Backyard Bird Watchers

A few weeks ago, I wrote a bit about my fondness for black coffee and how

Watched Birds

drinking it has become a part of my morning ritual. (See the Wednesday Wandering for 6-08-11).

Several people mentioned that their morning rituals often involved taking time to watch the birds at their feeders. When I mentioned that I also enjoy watching the birds, Ann M Nalley commented that she’d enjoy hearing me wander about what I see…

It should be no surprise that here in the arid southwest, an even bigger draw than our three bird feeders are our water features. We have two. There’s a birdbath on the east side of the house, right outside the office windows, and a small pond on the south side of the house. When I say “pond,” I’m talking about one of those pre-fabricated shells you can buy at a hardware store – and not one of the larger models.

Our pond is furnished with a miniature water lily, aquatic mint, a variant of plantain, water weed, and blue pickerelweed. It is occupied by ten goldfish. In addition to attracting myriad small birds, the pond also provides incentive for several toads to take up residence in our yard.

We’re very grateful for the toads, because they do a lot to keep our garden healthy. Last year, for example, our neighbors right across the south fence lost all their squash and cucumber plants to squash bugs. Ours, which were growing no more than twenty feet away, did marvelously. We figure the difference was that we have toads and our neighbors don’t.

I see I haven’t mentioned birds yet. (But then, these are called Wednesday Wanderings for a reason).

Year round, in addition to the sparrows and finches in their many varieties, we have swallows. We also have a tremendous number of doves. These fall into a couple of types. Most common are the mourning doves. We have a resident flock of eleven, plus juveniles. (I know this because when we put down some fresh pecan shell mulch the doves did a lot of foraging, giving me ample opportunity to count).

Mourning doves make the sloppiest nests I’ve ever seen, but somehow those nests hold together. Several times, I’ve nervously watched a dove tossing in the wind, like a sailor on the rigging of a ship in a storm at sea, as she sits on her eggs on a nest built on a limb of our apricot tree.

We also have ring-necked doves and visits from itinerant flocks of rock doves. These last are often more commonly known as “pigeons.” Our yard is mostly sand. Many a morning when I take my mug of coffee outside and wander about inspecting the plants (and trying to wake up), I see from the prints that the doves have been out before me.

Most of the year we have at least a couple robins, which are year-round residents in New Mexico. However, one of the first signs of spring is when the migratory robin flocks pass through. I’ve seen as many as fifteen robins squabbling for a space around our pond or (a very funny sight) in our small birdbath.

No bird I’ve seen bathes with the same enthusiasm as a robin. Most of the time, they reserve this activity for the birdbath, but occasionally, an inexperienced one will land on a lily pad in the pond. This works fine until the robin starts ducking and wing-flapping, all of which is part of a proper robin bath. Then the lily pad gives way and a startled, soaking wet robin takes off in a great hurry.

In the winter, we add juncos, chickadees, towhees, and various grosbeaks to the roster. Then there are the grackles.

Our house is between two tall trees that serve as roosts for the “great-tailed” grackle. This bird is similar to the “boat-tailed” grackle that’s common in the East, but has been ruled its own subspecies. All winter, our feeders get a great many grackle visitors, but their visits slack off in summer as they do more of their own foraging.

Indeed, while we never stop feeding the birds, the manner in which we do so changes. Starting in late autumn, we put seed in the feeders. In late spring, when the wild plants start putting out seed, we stop. Instead, we encourage local plants that provide seed the birds like: spectacle pod, dove weed, globe mallow, Indian rice grass, and other wild grasses. Many of the plants we cultivate also have seeds the birds like including chocolate flower and blanket flower.

Springtime brings orioles and hummingbirds. The orioles eventually move on, but the hummingbirds remain until the first frost. Although I put feeders up for the hummers, they prefer our numerous flowers. This year we also seem to have acquired a resident pair of mockingbirds. That’s a first.

In early spring, the thrashers and the flickers show up, turning our dormant garden beds, looking for insects and grubs. The downy and ladder-back woodpeckers show up in the late summer and beat drum rolls on my sunflower stalks.

I can’t close without mentioning a few of our more typically “Western” visitors. Roadrunners regularly pass through, looking far more like dinosaurs than like birds. We also get Gamble’s Quail, sometimes just a pair, others an entire family, complete with trailing chicks. We also have red-tailed hawks drop in from time to time, but mostly they’re not too successful with their hunting. Then there are the ravens, crows, and jays. We don’t get the showy stellar jays of the high altitudes, but we do have regular visits from the Western scrub and pinyon jays.

We didn’t have as many ravens when I first came here, but as the drought conditions have increased, I’ve noticed more. There’s a pair of great horned owls who nest about half a mile away. I’ve seen them out at dusk.

So, while I miss the brilliant red cardinals and splash blue jays of my East Coast childhood, I have found many new varieties to keep me amused. Like plants, they provide their own calender of the shifting seasons.

Until I sat down to write this, I hadn’t realized just how much I liked the birds or how big a part they are of my daily routine. I wonder what landmarks each of us have we don’t notice until something draws it to our attention?

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12 Responses to “Backyard Bird Watchers”

  1. Alan Robson Says:

    How do you get so many birds when you live with cats? Our garden is practically deserted. There’s a fantail who visits sometimes — and he flits around far too fast for a cat to catch him. We also get the occasional wax-eye and lots and lots of sparrows. Our cats like sparrows.

    Blackbirds sit on the power cables and hurl insults at the cats far below. And that’s really all we ever see. I suppose it is a combination of having cats and also living in a built up suburb.

