Here are the ten birds Mainers love best.
By Allison Childs Wells and Jeffrey Wells
Illustration by Luke Seitz
It happens all the time: We’re at one of Maine’s state parks or a land trust preserve looking for birds and someone comes strolling along, spies our binoculars, and the stories flow. About the cardinal that sings from their backyard lilac. About the eagles they’ve seen for years, perched in the same tree above the frozen river, winter after winter. About the loons that call as they sip their morning coffee at their place at the lake.
These people are among the tens of millions from across the country who enjoy birds. They’re not the die-hard birding enthusiasts who will climb Maine’s highest peaks in the pre-dawn hours hoping to hear or see the rare Bicknell’s thrush. They probably won’t be slogging through a wet spruce forest Down East, faces covered in blackflies, hoping to find a black-backed woodpecker or olive-sided flycatcher. Chances are, they have never heard of those birds.
They do, however, keep their birdfeeders filled, their nest boxes ready for occupancy, and a bird identification guide within grabbing distance. And when it comes to Maine’s birds, they have their favorites, and will speak effusively about them, often referring to them as “my chickadees” or “our bluebirds.” As lifelong Mainers, longtime birders, and widely published natural history writers, we know and continue to meet so many of these people who love birds, so we began asking them what those favorites are. “Feathered Favorites,” a top-ten list of Maine’s most loved birds, is the result. Although hardly scientific, we feel pretty good about our “data,” with one qualifier: The list is ordered not by popularity. While our respondents had no problem coming up with their ten favorites (although many hemmed and hawed and changed their minds several times, swapping out, for example, American goldfinch for American robin, only to change their mind again), most were reluctant to list by preference.
Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias)
It’s no wonder that great blue herons are a favorite. They’re easy to see not only because they’re huge — three feet tall with a five-foot wingspan — they also seem to love the same beautiful places that are popular with people. Great blue herons are found from our coastal shores to the edges of our lakes, from quiet riverbeds and rippling brooks to secret swimming ponds. The bird’s showy crown and neck plumes, combined with an exquisite statue-like poise employed while eyeing its prey, seem curiously at odds with its harsh, croaking voice and the huge dagger of a bill it uses to grab and stab its food, making it all the more intriguing. Great blue herons eat a surprisingly wide variety of food including fish, frogs, crabs, even the occasional rodent or snake. They build large, flimsy-looking stick nests high in trees, often in small colonies, called rookeries, on islands or in wooded swamps. Most great blue herons leave Maine in the winter for southern parts, though there are always a few that hang back and make a meager living in ice-free areas of the coast.
Ruby-throated Hummingbird (Archilochus colubris)
When people told us “the hummingbird” was on their favorites list, we didn’t have to ask which one. Only the ruby-throated hummingbird breeds in Maine — and in the entire eastern United States for that matter. Known for their rapid wing beats (more than fifty beats per second) and ability to zip off in the blink of an eye, it’s hard to imagine how anyone got a good look at these tiny flying gems before the advent of hummingbird feeders. These feeders are now seemingly ubiquitous, but putting one up is a responsibility — nectar (one part sugar to four parts water) should be changed every three days to prevent mold, which can harm the birds. (Also, that rumor about needing to dye the water red? A myth. Use a feeder with red feeding portals instead.) Rather than keep a hummingbird feeder, we plant for them instead. Hummingbirds love bee balm, cardinal flowers, and other bright red flowers, and have a long tongue designed for dipping into the nectar of tubular plants. They also eat mosquitoes, gnats, and other insects. Attracting hummingbirds to the yard provides a window into their amazing antics. They can fly backwards and sideways, and even can hover in mid-air. To maintain all their dizzying activity, their heart can beat up to 1,250 beats per minute. Hummingbirds build a tiny cup nest using sticky spider webs and lay up to three pea-sized eggs. Ruby-throated hummingbirds winter in Central America, and many fly nonstop across the Gulf of Mexico in order to get there.
