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Birds to Know - Better by the Dozen
By Jayne Rushin

That red bird is a Cardinal, that big blue bird is a Blue Jay, that fussy little brown bird is a Carolina Wren. Without even trying, most of us can identify a number of birds. As ones interest in birds grows, so does the desire to know them by name. Of course, migrating birds, just passing through, can bring almost any species to your backyard, but given a food supply and the appropriate habitat, certain birds tend to show up fairly regularly during the year in Alabama backyards.

Even though robins are not seen year round in backyards, most everyone recognizes the American Robin. This ground feeder is so well known that it is used by the authors of bird field guides as the median size bird. It is convenient to be able to describe a bird as larger or smaller than a robin.

Another bird, which feeds mainly on the ground, is the Eastern Towhee. The towhee is sometimes confused with the robin, since like the robin it has reddish-orange color on its breast. However, the towhee is smaller and slenderer than the robin. The towhee thrashes about in leaves looking for insects, as does the Brown Thrasher. The Brown Thrasher likes to rummage through brush and leaf piles, which offer protection as it searches for food. Both thrashers and towhees will forage under feeders when leaves or grasses are on the ground.

Although we often see the Mourning Dove perched on road-side utility lines, it is a frequent suburban visitor, eating on the ground or from open trough feeders. A game bird in Alabama, the soft gray-brown dove has a plaintive cooing call that suggested its name. The diet of the Mourning Dove consists almost entirely of seeds and grain.

In most of Alabama, we are fortunate to have beautiful red cardinals all year round. As children, most of us referred to cardinals as red birds, but as you look at them in your backyard, you notice some cardinals are bright and others are dull or partially red in color. All cardinals have crests, but the duller cardinals are females or possibly young males, which have not yet matured into adult male plumage.

What is the small bird with red markings perched on the backyard feeder? Although the female is plain, the male House Finch shows red on the head, breast, and rump. In the United State the range of the House Finch was confined to the west, until the 1940s when it was introduced into the general bird population on Long Island. After coming into the east as a caged bird, it was sold as the "Hollywood" finch. Since its re-lease, the House Finch population has grown enormously. If you have a feeder in the yard, there is a good chance it will be visited by a House Finch, which is primarily a seedeater.

Two other small birds often seen in backyards are the Tufted Titmouse and the Carolina Chickadee. As suggested by its name, the titmouse wears a crest on its head. The titmouse is mostly gray with a whitish breast marked by small splashes of orange under the wings, which grow brighter during the breeding season.

Its distinctive black, white, and gray coloring makes the Carolina Chickadee easy to identify. Smaller than the titmouse, the pretty little chickadee appears to be wearing a black cap or a toupee. Chickadees and titmice frequently are found together and eat happily at bird feeders, enjoying both seeds and suet.

The Carolina Wren is a busy backyard bird that does not usually visit feeders. If you find a wren at your feeder, more than likely it is looking for insects. The little brown wren, with its upturned tail, will build a tunnel-like nest in hanging baskets, in mailboxes, and on ledges. Nesting wrens are very boisterous and scolding when you approach the vicinity of their nests. Busy wrens are entertaining, and if you are lucky, you may get to see a parent wren tending its fledgling babies.

Often misidentified, the Red-bellied Woodpecker is sometimes mistakenly called a sapsucker or a red-headed woodpecker. The male Red-bellied has a red cap and red on the back of the neck, with black and white speckled wings and back; the female has red only on the back of the neck. However, the heads of both male and female mature Red-headed Woodpecker are entirely red. The belly of the male Red-bellied is blushed with red during the breeding season--- hence its name. While the Red-bellied Woodpecker is much more common than the Red-headed Woodpecker, both will eat from bird feeders, sometimes hanging precariously from small perches. If you want to coax nesting woodpeckers into the backyard, leave some dead tree limbs---that’s where they make nest holes.

A member of the crow family, the handsome Blue Jay is another commonly recognized bird. Once a wilderness bird but now adapted to the suburban environment, jays will visit feeders for sunflower seed and suet. The intelligent jay is often discouraged from backyard visitation. Even though two-thirds of its diet is vegetative, on occasion jays do eat small birds or eggs.

The favorite blue bird is the Eastern Bluebird. While they are not likely to visit a feeding station, the Eastern Bluebird may find its way into your garden if there is open fly space around your home. Bluebirds like to hang out at woodland edge where they can fly out to snare insects, which make up a large portion of their diet. Like woodpeckers, titmice, and chickadees, bluebirds make their nest holes in dead trees or limbs. They will also use a birdhouse as will chickadees and titmice.

Recognizing the birds in your garden will enhance your enjoyment and help you provide the proper food and habitat for each species. When you first make an effort to identify birds, it seems almost impossible, but it grows easier as you go along. Clearly, the more birds you can identify the easier it is to figure out the species of the next new bird that stops by your yard.

A bird field guide with illustrations and written descriptions of birds is a great aid in learning to identify the birds you see in your yard and as you travel. Bird Apps for smart phones and tablets are also a handy way to learn to identify birds. Many apps include birdsongs as well a photographs and range maps.

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