By Joe Eaton
Friday December 23, 2011 - 02:21:00 PM
Young male Townsend's warbler, a suet fancier.
Alan Vernon (Wikimedia Commons)
Young male Townsend's warbler, a suet fancier.

We’ve been getting a lot of traffic and a rewarding variety of species at the bird feeders this fall. Or maybe it’s just the observer effect, influenced by the late onset of the rains. In any case, it’s been a good opportunity to watch bird behavior up close while waiting for the drier cycle to finish. 

This season’s undisputed star is an adult male Townsend’s warbler: a snazzy little bird with crisp black-and-yellow markings, including the diagnostic black throat. He’s been coming around since at least Thanksgiving. I’ve seen another Townsend’s, a yellow-throated female or juvenile, in the mulberry tree out front, but he or she hasn’t visited the back porch where the feeders are. The male warbler is fond of suet. This surprised me at first, since I had thought warblers insisted on live insects (with a few exceptions like the seed-eating pine warblers back in Arkansas.) But there’s a reference in Arthur Cleveland Bent’s Life Histories of North American Wood Warblers to Townsend’s warblers being attracted to peanut butter, cheese, and marshmallows. 

The suet also brings in chestnut-backed chickadees (up to four at a time), oak titmice, and once or twice a ruby-crowned kinglet. We’ve been buying an alleged woodpecker blend, containing both peanuts and corn. So far the woodpeckers—we’ve had both Nuttall’s and downy in the neighborhood—have ignored it. The titmice are considerably more wary than the chickadees, waiting in the nearby bay tree until they’re convinced they can make a safe approach. 

Since mid-November we’ve had an influx of dark-eyed juncos, all of the Oregon type so far. At first they didn’t seem to know what to make of the suet feeder. One—typically an adult male, recognizable by its darker gray hood—would perch on top of the suet cage for a while as if studying it, then fly away. I don’t know which junco figured out you had to get inside the cage, but the breakthrough eventually came. Now they’re constant customers, with voracious appetites. Juncos can go through a lot of suet. They also seem to dominate the smaller chickadees, which I’m not so happy about. My sources say juncos eat mostly seeds in winter, so the suet matrix may be just a bonus. 

The juncos also frequent the thistle feeder down in the yard, picking up what the goldfinches spill. So, less often, do the resident California towhees and the wintering white-crowned sparrows. The gang of house sparrows that use the seed feeder next door haven’t shown any interest in the thistle, which is just as well. 

We’ve also had an unexpected guest at the back-porch hummingbird feeder: an orange-crowned warbler that perches on it and sips the sugar-water solution. This is a much less showy bird than the Townsend’s, overall greenish; the orange crown is only visible when the warbler is really exercised about something. The species account in Cornell’s Birds of North America notes that it has been attracted to feeders with suet, peanut butter, and doughnuts (what is it with the doughnuts and marshmallows?), but our orange-crown has never investigated the suet feeder. 

The BNA account goes on to say that orange-crowned warblers in Colorado feed on sap from wells drilled by the local red-naped sapsuckers. The birds have a daily route, visiting the most productive wells in sequence. It could be that the orange-crown is pre-adapted to take advantage of hummingbird feeders. 

Other residents, transients, and winter visitors could care less about the feeders. For all its curiosity, the local Bewick’s wren doesn’t appear interested in the suet. Nor are the yellow-rumped warblers, bushtits, or hermit thrushes. 

Feeder-watching may not be science. Beats television, though.