Monday, October 27, 2008

Migrating Birds Return

This week has been filled with migrating bird arrivals. I thought I heard the hermit thrush early in the morning on Thursday the 16th. Then, to my delight, I spotted my traveling friend two days later. The hermit thrush returned one day later this year than in 2007. I’m a bit concerned because much of the fruit that the thrush would usually be eating has either already ripened and gone or never developed this summer.

The first white-crowned sparrow of the winter season arrived on Wednesday, Oct. 22. It’s the latest they’ve arrived in five years. In 2004 they arrived September 22nd. Each year since they have arrived a week later. Unfortunately, the little traveler was startled by a morning dove acting unusually territorial and she hasn’t been back.

The two male Oregon juncos returned on Friday, Oct. 24. These two males have been winter residents in our yard for the past three years. A few females join them on occasion, but these two males are regulars. It would be fascinating to know if they spend the rest of the year together or just come south together for the off-breeding season. They are two-weeks later than last year, but nearly the same date as 2006 and earlier than 2005.

This morning, Monday, Oct. 27, the first yellow-rumped warbler rested on the bird bath and tried to grab a deer fly hovering above the water. The yellow-rumps usually arrive in October, but this is later than usual. I’ve been keeping an eye open for other warblers passing through, but haven’t seen any as yet in the yard.

There is one other bird that has yet to arrive, the ruby-crowned kinglet. This tiny bird with a big personality is one of my favorite winter visitors. I'll be keeping an eye out for him.

How do I know when all of my migrating visitors returned in previous years. I've developed a book for tracking the bird activity in my yard. The Backyard Bird Journal allows you to track the day-to-day bird happenings in your yard and to keep track on a monthly basis which species are present. More on that next week.

If you'd like to attract migrating wild birds to your yard - Bird Feeder Basics.

October has been unusually warm. As I sit on the patio and watch Teeny squirrel running circles on the tree trunk, I know that these warm days have given her the opportunity to survive. She is completely on her own, chasing through the treetops with the other fox squirrels. It is hard to get back to the work I should be doing when I can watch Teeny frolicking in the autumn sunlight. (See photos of Teeny)

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Fire in Los Angeles

October 14, 2008 - The billowing smoke of yesterday has become a permeating brown haze. All the windows in my house are closed, but the smell of smoke fills each room. I'm running the fan just to pull smoke out of the air, but I feel the layer of soot on my skin.

The fires are miles away, across the valley, yet the wind has been blowing this direction since the burning began. A smudgy russet veil colors everything. The band-tailed pigeons sit nervously in the neighbor's eucalyptus tree. They can't seem to decide if it is safe to come down from their perch.

A feeling of hesitancy hangs heavy. Sirens blare, speeding down the street. Where are these fire trucks headed? Has the wind really stopped? Is this place safe? Where is the fire now?

While the fire departments work tirelessly, we all wait. Wait to see if the wind will die down. Wait to see which direction the fire will head. Pray that watchful eyes will spot any new blazes before they become roaring flames worthy of a name.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Teeny Tiny Tree Squirrel

Well, it has been a week and two days since we took in the baby fox tree squirrel that had either been abandoned or separated from its mother.

The first tw
o days she needed hand feeding, warmth and a safe place to sleep. She was almost catatonic the first day. Gradually, she perked up, her coordination improved and her food desires went from goat milk to solids.

By the weekend, warm weather and her improved motor skills made it possible for her to handle being outside in a wire cage.

The past two days she spent the whole day outside and yesterday I watched her talking squirrel, via her waving tail, with another fox squirrel in the yard.

Last night she slept outside in her box in the cage.

Today, I opened the door and gave her the opportunity to go out into the world.

It is a hard thing to let go, but this afternoon Teeny is up in the tree eating elm seeds with the other squirrels. She isn’t very high and I did see her take a tumble, but she went right back up in the tree.

The neighbors who found her and delivered her to the doorstep thought I should keep her as a pet. But a squirrel is a wild creature. If she is able, and she is, then she should be out in the world. It also would be illegal to keep her. But disregarding the legality, it wouldn’t be ethical, it would be putting my desire to own something over its right to live a wild life.

Anyway, Teeny is back where she belongs. [OK, she doesn’t really belong here because she is an introduced species, but...] She has will to live and desire to be free. Will I put out food for her? Probably, if she comes looking. But if she is anything like the hummingbirds of this summer, she will do fine on her own.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Squirrels And Bird Feeders

Well I had planned on tackling this topic head-on.

Fox squirrels can be hooligans when it comes to bird feeders. They eat bird seed and bird feeders. I can’t stand them.

I have one in my bathroom right now.

That’s right. A baby fox squirrel is sleeping on a heating pad in a big box in my bathroom. Fox squirrels are an introduced species in the Los Angeles area. Their territory is expanding; they are smart, adaptable and prolific. They are not a species I support protecting or feeding, at least not here. They will prey on bird eggs and they drive off native ground squirrels.

