Purple Finch added to bird list

I added a new bird to my yard list last week with the arrival of a single female Purple Finch at my feeders.

This bird gets its common name for the wine red coloration of a male. The female, as is often the case, is much more plain in appearance. I have always thought of female Purple Finches as resembling smaller female Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, which helps me distinguish them from female House Finches.

The Purple Finch is the official state bird for New Hampshire. They breed in Canada and the northeastern United States, but they migrate south during winter months. At times, they can become quite numerous at feeders, but I have not enjoyed large numbers of these birds at my feeders in several years. In fact, this is one of the birds I failed to see at all in 2007.

The related House Finch, accidentally introduced in the eastern United States in the 1940s, has expanded rapidly. Some experts explain the decline in Purple Finch numbers in recent decades as a consequence of direct competition between the Purple Finch and the House Finch, which was originally a species confined to the western United States.

The Purple Finch becomes the 38th bird on my yard list for 2008.

•••••

I spent some time in Atlanta last weekend, which gave me an opportunity to observe some backyard birds I don’t normally see at home in East Tennessee. A Brown-headed Nuthatch fed at the feeders in the company of its larger relative, the White-breasted Nuthatch. I also observed a Pine Warbler foraging on the ground in fallen leaves and pine needles. In addition to these birds, other backyard birds in this wooded suburban neighborhood included Northern Cardinal, Eastern Towhee, Carolina Chickadee, Tufted Titmouse, Blue Jay, Carolina Wren, American Robin, American Goldfinch and a very animated pair of Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers. The sapsuckers played a game of tag in the yard, veering wildly from tree trunk to tree trunk in what I interpreted as some sort of mating ritual. Sapsuckers do not nest in Atlanta, however, so if this pair has joined for the nesting season, they will need to migrate to more suitable habitat in the Southern Appalachians.

While researching more information about Brown-headed Nuthatches, I learned that this bird, which resides exclusively in southeastern pine woodlands, competes quite vigorously with Pine Warblers. Although both the nuthatch and warbler will join mixed flocks of other birds, such as Tufted Titmouse and Carolina Chickadee, they do not like to surrender any ground to each other.

The Brown-headed Nuthatch, except for an endangered population in the Bahamas, is a bird exclusive to the borders of the United States. This bird is also rare in being a tool-user, using a splinter of wood or bark to pry for insects and other prey.

I have seen the Brown-headed Nuthatch in Chattanooga as well as on visits to Fripp Island and Hilton Head Island in South Carolina. Except at feeders, however, these nuthatches often remain in the higher limbs of pines, which can make observation — the bird is less than four inches long — rather difficult.

In Northeast Tennessee, the two nuthatches encountered at feeders are the White-breasted Nuthatch and Red-breasted Nuthatch. Both these relatives are very different in appearance from Brown-headed Nuthatches. The Pygmy Nuthatch of the western United States and Mexico, however, resembles the Brown-headed Nuthatch but is more drab in appearance.

•••••

I received a wonderful e-mail last week from Toni Hall. She and her husband, Alan, will retire and move to Unicoi within the next couple of years. They both enjoy watching birds and other wildlife. They currently reside in central Georgia, where they have a home with a large pond and a huge population of Purple Martins in some nesting gourds they have provided. She noted that they read “Feathered Friends” each week in The Erwin Record.

On their trips to Northeast Tennessee, however, Toni said they have not seen very many gourds or houses for Purple Martins. She wondered if the temperature is too cold for Purple Martins.

Actually, Purple Martins are quite at home in East Tennessee, but it is true that they are not quite as readily observed as such relatives as Tree Swallows and Barn Swallows. Part of the reason is that Purple Martins, which nest in colonies, are very dependent on humans to provide gourds (natural or artificial) or suitable “Martin condos,” which are multi-chamber apartment-style dwellings that several pairs of Purple Martins can occupy during the nesting season.

I know of some colonies of Purple Martins in Elizabethton, Unicoi and a few places in Washington County. Maintaining a Purple Martin colony is somewhat labor-intensive for human landlords. In addition, people wanting to attract these beautiful birds must sometimes be patient. Attracting a new colony to a breeding site may require more than a couple of years before Purple Martin scouts looking to expand into another colony make the discovery.

In the birding world, few species generate more excitement than does the Purple Martin, a swallow that is arriving now in Tennessee, with reports of scouts logged almost daily online.

Purple Martins, the largest of the swallows in North America, are totally dependent on man-made housing and faithfully return to the same locations each year, so its understandable that human landlords anxiously await the return of “their” birds from wintering grounds in South America.

Tennesseans have a long tradition of hosting Purple Martins. The state boasts what may be the largest colony in North America with more than 700 pairs near Finger in McNairy County. The site is the location of a national Martin Fest on Friday and Saturday prior to Father’s Day each June.

Because Martins are totally dependent on humans for housing, landlords anxiously await their return each year and post reports of dates/locations of scouts on an online data base (purplemartin.org) maintained by the Purple Martin Conservation Association (PMCA), a nonprofit conservation.

The earliest arriving Purple Martin this year was reported from Germantown near Memphis on Feb. 4, a very early bird. Subsequent reports from West Tennessee: Feb. 12 Milledgeville and Feb. 17 Adamsville; and East Tennessee on Feb. 14 in Copperhill.

The first wave consists of so-called adult Martins — those two or more years old — with adult males sporting full dark-purple color. Females are a bit drab, with a gray breast.

One-year-old Martins, called sub adults, arrive 10 to 12 weeks later than the older birds in April and May. These younger birds are more easily attracted to new housing locations.

The term scout actually is a misnomer. These are simply older experienced birds eager to reclaim their housing. Some arrive dangerously early and may perish when cold temperatures clear the air of flying insects. Fortunately for Purple Martins, many landlords today offer supplemental feeding of thawed crickets, live mealworms or even small bits of scrambled eggs flung into the air from a plastic spoon. After Martins learn the drill, they will accept the food from elevated platforms or from food placed in compartments.

Purple Martins prefer to nest in colonies in gourds hung from large racks and in multi-compartment birdhouses in open yards. As a species, Purple Martins are relatively common throughout Tennessee, with the greatest numbers found in the western part of the state, according to the North American Breeding Bird survey.

The PMCA recently analyzed long-term data from the North American Breeding Bird Survey (BBS) and found that thanks to devoted men and women who erect and maintain housing, Purple Martin populations overall are holding steady in North America with exceptions in some states — and appear to be increasingly steadily in Tennessee.

However, despite relative abundance in the state, many people try for years to attract these birds without success, or their colonies disappear. Hobbyists may be unaware that problems such as competition from invasive non-native birds — European starlings and House Sparrows — or predation from raccoons or rat snakes caused abandonment.

While generations of Americans have hosted Purple Martins, the custom was adopted from Native Americans who hung out nesting gourds.

Specific techniques to help a colony thrive have emerged in the past decade, based on research conducted by the PMCA and landlords in the field.

Among innovations are deeper compartments to protect nestlings from rain and aerial predators such as owls, specially-shaped entrance holes designed to admit Martins while excluding starlings and unique pole guards to thwart rat snakes and raccoons which are common in Tennessee.

Because Purple Martins are birds of the open sky — catching insects on the fly — the PMCA’s number one tip: place housing in the most open space available, but where the colony can be enjoyed and monitored.

More information about Purple Martins can be obtained from the Purple Martin Conservation Association which is focused on aiding martins and landlords — including a products catalog and information booklet, with advice on attracting and managing a colony, and data sheets to participate in Project MartinWatch, a national effort in which participants monitor nests and mail information to the PMCA at season’s end.

To obtain the booklet, call the PMCA at (814) 833-7656 or visit online at www.purplemartin.org.

•••••

Is everyone watching for the return of Ruby-throated Hummingbirds? I am always eager to hear from readers about their first sighting of these tiny birds each spring. To report your first sighting of the season, give me a call at 297-9077. You can also e-mail me at ahoodedwarbler@aol.com.

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