COMMENTARY: The pecking order

by Jun 12, 2023OPINIONS0 comments


One Feather Editor


Did you know that the Qualla Boundary is part of the North Carolina Birding Trail? Back in 2007, a North Carolina non-profit organization began an effort to help identify and publicize public viewing areas for birdwatching. “The mission of the North Carolina Birding Trail is to conserve and enhance North Carolina’s bird habitat by promoting sustainable bird-watching activities, economic opportunities, and conservation education.” And they published a series of guides in 2009, and we appear in the Mountain Trail Guide with six locations.

Back then, the state realized that bird watching had big income opportunities. In one commentary, the North Carolina Department of the Interior fishing, hunting, and wildlife survey stated, “There are about 521,000 people who made ‘wild bird watching’ nonresidential trips in 2001 in NC. They spent $381 (each). Multiplying these, the annual expenditure for the state is $198,501,000.”

Another report said, “It is estimated that over $800 billion is spent a year in outdoor recreation in the United States, with bird watching having an economic benefit of $41 billion.”

I was working with the tribal tourism office at the time this group approached us seeking information about the birding trail. I had the privilege of helping to identify sites and provide materials, including photos and narrative information for each of the six locations.

Mingo Falls is one of the most spectacular falls in the Southern Appalachians. Adjacent to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the 120-foot waterfall cascades over large rock formations and plunges through tangles of thick rhododendron. Birds identified that may be seen at Mingo Falls are Pileated Woodpeckers, Wood Thrush, Louisiana Waterthrush, and Scarlet Tanager.

The Oconaluftee Visitor Center, while not on the Boundary, is adjacent to us at the gateway to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and from Cherokee. It is a smorgasbord of bird species to enjoy with a riverfront trail and lush foliage conducive to attracting a large variety of birds. Common species include Blue-headed and Red-eyed Vireos, Yellow-throated, Black-throated, Black-throated Green, Black-throated Blue, Canada, Hooded, and Black-and-White Warblers, Northern Parula, Winter Wren, Wood Thrush, Veery, Scarlet Tanager, and Rose-breasted Grosbeak. Wild Turkey can sometimes be seen feeding in the fields at the Visitor Center. Watch for Ruffed Grouse along the edges of the road at higher elevations. Other species found at higher elevations include Red Crossbill, Black-capped Chickadee, and Pine Siskin. A variety of migrating songbirds, such as the Blackpoll Warbler and Swainson’s Thrush, can also be found during spring and fall migration.

The Oconaluftee Indian Village Botanical Garden Trail was created in the 1950s to showcase native and cultivated plants. Pocket flower gardens provide color along the path, and there are benches for resting and enjoying the woodland setting. Species of interest that frequent the Garden include Pileated Woodpecker, Ruby-throated Hummingbird, Hooded Warbler, and Scarlet Tanager.

The Oconaluftee Island Park is the hub of recreation in Cherokee, at the place where the Oconaluftee River splits, creating two islands in the center of the river. The best time of year to visit the Park is during the spring and fall migrations. Check for Spotted Sandpiper and Louisiana Water Thrush along the rocky banks of the river. Species of interest include Spotted Sandpiper, Belted Kingfisher, Louisiana Waterthrush, and Indigo Bunting.

The Riverwalk at Riverbend follows the Oconaluftee River behind the businesses in the central shopping district in downtown Cherokee. The path is paved and well-landscaped, with plenty of parking and easy access to food, shopping, and restrooms. The advantage of this downtown birding trail segment is that there is easy access to coffee shops and delis, making for the opportunity to enjoy a relaxing cup of coffee while spotting birds like the Spotted Sandpiper, Green Heron, Belted Kingfisher, and Louisiana Waterthrush.

The last one is listed as Ferguson Fields (Kituwah Farm). The sacred Mothertown of the Cherokee, some archeologists have estimated that Cherokees and our ancestors have occupied Kituwah for nearly 10,000 years. Visitors are welcome, but the land needs to be treated with respect.  Our community is naturally protective of this particular land. The great thing about bird watching is that it is one of the most unintrusive forms of activity. Much of the property has been used for farming and is otherwise undeveloped. Species that you might find there are Northern Harrier, Bobolink, Willow Flycatcher, Great Crested Flycatcher, Tree Swallow, and Yellow Warbler.

There are many other birds that frequent our Boundary that didn’t get a mention in the trail guide, like turkey buzzards, varieties of hawks, wood ducks, mallards, crows, grackles, starlings, finches, sparrows, jays, and even an eagle or two. Of course, one of the more prominent migratory birds that you will likely see is our healthy population of Canadian geese. And, last but not least, if you visit the Homestead at the Oconaluftee Visitor Center there is a nice flock of chickens to enjoy.

If you watch birds for long, you find quite a bit of commonality in their behavior. For example, I enjoy watching chickens scratch the ground for food. Their kicking is like a dance as they try to dig up seeds, grubs, bugs, and worms to feed on. And if you watch wild birds, you will see similar behavior as they paw the ground for food. Another commonality between domestic birds and the wild is the pecking order. Birds show their domination or lack of it through their control of the food or their territory. And there is a hierarchy from bird to bird as to whose turn it is to eat or occupy space. Depending on how philosophical one would want to get, we might also see ourselves in some of that behavior.

Doctors have long touted the benefits of watching nature as a way to calm and gain mental, emotional peace. In fact, there is a term coined for it. Check this snippet from a March 2022 article on the health benefits of bird watching. “Bird watching is therapeutic. In fact, they have a name for it called Ornitherapy. According to studies, when you have depression or anxiety, going out into the world outside can be stressful. But when you’re a bird watcher, you have something to look forward to when you go out, and those are the birds. It keeps you grounded in the present, making you forget all about your problems. It also puts you into stillness and quiet, which are somehow healing.”

The great thing about bird watching is that it can be as simple or as elaborate as you care to make it as a hobby. I get great pleasure in setting up bird feeders near my front porch, filling them with sunflower seeds, and watching the visitors show up to enjoy their meals. Others spend thousands of dollars on photography, listening, and trekking equipment to stalk the more exotic species. As for me, my Indiana Jones days are behind me, and I’ll settle for a nice stroll at the Riverwalk or the Island Park. Someone once famously said that you have got to “stop and smell the roses”. Similarly, I would say that you should stop and watch the birds.