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BIRDS

BIRDS. No other state in the United States has such a remarkable variety of birds as Texas. By 1991 the number of species recorded from the state totalled 594, including extinct, extirpated, and introduced species. An additional six species were listed as historical and eleven species were considered to hypothetically occur in Texas. There are several reasons for the great number of species; aside from being the second largest state, Texas is also one of the most diversified so far as its surface is concerned; moreover, the state extends north into the Great Plains, east into the humid lowlands of the southeastern United States, south into the almost tropical lower Rio Grande region, and west into the desert country. Thus the state has attracted species from east and west, north and south, from the sandy gulf coastal islands, the wide open plains of the north, the deserts and desert mountains of the west. This situation applies not only to the permanently resident birds, of which Texas has a greater proportion than any other state with the possible exception of California; but it also means that migrants from other areas of the United States visit some part of Texas. Perhaps the greatest variety of birds is to be found along parts of the coast and in the region of the lower Rio Grande.

In the humid, heavily forested river bottoms of East Texas one of the most spectacular as well as most famous of birds, now extirpated from Texas was, the ivory-billed woodpecker. Its retiring habits, even where it was in the more inaccessible swamps, made it difficult to study this bird in its native haunts. Its nest, an excavation in a tall tree, was watchfully guarded by the parent birds. This woodpecker is sometimes confused with another inhabitant of the lowland forests, the pileated woodpecker, which, however, is somewhat smaller and has less white on the wing, lacking also the conspicuous whiteness of bill that has suggested the name ivory-billed woodpecker. The pileated woodpecker is much more numerous, although it is by no means a conspicuous bird, being also more or less shy and at times difficult to approach. It, too, lives in the forest and rears its young in a similar hole in a large tree. The mortise-like holes that it makes in the trees in search of insect food are a good means of identification. When actively employed in digging these holes it makes the chips fly, and sometimes the noise that results resembles not a little that of a distant wood chopper. Some of the humid river bottom lands and forests attract an almost unbelievable population of small birds, and among them one of the most beautiful is the yellow-trimmed hooded warbler, the black mask on the head suggesting the name. This warbler is an inhabitant chiefly of the lower parts of the trees and of the undergrowth, where, particularly in the canebrakes, its song is one of the outstanding bird melodies.

The upland park-like forests do not have so many bird inhabitants as the deciduous areas of the stream valleys. These fragrant pineries, however, attract several interesting birds that are found much less frequently, if at all, in other kinds of country. Among these is the appropriately named pine warbler. It is an inconspicuous olive-green bird which behaves somewhat like an injured creeper and entertains its mate with a monotone song singularly suggestive of that of the chipping sparrow. Another characteristic inhabitant of the pine forests is the brown-headed nuthatch, a cousin of the common white-breasted nuthatch and a smaller, much less conspicuous bird with a voice that sounds like a miniature cracked tin horn. In cultivated lands, and particularly about human dwellings, one of the most conspicuous of all the birds is the Texas state bird, the northern mockingbird. Its almost unlimited vocal repertoire is notorious, and its imitative ability has, of course, suggested the bird's name. Around the lakes of the interior of Texas are the snowy egret and the great egret, the white pinions of which make them conspicuous features of the landscape. Other herons, particularly the great blue heron, together with the elusive king rail, inhabit the marshes and borders of these bodies of water, while the surface is frequently dotted with various kinds of ducks, particularly in the region of the Great Plains. On the prairies of the interior, as well as on the coast and in other bushy areas, the scissor-tailed flycatcher is conspicuous. This bird, one of the best known of all the land birds of Texas, has gray, black, and white plumage with a dash of red and pink to relieve the monotony, together with long tail feathers, which make it easily distinguishable.

The Llano Estacado of the northwestern part of the state has a relatively sparse bird population. The slate-gray Mississippi kite is one of the most characteristic; its soaring flight makes it an attractive bird. It nests in the trees of the narrow fringe of vegetation along the streams, as well as in the tall bushes of the chaparral. Another bird of the high open areas is the burrowing owl, so called because it makes its nest in a hole in the ground, often adapting to its use an abandoned prairie dog burrow, which has given rise to the story that it inhabits these burrows along with the prairie dog and rattlesnake, a story long since disproved. In the mesquite and other chaparral of the southern and middle parts of Texas, one of the most conspicuous and intriguing birds is the greater roadrunner, or "paisano," as it is known to the Mexicans. Its habit of running on the ground to escape its enemies, and the many stories that are told of its prowess in fighting rattlesnakes, have made it almost a legendary character in folklore. Its speed on foot is really remarkable, although this has been often somewhat exaggerated.

