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  • Migratory Birds: Connecting Us to the Rest of the World

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    Tags: birds, ornithology, migration

    Created: 5/13/2015      Updated: 8/1/2016

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    Red-winged blackbird

    Red-winged Blackbird

    It’s Christmas at the Nature Museum today. Or at least that’s what it seems like with all of the colorful ornaments adorning the trees around the building. These ornaments are actually migratory birds though, arriving to celebrate spring. Blue-winged and yellow warblers, red-winged blackbirds and redstarts, gold finches in their breeding finery, and blue-grey gnatcatchers seem to be flitting from every bough. Veery and wood thrush provide holiday songs, while kingfishers lay down the beat.  Even the catbird, while not as melodious as some, contributes soft mews that spice the soundscape, too.

    Palm warbler

    Palm Warbler

    For many of these species, Chicago is the last layover on a transcontinental flight from winter home to breeding grounds. For others, this is their final stop; they will spend the summer eating bugs and weed seeds in our neighborhoods. Such a migration is one of the amazing phenomena of life. For example, the blackpoll warbler may fly for 1,500 miles in one hop, often over open ocean. Though some will pause at North Pond after they leave Brazil, Blackpolls only finish their seasonal travel when they are near the arctic, where the trees and the bugs are perfect for nesting and feeding protein-hungry young. 

    Though I’ve spent my share of time in airports and flying over the ocean, migration remains an abstract concept to me. My own personal peregrinations rely on fossil fuels and technology, punctuated by stops at greasy spoons and historical monuments. In contrast, birds cross continents using their own metabolic power. They spend a few frenetic weeks foraging on every high calorie insect they can find, sometimes doubling their summer weight. Then, when the weather is right and the moon is full they launch themselves into the void and fly. 

    Male cardinal

    Cardinal

    I’ve hiked a lot at night in the desert and sat in the shade all day-- which might be comparable to some of the weakest migrators-- but imagine walking day and night, in weather foul and fair. Such a trek is almost inconceivable for me, yet many birds do it every spring and autumn for their whole lives. More concrete to me than migration is the physical presence of a bird. All winter I enjoy the blue jays, chickadees, and house sparrows that live in my neighborhood. Then, suddenly one morning I see a flash of red that is somehow more intense than a cardinal, faster than a flicker, and more skulking than a nuthatch—a scarlet  tanager! This bird flew from the foothills of the Andes, crossed the Panama canal, probably spent a day or two in the Yucatan then bee-lined across the gulf of Mexico, Louisiana, Arkansas, and Missouri only to pause in a tree outside my window, pluck a bug from the branch, and disappear into the leaves.

    Scarlet tanager

    Scarlet Tanager (CheepShot via CC BY 2.0)

    It’s easy to have a feeling of ownership towards the birds that live near us. When a robin builds its nest above the back door, it’s “your” bird. Did the baby’s hatch? Did they fledge? Maybe you even left some worms on the sidewalk to supplement the meals. Doubtless you would close the door softly or even stop using the door altogether during incubation. And what would you do if a cat began stalking “your” robin?

    In the same way that the robin is “yours,” so is the scarlet tanager. Cats will kill it and pesticides will starve it just as surely as they will the local robin. However, that scarlet tanager lives in many people’s backyards during the year. All it takes is one loose cat in Costa Rica, one field sprayed for bugs in Honduras, one windmill in Texas, or one well lit building in Chicago to kill that tanager before it gets to your back yard. If migratory birds belong to anyone, they belong to all of us. Our stewardship of the environment today matters for both the bird and for our brothers and sisters around the world everyday.

    While it may not actually be Christmas at the Nature Museum today, it is a season of celebration of life and of the parts of life that we all share.

    Steve Sullivan, Senior Curator of Urban Ecology

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  • Meet the "Rainforest Adventure" Critters

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    Tags: rainforest, animals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, rainforest adventure

    Created: 11/17/2014      Updated: 8/24/2015


    One of the most exciting parts of our newest exhibit Rainforest Adventure, is the added element of having live animals as an intricate part of the experience. Just what are these animals? Read on to find out! 

