Hoping for a year-end bonus
(posted 12-1-07)

No matter what happens this month, 2007 has been my best year ever in the backyard. I’ve spotted 86 species so far—seven more than my previous best in 2005. This is the fifth straight year that I've kept an annual yard list.

My latest success happened a few weeks ago when I heard a pair of Great Horned Owls calling. This was around 2:00 a.m. It was a mild November night, so I had the window open a crack—I might not have heard the birds otherwise because they were some distance away. Listening to owls at night is always a thrill, but since Great Horned Owl had been missing from my 2007 yard list I was especially pleased to hear these ones.

Another success—and a more surprising one—was the Carolina Wren that turned up on November 9. In the 10 years that we’ve lived in our current home, it was only the fourth time I’d recorded this species in the yard.

I’ve been keeping a close eye on my tube thistle feeder for two other species that I’d love to see before we turn the calendar. The first is Pine Siskin. It’s been four years this month since my yard last hosted a siskin but I’ve noticed (through online reports) that many birders have reported siskins at their feeders in recent weeks. An encouraging sign!

Pine Siskins are special to me because it’s the only “lifer” that I’ve ever registered in the yard. That happened in January 1998, just a few months after we moved to Glen Ellyn. My notes say that siskins were common in the yard that winter. They’ve certainly not been common since.

Another bird on my wish list is Common Redpoll. My hopes are higher than usual because it appears that this winter might be a good one for this species—redpolls were reported with some regularity around the Chicago region during November. I’ve never had a redpoll in the yard, and, in fact, I’ve had only one encounter with this species. That was at Fermilab in 1999 and the sighting lasted all of about five seconds. Trust me, I’d give a lot to wake up one morning and see a redpoll on my thistle feeder just 15 feet from the kitchen window!

Either a siskin or a redpoll would truly be a year-end bonus. But if neither bird appears, that’ll be okay. Yard-wise, it has already been an extraordinary year.

Two species were new in 2007: A Field Sparrow in April and a flyover Peregrine Falcon in May. My all-time yard list now totals 104.

One of the most satisfying aspects of 2007 was the appearance of several birds that I’d only seen once before in (or from) the yard. Birds like Yellow-Billed Cuckoo, Common Yellowthroat, Green Heron and American Kestrel. Other highlights:
• I heard an Eastern Screech Owl on four different occasions—three of them in March. Before ’07, I’d only heard a “screechie” in the yard three times in nine years.
• A Cooper’s Hawk paid a surprise visit to our heated birdbath in January. It was the closest prolonged look I’ve ever had of this species.
• In August, I witnessed a Northern Cardinal feeding a juvenile Brown-Headed Cowbird. The “baby” was almost as large as the redbird! This was my first time witnessing the brood parasitism that cowbirds are known for.
• Another “first” was nesting House Wrens. I’d been trying to attract wrens for years and a new wooden nest box seemed to make all the difference. It was my best bird-related purchase of 2007.
• Another good acquisition was a second hummingbird feeder—a cheapie from Wal-Mart that I placed about 20 feet away from my trusty HummZinger model. This really increased the activity level in September, which has always been the best month for hummers in my yard.

So it really was an exciting year out back, and I’d be crazy to expect any better in 2008. My goal, instead, is to see a few new species and, along the way, hone my observation skills by watching for bird behaviors that perhaps I’ve been overlooking. I also want to get better at identifying birds by sound.

But enough about 2008. I still have 31 days to put a little avian icing on the cake that was 2007. Siskins and redpolls, your breakfast is waiting.

Copyright 2007 by Jeff Reiter. All Rights Reserved.
A 288-page gem
(posted 10-29-07)

There’s a new book I'm reading that you may have heard of: “Good Birders Don’t Wear White—50 Tips from North America’s Top Birders.” If you haven’t yet picked up a copy, buy one or borrow one soon. I think you’ll be glad you did.

“Good Birders” has much to offer—excellent short essays about the hobby we love, many of them contributed by “superstars” like Pete Dunne, Kenn Kaufman, David Sibley, Scott Weidensaul and Julie Zickefoose. In other words, folks who know their stuff and can really write. I’m not finished with it yet, but I can already vouch for this book as a solid collection of practical advice. Plus it’s just fun to read.

