Posted by: atowhee | January 2, 2019


I am being educated by our garden birds.  What to eat.  When to eat.  Do we share? Here is some of what I have been taught.

On these very cold mornings, the juncos are early risers.  Often they are accompanied to the feeder area by Spotted Towhees.  The juncos are quite hardy.  They often will bathe on very cold days.  More than once I have seen a junco in bird bath water while it is snowing.  Towhees and juncos are often among the last to go off to night roosts in winter.  When I lived in San Francisco the California Towhees were nearly always the last to go to bed.  Some dark evenings I would scare up a pair while dog walking and there would barely be enough light left to identify them.  Their sharp chip note of annoyance was a confirmation of towheeness.

As the day warms up the Audubon’s Warbler is usually the first insectivore to appear.  Later come the chickadees, later still the nuthatch, Bewick’s Wren and any woodpeckers in the area.

Bushtits are the smallest songbird in Oregon.  Only some hummers are smaller.  In cold weather they combat the calculus of calories, sleeping in groups in woodpecker holes to share body heat.  They too much surface for too little body mass to be safe in cold weather.  When they are nearby they can be dawn risers and at the suet as a life saver which it may well be.

By mid-morning the rest of the sparrow family and finches are usually out and feeding: Golden-crowned and Song Sparrows, Fox if there is one around…none this year so far.  House Finches, usually in a small flock.  Starlings, scrub-jay and collared-doves are often late risers.  Scrub-jays are particularly shy of rain.  They cache food so why get out in the rain if there is a larder in some dense conifer or evergreen magnolia?  Nuthatches also cache food so they can linger under cover when necessary.

I have been giving out peanuts in the shell some days.  Squirrels may eat on the spot or haul one away to cache.  The Scrub-jays are pros, and appeared in less than three minutes.  I watched one adroitly put two sideways in its beak and then fly off.  Returning quickly to repeat.  In Ashland it was many months before any of our numerous Steller’s Jays learned to double up on peanuts in a single trip.  With smaller beaks they had to put one down the throat, clutch the other between mandibles.  Soon they all knew how to do it.  Jay see, jay imitate.  They even learned to hang upside down like nuthatches

Many birds eat on the ground or at feeders, either suet or sunflower seeds which I provide.  There are three species that must work on even a partial sunflower seed: Red-breasted Nuthatch and both chickadee species (Black-capped and Chestnut-backed).  They must take away a single chip and chip away at THAT, getting even tinier bits they can swallow.  Even the Lesser Goldfinches and siskins (not present this winter) can sit on tray or at suet and dine al fresco.  All the larger birds do that as well: Downy, House Finch, various sparrows, wren.

Sparrows feed most readily and often on the ground.  But some other birds do as well: warbler, finches, jays, collared-doves, wren.  Flickers will feed on lawns with robins or starlings but they will not go for sunflower seeds on the ground, only using hanging suet feeders.  Some species I see regularly don’t use our feeders: kinglet, Red- breasted Sapsucker, robins. Swifts and swallows would never deign to use a feeder, nor nighthawks.  If our garden were less enclosed we might get the bigger beggers: gulls, crows, ducks, blackbirds.  Starlings, as you might imagine, will eat anywhere there’s grub, or grubs.

Starlings, BTW, share easily and without rancor.  Today we had at least a half dozen in one bird bath at one time.  The gang members regularly share feeders, with fellow starlings.  Even the flicker, much larger, is wary of trying to oust starlings already on a feeder though I have seen flickers route jays from food. Finches share, even siskins though they hassle one another and all other species, a lot. In spring the returning American Goldfinches can pack so closely together they coat a feeder, painting it a blaze of buttery yellow. Sparrows don’t share well—juncos have a politesse that requires spacing between individuals.  Other amicable sharers are the Bushtits, up to a dozen at one time on a feeder, wasting time fuss or shove or complain.  Always eat and run.  Their gregarious habits when not breeding and their constant motion help protect them from lurking predators.  They are so damned busy and fussy and nervous that they are much too much trouble to try to time or catch.  Easier to go for something slower and larger, say a plump collared-dove or even a starling who’s careless enough to miss the Cooper’s Hawk landing above.

Starlings do not share outside the gang.  Most entertaining sharers I have ever fed were the Band-tailed Pigeons who returned each April to our garden in Ashland.

Aggressive non-sharers include the Audubon’s Warbler who bullies smaller birds, also jays and doves use their size to dominate.  The warbler is also our best hover-feeder.  Often he hangs in air at suet log, picking bits to eat.  Most of our other species are lousy at that, or at least inefficient in calorie use vs. calorie intake.  After picking away at the suet I often see the warbler go up to a limb and wipe the suet crumbs off the outside of its beak.

Bushtits are highly unpredictable.  Their winter territories must be large and dispersed.  They will be around numerous times in one day, and maybe the next, then vanish for a week or more.  Then repeat their return behavior. No matter how often they return to our feeders in a single day, they rarely stay for more than a minute in one visit. Some birds, if not driven off or frightened, will stay and gorge: juncos, House Sparrows, starlings.

Tomorrow morning while the birds are at their breakfast, I’ll be back in class, taking notes on what is done, what is not, how one behaves if one is a sparrow or finch or flicker.

Bushtit bunch, peacefully sharing before they “panic” and vanish: bt mobb

Black-capped Chickadee about to depart with sunflower chip he will have to whittle down to bite size somewhere else:BC-ATRAYIN2
To each, his own…no sharing:

If sumo wrestlers became birds and had to share a meal.  These guys crowd in, fuss and give off gnarling “whrrrr” sounds of annoyance, belly-bump one another but never stop eating except for occasional face offs–the two angry birds with heads cocked back and bellies protruding…even when one is booted off the platform I never saw feathers fly or bloodshed…all feint and ritual anger:BTP IN GARDEN 002At this low elevation and suburban habitat I have little likelihood of getting these Band-tail invasions here in McMinnville, though one pair nested on the edge of town last year…along Baker Creek.


  1. A particular fun post for me to read as I can confirm the same order of appearance in southern Oregon. I spent 3 weeks house sitting in Sun Oaks, Medford, where the folks are feeding a blend in 3 feeders, nyger in 2 and one cake of suet. Jays get peanuts distributed by hand and seemed adept at immediate, orderly – if quite noisy – retrieving regardless of my altering the location amidst patio furniture. The most surprising to me was one day when the flicker and a downy shared the suet, one on each side. Usually they took turns and would disappear when the starlings descended.

  2. How can you feed nyger in wet weather?

    • You have to hang it under a roof or put a large protective cone (the kind to deter squirrels) above it

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