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The WPA's Legacy to Ornithology
By Lauren Thead
January 24, 2003
Locked away in a cabinet in a building on the campus of Mississippi University for Women lies a secret. I'm told by Dr. Marty Harvill, who is teaching homeschoolers biology labs, that the college owns a good-sized collection of bird skins from the 1930's. He's told me this after finding out that I'm a birder, a member of the Audubon Society, and asks me, to my great pleasure, if I would like to study them for a while.
As I enter the room where these pieces of ornithological history are kept, a musty smell reaches me. The large wooden cabinet on one side of the room contains the specimens. I open the top drawer and find two large, dusty record books, which contain a listing of the species, found on the WPA Plant and Animal Survey Project Number 3619 that was sponsored by the Mississippi Game and Fish Commission. One book is nearly empty, but the other is filled with records for mammals, plants, reptiles, fish, amphibians and birds. In the cabinets there is a physical match for most of these handwritten notations. I open a drawer and stare at rows of long-dead creatures-a sight that fills me not with revulsion but with excitement.
The first specimens I look at are members of the rail family. The King Rails with the fuzzy black chick, Sora and Purple Gallinule are all in fairly good condition for such old skins. The purple Gallinule's feathers are very faded and have a brownish tint, but the legs are still bright yellow. The King Rail chick catches my attention because I notice it has a readable label tied to its feet, unlike the gallinule. I look the number up in the book and find that it was collected on Apri1 25, 1938, in Rock City, Alabama. This bird is only a little bit smaller than the adult Sora, and I can feel a tiny claw on each wing that the flightless chick used to climb through vegetation.
The heads of two immature Wood Storks are also preserved. These are fitted with red glass eyes, a fact that startles me somehow. Thankfully, no one today is allowed to kill endangered Wood Storks even for scientific purposes.
The third drawer is full of Green Herons and Least Bitterns. The female Least Bitterns can be told apart from the males by their brown backs and crowns in place of the black of the males. The Green Herons are all immatures. After seventy years these birds have mostly maintained their color but are missing feathers in some places.
The large herons are stored below these smaller ones. An adult Yellow-crowned Night-Heron shows surprisingly brightly colored feathers, but the Great Egret looks depressingly scraggly and is missing its long, black legs; after some searching I locate them. The claw on the third toe of each foot has little comb-like serrations that aid herons in preening-1 know this from my studies, but actually feeling it with my fingers is a great experience. I can also find this feature on the toes of four smaller white herons piled around the Great Egret. These are not Cattle Egrets, which arrived in Mississippi in the 1960's, but are immature Little Blue Herons.
The next drawer holds the waterfowl. These birds are sticky to the touch and have very thick, smooth feathers. There are many different kinds: a male Red-breasted Merganser; two female Ruddy Ducks; a female Redhead; a female Lesser Scaup; a male Blue-winged Teal; and a female Wood Duck. There are also three goslings. I am reminded of the fact that very young birds were taken whenever possible in the days when collecting was popular.
The bottom drawer is full of Pied-billed Grebes and American Coots. An immature Double-crested Cormorant taken at Lake Norris on November 14, 1937, seems surprisingly large in the hand. There is also an American Bittern that is, unfortunately, missing its legs, so I'm not sure where it was collected, but the camouflaging pattern on its back makes it interesting, anyway.
Now that I'm finished studying the birds on the right side of the cabinet, it's time to move on to the left. The top drawer on this side has three Belted Kingfishers, an adult male, an adult female and an immature female. There are three Chimney Swifts, one taken right on campus on May 7, 1937. There's also a strange bird that confuses me for a moment until I realize that I am looking at a Black Tern. Other skins include the head of a Ring-billed Gull and three diminutive Ruby-throated Hummingbirds.
Next come the nighthawks, woodpeckers and cuckoos. An interesting fact about the collectors of the specimens is that they would occasionally have trouble identifying seemingly easy-to-identify birds. A juvenile bird is first identified simply as "woodpecker", which is crossed out; written above it is the name "Yellow-bellied Sapsucker." The Yellow-billed Cuckoos are almost as striking as specimens as they are as living birds; the bills are still brightly colored and the brown and white of the feathers are still in bright contrast. The nighthawks are in worse shape, missing wings, but since I rarely get a chance to see them close up, they're still fascinating.
