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A Day At The Feeder
by Jim Oates 
02/11/09
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"A Day AT THE FEEDER"

It is a cold pre-spring morning. Winter just does not want to let go of the grip it
has on the Sun Parlor of Canada, as Essex County is affectionately called.

A fresh fall of snow through the night hid the tracks and husks that cluttered the ground around the base of the feeder. Just enough to make the everything look bright and clean again.
The Cottontail rabbits were out of bed early this morning; their bunny trails crisscross the side yard and around the bird feeder. They love to glean the seed droppings that the birds had pecked and scratched over the side the previous evening. However, this morning everything is covered with snow.

It is now mid-morning; something catches my eye over to the right as I look out my picture window; there seems to be quite a commotion in the evergreens. The Blue Jays are always squabbling, but this is different. I can make out a hint of red through the juniper boughs. A brilliant red Cardinal darts out, heading for the Maple tree several yards away, with another Cardinal in hot pursuit. The two look much like a couple of angry Mounties, dressed in their parade uniforms. The behavior they are displaying is quite unbecoming of the RCMP uniforms they are wearing. Their brilliant red and contrasting black plumage is a remarkable sight as they fly past in the bright sunlight against the snowy background.

The Juncos, who are ground feeders, oblivious to the commotion above them, seem to be the most peaceable of all my guests at the feeder. My binoculars single out one of these chubby little sparrow-sized birds with his slate grey head and body and his white tummy and tail. These little fellows are one of my favourite varieties as they go about their own business among the many birds that frequent the feeder.

A bird I did not recognize at first was the Goldfinch because of his change of garb. The yellow and distinctive black cap were gone; packed away in the closet, kept neat and tidy, to be put back on next summer. He is now wearing his brownish-olive winter suit. His belly and under parts are mostly white. He now resembles his wife dressed in her breeding plumage, but the black and white in his wings is more pronounced.

Everything about our Goldfinch seems to radiate his good nature and the shear joy of living. Not only does he sing a lively melody, his bouncy flight is reminiscent of a dancer practicing a dance routine as he flits about from the evergreens to the feeder and back. Our Goldfinch is also known as a Wild Canary or as a Thistle Bird.

There are so many different types of Sparrows; I can hardly name them all. There is the White-crowned Sparrow, with his bicycle helmet on, with its white and black stripes pulled down over his light grey head. He has the same grey on his throat and underbelly. The rest of his body is that light-brown sparrow colour with striped wings.

His cousin the White-throated Sparrow is very similar but has a yellow and black bicycle helmet on; also, this little fellow has a patch of white under his chin. Then there is the American Tree Sparrow, and many other Sparrows too numerous to mention. Some lighter or darker in colour and with various stripes, all are beautiful.

In addition, of course is the all too familiar House Sparrow or English Sparrow that was brought to the North American Continent in the mid 1800ís by settlers from England. They could not have known how prolific these birds would become in a hundred years. This sparrow soon took over the natural habitat of many of our native species. One of their annoying habits, since they insist on nesting close to human dwellings, is to take over the Blue Bird boxes, placed near our homes.

The sparrow will enter the box and kill the Blue Bird babies by pecking a hole in their skulls, thus a nest full of dead babies. The parents then vacate the area. A nasty habit to be sure.

The wives of those two angry male Cardinals have arrived in the area. They are more tolerant than their husbands, but only one is allowed at the feeder at a time. Although Juncos, Sparrows and even those cocky Blue Jays and a Dove or two will share space at the feeder, only one female will join in with them.

The female Cardinal is a pretty lady in her own right, with dull brownish-red wings and tail, she also has a distinctive crest on her head; she is a stark contrast to her male counterpart. He is a fine figure of bird-hood, looking every bit like a Royal Canadian Mounted Police officer, in his parade uniform. He has a beautiful red coat and a crest on his head. The contrasting black, from the front edge of his eyes and around his heavy bill, extends down across his throat.

The two combatants must have signed a temporary truce, for one of them has come to the feeder after the female has left.

After the Sparrows, the Blue Jays are the most numerous. The Blue Jay looks quite smart in his High School band uniform, with a lovely blue upper body, and grey-white under parts. He also sports an outstanding black necklace. Our Blue Jay also has white spots on his tail and wings. However, the crowning touch is the magnificent crest he proudly wears on the top of his head.

The next most plentiful guests at our garden party are the Mourning Doves. The Dove is an attractive bird, smaller but much like a light brown Pigeon. There is a hint of pink on his breast that is noticeable as the sun shines on him, from just the right angle. He has a long pointed tail with white in the outer feathers. He also has a small black spot under his ear. Like the Blue Jay, the female Dove is hard to distinguish from the male.

