Birding characters

Birds are strange and bizarre animals. Perhaps they are no stranger than people, but birds are entertaining to watch. It may be because in some ways they act very similarly to people, and at other times they act so differently.

Birds are on my mind right now, since the birdfeeders are full, and Audubon is rolling out the winter bird-seed sale to help raise money to support the building and programs at Audubon. The bird-seed sale offers a significant sales price on quality bird seed. More information is available at

Why feed birds? Watching a birdfeeder is like watching television. There’s drama, love stories, beautiful characters, gluttons, bullies, murder and mayhem. It’s the ultimate reality show. Let me introduce you to some of the characters at the feeder.

The flashiest bird at the feeder is probably the cardinal. There may be as many as a dozen cardinals at a feeder, downing sunflower seeds like shots of whiskey at the bar. The males, bright red, are almost always in the company of brownish females. The males fight away any birds, including their mates, that get too close to their food. By the end of the month, one may start seeing some signs of affection. The males will feed the females seeds. Scientists call this “courtship feeding.’ Birders who witness this just say, “Aww, how sweet.”

The chickadee is the sweet, next-door neighbor of the feeder. In Gilligan’s Island terms, they are the Mary Anne to the cardinal’s Ginger. These tiny birds tolerate people quite well and can even be trained to eat out of your hands. They fly out to the feeder, grab a seed and carry it back to the tree, where they bash it to pieces. There is an elaborate system of who eats first and, with careful watching, you can learn to pick out individual chickadees and figure out who is top bird. Chickadees love to eat suet in the yard, which is just beef fat, but in the wild they eat the fat and scrap off dead animals.

Blue jays are the mafia of the feeder. These flashy birds are loud, pushy thieves. They come in gangs, loudly announcing their arrival and pushing other birds off the feeder. Once there, they start swallowing food and storing it in a special pouch in their throat called a “gular pouch.”

They steal off with the seeds and stash them all over the yard for later use. Blue jays are also known for imitating the sounds of hawks, which they occasionally do just to spook all the other birds off the feeder. This is the birdfeeder equivalent of yelling “Fire!” in a movie theater. Blue jays may be the bad boys of the birdfeeder, but they do all kinds of interesting things to watch.

Juncos tend to be the aimless teenage boys of the birdfeeder. The brown females tend to migrate farther south, leaving the males up north. Watch them push each other around, occasionally even clawing at each other while flying. Particularly pushy Juncos will push around cardinals and other birds, though blue jays will usually put them in their place. Juncos hang out with each other and in mixed flocks of other birds when they’re not at the feeder.

Mourning doves are the “not so bright, but lovable” characters at the feeder. They waddle along the ground on bright pink legs, picking up the seeds that others tossed down from the feeder as not good enough. They affably waddle through life until scared, when they fly away at tremendous speeds, often mistaking a window for the yard. Outside the yard, look for them along the road, where they eat road grit to help them digest their food.

Cooper’s hawks add murder and mayhem to the feeder scene. These small hawks are bird specialists. They lurk near the feeder until all is quiet, then fly out swiftly to grab unsuspecting birds. Their short wings and slight build give them incredible maneuverability. They can be seen weaving in and out of the branches of a tree at high speeds as they chase their bird prey into the open. If the birds at your feeder seem unusually jumpy, or if they all stop moving for minutes at a time, look into the sky and surrounding trees for a hawk nearby.

There is, of course, much more to any birdfeeder story. There are the cute nuthatches calling like tiny trumpets as they walk face-first down the tree. There are woodpeckers of various sizes visiting for suet and fatty seeds. There can be exotic visitors, like redpolls and evening grosbeaks, that come to the feeder from faraway lands.

Audubon’s birdfeeders have cozy couches and reading material right next to them.

If you don’t have feeders of your own, feel free to use Audubon’s. The Audubon Center and Sanctuary is located at 1600 Riverside Road, just east of Route 62 between Jamestown and Warren. Audubon also has everything you need to start feeding the birds, from birdfeeders to bird seed to bird books. And don’t forget to order bird seed through the winter bird-seed sale. More information is available at

Jeff Tome is the senior naturalist at the Audubon Center and Sanctuary, where he hand feeds the chickadees and spends a little bit of time each day watching the birds at the feeder.