Bird of the Month

August 2022
Great Blue Heron

As we become more advanced in our birdwatching we can grow jaded about common birds that live in our neck of the woods. I have certainly been guilty of this. It depends on the type of birdwatcher you are, but it can be easy to take the more familiar birds for granted. I’m often humbled a bit when I observe participants on my bird walks get very excited about what might be considered a run-of-the-mill bird.

Across North America, one of the more common birds is the elegant great blue heron. It’s an expected sight along the shores of almost any body of water, and it’s even common to see them atop a pelagic kelp-bed, hunting the local sea life. Beyond their natural association with water, herons will patrol farm fields and even mountain meadows for small animals. They seem to have a particular eye for the gopher population in our area, much to the delight of local landowners.

Herons deploy a lethal combination of unwavering patience punctuated with explosions  of precisely placed energy. They will slowly tighten up their posture to create a powerful spring, tipped by their lance-like beak. They can stand motionless for an eternity, waiting for the right moment to spear a unsuspecting passerby with lighting speed.

One of those instances in which my blasé approach to this species was instantly challenged was during a bird walk I led. We were traveling a trail near one of the local lakes, which ran along a mature cottonwood stand. In a flooded clearing among the trees, we were able to see a heron standing conspicuously among the reeds. At the big end they can be as tall as four and a half feet, so they’re hard to miss. We peered through our binoculars and the situation we observed was hard to decipher at first. It became clear, though, that this heron had bitten off a little more than it could chew. He had a firm grasp on a gopher snake, many feet in length, but the snake also had a firm grasp on him. Gopher snakes are non-venomous constrictors that help keep our local rodents in check. Much like a boa, they will grab and then wrap themselves around prey until they have suffocated the small animal.

The snake was using its powerful muscles as a defense, wrapping itself around the heron’s beak, head and neck. They were at something of a stalemate, and ironically the snake’s powerful squeeze was further clamping the heron’s beak on itself. As each animal adjusted, the other responded in kind. The snake could have easily suffocated the big heron if given the opportunity to wrap itself firmly around its airway. After several minutes of watching this struggle unfold in front of us, the heron was able to cast its opponent to the ground and dispatch it with a series of well placed jabs. The snake was dead, but now came the task of devouring the oddly proportioned animal. After lightly tossing its prey into the air a few times, the heron found the right angle to swallow the entirety of the slain serpent in one gulp. This was all so he could have breakfast — which kind of puts things in perspective!

This daily predator-vs-prey relationship exists all around us, 24/7. I’ve personally witnessed herons feeding on the snakes, crayfish, small fish, gophers, huge bass, bullfrogs and even small birds. On occasion we even hear of them in backyard ponds, depleting a small water feature of its expensive koi.

Herons can be found any day of the year in Prescott, and you can even observe them from a distance in nesting settings. Herons nest together in small communities called rookeries. This is similar to cormorants and egrets, other species that can be found nesting in close proximity to one another. These scenes are generally filled with loud squawks, screeches and various guttural noises. Awkwardly developed juvenile herons bounce around the trees until they learn to use their wings, littering the ground with the leftovers of recent meals. It really is a spectacle! Unfortunately, many of young birds perish before they ever reach water. During times of drought, their first walk to the shore is an extended gauntlet of exposure to coyotes, big cats and human activity. Still, enough make it to carry on the species.

Scan the shoreline of any of our lakes and you’re almost certain to see a heron lurking along the water’s edge. If you’re fortunate enough you may see them driving through the air on slow, powerful wingbeats, trailing their lanky legs behind. Enjoy them, but, as our region rapidly changes with all avian species grappling to keep up, don’t take them for granted. Happy Birding!

Ryan Crouse manages Jay's Bird Barn.

July 2022
Band-Tailed Pigeon

At the shop we frequently receive phone calls from people concerning a certain species in their yard. It may be perceived as a pest, often with a lot of validity. Many of these legitimate “pest” species are non-native birds brought to North America at some point in the past. Some have now been here for hundreds of years and are fully incorporated into local ecosystems, which often has devastating consequences on native species. We take these calls seriously. and try to guide the customer through the issue. Periodically, though, a sort of inadvertent bait-and-switch happens mid-conversation, and it ends very differently from where it started.

I’ve had this conversation many times, but just last week I had one that went something like this:

“I have some doves in my yard that are crowding out other species. They are grey and have collars on the backs of their necks. What do I do? How do I get rid of them?”

At this point I immediately inferred that she was seeing the Eurasian collared dove, a common non-native species introduced to North America in 1981. They have multiplied by the millions in the intervening time and now pose a very real threat to the future of our native mourning dove. They’re more aggressive and bigger than the mild-mannered mourning dove, and populations are reacting accordingly as they compete for both nesting and feeding locations continent-wide. 

I started to explain some ways to help mitigate them, but it can be really hard to limit one species while providing a welcoming habitat for all others. As we navigated the conversation, some things started to seem weird. She kept referencing a “white collar,” which didn’t make sense because Eurasians have a black collar. After almost a decade of listening to people describe birds, I’ve learned that their memories often conflict with what they actually saw. So I didn’t question it at first. Other little details seemed odd, though: the description of the color gray was off, the description of size was off, the description of behavior was a bit off. But these can all be subjective details. I don’t know what was said that made it click, but I finally blurted out:

“Hold on, where do you live??” 

She answered, “Near Groom Creek,” a small community south of town. The neighborhood is thoughtfully integrated into the surrounding Ponderosa forest at an elevation of about 6,000 feet. 

Bingo!

At this point I have to instantly shift from helping the customer get rid of a pest to reassuring them that they actually have a really cool bird! She was hosting band-tailed pigeons. These are the last native pigeon in North America, and while they can still exhibit some of the negative bird-feeder decorum that their Eurasian cousins are derided for, band-tails are relatively rare and declining throughout their range.

