Wednesday, April 27, 2011

The Invaders (Part Two of Three)

Male House Sparrow at my feeder.
One morning, early this Spring, I took photos of four or five different birds at my feeders within about an hour.  When I examined the photos later I realized (with a little help from a naturalist friend) that they were all sparrows.  In five photos I had both male and female House Sparrows and one solitary Song Sparrow.  I realized that a winter of observing chickadees, bushtits and hummingbirds had changed my perception of size.  The sparrows -- which had once been my definition of "small bird" -- now looked quite substantial (and the robins that showed up at the same time looked enormous).   

In Seattle, sparrows seemed to be associated closely with supermarkets.  The Safeway across the street from me in Ballard, at my old home, had numerous sparrows living in the eaves of its parking garage and nesting, come Spring, in the small trees along the sidewalk.  The QFC close to my new home in West Seattle has the same arrangement, except they have no garage, so that sparrows are hanging out under the front of the building.  I always stop to look at them on my way in.  

Female House Sparrow at my feeder.

As Spring has progressed (if Spring has progressed -- it has been a very intermittent season so far this year) the House Sparrow couple have become frequent visitors at my feeders.  The male is very handsome, with his dashing brown head stripes and direct gaze.  The female is more nondescript, but I often see the two of them together.  (Or at least, I often see a male and female House Sparrow together -- I can't be absolutely positive they're the same couple every time).  

Song Sparrow
Unlike the Song Sparrow, which is native to North America, the House Sparrow is a transplant.  They are native to most of Europe and Asia.  Among "invasive" birds, only the European Starling and the universal Rock Pigeon are more common -- and Rock Pigeons, which are all the feral descendents of domesticated birds, fall into a different category.  The first known, deliberate release of House Sparrows in North America was in Brooklyn, NY (or possibly in Central Park) in 1851.  By 1900 (according to All About Birds) it had spread as far west as the Rocky Mountains.  Although two subsequent releases, in Salt Lake City and San Francisco in the 1870's surely helped the birds get established.

House Sparrows share another trait with Rock Pigeons, they are fond of human housing, seeming to prefer eaves, attics and nest boxes.  They flourish around us.  They are often credited with evicting native species form nesting areas and are known to aggressively defend their homes from other birds.  The pair in my front yard seem to get along fine with the chickadees and juncos who frequent the feeders, but I have seen them squabble with starlings over the suet.  Both invaders seem to get their fair share (as does the rat who lives under the fence -- but more about him next time).

Male House Sparrow going for suet.
So far, the House Sparrows have been an attractive and un-troublesome addition to life in my yard.  I would guess that they are here because they are nesting nearby, and that we are far enough from their winter flock feeding grounds that we won't have to worry about inundation.  I didn't see a single sparrow here over the winter.  

We pay a lot of attention -- deservedly -- to the endangered and embattled species, and worry a lot about the effect of invasive species on native habitats.  Which we should.  But it seems to me that there is something to be learned, too, from the creatures who thrive best in the world that we have created.  After all, it's the opportunistic, aggressive, highly successful, sometimes destructive, adaptable creatures like Starlings, Song Sparrows, Crows and (yes) rats who are in many ways most like us.

Maybe that's why we're so ambivalent about them.

Monday, April 25, 2011

The Invaders (Part One of Three)

For more Stellar's Jay action, see my previous post Turf Wars
 The action in and around my front yard has been changing the last few weeks -- spring brings new visitors and familiar visitors change their behaviors.  There have been some really exciting arrivals -- especially the Stellar's Jays -- who I believe may be nesting nearby.  


But a lot of my attention -- and my camera time -- has been focused on three species who are not always well regarded:


European Starlings,


House Sparrows, 


and the Norway rat.   

Some naturalists would put these species at the top of the Public Enemies list, a kind of environmental Axis of Evil.  Others raise questions about how much they are to blame for the damage sometimes attributed to them.  Nevertheless, they are here, and no matter how much trouble they may sometimes be for us (or for competing native species), realistically they aren't going anywhere any time soon.  And whatever else they may be, they are fascinating species in their own right, with much to teach us about the adaptability and persistence of life.  

In winter, starlings are brown, covered with white speckles that fade as winter progresses. In summer, they are black with purple and green iridescence and yellow beaks. 

