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!


Attempted murder with eyewitness


The oppossum was about again this evening. He (or she – you can tell sex by size, but there’s overlap, and the measurements I’ve read are in weight, not length, which is difficult to gauge without picking the animal up) actually showed up late afternoon, when there was still a couple of hours of daylight left. I spotted him sitting on a low branch in the crabapple tree behind the house, near the feeders, just chillin’. Perhaps waiting for dusk? We put out some wet cat food near the base of the tree where he would eventually need to come down to. He let me get exceptionally close, perhaps five or six feet, and just kept an eye on me. I really hope he’s finding enough to eat. I know from my experience working with wild birds that it’s often hard to judge a malnourished animal simply based on appearance, sometimes all the layers of fur or feathers can disguise their actual body shape (ever washed a cat? They go from looking like a robust, sleek predator to a rather good imitation of the proverbial drowned rat).

Dark-eyed Junco

When I arrived at my parents’ this morning, there were birds singing. Even though we got another dump of snow over the weekend and the snowbank at the foot of the driveway is now probably 7 feet high, and Mom has dug laneways (they’re more than just paths, they’re bordering on tunnels) into the foot-and-a-half of snow around the feeders (I’m sure there’s more snow below, but it’s been compacted enough to walk on), and the temperature today was below freezing… despite all that, it felt like spring was on the air, and the birds seemed to sense it. Chickadees were singing their typical “fee-bee” song (I’ve always thought it sounded more like “hee-hoo”, but that’s what most field guides say, anyway). Several juncos were singing their beautiful bell-like trill, the first juncos I’ve heard singing this spring (mark it on the calendar!). Even the nuthatch was getting into it by adding his fast “ainh-ainh-ainh-ainh-ainh!” interspersed between his slower “ainh, ainh, ainh” calls. The juncos were staying rather well hidden in the spruce trees when I went out to try to capture one singing. This was the best photo I could manage, which would actually have been decent if it weren’t for the twigs in front of his face. That’s bird photography for you.

Bowl of Zick dough

I made Zick dough yesterday, and brought it with me to put out this morning when I arrived. My mom had a little dish that had originally housed hens-and-chickens one summer, but which was later used for birdseed, and then retired. It seemed appropriate for putting the suet dough out in, so I filled the bowl up and put it out in the middle of the feeder array. This is what it looked like all day. I may try moving it closer to one of the active feeders in the hopes of attracting some attention tomorrow. It may help that they’re calling for (yet more) snow tomorrow morning.

My dad was heading out this evening when he heard some screaming coming from behind the house, and glanced over just in time to witness an aborted murder attempt (a caution that the following images may not be suitable for everyone, although there’s very little in terms of graphic detail).

Weasel attack on rabbit

I went out with my camera to see if I could reconstruct the crime scene. The first thing I noted was the location where the attack had taken place. Fairly evident from the deep impressions in the snow, and a couple tufts of fur sitting lightly on the surface. Looking closer, some speckles of blood, but not a lot. I see some rabbit tracks to one direction, but it’s difficult to discern the tracks of the predator. Evidently a light-footed creature, but its identity is a mystery.

The deeper impressions in the snow look like the rabbit was forced onto its side, but it’s hard to tell. You can see what might be the marks of a face and ear one one side of the elongated body shape, and a long tail mark to the other side. But it’s not distinct, and I’m only guessing.

Weasel attack on rabbit

Looking at the tracks coming in, it appears the rabbit was coming from the shelter of the spruce trees across the open snow with the intent of picking up the packed-down trail at the side of the barn and following that. The other tracks, what little I can see, seem to suggest that the predator was lying in wait just behind a hole at the bottom of the barn door, and leapt out to great the rabbit as it approached. The rabbit put the brakes on in an attempt to turn tail, but wasn’t fast enough, and was pushed onto its side, where the predator managed to tear out a bit of fur. My dad coming out of the house at a rather inopportune time startled the predator and the rabbit’s life was spared by some rather lucky timing. Although, by the same token, the predator was denied its meal by some rather unlucky timing.

Weasel tracks?

That would be about all I’d be able to tell just from the tracks in the snow. However, add in the eyewitness account of my dad, and the predator is revealed to be a weasel in its sleek white winter coat. I am very sad that I missed seeing the whole drama, not least of all because of the characters involved. I’ve only ever seen a weasel once, also in winter, as a long, narrow, white flash zipping across the road. Not much of a look. I’m not sure we’ve had a record of a weasel at my parents’, either. If we have, it would’ve been many years ago.

Short-tailed weasels are circumpolar, meaning they’re found throughout the entire northern hemisphere. They’re called stoats in Europe, and in their white winter coat are usually referred to as ermine. Long-tailed weasels are restricted to the Americas. I’m not sure which species the individual would have been, but I’m guessing short-tailed (the smaller of the two) based on my dad’s description of the event in which he suggested the weasel was “holding on to the rabbit’s foot” or something similarly small-animal-ish. Both species eat rabbits, and the short-tailed was actually introduced into New Zealand in a misguided attempt to control the island’s introduced rabbit population. Instead, the weasel has nearly single-handedly threatened or caused the extinction of several endemic New Zealand bird species. Of course… you can’t blame it, it’s just being a weasel.