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!
Winter temperature has finally matched the season and there is not much of anything out there. Snow has not yet paid a visit. The birds have picked most of the seeds off the buds I left in intact for them: Echinacea, Black-eyed Susan, Goldenrod… So now they enjoy the additional food we put out for them. On cold days they can enjoy a heated birdbath too.
We remove the feeders every night to prevent unwanted guests like raccoons and skunks. A raccoon can empty a feeder in one sitting. Once we had suet feeder removed and carried over to a neighbor’s yard. We suspected a raccoon. The only animal around here that is big enough to carry a suet feeder off and has ‘thumbs’ to open the cage. Any morning that we can’t put out the feeders (when we have to go to work) or when we put them out a little late, there will be birds lined up on the pool fence outside the patio… waiting.
It’s as though they are saying ‘What’s wrong with these humans? Don’t they know what time it is.’ As soon as we put the feeders out and turn our backs, they land on them, at the head of the line, the Chickadees and Downey Woodpeckers. We try to keep them healthy and well-fed during winter so they will stay and patrol our garden in spring and summer.
These are the locals that stay with us year round:
As much as the American Goldfinch (Carduelis tristis) like Nyger seeds, we’d rather feed them with sunflower seeds in winter. The feeder is hung under the patio roof and the Nyger seeds make a big mess under the feeder.
I have a hard time differentiating a male House Finch (Carpodacusmexicanus) from a male Purple Finch (Carpodacus purpureus). But House Finches are more common in my area and this one has less of a red plume on the breast to be a Purple Finch.
I’m surprised to see this female Northern Cardinal (Cardinaliscardinalis) on the suet feeder. Most Cardinals prefer a tray feeder or a feeder with a horizontal bar that they can hop on.
It’s always fun to watch a White-breasted Nuthatch (Sittacarolinensis) walking up and down a tree trunk or a post or eating upside down.
There are more locals than these shown above but they are either camera shy like the Eastern Bluebird or know they are not welcome like the Blue Jay, House Sparrow and European Starling. I don’t know if the migrating birds from further North like the Common Redpoll and Pine siskin will be here this year since it has been so warm. But for them too, the welcome mat is always out.
We’ve been having a roller coaster weather this year and December temperature around here rages from 60º F to 18º F which is a pretty wide gap. We had icy rain yesterday and snow today, haven’t seen the sun in the last couple of days. Weather like this raise my concern for my avian friends in the neighborhood. As much as they are descendants of Dinosaurs but they probably have a hard time adapt to drastically changes of the environment; evolution takes time. One day is so warm, the next day everything freeze. Food are harder find at this time of year and even harder when the weather is unpredictable.
I put all the birdhouses up this year so they can have warm places to roost during the frigid cold nights. Neighborhood pet food store loves us during this time of year because we buy a variety of twenty five or fifty pound-bags of bird food monthly, plus a case or two of suet cakes. We just want to make sure that our feathered neighbors are well cared for. I think the Tufted Titmouse and Chickadee keep their eyes on us since they’re always the first two groups that get to the feeders every time we refill them.
So far I’ve seen just the neighborhood birds that stay here year round like Northern Cardinal, Chickadee, Tufted Titmouse, Blue Jay, Red-bellied woodpecker, Downy woodpecker, American Goldfinch, House Finch, Nuthatch and the pesky House Sparrow. I haven’t seen any visitors like Pine Siskin (Carduelis pinus) or Common Redpoll (Carduelisflammea) yet. The neighborhood population control officer, a Cooper’s Hawk and a Red-tailed Hawk, are also on regular patrol this time of year.
Today, the population is more condensed in the garden as the snow has been falling since early morning. They have learned that we are dependable at this time of year for food and water, so our garden becomes a gathering place during harsh weather. Here are some of them….
Spring is the busiest time in our own garden aviary. We have both resident aerialists that stay with us year round and the ones that travel back and forth from North to South America annually. Every spring we roll out the red carpet for them, helping them stay strong and nurturing a new generation. By the end of spring some of them already have a new extended family and are ready to start a second brood. Most of them are camera shy but some of them have become used to seeing me in the garden all the time…just another big funny looking deer to them.
This Eastern Bluebird (Sialia sialis) couple had three chicks. Yes, I checked. I patrol the bird houses in the garden to make sure that the House Sparrows (Passer domesticus) haven’t taken them over and to insure the Cowbirds haven’t laid their eggs in one of the nests. This pair ended up with one surviving chick. I witnessed one chick becoming a Bluejay (Cyanocitta cristata) lunch. I have no idea what happened to the other chick so I’m hoping it survived. They just had another brood, four newly hatched chicks, hopefully more than one will survive.
