better birding and fascinating sparrows, with kathryn schneider

FOR A LOT OF US GARDENERS, our connection to birds perhaps started with, or maybe even still centers on, putting up the bird feeder. Kathryn Schneider wants to nurture us to move from birdwatcher to birder, and her new book tells us how.

Kathryn is past president of the New York State Ornithological Association, has directed New York’s Natural Heritage Program, and conducted bird surveys for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Her new book is “Birding the Hudson Valley”–you can enter to win a copy in the comment box at the bottom of the page–and she’s also one of us, a gardener.

We talked about some things you probably didn’t know about sparrows (including the white-throated, above; photo from Cephas at Wikipedia), plus things you can do to up your birding game, and more.

Read along as you listen to the Oct. 15, 2018 edition of my public-radio show and podcast using the player below. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).

be a better birder, with kathryn schneider



Q. Congratulations on the new book. I was so glad to find it at my local bookstore, and it’s so much more than the title even lets on, isn’t it?

A. Well, I hope so.

Q. And it’s a labor of love obviously, from a life that has been enriched by birds. You’ve been loving birds a long time, yes?

A. Yes. I grew up in a family that was very interested in nature. My mom was a birdwatcher and I guess I started my formal interest in birds when I was in college, but I’ve been birding a long time.

Q. Well, I mean, in the book you do give us sort of the how-to for feeding birds, and the safety tips for their safety, where to site feeders and where not to, and what seed has the widest appeal. You give us those things, but then you quickly say, “Bird feeders attract only a limited clientele.” And that’s the truth, huh?

A. Yes. There’s some birds you’ll never see at a bird feeder. If you want to see more interesting birds, you need to move beyond the feeder.

Q. Yes. And so I guess that’s sort of the beginning of the invocation to go from birdwatcher at the winter window sill, to a person with binoculars—a birder, huh?

A. Yes. I’m often surprised how many people that watch birds at a feeder don’t even use binoculars, and you can even learn more about birds with binoculars at a feeder, but going out and going birding will get you into much more interesting things for birds.

Q. You open the book with a sort of brief geological history of the area where you and I both live, but this would be true whatever region this book was about, which we’re in the Hudson Valley of New York. What does the geological history of a place, any place, have to do with birding, with birds? Why did you do that?

A. Well, I was trying to set the stage for the world in which birds live, and the Hudson Valley is not natural any more. It’s been inhabited for more than 400 years by [post-colonial] human beings, and we’ve changed it a lot. I wanted people to understand, to try and get a picture of what the Hudson Valley might have been like before man was here, and see how the birds might have evolved in that kind of a situation, and how the things we did to change the Hudson Valley would affect the distribution of birds.

Q. It was very interesting. I didn’t expect it, and I didn’t know much of it, so it was very helpful and provocative, really. It’s funny, one of the other things you say in the book is, “Find the food, find the bird,” and again, there you don’t mean put up the bird feeder and look out the window, right? [Laughter.]

A. No, I’m just always struck by birds. Birds are finely tuned machines. Flying is a very energetically expensive way to get around, so they need a lot of food to fuel their high metabolism. Food is really important, and food drives most of what birds do. There’s a seasonality to their cycle. They can’t for example, replace their feathers and nest at the same time, because those are energetically expensive things to do, so food is critical, and especially in winter. If you know where they’re actually finding food, then you can often find birds. It pays to pay attention to what they’re eating.

Q. Right now where you and I live in the Northeast, we’re in fall, well, everywhere I guess in this hemisphere is in the fall, and so what’s going on? What kind of foodstuffs? Some birds are still moving through, migrating, others are coming to their winter haunts. What’s the food that they’re following? What’s going on now?

A. Well, the insects are starting to wind down. During the breeding season birds need insects. Insects are high in protein so they’ll feed their babies insects, but the adults often eat other things. Now that the babies are out of the next, they’re turning to things like fruits, for example, the fruits are ripening. Many of the birds that are passage migrants, ones that are going through here now, are stripping the plants of things like dogwood berries, and sumac, and cherries, and grapes. Those are the first foods to get eaten.

And then, as the season goes on, there’s seeds that are available, and many of the sparrows eat seeds so those kinds of foods are being eaten. Even later, some of the more durable fruits like poison ivy berries, for example, which are a favorite, and things like crabapples, for example. Crabapples actually improve in quality after they’ve frozen a few times, so some of the later things come and see the birds all the way through the winter.

