Brother Nature

by Lynn McKeown


Winged visitors



The frost forms on our windows in this Siberian-style winter we've been having. It's difficult to see out until the sun rises high enough to burn it off on the south side of the house. A few days ago, as I looked out our front, upstairs window, I saw a large bird swoop down into a neighbor's shrubbery. It flew back up and perched on a limb in a tall pin oak – a Cooper's hawk, maybe the same one I saw a few weeks ago perched on a limb and then swooping down near our bird feeder. It may be hanging around the neighborhood feeding on smaller birds. (Since writing this I’ve also seen what I think was another Cooper’s hawk in brownish, immature plumage.)

Watching birds at our bird feeder is a pleasant winter-time, blues-chasing activity, especially for us senior citizens with a little time on our hands and a disinclination to venture out into the sub-freezing temperatures. With the large amount of snow on the ground, we have had many birds at the feeder just outside one of our living room windows.

There seems to be a small flock of cardinals in the neighborhood who sometimes come five or six at a time and provide a lively bit of color. Then there is the flock of about twenty house sparrows, a few juncos (snowbirds, as people often call them), as well as two or three mourning doves and an occasional blue jay or chickadee.

This morning I put a small plate of canned cat food out in the backyard, and it quickly drew some of those pesky crows. My wife had put out the cat food for a stray tomcat that often comes around, but it had frozen solid. When I put it out in the backyard on the ground, first clearing away some of the snow with my boot, the crows found it within about 20 minutes. Seven or eight of them were hacking away at it with their beaks and flying away with small chucks. They had it cleaned up in about 15 minutes.

I had thought they might find it quickly. And if not them, then the flock of about 20 starlings that seems also to be in the neighborhood. A few weeks ago they roosted on my station wagon in our carport for a short time and made an awful mess.

Starlings are rather unusual in that they sing – or at least make sounds somewhat like singing – in wintertime when most other birds are silent. Sometimes that "singing" consists of imitations of other birds. They're not as good at it as mockingbirds, but sometimes it can fool you. Once I was on a Christmas Bird Count down along the Mississippi River with a young guy from Burlington who maybe wasn't a very experienced bird-watcher. We were in a wooded area and started hearing the call of a bobwhite quail. That's an imitation that starlings often do, and it was just the right habitat for starlings, though not for a bobwhite (and the wrong time of year for one to be calling). We couldn't see the bird, which was probably in a knothole in a tree, and we argued for a while about whether to count the bird as a bobwhite or starling and finally didn't count it at all.

Over the years I've taken part in many Christmas Counts, though not this year when my car decided to break down in several ways all at the same time. In earlier years, when I was younger and more foolish, I went on many Counts in some rather severe weather. The same young man who disagreed with me over the bobwhite-starling was with me on a count in the same area when I persuaded him to walk with me on the levee upstream about a half mile from Dam #18 along the Mississippi River on a cold, blustery day in December when we got the full force of the wind coming across the river (and all the way from Canada). He suggested in polite terms that I was crazy, and he was right, but he still went with me on the frigid walk and we found some interesting waterfowl in an open patch in the ice.

Bird watchers (or birders, as we are sometimes called) – like other outdoor types including hunters, ice fishermen and skiers – seem to enjoy suffering in winter weather. Winter bird counts are a form of outdoor activity that is only mildly insane and, like those other outdoor sports, get people out in the fresh (cold) air to shake off the winter blues. On Christmas Counts the hope is that we will find something unusual, as Mike Baum and I did on one count near the Mississippi a number of years ago when we found both a white pelican and a snowy owl.

Once in a while something more unusual shows up at our feeder. We've had a few American tree sparrows – common in large flocks out in the country but less common in town. Also sometimes house finches, goldfinches and an occasional white-breasted nuthatch. We don't put out suet, so don't usually have woodpeckers, though I've occasionally seen them in the neighborhood. Recently our local daily newspaper printed a very nice local photo of a red-bellied woodpecker, though it was misidentified as a flicker. I've seen both those types occasionally in our neighborhood, as well as downy and red-headed woodpeckers.

Cooper's hawks, like the one I saw the other day, were considered an endangered or threatened species in Illinois a few years back but I believe they are now on the rebound, and I'm told they have even been found nesting on the outskirts of Galesburg. They were sometimes called "chicken hawks" in the old days because they were known to raid farmers' chicken flocks. I remember once when I was visiting relatives out in the country near Rushville, and my aunt grabbed a shotgun and went out in the yard blasting away at a hawk flying overhead. (She didn't hit it.) I know now it was more likely to have been a red-tailed hawk, which preys mostly on small rodents, rather than the Cooper's hawk, which doesn't usually soar high up like the more common red-tail.

Birdwatchers keep a lookout for "winter finches" that can show up at bird feeders. These are types of birds that come down from their northern pine forest nesting grounds in winter and show up at bird feeders in the Midwest. They include purple finches and pine siskins – we had both at our feeder this fall. More rarely, there may appear common redpolls (which aren't common around here), two species of crossbills, and evening grosbeaks. The latter are especially rare in Illinois, and I haven't seen them for many years.

Here's hoping you have some interesting winter avian visitors to your neighborhood. Maybe one of those Cooper's hawks will appear at your bird feeder. There's a paradox here: The hawk hunts and kills smaller birds like the cardinal in order to survive. Both have beauty of a sort. They are part of what, for lack of a better term, we call "the balance of nature."