It was minus sixteen this morning (Monday, February 14). I was feeding the birds just after sunrise and the trees were popping and snapping as the water that collected in their cracks was expanding very loudly. Last night the deer didn’t come through to clean up the fallen seeds from the feeders, so the blue jays took advantage of the opportunity. They were working on those and carrying them off to a safe place for hiding. Yesterday I banded my 50th blue jay since the first of December. They keep coming in from some place and the others move south. The highest count I can get at any one time at the feeders is sixteen, but I know there are many more than that if they all came together.
I mentioned before how the jays fill their beaks with seeds and fly off with them to store somewhere, just in case I don’t feed them anymore. Their beaks are full of sunflower seeds or corn when I catch them in the potter traps. They are so full, in fact, that you can see it while I have them in hand and they can’t chirp (or bite) while their beaks are full. Most times, I can see the seeds and they let me band them, and measure a wing. They also usually let me check for age by looking for bars on the outside feathers of the wing before they go out the window to freedom. And they are still holding those seeds when they are released by the way. Blue jays are one of the most placid birds in hand while banding them. Very often they just lay still and watch what you are doing with their big black eyes. However, their feet are active and grab on to anything that touches them, like your fingers, a pencil, or the banding pliers…and they have a fairly good grip.
The Red-and White-winged Crossbill numbers are building (or at least they are being seen) as they come down in the highways to pick up grit or salt to help them break down the cone seeds they have been eating. Give them a toot before running over them in the highway as they are a little slow on the take off. Out in the woods these birds sometimes locate an otter toilet on the snow and pick the crayfish shell parts and fish bones to help break down the seeds they have ingested. These birds will probably nest in the area where you are seeing them and some of them may already be nesting. It is amazing how these birds can sit on eggs and babies with temperatures at zero or below and raise a family of young. The male brings the female seeds and feeds her on the nest during the entire time.
During the Bird Breeding Atlas in the 80’s [the first Atlas was conducted from 1980-1985] we had a couple winters where there were large flocks of White-winged Crossbills. I’m talking fifty to a hundred in certain places. They nested in little colonies for protection right among the red spruce where they were getting their food. During courtship, the males would fly over the females much like Bobolinks in a field flitting over one spot singing a beautiful song. One day, Mirnie Kashiwa and I snowshoed into Third Lake Swamp where a large flock of Crossbills were in courtship mode. There were twenty to thirty males doing their flights and singing away right over our heads. Mirnie said it was one of the neatest experiences she ever had with wildlife out in the woods as she enjoyed these beautiful birds without binoculars and their musical songs…me too!
When there were that many around, they were getting hit in the road by cars and trucks as they tried to get grit. If I found these dead birds, I would collect them for the Natural History Museum. You had to pick them up when you saw them dead as ravens were on road patrol. If you went by them and planned to pick them up on the way back, they were normally gone already. One day up on the straight stretch past Golden Beach there were about five dead birds in the road. I stopped and collected them. Among these Crossbills was a dead male pine siskin that had a band on. After checking with the Bird Banding Lab, I learned that this bird had been banded in Wisconsin two years ago. The siskins also nested during that winter, feeding on the big red spruce cone crop.
The 25th Great Backyard Bird Count takes place on February 18-21. [The four-day-long event offers a chance for folks to watch, learn about, count, and celebrate birds.] Those who wish to take part can count the birds at their feeders or take a walk in the woods and keep track of the birds they see while on their journeys. These birds can be reported on birdcount.org. The growing moon was going down in the west last night (Sunday, February 13) and the tree shadows were once again all over the snow. A full moon is predicted for Wednesday (February 16) so maybe we will get to see this one. When I wake up on a clear morning, I can look right out my bedroom window and watch Venus rise in the east through the treetops long before the sun comes up. The cross-country skiing is really fast, and it is safer to snowshoe, but that’s another story. See ya.
Photo at top: Mixed flock of Red Crossbills, Goldfinches and Juncos. Photo by Gary Lee.