Magpie: Our Black and White Jay

The Black-Billed Magpie is an extreme bird. People either love ‘um or hate ‘um. They probably have more detractors than supporters. However, I am one who likes this beautiful bird. Their satiny black and white feathers and long tails are most attractive. Seen in the right light, their feathers shine with an iridescence. People from the east who haven’t experienced this species are usually very impressed – much as westerners are with Blue Jays when visiting eastern states.

Like all jays, this bird is very raucous. When they are near, you can hear them “jabbering away” to each other. This intelligent species would have to be considered the valedictorian of the bird world. Very alert to their surroundings and very hard to approach, they have been known to do clever things – like the one that dropped nuts at a stop light. The nuts would be cracked when the traffic ran over them. The bird would then fly in to get the results when the light changed.

They are a year-round bird and very adaptable. As generalists, their diet covers a wide range from fruits, grains, worms, slugs, and insects to small animals like snakes and mice. They also do much scavenging and are often seen on highways taking advantage of the “road-kill”. Magpies are early nesters and build roofed, dome shaped nests of sticks that protect the eggs from the early spring weather. The same nest is used each year. Five to nine eggs are laid and are incubated for 16 to 18 days. When fledging, the young have short tails which elongate as they mature. By early nesting, they are gone from the tree when other species arrive.

We have other jays in Cassia County: the Scrub Jay which is blue and gray, the Pinyon Jay which is all blue, Clark’s Nutcracker which is gray, black, and white, the American Crow, and the Common Raven. All are raucous, opportunistic, smart, and adaptable. The Black-billed has a cousin – the Yellow-billed which is slightly smaller and found in central California. Magpie behavior is always interesting. I’ve watched them “mob” hawks and owls, sneak food away from larger animals, and even perch on the rumps of deer – getting great pleasure out of annoying their hosts.

Cooper’s Hawk – A Bird Eating Bird

Hawks are very difficult to approach. This one was by a forest-service water trough in North Heglar Canyon. He seemed cooperative, and so I crawled on my belly and got very close to take this picture. He’s a young hawk and perhaps that is the reason I was able to get quite close. He was frequenting the area in hopes of catching other birds that were coming in to drink.

Cooper’s Hawk & its smaller look-alike, the Sharp-Shinned Hawk, are both predators that feed on other birds. “Sharpies” feast on the smaller species while Cooper’s will take birds the size of doves. Their falcon-type, streamlined bodies make swift pursuit possible. Exceptionally maneuverable through trees, they really “zoom” after their prey. We have an extensive bird feeding set-up in our yard, and these two hawks hang around in our trees. They make surprise attacks, scattering birds in all directions, as they swiftly appear out of nowhere. The reason why bird feeders need to be situated close to cover, is so a quick dive into a protected area is possible.

These two species are classified as Accipiters. These are medium-sized hawks with slender bodies, long tails, and short wings. These attributes give them great maneuverability in the tree habitats in which they reside. Cooper’s is 14” to 20” long. “Sharpies” are 10” to 14” long. Another difference is that the Cooper’s Hawk has a rounded end to its tail while Sharp-Shinned tail is squared.

Although we hate disturbance at our bird feeders, the appearance of one of these predators is always exciting. They are only doing what they are programmed to do. They are not nearly as great a menace as are the many stray house cats that we are plagued with – or the dogs that feel free to frequent our yard.

A bird in the hand equals two in the bush

By Dave Hanks 

Tiny little claws grasp and tickle my fingers. It’s a BLACK- CAPPED CHICKADEE – a small bird that is named for its call and black cap. If you are in the woods you hear the call “chick-a-dee-dee-dee”, it is unmistakably this bird.

We have two Chickadee species in Cassia County: the Black-Capped and the Mountain. The Mountain Chickadee is told from the Black-Capped by a white eyebrow stripe and is the more common in our county. Both prefer higher elevation woodlands of both deciduous and coniferous trees. They usually forage in the lower branches where they are often seen feeding by hanging upside down. When not nesting, they gather in huge flocks. They are insectivorous but will come to feeders containing seed.

As you can see, they can also be lured onto ones hand, perch on your camera, or even alight on your head. Following a Chickadee call can lead you to other species, which they tend to feed in a group with; such as woodpeckers, nuthatches, warblers, and kinglets. They may even lead you to owls that are sitting on their daytime roosts. These frisky fellows are a favorite winter visitor to bird feeding stations.



Bird Tails: Varieties and Functions

by Dave Hanks

The size, shape, and other characteristics of one’s tail are determined by one’s habitat and life style. The tail is important as a rudder and for balance while in the air, and perhaps for display purposes or camouflage while on the ground or in trees. It must add to the abilities of each bird species, and definitely not be a drawback.

While there is great diversity in the tail structure of each of the many species, and it’s difficult to make blanket statements; there are trends that birds follow according to their behaviors. Eagles, vultures, and hawks spend much time soaring and riding updrafts. Their tails are generally large and broad. Woodpeckers, which cling to tree trunks, have tails that are short, broad, and stiff. Most song birds have moderately long tails, when compared to their body size. This type of tail aids in maneuverability and speed through dense tree cover. Some birds like pheasants, peacocks, grouse, or turkeys; have tails that either fan out, or are very long and ornamental. Their main purpose is for courtship or territorial display.

