The Birds Outside My Window

During the bird nesting season, our porch rafters are quite a popular place. Last spring, I wrote about the Eastern Phoebes that raised five offspring on our front porch (https://woodandfield.wordpress.com/2012/05/23/safe-haven/).

Phoebes three days before leaving the nest

Phoebes three days before leaving the nest

This spring, the pair returned to build their nest of mud, lichens, and moss on the same ledge where they successfully raised their offspring last year. Likewise, a pair of Eastern Bluebirds returned to raise another generation in a birdhouse on the front porch. Adding to the menagerie, House Wrens are nesting on the back porch. I find it amazing that some birds choose to raise their young so close to all our comings and goings, not to mention the noise from the lawn mower and weed whacker, and dogs racing around barking at the deer, fox, and other critters that occasionally wander through.

Male Eastern Bluebird watching over the nest

Male Eastern Bluebird watching over the nest

The list of nest predators is a long one: hawks, owls, crows, blue jays, weasels, fox, squirrels, snakes, and cats. In the wild, the odds are stacked against the young nestlings. So, weighing the scales, it would seem the lesser of the two evils to endure the closeness of humans. In any event, it ended well for all the little ones last year. All of the offspring survived to leave the nest and start out life on their own.

But, alas, the nestlings can’t be protected from every predator. Last night while we were watching TV, we heard a loud “thump” out on the porch. When we investigated, we saw that a black snake had knocked down the phoebe nest and was in the process of eating one of the babies(!) My husband relocated the snake to the woods while I inspected the nest, which was, amazingly, still largely in tact. Two babies were under the nest and were still alive, so I scooped up the nest and babies and took them into the house for the night.

By this morning, the babies had died, probably from internal injuries suffered from the fall. I know it’s a part of Nature, but loss of any life makes me sad. I take hope in knowing that in this season of renewal, perhaps the phoebes will try again. I miss the pair’s constant “phoebe, phoebe” back-and-forth calling as they busily went about their parenting responsibilities.

When I bought my farm, I did not know what a bargain I had in the bluebirds, daffodils and thrushes; as little did I know what sublime mornings and sunsets I was buying. Ralph Waldo Emerson

Kingfisher stopover at the pond

We only have one kingfisher here in western Virginia, the Belted Kingfisher. They are year-round residents in the Commonwealth as long as the waterways stay open in winter and they can find the small fish that make up the bulk of their diet. We’ve had a few kingfisher sightings, but one a couple of years ago was quite memorable.

My husband and I were driving into town when we approached an intersection where we saw a Belted Kingfisher sitting on a utility wire. We pulled over to watch, hoping to see him dive for a fish, and that’s when all hell broke loose. Kingfishers have their own very strict fishing “regulations,” and evidently, we had interrupted his fishing expedition. He began indignantly patrolling back and forth overhead, scolding us with a non-stop barrage of harsh rattle-calls that kept up until we left. Because of that incident, we dubbed the intersection “Kingfisher Corner.”

After that encounter, we didn’t see another kingfisher until I saw this female in the willow tree at our neighbor’s pond a few days ago.

Belted Kingisher2

The male has a blue band across the chest; the female has an additional rufous band.

Belted Kingfisher

Note the small white spot by each eye at the base of the bill.

When I first spotted her, I quickly took a couple of pictures, thinking I might not get another shot with this flighty bird. Sure enough, no sooner had I snapped the pictures when off she flew. She made a large circle, flying over the top of the woods behind me, then came back around to my right, landing in a tall tree about 50 yards away. I kept trying to get closer, but, true to form, she flew every time I got anywhere near close. Typical of other encounters, she kept up the mechanical rattle-call to let me know I was not welcome in her fishing territory.

Kingfishers are one of the wariest birds on the planet. In his Waterbirds of the Northeast, Winston Williams sums up the wariness of the kingfishers: “If eternal vigilance is the price of liberty, the kingfisher will remain ever free.” A bird more leery of humans would be hard to find; their penchant for secrecy and distrust of people rivals that of any bird.

