Bye-Bye Birdie: My Recent Intervention with “Chickadees”

June 15, 2019: Yesterday was replete with both a happy ending and a sad one. The story began two days earlier when my wife and I arrived home after our regular workout at the local gym. We were not home long when Linda informed me that we had “birds in the garage.” Sure enough, there were at least two small, apparently very young birds flitting around among the exposed rafters: wonderful!

I immediately knew this could be a significant problem and could only wonder how multiple birds got into our seemingly (but not quite) airtight garage. As best we could recall, neither the large garage door nor the small side door had been left open for any period of time, recently!

After the two of us watched the tiny aviary flying to-and-fro within the garage, Linda opened the back door to briefly go into the house. At that point, one of the birds in flight headed right for the open doorway to the house which caused Linda to panic and to quickly close the door while retreating back into the garage.

Taking a cue from that, I figured we merely had to open the main garage door and the little denizens of our very own accidental aviary would head for daylight and freedom. Up came the door and we were greeted immediately with the sight of another small bird trying to get into the garage! We waved our arms and the new invader turned back. At the same time, neither of the two “captive inmates” showed any inclination to fly out to freedom.

What is going on here, I wondered? I soon deduced that the third bird was likely the mother bird, well-aware that two of her newly flight-qualified charges were somehow inside our garage. Further attempts to open the main garage door while patrolling outside to discourage mama from entering proved fruitless. The two tiny flyers inside, so recently flight-qualified, seemed not to recognize that they belonged outside, in the daylight and fresh air and not inside our garage. Daylight was not synonymous with freedom, to them, apparently.

Now, I knew we really had a problem. Another wrinkle to the situation: Linda is a bit terrified by the prospect of any close, personal encounter with birds, living or dead. More than once in our fifty-two years together, I have been despatched to her beloved garden to remove a dead bird from the flower beds. A dead bird discovery in her garden evokes an immediate freak-out from Linda.

What to do with these newbie birdies? I spent much of last Wed. evening and a good part of Thursday in the garage with my large, bright LED flashlight scanning the darker regions of the overhead rafters and the racks of storage boxes in the garage. Before long, the frenzied flying about was done; now, I had to audibly track the frequent and persistent squawky-peeps emanating from various corners of the garage in order to catch them in the beam of my flashlight. Wednesday evening, realizing the dire situation, I ordered a bird net from Amazon: two day delivery!

Once I located one of the birds in the beam of my flashlight, I would try to “coax” it to re-locate to a spot where I might capture it without harm. I armed myself with a large, wet rag to toss over a cornered or surprised bird. That led to several quite humorous, but decidedly unsuccessful encounters: they were too wily and quick for me! Before long, I concluded that my best option was to stun them a bit on their perch or in mid-air using my damp rag balled-up as a projectile. That did not work. My last resort was to gently swat them in mid-flight with the bristles of a broom, enough to stun them to the ground where I could employ my wet rag capture. Tracking flying birds in our garage which is crowded with boxes and stuff of all sorts means risking life and limb – a nearly impossible and dangerous mission.

I had the feeling that leaving the garage doors open for extended periods might only invite the mother (and other of the flock) inside. Besides, these confused baby birds seemed unable to recognize the freedom represented by daylight. They acted as if the garage were “home.”

More than once, after fruitlessly stalking these birdies for well over half an hour at a time, I would declare out loud, “I am done with these birds!” My LED flashlight batteries needed replacing, and I was discouraged, but I found myself unable to resist for long, going back to the garage to try some more, consumed by a stubborn persistence!

Finally, on Thursday afternoon, I left the side garage door open and tried, yet again, to roust the uninvited residents of my garage and herd them with a broom toward daylight. I was 90% certain that one of them actually flew out the side door after considerable effort on my part. I thought I saw it out of the corner of my eye! Before he and/or others might decide to come back in, I closed the door, confident that I had but one uninvited guest remaining.

Now, it is Friday morning, and time is running out. The bird net I ordered from Amazon was not due until that evening, and I figured that a rescue was paramount before the end of the day. Without food and water, our uninvited guest surely could not last much longer, it seemed. That morning, I went out to the garage with my trusty flashlight, and my wet rag. Sure enough, there were still some weakly audible, squawky-peeps to be heard. When rousted, the little bird’s flight was slow and labored. At one point, the little flyer fluttered to the floor of the garage, exhausted, where I finally was able to cover him with my wet rag.

