The Secret Lives of My Winter Birds

| 3/31/2011 4:28:49 PM

Tags: Winter Birds, Birds in Winter, Cindy Murphy,

CindyMurphyBlogjpgIt’s the end of March already!!! I hold the unpopular sentiment that winter has flown by too quickly. I’m always forced into spring begrudgingly and dragging my heels, reluctant to put away my cross-country skis for the next three seasons. The first week of March we had enough snow left that I could still ski, but a week-long cycle of thaw by day, freeze at night turned it to a hard crust of ice in the mornings, and mushy soup by the afternoon. Sigh. I just know we’ll get more snow. It’s not over yet. A little bird told me.

Actually, it’s not too far from the truth. None of the transient birds that use my yard as a rest-stop during spring migration arrived yet, and neither are my summer birds back home. My winter birds, the stalwarts who remain here even during the harshest months, are exhibiting none of that springtime twitterpating which was present in Bambi’s forest. What the birds are “telling” me is that winter here is not quite over.

Plants, animals, and birds have been telling us things since ancient times. The changing of the seasons was gauged by their comings and goings, and their behavior was used as an indicator of forthcoming weather patterns. For instance, if a bird built its nest near the ground, water would be scarce; if it chose a spot higher in a tree it indicated summer rainfall would be plentiful. Sometimes these signals took on more mystical meanings. Ancient Greek and Roman seers used birds as visionaries. The power of flight was seen as a way to transport messages, foretell the future, and obtain secret knowledge. The notion that birds are messengers has been so long embedded in our folklore that “a little bird told me” is now used to explain intuition or how secretive information is gained.

This kind of folklore based on actual bird behavior and characteristics is as fascinating to me as watching the birds in my yard go about their daily activities. Weird as it may be, by knowing some of their myths and legends it’s as if I’ve been let in on their little secrets. Take my American crows for example. Because of our close contact with them, crows have affected human culture, art, and religions for thousands of years, in every part of the world, more than any other bird. Volumes and volumes of books are devoted to crow lore. This distinguished gentleman in the plain black suit has worn many colorful hats throughout the centuries, performing such odd jobs as cunning trickster, accomplished thief, prophet, a messenger of death, a god, matchmaker, an intellect, a guardian, and fertility specialist…just to name a few.

American crows are by far by favorites, but let’s meet my other winter birds and the little secrets they have to tell.

The daily arrival of house finches brings commotion. They constantly vie for perching rights on the feeders with the less lucky resigned to what falls to the ground. Don’t feel too bad for them though. Finches are messy eaters, flinging seeds everywhere so there’s plenty for those beneath the feeders. Always in flocks, it’s easy to see why finches symbolize group living. They’re also symbols of diversity, new experiences and encounters. Perhaps, (at least in the case of house finches), this stems from the way they came this area. They aren’t natives here; they’re California transplants. Pet dealers illegally captured and brought them to New York in 1940 to be sold as “Hollywood Finches”. After the dealers were discovered by authorities, some released the birds to avoid prosecution. The adaptable finches quickly spread throughout the eastern United States. I, for one, am glad they came; the gray and white winter landscape is brightened by their bright red breasts, and cheerful song.

Cindy Murphy
4/6/2011 10:07:30 PM

Michelle! Been thinking about you, and meant to drop you a line just because. You got a lot of animals, eh? Cats? Dogs? Grandkids? (Just kidding on that last one, yanno.) Our cats are strictly indoors, so they're resigned to yakking at the birds from behind glass. The dog though, likes to think she's a bird-dog. HA! The crows play with her - last fall I almost fell off the porch laughing when one of them dropped an apple it had picked out of the compost pile, and flew up to the maple tree. It dropped it just at the precise moment as Quetta walked beneath the maple's branches, narrowly missing her head. I swear it did it on purpose. Its companion in the tree started cawing, which sounded an awful lot like a laugh to me.

Michelle House
4/5/2011 9:51:10 PM

Hi Cindy I don't see many birds in the yard because of the animals, lol. I did like the fact that you got to go sking on last time. Awesome article as always, :) Hugs Michelle

Nebraska Dave
4/5/2011 8:49:46 AM

Cindy, Safflower seed huh. I'll have to check out the birdseed section at the big box store the next time I get which will most likely be .... today. I guess I never thought about trying to find something the pesky little varmints didn't like to eat. Such a simple thing. Thanks for the tip. All those bird watching years wasted. Have a great bird watching day.