Usually, I try to let nature work. I cheer when the red-tailed hawk plucks a fox squirrel off the neighbor’s roof for dinner. When I first saw the baby squirrel on Saturday, I knew it was much younger than any I had seen on the ground before. But it seemed to be able and scavenging for food. I warned the dog off, and let the tike hunker down for the night in the sword fern.

Yesterday, Inali found it again, still in the fern. Again, it seemed to be all right. We tried to catch it, but it was able to avoid us. Nature is the best mother, so we set out some milk soaked bread, but let the little one go its way.

This morning it was across the street. Last night, it didn’t sleep in the fern protected from the evening chill. This morning, the construction crew at the neighbor’s was well meaning but frightening to a teeny squirrel.

Where do the neighbors bring the injured, the strange and the lost? Here.

band-tailed pigeon
Inali saving hummingbird

So now I have a baby squirrel tucked into warm rags. Now that I know it is going to survive, I’m off to get formula for it.

Yes, I am raising the enemy. But it is awfully cute.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Feeding Hummingbirds

When I first looked around to see which birds were naturally spending time in our yard, I was dazzled by hummingbirds.

Tiny, but tenacious, hummingbirds were the first avian neighbors with which I
established a relationship. I’ve used all kinds of hummingbird feeders.

  • glass bottles with plastic bases
  • decorative glass with a rubber stopper
  • flat saucer type
  • decorative glass bottles
  • glass mini vials

Which works the best?

The flat saucer-type feeders are best for meeting the SES –Simple, Easy, Sturdy – requirements. They are Simple – there are few parts. They are Easy – cleaning doesn’t require bottle brushes and many can go into the dishwasher. They are Sturdy – quality models are made of durable plastic that stands up to UV and heavy use. This one has been outside everyday for three years.

The model I like has a perch all the way around and a water well at the center that deters ants. Because the nectar is in the bottom of the saucer, these feeders seldom drip, even in a strong wind.

The simplest versions are red in color so they attract hummingbird attention. You DO NOT need to put red coloring into hummingbird nectar. The birds are attracted to the feeder, not the liquid inside. Red coloring can be unhealthy for hummingbirds.

Hummingbirds are smart. Their brains have evolved to store information regarding hundreds of food locations. They know which flowers are open at which times of the day. They know when they last visited a flower and how long it will take that flower to regenerate more nectar. If you have reliable, fresh food to offer, migrating hummers will remember your location from year to year.

One of the primary issues with hummingbird nectar is keeping feeders clean and nectar fresh. Even if the feeder is not empty, it should be cleaned and refilled with new nectar every five days. Especially in warm climates, sugary nectar can ferment and mold in a few days. You wouldn’t want to pick up a can of soda that had been sitting open for a week and take a drink, neither does that beautiful hummingbird.

Some locations are fortunate to have so many hummingbirds that a large feeder can be drained of food in a day, but that isn’t the case for most of us. Smaller feeders allow you to keep your nectar fresh without feeling like you are wasting a lot.

Glass bottles with plastic bases
Some people swear by the classic glass bottle feeder with a red, plastic flower base. I had one for years. While they are great for attracting hummingbirds, they have lots of parts which can fail. They are difficult to keep clean. In a wind, they often drip attracting ants and, despite the “bee guards,” it is hard to keep bees from being attracted.

Decorative glass with a rubber stopper
Those pretty glass bottles with rubber stoppers can be difficult to clean and are hard to maintain a good seal. If nectar drips, it will attract insects.

Glass mini vials
I have used these single vial feeders successfully with reluctant juvenile hummers that needed to learn to use a feeder for food. The small quantity of food in the vial however allows it to heat up faster and therefore to go bad faster. Glass vials can also be too long for hummingbirds to reach the food, once it is half way gone. They are time consuming to clean and need to be refilled frequently.

Decorative glass feeders

Some hummingbird feeders are stunning works of art. I’m not saying you shouldn’t indulge yourself in one of these beauties, but I would discourage it until you have established your yard as a hummingbird site. Do I have one? Yes.

Do the hummingbirds come to it? Yes, but not as ma
ny as come to the SES feeder.

Is it harder to clean? Yes, and even though I am very careful I have broken parts of it and had to replace them. I readily admit that I bought this feeder for me. It is beautiful in the yard.

To be successful feeding hummers:

  • Make your first feeder: Simple - Easy - Sturdy
  • Start with a feeder that has color red on, at least, the area where the hummingbird is supposed to drink the nectar.
  • Position the feeder in an open, visable area
  • Keep nectar fresh - Change food every 5 days or less
  • Keep the feeder clean

Nectar Recipe:
(1 part sugar to 4 parts water)

1/4 cup white cane sugar
1 cup

NO coloring, keep it clear and pure. NO sugar substitutes.

YES, you can make a larger batch and keep it in the refrigerator. Store in glass containers, not plastic.

Now is the time to attract hummingbirds migrating south. Put out that Feeder.

Monday, September 08, 2008

Shopping for Bird Feeders

I've worked in a wildlife habitat store and offered food to backyard birds for over 10 years. How do I pick a bird feeder? I follow one simple rule - SES.

