The Birds at my Feeders by Gene Walz
My bird feeders have been mere ornaments since last December. I haven’t filled them in quite a while.
But with the snow we had last week, I decided that it was time to be a conscientious bird food provider again. I filled my feeders over the weekend. All six of them: with suet, peanuts, black and striped sunflower seeds, niger, and millet.
Within minutes of stoking them, chickadees began flitting in, grabbing a seed, and flitting away. Not more than ten or fifteen minutes later, all of my usual suspects had arrived: House Sparrows, of course, plus Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers, Blue Jays, House Finches, White-breasted Nuthatches, and new for the year, Red-breasted Nuthatches.
How do they know when to show up, and so quickly? What senses do they employ to discover new sources of food?
Were there sentries around somewhere that saw me filling the feeders and remembered that I’m usually a pretty reliable provider?
Did they hear me noisily working at the feeders? And do birds communicate with one another to share food info, not just chickadee to fellow chickadees but chickadee to nuthatches, et alii? Is there a “universal bird language” for food, a sort of avian Esperanto?
Or did they smell the seeds and zero in on them via their olfactory senses?
We don’t often think of birds as having a sense of smell. But recent genomic and brain studies have shown that the sense of smell is much more important in birds than previously thought.
The standard wisdom now is that some bird species can use their sense of smell to navigate, to forage or even to distinguish other individuals. “Birds as diverse as sparrows, chickens, pigeons, ducks, shearwaters, albatrosses, and vultures are able to smell.” Rails, cranes, grebes, and nightjars as well.
Chickadees are such resourceful little birds with such adaptable brains that I’m not surprised that they were the first to show up. Smell may have lured them in. I’m just glad they showed up.