Scooping him up ever so carefully within the rag, I opened the side door to be greeted immediately by mama bird who quickly retreated when I stepped outside. She surely could hear her charge’s weak, squawky-peeps through the side door. Carefully, I laid the rag and its squirming little captive on the sidewalk and gently peeled back the flap covering him. The exhausted, cute little down-covered flyer was able to gain his feet, fluff himself up, and sit there motionless with eyes half-closed. I retreated several yards back, and, sure enough, mama bird was quickly there. Linda and I placed some water and crushed

cracker crumbs next to birdie, doing what little we could.

I spent close to a half-hour watching with fascination how mama bird energetically worked the various plants and bushes nearby, apparently looking for food. Twice, she went up to birdie and ostensibly transferred some sustenance to him beak-to-beak. She then departed for a while, only to come back, yet again, to check on her charge.
I came back later and found that birdie had moved off the sidewalk and onto the adjacent dirt strip – a wise move for the purposes of camouflage, if nothing else. Another half-hour passed, and I returned to find birdie still in place. I carefully attempted to place his water next to him and was startled when suddenly he took flight smoothly and straight to a bush some fifteen yards away – a very good and welcome sign! I have not seen him since, but, after what I have witnessed, I have no doubt that mama bird found him fairly quickly. Perhaps she has a few more lessons to impart before finally letting go!

The Final Chapter

Our Friday morning trip to the gym was long-delayed by the events described above, but we left happy in the knowledge that the little bird we rescued now had a chance at life. I heard no squawky-peeps in the garage prior to finally heading out for our workout. After the gym, we had not been home but a few minutes when Linda came to tell me she found a dead bird. My heart sank as I followed her to find out where she discovered the bird. Surprisingly, the bird was lying on the floor inside the garage, close to the side garage door. I immediately surmised that the second bird which I had thought flew out the open side door the day before, must not have done so. A wad of dust-balls from underneath some nearby cabinets was clinging to its feet. Sad was I, yet happy that the rescued birdie was still alive out there, somewhere, hopefully with a life ahead of him/her.

I learned a lot about these little birds during my three-day, up-close and personal interaction with them. Despite having small, “bird-brains,” they are hard-wired by mother nature with a strong instinct to survive. The mother/young bond on display throughout the three days was emblematic of that instinct. The endurance of the baby birds was evident by all the flying in a warm garage and the constant stream of squawky-peeps emitted from them, cries for help that the mother bird duly heeded.

I call these little birds “chickadees” for want of any more expertise. They are recent arrivals (within the last several years) in our neighborhood. Many are the times I have watched through the patio window as they deftly made their way among the plants outside, looking for dinner. My admiration for them has only grown deeper, given this recent experience.

Postscript: How Did They Get into the Garage?

Soon after discovering these little “garage invaders,” I employed my ladder to investigate. I was aware of a small masonry ledge just under the front eaves at the corner of the garage door where there was bird activity in years past. As I climbed to eye level with the ledge, an adult chickadee flew around the corner of the garage and landed on the ledge, not two feet from my nose. That startled me, and my unexpected presence there apparently startled the bird as well which left as quickly as it appeared. “That must be the mother bird,” I thought, and she seems familiar with the territory. A few moments later, I noticed the mother three feet away, peering at me around the corner of the garage while hanging tenaciously on to the side brick masonry which extends around the corner. One look from me, and she was gone, again.
My investigation revealed a construction area/strip about one inch high where the chicken wire underlay (for stucco) was exposed. But it was backed by a rafter – except for a two-inch length at the end. There, nothing showed behind the wire except a black hole! Despite the small diameter openings in the chicken-wire (approximately one inch), those birds somehow found their way through that area and into the garage. A rag is now stuffed into the narrow ledge opening outside. I expect no further Chickadee invasions!

Birds and the Rhythms of Life; A Sad Story Unfolding, Here

Birds…they are everywhere and rather easy to take for granted. I have developed a deep respect for our fine, feathered friends during my years of retirement. My wife and I have even “bonded” with a pair of jays over the past year – more on that in a moment. Given enough time to regularly observe their comings and goings, one cannot but be amazed at birds – their variety and their abilities. Three species have been of particular interest to me over the years: Crows, hummingbirds, and western scrub jays.

