Saturday, May 4, 2013

The Young and the Nestless

The drama at our backyard bird feeders lately is worthy of a soap opera.

A couple of months ago Peter, ViMae, and I spotted two hairy woodpeckers flitting flirtatiously in the tree just outside the kitchen window. Their dance concluded, the female flew down and perched in the snow. Peter says she was gazing up at the male "with stars in her eyes." Suddenly, seemingly out of nowhere, a hawk swooped down, snatched her up in its talons, and glided to the top of the fence. Our jaws dropped as the female struggled, then shuddered, then was still. It all happened in less than two minutes. The hawk carried his prey to a high tree in a neighbor's yard, and for another few moments, small feathers drifted down on the breeze.

Now we have a pairing that we hope will have a happy ending, but even their story has some drama.

Female house sparrow atop the nesting box.
In February a pair of house sparrows began to show interest in a nesting box that has been "for rent" since grandson Augie built it last year. With our nasty March and April weather we saw no more activity until last week.

On Monday a pair of black-capped chickadees checked out the place and fended off other birds that happened by. We were thrilled; chickadees are the neighbors we hope to attract. On Wednesday, though, the chickadees were chased off by sparrows that were just a little more fierce. I can't tell whether this is the same pair of sparrows we saw in February, but they soon began showing up with small twigs, and as one worked the other stood guard.

Male house sparrow patrolling his territory.
We were watching them during breakfast Thursday morning, agreeing that the smaller and more colorful of the two was the male. Hunkered down on the fence and fluffed up to ward off the cold, the female looked like she might be "with child."

Perhaps not. Suddenly the male flew over and mounted the female. "Look," Peter said, trying to be delicate, "He's helping her make eggs." Momentarily, I pictured a couple in a kitchen, taking turns scrambling eggs and cheese. The children, who know about birds and bees, craned for a better view. Peter hurriedly jockeyed the kids toward the window, and the sparrows mated two or three more times. As the show ended, we wished the sparrows a  happy parenthood and a safe future in our backyard, though we are mindful of the risks.

The birds have had to suffer through another five days of nasty cold weather including rain and snow. The happy couple made no appearances during that time, but they seem to be back today, and spring is supposed to return tomorrow. Will they succeed in building a nest? Will they lay eggs? Will they survive against their natural enemies? Tune in again for another episode of The Young and the Nestless.


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