Simple - Easy - Sturdy

Once you start to look for a bird feeder keep this rule in mind. No matter what kind of food you are using or bird you are trying to attract, you will be more successful if you follow SES.

SIMPLE - The birds do not care how much you spend on a feeder. They do not care if the feeder is handmade and decorated with copper filigree. They do not care if the glass was hand blown in Spain. Remember what the birds are interested in, eating. Anti-squirrel action may entertain you, but if it makes it harder for the birds to eat, it isn’t a plus. Birds want simple access to food. Some decorative bird feeders are works of art, but save the art for after you are established and know your clientele. SIMPLE feeders have fewer moving parts and less to break.

EASY - Refilling the feeder with food and cleaning the feeder should be EASY. Everyone’s definition of easy is different, but be honest with yourself about what you are willing to do. If it is difficult or time consuming, you won’t do it. Like any food supplier, you must be consistent. If there is no food or the food is spoiled, you will be out of business. Look for a bird feeder that is easy to open, easy to fill and easy to take apart and clean.

One thing I like about quality tube feeders is they are easy to take apart and scrub. “Do I have to clean my bird feeder?” Afraid so. Just like any restaurant table, the more patrons, the more you will have to clean it. Soap and water is the easiest way to clean. If your feeder won’t stand up to soap and water, reconsider.

STURDY - A bird feeder should be sturdy. If parts are breaking off, you will avoid filling it. Sharp edges or broken bits may endanger feeding birds. Determine which materials are most STURDY for your location. Wood may last forever in a dry mild climate or waste away to a soggy mess in a rainy area. In the Southwest, ultraviolet rays can degrade plastic in a single summer. More expense feeders tend to use UV resistant plastics. Cheap metal can fall ill to rust, but steel bibs on plastic openings can provide protection and durability.

As you weigh one bird feeder against another, remember SES - Simple, Easy, Sturdy. If the blown glass feeder is calling you but doesn’t pass the SES test, think again.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Know Your Place

Where do you begin if you want to feed birds in your backyard?

Your first step is to get to know the place where you live. Like any restaurant owner, you need to know who lives in your neighborhood. That beautiful birding book you bought might have all kinds of suggestions on how to feed Northern cardinals and Eastern blue jays but if you live in California it's like putting out Chinese food for Mexican clientele.

For example, you would never find my friend the California towhee in most books on bird feeding. He's only found in California. But his habit of rustling through the underbrush looking for seeds and insects, were good clues that he would be a regular both beneath and at my feeder.

Unfortunately, most birding books and bird feeding guides are written with a focus on the east coast of the Untied States or even Britain. It isn’t a conspiracy, its is just that the U.S.’s best school of ornithology is Cornell University in New York, and the most active birdwatching groups are in the American northeast and Britain. I think it is time the rest of us, stepped up and spoke out for our birds.

To figure out what birds are most likely to come to a birdfeeder, answer these - questions:

Have you seen any birds in your yard or neighborhood?
Yes, crows and pigeons do count, they are birds and even most pigeons (also known as rock doves) are wild. If you see these birds, there probably are other birds in your neighborhood as well. Morning or evening offer the best time to observe birds. Spend 20-30 minutes out in your yard just watching and listening. See who is already visiting that you might not be aware of. Take a walk and keep your eyes open for birds sitting on wires, drinking from puddles, or searching for food.

If you don’t see any birds, ask yourself why. When I lived in Van Nuys, California, our neighbors fed 30-40 feral cats. Wild birds were few and far between. Not hearing bird song in the morning made me feel like we lived in a dead zone. If you don’t see any birds, be a sleuth and search for answers. If the local cat population is large, this will affect where and how you might feed birds.

Where were the birds you saw and what were they doing?
You may not be able to identify the birds you see just yet, but you can take note of where you saw them and what they were doing. For example: Birds on the ground pecking at dirt. A single bird in a tree eating fruit. A bird using its beak to probe into wet grass. A small bird clinging to a dried thistle.

The easiest birds to feed are those that feast on seeds. Birds that appear to be pecking the ground and those that shuffle under shrubs (like the California towhee, above) are most likely seed eaters. These birds tend to be medium-sized and able to eat most wild bird seed. Birds that are small enough to cling to a plant stem while nipping at a seed cluster, may prefer smaller-sized seed.

If you had to guess, about the kind of bird, what would you say?
While you may not be able to tell a mourning dove from a band-tailed pigeon, most people can tell a dove from a hummingbird. Take a guess as the kind of birds you see. Whatever you see the most of will be the best group to start offering food to first. If you can identify just one of the most frequently spotted species, you will greatly increase your bird feeding success.

Why should you feed birds or provide habitat?

A sharp-shinned hawk just dropped in to get a drink from the bird bath, but more on that later.

Other birds in our yard:
Allen's Hummingbird

Thursday, August 14, 2008

A Bird Feeder in Every Yard

A red-shouldered hawk rises from the ground with a large fence lizard clutched in its talons. This isn’t a scene from a nature documentary, this is the view from my kitchen. I don’t live in rural Montana, but rather in the suburbs of Los Angeles, two blocks from one of the busiest freeways in North America, if not the world. How am I so lucky to see wildlife dramas on a daily basis? One main reason – ten years ago, I put out a bird feeder.

