Feathered Friends – Carolina Chickadees easy birds to befriend

A Carolina chickadee delivers a caterpillar to hungry nestlings concealed within their nest inside this bird box. (Photo by Bryan Stevens)

By Bryan Stevens

In last week’s column, I pointed out that Eastern bluebirds have already started seeking nesting locations for the upcoming spring nesting season. They’re hardly the only cavity-nesting birds already checking out every nook and cranny for the perfect place to raise a family of young.

I’ve been hearing the familiar “fee-bee-fee-bo” song of the Carolina chickadee from the woodlands around my home. With the recent turn in the weather, the male chickadees are persistent singers, making the woods ring with their attempts to woo a mate.

The Carolina chickadee is at home in mixed or deciduous woods in the United States from New Jersey west to southern Kansas and south to Florida and Texas. The Carolina chickadee also ranges along the Appalachian Mountains, but on some of the higher peaks they are replaced by their cousin, the black-capped chickadee. In Tennessee, birders need to visit some of the higher peaks in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park to find black-capped chickadees.

Once a pair of chickadees settles down into domestic bliss, they almost at once start work upon constructing a nest. These little songbirds, looking quite smart in their handsome black, white and gray feathers, build an exquisite nest. The primary nesting material is green moss, which they stuff into a natural cavity or bird box in great quantities. The female chickadee fashions a depression in the collection of moss. She lines this shallow basin with plant fibers as well as strands of fur or hair to provide soft cushioning for her eggs.

A female chickadee can lay a large number of eggs, with the clutch size ranging between three and ten eggs. Once the young hatch, both parents are kept busy delivering food to a large brood of hungry, noisy chicks. The young grow quickly, but they take advantage of the safety of their cavity nest and don’t depart for the wider world until 20 days after their hatching.

Energetic chickadees, birds of the most engaging antics, make wonderful feeder visitors. With their tame and trusting natures, chickadees are one of the birds I welcome to my feeders. Chickadees are daily visitors to my feeders in the winter season as well as other times of the year. I love to watch a chickadee land on a feeder, snatch a single sunflower seed and fly to a perch close at hand to hack open the seed’s shell and devour the kernel before they repeat the entire process again.

North America’s other chickadees include the aforementioned black-capped chickadee, as well as boreal chickadee, chestnut-backed chickadee, grey-headed chickadee, Mexican chickadee, and mountain chickadee. On a trip to Utah in 2003 and 2006, I saw both black-capped chickadee and mountain chickadee.

In other parts of the world, chickadees are known as “tits,” which is from an Old English word denoting small size. Worldwide, there are about 60 species of chickadees and tits, which are classified collectively under the scientific family name, Paridae. Other members of this family range into Europe, Asia and Africa, including species with colorful names like fire-capped tit, yellow-bellied tit, azure tit, green-backed tit and cinnamon-breasted tit.

It’s easy to attract chickadees to your yard. Shrubs and small trees, feeders stocked with sunflower seeds and perhaps a mesh cage offering a suet cake are sure to make these small birds feel welcome. If you want to witness the family life of chickadees, build or buy a box suitable for wrens and other smaller birds. Chickadees will happily take up residence. These birds often comprise the nucleus of mixed flocks of various species, so they will also bring other birds into your yard and within easy viewing range.


If you have a question, wish to make a comment or share a sighting, email ahoodedwarbler@aol.com.

Library Happenings – Author visiting library for book signing on March 23

By Angie Georgeff

All Americans know that our Civil War was a tragic chapter in our history, but people who live in Northeast Tennessee are even more keenly aware of it than most. With loyalties to North and South so evenly—and bitterly—divided, neighbor fought neighbor, cousin fought cousin and sometimes brother fought brother.

Patricia McGrane is a native of Washington County and stories passed down within her family informed her novel “Because of the Horses.” The story is set around Limestone, Tennessee during the summer of 1863. Both the Confederate and Federal armies are active in the area, with the looming campaign for Knoxville the focus of their efforts. Both armies need horses, so anyone who has mounts they can buy or steal is caught between the devil and the deep blue sea.

Presbyterian minister Eli Marsh serves several small congregations. Some favor the Union and some the Confederacy, so he strives to maintain neutrality despite his Unionist leanings.  He also has a large number of horses, and that complicates matters. Deserters pose a risk to everyone and two of the Marsh family’s abolitionist neighbors have already been murdered.  How can Eli balance the competing claims of family, vocation and conscience in that explosive environment?

If you would like to meet the author, Patricia McGrane will be here at the library on Friday, March 23, from 4-6 p.m. to sell and sign “Because of the Horses.” She will be donating one half of sale receipts to the library.

Spotlight Book

Although Alaska is far too cold to be one of the places on my “to visit” bucket list, I do enjoy reading about it. It appears that lots of people feel the same way. Kristen Hannah’s “The Great Alone” currently sits atop the New York Times list of bestselling fiction. The novel is redolent of the time (the 1970s) and the place (the wilderness of Alaska).

After returning from Vietnam, a former POW takes his wife and daughter to Alaska to live on a homestead that was left to him by a buddy who died in the war.  The hardships of their new home do nothing to mitigate Ernt Allbright’s PTSD. Cora and 13-year-old Leni, however, are buoyed by the help of their quirky, yet caring neighbors. With monikers like Large Marge and Mad Earl, you can hardly wait to meet them all.

“The Great Alone” was donated to the library by the Criterion Book Club in memory of Lucille Davis.

Tennessee Farm Bureau announces black vulture sub-permit

From Staff Reports

Black vulture attacks on livestock are a serious and costly issue for many Tennessee producers who experience losses of livestock to black vultures. Unfortunately, producers are limited in legal methods of removing problem black vultures since they  are protected under the federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act. Previously, the only legal option to protect livestock from depredation was to apply annually for an individual black vulture depredation permit at the cost of $100.

According to a press release from Farm Bureau, the organization is pleased to announce the Tennessee Farm Bureau Federation (TFBF) Board of Directors has obtained a statewide depredation permit for black vultures from the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS). TFBF has worked with both state and federal elected and agency personnel to be able to issue sub-permits to livestock producers who are experiencing problems with black vultures.

This permit provides Farm Bureau members who are livestock producers an opportunity to apply for a livestock protection depredation sub-permit allowing legal “takes” of black vultures that are attacking livestock. The statewide permit will be administered by TFBF. There is no cost to TFBF members who apply for a TFBF livestock protection depredation sub-permit.

Sub-permits will be issued to livestock operations only. Applications will be scored based on the information provided regarding past depredation history, proximity of black vulture roosts, number of livestock on the farm and the general livestock density of the area based on the most recent Tennessee Agricultural Statistic Service.

Applicants must agree to follow all rules and regulations required by USFWS in the TFBF statewide permit, including:

  • Adoption of non-lethal measures to deter black vulture depredation,
  • Use of shotguns and “non-toxic” shot in the lethal “taking” of depreciating black vultures,
  • Report “takes” to TFBF quarterly,
  • Use of black vulture carcasses as effigies in areas where depredation is occurring.

Producers approved for sub-permits will receive a signed approval and sub-permit with an allotted number of black vulture “takes,” a copy of the TFBF statewide depredation permit, guidelines for removal methods and a black vulture dispatch log.

Producers experiencing extreme depredation and large black vulture roosts are encouraged to apply for an individual black vulture depredation permit with USFWS. Individual permits allow producers to be approved for a larger number of “takes” by USFWS.

Sub-permit applications are available at tnfarmbureau.org/black vultures (Black Vulture sub-permit 2018) or at any county Farm Bureau office in Tennessee. Applications should be returned to Tennessee Farm Bureau, Attn: Debbie Briggs, P.O. Box 313, Columbia TN, 38402 or by fax 931-388-5818.

