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For the Birds
Elizabeth Clarkson and the Birds
When Mrs. Clarkson came to Charlotte in 1927 a garden with hedges and borders and trees was her all-consuming desire—the birds were just a lovely part of the garden’s background. During a lengthy illness that forced her to spend many days in bed or, weather permitting, on a cot in the garden, she became passionate about the birds.
In an article published in Audubon in 1945 she wrote, “Up to that time all plants and shrubs and trees had been selected for their contribution to the garden picture, but from that moment when I suddenly became interested in birds, each addition was weighed also from the ‘bird’s point of view,’ and bird baths, feeding stations, suet baskets, and hummingbird feeders became garden necessities.”
Over the years many species of birds have been spotted in the garden. The following is a listing of the birds that visitors to Wing Haven are most likely to see in the garden.
Elizabeth Clarkson's Pets and Birds
Want to read more about Tommy and others from the garden? Read Mary Norton Kratt’s "A Bird in the House”
Birds Seen in the GardenAmerican Robin
Although the American Robin is a permanent resident of our region, large flocks visit the garden in winter particularly when severe weather arrives in the North. The Robin has a slate gray back, red breast, yellow bill, and white eye rings. The American Robin eats both fruit and invertebrates. Earthworms are important during the breeding season, but fruit is the main diet in winter. Robins eat different types of food depending on the time of day; they eat earthworms early in the day and more fruit later in the day. At Wing Haven the Robins enjoy a variety of fruits and monopolize the bird baths in the Rose Garden.
These birds normally migrate to the tropics in September or October and winter in Mexico or Northern South America. However, occasionally a pair decides to make Wing Haven their winter home and they become regulars at the mealworm feeder. Orioles consume a diverse diet of fruit (oranges, pears and berries) as well as seeds of garden flowers. They are useful insect eaters as well and are very helpful in reducing pest populations. Their diet includes gypsy moth larvae, grasshoppers, tent caterpillars, and leaf beetles. Orioles are expert builders and wave intricate basket-like hanging nests out of weed stalks and plant fibers. Usually, an oriole will construct a nest on the end of a twig, making it accessible only by air.
A large bird, about 10 inches in length, the Brown Thrasher has bright rufous upperparts and its belly is pale buff with brown streaks; it has haunting yellow eyes, a long, curved bill, and a long, graceful tail. A resident of deciduous thickets, woodland borders and bushy fields, the Brown Thrasher gets its name from its habit of “thrashing” about on the ground looking for insects in the leaf litter. In spring they feed primarily on insects and spiders and, during the summer and autumn, are often found eating wild fruit. The Brown Thrasher will come to the feeders at Wing Haven for mealworms and suet.
A small, short-billed bird, the Carolina Chickadee has a black cap, black bib, and white cheeks. Its call “chick-a-dee-dee-dee” suggests its name. This tiny omnivore feeds readily on insects, spiders, seeds, and fruits. At Wing Haven we spot this year-round resident at the mealworm bowl as well as other feeders. The Chickadee’s natural habitat consists of deciduous and mixed deciduous/coniferous woodlands; they nest in cavities of dead trees or rotten branches and will readily use nest boxes.
Singing with one of the loudest voices per volume of bird, the Carolina Wren's "tea-kettle, tea-kettle, tea-kettle" is a familiar song at Wing Haven. This small brown songbird has prominent white eye stripes and is often seen with its tail held upward. The Carolina Wren feeds on insects and spiders and requires moderately dense shrub or brushy cover. Its nest is a domed cup with a side entrance and can be found in tree cavity, vine tangle, or an artificial site such as a mailbox or planter.
The smallest and most common of the Eastern Woodpeckers, the Downy Woodpecker has adapted to life in our city parks and gardens. It is a small (6 to 7 inches long), black and white woodpecker with a broad white stripe that runs down the center of its back and has a very short bill. The male has a small patch of red on the back of its head. The Downy feeds on insects — wood borers, beetles, ants, spiders, aphids and scale insects — and some wild fruit. It clings to the trunk or branch of the tree to dig out beetle grub or to flake off bark to get at an insect cocoon or batch of insect eggs. It may move along the tree in quick jerky hops or flit to the outer branches in search of food.
A small thrush (6 ½” long) with a big, rounded head, large eye, and erect posture. The male is a vivid, deep blue above and with a brick-red throat and breast. The female has a grayish-blue head and back and a subdued orange-brown breast. Both male and female have a white belly.
The Clarksons reported many bluebirds in the garden in the 1930’s and 1940’s; however, as Charlotte began to grow, the bluebird left the garden for many years. Finally, in late April of 2006, a pair of bluebirds took up residence in the nest box in front of the Clarkson home.
The bluebirds’ disappearance and return to the garden echoes the story of bluebirds across the nation. As wooden fence posts and dead trees — both favorite nesting sites — disappeared from the landscape so did bluebirds. The changing landscape at Wing Haven also played a factor in the disappearance of the bluebird. Bluebirds enjoy open fields where insects are easy to see so that they can swoop down and capture them from above.
Bird lovers launched campaigns across the nation to build nest-boxes and monitor bluebird populations. Largely due to the efforts of nest-box hangers, bluebird populations began to rebound in the Carolinas and elsewhere.