Q. Of course, that’s why in my garden where I have a lot of crabapples and I have a lot winterberry hollies, and certain types of fruits, why I see birds that are attracted to those specific things at particular times, and sometimes in large numbers. I don’t necessarily have big flocks of bird in the garden regularly, but at certain moments, like when the hollies are prime, in swoops … well, you know who. I don’t even have to say, “Guess,” because you know who swoops in for things like that, right? [Laughter.]

A. Well, I know cardinals love them, among other things.

Q. They do. The waxwings they are crazy for them. [Above, waxwing on rose hips; photo by Alan W. Wells.]

A. Mm-hmm.

Q. Yes, yes, yes. You said something about seeds, and speaking about finding the food, the last few October mornings I’ve had maybe, maybe seven or eight white-throated sparrows feeding on a sort of weedy patch of I don’t know, it’s not lawn it’s weedy lawn, not far from one window in my house, and there seemed to be a lot of sparrows around. It’s almost like suddenly you see a lot of sparrows again as the fall evolves. Is that a thing? Why is that?

A. Well, it definitely is. Some of the sparrows are migratory. We have sparrows that are here year-round, but there are sparrows that live north of us that pass through our area on their way farther south for the winter. White-throats spend their summers on the tops of mountains and farther north from here, they live in generally colder climates, so there’s a whole progression of sparrows that comes through in the fall. We usually see Lincoln’s sparrow and vesper sparrows first, and then the white-throats and the white-crowned sparrows start to come in, and later on juncos, and finally American tree sparrows.

There’s a whole progression, and pretty much the white-throats—some sparrows are here year-round, at least some of them, but white-throats come in and then disappear in the spring when they go back to their breeding grounds. [White-crowned sparrow, above; photo by Carena M. Pooth.]

Juncos are here for the winter, but then they also will go back to their breeding groups, and the tree sparrows come from far, far north, and they’re basically replaced by chipping sparrows, which have left already for the winter.

Q. It’s funny you said juncos, and I think a lot of people might not know that juncos are a sparrow, yes?

A. They’re related to sparrows, yes. This is the taxonomy of sparrows is really changing almost daily, but they are seed-eating birds, yes.

Q. Yes, so they’re cousins or whatever.

A. Right, right.

Q. At this time of year, in October, I’m always—being in the Northeast—I’m waiting to see the juncos, because I feel they’re the announcement that it is feeder season is almost upon us, and  the winter visitors are going to congregate. Do you know what I mean?

A. Yes, I do.

Q. Because they come in a group, they come in bigger numbers, yes?

A. They’re just starting to come in now, people are starting to see their very first juncos of the season. But yes, the feeders are filled by white-throated sparrows and juncos most of my winter here.

Q. Yes, and you were saying other sparrows in progression order, were you talking about … Wait, in can’t remember now. In the fall or the spring, the progression that you were saying. Because I think of, for instance, just when the weather is starting to warm up in the spring, I see fox sparrows which are so distinctive looking, they’re like a cinnamon-y color as opposed to a drabber brown or grayish, you know?

A. They’re among my favorite sparrows. They’re so pretty, and in the spring they often sing. We see a lot more in the spring than we do in the fall, but yes, they migrate through on their way north.

Q. I see them for a little while and then not again. So tell us about that because some birds, a lot of people say, “The robins are back,” but the robins didn’t go to the tropics for the winter. And these sparrows, some of them we were talking about migrating but not necessarily tropical migration. Tell us a little bit about resident, partial migrant, migrant, do you know what I mean?

A. Yes. Bird have different strategies for making it through life. Some birds are truly residents, they stay here year-round. Other birds, the populations are partially migratory. The northern populations might actually pass over us and go farther south because it’s too difficult to make it through the winter, way up in Canada, for example. So sometimes we have partial migrants.

And then we have birds who are called neotropical migrants, these are ones that basically clear completely out of our area and go all the way to South America for the winter. These are things like our warblers, for examples. Warblers are primarily insect-eating birds, and they just cannot make it through the winter here, so they clear out and go all the way south to South America and come back in the spring when food is available. [Above, yellow-rumped warbler eating poison ivy berries; photo by Deborah Tracy Kral.]

Q. Right. There are these different strategies. But when I, for instance, take down the feeders around the end of March when Mr. and Mrs. Bear come out and would like to destroy the feeders [laughter], when I do that I may not see so many, for instance, just goldfinches as I would see in the winter, where I’d see large numbers of them. But that doesn’t mean that they’ve gone to another continent or something, right?

