Spring Musings 1.3

One of the things I love about gardening is that I am never alone.  Of course, there’s the neighbors:  kids playing, lawn mowers whirring, blowers whining.  But when all those human based noises are quiet, I hear the birds.  As soon as dawn begins to break, the birds begin singing.  To me, it’s like a symphony of sound, music, calls and squawks.  I hear the cardinals singing “pee-ka-to, pee-ka-to” over and over so it actually sounds like “Topeka”, so I think of Kansas. The most common sound is the chirp, chirp of the sparrows.    My favorite is the red wing black bird, with it’s gutteral call, and then sweet “bo-ker-eeee.”  Mourning doves coo  some low notes. The European starlings looking for mates call out a trill sound that quickly rises in frequency, from low to high, like a very fast tea kettle.  The blue jays scream their “toodala, toodala.”  A few screaming “caws” and they fly off.  I can hear woodpeckers pounding their beaks on some dead wood near by.

We feed the birds with several feeders in the yard.  Thistle feeder outside the bedroom window assure us that goldfinches are dining throughout the year.  We hear their melodic songs as they call to each other.  Often there are 2 or more couples, with the females looking dull next to the males who have just grown in their showy gold feathers over the last four weeks.

All our other birds flock to the back feeder with a variety of nuts and seeds (shelled, so there is little mess left behind to attract rats or other critters.  We don’t have rats with four cats patrolling our yard day and night!).  We also put out cakes of suet, which attracts small downy woodpeckers and sometimes a big red bellied (with red head) woodpeckers.  The birds take turns at the feeders, waiting near by in the wisteria on the pergola and on the weeping cherry tree and on the wires behind and across the yard.  Of course, pigeons also come.  I don’t have to like them, but I this area is urban enough that we sometimes get flocks of 20 or more.  They circle around the yard, flying and dipping their wings, then all together swarm on the ground below the feeder, greedily eating whatever the song birds have dislodged from above.

Bob White

Sometimes we get a rare visitor.  Earlier today, I saw a seagull.  I’m not sure what body of water is close enough for them to journey all the way here, but there it was!  One summer day a couple of years ago, I saw a bob white.  It’s a short, stubby brown bird that usually nests on the ground, but there it was in a maple tree, singing it’s name:  “bob-white!  Bob-white!”  We get nesting families of birds too.  Pictured below is a robin’s nest that was built on our ladder hanging on the side of the garage.  I was worried for the fledglings when they began to leave the nest and “fly” to the ground, and kept the cats inside for several days.  All 4 babies made it to teenage licenses for flying!  We had song sparrows build a nest in the large, plastic, multi-pointed, Moravian Star hanging next to our front door.  When their fledglings were ready to fly, we decided to come and go out of the side entrance of the house, and let them have some peace.

Robin Nest on hanging ladder

My favorite visitor is a hawk family.  It turns out that hawks enjoy a carry-out lunch of fresh pigeon!  And I happen to get a lot of pigeons.  For the last decade, I have watched adult hawks bring their youngster to learn to hunt at our carry-out dining facility.  The young hawk will sit on the telephone pole in the far back yard, then fly over to the pergola near the feeder (see picture below), and finally land on the grass, trying to catch a quick pigeon.  The young hawks clearly have success, eventually, for I often come across a circle of gray feathers on the grass, or on the snow, with no footprints from any direction, and I know carry-out dinner was successful.  I always know when a hawk is nearby, even if I don’t see one, because the back yard goes silent suddenly, and all the birds have disappeared into hedges and deep into branches, hidden by leaves.  No one makes a sound until the danger is past.

Young Hawk

Winter carry-out Hawk

One bitter cold day in January, I walked home from lunch with friends at a local restaurant, and silently came up the driveway.  I noticed a bird sitting on the driveway about 5 feet in front of me.  I thought it was an odd place to sit, and then I realized it was sitting on another bird, that clearly was going to be lunch.  I backed away from the gate and went in the front door and got the picture below of that pigeon sacrifice to the hawk god through the window.

Last week, as dusk was falling, the cardinals came to eat.  They are shy and prefer to eat on the ground, so they are either first in the morning or last in the evening.  This time, two flashing, bright red cardinals swooped into the yard, calling back and forth to each other with one call over and over.  Then, I noticed a tawny brown female was following them from bush to tree, to feeder to pergola.  The song battle continued for a good 5 minutes as the males determined territory boundaries.  Finally, one bright male flew off, so the remaining male and his female companion took a few seeds and then flew off to roost for the night.  Every spring I notice a cardinal feeding what looks like a sparrow near the feeder.  The sparrow beats it’s wings, but stays on the wire.  The cardinal flies to the feeder, gets a seed and returns.  The sparrow’s mouth is gaping wide open, head thrown back, wings flapping madly.  And then I realized!  Cardinals aren’t feeding sparrows!  That “sparrow” is a fledgling cardinal with dull brown feathers.  At some later point, the red color appears, once they can take care of themselves!

Female Cardinal with Sparrow

Studies have shown that children who hear bird songs are able to concentrate on a task, like homework, better than if there are other ambient sounds.  It makes sense to me, as we evolved in the great outdoors, and for all the history of humanity, the birdsongs have been our soundtrack of life.  Different calls reflect the different times of day, the different seasons of nesting and calls of hunting or warnings to find safety.  So, take a walk today, or sit in your back yard or in a park or even a sidewalk café, and listen to Nature’s symphony and cacophony of birdsongs.

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