Visit the Birds page for more information about Shenandoah's birds, including access to a species list.
“If you take care of birds, you take care of most of the environmental problems in the world.” –Thomas Lovejoy
Did you know that 2018 is the Year of the Bird? Although we celebrate birds every year here at Shenandoah National Park, this year is exceptionally special for our feathered friends. 2018 marks the centennial of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act—a U.S. law in convention with Canada, Mexico, Japan, and Russia to protect migratory birds from being harmed, imported, and/or exported. In honor of this milestone, National Geographic, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, BirdLife International, the National Audubon Society, the National Park Service and 100 other organizations have taken the pledge to highlight the importance of birds and to commit to protecting birds today, the next hundred years, and another hundred years after that.
In celebration of the Year of the Bird, Shenandoah National Park will feature a resident or visiting bird to the Park every week on Feathered Friends Fridays at the Harry F. Byrd Visitor Center, Dickey Ridge Visitor Center (in-season), here on the official Shenandoah National Park webpage and on our Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram pages!
If you would like to take the pledge to #BirdYourWorld and learn more about how you too can participate, please visit the official Year of the Bird Webpage (www.birdyourworld.org).
Week Thirty-one: Turkey Vulture (Cathartes aura)
Probably considered one of the ugliest birds on the planet, the turkey vulture gets little respect. However, if you have ever driven down the road and smelled the dead carcass of a deer or other animal you should appreciate that the turkey vulture uses that same smell to zero in on its next meal. Its keen nose can detect newly dead animals from as far away as one mile and when you see them soaring on the breeze they are trying to pick up the faint smell that tells them “Dinner Time”. And by making its meals the dead things along the roads and in the forests it keeps things smelling fresh and pleasant for us when we visit Shenandoah National Park.
Shenandoah National Park is a year round home for turkey vultures. They can often be seen flying solo or in “kettles” as a group of flying turkey vultures is called. They are not threatened as a species here in our area but can be a pest to homeowners whose trees they decide to roost (called a wake) in among the branches.
Next time you see a turkey vulture fly by, tip your hat and give it a big Thank You for helping keep our park clean.
Week Thirty: Eastern Bluebird (Sialia sialis)
As winter descends upon Shenandoah National Park, the landscape's color palette transforms from magnificent fall hues to earthy, brown tones. Many vibrant species of birds fly south for warm wintering grounds as temperatures drop. Eastern Bluebirds, with their rusty red breasts reminiscent of a setting sun and evocative, deep blue plumage may be found in Shenandoah year-round. These birds perch upon posts, wires, and tree branches in open areas, surveying for insects and berries. Their presence is often interpreted as a harbinger of happiness, and is pervasive throughout folklore and popular culture.
While Bluebirds are featured prominently throughout Native American, Chinese, and European folklore, you might be familiar with Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg's 1938 song "Over the Rainbow," written for the film Wizard of Oz:
"Somewhere over the rainbow...Bluebirds fly
And the dreams that you dream of...Dreams really do come true."
The steely-eyed peregrine is a rare sight in Shenandoah. Once found throughout the country, the peregrine falcon disappeared from the eastern United States due to DDT poisoning by the late 1960s. In response, the peregrine falcon was listed as a federally endangered species in 1973 after the passage of the Endangered Species Act.
With recovery in mind, various state and federal agencies, nonprofits, and universities worked together to release over 1,200 young falcons in the eastern United States, with roughly 250 of those released in Virginia. Reintroduction at coastal sites was so successful that in 1999 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service removed the peregrine falcon from the Endangered Species List. However, Central Appalachian peregrine populations had not recovered as hoped. Consequently, the peregrine falcon remains listed as a Threatened Species under Virginia’s Endangered Species Act. Shenandoah National Park, along with our partners from the Center for Conservation Biology, Virginia Department of Game & Inland Fisheries, and Virginia DOT have teamed up since 2000 to restore peregrines to their historical breeding grounds in the mountains.
Over the last two months Park staff and partners restored six peregrine falcons into Shenandoah National Park. These young peregrines came from coastal bridge nests where survival has been low due to premature fledging over open water. The peregrines were released through a method known as hacking. Young birds are kept in a box at a release site mimicking a natural peregrine nest. When the birds are ready for flight the box is opened. Slowly, they learn to hunt on their own. Once the fledglings leave the hope is that they will return to the Central Appalachians to breed when they are ready. Learn more about peregrine falcon restoration.
