Bird Manners


Watching birds at the feeder outside the kitchen window is still our favorite pastime and continues to yield more information as the years go by. This spring we watched a drama unfold that I would not have believed if I had only read it somewhere. Our kitchen window faces out on a patch of woodland, and we can see, especially with binoculars, a number of nesting sites in the trees beyond the bird feeder.  One tree trunk cavity, about 20 feet high in an oak tree, has always been home to a pair of nuthatches. Last winter, two red squirrels took over the apartment and I was sure that would be the end of the nuthatches at that location. Even up into spring, we could watch them carrying what looked like nuts or acorns into their hole while I wrathfully muttered obscenities in their general direction.

The drama that then unfolded started in a tree close by. Red bellied woodpeckers took over a hole in that tree and ferociously guarded it when fox squirrels (of which we have a small army) approached. I always thought the squirrels won these encounters but not so. At the same time, a pair of nuthatches began to hop around the hole that the red squirrels had taken over. A week later, they were entering the hole and emerging with tufts of leaves and other debris in their beaks, which they would stick into the bark of the tree trunk above and below the hole. I have no idea what they were doing, but soon the squirrels were gone and the nuthatches back in business.

We searched the bird books and found only this passage about white-breasted nuthatches in A Field Guide to Birds’ Nests: “Nesting in large cavities in tall trees puts this species in competition with squirrels. Strange behavior called ‘bill sweeping’ …. may be a territorial defense mechanism. Both [male and female] engage in prolonged (several minutes) sweeping of bill in a wide arch inside and outside cavity, generally with insect held in bill. Unproven theory is that crushed insects may repel squirrels…”

I have a hard time believing that, but I would have thought that nuthatch mommas would not be able to chase away squirrels even if armed with pink pistols. Whatever is happening, it is more evidence that nature has ways to maintain the variety of species. Nuthatches can run off squirrels. We have also noticed that bluebirds nesting in a cavity high up in a hickory tree nearby defend it successfully from starlings and squirrels. My books don’t mention that detail either. Does anybody know what’s going on here?

At the feeder, we have observed that some birds are more polite than others. Blue jays are very rude to the other birds but when the red bellied and redheaded woodpeckers drop in for a bite or two, they send the brazen jays flying. Cardinals seem to be the only larger species to allow the small birds to alight and eat right beside them. Cardinal males are very gallant, often taking a seed in their beaks and feeding it to their mates. The smaller downy and hairy woodpeckers are almost as feisty as the red bellies. Chickadees and tufted titmice are the most timid but quicker than lightning so they get in and get out of the feeder with a seed in their beaks before the larger birds can stop them.

The way birds (and all wildlife) adapt to new situations always amazes me. The lid to our hummingbird feeder of sugar water is cuplike on top, so a bit of rainwater gathers there. The goldfinches have learned this and after eating awhile, fly up on the hummingbird feeder and get a drink of water.

Being a pessimist, I am forever fearful that the number and variety of birds at the feeder is diminishing, only to be pleasantly surprised in another year. In the past, a rose-breasted grosbeak would occasionally come to the feeder. Then none came until this year when three pairs were frequent guests. Even more dramatic, only in the last year have we ever had big pileated woodpeckers in our tree grove. They don’t come to the feeder to be sure, but drum away in the woods. I don’t think the world is about to end just yet.


Birds do indeed have a lot of chutzpah when it comes to standing up to squirrels and other four-legged creatures.

On a beautiful late Spring day many years ago, I once watched a squirrel harangued and terrorized by a couple of the small brown common sparrows very common where I worked. Out of nowhere –as I wasn’t paying attention, and neither was the squirrel– these sparrows came darting down and pecking at the squirrels who was caught by surprise as much as I did. For the next 10 minutes the poor squirrel scampered to and fro with nowhere to hide. Given it was a small sapling, there wasn’t much branching for him to scamper on there so he had to take a chance on the open landscape. And boy he had it rough.

At one point he got close to where I was and I could see his little chest thumping so hard, his little heart screaming to break free, he was so terrified. He went under a parked car but the noise and darting about from the sparrows was so much he didn’t feel safe and took his chances to run 150 yards away to a much bigger tree whose branches touched other evenly spaced trees, all the while being pecked and screamed at by the sparrows.

