Category Archives: Wildlife Lookout

Wildlife Lookout

Wildlife Lookout: Weird Facts About the Wild Turkey

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by Chelsea Cochrane

Turkeys have long been associated with a traditional Thanksgiving feast, but how much else do we know about them? Here are some interesting and little-known facts about turkeys.

Turkeys are large birds native to the Americas in the genus Meleagris. This genus is split into two species: the wild turkey of northern, central, and eastern North America with six sub-species, and the ocellated turkey of the Yucatan Peninsula. The turkey species can be traced back over 20 million years on the North American continent.

Aztecs first domesticated a subspecies of wild turkey, the south Mexican wild turkey, sometime in the early Classic Period (c. AD 200–1000). Spaniards brought these tamed birds back with them in the mid 16th century, where they quickly gained popularity throughout Europe. The original pilgrims actually brought these domesticated birds back to North America, unaware that their larger cousins were already here.

From America, not Constantinople

Historians are unsure how this American bird ended up being called turkey. One theory is that at the time this fowl was being popularized in international trade, shipments to Britain were coming through the Levant and the bird became associated with Turkey. Another theory suggested the wild turkey was confused for a similar guinea fowl that was introduced to Britain by Turkish merchants.

The turkey is the heaviest member in the order Galliformes, which includes domesticated and wild landfowl. Wild turkey males will range from 10 – 25 pounds, with some reaching 30 pounds or more. This gives them the second heaviest maximum weight of birds native to North America, after the trumpeter swan. Still, these large birds are excellent fliers, unlike their domesticated cousins. Wild turkeys can run up to 25 mph and can fly as fast as 55 mph.

Andy Reago & Chrissy McClarrenWild Turkey

All the Weird Names

Anatomical structures on the head and throat of a domestic turkey. 1. Caruncles, 2. Snood, 3. Wattle (dewlap), 4. Major caruncle, 5. Beard
DrChrissy –  P041111 12.08.jpg

Male turkeys are called “gobblers” for their unique call, used to defend territories and call to females (called “hens”). The head of a turkey is very complex, made up of loose, elastic bare skin. The four distinct parts of its head and neck are: the “caruncles” on top its head and neck, the “snood” hanging off its beak, its “wattle” or dewlap hanging from the neck and the major caruncle along the lower neck. The plumes on the males’ chest are called a beard. Male turkeys are also called “toms”, and male juveniles are sometimes called “jakes”. The male mating ritual, which includes gobbling, fanning feathers, drumming and spitting, is often called “strutting”.

The male turkeys’ head changes color based on its mood. When he is excited, his head turns blue or even white. When he is aggressive it turns red. The loose skin around his head and neck will fill with blood and expand when he is alarmed. Body feathers of both males and females begin black and gray with a copper and brown sheen. The color of the male turkey becomes more complex as it ages, picking up metallic green and blue hues.

Gobble Gobble!

Gobblers gobble mostly to attract females, and to alert other males of their presence. These birds can produce a drumming sound by the movement of air sacks in its chest. Similarly, a spitting sound can be made by a sharp expulsion of air from these sacks. Females also gobble, but sparingly. The gobble of a wild turkey can be heard up to a mile away.

Ben Franklin Weighs In – Turkey Vs Bald Eagle

A common mythos surrounding the wild turkey is that Benjamin Franklin had suggested it for the national bird, over the bald eagle. Although he never publicly denounced the symbolic use of the bald eagle, a strongly voice letter to his daughter Sarah Bache dated January 26, 1784 had this to say on the matter:

“Others object to the Bald Eagle, as looking too much like a Dindon, or Turkey. For my own part I wish the Bald Eagle had not been chosen the Representative of our Country. He is a Bird of bad moral Character. He does not get his Living honestly. You may have seen him perched on some dead Tree near the River, where, too lazy to fish for himself, he watches the Labour of the Fishing Hawk [osprey]; and when that diligent Bird has at length taken a Fish, and is bearing it to his Nest for the Support of his Mate and young Ones, the Bald Eagle pursues him and takes it from him.
With all this Injustice, he is never in good Case but like those among Men who live by Sharping & Robbing he is generally poor and often very lousy. Besides he is a rank Coward: The little King Bird not bigger than a Sparrow attacks him boldly and drives him out of the District. He is therefore by no means a proper Emblem for the brave and honest Cincinnati of America who have driven all the King birds from our Country…
I am on this account not displeased that the Figure is not known as a Bald Eagle, but looks more like a Turkey. For in Truth the Turkey is in Comparison a much more respectable Bird, and withal a true original Native of America… He is besides, though a little vain & silly, a Bird of Courage, and would not hesitate to attack a Grenadier of the British Guards who should presume to invade his Farm Yard with a red Coat on.”

Learn more about turkeys:

Wildlife Lookout

Wildlife Lookout: Louisiana Bats

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by Chelsea Cochrane

Northern yellow bat

A common sight at dusk, bats are the only mammal capable of true flight. Their order, Chiroptera, is the second largest order of mammals after rodents, comprising about 20% of all classified mammal species worldwide. There are over 1,400 species of bats in the world – 45 are native to the United States, 11 can be spotted in Louisiana. These were originally divided into two suborders, the megabats and the microbats. Recently further knowledge of these unique mammals gave way to new classifications, dividing the order into the Yinpterochiroptera and Yangochiroptera suborders. The creation of these new subdivisions is largely based on molecular genetics data, unlike the old classifications which were more related to the bat’s eating or behavioral habits.

some species of bats hibernate for the winter

Despite what is presented in popular vampire culture most bats eat insects or fruit. In fact the largest bat species affectionately called “flying foxes” are harmless fruit bats (if you’re not a fruit farmer) including the impressive giant golden-crowned flying fox, Acerodon jubatus, which can have a wingspan of over 5 feet. We won’t see any of those here though – they prefer the tropics and subtropics of Asia. All bats found in the southeast United States are insectivorous, nocturnal, and locate food primarily by echolocation. Of over 1,400 species of bats, only three species feed solely on blood. These ‘vampire bats’ are found in Central and South America and rarely make their way into the US. Really.

