Friends of a Feather at the Feeder

In honor of International Friendship day, I thought I would write about birds of a feather getting along. As those of my readers who have feeders will know, one of the great joys of watching birds in your yard is being able to witness their antics. Regardless of the species, as a group they are funny creatures. I personally enjoy watching them interact with their fellow feathered creatures. Therefore, I decided to dedicate this post to getting along…at least some of the time.

Little birds generally seem less territorial of feeders. They operate on a “the more the merrier” mentality. I guess when you are that small, a full feeder represents more than you could possibly eat. It has been my observation that most of the smaller birds, sparrows, finches and nuthatches, among others take a flight rather than fight approach the minute an interaction turns the slightest confrontational. This makes sense, given their size. I have noticed that the House Sparrows are also either the most forgiving or the birds with the shortest memory, because two seconds after taking off, back they come for another pass at the feeders.

With bigger birds, it really depends on who they’re interacting with. Blue Jays often use the strategy of crashing in and scaring everyone away. Like a fighter jet, they are in and out again before you are even sure what happened. In comparison, the Northern Cardinals just stand their ground and voice their displeasure, usually pushing up their crest feathers, just in case the rest of their body language hadn’t made their feelings clear enough to the transgressor. But the Cardinals are pretty unpredictable. Sometimes they are happy to share and other days they want all the grub to themselves.

Woodpeckers also seem to have trouble sharing. At times I can totally understand their mood. They are usually hanging from the suet feeder and they only just find a good spot, the feeder only just stops rocking and they are digging their bills into some good chow when suddenly someone lands on the suet and starts the whole thing rocking again. That would annoy anyone! Most times they grab a few bits and cut their losses but I have seen a few get a bit snippy with the offender. One spring a juvenile Downy Woodpecker got tough with a juvenile House Sparrow. The House Sparrow gave it right back, but he did have several brothers to back him up.

Mourning Doves are a gentle giant, usually happy to share with everyone or to clear out if the other bird seems the slightest bit tough. I have seen a few Mourning Doves push other birds away at the feeders on occasion, but it is really rare behavior.

Baltimore Orioles are another story altogether. It is like their beauty makes them God’s gift to the forest. They do not like sharing with anyone and they will fight for what they feel is theirs. Unfortunately for one Male Baltimore Oriole I observed, the Grey Catbird he was challenging was not really in the mood to be pushed around and gave it right back!

While the fighting is funny to watch, I think I do prefer when everyone is getting along nicely at my feeders. Much less spilled seed and more opportunities to get good photos than when they are all ruffled and flitting around to get after each other. I guess all we can do is hope that they settle their own disputes amicably and co-exist peacefully.

Don’t be so Juvenile! -An Examination of Adolescent Birds

As I indicated in my post about hatchlings, juvenile birds exhibit a whole different set of behaviors from younger birds that justify their own discussion. To quickly recap, the growing phases of a bird are: 1. Egg, 2. Hatchling (or nestling), 3. Juvenile, 4. Adult.

When observing a juvenile bird I often reflect on how appropriately they were named. In the English language juvenile has a negative connotation that many of its synonyms don’t carry. When one acts juvenile, one is usually acting in a way thought to be beneath our actual age. Acting childish. While I am sure that birds are not familiar with the nuance and cultural associations of the word juvenile, they often live up to its definition and all that it implies.

The best way to think of a juvenile bird is to compare it to a kid in Middle School. Awkward, gawky, silly, unknowledgeable, unworldly. All of these adjectives can be applied to the juvenile bird. This is the stage of their development when they set foot in the world on their own. And they aren’t really sure about the whole thing. Often their parents are at a discrete distance, observing and prepared to intervene.

Young birds can be a lot of fun to watch. Their antics as they interact with a world they don’t fully understand can sometimes leave you in stitches. Many of the young House Sparrows that visit my feeders have a really hard time figuring out how and where to perch. They loose their balance easily and sometimes they slide down the feeder pole in slow motion, unable to figure out what is going on, or how to stop it.

