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Backyard bird drama and birding for beginners

29 May 2020 3:49 PM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

Like most Canadians, I’ve been spending a lot more time at home. Looking through my kitchen window has become my favourite way to enjoy the outside world.

Since early April, I’ve noticed a pair of red-breasted American robins coming to my backyard every day. They have a nest somewhere between my neighbour’s house and mine. Another species also visits my yard: grackles, recognizable by their iridescent blue heads and black bodies.

A male American robin is one of the species house-bound Canadians can observe from their homes. © Tony Beck

These ones appear to have some aggression issues with the robin pair: Most interactions between them end in one bird chasing away the other.

This is common, explained Tony Beck. He’s an experienced birder, wildlife photographer, tour guide, and member of the Ottawa Field Naturalists Club (OFNC).

Tony Beck (green) during a photo workshop last fall in Algonquin Park © Nina Stavlund

Beck has been interested in wildlife since he was a child, whether he was fishing with his father in Eastern Ontario or exploring Lanark County at his uncle’s.

“I felt good being surrounded by nature and wildlife,” he says.

In the 80s and 90s Beck became more involved with the naturalist community and made his work a full-time career. His wildlife tour and photography business, Always an Adventure, is based in Ottawa, Ont.

Beck says after spending their winters in the United States, grackles and American robins fly back to the Ottawa area in mid-February.  When they return, they establish territory.

“They’re going to start working at the nest straightaway,” he says. “You see them paired off and walking around.”

As for the backyard robins? Beck suspects they might already have fledged young who are almost ready to leave the nest.

Grackles follow a similar pattern. A pair have nested in the backyard across from mine.

Not all is peaceful between the birds. American robins belong to the thrush genus (Turdidae), while grackles are blackbirds (Quiscalus).

“They're not that closely related but they do occupy the same type of niche,” Beck says. “So, there are some territory territorial disputes, maybe for food and things like that, but they normally don't get along.”

In fact, grackles look at other birds’ nests as feeding opportunities. Beck points out that grackles will look for eggs and nestlings.

“They won’t think twice and they’ll rob the nest.”

Parent robins are wary of grackles. They defend their nests and look out for each other whenever a plague of grackles is about. Ganging up in these large groups makes them much more intimidating to smaller birds. There’s a perceptible tension in the air that comes with the flapping of their black wings.

Common grackles like this one provide drama as they harass other birds, stealing food and raiding nests. © Tony Beck

The robin pair will chase away a stray grackle, returning to perch on the fence and breathing heavily. I’ve seen grackles steal worms from the robins’ beaks.

“This kind of drama goes on all the time,” Beck says.

Budding birders like me can observe this behaviour in suburban areas like our backyards, or in a natural area like in Greenbelt trails (while observing proper social distancing, of course).

Since worldwide stay-at-home orders have been put in place, news outlets across the world have reported animals coming back to cities and developed areas. Beck says they’ve always been there, “regardless of whether there’s people or not.”

While it’s true that animals are more inclined to come out right now, they’re usually just shy and furtive when there are people out. Before the coronavirus pandemic, Beck would go outside early in the morning so he could focus on finding animals and avoid disruptive crowds.

If you want to start looking for interesting species in your area - whether you’re walking around your neighbourhood or watching from your window - there are a few things to keep in mind.

“People have to become sensitive to the nature of wildlife,” Beck says. He laments beginning birders and wildlife photographers pestering a bird’s nesting area or baiting predatory owls with live mice, for example, disrupting the natural learning process for many species.

“It’s good that people are becoming interested in nature,” he says. “But please be sensitive to the animal.”

Beck wants enthusiasts to prioritize the animals’ needs before their own and to respect the animals’ space. Observers should be conscious of behaviours that show the animal is exerting extra effort to avoid you. Leave those animals alone.

This is where classic birder tools like binoculars and telephoto lenses come in handy, Beck says. He also recommends a field guide like the Sibley Field Guide. This way, you can observe wildlife from a non-intrusive distance and identify and distinguish different species.

Early birders can get involved in citizen science by participating in February’s annual bird count, where people across the world go out and count different species as migration season begins.

Even if you’ve missed this opportunity, spring is still an exciting time for naturalists like Beck. Eastern bluebirds, yellow-rumped warblers, ruby-crowned kinglets, scarlet tanagers, and black-throated blue warblers are some of the rainbow of birds he’s looking out for in the Ottawa area this spring.

A Blackburnian warbler rests in a tree in Point Pelee in May after a spring flight from as far south as South America. The birds' spring migration can take them as far northwest as the Prairies. © Tony Beck

Even though the spring migration “peters out towards the end of May,” you can still look out for the birds heading to the High Arctic in early June, Beck says.

“It’s amazing what things you can find when you start looking.”

By: Adenieke Lewis-Gibbs

Adenieke Lewis-Gibbs is a Journalism and French double major at Carleton University. Her pastimes include reading, painting and enjoying the outdoors - real jungles and concrete jungles alike. She is a repeat sustainability and circular economy writer and a both a big fan and a big sceptic of recycling. She is just as excited move back home to Toronto after school as she is to travel the world.


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