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Friday, February 8, 2013


slate junco aka snowbird

Today's big adventure was a gathering at the library between 12 and 1, lunch at the library while hearing a presentation on the birds that come to our birdfeeders. Cecelia Mathis gave the talk with slides of photographs she'd made of birds at her feeders. It was not an academic talk, but a casual talk identifying the varieties of birds that come to our feeders in this county. It was not overloaded with info we did not want to know. The part I found most valuable for my own interest was identifying the female versions of the various birds. I was especially shocked to see that a red-wing blackbird female looks like a sparrow. They are something of a marsh bird that loves cattails for nesting in. The nearest I've seen red-wing blackbirds is down the mountain at Pine Swamp. She mentioned about juncos, aka snowbirds, they prefer the higher elevations, talked like she didn't see many where she was. I mentioned I have fifty of them, which kind of astounded everybody. I'm at about the highest elevation in the county. Maybe that explains why I don't see them other places much. The primary question I went there with was answered. I was curious to know if the almost black slate-gray snowbird is the male and the lighter gray one is the female. That's how it works out.

It seemed like everyone in the audience was as interested as I was in what Cecelia was saying. I came to realize that we who enjoy feeding the birds and watching them are similarly minded in our fascination with birds. I had a family of chickens for pets when I was a kid, and again in my first ten years in the mountains. With all the dogs and coyotes now, it's not practical to have chickens and allow them outside a pen. The chickens I kept here started with a rooster and a hen. She sat on some eggs and suddenly I had a family of banties. The kind I had as a kid were Cochin banties, black with feathers on their feet. The ones here in the mountains were every kind of bantie. They were beautiful birds. They ranged in the meadows around the house eating bugs. The rooster kept an eye out for hawks, sounding the alarm and taking his harem to shelter when he saw a hawk circling. After a coon slipped into the chicken house one night and killed several, they would not sleep in the chicken house again. They flew to a white pine branch to roost at night.

One of the hens, Miss Hen, was the bottom of the pecking order, almost no feathers on top of her head from being pecked by the other hens. She stayed aside from the pack most of the time. I bought three peacock eggs from Elmer Mitchell in Whitehead and put them under Miss Hen while she was in her setting spell. When her babies hatched, she loved her babies. It wasn't long before they were the same size she was. She stayed separate from the other hens, surrounded by her three beautiful chicks that were getting bigger and bigger. She seemed to grow prouder of them as they grew. In the winter nights she roosted between two of them. Only her beak was visible between them. The hens never pecked her again. The peacocks grew into mighty birds and Miss Hen was still their mama. They loved her as much as she loved them. It sounded like a Tarzan movie around here. It was exciting to see one flying down the road about 4 feet above the road, just sailing from the top of the hill to the bottom. They were beautiful fliers. After a few years all three peacocks came down with a disease peacocks get from chickens and they expired. Then dogs started catching the chickens and I gradually let them go as the dogs took them out while I was at work. I gave up having chickens.

Then I had the cats, Peck, then TarBaby, Tapo and Caterpillar. No birds around here then. By now only Caterpillar remains and she stays inside all the time now. I brought home Junior Maxwell's bird feeder he never used after he died. I bought another one just like it and put both of them out front, maybe thirty feet apart. I've always liked having birds around. My grandmother kept me in canaries and parakeets when I was a kid. I had two green parrots when I moved to the mountains. I built a big cage of chicken wire for them. They preferred the small cage. The big cage seemed to disorient them. Gradually, they died, one at a time, of strokes. Now I feed the birds of the neighborhood. They come in from a small section of woods behind the house and the woods across the road. Two red squirrels live in my shed I store scrap wood in. Two gray squirrels come from across the road late in the day and pick up seeds left by the birds. I call the feeding station my Peaceable Kingdom. A variety of birds exist here peaceably among other birds and the squirrels. I spread the sunflower seeds over the ground and in two open feeders. There is plenty for everybody. No arguments, no fights. Once in awhile I'll see a couple of snowbirds flying up at each other, jumping into the air every time the light on the ground, and then one flies away and the other one goes chasing it.

A female downy woodpecker goes every day to a place on the birch tree beside one of the feeders, and it pecks at a spot on the side of the tree maybe eight or so inches in diameter where surely it must be finding some bugs. A female snowbird often stands on the side of the tree beside the woodpecker, just 2 inches away, and watches the woodpecker. The woodpecker flies off and the snowbird takes up pecking in that section of bark. I feel like the two birds have become friends. I've often seen friends among hens. Cows have friends in the herd too. I've never seen birds become friends cross-species. I assume they are friendly, because the snowbird is easily within the woodpecker's strike zone, but it never pecks at the snowbird. Birds tend not to be comfortable within pecking distance of one another. It amuses me when I look out there and see the snowbird standing beside the woodpecker. It's not every time, but enough that I see the two birds know each other. I prefer feeding the birds that live around here and watching them outside the window to having a bird in a cage. They seem happy in the cage, that is a bird that has only known a cage. I could never put a wild bird in a cage. That would be something like solitary confinement for humans. The caged birds, though, regard the cage as protection. It's their space nothing else can enter. It feels so much better all the way around to enjoy the birds out in the open living their lives as birds live.


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