Many tourist visit Carlsbad Caverns to see the massive colonies of Mexican free-tail bats

Insectivorous bats are generally deemed a good thing, as long as they are not nesting in your attic. These heavy feeders eat many pest insects, like crop-eating beetles, moths, and mosquitoes, reducing the need for pesticides. Their waste, called guano, is mined and used as a popular fertilizer. Some species nest in huge colonies whose nightly flight can be a popular tourist attraction. Unfortunately some bats make great hosts for many pathogens like rabies, and it is advised to never interact with bats, and to take special precautions if an interaction occurs.

Bats have long been admired for their precise and maneuverable flight. Their wings have hand-like digits that connect to a pivotal “wrist”, covered with a tight thin membrane of skin called patagium. The order name Chiroptera means “hand-wing”. This gives them an advantage in agility over birds. Many also use echolocation – emitting an ultrasonic frequency to determine the exact location of an object by its reverberations. The bat’s highly developed ears can pick up the fluttering of a moth’s wings, and even the movement of underground insects!

Bats in Louisiana

There are 11 documented species of bats that can be found in Louisiana. Here is a list with short descriptions.

Big Brown BatEptesicus fuscus
In the vesper bat family Vespertilionidae, the big brown bat occurs widely throughout the US, Canada, Central America and the Caribbean into South America. It’s large for a microbat, with a wingspan of up to 15 inches. Commonly seen just at dusk, the big brown bat can adapt to many environments, including urban settings.

Mexican free-tailed batTadarida brasiliensis
The Mexican free-tailed bat or Brazilian free-tailed bat of the family Molossidae is widely regarded as one of the most abundant mammals in North America. Nevertheless their natural habit of roosting in enormous numbers can cause massive fluctuations in populations due to habitat destruction and disease. The free-tailed bat holds the record for fastest documented flight speed of any animal, with a top ground speed of over 100 MPH.

Tricolored batPerimyotis subflavus
The tricolored bat is a member of the vesper family native to eastern North America. It was formerly called an eastern pipistrelle based on its resemblance to the European Pipistrellus species, however further genetic studies revealed it is more closely related to the canyon bat and those of the vesper family. The name is derived from three distinctive bands of color on its back. Once common in this area, the tricolored bat has suffered significant decline since 2006 due to a fungal disease. The tricolored bat along with the silver-haired bat are the two bats most associated with carrying rabies.

Eastern red batLasiurus borealis
Another member of the vesper family, the eastern red bat is considered among the most common in Louisiana, and is widespread throughout most of eastern North America. Its entire body is very furry, males are a rusty brick red, females have more gray dusting. Both have distinctive white patches on their shoulders.

Evening batNycticeius humeralis
Another quite common in our area, the evening bat is also in the vesper family, native to North America with a relatively small range over the southeast region. These small bats hunt strictly at night. They have short lifespans for bats but are heavy breeders – females will form “maternity colonies” consisting of 15 to 300 bats. 90 percent of births are twins, some singles and some triplets. They are known to be good pest-eaters.

Hoary bat Lasiurus cinereus
Also in the vesper family, the hoary bat can be found throughout most of North & South America, with some disjunct populations in the Galápagos Islands and Hawaii. It has a 15 inch wingspan and a thick coat of dark fur with white tips, giving it a gray-ish white frosted or ‘hoary’ appearance. The hoary bat is mainly solitary, though it will occasionally nest with other bats in a cave.

Northern Yellow BatLasiurus intermedius
The northern yellow bat has a very specific region bordering the Gulf of Mexico through the US and into Central America. It tends to inhabit wooded areas near a permanent water source with Spanish moss or palm trees. This species of vesper bat uses Spanish moss exclusively for nesting. Its coat can vary from yellow-orange to gray-brown.

Rafinesque’s big-eared batCorynorhinus rafinesquii
Sometimes called the southeastern big-eared bat, this species has big ears. Over an inch long, which is quite big for a bat averaging 3 – 3.9 inches long. They are vesper bats in the genus Corynorhinus, meaning “club-nosed”. These are not the most attractive bats, and they are fairly uncommon throughout their range. Similar to the Townsend’s big-eared bat.

Seminole batLasiurus seminolus
The seminole bat is another vesper with a relatively small distribution, found exclusively in the southeastern US. It is often confused for the red bat because of its similar coat. This bat feeds on a relatively large amount of ants, bees and wasps, as well as beetles, moths, flies and some cicadas. They also use Spanish moss for their nesting.

(c) adamdv18, some rights reserved

Silver-haired batLasionycteris noctivagans
A solitary, migratory species of the vesper family, the silver-haired bat is the only member of its genus. Its range consists of much of North America, wintering in the south just into Mexico and summering all the way up to Alaska. We are actually on the very edge of its range here in St. Tammany. This bat has dense black fur with white tips, giving it the frosted appearance for which its named. The scientific name translates to “night-wandering”, an ode to these creatures’ nocturnal habits.

Southeastern myotis batMyotis austroriparius
Another bat with a very specific range, centered closely around the Gulf. These small bats vary from gray to bright orange-brown, weighing 5 – 8 grams. This species nests and hunts around open water and can be found in thick hardwood forests. It sometimes roosts with the Rafinesque’s big-eared bat. This myotis stands out among its genus as a heavy breeder, often producing twins. During nesting season the southeastern myotis is an important food source for barred owls.

Wildlife Lookout

Wildlife Lookout: Catbirds & Mockingbirds

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by Chelsea Cochrane

The northern mockingbird, Mimus polyglottos

Two common birds that often get mistaken for one another are the northern mockingbird and the gray catbird. Both are in the Mimidae, or mimid, family. They are remarkable song birds, and many species are especially skilled in mimicry of a wide variety of sounds. The name “Mimidae” is Latin for “mimic”.

Gray catbird, Dumetella carolinensis

The gray catbird is pretty much slate gray all over, with a dark cap on its head and dark gray streaks in its wings and tail. It is similar in shape and size to the northern mockingbird, and one of their original classifications translated to “capped mockingbird”. Actually, the gray catbird is probably more closely related to the Caribbean thrashers than mockingbirds. They do however share the ability to mimic other birds, as well as tree frogs and some machinery. The most recognizable call of the catbird is its namesake call, which can sound like the mews or cries of a cat.