The European Starling is one of the most successful and widespread birds in the world.  With help from human beings, it has spread from its normal range -- which includes almost all of Eurasia, the Middle East, Northern Africa, northern India, Nepal, and parts of China -- and been "successfully" (the success here is purely from the starlings point of view, other species may characterize it differently) to North America, Australia, New Zealand and islands in the Caribbean.  In many areas where they have established themselves, they are considered pests.  They have been credited with the demise of native species, the introduction of invasive species of plants, and damage to crops and agriculture. 

They like urban areas, thriving around people.  In North America Starlings are ubiquitous, their range stretching from Mexico to Canada.  

Eugene Schieffelin (usually described as "eccentric") was the president of the American Acclimatization Society, a group which was part of an international movement to introduce interesting and "useful" species into nations where they were not native.  Some sources claim that Schieffelin wanted to introduce into America all the species that were mentioned in Shakespeare's works (Starlings are mentioned in Henry IV), but other sources question or dismiss that motivation.  What is certain though, is that Schieffelin twice -- in 1890 and 1891 -- organized the release of approximately 60 European Starlings into Central Park in New York.  The first release was considered a failure, but the second succeeded beyond all expectations.  According to The Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology's All About Birds site, all of the starlings in North America are descended from these early releases -- and the Starling population here shows remarkable genetic uniformity. 
What is really amazing to me, however, is the Starling's vocal ability.  In the urban neighborhood where I used to live, starlings almost seemed like smaller versions of the crows they often flocked with.  I didn't get much chance to listen to them.  Now, in a slightly more suburban neighborhood, I often stand on the deck of my house and listen to what sounds like a small chorus of birds -- sounds that range from whistles, pops, clicks and screeches, to scraps of songs that are almost familiar -- all of it emanating from one starling in the tree overhead. If you hear a bird that sounds like it is arguing with itself in multiple voices, it is almost certainly a starling.  Because they often have an "electronic" sound to their songs, I think of starlings as the re-mixers of birds, sampling and combining a wide variety of sounds into something truly their own.  A few days ago, three starlings in my yard seemed to be improvising a complex melody, with one of them providing a "base-line" that sounded for all the world like a rapper beat-boxing.  

All About Birds says that starlings are known to copy the songs of up to 20 species, including (to name only the one's common to this area) robins, Red-Tailed Hawks, and Flickers.  I'm pretty sure that the Starlings in my neighborhood have learned to imitate chickadees as well.

Starlings have been known for generations as exceptional mimics.  They can even learn human speech.  Mozart had a pet starling, and is believed to have incorporated some of its songs into his own work.  (For some interesting background on Starlings and their abilities, plus a chance to listen to Mozart's "Musical Joke" check out Starling Talk).  You can also see some examples of starlings talking and demonstrating their remarkable range here and here.  (These videos will lead you to many more if you're interested.)

Even knowing the possible negative effects of Starlings on the native ecology and the controversies surrounding them, I find myself almost every day listening to them with a kind of awe.  And I am very grateful for the chance to get to know them.

Tomorrow, I will take up the second species in the Axis of Evil -- the House Sparrow.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Gardening and Hummingbirds

Tender young fuchsias and other plants in our new garden.
This past weekend was the first when the weather was nice enough, and my roommate and I had time enough, to do some work in the yard.  And boy did it need it.  Spring has been slow to arrive here this year (I still don't think we've officially hit 60 degrees in Seattle) and the rain has been omnipresent.  Plus there have  been so many distractions -- paying the rent and keeping the car running and dumb stuff like that.  This weekend, however, we finally got around to it.  

Starting on Saturday, while I worked inside my roommate began cleaning up the storage area and some of the flower beds in the front yard.  Then, on Sunday, we paid a visit to our local nursery.  Because of the cooler weather some of the plants that people would normally be planting at this time of year haven't come in yet.  My roommate wanted tomatoes, for instance, but they haven't arrived at the nurseries.  We did pick up a variety of flowers and decorative plants though -- a mix of pansies, linaria, begonias, and wildflowers.  (This adds a new morning task to my routine, in addition to walking the dogs and checking the bird feeders:  pull slugs off the plants and toss them into the grass on the other side of the sidewalk, where they can't get back.)  Most importantly to me, though, are the fuchsias.  My goal in gardening is very simple:  I want to attract hummingbirds.

