What Happens on Snowy Days

For one thing, the songbirds come hit the feeder--hard. I had made a special trip to the Food Lion to pick up supplies for a snowy day, and aside from the usual stuff (milk, juice, vanilla soy milk for our coffee), I snagged two bags of birdseed. (The usual sunflower-only bags were sold out; apparently unshelled black sunflower seeds are an important part of some people's snow-day preparations.)

After filling the feeder on our backyard dogwood tree, I returned to the house, and about a half-hour later, when I looked out back, I saw quite a lot going on in the branches of the dogwood. The first thing I saw, as is often the case on a snowy day, was the brilliant red of a male Northern Cardinal. There's simply no higher-contrast winter bird in the southeast. This one, however, had a breast of an even more intense red than usual, I believe, and his position in the near branches of the tree made him as visible as a bird could ever be.

He wasn't alone, however. A female was perched near him, and as I trained my binoculars around, I realized that the dogwood was practically dripping with American Goldfinches--a dozen or more. They're in their butterscotch winter plumage, which makes the males much harder to spot than they are when their lemon-yellow breeding feathers comes in, but when they move, you can pin them down fairly quickly, and they're smaller than anything else in the yard (except the boldly patterned chickadees.) There were always a couple on the feeder ports, and they'd exchange places with a few others every so often, not to mention yielding a place to one of the chickadees or titmice that were also making frenzied dives onto the feeder for seed.

Naturally, the classic "snowbirds" appeared: Dark-eyed Juncos were hopping from the dogwood's branches onto the feeder every so often--surprising for a bird that usually feeds on the ground--and eventually I saw the brownish-gray back of a White-throated Sparrow perched on a twig and--

Just a damn minute.

This dogwood isn't huge; it's probably only about twenty-odd feet high, and about that big in diameter. But its branches are still WAY higher than you'll typically see a white-throat hanging out. They're birds of the low shrubs and briars, lurkers under hedges, big-time ground feeders. Why the hell wasn't it on the ground, picking up all the spilled seed?

And then it hit me.

When small birds are gathered in large numbers in a confined space, it usually means they're keeping an eye on something. And when they're refusing to feed on the ground, it's because doing so isn't safe.

I quickly scanned the back branches of the dogwood and there he was: what I presume is the same immature Red-shouldered Hawk I first spotted back in November.

The hawk, now named "Wilberforce" for reasons too complex to explain at this juncture, was unsuccessful in claiming one of my yard's songbirds for his lunch. He dropped to the ground at one point in an attempt to seize a junco, but it escaped. He returned to the tree for a bit, allowing me to snap a picture of him (one which I'm having difficulty loading onto the site for some reason...), but before long he was sailing off to the pine trees in my neighbor's yard, where I hope he'll find better hunting.

But sometimes putting out food for the songbirds means putting out food for the predators, too.

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This page contains a single entry by Peter Cashwell published on January 22, 2014 3:48 PM.

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