We have been hit by a brutally cold winter since Christmas that has become much worse in the last couple of days. Yesterday and today the temperature hovering in the single digits, Fahrenheit, during the day and dropping down below 0°F at night. This number does not take windchill into account which would drop it into negative double digits. This extreme cold temperature, common for those who live in a much colder climate, is a concern for us in the mid-Northeastern part of the US. Even the local birds have retreated.
We had a blizzard three days ago which dumped 5 inches of snow in our area. Reservoirs around here iced over thick enough to make ice fishing a common site again. At times like this we put up more bird boxes, lined with fluffy cotton at the bottom, so our avian friends can have a place to roost away from high winds and frigid temperatures. We also put more feeders up along our patio and make sure that there is clean water in the heated birdbaths.
As far as I know Downy woodpeckers and the bullying House sparrows roost in the boxes. This winter, however, a few Bluebirds have been roosting in one of the boxes- the box that they may have been born in. It’s very convenient for them to just look out of the box to see if we have put the feeders back up in the morning before they come out.
They enjoying our hospitality and we enjoy watching them in the comfort of our home. All photos were taken through the patio door; it’s blow 10°F outside.
These are just some of the birds that frequent our feeders in winter. Most are welcome even the ones that come in a flock like the House finch and Pine siskin but bullies like House sparrows and European Starlings we chase off. In spring and summer, the table is turned and they pay us back when they serenade us from dawn to dusk and patrol our garden for insects. Symbiosis indeed!
One of my fellow bloggers asked me recently how the Bluebirds fared this season. A light bulb went on in my head how about a recap’ of this past breeding season? The Eastern Bluebirds (Sialia sialis) have done quite well. To our surprise, they have raised three broods this season however the broods may not be of the same pair. I know one pair has raised two broods since their chicks were allowed to hangout by their new nest box when they started the second brood. But the third which nested in the front yard nest box later in the season didn’t have any chicks around.
Below is my progressive observations of the second brood.
In the years past, we have only observed Bluebirds raising one or two broods at the most. Then to our surprise & excitement, we discovered a third brood in the front yard. I have seen the Bluebirds on this nest box a few times but have also seen House sparrows (Passer domesticus) on it too. The vicious House sparrows zoom into their nests, peck & break their eggs & will not let them have any peace. However when we tried to trim the hedge by the nest box, the Bluebirds wouldn’t leave the area so we checked the box. Bravo! What a pleasant surprise and hedge trimming was immediately suspended.
I don’t know how many of the chicks from these three broods have survived to adulthood. What I do know is that we hear more of their calling in the air, around the yard, than years ago. They come to the feeders and baths year ’round. They also look for places to roost in our garden in winter.
We have not yet had a heavy snow. We will see more of them once the ground is covered with snow and the lake is frozen over. I think they decided to stick around in winter because we have food, heated bath and warm places to stay. We pretty much rolled the red carpet out for our avian friends. The only exception is House Sparrows….for this bunch, it’s war.
I think the Bluebirds are getting more comfortable with our garden now. They no longer leave us during winter. We provide roosting boxes, food and water in heated birdbaths when nothing much is around in winter and we help with guarding their nesting box during their breeding season. Since they have become our resident birds, they have started their nesting early. Last year they had two broods and this year they have already started a second brood while still feeding their chicks from the first brood.
They started the first brood in April. Once the female lays eggs, we start to monitor the nest box weekly to make sure they are fine. Four out of five eggs hatched with the 1st brood.
We stopped checking their nest box when the chicks have full feathers. If they fledge too early, out of concern for their own safety, they could become other birds food. So we don’t want to stress them with visits.
The second nest is right by our vegetable garden and the green pole is only a couple of feet from the front of the nest box. Hopefully there will be another three or more chicks from the second brood.
