Birds stay warm despite cold

Snowy Owls

Snowy Owls are perfectly adapted for extreme cold, right down to their feathered toes. Painting by John James Audubon (male – top, female – lower).

Published Jan. 2, 2008, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Birds stay warm, despite cold. Diving into snowdrifts just one strategy used to deal with winter.”

2015 Update: I wonder how bird physiology responds to sudden drops in temperature?

By Barb Gorges

Wool, fleece and down clothes; insulated rubber boots; vigorous shoveling and skiing; hot chocolate and soup; lap cat and household thermostat; quilts and down comforters; and maybe a trip to Albuquerque–that’s how I survive winter.

Birds have similar strategies. The chief one is migration, whether down from the mountains or down to South America. It’s about balancing food-as-fuel availability with air temperature. The colder the air, the more food birds must find to turn into calories to burn.

Insect eaters depart, except for the gleaners, like the brown creepers which are willing to eat frozen bug bodies found in bark crevices.

Seed, berry and bud eaters stay behind, as well as predatory species. Water birds stay as long as ice doesn’t prevent them from getting to the pond weeds and animals.

Migration is a matter of following the food. Snowy owls are perfectly happy wintering in the Arctic unless there aren’t enough lemmings to go around. Then they head south.

About 50 species out of a total of 325 on the Cheyenne bird checklist are observed regularly on the Christmas Bird Count. How do they survive?

First, there’s fat. Songbirds will put on enough on average to weather three days of storm. More fat than that and they would be too overloaded to evade predators. Sea ducks pack on as much as 10 days’ worth. That’s how long they can go without being able to eat before they run out of fuel and die.

Then there’s shivering. When the pectoral (breast) muscles contract and relax quickly, they produce heat.

That heat warms air trapped by feathers which work better as insulation than mammal hair. Most birds have some down feathers and birds of cold climates have especially good down. Think of eider down, which comes from eider ducks. But the more archaic species, ostrich, emu and kiwi, have none.

A cold bird’s other feathers will lift away from its skin and trap more warm air, making the bird a completely different shape in cold than in hot weather. Others, like the common redpoll, have more feathers in winter than summer. Some north country birds have feathers on their legs, like the rough-legged hawk.

Otherwise, birds keep their bare parts warm by burying their beaks under their wings or hunkering down, fluffing feathers over their feet. But you’ve seen the silly Canada geese at Holliday Park, the ones refusing to migrate because people in the past fed them. They walk on the ice. How do they stand it?

Cold adapted birds have a sophisticated heat exchange system. Warm, arterial blood, traveling from the heart to the feet, passes cooled venal blood returning from the feet and warms it before it is pumped back through the heart. Basically, birds have cold feet so we don’t have to worry about them getting stuck on cold metal perches on bird feeders.

Sometimes a sleeping bird’s core temperature will drop 20 degrees from 108 degrees (chickadee body temperature) for a fuel savings akin to turning down our thermostats at night. However, if we humans let our body temperatures drop from 98.6 to 78.6 degrees, we’d die. Somehow birds can pull it off and wake up for another day of foraging.

A few birds even manage to enter a deeper state of torpor for months. A study in the 1930’s of a poor-will over 85 days showed its body temperature fluctuating with air temperatures in the 60’s.

Birds search out warm microhabitats. Grouse dive into snow drifts and stay as toasty as any Boy Scout in a snow cave–unless the surface gets iced over and then they are toast–the birds, that is, not the boys.

Starlings standing around chimneys are smart–until the fumes knock them out and they topple over.

The higher a perching type of bird is in the flock’s pecking order, the closer to the trunk of an evergreen tree or the middle of a thicket it can roost and the more protected it will be from winter storms. So the more dominant a bird is, the more likely it is to survive. Besides, dominant birds eat better too and may have more fat going into a storm.

And then there’s the “dog pile” effect. A researcher in Maryland cut the top of a hollow wooden fence post where eastern bluebirds had nested so he could remove it from time to time over the winter. Once he found 13 bluebirds packed inside, and another time found more, but two of those were dead from suffocation.

Hawks and owls prefer winter solitude since they are in competition with every other raptor for the limited supply of prey animals.

But for some species, especially the songbirds, sociability is the key to survival. Secretive during the summer nesting season, in winter small birds–chickadees, nuthatches, sparrows–form what is referred to as “mixed species flocks.” It means more eyes watching for predators and potential food sources.

I think sociability is a good way for people to survive the winter, too. Members and friends of Cheyenne – High Plains Audubon Society will be gathering for the annual Christmas Bird Count and the tally party afterwards.

If you are interested in helping, the more of us there are, the warmer we’ll be!


“Last Child in the Woods” by Richard Louv, book review

winter hike

Over 100 people of all ages hiked January 1, 2013, at Curt Gowdy State Park. The “First Day” hike tradition has now spread to other Wyoming state parks. See for a nation-wide list of hikes. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Published Jan. 24, 2007, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Out equals healthy.”

