Being nicknamed “The Bay State” can be a little misleading as Massachusetts, while geographically limited in size, is full of diverse ecosystems that extend far beyond our sandy shorelines. With that said, the beaches that line our eastern seaboard are well worthy of the attention. However, beyond the sand dunes of Cape Cod, there are countless quaint towns such as Lexington or tranquil farmlands of Berkshire County in the west. Lastly, the bustling metropolis of Boston, gives you a little bit of everything wrapped up in a nice tidy package.
Geographically, Massachusetts sits in southern New England and boasts a humid continental climate. This translates into warm, muggy summers and cold, snow winters. As beautiful as those very distinct seasons are, the in between seasons of spring and autumn are fascinating with the transitions they bring.
Spring in Massachusetts is one of extremes. Starting in late march when snow can still be a threat, nature wastes little time. Iris bulbs, tulips and other perennial flowers can be seen breaking through the surface in February and it is not unusual to see a tulip blooming in snow. Once March exits, spring is in full throttle as buds begin appearing everywhere and the barren landscape begins to fill in with a bit more color and definition. The introduction of longer days gives the birds and animals the chance time needed to ensure a new generation is born.
Autumn is of course the opposite of spring. It is when the days grow shorter and migrating species begin to move south for the winter. The amazing site of leaves taking on shades of gold, orange and red is a photographers dream. It also introduces the holiday season which seems to soften the blow of the bleak landscape. However, even with no leaves and cooler temperatures, the natural world continues. Hardy flowers such as marigolds can bloom until the first frost and if protected with a sheet they can hang on until the first snow. Squirrels will be busy hoarding for winter and many birds will lose their vibrant summer colors in favor of seasonal greys and tans. Berries and seeds are still abundant and become a staple for many creatures search high and low.
Winter and summer are both adventures in variety. Although not as dramatic, wild temperature swings should be expected. It is quite common to see a 90 degree day in July followed by one in the 60’s. This isn’t always fun when planning a day at the beach but it keeps things interesting. Winter is no different, as a foot of snow can often lead to several days of melt and then bare ground by the weeks end. Of course this doesn’t help with the shoveling.
Topographically, Massachusetts has lowlands along the Atlantic and Cape Cod Bay that contain long stretches of beaches and sand dunes. The Cape and surrounding islands, including Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard, have more moderate temperatures in the summer and winter. Toward the middle of the state and further out west, the elevations are higher bringing colder temperatures and higher snowfall totals.
The 43 inches of average precipitation are evenly distributed throughout the seasons and keep the threats of drought to a minimum. Many fresh water marshes exist throughout the state, fed from rivers and lakes that feed off this regular moisture. Along the coast, salt water marshes are found from the southern to northern borders provided yet another complex ecosystem.
What does all this equate to when it comes to birds? What relationships do the saltwater marshes, sand dunes, urban parks, tree lined suburban streets, farmlands and harbor islands have on the bird population in Massachusetts? If you find yourself asking any of these questions then this book is for you…
“I like this place and could willingly waste my time in it.”
Nature itself is can appear to overthinking humans as a complicated web of mysteries, especially when viewed from afar. To be fair, it is a completely accurate statement as we there is significantly more learning to be done than what we have learned so far. However, this is not from the view of the creatures living within that world. For our purposes, we are talking about birds!
In order to see the world from their perspective, we need to keep things simple. Leave the drama out of your hobbies and let nature present itself in its purest form. Before long, you will start to see the little personalities of nature’s creatures playing out there simple roles in a beautiful repetition.
Some of the most enjoyable methods of absorbing nature are free to do every day. Taking a walk through your neighborhood, passing empty lots or heavy vegetation will open you to a world you never knew existed. Nearly every bush you pass or tree you look up at, there is a flurry of activity including insects, rodents and birds. It is not necessary to have a bird feeder to witness nature at work. It will however, bring it home to a location you can easily observe. Many of the facts and anecdotes you will soon be exploring are based on the experiences a bird feeder can offer. With little effort, you can have a front row seat to witness this activity.
If you want to make a bit more of an adventure out of your bird watching, take a quick drive away from the developed world and take a hike. Getting off-road and on a trail is perhaps the most challenging. Do yourself a favor and bring this informative and handy guide book for the region to ease the sensory overload!
Once in the thick of a forest, the playing field is vast and hardly resembles the compactness of your backyard. In this environment you need to utilize all of your senses. Allow your eyes to look past the trees and see nature’s constant movement. Taking care to not trip on a root, look into the trees and see the birds dart expertly from branch to branch. Are they alone or with a mate? Do not forget to open your ears to listen to the myriad of sounds. The singing of the many bird varieties will be most obvious. However, try breaking them down into individuals and listen for their calls to be returned by a friend. Your ears are also a great tool to detect the ground scavengers. Along with squirrels and chipmunks, you will be surprised at the volume of bird activity at foot level. It is as much bird hearing as it is bird watching. If you want more, bring binoculars as much activity will be high in the canopy.
