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Wild Side: Colorful migrants return from the tropics

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sports River Falls, 54022
River Falls Wisconsin 2815 Prairie Drive / P.O. Box 25 54022

The valley where we live used to be grazed and was fairly open when we bought the property in 1981. Cattle had bit back the brush and young trees leaving large spreading maples, oaks, basswoods and cottonwoods, and scattered thickets of wild plum and prickly ash. Over the years we planted many trees and the valley is mostly filled in with forest now.

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Below our dining room window was a thicket of wild plum. It was covered with fragrant flowers in the spring and produced many tasty plums. Wild plum shrubs grow to about 12 feet high on hard-as-a-rock stems. Their tough wood and spiky twigs make them formidable adversaries so I didn't bother trying to remove them.

The birds used the plum thicket as a place to perch when visiting our bird feeder. It afforded them good shelter from predators. In addition to black oil sunflower seed, we also feed the birds sliced oranges and grape jelly in the spring. The migrants returning from the tropics are attracted to the sweet fruit treats.

We really enjoy watching the birds in May. The returning tropical migrants add spectacular flashes of color. Blood-red male scarlet tanagers with black wings have arrived from north-west South America, along with the olive-colored females with yellow faces and black wings. The males sing a coarse chirruping song from high in the trees to defend their nesting territories.

Bright neon-blue indigo buntings have returned from Central America. The males whistle bright high-pitched songs from tree tops. "What cheer! What cheer! Where? Where?" Young indigo bunting males learn their songs from older males where they have returned to breed, resulting in "song neighborhoods" in which the nearby males sing songs that are similar to each other and that are different from songs of others at some distance away.

Male Baltimore orioles have a brilliant orange breast and black wings with white bars. Hearing their pure flute-like call is a sure sign of spring. The females are yellow-orange on the breast with a gray head. They weave their hanging basket nests out of fibers. Their larger non-migratory Oropendola relatives build huge hanging basket nests high in ceiba trees in Central America.

Orchard orioles are slightly smaller than Baltimore orioles. The males have brick-red breasts with black head and wings with white bars. The females are yellow-green with brown wings. They also like fruit, having over-wintered in Central America. The males have a rich whistling call.

The plum brush thicket downhill from our house grew old and unsightly after many years. The May 2 heavy snow this year broke the plum thicket down. I geared up with a heavy coat, gloves and goggles and waded in with a chainsaw. Wild plum brush is nasty stuff to deal with, being spiky, tough and "grabby." Lacking better machinery, we fished a heavy piece of rope under the cut plum brush, threw the rope back over it and with a slip knot, cinched it up as I dragged it away to a burn pile with the tractor.

At first the birds seemed a bit confused, not having their sheltering thicket of old wild plum, but they have shifted their perches to nearby spruce trees. We'll plant some other shrubs for the birds to perch in while they take their turns at our feeder and so that we can see their brilliant flashes of color close by our window.

Please send any comments and suggestions for this column to me at RFJSports

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