The only times blue jays are quiet are during breeding and the spring migration. These noisy birds have many calls, like a clear whistle, a clicking chatter and even a low, melodious song. But the call readily identified is the loud and shrill "Jaaaaaay."
Because of their size (11 inches long with a 16-inch wingspan), blue jays can be aggressive at feeders and will rob eggs and babies from nests of other birds. Despite their overbearing habits, these birds are beautiful in their shades of bright blues and dazzling whites. The flashes of white on the tips of their tails are visible as they leave behind their mayhem. Blue jays gather in large, roving flocks in the fall, and then spend winter in smaller groupings. Ornithologists are still determining the distances and nature of their migration.
One of the most beautiful sights on a winter’s day is the male cardinal perched on a branch in his spectacular bright-red feathers. If you pay close attention, the female is close by, but her colors are of muted tans and reds. She needs this camouflage because she is the parent in charge of sitting on the nest. Both have crests and red or red-orange beaks. Young cardinals look like the female, but have dark beaks until they molt into adult plumage.
Cardinals will eat berries, insects and spiders, and dine on sunflower and safflower seeds from feeders. In fact, they will be one of the first at dawn and last at dusk to visit. Late in summer, some adult cardinals are without feathers on their head due to feather mites that gain a stronghold on nests used for a second or third brood. (Because their skin is black, the bald head is obvious.) Birds clean their feathers everyday to rid themselves of mites and dirt, but are unable to reach their heads. Luckily, the mites die in cold weather and cardinals quickly grow new feather hats for winter.
The black-capped chickadee is truly the delight of the backyard feeder. With its black cap and bib, white cheeks and belly, grayish feathers on its back highlighted with white edges, and tan painted sides, this inquisitive little bird will make many quick trips to the feeder, pick out a seed and dash away. The seed may be eaten or hidden in a limb or bark for another time. They are not intimidated by larger birds, or even birds of prey that might be watching. They are quick to scold intruders with an angry "chickadee-dee-dee-dee!" or happily call out to other chickadee friends. They whistle a happy two-note song, the second note being lower.
Chickadees can be trained to take seed from a person’s hand. It takes great patience and time to build trust. If you’re not patient enough to do this in your own back yard, you can try offering seed at Firestone Metro Park and F.A. Seiberling Nature Realm. However, for the health of the park and other animals, please don’t leave seed on the ground.
Because american crows will eat just about anything – insects, nuts, seeds, vegetables, fruits, berries, bird eggs, nestlings, carrion and garbage – they have adapted to living in cities, suburbia and parks. They live in family groups of parents and young from previous years that help raise the newest brood. The American crow is 17 inches, weighs about a pound, is all black, and has a short tail and broad wings. They are not able to soar like eagles, hawks or turkey vultures; therefore, they have to continuously flap in flight. Crows are great "watchdogs." Their screaming "caaw," "caaw," "caaw" is a good warning to all animals that something has come into view, maybe even a human.
West Nile Virus took a large toll on the crow population. However, their numbers are coming back, quite possibly with immunities to the virus.
The red-tailed hawk is the largest and most common buteo in the country. A buteo is a raptor or bird of prey with a stocky, strong body, broad wings, and wide, round tail. It weighs in at two and a half pounds, is 19 inches long, and has a wingspan of 49 to 50 inches. Red-tails soar effortlessly and majestically high in the afternoon sky, and perch along roadsides and edges of open land. In the field, pasture, marsh, meadow and park habitat is their banquet of mice, moles, chipmunks, rabbits, squirrels, other mammals and snakes. Their eyesight is so great that they can spot their food while soaring, and can hover in mid-air while they locate their prey. Winter brings red-tails from Canada to Ohio. They may even fly as far south as Panama.
There can be a lot of color variation in the red-tailed population, but adult red-tails are easily identified by their rust colored or brick-red tail. However, the tail has horizontal bands of brown and white until the bird’s second year. If the bird is soaring, it can be identified by a band of striping on its light belly.
The robin is our biggest and most common thrush, belonging to the same family as the bluebird and wood thrush. Its familiar orange breast and dark gray back is easy to identify, but unnoticed may be the white underbelly and partial white eye ring. At 10 inches with a wingspan of 17 inches, it weighs under three ounces.
Robins have a beautiful song of short, warbled phrases, like “cheeryup cherrily.” They happily sing from before sunrise to after sunset. Robins prefer to eat earthworms, locating them by sight, not sound, and feed their young insects. Robins change their diet in the winter, eating berries and fruit. The species has two or three broods each year. The male will care for the fledglings while the female is incubating the next brood of eggs.
Thanks to the popularity of backyard bird feeding, many people have witnessed the dramatic yearly color changes of the American goldfinch. In winter, the drab olive-yellow plumage is good protection for this very small two-ounce bird. Come March, the goldfinch slowly molts, or looses the drab feathers, for its bright lemon-yellow color. The male is most spectacular with yellow on his body, black cap, black wings and tail. The female is not quite as decorated because she spends 95% of her time on the nest, where she is fed by her mate.
