Friends at the Feeder
The house where I grew up was a one-level modern house with large windows my folks called “picture windows.” It was on a dead-end road and surrounded by tall trees of mostly oaks, some birch and maples, with the windows affording a panoramic view into the wooded home of our neighborhood wildlife.
Soon after settling the family into the house, my parents installed a large bird feeder just outside one of the large windows and placed Roger Tory Peterson’s “A Field Guide to Birds” on a nearby table. And so began a lifetime for me and my siblings of birdwatching and the timeless, yet simple, delight of a backyard bird feeder.
A Google search of bird feeders provides a plethora of styles, sizes and uses of feeders for all sorts of our seed-eating avian residents. We all have our favorite birds who visit our backyard feeders, and some of my favorites are the most common, and also hang out together, as old friends would gather at a favorite café or local “watering hole.” They include the ever-popular blacked-capped chickadee, and his two buddies, the tufted titmouse and white-breasted nuthatch. When it comes to visiting my winter feeder, these three species are as reliable as the sun rising in the east and setting in the west.
The little chickadee seems to be the ringleader — the inquisitive vanguard scout, first to arrive when the suet and sunflower seed is replenished. His buddies soon follow and eventually a downy woodpecker will stop in to see what all the fuss is about. All winter long, if one comes to the feeder, just wait awhile and the others are soon to follow.
During the non-breeding months (August to February) when courtship, nesting and raising young is no longer occupying their daily activities, different species will come together in what is called the flocking period. When we put out our winter feeders we witness it in action, and the trio of chickadees, titmice and nuthatches are a great example of this behavior. Often, they will be joined by downy woodpeckers, and sometimes kinglets and brown creepers arrive in groups to partake in our offerings. The bird’s wintertime focus is now to find food during the cold season of scarcity and ensure safety from hungry predators. Here is some interesting information about the three birds I see the most frequently — the friends at the feeder.
Black-capped chickadees are one of my favorite birds and the state bird for both Maine and Massachusetts. They have an oversized round head, tiny body and irresistible cuteness due in part to its curiosity and active behavior. With black cap and bib, white cheeks, gray back, wings and tail and white underside They are very distinctive and easily identified at the feeder. They have a habit of taking a single seed from the feeder and flying off, not stopping to eat in the relative open of the feeder. They hide the seed in crevices of bark for eating later, and can remember exactly where they left it, even when hundreds of seeds have been hidden.
Chickadees are known for a complex series of call and are adept at sounding the alarm if a predator, such as a hawk or marauding cat, is nearby. They get their name from the sound of their call — chickadee-dee-dee — and the more dee notes in their call signifies the higher the threat level to the other birds. The winter mixed flock recognize their alarm call, making this little scout and lookout a very important bird to hang around with. In the Winter 2016 issues of “Living Bird Magazine,” Gustave Axelson wrote “chick-a-dee-dee-dee! The alarm call ricochets from chickadees to nuthatches to titmice to jays, and soon an angry horde of songbirds arrives to mob the intruder.”
Chickadees build their nests in tree cavities, as do their friends the white-breasted nuthatch and tufted titmouse. Not only during nesting season, but also when temperatures drop below freezing, they will spend the night in their own individual cavity. They are capable to excavating their own cavity, usually in rotted wood of a dead tree.
Tufted titmice are little gray birds with the “peter-peter” echoing call, and they are frequent visitor to our feeder. They have large black eyes, small round bill and brushy crest or “tuft” that gives them their name. Like the black-capped chickadees, they also will take a seed from the feeder and fly off to a perch to feed by cracking the seed open with it stout bill. They also store and hoard many of the seeds they get from a feeder and usually shell them before hiding them.
While Titmice are also cavity nesters, they are unable to excavate their own nest and rely on holes left by woodpeckers. They will line the cavity with hair that is sometimes plucked directly from live animals such as opossums, squirrels, rabbits and livestock.
I love to hear the males mating and territorial song “peter-peter-peter” in late winter, an indication that spring will soon arrive for our year-round birds. It is one call I can imitate and for fun like to whistle a response to see the male’s reaction. If the bird repeats the call, perhaps this time a combination of four or more “peter-peter,” I will repeat the exact phrase until the bird, thinking I am an intruder to its territory, will come closer to chase off the trespasser. Many confused tufted titmice have looked at me with dark angry eyes when realizing the ruse. It is interesting to note the female also uses this same call but in a softer sound.
White-breasted nuthatches are the small blue-gray birds with black and white markings frequently found foraging for insects within the crevices of tree bark. They have that comical method of scaling trees by going up, down and sideways in an erratic and distinctive manner. They are active and agile birds who feed on insects, nuts and seeds.
Nuthatches get their name from their habit if jamming a seed into the bark of a tree and striking it with its sharp bill to literally “hatch” the seed from inside the husk. Like the black-capped chickadees and tufted titmice, they will also cache seeds for later use. They frequently join the mixed flocks of chickadees and titmice and are a regular visitor to my winter feeder.
We have a small patio about 20 feet from my large feeder and suet hangers. I like to sit quietly there on winter afternoons and watch the birds feed, take a seed and fly off, and gorge on the hanging suet-filled wire baskets. It is the smaller birds I take the most delight in watching. The friends at the feeder, cooperating comrades of different species, making their way together through the winter season. I take my role as curious bird feeder witness very seriously, and make sure to have a large bag of sunflower seed ready to replenish their winter larder. The more I observe, the more I learn and carry on this lifelong fascination in the ways of our region’s avian residents.
Information for this column was gleaned from the “Stokes Nature Guides to Bird Behavior” (Volumes I and II) by Donald and Lillian Stokes, and the Cornell Lab for Ornithology website All About Birds.
Bill Reid is chief ranger of The Last Green Valley National Heritage Corridor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 860-774-3300.
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