The year is only 12 days old, and I have 38 species of birds on my year list already. That being said, I’m still on the fence about trying for another “big year” of 200 or more species in Northeast Tennessee. I’m keeping track of them for now, and we will see how things proceed.
I started off on the first day of January with a modest attempt to put together an impressive New Year’s Day list of birds and managed to achieve a tally of 32 species by the end of the day. I found several of my New Year’s Day birds at home, but I also visited the fish pond at Erwin Fishery Park.
One of the most unusual observations of the day took place as I drove along Interstate 26 and saw two Wild Turkeys perched on the upper branches of a tree along the road. My brain tried to identify the turkeys as hawks, eagles or vultures before the true identity of the large birds dawned on me. All this took place as I drove past at about 55 miles per hour, which made photographs impossible.
I was birding in Unicoi County with my mother, and we also enjoyed seeing a soaring Common Raven, a pair of Red-tailed Hawks perched in a single tree and various waterfowl at the park pond, including a pair of Northern Shovelers, a Gadwall, Mallards and Canada Geese. Our visit to Fishery Park also produced sightings of a Northern Flicker, Yellow-rumped Warblers, Killdeers, Great Blue Heron and a Northern Mockingbird.
The other species we found on Jan. 1, 2014, included Blue Jay, Northern Cardinal, Carolina Wren, American Crow, Song Sparrow, Carolina Chickadee, Tufted Titmouse, Rock Pigeon, European Starling, American Robin, American Goldfinch, White-breasted Nuthatch, Mourning Dove, Turkey Vulture, Eastern Towhee, Downy Woodpecker, Red-bellied Woodpecker, Pileated Woodpecker, White-throated Sparrow and Eastern Bluebird.
We birded on a gloriously beautiful day on Jan. 1, unaware that everything would soon change.
The second day of the year added only one additional species, a Pied-billed Grebe I spotted on the Watauga River. On Jan. 3, I added Dark-eyed Junco and Cooper’s Hawk.
On Sunday, Jan. 5, I made my first trip of the new year to Wilbur Lake, where I added Bufflehead and Belted Kingfisher. I also visited the Watauga Lake Overlook and added Ring-billed Gull.
I enjoyed the mild temperatures on Sunday afternoon ahead of the rain and, after that, the shocking deep freeze that plunged the region into temperatures in the negative territory.
From Monday, Jan. 6, to Wednesday, Jan. 8, the region saw some low temperatures that broke records set decades ago. When the wind was blowing, it was definitely uncomfortable to remain outdoors for long. So, imagine the many wild birds with no choice but to endure the blast of Arctic air that arrived from the north this past week. Birds are always exposed to the elements, although feathers are an exceptional form of insulation. In many cases, it’s not simply the cold temperatures that afflict the birds. The snow that arrived with the frigid air covered the ground and tree branches. As temperatures dipped below zero many open sources of water, such as ponds and bird baths, froze. These consequences of the cold snap affected birds by preventing them from easily accessing food and water. I did what I could do to offer a steady supply of food, and the birds that flocked to my feeders responded with enthusiasm for the sunflower seed, suet cakes and shelled, unsalted peanuts that I provided.
A photo of a Northern Cardinal that I took and posted on Facebook prompted a conversation that reminded me I don’t always know everything about birds, including one of my favorites.
Apparently, the Northern Cardinal is a popular good luck symbol, although there are some conditions imposed by the belief that this popular bird can shower us with good fortune.
The Facebook discussion included friends I have in Elizabethton, as well as in the state of Washington and across the world in Great Britain.
My Facebook friend, Stephen Wright, lives in Stourbridge, a large town in the Metropolitan Borough of Dudley, in the West Midlands of England. He posted a question on my Facebook page that read, “I hear if they come to you, it’s supposed to be good luck?”
I know that many birds are regarded as bringing good or, in some cases, bad luck. I wasn’t aware of some of the beliefs associated with one of my favorite birds.
I responded with, “I’ve never actually heard that, Stephen, but I’ll take any good luck they want to bring with them.”
Eddie Townsend, a friend dating back to my high school days and now living in Tacoma, Wash., responded, too. “In reference to Stephen Wright above, I used to hear that if you make a wish before they fly away, it will come true!”
One of my Elizabethton Star co-workers also got into the discussion.
“I have heard all my life, if you make a wish on a red bird before it flies away, your wish will come true,” Patsy Johnson posted on my Facebook page. She also mentioned that she really needed any good luck a cardinal might choose to bring her way.
“The cardinal brightens up the world, especially on a snowy day,” commented Elizabethton resident Sue Farthing.
I liked Sue’s comment. For some of us, that momentary lifting of the spirit is just as welcome as good luck.
Another friend from high school, Dawn Michaels, also commented on my cardinal photo on Facebook.
“I love them, too,” wrote Dawn, who now resides in Lenoir, N.C. “I feed them in my back yard every day, and my grandchildren enjoy them, too.”
I did some online research to learn more about the association of the Northern Cardinal and good luck. Apparently, these beliefs date back to some of the Native American tribes that resided in the southeastern United States prior to European colonization.
In her book, “Birds: Explore the Symbology and Significance of These Divine Winged Messengers,” Arin Murphy-Hiscock wrote that the Cherokee regarded the cardinal as a daughter of the sun, which helped inspire the legend that seeing a cardinal flying upward toward the sun would bring good luck.
With these legends, however, there’s always a catch. If you see a cardinal flying down toward the earth, that is an apparent sign of bad luck to come.
Several states have embraced the Northern Cardinal as their official state bird. In fact, Kentucky — the first state to name an official bird — chose the cardinal back in 1926. Other states that have proclaimed the cardinal as an official state bird include Illinois, Indiana, North Carolina, Ohio, Virginia and West Virginia. No other bird has been recognized by so many states as an official state bird.
What are some other birds associated with good luck? A partial list would include such diverse birds as owls, storks, bluebirds, albatrosses, wrens and doves.
During this recent cold snap, however, I suspect the birds needed more good luck than we did. To help bring some good fortune into their lives, we should provide food consistently. The best all-around food is black-oil sunflower seed, but other food is important, too. Birds that are mostly insect-eaters appreciate protein, which can be offered in the form of suet cakes, peanuts or peanut butter/seed mixtures. The birds that will appreciate these offerings include Carolina Chickadees, Tufted Titmice, Carolina Wren and Downy Woodpecker.
The deep freeze that arrived directly from the Arctic region last week had serious implications for some of our wintering birds. I’ll try to cover some of those consequences in next week’s column.
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