Around this time in spring we prepare a welcome mat for the migrating birds, both the ones that come to stay for a season or just passing through. We clean the birdhouses that were left out during winter for cold night roosting and set them back up. Plenty of food is put out as well and we make some effort to insure the feeders won’t get emptied by larger birds like the Mourning doves, Grackles, European Starlings and Blue Jays by using weight sensitive feeders. Grackles and Blue Jays manage to work these feeders anyway by bouncing up and down. But we don’t mind since they can’t really land on the feeder blocking small birds from getting on.
We take our cues from the plants and trees in the garden. We put oranges out when the cherry trees blossom; that is when the Baltimore Orioles (Icterus galbula) start to show up. We put sugar syrup out when the Columbine starts to bloom. That’s when Ruby-throated Hummingbirds reach us from the south.
Arriving on the same schedule are the tree Tree Swallows (Tachycineta bicolor). They’re looking for nesting boxes now. This year is much harder for them since the Eastern Bluebird beat them to nesting, having eggs now, get very territorial. They don’t want any neighbors, even when the closest box is 20 feet away the male Bluebird still chases any bird who has the temerity to stray too close. Also House Sparrows that try to nest in every box in the yard. It seems like an uphill battle for the Swallows but they still try and we do our best chasing the Sparrows to give them an edge.
The Rose-breasted Grosbeak (Pheucticus ludovicianus) has also arrived. Generally we only see the male at this time of year. Some years they will stay through the season but some years they just pass through.
I know that the Baltimore Orioles are here, aside from the cherry tree cue, we can hear them. They haven’t come down for the oranges yet. Above is an image captured last year.
Spring is a very active season for birds. I can tell that spring is really coming when the male American Goldfinches shed their winter coats and the male Cardinals are no longer willing to eat together. The same thing goes for the Eastern Bluebirds which no longer flock together like they do in winter. There is also their singing.
The first pair of birds that took up residence in our garden this year is the Eastern Bluebird. After picking and choosing among several nest boxes in the yard, they ended up at the same one the bluebirds nested in last year. I’m not sure that it’s the same pair though, since a flock of them stayed with us this winter.
Once the female has started to lay eggs, the male become very territorial. A Tree Swallow who just migrated back, checked the nest box for availability and was immediately chased away. As aggressive as the male bluebird is, he’s no match to the House sparrow. We have to diligently monitor all the nest boxes in the garden for signs of the House Sparrows. So far we have been successfully hosted Eastern Bluebirds, Tree Swallows, House Wrens, Chickadees and Tufted Titmouse in our nest boxes by monitoring the House Sparrows attempts.
Hopefully most of the eggs she’s caring for now will make it to adulthood. We’re happy to see more and more of them each year and to know that they are comfortable enough to stay with us year round.
These are the one’s that use the nest boxes. The one’s that prefer to build their own nests like the American Robins, Chipping Sparrows and Song Sparrows have already picked their spots in the foliage. I’ll have to check on the Robins next time I have a chance. Last I checked, they had just finished building their nest.
We are still waiting for the Grey Catbirds, Baltimore Orioles and Ruby-throated Hummingbirds to come back. The wait won’t be much longer because the Cherry trees have started to blossom and the Columbine is starting to bud.
Snow is still on the ground, a residue of the snowfall a few days ago. It’s very peaceful watching snow falling and the quietness afterward as the snow absorbs sound pretty well. Though it was too cold to go outside, a joyful moment was still there.
We hang bird feeders along the patio roof during winter which makes it much easier for us to refill them and we can bird watch when circumstance stops us from doing anything else. It’s also easier for us to patrol and protect the feeders from European Starlings and House Sparrows. The down side is we have to sweep bird droppings and whatever else they’ve dropped off the ground underneath. In spring, after we move the feeders back to the garden, we use soap and water to clean the remaining effluent off the fence. But it’s worth the effort. We can observe our avian friends closely and they can also take shelter in the woodpile under the roof from predators too large to squeeze in.
These are some of what we enjoyed a few days ago.
There are others that are more elusive like the Carolina wren, the Pileated Woodpecker and the Northern Flicker. Clearly not wanting the publicity with being caught on camera.