This was in Queens New York mind you. In the parking lot of the Bulova building that at the time I worked there houses a number of corporate offices but which made precision watches for bombers during WWII.

So, if you haven’t being there, imagine a de-natured asphalt landscape with very few mature trees along the leading perimeter of the property and a few saplings around the building itself.
Now you can imagine the little squirrel in a real bind with no ground cover to duck under and very few cars in the parking lot on this particular day. Being Queens, it isn’t as asphalted or crowded as NYC proper as the Bulova building is along a major highway and the rear faces a neighborhood of mostly one-two family houses but all is cement and asphalt with the usual tree every few meters for decorative purposes.

It was phenomenal to learn such little birds can take care of themselves so well. After that I never missed a walk around the building during lunch or a break. Nature, give it a chance and it can always show you a glimpse of something amazing even in crowded/cemented/asphalted New York city.

Our bird feeder was mounted on a pole about twenty feet from our living room window. It attracted a lot of nuthatches, chickadees, woodpeckers, cardinals and finches. Also crows. The small birds would be eating and the a murder of crows would noisily settle in the trees around, then start harassing what smaller birds had stayed. One day I was watching the racket out the window when a couple of crows were going after a chickadee. The little one kept coming back, the crows kept dive-bombing it. Finally, the chickadee landed on the feeder again, a crow swooped in after it, and the little one flew straight at me, the crow in hot pursuit. About an inch from the window pane the chickadee veered away. The crow smacked into the window. it limped off after laying stunned for a second or two on the balcony.
I swear the chickadee was laughing. So were the crow’s buddies.

I don’t know about their manners, but the acorn woodpeckers in our neck of the woods aren’t very observant. They drill a hole in a board and stuff in an acorn, come back later with another and shove it in the same hole. After a couple of repetitions of the process, the first acorn is pushed clear through and falls on the ground underneath, where the ground squirrels — who have been hanging around for just this occurrence — snatch it and run off. Woodpeckers do all the work and squirrels get all the goodies…

Maybe nesting birds are like broody hens when you try to get an egg from underneath them when they don’t want you to–or like human moms with a surge of adrenalin when their young are threatened? In either case, the smaller often can fend off the larger when their home turf and young are threatened.

Pileated woodpeckers were also at our suet feeder for the first time last winter. They are beautiful but heavy feeders. Both large and small downy woodpeckers have always been very common,along with nuthatches, chickadees, titmice, pine siskins, etc. I got to thinking
that maybe the pileated woodpeckers are on the increase thanks in part to the emerald ash borer infestation. We have a lot of ash back in our woods, none of which seems to be succumbing to this pest. If these beautiful birds are responsible for the survival of even few of the ash trees, it will really be an example of all the parts of nature working together to the benefit of all.
Rose breasted grosbeaks have been common here for a long time, but what I miss are the Evening grosbeaks, with their pretty yellow and black feathers to brighten the winter. Maybe in time nature will bring them back to us.
Now in retirement, I have constructed a sturdy ‘Grandpa’s Bench’ between two river birch trees back in the woods by the creek. When I’m not watching grandkids playing in the creek, I have time to watch the constantly changing scenes on ‘Nature TV’. Sure beats anything on the other channels!

What a difference a habit makes: a lifetime watching television, a lifetime watching birds.

We love watching birds, but just last week our birdfeeder (which was mounted up on a pole high enough so we could add the feed right from our second story high deck), was knocked down for the final time by those damn hugely over-grown crows or whatever they are (they look like glandular cases if you ask me). So I am on the hunt for another feeder with a hole in the bottom for pole mounting, or one that we can cut our own hole, if necessary.

One of my favorite birds is the yellow finch. We have a pair of them who must migrate this way from Canada to wherever they go down south and stop here along the way. Then on their way back in the spring they stop again. They are absolutely beautiful. They stay about three days, usually. They are the brightest yellow I’ve ever seen, in fact the first time I ever saw them I thought they were canaries. Not possible in this area, I don’t think.

Our birdfeeder is always full of house finches, with their red heads and throats, and all the little chickadees and nuthatches are just plain cute!

My all time favorites though, for being petite and beautiful are the Juncos. They are just soft, velvety gray and the underbelly is white. We only have them in winter and then they head higher into the hills for summer. Evidently they don’t do well in hot weather any more than I do!

