Birds in the back yard

A flash of red outside my kitchen window sends me running for my binoculars.  I’ve just hung the newest feeder, thrilled that it’s already attracting attention. Those circus clowns – the blue jays – float in quickly to search for choice peanuts, scattering seed with abandon. Doves, waiting on the ground below, toddle around like Charlie Chaplin pecking at the millet. My crimson friend, the male cardinal, darts in to select a fat sunflower seed, then retreats to a nearby twig to savour it. His mate, a little bolder, mixes easily with the other birds on the ground.

Endless varieties of birds come to feeding stations and a supply of peanuts and suet certainly entices these avian creatures to practise their acrobatics closer to my window. A small pair of binoculars and a good birding book, one with drawings not photographs for easiest identification, adds immeasurably to the enjoyment of what has become one of the most popular pastimes for all age groups and the fastest-growing hobby of fifty-plus Canadians. 

For many people, birding can become more than a passive activity for spectators. Many people become so interested they become involved with recovery efforts r endangered birds such as the Peregrine Falcon or the Bald Eagle or participate in studies on flight habits. Others build homes for them.

Bird homes
Three years ago, one of my neighbours began building and setting up bluebird nesting boxes. To date, he has installed more than 200 around the neighbourhood, and as a result has increased the bluebird population by at least 20 every year since. The first year, a fellow birder began banding the tiny fledglings, as part of a North American study. Holding one of those tiny puffs of blue in my hand as I helped her band five babies in a nest box near my barn was a profound experience.
Male bluebirds arrive first in spring, such a startling blue in the sunlight they look like a piece of the sky. They check out first one box then another, perching for a day or so on the roof, popping in and out of the tiny entrance until finally satisfied that it’s the right spot. Last year, three males vied for one box, and then spent a lot of time chasing one another away when the females showed up.

Tree swallows come north about the same time as the blue birds. They also like nest boxes and are fierce territorial defenders against sparrows or other invaders. They will even help neighbouring bluebirds defend their home. I’ve seen many an aerial battle as these swift turquoise and emerald fighters swoop and dive to run off potential poachers.   The female bluebirds cheer them from a perch on top of their box.

Bird counts
Many people, intent on seeking the rare or hard-to-find birds, go with naturalist clubs on field trips or on special tours with expert guides. Several tour companies now cater to bird watchers year round, taking aficionados to exotic spots such as Costa Rica, where I was taken by surprise by an enchanting pair of blazing red macaws making their daily pass along the jungle river.
But I still get the biggest kick out of my own little feeders. Last fall, I counted 70 mourning doves, and 35 juncoes at one time. Regulars include six jays, a host of chickadees, fox and tree sparrows, and lots of finches, mostly raspberry jam -coloured house finches.  Every once in a while, a cloud of goldfinches whirls in. One afternoon, I spied a wild turkey scratching under a feeder. A ring-necked pheasant is also a sometime visitor.

This number of birds naturally attracts predators and a small group of hawks patrols my feeders regularly. One afternoon, a red-tailed hawk sailed around the house three times like some huge stealth bomber sending the little birds fleeing into the bushes. And when the Cooper’s hawk dives from some unknown height, the explosion leaves many feathers drifting to the ground while the hunter perches in the tree, head swiveling, eyes gleaming for prey.

More common predators are cats who destroy more birds than any hawk, fox or owl. My cats are not allowed out until all babies have taken flight, and definitely not in the winter when feeders are full. Belling simply does not work with smart cats – they can move so stealthily the bell won’t ring until it’s too late.

Barbara Selkirk is a former journalist, public relations consultant and free-lance writer living on a farm in southern Ontario.