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Male junco under the feeder

Male junco under the feeder

Autumn is officially here and winter on the way. I can tell because the juncos have returned. I saw them on our morning walk, white outer tail feathers flashing as they flew up from the ground to hide in the bushes and lower tree branches. They used to be called Oregon juncos, but now they are stuck with the duller-sounding name of dark-eyed juncos. More accurate, I suppose, as their range is much wider than just Oregon. Still, being a lifelong Oregonian, I preferred the earlier name.

Female junco eating seeds under the feeder

Female junco eating seeds

These sweet little birds spend the warmer half of the year farther north or up in the mountains. Sometimes when my husband and I hike on Mt. Hood in the summer, I hear their quiet little chips in the brush or see those flashing tail feathers as they flee our presence. Black/gray heads—depending upon whether they are male or female—and gray/brown bodies: the rest of them is pretty nondescript. But those tail feathers give them away every time.

Male dark-eyed junco in dogwood tree

Male junco in dogwood tree

Juncos are ground feeders. They hop about under our seed feeder, picking up what the other birds and squirrels knock out of the feeder, along with the seeds I purposely throw on the ground. They sleep in the bushes. Unlike some birds we get at the feeder, they get along well with each other and never cause any trouble. Such patient, considerate, and peaceful birds. We could use a few more juncos in this crazy world of ours.

Vine maple with bright autumn leaves

Vine maple in autumn

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snowy woodsThe first tiny flakes danced and twirled across the sky like dust blown by the East Wind. After awhile they began to settle into little drifts in sheltered areas where the wind couldn’t blow them about. By evening the wind died down, but the snow kept coming, covering the brown winter earth with a cool blanket.

snow on cedar

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Morning light reflected off the whiteness, all fresh and new. I ventured out before work–glad that I work at home–to take pictures and enjoy the magic. It rarely lasts long around here. We threw out extra sunflower seeds for the birds (and nuts for the jays and squirrels), trying to find places where the seeds wouldn’t just sink into the soft snow. The flower boxes on our porch worked pretty well, once the little sparrow types noticed.junco in the flower box

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

ice-covered twigs

Then came the ice. Sleet, then freezing rain, coating everything within its reach. The fluffy snow gained a crunchy coating. Every twig and bud became encased in crystal. And again the birds gathered–the shrieking Steller’s jays, varied thrushes, flocks of juncos and sparrows of various types, energetic chickadees, and, of course, the squabbling starlings. Two Anna’s hummingbirds chased each other in and out of the porch area, battling for control of the hummingbird feeder. It was quite a show!ice-covered azalea buds

 

Life goes on in the snow and the ice. And I watch as the fire in the woodstove merrily crackles and pops, and water for tea heats up in the kitchen.  Beauty comes with the cold, but I’m still glad that I’m not a bird.

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Steller's jay  This past weekend was the annual Great Backyard Bird Count. Whenever I could find the time, I stood by the window, looking out at the dogwood tree that holds a seed feeder, suet feeder, and bird bath. The GBBC asks participants to count the birds at their feeders–or in their backyards. Then you enter your count at their site, and it can be compared with thousands of others from around the world. The number to enter for each species is the greatest number you can see at one time. Sounds easy, right? Well, it is when it comes to the big birds–the jays, crows, woodpeckers, and those nasty starlings. The little birds are another story completely.Bushtit flock

First there are the chickadees. First, because they show up at the feeder before I can even get it hung up in the morning. However, chickadees are perpetual motion machines, never staying in one place for more than a few seconds. And we have two species of chickadees. Try to get an accurate count of those little guys as they whip in and out of the trees and feeders! The bushtits aren’t much easier, although they are awfully cute for plain, little gray birds.

