By Katie Finch

Watching the birds at the birdfeeders has become a Sunday morning routine at my house. With the feeders fully stocked and coffee freshly poured, I sit at the dining room table and watch. Always a fan of lists, I’ve started jotting down the species I see and using tally marks to count the number of each species. Sometimes I attempt to sketch or capture just the right colors. 

My partner saw the list one morning and said, “If you keep making the list, I can take it and make a spreadsheet. Then we can see patterns.” Ha! It reminded me that there are many ways of knowing, documenting and appreciating the world. He keeps spreadsheets on many things, desiring to know the world through numbers, data and formulas. I was keeping the list mainly to give my fingers something to do while I watched and see where they take my thoughts.

A bit day dreamy one morning, I wondered if anyone has documented and appreciated birds at feeders through music. Not with the songs and calls birds make to communicate with each other, but music to capture their movements and behaviors. They share space and move around each other much like the musicians and their music in an orchestra. Has anyone ever written “Sonata at the Feeder in D Minor” or “Symphony for the Birds in the Backyard”?

It seems silly, but several instrumental music pieces that tell a story easily come to mind. I remember visualizing a great battle every year on the Fourth of July when the local philharmonic orchestra played Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture” – with cannons! I can hear the changes in the natural world throughout the year in Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons”. I’m not a musician, but someone who appreciates music for the color it gives to life and as another way of knowing the world.

Suet is a favorite of Downy Woodpeckers

In my non-musician mind, I imagine the music that would tell the story of my Sunday morning bird watching. With nature as the conductor, the tempo is set by hunger and instinct. The song would start with a single Black-capped Chickadee. Always the first to return after I fill the feeder, the music for this tiny bird would be sweet, high pitched, and fast paced. Maybe a piccolo? It flies to the feeder, grabs a sunflower seed and is away again, landing on a more protected perch to crack it open. No sooner does the shell fall to the ground then it is back for another seed. In and out. In and out. A few more chickadees arrive, coming and going constantly. They join in, like singing in rounds, with the same pattern starting at different times.

The music picks up in intensity as more birds arrive. The Dark-eyed Juncos flit across the ground, their tiny, round bodies hopping under the bushes looking for small seeds. Hop, hop, hop, scratch, scratch. The nasal sounding White-breasted Nuthatches zoom in with their probing beaks. They grab seed and take it to a particular spot on the rhododendron to peck open. Tap, tap, tap, tap. The softer Tufted Titmice arrive. And two Northern Cardinals, one male, one female. It’s too early in the year for them to be paired up but they seem to travel together anyway. Perhaps a short duet of just them. Maybe clarinets?  

This fast-moving flurry would be punctuated by the staccato drumming of the Downy Woodpecker on the suet. And sometimes a single Red-breasted Nuthatch shows up, hammering away at the fat-filled cake. It’s black and white striped head and chestnut colored belly is a pleasant surprise. In my imaginary orchestra, it is a slightly foreign sounding instrument. Fitting for this nuthatch, as it is not as common at feeders as its white-breasted cousin.  

Red-breasted Nuthatch by Eric Ellingson

Next, in fly the American Goldfinches and House Sparrows. They sit on the four perches of the feeder. And stay. They pick through the seed, finding smaller millet and safflower that fit in their tiny bills. Action calms down. A few other birds try to move in but are continuously chased away until the finches and sparrows have had their fill.

Then a bigger interruption comes in. A loud, dissonant sound. Two Blue Jays descend, wings outspread. They have to land on the ground because they are too large for the feeder. Things are chaotic for a moment. Like bullies, they chase away the all but the most persistent of the other birds.  

The refrain of songbirds returns for a stretch, even with the Blue Jays part of the mix. Then suddenly, everyone freezes and goes silent. A dark shadow of a hawk appears overhead. An ominous bass sound could represent the Coopers or Sharp-Shinned Hawk, both common predators of birds at feeders. They are the main melody for a time as they look on from the Norway Spruce. This is the bridge near the end of the song. The conflict that makes the listener wonder what will happen next.    

But one by one, the light, little sounds of seed-eating songbirds come back. Of course, the chickadees return first. Are they the hungriest? Or the boldest? Or the one’s with least sense? I’m going to image that they are the bravest, because one can do that when wondering and imagining. And on a lazy Sunday morning, this is how I want to know the world. A little fact, mixed with a little playfulness, sprinkled with music and story. Factual figures can wait for another day. It’s good to remember, as Willy Wonka said “A little nonsense now and then is relished by the wisest men.”

If you are interested in feeding the birds, Audubon’s Blue Heron Gift Shop carries a variety of feeders and seed. You can stock up on seed with a good discount through the winter birdseed sale. Orders are accepted though January 28. And if you write a sonata depicting the actions of birds at the feeder, I’d love to hear it!   

Audubon Community Nature Center builds and nurtures connections between people and nature. ACNC is located just east of Route 62 between Warren and Jamestown. The trails are open from dawn to dusk as is Liberty, the Bald Eagle. The Nature Center is open, including restrooms, the Blue Heron Gift Shop, Indoor Nature Play Area and most exhibits. More information can be found online at or by calling (716) 569-2345.