‘Fill a Ford’ drive to benefit county student’s efforts to help homeless

Noell Farnor has spent hours of her free time preparing and distributing care package bags for homeless individuals in the Tri-Cities. She includes non-perishable food times along with items used for personal hygiene in the bags. (Contributed photo)

By Kendal Groner

Noell Farnor, a fifth grader at Temple Hill Elementary School, had met with her older brother in Johnson City to grab lunch one day. After eating, Farnor was deeply troubled when they witnessed a group of homeless individuals in the downtown area.

”You can go to any restaurant and in the alleys you can just see them laying there and sleeping and asking people for money and food,” Noell said. “It’s really sad.”

The event had such a profound impact on the 10-year-old that she took it upon herself to start the ‘Little Hands, Big Impact’ campaign with a mission to provide care packages to homeless individuals in the Tri-Cities area.   

“She came home and sat in bed crying one night and said we can’t sit here in this warm house with food to eat and not do anything,” said Jennifer Farnor, Noell’s mother. “It’s all because she witnessed it first hand. She said she had seen it in big cities but didn’t know they had this issue here.”

About four months ago, Noell started spending hours filling bags with non-perishable food items and hygiene products that she would hand deliver to homeless individuals. She has even begun incorporating small entertainment items such as bubbles or playing cards.

“It’s the best feeling, to see them smile and be happy,” Noell Farnor said. “They’re really nice, and they’re actually nicer than other people.”

Farnor and her mother take 10 to 15 bags at a time, and hand them out in the area near the Johnson City Farmer’s Market.

She said she was nervous delivering the bags at first, but the nervousness quickly subsided after she started exchanging names and engaging in conversation with the people she encountered.

“She got in the car after the first time delivering the bags and said it was the best feeling,” Jennifer said. 

Noell recalls a particularly touching moment she had with a homeless individual that was bound to a wheelchair.

“He basically hugged me several times thanking me for the bags,” she said. “That was pretty cool.”

“One man actually started brushing his teeth while she was there and said it had been a week since he had been able to brush his teeth,” her mother added.

Noel said once she has been able to deliver around 100 care package bags in Johnson City, she would like to try and take the idea to other nearby areas.

However, once she started filling the bags, she and her mother quickly realized how expensive of a task it could be to take on. Her brother helped establish a Facebook page for the campaign, which has lead to several donations of items that can be used in the care package bags.

“I didn’t think it would be this big but so far it is bigger than I ever thought,” Noell said. “People are trying to get involved. It’s amazing because people have ended up helping a lot.”

The Little Hands Big Impact Campaign attracted the attention of the Unicoi County Farm Bureau Women in Agriculture organization. The women’s committee will be sponsoring the campaign as a part of the their ‘Fill a Ford’ event.

“When we started our women’s committee one of the things the state encourages is a food drive and this years program is called fill a Ford with food,” said Renea-Jones Rogers, president of Unicoi County Farm Bureau. “We needed an outlet for what we collected to go to, and someone mentioned this group. We decided to collect things that she could use in her bags.”

From March 19-24, the Women in Agriculture organization will be collecting food donations to support the campaign. Those interested in assisting with the event can bring food donations to the Unicoi County Farm Bureau during normal business hours, or assist them to “Fill a Ford” on March 24.

Suggested food items include packs of nuts, crackers, dried fruit or trail mix, granola bars, breakfast bars, fruit cups, beef jerky, and bottled water.

“It’s all about putting yourself out there to help someone and give them what they need,” Noell said.

For more information on the Little Hands Big Impact Campaign, email littlehandsbigimpact@gmail.com, or visit their Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/LittleHandsBigImpact/.

Get fired up for pottery with class at Tanasi Arts & Heritage Center

From Staff Reports

Alan Stegall produces and designs pottery for Stegall’s Stoneware in Erwin. (Contributed photo)

Experience the Functional Artways of Appalachia with Tanasi Arts & Heritage Center and Stegall’s Stoneware Pottery on Saturday, March 24, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. as you learn the art of pottery making. The event will be held at the Town of Unicoi Visitor Information Center at 106 Unicoi Village Place, Unicoi.

This is the ninth event to be held as part of Tanasi’s one-year project funded by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. “Functional Artways” refers to art that is both beautiful and created to be useful. In the coming months, Tanasi Arts & Heritage Center will host events exploring basketry and wood carving and providing you with the opportunity to meet professional artists, learn new skills, and create memories to last a lifetime.

At the pottery event, you will see various continuous demonstrations of clay pottery making. Finished products will also be available for viewing once you’ve seen the demonstrations at multiple stages in the process.

Stegall’s Stoneware produces a line of functional stoneware pottery designed by Alan & Nancy Stegall. While stationed with the U.S. Air Force in Hawaii the couple spent some time in the base hobby shop, where they quickly decided they wanted to design and make their own pieces. While pursuing careers in computer science and nursing, working with clay continued to be a part of their daily life. When Alan retired, their dream of producing functional pottery at their home in the mountains of East Tennessee came true. The clean, simple pieces they produce are accented with colored, non-toxic glazes and stains and designs reflecting the landscape of their lives in the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Register to attend this free event by visiting www.tanasiarts.org/event-registration. Pre-registration is recommended but not required. If you need hearing, vision, or Spanish language translation assistance, please fill out the appropriate field in the registration form and your needs will be met at the event.

Do you have a particular interest in pottery, need service hours, or just want to help out? You can help with project planning, event set-up, photography, and much more. All event volunteers will receive a shout-out on our website and social media outlets as well as be invited to an appreciation party at the end of the year-long project in August 2018. Sign up to be a volunteer at www.tanasiarts.org/volunteer-application.

For more information, visit www.tanasiarts.org or email tanasiarts@gmail.com.

Feathered Friends – Robins become more prominent with shifting of seasons

Returning American robins, prominent in lawns and gardens during their annual spring migration, will soon turn their attention to nesting duties. (Photo by Bryan Stevens)

By Bryan Stevens

I don’t think I’m alone in doing what I can to speed along the process of spring’s arrival. I’ve heard from different people, all eager to share their observations of one of the sure signals — the arrival of flocks of American robins — of the shifting of the winter season to spring.

Bobby Howser phoned me to let me know of a large flock of American Robins he encountered at the Sullins College building in Bristol, Virginia.

He said the flock “swarmed like bees” into a tall holly tree. He was surprised to see so many robins in a single tree and asked if it was an unusual occurrence.

Ernie Marburg in Abingdon, Virginia, emailed me about the same time.

“I just wanted to report that we have been inundated with a huge flock of mostly robins,” he wrote. He estimated that the flock contained 300 to 500 individuals. 

“They ate all the red berries from my neighbor’s large holly tree yet appear to avoid other holly trees with many red berries just a short distance away,” Ernie wrote.

The flock remained active in the tree from morning into early afternoon.

Not long after he first emailed me, Ernie contacted me again.

“I wanted to give you an update on the robin invasion,” he wrote. “They have been here two additional mornings since I first reported to you. Their pattern is different now though.  They are spaced apart and appear to be ground feeding individually.”

Ernie proposed a theory about the behavior of the robins. 

“I think they followed the south to north weather pattern we had recently that provided significant rainfall,” he explained. “The rainfall, in turn, caused the ground to thaw and the earthworms to come to the surface thus providing a food source for the robins. In summary, the robins are following their food source.”

I responded to Ernie and congratulated him on what I thought was an excellent theory.

Ernie also wrote me that he had read an article some time ago that said robins would eat cooked elbow macaroni if put out for them. 

“We did that, but not one robin ate the macaroni,” he said. “Moral of the story is, as you would expect, don’t believe everything you read.”

