Words On Birds by Steve Grinley

Birds Display Many Signs of Spring
May 3, 2008 
Steve Grinley

     It must be spring. I heard a rapid, metallic banging that sounded like someone hammering on the building. It brought back a memory of the year I first opened the store. That first year, Ed was bagging seed in the back room when he came out and asked if I was having construction done on the building. I had hired no contractors, so we listened again, hearing that same metallic banging that I heard today. We went outside and there was a northern flicker banging away at the metal chimney on the building.

     So today, I again went outside and saw a northern flicker flying away from the building to a nearby tree. I had heard a flicker calling the past couple of weeks from behind the store and I believe that they nested in past years, in a large tree back there. Their drumming on metal may seem strange, since there are no insects to be gained from a metal object. Instead, this drumming is part of the flicker’s courtship. The metal resonates the sound to attract a mate. This time of year, flickers will hammer on metal light fixtures and even dumpsters, to enhance their sound and, thus, attract a mate.

     Another sure sign of spring are the phone calls that I receive regarding birds banging on windows. Usually it is cardinals that are the culprits, but this year I have had more calls about robins. The question is usually “why is this bird tapping on my window, trying to get into my house?” Often the bird will go from window to window, relentlessly banging away at each.

     This is another springtime ritual of birds, in this case robins and cardinals, defending their nesting territory. Many birds establish a “territory” around their proposed nesting site and the male bird will sing at the perimeter of that area to warn other males to stay out of its territory. In the case of the brightly colored cardinals and robins, they sometimes see another cardinal or robin reflected in the glass of a window and they will peck away at that reflection in defense of their territory. They can be so aggressive against this “reflected bird” that they might even throw themselves at the window to fend off the foe.

     This is a usually a short term problem and the temporary solution is to cover the window or break the reflection is some way. A screen over the window helps, or reflective foil tape hung in front of the window to reflect light and blow in the wind will help to ward off the defender.

     Another sign of spring is the call of “drink your tea” or “chewink”, heard as you drive down Plum Island or along a rural road. The Eastern towhee is one of our larger, more colorful sparrows and they have been back now for a couple of weeks. Some are migrating through, but many will nest in our area. They will often feed on a platform feeder or on the ground under other feeders.

     Doug Chickering of Groveland is lucky enough to have one visiting his yard:

     “In the morning, as we sat down for breakfast the feeders were visited by a striking male towhee. This is the fourth straight day that he has come down to join us — so to speak — for a meal. Out in the open the male towhee in spring finery is a rather spectacular creature. The plumage is fresh, right out of the box, and the colors pure and deep. The black is so black that occasionally the deep red eyes seem to vanish in the void. I also noticed the undertail coverts are a mixture of the red and white. Something that I never really noticed before.

     “The towhee fed with a quick nervous pace with quick little hops and tail held erect. Often the motion of foraging caused him to flick his tail, flashing the white edges like strobe lights. The effect was mesmerizing. I have seen many towhees. I have seen them display the white edges of their tail as they jumped into a flight, and I have seen them feed; usually rustling in the leaf litter; but this is the first time I can remember seeing this hypnotic quick flashing; pure white against the blackness.”

     I will have to ask Doug if he is reminded by the towhee to “drink your tea” at breakfast!

Steve Grinley
Bird Watcher’s Supply & Gift
Route 1 Traffic Circle
194 Route 1
Newburyport, MA 01950
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