January 5, 2020, at Indiana Dunes State Park Nature Center
Remember the little bird who used to tell you things before anyone else did? One must have told J. that January 5, 2020, was National Bird Day, with a 10 a.m. activity at the Indiana Dunes State Park Nature Center.
Together with several families, we helped to fill the many feeders, logs, and hollow stumps behind the Nature Center with safflower, sunflower, and thistle seeds; peanuts; and other goodies. I was sure the presence of many people clomping around would deter the birds until we went back in, but several hung around in the trees overlooking the feeder area, and the bolder chickadees came in to see what was going on (or to make sure we were doing our jobs).
After breakfast at Third Coast Spice Cafe, a shopping interlude at Molly Bea’s, and a stop at the Indiana Dunes Visitor Center, we returned to take photos and for part 2 of National Bird Day — bird bingo. It didn’t take long to spot a cardinal, a titmouse, and a nuthatch eating upside down. The elusive square was held by the Cooper’s hawk. The staff told us they see one perhaps once a week. That no doubt puts a damper on the feeder activity.
After taking more photo, we settled into the very good little library at the nature center, which has books for kids and books on animals, nature, local history, and art. It’s a gem of a resource which I don’t often see in use.
After I spent more than I should (as usual) at the Schoolhouse Shop, we ended National Bird Day with half-price veggie pizza at Villa Nova in Chesterton. Mmmm. No chicken.
December 8, 2019, at Indiana Dunes State Park Nature Center
I’m a little slow but one day years ago when I saw a woodpecker at Promontory Point I realized there are two in the field guides that look very similar—the downy and the hairy. One is smaller but I could never remember which.
Smaller isn’t a good field sign if you haven’t seen both and you’re not sure of the relative proportions.
On a July 2018 visit to Indiana Dunes State Park Nature Center, two woodpeckers happened to land on opposite sides of the same feeder, facing each other. In that moment, I couldn’t miss the most obvious differences between the two, despite the similarity (mostly) of their plumage.
The downy is quite diminutive when seen across from his larger cousin, the hairy. More than that, the downy sports a delicate stub of a bill compared to the hairy’s railroad spike—the bill is almost the length of the hairy’s head.
Finally I got it. I will not have trouble identifying either again. There are other differences, but that bill is the most obvious. Now I have in mind: “downy=diminutive”—body size and bill.
As a side note, the downy is the one you’re more likely to see at your typical suburban bird feeder. I can’t be sure at this late date, but the downy is likely the one my dad fed with free suet from the local butcher.
According to Audubon, the hairy requires larger trees and is less likely to show up at suburban feeders or city parks. I’ve seen enough of them at the nature center to know that area (and their feeders) suit the hairy just fine.
I loved many things about where I grew up, like the bird feeders hanging from the wild cherry trees out my parents’ back window. My mother was exceptionally fond of black-capped chickadees, the clowns among snowbirds. Blue jays annoyed my mother because they drove off the chickadees and smaller birds.
The folks at the Indiana Dunes State Park Nature Center seem to have solved this. The smaller finches and snowbirds gather at a tube feeder, while the blue jays and cardinals share tray feeders with gray squirrels (the red squirrels tend to stay on the ground or on the log trough feeders). That’s not to say chickadees, nuthatches, and titmice don’t use the tray feeders, just not at the same time as jays or squirrels.
As corvids, related to crows, jays leave little doubt as to when they’re in the area. The Nature Center is equipped with outdoor microphones to bring the soothing sounds of running water, leaves rustling, and bird chatter indoors. You can be sitting there in a trance, enjoying the peace and small sounds of nature when:
JAY! JAY! JAY!
You’re jarred to consciousness by screeching that’s already loud and further amplified until it sounds like there’s a blue jay in your ear canal. I’ve been known to fly out of my seat almost as quickly as the smaller birds fly off the feeders.
Except the birds on the tube feeders—they can munch on unbothered. If my parents had only known.
December 8, 2019, Indiana Dunes State Park Nature Center
I’ve never seen a red squirrel in Chicago. Years ago I’d read the bigger gray squirrel dominates and drives them out.
I’ve now seen both species at the Indiana Dunes State Park Nature Center peacefully (more or less) sharing the feeders. I asked one of the staff why they have red squirrels when Chicago (or at least my part of it) doesn’t. She said red squirrels prefer (or need?) conifer trees.