I’ve read similar suggestions of unusual items to try to tempt birds not prone to visit feeders. I told Ernie that I wasn’t too surprised that the robins ignored the macaroni. The observations of robin feeding habits made by Bobby and Ernie also correspond to the changing seasons. Holly trees retain their berries into late winter, which provide an abundant food source for robins, as well as other birds. As the temperatures begin to rise in early spring, the birds switch their diet in favor of earthworms. This protein-rich food source fuels the impressive migration made by robins each year.

I posted on my Facebook page about the flocks of robins I’d observed, which resulted in several comments on my original post.

Johnny Mann, who lives in Bristol, Tennessee, shared on my Facebook page after I posted about seeing flocks of robins almost everywhere I have gone recently. He noted that he has been seeing Eastern bluebirds, which are a smaller relative of robins. He noted in his comment that the bluebirds are feeding on suet.

Jackie Lynn, who lives in Wytheville, Virginia, also posted a comment on my Facebook page. Jackie saw a large flock of robins feeding in a field, enjoying the worms brought to the surface by recent rains. “Dinner was served,” Jackie reported.

Several other people responded optimistically on my Facebook page, sharing the hope that the influx of robins does indeed signal the approach of spring.

The American robin is known by the scientific name Turdus migratorius, which can be translated as “migratory thrush.” Indeed, this well-known American bird is related to other thrushes, including the Eastern bluebird, wood thrush and veery. The relationship to other thrushes is quite visible in young birds, which display a spotted breast until they mature and acquire the familiar red breast associated with robins.

There are 82 other species in the genus, which ranges not only in the Americas, but Europe, Asia, Africa and Australia, as well. Some of the American robin’s fellow genus members include the olive thrush, the bare-eyed thrush, pale thrush, great thrush, black-billed thrush and cocoa thrush.

When the first European settlers arrived in North America, the robin was still a bird living in the forests. Robins proved incredibly capable of adapting to the presence of humans. Soon enough, these once shy forest birds began to frequent lawns and city parks. The robin soon became one of America’s most popular songbirds. Three states — Connecticut, Michigan and Wisconsin — have conferred official state bird status on the American robin.

Robins begin nesting almost as soon as they return each spring. Nesting success in a previous season instills fidelity to the location where the birds nested, resulting in many robins returning to the same nesting area year after year. Although some robins invariably spent the entire winter season in the region, it is still a welcome sight to see migrating flocks of these birds in February and early March. The sudden resurgence of the American robin each spring is a reminder that another winter will soon be history. I know I’m always pleased to welcome them back.


Bryan Stevens lives near Roan Mountain, Tennessee. To learn more about birds and other topics from the natural world, friend him on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/ahoodedwarbler. If you have a question, wish to make a comment or share a sighting, email ahoodedwarbler@aol.com.

Library Happenings – New microfilm scanner now in use at library

By Angie Georgeff

At Rotary Club meetings, members share “happy news.” At last week’s meeting, I got to share some news that I’ve been hoping to report for nearly 10 years. The Unicoi County Public Library now has a microfilm scanner that permits users to print images. We hold a fairly large collection of microfilm. Previously, however, we had no way to print the images and no comfortable way even to view them. The devices that we’ve used for viewing over the years were anything but convenient. Ever since I started working at the library, I have wished for a microfilm reader/printer, but they are very expensive and our budget is tiny.

Happily, last year the stars aligned and we were given a large donation for that very purpose. It was not enough to buy a reader/printer outright, but it was a very generous start toward that goal. I knew that grant funds which could be used to purchase the hardware and software we needed were available to us through the Library Services and Technology Act, but we would need matching funds of fifty percent or maybe more. To make a long story short, we received several donations, applied for the grant, got it, and the equipment was installed on March 5.

As I was learning how to use it that afternoon, we received a call from a man living out-of-state who was looking for obituaries from The Erwin Record. His timing was perfect. We used his request as a training tool. I took down the names and dates and another staff member looked them up and printed them off for him. After so many years of “No, I’m sorry we can’t do that,” it was gratifying to say “Yes, we can!”

Now you can, too. We have some Unicoi County records on microfilm, but the newspapers are the ore that I most want to mine. We have microfilm of surviving Unicoi County newspapers in our collection from as early as 1887 to 1983. Please note that most editions from the early years have not survived, but those which have are invaluable. We also have 47 years of the Johnson City Press on microfilm from October 1960 through September 2007. That is a lot of history.

Seriously, this is the culmination of a dream for me, and I am grateful to everyone whose donations have made it possible. Thank you!

Board Meeting

The Board of Trustees of the Unicoi County Public Library will meet in the library lobby at 6 p.m. on Thursday, March 15. The public is welcome to attend. If you should require any accommodations in order to attend the meeting, please call 743-6533 for assistance.

THP reminds motorists to make safe choices during St. Patrick’s Day holiday

From Staff Reports

The Tennessee Highway Patrol (THP) reminds motorists to buckle up and drive sober during the St. Patrick’s Day holiday. State troopers will utilize traffic safety enforcement tools including saturation patrols and sobriety and seat belt checkpoints, to help reduce serious injury and fatal crashes during the holiday weekend.  The St. Patrick’s Day holiday enforcement period starts at midnightSaturday, March 17, and ends on March 18 at 11:59 p.m.

“St. Patrick’s Day is the unofficial kickoff to spring and spring break celebrations,” said Colonel Tracy Trott.  “The THP will have enforcement activities planned throughout the weekend.  Our enforcement efforts will focus on traffic violations that are hazardous.  We will not tolerate driving reckless or under the influence.  These actions endanger yourself as well as others.  We have a responsibility to ensure the public’s safety, and we hope our visibility and enforcement techniques will encourage motorists to obey traffic laws.”

During last year’s St. Patrick’s Day enforcement period, the THP made 103 impaired driving arrests statewide.  Seven people died in traffic crashes during the holiday period.  Four of those fatalities were alcohol related.  State troopers have made 1,434 DUI arrests this year.  In 2018, preliminary statistics indicate that 162 people have died on Tennessee roads, compared to 187 fatalities during the same time period in 2017.

THP scheduled checkpoints can be viewed at https://www.tn.gov/safety/article/checkpoints.

The Tennessee Department of Safety and Homeland Security’s (www.TN.Gov/safety) mission is to serve, secure, and protect the people of Tennessee.

State Fire Marshal: Check smoke alarms when changing clocks this weekend

From Staff Reports

The State Fire Marshal’s Office (SFMO) reminds Tennesseans to take the time to check their smoke alarms and carbon monoxide detectors when setting clocks forward one hour this Sunday night, March 11, 2018.

“It’s proven that smoke alarms can save lives in the event of a fire – but only if they are working,” said State Fire Marshal and Commerce & Insurance Commissioner Julie Mix McPeak. “As Daylight Saving Time begins, we encourage citizens to change the batteries in their smoke alarms if necessary and check the age of these important devices. Any smoke alarm 10 years old or older should be replaced entirely as it may not function properly in the event of an emergency.”

Smoke alarms more than 10 years old no longer offer a reliable level of safety and are often the source for nuisance alarms. The SFMO urges all residents to determine how old their smoke alarms are (the date of manufacture is located on the back of the alarm). If they’re 10 years old or older, they should be replaced immediately. This includes smoke alarms that use 10-year batteries and/or are hard-wired.

State fire data indicates that 54 percent of Tennessee residential structure fires in 2017 occurred in homes where no smoke alarm was known to have been present. In addition, 45 percent of smoke alarm failures during that period were due to missing or dead batteries in the device.

