The Squirrel Buster bird feeder is an ingenious contraption. When anything heavier than a small bird (say, a squirrel for example) lands on the perch to get at the food, their own weight causes little doors to close on all the seed ports. Northern Flickers are also, technically, too heavy to use this feeder but, even though they have a couple of other food options to chose from, they clearly take this a personal affront.
Luckily they have their secret weapon, the mindbogglingly long tongue they keep neatly wrapped around their brain and ready for instant deployment. All woodpeckers have very long tongues, usually with barbed ends for catching prey, but the Northern Flicker has the longest of all of them, and their tongue tip is flattened and comes with extra sticky saliva for collecting the ants that they find so delicious.
So, back to the Squirrel Buster conundrum.
This male Flicker (you can tell by the red “sideburns”) has figured out that by hanging from the perch he can j-u-s-t get his tongue into the the gap at the bottom of the closing door. I was a bit worried he’d get his tongue stuck and we’d have a difficult conversation with the Wildlife Rescue team, but it seems he’s done this before.
Not only did he get the food out quite handily, he managed to also pick up the bits that fell out of the feeder and landed on his belly. This is where the really impressive gymnastics come in.
I’m pretty sure I saw these two, taking a break from digging up ants, exchanging bird feeder foiling tips on my dog walk the other day.
And, just in case you think it’s only the males who have figured this out, here’s a female I saw doing it in back February, so perhaps she passed on the technique to her mate.
Speaking of ingenuity I’ve been scanning the internet for COVID-19 mask making patterns, as it seems that medical advice here in North America is now pivoting in favour of mask-wearing for all to help “flatten the curve”.
So, just in case you’re also thinking about making your own mask, I’ve looked at a few and made a couple of versions for when someone from our family needs to go out for groceries. The one I like best is this one from the University of Minnesota. It seems to have a good fit, and it has a pouch to put replaceable home-made filters in (suggestions for filter material you can find about the house are included in the instructions.)
One of my most vivid childhood memories is sitting beside my mother where she’d tripped and fallen on the sidewalk while rushing for the bus to go shopping. “More haste, less speed,” she said, through gritted teeth. She had a pithy saying for every occasion, my mum, and most them were/are very true. We never did go shopping that day, or for many days thereafter, as she’d sprained her ankle quite badly.
I had great plans for this festive season. Finish up the local sales events early, leaving lots of time to update my online shop, go for long walks and catch up on the local crows and maybe even get some snowshoeing (ravens!) in before Christmas. Leisurely holiday shopping in the local shops, baking, …
Well, you can see how I was asking for trouble.
Like Icarus flying too close to the sun, here I am this festive season.
It seems to be a family tradition now, the pre-Christmas disaster. The worst was Phillip’s concussion from a bicycle accident a few years back. The most hilarious (although only in retrospect) was 2016 when Lily’s dog got sprayed by a skunk at 11pm on Christmas Eve.
The sore foot I noticed the week before the studio sale turned out to be a stress fracture. What with one thing and another, it took quite a while for the x-ray results and to get fitted for the stylish new boot, with a few days when I really could hardly get about at all. I was starting to feel pretty sorry for myself.
But, another one of my mother’s favourite sayings was “worse things are happening at sea,” and this seems to fit well into that category. We do have the Christmas tree up, and as long as I can hobble as far as the garden, or even the deck, I have some spectacular company.
It was a bit wet this morning, but Marvin and Mavis were, as always, on hand to say hello.
I think Mavis holds me partially responsible for the change in weather.
In the garden on the weekend, there was a positive Who’s Who of bird visitors coming by to cheer me up.
The most handsome Spotted Towhee
Towhees are new to the garden this year. Always a thrill to see that oh-so-stylish and dotty colour combination.
The world’s most winsome White Crowned Sparrow.
Sweetest Song Sparrow.
Cheery Chestnut-Backed Chickadee
I’m noticing that some of the juncos I’m seeing lately have more chestnut on their hoods than I remember in the past. I always thought they were more uniformly grey or black, so I wonder if there is some sort of avian gene pooling going on there.
