Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Frozen Birds (and We're Not Talkin' Turkey)

A house finch contemplates the menu. We used to have lots
of these pretty finches in our summer garden, but they vanished
after a Cooper's hawk began frequenting the area, as did most of
the English sparrows. They pay us visits in winter, though.
The chickadees, juncos, and wrens who stuffed themselves at our feeders Tuesday morning got a much-needed energy boost to sustain them not only throughout the frigid day but also overnight, when temperatures dropped to a record-setting low for this date, settling in at a numbing 14 degrees Fahrenheit.

School was canceled for a second day in a row, which made for a lovely, dawdly sort of morning spent in PJs and bathrobe with a hot cup of coffee and the newspaper at hand. This slow time allowed for leisurely birdwatching at the feeders (which are stationed within easy viewing from the living room and kitchen windows; didn't want to actually go outside--that would be "brrr-watching").

And WHAT a ruckus there was. Somebody squealed and let slip that the eatin' was good in this little side yard, because there were many more birds and considerably more species tucking into the meal today.

English sparrows joined the crowd, shouldering aside the juncos at the suet feeder. A lone female Townsend's warbler slipped in among them briefly, her svelte form like a gazelle's in a herd of cape buffalo.

A strutting song sparrow showed up to claim his share along with three of his lady friends. A vivid male house finch perched to methodically consume sunflower seeds. The Bewick's wren seemed alarmed when he showed up; he looked disgusted by the commotion and huffed off like a gourmet irritated by commoners cramming into his favorite restaurant because it got a favorable review in The New York Times.

Plump, sated robin redbreast.
Meanwhile, the big suet feeder hanging from the birch tree near the kitchen window swayed violently under the three-pronged attack by a trio of hefty flickers. Above them, two dozen or so robins huddled on the birch's branches, puffed up to the size of grapefruits. They'd just completely stripped the cotoneaster bush of all its blood-red berries and were not just glutted but also, perhaps, a bit tipsy.

The appearance of a starling momentarily startled the small birds, but as he was interested only in digging his beak into the suet, they quickly returned to foraging. But when two crows showed up to see what all the fuss was about, that did it. Everybody scattered.

Everybody, that is, except the chickadees. They kept a wary eye on the crows (who didn't hang around long) but didn't stop grabbing seeds and fleeing to cache them elsewhere for use throughout the season. (I saw one tuck a seed securely behind the wooden frame of our neighbors' window.) It's not uncommon for a chickadee to cache upward of 100,000 seeds and other tidbits. If they were human,  they'd have been champion Green Stamp savers.

Here's the starling, resplendent in his winter finery of dark
feathers stippled with the stars that give the species its name. I
recently learned that the base of a male's beak is blue and a
female's is--yes, pink! When I blow up this photo, this bird's
beak looks blue at the base, so I'll go out on a suet feeder
and say he's a boy.
I'm thankful the birds all got a good meal under their feathers to help them get through another bone-chilling night, and that the only frozen birds around here are the two turkeys I got for free at a local grocery store and stuck into the freezer for cooking early next year, in an inspired bit of chickadee behavior on my part. (I thought of putting them behind the neighbor's window frame, but they wouldn't fit.)