Up until about a year ago I never expected to see a bald eagle on the farm. Due to excessive hunting by humans and the insecticide DDT, bald eagles were considered endangered or threatened for much of my childhood. Combined with the fact that they are sea eagles and principally eat fish, it was absurd to think I would ever see one in this part of Virginia. Yet here they are. Incredibly, it might even be a breeding pair that’s been visiting the farm over the past several days.
Their resurgence is the result of an amazing conservation effort. In the 1950s there were only 412 known nesting pairs. With the banning of DDT and severe restrictions on hunting, the birds are no longer listed as endangered or even threatened. Their increased numbers means that they are starting to re-occupy territory in parts of the United States where they have not been seen in living memory. Extremely cagey and hyper-alert, I have yet to get close enough for a decent photo of these amazing birds of prey. Even so, it is always inspiring to see this massive eagle – their average wing span can be 7-1/2 feet wide – take flight and soar over the family farm.
Doves. Pigeons. Flying rats. Birds from the Columba family are called by many names. Rock Doves are one of the most common birds in the world. While they are now found in almost every major city worldwide, their native habitat is Europe, North Africa, and South Asia. On the farm they typically roost under the hay hood of the barn and scavenge seeds in the surrounding fields.
Rock doves are known for being monogamous with both parents caring for clutches of one to two eggs. Amazingly, both parents also produce “crop milk” to nourish the squabs through their first week of life. Unique to doves, flamingos, and some penguins, crop milk is a dense mixture of fat and protein produced by the crop lining. The cheese-like secretion also contains antioxidants, bacteria, and immune-enhancing compounds.
Young squab is a also delicacy. While now they can be found in grocery stores, in 18th and early-19th Virginia wealthy landowners occasionally built elaborate dovecotes to attract breeding doves. These buildings – with their warm and cozy nesting boxes – allowed the gentry to easily harvest the young birds just days before they took their first flight.
Often seen sitting on fences and branches near fields and lawns, the Eastern Bluebird is a farm favorite. Brightly colored males and elegant greyish females are quick to take advantage of nesting boxes mounted to abandoned fence posts and trees. It is the male who first finds a nesting site. While he works to attract a discerning female to the nest with his striking orange chest plumage and symbolic offerings of twigs and leaves, he must also aggressively protect it from other birds. If he manages to charm a mate with his display, the female will then complete the nest and lay two to seven pale blue eggs. The eggs – 20% of which may have been fertilized by alternative male partners – will hatch 11-19 days later. Their bond often lasts several seasons and commonly produces more than one brood a year. Hatchlings from spring broods leave their parents in mid-summer; broods raised later in the year may travel with their parents throughout the winter.
Typically feeding on insects during the spring and summer, the Eastern Bluebird is a savvy hunter who pounces on unsuspecting prey from above. Their remarkably keen eyesight – they are capable of seeing their quarry from 60 feet away – helps them to track down the beetles, caterpillars, spiders, and grasshoppers they prefer. Bluebirds relay on berries and other fruits during the colder months when insects are not as prevalent.
With an estimated global population of 22 million, bluebirds are thankfully very common. However, even with their large numbers and low conservation threat, their cheerful demeanor and insectivorous diet makes installing nesting boxes well worth the effort.