Allan Bell’s Birch Bark Nature Notes Revisited: Feeder under attack

What’s the sweetest smell you can think of?  Is it fresh homemade bread, hot apple pie, wood smoke from a campfire, a favorite perfume? None of these?

Mine was, is and ever shall be – Arbutus. Fresh, clean and sweet. Is it because one only gets to sniff that delightful scent a time or two each year?

I found my first patch of arbutus about 6:15 a.m. (5:15 sun time), dropped to my knees in anticipation and couldn’t smell a thing. And I’m well equipped for odor detection. It was past its prime, the temperature was 30° and there was no wind.  Later in the day a return trip rewarded me and my smeller.


At sunup, almost all of the birds are perched high in the tops of the trees, to catch those first warming rays of that big furnace in the sky.


Something was emptying the suet bags, one each night. It happens every spring. I have never caught the thief in the act but am suspicious of a black-masked rascal. The nuthatches were picking at the empty bag, as if to let me know I should do something about it. So-o-o-o, a 3-pound bag of suet in a heavy white mesh bag was hung near the end of the smallest branch that would support it.

Next morning I look out. The whole thing was gone! That’s enough to make any Scotchman mad! Several nice plastic-coated wire suet holders had been carried away in the last couple years. Searches through the woods and many walks hadn’t turned them up. This time I was lucky. The whole bag of suet lay on the ground, out in the back yard. Either something had frightened the varmint off or else it had found the bag was too heavy to carry away. I hung it back up in the tree. Next morning it was still there – but it had been pulled to a branch and was hooked on a limb. I moved it again.


A movement in the treetops caught my eye. Warblers? Nope, chickadees. As one flitted in the top of an aspen, the other lit on top of a dead birch stub – and disappeared. It soon reappeared and flew to the aspen. The other chickadee zipped to the top of the dead birch, lit – and vanished. The birch was about 40 feet tall, no limbs and a broken off top that didn’t look to be more than two or three inches across.

As they continued to take turns making trips to the snag and hopping down out of sight, it was apparent they were nest building. It was as if they were building on top of a fence post, no protection from rain – or snow.

The nest building is done by both momma and poppa and starts soon after the crooner has successfully sung his fee-bee song. A soft nest is fashioned with fur, feathers, moss and the down of plants. Five to eight small white eggs speckled with reddish brown are laid and incubated for about 12 days. One or two broods a season are raised by the parents who may mate for life – a relatively short span, probably never more than seven or eight years.

This friendly, trusting little bundle of energy, with the black cap and bib, keeps us company all winter. It’s in the summer that we don’t see much of it. They feed mainly on insects, seeds, wild fruits and berries. Sunflower seed and suet are sure to lure them to your viewing area. They grab a seed and take off, either to a branch where they hold the seed between their feet and peck it open, or to a tree trunk where they stash the seed behind loose bark for future reference.

They do not stay long in one place, moving from tree to tree, inspecting every bit of loose bark for hidden goodies, such as spider eggs, insects, larvae or cocoons. Could this tiny ball of fluff be called a predator? What isn’t? Because of their war on insects, gardeners prize them. They are the state bird of two states.

In turn, they are fair game for shrikes and hawks. My hunch is they escape most of the time because of their quickness and agility. If one had to pick a favorite bird, it would be hard to beat the chickadee.


Full moon, Planting or Flower moon, May 14. Evening, look in the Southeast. Reddish Mars, the brightest it’s been for many years, is following Saturn (up higher) across the sky.


P.S. Suet Update. He, she or it got the bag, the suet, the whole darn branch. Broke it right off.


Late nature writer Allan Bell wrote this Birk Barch Nature Notes column for the Tomahawk Leader back on May 9, 1984. In revisiting some of his insightful nature writings, it serves as a reminder that now is about that time of the year when birdfeeders need to start being taken down at night to avoid visits from hungry black bears. More than a few of our feeders are missing pieces out in the town of Tomahawk thanks to bears taking them down for us.

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