The Dept of Wildlife Conservation just had the 2013 bird count in Oklahoma. It was open to all folk who were willing to look at, count and identify to the best of their ability, the birds at their bird feeders. I have participated since 1996, give or take a few years, and this year things were a little off. Extreme Weather Effect? Read about my birds....

11 January 2013 Blog

This Blog is for the Birds

The weird winter continueth from 2012 into 2013.  We have received some needed moisture—not nearly enough.  The temperatures still bounce up and down, with or without solar participation or earth precipitation.  Today it is springtime with high winds propelled by a furiously fast jet stream overhead, tomorrow spring continues, but winter blows in again on Sunday and hangs around for a few days.  I hope the plants are staying up with this indoor-outdoor basketball game.  My fear is when the game of winter is done we will shoot directly into summer, minus adequate soil moisture.  It could be a rough time for plants. 

Meanwhile, keep watering and babying your plants.  They need some buffering between the swings and extremes of the weather.   I still catch the water from the sinks and toss onto any plant that needs water, which would be all of them now, indoors and out.  By catching the water I mean while running the faucet to get hot water, don’t let all that cold to tepid water rush down the drain.  Use a small bucket or pitcher and catch the water.  Your plants will thank you.

This past weekend (3rd to the 6th of January) was the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation’s bird count.  I have participated, with the help of the birds, since 1991, except for the time we lived in Germany.  In 1991 a few blue jays, cardinals, chickadees, juncos and one red bellied woodpecker showed up.  In 1993, 14 red-winged blackbirds appeared, plus 13 cardinals, 4 blue jays, and dozens of cedar waxwings that perched in the oak tree away from the feeder.  1995 had 17 cardinals, nearly 50 red-winged blackbirds with cowbirds mixed in, and a pair of flickers.  In 2004 two Towhees came, one missing its tail, 15 robins scurried under the trees, a variety of sparrows and one Ruby-crowned Kinglet, a tiny little bird with a tiny red patch on its head, made it to my bird list.  The 2012 count tallied 25 cardinals, countless red-winged blackbirds and cowbirds, dozens of cedar waxwings that sang their high pitched notes from the privat hedge and Bradford pears, 5 crows, 14 goldfinches, 6 cool looking white-crowned sparrows, only one white-throated sparrow and two downy woodpeckers.  Yeah, not to put you to sleep, there were other birds I counted each time as well. 

The area where the bird feeders are located has water, pear, elm and cedar trees, and a row of shrubby junipers with a field of native grasses on the other side.  The birds have cover, food and water.  So do the raccoons, skunks, bunnies, deer, bobcat, feral cats, neighbor dogs, rats, snakes and whatever else comes by.  I have one feeder dedicated to scraps at the back edge for the crows.  If the crows don’t come, the skunk will check things out at dusk.  Never mind.  If all else fails, the raccoons, arguing amongst themselves using high metallic squeals, will find it in the middle of the night.  That or they will sit on top of the metal bin (by the house) that holds the birdseed and spend inordinate amounts of time voicing their displeasure at their inability to remove the lid.  That is because the lid is weighted down with a heavy outdoor umbrella stand.

My bird count for 2013 was a bit off kilter.  There was the usual contingency of red-winged blackbirds and cowbirds that would descent in mass each morning and evening, crowding out all other birds.  Midday, the record number of cardinals (over 37 this year) would come, as well as finches, sparrows, chickadees, one red-breasted nuthatch and one Carolina wren.  Very few juncos showed up.  Two mockingbirds and two ring neck doves would fly in and sit in the trees to watch the other birds at the bird feeders.  They themselves did not partake of the human offered seeds but would fly down to drink water.  I keep an old tire that has been cut in half full of water during the winter.  If temps dip below freezing, all it takes is a few bounces on the ground to crack and dump out the ice before refilling with fresh water. 

