Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Failing Vision

It is difficult for any birder to watch their feathered friends have difficulty and know there is nothing they can do to assist. As I discussed earlier, I've noted a harsh case of avian conjunctivitis with a female house finch, and another bird appears to be infected with the disease. In fact, the swelling around the eye is so pronounced it can be seen from a formidable distance, and this bird -- also a female house finch -- is unbalanced when hopping, landing, or perching. The other birds are aware of her condition and chase her away from the feeders. This may seem cruel, but in the end it is a defensive mechanism that can help inhibit the spread of the disease.

It is heartbreaking for birders to observe these less than ideal conditions, but it is just as crucial to remember that it is part of the cycle of the lives of all creatures. Just as humans ail, so do birds. By providing food, shelter, and water, we can help birds protect themselves and live long, healthy lives. Not all of the birds will be able to, but we can't let that dissuade us from enjoying a hobby that enriches both our lives and the lives of the birds who share it.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Urban Birds Contest

Many people mistakenly believe that to properly feed backyard birds, you must have a sizeable plot of land, extensive foliage, and a rural area suitable for many species, but nothing could be further from the truth. As my own landscaping endeavors demonstrate, if your backyard habitat features elements the birds need -- food, shelter, and water -- they will be happy to visit.

For example: while waiting for our planted seedlings to grow and provide adequate shelter, we have constructed an unobtrusive brush pile in an unseen corner beside our house that has become a favored hiding space for many small sparrows and finches. It may not look like much and the weeds have certainly flourished, but many times each day I see skittish flocks take wing directly to its ragged shelter. This is just one type of small and easy alteration anyone can make to help birds feel safe, secure, and welcome in the backyard.

If you have a favorite small green space for your urban backyard birds, share that idea with the Little Green Places contest sponsored by Celebrate Urban Birds. There are quite a few prizes available, and each entry offers a glimpse of different strategies that can be used to attract and shelter backyard birds, no matter where you live or what natural backyard features you may have. The contest runs through October 31, but the stories and ideas share can benefit backyard birds for many years.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Fall Flee

Just as the hummingbirds are beginning their long migrations, so too are other bird species vanishing from backyard feeders, but not all for the same reasons. During the fall, seed heads, fruits, and other food sources ripen, offering greater natural abundance in addition to the helping hands of humans. Because of this, it may seem that birds are less plentiful, but the truth is that they are exploring more culinary options than just mixed seeds and other treats offered at feeders. While some do take to the skies and won't return for months, others are merely expanding their epicurian tastes.

It is crucial that backyard birders do not abandon their feeding efforts at this juncture. Many of the birds who are still visiting feeders are storing seed -- either in caches or through layers of body fat -- for the coming cold, and others are eager to get quick energy sources as they pass through on their way to warmer winter homes. In preparation for winter, it is suitable for birders to slowly reduce the supplies of seed they offer as feeders are not emptied as quickly, but maintaining a good supply will give birds a reference and the knowledge that they can rely on these resources. If they know that, they will be welcome friends when winter's need strikes.

My own feeders are less frequented of late, though the lesser goldfinches, house finches, sparrows, and Eurasian collared doves are still steady guests, though perhaps in lesser numbers than weeks past. For however long they remain -- and I know a good few of them will not leave -- they will be welcome, as will be any friends who might be passing through our skies.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Fading Hum

Summer is quickly fading, as are the visits from the hummingbirds. Many hummingbirds migrate vast distances seasonally, and it appears they have moved on from their summer nesting grounds in Utah, or at least from this backyard. The nectar feeder has hung alone for more than a week without any discernible visits, and in just a few more days it will be time to take it down, clean it, and store it for winter.

Many hummingbird species are migratory through Utah, often more heavily so in the late summer than in the spring since they generally head north along the coast and then return south along the mountain ranges. This year we had a great number of hummingbirds, though fewer of the territorial roufous hummingbirds than last year. Particularly through the month of August they were feeding frequently, perhaps steeling themselves against their long flight to come.