Picture this: you wake up in late March to an uncharacteristically warm day. The persistent layer of snow that has blanketed your garden all winter long runs in crystal clear rivulets across your yard. In sheer amazement, you shake the dust from your hiking boots: what better way to spend a warm, early spring day than in Shenandoah? You stop at an overlook to marvel at the white-capped mountains, your attention momentarily stolen by a black and white flash. A high-pitched “weesy-weesy-weesy-weesy” rents the air. A black-and-white warbler sits nearby, on the hunt for spiders, daddy longlegs, and other insects. With a look of incredulity, you watch the warbler “creep” down the tree upon which it sits, similar to how nuthatches and creepers cling to trees, using its long beak to probe for insects. As one of the first migrating bird species to arrive at breeding grounds, the arrival of the black-and-white warbler often welcomes the onset of spring!
Although bright red and unmistakable, the male Scarlet Tanager is seldom seen but readily heard. These birds are fairly common, but often remain out of sight as they move slowly in the upper canopy of the forest in search of insects. Their presence is given away by a burry, rambling song and a distinctive chick-burr call. Although the males are a brilliant red, the females and immature males are olive green in color with dark wings. Scarlet tanagers are sensitive to habitat fragmentation, making the large stretches of forest in Shenandoah National Park the perfect home! #BirdYourWorld
Week Twenty-six: Ovenbird (Seiurus aurocapilla)
Ovenbirds are summer visitors here in Shenandoah National Park, migrating down to Mexico for the winter, and you will often hear their distinctive “tea-cher” call throughout the park. You may see these little birds hopping around on the ground like small chickens while they search for bugs to eat. Ovenbirds get their name from the shape of the nest the female builds from twined grasses- it looks just like a traditional pizza oven. After chicks leave the nest, the male and female split the brood, with the male keeping half in his territory and the female taking half to an adjacent area.
Shenandoah is home to a very healthy population of Wood Thrushes! These medium-sized songbirds are well camouflaged and like to stay hidden in the forest, so they can be easy to miss! However, if you're listening for them, it’s hard not to notice them. They have a long, flute-like, musical song, and some people consider it the most beautiful bird song in this region! If you take a summer cruise down Skyline Drive with your windows rolled down, you are bound to hear a Wood Thrush singing its gorgeous song. These birds will be with us for a few more months before they migrate back to Central America in the early fall, so you have time to go #BirdYourWorld and find this incredible songster!
In the space between blue and violet lies the deep, rich hue known as Indigo—spectacularly represented in nature via the vibrant Indigo Bunting. During the breeding season, the males are an unmistakable site (and sound) throughout Shenandoah National Park. Their songs can be heard at overlooks along Skyline Drive as they establish and enforce their territories, usually from high atop a tree. When viewed in direct sunlight, these lovely birds can appear to glow—their color brightening to an ethereal aquamarine.
The lesser seen and more plain-in-appearance female does almost all the caring for the eggs and young, and she is also the lone builder of the nest. She and her electric mate exist on a diet of mostly seeds, berries, buds, and insects. Indigo Buntings have an extremely large range—breeding in southern Canada and the United States and migrating south to Mexico, the Caribbean, Panama and Venezuela for the winter months.
Keep your eyes open for a flash of electric blue…er…Indigo. Seeing this lovely bird is always a thrill!
Have you ever been out for an evening stroll and heard the melodious “whip-poor-will, whip-poor-will” ringing through the night air? You may have had the distinct privilege of hearing the eastern whip-poor-will, a bird that is often heard but not seen due to its uncanny ability to camouflage within its forest habitat. While whip-poor-wills are often active at dawn and dusk, they lay their eggs in phase with the lunar cycle to ensure that the adults have sufficient moonlight by which to forage for food. Unlike many species of birds, whip-poor-wills do not construct nests, but instead lay their eggs directly onto leaf litter lining the forest floor. Should you chance upon whip-poor-will young, odds are if you return to investigate further the adult bird will have shuffled the chicks to an alternate location. While whip-poor-wills are an elusive bird species, they are also threatened by conversion of their habitat to agricultural and developed land - to hear a whip-poor-will is truly a treat!
An unassuming bird with a lovely, melancholy song, the Hermit Thrush lurks in the understories of the wooded areas in Shenandoah National Park during the fall, spring, and winter. It forages on the forest floor by rummaging through leaf litter or seizing insects with its bill. The Hermit Thrush has a rich brown upper body and smudged spots on the breast, with a reddish tail that sets it apart from similar species in its genus.
