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Rewards of Backyard Birding


By Jon Friedman

I have been writing feature newsletter articles about various aspects of birding for many years now. I have written numerous articles about a wide range of topics including species identification and behavior, range and territory, feeding stations and foods, courtship and mating, migration, parenting and raising of chicks, learning abilities, diseases, birding “hotspots” and destinations, and a host of other topics as they relate to the birds we see in our backyards and in the field. While thinking about the topic for a feature article in this newsletter, I realized I hadn’t written an article dedicated to the simple joys of attracting, observing, and understanding basic bird behavior. What is it about birding that arouses our curiosity, piques our interest, stimulates our desire to know more, satisfies our intellectual pursuit of learning more, and challenges us to continually increase our general interest in birds? I can’t give a finite answer to all those questions as we are all individuals and what interests us about the birds we see varies from individual to individual. But, one thing we probably all share is that this is an enjoyable and rewarding hobby or interest.

Vermilion Flycatcher by Doris Evans

We’re all familiar, I would think, with the quote “You get out of it what you put into it”. This is true with birding, as it is with most things. Some folks may not be too interested in educating themselves to the many aspects of bird behavior and avian life in general. They may be satisfied with just having birds to see and hear around their homes. Others discover for themselves the level of knowledge they are satisfied with and have time for in their lives. Some find themselves hungry for more information and experience than they would have previously predicted. Yet, all these birders consider it a fun and satisfying pursuit, or they wouldn’t devote time, energy, and money to remain interested in birding. So, I believe that the natural joy of birding is an important reward for the efforts expended. It may be the prime reason, above and beyond all others, that birders are generally enthusiastic practitioners regardless of age, sex, race, class, etc.

How we Learn
As with most endeavors, the more you practice the better you get. With birding, the desire to learn what you can is rewarded with an expanded knowledge base and understanding of bird life. Certainly, there’s much that can be learned from reading. However, I think that learning from direct personal experience may prove best. Somehow, when you observe any bird’s particular behavior, it makes more of an impression that may stay with you better than just reading about it. And, while I can retain much of what I read, there’s a certain joy that I experience when I can recall not only what is described in the field identification guides but I also can remember the time and place of the first sighting of a given species in most cases. And, that alone, is quite satisfying.  Or, I enjoy observing any particular behavior related to that species, i.e. foraging, courtship and mating rituals, nesting and breeding, etc. For example, reading the phrase “fledglings often beg parent birds for food” helps us understand, to a limited degree, part of the relationship between parent birds and their young. But to actually observe that interaction between the parents and the fledglings means that you become aware that the juveniles will instinctively and unalterably follow the parents as they forage, continually putting themselves in front of the parent bird, fluttering their outstretched wings, and with open mouths begging the parents to provide them with some delicious morsels of food – regurgitated or not. Observing from nature gives the viewer a fuller picture and understanding than most books can convey. You may also associate and remember exactly where this observation took place, without having to rely on lists or notes.

Black-headed Grosbeak by Richard at SearchNet Media

Some birders keep a log or journal to keep notes on their observations. These birders are often referred to as “listers”. They may keep a list of birds observed in their own backyards – either daily lists or weekly, monthly or for an entire calendar year. Others may make lists of birds for each bird walk or excursion into the field. Some keep seasonal lists on particular or favorite birding locations and keep those lists to familiarize themselves with the comings and goings of any or all given species that can be found in that location at any particular time of the year. While I have assembled quite a few of these types of lists over the course of my lifetime, and I still occasionally make specific trip lists, I do not consider myself a serious lister. I think of myself as more of a casual birder. I am usually happy just to observe birds in their natural habitat and try to understand the behavior they are exhibiting. I am not too interested in comparing notes or numbers of species observed for the purpose of creating a long life list, or any list really. The satisfaction and enjoyment that I derive from birding is really quite personal, unless I am birding with others. And, in that case, learning from others or helping others learn provides its own rewards. Accumulating knowledge derived in the field (or backyard) keeps my interest level high and provides me with some small measure of accomplishment. That, also, keeps me happy while continuing to enjoy my hobby.

Gila Woodpecker checking out a bee. Photo by Richard at SearchNet Media

I love learning and educating myself in subjects I have a natural affinity for. For me, it provides a great sense of satisfaction. Some customers consider me to have expert knowledge and experience about birds and birding. The truth is that while I enjoy helping others in any way I can, I also cherish the new knowledge I accumulate when I go birding with others who are much more serious and knowledgeable than I am. When birding with beginners, I can usually answer most questions put to me. But, when I am out birding with others who I know have more experience and knowledge than I do, I think of myself more as the beginner. One of the most wonderful aspects of the birding pursuit is that each of us can learn as much as we desire. I admit that my birding knowledge and skills are best when considering the birds of southeastern Arizona, as this is the area I have the most familiarity with. When we went birding in Alaska, the goal was to learn, as much as time allowed, about the pelagic and boreal birds that, as desert dwellers, were as foreign as a language we don’t use. Traveling to the east coast, or Mexico, or Canada, or virtually any other place than my home area provides me with a sense of excitement and anticipation regarding experiencing new birds and learning from observation about the various behaviors they exhibit. And, while seeing and learning about new and different birds in other locations is a fun and pleasurable activity, I know that the sum total of my years of birding in the Sonoran Desert and the American southwest in general will not be eclipsed by the knowledge and experiences I gain from any other regions. And, I am happy with that. Of course, I still enjoy the thrill of new discoveries in areas I haven’t birded. But the truth is, I enjoy all my birding activities – wherever they lead me.