The feeder will remain out for a few more days, perhaps until the end of the month, in case a late straggler is in need of a drink. Then away until the first sign of spring, when it will return to its hook from the rear gutter, ready to welcome the first humming arrivals. May their journeys be swift and safe, in all seasons.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Dinner Visit

What a difference being in the right position with different camera settings can make. Our juvenile sharp shinned hawk has returned -- frequently -- for dinner visits, though with poor success from our menu of finches and sparrows. There is a tree just over our property line that he tends to perch in, moving to the same spot on the fence occasionally for a better view. Still, the smaller birds can spot his immature, unrefined approach from enough of a distance to seek shelter quickly, and he's left without a bite.

Twice today he's visited, ironically once at lunch and once at dinner, neither time to any avail. With a clearer picture, however, there is no doubt remaining that he is a sharp shinned hawk. The pale stripe over his eye is clearly visible, a trait that is lacking in both adult species as well as juvenile cooper's hawks. The thinness of his legs is also startlingly apparent. Whereas some birdwatchers would find his appearance unwelcome and unattractive, I find him noble and graceful. It's a delightful treat to have him so near, though I will refrain from putting meat in the feeders; the buffet I set for the smaller birds is undoubtedly enough to supply food for all visitors, even if not in the way intended.

If you have trouble identifying your own hawks between these two species, I highly recommend the accipiter identification table and other resources from Project Feederwatch. Happy hawking!

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Aw, Nuts

Proof positive that western scrub jays are persistent birds: all summer, one particular jay has tried -- and been frustrated at his failure -- to cache a peanut in a small tree in the backyard. Frequently he'd try to position a nut correctly, only to watch it fall to the grass below, at which time he'd glare at it for a moment before retrieving it to hide in an easier location.

This week, however, his persistence paid off and for a few hours, one small nut was firmly wedged among the narrow branches and fluttering leaves. It took several minutes of hopping about the top of the tree and pounding on the nut to keep it steady, but he accomplished the feat. It is not his fault, certainly, that the first windstorm of autumn relocated the nut later that evening.

Watching the jays cache their nuts is fascinating. They will meticulously hide the nut among grasses, mulch, weeds, or other debris, even to the point of picking up stray pieces of grass or bark to cover it. They manage to hide them so effectively that even if I approach the area moments later, it can be difficult if not impossible to find the nut. Other jays, however, are more skilled at finding the nuts, and often I've watched one follow a sibling moments later to unearth what the first has just cached, usually amid much squawking and arguing.

At this point, there must be hundreds of peanuts hidden around the neighborhood lawns, flowerbeds, and indeed, even trees. Having watched these antics, we all know who to blame -- after all, I keep putting peanuts out each morning.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

A Sight for Sore Eyes

It is easy for backyard birders to believe that their flighty populations of eagerly eating guests are happy, healthy, and content, but unfortunately that is not always the case. With some birds, such as Fluffy, illness is apparent through listless, uncharacteristic behavior, while others may visually appear different yet act in no way apart from their peers. That is the case with another distinctive guest at my feeders, Cyclops.

That may seem a cruel name for a bird, but this female house finch suffers from Mycoplasma gallisepticum, better known as house finch eye disease or avian conjunctivitis. First reported in eastern house finch populations in 1994, the disease has spread to western populations and is highly contagious. Symptoms include:
  • Swollen or crusty eyes, possibly swollen shut
  • Excessive wiping of eyes (not beak) on branches
  • Respiratory distress, including coughs or sneezes
  • Disoriented behavior from lack of sight

As the birds grow ill, they have difficulty feeding and are more likely to become scruffy and scraggly, and will often fall prey to predators because they cannot see well enough to seek shelter when necessary to hide. They may seem more approachable at feeders, if only because they do not feel well enough to flee or cannot see well enough to recognize dangers.