    Blue-Throated Macaw

    blue-throated macaw

    Upon entering Rainforest Adventure, the first beautiful bird you’ll encounter is Iggy, our Blue-Throated Macaw. This species of macaw is critically endangered. Population estimates vary, but it’s believed that there are between 50 to 400 individuals living in the wild. Blue-Throated Macaws are also far more threatened than their Blue and Yellow Macaw cousins. While the two look very similar, Blue and Yellow Macaws actually have green feathers on the crown of their heads (instead of blue) and black feathers on their throats (instead of blue). Though their habitats are threatened, they’re typically found in Northern Bolivia and can live 30 to 35 years in captivity.

    Macaw kindly loaned by Jason J. Crean, American Federation of Aviculture.

    Violaceous Turaco

    violaceous turaco

    Also known as the Violet Turaco or the Violet Plantain-Eater, Violaceous Turacos are typically found in West Africa. Their feathers are a distinctive, glossy violet color, which appears in stark contrast in addition to their red, white and yellow heads and bright orange bills. If you visit Rainforest Adventure, you’ll probably notice that our Turaco is quite active and has a distinctive call.

    Turaco kindly loaned by Jason J. Crean, American Federation of Aviculture.

    Spectacled Caiman

    spectacled caiman

    These small to mid-size crocodilians are typically found in Central and South America, and is actually the most common crocodilian due, in part, to its ability to tolerate both fresh and salt water. Their name comes from the bony ridge that is present between their eyes and gives the appearances of glasses. Our Caiman isn't alone, though. Stop by and you'll probably see the Caiman and an African Mud Turtle soaking side by side.

    Caiman kindly loaned by the Wildlife Discovery Center in Lake Forest.

    Powder Blue Poison Dart Frogs

    poison dart frog

    Poison Dart Frogs, in general, typically measure from half-an-inch to two-and-a-half inches in length. Although their skin produces toxins that can be dangerous when ingested, they don’t synthesize the poison themselves. Instead, they obtain it from what they eat, like ants and centipedes, meaning that the frogs that are raised in captivity don't have these toxins present in their systems. Powder Blue Poison Dart Frogs tend to be larger than most other species of Poison Dart Frogs. Typically, their bodies are primarily black, with an irregular pattern of yellow or white stripes running along their back, flanks, chest, head, and belly. Their legs range from pale blue, sky blue or blue-gray to royal blue, cobalt blue, navy blue, or royal purple and are typically spotted with small black dots. 

    Frogs kindly loaned by Tundra Exotics and the Chicago Herpetological Society.

    Green Tree Python

    green tree python

    Green Tree Pythons are typically found in Southeast Asia and Australia. They are often seen in a position known as saddling, as our beautiful python illustrates in the photo above. In saddling, the snake coils its body and lays it over the branch in a saddle position, with tits head placed in the middle. Although it’s visually similar, it shouldn’t be confused with the Emerald Tree Boa which is typically found in South America. They are actually only very distantly related.

    Python kindly loaned by the Wildlife Discovery Center in Lake Forest. 

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  • "Rainforest Adventure" Brings the Rainforest to the Windy City

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    Tags: rainforest adventure, Nature's Struggle, gorilla, macaw, caiman, tropical, birds, conservation

    Created: 11/7/2014      Updated: 8/8/2016

    The average Chicagoan doesn't get the chance to experience the rainforest, but thanks to our new exhibit, Rainforest Adventure, families will get the chance to do just that. This temporary exhibit introduces visitors to rainforests around the world, highlights the challenges they face, and suggests ways that people can help positively impact these threatened habitats.