This crow-sized bird with a striking red cap may remind you of an iconic cartoon character that shares similar features. The cartoon bird has a distinctive laugh, while the Pileated Woodpecker that is pictured here has a distinctive call that sounds like a series of piping “wuks” that is reminiscent of a monkey chattering! Pileated Woodpeckers are also unique in that they create rectangle-shaped cavities in dead trees and fallen logs in search of insects to eat, though they will also snack on fruits and nuts. They have a wide habitat range across the north and southeast, and are commonly spotted in Shenandoah National Park. If you have dead trees or fallen logs in your yard, you may have some beautiful Pileated Woodpeckers stopping by in search of an insect-filled meal!
You hear a hum, see a quick flash of green and red, then notice a small creature hovers at a flower; this is the ruby-throated hummingbird. Iridescent green, the males have a bright ruby-red throat which is how they get the name ruby-throated hummingbird. These birds can beat their wings up to seventy-five times per second. They zip around with the ability to move backwards, sideways, up down and hover in midair. The Ruby-throated Hummingbird is eastern North America’s only breeding hummingbird. Though they may be little, ruby-throated hummingbirds are big migrators, bound for Central America in the fall with some traveling from Canada to Costa Rica. Attracted to red and orange tubular flowers, these birds fly from flower to flower feeding on nectar, thus becoming great pollinators. Ruby-throated hummingbirds will also eat small insects but you can most easily attract these gems to your yard by planting tubular flowers and setting up hummingbird feeders.
Week Nineteen: Common Raven
Have you ever been called a ‘Birdbrain’ and took it as an insult? Think again! Many birds, like the Common Raven (Corvus corax), have been able to solve complex puzzles, select the correct tools for a certain project, and even learn bartering skills! Not only are these birds smart, but they are quite the acrobats of the sky. Ravens can often be seen doing rolls and somersaults in the air and one individual was even seen flying upside down for over a half-mile! Sticks are important tools for Ravens as they provide both a home and a sense of entertainment for them. Due to their big, strong, blunt beaks, Ravens can break off branches that are three feet long and an inch thick from live plants to construct their nests and can also be seen dropping sticks in mid-flight and then diving for them in mid-air! Next time you see a Raven, maybe you will get a chance to see some of their magnificent displays!
Week Eighteen: Barred Owl
One of the most common owls in Shenandoah, their diet consists mostly of small mammals. Unlike most owls, however, they will hunt during the day and the night. They can be easily identified by their distinctive call: "Who-cooks-for-you? Who-cooks-for-you-all?"
Week Seventeen: Barn Swallow
This small but feisty bird can zigzag through the air and catch insects, a drink, or even a bath, all while on the wing. Their favorite food: the flying insects that tend to bug us. They may be easily recognizable in flight because of their prominently forked tails. They construct their nests out of mud, almost exclusively on man-made structures. In fact, the only population of barn swallows that still uses caves for their homes lives in Channel Islands, California. Male barn swallows ferociously protect their small territories, but many pairs may nest in the same area. A male will also ferociously protect his ability to mate, and may get violent with other males and their young in order to win over the female and start his own brood. But he and his mate may accept help in raising young from other juvenile birds from previous broods.
The charismatic and vocal Eastern Towhees have returned to Shenandoah for the spring. What's one reason we love them so much? It is always tea time for Eastern Towhees! You can recognize their call easily because they are constantly reminding you to ‘drink-your-tea’. Although very skilled flyers, they often hop on the ground to get around while in search of tasty morsels like seeds, fruit and insects.You may be hiking on the trail and hear a large rustling in the underbrush nearby - is it a 200-lb bear? Maybe! But it might also be a towhee, which loudly scratches at fallen leaves to uncover food. Male towhees will defend their territories by lifting, spreading, or drooping their wings and fanning their tails to show off the white spots at the corners. And that's another reason we love them - their beautiful, distinct plumage is an eye catcher.
These chunky little birds are often the first back to Shenanodoah where their habitat is abundant and fully protected--one reason why the blue-headed vireo is a success story. Unlike many bird species, its population has actually increased in the last ten years! Spot this bird by its deep blue crown and thick white "spectacles" around its eyes. And, welcome them to your area since their preferred food is medium to large insects! They look for mid-canopy areas of mixed diciduous-coniferous forests and breed in the higher elevations of Shenandoah.
