Birds

Keep your eyes open for the Bohemian waxwings, which are visiting the Northwoods and may be flocked up with their cousins, cedar waxwings. The rusty spot under its tail distinguishes the Bohemian.

A few weeks ago when I wrote about red-breasted nuthatches I mentioned that I was seeing far fewer birds around the neighborhood and at my feeders. I’m disappointed to report that as of this writing, I’m still not attracting much avian action.

The only notable exception has been the local pair of pileated woodpeckers who’ve started coming around since I switched out my suet cakes for fresher ones (the old ones didn’t go to waste since my chickens are less particular birds). I also saw a tiny, lone female cardinal under the feeders at dusk one evening. In an average winter, neither sighting would have been remarkable. Some readers, including John from Eau Claire, have also observed far fewer birds around, and I agree with him that I don’t recall the same phenomenon happening in past mild winters. I’ve also been glad to learn that not everyone is having the same problem this winter.

Judging from reader input and anecdotal reports, birdwatchers in the colder areas south of Ashland and north of the Eau Claire area are seeing quite a few birds, including some rarities. Friend of the column Diana in Drummond reports seeing pine grosbeaks for the first time in many years. And readers from Cable and Mason are seeing quite a number of winter finches including pine and evening grosbeaks, redpolls and crossbills. Pine siskins are also making an appearance in some areas. According to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, there was a bumper crop of baby winter finches during the breeding season in Canada this year. Combine this population boom with a poor seed and tree fruit crop up north and you have a full-fledged winter irruption in progress.

The DNR reports that there are six or seven winter finch species in the state, up from the usual one or two, and there have been more evening grosbeaks than there have been in many years. Northwoods residents might spot Bohemian waxwings visiting from their typical boreal forest habitat. Check for the rusty undertail and white wing flashes to distinguish them from cedar waxwings (and good luck with this as they sometimes flock together in winter).

In other breaking bird news: I’ve been a big proponent of bird smarts in this column, and it’s always nice to be backed up by actual scientists. Two studies from German universities (by the way, it was German scientists who discovered birds increase people’s happiness!) have studied a structure called the pallium in the brains of birds. They’ve learned that the pallium is analogous to the neocortex in mammalian brains. This is the structure that’s responsible for consciousness and advanced cognition in mammals, and the lack of a neocortex has been a puzzle to scientists who’ve observed high levels of cognitive skills in birds. Basically, while the structures look different, they’re wired very similarly. The other study observed neuron signals in carrion crows, a species known for abstract and causal reasoning. The neuron activity, located in the same pallium structure, suggests consciousness and even self-awareness comparable to what’s seen in primates. So even though bird brains and mammal brains look very different, their apparently similar levels of smarts are now backed up by brain science.

One final note about the great horned owls I spent so much time on this winter: Alert reader Richard corrected my statement that great horned owls are the largest North American owls. While a lot of guides make this statement, great gray owls are in fact taller in stature than great horned owls. However, they are mostly fluff: they weigh a good deal less than great horned owls. So it’s a mass vs. length argument. They’re both pretty amazing no matter how you measure them.

Morris, a bird-watcher and outdoorswoman who explores northern Wisconsin from her home base in the Ashland County town of Gingles, may be reached at morrisoutside@gmail.com.