DSCN1525

Thirty years ago, we had few crows and hummers around here. The newly-plowed and paved orchard land on which new residential neighborhoods sprouted offered little mature vegetation back then. Today, there are waves of crows and minions of hummingbirds, here in Silicon Valley, California, but rarely do we see blue jays. It was particularly fascinating to watch a male and female western scrub jay move-in and nest in our backyard about a year ago. Their nest was in a large shrub just a few feet from our house, thus allowing us to closely observe their activities from our back windows. I came to know these two birds and their habits very well (see my post of Dec. 8, 2013, Meet Our New Neighbors, the (Scrub) Jays, in the December archives). They have been regular visitors to our patio over the past year.

Alas, I fear something has gone terribly wrong. After not seeing the jays over a rainy period of several days, the female showed up this past Wednesday evening, around dusk. As so often happens when I slide open the patio door and they are in the immediate vicinity of our backyard, she came swooping over the patio and landed on the back rail of an outdoor patio chair. I always reach inside for some soda cracker bits, which they both love, and I sprinkle them on the patio as I am being closely observed, just feet away. But this time, several things were different: The female completely ignored the crackers; it was dusk instead of early morning; and she overshot her landing on the chair, almost going into the nearby bush. That was very different. She has always been impeccable in all of her movements, both in-flight and on the ground. She soon perched in our little potted Japanese maple tree, just a few feet above the patio, quietly sitting there as darkness fell – for a long time, like a fluffed-up ball of down.

IMG_0484PS

During all this time, I never saw the male – extremely unusual. Invariably, when she swoops in as if to say, “Where are our crackers?” the male shows himself after a few minutes to pick up the crumbs. I learned early-on that scrub jays mate for life, and I also observed that Mrs. Jay literally ruled the roost. She would aggressively chase her mate away from the crackers until she had her fill and buried numerous larger pieces in various flower pots, planters, and even in the middle of the lawn. Only then would she allow him to pick up the remnants. For two individuals so close to one another, members of a bird species that mates for life, I found that aggressive behavior quite surprising. The stashing of food for a “rainy day” is fascinating behavior as well. I once read of a research study on chickadees which revealed that they can accurately recall hundreds of different “stash” locations, well after the deed! Amazing! It has always surprised me that they can unerringly find our backyard after flying all about the region. There must be nothing sadder in the animal world than a bird which develops short-term memory problems.

DSCN1520PS

Sad to say, I believe my little friend has lost her mate. Watching her body language last night and again this morning, it is so obvious that she is….well, either ill or depressed. I am not so much of a touchy/feely person when it comes to nature and natural processes, but it is remarkable to observe the change in her persona and behavior since we last saw her several days ago. Since we have not yet seen her mate, her body-language suggests the likelihood that her life-partner is gone; there are no other jays around here, so she is truly one of a kind, now. Her unusual behavior surely must reflect whatever feelings birds can have, especially when they mate for life. Her behavior continues this Thursday morning: Listless, and taking the sun while sitting on the patio amidst the flower pots or sitting on the lawn; never saw her do that before! Still, there is no sign of the male. We have noticed a couple of cats in the neighborhood lately. I hope that is not the reason for her mate’s disappearance. Thinking dark thoughts, one would wonder if she saw something in that regard and is now saying, “Here I am, come and get me, too!” I hope not.

105PS

DSCN1543

DSCN1546

The Crows and Hummers

I first got interested in bird behavior a number of years ago due to my habit of celebrating the dawn and the dusk of most days with a cup of coffee, tea, or a glass of wine in the evening. I think best when standing on the stoop of our back patio door watching the sun rise and set each day. Many of these blog posts materialize as I reflect in that fashion. Years ago, it became apparent to me during my dawn/dusk reveries that, especially in the winter months, waves of crows would fly low over our house at both dawn and at dusk. They come from some nesting site miles away to the apricot orchard nearby where flocks of them spend the entire day hunting for food. They can be seen all over the orchard, in the trees and stalking the earth below, until dusk when the “sentinels” gather the brothers and sisters in circling flight  and off they go in one or two large waves back to their “home.” It is an endless rhythm, much like the rising and setting of the sun which is, after all, their time-keeper.