The species is very social, and will often travel in flocks of 10-20 individuals. When I tell the person they are rare, the statement often falls on deaf ears at first. They are big pigeons and can sometimes monopolize a yard, but fortunately for the homeowner their presence is short-lived. They don’t generally winter this far north, retreating to the southern part of our state and Mexico. Their year-round range extends to the rainforests of Central America and western South America all the way to northern Argentina. 

In Prescott we’re in the southern part of their expanded summer range. They will generally only be found in higher-elevation forests, where they dine on nuts, seeds and fruit. 

Unlike other dove and pigeon species, they are not very tolerant of human interaction. They are much more at home in the top of a hundred-foot pine than on the ground, and much flightier. They have to be, as they must be wary of predators like the goshawk, which also inhabits our high-elevation forests. 

A typical band-tail sighting is a group of them flying at very high speed just above the forest canopy. If you’re lucky, you may happen to see one perched conspicuously on an upper limb of a tall Ponderosa.

Generally, as was the case last week, the person gets interested and grows to appreciate the unique species. Aside from first-glance resemblance to rock pigeona and Eurasian collard doves, they distinguish themselves in several ways and are truly a cool “yard bird.” 

Even the most initially mundane bird may be something special, even if it is eating all your seed.

Ryan Crouse manages Jay's Bird Barn.

July 2022
Band-Tailed Pigeon

At the shop we frequently receive phone calls from people concerning a certain species in their yard. It may be perceived as a pest, often with a lot of validity. Many of these legitimate “pest” species are non-native birds brought to North America at some point in the past. Some have now been here for hundreds of years and are fully incorporated into local ecosystems, which often has devastating consequences on native species. We take these calls seriously. and try to guide the customer through the issue. Periodically, though, a sort of inadvertent bait-and-switch happens mid-conversation, and it ends very differently from where it started.

I’ve had this conversation many times, but just last week I had one that went something like this:

“I have some doves in my yard that are crowding out other species. They are grey and have collars on the backs of their necks. What do I do? How do I get rid of them?”

At this point I immediately inferred that she was seeing the Eurasian collared dove, a common non-native species introduced to North America in 1981. They have multiplied by the millions in the intervening time and now pose a very real threat to the future of our native mourning dove. They’re more aggressive and bigger than the mild-mannered mourning dove, and populations are reacting accordingly as they compete for both nesting and feeding locations continent-wide.

I started to explain some ways to help mitigate them, but it can be really hard to limit one species while providing a welcoming habitat for all others. As we navigated the conversation, some things started to seem weird. She kept referencing a “white collar,” which didn’t make sense because Eurasians have a black collar. After almost a decade of listening to people describe birds, I’ve learned that their memories often conflict with what they actually saw. So I didn’t question it at first. Other little details seemed odd, though: the description of the color gray was off, the description of size was off, the description of behavior was a bit off. But these can all be subjective details. I don’t know what was said that made it click, but I finally blurted out:

“Hold on, where do you live?”

She answered, “Near Groom Creek,” a small community south of town. The neighborhood is thoughtfully integrated into the surrounding Ponderosa forest at an elevation of about 6,000 feet.

Bingo!

At this point I have to instantly shift from helping the customer get rid of a pest to reassuring them that they actually have a really cool bird! She was hosting band-tailed pigeons. These are the last native pigeon in North America, and while they can still exhibit some of the negative bird-feeder decorum that their Eurasian cousins are derided for, band-tails are relatively rare and declining throughout their range. 

The species is very social, and will often travel in flocks of 10-20 individuals. When I tell the person they are rare, the statement often falls on deaf ears at first. They are big pigeons and can sometimes monopolize a yard, but fortunately for the homeowner their presence is short-lived. They don’t generally winter this far north, retreating to the southern part of our state and Mexico. Their year-round range extends to the rainforests of Central America and western South America all the way to northern Argentina.

In Prescott we’re in the southern part of their expanded summer range. They will generally only be found in higher-elevation forests, where they dine on nuts, seeds and fruit.

Unlike other dove and pigeon species, they are not very tolerant of human interaction. They are much more at home in the top of a hundred-foot pine than on the ground, and much flightier. They have to be, as they must be wary of predators like the goshawk, which also inhabits our high-elevation forests.

A typical band-tail sighting is a group of them flying at very high speed just above the forest canopy. If you’re lucky, you may happen to see one perched conspicuously on an upper limb of a tall Ponderosa.

Generally, as was the case last week, the person gets interested and grows to appreciate the unique species. Aside from first-glance resemblance to rock pigeons and Eurasian collard doves, they distinguish themselves in several ways and are truly a cool “yard bird.”

Even the most initially mundane bird may be something special, even if it is eating all your seed.

Ryan Crouse manages Jay's Bird Barn.

June 2022
Anna’s Hummingbird

The diminutive Anna’s hummingbird has carved a disproportionate chunk out of Prescott’s collective bird psyche. It’s simple; people love them! When it comes to Arizona though, this often means the magenta-throated Anna’s.

John West

The Anna’s enjoys the northernmost year-round range in North America. During the wet and body-heat-zapping winters of the Pacific Northwest, this cold-tolerant little bird will range as far north as British Columbia, and has even been recorded in the frigid expanses of Alaska.

In the Prescott area the Anna’s is the only hummingbird that we can reliably find during our cooler months. While Prescott is certainly no Anchorage, overnight lows into the negatives are not unheard-of. These temperatures would test the limits of most human life left exposed to the elements, so how does one of the smallest warm-blooded creatures on Earth survive the bitter nights? The simple answer could be that they’re just tougher than us, and while that’s definitely true, there is a scientific explanation.

In the same way a bear will spend the winter months in hibernation, an Anna’s hummingbird will mimic this process, but only to get through a single night or perhaps the occasional northern Arizona tempest. We know this survival technique a “torpor state.” During torpor, the bird can lower its body temperature from 104°F to just below 50°F.

An average human would have lost consciousness about 3°5 before that and may have succumbed to death at about 20° warmer. The bird’s metabolic rate falls to about 1/300th that than when in flight, and respirations per minute drop to approximately 2.5% of the normal rate. In short, they’re in a state near death, so much so that we have personally heard of people retrieving Anna’s hummingbird “corpses” on the morning after a cold snap and discarding them accordingly. This is often followed by a phone call to our shop, where they report the sad discovery and ask in bewilderment why the bird didn’t have the good sense to find a warmer climate.

