It’s February, sodden and cold. I spend a lot of time gazing out my kitchen window into a tangle of bushes, a lichen splotched wooden fence, and, most entertaining, my bird feeder. It’s a hybrid contraption of a tube sunflower seed dispenser with a suet block attached with a wire holder, all connected to a pulley system carefully calibrated—most of the time—to keep it out of reach of squirrels and tree rats.
The bushes are a mixed row of unruly camellias and ancient rhododendrons, a perfect tunnel of safe perches and launching pads for small birds. Chestnut-backed and Black-capped Chickadees, Nuthatches, flocks of Bush-tits, sparrows of several kinds, and my pride and joy, a family of Downie woodpeckers. The feeder often sports a flicker contorting itself to reach the suet while pretending to be a small bird. Starlings sometimes blow in and hog the feeder while quarreling among themselves, forcing the less aggressive birds to wait. A curious wren occasionally flits in and out of my view and towhees and juncos forage for dropped seeds on the ground. I also leave seed on the fence railing for them and any others who aren’t built to comfortably cling to a feeder. I never tire of watching the parade.
A while ago our neighbor reluctantly came to the decision that the centerpiece of my view and a favored perch for the birds, a fast-growing cherry tree that had seeded itself many years ago and was aiming to claim all the sky it could reach, was a likely menace to our respective house foundations and underground gas lines. I had to agree. From a slender stick of a tree that we had barely noticed, it had shouldered its way through the rhodies and was adding girth every year. I worried that the Downies who seemed most to rely on its rough bark for clinging purposes would desert my feeder if the tree was removed, that my small grove of bushes wouldn’t accommodate their needs. But the tree was impossible in that location and the arborist duly came and carefully removed it from its spot.
I waited and watched. Well, the birds seem to barely register the change, the gap in their repertoire of perches! They came and went as if the cherry tree had never been there. The Downies adjusted and focused their attention on the suet feeder as before, I was relieved to note. And one day I noticed a red House finch, a bird we hadn’t seen at the feeder in years….perhaps ever since the cherry tree had crowded into the space? Maybe they preferred a bit more room to maneuver? And the most exciting of all, a Townsend warbler flashed its bright yellow as it nipped in and out for several weeks. We hadn’t seen warblers for a long time either.
So, lesson of the day? Birds have different needs for cover, some more, some less. Experiment by hanging your feeders in different locations. Try out different seed mixes. Think about which birds can cling to a feeder or prefer ground feeding and will need cover to scratch and poke about. But mostly, find a spot where you can observe the action and be surprised by who turns up. That quick vision of yellow or red will make your day!