A. Oh no, the robins, for example, are here all winter. They may not be the ones that bred here, but there are robins that are here all winter. They may be ones from farther north, but they are eating fruit in the woods and no one sees them much in winter because of that-

Q. Exactly.

A. But I think of spring when I see a robin on the lawn, because then you know he’s looking for worms and the ground is starting to thaw.

Q. Right. Back to sparrows just for a second, because for so many years, and I’m more of a birdwatcher probably right on the cusp of a birder, I’m an advanced intermediate or something like that. Or not an advanced intermediate, maybe I’m an intermediate beginner [laughter], an advanced beginner I don’t know, something like that.

But anyway, for many years I would mark down, first on paper in a notebook and then, eventually, as technology changed on things like eBird.org, the virtual database spreadsheet that we can put our bird counts in and so forth, and every time I’d see a sparrow—I’d diligently get everybody else as correct as I could, but with sparrows I’d just sort of say, “sparrow.”

A. [Laughter.] Yes, little brown jobbers. We call them LBJs-

Q. [Laughter.] Little brown-

A. … little brown jobbers. That is something to work on. Sparrows are easily identifiable if you know what to look for and you know what to expect. There are some immatures, for example, that are more challenging than others, but it’s worth it to take the time to actually note the field marks and figure out what birds should be in your area at a particular season. That narrows the choices down dramatically.

Q. Yes, and it was really a good exercise, and by no means can I identify all the ones you named, nor have I seen all the ones you have named, but because I tend to do my birding mostly in my garden and in the surrounding area where I live. But what I was able to do was meet maybe five or six kinds for sure. Do you know what I mean?

A. Yup.

Q. And know who those were, and that gave me a lesson for how to approach a lot of things, including … I was laughing the other day to learn from a botanist friend who visited, I thought I had this one type of goldenrod up in my unmown meadow above my house. And I said, very expert-sounding, I said, “Well, I have just Canada goldenrod up there with the little bluestem, blah, blah, blah,” and I probably used the Latin names.

She went up there, she didn’t say a thing, and then she walked up there and about five minutes later she comes back, she goes, “Margaret, you don’t have Canada goldenrod, but you have five other species.”

A. Right. [Laughter.]

Q. It was the sparrow thing, do you know what I mean? I’d called it, quote, “goldenrod” like it was a generic thing, and not really looked carefully, right? [Laughter.]

A. Right, right.

Q. Are there favorite birds, groups of birds or species of birds, or birds that you’ve followed in your career especially?

A. Everyone always asks me if I have a favorite bird, and I have to say that I go through phases where I like some birds better than others, but I think one thing that just stayed with me is I’ve become attached to the birds that I’ve studied professionally, or written papers on, because I feel like I know those birds, I know things about those birds that other people don’t know. I studied red-bellied woodpeckers, and I’ve studied white-throated sparrows, and I’ve studied short-eared owls, and did some research on all of these.

White-throated sparrows, they’re just little brown birds, but they are fascinating in so many ways. They have dominance hierarchies in winter, and they come in two forms, what we call a polymorphic species. They have two different forms.

There are tan-striped birds and there are white-striped birds, and what’s interesting about these two different forms is that they mate with each other, so the white-striped males always mate with the tan-striped females, and vice versa. And now we even know that genes that are attached to the white-striped head color affect their behavior. So, for example, the white-striped bird is slightly more aggressive than the tan-striped bird, and the tan-striped birds do better parental care. So by doing this disassortative mating, where they choose the opposite color morph, they actually get the best kind of care for raising their young.

Q. Wow, I didn’t know that. Now, I have noted that there are the white-striped and the tan-striped heads, and it befuddles me sometimes when I’m first looking at them and I have to get my book, and look, and you know what I mean? Because I’m, “What’s that sparrow?” [Laughter.] And then remember that, but I didn’t know that it actually correlated to other behavioral traits or whatever.

A. Yes, it’s amazing what they’re finding out these days when they look into the details of polymorphisms.

Q. And red-bellied woodpeckers, I love them. They’re just a vivacious and fresh-looking bird when they show up in the winter at the feeder, or wherever I see them. What about them?

A. Well, they’re just beautiful birds for starters, but the work that I did with Jeremy Kirchman at the New York State Museum—I took a sabbatical from my teaching responsibilities and worked on red-bellied woodpeckers for a year. What we found out is that the birds were extending their range. They are actually a southern species, so they’ve only started to … They’re just getting into Maine now, but they’ve spread north into New York and become much, much more common over time.

