If You Fill It, They Will Come

On Thanksgiving Day I dug the bird feeder out of storage and filled it with a fresh mix of seeds. I relished the happy anticipation of visitors to the buffet.

I stopped feeding the birds when the spring came (with the exception of nectar for the hummingbirds—they get the royal treatment). I read that this is a good idea in something by Edwin Way Teale, I think. The premise is that they our avian friends have tons to eat without our help in the warmer months, and it’s best not to encourage too much dependence. But of course, berries, worms, and bugs are much harder to find when the temperature drops. Plus, I want to support the most stalwart of birds—those who stick around and don’t migrate South when the going gets tough. They grace my winter days.

I know some people who keep the feeder stocked all year. Either way, the winter makes birds more noticeable in many ways. We can see them more readily now that the trees are bare, and they may be more apt to come by for breakfast or supper when their natural supplies start to diminish.

Once the feeder was stocked, I waited for the birds to find it. It took a few hours before the word got out. My first visitor of the season was a nuthatch. Always, this bird’s feathers remind me of a grey coat I once had, with handsome black piping. And his/her habit of standing or walking upside down so effortlessly is one that helped me, as an amateur birder, help to identify this species. (My knowledge is not yet sophisticated enough to tell the genders apart, hence the “his/her”).

Not long after the nuthatch came titmice, sparrows, black-capped chickadees, and dark-eyed juncoes, and today I saw two mourning doves on the ground below the feeder. The downy woodpeckers have dominion over the suet cake, although I’ve seen the nuthatches pecking there, too. The same crowd as last winter, except no cardinals yet. I’ve seen them around; just not at the feeder, for some reason.

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Mourning Dove courtesy of Harold Neal on Flickr

I’m reminded with a little Internet research that more and more robins are overwintering here and not heading South. But they don’t tend to visit feeders—they don’t eat birdseed. Plus their behavior changes in wintertime and they flock more, working together to watch for danger and look for food.

Robins may have been my first birds, ever. I mean, the first birds I became aware of as a small child. I remember watching them pull worms with great vigor from our front lawn. Their presence thrilled me, as it does today. And they still mean spring for so many of us, because even those that have been here all along seem to “reappear” as the weather warms, hopping about on our softening lawns and starting to contemplate raising a family.

Hal Borland wrote that “birds are independence itself.” He explained: “they live uncluttered lives with no possessions to protect, no homes to maintain, no family responsibilities once the nesting season is ended…” Maybe that is part of their allure for me. I am not sure—all I know is that refilling the feeder also fills my heart, and then my heart is lifted by the visitors that come, again and again.

PS: In my case, there is so much more to learn. I am considering signing up for some of these courses–the most basic, about shape and color, are quite reasonable.

Feeder Census and Fruit-Full Robins

Time moves differently when you are holding binoculars. Or maybe it’s when you are taking a bird census. All I know is that my total of 4 hours watching my feeder (broken up into 4 one-hour sessions) went quickly and amounted to a heartening experience of curiosity and delight.

How welcome and rare, in this day and age, to sit still and be entertained by something that doesn’t plug in or need charging! You can learn a lot by simply watching the birds in the yard, and be completely entertained, too. Some take turns, others take over. Some favor picking through the seeds that fall, others relish the suet cake or commit to a particular feeder hole. There are those who “dine in,” chowing down right on the perch, and those who “take out,” carting their seeds to an undisclosed location. Dimming sunlight looks especially lovely when reflected off of a mourning dove perched nearby.

I started to notice things like beak shape and gorgeous tail feather design and who likes to fly to what branch. Also, that you have to pay close attention to tell sparrows apart! The term “little brown job”  was invented for a reason!

Later on I flipped through the Sibley field guide Tom bought me, poring over details to make sure my identifications were on track. The whole exercise was a great reminder of how much there is to notice, how much there is going in nature that can just (literally) go right over our heads. Here’s a snapshot of my count from one of the sessions:

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This was the second year I committed to report my feeder eaters to Project FeederWatch, and I still have time to do a few more counts before the April 8 cutoff. I am hoping the next count will boast some robins. I swear I saw one fly by me on Route 154, but I’ve seen nary a one in the yard.

In fact, I felt a bit dumb when I had to admit that I had no idea where robins go during the winter. I mean, the consensus seems to be that they are a major sign of spring, but I was pretty sure that they didn’t fly south with the geese. Well, apparently I am not the only one who didn’t realize that robins often remain nearby when it gets cold, simply changing their habits. According to The Cornell Lab of Ornithology , in the fall and winter robins roost in trees and eat fruit, so we are much less like likely to see them. I would however notice if I saw a QUARTER MILLION birds in a roost! Apparently this kind of robinpalooza is a documented occurrence. Here’s some audio of a mere 1000 robins or so chattering in Arizona.

I don’t look at scrappy, scraggly trees tangled in the brush the same way anymore. I look for shriveled apples that have hung on, wondering if they will sustain a robin until he finds the ground soft enough for worms again.

Robin’s Egg Blue, Tiffany and Co., and a Worm’s Perspective

We have a row of tall pines flanking the street, needles so dense that only rarely have I spotted a nest. But I call up into them with congratulations when I find an egg shell on the ground below, assuming that somewhere high up a bird family is celebrating a new life. I suppose I should make daily visits after I find one shell and see who else may have pecked their way into the world—robin moms make one egg per day, so it takes a while for an entire clutch to form.

We’ve had a proliferation of fat and happy-looking robins—Connecticut’s state bird—this year, and they’re technically past the tail end of the breeding season, at least according to what humans have to say about it. I picked up fresh remnants of yet another shell just yesterday, and I’ve been doing some research on that eye-catching and, for me, always heartening, robin’s egg blue. Tiffany and Company, the renowned jeweler, has actually registered the color as its signature.  Apparently the color matters to the robins, too, with brighter hues serving as a mark of good health. Research has shown that the robin father is more attentive to hatchlings that come from brighter blue eggs, feeding them twice as much as babies coming from duller shades.

This page has video footage of a parent (the males and females are nearly identical) feeding the babies, and at the end it looks like s/he pulls something out of the nest. It looked like a flower to me, but I learned that it was a diaper of sorts  the babies conveniently excrete a sack of waste that can easily be carted away—how much easier it would be if human babies picked up that evolutionary trick!

Warning: small tangent ahead, but it comes back to robins. Sometimes I fall in love with the UK as I’m Googling around. Infatuation, perhaps, from one who’s never been there and imagines life on the island of Britain as somehow much more quaint and well thought out. (And maybe it’s also my ancestry calling me, heavy on the Anglo-Saxon with some smattering of other tribes mixed in.) Anyway, here’s another good idea from the Brits: UK is host to U3A, the University of the Third Age, meant to encourage an active life of discovery among the retired and semi-retired, rich with learning and sharing knowledge. This is a whole movement, a whole fantastic concept that makes me want to begin retirement early, or get special dispensation to join even though I am a working mother that lives across the pond! But it also gives me pause—why wait until retirement? There’s so much that can be discovered right now, and it’s literally right outside the door.

Back to robins – my side trip to the UK led me to an amusing poem about the birds in a U3A newsletter. Here’s just a snippet of the poem by Louise Henly, carrying a reminder that the eye of the beholder, like our beloved robin’s egg blue, will never cease to matter:

 All heaven is set in a rage
When a robin’s confined in a cage
That seems an uncontroversial quote,
But it’s not how the worm would cast her vote.