For years we’ve had one single Anna’s Hummingbird visit the garden all year round. Recently she has found a friend with whom to squabble about the hummingbird feeder.
I’d never seen a nuthatch until this one started frequenting the garden a couple of months ago. I can always tell when he’s around by the honking sound. At first I thought it was someone’s car alarm going off!
Rosy House Finch
A couple of weeks ago I noticed a couple of house finches with eye problems in the garden. Internet research revealed that there is a very contagious eye disease that spreads among finches, and advice was to bring the bird feeders in for a week or so, meanwhile cleaning them thoroughly with a bleach solution (rinsing well.) I just put the feeders out again a couple of days ago and the birds are celebrating, but I’m keeping a close watch on the finches — and planning on cleaning the feeders every week from now on.
Well, I’m not sure if they did it by guile, by force, or by consulting the Office of the Housing Ombirdsman, but somehow the Northern Flickers have regained occupancy of their nest.
As you may recall, it wasn’t looking good for them in the last post, Battle of the Nest. The Starlings had moved right in and were even installing their own furniture. And yet, when I went by the next day, this familiar head was defiantly sticking out of the nest.
I check every time I go by and almost every time there is a Northern Flicker sentry at the door. Mom or dad are on duty 24/7 to ward off future home invasions.
Oops, looked unguarded for a minute there, but a closer look reveals mother Flicker on the upper deck keeping an eye on things.
Still some last minute renovations going on too.
Meanwhile, what of the starlings?
I must admit I was rooting for the Northern Flickers, given that they were in the nest first and had done all the hard work of digging it out. Fair play and all, right?
It can be hard to sympathize with the starlings, and yet . . .
It’s really not the Starlings’ fault that a well meaning, homesick, but misguided English immigrant (human) released a bunch of them in Central Park, NY in 1890. His goal was to eventually introduce every bird mentioned in the works of William Shakespeare to North America, but the starling was his great “success.” A great example of “be careful what you wish for.”
Neither is it their fault that they’re tough and adaptable birds so that now there are many millions of them in North America, competing with native birds for habitat, food and nest sites.
While they look like drab birds from far away, when the light strikes their feathers, they are anything but dull.
If you still really think you can’t appreciate starlings (and remember, a lot of people felt that way about crows until quite recently . . . ) I really recommend reading Mozart’s Starling by Lyanda Lynn Haupt.
So . . . what happened to the Starling invaders of the Flicker nest? Well, it seems they just moved one tree over and took over the tree cavity that was used by Flickers for the 2017 nesting season (recorded in Flicker Family Saga Part One and Part Two. ) It’s been vacant since then, so they moved in without any drama and everyone seems to be getting along for the time being.
Just to be on the safe side, the male Flicker makes regular and emphatic pronouncements regarding property and tenancy rights.
The signs of spring are there. Admittedly, they’re a little tricky to spot in the world of snow and ice outside …
What the …?
Frozen puddle on this morning’s dog walk.
… but the birds know, in their featherlight bones, that spring is just around the corner. The small birds, finches and song sparrows especially, are in full mating mode, chasing each other around the garden like daredevil Spitfire pilots.
Song sparrow diving into the season, even if it is covered in snow.
Female house finch and junco share a perch.
Male house finch in rosy finery
Goldfinch feasting on the coral bark maple tree.
A sure sign of spring is the sudden and ominous banging noise that makes me think the furnace is about to blow up … an annual event which always turns out to be a Northern Flicker hammering on the metal chimney. The neighbourhood will soon be echoing with the sounds of amorous male flickers experimenting with different percussive surfaces, checking to see which offers the most impressive volume.
This flicker discovered that hollow aluminium deck railings deliver awesome reverb.
One morning a few days ago we left the house to find our street magically full of robins, singing their song of spring, and feasting on the large holly bush at the end of the street.
A close look at the ornamental plum trees on our street shows some tightly furled little buds starting to appear.
In the 28 years we’ve lived beside them, the average time for these trees to bloom is the third week of March. They’re looking a wee bit behind schedule at the moment, but some sunshine and warmth in the coming weeks could get them back on track.
