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Sam Houston EC News

Artistry on the Wing

The resident and migratory birds in The Rio Grande Valley are especially abundant during the coldest part of winter

According to ancient Egyptian mythology, the first creature to arise from the great waters of chaos was the Benu bird (sometimes written “Bennu”). It was a long-legged, wading heron and was believed to have created the universe, the gods and man. Early Greeks believed the phoenix was a legendary bird that died by fire, only to be reborn from the ashes and begin life anew. But these are birds of mythology—and in our physical world, birds are far more wondrous.

The brilliant Leonardo da Vinci was so inspired by the ability of birds to easily sail over the landscape that he tried to engineer machines to accomplish the same feat. Throughout the history of mankind, birds have commanded our attention and admiration, in ways large and small.

No matter where we go, birds are our constant companions. They are the only animal found on every continent—from the superheated, sandy deserts to the rain-drenched tropical rainforests of our planet. Some birds are camouflaged, while others present a gaudy display. Some even live entirely at sea and come to land only to raise their young.

Green jays are most often found in the southernmost parts of Texas. Adding fruit to feeders can bring a wider variety of birds to your backyard.

David Hughes

It would be hard to find someone who doesn’t admire our feathered friends, but the reasons to appreciate them vary. Some people are mesmerized by their astonishing array of colors, like those found on a peacock. Others find the soothing melodies of songbirds irresistible.

While we might like to think that birds wear their beautiful plumage just for our enjoyment, the real purpose is to communicate with each other. Typically, males, in their neverending desire to impress females of their species, flaunt hues and patterns that are designed to appeal specifically to a potential mate.

Male painted buntings have vibrant blue, green and red plumage, while females and juvenile birds are a brilliant green. This bird was spotted at Quintana Beach, south of Houston.

Win247 | iStock.com

And while we normally think of birds as avid flyers, depending upon the species, they can also swim, walk, run and hop—a range of mobility found in few other animals on the planet.

Most birds are adapted to the specific habitats they call home. Texas comprises a wide assortment of geography, which provides numerous avian viewing opportunities. From the forested woodlands of East Texas to the towering mountains of West Texas and from sandy beaches at sea level on the Gulf Coast to the high, windy plains of the Panhandle, birds are always to be found.

A flock of pelicans in Trinity Bay at McHale Park in Seabrook.

Citysqwirl | iStock.com

There are two ways to view birds, and as hobbies go, birding is one of the most enjoyable and least expensive activities you can participate in. First, you may travel to new areas and hope that luck brings you a plethora of ornithological subjects. Second, you can stay in one location and bait the area with food. Birds are like hungry husbands; they’ll always show up at dinnertime!

Most folks prefer the passive route to birding, using foods known to attract these fascinating flyers. Bird feeders loaded with various seeds are astonishingly effective at drawing in an assortment of birds. However, it’s important to remember that many small birds cannot eat larger seeds such as sunflower seeds. With this in mind, purchase a good mixture that contains multiple sizes of seeds. In a few short days, you’ll attract numerous birds that will visit several times a day. Placing the feeder just a short distance from a window and using a moderate strength pair of binoculars will set you up for some wonderful viewing.

Bird feeders will bring a wide variety of birds together, such as this woodpecker peering at several sparrows.

Blightylad-infocus | iStock.com

In most areas of the state, one constant problem with feeders is squirrels. These acrobatic animals are infuriatingly good at raiding bird feeders, resulting in much seed going to waste. However, one fairly effective deterrent is to place a 4- to 6-inch-wide section of PVC pipe over a post, from the ground to about 6 feet in height. The PVC pipe serves as a slippery surface squirrels can’t climb. In fact, simply watching these furry bandits attempting to climb to the feeder can be entertaining! The PVC pipe is also good for frustrating raccoons, which raid at night.

Here in East Texas, a seed feeder will easily lure some of Texas’ avian favorites. Scarlet-feathered male cardinals flit from branch to branch, flashing their vibrant crimson before landing for a bite. Blue jays, with their raspy calls, are always advertising their presence. Mourning doves, with their melancholic cooing, nervously strut on the ground, pecking at every seed they see.

Northern cardinals will likely be some of the first birds to appear at a backyard bird feeder.

Douglas Allen | iStock.com

You can even lure additional species by placing small pieces of sliced fruit on a platter. Red-bellied woodpeckers are particularly attracted to a fruit plate and seem unconcerned by the presence of people.

If you choose to take a more active role in birding, get a good pair of strong binoculars, a bird identification guide or two, and a backpack—and you’re on your way. Local and state parks are excellent places to begin serious birding.

Our state has many great birding spots, if you’re willing to travel. The coastal areas, especially the wetlands and beaches, offer some of the best and easiest birding around. Depending upon location and time of year, you can view several species of gulls, herons, terns, cormorants, pelicans and more. Since there are few trees in these areas, there is little to block your view.

Along the beaches’ sandy margins, sandpipers dart among the serpentine waves, lapping the land, probing for a tasty morsel hidden away beneath the surface. Just beyond the sand bars, brilliant white pelicans plunge from the sky, gulping down any fish unfortunate enough to catch the bird’s gaze.

The grey heron may have been the inspiration for the Benu bird, an Egyptian deity.

Elvira Draat | iStock.com

In wetlands, long-bodied great blue herons stealthily wade through the shallows to spear unwary fish. In deeper waters, an assortment of ducks pop in and out of view as they dive below the water’s surface for food.

The Rio Grande Valley is especially popular for birding during what is the coldest part of winter for most Texans. The resident and migratory birds in that region are especially abundant, as they thrive in the mild temperatures.

Here, you will see turkey-sized chachalacas, exotic green jays brandishing their black bandit mask, lemon-yellow Audubon orioles, fiery-red vermilion flycatchers and crested caracaras, which share the title of Mexico’s national bird with the golden eagle.

In virtually every region of the state, hummingbird feeders can be placed to attract the tiny, aerial wonders whose gorgeous iridescence dazzles the eye. As if their stunning colors were not enough, their helter-skelter movements, afforded by light-speed wings, makes watching them a challenge, as they whip back and forth.

Today, of course, we know that the mythological Benu bird was just that—a myth. It did not beget the universe or mankind. But with all the astonishing qualities that birds possess, if any creature were capable of those creations, certainly it would have been some magical bird. Their beauty, mastery of flight and conquest of the entire planet are unmatched by any other animal, past or present.