My nemesis birds!

european-starling-dk7a5386-maria-de-bruyn-resIn the birding world, a “nemesis bird” often refers to a species of bird that is eluding a birder intent on adding to their life list of bird species seen in person. For me, however, a nemesis bird is one that is emptying my feeders and depriving other birds of their bit of nutritional goodness because it descends in such great numbers that no one else has a chance. Which bird is this? It’s the European starling (Sturnus vulgaris), a bird which I admittedly find visually beautiful but rather unattractive as far as temperament goes.

northern-mockingbird-i77a9648-maria-de-bruyn-resOther birders who spend time attracting birds to their yards often comment on how Northern mockingbirds (Mimus polyglottos) chase other birds away – those in my yard feed quite happily alongside other species, however, and even wait their turn for the suet feeders. Another large bird, the brown thrasher (Toxostoma rufum), does the same. In fact, most of the species that visit my yard are content to share feeder space and/or wait their turn.

brown-thrasher-img_9913-maria-de-bruyn-res     sharing-feeders-i77a9154-maria-de-bruyn-res

american-crow-dk7a2281-maria-de-bruyn-resOther species that are called “bully birds” include common grackles (Quiscalus quiscula, below), who can look quite beautiful with iridescent feathers, blackbird species and house sparrows. The grackles and red-winged blackbirds (Agelaius phoeniceus) in my yard have not been too dominant; they do sometimes come in numbers but let other birds near. I haven’t had crowds of grackles lately and when they’ve come, their main concern was to attempt to drive away the American crows (Corvus brachyrhynchos, above), so my main foe has been the starlings.

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They discovered my yard as a buffet about a year ago and introduced their young to the feasting area this past summer.

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What is striking to me is the fact that they not only will “yell” at other species to go away but also compete vigorously with one another for a spot at the platform and other feeders, indicating a rather nasty disposition.

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The young starlings pick up on this behavior quickly.

If I come outside, they quickly fly off and roost high up in the tallest trees; sometimes, they will actually fly off to another place in the neighborhood. Clapping my hands and banging on the window will also get them to leave. However, they stick around to assess whether I will appear and if I don’t come out, they are back in short order.

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Their first love turned out to be the dried mealworms, which are a big hit with the Eastern bluebirds (Sialia sialis), tufted titmice (Baeolophus bicolor), Carolina chickadees (Poecile carolinensis), Carolina wrens (Thryothorus ludovicianus) and pine warblers (Setophaga pinus, left) among other species.

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It’s always a pleasure to see the banded birds return, like the Carolina wren below.

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When five or more starlings gather around a feeder, they literally gulp the mealworms down, making short shrift of a good-sized supply.

european-starling-dk7a0937-maria-de-bruyn-res   european-starling-dk7a2433-maria-de-bruyn-res

northern-cardinal-i77a2061-maria-de-bruyn-resI began putting out only mixed seed, sunflower seeds (Helianthus annuus) and my home-made vegetarian suet, the latter being a favorite for many species: the bluebirds, chickadees, wrens, titmice, yellow-rumped warblers (Setophaga coronata), brown-headed nuthatches (Sitta pusilla), Northern cardinals (Cardinalis cardinalis, left), and downy and red-bellied woodpeckers (Picoides pubescens and Melanerpes carolinus).

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My resident ruby-crowned kinglet (Regulus calendula) hasn’t returned this winter (though I hope he is just late), so he doesn’t have to compete with the much, much larger starlings for his beloved meals.

ruby-crowned-kinglet-img_1776-maria-de-bruyn-res  ruby-crowned-kinglet-dk7a0538-maria-de-bruyn-res

european-starling-dk7a5647-maria-de-bruyn-resTo my dismay, when the starlings discovered no mealworms were available, they decided that suet could be a nice substitute. Oy vey! They manage to empty the suet holders in record time.

I waited to put out the suet until I saw no starlings in any of the tall trees surrounding the yard.

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european-starling-i77a7189-maria-de-bruyn-resThe smaller birds came but this lasted only a little while. Soon the starlings showed up, leading me to think that either “scout” or “watch birds” were left behind to warn the flock when preferred food arrived, or they had a tremendous sense of smell that led them to my yard. It does turn out that starlings use their sense of smell to identify plants for their nests, so who’s to say they don’t use it to find food, too?

