Wildlife artist and ornithologist John Sill shares his passion for birds

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John Sill was the guest lecturer at this month’s “Where We Live, History, Nature and Culture” speaker series at Cowee School Arts & Heritage Center.

Deena C. Bouknight –  Contributing Writer 

John Sill, an ornithologist and an artist, created this cover for Birding Magazine in 2014.

John Sill enjoys watching, feeding, protecting, studying, illustrating, and talking about birds. On July 15, Sill presented “Birds: Here, Coming, and Going” the latest lecture in the Cowee School Arts & Heritage Center’s “Where We Live, History, Nature, and Culture” Speakers Series.

John Sill and his wife, Cathryn, collaborate on a series of children’s books, many of them about birds.

Sill has illustrated an extensive series of children’s wildlife educational books, in collaboration with his wife, Cathryn. One, “About Birds,” is described as a beginner’s guide that, “offers a first glimpse into the natural world of birds.” What Sill offered attendees to the Speakers Series was first a historical snapshot focusing on how habitats have changed over thousands of years and how those changing habitats have affected bird species. He explained that while many forests in the American lowlands have been cut or altered, much of the Appalachian Mountains have been spared – except for areas of logging in the late 19th and into the 20th century. 

“This doesn’t mean birds in our area have been unscathed,” he said. The chestnut blight wiped out chestnut trees, and hemlocks are dying because of the hemlock woolly adelgid pest, he explained.

This area, Sill pointed out, currently includes habitats of dense forests, but also pastures and some row farming. 

“It all affects the birds. And each change over the years affects the number of species and the abundance of the species. The populations are never static.” 

Sill shared how habitat changes have both positively and negatively affected birds. First the bad news: 

– fewer birds during spring migration;

– species’ diversity not what it used to be; and,

– quail (bobwhite) virtually gone.

However, Sill said that he has seen additions to local bird life, such as tree swallows. “They’re everywhere, as are cliff swallows. Also, when I was in college, there were two bald eagles in North Carolina. Now they are nesting in a lot of places around here. And the population of house finches, typically a Western bird, began to explode about 30 years ago. Now it’s leveled out.” 

In a 24-hour period, Sill said he and Cathryn can identify around 100 bird species. 

Cardinals are among many birds that John Sill called “permanent residents” in the Macon County area.

Sill explained about the different classifications of birds: permanent residents, winter residents, summer residents, and migrants – which “come through to enjoy a motel and a restaurant,” he quipped. Some of the permanent residents include such familiar birds as cardinals, tufted titmouse, chickadees, mourning doves, and goldfinches. 

He encouraged attendees to mark their calendars for the first full moon in late September to early October. “If you have a scope or binoculars, spend time looking at the moon. You will be able to watch migrating birds silhouetted against the moon. Many fly South at night because it’s cooler, and they fly high, about 5,000 feet, for the same reason.” 

Sill encouraged everyone present to consider leaving some dead trees in their yards as habits for birds, as well as doing less “clearing, cutting, pruning, draining, and mowing to tame what’s out there.” He also emphasized the importance of protecting and planting native plants that birds love, such as bee balm and black-eyed susans. 

“Put up a bird house; learn where it should be placed and the size of the hole to attract certain birds,” he said. “Make small pools for birds. Put up feeders and fill them with black-oiled sunflower seeds and millet. Look at your property a little differently, in terms of plant life but also in terms of bird life.”  

The next lecture in the Speakers Series is Monday, Aug. 19;, when Anna Fariello of the North Carolina Humanities Council will present “Southern Craft, A Revival in the Mountains.”

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