Not all of the contributors are household names. One of my favorite chapters so far is “Birder or Bird Watcher? You Decide,” by Scott Shalaway. He discusses how family obligations have forced him to scale back from his days as an obsessed bird-chasing lister and spend more time watching the backyard. Boy, can I relate to that! But Shalaway also shows why labels like “birder” and “bird watcher” don’t really matter. We can be both. What matters is that we appreciate the birds that are before us, wherever we are. Other chapters in “Good Birders” suggest ways to do just that.

The book has a nice sense of humor, too. “Follow These Rules to See a Mangrove Cuckoo,” by Don and Lillian Stokes, does a great job capturing some of the quirky truisms of birding. You know, things like how the best bird of a field trip is usually spotted in the parking lot. The chapter is a good reminder not to take ourselves too seriously and that luck, not skill, often determines the outcome of our bird quests.

“Good Birders” is a book to savor. I’m taking it slow, reading just two or three chapters at a time—I retain more that way. But it’s a hard book to put down. See for yourself, and go ahead and wear white when you do.

More book notes: Weidensaul was the DuPage Birding Club’s guest speaker in July. I’m a big fan, and if you heard him speak or have read his books and magazine articles you can understand why. His latest work, “Of a Feather: A Brief History of American Birding,” is on my bedside table. I never thought much about our hobby’s past until last year when I read “A World of Watchers,” by Joseph Kastner. It was a lot more interesting than I expected it to be. Birding really has a fascinating history, including many colorful personalities. I’m eager to see how Weidensaul handles the topic.

The new Roger Tory Peterson biography by Douglas Carlson also is on my “must read” list. It’s the first book about RTP since his death in 1996. Which reminds me, are they ever going to rename one of our warblers in his honor? Hope so.

Copyright 2007 by Jeff Reiter. All Rights Reserved.
My best yard year ever
(posted 9-25-07)

We moved into our present home exactly 10 years ago this month. At the time, I never imagined that I’d come to enjoy “yard birding” so much.

This month will go down as the best one I’ve ever had for hummingbirds. For the first time, I placed two feeders in my backyard, about 25 feet apart. Maybe that’s been the difference. Then again, reports indicate that hummingbird numbers are up throughout the region.

Amidst the hummers, last weekend’s excitement was a Yellow-Throated Vireo. It was my 80th yard species of 2007--one better than my previous best year.

It has indeed been an exceptional year, and it’s far from over. I’ll be looking for Hermit Thrush, Brown Creeper, Purple Finch, Fox Sparrow and Pine Siskin in the coming weeks. With a little luck and a lot of observation time, my year list could grow to 85 species or more.

Soon it will be time to choose a “Yard Bird of the Year.” It will almost certainly be the Peregrine Falcon that coursed over on May 27th. Needless to say, it was a first--and probably a bird I will never see again from the yard. The only other new visitor in 2007 (so far) was a Field Sparrow. My all-time yard list now stands at 104 species.

Copyright 2007 by Jeff Reiter. All Rights Reserved.
A kestrel on high
(posted 8-24-07)

True confession: I get excited about pigeons. No, not the ones I see every weekday in Chicago, or the ones pecking around the Jewel parking lot here in Glen Ellyn. The rock pigeons that get my attention are of the backyard variety.

Adding a pigeon to my annual yard list is no slam dunk. Not once have I seen one on the ground under my feeders, and “flybys” are surprisingly rare. Luck was on my side a few weeks ago when a small flock went over at the same time I was out on my driveway watching some broad-winged hawks. Great timing! I really appreciated those pigeons (and the hawks too) because I'm trying to see 80 species in the yard this year for the first time. I'm now at 76.

But my point is that common birds can take on new meaning in a backyard context. A ho-hum bird “in the field” can be a very coveted bird in the yard.

Maybe you recall my story about spotting a Common Yellowthroat for my 100th yard bird overall. I'd waited years to see that bird in my yard, even though it’s an easy-to-find species in nearby fields and marshes. My milestone sighting was in 2006, and I haven't looked at yellowthroats the same since.

Sometimes seeing a rare yard visitor for the second time is better than the first. On July 28 I was walking down my driveway to retrieve the morning newspaper when I noticed a familiar shape at the very top of a tall pine one yard over. It seemed too robust for a mourning dove, and doves usually perch on wires. Could it be? I ran inside to get my binoculars, and fortunately the bird stayed put. Sure enough, an American Kestrel! In nearly 10 years of backyard birdwatching at my present home, I'd seen a kestrel only once before—a flyby in 2003 that left me wishing for a longer look.

