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Birds like cool trees when it’s hot

Sunday, it was so hot where I live in Benicia that the songbirds in my backyard, except for a feisty male Anna’s hummingbird that isn’t bothered by anything, spent most of the day chirping and flitting around inside the little cluster of three 40-foot redwoods in a corner on the yard. I say "inside" the redwoods because the branches create a big green room in the space between their trunks when you slip under them.

I was curious if the redwood room was actually cooler than the rest of my yard, so I slipped out the back door about 2 p.m. to take a look for myself. I brought along a thermometer to check the temp and laid it on one of the branches that was waving around in the room. It certainly felt a little cooler, and after about 5 minutes the thermometer told me why. It was six degrees cooler inside the redwood room than it was outside the trees.

People are always asking me where wild animals go when it gets too hot. Well, here’s one of the spots. Trees. They get up close to the trunks of trees so they can take advantage of the insulating qualities of the green branches.

Posted on Monday, July 17th, 2006
Under: Hot Weather, wild birds | 6 Comments »

Wild birds missing from your yard?

In my Wednesday column in the Contra Costa Times, B&B of Orinda complained that most of the wild birds that normally live in her yard have disappeared over the last few weeks. I asked: Is anyone else missing their birds this year? Here are six responses:

Dear Gary: B&B from Orinda are on to something. We enjoyed a fantastic sight this time last year: three male and a dozen female pheasant traipsed out of the "wilds" behind our house and took over our backyard for the morning. What a sight to see! Since then we have had a couple of males and few females almost every day, early in the morning or at sunset, feeding on the seed I leave for them. Seeing and hearing (the males) makes for a great day. However, as our friends from Orinda observed, we have only seen one (male) pheasant in the past few weeks. Seed remains for the little tweety birds and few scrub jays that take advantage of the free meal. What gives? Love your column. (Richard & Susie in Benicia)

Dear Gary: I am surprised to read that B&B in Orinda is  suffering from a lack of birds this year. I have just the opposite condition in my yard. The little birds which I feed are actually swarming around my large feeder. They empty it every other day. The Wild Birds feed store tells me that they’re hungry after nesting and feeding their babies. (J. Sutterley, cyberspace)

Dear Gary: I live in Moraga with a view of the Oakland Hills and I still have goldfinches coming to my feeders, but not as many as in the spring or winter so I am not filling my thistle feeder that often. I have lots of house finches so I fill the black oil feeders every day. I also have Nuttall’s woodpeckers, chickadees, and titmice that love the peanut suet. There are also doves and quail as well as the feisty scrub jays and one crow that looks for peanuts every evening. One thing that I haven’t seen is any baby quail although there are two pairs of quail coming to the feeders every day. They like spending time in our garden. Something seems to be killing off some of the doves because I occasionally see a pile of feathers in the yard in the morning, but I have no idea what is killing them. Does anyone have any ideas? (Nancy in Moraga) (A Cooper’s hawk is probably preying on the mourning doves. That’s their favorite food. /Gary)

Dear Gary: Per your request in Wednesday’s paper, I had a large flock of American and lesser goldfinches a couple of weeks ago, going through thistle/Niger seeds quite rapidly. They even flew over to the Premium mix and occasionally on to the suet feeder. As of this past week, the numbers have tremendously decreased. Interesting to note, their nests they always build each year, above my outdoor wall-mounted speakers, have been quiet for a few weeks; hence, the children must have flown the nest. (Carol Weldin, Alamo)

Dear Gary: In response to your Wednesday column. I was starting to think it was something I had done. I had added another feeder to my yard, and had a huge jump in the number of birds. If someone had wanted a pie I could have easily supplied the four and twenty, along with a limit or four of dove. The birds seemed to waste a lot of seed, so I changed the seed I was feeding. All this did was attract a flock of pigeons. It seemed that immediately the small birds disappeared. However after going back to the original feed, nothing has changed. There are not as many pigeons, but the other birds haven’t returned.

The Italian Cypress tree that is between my neighbor and me has always been the house finch condo of the area. This year I have not seen a finch around. Only one or two occasionally at the feeder.

The original feeder in the front of the house gets no birds at all. It was a combination bird and squirrel feeder until the last two months. The only thing that is eaten from the feeder are the sunflower seeds and peanuts if I remember to put them in.

