Thicket Birds

Please consider all images to be copyrighted and ask permission to use any of them. Thank you. DEClapp

Winter is a difficult time for all sorts of creatures. Insects lay eggs and the adults die, some will over winter but usually just an egg-rich female. Many birds migrate south to locations where the winter weather doesn’t kill their food supply. Some mammals hibernate and most really slow down. There are many birds that stay here in the north and these birds need to burn food to stay warm, find food to burn, find water, find shelter, and avoid predators. Winter isn’t easy.

Many of the wintering birds here can lose up to 10% of their body weight overnight. It is being discovered that many species can droop the body temperature significantly in an effort to lower demands on the metabolism. Hummingbirds can do this on chilly nights in the summer. The birds that come to feeders in the winter are adults. Most of our smallish and medium sized baby birds are pretty much grown and on their own within a couple weeks of leaving the nest. So the need for protein lessens. That is why most bird food is fatty or oily. Bird seed is thistle, sunflower, millet, or corn. There are either carbohydrates or oils or a mixture. Birds need this sort of food for metabolic control; growth has been accomplished and winter is a time for maintenance.

Feeders and thickets are where we find our small birds in the winter. The thickets often hold seeds and fruits well into the winter. Non-native plants like privet and oriental bittersweet are fed on by birds as are the native hollies and dogwoods. Poison ivy and bayberry are usually eaten earlier in the season but may persist into each new year. The thickets also provide cover from predators and a dense swath of vegetation to shed the wind. There is a rather pacific microclimate deep in a thicket.

The bird in the header image is a Black-capped Chickadee. This is a world-wide group of birds with many types in North America and even more in Europe and Asia. They seem tame and bold. A rather remarkable combination for a small bird. They are a very common bird of our woodlands and utilize thickets in the winter for cover and a place to glean overwintering insects and insect eggs.

We have a lot of Song Sparrows out here. Every thicket or brushy area has a few. In fall migration there can be a dozen or two in a one acre garden. As winter sets in and the days pass there are fewer and fewer, but still many can be seen in a days outing. The numbers drop (we like to think) because the birds head south as the food supply diminishes. Snow and ice storms probably kill a good number of these small birds each year.
If you own an eider down jacket you understand this picture. A fluffed up layer of feathers is very warm. Many birds develop a thicker layer of feathers in the winter. Polarloft and other manmade insulating materials that we insert in our hats, gloves, jackets, and boots is based on the shape and function of filoplume feathers. Incidentally eider down is taken from the nests of the Common Eider. Because the nest material is from the breast and belly feathers of a female eider, the down material (if real) should be a rather dingy brown color.
We have a rather surprising number of small birds that winter here in the cold of New England. The sparrows, the titmouses, the chickadees, wrens, and goldfinches are all small and light. The Song Sparrow weighs just over half an ounce and the others are all two-to-the-ounce at a minimum. This bright fellow above is a winter plumaged Yellow-rumped Warbler, a bird that nests well to our north in the Canadian boreal forest. In breeding plumage it has rich yellow and ebony black and is quite striking. The yellow rump is present year round.
This is a Purple Finch; in many places the more common House Finch is the most likely bird to pop out of a thicket. But this is a winter visitor here and maybe deserves a bit of air time. The red head and thick neck and bill make this bird distinguishable by silhouette.
You probably could mail three Red-breasted Nuthatches with a single one-ounce stamp. There are White-breasted and Red-breasted Nuthatches and the white-breasted may be the most common overall. But Cape Cod is rich in pine forests (Pitch Pine mostly) and the Red-breasted Nuthatch seems to really enjoy these woodlands. Most of the Cape has been managed at some point in the last century and the pines and thickets are often adjacent. And, the Red-breasted Nuthatch is a regular bird in the thickets as well as the pines.
When birding winter thickets we hope to see maybe a Dickcissel or an Eastern Towhee, or a Gray Catbird. These are not common winter birds but we are always looking. The Gray Catbird is a very common nesting bird in our summer but not so usual in the cold weather.
The male Northern Cardinal is really striking. They are thicket birds year round and do very well here in the winter even though the species is a relatively new bird this far north. It may be rather new here in the northeast but it has been common in the central part of the country for quite a while. It is the State Bird of Indiana, Illinois, and Ohio; none of them are particularly southern states. It is also the State Bird of the more southerly states of West Virginia, Virginia, North Carolina and Kentucky.
Lastly I wanted to put in an image that demonstrates a bit of interesting behavior. These Eastern Bluebirds are wintering in the area and are big fans of meal worms as winter food but will also eat hulled sunflower. So, here are two Eastern Bluebirds sitting on a hulled sunflower feeder tray with the beaks pointing skyward. They sat like this for several minutes after a Cooper’s Hawk passed by. Lots of animals stay motionless in order to remain unseen and thus unchased or uneaten. This behavior is quite common in birds but is also seen in rabbits and other mammals. As a birder and naturalist I can attest that it is motion that draws the eye.

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