Along with squirrels and chipmunks, you will be surprised at the volume of bird activity at foot level. It is as much bird hearing as it is bird watching. If you want more, bring binoculars as much activity will be high in the canopy. These compact binoculars will work great without making bird watching an expensive hobby.
Ideally done in perfect weather, do not let the cold, snow or even drizzling rain scare you off. The natural world takes no breaks and years of evolution have perfected many for their habitats, rain or shine. Nor’easters are storms that track up the eastern coast of the US and are common in Massachusetts throughout the year. Typically a bigger topic in winter, as snow totals are more newsworthy than rain, they can present a great opportunity to bird watch. Ok, not during the storm, but rather the moment it lifts and life returns to normal. Just as we are anxious to get back to our busy schedules, so aren’t the birds. In winter with shorter days, this magnifies their activities even more.
These 50 facts you are on the verge of enjoying are meant to entertain, educate and advance our appreciation for nature. Without overthinking, absorb the material like any good book. Being entertained and educated at the same moment is a great thing! Ease back in your seat, get comfortable and take a journey to the many different Massachusetts neighborhoods these feathery flyers call home.
1. Spring is Coming
No sign of spring seems to be more reliable than the reappearance of the American Robin. As the snow covered grass begins to see pockets of green, the migrating birds begin to make their return to summer breeding grounds. The robin is a perfect example as they comfortably make their home in the forest or your backyard. Seemingly unfazed by the buzzing lawnmower, this greyish backed bird with its pronounced orange to red belly loves to poke through grass looking for insects and worms. Less commonly known is that mating pairs will often remain through winter, especially more mild ones. Regardless, it will never spoil the fun of seeing a robin in late February.
2. The Robins Nest
Built with skill and care, a robin couple builds quite a home for its eggs. It is a combined effort as the male hauls in the raw material and the female weaves them together. Foraging through the forest floor, street gutter or even the trash, the male gathers all suitable materials to make a successful nest. This can often include string, cellophane and other found treasures. Mud acts as the cement that holds everything together. Ingeniously, a male has been known to mix their own either out of necessity or personal preference. This allows them to continue nest making even in dry conditions. Any source of water can do, including your bird bath. They carry water with their mouths and mix it with a favorite soil, stirring it with their bill. After returning to the nest, the female uses the mud to hold layers of soft grass together in the shape of a bowl. The comfortable bottom makes a nice home for their famously colored eggs.
A robin’s egg is fascinating cyan blue-green and commonly referred to as “robin’s egg blue.” The color comes from pigment called billverdin that the female excretes when laying them. There is some evidence that the brighter the color, the healthier the mother. Studies also have shown that males will be more diligent caring for brighter shaded eggs. The discarded shells can often be seen on a spring hike, lying on the forest floor.
3. Feed Them What They Want
Most birds are on the easier side to feed. You can buy any region-appropriate seed, pour it into the bird feeder and walk away. For robins, it is not so easy. In order to fill their picky stomachs, you can make a compost pile where the wintering pair can search for bugs feeding on the decaying matter. If that is too difficult perhaps you can keep a hearty portion of worms lying around. I don’t have any suggestions here nor have I ever come across a feeder that works with this approach. Assuming this is not an option for most and winter worms are scarce, it might be best to let most fly south for the winter.
4. The Buzzing Bird
Massachusetts is home to the tiny, ruby-throated hummingbird. If you ever have the opportunity to see one in motion, you will be left stunned. These metallic green winged birds are the smallest breeding bird in the state. When quiet, the beating of their wings at rates of 50-80 beats per second is easily audible. Not knowing better, you might believe a giant buzzing bee is close by. For an even better chance to see them, add some native honeysuckle, salvia or petunias in your garden to attract them. They also like spiders but similar to the robins and their preference for worms, let nature handle that one.
5. That Sounds Delicious
It might be the only bird food you are tempted to eat and better yet, it’s easy to make. Just be careful to not spill or you will have ants at the party instead of hummingbirds. Hummingbirds love nectar which is very high in sugar. After all, beating those wings so fast burns a ton of calories requiring a constant reload of carbs.
You can help their cause by taking 1 part refined sugar with 4 parts water. Mix them together and pour it into an appropriate feeder. Start with this this easy and economical feeder. Stay away from dyes and food color trying to make it look fancy.
If you opt for a premixed solution, try this one. You’re not done yet though! Come back the next day, empty, clean and repeat. Mold loves sugar too.
6. The Crow
The American Crow is easily recognizable throughout the state with their deep black feathers covering a rather large body. Made famous partially to the movie of the same name, they tend be synonymous with bad things. The undeserved reputation is not helped by their ominous appearance and huge nightly gatherings called roosts. These roosts are evening gatherings in the hundreds to thousands, high in canopy of their favorite tree. It might seem odd to be located in your backyard or in the middle of town, but to them it is quite special. Some crows will travel up to 50 miles each night to reach their roost. Once spring arrives, the evening parties break up as each mating pair stays in their territory. Despite all their noise, crows are extremely intelligent and harmless. If only they could shake that bad reputation.
