Monday, July 10, 2017

Learning More About Wild Birds

       It is time for more nature stuff for all the master naturalists out there.  If you haven’t paid your money and don’t hold an officially authorized Missouri Department of Conservation Master Naturalist certificate, you can play along here anyway just as an amateur naturalist.  Or you can come and sit on my back porch with me and learn a whole lot and get by with only 50 cents a cup for the coffee.

       Because it is there in the mornings or evenings, as I drink coffee and watch the life go on in and below some 250-year-old oaks, that I learn a little each day.  For instance, just off my back porch a bright red bird spends a lot of time after bugs for his little ones in a nearby nest. He is not a cardinal, and his mate is an entirely different color. Since he is not a cardinal, there is only one other bird he can be.  What is he and what color is his mate.  Answer at the end of this column.

       One of the most plentiful birds here on Lightnin’ Ridge is one of the largest insect eating birds to nest high in the trees, and you almost never can see him.  We know him as the rain crow here in the Ozarks, but his scientific name describes the color of his bill. What is it? Now that ought to be an easy one to figure out.  A rain crow’s loud clucking, which gets faster as it continues, has long been said to be a warning of rain to come, and it is the most reliable of all weather predictions, because I have never heard one, ever, that I did not see rain to follow.  But once it didn’t happen for about three weeks!

       Which is larger, a whip-poor-will or chuck-wills-widow.  Why do they have the hairy looking bristles sticking out of the sides of their open mouths?  And did you know that neither of the birds build a nest.  They just lay eggs on the leafy forest floor, and their eggs are very susceptible to skunks and coons and possums and armadillo’s, four rotten no accounts that eat every egg they can find.  I truly believe that the decline I have seen over the past ten years or so in the numbers of these birds is due to a great increase in the egg-eaters. But a whip-poor-will can move its eggs easily. Any card-carrying master naturalist knows how they do that.  If you don’t see the end of this column.

       It is in late June and early July that you can so easily call up rooster quail if you can whistle like a bobwhite.  I hear one or two every morning around my place, and when I have the inclination I whistle one up to within a few feet of the porch.  I had one so frustrated once that he flew up on the roof and whistled back at me for an hour or so.  Usually though, a comical little rooster will run around in the back yard and finally fly up on a low oak limb, whistling away until I have to leave the porch and go do something else. But he will sit there on that limb while my Labrador runs around in the yard trying to find him. Do you know why a rooster quail will come to your call so readily as summer progresses?  Any top-flight naturalist knows the answer! 
       Back in the depression days their readiness to come running to a call got lots of rooster quail killed.  There were likely four or five times more quail back then, and folks lived off the land in hard times, always hungry.  My grandfather called up the bobwhites back then and shot their heads off with his .22 rifle, sometimes getting a dozen or so in a morning for his family.  Because they were all roosters, and there were so many of them, I doubt that impacted reproduction at all.  Male quail were always able of taking care of a number of hens, just like turkey gobblers, or leghorn roosters.

Sometimes when I talk to a group about nature they have a hard time believing the stories about fish jumping in the boat! Is that story about flying fish landing in a boat just a big tale to fool gullible folks or is it true?

       Well almost every summer, when we float the rivers at night and bang through the shallows with boat paddles splashing and headlamps on, we see it happen. Usually the bass are small, but some are up to 2 pounds or better, and they can leap from the water several feet in the air, distances of more than 10 feet and three feet above the surface. And yes, when I was young and we would go along a small river in a johnboat grabbing frogs with a headlight, we always seemed to take home a bass or two that jumped in the boat before the night was over.

       As for the rooster quail, by this time a good part of the mating season is over and many hens are nesting.  Like wild gobblers, his call is to attract a mate.  It stakes out where he is and that he is unafraid and available. That helps mark a special territory that is his, and any interlopers should expect a fight.  He comes to my call because he figures to whip that rooster he hears and run him off.

       The whip-poor-will often moves its eggs by holding them between her thighs while she flies from one place to another, and those bristles that stick out from the side of the birds beak is for feeding on insects in flight.  If they miss a bug in the air, the bristles may catch it and channel it into the wide, open mouth. The chuck-wills-widow looks very much like the whip-poor-will, but it is a little larger.

    The rain-crow is also known as a yellow-billed-cuckoo and if you get a good look at that bashful tree top dweller, you are fortunate.  It is a beautiful bird, as is the red bird I so often see that isn’t a cardinal.  It is a summer tanager, and while the male is bright red, the female is a subdued yellow color.

       Now you have all the answers, except to how you might get our brand new summer issue of the Lightnin’ Ridge Outdoor Journal magazine.  Concerning that, you may call me at 417 777 5227 and we can get you on our subscription list.   Write to me at Box 22, Bolivar, Mo. 65613 or email me..

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