Crazy weather creates confusion


The weather this fall has been crazy. Though we have had several killing frosts, it has otherwise been strangely mild. On Tuesday, I had sunny skies and 64 degrees. And as I write this Wednesday, it’s drizzling and 57 degrees.

I think such conditions confuse the natural world as much as they do me.

Carolina wrens are still singing, and the only true migratory feeder birds I’ve seen so far this fall have been purple finches. I’m still waiting for juncos, white-throated sparrows, tree sparrows and red-breasted nuthatches to return. I know juncos and white-throats won’t let me down, but tree sparrows and red-breasted nuthatches are less reliable.

Seeing red-breasted nuthatches is always a treat. Like white-breasted nuthatches, red-breasts are acrobatic birds that often climb head-first down tree trunks and spiral around branches. This behavior alone makes nuthatches easy to recognize.

Red-breasts are a bit smaller than white-breasts and distinguished by their rusty underparts, white eyebrows and black eye lines. Look for them in mixed flocks of chickadees, titmice and kinglets.

The primary reason I enjoy seeing red-breasted nuthatches is that they are tame and perhaps the easiest birds to hand feed. Fearless and friendly, they are easily tempted by sunflower kernels or shelled nuts. It’s pure magic when a wild, free-flying bird takes food from your outstretched hand.

Another feeder mystery that has perplexed me this fall is the absence of blue jays. Normally, they visit daily, but from late summer until two weeks ago they vanished. Since then I’ve seen one or two occasionally, but hardly the numbers I’ve come to expect.

I like blue jays because they combine dapper looks with an arrogant attitude. During the fall and winter, they usually roam in small flocks (maybe “gangs” would be a better term), announcing their arrival at feeders with loud cries of “Jay! Jay!” Unwilling to compete with large brash jays, smaller birds disappear into the woods, and the jays feed in peace.

On the rare occasion that another bird lingers near the feeder, one jay in the flock may mimic the cry of a red-shouldered or red-tailed hawk. Standing up to a blue jay is one thing; tempting a bird-eating hawk is quite another. The challenger departs posthaste. The jay’s ruse succeeds, and the flock dines in peace.

Jays rarely stay very long. They usually take some sunflower seeds from a tray feeder and then move on. Unless I’ve offered a handful of peanuts.

When peanuts are in the feeder, blue jays keep coming. They cram them into expandable throat pouches, much like a chipmunk fills its cheek pouches. And like chipmunks, blue jays cache their prizes for later use. Only when the peanut feeder is empty does the parade of jays end.

Nearly a foot long from the tip of the bill to the tip of the tail, blue jays are one of the largest songbirds that visit feeders. Males and females are identical – bright blue body, crested head and a black necklace separates the white throat and belly. The blue wings and tail are marked with white spots and black bars. They are the dandies that brighten a drab fall backyard.

Blue jays also provide a valuable service to their feathered neighbors. Owls often eat smaller birds, so when jays spot an owl roosting in the woods, jays scream a warning to other birds in the area. Their alarm calls alert smaller birds such as titmice, chickadees and nuthatches, who then join the mob.

The chatter of a mob of smaller birds sends an owl a very clear message. “We’ve seen you. You can’t surprise us, so go away and leave us alone.” Even an owl can take only so much abuse, and eventually it departs in search of a less conspicuous perch.

As the weather becomes more seasonal, and it will, I expect most of my winter feeder birds will return. When the snow flies, they keep me thoroughly entertained.

Dr. Shalaway can be heard on Birds & Nature from 3 to 4 p.m. Sundays on 620 KHB Radio (Pittsburgh) or live online at www.khbradio.com. Visit his website, www.drshalawaycom, or contact him directly at sshalaway@aol.com or 2222 Fish Ridge Road, Cameron, WV 26033.

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