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Posts Tagged ‘winter birds’

By the beginning of January, the routine at the bird feeder is pretty well-established. I put seed out for the birds after I feed the horses in the morning. There is usually a crowd hanging about in the trees near the feeders, tapping their frosty little toes, waiting on me. Chickadees, juncos, tree sparrows, mourning doves and blue jays, lots of blue jays, are among the usual suspects. Recently, though, a couple of strangers have joined the crowd. A lone White-throated Sparrow (Zonotrichia albicollis) was keeping company with the tree sparrows for a couple of days.

White-throats are natty little sparrows, with striped heads and a white chin and a distinctive yellow dot at the lore, in front of the eye. In the summer, they breed across much of southern Ontario in small numbers, but their main breeding ground is far to the north in the boreal forest. It is common to hear them calling in the spring as they pass through the area on their way north. Their song is easy to recognize. It sounds like a whistled “Ohhhh! Sweeeeeeeet! Can-a-da-Can-a-da-Can-a-da!” I was surprised to find that the White-throats in Maine sing the same patriotic song, apparently missing The True North. The White-throat population is doing better than many other bird species, owing in part to their preference for the second growth forest that follows forest fires, or as happens often these days, clear-cut logging. White-throats are short to middle-distance migrants, moving south of the Great Lakes and down to the southern states. The stray White-throat I observed may not be too far north of his compatriots’ winter range, but this is the first White-throat I have ever observed in winter in Ontario.

The other unusual visitors were Brown-headed Cowbirds (Molothrus ater). A small group of five or six birds first showed up at the feeder together on Christmas day. Since then, a lone male has been a semi-regular visitor. Like White-throats, Cowbirds winter south of the Great Lakes, into the southern states. This is my first winter Cowbird sighting.

Cowbirds are brood parasites. That is, they lay their eggs in the nests of other birds rather than nesting themselves. They get their name from their habit of following grazing livestock, foraging on invertebrates stirred up by the animals. A female is usually courted by three or four males who follow her about. Cowbirds are most common where agricultural land suitable for foraging is interspersed with forest habitat appropriate for breeding. For this reason, the Cowbird population is the most concentrated in southwestern Ontario, although they are common breeding birds in this area as well.

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