2015 Update: Richard Louv has written a new book (2011), “The Nature Principle.” “The future will belong to the nature-smart—those individuals, families, businesses, and political leaders who develop a deeper understanding of the transformative power of the natural world and who balance the virtual with the real. The more high-tech we become, the more nature we need.” See more at

By Barb Gorges

How are you doing with your New Year’s resolutions? Mine are the same as last year, but I hope to be more successful.

One was to go outside more often. This year I also want to see more birds and improve my birding skills.

The outdoors, with the addition of sunscreen, should be good for me. Studies show gazing at the natural contours of land and vegetation improves both our mental and physical health.

I’ve recently been reading “Last Child in the Woods, Saving Our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder,” by Richard Louv.

His main premise is that it’s a problem that today’s child is no longer allowed to, or even interested in, hanging out in the natural environment.

For parents, letting kids spend free time in front of a TV or computer screen is preferable to the outdoors where they might meet dangerous strangers, even if it is a statistically rare event. And, the woods may no longer be down at the end of the street or even within biking distance.

Supervised outdoor experiences are better than none, but are not the same as dinking around on one’s own, or building a tree house or fort with friends. Louv sees these experiences as developmentally necessary.

I mostly grew up in an inner suburb of Milwaukee, Wis., sometimes playing pioneer in the undeveloped end of the cemetery. But at my grandfather’s in Illinois there was a stream at the bottom of his hill just right for imaginative play.

One year we lived in Oak Park, Ill., with a city park across the street. We neighborhood kids spent hours there. The only time the woods were literally at the end of our street was the six months or so we lived in Paducah, Ky.

My own children played outside until we got a computer. Even though we limited its use, they turned instead to reading. Outdoor activity became confined to scouting and family outings.

Louv cites many studies that correlate lack of outdoor exposure with ill health in children, especially obesity. But the biggest loser may be the environment if children don’t make connections with it.

Why worry about clean air and water if you can filter everything before it comes into the house? Why worry about wildlife if you can clone them on the computer screen or see them on high definition TV?

Louv gives examples of school programs and housing developments that safely allow kids to explore nature on their own, but they sound impossibly utopian. How do you convince today’s young couples to choose those kinds of alternatives if they themselves are already part of the indoor generation?

Louv was amazed a group of university microbiology students he met couldn’t identify local fauna and flora. He says opportunities for microbiology study have flourished while the study of mega animals and plants, or natural history, has declined.

Bird watching is a bright spot, continuing to grow by leaps and bounds. Recently, 23 students signed up for the local Audubon chapter’s winter birding class. They wanted to know everything the instructor knew, not just identification. But most were from the outdoor generation.

Although one might never get further than backyard birding, it can lead to concern for the wider world, since for instance, the Swainson’s hawk soaring over Cheyenne in the summer eats grasshoppers in Argentina in winter.

However, an interest in birds doesn’t always lead to ecological enlightenment and advocacy as I would hope.

The other book I’ve been reading is “To See Every Bird on Earth, A Father, a Son and a Lifelong Obsession,” by Dan Koeppel. It finally explained for me the phenomenon of listing.

Listers keep records of the first time they identify a bird species for their life list. They may also keep a list by state or county, and a yard list, or a year list—or a country list, if they travel as much as Koeppel’s father did.

Richard Koeppel became addicted to adding birds to his life list. Unfortunately, he didn’t channel his interest into the field of ornithology, or pass it on to his sons, but followed his parents’ wishes to study medicine.

As an itinerant doctor, he had the money and the time to book passage on birding tours to become one of the world’s top ten listers competing for the longest list.

Koeppel saw 7,200 of 9,600 species found worldwide before health problems made him decide to quit a few years ago.

A mild obsession can give life more depth, but to take it to the depth of the “Big Listers” is unhealthy, I think. Sure they were outside, but it doesn’t seem like they saw the forest for the birds.

No chance I’ll get overly obsessed with birding now if I haven’t already in 25 years of Audubon field trips.

I have Richard Louv to thank for making my resolution a health prescription since he touts the benefits of green landscapes for all ages.

I hope “green” is just a synonym for “natural.” I’d hate to wait for my local landscape to turn green. This time of year, the prairie is mostly 29 shades of brown, with white accents, but it works for me.

Picking a New Year’s conservation resolution

Greater Sage-Grouse

The battle over protecting Greater Sage-Grouse and their habitat rages on. Courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Published Jan. 4, 2006, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Resolving to do better this year.”

2015 Update: Philosophical arguments can be trumped by Mother Nature.

By Barb Gorges

It seems New Year’s resolutions come in two categories. The first shows restraint—I won’t eat all the chocolate chips before they get in the cookies; I won’t waste money on junk and I won’t watch junk TV.

The other category shows motivation—I will get more exercise; I will work harder and save more and I will study that CD of bird songs so I’m prepared for spring.

If we don’t make resolutions, whatever time of year, then we are like willow twigs tossed in the creek. Depending on luck, we could be battered by boulders or become rooted in a fertile location where willow twigs can sprout or just go with the flow until we decay into nothing.

Personally, I’d rather be like a fish, determining for myself whether to go up or downstream. Or better yet, as a bird, I could find new streams.