Week Fourteen: American Woodcock
If you come to an open, wet area in the park within an hour or so after sunset, you might see male Woodcocks performing their amazing "Sky Dances." In an effort to impress females, they start with a buzzy "peent" call from the ground. Then the males launch themselves in wide spirals high into the air, as the wind in their wings makes a twittering sound. Then they turn back, still twittering and adding some chirping as they descend. They announce their landing with another buzzy "peent." The Big Meadows area is a good place to try to find Woodcocks dancing in the late evening right now. Their mating activities usually continue through May in Shenandoah National Park. Females will make a nest in a shallow depression in the leaf litter on the ground. Males don't share in parenting.
Woodcocks have some great adaptations to help them survive. One is their camouflage coloring that keeps them hidden from predators. Another is their long, straight beaks, which they use to probe for earthworms and other invertebrates in soft soil. The tips of their bills are flexible, allowing them to clamp down on food when they feel it. And their eyes are set well back on their skulls, so they can watch for danger while their heads are down, probing for food
Red-winged blackbirds are uncommon in Shenandoah, but they can be found here in all seasons. They can occasionally be found in wetland areas and intermittent ponds, and since they eat insects, they might help keep your hike through wet areas bug free. What hiker can't appreciate that?!?
The red-winged blackbird has colorful names in other languages too — in Spanish, the bird is called “tordo sargento”; in French, it goes by “carouge á; sometimes have up to 15 different mates. They are also fierce territory defenders and have been known to attack horses and people to protect their turf! The oldest red-winged blackbird on record was 15 years and 9 months old!
There are seven different types of chickadees in the U.S., and you can find both the Carolina and the Black-capped Chickadees right here in Shenandoah! Both species look very similar and their ranges overlap, allowing them to hybridize. What is amazing is that the hybrids can sing songs of either species! No matter what species of chickadee, they are all social birds with a hierarchy; each member of the flock has a rank and the highest ranking individuals will nest within the flock’s territory while lower ranking birds must travel to claim a territory. Carolina Chickadees have a ‘personal bubble’ of at least 2.2 feet and when two are closer than that, the dominant bird will make gargle calls and become very agitated. Watch for these year-round residents at your feeder. A whole flock may be present, but they will only come to the feeder one at a time!
While most of us are yearning for spring, the golden-crowned kinglet is heading north in search of colder weather! This beautiful bird is a winter only visitor to Shenandoah. Its population has declined ~75% since 1966, but the eastern population has actually increased slightly thanks, in part, to habitat preservation in places like Shenandoah National Park! You may spot their golden heads in company with ruby-crowned kinglets, chickadees, and titmice. True to their cold-loving nature, they may nest up to 11,000 feet in elevation. Their young are the size of a bumblebee at birth.
Week Ten: Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis)
Have you ever heard a pterodactyl while out hiking in the woods? Well, it's highly likely that it wasn't the flying dinosaur. Instead, it was probably the much more common Red-tailed Hawk, our bird of the week. In fact, their raspy scream sounds so epic that movie editors in Hollywood usually choose their call when editing a feature film, no matter what hawk or eagle species is on screen. Another easy way to spot these common buteos: watch for a murder of crows causing a scene. More often than not, they're "mobbing" a Red-tailed Hawk that is perched near their nesting site.
Week Nine: Eastern Screech Owl (Megascops asio)
One of the smallest species of owls in North America, the Eastern-Screech Owl is no bigger than a pint glass. Contrary to their name, screech owls do not screech all that often but their mysterious, eerie twill is often used in shows or movies to “set the mood”. Their diet is the most varied of any North American owl. The Eastern-Screech Owl comes in two different colors: gray and rust. Found in wooded areas across the eastern region of America, these owls are patterned with complex bands and spots that give them excellent camouflage against tree bark. Male and females form breeding pairs, sharing a permanent bond and usually remaining together for life. These owls do not make their own nest but instead use tree cavities and holes or nests made by other animals. Eastern-Screech Owls will readily accept nest boxes...put one up and you might attract a breeding pair!
Who wears a brilliant red hat and tweed coat, wields a mighty sword and can be found year-round in Shenandoah?
The Red-bellied Woodpecker sports a bright red crown on its head (whole head on the male, partial on the female), while its black and white feather pattern bears a strong resemblance to that tweed coat my mother used to make me wear. Striking and bold as those crimson heads are, the bird actually is named for the faint reddish tint on its belly. As such, Red-bellied Woodpeckers are often mistaken for Red-headed woodpeckers, which is a different, less common species.