Cindy Murphy
4/4/2011 5:38:40 PM

DAVE!!!! I've found the ultimate perfect solution to squirrels getting in bird feeders! They used to not only devour the seed, but actually gnaw through the feeders to make the holes bigger so they could devour the seed faster. I can't tell you how many they destroyed, and I replaced, only to have them destroy them again. The solution is soooo simple. Safflower seed. Squirrels hate it. My birds, on the other hand, like it just as much as the black oil sunflower seed I used to feed them. I made the switch about two years ago, and honest, cross-my-heart truth, the squirrels haven't been in the feeders since. They're still causing havoc every where else in the yard, but at least they leave the bird feeders alone. (See, there's still hope.)

Nebraska Dave
4/4/2011 5:17:12 PM

Cindy, I would love to have bird feeders if it only attracted birds. I know your love for squirrels is about the same as mine. It seems that bird feeders are a squirrel magnet. I wouldn't even mind that so much but they are the messiest eaters on the planet. Half of the bird food ends up on the ground sprouting up little shoots of who knows what. They are relentless and it's virtually impossible to outwit a squirrel to get to a feeder if his mind is set to get there. I know I shouldn't be that way but I just don't want to deal with the little varmints. My daffodils are in the major bud stage with the tulips not far behind. The crocus are in full bloom and definitely tell me that spring has sprung here in Nebraska. Have a great day at the nursery.

Cindy Murphy
4/3/2011 8:26:20 PM

If you ever get the notion, Dave, I recommend putting a bird feeder out where you can see it from the poor man's patio while you're drinking your coffee. I have a feeder where I can see it from the front porch, and another where I can see it from the back porch. The birds make for some enjoyable entertainment while I'm drinking my coffee. You don't have to know a lot about birds or even what species are at your feeder to have fun watching them!

Cindy Murphy
4/3/2011 8:19:31 PM

Hi, Dave. It sounds like you are enjoying spring! As much as I love winter, I'm now ready for some warm weather now that the nursery is open again. Playing outside in the snow is a whole lot more fun than working outside in it!! We're still quite wintry here - so far this spring has been well below our normal temperatures for this time of year. The yellow pansies and begonia sounds cheery. Yellow is my favorite spring color too - and I'm missing my daffodils; they're still barely nubs poking out of the ground. Yep, Keith's firepit is done - it was his project when I was putting in the xeriscape garden, and we've had many of those spontaneous gatherings around it since. I agree - those are the best. We haven't had one this year yet, but have plenty of wood for it - a neighbor around the corner had a tree taken down a couple of weeks ago, and Keith and his buddy were able to get a lot of the logs. Those first roasted marshmallows of the season are not too far off, I imagine.

Nebraska Dave
4/2/2011 8:57:37 AM

Cindy, I not sure we in Nebraska have all those birds but I expect that we do. We did have our last snow here just last week. Well, most likely it's the last snow. We can get snow even into May but usually not too likely. I did recognize most of the bird names you mentioned but I'm just not a bird watcher and could not identify any except for a small number. We had our first spontaneous get together and sit around the firepit toasting marshmellows of the spring season last night. The neighbor next to me built the fire in the his pit which gathered the immediate neighbors and kids to sit around the fire and eat popcorn and toasted marshmellows. Those sponntaneous gatherings are usually even better than the planned ones but both are great. Did Keith ever get the mother of firepits completed? Mine is not finished yet either, but I'm fixin' to get around to it. :0)

Nebraska Dave
4/2/2011 8:56:07 AM

The nurseries here are just starting to get the pansies and early flowers on the shelves so I expect things are gearing up as well at your nursery. I know you like winter and I don't mind those nitrogen rich wet sloppy March snows. They are the best giving all the plants a boost in the spring to get them growing. Of course I know that the snow isn't going to stick around that long either. Yesterday was the greatest of spring days and put me in the mood to buy some kind of flower color. I had to make a purchase of pansies and one begonia. Both were yellow my favorite Spring color. I don't know what I will do with them but I just like the beauty sitting on my poor man's patio wall. Have a great April garden day.

mother earth news fair


Feb. 17-18, 2018
Belton, Texas

More than 150 workshops, great deals from more than 200 exhibitors, off-stage demos, inspirational keynotes, and great food!