I know what you're thinking. “Wait a minute, hawks don’t come to bird feeders and neither do western fence lizards.” And you would be absolutely right, but putting out a bird feeder influenced our entire outdoor living space.

  1. It attracted birds to the yard in a visible way so that I could begin to learn the local bird species.
  2. New knowledge about what different birds were eating encouraged me to reconsider the plants I planted in the yard. I began to relandscape with native plant species to attract birds and butterflies.
  3. We stopped using all forms of toxic pesticides and herbicides in and around our house. Native insects reduced pest insects, lizards and bats moved in to eat the insects.
  4. We added a water feature to provide dependable water to wildlife during drought seasons, a greater variety of birds, including hawks, and rabbits arrived.

Putting out a bird feeder was the beginning of creating a habitat in my yard that supports a wide range of biodiversity. Seven species of birds now nest here - see our hummingbird babies. Two species of lizards reproduce in our garden; western fence lizard. Check out some of the creatures that share our suburban space - Backyard Biodiversity Project.

As I look out my window over the rooftops of track homes, past the Ventura Freeway and the growing amount of pavement and concrete, I take heart in knowing that my yard is an oasis for wild creatures. As cities expand, wild habitat is lost. Birds and animals lose important living, hunting and breeding territory. But it doesn’t have to be that way. You can make a difference. Put out a bird feeder. Begin offering a safe place for wild birds to find dependable food.

  • How do you decide on a bird feeder?
  • What food should you use?
  • What about water?

Each week AnimalBytes will take on an elemental question of how to start and be successful in creating habitat. We’ll start with bird-feeder basics.

Around the globe, wild animals are facing survival challenges as human populations expand and climate change alters weather patterns. If you make your yard, patio or even balcony a safe habitat, together we can change the world for the better.

Friday, July 04, 2008

Snake - Victim of Ignorance

I don't usually post other people's photos, but in this case I am hoping to save a few lives.

Ask yourself, What is the most dangerous element of your life? My answer is Ignorance and Fear - the IF factor.

What IF it bites me? What IF it's an animal carrying a disease? What IF it is a poisonous snake?

Ignorance and Fear led to the death of this snake. The neighbor of a friend, killed this gopher snake and then asked her if it was dangerous?

They had a perfect view of the tail. Do you see a rattle?


This is a native gopher snake. This species is vital for controlling rodent populations. Ironically, my friend is currently having to hire an exterminator to deal with a rat problem. This snake was attracted to the large number of rats in the neighborhood. It was trying to reduce the number of rats by eating them. Gopher snakes are active during the day which makes them vulnerable to people spotting them. Their coloration is similar to a Southern Pacific rattlesnake, because both species are trying to blend in with our native chaparral.

However, take a good look at this snake. It has a narrow head, not the triangular head of a rattlesnake. It has a fairly thin, long body for moving quickly. Rattlesnakes have typically stout bodies and move more slowly. They are ambush hunters who wait for food to come their way.

The gopher snake has a checkerboard pattern on its skin. Local rattlesnakes have a diamond pattern.

Gopher snakes DO NOT have rattles. The ONLY venomous or poisonous snakes that are naturally found in the Los Angeles area are rattlesnakes.

A gopher snake can sometimes make a rattling sound by rapidly vibrating its tail against dry grass or leaves. It does this to protect itself. The gopher snake has evolved to occasionally make a rattling sound so that predators will think it is a rattlesnake and leave it alone.

Unfortunately, people are the most dangerous animals on the planet. We kill things then try to understand what they are. The worst part of this story is that not only did these uninformed people kill a beneficial snake, by doing so, they now have made their property more attractive to rattlesnakes. Gopher snakes are efficient rodent predators. With the gopher snake gone, a rattlesnake has a better opportunity to move in an try to eat the neighborhood rats.

Gopher snakes are YOUR FRIENDS. They eat rodents and make your property less attractive to rattlesnakes. Honor them. Respect them. Don't play the IF game and kill them.

Friday, May 09, 2008

Today is Mother’s Day

Several times today, we scoured the bushes. Watched the tree for any sign of a clumsy baby hummingbird. But we found no sign of the baby. Inali and I weren’t the only ones looking. His mother would come back to the feeder, search the tree, sit close to the spot where she had fed him this morning. She called, but there was no answer.

I had resolved myself to the fact that something might have happened between those few hours of 10 and noon when he seemed to have disappeared.

As twilight started to fall, I sat across from the tree and watched as a constant flow of hummingbirds, Allen’s and a few Anna’s, stopped at the feeder to top off for the night. There was an awkward youngster that crash landed in the top of the tree before going to the feeder. But it seemed too large for the baby I had held in my hand this morning.

As it got gradually darker, the mother hummingbird perched on the branch where she had last seen her fledgling. We waited.

