Reader questions, spring arrival dates and feeder survey


By Benjamin P. Burtt

1. A Reader’s question: what is the bird I’ve had this winter that has a red breast like a robin, but really is not a robin? This question and the answer also appeared in the Post Standard today, April 3.

2.The arrival dates for the Spring migrants that normally show up between March 30 and April 17.

3.The results of the Feeder Survey for the first week of March.

4.The April Feeder Survey starts today.

Mr. Burtt: I have had a robin like bird at my feeder this winter that has the red breast, but the back, wings and tail are black rather than gray. Its bill is not yellow, but dark and thicker and shorter than a robins bill. It eats seeds. What is it? W.C. Liverpool

Dear W.C. - It is almost certainly an eastern towhee which normally spends the winter in the south. Each year however, a few remain north for the winter and survive.

CAPTION: The eastern towhee is due in about a week. The male is black with reddish brown sides. The belly is white. Spots of white show in the wing and tail. The female is brown where the male is black. This painting is from Peterson’s field guide, “Birds of Eastern and Central North America” (Courtesy of the Houghton Mifflin Co. )

The Spring migration is underway and the towhee is one of the 17 new species that should be arriving from the south during the next two weeks. The migration started about a month ago and some eight species have arrived to date.

The sides of the towhee are reddish, and of the same color as the breast of a robin. On seeing it for the first time, people often get the impression that the entire breast is rusty. Actually, it is white down the center and the color is confined to the sides.

Until recently it was called the rufous-sided towhee. It is not as common as the robin and is a bit smaller and more slender.

It is found in brushy places and generally gets its food from the ground. To expose insects or seeds laying there, it often seizes a leaf and tosses it aside.

It also rakes the leaves by pushing back with both feet to expose the food items underneath. It makes so much noise in dry leaves that you would think a squirrel is making the commotion. You often hear the bird before you see it.

The song is loud and easily identified. It seems to say “drink-your-teeee”. The second syllable is lower in pitch than is the first. The last syllable is higher and is drawn out. Sometimes the third note is omitted.

In addition to its song, the towhee has a two-part call and it is loud and clear. Various writers have described it as “she-wink” or “tow-hee” and the latter description of the song became the birds name.


Listed here are the approximate dates that some common species show up between March 30 and April 17. The actual date we see them does vary, but I find it fun to be on the lookout for a species and when I see it , to know whether it is early or late. So here are the average dates:

March 30: wood duck and yellow-bellied sapsucker
April 1: blue-winged teal, junco, flicker, tree swallow
April 5: field sparrow
April 10: purple finch, eastern towhee, bittern, bank swallow, barn swallow and purple martin.
April 15: hermit thrush, clilff swallow, rough-winged swallow and broad winged hawk.


During the first week of March, readers tallied the birds seen at their feeder or visible from their home and sent in a list. From the summary of those reports we can see what birds are here and which ones are scarce or abundant this spring in upstate New York.

The birds at the typical feeder.
The number of species per report ranged from two for the 4th grade class at the New Haven Elementary School to 33 for Linda Quackenbush at Waterloo. The average feeder had 15 species this time.

What birds were most often reported on the March Feeder Survey? Over 90% of the reports listed chickadees, cardinals, mourning doves and crows. Over 80% of the people listed juncos and downy woodpeckers.

About three-fourths of the observers had bluejays, goldfinches and white-breasted nuthatches. Two-thirds of the observers listed titmice and starlings.

A bit over half had house finches and downy woodpeckers.
Rare BirdsSome birds were reported by only one person. Lawrence Abrahamson reported a mockingbird at Marcellus. At Malone, Pete Biesemayer was the only person to see ruffed grouse, siskins and evening grosbeaks.

Dorothy Coye spotted goldeneye ducks on Skaneateles Lake. Estelle Hahn had a screech owl in Dewitt. Kathy and Scott Trefz saw killdeer at Perryville. Ken Zoller spotted black ducks and horned larks at West Winfield.

