Passing the Candy

Steve Lekwa

Some people enjoy watching birds primarily because they’re pretty. I like watching them not only for that reason, but because their behaviors are facinating. There’s song, of course. Most folks understand that bird song is primarily (not solely) something male birds do to announce their claim on a nesting territory. It is also likely useful to them in attracting mates to share that territory with. Pretty feathers, a good singing voice and even the offer of a nice nesting territory aren’t enough to clench the deal and result in a successful mating for some species of birds, though. No, for them it takes some special wooing to get that shy female to accept the hopeful male as a mate.

A fancy box of candy, a pretty card and/or a bouquet of roses are well-known gifts that human suitors might use to convince a girl to give them a more serious look. Taking her out to supper is also highly regarded. Birds aren’t so different. Many people who feed birds have enjoyed watching the behavior of male cardinals change as spring emerges from winter. Male cardinals begin singing and establishing a nesting territory to defend as early as January. The flashy male’s time at the winter feeder is his own, though, and he’ll chase females off the feeder so he can have it all to himself quite a few times. As winter weakens and warmer spring days appear, something interesting happens. Perhaps a particular female really catches his fancy. Instead of chasing her away, he’ll gently pass her a sunflower seed. Never mind that she is capable of picking up the seed herself. The act of passing that box of bird candy to her communicates that she’s special; something every girl likes to know. Perhaps her accepting that seed indicates that she accepts him as well.

I recently witnessed something I’d never seen while watching the bluebird pair that’s been living around our yard for some weeks this spring. They were obviously a mated pair when they first appeared in the yard in April, but they hadn’t bothered to start a nest in all those weeks. The pair we watched last year (the same ones?) also delayed nesting for weeks. The female was perched in a tree just outside our living room windows when the male flew up next to her with a nice plump green grub of some kind in his beak. What happened next surprised me, though. She began to flutter her wings like a baby bird would to beg for food. He responded by feeding her the grub — another box of bird candy! They were already a “married” pair and no longer courting, so why bother? Well, even human husbands know (or should) that an an occasional gift can be good for the relationship. Was it coincidence that the female finally began building the long-awaited nest in the back yard box in next couple of days?

We usually enjoy an hour or two with a flock of waxwings during apple bosom time. It’s beautiful to watch them daintily pluck apple flower petals and eat them. We missed them this year. A flock appeared a couple of days ago in our serviceberry bush, though. Winter waxwing flocks break up as nesting season nears, so I was surprised to see them all together. Then I noticed that the flock was made mostly of pairs. Not only that, the pairs were doing something I’d never seen. Males and females look the same in waxwings so I couldn’t tell who started it, but one bird would pluck a hard little unripe berry and pass it to the other. The second bird would hold it briefly, then pass it back, and back and forth it would go until one or the other would eat it. Was it a ritualized mutual gift giving to “seal the deal” with these pairs before they split off from the flock to establish a nesting territory?

I don’t know if I am interpreting these recent examples of bird behavior correctly or not, but I do know that watching bird behavior is most interesting!