Northern mockingbird

The northern mockingbird is the only common mockingbird in North America, and common it is. Its appearance is very similar to that of the catbird except that it lacks the dark cap and has a lighter belly and white tail feathers. The mockingbird also has white patches on its wings that are only visible in flight. Here in the South it is a permanent resident, but we may get an influx of migratory birds if weather conditions are harsh up North.

Listen to an example of a northern mockingbird’s song here.

A studio portrait of a Northern mockingbird, Mimus polyglottos.

The northern mockingbird is noted for its intelligence. A 2009 study explored the bird’s ability to adapt to urban environments and even identify individual humans. They can learn up to 200 songs and can mimic an incredible range of sounds, from other birds to cats, dogs, creaky gates or even car alarms with striking similarity. The northern mockingbird’s scientific name, Mimus polyglottos, loosely translates to “mimic of many tongues”.

How Do They Sing Their Songs, and Why?

Magpie singing

Birds don’t actually have vocal chords but sing through a special organ called the syrinx that only they have. Located at the top of the windpipe, the syrinx has thin membranes that vibrate to produce sound when air is pushed through it. Song birds can control each side of the syrinx independently, which allows for complex and unique songs, including doubling up or “duetting” notes. Some birds can even sing rising and falling notes simultaneously.

Listen to an example of a Wood Thrush “duetting” notes here.

A Gray Catbird in Madison, Wisconsin, USA
(photo from wikimedia commons)

There is a lot of speculation as to why birds sing songs, and specifically why birds that mimic do so. A popular opinion seems to be that birds build song repertoire to impress potential mates. The idea being that the more songs a male bird knows the longer he’s been around, which equals healthy genetics and good survival skills – both perks in the bird world. Many birds sing to proclaim territories, and in most species only males sing. Some speculation is made that mockingbirds may copy competing birds’ songs as a warning to keep away. This seems unlikely however, as it has been observed that other birds like robins or jays do not respond to the mockingbirds’ imitations.

The mockingbird has certainly made its way into the heart of Americans. Symbolized in literature, in music and on screen, it is also the state bird of Arkansas, Florida, Mississippi, Tennessee and Texas. It was previously the state bird of South Carolina as well, but was replaced by the Carolina Wren.

“Mockingbirds don’t do one thing but make music for us to enjoy. They don’t eat up people’s gardens, don’t nest in corncribs, they don’t do one thing but sing their hearts out for us. That’s why it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.” To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee 1960

Wildlife Lookout

The Dragonfly: Nature’s Mosquito Abatement

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Local Wildlife Lookout by Chelsea Cochrane

Summer in Louisiana would be incomplete without dragonflies – or as we like to call them – Mosquito Hawks. I remember as a kid late summer afternoons, sitting at the banks of the river and watching these incredibly agile fliers swoop and dive, catching their dinner. Natural predators, a dragonfly can consume as much as a fifth of its body weight per day. They are also considered one of the world’s most efficient hunters, catching up to 95% of their prey.

A large part of this prey is mosquitoes. A single dragonfly can eat hundreds of mosquitoes per day. Add this to their tendency to swarm by the hundreds – sometimes thousands – and you’ve got one heck of a mosquito abatement program. Nature wins again.

Part of their effectiveness in hunting has to do with the dragonfly’s amazing vision. They have compound eyes, consisting of thousands of individual lens that can see in practically every direction except for directly behind them. In fact, a dragonfly’s head is mostly just eyes with a mouth.

Their unusual flight patterns are attributed to the two sets of independently moving wings, giving them the ability to propel themselves in six directions – up, down, forward, backward, left and right, as well as hover. The flight of the dragonfly is so unique that engineers at MIT have done work to mimic its patterns in robotics.

Dragonflies are exceptionally fast, too. The average flight speed of a large dragonfly is estimated at 22 – 34 mph, with a cruising speed of about 10 mph. They can travel at 100 body-lengths per second in forward flight, and around three lengths per second going backwards. Robert John Tillyard’s The Biology of Dragonflies (1917) claims the southern giant darner, a species native to Australia, was clocked at 60 mph.

From a recent study on migratory patterns of dragonflies, Matthew Dodder via Hallworth et al., Biology Letters

Many dragonflies are migratory, some traveling great distances. A study tracking dragonfly migratory patterns found that the green darner dragonfly, Anax junius, from New Jersey traveled only every third day at an average of 7.5 miles per day (though one dragonfly traveled 100 miles in a single day). A more recent study suggests that the green darner embarks on a year-long, multi-generational migration. A dragonfly called the globe skinner has the longest migration of any insect—11,000 miles back and forth across the Indian Ocean.

A majority of a dragonfly’s life is actually spent underwater in the nymph stage. Dragonfly nymphs live in fresh water and munch on yes, you guessed it, mosquito larvae, as well as tadpoles and small fish. This stage of the dragonfly’s life can last up to five years, while adult stages can be as little as a few days or weeks. The dragonfly has many natural predators, including several birds and some wasps. Insecticides and water pollution also affect local populations.

Mesurupetala, Late Jurassic (Tithonian), Solnhofen limestone, Germany

Dragonflies are some of the oldest winged insect, with fossils that date back some 300 million years. Some of these show ancient ancestors of dragonflies with wingspans of up to two feet. Today about 3000 species of dragonflies are known around the world. It is in the order Odonata, infraorder Anisoptera, which has three families, 11 subfamilies and 348 genera.

Wildlife Lookout

Hoot Dat! A Guide to Louisiana Owls

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by Chelsea Cochrane

long-eared owl

Owls are birds that make up the order Strigiformes, comprised of over 200 species. Mostly solitary and nocturnal, defining characteristics include upright posture, a large, broad head, binocular vision, binaural hearing, sharp talons, and feathers adapted for silent flight. These birds are classified into two families, the Strigidae or true owls and the Tytonidae or barn owls.

