Along with finches, owls, and sparrows, winter offers a fantastic opportunity to witness another arctic pilgrim in the lower 48,
the Rough-legged Hawk (RLHA).
With a widespread winter range throughout the central and western US, RLHA is primarily limited to states north of Kentucky and Virginia in the east (although birds don't always conform to their range maps). With relatively few hawk species during winter in the eastern US, this large hawk is fairly unmistakable, with only one other species possessing a similar look and build: the Red-tailed Hawk (RTHA). Both of these raptors are in the genus buteo and look rather similar with a large wingspan, brown upperparts, and light underparts with dark streaking. Additionally, during winter these two species can often be found hunting the same fields and open areas, causing many double-takes as RLHA seekers carefully inspect every RTHA they come across.
For the sake of simplicity, we'll only focus this post on the type of RLHA and RTHA most commonly seen in the east: the light-morph RLHA and eastern RTHA subspecies (borealis). But it is a good idea to familiarize yourself with the dark-morph RLHA as well as the numerous RTHA subspecies.
Aside from the obvious red tail of the adult RTHA and feathered legs of the RLHA, there are a few other distinguishing features to keep in mind with these beautiful buteos.
Beak Size: Although similar in body size, the RLHA's beak is much smaller than the RTHA. The RTHA has the stereotypical large, protruding hooked-beak of many raptors, whereas the RLHA's beak is much more petite giving its face a flat or even smooshed-in look, appearing somewhat more like a falcon.
Belly and Breast: At some point along our birding journey, we've certainly heard of the "belly-band" field mark for RTHA. Plumage identifiers can all vary in appearance with each individual bird, but RTHA tend to show a band of dark vertical streaks around the mid-section of their body, often with the breast remaining pure whitish or with a few streaks around the edges toward the wings. RLHA also show this same feature, but amplified. Their "belly-band" is often a solid to mostly solid dark band (depending on age and sex) with heavy dark streaks covering the breast.
"Arms" and "Wrists": Loosely applying some of our own human anatomy terms here, in flight and on the underside of the wings there are two spots to look for to differentiate these species. On the RTHA the patagium (the leading edge of the wing between the head and outer bend of the wing) shows a narrow, horizontal dark bar (a patagial bar), a gap of white, and then a narrow, vertical dark arc at the outer bend of the wing (or the "wrist"). The RLHA lacks this patagial bar and instead has a large, almost square dark patch at each "wrist."
These are just a few of the more obvious tips to distinguish between these two exquisite raptors in the east. Other differences include tail patterning, hunting style, and preference for perching locations. But like any other identification tip, every bird is an individual and shows variability (and can even behave variably), and identification should be based on more than one feature.
With Thanksgiving only two days away, we thought it would be interesting to focus on the focal bird of the day…the Wild Turkey.
You may know that young turkeys are called “poult” or that the President of the United States has been “pardoning” a turkey prior to Thanksgiving, since…well, according to whitehousehistory.org the history of the first pardon is not quite clear. The practice has been attributed back to the Truman administration but didn’t firmly take hold until the Reagan administration, in 1981. President George H. W. Bush was apparently the first president to announce the pardon of the turkey, stating “But let me assure you, and this fine tom turkey, that he will not end up on anyone’s dinner table, not this guy – he’s granted a Presidential pardon as of right now.” One fact that many students learn in grade school is that Benjamin Franklin wanted the Wild Turkey to be our national symbol.
Other turkey facts you may know: the “hangy” thing that droops over the turkey’s beak is called a snood, males are called toms, females are hens, and young males are called jakes. Turkeys have beards as well. Their beard is actually modified feathers that hang from the turkey’s breast and can be used to age the turkey to an extent. Did you know that 10%+ of female turkeys will also have beards?
Here are some Turkey Trivia Giblets, er, Tidbits that you can amaze your family and friends with on your Thanksgiving Day Zoom call.
1. There are 5 subspecies of "Wild" Turkey found in the US and Mexico, and another species found in Central America.
a. Eastern Wild Turkey- is found in 38 of the 48 continental US states.
b. Osceola Wild Turkey- only found in Florida, named for the Osceola region in the state.
c. Rio Grande Wild Turkey- found primarily in Texas, Oklahoma, and Kansas.
There is also a population of this subspecies in Mexico.
d. Merriam’s Wild Turkey- this subspecies is found in the mountains of the western US.
e. Gould’s Wild Turkey- resides in Arizona, New Mexico, and northern Mexico.
f. Ocellated Wild Turkey- is a separate species of turkey found in a small area in the Yucatan Peninsula, Belize, and Guatemala.
The photo in this post is an Ocellated Turkey from Guatemala. Thanks to Rob Ripma from Sabrewing Nature Tours for providing this image of a gorgeous turkey.
To learn more about Wild Turkey subspecies visit www.nwtf.org/hunt/article/wild-turkey-subspecies
2. Turkeys were almost extinct in the United States. Around the 1930’s it was estimated that less than 30,000 turkeys were left and they had been extirpated from 20 states. Thanks to conservation efforts and funds from the Pittman-Robertson Act, we now have a robust population estimated to be around 6 and a half million birds.
3. Turkeys are big birds. They weigh around 15 lbs., stand around 3.5 ft. tall and have a wing span of 5 ft. They also have a lot of feathers. It is estimated that turkeys have between 5,000 – 6,000 feathers!
