Jim Williams has been watching birds and writing about their antics since before "Gilligan's Island" went into reruns. Join him for his unique insights, his everyday adventures and an open conversation about the birds in your back yard and beyond.
After nesting seasons and again in winters I've counted as many as seven Black-capped Chickadees in our yard, visiting one feeder or another. They're not easy to count, constantly coming and going from the feeders. In most cases the birds would take a seed to the cedar tree or the willow near four of the feeders, duck out of sight, eat, then flit back to the feeders. They're never identified as individuals in any way, so I assumed that the birds of the Year of Seven were the same birds I saw the day before or the day after.
That might not be the case. Doing some Internet research on chickadees I came across a study done in northern Maine in which chickadees somehow were counted individually. Banding was not mentioned (but some kind of ID coding must have been used). The man wrote that as many as 110 individual chickadees used his feeders during a two-day period, not all at the same time. The study was published in the ornithological journal The Wilson Bulletin. Our backyard isn't exactly northern Maine, however, and that many chickadees must be some kind of record. I thought seven was good.
Perhaps the chickadees we see here change from day to day, move around the neighborhood. I have read that non-migrants such as chickadees do make short-distance migrations, "ours" moving south for whatever length of time while chickadees from north of us come here. Again, no indication of how that information was acquired.
The Wilson article also said that chickadees found feeders more readily in October than in January. And that use of the feeders varied "markedly" in both number of birds present and frequency of use among individuals. That makes sense. Numbers do change here, too, from zero to seven as far as I know. Another study done in Wisconsin in 1985 found that feeders were used more often prior to sunset than after sunrise, and that air temperatures made no difference. I agree.
I found studies that said juncos prefer thistle seed to canary seed, reportedly because the time required to open the shell and extract the kernel was shorter for thistle. Juncos preferred thinner to thicker seeds because, the author wrote, small items are easier for small bills to handle.
Below, a Black-capped Chickadee with a black oil sunflower seed, probably a small, thin one.
Generally, larger birds coming to the research feeders ate seeds both large and small, but showed preference for smaller seeds. It was thought they did this because smaller seeds were easier to process, reducing foraging time and thus exposure to predation.
Cardinals observed in that study made little distinction between larger and smaller sunflower seeds. Larger sizes did not slow them up at all.
Birds in another study showed preference for feeding trays (near windows) that were positioned with the long dimension at right angles to the window. The birds using those trays chose seeds at the far end first if seeds were scattered throughout the tray surface. It was thought that this was because the far end of the tray was farthest from the window and any observer that might be there. That is research with a big R. Titmice in that study preferred raised trays to trays on the ground, not that we have many titmice here. No comments on the right-angledness of those trays.
And when seeds were taken to be cached by the birds, larger seeds were chosen first. Makes sense. This allowed the birds to store more seed energy with a smaller immediate investment in the energy required to move the seed. The report said that 10 trips with larger seeds equalled 17 trips with smaller seeds. Interesting, but how did the researchers know so precisely? Did they uncache the seeds? I believe it; it makes sense. And you have to hope that the grad students that did this work got their degrees.
Minneapolis has a chance to become seriously bird friendly, but a motion that goes to a council vote Friday is a big step in the opposite direction. A council committee has given approval to an ordinance allowing people to maintain feral cat communities. The ordinance would allow people to provide food and shelter for feral cats. Included in the ordinance would be the trap-neuter-release scam that some cat people insist is actually beneficial to wildlife. That is seriously wrong. There is strong scientific evidence to the contrary. Feral cats no matter how well fed, well sheltered, neutered, vaccinated or whatever kill billions of birds each year in the U.S. They kill not because they are bad kitties, but because it is their nature. Pet cats belong indoors. Feral cats have no place in the North American wildlife hierarchy. Cats are an introduced species, not native to this country, the very same status as European Starlings and House Sparrows. Read some of the published research at http://www.nature.com/ncomms/journal/v4/n1/full/ncomms2380.html and http://www.nature.com/ncomms/journal/v4/n1/full/ncomms2380.html]
Contact city council members with telephone and email information found at
People supporting the feral cat community proposal are vocal, determined, and persistent. People who favor birds over free-roaming feral cats need to make themselves heard. Right now. If this ordinance is approved it will be very difficult to change. One city council member said while not a solution to the cat problem the ordinance would be a step in the right direction. The right direction is to license cats and make it illegal for them to wander freely. Why are cats treated differently than dogs?
Presently, Minneapolis Animal Care and Control, a city department, kills feral cats it catches or cats trapped by city residents and brought to it. Trapping is legal. More than 2,500 cats have been removed from the feral cat population in this way since 2010. That number of cats, however, is a small fraction of the feral cat population in the city.
I have a fat file of photos of feral cats. Feral cats are not hard to find. Here's a sleek, fat, handsome example of a cat on the hunt.
The hanging hummingbirds? Most likely juveniles too weak, too depleted of energy to hold themselves upright at the feeder. Nancy Newfield, who feeds, bands, and studies hummingbirds from her Louisiana home sent an email to answer my question.
As I wrote in this blog yesterday, these birds were seen at a sugar-water feeder at a home near Lutsen, on the North Shore of Lake Superior. I sent Ms. Newfield my question and a photo of the bird hanging from the feeder perch.
“The Ruby-throated Hummingbird appears to be a youngster. Many recent fledglings embark upon a rigorous migration before developing their full strength,” she wrote. “During migration a certain percentage of them will seriously deplete their energy reserves (fat), and become weakened, at least temporarily.”