This kestrel was a lot more cooperative, allowing me to watch for about five minutes. The handsome little falcon pumped its tail contantly—something I’d never noticed before. Turns out, according to Sibley, that’s a typical kestrel behavior trait. It was a good reminder to pay better attention to the little details that add so much to the joy of birdwatching.

The backyard kestrel hasn’t returned, and I don't expect it to. But now, every time I go down my driveway, I can't help glancing over at my neighbor's pine. At the top. Just in case.

Copyright 2007 by Jeff Reiter. All Rights Reserved.
For my birthday, a Bell's Vireo would be nice
(posted 7-31-07)

I'd decided about a week in advance that if the weather was nice, and if conditions were right at work, I'd take my birthday off. It would be a Friday, so all the better.

Yes, I was pretty sure that July 20 would be a day of hooky. But how would I spend it? It was fun thinking about the possibilities. More precisely, would it be birding or baseball? I would choose just one, since I wanted to spend at least part of the day with our six-year-old son Jay. (Rachel, age 11, was away at camp in Wisconsin.)

On five occasions during my 48 years I have attended a Major League Baseball game on my birthday. It's something I like to do, and having a July birthday and being near a large city with two big-league teams presents at least one possibility annually. Although my attendance has fallen off in recent years I'm still a big fan of the game—especially when the Cleveland Indians are playing.

I like the Cubs, too, and they had an afternoon date with the Diamondbacks on July 20. Wrigley Field would be sold out, but finding a single seat—maybe even a really good seat—would not be a problem.

Well, this blog isn’t called Words on Baseball, so you know the choice I made. The clincher? I had a good chance of seeing a new bird.

Lately I've been working a little harder to find some of the birds that have always eluded me. I'm talking about species that can be found in the Chicago region at certain times of the year if you have good information and also good luck. My efforts since last fall have added Snow Bunting, Harlequin Duck and Acadian Flycatcher to my life list.

Until this summer, I’d never single-mindedly pursued a Bell’s Vireo. It wasn't until June that I finally got serious about finding one. That month, despite excellent scouting reports from fellow birders, I struck out in three attempts at Greene Valley Forest Preserve in Woodridge. It was time to try a new venue.

In DuPage County, one of the most reliable places for Bell's Vireo has always been Fermilab in Batavia, where a few pairs nest each year. Just a week before my birthday, a Bell's was located by group of birders that included noted author and naturalist Scott Weidensaul. They found it along the so-called sparrow hedge, the usual spot at Fermi.

I haven't done a lot of birding at Fermi, and one reason, especially in recent years, is access. Security was tightened up considerably after the Sept. 11 tragedy. Birders are still welcome on the grounds, at least on most days, but it’s frustrating not being able to enter before 8:00 a.m. That's sleeping in for most of us birders.

I thought about stopping at another birding hotspot before Fermi, just to kill time, but then reconsidered. Better to be well fortified for my primary mission, so I headed for the IHOP in Wheaton instead. Going out to breakfast and reading the newspaper (especially during baseball season) is a rare but satisfying indulgence. My birthday was starting off in fine fashion.

I arrived at Fermi’s east entrance gate around 7:35, hoping the guard might let me slip in early. Nope, sorry sir, you'll have to wait. So I pulled over into the small parking lot and watched a steady stream of cars pass through the checkpoint. Fermi has more employees than I ever knew, and apparently most of them begin their shifts at 8:00.

When it was finally time to begin mine, I drove in and parked at the red barn. The sparrow hedge is less than a mile from this point, and on my way down the trail I encountered many catbirds and goldfinches. Not knowing this part of Fermi very well, I was just sort of feeling my way along. I knew I was heading in the right direction, but the "hedge" is not a clearly defined feature. Like the famed Magic Hedge at Montrose Beach in Chicago, it's not really a hedge at all. But whatever it is, the birds certainly like it.

The strategy for Bell’s, as with many other secretive species, is to locate the bird by listening, then hope for a quick glimpse. This species prefers scrubby underbrush and is far more often heard than seen.

I’d been listening to a Bell's Vireo for the previous month via the Bird Guide section of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology website, www.birds.cornell.edu/AllAboutBirds. It’s a great resource, especially when I need to hear a species that's not included on my Peterson Birding by Ear CDs.

The Bell’s song is raspy and scolding. It seems to me that a bird with such a musical name should have a more pleasing voice. But alas, Bell’s Vireo is named for a person, not something found in a church. John Graham Bell was a taxidermist who accompanied John James Audubon on a Missouri River trip in 1843.

