Monday, August 25, 2008

Farewell Fluffy

Another tragedy, a very personal one, has struck the backyard, though ironically it is completely unrelated to the window collisions of the past. This summer, we have come to know a particular house finch whom we named Fluffy because of his preference to fluff his feathers at all times. Always smaller than his peers, Fluffy constantly sought the shade and seemed more suseptible to heat and distress than other birds. He would not flit away, and in fact would often sit drowsy and content near the feeders and birdbath. On several occassions, my husband was even able to fill the birdbath while Fluffy sat quietly in the shower, enjoying the wet.

This afternoon, after speaking to Fluffy and gently touching his feathers - which he permitted in his quiet way - I was forced to say goodbye to him. He'd flown up to the roof and nestled beneath the eaves of a window, again in the shade, but several minutes later he fell from the roof onto the patio. I was with him as he died, and we've taken care that no predators will benefit from his passing.

It is unfortunate that the birds we can most easily identify as individuals are also those who have the least likely odds of survival. Their charming characteristics often come from bizarre behavior, unnatural colorations, or other genetic aberrations that ultimately make them more vulnerable to predation and natural selection - Fluffy undoubtedly had such disorders that made him less able to adapt and react to his surroundings. For a few weeks, however, they bring joy and wonder to our backyards as we grow to know their personalities and observe their behavior, and it is with fondness tinged with inevitable sadness that we remember them. Farewell, Fluffy.

Clinging to Safety

As more and more birds frequent my feeders, the hazards of window collisions with our glass patio doors grow more insidious. To deter such tragic accidents, over the weekend I installed Whispering Pines window clings to the interior surface of the doors. Birds have a wider visual spectrum than humans, and the white clings will appear to them as white materials would to humans under black light -- the bright, glowing white is an unmistakable symbol that this surface is not passable. I chose the leaves pattern so it blends in well with my home and sense of aesthetics, though there are several bird patterns available as well. They are quick and easy to install, and I have already seen two birds -- a broad tailed hummingbird and a house finch -- flying toward the window yet veer away as they noticed the clings. Should this simple addition to my backyard bird habitat prevent even a single bird's demise, it is an investment well worthwhile.

There are, of course, other options to deter birds from hitting windows and glass doors, and I use several. The patio furniture is placed in front of one of the doors to minimize airspace where birds could gain enough momentum to cause themselves injury; any barriers like this can be helpful. Feeder placement is also crucial: a feeder or birdbath should ideally be placed no more than three feet from a window or glass door, or if it is further in the yard, it should be at least twelve feet away (further is better). The former placement restricts how much speed birds can gain before they would accidentally hit a window, and the latter placement gives them enough room to manuever and avoid obstacles once they are in flight.

I highly encourage all backyard birders to invest in some method of control to reduce window collisions and needless bird injuries; these simple adaptations can help save the lives of our avian friends.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

A Diversity of Guests

Two new visitors have made fleeting appearances at the hopper feeder's catch platform in the past few days. The first, several days ago, was a vibrant black headed grosbeak, easily identifiable by his distinctive orange hue, bold white markings, and characteristically scruffy appearance. While he did not linger, I was also able to distinguish his unusual bill shape and his fondness for cracking seeds with it. I am particularly thrilled at his visit because I'd hoped to attract an orange bird this summer, for no real reason other than they seem more vibrant yet less common at many backyard feeders in this area. Certainly the house finches with their orange color variants are a pleasant addition to my avian rainbow, but the black headed grosbeak is a truly orange species.

The second new visitor was even more fleeting, but for a few moments as I sat working at our patio table, I heard a hauntingly familiar stacatto call and moments later a black capped chickadee flitted to the feeder and snuck a few bites before flittering away. I haven't heard that call in years, for while these small yet hyper birds were common in the north woods where I frequently spend childhood summers, they are absent from the southeast where I lived for several years. I have seen them on some walks here in Utah, and I'm thrilled to have one as a guest at my backyard feeder, however brief the visit.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Migrations and Mutations

As most birds eventually migrate, so too have I for the past two months. While I returned to an earlier nesting ground of my own, I was able to observe many different species with vastly different behavioral patterns than those that flit through my backyard from time to time.

I saw a rare treat, an albino sparrow with creamy yellow coloring. Another sparrow conspicuously lacked a tail but had no trouble surviving on the richly abundant food sources available -- though I doubt they were the same nutritious fare that their wilder cousins would dine upon. I saw different species of birds take advantage of fountains, waterfalls, and lagoons to keep cool in the relentless summer heat. During nesting periods, birds of all species fiercely defended the territory they had deemed their own, regardless of the constant intrusions (and woe upon us whose necessary attire was mistaken for aggression). Fearless enthusiasm was rampant both among the birds and the humans who unwittingly increased their food supply through casual discards of fries, breads, and crackers.

Naturally, these birds and their antics are not part of my typical backyard observations, though I have enjoyed comparing the differences between the more aggressive, decadently fed birds in a less wild atmosphere and the equally entertaining birds that thrive in my growing sanctuary. While they are different species separated by hundreds of miles, the joy and determination they all find in life is identical. At times we all need a migration out of the ordinary to appreciate that.