BushtitThen there are the sparrows and related little birds. Juncos, finches, etc. All kind of brown, perhaps with some stripes. House sparrows, house finches, golden-crowned sparrows, white-crowned sparrows… A person could get dizzy trying to keep up. At least the towhees are easy to tell apart from the others. And the lone varied thrush that pecks quietly at the seeds on the ground.downy woodpecker and starling

And how about those birds that show up the day before the GBBC and then disappear, only to reappear the day after. The stinkers! And that single Eurasian collared dove that dropped in for the first time the day after. Why couldn’t it have come a day early? Is it really cheating if I add a couple of birds from the next day?? Then there’s that leucistic sparrow-type bird. If anyone can tell me what it is, please do. I am not quite certain.

leucistic sparrow-type birdTime to turn in my lists and add my tiny bit of data to the Great Backyard Bird Count. It is nice to be a part of such a great program–even if the birds don’t always cooperate.

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The annual Battle of the Blueberries is in full swing–and the birds are winning. Every July it happens. My blueberries begin to ripen, and the bird hordes arrive to strip them from the bushes at the slightest hint of blue. And every year I fight back, but my efforts are not always successful.

The first few years we lived here, all was peaceful. The berries ripened, I picked them, we ate them–and made wonderful pies and jams and sauces–without incident. For some undetermined reason, the birds left them alone. Then one year, it began. My first clue was that the berries did not seem to be ripening. I would go out to check and see just a few slightly red berries. A couple days later, still just a few reddish berries. I was a bit slow, but I finally realized that those red berries were not the same ones as before, and that little empty stems marked where other berries had been. Birds! Now I happen to be a birdwatcher. I love birds and don’t mind sharing my berries with them. But they were eating ALL my blueberries. And so the war began.

Note the partially eaten berry on the right.

I read that shiny things would scare birds away, so I hung can lids from strings, dangling where the wind would move them and the sun glitter off them. The berries continued to disappear. I tried hanging the lids in pairs, so they could bang against each other in the breeze. No luck. I bought shiny ribbon made especially for scaring birds away and festooned my berry bushes with it. The robins and sparrows and starlings–especially the starlings–seemed to enjoy the new party decorations right along with the refreshments.

Finally I went for the netting. The only sure way to keep birds out of the berries, I was told. Expensive, yes, but it would be worth it. And for a while, it worked. I couldn’t afford enough to cover all my berries, but I covered 3/4 of them and left the rest for the birds. Everybody was happy–except maybe the starling flock that couldn’t get enough from those few open bushes. But I’m not a big fan of starlings anyway. Once again, I made blueberry pie and jam and cobbler, and I was content.

My netted blueberry bushes

Until this year. For some reason–perhaps because the cherry crop was light and the blackberries are late ripening–the birds seem particularly voracious this year. Not just the starlings either, but robins, sparrows, and a new family of black-headed grosbeaks. All are out to eat my berries. And the netting no longer works. It may be partially because the bushes have grown. The netting isn’t long enough to go from the ground on one side to the ground on the other side, so there is an open space under the netting, and it seems to be an open invitation to the birds. Today I set out to battle, armed with a stack of twist ties. I fastened the netting together underneath the part of the bushes where the berries were. I worked until only small gaps remained, gaps that could not be closed due to the shape of the bushes. Yet surely it would be enough. An hour later I walked out to the berries to discover one sparrow, one juvenile robin and two juvenile black-headed grosbeaks inside the netting. Of course, they had more trouble getting out than getting in, so I had to herd them gently toward the largest opening I could see. Finally they were out…for the moment.

Note bird droppings inside netting. sigh.

I fear the Battle of the Blueberries is lost. This year is unlikely to see even one blueberry pie. My only hope now is that the wild blackberries will suddenly ripen and draw away the starving birds. My rather weak consolation: with all the antioxidants they are eating, we should have the healthiest birds in the neighborhood.

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What is it about little birds that intrigues me so?

 Saturday I went outside to look for birds for the Great Backyard Bird Count. As I headed toward our little one acre woods, walking carefully over the damp grass, all seemed quiet. I entered the woods between alders and brown blackberry vines and stopped to scan the trees and bushes. A bit of movement caught my eye, and I raised my binoculars.

There! A little grayish bird darted from branch to branch. What could it be? I finally got it in my sights. It turned its head my way, flashing the yellow and red marks atop its head. A golden-crowned kinglet! Soon it was joined by a second kinglet. The two flitted from tree to tree, looking for insects on the branches. Such beauty in a small energetic creature.