7. You Will Be Thrown in Jail
Common Pigeons are everywhere in Massachusetts and most plentiful in the streets of cities and towns where they love being companions to humans. Boston would not be recognizable without congregating pigeons along the sidewalks picking at our crumbs. Seemingly immune to cars honking and stomping feet only a meter away, this docile bird was once prized for its value as a food source and why in 1848 a law was passed prohibiting the scaring of pigeons. It’s still on the books today so restrain yourself next time you feel the urge to catch one.
8. Winters Visitor
To the American Tree Sparrow, winter in Massachusetts is their migratory south. As cold as we think our winters are, this sparrow is actually happy visiting your backyard feeder in January as it is balmy compared to its offseason home in northern Canada. Their rusty colored feathers are offset with a solid white tummy or with single black dot. There are so many varieties of sparrows, you might want to refer to a guide to keep track. Daunting at first, with all of the similarities, you will soon begin to distinguish the different markings and comparing behaviors can be fascinating. Regardless of which one, their reliable presence, well-behaved demeanor and uplifting chirping will be a nice addition on a winter day. Just make sure to have your guide book before sitting down.
9. Urban Garden Idea
Here is a tip for a really fun gardening idea. Have you ever wondered what was growing in your garden? I am sure this applies to everyone at some point, but those of us that have bird feeders will find it more common. The random sunflower that grows in a planter or leafy lettuce like plant that has dozens of brilliant yellow flowers is not by mistake. That is as long as you do not think nature is a mistake. Nature is full of randomness and birds play a huge role in this. Their job of dispersing seeds is the key to most plants survival and this is our little experiment. It works by putting a pot with soil near your feeder or designate a patch of land as a no-mow zone. During the winter season, the birds will inevitable sit on the pot or inadvertently drop seeds into the soil. Come the spring, let it grow wild on its own.
You will be amazed at what starts to sprout. If what you’re feeding the birds is catered to your region, these native seeds will be a low maintenance and easily tended garden. Do some research and try to identify the mystery seeds. After they bloom, you can leave the seeds to fully mature and feed your birds the following winter. I am not suggesting harvesting the seeds, but leaving them on the stems to be found naturally. It’s a bit of a surprise each year but it is shocking the places sunflowers will try and grow.
10. Home Sweet Home
What makes a good birdhouse? It’s the same as us humans and real estate. Location, location, location. Only for birds, they are looking for close proximity to water and food. Adding a feeder and birdbath with will significantly increase your odds of landing tenants. For bird baths, try this popular version that holds a nice depth of water. Make sure to use the included stakes to prevent squirrels from knocking it over.
Birds will also appreciate a sturdy house that won’t come falling down with the first wind storm. Also, think natural by not placing the house in a spot that only suits your viewing needs. Make it feel like a home and give them some privacy that you can inconspicuously snoop in on once in a while.
11. I Hear You
Who doesn’t love a woodpecker! These hardworking birds such as the Downy Woodpecker make a living listening for bugs chewing wood inside dead branches. You might see their round holes drilled into the side of a trunk. It might not be fun work but the good news is there is plentiful food for them as most trees have at least one decaying branch. Their black feathers with specs of white can be seen in backyards throughout the year. Even on a frigid winter day you can hear the tapping of the woodpeckers long pointed bill as it probes for bugs. Once they reach the insect, they use a long thin tongue to collect the meal.
12. Listen to Me
Not to be outdone, the Song Sparrow’s name says it all and they let you know it. They are proud musicians and their crisp vocals can be heard communicating back and forth with friends and family. They are quite unique in that they nest on the ground. Similar to other sparrows in their colors and markings, their songs might be their best identifiers. They love marshes, open fields and forest edges but are very comfortable nesting near a bird feeder.
13. Red, Red and Then More Red
With such an introduction, this can only be the description of the most dazzling bird in Massachusetts. The Northern Cardinal males make a year-round show with brilliant red feathers, red crest and black mask. Females have a touch of red at wingtips and possess the same short, thick bill as the male.
There is something special about the lifelong mates approaching a feeder cautiously, looking out for one another. They can crack open the tougher seeds and often show up late to the party to cleanup what others cannot eat. A one-time rarity has been changed with the explosion of backyard feeders. Now it is quite common to keep a pair loyal to your feeder for years on end. For an extra treat, leave left over fruit out for them as they score points for residing in the state year round.
14. Sky Miles
The American Kestral takes migration seriously. Spending summers in Massachusetts, this Robin-sized falcon takes flight in the fall to the southern United States or as far as the central Caribbean. These insect loving birds will sometimes dine on small rodents and typically make their homes near open fields where food is plentiful. The air fields around Boston are a common area for them to make their homes. This opportunistic bird has been known to make a meal out of a bat or small songbird.