Green-tailed Tohee by Doris Evans

Interesting Observations
In recent years, I have learned to refocus my attention to my backyard birding, where I can actually afford more time to observing. I still enjoy going to some of my favorite hotspots in the region, such as the Lower San Pedro River, Madera Canyon, Sweetwater, the Huachuca Mountains, and a few other locations when I have the time or a rare or exotic bird shows up. But backyard birding affords me a comfortable “perch” to watch over my feeders at my leisure whenever I wish to do so. And while it is unusual for me to see rare or exotic birds in my backyard (or flying overhead), there have been several occasions when I have seen species not usually seen in most backyards or neighborhoods. I have had a migrating Osprey take a half-hour rest on top of a telephone pole at the far end of the property. I’ve had a trio of Yellow-breasted Chats frolicking in one of my several bird baths. I’ve seen Black-bellied Whistling Ducks flying low overhead. I’ve had a Northern Caracara land on a Saguaro ten feet from my house. I have seen a Scissor-tailed Flycatcher hawking insects from a strung telephone line. Occasionally, I have seen Lewis’ Woodpeckers (in winter) at my Nuts ‘n’ Bugs feeders. Both Yellow Grosbeaks and Flame-colored Tanagers (both Mexican endemics) have graced my backyard. I have seen several species of warblers, vireos and gnatcatchers come and go. The same is true for a few of the less common flycatchers, also. Perhaps there have been other rare or unusual species that have visited my feeders while I was either not at home or not observing at a given time. But, those highly unlikely sightings have kept a smile on my face for weeks and months afterwards.

Cardinal by Richard at SearchNet Media

The Usual Suspects
Most of the time, my backyard observations are involved with “the usual suspects” – the more familiar residents of the Sonoran desert and the “regulars” who visit my feeders daily. While this may not seem so interesting to non-birders, it gives me plenty of opportunities to really hone my identification skills and better understand the behavior I see the birds exhibiting. It gives me multiple chances to learn the variables within a given species. Not being satisfied with only being able to distinguish adult males and females from the juvenile males and females, I find I can begin to recognize sub species, leucistic birds, and the occasional bird that doesn’t so closely resemble the guidebook pictures. A recent example is noticing an adult male Gambel’s Quail at the beginning of the breeding season and seeing it had two solid white wing feathers that contrasted sharply with the regular colors and field marks that other males typically exhibit. This was unusual as far as I was concerned. But, what made it even more interesting was to discover that one of the babies from the first clutch also had the same white wing feathers as the father bird. As the juvenile matured, it physically resembled the male adult. So, the best way to distinguish them as separate individuals was to observe their telling behavior. Watching the behavior of birds is fascinating, informative, and entertaining. We’ve all heard of birds utilizing their “pecking order”. It is the hierarchy birds commonly use when it comes to participating in group behaviors, such as feeding or leading a flock. Different species may have different pecking orders. Common House Finches are perhaps the most numerous and observable of backyard songbirds. Watching how different families feed their juveniles is not only interesting but sheds light on the entire familial relationships. Different birds may act differently depending upon several possible circumstances. Some adults will feed first and regurgitate food for their young, depending on age of the juveniles. Some juveniles will endlessly pester the parent birds to be fed first. Sometimes the largest and best developed of the juveniles will demand continual feeding, at the expense of the younger or smaller members of the brood. Watching how the parents deal with their young often reminds me of how humans, and other mammals, deal with their young. It appears there’s no uniform policy that guides all the members of a given species to act similarly. I think the birds have to “think on their feet” and find solutions to problems as they arise. Different parents may deal with similar situations differently.

Mockingbird by Doris Evans

A Specific Example
Some species are more adaptable than others when it comes to food preferences, habitat, range and territory, mating and breeding behavior, etc. So it is sometimes surprising, and amusing, to see birds that are heavily dependent on seeds try other foods for the first time. Or, to challenge an interloper when a non-resident bird penetrates into their territory or to allow other birds to pass through claimed territory without any challenge. I was watching a covey of quail with 3 or 4 week old juveniles, 10 birds in all, pass through a resident covey’s territory without becoming so alarmed as to challenge the visitors. I watched, very intrigued, and expected the adults to somehow acknowledge each other in some way. The resident birds were occupying individual scrapes in the shadows underneath the palo verde trees where they were resting during the hottest part of a particularly hot summer day. All of a sudden, another covey (family group) appeared, walking in single file with the adult male in the lead. Both coveys seemed surprised to suddenly find themselves face to face, so to speak. I expected the resident male to make a fuss, to drive the other covey off, to cause them to detour around their loafing ground, or to engage them physically and force them to retreat. The resident male did rise and stand guard – but to my utter surprise and amazement, he allowed the other covey to walk through its territory, winding through and around the grounded family of quail, without so much as sound or threatening gesture. For a moment, the two coveys were intermingled but none of the birds in either covey seemed agitated or alarmed. I figured it was the hottest part of a particularly hot summer day and none of the birds wanted to expend any extra energy if it wasn’t absolutely necessary. This little episode, which only lasted about a minute or so, struck me as unusual behavior. In all my years of watching quail, I never saw such a thing. So, I was glad I had taken the opportunity to observe the backyard at a time when little other interesting bird activity was happening.