Not all our resolutions are of the personal improvement kind. We can be altruistic and resolve to make that charitable contribution or teach that class for free or adopt the homeless dog because we were brought up to be responsible people.

One of my favorite charitable ways to spend time and money is bird conservation work. I think it is necessary because some of the changes in nature threaten the existence of birds.

But what is nature?

What is natural?

If ivory-billed woodpeckers are near extinction because people sawed down their trees, isn’t that natural? People are natural, aren’t they? If you aren’t a plant, mineral, fungus or bacteria, you must be an animal, same as birds and other wildlife.

By this reasoning, whatever people decide to do, it has to be natural. However, civilization has put legal boundaries on us, even extending protection to non-human life.

For instance, when people let loose European starlings in New York in 1890, they probably didn’t know starlings would crowd out bluebirds and other native cavity nesters. They thought they were adding variety. But biologists know better today and the introduction of exotic species into the wild is no longer allowed.

But why should we protect our native species? The world is not a static place. If man progresses from burning buffalo chips to burning natural gas and sage grouse are displaced by the intense drilling in their habitat, so what?

Whether they adapt or whether they move or die, isn’t it natural?

Surveys so far show they are not adapting to the disruption, nor are they leaving the only kind of sagebrush habitat that works for them. To wait for the total demise of sage grouse is to act like the powerless twig in the creek.

But I believe people can creatively resolve what looks like an either or situation, such as either energy or grouse.

People can make a resolution to show restraint in not mining an energy source just because it’s there.

We can be motivated to find better, less disruptive energy alternatives.

We can act responsibly for sage grouse well-being, even if we can’t see a direct benefit to ourselves.

Environmental philosophers tell me that even if I never see a sage grouse or ivory-billed woodpecker myself, just knowing they continue to exist improves the quality of my life.

Conservation biologists tell me that every species is one of the building blocks of life and if we remove too many, it will eventually affect my health and well being.

We also have to be careful what we wish and work for.

When a native species expands its range, how do the species already there respond?

Picking the proper conservation resolution is tricky, but not a lot different from making personal improvement resolutions.

What do I eat when I eat less?

What investments do I make when I save more?

If I’m not careful, my resolutions can have bad results.

I think we—at least some decision makers—are still stuck on the question of whether a few animals living above mineral reserves are as important as the nation’s energy needs. The debate is continually framed by the old idea that you can’t have your cake and eat it too.

But I think you can have both, as long as you choose a cake that is a renewable resource.

We can have our energy and our sage grouse too. We just need resolve to act with restraint and motivation.

I wish I were the engineer that could put solar voltaic shingles on the market next week that are hail and windproof and affordable.

Just imagine what the world would be like if we didn’t have to drill or dig for or argue over energy, or have to scrub away pollution. Clean air!

We would all benefit directly—even the people who make smokestack filters have to breathe.

What are my New Year’s resolutions, besides the usual eat less and walk more—preferably while bird watching?

Well, after this discussion, maybe the best Mark and I can do is to install new energy efficient windows while we wait for the household-sized solar furnace to be invented.

In this case, what’s good for the grouse can be good for the goose and the gander.

Woodpeckers find silver lining in beetle-killed trees

American Three-toed Woodpecker

The American Three-toed Woodpecker is attracted to trees infected with beetles. Courtesy Wikipedia.

Published Jan. 4, 2006, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Of birds and beetles. Woodpeckers find silver lining in devastation done by insects.”

2015 Update: Check to see the distribution from year to year of American Three-toed Woodpecker and Black-backed Woodpecker. See and See another post about pine beetle scheduled for next week.

By Barb Gorges

Are they avian ambulance chasers or the feathered equivalent of Red Cross volunteers? Or are they just looking to build a home a short commute from where they can make a good living?

Whichever best describes them, American three-toed woodpeckers and black-backed woodpeckers show up in forests that are under siege from bark and wood-boring beetles.

Not only do the birds make homes in the dead trees, they make meals out of the beetles and their larvae, filling an important niche in the forest ecosystem.

Other woodpeckers in Wyoming, including flickers, sapsuckers and downy and hairy woodpeckers, are fairly common, but the three-toeds and black-backeds are quiet and hard to find.


The Black-backed Woodpecker is one species that enjoys finding pine beetles–to eat. Courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The three-toed woodpecker can be found in most mountain ranges in the Cowboy State, but the black-backed sticks to the northwest corner of the state and the Black Hills in the northeast.

Outside the state, the range of both species covers forests in much of Canada and interior Alaska plus the Rockies in the northern United States.

Recently three-toed woodpeckers in North America were split into a species separate from those ranging from Scandinavia to northern Japan.

The birds are relatively unknown despite pages of references for studies of three-toed and black-backed woodpeckers listed in “birds of North America.”

Many of the three-toed studies were done in Scandinavia; it isn’t known if the findings hold true in North America.

A relationship with beetles

The three-toed and black-backed woodpeckers both have three toes, two facing forward and one facing, back that help them rise to the challenge of finding wood-boring and bark beetles.