I haven’t seen any overt signs of nest building yet, but the crows are arguing along the edges of their territories. All of this squabbling leads me to believe they’re in the early stages of nest site selection.
Eric and Clara vie with Marvin and Mavis for hegemony in the poplars.
Marvin and Mavis view their real estate options from the Crows Nest vantage point.
Ms. and Mr. Wing stand guard at the entrance to their fiefdom up on William Street.
Garden-wise, the signs of spring are obscure.
I feel a psychic kinship with the frost-fainted snowdrops.
The poor hellebores were breezily blooming in January only to be hastily buried in leaves when February’s snow and freezing weather swept in. They remain hidden, hopefully poIsed for a second act when things finally warm up.
Perhaps because I miss them, and possibly influenced by my convalescent hours with Monty Don, I’ve been playing around with some of my floral images from years gone by to create some new cushion cover designs.
While I dream of waking up to this view again …
… I’m working on some new images to invoke that spring feeling.
It’s difficult to say when Real Spring will finally show up, but Marvin seemed to be consulting a third party this morning.
Tell me, oh All Knowing Bird, when will Spring arrive?
As reliable source of weather information as any.
Perhaps I should ask him some of my financial planning questions …
Already it seems as if we might just have dreamed it.
Once upon a time, one Saturday morning in February, we woke up in a crystal palace.
A thick and flawless blanket of snow had fallen silently through the Vancouver night. The sun had come out. Everything looked like a fairy tale.
Photo of me, like a kid on Christmas morning, out in the garden in my dashing plaid housecoat.
The landscape itself was breathtaking so we just stood around, being robbed of breath.
Movement in my the trees made me think “… and there are birds.”
Not only is there landscape, but there are BIRDS in it. It felt like a surprise gift.
Of course I know this — given that I think about, follow, write about, and photograph the darn things every day of my life. But somehow it just struck me then that birds are like an extra dimension. Like a new hue in the colour spectrum. A huge bonus.
Northern Flicker in a white landscape
It made me remember that I didn’t really notice birds much until my 50’s.
In my twenties, I lived in a cabin miles from anywhere, and there must have been many birds in my solitary world. Somehow I remember the trees, the moss, lichen and wild flowers in great detail, but no birds. There must have been ravens, for heaven’s sake, but I just didn’t register them.
Intrepid song sparrow
People often ask me how I came to start taking pictures of crows and other birds.
When both of my parents died within a couple of years of each other (almost twenty years ago now) I started photographing as a form of home-made therapy. I obsessively made very closely observed portraits of plants for several years, eventually turning it into my profession.
I can’t remember what year it was, but I was out in the garden, hunched over a hosta (as per usual) when I heard some crows making a terrific racket above me. I’m sure this was not the first time, but for some reason that day my head, tilted for so many years towards the earth, turned to look at the sky. In my mind, there was a creaking sound as I made the adjustment.
There are birds.
I finally noticed.
Better late than never, I guess.
Marvin and Mavis in the coral bark maple
And, as many of you know, once you start noticing crows, there’s no going back.
And they’re just the thin end of the wedge. Once you start watching crows, the next thing you know, there are house sparrows and starlings and robins and chickadees and flickers. And, good grief, was that a hummingbird …?
So, the snow day, beautiful as the scenery was, also served to make me appreciate the bird dimension of landscape all over again.
It was as if I’d forgotten about them all for a minute and then remembered.
Marvin “snow swimming” on the neighbour’s roof.
A robin and a flicker share the heated birdbath facilities.
A junco enjoys the pool to himself.
Marvin and Mavis enjoying some welcome sun.
Chickadee on one leg, trying to warm up one foot at a time.
Snow covered crow’s nest.
Marvin, having looked at snow from both sides now …
It’s going to be a scorcher this week in Vancouver. The news is full of dire sunstroke warnings, and tips on how to beat the heat.
The birds know what to do, and here is one of our backyard Northern Flickers to do a little demo for you.
Stick to cool, shady places. Preferably near water.