Our honest answer, that they likely threw away or flushed a living bird, is always an unfortunate one. In almost any circumstances, human intervention in natural processes is not a good thing. With exposure to the morning’s relative warmth the bird will generally wake from its torpor over a 20-minute period, and go about its day.

Another unique trait of the Anna’s is a migration style based more on elevation than latitude. Where a Rufous hummingbird can winter into the southernmost jungles of Mexico and breed as far north as southern Alaska, the Anna's lives year-round along the Pacific coast and into Arizona. They will venture east into the intermountain West during the summer, expanding their range to take advantage of the abundant food base.

In Prescott we are positioned perfectly to experience this annual routine. The Anna’s wintering grounds in Arizona generally extend to the northern border of the Sonoran Desert. While they can survive the cold, only a small percentage of Prescott’s population stays through the winter.

While most yards won’t host these birds, we do get consistent reports of Anna’s sightings, mostly on southern or eastern slopes for maximum winter daylight. This exposure allows for a longer growing and flowering season while also encouraging more insect activity, creating more reliable food sources for the Anna’s, which can comsume half its weight in flower nectar daily. Rich in sugar, nectar is the backbone of their diet, serving as high-octane fuel for their elevated metabolic output.

With energy consumption roughly 80 times that of a human by weight, food intake is of utmost importance. To help keep up their ever-depleting energy and provide other nutrients, they will hawk and glean foliage for insects, arachnids and their eggs. During the bleakest periods of food supply they will seek out the sap-wells of sapsuckers, where they can find sucrose-dense pine and oak pitch, along with the bugs trapped in it.

Beyond the ubiquitous backyard hummingbird feeder, another great choice is to plant and maintain a native flowering garden. Some readily available, beautiful and drought-tolerant options include penstemon, manzanita and a range of flowering cacti. While they’re tough little birds, the more habitat we can help provide, the better off we all are.

Till next time, happy birding!

Ryan Crouse manages Jay's Bird Barn.

May 2022
Zone-Tailed Hawk

Mid-April is a time of transition. The weather is sporadic as the region tries to decide whether it is still winter. Plants and insects are waiting for their cues to start becoming more active. Along those same lines, the bird population is in a state of flux, with wintering species heading north as summer migrants begin to trickle in. As I was leading a bird-walk yesterday we spotted some of these summer species. Among them were two beautiful zone-tailed hawks soaring together. These were the first of the season for me, and they’re always a welcome sight, among my favorites to observe in the field.

For me there are several traits of the zone-tailed hawk that make it stand out from other raptors. I should back up, though.

John West

Earlier in the morning we’d spotted several turkey vultures, a common sight through Arizona’s warmer months. They started showing up a couple weeks ago, one of the earlier migrants we see every year. They are an easy bird to identify, even at great distance. In flight they hold their wings in a deeply angled dihedral. This simply means that if you were to look at the bird in head-on flight, its wings form a V shape. Many larger soaring birds do this to an extent, but it is an exaggerated characteristic of turkey vultures. Their wings are also “plank-like” and bi-colored. Much of the leading edge of the wing’s underside is a uniform black, in strong contrast with the silvery primary and secondary feathers. They soar in large interlocking circles, rarely flapping their wings. From this vantage, they are hoping to see or smell their food of choice, which is rotting carrion.

What does this have to do with the article’s title bird? Well, that description of a vulture in flight can also largely apply to the zone-tail, so much so it’s widely speculated that it uses this similarity to its advantage. For animals on the ground the sight of a vulture is common and of little concern; they know which animals pose threats — their lives depend on it. At the same time, they can’t needlessly exert energy by running from an animal that means them no harm. Vultures are only concerned with animals that are already dead, and zone-tailed hawks seem to understand this relationship. Consequently they will join groups of vultures, mimicking their every movement, even periodic teetering, the “unsteadiness” that vultures display while soaring. I have observed zone-tails doing this while with vultures, but not necessarily when they’re on their own, the idea being that animals on the ground will be lulled and lower their guard. At that moment the hawk will pounce.

For me this has always posed a very interesting question: is this knowledge inherent to the species, or is it taught by the preceding generation? Are they born knowing they look like vultures, and if not, how did they figure it out? They don’t have mirrors, so how is this communicated within the species? This is a defining behavioral characteristic, yet its genesis is largely a mystery.

Zone-tailed hawks occupy a variety of habitats, but while we can spot them in Arizona’s riparian corridors, I think of them as a higher-elevation, pine-forest species, making Prescott an ideal location to see them soaring overhead. For several years in a row we had a lone individual that would patrol the cemetery across from our shop. They prey on a range of small animals, from aquatic amphibians to small mammals. Zone-tails seem to me more opportunists than a specialists, which fits their behavior perfectly.

While in flight they are extremely similar to soaring vultures at a glance, there are several features that to provide a positive ID. The zone-tail has the same bi-colored wings, but where a vulture wing is silvery-smooth, the hawk has a more “textured” set of primary feathers. The bright yellow legs of the zone-tail are generally a dead giveaway, but the large white band across the tail confirms it.

As an interesting comparison, pull out your bird book and study the two species together. To complicate things, add the common black hawk to that study session.

At this time of year I tell all my bird-walk participants, “Check all your vultures, because it may be a zone-tailed hawk!” Happy birding!

Ryan Crouse manages Jay's Bird Barn.

Ryan Crouse manages Jay's Bird Barn.

April 2022
Acorn Woodpecker

We in Prescott are within short drives of several different habitats and life-zones that play host to their own distinct flora and fauna. Within an hour we can experience a range from the lower limits of Alpine forest to the upper reaches of the Sonoran Desert, providing unique opportunities to experience a wide variety of natural outdoor settings.