Cyclops does not appear to suffer the more pronounced ill effects of this disease; she eats heartily and is as alert and active as her cohorts. While she does feed more frequently alone or away from other birds in the flock, she has no trouble fleeing from any sign of danger. The disease flares and recedes at times, as the swelling may become more or less pronounced. As yet I have not noted any other house finches affected, but the disease is highly contagious. To some birders, this may be a warning sign of failing house finch populations, but the proclivity of the birds precludes that and there is no need to fear that the population numbers will be drastically affected. There are precautions to take in one's backyard, however, including:

  • Regularly clean and disinfect all feeders -- inside and out -- to inhibit the spread of the disease. Tube feeders are especially apt to harbor bacteria because of the limited perching space. If infected birds are observed, clean feeders with a bleach solution of 1 part bleach to 9 parts water.
  • Clean beneath feeders frequently to remove infected seeds or droppings.
  • Remove any dead birds quickly, but do not bury them or dispose of bodies in areas where other birds may come into contact with the remains.
  • Space feeders widely to discourage crowding that could promote the spread of the disease.

I am following my own advice to protect my flock of house finches, I encourage all backyard birders to do the same to keep their own flocks healthy. For more information including additional pictures of infected birds, visit the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Hawk Revealed

Thanks to generous assistance both from CapeCodAlan and now Bill Fenimore, a well-respected Utah birder and owner of the Wild Bird store in Layton, my accipiter visitor has been throughly identified as a sharp shinned hawk. Some tidbits about this graceful bird of prey:
  • They feed by catching other birds on the wing.
  • They have quite thin legs, sometimes described as "pencil thin."
  • While they do migrate in other states, they are year-round residents in Utah.
  • They are the smallest of the accipiter family.
  • Their rounded wings and long tail make them extremely agile.

I hope to see him again soon, now that I know well what details to check, and with camera in hand to capture his poise and beauty. He's a rare treat, all the better for familiarity.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Who's the Hawk?

I have recently been paid a pair of puzzling visits by an as-yet-unknown hawk. He looks like he could be either a sharp shinned or a Cooper's hawk, but the two are so similar that identification is gravely challenging (see this lovely comparison by Project Feederwatch). At first glance he bears characteristics similar to both hawks, and it's maddening trying to ascertain which he really is. The only positive characteristic I can note is age; he has lighter colored, nearly yellow eyes, which according to CapeCodAlan of ebirdseed.com, indicates the bird is a juvenile.

His behavior also indicates inexperience. Twice in the past two weeks he has arrived with great fanfare at our backyard feeders, but neither time has he been successful in securing a meal. The first time he landed near the hopper feeder and waited there for a minute or two, stretching his wings and looking about as if wondering where the buffet had disappeared to. The second time, just this past weekend, I went to our patio doors to look out at the yard and he was perched on the platform feeder we keep just a few inches from the house. He stayed there for a period, eyeing me with caution but not concern.

Unfortunately, I have no superb pictures by which to determine a clear identification. I am wondering if indeed this is the same bird -- I believe so, but the first to visit may have been larger. CapeCodAlan believes he may be a sharp shinned hawk, and any fellow birders who have leads as to his identity are welcome to chime in; I'd love to know for certain who is preying in the backyard.

Which brings up the question of welcome. To some backyard birders, these birds of prey are most unwelcome -- our neighbors would prefer to chase him away when he frightens the smaller species. To me, however, it is a rare treat and privilege to have this unusual visitor grace my yard. And if, in doing so, smaller birds fall victim to his dives, then that too is a type of backyard birdfeeding. Perhaps not what I'd intended when refilling the seed feeders, but it is all part of the migration of life I'm happy to be a part of.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Jammin' About Jays

One of my very favorite bird species is also a very colorful backyard visitor: western scrub jays. Not only is their bright blue plumage with gray markings a vibrant addition to the backyard rainbow, but their stubborn and insistent personalities add colorful comedy to the regular interactions of all the species who regularly dine at my feeders.

