Feeder etiquette or lack thereof

Thursday November 15, 2012


Leaves may have dried, curled and blown away, but grass remains green even though we are hurtling toward the winter solstice. Indian summer days with glorious warmth eliminate the effects of the few icy frosts. No matter, the bird feeders constantly need filling. The birds are no fools when finding an easy and constant source of food.

The regulars feast daily sharing space on the tubes and trays with one another. Well. . . almost sharing. Some birds are more amenable to having others quite nearby chowing down on the pile of seeds. A few are more territorial about their feeding area.

Sometimes a hungry mourning dove flicks a wing at a nearby diner, and continues to flick that wing until the other bird leaves. Hairy and downy woodpeckers have no qualms about pecking away at suet from either side, while I note that red-bellied woodpeckers do not want to share either suet or seed with any other bird.


A couple of weeks ago, a huge flock of pine siskins filled the perches of the tubular feeders. Some would land on the hanger or the top of the feeder and patiently await his or her turn. Others, lacking feeder etiquette, would be a little more aggressive and land nearly on top of a colleague forcing that bird to fly away. They also chattered to one another, thrusting heads and wings at each other. They looked and sounded as if they were playing. My flock disappeared after Hurricane Sandy. Then five or six came back over the next few days, but these too have gone and been replaced by calmer and more polite goldfinches.

Bluejays swoop in as a noisy group scaring the smaller birds away, but chickadees and titmice after sussing out the situation, fly back in and among these giants taking a seed away to eat on a nearby branch. Crows almost never land on the tray, but, in desperate weather, walk about under the feeder gleaning what they may. The smaller birds stay out of their way. . . more from common sense than politeness.

Sparrows and juncos for the most part are ground feeders and pretty much ignore any fellow travelers hunting and pecking nearby below the feeders. Fox sparrows have been passing through about one or two every three days or so.

As I walk by the window, I notice a flick of motion on the tray feeder. I turn to watch and there is a white-breasted nuthatch standing quite erect with his wings spread wide facing a nonchalantly-eating cardinal. The cardinal ignores him. Mr. Nut dips down and then up, and again spreads his wings out perpendicular to the ground and moves his head a nano-inch forward toward the cardinal. This time the cardinal looks up and faces the nuthatch and opens his beak a few times as if he is hissing at this interruption.

Mr. Nut disappears below the edge of the tray as if a magician had waved a wand and is totally out of sight. Then he pops up again onto his tiny legs and again stiffly holds his wings out, bounces up and down and thrusts his sharp little beak forward. I notice his black underwing coverts (where our elbows would be) look like large dark eyes staring at the cardinal. The cardinal just stares at him and jerks slightly forward. The nuthatch flies away. What was that all about?

Bent in his "Life Histories of North American Birds" in cludes a section for bird behavior for each species. Many of these were written in the early 1900s and feeders were not nearly as common as they are now, so feeder behavior was rarely included. Donald W. and Lillian Q. Stokes, naturalists par excellence, though, do try to standardize descriptions of vocal and visual displays of the more common birds at feeders or in the wild in their two volume "Guide to Bird Behavior" (1985).

So I check my Stokes and Mr. Nut’s behavior is known as the "wing-spread." The authors mention that the tail is also spread (I was unable to see the tail) as the bird sways from side to side for a few seconds or more. My bird continued this display for at least 3 or 4 minutes before flying away. Though Mr. Nut looked like a happy vaudevillian, this behavior is definitely defensive and may be used when protecting nest or dinner.


The Stokes have defined many other peculiar behaviors that you may observe at the feeder. The hairy woodpecker always gives a single shriek before digging in. This is known as the "teak-call,’’ what I always called his singing for his supper. The mourning dove has a number of visual displays including the "wing-raise’’ I mentioned above. During breeding season, doves may puff and bow: the "perch-coo’’ and the "bow-coo.’’

Many birds even those without crests may raise the feathers on the head in response to an aggressive bird. This is called the "crest raise’’ or the "raised crown.’’ Many times these displays are short and quick and not nearly as observable as vocal calls that we not only hear around the feeder, but throughout the year whenever and where ever we are birding. The Stokes Guide is a good source for checking any unusual behavior.

Whether the birds are dancing or dining, it is always a treat to watch them interact at the feeders!

Clellie Lynch is a regular Eagle


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