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.


Comfort food

Blue Jay

Hot on the heels of the snowstorm on Wednesday, we’re receiving another good pile of snow today. It’s still blowing fiercely out there, a good stiff wind whipping clouds of white powder down from the sky and up from the ground and carrying it off nearly horizontally (the Weather Network says it’s gusting to 52 km/h, or 32 mph). I had to go out to my car briefly around 10 this morning, and even by that early hour there were already about 4 inches of powdered snow accumulated. I haven’t been out since, but my guestimate from looking out the window is that it’s more than doubled, perhaps now at 10 inches.

Tree Sparrows and a junco

I’m back in the city, and we have no spot for a feeder in our balcony-less, yard-less apartment, so I have no mobs of birds to watch, although I’m sure there would be plenty there today if we did have a feeder out. My mom reports that the feeders have been very active all day, and she’s refilled the finches’ nyger feeder twice. Days like today it’s extremely important for birds to keep their energy levels up by eating, because they need to expend a lot to keep warm against the cold and winds. Unfortunately, days like today it’s also difficult to come by food readily in the natural environment, so artificially-stocked feeders are usually very busy as birds take advantage of this abundant and easy food source.

Hairy and Downy at suet

If a bird has the ability to feed on a range of food types (some birds are specialists simply by their bill design), they’ll usually choose the source that is the most energy-rich, generally those with the most fats. Fatty seeds include sunflower (particularly black oil), safflower and nyger, as well as peanuts. Suet becomes an increasingly important food source to many species as well. Since it’s nearly pure fat, with seeds mixed in, it’s a very easy source of energy.

The species that come to suet regularly through the winter are the ones that subsist, at least in part, on overwintering insects or insect larvae. Woodpeckers, nuthatches and chickadees, all birds that will naturally forage under bark and in crevices through the cold months for spiders, grubs, and other dormant insects, favour suet regardless of the weather. In the above photo, a Hairy Woodpecker has chased a Downy from the feeder. Aside from the size difference, you can also notice the spots on the white tail feathers on the Downy, while the Hairy lacks them. The bill size and shape relative to the depth of the head is another good characteristic, but you can’t see the Downy’s bill here.

Juncos at suet

When the weather turns sour, more species are more likely to give suet a try. Most North American species will feed on insects as part of their diet during summer months, since insects are so abundant, so making the switch to suet isn’t an entirely unnatural move. However, it’s a little strange to see juncos pecking at the suet block like a woodpecker!

Downy and Tree Sparrow at suet

The American Tree Sparrows were willing to give it a try, too. Here one shares the feeder with a Downy Woodpecker. My mom has two types of suet feeders up, one that holds the traditional square blocks, and another one that is a block of wood with large holes drilled in it, into which you insert cylinders of suet. For whatever reason, it’s this wooden feeder that’s the most popular with most of the birds, even when both are available. Perhaps because it mimics their natural feeding behaviour/habitat better?

Crow checking out suet

Even the crow seemed willing to consider the suet. It sat there for a minute or two contemplating the block, before deciding it either wasn’t feasible or wasn’t worth the effort, and taking off.

You can also buy commercial suet in bell shapes, but I haven’t known them to be as popular with birds (of course, if it’s all that’s available, they’ll be quiet happy to feed from it). Occasionally small-town grocery stores might hand-make suet balls from fatty scraps from their meat department (my mom bought these for a number of years from a local grocer, and the birds loved them).

Hairy and starling at suet

A female Hairy checks out the first-of-spring female starling who’s sucking back her tasty suet, shortly before she chases the starling off.

One downside to many suets is that when the weather warms up, they have a tendency to start melting, and you end up with a pile of soft suet on the ground under the feeder, where it may or may not be eaten. If you’re the sort to put out birdfeed throughout the year this usually eliminates suet from the summer spread. Some companies, such as Wild Birds Unlimited, sell no-melt suet doughs that can withstand higher temperatures.

Junco at suet

Of course, if you’re the ambitious hands-on sort, you can always make your own suet. Julie Zickefoose has a recipe that’s colloquially known across the blogosphere as “Zick dough”, a sort of suet dough that is incredibly popular with birds (especially her bluebirds). The Owl Box even suggests it to be akin to “bird crack”. More bluebirds over at Journey Through Grace, juncos at A Spattering, Black-headed Grosbeaks at Chickadee Chatter, great variety over at Mary’s View and Hasty Brook. Birds go crazy for it.

Do a Google search for “Zick dough” (with quotes, so you get the words as a phrase) and you’ll be amazed at the astounding number of hits you get! My search returned about 680 English pages (I skimmed the first dozen or so for the above examples). Since I don’t have a feeder here I haven’t yet given it a try, but my mom suggested I do up a batch this weekend and bring it out next week to try it, so I’m going to do that. We don’t have bluebirds back yet, but I’m sure the rest of the birds will love it. From everything I’ve heard, it is THE food to put out to attract birds to your backyard!