The male has an identifiable “mustache” below its bill and has blue/grey wings. He looks for natural cavities in trees to nest and waits for the female to make a determination. If she rejects the shelter, he has to find an alternative that better suits her.
15. Love Hate Relationship
The Blue Jay is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful birds in Massachusetts along with the cardinal. With its bright blue plumage, pointed crest and black strap from eye to chest, this relative of the crow makes for a great photo. However, it also can be the bully at the feeder, tree or backyard. They can often be seen streaking after other birds, animals and humans that stray too close to their territory.
Blue Jays tend to live near a forests edge but are quite at home in a group of trees or park. A pouch in their throat is used to store food that it will cache away for a later time. A seed and nut lover, they hold one with their foot and use their bill to crack it open. Along with other members of the jay family, they are known for being quite noisy. The dive bombing bird has a very diverse vocal range which is quite pleasant as long as it is now during an attack on the family dog.
16. Bouncing Yellow Balls
New England will never be confused with the colors of the tropics but we have one bouncing blur of yellow that regularly visits the bird feed. It might be a little helpful to live near a marsh or grassy, woody area although it is not a perquisite for the American Goldfinch. The male’s bright yellow plumage and their bouncy flight patter can often have you wondering what trick your eyes are playing. They are fast and acrobatic, more likely to be seen in grassy field during the summer months but can become a regular at your feeder when the cold arrives. Unfortunately, their vibrant colors get replaced with a less conspicuous brown.
17. Red Wing Fighter
The stocky, medium-sized Red-winged Blackbird male has a distinctive red and yellow patch on their wings. This feature makes them one of the easiest birds to identify, even in flight. Their often found in marshy areas or near other water features including golf courses. They have a love for singing and if you visit their habitat during the mating season, you’re likely to hear the males signing boldly to attract a mate. Somewhat aggressive, they can be quite protective of their territory during mating season and are not timid in defending it. After mating season and through the winter, they like to congregate in large mixed flocks of blackbirds and starlings.
18. Fries Thief
If you’re at the beach with food, do not look away. The opportunistic gulls along many of Massachusetts busy beaches will not hesitate to grab an easy meal. Much of this is do due their acceptance of humans as a source of food. It can be fun watching them eat while hovering in the air but this also encourages the aforementioned behavior. It is best to let them to dine on the plentiful shellfish along the shore.
Protected by federal law, these often aggressive birds are quite territorial especially when protecting their nests. Sometimes built on top of Boston skyscrapers, it can create issues for anyone who needs to access the roof. The gulls will dive bomb repeatedly until the threat is scared off.
One common mistake is that there is no such bird as a “seagull.” They just happen to be gulls that live by the sea. Regardless, their recognizable squawking is expected on any beach visit. The medium to large body of white or light grey feathers can be both beautiful and intimidating.
19. Beach Lovers
The Piping Plover is an endangered shorebird with only about 700 breeding pairs in Massachusetts. On a positive note, that is up from less than 150 in the late 1980’s. A significant effort has been underway to protect their sandy habitats and allow for the populations to improve. Stretches of beach around the state are roped off to provide the small birds with the necessary habitat. In 2019 at L Street beach in Boston, a pair of Piping Plovers successfully hatched 4 eggs. It was the first time in over 30 years it had been accomplished showing that the conservation efforts are paying off.
The sand colored birds’ nests in depressions in the sand away from the high water mark and preferable near dunes. Their young hatch in about 30 days and squat motionless when threatened. When needed, the adults will often feign an injury to draw attention away from the youngsters.
20. Regal Statues
The Great Blue Heron with its bluish grey feathers and black head plume can register in at over 4 feet tall. Despite their once declining numbers due to pollution and loss of habitat, this graceful giant is now making a comeback that has many surprised. They are fond of ponds, lakes and rivers and might even make an appearance in the middle of your town. A migratory bird, they typically arrive in March and even sometimes remain through the winter.
Wading slowly in shallow water, they stalk fish and other aquatic prey. Often completely motionless like a statue, the Great Blue Heron has lightning quick neck reflexes. They achieve this by putting their neck into an “S” shape which unloads like a spring when the hunt is on. When they take to the air, their slow rhythmic wing action is both effective and graceful.
21. So Famous
Mallards are one of the most common species of duck in Massachusetts. The male’s metallic green neck is an eye catching example of nature’s perfection. In many ways, the coloring is synonymous with Boston, home to the famous children’s book, “Make Way for Ducklings”. Written by Robert McCloskey in 1941, it is a timeless tale about a family of mallard ducks residing in the Back Bay neighborhood. If you have not read it to young family members, you can start here!
