Nature News: Ominous-looking turkey vultures won’t hurt a thing

Published Feb 15 2022 in Seacoast Area newspapers and online at seacoastonline.com

This past weekend I was really worried. There were no birds at the feeders. Usually goldfinch, chickadees and all those other winter bird feeder birds are swarming to the sunflower seeds and suet. Instead, nothing.

It finally occurred to me to look around. High up, at the top of a giant white pine, were two turkey vultures. These eagle-sized birds looked ominous, like birds of prey waiting to swoop down and eat something. I could see why the regulars were in hiding.

However, unlike other birds of prey, these turkey vultures aren’t a threat to my bird feeder birds.  

I don’t know what they were doing up there, perhaps enjoying the sun, but turkey vultures are true scavengers. They feed on carrion – not goldfinch, chickadees and other small birds. They did not have designs on my birdfeeders.

One of two turkey vultures perching high up in a white pine Sue Pike Photo

Turkey Vultures almost never attack living prey

Here’s what the Cornell Lab of Ornithology has to say about their feeding preferences: “Turkey Vultures eat carrion, which they find largely by their excellent sense of smell. Mostly, they eat mammals but are not above snacking on reptiles, other birds, amphibians, fish, and even invertebrates. They prefer freshly dead animals, but often have to wait for their meal to soften in order to pierce the skin. They are deft foragers, targeting the softest bits first and are even known to leave aside the scent glands of dead skunks. Thankfully for them, vultures appear to have excellent immune systems, happily feasting on carcasses without contracting botulism, anthrax, cholera, or salmonella. Unlike their Black Vulture relatives, Turkey Vultures almost never attack living prey.”  In fact, turkey vultures are the only scavengers around here (unlike bald eagles, for example) who can’t kill their prey. Their  feet are more chicken-like than hawk or eagle-like, useless for tearing into prey. Their beaks are the powerful part and can tear through even the toughest cow hide. They feed by thrusting their heads into their prey, a good reason for their bald, turkey-like heads.  

Turkey vultures are most closely related to storks

The word raptor refers to a broad group of birds of prey – eagles, falcons, hawks and, until recently, vultures. Vultures appear to be very raptor-like. One of the shared traits of raptors is their ability to rip into prey with their powerful talons. Vultures don’t do this, they use their beaks. DNA evidence places them as more closely related to storks than to other raptors. After seeing these turkey vultures, I started looking at my chickens in a different light. Looks-wise, my chickens seem very vulture-esque. They aren’t related –beware of basing relatedness on looks!

It worries me to see turkey vultures in winter. They aren’t supposed to be here. When I entered my sighting into eBird.com (an online birdwatching database), I had to add additional comments because they are unusual this time of year. In fact, turkey vultures are relatively, geologically speaking, new to New England even in the summer. I have a 1987 bird guide in which their range doesn’t extend north of Massachusetts, but, a number of “southern” species like red-bellied woodpeckers, tufted titmice, cardinals, mockingbirds and turkey vultures have been pushing their ranges north since the last Ice Age.

New England is part of the ‘normal’ turkey vulture range in the summer, but recently, with our warmer winters (and perhaps increasing deer population) turkey vultures are lingering into the winter. These two looked healthy. With their bright red bald heads, glossy black wings and shiny white beaks they are interesting harbingers of climate change to come.

For past columns go to my archives–I update this as much as I can-I literally have hundreds out there–just need to get them into one place (here)

Chickadee-dee-dees!

published Dec 25, 2019 the York Weekly, Portsmouth Herald, Foster’s Daily and seacoastonline.com

I think if you ask any New Englander to name the top three birds at their feeder, the chickadee would be on everyone’s list. I also think that of any of the common bird calls in our forest, the chickadee’s is the one most of us could easily identify. These tiny, round birds with a black cap and bib that contrasts with its white cheeks are found all over the northern parts of the United States and up into the middle of Canada.

black-capped chickadee

When not living in the suburbs you can find them in deciduous and mixed forest, almost any kind of open woodlands, as well as thickets. When we clear forests for agriculture or development, we are increasing the amount of forest edge – a habitat type that chickadees love (unlike something like an ovenbird that requires deep woods for nesting).

The black-capped chickadee (Poecile atricapillus) is one of seven species of chickadees found in the United States. They all have similar body shapes with sometimes subtle differences in color or streaking on their heads. For example, the boreal chickadee (the other New England chickadee) has a brown cap and cinnamon flanks and a more northerly range, preferring the boreal forests of Canada and the mountains of New England.

Chickadees probably do so well with humans due to their flexibility and curiosity. They are highly social birds that are quick to explore new environments and take advantage of resources (they will usually be the first bird to use a new feeder). According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, one study found that “every autumn black-capped chickadees allow brain neurons containing old information to die, replacing them with new neurons so they can adapt to changes in their social flocks and environment even with their tiny brains.” They really do have tiny brains, which makes their ability to memorize that much more remarkable. They often hide food for later use and can remember thousands of hiding places!

