Backyard Birding

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For the Heinzelmanns, many good stories begin in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and one such story is their fondness for backyard birding.  In Point Pleasant Park, where Halifax meets the Atlantic Ocean, Franziska, Felix, and Katharina have a very special birding experience:  black-capped chickadees and red-breasted nuthatches are so trustful, they can be fed by hand in winter.  “I’d love to do this back home in Germany, too” thinks Mike, but browsing the internet he soon learns that this won’t be all that easy.  In Central Europe, wild birds tend to be far shyer than in North America.  Hand feeding wild songbirds in Germany would definitely require a real lot of patience, which unfortunately is definitely not among Mike’s real strong points.  However, normal bird feeding can also be fun, and building a bird feeder with the kids has everything a thrilling weekend project needs.  So that’s what their birding project is going to be.  And when they return to Germany a couple of months later, the time proves to be just right, for Mecki had cut some nice, strong, and straight branches from the maple tree, from which Katharina, Felix, and Franziska build a tripod for the feeder.  The house itself is built from leftover plywood with a weatherproof coating for the roof using boat varnish, and some brushwood on top of the roof for a nice look.

That was ten years ago, but as is the case with many solidly built things the kids’ bird feeder still shows no sign of weakness.  Sure, every so often something is up for repair: The roof needs a new coating, the brushwoods fall off and need to be replaced, or the three large branches of the tripod rot.  But with a little bit of maintenance every now and then, the bird feeder is still in good shape and continues to be the reason for heavy air traffic during the winter months.  Five different species of chickadees regularly come to the feeder – great, blue, marsh, and coal chickadees take their meals in the feeder, while crested chickadees prefer the seeds fallen down to the lawn.  And it’s not only chickadees that show up at the bird feeder:  There’s chaffinches, robins, accentors, black birds, sparrows, nuthatches, greenfinches, jays, an occasional woodpecker, every now and then a squirrel, and some pigeons that no one really likes because they leave their droppings all over the place.  But as of recent, the pigeons rather evade the bird feeder, at least ever since a sparrowhawk caught one.  Of all events in and around the birdfeeder, this was probably the most thrilling event.  A solid half hour the sparrowhawk plucked and eventually dissected the pigeon that feebly flapped one wing up and down for the best part of the bloody procedure.  When the job was done, the sparrowhawk eventually flew away with the leftovers of its prey.

This way, the bird feeder provides amusing entertainment year after year, which, if Mike had his way, could very well stay on forever.  His kids, however, are of a different opinion.  His kids continue to develop and find that some change wouldn’t hurt.  “In Canada” says Katharina “things are much cooler. In Canada, you can watch breeding bald eagles with a web cam.”

“Mmmmh” Mike has to acknowledge, “that’s indeed much cooler.”  But it’s an unrealistic option for Germany, bald eagles don’t live there.  On a smaller scale, however, something should be possible.  In the internet, one can find people who have installed a webcam in a nesting box and watch the birds breeding and raising their young.  The combination of having both a bird feeder and a nesting box in the garden seems to be particularly promising.  The feeder draws the birds into the garden where they would find the nesting box.  So during fall break, Katharina and Mike build a nesting box with an integrated web cam.  The box they eventually come up with looks very much like a regular nesting box, about 10 cm taller to provide space for the web cam under the roof, and with a few perspex windows around the upper section of the box to let enough light into the box for filming.  Katharina and Mike hang up the nesting box in a walnut tree in the back yard and lay a USB extension cable from the web cam all the way to the seating corner in the back yard to hook up the webcam to a laptop.  There, they hope to watch chickadees breed and raise their young next spring.

Until then, all they can do is wait and see and try to attract the chickadees to the nesting box by putting a few peanuts or sunflower seeds every now and then onto the roof or into the entrance hole.  They also set up a YouTube, just in case the films they hope to capture will be worth sharing (veeery important:  make sure to check out their channel right here and subscribe to it).

Suddenly in late March the big news: a chickadee builds a nest in the box!  From then on, everything happens very quickly.  Chickadee mum lays ten eggs, breeds for about two weeks, and on April 22 – the day after Easter – the young hatch.  During the first few days, it is hard to tell how many chicks actually hatched from the eggs, the bustle in the nest is just too chaotic.  But at some point Katharina and Mike can actually count ten hungry beaks: a chick hatched from every single egg.  These chicks have only one thing on their minds: eating.  Minute for minute, the adult chickadees – or may be chickadee mum alone, as Katharina and Mike suspect, for they never see both parents together at the nest – arrive with a new mouthful of insects and caterpillars where the young greet them with loud chirping.  Then a confusing clutter of beaks expect to be stuffed, the chicks’ excrement balls have to be disposed of, and off the adult goes again, foraging in the surrounding gardens.

What is pure stress for the adult chickadees is great cinema for Katharina and Mike and for everyone else of course, too.  For the more people you are – like Felix, Mecki, or the neighbours – the more fun you have watching the show in the nesting box.  And so an excited little crowd is a common sight in front of the laptop by the nesting box, and everyone hopes that the chickadee parents will succeed in their hard job of raising the family.

These hopes, however, where bitterly disappointed.  A sudden cold snap brought frost, snow and hail to the chickadee family on the 12th day of the young, and nature showed itself from a very merciless side.  It took just two days to carry off all ten chicks.  And to Katharina and Mike it really felt like a blow to the stomach to see the number of hungry beaks decline from ten to eight – and with eight beaks you still hope that all is right and two chicks just missed their cue – but then the beak count went down to seven, half a day later further down to six, and so on until it became clear that all chicks had perished.

The sad news put Mike in a gloomy type of mood.  “It sucks to see our nice little project end in such a way,” he says.  “What are we going to do now?”

“Let’s just carry on,” answers Katharina.  “I’ve put new sunflower seeds into the bird feeder to keep the chickadee parents in our garden.  If the first brood doesn’t survive chickadees often add a second brood.  That’s something I’d really be looking forward to.”

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