The mallards in real life are not so different in the way they raise their ducklings. In fact, it is quite common to find them throughout Boston’s extensive park system. Surprisingly, they don’t always nest by water and sometimes fly several miles to their preferred home.
The mallards in real life are not so different in the way they raise their ducklings. In fact, it is quite common to find them throughout Boston’s extensive park system. Surprisingly, they don’t always nest by water and sometimes fly several miles to their preferred home.
Members of a group known as “dabbling ducks”, mallards rarely fully submerge in water. Instead they tip forward and eat underwater plants that are reachable. Being rather tame, they are welcomed additions around people and other ducks. One of 16 mating species of duck in Massachusetts, mallards may have a lot competition yet easily remain the most famous.
22. Don’t Feed the Geese
The Canada Goose is a familiar site at ponds and office parks alike. Being the only breeding goose in Massachusetts you might think they would be hard to find but they make their presence felt. During nesting season, the male will not hesitate to show aggression if you veer too close. That might be unlikely because the areas around their nest are often littered with grassy excrement (poop). What started like a nice stroll on a spring day might end up with the bottom of your shoe needing to be hosed off. Despite the messiness they sometimes bring, the loveable nesting pairs are year-round residents and find unfrozen water during the winter.
23. Our Brave National Bird
The Bald Eagle, our national bird, was decimated by the pesticide DDT. After being banned in the 1970’s the Bald Eagle has been able to make a slow recovery. In 1989, the graceful hunter successfully bred for the first time in years. Since then, the brave fight has resulted in over 76 breeding pairs throughout Massachusetts as of 2018. With DDT out of the way and our waterways cleaner than ever, this proud national symbol is poised for a strong comeback.
An adult has a brilliant white head and starkly contrasting yellow beak making them easily identifiable whether in flight or in trees. That same fully mature adult may have a wingspan over 7 feet, making it the largest bird of prey in Massachusetts. Skilled hunters, they are also opportunistic by stealing food from competitors such as the Osprey.
Their nests are an architectural success as they may be reused for decades and weigh up to a ton. What looks like a pile of twigs high up in a tree is actually a complex weaving of tougher outer sticks and softer inner lining that might be several feet deep.
24. Winter Vacation
Approximately 135-150 species of birds migrate to Massachusetts for our warm, humid summers. They then retire to the southern states or Caribbean islands for the winter. The long journey must be working it as they do it year after year.
25. Who Needs Bait
The osprey or ‘fish hawk” is designed perfectly for fishing and along with the Bald Eagle, the only bird of prey you will see diving into water for prey. The remarkable “M” shaped, vertical dive they utilize is one of precision and key to survival as fish make up nearly 100% of their diet. Studies have shown they can successfully hunt in less than 15 minutes and capture prey that approach 25% of their body weight. They are adaptable hunters with the ability to launch their attack from a slow airborne glide or perched stationary high up in a tree. They can often be spotted sitting motionless for hours.
With the banning of DDT in the 1970’s the once nearly extinct osprey, was given a new lease on life and now thrives throughout the state. Despite the improvements, they continue to deal with DDT use outside of the US and Canada along with pollution in waterways.
26. The Return of the Giant
Nearly extinct due to loss of habitat and overhunting, the wild turkey in Massachusetts now has comfortably rebounded to around 30,000 birds. This success came about after the last known native bird was killed in the 1851. It was not until an effort in 1970’s that an effort to reintroduce turkeys took place. 35 turkeys from upstate New York were resettled in the Bay State and over time and proper population management, stabilized to the numbers that exist today. The wild turkey is the official state game bird.
The male “Toms” are quite large and weigh in up to 25 pounds. These large and slow moving birds are more than capable of flying although they are often are seen leisurely trotting along looking for berries or seeds. In fact, they make their beds high up in trees at night and they do not get there by climbing. Due to their instinct to a “pecking” order within their own flock, turkeys may attempt to dominate a person it feels is of lesser status them.
They eat a variety of foods including seeds, nuts and berries in fall and winter but rely on protein rich insects during the warmer months. The slow movers will claw at the earth with their feet look for a meal.
27. The Bay State Bird
The Commonwealths official bird is the Black-Capped Chickadee. This bird is monogamous and stays with its mate for life. Better yet, it hangs around all winter which makes them deserving of the title bestowed upon them. They benefit from being omnivorous eating seeds and inspects, or whichever comes first. They have a very sophisticated vocal structure and with some patience, you might be able to recognize their “chick-adee” variations. At home in the woods or your backyard, these companions will be welcome additions at your feeder.
28. That’s a Party
There are approximately 499 species of birds in Massachusetts. This figure is about 10 years old and a few more may have arrived since then. Out of those, 11 are on the endangered species list.
29. So Shiny
Black with a shiny iridescent coat of feathers, the European Starling can be spotted all over the state including in deep woods. During the summer, their green plumage is quite noticeable but in the winter they take on more brown tone. They are quite fond of singing and often in large, noisy flocks that can be a little intimidating. When they show up at the feeder, all others might want to stand back.