 

red-bellied-woodpecker-dk7a1833-maria-de-bruyn-resOne bird advice website recommends avoiding sunflower seeds as “bully birds” prefer them. Well, so far, the starlings have assiduously avoided any seeds. So a couple days ago, I filled all the feeders with seed except for the suet feeders – and I stood outside next to them so that the songbirds could have a go at the suet without their bigger avian neighbors chasing them away. It was gratifying to see the little ones enjoy a bit of suet while the starlings perched high above, unwilling to come down in my presence. Today, it was raining persistently but the songbirds were flying to and fro among the feeders so I put suet in three holders and some mealworms in one.

For an hour or so, they had the dried worms and peanut butter-based treat to themselves; then a starling appeared. I went outside but this particular bird didn’t seem to mind. When three of its compatriots arrived and saw me, they swooped away so the little birds still could grab some suet and mealworms.

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Now I’ll wait to see if the starlings begin eating the seed or finally move on or stay away for longer periods. I’m guessing as long as there is occasional suet, they will leave their scouts in place to warn them when a tasty meal is available. And I do want to put out some mealworms now and again so I don’t disappoint the chickadees and wrens who greet me with loud twittering when I approach empty feeders. Non-birders probably think that’s silly (to put it mildly) but I think bird lovers will understand….

Yay for the bluebirds!

Eastern bluebird Eastern bluebird IMG_9836©Maria de Bruyn resLast year was a disappointment for the bluebirds (Sialia sialias) and me when a cowbird (Molothrus ater) laid her egg in their front-yard nest. The cowbird hatched first and when I looked a few days later, the bluebird eggs were gone. The bluebirds dutifully cared for the foster child but had none of their own.

This year, they returned to the same nesting box and despite there being whole flocks of cowbirds around, they were able to avoid being surrogate parents this year. On 2 May, there were three eggs and by 5 May there were four.

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On 17 May, after mama and papa left the vicinity of the nest, I peeked in and saw the hatched babies, very naked newborns indeed! Mama was often with the babies and papa came to bring food, but mama left from time to time. They both visited the feeders to replenish themselves.

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I set up a canopy chair to observe at what I thought was a good distance but discovered I was too close. The parents would arrive in the tree fronting the nest but if I was too close in their opinion, they would not go to the nest or only after I had been still for quite a long time. It was interesting to see that they were feeding the hatchlings dried meal worms along with other insects that they had caught.
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They also seemed to be feeding the babies fruit – wild raspberries from what I could tell!

Eastern bluebird IMG_4994©Maria de Bruyn resBy 28 May, the babies were much larger and feathered. Mama and papa were kept busy ensuring they were well fed! And house cleaning to remove their brood’s fecal sacs was also a definite necessity!

Eastern bluebird IMG_5129©Maria de Bruyn res

Eastern bluebird IMG_5371©Maria de Bruyn resThe parents remained very vigilant – not only keeping an eye on me but also other too curious visitors. On 1 June, a gray catbird (Dumetella carolinensis) suddenly descended to the nesting box, fluttering its wings furiously to remain suspended in front of the hole while it looked in. It then flew up on top of the box but the bluebird adults chased it away VERY quickly!

 

Eastern bluebird IMG_5008©Maria de Bruyn res

 

 

By 2 June, the babies were looking ready to fledge. The next day, I had time to watch the box and saw a baby repeatedly looking out (but not really calling much).

 

 

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Sure enough, I saw it leap and swoop up to perch on a nearby branch.

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The next baby soon began peeping out, too, although this one also retreated inside the box now and again. Eventually, this baby swooped out as well, but s/he flew all the way across the street to a neighbor’s yard. When I carefully looked inside the next box, I saw that they were the last two to fledge – the others had gone before.

Eastern bluebird IMG_6452©Maria de Bruyn trdEastern bluebird IMG_6458©Maria de Bruyn res

Oddly, I haven’t seen the babies at the feeders although I see the parents there.

Eastern bluebird IMG_8743©Maria de Bruyn resEastern bluebird IMG_7504©Maria de Bruyn res

 

Eastern bluebird IMG_8749©Maria de Bruyn resThey or another bluebird couple were checking out a nest box in the backyard. They didn’t use this one (Carolina wrens have moved in with a nest there in the last few days) but they have constructed a new nest in another backyard box today. So I hope to witness another fledging in a few weeks! Yay for the bluebirds!