Both state and national data reflect that many fatal fires occur at night while the victims are sleeping. The smoke and toxic gases generated by a fire can cause people to sleep more deeply, narrowing the chances of surviving a fire. A working smoke alarm can double the chances of survival by increasing the amount of time a person has to escape a fire in their home.

The SFMO shares the following safety tips on residential smoke alarms:

  • Install smoke alarms on every level of the home, including the basement. For best protection, smoke alarms should be installed inside and outside sleeping rooms. Make sure everyone can hear the alarm and knows what it sounds like. 
  • For the best protection, equip your home with a combination of ionization and photoelectric smoke alarms or dual-sensor alarms. Interconnect the alarms so that when one sounds, they all sound.
  • Smoke alarms with non-replaceable (long-life) batteries are available and are designed to remain effective for up to 10 years. If the alarm chirps on these units, warning that the battery is low, replace the entire smoke alarm right away.
  • For smoke alarms with any other type of battery, replace batteries at least once a year (preferably twice a year during daylight saving time). If that alarm chirps, replace only the battery.
  • Remember, even alarms that are hard-wired into your home electrical system need to have their battery back-ups maintained in case of electrical power outage.
  • Follow the manufacturer’s instructions for cleaning to keep smoke alarms working well. The instructions are included in the package or can be found on the internet.
  • Test alarms once a month using the test button. Replace the entire alarm if it’s 10 years old or older or if it fails to sound when tested.
  • Devise a fire escape plan with two ways out of every room and a designated outside meeting place. Share and practice the plan with all who live in the home, including children.
  • When a smoke alarm sounds, get out of the home immediately and go to your pre-planned meeting place to call 911.

For more home fire safety information or to download a free copy of the 2018 Tennessee State Fire Marshal’s Office calendar, visit tn.gov/fire

About the Tennessee Department of Commerce & Insurance: TDCI protects the interests of consumers while providing fair, efficient oversight and a level field of competition for a broad array of industries and professionals doing business in Tennessee. Our divisions include the State Fire Marshal’s Office, Insurance, Securities, Consumer Affairs, Tennessee Law Enforcement Training Academy, Regulatory Boards, Tennessee Emergency Communications Board, Tennessee Corrections Institute, and TennCare Oversight.

Bluebirds never fail to impress

The Eastern bluebird, immortalized in song and verse, is one of the more popular songbirds. Offerings of food, water and shelter, or combinations of all three, help attract these birds to your yard or garden. (Photo by Bryan Stevens)

By Bryan Stevens

A famous song declares that “somewhere over the rainbow, bluebirds fly,” so you’ll have to excuse me if I have been looking for those elusive rainbows during the unseasonably warm weather the region’s enjoyed in recent weeks.

Also, like the song promises, “dreams really do come true,” which was fulfilled by the arrival of this year’s first pair of Eastern bluebirds at my home on Friday, Feb. 23. The presence of a pair of these beautiful and trusting birds is always sure to put people in a good mood. People have known for generations that bluebirds make good neighbors. A pair of bluebirds in your yard or garden provides hour upon hour of free entertainment as one watches these birds go about their daily routine. At this time of the year, much of that routine is focused on finding and claiming the best possible nesting location for the upcoming spring season.

The Eastern bluebird is one of North America’s best-known cavity-nesting birds. About 85 species of North American birds use cavities in trees for nesting purposes. Cavity-nesters include ducks, such as buffleheads and wood ducks, as well as birds of prey such as Eastern screech-owls and American kestrels.

Woodpeckers and nuthatches can excavate their own cavity in a dead or decaying tree. Others, such as the bluebirds, must find a cavity already in existence. Such cavities are scarce real estate and can be subject to some intense competition. The Eastern bluebird is at a disadvantage when forced to compete with non-native introduced birds such as aggressive European starlings and house sparrows. Even native competitors such as house wrens and tree swallows are serious rivals when it comes down to staking a claim to prime nesting real estate.

Over the years, I have found bluebirds nesting in cavities inside wooden fence posts, but there are fewer wooden fence posts every year. This reinforces the idea of how changing landscapes have affected these birds. Instead of wooden fence posts, many farmers now use metal ones, and dead or dying trees — a much sought-after resource for cavity-nesting birds — are often removed from woodlands.

Fortunately for bluebirds, this species will also accept lodging in a nest box, or birdhouse, provided for them by human landlords. One of the simplest ways to bring bluebirds close is to offer wooden boxes, constructed to their specific requirements, for their use as nesting locations. Because of their trusting nature when it comes to their human neighbors, the Eastern bluebird is one of our most beloved birds. In fact, bluebirds are such popular birds that interest in them and their well-being has inspired the foundation of organizations such as the North American Bluebird Society. The Eastern bluebird has also been designated the official state bird for New York and Missouri, which provides more testimony to the immense popularity of this bird.

There are two other species of bluebirds found in North  America. The Western bluebird is found throughout the year in California, the southern Rocky Mountains, Arizona and New Mexico, as well as in part of Mexico. The species ranges in the summer as far north as the Pacific Northwest, British Columbia and Montana. The Mountain bluebird nests in open country in the western United States as far north as Alaska. They are short-distance migrants, retreating as far south as Mexico during the winter season.

Other than these three species, North America offers few others birds with mostly “blue” plumages. Some examples include indigo bunting, blue grosbeak, and blue jay, as well as birds like great blue heron and belted kingfisher.

In addition to housing, food and water can be used to lure Eastern bluebirds closer. This bird doesn’t eat seeds, but it can be attracted with an offering of mealworms — live or freeze-dried – or commercially prepared peanut butter nuggets. A water feature in a yard is also a magnet for bluebirds and a host of other bird species.

If your home doesn’t provide suitable open, spacious bluebird habitat, it’s still easy to enjoy these beautiful birds. An afternoon or evening drive into open country, such as agricultural farmland, is likely to yield sightings of this bird on fences and utility lines. Golf courses, some of which go the extra mile to accommodate bluebirds, also provide habitat for these lovely birds.

The Eastern bluebird is present in the region in all seasons and is one of our more common birds. If you’re already an experienced landlord and host for these birds, you probably already know the joys they can bring. If not, why not try to attract them closer to you? Most bluebirds in the region have already started looking for a nesting site. Many of these birds may nest two or even three times in a single season. March has only just arrived, so there’s still time to place a nest box or two on your property to get their attention.


If you have a question, wish to make a comment or share a sighting, email ahoodedwarbler@aol.com.

Library Happenings – Online tool will aid in foreign language studies

By Angie Georgeff

If people who live in the Aloha state can claim “Lucky you live in Hawaii,” we who live here can declare that we’re “Luckier to live in Unicoi County.” I can say so, because I’ve lived in both places. That doesn’t mean, however, that I don’t like to travel. I am not alone. I know Unicoi County residents who are traveling to Alaska, Hawaii, Europe, the Middle East and South America this spring.

While English is widely spoken around the world as a lingua franca, it is always a good idea to learn a little of the native tongue when you’re traveling to another country. I have discovered that their English is likely to be better than your Spanish or German, but they will appreciate the effort you made to learn a few essential phrases. Those simple words will be a mark of respect for citizens of that country and a security blanket for you. In addition, being able to read a menu will help you order a meal that you’ll actually want to eat. Trust me: “Stroganoff” made with pork and liver is not very good!

This is why I’m so excited about a new resource coming to TEL, the Tennessee Electronic Library, on April 1. I studied Spanish in high school and German and a little Russian in college, but that still leaves a lot of languages with which I am completely unfamiliar. Transparent Language Online offers online lessons in more than 100 languages and dialects for English speakers, and lessons in English for speakers of more than 25 other languages. The list starts with Afrikaans and goes all the way to Zulu by way of Estonian, Icelandic, Mongolian and Quechua. If I’d had access to this program before I went to the Czech Republic, I might have avoided that stroganoff!

