It’s the time of year to get your bird feeders active again. The birds are coming under survival pressure as food gets harder to find. It helps to have both thistle or Niger seed and a generic mix including millet, safflower and sunflower seeds to attract a variety of birds. If you allow seed to be spilled from your feeders, you will get ground feeders, the Dark-eyed Juncos and sparrows. Some of the different sparrows that we get at feeders in Newton are Song Sparrows, White-throated Sparrows, House Sparrows and an occasional White-crowned Sparrow. The House, or English, Sparrows were introduced here by us and can throw a lot of your seed around, as well as eating you out of house and home. If you are lucky you will avoid having them at your feeders.
Another common ground feeder is the Mourning Dove, which frequents feeders. You may also get Wild Turkeys, a real size jump. The mom below has been visiting our feeders for about a month now with three adolescent poults, as the young turkeys are called. Keep a pair of binoculars at a window in your house so that anyone who passes by the view of your feeders can take a look. Small eight-power binoculars are not expensive and will get you good looks at birds in your yard.
In addition to the resident Cardinals, Blue Jays, Chickadees, Tufted Titmice and White-breasted Nuthatches, the New England winter often brings unusual irruptions of boreal finches from the far north. This winter is shaping up to be such a season. Already we are seeing Red-breasted Nuthatches, Pine Siskins and Evening Grosbeaks at feeders around our area. The Pine Siskins are cousins of the Goldfinches. If you put out the thistle, or Niger, seed you will certainly get Goldfinches in their duller winter plumages.
Looking ahead to the spring, it is always fun to watch the olive Goldfinches change into brilliant yellow birds. The Siskins are the same size and associate with Goldfinches but are streaked below and have very pointed beaks. A picture is at right. The larger Evening Grosbeaks are like Robin-sized Goldfinches, yellow with a big white patch on their wings. They prefer larger seeds like sunflower seeds and have enormous beaks for breaking open large seeds. These beautiful finches are around.
The Red-breasted Nuthatches are smaller cousins of the White-breasted Nuthatches. They are here this year and usually are discovered by hearing their continual, nasal and smaller “yank-yank-yank” calls. They are pretty, having a dark cap, white eye-stripe and red-rusty flanks.
Another winter visitor from the far north that has been here in recent years are the Redpolls. A picture is at left. These are finches, which look like sparrows until you look closely and notice the rosy red colors on their heads and, sometimes, on their breasts. They are nomadic and tend not to stay long in one place. They travel in social, chattering flocks and like to eat the seeds from the catkins, or tassels, of birch trees. They also eat seeds we leave out, usually on the ground.
Along with these seed-eating birds we have three woodpeckers that visit our feeders. These woodpeckers are often attracted to suet rather than seed, although they also will eat seed. The smallest is the Downy Woodpecker, with a black and white plumage. The males have a red splotch on their heads. Larger than the Downies are the Hairy Woodpeckers, which are very similar but are larger, with a big beak like a chisel. Here is a Hairy woodpecker in my backyard, considering the suet cage. The third woodpecker visiting feeders in our area during the winter is the striking and larger Red-bellied Woodpecker. This bird has a lot of red on its head and a black and white “ladder-back” plumage. During the fall, Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers migrate through this area. One was around my feeders on November 22.
Once you have a regular group of ordinary birds coming to your feeder, you will ultimately get on the visiting rounds of a hawk. The common large hawk in our area is the Red-tailed Hawk. We have a local Red-tail who is more interested in the squirrels that are always around our feeders. These hawks are very big birds and the adults have a striking rusty red tail. All of the Red-tailed Hawks, adults and immatures alike, have a light breast and stomach, with a band of brown feathers across the upper breast, like a diffuse sash.
A smaller hawk in our area is the Sharp-shinned Hawk, being the size of a Blue Jay. These hawks live by eating songbirds and are very mobile and fast. If all of your feeder birds vanish in a flurry, check the vicinity for a hawk. A larger, bird-eating hawk is the Cooper’s Hawk, about the size of a Crow. The Sharp-shinned and Cooper’s Hawks are in the same family of round-winged, fast flying hawks, the accipiters.
You may also be treated to a visit by loud and devilish crows. They will shoo the other birds away but will not really cause any trouble. But they are interesting to watch because they are very social and intelligent birds. They may just eat, but they may also interact in ways that are humorous for us to watch. One crow chased a bunny under my feeders last spring, and then was chased in turn by the bunny. The crow did all of the chasing and being chased on his feet, never flying up or away from the bunny. That crow also deviled a turkey and gray squirrels around my feeders. It was a young bird full of mischievous explorations of its fellow creatures.
As I finish writing this piece, a family of five crows has gorged on my suet, and a sharp shinned hawk has taken a hapless Dark-eyed Junco from under my feeders. Life goes on, not always according to our druthers. Put up some feeders and watch the winter action from a warm vantage point.
text and photos by Pete Gilmore