Were we seeing the same bird on consecutive days? She doubts it. We most likely saw different migrants moving along the shore. Any bird that was hanging from the perch was having a problem finding a supply of food sufficient to continue migration.
The meadows between Lutsen and Grand Marais are filled with blooming wild flowers right now, but few that offer the nectar cup the hummingbirds seek.
Migration takes a toll on birds of all ages. “Especially during fall migration,” Ms. Newfield wrote. “These energy-deficient youngsters are the most vulnerable. They’re less able to force their way to a feeder, and are much more vulnerable to predators.”
A dominant hummingbird guarding a feeder, and driving other would-be feeders away is a common sight.
And what I saw as an attack, one hummingbird clinging to another at the feeder, stabbing or poking with its bill, and pulling feathers?
“If I’m not mistaken, most birds of most avian families will attack sick-looking individuals,” she wrote. “Perhaps this is nature’s way of eliminating the infirm and less fit.
Looking at photos taken three years ago (below) that I sent her showing an attack and a hanging bird, she wrote, “There were at least two attackers. Both appear to be male. That is just the nature of the beasts.”
So, why didn’t the exhausted bird simply drop from the perch instead of hanging there like an ornament? Ms. Newfield explained that when birds perch their feet automatically lock onto the perch. We humans must make a conscious effort to tighten a fist or curl our toes. It’s the opposite for birds. They must make the effort to release their grip. The bird would fall only when it became so weakened that it lost even reflexive muscle control.
The Hanging Hummingbird has returned. For the third September in a row, on the same feeder on the same Lutsen shoreline property, a female Ruby-throated Hummingbird is displaying what I consider odd behavior. It hangs upsidedown from one of the perches on a sugar-water feeder here.
Three years ago we watched a feeding hummingbird being attacked vigorously by a second bird. The attacker stabbed its victim and pulled at its feathers with its bill. The attack went on for minutes. Eventually, the attackee hung by its feet from the perch, head down. We assumed it was injured. It soon dropped from the perch and lay on its stomach on the deck floor beneath it, then disappeared. It flew away or rolled off the deck into the weeds; I don’t know.
The second year a hummingbird hung upsidedown on that feeder without an observed attack. We saw that behavior only once. This year a female Ruby-throated Hummingbird is hanging again, more than once a day, and two days in a row, Saturday and Sunday.
Sunday morning it hung by one claw on one foot, what looked like a precarious position. I thought perhaps the bird was weak or injured. The hanger returned that evening, hanging for perhaps 30 minutes. It was close to dark when it released its grip and flew away. Monday morning, at 8 a.m., there was the Hanging Hummingbird one more time, firmly gripping the perch with all toes on both feet, eyes open, no problem evident. It hung there while a second hummingbird fed, the feeder returning more than once. That was unusual because for three days prior defense of the feeder as food source for one bird only was the rule. Around 8:15 that morning, the bird was gone. Monday evening it hung again, flying away without apparent problem when approached for photos. It returned to hang a few minutes later.
The bird comes and goes it a natural fashion. It flies as it should. It feeds on occasion. It is not bothered by the other hummingbirds using the feeder. Indeed, they feed from perches beside the hanger.
I have no idea why this behavior is occurring. Maybe we’ve been watching the same bird for three years. The fight three years ago, a serious attack, explained for me the hang at that time; the bird easily could have been wounded. Last year and this year? No idea. I’m contacting a couple of hummingbird specialists to see if they can offer an explanation.
Last week marked the 50th anniversary of the last documented sighting of the Eskimo Curlew. Everything considered, the species is extinct. And if any remain, they would be so difficult to find/see that extinction is the same.
The bird migrated through southwestern Minnesota on its way to the Arctic tundra for nesting and to the far end of South America when nesting ended. The curlew, one of eight species in its family, as numerous as any shorebird, made one of the longest roundtrip migrations of any bird species.
It disappeared for the usual reasons. When we had wiped out the Passenger Pigeon, that source of meat for market gone, hunters next chose Eskimo Curlews, one hunting party able to take thousands of curlews in a few days. As many as two million birds a year were killed annually, according to estimates.
At the same time, the portion of the birds’ migration path through the United States was being plowed for crops. The prairies that provided the insects that fueled the final legs of migration disappeared.
The curlew could not survive that double whammy. The birds were gone about 20 years after the onslaught began. It doesn’t take long if you ignore what you’re doing.
A few Minnesota birders, not many, have in recent springs invested a day or two to drive the state’s southwestern pastures and prairie remnants in search of migrating flocks of plovers. The curlew resembles a plover, if you take a casual look. These birders held thin hope that the curlew was not extinct, its small remaining numbers simply overlooked. They hoped to find the slimmer, slightly taller bird foraging with the plovers, evident to a sharpened eye.
The last confirmed sighting of Eskimo Curlew was in Texas in 1962. A year later – 50 years ago – a specimen was taken on Barbados. That was the end of the official story. Sighting of 23 Eskimo Curlews in Texas in 1981 was termed “reliable,” no evidence presented. Ditto unconfirmed reports from Texas and Canada in 1987, Argentina in 1990, and in Nova Scotia as recently as 2006. Unconfirmed is the key word.
A wonderful book about this bird titled “Last of the Curlews” was published in 1954. Canadian author Fred Bosworth offered a fictional account of a year in the life of the bird. Over 3 million copies have been sold. I’ve read it. It’s a good book, a sad story.
That makes three species of birds once seen in Minnesota and now extinct: the curlew, the Passenger Pigeon, and the Carolina Parakeet. The latter’s range just nicked the southwestern edge of the state.
The drawing is from the late 1800s, artist unknown.
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