Sandpipers are in the next drawer, along with Red-bellied Woodpeckers. There are several each of Spotted and Solitary Sandpipers and Killdeer, and a few Least Sandpipers and Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs. There is a Wilson's Snipe collected at the Tombigbee Swamp on February 16, 1938; its intricately patterned back is very beautiful.
Moving along, I look at Northern Flickers, Pileated Woodpeckers and Mourning and Rock Doves. One bird that strikes me as strange is a brown Rock Dove several inches larger than the gray one beside it.
Hawks fill the next drawer, and all are very large kinds. An immature Red-tailed Hawk was apparently first identified as a Cooper's Hawk; this name was crossed out and "Red-tailed Hawk" was written above it. One of the Red-shouldered Hawks is substantially larger than the others; it's probably a female. These Red-shouldered Hawks still retain their bright, rusty-red colors and are impressive, regal creatures.
The very last birds are owls—six Barred and one Eastern Screech. Barred Owls are not anywhere near as big as they look; their fluffy feathers create the illusion of much larger birds. I pick up the body of the Eastern Screech-Owl specimen; its head, no longer attached, remains in the bottom of the drawer, its yellow glass eyes staring blankly at me.
I turn now back to the book and flip through it once more. Some of the common names of the birds collected then are no longer used; "Kentucky Cardinal", "Black Mallard", "Maryland Yellowthroat", and "Purple Grackle" are some of the most interesting.
The rest of this fascinating ornithological collection resides in other colleges and in one other room at MUW.
As I prepare to leave the laboratory, I gently shut the drawers, close the book, turn off the lights and pull the door to. Walking down the hallway, I am left with a great sense of satisfaction and gratitude at being allowed the privilege of examining the work of scientists of years past who might have themselves wondered whether anyone in the future would have been interested in their detailed, careful work.
The Orchard Oriole
By Lauren Thead
May 4, 2003
A beautiful, variable song of whistles and guttural notes announces the presence of the Orchard Oriole in nearly every open woodland in Mississippi. This striking bird, the smallest of all North American orioles, arrives in spring during the first half of April and is soon abundant in orchards and stands of young trees—which is the habitat of many people's yards! Orchard Orioles can be somewhat difficult to see as they skulk in dense vegetation or sing from the tops of tall trees, but they are certainly worth watching. While many species of birds simply pair up and retreat to the woods to nest singly, chasing off other members of the same species, Orchard Orioles have much more interesting social behaviors. More often than not, there will be several individuals on one property, and they will usually stay in that area until the end of summer.
Soon after they arrive in the state, the male orioles begin singing, usually from high perches. Many of these birds are males in their first spring and are greenish-yellow with white wing bars and black throats. Some may show traces of chestnut feathering as well. The males two years or older are striking with their rich chestnut underparts and extensive black hoods. Instead of the upper white wing bars of the younger males, they have chestnut shoulder patches.
The more secretive females are predominantly greenish-yellow, darker on the upperparts and have white wing bars on dark wings. At first glance they might resemble warblers, but they have longer tails and bills than any warblers and are larger than any warbler other than the Yellow-breasted Chat. They spend most of their time hidden in the vegetation where, after they pair up with the males, nest building begins.
No mating displays of the Orchard Oriole are known. (A good reason to watch their behavior carefully this year: you might notice something that has never been seen before!) But nesting is fairly well documented, even though the nest can be very difficult to find, concealed as it is in the foliage. The female, with a little help from the male, constructs a pouchlike nest of grasses suspended from a forked limb 4-50 feet up in a deciduous tree. After the nest is built, the female lays 3-5 pale eggs marked with brown. Both the male and female incubate, and they obviously don't mind other pairs nesting close by. Last year I saw three pairs on our wooded back six acres in early summer, and in Louisiana 114 pairs were once found nesting on one 7-acre tract!
It takes about 12 days for the eggs to hatch, and then the virtually helpless young are fed by both parents. They leave the nest after 11-14 days. Often the parent birds will divide the group of fledglings and care for them separately, another interesting aspect of oriole behavior. Only one brood per year is produced, but family groups will remain together until fall when they depart for their wintering grounds from central Mexico to northern South America.
