Thursday, April 24, 2008

Birds Returning From Tropics On The Decline

It was in the golden afternoon that he came. A summer tanager, bright even in the subdued April light.

We have been expecting him, though he doesn't nest at our place anymore. He came to the feeder that is set with cones of peanut butter, halves of oranges, apples and grapefruit. He ate, then bathed in the pool, hopped onto the rocks and fluffed his feathers. He then flew to a giant sweet gum tree in the wooded lot without a single chip or chirp, much less song. We believe he had just winged in from his winter vacation.

For some years he nested in our yard in a water oak. But then one year he came, full of joy and singing only to find his summer housing and eateries had been replaced with people houses and bricked walks, lawns and gardens and paved streets. It's enough to make a tanager cry, and I think he did, for he left us and hasn't been back to nest since.

We have more to concern us though than whether he nests in our yard. Scientific reports show that tanagers, flycathers, orioles and vireos are drastically decreasing in numbers each year when they return to the States from their winter stays in the tropics. Why? Because their winter habitat -- Latin American forests -- are being destroyed at almost 100 acres a minute. These forests serve as the only home for more than half of the world's species of plants and animals, including birds.

When migrating birds arrive in the States each spring and find their nesting habitat destroyed, they go looking for other suitable sites just as our tanager has done for the past few years.

Both male and female are beautiful birds, though of different colors. He wears a solid red suit. The wings and tail are usually tinged with a grayish or brownish color, edged in red. The 7 1/2 inch male stays a rosy red all year. Females have a yellow-orange underpants with a light yellow-green back.

First year males look much like the female. Young males by their first spring are not fully red, but are a strange mixture of red and green patches. They mate in this color. Once on a birding walk along the edges of the Savannah River, we saw such a male tending young in the nest.

Of the 350 species of tanagers in the tropics, only five think it worthwhile to visit the States. Two species, the scarlet and summer, nest in the eastern United States.

The summer tanager is the only breeding tanager in our area. The scarlet migrates through the spring and fall and, of course, has the jet black wings and tail, a mark that easily distinguishes him from the summer.

To distinguish the summer tanager from the cardinal, a year-round resident, and often called the winter redbird, the summer is a smaller, more slender bird with protruding black eyes. And he has no crest. The tanager's bill is longer and more slender than the cardinal's red conical-shaped one.

We still have real estate in our yard for sale. We'll sell it for a song and a little grass and rootlet hangout.

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