Words On Birds by Steve Grinley
Feeder Watching is Entertaining
December 14, 2019
By Steve Grinley
Arriving home just after dark one day this week, Margo and I stepped out of the car and heard the not-so-distant whinny of a horse. Well, that is sort of what it sounded like. But it went on and on. It wasn’t a horse at all, but one of the local screech owls. – maybe one of ours.
Our red owl came back to one of our owl houses for winter roosting back in November. A couple of weeks later, a gray screech owl took its place. Now that house seems vacant and, lately, a gray owl has been in the other owl house, often visible at dawn before retiring into the house for the day.
Of course it is possible that both houses could be occupied during the day and we just haven’t seen the tenants. Every once in a while one of the titmice, chickadees or nuthatches will take a break from their feeding routine and go to one of the houses and peer in. Sometimes they will confirm occupancy by raising a fuss, but usually they seem safe enough to go about their usual business.
Other than that, the nocturnal owls have little effect on our daily feeder visitors. We would see the first of two to three dozen goldfinch at first light, and sometimes a junco or two. As the sun rises, more birds fill the feeders. House finches join the goldfinches at the thistle and sunflower chips while the nuthatches, titmice, chickadees and cardinals share the black oil sunflower. The downy, hairy and red-bellied woodpeckers fight for position on the suet feeders.
The blue jays scream for peanuts to be put out on the deck railing for them (they have us well trained.) Once the two or three blue jays gulp down their share, the titmice come in, and sometimes a nuthatch, to take one peanut at a time. Keeping the squirrels from stealing the peanuts is a full time effort, though the squirrels often win their share as well..
Even the Carolina wren will scold from the top its feeder when the mealworms run low. Many birds such as mourning doves, juncos, song and white-throated sparrows are content to feed on millet and nutrasaff on the ground or on the deck.
Threatening all the birds are the infrequent visit that we get from Cooper’s or sharp-shinned hawks. These hawks predate birds and are sometimes successful at taking one of “our” birds. A local red-tail hawk sometimes scatters the birds, but is no real threat.
A couple of week’s ago, Margo sent me a photo at work of another visitor that threatened our backyard birds – a northern shrike! This is the species of bird that I wrote about seeing on Plum Island a number of weeks ago, but this was a first for our yard. I also wrote about a shrike that took a downy woodpecker off our store feeders some twenty years ago! The shrike in our yard apparently left empty handed, or empty bellied I should say.
But most of the time our feeders give us calm and much entertainment, and far less drama. Brian Cassie of Foxboro, who shared a poem about owling with us last week, captures the essence of watching feeder birds in this poem that he titles Snowy Morning Feeder Watching:
Barely dawn and my backyard is full
Of gray and brown shapes not easily discernible to species.
I suspect house sparrows and song sparrows and juncos
Are the first to break the night’s cold grip;
To hop and scurry about on the mat of new snow
And to find the seed, being quickly covered with new flakes.
A few more minutes and splashes of color
Big and brilliant and full of life arrive
To put the dull-colored birds into perspective –
The cardinal and blue jay are good at this.
Cardinals are universally loved but not jays
Except in my backyard.
Now the patchwork downy woodpecker hugs the suet cake
And picks a fatty breakfast there.
From nowhere arrives a black constellation of thirty-nine starlings
Monopolizing the scene for two minutes
And then whooshing up and away
Perhaps to return later, just as unexpectedly.