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LAURENCE PRINGLE'S BLOG

"The Freeze"

Many people who put out seeds and suet for birds in the winter get to see "the freeze." This is what I call it. Ornithologists (scientists who study birds) and others might call it something else. It is common bird behavior, fascinating to witness. Here's what happens:
A variety of birds are busy, coming and going, grabbing sunflower seeds, pecking at suet. Then they freeze in their positions and don't move. Minute after minute (for as long as 7-8 minutes) they stay--clinging to tree bark, perched on branches and twigs or on the wooden seed feeder. You can probably guess why this happens. A bird gave an alarm call. Sometimes I hear it--for example, the loud cry of a jay. Often I don't hear it, but the birds do. They heard a warning, a "predator alert." Around here the threat can be very real, as a sharp-shinned hawk sometimes darts in to catch a bird for its own food. (By attracting doves, woodpeckers, juncos, and others, I am running a feeder for hawks!) Frequently, the alarms are "false." No hawk zooms in. But the birds always heed the warning and stay still, in "the freeze." Eventually, one or two of the smaller birds move, fly to the feeder, go back to life. Then all species "thaw out"--until the next "freeze." Read More 
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Happy Nuthatches!

For many years, I put beef suet in a wire feeder attached to an oak tree near our house, easily visible from my office window. I watched as birds came for this highly-prized food. I watched red-bellied woodpeckers boss the blue jays and the jays boss the smaller downy woodpeckers and the downies boss the smaller white-breasted nuthatches, etc. There was sharp competition for the "honor" of being at the feeder. (This could be called a "pecking order.")

Witnessed the waiting lines, I tried something new: put a piece of suet in the feeder but also smeared suet on the rough bark all around the general area. Wow, what a difference! Here is what happens at, say, 7 a.m. I spread suet around the rough bark. A nuthatch calls, a long excited message, maybe just meant for nuthatches, but other species hear it. Even before I'm back in the house, several species of birds are sharing the suet. The battle over one specific spot is gone. Nuthatches, chickadees, titmice, 2-3 species of woodpeckers, blue jays, cardinals come in. Even juncos and white-throated sparrows, usually ground-feeders, leap up to share the feast. Of course the suet supply doesn't last a long time, but witnessing this sharing is always a treat--another special moment in the life of a nonfiction nature- and science-writing author! Read More 
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