Here is a guest post from my mother, a fellow northern prairie dweller.
Reading at the kitchen table, a movement out the window drew my eyes to the bird feeder. He’s so big compared to the usual visitors; the finches, sparrows and chickadees, that I’m startled. There’s a catch plate attached to the bottom of the cylindrical feeder and he clung to its edge, flapping black wings to keep balanced, his purple head shimmering. He has to stand upright so he doesn’t bump the feeder. He started circling on the plate’s rim, eyeing the cylinder up and down. Almost losing his balance once, he flapped his way back into position. He looked around as if asking for assistance. “What’s the attraction here, boys, and how on earth do you get anything out of this thing?” Without doubt, the dainty little regulars were keeping well out of the way. Finally he looked closer at the holes and peered in with one eye. Hesitating, he scanned around, then poked in an experimental first try. He snagged a large seed and dropped it. Not to his taste apparently. After three more tries, he finally swallowed his catch, a small seed, and flew away. Perhaps he was disgruntled at such paltry earnings, or maybe his legs were tiring of the awkward position. His selective picking reminded me of a different style of feeding by blackbirds at a different time of year.
Last summer the blackbirds visited the birdfeeder often. In early summer it was obvious they were feeding a family. They launched onto the catch plate and plunged at the holes with desperation, grasping and swallowing great mouthfuls with no regard for what they caught. It all went down the throat and after loading up as much as they could hold, they’d bolt off; a frantic pace to satisfy a growing, demanding brood.
Without ever seeing a nest, I knew when the young had left to fend for themselves. After a couple of weeks of wild feeding, the adults assumed a much calmer demeanor, cruising in casually to the feeder. They scanned it carefully like experienced connoisseurs and then withdrew a couple of chosen seeds before lazily spreading wings for another favorite diner on their route. I wonder if our new friend of this morning knows the future ahead of him.
This morning a raven, or very large crow, visited my neighbour – the magpie nest. It was accompanied by an entourage of one or two smaller crows. A dozen magpies gathered to drive it away, although their efforts seemed to be ineffectual. The raven was not intimidated and settled at the side of the nest. Magpie nests are hooded, which must make them easier to defend – buying the defenders some time to drive the intruder away. The raven wasn’t deterred, and moving aside a branch from the top of the nest, plunged its beak into the nest several times.
After the raven flew away, mama magpie checked the nest, then gently shooed the magpie warriors away from her nest. The pair hung around the nest afterward, occasionally flying to it to peer inside.
A couple of hours later the raven returned. Instantly nearly 20 magpies materialized from nearby trees to defend the nest. The raven landed at the nest, then soon retreated this time… perhaps finding no treasure left.
Magpies will do a ‘take two’ if the first clutch fails. These two haven’t abandoned this nest – they’ve continued to busily tend to it throughout the day.
I was delighted to see the friendly neighbourhood magpie couple decided to build this year’s nest in the rowan tree outside my front window – prime armchair viewing location. I suspect this is the pair that has nested for the past two summers in our neighbour’s backyard spruce.
This year they salvaged twigs from a nest several years old in another trunk of the same rowan, as well as hunted for any other available loose branches. It was interesting to see the struggle it is to manoeuvre long twigs through tree branches, using only a beak. Forward, left twist, back… got it!
One tended to be the collector who brought the hard-won goods to the other at the nest, who took each and tucked it away in just the right spot – the master builder. It was like watching new parents-to-be assemble their Ikea crib, “ok, now hand me part n… there should be four of them…”
Over three weeks the new nest transformed from a thin collection of sticks to a respectable plump, round bundle in the crook about two-thirds up the tree.
It has been completed for a few weeks now. Earlier today I saw both sitting together, and now I see only one, sitting across from the nest in the “next door” tree, facing attentively toward his new nursery. I wonder if it holds its treasures yet…
A pair of magpies frequent the rowan tree outside my window.
One morning this winter they were huddled together on a branch, their white breasts gleaming together in the sunlight.
I often see one silhouetted atop a spruce in the distance – a striking tree-topper.
Last month I saw one of them struggling to remove a branch from the abandoned magpie nest in the rowan, and fly with it across the street to a tree in the alley – an early sign of spring!
Three weeks ago this pair were chasing a harassed little red squirrel through the rowan tree (all our squirrels are little and red).
Today a blue jay alighted in the tree with what appeared to be a peanut shell in its mouth. Before long this pair arrived on the scene and chased the jay around the yard and out of sight.
Ambling along the sidewalk by the river valley, hidden from view by the snowbanks lining the walk, my dog and I came upon a short-legged, shaggy animal with a big round body, somewhat larger than a large domestic cat.
It seemed to be a uniform dark colour. Its tail was flat and angled down toward the ground from its body. The tail was about half to two-thirds the length a cat’s would be, relative to the body size.
Although it rolled from side to side in quick, waddling steps, it progressed slowly down the path – clearly not an animal that relies on speed.
Skunk tracks had criss-crossed the neighbourhood last week, so that was my first thought, but its tail and markings were different from a skunk’s. The tail wasn’t fluffy and there were no tell-tale white markings on its back or tail.
I think it was a porcupine, or possibly a woodchuck, newly emerged from hibernation. Maybe a young one, given its size.
I kept our distance, since my dog was along, so we didn’t get close enough to confirm.
My thoughts are with the local coyotes as they are in the regional news this weekend.
That was when they came on the coyotes, two females hunting in the open. They were a mile or so from the hollow that fed Bitter creek, not a place Deanna would have gone looking for them. It was a clearing where fallen trees had opened the canopy, letting the sun onto a patch of forest floor that now grew thick with a red carpet of new blackberry leaves. At first she thought they were dogs, they were so big: thick-furred behind the ears like huskies, and much stockier than the scrawny specimen she’d seen in the zoo or any western coyote she’d seen in photographs. These two appeared golden in the sunlight, arching their backs and hopping through the foot-deep foliage, one and then the other, like a pair of dolphins alternately rolling above the waves. They were on the trail of something small and quick beneath the leaves and grass. Probably a vole or a mouse. They paid no attention to the pair of humans who stood with their boots frozen in the shadows. Focused entirely on their pursuit, their ears twitched forward like mechanical things, tracking imperceptible sounds. Like two parts of a single animal they moved to surround and corner their prey against a limestone bank, tunnelling after it with their long noses. Deanna watched, spellbound. She could see how efficiently this pair might work a field edge, pursuing the mice and voles they seemed to prefer. No wonder farmers saw them often and feared for their livestock; if only they knew that they had nothing to lose but their mice. It occurred to her as she watched them that this manner of hunting might actually be helpful to ground-nesting birds like the bobwhite, because of the many passages it would open through the tight clumps of fescue.
~Barbara Kingsolver, Prodigal Summer, p 196-7