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.
An experiment to see if small birds prefer shelled or unshelled black oil sunflower seeds is tipping toward the sans-shell variety. I read recently that small birds, chickadees in particular, would favor shelled seeds because no shell means no energy expenditure in hacking shells open. Every little bit of energy counts, particularly in winter.
The feeders, two identical, hanging two feet apart above our deck, have been in place for about 10 days. That probably isn’t adequate for a conclusion. There is a difference for chickadees, though. They’re caching seeds for winter right now, shelled seeds their choice.
The feeders are new, both with a fine gravity-driven anti-squirrel mechanism. Put the weight of a squirrel on the feeder perches and a cage slides down to cover the feeder ports in the plastic seed-holding tube. These Squirrel Buster Classic feeders, manufactured by Brome Bird Care up in Ontario, have a cage of heavy wire strands set close enough together to prevent squirrel gnawing. The tops remove easily with a simple twist for convenient filling. This is a feeder intelligently designed.
A previous feeder of basically similar design was a total failure. In this case the square cage purportedly protected three tubes holding seed. The cage wires, however, were set so far apart that squirrels could easily gnaw free the feeder ports, allowing seed to pour out. Decorative flowers punched from flimsy sheet metal were placed to cover feeder ports when the feeder was protective mode. The squirrels could bend those out of position with their teeth. They were able to do so because they learned to hang from the feeder top with their toes, circumventing the gravity feature. It was very irritating to watch. (The new feeder does not accommodate that.) I duct-taped the first two gnawed wounds, then said to hell with it, and bought the new ones.
I paid about $20 for the bad feeder, pleasantly surprised at the price until I put it to use. The new ones cost $54 each, but should last the lifetime of the springs or until gravity quits. They could become heirlooms. Below, one of the new feeders.
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.
As spring melted into summer our busy birdfeeders lost their customers. We have four tube feeders hanging on an armed (with arms, not with weapon) pole. Each is four inches in diameter and 18 inches deep. To fill them takes a lot of seed. I was delivering that seed every three to four days prior to the breeding season. Then, boom, the feeders pretty much went unused. I did not have to add seed for two weeks plus a day or two. At the end of June the birds suddenly returned, all of the usual visitors, including juveniles with wings aflutter as they beg for food. I believe the reason to be those newly hatched birds and their need for the fat and protein found in insects. Parent birds were hunting bugs. Even seed-eating species switch to insects as baby food. It would seem, given our lack of feeder activity, that the adults were eating bugs as well. When the young birds left the nest the adults resumed usual eating habits. The feeders are not as well used in summer as in other seasons, however, because of the availability of natural food. Studies have shown that throughout the year birds using feeders find about 20 percent of their daily nourishment requirement there.
Below, a young Purple Finch flutters its wings, a feed-me signal.
Baltimore Orioles are being seen in the metro area. You can bring them in for a close look by offering them grape jelly. It's an early substitute for the fruit they would eat if it was available. We made our jelly feeder in about five minutes. The container once held deli olives. Two holes were drilled to accommodate the perch, an old paint brush. Trying to poke a hole with a knife is likely to shatter the plastic. This impressive feeder is attached to our deck railing with a foot of string. The perch is necessay to help keep the bird from standing in the jelly. The oriole will have no way to clean himself if it becomes a sticky mess.
On a four-mile drive this morning, through Wayzata and barely into eastern Minnetonka I saw and heard thousands of American Robins. They must have arrived overnight, stalled here because of the weather. They're driven on migration by an internal clock that has nothing to do with our discouraging rain and snow.
I heard robins when I went for the paper. I saw robins if I looked up and down the street. Robins flew overhead. Flocks of 50 to 60 birds spotted my drive east through Wayzata.. When I to the Carlson Towers along Carlson Parkway, just west of Ridgedale shopping center, there were thousands of robins. Carlson Parkway and the entrance drive to the towers are lined with ornamental crab apple trees. This is the attraction. Robins will be living on leftover fruit until the snow goes and the ground softens. There were birds in the trees, on the snow, in the road, in the air.
The weather Saturday and Sunday concentrated Dark-eyed Juncos and various sparrows. Our yard held easily more than 100 birds throughout those days. They were eating sunflower seeds and chips. Most of the seasonal arrivals were juncos. Sparrow species were Fox, Tree, and Song; they came for the sunflower chips.
Our pond attracted a pair of Hooded Mergansers and, at high count, 13 Wood Ducks.
The birding right now is pretty good. Other migrants can be found if you're looking. Avid observers are reporting day lists of over 70 species. A couple dozen of those are waterfowl.
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