What's black and white and read all over? Just about anyone knows the answer to this age-old riddle: a newspaper. If, on the other hand, a person was to pose this question to a group of birders interested in woodpeckers, that person would tweak the question slightly. Instead of "read all over," it would have to be "red on the back of the head." The answer would then be a male of either the Downy Woodpecker (Picoides pubescens) or the Hairy Woodpecker (P. villosus). Both of these common woodpeckers are entirely black and white and very recognizable to Americans.
Those who enjoy the outdoors typically do so for myriad reasons: Fresh air, stress relief, hunting, fishing, hiking, camping, or whatever. Getting outside to enjoy some hobby or another commonly leads to other interests as well. Most folks I know who enjoy birds came at it from one side or another but usually from an outdoor pursuit of some sort. I've been asked how I got into bird watching (or 'birding') many times.
cutline: This leucistic female House Finch was observed last week in West Fargo. It's white head feathers would normally be a plain gray-brown. People watching. We all do it I suppose. I even know some folks who will head to the mall with nothing else in mind but watching people. Whatever the motive, it can be interesting at times. In the course of this pursuit it becomes readily apparent to even the casual viewer that the human race is quite varied. We come in different sizes, different colors, different shapes and different races.
Winter in our parts brings a stillness and quiet unmatched at any other time of year. Accounting for this relative calm are a few factors. First, it's cold and not a lot of people are out mowing lawns, walking, playing ball, etc. Because of the temperatures there are no flying insects buzzing about. Also, most birds are absent, having gone to points south of us. Those that are here are largely silent. Of the few birds making themselves vocally known this time of year, perhaps none is more distinctive than the White-breasted Nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis).
This column has addressed human-wildlife conflicts in the past. Let's go a little further this time and touch on a very emotional and contentious subject, house and feral cats. Just mentioning this topic invites breathless arguments on all sides of the issue, some rational, some not. Cats have become a synonym for house pet almost since it was first domesticated in Egypt some 4,000 years ago. Today they are held by their owners as beloved members of the family and treated almost as well. The controversy arises once the animal leaves the confines of the home and wanders outside.
Photo cutline: Fruit trees represent a rich source of energy for Bohemian Waxwings. These two are sitting on an Eastern Wahoo. It's as predictable as moon phases. About the time snow starts to fly, many northern folks leave behind their homes and the looming winter, and flee to warmer climates in the South. Arizona, Texas, and Florida seem to carry the bulk of snowbirds from this area. I can't blame them. There may be a day when I am able to engage in this annual migration. But in the meantime, I try and appreciate the four seasons and all they offer.
Nearly two weeks ago I was sitting near a window with some friends in a Horace residence, waiting for a bird to show up. Not just any bird, but a Carolina Wren (Thryothorus ludovicianus). This bird had appeared in late December and marked just the fifth recorded occurrence of its kind in North Dakota, according to the North Dakota Birding Society. I had seen this species many times when I lived in Mississippi and once even in Bismarck. But this was my first opportunity to see it in Cass County. After a time, this normally shy bird appeared much to my delight.
A fitting close to this year might be to tie up a couple loose ends and prepare for yet another calendar year of productive birding. Many of the Audubon Christmas Bird Counts in the state have been accomplished already and, as of this writing, some notable highlights follow. On Dec. 16, Fargo-Moorhead did not make it to 50 species, falling two short of their goal with 48. Nineteen people participated in the count which produced three new species for the count day: American Coot, American Black Duck and Eurasian Collared-Dove.
This coming week marks the 107th time that birders will take part in what has become a hemisphere-wide bird survey. Known nationally as the annual Audubon Christmas Bird Count, or CBC, this event saw its start in 1900 as conservation was just beginning. 'Side Hunts' were a common holiday tradition then. Hunters would choose sides, go off into the fields and shoot everything they could carry home to see who had the biggest pile of fur and feathers.
A few years ago I was surprised to hear a familiar bird call in my back yard. The Sora is a fairly common bird here in the summer but is confined to marshy wet areas. What was a Sora doing in the middle of West Fargo? Turns out it wasn't one at all. It was a European Starling (Sturnus vulgaris) sounding like one. This capacity for mimicry was illustrated again last week. While near the City of Fargo's compost pile, I heard a Western Chorus Frog. We set a record high that day but I didn't think it was that warm. Guess what? A Starling had fooled me again.