Column: Spring is for the birds


Roger VanHaren

I don’t qualify as a “bird watcher” in the strictest sense. I don’t go out with binoculars searching for rare appearances of birds (or appearances of rare birds), and I don’t know all the calls and habits of native species. I have several good friends who do. But I love to watch the birds who come to the feeders we have in our yard.

I feed the birds year-round because I like having them in the yard, but the “winter birds” are not as varied as the “spring birds” I attract. Two pairs of cardinals, a couple of pairs of goldfinches, a few house finches, and a variety of sparrows visit every day in the winter. There must be at least eight or nine different kinds of sparrows that live in Shirley’s cedar windbreak next door. My favorite is the chipping sparrow, a pretty little bird with a reddish brown cap. They sing very loudly.

So I always look forward to spring because I like the bigger variety of visitors who frequent our feeders. This has been a wonderful spring.

For about two weeks now, we’ve had a brown-headed cowbird on the cardinal tray. It’s a glossy black bird with a brown head. I looked it up in my bird manual and found out that the brown-headed cowbird has a fascinating approach to raising its young. The females forgo building nests and instead put all their energy into producing eggs, sometimes more than three dozen a summer. They lay their eggs in the nests of other birds, abandoning their young to foster parents, usually at the expense of at least some of the host’s own chicks. So I wonder if I’ll see more of them this summer.

A pair of mallards has been coming into the yard to eat bird seed scattered by the sparrows. I like to think that these are the same ducks who hatched their broods in our yard for the last several years and they followed us to our new house. “My ducks,” I call them! I haven’t found their nest yet, but I’m guessing it’s near the little “pond” created by our neighbors’ sump pump.

There’s a pair of grey catbirds – I think they’re the same ones who were here last summer, but how can you tell? I’d never seen them here before last summer and I love their distinctive call; it mimics the sound of a cat’s meow.

Despite the fact that they’re not very colorful, I also like the dark-eyed juncos that showed up in late February and have been visiting our feeders during the past couple of months. These slate-gray birds are usually on the ground feeding on the bird seed that the sparrows scatter.

My favorite sightings so far this spring have been a rose-breasted grosbeak and the hummingbirds who dash in and out with lightning speed.

Boy, talk about pretty birds: The scarlet tanager is a striking black-winged red bird (not to be confused with a redwinged blackbird!). The blackbirds are frequent visitors.

I was surprised to see a purple finch on one of my feeders this spring. We usually have a lot of house finches (some people call them red finches) all year around. The purple finch is the one that noted bird authority Roger Tory Peterson famously described as a “sparrow dipped in raspberry juice.” Interestingly, I’ve noticed the purple finch sharing the evergreens next to the house where the cardinals nest every year.

Another of my favorites is the goldfinch. They love the nyjer seeds and they’re delicate eaters, not like the seed-scattering sparrows. It’s fun to watch the males change from their dowdy dull gray winter plumage to their spring coats of brilliant yellow and shiny black with a bit of white. The females retain their dull coats all year.

I like to watch the nuthatches. They almost always feed upside-down. (My Uncle George always called them “assups.”) They’re grayish-blue on the back, with a frosty white face and underparts. The females look very much like the males; they’re equal opportunity birds, I guess.

One of my favorites is the chickadee. How else can you describe a chickadee but “cute”? Its oversized round head, tiny body, black cap and bib; its white cheeks; its gray back, wings, and tail; and its whitish underside with buffy sides: It’s cute! The chickadees usually come in, take one seed and fly a few feet away, then come back for another. Cute!

We’ve had a redheaded woodpecker and a flicker this spring, too. And there are lots of robins around. Oddly, I’ve always thought of robins as carnivores, but the ground was still frozen solid when they got back this spring, so they’ve been eating seeds along with the other birds.

We’ve been going through a lot of oranges and grape jelly this spring. The orioles seem to love them. We’ve had both Baltimore orioles and orchard orioles this year. The orchard orioles are bright yellow instead of the orange color of the Baltimores. Both are beautiful.

Of course, we have a plethora of grackles. I don’t like them, but as Marilyn says, “They’re God’s creatures.” I was pleased to see a female oriole drive a grackle off the oriole feeder the other day.

My sister says it doesn’t take much to entertain me.

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