Millie Mocker

Millie Mocker
Thanks to Millie's friend, Greg Harber, for her photo.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Irruptive Species

Snowy Owl
Snowy Owl taken at Little Talbot State Park, Florida

I apologize for sending my e-newsletter late. It has been COOOOOOLD! Have you ever remembered a winter being this cold? It seems to chill you right to your bones. My bones are hollow and that leaves me very cold, too. Thank goodness for my feathers to keep me warm. I just fluff them and have a natural down jacket!
This winter is also unusual because we have had unusual visitors. Some bird species have irruptive (ĭ-rŭp′tĭv) years. This means during the winter these birds migrate to different locations. It could be further south, east or west. Although this unusual movement seems out of place, this irruption happen in cycles. Scientists are not sure why different birds have irruptive years. Some believe the birds are looking for food, while others believe breeding season had a high success rate.
This year one of the most exciting irruptive species is the Snowy Owl. One has been on the Atlantic Coast at Little Talbot Island, east of Jacksonville, Florida since the beginning of December. Snowy Owls are also in Arkansas, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, and all along the eastern coast. Although this owl has not been seen in Alabama yet, you never know when one might show up. Snowy Owls have visited Alabama twice in the past. The first visit was March 17, 1964. This owl was perched on a rowboat at Dauphin Island. The other sighting was in Opelika. This Snowy Owl was hanging out on the roofs of downtown buildings from December 24, 1974 through January 19, 1975.
Other bird species that have irruptive years are Red-breasted Nuthatches, Pine Grosbeak, Red Crossbill, White-winged Crossbill, Purple Finch, Pine Siskin, Common Redpoll, and Evening Grosbeak. Usually, during the winter, Purple Finches and Pine Siskins are scattered throughout Alabama. This year these birds are in scarce numbers throughout the state. However, it is not an irruptive year for them.
What irruptive species have you seen?

HArlequin Duck
Harlequin Duck taken at Fort Clinch State Park, Florida

For Budding Ornithologists: 
If you do not have a bird field guide, you can access online guides for free at the following web sites.  Get your parents permission before going online.
·      eNature bird Field Guide
·      Cornell Lab of Ornithology

Scissor-tailed Flycatchers

Scissor-tailed Flycatcher,
Photo by Andrew Haffendon
This fall has been very interesting.  After most of my friends have flown across the Gulf of Mexico, a different bird started showing up along the coast. This bird has been seen in Alabama and is the Scissor-tailed Flycatcher.
Sitting on an electric line, you might think this is me, a Northern Mockingbird. However, your attention would be drawn to the long, double tail, lighter colored head and chest, and the orange-salmon colored bottom.
This bird belongs n the bird group, of flycatcher. He will sit out in the open on a branch, fence, or wire.  When he sees an insect, he flies out, to catch it in mid-air. This is called “hawking” insects. Funny name since most large hawks would not waste their time catching insects, which wouldn’t even be a good appetizer for hawks. Small insects he will swallow whole as he flies. Large insects he takes back to beat it against his perch to before eating it. When insects cannot be found, he will eat berries.
These birds are very territorial. They do not like other birds in their area.  They will not only chase other Scissor-tailed Flycatchers, but also Red-tailed Hawks, American Crows, Blue Jays, and Sparrows. These birds are excellent flyers. They will spread their tails when they fly and can make fast turns and stop quickly to hover over an area, like a helicopter.
These birds have been breeding in Hale, Sumter, and Greene, Counties in Alabama. Keep your eyes open. You may see these birds moving into your neighborhood.

