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Speaking of Nature

The three amigos

Bill tames wild birds — sort of — with tasty treats

School is back in session and I find myself in front of students once again. This year is a particular pleasure because I’ll be teaching an elective course called Environmental Science. These students are in their senior year and they are motivated enough to take an extra science class, which will make them quite a bit easier to deal with than some of the younger students who sit in biology class at gunpoint.

I’ve taught environmental science once before and, as part of my course, I have the students start a weekly journal filled with observations of their own backyards. My goal is to get them paying attention to things that might otherwise be drowned out by the tidal wave of infotainment that people are subjected to these days. If, for just one half-hour per week, they can turn off the machines and pick up pen and journal, I hope they can have the chance to actually wake up and think.

I do this sitting and thinking exercise all the time and as a byproduct of this process, I have made the acquaintance of several birds that have become quite comfortable with my presence on the porch. All I’ve done is sit in the same spot at roughly the same time of day for several evenings per week. The only change that I’ve had to make is the time at which I make my appearances. With the shortening daylight, I have to show up a little earlier each night.

Now I should probably mention that part of the “magic” in these relationships I have forged is the simple fact that I’m the guy with the food. I have a table on my porch where I do my writing and just beyond the table is the railing. I put a handful of mixed seed in the same exact place each evening and I wait to see who is brave enough to come close. There is other food around the corner, so there is always the option to fly a little farther for a reward. Like my environmental science students, however, there are a couple birds that choose to come to where I am sitting.

The first, and most insistent visitors, are always a pair of black-capped chickadees that have become hooked on the good stuff. Because the food is always put out in the same place, they will come to the porch, perch at the feeding spot and just wait. This has me convinced that I have trained them to come, but then I wonder if they have simply trained me to put out food. If I see them standing there, I’ll put out food even if I don’t have time to sit with them.

Chickadees are some of the most beloved of backyard birds because they are so curious, bold and tolerant of humans. I’ve had chickadees coming to my porch ever since I moved in, but these two birds are just a little different. I suspect that they are both young-of-the-year birds that have known me for almost all of their lives and they have certainly decided that there is nothing scary about me at all. Once in a while they will even fly over and perch on one of the chairs around the table as if they are curious as to what I am doing. If only they could pick up a pen and start writing their own thoughts.

The chickadees’ acceptance of me seems to have opened up doors with other birds. There is a pair of tufted titmice that spent quite a bit of time at my peanut feeder this summer. This was a rather unusual event since the titmice have always disappeared during the warmer months and have only reappeared when it got cold. The same is actually true with the chickadees, but both species were present on my porch this summer for reasons unknown to me.

What I do know is that other birds seem to watch the chickadees and seem to interpret their calm demeanor in my company as some sort of litmus test for trust. As long as the chickadees are happy, they are happy. The action really picked up a week ago when the titmice were followed by their fledglings. The adults were quite shy, but to the youngsters I was just as new as everything else, so they weren’t quite as frightened of me.

As time passed, the adults appeared with less frequency, but the young titmice still came to eat at the feeders. They didn’t seem to quite understand why no one was feeding them, however, and whenever the chickadees arrived they sort of glommed onto them and copied whatever they did.

This was too much for me. I couldn’t simply sit and write about the hilarity of their comings and goings. So, one evening, I grabbed my camera, set up a tripod and readied myself for some low-light shooting. This did not immediately sit well with any of the birds. The snap of the shutter was sufficiently scary to chase them away for a while, but as the noise proved to be non-fatal, their courage eventually returned.

At one point, I managed to get a photo of a rather shaggy-looking chickadee as it perched by the pile of seed and struck a proud, if disheveled pose. An instant later one of the young titmice repeated the chickadee’s moves and I managed to snap a photo before the little bugger flew off with its prize. In the photo, you can clearly see the yellow tissue at the corner of its beak. Young titmice, like many species of songbirds, have bright-colored tissue surrounding the mouth so the parents have a clear target into which they can shove food. By the time the snow flies, all of the titmice will have all-black beaks.

And then, of course, there is my dear friend Bert Minushkin. Bert, for those of you who may not have read some of my earlier work, is the ruby-throated hummingbird that lays claim to my hummingbird feeder every spring. I’m quite certain that, like the Dread Pirate Roberts in the Princess Bride, the title of Bert Minushkin has been passed down from one male to the other over the years, but my wife named him and it is easier if I play along with her.

Bert rules the porch with an iron fist for most of the summer, but then, like Zeus himself, Bert is overpowered by his own offspring. Don’t think he doesn’t try to stay in power. He gives it all the energy that lies within that tiny despotic heart of his, but it’s no use. The kids just don’t understand how important he really is. They don’t flee in terror, they don’t cower in fear, they don’t give Bert any respect. At some point, Bert simply gave up and bailed ... in disgust.

This meant that the young hummingbirds inherited a pretty sweet deal. They have lots of flowers to explore, a well-tended feeder to exploit and lots of time. Well, it turns out that hummingbirds are also bold and inquisitive, but who knew they were such bullies?

I discovered this while taking photos of the chickadees and the one young titmouse. The snapping of the shutter was a bit put-offish to the aforementioned chickadees and titmouse, but the little hummingbirds really got feisty. At one point, the young male was willing to perch on the end of a dead flower head on one of my lilac bushes and since the camera was already pointed in that direction, I simply panned right, refocused and took his picture. No problem, right?

Wrong. He flew off in a bit of a snit. I was busy writing when he returned, but I heard him clearly enough. He flew over to the feeder and then the humming stopped as he tanked up. Then I heard his wings again as he lifted off. What I wasn’t prepared for was the battery I suffered. While my head was down, he flew straight at me and actually slapped the top of my head with his wings. But that wasn’t all. I stopped my writing and looked over my left shoulder to see him perched in the cottonwood tree by my porch ... glaring at me.

There is no love for the paparazzi among hummingbirds. Thank Nikonus they are so small!

Bill Danielson has worked as a naturalist for 16 years. In that time, he has been a national park ranger, a wildlife biologist and a field researcher. He currently works as a high school chemistry and biology teacher. To contact Bill, or to learn more about his writing, visit www.speakingofnature.com

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