Backyard bird feeders are wonderful. They help sustain the smallest and therefore the most vulnerable birds during the cold, ice and snow of winter. They're great entertainment, better than any reality TV show by a country mile. And they offer an up-close and intimately personal opportunity to see how different species of birds interact.
I have hung a large feeder from a branch of the plum tree outside the kitchen window of Kiko's House. The feeder is a survivor, having endured several harsh winters and a bear attack when it was suspended below a Norway maple outside the mountain cottage of my Dear Friend & Conscience (DF&C). The bear smashed the feeder’s plastic squirrel shield into many small pieces, which I determinedly glued back together and then brought south to this more temperate and bear-free clime.
Now well into its second life, this feeder is frequented by chickadees, slate juncos, nuthatches and various and sundry finches, among other species of small birds. Its clever design makes it difficult for larger birds to partake who have their own more plentiful food sources. And the shield makes it impossible for even the most acrobatic squirrel to make off with so much as a mouthful of my mix of striped and black oil sunflower seeds, safflower seeds, millet and thistle.
For the most part, the birds who congregate at my feeder get along, even if it means having to take turns during morning rush hour. But that species interaction has become a bit loopy with the arrival of an American crow with an attitude whom I've named Russell.
Russell is a stereotypically handsome Corvus brachyrhynchos. The corvids, which range in size from the American crow up through the magpie to the majestic raven, are the rocket scientists of the American aviary. They have an astonishing innate intelligence and precocity, which includes the ability to play – yes, play -- and that is most evident by the game Russell engages in with my small feathered friends.
(An aside: I knew an immense adult male raven named Edgar who had bonded with the owners of a ranch in southwest Colorado to the extent that he had become a full-fledged member of their extended family of cats, pea and guinea fowl, chickens and the occasional rescued fawn or raccoon. Edgar was so gentle that you could put an index finger in his mouth and raise and lower him like a yoyo.)Russell’s routine usually begins mid morning when he lands on a branch near the feeder and checks out the other birds, who quickly retreat to the bushes under the plum tree to await his next move.
That would be Russell flap-flapping to the feeder and balancing all 10 or 12 inches of his purple black self on two of the small pegs beneath the feeding holes. Russell looks like he’s doing an acrobat’s split – and it’s a comical sight indeed -- as he wraps one set of claws around one peg and another set around another peg. He then stretches even further, and is now fully horizontal and extended 12 or 13 inches from tail tip to beak, as he sticks his beak into a feeding hole.
Having accomplished this feat of corvid daring do, Russell takes a single symbolic “See, I can do it, too” peck of food before flapping back to his branch.
This is the signal for the smaller birds to cautiously re-approach the feeder. Russell, for his part, feigns indifference to their presence and seems to be looking away and thinking loftier thoughts. But he actually has one beady eye squarely on the feeder and gives a head nod and little caw as soon as the birds work up the nerve to fly up to the pegs so they can resume feeding. The birds seem to be intimidated and hastily exit, only to try again a little later. Russell repeats his taunt and they again retreat.
Russell has perched over the feeder for upwards of an hour on some mornings. Interestingly, it falls to the tiniest of the birds – the precious little chickadees – to break the standoff by surreptitiously flying up to the feeder from the exact opposite direction from Russell’s branch, which means the mass of the feeder is blocking his view of them.
Do the chickadees really think they’re outwitting Russell? Yup. Does Russell know what they’re doing? I’m sure he does. But remember, for him it’s all a game.