These raggedy-crested birds are in a class all their own. They dig a burrow into earthen banks to raise their young, more like a badger or muskrat than a bird, and they defend their nest as vigorously as any bird I know. It’s fascinating to watch them dive underwater to spear a fish. Darting from a perch, the fisherbird hovers over the water for a split second to pin-point his quarry then dives headlong into the water. A special third eyelid closes to protect the bird’s eyes while underwater.

Because they require clean water for their diet of fish, kingfishers are an indicator species of water quality. The fact that they are living and breeding in our area means that our creeks are clean and uncontaminated.

If the female I saw was laying “claim” to the fish, crayfish, and salamanders in our neighbor’s pond, she’ll be back. And I’ll be watching…from a distance.

Downy and Hairy at the suet feeder

We’ve had Downy Woodpeckers at our feeders since we moved to western Virginia, but this winter we started seeing their larger cousin, the Hairy Woodpecker. I’d been waiting to catch the two males together at the suet feeder and I finally got my chance.

The Hairy Woodpecker at the feeder while the Downy waits his turn

The Hairy Woodpecker at the feeder while the Downy waits his turn

So as not to appear overly anxious, the Downy pecks at the bark while he waits

So as not to appear overly anxious, the Downy pecks at the bark while he waits

It’s easy to distinguish between the two species: the Downy is about 6 inches long with a short, stubby bill; the Hairy is robin-sized, about 9 inches long, with a bill almost as long as the bird’s entire head. Even though their ranges for the most part overlap, the shyer Hairy is found within or along the edges of deciduous forests, while the tamer Downy is more often found in woodlots, parks, and suburban back yards. Due to the considerable size difference, ecological competition between the two species (for food and nesting places) is rather slight.

The Downy is one of my favorite birds, partly because they are so people-friendly, but also because they are of the “share and share-alike” mentality at the feeder, waiting their turn while the nuthatches and other suet-lovers get a shot. I’m impressed that the Hairy, a bird that is built to go head-to-head with the aggressive and oft-obnoxious Blue Jay, is also willing to share.

Well, this is a first

Today was warm and sunny, quite a change from all the cold, wet weather we’ve been having here in western Virginia. The birds took full advantage of the beautiful day, singing and chasing after potential mates. Three male Red-winged Blackbirds showed up at the feeders, probably migrating north, but other than that, it was the usual customers – titmice, chickadees, juncos, nuthatches, finches, and woodpeckers.

It’s been my experience that cardinals are often the last visitors to the feeder in the evening, so I wasn’t surprised when I saw this male Northern Cardinal late in the day. I was surprised, though, that he was perched on the suet feeder, of all places.

IMG_2387

I did a double-take because I have never seen a cardinal on a suet feeder. Normally, they prefer platform-type feeders or peck around below the feeders, catching the morsels that fall.

I watched him bend down and take a bite, then ran for my camera. I was only able to get one picture before he flew off into the woods. Seeing the cardinal eating from the suet feeder was a first for me, but maybe it’s a more common occurrence than I realize. Anyway, I’ll be watching to see if this particular cardinal has decided he doesn’t want to wait for crumbs!

The more we learn about crows, the smarter they get!

A  few years back, I wrote an article for Washingtonian magazine about wildlife to be found in urban areas, even a large metropolis like Washington, DC. In it, I made a casual reference to the “smart crow” scavenging for food in a McDonald’s parking lot. I couldn’t believe it when the editor omitted the word “smart” in the published article – maybe he thought readers would get confused, thinking I meant smart like Albert Einstein!  I guess I shouldn’t have assumed that everyone had heard of the intelligence of the corvid family, which includes crows, ravens, rooks, jays, jackdaws, and magpies.

Always watching and learning, crows are very resourceful. They can mimic calls of other birds, make tools, play tricks on each other, recognize and communicate danger to flock mates, and talk to each other in a dialect all their own. Their personality and ingenuity make them a fascinating group to watch. In all animal groups, brain size increases with body weight. The corvid’s brain is larger than other birds relative to its size – more in line with primates – when graphed against its body mass. This undoubtedly figures into what many researchers consider the bird’s intelligence in getting along in the world.

Most of the year, crows travel in tightly-knit family groups where they work cooperatively to find and exploit food sources. Photo by Lisa Rest at musicbirdblog.com.

