Photograph by Joe Mac Hudspeth, Jr. · www.southernfocus.com
Delta Fauna: Birds of Winter
The American Goldfinch is a year round resident for some parts of Mississippi. However the late fall/early winter migration of this “wild canary” are easily noticed. Nonresident birds begin arriving in late November and departing as early as late March to mid-May for most of the state. The spring/summer plumage of the adult male is bright yellow with black wings, tail and forehead. The wings sport white wing bars while the tail sports white coverts. The female is much drabber in appearance with her grayish green back and dull yellow belly. Both sexes have a bit of white on the rump. Males with winter plumage are duller and resemble the females of summer. They can be frequently seen consuming seeds of sweetgum, ragweed, chickweed and thistle in weedy fields or roadsides. These little weed acrobats are often spotted hanging precariously from vegetation stuffing their beaks, or during their characteristic bouncy flight pattern singing happily. The American Goldfinch will commonly utilize feeders particularly those that offer sunflower and nyjer seed. Nyjer seed is often referred to as “thistle seed” although it is actually the seed of an African yellow daisy. These beautiful little finches nest later in the year than most birds in order to coincide with the timing of forage plants going to seed. The American Goldfinch is almost exclusively vegetarian as seeds make up the majority of diet. Only inadvertent invertebrates are consumed. This dietary preference works out quite well for this species as they often share the same habitat of the nest parasitic species the Brown-headed Cowbird. Although cowbirds parasitize nests of the American Goldfinch, cowbird chicks don’t usually live due to the lack of being able to sustain themselves on a diet composed heavily of seeds.
The Dark-eyed Junco is one of the most common birds of North America. This slate colored sparrow with his pink bill and legs is often the bird you see foraging on the ground under your feeder during winter. Once called the Slate-colored Junco, the body is slate or grayish with a white belly and white outer tail feathers. The white tail feathers are easily noticed as they are flashed during flight. Usually seen in small flocks, the Dark-eyed Junco begins arriving in mid-October and departs in early April. Quite often they begin arriving during the same time as the first White-throated sparrows appear. Although this species will utilize feeders, they prefer to hop around consuming seed that has been kicked out by other birds. These handsome little birds are most abundant during extremely cold weather earning the moniker of “snow birds” due to the observed behavior of moving ahead of icy or snowy conditions.
The Yellow-bellied Sapsucker wins the prize of having the most fun name to pronounce. Very few people realize that the source of the concentric holes around limbs and trunks we notice while enjoying time spent in the woods is due to this little woodpecker. These unique woodpeckers begin arriving in early October and are gone by early May. Sometimes called the Yellow-bellied woodpecker, these birds are a pleasure to watch. The body is adorned in black and white barring with a black chest shield and white to yellow underparts. The head is adorned with bold black and white stripes with a red forehead. Males of the species have red throats while the females do not. Often confused with Hairy and Downey woodpeckers, the red patch on the forehead gives this species away. Hairy and Downey woodpeckers both have red on the back of the head not the crown or throat. Although feeding on occasional berries of hollies and poison ivy, this species peculiar eating habits earn its name. Sapsuckers drill holes or “sap wells” in softer bark trees and feed on the sap. A specialized brush tipped tongue aids in this foraging behavior. Occasionally the inadvertent invertebrates attracted to the leaking sap are consumed as well. Other animals utilize the sap provided by this species also, hummingbirds and bats have been documented feeding at the unoccupied sap wells. The Yellow-bellied Sapsucker is relatively easy to find, just look in coniferous or hardwood forest and listen for their loud “mewing” sounds as well as the distinctive stuttering pattern of their drumming.
Bryan Fedrick is a wildlife and fisheries biologist for the Mississippi Army National Guard. He holds degrees in wildlife science, forestry and environmental science. He is a certified burn manager, herpetology field associate with the Mississippi Museum of Natural Science, certified trapper with the Fur Takers of America as well as an avid outdoorsman. He resides in Clinton, MS with his wife Megan.