Backyard Bird Count


Just before taking these photographs, a male downy woodpecker had joined the female downy and hairy woodpeckers. They foraged on the septic field, littered with shagbark hickory nuts that the neighbor's two dogs have not yet eaten. Notice how the back-of-head patterns differ on the two birds. Now, if only a male and female Cooper's and sharp-shinned hawk each would pose together for my camera.

White-throated sparrow boots the dark eyed junco, song sparrow boots them both. Blue jays fill their gular pouch with 5 seeds. While the jays feed, no birds come to the feeder, save a feisty chickadee or an occasional mourning dove who was posted his/herself. A female red bellied woodpecker ousts the jays. The birds follow each other, watch each other. One finds a place where a branch broke from a tree; the other bird, if tougher, bigger or arriving from a strategic location, swoops in. The first bird flies away.

We had a Cooper's hawk, or a sharp shinned hawk (more likely), as a sentinel over the feeder this week. Two white-throated sparrows and one tufted titmouse missed the warning call. All other birds had fled. The sparrows, stood immobile, heads flattened, under the scraggly multiflora behind the feeder. The titmouse perched on a branch nearby, also immobile with crest flattened. A titmouse without a crest looks like a big-eyed schoolboy with his hair plastered down for dress up.

Bird Song Since the Solstice

A simple clean house is one that is rebuilt each year. In times past, Polish peasants annually whitewashed their walls and pasted up elaborate paper cutouts of flowers, leaves, animals and people.

I read that the first day of spring for the birds is the winter solstice (Birdsong by the Seasons: A Year of Listening to Birds by Donald Kroodsma). I, like the author, decided to determine if this is true. This winter's solstice occurred on Monday, December 21. My inquiry was cut short on two ends: my inability to rise in winter before daybreak and the need to get in the car and drive to work.

As a walked to the birdfeeder and filled it, I heard several notable songs:
A tufted timouse sang, Peter, peter, peter. Peter, peter, peter. A chickadee, Hey, sweetie. A white-breasted nuthatch sang, too, though not much of a song, it was other than the it's bleeting trumpet! A woodpecker drummed. I heard all this in just a few minutes, after not hearing any territorial bird song (except pieces of white-throated sparrow song - Oh sweeeet Cahhhnuu.) since the phoebe left.

Since then, I have observed several territorial displays. Perhaps the most interesting, was a nuthatch at the feeder. In typical nuthatch style, he hung upside down and flared his wings repeatedly at a titmouse. He appeared like a bat imitating a sunning turkey vulture. This week, a nuthatch seesawed at the opening on the great crested flycatcher nest box. Perhaps noted how much nesting material would be need to fill the box.

Today, the bluebird family inspected its previous nest box, as well as the kestrel box (from which a male bluebird ousted a curious starling just a week ago. Unfortunately, it also chased the great crested last summer.). Two male bluebirds sat in the kestrel box opening, peering in. They burst out as another bluebird exited the box.

On Thursday, I heard to titmice calling Peter, peter at Washington Crossing State Park. One called from near a building, the other from the picnic area. They timed their songs so that each Peter, peter occurred between the other bird's Peter, peter. Why waste time singing if your lady can't hear you?

So, the songs have continued since the solstice with increased territorial displays. I'm looking forward to the spring, but we still have 100 pounds of birdseed and much preparatory work to do in the garden.


The hedgerow below the garden before (above) and after (below). A former haven for my gardening companion, the song sparrow, and my garden's companion, the groundhog. I'd like to promise the wintering sparrows and the returning common yellow throats that their home will be rebuilt with far more delightful plants like persimmon and chinquapin. For now, goodbye multiflora rose, Oriental bittersweet and Japanese honeysuckle.

Statistical Hawk, Individual Hawk

Solitary hawk, Catskills

Shortly down the road, I realized we had to turn around. I forgot something. Turning around always feels like a jinx.

Halfway up the lane, Jared pointed up. A hawk was perched on a low branch just off the road. We watched, amazed. He was so close. His feathers were ruffled - a red tailed hawk. He flapped to another part of the tree and fought with a 10 foot tall multiflora rose shrub.

Many of his his tail feathers were broken, breast feathers awry and a wound on his beak. We watched him fly laboriously to another tree.

I felt upset, worried. Could a cat have done this? I wondered aloud. I doubted this very much, but the ability to blame a guilty party (a loosed pet cat) seemed like a good way to direct my feelings. No chance, replied Jared. A great horned owl? Perhaps.

A neighbor came by a suggested: Another one of them could have done it. They attack each other. I felt irritated. He went on to talk about an owl hunting his pigeons. I realized "each other" meant all birds. Does a robin think, I'm being chased by one of my own, as the Cooper's hawk's talon grasps his body?

A hungry, hurt hawk. An individual, unlike the statistical birds that are eaten, die of old age or the tragedies that take birds in the modern world. The statistical birds that I don't see, the hungry, hurt hawks that alit just out of view of my rearview mirror as I buzz down the road.

For this individual hawk, I'm wishing him well. An easy meal of a mouse who I don't know so well.

We joked about feeding the hawk one of the squirrels who harassed both of us - separately - when we hunted in the back yard. No, you can't kill the neighborhood squirrel family. You have to go to someone else's neighborhood, and kill theirs.

Wait until we put up the birdfeeders. See what you think then, he said.

Yeah, but then they'll get the mange again. I'll stop being angry at the squirrels. I'll worry about them.

It's complicated. "What you don't know, won't kill you." "Not in my backyard." There are handy ways of manipulating and defining instinct, empathy, justice, fairness.