You can find a hallmark example of Prescott-style habitat immediately to the south and west of town, as the landscape gradually climbs into the Bradshaw and Sierra Prieta mountain ranges. Beginning at about 5,500 feet of elevation the landscape becomes choked with a wide variety of shrubs and trees, including juniper, manzanita, piñon pine and Wright silktassel. For this column we’ll take a deeper dive into the relationship between a certain kind of oak, Ponderosa pines, and the appropriately named acorn woodpecker.

Much of the intermountain west is dominated by vast stands of Ponderosa pine, which range from the rainforests of British Columbia to the rugged madrean forests of Mexico. Northern Arizona’s Coconino National Forest is the largest Ponderosa pine stand in the world, bordering the Kaibab NF and our very own Prescott NF. Together they make up a huge area in which you’re certain to find many species that are well adapted to the arid landscape. One of these is the acorn woodpecker.

This bird is immediately recognizable to anyone living around Thumb Butte or in Ponderosa Park, to name a couple of spots. In the store we hear them called “red-headed woodpecker,” although this is technically incorrect. Their appearance is overall black, white belly and breast, with bold patches of white on wings and rump. They have a striking white eye with a black pupil, and you’ll most often hear their facial pattern described as “clownlike.” We can differentiate the genders of most woodpecker species from the presence of color (usually red) on the head or face of the male. Acorn woodpeckers are unique in that both genders display extensive red on their heads, and they can only be distinguished by a small line of black over the eyes of the females. Think mascara to remember that!

This is not where the unique nature of these woodpeckers ends, though. They have a perplexing social structure that’s rife with aggression and infidelity. Social groups of a dozen individuals or more will live in tight-knit communities, generally revolving ar und a single Ponderosa snag that they have turned into their own multilevel condo, complete with nursery and sleep cavities. The species will violently defend a large area around their stand of trees and are in constant conflict with other woodpecker species, jays and even nut-gathering mammals like squirrels.

There may be several mating pairs and there will generally be a patriarch and matriarch within the group. Their breeding habits can be described as “cooperative,” with males breeding with as many females as possible. The rearing of young is also a communal effort, as is the gathering of food. Females will often destroy another female’s eggs, but cease this practice once they are sitting on eggs of their own. The destroyed eggs are then cached in a neighboring tree for the community to use as a highly nutritious food source.

Caches by acorn woodpeckers

Acorn woodpeckers dine on a variety of foods, but one of their staples is their namesake acorn. In the context of the intermountain west, acorn woodpeckers are consistently present in mature pine forests coupled with an oak understory. In other expanses of their range, the type of forest can vary, but the presence of oak will be the common denominator. They gather and cache acorns and other nuts in lines of pre-drilled holes, usually in Ponderosa snags. They will also use power poles and even wood-sided homes, much to the ire of some local communities. This practice can be largely mitigated with responsible and thoughtful preservation of large snags in your area, as they prefer their historic cache sites. They will pack these “granaries” with thousands of nuts, carefully fitting and packing the nuts to help prevent spoilage and theft from competing animals. This system is under constant maintenance and surveillance, and the loss of that food depository can have dramatic consequences for a community.

Beyond this staple food, they dine on nutrient-rich grubs that are plentiful in the dead trees they inhabit, other arthropods, grass seed and even the occasional lizard or small rodent if given the opportunity.

In the forests in and around Prescott, listen for their omnipresent and raucous repertoire of vocalizations. With little effort you can observe this fascinating species year-round in our neighborhoods.

Ryan Crouse manages Jay's Bird Barn.

March 2022
Pinyon Jay

For even experienced birders, misidentifications are part of the game. There are too many variables to be correct 100% of the time. For people living in piñon-juniper (PJ) forests north of the tri-city area, one of the more common misidentifications we hear at the shop goes something like this: “We have a large group of bluebirds at our seed feeders! They’re loud and very pushy with the other birds.”

We hear the term “bluebird” used a lot, and while we do have two separate species of bluebird that occur here, a description of the behavior of the mystery bird often tells another story. Without any other information, we can be reasonably sure that what this person actually has is a group of pinyon jays.

Behavior is huge when it comes to bird identification, arguably more important than what the bird looks like. In low-light conditions it will very often be what determines your ID. In any description given to an experienced birder, what the bird was doing is often the most valuable piece of information.

So how did we know that the birds in question were pinyon jays rather than bluebirds? They both share the predominately blue color palette, so that’s of little help. The given habitat is a big clue, although it would not be uncommon to see either western or mountain bluebirds in the PJ during the winter months, so we’re not there yet. The large group, perhaps? Maybe. But while pinyon jay flocks are known to number in the dozens or even the hundreds of birds, a large flock of mountain bluebirds can also be a common occurrence.

Here’s where we start to get a clearer picture, though. The aggression of the described birds and what they were eating steers us in a very distinct direction when given with the other clues. Bluebirds will almost never be seen at a seed feeder, as they are almost exclusively insect and berry eaters. In general, they are also a mild-mannered species, and while they can be vocal, they exhibit a much more melodic repertoire of sounds when compared to the harsh screeches of the pinyon jay. Being jays, they can also be quite territorial with other species, and will pick a yardful of seed feeders clean in a whirlwind of blue flashes and nasal calls.

It can be interesting to wonder how these two species, which can both occur in overwhelming numbers, can cohabit in the relatively sparse PJ forests of central and northern AZ. While they both have ravenous appetites, bluebirds will gorge themselves on the plentiful juniper berries while the pinyon jays tend to go to their namesake, the calorie and nutrient-packed piñon, aka pine nut. They use their multitool of a beak to expose the nut, which is concealed in the small, sap-covered cones of the parent tree. Both avian species will gladly snatch up any insect they find along the way, providing pest-control for both species of trees, and the consumption of their fruit helps propagate the species through dispersion in the bird’s droppings and food caches. Inside a completely self-sustaining system, the birds instinctively cultivate, fertilize, protect and harvest an entire crop every year, year after year.

