Natural Observations-mysterious birds

photos by Robin Song

Writer, host and producer Robin Song enjoys unexpected friendliness with feathered visitors. Natural Observations is a feature of KTNA’s locally produced Earth and Beyond program. Audio runs  7:36.


[audio:|titles=NatsObs 20111120-Myst Birds]


What’s going on with the birds, this winter?! I put my feeders up a little early, this year, and from day one the birds have been acting mysteriously. In prior winters I’ve had a few birds gradually lose a little of their instinctual fear and fly to me, landing on my head or arms of my jacket, briefly. Curiously, the deformed-bill chickadees become the “tamest”, staying on the porch railings while I’m putting out peanut butter, and sometimes landing on my arms for a second or two. I find it curious because I’ve handled these birds, bringing them indoors, measuring wing and tail, trimming their beaks, banding and photographing them. (I have a sub-permit to band the birds, keeping records for U.S.G.S. and Cornell Labs.) I can do all this within a few minutes, and when they are released, they will fly out of the trap and into the forest, scolding me from a nearby branch. Usually a newly trimmed deformed-bill is back in the trap, eating peanut butter within an hour. I would think the trauma they experience would make them extra-cautious around me, but it isn’t so. I’ve even had deformed-bill chickadees follow me when I’m out walking, flitting from tree to tree, staying near my dog and me for quite a ways.


But this winter is totally different. The first day I started putting out peanut butter, a half-dozen or so chickadees flew to me where I was standing on the porch. As I put little daubs of peanut butter on the prongs of the caribou antler I have tied to the porch railing, the birds landed on the prongs to peck at the peanut butter. As more birds arrived, some landed on my arms and shoulders. One landed on my hat. I thought they would fly off as I reached to put peanut butter on the birch branch, which hangs from the porch eaves. But as I spooned peanut butter into the feeder’s holes, the little birds either stayed on my arms or flew to the log, reaching to eat the peanut butter from my spoon. I thought maybe this was a fluke and the birds would begin acting normally the next day, but this has been going on for weeks, now. There are over a dozen birds which come to the peanut butter, and when I step out onto the porch with the jar and spoon in my hand, three or four will fly over to me, perching on my arms, shoulders and hat while I walk to the feeder area. Sometimes I put little daubs of peanut butter on my bare fingers and hold out my hand. Within seconds four or five birds are landing on my hand, vying for the best spot from which to eat the tasty treat.


The birds have their own styles, too. One bird likes to fly over to my hand, hovering in the air, wings a blur, grabbing a bit of peanut butter then flying over to land on the porch railing to eat. Some birds will pry a large piece of peanut butter loose, then fly off into the forest. Others will stay on my fingers, eating little bites and watching me with their dark, shiny eyes. The dominant birds will perch on my hand, and whenever another bird arrives, the dominant will drive it away with gaping beak, chirps and aggressive body language. The submissive birds will perch nearby, waiting until the dominant has eaten its fill and flown away, then they flit over, landing on my hand or fingers, to get their share.


The friendly behavior isn’t limited to the chickadees. I have suet cages hanging from the porch eaves and this attracts the Hairy and Downy woodpeckers as well. Usually these are easily startled birds and they will fly off the instant I step out of the cabin door. Not this year. When I walk to the feeders near the suet cages, whichever woodpecker is working on the suet will pause, watching my approach, but will continue to hang from the cage, watching me and eating, even though I am just inches away.


There is a large feeder hanging from a wooden post west of the cabin. The tree, which used to support the feeder died and cracked, and is now lashed to the post so the birds can still use its branches. The feeder is on a pulley and I lower it by its rope until I can lift it down to the snow and fill it with a few pounds of sunflower seeds. I was kneeling in the snow, filling it the other day, and to my amazement a pair of pine grosbeaks landed just inches from me and ate the seeds scattered in the snow around me. Chickadees were also flying in to the feeder to take seeds away, even though the feeder was on the ground and being noisily filled. On the branches over my head more chickadees sat, waiting for me to raise the feeder again. When I started pulling on the rope, four little birds flew to the feeder and rode it up into the air. Anyone who feeds birds knows there is always an abundance of seeds scattered around, so the birds are never without food, even when feeders are empty.


There are two big feeders hanging from the trees at the edge of the forest in front of the Kingsbury’s cabin. I keep those feeders filled, as well, along with two suet cages. I fill those feeders every four days. In between, I don’t visit those feeders, so the birds are left alone. But when I am taking down the feeders to fill, the branches around me are full of chickadees, chirping and waiting, inches from me while I am filling the feeders. A pair of boreal chickadees visits those feeders, along with a half-dozen or so redpolls. This is the second winter a pair of nuthatches has chosen to stay at the ranch. Last winter I couldn’t get close enough to either the male or the female to photograph them. This winter, they are growing more tolerant of me, staying on the suet as I stand quietly nearby.


The magpies and gray jays have always been nervous, flying away whenever I come out of the cabin, even when I am bringing their daily share of dry dog kibbles. Usually they wait until I have gone back into the cabin before they will fly in, grabbing as many kibbles from the snow as they can fit in their beaks, flying away to cash the food. But this year, they are perching on the porch railings, waiting for me to come out, and when I do, they fly a nearby tree, watching me toss the kibbles onto the snow, then flying down to grab their food before I return to the cabin. Sometimes I can even stand on the porch and watch them as they eat.


Why are they being so tolerant? Why are the little birds being so unafraid? I’ve even had a chickadee fly over and land on my jacket or my hat while I’ve been out working, shoveling snow, etc., far from any feeders.


Whatever the reason for the bird’s friendly behavior, I am grateful. I don’t know if it will continue all winter. At the start of the windstorm in mid Nov., the chickadees were very skittish, and none landed on me while I was putting out their morning ration of peanut butter. I wondered if they were going to continue being skittish, but by the next morning they were again flocking to the porch railings and landing on me, even though the high winds were continuing. As a birder and bird-lover, I am charmed beyond words that these birds are being so friendly. When they perch on my hand, my mouth is tugged into a perpetual smile and my heart is filled with wonder. Why they are crossing that invisible line from their wild world into my tame one is a mystery, but I will enjoy it to its fullest for as long as it lasts.


I am curious to know if this behavior is not limited to my immediate area. If anyone is experiencing unusually friendly birds at their feeders, please send me an email at: [email protected]





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