    Rainforest Adventure's kapok tree
    Kids will love the fact that they can explore a gorilla nest, climb a 9-foot kapok tree, play the role of a conservationist research assistant, and explore through a variety of different interactive exhibit features. In addition to these interactive features, though, the Nature Museum has brought a personal touch to the exhibit with the help of some live animals and specimens from our collection.
    Spectacled Caiman
    Six types of live animals can be found in the exhibit's main hut, including a Blue-throated Macaw named Iggy, a Violaceous Turaco, Powder Blue Poison Dart Frogs, a Green Tree Python, a Spectacled Caiman, and an African Mud Turtle. In addition to the live animals, preserved specimens of a Peach-faced Lovebird, Salmon-Crested Cockatoo, and a variety of colorful beetles are also on display. 
    Iggy and the other rainforest critters are the stars of the exhibit, particularly when the Museum biologists interact with them in their enclosures and teach visitors about their way of life.
    Visitors looking at Chicago Academy of Sciences bird specimens on display
    The Rainforest Adventure exhibit isn't the only tropical environment in the Museum, though. You can visit the Judy Istock Butterfly Haven just down the hall to get a closer look at 75 species of insect life and birds in a tropical region. 

    Although Chicago and the closest rainforest are thousands of miles away, we're actually connected to them in a variety of ways. The purchasing habits of people in North America are one of the chief drivers of rainforest destruction. These purchasing habits are often directly related to unsustainable agricultural, ranching, mining, and logging practices in these delicate ecosystems. Unfortunately, these practices and habits have resulted in a drastic reduction of rainforest animals. It's estimated that the number of animals in a rainforest has decreased by about 40% because of these practices alone.

    So, what steps you and your family can take to help conserve and protect the rainforest? Get some inspiration from Nature's Struggle featured conservationist Madison Vorva here, and be sure to visit the Rainforest Adventure exhibit in person.

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  • What You Need to Know About Feeding Wildlife in Your Backyard

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    Tags: feedings, animals, wildlife, birds, squirrels

    Created: 10/31/2014      Updated: 8/8/2016

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    I have recently received many questions about feeding animals so I thought a general discussion about backyard feeding of animals like birds and squirrels would be useful. Feeding animals can be fun and it provides an opportunity to watch the animals closely. On the other hand, feeding can concentrate diseases dangerous to the animals and sometimes to you, and can attract pests and predators.  

    Birds on birdfeeder

    To deal with the disease problem keep your feeders, baths, and the area you feed in clean and sunny. Also keep an eye on frequently used perches and loafing areas. Remove food debris daily, hose down everything with water, use soap when appropriate (I like Dawn best—skip anti-bacterial varieties) and use a mild bleach solution to regularly clean bird baths, feeders and other appliances. Rinse and dry well. UV light is your friend -- it kills most disease causing organisms pretty quickly but it doesn’t penetrate shade or underneath objects. 

    You might also consider moving your feeding site around. It’s difficult to remove every last bit of chaff, crumbs, and poop, but ants, earthworm, millipedes and many other garden organisms will do the final cleanup for you. While these invertebrates are beneficial components of our neighborhoods, rats and mice are pests that will also move in to clean up debris from your feeding stations. The reason rats and mice are a problem is because they can cause substantial economic damage through their gnawing and foraging activities. More importantly, they can carry diseases that can be readily contracted by humans. Many municipalities have banned bird feeders simply because they quickly become rodent feeders and thus a public health concern. By keeping a scrupulously clean feeding station, you greatly minimize the chance of making your yard a vector of human or wildlife disease.

    Squirrel eating

    Although you may have certain species in mind when you put out a feeder, many species will be influenced by the additional food you have introduced to the environment. To maximize the chances of seeing your target species, make sure you are providing the most appropriate food. If you want to see goldfinch, you must supply thistle seeds. If you supply hazelnuts you might see squirrels and woodpeckers, but sparrows will ignore you. Cracked corn is, in general, just a filler that does little to attract the species most people want to see. If it is present in your seed mix, there’s a good chance it will be tossed out of the feeder in favor of more palatable food like millet only to later attract rodents. Regardless of what you put out though, you will also attract non-target species. Sugary hummingbird feeders will also give you a chance to watch a variety of bee species. Seed feeders will often bring squirrels to your yard, but the songbirds they attract will also bring raptors. These birds of prey can’t feed their young on seeds, they must have meat. Don’t feel badly if you find feathers and other sign of a predation even hear your feeder. This is simply an indication that nature is at work in your neighborhood maintaining the strength of your avian friends and increasing biodiversity.