But we like to listen to the birds as much as watch them. I have to say I think Mourning Doves are one of my favorite songsters; in fact I can hear one right now. I really like to hear a meadow lark, but we don’t have them down here in the forested areas. Where I grew up we heard meadow larks all day long while bumping down the hay field on a swather.

We still have our woodpeckers pecking holes in the cedar siding on our home. I read an article just the other day where it said to put marbles into the holes and it will save your siding, and your sanity. One can only hope. They’re beautiful and very helpful with some bugs (although we have very few bugs here) but they’re doing a real number on our house. My husband rigged up a thing out of tin foil and made streamers – that kept them away until the wind blew it down. Someone else suggested those foil balloons but we were afraid it might get tangled in the string. We don’t wanna kill them, we just want them to move to a new location. 😉

    sundancer – get one of those high-powered squirt guns and give it a try. It discourages them and it’s fun! Be persistent. Also, be wary of attracting too many of the goldfinches – they are great little thistle seed eaters but when they run out they love chard and sunflowers, and make lace out of them. I finally took down our feeder and was able to grow sunflowers for the first time in many years.

    dancinghairwoman May 29, 2014 at 7:22 pm

    We had trouble with woodpeckers on our old house too,until we resided with that cement type siding. They didn’t give up easily though. It took a few weeks for them to figure out they weren’t going to find anything worth the effort.
    You might try tacking up a few pieces in the area they are interested in. They may just leave off.

After Mt St. Helens erupted in Washington State on May 18 1980 it was presumed that runs of salmon and Steelhead ((Ocean Going Rainbow trout) would not be able to re-colonize the waterways where huge debris flows of logs,mud and finely ground mineral matter referred to as volcanic ash had scoured the river bed and left deposits that kept the water cloudy with suspended particles for some time. But the fish surprisingly returned and populations of them re-established much sooner than anticipated.

Similarly I once helped manage a stream restoration project where flows of gravel and cobble had dropped on the river bed and left some of the river high and dry during the times when adult salmon would normally come upstream to spawn. However, within days of restoring fish passage adult salmon who had never been that high up in the watershed because their parents and grandparents had spawned downstream re-colonized the habitat which had been closed off to salmon migration for quite a few years. Nature is resilient.

I also wonder, if– given we are willing to accept that the ancestors of our domestic animals were at one time wild animals, therefore, at least in the past, a part of nature, if domestication was a form of that same resilience. Truly wild cattle aren’t all that common anymore, but I well remember the first Holstein Cow we took home from an auction sale, she had not seen service in a dairy situation for some time, but had instead been used to raise calves in an open pasture/ range situation and in essence had “gone feral” as the saying goes. Holsteins are usually depicted as the epitome of domesticated animals, yet this cow had resumed many characteristics of her wild ancestors. It took some serious and dangerous effort to recondition her to the homestead dairy lifestyle. Nature is resilient.

True enough we have helped many species to extinction but if we give “nature” a chance and a bit of tolerance, it is surprising what can occur in nature. Remember squirrels and birds in “nature” have been working out their differences for a long time.

Locally , Eurasian Collared Doves have increased in huge numbers yet I saw the first pair in our yard only a few years ago. The powers that be have essentially declared open season on them year around because they are not “native” here. Nevertheless, they seem to be prospering. The statements supporting their destruction indicate they will compete with the native Mourning Doves. I’m not so sure that is true, This may be anecdotal evidence on my part, but I’ve noticed no shortage of the native mourning doves, in fact if anything I see many more of them later in the year than I remember in the past because allegedly most of the Mourning Doves migrate south for the winter. So now if I sit in a grove of trees I hear both Eurasian collared doves and Mourning Doves calling. It sounds peaceful and soothing to me, but they might be insulting each other and challenging each other to battle or simply stating: ” I’m here, this is my space and don’t get too close”, but it still sounds soothing to me. Nature is resilient if given a chance.

    The Eurasian dove may be at least partially filling the void in the ecosystem left by the extinction of the native passenger pigeon.

At Monday’s memorial day service, I was distracted by a woodpecker making its way from one corner of the cemetary to the other. I had not seen a pileated woodpecker in a long time and I was startled at how big this boy was. The black & white wing flash and flight profile were woodpecker giveaways, but the enormous size was what convinced me it was a pileated. Nice to see these guys doing well down here in Morrow County.

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