As fall was underway in 2018, my thoughts turned to the return of our hermit thrush Patience, who has been coming back here for the winter the last three years (see essays, “Theatrical Thrush”, “Winter Arrivals”, “Winter Arrivals; And Then Some”). Migratory birds will return to the same wintering or breeding spots if they have had success there previously. I guarantee you that Patience enjoyed her three winters here! We had already had our other winter arrivals, white-crowned sparrows, dark-eyed juncos and yellow-rumped warblers, and I was getting anxious.
Well, on October 23, she returned for her fourth winter! She showed up on her favorite rock by the jade trees, which I have dubbed Mount Precious, doing her little wing shake and waited there until I got back with the worms. She immediately flew to my hand for a worm. Patience is back!
I must note here that I had recently changed the way I feed the birds. I had started putting the dried mealworm dishes closer to where I sit when I feed the birds. The farthest is at ten or twelve feet and some are as close as on the patio table where I sit. This was to keep out the ground squirrels and scrub jays. I also started feeding them in the late afternoon only, well kind of. In the morning I would be at the table, doing whatever, and I would put a dish of dried mealworms opposite me and have walnut pieces for the seed eaters, who also eat the dried mealworms. I also have the live mealworms for the hand feeders. These feeding sessions last only an hour to an hour and a half and always under my supervision. This causes the birds to identify more with me as being a great source of food. This further breaks down their fear of me and lets them act in a more natural way when I am around them.
Putting a feeding dish up on the table really paid off. When birds see other birds eating or gathering food they will come in and check things out.
And check things out they did! It gets a little crowded at times, especially when the food first comes out. Everybody wants their share! It is also very interesting to observe them working out the pecking order, both within and across species. This first rush lasts about twenty minutes and then suddenly you notice that the birds are all gone. They then come back in about fifteen or twenty minutes and will usually get in three to four feeds during the feeding session.
Of course, we still have our year round birds coming in, some of which are the hand feeders, however most are ones that I will throw food to, either on the ground or onto the table. It is quite hard for a bird as small as the Bewick’s wren to find a spot in the pecking order, they being the omegas here, not even close to an alpha. However they do find their chances to get in. We have two other Bewick’s wrens that come to feed; one is Buddy’s mate and the other is from the north side of the property. They do not come to hand so I will toss out a worm onto the table and they will fly down from their chair perches to get them.
Our oak titmouse, Tweeter, will take from my hand but it’s mate will not, so I toss the food onto the table for the mate. With this behavior I have come to realize that I can know which of the two birds I am feeding, even when they come by alone, otherwise I would not have a clue as to who’s who.
Another bird that was here last winter and showed up again this year was a Northern mockingbird. I fully expected it to be around last spring since it is a year-round resident, however it never showed. Well, it came back this winter. It perches on Mount Patience, or other rocks, and I toss it live mealworms. We’ll see if it stays this spring.
Since I now have more birds coming up onto the table with me, I decided to see who else I could lure to my hand. It’s a lot like fishing–you use good bait, make a good presentation and reel ’em in. It worked on a White-crowned sparrow fairly quickly. I have to think that he is a bird who has been here during previous winters. It seemed very eager to come to come get a worm. It had been watching the other birds take from my hand, and I’m sure that helped. I named this bird Whitey
Considering that I only put one feeder dish of dried mealworms up on the table in the mornings, instead of the three of four that I put on the ground for the afternoon feed, the birds all get along fairly well. There is a pecking order as to who feeds when, however everyone seems to be able to get their chances. The California towhees used to be the top bird at the feeders, but they have been replaced by the California thrashers as top dog, I mean bird.
In the winter we usually get a small flock of Yellow-rumped warblers. Last winter and this winter we seemed to only get one. Last winter it would come to the worm dishes when the bluebirds came in. This year was the same, only one and it would show up with the bluebirds to feed. Since all the birds, well most anyway, were coming to the table the warbler did also.
The Yellow-rumped came in a little differently than the other birds. It would hover over the dish to snag a worm. That made it really tough to get a really good photo of it. Eventually it calmed down enough and started landing, and I managed a better photo that shows the species more clearly.
The Dark-eyed juncos that winter here do not come up on the table to feed. They do, however, approach close enough so that I can throw them little pieces of walnut. They have now associated me with being responsible for the food being provided. During the winter the juncos replace the Bewick’s wrens as bottom of the pecking order.
One of the California towhee pairs are coming up on the table to feed together. This pair contains the new Tow-Tow II.
Tow-Tow II and it’s mate are from the south and are the South Tows and the other pair are the East Tows. The East Tows come up on the table also but are more skittish at this point. Since towhees are territorial, as are most animals (us included), it will be interesting to watch the dynamics between them unfold over time.
The other really cool event this winter were the California thrashers. Since the feeders were brought in closer the thrashers followed. This enabled me to quite easily toss out live mealworms to them. They very quickly focused on me. The more aggressive one, Slasher, came to my hand in just a few days!
The other thrasher, Dasher, would only come within a couple of feet of me and I would toss out its worms. I decided to keep this behavior unchanged so that I could recognize which bird was which. I have done this with other pairs of birds over the years and it really helps. I think that Slasher is the female of the pair based on its aggression. It was much the same with Tow-Tow and its mate. However I can not say that with any surety.
Winter was coming to an end when on March 18th we had our first spring arrival and it was the Hooded orioles. All the wintering birds were still here. The first to leave was Patience, the Hermit thrush, on March 23rd. The Rufus hummingbirds had already arrived for the spring on March 20th. Not only that but spring really encroached when the California thrashers started stacking worms in their beak to take back to nestlings! That was on March 24th, the day after Patience left. The thrashers are very early nesters. Their nesting season is from December to June with March through May the peak times. I will have plenty more information on the thrashers in my next essay.
Most of the White-crowned sparrows left on April 7th, except for two who left on April 18th. Last fall we had two Hooded orioles that stayed three weeks after the others had gone south. Some birds seem to miss the text messages I guess. We had a fun winter with our winter friends, however I must say that Patience will always be the star in winter, as long as she shows up.
Absolutely nothing is permanent in nature. The only constant is change. My relationships with the birds and other animals are always changing. One thing that does stay the same is my enjoyment of these relationships. Last year I lost three birds that fed by hand; the bluebird pair Bonnie and Clyde, after three springs, and Tow-Tow, which was a five year relationship. This year I gained another winter bird, besides Patience, that takes from my hand– that would be Whitey. With the resident birds, I picked up Slasher and Tow-Tow II as hand feeders. In the end I haven’t lost anything. What I have really gained is more wonderful experiences with my friends!
Your’s in Nature,