Then I saw a shadow appear from behind the ivy across the street. A cat. It’s been years since we’ve had a cat prowling this part of the street. Could this cat have spotted our little hummingbird on its perch 5 feet off the ground?

Inali barked and growled. The cat slunk down the street.

My heart dropped. It was getting darker. If the young hummingbird didn’t come back to roost in his nest tree with his mother, we would know something had gone wrong.

Mom chased off another hummingbird that attempted to come to the feeder while she was watching. She seemed as anxious as I was. The sound of her slapping bills with the Anna’s female was like the clashing of tiny sabres. Soon, she returned and sat on the feeder.

Together, we waited.

Suddenly a tiny figure dropped into the tree. It was nearly dark, 7:40 PM. The little hummingbird hovered above the feeder and came to rest beside the waiting female. It drank and then lost its footing and fluttered, like youngsters often do. Mom sat and watched it drink. Our relief was audible.

The little youngster had been exploring the neighborhood all day long. It is amazing how hummingbirds go straight from vulnerable to independent in an hour or two. After a few more slurps, he flew up to a tiny branch in the tree. Mom followed and they settled in for the night.

Tonight, this little one is on his own. It was a team effort, but we did it.

We saved this tiny baby and he has become a remarkable flying jewel.

For Pictures and the whole story.

The Rescued Baby Hummingbird

My heart is broken.

For the past three nights I have been gently plucking our baby hummingbird off of this man-made nest and bringing him inside. He seemed lacking the feathers to get him through the cold night without the shelter of a real nest. Each morning at 5:20 AM, just before sunrise, I carefully put him back on his tiny roost.

With the arrival of day, his mother would dutifully appear, feed him and watch over him.

Last night when I brought him in around midnight, his fluttering wings were stronger and he actually got lift. As I tucked him in for the night, I thought, “He might try to fly tomorrow.” When I put him in his “nest” this morning the process had become old hat. He easily fluttered from my hand onto his spot.

When I checked him at midmorning. He was about 6 inches from the nest on a tiny branch. Had he “flown” there? He still looked a bit downy to be truly flying. Mom came and fed him and our routine seemed to be working out just fine.

But when I went to leave the house at noon, he was gone. No tiny figure perched on the twig. I looked in the immediate area. Some hummingbird fledges test themselves with short flights, while I’ve seen others just take off and go straight from the nest.

When his mother came back I watched her do the same thing I had done. Look in his spot, search the immediate area, then become concerned. She came over to me, chirping. I tried to convey to her, that I didn’t have him. I hoped he would call to her and she would find him, but so far that hasn’t happened.

There are no signs of foul play. Inali has searched the planter. She found bits of the destroyed original nest, but this time no baby. I think he tried to fly and wasn’t as ready as he thought he was. I hope he is somewhere in the tree.

It is hard to move forward with the things I know I should be doing today. This baby hummingbird fluttered in my hand like a moth. The first time I brought him in for the night, his tiny tongue came out and tasted my hand. The second night, when he was shivering, he seemed to relax when my warm hand encircled him. His tiny claws actually clung to the ridges on the pads of my fingers. He was a bit of grace, a living wonder.

His mother, Inali and I, we’ll all keep searching.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

A True Mother’s Day Story

I know why the hummingbird in the front, “F,” has babies that seem so far behind in development. (see Hard-Working Single Mom's). The branch she has built her nest on is at the top of the plum tree and just the slightest breeze can make it bend dramatically. I believe her first brood tumbled out of the nest , at only a few days old, in one of our March storms. She must have immediately laid two more eggs.

I came to this conclusion after watching her try to keep her two new chicks in the nest during a few windy days. Her chicks were about 8 days from flying, too big to sit on, but there she was trying to sit on the smaller of the two. All through the day she hunkered down on the edge of the nest trying to help the chicks ride out tossing wind gusts. With each moment of calm she would dash off to find food. Sometimes, while she was gone, a gust of wind would carry the chicks to a near vertical position.

The next morning one of the chicks was gone. Sometime during the night, it had disappeared. We looked through the planter beneath the tree but could find nothing.

For the last few days, I have checked the lone chick daily. The weather has been cool, but the winds have abated. “F” stays close to her nest . She and I are counting the days until her precious chick can fly.

Then yesterday afternoon I came home and as I walked up the front steps I glanced up at the nest. It was torn apart and hanging in three pieces. What had happened?

I looked around under the tree. “F” appeared. The Allen’s hummingbird was frantic. I have come to know the rapid peeping sound these females make when they are distraught. (Predators and hummingbirds). This little bird had worked so hard to be a mother.

Inali, our 5 year-old black lab / golden retriever mix, was out front too. She frequently birds with me. She grew up following 4 chickens around and has an affinity for birds. Inali started sniffing the ground beneath the tree. There it was a tell tale sign–a large dropping from a good-sized bird. The nest had probably been raided by a crow, jay or even the raven.

I kept telling “F” how sorry I was. But Inali kept sniffing. She froze and stared into the twisted undergrowth of African daisies. She kept staring. I followed her gaze, and there, deep withing the tangle of rambling stems, sat the tiny hummingbird baby. Somehow, as the nest was torn apart it had tumbled out, landed unharmed, and now clung to a twig with tiny feet.