Along with grammar topics, alphabet lessons help lay the foundation for learning Greek, Russian, Chinese, Hebrew, Arabic and other languages that don’t use the Latin alphabet. And speaking of Latin, it is one of the available languages, along with Esperanto. The choice is up to you. Whether you would like to learn a language for school, work, travel or intellectual stimulation, Transparent Language Online can help.  What do you want to learn?

Kids & Teens Fundraiser

Pizza Hut is hosting a fundraiser to benefit our programs for kids and teens on Thursday, March 8, from 5-8 p.m. They will donate 20 percent of all dine-in purchases made during those hours to support youth activities such as story times and our annual Summer Reading Programs for children and teens. Please join us for dinner and be sure to mention the library when you check out so we get credit. Members of our teen group will be there to help serve you.

Prescribed burns planned for Cherokee National Forest

From Staff Reports

According to a press release from the U.S. Forest Service, if weather conditions permit several prescribed (controlled) burns will be conducted in the Cherokee National Forest from March 3-6. Smoke may be visible in surrounding areas.

Prescribed burns planned for the north of the Cherokee National Forest (Unaka & Watauga Ranger Districts) are:

  • Stone Mountain – 850 acres in Unicoi County, approximately 1.5 miles northeast of Unicoi off Highway 107;
  • Irishman Branch – 150 acres in Unicoi County, approximate location of Stone Mountain burn;
  • Horse Cove Gap – 480 acres in Washington County on Cherokee Mountain, 5-6 miles southwest of Johnson City in the vicinity of Buffalo Mountain.

According to the U.S. Forest Service, prescribed (controlled) burning of approximately 20,000 acres are scheduled for burning throughout the 650,000 Cherokee National Forest during 2018. A significant portion of the prescribed burning is planned for early spring.

Prescribed fire is used in the Cherokee National Forest for several reasons including:

  • Hazardous Fuel Reduction: Fuels (vegetation) such as grass, leaves, brush, downed trees, and pine needles accumulate and create a fire hazard. By burning an area under favorable conditions these fuels are removed, decreasing the amount of vegetation that is available to burn during a wildfire. Reducing heavy vegetation build up helps protect communities from the threat of wildfire, as well as being beneficial to the forest.
  • Site Preparation: Certain trees cannot tolerate shady conditions created by other species. In areas being managed for pines, prescribed fire reduces certain types of vegetation that compete for light, moisture, and nutrients. Prescribed fire also reduces the leaf litter on the forest floor which often prevents seed germination for natural reproduction of desirable vegetation, including native grasses.
  • Wildlife Habitat: Prescribed fire promotes new sprout and herbaceous growth that serves as beneficial food and cover for many animals.

Feathered Friends – Unlikely orange-crowned warbler becomes daily visitor

This orange-crowned warbler has found a favorable winter residence at the home of Rebecca Boyd in Knoxville, making frequent visits to suet feeders to supplement its usual diet of insects and berries. (Photo by Rebecca Boyd)

By Bryan Stevens

After you have fed the birds long enough, you’re going to get visits from “mystery” birds. No matter how thoroughly you thumb through the pages of your field guides or how many online Google searches you conduct, it can be hard to pin down the identity of certain birds, especially when you encounter them for the first time.

In the summer and fall, young birds recently out of the nest can cause some confusion when they show up in the company of their parents at feeders. In the winter, often a season characterized by subdued plumages and nomadic wanderers, the surprise visitors can be one of the many “little brown birds” in the sparrow clan or a summer bird like an oriole or thrush that has decided to take a shot at overwintering.

Or, with greater frequency each winter, it might be one of the warblers. That was the case when Rebecca Boyd, a resident of Knoxville, Tennessee, contacted me recently via Facebook asking for assistance with a bird identification.

Although most of the warblers beat a hasty retreat from North America every fall, a handful of species have increasingly begun to spend the winter months far north of their usual tropical haunts. Some of these species include yellow-rumped warbler, pine warbler and palm warbler, but the low-profile orange-crowned warbler is also becoming more common between November and March, especially in yards and gardens offering supplemental food such as suet cakes.

The small greenish-yellow bird that showed up at Rebecca’s home was easily identified, thanks to some great photographs that she took of her visitor. I communicated to her that I believed her bird to be an orange-crowned warbler. She had also conducted her own research, which had also led her to that conclusion.

Rebecca said she also shared some photos with birding groups on Facebook, which brought some helpful feedback. “I’ve gotten numerous responses that orange-crowned warblers are becoming a lot more common on the east side of the Mississippi, with quite a few people saying they are seeing them in their yards, too,” Rebecca wrote.

The orange-crowned warbler is one of the more undistinguished members of this New World family of birds that numbers about 115 species. The bird gains its common name from a physical feature that is rarely seen — an orange patch of feathers that, unless the bird is extremely excited or agitated, is usually concealed beneath its dull greenish-yellow feathers. It’s not a field mark that’s considered reliable for identifying the bird.

Rebecca got a lucky break and managed to photograph this elusive feature on her visiting bird. She said the feathers on the bird’s head appeared wet, which may have explained the appearance of the orange crown.

So, what does signify an orange-crowned warbler? The lack of wing bars, as well as the absence of a strong facial pattern is a strong indicator. The bird in Rebecca’s photo is not nearly as drab as this warbler can appear. Some appear very gray with only a hint of yellow or green in their plumage. There is often faint gray streaking evident in their yellow-green breast feathers. This warbler always shows yellow beneath its tail, a feature that is often only glimpsed as an observed bird is diving into cover. These birds also have sharp, thin bills. It’s usually a process of eliminating other suspects that brings birders to identify one of these warblers.

Unlike some warblers restricted to either the eastern or western United States, the orange-crowned warbler migrates and winters throughout the nation, east and west, although it primarily only nests within the western United States, as well as Alaska and Canada.

Although Rebecca said she has only been bird-watching and taking pictures for a little over a year, she has been a general point-and-shoot photography hobbyist for years. “My backyard is a bird paradise that attracts numerous and varied species,” Rebecca noted. “My favorites are bluebirds and hummingbirds, but the little warblers are also very special.”

Most of the warblers are currently residing on the island of the Caribbean, or far south in Central and South America. A few others spend the winter in Florida or other southern states. The 50 or so species that nest in the United States and Canada will begin arriving as early as next month, although the majority of these summer residents will arrive or pass through the region in late April and May.

So, while it has a colorful name, the orange-crowned warbler is one of the more drab and nondescript members of its family. Other warblers living throughout the Americas include flame-throated warbler, crescent-chested warbler, citrine warbler and arrowhead warbler.

I’ll just keep daydreaming on the occasional snowy day of the approach of spring, which signals that the kin of the orange-crowned warbler will be winging their way north again in only a couple more months. I, for one, can’t wait.


If you have a question, wish to make a comment or share a sighting, email ahoodedwarbler@aol.com.

Library Happenings – Dr. Seuss celebration planned for March 3

By Angie Georgeff

Even though last week’s weather was unseasonably warm for February, its timing happened to be perfect. Those 70 degree temperatures provided the ideal backdrop for East Tennessee’s Summer Reading Conference. Library employees from all over the eastern third of the state converged on Sevierville to bounce ideas off one another, and inspiration was ricocheting like ping pong balls!

Stories, crafts, games, science experiments, and math exercises can all be a part of Summer Reading, but this year music will be the theme, with the slogan reminding everyone that “Libraries Rock!” Only academic libraries will be quiet this summer, so be prepared to hear a joyful noise coming from the children’s room whenever the various age groups are meeting.