Goldfinches nest late in the warm season, waiting for the seeds of thistle and other plants to feed their young. They fill their crop (a sack in the bird’s gullet that softens food for digestion) with seeds, and then regurgitate a mass of seed and mucus into the nestling’s mouth. They are quite acrobatic when collecting seeds, perching on delicate flower heads and swaying on thin stems. The female builds the nest with fibers she strips from dead trees, weeds, filaments from wind-dispersed seeds, cattails, spider webs and caterpillar silk. Thistle is their favorite food, but the birds also eat insects, plant lice and caterpillars. Although not correct, they are sometimes referred to as yellow canaries, because their song is similar.
The red-headed turkey vulture (sometimes called a buzzard) is the ultimate, ultra-light soaring machine. At 26 inches long with a wingspan of 70 inches, its body looks heavy but only weighs four pounds, as compared to an eagle’s weight of nine and a half pounds. Because their body is so light, they often look like they are teetering on the broad wings of their V-shaped glide. High in the sky, vultures use their great sense of smell to locate road kill or other dead animals. They are one of nature’s garbage disposals, cleaning up the final cycle of life. Their return from migration is usually timed with the mid-winter warming and bountiful remains of winter’s toll.
Head and neck feathers are absent on vultures, allowing them to stick their heads into a decomposing animal to feast. The long, hooked bill acts as a fork and knife. And when it gets hot, vultures will defecate on their own legs, letting the water in the feces evaporate and cool them down. Despite the gross habits of the vulture, it is a social bird, roosting with others of its kind.
With its long, yellow stripes, the eastern garter snake (also called gardener snake) is one of our most widely recognized reptiles. While favoring moist, open fields and streams, this snake is very adaptable and can be found in just about any natural habitat, as well as residential and urban areas.
Rarely exceeding two feet in length, garter snakes will feed on any small animal, but they seem to favor frogs and toads. Although not venomous, they can be somewhat aggressive when handled. Like all reptiles in our area, they brumate (i.e. hibernate) underground during cold winter months.
Water snakes are commonly found near the water’s edge, where they hunt frogs and fish. Their aggressive behavior and rather robust size give them a bad reputation, even though they – like the garter snake – can do little harm.
The young have a marbled black-and-white pattern, which eventually darkens to nearly black with age. Many times to their demise, this disposition and coloration fool people into thinking they are a venomous cottonmouth or copperhead – especially farther south, where these venomous snakes do occur.
The painted turtle is the small, aquatic turtle commonly seen basking on logs in ponds and other still waters. Occasionally, they can be seen crossing land to lay eggs or locate better habitat.
From a distance, these turtles look relatively nondescript, but a closer view reveals beautiful yellow and red stripes on the skin, from which they get their name. Painted turtles primarily eat bugs and snails when young, but they eat more plant material as they mature. The turtles lay eggs in mid-summer and like all of our aquatic turtles, brumate under water during colder months, breathing through their skin.
The snapping turtle is one of our most famous turtles and are common in various aquatic habitats. Highly acclaimed in some circles for their soup, most know them for their formidable size, strength and jaws, which demand respect, especially when found on land, where tempers can flare. Like snakes, snappers are strictly carnivorous, hunting and feeding under water on anything they can catch.
Contrary to their name, these tiny frogs, which range in size from two to four inches long, can be green, bronze or brown in color. They may be easily confused with a bullfrog, except that green frogs have two ridges on their backs called dorso-lateral lines. The American bullfrog, which is not native to this area, does not.
Green frogs prefer permanent water bodies (e.g., ponds, as opposed to temporary vernal pools) with dense vegetation. They will consume anything they can fit into their mouths, including aquatic insects, crickets, birds, small snakes and fish. Often viewed at the water's edge, green frogs make a distinct squeaking noise while jumping into the water after being disturbed from their roost. Otherwise, the call of the male green frog sounds similar to a banjo string being plucked.
The American toad is an amphibian that spends most of its time away from the water in moist woodland areas. It utilizes temporary pools for breeding and lays long strings of dark eggs in April and May. Males attract females with their calls, consisting of a long, musical trill that lasts about 30 seconds.
American toads are two to three and a half inches long, and females are generally larger than males. They eat small insects and invertebrates and are typically active from dusk until dawn. Adult toads are covered in warts and are characterized as having two or three warts in each dark spot on their dorsal side. Their bellies are never spotted. Their base color is often tan, but can also be bronze or olive colored.
Because of their secretive nocturnal habit of tunneling underground, spotted salamanders are seldom seen except in early spring, when they migrate in large numbers to breeding ponds.
This large, chunky salamander has two irregular rows of yellow, greenish-yellow, or orange spots. They are found anywhere in Ohio where there are low-lying moist woodlands adjacent swamps, ponds and creeks.
Often the only evidence of its presence is a fist-sized egg mass containing less than 100 eggs attached to a submerged stick or plant. How does a 6 inch salamander pass a fish-sized egg mass? The eggs are not that large when laid, but the jelly-like covering swells in contact with water.
