Of all the many different kinds of wildlife that live in the greater Crestone area, our birds are amongst the smaller ones. So many people have a strong interest in them, in part because birds are the only animals that can truly fly—along with insects, and one type of mammal, the bat (flying fish, frogs and snakes don’t actually fly, they just leap or glide). But it’s also important to note that not all birds can fly, either.
After living in Crestone for over 8 years, one thing that strikes me the most about our local birds is the large numbers of them that we have here year-round, compared to the other Colorado locations I’ve lived in and visited. Growing up on Long Island, I recall lots of birds there, but only in the spring and summer. Crestone is the only place I can recall seeing so many birds in the winter months. So why is that? I spoke to both Elinor Laurie and John Rawinski, two local bird watchers in the San Luis Valley and asked them why. I got the same answer from both of them. It’s because a year-round food source is available here—our juniper and pinyon trees—and these trees keeps many of them here even in the winter months.
In the entire SLV, we see 325 different species of birds, with 250 recorded in the summer months and 60 in the winter. On January 2 of this year, Gary Koehn, a bird watcher visiting from Colorado Springs, counted 16 different species here in Crestone, the majority being pinyon jays—counting over 400 of them alone!
In Colorado, the pinyon jay (genus Gymnorhinu), lives mainly in foothill areas year-round. They are a highly social animal, often forming very large flocks of 250 to even 500 birds and they flock mainly for protection. One or two birds from the flock will be a lookout for all the rest, sending out cries if predator is near. These birds also practice what is known as “mobbing”; it’s their way of harassing the predator. I got to watch this one day last October when my cat, Cheesy, who was inside looking out the window, had a mobbing encounter with a jay which went on for over 30 minutes! The jay in question, besides making a lot of noise (krawk-kraw-krawk!), would charge the window where Cheesy was, flying into it over and over again trying to get at him.
Pinyon jays nest quite early in the season and usually 3 or 4 eggs are laid. Incubation is usually 16 days. The male bird normally brings food near to the nest, and the female flies to him to receive it and then takes it back to the nest to feed the chicks that fledge around 3 weeks later. Their lifespan is on an average 7 years, but some live twice as long.
Also scrub jays live here in the pinyon and juniper forests. They are a little bigger than the pinyon jays and have more gray on their chests and don’t travel in large flocks. The steller jays are a darker blue than the pinyon jays and have a dark top knot on top of their heads.
Of course, we have many other kinds of birds that live around here. Year-round you will see a good number of American robins—with their colorful orange breast; they are the largest North American thrushes. Some of the other birds that we also see year-round are the dark-eyed junco (nickname “snowbird”) and other sparrows, mountain chickadees, crows, hawks and owls.
In the summer months we see plenty of different birds, a few to note are: doves, finches, swallows, nighthawks, and the tiny hummingbirds—which are among the smallest of all birds and the only bird that can fly backwards. Why do these birds leave come fall? Once again, it’s the food source, or lack of, as the plants and insects that they eat are gone in the winter months, so they migrate to warmer climates.
Some birds stay year-round—but you might not realize it. Kinglets (scientific name Regulidae, derived from the Latin word regulus for “petty king”) are one of them. They live up high in our mountains in the summer and only come down into our foothills in the winter months.
Other birds are new to our area, like the rosy finch (Leucosticte atrata). This bird was rarely spotted in the SLV or Crestone until recently, living before on the Colorado Front Range, where they have since disappeared. Why have they moved into our neighborhood and left their old home? We can only guess that there is a connection with the buildup of the land on the Front Range, as they like open space.
So what animals are predators to birds, besides cats? Lots, like raccoons, squirrels, chipmunks, snakes, mountain lions, foxes and coyotes. Dogs running loose can harm ground nesting birds. Even other larger birds like owls, hawks and falcons will hunt down and eat smaller birds. Yes, it’s a wild world out there!
The fact that birds can fly makes them seem special over all of the other creatures on our planet. Just how and why do they fly? Well, flying gives them the ability to escape their predators, as well as make them better hunters. Flying also allows them to escape nasty weather and for some to migrate to warmer climates.
Birds are able to fly because of a variety of reasons. They have high metabolisms to supply their body with energy. They have lightweight bones. They have feathers, some of which are long and strong; which is one way that helps them to produce lift. They also have a bone in their chest called the furcula, more commonly known as the “wishbone”, which is very important for being able to produce the strength and skeletal support needed to flap their wings. By flapping their wings, birds create thrust and lift.
Their mechanics of flight are like an airplane; the factors of lift, weight, thrust, and drag all interact to allow for controlled flight. They are able to steer by changing the shape and orientation of their wings and tail.
No wonder so many humans are fascinated by birds!