Little birds are somehow the most charming. Field, swamp, house, chipping, and song sparrows, as they flit about and perch on tree limbs, are ubiquitous and somehow comforting. Look for the red cardinal, the black-and-white junco, and the yellow goldfinch.
The Carolina chickadee puffs out its breast in winter and the blue jay patrols bird-feeders. The mockingbird is Tennessee’s state bird; it mimics the calls of other birds and has a grey body and dark wings.
Unless you are unusually patient or light of foot, you’re unlikely to see the nocturnal Eastern screech-owl or its cousins, the Great Horned Owl and Barred Owl, in the wild. Keep your eyes pinned on the sky for hawks, red-tailed, sharp-skinned, and Cooper’s. Bald eagles winter at Reelfoot Lake and other protected locations in the state.
Wild turkeys are making a comeback; groups may be seen patrolling many state parks and natural areas. Look for the male’s impressive feathers. Listen for the knocking of the woodpeckers—hairy, red-headed, downy, and pileated varieties.
Bodies of water are some of the best places to seek feathered friends. Sandhill cranes winter on the Hiwassee River in East Tennessee. Float down a river and you may see a statuesque great blue heron hunting for food. Wood ducks and mallards, whose males have a striking green head, live around ponds and lakes.
Many of the large, wild creatures of Tennessee are threatened. Elk and bison, which ranged here before settlement by Europeans, have been reintroduced at Land Between the Lakes and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Scruffy feral pigs live in scattered populations in East Tennessee. Black bears, the icon of the Smoky Mountains, have a shaggy black coat and sharp sense of smell. They can run and climb trees. Coyotes and red fox are lovely, quick, and adaptable. Bobcats are stealthy and elusive hunters that prefer the hours right before sunrise and right after sunset.
Raccoons, with their bandit’s mask and striped tail, are adorable until one has ruined your bird-feeder or gotten into your garbage (or even bitten you, which has been known to happen). Eastern cottontail is the most common type of rabbit, and they prefer grasslands and cultivated areas. Look for the white of their stubby tail. Eastern chipmunks are small creatures that scurry along forest floors, pastureland, and city parks. Eastern gray squirrels are easier to see—they are larger and more ubiquitous.
Amphibians and Reptiles
Listen for the “harumph” of the bullfrog or the night song of the Cope’s gray tree frog near water. Salamanders and newts flourish in the damp, cool forests of the eastern mountains: look for the lizardlike Eastern newt and the spotted salamander, which can grow up to 10 inches. The largest of the salamanders is the Eastern tiger salamander, which comes in a rainbow of colors and patterns best left to your imagination. They grow up to 13 inches.
Snapping turtles live in rivers and streams, rarely coming on land. The Eastern box turtle prefers moist forests and grasslands. Most Tennessee snakes are harmless. The garter snake is the most common. It prefers areas that are cool and moist. Green snakes like bushes and low-hanging branches near the water.
© Susanna Henighan Potter from Moon Tennessee, 5th Edition