The European Starling was released in Central Park in the 1890’s in an attempt to bring all Shakespearean birds to the continent. What started out as 100 birds has grown to over 200 million across North America including a large number in Massachusetts. Interestingly, because of the relatively recent introduction, starlings in California are nearly genetically identical to their cousins on the opposite coast.
30. Father of the Field Guide
The popular bird watching book “A Field Guide to the Birds” by Brookline teacher Roger Tory Peterson was first published in 1934. With its unique identification system and extraordinary illustrations, it has remained a worldwide bestseller. The writer/naturalist is often thought as the inventor of the field guide. It was a success from the beginning with the first 2,000 copy printing selling out in under a week.
31. Its Sunset, Time to Wake
This unique, nocturnal bird has eight species residing in the Bay State. Hard to find because of their shyness and late night escapades, the owl is one of the most elusive residents. In particular, the Great Horned owl is found in nearly all parts of the state. In the winter they become less reclusive as males can be heard “hooting” in search of a mate.
Owls in general, typically survive on a diet of small rodents of which they eat whole. If you’re fortunate enough, you might find the pellets they leave behind. By pellets, I mean the regurgitated hair and bones from their last meal. It’s probably a good thing, as that rodent may have ended up camping in your basement for the winter. Often, a favorite branch can be identified based on the number of pellets underneath it. They have been known to take on larger prey such as raccoons or skunks.
32. So Sad
It’s really not a sad bird but you might not know based on its mournful crooning. The Mourning Dove is aptly named for the melancholy cooing you might wake to. If they nest near your house, it might be every morning as they can be quite persistent. If you’re not awakened by that, it might still be enough to make you think that you have a resident owl nearby. However, when you look out the window and just see a pair of soft grey/tan birds with little identifiable markings and significant head bob, you have discovered yourself Mourning Doves. Awkward on the ground, they are surprisingly quick and graceful in the air.
33. Oh So Blue
Out in the grassy fields of Massachusetts lives a male bird with a bold blue back and red brick colored belly. As with most birds, the Eastern Bluebird female is more subdued but still retain a bluish grey back. Typically a migrating bird that resides in holes on trees, recent years have seen them remain throughout the winter. Those that stick through the winter, forage for berries and seeds in lieu of insects that are ample in the warmer months.
34. Isn’t this Red Sox Country
Contrary to local belief, the Baltimore Oriole is permitted to stay in Massachusetts despite its distant relationship with another, unnamed American League baseball team. The vibrant orange bellies of the male and more muted yellow of the female make them a favorite.
With their arrival signaling that spring is soon, the Oriole can be heard singing high in the treetops. Close by, the female might be constructing their amazing hanging nests. Built with thin strands of grass, the nest resembles a hanging basket.
In order to attract them to your yard, try planting raspberries, blueberries or other dark colored fruit. It might seem odd, but light color and unripe fruit will be ignored.
35. So Easy
Dark-eyed Junco’s are some of the easiest birds to identify. The smallish cousin in the sparrow family is grey on the back and bright white on the belly. They were thought to only winter here in Massachusetts but many actually live year-round. The others migrate back up north come spring into the forests of the Canada. While foraging for seedsin small groups, this bird hops in lieu of walking.
36. Air to Air combat
One of the most entertaining birds to reside in state is the Eastern Phoebes. An acrobat in the air, this human friendly bird can be seen near homes catching insects out of midair. There hunting style is easy to identify after a few minutes. They can be seen repeating a back and forth flight path until they identify something they can catch. If you have one near your house, which is quite common, invite the friends over and enjoy the show. Unfortunately with the low insect count during the New England winters, most head south each year for a few months.
37. Who Wrote That Song
The Northern Mockingbird loves to put on a show. If you see a bird sitting alone on top of a pole singing loud, random songs, you probably have found yourself a mockingbird. After hearing songs from other birds or even noises from amphibians, they mimic these songs in attempts to attract a mate. During the winter this formerly boisterous bird takes a break and hangs out in thick brush, eating berries. Regardless of the season, if you veer too close, they will instinctively defend their territory.
38. Why So Much Waste
You might wonder why most of your bird seed ends up on the ground. If you are like me, it’s now acceptable, albeit a bit messy and runs the risk of attracting rodents. However, if you are buying bird seed blends, they are likely to contain a lot of seeds that some birds do not like. Whoever is at the feeder, will dig for their preference with little care for what happens with the other seeds. Some, such as millet, often make up the bulk of blended seeds and birds including cardinals, sparrows and Eastern Towhees typically eat it from the ground. This is often solved when chickadees, finches and other song birds knock it out of the feeder in search of black oil sunflower seeds, which are full of oily nourishment’s. However, to try and avoid this, you might provide two separate feeders for each variety keeping the sunflowers up high. More work, but less mess.
