Grit Blogs > The Zucchini Patch

For the Birds

A cardinal and a hairy woodpecker share a meal

A black squirrel drops by for a sunflower seed dinner 

This healthy white tailed deer has an appetite for black oil sunflower seeds 

For years we’ve talked about cutting down the half-dozen or more dead trees behind our house that mark the start of the woods. They’re an eyesore; some lean over and others have broken off tops. They remain leafless while their neighbors are covered in green all summer long. But they’ve remained standing because cutting them down was never on the top of our priority list.

A few years ago we were discussing removing them and our son told us it would be a bad idea. He studied environmental science in college and told us we should appreciate the dead trees for the natural habitat they created. He called them a haven for birds that carve out nest cavities and eat the insects and larvae that live in dead wood. His assertions were confirmed this past summer when we walked through our woods with a forestry volunteer, who pointed out a gnarly old maple deep in our woods and suggested the best course of action for that tree was to allow it to remain in place as a wildlife tree. So the dead trees in the backyard were given a permanent reprieve, and in return for putting up with their undesirable appearance, we’ve been treated to numerous yard visits by a variety of cavity nesting birds.

During the summer, there’s one tree in particular that is a preferred resting spot and birds often compete for its top branch. That’s where I first got a good look at the Northern Flicker early last summer, and it is where I saw him several times more as the summer went on. Downy and Hairy woodpeckers jump between the broken tree tops, pecking out holes as they frantically search for food. And the nuthatches – white-breasted and red-breasted both – make their way up and down the tree trunks, oblivious to whether they are walking right-side up or upside down.

The camera shy Pileated woodpecker first made itself known about three summers ago, when its topic-like call alerted us to its presence. At least a few times each year I get a good look at him (or her?), but I’ve never been quick enough to snap a shot of this outstanding looking bird.

I started watching birds more than 30 years ago, when my mother-in-law pointed out the difference between a junco and a nuthatch at our feeder. Over the years my observation skills have improved and I can now take better note of who is coming to dinner. This year I put my bird watching hobby to constructive use and joined the Project FeederWatch program sponsored by Cornell University. For two days each week, I observe the yard surrounding one of our three feeders and record the birds that visit. Nuthatches, woodpeckers, chickadees and cardinals are on the list every week. There have been a few surprises, too. I’ll be reporting my findings to the Project FeederWatch program, along with thousands of my fellow bird watchers. The data is being collected by bird scientists at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Bird Studies of Canada to help them with their bird studies. So far it’s been a great experience. My only regret is that I didn’t join sooner.

Cornell sponsors a number of special bird watching events during the year. There is an upcoming 4-day bird count February 15-18, 2013. It is open to anyone who wants to take the time to observe and report what they see.

Click on for more information on the FeederWatch and other volunteer birding programs.