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Feathered Friends – Birds utilize variety of foraging methods

The cover of the 2020 calendar produced by the Lee and Lois Herndon Chapter of the Tennessee Ornithological Society features a photo of a male scarlet tanager, a bird known for foraging for summer fruits such as cherries and mulberries. To order a calendar, email [email protected] (Contributed photo)

By Bryan Stevens

Watching a chickadee or a nuthatch feed on sunflower seeds at your feeders can be entertaining, but it’s a little misleading to think that the “grab-and-go” method utilized at feeders is the way most birds forage for food. In fact, birds employ a wide array of some rather ingenious methods for making sure they don’t go hungry.

I was reminded of this fact on a recent chilly morning when I observed a flock of black vultures gathered on a neighbor’s lawn. The large, gregarious birds looked slightly out of place considering the neatly trimmed grass and other landscaped features. After watching them for a short time, I noticed that the birds’ attention seemed to be focused on something in a roadside ditch. Sure enough, some roadkill — a mammal of some sort — worked as a lure to draw the dozen or so large birds to the lawn.

Vultures are well-known eaters of carrion, and the region’s two species — turkey vulture and black vulture — are part of nature’s sanitation crew. We might think we could do without their services, but I suspect we would miss their contribution if vultures disappeared from the environment.

Every type of bird fills a specific niche. Some warblers glean caterpillars and other small insects from the undersides of leaves. The belted kingfisher takes its meals from the schools of small fish in streams, creeks and ponds. The pileated woodpecker gouges huge holes into the bark of a tree with its chisel-like bill in pursuit of burrowing insect larvae.

The nation’s official bird, the bald eagle, spends a lot of its food-gathering efforts on catching fish and the occasional duck or coot. In common with the vultures, however, the bald eagle is not at all finicky about scavenging for an occasional meal.

The Eastern phoebe spends much of the warm months devoted to favorite perches. From these vantage points, a phoebe can sally forth and snatch flying insects, demonstrating why it belongs in a family of birds known as the flycatchers.

In the winter season, however, the phoebe gives up this foraging behavior and gleans berries and other available food. The phoebe will even eat the berries of poison ivy without suffering any ill effects.

Other birds, but not actual hawks, practice “hawking,” which is simply catching flying insects in their beaks and consuming the prey while still in flight. Birds that hawk for their meals include swifts, nighthawks and swallows.

Most hawks are ambush predators. Some raptors pick an elevated perch to survey a hunting territory while others may soar far overhead. When the perched raptor — or even one that is soaring — spies potential prey, it can swoop onto the victim often before the creature recognizes the danger.

Group’s 2020 Bird Calendar on Sale

The Lee & Lois Herndon Chapter of Tennessee Ornithological Society is selling its 2020 calendar for $15 each. All proceeds are used to support birding opportunities and bird-related causes in Northeast Tennessee.

The calendar’s pages feature more than 80 full-color photographs of area birds taken by club members, including common favorites and some not-so-common visitors.

The front cover features a stunning photograph of a vibrant male scarlet tanager.

The chapter has produced a yearly calendar since 2011. Other birds featured on past covers have included white-breasted nuthatch, rose-breasted grosbeak, prairie warbler, Blackburnian warbler, Canada warbler, Cape May warbler and chestnut-backed chickadee.

If you’re interested in obtaining a calendar, contact [email protected] by email or send a message via Facebook at

Calendars can be mailed to any destination in the United States for an additional charge of $2 for shipping and postage.