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.

Nuthatches: The Big to the Little

It is odd to see a bird traveling down a branch or tree trunk upside down. Well, that is a noticeable characteristic of nuthatches. America has four species of these UPSIDE DOWN BIRDS: White-Breasted, Red-Breasted, Brown-Headed, and Pygmy. Nuthatches are stub-tailed, nervous little birds. They hold on to the tree with their claws – stretching one foot forward under their chest while leaving one back by their tail. A thin, sharp beak allows them to pick insects out of tree bark.
by Dave Hanks

The RED-BREASTED is our nuthatch here in Cassia County. I have previously mentioned this 4 ½ inch species of our forests, and its “yank – yank” call. Another (smaller sized) nuthatch is the BROWN-HEADED that is found in the southeastern states. The Brown-Headed call sounds like the squeak of a rubber duck. We have experienced this bird in Pettit-Jean Park, Arkansas in November.

The little PYGMY has a shrill call, and is only found here in our western mountains. It has a gray-brown crown, gray back, and a buff white belly. We have experienced this species in Oregon’s Ponderosa Pine forests and also in the trees by Jacob’s Lake, Arizona.

The WHITE-BREASTED (5 ¾ inches) is the largest and most wide spread. These birds have white bellies and heads, and rusty colored butts. There is a black stripe on their crowns. They are easily observed because they will readily come to bird feeders. This species voice is loud and its insistent yammering will lead you to it.

Nuthatches get their name from their habit of jamming nuts into crevices in tree bark. Then the birds will whack the nuts with their sharp bills to hatch the seeds out of their shells. Although in the family Sittidae, you could almost picture these birds as small woodpeckers. In winter, nuthatches flock with chickadees and kinglets.

White-Breasted Nuthatch

White Breasted Nuthatch

Pygmy Nuthatch

Long-Tailed Weasel: Feared Predator of the Lesser World

What has one of the most powerful bites for its size in the predator world? What has a small head and tube-like body that can go down most burrows? What predator is a greatly feared hunter, in the rodent world in which it hunts? What animal must kill around 500 rodents a year to satisfy its upkeep? It’s the Long-Tailed Weasel.

Voles (commonly known as field mice) are its “ice cream species” (that is the food an animal prefers above all else). However, larger prey will be taken when voles are not available. They will eat the head and thorax first and any leftovers are stored in the burrow. Weasels do not hibernate and so they will kill more than they can consume. This is added to their larder for times when prey is scarce.

This weasel is brown above and yellowish below and in northern climes turns white in winter, except for its tail tip which remains black. Males are twice as heavy as females. Its cousin, the Short-Tailed Weasel (or Ermine) has a white belly and is slightly smaller. Weasels are Mustelids (like skunks) and have scent glands that produce a strong odor for marking territory, defense, and most often used during the mating season. They also have well defined whiskers, which are quite sensitive and useful for navigation in darkness or in secluded places. They can swim or climb trees when necessary.

The Long-Tailed Weasel is the most wide-spread carnivore in the western hemisphere. The habitats they frequent always have water close at hand. We have experienced them in Waterton Provincial Park in Alberta and at Lake Cleveland – where we often see them “slithering’ out of the rocks and then quickly disappearing.

This small, elongated predator is retiring, but can be very aggressive if confronted.

A young weasel  at the water

Young weasel at the water

AMERICAN GOLDFINCH: Thistle Bird

This common, brilliant yellow bird is trimmed with black. It is sometimes referred to, by non-bird watchers, as a wild canary. It is very abundant in Cassia and surrounding counties. It is also very recognizable in summer when all decked out in breeding plumage. During winter, it is harder to identify because its colors have been greatly modified. Most birds in its family molt just once a year, but the American Goldfinch does so in fall and also in spring before the breeding season.

Goldfinches are seed eaters and can readily be attracted to feeders at all times of the year. They especially prefer thistle (Niger) seed. In fact, thistle is important as nesting material and they can often be seen perched in a patch of this infamous plant. It is a late nester – waiting until late June or July when the thistle comes into bloom. Though monogamous during a nesting cycle, the female (after producing her first brood) will leave the male the responsibility to raise the chicks. She will then take a new mate to produce the next crop.

Five inches long with black wings and a black crown contrasted against a bright yellow body makes identification easy. However, females lack the black cap. This bird is very gregarious and will usually be observed in a flock.

Special socks can be purchased to hold Niger seed, which can also be purchased, and you can watch these birds hanging upside-down on the sock picking out the tiny seeds.

American Goldfinch

Resting in the shade outside our window

Courtship and Mourning Doves

Mourning Doves go through a set of steps when courting.The male will “coo” and then the female will “coo.” The male will then alight on the branch next to her. He then bows and “coos” and she reciprocates in the same manner. He then will offer her a drink – a drink of dove’s milk. Dove’s milk is a heavy liquid, made from seeds, and is carried in the gullet. The female must insert her head to drink it. The male then preens the female and she in turn preens him. Mating can then proceed. These actions are called CHAINING – a set of steps that must occur in proper sequence or mating will not occur. If the chain is broken, or any step eliminated, the whole sequence must start over. Doves are often called “Love Birds” because of their tendency to sit close together on a branch.

The male will establish his territory in early spring – thus preparing for courtship and nesting. Territories selected will be in open or semi-open habitats. If your yard fits this description, you may have this species around your home. The resulting nest looks like a “rickety” affair – just a few sticks that light can show through. The eggs sit precariously on the sticks. They are all white, and both parents will incubate them. These birds will lay eggs in other Mourning Dove nests. A community affair, you might say. If the nest is threatened, the parent will perform a distraction (Agonistic) display.

This 11 to 14 inch bird is named for its mournful sounding call. I have heard other people mistake the call for that of an owl.

