Blue Ridge Naturalist: Birdbrained

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A Northern Cardinal has it all—beauty and brains! (Photo: Marlene A. Condon)

It is almost time for birds from farther north to return to Virginia for the winter. If you are thinking about feeding birds, I want to share the most delightful experience I may have ever had participating in this activity.

Because I have had rheumatoid arthritis for decades, it has finally taken a toll on my hands, making just about anything I do with them terribly painful. As a result, I had to relinquish my role last year as the principal provider of birdseed to my winter visitors. My husband kindly took over for me, although he did alter the protocols.

Whereas I would put some seed on the ground late in the afternoon to make sure all ground-feeding birds were well fed before “going to bed” for the long winter night, he decided that meant too many squirrels were taking the seed. So-o-o, he decided to make the last feeding of the day much later, after the sun had gotten well below the Blue Ridge Mountains just a few miles to our west.

By that time of day, with the light beginning to fade, the only birds usually still active were White-throated Sparrows, Northern Cardinals, and Mourning Doves. Occasionally a lone Dark-eyed Junco would remain, but most of its fellow juncos would have already disappeared for the night.

Often one or more Eastern Cottontail Rabbits would join the birds, and quite surprisingly, a couple of Gray Squirrels would risk staying out much later than their usual bedtime to take advantage of the handouts.

My spouse stuck strictly to his schedule, and after many weeks, the most amazing thing happened. By mid-winter, those birds had learned not only the schedule he kept for feeding them, but also the sound (the unlocking and/or opening of the kitchen door into our carport) that announced he was about to provide them with their food!

My husband had been throwing seeds into the shrubs by the north side of our driveway that offered a measure of protection from predators, such as owls just becoming active at this time of day. He would also throw some seeds into the driveway.

I would watch from my office window from just before he opened the kitchen door to the time he returned to the carport. I was the lucky recipient of a perfectly endearing show.

The minute the door opened, every bird poking around in the plants in the front yard would fly to the shrubs. Many even came out of the brush piles I keep around the yard for them to sleep in or to escape predators or bad weather. It was just an amazing thing to see dozens of sparrows and a cardinal here and there quickly crossing the yard to enter the shrub area where they could await the “birdseed man.”

If the squirrels and bunnies were already in the driveway, they too would take their places inside the shrubbery, albeit on the ground. Remarkably, however, with each passing day, the rabbits got bolder and instead began to just wait for my husband in the driveway!

Just as Pavlov’s dogs learned to associate the sound of a bell with food and thus salivated more in anticipation of eating, our wild critters had learned to associate the sound of our kitchen door with the arrival of food and reacted accordingly.

Some birds, usually a male cardinal and several White-throats, would already be perched in the shrubs, facing the carport, when I first looked out. Mourning Doves would also be waiting patiently, either milling around in the driveway or lying down on their bellies there.

The fact that birds would be facing the carport only in the evening demonstrated that they could tell what time of day they could expect my husband to come out of the house. And, of course, the birds poking around in my gardens and perching in the brush piles probably knew approximately when supper was to be served and were simply killing time in the locations that suited them.

The birds grew ever bolder. At first, those in the bushes would perch close to the driveway and then get scared as my husband threw seeds into the shrubbery. Many of them would originally fly far off and quite possibly did not return.

But, after a while, the birds would simply move up higher into the trees as soon as they heard the kitchen door, where they could wait and watch as my husband approached. They had realized that they would not have seeds bouncing off them if they were higher off the ground, so eventually, many birds would simply wait high up in the first place for his evening appearance.

As he walked back to the carport, the avian creatures would all fly down into the shrubs, and after several moments, a jumble of birds would pour out of the shrubbery as they literally ran out into the driveway. There were always at least five dozen White-throats, five male and four female cardinals, and usually a minimum of six doves. It was the most incredible sight to behold. I couldn’t help but giggle to myself as I watched.

My husband would usually watch the boisterous gathering from the carport. He especially marveled at the White-throated Sparrow chatter that seemed loud enough to get the attention of the whole neighborhood.

The term “birdbrain” refers to a person who is stupid or scatterbrained, yet these birds had shown themselves to be every bit as capable of learning as any mammal—the animals with the largest brains and thus for years thought to be more intelligent than birds, reptiles, amphibians, or fish. Perhaps we need to redefine the word “birdbrained.”

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