Saturday, 12 April 2014

Birding by the Seat of My Pants

The Rufous hummingbirds have arrived, and they are hooligans. They zoom through our backyard like an invasion of teenaged boys high on hormones. They dive and swoop and figuratively thump their chests to prove that they are all male and macho. Their women zoom in to take sips of nectar, then retreat quickly back to their nesting sites. The traffic is getting so bad out there that we are wondering how to post road signs and stop lights to keep our bird friends safe. (Sky hooks, maybe?)

We see all this because we have front row seats to the show from our dining room window. We are  back-yard birders who enjoy birding by the seat of our pants. (Some of you will be thinking we should be birding in the woods, getting some exercise and watching birds in their natural habitat. Yes, we do that, too. Backyard birding by the seat of our pants is a bonus!)

A city scene from one of my unfinished projects.
All winter long as we've dined, we have enjoyed the company of a host of juncos, a few towhees, some finches, the occasional flicker, and one well-behaved pair of Anna’s hummingbirds who were attracted to our hummingbird feeder. The resident sweetie freely admits he is somewhat OCD when it comes to birds, and it’s a good thing – he keeps that feeder frost-free all winter long, and replenishes the bird seed and suet regularly.

Now the juncos have left, to be replaced by robins and rufous hummers. Both are snowbirds who spend the winter in warmer climes, then come here for fun and games of the reproductive variety. We’ve noticed that about the time we get out the wine glasses for happy hour, the hummers are also zooming in to their bar for sips of nectar. We're reassured by naturalists that this feeding is only a very small part of their diet -- mostly, they eat insects, often catching them on the wing or picking them out of spider webs. Our feeding them does not create dependence.

Anna's and Rufous Hummingbirds enjoying a rare moment of quiet companionship together. Sharing food can have that effect!

It’s fun to watch it all. We’re speculating that when the time comes that we are mobility impaired (fancy talk for “can’t walk too good”), we’ll get rid of the dining room furniture and replace it with Lazy-boys and TV trays. We’ll be birding from the seat of our Lazy-boy.  Hey, why not? Subsisting on that famous “senior’s fixed income”, we’ll have a cheap show that’s changing all the time.

One bird we’re not seeing in our backyard is the crow. According to friends, the crows have congregated at the east end of town and that’s fine with me. I’m well aware of how they take over their chosen turf, chasing away other birds. Reminds me of humans, actually! We’re pretty good at taking over land and making it our own, fencing it in and guarding against intruders.

Another way of birding by the seat of your pants is through the internet. A few months ago I enrolled for an online webinar conducted by crow expert Kevin McGowan of Cornell’s famed bird lab. I parked my fanny in my computer chair and learned a lot. McGowan says that the huge population of urban crows is a new phenomenon – some cities have seen a 30-fold crow population increase since the 70s. That’s a 3,000 % increase in crows wandering downtown streets, raiding downtown garbage dumpsters, pooping on downtown pedestrians and cars. Why? There’s lots of speculation – they’re being pushed out of their usual territories by increased deforestation, or, they don’t have to worry about guns and hunters in cities, or, they have access to abundant, easily obtained food sources, or, increasing light at night protects them from predators, or...all of the above and more. One expert even pointed out that logging has reduced good nest sites, so that the biggest trees around now are in cemeteries and parks. And crows like big trees.

Research does show that almost all crows enjoy being within easy reach of towns. They have learned
Image credit: Urban crows eating garbage / Crafty Green Poet
that it’s much easier to filch a sandwich out of a garbage pail than it is to forage for worms and grubs in a farmer’s field. With a nestful of babies screaming for food, one dessicated burger will feed the brood much more easily than making multiple trips for worms. (Again, not so different from humans, are they? It’s easier to buy a "happy" meal than to cook for ourselves and our babies.) The unfortunate side-effect is that crow babies that are raised in urban environments are smaller and more likely to die before they head off on their own. Quite a trade-off – an easier, safer life at the expense of your children’s well-being.

Birding by the seat of my pants may, at first glance, appear to be an easy activity. But it's certainly raised a lot of difficult questions. Everything we do -- spreading and multiplying, subduing the earth, increasing our markets and growing our economy -- everything that is often considered progress, (even feeding the birds for our own enjoyment) -- could have a potential ripple effect that touches even the smallest creatures. Our feathered friends may keep me entertained, but they also challenge me to remember that we are all connected in this web of life, and to live with deep respect and care for our beautiful world.

Kevin McGowan is holding another free seminar about crows. It will be on the internet on April 21 at 7 pm. EDT. Sign up for a reminder at

And if you’d like to learn a little more about the interactions between crows and people, and what it all means for our endangered planet, check out this interview by Lyanda Lynn Haupt, author of Crow Planet (a book I highly recommend)

1 comment:

  1. I did not notice that the Juncos had gone.