The Gray Catbird (Dumetella carolinensis) is one of the smartest and friendliest birds in our garden. They come back every spring and stay until late fall. We put oranges out as soon as we see the first one show up. They help keep the Japanese beetles under control. Their first brood, two chicks, have grown up and as far as I know one pair has started a nest in the front Forsythia bush.
All the books I have read indicated that Tree Swallows (Tachycineta bicolor) produce one brood a year in the Northern US but this pair by the vegetable garden are having a second one. Maybe because their first brood, three chicks in all, and their nest was destroyed by our neighbor’s cat. They didn’t give up and rebuilt the nest in the same box. We put a squirrel guard flange under the nest box this time to prevent the cat from getting to the nest. I haven’t peeked to see how many eggs they have. The good news is the Tree Swallow family that nested in the front yard produced five chicks and they have all fledged.
When we see the American Robin (Turdus migratorius) in the neighborhood that means spring is coming. A couple of pairs have nested in our garden each year. They help a lot by picking grubs off the lawn and gardens. Their first brood have all grown up now and they’ve already started a second one.
This House Wren (Troglodytes aedon) was building a nest she ended up nesting in. They have a habit of building a few dummy houses before they actually pick one. Five chicks from this nest had flown off. Two more pairs are singing and building nest in the garden now.
I don’t know where the Ruby-throated Hummingbirds (Archilochus colubris) nest but they are repeat annual visitors and we seem to have more of them every year. It’s fun to watch them doing their courting ritual; flying back and forth sideways like a pendulum- and when they take their dinner at dusk. Delicate and beautiful little birds that they are.
Rose-breasted Grosbeaks (Pheucticus ludovicianus) also stopped by to refuel this spring as usual before flying further north. They have a very distinctive and lovely song. I wish they would nest with us instead of just commuting through.
Yes, woodpeckers eats oranges along with a variety of things. They even eat small lizards upon occasion, though there are no lizards here. We were surprised to see one eating oranges we had put out a few years ago. The oranges were intended for the Baltimore Orioles and Gray Catbird but the orioles have never come down for it. We thought that only one particular Red-bellied was eating them, but more than one stops in regularly when they have active nests in the area.
They would eat for a while and at the end they would gather pulp, keep it between their beaks, and fly off, we presume for nesting youngsters.
There are some more avians around the garden this spring. The common ones like American Goldfinch, House Finch, American Tree Sparrow, Song Sparrow, Chipping Sparrow, Blue Jay, Red-winged Blackbird, Downey Woodpecker, Chickadee, Titmouse, Northern Cardinal….and with them around we don’t need pesticide. The down side is we see less butterflies due to caterpillars being invited to lunch, so to speak, but our garden is never without someone serenading somewhere in the premises.
I always love that period right after a rain or heavy storm, provided I don’t have to vacuum water out from our basement. The sky is clear and the air is clean; I can smell the freshness in it. It’s a very distinctive scent of life renewed. Plants shake off the shower that washed away dust and dirt from their leaves. Birds come out chirping and looking for food. Mother Nature has a way of cleaning her house; as much of a mess as we might have made, as fierce as she can be. She will also show us both her beauty and her kindness afterward.
I had a visit from a very shy bird, a Pileated Woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus), last weekend. It is the largest woodpecker around since the Ivory-billed (Campephilus principalis) is presumed extinct. It is a crow-sized woodpecker, with a 17″ long body and a wingspan around 29″, according to National Wildlife Federation Field Guide to Birds of North America by Edward S. Brinkley. I knew they were in the neighborhood since I could hear them knocking. Last year a mother took two chicks around to our garden a few times, but mostly they stay in the wooded areas away from people. Only the Downey Woodpeckers (Picoides pubescens) seem to prefer easy pickings like the feeders rather than banging their brains out on trees for sustenance. We have a lot of Downeys, more than we can count. Some of them even roosted in our birdhouses. The Red-bellied (Melanerpes carolinus) and the Northern Flickers (Colaptesauratus) are also common woodpeckers in the area. Only once in a while would the Pileated join their cousins in our garden. Last weekend was one of them.
With a very loud hammering sound high up on the tree, too loud to be mistaken for a small woodpecker, I looked up and tried to locate the origin. There he was, with a bright red Mohawk hairdo, hammering away at a tree trunk. I dropped everything, grabbed a camera, and followed him from branch to branch. He glanced at me from the above from time to time. I’m glad he is around and trusted me enough not to fly away as soon as he saw me. Here is a magnificent bird and some cousins. Hopefully they won’t follow the Ivory-billed down the extinction path.