White-breasted Nuthatch and Red Bellied Woodpecker

moon phase Week of 02/15/2004 Best days to cultivate.

It's been another interesting winter for watching the wild birds at the bird feeders. Feeding the birds has always been a source of learning and inspiration for me. I find myself watching what the busy birds are doing.

White-breasted Nuthatch and Red Bellied Woodpecker

The different eating habits of the many kinds of birds has taught me a great deal about what they prefer to eat and the pecking orders they honor. Many birds, like goldfinches, sparrows, and juncos, tend to stay in a small area as they eat. Others, like chickadees, woodpeckers and nuthatches, may grab a single sunflower seed and fly away from the feeders to dine.

Chickadees and jays can open seeds while holding them in their feet. The white-breasted nuthatch and red-bellied woodpecker can't do that. Instead, they tuck the seed firmly into a crack in tree bark or a dead branch. They then use their sharp, pointed beaks to open the seed and get at the meat inside. I like to see where they will take their seed to chisel it open. As often as not, they will return to a favorite place over and over.

One of the favorite places here is an old weathered and cracked fence post at the edge of the garden. Finding a good crevice here is no problem. Often there are two nuthatches and a woodpecker all using cracks in the fence post at the same time. Sometimes there is aggressive interaction between them, but for the most part they tolerate each other and share the old fence post.

Another good way to get a better look at these busy birds is to hang a small basket of suet on the window frame. The suet is especially attractive to the winter woodpeckers. I have a suet feeder less than three feet from my drawing table, and I'm literally face to face with downy, hairy and red-bellied woodpeckers on and off all day. I never know who will show up at the feeder. One day I looked up and found myself face to face with a large, beautiful pileated woodpecker. He peered in at me through the window with his striking yellow eye and bright red cap. Sitting motionless in my chair, I watched him for five minutes as he picked off pieces of the tasty suet.

I always place several suet baskets around the yard to avoid conflicts among the birds who feed at them. As with any party, it's always a good idea to provide enough food to go around.

With luck, your butcher will sell you a volleyball-sized chunk of suet (beef tallow). You can easily slice the chunk into three or four smaller pieces with a large, sharp knife. Each piece is wrapped with hardware cloth or chicken wire. When the ends are crimped shut, hang them from a tree limb, fence post, tree trunk or window sill - whereever you want to see woodpeckers. Put the feeder high enough off the ground so that the neighbor's dog can't reach it.

I will be taking a long-awaited vacation for a couple of weeks - searching out wild birds and wildlife in sunny Florida. I hope to have lots of interesting things to report and stories to tell when I get back.

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