If the thermometer is really sky rocketing, it’s time to take the plunge.
Get thoroughly soaked. Feel your core temperature go down.
Aaah. Now that’s better.
This part of the flicker post-bathing behaviour might not be so advisable for humans.
I <3 Flickers
NOTE: In this hot dry weather, the birds may need a little help from us to stay cool and hydrated. If you have a bird bath, keep it clean and full. If not, a simple shallow container of water put out for the birds is a big help when there are no puddles to be found.
Apart from enviously watching the bathing birds, I’m working feverishly on putting together to 2018 City Crow Calendar. It’s coming together well. In fact, it would be done if not for the little anecdotes and smaller pictures I’m adding to spare spaces in the grid parts of the calendar.
Anyway, it should be off to the printer soon, and available to purchase on my web site by the beginning of September.
The cover model for the calendar will be … guess who?
This is a quite long story, with many pictures, and some emotional ups and down. You might need to arm yourself with a cup of tea and take a comfy seat before settling in to read. OK, here we go …
By the end of June, the flicker nest was the talk of the street. Everyone was keeping a discreet eye on the plum tree goings-on and neighbours would discuss the activity over the garden fences.
Each morning I was checking the tree to see if the sounds were still in there. Sometimes it was quiet (I guess there was nap time) and sometimes the little murmurings were there. Then, one morning in early July, I was rewarded by this adorable face at the “window.”
Note: If you missed PART ONE, you can read it HERE.
That’s a great big world out there …
Hey, I’m hungry over here!
Ah, here comes Mom with lunch.
Everything was looking so good for the little family. The parents were such fierce guardians, and the babies seemed safe in their tree fortress.
One morning I got up very early to see what was new.
What was new was this: absolute silence at the nest and a sad pile of flicker feathers around the base of the tree.
Further exploration revealed the remains of a baby flicker on the road.
I’m not sure if the culprit was the returning squirrel, the neighbour’s cat, or my buddies the crows. I try to put in the perspective of the circle of life and all that, but I must say I was pretty sad.
The flicker parents were still around, but no sign of any babies. I wondered if they’d lost their one and only fledgling for that year.
Dad at the bird bath.
The following day I took a cup of tea out to the front of the house and was startled by a great flapping in the windowed end of the porch. It was a baby flicker, vainly trying to fly to freedom through the glass.
Luckily, I still had the “rescue box” from the last flicker episode on hand. I grabbed a towel (not fraying at the edges this time!) and put it over the head of the baby. She immediately stopped flapping and I put her in the box with the lid on.
I was somewhat torn about releasing her, worrying that whatever killed her sibling would get her too. However, I took a deep breath and let her go in the back garden, where there’s lots of cover.
Failed picture of release – but you can see her tail feathers as she exits the frame.
She sat for a minute in the lilac tree, getting her bearings.
I was worried that there were no sign of the parents. After a few moments to collect herself, the baby flicker took off and flew away north.
Over the next few days I’d hear calls of adult and baby flickers around the garden.
I heard the soft thud of baby flicker flight mishaps a few times.
My husband was sitting quietly in the garden and spotted the two adults and the fledgling flicker all together at the bird bath. I was happy to think that at least the surviving baby was gathering skills and under the guardianship of the parents.
Yesterday it was my turn. I saw both parents and, not one, but TWO baby flickers in the garden — one male, one female. Below is a video of the mother feeding the female fledgling on the roof of my studio.
Here are the siblings playing around in the lilac tree.
EVEN MORE BABIES!
This morning I actually think I spotted THREE fledglings – one male and two female. Now I’m starting to wonder how many baby flickers can fit into the trunk of a medium sized ornamental plum tree. No wonder there were so many sounds coming out of there!
Male Flicker fledgling
Sisters in the lilac
There are few things cuter than a sleepy baby Flicker.
So, the Flicker Family Saga continues. As is the way of life, tomorrow may bring a sad pile of feathers, but for today things are looking pretty promising for the Flicker Family of Parker Street.
I have so many northern flicker images to work with now, I hardly know where to start.