Often juveniles are fearless when it comes to getting a handout. Many of the young House Sparrows and even one or two young Blue Jays have come to my feeder and then opened their mouths expectantly to any adult bird that came near. One female Cardinal was particularly taken aback by this behavior. She hopped back and then quickly skirted away from a small army of open mouths. Most adults just ignore this behavior, although some parents will continue to mouth feed even as they are trying to teach their children to fend for themselves.

Sometimes juvenile behavior isn’t as funny. My parents have a lot of trouble with young Woodpeckers flying under their porch roof and nearly injuring themselves as they desperately look for a safe place to land. They soon learn, but the first few days are concerning, both of the birds and whoever has dared to sit on the porch.

It is sometimes hard to tell the difference between a juvenile bird and an injured bird at first glance. Juveniles often flutter their wings at a quickened, almost frantic pace which can seem to indicate that they are hurt. In fact, this behavior is used in some species of bird to inform parents that the baby wishes to be fed.

Appearance and identification are sometimes difficult when it comes to juveniles. Even though many field guides provide an image of juvenile birds, each bird develops at its own rate, meaning that coloring and major identifying markers for some species may not be easily spotted. Some birds, such as the many kinds of Warblers, have very similar juvenile development, making an exact match hard. However, if you are having trouble identifying a bird, there are some quick clues you can look for which will tell you if you are looking at an immature bird.

Fuzz is the first big clue. Whether it is a downy fluff sticking out under the wings or covering the bird’s belly, immature feathers that don’t seem in harmony with the rest of the bird’s plumage can be a good indicator. Like baby teeth in humans, adult feathers develop gradually and many juvenile birds are still a bit fuzzy here or there.

Inconsistent coloring is another indicator. Some birds will look really weird, or almost sick, with very patchy coloring. Chances are they are a young bird, just developing the mature feathers of an adult of their species. Be careful of the time of year with this indicator though. Many birds, including several different species of duck, develop a different plumage when they are not breeding. When mating plumage is developing or phasing out they can exhibit similar patchy qualities to juvenile birds.

You may recognize the shape of a bird, or the overall appearance but it is not the correct color. There are many juvenile birds that develop mature looking feathers that are not fluffy but also do not resemble those of their parents. This is true of starlings. Many male juvenile birds resemble the adult female in coloring and develop their more colorful mating plumage slowly.

How big are they? Many young birds do not develop their full adult size immediately. If you have many of the same species near each other, compare the bird in question to others of the same kind. If it is smaller in statue, it is likely a juvenile. If other birds aren’t around for comparison, consider the bird’s own proportions. Does it’s beak or feet look too large? These signs can also indicate a bird that is not yet fully grown.

Depending on where you live, you may have a variety of fledglings visiting you all summer long as some birds have two or more broods. Generally, the juvenile phase lasts about four weeks for most feeder birds.

Additional Sources:

https://www.audubon.org/news/birdist-rule-57-its-summer-watch-out-juveniles

Central Park, New York City

As someone who is not a resident of an urban jungle, I often underestimate the quality of nature watching available in big cities. Sure they don’t have bears and bobcats (or at least we hope not) but they often provide more thrills than you were expecting.

To that end, I am willing to admit that I often don’t give Central Park in New York the credit it deserves as a wildlife habitat. When Fredrick Law Olmstead started work on the park in the late 1850s, who knows what animals he foresaw (if any) making a home among its trees and meadows. Expected or not, they found their way there and they are staying.

Beyond the squirrels, pigeons, and the carriage horses, Central Park is home to many of the same birds we see in the suburban parks of New Jersey and New York. In fact, according to the Central Park website, there are 230 different birds that spend time in Central Park throughout the year. Canada Geese and House Sparrows are a given, as are Starlings, Blue Jays and Cardinals.

However, if you luck out, you might spot a Heron or and Egret in one of the many ponds or lakes around the park. One warmer December day, while having a drink outside at the Loeb Boathouse, located not far from the Bethesda Fountain, we noticed a juvenile Great Blue Heron, fishing off one of the overturned rowboats.