One last thing. I have lived in Hercules for about 25 years. A few weeks ago I saw the first woodpecker. And only the one time. (Grandpaginn, Hercules)

Dear Gary: Birds are missing in the Richmond Heights area, too. No sparrows and very few finches. Blue jays and squirrels have been feasting on the sunflower seeds. The mixed bird seed is left behind. In April a beautiful black phoebe frequented my yard, but they are flycatchers. (Christine Roed, Richmond)

Posted on Friday, June 23rd, 2006
Under: wild birds | 4 Comments »

Listen to the mockingbird

Sunday afternoon I was making myself a sandwich for lunch when I heard a commotion out in the backyard. A scrub jay screaming and a sharp-sounding "Buzz! Buzz! Buzz!" I carefully peeked out the family room window and spotted Mr. Blue sitting on the fence between my yard and my neighbor’s. The scrub jay was getting buzzed by a mockingbird.

The mocker would fly up to the roof of my house, sit for a moment, then dive straight down at the jay, striking it a glancing blow with its body. It would finish its dive by swooping up and landing on top of the Monterey pine on the other side of my back fence, and then turn around and complete the circuit again by landing on my roof.

This went on for about five minutes. One dive was so violent, the mockingbird almost knocked the jay off the fence. Curiously, it just sat there and screamed back at the mocker. I figured it would go after the mocker and peck its little heart out. Nope.

The jay was bigger than the mocker, but in the wild, it’s the aggressiveness of the animal that counts. If you’ve ever seen a mockingbird working over your cat, you know what I mean. I’ve lost count of the e-mails and letters I’ve received over the years, complaining about those "mean old mockingbirds" that are "hurting my poor kitty and terrifying it to death."

Fact of the matter is, a mockingbird couldn’t physically injure a cat if it tried (and believe me, they do try!).

As I said, it’s the aggressiveness of the bird that counts, and its ability to psych out other animals. Scrub jays are bigger than mockingbirds, and this one in particular, Mr. Blue, had been ruling the neighborhood for the last several years. But for once, it looked like he’d met his match. This mockingbird was totally working over that mean old grumpy scrub jay.

Looks like we have a new "King of Gary’s Backyard."

Posted on Monday, June 5th, 2006
Under: Mockingbird, scrub jay, wild birds | 6 Comments »

Vacation in Germany

Germany is an interesting place, especially if you’ve never been there before. A fascinating combination of the very old and the ultra-new. Centuries old summer palaces, winter palaces, fancy new modern Renaissance Hotels and construction cranes everywhere. We were mostly in East Berlin and they are building real hard to try and catch up with the rest of Germany.

What’s the first thing that caught my eye when I got there? The birds. Green parks and green trees everywhere, and all full of birds. Of course, since I’d never been there before, the bird shapes and sizes and colors were new to my eyes and their marvelous sweet songs unfamiliar to my ears. That means I spent a lot of time gawking at the treetops and flapping my hands in frustration because I forgot to bring a book on German birds to help me figure out what I was seeing.

One bird species I was instantly able to identify was the European House Sparrow. This was where they really belonged and they were everywhere.

One thing I had trouble getting used to was dogs in restaurants. You can take your dogs out to dinner with you when you go to a restaurant in Germany. Little dogs, middle-sized dogs, and I even saw a greyhound lying on the floor under one table, covering the tops of four sets of indifferent feet.

Try sipping your hot soup when a poodle and a Dachshund at the next table are yapping their heads off and trying to bite each other’s tails off. Makes for interesting dining.

Posted on Wednesday, May 24th, 2006
Under: dogs, Germany, Greyhounds, wild birds | 1 Comment »

Spring and totem poles

Dear Gary:
Since early last fall, I’ve had a pair of white-tailed kites hanging around in the tops of our redwood trees. I’ve watched them fly and hover, but the other day they did something I’ve never seen before.
Three of them landed one on top of the other. A three-kite totem pole. (Betty Stark, Antioch, CA)

Posted on Tuesday, May 2nd, 2006
Under: Spring, wild birds | No Comments »

There’s more to home than just home

I was out driving around with my wife, Lois, last weekend when our conversation for some reason turned to salmon. This is a fish species that hatches in a stream, then swims down the stream and into the ocean where it spends up to 8 years swimming around for maybe thousands of miles before eventually returning to its home in the exact stream where it was originally hatched, to spawn and raise a new family.

