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Birds in the Sierra

Since the first inhabitants of this fertile part of the New World, Californians have relied on the splendid variety of bird and animal life for food. When the Spaniards, Russians, and Americans stepped onto California’s shores, it seemed like Paradise. But then settlers began to exploit the natural riches and greed took over, just like they butchered bison in the Midwest. Lucky for the life of birds, they continued to multiply until fertilizers and other poisons took their toll on condors and eagles in the 20th century

High in the Sierra Nevada, the family in The House on Harrigan’s Hill lived with an abundance of birds in the conifer evergreen forest.

The Edwards children watched, and the red-tail hawk slowly turned circles as its broad, rounded wings soared high above the trees. Nowadays, the hawk often waits on a fence post or telephone pole, eyes fixed on the ground, watching for a vole or rabbit. It flies high on a thermal updraft and screeches as it dives and snatches its prey in its claws. The red-tail hawk has rich brown feathers above and is pale and streaked on the belly. A dark brown bar is seen between its shoulders and wrist. The name comes from the cinnamon-red color on the upper part of its short, wide tail. Even in 2017, the red-tail hawk can be seen all over North America.

In the novel, the Stellar jay is scolding other birds and squirrels on the trash pile that will soon be burned. It is found in all conifer forests in the west, sticking to the high tree canopy. It flies high and gracefully, making long swoops on its broad, rounded wings. The Stellar has a large charcoal black head with a prominent triangular upright crest. It has a chunky blue body; a long, full tail; and a long, straight bill with a slight hook. Light blue markings can be found above its eyes. A bold bird, it is noisy and inquisitive. Other western blue jays are the piñon jay and the scrub jay, but only the Stellar has the identifying crest.

The crow and raven are the most common and the smartest birds in North America, seen by Papa, Mary, and Raleigh when they took the buckboard over the Donner Summit down to Sacramento. The American Crow is large and entirely black from its long, straight bill to its long legs. Identified by its short, squared-off tail, it flies with patient, methodical flapping of rounded wings. The wingtips are feathered and spread out like fingers. It thrives around people, cawing loudly to hold on to its territory.

The Common Raven is longer and larger than the crow with a thicker neck and shaggy feathers at

the throat. To distinguish it from the crow look for its bent beak, said to be like a Bowie knife and its tail which is tapered at the end in a diamond or wedge shape. It flies with an easy, flowing wing beat on longer, slender wings and feather fingers like the crow. It is not as shiny black as the crow, rather sootier. With a loud, gurgling croak the raven can bound forward, hopping on two feet to catch insects or berries.

Both birds roam in deciduous and evergreen forests, open woodland, the desert, tundra, and grassland. They feed on worms, insects, seed, and fruit. Both are known as mischievous, good learners and problem solvers, even aggressive against larger birds. Nowadays, you might see a raven flying down the road looking for road kill.

When young Mary Edwards is sick in bed she is entertained by a Mountain Chickadee in the brush outside her mother’s bedroom. It has a plump tiny body and an oversized head with a black striped cap down to its eyes. It has white cheeks, whitish underside, and gray back, wings, and tail. Calling “chick-adee-dee-dee”, it can cling to the underside of a limb, eating insects and breaking seeds with its short black beak.

At the picnic in the park where Mary Edwards and her daughter meet up with the family, Dark-

eyed Juncos flit around picking up seeds and crumbs. A flashy little bird of the sparrow family, it has a round head with a short stout bill. Most often it has a slate gray or brown body with a long tail. It makes a high “chip-chip” call as it hops around the base of a tree, foraging for fallen seeds.

To the surprise of Mama, Mary, and her daughter, Betsy, on their drive in the Model T up to Roseville, a flock of Red-winged Blackbirds take off in the field next to the road. Flashier than the junco, they are shiny black with red patches that can puff up or hide in the wing feathers. The birds are said to anticipate the arrival of spring. The flock roosts in sedge meadows, alfalfa fields, even fallow fields. They can fly more than 50 miles to feed on insects in the summer, corn and wheat seeds in the winter.

Google the Cornell Ornithology Lab that has excellent photos and has collected bird songs of most birds in the United States. Original post on 10-1-2015

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