By Jim Force
Special to Wausau Pilot & Review
They have navigation systems that would make top gun pilots envious.
They sleep with one eye open and some can fly thousands of miles without a break.
Their aerodynamics inspired the Wright Brothers, who developed wing designs after observing them.
They’re birds, and even if you’re not an expert, you can watch and hear them every day in your back yard.
“No matter what’s going on in the world, they give me joy,” saidLori Schubring, owner of Wild Birds Unlimited on Rib Mountain Drive. “They always make me smile.”
Wausau is a designated Bird City for good reason. Lots of species hang out here — some year round, and some that migrate and return in the spring, often to the same place.
On my porch, they zip from feeder to feeder, skillfully avoiding collisions with hanging plants, porch columns, and tree branches, then stopping on a dime to snack on seeds and nuts.
Their ability to navigate so skillfully is due to their vision, says David Allen Sibley in his book, “What It’s Like to be a Bird.”
Birds process visual information more quickly than we do, Sibley reports. They see a wide range of wave lengths, track fast motion better than humans, and can see as much as 360 degrees in peripheral vision. It’s a skill set critical for tracking prey and scanning surroundings.
While my porch features a wide variety of sparrows, chickadees, wrens, and larger birds like cardinals and blue jays, I’m nowhere near the level of some local birders in counting and identifying.
Andy McGivern is a member of the Wausau Bird Cub who enjoys observing birds.
“On any given day, I can see around 15 – 20 different birds that come to my to our feeders,” McGivern said. “Common summer yard birds include the Northern Cardinal, Blue Jay, American Robin, Black-capped Chickadee, Mourning Dove, American Goldfinch, Downy, Hairy and Red-bellied Woodpecker, White and Red-breasted Nuthatch, Brown Thrasher, Chipping Sparrow, House Wren, American Crow, and Ruby-throated Hummingbird.
“We’ll also see the Pileated Woodpecker, Cedar Waxwings, Gray Catbird, Merlin, Chimney Swifts, Indigo Bunting, Red-winged Blackbird, and Baltimore Oriole.”
Turkey Vultures, Bald Eagles, Red-tailed Hawks as well as the Canada Goose, Mallard and Great Blue Heron can be seen flying over every once and a while, McGivern adds. “I have a Green Bird List of birds that I have viewed this year by walking or riding my bike and my list is just over 70 birds.”
To identify birds, he recommends a good pair of binoculars, a bird guide book, and a notepad.
“I keep track of all the birds I see by posting them on an app called eBird,” McGivern said.
A good website is www.allaboutbirds.com. National Geographic has an excellent series on birds. And, you can get a close up look at the 45th annual Birds in Art exhibit at the Woodson Art Museum, now through Nov. 29.
Wausau Bird Club.
The Wausau Bird Club (www.wausaubird.com and on Facebook at “Wausau Area Birders and Birdwatchers”) is another resource.
The club normally meets the first Monday of each month, outdoors in summer and at the Universalist- Unitarian Church from September until spring (their next public meetings will be Sept. 14 and Nov. 2 at 6:30 p.m.).
All are welcome, ardent birders as well as amateurs.
Susan Haug is treasurer, and she often leads bird walks in the community, including the Monk Gardens on World Migratory Bird Day each spring.
“I got interested in birds when we lived in the southern part of the state. A local bird food store owner conducted bird walks and we participated,” Haug said.
Walks are an excellent way to get involved, she said. The local club has conducted walks in various parts of the county, at Barker-Stewart Island in the city, and at Council Grounds State Park near Merrill.
Haug says she’s fascinated by the color and vocalization of birds, both in the local environment and in places she’s traveled around the world.
“All that beauty out there,” Haug said. “It’s amazing to hear them communicate with each other, issuing a warning as you approach.”
The migration of birds is another awesome feature.
“It’s amazing how they know where to come back to every year, and where their food sources are,” she said.
Sibley describes unique routes and schedules for migrating birds which can reach altitudes of several thousand feet. They often fly at night when it’s cooler and there are fewer predators, navigating by stars.
McGivern enjoys the transition, too.
“Some birds have already begun migration,” McGivern said. “Shorebirds that were up in Canada are now beginning to head south and they can be seen at mudflats around the area. In time, a number of our birds will fly south and our resident birds will be joined by a few northern birds that winter here. Every winter I like to go into the countryside to see the Snowy Owl.”
“Ornithologists have been studying birds for years,” Haug said, “yet they still haven’t unlocked all the secrets.”
Bird feeders are the best way to attract birds to your backyard.
“We try to be seasonally savvy,” Wild Bird’s Schubring said. “We offer different kinds of food at different points during the year.”
Right now, as sparrows migrate, she likes to spread millet on surfaces–even the ground–for them to feed on. “It’s simple and cheap.” she said, “and Indigo Buntings like millet, too. They eat it like candy.”
Your choice of feeders should be guided by what you’re trying to accomplish, Schubring said. “If you want finches to come, hang small port feeders so they won’t spill seed on the ground. Bigger bird need some kind of platform they can perch on.”
And when do birds feed? Lori says they’re like humans, feeding late in the day to build up enough calories to last through the night, and then again in the morning to refuel.
But they’re not entirely like us. Sibley and others report that birds can sleep with one eye open and half their brains active to sense danger. They’ll typically lose 10 percent of their body weight while roosting.
They also need water. Schubring recommends bird bathsfor birds to drink and bathe in. “Owls won’t come to your feeders,” she said, “but they will come to your bird baths. It’s important to keep the water fresh and clean.”
Habitat is important for a healthy bird population. Haug says the bird club has planted native species this summer, both at the Monk Gardens and on Barker-Stewart Island, where sections have been cleared of invasive species.
You can help our local bird population by planting native shrubs and trees for cover and feed.
And by remembering this from photographer Joel Sartore in his book, Birds of the Photo Ark.
“The future of birds and us are intertwined more than we know. We soar or we plummet together.”