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Bird food: It doesn't just come in bags

A wintry day along a Hocking County backroad, last Saturday, January 4th. Jeff White - standing by the car - and I were down in southeastern Ohio to cover my section of the Hocking Hills Christmas Bird Count. I've been birding this piece of turf for a number of years now, and it always produces interesting birding.

I have heard more reports of "missing" birds at feeders this winter than in any previous year, at least that I can recall. So much so that I've kept a folder of such complaints, in case some disease or other culprit comes to light. But in general, my answer is that birds are co-evolved with native food crops, and have been for FAR longer than they've had benefit of relatively new food sources provided by people and their feeders. If natural food crops are available, many birds will forsake your handouts in favor of nutritious native fare. At least, I believe that is usually the case. If it is a boom year for certain natural food crops, the species that feed on those may be especially apt to be AWOL at your feeders.

In general, it seems that the wintertime woodlands and meadows are bursting with food crops, at least in southeastern Ohio. I observed many examples of birds utilizing natural foods last Saturday, and managed to document a number of these relationships with my camera.

Jeff and I began our count with a bang, or more exactly, a loud sharp TSCHAK! At our very first stop, I jumped out of the car only to hear the noisy call of a Brown Thrasher, and quickly spotted the rufous-colored mimid in an adjacent thicket. The temperature was about 0 F when I made this image. I watched the thrasher for a bit, wanting to see what it might do. It quickly made its way into a tangle of climbing rose, Rosa setigera, one of five native Ohio roses in the genus Rosa, and began pucking and eating the rose hips. Rose fruit are high in vitamin C and other valuable nutrients, and given that the roses seem to have produced lots of hips, the thrasher is in a good spot.

We came across a small meadow richly carpeted with Indian grass, Sorghastrum nutans, and it was awash in sparrows. American Tree Sparrows (pictured) and Dark-eyed Juncos balanced like tiny acrobats, deftly plucking grains from the native grass.

We found four Hermit Thrush, and all of them were around sumac thickets. I've written about this hardy thrush and its proclivity for sumac many times, such as HERE.

While we watched the Hermit Thrush and a number of Eastern Bluebirds working the sumac, a Northern Flicker joined the crowd. The flicker is an extraordinary bird by any reckoning, and appears as if a committee of artists designed it without consulting one another. Their endpiece came out fine, however, and the flicker is truly a work of art. This is a male, as evidenced by the black malar strip, or "moustache".

The flicker quickly dug into the Staghorn Sumac, Rhus typhina, and thus joins a long list of avian species that I have observed feasting on sumac fruit.

In warmer seasons, Eastern Bluebirds are voracious consumers of insects. Come winter, they shift to a diet high in fruit - they are seasonally frugivorous, if you'll pardon my multi-syllabic descriptor. This stunning male - could there be a more striking shade of blue? - performs gymnastics to get at the cones of red cedar, Juniperus virginiana.

The cedar "berry" crops (they are really cones, as this tree is a conifer) seemed plentiful, and the bluebirds were taking full advantage.

We came up with 28 Yellow-rumped Warblers during the count, and all of them were around that most despised of native plants, poison ivy, Toxicodendron radicans. This female stands ready to plunder the waxy nutritious berries.

She dangles agilely to pluck a berry. Note how many fruit have gone missing, no doubt due to the depradations of Yellow-rumped Warblers or any of numerous other bird species that feast on poison ivy fruit.

A berry goes down the hatch. I wouldn't recommend that you try this, no matter how sharp your hunger pangs. Homo sapiens is quite vulnerable to the rash-inducing compound Urushiol; birds are unfazed by the itchy chemical.

Some day, I will write an essay in support of poison ivy, a plant with a great many virtues. It seems that only humans abhor this valuable plant, which is of vital importance to many species of animals.

A Northern Cardinal sits high in a tuliptree, Liriodendron tulipifera.This large forest tree is our only common and widespread magnolia. At one point, at least eight cardinals were in the crown of this tree, plundering seeds from the abundant, persistent fruiting receptacles.

This male cardinal has his face in the cuplike calyx, busily ripping out the hard woody seeds. To my eye, it seems that the tuliptrees have produced an especially bountiful crop of seeds, and obviously cardinals enjoy them. I wonder if this might be the reason that many people have lamented the absence of cardinals, especially, at their feeders. The bright redbirds are instead lured to the crowns of tuliptrees to snack on their seeds.


Junior Barnes said…
Amazing photographs!
Jess said…
Wow such wonderful photos!
Lori said…
Just thoroughly enjoyed these gorgeous photos! Nothing brightens up a winter day like being outside looking at nature. Thanks for doing that FOR us Jim on such a cold day!
Anonymous said…
Good article. I have seen bird on the poison ivy berries.

A couple of days ago I was hiking and saw some blue jays in a beech tree trying to get at the nuts. The snow-covered forest floor was littered with a lot of the small spiky husks from the beech trees. I am guessing that most of them were from squirrels.

I have also seen a number of birds poking at sycamore seed balls. So, I am assuming that they eat these seeds, as well.

Ken Andrews
Maple Heights, Ohio
Bradley Singh said…
Amazing to see so many birds out feeding in their natural habitat. And it's heartening to know that even when they're not at our feeders, they are out there and they're getting enough to eat, as nature intended. I personally just installed a few squirrel proof bird feeders last month and it has made a big difference to my numbers this winter. Thanks for sharing these sightings!

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