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Feeders bring different clienteles

There are only about 100 miles between the bird feeder I maintain at our home in Boardman and the one I periodically fill with seeds while at our cabin on the Allegheny River in Althom south of Warren.

But there are definite differences between the clientele the two feeders attract.

In Boardman and on the river, many of my customers are the same. There are sparrows (but no house sparrows on the river) cardinals (Ohio’s state bird), blue jays, mourning doves and (unfortunately) squirrels. (But in Boardman, the squirrels are just red ones, small black ones and just occasionally, a large grey one.)

Blackbirds pick at the leavings below both feeders

The scene at our cabin at the feeder which I suspend from a limb of a towering linden tree which rises from the bank of the river and which I observe while taking meals at our kitchen table located just inside sliding glass doors is apt to be more dramatic and colorful than in Boardman.

The most marked difference between the visiting birds at the two sites is that for two or three months in late spring and early summer the most frequent diners at the feeder on the river are the red-breasted grosbeaks, a beautiful bird in which the males are white and black with a large red splotch below the throat.

The females are much less colorful, having dark brown top feathers and a lighter brown breast.

Of the visitors I observe at the feeder, the grosbeaks’ migration is the most impressive by far. They winter from southern Mexico to northern South America. And by late July, they are on their way south again.

I never see this beautiful bird in Boardman, and this (as is probably the case with other visitors to our feeder on the river) is likely because it favors as its habitat the heavily forested terrain along the river. The site of our cabin is surrounded by Game Lands 86, and of course the Allegheny National Forest lies just across the river. The river itself is of course crucial to the environment of many bird species.

Other birds which frequent our feeder on the river which I never or very seldom see in Boardman include flickers (a type of woodpecker), tufted titmouse, goldfinches, and the tree-clinging nuthatch. I saw a bluebird at our feeder for the first time this year and have seen orioles and a scarlet tanager in the area, but never at the feeder.

We have chosen “yelobird” as part of our internet ID as one year in the fall a huge flock of evening grosbeaks descended on the area surrounding our cabin, filling the air with their chatter. This has never happened since, and I understand that the decline in this species is due to extensive habitat damage in the area to which they migrate in Canada.

Overall, there has been a 29 percent decline in the North American bird pollution since 1970, representing the loss of 3 billion birds. Besides habitat loss, the factors contributing to this loss include pesticide use, insect declines, and climate change. Collisions with made-made structures, including glass-fronted skyscrapers, electricity generating windmills, and cell phone towers are also factors. Feral cats are also blamed.

I cannot recall hearing the distinctive song of returning red-winged blackbirds for at least this past spring. This species is among those whose numbers have declined so dramatically. In Ohio alone, the population of this bird is down 50 per cent.

The documented decline in the North American bird population has made me quite thankful that red-breasted grosbeaks still crowd our feeder each spring since it is reported that their numbers are down by 25 percent.

Waterfowl and raptors, such as the bald eagle, have fared better than the general bird population, with their numbers up 34 million and 15 million, respectively.

Birds that favor our feeder on the river are often driven off by grackles, an aggressive black bird about half the size of a crow. They gobble up large quantities of seed with their beaks, and because of their size, will tilt the feeder so that some of its contents spill onto the ground. There it is foraged by blackbirds and chipmunks.

Grackles arrive from the South in early spring and return to a warmer climate in late fall. They seem to feed along the river’s shore.

Our river feeder has been plagued by squirrels over the years, but this year a couple of very large black squirrels, which have apparently taken residence in our huge linden tree (also called a basswood) have been a real problem.

On their frequent missions, these brazen squirrels will climb the tree to the limb from which the feeder is suspended, run out on the limb to the pulley from which the feeder hangs on a rope, and then descend the rope to the feeder. There the squirrels will suspend themselves from the roof of the feeder down to where they are able to reach the feeding trough.

A tap on the glass door that looks out onto the feeder is enough to cause a squirrel to drop to the ground at the base of the tree, only to resume his circuit with little hesitation.

Aquatic birds in the river below are a common sight from our cabin’s windows, and when I arise in the morning, I am apt to see a blue heron standing stationary in the river shallows below awaiting prey.

This spring, a pair of Canada geese would herd their offspring onto a neighbor’s lawn located scant feet above the river to feed.

One day I saw a mother merganser trying to swim upriver against a strong flow with her chicks trailing behind. They were not able to make it, so they climbed onto the mother’s back. Just then another merganser flew into join the group, possible the father.

The mother merganser was having none of this and drove the new arrival away, as the chicks scattered and then climbed back onto their mother once the intruder was gone. After this confrontation was repeated, the mother merganser abandoned her attempt to go upriver and drifted downstream, her offspring again trailing behind.

Bald eagles are a common sight on the river and I once saw an eagle attempt to pluck a rather large sucker from the river without success due to the fish’s size. The eagle would rise in the air with the sucker held in its talons, only to have to drop it. The eagle abandoned its efforts after a few attempts to carry the fish away. Perhaps it returned to the scene after I had paddled on.

The sucker, a bottom feeding fish, was possibly killed going through the turbulent discharge from the Kinzua Dam and had drifted downstream.

Other large birds seen along the river include ospreys (also called “fish hawks”), cormorants and turkey vultures.

Ospreys will dive into the river from some height to grasp fish in their talons. The splashes marking their dives can occasionally be seen in the river ahead by observers in small craft. I have seen few ospreys along the river recently, however. I once saw frequent splashes caused by ospreys during a kayak trip down Tionesta Creek.

Cormorants, which are put on leashes in the Orient by fisherman who harvest their prey from dives, are not native to the Allegheny and those seen along the river have presumably strayed from their range. These birds need a good length of river to become airborne. They fly swiftly in “V” formations.

The few times I have seen turkey vultures roosting along the river have been when the air was so still that the currents aloft would not support their gliding. They must also come down to feed on carrion and to roost at night.

I had a rather haunting avian visit earlier this year. In the wee hours of a quiet morning an owl, probably a barred owl, lighted in our Boardman neighbor’s large black cherry tree just outside my bedroom’s window and awakened me with its disturbing calls.

Native Americans believe that such an occurrence to be a bad omen. But I do not take such omens too seriously.

Robert Stanger has lived seasonally for more than 40 years along the Allegheny River and has the stories to tell about it.

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