At the Unicoi County Public Library, we have Summer Reading Programs for all ages, from infants to seniors. Three staff members have been given primary responsibility for different segments of the population, but it means extra work for all of our staff and volunteers. Summer Reading Programs are a substantial commitment, but we have no doubt they’re worth the effort.  They have been shown to yield big benefits, from promoting reading readiness for toddlers to preventing “summer slide” for students to facilitating lifelong learning for seniors. Besides that, they’re just plain fun!

Planning has already begun. Handy calendars will be ready for your refrigerator in May and the programs will be held in June and July. And if you have any questions in the meantime, please don’t hesitate to call us at 743-6533.

Wish List

Another eagerly-anticipated event that occurred last week was the semiannual release of state funds for library materials. If there’s a book or DVD you’d like to add to our “wish list,” give us a call or let us know when you come in. We appreciate your input.

Party Time!

Happy Birthday, Dr. Seuss! Join us at noon on Saturday, March 3, to commemorate the 114th anniversary of the birth of Theodor Seuss Geisel, known to millions as Dr. Seuss. The occasion calls for stories, crafts and refreshments, of course. Sam-I-am has requested green eggs and ham, and I am sure they would be delicious on a boat or with a goat, but cake somehow seems more appropriate for a birthday party. The celebration will last until 2 p.m., so feel free to drop in at your own convenience. And if you want to wear your Thing 1 and Thing 2 pajamas, that will be fine with us!

TDCI encourages Tennesseans to take savings pledge during Military Saves Week

From Staff Reports

In recognition of Military Saves Week (Feb. 26 – March 3), the Tennessee Department of Commerce & Insurance (TDCI) Securities Division is encouraging military members to commit to a financial savings goal and take the Military Saves Pledge.

Military Saves Week is a nationwide campaign coordinated by America Saves and the Consumer Federation of America in partnership with the Department of Defense. The Week is an annual opportunity for organizations to promote good savings behavior and a chance for individuals to assess their own saving status.

“Military Saves Week is a great opportunity to help service members and their families enhance their financial stability,” said TDCI Assistant Commissioner for Securities Frank Borger-Gilligan. “We encourage Tennessee military members to use this week to set a savings goal, make a plan, and start saving automatically.”

The easiest and most effective way to save is to set up automatic savings. This is how millions of employees save through 401(k) and other retirement programs at work. It is also how millions of Americans save at their bank or credit union.

How to Save Automatically

  • Every pay period, your employer deducts a certain amount from your paycheck and transfers it to a retirement or savings account. Ask your HR representative for more details and to set this up.
  • Every month, your bank or credit union transfers a fixed amount from your checking account to a savings or investment account. Talk to your local bank or credit union to set this up.

Why Automatic Savings Works

Over time, these automatic deposits add up. $50 a month accumulates to $600 a year and $3,000 after five years, plus interest that has compounded. Soon you will be able to cover many unexpected expenses without putting them on your credit card or taking out a high cost loan.

If you can’t afford to save even $50 a month, there are alternatives. Many banks and credit unions will transfer as little as $25 monthly from checking to savings and, as an added bonus, waive any monthly savings fees.

I Don’t Have enough Money to Save

If $25 is too much, just save your loose change. If every day you just put some or all of the loose change in your pocket or purse into a jar, and don’t spend it, you will find that in a year you will probably accumulate over $100.

Just saving loose change has persuaded many Americans that they are able to save.  And when they become convinced that they can save, they find other ways to build an emergency fund or save for other goals.

To help all investors with safe investing habits, the Tennessee Securities Division encourages individuals to visit its website to get free investor education materials.

About the Tennessee Department of Commerce & Insurance: TDCI protects the interests of consumers while providing fair, efficient oversight and a level field of competition for a broad array of industries and professionals doing business in Tennessee. Our divisions include the State Fire Marshal’s Office, Insurance, Securities, Consumer Affairs, Tennessee Law Enforcement Training Academy, Regulatory Boards, Tennessee Emergency Communications Board, Tennessee Corrections Institute, and TennCare Oversight.

To check a license of a professional regulated by the Department, go to http://verify.tn.gov/.

Feathered Friends – Lost parakeet remains symbol of need to protect our birds

Early American naturalist and artist John James Audubon painted these Carolina parakeets. Less than a few decades after Audubon painted this work, the parakeets were already in a decline that would result in their extinction. (Contributed image)

By Bryan Stevens

A century ago this week, a caged bird died in Cincinnati, Ohio. However, this was not simply a case of an untimely death of a beloved family pet. Instead, that bird represented the last of its kind.

The bird belonged to the Psittacidae, a family of tropical birds that includes macaws, parrots, caiques, amazons and parrotlets. The bird, a male named Incas, was the last captive Carolina parakeet (the only species of parrot native to the eastern United States) in existence when he died at the Cincinnati Zoo on Feb. 21, 1918, in the same aviary where Martha, the last passenger pigeon, had died four years earlier.

The demise of Incas came about a year after the death of his mate, who had been named Lady Jane by their zookeepers. In a time before the forces of social media and round-the-clock mass media, the death of Incas likely went unnoticed by other than a few people.

If few noticed the passing of Incas at the time, surely today we can mourn the loss of one of the most abundant birds to ever roam the continent. Few people even realize that North America was once home to its own species of parakeet. A few individuals — all that remained of once massive flocks of colorful, noisy native parakeets — made it into the 20th century. Despite the death of Incas in 1918, the Carolina parakeet as a species was not officially declared extinct until 1939. It was a classic example of going out with a whimper, not a bang, when the entire population of the Carolina parakeet crashed suddenly and for reasons still not fully understood.

For instance, large flocks of these birds still flew free until the final years of the 1800s, but in the first decade of the 1900s, these flocks disappeared. The only other native parrot — the thick-billed parrot of the American southwest — no longer flies north of the Mexican border. An attempt to re-introduce this parrot to Arizona in the 1980s ended in disappointing failure. Of course, thick-billed parrots still fly free south of the border.

It would be wonderful to have native parrots still flying free. The extinct Carolina parakeet ranged throughout the eastern United States, including the states of Virginia, Tennessee and North Carolina. These parrots strayed on occasion as far north as Wisconsin and New York and ranged as far west as Colorado. Florida provided a stronghold for this colorful species, which also made its last stand in the Sunshine State. The last flock of thirteen wild birds was documented in Florida in 1904.

These birds have attracted attention since the arrival of the first Europeans. English explorer George Peckham mentioned the presence of Carolina parakeets in an account he wrote of his 1583 expedition in Florida. In the 1700s, English naturalist Mark Catesby described the species for science in a two-volume work titled “The Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands.”

The parrots were evidently numerous, often encountered in large flocks. Few early naturalists attempted to properly study them, resulting in a sad dearth of knowledge. Much of what we do know is quite intriguing. The diet of these parakeets made them toxic, as early naturalist and artist John James Audubon observed when cats sickened and died after dining on fresh parakeets. One of the parakeet’s favorite foods — cockleburs —imparted the toxicity into the flesh of the birds.

An unusual empathy and loyalty may have contributed to the downfall of the species.  Early naturalist Alexander Wilson wrote of an 1808 encounter with a large flock of these parakeets. After noting how the bird covered almost every twig in a tree, Wilson raised a gun and shot several of the birds. Some of the shot birds were only wounded. “The whole flock swept repeatedly around their prostrate companions, and again settled on a low tree, within twenty yards of the spot where I stood,” Wilson wrote. “At each successive discharge, although showers of them fell, yet the affection of the survivors seemed rather to increase.”

