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An American tree sparrow snacks on aster seeds on a cold winter day at the Nipper Wildlife Sanctuary near Loami. Chris Young/The State Journal-Register.

Winter birds have to be tough

January 16, 2014 at 02:23 PM

The State Journal-Register

The concept of going south for the winter is relative.

When we think of migrating birds, we most often think of those that pass through Illinois on their way to some warmer and greener locations to the south.

But for some birds, Illinois is south — at least farther south than the Arctic tundra where their journey began.

Even for weather-hardened birds, a cold snap like we experienced a week or so ago can be tough to take.

H. David Bohlen, assistant curator of zoology for the Illinois State Museum was in the countryside looking for snowy owls when he thought he saw a leaf blow across the road.

When he took a closer look, he discovered it was a bird — a Lapland longspur — caught in the strong winds.

Lapland longspurs are long-distance migrants that may spend the winter here.

“Sometimes they show up fairly early like late September or early October, but I don’t usually see them until they get forced out (of their home range) by bad weather,” Bohlen said. “They breed on the tundra, and they are a long way from home.”

A Lapland longspur is a sparrow-sized bird that is brown and white. It often is seen at roadsides feeding when snow covers the ground.

Bohlen recalled a story of looking for birds at Marine Point on Lake Springfield one year, when a flock of birds came across the lake.

“A few of them landed at the point, and some of the longspurs had ice on their tails,” he said.

Snow birds

Another visitor from afar is the American tree sparrow.

It has a rusty red crown and usually a dark dot in the center of its clear breast.

It takes a lot to drive a tree sparrow all the way south to central Illinois.

“Sometimes there will be a barrage of American tree sparrows right around Christmas Bird Count,” Bohlen said. “But it has to be really cold to drive these guys down. They are really hardy.”

Other migrating birds spend some or all of the winter in Illinois, including short-eared owls and northern harriers.

Both are listed as state-endangered because few nest in the state anymore.

“There for a long time I didn’t see them very often,” Bohlen said. “Now that we’ve got a little bit of habitat they are starting to hang around more.”

Grassland birds like harriers need large acreages for hunting.

Birds to be seen

In addition to long-distance travelers, resident birds have to be hardy, too.

Most backyard bird-watchers are familiar with the northern cardinals, black-capped chickadees, white-breasted nuthatches, and downy woodpeckers that frequent feeders.

Backyard birders worry about their chickadees and hunters often fret about the effect of severe winters on the reproduction of game birds, like ring-necked pheasants.

“I think they’ll be fine right now,” said Aaron Kuehl, conservation director for Illinois Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever. “I don’t think (the recent cold snap) should stress the birds out as long as there is suitable habitat. If there is grassland or cattails they should be fine.”

Kuehl said pheasants live for only about one-and-a-half years on average, whether they are facing winters in the northern Great Plains or in Illinois.

“This is not much of a winter compared to South Dakota or Minnesota,” he said. “Birds, whether they are here or in South Dakota only see a couple of winters in their lifetime.”

Kuehl said winter survival probability is based on number of days with significant snow cover of at least eight inches and number of days with high temperatures below freezing.

“Those are the two main factors, and that is where (winter weather) really starts to affect the bird populations,” he said.

Among game birds, ducks and geese seem to have a high tolerance for cold, as long as they can find some open water.

“There are 300-400 common goldeneyes out there now,” Bohlen said. “They winter there almost every year. I’ve had as many as 800 goldeneyes.”

Add in hundreds of common and hooded mergansers, canvasbacks and ruddy ducks.

And there is some variety in the gulls that hang around.

In addition to the ubiquitous ring-billed gulls, herring gulls, glaucous, Iceland and lesser black-backed gulls can be found during the winter months, he said.

Chris Young can be reached at 341-8487 or .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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