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February 7, 2013

Of Carolina wrens and crossbills

We will remember this year for a number of reasons, among them first time visitors to our bird feeders. Aside from reporting data to Cornell every five days as part of the Project Feeder Watch program, I keep on close watch over all the avian activity up here on the hill. Most winters are routine, in that we can pretty much predict what species will stop by at the free food court we provide.

Despite the predictability, it is always a joy to watch whomever might be dining with us, be they the always fascinating and gregarious chickadees, the juncos that rarely go airborne to check out the feeders, preferring to rummage about through the rich store of droppings provided by messier eaters, or the hairy and downy woodpeckers that cling to the suet feeders pecking away at what must be to them a sumptuous mid-winter feast. Eating upside down has no appeal to me, but it gets the job done. I have often wondered at the gravitational and digestive ramifications of such unorthodox eating habits, but it seems to work nicely for woodpeckers. Nuthatches pick their way down the sides of trees ferreting out insects from the folds of bark furrows. Nature offers up an infinite store of fare that its creatures have attacked inventively over the long march of evolution. If variety is the spice of life, then nature is about as spicy as it gets.

The last time I saw, and listened to, a Carolina wren was while hiking through Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge on Maryland’s eastern shore at least 15 years ago. As we have experienced tamer winters in the Northeast, they have gradually moved northward, so it is not unexpected to catch a glimpse of these beautiful little wrens with striking white eye stripes from time to time. Certainly not at one’s feeder! The first few visits were furtive, but nibbling time has gradually lengthened and this particular male is not the least bit disturbed by the regulars that come and go without paying him any heed at all. In fact, what fascinated me is that if any aggressive behavior is shown at all it is always intra-species. For instance, this morning while a starling was pecking at a suet bit that had fallen to the ground, another hopped over, only to be shooed away rather forcefully. Seconds later a chickadee stopped by, watched, took a nibble or two, and flew up to one of the feeders above. The starling paid no attention whatsoever to the chickadee. I see this sort of thing regularly when squirrels come to feed.

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