Lois expressed her amazement that a little fish can spend all that time swimming around in the big ocean and then somehow manage to find it’s way home to the tiny stream where it had hatched from eggs.

That caused me to think about the tiny songbirds that visit the bird feeders in our backyards. Some of these birds will fly thousands of miles down to South America to winter at the same spot every year in South American jungles, then turn around at springtime and fly back to your house in time to peck on your kitchen window and complain about the empty bird feeder in your yard.

That’s pretty amazing, too. Think about it. No road maps. No country back roads or super highways. No highway patrol officers to give them instructions to the next off-ramp. Do the birds use the earth’s magnetic field like a compass? Does the stream water smell "different" to the salmon, stirring childhood memories of the place where it was spawned years before to help guide it back?

As Lois suggested with a little smile and a wry shake of her head, "Maybe there’s more to home than just home."

Speaking of home, if I turn left here, will this road bring us back to our street?

Posted on Tuesday, April 11th, 2006
Under: Fish, Home, wild birds, Wildlife | No Comments »

Canada goose nesting on our roof

Last year a Canada goose decided to build her nest on the roof of the Contra Costa Times. There’s a small 25-foot by 25-foot section of rooftop in one corner of the building, just above the guard shack in the parking lot. It’s protected on two sides by walls and windows and on a third side by some redwood trees. Dried needles and tiny twigs fall from the redwoods and litter the roof and the goose scooped them together into a nest. It was a perfect little sheltered nook for the goose, with just one direction to fly in and out.

Surprise, mama goose has returned again this year. On Thursday one of our editors spotted a Canada goose sitting in the parking lot and thought it might be injured. We went out and checked and the goose looked fine. I think it was just resting and the pavement was comfortably warm from the sun. Something made me turn around and look up at the little roof nook and there she was. I could see the goose’s upper body, long neck and head sticking up from the same spot where she had her nest last year.

Somebody put a small stool in the second floor hallway next to the window that looks out over the nest. Maybe we should charge admission?

I’ll probably be writing something in the Times next week about all this. I’ll check with the Photo staff. Maybe we can get a picture of our goose for you to see.

Posted on Friday, March 17th, 2006
Under: Canada Goose, nesting, wild birds | 4 Comments »

Pay attention to your pets!

We have a very special little green person in our family who runs our household. Nikki is a 7-inch tall half moon conure, a green parrot that normally lives in jungles south of the border. Nikki entered our lives almost 15 years ago when a friend at work asked me if I could help him find her a home. My friend was getting ready to move and couldn’t take the parrot with him. As is sometimes the case when I try to help people find a home for their pets, Nikki came to live with us.

For her size, Nikki is a powerhouse. Noisy, irritable (stick your finger in her cage and it is gone forever), and bossy pretty much describes her. Our Abby cat, Tut, immediately hated Nikki. He stands on the arm of the couch about a foot from her cage and tries to intimidate her by glaring. She responds by screaming, "Rabbit! Rabbit! Rabbit!" at about the 90 decibel level until Tut’s ears can’t stand it any longer and he jumps down from the couch and runs away.

Early this week, the house was suddenly, oddly, quiet. When I got home from work in the afternoon, I noticed it immediately. I had a little trouble figuring out what was going on until I spotted Nikki sitting silently on her perch. When I walked over and at great risk (I thought) reached into the cage and touched her beak, there was no response. Uh-oh.

There were also no droppings on the bottom of the cage. Nikki apparently hadn’t eaten anything all day. Not a good thing for any bird. In fact it really scared me and reminded me of some of the injured wild birds I had lost during treatment when I used to be in the wildlife rescue and rehabilitation business.

I immediately cut an apple, a peach and part of a pear up into beak-size pieces. and started hand-feeding the pieces to the silent bird. It took a bit of rubbing apple all over her beak before she took a bite, and then another bite, and then another …

I fed her slowly off and on for the next two hours, letting her take or deny the food at her own speed. Not good to rush things on a potentially starving bird. Later she had finished eating a lot of the fruit. Next I carefully picked the bird up on my index finger and lowered her to the bottom of the cage where we kept her seed dish. I placed her on the side of the dish and removed my hand. She immediately began to search through the dish for her favorite seeds and eating them.