The Norther spring peeper is so small it could rest comforatbly on a dime! Its shrill birdlike peep, or whistle, can be heard for a great distance. It is easily identified by the dark "X" on its back as well as its rounded tree-frog toe pads.
It makes its appearance at the first hint of spring, while traces of ice remain in the shallow breeding ponds. After breeding season, it moves uplands to moist woodlands - hiding among the shrubs and feeding on insects and other small organisms.
Breeding takes place from March to June. The masses of eggs are laid in water. The tadpoles transform in July.
One of the smallest woodland creatures in Ohio, the red-backed salamander is an abundant, yet relatively unnoticed, part of our woodland ecosystem. It is a small, slender salamander that is completely terrestrial. It lives in moist, rocky woodland areas, but does not need to live or reproduce in or near a body of water.
Females lay eggs under moist logs or rocks and will aggressively defend them until they hatch. The species has two color phases: the red-back phase, which includes a red stripe from the base of the head to the tail, and a lead phase in which it is uniformly dark.
The monarch butterfly is one of the most commonly recognized butterflies in Ohio, with its four-inch wingspan and strikingly bright burnt-orange and black vein coloration sprinkled with white spots. Spending its winters in Mexico and migrating north in the spring, the monarch is a common sight in the late summer and early fall. During spring, caterpillars are busy munching away on milkweed plants and later forming a chrysalis, or pupa, where they will complete their metamorphosis into the butterfly.
The monarch is toxic, from eating the poisonous milkweed plant, and is therefore quite undesirable to predators. In the fall, the monarch begins its migration back to Mexico, where it will remain until the following spring. During the migration back north the butterflies will stop frequently and deposit eggs on milkweed. Very rarely will a butterfly complete the round trip journey; often the incoming butterflies contain several generations.
The katydid, also known as the long-horned grasshopper, is slender and green with broadened wings designed to resemble leaves, camouflaging the insect within tree foliage and shrubs. The katydid can be distinguished from other grasshoppers due to the length of its antennae, which reaches beyond the length of its body. The species is most common mid- to late summer, as this is when the insect is fully grown and most recognizable.
The name katydid comes from the insect's common song, which is heard in the evening: "katy did, katy didn't." The song is produced by males rubbing their hind legs together, a process known as stridulating. The females lay their eggs in either the soil or on plant tissue. Often, this causes harm to the plant due to the many slashes the female makes in order to lay her eggs inside.
Although not an insect, the spider belongs to the phylum Arthropoda, which contains insects, spiders and other multi-legged creatures. An adult garden spider can reach a size of 3/4 of an inch to one and 1/8 inches, often startling those who accidentally stumble upon it in the garden or in the field. A strikingly beautiful spider with its bold yellow and black abdomen and banded legs, the animal is quite easy to recognize. It prefers to build its web in sunlit fields. If disturbed, the spider quickly drops and hides within the underlying vegetation, where it hides out until it is safe to return back to the web.
The garden spider is an orb-weaver, meaning its web takes on a circular or orb-like structure containing many strands of silk that jet out from the orb and act as stabilizers. Often, the orb web also contains a white zigzag pattern in the center known as a stabilimenta; it is thought that this structure absorbs light, acting as an attractant for flying insects as well as camouflaging the spider. Like all spiders, the garden spider contains venom. However, it is strictly used as a means of subduing prey that get caught in the web; it is of no harm to humans.
The praying mantis is one of the largest insects in Ohio, coming in at a whopping two to two and a half inches long. It is easily recognized, not only because of its large size but also because of the "praying"-like stance the mantis takes on as it sits atop tall flowers and grass waiting for its next meal. Their triangular heads with compound eyes make it easy for them to spot prey, and their elongated, serrated forelegs make it quite easy to grasp their meal.
The female is a bright green color, where as the slightly smaller male has a brown coloration. Although common in Ohio, the praying mantis was actually introduced from Europe in 1899. The insect proved to be beneficial in feasting on the invasive gypsy moth. However, due to the highly cannibalistic nature of the mantis, it is rarely abundant enough to have a real impact on invasive species. During mating, the female commonly eats the male for nutrients, but this is not always the case. After laying eggs, the mantids die with the first frost, and the young mantids hatch in the spring.
As a small beetle in Ohio, the ladybug comes in at just a quarter of an inch long. They prefer meadows, fields and garden habitats, and their favorite food are aphids. Although quite common, they were originally brought over from Europe to control aphid populations within crops.
Ladybugs are easily recognized due to their bright red to orange coloring with black spots. The bright coloring is actually a defense mechanism, warning would-be predators of their nasty taste. Although not a pest insect, ladybugs are sometimes considered undesirable during the winter months, when hundreds of them relocate indoors to ride out the cold. The beetles mate in spring, producing several hundred eggs that hatch in a week. Within 10 days the larvae pupate and become adults. Because the entire life cycle of the ladybug is completed within four to seven weeks, several broods can be produced in one summer. A notable fact: as the now common Asian Multi-colored Lady Beetle becomes more prominant, finding an actual Ladybug is rare!