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 travisaudubon.org or by calling 512-300-BIRD. Follow us at www.facebook.com/travisaudubon
Birds of a Feather Flock Together
January is a good month to notice flocking songbirds like American Robins and sociable Cedar Waxwings. Robins and Cedar Waxwings are frugivores, depending in large part on berrying plants in the winter months. They descend on yards and parks to eat the berries of many native plants including yaupon and possumhaw holly, Ashe juniper, American beautyberry, and rusty blackhaw viburnum. (Non-native plants like ligustrum also are popular with birds, which explains how a landscape can become a monoculture. Berries pass through birds’ digestive systems pretty quickly, and the extra fertilizer helps the seeds germinate. Be aware that the bright red berries of Nandina, a popular non-native shrub, have been implicated in the deaths of Cedar Waxwings.)
Do you still have plants with berries? A territorial resident Northern Mockingbird might explain why they are untouched, since the aggressive mockingbird spends a lot of time guarding its food supply. In fact if you are out walking and notice a shrub that retains its berries as winter progresses, take a minute to see if there is a mockingbird perched on it or close by.
One of the best ways to notice Cedar Waxwings is to listen for their high-pitched, plaintive “seee see see” contact calls. In town, they are often seen in groups of 25-300 birds, flying as a fairly tight-knit group. Robins are much bigger birds than Cedar Waxwings, 10 inches vs 7.25 inches in length. In flight their flocks are not quite as compact as the waxwings and you can often see the sharp contrast between their red breasts and the white bellies. Both species often perch in the top of trees. Cedar Waxwings can be surprisingly cryptic, blending in well with bare branches. Robins sometimes will be quite visible. Listen for their distinctive whinny call and low “cucks.” Learn these calls by visiting Cornell Lab’s All About Birds website.
American Goldfinches are another flocking bird in Austin this winter. They are foraging for seeds, so look for them in weedy spots. They are especially fond of thistle. Check sycamore trees too, as goldfinches love the seed balls. In flight a flock of American Goldfinches looks bouncy, and they often will make a “po-ta-to-chip-chip” call as they fly. Some people liken it to “per-chick-o-ree.”
Cedar Waxwings and American Goldfinches and most American Robins are winter Texans so enjoy them for the next few months.
The huge flocks of birds that can hardly escape notice during winter are the Great-tailed Grackles that mass on the wires in well-lit urban areas and then settle into trees for the night. During the winter both sexes roost communally, and since they are so concentrated it is an impressive sight. In spring, the birds will disperse to breed.
Some of the other flocking species that occur in large numbers in the Austin area are Red-winged Blackbirds which often roost in the marshy cattails, reeds and sedges of ponds around town, and Brown-headed Cowbirds.
The non-native European Starlings are famous for their extraordinarily coordinated flights called murmurations. They are the subject of many YouTube videos including one from New Sweden in northeast Travis County. If you travel through agricultural areas such as north on Interstate 35, chances are you will witness this fascinating behavior.
Travis Audubon Upcoming Events — Winter is a great time for bird watching, with lots of feathered winter Texans here to escape the cold. If the weather outside is frightful, there are several indoor events that may fill your birding needs.
Beginning Backyard Birding Class, February 1, 9 a.m. to 1:15 p.m. at an east Austin location. Registration and fee required.
Compiled by Jane Tillman, Travis Audubon Volunteer