    If you want to minimize predation you can feed infrequently or move your feeder around regularly. While this will keep the predators guessing, it will also keep your target species guessing so you might not see the large and regular concentrations of birds that you would with a more regular feeding time and place. Of course, if you are unlucky enough to live in a place where cats roam at will, nothing you do will be enough to prevent predation and you will have less diversity at your feeders.

    Finally, when choosing a place to put your feeder, make sure you don’t become the predator — via your house. Windows can kill a lot of birds. During the day, birds usually hit windows because of a mirror effect where the window looks like open sky or a sheltering bush. At night, lights lure birds too close. There are many online resources to help you determine how to prevent your house from becoming a deathtrap. Making the windows visible is important. It’s hard to avoid putting feeders in places where there is some danger from windows though, since a primary reason for feeding animals is to see them better. So, in general, feeders should be sited close to the windows. This not only improves viewing but it also limits the danger of windows for birds because, if they are frightened when at the feeder and take off in the direction of the window, they aren’t flying very fast when they hit it. If the feeder is further, the bird gathers enough speed to cause a concussion when it hits.

    Steve Sullivan, Senior Curator of Urban Ecology

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  • Harbingers of Spring

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    Tags: spring, red-winged blackbirds, birds, ornithology, mating calls, Biology

    Created: 3/26/2014      Updated: 8/9/2016

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    Bluebirds have been the traditional avian harbinger of spring throughout our nation’s history. However, with the various pressures applied by habitat conversion, heavy pesticide application, and the introduction of exotic competitors like house sparrows and starlings, the bluebird is a species few city dwellers will ever see in their neighborhoods again. On the other hand, human activity has been generally good for the red-winged blackbird and throughout the region---city, suburb and rural areas alike—wherever there is tall grass and some standing water, male red-winged blackbirds are arriving in droves.

    As with many bird species, the males arrive first to stake out the best territories; he with the best territory will have the most mating opportunities later in the spring when the females arrive. The male proclaims his fiefdom with a loud metallic call that sounds a bit like a squeaky swing set. At the same time he leans forward to display his eponymous red wings, really just a patch of bright red feathers on his wrist that contrast well with the rest of his jet black body. While it’s a small patch of color, it makes all the difference.  The bigger and more intense patches attract the most mates. 

    In fact, scientists have influenced mating opportunities by experimentally cutting the red feathers off of some males and gluing them on to others. Much like humans who are stereotypically impressed by a man driving a red sports car, regardless of his age or personality, female red-winged blackbirds apparently look no deeper than the red patches on a boys wrists.

    Red-Winged Blackbird with vibrant plumage
    Red Sports Car

    Red-Winged Blackbird with dull plumage
    Hand-me-down van from your parents

    Once the male has established his territory, he will aggressively defend it against all interlopers, including you. It can be fun, and a little daunting, to walk past a breeding colony of red-winged blackbirds. Most will simply scream at you but usually one will sneak up behind you and, when you are not looking, he may drop out of the sky and hit you on the back of the head. Keep your eyes to the sky this spring.

    Steve Sullivan, Senior Curator of Urban Ecology

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  • From the Archives: The Scrapbook of Amanda Parelius or the "Bird Doctor"

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    Tags: birds, Academy, Archive, scrapbook

    Created: 7/26/2013      Updated: 8/9/2016

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    Parelius Dressmaker Shop

    Amanda Parelius is not a household name, she is not a recognized scientific pioneer, but her scrapbook is a snapshot into the passion that drives the amateur scientist. Amelia was born around 1888 in Chicago and lived most of her life in Elmwood Park, one of Chicago’s northwest suburban communities. When she was only 18 months old, Amelia contracted polio, known then also as “infantile paralysis.” At 16, she underwent surgery intended to help her walk without the use of crutches, but complications afterwards instead led to the amputation of one her legs. Her personal experiences with polio are important to note because it would influence directions she took later in her life. 