In my first half hour at Fermi, the most interesting sighting was an ovenbird—quite an unexpected species since I wasn't in a forest. A Baltimore oriole and several blue-gray gnatcatchers were flitting about, too. Nice birds, but I was getting a little anxious. When and where would I hear the Bell’s? Was I again destined to miss this bird?

No, I was not. Setting down a new path, still along the sparrow hedge, I heard the noise I’d been training for—distinctive, unmistakable. As I walked it became louder. The Bell's was close, and for a few seconds it even popped into view. It was a drab little bird, but seeing it was important to me. It was a “lifer” after all. And besides, when searching for a bird like Bell’s Vireo that's notoriously difficult to observe, doesn’t the observer become a little more determined? I felt fortunate to get several short looks in good light, with the sun at my back.

Walking back to my car, I remember thinking what a good choice I’d made—to go birding, alone, instead of to a baseball game with 42,000 others. It was not even 10 o’clock and already I’d had a great day. Any birder would understand.

Copyright 2007 by Jeff Reiter. All Rights Reserved.
Greene Valley Acadian
(posted 6-25-07)

Greene Valley Forest Preserve in Woodridge is only 10 miles south of my home. So why had I only been there once or twice before? Well, until this past week, I guess I didn't know what I was missing.

Multiple reports of a very accessible Acadian flycatcher was my catalyst. The bird was first reported on June 6 by Mike Madsen, a veteran birder who knows every inch of Greene Valley--he's been monitoring birds there for years. Mike heard and then sighted the flycatcher in an open scrubby area, which is not typical habitat for an Acadian. It was the first time he had ever seen this species at Greene Valley. Since I had never seen an Acadian flycatcher in my LIFE, I paid close attention to his reports on IBET, the birding list-serve.

And the postings kept coming. Not only was the bird out of place, it was hanging around! On June 20 I decided to go for it. It was a beautiful cool morning--a great day to be out after about a week of hot and sticky conditions. The night before and in the car on the way, I played the empidonax flycatcher track from my Birding by Ear CD series. I played the Acadian segment over and over, trying to burn that sound into my head.

The homework paid off. Once at Greene Valley I located the bird fairly easily--it was right where Mike described it. Naturally I heard the flycatcher first. But within a few minutes I was watching it sing from fairly close range. As birders know, it's very satisfying to find a sought-after "life bird" and be able to observe it at length and in good light. Even better when the bird is vocalizing.

The Acadian made my day, but there was more to be enjoyed. I proceeded along the crushed limestone paths of Greene Valley and found Baltimore and orchard orioles, yellow warbler, common yellowthroat, Eastern towhee and indigo bunting--all nice birds to watch and listen to. Catbirds and red-winged blackbirds were especially plentiful.

Around 7:00 a.m. I reluctantly got back in my car and headed home--it was Wednesday and I had to get to work! After a quick change and a commute on Metra, I was in my Chicago office before 9.

Three days later I found myself back at Greene Valley, this time in a light rain. Like the previous visit, I had a target bird: Bell's vireo. If successful, it would be my second lifer of the week.

Well, sometimes the birding gods get even. They decided to make me really work for the Bell's. And I'm still working. I didn't find one that day in the drizzle, or the next day either. Nice consolations were a white-eyed vireo and a yellow-billed cuckoo. I'll take those birds any day. But my lifer Bell's will have to wait.

Maybe this Saturday my luck with turn. Bell's vireos are confirmed at Greene Valley--my birding colleagues have been finding them with relative ease in recent weeks. They've told me where to look and I know what to listen for. It's a matter of persistence and timing.

So I'll keep trying in the days to come, and I'll keep enjoying Greene Valley. It has more to offer than I ever realized.

Copyright 2007 by Jeff Reiter. All Rights Reserved.
A fabulous falcon and other yard highlights
(posted 6-5-07)

Several few years ago I won some kudos for spotting a peregrine falcon during the spring bird count. I was with two other birders covering the Morton Arboretum when I saw the bird high overhead and called out. It was a rather improbable sighting, but my colleagues--more experienced than me--confirmed the ID. I enjoyed that moment, and I recalled it on May 27 when I saw only my second lifetime peregrine falcon in DuPage County--this time from my back patio!

