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The birds of Gilly Hollow

In to the Wind

May 15, 2013
By Mike Gilchrist , Toledo Chronicle, Tama News-Herald

Some bird lovers will go to extraordinary lengths to rescue a wayward flier.

The little bird was frantically clawing at the insides of the stovepipe trying to get enough traction to make it back up to safety. It's about 15 feet straight up from where the little bird was imprisoned, to the top of the chimney. I can only imagine he was able to get that far up the pipe because of the creosote encrusting the inside of the lower pipe like some primordial scale. The only perch the little bird could possibly have is the shaft of a thermometer thrust through a small hole in the pipe that allows us to monitor the flue temperature. That perch has to be barely long enough for the desperate creature to clutch in its desperate claws.

Yes, I have had to rescue four bluebirds from the dank prison which is my chimney. Each has been taken by hand out the front door where they fly to freedom. Amazingly, every time they are greeted by what I can only think is their mate, who no doubt was just outside, fretting over the fate of that mate.

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I don't want to put any mesh or anything around the spark cap on the chimney. Experience tells me, especially with slow springtime fires, you don't want to have any restriction on your chimney, or you risk getting smoke in the house, or worse, starting a chimney fire.

All winter long we kept a block of suet in one of those wire feeders on an ornamental plant stand in the yard. It was frequented by various Woodpeckers, most notably Downy Woodpeckers, and Red-bellied Woodpeckers.

A well worn bird book is always at the handy here. While I have a couple different bird books, my favorite is the Golden Guide. It just helps amateurs like me identify the spectacular birds we see.

I am not certain what is different about this spring, besides the persistence of cooler weather than usual. Maybe this alone is the reason for an expanded roster of songbirds that have shown up this year. A couple, I only have seen fleetingly, if ever.

The Cardinals were early arrivals, as they often are. They aren't particularly acrobatic, so have a hard time grasping the wire of the suet feeder and then poking for morsels. They are however opportunists. They will hang around on the ground and feast on the spoils dropped by some of the more ravenous "clingers," as they stab at the suet with sharp beaks.

I kept noticing flashes of red in the trees and streaking across the yard. Their flight and mannerisms weren't "Cardinal like." And then I saw one up close. I decided it was a Tanager right away. I did not however know any specifics. Out came the Golden Guide. By gosh and by golly, I decided it was a Summer Tanager. It is the only entirely red bird found in North America. According to the range map for this bird, Southern Iowa is the northernmost range for this beautiful creature.

I decided to set up my digital camera outside and try to get some shots. I managed to capture the Summer Tanager close up. I wasn't however prepared for the sheer diversity and splendor of the birds which have arrived here at Gilly Hollow this spring.

I knew we had a lot of Woodpeckers in the timber. Their call is a dominant dawn chorus feature here. The rat-a-tat and pounding on the trees clearly declares their presence. It wasn't until I placed the camera and documented their presence that I learned the variety present.

The dominant Woodpecker is the Downy Woodpecker. It's easy to tell the males from the females too. The males have some red on their heads, while the females don't.

Another common sight this spring is the Red-bellied Woodpecker. They are voracious and rigorous feeders at that wire block station.

Not so common, but regularly seen is the Red-headed Woodpecker. They are beautiful birds. They aren't as messy as the Red-Bellied at the feeder. They stab straight in and right back out, while the Red-Bellied jams his beak into the suet block and then shakes his head side-to-side, sending bits and pieces flying for the ground foragers to feast.

The other day, the first Baltimore Oriole showed up. They are a stunningly beautiful bird. The distinct orange and black of the male is unmistakable. While not quite as bright as the male, the female Oriole is also stunningly beautiful.

Legions of Rose-breasted Grosbeaks have arrived. They are somewhat piggish, and will spend quite a lot of time at each sitting feasting on the seeds imbedded in that suet block. They seem more gregarious than the other birds. They will not automatically fly off when another one arrives at the feeder. There is however one bird which refuses to share the feeder with any other bird.

At first I decided that some aggressive behavior I was seeing demonstrated by the Summer Tanager was amour. I just thought they are overly amorous, and will try to mount any other bird, male or female. I've decided instead they are just mean birds. Their behavior even eclipses the shenanigans of another regular feeder visitor, the Bluejay.

The Bluejay's reputation is well deserved. Their nest robbing, egg stealing, anti-social behavior manages to steal what would otherwise be an attraction to their beautiful plumage. They are stunningly beautiful, and make very nice photographic models.

But those Summer Tanagers are just downright inhospitable. I have witnessed them attacking several different varieties of birds. The Grosbeaks are intimidated by them, and will just fly off and defer to the larger red bird. There is one bird that stands her ground against the big red bird.

For some reason the Summer Tanager will not bother the male Baltimore Oriole. He will however incessantly bother the female. But do you know what? She doesn't put up with it and fights back beak and claw. It's fun to watch. As a matter of fact, none of the other birds will bother the male Oriole, and the female holds her own. It could be the bright plumage of the male just ranks him amongst other birds as royalty.

Until next time-

You can read past columns by visiting and clicking on the "Local Columns" button.

In to the Wind and this column are copyright 2005 - 2013 Mike Gilchrist. Readers, feel free to contact me at via email, or write to me at P.O. Box 255, Toledo, IA 52342.



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