Which bird are you? Part 2: Dr. Yaukey says to keep an eye out


A yellow-Crowned Night Heron by the LA building at UNO. Photo provided by Erinn Langille.

Erinn Beth Langille

Despite the lingering heat of summer, at the University of New Orleans, signs point to the change in season. Students are deep into classes, and assignments are piling up. The natural world is also in transition: leaves are beginning to fall, flowers are going to seed. This also means the slow migration of northern birds onto the university campus, making pit stops or winter homes for a few months. Students can enjoy a variety of rare sightings on campus through the fall and winter, as both visiting and local birds make use of the unique landscape.

Students should keep stay alert the way to those early classes. Dr. Peter Yaukey, author of “Birding Made Easy: New Orleans,” taught classes on the biogeography of birds for many years in the geology department at the University of New Orleans. He remarked that “large migratory movements of songbirds have sometimes been seen crossing the campus, associated with the lake shore. Many hundreds each of indigo buntings, eastern kingbirds, and American robins have passed in an hour or two on early mornings after cold fronts in the fall, apparently re-orienting after having been wind-drifted.”

Even local birds may be in the midst of seasonal changes. After summer breeding, many birds, both male and female, molt their feathers. Students who notice bedraggled-looking cardinals, blue jays and chickadees up in the trees should fear not. These birds molt once a year, losing for a few weeks their most distinctive features, like pointed crests or caps. Molting is a fragile and vulnerable time for birds; they are overexposed and not in top shape, so be careful.

Other species trade summer plumage for winter plumage, which tends to be duller or differently patterned. The European starlings that congregate in huge flocks in the trees on campus are shiny and iridescent, with blue and purple on the feathers during the summer months, and yellow bills. In winter, they develop white spots, lose some of their iridescence and their bills turn dark brown or black.

Changes in feathers may also be a result of aging, like that of some gulls. A spring chick’s feathers may be white, small-shaped and soft, turning black or dull brown over the course of some weeks. Students new to birding may have a hard time determining species with so many changes, but it is wonderful to observe a bird in all its various stages. Even long-time bird lovers have difficulty with identification as seasons, location and plumage change.

As for wintering birds, Yaukey made these observations: “The athletic fields at [the intersection of] Elysian Fields [and] Leon C. Simon often attract flocks of American pipits in the winter … while trees on campus attract flocks of insectivores, generally dominated by yellow-rumped warblers, but with others mixed in — commonly including orange-crowned warbler and ruby-crowned kinglet.”

Changes in the way the campus landscape is done can even affect the appearance or disappearance of visitors. As Yaukey explained, “The pond adjacent the library has attracted interesting species in migration or winter, including American woodcock and white-winged doves. However, the vegetation is significantly cut back from when I saw those — maybe [its attractions are] not as good [to the birds] these days.”

Students should keep an eye out for the various birds on campus — both the regular inhabitants and the brief visitors. Students and faculty at the University of New Orleans are surrounded by a rich ecosystem of avian life – they just need to know where to look.