    Parelius Bird Hospital

    Although she started her career as a milliner and dress maker, ultimately she opened a pet store, “The Scarlet Pet Store and Bird Hospital”, which was originally located in her home and later at various locations. It was at her bird hospital that she began to experiment with treatments recommended for those experiencing paralysis from polio or other debilitating diseases, on domesticated pet birds. She received attention from papers in the Chicago area for creating artificial legs for canaries and for applying the “Sister Kenny” method used to treat polio patients on birds experiencing paralysis. She applied hot packs, hot baths, and massage to afflicted birds experiencing some success, even curing a parrot that was found suddenly motionless at the bottom of its cage, to the delight of its owner. 

    Newspaper Article about rescued canary    Newspaper article about rescued parrot

    All of the procedures she performed were completed with the permission and encouragement of the owners of the birds. In fact, much of her business was obtained through word-of-mouth references that brought birds from as far away as California to her hospital for treatment. Her scrapbook contains letters and newspaper clippings detailing her successes as well as numerous heart-felt thank you letters from bird owners whose pets lives were extended through her care. Her story is just one of many detailing the work of the amateur scientist in the Museum's archive.

    Amber King
    Assistant Collections Manager

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  • Father of the Year

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    Tags: father's day, button quail, baby animals, birds, public programs

    Created: 6/12/2013      Updated: 8/9/2016

    ‘Father of the Year’ is an annual public program that highlights the best animal dad around the Nature Museum. Every Spring, as new life is booming inside and outside of the museum, we keep our eyes open to observe traits in male animals that contribute to the healthy upbringing of young. Once an exemplary ‘dad’ has emerged, we learn facts about his species and decide if he has what it takes to bestowed this honor. On Sunday, June 16th at 12:00 we will announce the 2013 Father of the Year. Visitors will learn all about the celebrated recipient and what he does to benefit the next generation during the award presentation.

    Male button quail with chick

    Button quail chick

    We started doing this program a few years ago as way of sharing our fondness of the parental instincts of members of our living collection. Visitors are often surprised at how much we might have in common with the rest of the animal world when it comes to ‘bringing up baby’. This program fosters a connection with these notable parents. The 2012 winner of the accolade was the Button Quail- an adorable bird species that resides in the Butterfly Haven. Button Quail males are known to share nesting duties and are be strong protectors of chicks. One day last spring, faint peeping could be heard in the Haven. After a search in between the thick plants, two cute button quail babies were spotted under the wing of one of our males. We knew we had our winner. This year the winner is an equally suitable title holder, but we can’t give it away until the ceremony. Please join us on Father’s Day to learn all about the lauded papa.

    Laura Saletta
    Public Programs Educator

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  • Archives: Alfred M. Bailey Bird Photographs from Louisiana

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    Tags: birds, photography, Louisiana, Alfred M. Bailey

    Created: 6/4/2013      Updated: 8/10/2016

    Alfred M. Bailey, director of the Chicago Academy of Sciences from 1927-1936, was an avid nature photographer in both still and motion picture formats.  Bailey was an ornithologist, so the majority of his images are of birds.  The Academy has a large number of Bailey's photographs in their Archives taken on his trips all over the United States and Canada with the intention of recording a variety of species of birds in their natural habitat.  Here are a few examples from his trips to Louisiana:

    Anhinga
    Anhinga with young on nest taken in Louisiana ca. 1930.

    Francis R. Dickinson canoeing
    Francis R. Dickinson canoeing to bird blind for taking images of migrating birds at the Paul Rainey Bird Sanctuary in Louisiana, ca. 1932.

    Laughing Gull on nest
    Laughing Gull with eggs on nest taken in Louisiana ca. 1930.

    Brown Pelican
    Brown Pelican feeding its young taken on shore in Louisiana, ca. 1930.

    Royal Tern Colony
    Close-up of Royal Tern with young in nesting colony taken on shore of Louisiana, ca. 1930.

