Roger Tory Peterson is the kind of author whose work inspires sequels by young admiring writers. He started out as a distracted, rebellious son of working-class immigrants. His AHA moment? The sight of a woodpecker sleeping on a tree trunk. Peterson went on to be the most important naturalist/scientist of the last hundred years, completely self-taught.
(I adore the work of America’s Other Audubon, Genevieve Jones. See for yourself.)
I keep a few Peterson field guides close at hand to help me learn more about the birds that come to my backyard all winter.
This big guy at my feeder is a Red-bellied Woodpecker. I hear it call, a rolling querr? and sing, chiv-a, chiv-a, chiv-a. It stores caches of suet, drumming row upon row of small holes (sometimes in our cedar siding) and wedging a single nut or seed into each one.
Here’s my Tufted Titmouse, a tough little guy that’s quick to harass all predators. When it sings, it’s a sweet “peter peter peter peter“; its call is a sharp scratchy, tsee-day-day-day.
I never tire of watching stocky nuthatches climb down trees headfirst. They sound kind of nasal, yank or yank-yank. They hang out with hoards of chickadees and titmice. I’m thinking it’s a case of strength in numbers. The flock is a safe place to be, a collective vigilant group that’s alert to possible attacks from predators.
There’s nothing as graceful as a red-tailed hawk soaring on updrafts over the meadow in search of small mammals. Like squirrels. Thank you, resident red-tail, you’re my hero. It’s screech – keeeer-r-r – is unmistakable.
The cardinal is a standout in the starkness of winter. It’s got such a cheerful song, what-chee, cheery cheery cheery or whoit whoit whoit. I notice that male cardinals are very protective of their mates, sometimes attacking their own reflection in my window.
This isn’t a Hairy – it’s a Downy, a mini-woodpecker that calls out with a short sharp pik.
Here’s a bold guy, both in color and behavior, that screams a loud, raucous jay! jay! jay! Blue jays are ferocious in the defense of their territory and pretty fearless, too. I’ve seen them dive and mob birds of prey, dogs, and even people.
A CHRISTMAS aside: THEY WEREN’T ALWAYS “FOUR CALLING BIRDS.”
The “four calling birds” that we sing about today were, at different times, “four canary birds” and “four mockingbirds,” and before that they show up as “colly birds” or “collie birds,” which is the archaic term for blackbirds. There were, for some reason, always four of them.
My hardy buddies wait every morning for the RFS (Reliable Food Source aka Jim) to deliver them a bit of Comfort. And in return, they deliver Joy to me.