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.
A Ross's Goose, least common of the goose species to be seen in Minnesota, has spent the past several days in Hopkins. Tuesday it was present from early afternoon until dusk at Central Park in Hopkins. The park is adjacent to Excelsior Blvd., just west of 17th Ave. S. The Ross's Goose has been keeping company with several dozen Canada Geese. Ross's is a small goose, no larger than a Mallard, with plumage very similar to Snow Goose. It would be expected to be seen in small numbers the far western portion of the state. It is a beautiful bird.
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.
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.
If you use recordings of bird calls on your iPhone or iPad or other such devices you're probably not getting the volume you might want. I'm not, not even when plugging in my old clam-shell speaker, small and handy, but lacking carrying power. Take a look at some new speakers highly recommended by David Pogue, the New York Times tech guy. Go to http://pogue.blogs.nytimes.com,"Terrific Sound in a Tiny Package."
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