 IMG_0467

IMG_0469

Crows are said to be among the smartest of birds. They are clearly very social as well. We have, more than once, investigated loud raucous commotions in the neighborhood coming from a flock of circling crows only to find a dead crow in the street. I have seen, on several occasions, a raucous flight of crows “dogging” the tail of a hawk or falcon which has dared to enter their territory – probably looking for the young. Those crows are persistent in their harassing chase to the point where one is soon feeling sorry for the pestered bird-of-prey. They do work together!

We have all seen crows out in the middle of the street pecking at some road-kill while cars whiz by just a few feet away. If necessary, they will step aside a calculated bit, but only enough to avoid becoming road-kill themselves (surprisingly rare, and a testament to their judgment). They are an interesting bird.

And what can one say about hummingbirds? I say, “Unbelievably amazing!” There is no species in the animal world so “incredible,” pound-for-pound, than are the hummers. Someone far more knowledgeable than I about the animal kingdom might even drop the weight qualification in that statement! I’ll go along with that. So quick, so precise, and so tiny: They are wonderful…and so imbued with confident curiosity that they will fly right up to me and hover for a long time two feet from my face while looking me over. Currently, they are consuming the sugar-water in our feeder, which hangs just outside our patio window, like it is going out of style. It must be mating/nesting season already, for I see several females of the “Anna’s” species around now – always under feeder-control of the one or two dominant males in our backyard territory. I call them the “Boss-Birds,” although there is often but one supremely territorial male who patrols the backyard and chases everyone else off the feeder. For more of my thoughts on hummers, see one of my very first blog posts, that of March 3, 2013, Be Aware, Amazed, and Smell the Roses, in the March blog archive.

068PS

I’ve observed hummers close-up-and-personal, now, for many years. The above picture of the current “Boss-Bird” topping-off his tank, as usual, just before disappearing for several hours into the blackness of approaching night was taken standing just a few feet away. Every now and then, I see something remarkable and unusual, but for the most part, these little creatures live their lives in a continuously repeating pattern dictated by the rhythms of the day, the seasons, and their biological clock. It is all so wonderful.

Meet Our New Neighbors, the (Scrub) Jays!

I believe it was back in May or June of this year when I began to notice two western scrub jays frequenting our backyard. I had to do some research in order to make an accurate identification as to the exact genre of bird. Although we have all manner of birds passing through my wife’s nicely-tended backyard garden, scrub jays, with their bright blue plumage, are definitely rare. Beyond my initial surprise, I gave these unexpected visitors little thought until I began to realize that they were hanging around the backyard, not just passing through. Soon, I noticed them industriously tugging on and pulling off small twigs from the large hedge that runs along the fence-line. It was then that I realized what was happening.

DSCN1485

As I began to watch more closely, I determined that the nest-building site was just inside the hedge, about eye-level from our patio and only four feet from the corner of our house. At a time when I knew both birds were away, I peered into the hedge and determined the exact location of the intertwined twig structure, nicely nestled in a fork of branches. A splendid view of the comings and goings of our new neighbors was had from our kitchen window as well as from the glass patio door. Never in our 41 years in this house had we seen anything quite like this. It was the beginning of what was to become a fascinating saga.

DSCN1253

Three or four weeks after starting to gather “building material,” one of the birds was much less visible. The other became a “frequent flyer,” making trip after trip in and out of the hedge – bringing “lunch,” I presumed. The gallant fellow usually entered the long hedge-row fifteen feet or twenty feet “downstream” of the nest’s position instead of using the front-door and going right to it. The bird would then adroitly “bound” through the hedge to its mate on the nest. At this point, I began to realize that these birds really knew what they were doing; the intent of this behavior was obviously to obscure the nest’s exact location in case anyone was watching – like me!

Four or five weeks passed, with mama jay infrequently seen and papa jay coming and going constantly. When he was not on the move, he was keeping vigil over our back-yard, sometimes from one of our small birch trees and sometimes from the very tip-top of several very tall juniper trees located a significant distance away. The trees were just close enough for me to resolve the form of a jay at the very top monitoring our yard. This happened frequently.

