Gray day, colorful birds!

Gray days in the winter dampen one’s mood, but they are great for photography.  The outdoor temperatures can be 10-20 degrees warmer than on a clear, sunny day, which means the birds are likely to be more active.  But the lack of strong light and dark contrast on a gray day seems to enhance the details in colorful birds that would otherwise get lost in glare and shadow.

Since we are back to our semi-monochromatic landscape of white and brown, a little color in the landscape is always welcome.

Mr. Cardinal is fluffed up in 20 F temperatures, which will seem balmy to man and bird in a couple of months!  Cardinals are red (mostly), but look how many shades of red they really are.

I filled the peanut feeder, so of course, the Blue Jays were quick to pick up several at a time and fly off to stash them for later enjoyment.  If you were going to color a blue jay accurately, how many colors would you need?


The incessant chirps of newly fledged chicks fill my backyard with noise in the mornings and evenings.  Poor little Chipping Sparrows flit about the yard collecting food for their enormous and ever-hungry Cowbird chicks whose parents happily deposited their eggs in the sparrow nest (see my earlier post on this).

cowbird-chick-being-fed by Chipping Sparrow

Fledgling Cowbirds look to be twice the size of their foster parent. Adult Cowbirds are nest parasites, (depositing their eggs in the nests of host species), a strategy that worked well for the nomadic behavior that evolved while the birds followdc buffalo herds through the temperate grasslands.

Lately, it’s the Blue Jay chicks that have dominated the backyard, as they follow their parents around begging for scraps. It must give the fledglings plenty of practice flying around obstacles and landing in tight spaces, as their parents fly from tree to tree to lawn, and back again.  They must have to wean those big chicks of their dependence on adults for food soon.

blue jay fledglings-

Five Blue Jay fledglings crowd around while one of the parents (top right) forages in the grass.

blue jay fledglings-

Still in its cute stage — this one followed a parent into the middle of the tree, and immediately started into begging mode as it watched the parent forage.  Its wings and tail are a bit shorter than the adult’s, but soon they will be indistinguishable.

blue jay fledglings-

Parent moves on…baby still begging with wings fluttering and making sharp jay noises.

Red-winged Blackbird males typically have more than one mate — the average is about five females per male territory, but some males have been observed to have as many as 15 females nesting in their territory.  As you might expect, with all those active nests with 4-5 youngsters in each, the females take care of almost all of the feeding chores (males might help feed the first nest in his territory, but usually none beyond that).  However, that doesn’t prevent youngsters from flying right up to dad to beg a bit of food.

red-winged blackbird male and fledgling

Nonchalant male ignores begging youngster — his job is to guard the nest, not feed the chicks.

Fall feeding frenzy

I put out a new feeder the other day, and the backyard birds were all over it as soon as I moved away.  Something strange happens to us (and animals) in the fall when the daylength begins to decrease.  We (and the animals) seem to be driven to eat more and put on fat for the coming winter.  Do you have starch cravings in the fall?  I do, and I seem to reset my appetite regulator when days are less than 12 hours and nights are cool.  If I don’t watch it, I can easily add an extra 10 pounds.  The birds must feel it too.  They emptied the feeder in two days!

(Below, Black-capped Chickadees, Downy Woodpeckers, and White-breasted Nuthatchs — looking blue instead of gray due to the light, and Blue Jays were the most frequent visitors to the feeders this week.)

Here’s a fancy new word to impress your friends:  this fall feeding frenzy is called hyperphagia, which means literally excessive eating.  Chickadees, nuthatches, and jays may actually be storing food in crevices and not really consuming everything they take from the feeder.  However, migratory birds add to their fat stores by searching out higher quality (high fat and protein) foods and increasing their digestive efficiency.  Blackpoll Warblers double their weight in the fall before migration, and the extra is all fat, making them about 50% fat by weight.

Good thing we are not programmed to go through that kind of a weight gain!

Begging Jay

We stopped for a snack while on our walk on the Rainbow Trail along Taylor Creek. A Stellar’s Jay discovered us and stopped to see if we would leave something for him.

They normally eat a varied diet of insects, seeds, nuts, and berries.  They are unpopular for their nest thievery, because they will take eggs out of unattended nests and even grab unprotected nestlings as a snack.  But today this one was interested in our peanuts.

This is an entirely western species, and in fact, replaces the eastern Blue Jay in about the middle of the Rocky Mountains.  Their range stretches from northern British Columbia along the western one-third of North America as far as Panama, but they are usually found at elevation in coniferous forest.

I love their bright blue color, which as you recall from an earlier post, is created by the light reflection within the feather structure, not by a pigment.