4. Not only are they big, they are l-o-u-d, loud. A tom’s gobble can be heard around a mile away.
5. While we typically see turkeys lazily meandering around as they forage, they can actually be quite fast. Turkeys can hit running speeds up to 25 mph. Many think that they are flightless but they have been clocked at around 55 mph in flight.
6. Turkeys have a very wide field of vision. This is because their eyes are located on the sides of their head which allows them to spot danger from in front and behind. Due to this adaption, turkeys are a very hard game bird to hunt.
7. Turkeys are named after the country Turkey. According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary web page, “When the Spanish arrived in Mexico in the 16th century they encountered the already-domesticated common turkey, Meleagris gallopavo. They apparently liked the bird; turkeys were among the plunder they took back to Spain around 1519. By 1541, the birds had arrived in England. In those days the Turkish Ottoman Empire was at its peak, and the English had Turkey (with a capital-T) on their mind. The English gave the Turks credit for any number of new imports: maize was Turkish wheat, and pumpkins were Turkish cucumbers—though both were actually New World plants. To paraphrase Cindy Ott in her 2012 book Pumpkin: The Curious History of an American Icon, if it was exotic, chances are it got a Turkish appellation. So the new bird was soon being called a turkey-cock, eventually shortened to turkey.”
We hope that you have enjoyed learning some new facts about one of our most enigmatic birds. There is still a lot to learn about Wild Turkeys. Take some time this Thanksgiving holiday to do some additional research and learn more about Wild Turkeys. Please share you turkey fact in the comment section. One thing is for sure, we should all be extremely thankful for this species.
Sources: National Wildlife Federation, Nation Wild Turkey Federation, American Expedition, Merriam-Webster.com & U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
With winter nipping at our heels, it's time to think about what food is best for birds in the colder months. Most of the time our feeders are more for our enjoyment than they are for helping birds. But during extreme cold and persistent snow cover, bird feeders can make a big difference for small birds.
Before we talk about store bought foods, here are a few general tips.
1) Remember that you don't have to fill the feeders to the top! In fact, in rainy or snowy periods, it's best to only fill them to provide enough food for a day or so to avoid wet, moldy food! (And if there's too much snow and ice to get to the your feeders, you can always scatter seed on the ground!)
2) Don't deadhead the flowers in your garden. Many birds will feast on the seeds!
High energy foods are important in winter. The best options are highest in fat and require the least amount of energy to eat. They can be a bit more expensive than the bags of mixed seed and/or standard seeds we typically offer. So if you're on a budget, consider offering these only during the more extreme winter weather.
Called peanut pieces, pickouts, and even "peanut rejects," out of the shell peanut pieces are an excellent winter food for birds. The birds don't have to work to crack the shell, and they're easy for even small birds to eat. Woodpeckers, chickadees, titmice, nuthatches, and blue jays LOVE peanuts! Offer in a mesh-style or tube feeder, or mix with black oil sunflower seeds in a tray feeder. (See image for my favorite type of peanut feeder.)
Good Old Black Oil Sunflower Seeds (BOSS)
If you can only offer one type of food, Black Oil Sunflower Seeds are best. They attract the greatest variety of birds, are fairly inexpensive, and have a longer shelf life than other seeds. In winter, consider offering sunflower chips. They're more expensive, but require less energy since the birds don't have to crack the shell. Offer in a tube feeder with the proper sized ports and/or in a tray feeder.
Whether you buy it or make it yourself, suet is a great food option for birds in winter.
*Providing mixed seed near the ground is important for sparrows, doves, and other birds that prefer to feed low and don't cling to tube style feeders
Providing fresh, clean water is very important for birds in winter, not just to drink, but for bathing! Watching birds bathe in the winter, even in subzero temps, never ceases to astonish us. But keeping their feathers clean is crucial for maintaining their insulating properties, so bathing is very important.
It can be labor intensive to keep a bird bath clean and prevent the water from freezing, but if you have the time and the space for a bird bath, the birds will definitely thank you! Bird bath heaters are available at box stores, on Amazon, and many other outlets that offer bird feeding supplies. But I'd encourage you to buy one from a Wild Birds Unlimited (or any bird feeding specialty store) or purchase one from one of these stores online.
Two options for heating bird baths
1) Bird Bath Heater
This is a heating element sold separately from the basin. They're positioned down in the water. If you use a bird bath heater, you'll need to monitor the water level very closely to avoid exposing the heating element. While not as convenient as a heated bird bath, over the years I've found this to be the best, most reliable option.
2) Heated Bird Bath
With this style, the element is built into the bird bath design. These are wonderful, but keep in mind that during persistent extreme cold snaps the heating element in these might not keep up!
* With either option you'll need electricity nearby.
Winter is a wonderful time for birds in our yards. During times of persistent snow cover, you might even attract birds that don't typically visit feeders. If you live near open fields, birds like Horned Larks, Snow Buntings, and Lapland Longspurs will sometimes come to feed on seed scattered on top of the snow. (The picture I've included was taken in our driveway a few winters ago in Ottawa County!) And every winter a few Pine Warblers show up at feeders for a high energy meal of suet.
Happy Winter Bird Feeding!