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Despite a short show of defiance from winter last week (snow in the North Country on May 23!) there’s little doubt that we’re into the growing season for all things great, small, animal and vegetable. The peas in the garden are knee high already, there are “true leaves” on the marigolds, morning glories, cucumbers and strawberries, and even the most reluctant of trees have leaves sprouting everywhere – along with a steady dusting of pollen, which is an annoying necessity if we want to see summer’s greenery.
I don’t mind that I have to hose off the car every time I use it, sometimes twice a day. Usually by the time I return from my errands the car is covered again, but at least we’re lucky that our pollen is the dusty kind, not the sticky, wet stuff that people in other parts of the country are stuck with. Down South the pollen is so dense it blows in the road like snow and covers the windshield like oatmeal in just a few hours.
As if to show that we are not the only ones anxious to get summer going, the critters around us have been busy with their own preparations. Just recently I awoke to a cacophony of baby bird calls, so I decided to have my morning cup of tea on the back deck just to see what was going on. It didn’t take long to figure it out: A female hairy woodpecker was making continuous runs from the suet feeder to her nest, pretty much all morning long. The little ones never stopped begging and she never stopped providing. That explains why I’m going through two cakes of suet each week, but I don’t mind. I get to watch the birds, they get to feed their families and life gets to go on. I really can’t find much fault in that arrangement.
The first hummingbirds showed up at my feeder on May 3, and within days I had to take action to keep them from battering each other to death. In an effort to spread out the action I put up two more feeders, each about five yards away from the next, and, for now at least, the little scrappers are content to sit and sip without bugging each other. One would think that such a tiny critter would get along with its peers considering that there’s more food available than they could possibly eat, but that’s simply not the case. I’ve written before about how our wild neighbors can’t seem to get along – there’s always tension between individuals and species the length of the food chain, even though I keep plenty of food out there and they do not have to compete for it. Not a day goes by that I don’t see one species chasing another away, and when those battles cease the individuals start picking fights amongst themselves.
Some of the wiser (more shy?) birds seem able to wait till the coast is clear and then come in and feed on their own. The cardinals, purple finches, goldfinches, rose-breasted grosbeaks and Baltimore orioles seem to have more patience than most, and apparently are more efficient at filling their crops. Rather than spend the entire day flitting back and forth risking the aggressive behavior of other birds, these clever ones wait till the feeder is clear, dig in briskly and depart with hardly a sound. Eat and run – a good strategy for survival in an aggressive society.
I am worried about the last remaining male woodcock in the area. He’s still out there every evening, performing his mating display with vigor and determination but, alas, no female has shown up. He starts his performance on an open side hill to the north, and through the night he’ll rotate between clearings near the garden, across the driveway and beyond the wood shed but, so far at least, his best efforts have been ignored.
Well, there is one bird that has been paying attention to his displays but not the one he has been hoping for. Early one morning last week I was listening to him twittering overhead as he was about to land near the garden. Suddenly a goshawk sailed across the field and hit the woodcock in mid-air with his balled feet, not 10 feet off my deck! The woodcock tumbled to the ground, rolled several times and then flew off low and slow, his feet dangling below him. That is a sign of a seriously injured bird, and the woodcock was just able to make it into some brushy cover before the hawk gave up and flew away. I went out to see how the woodcock was doing and, as expected, he just sat there on the ground while I approached to within a few steps of him. Difficult as it is I hate to interfere with the natural way, so I had a short chat with him and wished him good luck. He was gone when I went to check on him later in the day and every evening since then he’s been performing his mating display, so he’s apparently none the worse for wear. I’m guessing that his adversary was an inexperienced hawk because after the initial contact the woodcock was helpless and wide open, but for some reason the predator decided to end the attack.
I’m not sure if there’s a connection but for many years I hunted woodcock with various types of bird dogs and noticed that while most of the dogs loved to find and flush woodcock they hated to pick them up and retrieve them. Perhaps woodcock give off an odor that’s repulsive to dogs, and for a moment I wondered if the hawk had the same reaction. I doubt that hawks have as acute a sense of smell as the average hunting dog but, for now at least, the theory seems plausible. Whatever the reason for the aborted attack, that was one lucky woodcock. He’s not having much success attracting a mate but at least he’s still able to try!
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