Saturday, March 14, 2009


We've had a bird feeder in the front yard since we moved in. You might think the birds would be at risk from the large population of neighbourhood cats, but so far I haven't any frisky felines try to grab a snack. Barry, I know, is far too slow to ever sneak up on anything more alert than a dead twig. I'd expect the new kitten from next door to have a go, but he has extra toes so maybe they get in the way when hunting!

I have finally given in to my curiosity to know what all the different nondescript little brown bird are that frequent our feeder. Now, anyone from my family will tell you that I hold a fairly dim view of bird classification. I enjoy spotting birds, but if I can't tell you what it's called, that's fine by me. A bird is a bird, and they are marvelous to watch without naming them. But like I say, after a year my curiosity has gradually grown and now I would at least like to have some idea of how many different types of bird we have in the area.

It starts out easy. The bright red ones, with the black face, orange beak and sharp haircut? That's a (Northern) Cardinal and since it's the State bird, it would be a cardinal sin for me not to know it! Straight away we run into the first pitfall of bird watching, because the brown ones? Also Cardinals, but they're the ladies or the kids! Still, the distinctive tuft is enough to single them out, and the bright beak is another strong clue.

Next up the Blue Jay. Another crested variety, it's showy personality makes it easy to spot. These guys are never shy and tend the throw their weight around. The only other bird about the same size as the first two is the (Northern) Mockingbird. The poor Mockingbird is easy to ignore, dressed in a rather dull gray, but the white flashes as it flies makes it a cinch to ID.

Once we get on to the smaller species I have to say I start to struggle. Sure, from the pictures in the book it looks like it should be a piece of cake to tell them apart, but out there on the feeder, flitting back and forth between the trees, never sitting still, never exposing the perfect left profile for comparison to the plate it's another matter. Before long, I start picking out dark caps, breasts, wing bars and so on. Then it is a case of leafing through the bird book attempting to locate a drawing with all the features present. Unfortunately I have no idea how they ordered the plates. I mean, I've narrowed it down to the garden birds section, and then I would've expected them to go in size order, but apparently this is not how it's done.

Despite this frustrating lack of logic, I reckon I have positively identified a House Sparrow, a White Throated Sparrow, a Dark Eyed (Slate Colored) Junco, a House Finch, and some kind of Chickadee (I think probably the Carolina variety). We also have a Red-bellied Woodpecker in the area. These birds are all, of course, exceedingly common, but in a time when garden birds are said to be have a hard time I'm glad we see so many.

Update: Still no Grackles but the Brown-headed Cowbirds have arrived en-masse. The Woodpecker turned out to have a friend, so there's two of them. We saw a Bluebird (very exciting) and we also have a pair of Mourning Doves in residence.


  1. Anonymous5:15 PM

    I'm impressed. I've never seen a house finch. No mention of robins? Expect to see grackles going around in flocks, often in the mornings and evenings and often with cowbirds. I know you already know vultures and hummingbirds. After a while you get to know what family a bird is likely to be in. As you know, I annoy mom by identifying birds on a glimpse, because familiarity means you pick up the hints. It's no different to cars or anything else you classify, though there does seem to be more choice in the US. Some birds will always be just birds, like some insects are just flies, but it's kind of fun to know what is knowable and when you do more seem to become knowable. Dad

  2. Yes, there are some Robins around, although they rarely visit the feeder. I think they prefer worms. I'll keeps an eye out for Grackles and Cowbirds. Probably our neighbourhood isn't open enough for them, compared to Hanover farmland, although I know I saw Meadowlarks in the back yard last year.
    I'm trying to start picking out the individual voices as that seems like a good way to identify birds from a distance.

  3. We have lots of grackles round here. Dozens at once sit in a tree or on phone wires and make a crazy racket.

  4. Anonymous4:58 PM

    Windsor Farms front yards, in the City of Richmond is where I've mostly seen them. But that goes for hawks, deer and all kinds of wildlife... Dad

  5. Canada here .. My cats are enjoying all the birds this year, alot of bird feeders went onto my tree branches all around my house. My love is astronomy but my cats come first. Robins, grackles, crows , blue jays , cardinals, chickadees , red wing black birds and 4 types of house finches ..outside of course. They belong outside and free not in cages.