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SCOTT SHALAWAY Beyond birdwatching-- getting serious



Published: Tue, February 11, 2003 @ 12:00 a.m.



Identifying all the birds at backyard feeders can seem an impossible task to beginners. Depending on your motivation, it may take days, weeks, or even months to master the 20-plus species that visit winter feeding stations.

But after learning to recognize the most common feeder birds, you can graduate to more serious, and arguably more interesting, birdwatching.Watching feeder birds raises many interesting questions. What are they doing? Is there a & quot;pecking order & quot; among the species of birds that visit feeders? How do feeder birds react to squirrels, cats, and hawks? Does the weather affect the number of birds that use feeders?

These questions and many more can be answered by anyone who feeds and watches birds. No special training or education is necessary. Patience and experience are expert instructors.

A few years ago, for example, I took a closer look at how birds eat sunflower seeds. Although I offer a variety of food -- sunflower seeds, nuts, millet, corn, and suet -- oil sunflower seeds are eaten by the greatest variety of birds. The question on my mind was, & quot;Do birds just gulp down their food, or do different birds eat in different ways? & quot;

Had an answer

By day's end, I had an answer. Most birds do not swallow seeds whole. Different species attacked seeds in different ways.

Mourning doves, for example, do indeed swallow seeds whole. Doves and other game birds such as bobwhite, pheasants, and turkeys eat quickly and fill their crops with seeds. Then they retire to the safety of a brush pile or an evergreen tree and digest their meal at a leisurely pace. In the crop, seeds become moist and soft so they can be more easily ground and digested when they pass to the more powerful, muscular gizzard.

This strategy allows these seed-eaters to forage in open fields where food is abundant, but exposure to predators is high. By spending as little time as possible out in the open, these birds reduce their chances of being surprised by a predator.

Cardinals, grosbeaks, and finches, on the other hand, remove the meat from sunflower seeds by manipulating seeds with their powerful bills. They cradle seeds between their upper and lower bills and squeeze until the shell cracks. Then they use their tongue to finesse the meat into the mouth. Try cracking a peanut and extracting the meat with just your teeth and tongue, and you'll appreciate these birds' oral dexterity.

Goldfinches use this technique even with tiny nyjer seeds. If you see lots of dark debris under a finch feeder, you may suspect that the nyjer is being cast upon the ground and ignored. But if you look more closely and examine the debris, you'll find that it consists of the tiny shucked shells of the nyjer seeds. The oily meat has been deftly extracted.

Third technique

Titmice, chickadees, and blue jays use a third technique to open sunflower seeds. After taking a seed from a feeder, a chickadee sits perpendicular to the perch and clamps the seed under the toes of both feet. It then hammers its bill against the top face of the seed. After a few blows, the shell breaks and the chickadee picks the meat, bit by bit, from the shell. Unlike finches, these birds usually don't eat the meat whole.

Nuthatches use a similar technique to open seeds. Rather than holding the seed with their toes, though, nuthatches wedge seeds and nuts in crevices in tree bark. Once the seed is securely in place, the nuthatch stabs the seed (or nut) with its longer, dagger-like bill until it & quot;hatches & quot; the seed. Hence the name nuthatch.

A nuthatch's natural food includes nuts such as acorns, beechnuts, and hickory nuts. These foods are too large to be held securely by a nuthatch's feet. That's why nuthatches use the more sophisticated technique of wedging their food in a bark crevice.

Birdwatching entails more than simply identifying species and checking them off on a list. It's observing and studying bird behavior to understand why they do what they do.

sshalaway@aol.com




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