BIRD WATCH: Table manners particular to each species

This is the perfect time to watch birds that have settled in for the winter.

THE FLICKER ATTACKING my sister’s feeder seemed intent on emptying it in one feeding session.

It was a young bird that hadn’t acquired an adult’s caution. Instead of flying away, it ignored our standing at the window and continued sweeping seed onto the ground.

About 20 minutes after this feeder was filled, it was almost empty.

The flicker’s large bill swept back and forth through the seeds.

A large share of them, to the delight of the squirrels, ended up on the ground.

This bird’s vigorous feeding pattern reminded Jeanne of the first time she saw a brown thrasher feeding.

It was going through fallen leaves and other debris on the forest floor.

Grubs, bugs and any tasty insect were swallowed up as the scythe-like movement of the bird’s bill worked nonstop.

She said, “It was easy to see how this bird got its name.”

Both of us were thinking the flicker could have been given that title if the thrasher hadn’t gotten it first.

Thrashers and flickers aren’t the only birds that use their heavy bills to plow through whatever they are feeding on.

Steller’s jays feed in a similar manner.

One difference is the way a jay vacuums up the seeds it wades into.

Glutton for hoarding

This bird will fill its entire gullet with birdseed, even to the point of not being able to entirely close its bill. Then, as many of you know from experience, it flies to a spot in the yard where its haul can be stored and hoarded.

It’s fairly easy to discover where its stash was buried once the weather warms and the seeds sprout.

The style in which different birds feed is interesting because there are so many different ways.

Towhees, song sparrows and other ground-feeding species have a style that is sometimes heard before the bird is seen.

Their “scratch and pull” method is every bit as industrious as the thrashing and sweeping style of flickers and thrashers.

More times than I can count, I’ve wondered who was rustling about in the brush.

It took some time, but now the first reaction is to suspect there is a towhee or sparrow making all that noise near the trail.

These birds actually hop forward, grab debris decomposing on the ground and then pull it back hoping to find a tasty or morsel or two.

The more debris covering the ground, the harder the work and the more noise these birds make.

Downy woodpecker or red-breasted nuthatch springs to mind when a gentle tapping is heard.

It sounds like someone trying to get your attention, but more often than not, the individual making this sound is busy “stashing” food away in its larder.

A red-breasted nuthatch will gather black sunflower seeds with its dainty, upturned bill and then pound them into a tree crevice.

That’s one reason you see this little bird climbing on tree trunks and limbs, poking and prying into any place some morsel was stored.

Most of the time, a soft tap-tap-tapping is a nuthatch instead of a woodpecker.

Unless it is spring and the time when territorial drumming occurs, the woodpecker isn’t such a noisy eater.

If some movement in the mountain ash tree hadn’t caught my eye, I wouldn’t have seen the red-breasted sapsucker checking his “wells.”

This woodpecker drills holes into the soft cambrian layer of a tree’s bark.

Sap collects in these wells, and the bird sips the sweet liquid without making a sound.

Even when drilling or re-drilling a well, it is almost impossible to hear a sapsucker work.

Feeding styles, noisy or not, this is the perfect time to watch these birds that have settled in for the winter.

They will provide us with entertaining color and actions throughout the coming months.


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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