If you look closely here, you can see her long tongue sticking out past her beak.  Hummingbirds use this tongue to drink nectar. 
Here in Western Washington we have two species of hummingbirds -- one a migrant and one a year round resident.   For a long time I had this idea in my head (don't ask my where I got it) that our resident Anna's Hummingbirds were the "small guys" and that the migrant Rufus Hummingbirds were bigger.  As with so many things we "know" that turns out to be not the case at all.  (I'm a little hampered on this posting, because I haven't seen any Rufus hummingbirds this year -- they should be back, but if they've visited my yard, it was when I wasn't looking.  For that reason, I don't have any Rufus photos to share yet.  Also, the male Anna's hummingbird that lives in my area, though he does come to the feeder, has proved much more elusive to the camera than the female.  I hope to have some more photos of him to share soon, as well.)

Anna's Hummingbirds were named by René Primevère Lesson (March 20, 1794 - April 28, 1849), a French surgeon and explorer, who was also the first European naturalist to see Birds of Paradise in their native habitat.  He named the hummingbird for Anna Masséna, Duchess of Rivoli, who was Mistress of the Household to Empress Eugenie in the mid to late 19th century.  They are the only hummingbirds in North  America to have a ruby crown -- the males have a bright red head and throat, while the females have a green crown with red visible on their throats and upper crowns.  They average about 3.9 inches in length with a wingspan of about 4.7 inches, and they weigh between one and two tenths of an ounce.  In terms of size, this puts Anna's on a par with Bushtits and small chickadees.  The males are known for their mating and territorial displays, often "dive bombing" other males and even animals as large as dogs or humans.  

A couple of weeks ago I was out on the deck with my roommate and my two dogs, watching the hummingbird feeders.  Generally, the Anna's don't pay a lot of attention to humans, don't seem to consider us much of a threat.  I've even changed the feeder with a hummingbird hovering only a few feet away from me.  That day, however, one of the males must have decided that two humans and two large dogs was too much.  Before I realized what was happening, he flew straight up into the air, and streaked down again, flashing by right in front of my face.  I was being warned.  The fierceness of hummingbirds is legendary.

Hummingbirds have such vibrant, iridescent colors because -- in many species -- the color is produced not just by pigment in the feathers, but by the special property of the feathers that act as prisms, splitting the light and reflecting certain wavelengths back to the viewer.  This creates the brilliance of hummingbird hues, and also explains the variability in color of hummingbirds viewed from different angles.  The male Anna's hummingbird, for instance, has a bright read "hood", but as he moves, depending on the angle of the light, the color can look very different.  Sometimes it even looks black.

Anna's hummingbirds are the only hummingbirds to winter over in the Northern climates.  They are able to find enough food in their native habitats to survive.  In  the winter, a bird will gain weight during the day, converting sugar into fat and storing this fat against the cold temperatures.  They can also wait out poor conditions by lowering their metabolic rates and going into a state of torpor.

It turns out, though, that the "little" Anna's hummingbird is actually the larger of our two species.  The Rufus hummingbird, which migrates in winter to the warmer areas of the South Eastern US and Mexico, are smaller.  Despite that, though, they are known for their territoriality and aggression, attacking much larger birds, and even chipmunks and squirrels.
But I'm still waiting for the first Rufus sighting this year.  My fuchsias are planted, and I'm putting up new feeders, so I hope that the word will get out.

I'll keep you posted.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Turf Wars

In early Spring, the Cherry Tree
puts forth Robins and Jays
who disagree

Harsh screeches split the early morning air, a cacophony of loud voices from all directions.  I ran out on my deck, thinking that maybe the neighborhood crows had cornered another hawk (I'll share those pictures with you sometime, of the Red-Tail being chased out of Dodge last fall).  But when I got outside I realized that the voices were shriller and raspier than crows.  Most of them seemed to be coming from the big evergreen trees across the street.

And then, there it was.  In the cherry tree over my head, a flash of the richest, dark blue you can imagine.  Dark blue with a head and crest of black.  Steller's Jays.

I hadn't seen them in months, not since the last snowfall and freeze when one stopped by our yard looking for food.  And now, here they were, all over the neighborhood.  I counted at least half a dozen, but they were flashing around so fast it was hard to tell.  At one point, there were at least three in the big cherry tree over my head.  Three Steller's Jays in my yard!

