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Birds at my feeders

Posted: December 16, 2011 - 1:00am
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A Steller's Jay sounds an alarm. In this close-up, the dashing blue lines on the front of the crest are clearly visible.   Photo by Bob Armstrong
Photo by Bob Armstrong
A Steller's Jay sounds an alarm. In this close-up, the dashing blue lines on the front of the crest are clearly visible.

A gang of four Steller’s jays regularly attends my seed-feeding stations. As soon as I go out on the deck to replenish the seed supply, they are there. One of them lets out a loud, raucous call, and then the rest come piling in, scarfing up the biggest and best seeds. After they’ve picked out the peanuts and sunflower seeds, they may take some of the little, round millet seeds, but these are usually left for the juncos.

The jays have even figured out how to raid the cylindrical feeders that I hang over my pond on a pulley system. They aren’t very graceful about it and they have to flutter their wings a lot just to stay in position, but they get enough sunflower seeds to make the level in the feeder go down rather quickly. The chickadees and nuthatches have to work around the big jays. Nevertheless, the little birds seem to do very well; there is a constant flurry of at least six chickadees whisking between the feeders and the nearby spruce trees. Whatever they reject, as they sort through the sizes and shapes of the seeds, drops down into the pond, where a gathering of mallards squabbles over each fallen seed.

Although the raucous blue rascals rather hog the show at times, they can be useful as well. One day they all worked together to harass a sharp-shinned hawk that was looking for lunch, with its eyes on all the birds congregated at the feeders. The jays swooped at it, squawking and shrieking, so all the birds knew it was there and were very wary. Eventually the still-hungry hawk gave up and left.

Jays aren’t always the “top dog,” however. At my feeders, when the resident squirrel approaches, on its regular rounds, the birds all move to another feeder temporarily.

Some squirrels have to work harder: A friend has observed another squirrel regularly checking seed feeders on the deck. It hasn’t quite figured out how to extract the seeds from most of them. Nevertheless, it energetically chases away the jays and other birds that come there to feed, spending a considerable amount of energy without gaining any food.

In addition to their other tricks, jays are accomplished vocal mimics, and they use this ability cleverly. They can mimic crows, red-tailed hawks, eagles, and goshawks, for example, and do it well enough to fool expert bird-watchers. A jay giving one of the predator calls generally causes other nearby birds to scatter. That potentially leaves the deceitful jay with sole possession of a food source, such as a seed feeder. A sneaky way to compete for food!

Jays also mimic marmots. Why in the world would they do that?? Marmots are not competitors for food, to be startled into fleeing. Could it be that jays simply entertain themselves, giving that active brain something more to do?

On the morning after the first hard frost, my pond had a sturdy film of ice. So the ducks were out of luck, in terms of a refuge from shooters on the wetlands. And I thought that they would all stay away from the frozen pond. But one persistent male mallard thought otherwise: he skittered and skated over the ice, snapping up spilled sunflower seeds. He had the place all to himself. A few days later, a light snow had coated the ice, and duck footprints were concentrated under the hanging feeders. Then I noticed that a female mallard had trudged up from the creek and over the ice to gobble up sunflower seeds. Relations between male and female seemed to be amicable, but occasionally the male selfishly chased the female away from the best clump of seeds.

A few days later, I glanced out my window at deck railings covered with snow and spruce branches weighted down by great clumps of snow. The pond was now frozen, so the heron that stalked the shallows a few days before was gone, and so were the opportunistic mallards. All the smaller birds were still here, including the rowdy jays.

It was very cold, so that was a nice time to remember some of those all-too-rare sunny days of summer. In the accompanying photo, two jays are enjoying a salubrious sunbath. I wonder if jays use any brain space in remembering such things when the weather turns icky!

• Mary F. Willson is a retired professor of ecology

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