Company’s coming


I am one of those people who are perpetually running late, no matter how much planning and forethought is put into one’s schedule. Today I’m heading off for a couple of days to visit family back in Halton County and, as is the norm, I am running late. I got up early and everything to make sure I’d have lots of time. I’m pretty sure that I’m surrounded in a bubble of temporal fluctuation where time runs more slowly for me than the rest of the world. This would explain, for instance, how half an hour might fly by while I’m typing out an email that I’m sure should only have taken me ten minutes.

But I digress; I mention this only because I am running behind, and therefore don’t have time to post about the subject I had originally intended to. That’s okay, though – I’ll share some birds with you instead, and get to the other stuff at a later date. Dan and I finally put out our feeders this week, after having noticed some sparrows foraging on the lawn since Thanksgiving in October. Within a day the feeders were inundated with birds. Compared to the last house, at the lake, where it took a while for us to start seeing much activity at our feeders, the birds descended on the seed here as if they’d all been perched in the trees surrounding the house just waiting for it. I wonder if it has something to do with the habitat? Perhaps more people are feeding birds around here so the birds know what a free lunch looks like? I’m not sure. Regardless, we’ve been enjoying near-immediate activity out our windows, as have the cats, who have never seen anything quite so exotically tempting. (Don’t worry, they’re indoor cats – it’s a little like kitty TV.)

Black-capped Chickadee

Black-capped Chickadee, working on cracking open a seed. These guys have been hanging about the spruce that surround the house, but surprisingly weren’t the first birds at the feeder.

White-breasted Nuthatch

White-breasted Nuthatch. Considering that I’ve only seen these guys sporadically in the yard, I was surprised that two of them started coming to the feeder within a day or two of it going up. They’re regular visitors now. This one is either a first-year male or an older adult female, but probably the latter – the crown of the cap is blueish, but the nape is black. I’m not sure whether the other bird is male or female. She checks out the goods on offer, looking for something tasty.

White-breasted Nuthatch

This sunflower seed will do. I love the rose blush that sweeps their flanks.

American Tree Sparrow

American Tree Sparrows seem to usually be one of the last of the non-irruptive feeder birds to arrive south in the fall. I just noticed these guys about this week, while the juncos have been here for at least a month. The juncos don’t have as far to travel, though; they’ll breed in the coniferous woods of the Shield and northern Ontario. the Tree Sparrows, on the other hand, breed on the scrubby tundra along Hudson’s Bay in far northern Ontario. Think about that for a moment when you see one under your feeder this winter. This is the balmy south! It’s interesting to consider how different the landscape must be for them, even more than a temperate forest bird who travels to the tropical forests of Central America.

American Tree Sparrow

They can be identified by the combination of their rusty crown, dark chest spot and bicolored bill.

American Tree Sparrow

Sparrows, and most seed-eaters, are primarily visual hunters. Birds (except a select few, like vultures) don’t have much of a sense of smell so they rely on their sense of sound and sight for finding food. Since the seeds don’t move to make any sounds, or even to offer the visual cue of movement, birds have to use shape recognition, often picking likely-looking things up in their beak and rolling them around to decide definitively. That’s why you often see birds with their heads tipped to the side as they peer at the ground.

Slate-colored Junco

The Dark-eyed Junco has several subspecies, the only one of which that occurs here with any regularity is the Slate-colored Junco, so named because it’s slate-colored (surprise), or the males are, at least. Some males, the oldest ones, can be a dark charcoal gray. Look at the neat scalloped pattern on the back of this one.

Slate-colored Junco

Another male, paler. Check out the tertials, the three overlapping feathers that form a line down the back when the wing is folded (as here). Notice how brownish they look compared to the slate-gray coverts (those short feathers that form a line between the body and the flight feathers). This is probably an indication that this is a hatch-year bird, one that was hatched this summer. Another indication that this is the case is in the tertials, the shortest one is slate gray while the other two are brown. The brown ones are leftover from what the bird grew in the nest, while the gray top one has been replaced this fall, a pattern of moult not shown by adult birds. In an adult bird at your feeder over the winter, all three tertials would be the colour of that top one.

Slate-colored Junco

Here’s another where the colour difference is more subtle, but you can still see that the uppermost tertial is grayer than the slightly brownish two lower ones, again suggesting a young bird.

Slate-colored Junco

It’s hard to see the distinction in female juncos because they’re usually brown all over!


Author: Seabrooke

Author of Peterson Field Guide to Moths. #WriteOnCon Mastermind. Writer of action/thriller SF/F YA. Story junkie. Nature nut. Tea addict. Mother. Finding happiness in the little things. Twitter: @SeabrookeN / @SeabrookeLeckie

12 thoughts on “Company’s coming”

    1. I love being able to figure out the age of birds by the different patterns of moult (and therefore the different colour/wear patterns of feathers). It’s like a sneak peek into a hidden secret.

  1. Great photos, I love watching my backyard birds at the feeders. It loks like you have mostly the smae bird as I do except the Tree Sparrow. I do not see them at my feeders.

    1. Thanks, Eileen. I think the Tree Sparrows do tend to stay a bit further north. We’ll also have redpolls and siskins once winter settles in. Of course, we don’t have titmice or Red-bellied Woodpeckers here or some of your other southern birds.

    1. Thanks, Suziam48. The two do have very similar head patterns, don’t they? I wonder if there’s some adaptive significance to that. Keeps their head warm in the winter by absorbing the sun?

  2. Most excellent! Don’t you just love the changing of guard that happens this time of year? Some go, some stay, others arrive. It’s the revolving door made of seasons…

    1. It’s neat to watch how the seasons change, Jason. Seeing expected faces as they turn up is the sure sign the next season is on its way. It’s nice to have the old friends stick around through the year, too.

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