I backed off and let her eat on her own. When she finished, I got a large tablespoon, filled it with room temperature water and held it up to Nikki’s beak. She emptied it with slow little sips in about 15 minutes. I figured that was a good start on ending her  dehydration.

It was three hours later and she was back to climbing around her cage, defecating like crazy on the paper towels on the cage bottom and giving me an occasional twitter. Whew. Don’t freak me out that way, little bird.

The next morning my wife, Lois, called (I go to work much earlier than she does) to say Nikki tried to bite her when she went to clean her cage.

"Wonderful!" I replied. "Please don’t take that the wrong way!"

(Moral: Pay attention to your pets ALL the time!)

Posted on Friday, March 10th, 2006
Under: Parrots, Pets, wild birds | 2 Comments »

Turn on the tea water and the warm nectar

It was really cold this morning. I glanced out the back window and saw that the frost on the neighbors’ rooftops was shimmering in the moonlight. After turning on the tea water for my wife, I carefully slid across the icy back deck and hopped across the lawn to recover the hummingbird feeder from where it was hanging from a limb on the apple tree.

One look when I got back into the kitchen showed that the nectar in the feeder was frozen. I thawed the frozen nectar and replaced it with a new batch made from warm water and then returned it to the apple tree. Out little male Anna’s hummer would get a warm drink of morning nectar and a pleasant surprise in a half-hour or so when the sun came up.

That’s my job every morning when I get up before the sun to go to work. Turn on the tea water so my wife can make herself a cup of hot tea when she gets up in another hour to head for her job. And then replace the frozen liquid in the hummingbird feeder with a fresh warm batch of nectar so that little winged tiger can get energized and start guarding the backyard.

Then when I get to work I can get a hot cup of coffee out of the machine and start writing about it.

Posted on Monday, January 16th, 2006
Under: Animals, hummingbirds, wild birds, Wildlife | 2 Comments »

Super Hero Scrub Jay

Last evening I was standing in front of the sliding glass door to my back deck, watching the raindrops as they poured down out of the darkening skies and whipped and sprayed and splattered around the yard in the wind. Suddenly, our neighborhood scrub jay, Mr. Blue, swooped out of the wetness to make a splash landing in front of the door.

He stood there in the rain, a sopping wet, bedraggled, pitiful example of the species, as water dripped off the tip of his beak and joined the falling raindrops.

I turned to my son, Karl, who was heating himself a pan of soup on the stove. "Mr. Blue is willing to sell his soul for a peanut," I said.

"Wow, what happened to him?" Karl answered. "He looks like a wet sponge!"

At that point the cats, Tut and Newman, came trotting up to stare out the door at the drowning bird. The cats hate the jays. Being indoor cats, there’s no way they can ever get out and try to catch them and the jays know it. Mr. Blue and his cohorts do everything in their power to drive the cats crazy (and they do!). They peck on the windows, tap, tap, tapping at the cats’ chamber door, and they scream their harsh, rasping cries at the cats whenever they see them through the windows. Tut usually hides in the corner beside the door so he can’t see the jays, figuring out of sight, out of mind, but it doesn’t work because I can always hear him whining. This time, however, both cats clearly wanted to see what was going on. And enjoy it.

A soggy scrub jay standing out in the cold rain while the cats were sitting in a nice, warm kitchen was just too good to let pass. You ever see a cat grin? It’s not a pretty sight. You ever see a cat rolling around on the floor in hysterics? Scary.

While the cats were still rolling around in their little fit of hysteria and feline revenge, I quietly slid open the door and dropped a small handful of roasted, unsalted peanuts on the deck in front of Mr. Blue.

With a flick of his wings and a sudden violent shudder that shook every single drop of water off of his body, there was a great bright flash of blue light as Mr. Blue, The Blue Flash Super Hero Jay, appeared out of nowhere to stand tall and defiant … and dry … mere inches away from the suddenly attentive cats on the other side of the glass door.

The now incredibly beautiful jay picked up one of the peanuts (the biggest) in his beak and disappeared noisily into the depths of the redwood tree.

"NO!" screamed the cats as they both slunk away from the door. "NO! NO! NO!"

Karl shook his head a couple of times and turned back to finish fixing his soup.

"You know, nobody back at college would ever believe me if I told them about this place," he said.

Posted on Wednesday, December 28th, 2005
Under: Animals, Cats, Pets, scrub jay, wild birds, Wildlife | 2 Comments »