The peregrine was a new "yard bird" for me, species No. 104, and obviously one of the highlights of my spring birding. During May, the peak of migration season, I was out on the patio almost every morning just before 6 a.m., listening and looking. Even on work days I squeezed in an hour of birding before heading for the train. So a lot of early wake-ups, but it was worth it.

The same day I saw the falcon, I also spotted a yellow-billed cuckoo. I'd only had a cuckoo in the yard once before, in May 2005, so it was quite a surprise. Another bird I'd only had once before was Eastern kingbird, a fairly easy bird to find if you know where to look. But until May 4--and then again on May 27!--I hadn't seen a kingbird in my yard since 2002. It was good to end a five-year drought.

Another sweet May moment was finding a rose-breasted grosbeak on my sunflower seed tube feeder one morning when I first went outside. Fortunately he startled me more that I startled him so he stayed for a few minutes. It would be my only grosbeak of the spring.

In the warbler department it was a so-so May in my yard. I logged a dozen varieties, among them Blackburnian, chestnut-sided, blackpoll, black and white, Wilson's and bay-breasted. Vireos? Just two: red-eyed (of course) and blue-headed (alright!).

This spring I really got to know the beautiful song of the Swainson's thrush. I'm not sure if it was one bird or several different ones, but Swainson's was "uncommonly common" in my yard during the second half of May. Most mornings I never saw one but boy did I hear it.

Brown thrasher is a bird I can never count on. Before last month I'd only had two yard sightings, once in late April and once in very early May. It was therefore kind of shocking to have one stop by on May 28--a true "bonus bird." He was perched fairly high in a neighbor's tree and making all the weird sounds you'd expect from a thrasher.

One species I expected to see (or at least hear) was gray catbird, one of my favorite backyard birds. No luck. But if birding is anything it's unpredictable.

For 2007, my yard list now sits at 74 species. This is my fifth straight year of keeping a "year list" for the yard, and so far my highest total is 79 species, in 2005. With a little luck--and a lot more hours on my patio this fall--a new personal best is within reach. A flyover bald eagle for No. 80 would be nice. But a catbird would be fine, too.

Copyright 2007 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.
Cleaning up the yard (list)
(posted 5-21-07)

Things were really popping in my backyard this morning. Judging by the volume and diversity of the "dawn chorus," the neighborhood was loaded with birds. The highlight was a singing scarlet tanager, a fiery male. That's what I like to call a "wow bird"--the kind that could turn almost anybody into a birder.

Flycatchers were flitting around, too. I generally know a member of the empidonax flycatcher family when I see one, but I've never had much confidence in telling them apart. Knowing their songs is the only sure-proof way to make a positive ID.

After a few minutes outside I heard an incessant two-note call that I guessed had to be a least flycatcher. I then went back inside to check the ID using my Peterson "Birding by Ear" CDs. I played the flycatcher track--the segment that I've surely played more than any other over the years--and easily confirmed that the bird I'd been watching and listening to was indeed a least flycatcher.

I tell this story because my official yard list, until now, had one aggravating flaw. One of the species I'd listed wasn't a species at all, it was a family. Not trusting my identification skills, I'd simply written down "empidonax flycatcher species." No shame in that--it's the proper and conservative thing to put down when you're not sure--but it was a lot less precise than I preferred.

So, today my yard list became a little cleaner when I added a "no doubt" least flycatcher. My list didn't grow--I'm still sitting at 103 species--but now every entry is an actual bird.

In the days ahead I'll be listening for Acadian and alder flycatchers, either of which would be a life bird for me. Having listened to the CD this morning and again tonight, I think I might be able to ID one of these other empids if one happens by and vocalizes. Or maybe not. But it's a test I'm looking forward to, whether it happens in the yard or in the field.

Copyright 2007 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.
A nice Monday night surprise
(posted 4-27-07)

My birding this month was mostly limited to the backyard. But that's OK, I like it there. The highlight came earlier this week when I spotted a field sparrow under one of our lilac bushes. It was a first-time sighting in the yard, species No. 103.

The field sparrow was congregating with several white-throated sparrows and a song sparrow. All of them were nibbling on the millet that I had put down the previous two days. But this was Monday night, so there couldn't have been many seeds left. Perhaps I'll start spreading the millet on a daily basis, just to keep the action going throughout the week.

Even if you work away from home all day, nice surprises can be waiting when you return -- especially this time of year. That was certainly the case for me on Monday. What a great way to start the week!