In the marshes of the Gulf coast one finds blackbirds and grackles of various kinds in abundance. Their great flocks sometimes resemble clouds of smoke. Hidden away in the grass, reeds, or grain are the long-billed marsh wren, the wary clapper rail, and the brilliantly colored purple gallinule, along with other water and shore birds. On the coastal beaches, both of the islands and the mainland, one of the outstanding birds is the black skimmer, which has received its name from its habit of flying close to the water and dipping its bill frequently into the surface. It sometimes appears in large flocks that range themselves along the sand or on the mud flats like great platoons of soldiers. Another inhabitant of the shores is the red-billed, black and white plumaged American oystercatcher, a bird which has acquired its name from its habit of feeding on bivalves. Perhaps the most conspicuous bird, as it is the largest along the shore, is the brown pelican, which breeds in sometimes extensive colonies not far back from the waters of the Gulf of Mexico. This bird, apparently clumsy on land, is marvelous on the wing, for not only can it soar indefinitely, but it has the uncanny ability to skim over the water, even when waves are running, so close to the surface that it seems almost impossible for it not to touch the water with its wings, yet it never does. To obtain its food it dives from on high with a great splash into the water and disappears, soon coming up again but facing in the opposite direction. Perhaps the most spectacular of Texas's birds on the wing is the magnificent frigatebird, or, as it is sometimes called, the man-o'-war bird, so named because it is a pirate and obtains a large part of its food by robbing the gulls and other water birds. Its black or black and white plumage makes it a conspicuous figure as it sails for long periods with wings and long forked tail expanded, and with very little or no motion of the wings. On the coastal prairie there lives one of the most attractive game birds of all Texas, Attwater's greater prairie-chicken. Unfortunately, this bird has been greatly reduced in relatively recent years, since over-shooting and lack of proper protection caused it to be practically exterminated from many of its former haunts.

In the semi-tropical valley of the lower Rio Grande there are many birds that are found in practically no other area in the United States, these being tropical species that extend up from northeastern Mexico. Among them no bird is more bizarre than the northern jacana. This bird, with a peculiar comb-like fleshy appendage on top of its head and bright yellow-green wings, is a strange apparition as it flies low over the water, or with its long, slender, unwebbed toes stalks about over the lily pads.

Out on the edge of the arid region in the deep canyons, the remarkable black-capped vireo lives. In addition to its own regular song, it has notes which in many respects remind one of the mockingbird. Like many of the other vireos it inhabits the bushes along the canyons, and, like them, builds a pendant nest in the horizontal fork of a bush. The canyon wren also holds a high place among the songsters of the west. Its remarkable melody, starting high and descending through more than an octave, resounds from the canyon walls until it seems to come from a bird two or three times its size. It lives in the crevices of the rocky walls of the canyons, where it is easily completely hidden from sight. The dry regions of central western Texas harbor such birds as the black phoebe, which places its nest on a little shelf of rock in a canyon or even in an abandoned well. Here, too, lives one of the most remarkable birds of all Texas, the white-throated swift. It is well-named, because it is one of the most rapid fliers in the world. When it really is in haste, it dashes down through the canyons at such speed that the eye finds it difficult to follow. There are also in the desert area other attractive birds, such as the vermilion flycatcher, which draws attention not only because of its brilliant plumage but also because of its intriguing nesting and other habits. Here, too, is the cactus wren, well-named because it is so fond of building its coconut-shaped nest in the most forbidding cacti as well as in other bushy vegetation, leaving only a very small opening at the side for an entrance. The tiny verdin, although barely half the size of the cactus wren, sometimes builds a thorny castle almost as large with the entrance being from below at one end, which effectively keeps out most of its enemies.

So many remarkable birds occur in the picturesque Chisos Mountains that it is difficult to pick out the most important. The gray-breasted jay, which is common throughout this range, is found in no other area in the United States and is a noisy, conspicuous inhabitant of the woodland. Here, also, lives the Colima warbler, a very small bird whose color makes it obscure. It breeds in these mountains but nowhere else in the United States. In the Chisos, as well as in other mountains, there are also many birds that have come down from the more northern Rocky Mountains. Such are the zone-tailed hawk, a marvelous flyer that lives in canyons and the forests of the mountains; the Hutton's vireo; the mountain chickadee, which is similar in appearance to the Carolina chickadee of eastern Texas; and the noisy, mischievous, Sleller's jay.

In addition to the great variety of remarkable birds that are to be found in Texas, there are two famous birds that were formerly common in the state, but which now unfortunately, have been exterminated throughout their ranges in the United States. These are the well-known Carolina parakeet, whose taste for food runs to cockleburs, and the still more widely known passenger pigeon. This bird was at one time so abundant at certain seasons of the year in parts of eastern Texas that it broke down the branches of the trees in some of its roosts.

BIBLIOGRAPHY: 

A Checklist of Texas Birds (Austin: Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, 1984). Edward A. Kutac, Birders Guide to Texas (Houston: Lone Star, 1989). Harry Church Oberholser, The Bird Life of Texas (2 vols., Austin: University of Texas Press, 1974). Roger Tory Peterson, A Field Guide to the Birds of Texas (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1960). John H. Rappole and Gene H. Blacklock, Birds of Texas: A Field Guide (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1994). John L. Tveten, The Birds of Texas (Fredericksburg, Texas: Shearer, 1993).

Harry C. Oberholser

Citation

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article.

Harry C. Oberholser, "BIRDS," Handbook of Texas Online (http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/tbb01), accessed August 30, 2014. Uploaded on June 12, 2010. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.