In an example of how a species has adapted to its food of choice, pinyon jays lack the feathers at the base of the beak that other corvid species (jays, ravens, crows, magpies) have. These feathers would generally cover and protect their nostrils, but the lack of feathers allows them to insert the length of their beak into tightly packed piñon cones without gumming up their feathers with sticky pine pitch.

They also cache food to save for leaner times, so they are able to fit up to 40 piñons in their pouch-like throat for more efficient foraging. Like many species they rely on their numbers to detect predators, find food and maintain fairly complex social structures within their groups. In areas where the regional piñon crop is lackluster, they will show off their nomadic spirit and shift their range to more plentiful crops, leaving an area entirely in some years.

Pinyon jays are spread throughout the PJ forests and high deserts of the western US. Anderson Mesa, which runs along the north shore of Flagstaff’s Lake Mary, has been designated an Important Bird Area by the federal government for its importance in supporting the pinyon jay as a species.

Finding them is often happenstance, but look and listen for their quail-like calls while in flight, their propensity to flock in huge numbers, and for their uniformly powder-blue pattern. Get out and enjoy the birds!

Ryan Crouse manages Jay's Bird Barn.

February 2022
Loggerhead Shrike

One of my favorite types of birding is the often overlooked grassland habitat so abundant in our area. It plays host to a unique and diverse set of birds that you can easily observe in the relatively open and accessible land around Chino Valley, Paulden and Dewey-Humboldt. Much can also be done from the comfort of your warm car during these cooler winter months.

For me one of the more interesting species that call this area home is the loggerhead shrike. Although it can’t technically be considered a raptor, the shrike certainly qualifies as a bird of prey, closely related to the vireo family.

Shrikes will hunt for larger insects and spiders all the way up to small mammals and even other bird species. This makes them very valuable to have around your property, as they provide free, effective and long-lasting pest control in many rural yards.

I have most often seen them preying on the large stink beetles that are so common in summer. They will work from a perch, flying out to catch whatever prey they can find, then often taking it back to the perch to consume.

However, during mating season the male shrike’s hunting takes on a more sinister-looking form. Colloquially titled the butcherbird, the loggerhead shrike will catch the prey, then impale the catch on a thorned bush or even barbed wire.

While this practice may seem macabre, it actually serves two very special purposes. It acts as a way to show a potential mate that he can provide food for her and their offspring, and it warns other males to stay out of his territory. That display, coupled with the well known avian tendency to sing for a mate, sends a strong message to rivals who look to compete for food and mates.

Speaking of song, shrikes are also known for having a beautiful if not dizzying repertoire of vocalizations at their disposal. Like mockingbirds, chats and jays, they are well known mimics, extremely talented at replicating the songs of their neighbor species. I once thought I heard a red-tail hawk in odd habitat, which turned out to be an extremely convincing Steller’s jay.

While other species do this for fun or to create alarm, it’s long been suspected that shrikes mimic smaller songbirds to lure them to their deaths. A recent study showed that when researchers played a five-minute recording of a loggerhead shrike imitating an American robin, the shrike attracted noticeably more prey-sized songbirds. In essence the shrike sets an ambush for whatever unfortunate bird takes the bait.

In its own right the loggerhead shrike is a very elegant and uniquely shaped bird, known for its beautiful songs. It can be found, generally with moderate effort, sitting atop fence posts, small trees and even telephone poles on occasion. It is smaller than any raptor in Arizona, but its bright gray primary color makes it easy to spot.

It can also be found in Arizona’s diverse desert habitats, all the way from the Sonoran Desert in the south up into the pinyon-juniper high deserts and chaparral that make up much of the Prescott area. Look for the distinctive black mask, black wings, black hooked beak and large, flat head relative to the body.

Shrikes do tend to be a bit flighty, so proceed with caution and respect when trying to observe them. With patience, you can generally get within about 25 yards, well inside binocular range. Get out there and try to find this fascinating species, which you can observe in our region 365 days a year!

Ryan Crouse manages Jay’s Bird Barn.

Ryan Crouse manages Jay's Bird Barn.

November 2021
Northern Harrier

With its stiff facial feathers in a disk shape, the northern harrier may give the impression that it might be an owl, but it is definitely a hawk! These unique features actually improve the bird’s foraging skills by enhancing its ability to hear the movements of prey hiding in vegetation. This is also a little ironic because in winter northern harriers occasionally roost on the ground with short-eared owls.

Northern harriers normally forage for small mammals and birds, but also take larger animals like rabbits and ducks. They are known to sometimes drown their prey, and normally eat on the ground.

Mature males and females measure 18 to almost 20 inches in length, weigh10.5 to 26.5 ounces, and have 30- to 46.5-inch wingspans. Adult males are gray above and whitish below, with black wingtips, dark trailing edges on their wings and black-banded tails. Females and juveniles are brown with black tail bands. Adult females have whitish undersides with brown streaks, while juveniles are buff-colored with fewer streaks. All northern harriers have the prominent white rump patch. The eyes of young males are yellow-green where those of juvenile females are brown, but with maturity the eye color for both sexes changes to yellow.

A male may mate with several females during the breeding season and select nesting sites, normally in dense vegetation such as willows, grasses, sedges, reeds, bulrushes or cattails. The male may also start construction while the female completes the nest, lining it with grasses, sedges and rushes. The female incubates the single seasonal brood, consisting of four or five pale white eggs, and cares for the hatchlings, while the male provides most of the food for the family. Incubation is 28-36 days, with a nesting time of about two weeks, and chicks hatch helpless and covered with short white down.

To add a northern harrier to your 2021 bird list, your best chance is to visit Willow or Watson Lake or the Highlands Center for Natural History this month, and with a luck you’ll be rewarded.

Happy birding!

The Prescott Audubon Society is an official chapter of the National Audubon Society. Check it out online at PrescottAudubon.org.

October 2021
Osprey

The osprey is a migratory hawk that may cover over 160,000 miles in its lifetime.

John West

It has a slender body, long, narrow wings and long legs, reversible outer toes and hooked pads to help them hold slippery fish, and an awareness of aerodynamics demonstrated by carrying captured fish headfirst to minimize wind-resistance. While foraging, ospreys set the standard for concentration, as they dive with outreached talons and yellow eyes sighting straight along their talons.

