Bringing birds into your yard
By JIM MATTHEWS
I have been a peripatetic bird-watcher since I was a kid. I have a dozen or so bird books on the shelves, and the Sibley’s Guide to Western Birds is in my “go bag” along with two pairs of binoculars. Whenever I travel, the book and binoculars are with me so I can see and identify more birds. There is a Sibley book on the kitchen counter along with another pair of binoculars for the backyard birds feasting on the mixed seed I scatter on the ground a couple of times a week this time of year.
Welcome to today’s suburbia.
As I age, my trips to wild places are less frequent and shorter, but I still spend a lot of time making my backyard home for the wildlife that inhabits the nearby washes and hillsides. They can come to me for a change. While I don’t have a hummingbird feeder, I have planted flowers in the yard that attract them because of their nectar. I have blossoming and fruiting shrubs and trees that are as much for the birds as for Becky and me. And, of course, there are the mixed wild seeds bought in 25-pound bags.
I keep a list on the kitchen counter and watch the backyard most mornings to see what new migrants I get throughout the winter. We get migrants from great distances and some just move downslope from the higher elevations of the mountains. It is almost as good as being out in the wild somewhere.
So far this season, my list looks like most years. First, there are the locale residents I see year around – the house sparrows, house finches (both non-natives), Anna’s hummingbirds, California towhees, scrub jays, and mockingbirds. The white-crowned sparrows are some of the first migrants to show up, and they are staying longer each year, and I almost consider them resident birds these days. The dark-eyed juncos and yellow-rumped warblers are next to arrive. This is also the time of year when I start seeing the lark sparrows with their distinctive chest spot and face mask.
While we have mourning doves all year, there is definitely an ebb and flow of bird numbers. The birds we have all summer and early fall, mostly disappear by the end of September. Then we get an influx of winter birds around Thanksgiving. The birds I’ve had in the yard the past 10 days are big, mature, fully-plumed birds that I’m sure have migrated from colder locations and have staked out this neighborhood for the winter. They will disappear about the end of February or early March when they head north with the warm days.
There are a lot more what I call drive-by birds this time of year, birds that might live in the area year-around but that I only see infrequently. The black phoebes seem to hang out more in the winter and spring, and I love watching them hunt flying insects. The kingbirds are mostly here from late winter through early summer. I had a Nuttall woodpecker in my apricot trees the other morning, and I know there are northern flickers in the neighborhood, but more from their calls than seeing them. There are impatient little gray blobs of birds like bushtits and oak titmouse that flit through the yard, making identification difficult and photography nearly impossible. The lesser goldfinches are regular visitors, and I have seen Lawrence’s goldfinches in little flocks from time to time.
Crows almost disappeared from this whole region during a West Nile virus outbreak a few years ago, but they have staged a comeback, and there is a resident group of about a dozen birds I hear and see every day. I realize I missed them once they started trickling back into the neighborhood. The crows harass any raptor in the area, announcing their presence. They have had a pair of red-shouldered hawks to pester almost daily for the past month. The red-shoulders are one of the noisiest birds in the neighborhood, and we haven’t had any for over two decades, but I suspect the big numbers of ground squirrels in all the vacant fields around here has been their open invitation. Between the cawing of the crows and the keeee-keeee-keeeeing of the red-shoulders, mornings can be noisy if you pay attention.
The red-tailed hawks are residents, but we see a few more migrating through this time of year and they get vocal when interacting with each other. There are few places in this region where you can’t look up at the sky and see a red-tail soaring overhead, usually unnoticed because we rarely look up. The same is true of the kestrels (sparrow hawks), the insect and lizard eaters that live everywhere.
My favorite of the raptors is the Cooper’s hawk. There are always one or two in the neighborhood that haunt bird feeders to nab one of the smaller birds feeding on seeds. They will catch birds up to the size of doves and pigeons, but younger Cooper’s seem to focus on finches and sparrows. It is a treat to see one streak through the yard to catch one of the smaller birds feeding in my seeds (see photo). I usually only see the results of their hunting, a scatter of feathers beneath a perch when they dined.
I swear the scrub jays love to swoop into the spread seeds like a Cooper’s, doing it just to panic all the sparrows and finches. The ornery jays might just be doing the Cooper’s bidding because the little birds eventually learn to ignore the jay. I wonder if this might not lead to their demise when they have a split-second hesitation when the Cooper’s hawk does come rocketing in on them.
All of this is right in all our backyards, and all we need is a good bird identification book and some seed or bird-friendly yard. Adding binoculars makes sorting the birds from each other easier. Bags of wild bird seed are cheap and will pull a plethora of birds even to a cement balcony on a second-story apartment. (Bird books, binoculars, and bird seed are three things that are great Christmas gift ideas for that difficult-to-shop for person. Just a little last-minute tip.)
A friend recently gave me some good-natured grief and accused me a being a bird socialist. I was giving them a free handout for nothing in return and causing dependence and laziness. My answer might have given him pause. I explained that I was inviting my feathered friends over for breakfast some days, not every day, and I scattered the seeds across the ground in leaves and duff. They have to search for their meal. I told him it was friendship, not socialism. I also explained that one of them occasionally gets sacrificed to the talons of the Cooper’s hawk, who I also invite into my yard.
I told him it was something he might want to consider the next time I invite him over for a meal.
Jim Matthews is a syndicated Southern California-based outdoor reporter and columnist. He can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 909-887-3444.