I began to develop an attachment to these two jays and a first-hand respect for birds in general now that I was witnessing, up-close-and-personal, a special part of their life-cycle. Actually observing the instincts of these creatures in action is much more powerful than merely reading about them in a book. I did not know it at the time, but I recently read that scrub jays do operate as “breeding pairs” – a fact which I had begun to assume after watching our two new neighbors and concluding that their exercise would be no “one-night stand.”

At a midway point during this whole process, I sprinkled some cracker crumbs on our patio to see what would happen. It was immediately apparent that they loved my crackers. The male was somewhat reticent about even landing on the patio to grab the tasty tidbits while I stood watching in the patio doorway, several yards away. The female was not shy; she, in fact, quite blew me away by actually coming right up on the doorstep and wolfing down cracker bits less than a foot from the toes of my slippers…as I stood directly over her watching in amazement! She did this the very first time I offered crackers to them! Quite amazing and somewhat like my little hummingbird friends who will land on my hanging feeder at eyeball level with me standing (very still) only three feet away.

DSCN1231

                                         Mama Jay

I have had several years of experience chronicling hummer behavior around our feeder, so I knew that, being flashbulb-quick, their little brains are constantly “calculating” how much time/separation are needed for them to escape a sudden threat. They have great confidence in their judgment, in that respect. For this female jay, a large, thus relatively slow bird, more caution would seem to be in order…or not!

DSCN1233

                                                           Papa Jay

Finally, I sensed that eggs had hatched and there must be baby jays in the nest. I delayed taking a peek for a couple of weeks so as not to intrude. Finally, when I was certain that both adults were on an “errand,” I walked up to the hedge and peered in at the nest. I saw two little blue heads visible over the top of the structure. I moved quickly away, not wanting to be caught peeking by mama and papa. By now, my connection with this whole affair and the two adult jays was such that I felt guilty for my prying and for “betraying their trust!”

One evening, about two weeks later, I could sense unusual activity in progress. I thought to myself, “Must be time to leave the nest.” Standing just outside the patio door, monitoring events with a cup of tea in hand, I suddenly heard a rustle in the hedge, right near the nest – like a baby bird falling through the branches. Immediately, I could hear a plaintive little squawking sound coming from ground level underneath the hedge, but I could see nothing. This continued for ten or fifteen minutes accompanied by much activity on the part of the adults who were flitting among various other tall shrubs in our backyard. The squawking stopped, and it soon became apparent to me that the parents were engaged either in flying lessons or branch-hopping instruction to some number of new chicks.

Here is the amazing aspect of all this: I never, ever caught so much as a glimpse of those baby chicks after they left the nest – not even during the rustling commotions raging within our backyard shrubs that first evening of their apparent liberation. Mama and papa stayed close-by for three or four weeks afterward; I could see one or both keeping vigil on our yard – usually from the tip-top of the distant cypress tree, but I never saw the youngsters. How strange is that? I suppose I witnessed a demonstration of how mama and papa are programmed through instinct: To keep their young from view!

As I write this post some seven months later, the two adults are still coming around quite regularly. They clearly consider our back yard as their “homestead.” They were out there early this morning, so I gave them some crackers – of course! Papa jay makes it a point to stay out of mama jay’s way when the food comes out. I have often seen her aggressively chase him off until she has made her first pass. Sometimes, I’ll pull the sliding door open to step out, and one of them (followed closely by the other) comes gliding in for a landing, looking at me as if to say, “Where are our crackers?” It is great fun…especially when they hide the larger pieces of cracker for a rainy day. Where? They bury them in flower pots, in the lawn, and they even tuck their goods in the split seams of our bedraggled patio chair cushions – right in there with the cotton batting. It is fun to watch them identify a place for their stash: they will look around, decide on a good spot, go there, and finally take a long pause to look around to be sure no one is watching – like me! I have heard that birds have a phenomenal ability to recall great numbers of stash locations, places where they have hidden food for a rainy day. I often have trouble remembering where I laid my glasses ten minutes earlier.

I feel blessed with the opportunity to watch nature’s creatures so up-close-and personal, and I stand in awe of what I see – every time. Any human being with a “superior complex” relative to the animal kingdom ought to take a closer look.

We hope our two new friends will stay in their new neighborhood and add to the family, right here, next year!