Georg William Steller was a botanist, physician and zoologist who joined  Vitus Bering's second Kamchatka expedition, which landed on Kayak Island in Alaska on July 20th, 1741.  (You can find the Wikipedia listing here).  The Captain intended to stop only long enough to take on water, but Steller insisted on having more time to explore.  They were probably the first Europeans in Alaska, and Steller went on to name (after himself) at least six species of birds and mammals.  Of those species, the only one that isn't extinct or endangered today is the bird he originally called "The Steller's Crow" -- the loud, mischievous and beautiful relative of the eastern Blue Jay whose descendents were raising such an unholy ruckus in my neighborhood just yesterday.  

Jays are Corvids, relatives of Crows, Ravens and Magpies.  Highly intelligent, social birds.  I have been privileged to see them up close at the wildlife rehab center where I volunteer.  When you go into an aviary, most birds fly away from you, up to the corners of the pen, and most songbirds naturally gravitate to the open, wire enclosed side of the pen, where there is light and fresh air.  The Jays, however, quickly learn that the door in the back is where the people and food come in, and they are often waiting for you when you open it.  They will also look you right in the eye.  Only Crows, who in the wild are much more acclimated to people, are as willing to meet a human being on equal ground.  I know it's a hopelessly subjective, unscientific reaction, but when I look into the eyes of a Steller's Jay it's impossible not to feel that there is a quick mind there, asking the same kinds of questions about me that I'm asking about them.

On this day, however, the Jays were in trouble.  They were in such a state of agitation, leaping around so fast, that it was devilishly hard to get any photos of them at all.  The first Jay I saw in the cherry tree was quickly attacked by another bird who, after a brief struggle, won the day.  The Jay retreated and I swung my camera around to get a photo of the victor.  

It was a Robin.  A fat, pugnacious robin who had driven the Jay from the yard.  Maybe because it's spring, and Jays like other Corvids, are not above raiding the nests of other birds, or maybe just because the Robins were aggravated by the Jays' obnoxious behavior.  I've seen Robins join with Crows in harassing raptors -- especially Owls in the park -- but I've never seen a solo Robin attack a larger, more aggressive bird.

That was the only actual fighting I saw, but the noise that the Jays were making up and down the street made it seem like an epic struggle was raging.  Within an hour they were all gone from the neighborhood.  

Friday, April 15, 2011


The day before yesterday, in the late afternoon, a flock of very small birds swept into my yard like a sudden rain squall.  They were everywhere, all at once, hopping from branch to branch in the large cherry tree  and swarming all over the suet feeder -- maybe a dozen at a time!  I rushed to get my camera, but by the time I got back there were only a few left.

As suddenly as they came, they were gone, off down the street to the next stop in someone else's tree.

Bushtits are the smallest songbirds in North America (by weight) -- the smallest of any birds on the continent except hummingbirds.  Even my resident chickadees look big beside them.  According to Cornell Lab of Ornithology's "All About Birds" site ( the range from 2.8 to 3.1 inches and weigh between one and two tenths of an ounce.  (By contrast, the Anna's hummingbird, common in this area, averages about 3.9 inches and weighs almost the same.)  They also note that the Bushtit is the only member of its family found in North America -- there are seven others species across Eurasia -- and they build complex, hanging nests.  My favorite field guide, "Birds of the Puget Sound Region"  (by Bob Morse, Tom Aversa and Hal Opperman) describes an  " ... extraordinary hanging nest woven of moss, lichen, spider web and other material, up to a foot long with small entrance near top, usually less than ten feet from the ground."  I've never seen one of these nests in person, but I would love to.

Bushtits were one of the first species discovered to have "helpers" at the nest.  Extra individuals, presumably related, who help the mother and father with care of the young.  All the family members (again, according to "All About Birds") sleep together in the nest, but they leave it after the chicks fledge. 

My own experience with Bushtits is limited to these sudden visitations in my yard, two or three times in the last eight months.   I knew absolutely nothing about them before those encounters.  Unlike the chickadees and juncos who spend so much time in my yard and at my feeders, the Bushtits come and go very quickly.  It might take a lot longer to really get to know them.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Birds of Winter

Winter was  unusually wet and dismal in Seattle this year.  I grew up in Florida where the length of the days doesn't change significantly through the year, and maybe for that reason I'm generally not bothered by seasonal depression.  But this year I felt the winter blues.   This is the kind of weather people who don't live here think we have all the time.  And it hasn't let up for spring -- our March was the wettest on record, and April continues to be sodden.  But through all this gloom (and a fair bit of personal stress) one bright spot of pleasure and distraction has remained:  my bird feeders.

