Feeder Tales, Part 3: Species

Our feeder has now been up for about a year, and while the sweet sound of finches never grows old, the feeder itself is now a more natural and unsurprising item in our home, much like our plants. Many more birds have discovered it by now, and they join the chickadees, juncos, and finches in a feeding frenzy that occurs soon after dawn, and continues through the morning hours when the days are cloudy.

A few California towhees visit the feeder from time to time. Often, they come in pairs, with a parent shepherding a younger bird. They make a faint, periodic “chip” sound  (an assurance of each others presence), as they hop about on the tarp. These are humble brown birds, with slightly orange nether parts, who prefer to forage for fallen seed, rather than perching on the feeder itself. Like the juncos, they are our waste control system; they ensure that the seed spilling out of the feeder is not wasted.

This is no easy task because, lately, we have had to contend with a pest who appears to take devilish pleasure in strewing un-eaten seed out of the feeder. I refer to the scrub jays who visit every morning, announcing their presence with a loud shriek, effectively terrorizing any other bird within jumping distance of the feeder. Heavy, blue and quite shameless about their mannerisms, the jays perch on the feeder, take large amounts of bird seed in their corvid beaks, and scatter it out of the feeder.

We would have loved it if the jays had been eating the seed, but this appears not to have been the case. Their beaks are not adapted for eating tiny seeds. Their primary interest appears to be in emptying out the feeder as quickly as possible, by throwing as much seed onto the ground as they can. The frequency with which we replenish the birdseed has increased to once a week now, but it is difficult to keep up with the profligate jays. Replacing the original seed – a combination of corn bits, sunflower seed, millets – with Nijer seed appears to have helped a little; the jays are either less interested or less capable of scattering the smaller, black seeds.

cropped-nuthatchheader.pngA few tiny birds came in during the winter, but they’ve been gone since spring and for much of the early summer. On December mornings, oak titmice and white-breasted nuthatches would share time with the finches and chickadees. They’re both good citizens, and don’t make too much of a mess. I like the nuthatches in particular, as they perch on the feeder in their trademark upside down way. They are very frisky, and even a finch is enough to scare them away. I hope that these little visitors come back in Fall, and that they figure out a way to get some food when the jays are not looking.

Also in winter, we were visited by groups of golden-crowned sparrows, who spent equal time on the feeder and on the tarp. When they first appeared in January, their crowns were brown, with minuscule flecks of gold, and you could be forgiven for confusing them for other large sparrows. They disappeared for a few weeks, and returned in spring, looking rather different – I even wondered if we were seeing a new species of visitors, but the field guide confirmed that these were golden crowns too. Only now, each one had a certifiable crown, a bright yellow band, bordered with jet black that distinguished them from drabber sparrows. Clearly, the mating season was on.

Now, in the middle of a dry, drought-prone summer, we have mostly finches and juncos who come to eat the seed, and jays who come to scatter them. The birds also spend time at a concrete bird bath that we put below the feeder. This is a constant source of embarrassment for me, because I broke a piece of the concrete while carrying the ridiculously heavy thing onto our balcony. P has been more diligent than I at keeping the bath filled with fresh water. The birds not only drink from it, but occasionally also flutter about in the water, enjoying some respite from the heat of the past few weeks.

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Feeder Tales, Part 2: First visitors

We put up our feeder for the first time in July.  Close to the feeder, outside the apartment, were a tree that resembles a paper birch and a couple of redwoods, in which hummingbirds and chickadees take refuge. By checking the area underneath the feeder for seed husks and bird droppings, we guessed that no bird spent any significant amount of time at the feeder for the first two days. This appears to be natural, as the birds need some time to discover a new food source in their territory. It was from the paper birch, that our feeder got its first visitors.

On the third morning, a chestnut-backed chickadee perched on the Y-shaped wire from which the feeder hangs. This is a tiny bird that looks like most chickadees except for a generous coat of chestnut brown on its back and shoulders.  The bird perched down, picked up a seed and quickly shot back to the birch tree. It had a companion. No sooner had the first bird completed its errand, than the second bird came forth and did the same. This alternating feeding pattern appears to go on for some time, and one wonders whether it is just the natural gregariousness of chickadees, or a way to ensure that one bird always keeps watch while the other feeds. On occasion, there would be one chickadee performing acrobatics on the feeder wire, while the other quickly pecked at a seed or two, it was rare to see two or more chickadees feeding simultaneously. At any rate, chickadees are among the cleanest feeders (unlike finches), as they seem to eat very little and thus shed very tiny droppings. They make a pleasant to-do while feeding, enjoying their own acrobatics, and this appears to attract other songbirds to the feeder.

During the second week, one of the chickadees enlisted a new companion for his trips from the birch to the feeder and back – an Oregon Junco. The two birds repeated the alternate feeding ritual. From then on, juncos have been regular visitors to the feeder. We have developed a special fondness for juncos, as it was a junco that prompted us to install the feeder in the first place. They make a faint “chip, chip chip” sound as they hop about the gazebo, or on the tarp below. They’re bigger than the chickadees, more conservatively attired in black and reddish brown feathers, and not as flighty as the little busybodies. They’re also not as confrontational as jays and finches. In fact, when the feeder is occupied by chickadees or finches, the juncos seem to be perfectly content to hop about on the tarp below, picking up un-eaten seeds that have fallen down along with the husk.

The feeder’s most voracious and messy visitors – a group of house finches – discovered the feeder a few days after the chickadees. Most summer days, before driving to work, I would hear a couple of finches singing in the parking lot, and I hoped they would find the feeder soon. They generally come to the feeder in pairs, the male distinguished by his red head and chest feathers, and the female a drabber brown and beige. The first order of duty appears to be to shoo any and all smaller birds that may already be at the feeder. Then, they proceed to boss each other around, spending equal amounts of time devouring the seed and warning away other birds, including other finches. The males seem to be slightly more aggressive than the females, though this varies. One female in particular has a really weird pattern of eating. She enters the gazebo entirely — different from the others, who prefer to perch on the edge and peck at the seed that falls forth from a transparent plastic cylinder at its center — and spends a long time contemplatively chewing on the seed. I have often wondered whether this bird was ill, and unable to move, for she stayed in the feeder and remained so docile that even our non-confrontational juncos dared to approach the gazebo from the other side to sneak away a seed or two. The finches create quite a mess, both in terms of un-eaten seed that spills forth onto the tarp, and in the copious amounts of bird droppings. When I see the finches having their feeding frenzy, I feel grateful to the juncos that clean up below them on the tarp.

In the summer of 2014, the birds were quite voracious, and the cylinder of bird seed was emptied within a couple of weeks. We developed a routine of sorts; every couple of weeks, we replaced the birdseed and cleaned up the husks and droppings from the tarp below. This state of affairs, unfortunately, did not last very long, and the feeder had to be taken down and moved elsewhere, as it inconvenienced the neighbors in the apartment downstairs. This changed the patterns of avian activity at the feeder, and encouraged new species to pay us a visit, but that will have to wait for another post.