Tuesday, December 15, 2015

THE WINTER AVIAN CAST

Every year I try to participate in the Feeder Watch program. This involves putting out birdseed during the months of November through March and recording what kinds and how many of each kind of bird come to the feeders.  Recording these observations online helps researchers at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology stay current on migration populations and wintering patterns. I'm happy to help with gathering data for their research, AND I love to watch the birds as well, simply for my own enjoyment.
   
                                                    CAST FOR THE WINTER FEAST

      Once the servants (meaning me and my grandkids) have filled every available vessel to brimming over, the waiting hoard of visitors descends from the treetops in their usual fashion.


      The Titmouse family, perfectly groomed, the traditional gray family colors perfectly in order, moves quickly among the other guests. They are small, slender and high strung by breeding and discipline.  Everything must be in order, clean, neatly settled, safe; above all, safe. The normal sequence of attendance for any of this clan is a late entrance. Two will be seen approaching, yet rarely are more than one seen in one spot.  Never is the entire entourage present in any one room simultaneously. That kind of careless behavior can get all of you killed if there are hawks in the area. Always, always there are some Tufted Titmouse outside the general muddle, inconspicuous, crests flat, posture affected. The soft gray, or gray over buff, of their plumage, perfectly suits their temperament. One must not attract unwanted attention, yet present oneself as effortlessly pulled together.  Only the rare flash of gold from a vest back gives the hint to their honorable lineage. 

      In sharp contrast to the refinement of the Titmouse clan, the Sparrows descend upon the hall en masse, dressed in numerous variations of bohemian disorder, shoes scuffed, hats askew, coats in tatters.  They seem to be tipsy on the joy of life itself. There is nothing affected about this lot. Constant chatter fills the air. Gossip abounds. Arms are flung round necks as they lean to tease cousins recently arrived from afar.  They eat with gusto, wiping mouths on sleeves, laugh loudly, and squelch any disapproval  with flashing dark eyes and a grin. Some may wonder at their lack of refinement, but they are disliked by no one. They are quick to make room for any and all at the table. The Sparrows never met a stranger.  
       An easy mark for these charming fellows is Phoebe, the sweetest maiden in the hall. Being shy, she lacks the confidence to join in with the high jinks of the sparrows. Dressed in her demure gray and tan, she watches from a distance, smiles, and sings her own name in a high sweet voice.


       On the raised dais at the end of the room stands Sir Mockingbird, he of a thousand songs.  He is
dressed in silver and gray with white ribbons visible on his sleeves and down his elegant cape when he dances.  He sings effortlessly and endlessly.  Watching the crowd below, he sings the anthems of every House present and much more besides. He will sing into the late hours and take requests if you but hum him a line. Mockingbird misses nothing and vanishes if danger enters the room. His silence, as often as not, sounding the alarm.

       The children of the house, dressed in gold and black, eat at a separate table, giggling, twittering, dropping their food. What darlings these are! Goldfinches, who play together as no others play. Now and again they make a rush for the main tables but are quickly sent back to the kitchen and their nurses. The nurses, solid and competent House Finches in brown and rose livery, flushed with their labors, hover and help. They are easily passed over and endlessly patient. They will partake of the delicacies of the main table when the others have gone.

       The lovely little Chick-a-dees, tiniest of guests, almost always make it to the feast. Even though they are the smallest, they brighten the entire room with their happy personalities and sweet 'pipping' voices. They are neatly turned out in serious gray coats with cream-colored fronts. But their vivacious personalities shine through in their jaunty black hats pulled down over the eyes and black bow-ties. They are quick to join the fun at any and all tables; quick to laugh, quick with a joke, quick to join in the dancing. Oh yes, every party must include the Chick-a-dees or stuffiness ensues.

        
       Eventually, having welcomed all their guests, the Cardinal host and hostess make their entrance.  He, dressed in  scarlet from head to toe, is black masked and bearded. She, at his side, is in elegant brown and gold silk with scarlet accents at sleeve and hem, with a small mask of her own.  All eyes turn to them as they approach. Some winters several of the Cardinal brothers and their wives spend the winter months here with us. So far this year, we have only the one pair. Last year we had five pairs.
        The Master of the House attempts to bring some order to the riotous, convivial Sparrows, scattering them as he helps himself to the food before retreating to stand guard while the missus eats her fill. He is quick to notice and dismiss any he deems unworthy of the feast.  He is a fierce warrior who keeps his lady safe at all cost. Although he wears the bright colors of the House, it is she who is the jewel of the kingdom. Ah, chivalry.

       Outside, the Evergreens are full of the family's personal troops. Cedar Waxwings, elegant and efficient, keep watch. Their coats are brown, fading to gray with brilliant red buttons at the small of the back and lemon yellow cuffs.The cream pants and vest are immaculate and at a whistled signal all rise and move as one. They are black masked and supremely well trained. 





       If it suits them, the gypsies might grace the gathering with their presence. None light up a room like these fellows, raucous calls announcing their approach. Their capes, beautifully scalloped and speckled, are clearly visible from anywhere in the hall. These fellows follow their own paths, living solitary lives. In the depths of winter, you might hear their hammering from deep in the woods, you will be lucky if you are able to catch a glimpse of their bright, red    
caps high in the trees.                                                            Red-Bellied Woodpecker                                                          

     
     The clergy attends the gathering as well. Grace must be said, after all. Juncos move silently into and out of the celebration.  Wearing the traditional gray robes over white, they are unarmed and eat alone. Juncos are uneasy in large groups and will take their food at the edges of the room, so as to be able to make a quick exit if danger arises. They also have the uncanny ability to sense danger before anyone in the room and, for this reason, the Master ever keeps them ever in his line of sight. 
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       This is the usual guest list here on the farm.  Sometimes we
are lucky enough to have the Eastern Bluebirds come through, but they never stay long.  Sometimes a Roadrunner will whiz by, usually in the summer months.
       The hawks and owls are always with us but do not come near the feeders.  If they did, it would be to feed on the songbirds and not the seeds. We don't want that to happen.  Red-Winged Blackbirds are here by the thousands, but they feed in the fields, not at the feeder. Although, when the weather gets particularly snowy and cold, some of them will come up for a day or two of feeding with the others. They are free spirits and move about in huge flocks during the winter months.  We have two or three pairs of crows too, but they, like the wild turkeys and quail, stay in the safety of the trees along the creek most of the time.
     In spring and summer months we have a whole other cast of players, as you might imagine, and they feed themselves.    
           
        

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