Who's Creeping Your Yard?

The Brown Creeper is a  small songbird who calls the greater Houston area home during the fall and winter. This bird is so well camouflaged that it can creep up and down tree trunks looking for insects without being noticed. Unlike woodpeckers who have powerful excavating bills, the Brown Creeper uses its slender curved bill to slip insects out of crevices. It props its long tail against the tree to stabilize itself. There are a couple of other small birds that forage along tree trunks, so look for these differences. The Brown Creeper is cloaked in  finely streaked shades of brown and cream. The nuthatch is not streaked and its back and wings are shades of pale gray to a rich blue gray AND it forages head down. The Black-and-White Warbler is hard to miss since it is boldly striped black and white.


We all have favorite foods, but is there one food that you’d love to eat 80% to 90% of the time for the rest of your life? The American Woodcock (Philohela minor) does….earthworms! A specialized adaptation of the beak allows the Woodcock to be the consummate earthworm hunter. The tip of the beak looks like an average pointed shorebird, but it’s not. The tip is flexible and sensitive. The upper manidble is flexible enough to grasp an earthworm without opening the beak. The Woodcock probes damp leaf litter to find the coveted earthworms. Bird guides can’t seem to agree on the description of the Woodcock. Some consider it a shore bird, well, it looks like a shore bird – sort of. But it doesn’t live at the beach.  Others consider it an upland game bird - but it doesn't look like other gamebirds. The best compromise I found was “a shore bird that lives in the forest”.  One of the more colorful nicknames is “Timberdoodle”. The Wildlife Center receives several of these each fall as they migrate from most of the eastern United States to Gulf Coast states.  This bird is a voracious feeder with its favorite being, of course earthworms.  The upper Gulf coast is right on the edge of the Woodcock’s year round territory and its wintering grounds in southern Texas.  Unlike most birds, the Woodcock migrates in small groups at night! It is believed that they orient on the coastline or major rivers and then follow it to their preferred wintering ground. Most American birds form seasonal or lifelong monogamous pairs and the males either help with incubation or hunt for the female while she sits on the eggs. Not the Timberdoodle. Males [...]

Can You Hear Me Now?

The American Bittern (Botauru lentiginosus) is a one of the stockier and short legged members of the Ardeidae family which includes herons, egrets and bittern. This Nearctic species has a breeding range in Canada and northern United States to parts of central United States.  They are solitary and prefer to hide in heavy reeds, cat-tails and grass around isolated bogs, marshes and flooded meadows. Bitterns can be found in both saltwater and freshwater marshes. It sports brown streaking with an appearance similar to immature night herons. The coloration is such an effective camouflage the bird simply melts into the reeds.  Animals that use camouflage as their primary defense against danger freeze when spotted. The Bittern has an interesting adaptive behavior to hide; it stands motionless with its bill pointed upward and its body held in tightly while giving the appearance of a clump of reeds in the water.  Once the Bittern decides that hiding won’t work, it puffs itself up and sways ominously to show how dangerous it is. The bird blends in perfect with the brown vegetation as it moves slowly with its bill held horizontal while eyes are focused downward to spot prey such as frogs, small snakes, fish, rodents and eels.   They are generally crepuscular (most active at dawn and dusk) and hunt along the margins of ponds in dense vegetation.   The American bittern does not perch in trees but spends most of its time on the ground.    Because the Bittern is shy and reclusive, it is more difficult to find in the wild than its family members the herons and egrets. You may not be able to see one, but their booming voice is quite loud and distinctive leaving no doubt [...]

We're Humming with Hummers!

It is the time of year that the tiniest of birds fill our Houston gardens with magnificent aerial displays as they fight for the best flowers and feeders.  Many native plant gardeners thrill at the sights and sounds of these colorful jeweled fliers. While our Ruby-throated Hummingbird is the most numerous in the Houston area, other species occasionally visit. These hummers feed primarily on nectar but also eat insects and spiders. Many of our patients have smacked into windows or each other and need some supportive care as they recuperate. If you find one laying on the ground put it is a dark box and let it rest. You can try to pick it up and gently slide its beak in a hummingbird feeder to see if it drinks. It may need just a bit of sugar to give it the energy to fly off. If it does not feed and still cannot fly it may be time to bring it to the Wildlife Center. There are two primary reasons a hummingbird comes to the Wildlife Center. It is estimated that millions if not billions of birds dies each year after colliding with human-built structures. Glass windows and doors are transparent or reflective and are invisible killers. Birds see a tree reflected, not the glass. 75% of the Wildlife Center hummingbird patients are because of window strikes.  The other primary cause of unnatural  bird death is cats allowed outdoors. If possible PLEASE consider keeping your cat indoors. If not for the sake of the birds, then because you are putting your cat at risk for injury by dogs or cars and exposure to various diseases and parasites.