I always thought the Dove was a mild-mannered bird of peace. For the last few years, we have had one Dove who is the self-appointed guardian and doorman of this rustic old feeder. He sits on the porch of the feeder for hours; allowing smaller birds in, while sending larger ones packing. He is very selective. I have seen him run off other Doves and Blue Jays; he packs quite a wallop with his wing. Sometimes several Jays will out number him, causing him to sulk over on the rail fence, or on one of the old iron wheels propped against the fence. The other day I saw him take on a Red Bellied Woodpecker who was trying to horn in on his favorite feeding spot.

It is sad to say but there is also prejudice and intolerance even in the bird world.

Over across the yard hanging from an Ash tree we have a piece of plank with several large holes drilled partly through from each side. These, we keep filled with a mixture of suet and peanut butter. This delicacy is a good source of energy and a real treat for most of the smaller birds, especially, the pretty little black and white Downy Woodpecker.

This dainty little fellow has white from his bill all the way down his belly to the tip of his tail. He also sports a broad strip of white down the middle of his black back. The sides of his head are white with a black patch from his eye to the black that wraps over the top of his head from the short bill to the back of his neck. He also has white spots on his black wings. The male also has a red bar on the back of his head; while the female looks the same, the red bar is missing.

On occasion Mrs. Cardinal has helped herself to a treat of suet and peanut butter. By the way, the other female Cardinal has shown up at the feeder and most of her tail is missing, but that doesnít seem to hinder her flying ability.

The Hairy Woodpecker is very similar to the Downy, except he is about one-third larger. The sharp toenails of all Woodpeckers allow them to cling to the vertical surface of a tree. In search of insects, they scurry up and down and around even the slickest branches. They frequent the suet and peanut board when insects are scarce.

The Red-Bellied Woodpecker has much more red on his head than on his belly. He is extensively black and white with Zebra like barring on his back and wings. The whole top of his head and the nape of his neck are red. It is hard to see but there is a red suffusion on his belly. Mrs. Red Belly on the other hand, has a grey crown and the nape of her neck is the same as that of her husbandís.

My least favourite birds, who come to the feeder, are the Starlings who are insatiable and from time to time the Crows. Thankfully, these pests usually come towards the end of the season.

Just as Genghis Khan and his horde of warriors swooped down and conquered Asia, the Starlings swoop down into our yard devouring whatever they desire. They can empty the feeder in short order. These annoying birds were introduced to North America some years ago from Europe and have made a nuisance of themselves ever since.

If I put aside my intolerance for a moment and look at it singly, I can see some beauty in this bird. He has a short, square tail, his breast feathers with their pointed tips are glossy blackish with purple and green reflections. The wings and tail are blackish, edged with buff; also, he hass buffy spots on his back. The base of his lower mandible is dark grey or bluish. He has reddish brown legs and brown eyes. I have not been able to distinguish the female from the male.

When they get together with their peers, they become a gang of hooligans, ravaging and pillaging at will. During nesting season, Starlings will take over just about any nesting spot they desire and can squeeze themselves into. They especially love to build their nests in rural mailboxes. I can empty the nesting material out daily and they begin filling it again as soon as I leave. This game will continue until I secure the door so they cannot pry it open.

The Crows, on the other hand, winter in Essex County. The Crow is the largest of the black birds that inhabit this part of the country; he is all black with a violet or greenish-blue gloss, strongest on his back, wings and tail. The Crow is similar in appearance to the Raven, who is larger and by the way, does not make his way this far south in Ontario. Our Crow is too big and cumbersome to perch comfortably on the feeder but can snatch the odd mouthful, before falling off. Their presence is intimidating to the smaller birds who will sit in the trees waiting their chance to return.

I actually enjoy the familiar caw--caw sound in the fall, of hundreds of crows singing in unison, as they settle into the farm fields to glean whatever the combines may have left behind. The town of Essex has been referred to locally, as the Crow Capital of Canada. As Crows are fearful of flying over water, the northern Crows settle into Essex County which is surrounded by water on three sides.

Because of urban growth, many of the bush-lots, formerly used as roosts, have been cut down to make room for human habitation. Many Crows now have become town dwellers. They love the town of Essex, which is in the center of the county. These birds are so numerous, that as they settle into the town for the night, they have actually, been known to break branches of trees because of the sheer weight of the birds. Residents have gotten up in the morning to find their roofs and automobiles splattered with their droppings. If not immediately removed, the droppings can leave a permanent stain. Another nasty characteristic is their love of garbage. On garbage day, these hungry beasts rip open bags and tip over trashcans, making an awful mess.

Even the annoying birds have a role to play in the balance of nature in this wonderful world we live in. I love them all.

Oh what a dull, drab winter we would have without them. Especially for those of us who are not able to spend as much time out of doors as we would like. Going out to replenish the feeder and to the mailbox even in blustery weather is a good reason to bundle up and go out for a while.

For those of you who do not have a feeder, you are missing one of the great joys of life. Go, put one up; the birds will love you for it and winter will not seem nearly so long.
* * *


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