Aerial Acrobats

Mike and I have empty nest syndrome now. All of our babies have fledged (moved out) and are living on their own. We have been visiting our neighbors and have noticed the aerial acrobats performed by small dark birds. Have you seen them?
They are usually flying around lakes, ponds, open fields, bridges, and highways. This species will fly quickly up, down, around, and change directions so fast, you lose track of them.  Do you know why they fly so frantically (crazily)? They are chasing insects. These swallows catch and swallow the insects as they fly. Swallows catch and eat, beetles, dragonflies, grasshoppers, moths, butterflies, bees, wasps, and flies. These birds will also drink water while they fly! They will fly over lakes, ponds, or rivers, and will scoop water with their beak. 
The largest swallow, and maybe the most well known, is the Purple Martin (Progne subis). This bird is larger than the American Robin. These beautiful dark birds will nest in birdhouses that look like apartment buildings. They like to be with friends and family! This is called colonial nesting, which means they nest in groups and not by themselves.
They have short, forked tails, long, pointed wings, and are an iridescent purple-blue color. Females are a dusty gray-brown color with some glossy purple-blue on their crown (head) and back. They feed higher in the sky than other swallows and, of course, eat the larger insects: dragonflies, grasshoppers, etc. When it is time to migrate south to South America, these birds gather in large groups and migrate together in HUGE flocks.
The next most commonly known swallow is the Barn Swallow (Hirundo rustica).  These birds have deeply forked tails with shiny blue backs and orange to peach colored chests, rusty foreheads and white bellies. Barn Swallows are larger than sparrows. These birds build mud nests in barns, garages, carports, bridges, and any other area that provides a protected ledge to hold a nest. They migrate to Central and South America for the winter.
Rough-winged Swallows, (Stelgidopteryx serripennis) are dusty gray-brown with light brown chests and dull white chests and bellies. They have short square-shaped tails. Their genus name “Stelgidopteryx” means scraper wing and their specific epithet “serripennismeans saw feather. Their name describes the small hooks along the edges of their wing feathers. If you rubbed your finger along the feathers, it would feel like you are rubbing on a fingernail file.
These birds balance the insect populations in our habitats.  I am just glad they do not compete with me for insects. I, like all mockingbirds, do not catch and eat insects as we fly. We like to eat insects as we perch or stand on the ground. However, like all birds, we do not have teeth to grind our food or to break the exoskeletons of insects into small pieces. We must eat grit and small bits of gravel to do the grinding for us. Next newsletter, I will explain more about our digestive system.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

House Hunting and Nest Building

 Mike and I have been refurbishing our nest. We have built a new nest higher up in the Dogwood tree. We pulled good twigs from the old nest to use and found new twigs.  After weaving the twigs together to build a strong, cup shaped nest, I gathered grass to line the nest. The grass makes the inside of the nest soft and warm for my babies.  I’ve been watching my neighbors build their nests, too.
  The barn swallows use a lot of mud. They gather dirt in their beak and mix it with saliva. Then go to their nest site and add the mud to the nest. When the mud dries, it’s like having a brick house with no roof!
The Carolina wren likes to build nests inside things. The people that live in a house in MY yard have a big pickup truck. The wrens built their nest on top of the spare tire located under the truck. Early one morning the man got in the truck and drove away. Mr. and Mrs. Wren were frantic because he took the nest and the babies with him. When he came back at the end of the day the parents rushed to the nest. The babies were all there and actually enjoyed their day out! I don’t think the man knew he was bird sitting that day!
The Red-bellied woodpecker couple has been checking out holes in the trees. They make a hole in the tree and excavate an area in the middle of the tree. They use wood shavings from their tree diggings to line the nest.
My hummingbird friend uses spider webs and lichens to make a small nest. The lichens camouflage the nest as it rests on a branch. Of course, female hummingbirds are single mothers. They build the nest and take care of the young.
Not all birds use their beaks to carry nesting materials. Remember my friend, Rusty the Red-shouldered Hawk? He will grab a dead tree branch with his feet and break it off of the tree. He then flies off with the branch in his feet.

What bird nests have you seen? Have you noticed that my friends and me will use “building” materials we find in the environment?
My friends that live across the lake, Grady and Gloria Great-Crested Flycatcher, will hunt for a snakeskin to add to their nest. They think it will help keep predators away.
My cardinal friends who live in the cemetery build a nest that is shaped like mine. They will use silk and plastic flowers in their nest because they are all over the cemetery.  Some birds will use things like yarn, ribbon, and even plastic trash.  Sometimes those man-made things can hurt the bird families. What materials do you see birds using? You can help us build our nests by setting out yarn, ribbon, thin strips of cloth, or even dog hair. You can put these items on the ground, hanging in a tree, or in one of those netting-type bags in which your parents may get oranges.