Other woodpeckers have four toes, two facing front and two facing back

These three-toed specialists use a different stance and grip on a tree trunk that gives them greater force in drilling than all but the much larger pileated and ivory-billed woodpeckers.

Other general woodpecker-evolved adaptations are: stiff tails used as props; long, sticky tongues; and skulls with built-in shock absorbers to withstand all the hammering.

While they might make huge holes to find beetles deep inside the tree, the woodpeckers also can scale or peel off the bark to find bark beetle larvae.

The birds excavated a snag, a dead tree, to put their nests in. This takes them a few weeks, but a pair will do it once a year.

Old nest holes then are snapped up by bluebirds, chickadees and other cavity nesters that don’t have the beaks for the job.

In an average forest, there are always a few trees in decline that provide beetles for a few woodpeckers. But then Mother Nature provides a bonanza every so often when wildfire strikes.

Possibly both birds and beetles can smell the smoke. Beetles are on the scene of a fire within a couple weeks and black-backed and three-toed woodpeckers are right behind them.

Steve Kozlowski, a U.S. Forest Service wildlife biologist in Laramie, said three-toeds are normally at such a low density that you are lucky to find one on any given day. But after the Gramm fire near Foxpark in 2003, 14 were seen in one day.

Trees in distress

Even in healthy forests, beetles congregate where a single tree has succumbed to disease, lightning strike or windthrow, said Jeff Witcosky, a regional entomologist with the U.S. Forest Service in Golden, Colo.

Old growth coniferous forests are more vulnerable to beetle kills because young trees have better defenses.

One way beetles might find distressed trees, Witcosky said, is through hydrocarbons known as terpenes that are given off by injured tree tissue. The beetles may be able to sense the compounds with their antennae, he said.

In lodgepole pine forests stressed by drought, mountain pine beetles might randomly land and chew bark before deciding whether to attack or try another tree.

Although there is about one beetle for each species of coniferous forest tree, the different kinds of beetle can be lumped into two main groups.

The bark beetles, favorites of three-toed woodpeckers, lay their eggs just under the bark where they hatch as rice-grained sized larvae that chew little tunnels in the trees cambium, or growing layer.

These traceries in the layer that would become the newest tree ring eventually reach all the way around and prevent sap from moving between roots and needles, killing the tree. When the bark falls off, the tunnels look like shallow etchings in the wood.

The other general category includes all the wood-boring beetles. The larvae of the beetles, favorites of black-backed woodpeckers, eat deeper into the wood. Growing as long as 1 ½ inches, when they reach the adult stage they chew their way back out, fly off, mate and deposit eggs under the bark of another tree victim.

These beetle life cycles can last from one to three years, depending on the kind of beetle. All that time, they are at the mercy of chisel-billed birds that like beetle larvae more than any other insect flesh.

Surrounded by acre upon acre of lodgepole, ponderosa pine or spruce, how does a woodpecker search efficiently for hidden food?

Doug Faulkner, University of Wyoming bird biologist, said it would make a good master’s thesis project to find out.

Do the birds key in on other signs of a tree’s distress? Can they smell the same terpenes that attract beetles?

Jane Dorn, co-author of “Wyoming Birds,” with her husband Robert, said she has heard larvae chewing when she’s close enough to an infected tree. Woodpeckers presumably have better hearing than people.

Populations fueled by fire

Arvind Panjabi, a bird biologist with Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory, spent several years studying the effects of the 85,000-acre Jasper fire that burned in the Black Hills National Forest in South Dakota and Wyoming in 2000.

In the areas of ponderosa pine that burned the hottest, what foresters call a stand replacement fire, black-backed woodpeckers increased tenfold, and peaked the second year after the fire.

Because the Hills are isolated, Panjabi guesses the boost was due to an increase in reproduction rather than the unlikely scenario of birds flying in over hundreds of miles of grasslands.

Because the woodpeckers at a burned area are eating well and are at maximum good health, they lay larger clutches of eggs. But the boom lasts only three to five years.

No one is sure what happens to the increased numbers of woodpeckers if another part of the forest isn’t burning by then.

The bark beetles eaten by three-toeds seem to prefer singed spruce trees. But within a few years these burns lose their appeal and beetles too have to leave for blacker pastures.

Panjabi found that in the Black Hills, numbers of Lewis’s and red-headed woodpeckers in the burn area, though never as numerous as black-backed and three-toed shortly after the fire, continue to slowly increase even when the other two are decreasing.

Sometimes black-backed and three-toed woodpeckers on a new burn have competition in the form of salvage logging of burned trees. They must be harvested within six months or so to make good lumber, but without burned trees there are no beetles and no birds.

To share the bounty, wildlife biologists recommend leaving groups of snags standing. Single snags spread out won’t support these two species of woodpeckers. Neither will clear cuts.

It is important to be accommodating, since without regular woodpecker numbers, normal beetle populations might grow out of hand, forest ecologists say.

Wyoming forests are currently experiencing beetle epidemics too large for woodpeckers or people to control. Beetles are not only attacking sick trees but apparently healthy ones as well.