During the bird count, one mocker landed on one edge of the old tire.  It began to drink when this cowbird landed on the other edge directly across from the mockingbird.  The cowbird promptly reached over and pecked the mockingbird.  Insulted, the mocker flew off, leaving the cowbird to drink its fill.  Bad manners.

If you have ever spent much time watching birds at birdfeeders, you will come to the conclusion it is survival of the fittest or most aggressive or the fastest.  Birds work out their own strategies on how to approach the feeder and get the maximum food for the effort.  They plan their times to eat carefully, or swoop down and grab a seed, flying back into a tree, or just land and shove, peck or squawk at any other bird nearby.  It is a constant jostling of feathered bodies.  Only when the blue jays come, yelling their arrival, do the other birds pause for a second.  On the other hand, when a hawk dives into this apparent smorgasbord, the birds scatter and get very quiet.

In December I heard this painful cry from outdoors.  I could not place where it was coming from until I looked under the birdfeeder and saw this sharp-shinned hawk pinning down a male cardinal.  It was plucking out the red bird’s breast feathers while the cardinal screamed in agony.  When the hawk saw me, I am sure it grinned, grabbed the cardinal and flew away in a flash.  Fresh food.  I realize this is Mother Nature in action….but, I prefer not to watch the animal shows that have lions or cheetahs running down and eating zebras or gazelles.

My downy woodpeckers, who were at the suet feeder in December, refused to take part in the bird count this year.  Not a feather appeared.   One Towhee struggled in.  Three squirrels made the most of hanging upside down and gobbling sunflower seeds. The most exciting thing involved my miserable attempt at trying to identify these strange goldfinches that arrived at the thistle feeder.  Nothing had been at the thistle feeder for weeks.  One day several goldfinches arrived.   Positive identification using Sibleys Guide.  Next thing I knew, more goldfinches joined in, but these had breast stripes and sharp little bills. Ooh, maybe something exotic or rare.  Nope.  They were pine siskins.  Cocky little thistle eaters that superficially look like goldfinches, but on closer inspection (for me, using a pair of binoculars) are very different.  I have never had pine siskins visit, but this is the first year I had a thistle feeder.  For all I know, they may have been flying in for years, and I called them all goldfinches. 

This is why anyone with a desire and curiosity, fairly good ears and eyes, a good pair of binoculars and a few decent bird ID books can go out and identify the birds in their area.  As you can see, it is a multi-functional sport.  You use all your senses, intellectual, emotional and mental facilities as well as your charge or library card (books, remember).  Cross Timbers has a good diversity and often eastern and western U.S. species can both be found right here.

The more birds you observe, listen to and name, the more you too can impress your friends and relatives.  They’ll either run to you for advice, or away from you in avoidance.  Either way, it is a win-win situation.  Give birds a chance.  They are vital components to any garden.  Don’t you wish you could fly?  Think of birds as little flying dinosaurs, as they may have strong links with those denizens from the ancient past.  Phalanxes of tiny flying dinosaurs over your heads.

Wayne Potts, in 1984, studied bird flocks and came up with the ‘Dancers Chorus Line Hypothesis’.  Birds operate in a wave of motion, and can fly three times faster than if following one another or on their own.  Look at the large flocks of Cedar waxwings or red-winged blackbirds as they twist and turn in the sky.  Almost on cue, and very much like a school of fish in the air, untrained birds fly better in synchronicity than the amazing thunderbirds whose pilots have had oodles of training.  

Interested in more?  Check out:

Birds of North America (Golden Field Guide).  Carryable, Pocket-sized book.  Good for amateurs.

Petersons Field Guide to Birds of North America

The Sibley Guide to Birds (National Audubon Society) Compares similar birds.  Very helpful.

Petersons and Sibleys come in iPad, iPhone and iPod touch      This site brings to you up-to-date scientific facts about earth and sky.  They post daily a list of current events.   Become familiar with your furry or feathered friends.  See what the 2013 bird count sheet looks like.  Prepare for next year’s count.