With their sharp, slightly-curved bills, Orchard Orioles are obviously insect eaters and also feed heavily on fruit. In August of last year I saw a whole family group in a fig tree, snatching pieces of ripe fig and probably the insects attracted to the fruit, as well. Some people have success attracting orioles to nectar or halved oranges. You might want to try this; it could be the key to luring orioles out in the open for easy viewing.
Sadly, the Orchard Oriole is declining in some areas, especially western North America, in part due to cowbird parasitization. But since it seems to be holding on very well in the Southeast, you can expect this fascinating oriole to keep on delighting you for years to come.
The Cornell Lab of Ornithology's Guide to Birds of North America, Version 3.
Birds of Mississippi. Turcotte, William H., and David L. Watts. University Press of Mississippi. Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks. 1999.
A Little Walk on the Prairie
By Lauren Thead
June 6, 2003
It was very hot and uncomfortable on May 31. Many people would have been indoors with their air conditioners blowing on a day like this. But Nancy Donald and I were perfectly happy to be spending our time tramping through the knee-high mixture of grasses, flowers, and blackberry brambles on Harrell Prairie in Bienville National Forest.
The trip had been long; as Nancy put it, once you FOUND the prairie, it was easy to find! We spent a lot of time going down the wrong roads, looking for a gate that should have been opened, according to what we had heard from other people. Finally, we found the place--Bienville National Forest. The gate was very obvious (we had mistakenly driven past it several minutes earlier) and it WAS open, so we went down the road, bordered by dense pine forest. Once the pine forest began to give way to small trees and grasses, we knew we were near the prairie.
Nancy and I soon found a nice place to get out and walk. There were all kinds of beautiful wildflowers as far as we could see. Purple coneflowers, black-eyed Susans, and blue-eyed grass were there, as well as many others we did not recognize. These flowers attracted dog-faced butterflies, swallowtails of several types and skippers that we enjoyed watching as they fluttered from plant to plant. We flushed lots of huge grasshoppers and heard a Northern Bobwhite calling many yards away from us. The high-pitched, buzzy cricket-like song of a Prairie Warbler could be heard, and we soon saw the songster perched in a flowering bush. This beautiful yellow-, black- and olive-colored warbler is a local nesting bird in young woodlands and shrubby areas. The warbler was difficult to keep up with as it moved through the thick, thorny vegetation that was growing in a moist area of the prairie; and, since it was getting harder to hear the song over the wind, we decided to watch for other birds instead.
A few Yellow-breasted Chats could be heard singing from different locations on the prairie. We were having little luck seeing them until suddenly one male flew out of the thicket and began flapping his wings jerkily and singing loudly while in midair. He then dropped down into a nearby bush. Nancy and I were excited to have observed this. I've only seen this fascinating display flight three or four times.
Other birds that were singing on the prairie were Common Yellowthroats, White-eyed Vireos, and Carolina Wrens. We tracked down and observed many of these, before noting about ten Turkey Vultures soaring overhead. The winds must have been just right for these birds' flight. We didn't smell anything that they could've been attracted to; and besides that, with the way they were flying leisurely instead of circling tightly over one spot, they almost seemed to be sightseeing. Soon I spotted a much smaller bird swooping through the sky near the vultures. I looked through my binoculars and saw the pointed wings, long tail and pale head of this Mississippi Kite. We watched its graceful flight for a few minutes until it flew higher and out of sight.
Several sharp chip notes alerted us to the presence of Blue Grosbeaks. Two males chased each other furiously through the trees, each flapping noisily and rustling vegetation in his hurry to prove that he was the better of the two. One finally got away and began singing his song of throaty, hurried warbling phrases while in full sunlight. We admired the plumage of the grosbeak and also that of an Indigo Bunting that sang from the top of a small tree.
Of course, not everything was alive and thriving. There were several dead snags standing out above the colorful flowers and grasses. These trees had been killed by the alkaline soil, but this is a natural process that provides purchase for songbirds claiming their territories and good places for several species of woodpeckers, which we also saw that day.
It was time for us to be heading back home, so Nancy snapped a few photographs before we turned around and drove out of the national forest, pleased with our enjoyable day here. The Harrell Prairie, with its great variety of wildlife, is a very interesting place to be. If you make a trip there, you will very likely have a great time birding and/or butterfly-watching and will certainly be filled with a greater respect for this wild, beautiful stretch of natural prairie.
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