To Quill a Mockingbird

Atticus said to Jem one day, “I’d rather you shot at tin cans in the back yard, but I know you’ll go after birds.  Shoot all the bluejays you want, if you can hit ’em, but remember it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.” That was the only time I ever hear Atticus say it was a sin to do something, and I asked Miss Maudie about it.  “You’re father’s right,” she said.  “Mockingbirds don’t do one thing but make music for us to enjoy.  They don’t eat up people’s gardens, don’t nest in corncribs, they don’t do one thing but sing their hearts out for us.  That’s why it’s a sin to kill a mocking bird.” ~To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

My big obsession with birds started in Oregon.  My husband and I visited the Oregon Garden for Earth Day, where we made a bird feeder out of peanut butter and birdseed slathered onto a pine cone.  Once home, we hung our homemade bird feeder outside on the railing of our apartment’s balcony.

A couple of weeks went by and we had already forgotten about the pine cone, until one day, I was sitting at our kitchen table and noticed something big move out of the corner of my eye.  I couldn’t believe it!  A big blue Western Scrub Jay was on our 3rd story balcony trying to eat from our homemade bird feeder!   We didn’t know how to identify it at the time, so we searched the internet for bird identification tools and even described it to bird experts on public forums.  We soon found out that our visitor was a Western Scrub Jay and that Scrub Jays love unshelled peanuts.  Before long, we had Scrub Jays waiting in line to feast from our newly purchased feeder, sometimes fitting up to two peanuts in their mouths at once.  We enjoyed studying their quirky habits, and with the help of binoculars, we’d watch them carry peanuts from our balcony to the ground, burying them with twigs and leaves.

When we moved back to North Carolina, we found a good spot to hang the bird feeder on our  new balcony facing the woods.  I threw some mixed birdseed down on the grass below, and within a week, we had House Finches and American Goldfinches visiting our feeder.  Goldfinches will eat  from mixed birdseed, but they also love thistle or nyjer seeds, so we purchased a special thistle feeder, giving them a little more room.  The photo to the right is of three male Goldfinches.  Notice how the males have a vibrant yellow plumage.  Female Goldfinches are duller and more of a yellow-brown.

The Paridae family showed up next, consisting of Carolina Chickadees and Tufted Titmice.  These two birds look completely different in color, although, they are similar in song and usually travel together.  The Chickadee got its name from its alarm call, “Chickadee-dee-dee!”  I have seen these birds favoring peanuts, where they will hold a peanut with one foot and use their beak like a hammer, breaking off pieces to eat.  The photo to the right is of a Carolina Chickadee.  Both males and females look identical in plumage color, making it difficult to tell them apart.

After watching the smaller birds brave our balcony for some time,  the Northern Cardinals arrived, named after their red plumage (like the color of a Catholic cardinal’s garments).  Similar to Goldfinches, the male Cardinals have a more vibrant plumage than their female counterparts.  Cardinals especially love sunflower seeds and they have strong enough beaks to crack open the shells.  I will sometime feed them pieces of sliced apple too.  The photo to the right is of a female Northern Cardinal.

One winter morning, our regular bird friends were nowhere in sight.  I soon noticed a couple of House Finches looking more timid than usual.  Suddenly, chaos filled the scene when a big flash of white appeared on what looked like a toy airplane swooping in to dive bomb its target.  A Northern Mockingbird had decided to claim his new territory on our balcony.  For weeks, he bullied and chased the other birds, hogging the bird feeder only to occasionally guzzle a peanut or two.  Mockingbird’s beaks are not strong enough to crack open seeds, so their bird feeder diets are restricted to things like shelled nuts and seeds, berries, and suet.  Every time our Mockingbird chased the other birds away, I would try to scare him by tapping on the window.  He obsessively guarded the bird feeder every single day.  We were sure Atticus and Miss Maudie had it all wrong…to kill a mockingbird, in this case, didn’t seem like such a sin.

After  some time, the finches, cardinals, titmice, and chickadees learned how to defend themselves. Once the Mockingbird realized that the birdseed was always abundant, he began guarding the feeder less often.  We soon realized that we had more than one Mockingbird visiting our feeder when another one showed up with a silver band around its foot.  After taking hundreds of photos and zooming in on the close-ups, I had successfully recorded enough numbers from the band to send to the Curator of Birds at our local Museum of Natural Sciences.  We found out that our Mockingbird had been banded the previous year at a nature preserve about a mile down the road from our apartment!

We now have a nice variety of feathered friends that visit our feeders each day.  Recently, ground feeding birds have shown up, including Mourning Doves, Song Sparrows, and Eastern Towhees.  The less frequent visitors are the Eastern Bluebirds (pictured to the right) and Blue Jays.  Birds also need a good source of water to survive, so in addition to birdseed, we also provide them with fresh water in a hanging birdbath.

The following is a list of birds we have spotted on our balcony in North Carolina:

Did you know?

Recent research has suggested that Western Scrub Jays are among the most intelligent of animals. The brain-to-body mass ratio of adult Scrub Jays rivals that of chimpanzees and cetaceans, and is dwarfed only by that of humans. Scrub Jays are also the only non-primate shown to plan ahead for the future, which was previously thought of as a uniquely human trait.  Other studies have shown that they can remember locations of over 200 food caches, as well as the food item in each cache and its rate of decay.  Check out this video we made of our Oregon Western Scrub Jays below!

Please feel free to contact me with your bird questions and stories.  For more information about birds in your area, please check out the following links:

Bird Identification: WhatBird.com
Bird Information: National Audubon SocietyThe Cornell Lab of Ornithology, and Celebrate Urban Birds
North Carolina Resources:  Audubon North Carolina, Wake Audubon

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