Friday, November 18, 2011

Interesting feeder observations

During the Project FeederWatch season I keep a closer eye on what's going on at my feeders, for obvious reasons. When FeederWatch is not in session (i.e. spring, summer and some of fall), however, I don't always pay a lot of attention to the feeders, usually due to a combination of being busy with other outdoor stuff and lack of bird activity at the seed buffet.

A few weeks before this year's FeederWatch season began I did notice a few interesting feeding behaviors.

Interesting behavior #1 - Carolina Chickadees eating thistle seed.

Thistle is widely know as the caviar equivalent for finches of all types. I have never seen thistle listed as a seed that chickadees will go for. If you look at the various charts that show what birds will eat what kind of food at your feeders, you will usually see two listings: one for what is "preferred" and one for what is "readily eaten" (read: tolerated). Thistle doesn't show up as either of those choices for chickadees. And yet, my chickadees really got into it during a period where I wasn't offering sunflower or safflower seeds.

Chickadee-dee-dee clinging on the thistle feeder, and also sharing the feeder with an American Goldfinch.

Once I started offering black-oil sunflower and safflower seed again, I thought for sure they would ditch the thistle, but they proved that theory wrong. They will, of course, partake of sunflower, safflower and suet, but they still also come to the thistle. Anyone else out there ever see their chickadees eat thistle? I know the Juncos will eat it, but only on the ground. A friend once told me that Mourning Doves would routinely eat thistle at his feeders (he had a thistle feeder with perches on it; otherwise, I wouldn't have believed him because there's no way a Mourning Dove could cling to a feeder like the one I have pictured here.)

This proves to me that it's not just one rogue individual who developed a taste for the thistle; at LEAST two of them are fond of it. And look how those toes are clinging to the mesh-like material of the feeder!

Interesting behavior #2 - Northern Cardinals eating suet... from the suet cages.

This one surprised me even more than the chickadees eating thistle seed! Why? Because, typically, cardinals are not birds that cling to things well. Other birds are much more suited to this (especially woodpeckers and nuthatches, but also chickadees, wrens, titmice and finches) simply because of the way their bodies are built and adaptations they have developed over time. How often do you see a cardinal clinging to the side of a tree? Never! Perched on a branch or on the ground is most common, or on a flat feeder like a platform or other type of feeder where they have room to stand. I have seen them attempt (and sometimes succeed) to perch on tube feeders that have those small, 4-inch long perches, but even that is often a tremendous struggle because it's hard for them to keep their balance. So hanging onto a suet cage was beyond my comprehension. (Please excuse the graininess of the following photos - the light was low, so camera settings where cranked up to compensate, making for less than perfect images.)

Cardinal on top of the suet cage? Okay, I can deal with that. I have watched them bend over and peck suet from the top of the cake when it's still new and tall enough to come up to the top of the cage.

Wow, far out! Not only is she exhibiting excellent clinging skills, but great maneuverability as well. Notice how she's making her way down closer to that tiny sliver of suet cake at the bottom of the cage.

As with the chickadees turning to thistle, the cardinals were turning to suet because there was no sunflower or safflower seed available. They continue to repeat this when the seed runs out, but UNLIKE the chickadees, they abandon the suet as soon as seed becomes available again. So the suet is an item of last resort for the cardinals, whereas the thistle got incorporated into the daily diet for the chickadees.

We don't normally see suet "marketed" toward cardinals because most suet is sold in cakes or plugs and offered in feeders that aren't cardinal-friendly. I learned last winter, however, that cardinals DO LIKE suet if it's offered in a way that they can get to it easily. When I make my homemade bird dough, I crumble it into different-sized chunks and scatter it along the deck railing, and also put it in a small dish. They really took to that last year. Knowing this, it makes me wonder if the cardinals that I'm seeing on the suet cages this year are the same cardinals that ate my bird dough last winter, and somehow recognize the suet cakes as something similar, and "oh, hey, this stuff might be good, too, and I'll try my darndest to get to it!"

Suet score!

I would love to hear your stories of odd or interesting feeder behaviors! Feel free to share in the comments.


KaHolly said...

I have daily visits from a downy woodpecker. He spends an awful lot of time on the thistle feeder!

Caroline said...

BC Chickadees at my feeders will take thistle seed, too. My most surprising Feederwatch participant today was a lingering spotted towhee who was hanging with the juncos. We had 12" of snow in the last 24 hours, I have no idea why he is still here! Also had a flock of 200 or so late sandhill cranes overhead while I was out shoveling the 12", too bad they don't count!

Heather said...

Karen - A woodpecker at the thistle feeder? I never would have guessed. Thanks for sharing that!

Caroline - We have Eastern (rufous-sided) Towhees in this part of Ohio year-round, but they usually don't start coming to my feeders until late winter for some reason. And 12" of snow in 24 hours?! We'll do good to get that amount over the entire winter here!