How the Hen House Turns: Wild Neighbors (Number One)

How the Hen House Turns:
Wild Neighbors (Number One)
Column by Carolyn A. (Cary) Neeper, Ph. D.

On the other side of the yard from the Hen House—on the west side—sits the covered front porch. It is enclosed by a wooden fence topped with a two-by-four railing. On that railing and on the various shaped blocks that decorate the fencing, go unsalted peanuts in the shell, for the jays.

A feeder tray sits atop the west side of the railing, next to a plastic bowl of water. That feeder is filled every morning with one-half cup of sunflower seeds and one-fourth cup or less of thistle seed and cracked corn. A pinecone swings below one of two house-shaped bird feeders hanging from nearby aspen trees. The pinecone is loaded with peanut butter.

This arrangement provides feed for a few Cassin’s finch, pygmy nuthatches, pine siskins, grosbeaks, sparrows and chickadees, two canyon towhees and the occasional white-winged dove flock. One black neck-ringed dove comes, as do cowbirds, who have learned to ease down the stick upside down to the pine cone like the nuthatches.

Competing for dominance of this arena are several Steller’s Jays, one scrub Jay and a few acorn woodpeckers. Mr. And Mrs. Hairy Woodpecker pay rare visits. The cowbirds came in when we hung a large cylinder feeder on one of the aspens. They now focus on the peanut butter.

All this comes to life at first light. The Steller’s jays come in first to take the peanuts off the railing. Sometimes they have a terrible time deciding which peanut is best, and periodically someone tries to take two at once. It never works. The purpose of all this is to store up food for winter, and stealing is not off limits.

When the scrub jay comes first, the game is on. Sometimes a Steller’s jay will watch where scrub has hidden a peanut and steal it. Sometimes the acorn woodpeckers will chase everyone away. If all the birds appear at once, the scrub will usually outmaneuver the Steller’s both with speed and cunning.

The red drinking dish is too scary for the Steller’s, but for some reason it does not give the scrub jay a danger signal. The scrub is the first to find the occasional peanut on the west rail or among the blocks on the fencing structure beneath the top rail.

In the mornings, too late, usually, the acorn woodpeckers come to the front porch feeders. They settle for a few sunflower seeds, but if they are early enough, or if the jays are busy building nests, they will take the peanuts one by one. I would like to find their tree in the canyon and watch them drill a hole for each peanut.

Last fall, one of the acorn woodpeckers tried to hold the entire feeding arena for himself, including both house-shaped feeders. His swooping attacks were off-putting, but he couldn’t stop the sudden peanut snatches of the scrub jay or the squawking group forays of the Steller’s jays. One day the acorn woodpecker chased a scrub jay in circles around the feeders, and every time the jay swooped past the railing, he’d snatch a peanut, leaving the acorn woodpecker with none.

Soon the activity at the feeders will quiet down, as the birds find natural feed and tend to their nesting. Only the resident finch and other small birds will come in for seed. Also the towhees, if they are nesting nearby. The pine siskin loves the expensive thistle seed.

When hatching is done, the parents will bring their offspring and show them the reliable source of goodies. And in the fall, the contest for hiding peanuts in our wild xeriscaped yard will begin again in earnest.

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