Breakfast with the Birds

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.

Dominant golden-crowned sparrow and expert seed cracker. Note distinct gold cap and thick black eyebrows.   December 9, 2019. Backyard. Photo by B. Riverwoman

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.

Same golden-crowned sparrow, side view, December 9, 2019. Backyard. Photo by B. Riverwoman

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.

Song Sparrow. in casual pose.outside my glass door.   December 9, 2019, Photo by B. Riverwoman

 

And of course I welcome the non-native but handsome HOUSE SPARROWS in spite of their questionable nesting habits.

One male and four female house sparrows. Females have wide buffy eyebrows.Backyard, December 10, 2019. Photo by B. Riverwoman

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.

Scrub Jay, Backyard, December 9, 2019, Photo by B. Riverwoman

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.

 

Chickadee, Backyard, December 10, 2019, Photo by B. Riverwoman

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.

 Bewick’s Wren, m,..,.,../ Backyard, December 9, 2019, Photo by B. Riverwoman

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.

California Towhee, Backyard, December 9, 2019, Photo by B. Riverwoman

 

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

Mourning Dove, Backyard, December 9, 2019, Photo by B. Riverwoman

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!

 

Squirrel waiting its chance. Backyard, December 9, 2019, Photo by B. Riverwoman
Squirrel, hiding behind my glorious Bloodgood Japnese maple, Backyard, December 10, 2019, Photo by B. Riverwoman

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.

Barbara

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

5 thoughts on “Breakfast with the Birds

  1. Sorry to disappoint you – or maybe that was a typo – but cotoneasters are non-native and considered invasive. Interesting article or two I’ve read says that native berries are more nutritious for birds but I’m sure they relish the berries nonetheless! You could try a toyon for red berries but they probably would get too large for your small garden – you’d be pruning a toyon more than you might want to.

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    1. Thanks, Jackie, for you expert help. I’m definitely not upon to speed on what is native and what’s not. (Readers: Jackie is an anchor in the local chapter of the California Native Plant Society.) I did feel also a little wobbly about the bush ID itself. Is there another bush with red berries that is not a toyon. The hermit thrush has come back to this tree for for years. Would such a wonderful bird be so indiscriminating as to eat non-native berries? 🙂 I’ll take a photo and send it to you and update readers if I’m wrong on the cotoneaster id.

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      1. Toyon is the only native species that produces those sorts of berries. At least two species of cotoneaster are naturalized here. Pyrcantha is politely naturalized. It sometimes appears uninvited in irrigated landscape situations, but does not compete much with the natural ecosystem in the wild. (Pyrcantha happens to be my favorite of these, just because it it the most colorful. However, it is also wickedly thorny.) All produce the same sorts of berries (which are actually small pomme fruits) because they rely on the same sorts of birds for dispersion of their seed. Most native birds who enjoy toyon would be just as interested in the others. However, unrelated berries, such as holly berries, would not be so appealing to some native birds who are unfamiliar with them, or anything like them. Birds who live in eastern North America part of the year, or are related to eastern birds, might recognize and eat English holly berries, just because they are physiologically similar to berries of hollies that are native to eastern North America. English holly is not very prolific with berries anyway. Of course, some birds are not so discriminating, which is the concern about toxic nandina berries!

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  2. Thank you so much for such a beautiful email. Thank you for caring about our birds and wildlife. I hope you have a peaceful holiday season and a wonderful new year. Kim

    On Wed, Dec 11, 2019 at 12:20 AM San Lorenzo River Mysteries wrote:

    > Barbara Riverwoman posted: “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 o” >

    Like

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