 Big birds can be majestic—an eagle soaring high above or a snow white egret rising from a lake. Little birds often slip unnoticed through the trees and bushes, and may be hard to identify. “Little brown jobs,” they call those small birds that look so much alike. And yet I like those birds, even the gray or brown ones that get so little respect—the sparrows, the juncos, and those flocks of bushtits that swarm the suet feeder like big gray bumblebees. Each type of bird has its own special character, its own niche in the world.

Black capped chickadee

 I suppose I feel a kind of kinship with small birds. If I were a bird, I am sure I would be a “little brown job.” (There is a reason I named this blog “Sparrow Thoughts.”) I tend to blend into the crowd, to slip unnoticed through life with little recognition beyond my own small circle. And that’s okay. If someday the borders of my little woods expand, and I reach a wider audience, that would be great. If not, well, I’ll just continue to be a little brown bird, getting a little grayer every day…

 What are your favorite birds—and why?

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Garden before weeds

Garden before weeds

We returned from a short camping trip, and I went out to pick a few lingering zucchini and tomatoes. The garden has more weeds than vegetables now. Every year I vow to keep ahead of the weeds; every year, they win out. I turn my back for a few days—kept away by hot weather or vacation—and they stage a coup. It always amazes me how quickly an orderly garden can degenerate into a jungle.

As I pass our few fruit trees, I see pears scattered on the ground. I should have canned them, but I didn’t. The house we planned to paint this summer still carries its faded and chipped coat of green. In our neck of the world, summer ends in three days. And I know that just as many chores await me inside–everything from house cleaning to writing assignments.

I hear a sparrow sing from a nearby bush. How simple life must be to a sparrow. It looks for food every day, builds a nest and lays eggs in the spring (if a female), feeds the young until they can feed themselves, and sings to announce its territory (if a New World male). Of course, it must also avoid predators, and finding food could be difficult at times. I’m not saying its life is easy, just simple.

A sparrow never worries if the neighbor has a better nest. It doesn’t have to spend years in singing school or nest-building school (or pay for its children to do so). Whatever instinct doesn’t cover, it learns by watching its parents. While there may be some individualism in songs, the sparrow doesn’t worry that it won’t find a job if another sparrow sings better than it does. It doesn’t concern itself with being a role model or contributing to the community. Because it has no possessions, apart from the nest, the legion of chores that awaits me has no meaning for the bird.

Of course, I could simplify. I could trim my possessions, drop outside commitments that drain my time, and concentrate my energies on what is really important. Live a little more like a sparrow. Yeah, I think I’ll put that on my “to do” list. I’ll get on it right after we finish painting the house and cleaning up the garden…

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The Sparrow and the Moth

A movement caught my eye as I stood in my son’s kitchen. A female house sparrow hopped frantically up and down the screen of the sliding glass door, pecking madly. What on earth was she doing? Looking more closely, I saw a moth trapped between the glass and the screen. It fluttered about in the cramped space, managing to evade the sparrow so intent upon capturing it. The sparrow grew increasingly frenetic, her wings beating against the screen as she tried to find footholds and keep up with the elusive insect. After a minute or two, a male house sparrow—the mate, no doubt—joined her. The two of them jumped about crazily on the screen. Still the moth escaped them. Finally, the birds gave up and flew off across the garden in search of an easier meal.

I’ve felt like that little sparrow at times, frantically trying to reach some goal that seemed just beyond my reach, working so hard I barely had time to catch my breath. So close and yet… The sparrows gave up. It was, after all, just a moth. Among the gardens in the neighborhood, there would be plenty of other insects and seeds to feed them; this one moth was not worth the effort. And that should be my question when I find myself caught up in the mad pursuit of some dream or objective: is it worth it? Sometimes I will agree with the sparrows: this objective is not worth the price I have to pay, or perhaps the chance of obtaining it is too remote to bother. Other times, I may disagree. The goal may be so important that I know I must pursue it with everything I have to give, and that, even if I fail, it will have been worth the effort. And how do I answer that question? For me, it can only be through much thought and much more prayer.

As for that trapped moth, we set it free, hoping that it would not go out to feast on anyone’s vegetable garden. Whether it ever met up with those sparrows again is a question I cannot answer.

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