The only sure control, Witcosky said, will be a long enough episode of extreme cold which will kill the larvae. Winters have been too warm lately.

More about black-backed and three-toed woodpeckers

Despite pages of references for studies of three-toed and black-backed woodpeckers listed in accounts in Birds of North America, there is a lot unknown about them.

Many of the three-toed studies were done in Scandinavia and it isn’t known if the findings hold true in North America.

Also, how did the population of black-backed woodpeckers in the Black Hills become separated by hundreds of miles of grasslands from others in the Canadian boreal forest or mountains further west? It, like the three-toed, doesn’t migrate beyond a little movement south or to lower elevation in winter.

What is the normal population level for black-backeds and three-toeds? Are they normally uncommon species in old growth forest, or are they normally common species in freshly burned forest, a habitat harder to find now than in past centuries?

Dick Hutto, a University of Montana professor of fire ecology and ornithology who has studied the aftermath of the Yellowstone fires, said in an interview in the Missoulian earlier this year that a burned landscape is no less fragile a habitat type than is a wetland.

Presently, the Wyoming Bird Conservation Plan classifies both the three-toed and the black-backed at level 2, at which the primary focus is monitoring. The Wyoming Natural Heritage Database identifies them as globally secure, but rare statewide.

Are these two closely related woodpeckers ambulance chasers? Yes, they do make the most of trees in distress for personal gain. Are they like Red Cross volunteers? Yes, every larvae eaten is one less allowed to live and infect another tree with eggs. Are they Mom and Pop looking for a good place to raise kids? Yes, this drives the behavior of most animals.

So, how do you add one of these elusive woodpeckers to your life list? Find the locations of last year’s forest fires and look for sooty-colored birds on sooty tree trunks. And listen for beetles chewing wood.

“My Garden Neighbors,” L.A. Reed, book review

My Garden Neighbors book cover

The cover of “My Garden Neighbors” features a drawing by the author. Courtesy

Published Jan. 19, 2005, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Birder’s interest piqued by book a century old.”

2015 Update: A new online search shows the author’s full name is Lucas Albert Reed. He wrote mainly on religious subjects. Many copies of this book are available online for sale. Read a digitized version, complete with drawings by the author, at

By Barb Gorges

My Garden Neighbors, True Stories of Nature’s Children by L. A. Reed, B.S., M.S., with illustrations by the author, Review and Herald Publishing Association, Washington, D.C., 1911, copyright 1905 by L.A. Reed.

A couple months ago, Edna Hudson called me to see about donating bird books. I found a home for them at the Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory (, which will either put them in its library or sell them at a fundraising auction in April.

But one book, the subject of this review, caught my eye and I will either mail it or a check to Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory later. Edna said she bought it for resale at her shop long ago, but had no other information.

My Garden Neighbors, by L.A Reed, is apparently written for children. One of the last pages is in smaller type and is addressed to teachers, giving them study ideas and informing them outdoor study aids body as well as mind.

Then there’s the cover’s patina of hard use. Another clue was stuck between the pages, a certificate for junior membership in the Seventh-Day Adventist Young People’s Society of Missionary Volunteers, dated 1929, for William Archer, Boulder, Colo.

A search of the online used book seller, Alibris, shows two copies in much better shape available for $16 and $37, but no background information available.

With skepticism, I Googled the publisher’s name. What I found is no doubt familiar to some of my friends because Review and Herald has been the publishing house of the Seventh-Day Adventists since the 1850s. They still publish children’s nature literature.

Too close to deadline, I can’t find out more about the author, whom I suspect is a man. For one, it would have been highly unusual in 1905 for a woman to have a Master of Science degree. Plus, even though the stories in each chapter are told in the third person, they are told from the point of view of “the man.”

Book page

The author has little respect for bird-eating cats. Courtesy

And while the animals are referred to in that quaintly polite, somewhat anthropomorphic style characteristic of the age, there’s no softening of the reality of nature.

For instance, Mr. Sparrow, after suffering the loss of a leg by slingshot, nearly loses his mate to another male before adapting.

Reed draws parallels to the way animals handle life and the way people could learn from them, but by no means is he as sentimental as other writers for children of the same era. In fact, when the man’s adopted stray cat begins “going to the bad,” killing several birds a day, the man chloroforms it without a sugar-coated euphemism.

In this modern age of effective kitty litter, the man may have been able to keep his cat indoors. However, on other topics he shares a modern birder’s viewpoint. For instance, house sparrows (he calls them English sparrows) are not to be encouraged since they are an invasive species that competes with the natives.

After the twelve chapters of stories about birds, spiders, and other garden neighbors, Reed provides “An Invitation to the Birds.” His admonition against loose cats, red squirrels and house sparrows, and his prescription of tangles of bushes and shrubs, watering places, nesting places and various grains to feed is hardly different from that of modern experts, although, finding hemp seed at the feed store today may be difficult.

Book illustration

Some illustrations are color plates, like this meadowlark. Courtesy

Also at the end of the book are individual species descriptions, including range. This is where I thought I might learn what part of the country Reed gardened. First, I had to translate some of the old-fashioned names. I think “The Snowflake” should be revived for the snow bunting.