Either sex weighs between 49.4 and 70.5 ounces, with body length of 21 to 23inches and wingspan of 59.1 to 70.9 inches. Brown above, white below, and generally lighter and whiter than most raptors, their white head shave a brown stripe between their eyes. Juveniles display white spots on their backs and buff shades on their breasts.

They feed primarily on live fish, but also consume fish carcasses, birds, snakes, voles, squirrels, muskrats and salamanders.

Ospreys nest from Alaska to New England, Montana to Mexico, and Carolina to California. Their preferred nesting habitat requires accessible fishing within a maximum of around twelve miles, and the nest is elevated, often on manmade structures like poles, channel markers, duck blinds and specially designed platforms. The nest is built with sticks and lined with bark, sod, grasses, vines, algae, or flotsam and jetsam.

The male collects the building materials and the female molds them into a structure initially less than 2.5 feet in diameter, but often expanding to 3-6 feet over the years. One seasonal brood consists of one to four cream- to cinnamon-colored eggs, speckled with reddish brown. Incubation is 26-42 days, nesting 50-55 days, and chicks hatch with down and eyes open. Eggs do not hatch all at once and older chicks often monopolize food, which can cause late hatchlings to starve if food is scarce.

Osprey populations grew by 2.5% per year from 1966 to 2015, and the species rates a 7 out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score.

While visiting Prescott’s many water features, be on the lookout for these beautiful and exciting raptors.

The Prescott Audubon Society is an official chapter of the National Audubon Society. Check it out online at PrescottAudubon.org.

September 2021
American Kestrel

The American kestrel, sometimes referred to as the sparrow hawk, is North America’s most common and smallest falcon, about the size of a mourning dove.

John West

The male’s blue head and rust-colored back and tail, and the slightly larger female’s similar reddish wings, back and tail, contribute to the striking beauty of these colorful raptors. The wings are long, narrow, and tapered to points, and there are two black spots on each side of a white or orange nape, thought to confuse potential enemies by presenting a false set of ‘eyes.’

Despite their size kestrels are fierce predators, and can be seen perching on wires and poles or hovering into the wind as they forage. Their varied diet consists of grasshoppers, cicadas, beetles, dragonflies, scorpions, spiders, butterflies, moths, voles, mice, shrews, bats, small songbirds, small snakes, lizards and frogs.

American kestrels have three basic calls: a ‘klee’ or ‘killy,’ a ‘whine’ and a ‘chitter.’ The ‘klee’ is normally repeated in a rapid series when the bird is upset, excited, or courting. The male locates potential nesting sites and shows them to his mate, who makes the final decision. Since kestrels lack the ability to excavate nesting cavities, they use existing ones. Nests are usually in abandoned woodpecker holes, tree hollows, rock crevices and building nooks, as well as specially designed nesting boxes, such as those provided by your Prescott Audubon chapter. Nesting materials are not used, and if a site contains debris the female simply hollows out a shallow depression.

There are one or two broods per season, each with three to seven eggs. Incubation is up to 32 days with both parents participating. Born feeble, covered with slight amounts of light down and eyes closed, the young remain in the nest for about a month.

American kestrels rate 10 out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score, indicating low conservation concern. However, if current trends continue they will lose half their population by 2075.

Always beautiful and exciting to watch, be sure you add this species to your Big List!

Russ Miller is a local illustrator, writer, bagpiper, motorcycle enthusiast and former reference librarian.

American Robin

The American Robin, a North American songbird and our largest thrush, is common in gardens, parks, yards, golf courses, fields, pastures, deciduous woodlands, pine forests, shrub lands, and regenerating forests after fires or logging. 

A gray-brown bird with a large, round body, long legs and fairly long tail, orange beneath and dark-headed, it displays a white patch on its lower belly and under the tail during flight. Females have paler heads that contrast less with their gray backs. A robin’s presence is often broadcast with clear, lilting musical whistles.

They are known to visit feeders where mealworms or animal-fat suet are on offer, and can be attracted to a backyard with a proper nesting box if it is installed well before breeding season.

They forage on earthworms, insects, snails and fruit, and seem to consume certain foods depending on the time of day, i.e. earthworms for breakfast and fruit later in the day (especially if there are bugs in it). During fall and winter robins may become intoxicated after eating fermented honeysuckle berries.

The female chooses the nesting site, typically hidden on a low to mid-level, horizontal tree branch, but occasionally on the ground in a thicket. The nest, six to nine inches across and three to six inches deep, is constructed by pressing dead grass, twigs, paper, feathers, rootlets or moss into a cup shape using the wrist of her wing, and finalized with mud for strength and grass for comfort.  

There are up to three broods a year of three to five eggs each. The young are born helpless and naked except for sparse white down. Sadly, 40% of nests fail to successfully produce young, and only 25% of fledglings survive to November.

The American robin is considered a common backyard bird in North America, with a current world population estimated at 310 million, and not considered threatened.

One of the first birds a child learns about and a species replete with history, mythology and stories, this is certainly one species every birder looks forward to adding to the list. Happy Birding!

The Prescott Audubon Society is an official chapter of the National Audubon Society. Check it out online at PrescottAudubon.org.

July 2021
Brown-Headed Cowbird

Brown-headed cowbirds have an unorthodox method of raising families. While the non-monogamous male plays the field, impregnated females forego the boring task of nest-building and simply deposit their eggs (up to 36 per season) in a host species’ nest!

The chicks are born naked except for scant clumps of down, eyes closed and helpless. But since they usually grow faster than their nestmates and are aggressive, they receive more attention and food than the foster parents’ actual offspring, and they thrive, often at the expense of the host’s young.

Though the cowbird’s behavior suggests poor parenting skills, it’s noteworthy that parents often return to the host nest to check on how their abandoned chicks are doing!

Brown-headed cowbirds frequent fields, meadows and lawns, often mixing with other blackbird flocks. Even in a mixed flock the males stand out because of their glossy black feathers and brown heads, while the females display an unmarked brown appearance. The male’s loud gurgling call and the female’s constant chatter also help identify them.