American Goldfinch (Spinus tristis)
Our grandmothers called these little finches “wild canaries” for the males’ bright yellow breeding plumage, accented by striking black-and-white wings and tail, giving them a flashy, exotic look. Frequent guests at birdfeeders, they’ll flock in by the dozens, chattering and wrangling for position at the perches. As autumn approaches, males begin to molt their gold garb; by winter, they look more like the drabber olive-brown females. One of our favorite things about American goldfinches is the way their high-pitched ee-hee call sounds like a question. Listen carefully as they pass by, and you’ll hear them say “potato-chip” over and over during their characteristic undulating flight. American goldfinches are among the latest nesters of any Maine birds because they feed their young seeds rather than insects like most other songbirds. You may see them gathering fluffy plant material, which they use to build their small, cup-like nests in late July and August.
Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis)
Few scenes are as breathtaking as a dazzling red cardinal perched atop a snow-covered spruce. Or hopping about at a bird-feeding station. Or singing from an old weathered fence at a field’s edge. In other words, northern cardinals make any landscape more beautiful. Yet just fifty or sixty years ago, cardinals were few and far between here in Maine. Originally considered a quintessential southerner, cardinals have made a steady march northward over the last hundred years. Now they are common year-round residents in the southern third of the state and even make infrequent appearances north through Aroostook County and east through Washington County. Wherever they are, their presence is virtually impossible to ignore. The male, solid red with a flashy crest and black face, is eye-catching against any natural backdrop. The females are more subtly beautiful, sharing the male’s bright red bill and black face but creamy brown overall with red in the crest, wings, and tail. Northern cardinals are extremely territorial, often battling their own reflection in a window or car mirror, mistaking it for an intruding male. By March or April their loud whistled cheer-cheer-cheer and birdy-birdy-birdy songs pierce through the parks, backyards, and forest edges where they breed. Unlike the females of most North American songbird species, female cardinals sing, sometimes from the nest, perhaps signaling the male that it’s time to bring her a meal.
Common Loon (Gavia immer)
The melancholy yodel of a loon echoing across a lake on a summer morning is the perfect reminder that you’re someplace special. Many think of the common loon as a bird of the wilderness, and rightly so. Although they are found in lakes and large ponds throughout the country, Maine is on the southern fringe of its extensive Canadian and Alaskan breeding range. Common loons spend the winter, when their bold black-and-white checkered pattern fades, along the coast from maritime Canada to Florida. Lakeside residents are very protective of their local loon pairs, keeping secret the location of the birds’ bulky nests, built along the shoreline and made of vegetation. Some provide floating platforms for nesting, as speeding motorboats create large wakes that can flood the nests. Loons are also susceptible to poisoning caused by ingestion of lead fishing tackle (anglers can swap their lead tackle for steel weights) and by mercury poisoning tied to air emissions from coal-fired power plants in the Midwest that drifts eastward to Maine. Common loons are excellent swimmers and have been known to dive up to two hundred feet below the surface; they can even eat their catch while underwater. Few can resist the sight of a loon, especially when the adults are swimming with their babies on their backs, as they sometimes do.
Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus)
The emblem of the United States, the bald eagle has also become a symbol of conservation success. Highly endangered in the lower forty-eight states in the middle of the last century, the species has been brought back from the brink by decades of management efforts and the banning of the pesticide DDT. The adults’ classic white head and tail, offset by the massive brown body, give them a majestic look, whether perched or sailing overhead. Big birds require big nests in big trees, which make them easy to see. Eagle pairs reuse their nest each year, and people watch in anticipation for their reappearance during the breeding season. Bald eagles breed near large bodies of water, and, in Maine, spend the winter along the coast and near our large rivers. Gardiner’s resident bald eagle has become famous among locals and commuters alike for its highly visible winter perch along the Kennebec, across from Worthing’s Ice Fishing shacks. It appears like a sentinel, awaiting discarded fish remains tossed onto the frozen river by the fishermen. (Although bald eagles also will eat other birds, mammals, and carrion, they seem to prefer fish.) In spring, a dozen or more bald eagles may congregate with ospreys and hordes of gulls in places like Damariscotta Mills at Great Salt Bay, to feast on the spring run of alewives migrating from the ocean to spawn in inland lakes.