According to the Louisiana Bird Records Committee (LBRC) of the Louisiana Ornithological Society, there are four owls of the family Strigidae and one in the family Tytonidae that are common in Louisiana. Those are the eastern screech owl, the barred owl, the short-eared owl, the great horned owl and the common barn owl.

The Barn owl (Tyto alba) is set apart from true owls in its own family Tytonidae. This is due to its heart-shaped face, short tail and smaller eyes. Its a small family, comprised of only about 20 species, divided into two genera, Tyto and Phodilus. Nocturnal, barn owls hunt by swooping low over fields or marshes, listening for small rodents. Due to its white underside and pale plumage it can be mistaken for the larger snowy owl, especially in flight. So named for its habit of roosting in quieter parts of man-made structures like silos, church steeples or barn lofts. Barn owls are among the most widely distributed owls in the world and one of the most widespread of all birds.

Barn owls don’t hoot the way most owls do – instead they let out eerie screeches in about 2 second bursts. Purrs and hissing are also part of this birds vocale. Listen here:

All other owls are classified as true or typical owls in the family Strigidae. These owls have what is called a cosmopolitan distribution as they are widespread around the world, occurring on every continent except Antarctica. There are three accepted subfamilies comprising nearly 220 species: Striginae, Asioninae, and Surniinae.

The Eastern Screech-owl (Megascops aslo) is fairly common in our area, although most know it better by its signature call – not quite a screech, but more of a whinny and soft trills, becoming active at dusk. Screech owls are small, stocky bird, ranging from 6 – 9.5 inches in length. They are generally a speckled grey, although there is a rusty Rufous morph which tends to be more common in the south. The complex patterns provide excellent camouflage against tree bark. These shy, tiny birds are hard to spot but are actually quite common in residential areas, where a person may not know they have an owl for a neighbor.

Listen to the sounds of an Eastern screech owl here:

The Short-eared owl (Aslo flammeus) are medium-sized, spotted brown, white underside, with a pale face rounded and yellow eyes, accentuated by deep black outlines. Ears are unnoticeable, generally only up in small tufts when the bird is in a defensive pose. These owls primarily hunt early in the morning or late day. It shares the widespread distribution and much of the same habitat as the barn owl, occurring on every continent except Antarctica and Australia.

From Wikipedia: Owls belonging to genus Asio are known as the eared owls, as they have tufts of feathers resembling mammalian ears. The genus name Asio is a type of eared owl, and flammeus means “flame-coloured”.

The short-eared owl is not especially vocal, but can be heard giving a series of a dozen or so hoots. Listen here:

The Barred owl (Strix varia) is also maybe better known as the “hoot” owl for its distinct “Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you-all?” call. A large bird with brown eyes and brown-and-white-striped plumage, the barred owl is native to the east and is quite common in our area. Although mostly active at night, it is not as fully nocturnal as most owls, and can be spotted in the early morning, at dusk, and even on overcast days. Extremely vocal, other calls include a “siren call” and a “monkey call”. The barred owl is only slightly smaller than its cousin the Great Horned Owl, but markedly less aggressive, and in territory disputes will often leave to find a new home.

Listen here:

The Great Horned owl (Bubo virginianus) is the third largest owl in North America and fifth in the world. It is the largest owl here in the southeast, although rare sightings of its slightly larger cousin the Snowy owl have been documented. The great horned owls is the most widely distributed owl of the Americas, with a habitat ranging over most of North America. So named for its long, horn-like ear tufts, it is an intimidating looking bird, broad and barrel-shaped, with bright yellow eyes and a 3 – 5 foot wingspan, averaging 4.6 feet. Sometimes called “tiger owl” for its stripes, orange-red highlights and aggressive hunting practices. They are also sometimes called “hoot owls” for their deep, warbling “hoot”.

Listen here:

Learn more about the Great Horned Owl here:

Danny (left) with father and daughter

Local Danny Burke, owner of Life Somatics, shares these photos from 10 years ago of a baby horned owl who fell out of its nest and was in the street. The owl (nicknamed “Bud Light”) was brought to LSU Vet School for care and eventual release back to nature.

If you should ever find a wild animal in need and are not sure how to help the Louisiana Department of Wildlife & Fisheries has a list of Permitted Wildlife Rehabilitators here.

Owls in Local News

Photo credit Covington Police Department Dec 2015

Most of us remember a few years back on Christmas Eve when Officer Lance Benjamin was attacked by an owl that flew into his police cruiser. The incident made nation news:

It appears a barred owl was the culprit. Both the assailant and the officer were able to depart the scene unharmed, relatively in the case of Officer Benjamin, who suffered minor clawing and pecking in the incident.

Wildlife Lookout

Wildlife Lookout: 3 Common Woodpeckers of Covington

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red-bellied woodpecker

If you’re a bird-watcher, or just a casual bird-observer, you have no doubt spotted woodpeckers around Covington. Not only are these birds very common in our area, they are also easily recognizable, whether it be for its bright red head, its odd perch hanging off the sides of trees, or the distinctive sounds of its jackhammer-like pecking.

Woodpeckers are part of the family Picidae and can be found over most of the world. There are three species of woodpeckers that can most often be found in south Louisiana; the red-bellied woodpecker, the red-headed woodpecker, and the pileated woodpecker.

red-bellied woodpecker

The red-bellied woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus) is probably the most common here in Covington, and can be spotted quite regularly on oak trees and telephone poles. A smaller bird, averaging about 10 inches and 2 ounces, it has black and white speckled back back and wings, similar to its cousin the ladder-backed woodpecker of the west. The re-bellied woodpecker has a pale chest with hints of red and yellow and a bright red cap. This woodpecker has adapted well to urban life and can often be seen at backyard feeders.

red-headed woodpecker

Slightly less common is the red-headed woodpecker (Melanerpes erythrocephalus), similar in size and often confused for the fore-mentioned. Note the red covers its entire head, hence the name. It also lacks the speckled pattern of the red-bellied woodpecker, having a solid white body and mostly black back with white patches on lower wings. The red-headed woodpecker was at one time listed as near threatened on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List, with a significant decline in population due to loss of habitat. It was downlisted to least concern in 2018. These birds fly-catch most of their prey and can often be spotted swooping erratically through the air.

pileated woodpecker

The pileated woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus) is the 2nd largest, if not possibly largest* woodpecker in the US, measuring an average of 18 – 20 inches long with a wingspan of 26 – 30 inches. It bears similar markings to the red-headed woodpecker with the exception of an elongated red crest from which it gets its name, pileatus being Latin for “capped”.

