The Nature Writers of Texas

The best nature writing from the newspaper, magazine, blog and book authors of the Lone Star State . . .

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Our Tiny Birds of Winter
by Ro Wauer

I am never sure that our winter season has really begun until some of our smallest winter-only songbirds have returned. But they now are back, and they are consuming their share of birdseed and enjoying the birdbaths. The principle species that I refer to include ruby-crowned kinglets, house wrens, orange-crowned and yellow-rumped warblers, and chipping sparrows. The slightly larger winter-only species, such as eastern phoebes and robins, don’t qualify.

Of all the tiny winter birds, the most common is the chipping sparrow, a rather nondescript species with a reddish-brown back and gray underparts. Adults also possess a reddish cap and white eyelines. Anyone who offers birdseed to our wintertime species is sure to know this little sparrow. They usually occur in small flocks, and they spend a lot of time feeding on the ground, but they also will take seed from feeders. In fact, of all the wintering songbirds and in spite of their size, chipping sparrows probably consume more seeds than any of the others.

Ruby-crowned kinglets are more widespread in winter, but usually are found alone in the foliage or in brushy areas. These tiny, always nervous birds, are greenish brown with white eyerings. They also possess a red crown that is seldom obvious. When agitated, they can elevate their red crown patch. Ruby-crowns never feed on birdseed, but spend their time foraging among the foliage in search of tiny insects. And unlike chipping sparrows that are usually silent in winter, ruby-crowned kinglets often give je-dee call notes.

Maybe one of our most common wintering songbirds, but one that is the shyest and seldom seen, is the house wren. Yet, almost every patch of brush can possess a house wren in winter. It is even less colorful than the chipping sparrow and ruby-crowned kinglet. About half the size of our full-time resident Carolina wren, the house wren is a buffy-colored little bird with a very short and banded tail. Although it seldom spends much time in the open, birders tally a surprisingly high number of house wrens because of their constant call notes. And on especially sunny and pleasant mornings they may even serenade the area with a fast, bubbling song. And like kinglets, house wrens feed almost exclusively on insects that they find in brushy areas.

The two warblers mentioned above – orange-crowned and yellow-rumped – spend most of their time foraging among tree foliage. And in the case of the yellow-rumps, they also will fly-catch, sailing out from high perches in pursuit of a flying insect. Yellow-rumped warblers are easily recognized by their yellow-rump, brownish-green back, and whitish throat.

Orange-crowned warblers also forage for insects among the foliage, but will also search for insects on tree bark and under eaves. They seem to be more opportunistic than most warblers, as I have found them feeding on the peanut-butter and cornmeal mixture that I offer in winter on hanging logs. Again, this wintering warbler is never brightly marked, but has a general olive-green appearance. Their orange crown, like that of the ruby-crowned kinglet, is rarely in evidence. And like chipping sparrows, it is silent throughout its wintertime stay in South Texas.

If there is one similarity among these little wintering birds, it is that all enjoy a good bath. Although their bathtub may only be a depression in a leaf or ground, some individuals seem to bathe more often than others. Maybe the orange-crowned warbler enjoys its bathing time more than the others. A birdbath placed in an outdoor location where it is readily evident from indoors can bring many pleasurable observations all winter long.

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