Consider the Birds

It’s been a few months since I’ve written about my backyard birds, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t been observing and taking photos of them! In fact, my backyard habitat is thriving…and changing.

In addition to the Squirrel Buster Feeder and watering hole I mentioned in a previous post, I installed an open feeder that clamped to my deck. Within minutes of filling it, things were hopping.


A pine siskin at my clamp-on feeder in late February. -- Durham , NC

Pine siskins at my clamp-on feeder in late February. — Durham , NC

But here’s the downside: The squirrels loved it, too. Despite my efforts to outfox them, they devoured the spicy “no squirrels” birdseed; and the Flaming Squirrel Seed Sauce I mixed into my regular seed didn’t deter them either.

Were that the only problem, my woes might seem trivial at best. The clincher was when I took the feeder off the railing to clean it for the second time. What I found living between the mesh bottom and my deck railing was appalling. After a swift and thorough cleanup, the deceptively dear feeder was decommissioned.

Since then, the squirrels have been downright despondent.


Shortly after bidding the feeder adieu, the pine siskins flew away to destinations unknown. Based on migration patterns, they may not return for several years. (This past winter was the first time they visited my backyard.)

Their close cousins, the yellow finches, were wintertime mainstays but are now even more abundant. Cardinals are also aplenty, along with Carolina chickadees and nuthatches of both the brown-headed and white-breasted varieties.

A couple of new birds have made their way to my backyard as well. Many of them have sent me leafing through a bird book or consulting online bird identification sites. Each time, I’m reminded of how little I know and how much I have to learn—not to mention how unobservant I’ve been until recently. Often the mystery bird is described as very commonplace or easily identifiable.

One such bird is the brown-headed cowbird. These birds are considered “brood parasites” because the female will lay her egg in another bird’s nest, often pushing one of the existing eggs out in the process. The female often lays one egg per day, up to 40 eggs per season. Sometimes the “host” bird will reject the egg. Of the 220 specifies of birds who have played host to a cowbird egg, over 140 species have gone on to feed and raise the young cowbirds.[1]


A male brown-headed cowbird in early April. –Durham, NC

I’ve seen a lot of woodpeckers in the last few weeks. It’s not unusual to spot two, three, or four woodpeckers hanging off the feeder or standing on the deck railing waiting their turn. (Maybe I ought to invest in another feeder. Another hanging feeder, that is.)

Woodpeckers are pretty easy to identify, but sometimes it gets tricky telling the different species apart—especially the downy woodpecker and the hairy woodpecker.


The downy woodpecker (pictured here) is smaller in size than the hairy woodpecker and has a shorter beak. Another identifying trait of the downy woodpecker is the gray or black specks on its white tail feathers. Males, like this one, have a red patch on their heads. — Durham, NC

I came home from work one evening to find the mother of all woodpeckers affixed to my feeder. A red-headed woodpecker! I’d never seen one in real life before, and I could hardly believe my eyes. It flew away before I could get a picture. In flight, the contrasting red, white and black colors were breathtaking. Within minutes it was back, this time at my neighbor’s feeder. And this time, I was ready.


Unlike other woodpeckers, red-headed woodpeckers catch insects in the air and often hide nuts and seeds in existing crevices of trees for eating later. — Durham, NC (5/19/15)

I’ve seen a red-headed woodpecker on three other occasions, including this evening. This is encouraging! Once widespread across North America, red-headed woodpeckers are now only found in patches. They are protected by the U.S. Migratory Bird Treaty Act.

What birds are you seeing in your neck of the woods?


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