By: Jim Spencer
What to watch for in July: Patriotic Birds sporting Red, White or Blue
We don’t have a single bird species that sports all three colors of the American flag. However there are some birds that wear patriotic colors, and two of them might even be present at the many neighborhood Fourth of July parades. Keep your eyes open for bright red Northern Cardinals and bright blue and white Blue Jays. There are several strikingly white birds in Austin, particularly two egrets, the Great Egret and the Snowy Egret. Look for them in wetlands, and along the edges of waterways and ponds.
The Northern Cardinal is found all around Austin in our parks, greenbelts and backyards. The male likes to sing from conspicuous song perches, while the female builds their nest. Attract cardinals to your yard by planting native shrubs like mountain laurel, yaupon and possumhaw holly which provide dense cover. At this time of the year it is likely that cardinal pairs are busy raising their second broods.
Blue Jays are easily identifiable birds whose young are fledging now. If you see a fully feathered Blue Jay on the ground that appears to be staying put but uninjured, resist the urge to save it. Chances are it is a young bird just learning how to fly. At this stage of its life the parents are still feeding it, but it is very vulnerable to cats and other predators. Do it and other wildlife a favor and keep your cat indoors.
Great Egrets and Snowy Egrets are wading birds with immaculate all white plumage. The Great Egret is a little over 3 feet tall, and the Snowy is 2 feet tall. If the two are standing in close proximity the size difference is obvious. Look for the large yellow dagger like bill of the Great Egret, as well as its all black legs. The adult Snowy has a black bill, black legs, and bright yellow feet. (The juvenile Snowy Egret’s legs can be two toned – black in front and greenish up the back.)
You may also notice the feeding styles of the two species differ. The Great Egret is often stationary or walks very slowly, before it strikes amazingly quickly to catch prey. According to the Birds of North America Online the Snowy Egret has the widest “behavioral repertoire of all North American Herons. Behaviors include standing, bill-vibrating (tongue-flicking), head-swaying, pecking, walking slowly, walking quickly, running, hopping, leapfrog feeding, wing-flicking, openwing-feeding, underwing-feeding, foot-stirring, foot-raking, foot probing, foot paddling, hovering, hover-stirring, dipping, disturb and chase, and foot-dragging.” In other words, it is very active, sometimes appearing frantic. Watching closely you should be able to see the yellow feet.
When flying, both Great and Snowy Egrets usually fly with their necks coiled. The Great Egret flies with deep wingbeats, about two per second and it has the longer legs. This is not to say that every white bird you see flying is a Snowy or Great Egret. At certain times of the year you may encounter Cattle Egrets (often in fields with cattle), White Ibis, and American White Pelicans. Juvenile Little Blue Herons are inconveniently white too.
Our national symbol, the Bald Eagle, comes to mind when you think of patriotism. Summer is not really their season here in Austin, with most heading to cooler climes for the summer months. Until their return enjoy our red, white and blue birds.