Dear Jane and Fellow Bird Watchers,
For five years I’ve been writing about what I see when I go bird-visiting on the San Lorenzo River. But this week I will tell you a little about the many birds that visit me during the winter months – all regulars on the river that I have managed to lure to my mobile home by the river with a steady supply of black oil sunflower seeds, millet, suet and water.
I love starting my day by having breakfast with my flying friends. Before I eat I always first clean out and refill the birdbath, then sweep away the discarded sunflower shells from the patio and front steps, then carefully wash away the inevitable poop. As I work , I see the birds flitting impatiently from branch to branch above my small patio. Oh dear, have they been waiting very long? If I am later than usuals, I feel guilty. I busily refill my tube feeder, sprinkle seeds on my front steps and on the squirrel chair, and settle down on my couch with green tea and muesli to see the show. I am hungry, too. The birds and my squirrel now quite accustomed to my routine, immediately swoop down to have their breakfast with me. It’s such a satisfying way to start a new day.
Almost always, the birds that descend first are the migrant GOLDEN-CROWNED SPARROWS. When they hop onto my front steps, right outside my glass doors, I get a good chance to study their crowns – some with very noticable gold caps and some with only the slightest hint of gold. A researcher at the UCSC Arboretum gathered a lot of data about the hierarchical behavior of golden-crowned sparrows. finding that it correlates with the size and intensity of the gold patch on the tops of their heads.. I have now also become someone who is fascinated with watching who chases whom. What I see definitely confirms the pattern the researcher describes. The birds with bright yellow caps drive off the ones with less colorful caps. (The gold cap, or lack of, is not associated with gender.)
I have been very happy to have a SONG SPARROW visit me for the first time this year. This brave little soul also flew right onto the landing of my front steps and looked me directly in the eye. I love the insouciance of its foot placement.
And of course I welcome the non-native but handsome HOUSE SPARROWS in spite of their questionable nesting habits.
Curiously, I have observed only one WHITE-CROWNED SPARROW in my patio so far this winter. I wonder if they feel too confined on the narrow patio between my house and the fence? They are much more plentiful on the wilder and more open spaces on the river, usually outnumbering the golden-crowned sparrows.
It’s fun to watch the different behaviors of different species at the feeders. The large SCRUB JAY prefers to pick up his meal from the ground, but will sometimes attempt to grab a seed from the tube feeder and then fly down to the ground to break it open – or sometimes to swallow whole.
The sparrows are also ground foragers, much preferring to find their food on the ground or bushes, rather than trees and feeders. But if they are hungry they will all try their luck at the tube feeder .
The HOUSE FINCHES, for whose size, feet and beaks the feeders are perfectly designed, sit for long periods on the feeder rungs, expertly manipulating the sunflower seeds until the shells break loose and are shoved out of their mouths. The finches stay perched on the small tube rungs until driven off by another bird.
Tree-feeding CHICKADEES and OAK TITMICE visit me much less frequently. When they do, they sail in for just long enough to grab a seed from the feeder, then find cover at a safe distance to hammer away at the shell and extract the tasty meat from inside.
The BEWICK’S WREN, whose long, thin curved beak is not at all suited to cracking open a sunflower seed still visits the tube feeder to pick out the millet seeds, usually consuming them while standing on the thin rung which suits her small size. She has been visiting much more often since the cold weather hit and I put up the suet feeder.
The CALIFORNIA TOWHEE, a ground forager like other birds in the sparrow family, is too large and chunky to ever attempt feeding from the tube feeder.
Both the towhees and the MOURNING DOVES. tend to wait until the first round of birds have left and then humbly peck away at all the leftover seed on the ground or steps. . The doves seem the most timid, never venturing
onto my steps. The golden-crowned sparrow is the pluckiest, flying right onto the post by my glass door and sometimes singing its three-note song while looking straight at me. Is it saying ‘thank you’. Is it saying ‘more please’. Is it reminding that this is its established territory? Whatever it is saying, I’m sure it is aimed very personally at me!
I have a special chair where I leave seeds for a very cute and mischievous squirrel who is intensely interested in the seed I put on my front steps for birds only.. Unfortunately, if I let the squirrel onto the steps, she will chase the birds away and then schnarf up half the seeds in short order, at least 10 seeds at a time, half of which seem to fall out of her mouth as she stuffs the rest in with her tiny little hands. As a result, I have become a quite strict squirrel trainer. I chase the squirrel back to her seed-filled chair, while the birds stay on the landing of the steps. When my breakfast is over, I sweep the seeds from the steps onto the ground for all to eat. I like to believe that I am thus slowly training the squirrels never to eat on the steps. Whether my efforts at behavior modification for squirrels is successful is dubious. But once chased off, she does return to her chair – though I often see her peeking at me from behind something, maybe waiting for her chance to test a few limits.
Other birds who have visited my home this winter are BUSHTITS, ANNA’S HUMMINGBIRDS, and my beautiful HERMIT THRUSH, who feasts on the red berries on my native cotoneaster bush, far from the other birds. She has spent about a month here, single-handedly eating every single berry down to the very last one – which disappeared yesterday. I’m sad to say I probably won’t see her again until next year.
Such a wealth of visitors. How can I feel lonely? As I approach my 82nd birthday, I expect I may do more backyard birding and fewer excursions down the river. When I was in 6th grade, my mother, who taught me to love birds, had a library book called Birds at my Window, about an old woman who watched birds. For some reason, even at that young age, I was thrilled with the book. I was shy and hated giving oral book reports in class, but I remember forgetting my self-consciousness as I reported enthusiastically on my love of this particular book. Maybe I am coming full circle on this theme in my life.
Some of you will be glad to know that Lucero Luna, whom I wrote about in my last blog piece, has found temporary housing for the winter. Thanks to all of you who wrote me expressing your appreciation for that article. My life has taught me that we are all connected – people, animals, plants. When we start to live that way –and why not now – most of our problems will disappear.
If you are a Sierra Club Member, please support our ardent lover of nature and river blogger, Jane Mio, for the Executive Committee of the Sierra Club. I also highly recommend Erica Stanojevic and Bob Morgan for the other two open seats on the Committee. Votes are due January 1, but please mail your ballot early.
May this holiday season be a time of warm connections for all of you with all forms of life.