A bevy of backyard birds

American Goldfinch in Winter

Bill and I were standing in the living room at the back window gazing outside as our son walked by.

“What on Earth are you two doing?” he asked.

“Watching birds,” we said, in unison. Bill and I then turned and grinned at each other.

I added, “It’s what old people do.”

We then laughed. Our son just shook his head like we’d lost our minds and walked on into the kitchen where he promptly ignored us.

How he thinks we’ll lose our minds simultaneously is beyond me.

Male Cardinals don't mind each other in winter when they need to be at the feeder. However, when temperatures and sunlight both increase in spring, watch out! They are fiercely territorial.
Male Cardinals don’t mind each other in winter when they need to be at the feeder. However, when temperatures and sunlight both increase in spring, watch out! They are fiercely territorial. See the female Cardinal on the right of the feeder? She blends in. Nature’s protective camouflage for nesting birds.

The truth is Bill and I have always been into birds. You can’t live out where we do and not be into them. Well, I guess you can, but what’s the point? Birds are plentiful here, and none are more plentiful than my sassy cadre of Cardinals.

A bevy of birds jockeying for position at the feeder.
A bevy of birds jockeying for position at the feeder including a House Sparrow, the backend of a Tufted Titmouse and a male Cardinal. I love how pissed off birds look when you see them close up. Being a bird is serious business.

In winter, Cardinals, male and female, and mostly in pairs, belly up to the bird feeder all day long as long as those feeders are full of seed. We use a mix of Wagner’s 76027 Black Oil Sunflower seed and regular, high-quality birdseed. We also fill a finch feeder with Audubon Park 12236 Nyjer/Thistle Seed so that smaller birds like House Finches and American Goldfinches (only in winter) have a chance. Like Carol at May Dreams Gardens, we have our problems with Enga the Squirrel too, but nothing dissuades us from filling our bird feeders. We chase the squirrels. We also sometimes coat the copper poles with WD-40 to discourage them. It must be reapplied, and birdseed sometimes sticks to it which is gross in pictures. No, I’ve never poisoned a bird or squirrel by using it either.

[Click on photos in gallery to make them larger.]

If you do hang a feeder, you must keep it full. The birds depend upon you through winter once a feeder is available. We hang two regular feeders on long copper poles on the back deck which is surrounded by trees so that the birds can perch and fly for cover especially when the red-shouldered hawks come to eat. You know what hawks eat right? Smaller birds and rodents.

Nature is often cruel and takes no prisoners.

Feeding birds isn’t cheap, but we buy our seed in bulk locally and store it outdoors in three Behrens 6110 10-Gallon Locking Lid trash cans on the deck. The squirrels can’t break into these cans so they work well for our needs. Bill likes to layer the food in the feeders with a stripe of black oil sunflower seed between the regular food. Watching the birds makes our winter days shorter. They have such funny behavior.

Before the birds’ mating season begins and once temperatures rise, we’ll take in the feeders until late fall. That way, the birds will find their partners and carry on for the next year. I don’t spray pesticides, and I use many native plants so our birds have plenty of bugs and caterpillars to feed their young. Bugs are essential to a bird’s life cycle. If you don’t believe me, believe Doug Tallamy who has been writing and speaking on this subject for years. His two books, Bringing Nature Home: How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants, Updated and Expanded and The Living Landscape: Designing for Beauty and Biodiversity in the Home Garden, the second written with Rick Darke, are essential reading if you love wildlife. They certainly changed the way I garden.

The other afternoon, Bill said, “That’s weird. There are no birds out there.”

“There must be a hawk nearby. The birds quickly figure out when a hawk is near, and they go hide in the trees. Sometimes, the hawk is lucky. Most of the time they are.”

This time Bill looked at me as if I had two heads. “How do you know this stuff?”

“I just do.”

It’s best to keep some mystery alive even if you’ve been married as long as we have. Just ask Mrs. Cardinal.

Chickens are undervalued

Buff Orpington peep giving me the "stink eye."
Buff Orpington peep giving me the “stink eye.”

For all they do in our lives, chickens are undervalued as creatures and birds. I hate what factory farming has done to most things, but especially to animal husbandry. Companies may still advertise the “romance” of the family farm, but most animals are grown in large networks. Egg-laying chickens are kept in buildings in solitary cages all day to lay eggs–24 hours in bright, fluorescent light–365 days until they are worn out in one year. Just perform an image search on Google of factory chickens. Your first clue to their unhappiness is how pink and dull their combs are. Combs are naturally red. Then, look at their eyes. No spark or spirit, and chickens are spirited animals. I won’t even go into what they do to meat birds. It’s criminal really. If you want to know more, just watch Food, Inc.. There are other films on this topic, but I think Food, Inc. is the least difficult to watch, and explains the situation well.