The same tendency to rally to the side of fallen companions made Carolina parakeets easy targets for people capturing them in the late 1800s for the exotic pet trade. This flocking together and unwillingness to abandon wounded members made the birds easy targets when farmers shot them. It certainly didn’t help matters that the parakeets were also hunted for their brightly colored feathers, which were used to adorn women’s hats. It remains unclear what exactly annihilated a once abundant bird, although it was likely a combination of all of the aforementioned factors.

Changes to the landscape encouraged the parakeets to shift their diet from weed seeds to cultivated fruit, which won them the ire of farmers. Logging of extensive forests may have impacted their numbers, too. Experts have even theorized that the parakeets fell victim to some sort of epidemic spread by domestic fowl.

If only the dawning of a more environmentally aware age had arrived slightly sooner, the Carolina parakeet might have been saved along with species like the bald eagle and whooping crane. This native parakeet, if it had endured, might today be considered an ordinary backyard bird jostling for space at your feeders with birds like blue jays and purple finches. 

Incas and his fellow Carolina parakeets may be gone, but they’ve not been forgotten. Their story is a reminder of why it remains crucial to protect all birds. Let that devotion to preservation be the legacy of America’s lost parakeets.


To learn more about birds and other topics from the natural world, friend Stevens on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/ahoodedwarbler. If you have a question, wish to make a comment or share a sighting, email ahoodedwarbler@aol.com.

Library Happenings – Adults invited to attend digital literacy classes

By Angie Georgeff

With Presidents’ Day past and the XXIII Olympic Winter Games spiraling toward their close, our focus starts shifting from winter, cold and sniffles to spring, warmth and activity.

With that in mind, we’re starting to offer more programs – not just for children and teens, but also for adults.  Next month, we will begin with a trio of digital literacy classes for adults. All of these classes are offered free to the public.

Hello, Computer!

For those who want to start at the very beginning (a very good place to start!), we’ve scheduled an “Introduction to the Computer” class for 4 p.m. on Tuesday, March 13. You will learn how to navigate a computer keyboard, use a mouse and access the Internet. If you already know the basics, but want to learn how to use the Internet more effectively, then “Introduction to the Internet” is the right class for you. At 6 p.m. on Thursday, March 1, you will learn what the Internet can do for you and search strategies to make the time you spend online more fun and productive.

Hello, Granddaddy!

We also are offering “Computer Genealogy” at 6 p.m.  on Thursday, March 22. Even though I have spent a lot of time in courthouses, churches, cemeteries, archives and – yes – libraries, researching my family’s history, I am happy to gain access to documents online because it saves time and money. More and more records are made available through the Internet every day. This class will show you how to use some of the most productive and reliable of the genealogy websites – and all free of charge. Since space is limited, reservations are required for each of these classes. You may register at the circulation desk in the library, or call us at 743-6533 for information.

Spotlight Book

Lisa Gardner’s new thriller “Look for Me” has been garnering stellar reviews. Four members of a Boston family are found dead in their home and the fifth cannot be located. Why is Roxanna missing? The 16-year-old, a former foster child, may also be dead, in danger or possibly the murderer.

Detective D. D. Warren is determined to discover both the girl and the truth. Flora Dane, who has dedicated her life to rescuing and avenging abuse victims ever since she escaped the sadistic kidnapper who held her prisoner for more than a year, contacts D. D. with information pertinent to the case: Roxy had sought advice about self-defense from Flora, but she never disclosed the identity of the person she feared. Flora is certain the girl has been abused. Both women are urgently searching for Roxy, but one is motivated by justice and the other by vengeance.

Feathered Friends – Red-shouldered hawk fascinating, if shy, guest

Red-shouldered hawks prefer to perch and ambush prey. They drop on unsuspecting prey, which varies from reptiles and amphibians to rodents, that come within reach. (Photo by Bryan Stevens)

By Bryan Stevens

People who feed the birds soon get to know the feisty personalities from the retiring wallflowers when it comes to the visitors to their yards. Northern mockingbirds, male ruby-throated hummingbirds and American robins are usually counted among the more boisterous birds.

Then there are the birds that shrink from interaction and hang back on the fringes, including wood thrushes, Eastern towhees and the large but shy pileated woodpecker. The latter example just goes to show that size doesn’t always equate with an extroverted personality when it comes to birds.

That’s certainly the case with a red-shouldered hawk that has taken up residence for the winter at my home. The hawk usually favors a stand of trees near the fish pond at my home when it visits the yard. The hawk made its initial appearances in December and then lingered into the new year. So far, the hawk has been a very shy guest. I’ve wanted to photograph the bird, but that’s difficult to do when it spooks and flies off the instant I step outside the door of my home. I’m not too disappointed because I know that raptors that are too comfortable around humans are at risk of running afoul of misinformed individuals who may regard all predatory birds as “bad.” The reality is that all hawks are valuable components of a healthy, working ecosystem with each species filling a certain niche.

According to a fact sheet published by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, this raptor breeds in moist woodlands, riverine forests, the borders of swamps, open pine woods and similar habitats. Nesting almost always occurs near water, such as a swamp, river or pond.

The red-shouldered hawk is an ambush predator. This raptor usually selects a favorable perch and remains still while scanning for possible prey. The hawk will drop rapidly onto any prey that wanders carelessly within range. In the summer, prey items largely consist of reptiles and amphibians, including snakes and frogs, as well as some insects and crayfish. Most of these creatures are scarce during the colder months of the year, which prompts these hawks to adopt a diet that focuses on rodents and the occasional songbird. Other than the altercations with the resident crows, I haven’t observed any encounters between the hawk at my home and any other birds — with one exception.

On a recent morning, the hawk was on its usual perch — a branch of a large willow adjacent to the fish pond — when seven Canada geese, another rare visitor to my home, suffered some sort of fright and took flight. The noisy geese flew directly over the willow, which spooked the raptor into taking flight in the opposite direction of the departing geese.

The red-shouldered hawk produces a distinctive, piercing whistle that reminds me of the shrill call of a killdeer. The hawk at my house has been silent so far, perhaps not wishing to draw attention. The few times the local crows have noticed the hawk’s presence, they’ve flocked together to mob the unfortunate hawk. It’s also not the right time of year. During courtship and the subsequent nesting period, these hawks are vocal. At other times of the year, they are rarely heard. It’s also possible to mistakenly think you have heard one of these large hawks. Blue jays have apparently learned to imitate the “kee-yar” call of this hawk, often working a flawless rendition of the whistled notes of this large raptor.

In contrast to the related red-tailed hawk, the red-shouldered hawk soars less and prefers to perch hidden in the cover of trees. This hawk’s name comes from the reddish-brown shoulder patches in the bird’s wings. Adults show a tail marked with vivid bands of black and white that is quite distinctive.

The red-shouldered hawk belongs to the same genus of raptors as its larger relative, the red-tailed hawk. The genus, buteo, includes about two dozen large raptors that are often dominant avian predators in their respective habitats. The red-shouldered hawk is known by the scientific name Buteo lineatus.

The red-shouldered hawk is less common in the region than some of the other raptors. This hawk’s stronghold is in Florida and other southern states like South Carolina and Georgia. I’ve seen many of these hawks on visits to both the Sunshine State and Palmetto State.

Some of the buteo species have adapted to life on islands, including the Galapagos hawk and the Hawaiian hawk. Some of these hawks have quite descriptive names, including the white-throated hawk, gray-lined hawk, zone-tailed hawk and short-tailed hawk. Outside the United States, raptors in the buteo genus are often known as buzzards. When the first European colonists came to the New World, they applied the term buzzard to both native vultures, as well as the large raptors like Swainson’s hawk and broad-winged hawk that reminded them of the ones back in Europe.

It’s been nice hosting this beautiful raptor, although the crows might disagree with me. A neighbor who lives close to me has had red-shouldered hawks spend the summer months on her property, so I’m hopeful that my visitor might even like the surroundings well enough to become a full-time resident.