Unexpected birdsThere were three species listed that normally do not return from the south this early. It happens that each of these birds can easily be confused with other species that are expected to be here in early March.

A report of an eastern wood pewee came from Smyrna. This is a flycatcher that normally does not show up until May 5 when the insects are flying. Unfortunately there was no statement as to how the bird was identified. If it was identified by hearing its song, we must keep in mind that the chickadee has a “pee-wee”, whistled call that is part of the courtship and is heard all through the late winter and early spring.

A chipping sparrow was listed in Clay. They normally do not show up until April 15, so this report would have been some 6 weeks early. Again, no description was given.

If it was identified as a chipping sparrow because it had a red cap, it is much more likely that it was a tree sparrow. The tree sparrow is quite common during the winter. It has a reddish cap, a black breast spot and the lower part of its bill is yellow. If the breast spot is not conspicuous, the observer is led to believe that the bird is a chipping sparrow.

However, if you carefully inspect your field guide, you will find that in winter the chipping sparrow does not have a red cap. The top of the head is brown with a few fine black lines running from front to back.

Field sparrows were listed in Mexico and they do not normally show up until a month later in early April.

So when you identify a bird that is unusual in winter, please tell how you identified it. How can you tell whether a bird you see is unusual at that time of year? If you would like a list of the dates when birds show up in the spring, send me a stamped, self addressed envelope and I will forward one to you.

The March list.
Here is the list of all species reported. The first number for a species on the list is the number of individual birds of that species on 100 reports. The second figure is the actual number of reports that listed that bird.

Canada goose 828 (33)

Ducks: black 2 (1); mallard 8 (2); goldeneye 10 (1); common merganser 30 (5); turkey vulture 5 (3).

Hawks: bald eagle 3 (2); sharp-shinned 9 (9); Cooper’s 10 (10); red-tailed 30 (25); rough-legged hawk 3 (3); Kestrel 2 (2); pheasant 4 (4); ruffed grouse 2 (1); turkey 221 (21); killdeer 4 (1).

Gulls: ring-billed 44 (10); herring 32 (4); black-backed 2 (1); rock dove 160 (16); mourning dove 779 (92).

Owls: screech 1 (1); horned 2 (2).

Woodpeckers: red-bellied 62 (48); downy 198 (86); hairy 94 (53); flicker 7 (5); pileated 4 (4); horned lark 100 (1); blue jay 330 (77); crow 1,355 (91); raven 7 (2).

Chickadee 580 (99); titmouse 126 (65); red-breasted nuthatch 44 (33); white-breasted nuthatch 133 (73); brown creeper 5 (5);
Carolina wren 5 (5).

Bluebird 8 (4); robin 250 (39); mockingbird 1 (1); cedar waxwing 72 (6); starling 889 (64); cardinal 433 (96).

Sparrows: tree 361 (60); chipping 1 (1); field 3 (1); song 8 (6); white-throated 70 (29); junco 400 (85).

Snow bunting 22 (3); red-winged blackbird 62 (20); rusty blackbird 5 (2); grackle 23 (10); cowbird 24 (9); purple finch 99 (8); house finch 329 (55); redpoll 89 (9); pine siskin 6 (1); goldfinch 702 (74); evening grosbeak 6 (1); house sparrow 542 (49).

The April feeder survey starts today.
Please watch whenever you can and keep a record of the number of birds of each species that you see each time. At the end of the week, list the largest number of each species that you saw at any one time during that week.

Arrange all the species in the order shown in the list just above from last month. Put each species on a separate line with the number first, followed by the birds name. Please write the number of species at the top of the list.

At the end of the week, put your list on a postcard or in a letter and send it to B.P.Burtt, Smokey Hollow Rd., Jamesville, NY 13078-9548. Or you can send results by EMAIL to ( Please include the name of your town ).