Last year I relocated from Ballard, just north of downtown Seattle, where I lived in one of the more industrial neighborhoods in town, to West Seattle.  We are now about as far South as you can go and still be in the city.  The neighborhood has more of a suburban feel, lots of trees along the streets, and we are surrounded by parks and greenbelts.  The difference in the bird life is amazing.  

 In Ballard, my neighborhood was dominated almost entirely by crows, who shared their turf uneasily with seagulls, pigeons, starlings, and sparrows.

(The sparrows lived mostly in the parking garage of the Safeway across the street and nested in the small trees along the sidewalk.  What is it with sparrows and grocery stores?  It is an almost ubiquitous combination in Seattle.)  And our neighborhood was so thick with feral cats that I didn't dare set up bird feeders.

Here in West Seattle, the situation is very different.  Bird activity is much higher, and the number of species are far greater.  Even though I moved here at the end of summer and didn't get my feeders set up until early Autumn, I've had amazing success.  I have positively identified 17 different species in my yard over the winter. (Not counting others -- including a Red-Tailed Hawk -- that have been in the neighborhood, but never actually on my property.)  This is my "yard list" for the winter and early Spring: 

Seen on our property (West Seattle)  June 2010 through December 31, 2010

1.       American Goldfinch (winter plumage)
2.       American Robin
3.       Anna's hummingbird
4.       Bewick's Wren
5.       Black Capped Chickadee
6.       Crow
7.       Dark-eyed Juncos
8.       European Starlings
9.       Northern Flicker
10.   Red-breasted Nuthatch
11.   Rock Pigeons
12.   Steller's Jay

Jan 1st 2011 through April 14 2011

13.   House Finch
14.   Song Sparrow
15.   Yellow-rumped warbler
16.   Bushtit
17.   House Sparrow

I'm pretty happy with that list.


Some of the birds have come to seem like constant companions -- friends even.   The chickadees, for instance, have been here almost every day.  Their curiosity and fearlessness makes them great birds for close observation.   


Also, the Dark-eyed Juncos, who not only eat at my feeders and in the yard below, but frequently even on the railing of my deck.  One Junco in particular, a fellow with prominent leucism (lack of pigment)  on his face, was a frequent guest throughout the winter.

 Anna's Hummingbirds have been another real blessing this winter.  They've hung out in my yard through snow, rain, heavy winds and (occasionally) sun.  There is at least one male/female pair in the neighborhood, so I am hoping to see hummingbird fledglings before too long. (Here you see a noticeably sluggish Anna's Hummingbird at my feeder during our first big snow in November. I had to go out every hour or so and bring the feeder in to thaw it out.)

This really just scratches the surface of the pleasure my bird watching has given me over the past eight months or so.  As I go forward with this blog, I plan to give many of my avian friends a more in depth look, and also to keep you up to date on the excitement of Spring in West Seattle.

Let me leave you, though, with a shot of one of my non-bird "friends" -- the clever and resourceful nemesis of birdfeeders everywhere.  I have more to say about him in the future as well.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Flickers, Rats and Starlings (Spring heats up, despite the weather)

I was on my deck yesterday, in the morning, and there was a lot of activity going on in the yard. (I'm still wondering who it was who scheduled such a beautiful, sunny day after such a drizzly, grey weekend). The female flicker from our neighborhood was back at the suet feeder (I moved it further out from the fence so the rat can't get to it).  You can see her here.

Underneath the feeder, the rat that lives under our fence was foraging for dropped bits of suet.  I think you can even see a fleck of suet on his back.

There was a brief skirmish on the ground between the rat and a Starling who also wanted to eat the crumbs.  The rat chased the starling off, but it stayed on a fence post just above, watching and vocalizing.

Meanwhile, while all this was going on, the male Flicker was on the roof next door, hammering away at their chimney.
A pretty exciting day for birds and critters.

By the way, this is the first time I've been able to get shots of the male and female Flicker at the same time.  I can hear him pounding out his mating call all over the neighborhood (including, sometimes, on the side of my house.)  With all this courtship going on, I'm hoping for Flicker fledglings in the near future.