The pileated woodpeckers’ favoring of mature woods and shy nature makes it rather hard to spot – however the loud drumming from its powerful beak in unmistakable. Most often to proclaim territory, the pileated woodpecker will seek hollow wood, utility poles and even metal or tin for loud, quick bursts of 11 to 30 taps in less than a second. They will chip out large, usually rectangular holes in the tops of old trees searching for insects. The pileated’s home is a large nest in the cavities of dead trees in which it will raise its young to maturity, and then abandon to create a new nest next season. It is considered to play an important role in ecology as many other species of birds and mammals depend on these abandoned nests for homes.

Listen to pileated woodpecker drumming:

Ivory-billed pair photo taken in Singer Tract, Louisiana by Arthur A. Allen (April 1935)

*The largest woodpecker in the US and one of the largest in the world is the critically endangered and possibly extinct ivory-billed woodpecker (Campephilus principalis). Averaging 19 – 21 inches with a typical wingspan of 30 inches, the last universally accepted sighting occurred in Louisiana in 1944. It is closely related to the slightly smaller Cuban ivory-billed woodpecker (Campephilus bairdii) and the Mexican imperial woodpecker (C. imperialis), the largest woodpecker in the world. The imperial woodpecker measures 22 – 23.5 inches long and is also on the critically endangered list.

Unlike its close relatives, the pileated woodpecker is highly adaptable and has actually seen an increase in population from 1966 to 2015.

More Fun Facts About Woodpeckers

woodpecker tongue illustration by Denise Takahashi

Woodpeckers have exceptionally long tongues for foraging insects from deep inside trees. The tongue when retracted wraps around the bird’s skull. This and additional cushioning in the brain helps to protect the bird from any damages that might occur to the brain due to its aggressive pecking.

red-headed woodpecker in nest

Most woodpeckers exhibit what is called undulated flight – a few rapid wing beats followed by a glide where the wings are pulled into the body rather than spread out as most birds do. This gives the appearance of a sporadic up-and-down flight pattern.

The woodpecker does not have a distinctive song but rather communicates with chirps, chatters, calls and drumming. A woodpecker can drum up to 20 pecks per second and averages 8,000 to 12,000 pecks per day.


“Pileated Woodpecker Dryocopus pileatus”. Patuxent Wildlife Research Center. U.S. Geological Survey.

Wildlife Lookout

Wildlife Lookout: the Great Blue Heron

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Ardea herodias

Alan D. Wilson,

The Great Blue Heron is a large wading bird in the heron family Ardeidae, common over most of North America and Central America, as well as the Caribbean and the Galápagos Islands. The blue heron can adapt to many climates and diets, found near the shores of open water and in wetlands. Birds east of the Rocky Mountains and in the Northern range are migratory – they can be found as far north as Alaska during the summer, and extend down to Mexico and South America during the winter. Birds in southern regions, however, are year-long residents.

It is the largest North American heron with an average wingspan of 66-79 inches, making it also the third largest of the heron family. The great blue heron stands at an average of 45 -54 inches with long legs and ‘S’ shaped neck, only weighing about 4 to 8 pounds.

More noted than its size are the blue heron’s distinct markings – a red, brown and black body, slate-gray/blue flight feathers, long plumes under the neck and black or slate plumes above the eyes, stark against a white head and rusty-gray neck. During breeding season the blue heron will adorn long plumes on its back, the lore will turn a bright blue, irises will turn reddish, and the yellow bill will take on an orange hue. Most commonly seen slowly stalking through water banks, stretching its long neck out and quickly stabbing prey, swallowing it whole. The heron feeds on small fish, amphibians, reptiles, crustaceans, insects or even birds and mammals. They are surely a sight to see, especially when taking flight with its massive 6 foot wingspan.

There are many subspecies of the great heron that differ only slightly in plumage and size. Commonly confused with the smaller grey heron or little blue heron, the best distinction between the birds besides size is the great blue heron’s white head. Herons are often mistaken for many other common water bids such as cranes, storks or ibises, which all differ in that they hold their neck straight during flight, while the heron holds their neck tucked in. The white morp native to Florida, called the Great White Heron, is debated to be either a subspecies or an entirely separate species.

Interesting Facts About Herons

The long stringy feathers that grow from the heron’s neck are specially designed to help the bird clean their beak from its fishy prey. The fine powdery feathers continually grow and are worn away by the bird’s grooming.

The great blue heron usually breeds in colonies and return back to the same breeding place each year. These colonies, called a herony, are commonly found high in trees along lakes or in other wetlands. Heronies can range from 5 to 500 nests, averaging around 160 nests per colony. Both parents help to incubate the egg and raise young.

There are 64 species in the heron family and they can be found on every continent except Antarctica. Almost all species are waterbirds, with a lifespan of about 15 years in the wild.

The word heron is rather old and of uncertain origin. It appeared in English language c. 1300, originating from the Latin aerius meaning aerial, or from Old French hairon, eron (12 century), earlier hairo (11 century), from Frankish haigiro or from Proto-Germanic hraigran.

the sacred Bennu bird of
ancient Egypt, in the likeness
of a heron

The heron is a revered creature in many cultures, symbolic of wisdom, purity, communication and good judgement.

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Wildlife Lookout

Wildlife Lookout: the Green Anole Lizard

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You can’t live in south Louisiana without running into one of these guys – the Green Anole is native to southeastern US and has spread to most of the region. They have also been introduced to Hawaii and have been spotted in California. Common in yards, the Anoles have adapted to coexist with most urban and suburban habitats.

Adult males are from 5 to 8 in long, 60-70% of which is made up of its tail. Anoles are typically bright green, although they can change colors from a variety of brown, yellow and green hues, making them sometimes mistakenly referred to as the American Chameleon. In fact, anoles are more closely related to the Iguana than the Chameleon. They change color depending on mood, level of stress, activity level and as a social signal, such as displaying dominance.

