Kenyon Kritters: What is a bird?


Warning: the following is semi-educational and may trigger acute ornithophilia. Come to the dark side, my friends- we have little fuzzy dinosaurs. The author would also like to note that she is not liable for any injuries sustained from smacking your head into a tree because you were staring at a bird. Photos from the National Audubon Society.

Tally-ho terrestrial tetrapods,

It’s a brand new year, and you know what that means, right? New Year’s Resolutions. I know, I know. They’re tough to come up with. After all, how are you supposed to improve perfection?

Well, I have a resolution solution for your delicate constitution, student institution! It involves very little effort, it’s a nifty party trick, and people will think you’re very cultured and in tune with the cosmos. My resolution for you is a light bit of not homework, but fieldwork: learn the 10 most common birds that are not crows which you’re likely to see around campus this winter. Only 10. You see them, or at least hear them every day as you shuffle to groggy morning classes, but do you know what they are? Besides birds, smarty pants. This is an exercise in mindfulness, in moving your eyes and head as you walk, and it’ll keep everyone from texting me ‘what bird is this’ photos at all hours. You’re welcome, me.

To guide you on your quest for avian enrichment, I’ve prepared some notes to get you started. Presenting…

The Kenyon Kritters Bestiary of Birdies

My natural and unnatural philosophers,

The first and foremost step in identifying a creature of the avian variety is to pose the question: what are birds?

A bird, or scientifically-speaking, a ‘flappy floof,’ is a beastie in the phylum vertebrata, possessing, as do we, a central spinal column. From a classification standing, we can’t separate birds from the larger group Reptilia owing to those irksome Crocidilians which, while bearing a striking resemblance to lizards, are more closely related to modern birds.

Each bird in nature is fashioned with a body, a head, two legs, two eyes, one heart, one brain, and a liver. If anything you are looking at fits this description, you may have found yourself a bird. Additionally, birds tend to have sharp pointy triangles called ‘beaks’ or ‘bills’ if you’re feeling fancy instead of normal mouths, and giant hands covered in floof or ‘feathers’ that enable flight. These are professionally referred to as ‘wings.’

Now that we’ve developed a cursory understanding of birdhood, let us proceed with our identification of a few fine feathered friends:

Carolina chickadee


Via Brian E. Small/VIREO

Scientific name: Poecile carolinensis, meaning ‘Small unidentifiable bird of the Carolinas.’

Prominent marks: Carolina chickadees are wee little twitterbees of small frame but large spirit. They are known, like their close relations the Black-capped chickadees, for the gentlemanly black caps on their heads and the dashing white around their eyes.

Song: The name ‘chickadee’ comes from their raspy high-pitched call which sounds like a repetition of their own name: ‘chickadee-dee-dee’. They are amicable birds, but rather vain.

Whither to watch: I often observe these dapper gents in and among the trees leading up to the Pine Grove, as well as the tall trees rimming our esteemed president’s cottage. Perhaps they too are intrigued by protein-folding chemistry.

Notes: Chickadees stuff tree cavities with large caches of seeds to stay plump through the winter. Just like you hide the good chocolate from your roommate with the munchies, chickadees often store food in many different locations to guard against theft, and they remember where they left every last crumb.

Tufted titmouse


Via Arthur Morris/VIREO

Scientific name: Baeolophus bicolor, meaning ‘Small-crested of two colors.’

Prominent marks: Tufted titmice, the larger cousins of the chickadees, have a strong showing on the Hilltop. They are not, as the name suggests, of two colors, but four: gray on top, white and rufous brown underneath, with a little black square atop the bill.

Song: The tufted timouse is easily recognizable by its incessant calls for some fellow named ‘Peter.’ Who is this mysterious Peter? A long lost lover? The true name of the universe? This enigma has perplexed scientists for centuries, particularly those named Peter.

Whither to watch: Whither not to? Titmice are everywhere, but their favorite haunts include the copse of trees around the library, the academic advising offices, the freshman quad, and basically everywhere in between.

Notes: ‘Mouse’ may seem like a strange word for an animal that is decidedly not rodentine. The word stems from two Anglo Saxon roots: ‘tit’ meaning small and ‘mouse’ which was a general term for any little critter. I suppose we could simply say what we mean in plain modern English, but ‘Tufted small smallish creature’ just doesn’t have the same ring.