Try listening to their calls. They actually have a very complex language, much more than the obvious chickadee-dee-dee. They can communicate information about other flocks, predators and foraging information. For example, they add ”-dees” to their chickadee call to indicate higher threat levels.

From the number that show up at my feeder every day one, wouldn’t know that we are in the middle of a mass extinction of birds. A recent Science Magazine article recently reported that there has been a 29% decline in birds in the United States over the past 50 years (that’s almost 3 billion fewer birds on the North American continent today compared to 1970!). While chickadees aren’t considered endangered, or even threatened at this point, their distribution is expected to shift and their numbers decline due to ongoing climate change. A 2017 report by Massachusetts Audubon predicted that by 2050 the black-capped chickadee population is likely to disappear from coastal areas of Massachusetts and decline substantially throughout southern New England as rising temperatures push their range to the north.

For now, if you want to attract chickadees to your backyard, provide feeders (they are one of the easiest birds to attract to a feeder), black-oil sunflower seeds and suet will do the trick, and some standing dead trees for cavity nesting sites (they also like nest boxes).

While chickadees are around all year, I think of them as winter birds. Watching them at my feeder as snow lightly falls is a wonderful way to welcome winter in New England.

Susan Pike, a researcher and an environmental sciences and biology teacher at St. Thomas Aquinas High School, welcomes your ideas for future column topics. She may be reached at spike3116@gmail.com. Read more of her Nature News columns online.

Red Crossbills in New England

published Dec 17 2019 The Portsmouth Herald/seacoastmedia.com

I have been watching the “winter” birds return to my feeder – juncos and titmice, downy and hairy woodpeckers, cardinals and nuthatches. A birding friend who lives in Colorado just posted some gorgeous photos of red crossbills in his hometown of Estes Park. He said he is seeing them everywhere. I have never seen a crossbill (a type of large finch) even though we have both red and white-winged crossbills in New England, particularly in the winter. The North American range of the red crossbills that my friend Scott Rashid, founder of the Colorado Avian Research and Rehabilitation Institute, photographed extends down into the mountainous spruce and pine forests of Central America, while the white-winged crossbill range is mostly in the boreal coniferous forests of the north.

Both of these crossbills could, I think, be mistaken for a house or purple finch by a birder of my caliber (poor). I wonder whether I have seen crossbills in my backyard, but assumed they were house finches? Crossbills are larger than house and purple finches and both the white-winged and the red crossbill are rosy red all over with dark wings whereas the house and purple finches are reddish mostly in front. I’m describing male coloration – the females of all these species are drab, with the finch females being brownish and the crossbill females being yellowish-green.

Crossbills have a really wonderful adaptation to their lives in coniferous forests. Their bills cross at the tip so that when their bill is closed the tip of the bottom bill protrudes up and the tip of the top bill protrudes down forcing the upper and lower parts to cross each other. According to the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, crossbills employ a special technique using these unique bills to get to their favorite food, pine seeds. “A bird’s biting muscles are stronger than the muscles used to open the bill, so the Red Crossbill places the tips of its slightly open bill under a cone scale and bites down. The crossed tips of the bill push the scale up, exposing the seed inside.” They then extract the seed using their tongue and bill together.

One fascinating fact about red crossbills that Scott shared with me was the wide variety in overall size and particularly in bill size among what is now considered the one species of red crossbill (Loxia curvirostra). For example, there are types of red crossbills that are smaller in size with smaller bills who specialize in the smaller pine cones of hemlock trees while larger billed types will specialize in larger pine cones. There are currently 11 different types of red crossbill recognized in North America.

Another cool fact about both red and white-winged crossbills is that they are opportunistic breeders. Because their diet is largely composed of pine seeds (white-winged crossbills can eat up to 3,000 conifer seeds in one day!), because they feed pine seeds to their young, and because pine trees produce cones at different times of the year, these birds can breed whenever the seed crop is largest. This might mean nesting in the depths of winter – something I wouldn’t expect to see, a nest with young or some fledglings hanging out on a snowy afternoon.

The best time to find crossbills around is in the winter as they wander about in search of food. According to the Cornell Lab, “Crossbills are nomadic, especially in winter, and in some years irrupt far south of their normal range. At these times, they may show up in evergreen forests, planted evergreens, or at bird feeders.” Sometimes cone crops will fail in their breeding ground and migrants will show up further south in search of food. Making sure to include a variety of native conifers in your backyard can help attract them. Cemeteries and parks with ornamental spruce and pine plantings are also a good place to look as they often attract crossbills in winter.

Everyone I know who is a “real” birder has seen crossbills in New England in winter, so my personal challenge is to try to join the ranks. To that end I’ll be paying a little more attention to anything that looks like a house finch and to any reddish-pinkish birds hanging out in my conifers and feeding from the pine cones dangling from the upper branches.

Susan Pike, a researcher and an environmental sciences and biology teacher at St. Thomas Aquinas High School, welcomes your ideas for future column topics. She may be reached at spike3116@gmail.com. Read more of her Nature News columns online.