Our large yard seems to fit their needs, and they are at our place for most of the year. Cassia County has large populations in its dry farm areas where brushy areas border the wheat fields in the gullies that are inaccessible to cultivation.

Mourning Dove

Mostly tan but subtly colored about the neck and head

Pine Grosbeak: A High Elevation Bird

I really wanted a Pine Grosbeak photo, and we had traveled a long ways to get it. There they were, right at my feet – but, too close to focus. Then, with a start, they were all gone. Have you ever seen a grown man cry – well, almost. I had waited and waited for this, and they had come and gone and not a single picture taken!

This is a bird of Canada’s boreal forests. It also inhabits the high elevations of our mountains. The best place to search for them is high up the mountain close to the tree line. They only migrate a short distance south, or down the mountains, and only when winter is especially bitter. They require plenty of water every day but are willing to consume snow if necessary.

This beautiful, (8-10 inch) chunky bird really stands out against a snowy backdrop. The male has a bright red head, back, and chest. This makes a pleasing contrast with its silver sides, black tail, and black wings that are splotched with white. The female is yellow/olive – instead of the red of her mate.

The Pine Grosbeak’s diet is almost totally seeds, buds, fruits, and nuts – although they will feed insects to their young. They also develop a pouch on the floor of their mouth to carry food to the nestlings. In winter, a flock will remain in a single tree until all fruit is consumed.

After failures in the Colorado passes, I finally got my photo in the Snowy Mountains, south of Laramie, Wyoming! We were also lucky to see a pair at Lake Cleveland during one July camping trip. There is a snow-melt pond by the first campsites. It had almost evaporated when we arrived. I saw birds greedily coming to drink, bathe, and eat the tadpoles. I put a stick in the middle and sat in a camp chair and waited. My wife couldn’t believe me when I returned to the camper and reported that I had just photographed Pine Grosbeak.

I search for this bird up in the Krumholtz –

Up where the trees are stunted and bent.

Its plump body, dressed in silver and red,

Makes for a quest well spent!

(A Snowy Mountain treat)

(A Snowy Mountain treat)

Utah State Bird: The California Gull

Sandpipers and Flycatchers are easily recognized as to their group. However, identification of each specific species is very tricky. “Sea Gulls” – or more properly Gulls, because some are inland birds, are also a group that is touchy to differentiate between species. There are 21 gull species in the USA and Canada. Cassia County has three that are common here: Ring-Billed, California, and Franklin’s. The California Gull is the bird of Utah history, although why it should be so named instead of Utah Gull is a mystery to me.

The California Gull is moderate size, 21 inches, has dark eyes and a red spot on its beak. It takes four years for it to reach maturity, and as a juvenile it is darkly speckled. Most of the year is spent inland, but with a migration to the coast to get through the winter. The Ring-Billed, however, is our year-round resident.

A large and very common gull of the coastline is the Herring Gull. The California looks like a smaller version of this species, except it has black legs instead of pink ones. Other common gulls of the sea coast are: Heermann’s Gull which is dark and the Mew and Laughing Gulls which are named for their calls. Our Franklin’s Gull and the more northerly Bonaparte’s have black heads.

The California Gull, like all gulls, is an opportunistic feeder. Its diet ranges from aquatic organisms, to garbage dumps, to the flies that mass along the shores of salty lakes. An unusual feeding behavior is to run through those fly groups with head down and beak open, gulping up flies as they enter the throat. Also, you probably have witnessed them following tractors plowing fields to snatch up worms and bugs that are uncovered by the plow. Besides grabbing fish remains, I have seen them grab a vole or mouse to ingest in one gulp – a food they seem fond of and will fight over.

This gull is a Mormon legend – taking up crickets that had infested fields and preserving the crops. Statues in Utah commemorate that event.

Below, compare the California, with dark eye & colored dot on beak (top) with the Ring-Billed (bottom), with ring on beak & yellow eye outline:

Mule Deer: Graceful Symmetry

We were coming over a rise in the early morning, and there he was. He was surrounded by several does and the sunlight put a magical glow upon him. The ripeness of autumn was evident in his body and beautiful “rack.” How could one not love something so splendid – something so immersed in its prime? I know that hunting is necessary in the management of wildlife. But if I hunted with a gun, instead of a camera, I’d have a hard time shooting him –a hard time erasing his perfect beauty that graced that morning.

Mule Deer differ from White-Tails in that they are more bulky, their antlers don’t sweep forward, their tails are tipped in black, and they have large ears, whereby their name is derived.

Deer are known as browsers, but they seem to do a lot of grazing. In the early morning or at dusk, they will carefully move out in the meadows to graze, always keeping cover close enough to flee to when sensing danger. They move with stiff-legged bounding (called pronking). This makes movement more efficient over ground littered with obstacles such as downed timber, rocks, etc. They are also excellent swimmers. They’re not migratory, but do move down to lower elevations to get away from deep snow. I’m always amazed at the numbers I see in scrubby, arid areas. Areas you don’t expect to find them in.

First year mothers have a single fawn, but from then on, two is the usual. Scent glands on the hind legs give off a special odor that fawns imprint on to recognize their mother. This is helpful to animals that are colorblind. A scientific axiom is: if an animal is colorful, it can see colors.

The Mule Deer’s major predators are Mountain Lions. Cassia County has a large deer population and that is why Mountain Lions inhabit our south hills. Coyotes and bobcats will take young or sick individuals. One of their biggest killers is highways, as they attempt crossing in the dark. My wife’s, and my own, post-college years were spent in Montana. Ranchers in that state stack their hay in their alfalfa fields. That requires very tall stack fences to protect the hay, as deer can easily jump over an average height fence.

An early morning gift