Copyright 2007 by Jeff Reiter. All Rights Reserved.
Uncommon visitors made this a winter to remember
(Published 3-22-07)

Retirement and birding, they go together. This winter I was again envious of my older birder friends who have the freedom to pursue this hobby with abandon. When a rare bird is reported in the area, they can drop everything and go see it.

Being tied to a nine-to-five, my schedule isn’t that flexible. But at least I can follow their adventures vicariously via the Internet. Hey, just because I’m office-bound doesn’t mean I can’t be informed!

Some of the sightings reported on the birding list-serve this winter were quite remarkable, reinforcing what I’ve said before: We live in great place for year-round birding. In January and February, many coveted species made local appearances, rewarding those who had the time (and cold-weather gear) to go after them.

Fortunately, not all the birds escaped me. When a pair of harlequin ducks was reported near North Avenue beach in Chicago in mid-January, I jumped at the chance to go see them. How could I not? I’d never seen a “harlie” before, and these birds were too close to pass up.

The six-dollar cab ride to North Avenue from my office was money well spent. It didn’t take long to find the ducks, which were conveniently swimming close to shore. The male harlequin is simply a spectacular bird, possibly North America’s most beautiful duck. Harlies are rare visitors to the Great Lakes, let alone downtown Chicago. They breed in northern Canada and winter primarily along rocky East Coast shorelines.

How I wish all the birds this winter had been so accessible! There were many I’d have loved to “chase.” Tops among them would be the purple sandpiper that turned up at Waukegan Beach and stayed for a tantalizing 10 days. The red-throated loons and black scoters seen at Illinois Beach State Park in Zion tempted me as well. Other nice finds by local birders included a red-shouldered hawk at Waterfall Glen Forest Preserve in Darien; rough-legged hawks and a bald eagle at Springbrook Prairie in Naperville; and a saw-whet owl at Morton Arboretum in Lisle. Northern shrikes—a true winter specialty—were seen in multiple DuPage County locations.

Two other exciting discoveries this winter took place early last month in Lombard. The one attracting the most attention—fueled by a prominent story and photo in the Daily Herald—was a snowy owl. The large white raptor was spotted on top of an apartment building across from Yorktown Center. A few snowy owl sightings occur each winter in this region, but they usually take place along the Chicago lakefront or in wide-open rural spaces—habitats similar to the species’ arctic tundra homeland. I’ve never seen a snowy in DuPage County, and unfortunately I wasn’t fast enough to see the one in Lombard.

Proving that “good birds” sometimes come in pairs, a northern mockingbird was found in Lombard on the same day as the owl. Mockingbirds are uncommon this far north, even in the spring and summer. Other songbird surprises this winter included an orange-crowned warbler found outside the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago, and a male Baltimore oriole at a backyard feeder in McHenry County. Hopefully these out-of-place birds survived the bitter cold.

Periodically I like to share the sign-on information for the Internet list-serve I mentioned earlier. It’s a great tool for all birders, retired or not. Besides alerting you to local rarities, the postings help you learn what birds to expect throughout the year and the best places see them. To get started, send a blank e-mail to ILbirds-subscribe@yahoogroups.com, wait for the response, then follow the instructions. The service is free.

Copyright 2007 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.
Avian outcasts: Non-native species unloved
(published 2-15-07)

It’s fitting that the monk parakeet is green. It is, after all, an alien bird.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

Or maybe that depends on who you ask. Non-native or “introduced” species like the monk parakeet, European starling, rock pigeon and house sparrow are despised by a lot of birders. They’re regarded as illegal immigrants, or worse. I’ve heard pigeons called rats with wings. Sky carp. Falcon food.

But whatever your opinion of them, non-native birds are here to stay. We might as well accept them and—dare I say it?—enjoy them. I confess that last spring I caught myself admiring a starling. The bird was on the ground, warming itself in the sun on a chilly morning. From my angle, the rainbow effect on its iridescent plumage was striking.

Monk parakeets are showy in a different way, and most of us are still getting to know them. This South American species gained a Chicago foothold in the 1970s, probably when a few pet birds were released into the wild. Their local population has been growing ever since.

Think of the monk as a parrot, not a parakeet. It’s a sizeable, conspicuous bird. Author Pete Dunne likens it to a bright green American kestrel, but with a longer, pointier tail. Monk parakeets live in noisy colonies characterized by enormous stick nests, often constructed on power line towers. The nest clusters—a headache for ComEd—are so dense (and the birds so hardy) that monk parakeets survive here year-round.