We were looking at the characteristics of the birds that were moving north. Were they larger birds? Were they males? Were they females? Who were the pioneers? And we were able to actually track their movement north over a period of time. This may be related to climate change, but it may be related to their ability to survive the winter as well, so those are the kinds of things that we were interested in.

Q. That’s funny, I was yesterday just looking up at the sky, there were a lot of turkey vultures moving overhead, and then I saw some black vultures and I thought, “There’s another one,” you’re saying extended its range of bird that was thought to be a “southern” bird or whatever, and we see more of them in recent, I don’t know if it’s decades or years, but …

A. Well, certainly they’ve been moving north in just the last 20 years or so. [Black vultures, above; photo by Deborah Tracy Kral.]

Q. Yes.

A. I think the first breeding records in New York were only 25 to 30 years ago, they were very, very rare. But this is interesting, because black vultures are generally not migratory so, as they extend their range, they’re going to be here in winter, whereas our turkey vultures go south for the winter.

Q. Oh wow, I didn’t know that. Oh wonderful, oh great, because I love vultures [laughter]. I want to take the last, we have maybe five minutes or so left, and I really want to … You’re very connected to other birders, you don’t just do this all alone, and you mention in the book some tactics, whether it’s apps, or joining clubs, or things like eBird like I mentioned. When you birders, who know one another discover something special you don’t keep a secret, do you? You share it, don’t you?

A. No, birding is so much more fun when you share it with other people. So when we find a special bird we try to let everyone else know so that they can see it, too. This is somewhat tied to the listing—birders like to keep lists of all the birds they’ve seen, but-

Q. Yes you do, don’t you? [Laughter.]

A. Yes we do, we like to keep an inventory. But we share the information, there are bird clubs, there are list-serves, there are apps that people use to share information.

For example, there’s been a scissor-tailed flycatcher that’s been hanging out in Guilderland, NY, for the last week or so. This is a bird that belongs in Texas or Oklahoma, and it’s made its way to New York. They have a history of vagrancy, they turn up in odd places from time to time. But this is a truly beautiful bird. It has a tail almost as long as its body, and the word went out that that bird was there, I went up there yesterday and actually saw it. Other people were there. I met a guy from Long Island who I hadn’t seen in 30 years, and he was there, too, to see the scissor-tailed flycatcher, so it was great. [Photo from U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, via Wikipedia.]

Q. That’s great. You mentioned apps, are there any that you, for some of us who are working to move from birdwatcher to birder, any that you want to throw out there that we should look at?

A. Well, I would suggest that people that are interested in learning more about birds, get involved with bird clubs. There are opportunities to go birdwatching. There are many, many bird clubs in the Hudson Valley, the Hudson-Mohawk Bird Club, the Alan Devoe Bird Club are around here, and they almost always have field trips where people are welcome, whether they’re members of the club or not. This is an opportunity to go birdwatching with people who know birds better than you, and it is by far the best way to learn. I owe most of my birding abilities to where other people were willing to teach me.

In terms of apps, I would suggest looking at list-serves, there are list-serves given in my book, either online mailing lists that will tell you where the birds are, and once you’ve connected there are also text messaging services, which are usually run by the local bird clubs. Once you get connected to the birding community there are many, many ways to learn about birds in your area. [A directory of list-serves from American Birding Association.]

Q.I went on a walk with one of the local groups that you mentioned, and I always feel so intimidated because everybody knows what they’re doing, and they’re all birding by ear. They’re listening, and they’re hearing things that we don’t even see yet. I will say, if we can get over our shyness, those of us who are a little less expert, it is an amazing leap forward. Each time you go you pick up on some tactic or something, or meet a new bird, at least.

A. Yes, birding by ear is another level of birding, but you can often pick up tips from other birders very easily, and I would choose your season. As the leaves comes out on the trees it becomes necessary to bird by ear, because you can’t see the birds very easily anymore and you see about 25 percent or less of what we actually encounter. But birding outside of the leaf season with a bird club is a good way to start.

Q. Well, Kathryn, I’m so happy to speak to you and, again, I’m so grateful for the book, selfishly, since I’m here in the Hudson Valley. But it also is an inspiration about how to become a birder, really, for anyone anywhere, so thank you so much for making the time to talk to me.

