Several kinds of adaptable, wintering birds — including horned larks, Canada geese, mallard ducks, rock pigeons, mourning doves, American crows, red-tailed hawks, American kestrels, and screech owls — feed in fields harvested to the ground in southeastern Pennsylvania, but they rest and digest their food elsewhere.

Fields are banquet tables but not bedrooms between feeding forays for those common birds, except one species: horned larks.

Sparrow-sized horned larks eat weed and grass seeds and bits of corn kernels lying in harvested fields. These little brown birds, with attractive black-and-yellow face patterns, are the only ones that winter exclusively in those barren fields.

They blend into bare ground, or nearly so, making them impossible to see until they fly.

Canada geese and mallard ducks rest on slow waterways and human-made impoundments but do much of their feeding in rye fields and harvested cornfields. Both species are exciting to watch leaving their watery roosts at sunset to fly to feeding fields.

Flock after flock of them, for a few minutes, sweep swiftly up from the water and power silhouetted across the brilliant sunset. One can hear the excited honking of the geese and whistling of duck wings as those birds pass overhead.

Sometimes those geese and ducks land in croplands seething with pink-tinted, drifting snow. The geese mostly consume green blades of rye while the ducks shovel up corn.v

Rock pigeons and mourning doves eat weed and grass seeds and corn kernels in farmland. Interestingly, flocks of pigeons resemble gray-and-white confetti tossed across the fields when they land to consume seeds and grain.

Pigeons roost on top of silos and in barns between feeding forays, but doves generally perch on roadside wires and in sheltering spruce trees on lawns.

Gangs of wintering American crows ingest bits of corn and other edible tidbits in cropland but roost overnight in stands of coniferous trees, deciduous trees in cities, or in larger trees near shopping malls, such as Lancaster County’s Park City Center.

By mid-afternoon, lines of crows from every direction head for Park City trees to spend the night, amid much boisterous, raucous cawing from thousands of throats.

Red-tailed hawks hunt mice, squirrels, and other critters in farmland but spend nights in spruce trees in suburban areas.

American kestrels and screech owls hunt mice in cropland — kestrels by day and owls at night. But both these species roost in tree cavities, many of them in suburban lawns.

Fields are dining tables for these birds. But each species rests and digests elsewhere.


Clyde McMillan-Gamber is a retired Lancaster County Parks naturalist.

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