39. It is so fattening
On the topic of seeds, it is worthwhile to discuss suet. It is typically a cake of beef fat and other ingredients that can vary from peanuts to cracked corn and maybe some shelled sunflowers. Loaded with body warming fat, suet is a popular winter source of nutrients for your neighborhood birds. It is amazing to sit back and watch dozens of Black-capped Chickadees descend on a new “cake” of suet. If you are consistent, they will become loyal customers.
40. Frozen Fruit
After seed and suet you might ask what else is there to fee your birds. If you’re like me, try donating some leftover fruit as well. An apple core can make a tasty treat for house sparrows but are more likely to end up in the stomach of a squirrel. Regardless, it’s a nice way to not let your waste go unused. Try oranges as well and you might draw in a mockingbird. During the warmer months, the Baltimore Oriole may stop by to sample a halved orange placed in a tree.
41. My Cousins
Tufted Titmice are brazen little creatures that find themselves at home with their chickadee relatives. Adorned with light grey coats with a bushy crest, they forage for food along the ground and at the feeder. Just beware, they can behave like bullies and push smaller less aggressive birds away. Fairly large in size, they have a bit of a menacing personality and might not be your most welcomed guests on a peaceful Sunday morning.
They prefer to live in tree cavities and box houses will be more attractive than one that has an open side. Unlike other chickadees, the Tufted Titmice do not gather in larger flocks outside of breeding season but often have one or more offspring from that year stay with them for winter. As with many other birds, they like to hoard seeds for the colder months. Removing the outer seed shell is typical prior to being placed in storage which often is only a few hundred feet from the feeder. This close proximity is likely to reduce the workload as they only carry one seed at a time.
42. Head First
White-breasted Nuthatches are fascinating tree climbers. They are far from alone when it comes to agile climbing, but when descending, they move head first which would appear daunting to most. Spotting this compact bird in a tree will likely find it clinging to the side of the tree upside down or sideways. The males and females have similar blue/grey backs with the males sporting a black cap on its head.
With such an unusual name, the nuthatches earned it by learning an effective method to extract seeds from their shells. Cleverly, they wedge a tough seed between layers of bark and use their chest to crack it open. However, due to their preference to be left unnoticed, you will find it more difficult to observe this behavior.
43. It is all in the Wings. Very, Very Large Wings
With a 6 foot wingspan, the migratory Turkey Vulture is easy to spot in the sky. Sometimes confused for hawks, its tiny head can be used to confirm the identity. If that does not work, look for the wings to be held slightly above the body in a” V” shape accompanied by a wobble in its flight.
Arriving to Massachusetts around the 1950’s, they are now quite common as they feast on road kill or other rotting meat known as carrion. Their bald heads keep their feathers from getting dirty as they eat from within a carcass. Their diet attracts them to large fields, roadsides and garbage dumps where they feed off rotting scraps of food.
If you are fortunate, you might see a roost consisting of dozens of vultures as they sleep during nights and winter. Often, these massive birds will find a dead tree and each take a branch to themselves. This image can be a bit eerie on a winter night if you are not familiar with the Turkey Vulture.
44. Social Birds
The sparrow family is huge and there are so many great conversations to be had in regards to them. Unfortunately, there is not enough time in this book to cover them all and with the focus on just a few, the American Tree Sparrow is not to be missed.
These fun loving, rounded sparrows have a rust colored hat with a similar colored streak extending from their eyes. Their habit of fluffing out their feathers gives them a cute, chubby appearance. Add in their smaller-than-average bill, they can be identified fairly easy.
The ground loving bird will perch in a low tree or shrub but spend most their time rustling through ground cover looking for food. Despite their somewhat contradictory name, they are a welcome addition to your yard. Their lively chirping will liven up any feeder.
45. My House or Yours
When buying a bird house, you need to consider your objectives prior to placing an order. First, you need to determine which specie of bird you are trying to attract. If your goal is to attract a particular breed, first do a little research as to how best welcome your target bird. For example, robins will look for a platform without a roof and Purple Starlings nest in colonies.
For most people, they start by rolling the dice and letting nature decide for them. This is a great method and fun as you might have a better odds at attracting a tenant. However, it is still a good idea to do some research. For example, take into consideration the size of the opening. Too small and it might only be inviting to a bees nest. Too large and birds may not feel the protection they seek. In the middle seems to be a fair guess when picking out a random bird shelter. Also, consider the shape of the entrance. Slot vs. round entrances to a box house may determine if you have Blue Bird guests or House Sparrows. You can quickly see where one size does not fit all and a little homework will pay off.
46. No Sneaking Up
The Common Grackle has a handful of both positive and negative qualities that make it a well-known bird in the Bay State. Being the largest species of blackbird that typically resides in Massachusetts, the Grackle is easily identifiable with flashy iridescent green-purple-black feathers. They also have a slightly elongated body and can be spotted walking through grass on their long legs.