    Amber King
    Assistant Collections Manager

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  • Spring is in the Air

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    Tags: spring, robin, mourning dove, birds, cardinals, Biology, nature, Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum

    Created: 3/6/2013      Updated: 8/10/2016

    Though there is still snow on the ground, spring is in the air. Males of many species are setting up territories so that they can be sure to have resources ready to sow off to the females as they return to their Chicagoland breeding grounds. Birds are particularly obvious because of their loud calls. Listen for the territorial calls of Cardinals in the morning and throughout the day. I think they sound kind of like space phazers when they quickly chirp “cheer-cheer-cheer-cheer-cheer.” Sometimes they will vary this call and say “birdie-birdie-birdie.”

    Robins, too, are beginning to sing and they may gather in large numbers to feed on left over fruit still hanging on bushes and trees (I saw 16 in one tree earlier this month.) They are working to build strength for the territorial sing-off that will peak over the next few months. Robins will begin singing before we can even see the light of dawn; in our area, that may be as early as 3am. They are calling to the females who have been flying all night and now need a place to rest, feed, and maybe stay to breed.

    Male Robin singing on a tree branch



    Male Mourning Doves aren’t cooing much yet but they are on the lookout for nest sites worth wooing over. Though males and females look about the same, as they begin to pair up, you’ll be able to distinguish the male easily. He’s the one doing all the bowing, cooing, and chest puffing as he tries to show the female that he will be a worthy mate.

    Canada geese have already begun pairing up. Although Canada geese are not sexually dimorphic, that is the males and female look the same, it is possible to distinguish both pairs and rivals in the flock. It's very interesting to watch individuals interact with other members of the flock on North Pond this time of year. There is a lot of aggressive beahvior like hissing, head bowing, and mouth open chasing but there is also a lot of pre-breeding activity. You might see a pair of geese taking a walk in the park, away from the flock, or they might just stand around and look at each other near a potential nest site. 

    As territorial behaviors increase, you may find a birds attacking your car’s mirrors or a window on your house. Birds don’t understand what reflections are so, when they see themselves in your window or mirror, they think it’s an intruder that hasn’t been scared off by their loud singing. So, a battle ensues and the resident bird is unlikely to give up. Just make it so the bird can’t see his reflection--put a piece of paper on the outside of the window, position a lamp so the light overpowers the reflection, put some soap or whitewash over the reflecting area.

    Although birds are easy to spot this time of year, if you look carefully, you’ll be able to find salamanders and fish making nests and wooing mates, too. This kind of activity will increase substantially as the weather warms, the days lengthen, and plants begin to actively grow again.

    Steve Sullivan, Senior Curator of Urban Ecology

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  • Migration Season

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    Tags: migration, autumn, birds

    Created: 11/20/2012      Updated: 8/10/2016

    Chicago is a birding hotspot especially in spring and fall during migration. The Chicago Ornithological Society lead morning bird walks around North Pond every Wednesday which start and finish here at the Museum. The list of species they have observed right outside our windows is very impressive. We are always looking for new ideas for public and school programs so a few years ago when the idea of a bird watching program was suggested we installed some bird feeders at the north east corner of the building.


    Even we couldn’t have imagined just how successful they would be. We have recorded the first ever sighting for Lincoln Park of a Yellow-headed Blackbird and when an extremely unusual Cinnamon Teal blew in one winter it too paid a visit to our feeders.

    Last winter we had a regular Red-headed Woodpecker adding a splash of colour outside our window.

    Red-headed Woodpecker


    And this spring we were inundated with Baltimore Oriole’s draining the nectar from the hummingbird feeders.

    Baltimore Oriole


    Now fall migration is upon us again and the Red-breasted Nuthatches are making the most of the peanut feeder.

    Red-breasted Nuthatches


    And of course there is always that endearing year round favourite, the Downy Woodpecker.

    Downy Woodpecker


    Depending on the time of year we have a constant parade of colourful species so next time you are at the Museum be sure to visit the North Terrace, you never know what you might see.

    Celeste Troon, Director of Living Collections


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