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What’s with the woodpeckers? February 20, 2010

Posted by ourfriendben in critters, homesteading, wit and wisdom.
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Here at Hawk’s Haven, our friend Ben and Silence Dogood welcome woodpeckers. (Well, except for the one that tried to hammer its way through the bedroom wall one year. Our friend Ben finally resorted to hammering loudly with a fist on the exact opposite side of the wall when it began excavating. Sure enough, after three or four of these episodes, it remembered a pressing engagement elsewhere.)

Typically, we have downy, hairy, and red-bellied woodpeckers here, as well as those other woodpeckerish comedians, the white-breasted nuthatches*. We have rarely—far too rarely, for our taste—seen red-headed woodpeckers, northern flickers, and red-breasted nuthatches here as well. (Where have all the flickers gone, anyway? When we first moved to Pennsylvania, we often saw them.)

We have, sadly, never seen a pileated woodpecker in our yard, though our friend Ben saw an ivory-billed woodpecker once. (Until, that is, Silence pointed out that it was actually a plastic bag that had blown in from the street and gotten caught high up in an evergreen. OFB has seen all manner of rare birds over the years, but they inevitably prove to be, not misidentified birds, but normally inanimate objects that have found themselves in unexpected places. But we digress.)

Point being that we love hosting woodpeckers here at Hawk’s Haven, but around here, they don’t act very woodpecker-like. What do we mean? Well, during breeding season, we do indeed hear them drumming for mates in the trees and see them scouring trunks and branches for insects and insect eggs. But in winter, woodpeckers are supposed to eat suet, right?

So we set up our little suet cage and slide in a square of some enticing suet cake studded with mixed seeds and sporting a name like Citrus Delight, Berry Delicious, Peanut Butter Supreme, or even Energy Bar. Pleased with ourselves for helping the woodpeckers fuel up, we return to the house and wait to see them enjoying their high-cal treat. And wait. And wait.

True, we’ve seen birds eating the suet cakes. Crows especially seem to appreciate them. But woodpeckers? Never. Instead, they seem to favor the same black-oil sunflower seed we set out for our other winter visitors. The small birds—the downy and hairy woodpeckers and the nuthatches—eat them right from the tube feeders. The red-bellied woodpeckers prefer to take them from the cabin (“hopper”) feeder. What’s up with that?

Today, our friend Ben finally spotted a red-bellied woodpecker on the gigantic maple tree where the suet feeder is hanging. “At last!” I thought, calling for Silence. But did the woodpecker actually go to the feeder? Nooooo. Instead, it flew all over the branches, checking them out for pupating and hibernating insects.

Mind you, it’s not that we have the least objection to woodpeckers decreasing our surplus insect population. And we’re happy to keep them well stocked with sunflower seeds. But why aren’t they eating the suet cakes?!

* Silence would like to note, for her fellow stinkbug-haters, that white-breasted nuthatches are said to eat stinkbugs. She’s trying to figure out how to lure a nuthatch into the house to deal with the upcoming annual stinkbug invasion…

A collection of cardinals. February 1, 2009

Posted by ourfriendben in critters, gardening, homesteading.
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Our friend Ben and Silence Dogood would just like to boast a bit about the large flock of cardinals, including six brilliant red males, that appeared at our cabin feeder yesterday afternoon. Of course, we always have cardinals at our cottage home, Hawk’s Haven, located in the precise middle of nowhere, PA. But six males at once! This is a first for us. Backlit by the snow, they looked like they were posing in hopes that a famous nature photographer would happen by. (No such luck. Our friend Ben and Silence are both photographically challenged.)

After speculating about whether these cardinals had finally come far enough south to reach our property, or had migrated back to their northern breeding grounds with the lengthening days, our friend Ben had a rush of brains to the head (in the immortal words of a friend’s mother) and picked up the phone. Fortunately, I caught our expert birding friend, Rudy, just before he raced out the door for an annual hawk count.

Turns out that these cardinals are actually local residents. “When there’s snow and ice and it’s bitterly cold, cardinals have trouble finding food,” Rudy told me. “So they leave their usual territories and band together to look for sources of food like people’s feeders.” Wow, what a great reason to keep those feeders filled!

Cardinals aren’t too fond of tube feeders, preferring to feed on the ground or on a wide ledge like the ones on cabin-style feeders (also called hopper feeders for reasons unknown to our friend Ben; they look just like little cabins to me). We see them on the ground beneath our tube feeders, which we keep filled with black-oil sunflower seed, a favorite of many kinds of birds,* and both on our cabin feeder and on the ground beneath it, as well as perched in surrounding shrubs waiting their turn. Unlike the tube feeders, we keep the cabin feeder filled with a wild bird seed mix.  

But wait, you say: Don’t cardinals prefer safflower seed? In a word: no. But unlike most birds, cardinals will eat safflower seed when nothing better’s on offer, which is why people sell bags of safflower seed or a safflower/sunflower mix as “cardinal’s delight.” I suppose the idea is to deter other birds and encourage cardinals, but our friend Ben says forget that. Choose a good all-purpose wild bird mix that will attract an abundance of cardinals, chickadees, nuthatches, titmice, wrens, sparrows, doves, bluejays, woodpeckers, juncos,  and other feeder favorites. Then sit back and enjoy the show!

While I had him on the phone, our friend Ben had another cardinal-related question for Rudy. I always think of male cardinals as a deep red. But the males in this flock, and many others I’ve seen this past year, are a brilliant red that actually looks fluorescent. It of course occurred to our friend Ben that this might be an effect of their snow-white backdrop, but there was a little problem with this hypothesis: They’d also looked fluorescent when there wasn’t any snow. Was this a mutation that had occurred as cardinals began establishing their year-round territories farther and farther north?

Again, the answer was no. Rudy explained that cardinals moult in late summer or early fall, so I had been seeing them in their immaculate new plumage. As spring turns to summer, their feathers become worn and lose their brilliance, so they look darker and duller red. Oh. Thanks, Rudy, for once again straightening our friend Ben out.

So that’s our cardinal story. What’s yours?

* Yes, our friend Ben realizes that it’s grammatically correct to say “kinds of bird,” not “birds,” but it sounds awkward so I’m not doin’ it.