Anoles are fiercely territorial creatures; males can often be observed fighting other males to defend their territory. The anole will take a stance, bobbing its head, compressing its body and extending its ‘dewlap’, the red fold of skin under its neck. The two will circle each other in an attempt to drive the other away, occasional fighting. This can most often be seen during mating season.

Green Anoles are widely considered to be good beginner reptile pets. Their requirements are fairly minimal and they adapt well to captivity. Shy and timid at first, they can easily be tamed with patience, and some will even eat out of your hand!

Here’s some references I used in this article:

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Wildlife Lookout: Some Not-Well-Known Facts About the Blue Jay

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Blue Jays are possibly the most recognizable common birds of North America – you don’t have to be a birder to pick out its bright blue feathers fluttering through your yard. Most of us by now even know its loud caw, and have often seen them squalling with other birds at feeders.

But while we can identify them, do we really know them? Here are some fun facts about Blue Jays that may just blow your mind!

First off, Blue Jays aren’t really blue!


That’s right! We perceive their feathers as blue, but they are actually black. So what phenomenon produces the blue of bluejays? It’s the same science that explains why the sky is blue. Blue Jays (and all blue birds!) use light scattering, meaning when visible light passes through the feathers all wavelengths of the color spectrum pass through EXCEPT the color blue, which is reflected back to us. Unlike the Cardinal, whose feathers have a red pigment that gives them their color, the Blue Jay has no blue pigment. This phenomenon sometimes called “light scattering” or “Tyndall scattering” causes the blue to keep the same hue when viewed from different angles.

Male and Female Blue Jays Have the Same Patterns

Unlike most birds whose males are usually brighter than their female counterparts, male and female Blue Jays look basically the same. This rare distinction, called sexual monomorphism, makes it difficult to tell the sexes apart, although the males are still usually bigger.

Blue Jays are Loud, but Sometimes for a Reason

We’ve all been berated by squawking jays at some point. Originally the name Jay was given to a talkative, impertinent, chatterbox of a person who tended to dominate conversations. Blue Jays were so named because they tend to be loud, lively, and energetic. They are mostly known for being the bullies of the bird-yard, but they can be helpful too. Blue Jays are incredibly good at imitating the call of a hawk, a common predator to most yard birds. The jays will call out a warning to all that can hear when it spots a hawk approaching.

Blue Jays Mate for Life

And both mom and dad help raise the young.

Hopefully you’ve learned something new about Blue Jays, and we have all gained a new respect for these beautiful birds!

Here are some references I used for this article:

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Wildlife Lookout: The Ruby-Throated Hummingbird

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Summer is the time of year that we can observe the many migratory birds that flock to breed in our area, including the unique hummingbird.

The most common found in our area is the Ruby-throated hummingbird, or Archilochus colubris. It has a metallic green back; males have a bright red throat, females have a white throat and belly. They can most often be found zipping around feeders or tubular flowers, ones that their beaks are designed perfectly for.

Fun Facts About Hummingbirds

On average, the hummingbird flaps its wings 12 – 80 times per second, depending on the species. Mating season also has an affect on this statistic, where the smallest birds can reach up to 100 beats per second. The Ruby-throated Hummingbird beats its wings about 53 times a second. The hummingbird can fly at speeds up to 34 mph on average, and it is the only bird with the ability to fly backwards. They are among the smallest of birds and include the worlds smallest bird, the Cuban Bee hummingbird, measuring 5 cm.

Hummingbird Feeder Care — Important for Their Safety!

Hummingbird feeders can be a lot of fun to have, sometimes attracting dozens of hummingbirds! But with this fun comes an important responsibility too.

During our hot Louisiana summers the sugar water used in feeders will quickly ferment, turning into an alcohol that is highly toxic to our tiny friends. It is important to clean and sterilize your feeders regularly. One trick is to not fill it so much that is has much time to sit. Food coloring can also be harmful to regular feeders and is unnecessary.

Learn more about this cool little bird:

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The Northern Bobwhite Quail

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Colinus virginianus male

Colinus virginianus male

Also called the Virginia Quail or Bobwhite Quail, the Northern Bobwhite is a member of the group commonly referred to as the New World quails, Odontophoridae. Native to the United States, Mexico and the Caribbean, the 22 subspecies of the Northern Bobwhite are also common game birds. In Louisiana, bobwhite quail populations have declined about 75% since 1966, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey (2010). This is primarily attributed to an increase in habitat loss occurring during the 1970s and ’80s, but their populations have begun to stabilize with conservation efforts.

The Northern Bobwhite is a moderately-sized quail, the smallest galliform native to Eastern North America. The birds are a chunky, round shape, with an overall rufous plumage spotted by highlights of gray on the back and white on the stomach. The males have a white throat and a black chin strap, females are duller colored overall without a chin strap. Bobwhites eat mainly plants and small pest bugs. The birds are named for their distinct whistle, a clear “bob-WHITE” or “bob-bob-WHITE” that rises in pitch a full octave from beginning to end.

Colinus virginianus female

Colinus virginianus female

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Northern Cardinal

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Cardinalis cardinalis

Cardinalis cardinalis

The Northern Cardinal, a member of the subfamily Cardinalidae, is also commonly referred to as the common cardinal or red bird. This species, named by colonist after the red robes and caps worn by Roman Catholic cardinals, is a resident of the eastern United States, southern Canada and northern Mexico. Cardinals can be found in woodland edges, thickets, brushy swamps and gardens year round. They are considered accomplished songsters, singing all year rather than just in spring.

Male Northern cardinals are bright red, with a distinctive crest and a black mask around the eyes and chin. This red is created by carotenoid pigments in their diet. The females are more rust-brown, with tinges of red on the crest, wings and tail. The birds both have a stout, bright coral-colored beaks that are cone-shaped, perfect for their mainly granivorous diet of mostly weed seeds and grains. They also eat fruit and insects, especially during breeding season. Pairs mate for life, during courtship the male bird will feed the female seeds beak-to-beak and if the mating is successful, may continue this feeding throughout the eggs incubation. These birds have also been known to sing to each other before nesting. A clutch of three to four eggs are laid, and two to four clutches may be produced each year. The male cares for and feeds the chicks while the female incubates the next clutch.

