Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010

Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010
Photo by R.E. Berg-Andersson

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Winter Birds, Part 2 - Personalities

Recently I wrote about the birds at my feeders during this 2014 winter season. Today I want to focus on their personalities.

It is never a good thing to put human characteristics to wild birds, just as it is never a good thing to consider the birds at your feeders to be "your" birds. I don't consider the visiting cardinals mine, for instance, although I've learned to tell the various males apart thanks to their frequent visits.
Cardinal pair (Margo D. Beller)

I gain great understanding of bird behavior watching the birds at my feeders, but I know if I had no feeders up they would not be in my yard - or at least where I can see them. That is why I put out feeders containing sunflower seed or suet, to feed them and draw them down where I can see them, particularly on days when I might not want to go out in the field.

It is impossible to include all the birds I've ever seen in the backyard. Many do not come to the feeders, but are drawn to the area by seeing all the other birds that do come. For instance, I've seen many robins in my backyard but they are on the ground, searching for worms and insects. Or they are in the bushes and trees, picking off the ripe fruits. But they do not come to seed feeders and I use plain suet rather than suet mixed with fruit, just to keep the squirrels away.

I am not an ornithologist. Nor am I a psychologist. That said, here is what I have observed at the three feeders usually up during the winter.

Titmice, chickadees and white-breasted nuthatches: These birds like to grab and go. Once in a while a titmouse, for instance, will stay on the feeder and use the perch for cracking open a seed. Usually, they grab a seed and fly off to the nearest tree or shrub to have its meal protected from predators such as sharp-shinned hawks.
Nuthatch (above) and titmouse (Margo D. Beller)
These birds don't mob the feeders or chase each other off, most of the time. There is a pecking order and the birds tend to take turns. For instance, one white-breasted nuthatch grabs a seed, takes off and then a second one shows up. These are the birds I prefer at the feeder, plus the cardinals.

House finches and house sparrows: I consider these and mourning doves to be real pests. The house finches and house sparrows will mob both feeders, chasing each other and other birds away. They sit in the feeders and just eat and eat, dropping bits of seed to the squirrels waiting below. If I didn't go outside every so often and chase them off, the other small birds would get nothing.

It is usually a smaller female mourning dove that will fly to the top of the house-shaped feeder and then, with great trepidation, figure out how to fly down to the perch, which it fills because of its bulk. It will then sit and pick through looking for broken seeds since its thin bill is not made for crunching seeds like the finches. Most of the seed she drops to other mourning doves and squirrels below. These, too, I chase off.
House finch and feeder, cardinal and junco wait. (Margo D. Beller)

Blue jays: When these big birds show up, everything else scatters. They dive-bomb the house feeder (they are too big to get through the cage of the second feeder and can't hang upside down to get to the suet), gulp a bunch of seeds and then fly off to either regurgitate them for caching or swallow them whole. Their movements are explosive but at least they don't hang around for too long.

Female purple finch (Margo D. Beller)
Cardinals: A large, sometimes skittish member of the finch family (see my post of Nov. 20, 2011). I find them starting at dawn and have seen them eating at dusk. (Only the robin tends to come out earlier and stay out later, based on the calls I've heard.) They hold their own against the smaller birds but larger birds will scare them off. If the feeder is mobbed by smaller finches the cardinal won't come to it, which is when I chase the pests off. Males will chase off females, even their own mates, during the winter when they come to eat, but in spring males will allow mates to feed with them, usually feeding her directly so that it looks like they are kissing.

Visitors: The smaller goldfinches (see my post of July 1, 2011) will come to the feeders at certain times of the year and are usually left alone by the more aggressive house finches but in winter a lone goldfinch must get to the seed early to beat the later-rising pests. The same is true for the rare purple finches. This year I had 3 females visit at one time. They were left alone. But when there was only 1 it was quickly chased off.
Male rose-breasted grosbeak (Margo D. Beller)

Bigger visitors tend to be left alone, such as the rose-breasted grosbeaks that usually show up in May during the spring migration northward. Like their smaller cousins the house finches, these, too, will sit and eat for long periods of time but they are so pretty and such rare visitors they are welcome to all the seed they can handle.

Carolina wren is another winter visitor, although these wrens are around all year long. Carolina wrens are small but they have a big song and are very aggressive. They are such rare visitors they are usually left alone but they will aggressively defend their right to eat against the pests. These wrens are also looking for broken pieces and don't seem to mind hanging upside down to eat suet. I am always pleased when a Carolina wren visits and then sings in my yard.
Carolina wren (Margo D. Beller)

Woodpeckers: The smallest type, the downy, is skittish when bigger birds, including other woodpeckers, fly in. Otherwise, they will hang upside down and eat suet no matter what kind of tumult is going on at the house feeder above it. The same is true of the largest of the 3 woodpecker types to visit, the red-bellied woodpecker. This one will whack at the suet or come to the house feeder. I've also seen it grab the cage, put its head through and use its long tongue to grab a seed.

Rarely, a hairy woodpecker visits. This one looks like a downy woodpecker on steroids but is not as big as the red-bellied. Most of the time it eats just suet but last year one female liked getting on the house feeder's perch and take seeds.
Downy woodpecker (Margo D. Beller)

Invasion: There are those times in late fall into winter into early spring when thousands of grackles with some red-winged blackbirds, starlings and cowbirds will show up in my yard. Most will be on the ground searching for food but many flock to the feeders, which is why at the first sight or sound of them I bring the house feeder inside. (The reason I bought the upside-down feeder was to keep the starlings and grackles off the suet.) These birds will eat until the feeder is empty and then fly down the road and repeat the process.

Sharp-shinned hawk feeding. (Margo D. Beller)
Finally, there are the raptors. These do not come to the feeder except to pick off the birds feeding. I've seen a juvenile Cooper's hawk slam into the caged feeder as an American tree sparrow fled the other way. MH once saw a broadwing hawk pick off a red-bellied woodpecker and I've seen redtails and even a northern goshawk in my trees. They are drawn to the feeders for the same reason as the smaller birds - the need to feed.

However, I try to make sure the raptors feed elsewhere, if possible.

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