Download Millie's newsletter for photos, birding tips, and puzzles.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

The Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC)

We do count!  Did you know you have an opportunity to help bird scientists, called Ornithologists, count bird species? The big weekend to watch birds in your yard, park, or at school is Friday, February 15 to Monday, February 18, 2013. After watching and counting birds, you will get on the computer to submit your report of the number of different species you have seen.  Scientists all over the world analyze the data about birds and compare the data from year to year. They learn about my bird friends that you see each winter and if our populations are increasing or decreasing.
To participate in the GBBC:
1.    You or your parents will need to create an online account.
2.    Watch and count the birds for at least 15 minutes on one or more days of the four days.
3.    Enter your results online at the GBBC website.

By helping the scientists, you can help my friends and me. You can also see what other people in your area, state, or nation have reported. For more information about the Great Backyard Bird Count go to

As you observe the birds, you can also take notes of
·      Time of day
·      Temperature
·      Weather (sunny, cloudy, raining)
·      Where the birds are searching for food
·      Types of bird food eaten
·      How the birds behave with birds of same species or other species
·      Any thing else you find interesting
These notes will help you understand the birds better.

Another way to help scientists is to play “Merlin’s Bird Color Challenge.” This game is helping to train Merlin the computer to solve future bird identification questions. Your answers provide to the computer more information about how people see my bird friends and me. Merlin will do a better job of providing possible bird identification based on colors of the bird you see. This will make bird identification easier for you! Visit Merlin’s Challenge at

Millie's E-Newsletter January 2013:  Vol. 2, issue 1

Monday, September 10, 2012


So many of my summer friends are flying south to spend winter in Central or South America and
then return to North America in the Spring. Although these friends are leaving, new friends
will arrive to spend winter in Alabama. My next newsletter will introduce you to these winter
migrants. Have you ever wondered why birds migrate? There are two reasons: temperature and food. No matter what the reason why they leave, it all depends on the bird’s survival. These southern habitats have readily available food sources and habitats for the birds to spend their winter “vacation.”

What triggers the need to migrate? Even though there could be plenty of food in a habitat, the birds will still migrate. The changing of length of the day from sunrise to sundown, lets birds know that it is time to travel. As the day length shortens, birds become “antsy.” They start gorging on food to build body fat for the long journey. Some birds, like Chimney Swifts” will congregate together and travel south in a large flock. Other birds migrate by themselves. Most birds migrating
through Alabama will cross the Gulf of Mexico to reach Central and South America. That’s a long journey to fly. Doppler radar, used to track storms, can also track migrating flocks of birds flying at night. You can see these nighttime migrants by looking through a telescope at the moon. You will see
these migrating birds as they cross in front of the moon.

Have you thought about birds in South America migrating north for their winter? Some birds do. No matter where birds migrate to, they always migrate back to their breeding grounds.

Which bird species do you think migrates back to North America
first? Post your answers below under comments!

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Bird Sounds

Hello. Hello. Hello.
Many readers have asked me about bird voices. Did you know that birds do not have a larynx, or voice box, like people? We have a syrinx, which sets much lower in our bodies. It can be found at the bottom of the trachea but right above both bronchi tubes, which are the passageways to the lungs. Because the syrinx has two airways joining it, birds can sing two notes at one time. We do not have to sing a duet with another bird. We can sing a duet with ourselves!

When it comes to sounds, we (birds) have three sets of sounds: chips, songs, and calls.  Chip notes are short, quick, and high-pitched. These notes help us to  know where our mates or flock friends are or that we have found  food. Songs are sung to attract a mate, establish territory, or sometimes during flight. These songs are very complex, and many times, we sing more than one note at a time. Birds are so talented! 

Some songs, we are born knowing. Some songs we have to learn from our parents. You may sometimes hear baby birds practice their songs, just like you may practice singing or playing an instrument. Sometimes mistakes are made, but they practice, practice, practice, until they learn how to sing the song right.

Have you noticed that people in different parts of the United States speak differently? They have regional dialects. Birds can have dialects, too. A Northern Cardinal song in New York may sound slightly different from the Northern Cardinal song in Alabama.  Therefore, you really need to find song recordings of birds from your area! When I or my family (mockingbirds) sing, we repeat our songs three times.

I will have to write about call notes next time. Mike Mocker is calling me right now.

Bye, Bye, Bye!

If you would like more details about bird voices, check out these web sites: