Goldie's cautionary tale

Sallie Satterthwaite's picture

When we first encountered the little goldfinch, she (?) was on her back on the floor of the screen porch, not moving. As usual on a really cold morning, Dave had taken a kettle of hot water out to thaw the birdbaths, and nearly stepped on a tiny bundle of feathers. He called to me to bring the tissue-lined shoe box we keep for just such emergencies.

The best way to help an injured bird is to do nothing but put it in a dark, warm place for about a half hour. Almost invariably, if it is not seriously hurt, a bird will become alert, preen its feathers, and be on its way.

This one, however, had several badly broken primary feathers and simply could not fly. We watched closely as, lying on her back, she held her damaged wing with both tiny feet, and drew it through her beak, feather by feather, to zip the edges back together.  

If in summertime the livin’ is easy, in wintertime it’s downright brutal for birds. While we beat the cold with hot soup and a fire on the hearth, these small creatures huddle close to tree trunks or snuggle together in last spring’s birdhouses.

We make sure feeders stay full and sometimes offer them shelter by propping the screen door open overnight. That’s where this little goldfinch wound up, on the wooden floor, but with no torn breast feathers, no blood, no palpable fractures.

Birds are remarkably tough, born survivors, and if they look fat and well-fed in winter, it’s because they fluff their feathers to increase the amount of heat-trapping air close to their bodies.

Ornithologists estimate birds get only about 25 percent of their food from feeders, the rest from nature.

An exception to this rule, however, is when ice or snow covers their normal food sources. You probably noticed the increase in traffic at your feeders during stormy weather.         
According to the Audubon Society’s “North American Birdfeeder Handbook,” the supplement birds find at feeders can mean the difference between life and death.
The handbook says that a chickadee requires the equivalent of about 150 sunflower seeds most days, and more like 250 when conditions are extreme. And at the very time when short daylight hours reduce the time he can search for food.

These tiny people are our friends. We know our regulars, like Super Red, a male cardinal that glows like neon at twilight.     

And Scrag, a Carolina wren that must have had a near-tragic collision with a window or a car. One large tail-feather is askew, making him easy to spot, but close examination with binoculars also reveals that nearly a quarter-inch of his little beak is missing.

He gets around perfectly well, examining every crevice of porch roof and screens, and can open seeds, blunt bill notwithstanding.

Carolina wrens don’t migrate, and this fellow is the same one that raised several clutches around our house last summer. He and his wife roost every night in last spring’s nest on a platform Dave put up under the front door eaves, a snug, deep chamber stuffed with Spanish moss.

When asked what’s the best food to offer in winter, we recommend black oil sunflower seed. Nearly everyone loves it, and its only downside is that the squirrels do too and often damage wooden feeders trying to get it.

Next best winter food is peanut butter. We take the lid off a jar of Kroger’s cheapest and lay it on its side. Dave built a support for two such jars, under a squirrel baffle, and in cold weather birds are there all day storing up heat-producing fat.

Commercially prepared or homemade suet is likewise a godsend for winter birds, with or without seeds imbedded. And sure, spread your stale bread and doughnuts for the birds, or stuff them into suet feeders too. In winter especially it’s the fat birds seek, so we sometimes dribble oil onto stale pastry and sprinkle a bit of sugar on it. The red-bellied woodpeckers seem especially appreciative.

Another excellent all-purpose food is cracked corn. Spread on the ground, it won’t sprout in warm weather the way millet does, and ground feeders love it. So do rabbits and deer.     

We buy Niger (thistle) seed for the goldfinch, who have occasionally nonplused us by ignoring it in favor of sunflower.

Some mixed seed (mostly millet) on the bench on the deck, and, yes, squirrels raid it, but song sparrows and towhees prefer the open flat surface.

A kettle of hot water starts the frog-fountain in the birdbath spouting a hesitant stream every frozen morning, and after that a little puddle stays clear.

There’s also a saucer of water hanging by my office window. It freezes solid most nights, but hot water melts it quickly in the morning, and our guests seem grateful for the supply. We’ve even caught Scrag taking a bath in it, with the thermometer at 30 degrees. His accident must have rattled his good sense.

And our battered goldfinch? She ate Niger and sipped water while recuperating in an old bird cage - a good sign. After four days, Dave gave her the freedom of one of the screen porches, and when she began to fly with confidence, he opened the door and let her go. After one wobbly false start, she flew up into a tree, preened feathers again, and took off away from us.

You go, Goldie. You go.