Slate-colored junco, or Dark-eyed junco


Via Gerard Bailey/VIREO

Scientific name: Junco hyemalis, meaning ‘Rush of the winter.’

Prominent marks: Juncos, members of the sparrow family, are feisty little warriors of the frigid north who travel south from their nesting grounds in Canada for winter. In this region, we receive juncos of the Slate-colored variety, but they also have dark eyes, so the difference in name is mostly personal preference.

Song: The junco is not much of a musician, but they enjoy greeting each other with medicine ad side-effects quality runs of ‘pew-pew-pew.’

Whither to watch: While most birds are conventionally airborne, you will find juncos most often by looking at the ground. They jump around on their little pink legs in the snow by the science buildings and South Quad, searching for leftover pine seeds and sipping the frozen tears of organic chemistry students.

Notes: Juncos are known for having high levels of testosterone, which scientists believe drives their extreme territoriality and irritability. In one experiment, scientists dosed female juncos with testosterone through a little knapsack strapped to their backs. In response, the females behaved much more like their aggressive mates, and made horrendous parents. Scientists likened this to the elevated levels of hormone, but going by every college student’s struggle, another possibility is simply that the backpacks were heavy and made them grumpy.

White-breasted nuthatch


Via James M. Wedge/VIREO

Scientific name: Sitta carolinensis, meaning bluntly, ‘Nuthatch of the Carolinas.’

Prominent marks: This bird is best distinguished by its curved posture as it hops impossibly quickly up and down the trunks of trees, sometimes backwards. They scoff at gravity.

Song: If you are walking by a tree and you hear someone who is clearly laughing at you, not with you, you’ve found a nuthatch. Their favorite past time is reveling in the absurdity of existence. And hopping. They like hopping.

Whither to watch: Stare at the trunks of any hardwood tree on campus and a nuthatch will likely pop into view. Did it come around the side of the branch, or did it just spontaneously appear. What does it matter? Nothing is real.

Notes: I consider nuthatches to be the only true nihilists.

Red-headed woodpecker


Via Arthur Morris/VIREO

Scientific name: Melanerpes erythrocephalus, meaning ‘Black creeper with a red head.’

Prominent marks: I call this bird ‘Cat in the Hat’ for its blocky coloration. White in front, black on back, red on head. Hop on pop.

Song: Not a song so much as a screech. You’ll know it when you hear it because you’ll think someone is being murdered.

Whither to watch: Red headed woodpeckers like to hang around park-like habitats, and they especially love heckling the crows from the trees around Ransom Hall. They dream of becoming campus tour guides, but unfortunately, the K-card access policy bars them from entering any of the buildings.

Notes: This bird is absolutely not to be confused with the red-bellied woodpecker, which should never be referred to as possessing a red head. The red-bellied woodpecker is identified by a red head and an ages old ketchup stain on their front breast feathers. Naming is absurd. Everything absurd.

Cedar waxwing


Via Phillip Hardy/Audubon Photography Awards

Scientific name: Bombycilla cedrorum, meaning ‘Silky tail of the cedar.’

Prominent marks: Elegance epitomized. Their striking black masks and flashes of red and yellow on their wings and tail make these sleek birds a sight to behold.

Song: Cedar waxwings communicate through angelic whistle calls meant only for the ears of dogs, because we mere humans are clearly not worthy of their heavenly chorus.

Whither to watch: Only the finest, reddest seeds and berries of the forest will do for cedar waxwings. On campus, I see them in the trees behind Old Kenyon and the trees in front of the Peirce parking lot, though why they would choose to associate with such hoi polloi is only for the gods to know. Sixty of more waxwings often flock together in the trees lining the banks of the Kokosing.

Notes: Cedar waxwings travel in groups, sometimes flocking two hundred strong. Spotting them on a misty morning is a herald of good things to come, like grapefruit in the dining hall or a print job that doesn’t leave horizontal lines all over your paper.

Eastern bluebird


Via Brian E. Small/VIREO

Scientific name: Sialia sialis, meaning ‘A kind of bird sort of bird.’

Prominent marks: Males are bright blue and orange, lovely complimentary colors, as I learned from the timeless classic ‘Mouse Paint.’ Females are more of a dusky grey periwinkle with cream on the breast.

