On The Behaviors of Backyard Birds

April 6, 2020

It’s not hard to be a scientist. All you need to do is observe and record, well, anything, really! Since my wife and I moved into our new house, one of my favorite activities for when I need a brief break from the toils of writing and web designing is to look out the window of my office and see what sort of critters inhabit our back yard.

We get the typical squirrels, rabbits, and other small rodents, but I’m particularly drawn to birds. I’ve been fascinated with them ever since I read Jennifer Ackerman’s “The Genius of Birds” in 2018, and, more recently, “The Thing With Feathers” by Noah Stryker. They’re just so damn interesting! Each species has their own little quirks, skill sets, and social nuances, and became more appreciative once I set up my own bird feeder.

I get teased by my friends because I have a weird ability to correlate bird brains in nearly every conversation, but I promise I’ll keep the sciency stuff to a brief remark:

Birds were here long before humans. Duh. They’re essentially dinosaurs. But that’s where their relation to lizards ends. In fact, bird brains evolved to address complex problem solving and social structuring much like what we’ve had to do. The kicker? Their brains look and operate different from ours, but still reach the same goals. Mind blowing, right?!

But back to my back yard. Having a basic understanding that there are little ideas rattling around in those tiny beaked heads makes them so fun and interesting to observe. So for this post I just wanted to list my bird feeder’s frequent fliers (ha!) and the basic things I’ve observed from my office window.

For context, here is the bird feeder I use. It’s a mesh-guarded cylinder with four u-shaped landing rings on the bottom.

Downy Woodpecker

Wearing spotted black wings, a white shirt, and a little red backwards cap, the Downy Woodpecker visits nearly every day. He’s too big for my feeder, but has improvised by hanging at the edge of the landing rings and reaching his head around to one of the side openings. He’s not quite a bully, but definitely prefers to dine alone.

House Sparrow

These are just tiny brown birds. They typically hop around on the ground below the feeder to snack on fallen seeds, but occasionally 4 or 5 will all be perched if the coast is clear. Sometimes a cloud of them will swarm inside a lilac bush that’s in my backyard and they’ll chirp and chase each other around until suddenly flying off!

*Note* Just the other day I witnessed two mating near the fire pit on my concrete pad. At first they “locked” necks and rolled around as if they were wrestling, then the male strutted back and forth in front of the female with wings partially out like a human with hands on their hips. Definitely bizarre, definitely cute.

House Finch

The males have a reddish head that eventually bleeds down into brown and white patterned feathers. There is usually only one at a time and they spend as long as they want on the feeder.

Northern Cardinal

This solid red bird wears a black eye-mask that always makes him looks grumpy, like you just woke him up. My wife calls him Cardi B. He chirps incessantly from a tree before finally landing on the feeder. Then he picks out the seeds that aren’t his favorites and tosses them on the ground. Judging by the pile on the ground, it would seem that he is very hard to please.

There is always one male and one female hanging around our yard, but this winter we were fortunate enough to see up to 10 at a time fluttering around the feeder! The bright crimson color is always beautiful against the backdrop of undisturbed snow.

Black-capped Chickadee

These entertaining birds are tiny and grey. They have a black “cap” over their entire heads that’s separated by a white stripe on other side. I love them because they travel in pairs and always take turns at the feeder. One will grab a seed, flutter back to the lilac bush, then the other will zip over to the feeder. Watching them go back and forth is the epitome of cute politeness.

White-breasted Nuthatch

By far my favorite visitor, this little slate-blue bird has a white breast and a scrunched posture that makes him look as if his neck is constantly being tickled. He flies solo and ALWAYS lands on the grating of the feeder and eats upside down! When he’s finished, I love watching him “walk” up and down tree trunks and telephone poles as if they were level. Truly a goofy character.

American Goldfinch

This was an odd, cloudy day in the fall of 2018. I had gotten home from running errands and went to look out the back window. Suddenly there were dozens of bright yellow birds with black wings in the yard with nearly ten of them perched on the feeder/feeder pole alone! They hung out for a bit, then disappeared. I haven’t had a chance to see them since. Passing through on their way to breeding grounds, perhaps?

Dark-eyed Junco

And finally, the Juncos. They are extremely similar to the House Sparrows, except they’re solid grey with darker heads and white beaks. They are more than content to hop around on the ground and pick up seeds that were dropped by the other birds.

Conclusion

And there you have it! These are all very common species in the Midwest, yet they all have their own behaviors that are unique to themselves, and not so different from our own. Whether it be the grumpy husband-like Cardinal, or the turn-taking Chickadees, or the inexplicable eccentricity of the Nuthatch, we can always find a little of ourselves in their personalities.

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