Backyard Beauties and Beasts, Revisited

(or Just Passing Through)


Bill Tune

Nearly four years ago I wrote an essay about the “beauties and beasts” in my backyard. I wrote of the birds, squirrels, and cats that frequented the oasis I had created in a once barren landscape. Birdseed and hummingbird nectar had attracted a wide variety of birds, but little did I know that I was just getting started. I have learned much about identifying
birds, and yet there always seems to be so much more to know.

Originally, my avian environment was dominated by white-winged doves, accompanied by a number of unwelcome grackles and several small sparrows and finches with a few precious cardinals and blue jays. One day a large flock of black birds appeared with flashes of red on their wings. I wanted to know the name of this beautiful, unusual bird, but my phone app failed me. [“failed me” = I didn’t know how to use it properly.] I turned to my Facebook friends. I posted a picture and asked the question, “What do you call black birds with red tips on their wings?” I quickly received the “duh” answer: red-winged blackbirds! I have also discovered that they are not so rare, but it was a pleasurable discovery for me nonetheless. My research on this bird also revealed that the female more closely resembles a large sparrow (brown and white striped) than the male counterpart.

I am aware that in nature it is common for male birds to be more colorful than females in order for the females to be less conspicuous to predators when nesting. However, I do not understand why this does not hold true of all birds. Male and female cardinals are easily distinguished but I have found no such difference among blue jays.

Then the pigeons came. Too big to perch on the feeders, pigeons cover the ground scarfing up anything dropped from above; and as I mentioned in the original essay, birds are messy eaters and send much of the feeder contents to the ground below. [Attention ladies: The next time a man tells you that you “eat like a bird,” a well placed slap across the face would be appropriate.] I was intrigued by the wide variety of colors among the pigeons. Very few of them were the same.

Pigeons were the largest of the birds we entertained until one morning after a heavy rain. I did a double take when I looked out to see a pair of large ducks in my backyard! They stayed for several minutes (plenty of time for pictures) before flying off. I was later able to identify them as black-bellied whistling ducks. They did not visit often, but they returned a few times. I’ve even seen them roost in trees across the street.

I’ve learned a lot over the past four years. Squirrel proof feeders are a myth, and a 50-pound bag of Hen Scratch is a lot cheaper than Walmart’s birdseed. I started shopping at the local feed store and included some sunflower seeds so as not to be a total cheapskate.

House finches provided some color with their very reddish heads, and while I saw more hummingbirds, they were always few and far between. I added more feeders, but still had a very small population.

Thanks to a friend’s gift, I added a suet feeder, which eventually attracted a woodpecker. It was small, black and white with a red dot on the back of the head. I determined this to be a Downy woodpecker, the smallest of all the woodpeckers.

I have seen many changes since I started feeding the birds, but the biggest change occurred last July. We moved. We relocated from the gulf coast to northeast Texas due east of Dallas. I wondered if the avian population would differ much, and it really has!

Before I discuss the birds, let me explain the uniqueness of our new situation. We live on the edge of a very small town (pop. 1200+) on a large irregularly shaped block. There are houses around most of the block but there is also a large fenced-in area in the center suitable for containing large animals. On the day we moved in I walked to the back of our large backyard and found a horse just on the other side of the fence! I’ve never lived this close to a horse but so far, no problem! I have petted him and even fed him a few apples. He has not reciprocated, but that’s okay.

This house does not have as impressive a viewing area of the backyard from the breakfast table, but it does have a large covered back porch/patio that we enjoy. This backyard also needed some work but it was not long before I had our feeders up. We have not been disappointed!

On a side note, one of our new church members made us a stunningly beautiful birdhouse: orange and white with a UT theme. Since my wife and I met while playing in the Longhorn Band at UT, we love it! Unfortunately, it is far too pretty to subject to the elements so we keep it in the den. Predictably, it has not attracted any occupants to date.

Now back to the birds! We haven’t seen any pigeons or white-winged doves, and grackles are a rare presence. Whereas before we would occasionally see a cardinal, we now have
three or four pairs of cardinals that make daily appearances. For several days last fall, while some cardinals were migrating, we had over a dozen cardinals at once. They LOVE sunflower seeds and we loved the crimson spectacle! They have long since moved on, but our regulars are still here.

One observation that surprises me is the difference in feeding habits. The birds up here are apparently too finicky to eat Hen Scratch from the feed store. I’ve had to upgrade to “real” birdseed. Also, I used to toss old bread in the backyard where it disappeared in short order. Now if I try that, the bread rots on the ground. Maybe that’s what the pigeons were good for. While the birds may be picky eaters, the squirrels here are better mannered. I see them in the neighborhood, but only see one in my backyard on occasion and he doesn’t bother the feeders.

I’ve seen a few blue jays in the backyard but not at the feeders. A friend suggested that a peanut feeder would attract them, so I put one up. So far no blue jays, but it has attracted woodpeckers! At first I thought they were Downy’s like we had before but realized that these were somewhat bigger. Sure enough, the Hairy woodpecker has similar coloring to the Downy but is slightly larger, and according to the website, “at feeders they are attracted to suet and peanuts”!

I used to be disappointed that we had no yellow birds – until the gold finches showed up a few months ago. The males were an impressive bright yellow. (Again, the females were similar in color but not as vibrant.) As with the crowds of cardinals, these finches were just passing through, but not before I got some memorable pictures.

My fascination with hummingbirds has only increased since our relocation because now we see them daily. We have four regulars that appeared soon after I put up the feeders. They dazzle us with their speed, agility, and beautiful colors. There was a time last fall during migration when their numbers approached two dozen. As much as I enjoyed the spectacle, it was a pain to make enough nectar to refill the feeders two to three times a week!

The most colorful spectacle we’ve witnessed occurred on April 24, 2015. We had
just finished lunch and I looked out the window to spy an unusual splash of color – four or five painted buntings!  I had seen pictures but never expected to see one in person, much less in my own backyard. They have bright blue heads, red bellies, and yellowish green wings. A painted bunting actually looks more like a sparrow who fought a painter’s palette and lost. When I realized what I was seeing, my first thought was, “I hope they don’t leave until I get pictures!” They didn’t. In fact, they stayed around for several hours, but I haven’t seen one since. Just passing through, and yet I’m so glad they did!

In the interest of brevity (too late?) I’ll just mention in passing some of the other birds I’ve seen here: red-winged black birds, mourning doves, white crowned sparrows, house finches, Carolina chickadees, purple martins, mockingbirds, and brown-headed cow birds. Speaking of cows…

Remember my new friend the horse? Well, he got moved to another pen, his old grazing area got cleaned up and fresh grass planted, and a few months ago it got new occupants – five young calves. There was nothing too exciting about this, just a slight change in scenery. Then one day while I was observing this “slight change in scenery,” I saw something that made my Texas Orange blood tingle – a full-grown longhorn with horns that span roughly 6 ½ to 7 feet! He’s even burnt orange in color (I swear!). He is very tame, although I do prefer he stay on his side of the fence. He appears under fed so I’m guessing he was moved to this grassy area to fatten him up. I don’t know if he’ll be here long term, or just passing through, but I’m grateful that he’s so photogenic! You may classify him as a beast, but to me he’s a beauty!


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