Naturespeak A naturalist's view of the world

February 8, 2010

Just Add Seed

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 12:02 pm

I am about to do something for which I must apologize ahead of time. I am going to talk to you about some birds that came to my feeder. Normally this type of thing would not be a part of my venue for a number of reasons. First of all, unless something dramatic happens such as a Cooper’s Hawk attack or the appearance of some rare Siberian finch, there is little to actually relate except a listing of everyday species. Secondly, and most importantly in my case, I do not have a bird feeder. I never have and probably never will operate a feeding station at my current house. I will often explain the second issue by saying that “my” birds have plenty of natural forage on my acre and a half to survive on their own, but the true reason is that I am simply too lazy. Now, knowing the above facts, please allow me to continue.

Recently, I was the recipient of a medium sized bag of assorted bird feed which placed me into a position of professional compromise. I normally don’t feed because I don’t normally get feed but when suddenly with feed I had no choice but to feed it – to the birds for which they were intended, in other words. Do you follow? I decided to pour the contents of the bag on top of an old barrel which decorates our front yard. It provided a perfect surface for a feeder because it was located within easy view of my entryway. What followed was fascinating. Birds came, you see, but not right away.

The situation presented an opportunity to do a bit of an experiment. I wondered how long it would take before the bounty was discovered. As creatures of habit, birds are prone to visit their favorite feeding stations like clockwork. In fact, for those of you who do operate feeding stations, you know that the feathered patrons will often hang around and stare at you until you re-fill an empty feeder. It’s all about guilt. But, how do these purveyors of guilt uncover new situations like mine?

It took about a week before the pile was discovered. A light dusting of snow had covered the assortment of millet, thistle, sunflower, and peanuts by then, but the feeder suddenly became a bustling city of gluttony on one cold Saturday morning. It happened all at once and apparently out of the blue. The big feed lasted for several days and was over as quickly as it began. It was if I had planted bird seed, added a sprinkling of moisture, and watched it explode into a crop of birds.  I had a blooming bird Chia Pet. (Yes, I know you regular “feeder types” out there are saying “well, duh…that’s the idea,” but hold on a minute).

The guest list initially included the usual suspects. Black-capped Chickadees were the first on site in the very early dawn. Tufted Titmice, Cardinals, White-breasted Nuthatches, House Sparrows, and Blue Jays soon followed. Each plundered in their own way. The Blue Jays grabbed the peanuts and flew off to a selected perch to hammer their prize open. The Chickadees and Titmice did the same with the sunflower seeds. The cardinals and house sparrows planted their selves in the middle of the pile and employed their heavy beaks to shear open seed husks. There was nothing out of the ordinary with this crew.

Both of my local squirrels, the Fox and Red variety, also stopped in for a bite or two or a hundred. Again, this was to be expected. My interest was piqued, however, when a large flock of House Finches arrived on the scene (see above and here). These birds are common enough yard birds, but I’d not seen any in my neck of the woods for some time. Now there were a few dozen of these red-splashed finches within a few feet of my front door.  The females are without the reddish hue, but instead are marked by prominent brown and cream streaking. A lone Goldfinch, dressed in somber winter wear, joined his fellow finches for a feed (see here – the bird at the lower right). Like their old-world relations the House Sparrows, the House & Gold Finches also crack their seeds with a shearing action by their robust beaks.

A single male Red-bellied Woodpecker stopped in for a sampling (see below) but was intimidated by the nervous actions of the finches. A whole host of puffy Dark-eyed juncos paid a visit, but then again these guys are a regular feature of my “naturally endowed” yard. Like many older folk, I find it hard to call these little gray and white birds by this name, having grown up with much more descriptive name of “Slate-colored Juncos.”  I also have a real problem with calling Old Squaw Ducks with the blander, and current title, of Long-tailed Duck but that is neither here nor there.

Fortunately, there were no Old Squaw Ducks or Long-tailed Ducks at my temporary feeder to worry about but there was at least one unusual visitor in the form of a gimpy female Cowbird (see below). This species is typically a migrant – heading south to avoid the bitter teeth of winter. There are exceptions to every natural rule, so it is not un-heard of to see Cowbirds overwintering but it is a tad unusual. This bird was obviously nursing a bum right leg, although she didn’t appear to be worse for wear. No doubt she was eyeing up her fellow feeder mates to determine which one would eventually raise her young this spring (they are nest parasites).

The most surprising visitor was a single Carolina Wren who showed up late in the day. He probed the ground around the base of the barrel for seed and only allowed for a few fleeting views before moving on. True to their name, these hefty wrens originated in the southern U.S. They have slowly spread into the Great Lakes region over the past twenty years or so to the point where they are now regular summer residents and consistent winter residents as well. This has been a bad winter for these wrens for some reason so they have not been as prominent as in years past.  Normally insect eaters, they willingly switch to a seed/plant diet when necessary. You know, when in frigid Rome do as the other frigid Romans do.

The previously described scene repeated itself on the following day – without the House finches or the Carolina Wren – and ceased altogether once the seed was gone. So, after all this gloating about “my” feeder birds, we are left with the initial question. How do they find remote food sources? I suspect that these critters go by visual clues supplemented by continual curiosity. Some randomly seek while others watch other birds seeking. I believe that the chickadees found the place first, based on their habit of constant exploration and chance discovery. The activity of these birds attracted the rest of the feathered flock like a blue light special at K-Mart. The secret was out – as was my stock of seed.  I could go out and get some more but…


  1. I love black-eyed juncos… and I’ve only ever seen woodpeckers at my suet… so fascinating to see them sitting on something eating like other birds, LOL.

    Comment by Monica the Garden Faerie — February 9, 2010 @ 12:30 am

  2. It’s not uncommon to see mixed flocks of titmice, chickadees, sparrows and woodpeckersthis time of year, so after one or two intrepid souls happened across your barrel stash, the others soon could follow suit.

    Comment by dawn — February 10, 2010 @ 1:30 pm

  3. I suspect you’re right about the chickadees discovering your treasure cache. Here, they’re the first to find the new suet, first to notice the big empty feeder has become the big full feeder, first to pull the nesting material out of the mesh bag… Regular little Captain Cooks, they are.

    Comment by Joy K. — March 6, 2010 @ 11:07 pm

  4. Bird seeds are really nice since they can make your bird grow healthy and fit. –

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    Comment by Latina Lough — November 29, 2012 @ 3:47 am

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