Reed mentions some other former names such as Summer Yellowbird (yellow warbler), Myrtlebird (yellow-rumped warbler), Cherry Bird (cedar waxwing), Thistlebird (American goldfinch), Chewink (eastern towhee), Firebird (Baltimore oriole), Blue Canary (indigo bunting) and Yellow-Hammer (northern flicker, yellow-shafted race).

Did you know that Lewis and Clark first collected for science what was originally known as the “Louisiana Tanager”, named for the Louisiana Purchase? Now we call it the western tanager.

Reed lists a couple other western species, but I don’t think he did more than travel through the west because he lists the red-breasted nuthatch, white-breasted nuthatch, brown creeper, yellow-breasted chat, and chipping sparrow as eastern-only species. I’m pretty sure they’ve been breeding in Wyoming and the west more than 100 years.

On the other hand, Reed lists the blue jay as being found in North America in general and we know it is a species still expanding its range into the west, though there are other blue-colored jays already here.

More than the change of bird names and distribution in the last hundred years, what is notably different in Reed’s book from our modern lives is the amount of time “the man” has for nature observation. It is explained, “The man’s health had failed, and the doctors had advised him to live more out of doors. That is how he came to have a garden.”

Perhaps we too should take the doctors’ advice and learn to take time to observe such events as construction of a spider’s web—from start to finish. It may be healthful as well as instructive.

Birdseed bandits: Outsmarting squirrels

Fos Squirrel

Fox Squirrels are not native to Wyoming’s high plains. Someone introduced them to Cheyenne, where they have learned to raid bird feeders. Courtesy Wikipedia.

Published Jan. 19, 2005, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Birdseed bandits. How hard can it be to outsmart squirrels?”

2015 Update: Last month, after ten years, when the springs wore out, we finally replaced our first Perky Pet square tube sunflower seed feeder. It withstood squirrels clinging to it every now and then, and didn’t let them get any seed.

By Barb Gorges

Fox squirrels are a by-product of bird feeding in Cheyenne. While they are cute and fuzzy and entertaining, the ones attracted to my yard have also been destructive, crashing bird feeders and stripping tree bark, not to mention stealing food meant for birds.

Originally, Cheyenne had hardly any trees and no tree-type squirrels. Birds had no competition at the feeder until, the story goes, somebody imported a few from Nebraska.

Much thought by people who feed birds has gone into outwitting squirrels. The problem is they seem to adapt to all of our strategies to exclude them. Fighting them off is a bit like fighting an infection with antibiotics. Do you use the lowest level of technology that will do the job for now, or do you use a well-fortified feeder to begin with? It all depends on your means and patience.

Feeding birds in Cheyenne is as simple as throwing black oil sunflower seed on the ground. It’s everybody’s favorite and you’ll get a wide assortment of seed-eaters including sparrows, juncos, finches, chickadees and nuthatches—and eventually, squirrels.

The first level of advice often given is to offer squirrels their own feeding station stocked with favorite foods, such as dried corn. Many companies offering bird feeders also offer a platform on which to spike a whole ear.

Baffling the wee beasties

However, with five furry and frisky feeders now gnawing on my trees, I’d rather not attract them to my yard at all. Putting sunflower seed in a tube, hopper or platform feeder protects it only somewhat from squirrels.

These kinds of feeders can be set on a pole, especially if you live where the wind tends to dump seed out of hanging feeders, but sooner or later the squirrels learn to shimmy up the pole.

Commercially made baffles are available that mount on the pole below the feeder. Some look like large, upside down, plastic salad bowls, so perhaps you can drill a hole in the bottom of that extra one you got for a wedding present.

Ruth Keto said greasing her feeder pole with canola oil has worked well so far in her Sun Valley neighborhood. It’s not certain yet how often the oil needs to be reapplied to keep it slippery, or if it’s actually a matter of fastidiousness which the squirrels will eventually overcome and finally get their paws dirty.

In our yard, we tried slipping a 6-inch diameter plastic pipe over our feeder pole before setting it in the ground. The same length as the pole was above ground, it worked because the pipe is too big around for the squirrels to get a grip—until the plastic weathers and the surface becomes rougher.

Lela Allyn has a solution that recycles two-liter pop bottles. She cuts a hole in the bottom of a bottle the diameter of the pole, and slits it all the way up the side. She slips the bottle around the pole and tapes up the slit. It takes several pop bottles, starting at ground level, to bypass the distance squirrels in her Cheyenne backyard have learned to jump.

Pop bottles applied to Lela’s clothesline in the same way have protected feeders hanging from it. Any squirrel stepping on a pop bottle will cause it to spin and the little seed burglar will lose its footing.

Feeders hanging from the arm of a pole or tree branch are usually invaded from above. Once again, a dome-shaped baffle, this time hung above your feeder, could solve your problem, whether commercially produced or of your own invention. These also serve a secondary purpose in partially protecting the feeder from snow and wind.