Most of the year, crows travel in tightly-knit family groups where they work cooperatively to find and exploit food resources. Photo by Lisa Rest at musicbirdblog.com

Generally too cautious to come to feeders, crows will often congregate in large numbers to glean farm fields, but they have also developed some pretty unique ways to get food. My husband and I took a picnic lunch up to the Blue Ridge Parkway one day and while we were eating, we watched two crows dropping walnuts onto the hard road surface to crack them open. Then they would fly down to inspect the shells and clean out the nut meats. I’ve heard that crows will also place hard-to-crack nuts on roads in front of passing vehicles and then retrieve the crushed pieces. Maybe someone else has witnessed this, but I haven’t.

Some crows are known to be tool users in their natural environment. The New Caledonian Crow has been intensively studied recently because of its unique ability to manufacture and use its own tools in the day-to-day search for food. These tools include breaking off twigs and using torn leaves with barbed edges as hook-tools to dislodge insects from holes and crevices.

Crow using a stick as a tool. Photo by sciencemag.com

Crow using a stick as a tool. Photo by sciencemag.com

Scientists from New Zealand’s University of Auckland wanted to find out if New Caledonian Crows could spontaneously make tools from materials not previously encountered in order to get food. Placed in a situation where the bird can reach but not obtain a morsel of food using a straight piece of wire, it will bend one end of the wire into a hook. It then uses the hooked end to reach and obtain the food. The researchers believe that there is cultural evolution going on with the New Caledonian crows; that is, they invent new tools, modify existing tools, and pass these innovations to other individuals in their group.

As a young girl, I watched and listened to the crows communicating with each other. I decided the “crow call” was the perfect way to secretly communicate with one of my tomboy friends. While playing in the abandoned orchard behind our neighborhood, the “caw-caw” let us “talk” in a language no one else could decipher. I felt very clever using our secret crow calls. We were, after all, being sly and trickster-ish, mimicking what we understood to be a very intelligent bird.

If only we’d known back then what would come to light about crow intelligence years later, we’d have reveled in our secret crow calls even more. There’s a lot more going on in the corvid brain than we ever could have imagined.

“The important thing is to not stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing.” ~ Albert Einstein

The bullies at the feeder will soon be singing a different tune!

This morning I watched a Black-capped Chickadee displace another chickadee at the feeder. Only after the dominant chickadee had gotten its seed and left could the other bird get its turn to eat. Such scenes of dominance and subordination, called the “pecking order,” play out a hundred times each day as the birds jockey for position at the feeders or vie for choice food plots.

Chickadees at the feeder

The dominant birds get to eat first while others wait their turn.

In the dominance hierarchy, each bird in the flock is ranked. The ranking is determined by degree of aggressiveness, so all the birds in the flock are subordinate to the most aggressive bird, while the lowest ranking member is subordinate to all the other members, with the rest falling somewhere in between. Typically, males dominate females and adults dominate juveniles. This ranking comes into play during feeding, mate selection, and claiming a territory, and actually reduces conflict because each bird knows its “place” within the flock. In winter, this means that precious energy is not wasted in fighting.

This chickadee pair is foraging together but the male will dominate at the feeder. Google images.

This chickadee pair is foraging together, but the male dominates her at the feeder. Google Images.

But sometime in early April, the scales will begin to tip in the female’s favor. As hormones kick in and mate selection begins, the rules of the winter flock will no longer apply. Males will pursue and try to impress the females. During courtship, chickadees and many other birds engage in what’s called mate feeding. The male will fly to the female with an insect or seed and the female, crouched with quivering wings like a baby bird, will accept the offering. This act is the equivalent of a “promise” by the male to feed and care for her while she is on the nest caring for their young.

Even the dusting of snow on the ground from last night does not alter the fact that the sun rises a few minutes earlier each day and sets a few minutes later. The lengthening days signal that spring is on its way and in just a few weeks mating season will begin. The male may rule the roost in the winter flock, but come spring, even the pushiest male will be singing a different tune! The female chickadee so rudely ousted by the male at the feeder need only be patient; her day will come.