Ever since we’ve been staying at home more, this column has accidentally veered off onto a recurrent theme: Nature as theater. It’s simply because many of us are spending less time with people, and more time with unmasked backyard creatures. OK, raccoons are masked, but they don’t complain about it. Let’s step into your backyard for a little theater.
Act One: Is any bird chirping at you, scolding you? Did you even notice? Every backyard is different, but there are certain birds that are likely to complain if you’re getting too close to their kids. Don’t take it personally. Such backyard birds as American robins, northern cardinals and song sparrows do it. If you live around shrubbery, you’ve likely been scolded by common yellowthroats this summer. In more rural areas, dark-eyed juncos and white-throated sparrows do it.
Many of these birds have finished raising their young, and they’ve gone back to ignoring you. Some are just getting started. Chipping sparrows are the smallest sparrows in Maine. They’re equally comfortable along suburban streets and remote logging roads. All they require is an open area near trees. For most of the summer, they are quite comfortable around people, barely scurrying out of the way in the local park. But when the kids come off the nest – bam – they start chirping the alarm at you before you even know they are there.
Pay attention. Adult chipping sparrows have white, unstreaked breasts and a reddish cap. But the youngsters are heavily streaked, with a brown crest. The whole family feeds on the ground together, so they can be easy and fun to watch.
Among the complainers, eastern phoebes are particularly amusing. My porch-nesting pair raised two broods this summer. When the first nestlings were hatched, both parents would start chirping at me the moment I walked out the front door. During this second brood, they’re chirping with much less annoyance. Apparently, they’ve reasoned that if I didn’t eat the first brood, I’m probably not going to eat the second.
Act Two: Which birds don’t care? Some birds are so comfortable around your house that they have “house” in their names – house wren, house sparrow, house finch. They will quite literally nest on or in your porch. Naturally, they tend to be suburban or city birds, since that’s where the houses are.
Many feeder birds are non-complainers. Goldfinches and purple finches barely raise an eyebrow when you’re around. For the first half of summer, a pair of purple finches regularly visited my feeder. Then, last week, they showed up with a family of youngsters in tow.
For a short time this summer, hairy and downy woodpeckers were bringing their kids to my suet feeders while I was repairing the deck. They perched nonchalantly above my head, even while I was loudly hammering nails and firing up power tools. To them, I was just part of the scenery.
Act Three: What else are birds getting annoyed about? Red-eyed vireos are superstars of this nature theater. They sing a lot, they complain a lot and they’re everywhere. There’s one near you right now. Don’t make me come over there and show you. Best of all, they are vocal when most other birds have gone silent. I mentioned recently that they hate blue jays. When one approaches, the vireos unleash a barrage of “zhree” call notes to raise the alarm, and they persist until the intruder retreats.
But blue jays are everywhere, too. These mutual antagonists are used to each other. How close does the blue jay have to be before the vireo reacts? In the same tree? Two trees away? After the jay leaves, how soon does the vireo calm down and stop making its “zhree” calls?
Red-eyed vireos are so abundant, I can usually hear several from my porch. They keep a territorial distance between themselves during nesting season. I’d estimate they stay at least 200 yards apart. If one vireo raises the alarm, what does the other one do? From my observations this summer, nothing. It just keeps right on singing. Apparently, the circle of alarm doesn’t reach very far.
One last bit of amusement for lakeside dwellers: What alarms the loons? Boats don’t seem to bother them much. When I hear a sudden burst of loon calls, I look for a passing eagle. However, I discovered on the lakes around Millinocket that they also complain about float planes taking off.
There’s a lot of interaction happening in your backyard. The curtain is going up.
Bob Duchesne serves as vice president of Maine Audubon’s Penobscot Valley Chapter. He developed the Maine Birding Trail, with information at mainebirdingtrail.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.