Bird feeder

This square, tube-type feeder has a spring mechanism. When a squirrel grabs hold, the metal leaves are pulled down, in front of the seed ports. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Caging the consumables

Putting your feeder in a cage is another way to keep out squirrels. It also has the benefit of keeping out large birds, such as grackles and blackbirds, which may monopolize feeders.

Our family bought a Duncraft sunflower seed tube feeder in 1993 which is still in good shape. It came with a plastic-coated wire mesh fence around it, capped by a plastic roof and a plastic tray at the bottom. The wire mesh had big enough openings for a small bird to reach the seed ports, but not a squirrel.

After years on the pole protected by the plastic pipe, we moved it to a tree branch in the front yard. In only a couple weeks, we caught a squirrel wedging itself under the roof and between the tube and the cage.

An inspection of new Duncraft products at a local store showed we could buy the new version with a presumably squirrel-proof locking mechanism on the cap of the tube, plus metal roof and tray securely attached to the mesh.

Instead, we bought a new cage. This is complete with a wire top and bottom and it will fit most tube feeders. The top opens with a presumably squirrel-proof latch so that you can fill the feeder. The handle of the feeder fits through a slot when the cage is closed. So far, so good. Of course, it’s only been a few months.

Small wire cages are sold for holding blocks of suet. Woodpeckers and chickadees, which normally like to eat insects, are attracted, but so are squirrels. We had one of these suet feeders but the birds never had a chance at it. The squirrels hung from it and nibbled. Finally, they unlatched it so the whole block fell out. I see in a catalog there’s now a big cage just for hanging a suet feeder inside.

Platform feeders attract birds that may not want to tackle a tube feeder. Dark-eyed juncos are ground feeders, though they will use a platform four feet in the air. Cage adaptations are available commercially, but I’m thinking I could fix something over the top of our shelf feeder. It has to be removable so the feeder, like all feeders, can be cleaned every few weeks to avoid spreading bird diseases.

Duncraft has come out with a platform feeder guaranteed squirrel proof, based on the theory that squirrels need both paws to grasp a seed. They claim they have a metal grid with spacing too close together for two paws in one opening, but large enough for bird beaks. The platform is entirely metal so the squirrels won’t chew their way in to the booty. How long will it take them to learn to use their paws to scoop seed instead?

For about as long as we’ve had that sunflower tube feeder, we’ve had the same brand of tube for niger (also spelled nyger) thistle seed. This seed is very fine and needs ports, or tube openings, that are very small. Luckily, they automatically exclude squirrels and large birds in favor of the thistle-eating species such as the fine-billed goldfinches and pine siskins. That’s good, because thistle seed is quite a bit more expensive than sunflower seed and I’d hate to waste it on squirrels.

On the other hand, if you enjoy feeding the increasing numbers of Eurasian collared-doves, and the mourning doves when they come back in the spring, you are out of luck. Cage methods probably won’t work well because the doves are about the same size as the squirrels, and the squirrels like the doves’ favorite food, white millet.

Springing surprises

One obvious solution to the squirrel problem is to decimate the population. However, without the proper licensing, this may be against the law in the ordinary backyard. Instead, members of the bird feeding community have become quite inventive and several have patented their anti-squirrel technology.

First, there’s the Twirl-a-Squirrel Electronic Baffle I saw in a catalog. The weight of the squirrel activates a motor that starts twirling your tube feeder until the squirrel falls off. I think it’s only a question of time before one of them figures out how long it has to hold on before the batteries die.

Another battery operated feeder, by Duncraft, actually zaps squirrels with electric current they say birds can’t feel.

Then there’s the Yankee Flipper by Droll Yankees. This operates on batteries also, but it flips the squirrel off. For $10 you can buy the action-packed video that shows how effective this feeder is. Recently, the company added the Yankee Dipper, Yankee Tipper and Yankee Whipper, which all use the principle of perches that collapse when a large enough animal lands on them.

Then there is spring technology. Hopper feeders are roofed containers filled with seed that spills out a crack at the bottom where it is caught on a tray, or perhaps the seed is available through a series of ports along the bottom while birds perch on a bar. Barbara Costopoulos of Guernsey loves her spring-loaded hopper feeder. She has it adjusted so that the weight of a squirrel will close the ports.

Another of her feeders is by the Perky-Pet company. It looks like a square tube feeder wrapped in metal fencing and decorative metal leaves. When a squirrel lands on a perch, the metal fencing, attached by springs, is pulled down and a leaf blocks each seed port, like the portcullis on the entrance to a castle.

Quality counts

If no one has been feeding birds or squirrels in your neighborhood for a long time, you may be able to get away with a lightweight feeder—for awhile.

The first time we hung a feeder in our front tree, it was a Mother’s Day gift from the boys, bought with their meager allowance. First the squirrels took the cap off the tube and reached in for the seed. Next, when the seed level got too low, they began breaking off chunks of the thin and brittle plastic tube so they could reach farther in. Finally, the feeder was knocked to the ground. Destruction was complete in about two weeks.

Paying for quality is cheaper in the long run. But don’t forget to protect your investment. Use eye-bolts and snapping clips so your hanging feeders can’t be swung loose by squirrels or wind. Save your money for bird seed.