Does Bird Feeder = Hawk Feeder?

When it comes to bird feeders it's always something. If it isn't the squirrels eating the seed, it is the hawks eating the birds. While we all know that hawks need to eat, we just don't want them dining at OUR bird feeders. The only way to truly make a feeder hawk proof would be to build a cage around your yard that has openings big enough for the birds, but too small for the hawks. Since that is clearly impractical what are the alternatives? For the last 14 years a pair of Red-shouldered Hawks has called the land around my house their territory. There have probably been many pairs, but there is always a pair claiming our yard as their territory. They scream out their territorial challenge from the abandoned Martin house in my neighbor's yard on a daily basis. Despite this there have been less than 5 instances where a hawk or other predator has taken a bird from my back-yard. Why? Maybe I got lucky with my feeder placement, but my neighbor hasn't complained about hawks taking his birds either. What do the placement of my feeder and my neighbor's feeder have in common? Absolutely nothing - and maybe that is the point. My yard has enough cover that straight line shots are minimized. My neighbor has several large trees, but they are grouped together leaving lots of straight line shots, especially from the abandoned Martin house. My theory is that I have physically made it harder for the hawks to snatch from my yard and my neighbor has made it psychologically more difficult because prey feel exposed and jumpy. Most hawks scope out potential food sources (i.e. your birds) from a nearby perch. [...]

Neotropic Cormorant

This Neotropic Cormorant was brought to the Wildlife Center by a Texas Parks and Wildlife game warden.  The bird presented with a wing droop and was very lethargic.  Veterinarian exam and x-rays showed no breaks or swelling.  The cormorant was put on cage rest and was given fluids.  Several days later it was on its feet and eating great. The Neotropic Cormorant is very common on the Mexican border. The Galveston area also supports a large population.  This cormorant is the only one that ranges over the entire tropical American region of Western hemisphere thus having the name neotropic.  It was known as the olivaceous cormorant in earlier times. The neotropic is a blackish bird with a long tail that holds its neck in a S shape.  The pointed posterior edge of the gular skin is often pointed with whitish border.  Their bill is long with a hook on the end. Juvenile cormorant begin brown and slowly shift to black with their adult plumage. Cormorants swim well and dive for fish from the surface.   The staff and volunteers know the cormorant at the center is feeling better because it is doing a great deal of vocalizing.  This consists of a low gutteral pig-like grunt.  Every time they hear it everyone’s head snaps to attention thinking someone just brought in a pig.  Upon leaving the water the cormorants hold wings and tail open in a “spread eagle” fashion to dry them. And while holding the wings out to dry seems like a good idea, why do so few exhibit this trait, all sea birds and water birds get their feathers wet. Some researchs believe that the "spread eagle" pose is a method of themal regulation. Vultures often [...]

A Bump in the Night

Would you know what to do if you heard scratching from the wall or  thumps in the ceiling? Your quick reaction could mean the difference between the life or death of an animal(s) and whether there is damage to property from the animal’s activities or from its decomposition. If you didn’t hear animal activity until March – April – May, I can guarantee there are babies in the attic. Even if you don’t hear babies – they are there. The worst thing that can be done is to trap and haul off the mother. The first step in dealing with an animal incursion is to determine the species of animal. Many techniques are common across the board, but a faster solution can be reached if you know what you are dealing with. Rats and mice sound like a scratching that moves along the perimeter of the room or up and down walls.  Inspection of the attic will reveal droppings against a vertical surface. Rats and mice show an extremely strong preference to move along  walls.  Mice will leave dropping that are half the length of an uncooked grain of rice, rats will leave a dropping that is as large as a cooked grain of rice or larger. It is important to know what size rodent you are dealing with. Many believe that rat poison is a “no muss, no fuss” solution. Nothing could be further from the truth. It is a gruesome death as the animal bleeds out internally. The mythology is that rats eat the bait, then leave in search of water. The problem is that they often don’t leave and if they die in an enclosed space, the stench and subsequent clean up [...]