    I envy you your birds.

    -Alan

  2. Dominique Price Says:

    Hi Jane,
    I guess I am curious how important your routine is to you’re writing. I wonder, as a writer, if you thrive in your own environment. I have heard you speak at conventions, about how you treat your writing as a serious day job, 8-5. But what a day job! Getting to look out at that beautiful garden all day!

    • janelindskold Says:

      Actually, Dominique, I try to avoid a routine with writing. I know too many writers who mess themselves up by not being about to write if they don’t have their favorite chair, time, food, whatever.

      You might say my routine is deliberately Not a Routine.

      But looking at the yard when I glance up from the computer is nice…

  3. Melissa Jackson Says:

    Ann M Nalley was right. I, for one, thoroughly enjoyed reading your wandering about bird-watching. What a vivid picture of the mourning dove as a “sailor on the rigging of a ship in a storm at sea” I can just see her now as the captain who without question will go down with the ship!

    I am more of the morning coffee ritual person myself, but I do find that more and more frequently I catch myself just sitting outside (when it’s not raining enough to do so here in Portland) and watching the birds. However even now I can’t find the words to explain why I enjoy this. I always thought bird-watching was a “boring” hobby until recently, and I think it is exactly like you said I had just never realized before that watching the birds was already part of my daily activities!

  4. Tori Says:

    That’s a lot more variety of birds than I would expect in a desert environment! But your yard is clearly quite lush so I’m guessing they all go, “My, doesn’t that look like a nice place to stop?” I am trying to attract some hummingbirds with a feeder but I think my house’s yard has nothing else to draw them. It’s frustrating since my dad, only 100 miles north, can get 20+ hummers on three adjacent giant feeders at one time. And by that I mean actually sitting down next to one another without violence. It’s something you have to see to believe. He calls them “The Swarm!”

    This post also reminded me of Bitter and Lovable who despite being somewhat minor characters in the Firekeeper series are still two of my favorites. Did you draw inspiration from the ravens in your area when you wrote them? I understand even ordinary ravens are terribly clever.

    • janelindskold Says:

      Tori…

      Try making sure you have color. Not the food itself (dyes aren’t good for hummers), but in the area.

      I don’t wear bright colors often, but I’ve had hummingbirds come up to inspect a shirt with lots of red and pink.

  5. Hilary Says:

    I am thoroughly convinced that Roadrunners ARE dinosaurs, albeit little tiny ones. But if they were bigger, we’d have to watch out. ^^

    I don’t think I’ve ever seen a mockingbird before. Also very neat that you have horned owls in your neighborhood!

  6. Rowan Says:

    I notice my routine only comes to my attention when it’s disturbed. Like getting up and turning on my computer and realizing it doesn’t turn on and suddenly my ritual is jarred. That sounds a touch pathetic, but it’s that kind of startling wrongness that actually calls attention to what has become rote. But I also don’t get asked to examine what I do like you do, so there you go.

    Bird watching becomes most fun for me when, as you said about the roadrunners, I think about how I’m basically looking at a bunch of little dinosaurs.

  7. Rowan Says:

    @Tori – Oh yeah, Bitter and Lovable are great! I always thought of our gigantic Los Alamos ravens when I was reading them.

  8. Paul Says:

    I had the job of putting up a couple of hummingbird feeders for my sister-in-law — and just in time, it turned out. As I was hanging one, a hummingbird helicoptered around and orbited my head as if to say, “Hurry up, I’ve been waiting here for weeks!”
    I’m afraid my favorite road runner is the one in the Chuck Jones cartoons, always outrunning the coyote. On a visit to Santa Fe, my wife and a friend had been looking forward to visiting the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, which we did. But on the way, I spotted the Chuck Jones Gallery, and we had to visit that on our walk back. It was my favorite, which may define my “artistic” tastes. There is more about it here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4W_RQKiMA44

  9. Ann M Nalley Says:

    After reading Jane’s post yesterday, I was at the kitchen sink preparing a part of dinner. Our back yard is tiny, but we have a bird bath and two feeders (one a ball feeder to cater to the finches, chickadees, and sparrow), and a large tube feeder that serves the grackles, cardinals, blue jays, and at least three species of woodpecker! Melissa Jackson, I , too always thought bird watching would be boring, but they entertain me immeasurably! The sparrows, small as they are, will pester the grackles until the sparrows are given space at the large feeder ~ even when they have four posts available in the ball feeder! Jane commented on watching the robins bathe ~ which I love! ~ but our blue jays love the bird bath, too. They are so fussy that they will sometimes hop us and examine the water to see if it is clean enough to suit them! Once I change it, they jump right in and splash vigorously! One reason I find the grackles tiresome is that they have a habit of dipping their sunflowers and peanuts in the bird bath before eating (I confirmed this in a bird book), and then they drop the seed in the water and can’t retrieve it! I also sprinkle seed on the ground for the squirrels and chipmunks. Our tube feeder is designed to “dump” squirrels in they try to get on it (spring loaded) which is an evening’s entertainment in and of itself! Thanks for a great post, Jane!

  10. janelindskold Says:

    It’s neat to hear other birdwatching stories…

    I think in our increasingly urban environments, birds can be our closest contacts to nature.

    Tamora Pierce does a lovely job of including sparrows in her Protector of the Small series and pigeons in her Becca Cooper books.

    And I’m glad that Bitter and Loveable have fans. I really like them, even if one scene was very, very hard to write.

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