On more than one occasion we have also been lucky enough to see a bird of prey in Central Park. Last Autumn we were wandering among the paths and we noticed a good deal of fluttering. We looked up at the tree in front of us to see a Red Tailed Hawk, who had just caught himself lunch, a lovely squirrel, which he proceeded to eat while we watched. First taking dainty bites, he very quickly decided to swallow the rest in one go.

Central Park, it really is a jungle…who knew? For an interactive map of Central Park and more information about the park and all it has to offer, visit http://www.centralparknyc.org

Splish-splash in the Bird Bath

I was in search of the ideal bird bath for almost two summers before I finally settled with the weighted plastic model I bought from Lowes. Despite the fact that it wasn’t exactly the bird bath I had designed in my imagination, I was very happy to both provide my feathered friends with water and, of course, to observe and photograph their aquatic-antics.

So I did some bird bath research, made sure I was dumping the old water regularly and refilling it with fresh. I even converted a kitchen brush for scrubbing dishes into a bird bath scrubber to get rid of anything gross growing along the edge of the bird bath (I guess I used a bit to much elbow grease because after about three months of cleaning the bird bath, the finishing paint started pealing off the basin).

So my bird bath was in place, clean and welcoming, safe and ready to provide refreshing baths for hundreds of birds.

And they just never took a bath.

They did use the bird bath as a convenient ledge to rest on.

Sometimes they even decided to drink out of it.

Sometimes they even seemed to be scrying the future in its surface.

Even the squirrels were drinking from it…and using it as a jumping point onto my feeders whenever they were feeling particularly bouncy.

But no baths, or at least no baths while I was in the yard. Occasionally I would pull in the driveway and there was a bird looking wet and hopping out of the bird bath. But when I am in the yard, armed with my camera and ready for the water droplets to fall, nothing. Maybe they were shy. I don’t know.

Then one summer day, we had locked ourselves out of our house after an afternoon of grilling and sitting in the yard. I was frustrated with the situation and tired of standing over my husband as he tried to break in to our home, so I took my camera back out, turned my back on my problems and watched the feeders. Within minutes a Starling landed on the bird bath. At this point I had been two years with a bird bath and I knew better than to hope for an actual bath. But I figured if it perched long enough I might be able to get some interesting shots. And then it did the unexpected. It stepped off of the ledge, entered the water and actually bathed. A bird used my bird bath to take a bath! Amazing!

I was so shocked that my frustration with the locked door vanished. My husband didn’t seem to understand the monumental level of excitement about a bird taking a bath in a bird bath, so I left him to his task, feeling great satisfaction that after two years my investment had paid off. I settled back down to watch the feeders some more, assured that we would soon be back in the house, when a Catbird landed on the bird bath. And then he walked into the water. And took a bath.

It is really the little things in life. And the funny part is, if we hadn’t been locked out, I would have been inside cleaning up or something equally mundane and I never would have witnessed these two stupendous baths.

Introduction

Bird watching is a great hobby as it is easy to do anywhere. In theory it’s free, unless you get addicted and begin bribing birds to your yard with numerous feeders like I do! It encourages us to take in nature more generally and often motivates us to walk in parks or on trails, getting much needed exercise and fresh air. However, the thing I like most about bird watching as a hobby is that you can dedicate as much or as little time as you have. There are whole days I have sat in my yard with a camera and a book. But I can also come home and sit outside for a few hours, unwinding after work and allowing myself to relax.

I have always liked nature, camping, hiking etc., but I didn’t really get into bird watching until we moved from the city into the suburbs…a heavily treed suburb. Sitting by the window with my warm drink, I would often see flashes of color fly past. Sometimes I knew it was a blue jay or a cardinal, but I wanted to know more about the other flashes I was seeing. I was given a bird identification book for Christmas 2015, along with my first feeder pole and feeder. Before I knew it, I was hooked! And bird watching turns out to be contagious. After seeing my photos, my parents purchased some bird feeders, their own field guide and we have all been bird watching ever since.

This blog is a way for me to share some of my bird photographs, but I also want to provide some facts and figures along the way, as well as some of my own observations. I want to be clear that I have no background or formal training in any science field, so most of the information I will share comes from field guides.