johns Hopkins University, and the team mascot of the Toronto Blue Jays.
Over 500 birds have been found dead at the McNary National Wildlife Refuge near Burbank, WA because of a particularly virulent strain of Avian Cholera. More birds were continuing to be counted and collected when news broke, as workers keep track of just how successful this disease has been in spreading across the local bird population.
Cholera is often spread in the colder and wetter months of the year as birds often travel great distances and congregate together. That makes it easy for diseases to spread quickly in close proximity to additional hosts. Avian Cholera itself doesn’t spread to human hosts, though humans themselves must be careful in the disposal of bird carcasses to prevent contracting a different disease. So far, the majority of birds infected have been mallard ducks, with a handful of other species occasionally seen such as blue herons and northern harriers.
While the initial hot zone appears to be the Wildlife Refuge itself, some of the bird carcasses have been found on rivers and private properties. No other cases of Avian Cholera have been reported at additional sites, so it would appear as though the strain is local. The Federal Government is taking appropriate steps to prevent further outbreaks outside of the Wildlife Refuge. Federal workers have stopped setting up local feeding spots with corn. That will deter birds from gathering together at spots where they may be exposed to other birds with the bacteria.
While the disease is only expected to spread until the warmer months, the Avian Cholera is noted to be quite lethal to birds. Some are noted to have died as quickly as six hours after the initial infection. This bacteria is known to spread to other birds by way of carcasses, droppings, and contaminated food and water. Local residents are told to remove any dead birds found by placing it in a bag and pouring bleach on it to kill harmful bacteria before disposing of it. Stay up to date on the latest bird news at www.audubon.org.
Every year on or around March 19th, on St. Joseph’s day, something beautiful happens at the Mission in San Juan Capistrano. The legendary swallows arrive as expected from Argentina. As these swallows find their way back to this place every year, many visitors from all corners of the world gather in massive numbers to witness their arrival amid celebrations.
Every year, a small group of birds known as scout swallows arrive a few days ahead of the main flock. The majority of the swallows arrive on the 19th and immediately start reconstructing the mud nests on the ruins of the old stone church, as well as other places in the Capistrano valley. This goes on till October when they migrate back to Argentina.
The Great Stone Church, that was once known as the most beautiful and largest of all the missions, has now been reduced to housing these birds that were dearly loved by St. Francis. The mission was first built in 1776 but was destroyed by an earthquake in 1812 and was never rebuilt fully.
The San Juan Capistrano mission happens to be the seventh in a chain of 21 California missions, all which are separated by the distance of a day’s walk. The mission was named after Saint John of Capistrano, a crusader who had taken the name of his Italian birthplace.
Located near two rivers, the mission was a strategic place for the swallows to nest for many years due to the availability of insects to feed on. Today, the reduction in the number of insects, because of development in the area, has contributed to the relocation of the swallows further away from the town center. They prefer open areas so they move away when an area develops or becomes forested. This sheds some light as to why, for several years now, huge clouds of sparrows descending on the mission have not been seen.
Swallows prefer areas that are near food and water sources such as bridges near creeks. They also came to the mission because it was the biggest main building as well. It is said that when the Great Stone Church was stabilized, the preservationists did away with the nests that had been built over a long time. Therefore, these birds relocated to other areas of San Juan Capistrano.
The legend goes that these swallows had taken refuge in the mission to stay away from an irate innkeeper who destroyed their muddy nests. So, the swallows come back to the old ruined church every spring knowing that they will be safe within its walls.
Today, the city has taken the swallow’s safety seriously by passing an ordinance against destroying their nests. Moreover, efforts are being made to lure them back by constructing more artificial nests. This is a strategy to try and lure them back for good to the mission.
A temporary wall was put up on the east side of the ruins of the Great Stone Church that holds about 30 nests made from dental plaster underneath an archway. The ultimate goal is for the swallows to come and begin using these artificial nests and then they will spill over into the natural walls.
I don’t know about other people, but fixing up the yard is one of my favorite ways to spend the day. It makes me feel happy about my surroundings and it also helps me to add structure to my routine. In my neighborhood, it often seems like there is a “competition” in terms of who has the most attractive yard. When we had a warm day recently, I spent the entire day in my yard doing various things.
I started off by mowing the lawn with my Black & Decker electric mower, which I managed to get for a reasonable price online! This was my first time using it, so I was excited but apprehensive. I was really happy with the results because it was easy to use and did such an amazing job. It seemed to cut the grass even shorter than I had it previously, which made everything look even tidier. It was also quicker than my last mower, which was a plus because I had lots to get done on this day! After mowing the lawn, I stored the mower away in the shed. It was surprisingly light and I actually cannot wait to use it again.
