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Dough Carnival

Friday, May 19, 2006

With the cold rainy weather for the past two weeks, the temperature barely edges into the 50's each day, and a thick blanket of glowery gray clouds covers the sky. It's hard for birds to find insects for their young. And everyone has nestlings or fledglings to feed right now.
Bill and I were brushing our teeth this morning and a male bluebird landed on the lawn beneath the bathroom window. He wasn't foraging; he was making a point. He stayed just long enough to look Bill in the eye, then flew up and over the roof to where the suet dough dish was standing, empty. The birds listen for us to stir in the morning, and find us wherever we are. We put out a heaping double handful of suet dough and it disappears within an hour. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to get the meaning in this Carolina wren's posture.They're feeding a batch of babies in a copper bucket under the eaves, about 12 feet as the wren flies from the suet feeder. Got any more dough in there?
Lately, I've been standing at the kitchen window, noting the birds that come to the feeder. The traffic is amazing. Here's a seven-minute sample of the customers on our front porch, starting at 7:33 AM:
WBNU (white-breasted nuthatch), SOSP (song sparrow), NOCA (northern cardinal), EABL (eastern bluebird), CAWR (Carolina wren), NOCA, HOSP (house sparrow), NOCA, BLJA (blue jay), SOSP, NOCA, SOSP, HOSP, TUTI (tufted titmouse), EABL, SOSP, EABL, BRTH (brown thrasher), EABL, NOCA, NOCA, BRTH, HOSP, NOCA End of observations, 7:41. That's seven minutes of frantic bird activity, nine species; multiple individuals of each. And each and every bird gobbled some down first, then took a giant load to stuff into their babies. There's Bougainvillea "Raspberry Ice," liberated from the greenhouse, and shivering outside. Sorry about the clashing colors. Can't help that.
Some even bring their babies. This male bluebird fledged five young in our garden box, and the female's already sitting on six eggs in the same box. They snuck right past me; Bill and I opened the box last evening, expecting to see the first few straws of a new nest, and there were six warm blue eggs. My goodness. She's in such a hurry the doughball is suspended in mid-air as she gobbles it down. I'm going to have to cut down on the suet dough once the weather stabilizes, or she'll try to do four broods this season--good for bluebird populations, but not good for her or her mate. They'll wear themselves out if they have a superabundance of food.
When the sun comes out, traffic declines noticeably. It's clear to me that this frenzy is spurred by the rotten weather. And so I make batch after batch, and enjoy the show on the porch, knowing that when it warms up I'll have to cut back. But there's something about having shy, reclusive brown thrashers on the porch that fills my heart.
Chipping sparrows are big dough fans; this male and his mate fledged three fine babies from a juniper just outside Liam's bedroom window. Here are those babies at about 8 days of age. Chippies leave the nest ridiculously young, at about 10 or 11 days. They can't fly yet but can hop, and they hide in thick cover and wait for their parents to find them. They're safer that way than all together in a nest, where one snake or raccoon or jay could clean them out in a single strike. They left the nest only three days later, and are hidden here and there around the yard, eating ...what else?
The flip side of this miserable weather is that snakes are quiescent, and if the parents can just find enough to feed their young, they're having better success without the immense predation pressure that comes later in the season. And it's great news for grassland birds. The hay's too wet to mow; when we drive along the road into town, eastern meadowlarks are on every guardrail and fencepost, food dangling from their bills. What a beautiful sight. But I sure could stand a beam or two of sun. I mowed the lawn last night wearing a squall jacket, and I was still cold. Today, my undersized little rat of a dog is draped around my shoulders like a warm stole. Try that with a "real" dog.

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