We had to save this baby. My mind raced. Could I feed it and keep it alive for the next few days as it got all of its feathers and learned to fly? Probably, but if I could get it back up in the tree, maybe “F” would finish the job she had set out to do. Only she could encourage the baby to leap into hovering flight. Only she could take it to the best places to find food in the neighborhood.

I had to get this little one back up into some kind of nest in the tree. I carefully scooped it up in my hands and took it into the house. I tossed a towel in the fruit bowl and placed the chick there. A nest. How to make a nest?

I grabbed a small plastic cup that had held take-out salsa, cut it down, gathered dog hair and nesting wool to make a cozy inside and then taped it securely in the tree. I chose a lower branch, closer to the trunk. No more worrying about the wind. Then I set the baby in the manmade nest and told it to call for its mother. Everything happened in less than 10 minutes.

Inali and I retired to the house and watched from the window. We could hear thin squeaky chirps. “F” called for her baby. She checked high in the tree. She searched the ground near where it had been. She stopped. She called. There was an answer. Then I watched her triangulate, getting closer and closer, until she found the little one. My nest didn’t offer a convenient place for her to sit and feed her tired and frightened offspring, so “F” walked sideways down a twig and then turned over her shoulder to feed the hungry chick. Mother and baby were reunited.

Inali and I sat on the porch watching “F” chase off other hummingbirds and then returning to feed her chick. Then “F” came over to us and hovered a few feet away looking right at us. I could feel her gratitude. Together the three of us had saved her baby.

The chick doesn’t really like my nest. It prefers sitting on the edge. Last night was going to dip into the low 40s. Afraid that it would be too cold without the comfort of a real nest, especially after its traumatic day, I scooped it up last night after dark. It slept soundly in a plastic container cushioned with paper towels. At 5:20 AM, before the sun came up, I put it back in the makeshift nest. “F” is feeding it again this morning. The baby is stretching its wings and fluttering.

This baby hummingbird has three mothers–its natural mother, me and a big black dog that saved its life.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Hard Working Single Mom - Allen’s hummingbirds

The yard is filled with young birds just out of the nest. The California towhees have dropped off the first youngster of the year and gone off to raise a second brood. When I go out to pull a few weeds in my neglected vegetable garden, I usually have a companion. The young towhee keeps me in sight as it prowls the undergrowth for insects and seeds. I’m not sure if I am company or a second pair of eyes to watch for the Cooper’s hawk.

Unlike the towhees where both parents participate in feeding and raising the young, hummingbird females are all on their own. We don’t have many hummingbirds at our feeders, what we have is a nursery area–five or six Allen's hummingbird females nesting in specifically drawn territories. We seldom see males. The girls don’t want flashy breeding guys drawing attention to the location, so they typically chase them away.
Occasionally a young male, usually hatched here, will be allowed to stay for a while. But as he reaches maturity, he is told in no uncertain terms that this area is off limits. Hummingbird mothers work hard to lay, incubate and then feed their young. They don’t want a male attracting attention and risking the lives of vulnerable nestlings.

Right now, the busiest kids in the yard are the four Allen’s hummingbirds that have fledged in the last two weeks. This year I have found four nesting females: A, C, D and F. A hatched here in the yard in 2005. When her mother disappeared, she seemed to inherit her mother’s territory. Last year she had trials as a mother, A’s nesting in 2007, this year she laid early and had her kids out of the nest before the jays came marauding.

A’s first brood fledged on 4/1 and 4/2. Typically, hummingbird eggs are laid a day or so apart and frequently the youngsters will be staggered in their maturity.

D made her first nest high in a grevillia tree, but it was destroyed in one of our winter storms. Her second nest was lower in a protected area and her two youngsters fledged on April 14, 2008. Here you can see one sitting on the edge of the nest and the slightly older one sitting about six inches from the nest. They both fluttered their wings furiously, exercising their flight muscles, buzzing a few inches at a time.

In the second picture the younger fledgling has its wings spread wide as it tries to learn to fly.

Mom kept returning all day to feed them and offer support. The older youngster flew off by midday and between 5 and 6 PM the younger one took flight as well. Yesterday, the two new kids were quite noticeable as D took them to visit the various feeders in the yard. There was quite a flutter when A’s youngsters realized there were two new hungry beaks at the feeder.

Today the fledglings are pretty much on their own. You can see them exploring different plants in the yard, trying to get the hang of what has nectar and what does not.

Meanwhile, just two days after her job with one brood of youngsters is done, D is building a new nest to start the process all over again. She has moved to a small ficus bush and started the nest‘s button foundation. She will continue to build it up with plant and animal fibers, spider webbing and bits of different materials.

What about C and F ? C’s youngsters should fledge in the next 4 to 5 days. And then there is F. I’m not sure what is going on in her nest. It’s a mystery. There were hatchlings, but they never seemed to get bigger. She’s still on the nest. Stay tuned, we’ll solve it.