Baby chickens growing and growing.
Part of the peeps.

In my family’s own protest against the system, and because it’s just plain fun, we have chickens. I like chickens a lot. They are smarter than people think, and although they are highly instinctual, they also have personality and charm. Every three years, I add several to the flock because older hens don’t lay as frequently as younger ones. I can’t stand to kill the older hens so I just keep them on in retirement. It’s not like I’m trying to make money at this. I still buy chicken to eat from local farmers, or at a store which purchases locally. If you don’t feel the same about the plight of the commercial factory chicken, just compare the taste. You’ll want fresh, local chicken. I promise.

There is also nothing like cradling a fresh egg, straight from the nest and warm in the hand. Crack it open–fry, boil or poach it soft and serve atop a spinach salad. Add some warm crusty bread to the mix, and it’s the stuff of dreams.

A couple of days ago, Bear and I traveled to the local feed store to pick up our baby chicks. We got a selection of breeds including Buff Brahma and Buff Orpington. I got a third breed, but I can’t remember what it is. I’ll ask when I go visit the feed store in a few days when I pick up five more of the fourth breed. When we picked them out, Claire and I were literally just pointing to pictures on the page. We’ve had chickens so many times, and we wanted to try some new and unfamiliar breeds. Then, we discovered they don’t hatch all at the same time, and so we had to change some of our choices. One had to be Buff Orpington because these big, gold chickens are favorites. I’ve ordered many times directly from the hatchery, but I decided I’d let the feed store owners get up at 7:30 a.m. and go to the post office for me because the price was virtually the same. The feed store owners also taught the babies how to drink before we got there. We had fifteen peeps, but one died after the first day. It was very sad, and both of my girls took turns caring for it. We fear it had internal injuries from being stepped upon. That first day is precarious.

We almost always lose one.

Buff Brahma baby with it's chipping tooth still attached.
Buff Brahma baby with it’s egg tooth still attached. This chick is fine. She is simply sleeping.

Having babies in the house got me thinking again about how undervalued chickens are. I listen to the contented sounds of the peeps, and I notice how beautifully they speak to one another. Chickens don’t just cackle and crow. They make many different sounds. The babies even trill like songbirds when happy. They also make other, gentle happy noises like all baby creatures. Like baby humans, they shout with alarm when badly startled. Each day, this gets less and less as we walk by their box, pick them up, feed and water them. They begin to see we are not predators. The box sits in a corner of the great room next to a large window, and we have two bulbs for heat that hang over the box. The little birds already have wingtips, and their fluff is going away. Soon, the heat lamps will too.

Wing tips on a Buff Orpington chicken.
Wing tips on a Buff Orpington chicken.

Birds are very instinctual, and chickens, especially those breeds we haven’t overbred for our own purposes–think White Leghorn–retain their wildness. For example, when disturbed, the peeps all scatter and run crazily around the interior of their roomy box. Then, they come together again like the flock they are and stand in the farthest corner in a pointed fashion, their backs to the predator. Their little golden rear ends become very still. It’s almost as if the chicks are thinking, “You can’t see us if we can’t see you.” It’s an instinct built upon the idea of saving at least some of them. They also almost instantly know how to scratch at their bedding as if looking for bugs.

All of the baby chickens rush into the corner to be safe from predators. I have a camera, and I'm clicking their photos. They are scared.
All of the baby chickens rush into the corner to be safe from predators. I have a camera, and I’m clicking their photos. They are scared.

They are babies, and like all babies, they need extra care, but I find baby chicks relatively easy after the first worrisome day. Because their “dust” is starting to bother my asthma, I’ll probably put them in another room soon until they feather out some. By then, the temperature outdoors should be good enough to put them in their bigger cage. I’ll place them in the unused side of the chicken pen and keep them separate from the other flock until they grow large enough. One night, I’ll let them in with the others. By this time, they’ll be pullets. Adding them at night helps minimize any damage. Usually, they are accepted by the other chickens, but I watch them together for several days to make sure. Part of the secret is numbers. If there are more of the newcomers, the hens and roosters seem to realize they are outnumbered.

So, with seeds growing in the seed station and chickens pecking feed in the corner of the living room, we are inundated with babies around here. These are the sounds of spring where I live. What means spring to you?