Winter’s Love

Bird feeders are my winter dream. I used to want to escape to hot climates and snorkel. Now I want to sit next to a heat source in pajamas and see birds in far greater detail than even my binoculars permit.

I got my Mom a bird feeder this year, and then another (for the Goldfinches), and then she got herself a suet feeder. Things have escalated pretty rapidly. From quiet naturalistic edge habitat sort of yard (with perhaps an excess of non-native Japanese Maples and some unfortunate and divisive Bamboo) to the sort of hippie avian free-for-all that I formerly viewed as a bit eccentric. What I didn’t know is how different the experience is from inside the house! What I also didn’t realize is how different the experience is when you get beyond the suburbs into a more rural zone. There are no Starlings here, and rarely a House Sparrow.

Instead there are multiple species of Woodpecker, many native Sparrows, and lots of singing Juncos and Chickadees and Cardinals. There is a well established group of crows that has traditionally passed through daily, and that now will stop by if peanuts are made available. There is a group of Blue Jays regularly descending with their “jay” calls and their emotive crest raising and lowering.

I have finally seen the reason that the Red Bellied Woodpecker (which at first glance appears to have red only on its head) got its name. Although I think a better name would have been Pale Red Almost Pink Cloaca-ed Woodpecker. That one remains a tough sell. Woodpeckers are still one of my favorite groups. The Red Bellied that visits is a female, and she likes to hang from the trunk of the Locust Tree to the side of the yard and make forays to the suet feeder when the coast looks clear. Otherwise she is our only Woodpecker willing to feed with the browner smaller birds on the ground. Flickers, not around here, are the traditional ground-feeding Woodpeckers, although they are eating Ants, not Sunflower seeds. The male, my Mom says, has shown up on occasion. Where is he the rest of the time? I understand from other birding sources that the male and female Downy Woodpeckers have differing feeding strategies: the male prefers the tips of skinny branches and the female prefers the trunk. Although I honestly may have mixed it up, I haven’t observed this tendency myself clearly enough to verify anything. What I do know is that as with the Red Bellied female, the Downy female is more often at the feeder. Most often, actually. She spent a good thirty minutes there, pecking away at the presumably frozen suet, before I abandoned my post. Sometimes a pair of Nuthatches comes through, almost always together. The male Downy also appears with some frequency. Today things got exciting in a way that relates, finally, to the title of this post (that is also the title of an Animal Collective song I like). The birds appeared far more paired off than they had when I last hung out around this bird feeder during January’s blizzard. The male Cardinal chased the female Cardinal around the yard. The male Downy Woodpecker climbed after the female up the Dogwood Tree, around and around. The Blue Jays are always quite social and no distinct pairs were obvious. But Blue Jays are also migratory, typically flying a bit South each winter. That means that entirely different individuals will be here in the Summer.

This relates to something else I noticed, and was thinking about while reading What the Robin Knows. The birds that breed here in the summer were not seen in great numbers. Two Cardinals, or occasionally another pair. Two Downy Woodpeckers. Two Chickadees (ish). Perhaps more Titmice.

But the birds that are here only for the winter, the White Throated Sparrows and the Juncos, were by far the most numerous, seen on the ground in groups of perhaps twenty. I know that typical birding behavior is flocking in multi-species groups in the winter, for protection from predators while seeking out those life saving calories all day long. This contrasts with becoming territorial in the summer and fighting with members of a bird’s own species. So I wondered, are the differences in the species numbers related to the birds who stay here all winter being a little bit more territorially divided? Like, are the other pairs of Cardinals sticking more closely to their spring territory? Somehow I don’t think that is right- I suspect that in the winter birds have to cover a lot more ground to find enough seeds and berries and deeply chilled insects (perhaps a once beloved Chrysalis) to stay warm enough to survive each night in their own personal down sleeping bag. Maybe there are varying numbers of these species- that is undoubtedly the case. But also, perhaps, the food preferences are a factor too. Maybe the birds that are seen in greater numbers are the most deeply satisfied by the particular seeds and animal fats on offer.

Whatever the case may be, love, in many forms, is assuredly present in our own backyards as we approach Valentines Day. There are lots of newly budding relationships forming, and some birds are re-kindling old flames. Although it is no one’s first choice, some birds may even be willing to consider sloppy seconds. Their lives, after all, are short, and their breeding season, unlike our human ones, is brief. Not a thing to throw away lightly. But love comes in many forms. I don’t know what the flocks of birds feel for each other, but I like to think that they are friends. And deep in recesses of trees and in nests kept high, another kind of love, even more powerful, is present- maternal love. The Great Horned Owls are on eggs, and if you are lucky you might hear them calling. They call around midnight, perhaps even later, and they say “whoooo’s awake? me toooooooo” Other Owl species are also getting their act together. Such large birds have to start early- but more importantly, they need time to fill their big brains with the knowledge and experience that will make them successful hunters and predators.

Meanwhile, I learned yet another new thing today. Facebook and Instagram can be like nature magic, because of their ability to give you information about what is happening right this minute. A Wildlife Rehab that I follow posted a picture of their first babies of the year- three hairless little pink baby Squirrels!! Their tree was cut down, and they were found and placed in what appears to be a crocheted nest, of all things. Squirrels have two broods a year, one to mature in early fall, the other happening now! Whoooooo knew?



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