Posts Tagged ‘sparrows’

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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Action at the feeder

What an exciting day at the feeder! I didn’t have to work this morning, so I devoted extra time to the Great Backyard Bird Count—and it was definitely worth it. I saw 23 different species, including some I don’t see every day, such as the red-breasted sapsucker, white-crowned sparrow, and pine siskin. Most of the regulars showed up. No bushtits today, unfortunately—I was hoping to get a picture of them swarming the feeder. But lots of others, including a new bird for my life list: the Eurasian collared dove. A flock of about ten landed in a nearby tree and then began dropping, one by one, down to the ground under the feeder. I had to look them up in my bird book, but once I did, the identification was simple. I just wish I had my camera out then!

The birds seemed especially feisty today. (Was it something they ate??) Little birds flitted in and out of the feeders, regular as widgets on an assembly line: juncos, sparrows, finches, nuthatches, chickadees. As I tried to get an accurate count, they played musical chairs, and I could never be certain if the new individual I saw was really the same one I had just counted on the other side of the bush.

Starlings tried to dominate the suet feeder, but the flicker shouldered them out of the way. Two starlings got into a squabble, rolling around on the ground together, pecking at each other, until both took off to other places.

Scrub jay gathering nuts

Then came the jay wars. The jays had been getting along, but then I tossed a bunch of birdseed on the ground. The nuts in it seemed especially attractive to the jays. The scrub jay came in and jammed 2-3 nuts in its mouth, then flew off to eat them. It came back to find a Steller’s jay moving in on its lunch. The scrub jay chased the Steller’s jay, which tried to elude the attacker by flying into the middle of the dogwood tree. Every time it landed, the scrub jay went after it again. The two did loop-the-loops through the tree, until the Steller’s jay gave up and flew off. For a bit. As soon as the scrub jay crammed its mouth and took off to eat, the Steller’s jay returned, this time with reinforcements. The two Steller’s jays gobbled up nuts as fast as they could. No flying off to eat for them; much too inefficient. When the scrub jay returned for seconds, it was not pleased. It chased one Steller’s jay and then the other. The smart Steller’s just waited for the scrub jay to take off with its mouth full and returned yet again. Finally an uneasy peace settled in—perhaps the nuts were gone by then and there was nothing to fight over.

Fun times at the bird feeders! I can hardly wait for tomorrow.

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Hungry Birds

Chestnut-backed chickadee and underside of red-breasted nuthatch

The birds are hungry today. I barely got the suet feeder hung back up before they came swarming in, filling the dogwood tree with their chirps and twitters. First three or four chickadees–chestnut-backed and black-capped. Then a red-breasted nuthatch, floowed by a pair of kinglets.

Red-breasted nuthatch

I rushed inside to get my camera. The kinglets had left, but new birds kept arriving–a song sparrow, a couple house finches, a flicker, a scrub jay, juncos. They swept in and out of the tree and the feeders faster than my camera could catch them.

Black-capped chickadee

Grab a sunflower seed and fly off to eat it; peck a bit of suet, then zip away. In and out of the autumn-colored dogwood they went, as my frantic camera clicked. Hungry birds getting ready for the winter.

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I first noticed the little bird hopping about in the dogwood tree near the suet feeder. One of my usual visitors, a chestnut-backed chickadee flew past it to grab some suet. And then the fun began. The new little bird began chasing the chickadee. From one side of the tree to the other. Then to a nearby bush. And finally the poor chickadee escaped to the brush across the yard.

Apparently satisfied, the new bird settled in to peck at the suet, then look for insects in the tree. What was it? Not the usual junco or house sparrow. Small, in winter colors, hard to identify from quick flashes through the branches. I watched more closely until I saw a flash of yellow. Ah. The yellow at the base of the tail was a dead giveaway: the yellow-rumped warbler. Formerly known as Audubon’s warbler, but merged with the myrtle warbler into one species. (I hate it when they do that, and I have to learn new names.)

The chickadee returned. The warbler chased it again. Up, down, around, until the chickadee again retreated. Each time that little chickadee tried to return, the warbler went crazy. And yet juncos and house sparrows munched on sunflower seeds nearby, totally ignored by that warbler. What did it have against chickadees? Was there prejudice among birds? I never did figure it out. Eventually I crept out to try to get a photo of the warbler with the yellow backside, but it would not cooperate. Warbler and chickadee both disappeared into the gathering dusk. Another one of nature’s little mysteries.

(not my photos)

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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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View from my window

Restless, I sit in front of my computer, reading essay after essay, assigning what I determine to be the correct score. Working. Outside my window, thin white clouds slide across the pale winter blue sky. In front of them a cedar stands tall and green, and stretching maple branches form shapely patterns against the blue and white. The icy East wind has died down. A junco swoops past, into the holly tree, white outer tail feathers flashing. Two robins land in the maple. I squirm in my chair and stretch my legs.

 Shadows lengthen. Darkness will fall before my shift ends and I am free to leave my computer for the day. But I still have one break remaining. I pull on a warm coat and step outside to fill the bird feeder. The air chills my face, and I have to break a thin layer of ice on the bird bath. By the time I get back inside and hang up my coat, a golden-crowned sparrow, a song sparrow, and two spotted towhees are pecking at seeds I tossed on the ground, soon joined by a black-capped chickadee at the feeder and another song sparrow on the ground. My offering is appreciated. Refreshed, I return to my work. Only an hour to go!

(written in December, 2009)

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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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