Bird feeding information:

Check out Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Project Feederwatch Web site,

Southeast Wyoming birding destinations abundant

Birding Sage-Grouse lek

Very early morning in early spring near Laramie, Wyoming, birders focus on a Greater Sage-Grouse lek. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Published Jan. 5, 2005, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Resolution produces list of field trip destinations.”
2015 Update: So many places, so little time.
By Barb Gorges
Here we are at the top of the 2005 calendar, with a total of 53 Saturdays for field trips. This year has a bonus because it starts and ends on Saturdays.
My resolution is to get to know birds better by getting out more often. One of the best ways to do this is on organized field trips.
A week or so ago I was compiling a record of Cheyenne – High Plains Audubon Society field trips for the past 17 years. There is a noticeable, yearly pattern.
Unlike scheduling monthly chapter programs for variety, field trips thrive on return engagements. In bird watching, no matter how may days you visit the same place, any one of them could be the day you see an interesting bird behavior, a bird that’s new for you, or rare for the whole birding community.
The field trip year for Cheyenne birders is anchored by two major events, the Christmas Bird Count, usually held the Saturday after Christmas, and the Big Day bird count held on, or the first Saturday after, May 15. Both events concentrate on Cheyenne, especially the two designated state Important Bird Areas, Lions Park and Wyoming Hereford Ranch. Both sites are representative of the city in general, a forested island on the plains, attractive to avian life.
What also attracts birds and makes a good field trip location is water, the centerpiece of both of those IBAs and most of the past destinations.
Time of year is also important. With the exception of the Christmas Count and excursions around town in January, mostly to combat cabin fever, admire chickadees and to see if there is any open water where a lost duck has unexpectedly dropped in, migration is the big draw.

Hutton Lake NWR

Field trip participants check out Hutton Lake National Wildlife Refuge in early summer. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Mountain bluebirds cruise in as early as February and after that, it’s a steady stream of visitors. Things settle down briefly in June, but then in July, Arctic-nesting shorebirds have finished their parental duties and start the parade through Wyoming in reverse.
By November, birders are watching for stragglers, wondering if they’ll stick around to be counted at Christmas and wondering also if later and later dates for the last observation of a migrating species reflects global warming.
With the advent of spring migration, and again in the fall, the chapter’s constellation of field trip destinations is broader. To the west are Hutton Lake National Wildlife Refuge and all the other Laramie Plains Lakes.
To the east are sharp-tailed grouse dancing grounds and further east is the area referred to as Goshen Hole, a collection of public access areas in the vicinity of Hawk Springs Reservoir, such as Wyoming Game and Fish Department’s Table Mountain and Springer-Bump Sullivan Wildlife Habitat Management Areas.
To the south are Pawnee National Grassland and the reservoirs along the Colorado Front Range.
The big reservoirs to the north, along the North Platte, Alcova, Pathfinder and Seminoe, are a little far for a day trip, but Murie Audubon members from the Casper area keep close tabs on them.
Though farther, Cheyenne birders are much more likely to make an overnight trek to Nebraska to see the sandhill crane migration sometime during the height of the phenomenon, between mid-March and mid-April. We’re there more to enjoy the mass of birdlife rather than the diversity of species, but also cherish the hope we’ll glimpse a rare whooping crane.

Sinks Canyon

Wyoming birders head for the mountains in summer. This is Sinks Canyon. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Come summer, water is still an attraction, but Cheyenne – High Plains Audubon members also begin to head for the mountains, just like the juncos. It looks like the Snowy Range survey for brown-capped rosy-finches will be repeated after last summer’s success.
Then there’s the annual chapter camp out which over the years has met more weather-induced obstacles than the Christmas Count. We’ve tried twice to hold it at Friend Park, at the foot of Laramie Peak, but the first time we got smoked out by a forest fire and last year the mud was too deep.
This year, the plan is to schedule the camp out for July 8-10 and headquarter it at Battle Creek in the Sierra Madres. The gathering of birders will be put to work looking for nesting flammulated owls and purple martins.
One of the enjoyable past camp outs was to the Saratoga area. Several Wyoming Game and Fish Department public access areas, Treasure Island, Foote, and Saratoga Lake, are in the North Platte River valley, featured in the annual Platte Valley Festival of the Birds June 5-6.
Other areas with public access administered by Game and Fish are cataloged in their publication, Access to Wyoming’s Wildlife. Reviewing the table of contents is like reading the names of old friends, stirring up memories of many family outings, with or without Audubon.
Bird watching is a classic example of what can be a solo recreational pursuit. But the advantage to an organized field trip is that someone is bound to know something more about birds than I do, which is a much better way to learn than by reading, especially since local knowledge of local birds may best that of a book written for all of North America.
I don’t know yet how many return engagements will be scheduled by the chapter this year. Each will be a welcome reunion, if not an adventure to some place new.

Wyoming Hereford Ranch

The Wyoming Hereford Ranch, outside Cheyenne, yields interesting migrants in early fall. Photo by Barb Gorges.