The Many Benefits of Birds

A female house finch perches on top of a bird feeder to eat a sunflower seed.

A bird is three things: Feathers, flight and song, And feathers are the least of these.

~ Marjorie Allen Seiffert

I never thought much about why I feed the birds. At some point in my many years of work, it just became a routine activity that required little more than being aware of what was going on in my feeders, how weak my seed reserves and whether the feeders need cleaning. But at the end of the day, I suspect the practice improves my life as much as theirs, if not more on some levels.

This is how I see it: I provide them with food and they return the favor with their beauty and their songs. I am happy to know that I am doing them a valuable service, especially during the winter months when their natural sources of sustenance can become very limited and when the heat generated by the calories they consume is what keeps them going. life. I, in turn, enjoy their colorful plumage, lively antics, songs and cries, and the knowledge that, like butterflies and bees, birds also act as pollinators. That in itself is a very comforting thought.

There is, however, something else going on here that has nothing to do with give and take but everything to do with learning patience in my observations of them in order to understand how they work or behave in certain situations. And one of those situations involves something as basic as how different species consume the food I prepare for them.

A quick glance at a busy feeding station can usually show one or more birds pecking at feeders in order to extract seeds. Depending on the type of feeders, this can involve a lot of work or it can just be a matter of perching on the edge of a tray or platform and digging. This is where it gets interesting, because not all birds process seeds in the same way, and it usually has to do with the type of beak they have.

Black-capped chickadees, chickadees, nuthatches and other such birds usually have small beaks. These birds tend to extract a seed from a feeder and find a safe place to perch where they can hold it in their claws and crack it open with their small, sharp beak. It takes a lot of effort, especially when it comes to black oil sunflower seeds, a favorite among many songbirds. The safe spot can be the top of a bird feeder, a feeding hook, a roof or window overhang, or a nearby shrub or tree branch. Which explains why there’s such a buzz when chickadees and nuthatches are around, because they spend so much time going back and forth between their safe spots and the feeders.

Other birds, such as slate juncos, feed primarily on the ground, cleaning up the mess others make when they spill seeds. And still others, like house finches, do both: eat at feeders and on the ground. Always determined, these lively little tufts of feathers will take food wherever they find it.

Some bird species demonstrate a totally different way of reaching the tender grain inside a sunflower seed. These include grosbeaks, finches, sparrows, cardinals, and several others, all of which larger beaks serve as seed crackers. The skill with which these birds open even the smallest seeds is simply amazing. I have been left speechless several times watching the dexterity they show during this process.

Recently, I observed two female house finches, both of which lacked the distinctive bright red headband and chest of their male counterparts. I had recently snagged a new bird feeder that had a small pan attached to the bottom, and the two finches were happily sitting in the pan, gnawing. Unlike chickadees and chickadees, however, they did not fly off to enjoy their snacks privately in the nearby maple tree. Instead, they cracked sunflower seeds using nothing more than their big beaks. With several very deft movements of their beaks and tongues, they maneuvered the entire shells back and forth, breaking them apart and finally releasing the actual heart of the seed. They let the empty shells fall to the ground and started again with another seed. This continued, and it was soon easy to see why I spent so much of my time sweeping the empty sunflower seed husks off my front porch.

Not long ago I snagged a little sock that contained Nyjer’s Black Seed, which is a favorite of beautiful American Goldfinches, among other large-billed birds. A single Nyjer seed is extremely small and very easy to handle. Yet these birds are able to skillfully crack the seed with a few beak movements. I am always amazed when I watch the bright yellow males and their less colorful companions make quick work of these seeds.

Moral of the story: Feeding birds gives us many benefits, not the least of which is getting a first-hand look at their capacity and ingenuity in their constant and tireless quest for sustenance. Added to all the other gifts they give us, we no longer need reasons to keep them.

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