Watching Birds, Asking Questions

By Rebecca Reid Gazette Contributing Writer

It’s a cool July morning, very early, and I’m sitting on my screen porch watching the birds—not bird watching, just watching the birds. As the little bird dramas unfold, I realize how much more there is to learn besides their names and songs, and how I could spend a lifetime at it and hardly scratch the surface. Why do they do what they do? What do they communicate to each other?

What do their sounds mean?

Back on my porch, as the first light hits the top of the pine tree, a robin flies up suddenly from the thicket. He perches on the very tip of the pine, swaying slightly, facing the rising sun. He puffs up (air? feathers?) and flies away. I am immediately filled with questions: Why does he perch sometimes on the top of the pine, sometimes on low branches? Meanwhile the red-eyed vireo has started his endless song. When does the vireo eat?

A pair of juncos has nested nearby under a shrub. The single little one hatched a week ago, and they forage on the grass every morning. The parents appear, cheeping constantly, finding seeds. Their pace is leisurely, compared to the chickadees, who twitch like the aspen leaves as they scour for insects. The immature junco joins its parents. Oh no, it’s not a junco—it’s spotted. It’s a cowbird! The cowbird laid her egg in the juncos’ nest, and they have raised it as their own. Yesterday they fed it, beak to beak. Today one parent chases it off. What has changed since yesterday?

Later in the morning, on my walk, I hear a persistent “tick-tick” sound, coming from two different directions. I try to locate the one nearest to me—first it seems to be in the grass to the left, then in front of me and then off to the right. Suddenly I catch motion out of the corner of my eye, and there on a branch, head height,  not three feet from me is a yellowthroat, peering at me as intently as I am at him. As I move up the slope he follows me, darting from branch to branch. At one point he is so close I could touch him, and I can clearly see his black mask, at once elegant and humorous, and his fine bright yellow throat. What a handsome bird he is! Is he curious about me?

On my way back, a hairy woodpecker is on the cherry tree, red headband flashing, toenails braced in furrows. He looks up, seems irritated, and flies a little way off, pointedly ignoring me. As soon as I’m in the house he’s back at the cherry tree. More questions: How does he know where to peck? What does the sound of his beak on the wood tell him?

After lunch, two female ruby-throated hummingbirds approach the feeder at the same time. One lights on the perch and begins to dip into the nectar. The other hovers for a minute, then dive-bombs the first, clipping her as she flies past, driving her off the perch. There is a little skirmish in the air; the other one tries to eat and the whole thing repeats. Finally they attack each other in mid-air, spiraling down out of sight onto the ground. There is clacking and rustling of feathers, but by the time I get to the screen they are gone.

Neither one comes back. Why did they attack each other, instead of sharing the two-station feeder?

When I look up, I see the junco family on a bare branch of the apple tree and right above them is my friend the yellowthroat. Only the baby cowbird, still around, makes any sound. How do the juncos and the yellowthroat relate to each other sitting on the same branch?

And as the light fades, a hermit thrush sings from the far woods. How can a song be so beautiful? Does he have any idea what a good singer he is?

There is great satisfaction in bird watching in the conventional sense—noticing what birds are around me, naming them and appreciating their beauty. But for me there’s even more to be found in watching birds.

Living with all these questions is a source of endless fascination.

Rebecca Reid is the Hitchcock Center photographer.

Earth Matters, written by staff and associates of the Hitchcock Center for the Environment at 525 South Pleasant St., Amherst, appears every other week. For more information, call 413-256-6006, or write to us.

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