For the Birds Radio Program: A Happenin' Place
I’ve been stuck sitting at my computer day after day for the past few weeks, as I organize my photos and videos from the Gulf and catch up with writing projects. But I hardly feel sorry for myself.
My desk is positioned at a second story window within inches of my box elder tree, and eye-level from Russ’s cherry trees. I keep the window cranked open without the screen, giving me an unobstructed view. And what a view! Russ picked enough cherries for seven or eight pies with plenty left over for the birds. Every day for over two weeks now, I’ve had at least one and as many as four Red-eyed Vireos, Scarlet Tanagers and Baltimore Orioles in view. Tennessee and Nashville Warblers and Least Flycatchers spent several days there, and Blue Jays are an ever-present delight. Jays are in the middle of molting, and some look very scruffy, but some are finally back in fine fettle. A couple of chipmunks and squirrels also visit frequently.
There’s a hummingbird feeder in the window, and the hummers zip between that and the cherry tree. I watch them darting here and there after tiny insects, or sipping cherry juice from fruits that bigger birds have ripped open. A couple of the hummingbirds rest on box elder branches right close to me—I’ve taken photos of them preening, sticking their tongues out to full length, and even pooping.
The window also sports a small feeder that I stock with mealworms. When the mealworm supply is used up, chickadees scold me from the branches, and one hops right onto the open windowsill to alert me. Many of my chickadees know me well enough to alight on my hand for mealworms. I hadn’t fed them mealworms for almost three years, since I started working full time in Ithaca, New York. But now I’m home, so I started offering mealworms again in July. A couple of chickadees actually remembered me and were back on my hand within minutes. Others figured out that I was okay within hours or days. But as usual, there’s a great deal of variation in their personalities and how they approach this. Some are skittish around me, others pushy. Some are choosey, scrutinizing or even weighing several grubs before selecting one, while others grab one and fly off without a moment’s consideration. Some take just one; others stuff three or even four into their tiny beaks. One particularly piggish one carries several off but keeps an eye on the feeder as he eats. When a lower-raking chickadee appears, this one will fly back down to the feeder, with some of those mealworms still in his beak, just to chase off the meeker one.
This time of year—late August and early September—is an exceptionally fun time for chickadee watching. Most of them have just finished their molts and are in perfect plumage. And as chickadee families break up, each young one from each family must work its way into a different winter flock. Surviving adults from last winter comprise the core of each flock. Their own young have moved to other flocks now, and so all the young birds are unrelated to one another and to the adults. These young birds have no idea where they’ll fit in in the hierarchy of their new flock, and each jockeys with the others to see where they rank. Dominant ones give the chickadee gargle call to chase off lower-ranking ones, but to work out who gets gargling rights in the first place, these chickadees spread their wings and fluff their feathers in a comical effort to appear mightier than they really are. It’s great fun to watch, but something we only get to enjoy this time of year. If I’ve got to be stuck indoors in late summer, my window is the right place to be.