Birds jockeying with winter visitors

This is a column about winter visitors I’ve had this year.

When my dog Rocky and I head out for a walk, he leads me down the back steps, then stops at the corner of the house and peeks around to see what’s going on in the boxwoods under the front windows.

The other day, Rocky bolted and dragged me along to a hissing possum lying in the snow up against the raised bed. I’ve read that possums have more teeth than most North American mammals, and they show them to a potential attacker to get them to think twice.

Luckily, Rocky thought long enough for me to grab the leash and redirect him. The possum was most likely drawn to the boxwoods to sample some of the birdseed that’s been scattered from the tube feeders that hang above.

Later, my neighbor saw the possum up in the cedar tree on the north side of our house. Maybe the birdseed gave it wings! Maybe trying to get away from that big dog!

And within a day or so, I saw it drinking from the bird bath, in broad daylight, unusual for a nocturnal animal.

Squirrels stop by regularly. I tell people if there’s a way for a squirrel to get at the bird feeder, they will, because squirrels don’t have anything else to do.

The red squirrels are the littler ones. They poke their heads through the hardware cloth screen around one of the tube feeders and contort their bodies to get through to the feeder. Then they sit in there and feast till they’re full or frightened away. I wait for the day they eat too much and can’t crawl back out!

Gray squirrels can’t make it through the screen. One hangs upside down on the feeder screen and scrapes a paw full of seed from the tray on the bottom of the tube. It almost looks delicate! Needless to say, there’s no bird activity while the squirrels are scarfing down the seed.

Among the usual avian visitors, I’ve been getting an occasional Northern Flicker at my peanut feeder. Most of the flickers have migrated by now, but a few stay if they can find food. Their summer favorite is ants, but they can’t get to them through the snow.

Across the alley, in my neighbor Bill’s yard, American Robins show up at dusk and raid the crab apple trees, knocking fruit down and then dropping to the snow to gulp it down. Starlings often join them.

Robins also come to my yard to use the bird bath for bathing, even when it’s below freezing. Here again, the starlings imitate the Robins. I’ve had a dozen starlings in my bird bath all at one time. The bird bath water needs changing when they get through.

I often get a flock of Starlings on the platform feeder toward the end of the day. They’re so funny to watch. Their beaks don’t close like a tweezer on the seed. It springs open, so they have to work hard to get any seed. I think it’s from their usual feeding style of walking through the grass and springing the blades apart to find insects.

One day I saw a Junco do an emergency exit from the platform feeder, heading north. That was immediately followed by all the House Sparrows ditching from the tube feeders, also heading north.

Sometimes the letter carrier will startle the birds into a sudden exit, but he comes from the north and the birds would have bailed to the south. What caused this panic?

I watched for a short time and then, gliding south to north in the sky across the street was a Cooper’s Hawk. That’s an accipiter (a medium-sized, forest dwelling hawk) that eats birds, so these observant critters decided to head out.

Winter is a rough time for raptors. Some of the raptors I’ve seen from my kitchen table include the occasional Red-tailed Hawk, sometimes pursued by crows.

And every so often, a Bald Eagle comes slowly sailing through the neighborhood. That’s always an awesome sight! There’s no open water in the area for them to catch fish. I figure they’re probably looking for rabbits.

The other morning, I saw what I think was a probable Great Horned Owl in flight, from a block east heading west. I got a call from a friend toward the end of November about a Great Horned Owl in a tree in the Lauderdale Park. So Rocky and I headed over there.

A small crowd had gathered near the playground, looking up into the pine trees. And there was a Great Horned Owl, just watching the folks below, maybe sizing up one of the smaller puppies as a potential snack.

Winter is a hard time for bird watchers, but a much harder time for the birds. 

Clay Christensen, a longtime birder, lives and writes from Lauderdale.

Photo caption Squirrel inside bird feeder. Photo by Clay Christensen

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