This summer, during a stretch of unbearably hot weather when we hadn’t seen rain in weeks, I was outside watering the vegetable garden when about a dozen long-tailed tits (Aegithalos caudatus) alighted all around me like I was suddenly the St. Francis of long-tailed tits. I couldn’t figure out their sudden fearlessness – I usually caught only fleeting glimpses of these little birds as they darted about the highest branches of our trees – until I saw them eagerly sipping droplets of water off the foliage. I sprayed a nearby lilac bush and they flocked to it, feverishly slaking their obviously ferocious thirst. After that I made sure to fill a shallow dish with water every day, and it became a focal point not only for birds during the day, but for our backyard hedgehog when he would venture out for his nighttime foraging.
Now it’s the time of year when we get out our bird feeders and prepare for another winter of at-home birdwatching. Feeders are a great way to get your kids interested in birds, since you can attract them quite close to good viewing windows – some feeders even attach directly to a window so you can watch them from literally inches away.
Our oldest son can name pretty much everything we’re likely to see around the house, and is an avid collector of Audubon’s plush birds, complete with realistic bird calls.
Now, we live in Budapest, a city of 2 million people, and although we live on the leafier Buda side of the Danube, we’re still very much in the middle of the city. Even so, to date we’ve seen 29 species of birds on our property, including the first documented American goldfinch in Hungary (probably an escapee rather than a migrant – they’re occasionally kept as pets here), a sparrowhawk looking to swoop down on unsuspecting birds from the pines outside our terrace, and Europe’s smallest bird, the jaunty little goldcrest. My personal favorites are the woodpeckers – in the spring great spotted woodpeckers sometimes drum on the metal chimneys of the house, and green woodpeckers flash brightly as parrots on the lawn, gobbling up ants at their anthill buffets.
One of the keys to getting a good variety of birds is to provide a range of foods, including your standard mixed birdseed, peanuts and larger nuts, thistle seed, raisins and other dried fruit, suet, and even bits of stale cheese. We have a resident hooded crow who skulks outside the kitchen window at dinnertime, waiting for me to toss out meat scraps, and a little European robin who, for reasons unfathomable, taps out an avian Morse code on the glass door to the terrace every winter. Maybe he just wants to be let inside where it’s warm.
My standard guide, Collins’ “The Birds of Britain and Europe,” claims that “in really hard weather the mass feeding of birds by housewives in northern and western Europe is probably responsible for saving the lives of hundreds of thousands of birds.” Why the authors should show such anachronistic stodginess by ascribing all that feeding to “housewives” I couldn’t say, but the illustration next to the paragraph shows a blue tit and a great tit feeding on a string of peanuts, and is labeled “Tits at nuts,” so one could presume the triad of writers were either winking at each other as they captioned the drawing or were completely oblivious to both gender stereotypes and double entendres. I suspect the latter. Anyway, it’s clear that by setting out feeders you’re not only increasing your enjoyment of the birds around you and instilling an interest in nature in your kids, you’re also giving your local bird population a much-needed additional food source.
One snowy day last winter I was home working and sipping tea when I noticed an unusual amount of activity at the feeders. I grabbed my camera, and in ten minutes got shots of ten species of birds. Some of their portraits are below, along with a few others of interest. If you don’t already, set out some feeders this fall, and you and your kids will enjoy observing the birds all winter long.