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.
Monday, noon: busy morning at feeders and water pan. When not flying, most of the birds were puffed up, feathers fluffed to conserve body heat. Suet feeders popular today. Also some romancing by a pair of Gray Squirrels that have unfortunately taken up residence in a cavity they dug in the remains of an old willow tree in our yard. When we noticed the hole we thought perhaps it was Pileated Woodpeckers. How nice that would be. How not nice to have prospect of more squirrels. It's interesting, however, to watch their interplay. Lots of touching going on. Photo quality not the best as photos were taken through two panes of window glass. White-breasted Nuthatch, Downy Woodpecker, and Gray Squirrels below.
This cardinal was coming to one of the feeders on our deck yesterday (Monday). Cardinals often prefer picking fallen seeds from the snow to taking seeds while perched. Sprinkle some seed beneath the feeders when you fill them. As always, black oil sunflower is your best seed buy. The mixes often available for more money are not necessarily more attractive to the birds. Food will be more important than ever during this cold spell. Drinking water also will be helpful. This bird pulled one foot into its feathers for a moment of warmth
Gone for Christmas week, I filled all of our feeders the day of depature, hoping that the birds would not eat them empty well before we returned home, which was Sunday. Nine days we were gone. The feeders on the deck, which I've filled on an every-other-day basis at times, are not empty. The six-feeder assembly in the yard is down maybe a third. So, what happened to the birds? House Finches and American Goldfinches are our stalwarts. I saw two House Finches today, one goldfinch. Yet, I received an email a few days ago from a man who counted over 120 goldfinches at his feeders, plus birds of other species also present in impressive numbers. Is it the cold weather? I'd think the birds would eat more as the temperature drops. We do have the usual assemblage of cardinals at dusk, at least five today.
Snowy Owls continue to be seen in counties west of Hennepin, from Wright outward, with some seen south of Bloomington as well. And at least one has made a suburban appearance, in Maple Grove. I suspect there are more to come. I'm waiting for warmer weather before making my search. I want photos. Taking a camera (think glass) from a warm car into single-digit temps does not work.
This blog has been untended during our travels. It should see new posts on a regular basis now.
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.
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