In preparing the nest, the male bird will often collect the materials while the female constructs the nest. She crushes the twigs with her beak and turns around in a circle, building the nest around her. She uses her feet to stomp and push the twigs into a cup form and her beak to weave the twigs together. The nest has three layers: course twigs and sometimes pieces of trash on the outside, covered in a leafy mat, then grapevine bark and finally lined with grasses, soft stems, rootlets and pine needles.

cardinals love nest

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Rangifer tarandus

In the Pleistocene Epoch, Reindeer herds were found as far south as Tennessee.  Their numbers have fluctuated historically, but many herds are in decline across their range, which is extremely northern climates.  One factor in global decline is climate change for northern migratory caribou.  Another factor is the industrial disturbance of reindeer habitat for the sedentary, non-migratory herds.  At the same time, at least one conservation effort has backfired in the South Alantic islands of South Georgia.  In 2011, a decision was made to rid the island of reindeer because of the environmental damage they cause.

Some herds migrate the farthest of any land mammal, traveling up to 3,100 miles a year and grazing 390,000 square miles.  When migrating, they will travel 12-34 miles per day.  The gray wolf is the most common and efficient predator of the reindeer, and a pack will live off of one herd for months.  Other predators include the golden eagle, wolverines, and many types of bears.

The North PoleMost recognize the reindeer for their role in driving Santa’s sleigh, and they are in fact used for work in some parts of the world.  While the caribou is hard to come by in the south, the swamp folk know that Bayou Santa, or Papa Noel, uses the Louisiana Alligator for his deliveries.


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Canadian Goose

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The Canada goose is a wild goose native to temperate regions of North America, occasionally found in northern Europe and New Zealand. Also referred to as the Canadian goose, it has seven subspecies of varying size and plumage. The males usually weigh between 7 – 14 lbs, females are virtually identical but slightly smaller at 5 – 12 lbs, and have a different honk. Their wingspan ranges from 50 – 73 inches in length.

The Canada goose is a migratory creature of habit, overwintering in the south and breeding during spring in the north. However, due to an abundance of safe, man-made bodies of water and easier food sources, these geese have become permanent residents in urban areas as far south as Florida. This change in their behavior has led to overpopulation in some areas, where they are considered pests due to their droppings, noise and abrasive disposition.

Canada geese, and other migratory birds, fly in a V formation to conserve energy on long flights. The lead bird “breaks the wind”, reducing the resistance for the other birds. When this bird tires it falls back and another takes its place; in this way they rotate positions in the formation. This flight pattern also helps the birds “keep an eye on each other.”

Canada Geese in flight

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The Bobcat

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bobcat cubs

Lynx rufus floridanus

The bobcat (Lynx rufus) is a member of the cat family Felidae, and it ranges from southern Canada to northern Mexico, and most of the continental U.S. In southern Louisiana, the bobcat is an adaptable predator, living in wooded areas, swampland, and suburban environments. The bobcat is about twice as large as the domestic cat with a gray to brown coat, whiskered face, and black-tufted ears. The bobcat gets its name from its black-tipped, stubby tail, and it is on average the smallest of the four species of its genus. Adult bobcats stand 1-2 feet at the shoulders, and males average 21 lbs. while females average 15 lbs.

L. rufus breeds from winter into spring with a gestation period of about two months; kittens are born well-furred and with spots. The bobcat is largely solitary, but the range of males will often overlap. Females, however, rarely wander into the range of other females. A successful hunter, the bobcat adjusts its habits with regard to the activity of its prey, generally rabbit, hare, mice, squirrels, birds, fish and insects.

Native American mythology often pairs the bobcat with the coyote, as the lynx and the coyote are associated with the fog and the wind, respectively. In this pairing, the two represent opposites, giving rise to a fluid type of dualism. As the fog and the wind are opposites, they both can offer advantages or disadvantages, depending on the situation. Dreams of the cougar, bobcat and lynx are thought to be indicative of superior hunting and stealth capabilities. European settlers admired the cat for both its ferocity and grace.

Bobcat & Lynx

left: bobcat; top right: bobcat; bottom right: lynx

Wildlife Lookout

Wild Turkey

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Wild Turkey

Meleagris galloparo

The wild turkey is native to North America and can be broken down into six subspecies. It is the heavies member of the diverse Galliformes or “game fowl”. The turkey got its name from trade routes in place during the 16th century, where goods from the Americas and Asia were required to go to Constantinople, Turkey, before being sent to Britain. The British of the time associated wild turkeys with the country, and the name stuck.

The wild turkey has one of the heaviest maximum weights of any North American bird, second only to the Trumpeter Swan. Adult males, called toms or gobblers, normally weigh between 11 to 24 pounds, with records of the birds being over 30 pounds uncommon but not rare. The females, or hens, are much smaller in comparison, usually between 5 – 12 pounds. The long fleshy flap over the male turkeys beak is called a snood – this flap along with the wattles and bare skin on his neck and head fill with blood and expand when the bird is alarmed. When he is excited, his head turns blue; when he is aggressive it turns red. The body feathers of both males and females begin black and gray with a copper and brown sheen. The color of the male turkey becomes more complex as it ages, picking up metallic green and blue hues.

Although never publicly voicing his opinion on the matter, Benjamin Franklin wrote in a letter to his daughter Sarah Bache that he would have preferred the wild turkey being picked for the National Bird instead of the bald eagle.

Wild Turkey

Wildlife Lookout

The White-Tailed Deer

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White tailed Buck

Odocoileus virginianus

Also known as the orange tailed deer or Virginia deer, the whitetail is native to the United States, Canada, Central America and northern South America. They are most common east of the Rocky Mountains, and are absent from the far western states.

