I heard a familiar sound coming from almost underfoot in the tangled mess of dead juniper branches on the beach. It was a Dark-eyed Junco, but I had never heard one sing so loudly or so monotonously. After a minute or two of searching I found a light brown bird streaked and spotted with dark brown, with no tail and a bright pink bill and legs. I had never seen anything quite like it but it still looked familiar... Of course, I thought, a baby junco! Verification came moments later with the arrival of an adult female junco, her bill loaded with tiny invertebrates.
Knowing there must more where that came from, the young junco wolfed down the insects then followed its mother into a dense hemlock thicket. She had found a stash of small caterpillars, and the baby was perching close by so its hard-working mom could pick off a caterpillar and immediately stuff it in down her demanding child’s throat. Eventually there were no more caterpillars within reach, so the mother moved to a different branch. The young bird did not budge. When its mother turned around with a caterpillar in her bill, the little fluffball stretched forward to accept it. So eager was the youngster that its mother had unexpected relief from her child’s relentless cries. It stretched too far forward and fell off its branch, tumbling headlong into the tangled brush below!
Many birders’ most memorable experiences are defined by seeing lifers, close encounters, or birding in exotic places. But what about the funny encounters, the ones that leave you laughing unstoppably, the hilarious stories you tell to friends for years to come? For me, it’s moments like these that become some of my fondest memories, some of the reasons that I stop and think “I’m so glad I watch birds.”
Even backyard birding proves to be humorous on occasion. At my feeders, offering up whole unshelled peanuts usually incites an array of amusing antics. Titmice, Downy Woodpeckers, and nuthatches drop by for their share of this very popular food, either staying there and hacking the morsels out of the shell or flying off with it to hack at it in private. Whatever they do, it is usually entertaining. The titmice are quite the picture with their stout, conical bills grasping an impossibly large and heavy, but obviously desirable, unshelled peanut, then taking off from the edge of the feeder, weighed down by their load. The nuthatches and woodpeckers seem to have figured it out, and they hack a hole into the shell which they then grasp with their bill, making the haul much easier.
When birds stay at the feeders to extract the food on site, it is once again the titmice that provide the most entertainment. While the nuthatches and woodpeckers easily puncture the shells with their long bills, it is not so easy for a titmouse. Titmice balance themselves on top of the peanut, often toppling backwards or sideways. Sometimes I see a titmouse lose its balance and fall onto another bird, leading to a rather loud debate about who must leave immediately. Once the bird gets its balance, it proceeds to violently shred the shell, sending tiny bits of it flying through the air.
Blue Jays inevitably come to join the fun. Their antics are of a different sort: one of them will alight on the feeder and pick up a peanut in its bill, which, through this limited inspection, it finds unsatisfactory. It drops the peanut and picks another one up, and again somehow finds this one sub-par. This can carry on until the jay is picking some peanuts up for the second time. Sometimes, the bird seems to get frustrated and picks up the peanuts one by one, dropping them over the edge of the feeder!
One year ago my feeders were frequented by an endearing young male Red-bellied Woodpecker. It too loved peanuts and was sure to come calling within minutes of the moment the first peanut was set on the platform feeder. It was not the brash bird that I’m used to in baby Red-bellied Woodpeckers, however. On the contrary, it seemed very shy and retiring. When it flew in to fetch a peanut, it would land and immediately crouch itself down as far as it could in order to hide behind the wood of the feeder. To reach the peanuts, the scrawny fellow had to stretch his neck across several inches of the wooden surface. He made quite a picture, trying to hide behind the feeder and trying to reach the peanuts at the same time, not quite succeeding in either endeavor.
Volunteering at a bird banding station inevitably leads a few funny moments. One that I remember in particular involves a very indignant female Northern Cardinal. After being removed from one of the mist nets, she reached her bill back towards the bander’s thumb, meaning to give her a lesson. Being all too familiar with the cardinal’s fearsome bite, she quickly pulled her thumb away and the bird’s bill clamped down on its own primary feathers! It took both of us quite a while to tease the feathers out of her bill, one at a time.
Baby birds, like the Red-bellied Woodpecker, are veritable fountains of humor. About a month ago, I was watching a family of newly hatched Mallards at a local riverfront park. There were five of the tiny fluffballs floating in the water, following their mother wherever she went in a single file line. Occasionally, one of the chicks would suddenly zoom out of line with astonishing speed, sometimes ahead of the group, sometimes behind it, sometimes off to the side. Then the chick would zoom right back to its place in line, and one could hardly tell that anything had happened, save for the dragonfly that one of the chicks now had in its bill.
Reddish Egrets are famed for their hilarious style of hunting, but I have seen Tricolored Herons hunt with some outrageous antics as well. For spring break, my family and I headed to Florida for a week of birding. One of the places we visited was Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, and on the wildlife drive we came upon a Tricolored that was prancing around like a maniac, running with jerky motions between one school of fish and another. It haphazardly plunged its bill left and right into the water, not catching a single fish. Other Tricoloreds nearby patiently stalked their quarry, giving this one a wide berth. This bird’s state of hyperactivity came abruptly to an end when it tripped over its own feet, toppling headlong into the water!