BIRD WATCH: Size, and more, matters

The brown creeper, a frequent visitor to the bird bath, has a unique way of approaching the bath.

It lands beneath the basin on the pedestal holding it up.

A small amount of moisture is always present on the pedestal. The tiny bird sips it up before commencing to bathe.

When you are very, very small, you keep an eye out for others who want to bathe.

Juncos and chickadees get very testy when they are in the water. You must be careful when attempting a bath.

It doesn’t matter if there is room for other birds their size. All it takes is two or three huffing and puffing at one another, and the bath becomes off limits for others — such as the more hesitant creeper.

It will eventually get its bath and its enthusiasm isn’t diminished by having to wait.

Top dog at the watering hole is pretty much according to size, but not always. Chestnut-backed chickadees are rarely put off by birds even a bit larger than they are.

Robins and Steller’s jays resemble 747’s when they fly in and about the only birds they argue with are other robins, jays and starlings.

Action around the water was nonstop recently.

As I watched a ruby-crowned kinglet bathing with some golden-crowned kinglets, plus a flock of bushtits, I thought about the way different species hang out together for one reason or another.

Bushtits would be comfortable bathing with tiny kinglets but there are other factors that come into their association with one another.

Food preferences are at the top of the list. When birds like to eat the same things as others their size, they will associate with these unrelated species.

We can take advantage of this when trying to attract a wider variety of birds to our yard and feeders. Black sunflower seeds, in the shell or not, are the most popular food for Northwest birds.

There are other natural food sources found in the wild that different birds also search for. Birds will take up with mixed flocks in order to find food.

That is why we see wintering goldfinches traveling with pine siskins. They are both seed eaters and love sunflower and thistle seed. Song, golden-crowned and white-crowned sparrows search for seeds on the ground and travel in loose flocks, associating just enough to learn where the food is. Even the more solitary fox sparrows will tag along if food is in the picture.

The smaller birds traveling in mixed flocks are primarily insect eaters.

Some, like the chickadees and nuthatches eat sunflower seeds. There is no way to offer insects to their diet, but there is food they can’t resist once they discover it. A lard/oatmeal mix is my favorite, but there are also commercial mixes that offer rendered suet mixed with peanut butter. Other ingredients are often included, but I don’t like those with seeds mixed in. Small insect eating birds don’t eat millet, milo and sorghum seeds.

It can take a while to attract some of the insect-eaters, but having a reliable source of water helps a lot.

After putting out the lard/oatmeal mix or one of the commercial ones, you wait.

It took me years before a bushtit flock discovered what the chickadees were enjoying.

Now, they not only come for water and the mix, they nest in the yard.

The first to find the mixture were the chickadees, both black-capped and chestnut-backed.

Soon after it was the red-breasted nuthatches that joined them.

All the action by birds they sometimes traveled with also enticed the golden-crowned and ruby kinglets, the Townsend’s warbler and finally, the bushtits.

Now I’m waiting for the brown creeper to join the party.

The feeder holding the lard oatmeal is just a short distance from the bird bath.


Joan Carson’s column appears every Sunday. Contact her at P.O. Box 532, Poulsbo, WA 98370, with a self-addressed, stamped envelope for a reply. Email:

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