Birds of a feather who flock together. Early spring is one of my favorite times of the year to watch and photograph the migrating birds. There are over 230 species of birds that migrate here every year.
Many of them stop by at a corn field just up the hill from my property. This is where I spend hours watching and photographing these amazing birds. We are often visited by sandhill cranes, crows, ducks, geese, turkeys, and great blue herons. Sadly, they will move on to their nesting grounds in a few weeks and the fields will become empty. Rightfully so, as the farmers will need their fields back to plow and grow.
I don’t think many people realize just how important a farmer’s field is to the migrating birds. The left over corn and other seed from last year’s harvest helps feed the variety of birds on their long journey heading north. One one of my favorite birds of a feather who flock together are the ducks. Even though the above photo of the mallard ducks turned out rather blurry, I wanted to share it with you. After all, they flew in to be photographed too. There are approximately 37 different types of ducks that make their way into Wisconsin. Some these include the Puddle Ducks, Diving Ducks, Sea Ducks, Shovelers, and Dabbling Ducks. They’re all beautiful!
Ducks are a water fowl found in the wetlands, marshes, ponds, rivers, lakes, and oceans. Ducks are found all over the world and prefer warmer climates where the water doesn’t freeze. Some species of ducks migrate long distances every year to lay their eggs.
Wild Ducks eat a wide range of different foods. They are always looking for a meal. If you’ve ever sat and watched them, they are constantly foraging. Some of their favorite foods are small fish and fish eggs, snails, worms, slugs, mollusks, crayfish, grass, frogs, tadpoles, and various aquatic and land plants.
In addition to the food, they will also eat gravel, pebbles, sand, and shells. This provides grit that aids in their digestion.
The female mallard is the builder of the nest. She builds her nest out of breast feathers and twigs near a body of water.
She will lay a clutch of as many as 13 eggs and incubates them for about a month. When the ducklings have hatched they are immediately taken to water for safety. Mallard ducklings are precocial, meaning they know how to swim and feed right away. They will stay with their mother for the next 50 to 60 days, until they have matured and can fly away.
Then there are the watchers, guard birds, and the greeters. These crows watch over the area for predators, and they do a good job of chasing them off and alerting the other birds of danger. During the migrating spring season, they are the local welcoming committee. It seems like they actually gather together to give the spring flocks a big hello. The air is literally filled with happy calls to their feathered friends as hundreds fly in.
Many find these amazingly smart birds a nuisance or problem. Many old-wives tales have been handed down through the generations giving crows a bad name. Some say they destroy corn fields, when they are doing the opposite. These black beauties help the fields by eating pests that destroy the corn.
Crows live pretty much anywhere except for the hot desert. Their favorite areas are semi-open, from farms, woodlands, and fields, to river banks and towns.
Crows tend to feed mostly on the ground. They are scavengers and will eat just about anything. Their diet often consists of insects, spiders, earthworms, small snakes, and other birds. I personally witnessed them eat songbirds. They’ve also been seen using tools, such as sticks to get their food. Sometimes they’ll drop hard-shelled food on rocks to open them.
Crows build their nests in trees or shrubs, 10-70′ above the ground. It looks like a large bulky basket. The nests are usually built by both members of the mated pair. With the help of the other crows in the family.
Crows lay anywhere from 4 to 9 dull blue-green to gray-green, with brown and grey blotched eggs. Incubation is mostly handled by the female and lasts about 18 days.
The young crows will leave the nest about 4-5 weeks after hatching.
These beautiful birds are brown to grey in color. Both the male and female have a red patch on the crest of their yellow eyes. Even though they look almost identical, the males are taller and weigh about 14 pounds, while the females are closer to 10 pounds. The cranes will grow up to 5 feet in height and their life span in the wild is 15-20 years. Cranes mate for life but may not lay eggs until they are 2 – 8 years old. These birds actually have a very low birth rate compared to most species.
Sandhill Cranes are found throughout North America in cereal fields, marshes, wetlands, and prairies. Their main migratory stopping area is on the Platte River in Nebraska, where, most years, thousands of birds can be seen congregating. What sight that must be!
The diet of sandhill cranes includes mostly insects, rodents, snails, frogs, lizards, nestling birds, and the roots of aquatic plants. They also eat berries, seeds, and grains.
Their nesting sites are usually along shallow marshy water. Nests are built by both the male and female.
Typically, they lay 1-2 eggs, but may lay up to 3. The eggs are a pale olive to buff color, with brown or grey markings. Incubation is done by both the male and female and lasts 29-30 days. When the young hatch, they leave the nest within a day and follow their parents into the marsh. They spend the first few months in the marsh with their parents learning to hunt and survive. Their first flight is after 65-75 days, and they will remain with their parents for 9-10 months.
Great Blue Heron
One of the other larger feathered friends passing by my house is the Great Blue Heron. They are long-necked and long-legged, so sometimes people confuse them with the sandhill crane. The great blue heron has a blue-grey plumage with brown and black accents. The male and female look the same with a shaggy ruff at the base of their necks.
These birds prefer to live near slow-moving water in or around marshes, swamps, and tide-flats.
Their diet consists mostly of fish, but they will eat frogs, salamanders, turtles, snakes, insects, rodents, and birds.
Great blue herons usually nest near water in the trees 20-60′ above the ground. Sometimes they’ve been known to nest in low shrubs and on the ground. The female does most of the work building the nest.
The female lays anywhere between 3-7 pale blue eggs. It takes 25-30 days of incubation for their eggs to hatch, and 65-90 days for the young to leave the nest. Young sandhill cranes are called colts. They take their first fight after about 65-75 days, and will remain with their parents for 9-10 months.
Spring is such a wonderful time to get out and observe these birds of a feather who flock together! I’m very blessed to live in the area that I do. It’s known as “Bird City”. Wisconsin has more than 400 bird species of birds at any given time. Which seems appropriate, as we are surrounded by their habitats. So if you’re a “Bird Nerd” like me, take some time for yourself and go watch the birds!