Tuesday, March 2, 2004

The Birds Are Back in Town

As we near the end of winter and the beginning of spring, the parade of birds in my backyard have multiplied ten-fold. Actually, most birds never left—many of them make the wildlife of our backyard their permanent homes—but the migratory birds are beginning to make the first re-appearance. This year I am hoping to attract some bluebirds and some purple martins. Mosquitoes are the favored diet of the purple martin.

Mourning doves—as a group—are my favorite songbirds. Lucky for me, the mourning doves are year ‘round inhabitants to our area. During the spring they nest and raise their young in the pine trees that line our property. They pick a nice firm pine bough, throw a few pine needles on it and proceed to set up house. We have lost plenty of dove eggs because the wind really whips through our pine trees. Fortunately, the doves appear to have more than one brood each season. When I woke up this morning, there were at least 15 pairs of doves scratching for food in the bird feeding station. Their gray feathers were all sleeked back, and they all moved with a little hop and skip. Whenever one of the birds “spooks” at a noise, they all lift off in a sea of blue feathers; that sleek gray color turns into a sea of blue when the birds are in flight. Later the same day I checked the bird feeding station again, and all those doves were still there—roosting on the ground!

During the summer and fall, the doves patrol the garden edges, as well as flower bed borders. They prefer foraging the perimeter of a feeding area instead of plowing right to the middle. It is also during the summer that doves like to roost on the overhead power lines. It is not uncommon to come home from work late and find 40 to 50 birds quietly lining the power lines. Listening to the soft “coo” of the doves is a wonderful way to lower your blood pressure after a hard day’s work.

If mourning doves are my favorite musical bird, then the Cardinal is the most beautiful. Male or female, there is something about those red feathers that just makes you want to smile, especially during the winter, when the trees are bare. Cardinals are the first birds out in the morning and among the last ones seen at night. The male Cardinal always watches out for the female—who said chivalry is dead? Cardinals mate for life and you can always tell which two belong together. The female is able to forage for seeds while her mate is standing guard. This year I have been able to count eight pair of Cardinals in my backyard at one time.

Chick-a-dees, finches and wrens love thistles seeds and you can usually find them waving above the garden as they cling to a thistle flower or seed head. I purposely don’t clean up my gardens in fall and winter because they are so beneficial for the wildlife. I keep a special thistle feeder in the bird feeding station just for these birds. It is really fun to watch a finch hang upside down from a feeder to eat thistle seeds.

Of course, I have to mention my resident Blue Jay—he is so loud, he is hard to forget. Late afternoons are when Mr. Blue Jay makes his appearance—he must not be a morning person. He is great at running all other birds away from the feeding station. He usually starts on the Redbud tree in the side yard. Chirp, chirp, chirp! His cry is loud enough to wake the cats inside my house. After he has scared the other birds off, he heads to the feast. I have learned over the years that the Blue Jays prefer cracked corn and sunflower seeds, but he has to test every feeder, just in case someone changed the menu. The Blue Jay really is a beautiful bird, but I just can’t get past his rude behavior.

There is a red-tailed hawk that patrols the farm next to our home. He is a beautiful thing when he is soaring through the air! He makes his home in the fencerow bordering the property line; daily I see him sweep down through the bare tree branches. With the farmland next door to us and the brush piles I’ve created in the backyard, he has his choice of all types of food. I try not to think about the fact he may be eating the rabbits that burrow in our yard. Mice—he can eat all the mice and rats he can find. Talk about a natural exterminator.

About three weeks ago, I came home from work and as I pulled into the driveway, there was a young red-tailed hawk sitting on the ivy-covered utility pole anchor cable in my front flowerbed. I go so excited I stopped the car half in the road and half in our driveway. The care must have startled him, because he took flight and I watched until he was just a little speck on the horizon. Baby hawks—I love it! More hawks means less mice and voles.

This winter I have been reading up on birds in our area, trying to identify some of the other feather friends who fly in to visit, and I’ve been recording observations of the bird antics in my backyard. Birds are sometimes hard to photograph, but I have managed to get many shots from the windows. A zoom lens helps, but I usually end up with pictures of blurred birds or bare tree branches. I will sometimes only get three or four good pictures out of an entire roll of film. Keith is much better than me at photography; his photos are accompanying this article.

So, grab the kids, head outside and enjoy the last fleeting days of winter. Spring will be here soon enough, with Summer not far behind. Take these last few days to enjoy the cold crispness of the winter air. And while you’re bundled up, go watch the birds, take a few pictures, and thank God for the beautiful day.

© Bobbi Rightmyer, March 2004