I then got on with fixing up the rest of the yard. My two small grandchildren visit and regularly play out here, so this meant there were a few toys that they had forgotten about that I had to pick up. Next I decided to plant some flowers. I already had a few rose bushes that were now in full bloom but I decided to add some lillies. There was a spare patch of land towards the back of my yard which made the perfect spot. This particular section always gets plenty of sunlight and I know if they are watered regularly, they will grow beautifully.
Once my yard was clean and looking quite pretty, I decided to spend the rest of my day outside watching the birds! I set up a few bird feeders and baths, which I always do in the warmer months of the year. This makes the birds flock to my yard and I particularly like watching them feed and play together. Once all the hard work was done, I grabbed a beer before sitting on the porch to relax and bird watch! There were Blue Jays, Sparrows and even a woodpecker! I usually see mockingbirds too but not on that day. The way that the creatures interact with each other really is amazing and it always makes me smile.
I had such a lovely day decorating the yard and when my wife got home from work, she was really pleased with the results. I told her I’m only going to use electric lawn mowers from now on since they are so easy to use and I don’t have to smell gas the whole time. Getting tasks done makes me feel like I’m doing something productive with my day and if it’s a sunny, it really is not a chore at all. Spending time with nature, even when it’s just outside my front door, really puts me in a better mood.
The shoebill is an endangered bird which usually lives in large swamps from Sudan to Zamibia. It can also be found in tropical east Africa. The bird is also known as shoe-billed stork or whalehead, and it derives its name from its big shoe-shaped beak. The shoebill can be easily identified based on this feature, but when it’s in flight, it can be mistaken for a stork or a condor. This bird is known from the ancient times, with both Egyptians and Arabs mentioning it. However, it didn’t start being observed by the scientific community until the 19th Century. During the past few years, the shoebill has been very vulnerable and now it’s classified as an endangered species.
The shoebill can be considered a relatively tall bird, and its typical height ranges from 110 to 140 cm (43 to 55 inches). It weighs 4 to 7 kg and the males are usually heavier than the females. This bird can be mainly identified based on its enormous beak, with its irregular grey color. The feathering of the shoebill is also distinctive. An adult bird will have a blue-grey plumage and its flight-feathers are usually grey. Its legs are incredibly long, and this helps the shoebill hunt while standing on aquatic vegetation. The bird can also be identified by its flight pattern. Its wings are held flat when hovering and it flies with its neck retracted.
2. Endangered Status
The shoebill is currently at the limit of extinction, mostly caused by the destruction of their natural habitat. People are turning their swamp habitat into farmland, leaving these birds without shelter and food. Today, the shoebill population is estimated at between 5000 and 8000 and is constantly declining. They can be found in big numbers in Congo, Zamibia and on the wetlands of Tanzania. The BirdLife International Association classified the shoebill as a vulnerable species. The main threats to this bird are destruction of natural habitat, hunting and disturbance.
Shoebills are mostly classified as piscivorous birds but they also hunt a wide range of wetland vertebrates. It mainly feeds on marbled lungfish, Senegal bichir or catfish. They also feed on wetland specimens like water snakes, frogs, Nile monitors or even baby crocodiles. Sometimes, the shoebills are seen hunting snails, turtles or rodents. Considering their enormous beak, they can hunt even larger prey. Their “hunting strategy” mainly consists of standing above the water and waiting for its prey to get in range. When its target is nearby, the bird sinks into the water and simply picks it up with a fast move.
The Shoebill normally comes out from its nest at night when it goes hunting. It usually swallows its prey and then drinks some water. However, if it has babies, the female will usually shred its prey into small pieces and carry it to the nest. Besides the breeding season, the shoebill is a solitary bird. However, they often gather in big groups when the food resources are concentrated in a certain area. The birds are very territorial and they usually set their perimeter at several square miles from their nest. They will usually attack any other animal or bird that crosses their territory. The shoebill is not a migratory bird and it usually moves depending on the available food resources.
The future of the shoebill is uncertain. The continuous destruction of their natural habitat is expected to drastically diminish their number in the following years. However, the Zambian, Tanzanian and Ugandan government took a series of measures in order to protect these birds. The Tanzanian Moyokosi site hosts a few hundreds individuals in a natural reservation type of habitat. The Ramsar Convention on Wetlands has the sole purpose of preserving their natural habitat. Uganda values these birds, as they are an important attraction for ecotourism. The injured birds or the ones confiscated from the trappers are usually taken to the Kampala Zoo.
The shoebill is a very unusual and special type of bird. Without special efforts from the authorities, this bird might become extinct in a matter of years. That’s why it’s important to raise awareness and make people understand the importance of these birds and not to hunt them either.