The water bird pictured has very little tail at all. Long tails on water birds would get heavy and produce drag which impedes take off from water surfaces. This ibis is found in salt water marshes and ocean inlets of the southern USA. Besides its very short tail, it has a marvelous long, down-curving beak needed for its probing life style. It probes for fish, frogs, insects, small reptiles, and other aquatic creatures. Adults are 25 inches long, with a wing span of 36 inches. This white bird has black wing tips (visible in flight), reddish legs, face, and bill. During the breeding season the reds become more intense.

The White Ibis is the University of Miami’s mascot.

(A White Ibis stalking the Atlantic shallows of Southeastern Texas

(A White Ibis stalking the Atlantic shallows of Southeastern Texas

Bird Distribution

by Dave Hanks

I distinctly remember the text book I was given in my first year of teaching. The numbers of animal (and plant) species given were way less than what the facts actually are. Thank goodness, I became more knowledgeable as I grew older and now question things I read in any book.

Birds are some of the more numerous animals in the world. I guess that is why they receive more of my attention – although I like mammals equally as much. There are around 9000 bird species on this planet, with the most widespread species being predators. A species will usually disburse (if not impeded by barriers) to any location where they can find conditions that they can survive in.

Listed in order, from the fewest species to the most, are the six bird regions of the earth:

North America (Nearctic Region) = 650 species

Europe, Northern Asia, and Sahara (Palaearctic Region) = 750 species

Australia (Australian Region) = 1,200 species

Southern Asia (Oriental Region) = 1,500 species

Africa (Ethiopian Region) = 1,900 species

South and Central America (Neotropical Region) = 2,900 species

As you can see, our region has the fewest birds – while the numbers in South America can be overwhelming. There are many species, of all forms of life, in the Amazon jungle that have never even been classified yet.

Pictured is the ENGLISH ROBIN. This is a very common bird to be found all over Europe. The American Robin has been named after it, although the two species have little in common other than a reddish breast and the fact that humans do not affect either species. The English Robin is in the CHAT Family, while ours is a THRUSH. Ours is also much larger than this little European bird. The English Robin was originally called a Redbreast; it later became the Robin Redbreast, and finally the English Robin.

I have often wondered why some animals have the names they sport, when the name doesn’t seem to fit the species.

The English Robin – Small and plump

The English Robin – Small and plump

The Yellow-Billed Cuckoo

This cousin of the Roadrunner is a slow moving denizen of eastern and southern woodlands. The Yellow-Billed Cuckoo has a curved yellow beak, a long tail that is brown above and black and white striped below, a white breast, and is rather large for a songbird. Another cousin, the Black-Billed Cuckoo, has a red orbital ring and smaller tail spots.

This bird eats large quantities of hairy caterpillars. It will wait motionless for long periods watching for prey movement. Once the caterpillar is caught, the bird will pull it back and forth in its bill. This probably removes the hairiness before the victim is ingested.

The entire nesting period is very short. It takes 17 days from egg laying until the fledglings leave the nest. Six days after hatching the young’s feathers pop out of their sheaths and within two hours they are fully feathered. Yellow-Billed Cuckoos will occasionally lay eggs in other bird’s nests. Records of at least 11 different species have had this practice foisted upon them.

A loud Ka-Ka-Ka-Ka-Ka-Kow-Kow-Kow can be easily heard. This species has the unusual habit of much calling on hot days,which often presages a tunderstorm.

The cuckoo is anything but crazy and does not merit the label. However, habitat loss has caused a decline in this species numbers. It can be heard, but a sighting of this bird is unusual. We have been lucky on two occasions – once in North Dakota and again in southern Texas. My wife saw one in a tree in southern Texas, grabbed the camera from me, and crawled on her hands and knees to get this picture.

A yellow billed cuckoo bird at rest and keeping a low profile

At rest and keeping a low profile

The Cattle Egret: A Pasture Presence

The CATTLE EGRET, also called the Buff-backed Heron, is the white bird seen in pictures following elephants or other large animals. It originated in Africa, but has spread worldwide. The bird especially likes the tropics, subtropics, or warm temperate zones.

Unlike other birds in its family, this wading species feeds in relatively dry grassy habitats. It conserves energy by following cattle or other large mammals. The feet of mammals stir up bugs (especially grasshoppers) and small vertebrates in the grass, thus making predation easier. This bird can also be found in wetlands, where it catches frogs and fish. However, it is most often found near farmland where following either livestock or machinery produces excellent foraging results.

You can occasionally see it here in Idaho, but don’t confuse it with other white egrets. This one has an orangey plume and back during its breeding season. It is 19 to 21 inches tall, has a short, yellow bill, and light orange legs. It has an interesting upright posture (almost penguin-like) that is different from other herons.