Baltimore Oriole (Icterus galbula)
After months of the dull grays and browns that dominate Maine’s later winter and early spring palette, a male Baltimore oriole, with its tiger-bright orange and black plumage pattern, is almost a shock to the eyes. Never mind the “Baltimore” in its name; the Mainers we spoke with readily claim this bird as one of their own. Starting mid-May, yards all across the state expand their bird-feeding menu to include oranges, halved and hung from branches or set out on deck railings. Some people put out jelly in a small cup as well. Providing these treats increases the chances of luring orioles into the yard for unimpeded views. Such looks aren’t always easy to get. Soon after arriving from their Mexican and Central American wintering grounds, the male Baltimore oriole sets about the business of courting and building its famous hanging pedant-style nest, which is often high up on the ends of branches. The song, a blend of sweet whistles and rattles, is a give-away that orioles are nearby, even when the spring leaf-out hides their vivid colors. By late June, the singing stops, as the Baltimore orioles get busy feeding and raising their young. They remain here in Maine through the fall.
Black-capped Chickadee (Poecile atricapillus)
Even on the coldest of winter days, when few other birds are in evidence, the feisty little chickadee can be seen scouring an evergreen for insect eggs or using its bill to hammer open seeds. Although tiny, these birds have some astounding abilities. For instance, a single chickadee can remember thousands of places it has stashed seeds for later use. But when it comes to chit-chat about Maine’s state bird, there’s always mention of their song. Their chick-a-dee-dee-dee is among the most recognizable of Maine bird songs. Though seemingly simple, it is actually extremely complex. For example, a chickadee will add more “dees” to its call if it is aware of predators nearby. While most bird songs are heard in spring, the chickadee’s hey-sweet-ie may be heard any time of year, even on a warm day in February, giving hope to hunkered-down humans. Studies of black-capped chickadees frequenting backyard feeders have shown that what may seem to be a just handful of birds may actually be dozens from many flocks that come and go throughout the day. As summer approaches, the birds pair off and defend a territory within which they will find a small tree cavity to fill with fur, feathers, or other warm and readily available materials. Believe it or not, these tiny birds have been known to lay up to thirteen eggs in one clutch — amazing, for a bird that weighs just half an ounce.
Eastern Bluebird (Sialia sialis)
Bird enthusiasts feel a certain satisfaction when cavity-nesting birds take up residence in a nest box they’ve provided. This is especially true when the new neighbors are eastern bluebirds. Like bald eagles, bluebirds are a conservation success story. Their numbers crashed early in the twentieth century due to competition for tree holes from non-native European starlings and house sparrows, introduced from Europe. Thanks to conservation efforts including bluebird trails (nest boxes monitored to keep out unwanted species), bluebird populations have recovered. Eastern bluebirds will readily accept nest boxes in pasturelands, orchards, and agricultural fields — and backyards near these kinds of habitats. As you drive Maine’s country roads, look for eastern bluebirds perched on telephone wires, fence posts, and nest boxes in fields. It’s from these perches that they typically hunt for their primary food, insects, and sing their gentle, low-pitched warbling song. Seen in good light, the brilliant blue upper parts contrasting with the red breast make this small thrush, especially the more vivid males, one of Maine’s most beautiful birds. Eastern bluebirds usually spend the harsher winter months in the southeastern United States. In recent years, however, a few have begun overwintering in southern Maine, feeding mostly on berries.
Atlantic Puffin (Fratercula arctica)
One look at an Atlantic puffin and it’s easy to see why it’s sometimes called “parrot of the sea.” In summer, the bill becomes a flamboyant protrusion of red, blue, and yellow, which, set off by the bird’s formal black-and-white attire, gives the puffin an almost clown-like appearance. Crowds line up by the boatload for a trip out to see these birds at their island nesting locations. Eastern Egg Rock has become a favorite among puffin watchers, readily accessed from Hardy Boat Cruises in New Harbor, which provides an on-board National Audubon naturalist. Nothing compares to a cruise for close views of puffins as they loaf on the shoreline or fly in with a mouthful of fish for their chick (they raise only one each breeding season), nestled deep in a burrow under the jumbled rocks. Atlantic puffins had disappeared from Eastern Egg Rock until our friend and colleague Steve Kress of the National Audubon Society began a program decades ago to restore them. After flying hundreds of puffin chicks in from Newfoundland over many years and hand-raising them, the reintroduction took hold. Now, healthy numbers of Atlantic puffins are again breeding off Maine’s coast.