Friday, April 04, 2008

Subterranean Termites, Of Course

It is a warm spring day in Southern California. The first Allen’s hummingbird chicks left the nest on April 1 and 2. This year, I don’t mean to brag... but, I have four nesting Allen’s hummingbirds. So far all the nests are safe and sound and the little ones are growing fast. I would take photos but...

We had a soft, unmeasurable rain two nights ago. Follow that nocturnal dampness with two sunny days warming the ground and what do you get? Swarming
subterranean termites, of course.

I’d take a picture, but I can’t find the camera.

You’ll have to believe me when I say these small, black termites with their two pairs of fluttering wings harken back to primordial times. Their flight is less flying and more rising up, clinging to the air and hoping for a breeze. They just need to get far enough away from home to drop to the ground, loose their wings and start their own wood devouring colony of their own.

Does it surprise me to see swarming subterranean termites? No. Deep soaking winter rains encourage abundant flowers and the expansion of termite colonies. I’d love to show you a photo of the blooming photinia and flannel bush, but the camera is not to be found. (flannel bush at the top, photinia here, Michael found the camera) It is somewhere in the boxes of items that need to be moved back into the house after... you guessed it...TENTING FOR TERMITES!

We had dry wood termites. They are bigger, more reddish brown in color when they take flight. Subterraneans? No, we didn’t have those. But somewhere up the hillside, these little guys are living underground naturally. Now, they are taking to the air, floating down the canyon right toward out house.

Where are my western fence lizards when I need their hungry mouths? Where are the insect eating birds? Well at least the black phoebe has shown up and is snatching termites out of the air.

As soon as I find that camera...

Friday, March 07, 2008

Spring in California

Change comes in red paint. We awoke this morning to the sound of trucks and drilling into concrete. City workers were putting in three-way stop signs at our "T" intersection.

Traffic at our blind three-way corner has always been bad. Will these stop signs help? I hope so. Will there be noticeable changes in the traffic pattern? Will cars slowing to a stop right in front of our house have an effect on the wild things that frequent the yard? I don't know. It will be interesting to watch.

Spring is definitely here. The ornamental plum tree has burst into bloom and the house finches are munching on the flowers even while the workers paint the curb scarlet.

There are two hummingbird nests in the yard. The Allen's hummingbird nest has two eggs, the other should have eggs soon. Pictures? I'll have to take a few. Happy Spring.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Great Backyard Bird Count - L.A. Zoo

This weekend is the Great Backyard Bird Count !

Across North America, citizens are playing a vital role for science by counting wild birds like this California towhee.

Why is this important?

Bird counts turned in to the Great Backyard Bird Count website will create a snapshot of bird populations across the continent.

The Great Backyard Bird Count continues Feb. 15 -18.

You can participate by counting birds in your backyard, on a walk through your neighborhood, in a local park or wildlife area. See the website for easy instructions. Be a Citizen Scientist and help count birds in your area.

When and where are birds nesting? If you have a nest that you are watching, NestWatch wants YOU ! You can enter your information about a bird nest at

This morning Docents and Zoo members at the Los Angeles Zoo counted 42 species of wild birds on the Zoo grounds for Great Backyard Bird Count and spotted an Anna's hummingbird already nesting, as well as red-shouldered hawks and black phoebe's preparing nests. (hummingbird nest 2007)

Bird List from Los Angeles Zoo, 2/16/08

  1. Mallard - 18
  2. Great Egret - 1
  3. Turkey Vulture - 2
  4. Sharp-shinned Hawk - 1
  5. Cooper's Hawk - 1
  6. Red-shouldered Hawk - 1
  7. Red-tailed Hawk - 3
  8. Ring-billed Gull - 1
  9. Band-tailed Pigeon - 2
  10. Mourning Dove - 4
  11. Yellow-chevroned Parakeet - 6
  12. Anna's Hummingbird - 4
  13. Allen's Hummingbird - 4
  14. Acorn Woodpecker - 1
  15. Red-breasted Sapsucker - 1
  16. Nuttall's Woodpecker - 2
  17. Black Phoebe - 6
  18. Cassin's Kingbird - 2
  19. Common Raven - 4
  20. Bushtit - 8
  21. Bewick's Wren - 1
  22. Ruby-crowned Kinglet - 2
  23. Hermit Thrush - 3
  24. Swainson's Thrush -1
  25. American Robin - 6
  26. Northern Mockingbird - 2
  27. European Starling - 10
  28. Cedar Waxwing - 30
  29. Yellow-rumped Warbler (Audubon's) - 8
  30. Spotted Towhee - 1
  31. California Towhee - 6
  32. Fox Sparrow (Sooty) - 2
  33. Song Sparrow - 19
  34. Lincoln's Sparrow - 1
  35. White-crowned Sparrow - 4
  36. Dark-eyed Junco - 7
  37. Red-winged Blackbird - 30
  38. Brewer's Blackbird - 45
  39. House Finch - 45
  40. Lesser Goldfinch - 25
  41. American Goldfinch - 12
  42. House Sparrow - 4
Download a pdf of my L.A. Zoo Bird List

Saturday, February 09, 2008

Holding a Band-tailed Pigeon

This beautiful February morning dawned with clear blue skies, warm sun filtering through leafless elm branches and a variety of birds chatting at the bird feeder. I took an hour this morning to prune back some shrubs and reconnect with earth and reality. Too many hours have been spent lately sitting at my desk churning out words for the sake of academia.

