Nothing in this whole world is as it should be, except in my little backyard where the biggest challenges are things like the rust fungus on my Oregon grape bush and how to stop birds and slugs from eating our newly planted lettuce and bean plants. So, both out of love and because I can’t go anywhere else, I spend a lot of my free time in my backyard, even though I’m still falling woefully behind on jobs that need doing both indoors and out.
Sometimes, I take my laptop and sit on the patio and spend an hour or two working out there, which makes a change from working in my office. I was doing that the other day when I noticed something odd, two finches on two perches of our bird feeder, their beaks interlocked, doing…something.
My first guess was that it was some form of battle, only because the finch battles at our bird feeder are pretty much non-stop. Often, they try to peck at each other from adjacent perches. We fill the feeder with sunflower seeds, so the chickadees and other birds pluck out a seed and take it a short distance away so they can work on opening it. But finches are grosbeaks, a category of bird that has powerful beaks, and they can just park on the feeder’s perches all day, grabbing a seed, chomping it in their super-beaks, and then consuming it while the shell falls to the ground. There are four perches on the bird feeder and a lot more than four finches in the neighborhood, so they are constantly fighting–and occasionally even ramming–each other, competing for those four spots.
But this was something else because these finches clearly weren’t fighting. In fact, it looked like the one on the upper perch was feeding the one on the lower perch. Then the pair moved to the top of the fence nearby and did it some more.
I looked it up. Apparently male finches feed female ones during courtship and incubation. So either he was trying to win her as his mate or else he had already won her, she was now tending a nestful of their eggs, and he was feeding her out of gratitude and affection. Either way, the feeding was clearly ceremonial and not needed for her nourishment since he’d been putting seeds in her beak while she was actually sitting at the bird feeder with her own supply of seeds right in front of her. Maybe something like a man buying you dinner when you make a good living and could easily buy your own dinner. I always had mixed feelings about letting men pay for my dinner back when I was dating, which was a very long time ago. But seeing the finches do this was very sweet.
And in the Oregon grape…
I mentioned that my Oregon grape had rust fungus. It’s a near-native plant so I usually pay it little mind, but it was looking decidedly unhappy and I figured I’d better do something to help it. Because it has spiky leaves, which discourage many larger animals (including humans), the Oregon grape is a favorite hangout for a lot of our backyard birds. As I approached it with my gloves and clippers, a Bewick’s wren departed in a huff. “I’m sorry to disturb you, but you love this plant and it needs my help,” I tried to explain.
There was a lot of rust on the plant, so I had to chop off quite a few branches and then rake them up. Also, there’s a blackberry plant growing up inside it that I have to keep cutting down. So all in all, I was rooting around in there for a while, thoroughly disturbing the plant. All of a sudden, an American robin–which is a fairly large bird–came bursting out of the bush, vigorously flapping its wings and squawking loudly. I jumped, startled for a moment, but it flew off and I went back to what I was doing. Looking deep into the bush in search of the blackberry plant, I spotted a second bird huddled inside. I could tell it was a juvenile robin because it was slightly smaller than the other bird and had a light gray breast with black spots that would turn solid red later when it got older. That bird was holding absolutely still. And then I understood: The older bird’s noisy exit had been intended to draw my attention away from the bush and the younger bird, a parent seeking to protect its young.
That’s using your head!
Birds can be sweet and noble, but they can also be awfully dumb. That was made clear in a recent incident which I only heard about after the fact because, to my infinite regret, I was taking a bath when it happened. Bill, who’s become as much of a birdwatcher as I am, was observing our bird feeder and noticed something odd. A black-capped chickadee had put its head through one of the openings in the feeder to get some seeds…but it didn’t pull its head back out again. Instead it stayed there, occasionally fluttering its wings in an ineffective manner. It was stuck, he realized. The bird couldn’t pull its head back out of the feeder.
So Bill did the only logical thing: He carefully grasped the bird, and gave a gentle tug. That was all that was needed for the head to pop out of the feeder–apparently the bird just didn’t have the right leverage to pull itself out on its own. Bill opened his hand and the bird flew off and landed on a nearby branch, looking back at Bill with obvious bewilderment. It seemed none the worse for the experience.
Birds are wonderful. I love having them around and I spend hours watching them. But every now and then you get a reminder: There’s a reason for the term “bird brain.”
Image: Pussreboots via Creative Commons
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