The white-tailed deer is a reddish brown color in the spring and summer that fades to a grayish brown in the fall and winter months. The size of the deer vary greatly, following Bergmann’s rule that the average size increases the farther away from the Equator the animal lives. Bucks can vary from 130 lbs to an excess of 350, while an adult doe in the tropics or Florida Keys can be found as small as 60 lbs, to over 200 lbs in northern climates. The average shoulder height is 21″ – 47″.

The white-tailed deer uses the characteristic white underside of its tail to communicate a warning to other nearby deer of possible danger. Their tails can vary anywhere from 3.9 to 14.4 inches. All deer have dichromatic (two color) vision with blue and yellow as their primaries, making it difficult for them to detect colors like red and orange.

Although most often noted as a forest animal, the white-tailed deer has proven itself quite adaptable to many environments, such as open prairie lands and savanna woodlands. Commercial exploitation, unregulated hunting and poor land usage severely depressed deer population about a century ago, but thanks to conservation efforts their numbers today are estimated to be about 30 million in the US alone. Of this, the whitetail is the most common. This species is the state animal of Arkansas, Illinois, Michigan, Mississippi, Nebraska, New Hampshire, Ohio, Pennsylvania and South Carolina.  It is the wildlife symbol of Wisconsin, and the game animal of Oklahoma.

White-tailed dear fawn

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Three Most Common Bats in Louisiana

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Bats are among a small group of flying mammals, and they are the only furred animal with this ability. Their wings are actually elongated hands that are webbed with a thin layer of skin, or membrane. There are close to 1000 species of bats in the world – 45 are native to the United States, 11 can be spotted in Louisiana. The three most common of these are the Hoary Bat, the Eastern Red Bat, and the Evening Bat. Bats use echolocation to maneuver in the dark, and also accurately determine the location, speed and direction of prey. The insect eaters of the North American bats belong to a sub-group called micro-bats. These bats survive mostly on moths, mosquitos, gnats and true bugs. For this reason many people try to encourage bat populations around their homes or farms by building specially designed bat houses. Although often perceived as a vicious and dangerous creature, most bats are quite harmless insects and fruit eaters that tend to avoid human interaction. So far no one has spotted a vampire bat in Louisiana yet!

Hoary Bat

Lasiurus cinereus

The Hoary Bat (Lasiurus cinereus) is a large, heavily furred bat, the most widespread in the Americas, occurring in most of southern Canada and southward through most of South America. It can also be found in Hawaii, Iceland, Bermuda and the Dominican Republic.

Red Bat

Lasiurus borealis

The Eastern Red Bat (Lasiurus borealis) is almost completely furred, except for the ears and parts of the wings. They forage regularly over the same territory on successive nights, and can frequently be seen feeding beneath street lights.

Evening Bat

Nycticeius humeralis

The Evening Bat (Nycticeius humeralis) is a small bat, weighing in at 7 – 15 grams, and is found throughout much of the midwest as well as northern Mexico. Colonies are generally small, but groups can reach up to 1000 in optimal environments.

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The Great Horned Owl

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The Great Horned Owl is large predatory bird, approximately 25″ tall with a four and a half foot wingspan.  These owls range from Alaska and Northern Canada eastward and southward throughout the Americas.  Colors vary with their habitat, from nearly white in the arctic, to dark brown and gray, mottled and streaked below, setting off a white throat.  The widely spaced tufts at the ears give the great horned owl its name.  Its call is a distinctive ho-ho-hoo=hoo=hoo, varying between four and five syllables.  The female’s call is slightly higher in pitch.  The Great Horned is very adaptable in terms of habitat, and they live in deciduous, coniferous and mixed forests, as well as rainforests, prairie, deserts, swamps and urban areas.  They tend to prefer areas with less human activity, but may be found in park-like areas in developed areas.  Mated owls tend to keep permanent territories, and they generally mate for life.  The crushing force of the talons is approximately 300 pounds per square inch, greater than that capable of the human hand.  In this regard, the Great Horned Owl is comparable to the much larger Golden Eagle in some cases.  Owls have binocular vision which allows them to spot prey very precisely in low light.  Their eyes are as large as a human’s, but they are immobile in their circular bone sockets.  To compensate, the owl can turn its head a full 270 degrees in order to see in different directions without turning its body.

The Great Horned Owl’s ears are not located in the same position on both sides of the head.  The right ear is typically higher and at a slightly different angle.  By positioning the head until a sound is the same in both ears,  both the horizontal and vertical direction of the sound source may be pinpointed.  They eat other birds and small/medium sized animals.

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Louisiana’s Most Popular Hummingbirds – Ruby-throated & Rufous

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Ruby-throated Hummingbird

Ruby-throated Hummingbird Archilochus colubris

The hummingbird is a distinct bird native to the Americas that make up the Trochilidae family. They are among the smallest of birds and include the worlds smallest bird, the Cuban Bee hummingbird, measuring 5 cm. There are twelve hummingbird species that can be observed in Louisiana, the most common being the Ruby-throated hummingbird and the Rufous hummingbird. The Ruby-throated hummingbird has a metallic green back, males have a bright red throat, females have a white throat and belly. The male Rufous hummingbird has bright rufous (or rust colored) back and flanks, with an iridescent orange-red throat. The female is green with rufous tinge on her flanks and tail. These birds will lay two small eggs (but rather large in comparison to most bird/egg ratios) in a tiny compact nest made of down held together with spider silk and decorated with lichens. The spider silk construction adds elasticity to the nest, allowing it to grow with the chicks.

Rufous Hummingbird

Rufous Hummingbird Selasphorus rufus

On average, the hummingbird flaps its wings 12 – 80 times per second, depending on the species. Mating season also has an affect on this statistic, where the smallest birds can reach up to 100 beats per second. The hummingbird can fly at speeds up to 34 mph on average, and it is the only bird with the ability to fly backwards.

Hummingbird WakeBiochemist Douglas Warrick and his coworkers studied a Rufous hummingbird in a wind tunnel using particle image velocimetry to investigate this bird’s unique flight. They concluded that the bird produces 75% of their weight support during the down stroke and 25% during the upstroke, defining the hummingbirds flight as distinctly different from insects with a similar hovering flight, where lift is generated equally in both strokes.