Friday, March 7, 2014

It's possible I spoke too soon

So okay we're back in the deep freeze with a solid plate of ice and snow on the ground, and we haven't left the house for days as we slowly run out of everything. Before this latest onslaught I was going to feature in my blog what at first looked to me like a giant goldfinch, but in fact was a goldfinch with all its feathers at right angles for thermal protection, sitting side by side with a goldfinch sleeked down for a normal spring day. I thought it was a perfect image of the changing season.

It turns out I was taking a picture of the season turning backwards. In fact I subsequently saw a White-throated Sparrow that was as close as possible to being perfectly round.

Plus some very chesty looking robins.

Our foul-weather friends the Rusty Blackbirds and Fox Sparrows quickly returned to us. Here are a couple of shots of a particularly rusty blackbird.

Among the Fox Sparrows was this partially albino one.

With most natural food buried under the ice, a few more species deigned to visit our feeders, including these two close relatives: a Brown Thrasher and a Mockingbird.

These two birds are in the family Mimidae, named for their great singing ability and, particularly in the case of the Mockingbird, their ability to perfectly mimic the songs of dozens of other birds. It should not be a surprise that molecular studies indicate they are related to the exotic old world Mynah Birds, those great mimics of human speech. Well, in the depth of the cold our feeders were visited by an actual old world bird, an even more direct relative of the Mynahs, and able in its own right to imitate any sound it wants to. Here is that exotic bird:

That's right, the European Starling. This is its winter plumage, resembling a night sky with millions of tiny stars, which is the source of the bird's name. As you recall, it and the House Sparrow were introduced into this country from England, and have done very well. They are actually very remarkable birds in many ways, but have become such pests that we are unable to appreciate them. Both are becoming scarce in England and, irony of ironies, we may one day need to reintroduce them  into England from our healthy populations.

Well, as it turns out, this first bird was the beginning of an invasion. You'll remember I said in a previous blog that there was a big blackbird roost within a couple of miles of our house. Blackbird is a generic term for a number of birds in the family Icteridae including, in the northeast Arkansas area, The Common Grackle, the Red-winged Blackbird, and the Brown-headed Cowbird, plus the unrelated European Starling, that is usually lumped in with them as all gather together in huge nighttime roosts in winter (later separating out and dividing into pairs for the nesting season).

My non-birdwatching friends are often surprised to hear that "blackbirds" comprise several species, so here is a very quick who's who. First and commonest, the Red-winged Blackbird.

Their name describes them pretty well. This bird is slightly subadult; adult males are all black, with, in flight, big red patches on their wings, that they flout in aggressive encounters with other males. Females and immatures are streaky brown sparrow-like birds that don't look anything like the adult males.

Also in the mix are Brown-headed Cowbirds.

The male is a smallish black bird with a brown head. The plain gray female is notorious for laying her eggs in other birds' nests for them to raise.

You notice I don't mention Rusty Blackbirds. They are much higher class and more genteel, and no one objects to having them. I've already shown you the Starling. The last abundant bird in the roosts is the Common Grackle, much larger than the others, and a gorgeous bird with a long sweeping tail and bronze and greenish-blue iridescence on its feathers.

Anyway (after that digression), when the blackbirds wake up and leave the roost, many of them come streaming right over our house, and inevitably, one day some of them noticed the small songbirds gathered in our front yard gobbling up the lavish feast we had put out for them. A bunch of the blackbirds peeled off and dropped down to check things out, and suddenly they were coming by the dozens. Now, a few of these birds would be fine at the feeder, but they don't know the meaning of restraint. They are big burly birds and they come like a tsunami, and sweep everything before them, driving off the smaller birds and inhaling the food put out for them faster than I can replace it.

Our birds by this time are fairly tame and pretty much ignore us; the blackbirds are wary. At first all I have to do is tap the glass lightly and wave my hand through the window and they fly off with a rush, so our birds can return to the feeders. But then the blackbirds begin to think we are paper tigers, and ignore us, so I have to rush outside clapping my hands until my palms hurt, which drives them up into the trees. While they are up there, our birds rush in to gulp down a few seeds before the blackbirds come seething back. Here are our starving goldfinches rushing to their niger seed sock while they have time:

Things start getting desperate. I take a bite of lunch, then have to rush outside, a pan and a stick in my hands as a noise maker, and not just chase the blackbirds into the trees, but chase them into the next row of trees beyond our house, then into the trees across the road. I run back to the house and try to get another bite of my lunch, but they have come down behind me and are marching in a phalanx back to the feeders.

We decide to try another tactic.  I put down a smaller amount of food, and put it just under our windows, closer than the blackbirds will come. We keep chasing them persistently, we keep the food out of their reach. They are sitting watching us, but the hope is, they will begin to think it might be more profitable somewhere else. We come out next morning, and they are gone. But so in fact are a lot of our birds. What's happening is, the snow is beginning to wear thin along edges, bits of fields are uncovering, suddenly there are other places to find food.

We are promised temperatures in the 60s in a few days. This weekend, daylight-saving time begins. Perhaps spring really is coming this time. By this time next week maybe, surveying our empty yard, we'll even wish we had our blackbirds back.

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