The apartment in Kenosha was a second-floor flat. We hung feeders outside a couple of windows which attracted mostly House Sparrows and some House Finches. They went through a ton of seed, and the sparrows were not particularly entertaining. On the roof below, juncos would pick through the fallen hulls, but they were kind of far away.
Another window featured a suction-cup feeder of sunflower seed only an arm’s length from a 30-foot spruce. That one was visited often by pairs of Northern Cardinals, our favorites. During our breakfast or dinner, we would watch the crimson male shelling sunflower seeds and feeding them to the female. They, in turn, would observe us. However, those sunflower seeds also attracted huge, purple-headed Common Grackles which would swoop down like the flying monkeys from The Wizard of Oz, stare at us with their beady yellow eyes, and bat all the seed out of the feeder with their beaks. We started to keep an arsenal of wine corks on hand to whip at the window and scare the beasts, but soon this didn’t faze them at all.
There were a few surprises now and then. An Indigo Bunting stopped by one time, a Baltimore Oriole another, and there was a Rose-breasted Grosbeak once. There were several instances of a Northern Harrier perching in the backyard trees and effectively shutting down all air and ground traffic in the yard. Also, a neighbor’s escaped parakeet munched on our seed one summer. However, these are pretty much all of the standout sightings over 16 years.
After we bought this house in Racine, we put two hanging feeders in the backyard. Amy also wanted to attract goldfinches, so we added a hanging finch screen feeder to a birch tree. To lure cardinals, I splurged on a fantastic pole-mounted, squirrel-proof feeder made by Heritage Farms.
The bird books all tell you that there are three components to a popular bird haven: food, cover, and water. At our apartment, there was no satisfactory way for us to supply water, but shortly after the move, I did a little reading about birdbaths in a helpful little book called Feeding the Birds. The author wrote that birds want a rough surface for secure footing, they want a vessel with wide edges which very gradually slopes to its deepest point, and they like that deepest point to be only about 2 and a half inches, or else drowning will kill some of them and worry the rest.
Amy and I went out that very warm September day during the 2005 drought and bought an attractive concrete birdbath which fit the bill. We placed it in the yard and filled it with water. No sooner were we inside the house than the bath was crowded with at least 10 sparrows all splashing around like kids, and a big red cardinal right in the middle of it all. Since then, this simple object has been a far better overall entertainment bet than TV. As I write this, a House Finch couple is taking polite sips.
So now we have House Finches and House Sparrows again, plus White-crowned Sparrows. We have American Goldfinches, which wore their drab olive feathers to our feeder all winter, and have since transformed into bright yellow little rockets that loop all around our yard, startling neighbors and singing their giddy, sqeaky jazz. We have cardinals which do cautiously eat at the pole feeder many evenings, but will feel better after we install some of their preferred shrubs nearby. We have charcoal and white Dark-eyed Juncos hopping happily around the ground. We have dumb, docile Mourning Doves cooing on the wires overhead. We have a good many fat, red-breasted American Robins which alternately plop in the bath like relaxing mob bosses, or step, with heads cocked, all around the yard making hits on earthworms. We have some imposing European starlings, which flaunt their own dark, unpleasant beauty — like something created by Tim Burton — and occasionally make interesting sounds.
Tiny Black-capped Chickadees fly countless quick sorties out of the shrubs to steal a sunflower seed here, a grain of millet there. Now and then Blue Jays crash the party, usually as a trio, in a graphic riot of blue, black and white. They peck and raise a cawing racket as they work the yard over, then fly off again to parts unknown for a couple of days. A handful of Cedar Waxwings stopped by one afternoon in early winter. They nibbled a few crabapples, drank some water, and took off. Over the winter, a Cooper’s Hawk appeared several times to snatch a sparrow from our bushes, then hold it between its talons on our crabapple branch and rip it into tasty red meat strips for lunch. That would quiet all the birds in the neighborhood, except for the furiously cawing American Crows.
One day in March, Amy spotted a bird couple whose male sported an oddly brown head above a blackbird’s body. Our Peterson Field Guide identified it as a Brown-headed Cowbird. He intimidated his mate with the oddest-looking cloak-winged waddle, almost like a little Count Dracula overtaking his victim. Also in March, the backyard suddenly filled with a black cloud of birds, at least a hundred grackles and Red-winged Blackbirds, which swarmed between shrubs and the bath like a scene out of Hitchcock for about ten minutes, then headed south in one group.
A couple of weeks back, I saw an unusual spotted bird with a red mark on the back of its head poking around beneath the bushes. It turned out to be the Northern Flicker pictured at the very beginning of this story. While I was watching it, I also noticed a woodpecker on our birch. It wasn’t the Downy Woodpecker which frequently samples the suet we hang. This one turned out to be a Red-cockaded Woodpecker. Two new species in less than five minutes! It may sound crazy, but that pretty much made my day. Then, that same evening, Amy pointed out a never-before-seen Hermit Thrush timidly hopping beneath our perimeter shrubs and taking short baths.
What prompted me to write this morning was a bird that I first took for a finch or sparrow, until I noticed the reddish-orange marking on its head. Now I’m thinking it was a Golden-crowned Kinglet, but I can’t be sure unless I get to look at it some more. It did have the broken white eye-ring.
Yes, we’re a little bird-brained. Early this year, David Attenborough’s series The Life of Birds was one of our favorite Netflix rentals ever. Go ahead and mock us, but have you seen the bird that uses car wheels and crossing signals to help it crack a hard nut? Have you heard a bird brilliantly mimic the shutter and automatic drive of a single lens reflex camera? Alright then.
This is only the beginning. Over the winter, I was reading Attracting Birds to Your Backyard. We’ll start by putting some elderberry bushes in, and we’ll get a dogwood to replace the one shrub that died. Then maybe some red trumpeting vines near the kitchen window for hummingbirds.
It’s going to be great.