Juvenile Cooper's Hawk out of the nest by Richard at SearchNet Media

Keeping it Simple (and Clean)

Black-throated Sparrow by Doris Evans

In the past, I was a bit over-the-top in my enthusiasm for attracting, feeding, and observing the widest variety of species possible. I spent considerable time daily filling and maintaining several dozen feeders. My great enjoyment was tempered by the time it took to clean and fill all those feeders. Gradually, my enthusiasm turned into a chore – something that had to be done regularly but infringed on my time to such a degree that it had become a drudgery. I needed to make a change that still enabled me to attract a wide variety of birds but would be far less time-consuming. The answer was really simple – reduce the number of feeders and free up extra time in the process. So, for the past several years, I have trimmed the number of solid food feeders to about a dozen and half that number of nectar feeders for hummingbirds, orioles, and bats. Now, this daily maintenance takes less than half an hour. I also decided not to treat this daily effort as a chore but, rather treat the time it takes as a time for personal reflection and meditation. And, by that, I don’t mean sitting cross-legged and chanting a mantra. I now think of the nature around me, trying to be aware of what surrounds me, and realizing that I am part of that environment as much as the birds and plants are. This leaves me with the feeling of accomplishing some good on behalf of the birds and nature and that makes me feel much better about performing these routine daily “chores”. Only now I don’t feel that the “chore” is a burden in any way, but a betterment to nature and myself. I still attract a wide variety of birds without feeling burdened by the amount of time of time required to keep the birds fed and their feeders clean.

White-winged Doves by Richard at SearchNet Media

Contaminated Feeders Cause Problems
Clean feeders are important for keeping the birds healthy and disease-free. Most bird diseases are not transferred at feeders, with overcrowding of House Finches at a feeder being a prime exception. Avian pox is a disease that finches can pass to each other when overcrowding forces them into direct physical contact. (Most avian illnesses are not transferrable to humans.) In our local area, the most common disease we encounter is trichomoniasis, also known as canker, and falconers refer to it as frounce. It is most commonly associated with pigeons and doves and the raptors which prey upon them. This disease is caused by a flagellated protozoan that remains alive in a wet atmosphere, such as neglected bird baths, pigeon milk, and in the saliva of infected birds.  And, while we do need to stay aware of harming birds with unclean conditions, the most common mistakes humans make that could endanger birds has to do with maintaining our nectar feeders, especially those for hummingbirds. Perhaps the single most important part of maintaining a hummingbird feeder is changing the nectar solution (we recommend a five part water to one part nectar recipe) every three days. More frequent changing of nectar is good, especially during our hottest days, but three day intervals should be strictly enforced. Leaving the nectar solution in the feeder longer than three days will allow for several negative things to happen. The first negative thing to happen is the fermentation of the nectar which will result in drunken hummingbirds (never a good thing) and, most importantly, the life-endangering enlargement of their livers.

I so enjoy my hummingbirds that I am willing to clean and maintain their feeders daily or every other day, rather than waiting for the three day period. I simply put only a day or two’s worth of nectar and store extra in the refrigerator. The satisfaction I receive knowing that I am doing the best I can for my birds leaves me with a good feeling. Trying to adhere as much as is possible to the natural conditions the birds encounter in the wild leaves me satisfied that I am being a benefit to the birds without altering their natural behavior.

Photo by Doris Evans

After-dark Observations
I also enjoy observing my nectar feeders after dark and throughout the evening when our highly-specialized nectar-consuming bats are in season, as they are now. They are, perhaps, even more fun to observe than the daytime users of nectar. I feel we are blessed to have two species of these bats present in the Sonoran desert, although both species are in decline. Understanding that fact makes it more important for me to assist their nightly foraging. I use oriole feeders and the larger capacity Dr. JB’s feeders for the bats as they have larger food ports than most hummingbird feeders and thereby make it easier for the bats to access and use. After watching the nightly feedings of these amazing bats I have developed an increased appetite for gaining more knowledge about them. And, while I have read much about them, it is certainly much more entertaining and informative to actually watch them in real time. My birdbaths also attract owls in the evening hours and the habitat surrounding my house is ideal for the nocturnal Common Poor-wills and Nighthawks. So, the enjoyments I get from my backyard nature observations are not limited to daylight hours only.

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