Take this year's scrub jay family, for example. One has a rather noticeable white spot on its crown and is absolutely bold, not minding to come within inches of me as he seeks a favorite treat. Another, with a beak rather thicker than his cohorts, has a raucous call several decibels above what you'd normally hear in the backyard. Another has scruffier plumage and tends to be more reticent about approaching a feeder, particularly when a sibling is present. Each of these birds interacts in a characteristic way, often chasing one another or slyly secreting their cache in one spot while a sibling cleverly pilfers another cache recently stowed.

And their preferred foods? Peanuts, of course. Whole, in the shell nuts never last long in the small terra cotta dish I've dedicated as a peanut feeder. I buy a new bag of nuts (mine are roasted and salted as being the least expensive and most readily available, and they certainly don't mind) nearly every week, but if they aren't out on the table in the early morning or late afternoon I will certainly hear about it with screeches and angry calls. They're also apt to call if there aren't enough peanuts in the dish, though when a half dozen or more jays are scrambling to claim their share of the bounty, even a large handful doesn't last long. If the peanuts are not forthcoming, seeds from the platform feeder will do, but I've learned just how favored peanuts truly are -- once, seeing a scrub jay scrabbling around in the feeder to load up on seeds, I hurried to put out a handful of peanuts. He was grateful, and indeed he flew right over to the patio table to choose a choice nut. Before selecting a nut, however, he bent over and spit out all the seeds he'd just taken from the feeder, squawked at me (a reprimand for not having peanuts available in the first place?), and flew off with a nut. I guess jays don't have the best table manners.

One cannot doubt their intelligence, however. The jays that frequent my backyard have learned to recognize me and they're also familiar with the peanut replenishment schedule. If I'm out on the patio - usually typing away - and there are not peanuts to be had, one will land on the gutter and softly "murp" at me to remind me that they're not the most patient of birds. I, of course, oblige, proving that I'm perfectly trained and a capable protector of peanuts for a flock of hungry jays.
I wouldn't have it any other way.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Sunny September

Temperatures are falling and gardens are ripening, including a bird garden patch in the backyard. That birds love sunflower seed is no surprise, but while they may enjoy dry seed offered in a feeder, they're positively ecstatic over fresh seeds ripening on the plants. In the spring, I initially planted thirteen sunflower seeds -- simply picked from a random bag of birdseed -- and with regular waterings, eleven of them sprouted and grew into generous plants with multiple seeding flower heads. In addition to the seeds I planted, two more plants grew at the side of the driveway where random seeds blew during summer storms.

The largest heads measures more than twelve inches in diameter and have hundreds of seeds for the birds to enjoy. Because of their weight, the largest heads bow and become virtually unreachable, even for the most agile birds. To offer them as special treats, every few days I clip off the flowers and set them on the concrete wall so the birds can easily access them. It certainly doesn't take long for them to discover the heads and strip them as clean as the feeders. House finches, sparrows, and scrub jays have all partaken from the garden, and the smaller birds are particularly adept at finding seeds. In preparation for next spring, I have already chosen the plumpest seeds from one of the largest heads and have stored them in a glass jar in a dry, dark area to keep them safe for future planting.

Growing these sunflowers has an additional benefit for the birds. The plants grow quickly and with enough strength for the birds to land upon them, providing summer cover and shelter among a rich feed source. This is why I've not trimmed the plants and won't until all the seed heads have been removed. For as long as possible, I want the birds to be able to enjoy this autumn bounty of delicious seeds, and they're certainly doing their best to ravish the feast. This is a simple project anyone can do at the side of a flowerbed, in a garden, or even in a planter, and its rewards are generous. The birds can enjoy the bounty, and the birdwatchers enjoy not only beautiful flowers and the company of birds, but also a selection of fresh, free seed to nourish their flocks. The sun may be setting on summer, but it's just rising on the harvest for backyard birders.