A raucous summer of backyard birds (What’s in Your Backyard)
By SANFORD SORKIN
For Montclair Local
As summer ends and we start thinking about fall, the quantity and variety of backyard birds begins to increase. Notably, very hungry fledglings start to forage for themselves when they realize begging isn’t working anymore. The chicks on the ground are frequently larger than their parents, because most young birds possess only one survival skill — eating. The only exercise they get in the nest is positioning themselves to get the most food from doting parents.
The local starlings continue to bring food to their well-hidden nest, and adult downy woodpeckers are feeding their young from the suet feeder. The little ones are still a little confounded about how to leap from their perch directly onto the suet feeder. I keep a wooden stick by the suet feeder as a perch for birds as the last step before the leap to the suet.
The young woodpeckers have not quite mastered the leap and have adopted the dubious practice of climbing the stick to the top and then climbing back down. The process is repeated multiple times until the exasperated parent flies in, grabs a piece of suet, feeds the younger bird, and then shakes its head wondering if it will ever end.
While there is less variety in the summer months, it doesn’t mean there is less activity. This year the nesting community is slightly larger than last year, with common grackles, starlings, gray catbirds, American robins and northern cardinals. We may also have black-capped chickadees and mourning dove nests, but the nests, in most cases, are tucked away and out of sight.
All these birds probably have relatively well-constructed, traditional-looking nests except for the mourning doves, which view any two twigs that touch as a suitable nest and an ideal location to raise little doves.
A great deal of the backyard bird entertainment begins with a racket. One noisy element I could easily live without is the morning visit of the red-bellied woodpecker. For reasons known only to the woodpecker, 5:45 a.m., give or take a few minutes, is the perfect time to hammer away at one of our shutters.
For a short time, he found he could make more noise drumming on an aluminum gutter, but quickly returned to his favorite window shutter. The drumming is necessary to establish his territory and to attract a mate, but it also assumes that female red-bellieds are up at dawn waiting to be asked out.
I frequently respond to blue jays and crows when they decide it is time to take action to loudly defend the neighborhood. When I hear them, I know it is time to get outside with my camera. Their shrieking is often an indication that a hawk, or possibly an owl, is nearby and threatening every other small creature.
We’ve had sharp-shinned and Cooper hawks rousted by these sentinel birds, and even a few falcons are chased over the backyard, but mostly the jays and crows are announcing that our resident red-tailed hawk is perched nearby. It has also been suggested to me that they do it because they like to see me running outside in a state of disarray lugging a camera.
My original intention for this column was to address the backyard bird hierarchy and identify who has dibs on the water, suet or seeds, but I digressed. Digressions are frequent when bird-watching with friends. All conversations involve facing one another, allowing each birder to look over the other person’s shoulder to survey more sky. It also means that conversations stop when a bird is spotted. After following the bird and hopefully identifying it, you get to return to your conversation, if you can remember what you were talking about.
My original premise, based on a sample from a single bird feeder, is that the bigger the bird, the more likely it is to displace smaller birds and eat seeds or suet alone and undisturbed. But I’ve begun to realize that this is not the complete story. Occasionally, a rufous hummingbird will appear in the garden. It is smaller than the usual ruby-throated hummingbirds we regularly see. But in the world of aggression, it is a champion.
Once it identifies a feeder as its own, it chases any other hummingbird that comes close. In the same manner, we’ve all seen small birds chase much larger hawks. Generally, however, the smaller birds give way to the larger birds unless they appear to be really angry about something, and then a chase begins. I’ve never seen the end of one of the epic chases, but suspect one bird simply tires and leaves, giving the chasing bird a tremendous sense of satisfaction.
As fall approaches migration will begin in earnest. I’m looking forward to colorful warblers wending their way south. Hopefully, they’ll want to stop in my yard to bulk up a little before continuing their journey.
Sanford Sorkin, a Montclair resident since 1978, is currently treasurer of the Montclair Bird Club. An experienced bird watcher and accomplished nature photographer, he is the co-author with Rick Wright of “Watching Birds in Montclair,” “Feeding Birds in Northern New Jersey” and “Watching Birds in the New Jersey Meadowlands.”