Speaking of Nature: Winter mode: A different way of birding this time of year

  • Young blue jays squabble even after peanuts the columnist put out for them are gone. For The Recorder/Bill Danielson

  • Parents of small children may recognize the look of horror on the face of this adult bird. Here come the kids! For The Recorder/Bill Danielson

  • Bill Danielson

For The Recorder
Sunday, November 26, 2017

It was the Saturday before Thanksgiving, and I had decided that it was finally time for me to shift into “winter mode.” For the casual observer, this change is so subtle that it could easily be missed, but there is a distinct change in my routine nonetheless, and as with most things in my personal time, it revolves mainly around birds.

During the late spring, summer and early autumn, I spend a lot of time working on my bird lists. Time spent outside, whether it is specifically to go bird watching, or just walking up the driveway to the mailbox, is spent with eyes and ears open for those telltale sights and sounds that may betray the presence of one species or another.

I would estimate that 80 percent of my bird detection is done by ear alone, but there are some important species that I might never pick up on without my eyes looking up into the sky.

When the temperature starts to drop, however, I find my outdoor time curtailed. Sitting outside for extended periods of time becomes less attractive — the sun sets earlier each day and the shotgun slugs start flying the Monday after Thanksgiving. Time in the woods becomes problematic, so I turn my attention to my kitchen window.

Winter mode involves a shift from species alone to species plus abundance. Columns begin to appear in my red journals where species’ alpha codes are recorded and then paired with the number of each species that I see. I also record the time whenever something noteworthy happens, and this has allowed me to pick up on rhythms in the avian community, as well as aberrations that might indicate the presence of a predator of some sort.

I also spend quite a lot of time making observations on behavior. Summertime birds in the treetops are difficult to watch in this manner, because they are far away and they move around a lot. Birds on porch railings are much easier to observe, because they are present in larger numbers, more stationary and they interact with one another in more diverse ways. So, on that first Saturday, as I sat down at the kitchen window with a warm coffee, I very quickly picked up on something quite delightful.

I had just reloaded the peanut feeders and put the crumbs on the railing. For fun, I also put out a small handful of peanuts still in the shell to watch the riot of activity that was guaranteed to follow. In less than 20 second,s a gang of blue jays had pounced on it, but I noticed a distinct difference in the behaviors of some of the jays.

This late in the year, all of the jays looked the same, but in reality, there were several young-of-the-year birds for whom this was their first encounter with winter mode at my house. The older birds instantly recognized the peanuts and moved with lightning speed to try to claim as many for themselves as possible. For the younger birds, however, there was a clear moment of confusion. What are these new things? Can I touch them? Are they food? The tentative movements of these young birds were adorable, but even better were the antics that soon followed.

Young jays tend to be extremely bossy. They could clearly see that the adults were interested in the peanuts, and I expect they felt a bit left out. So, in the same time it takes to turn on a light switch, the young birds went into attack mode. The adults suddenly found themselves the targets of aggression, but once they were chased off, the young birds still looked at the peanuts with uninformed curiosity. A hesitant nibble, the sudden realization of deliciousness and I could almost see the light bulb above each young jay’s head burst into brilliance.

A moment later, it was again impossible to distinguish the young jays from the adults. Each bird greedily tried to claim as many peanuts as quickly as possible, and the riot that I had predicted was in full bloom.

I had witnessed a learning moment in the life of a wild bird, and it was tremendously fun. What else might I put out for them to play with? If you have any suggestions, I’d love to hear of them in an email.

Bill Danielson has been a professional writer and nature photographer for 20 years. He has worked for the National Park Service, the US Forest Service and the Massachusetts State Parks and currently teaches high school biology and physics. Visit: www.speakingofnature.com for more information, or go to Speaking of Nature on Facebook.