I admit I’ve never really liked Mourning Doves. They take over the tray feeders, sitting in the middle and keeping others out. They sit in the birdbaths and enjoy the water while fouling it. They won’t leave until they are done or until I chase them off and they don’t sing. Their worst offense is eating my vegetable seedlings or just sitting on them.
We’re not enemies, just not really allies.
The relationship changed three days ago when I found an injured dove in the garden. One of his wings was mangled near its root and there was a little blood in the neck area. He couldn’t fly. He hopped away from me when I got close then froze when I got much closer. All birds freeze when they know their hunter is in the neighborhood. From the way he looked I guessed he had just escaped being hawk food.
I had conflicted feelings on whether I should let nature run its course or help him. Admittedly I consider Mourning doves mostly just a pest, however they aren’t bullies like the House sparrows or European starlings. But letting any animal suffer is anathema to me. After deciding to try to help him, we weren’t sure there were any rescue centers that would want to take a dove in since they’re so common. We asked friends and colleagues if they knew any centers that would take a dove. Suggestions came in by the end of the day, Friday, but it was too dark by then to find the dove and he’s pretty good at hiding even in bright day light. It should be mentioned that the deer fence keeps out coyotes, foxes, dogs and other critters that would find an ambulatory and grounded dove a great chew toy.
Our friend Alison, a genuine bird lover with a lot of knowledge in this area, reminded us that he’s hiding and should be out in the morning. Lucky for him that we fenced our backyard. My concern was surviving the cold.
True to her word, he showed up the next morning trying and unable to reach a birdbath. I got him in to a cardboard box and ready for transport. I decided to keep him in the house for warmth. This being a long weekend (Martin Luther King Day), we weren’t sure that any of these centers would be open. He looked weak but still had a lot of fighting spirit.
Rescue centers in our area were closed but Alison came through with a rescuer who was willing to take him if we could transport him to New Jersey, a little bit over an hour’s drive.
He’s in good hands now. I’ve never searched for a wildlife rescue center before. It’s nice to know that there are so many people out there who are willing to help an injured wild animal even when it’s not on an endangered species list, let alone on a Sunday evening. He refused our offer to help with expenses for the dove’s treatment.
In between this rescue mission, we still chased other doves off our tray feeder. Ironic, isn’t it? Our reasoning is helping those that cannot help themselves. If you’re fine, you’re fair game. The dove tormentor (we think) also showed up and stayed for a while, darting from trees to the pool fence and the roof. A majestic Broad-winged hawk on patrol.
I love birds of prey as much as song birds and we have plenty of hawks around here: Red-tailed, Broad-winged, Sharp-shinned and Cooper’s. I have difficulty telling the Broad-winged hawk apart from the Cooper’s hawk if I can’t see their tails.
We never chase the hawks away as population and rodent control is in their job description. If the birds or rodents are fast enough they’ll continue to live on, nature’s rule. But if they’re merely injured like the dove, we’ll help give them a second chance.
We are waiting for an update on his condition and hope that he can be healed. It is within the soul of all birds, the need to kiss the sky.
Every year we look for new lives visiting our garden and nature has never stopped surprising us. I still remember when I saw my first Downy woodpecker in the garden years ago when the yard was still barren, just green lawn and trees. I was so excited to see the woodpecker, a rare occasion back then.
After a decade of organic gardening and expanding it out over our lawn a couple of feet a year, we now have plenty of visitors in the garden. We have a lot of Downy woodpeckers; five or six of them at a time. They became so common that they no longer drew excitement. And, they have no fear of us either. So now we look for someone new to arrive or among the annual migrating visitors.
I finally got a shot of the Indigo Bunting (Passerina cyanea) this year. I first spotted the bird last year but very briefly and wasn’t sure it was an Indigo Bunting. Three days ago it landed only a few foot from me. I froze. I couldn’t turn the camera around without scaring it off. The telephoto lens wouldn’t have focused that close anyway. After a few minutes he took off so I had my chance. Not a good one but I’m happy to have my first shot at this extraordinary, beautiful bird.