What to Watch for in December — Birds in Fine Feather
Here’s the Central Texas bird forecast for the month, courtesy of Travis Audubon. Learn more about Central Texas birds and bird-related events for all ages at or by calling 512-300-BIRD. Follow us at
Chances are there is an Austin bird that captures the spirit of your holiday celebration. The Northern Cardinal sports the brightest red of any North American bird. Monk Parakeets, with their bright green upperparts, visit some Austin backyard feeders and are often seen near electrical utility towers where they build bulky nests. Brightly-colored Blue Jays can be found with little effort. European Starlings are showing off their sparkling white speckled plumage on a contrasting black background, just right for a New Year’s Eve party.
So what makes these birds look so fresh right now? Birds that live here year-round and have reached adulthood molt once annually, when they replace their feathers. Over the course of the year, feathers get worn and frayed in a bird’s daily activities. It is critical to replace these feathers in order to fly well and stay well-insulated. Molt typically begins in the late summer after the breeding season is over. Fledglings are less needy, and adult birds can concentrate on getting the calories they need for this energetically demanding process. Molt can take about 12 weeks. Just in time for the holidays, these birds are sporting new feathers like a fresh coat of paint.
During molt, male and female cardinals seek out fruits, berries and insects containing carotenoids which enhance the red pigment in their feathers. Studies have shown that the brightest red male cardinals are most attractive to the tan and red females. They seem to hold the best breeding territories and have greater reproductive success than duller males. (More offspring may be due to greater food availability and better nesting sites in those territories.)
Did you know that the blue color of Blue Jays is due to a trick of the light? Pick up a jay feather and backlight it – you will see it is brownish, not blue as you might expect. According to All About Birds “The pigment in Blue Jay feathers is melanin, which is brown. The blue color is caused by scattering light through modified cells on the surface of the feather barbs.” Melanin strengthens bird feathers against wear and tear. That is why you often see dark wing tips on birds.
European Starlings molt in mid-summer to fall. After the molt their head and body feathers have white or buff spots on the ends of the black feathers, with dramatic effect. As the feathers wear, these spots disappear, so that in spring the birds’ feathers are shiny black. This change into breeding plumage requires no extra calories or effort. Contrast that with the many birds that winter in the tropics and breed here. They undergo a full molt after breeding, and a partial molt before breeding season – requiring extra energy. That is in addition to the demanding migration they undertake.
To keep your backyard birds fit for the holidays provide foods that will help them get through cold winter nights. Red pepper suet available at specialty bird or hardware stores is popular with wrens and Ruby-crowned Kinglets that don’t visit seed feeders. A big plus is that squirrels avoid red pepper suet. Black-oil sunflower seed appeals to the widest variety of seed eaters like Blue Jays and Northern Cardinals. Both Lesser and American Goldfinches love thistle (sometimes called nyjer). Put out fresh water too. But to make sure your birds are brightly colored from now on, resolve to incorporate some native plants in your garden update next spring. Native plants support the insects birds need, in addition to providing seeds, fruits, nuts, and sap that lots of wildlife use. Remember that birds get feather-brightening pigments from eating plants or the insects that ate those plants, and native plants have evolved to provide just what they need.
For the bird-loving gardener on your gift list, an excellent basic resource is Texas Wildscapes: Gardening for Wildlife, by Kelly Conrad Bender, Texas A&M University Press, 2009. Another is Bringing Nature Home: How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants, Updated and Expanded by Douglas W. Tallamy, Timber Press; Second Edition, 2009.
Travis Audubon December Events — Check the calendar. Events often fill quickly and some require registration.
Christmas Shopping for Binoculars and Spotting Scopes – Dec. 2, 10:00 a.m. until 1:30 p.m. Join Travis Audubon and Land Sea & Sky for a very special opportunity at Baker Sanctuary to try binoculars and spotting scopes from brands like Swarovski, Leica, Zeiss and more. Enjoy a talk by Glenn Olsen at 10:30 on how to prepare for Christmas Bird Counts.
Travis Audubon Field Trips — A great way to learn more about our central Texas birds is to go on a field trip. Check the website for additional trips, and location and registration details. The following trips don’t require registration.
Beginner Bird Walk at Barkley Meadows Dec. 1, 8:00 until 10 a.m. The Beginners’ Bird Walk is held on the first Saturday of each month and is open to birders of all levels and ages. It’s free. It’s fun. Membership is not required. Registration is not required. Need binoculars? We’ve got loaners. Barkley Meadows is a fairly new park in Southeastern Travis County not far from the airport. It has a pond, fields and a wooded area. Plan to walk about 2 miles.
Wintering Birds of the Wildflower Center Dec. 4, 7:30 a.m. until 9:30 a.m. Walk the trails and learn about both birds and the native plants they depend on. Free to Travis Audubon and Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center members; others $10. Registration required.
Winter Birding at Indiangrass Wildlife Sanctuary Dec. 9, 7:30 until 11:30 a.m. Join City of Austin Park Rangers for an exclusive tour of this little-seen City preserve! Indiangrass Wildlife Sanctuary is a nature preserve in northeast Austin on the north shore of Lake Walter E. Long. About 250 acres of critically endangered Blackland Prairie habitat are preserved here, and the meeting of grassland and lakeside habitat make for truly spectacular winter birding. A hike through the preserve will take us to the lake, where we’ll paddle around the lakeshore looking for waterfowl. Registration required.
Austin Christmas Bird Count Dec. 15 Bird watchers will fan out on the southeast side of Austin within a 15 mile diameter circle centered on McKinney Falls State Park. They will count all birds and bird species encountered. It is a fun event that welcomes newcomers. You need to register with the count compiler to be assigned to a team. If you are a feeder watcher in the count circle, and would like to contribute data on the birds you see throughout the day, please also contact the compiler, Tyler Miloy at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit the Austin CBC website. The Austin CBC website has maps, photo gallery and other important resources.
Compiled by Jane Tillman, Travis Audubon Volunteer