Song: Eastern bluebirds warble joyously as they chase down insects on the wing. In winter, though, they resort to eating nuts and berries like everyone else and just pretend that the crisp of a sunflower seed is the satisfying crunch of a beetle carapace.

Whither to watch: Bluebirds spend the spring and summer at the nestboxes in the prairie fields down at the BFEC and across the way at the Kenyon farm. Yet, I have seen them venture on campus at times during the winter, especially in the area around Ascension Hall. Clearly, they appreciate fine American Gothic architecture.

Notes: Don’t panic, but bluebirds aren’t actually blue. Birds can’t produce blue-green pigments, so these colors are actually structural colors, caused by the intricate structural arrangement of their feathers which reflects only certain wavelengths of light. This reflection from bright sunlight makes them appear blue, but in reality, their feather have very little color at all. Nuthatches are right: nothing is real.

Pileated woodpecker


Via John McKean/VIREO

Scientific name: Dryocopus pileatus, meaning ‘Capped lumberjack.’

Prominent marks: Pileated woodpeckers are easily identified by their bold pairing of a  dark suit with a red mohawk, and by the fact that they are GIANT. Measuring over a foot tall, Pileateds are the largest woodpeckers in North America.

Song: Pileated woodpeckers call sporadically, most often when they fly from one forest to the next. The white flash of the underside of their wings and their piping cheers are unmistakable as they careen just over the tops of trees.

Whither to watch: I often see Pileateds outside the Bolton theater: a dramatic setting for a dramatic bird. I also see them in the woods behind Horvitz hall, calling ‘forget about your still life of pears, paint meeeee!’

Notes: Woodpeckers are aptly named for their expertise at pecking wood to get at the insects underneath the bark. Since hitting your head against a tree kind of hurts, the woodpeckers have evolved a specially-padded front to their skull to prevent brain damage. And, their tongues are so long and squiggly that the muscles wrap around their skulls and have hooks on the tip for grabbing hard-to-reach grubs. How wonderfully bizarre.

Northern cardinal


Via Glenn Bartley/VIREO

Scientific name: Cardinalis cardinalis, meaning ‘Most important most important’

Prominent marks: Male cardinals are scarlet red with a black face during the warmer months and a duller crimson to grey in the winter, while females are a lighter tawny with reddish on her wings and tail. The male’s vibrant red comes from the carotenoid pigments in the red berries he eats- the redder he is, the better fed he is, and the sexier he is to the ladies.

Song: Cardinals are very vocal all year round. Basically any high pitched chirpy call you hear is either a cardinal car alarm going off. I distinguish them by their repeated lines of ‘birdie birdie birdie.

Whither to watch: Most trees are green in summer and brown and leafless in winter. Cardinals are red. They kind of stick out. Unless you’re colorblind. In which case, you may never know if you’ve ever seen one. Oh well, nothing really matters anyway.

Notes: I’ve never felt any pain more viscerally upsetting than being bit by a cardinal. Their hefty finch beaks are meant for crushing through hard seedcases, and it shows when they clamp down on your pointer finger and refuse to let go. I tried getting a cardinal to trade my finger for a stick once. He briefly choked on the stick, and bit my finger again when I tried to help. Do not underestimate the wrath of a cardinal.

House sparrow a.k.a. Trash Bird


Via Brian E. Small/VIREO

Scientific name: Passer domesticus, meaning ‘Domestic songbird.’

Prominent marks: European house sparrows are blotchy browns and greys with black masks to hide the fact that they are trash. But we know, trash birds. We always know.

Song: House sparrows chatter loudly during every waking hour. Imagine walking into the cacophony of New Side during lunch rush hour. Then imagine if all of those people were chittering birds. That’s what they sound like all the daggone time.

Whither to watch: Open your eyes. They are taking over. The hedges (also an invasive species, by the way) lining the Kenyon Inn and the post office are prime spots, but basically anywhere there be trash, there be trash birds.

Notes: It isn’t really fair for me to despise trash birds purely for existing, especially since we’re the reason they’re here. Trash birds are an introduced species from Europe and today they are the most abundant bird in the U.S., numbering 70 million strong. Their takeover has hurt a lot of local bird populations, though, and they often displace local nesters like bluebirds, swallows and other sparrows. I’ll give them this- they are remarkably good at what they do. Which is being trash. It’s really no great surprise that they like to hang around humans.

Now, go forth and identify!






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