Sunday, April 27, 2008

Adding to the Menagerie

A new visitor has appeared at the feeders with a vengeance: Cassin's finches. At first, they appear similar to the common house finches, but they have several distinct characterisitics that help with their identification. While house finches have a red forehead and red wash along their buff chests, Cassin's finches have a much brighter, more sharply defined red forehead and crown, while the red wash on their chests is less noticeable. House finches are streaked along their bellies, while Cassin's finches are not, though Cassin's finches have stronger, sharper markings along their backs, particularly the females.

Behavior-wise, the Cassin's finches appear to prefer platform or ground feeding with equal abandon, though they don't much care for the narrow tube finch feeders that the house finches happily balance on. Cassin's finches are also bolder and less skittish than many other of the backyard species currently enjoying my buffet, and they get along relatively well with other species, demonstrating less of the aggressive, territorial behavior some other birds exhibit.

There appears to be at least four pairs of Cassin's finches that have discovered my backyard sanctuary, and they're all welcome. According to my birding resources, the better the food supply the more that will attend, so in days to come there may be quite a flock present. The more the merrier!

Friday, April 25, 2008


Sadly, feeding the birds is not always pleasant. Today, during the evening dinner rush, a female sparrow tragically collided with our patio door (plain glass), and seemed to break her neck in the collision. She didn't suffer, certainly, but the accident puts a pall on the joys of backyard birdfeeding. All backyard birders should be aware of the consequences of both highly reflective and clear windows -- both can be lethal for birds. They may be unaware the the window is there if it is so clear they can see through it, or they may see trees and plants reflected in the window that they believe they can fly to.

Studies indicate that as many as 100 million or more birds may perish as a result of window and building collisions each year, either immediately from the impact or shortly thereafter from injuries received during the collision. To prevent these accidents, backyard birders can do many things, including...
  • Using soap, tape, whitewash, stickers, or other reflectors to break up the expanse of glass so birds are aware of the window. CollidEscape is a material that creates the appearance of a solid wall without obstructing the view - it is more expensive, but well worth the investment.
  • Keeping feeders either very close to windows or greater than 10 feet from windows - if the feeders are close, birds can't gain the momentum necessary for an injury collision, and if the feeders are further away, they can avoid the glass more easily.
  • Install exterior shutters, blinds, or netting to keep birds from contacting the glass. This has the distinct drawback, however, of obstructing the view and keeping you from enjoying the pleasures of winged visitors.
  • Keeping windowscreens on windows throughout the year. While this cannot prevent collisions with patio doors, it can prevent window collisions.

I plan on installing CollidEscape as soon as possible to prevent other such accidents. It won't bring back the sparrow that has been lost, but today has been a lesson that won't be forgotten. For more information about bird window collisions and preventing such tragedies, I recommend this article from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology as well as a detailed account from WildBird Magazine.

Fly free, little sparrow.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Golden Spring

Spring is golden, and so are the most recent visitors to the feeders: a pair of lesser goldfinches. While their spring coloring can be just as vibrant as the more familiar American goldfinch, their markings are a bit more blurred though no less distinctive. The surprise I've found is that they are happy to be guests at the platform feeder as well as the perching finch feeders.

When I blend seed, I typically use one part wild bird mix (the doves prefer most of those seeds), four parts black oil sunflower seeds, and one-half part niger or thistle seed, since the house finches are wildly attracted to the perching tube feeders despite the fact that they are just a shade too large for comfortable perching. Much to my astonishment, the lesser goldfinches have enjoyed probing on the platform feeder to find the niger seed that spills there.

You can see the size difference between the two species quite clearly, though both have voracious appetites and the feeders empty rapidly when they share the honors of dining at the backyard buffet. On the left is a female house finch, precariously balanced, and on the right is a male lesser goldfinch, eagerly enjoying the same treat. While the goldfinches can typically perch for long periods of time and nibble continuously, the house finches tend to perch briefly when they can maintain a few seconds of balance, snatch a bite or two, before fluttering to regain their position. They can be quite territorial and aggressive when feeding at the perches, particularly when larger numbers of birds vie for the same choice tidbits, though having added multiple tube feeders this year seems to have diminished the competition. Perhaps adding niger seed to the hopper mix has also helped foster cooperation between the species and bring everyone peacefully to the table.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Endangered Species

This blog will be an endangered species for some time to come, as other life matters intrude on my love of backyard birding. Nonetheless, I still plan on progressing with the work to create a bird sanctuary, however slowly.

I have continued to build a brush pile to provide interim shelter and safety to winged visitors, gleaning a wide variety of sticks and scraps from other people's spring prunings. Thus far, some birds have visited the brush pile, even seeking it out to hunt for insects. The other landscaping work, however, is seeing less progress as the estimates came in too far above budget to be accepted comfortably. Instead, we plan on doing much of the preliminary work ourselves in preparation for professional labor in about a year. This will also give us more time to plan the layout for the feeder island and specific plantings we are interested in, and it's better to take it slow and do it properly than to rush and be unhappy.

As spring progresses, more species have reappeared. The mourning doves have returned, and the first California quail was pecking about on the patio recently, eagerly searching for scattered seeds. The quail are most amusing to watch, with their butterball physique, skittish mannerisms, and perfectly straight running tracks when spooked. There are quite a few quail in the neighborhood, and hopefully more of them will be visiting soon. They enjoy scratching in the mulch for different seeds, and I'm happy to spread more to give them their favorite treats. The western scrub jays are still absent, but I have spotted them out in the neighborhood recently and in another week or two I'll put out the peanuts in the shell they love so much to hoard (I found four recently while working in the flower beds), so hopefully they'll be happy to return as well.

It is ironic that just as there is more to write about with regards to backyard birding, there is less time to craft the words. Much better to be out and enjoying the visitors while making their stay more pleasant, but updates will come when they are able. We all need to spread our wings, shake our feathers from the winter laziness, and take flight into spring!