A Summer of Wonder and Concern in Birdland

A Summer of Wonder and Concern in Birdland

The summer of 2021 will go down as one of my more satisfying and yet concerning summers when it comes to my fascination and interest in birds.

My wife refers to our backyard as Birdland due to the variety of species visiting and residing near or on our property in Putnam. This is simply because we have different habitats favored by diverse species including woods, a field, tall trees, smaller shrubs and lots of wild plants. We also maintain a well-stocked bird feeder and two birdbaths with fresh clean water. We shun the use of pesticides and only use herbicides (very judiciously) to control invasive plants species. Our property is full of tasty bugs and native wild plants. Watching birds is a lifelong passion for both of us.

This summer I recorded several bird species that I rarely see, making this season exciting. Unfortunately, my joy is tempered by recent news of a mysterious illness threatening birds throughout the eastern United States. The last two weeks have brought reports of a mysterious fatal illness affecting birds in the mid-Atlantic states with concern it is advancing north and may impact birds in New England. It is already reported in New Jersey and Pennsylvania.

The most common birds affected by the illness are juvenile blue jays, common grackles, European starlings and American robins. The Connecticut Audubon Society reports other afflicted birds include northern cardinal, house finch, house sparrow, eastern bluebird, red-bellied woodpecker and Carolina wren. Many of the birds have been immatures, with swollen eyes and crusty discharges.
Audubon has recommended the following actions to prevent the help prevent the spread of disease:

• Stop feeding birds and providing water in bird baths for the time being.
• Bring your feeders and bird baths in and clean them with a 10% bleach solution. This includes hummingbird feeders.
• Avoid handling dead or injured wild birds. Wear disposable gloves if it’s necessary to handle a bird.
• Keep pets away from sick or dead birds as a standard precaution.
• To dispose of dead birds, place them in a sealable plastic bag and discard with household trash. This will prevent disease transmission to other birds and wildlife.

A list of list questions and answers can be found at:


Additional information on this newly emerging disease can be found on the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection’s website at:


Another helpful article can be found in the online Smithsonian Magazine at:


I hope the weeks ahead will bring more information about this disease. Until then it is up to us to do our part to help prevent its spread. I have already taken down and cleaned my feeders and birdbaths and hope you will take heed and do the same.

While my feeders are down, they have already provided me with extraordinary bird sightings. Each of these species I recorded exhibits sexual dimorphism, meaning the plumage of the male and female is very different. The male exhibits bright colors and the female has softer colored feathers providing helpful camouflage during nesting season.

For several years I had not seen scarlet tanagers, but this year I recorded them at least four times, including once in my back yard. The males have red feathers like the more common year-round cardinal, but the red of the scarlet tanager is more striking. Its name provides a clue to the uniqueness of the brilliant scarlet summer plumage of the male, contrasted with his dark black wings and tail. The female is a beautiful, soft olive-green above and yellow beneath — perfect camouflage for her nesting and feeding preference high in the canopy of a deciduous tree.

This summer an indigo bunting visited our backyard feeder. I have not seen one for several years and was thrilled when this beautiful little bird arrived. The color blue is very special in birds, and in previous columns I have written about bluebirds that each year use nesting boxes in our backyard. Blue jays, tree swallows, and purple martins all show their own unique shade of blue, but the sight of the solid blue indigo bunting is always noteworthy and, for me, a rare occurrence. Unlike the male, the female indigo bunting is more secretive and well-hidden with all brown plumage.

When I was a kid, eastern towhees frequented the feeder at my grandparent’s home in New Hampshire. This oversized sparrow has an interesting plumage of black and warm rufus (reddish-brown) that stands out among other visitors to bird feeders. This summer I first spotted one foraging under our feeder and later at the feeder gorging on black oil sunflower seeds. The female joined the male at the feeder and has a brown head, throat and back. I do not recall the last time I saw one and added it to my list of special birds of the summer of 2021.

Another new visitor to our feeder this summer is the rose-breasted grosbeak, and a pair has returned many times making me believe they have a nest nearby. I have seen them on occasion during woods walks, but this is the first year they have visited our feeder. It is interesting to note when the grosbeak is at the feeder, most other birds avoid it. A blue jay or cardinal will fly in, but even the larger jay will soon depart, leaving the rose-breasted grosbeak to eat in peace. The males are easy to identify with a black head and back, white belly and red breast. The female is streaked with brown and looks like a large sparrow. They are remarkable birds and a most welcome addition to our backyard.

We live in a beautiful place called The Last Green Valley National Heritage Corridor. Our many bird species are enjoyed by countless people and help make this region so special. I hope you will join me in caring for our beautiful birds by taking down your feeders and bird baths until we can learn more about the mysterious illness threatening them.

Bill Reid is the Chief Ranger of The Last Green Valley National Heritage Corridor and has lived in the region for 40 years. He can be reached at bill@tlgv.org


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