Perhaps a slightly less attractive feature of this bird is their often used piecing vocals. Not shy to show off their range, you might have one take comfort on a fence post and “sing” for hours. In the fall, they can form huge flocks numbering close to a million birds as they prepare for their winter migration. These noisy roosts can be both fascinating and annoying depending on your mood.
Another pesky personality trait is their tendency to eat crops such as corn or spotted eating from an open garbage bag. Spreading grains out on the ground rather than in a feeder will be more likely to attract them to your yard.
47. Costume Lover
The Cedar Waxwings must love Halloween as they are always dressed for the occasion. Both males and females wear a smooth combination of tan and yellow plumage punctuated by a deep black mask over both eyes along with a mini cardinal-like crest on their heads.
Their name comes from a waxy, red secretion from secondary wing feathers. The secretion, whose purpose is not known, creates a fiery red dot. The brilliant spot can vary in colors including oranges and even yellow depending on the color of the berries they have been feeding on.
In order to attract these attractive birds during the winter, you are going to need berry bushes or fruit trees for them to dine on. It has been reported that these feathery friends who can gather in the hundreds, can occasionally get a bit drunk from eating too much fermented fruit.
48. Shy and Bold
The Carolina Wren has made its way up the east coast from its original homeland in the southeastern US to Massachusetts where it now resides year-round. It can usually be heard singing loudly from deep within the protection of thick bushes. Its constant singing also is used as a warning to creatures that encroach on its territory. If needed, they are bold defenders and will chase off unwanted visitors
Similar in a appearance to a sparrow, this member of the wren family measures in at less than 6” and has the telltale wren bill, long, pointed and slight downward curve. Their reddish-brown feathers are often accompanied by a signature white eyebrow. As a fruit and insect lover, they are more likely to be spotted scavenging on the ground of a shrub than a feeder.
The Brown-headed Cowbird is very unorthodox when it comes to raising their young. Rather than dealing with the challenges of parenting or headaches of building a nest, they try to trick others to do it for them. In order to achieve this, the cowbird drops its fertilized eggs into another birds nest with the intent of having the eggs hatch and raised by the nests owner. With their energy redirected, this black bird family member focuses on laying large quantities of eggs each summer. They are not monogamous and often have several different mates per breeding season. This peculiar method can lead to the host bird fleeing the nest, rejecting the imposter eggs or raising the bird on its own. If you spot a very large bird being fed by a much smaller bird, it very well could be the trick of the cowbird.
The black bird gets its name from its brown head plumage and can live a long time. The oldest know individual was over 16 years old when captured and released during a tagging project. Also of interest are there wintering roosts which can be quite large. One such roost in Kentucky was estimated to have over 5 million black birds.
50. Bird Watching 101 Massachusetts Style
Just as I wrote at the beginning of the article, the basic rules of bird watching should be simple. This should be a fun hobby, devoid of a whole lot of effort. Just like the birds perched in a tree, find a comfortable seat and just hang out. You will find that in many instances, the birds are watching you as much as you are watching them!
It is also important to try to not intervene too much. My initial brush with the bird feeder saw me chasing away the sunflower seed lovers and fretting about the millet mess on the ground. However, once I eased back into my indoor seat on a cold winter day, I was amazed by the dozens a birds that actually preferred to eat off of the ground. The days of picking who ate what and when were over. It is no pleasure when a bully Blue Jay scares everyone from the feeder but that is nature. It would be no different in a tree, albeit with much more real estate. Instead, I now watch to see how the other birds handled the situation. Some choose to sit along the fence patiently and others switched to ground feeders. The activity did not come to complete halt, it adjusted and I was left to appreciate the colorful markings of the Blue Jay.
I am fortunate to have a beach a few minutes away, salt marshes at the end of my street and a lot of evergreen trees in my urban neighborhood. However, you need to make the best of what you have available and if needed, get out for a walk to see birds. You will be amazed how many colorful berries are still left to be eaten, even in late winter. On those same walks, you can utilize you ears and listen to the different songs being sung. Initially birds might seem to be singing randomly yet after a little patient observation, a more sophisticated back and forth conversation can be noted.
Diving deeper into this idea of listening, do not forget to use all of your senses including smell and touch. All of them combined creates a powerful tool and offers the best chance of making great discoveries. It is after all, what the creatures you are observing are doing! The moment your ear picks up a sound, there is a good chance your eyes will instinctively follow. However, you need to release the chorus of thoughts that often fill our minds and let the ears play their role. Hear bird rustling through leaves? Reach down and touch the fallen foliage to better understand the source of the noise it makes. Smell something unusual? Let your mind follow that scent and see where it leads. Perhaps it is a rotting tree where woodpeckers might thrive or maybe carrion that will attract a Turkey Vulture.
The natural world is huge and each step brings new experiences. Leave the technology behind and use the abilities you were born with. Treat yourself to a free and entertaining education. Most of all, get out there and enjoy it!