A. Oh, you’re very welcome, it was fun.

more on birding and bird feeding

enter to win ‘birding the hudson valley’

I’LL BUY A COPY of “Birding the Hudson Valley” by Kathryn Schneider for one lucky reader. All you have to do to enter is answer this question in the comments box at the bottom of the page:

Do you have a favorite bird or group of birds, and if so, why? (I do love woodpeckers–a good thing, since I live surrounded by a large state park with lots of old, dead and dying trees they enjoy, so there are lots of them here. I love the shy little brown creeper, too.)

No answer or feeling shy? Just say something like “count me in” and I will, but an answer is even better. I’ll pick a random winner when entries close at midnight Tuesday October 23, 2018. Good luck to all. US and Canada only.

prefer the podcast version of the show?

MY WEEKLY public-radio show, rated a “top-5 garden podcast” by “The Guardian” newspaper in the UK, began its ninth year in March 2018. In 2016, the show won three silver medals for excellence from the Garden Writers Association. It’s produced at Robin Hood Radio, the smallest NPR station in the nation. Listen locally in the Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) Mondays at 8:30 AM Eastern, rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. Or play Oct. 15, 2018 show using the player near the top of this transcript. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).

  1. Michele says:

    I love the blue jays. I’m always awed by their coloration. I’ve never seen one be aggressive just big, bold, beautiful and noisy.

  2. Gina says:

    My favorite birds right now are the Carolina Wrens. I have a pair that roost on our porch eaves every night. In the spring they build their nest in either an old watering can, or a hanging plant basket. They are just so cute and perky. In the Spring I am drawn to the bright orange of the Baltimore Orioles, though they do not stay long in our area.

  3. Marie says:

    It’s very hard to choose!!! I’ve always been fond of the little birds and to that end, I’ll say that I love the nut hatches that make their way down the trunks of the 70-foot white pines in my yard, eating insects that live in the bark with their soft, little Beep, beep, beep. Other favs: humming birds, gold finches, chic-chic-chickadees, titmice, wood peckers, cardinals, eastern bluebirds, the cedar waxwings that eat all my strawberries, the huge flock of wild turkeys that make their way through my lawn and eat my crab apples…ok, maybe I’m bird crazy.

  4. Margaret Z. says:

    I am trying out the bird feeders for our pesky landgulls (Pigeons). We do not have squirrels and the pigeons tear up all the feeders and chase the birds off. I will let you know how things go.

  5. Eileen Kelly says:

    We have a family of cardinals nearby, and mockingbirds set up nest in our crepe myrtle. I love the visits from the red-winged blackbirds, and am always pleased when the starlings dot the lawn. But the sparrows are the most constant, at the sunny bird bath and the feeder, along with the house finch.

  6. Rosanne Lutz says:

    I have tried to pass on my love and knowledge of birds to my grandchildren.
    We love the cardinals and how they reach their young how to eat a seed from the feeder!

  7. Tina Knezevic says:

    I love watching all birds while relaxing in our shangri-la pergola but my favorite are the male red cardinals as they are so beautiful and friendly-simply majestic creatures that sing beautiful songs all day long

  8. Margi Haas says:

    My favorite bird here in central Florida on the gulf coast is the Swallow-tailed kite here from February to August. Then it migrates usually over the gulf into Brazil for the winter and then
    back over the gulf in the spring. Such a beautiful elegant flyer! Didn’t know about them until
    I moved here from Manhattan four years ago!

  9. Dagmar Degree says:

    I do also love woodpeckers and was fortunate to see a pair of Pilated Woodpeckers trying to make a home in one of my trees earlier this year. They are huge! From my window I first thought it was a skunk in distress. (The eyes are not what they used to be.)
    But with binaculars and my old book, Birds of America, I was able to identify the pair.
    It was an exciting discovery something I will never forget!
    They eventually gave up making a nest, they apparently dig in the bottom of trees, and went across the street into the park.

  10. Karen Meyer says:

    Bluebirds are fun to watch here in central Ohio, but I can’t figure out how they survive the winter since they eat bugs. Of course they eat other stuff too, I just don’t know what! I have seen the bluebirds come choose their winter birdhouse already,

  11. Betsey says:

    I love raptors, especially hawks, especially the Cornell hawks I watch every spring as they rear their babies from eggs until fledging.

  12. Sally Conant says:

    I enjoy the red poles which are in the finch family They come in flocks and have that lovely dab of “ketchup” on their heads.

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