To learn more about birds and other topics from the natural world, friend him on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/ahoodedwarbler. If you have a question, wish to make a comment or share a sighting, email ahoodedwarbler@aol.com.

Feathered Friends – Winter season good time for seeing rare geese

This snow goose, right, is shown swimming with a Canada goose at a pond at Fishery Park in Erwin. Several species of geese not often found in the region have been spotted in the past couple of months, including greater white-fronted goose, cackling goose and Ross’s goose. (Photo by Bryan Stevens)

By Bryan Stevens

Of the geese found in the region, the well-known Canada goose is nearly ubiquitous. That’s not always been the case. For instance, in his book “The Birds of Northeast Tennessee,” Rick Knight points out that the geese now present throughout the year resulted from stocking programs conducted in the 1970s and 1980s. In earlier decades, the Canada goose was considered a rare winter visitor to the region.

Seeing the Canada goose in every sort of habitat from golf courses to grassy margins along city walking trails, it’s hard to imagine a time when this goose wasn’t one of the region’s most common waterfowl.

The world’s geese are not as numerous as ducks, but there are still about 20 species of geese worldwide, compared to about 120 species of ducks. While both ducks and geese are lumped together as waterfowl, most geese are more terrestrial than ducks. Birders are just as likely to spot geese in a pasture or on the greens of a golf course as they are on a lake or pond.

There have been several species of geese usually considered rare to uncommon in the region that have been spotted by birders thus far this winter season. I personally observed greater white-fronted geese at several different locations in November and December.

The greater white-fronted goose is considerably smaller than a Canada goose. The bird is named for the distinctive white band found at the base of its bill. This white band also helps distinguish this goose from similar domestic geese. The sexes are similar in appearance, but females are usually smaller than males. The head, neck and upper back of white-fronted geese are grayish-brown. The lower back and rump are dark brown, and the tail is dark brown and edged with white. The chest and breast are grayish with dark brown to black blotches and bars on the breast, giving this goose the nickname “specklebelly.” The bill is pinkish and the legs and feet are orange.

The greater white-fronted goose breeds in North America as well as in Europe and Asia, and they spend the winter throughout the United States and even in Japan. Most nesting in North America takes place on the North Slope of Alaska and across the western and central Canadian Arctic. Wintering habitats include coastal marshes, wet fields and and freshwater wetlands.

Only a couple of weeks ago, I spotted a snow goose at the fish pond located at Erwin Fishery Park. The snow goose is a North American goose known for its white plumage that gives the bird its common name; however, the snow goose actually comes in two versions: the white phase and a blue phase, which is often referred to as a “blue goose.”

The snow goose breeds in regions in the far north, including Alaska, Canada, Greenland and even the northeastern tip of Siberia. They may spend the winter as far south as Texas and Mexico, although some will migrate no farther than southwestern British Columbia in Canada.

The snow goose bucks the trends that show many species of waterfowl declining. Recent surveys show that the population of the snow goose exceeds five million birds, which is an increase of more than 300 percent since the mid-1970s. In fact, this goose is thriving to such a degree that the large population has begun to inflict damage on its breeding habitat in some tundra regions.

A smaller relative to the snow goose is the Ross’s goose, which for all practical purposes looks like a snow goose in miniature. The common name of this goose honors Bernard R. Ross, who was associated with the Hudson’s Bay Company in Canada’s Northwest Territories.

Here’s a quick history lesson. Hudson’s Bay Company is the oldest commercial corporation in North America. The company has been in continuous operation for more than 340 years, which ranks it as one of the oldest in the world. The company began as a fur-trading enterprise, thanks to an English royal charter back in 1670 during the reign of King Charles II. These days, Hudson’s Bay Company owns and operates retail stores throughout Canada and the United States.

In addition to his trade in furs, Ross collected specimens for the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. Ross is responsible for giving the goose that now bears his name one of its early common names – the Horned Wavy Goose of Hearne. I wonder why that never caught on?

Ross repeatedly insisted that this small goose was a species distinct from the related and larger lesser snow goose and greater snow goose. His vouching for this small white goose eventually convinced other experts that this bird was indeed its own species.

Ross was born in Ireland in 1827. He died in Toronto, Ontario, in 1874. He was described by other prominent early naturalists as “enthusiastic” and “a careful observer” in the employ of Hudson’s Bay Company. When John Cassin gave the Ross’s Goose its first scientific name of Anser rossii in 1861, he paid tribute to the Hudson’s Bay Company’s Ross.

The Ross’s goose has a “cuteness” factor working in its favor. For a goose, it is rather small. It could best be described as a snow goose in miniature. In fact, it isn’t much larger than such ducks as mallards and is considered the smallest of North America’s geese.

The Ross’s goose has also acquired some other common names, including “galoot” and “scabby-nosed wavey.” This latter name was inspired by the bird’s bill, which is covered with rough bumps around the base. I have to admit that “scabby-nosed wavey” is a name likely to stick in the memory. Today, the Ross’s goose’s scientific name is Chen rossii.

Other geese found worldwide include the pink-footed goose, bar-headed goose, emperor goose, red-breasted goose and barnacle goose.

So, does this inspire you to try a wild goose chase of your own? If it does, best of luck in your efforts.


To learn more about birds and other topics from the natural world, friend Stevens on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/ahoodedwarbler. If you have a question, wish to make a comment or share a sighting, email ahoodedwarbler@aol.com.

Library Happenings – Next genealogy workshop to be held Feb. 8

By Angie Georgeff

When I was a senior in high school, I was chosen to receive the DAR Good Citizen Award.  I didn’t know much about the Daughters of the American Revolution, but I learned more about the organization at the luncheon when the award was presented. I knew about my great, great grandparents who lived during the Civil War, but I marveled that anyone could know about ancestors who had lived more than 200 years ago. I asked my mother, who had accompanied me, “Where on earth would you find that kind of information?” She had no idea.

Years passed before I actively sought the answers, but now I know more about my ancestors than I had ever dreamed possible. I discovered my own Patriots of the American Revolution, along with farmers, ministers, teachers, blacksmiths, silversmiths, coopers, distillers and saddlers. What’s more, I learned about foremothers who led remarkable lives, conducting business on their own behalf beyond the shade of their husbands. I hadn’t expected to find that.

If you would like to begin – or continue – a journey to discover your roots, join us for a genealogy workshop at 6 p.m. on Thursday, Feb. 8. We’ll talk about how to begin, search strategies and some of the resources available here at the library, on the Internet and in courthouses and archives.  Since space is limited, please call 743-6533 to register.

Mardi Gras

As people who live along the Gulf Coasts of Alabama and Mississippi are swift to point out, New Orleans is not the only place to celebrate Mardi Gras. Mobile’s celebration proudly claims to be the oldest, dating back to 1703, just one year after the city was founded as the capital of French Louisiana.

I experienced my first Mardi Gras in the “sleepy little town of Pascagoula,” Mississippi. Yes, that is the town where “the squirrel went berserk” in the Ray Stevens song Mississippi Squirrel Revival. I caught bags full of beads, doubloons, candy and Moon Pies that were being tossed from cars and floats on the Saturday before Mardi Gras. In this instance, the squirrels just dodged the incoming fire, since not every strand of beads that went up came down to earth again.  For months afterward, beads festooned the live oaks along the parade route as a gleaming counterpoint to the Spanish moss.

Now the schools in that district close for three days so students can travel to Mobile, Biloxi or New Orleans for even larger parades than P’goula’s and then recuperate on Ash Wednesday. If you would like a taste of Mardi Gras to take the chill off February, come to the library at any time on Tuesday, Feb. 13, and see what you can catch!