As Elizabeth Clarkson wrote in her journal on July 21, 1933, “The little male bluebird is back today, and I’m glad to see him.” We are always glad to see them return to Wing Haven. For more information about bluebirds, visit Sialis.org.
A summer resident that returns to Wing Haven in mid-April just as the mahonia berries ripen, the Catbird announces his/her arrival with its very chatty song, often punctuated by a cat-like “mew.” The Catbird is quite handsome and sleek — both male and female are approximately 9 inches long, slate-gray in color with a small black cap, a touch of chestnut under the tail, and black cat whiskers. The Catbird prefers to nest close to the ground in dense thickets and makes its nest out of twigs, vines, weeds, and a lining of fine rootlets. The catbird lays 3 to 6 eggs per brood and will have two broods, sometimes three, per season. The young leave the nest when they are 10 to 15 days old. The catbird feeds on fruit and insects. Its young are fed a diet entirely of insects.
A medium-sized finch, the male House Finch has bright red on the head, chest, and rump; the female is brown and striped. Its bill is short and thick, with a rounded top edge. This year-round resident comes readily to feeders, and one is almost always present at the feeding station near the Oval Pool. The House Finch was originally a bird of the southwestern United States and Mexico. In 1940 a small number of finches were turned loose on Long Island, New York, and they quickly started breeding. Since that time they have spread across the entire eastern United States. The House Finch breeds in close association with people and often chooses a hanging plant or awning in which to put its nest.
His magnificent red plumage, large crest, and year-round song make the male Cardinal one of our most beautiful birds. The female is a handsome tan bird with red tail, wings, and beak. The Cardinal’s song is a series of clear whistles, often described as “What cheer! What cheer! Pretty, pretty, pretty!” Cardinals feel at home at Wing Haven because of the many dense vines, shrubs, and evergreens that provide nesting sites, food sources, and winter cover. The Cardinal’s heavy-duty beak is best equipped for eating seeds, but they will consume a variety of fruits and insects as well. They come to the feeder for black-oil sunflower seeds, safflower seeds, cracked corn, and peanut butter.
Although you’ll find only a pale rosy wash on its belly, you’ll spot the scarlet-red plumage on the nape (male and female) and head (male only). The Red-bellied Woodpecker is a handsome bird with a black-and-white barred back and wings and is usually 9 ½ to 10 inches long. As is typical of other members of the Woodpecker family, the Red-belly has a vertical posture, rounded wings, a chisel-shaped bill, and an undulating flight pattern.
Unlike most other woodpeckers, Red-bellies sample nearly every food available and will readily eat a variety of seeds, corn, acorns, fruits, insects, and an occasional frog or lizard. They are frequent visitors to the feeders at Wing Haven where they enjoy our sunflower seeds, suet, and peanut butter mixtures. Their foraging techniques are quite varied and they are as likely to search for food on the ground as to glean tree trunks and branches. Red-bellies go after insects hiding in bark crevices with their long tongues that extend well beyond the end of their beaks.
The Red-bellied Woodpecker nests in dead trees or deciduous trees with softer wood such as elms, maples, sycamores or willows. The male and female work together to create a cavity – 10 to 12 inches deep, with a 2-inch-diameter entrance h ole. The nest is usually 12 to 20 feet above ground. The female lays 4 or 5 eggs that are incubated for 12 days by both sexes. Both male and female feed and care for the young. Red-bellies living in the South may raise as many as 2 or 3 broods per season.
With its pointed topknot and big, black eyes, the Tufted Titmouse is always a welcome sight at Wing Haven. This small bird (6 ½”) has a gray back, whitish belly with a tinge of rust under each wing and a very large voice for its size. During the spring months, it whistles “peter-peter-peter” or an occasional “jay-jay-jay” during times of stress. Ever alert and inquisitive, the Titmouse is a woodland bird that gathers in small flocks with chickadees, nuthatches and kinglets during the winter months. Titmice feed on small insects — caterpillars, wasps, beetles, spiders and snails — as well as acorns, wild fruits, and nuts. They will feed on sunflower seeds, peanuts and suet placed in hanging feeders.
A small (5 ½ inches long) gray bird with a black cap, the White-breasted Nuthatch has a white face and underside, and its beak is long and thin, an excellent tool for probing under bark. Its distinctive call is a very nasal “yank, yank, yank.” The Nuthatch is a year-round resident and is frequently spotted traveling between the Mulberry and the feeders near the Oval Pool. They nest in cavities or nest boxes and raise only one brood per season.
White-throated Sparrow (Zonotrichia albicollis)
The beautifully haunting song of the White-throated Sparrow opens with a couple of clear notes followed by three quavering notes of different pitch. This brown-backed sparrow has a gray breast, pale belly, tan or white head stripes, a white throat patch, and a distinctive yellow spot between the eye and bill. The White-throated Sparrow winters in Charlotte — usually arriving from the North in late October and departing in April. This bird frequents the thickets prefers to nest and forage for food at ground level where it feeds on insects, berries and weed seeds. At the feeder, it will choose cracked corn and peanut hearts.