The Celts were a bunch of tree worshippers and their pagan holiday of Beltane featured a May Bush, decorated and shown off around town. The Celts celebrated the holiday with big smokey bonfires into which the May Bush was sacrificed at the end. Beltane, May 1, marks the Gaelic start of summer.
Our celebration was fireless and smokeless and we didn’t get around to decorating a May Bush, although I love the idea and think we should adopt it. But we celebrate by appreciating the flora and fauna in our garden and neighborhood. This spring we’ve been particularly appreciating our birds.
This is our fourth spring living and gardening here at Hylandia, and we’ve watched the behavior of our local birds change over that time. Now we see that some birds just visit our garden and some live here year round, becoming family of sorts. They no longer fly high over our yard, but swoop fast and low over our heads.
In the midst of our human pandemic the birds experienced their own pandemic, an outbreak of salmonella especially prominent among flocks of pine siskins. They migrated here because of a bird irruption, the greatest irruption of these birds on record, according to Audubon. The pine siskin is a finch that looks very much like a goldfinch, brown striped with yellow markings. But they were easily identifiable because they looked sick. Dying birds lay on the ground in our garden and the neighborhood.
On the advice of the Bird Rescue Center we took our feeder down, but now the pine siskins have moved on and Holly has put it back up. The fickle finches have returned to the feeder. They don’t live here, but they don’t migrate either. They roost elsewhere and only come in for eating and bathing. Robins occasionally drop in for a bath and jays are regular visitors.
Crows built a nest at the top of the big oak tree in the next-door yard and so we had crows visiting our garden often for about a month. By mid-April the chicks had fledged. The crows have disbursed now but for a time the crow noise was deafening. Baby birds don’t look babyish at all. They sometimes are even bigger than their parents. But you can tell the fledglings because they flap their wings asking to be fed. And very often we see adults feeding them. For the first time we saw crows coming down to our fountain to drink and bathe and just check out the yard.
The crow noise must’ve also inspired the mockingbirds around here. One was singing all night for a few weeks. He would stand on top of a telephone pole–mockingbird territory. Then he would do an acrobatic dance, jumping up in a somersault before coming back down to the top of the pole, singing all the while. Mockingbirds are loud but not boring because they sing lots of different songs. They have learned the song of the titmouse: sweetie sweetie. They’ve also learned the sound of car alarms although their version is more songlike than the actual alarm. Leave your windows open and they might keep you up at night.
We were delighted that the titmice chose our birdhouse to nest in this year. Once the nest was chosen the male’s call began to sound threatening and kind of rough, unlike his usual sweet song. He aggressively patrolled the yard, now his territory. Some people think crows in the garden scare away little birds, but nesting titmice and crows cohabited well here.
Oak titmice are year-round residents of the yard and so are California towhees. Here is something we have discovered this year: towhee sex is is violent and it happens in midair in a fast flurry of bodies and feathers. The birds make weird grunting sounds that we never hear from them otherwise. Their usual call is a boring and sometimes irritating cheep cheep cheep that can go on for hours and is loud enough to wake humans. Chimneys and rooftops are their territory. They scratch the ground, chicken-like, which to me is rather comforting.
Ok, I must admit a slight irrational prejudice against the towhees. More than once I’ve mistaken one of them for a rat in the garden. They move in a devious way like rats, scurrying with heads down. And they’re a similar brown color to the rats that live here. I do know this unfortunate resemblance is not their fault.
We have learned the beautiful songs of the Bewicks wren this spring but we’ve only seen one and assume it’s the male. He likes to eat lettuce planted in straw bales in the garden, and he sometimes comes to the feeder for suet. We have been anxious for him to find a mate, settle down and live with us.
Mourning doves visit most often in the morning and evening at dusk. We know that their nests can be found in unlikely places. In my San Francisco garden the female laid eggs in a depression in a flower pot on the back stairs. We could see everything. Sadly, so could the crows; the eggs were stolen. Here in Santa Rosa we haven’t seen them nesting, though our neighbor Linda told us they nested on her electric meter last year.
One day I watched an elaborate dove mating ritual. There was wing flapping and feather ruffling and head bobbing and something that looked like passionate making out where they would grab each others’ beaks and hold on while moving back and forth. It went on for a while. Then another time they just did it with no ritual at all. The couple, it turns out, only has to court once. They are a pair for the season.
Lately we’ve been delighted to see a pair of hooded orioles taking baths in the fountain. They do migrate south for the winter but have nested in the last two seasons in a bottle brush tree in the neighbor’s yard.
Bird behavior is so very varied, often we can’t even confirm our observations by looking these things up in our bird books or online (I couldn’t find anything written about towhee sex). But we are having great fun learning by observing.