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.

Posts about Birds in the backyard

Feeder research -- chickadees and seeds

Posted by: Jim Williams Updated: October 19, 2013 - 2:39 PM

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.

Cooper's Hawk

Posted by: Jim Williams Updated: September 30, 2013 - 11:06 AM

A pair of Cooper's Hawks nested in a yard adjoining ours this summer. They were quiet and secretive neighbors. We assume they raised chicks. We never saw one, though, a disappointment since they were so close at hand. We could watch the nest until the trees filled out with leaves. One of the adults, the female I believe, visited our yard late Tuesday afternoon. The bird took a shaded position in a tree while it unsuccessfully looked for prey. Four species of hawks nest nearby -- Cooper's, Red-tailed, Red-shouldered, and Broad-winged. For me, Cooper's is the most handsome.

Birds keeping cool

Posted by: Jim Williams Updated: August 28, 2013 - 2:07 PM

 If you haven't created a watering place for birds to drink and bathe, today is the day to do it. Birds have developed strategies for keeping cool. Water, though, will be much apprecioated. It can be as simple and temporary as a large sheet of plastic spread in the shade with your lawn sprinkler directed at it. Create some dips and valleys where the water can collect. 

The photos show birds in various heat-related reactions. The Red-tail Hawk at Westwood Nature Center in St. Louis Park is doing what many birds do on hot days: opening up and letting the air in. The bird is exposing as much body area as it can. The hawk, unable to care for itself in the wild, was photographed in a large shaded outdoor aviary at the center. It's a beautiful bird. The Lark Bunting was trying to keep cool the same way. This bird was photographed on a South Dakota grassland on a day when the temp was over 100 degrees. It was close to midday, shade at a minimum. Fence posts did offer about three inches of shade on the north side. Buntings and meadowlarks were using that shade, perching tight against posts.

The Wild Turkey, also found at Westwood, was panting through its open bill. Heat exchange via air is another way to cool.

The Ruby-throated Hummingbird took a brief rest yesterday in the hand of Excelsior photographer Rebecca Hahn. The bird was feeding on hosta blooms, in the sun, when Rebecca extended her hand. She was surprised to see her offer accepted. Rebecca said the bird appeared exhausred. It rested for a few moments, then flew off to a nearby tree. Rebecca used one hand for the bird, the other for her camera.










Waiting for kingfishers

Posted by: Jim Williams Updated: August 19, 2013 - 2:51 PM

Kingfishers nest on or near property my oldest daughter and her family own in Elk River. A small pond feeds a small creek that runs through their land. Kingfishers have been a fixture there for years. Jill says she sees them in season "all the time, every day." Saturday, one of the adult birds was feeding a youngster. We watched from about 200 yards away, not exactly photography distance. I've tried there before to get pictures of those birds. I've tried many places to do that, to get what I consider decent shots. So far, so-so. So, I set up my photo blind beside the creek Monday morning, in place by 6 o'clock. The first kingfisher rattle -- that's how their call is described -- was heard at 6:26, the second at 7:15. If there was a third call before my departure at 10:30, I missed it. Sighting? Haha.

There was much bird activity, finches, wrens, sparrows dropping from trees to the water to bathe or drink. I saw or heard wood-pewee, Great Crested Flycatcher, blackbirds, crows, a robin, a nuthatch, an oriole, and a beautiful Red-shouldered Hawk. I had finches and the wren sitting atop the blind. Eventually, the non-kingfisher activity was sort of annoying, like rubbing it in. I know better. I've done this. Birds are there or they aren't. No need to be annoyed. Still: "all the time, every day."

I had my i Pad with me to play kingfisher calls. Luring birds close with their recorded voices is an iffy  proposition. You don't want to fool around with a bird's territorial defense. This being post-breeding, however, I thought I'd try it. I played the call three times. No response. Not enough play? Too much play? The iPad not being a boom-box, could the bird hear the recording? How good are kingfisher ears? Or maybe the bird just didn't give a darn. The questions were annoying. 

With the iPad in my lap I could play solitaire to kill some of that birdless time. Four-square is my game. I was dealt terrible hands. It was annoying. Then, the sun came out and the small, airless canvas blind became warm, then humid and hot. My binoculars steamed up. Very annoying. 

I packed up and came home. Jill, my daughter, who had not been home during my visit, called about noon to ask how I had done. She sees the birds all the time. In the years I've been visiting there I've never gotten a good look at a perched bird, much less one feeding young. She sounded almost apologetic, offering that she and two of my grandsons had seen the birds Sunday morning at 9:30, "so they must be there." That annoyed me, too.

I'm going back, though, but I wish it was cooler. The blind is like a sauna. It will be a test for me: How badly do I want the photos? 

Here's the hawk. Nice bird. Looks like it's molting. 




Six goslings and one missing egg

Posted by: Jim Williams Updated: June 4, 2013 - 5:37 PM

 The pair of Canada Geese nesting on a platform in our pond brought six goslings ashore Monday morning. The goose gave up on incubation of a seventh egg. She kept at it for 36 hours beyond the appearance of the six that hatched. Strangely, while the egg was clearly visible in the nest during the birds’ initial visit to our yard, it disappeared later in the day. I’m going to have to visit the nest to see if the goose buried it, pushed it into the water, or what else might have happened to it. The goslings were on land half a dozen times today to eat, meals of corn and sunflower seeds beneath our feeders alternating with next of greens and bugs along the pond shore. We have yet to see return of the Wood Duck and Hooded Merganser and their ducklings. I hope the geese stay here. They’re fun to watch.




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