I found my original information that gray squirrels push out the smaller red squirrels was from the United Kingdom. There, the introduced eastern gray squirrel, Sciurus carolinensis, an invasive species, has reduced the native Eurasian red squirrel, Sciurus vulgaris, to near threatened status.
This is where usage of common names is problematic. The red squirrel of northern and central Indiana, Tamiasciurus hudsonicus, is a different animal altogether. Known as “pineys” in Indiana, the red squirrel shares a genus with the Douglas squirrel and Mearns’s squirrel. (Try saying that fast.) When not raiding feeders, these “pine squirrels” feed on the cones of conifers. Wikipedia notes the red squirrel “has been expanding its range into hardwood forests.”
The upshot is I’m not likely to see red squirrels in Hyde Park in the foreseeable future. Through an episode of Urban Nature, however, I learned Chicago does boast a second squirrel species, the fox squirrel (Sciurus niger), which I may have seen and thought was a color variation of the gray squirrel. They’re larger, though. According to Urban Nature, they’re found in areas where gray squirrels fear to tread—where predators like coyotes and feral dogs and cats are more common.
There is another squirrel I’m not likely to see—the nocturnal southern flying squirrel (Glaucomys volans). During a saw-whet owl banding at the Nature Center, we learned the mist nets meant for the owls on occasion trap other creatures, such as bats and flying squirrels. As much as I would like to see a flying squirrel, the researchers would rather not. An ensnared flying squirrel quickly frees itself by destroying the pricey mist net, putting a damper on the evening’s saw-whet owl banding activity. I can almost hear, “Curses! Foiled again!”
December 8, 2019, at Indiana Dunes State Park Nature Center
While at the Indiana Dunes State Park Nature Center watching birds and gray and red squirrels (no chipmunks this time), I noticed a melanistic gray squirrel coming in. In all my years in Hyde Park (40!!! Eek!), I’ve seen only one, in Jackson Park between 56th and 57th Streets. On a visit to my late aunt in NW Washington, D.C., I’d seen several in the neighborhood. According to Wikipedia, there’s a reason for that:
Eighteen Canadian black squirrels were released at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., near the beginning of the 20th century during President Theodore Roosevelt’s administration. Since their introduction, the population of black squirrels in and near Washington has slowly but steadily increased, and black squirrels now account for up to half of the squirrel population in certain locations, such as the grounds of the Washington National Cathedral.
Wikipedia mentions them in the Quad Cities area of Illinois:
Black squirrels are well established in the Quad Cities area along the Iowa-Illinois boundary. According to one story, recounted in the book The Palmers, they were first introduced on the Rock Island Arsenal Island. Some of them then escaped by jumping across ice floes on the Mississippi River when it was frozen, and thus populated other areas in Rock Island.
I hadn’t seen one at Indiana Dunes or Indiana before. This one looked lighter and more grizzled than other melanistic gray squirrels I’ve seen pictured, so it may have had one copy of a mutant gene vs. two.
Gray squirrels have two copies of a normal pigment gene and black squirrels have either one or two copies of a mutant pigment gene. If a black squirrel has two copies of the mutant gene it will be jet black. If it has one copy of a mutant gene and one normal gene it will be brown-black. In areas with high concentrations of black squirrels, litters of mixed-color individuals are common.
To me, this is the most interesting part of the Wikipedia entry:
The black subgroup seems to have been predominant throughout North America prior to the arrival of Europeans in the 16th century, when America’s old growth forests were still abundant and thick. The black squirrel’s dark color helped with better concealment from its natural predators (owls and hawks) in these very dense and shaded old growth forests. As time passed, extensive deforestation and the hunting of squirrels for their meat and pelts led to biological advantages for gray colored individuals; their light-gray color became advantageous in their newly changed habitat. Today, the black subgroup is particularly abundant in the northern part of the eastern gray squirrel’s range. This is due to two main factors. Firstly, black squirrels have a considerably higher cold tolerance than that of gray squirrels. Secondly, because the northern forests are denser and thus darker, the black squirrel enjoys the advantage of better concealment when viewed from above within this dimly lit habitat.
And after a healthy meal of seeds, it returned to the Indiana Dunes woods whence it came.
I’m behind in keeping up my personal account of summer 2019, so here’s a common green darner to tide me over. They were swarming at Perennial Garden today, where one posed for me despite the winds whipping the plants to pieces and photos into blurs.