Close up of Chestnut backed Chickadee (Poecile rufescens) perched on a branch; blurred background, San Francisco bay area, California

Chestnut-backed Chickadee (Poecile rufescens) perched on a branch

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I vividly recall standing at my second-story office window many years ago, gazing at the leaden sky, thinking about something or other. I immediately forgot what I was thinking about because my preoccupation was shattered by a sudden flash of small wings a few feet from my face.

A chestnut-backed chickadee flew up to the window and, with an agile twist, perched sideways on the horizontal strip dividing the window. I froze; the chickadee did not. It snatched something from the snarl of webbing in the corner of the window -- presumably the spider -- then flitted off to perch in the bare Japanese maple just beneath the window.

Finishing its freshly caught snack, the tiny hunter gave me a chance to admire its handsome pattern of black, white, and reddish-brown.

I immediately called a friend to share the event. While we were on the phone, a Townsend's warbler flew up to a different window and pulled the same spider-sampling maneuver. About the same size as chickadees, Townsend's warblers sport surprisingly vivid black-and-yellow markings on the face.

From my window I noticed the entire back yard aflutter with small birds. The lone Townsend's warbler left my window to join a small flock of chestnut-backed chickadees and dark-eyed juncos that were skittishly feeding among the lichen-flocked apple trees.

Previously called "Oregon juncos," dark-eyed juncos look rather like they've been dipped head-first into black- or slate-colored paint.

Juncos measure just over five inches long; chickadees and warblers are just over four inches long. Juncos are primarily seedeaters that occasionally take insects; chickadees and warblers glean branches and trunks for small arthropods, occasionally adding seeds and fruit to their diet.

Working its way along the fence wires was a Bewick's wren, with the characteristic light-colored belly and jaunty white eye stripe. The Bewick's wren was heard earlier this year in my yard, but the leafless cover made it more visible. Scarcer insect food in the undergrowth probably added to its boldness.

All the birds feeding at my windows and in my suburban Coos Bay yard that distant afternoon are Coos County residents. Chestnut-backed chickadees, Townsend's warblers, dark-eyed juncos, and several other resident species migrate seasonally within the county. Like perhaps most in-county migrants, those three spend the breeding season at higher elevations or in deeper forests and move to more open low-lands in winter -- providing entertaining surprises outside our urban windows.

A couple of years ago I decided to help my little birds out by feeding them in winter. Although I got birdseed and bird droppings all over our back deck by doing so, I was also richly rewarded with close-up views of over a dozen species of seed- and suet-eating birds -- from daring chestnut-backed chickadees and brave nuthatches to shyer downy woodpeckers and feisty Steller’s jays.

Inadvertently, a young Douglas squirrel and a very assertive Norway rat also benefitted from the bounty.

While the squirrel appeared to go home to the century-old elm tree next to the house, the rats like living in our basement. I was delighted to feed the native squirrel, but the invasive rat’s appearance dimmed my delight in the bird-feeding a bit.

Setting up backyard feeders can help birds, but there are some cautions for us to be most helpful.

Birds need bird food -- not human food -- and they need food appropriate for their group or species. (A variety of food is often best, and a variety of food usually draws a variety of birds. Further, bird food needs to be fresh, never stale, mildewy, or rotten.)

A popular bird-feeding spot can cause crowding, bringing stress to the birds congregating for the handout, while fouling the food and surroundings and spreading disease.

A busy crowd of birds, their attentions focused on dinner and on each other, is a big draw for predators, from household cats to Cooper’s hawks. (Bird feeders need to be thoughtfully placed to give safety as well as sustenance.)

It’s possible that a lot of human-feeding might change migration behavior -- although careful feeding can also help residents through the winter.

And abundant food, easily accessible, will also draw unwanted visitors.

This year I hung only a suet feeder, and I hung it in an apple tree further from the house in a more natural setting than before -- and out of reach of the rats.

So far I haven’t seen the variety of birds I saw in the past with the combination of suet and dry seeds, but the vermin count is currently zero. And I can still watch for winged hunters snatching tidbits from the spider webs in my office windows.

For information on how you can arrange your own exploration of our fascinating natural history, contact Marty at 541-267-4027,, or Questions and comments about local natural history are welcome.



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