Birding at Joy Ranch

Joy Ranch 6/28/13

Joy Ranch is “a Christian multi-service child care agency in Virginia providing homes for children who cannot or should not be in their own homes”. Eric Harrold, program director for Avian Adventures, offered the educational services of Blue Ridge Discovery Center to the Executive Director of Joy Ranch, Tim Lewis, and their program director Mary Hutchins through a series of conversations and visits. Our offer was well received. To see more on the ongoing work of Joy Ranch, please refer to: Much like the approach we took at Camp Dickenson, the kids were given brief instructions on identification strategies, and off we went on a hike. Birds were located, described in journals, and discussed in the field. We began by listening and watching birds close to the chapel where we gave our orientation. Then, some of those who knew the campus, took us to a barn swallow nest.

From there we skirted the open areas around the buildings, finding a few species in trees, on the ground and way up in the sky. Occasionally, Eric played call back songs to draw some birds closer. When we took a trail into the surrounding woods, this effort brought the kids close up looks at an oven bird and later, a Carolina wren.

One resident family, who had first met Eric at one of his library presentations, drew us behind their house where multiple feeders were arrayed. Hummingbirds and house finches were added to our list at that spot. The day was growing warmer and quieter, and many of the kids were getting tired. The ages ranged from approximately 4 to 16, so we had quite a spread of attention span requirements. We hurried back to the chapel for our follow-up identification, pulling out the Sibley’s field guides and reviewing our notes.

Many of the kids really perked up during this session, and worked diligently to find the birds that matched their memory and notes.

Our list is in order of discovery and as follows:

  • Song sparrow
  • Northern mockingbird
  • American crow
  • Eastern bluebird
  • Turkey vulture
  • Northern cardinal
  • Ovenbird
  • Carolina wren
  • Blue jay
  • Ruby-throated hummingbird
  • House finch
  • Barn swallow
  • Helmeted guineafowl
  • Domestic chicken
  • Field sparrow

During the identification process, we addressed several questions, including what kinds of employment are available for the avid bird-watcher/ornithologist, and some discussion on why male songbirds, especially, have such intense plumage.

Eric played the songs and calls of a variety of birds, both seen and heard during our walk and those closely related…giving perspective to comparisons. This seems to always capture the attention of an audience. Winding up, outside the chapel Eric discovered a house finch nest in a hanging plant under the portico. Pulling it down, those of us who were still present, got to see four house finch eggs and one larger egg, clearly not of the same species.

Cowbird was the consensus.

Cowbirds, native to North America, were so named because of their nomadic life-style, following bison herds in pre-Columbian days, seeking the insect bounty stirred up by large roaming beasts. Because they were always on the move, they developed the strategy of laying their eggs in other birds’ nests to be foster reared. Now that there are no longer roaming herds of anything, they have become a much more serious parasite on a wider range of nesting songbirds due to their more sedentary lifestyle. The newly hatched cowbirds are typically larger, and outcompete the host’s offspring, sometimes even to the degree of kicking the other eggs and nestlings to the ground and certain death. What is even more interesting in this instance is that house finches are not native to Eastern North America, but from our western states. They were sold as cage birds, and as usual, it only took a few escapees to establish a new population in a relatively predator free zone.

For a while, at least.

Scott Jackson-Ricketts