Feathered Friends

Twenty-five years ago a friend confronted me with an odd question. We where standing in his kitchen when he asked if I would like to catch birds with him. “What kind of birds”, I asked? “Hawks, owls and eagles”, he said. Being a person who has spent his whole life learning nature’s systems, I had to give it a try. Twenty-five years later I’m still catching birds. The project, on which I help, catches, collects data and bands migrating birds of prey in the Mid-Atlantic region. This project is done under the auspices of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. I can hear you now. “What does that have to do with trees.” It’s hard to decide which I enjoy more, working with trees or birds. Thankfully, they go together, another reason why South Riding’s tree preservation program makes our community so special.

The other day I was on Center Street, just down from the Town Center at the wetlands looking at the trees we planted with the Arcola school kids for Arbor Day. The trees around this wetland were filled with birds. Migrating warblers, cedar waxwings, goldfinches and at least 25-30 bluebirds. I have seen more bluebirds and hummingbirds this year than ever before. These wetland areas are used for migrating, foraging, loafing, nesting and winter harborage. The birds are also in your backyard and are a critical part of our new National Wildlife Federation, Backyard Habitat Program.

I look forward to this time of year for a specific reason. It’s time to fill our bird feeders. Feeding and watching birds in winter has become one of America’s favorite recreational pastimes, with a specific feeder for each kind of bird. There are certain habitats that hold birds in our community, most of which are part of the connected, unfragmented forest. Some species must have evergreen cover to survive the winter. Our preserved eastern red cedar hedgerows serve this need perfectly. There are a few specific species that would not be here were it not for these cedars, some are Ruby and Golden crowned kinglets and Pine siskins. These are both tiny birds that you may not see but you are hearing them every day throughout the winter.

Besides birds considered common at our feeders, such as Titmouse, Chickadee and Cardinal we also get an exciting surprise every now and then. Remember the big snows of 4 or 5 years ago? Those snows also hit Pennsylvania and New York making foraging difficult for northern species. Some of these birds moved south to our feeders bringing with them unusual feeder watching opportunities. When making coffee on one of those snowy winter mornings I glanced outside at our feeders and witnessed an incredible feeding frenzy under way. There were droves of Rose-breasted grosbeaks devouring every sunflower seed they could fight over. These were followed by Evening grosbeaks that helped empty every feeder in sight. These birds had never been in my yard so I called all my birding friends and filled feeders until my mortgage was in jeopardy but loved every minute of it. I even keep a list of the 30 or so different species that have visited our feeders.

There are myriad types of feeders and food from which to choose. I use black-oiled sunflower seeds for the larger seed cracking birds, thistle for the goldfinches and siskins and millet for the ground feeders. Suet cakes are fun for woodpeckers and will be used by many other species. The Wild Bird Center is a wonderful place to find all sorts of bird food and birding equipment. Remember that plants within your landscape can provide a valuable food source. Woody plants such as many varieties of Holly and Viburnum are filled with berries into the winter months and trees are filled with fruit, seeds and buds that supply nourishment as well. Don’t forget water. I leave the recirculating pump in our pond on all winter so the birds have water in which to bathe and drink.

Trees and birds, you can’t have one without the other. By caring for our trees we are caring for our birds. By caring for both we care for ourselves. So many of us came to South Riding because of the way the environment was treated and the care that was given to keep systems connected. Feeding our feathered friends is one way we can continue to keep our urban forest the wonderful place it is to live. Let me know if you have any different birds at your feeder this winter, I’d love to take a look.

One more thing, thanks to all those who joined me in a rain dance last month. We have had some wonderful rain over the past few weeks, softening the ground nicely. All of you looked great out there. Thanks and happy holiday birding!

Copyright 2005 by Peter Deahl. All rights reserved.

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The Pruning School 16 Berkeley Court Sterling, Virginia 20165