Red-bellied Woodpeckers use their sticky barbed-tip tongues (which can extend two inches past the end of their impressive beaks!) to snag insects from tree bark. They are omnivores and also enjoy fruits, nuts and seeds and cache food in tree crevices/cracks to consume during the leaner winter months.
Red-bellied Woodpeckers can be a “king of the feeder” as other birds tend to respect that mighty beak (sword)!
This year-long resident of Shenandoah lives in life-long pairs. They weave a complex, bulky nest and have one to three broods per year. They sing and call from dense vegetation with a rich musical song: "tea kettle, tea kettle, tea kettle." It's a bit smaller than Week Five's Winter Wren, but can be quite aggressive with intruders.
Week Six: Brown Creeper (certhia americana)
This week's bird in our continuing feature for #YearoftheBird is the Brown Creeper (certhia americana). Brown Creepers are so named because they creep (or hitch) their way up a tree trunk in a spiral. When they get to the top, they fly to the base of another tree and start their spiral creep all over again! These guys are great because they eat insects and spiders, and they are yet another species in Shenandoah that makes great use of dead trees. They build hammock-shaped nests between loose pieces of bark and use insect cocoons and spider eggs to stick it all together!
Week Five: Winter Wren (Troglodytes hiemalis)
Have you ever been hiking along a mountain stream and seen a mouse-like bird sneaking around a fallen log or some thick brush? You probably saw a Winter Wren! These well camouflaged, secretive, brown birds are found in the deciduous woodlands of Shenandoah, usually near a water source and primarily in the winter. They start to sing frequently in late winter and if you hear a very loud, (Per unit weight its song has 10x the power of a crowing rooster!) musical, and bubbly song, lasting 8-12 seconds, it is probably a Winter Wren! Wonder why the song is so complex? They sing 16 notes per second!
Week Four: Northern Harrier (Circus cyaneus)
Swooping low over open areas like Big Meadows, searching for small prey, North America's only harrier is a rare but amazing sight in Shenandoah. The Northern Harrier is a winter visitor that migrates here in the fall from its breeding grounds in the Northern U.S., Canada, and Alaska. Those at the northernmost part of their range tend to migrate farthest south, sometimes into South America, but in many U.S. states they can be found year-round. They aren't exactly close kin to owls, but they do have owl-like faces: stiff facial feathers form a disk that act like a funnel to direct even the smallest sounds from the harrier's surroundings into its ears. Factor in its sharp vision, and it's a double threat to the rodents and songbirds it eats. Harriers may look like other hawk species when in flight, and males and females are slightly different in coloration, but to be sure you're spotting a harrier, look for an obvious white rump patch.
The Yellow-bellied Sapsucker's ability to draw sap from trees makes it an important ally for other animals that drink tree sap such as bats, squirrels, and hummingbirds. They will make two kinds of holes in trees to harvest sap depending on the season: deep, circular wells are made for when the tree doesn’t have leaves and the food is deeper inside and shallow, rectangular holes for when the tree does have leaves and the food is closer to the bark. New holes usually are made in a line with old holes, or in a new line above the old. You may have noticed that this noisy bird has adapted to use street signs and metal chimney flashing to amplify territorial drumming. A bird will return to its favorite sign day after day to pound out its Morse code-like message.It is the only woodpecker in eastern North America that is completely migratory. Females tend to travel further south than males. Males are actually the ones who go out and find nesting sites in tree cavities which can be reused up to 7 years.
Week Two: Blue Jay (Cyanocitta cristata)
This week our featured bird is the Blue Jay. This highly intelligent year-round bird prefers the forest edges. You’ll often see this beautiful flash of blue near oak trees in woodlands, cities, and parks. They contribute to our world by eating insects and by helping sustain our trees because they bury acorns and other nuts in food caches. They are able to mimic hawk calls. This comes in handy when they want to alert other birds to a hawk’s presence, or scare others away from food.
To kick off #FeatheredFriendsFridays meet the White-breasted Nuthatch (Sitta carolinenesis). These birds are busy year-round controlling insect populations, and dispersing seeds for the trees and shrubs—hence keeping a balance of the forest ecosystem. Nuthatches cache food, such as nuts, in bark crevices so that they have enough to eat during the winter and will later stuff the nut into the tree bark, whack it with their beak, and hatch out the seed. Get it? “Nut-hatch”!