Newport This Week

Backyard Birds on Broadway


American goldfinch (Photo by Dennis DiMauro Jr).

American goldfinch (Photo by Dennis DiMauro Jr).

This summer, I moved up Broadway into a house with a backyard full of birds. My cats and I wanted to get to know our new neighbors, so I set up a birdfeeder outside the bedroom window.

In 20 years of living in Newport, I had never hung a birdfeeder. Putting out seed for the squirrels on the fire escape of a third-floor apartment doesn’t count, since they never shared with the birds, although “squirrel TV” was a hit with the cats.

The reluctance on my part to hang a feeder is the prevalence of house sparrows in the city. If you have hedges or holes in your eaves, then you have a population of house sparrows, which breed multiple times over the course of the summer and bring all their friends and relations to your seed restaurant. I was afraid these plump birds, originally from Europe, would monopolize the feeder and keep away the other birds.

I have been pleasantly surprised to find that while I do have house sparrows in the yard, I also have a nice variety of other species. It turns out that the rosy male house finches and their brown-striped mates are even more assertive at the feeders than the house sparrows, so they keep each other in check.

Northern cardinal, above (Photo by Ed Hughes).

Northern cardinal, above (Photo by Ed Hughes).

House finches were originally a West Coast bird, but in the 1940s they were brought east to sell as caged “Hollywood finches.” When that enterprise didn’t work out, they were released on Long Island and have since spread all over the East Coast. The red coloration of the male comes from pigments in the food they eat, so occasionally you will see one that appears more orange or yellow.

Black-capped chickadees always make me smile with their “chick-a-dee-dee-dee” call. Whether busy at the feeder or hanging upside down from a branch, this little gray bird, with its black cap and chin, is a joy to observe.

Chickadees travel in family groups, but in fall and winter they also hang out with other small birds. In my yard, the tufted titmouse and white-breasted nuthatch are part of the gang, as well as the downy woodpecker. Tufted titmice may be small, but like Yorkshire terriers, they don’t act like it. They are recognizable by their gray crest, peach-colored sides and scolding tone. No predator in the yard escapes the persistent nagging of an angry titmouse.

Chickadee, left (Photo by Jennifer Zartarian).

Chickadee, left (Photo by Jennifer Zartarian).

There was concern earlier this year that avian flu might affect birds flocking to feeders. So far, scientists have determined that while the flu has been detrimental to larger wild birds, such as gulls, ducks and shorebirds, it has not been found in songbirds.

Keeping feeders and the area under them clean is still important to avoid the spread of other diseases. I wash my feeders out with soap and water, rinse them in a 10 percent bleach solution and let them air dry. I also rake under the feeders, so shells and bird droppings don’t accumulate.

Nature lover Lauren Parmelee of Newport is senior director of education at the Audubon Society of Rhode Island.

Nature lover Lauren Parmelee of Newport is senior director of education at the Audubon Society of Rhode Island.

While the feeder has drawn the birds out in the open for us to enjoy, it didn’t bring the birds into the yard itself. They were already living in the neighborhood because of an abundance of natural food sources and places to nest and find shelter.

The overgrown shrubs provide great cover for birds to hide from predators and raise young in the spring. The beautiful northern cardinal couple wake early from their sleeping branch in the bushes to be first at the feeders for breakfast. At night, the cardinals are also the last to call it a day, taking their final meal just before the sun goes down.

There is a big old tree in the backyard that has several dead limbs that draw in hungry woodpeckers looking for wood-boring insects. Red-bellied and downy woodpeckers are often banging their heads on the tree to make holes in the wood. Later in the season, I will probably put out suet at the feeder to supplement their diet.

While I am a huge proponent of putting electric and telephone wires underground where they are safe from high winds and falling trees during storms, I have to say wires are good places to look for birds. Just after I moved in this summer, I spied my first neighborhood ruby-throated hummingbird sitting on the wire behind the house. It has flown to Mexico by now, but will hopefully return in spring.

The mourning doves that feed on the ground under the feeder spend much of their day watching the world go by from the wires, and the European starlings sit there as well, serenading their neighbors with elaborate vocalizations.

How can birds sit on electric wires and not get shocked? A bird’s body is not a good conductor of electricity, so if the bird is only on a wire, the electricity continues to travel through the conductive metal in the wire. However, if the bird was in contact with the ground and the wire, or another grounded object, it would get shocked.

Like all good neighborhoods, mine comes with a “community watch” committee.

Dressed in their handsome blue and white feathered garb and pointed crests, the blue jays keep watch over my yard daily. Calling “jay, jay, jay,” they alert everyone when the dogs go out or a stray cat comes by.

And yes, I still have squirrels! But in this neighborhood, they have learned to share.

Broadway is a busy place, but not just on the road or in the shops. Enjoy your feathered and furry neighbors in your own backyard. Happy birding!

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