These ground-feeders may visit backyards where grain has been scattered, or may visit bird feeders. When not displaying or feeding, they often perch high on prominent tree branches. They also feed on insects attracted by livestock, which earned them the “cowbird” moniker in 1839.

Adult males weigh up to 1.8 ounces and are up to 8.7 inches in length, with over 14-inch wingspans. Females are slightly smaller, 1.6 ounces, up to 7.9 inches long and with wingspans under 13 inches.

Cowbirds that are permanent residents in the southern US rarely migrate, while northern birds travel to the southern US and Mexico for winter, returning to their customary summer habitats around March or April.

Rated a seven of 20 on the Continental Concern Score, they are not on the 2014 State of the Birds Watch List.

These lively, noisy and energetic birds are fine candidates for a Big List, so keep your eyes and ears open around large flocks of blackbirds. Happy Birding!

The Prescott Audubon Society is an official chapter of the National Audubon Society. Check it out online at PrescottAudubon.org.

June 2021
White-Winged Dove

White-winged doves are plump, square-tailed and thin-billed, displaying a white stripe on the front edges of their wings that spreads to a bright flash during flight. Primarily grayish-brown with dark lines on their cheeks, they have relatively small heads and their tails have white tips accented with black stripes. They measure up to 11 inches in length, with wingspans of almost 23 inches and weigh around five and a half ounces.

They prefer bulky seeds because of their large bills, and have an eating style of appreciating their food, rather than pecking like chickens and other doves, like the mourning dove. They also ingest small pebbles into their gizzards to aid food-processing. They often visit bird feeders and are fond of sunflower, milo, corn and safflower, but will also forage for berries.

They usually breed in woodland interiors, near feeding habitats like grain fields or desert cactus communities. During the winter white-winged doves are present throughout most of their breeding range, but some individuals wander widely across the continent.

Russ Chappell

Males choose the general nesting area and gather building materials, but the female selects a nesting site and builds the nest, usually on a branch or shaded crotch of a tree. A flimsy bowl about four inches across is constructed of twigs mixed with weeds, grasses or moss, and occasionally lined with leaves, bark, feathers or pine needles.

There are two broods per season of one or two creamy white or buffcolored eggs, around one inch in width and length. Incubation is 14-20 days, nesting time 13-18 days, and hatchlings are born helpless, eyes closed, with long off-white down.

If predators approach the nest, a white-winged dove may fake a broken wing as a distraction, or in other circumstances fly into a brushy area. When startled near houses they sometimes fly into windows, so making sure your windows are bird-safe is a nice touch. 

This species rates an eight out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score, and is not on the 2014 State of the Birds Watch List.

Happy Birding!

The Prescott Audubon Society is an official chapter of the National Audubon Society. Check it out online at PrescottAudubon.org.

May 2021
Violet-Green Swallow

The violet-green swallow’s name comes from the coloration of its back and rump.

John West

This beautiful little bird can appear dark until its metallic-green back and shimmering purple rump capture the rays of the sun! A small bird, it averages slightly over four and a half inches in length, with a 10.6-inch wingspan and weighs half an ounce. Common in our area during spring and summer, they migrate to Mexico and Central America for the winter.

They routinely forage for insects over our lakes and ponds in groups of over a hundred, intermingling with other swifts and swallows, but they are easy to identify by white patches on the sides of their hindquarters and cheeks. Viewing them at a distance with binoculars makes following their flight easier since they can reach speeds of up to 28 miles per hour, around the cruising speed of a peregrine falcon! Similar to other cavity dwellers, they attract more parasites than species nesting in the open, thus they sunbathe and preen frequently, providing easier viewing and photographing as they perch on power lines and dead trees.

Breeding in open evergreen and deciduous woodlands, they prefer areas with dead trees featuring woodpecker holes or other cavities. Male and female build the nest, which can take up to 20 days. Constructed with grass, twigs, rootlets and feathers, the cup-shaped nest is up to three inches across, depending the cavity or nesting-box size.

There are one to two broods per season, each consisting of four to six white eggs, less than an inch in length and width. Incubation is around 14 days, with a nesting period of about 24 days. Hatchlings are born naked, eyes closed and with scarce patches of down on their backs, crowns, and scapulars.

Common throughout the West, this species is rated nine out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score, and is not on the 2016 State of North America's Birds Watch List.

This is a great time of the year to add this beautiful little bird to your list as it brings a smile to your face. Happy birding!

The Prescott Audubon Society is an official chapter of the National Audubon Society. Check it out online at PrescottAudubon.org.

April 2021
Western Bluebird

Western bluebirds sit on low perches to pounce on prey below. They are primarily insectivorous during the summer, but during the winter can be attracted to backyard feeders with mealworms. 

Western Bluebird by John West

Deep blue, rusty and white, males are more colorful than the gray-brown, blue-shaded females. They are small and stocky, with straight bills and fairly short tails, measuring six to seven inches in length, with average twelve-inch wingspans and weighing about an ounce.

A social species, they form flocks of up to a hundred, sometimes joining with mountain bluebirds, American robins and yellow-rumped warblers as they forage for insects or berries, and vocalize their quiet, chortling calls. They can also be attracted to a partially wooded yard by putting up nest boxes equipped with predator shielding.

Western bluebirds may have a gentle look, but when territory battles occur, one male may attack the other’s legs, dragging him to the ground and aggressively pecking at him. Residing in open woodlands and at the edges of woods, this small thrush is a cavity dweller, nesting in tree cavities or nest boxes and often socializing in small flocks.

The female does most of the nest construction over a two-week period, gathering grasses, straw, pine needles, moss, other plant fibers and fur to build and line the nest in an irregular shape.

There are up to three broods per season, consisting of two to eight pale blue or white eggs measuring less than an inch in length and width. Incubation times range from twelve to 17 days, with a nesting period of 18 to 25 days. The young hatch naked with pink skin, light gray down and eyes closed.

