A bird feeder stuffed with sunflowers from the garden will hopefully attract some beneficial birds. (Mary Lowther photo)

Column Dig In: Bring on the Stellar’s jays

Up to this point I have been an indifferent host but the enemy of my enemy is my friend

By Mary Lowther

Regular readers of this column (both of you) are aware that I have a genuine antipathy for the garden variety slug and will understand my shock when I discovered I’ve been dealing with them all wrong. I have hunted them mercilessly, chopping them with hoes, drowning them in stale beer and grinding them beneath my heel. For that last one it is helpful to wear shoes. My years of research and application overlooked a vital ally in my struggle with the prolific gastropod in the ubiquitous Steller’s jay.

Instead of trying to eradicate them once they become recognizable I shall encourage birds to eat them while they’re still eggs. Why didn’t I think of this before? Birds may eat seeds, but enjoy bugs and their eggs for dessert! All I have to do during the avian buffet is keep the jays off my crops and drink the beer before it gets stale.

Our yard attracts small families of Steller’s jays that my Birds of North America field guide assures us “are large, noisy and omnivorous” and eat insect eggs, seeds and the odd slug! Just think of that! Steller’s jays are my friends.

We must have a ton of slug and sow bug eggs in our backyard, so clearly I must invite as many winged guests as possible. I’ll create a backyard haven for the lovely creatures and suck them all in from the neighbourhood. They’ll invite all their relatives to come to the feast I’m going to lay on for them in the birdfeeder that David bought at a Lake Days auction. They’ve been attacking the volunteer sunflowers so I know they like the seeds, so I’ll make sure they get these, plus peanuts, cracked corn, millet and suet as recommended by the book. The birdfeeder should be a platform, not free-hanging.

Steller’s jays prefer to make their own nests but they do need a source of water. Fortunately I have a drippy tap out back so I’ll put a flat pan underneath and see if the birds find it. I’ll have to traipse outside when things freeze up to pop out the ice, refill the pan with water and check on the tap. I’ve seen a solar-heated birdbath that has a black cover with a hole in it to keep the water from freezing during the day. The cover heats the water when the sun shines and the birds get in through the hole. I bet a clear cover would work better and probably wouldn’t be difficult to make.

We have chickadees too, or maybe they’re wrens. In an earlier incarnation before he met me, David saw a yellow canary out his window co-mingling with a family of red finches. When he phoned the local bird watching folks, the fellow dropped everything to race over and see for himself. “I’ve heard of this happening,” he confided in hushed tones, “and what you’ve got here is a canary that escaped and joined up with this wild flock. They are remote cousins, you know, and sort of speak the same language.”

David swears that over the years there were a few red and yellow finches in the ivy along with the standard breed.

Back to Mesachie: our wrens/chickadees, the bird book says, eat the same seeds as Steller’s jays, but they can adapt to nesting in a birdhouse when the weather gets nasty.

The birdhouse should be eight inches high with a one and an eighth inch diameter hole and should be four to 15 feet above ground. We should scatter wood shavings inside and provide bits of wool and string for them to make their nests. I guess we strew this on bushes nearby. I’ll get David to make me some after he’s finished the greenhouse roof, stocked the woodpile, cleared the acreage and pulled the stumps.

Apparently, I should have two bird feeders. One for the unsharing, selfish Steller’s jays and another near the wrens/chickadees nest where the hoi polloi can eat. I hope they can tell whose is whose. Since Steller’s jays cleverly disguise their voices to sound like predatory birds like the red-tailed hawk they might scare off the cute little chickadees/wrens and eat everything, but time will tell.

Some jays have even been heard to mimic chickens and dogs, but nothing beats a bird I read about years ago: A woman was gardening in her yard and had the phone on the porch so she could hear it when it rang. It rang so she went and picked it up, but it was still ringing — from above her in the tree. It was a bird and, unfortunately, she was as ornithologically challenged as me and could not identify the bird.

Up to this point I have been an indifferent host but the enemy of my enemy is my friend, and I will take the time to learn their names as they do my work for me.

Events: Oct. 17, Tour of McNabs Corn Maze. Meet behind the Royal Bank to carpool at 1:30 p.m. Tour starts at 2:15 at a cost of $8 per person. There will be a campfire afterwards (bring a roasting stick). Please wear boots, and you can buy a pumpkin too!

Please contact mary_lowther@yahoo.ca with questions and suggestions since I need all the help I can get.

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