When Michael and I were done snipping and trimming, the lavatera and the Lady Banks rose were once again contained and no longer trying to engulf the bird feeders. The area was open and sunlight streamed in.

The house finches and mourning doves took advantage of improved sightlines and swarmed the feeders. A large shadow swooped over Michael and he said, “Was that a hawk?”

“No, just a young band-tail.”

The family of band-tailed pigeons were arriving in a second feeding wave. As we went into the house, the five large birds vocally jostled for the four positions at the feeder.

Then suddenly birds exploded out of the yard, flying out over the house. Doves, finches, and band-tailed pigeons fanned out over the neighborhood with a Cooper’s hawk in quick pursuit. The Cooper’s hawk dove. It hit a bird a few feet from the neighbor’s house. There was a loud SMACK. Wings and feathers swirling in struggle. The hawk flew up into a sapling tree. The neighbor come running out of the house. The Cooper’s hawk retreated to the peak of the garage, watching anxiously. Tentatively, it flew up into a nearby tree.

I watched this all from the window. When the neighbor started across the street toward our house, I knew that a Nature Intermediary was needed.

The fleeing prey bird had hit the neighbors window. The hawk and its intended brunch had tussled, right in front of her. The injured prey had momentarily escaped and was cowering in her front yard. What the neighbor didn’t know, was the hawk was sitting just above us in the tree, frustrated. I explained to the startled human what had happened and knelt down to see the same young band-tailed pigeon that had been feasting in the backyard, pressed against the side of the house.

There was blood in its beak, but it was able to fly a short distance. I took off my shirt , covered its head and scooped it up in my hands.

This is the role I play for my neighbors, accessing the damage after a pet dog had grabbed a wild rabbit, cautioning about the timing of trimming a tree because of the red-shouldered hawk nest with hawklets, identifying native plants, and clarifying that the canine loping down the street is not a dog, but a coyote. Now I was pointing at the Cooper’s hawk and explaining that the hawks that circle over our little intersection aren’t someone’s pet birds, they are wild creatures hunting for food.

As I look out at the houses of my immediate neighbors, the reality is, of the twelve adults in these six houses, only four of us grew up here in California–four are foreign born and four are from other parts of the United States. The picture of what California was before our population doubled and tripled, is a memory that resides in fewer and fewer of us all the time. And even many native Californians are removed from the place itself. Few truly notice that the hawk numbers have grown dramatically since the banning of DDT in the 1970s.

I took the stunned, yearling band-tail pigeon, home. I found a quiet, familiar spot in the backyard, near the bird feeder where a half hour before she had stuffed herself with food. She was just starting to get her adult feathers. It was probably a combination of being weighed down with a full crop and molting some of her flight feathers that had made her just a bit more vulnerable than the other members of her family.

There was a lively glint in her eyes and at first I thought my initial assessment had been wrong. Maybe she wasn’t as injured as I suspected. As we sat beneath the elm tree, I contemplated whether she might be able to sit on a tree branch. Then the glint of life fluttered. Breaths became short and shallow. The young flame of life tried to hold on, but quietly it faded. In a quiet, still moment the spark within the gray warm body went out.

I held her until the warmth of her began to cool. This gentle piece of who I am, this calm peace with the earth; no good, no bad, just the cyclical nature of life. If everyone would just slow down, open their hearts and live such a moment, it would make us better members of the biosphere that is the earth.

Life can be difficult, unpredictable and fleeting.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Winter in California

Did I hear somebody say that we don’t have seasons in Southern California?

All right, we don’t experience days of freezing rain, but the main route into Los Angeles from the Central Valley and the Northern part of the country is closed because of snow. I stand at the base of the surrounding mountains and watch their rolling summits begin to shiver white. The air smells crisp with snow.

No, we don’t have subzero winds blowing off an icy lake, but soaking rains are making the hillsides soggy and unstable. Rain licks the trunks of oak trees and kisses the roots of the toyon–the “holly wood” for which Hollywood is named. Liquidy breath coaxes seeds that were liberated by fall fires and spread by Santana winds to burst forth in a green carpet of midwinter life.

It’s true the gray fist of winter never truly tightens, but it is winter here. It is just a different kind of winter than they feel in New York or North Dakota. This winter brings renewal. It sings in a loud wind-lashing voice. It flows down hillsides at flash flood speed and challenges the muddy slope to follow. This winter is a trickster; soft rain falling like a veil of mist lit by golden sunlight. Warm days chased by icy nights.

Summer is our extreme, our time of death.

California winter, embrace it for what it is–erratic changer of the land, unfettered rush of water, sprouter of the future.

California Autumn
Creatures of Summer