Rated nine out of twenty on the Continental Concern Score, the Western bluebird is not on the 2016 State of North America's Birds Watch List.

If you are feeling blue, a trip to one of our local wooded areas may be just what the doctor ordered, because this beautiful little bird will certainly cheer you up!

The Prescott Audubon Society is an official chapter of the National Audubon Society. Check it out online at PrescottAudubon. Org.

The Prescott Audubon Society is an official chapter of the National Audubon Society. Check it out online at PrescottAudubon.org.

March 2021
American Dipper

If American Dippers are to be trusted — and hey, they’re really quite discerning — then Fain Park has a pond with quality water. They’re very selective and avoid even mildly polluted waters.

These casual, transient winter visitors normally prefer clear, fast-running streams, where they feed on aquatic insect larvae like caddis flies, mayflies, beetles, bugs and mosquitoes, as well as adult insects, worms, snails, fish roe and small fish. They are rarely seen on ponds or lakes.

Also known as the water ouzel, the American Dipper is stout and dusky grey with some brown on the head, bright white eyelids and a thick bill, 5.5-8” in length and weighing 1.5-2.4 ounces. It has a nictating membrane, like an extra eyelid, which helps it see underwater, as well as scales to block its nostrils when submerged.

Permanent residents in a territory ranging from Alaska to Panama, some dippers stay through the winter where streams remain unfrozen. Others relocate to lower elevations and southward for wintering.

To help them tolerate cold water they have a relatively low metabolic rate, extra oxygen-carrying capacity in their blood, thick feathers and generous quantities of secreted oil, which keeps them warm when feeding underwater. When they’re not foraging you can catch them bobbing up and down on a rock or the shore.

The dipper is North America’s only aquatic songbird, its loud song consisting of high whistles and trills, “peee peee pijur pijur.” Both genders sing year-round. They defend the territory along the streams they frequent, and while feeding underwater may fall prey to bull or Dolly Varden trout. Unlike most songbirds they go through total molts as ducks do, rendering them flightless by late summer.

They construct globe-shaped nests with side entrances, on ledges or banks near the water, behind waterfalls or under manmade structures. Normally the female incubates 2-4 white eggs, which hatch in 15-17 days. The young grow into fledglings 20-25 days later.

This unique bird may still be hanging out at Fain Park, and perhaps you can add it to your bird book!

The Prescott Audubon Society is an official chapter of the National Audubon Society. Check it out online at PrescottAudubon.org.

February 2021
Gadwall

Male ducks often display glossy green, red, or blue colors, so with its gray-brown body and black patch on its tail, the Gadwall is easy to overlook. Females are dappled brown and buff, with thin, orange edges on their darker bills, and both sexes display white wing patches in flight and occasionally while swimming or at rest.

Approximately the size of mallards, Gadwalls have relatively square heads with sharp foreheads, bills that are more delicate than the mallard's, and in flight their necks are noticeably smaller and wings slimmer. They average 20 inches in length, weigh between one to two and three-quarter pounds, and have 33-inch wingspans.

These dabbling ducks feed on aquatic vegetation such as algae, grasses, rushes, sedges, pondweed, widgeon grass and water milfoil, including leaves, stems, roots, and seeds. They also consume snails, midges, water beetles and other invertebrates, especially during the breeding season. Gadwall also routinely steal food from surfacing diving ducks and coots!

Mating begins in late fall, and breeding is primarily in the Great Plains and prairies. During winter they reside on reservoirs, ponds, water wetlands, parks, sewage ponds or muddy inlets where there is aquatic vegetation.

They nest on islands within marshes, providing some protection from predators like foxes, weasels, mink, coyotes and badgers, but winged predators are still a threat. The female scrapes out a cup-shaped depression about a foot across and three inches deep, then uses her body as a mold as she adds twigs and leaves, finally insulating the nest with her own down feathers.

There is one brood per season consisting of seven to twelve eggs, which are laid one per day, and about one and a half inches by two inches in size. They incubate in 24 to 27 days. The chicks are able to leave the nest in one or two days. 

Gadwall are not considered threatened, although they are the number three most-hunted duck in America.

March is a good time to visit our local lakes and add this unique duck to your personal birding list!


The Prescott Audubon Society is an official chapter of the National Audubon Society. Check it out online at PrescottAudubon.org.

January 2021
Canada Goose

During fall and winter Prescott hosts migrating Canada geese, normally spotted on our beautiful lakes, occasionally in grassy backyards, park lawns or farm fields.

During migration long V-formations may be seen, however more geese are foregoing travel, because increased urban development is creating more parks and lawns that attract this species. They are also often heard flying, by day or night, with their honking calls that distinguish them from other species of geese or swans.

Canada geese are large water birds with long black necks, brown backs, tan chests, distinctive white cheeks and chin straps, and wide, flat bills. They can measure from 30 to 44 inches in length, have wingspans exceeding five feet, and weigh up to 20 pounds.

They feed by dabbling in the water or grazing at fields and large lawns. In spring and summer, they feed on grasses and sedges, including skunk cabbage leaves, and during fall and winter they rely on berries and seeds, specially enjoying blueberries.

The female constructs the family nest on ground in an elevated area, near water and with unobstructed views. The large cup-shaped nest receives a layer of her personal down and body feathers after the second egg is laid, and she does all incubation while her mate stands guard.

There is one brood per season consisting of two to eight cream-colored eggs, slightly larger than two by three inches. Incubation is within 28 days, with total nesting time as long as 50 days. Born with yellow down and eyes open, the young leave the nest in a couple of days, able to walk, swim, feed and dive, and prior to leaving feed on their yolk sacs.

The young often remain with their parents for their first year, and as summer fades the families become more social, congregating in large flocks as food becomes more scarce and migration time approaches.

Their total North American population in 2015 was between 4.2 million and over 5.6 million, and although 2.6 million are harvested by hunters each year, the species is not considered threatened.

The Prescott Audubon Society is an official chapter of the National Audubon Society. Check it out online at PrescottAudubon.org.