Thursday, January 10, 2008

Watching the Birds Go By

We first started watching birds when we moved to Vancouver. Our neighbour Burt, down the alley, came over one day after Christmas with a long pole and a funny looking red plastic thing on a hook. He'd just been given a new birdfeeder for Christmas and he wanted to give us his old one. He even helped us set it up, wiring it to the deck railing with some old telephone wire and showing me how to slide the pole up and down when I wanted to refill the seed feeder. The kids were all excited about having some pet birds, until I explained that it didn't work quite that way. So we loaded up the seed feeder, loaded up the suet feeder, hung a seed bell for good measure, and sat in the shade of the open door, waiting for something to happen.

That was 4 years ago. In the intervening time the twins have gotten to the point where they no longer race screaming at the feeder every time a bird alights on it, and Max has gotten to the point where he can recognize most of the birds in our area. We also live in another city, not too far from Vancouver, but far enough that the little black-capped chickadees Max loves aren't around. They haven't flown across the Strait of Georgia yet, apparently!

In the photo you can see our feeder system. Simple yet effective. We have a black sunflower seed bell, a suet feeder, and a seed house (more popular in the summer months). On the other corner of the deck we have the hummingbird feeder. Hummers are not the most congenial birds around; in fact they tended to dive bomb the other birds when their feeder was closer to this system, so we moved it. Here's a post I wrote about them a few months back, I was so impressed at their ferocity. It was one of the first things we did when we moved here, too: set up the feeders.

During the summer we only keep the seed house filled. Sometimes we hang apples or cardboard rolls with some peanut butter on them (a midsummer's eve treat), but that's about it. The birds forage for themselves just fine. Mind you, we provide numerous opportunities for them to forage. Our yard is given over to flowers, vegetables, and herbs covered in either aphids, seeds, or worms, but we still tussle over the fennel seeds. We have a bird bath which the squirrels edge them out on, sadly. Come the cold weather, we set out the suet feeder, which is a mixture of bacon fat, peanut butter, bird seed, whole oats, sesame seeds, and sunflower seeds. I save bacon fat all year round, and when I get a couple of cups worth, I melt it down, add equal parts peanut butter, throw in some other things, stir well, then pour into sandwich-sized ziplock bags and freeze flat on a tray. The bag peels off easily and I can tuck it into the suet feeder - which is the same size. A little wasteful on the plastic side, I realize, but I haven't quite figured out a way that doesn't involve a container of some sort.

In Vancouver we had a very cordial relationship with the Stellar's Jays, but we have yet to see a single one here on the Island. They are cheeky, gorgeous, and incredibly noisy birds, but we miss them. I already mentioned the black-caps. We miss them, too. They are easily the cheeriest little bird around. We have the chestnut-backed chickadee, but he's a little shyer than his cousin. We also have juncos, downy woodpeckers, bushtits, nuthatches, kinglets, robins, red-winged blackbirds, hummers, Cooper's hawks, red-tailed hawks, sparrows, and even the odd barred owl. The kids know them all, thanks to this feeder system and our handy dandy Compact Guide to British Columbia Birds. It's not the most comprehensive birding book I've seen, but it's easy to tuck into a coat pocket, small enough for tiny hands, and very easy to thumb through. It also has male/female sketches (essential for figuring out things like "is that a starling or a female red-winged blackbird?), and migratory/summer/winter living habits. This is how we found out that the black-cap hasn't yet made it to our little corner of the world, although Max is readying a special suitcase...

If you want to set up your own feeder system, you must be very careful to keep the seed dry. If it gets wet it can make the birds very sick. And take care to keep the feeders where the squirrels and the starlings can't get at them (she says, to much hollow laughter).


Rebecca said...

If you want to see Stellars, you'll find plenty of them out toward the Malahat. Thetis Lake park may house some, too, as I've seen some in that area.

And they are just as cheeky here as they are in the lower mainland! We've seen them bully smaller birds - and they can raise a big fuss.

sheila said...

Hey Rebecca,

I was talking to the birders at our local Lake Area, and they said that the reason we saw so many in Vancouver was because we were near the UBC forests, and now we're not. I'll have to head out your way if I want my Stellar fix! I know they're terrible bullies, but they are so beautiful. Sort of like super models, I always think: lovely to look at but horrible to live with.

cheers / sheila