Grumpy Old Men

While baby bird season is beginning to wind down, we are still receiving Mockingbirds, Blue Jays and Dove. The pictured Mockingbird is a fledgling. From hatching of an altricial species to the unfurling of enough flight feathers to flutter short distances is considered the nestling stage. Babies are completely dependent on the parents at this stage for nourishment, warmth and protection. Once they fledge, the young will continue to beg for food, but will begin to search for food on their own. Within a few days they are flying well and feeding themselves. Precocial species like Killdeer, chickens and ducks are mobile and self-feeding shortly after hatching. They require mom’s protection and guidance to find good sources of food. They will hang together as a group until the young are flying well. Then the group will disperse. Raptors, especially the larger owls have an additional development phase called branchling that occurs between nestling and fledgling. Branchling babies can’t really fly yet, but they leave the nest and spread out along the nearby branches. They continue to be fed by the parents and strengthen their wings by vigorous flapping. They begin to experiment with flight by jumping and fluttering between branches.

Let's Go Fly a Kite!

A newly hatched Mississippi Kite is a fearsome sight, despite its poufy white down. The beak leaves absolutely no doubt that this bird is a raptor. Which is a little odd since it grows up to prefer grasshoppers and cicada caught on the wing to mice and rats or rabbits. Only the smallest raptors, such as Screech Owls prefer insects and amphibians to mice and rats. The Kite doesn’t really fit the bill. The Mississippi Kite is a small to medium raptor that is about the size of a Peregrine Falcon. However, the falcon can weigh as much as three times as much. The eating habits aren’t the only slightly odd habit. Mississippi Kites migrate long distances to and from central South America in a groups of 20 – 30 individuals. They also nest near each other as a group. Mississippi Kite arrive at the nesting site as mated pairs. Many raptors don’t migrate and those that do usually don’t do so as a flock. The Mississippi Kite isn’t a well known raptor. People that see them often mistake them for other birds because the Kite’s gray coloring is so different from other more well known raptors. The head and back are a beautiful pearl gray which darkens along the sides and out the wings. The wings are unusually long (up to three feet) and narrow. The undersides of the wings are a lighter gray. The tail is long and a very dark gray or black. Juveniles have dark brown mottling or stripes and dark brown banding on the tail. This group of juveniles look much like more “traditional” raptors because of their brown markings. They have been released from the large flight cage, but [...]

The Hawk that isn't a Hawk

The life history of the Common Nighthawk is so tightly tied to our own that it is amazing how successfully they fly “under the radar”. They have adapted so completely to our urbanization of their environment there is not a grocery store or shopping mall that isn’t patrolled by these voracious insect eaters. Normally crepuscular in habit (feeding at dawn and dusk), they swarm parking lot security lights at all hours. Nighthawks belong to the Nightjar family which includes Whip-poor-will and Chuck-will’s-widow. The family is called  Caprimulgidae from the Latin caper which means goat and mulgeo to milk or suck.  There is a legend that these birds sucked milk from goat in the night but they actually were feeding on flying insects stirred up by the goats.  Another legend has them sucking the blood of goats. Biting insects attack the goats causing them to bleed. The innocent Nighthawks were eating the insects preying on the goats. Common Nighthawk eat and drink “on the wing”, which means that they snatch insects in flight and skim calm lakes and creeks for water. The tiny beak belies the astounding gape of these birds. Unlike many birds that eat on the wing and use the beak to manipulate the prey before swallowing, the Nighthawk simply sweeps the air like a butterfly net scooping up everything in its path. Considered to be strictly ground nesters, the flat gravel covered roofs provide uniquely predator proof nesting sites. In the “wild” these birds rest on the ground where they blend perfectly into the leaf-litter. When startled, they bounce relatively short distances and try to hide again. Like the Whale Shark, which is neither a shark or a whale, the Nighthawk doesn’t exclusively [...]

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