This species is very social and gathers in colonies. Thus, each territory is quite small, but the male is very defensive of it and will evict all other egrets except one female. He will bring materials (sometime stealing from other egret nests) to the female who builds a nest of sticks. She lays 3 to 5 eggs, which both parents incubate and feed after hatching.

We have often seen this white bird of pastures and roadsides all over Florida and in southern Texas where there are sizable populations. A few years ago, we were excited to see a Cattle Egret, in the used-to-be alfalfa field, just south of our home.

Cattle Egret On a lawn in the median between two busy Texas thoroughfare

On a lawn in the median between two busy Texas thoroughfares


Ubiquitous = omnipresent – Being or seeming to be everywhere.

We have ubiquitous birds around us that we take for granted. What is more so than the American Robin? It is probably the most adaptable bird we have. But do we really appreciate it? An exchange student from Mexico, who was in my Ecology class, saw a robin on a field trip. He had never seen one before, and he was enamored with its beauty.

Magpies are very beautiful, but are not considered so by the local folk. It’s a sad fact that: Commonality makes beauty, un-beautiful! People from the east come to see magpies. We go east to see Blue Jays, which easterners view in the same light that we do magpies.

The House Sparrow is considered ubiquitous by most, because they are everywhere around our homes and farmyards. But that’s misleading because you rarely see them anywhere else, even though they are the most widespread, permanent residents on bird guide maps.

The Downy Woodpecker is not thought of as ubiquitous, even though it is common across our nation. That’s because it is not often seen – although it can off-times be heard drumming away.

Probably the most common bird in our yards and at our bird feeders is the House Finch – a bird that has spread north from the southwestern deserts. It’s attractive like the robin and magpie, but so common that its beauty is overlooked. The red head, rump, and chest would make us consider it in a more favorable light if it were not so common. I’m a victim of this phenomenon myself, as I have a hard time getting excited about seeing this bird. This most common species at our bird feeders, has an interesting song of high-pitched, three note phrases.

The House Finch clothed in his subtle reds sitting on a near vertical branch

The House Finch clothed in his subtle reds

Purple Gallinule: Colorful, Warm Climate, Wader

There is a trail in the Florida Everglades called the Anhinga Trail. It is a special area because you can get very close and personal to many birds. You can also get quite close and personal with Alligators (a big “Granddaddy” was bellowing like a mad bull) and Cottonmouths. It’s a great place to obtain photographs. As you look down into the watery shrubbery, you have an excellent chance of seeing a Purple Gallinule going about the business of pecking through the watery vegetation, just as if you weren’t there.

This multi-colored bird of purples, greens, reds, and yellows; is called a “Swamp Hen”. It is the size of a chicken and has a yellow (with red at the base) chicken-like beak. It is an omnivore that will eat frogs and fish, in addition to tender, aquatic plant shoots and seeds.

Gallinules live in warm, fresh water marshes where lily pads and pickle weed grow. They swim on the water surface like a duck, but can also walk on lily pads and other floating vegetation. Their huge yellow feet, allows then to do this. Their long toes can be spread to evenly distribute their weight over the plant’s surface. They also build their nests on floating tussocks. When in flight, you can see a pair of dangling legs, unlike other birds that tuck them close to their bodies.

This secretive bird is found in our southeastern states – especially the coastlines. Not many species are so varied and brightly colored, so when you do get “lucky” and see one, those bright colors will make an impression upon you.

Purple Gallinule Stealthily foraging in the marsh vegetation

Stealthily foraging in the marsh vegetation

The American Dipper: Under-Water Walker

There is a spot in the south hills, of Twin Falls County, where Dippers are always viewable. It is from the bridge, over Rock Creek, which leads into the Harrington Fork Picnic area. If you wait quietly, one will usually appear. They bob-up from under the stream to flit from rock to rock, usually with some recently acquired food (aquatic insects) in their beak.

This is an unusual bird. Cold mountain streams are preferred, where it will walk along the stream’s bottom looking for larvae and other aquatic “goodies”. They will also nab tiny fish and tadpoles. A low metabolic rate and extra oxygen-carrying capacity by the blood allows this species to be under the water of cold mountain streams at all times of the year.

Also known as a Water Ouzel, it can’t be confused with any other bird. It has a chunky body that is 6 to 8 inches long. A short tail and short legs reduce the drag from water currents. Its body is a sooty gray, with a brownish tint to the head. The bill is slender (an adaptation for plucking up its food) and its eyelids (nictitating membrane) are white and very visible when the bird blinks (an adaptation for seeing under water).

Their nest is built amid the streamside vegetation or under a bridge, if one is available. Like many stream birds, it constantly bobs up and down. Molting of wing and tail feathers takes place in late summer, at which time they are flightless.

We are always on the lookout for this bird when in mountainous habitat, summer or winter. It is so unusual to see a song bird bobbing under an icy stream. Photographing them requires one to function very quickly.

American Dipper at A brief stop on a mossy, mid-stream rock

A brief stop on a mossy, mid-stream rock