Like many area birders, I saw my first monk parakeet in the Hyde Park neighborhood of Chicago, home of the region’s original colony. The birds are easily found just south of the Science and Industry Museum—look for their nests on the light poles at the golf course driving range.

Last year, following a tip, I set out to see my first monk parakeets in DuPage County. I found them at Cricket Creek Forest Preserve in Addison. The best vantage point was actually from outside the preserve, from the southbound on-ramp to Route 83 off Lake Street. Their massive nest on the utility tower is impossible to miss.

Monk parakeets will visit backyard feeding stations, but be careful what you wish for. The birds travel in groups and have voracious appetites. They can empty a feeder faster than a flock of grackles, and watch your ornamental fruit trees too! They’d be welcome in my yard, though, just for the color and excitement.

Another expanding non-native species to look for is the Eurasian collared-dove. This bird looks just like a mourning dove but has a thin black band or “collar” behind its head. I see these birds every time I visit South Florida but their distribution is now well beyond the Southeast and moving north. They are commonly sighted in Illinois counties south of here, so I’ve started looking at the mourning doves in my yard a lot more carefully.

Maybe I’m thinking about non-native species a bit more these days because of a newly published book that I received for Christmas: “Pigeons: The Fascinating Saga of the World’s Most Revered and Reviled Bird.” I’m looking forward to it. Really.

Learning more about the common birds around us, including the non-natives, is a worthy goal. Be curious and keep an open mind. It’ll help you enjoy the hobby even more.

Jeff Reiter is a Glen Ellyn, Ill., resident who enjoys birding at home and in the field. You can reach him at jreiter@wordsonbirds.com.

Copyright 2007. All Rights Reserved.
Got ground? Try this simple and effective feeding strategy
(published 1-18-07)

The foundation of my backyard feeding program is a small Droll Yankees tube feeder filled with black-oil sunflower seeds. It is joined by two other tube-style feeders—one for shelled peanuts and one for thistle. These stations attract a nice variety of birds in all seasons. In May I’ll put out the hummingbird feeder, too.

But let’s remember that a lot of birds prefer to do their eating on the ground. Toss down a few handfuls of seed and you might be surprised by how quickly the activity level picks up. Sparrows, juncos, mourning doves and even cardinals are highly terrestrial when it comes to feeding.

In the winter, I put small amounts of millet and cracked corn on our bluestone patio. This brings the birds up close, right outside our kitchen’s sliding doors. The action can be especially good right after it snows, when foraging on bare ground is no longer possible. On those days I clear off an area of the patio, creating a “landing pad” that works like a bird magnet.

On Dec. 2, the day after that big snow messed up everybody’s Friday, a fox sparrow made a surprise appearance on the bluestone. “Foxies” are not common in my yard, and I’d never had one visit so late in the year. Even more exciting was the American tree sparrow that turned up about a week later—a new species, No. 102, for my yard list. The bird was congregating with a group of house sparrows and, based on coloration alone, could have been overlooked. So, if you try ground feeding, be alert for unusual visitors—attracting them is the whole point!

Ground feeding does have some drawbacks. The major one is that it brings joy to the lives of house sparrows and squirrels. That’s hard for most birders to accept, and I once had a problem with it myself. My outlook changed, however, when “good” birds began taking advantage of my generosity. I now believe that whatever waste might come with ground feeding is well worth it.

Still, be sure to avoid putting out too much food. I try to spread just enough seed to last a half day, so that it’s all gone by nightfall. Fresh, dry seed is important for the health of the birds, and excess food could attract any number of nocturnal four-legged creatures. Typically, I only do ground feeding on weekends, when I’m home to enjoy the results.

The choice of millet and cracked corn is strategic, too. These foods please a variety of birds—cardinals especially like the corn—and they are inexpensive. My usual source is the Wild Bird Center in Wheaton, where millet sells for $.59/lb and cracked corn is only $.39/lb. You get an even better deal if you buy the 25-lb bags.

In closing, I’d like to confess that my inspiration for ground feeding came from an ace birder in Wheaton who is less than half my age. For years he’s been attracting ground-loving seed eaters to his yard by sprinkling millet under trees and shrubs. The tactic has delivered brown thrashers, Eastern towhees and white-crowned sparrows among other desirable species. Consider giving ground feeding a try now and continue the practice this spring when the range of potential “customers” increases.

Copyright 2007 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.